Posts Tagged ‘Erin Babnik’

The Big Picture: Why Perfect Technique Does Not Always Improve a Photograph

Tuesday, 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.

Spring Back by Erin Babnik

This photo departs from my usual standards in many ways: through its range of tonality, through its irregularity of detail, through its impressionistic approach in general. What I might consider unacceptable imperfections in other cases are precisely what give this photo the character that I find appealing.

 

 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.

The Lost Ark by Erin Babnik

The clouds were moving quickly this day, changing the quality of the light in addition to the character of the sky from one minute to the next. Upon seeing an opportunity taking shape, I had to pluck my camera off of my tripod and quickly reposition myself on my elbows to catch this moment before it was gone forever. A small aperture gave me the depth of field that I needed to get it all in one quick exposure at the cost of some diffraction, and there was no way for me to set up my tripod perfectly in the time that I had. The resulting image is plenty sharp to print large, although focus stacking and the use of a tripod could have made it that much sharper—but prioritizing those techniques would have meant missing the moment.

 

Inner Glow by Erin Babnik

When I found that condensation had filled my lens with moisture behind its front element, I almost packed it up to use my telephoto lens instead, a choice that would have limited my options a lot at this location. I decided to keep shooting with the water in the lens regardless and discovered that the condensation gave a wonderful glowing quality to my backlit composition.

 

All or Nothing by Erin Babnik

I spotted this moment unfolding much further away from me than some closer options that I liked less. I knew that the composition I wanted would require a significant amount of cropping with the lens that I had, but I was very excited by the rare and wonderful play of atmosphere and backlighting. I decided that a smaller photo of something that I really liked was preferable to a full-sized one of something less interesting to me.

 

Octopus's Garden by Erin Babnik

Getting the tones and colors of a photo dialed in so that they harmonize and balance perfectly can consume an enormous amount of time and mental energy, and eventually you reach the point of diminishing returns and need to move on.

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!

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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 FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

‘Going Pro’: Is Landscape Photography Your Calling?

Thursday, April 27th, 2017

 

Castles in the Air

Anyone who develops an intense passion for landscape photography is likely to ponder its potential as a career choice. These thoughts may pass quickly for people who have ample time and money to satisfy their photography cravings. Others will feel a nagging desire to make an expensive, time-consuming hobby pay for itself and will at least dabble in options for producing some side income from it. For a smaller percentage of enthusiasts, however, photographing nature develops into something much deeper than a part-time interest; it becomes a calling, a lifestyle, and a basis for self-identity. A person in the latter situation is likely to give some serious consideration to the idea of making landscape photography their full-time profession. If the siren song of life as a landscape photographer is luring you into deeper waters, then the following realities of the profession may help you to decide whether or not to heed the call.

THE LIFESTYLE

Sex, Drugs, and Rock-n-Roll

As often as people jokingly refer to prominent landscape photographers as “rock stars”, the reality is rather sobering. Most professional landscape photographers are self-employed, and like proprietors of any other small businesses, we tend to devote most of our time to our work. Having a strong work ethic and a high tolerance for austerity are crucial to building and sustaining a business, especially in the early years.

Of course it helps that some of this work is a labor of love, but much of it is quite mundane. Depending on the business model that you follow, tedious paperwork may be necessary for insurance purposes, for permits, for exhibition space, for all sorts of contracts, or for certifications, just to name a few of the more common necessities. In the United States, having to establish your business as an LLC or S-Corp means an extra level of complication at tax time each year, and the annual bookkeeping is no party either. Besides the demands of business compliance, a whole plethora of routine tasks requires attention on a regular basis. Email correspondence is particularly never-ending. I have heard more than a few professional landscape photographers refer to themselves as “professional emailers” because keeping up with email and various types of electronic messages is such an ongoing commitment. Similarly, the maintenance of social media accounts can be a career in itself, and website development and maintenance is another area of activity that can easily consume many precious hours.

And what happens after you do get to enjoy some quality time in the field? The actual photography also creates more work down the line. Developing, cataloguing, backing up files, and keywording all have the potential to draw you into a black hole of busy work. Being out in the field regularly also means using your camera gear more often, and heavy professional use tends to necessitate frequent maintenance of that gear and of the peripheral equipment and vehicles associated with outdoor activities.

Indeed, the life of a professional landscape photographer is not nearly as glamorous as the most obvious features of the occupation might suggest. A large array of responsibilities are involved that can cause the profession to feel a lot like a traditional desk job at times. Nonetheless, the actual photography is enjoyable enough to make it all worthwhile for the right kind of person. It is an incredible feeling to stand behind a tripod in a majestic location and to have the thought occur that “This is my job!”

