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Canon 1DS Mk III, f/8@1/160 sec, ISO 400, 24mm (EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM), Manual, No Filters / Processed in Lightroom 5
Have you ever thought about how competent you are as a nature photographer? Or whether your competence in one area is limiting you in another area? Say for example you’re really comfortable with editing your images, so comfortable in fact that you pay less attention to composition or camera technique.

In this post I want to explore competence as it relates to creative flow, and see how that can be use to help you improve your vision and your craft.

The Importance of Technical Details and Muscle Memory

I recently asked many of you to let me know what you wanted to see more of on the blog. One of the things that kept coming up over and over again was camera settings and other technical info. I definitely haven’t done a good enough job of that, and honestly I should be ashamed! I say that jokingly because I remember when I got started it was all I thought about, all I wanted to read and learn about as well. I devoured everything I could find on camera technique, settings, and any and all technical info that would help me to make better pictures, or at the very least look like I knew what I was doing.

But gradually I noticed something interesting and exciting happening – I was focusing more on what I saw through the camera’s viewfinder. At some point I had internalized the basic principles of things like aperture, shutter, exposure, and depth of field to the point that I could do it without much mental effort – it became a part of my muscle memory. I’m not saying that I don’t think about it now, I have to every time I go out into the field. It’s just that it doesn’t get in the way as much as it used to. That’s a very liberating way to approach creative photography, and I would even say it’s the only way. So let’s see how that happens.

Stages of Competence

The book Agile Results, which I recommended recently, talks about a theory in psychology that explains the four stages of competence:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence– You don’t know what you don’t know.
  2. Conscious Incompetence– You know what you don’t know.
  3. Conscious Competence– You know how to do it, but you have to think your way through it.
  4. Unconscious Competence– You can do it without thinking. You just know what to do.

What stage do you think you spend much of your time in as a photographer? Are you moving through these stages or getting stuck somewhere? This is important, because it can tell you when and where you need to practice more, and whether your photographic goals are too big or too small.

”The ‘flow’ state is what many of us crave. It’s when you’re in the zone. The key to finding your flow state is learning something to the point it’s baked in. A skill is baked in when you can do it without thinking about it.” JD Meir

As a photographer you should be constantly moving through these stages in every thing you do. Using your camera, choosing lenses and focal lengths, composition, processing, etc. Yes there are lots of things that go into making images…it can be daunting for sure. How far along you get in these stages determines how successful you become overall. But there are definitely some areas that are more important than others. This is what I try to teach and emphasize in my workshops – only when you become completely clear about your process in the field will your ability to see become stronger and more natural. And I’m sure that’s what every photographer wants, myself included. So lets look at a real world example.

Making of an Image

“Fog at Low Tide” is an image I made on the shores of the Hudson River. All images start with composition, and that’s all about relationships. Foreground to background, light to dark, small details to large shapes, and how colors interact – lots to consider and think of. I planned the shoot during low tide, which often exposes interesting things along the shoreline. This helps to create more depth, interest, and visual contrast. As I walked out onto this beach, I knew making an image was going to be extra challenging. Why? Not much color, sky was bland and grey, and the fog created a sense of shallowness. But what I did find interesting was the quality of light and all of the small textures and details, especially in the sand. It also felt like I was isolated on this strip of the river, and I wanted to convey that as well. So as I considered the options, I decided to think about black and white and emphasize the shapes and textures already there.

Experimenting with compositions and placement of the fallen tree, I tried to remove the shoreline, but just seems incomplete somehow…tree looks like it’s intruding into the composition. Failure.
Canon 1DS Mk III, f/8@1/160 sec, ISO 400, 32mm (EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM), Manual, No Filters

Alternate composition without fallen tree - ultimately fails for me because of lack of interest in transition from foreground to background.
Alternate composition without fallen tree – ultimately fails for me because of lack of interest in transition from foreground to background. Not enough “pull” to lead the eye through and just becomes rather ambiguous – another reject.
Canon 1DS Mk III, f/8@1/125 sec, ISO 400, 40mm (EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM), Manual, No Filters

Original image before b&w conversion and adjustments. Color is basic and doesn’t really add anything, but tonalities are much more interesting. Composition is also balanced, strong leading lines, and implied diagonals create depth and scale.
Ok, so I had something to work with, but now how to find the strongest composition?

“Composition is the strongest way of seeing” – Edward Weston

Leaving the tree out of the composition made the transition from foreground to background too ambiguous for me…no real path for the eye to follow. Moving towards the tree gave me something with lots of contrast, and that would help balance the empty sky. The grass in the foreground would provide the small details I always look for, together with all of the small holes in the sand (which I have no idea how they were formed.)

In order to emphasize the foreground, I positioned my camera (on a tripod) about 24” above the sand, which lowered my perspective for greater depth and raised the tree in to the composition closer to the sky, and importantly above the ridges across the river.

At 24mm and f/8, my hyperfocal distance is just under 8 feet, which means my near focus is 4 feet and far is infinity. I used f/8 because I wanted to keep my shutter speeds as high as possible due to wind, and also because I really didn’t need more that than for the composition. Notice that the closest grasses are about 3–4 feet away, and the most important parts are the downed tree, sand, and trees on the left hand side of the image along the shore. Understanding and using hyperfocal distance is important here, and I use an iPhone app to calculate it when I forget or need to re-check my settings.

[jbox color=”gray”] For online calculators, check out DOF Master – you can even print the out and take them with you, something I did before the apps.

The other important thing here is exposure, and I took a reading on the foreground, then overexposed it by about 3/4 stop. This is because cameras try to make whatever they read neutral grey, and that would have made the foreground sand too dark. It also would have left a huge gap on my histogram in the highlights, and I try to expose to the right as much as I can. The sky is already featureless, so having some of it clip would was ok.

How to Improve

The most valuable thing I can share is the lessons I’ve learned from my own experiences. And the way I try and improve is by working out of my comfort zone. There’s no way I could have made this image without the ability to get into a creative flow. But I am still constantly experimenting, even in small ways. For example, in the above image I could have used ISO 100, or f/11, to guarantee better depth of field and less noise. Very true, but I like to try things, push the camera, unlearn old habits, and see how and where my technique succeeds and where it fails. This is how you expand your knowledge of your tools for situations that may be really challenging. And thinking about the 4 stages of competence, you move closer to stage 4, where the “flow” happens.

You should always be doing this, at whatever level you’re at. The more you work out of your comfort zone, the more you learn, and the more competent you become.

I hope this post has been helpful, and makes you think about your own process. But mostly I want to say celebrate when you succeed, because it means you’ve given yourself permission to fail. That’s a great achievement. 

Have any questions or feedback? Please let me know in the comments below – there are no beginner questions, I can guarantee you that!

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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Hi Robert,
    Definitely the best choice of all the options you present. The low perspective really makes it. I realize it’s beyond the scope of this particularly blog post, but I’d be curious about how you converted the image to monochrome. There’s something subtle about it that fits the subject — it’s not a stark kind of B&W.

  2. Thanks for the lesson and the insight Robert. I am always pushing myself and my camera out of our comfort zones. Sometimes I have a lot of failures, but there are times I get that one photo that makes all the failures worth while.

    Thanks again,


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