How Two Weeks in the Wilderness with One Prime Lens Restored My Love for Photography

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If you have read a few of my previous pieces here on the Digital Photography School like “5 Uncomfortable Truths about Photography“, or “How Making Horrible Photos Will Lead to More Keepers“, you’ll know that I have a much greater respect for learning, effort, and practice than I have for the latest and greatest gear. Good photography does not rely on equipment or rules.

But what happens if you lose your will to produce? What happens when the desire to make images simply slips away?

It happened to me last year, I just stopped wanting to make images. For most of the summer, my busiest and usually most productive season, I had no desire to shoot. Out of habit I still carried a camera on the wilderness trips I guide, and on personal trips across Alaska, but the images I made were few and lackluster. Now, a year later, I cringe to look through those, at the missed opportunities.

I broke out of the funk, but not the way I expected. Tired of carrying along gear I wasn’t using, for the final trip of my summer season, a 17 day pack-rafting trip in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, I carried only a camera body and one single 24mm f/2.8 prime lens.

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It wasn’t a creative decision, I took that combo because it was the best way to make my kit as light possible and still get the quality I wanted, and the lens and camera fit easily in a small holster style case that I carried, attached to the chest straps of my pack.

Toward the end of August my two clients and I flew from Fairbanks, Alaska north toward the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We passed little ranges of mountains in the interior, above the Yukon Flats, and over the rugged high peaks of the Brooks Range. Just to the north of the mountains on the arctic coastal plain of the refuge, the pilot descended, picked the unmarked strip out of the landscape, and settled the oversize wheels of the bush plane down onto the autumn tundra.

Within a few minutes of landing, we’d unloaded our heavy packs and the pilot was rocketing down the grass and into the air. He was the last person we’d see for more than two weeks.

The first 10 days of the trip were dedicating to hiking, though the mileage was such that we could take a day or two off periodically, which was good, because when the first snow storms of autumn hit a week into the trip, we were in no mood to walk.

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The route carried us through a narrow gap in the mountains cut by a small river. We walked through that gap on a cold, windy day when low clouds obscured the tops of the mountains. We had to criss-cross the river, and our feet were constantly soggy. But the willows along the creek and the small patches of tundra were bright with autumn colors, and a much-needed distraction from the cold.

Once on that first day, just once, I was stopped in my tracks by a scene that had to be photographed. I’d made photos earlier in the trip, but they’d been snapshots. This was a scene that inspired me; a rare thing.

The simple camera and lens setup removed much of the tedious decision making. There was no easy compositional escape in the form of a zoom lens, rather I had to move about to make the scene come together. I worked within the restraints of the lens (which were numerous), and it was utterly liberating.

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I gave the image five whole minutes before the chill forced us on, and for the first time all summer, five minutes wasn’t enough.

The following day, we woke to clouds, shredded by the previous day’s winds, and big patches of blue shone through, bright and optimistic. We hiked over a low pass, and watched a Grizzly sow and two young cubs graze in a sedge meadow a quarter mile and two hundred vertical feet below. My little lens didn’t have a prayer of making anything more than a token image of the brown specks on the tundra below. Instead I peered down through binoculars as the bears dug up sedges and combed berries from the bushes with their teeth.

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On the sixth day, the storm hit. We were camped on a meadow of soft, dry tundra above a small creek when the winds shifted from a pleasing breeze from the east, to a howling gale from the west. It happened in moments, the speed of the weather change taking me completely by surprise. Rain, then pelletized snow arrived, followed by a genuine snow storm in the night. For two solid days we were battered by the strongest winds and most intense storm I’ve ever experienced in the Brooks Range. Just keeping our tents standing was a constant battle.

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Yet in that time, my clients and I managed a few excursions away from camp. We climbed up to a low ridge where the full brunt of the west wind hit us hard. There, we leaned into the gale and watched the falling snow tear across the tundra.

It wasn’t a photogenic scene, at least not by traditional standards, and yet I made images because I wanted to. Creativity, quite suddenly, brightened up like a cartoon bulb over my head.

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On the third morning, before I even opened my eyes, I knew the storm had passed. My tent wasn’t shuddering in the wind, and when I did lift my eyelids, I could see the day was too bright to be dominated by clouds.

Emerging from my tent, I saw that fresh snow cloaked the mountains and dusted the tundra around our camp, but blue dominated the sky above. I went for my camera and spent a happy hour making images as the drenched tents and rain gear steamed in the rising sun.

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Two days later we reached the river and our cache of food and boating gear that had been waiting for us. In those two final days before we traded in our hiking boots for pack-rafts, I think I made more images than I had in the previous three months combined. I couldn’t get enough of it.

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The 50 miles of paddling stole some of my photographic productivity. (It’s hard to paddle a small bouncing raft through swift, splashing water while taking photos). Nonetheless, as we descended the river out of the mountains and onto the coastal plain, my renewed love for photography stuck with me. Even when another storm hit and we were pinned down for two more days, even when the snow fell in heavy wet flakes, and when the wind tore the autumn colors from the vegetation and shifted the landscape from red and yellow to brown.