Photography Business Paperwork

A professional landscape photographer has all of the responsibilities of a business owner in any field, and those include a wide range of office tasks.

 

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Travel is another facet of the career that many aspiring professionals may underestimate and misunderstand. A rare subset of full-time landscape photographers are able to restrict their activities to local areas, but most spend a significant amount of time traveling far and wide. My own travels take me away from home for about 300 days each year, an amount that is probably well above average but that is not highly unusual. Contrary to common assumptions, this travel is not entirely dedicated to creating new photographs for my portfolio. I travel to teach, to give talks, to meet with partners, sponsors, or other business owners, and to attend conferences and expos, among other purposes. Purely personal travel aimed at pursuing my art is something that I crave as much now as I did before I went full-time with my photography. If you think that a career in landscape photography will give you more opportunities to travel freely, then you could be right, but those opportunities may still be fewer than what you would like. I know many amateurs and part-time professionals who are able to devote more time to personal travel than is the case for most full-time landscape photographers.

Regardless of why a photographer might end up traveling, a lot of time away from home complicates many aspects of daily life, especially those involving communication. These complications include being without phone or data signals, dealing with time zone differences, and not receiving mail or packages easily. It can be very difficult to reply to messages, to return calls, or to keep in touch with friends and family. If you are not able to travel with the people who are closest to you, then you may have to accept that communication with them is likely to be very limited.

Of course frequent travel does have its benefits. Life on the move tends to be exciting, especially for anyone who enjoys a frequent change of scenery and is invigorated by cultural variety and by meeting interesting people. If you ‘travel well’ and can tolerate a certain amount of discomfort and inconvenience, then life on the move can be a wonderful existence. Even if it is often exhausting, a life full of travel is a life full of living.

Tent Office

The common romantic notion of the mobile office holds true for about five minutes when you really need to get some work done. It quickly becomes annoying not to have basic conveniences such as electricity and data connections when important projects are involved.

 

Long Exposure

Anyone who takes a keen interest in nature photography probably enjoys being outdoors, but working professionally can require an especially intense level of outdoor activity. For example, on a recent run of five workshops in the desert, I spent 28 nights sleeping in a tent over a six-week period, and the quality of sleep was often quite poor due to extreme temperatures and high winds. While teaching workshops in the mountains I do a lot of hiking and backpacking, so much that I have permanent marks on my hips from the waist belts on my backpacks. My knees have seen happier days, and one of my ankles frequently reminds me of the time that I broke it when I fell into a snowy terrain trap. Frequent exposure to the sun and to the elements means dealing with a whole variety of skin issues, from dry skin to sunspots and the related risk of skin cancer. Alas, spending a large amount of time outdoors does come with some consequences, any one of which could be particularly serious for a person with relevant health issues.

On the other hand, a life lived outdoors also brings some substantial health benefits. It is a great feeling to be very physically fit due to continual outdoor activity, and breathing fresh air on a regular basis is an additional boon to overall good health. Even frequent exposure to sunlight has its advantages, causing positive psychological effects that can improve a person’s mental health quite noticeably.

Erin Babnik Shooting Dunes

Outdoor activity on a very regular basis eventually takes a toll on the body, but it comes with great health benefits as well, including physical fitness and psychological well-being.

 

Shooting Wide Open

If you are the type of person who prefers to maintain a low profile, then a career as a landscape photographer will present some special challenges. As an artist in any medium, your name is inextricably linked to your business, meaning that anonymity will tend to hinder your success. The more willing you are to ‘put yourself out there’, the easier it will be for you to sustain yourself with your art. This openness may mean agreeing to do interviews, to do some public speaking, to network with industry professionals, to cooperate with brands, to make appearances at gallery openings and art shows, to write a blog, to correspond with fans, or to be engaged on social media. If you can embrace the idea of being open to the photography world and its appreciators, then life as a professional will be easier for you.

Erin Babnik Talk

Being open to the photography world and its appreciators means living a more public life than most people do, so it will help a lot if you are not very concerned about maintaining a low profile.

 

THE ART

Balancing creative interests with the need to survive is the classic dilemma of the professional artist. No matter how you bring in your photography income, you will always reach a point where you know that some amount of creative compromise could have the potential to improve your financial results. Even if you maintain the highest level of integrity in privileging your own creative interests, you may still feel uneasy about it, especially if other people depend upon your income to some extent. Moreover, you will sometimes encounter the not uncommon notion that professional artists are ‘in it for the money’ or are otherwise ignoble, an idea rooted in antiquity, when the art forms with the highest status were those that required the least amount of labor. Having the ability to tune out such distractions is essential to staying focused on your art and to enjoying a career as a landscape photographer.

