For those of us who are blessed with the sense of sight, we are able to look out into the world and see what surrounds us; it is truly a gift that we all too often take for granted. For the most part, sight is used simply as a mechanism to maneuver through our lives, getting from place to place, performing tasks, or simply indulge in the pleasure of reading. There are no limits since we can turn completely around 360º and perceive what lies in any direction. We notice and recognize the objects before us, not really giving much of our attention to them. But when we observe, we gather much more information from what we see, more of the details and differences, which then might internally register with us, such as how a particular person among many can be singled out as someone we actually know.
look — direct one’s gaze toward someone or something or in a specified direction.
see — perceive with the eyes; discern visually.
notice — become aware of.
perceive — become aware or conscious of (something); come to realize or understand.
observe — notice or perceive (something) and register it as being significant.
By understanding the differences in the definitions above, we can get a better sense of the various stages or cognizance of our sight. From the casual act of looking toward something in a particular direction, to the more significant stages of becoming aware, perceiving or being conscious of the things in that direction, we reach the most intense stage of observing: perceiving and registering to us that what we see, is notable and significant to us. It is this stage that indicates to us what to place within the frame of our camera. For whatever the reason, whether it’s our notion of what constitutes beauty, color harmony, odd juxtaposition, interesting point of view, whatever the subject before us, it has struck a significant cord within that causes us to record it with our camera, and possibly share that bit of ourselves with others.
Reflections along the Eno River — Hillsborough, NC
So how do we become better observers of our surroundings when we’re out for photography? Although initially it may be a bit cumbersome, by carrying a small piece of cardboard with a rectangular hole cut out in the shape of your sensor (2:3, 4:5 or 1:1), and when you see something that might possibly make a good subject, hold the frame up and look through it to isolate that subject from its surroundings. Holding it close will give you a wide angle of view of your subject, while holding it at arms length will be more of a telephoto framing. It won’t be long before you will begin to see things already framed in your mind without the need for the cardboard. You’ll see the subject and know which lens is needed to record the view you’re after. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen things while driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway, or anywhere for that matter, that have caught my eye for just an instant, framed in my mind as a photo along with a pretty close idea of which lens to use to create an image of what was seen. The difficult part immediately afterward is to find a spot to pull over or turn around!! That’s exactly what happened during a trip there in the spring of 2013 while driving through some pretty heavy fog, spotting this scene below and having to drive quite a way before being able to turn around to drive back.
Luckily there was a parking area not too far from this spot, and was able to walk back to it pretty quickly, hoping that the fog was still as dense as previously seen. As you might already know, fog is not a very static environment as it drifts through the scene, constantly changing density; there was no time to lose. I figured it needed the normal (50mm) lens, and since at the time it was always on the camera in the bag, I was able to frame the photo and get in a few shots before, as expected, the fog thinned, revealing more of the background forest and making the scene much to busy to keep the serviceberry buds prominent within the frame.
More close to home though, you can wander around a local park or town with your frame in hand and pick out possible subjects even before you take the camera out of the bag or off your shoulder. It’s a good exercise to utilize in selecting your subjects, and after a while, begin framing in your mind and confirm it with the cardboard. Eventually, the frame itself won’t be necessary.
But how do we spot something within the chaos surrounding us that may make an interesting image? By looking for those things you enjoy or the same features you may admire in photos you’ve already seen, look for them whenever you’re out, or even within your own home. Look for those leading lines, interesting shapes, contrasty scenes of light and shadow, blazing colors or intricate textures and shapes. You already know the subjects and colors you gravitate toward, so look for those. In the spring I’m always looking for red buds on trees, or red leaves in autumn. Look for the type trees that produce them. If you’re into sunrises or sunsets, keep an eye out for conditions that will bring on the color in the sky. The same goes for fog. Weather forecasts might tell you when fog will occur, or when the cloud cover might produce a good sunrise or sunset. An app I find particularly useful is Clear Outside. It indicates the percentage for low, mid level and high altitude cloud cover, as well as predictions for fog. A few weeks ago the app indicated that around 9am, some fog would begin to build up in Durham, so I headed out to a newly discovered location where a beaver pond flooded an area of bald cypress trees. There was no fog when I arrived and was a little bummed out, but kept searching for photographs (taking way too many that ended up in the trash can) and sure enough, right on schedule at 9am, the fog came rolling in for the photo at the bottom of the post.
