One Saturday morning this fall, a cluster of Stanford students stood, knelt and crouched with cameras strapped around their necks, exploring the California redwoods. They peered down into the grass and up the enormous trunks in search of the perfect photo — and for students enrolled in the sophomore seminar “Photographing Nature” fall quarter, this was just a typical day in the classroom.
“The objective of the class was to explore the use of the camera as a tool for understanding the natural world around us,” said Robert Siegel, associate professor of microbiology and immunology, who taught the class. “The key to the class was combining a lot of science with photography.”
Every weekend, the class went on a field trip to somewhere new. They explored different parts of the Stanford campus and traveled to the Baylands, Pescadero State Beach and other parts of the Bay Area.
One week, they were instructed to pick an object as the subject of their photographs and then change every setting on the camera. Another week, they had to change the perspective with which they focused on a particular object–from close up, far away, underneath or more–and the assignment changed each trip.
“My favorite part of the class was going on these excursions and getting to know Northern California better and learning to take better nature photos,” said Zack Gold ’15.
On Thursdays, the class would meet to share their photos from the previous weekend.
“We would choose five or six to make into a PowerPoint,” said Sushmita Sridhar ’14. “We would use those to talk about a particular plant or animal.”
Along with presenting their photographs, students were expected to have done research on whatever aspect of nature these photos were showing.
“The actual products that the students were producing were weekly reports on some aspect of nature that they would use to communicate information,” Siegel said.
Within the bounds of the assignment, the students were free to photograph whatever they wanted.
“One week, someone did a whole presentation on clouds,” Siegel said. “One person did a presentation on bird feed. It’s fascinating to me what sort of things they pick up on.”
Because of this freedom of focus topic, students were able to work on subject matter that really interested them.
“I was really fond of more macro photos, when I was able to get really close to something,” Sridhar said. “There was this western spotted cucumber beetle that I was following around–that was really cool because of its colors and how close I was able to get to that.”
In addition to shaping students’ perspectives of nature, the presentations sometimes affect Siegel’s as well.
“We were up at Jasper Ridge and somebody did a report on hover flies,” Siegel said. “Hover flies were not in my radar screen; but now whenever we go out, I’m very conscious of hover flies.”
According to Siegel, what often made the photographs most interesting was the perspective.
“One of the most memorable ones was a picture of this rabbit outside,” Siegel said. “It’s through a window, and then you realize there’s a silhouette of a cat looking outside at the rabbit. It’s sort of the perspective of the cat. You would immediately be struck by the emotion of it.”
While the class sought to emphasize the thematic aspects of the photos taken for assignments, the photography naturally was a key component.
“The most challenging part was learning to use the camera, figuring out the technical aspects of it,” Sridhar said. “I’ve never taken a digital SLR [single-lens reflex camera] photography class; I’ve never used one before.”
Nonetheless, Siegel hoped to distance the course from just learning the mechanics of operating a camera, emphasizing that this was much more than simply a digital photography class.
“Only about half the class had their own SLR,” Siegel said. “Although we did a lot of how-to things, they were how-to in terms of communicating your message.”
The course’s focus on photography had more to do with understanding the way in which a picture can communicate a message or idea than it did with the technical aspects of photography.
“We understand how to communicate in a written fashion,” Siegel said. “But we live in a world that is more and more dominated by pictures. One of the things we tried to do was deconstruct a picture. We were looking at those elements of a picture in conjunction with trying to communicate about science.”