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Drilling For Compositions

February 24, 2013

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.

Darkling Falls, Skaftafell National Park

Darkling Falls, Skaftafell National Park. I started composing wider scenes from farther back.

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.

Fallen Rock and Falling Water, Skaftafell National Park

Fallen Rock and Falling Water, Skaftafell National Park. As I shot my way into the scene, I changed perspective by moving my feet.

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.

Flowing Past the Rank and File, Skaftafell National Park

Flowing Past the Rank and File, Skaftafell National Park. Horizontal, vertical, near, far… I made several compositions with the obvious point of interest at the location.

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.

Layer Upon Layer, Skaftafell National Park

Layer Upon Layer, Skaftafell National Park. I liked the structure visible in the basalt columns once I got up close to them. But in the end I didn’t get a composition of the structure that worked for me. Finding something and responding to it doesn’t always guarantee an excellent photograph.

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).

Animal Watching Mineral and Vegetable, Skaftafell National Park

Animal Watching Mineral and Vegetable, Skaftafell National Park. It still may not be to everyone’s taste, but I liked this composition once I backed away from the cliff wall and integrated some vegetation with view of the rock. The structure of the basalt is still part of the story.

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…

Photographers Working the Location, Skaftafell National Park

Photographers Working the Location, Skaftafell National Park. While I was doing my thing, my chums on the tour were drilling for their own compositions.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. David (Move along, nothing but Art here) permalink
    February 24, 2013 23:02

    And this is exactly where technology has permitted a different/ new way to approach this art. “In the old days” it would have been WAY too expensive, and time-consuming/ wasting to shoot and develop photos to “work your way” into the scene. It is indeed wonderful to be alive now, and yet disappointing not to be alive 100 years from now when the technology has again changed.

    • February 27, 2013 19:44

      True, Dave. However much purists may not want to admit it, technology has always influenced art.

      I think the time-consuming part is little different with old tech or new, certainly I spend no less time than I would with film! 🙂 I think the key thing that digital provides besides changing the cost equation, is the ability to really work the scene on any one visit and get a much better idea of what is working and what isn’t, while still there with time to refine. Of course a lot of people use that as an excuse for being lazy. 🙂 But there are at least 2 other ways to use the advantages of digital — one is by being really unstructured & experimental, throwing all kinds of things against the wall to see what might work. And the other is the sort of methodical approach I outlined here.

      We probably won’t have to wait 100 years for the technology to change again, it’s moving fast and there are some very cool things just a few years away. But this is indeed a pretty cool time to be a photographer… 🙂

  2. February 24, 2013 23:26

    Looking forward to being on this tour. Thanks for the post.

    • February 27, 2013 19:45

      Cheers Kayla! I’ll have some more to hopefully whet everyone’s appetites… 🙂

  3. February 27, 2013 14:12

    Excellent advice, Royce. Like you, I often get limited time in a particular location and I want to make the most of it while I’m there. Although I’ve never put it into words, I’ve more or less adopted the approach you describe above.

    I look at maps of a particular area, and ask advice from travelers and photographers I know who have visited these places. Usually this involves a sleepless night or two; my nature is to stress over things like this, and I might night sleep for a night or two as I run over details in my mind. However, I eventually reach a critical point at which stress turns to excitement and I crash. 🙂

    Repetition usually isn’t in the cards, but I do my best to maximize time in places I know hold high potential for images.

    The most important ingredient here is to respond. Absolutely! I can’t come up with one example of a time when I’ve visited a location and come home with a portfolio image that I actually expected to get. They are always unplanned. It leads me to wonder why I plan at all. 🙂

    I will add that over the last year or so, I’ve visited locations where I could find little or no beta on the location, so I had to go in blind, and rely solely on my response to the landscape. In some ways I feel like this is very satisfying because the creation of art happened in the moment without preconceived notions of what an image *should* look like. I think even for the most responsive photographer, preconceptions can act as blinders; shedding them really is like peeling reptilian scales from my eyes.

    BTW, I like the advice you give on shooting your way into a scene–I agree with that approach completely as well.


    • February 27, 2013 19:55

      Right on Greg! As much as I don’t like it, sometimes time limitations can be a benefit. It forces me to get serious about developing that level of awareness and getting down to making some work, rather than just slacking off. Heh heh. 🙂 But when given a choice, I have to say I do prefer a bit more time rather than less. And I generally prefer more time in fewer places, over less time in more places. The latter produces work that feels to me more like hunting the obvious trophies. I’m not above doing it, but it’s not where I get the most satisfaction, for sure.

      You & I are probably fairly similar in outlook & approach. Why plan? Because we can’t NOT plan! 🙂 And also, per the saying I mentioned in the article, “chance favors the prepared mind”. I prefer to think of it terms of scenarios rather than exact plans. If I find such-and-such in certain conditions, I’ll work that. If the conditions aren’t right, and I find so-and-so instead, then I’ll work that. Etc. The more exercise we give our creative eye & mind, the more flexible & adaptable it becomes… that’s a big part of responding as well. We get better at what we practice getting better at.

      I agree 100% on preconceptions potentially creating blinders, and could tell lots of stories on that front. Looking back, my most personally satisfying work seems to be when I take much of my expectations out of the equation. I do my research, I think about stuff I want to do all the rest, but more & more I try to stop projecting onto the scene what I want it to be, and instead take it on its own terms. Really connecting to a place in that way can be highly rewarding… and can lead to some interesting work, even some creative breakthroughs.

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