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LAKESCAPES - Patterns in the Wake

Words and photos by Suzanne Mathia



Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.
— W. H. Auden



A lot had been written lately about the beauty of the intimate landscape, the smaller, often overlooked details. As Landscape photographers we are obsessively drawn to those great big vistas, with our wide-angle lenses and hyperfocal distance charts in hand, but as we yearn for more creativity and inspiration, smaller more abstract scenes become fascinating and captivating.


There is no doubt that we humans are attracted to water. Water is, quite literally, a large part of what makes us who we are. Considering that water makes up 60% of the human body, it’s no surprise that we are so connected to this ever-changing element. Realizing to, the impact it has on our mood and sense of well-being, allows for a greater understanding of exactly why we are so drawn to it.


In the book, The Blue Mind, marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols shows how being near, in, on, or under water can make us happier, healthier, more connected, and better at what we do. There’s proven scientific evidence that being close to bodies of water promotes mental health and happiness. The term “blue mind” describes the mildly meditative state we fall into when near, in, on or under water an obvious antidote to our anxious, over connected and over stimulated world we live in.


Creating art also makes us happy - It has the power to engage us so fully, bringing us into the present moment. Studies show that both creating and observing art can reduce cortisol, the 'stress hormone'. Doing something you love also releases endorphins, those feel-good chemicals that combat stress and reduce pain.


So, combining WATER and ART with PHOTOGRAPHY must make some real mystical magic.


I have been lucky to photograph Lake Powell by houseboat for many years and lead photography workshops there each year with my friend and reluctant mentor, Gary Ladd who has been exploring and photographing this area since 1975.


With its crystal-clear water and vibrant sandstone canyons, you are immediately mesmerized by this unique landscape, discovering new alcoves, arches, hidden canyons and pools around every bend.

When the lake is calm, protected bays offer mirror like reflections. When photographing these glassy waters, it’s almost impossible to tell up from down, top from bottom.


When we get the houseboat moving, a little more magic appears. Our boats usually run at 3400 RPMs when traveling but when we slow it down to about 2800 to 3000 RPM’s we can create incredible patterns in the wake behind us.


We gather on the top deck or the stern of the boat and point our cameras at the hypnotic, ever-changing patterns we make as we zigzag and slide gently through the water. Chasing those fleeting, ephemeral shapes with our lenses as they morph and transform into the most amazing patterns. These abstract images isolate various visual components of the scene and allow us to creatively re-imagine the way we view our environment.  Abstract images may contain a small portion of an object or multiple objects in an unexpected way. An abstract will often concentrate on a limited area of a subject that reveals its shape, pattern, form, color or texture but not context.


To capture this magic, a telephoto with a range of about 70-200 gives the most flexibility but really any lens will do. Very close up images are more abstract, but the wider view can be interesting, you also have the option to crop into the part of the image that really appeals to you most. I like a fast shutter speed close to 1/1,000 sec if possible and shoot in burst mode as the patterns change so quickly.  As I’m hand holding, I’ll up the iso to 400 and have my aperture around f5.6 or f8. As the patterns move and dance across the water, my eye is drawn to various distances, I use Auto Focus to keep things simple and keep me shooting.


Many artists and photographers are drawn to water in motion - a flowing stream or river, a turbulent ocean, or a waterfall. We are attracted to views of tranquil waters, lakes, slow-moving rivers, and the sight of a calm sea. In each case, it’s the water that determines the overall mood of the image and us as we capture the scene. We are inspired by water — hearing it, smelling it in the air, playing in it, walking next to it, painting it, surfing, swimming or fishing in it, writing about it, and photographing it.


The waters in the wakes create a flowing rhythm with undulating patterns, bending and curving, appearing and disappearing. The shapes are ephemeral but also repetitive and surprisingly predictable. They can also be transient, fleeting and short lived or stretch behind the boat like an endless ribbon caught in the wind. As the wake hits up against the canyon walls it bounces back and adding and subtracting new shapes and patterns as the ripples and waves pass through each other.  Then they carry on their ways as if they’d never met. They form a progressive rhythm - each time a pattern repeats, it changes a little, transforming and translating in a steady evolving sequence.


By definition patterns in nature are visible regularities of form found in the natural world. These patterns recur in different contexts and can sometimes be modeled mathematically. Natural patterns include symmetries, spirals, meanders, waves, foams, tessellations, cracks and stripes. All of which can be found in the canyons and waters around the lake.




“Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.” – Lao Tzu



More images from PATTERNS IN The WAKE