Thursday, November 11, 2010

Review: Galen Rowell's Inner Game of Outdoor Photography

I've recently had to answer a few questions about photography. In all cases, when the prospective photographer was new to the art, I always tell them to read one book: John Shaw's Nature Photography Field Guide. Shaw was a high school biology teacher before he became a full time photographer. His ability to teach and explain is unsurpassed. If you think about what photographs tend to show up in biology textbooks, Shaw's emphasis on macro photography becomes understandable.

In truth, though, my own work is much more a legacy of Galen Rowell. I had the fortune to get into a workshop in 1998, a workshop that greatly improved and influenced all my photography since. While John Shaw rightfully emphasizes fanatical devotion to technical mastery, Rowell takes that to the next level, and his vision reflects that of an adventurer who has a camera and knows how to use it to capture his experience, rather than that of a photographer separated from his subjects. The style is distinctive, reflecting Rowell's willingness to ditch heavy gear in favor of light and fast travel.

Galen Rowell's Inner Game of Outdoor Photography is a collection of Rowell's columns originally written for the magazine Outdoor Photography. Many of these columns can be found and read online at the Mountain Light archive. However, the online archive has no photos and no references to the photos, while this book has many color plates and each article has a reference to the accompanying photograph.

Reading these articles in the order Rowell picked, I am reminded again over and over again why I can't usually recommend Rowell's books to beginners. I remember reading some of these columns years ago as a beginner, and they made no sense. For instance, in one column, Rowell claims that color is entirely a result of human perception, and does not exist in nature. That's why colors do funny things in exciting light, and why film (or today's digital sensors) does not render scenes the way you see them. In particular, some seemingly drab situations render beautifully on film, and you might have a hard time understanding why unless you've experienced the same situation before and know that even when the scene is seemingly drab, the colors that are there will look spectacular. A beginner reading those columns will be thoroughly confused. I know I was until I attended Rowell's workshop and saw for myself how a gray sky at sunset rendered by Fuji Velvia looked stunning when held in control by an ND grad filter:

From Miscalleaneous

If I had not had that experience, I would not have been able to produce the image of a Chief Mountain Sunset years later:

From 2010 Canadian Rockies Fall Colors


In many ways, this book is really for advanced photographers, for whom the technical mastery have been achieved, as well as the willingness to get up or stay out at ungodly hours for the sake of the craft. The opening articles on how to see like film, why images look very different from the scene at the time of capture, and how the cognitive system automatically eliminates distractions form the foundation of an advanced class for photography. Rowell provides references for the photographer to follow up if he or she was to be so inclined, and his own articles are eminently practical, but only if you've experienced the same epiphanies he's had. Reading these articles now, I find myself nodding in agreement and the subtle understanding that I missed 12 years ago.

The second part of the book covers techniques that were new at the time of writing, but are probably obsolete in the world of digital photography. The sections on pushing film, for instance, just tells me how advanced digital photography has become. In the days of film, ISO 200 film was considered fast, and processing color slides at high ISOs were costly and required a meticulous lab. The modern digital photographer would just twist a dial. Fill-flash, however, is still useful, and Rowell's enamored of them for eliminating shadows. I don't do enough fill-flash work myself.

The last half of the book covers the gamut of topics interesting to outdoor photography. There's a series of articles about explorations in the Arctic and Antarctic. There are articles about the ethics of outdoor photography, and how much digital manipulation is acceptable, and there are articles about censorship. Rowell had thought hard about many of these issues, and I feel like it is a shame that he did not live to see what today's modern digital SLRs can do. I think he would have loved them as much as I do, despite the steep learning curve of the digital transition.

My one major criticism of the book is about the photo reproduction. Most of the photographs were reproduced from duplicate slides rather than the original, so some of the photos look surprisingly grainy despite the relatively small enlargement. The glaring mis-step, I feel, is the choice to reduce production costs by having a few color plates spread out throughout the book, rather than making the book full color and embedding the color photos along with the article for easy reference. This makes it very painful to refer to the photos that "accompany" an article to see what Rowell was talking about, and I feel it detracts in a big way from the pedagogical purpose of the book.

Nevertheless, if you're a serious outdoor photographer (studio/wedding photographers need not apply: this is a book for people like me, not people who shoot portraits), this book does belong in your library. If you read this book and don't understand the first section, that's an indication that your photography education is incomplete. The only way to really rectify that is to find a Mountain Light Workshop that suits your schedule and show up for it. As you can imagine then, I highly recommend this book.
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