As a photographer, I’ve always been determined to find the kind of hope that illuminates a frame. My eye is trained to see tiny things—the impossible ray of light, the most subtle gesture, the glance that says it all. I love trying to capture the human spirit in my lens; I love even more the invitation to travel and see the world with new eyes.
In 2008, I won a contest that enabled me to take portraits around the globe. Traveling to remote places while having to transcend culture, class and language challenged me to really listen with my lens. Since my subjects often weren’t used to being photographed, I had to learn how to gather a powerful image fast in available light, then quickly turn the camera around and show the subject what I was able to capture. This established rapport for longer shoots and more honest portraits. It also forced me to work quickly, without a lot of equipment, so as to connect on a more visceral level.
People were my constant focus as I traveled the globe, but over time, my eye started to wander. I could see how the landscape, the weather and the natural world shaped the people I was meeting in these remote locations. Women rose at dawn to sweep the dusty yards in careful strokes, after picking the just right twigs to make a perfect broom. Former refugees described the perfect leaves for weaving shelter when rain arrived unexpectedly in the fields. There was an almost audible conversation between the natural world and the “real” one, and I started to see natural elements differently.
Returning home, my focus shifted. I had left home for that international assignment determined to find the elements of human nature that made an image light up. Now, that ability to scan for those elusive details was drawn to a different subject matter altogether. I found myself noticing the twigs that would never be needed for a homemade broom, the leaves that would never offer shelter as a homemade hat, little bits of peeling bark that would never feed a kitchen fire—the things that no one sees or speaks of in a cityscape, if they’re even noticed at all.
In lieu of exotic faraway subjects with different customs, clothes or stories, I took up the task of taking portraits of the equally forgotten natural elements. The pockets of my camera bag made room for treasures found on urban walks, and before long, the shelves of my outdoor studio were filled with elements ready to be shot, like forgotten relics of a world unseen in our modern context. I collected old leaves, seedpods, and bags and bags of bark begging to be peeled from the trees lining my urban neighborhood. And I was determined to shoot them with the same kind of purity and immediacy of my shoots on the African savannah or the mountain villages of Nepal.
That meant no flash, no screens, no tricks with reflectors or milk cartons. Just me, the flora and fauna of my city streets, and the fleeting sun. Just me, the portrait photographer, watching for the just right moment when the light ran across my front porch. Just me, with a bunch of leaves and yard trash basically, seeing if I could allow my eye to make a portrait image that would make the viewer see a pile of twigs with the same kind of pause that you’d view an indigenous woman.
The first thing to do, after keeping a sharp eye out for my subjects, was to set up the just right portrait studio. For me, the first obvious choice was the old table on my porch where my kids had played as toddlers. Low to ground, the table surface had long ago lost its finish, leaving behind a rough grain of wood—the perfect background for my natural elements. I liked the gritty old feeling of the surface, which added to the possibility that the images I would create could take on a more universal timeless feeling.
Next, came the question of exposure. I knew I wanted images that created texture, depth and emotion—the kind that came less from shadow and more from a diffuse light source. My porch had a northern exposure, which meant that midmorning or late-afternoon sidelight, obscured by the neighborhood and a backyard treeline, gave me just enough light to play with aperture and ISO, but not so much as to cast unwanted shadows. I noticed that rainy days and the tiniest bit of cloud cover gave the light thrown on my images a matte-like quality. Golden hour shoots close to dusk, the stuff that portraits in the field are made of, didn’t work as well for my leaves and twigs, which needed more gravitas to stand alone as singular subjects.
This proved true across the board. I couldn’t shoot a leaf and have it work as a portrait image on the fly, the way I had with my human subjects around the globe. I was used to using conversation and humor to warm up a human subject so the light would shine through their eyes in that natural way, regardless of time of day. To photograph natural subjects, I needed the same kind of connection, but it had to come through a different form of communication. The best way to get into my natural subjects was to take my time, treat them like human subjects and study their intricate details carefully. For me, this meant taking photo after photo, until the subject took on a different quality to my eye.
This also meant looking for light in a different way than I did with my human subjects. The natural elements I photographed had already fallen to the ground; they were no longer living. To do them justice, I had to allude to the life they had had and their enduring history in our ecosystem. Warm light didn’t have the same transformative impact as it did on human subjects, unless I chose to shoot the natural subject near the place I had found it, instead of my little porch table. I began to see these shoots like creating small documents of natural history or the way the earth had been in a season quickly passed.
My practice of recording natural elements became an obsession over time. I liked how it challenged me, the way I had been nudged as a beginner photographer, to follow my gut about composition, light and exposure, instead of worrying about technique or gadgets. I liked how much time it took to really see the element I was shooting before I understood how to arrange the image for maximum impact. I shot human portraits less and less, and sought out places in the world where I could explore intimate natural portraits. The shoreline of the West Coast became a favorite destination, as well as the forests along the Eastern shore.
Now, when I do turn my lens on a friend or a child to capture a human moment important for a personal history, I think of these leaves, twigs, shells and seedpods, as well as this quote by the artist Georgia O’Keeffe: “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time—like to have a friend takes time.” And I hope I can see people more clearly, because I’ve spent time in the natural world, which shapes and informs us all, in all of its silent and magnificent wonder.
Jen Lemen is an award-winning photographer and nature-based coach working with people in transition. Her images have appeared in The New York Times, the Huffington Post and on PBS.org. In 2008, she won the Name Your Dream Assignment contest, sponsored by Microsoft and Lenovo, which allowed Jen to photograph stories of hope and elemental courage from around the world. She’s a coauthor of Expressive Photography: The Shutter Sisters’ Guide to Shooting from the Heart and the founder of hopefulworld.org.
Tips To Get Started Shooting Nature As Portrait
• Gather more than you think you need. Natural items decompose in different ways, making for interesting studies when compared to one another. Notice how the light falls on one versus another. Play until you find one specimen to focus on.
• Stay close to home, at first. Shooting nature as portrait can happen whether you live in the country or in a thriving metropolis. Train yourself to see what’s alive (and also what’s dying) within a stone’s throw of where you are right now.
• Stage your natural subject like you would a human portrait. Notice what dimensions are identified from different angles, but then focus your attention dead-on. What happens when you take an editorial approach? Shooting from directly above is one way to give your nature subject depth and weight.
• Focus on texture over shadow. Often, when photographing people, we look for light and beauty. In this practice, the richness is often found in what’s not seemingly pretty on the surface. Learn to trust the edges.