Photo Cascadia Blog
December 5th, 2017
- It is essential to use a sturdy tripod when photographing waterfalls. Because of the longer exposure and possible water movement around the base of the tripod, it’s important to have a tripod that’s sturdy and heavy enough to stay firm. In the past, longer exposures where I had my tripod base in the water, I noticed camera shake and loss of detail in the background.
- A circular polarizer will be very beneficial in most cases when photographing waterfalls to reduce glare. Not only will the glare be reduced from the water’s surface, but you will get an increase color saturation. I use a Singh-Ray LB Color Combo which has the option for a color intensifier. When you combine this polarizer with its color intensifier it can replicate stunning vibrant colors that pop in the image. I use this polarizer for a majority of my images when trying to reduce glare and boost the colors on the image. Another bonus of the polarizer is that it adds approximately an extra stop and half for longer exposures. This can be very handy when you don’t have a Neutral Density Filter. A Neutral Density Filter (ND Filter ) is a filter that reduces the intensity of all wavelengths or colors of light equally. In layman terms, it lets less light into your camera and thus a longer exposure which a lot of photographers use to get that dreamy look in the water. I really enjoy shooting waterfalls during the day when I can throw on a 5 or 10 stop ND filter to get a longer exposure during times when it would normally be too strong to photograph waterfalls. A word of caution is to avoid the temptation to go with super long exposures when capturing waterfalls. You really want to capture texture and patterns in the water; when you expose for too long the water takes on a milky approach and loses the details. This is especially important for waterfalls and cascades in the immediate foreground.
- Make sure to try a variety of different lenses when composing your shot. Many of the images that have worked for me have been with the ultra-wide a lens so that I can include foreground elements as well as the waterfalls. Every photographer is different, and thus composes images in a different way. For me, I always try to add leading lines or elements in the foreground that balance the composition with the waterfall. But this doesn’t mean, I don’t try a variety of different compositions with different lenses. Having as many images and different compositions make it easier for me to choose something I like when I post process.
- If your camera will allow, bracket your images so that you capture a wide variety of different looks and moods with water movement and patterns. Typically, I focus on trying to get the water exposure to be around half a second. One of the main things I try to avoid when photographing water movement is overexposure of the water. I like my histogram to be on the slight underexposed side so that I can see detail in the water. It’s nice to create a softer mood with a longer exposure, but make sure you watch your histogram so that you don’t blow out the water and more specifically the highlights on your histogram.
- In many situations, waterfalls are located within high contrast scenes like forests and parks. Be aware of the scene and how much difference there is between the waterfall and its surroundings. To be more specific, I often have to expose separately for the water and then take another image for the surroundings. This is because of the high contrast between the elements within the image. In terms of exposing correctly you need to take separate exposures for each element. Sometimes I’ve had to take one exposure image for the water, another for its surroundings, and another one for the sky.
- For most situations when photographing waterfalls, I like to use an aperture around F 13 or F-16 to capture sharpness from front to back in the image. Setting my camera at F-16 and choosing a shutter speed of half a second, I then let my camera tell me the ISO needed to achieve the appropriate exposure. My aperture is F/16 and I’m always trying to achieve between ¼ sec and a couple of seconds at the most. Thus the only variable that changes is the ISO when photographing the water specifically.
7. Be aware of the light in the scene and that you use to add to the image rather than distract. Because sunlight can make or break composition, it’s important to use light in a way that showcases your subject rather than compete with it. I like to place strong light in the top corners.
- Look to capture interesting patterns in the water that provide interesting shapes and details. The best are when you can find leaves flowing through the water that provide leading lines to your subject. Also, look for rocks or objects in the water that point toward the waterfall subject you are shooting.
- Don’t be afraid to get creative and try different things. One of my favorite things to do when composing images with waterfalls is to find angles to shoot where it would be unrecognizable or uncommon. Most of the images that are photographed from waterfalls are from one viewpoint. I encourage you to break the mold and find different places to photograph. Challenge yourself to shoot it in ways that very few photographers have thought of. In the beginning, it can be very tough and frustrating but with time and patience you develop a style that is your own.
