Slow Down and Wander Around

Originally published at: https://naturephotographers.network/articles/slow-down-and-wander-around/

Sarah Marino Zion Oak Leaves Ice 1200px WatermarkAutumn leaves find a resting place in a small frozen pool covered in iridescent film. 

Soon after the new NPN site launched, Youssef Ismail posted a discussion topic about “slow photography” and an interesting discussion ensued. I found myself agreeing with many of the points and practices shared by others in the thread, primarily because my own photography practice has evolved in this direction over the last few years. I now find myself practicing photography at a much slower pace as a more explorative, contemplative pursuit. With these changes, I find photography to be more enjoyable, my photographs to be more meaningful, and my portfolio to be more diverse and fully representative of the places I spend time. Below, I share some of the lessons, practices, and habits that helped my practices and photography evolve in this direction.

One particular trip sticks in my mind as a moment of realization that my then-frenzied approach to nature photography might not be serving me well. My husband Ron Coscorrosa, also a nature photographer, and I were in Utah’s Zion National Park. We had visited most of the icons in the park and were feeling antsy and ready to move (reason: a forecast full of clear skies). We drove overnight to Death Valley National Park with the intention of photographing Badwater Basin at sunrise.

In departing Zion, I had a specific vision for the photo I was going to take at Badwater the next morning – clean, white salt polygons (perfectly composed!) with a colorful, preferably pink sky overhead. After that, we would head to the Racetrack where I would photograph one of the park’s famous sailing stones, again with a colorful sky overhead. Since Death Valley is a massive park and our two destinations are far apart, there would be little time for anything but sunrise and sunset photography. We would arrive at each location without much time to explore but enough time to check off another place off the list. After finishing at the Racetrack, we drove back to Zion with the hope that some more interesting weather might roll in. We spent a little more than 24 hours in Death Valley. 

Sarah Marino Zion Iridescent Film 1200px Sm WatermarkIridescent film coats a small pool of stagnant water, with small fractures in the film creating fascinating patterns. 

Together, we pursued nature photography in this way for a few years and it was thrilling and intense at times. It was also exhausting and ultimately unfulfilling. If my pre-existing ideas for a spot didn’t work out, I would be disappointed and frustrated. I often found myself wondering where a trail might lead or what the view might look like from the top of a hill but never had the time to put into such explorations. Looking at weather forecasts and then chasing them became tiresome, especially since the forecasts rarely panned out as expected.

In 2014, we bought an RV and due to the more cumbersome nature of this style of travel, found ourselves forced to stay in places for longer than we would have under our previous mode of travel. At first, this felt quite constraining because I felt the constant pull of the next place. I rarely had a good reason for wanting to move on but had become so accustomed to movement and speed as a driving force for my photography that standing still felt like wasting time. After a few slower trips, the feeling of constraint faded away and I started to appreciate staying in one place for a long stretch. With more time, I could toss the result-oriented checklist, slow down, get beyond the obvious spots, and learn to work with (and enjoy!) less than ideal conditions.

A range of overlapping terms has evolved to capture this way of practicing photography: slow photography, meditative photography, contemplative photography, experiencing flow, and others. For my own photography practice, I have taken ideas from each of these approaches and formed them into a set of habits that work for me. Since none of these terms perfectly captures my own approach, I instead think of my field style as photography by wandering around. I like this categorization because it captures some key ideas: exploring without specific goals or expectations in mind, taking a slow pace, seeking to see beyond the most obvious features of a landscape, and enjoying the process regardless of the results. I found the following four practices to be especially helpful in cultivating this slower approach to photography.

Sarah Marino Zion Flowing Water Virgin River 1200px Sm WatermarkSoft cascades in the Virgin River catch reflected light from the sandstone cliffs high overhead.

Free yourself from expectations and go into nature with an open mind

We recently returned from a two-week trip to Zion National Park. The drought affecting the American southwest left some of the trees brown and dull. Skies were clear almost the entire time we were in the park and the clouds that did appear were more contrail-like than cloud-like. The wind seemed relentless on many days and the temperatures were oh-so-cold. And, to continue the trend of the last few years, the park felt oppressively busy. All of this is a recipe for a miserable photography trip, right? If I had a checklist of grand landscapes featuring prime fall colors that I hoped to photograph, this trip likely would have felt like a failure.

