Recreating the "great outdoors" in miniature

Capturing the great outdoors in miniature
Capturing the great outdoors in miniature 03:26

For photographer Erin Sullivan, "making the bed" has recently taken on a whole new meaning. "I think this one is going to be a little messy," she laughed, as she poured sugar into a pile on a bedsheet.

With just a few mounds of sweetener, a little trial and error, and some creative camera positioning, Sullivan made her bed into the setting for the "Sugar Sand Dunes." It's a scene reminiscent of New Mexico's White Sands, a place she photographed in person last spring.

View this post on Instagram

Some pretty sweet dunes… literally. 🤓 Here we have the Sugar Sand Dunes, located on a sheet in my bedroom. Luckily we got a permit. Lots to look at. My friend just couldn’t seem to stop pointing at stuff! ✧ This project has been a great challenge for me in many ways. The parameters I set for myself when embarking on this very tiny journey were: 1. Create outdoor scenes out of household objects (obviously) 2. Shoot things I’d normally shoot, as if the scenes were real 3. Only use Photoshop to enhance an image, do not make it essential 4. Make the scenes as believable as possible For me, having a set of guidelines for a series is what helps me decide what belongs and what doesn’t. It gives me handrails throughout the process. ✧ I’ve created a couple of scenes so far that didn’t make it into the series, and I’m sure I’ll make more that don’t feel like a fit. That’s ok. That’s part of if–– study is vital. Practice, too. In this particular instance, mine just happens to look like a tiny train person standing on a mound of sugar. ✧ #ErinsGreatIndoors • #OurGreatIndoors

A post shared by Erin Sullivan (@erinoutdoors) on

"I love travel, and I love the outdoors with my whole soul," said Sullivan. "It is what I chose as a career for a reason: I love this world."

Known online as Erin Outdoors, Sullivan makes her living as a travel photographer. But when COVID-19 hit, all of her far-flung gigs dried up.

"So, you're a travel photographer who can't travel; how did you adapt?" asked correspondent Conor Knighton.

"I started thinking about how I could stay creative, and I decided to challenge myself to create tiny adventure scenes out of household objects."

Soon, mushroom groves, spaghetti swamps, and broccoli forests were sprouting up around her Los Angeles apartment. Some scenes, like "Tinfoil Lake," look as if they could be actual locations.

View this post on Instagram

A peaceful morning fishing together on Tinfoil Lake 🌅😉 ✧ The images in this series might be fun and whimsical (I hope they appear that way to you!), but I create them from my memories or from feelings of places I have been, which feel rooted and meaningful to me. ✧ I grew up next to the Long Island Sound, and my grandpa used to take us out on his little boat when I was a kid. My cousin and I would be stuffed into orange lifejackets, two messy blonde heads on the front of the boat feeling like we were flying. On summer days we’d go stand on the pier and try to catch something. And though I never really had the patience for fishing growing up, it was always about the time spent together anyway. ✧ This image was created with tin foil, a toothbrush, a lamp under a sheet, and tiny people from a train set. Lots of questions on where to get them–– simply search for model train figures online and you’ll find lots of options. 😊 More BTS in my stories and highlight on my page. ✧ #ErinsGreatIndoors #OurGreatIndoors

A post shared by Erin Sullivan (@erinoutdoors) on

Others, like "Great Pancake Canyon," are more obviously fanciful. But boy, if only a place that that were real …

View this post on Instagram

For the perfect weekend adventure, may I recommend a trip to the Great Pancake Canyon? This weekend, Syrup River was flowing. Maybe it’s due to the rain we’ve had?? Not sure…. any of you specialize in pancake science and can speak to this? Anyway, this was a truly unique experience with fantastic views from both below and above. Also great breakfast available. 🥞 ✧ Camera info: Sony a7Riii & 90mm f2.8 Macro lens. Materials: Literally just pancakes, syrup, and model train figures. ✧ Want to create your own outdoor-inspired adventure while staying home? Post & tag #OurGreatIndoors or follow along with the hashtag to see what this community is creating. Or if you’ve got another project you’re working on, I would love to hear about it! Or if you are doing nothing, that’s OK too! Take care of yourself! ✧ Thanks to my pancake expert @thejoehenderson for helping with this adventure. Who knows where we will go next… 😂 #ErinsGreatIndoors • #OurGreatIndoors

A post shared by Erin Sullivan (@erinoutdoors) on

Sullivan said, "I'm really trying to communicate a feeling more than a literal place. A feeling of wonder or awe, or adventure, or calm."

"As an outdoor photographer, you're often at the mercy of nature," said Knighton. "You're waiting for the perfect lighting; you're waiting for that wildlife to walk into frame. What's that change been like, where you are now the architect of this natural world?"

"I try to sit and really brainstorm what I'm going for, and get clear on that, sketch it out, and then set things up, so that I don't get overwhelmed with the possibilities, 'cause there are infinite possibilities with this project."

Erin Sullivan positions her camera to capture an asparagus forest.  CBS News

For proof of those possibilities, just search for the hashtag #OurGreatIndoors on Instagram. Sullivan encouraged her followers to upload their own attempts.

A chocolate bar canyon from Andres Garaym of Ecuador ...

A "hot orange balloon" floating over a field of leafy greens from Alberto Libardoni of Italy …

Indianapolis-based photographer Michael Durr fashioned a beach scene in his living room.

Someday soon, Sullivan will be back in nature again. Until then, this bout of quarantine-inspired creativity has helped her stay connected to what matters most in photography: The best images of the outdoors, real or simulated, are meant to make you feel something inside.

"Giving people that moment of feeling transported, or maybe feeling hopeful, or maybe being reminded of the beauty in the world, that gives me a lot," she said.

A visit to "Jello Lake," made from vegan jello, asparagus, and train figures in a pie dish.  Erin Sullivan

For more info:

Story produced by Aria Shavelson. Editor: George Pozderec.