Extending Your Vision

I have read the latest articles on correct exposure and feel comfortable changing the settings on my camera in a blinding windstorm in the dead of night. I am painfully aware of the rule of thirds and would probably not center the horizon right in the middle of my image, unless I had a good reason (reflection or symmetry or something). I look for leading lines and consider what is in the foreground for my sweeping landscapes. I wait until the magic hour begins, before the light at sunset or sunrise glows with warm hues. So, why aren’t my images always dramatic? In our haste to apply the rule of thirds, find objects to put in the front of our grand sweeping landscapes, and be sure to contrast the cobalt blue sky with the golden aspen leaves, I often wonder if we step back from our cameras and ask ourselves, “What is this image going to be about?” “What am I trying to say or convey with this image?”

Drawing on my work as a qualitative researcher, I usually begin by taking a rather global perspective on any event or situation I am researching. I try and “cast my net in wide circles” to understand the things going on in a classroom or educational setting. The same has come to be true lately as I am out in the desert, forests, gardens or rainforest capturing images. I begin by wandering around trying to get a sense of what is available in a specific location. Shadows, geographical features, the location of the sun at sunset and sunrise, the phase of the moon, available plant life, and possible wildlife are all things I investigate in order to understand the photographic possibilities of a particular locale.

I spend hours looking at the images that have been previously created by other photographers to see what images I may want to duplicate, and what possibilities have not been explored. Duplicate is not exactly what I mean here. I don’t try and do the exact same thing, but there are classic shots that I want to have in my collection that have been published before I could get to that location. I often cut these images out of magazines to serve as inspiration when I am planning my own phototrips. After previewing various published images, I make copious notes about location possibilities, perspectives, themes and moods from the images I have researched.

I often think of a theme, a color or a mood, that I may want to convey in an image. The desert wildflowers in the springtime is a different theme than the ocean on a cloudy day. I try and create an image that captures the mood of a location or time of day and think about what composition and lighting will help create this effect.

Listening to various speakers at regional photography workshops talk about the mood of an image or the theme of a collection of images, I often wonder if the photographer thought about all of those ideas while composing the image or was it simply an afterthought that came up in preparing for his or her presentation. As an “advanced novice”, I have thought that maybe here was the difference between what I think about and what professional photographers like John Shaw, Jack Dykinga and David Meunch think about. It seems that in making the shift from themes and composition as an afterthought to Ansel Adams concept of pre-visualization, is what separates the novice from the distinguished professional.

I began by asking myself, “How long do I wander around a new location before I begin taking pictures?” Do I allow enough time in a new place to get a sense of the whole, the theme or overriding feeling of a place? Have I done enough background homework to know what the possibilities are? Have I checked on the sun and moon positions and time schedules? I will be the first to admit, probably not enough. In my rush to see what is around the next boulder in the canyon, what is over the next hill, I have often walked past many photographic opportunities. I read before that if you are not making good images, you are not looking hard enough. I know that Ansel Adams said that there is a lifetime of good images in a small plot of land. I’m beginning to see what he meant.

I have begun to spend more time in my preparations, more time learning about the places I will be traveling. I have purchased or checked out from the library books on plant and animal life, geography and moon phases. I have spent time in visitor centers looking at the postcards and photography books that contain previously created “classic” images. Before I go somewhere, I do my home work. I slow down and look around. But what do I look for?

As a qualitative researcher, I spend hours pouring over the data I have collected for a particular study to see “what emerges”. In qualitative research you don’t go in looking to answer a specific question. Instead, you spend extensive time in a particular site, what is called “prolonged engagement” to see what is going on there. It is the same with my photography these days. I need to be able to spend enough time to understand what is going on there. Instead of stuffing four or five different locations into a three day weekend, I have begun to spend all three days at one, maybe two places. I have found that by reducing my long weekends to one or two specific locations my images have improved. I believe that I have begun to find the themes and moods of the places I have returned again and again. Rarely, do I create my best images on my first trip somewhere. I have learned to know where to be at sunrise and at sunset, where the best chances of making dramatic images are located. But, I am constantly vigilant to be on the lookout for new perspectives and new locations. I don’t want to just duplicate old perspectives, I want to create new ones as well.

Another idea that has helped me create what I feel are better, more dramatic images, is the concept of theme. For a particular location, I may decide that color is a centering concept, that the place cries out green, or blue. Sometimes it is an element of design like parallel lines, texture, shapes, repeating patterns or contrast that I am trying to convey. Another concept is symbolic representation. What one image conveys a location? Some think that these images are overdone or cliché, but if you want one image to represent a particular location, these are often the ones chosen. After I have these classic images in my portfolio, I begin to find my own visions of a place. Then, and probably only then, do I feel I have done a place justice.