• Justin Key

Capturing the Character of Earth: Approach

Updated: Apr 11

Sarah's hands are full, one is clutching mine for guidance while the other is trying to hold back our charging goldendoodle, Lambeau. The sky is still asleep and the air sharp as we make our way through the darkness. We are holding true to the concrete beneath our feet, hoping it will deliver us to our destination. I am relying more on my gut than anything else until I see a few faint red lights in the distance.

We exit the forest into a clearing where it's finally possible to see the ground beneath our feet. Sarah lets go of my hand but remains close as I follow the red lights looking for a gap. I step over bags and dodge chairs, following the chain until I reach a place along the water. Lambeau and Sarah hang back now as I set my camera up on my tripod. As the darkness is chased from the sky, the Maroon Bells emerge.


The Maroon Bells are like Colorado's Eiffel Tower, everyone and their mom has a picture of the striped peaks reflecting in Maroon Lake. Dawn brings light to the frame. Low clouds hang in the valley making for a flat shot but the wind is nonexistent so the reflection is crisp. I've taken a few shots and turn to look for a new angel when I get sick to my stomach. Those red lights that led us to the lake were cameras and only the few that were being set up when we arrived. Now that I have light to observe the scene I want to throw up.


Shoulder to shoulder, tripod legs overlapping, are photographers. Each one with their lens pointing the exact same way, looking for the exact same shot that every other photographer before them has taken and the same one that will be taken hundreds of times the following morning again. Having lost my artistic appetite I grab my gear. I find Sarah explaining to a few spectators how our miniature horse-sized dog outgrew the breeder's expectations. She looks at me confused, no other photographer has so much as shifted their lens let alone packed up. "Are you done already?" she remarks.


That's today's world of photography. Anyone can be a photographer and quickly become adequate with the equipment. Locations like the Maroon Bells have become hot spots for photographers due to its accessibility, notoriety and stunning composition. It's the photographic equivalent of a Mona Lisa paint by numbers.


As an artist, I have tried to stay away from popular locations like the Maroon Bells. It's not a shot that will help differentiate me from the thousands of landscape photographers in the region. Walking certain art festivals you can start to notice the photographic meccas of the world like the Maroon Bells, Antelope Canyon, or Multnomah Falls as they appear in most booths. It feels like a waste of space to me. Why would someone buy my shot of the Maroon Bells over the photographer next to me, or when they have their own shot?


This is just a really long way of saying I'm looking to be different. I have been to Maroon Bells, I have shot Multnomah Falls and I would love to visit Antelope Canyon but those are photos you won't see on my website unless I can find a unique way to capture them. For an artist, in a world where originality is a big factor, I am looking for ways to stand out from the crowd.


Artists are fueled by passion. That passion drives us to create, it selects our subjects, forces us to develop our technique, and relays our message to a viewer. As we create, patterns arise in our work. Painters develop brush stroke techniques, certain colors become prevalent, subjects start to become more popular, and that trend begins to define us. For the longest time, I was searching for that cohesive element in my photography.



Photographically I had covered everything before I started focusing on landscapes. Nature was always my escape until photography and it just made sense to combine the two. I wasn't interested in the saturated sunsets that turn into screensavers and I didn't want to rely on editing software to take my images to another level. Then I considered my message. What did I want to convey with my work and how was I going to show that? I didn't know. My solution, let my eye be my guide.


The photographer's eye sounds like a myth from the days of yore. Some mythological attribute bestowed on select creatives that guide their cameras like a sixth sense. In reality, the photographer's eye exists in all of us. It's what causes the selfie taker to turn into better light. It's why your dad keeps making you stop to smile awkwardly on vacations. The difference for photographers is we choose to develop it. Were the photographer's eye similar to taste artists would have an appreciation for fine wines or scotch.



In trusting my eye I began to notice trends. My work focused more on details than a grand image. My photos weren't of the sun setting over the mountains, rather the shadows on the hills in the foreground or the colors and patterns in the clouds. Images that captured a larger scene were strewn with texture and details. The colors weren't highly saturated, they looked natural and helped convey the mood of the moment.


I also wasn't finding my shots at the final, grand destination. Most of my images came along the trail or off the beaten path. While everyone was focused on one subject I was often photographing another. The Maroon Bells aren't on my website but a panorama of the ridge line adjacent to the popular crests is. Every camera was pointed at the Bells while I was watching the clouds roll between the jagged peaks where different densities created interesting gradients over the stark mountains.


As my eye continues to develop my work will improve and my approach will be refined. I continue to set a high bar for myself and while there has been tremendous improvement over the last year I believe my work has a long way to go. Right now I believe I am on the right path and am producing images that correlate with my approach. So what is my approach? Right now I'm calling it "capturing the character of Earth."



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