Owen Bettis is a professor in the Department of Geography and Planning and the Department of Social Sciences. Outside of the classroom, he spends his free time traveling and photographing natural environments. From Northern California, to Central America, to Cambodia, Bettis seeks to, as he writes on his website, “capture moments of my relationship with the physical environment and share them with other people.” In his latest work, the Chico series, he seeks to capture the diverse beauty of Chico’s natural landscapes. I sat down with Bettis to learn more about his art, his interests, and their effect on his teaching. 

"Sunset, the Lone Oak, and a Rainbow" by Owen Bettis

“Sunset, the Lone Oak, and a Rainbow” by Owen Bettis

How did you get started on this project?

I’ve always had a major interest in our physical environment—being a geography teacher is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time—so I’ve always done backpacking, hiking, mountain biking, and stuff like that since I was a kid.

About three years ago, I crashed my mountain bike and broke my arm really bad, so I had to not touch my bike for a long time. I’m still recovering from that, really. At that point, I needed to focus on a hobby that was still outdoors, but less dangerous than downhill mountain biking. That’s when I really started focusing on my photography.

I’ve realized more and more through teaching that a lot of people don’t really have a lot of outdoor experience, and they’re unaware of these amazing landscapes that you can find close by, or around the planet, really—so it’s kind of turned into more of a “sharing experiences” sort of thing.

"Golden Light of Bidwell Park" by Owen Bettis

“Golden Light of Bidwell Park” by Owen Bettis

A lot of the photos from your Chico series are these epic, sweeping shots of local landscapes. How do you capture these large-scale photos?

A method that I’ve been really interested in is panoramas. A lot of those images that you’re talking about are basically 20 or 30 different images stitched together. It’s not a single frame. The way I look at it—you’re out in this place, you’re at the top of a mountain, you have this huge sunset in front of you—you can look around all over the place and see this massive, panoramic view.

If you take the photos correctly, when you load them into Photoshop it should just be like “stitch!” and it just does it. Which is cool, because I really don’t like to spend a tremendous amount of time on photo processing—I’d rather be out shooting. I definitely use Photoshop in that regard, but that’s pretty much all I use it for: stitching together huge files.

A lot of people are weird about photo processing. They struggle with “that’s not real,” or “that’s embellished.” Basically, the way I look at it is I use photo processing to recreate an image the way I see it. But I try to keep it as natural as possible. I don’t ever add in different stuff from a different place, or add in like a huge moon that’s not really there…

No dragons flying in from off-camera?

Yeah, I’m not into that kind of thing. I mean, that’s totally cool. There’s some great digital art that people make that’s amazing. It’s just not really what I’m into, for me and my art.

"Horshoe Mirror" by Owen Bettis

“Horseshoe Mirror” by Owen Bettis

Does your photography influence the way you teach classes at the University? 

Part of being an effective teacher is making what you’re teaching interesting. People are much more inclined to absorb the information or make it more memorable if you can attach some kind of tangible experience to it.

I try to use my photography from traveling, and even locally, to just show examples. So instead of saying: “This is the definition of a particular type of canyon,” I can say: “Here’s an actual image of that canyon,” and also “This canyon is right over there, go check it out.”
"Storming Chico" by Owen Bettis

“Storming Chico” by Owen Bettis

What is it about Chico’s natural environment that made you want to capture it in a photo series? 

It’s funny, because I’ve always loved to travel and I’ve always been into outdoorsy stuff. For a long time I was really focused on wanting to go to these far away, exotic places and get these really cool images that no one’s ever seen—blah blah blah, kind of ridiculous.

The more I started thinking about it, the more I realized that Northern California actually is an exotic destination for a lot of people elsewhere around the planet. This is a major travel destination. One of the things that’s pretty striking about California—and it’s difficult to find this elsewhere—is there’s a huge variety of landscapes that you can find within a couple hours. Within a five-hour drive you can be anywhere from the coastal Redwoods, to Yosemite, to the desert in Nevada. The volcanoes in Lassen are only an hour away.

Even just in Chico, you can go up into the park and find landscapes that are completely different than out in the rice fields and orchards.

To view the rest of Owen Bettis Chico photo series, visit his photography website. For questions about his work, Bettis can be reached at obettis@csuchico.edu, or at 530-898-4858.