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Our final camp lay where the river met its coastal delta. Caribou criss-crossed the plain in small bands, and migrant birds were congregating in the many lakes. My little lens was no match for the distant wildlife, but it didn’t matter. I’d rediscovered photography, which meant that I was more aware of my surroundings, and the images that lay in it, than I had been for some time. Even if I didn’t have the right equipment to capture some of the photos I found, I recorded them mentally in sharp detail. As it turns out, those mental images are just as rewarding as the ones glowing on my computer screen.

Paging through the images from the trip, I see an interesting evolution. The first images are mostly snapshots, but as time passed, and my inspiration picked up steam, the images become more purposeful, more composed… better, even.

Conclusion

Purposefully restricting yourself can be a great tool to boost creativity. It’s a little like playing charades: using limited tools to effectively get your message across. It can be fun, and a bit frustrating. It forces your mind outside its comfortable box, and into a place where creativity is far more important than gear. When, and if, you return to your diverse array of lenses and cameras, you will no longer take all those compositional possibilities for granted.

If you are stuck in a rut, or just want to try something new, give up your zooms for a couple of weeks, only shoot black and white, use your camera exclusively in manual mode, or shoot some film. After, share your experiences in the comments below, I’d love to hear what happens.

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David Shaw is a professional writer, photographer, and wilderness guide based in Fairbanks, Alaska. His images and writing on photography, natural history, and science have appeared in hundreds of articles in more than 50 publications around the globe. Dave offers multi-day summer and winter photography workshops in Alaska and abroad. He is currently accepting sign ups for an aurora photography workshop taking place 1-5 April 2019 and affordable trips to Africa, South America, and summer in Alaska. Find out more HERE .

  • Very inspiring post indeed. It’s good to read about what can be done on an affordable lens, not all of us are professionals and can afford a series of high-end lenses. I actually own the 24mm and it’s such a handy lens to travel, to the point it’s the one I use the most. I’m currently struggling with my productivity at the moment, so your post has been what I needed to get my modjo back. It allows me to see that great results can be done with that lens (love your photos) and I don’t need to shop for another lens, I’ve got what I need, I just need to get moving!

    thank you so much!

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  • Mohan Krishnan

    thanks for the wonderful post. i have often felt like you did and it is always a trip with simple equipment that revives you. I ended up creating an entire documentary on canon 550D with one lens. do look at it sometime when you get time – http://youtu.be/VubpqN_6LWQ

  • Cathy Fukaye

    Thank you David for sharing your evolution back to being creative! I too recently experienced such a feat. The 24mm lens is the staple to my landscape photography, but it recently became “damaged” when I slipped into a river and dunked it completely underwater. At first I thought it escaped unscathed, but later when viewing pictures with the aperture closed down, I realized that in fact, it had not escaped and was extremely dirty inside, which left unwanted specs on my photos. Lucky for me, I also realized that the photos taken with the aperture wide open turned out to be clean.

    After having used the 24mm for landscape photography, I found it impossible to go to my 50mm as it just didn’t capture all that I wanted in the composition. Therefore, I forced myself to use the 24mm, but only with my f-stop wide open at 2.8. What a nice change! Recently obsessed with perfecting the blurred water technique, I’ve been mostly using a tripod and a high f-stop. Come to find out, this was limiting my creative views. Having the freedom to shoot without a tripod again and move my body, much like yourself, to compose my shots was very releasing and satisfying and I captured some of my best work yet!

    Now that I’m back from my adventure, it’s time to either see if my lens can be cleaned or buy a new one. Oh well, at least my dependable Nikon D700 survived, which is more than I can see for the D50 I dunked in The Narrows in Utah.

  • David W. Shaw

    Thanks so much for the comment, and sorry for the delayed response. I do love that focal length, very versatile and fun to shoot with. Glad you got your mojo back, I know the feeling!

  • David W. Shaw

    I too love a good wide angle. Such fun, and always a challenge to get what you need, but not too much. Sorry to hear about the lens. That is a serious bummer, I hope you can get it fixed without spending an arm and a leg. Darn camera gear, so bloody expensive.

  • David W. Shaw

    I’ll take a look! Thanks for sharing.

  • Wayne Werner

    I’m a *huge* fan of using limits to improve my creativity. When I bought my 40mm f/2.8 (to go on a crop sensor, so ~70mm for you full frame folks 🙂 I had similar experiences. Of course, I haven’t been photographing enough to really get disillusioned, but having the 40mm was *great*. My camera came with an 18-55mm and 70-300mm kit lens. I actually haven’t put the 18-55mm lens on my camera in the last several months. I also find it kind of interesting that when I’m shooting my 70-300mm I’m *usually* shooting at 300mm.