A photographer friend often shares another illustrative story about a student on one of his workshops, which was taking place during peak fall colors in the eastern US. I always think about this story when discussing this topic because it is such a dramatic example of how expectations can eliminate opportunities and stifle creativity. The student came to the workshop with the goal of photographing waterfalls. The conditions were not conducive to photographing waterfalls but were excellent for forest scenes showcasing the fall colors. The student ended up leaving the workshop early because she couldn’t see past her expectations while the rest of the participants enjoyed one of the best autumn seasons in memory.

Thus, try to go into a trip or outing without expectations or pre-conceived ideas about a place or the photos you hope to take. Approaching a place with an open mind helps you see what a landscape has to offer during your visit, not the idealized version of a place you might have cooked up in your mind after viewing the best work others have created in the place you are visiting. This approach can help you see a place in fresh ways, gain insights that wouldn't be possible with a checklist or lots of ideas already in your mind, and open up opportunities to take advantage of serendipity. I find that one of the best ways to go with an open mind is to avoid looking at photos of a place in advance of a trip. With this practice, I do not have other people's ideas crowding my mind when I start working on my own photographs. I also try to actively quiet my ideas about what I expect and instead arrive open to the conditions present at the time (replace "I hope that patch of maples is still colorful" with "it will be interesting to see how the trees in that canyon look this year"). 

During our time in Zion this year, we chose a few general areas that we wanted to explore and then set aside time for wandering around without a plan, specific goals, or expectations for what we might find. The photos in this post are a result of that process. I didn’t arrive in Zion expecting to photograph frozen pools filled with leaves or curled up, peeling mud but that is what we found so that is what we photographed. In comparison to previous trips to this park, I feel like I connected on a deeper level with the landscape than I had before and enjoyed the process of photography a lot more. Arriving with an open mind significantly contributed to this more positive experience. 

Sarah Marino Zion Peeled Mud 1200px WatermarkA flash flood created ripples in mud and sand in a narrow canyon. These curls formed after the top layer of mud dried out. 

Give yourself time and slow down

During our trip to Zion, we met up with NPNers David Kingham and Jennifer Renwick with the intention of hiking the length of a canyon as a shuttle hike over the course of an afternoon. The hike would be about six miles long and we planned to photograph as we went. We all seemed a little stressed, knowing that we had many miles ahead and each stop for photography made hiking out in the dark more likely. A few miles in, we all realized that there was no way we would finish so we packed up our camera gear and focused on hiking instead (and still hiked out in the dark). When I did stop for photography, I felt frenzied, made technical mistakes, and knew I was passing up opportunities at every turn. 

We all separately returned to this same canyon for extended explorations but left the time crunch and goal of hiking the whole thing behind. This slower pace made for better photography because it opened up time for exploration, working scenes more thoroughly, seeking out opportunities, and allowing space for photographic insights to occur. Of course, a slow pace isn’t always possible, like when photographing fast-moving light, but often, a slower pace is possible. We just need to give ourselves permission to explore without an agenda or self-induced time crunch and see what opportunities materialize once given the opportunity to be more immersed in a place.

Sarah Marino Zion Leaves Sandstone 1200px Sm WatermarkMaple leaves and pine cones rest in a small sandstone channel at the end of autumn. 

Explore, physically and visually

As I mentioned above, wandering around is an essential part of my photography practice. This means that I often arrive at a place with no specific plan in mind. Instead, I will walk around and see what catches my eye. I walk at the pace that my interests dictate, sometimes traveling a long distance between photographs or not taking out my camera at all and sometimes making it no more than a few hundred yards from my car or campsite over the course of an entire afternoon. Through these wanderings, I spend time seeing what is around the bend, at the top of a hill, down by a river, or along a trail. I strive to notice all sorts of details, from the quality of the light to how the weather might be changing to the experience of the full landscape to seeking out the smallest of details. Simply, cultivating curiosity, improving your visual observation/inventory skills, and spending time exploring a place is a practice that leads to photographic insights and opportunities.

The example of my visit to Badwater Basin shared at the beginning of this article is instructive. During that visit, we spent a little more than an hour out on the salt flats – enough time to walk out before sunrise, scramble to find a composition, photograph for about a half an hour, and then walk back to the car for the drive to the next spot. The resulting photograph is a standard rendition of this spot – salt polygons with a pink sky overhead. In subsequent visits to this area, I have allowed myself hours at a time to explore without a goal in mind. During these explorations, I have found fascinating brown polygons, surreal mud tiles, delicate salt crystal formations, pools of blue water, and patches of intensely colorful rocks among many other potential subjects for photography. By allowing time for wandering around and studying a place, I found many more subjects for photography than I ever could with my previous rushed approach.

