My photography journey… until now at least

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Above: Mission Mountains in the moonlight. (December 2015)

I guess you could say that to a degree taking photos is in my genes.  Both my parents were photographers when I was growing up, for the local paper that they had co-founded.  I vividly remember sitting in a corner of the darkroom they had built in the basement, watching my dad develop black and white prints for that weeks issue.  For a good part of my childhood, it was normal for mom and dad to ask “did you grab the camera?” as we’d leave the house for just about any outing, much like you’d ask “did you lock the door?”

The funny thing is that I don’t really remember having any particular interest in becoming a photo guy when I was younger, despite or maybe because I was exposed to it early.  I remember my sister taking an interest in high school, taking some photos of track and field for the paper (still locally owned after my parents sold it), but I never really did get into film photography.

My first real step into photography wasn’t even much of a step.  I started buying cheap disposable cameras my second year in fire as an easy way to get some pictures of what I was doing, and where I was traveling.  I’ve still got a few albums of pretty terrible photos from those first few years.  Bad cameras combined with a bad photographer made for uninspiring photos… but I do have the memories.  Mom and dad eventually got me a regular point and shoot film camera that I used a little bit, but I still wasn’t really into photography.  I’d take pictures every now and then, but I had no idea what I was doing, especially with film.

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Above:  Self-portrait (the film camera precariously sitting on the head of Combi-tool) with part of the USFS Swan Lake fire crew after an IA in the Missions, above Hemlock Lake in 2003.

In 2005 I took the dive into digital, buying a very cheap point and shoot camera when I started working on the Fort Howes Helitack crew in southeast Montana.  I still wasn’t much of a photographer, and definitely didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but the digital workflow enabled me to start figuring out what I liked and what I didn’t.  The fact that I could now take a photo and immediately see the result really kept me going, as I could usually correct the framing if I didn’t like it.  Being able to take hundreds of images at a time, and just delete the bad frames was also something that I liked.  I never really had a problem with film per se, but being able to take as many images as I wanted to without worrying about running out of film was very liberating.

After a few years of upgrading to higher-quality point and shoot cameras, and getting some decent images, I finally started to get serious about it while I lived and worked in southeast Alaska.  I buckled down and started learning more about framing, exposure, and the like.  For the first time I was really getting into the art of photography, and started to feel limited by my tools.  As luck would have it, I moved back to the lower 48 a few short months after upgrading my camera, and the best images I took with the new equipment were on the ferry ride south as I left the state.

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Above:  The south end of Prince of Wales Island, Alaska. (Spring 2012)

After a few years of messing around with relatively inexpensive cameras, I finally decided to take the dive into semi-pro or “prosumer” equipment, buying a full-frame digital Canon 6D late in 2013.  I spent hours of internet research before finally deciding to bite the bullet and go with a high quality camera, deciding that if I wanted pro-grade photos, I needed pro-grade equipment.  Since then I’ve spent many, many hours reading blog posts, internet forums, and most importantly, taken thousands of images learning the craft.  I’m grateful to the many photographers that share their techniques and methods on the internet, as I’ve studied a lot of what others have done, and copied their methods as best I could in my journey.  Basically, I’ve tried to emulate the images I’ve liked the best.

But in all honesty, the thing that has inspired me the most in my photography is where I get to take photos.  It’s easy to take beautiful images when you’re surrounded by amazing landscapes, and I’ve been lucky enough to live and work in or near some beautiful places.  It’s hard not to get good images when you’re taking pictures in places like the Swan Valley of Montana, the Sawtooth mountains in Idaho, or just about everywhere in Southeast Alaska.

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Above:  My first attempt at star trail photography, Mission Mountains.  (January 2016)

In the past year or so I’ve been very lucky to get some time to really practice and hone my skills, finally getting the opportunity to try my hand at nighttime landscape photography.  It’s something that I’d wanted to do for a few years, but until this year I’d either lacked the right equipment or the time.  This fall I got to do a little bit in the Sawtooth mountains, and I got a few good night opportunities at mom and dad’s over the holidays.  My hope for the next year is to get out and practice some more… maybe even trying to get some aurora images.

All told it’s been a fun journey, from just taking images to document where I’ve been to taking images as more of an art form.  For me, photographs are a very special way of capturing the essence of a moment for the ages.  When I look at a photo I’ve taken, I don’t just see the image, but in some small way I relive the emotions I was experiencing then… not only the emotion of being in that place, but the associated memories of the people I was with as well.  As time passes and people come and go in this life, photos offer a way to keep those memories of people and places I’ll never see again fresh in my mind.

I think that’s why I’ve come to call myself a photographer… the power of an image to harness memory and emotion is something that draws me in, and continues to call me even when my cameras rest comfortably in their cases and I gaze at the images on the wall, remembering the good and bad times that have made my life what it is.

Until next time…

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About Justin Vernon

Fire and Aviation Specialist (aka jack of all trades) for the US Forest Service, based in Boise, Idaho. I'm also an amateur photographer, wanna-be writer, tech aficionado, and a classic introvert who values quiet time as much as I do the mountains and people of the Pacific Northwest. All opinions voiced are mine alone and do not represent those of the US Forest Service.
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2 Responses to My photography journey… until now at least

  1. Lynn says:

    I really like the star pic.

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