On photography. / by Wookie Kim

I'm documenting this trip not only in words, but also in photos.

Photos are incredibly powerful carriers of meaning and emotion. And they carry that meaning in a medium that requires almost no mental bandwidth to understand. In the time it would take me to read a written description of what's in a photo, I can "process"--that is, draw meaning from--dozens of photos.

This makes photos incredibly useful in documenting one's personal history. I value knowing about my past, and photos are the primary way that I keep tabs on that past. To me, a photo gallery is a visual distillation of an era of my life. A quick scan of my eyes through a folder of photos on my hard drive lets me re-see the things I've seen, and re-live the experiences I've had. In a sense, then, the fact that I plan to take lots of photos is not so much a decision as an impulse to preserve memories for later.

I also feel a separate sense of obligation to take awesome photos on this trip. I plan to be in some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring areas of this country. I simply can't go to these places without taking the time to capture and communicate what those areas look and feel like to others. Photos are the perfect way to do that. Obviously, a lot of the running that I'll do will be in heavily trafficked areas of heavily trafficked parks. Any photos I take there are far more likely to be run-of-the-mill. But I think I'll also reach some more remote areas of some less-frequented parks. In those areas, I might have the opportunity to capture something unique.

To do a better job at documenting this trip, I decided to take photography a little more seriously--I signed up for an REI outdoor photography class. You see, my entire life, my photography repertoire has included two skills: (1) point and (2) shoot. Last December, I got my first DSLR (a Canon SL1) and immediately began expanding my repertoire--by exactly zero skills. Even though I had all these fancy dials and buttons to touch, I actually touched none of them (except "Auto" mode, which obviously came in clutch!). I wanted to touch some buttons and turn some dials this trip, but I didn't know how. That's where REI's fantastic Outdoor School came in.

I couldn't have been more impressed by the class, which took place this weekend in Pohick Bay Regional Park. For almost 8 hours, our instructor, Ward Morrison, taught me and six other budding photographers the building blocks of photography. We started with the three basic settings that determine a photo's exposure--aperture, shutter speed, and film speed. I'd always seen all manner of these numbers flashing on my screen, but I never really took the time to truly understand what they meant, and how to adjust them to my shooting needs. Today, I actually began the process of learning those principles.

After 4 hours of guided instruction on photo theory and a quick lunch break, we took to the trails to put our new-found knowledge to the test. Below are some of the photos I took, after applying what I'd learned from Ward. Objectively speaking, they're pretty ordinary. But I'm incredibly proud of them because, for the first time ever, I took all of these photos in "Manual" mode only. I never thought I'd be able to say it, but I now actually feel comfortable turning that dial to "Manual" and taking photos! I'm still terrible at practically everything, but I have 45 days to begin figuring this whole photography thing out. Of course, all of this also means I'll spend the trip in a perpetual quest for the perfect shot. I hope I find one.