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Zen Trees
Zen Trees

Nothing has influenced the way I see in nature more than learning to work with light, and its many qualities. This seems to me like an endless process, one that I will never be able to complete in my lifetime. Yet each experience I have teaches me something profound, both mentally and emotionally.

Working with light is photography at its essence, where everything else is stripped away and all that is left is your vision and intuition about how to convey what you feel. I know, we all want to know more about settings, lenses, exposure, best use of everything we have in our camera bags. So at the end of the post I will share the details.

We are so distracted by the technology and complexity of digital photography these days, that this essence is missing most of the time. So here’s a useful exercise- put the magazines down, shut the computer off, put a camera around your neck with one lens (yes, leave the backpack home), and find your favorite spot in nature close to your home.

Then just look. (Feel free to substitute look with watch, see, feel, and breathe)

Observe how the light changes throughout the day, or in different weather conditions. Study not only what it does to the landscape around you, but how it affects you and your emotions. Notice how the same tree can evoke different feelings, and symbolize different ideas based on your own perceptions and experiences.

This level of thinking requires passion, study, time, and more time. Is it worthwhile? Only you can answer that for yourself. What does photography mean to you, and most important, why do you photograph? This is a question I have asked here more than once, but for me deserves re-thinking every day.

Zen Trees is an image I recently made while hiking during heavy fog conditions. Working in fog is difficult, since the direction of light, the little that there is, is crucial to the success of the image. The same ideas apply as in direct light, but here they are so subtle, and the light so soft that you really have to watch how it changes carefully.
Also, the drama that we normally have with direct light is not quite the same, so composition is crucial. Here I was just trying to emulate many of my favorite landscape paintings, where the light is soft, yet the forest is seems lit from the side so that shadows are minimal. Color was also on my mind as I tried to frame the different shades of green to greatest effect.

Camera settings are 1/40 sec, f/4, 32mm, ISO 800. It was relatively dark, so I wanted as fast a shutter speed as possible to minimize leaf movement. A forest scene is more forgiving with higher ISO’s, so I wasn’t worried about using 800 on this camera, which I know has great high ISO performance. (Knowing every aspect of your gear is important here).

The rest is just working with the composition until it feels cohesive, but also with some tension created by the strong pull of light in the top left, balanced with the rocks lower right. Failure is a great teacher.

Remember the tools are here to serve us, and not the other way around. Knowing and understanding this is not enough, you must apply it in real life – maybe the next time you go out to make photographs. I hope these thoughts and ideas are helpful, thanks as always for reading!

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This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. You have definitely captured the mood here. I feel like I’m there. I always learn a lot from your philosophy and approach to a photograph. Thanks for that!

  2. I couldn’t agree more about leaving all the fancy gear behind. That isn’t what makes good photography. On the other hand, some of the photography you produce here is exceptional including the photograph in this post. It seems like this backlash against the overemphasis on gear has a lot of momentum right now. It is good to see. Technology has its place, but is certainly not the centerpiece of this art.

    1. It is good to see – and this is certainly coming from someone who loves technology and all that it enables us to do in the field. I just feel that its value and usefulness is determined by the ability of the photographer to master the medium, something that is not often spoken about enough in the internet these days. Thanks for the insight as always David!


  3. You’ve certainly captured the essence and my struggle of what it means to photograph. My challenge remains capturing in the photo what I’m feeling, and what I see. What is it about what I see that creates the feeling/emotion? That’s my challenge — to convey and share the experience. Gear is fine, but it’s only a tool.

    1. Thanks for the feedback Hillel – I think a useful exercise might be to look at other artwork that creates similar feelings and trying to determine what causes that. Is it a particular color, or perhaps the way the composition is arranged? I do this constantly with painting in particular, and I find it helps me tremendously in my own work. I’ll write about this more in the near future!


    1. Yes, which is one of the reason I love fog – it just add another element that helps move the image away from the familiar and create more of an interpretation. Thanks for the feedback!


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