Erin Babnik Framed Print

Being a professional artist does not mean that you have to make compromises with your art in the least, but you can count on the tensions associated with this issue weighing on you at some point—and probably at many points throughout your career.

 

THE MONEY

While there will always be exceptions that prove the rule, in general, a hardworking landscape photographer can expect to make a middle-class income. Many aspiring professionals wonder how to achieve even that level of sustenance, and the best advice that I can offer is to evaluate the full range of options for putting a strong photography portfolio to work for you. The classic idea of photos as commodities that can sell as prints or as licensed images is only one possibility. A compelling body of work can also attract other photographers who would like to learn from you, so photography education can be a good option for anyone who has the inclination and aptitude for teaching the techniques, craft, history, and ideas that can help other photographers to advance their art. Other options include writing books, writing for magazines, creating videos, monetizing social media accounts, or accepting support from sponsors. If you can create a special body of work, then you can probably find a way to make it bring in a reasonable annual income, provided that you are willing to put in the effort and to make the necessary sacrifices that might affect your lifestyle.

Erin Babnik Teaching Workshop

There are many business models that a landscape photographer can follow aside from the traditional ones regarding print sales and image licensing.

 

THE REWARDS

Despite the many drawbacks that I’ve mentioned above, I awake each morning excited to get out of bed (or out of my sleeping bag) and get to work. A lot of what is required can be onerous at times, but it nonetheless results in a special feeling of satisfaction that my efforts are all supporting my art and my greatest ambitions. Just as rewarding is the great pleasure that comes from teaching and sharing my passion with people who are so happy to indulge in it themselves. It is truly wonderful to see the light that seems to switch on inside of a person when they learn something new, when inspiration sets a fire within them, and when saying goodbye, they offer a hand or a hug and their eyes sparkle with sincere gratitude or camaraderie. It is a great privilege to meet so many interesting and inspiring people each year and to feel as though we are jointly contributing in some way to one of humankind’s greatest collaborative projects, the ongoing exchange of ideas that is art.

Of course most of these rewards can come without any amount of professional activity, but a life dedicated to their realization is likely to bring them more often and at higher levels. If you feel fueled by such motivations and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices, then life as a professional landscape photographer may be the right path for you.

Which features of the profession do you see as the most challenging or rewarding? Do you have any questions about professional landscape photography that I haven’t addressed in this article? Please feel free to comment below!

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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 FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

Outside the Box: Advice for Making Risky Creative Decisions

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016

 

“The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.”Neil Gaiman

Exhibiting any creative work entails some amount of risk. Anyone who has a reason to show their work to others has a reason to care about how well it is received. No creative photographer is ever entirely immune to fretting over that simple question that begs for consideration before the release of a new photograph: “Will they like it?” Even if all that is at stake is a feeling of accomplishment, the risk is real, especially for those photographs that we hold dearest.

The higher levels of risk involve decisions that take us outside our norms, whether they are departures from the conventions of a genre as a whole or simply from those of one’s own oeuvre. A risky decision might entail working in a certain type of light, featuring an obscure location, composing in an unconventional fashion, employing a new post-processing treatment, or any number of other decisions that might place us outside our comfort zones. The further we step out on a limb, the more unnerving it can be, so having a strong will is important for taking those steps. What follows is advice for making risky creative decisions with confidence, some thoughts to keep in mind when you feel as though you may be flying without a net.

Onward and Upward

Risk is essential to creative work. Taking risks is how we make progress, how we manage to put something of our own selves into our photographs, and how we can get that special taste of satisfaction for having done so. It is all too easy to fall into habits that seem to work well and that feel safe, and sometimes those habits can become limiting. Of course, there is a lot to be said for reaching a point of some consistency as an artist. Establishing what we like is crucial to self-expression, so consistency in a portfolio usually indicates a certain level of creative maturity. Nonetheless, if consistency drifts into habitual repetition, it ceases to be self-expression; at that point, it’s just rehashing. When you find yourself at a crossroads wondering if you should play it safe or take a risk on something, just remember that the latter option is likely to be more rewarding in the long run. Even if you deem it a failure at first, your decision may be a first step towards a development that you never could have imagined at the outset.

