I’m finally back home after two weeks in Utah leading two consecutive workshops with an amazing group of human beings. That explains in part why I haven’t been writing much here recently. Workshops are highly immersive for me, and so I basically block out everything else that isn’t directly related to the students and the environment I’m in. But that’s part of a much broader approach to life I’m trying to adopt that revolves around the idea of focusing on what’s essential, and eliminating the rest.
Focusing on the essential is an idea I will return to in the future as it has slowly permeated all aspects of my life, and there’s a book on how it relates to photography in the works as well. In a world full of limitless distractions and shallow activities, I want the opposite; meaningful growth and experiences, and increased creative potential.
That was certainly evident during this month’s workshops in the incredible southwest. Even after endless moments of wonder in an awe-inspiring landscape, what moves me the most is the human experiences. We arrive as strangers with common interests, but we depart with a deeper connection to nature and each other that transcends both camera and images made. It’s only when the images become secondary that meaningful creative growth becomes possible.
For me, that involves a commitment to what’s essential about landscape photography: an emotional connection to the landscape and a willingness to let go of outcomes.
The opposite of success isn’t failure, but an unwillingness to try things that will probably fail. When the outcome isn’t the goal, curiosity can lead us to new ideas—ideas about composition, about subject matter, or how to approach a familiar or iconic landscape.
Those are also my only goals for a workshop; making sure students find that space which allows them to be curious—which by definition means they can be themselves without self-judgment or external criticism. The technical and mechanical aren’t forgotten, they play an essential role in making images. But those are finite, and what I’m interested in sharing most is what comes after – the path of creativity.
While I usually answer all reader questions in the CreativePath Newsletter, I decided to answer this particular question here because I think it directly relates to what I’ve been discussing so far.
What’s your thought process when you arrive at a site and you want to make a nice composition?”
First, my thought process begins before I even get to a location. So much of success in photography involves attitude. Having an open mind to any possibility is critical otherwise truly seeing what’s in front of you becomes difficult and obscured by expectations and judgments.
As I say in my Eight Principles of Nature Photography, the worst question to ask is “what’s wrong.” Better to seek what’s right and follow that thread wherever it leads. For me that starts with light, and how it’s interacting with the landscape. That might be as far as my eye can see, or just a small part of the overall landscape – perhaps a flower, or the shoreline in front of me.
If the idea is to make a composition as strong as possible, then we must include only what adds strength, and remove what doesn’t. To know what makes a composition stronger, you must study the basics of visual design; lines, shapes, curves. texture, and pattern. You also must study light and all of its qualities.
So if I were to make a list of my mental thoughts when I venture out to make images, it would look something like this.
- Make sure I’m in the most grateful state of mind – receptive to whatever nature offers because there is always something positive when you’re spending time in nature.
- Try to “see” what inspires me, which is much different than looking.
- Analyze the light and where it’s having the greatest effect on the landscape and my curiosity.
- Look for interesting shapes, patterns, lines, and tones that can make an interesting composition.
- Only press the shutter when I feel inspired, and remain focused on the first 4 items above. If I capture something, it becomes irrelevant at that point because it’s in the past—what matters most is what’s happening at the moment. The “past” I can review later when nature is no longer in front of me. The more time you spend judging the past, the less receptive you become to the present—the path the leads to better images.
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