- Try to tell a story with your images. Whenever I teach a workshop, I ask the participants to figure out what’s most important to convey in this particular waterfall before shooting. Figure out what is most important about the waterfalls that you would like to convey through your photography. For example, it could be the size of the waterfall, the shape and color of the waterfall, or just the unique patterns in the water. Whatever that one thing is, make that the subject of the waterfall. Tell your story and have fun no matter what !
November 29th, 2017
On November 20 I sat down (virtually) with Matt Payne to chat about landscape photography for his podcast, F-Stop Collaborate and Listen.
We had a great time talking about a variety of topics including
- – Our respective journeys into landscape photography
- – How to create visual impact in your photography
- – Motivations to keep shooting
- – The creation of Photo Cascadia
- – Conservation and the sharing of locations
You can listen to our conversation here (email subscribers may need to click the link above to listen on the web):
Make sure to go to the podcast page to check out the other great conversations Matt has recorded with photographers like
- – Erin Babnik
- – Joshua Cripps
- – Candace Dyar
- – Guy Tal
- – David Kingham and Jennifer Renwick
- And many more…
Also, since we recorded our conversation, F-Stop Collaborate and Listen is being featured by Outdoor Photographer Magazine and will also be available on their website every month, so congratulations to Matt on that!
November 15th, 2017
I’m a huge fan of outdoor adventure! I love exploring wild places, being immersed in nature and photographing rare moments of natural beauty! I’ve had some amazing experiences and also had some close calls. I’ve learned some important lessons along the way. It pays to come prepared, you never know what’s going to happen on an adventure. Whether it’s a photo excursion, back country snowboarding, mountain biking, backpacking, or day hiking there are 10 essential items I always carry with me. These are all items I’ve used to get myself, or other people out of countless sticky situations.
1. First aid kit. I know this seems pretty obvious, but I’m always surprised how many people I meet without a basic first aid kit in their bag. I’ve used my first aid kit countless times, several times on myself, but also on friends and stranger in need of help. I’ve patched up fellow mountain bikers after a crash, photo workshop participants who have had various bumps and scrapes, strangers I’ve run into on the trails and my own kids on several occasions. A first aid kit is something you hope you won’t need, but when you do, boy are you glad it’s in your bag.
2. Warm hat. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 90 degree day in the middle of summer, I will always carry a warm hat in my bag. This is one lesson I’ve learned the hard way too many times. I’m usually photographing before sunrise and after the sun sets. The temperature can drop quickly as soon as the sun goes down. In particular, when photographing in the mountains weather can turn on a dime. It’s really easy to get caught un-prepared. A warm hat really helps keep me warm when the temperature drops unexpectedly.
3. Gloves. I always carry a thin pair of gloves with me. It’s amazing what a difference even a thin pair can make. I found my thin gloves at REI, they allow full control of my camera and do a great job keeping my hands warm .
4. Light weight jacket. I always have a light weight, water-resistant jacket in my bag regardless of the forecast. I’ve been caught in some pretty nasty summer storms. I remember getting caught in a heavy thunderstorm here in the high desert of Oregon. It was a gorgeous summer day, I headed to the Cascade Lakes hoping for some interesting cloud formations as the thunderstorms started firing up. One minute, the weather was beautiful, warm air, calm winds and puffy clouds. A few minutes later the wind picked up, the clouds thickened and it was hailing. The temperature dropped considerably. I took shelter under some trees and quickly pulled out my jacket, gloves and hat from my camera bag. I was still pretty cold, but much more comfortable and in no danger of becoming hypothermic. I waited out the storm and was rewarded with some beautiful storm light. There have been countless times I’ve been thankful I had an extra jacket in my bag. It’s an essential part of my kit and I never leave home without it.
5. Emergency energy bars. It’s always nice to have some extra calories in my bag. Great for emergencies, or if I change plans and want to stay out longer. I generally carry around 4 extra energy bars in my bag just in case…
6. Extra water. I usually carry more water than I think I’ll need. It’s come in handy on many occasions. Your body needs water before it needs food. I’ve run out of water on several occasions, it’s a terrible feeling knowing you’re out of water when you’re thirsty. In fact, if I know I’m about to run out of water, I’ll save the last sip for psychological reasons. I very rarely run out of water anymore, I usually bring more than I need. I’m a big fan of camera bags that have a sleeve for water bladders, these generally allow me to take as much water as I need for an outing. On longer adventures and backpacking trips, I generally have a water strategy and backup plan if that strategy fails. For instance, I usually bring a water purifying pump and a water sterilizing pen for backup. This strategy has served me well over many years and on many adventures.
