Moments Of Wow!

Get a glimpse of the simplicity on the other side of complexity

Dewitt Jones used his iPhone to capture this scene near his home on Molokai, Hawaii. It was a WOW! moment for him, but one that needed the benefits of HDR to come together fully. The image on the left is an underexposed single capture; on the right is the HDR rendition.

There’s a moment, before technique, before judgment, before even thought, when something turns my head. When light and line, texture and pattern reach out and, quite literally, grab me. My first conscious thought is simply, “Wow!” Wow!, not on an exhale, but on an inhale. An aesthetic gasp with three letters attached.

Here on Molokai, my friend Rik Cooke and I have made a pact: If we hear a “Wow!” we must shoot it. With our Canons, or our Lumixes, or our iPhones, or simply our mind-cameras, but we’ve taken a blood oath to honor those moments. To bear witness to our “Wows!”

This isn’t idle gesture; it’s serious business. Rik and I have been teaching together for 23 years. During those years, we’ve delved deeply into our photographic process. Below equipment, below technique, below judgment and thought, we’ve searched ever deeper for the essence of why we photograph, for the real reasons this discipline plays such a central role in our lives.

Long ago, we realized that it wasn’t the picture that drew us to photography; it was the connection—the connection, not with the image, but with life itself. That moment when you fall through the lens and connect directly with what you’re looking at.

When Rik and I talk about this moment in our classes, about half the students nod in agreement while the other half have an expression of, “Say, what? I thought I was just taking a photograph, not exposing my soul!”

It’s not an unreasonable reaction. Here’s why.

When we were young, we had no names for things, no judgment, no experience. We come to life innocent, unformed and uninformed. That’s an easy place from which to merge with what’s before you. You aren’t trying to make anything; you’re just opening yourself to wonder. As we go through life, it seems harder and harder to return to that state. Indeed, “beginner’s mind” is so highly prized, folks spend years in countless disciplines trying to return to that place of purity.

Most of the time when we photograph, our conscious adult mind is happy to control the process. After all, it tells us there are calculations to be made and lenses to choose. Tripods to set up, filters, the Rule of Thirds! This isn’t child’s play; this is serious business. It’s our technique that makes the photo.

Certainly true. But far too often, we get so caught up in our technique that we almost don’t hear or recognize or allow ourselves to bask in the “Wow!”

Can we make photos without the “Wow!”? Yes, but when I look at the photos I’ve taken that way, I find that, no matter how technically perfect they are, they simply don’t move me (or others, for that matter). They may be stunning, but they’re soulless. They don’t move others, and they don’t move me, so, really, what’s the point?

In the final analysis (or at least the analysis as far as Rik and I have taken it), it’s not an either/or choice. It’s a both/and. We can never really become children again. Never really shed ourselves of our techniques, experiences and judgments. Nor should we want to. But unless we allow ourselves not just to take, but to be taken by a subject, our images will go only so far.

So is it the simplicity of a child that we want to cultivate? No, actually, it’s the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

The simplicity on the other side of complexity. Showing up having engaged in all the study, practice and discipline that makes us a master of our tools. Showing up with all our experience of what makes a great landscape photograph and how to capture it on film. But then putting all that aside and showing up with our mind as open—as ready for the Wow!—as it was the very first time a landscape enthralled us, long before we even knew what a camera was.

Last night, I was having trouble finishing this column and decided to take a walk on the local golf course—just me and my pitching wedge. As I walked down the 2nd fairway, the light of the setting sun was almost blinding. I could barely look straight ahead, much less to my left toward that blinding ball. Then, another step, and the light went away. My head turned involuntarily. There, in the exact spot where I stood, the sun was momentarily blocked by the one lone tree on the fairway. What I beheld was magic. “Wow!” I gasped, on an inhale. And for a few moments, I just stared, lost in the connection.

If you hear a “Wow!” shoot! Yes, yes, but I don’t have a camera, I have a pitching wedge! Wait! I have my iPhone! (It’s not the iPhone that’s important here. I could have had my Lumix LX4 on my belt or my Canon EOS 7D around my neck. The important point is, I had a camera.)

My experience as a photographer told me that if I took a straight exposure, it would end up like the photograph at far left, hopelessly underexposed. My experience also told me that if I took two exposures, I could blend them together as an HDR image and have the correct exposure in the foreground as well as the background. In short, I had the technique to translate my experience into an image. So that’s what I did (and then added a few more tweaks with various apps to enhance the magic). I loved the moment. I loved the Wow! I loved the connection. I loved the result.

Standing in front of the landscape with the techniques of a pro and the mind of a child. The simplicity on the other side of complexity. Wow!

Dewitt Jones now posts a daily photographic image on Facebook. You can friend him and enjoy the show. Also check out his new ebook, iPhone Art in My Life, on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the Apple iBookstore.

Dewitt Jones is one of America’s top professional photographers. Twenty years with National Geographic photographing stories around the globe has earned him the reputation as a world-class photojournalist. As a motion picture director, he had two documentary films nominated for Academy Awards before he was thirty. Dewitt has published nine books including California! and John Muir’s High Sierra. His most recent book, The Nature of Leadership, was created in collaboration with Stephen R. Covey.