Behind the Composition – The Catalyst

Tips & Techniques

As I began better exploring the woodlands of Eastern Pennsylvania, I came to realize that photographing grand vistas which would stop people in their tracks, in the same manner as is found in the western states, would not be possible. The grandest vistas in Pennsylvania are hilly overlooks, often speckled throughout with a small town or two, along with trails made up by highways. There are no giant mountains to train your eye on, nor are there any great sand dunes to find abstract formations within.

At best, we have waterfalls, which are great subjects to find abstract patterns within. But they don’t measure up to those which residents of western states may bear witness to. I suppose there’s a reason so many photographers move out of Pennsylvania, away from the east coast, and head to the more grandiose states.

So, knowing the best I had available to me were waterfalls and trees, I had to work hard at transitioning my mind away from what so many other photographers were focused upon. The grand vistas would never be my je ne sais quoi, so to speak. Instead, I had to figure out a way to create photographs amidst the utter chaos of the woodlands around me. Sure, the possibility of moving to the west was an alluring one, which still pecks at my mind from time to time. But being in high school, and now college, this was not plausible.

While working toward how to better my photography, I began looking more closely at those who most influenced me. A common theme began to develop: every photographer who I most admired was photographing the intimate landscape. They weren’t heading out to some amazing location before the sun rose, or before it set, with hopes of capturing a scene which had been photographed hundreds of times before (often while claiming they put their own “spin” on it). Instead, they were finding the quiet scenes wherever they were. The lone tree set against canyon walls in reflected light; the soft curvature of the sand dunes; the utter chaos of the woodland, somehow calming in the manner they composed it.

This was what I began wishing to achieve. The quiet photographs, often overlooked. Photographs which took their time in making an impact; photographs which truly stuck with the viewer over time, rather than leaving their mind as quickly as it entered.


The patterns which may be found upon the bark of various trees are fascinating to me. Each tree is individualistic, with bark rendered differently than that of its brothers and sisters.

One oak tree may have deeper grooves than the next; two beech trees standing side-by-side will likely have different striations in their bark based upon how they grew, the climate when they were young, and so on. Most fascinating of all is the birch tree and its variants. Every individual peels its bark in a different manner; and for those which do not peel, their eyes shine through the bark in intriguing ways, making it appear as though the tree is constantly watching its surroundings, always on edge.

Unfortunately, there are also the poor trees with scars from egotistical people whose respect for nature cannot be found. They especially like to carve into the soft-wooded beech trees, writing their names, their temporary lovers, their online personas, and much more. All for what, exactly? I feel nothing but pity for those trees, along with disgust toward the perpetrators. Yet it has increased my fascination with trees, in general, and their bark, for they are able to overcome this adversity, healing themselves over time. And though the scars remain, the tree forgives and continues to exist.

There comes all this talk about tree bark and my intrigue with it, yet it was not until November of 2021 – over seven years into my photographic journey – when I decided to try photographing this unique subject matter.

It was while walking along a trail in a newfound woodland not terribly far from where I reside, when I decided to start looking more closely at the trees. My interest grew more profound that day with each step, and I knew I had to do something about it. I peered more deeply at each passing tree to see if there were any abstract patterns that merited pulling out my camera, a Chamonix 45F-2. (Stingy with my film, as I always have been, I was not about to spend the time setting up the camera for a photograph not worth taking.)

When I finally came across a tree worth taking the camera out for, I was elated. The deep grooves in the bark called out to me as they formed a unique pattern of light and dark upon the surface. It didn’t take very long for me to set up the camera and compose the scene within a square format – square being my usual preference as of late. Happy with what I had captured, I packed everything away and went on with the rest of the hike.

Less than a week later, my area was hit with a rare bout of fog. Such a delectable thing, fog is.

Unable to resist, I tossed my camera in the back seat of the car, hopped in, and drove down a back road a few minutes from the house. For a long while now, I had been eyeing up a river birch tree sitting alone aside the road, with a rather homely house in the background. Since I had known of this tree for so long, I knew the exact composition I wanted to capture.

When I arrived at the tree, I knew my timing was just right. This was the moment I had been waiting impatiently for.

For so long, I’ve used only one lens with my large format setup. So, I knew roughly where to stand and how to set the tripod up in a rapid fashion. I wasn’t about to let this fog get away from me.

