Sunday, September 12, 2010

Landscape Photography: Developing Vision

The most successful landscape photographers seem to have developed a unique personal way of viewing the world.  So how can we develop our own vision?

In the previous blog entry, I discussed how important it is to visualize your potential image and then be prepared to drop it in a moment if your predicted conditions do not develop.

It is important to be open to whatever comes your way.  And if you wish to do this on a consistent basis you must develop a personal vision, your own unique way of seeing the world.  As I've mentioned earlier, even the most loved landscape photographers have invested 10,000+ hours of time and practice in the development of their vision.  So how can you develop a unique personal vision of the world?

From all that I've read about people who have excelled at their craft and from my own experience, you must do what you love and be as inquisitive as a child.  And this goes for any endeavor as well.  For example, the great American news reporter and anchorman Walter Cronkite recently died at age 92.  Hours after his death, I watched a long list of top people in the news field and other famous people talk about their experiences with him.  The thing that struck me the most is that he loved the news.  He loved to discover the story and uncover the truth.  He loved to talk about the news for hours on end with his colleagues, even if they were competitors.  He tried his best to be unbiased and tell it like it is.  He kept an open mind and was ready in an instant to change his reporting if new information was discovered.  His viewers loved him because they could depend on him, and also because he loved what he did.  Enthusiasm is infectious!

There is a lot to be learned from his example, even though he was definitely not a landscape photographer.  You must decide what you really love about nature.  If you like many things, just pick one thing for now.  It could be beaches, mountains, lakes, wheat fields, clouds, flowers, anything.  Forget what people tell you to do, or what is popular.  (Remember, this is blog about creating art, not making money!)  If you are not passionate, nothing else will matter.  Your images will fall flat and people will notice.  But if you love your subject, people will acknowledge it even if the images are not perfect.  And you will enjoy looking at them later.  Passion is generated by curiosity and the desire to know and capture what you love. 

One interviewee I saw on TV, said that even when Walter Cronkite had been doing the
news for decades and had been all over the world, he would still want to rush downstairs to report on a traffic accident outside on the street and try to get the real story.  He retained that sense of curiosity, and that kept his personal vision fresh and continually developing.  And that is one of the best ways to develop your vision for landscape photography.  Who cares how many times you've been to that beach, park or lake?  I bet that you can come up with a different way (your way) of seeing it.

It takes energy and a sense of adventure to create a good landscape photograph.  And I believe that if you do what you love, and let nature take its course, you will find out that your own style and personal vision will emerge.  Give it time. 

People tell me every day that they can recognize a photo as being mine before they read the description or title.  Is this good or bad?  I'm still not sure how this can be, but I hear it over and over again.  If you already have an established style and are successfully doing good landscapes, you can still develop new ways of seeing by just being like a curious child.  Be like you were when you were young.  Do you remember?  I try to do this because I don't want to be too predictable.  I'm not sure how successful I am at being unpredictable, but I'm working on it!

One way to be unpredictable by being open to trying new things.  For example, I recently purchased a *very* dark circular filter by Hoya called the ndx-400.  It has almost 10-stops of darkness.  And now I have a Lee 10-stop filter that fits into my ND grad holder.  They are so dark that it is difficult to see and compose the shot in the viewfinder.  Sometimes I have to compose first before attaching the filter!  However, with the Lee filter, I can easily slide it into the holder after I compose.  So instead of a 1/4-second exposure, I can do a 30-second or even 2-minute exposure with the filter on, even in mid-day light.

Now, normally I like to show lots of action in my pictures such as waves breaking with just a hint of motion.  However, with the filter on, the ocean is reduced to a hazy blur, which can look great when you want to isolate nice rock formations.  But the side benefit to a longer exposure is the ability to show motion in the clouds.  You can often see this in long exposures taken after sunset on a beach with clouds streaking overhead.

I never thought of using the dark filter in a place like Yosemite, where the rocks, trees and water are so well known and are usually the focal point in photos taken there.  However, when I saw the clouds streaking over, around and through the tall cliffs, I realized that I could 'time' the clouds just like I time a wave.  So I began to experiment and soon I figured out how to show the clouds interacting with the land and cliffs in a dramatic way.  I could not have predicted that I would be doing this sort of photography.  My 'style' was to capture dramatic low-light photos with lots of color.  But now, I'm always thinking of ways to make dramatic long-exposures, even in mid-day light.  I guess that my style has changed a bit.  The funny thing is that people have written me to say that they recognized my Half Dome photo with the dark filter as being 'mine' before they even read the description.  I'm not sure how that can be since that photo looks so different from my others.  I guess that 'style' is something innate that can be spotted from a distance?

The point is that I am not working on my style.  It is just evolving.  As Joseph Campbell would say, 'I'm following my bliss.'  Of course, it is difficult to follow your bliss if you are having trouble with things like exposure, processing, or paying the bills via photography! 

People have been asking about my photographic techniques, so I'll discuss that in a future blog entry.  I will admit that I often do not do things in the way that I am 'supposed to.'  If photography were a religion, I would probably be excommunicated for some of the things I do or don't do!  Don't expect any cutting edge Photoshop techniques however.  I do nothing special and try to do as little as possible.  I'd rather be behind the camera than in front of  the computer screen.

Okay, here is that mid-day long exposure of Half Dome in Yosemite.  You can also see it in the 2011 Nature Conservancy calendar!

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 Patrick Smith

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