The Power of Reflexive Photography

It is easy to overthink landscape photography (as I am about to do now). For anybody prone to self-doubt, like myself, the act of landscape photography can be downright paralyzing.

Am I choosing the right location? Is this a better sunrise or sunset location? How will my audience or clients react to this image? Will this be successful on social media? How will this image fit into my larger body of work? These questions, taken en masse, can quickly shift an enjoyable photography outing into a dismal one. Critical analysis, during the creative process — i.e. when your camera is in your hands — almost guarantees mediocre results.

Back home in Western Montana, I spent six years photographing on an almost daily basis. I got to know every fold, ledge, face, and ridge of the local mountains in every season. With each passing year, my bar was raised for what constituted a strong image of a given subject. This, of course, wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It symbolized growth. It was growth. Unfortunately, as the images became more refined, my standards, particularly for light and weather, inched into the realm of the rarely achievable. I had, inadvertently, created habits of movement (my favorite places to hike and shoot), established expectations for ideal weather/light (based on years of photographing that weather/light), and developed a style for how I wanted to communicate those places under those conditions (wide-angle exaggerated foregrounds). These three factors hamstrung my creative development. I found myself less willing to shoot because I thought the conditions to be unsatisfactory. I’d look out the window, see blue skies, and say “meh.”

To be clear, I have no regrets about the above approach. It strikes me as a completely natural and effective process. In fact, I believe that committing to a place, planning shoots around the conditions, and scouting areas can yield exceptional results. Personally, as I expressed in We Photograph the Place That We Love Most Best, it is a way of being that has tremendous value. There certainly is a place for it. But, after months on the road, I’ve discovered that the approach has a fatal flaw.

While wandering the South Rim of the Grand Canyon over the past week, I began exploring the limitations of my creative process. Although the seed of the idea was planted in Death Valley several weeks ago, it wasn’t until the grandest canyon that the thoughts began to coalesce. It has always been important for me to find the right words to describe what I am doing. The Grand Canyon, as a vast and complex landscape, is a fine place to ruminate on the linguistic cues that frame how I think about photography. Focusing on the words planning, scouting, and style, as I had done back home, simply wasn’t working on the road. Those words were too restrictive and, most of the time, impractical. I’d pull up to a landscape, and instead of looking for what was there and beautiful, I began imagining what the best shot might be. Invariably, I would determine that the weather and light weren’t optimal, and because of commitments, I couldn’t wait around for days or weeks for the conditions to improve. Most of the time, my camera remained in the bag.

Carefully treading along the rim of the Grand Canyon, the word "reflexive" kept coming up. It felt helpful, hopeful even. The word carries strong connotations of unconscious responsiveness that values the instincts — the eye — of an individual.

Sunset from the South Rim, Grand Canyon National Park

Enter reflexive photography: the act of allowing oneself to be guided by the unconscious with their camera. This is not an act of reacting and responding, terms that carry the subtext of being caught off guard. Rather, reflexive photography is the innate response to a scene. Reflexive photography is being dropped into any given landscape and opening one’s mind to the limitless landscape. There is nothing else: just you and the scene. Where your eye is drawn, so too is your camera. It’s that simple. The approach leaves room for surprise: interesting light in a direction you couldn’t have anticipated, compelling landforms that were previously unknown to you, passing wildlife, e.g. surprise creates room for our unconscious to behave reflexively to the scene. In that space, we create something fresh, unplanned, and new.

Reflexive photography has nothing to do with anybody else. The phrase bears no resemblance to the latest composition or processing trends on Instagram. The phrase has everything to do with you: your vision, your interests, your sensibility. It is how you reflexively respond to a scene. If landscape photography is the art of capturing the interplay of form and light, then we are all students of observation, responding with our cameras to the elements that compel us. Our predilection for one scene over another is of critical importance. It is highly significant, that, when presented with the same landscape, your unconscious reflex guides your camera one way and mine another. Those differences and that shift in perspective are everything.

A couple of weeks ago in Death Valley, I found myself struggling to make sense of the Earth laid bare. It’s a stripped-down place, largely devoid of plant-life, defined by textures and subtle color variations. The week spent inside the park coincided with the full moon and a heat wave. I struggled immensely with making photographic sense of the place. I rose for sunrise every morning, after planning and scouting the night before, only to find myself uninspired by featureless skies and harsh light. My planned wide-angle landscape shots weren’t working. I passed the heat of the day in the shade of canyon walls, avoiding the oven that is my air conditioner-less black van. Sunset came as a joy each day, not because it provided another opportunity to shoot, but because it marked a respite from the blazing sun.

Frustrated that my standard photographic approach was not working, I opted to take a step back from photography and simply take my camera for walks: no expectations, no plan, just walking through interesting places. To avoid the heat, I began hiking into the Mesquite Sand Dunes under the cover of moonlight. Suddenly, the landscape was transformed. I began to see it, literally, in a new light. The soft light of the moon gave shape to the sinuous curves of the dunes. Immediately, I felt compelled to get my camera out and experiment with the interplay of light and form. It was wholly reflexive.

Mesquite Dunes by moonlight, Death Valley National Park

I begin shooting solely by the light of the moon. For several more days, I ventured into the dunes by moonlight. The experience was transcendent. It renewed everything that I love about photography. Photography should be an extension, not the purpose, of my connection with the landscape. Only through connection can I began to see.

Instead of leading with my camera, I am learning to lead with feet and eyes. I am actively working to reduce expectations and open myself up to being surprised. Today, I am heading back into Grand Canyon National Park for the fifth day of shooting. I have a general area in mind, but no specific shot. Instead, I am excited to wander, see, and exercise the creative reflex of landscape photography. I will enter the landscape with eyes wide open.

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6 Comments

David Medeiros's picture

Nice write up. This is predominantly how I shoot and I find it surprisingly rewarding and productive (most of the time). I refer to it as "opportunistic photography", but the idea is similar I think. Avoid over planning, over thinking a location. Wander around and let your instincts be guided by your experiences. I still miss lots, but enjoy the process way more then when I'm locked up, thinking too much about the technical details or or set compositions.

Phillip Dixon's picture

This was beautifully said. It reflects my own dilemma, and the solution. You and DuChemin fill a niche that goes way beyond technique and technology. I think viewers of photos know intuitively if the composer's heart is really in it. Thank you for your piece

philip morse's picture

I liked this article. It's a personal approach that fits very well with the way I work. I find that planning may be good to get me where I need to be. Then, once I let it go, is when I find things.

marcus brown's picture

Good article, but calling 105 degrees in death valley a heat wave, haha lol. That is still low temps for that place, as they hit 120 in the summer like its nothing and 134 last summer lol.

Brian Christianson's picture

Totally! I know this to be true. I definitely should have qualified that statement with "late-March" or something the sort. It was a heat wave for the area for that time of year, but, by no means the fierce heat of summer. Thanks, Marcus.

Tom Reichner's picture

I think that one advantage that wildlife photography has over landscape photography is that it is kind of automatically "reflexive" or "opportunistic". Because we spend so much time out there looking for an animal to photograph, and once we find it we can only do so much about how and where we shoot it from, because it's going to flee any second, we have to shoot what we see and make the best of impromptu opportunities. There is usually no other viable choice.