Sweet Emotion by Erin Babnik

Making a risky decision can feel like standing on the edge of a chasm, contemplating a jump. When I chose to use a fast shutter speed for this photo of a waterfall in the Graian Alps, I actually felt a considerable amount of anxiety about it, since smoothed out water is the norm for such subjects, even in my own output. I also took a risk in choosing a location that I had never seen photographed before, although I am more comfortable with that sort of risk because it is not unusual for me. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed shooting and processing this photo; despite the challenges involved, it was one of those rare images that seemed to pour right out of me with the greatest of ease, and that gave me the confidence to release it.

Move Towards, Not Away

Probably the strongest reason to make any unusual creative decision is because of a compulsion to do it. If we are genuinely drawn to an idea or are at least curious to see the results, then we are responding to an inner urge, following our own instincts. The opposite situation would be to make a decision to do something unusual for the mere sake of novelty, fixating on what we want to avoid instead of on what we find interesting. Creativity is the pursuit of ideas and the application of them, not a simple rejection of what came before. If a risky decision holds distinct appeal, then at least you know that you’re following your own nose when you carry it out, and that is usually reason enough to do it.

Goodwater by Erin Babnik

So-called “quiet” photos are inherently risky, since it is typically the more dramatic scenes that tend to draw the greatest responses. A small encrustation of salt makes a humble subject, but I had my own firm reasons for producing this photo of one.

Be in it for the Long Haul

When a photograph departs from some kind of norm, a portion of your audience may not ‘get’ it. Accept that familiarity is appealing to most people, and that not everyone who typically enjoys your photographs will cheer you on enthusiastically down whatever trail you may blaze. Even if your experiments do not result in immediate encouragement, there could be momentum building, and if that is the case, then you will only ever realize it if you stay the course. Regardless, doing something unconventional is gutsy, and that point in itself should provide a certain degree of satisfaction and motivation. Knowing that you are being true to yourself is a source of real power that can continue to propel you forward.

Moondance by Erin Babnik

I have photographed this particular Joshua tree on many occasions and have led numerous workshop participants to it so that they could enjoy it too. My go-to vantage point is from a different angle, from which the tree looks like a native American dreamcatcher, and my typical compositional scheme is utterly different, featuring long shadows as leading lines and a more traditional division of space. A bout of insomnia caused me to approach this tree at an unusual time and to have different ideas about it, producing a photo that is one of my all-time personal favorites.

Be Honest with Yourself

It is possible to convince ourselves that our accidents are happy ones, especially if we put a lot of effort into a photograph that ultimately missed a mark in some regard. If a photograph has some quality that is unusual simply because misfortune struck, then it should undergo special scrutiny. Sometimes the results of happenstance will be genuinely appealing and will inspire further experimentation along the same lines, but otherwise we need to let go. We should never allow a rescue mentality to convince us that an unsatisfactory photo is a bold act of creativity.

Thick Skin by Erin Babnik

Abstract photos are the least likely of any type of nature photo to generate a lot of interest. Ironically, this one turned out to be one of my most popular images, but I expected just the opposite before releasing it. My reasons for sharing it were many, but the expectation of success was not one of them.

Tomorrow is Another Day

Keeping perspective is important. No matter what you produce today, even if it amounts to the biggest feather in your cap, the next blank canvas awaits you. What ultimately matters most is the process of creation, which for a nature photographer means experiencing the outdoors, having responses to those experiences, and expressing those responses through the medium of photography. Everything that follows is peripheral and should not be allowed to derail the process. As the saying goes, just keep on keeping on—and above all, remember to have fun.

How do you handle risky decisions? Is there anything that you like to keep in mind to make them any easier? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

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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 FacebookTwitter and 500px.

Five Valuable Lessons that I Learned in Art School

Monday, February 22nd, 2016

 

Art school may not be necessary or even helpful for everyone with creative intentions, but it can provide a valuable experience. In my case, being enrolled in a fine arts program introduced me to a lot of great advice that has stayed with me over the years. What follows is a list of the five takeaway points that most resonated with me, lessons that have enabled me to derive greater personal satisfaction from my photography. Of course none of these lessons are uniquely available through formal education, and some may even seem like common sense. All of them touch on issues that most creative people face, however, and therefore art educators tend to make a point of teaching them, as I now do in my workshops.

