And Now for Something Completely Different

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes." M. Proust

You've seen the great iconic photos, those you recognize instantly. Even if you can't name the locale or the photographer, you know you've seen the images before. The subject matter is beyond compare; the compositions are perfect; the light is stunning. These are "Wow!" pictures. Some of these photographs were made decades ago, others more recently. Some of these scenes were rendered by the great painters of centuries past; those paintings often inspired the photographers and the photographs that came later. The images have appeared in museum and gallery exhibits, in "coffee table" books, in countless publications, and in television documentary programs.

When starting out in photography the temptation to attempt to capture those same images is strong. We visit the locations and start photographing. We come home with pictures of the subjects, but they surely are not the same images. But we learn, we improve our technique and equipment, develop technical ability and perhaps even an eye for making good photos. We're happy and excited to be capturing the scenes we've seen in the documentaries and museums, at least for a little while.

Been There, Done That

McDonald Creek Siltstone

The siltstone bed of McDonald Creek in Glacier National Park. Streamflows were very low after a dry summer, leaving the water too shallow to completely submerge the stone. The extreme low angle of this photo causes the parallel faults in the stone to appear to converge.

You may be happy for a long time getting your own versions of the great photos; there's no reason not to be. You get to visit and enjoy places you find appealing. You get to spend time making pictures there, honing your craft or hobby, learning something every day. You may find you're often in these places with other photographers, which can enhance the learning experience, and certainly the fun.

Getting good at this is where the trouble starts: it's quite common after a while to want to make something different, something other than derivative work. For many of us this presents one of the great challenges of photography, and perhaps this is also true of other forms of art. How do I stand in front of a scene that's been photographed a million times, and get a different result? How do I create something new and unique, when everyone has a camera (their phones have cameras), and everyone's photographed the thing I'm about to?

See Different

I look at a lot of photographs, made by a lot of people, most of whom I don't know. I have a haphazard collection of books of photos, not to be confused with a "book collection". Rather, it consists of a number of books chosen simply because the work appealed to me. I frequent a number of photographers' Web sites and regularly read a few photo-centric blogs, all of which feature, or point to, the work of excellent (if not well-known) photographers. When our travels take us to or through larger cities, Pat and I will make an effort to visit museums and galleries featuring the type of artwork we like. This work is mostly, but not entirely, outdoor landscape and wildlife photography, simply because that's what interests us. Regardless of the type of work you find appealing, you'll find it in similar resources and venues.

Bergy bits, Norway

Sea ice in Norway, with the sun providing a nice backlight. The picture was made from a Zodiac in which we'd drifted close enough to touch the ice. A wide-angle lens was used at close range.

Do more than simply look at the art of others. Study it, dismantle it, try to determine what it is about any given piece that appeals, or doesn't. Why does a photograph or painting or sculpture work, or not work? I've found this to be a valuable exercise. I've no interest in copying or or making derivative work, but I'm happy to be influenced by the work of others. I think it's impossible not to be, and it would be undesirable in any case.

Some years ago Apple® Computer ran an advertising campaign with "Think Different" as it's tag line. It's certainly grammatically questionable, and I was never quite certain how it helped sell computers. But I think it applies, in some ways, to what's needed when attempting to make photos in much-photographed locations. We have to be able to stand in the iconic locations or view the common subjects and "see different".

Seeing What to Capture

Often photographs are made because the subject, the light upon it, and the conditions surrounding it make emotional connections with the photographer. This may not seem to require much analysis, and there's often little time to stop and dissect the scene before the great light, the giant wave, the animal, or the cloud is gone. In such situations it's (usually) obvious what to do. But in many cases you've previously scouted your locations, perhaps during the harsh light of mid-day, and made plans to return in better conditions. This is the time to analyze the scene, to consider what's been done before, and think of unique pictures you might make there. People who say "giclée" instead of "ink jet" would call this previsualizing. I call it planning ahead.

Capturing What You See

Here are some examples of different approaches to common scenarios. Clearly this list could go on forever, and each item in the list could have any number of alternative methods for capturing something out of the ordinary.

See? Different.

February, 2010