Sarah Marino Zion Pinecones Needles 1200px Sm WatermarkPine cones and pine needles below a massive ponderosa tree. 

Integrate micro-outings into your photography practice

British author Alastair Humphreys coined the term “micro-adventure” to convey the idea that getting outside for adventuring is possible even within a life filled with constraints. A micro-adventure “is an adventure that is short, simple, local, cheap – yet still fun, exciting, challenging, refreshing and rewarding.”

This idea is perfectly applicable to nature photography because it helps address two common laments: first, the feeling of not being able to get out enough due to the constraints of life (work obligations, family, lack of funds for grand adventures), and second, the significant pressure that a photographer thus feels once they are able to get out on that one-time-per-year grand adventure. By embracing the idea of micro-outings and integrating them into a photography practice, a photographer can relieve some of the angst about not getting out enough and relieve some of the pressure when big trips do come around.

In my case, I started photographing my local botanical garden on a frequent basis and hiking the trails at nearby state parks and nature preserves. Although the scenery wasn’t always conducive to photographing the expansive landscapes I was pursuing at the time, the practice of getting out on a regular basis for photography made my more substantial photography trips feel less consequential. After consciously integrating micro-outings into my photography practice, I became better about allowing myself to take a slower pace and no longer felt as much pressure to get results when I invested time or money in a bigger trip. These micro-outings also offered another significant benefit for photography: they helped stretch my creativity and extended my ability to make photographs in a diverse range of natural settings.

Sarah Marino Zion Ice Patterns 1200px Sm WatermarkIce patterns form in a sandstone pothole after a cold autumn night. 

Share your thoughts...

After four years of taking a slower pace with my photography, my portfolio is a better reflection of both me and the places I visit. I feel more fulfilled, make fewer technical mistakes, and know the places I visit on a much deeper level. If you have worked to integrate to slower, meditative, or more contemplative approach in your own photography, please share your experiences below. What practices have worked for you and what advice might you offer for a photographer interested in giving some of these ideas a try? And if you found any of these ideas helpful or worth trying out for yourself, please let us know in the comments below. 

8 Likes

Great article Sarah. I love shooting sunrises and sunsets more than ever now but over the years I’ve realized how stupid it is to drive 4 hours somewhere just to shoot 30 minutes worth of light. With a young family now I try to plan to stay overnight within easy driving distance of where I want to shoot. If the photoshoot doesn’t work out at least I’ve had a good family experience.

2 Likes

Lovely article, miss Sarah! I always enjoy reading your thoughtful ideas around nature and photography. You and Ron have been a huge influence on my work and also the slower, more mindful approach I now take to landscape photography. These images are beautiful, so well done as always. Great stuff!

2 Likes

Sarah, I really appreciate your article and find the reinforcement of “slowing down” and being less structured to be a very helpful reminder. On a recent visit to a local state park, I decided to avoid a favorite trail along a lake and explore new less “scenic” areas without the intent of making images. I was pleasantly surprised at how many very nice scenes presented themselves because I had made it a point to slow down, take my time and enjoy the hike. I think many of us nature photographers picked up a camera simply because we appreciated nature. Thank you for this nice reminder that rushing to get “the shot” and grand expectations can take much of the enjoyment and reward out of our photography and our appreciation of nature.

2 Likes

I am glad that you enjoyed the article, Richard. I agree about still enjoying the experience of photographing sunrise and sunset. It is always exhilarating. My biggest lesson learned is that there is so much more to photography than that singular experience of chasing the light so I am glad that I have been able to broaden my own pursuit. And you last point about having a good experience is an important one.

2 Likes

Thanks for the comment, Eric. I am glad that you enjoyed the photos and the article. I have really enjoyed seeing your portfolio expand and diversify over the last few years. Your abstracts are some of the best out there and show off the benefits of slowing down and noticing details.

1 Like

Thanks for the comment, Alan. I am glad that you enjoyed the article. The example that you shared is perfectly instructive of the benefits of slowing down and exploring. Like you mention in your comment, I am also often surprised at how many photographic opportunities I can find in almost any natural setting, especially if I go with an open mind and see what there is to see.

