Five great tips Galen Rowell taught me

Story and photographs by Gary Crabbe

Editor’s note: On October 31 the photo gallery founded by Galen Rowell and lovingly managed by his wife Barbara Rowell called Mountain Light will close. The Rowells died 15 years ago in a plane crash near their hometown of Bishop, California, while returning from a photography workshop in Alaska. Author Gary Crabbe’s first real job was as a manager of Rowell’s 400,000-photo library for nine years. Now a successful photographer living near San Francisco, he offers five things he learned from Rowell that helped boost his career from amateur to professional.

It was 15 years ago last August that internationally renowned photographer Galen Rowell and his wife, Barbara, perished in a plane crash near their hometown in Bishop, California. They were on the very last leg of a long return voyage home after teaching a workshop in the Arctic. In a moment, we lost one of the best-known photographers who helped pioneer the genres of climbing and adventure travel photography and helped to elevate the genre of landscape photography with what he called the “dynamic landscape.”

I was one of those fortunate enough to work with him over the course of many years. I spent nearly a decade managing his image library of nearly 400,000 photos. My employment with him began not too long after I graduated from college. It was my first real job that didn’t involve cooking. I felt an incredible sense of gratitude and loyalty, as Galen seemed to fill a tiny bit of the hole that was left after my dad passed away just the year before. But to be absolutely clear, I was hired to work for him precisely because I had zero interest in becoming a photographer. The fact I had one basic black-and-white photography course in college and was fairly well versed in geography and the outdoors was good enough for them. They (Galen and Barbara) wanted someone who would be OK working in an office and not want to be out in the field making photos. I was fine with that since I never even shot a roll of color film until after I started working for him, and I was pretty much a really bad photographer, knowing only the very basic of basics beyond point-and-click.

However, one of the prime benefits of working for Galen was getting to work during all of his photo workshops. By the time my tenure was over, I must have assisted or helped teach at nearly 40 of his classes. For me, it was like learning photography through a combination of osmosis and intravenous fluid transfer simultaneously.

Twenty-seven years after I first entered the world of photography, first learning the ropes as a photo editor and then stumbling into the role of professional photographer, author, and workshop instructor myself, I realize there are a few indelible lessons I learned from my time with him that I continue to pass along to students to this day. In honor of his memory, I’d like to share a few of those with you here.

(1) If it looks good, shoot it; if it looks better, shoot it again.

Stormy sunrise at Snake River Overlook, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. © Gary Crabbe

 

I clearly remember the strange looks I got amidst a phalanx of photographers during a stormy sunrise from the Snake River Overlook in Grand Teton National Park when I shot a full roll of film in a few short moments. While I was busy changing rolls of film in my camera, I overheard a nearby photographer turn to his partner and ask, “Should we be shooting this,” to which his partner replied, “No, you want to wait until the light is all the way up on the mountain.” So they didn’t shoot, and guess what, the light never made it onto the mountain. If it looks good, shoot it, because there’s always a chance the scene won’t get better, and if you didn’t shoot the first time, you have nothing to show. As Galen used to say in tandem with this, “Film is cheap.” These days, I just add, “…and pixels are even cheaper.”

(2) Chance favors the prepared mind.

Photographers shooting the sunset at Point Reyes National Seashore. © Gary Crabbe

Galen often passed along this gem first attributed to the famous scientist Louis Pasteur but with a photographic aspect. One of the prime ways photographers can get better photos is to have a thorough understanding of their subject, the world around them, and to research as much as possible, thereby stacking the odds of getting a good shot in their favor. In terms of landscape and travel photography, that meant researching locations, understanding local and general weather patterns, and understanding the direction or type of light relative to the subject you want to shoot. As workshop instructors who teach out in the field, this is what most do well in advance of their class, which is to scout locations, look up sunset and sunrise times and try to deliver their students to the best spots at the best times. But the real teaching moments come not just in talking about camera settings or lens selection, but equally about the why-here, why-now factor of choosing a subject or location in the first place.

(3) The importance of previsualization.

