Drilling For Compositions
Markéta Kalvachová and I will be leading what promises to be an exciting photography tour in Iceland this coming July. This is a small group event, and it is filling up, but there are still some spaces available. If you’d like to see and photograph summer light on some of the most fantastic terrain in the world, bring your camera and join us! This experience will be ideal for participants who are equally enthusiastic about travel, the outdoors and photography. See my tour announcement post or contact me for details.
As I continue to work through the collection of photographs I made on my trip to Iceland in June 2012, I’m finding examples that illustrate some of the subconscious things I do when I’m exploring a locale — especially one that’s brand new, where I’m going to have only a little time to work before moving on. An example of the technique I’m talking about is something I’ve posted before… I often call it shooting my way into the scene.
Stepping back for a second — one of the things to love about Iceland is the geology. Between the incredible volcanic activity, the force exerted by massive glaciers, and the live plate techtonics the results of which you can actually physically stand within, there’s a tremendous sense of wonderment I find in the dynamic essence of the land. A fascinating geological feature is the proliferation of polygonal basalt columns. These are rock formations comprised of (usually) 6-sided columns jammed in with each other, but physically distinct from one another. They’re created by a process of lava flow & cooling. A few places around the world have formations like this, but the ones in Iceland are incredible. One day on our 2012 tour we were due to visit Svartifoss (aka the Black Falls), a place where a modest waterfall cascades over a cliff face of basalt columns. I was really looking forward to arriving there and seeing & photographing it for myself.
Unless one has an existing base of familiarity with a location, however, it’s sometimes difficult to know what’s going to end up working out. What vantage point will I like the best? What if there are a lot of people there and we’re competing for a certain angle? What if the weather or other conditions aren’t right? What if I’m just off my game and can’t figure anything out?
In another presentation I did recently, I talked about 3 ways to tackle photography at a location never before visited: research, repeat and respond. You can mix & match any or all of these tactics, and I normally use a combination of them whenever I can. Research is digging into available material about a place before actually going there. There’s a wealth of information out there, and chance favors the prepared mind, as the saying goes. Repeat is about giving yourself more than a single brief opportunity to absorb the essence & character of a place. If your schedule permits, plan to visit a high priority location more than once; or if only once, then with a good chunk of time to permit more than just a glimpse.
But here’s the thing with those two tactics. Research will tell you what other people know about or have done at the location, not what it will mean to you. And repetition is not always possible in travel photography. Sometimes you get one shot at a location, and no matter what anybody else has written or shown about it you want to make something that represents your own personal vision and style.
Here’s where the third tactic comes in — learn how to respond to the scene. This is about having a really thin skin over your eyes and creative mind. It’s about being well enough rested and with good creative energy so you’re able to really focus. It’s about learning to actively see a place rather than just be in it or remember what the tour guide said. It’s about having an awareness of the kinds of things that appeal to you, and having a sense of your own style and approach to composition. Basically, it’s being able to take in what a place has to offer, break it down into elements that motivate your creativity, and then assemble those raw parts into compositions of subject and light that tell your story of the place.
Responding to the scene doesn’t always happen immediately for me, and this is where I close the loop back to my approach mentioned above, of shooting my way into the scene. I know some photographers who prefer to simply walk around a new location and look at it, considering different angles & views, looking at the play of light, allowing their creative senses to come into play. Me, I’m usually more active. I want to respond in a way that’s not shallow, but gets at something a little less obvious about the place. I normally do this in an active way by fairly quickly setting up various compositions, capturing them, refining my view, and repeating.
By the time I’ve done this several times I find I certainly end up making work from a perspective that’s different than what I’d accomplish if I just photographed the obvious features and then moved along. And unlike the more contemplative approach that I could use, just regarding the scene until I find something I think worthy of responding to, I do end up with a series of compositions that progress through the location. Almost as if I’ve drilled my way into compositions, moving from a shallower level to a deeper one. Sometimes I’ll hit the mother lode early; sometimes it comes later. Creative expression is as much a process as it is a single point where it exists (or doesn’t).
The series of images posted here from Svartifoss illustrates this approach. I started farther back with wider angled views of the obvious key features at the location, involving the primary waterfall cascade plunging over a cliff face made up of appealing basalt columns. As I moved my feet and moved into the scene, I changed my perspective and experimented with different focal lengths on the single lens I kept on the camera (a standard zoom, with a range of 45 – 85mm). I began to dial into tighter views and then into details. And as I kept moving, I found other aspects of the scene away from the obvious primary subject material, that provided some interesting things to work with as well.
Many of the compositions I made, whether early or late in the progression, will never see the light of day. A lot got deleted, and others will be kept just for reference. That’s okay; no serious photographer only shoots “keepers”. The missteps were still steps along the path of seeing & responding to the scene, drilling in to discover the compositions that I ultimately kept.
If you find yourself photographing a new location and can’t quite get a grip on how to tackle it, try a similar approach. Whether you’ll be able to return or not, and regardless of what you may already know about the place, think in terms of using your time there to actively develop your response to what is on offer here & now. Start by framing some obvious compositions. Look at them briefly, think about them, see what catches your eye (or not), weigh the frames against the kinds of stylistic and compositional choices that work for you, and then refine. Change your perspective, re-compose and shoot again. Do it as many times as you’ve got time for. By the end, you may have drilled your way to at least one composition that’s satisfying and wasn’t at all obvious.
And remember… there are still some openings for you to drill your way into compositions in Iceland, by joining Markéta and me on our Icelandic Summer Light photo tour. 🙂
How do you approach a location you’ve never visited before? Do you research it like mad, or plan to visit it intensively during your trip? Do you find ways to heighten your own ability to respond while actually on the scene? Or some combination of all 3? Feel free to comment…