TEXTURES AND LIGHT IN THE ATACAMA DESERT

December 12, 2017

With the exception of the magically-lit sand dune pictured above, I initially wasn’t happy with anything I photographed in northern Chile last month. Not because I knew the photos might not resonate with my audience on social media, but because I was disappointed with the quality. While scrolling through my Lightroom catalog, all I could see was bright daylight, cloudless skies and one infuriatingly blurry Andean fox.

 

I was in the country for two weeks, yet the only images that evoked the slightest reaction in me were a handful of shots taken over the course of two days in the desert. That's fine. I'd rather have quality over quantity. But when you have neither, then what? I ventured on to Easter Island and the cities of Santiago and Valparaiso, and I didn’t feel particularly inspired to shoot much of anything in those locations, so I put the camera down and did touristy things. I went to museums, drank local wine, walked through craft markets and took some time to relax at the pool. In some ways I wondered if it was a waste of a trip, but I immediately stopped myself. If the measure of a successful adventure is based on the amount of killer photos you bring back, you probably missed out on quite a few things. 


After waiting a few weeks and going back over my photos from the Atacama, I started to fall in love with the way a few of them flowed together. Yes, the sparkling sand was still my favorite shot. But the contrast between the stark salt flats and the ripples on the bronze dunes had grown on me, as had two photos from sunrise at the El Tatio geysers. Only after I saw the complete set could I truly appreciate any of its components, and I honestly can't remember the last time I looked at my photos this way. When placed side by side, these images spoke about texture, tones, temperature and terrain, and looking at them made me remember how dry, cold, hot and high I was on this trip. And by high, I mean getting knocked on my ass while hiking at 14,000 feet.

I’m usually very efficient when it comes to selecting the best shot out of a few hundred (and hanging on to the other 299 that I don’t like…because you never know when you might use one, right?) but shooting a collection of images that tell a story isn’t how we always think of photography. We’re often chasing clouds, crazy light or, for some of us, whatever is trendy in the realm of lifestyle photography. Beyond trying to get a banger post for Instagram, what are we really trying to say? Quite often we assume that one image should be enough to capture a moment, and we don't take the time to see how one image might related to another.

 

Have we inadvertently trained ourselves to forget about the art of storytelling, all in the name of Insta-gratication? It's a question worth asking, because I very rarely see photos these days that make a statement. Sure, they show pretty scenes and they make me want to see some of these places for myself, but I don't put much thought into the how, why and what behind the visual. Pictures aren't always worth a thousand words anymore. Sometimes they're tantamount to a sentence, and a poorly constructed one at that. And of course, I'm tossing my own photography in this pot, because I'm seldom satisfied with what I shoot and share. Sometimes I'm proud of my work, but I wish I had the power to consistently lure people in and make them stare at my images for more than a few seconds.

 

After having dabbled more with video this year, I've realized the importance of finding sequences that tell a story and hold the viewer's attention. So why not apply some of that to still photography? Details, textures, movement and light aren’t always directly in front of you, but when you start looking for them, you'll find them. Whether it's in real time, or after the fact.

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