Moonset at dawn from Taft Point above Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park. © Gary Crabbe

Galen used to talk a lot about previsualizing your image. In today’s digital photo world, there’s barely a camera out there that won’t let you  inspect your image as soon as you’ve shot it. This wasn’t the way the world worked back in the days of film when you’d have no clue how your shot would look until it was processed in the lab. Well, sorta, but not really. Galen used to emphasize that the hallmark of a good photographer was the ability to previsualize in two distinct ways. The first was to think about the type of shot wanted, the kind of subject(s) to be shown, and how to construct an idealized yet ethereal frame in the photographer’s head. This was the starting point that would then guide the photographer through the research to find the best location and conditions that would turn that ethereal vision into an actual photo. The second aspect is done on location and occurs even before a camera is lifted to the eye. This deals with knowing how your finished shot will look using a certain film, lens, or lighting, and to understanding how the subjects in front of you in a three-dimensional world will turn out after being compressed into a two-dimensional medium.

In one instance, I remember sitting outside the far eastern gate of Yosemite National Park during the evening thinking about where I wanted to be to catch the moonset the next morning. I pulled out my maps and with the help of mobile apps like The Photographer’s Ephemeris or PhotoPills and various weather sites, I realized I stood a great chance of capturing the moon setting over Yosemite Valley from Taft Point. Of course, this meant driving 2.5 hours through the park in the middle of the night and hiking more than a mile downhill well before the first light of dawn. I had constructed an ideal frame in my head, thinking it would have a moon hanging in the western sky over Yosemite Valley, which would be lit with the pinkish-purple light of dawn. Once I arrived on the scene, I was able to assess where to put my tripod and what other technical considerations were needed to bring that vision into reality. These days you don’t need to think about knowing how a certain film palette will translate certain colors, but you should be able to previsualize how you might process a scene while looking through a viewfinder before you even press the shutter.

(4) Move!

In one of his videos, Galen was running along the shore of Mono Lake chasing a sunset when he passed by the camera and breathlessly exclaimed, “Photography is an action sport!” Now, that’s not to say we all need to climb mountains to get good photos, but during his workshops, he always emphasized the importance of moving and anticipating to improve composition and visual story telling. Every object in your frame has some visual relationship to every other object in your frame. How these objects are placed relative to each other can determine the success or failure of your image to communicate what you’re trying to show your audience. Often, the very first frame won’t be your best, and by moving your camera position, you improve your story. Sometimes that’s just tipping your camera up or down, right or left, but more often it means physically moving the camera position, taking a step (or two, three, or 10), bending down, climbing up, and moving forward or backward. When dealing with objects or subjects that are moving, don’t just randomly take a photo. Figure out where the best spot in the frame is, and if you need to wait or move to put that object in that place, then that’s what you do.

Full moon setting over mountains near Tioga Pass, Eastern Sierra, California. © Gary Crabbe

In this shot of the moon setting over the Sierra, I was in one location when I first shot while the moon was higher in the sky. As the moon neared the horizon, I tried to visualize where it would touch the mountain. I saw this rock pinnacle and imagined the proverbial ball on the nose of a seal. I was anticipating the movement of the moon and needed to move my own position relative to the moon and the mountain so they would intersect at the right time and for just the briefest of moments.

Galen also used to love teaching how if you were on a hill at the right time, you could move up or down the hillside so you could photograph more than one sunrise or sunset. For instance, if you’re on the side of a hill watching a sunrise, just after the sun comes up, you can run downhill back into the shadow and watch the sun rise a second time. If you have the stamina after watching the sunset, you could run uphill from the shadows back into the sunlight and photograph the sun setting a second, third, or fourth time, depending on how much hillside and stamina you had to work with.

(5) Fill the frame with what you like.

 In combination with his discussion on movement and how that relates to the idea of composing subjects within the frame relative to each other, one point Galen always made was regarding strengthening your visual story, which would also lead to the development of personal vision or style. This is the how-you-see-the-world and how you use the photographic medium to communicate to others that which you find interesting, To that end, he would always push the premise of finding those aspects that you like, then fill the frame (or as much as possible) with those aspects to emphasize what you’re trying to show.

