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Jean Day: Capturing the Beauty of the West

From my Southwestern Adventure of 2011, I had the pleasure of hiking out to The Wave! I got an early start before sunrise hoping I could at least get some alpenglow on some mountains, though the sunrise was uneventful. This hike is killer with so many awesome things to see and shoot! I made a point to pick out spots to explore and capture on my hike back out. They say it's only a three mile hike, but with some steep, rocky, and thick sand inclines, as well as some long, thick sandy trails, my little body felt it was more like six miles! It took me about an hour to get here as I stopped for a breakfast snack, to take a few shots, and simply enjoy the views. The weather was perfect...a bit chilly in the early morning and warming up for the day, but not unbearable. It will always be one of my favorite experiences.

Jean Day is a landscape photographer based in Northern California. An experienced photographer for over twenty years, Jean has been conducting photography workshops for the past five years. She partners with various federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of the Interior, Yosemite National Park, and Inyo National Forest. Jean enjoys spending time in the outdoors and often travels with her camera and her dogs to the beautiful Eastern Sierra Nevada or the Southwestern desert.  Jean talks to atlas this week about where she finds inspiration for her work and what she likes the most about teaching photography.

When did you first become interested in photography?

Jean Day: Growing up, my family went camping in Sequoia National Park just about every summer.  On one trip we were hiking around a place called Crescent Meadow when I saw this particular view through the trees I thought was beautiful and asked my dad to stop and take a picture of it.  He said we needed to get back to camp, so like any kid I whined and begged.  He walked back, handed me the camera and said, “You take it!”  So I did, and when the slides came back I can remember going through them just to find my picture.  I was so proud of it and decided then I wanted to be a landscape photographer.

Due to that one shot, I began to pay more attention to landscape photos and discovered great landscape photographers such as Ansel Adams and David Muench, both of whom probably inspired me more than anyone else when I was young.  In more recent years with the prevalence of social media, there are more photographers than I could possibly name who continue to inspire me on a daily basis.

Where do you find inspiration for your work? Are there any photographers whose work you admire?

There are so many places to get inspiration, from photo sharing sites, to magazines, blogs, newsletters, and ebooks.  Then there is just being out in my favorite places along the Eastern Sierra and greater Southwest especially when discovering new-to-me areas with some awesome weather conditions.  Being out in the elements and taking in the beauty of the world, especially alone with nothing but the sounds or silence of nature, can be pretty darned inspiring.

As for contemporary photographers I admire, the list is quite long and I can thank social media for that.  As mentioned above, more than I could name and many of them friends so I hate to leave anyone out, but for the sake of your readers here are a few who I believe produce consistently great and inspiring landscape photography works.  Giving equal time to both men and women, Erin Babnik, Patricia Davidson, Matt Grans, Sarah Marino, Guy Tal, and David Thompson would be in my top 100 list.

The exchange of heating and cooling causes the salt crystals to expand and push against each other. Here it reminded me of an open wound, or someone gathering his last breath. Death Valley is just too cool!

You have been a photographer for more than twenty years. How has the photography industry changed since you first started? Has it changed for the better or the worst?

I started while still in the film days, which many continue to use, having to wait for the processing before being sure if the exposure or focus was correct.  No matter how confident you were with your skills, mistakes could easily be made.  With film, every shot counted and you really had to pay attention to your camera settings and timing because once that fleeting moment was gone, it was lost forever.  With digital we get instant feedback on the backs of our cameras and there is a lot more room for getting multiple shots of the same scene as well as experimentation.  There is no longer the need to work with chemicals or have to wait for proof prints to come back because you just pop a memory card into your computer and use software like Photoshop as your darkroom.

Without the cost of film and time spent waiting for processing, people can shoot every day and increase their skill, knowledge, and creative talent faster than before. The ability to shoot more and get your work out to a greater audience is definitely for the better.  Likewise, seeing the works of more women in the landscape photography field in particular is for the better. Although it is still a man’s world, women are breaking down some walls and beginning to get as much attention as our male counterparts, but it is still a work in progress.  Technical advances have given photography and photographers a wider field of creative vision and the ability to achieve images which used to be impossible such as astrophotography as well as more refined and targeted adjustments in post processing.

With the internet, being inspired every day by so many great photographers is definitely a plus, but also a double edged sword.  With so many people able to share their works, it is harder for the up and coming to get noticed.  With so many images on the internet, there is also a lot of theft which makes it harder for one to make a living with photography.  We are also seeing a loss or damage to some pristine wilderness areas and crowds in our parks and wilderness areas are making the outdoor experience a bit less than desirable.

This might be my favorite shot from White Pocket. I was lucky to find three pools of water in the area, two of which made for some very nice reflection shots…and a nice way for my dogs to cool off in the desert heat! ;) I loved how on this morning the clouds did that pillowy thing almost mimicking the pillowed shape of the stone. It was a lovely morning wandering about this amazing place without another soul around.

Your stunning landscape and nature images are skillfully composed. What do you look for in terms of composition when capturing an image?

