Creating artistic photographs of my adventures began as a simple desire to enjoy the serenity of landscapes. That desire was quickly joined by a passion to capture what I saw; to document or record that serenity with photographs. It has been nearly 2 decades since I first photographed landscapes, and over that time I have created an extensive collection of artistic photographs of Yosemite, various cityscapes, wildlife, the Pacific Northwest, and other wild places. However, my early photographs of landscapes failed to produce an emotional response anything like what I had felt when viewing that scenery with my own eyes. A drive arose within me to try to find a way to reproduce those feelings with artistic photographs.
My photography journey has included some pivotal moments, during which I gained key insights for how to artistically photograph my adventures. Early on, I studied some instructional photography books found at my local library, but was unsatisfied with what they offered. Most of these books focused on the technical aspects of taking a photograph, rather than on trying to create photographs with real artistry.
A teammate photographed me while I decided on the settings for a photograph during a winter storm in Yosemite (2010).
In the summer of 2003, a book with an unusual cover photo grabbed my attention. I flipped through the pages of this volume, and found an incredible wealth of inspiring landscape photographs. Each photograph was also accompanied by intriguing text. The book was Mountain Light by Galen Rowell, and it was an unconventional “how-to book”, because it didn’t focus on the nuts and bolts. Instead, the author provided the back story of the situation which had resulted in his stunning landscape photographs. I ended up purchasing not only this book, but also several others by Galen Rowell. His writing provided me with a foundation for creating artistic photographs of my adventures, and added to my inspiration to explore the great outdoors.
The first thing I learned from Rowell was that the camera and the human eye did not interpret light in the same way. Absorbing that idea created a breakthrough in my pursuit to create artistic landscape photographs. I quickly learned methods such as adjusting exposure to bring out richer color in the sky during sunset, and I was soon creating photographs that almost seemed more inspiring than what I had observed in reality. My images began getting very positive receptions from the people I showed them to. I was inspired to continue what became a relentless pursuit to create artistic landscape photographs captured during my adventures.
By 2007 I was carrying nine to twelve pounds of camera equipment in addition to my normal pack load on backpacking adventures. For most of the time spent on those trips, that extra equipment seemed almost useless, because I was very selective about what landscapes I photographed. I only wanted to photograph the landscapes that inspired me. On a typical thirty to seventy mile backpacking trip, I might photograph as few as two different subjects, or as many as five. It wasn’t unusual for me to get asked by other hikers if I worked for National Geographic or some other major publication, because at that time it was unusual to see someone carrying an SLR camera and tripod in the backcountry. I didn’t particularly enjoy carrying the tripod, but it was necessary, because I was shooting transparency film that had an ISO of either 50 or 100.
My friend Brendon Zartman captured this moment where I almost went into the lake in the High Sierra for a desired composition (2012).
Shooting transparency film became challenging for me in 2011, because the resolution of most DSLRs was starting to outperform consumer level film. As a result, local photography labs were closing. I was still able to buy transparency film locally in the Bay Area, but I would have to send it to Carlsbad, California for processing, and then to Oakhurst, California for scanning and printing. I put up with this long cycle to print my photographs, because I had a strong desire to make mural-sized prints. I felt that if I wanted to effectively reproduce landscapes, I needed to make prints where the short edge was a minimum of 30 inches. One aspect of natural landscapes is their ability to make one feel insignificant, and if you want to reproduce that ability in a photograph, you need to do it with print size. Transparency film provided excellent resolution because of the tiny grains in the film, and it allowed me to make 30 inch by 45 inch prints. However, DSLR cameras were on the verge of being able to reproduce the same excellent resolution.
My friend Steven Fercho took this photograph after I had photographed Guanacos in front of Cuernos del Paine while in Patagonia (2018)
Although I was focused on landscape photography, I also wanted to photograph wildlife. I had my fair share of opportunities for doing so, but those moments never lasted very long, and my low ISO film was unforgiving when the camera was handheld. By 2012 the resolution of DSLR cameras had reached a level that I found satisfactory to make mural-sized prints, so I rented one for a sixty mile backpacking adventure in Glacier National Park. During that trip I took my first successful wildlife photograph, because I was able to adjust the ISO of the rented DSLR in real time to make adjustments for it being a handheld shot.
After I decided to purchase a DSLR of my own, I found that it improved my photography by speeding up my learning cycles. Studying failed photographs is just as important as celebrating the successful ones. Having photographs immediately available to review after an adventure allowed me to improve my technique and vision. Purchasing a DSLR also allowed me to photograph those fleeting wildlife moments, and made me less hesitant to photograph cityscapes.
I now have artistic photographs of landscapes, wildlife and cityscapes. These images are often successful in evoking an emotional response in viewers. I attribute that success, in part, to my luck in being able to stand on the shoulders of Galen Rowell. But it also comes from developing a vision, from a relentless pursuit to document my adventures with artistry, and from the advantages of the digital era. I hope my artistic photographs give you a glimpse into how beautiful our world can be through my lens, and inspire you to explore your surroundings.
-Robel Fessehatzion, 2020