7. Multi tool. A multi tool is one of the most versatile and useful non-photographic tools in my bag. I’ve used my multi tool to repair my tripod, pull cactus needles out of my boots, fix parts on my mountain bike, fix bindings on my snowboard, cut branches to setup a temporary shelter and countless other things. I particularly like tools with plyers built in. It’s definitely an essential tool that I always want in my bag on every adventure.
8. Duct tape is another incredibly useful and versatile tool. I love knowing it’s always in my bag. It’s helped me get out of many sticky situations. One memorable occasion was in 2006 while snow camping near Mount Hood. The snow was so light and fluffy, my tripod was sinking deep into the snow making impossible to get the angle I was hoping for. I had trekking poles with snow baskets with me, I quickly removed the baskets from the poles and duct taped them to my tripod legs. For the third leg, I used a filter case to create a platform to float on the snow. This temporary solution allowed me to get the perspective I was after. Image shown below.
9. Extra cleaning cloth. I always carry an extra micro fiber cleaning cloth or two in my bag. I use these all the time. If conditions are wet, often times my main cloth becomes saturated and no longer functions. It’s nice to have a backup or two. I’ve also used these for countless other things as well. It’s great for drying and cleaning my camera, lenses, sun glasses, or anything else that might it.
10. Space blanket. This is part of my first aid emergency kit, but I thought it deserved its’ own spot. This little sheet of reflective plastic has helped me get out of several dangerous situations, helping me to stay dry and warm. While solo camping on the Oregon Coast I used a space blanket to make a little tent out of my tripod legs to keep my gear safe and dry in torrential rain. On another trip to Mt Rainier I got soaked while hiking in a rain storm. My clothes were so wet they were no longer insulating me and instead were leaching the heat from my body. When I got back to the car I took my wet clothes off and wrapped myself in a space blanket till my car warmed up.
Honorable mentions: An emergency satellite contact device like a SPOT locator can be a life saver in an emergency. I do have one, but I only take it when I’m in a very remote place on my own and will be out out of cellular service. I also carry physical maps with me quite a bit, but there are so many good GPS and map apps on my phone that don’t bring them most of the time. If I’m going somewhere unfamiliar and remote I do try to have a map for backup still.
All of this fits easily with the rest of my camera gear in my very compact F-stop Kenti bag. Those are my 10+ essential items I like to have in my bag at all times. Let me know what essential items are in your camera, or adventure bag.
Author: Zack Schnepf
November 6th, 2017
My new book Visionary Landscapes has just been released by Tuttle Publishing and it can be found at your local book store, chain, Japanese garden, or online venue. A description given by the publisher follows.
Japanese gardens are found throughout the world today-their unique forms now considered a universal art form. This stunning Japanese gardening book examines the work of five leading landscape architects in North America who are exploring the extraordinary power of Japanese-style garden design to create an immersive experience promoting personal and social well-being.
Master garden designers Hoichi Kurisu, Takeo Uesugi, David Slawson, Shin Abe and Marc Keane have each interpreted the style and meaning of the Japanese garden in unique ways in their innovative designs for private, commercial and public spaces. Several recent Japanese-style gardens by each designer are featured in this book with detailed descriptions and sumptuous color photos.
- Hoichi Kurisu – transformative spaces for spiritual and physical equilibrium.
- Takeo Uesugi – bright, flowing gardens that evoke joyful living.
- David Slawson – evocations of native place that fuse with the surrounding landscape.
- Shin Abe – dynamically balanced “visual stories” that produce meaning and comfort.
- Marc Keane – reflections on human connections with nature through the art of gardens.
Also included are essays on the designers and mini-essays by them about gardens in Japan which have most inspired their work, as well as commentaries by patrons and visitors to their North American gardens.
The book focuses on recently-created gardens to suggest how the art form is currently evolving, and to understand how Japanese garden design principles and practices are being adapted to suit the needs and ways of people living and working outside Japan today.