1 Like

Great article! I, too, have slowed down over the past few years and am enjoying my photography much more. I may take fewer photographs but the ones that I take are more meaningful.

2 Likes

This article is excellent, thank you for writing it Sarah. I really enjoy your eloquence and your well-organized writings.

I could be living in a self-curated bubble, but I think this sentiment is getting more popular among nature photographers, which I think is great. I’ve had a similar experience over the few years I’ve been taking photos of nature - my early trips were rushed and stressful, and the ones I’ve taken more recently are more akin to this article and I find them immensely more enjoyable and productive. So far my main strategy tends to be to still plan for a big hike at a cool location, but allow far more time than I would need. 3 day backpacking trip? Plan 4 days. 2 or 3 hour hike? Plan 6 hours. That way I have tons of time to be slow, and if the epic shot comes in during that time, that’s gravy. If not, I really enjoy mashed potatoes on their own.

I think an important aspect of this style is enjoying and being comfortable with photos of details and intimate scenes, like the ones in the article here. Based on your portfolio and eBook and articles, you clearly love them (and I love them too), but they just don’t float some people’s boats. Do you think that slower/contemplative/exploratory photography and grand landscapes with non-overcast skies and changing light are somewhat mutually exclusive? That style of nature photography tends to come with adrenaline rushes and high fives, rather than calm and contemplation.

2 Likes

Couldn’t agree more, Sarah! I’ve gone through this same progression over the past few years. I started out shooting with my camera as a way to relax and explore, both physically and visually. As my skills progressed (and I got on social media), I eventually developed a stressful set of expectations for shots I wanted to capture, which took the enjoyment out of the process.

I still plan out shots and ideas on occasion, but mostly my photography has gone back to being about the process and working with what the conditions give me instead of trying to achieve pre-visualized results. That’s resulted in a hour behind a camera feeling like 10 minutes, and I’ve started exploring more local places instead of trying to track down the trophy locations. Overall, reducing those expectations and slowing down keeps me out of creative ruts and allows me to take shots I otherwise would probably never think to take. It makes the whole process feel more personal and more fulfilling.

3 Likes

Great article, Sarah! This is very much my philosophy. Enjoy the journey, not the end result. It makes for much more fulfilling sojourns into nature. Coming home with great images is a bonus, not the goal.

3 Likes

@Barry_Wolf Thank you for stopping by to leave a comment! I also take fewer photos than I used to, which I think is a good thing. I think things through a lot more fully, am more careful, and my results have improved.

@Brent_Clark Thanks for the comment, Brent! Regarding your first point, it feels like the nature photography community is diverging in this regard. More people in my peer group are practicing (or talking about) slower photography than when I started. On the other hand, the social media/influencer trend has moved some in the opposite direction of being entirely focused on creating “content” as fast as possible. The latter approach doesn’t seem very conducive to creative photography.

For your second point, I think the approach I describe above works for grand landscapes in quite a few cases. Some of my favorite grand landscape photos have been taken while just wandering around, being open to whatever the landscape presents. Intense, fast-moving light often requires a quicker approach but I think the expectations piece still applies (for example, if a sunset doesn’t pan out for a grand landscape, I am instead happy to take out my telephoto or macro lens or just enjoy being outside). Also, exploring helps create more interesting grand landscapes in a lot of cases because the photographer is able to show a novel take on a place. So, the slow part might not apply but I think the other practices do apply pretty well to grand scenes. The fast-paced checklist approach might result in MORE photos but I think the explorative approach that minimizes expectations results in better photos. These practices also help photographers become more flexible and hone a diverse set of skills, which I think is generally a good thing.

@Kevin_D_Jordan Thanks for the comment, Kevin. I think you make an important point. This isn’t about choosing one approach over another. For my own work, I think about this along a continuum. Sometimes I enjoy planning and following through on specific ideas or the intense experience of photographing an amazing sunset. I just feel happier if most of my energy is focused on the slower side of the continuum.

@Harley_Goldman Thanks for the comment, Harley. I agree that appreciating the process and experience over the result helps make being in nature (and photography) much more enjoyable.

1 Like

For sure. On one sunrise photo shoot in Morro Bay the light wasn’t interesting enough for great seascape photos but as I was walking back to the car I noticed the sidelit sand off in the distance which had some crazy patterns. I spent the next 20 min shooting that before I left. Turned out to be some of my favorite photos yet. Took my wife to brunch once I got back to the room down the street.

