Initiation of “Every Park MN”: Nerstrand-Big Woods

Initiation of “Every Park MN”: Nerstrand-Big Woods

I’ve been consciously trying to find a way to do more story telling along with my photography.   Granted, every individual photograph can tell its own story, and those that do are great pieces to sell and hang on a wall, but after a while, most photographers want their collection of work to tell a story, with each photograph like a page in a book.  Or even better, a chapter in a library of an author’s work – it can stand on it’s own, but fits nicely into an epic narrative across works.  It’s a way we grow as a craft, while at the same time narrowing our focus.

Looking deep into my portfolio or just quickly scanning my Instagram feed, there are a lot of nice images, but as whole feel like a random collection of pictures I took an some pretty locations I happened upon.  (More likely I scouted it out because I saw someone else’s image there and I had the time and decent conditions presented themselves at the moment – and of course, I wanted to get the image up on social media right away to show what I did that day.)  In comparison, if you look at the most popular and most engaging media accounts, they have a cohesive subject matter and look/style.

The problem is, as most creatives will say, that seems rather limiting to say you’re only going to photograph a specific thing, process them to have specific style or look, and only release them when it fits a certain narrative.  That’s a scary constraint, but even a novelist with a thousand plot lines in their head must eventually pick a couple weave together into one book that gets released at one time.  Luckily, the nature of photography isn’t nearly that constraining, and lends itself to allow the photographer to grow into the story as it presents itself.  We can be intentional in some ways, and let creativity and the natural landscape we capture guide us on that journey.  It’s like going from being someone who just wants to travel and hopping in the car and driving aimlessly around looking for a place to go, to deciding that you’re specifically going to go backpacking around the Alps for a summer, leaving the day to day itinerary open to whatever experiences may come your way.  Having that sort of intention is still a far cry from taking an organized group tour with hour by hour itinerary, but at least keeps you focused on a time frame and geographic area.

This brings me to my current pinpoint in life and photography.  I have decided to attempt to focus myself a little and build my story by picking a new Minnesota state park every few weeks at the least and spend some time there – like a couple days, not hours – hike, photograph, and journal it.  I have the intention of getting to each and every one, some more than once as the seasons change.  I’ll turn my journal into a blog entry with accompanying photos.  Where it might lead to beyond the blog, I don’t know yet.  I am calling it “Every Park MN” or #EveryParkMN.

This is what I had in mind when Clay and I went out for 2 nights of camping at Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park last week. However, it turned out to be more of a lesson on futility and humility.

  • Lesson A – Don’t try to disguise your intent to make your trip all about hiking and photography as just a camping trip to get out of the city with your spouse just to get them to go with, knowing full well that they have no interest in long hikes nor have the patience for the photographic process.  If you already know they really like traveling just to lounge around, and camping to create camp food, don’t try to save yourself packing time and effort by saying we should just go out to eat since Northfield is nearby and then just refuse to pack anything to cook or cook with. Just remember, not everyone wants to go for the same reasons as yourself, so don’t be lazy and selfish by taking that reason away from others thinking they’ll be more focused on being there for the reason you want to be there.
  • Lesson B – Going to a park noted for it’s woods and waterfall isn’t the place to go immediately after two days of heavy rainstorms. There are no vista points there for landscape shots with the passing storm clouds over the horizon. This is a park for intimate forest shots. Forest shots and nature close-ups are best on the overcast, foggy, drizzly, and other moody atmospheric days. After the clouds quickly retreated, we were left with overly bright clear skies and muddy foot trails. There is a popular and often photogenic waterfalls. I know they’re photogenic because I’ve seen wonderful shots of it, but due to the flooding along the creek, it was more muddy avalanche looking.  While sometimes it’s great to challenge yourself with what nature gives you, it’s also great to balance that with a little pre-planning, watching the weather forecasts, and having a little flexibility with when you can go.  Luckily, at the moment, I’m a freelancer and this park is close to home, so I can accommodate.
  • Lesson C – Don’t rush yourself.  Even though I had two days, I felt rushed to get through all the best trails.  I had my tripod strapped to my backpack the entire time, but didn’t use it once.  I didn’t take time to compose properly.  I shot handheld on dark objects under the dense canopy and didn’t even look at what I had shot in detail as long as it looked good enough for the four seconds the image appears on the back of the camera.  The result, hours sorting through over 600 photos of leaves, bark, fungi, etc – few of which are even decently composed – but you still have to go through all of them to find out.  And even the ones that did catch my attention are almost all motion blurred or missed focus.  I might be able to salvage a few that are good enough for the less than discerning eye of low resolution social media.  Also, I realize I still haven’t mastered shallow depth-of-field for small forest objects.  Even at 200mm, f4.5, not all of a small mushroom was entirely in focus.

This sounds like a disaster and a waste of a trip, but I learned a few things that I really need to take into consideration for future trips.  Plus, after forcing myself to journal the experience anyway, I realized I got a good first Every Park MN blog entry.  It’s not glamorous, but it is reality.  Most photographers only show their best work, leaving the impression we always go out and nail award winning images worthy of thousands of Insta-likes, but we don’t.  I am stubborn enough to keep trying.  Despite my cruddy time there last week, I will be back to Nerstrand-Big Woods.  Next time, on a nice overcast or drizzly fall day.  I know there’s beautiful gems to be had there, and with this experience under my belt, I’ll know where to slow down, take my time, and enjoy the hiking and photographic experience.

This photo sums up my trip nicely – it was mostly bland, muddy, and cruddy, (and if you pixel peep – a little fuzzy and out of focus), but I know there are bright shiny gems to be found if I keep looking, like this freshly fallen leaf on the muddy trail that gives a hint of whats to come in a short couple weeks from now when autumn sets in.   Enjoy a few of the other photos from this trip (click or tap to see full size and description):