October 30th, 2017
In this article, I’m sharing 20 of my favorite tips to enhance your autumn photography. I hope you can put some of these ideas to use as you explore with your camera in the fall.
1) Create a surreal mood by trying to include a sunstar that showcases your subject. The sun sets as an anchor point that guides your viewer to the subject.
Images from Yosemite National Park in the Lower Yosemite Valley
2) Create a warm overall balance with your images when including the colors red, yellow, and orange.
3) Early mornings in autumn are fantastic for finding mist and atmospheric conditions.
4) Look to include the color red when photographing autumn colors and blue skies.
5) Try to add variety to your autumn collection of images by including wide-angle images, telephoto images, abstracts, and macros.
6) Don’t forget to look on the ground and include fallen autumn foliage. Using a very wide angle approach and getting as close to the ground can offer a very different perspective.
8) Use a mix of different shutter speeds to get varying moods of autumn images. For example, I like to use fast shutter speeds to capture the leaves as they fall. I use long exposures to create a softer mood with the movement of water, clouds and foliage.
9) Include many element layers when photographing wide-angle scenes. I look for a foreground that will immediately capture the viewer’s attention. Use composition techniques to connect the foreground and background through the use of leading lines and depth. The more layers the more three-dimensional the image.
Image from the Dempster Highway in the Yukon
10) Reflections double the color and add that wow factor to autumn images. Look for ponds or small lakes that are more likely to be calm and still.
11) Don’t be afraid to include people in the image to give a perspective of scale and mood. To really add another dimension to the image look for people doing activities in the autumn surroundings.
12) Look for themes or commonalities when photographing autumn colors. One of my favorite themes is photographing barns and churches surrounded by color.
14) Try to find higher vantage points that offer a unique perspective of the autumn colors that most people don’t see. Many hiking trails in parks have this option. It’s always a special treat when you reach the top and you look down into a valley of color, or endless mountain ranges, or the stillness of a lake below.
15) Take it a step farther and look into adding aerial photography or drone photography into the mix. This can lead to fantastic images of winding roads through fall colors.
Images from the Dempster Highway in the Yukon
16) Autumn season is a great time to look for weather changes and unique weather systems. These types of conditions adds a special element of drama to the images.
17) Get out into the backcountry and away from other people for to photograph lesser known landscapes. I love to get deep into the mountains and find idyllic mountain settings combined with fall color.
18) Shooting a variety of subjects and elements when it comes to autumn can enhance your fall color portfolio. I like to include lakes, rivers, creeks, waterfalls, forests, and ponds just to name a few.
19) Get out in the rain. One of the best conditions for shooting fall colors is overcast weather. I especially like it when it’s slightly rainy which gives the fall colors an extra boost of vibrancy.
20) Have fun and try to be creative whenever possible. Get out of your comfort zone.
October 27th, 2017
Photo Cascadia’s first group show will premier at Hanson Howard Gallery in Ashland, Oregon! You are invited to the show’s opening reception on Friday, November 3, 2017, from 5:00 to 8:00 pm. You can also see the exhibit Tuesday through Saturday, 11:00 am to 5:00 pm, November 1 to 18.
The images in the show have been selected for qualities of atmosphere, an elusive but critical element in our photography. As a group, we share a passion for atmosphere, searching it out and capturing it in the landscape, so we felt it was a fitting and unifying theme for our first show. What is atmosphere? In the literal sense, it is the envelope of gases surrounding the earth. In a more literary sense atmosphere often refers to the heavens, firmament or the ether. More commonly it can allude to the pervading tone or mood of a place, situation, or work of art. Other words that express the meaning of atmosphere are ambiance, feel, character, aura, quality and flavor. In our landscape photography, atmosphere is often the defining element and key ingredient. Recognizing and recording compelling atmosphere at the precise moment is often the difference between ordinary and transcendent.
The Atmosphere Exhibit features 14 pieces, two per photographer. The photographs are 30×45 inch fine art, high gloss prints on aluminum. Special thanks to HD Aluminum Prints in Vancouver, Washington for their excellent work producing the show. Prints are available for order in a range of sizes through the gallery.