Snow banners streaming off Basin Mountain, Eastern Sierra, California. © Gary Crabbe

The image of the Snow Banners on Basin Mountain is a prime example of this. Standing down in the Buttermilk Region below the mountain, I saw the streamers of cloud and light coming off the mountain, but with a wide-angle landscape lens they occupied only a tiny, distant portion of the image. Switching to a telephoto lens allowed me to fill the frame with this really interesting subject, such that the viewer is left with no doubt about what I am trying to show them.

I often tell folks I could look at a sheet of 20 35mm slides and within one to two seconds know whether there was any image on that page that was worth taking a closer look at or sending to a client. Because even then, at the size of a postage stamp, you could tell that certain images just jumped off the page due to the clarity with which the subject was being portrayed within that tiny little frame.

 BONUS! (6) Figures in a landscape.

Photographers lined up at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California. © Gary Crabbe

So many photographers who pursue landscape, nature, or travel often express disgust when some person(s) wander into their frame while they’re shooting. If you’d like to experience this for yourself, take a short stroll and stand under Utah’s Delicate Arch within the minutes just before sunset. You’ll hear a chorus of upset voices yelling at you to move. But Galen loved including people in his images, including landscapes. In fact, one chapter in his seminal book, Mountain Light, is called “Figures in a landscape.” Including a person adds to the story of an image beyond what a straight landscape photo is capable of providing. It calls to our sense of human experience and our connection to the world around us.

But sometimes, we just don’t give a hoot about those lofty ideals, and there someone sits before us ruining our ideal shot. In these moments, I’ve been able to think back about that figure-in-a-landscape aspect and use that to change my mindset. One time I was hanging out with some friends while they were leading a photo workshop in Death Valley. Their group arrived early, but apparently not early enough. Some other well-known photographer had gotten a large workshop group there first and had them all set up on a ridge below and directly in front of the tourist viewpoint. If you were a photographer who wasn’t able to walk down the hillside to join the line, you had no choice but to deal with this scene of many people in your view. Since I wasn’t too worried about trying to get another postcard shot from this location, I just sat with the other tourists and a few other photographers absorbing the scene. And to be totally honest, I felt a bit sad and disgusted at the selfishness of the leader that put the class in this spot without regard to the rest of the folks around them. Then, in a moment of thinking about all these figures within the landscape, I instantly decided to make this my shot, shooting a multi-frame panorama to capture the full line of people. This image wound up describing the feeling and experience of being there that morning far better than any other image I could have taken of just the landscape alone.

So here it is, 15 years later. I still tip my hat and say a very heartfelt thank you to Galen. He taught so many people how to see the world better, and he led by example of how to live a life of adventure and beauty at full throttle.

© Gary Crabbe

This final photo is my tribute to the spirit of Galen, Barbara, and Mountain Light. It was shot from roughly the same area as Galen’s famous Split Rock and Cloud image which graces the cover of his seminal book sold by the Mountain Light gallery here: Mountain Light: In Search of the Dynamic Landscape.

(See it there until October 31, or see it at Amazon.com if viewing later than October 31.)


Gary Crabbe

Gary Crabbe is an award-winning commercial and editorial outdoor travel photographer and author based out of the San Francisco Bay Area at Pleasant Hill, California. He has seven published books on California to his credit, including Photographing California—Volume 1: North, which won the prestigious 2013 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Gold Medal award as Best Regional title. His client and publication credits include the National Geographic Society, the New York Times, Forbes, Time, The North Face, Subaru, L.L. Bean, Victoria’s Secret, Sunset magazine, The Nature Conservancy, and many more. Gary is a photography instructor and consultant, offering both public and private photo workshops. Most of the photos here were taken with Nikon camera models D800, D7000, or D2x. The Grand Teton shot was taken with a Nikon N8008s with Fuji Velvia film, likely with a 35-135mm zoom. He works occasionally as a professional freelance photo editor. See his website at http://enlightphoto.com.