Thank you for the compliment. Initially, I just see something that pleases me and point my camera in that direction, framing it according to what my eye sees and wants to include.  I can not say I give composition a lot of thought until after I have set up the shot.  What I see with my own eyes tells me what focal length I should use and I will take a shot to see if the image on the back of my camera is true to my vision.  It is then that I’ll look more critically at composition to see if elements of the scene are lining up the way I’d like and make adjustments if necessary.  Every photographer understands (or should) the rule of thirds and will use this as a guide for lining up a shot.  Then again, rules are made to be broken, so understanding the rules and how they can be broken is a matter of practice as well as personal vision.

You have been teaching photography workshops for many years. What do you enjoy the most about teaching?

As a landscape photographer, getting out of doors with others of like mind is always such a pleasure no matter the location and helping someone to realize their photographic goals is a bonus.  As an instructor, having time in the field to review a client’s shots help me understand their vision and allows me to target their particular needs — it may be getting the right exposure for the subject matter or helping them to zero in on their compositional skills.  Sometimes it may be helping them to see a scene in a way they might not have thought by pointing out different elements of subject matter.  The most gratifying are the “aha” moments when everything clicks and clients find their confidence, firing off shot after shot of beautiful images all on their own.

With just enough light coming through the clouds, the final glow of sunset shines on Monument Valley.

How do you see your work evolving over the next five years? Are you working on any new projects?

My images have evolved the longer I’ve been shooting as I am always learning.  I have a way or style of shooting which is fairly constant, but experimenting with a different focal length or learning new post processing techniques can change the overall look or feel of my images and I can see a maturity to what I’m producing now as opposed to even two years ago.  I still feel more like a musician waiting to produce just the right notes to get that different sound and maybe, in the next five years, I’ll have all the elements in place to establish my own brand.  Though more than likely I’ll still be experimenting because I really enjoy exploring and learning.

As to new projects there is nothing in the works at this writing, but I do have a desire to pay more attention to black and white as well as abstract photography.  I’d like to spend more time with street photography — not with the inclusion of people — but more in the way of suggesting their presence.  I enjoy working with lines, shapes, light and shadow, even movement to try and tell a story.  I also love the natural abstracts of nature and want to include more of the intimate scene in my works rather than the grander view and have been going back through my images to find all those I have never gotten to and help them see the light of day.

You make photographs in color and black & white. Which do you prefer and why?

I absolutely love color especially with the range and intensity of colors during sunsets, though sunrise can be equally as spectacular when conditions are off the hook fantastic and I’m willing to crawl out of a nice warm bed or sleeping bag at zero dark thirty.  Most of the time when I’m shooting, I see the end product in color, but there are many times when the elements of a scene draw me to a black and white outcome.  I am more apt to experiment with lines, shapes, and subject matter stepping outside my landscape photography persona when considering black and white.  It is like comparing my color images to classic rock and the black and white to jazz.  I really enjoy both, but the black and white sometimes allows a more funky avenue of artistry.

There wasn't a camping spot anywhere in the park, so I found a secluded picnic area to spend the night. It was only about 10 minutes from where I wanted to do sunrise. All I'd need was about 15 minutes to wash up, change clothes, pour some ready-made iced coffee, and stop at a bathroom. There weren't any clouds and I wasn't expecting much action for sunrise. Clear skies, the morning was cool, and I only needed a light sweater. I was on my way to the bathroom and from around the boulders in the distance I saw the sky was already bursting with color. Awww, geeeeez! Mistake #1...know thy golden hour for sunrise! I was not going to have time to get to my preferred destination, so I ran back to the car and headed just down the road a bit to get around the boulders and went dashing out into the desert with my gear looking for a nice Joshua tree foreground. Wouldn't you know they all looked dead or scraggly, but I found one I thought would do, after all, the light was beautiful! Mistake #2...have thyself a backup plan! I bracketed three shots and thought, "OK, got my Joshua Tree sunrise" and saw a group of yuccas. Good, another comp before the light fades. Took a shot and with sleep still in my eyes, thought it looked a bit soft. Mistake #3...wear thy glasses! I found I was still on manual focus from the night before and shooting at f5.6, meaning both comps were garbage. Mistake #4...check thy frickin' settings! OK, by this time I was totally disillusioned at being a pro landscape photographer. I half-assed one more shot at f8 for the yucca foreground then started to leave and noticed some boulders by another scraggly Joshua tree. OK, foreground, settings, focus, shoot! The display looked good so I told myself that's enough for this sunrise as the nice light began to fade. It was then I realized I was wearing flip-flop sandals and had not taken the time to put my hikers on. I started to think of scorpions, tarantulas, and rattlesnakes nipping at my toes. Mistake #5...

Do you have any advice for novice photographers?

If you have a real love of photography, do it!  Whether your passion is landscapes, portraits, weddings, sports, fashion, or street photography, if it makes you happy doing it and you find it fulfilling, do not let anything or anyone keep you from following that passion.  Getting to be a “famous” photographer is similar to being a famous musician.  Not everyone can be a rock star, but just as there are working musicians, there are also working photographers who can make a decent living off their passion if they so choose.  As long as you are willing to continue learning your craft, stay true to your personal vision, and you truly love what you do, there’s no telling how far you can go.

Thank you for being our featured photographer of the week, Jean!

For more information about Jean, visit her website.  All images © Jean Day.

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