Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Published 7:47 AM by with 2 comments

From Where I Stand

Ansel Adams once wrote, "a good photograph is knowing where to stand" and it made me think about how true that is for me. I'm not usually conscious of the amount of effort I expend composing a photograph but I know it's substantial. Well, it certainly is now that I have slowed down and am really trying to make photographs rather than take them.

Having a zoom lens can sometimes make me a lazy photographer. What I mean is, if I have a lens that has a focal length of, say, 24mm-104mm, that's a pretty wide span and I don't need to move at all from where I stand to get a variety of shots. Each shot I take is just a zoomed in version of the same thing. I sometimes cheat myself out of other potential angles and compositions when I bring a zoom lens along with me.

With a prime lens (one with a fixed focal length or, to put it another way, no zoom capability), I have to physically move to "zoom in". If I want something to be closer, I have to move the camera closer or if I want the subject to be wider, I have to move further away with the camera. Doing this is a good idea for me because it makes for more opportunities to experiment with different compositions. Maybe I want to move to the left or right or maybe up or down. What about on a diagonal? Not everything has to be straight. When I'm already moving around, it feels more natural and I come away with a true variety of shots.

 When I visited the Westport Lighthouse in Washington, I was far more interested in details than the usual wide angle shooting up at the lighthouse kind of thing. That day the only lens I had with me was a 50mm prime. I moved in close for this shot of the interior. If I had shot the lighthouse like one of the many images you see during a Google search, I don't feel like I would have done justice to my own authentic experience of the place. These little detail shots literally bring back details of my experience.

Another detail shot of the handrail leading up to the top of the lighthouse. I'm deathly afraid of heights and, as we ascended I became more and more nervous looking down. This handrail was my savior so its meaning is significant when I think back on being there at that moment.

I often joke with my friends that if you don't come back with dirty knees, you do not have the shot. What I mean is it's important to get away from just looking at things the way we see them in our everyday life. When we look at a child, we look down at them, simply because they are smaller. We look up at things that are taller than us. It's the way we see things every day and it makes for boring and predictable photographs. I sometimes climb ladders so I can be at eye level with that thing up high. Maybe I'll venture higher and actually look down. What about shooting pets, children or flowers? For me, the most rewarding photographs happen when I get down on my knees at their eye level and capture the world on their terms.

On a recent trip to Rialto Beach in Olympic National Park, I saw a group of rocks off in the distance enshrouded with fog. I knew I had to shoot the scene so I told Linda I was on a mission and took off in a hurry. Afraid that the fog would disperse, I zoomed in full on my lens and took shots of the scene as I approached ever closer over uncooperative wet pebbles and feet sinking into soft sand from the approaching tide.

When I arrived at the rocks, I couldn't believe their actual scale. They were not mere rocks, no, they were 60 feet monoliths and it was an awesome sight to behold. Had I been satisfied with my earlier zoomed shots from afar, I would never have fully appreciated the magnitude of the scene. As a result, I walked away from the beach with some spectacular shots. Converting them to black and white, made the place seem like it was something from the movie Planet of the Apes. I did think to look for remnants of the Statue of Liberty...

Rialto Beach is a favorite of mine to shoot because it does have that sense of time standing still or at least time traveling at an almost immeasurable pace. I can't imagine how long it has taken for all of the deadwood to make it to its current resting place. Here I chose to make the vertical tree the main subject of the picture. On the left in the distance you can see the "little" rocks I was trying to reach.

Scale was also a challenge to convey when we visited Hurricane Ridge in Washington. I spent a long time hunting for the perfect composition but, in the end, I settled for capturing the play of light on the mountain ridges rather than the impossible task of translating into two dimensions the massive size of the scene.

I was equally challenged when I visited Mount St. Helens. The sheer mass of the volcano in front of me was daunting. There was no way to capture that kind of grandeur with my relatively modest camera. Instead, I chose to focus on the crags and fissures and valleys created by the 1980 eruption. The colors were too pretty and distracting for this message so I again chose black and white to finely focus on the many and varied textures. Some clouds moved in over the top to add the final touches to my photograph.

Black and white was also my choice for this scene of the valleys, hills and mountains leading up to the towering volcano. I chose to convey distance and scale through tones of gray.

At the Johnston Observatory at Mount St. Helens, I shot Linda in silhouette to give a sense of being there for the viewer. She is instrumental in, again, conveying the scale of the landscape beyond.

I loved the curve of this trail and all the stuff going on around it. Shooting it without context would make it unremarkable but put a person in the scene and all of a sudden it has a focal point and also a context of scale. Linda's hat adds interest to the scene.

The more I learn about photography, the less I know. This is true today more than ever and it is exciting to know that, for every day of my life, there is a new thing to be learned. For this photographer, at least, the reward is in that quest for the thing, not having it.


Fred Wishnie said...

I can't wait to see America through your eyes. I've been to some of the scenes your shooting and you see so much more.

dreamjosie said...

You are, for sure, a modern day Ansel Adams.