I Shoot Rocks
I’m the son of a rock hound. I grew up with a museum quality collection in my own home that caught my imagination from the very start. Rocks a gazillion years old, fragile ones, hard as rock ones, expensive ones, out of this world as in meteorite ones, fossil ones and even uncut gem ones, (even played with a moon rock). To this day I can still remember going through the drawers of rocks bug-eyed! The one thing that really fascinated me is looking at the collection under different light sources, seeing a whole new world revealed by simply changing the light. Is it any wonder, I shoot rocks?!
While the geology lessons I learned in the process are long forgotten, the light on the rock lessons seems to have stuck. I mean, a rock is a rock is a rock until you light it and then, it can be just about anything your imagination says it is in your photograph! Rocks have a couple of properties I like to exploit in my photographs. There is place, time, shape and texture. These concepts are not unique to just rock photography. But what’s cool about practicing on rocks is they have all the time in the world for you to get it right!
Rocks come in lots of sizes, from those you can place on your desk and light with a flashlight to big ass ones. My favorite Big Ass Rock is Mt McKinley up in AK. We have sat on the slope ten miles away just watching it and the weather it creates for hours at a time. When it comes to photographing it, my favorite lenses are long ones, 600VR or 200-400VR2. Why so long? I want to give that big ass rock place, I want to say in one click without any caption, it’s big! The trick then is not just the lens, but light and atmosphere. If you’ve ever been to Denali Nat’l Park, then you know that just seeing McKinley can be a real trick so you click when you see it because, you can see it. Getting picky might not be an option but that’s just rock photography for you!
On the flip side is a favorite rock of mine I call Split Ass Rock. When I first blogged this photo back in 2001 it got attention more because I was photographed with the brand new, nobody had D1x. Then the laughter about my name for it made it pretty well known. I still get emails asking where is Split Ass Rock in Acadia Nat’l Park on the shore of Jordan Pond? When we took DLWS participants to shoot at the pond, I was asked where the rock was and when I pointed at it, you should have seen the disappointment in folk’s faces. That’s because the rock is so damn small. By getting down in the pond, shooting with a 14-24AFS just a few inches away though, you’d never know it was small. This is just one method of setting place and time in a photo.
One thing I remember so vividly from the drawers of rocks in my mom’s collection was the texture. Each rock / mineral was unique in its texture and weight. When we’d move the black light around, you’d see not only those features but different colors as well. That’s probably why when I’m out rock shooting, I walk around rocks looking. As you walk around, the first thing you’ll notice the pattern of light changes and that either brings our or hides texture and shape (a play of highlights and shadows). A real simple exercise, find a rock and light it with a flashlight and then do a 360 around it. What makes that rock unique will come out at some point and be hidden at another. It’s all a matter of light.
I did a workshop a few years back with my good friend RC. We were at a local lake shooting when I noticed some folks shooting rocks sticking out of the water at edge of the shore. In my typical style, I just made one comment about the photograph. Dry Rocks Suck and walked away. The photographer took their foot and splashed water on the rocks and low and behold, they didn’t suck no more! This is why I often have a bucket with me, to bring life to them rocks when they are in water with water. The colors, shape, texture that pops is better than any Photoshop pluggin can produce!
Now admitting in public I shoot rocks does sound, bad. Teaching folks to shoot rocks, sounds like I’ve lost my marbles (a form of rock humor). But I have seen many a shooter of rocks totally baffled by something that never moves and is older than dirt. I think it is because we are visually trying to bring life to something that doesn’t live. What does move is the light and that’s where the challenge lies. Next comes the fact that rocks aren’t often alone, they tend to keep company with other rocks. Most photographers not wanting to hurt the rocks feelings so they include them all in the photo. But you know what they say about company, too many rocks is a crowd! I mean, how many rocks do you need in a photograph to say, it’s a rock?!
Whether alone or in a pile, rocks talk about our earth probably better than any other element because they are something everyone can relate to. The trick then photographically, is to make the uncommon photograph out of the common subject. Perhaps if you tackle this problem with this one element thinking of place, time, shape and texture using just light to speak of these attributes, you might not only come up with some cool rock photos, but improve your overall photography just by understanding light a little bit better. Don’t feel silly giving this a try either. Just remember who suggested it to you. My name is Moose, I shoot rocks!
In the Bag