We stepped out of the car after eight hours of driving, our bones and cameras aching equally for use. We’d arrived at Acadia National Park, the midway point of our journey from Burlington, Vermont to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and we weren’t going to let the last few hours of daylight go to waste.
For me, nature photography is the ultimate calming experience. Some may find it strange that seeing the world through the viewfinder of a camera helps me find perspective and feel at peace, but everyone has something that brings their heart back into their chest, no matter what’s stressing them out. Some do yoga, I take photos.
My camera bag was deliberately sparse, with just my trusty Kodak Retina IIIc and a few roll of Kodak Portra and Kodak Ektar. I reviewed the Retina earlier this year and wrote extensively about its feature set, which you can check out here. The short version – it’s a camera worth owning and shooting, and one that I trust to deliver great photos every time I load it up. That trust makes it a natural fit for the uncertain environment of a road trip, and the film I’d packed were perfect for shooting the natural wonders that lay before us at Acadia.
Located on Maine’s southeastern coast, Acadia was the first national park east of the Mississippi River. For New Englanders, it’s the only national park within reasonable driving distance. Dubbed “the crown jewel of the North Atlantic Coast,” it protects the highest rocky headlands along the whole of the United States’ eastern coastline. Views from the many rocky bluffs of Acadia offer large swaths of beach, towering conifers dotting the rocky islands just offshore, and gentle gray water melting into the cloudy horizon sky. Flowery language? Sure, but I think nature deserves flowery language.
I stared for awhile before even taking my camera from its bag. Once I did, the ritual began. First, I had to focus. And before that, set the camera’s shutter speed and aperture. And before that, read my light meter. Most importantly though, I held my breath to steady myself. I don’t know if that actually helps, but it makes me feel better. Some may rightly wonder what about this process is calming, and to them I say that it’s the unquestionably more onerous process of film photography, especially with the quirky handling of a camera like the Retina, that helps slows my heart and allows me to appreciate the nature around me. If I don’t take my time and do things right, I won’t make photos worth making.
By going through the process and working quietly towards each photo, I end up taking more time than I would if I snapped a picture with my phone or even used a digital system. I also don’t have the luxury of taking two thousand photos and meticulously selecting the best one. The self-imposed restriction of 36 frames allows me to focus on existing in and utilizing the space I’m experiencing. When I’m not burdened by the freedoms digital photography gives me, I’m able to just take the photo, release my breath, and sit.
And that’s good, because a place like Acadia deserves that we sit and appreciate it. Bright green needles shine like they would in summer despite the gray clouds, and pink and orange rocks litter the bottoms of the cliff faces that encircle the islands. After walking a ways, we stumble upon Monument Rock, an iconic formation and natural skyscraper of bright and bold orange rock. She dwarfs those who approach her, and climbing even part of her is no small task.
Again, I crouched and brought the Retina to my eye. I went through the steps and lined up my shot as my friends climbed the monument and scuttled around the rocky beach below. I snapped away, trying to capture them in the embrace of Monument Rock, but after burning a few frames, I found myself just sitting there on my rocky perch, breathing deeply.
There’s something about the mixture of fresh, salty ocean air and the soft click of the Retina’s leaf shutter that allows these moments to live in my mind just as clearly as they will in the photos that I took.
We clambered around on the rocks for hours, snapping photos and laughing as we reveled in some of the best nature New England has to offer. I traveled to Acadia to enact the photographic rituals I’ve developed over the years, and the process of film photography made the national park feel like a new home for my heart. It was only one short stop on a much larger journey, but turning a dot on a map into infinite memories and countable photos is always a fulfilling experience.
It’s taken me a long, long time to find beauty in sitting still, and photographing nature on film has helped me do that. By forcing myself to engage with the process, I slow down and exist in what I feel is better harmony with the world around me. It takes some training, but being able to look at the photos a year later and relive the feeling of stillness is a nice reminder of why I take photos in the first place.
You probably find stillness in your photography without even realizing it, but next time you go out to take photos, why not try a little to be cognizant of the moments where your breath feels particularly soft and strong. You’ll be glad you did.
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