Galen Rowell is widely known as one of the greatest landscape photographers that ever lived. But, he wasn’t just a photographer: he was also an avid mountain climber and passionate adventurer. He truly loved the natural world: not only observing it, but also participating in it.
Throughout his life, he wrote numerous articles for Outdoor Photographer magazine, as well as a couple of instructional books:
Mountain Light is currently not in print, but his other book, Inner Game of Outdoor Photography is finally back in print as an affordable paperback. A book that used to sell for hundreds of dollars used, is now widely available for less than $20!
I bought it a few weeks ago when it came back in print, and I just finished reading it today, so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on the book:
The book is a collection of articles that Rowell wrote for Outdoor Photographer magazine throughout his career. And, it’s divided into four distinctive parts: visions, preparations, journeys, and realizations.
Visions – Understanding the creative and cognitive processes
In Part I, Visions, Rowell discusses the creative and cognitive processes that are required for creating emotional photographs. He talks about why photos don’t always look the way you remember them when you saw the scene in person, and he emphasizes the importance of pre-visualizing your image.
He explains how photographers who started as engineers often have problems with producing creative images, and instead focus on creating technically perfect photos (i.e. sharp, in focus, perfect exposure, etc). As a computer scientist, I’ve often felt this has been a problem for me, so this part of Rowell’s book was by far the most valuable for me.
Rowell also included a recommended reading list of books that talk about the cognitive sciences. Why is this important for photographers? Well, understanding how the brain works and perceives images will help you understand why some photos “just look better” than others: what looks good in person doesn’t always translate well to photographs.
Preparations – Pushing the limits of your gear
In Part II, Preparations, Rowell talks about some ways to push the limits of your gear. Although he talks a lot about film in this section, he also talks about other things that are more applicable to digital photography: how to pack your gear when traveling on planes, and how to use flash effectively for landscape images (I never thought this was important until reading this book!).
Journeys – Turning visualizations into photographs
In Part III, Journeys, Rowell shares a few stories about how he took a visualization and turned it into a photograph. He talks about the frequent need to eat a late dinner in order to get a great image, or how sometimes you need to run across a field chasing a rainbow to photograph it at the right spot before it’s all gone 🙂
Another story I really enjoyed from this section was the time Rowell spent in Northern Canada and learned to “dance with the caribou” in order to get close enough to photograph them. Apparently, caribou will let you get pretty close if you raise your hands in the air and move like them.
Realizations – “communicating your worldview through photography”
In Part IV, Realizations, Rowell talks about the importance of “communicating your worldview through photography.” He discusses some of the ethical issues of photography, like why you should label your “wildlife” shots as captive or truly wild. He also goes into the ethics of publishing photos, and explains why he wouldn’t publish photos in an article he doesn’t agree with.
After reading Part IV of the book, it became clear to me that Rowell didn’t just love photography, and he didn’t just love adventuring through the wild. He truly loved the natural world, and tried to protect it through his photographs and writing.
Who’s this book for?
This book may not appeal to everyone, because it doesn’t really talk about “how to use your camera” — it doesn’t explain how exposure works, or how to get sharper photos. But, I think it covers something much more valuable than that: how to visualize images, and how much work it might take to get just one of those visualized photos.
Lastly, I just want to comment on the design of the book: it’s perfect. I’ve noticed that most photography books are printed on that glossy paper (to make the photos look good), and are usually huge (making it awkward to hold and read in a chair). Well, this book by Galen Rowell is about the size of a magazine (super easy to hold in your hands), and the text is printed on non-glossy paper, so it’s easy to underline or write notes in the book. The photos for the articles are printed on glossy pages throughout the book.
So, overall, I consider this book a treasure. In fact, after just finishing it today, I would put it in my top 3 most valuable photography books (the other two are Ansel Adams’ The Camera, and The Negative).
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About the Author: Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, computer scientist, and founder of PhotoNaturalist. You can usually find him hiking in the beautiful mountains and deserts of Southern California.