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Who among us isn’t hoping for a secret formula or a magic spell we can use to conjure up great images anywhere, anytime, at our beck and call? A switch we can flip to reveal unique compositions, beautiful light, rare moments and deep insight—a “silver bullet.”
Obviously, there’s no such thing and, when you think about it, it’s good that there isn’t. If making powerful images was as easy as snapping our fingers, would we truly appreciate them?
And yet, there are some easy answers. There are tips you can use today that won’t cost you a penny, but may make a significant difference in the quality of your work. They have for me.
Bullet One: Get Out More
Magic happens. Somewhere out there something wonderful is unfolding. This is as true for this very moment as it is for any other. If you’re reading this, you’re probably not there to see it; but rest assured there will be more perfect moments to be found than you can fit in a lifetime.
The more time you spend outdoors, where your favorite subjects are, the more likely you are to be at the right place at the right time to experience and photograph them. Too many people are under the impression that a quick trip to a pretty place comes with a guarantee of superior images. Not so. As landscape photographers, we’re very much at the mercy of numerous random factors. Some phenomena can be predicted with some accuracy and some can’t.
There’s always an element of luck in getting a special image, no matter how well planned. There’s no public schedule for serendipity, superb light doesn’t take reservations, and dramatic skies don’t appear on command. Your best chance of finding something unique is to give something unique a better chance of finding you.
Bullet Two: Be Serious
Take your subjects seriously, take your camera seriously and—more than anything—take yourself seriously. Believe that you can make great images, believe that whatever camera you’re holding right now is capable of capturing great images and believe that there are great images to be found wherever you are. A common mistake is to dismiss a special moment for lack of faith in your own abilities or the abilities of the camera you happen to have with you.
When you come upon an interesting subject, take your time—study it and ask yourself: “What can I do with this?” and “Is this really the best possible composition?” These questions have nothing to do with whether you’re toting a hefty 8x10 view camera or a little point-and-shoot. They have nothing to do with whether you’ve hiked 20 miles to a remote wilderness or just stepped out in your flip-flops on a family vacation.
If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. If the scene evokes emotion, if the light is good and if you compose it properly, you’ll have a great image. Anything short of that, and all you’ll end up with will be excuses. Put your best effort into it, and you just might turn what would otherwise be a missed opportunity into a masterpiece.
Don’t let yourself off the hook, cut corners and underestimate your viewers. Photographs don’t play poker—they can’t hide a weak hand. To put it bluntly: Nobody cares why an image doesn’t work or why an image almost works.
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|Juniper and lichen-covered rock, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah. Rather than lament a plain sunrise, Tal explored other options and found the morning glow lighting these vibrant reds and greens. Canon EOS 5D, Canon 17-40mm ƒ/4 L|
Bullet Three: Do Your Research
As much as we’re dependent on any number of factors that are beyond our control, there still are a lot of things we can do to increase our chances of finding those special scenes in their prime. These can be as simple as timing our visits appropriately (right time of day, right season, etc.) or as involved as learning the natural history of the places we visit—geology, weather patterns, wildlife and plant life and their unique characteristics and behavior at given times in their natural cycles, the phase of the moon or the direction and timing of sunrise and sunset.
Learn good outdoor skills. Just as important as knowing where to go and when is knowing how to work and move comfortably when you get there. Outdoor skills are invaluable in many ways and not just for those seeking images. The comfort, confidence and safety of knowing where you are, what to do, what to look out for, how to find your way, where to find water, how much food and clothing to carry all can work wonders toward improving your state of mind and allowing you to concentrate on more creative endeavors.
|Autumn leaves trapped in ice, Zion National Park, Utah. The unusual combination of freezing temperatures and the turning of the maples provided a unique photo op. Wista VX 4x5 field camera, Fujinon A 180mm, Fujichrome Provia 100F|
Bullet Four: Good Gear Takes You Only
Your equipment plays a major role in photography. By having the right gear, you give yourself a natural advantage, but only up to a point. What’s important is to keep in mind the role gear plays in our craft and to consider its value in that limited context. Good gear will enable you to make technically good images. Gear won’t make your images more evocative. It won’t improve your composition. It won’t make the light better. It won’t make the subject any more interesting and, consequently, it won’t make your images more successful. The best kind of gear is the gear you don’t have to worry about—gear that lets you concentrate on making images rather than technical minutia. If you compare a fine image to a fine meal, remember that even the best and most expensive dinnerware won’t make your food taste any better.
