©Cheyne Walls

Immersed in Nature

Cheyne Walls, M.Photog., appreciates the science behind the weather. “There’s this perfect light before and after a storm,” he explains. You can photograph El Capitan on a sunny day and it’s remarkable, but throw in a storm, and magic happens. “You get all of this drama and contrast—a story of light in all the elements,” he says.

Based in Laguna Beach, California, Walls has forged a career by following his instincts to explore wild lands and rarely trodden parts of the American landscape. “Epic” is a well-worn word, but it’s the most fitting for Walls’ work. Breathtakingly large wall prints (some as wide as 10 feet) of wind-carved canyons, lush forests, and rushing waterfalls draw the viewer into their environments.

“I try to capture how a place smells and feels—all five senses in one image,” says Walls. “You often hear people say something like, ‘Oh, the picture doesn’t do it justice.’ I live by the idea of creating the opposite of that. I want to awaken the senses, put someone in the scene so that they feel they’re witnessing it for themselves.”

©Cheyne Walls

Part of immersing the viewer in the scene involves coaxing out sensory elements that convey the movement of a breeze, the touch of soft grasses, the shiver of a winter chill, and the warmth of summer sunshine. For example, a blue filter conveys cold in an image’s shadows, and a longer exposure calls forth the sounds of a rushing river. Walls’ goal is to capture technically accurate exposures in the field. He uses Adobe Photoshop to stitch together a series of 10 to 15 images captured in quick succession to make up the final image.

“Even the best camera in the world can’t see a tenth of what our eyes and brain can create for us,” says Walls. “That’s why I blend together images from different exposures with lens filters to make the focal point look the way I want it to look. Photoshop has great tools, but when you’re blowing up images as large as I do, those adjustments are really noticeable. I try to do the majority of my photography in front of the lens, not on a computer.”

©Cheyne Walls

As such, Walls relies on a high-quality panoramic camera system that’s manageable for hiking into remote locations. His camera bag weighs roughly 70 pounds and transports his ALPA 12 TC camera body with a Phase One IQ4 150MP  digital back, Rodenstock medium format prime lenses, Hasselblad 503CW with both a film back and a Phase One digital back, and a Nodal Ninja panoramic tripod head. Because he often hikes as many as 15 to 20 miles to a location, he also carries camping and survival gear: a water filter and water bottle, rope, Garmin emergency device, and four days’ worth of food. One of the most important tools he carries is a wristwatch.

“ALPA 12 TC is a ‘technical camera,’ which just means nothing is automatic,” says Walls. “For any exposure over one second, I have to use my watch to time it. The simplest is always the best for me. If it’s cold out, the more digital equipment I have to rely on, the more likely it will fail. Technical springs and shutters aren’t going to fail from the cold.”

©Cheyne Walls

It’s not uncommon for Walls to set up camp ahead of a storm system and even weather a storm to capture the dramatic lighting. He camps for two weeks at a time in bad weather, often sleeping in a truck he’s outfitted for that purpose and listening to audio books to pass the time. Though 90 percent of the time he’s not capturing gallery-worthy shots, he still calls it time well spent.

“Failure is never really failure,” he says. “At least, that’s how I always try to approach it. There’s always something to learn. Maybe I need to just find a new location or do more scouting. But it’s all worth it when you get that one amazing shot.”

Walls recounts an excursion in Yosemite National Park to capture valley scenes around a storm. The storm hit earlier than expected, and Walls sat for about four or five hours waiting out the pouring rain.

©Cheyne Walls

Finally, he decided to start driving home. Twenty minutes into the drive, the road was blocked by a bear and two cubs. He pulled over to watch, thinking that even though his shoot hadn’t panned out, it was worth it to see the bears. The bears moved on, and Walls drove another 100 yards before an enormous tree fell across the road. Initially annoyed, Walls turned around to find another route. It was then that he saw the storm break, and the magic of light and contrast that unfolded.

“This amazing scene just erupts in front of me with the clouds breaking and the sun coming out,” he says. “If those bears hadn’t been there, I never would have stopped, been blocked by that tree, and turned around. I would not have had that shot. To this day, it’s one of my favorites.”

©Cheyne Walls

Walls says he always finds something new in nature that amazes him. Once he’s captured something he feels will do well in the gallery, he’ll chase down the fine art shots that please his soul.

“One of my favorite things is to find a creek or river and hike until I find where it’s coming from,” says Walls. “Nature recharges me because there’s so much out there. I’ve seen stuff I just can’t explain, like wildflowers popping out of two feet of snow, or fall leaf color in January at a 9,000-foot elevation. That’s where I’m happiest, out on the road exploring.”

Walls has developed a following of dedicated collectors whom he updates about his travels and new releases. He’s also released limited editions of prints for hotels and others who appreciate his work. Knowing not everyone can afford his large wall pieces, Walls offers open edition smaller 32x24-inch prints. His photo book, “Miles from Los Angeles,” features over 120 images of landscapes in the American West.

©Cheyne Walls

Loving and photographing nature means Walls has a deep understanding of its fragility. He donates 5% of every sale to charities including the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, the Kaua‘i Humane Society, and the National Park Service.

“Making people aware of beautiful places that need protecting is a big part of how and why I photograph,” he says, adding that you don’t have to trek deep into national parks to see beautiful places. “There are a lot of places just as spectacular that are closer to home and completely unknown. My advice is to get out more, see more of it, capture more of it.” 

Stephanie Boozer is a writer in Charleston, South Carolina.