It is an honor to have Hanson Howard Gallery host the show’s inaugural location. Hanson Howard Gallery is located at 89 Oak St. in Ashland, OR. For more information visit www.hansonhowardgallery.com or call 541-488-2562.
We hope you can come to the reception or visit the exhibit in Ashland in November.
— Adrian, Chip, David, Erin, Kevin, Sean, and Zack
October 12th, 2017
Those of you who know me, know that I often travel in my bright turquoise blue 2007 [email protected] teardrop travel trailer. My wife and I bought our trailer used in 2012, and it’s truly been one of our best purchases, and one of the most fun. Since then, we’ve towed it all over the western United States: Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Arizona…plus several Canadian provinces. In my experience, towing a trailer gives me much more flexibility, more options, and more comfort than other cost-efficient travel methods. As a lifelong tent camper (and don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy tent camping too!), a trailer provides shelter from inclement weather, warmth, and the ability to cook and make coffee indoors, which is a wonderful luxury. In areas highly populated by grizzly bears, such as the Banff/Lake Louise area of Alberta, a hard-sided trailer provides much-needed security and peace of mind. As a frugal traveler, I’ve stayed in my share of cheaper hotels and motels with terribly uncomfortable beds. A great thing about having a trailer is you can tailor the bed to exactly what is most comfortable for you. For me, this means firm, with a plush mattress topper. It’s worlds away from a cheap motel mattress. I know many people love camper vans and RVs, but for my family and me, we love the ease of unhitching the trailer, setting up camp, and then having the freedom to go explore in our tow vehicle. Our campsite can really feel like a home base. And after a long day of playing, hiking, and/or shooting, there’s nowhere on earth that’s more cozy. And it’s so nice to be able to just drive up, climb in, and go to sleep.
Over the years, I’ve done quite a few upgrades and modifications to our trailer. As we tend to camp a lot off-grid (without hookups), I wanted to make the trailer as power-efficient as possible. When I purchased the trailer, it had an air conditioner, which required the trailer to be plugged into a power source to run; plus it was heavy, took up a lot of space, and didn’t seem necessary to us. It also came with a 12-volt refrigerator that ran off the battery and was a huge power draw. I replaced that fridge with one that runs off propane, allowing us to camp without a power source for potentially up to a month. I installed a solar panel on the roof to charge the battery. I also installed a propane heater (originally manufactured for Volkswagen camper vans) that safely and efficiently keeps me warm and toasty. Lastly, I removed some extra storage cabinets to cut down on wasted space and go from a queen bed to a king. When our little son was about a year old, we figured it would be nice for him to have his own place to sleep, so I made a kid-size bunk bed that can fold up or be used as storage when not in use.
[email protected] trailers have gone through several different iterations and changed manufacturers a couple times since ours was built in 2007. I understand the newer ones are quite an improvement in quality of craftsmanship, but the tradeoff is expense and tow weight. While our trailer was certainly not made with our sort of extreme roughing it in mind (as is evidenced by the appliances that need to be plugged in at a campground with hookups to work), the modifications I’ve done have really made it the perfect camper for my family and me. I’ve towed it deep into the Wyoming wilderness on ridiculously rough dirt roads, I’ve camped in it in southern Utah in the winter, I’ve made priceless family memories, and I’ve taken some of my best images while camping in our trailer. Comfort and quality rest are so important to the sleep-deprived landscape photographer. When I’m in my trailer, sipping my coffee as the sun begins to rise, I’m in my happy place. The world is full of potential.
September 26th, 2017
I remember reading one of Galen Rowell’s books on photography, one of the themes he consistently talked about was shooting during times of transition. Seasons, weather, light, and atmosphere are a few notable examples of elements I try to capture in transition. If you can combine more than one of those elements in transition together, the chance of capturing a spectacular moment increases. It really stuck with me, I think most of my best images are captured during rare transitional moments. A storm moving in, or out during sunset, or sunrise is hard to line up, but when you do the results can be spectacular. You can also get rained out and not see any good light, but the potential to see something spectacular is much higher while these things are in transition. The images below are good examples of capturing different elements in transition.