Another exercise that always proved useful was to search for abstracts. Filling the frame with designs in nature or the hand of man helps pick out shapes, colors and textures that form a cohesive design. However, in general, those abstracts benefit from an additional element within the frame that provides a focal point to initially draw a viewers interest. For the image at the top taken recently at Jordan Lake, it is the obvious white square shape toward the center of the image. For the next two, it is the circle of yellow that draws the eye before it moves around the frame. For the bamboo stalks, it’s the line of ribs (?); above it’s the green rectangle and angular lines; and below it’s the leaf like peeling paint on the wall.
The same process can be used when taking what I refer to as “non-abstract abstract” images. It is difficult to describe, but will use the two recently composed examples below to illustrate the point. The subject in each is clearly obvious; each involves the various tangle of trunks, branches, limbs and leaves, or spring buds as in the case of the image directly below. It is the design of the composition that creates the almost abstract quality to them; a bit similar to the abstract, drip paintings of Jackson Pollock. When viewed at a distance, or very small to the point that the subject is not as evident, the images will stand on their own as nearly abstract designs. It is the flow of elements that brings cohesion to the frame; all the texture, lines, and color work together to create a holistic balanced view. There is nothing to suggest much in the way of three dimensionality; they are considered and judged as simply flat, expressions of the designs in nature, and nothing more.
Quite often, that balance is helped by post processing. For the image below, there was a very dark, dead angled trunk in the lower left corner that was quite distracting and drew the eye away from the central oak leaves and slender, young trunks. When taking the photograph, I made a mental note that it would need some significant post processing of that dark spot to eliminate its distracting influence and bring balance within the frame. Quite a bit of work in Lightroom was done to lighten it enough to eliminate it as a distraction, yet retain the shape and texture it showed, without letting it devolve into a simple lighter blob. Had I not been able to do that, after several attempts, this photo may have followed so many others from that morning into the trash can.
How did I arrive at the arrangement you see in the frame below? Initially, I scanned the trees that surrounded a soccer field that were all enveloped in that light fog adjacent to the cypress swamp mentioned earlier. The 70-300mm was on the camera, and it was possible to take the photo from where I stood using the long end, but I would be shooting through quite a bit of fog, and wanted to get closer for a cleaner image and hopefully, use the shorter end with its increased depth of field so more of the frame would be in focus. As I walked closer, I kept the area in sight as I moved right and left to see the arrangement at slightly differing angles in order to have the most separation among the five lighter, thin trunks, making sure they didn’t block one another, and that no other distracting elements entered what might be the final framing. The camera position ended up being the closest to use the 300mm end for a tighter composition than the original idea, and the elimination of the distracting bright fog above the trees, while getting enough depth of field using f/16.
Before I began any photographic pursuit, I came across a book by Eliot Porter, In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World, probably one of his best known. It is possibly the most important book influencing my own photography, as did so many of his other books later on. Of the 70 images within the book, only 5 included a small portion of the sky; while in another of his books which included 101 photos, Nature’s Chaos, again only 5 included the sky, with the subject of three of those being the clouds themselves in design studies! For the most part, he kept his images away from the scenic. While I also like the drama of a majestic landscape, I tend to gravitate toward the more intimate encounters tucked away from the clear and distant views, similar to these last two images. Seeing the compositional possibilities of a photograph’s design utilizing those smaller scenes, can also provide a strong framework to be incorporated into the longer landscape views, and any other genre of photography you choose as well.
So keep looking, seeing, noticing, but most importantly, observing what’s around you, wherever you are. Not so much to take a photograph, but to continually be aware of the possibilities that exist, and exercising those creative mental muscles. In doing so, when you are out in pursuit of photographs, you might more easily find those inspirational and engaging elements that speak to you, for the creation of your work.
And for those of you who celebrate today’s holiday – Happy Easter!!