So buy the gear that can capture sufficient detail for the size prints you want to make (so you don’t have to worry about how to fix that later), can help you make good exposure decisions (so you don’t have to worry about how to fix that later), give you sufficient support and stability to make sharp images (who wants to worry about how to fix that later?), provides flexibility in framing your composition (so you don’t have to worry about how to fix that later), and is sufficiently light and comfortable to carry wherever you go. With all those worries out of the way, go about making images.
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Bullet Five: Don’t Force It
If you’ve been to a beautiful place and didn’t capture great images, you’re still better off than if you hadn’t gone at all. If you let your lack of photographic success on a given trip make you bitter and frustrated, only then will you truly have wasted your time.
Keep in mind the reason you wanted to photograph these places to begin with—you were likely inspired by their beauty, moved by their timeless majesty and touched by their raw spiritual powers. None of these should change just because on a given day conditions weren’t conducive to photography.
Savor the experience for what it is. Otherwise, it can be a dangerous catch-22: The harder you try, the more likely you are to become frustrated and to miss the very things that inspired you to begin with. Let the place speak to you; let its beauty—both grand and subtle—touch your soul. Images will likely present themselves when you’re in the right state of mind, and even if they don’t, you’ll be doing a disservice to yourself and cheapen the very experience you set out to find by hanging your enjoyment on whether or not you manage to get a “keeper.”
If you’re not enjoying yourself, your work will suffer as a result. While many aspects of good photography have to do with technical proficiency, those intangible little things that distinguish “good” from “great” are all about emotion. If you don’t feel it, you likely won’t be able to express it. Natural places can do wonders for your spirit—they can put your mind at ease, inspire inner peace, make you forget about the mundane drudgery that makes up so much of our lives and give you a chance to be transported into a simpler, more beautiful world where things just make sense.
Make it your primary goal to immerse yourself in the experience. Don’t over-burden yourself with the thoughts that you must find something, anything, to photograph. Remember you’re there to make images of beautiful experiences. Make it a beautiful experience first, and you’ll have something to photograph.
Bullet Six: It Doesn’t End With The Click
You went to great expense to buy your gear, you spent your time traveling and finding the best light and composition, and you captured a timeless miracle of immense beauty—you put all this effort into building toward the moment of sharing something incredible with your viewers. Now what? It’s not over—not by a long shot.
Much has been written (and will continue to be written, including by yours truly) about the importance of the photographer’s vision and creativity. What often surprises me, though, is that so many of us fail miserably when it comes to the ultimate test of the image: presenting it to our viewers. Some might even say this is the most important and critical point in the proverbial life-cycle of an image—its raison d’etre, its ultimate test, the point where all our efforts, our vision, our skill, our expensive gear and our desire to share something with the world culminate into one singular experience.
Your work in the field is only the beginning. It’s where you gather the raw materials, the inspiration and the concept of your final image. All images require postprocessing to achieve their final look and to optimize them for a given presentation, whether in print, on the web, in a slideshow or in any other medium.
Postprocessing techniques are just as important to the success of an image as composition, exposure and fieldwork. Take the time to master your tools, whether you prefer a wet darkroom or digital editing or both. If your postprocessing skills don’t measure up to your camera skills, your images always will be half done.
Ask yourself honestly why you make images in the first place, and if anywhere in there is the desire to share something with others—be it beauty, ideas, inspiration or story—you owe it to your art to make sure it’s dressed up to the nines before you strut it in front of those you wish to impress. Don’t quit before the finish line.
To see more of Guy Tal’s photography, visit http://guytal.com.