The Challenges of Simplifying

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“Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful.” -John Maeda

I’m in Acadia National Park leading two workshops, and happened to make this image in order to illustrate the importance of simplicity to students. I also share that quote by John Maeda, which is one of my favorites and gets at the real essence of what simplicity really is. Certainly it is difficult to achieve, and often elusive as we try and capture everything we see and feel in a landscape. But what we truly see is usually not the entire landscape, but the most compelling aspects that create our experiences. The rest becomes the backdrop, the supporting “harmony” that lets the viewer clearly see what you reacted to when you pressed the shutter button.

For me in this image, it was the calm lying just underneath the turbulent drama of the clouds, the stillness of the rocks and water, with splashes of color to add to the richness of the moment. That’s it. Breaking those feelings down to basic visual components is what simplicity is all about, and this lets the viewer look beyond the individual elements, and maybe, just maybe, imagine that same sense of wonder. Whether or not you achieve that is not the important part, it’s whether you start out with that intent. If you do, you have a greater chance of making simpler images more often. That’s the whole point of the creative process.

I’ve made many images of Jordan Pond, but the simpler I make them, the more I feel they convey what I love about the place. It’s a journey – not always moving in the direction of success as quickly as we’d like, but definitely one that adds more meaning to the effort and the results when they do come our way.

Photo Journal: Autumn Hudson River

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I’m always amazed at how light can make the same places I’ve visited and photographed over and over again look and feel completely different. And while that’s a rarer experience the more you do visit a location, it doesn’t make that place any less attractive in my mind.

This spot on the Hudson is a prime example, and I’m often hesitant to visit thinking I’ve made all the possible images I can. Once again I was proved wrong, and I left with that familiar smile on my face that acknowledged how silly it is to try and predict nature, or assume anything at all about what might happen. As usual, patience was the deciding factor.

The morning started off dreary and gray, and I figured I’d just get out to see what the autumn colors looked like. When I reached this rocky perch after a very short hike, I could see warm patches of light starting to appear in the sky, and as they became stronger, I could also see their effect on the landscape – that beautiful warm glow on foliage and vegetation. This was almost an hour after sunrise, so I wasn’t thinking about the time, but focusing on what was actually happening in front of me. (You can photograph after the golden hour, contrary to what so many others suggest is not worth the time.)

Once I saw I had an opportunity because of the great light, I tried to create a composition that took advantage of the many layers already in the scene. The foreground rock I was standing on, the forested area in front and below it, the river, the mountains. But what attracted me the most was the dramatic sky, with big dark clouds breaking to reveal lighter clouds and blue sky towards the east. Dividing the image in “layers” like this adds depth, and allows the eye to move through the image easily without any distractions. While I tried a few shots without the foreground rock, it certainly added a textural and dimensional component that expanded the image to my liking, like a musical composition building in layers.

I exposed for the sky, making sure not to clip any highlights whatsoever. I could see the cloud textures easily, and so wanted to make sure I captured them completely – they would be the key to adding the drama and feeling I wanted to convey. I used a 12mm lens on my Olympus E-M1, no filters, and shot at f/11 to make sure I had plenty of depth of field. I focused about 8’ in front of the lens, to make sure I had good detail on the foreground and background mountains.

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Original raw image in Lightroom

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Adjustment brush used to mask the sky – I adjusted exposure, highlights, and clarity. Graduated filter does not work here since I have too many contours in the mountains to work around. 

Processing in Lightroom was straight forward, where I darkened the sky to bring back the drama and mood I wanted to convey. A little extra contrast and clarity help the textures become more significant, and I used some light dodging and burning to help add separation between the different layers.

Hope that helps, and please feel free to leave your questions and comments below.

