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Everything is the Same, Everything is Different

Sometimes, it all depends on how you look at things.

Imagine a hypothetical. You load up the car and drive down to your favorite national park or other photo destination. It's a drive you've taken many times, and you know the route well. No need for maps or GPS. Perhaps there's some road construction along the way, but mostly, everything is the same as it was the last time you made the drive. Once you get there, the mountains, streams, and other landmarks haven't moved either. Authors have been selling guidebooks describing the scenery for years, and they'd be pretty disheartened if it changed all that much. Natural rhythms ebb and flow over a year, and climate change and other factors create longer-term change, but most sights remain reasonably predictable. You'd be disappointed if you didn't find what you expected.

OK, so this isn't entirely hypothetical. Since I live in the Seattle area, I've driven down to Mt. Rainier National Park more times than I can count. I know the area well. While there remain significant areas of backcountry I've never been adventurous enough to visit, I have covered most of the locations you can reach by car or day hike. Even though I know what things look like, I still enjoy spending time there. And I'm guessing at least some of you reading have favorite destinations that fit what I've described here. In the end, we're not all that different.

But it isn't always the same, now is it? I've already mentioned the change of seasons in passing, but there's more. Indeed, one of the main reasons so many great photographs are shot at sun up or sundown is that things don't look the same then. Mt. Rainier is a featureless, glaring white monolith with patches of dull gray rock poking through at midday. But when bathed in that golden-hour glow, magic happens. No matter how many times you see it that way, it's as if for the first time. All that is required of us is to pause long enough to notice. Just relax and enjoy the show. And just as at the cinema, they publish showtimes for sunrise and sunset in advance. Some shows are better than others, but the times are not in question. That's kind of nice.

Other things change, too, if we look for them. That's part of scouting for good photo subjects. If I'm photographing wildflowers, I have to look for the best ones. I may know the general areas to investigate because I've been there before. But it isn't possible to predict the exact spot where the flowers are at their peak. Each time I go there, it's different.

What if we could always see what we photograph as new and different? I know photographers who have a goal of visiting every national park. No doubt doing so will take them many years, but the premise seems to collect the complete set. Once they've seen any park and taken pictures of it, they're ready to move on to the next. As if each one is only new and different the first time they see it. After that, it's "same old, same old."

I think we have to cultivate an attitude of seeing our subjects as new and fresh. The details are always different. Once you begin to look for what's different, there's no telling what you might find. Even when not taken at sunset, the best photographs always show their subject in a way we don't typically see them. You can accentuate those details via your choice of lens, framing, exposure, and other compositional techniques, but it helps to see the possibilities first.

When you think about it, maybe we don't always need to go to a national park. What if we could find magical images in our neighborhood or backyard? What if we could see things every day as different and magical? There's a concept in Zen Buddhism known as "beginner's mind." The idea is to drop your preconceptions and approach everything you encounter as being new and fresh. Lacking any notions of having seen it before, we should strive to see everything as a beginner would, but with the skills to realize our discoveries honed by our years of accumulated expertise.

Sometimes, it just depends on how you look at things.

Date posted: December 12, 2021


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Reality in the Eye and Camera of the Beholder
Forget What it Is, What Does it Look Like?
Finding (or Rediscovering) That Creative Spark

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