    Recently I found the Lensbaby Spark Duo combo from B&H video for $70. It’s the tilt shift lens and came with a f/5.6 glass optic and plastic optic with a bunch of aperture disks. I’ve found it challenging as heck – in part because the lens is just a rubber plunger, so it’s been difficult to learn how to hold my camera still. But surprisingly it’s still possible ( https://goo.gl/photos/14TCJCzwficQiY188 ) and has been a *ton* of fun. It’s mostly been the lens I carry unless I actually want sharpness throughout my picture.

    I think the next limitation I’m going to impose on myself will be shooting at smaller apertures. I’ve done plenty of things with f/8 and larger, but I’m not very familiar or comfortable smaller than that.

  • James Mengel

    Great article David! I am beginning my journey in photography, so as you can imagine I don’t have a lot of fancy equipment, just the basics. I have a Nikon d3300 with a 18-55mm, and a 55-200mm lens, plus a 14 mega pixel point and shoot camera (if you can even count that as equipment), but that’s what I have. In roughly a month and a half from now I will be heading to the Rocky Mountain National Park to go backpacking for 7 full days on the Continental divide loop trail. I’m struggling with wanting to bring the Nikon with the 18-55mm lens over the pocket camera ( obviously I would like better pictures ). The problems that I keep thinking about are, 1 how do I protect the camera from rain when we are basically exposed to all nature has to offer wheather wise? Is there a generic case that could fit in my backpack thats water proof? And 2 is the added weight of the bigger camera worth it? I would greatly appreciate any advice, and no matter which camera I bring creativity will be at the forefront. Once again great article and thank you!

  • pete guaron

    James, you can get camera bags with a built in “rain coat”, but really that’s not going to protect your gear totally if you’re out in the wilds with a torrential rainfall. And water in digital cams can wreck them, quite easily.

    Better wet weather protection is available – talk to your camera shop, or have a chat with B&H or Adorama.

    I can’t comment on your point & shoot, I don’t know which one you are referring to. I use a Canon PowerShot, rather than a point & shoot (which I take to mean a pocket size compact), and it only has 12.8MP – but it takes fairly good photos. A lot of people worry too much about the specs of their cameras, when it’s not the camera that takes the shots – it’s the photographer.

    Why don’t you take both cams out for a run in the country, before you head to the Rockies, and take comparative shots with both of them? My wife & I did something similar a couple of years back, and I was astonished by the quality of some of the images on her ancient compact.

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  • pete guaron

    Sorry if I’m being a pest, David – I’m back again, after settling down this afternoon to read your article properly, at my leisure.
    It’s a great article – I really enjoyed your comments, although I’m not in the least bit envious of your choice of weather. And speaking of weather . . .
    My favorite destination for photography (Europe – well, France, if I must confess :)) is on the opposite side of the world from where I live (Australia), so I have a similar problem. I have to invent something to photograph, to practice on, to learn from. One of my top choices at the moment is light, in all its forms. Natural light mostly, but not entirely.
    One project is clouds – not just sunsets, or sunrises, but those as well – and it’s something I’m doing to train myself to “see better”. Not for lack of practice, but to concentrate on it more than I perhaps have in the past. With a little more focus on them, it’s quite astonishing what’s there for everyone to see.
    And there’s been some fallout. I’ve noticed that after heavy rain, the air is somehow cleaner – the colors of everything change, they’re more vibrant – and I’ve yet to decide whether it’s the cleansing effect of the rain, or a rise in humidity in the air, or a combination of both. Even the blues of the sky are more vibrant.
    While I’ve been doing it, another photographer posted an article in which there was a throw away line, that he found little to inspire his photography in the place where he lives. I can say that I understand this, in one sense – I’ve noticed over the years that “tourists” come to your town and want to see “everything” – and we have a bad habit of ignoring our “everythings” – even being surprised that tourists have heard of them, let alone want to go & see them. That said, I can’t say that I share the notion that familiarity breeds so much contempt that there’s nothing to photograph – I cannot venture out of the house, without the “preview” section of my brain lighting up and seeing photographic opportunities all over the place.

  • David W. Shaw

    Not being a pest at all, and thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Glad you liked the piece. I totally agree with you. Your observation about the photographer noting that he couldn’t get excited about shooting at home is interesting, and also I’m afraid, typical. The places we know best tend not to inspire us. I guide several trips a summer in the Brooks Range of northern Alaska. It is an utterly spectacular landscape, no question at all. Yet even for me, who loves that place as much as any place on the planet, after years of working there, I often don’t pull out my camera when I should. I think I’ll always have another chance, but I might not. At least not in that light, at that time, and as a result, I’ve missed some opportunities. I’ve got to do my best to make that extra effort, but it isn’t always easy. I strongly believe we make our best images at the places we know best, but that doesn’t make them the easiest place to make images. Perhaps knowledge, as you noted, breeds contempt, and also challenge. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

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