Inspiring Curiosity

by Floris van Breugel
January 28, 2012



My primary goal in photography is to create unique images that tickle the imagination and curiosity of my viewers, imploring them to explore the image further and, hopefully, inspire them to get out on their own to explore, understand, and appreciate nature and the scientific processes that govern it.

The Sandbox” ~ Death Valley National Park, CA by Floris van Breugel ©

“The Sandbox” ~ Death Valley National Park, CA

I don't want my viewers to see an image and think, "oh, that's a pretty landscape!"; or "what a cool bird!". I want them to ask questions like, "what is that?"; "how did that happen?"; "why are those animals doing that?". Before long, these simple questions suck in the viewer and get them more deeply engaged with the image, and thereby the underlying nature and science behind the phenomenon I've captured. On the surface this is just a great way to get people engaged with the images I take, but as a curious scientist who cares about our natural world, I get a deep satisfaction out of appealing to the inherent curiosity of humans and using that to inspire the scientist within them to come out and play.

Red Fox Hunting ~ Yellowstone National Park, WY  by Floris van Breugel ©

“Red Fox Hunting” ~ Yellowstone National Park, WY

The easiest way to spark that type of curiosity is to show someone something they've never seen before, or show it with a new perspective, or under new light. Of course, as with any art, it's much easier to capture and retain someone's attention if the image also appeals on an emotional and aesthetic level. Balancing these two goals is at the core of how I make images, but for this article I will focus on inspiring curiosity. I have found two approaches to be particularly successful: abstraction, and creative illumination.

Plant Oils on Water - Escalante National Monument, UT by Floris van Breugel ©

“Plant Oils on Water” ~ Escalante National Monument, UT

By abstraction I mean taking a piece of a scene out of context to the point where it's only barely recognizable to the viewer, with just enough clues that they can figure it out. This focuses the attention on the details and relationships that I found particularly interesting. Removing the context also has the happy side effect of simplifying what's left in the scene, which nearly always improves the visual aesthetics.

Monet’s Palette  - Carrizo Plains National Monument, CA by Floris van Breugel ©

“Monet’s Palette” ~ Carrizo Plains National Monument, CA

If you’re having trouble deciphering any of these abstracts, I’ll give you a few more clues. The first is an image of the dunes in Death Valley photographed from nearly 2 miles away with a 700mm lens under a brilliant sunrise. The second is a red fox retracing it’s hunting trail in the deep snow of Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley. The third is a cottonwood leaf partially submerged in a pool of water covered with iridescent oils derived from decaying plants. And the last image is an aerial photograph of blooming wildflowers taken in central California in the spring of 2010.

My second approach is to show something under new light. On a typical day out in nature we ultimately experience only one source of light - the sun. At night there is of course the moon, but remember, it's just reflecting the sun's light. Rocks and other land forms can also reflect sunlight to create a different kind of look, but again, it's still the sun. There are, however, other light sources out there. Because they are much less common, they inherently inspire more curiosity. I have only recently started to explore the realm of alternate natural light, and my first experiment with it was in the San Juan Islands last summer where I photographed the bioluminescent bacteria. After looking at the picture, you probably have all sorts of questions - which is of course my goal. The light is produced by tiny Dinoflagellates called Noctiluca scintillans, and you can read all about them, and how I created the image (which required significant creative post processing work), on my blog post: Bioluminescence ( I hope to focus some more of my future work on similar sources of light in nature.

Lumin-Essence -  San Juan Islands, WA by Floris van Breguel ©

“Lumin-Essence” ~ San Juan Islands, WA

In addition to natural light, there is always the option of utilizing artificial lights to illuminate the landscape, a process popularly referred to as light painting. I have played with light painting quite a bit over the years, and find it a fun and creative approach to photography. This image is an example of subtle light painting (using my headlamp) on a Bristlecone Pine under the twinkles of the first stars.

Wicked Witch of the West -  White Mountains, CA by Floris van Bregeul ©

“Wicked Witch of the West” ~ White Mountains, CA

One of my favorite images created this way was inspired by the many trips my dad and I had made to Death Valley when I was a young boy. We would go out at night with an Ultraviolet light in search of fluorescent minerals at the old mine dumps. Many years later I decided to try and capture the experience with a photograph. What you see here are some mine tailings of a Tungsten mine, with the dilapidated wood ore transport structure. All of the illumination is from fluorescence caused by a high powered handheld ultraviolet lamp, including the blues on the wood structure. The minerals in the foreground include scheelite (blue/white), calcite (red), silica coatings containing uranyl ions (green), fluorite (pink), and ‘desert varnish’ (yellow/orange). For more details on fluorescent minerals you can read about it on my blog: Fluorescence (

 Fluorescent Treasures-  Darwin, CA

“Fluorescent Treasures” ~ Darwin, CA


Bio: Floris van Breugel is a passionate nature photographer particularly interested in discovering creative interpretations of mysterious, otherworldly, and elegantly beautiful landscapes. His inaugural experience in the outdoors was a trip to the Grand Canyon at a few months old, where his parents 'baptized' him as a son of nature under the sprinkling Ribbon Falls. They may have gotten more than they bargained for. It wasn't until two decades later, however, that his love for nature culminated in him picking up a camera. Today he spends as much time as possible out exploring the natural world, as well as discovering new ways of seeing it. Floris’ images have appeared worldwide in places such as the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition, Living Bird Magazine, Germany’s Geo Magazine, and others. When not out adventuring Floris can be found in the lab working towards his PhD on insect flight control and behavior at Caltech and University of Washington.

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