This image was captured in Joshua Tree National Park late February this year. I was on a photo trip with good friends Sean Bagshaw and David Cobb. We got caught in a wet storm the day before, but the forecast was calling for clearing skies followed by clear blue cloudless skies for several days. I had always wanted to photograph the Cholla Garden in the park. With transitioning weather, light and the seasons all coinciding I thought our odds were pretty good to capture something special. The next morning, I was a little dismayed at first. The clouds weren’t lining up to catch the under lighting of the pre-dawn sunrise. We waited patiently and as the sun was rising above the horizon, it shone though the breaking storm clouds creating the spectacular light rays in the background as well as backlighting the needles creating the wonderful glow.
When I was planning to photograph Keyhole Arch on the Oregon coast, I was trying to line up a transitioning tide, with transitioning weather as well as light. This session was challenging. The tide was coming in, a storm was clearing out, and the sun was setting. The next challenge was capturing a wave flowing over the rocks, another transitional element. Everything lined up and I was able to capture what I had envisioned in my head. This shot is all about transitions, it’s also a good example of how much planning goes into certain photographs.
Mt Hood Majesty
I attempted this photo several times, but was never able to capture the light and conditions I had in mind. This is a popular backcountry ski spot and Mt Hood generally isn’t the coldest mountain, I could never time a weather window with good light and pristine snow. Finally, I decided to do it right. I watched the forecast for a cold winter storm followed by a window of clear weather. I finally saw a weather window that looked promising and decided to go for it. I packed up my winter camping gear, and set off at 3am from my house in Portland. I started hiking in the dark in the middle of a winter storm. It took me 7 hours to snowshoe up to this ridge because of all the fresh cold powder snow that had fallen. Long story short, I spent 4 days in my tent on the ridge hoping to capture the pristine snow in good light. On the last night of my camping trip the storm started clearing up, but not in time for sunset. The next morning I was up really early and was treated to the most incredible morning of photography of my life. The landscape was completely covered in a pristine layer of deep, cold powder, the air was crystal clear, and there wasn’t even a breath of wind. The mountain that had been hidden behind the storm the whole trip was revealed in spectacular fashion as the sun rose. All my hard work and planning payed off and I was able to capture a very rare moment.
This image of Gothic Peak near Crested Butte Colorado is another great example of capturing multiple elements in transition. Sean Bagshaw and I found this location during our trip to Colorado a few years ago. The Fall color was exceptional, but we knew the scene would be even more incredible if we could line up the fall color with the first snow of the season. A few days later, while we were in another part of the state, we saw a snow storm would be moving in and quickly back out. We packed up and made the drive back to Crested Butte. We hiked up to this location in the pitch black, frozen snow. We arrived on the ridge well before sunrise. It was extremely cold on the exposed ridge, but the sun was rising and we could see our prediction was materializing. The fall color was at it’s peak and the storm had left a pristine layer of snow. It’s pretty rare to be able to line up conditions like this, Sean and I felt privileged that we were able to witness and capture this rare moment of elements in transition.
September 19th, 2017
“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” —Mark Twain
A little secret that is well known to educators is the concept of the “good lie”. It encapsulates the idea that any course of instruction is bound to be incomplete or imperfect, but learning has to start somewhere. When we first begin to study any complex subject, we need some structure, some kind of foundation on which to build our understanding of it. For example, when I was beginning my studies in art history, my professors introduced me to the subject of ancient Greek sculpture by emphasizing the evidence regarding known sculptors, what each had contributed to the art, and why any of it mattered. I later learned just how much of this introduction amounted to optimistic conclusions based on ambiguous evidence, but that education brought me to higher levels of understanding. By the time that I started working on my doctoral dissertation, my research was focused on some of those points of weakness as areas where I could make my own contributions, and my professors were encouraging such questioning because the “good lie” was only ever a starting point.
Learning photography involves a similar progression through structured principles into personal discoveries. As landscape photographers, we learn our craft as a combination of in-field methods, compositional rules, location research, weather chasing, and post-processing solutions—all of which amounts to the “good lie” in our field. Together, these ideas provide a useful framework through which we can develop our creative sensibilities, but the framework itself is merely a way in.
