2016 has been quite the busy year for me. If you haven’t heard (or noticed) already, I launched my newest project, The Art of Seeing, in September. It will be the new home of my blog, workshops, contests, pic of the day, and more. You can still look through my galleries on this site, but for any updated content, take a look at The Art of Seeing!
Thanks for tuning in and I hope you’ll check it out.
When watching sunrises and sunsets is part of your job description, it’s easy to forget the fact you are witnessing a minor miracle a couple of times a day. You tend to get, well, jaded might be too strong a word but let’s call it a connoisseur’s disdain for the unexceptional. But Mother Nature has a way of reminding you that you are in the presence of the Master. Case in point, I was walking along the Owens river one fall evening hoping for a ‘decent’ sunset to photograph. It wasn’t looking too promising as a rapidly thickening blanket of clouds threatened to cancel the event altogether. In the race between the gathering clouds and the setting sun, it looked like the clouds were going to claim the prize. “Looks like it’s going to be a bust,” I thought but decided to stick it out anyways. As the sun sank to meet the peaks of the eastern Sierra, a golden glow illuminated the entire valley. There was an amazing quality to the light that I’ve only rarely experienced. It felt like the light wasn’t emanating from the setting sun as much as from the air all around me. Then, the sky exploded.
Although I was alone, I’m pretty sure I said “this is unreal” out loud more than once. Then I bent down over the tripod and got to work. I’ve been to this rodeo enough times to know that staying calm is part of the secret to success so I tried my best to adopt a zen attitude. Breathe. Focus. Breathe. Focus. I ‘worked the scene’ as best as I could trying various compositions and camera settings, only pausing occasionally to let out a quiet “oh wow.” I think I clicked off a few dozen frames before I knew that the moment had passed. As the light faded, I stopped shooting and watched the final act in grateful appreciation. This, I thought, is why I do this.
Photographers have been shooting sunrises and sunsets since cameras were invented – we can’t help ourselves. This serene scene was my reward for rising early on a Saturday. Cachuma Lake in the heart of the Santa Ynez valley is one of my favorite photo locations in Santa Barbara county. Although I made this image at the east end of the lake near the inlet of the Santa Ynez River, I was actually facing West (technically slightly Northwest) as I clicked my shutter. This is no anomaly. Whenever I am out shooting at sunrise, I tend to focus my attention to the West. Likewise at sunset you will frequently find my camera pointing East. I do this because I usually want to see the details in the foreground of my photograph, not just a silhouette.
And while it is true that the most dramatic part of the sky is often near the rising/setting sun, the sky in the opposite direction can be even more complex and subtle in its color palette, if a bit less intense. It is also true that techniques such as using split neutral density filters or combining multiple exposures in Photoshop can produce an image with foreground detail looking right into the rising/setting sun. There are many examples of these techniques accomplished with stunning effect. Other times, it can appear a bit forced or unnatural. Another advantage of ‘looking the other way’ is the gorgeous warm glowing quality of light that illuminates your foreground when you are facing away from the brightest part of the sky (i.e. the direction of the rising/setting sun). I’m really not trying to say one method or direction is better than another. As we know, every sunrise and sunset is unique. The important thing, as always is to really see the scene and then decide how to make your photograph. But you can’t see if you don’t even look. So next time you’re out for a sunrise or sunset photoshoot, resist the urge to automatically point your camera in the direction of the sun. Take time to look the other way…really, it’s o.k.
It’s pretty much an automatic reflex with most photographers to press the shutter button halfway to activate the autofocus as soon as they put their eye to the viewfinder. And why not, what’s the value of looking at a blurry image? Well, there’s a lot of value I think. In fact, I would say that at this point I do the majority of my composing looking at an out of focus image. As counterintuitive as it might seem this practice really helps me ‘see’ compositions much more clearly. When you look at a blurry image all you can really make out are the major shapes and tones in the frame, which are exactly the elements you want to work with when composing a picture.This technique confounds your left brain’s pesky tendency to suck you into the details and lose sight of the big picture.
In my next post I’ll be writing in depth about the workings of our left and right brain hemispheres. Suffice it to say for now that our left-brain is in love with details, instantly naming and categorizing everything it ‘sees’. Unfortunately, this gets in the way of actually seeing the things we are looking at. You need to be in right brain mode when composing images and looking at a fuzzy scene helps you make that switch. That’s because an out of focus image makes no sense to the left brain – it can’t deal with it. It can’t name its components, there’s nothing to categorize. I like to imagine that the left brain looks at the blurry picture, throws up its hands and walks away.
So next time you are composing a shot, keep your finger off that shutter button. You may even have to manually throw the image more out of focus. Then look at the amorphous shapes and tones in your frame and start making adjustments– there are no rules for this, you just have to try things until it starts to feel right. I know that’s really vague but all I can say is that a good composition feels pleasing visually and balanced while a poor composition does not. Using a tripod is a huge help when you are working this way because it allows you to make small adjustments, then evaluate, then adjust until it ‘works’.
This method is really a corollary to my previous photo tip about looking at small images when shooting or editing to get a better sense of the overall composition, what I call the ‘shape’ of the picture. It’s just another way of tricking the left brain into stepping aside and letting the right brain do its thing.
I’d love to know what you think about this photo tip. If you found it helpful, you can subscribe to future tips & posts about the Art of Seeing on my homepage.
“To look at a thing is very different from seeing it” – Oscar Wilde
Maybe the best way to start off this discussion is to relate how I came to see the light, so to speak. I was in my last year of photography school and a bit annoyed that the instructor of this particular class (Advanced Illustration Photography as I recall) had included “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards in the syllabus. After all, we were there to learn photography, not how to draw. (more…)