The Viewfinder Within

Two masters of landscape photography share their inspiring secrets for honing your creative vision.



Clyde Butcher emerges from his Volkswagen New Beetle near Little Hunters Beach in Maine's Acadia National Park. Out comes his 5x7-inch view camera and tripod, and in short order he starts clicking. On this June day, a rocky beach beckons down a gentle, wooded path. But this master of large-format black-and-white landscape photography hasn't even left the parking lot.

In his workshops, Butcher will cover students' viewfinders, telling them to look at the whole scene, not what's in the frame. "The less you have to think," he says, "the better a photographer you can become."

At another breathtaking national park, Rodney Lough Jr. -- also an eminent large-format landscape photographer and teacher ( -- asks his students to reveal the worst thing that's ever happened to them: Step One in unleashing their inner 9-year-old.

Welcome to the Zen side of photography. Butcher, Lough, and others believe that nontechnical -- even nonvisual -- approaches lead to better pictures. The idea: to tap your creativity through intuition and self-contemplation, to forget your preoccupations, and to enjoy the moment of shooting.

Not that these innovative teachers ignore the technical aspects of photography -- Butcher and Lough both spend significant workshop time on traditional technique. But finessing the composition and exposure is secondary; the eye of the photographer comes first. "Out in the sun, I don't use a meter," Butcher says. "I shoot at f/45 and either 1/2 or 1 second. It's better than an automatic camera -- I can concentrate on what I'm seeing!"

Embrace Simplicity
"Simplify everything, so you can feel the shots out there waiting for you," Butcher advises. This gives you a better sense of your surroundings and more compelling pictures. He claims to have taken some of his best pictures from parking lots and roadsides, and he encourages students to start shooting there, "to see where no one else is seeing."

Clyde Butcher portrait by Eric Rudolph.

In Acadia, spying something just off the trail, he quotes Ansel Adams: "You don't get any points for being a mule." Then the 65-year-old heads down the steep bank of a stream, looking sure to tumble down any second. He photographs the scene just off the beaten path, not 50 yards from his car. (One of these photos is on the previous page.)

His lessons, and example, rub off. "Clyde's message has always been 'Slow down, stop and look -- it's right there,'?" says Jim Dobson, who "builds highrises in Miami." He collects Butcher's work and has taken several of his workshops. He has often seen Butcher find great images hiding in plain sight while students "run around like crazy."

Constantly looking through the camera doesn't help. So Butcher occasionally tapes over a student's viewfinder. "People panic: 'How can I frame? Ansel Adams said you need clean edges!'" he says. "Who cares about twigs in the edges if the scene is beautiful? You don't need clean edges -- you need to find, and be moved to photograph, a mood that draws you into a picture."

Butcher can't see much through his view cameras (he uses several, from 4x5 to 12x20). With his ultrawide optics -- 15mm to 18mm equivalents -- the image in the ground glass is dim, so he mainly uses it to focus and refine.

Although he reminds many of Ansel Adams, Butcher has a very different approach. Take Adams' concept of previsualization -- he hasn't done it in 25 years. "I go out with no preconceived idea, just an open heart, an open mind," he says. "You have to develop a sense of how you feel" about your subjects. "Everyone has a different way of seeing and feeling. So go out and let things happen to you."

His ultimate advice? "The key is having a good time," he says. "Why not have fun?"

There are times when the long road to photographic enlightenment turns inward. Rodney Lough Jr., 42, urges his students to "open that drawer from when they were 9; to regain that sense of amazement at life, when everything was new and exciting," he says. How to release that emotion? He asks students to reveal their worst life experiences, in front of strangers.

At his workshop in Yosemite National Park, this happens on the first day, after an initial sunrise shoot. The students aren't expecting trauma talk. (Lough says later, "They think I'm nuts.") So he tells his own scary story of abandoning his workaday career to support his family with photography.

Then the group starts, slowly. The first person tells a pretty generic story, but after a dozen, the tone gets heavier. A neonatal nurse, who tends sick newborns, talks about how, routinely, some babies don't survive.

The point of this drama: breaking down the emotional walls adults build up through such worldly struggles. Lough, a grateful escapee from corporate-land, is keenly aware of these creativity-killing defenses. "Rodney doesn't want us taking postcard photos, but to filter Yosemite through our emotions and life experiences," says Richard Sogn, a student at the spring workshop, where he discussed both his soldiering in Vietnam at 19 and his wife's recent heart attack.

Adult defenses stifle feelings and imagination, says the 60-year-old Sogn, a psychiatrist from Portland, OR. "But 9-year-olds see twigs on the ground and fantasize about building spaceships or forts from them." So Lough's quest for the creative impulses of a child makes sense to him.

Revealing difficult experiences does help, concurs Sogn's son, Erik Sogn, 24, a computer programmer and photographer who is also taking the workshop. (His trauma: Being alone with his mother during the heart attack, and reviving her through CPR.)

Traumas are about feelings, not thinking, he adds. "Rodney brings out the part where those deep feelings are." This helps you "get closer to the environment, so you're not holding anything back. You almost see photos from your soul once you're past these emotional barriers."

This unusually emotional approach breaks down these barriers fast, Lough insists. "When I think the group is ready, I say, 'Now, let's walk through the woods and see what we see!'" The result: an immediate improvement in the students' choices of subjects and compositions.

Does this have a lasting effect on picture taking? We asked the mental health professional, Richard Sogn. He was as surprised as anyone when Lough asked him to share some pain with his fellow students. He thought he was on vacation. "I expected to do some photography," he says. "Instead we're at a fireplace in Ahwahnee Lodge talking about personal events, feelings, and emotions."

Adds Sogn, "We learned the importance of forgetting everything that goes on in everyday life and focusing on the moment -- where you are -- to see it clearly and take it further than you normally would."

Lough's exercise worked, not just on his students' psyches but on their photography. "Instead of dynamic panoramas, people sought moods, patterns, textures, colors," says Sogn. "We all felt we improved, and not in f-stops, but in seeing -- with the visual and emotional part of the brain."


Clyde Butcher shoots large-format, but few of his students do. Here's some of his practical advice for DSLR shooters:

Try an ultrawide-angle. Put a 10mm lens on your DSLR -- you might like the dramatic results.

Stick with one focal length. Find the focal length that sees the way you do, then use it exclusively, at least for landscapes. You have a built-in zoom -- your feet.

Cover one eye. Photography turns a 3-D world into a 2-D image. Preview this effect by closing one eye when surveying a landscape.

Look for a mood, not a scene. Try to see with your emotions, and look for images that combine "masculine" and "feminine" (hard and soft) qualities.

Shoot RAW. Yes, this negates the edict to embrace simplicity. But why argue with results?



Clyde ButcherPortrait By Eric Rudolph


Rodney Lough Jr. shot this evocative landscape in summertime at Yellowstone National Park, WY. He used an Arca Swiss 8x10 F-line view camera with Fujinon 30mm lens and Fujichrome Velvia Professional film.


Rodney Lough Jr.Portrait By Eric Rudolph


Lough came upon this scene in Glacier National Park, MT, while hiking. He returned at dawn with his 8x10 camera and 150mm Schneider lens. Film: Fujichrome Astia 100F.Rodney Lough Jr.