By Doug Diekema
On a recent hike, I found myself at the trailhead, watching several red-headed birds flying to and from a dead tree. I had no idea what they were doing as I lifted my camera to capture their antics. Watching through the viewfinder with my telephoto lens, I was increasingly intrigued — they seemed to be moving objects in and out of holes in the tree.
My new connection to those birds, which it turned out were acorn woodpeckers, drove me to learn more about them. I discovered that they had been flying off to gather acorns, carrying them to the tree and inserting them into holes they had previously drilled. The tree was serving as an acorn granary. I came back from that trip with beautiful and memorable photos, but more than that, I felt connected to that place because of those fascinating little birds, and it was my camera that helped create that connection.
There are lots of reasons we hike Washington’s varied trails, but for many of us the connection with nature is a part of that equation. Doing a quick hike in the woods is satisfying, but connecting on a deeper level with our surroundings often enhances the experience. I have found that photography assists me in that process, not simply by creating something to help me remember my visit, but by helping me appreciate specific moments and scenes on the trail, things I might have given only a passing glance were I not searching for interesting compositions.
A different way of seeing
Photography can help us see and understand the world in new ways. While our eyes may take in the entire landscape before us, looking through the lens of a camera helps us identify the elements that make up the overall scene, leading us to notice textures, patterns, colors, shapes, light and the relationships between those elements. The art of photography often involves breaking a larger scene into its component parts. Every good photograph has a primary subject, and focusing on that subject prompts the photographer to understand what features make up the grander scene and distill what they are seeing to its basic elements. A field of flowers may be spectacular, but moving in close and capturing the detail of a single flower or petal leads to a closer connection with that flower and its amazing construction.
A slower pace
Photography forces you to slow down. Capturing an excellent image often requires spending time in one place: searching for an optimal vantage point, interrogating the landscape, waiting for the right light and noticing things that otherwise would have remained hidden. That added time and attention allows you to understand the place at a more intimate level. Sitting and watching the light change creates a greater sense of oneness with the surrounding landscape. Waiting for a bird or a marmot to do something interesting increases your connection to that animal. Searching the landscape through the lens for patterns and textures creates new ways of understanding what surrounds us. It all takes time, but that time also leads you to be more present in the moment, increases your connection to what surrounds you, and leaves you with a better sense of that place and a greater appreciation for it.
A creative and learning mindset
Photography encourages our creative side, leading us to see things in new ways and notice things that we otherwise would not. It moves us beyond our preoccupation with work and frees our mind to play. Exploring trails and walking in the woods helps me relax, but photography is what frees my mind from the demands of my everyday life and allows me to exercise my creative side.
Photography also increases my curiosity about what I am seeing and photographing, igniting a desire to learn more about where I have been. I return from trips with photographs, but those photos are often accompanied by a list of questions: What was that bird? What does he have in his mouth? Why is he stuffing it into a hole in that tree? My photography drives me to learn more about what I’ve seen and photographed, which deepens my connection to that place and my desire to explore others.
Let nature speak to you. Strive to take photos that deepen your connection to the landscapes, flora, fauna and people around you. The creative process of photography opens you up to seeing the landscape in different ways, and if you take the time to nurture that creativity, the connection you feel to the natural world will grow.