To be sure, craftsmanship is an essential part of the photographic process, and good technique is often crucial to the success of a creative motivation. The sheer spectacle of technical virtuosity alone can provide a special frisson: prickly sharpness, masterfully controlled tones, or precise calculations of celestial events—all count among the many technical accomplishments that tend to delight viewers of landscape photographs. Regardless, perfect technique hardly amounts to the holy grail of photography. Despite its many virtues, technique is fundamentally reproducible, is always subject to becoming obsolete, and can become a visual crutch and a developmental cul-de-sac. For anyone who wants to keep progressing in their photography, creativity is the higher good. Therefore, it is important to be open-minded about craftsmanship and to acknowledge that creativity is a messy place.
Keeping the following caveats in mind can help to ensure that perfection doesn’t become the enemy of the good.
A Perfect Lemon is Still a Lemon
There is an old joke about a person looking for his keys under a street lamp. When a passerby asks him if he’s sure that it’s the area where he lost his keys, the man replies, “No, I lost them a block away, but the light is better here.” The process of making a good photograph can go wrong in the same way, by letting some unimportant factor dictate a direction. I often find participants on my workshops abandoning a great composition that they saw because it would require some minor compromise, choosing instead to photograph something less interesting that they can make ‘perfect’. Sometimes you just have to seize a moment or follow through with an idea however you can because it will result in a powerful photo regardless. Even if it means that you have to use a high ISO or shoot handheld instead of using a tripod, it’s better than not getting the shot at all. When technique starts dictating which ideas to pursue, then it’s probably time to cut the chains and enjoy some creative freedom. No amount of masterful technique will improve the photos that we never make!
The Devil is in the Details
According to the law of diminishing returns, sometimes ‘good enough’ really is…good enough. The value of technical quality does have its limits. After all, the world’s most compelling photographs do not tend to be studies in technique, and most viewers do not even notice many of the technical shortcomings that typically make photographers cringe. Laboring in the service of perfect technique can easily become an unnecessary hinderance to progress, causing a photographer to leave projects unfinished or to become too frustrated to begin a new one. I remember once spending days on processing a photograph with a delicate color palette, shifting hues and tones by minute amounts ad nauseam in my efforts to achieve the perfect balance. I shared some of the variations with a friend who has an excellent eye for such details and who was very enamored with that photo. He carefully compared all of the versions and finally said, “I doubt that any of these differences even matter,” and he urged me to release the photo and move on. It was great advice.
Imperfections Can Create Character
As Edgar Allan Poe once wrote, “There is no exquisite beauty…without some strangeness in the proportions.” He finds this strangeness in the abnormally large eyes of the woman he loves and delves into describing the depths of her character that he sees through them. Beauty in photographs can also come about through such strangeness, typically created by some imperfection in the pictured elements or by some irregularity in their presentation. A leaning tree or burned out snag can break up regularity and give character to a forest scene in the same way that film grain or soft focus can. Even ancient Greek architects seem to have understood the power of imperfection when they made temple columns bulge in the middle instead of being perfectly straight vertical elements; the more emphatic examples suggest an interest in giving the temple some life, some character, as if its columns were bulging like muscles while supporting the temple’s entablature. Similarly, a high level of refinement can sap the life out of a photograph, causing it to it look too mechanical. It is possible for a photograph to be lacking in vitality simply by appearing too perfect.
Craftsmanship has always been one of the great joys of artistic creation for me, and I both exercise and teach it with great enthusiasm. “The good lie” is good for a reason, providing an important foundation and a perpetually useful touchstone. Nonetheless, it’s important to remember that it has its limits, its exceptions, and its missing links—and sometimes making a substantial contribution to your portfolio means stepping outside that box. The pursuit of perfection has the potential to elevate a photograph significantly, but it can also smother its fire or prevent us from creating a photo at all. Ultimately, it’s the pursuit of our own goals that should tell us which direction to go. When creativity is hiding in the shadows, we’ll never find it by looking in the light.
Have you ever had issues of technique keep you from pursuing a moment or an idea? Do you have any photos in your portfolio that would not exist without some compromise? Please feel free to share in this discussion with a comment below!
Erin divides her time between Cascadia’s Californian southern boundary and Slovenia, traveling and photographing extensively from home bases in both locations. Make sure to bookmark Erin’s site at www.erinbabnik.com. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.