On the other hand, the social media/influencer trend has moved some in the opposite direction of being entirely focused on creating “content” as fast as possible.

Good point, I definitely live in a self-curated bubble because I don’t really follow that style of photography!

And thank you for the additional thoughts on grand landscape shooting. Having a diverse set of skills is definitely a good thing!

As a wheelchair user I am forced to slow down and feel this kind of approach would be just right for me. Thanks for this wonderful article Sarah! I’m feeling in love with small intimate scenes more and more…

1 Like

I wish I could have read this article before my fall trip this year.

I’m pretty much the poster child for pinning my hopes and dreams on a trip, and then getting bummed out when light isn’t…perfect.

My wife joined me on my trip this year, and she had absolutely no expectations for anything. While I spent hours, and hours (before the trip) planning a shot from one location for sunrise, and then racing to the next for sunset. I’m not discouraging planning, but I was getting a little OCD…and that’s not good.

I tried to tell myself not to get frustrated if the light wasn’t “ideal”…but I fell right back into my old habits. Meanwhile, my wife (with no expectations, mind you) walked around for hours photographing everything, and anything that caught her attention. She was giddy. It was at that point that I realized I was focused on the wrong things, and missing the whole point of being out in nature.

Since that trip, I’ve really tried to take my expectations out of any trip (grand or micro) and enjoy every moment I’m not sitting behind my desk. So, thank you @Sarah_Marino for this article. I will probably need to read it once a month…just to keep me focused.

4 Likes

I really enjoyed reading your article Sarah as it covered fairly thoroughly the pros of slowing down and the frustrations of not doing so. I’ve been a ‘slow-down photographer’ for decades now yet even so I have to admit that I often go to a place with a preconceived idea with what I want to shoot. On the positive side, however, the image never quite looks as good as I preconceived it and then I start to actually look.

Since you asked for comments on slow down photography I would like to share a thought. The article gives the impression that all this travel to photogenic spots is a waste of time with slow-down photography. That a good image can be made anywhere if you take the time to look carefully. That beauty is all around you, all you need to do is be open to it. While I agree with this to some extent I feel that some areas are more fertile for imagery than others. I find that I still go to Point Lobos to shoot pictures even though when I get there I look at subjects as though for the first time. Perhaps all of this is obvious.

In a way the question is about influence. How much influence should you accept? At what point have you lost your personal expression when you take fast images of compositions that have influenced you? I think it’s a fine line sometimes. Virtually all painters have their work change after being influenced by someone. Van Gogh didn’t become Van Gogh until he went to Paris and met the Expressionists. His work prior to that was virtually colorless. Similarly, photographing by totally ignoring all previous image makers because they might give you preconceptions isn’t the full answer. But I agree - copying compositions is an empty experience. It’s like going to a museum and copying a Rafael. It’s only valuable in mastering a skill set.

Slow down photography is about saying something, as opposed to saying something someone else said before you.

3 Likes

That was really well said Igor, I think the article was very well done and made great points. I am still going to travel if I can to nice locations as It is hard to reproduce Iceland in the neighborhood, however, I am enjoying taking photos in the neighborhood more then ever…
A lot of beauty in the world of all kinds, in all locations.
Creativity always wins no matter the location or the subject or the gear especially…

2 Likes

I finally had time to read this one! I have been excited to read it but just have not had the time to dedicate to it. It was everything I expected it to be and more, thanks @Sarah_Marino ! Because of you and others like @Ron_Coscorrosa , @David_Kingham , and @Jennifer_Renwick , I too have been trying to slow down to find more intimate shots. Its NOT easy, I can tell you that much! But when you find something you can connect with, its a powerful experience.

3 Likes

Such a great read, Sarah! I find myself less and less stressed by the hustle from scene to scene as I grow more interested and connected to the smaller details. Where once I used to research and research a location or area to death before I arrived, now I have no desire to (other than the general topography, trails, roads). Photography is much more fun for me nowadays. It is a by product of getting out and connecting with nature. I can totally related to the micro adventures, as I have the opportunity of hiking local beaches and trails every week. Lately I have been thrilled with playing around on the beach, watching the water lap onto rocks, mesmerized by the bubbles and foam patterns and how the light changes as it goes behind a big wave, then re emerges. All this without a cloud in the sky or a pre visualized photo in my mind.

1 Like