Nature Photography at the Omega Institute

“A great teacher is one who realizes that he himself is also a student and whose goal is not to dictate the answers, but to stimulate his students creativity enough so that they go out and find the answers themselves.” – Herbie Hancock

I’m teaching a week long photo workshop at the Omega Institute this week, and I started the class with this quote from legendary musician Herbie Hancock. It encompasses my approach to teaching and getting students to trust their own instincts about their creative potential. While it’s the harder path intitially, I think it gets people thinking more deeply, and asking the hard questions about why they photograph. And hopefully I can help them answer that question in a way that brings clarity and makes photography as rewarding as possible. 

Here are a few more favorite quotes I like to share with students.

“The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them.” – Anton Chekhov

“Searching is everything – going beyond what you know. And the test of the search is really in the things themselves, the things you seek to understand. What is important is not what you think about them, but how they enlarge you.” – Wynn Bullock

October 2014 Free Desktop Wallpaper

The October 2014 Free Desktop Wallpaper is now available for download. I love photographing the marshes up and down the Hudson River, and this image captures a unique perspective by utilizing a camera mounted to a quadcopter.

As always, come closer to nature in the Hudson Valley.

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1920 x 1200

1920 x 1080

1680 x 1050

1280 x 800

Instructions:

First determine your screen size. Your Current Resolution Is:

Then click on the link for the correct size. When the image opens in a new browser window, right click on the image and select “Set as Wallpaper” (on a Mac, select “Use Image as Desktop Picture”).

Mindfulness for Creativity

Canon 1Ds Mk III, 1/125 sec@f/5.6, ISO 800, 85mm (EF70-200L 2.8IS)

Canon 1Ds Mk III, 1/125 sec@f/5.6, ISO 800, 85mm (EF70-200L 2.8IS)

 

One of the most important skills a landscape photographer can develop is a deep sense of awareness. This is defined as a deep knowledge or perception of a situation or environment, and as you might imagine, extremely useful when working in nature. Why? There are many reasons, some of which I’ll outline here based on my own experiences. But in general the more you’re aware of your surroundings, and more importantly how you perceive them, the easier it will be to connect with what you’re feeling inside. Without that critical insight, it becomes very difficult if not impossible to make images that convey what you see and feel to others.

So much of a successful photograph is about conveying personal opinions and perspectives, your unique vision. That comes from seeing deeply into nature in a way that goes beyond the obvious. Our senses are constantly feeding us with all sorts of valuable information, yet often only a small percentage is consciously recognized. This is because our brains are constantly thinking, judging, grasping, and doing all sorts of other mental gymnastics that keep us from perceiving what is actually happening in the moment. Whether the movement of light across a meadow, the gesture of a tree, the subtle colors of the sky during twilight; all of these become more interesting and potentially more enlightening the more aware we become. And as they say, it’s all in the details. Without a certain amount of mental silence, these details often go unnoticed.

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” – Ansel Adams

Mindfulness is the key to awareness, and the best method known to develop mindfulness is meditation. I’m not referring to anything religious based, or new agey, but scientifically proven techniques that allow us to recognize our constant thoughts for what they are, thoughts and not reality. I’ve been meditating for almost six years now, and I can honestly say its helped me with stress, anxiety, and deepened my experiences in nature both as a landscape photographer and human being. We have so much going on in our daily lives that often gets in the way of creativity. Taking a relaxed walk or hike in nature is certainly a great way to reduce some of that mental baggage, but combining that with meditation really helps to see what matters from what doesn’t. I’m not at all suggesting that this is some sort of panacea or solution to better photography, but rather another tool you can utilize that has stood the test of time.

Recently meditation has become more mainstream and popular, largely because it has been scientifically studied and shown to provide numerous health benefits. I think it’s a great way to gain a broader perspective on life, reduce stress, and practice photography in a more relaxed, open minded approach. A simple exercise consisting of following your breath every morning for 10 minutes is a great way to start the day, and can lead to more profound benefits down the road. If you’d like to explore mindfulness, here are some great resources to get started. I highly recommend giving one of these a try…there’s not much to lose, and much to gain.

Books

Apps and Websites

Meditation Center and Mindfulness based workshops

Has meditation been beneficial for you?

Thanks for reading as always, and any questions or feedback, please leave them below.