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Like Finding Shapes in the Clouds

At one time or another, most of us have sat on a grassy hillside, watching the shapes in the clouds as they roll by. That one looks like a rabbit, that one a man on horseback. What if we approached composing a photo the same way?

Weather ‘round these parts tends to be somewhat variable, clear and sunny one day, and overcast and drizzling the next. Such is spring in the great "Pacific North-wet." But the other day was just perfect. The weather was unseasonably warm and welcoming, with gently rolling clouds scattered over an otherwise clear, blue sky. You know what I'm talking about, the kind of day that speaks both of better days ahead and childhood memories when times were simpler. With all we've been through over the past year, it felt most welcome.

When I was growing up, I went through phases, voraciously interested in knowing about one area of science and the world around me, and then the next. For a while, it was geology, and I still have a small collection of rocks and minerals to prove it. Six months later, I was collecting and mounting insects and butterflies instead of rock specimens. Somewhere in there, I remember a time where my preoccupation was the weather and weather forecasting. I learned how to read a weather map, and I could calculate relative humidity using two thermometers, one wet and the other dry. I was fascinated by the fact that the different types of cloud formations all had names, from the whispy cirrus to the most profound cumulonimbus thunderheads. It was all very scientific.

But I can also remember sitting in the grass just watching the clouds to pass the time. As a kid, there was often more time than productive things to fill it. It was fun and relaxing to look for shapes in the clouds on warm summer days instead of struggling to name them with scientific vernacular. It was somewhat of a game. The goal was to find some shape and point it out before others could see it. I'm betting many of you have memories of playing along, too.

By label something as to what it is, you ready yourself to deal with it head-on. By letting your mind go blank, you open yourself up to possibilities. Both strategies have their place in photography as in life. One mode is more scientific, the other more creative. It depends on which one suits your fancy at any given moment. If you're looking to record events for posterity, shoot what you see as it is. If you're aiming for creativity, forget the naming of what actually is, and allow things to present themselves to you in whatever way they want.

Often, such an approach will take time. The mind wants to rush to conclusions immediately. This is this, and that is that: everything in its place, and everything with its proper name. Natural history and wildlife photographers often aim to show a subject in its environment, exhibiting characteristic behaviors and markings. Such photography benefits from intimate knowledge of your subject to recognize what may be of interest. But creativity operates in another dimension entirely, one that benefits from personal observation and feeling, without prejudgment. Relax, take your time, and have some fun.

What do things resemble? Once you notice something, see if you can find a way to point it out to someone else. Try to accentuate the shape and make it your subject. Allow your imagination to have free reign, and you may just surprise yourself. Find the best vantage point and framing. Select an aperture and shutter speed to make the most of the opportunity. It's here that your technical knowledge should come to bear, not before you've even found a subject. You were born with the curiosity to explore, and that's all you need. Indeed, the knowledge you've gained about the world since then can actually impede your freedom to see and to create. Apart from it being a lot of fun, it's nice that this type of photography doesn't require investing in (and carrying around) more gear. If you've got it, use it. But don't let either having it or not get in your way.

Look at it as a game. Your job is to look beyond the surface and look for shapes in what surrounds you. Sit down on the grass and get comfortable. If you wear a wristwatch, take it off. Clear your schedule, and leave your phone in your pocket. Time doesn't matter for the time being, if you'll pardon the expression.

Let your mind wander. Allow yourself to be humbled by the beauty of the world around you and feel like a kid again.

Date posted: April 4, 2021


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