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Seeing Beyond the Apparent

Sometimes it's not so important what something actually is, or even what it appears to be when you first look at it. Sometimes you have to get beyond all that and simply look at something without filters and labels. The abstract patterns and flow of nature can be fascinating just as they are. There's more than one way to approach photography.

Your average beginning photographer merely takes pictures of whatever they see when they first encounter their subject. They set their cameras and themselves on automatic, standing next to the "scenic overlook" sign by the side of the road and press the shutter once or twice before considering the experience complete and returning to their car and their destination. In the days of film I went through plenty of rolls with 36 exposures and was always puzzled by why they even sold 12-exposure and 24-exposure rolls. In retrospect such small rolls existed for this sort of casual photographer. They simply didn't need more frames. With digital camera memory capacity going ever higher in gigabytes and most beginners shooting jpeg, a single card could last some a lifetime.

Paradise River detail, Mt. Rainier National Park
Paradise River detail,
Mt. Rainier National Park
Nikon 70-200 lens plus 1.4 teleconverter plus Singh Ray Vari-ND filter

The more experienced photographer improves their results when possible by moving from taking images to making them – seeing the possibilities of a subject and a scene and carefully employing the tools and techniques needed to realize that possibility. Assessing the situation and the capabilities of their camera and available lenses, they determine the optimal position and settings to create an image of their subject they know is possible. This is how I would describe my general approach to photography most of the time. I've been shooting for many years now and I'm familiar with the tools of the trade. In photography, everything is a tradeoff. You change to a smaller aperture and you must compensate by employing a slower shutter speed or a higher ISO setting to get the same exposure. Choose one response and the chances of the wind blowing the wildflowers around approaches unacceptable levels; choose the other and the likelihood of digital noise may become problematic. The process of taking a picture becomes one of problem solving. It's not a "who done it" but it is a "how do I do it?"

But there is a third way to approach photography. Sometimes the best way to get good images that defy expectations is not to have any expectations. Replacing the problem solving mentality with one of innocent exploration, one simply delves into what is before them to see what can be found. While it can be helpful to position yourself in front of a promising subject this isn't a requirement. Certain subjects in nature abound with possibilities and all but assure success, but I've even had rewarding explorations by sitting down in the middle of a gravel pit. If your eyes and your mind are open and you can truly see things without the need to label and process, there are good images to be had just about anywhere.

Compelling subjects though such as flowers and mountain streams can indeed be particularly rewarding. If you're paying attention, they're an open invitation to endless exploration. When you look more and more deeply there's no telling what you might discover. Take off your wrist watch if you wear one and get comfortable. Lose track of time. Everything else can wait. Thoughts and troubles are irrelevant. Your awareness focuses down to just what is in front of you. At the same time it seems to expand to fill the entire universe. Your subject becomes your universe.

Oregon sunflower detail
Oregon sunflower detail.
Nikon 70-180 macro zoom plus three extension tubes plus diopter.

This is not your usual type of "goal oriented" photography – the kind where you set out with an objective and a determination to shoot a particular something at a particular time, in a particular way. Rather than the idea coming first and the resulting image attempting to live up to it, this type of photography sets aside any idea of what the result should be and allows the exploration to commence unimpeded.

The camera isolates. It controls depth of field and how motion is recorded. It can be pointed this way and that, repositioned and zoomed, all with nearly infinite variation. The image that results when the shutter is pressed depends only in part on what the camera is aimed at. The camera not only records reality, it can significantly shape perceptions of reality to the point where the subject itself is of only secondary importance.

No one of these three ways of approaching photography is necessarily "right" or "wrong," "better" or "worse" than the others. While a new photographer may be limited to just taking pictures, the more experienced you are you will find you can adopt any one of the three approaches as dictated by circumstances, conditions and preferences. Don't limit yourself.

To create an image, a camera needs something in front of it as source material. But it can be used to creatively modify that source material to make images that say more about the photographer's vision than the incidental subject matter itself. Cameras and lenses aren't encumbered by concepts and ideas of what they are looking at. As determined by the physics and optics of their construction and settings, they always render their subjects objectively. Used in this way, the challenge for us as photographers becomes one of recognizing their creations as being uniquely compelling. The shift from "taking pictures" to "making pictures" shifts again to "seeing pictures." The image may be there, but can you see it? The focus of creativity changes from problem solving and construction to vision and awareness.

An understanding of the technical side of photography and how shutter speed, aperture and other variables interact to affect the resulting images is still important, but now such skills are used in the service of a different aim. Rather than being used to render a given subject as the best version of that subject possible, now the tools and knowledge of photography can be used in the simple act of exploring light and shapes without regard to the subject itself.

Sometimes such pure exploration can serve as a useful way to pass the time when no other, more traditional photographic subjects present themselves. Sometimes it can serve as an end in itself, a planned foray into pure creativity unencumbered by subject. Regardless, if taken on wholeheartedly, it can deepen your creative vision for whatever approach to photography you choose to adopt on other occasions.

Date posted: September 4, 2011


Copyright © 2011 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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