Simply put, nature is a conglomeration of elements, both landbound and atmospheric. How we combine these elements and arrange them for our viewer really dictates whether an image will survive or fail in the long run. So often, for me, light (quality and quantity) is the key ingredient once I have the mix of elements in place. Which all leads to the crux of today’s blog, which is simply, it’s not so much what we see in nature; rather it’s how we see. In other words, do you see nature’s elements in a literal sense, or do you see them more from an artistic point of view?
I think most of us start out seeing the world literally (unless you have some other artistic training in another genre). At the start, a forest of trees is just that – a conglomeration of trees. Only through practice and training does our own unique vision begin to emerge. From that point onward, we are no longer “snapshooters;” rather, we become photographers and artists. I think another safe assumption is that when we first start out in photography, we tend to try recreating what has been done previously. I know this from years of teaching photo workshops where individuals will ask me, what are we shooting here? Conversely, we may be at an iconic location like Arches National Park’s Delicate Arch. The resulting images can too easily be just an image of the arch instead of something more engaging.
In the image below of Yosemite’s Nevada Fall, I tried for something a bit more interesting than just a top-to-bottom image of the raging fall. I hiked to the top of the fall and shot down into the plume with a telephoto after spotting this mist bow. For me, not only is this image more engaging, but it also translates the power of the raging water that I was experiencing.
If one has to ask, what are we shooting, then one has not yet learned how to really see. Personally, I think of potential scenes in nature as unassembled jigsaw puzzles. The pieces are all there before you, but it is your task to assemble them in some meaningful and artistic fashion. But how do we start? Is there a formula?
Personally, I start by paying attention to what is tugging at my emotions while in the field. Sometimes it is obvious, other times it is subtle. But if I am not feeling some sort of emotional connection, then the image is probably not going to transcend into a photograph that will move others. The next step is to either find quality light, or anticipate its arrival. This involves lots of time in nature studying the nuances of light and is a key reason I like shooting on the fringes of the day. I once had a guy write on my blog: a true artist can photograph under any light, even in the middle of a sunny day. After thinking long and hard about this statement, my response today would be, only a non-artist would make that statement because a true artist knows how important quality light is to the success of an image.
There are also a bevy of lessons we can learn from the world of design that can be incorporated into our photography: patterns, shapes, lines, contrasts, textures, etc., are all crucial in aiding in an image’s success or failure.
Photography is a craft and an art, similar to playing a musical instrument. There has to be a personal feel attached to every image we create. Without that input from us, the image becomes lifeless and has no soul. Also, without regular practice, we cannot expect to improve at our craft. Beyond the technical aspects of learning the camera and post-processing, we must develop our vision skills; only then can we start to previsualize images in the field. This is the key component that will take you from shooting literal scenes to producing artistic visions.
The first image accompanying this blog is a good example. I captured it this past fall in Zion’s famed Narrows. Many of the key ingredients were there for success: a river, warm reflections, fall color, shapes, lines, and quality light. To put the viewer into the middle of the action, I took a low perspective with my camera about a foot above the Virgin River. A good polarizer cut the highlights off the river and brought out the warm reflecting light from the surrounding Kayenta Shale walls. I made sure I had plenty of depth-of-field (f/22) and in-turn had a shutter of 2 1/2 seconds that accentuated the movement of the water and led the viewer’s eye into the frame. The warm reflected light on the surface of the water connected with the warm color striking the far wall tying the near/far relationship together, and the fall foliage anchored the top of the frame and was positioned conveniently at the end of the diagonal line (a motion line) from the far right wall. All key elements to success and all nicely arranged. When it comes together like that it seems simple, but in reality, it took years of study and practice to be able to see this so quickly.
The last image was one of those subtle locations at a wash filled with backlit fall color in Arches National Park. It was really the subtle play of light on the foreground foliage that caught my eye. The backlit cottonwood trees were rendered as an out-of-focus placeholder of color for the foreground accomplished with a combination of a telephoto lens and a wide aperture. Again, seemingly simple but something I would have not had seen earlier in my development as a photographer.
So if you want to improve your vision skills, practice! Every day if you can! Have a smartphone? Use that and challenge yourself to make an image per day. Look around your immediate surroundings: work, home, an evening stroll, a trip shopping. The key is to look. Find the artistic in the everyday settings. Look for the light, Watch how all the elements in your scene work together. If they don’t, eliminate what is not working. Before long, images in nature will appear everywhere and your ability to compose them will improve.
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