As I metered the scene and finished setting up the composition, cars drove past me, slowing down for the stop-sign, wondering what in the world it was I was doing with such a weird box on three legs. Perhaps the owner of the house peered out their window that early morning and asked themselves the same questions, though they did not show their faces to me. No matter.

Blindly, I reached into my camera bag and pulled out a film holder, double-checking to ensure there was an unexposed sheet of film on both sides. Given how I had waited for this scene, I wanted to avoid every possible way it could slip through my fingers. Though I usually shoot just one image on film per scene, this subject was deserving of a back-up shot.

After I exposed the two sheets on this river birch, I looked off to my left and noticed a beautiful weeping willow, of which I composed another simple photograph and made the exposure, using the same exposure settings. With three sheets of 4×5 film exposed, I packed everything up and made the short drive back home.


As I am sure you have suspected by now, something went wrong. For only the second time in the three years I had been photographing with a large format camera, I had double-exposed a sheet of film. I knew it before even developing them; it was the only conclusion after I realized that the number sheets of film in my bag was lower than the number of photos I had taken the past week.

I always wait until the beginning of the next month to develop my film so as to allow for a personal disconnect from the compositions. As I waited, I had little hope that the double-exposed sheet would turn out usable at all. My guess was that it would show some extremely high-key remnants of the bark, and probably not much else.

Yet when I looked at the developed image for the first time, I couldn’t have been happier. Lo and behold, the composition was wonderful!

The Catalyst
The Catalyst

The darkness of the bark on the lower third of the piece helps to ground the river birch, providing it a place in which to stand, to grow. And as the bark fades toward the top of the frame, the tree stands strong, drawing the viewer’s attention. Especially through the use of a large format camera, I don’t think I could have done better if I had tried. It was a beautiful mistake. (Though the two other photos from that morning – the back-up sheet and the weeping willow sheet – did not turn out near as fine.)

With the finding of this pure, magical moment, I began to wonder what else I could do with double exposures. Right off the bat, I imagined a series of photographs of a similar vein to allow intimate, unique ways of looking at the trees around me.

Of course, the primary issue with such a series is that of fog and the unpredictability of it. That led me to think about other possibilities for double-exposure photographs, such as intentional camera movement photography. The possibilities were seemingly endless, although I would need to allow myself the opportunity to experiment without worrying about the five dollars or more it was going to cost per sheet of film. Not to mention the unpredictable nature of both methods, which threatened my perfectionism.

As I began thinking more about these possibilities, my mind wondered if there was a better medium for it than large format film. Though I did not fully want to admit it to myself, it was time to consider picking up a digital camera again.

I swore off digital photography in 2019 when I first purchased a large format camera, but the reality of the situation had changed rather drastically in the years since. The price of film and of chemicals continually increased, especially with the supply issues resulting from COVID-19. And as a “poor college student,” I could no longer justify the costs, despite doing most everything I could myself to keep expenses low.

Every time I went out into nature, I struggled to bring out the camera in fear that the photographs wouldn’t work out and would just be a waste of time and film. It was quickly killing my joy of photography – my joy of being out in nature, even. I was in a constant juxtaposition between focusing upon how to make money off photography and whether I should even bother any more at all with the art form.

This pushed me back to digital, not to mention the joy of my back and shoulders being relieved from the twenty-five pound backpack I had been slugging around for so long. Even better yet – less camera gear needed meant more room in my bag for snacks.

Given I already have all the necessary software for editing digital files, I figured it was time to make the switch, even if it turned out to be temporary. Looking online, I found a nice Nikon D800e – a camera which I had always desired back when I first began my journey – and a 60mm micro lens, both used on KEH for a decent price. All I needed was a new shutter release and an extra battery, and I would be set to start the new year with a new camera.

I named the double-exposed photograph you see The Catalyst, as it was just that for my photographic journey. It was because of this piece that I made the ultimate decision to pack away my film equipment and join, yet again, the modern, digital world

There are still times which I wonder whether I made the right decision. Then again, who is to say what the “right” decision ever is? For now, I am pleased with the possibilities digital has presented me with thus far. The ability to garner instant feedback on a composition; to see the woodland around me in black and white rather than having to guess or pull out my phone; along with the experimental potential – it all sparks within me a great sense of joy, which I had not felt in a while, looking back.

That’s all we can ask for, as photographers, is it not? To feel the joy of experimenting with our cameras while out doing the thing we love, in the area we love.

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