1) Remember to Have Fun

Creativity is ultimately a playful process. There are times when some thoughtful problem solving can go a long way, but it is important to enjoy what we are doing. Curiosity, whimsy, and passion are all fueled by enjoyment, and without them, we are left with simply going through familiar motions. Landscape photographers may be especially familiar with the woes of frustration because we are so affected by circumstances that are out of our control. Disappointment can set in quite easily if we go to great lengths to reach a location and then have conditions that thwart a particular motivation. When the mind is hung up on what it cannot have, creativity plummets, and taking ourselves too seriously will only compound the effect. If you feel yourself sinking into that hole, remind yourself that what you are doing is supposed to be fun. Allow yourself the freedom to experiment and to explore ideas playfully, without any pressure for results governing the process.

"Frizzante" by Erin Babnik

The best kind of work is play. I hiked up to a high alpine lake thinking that I would shoot some snowy landscapes there, but instead I spent two days photographing bubbles in the ice of the lake because I was having so much fun with them.

 

2) Go Big

The phrase “go big” is familiar to most artists, but many take it to mean the size of a finished product, which is exactly what I assumed until exposure to big ideas taught me otherwise. It is not the size of your prints that matters, it is the extent of your ambition. If your passion is pointing you towards a certain idea, then ask yourself what the fullest expression of that idea might entail. If it means pushing yourself harder than you ever have before, then so be it. Hike farther, climb higher, wait longer, venture deeper, learn new techniques—whatever is necessary to take yourself to the next level. So long as you allow your passion to drive you, then there will be a unique kind of enjoyment in it all, even when the going is rough.

"Afternoon Delight" by Erin Babnik

Pursuing big ideas can result in great personal satisfaction. Without much more than some topographical maps to guide me, I spent five years exploring the higher elevations of the Dolomites, concentrating on areas that I had never seen photographed. It was a big project. I traveled repeatedly to a foreign country, hiking a lot of steep terrain, and taking the risk of it being an unproductive expense of time and money. In the end, the photos that I did produce helped me to progress personally and professionally in ways that I never could have predicted.

 

3) Find the Tipping Point

An art instructor once said to me, “You’ll know that you’ve found the point where you have gone far enough after you find the point where you have gone too far.” This advice is related to the first two lessons on my list in that it encourages experimentation and pushing ideas further to see what happens. If you like a feature of your composition, what would happen if you made it take up more of the frame? How about all of the frame? How close to the water is close enough? How about standing right in the water? Is less color more effective? How about going monochromatic? How dark is too dark? Sometimes we allow habits, timidness, or laziness to govern our decisions instead of exploring the limits of our ideas more fully. If we find that we are at the point where we have gone too far, at least we’ll know where it is.

"Harmony" by Erin Babnik

You’ll know what is ‘just enough’ after you’ve found ‘too much’. I discovered this view while out exploring one day and subsequently returned to it many times to photograph it in different conditions. After shooting this same composition in some very dramatic light, I decided that I preferred this softer light for the scene instead.

 

4) Craftsmanship Matters

Whether we intend to pursue a polished look or a grungy one, it is important to ‘own’ our results. It may require more effort to produce a photograph with technical quality and developing that looks wholly intentional, but it is worthwhile to try. Being sloppy rarely produces anything very satisfying. For example, awkward out-of-focus areas, blown-out skies, or obvious blending halos are going to detract from a landscape image unless somehow these qualities suggest deliberate decisions. Ultimately, the extra enjoyment that comes from the finished product will be worth whatever extra attention to detail may be required to realize your vision for it.

"Embrace" by Erin Babnik

If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. A lot of extra work is required in order to shoot and process an image that involves focus stacking and also blending for dynamic range, and I find these less creative aspects of processing to be a bit tedious. Nonetheless, it is always worthwhile to have your final photo match the vision for it.

 

5) Creativity is a Messy Place

The caveat to everything above is that creativity works in mysterious ways. Sometimes we arrive at solutions without understanding exactly how we got there, but we can still feel a sense of accomplishment when we do. It is important to give yourself credit for what may seem like a happy accident because, chances are, your creative instincts had a lot to do with it. One of my photographer friends once complained to me that he felt disappointed in himself for not being more disciplined in the field. He often left his tripod attached to his backpack and shot handheld, requiring him to patch together multiple exposures in order to produce an image that he ostensibly could have achieved more easily with a more controlled approach. Nonetheless, this method of shooting enabled him to catch very fleeting moments with ambitious compositions, and his portfolio sparkled with a freshness that surely owed a lot to the spontaneity enabled by his unorthodox techniques. Sometimes it is best not to let that little voice in your head tell you that you’re doing it wrong, even when you’re going against received wisdom that you truly respect.

"El Dorado" by Erin Babnik

Trust your instincts. Although I was shooting with friends this day, I wandered off by myself, gravitating towards a high ridge that would give me a view only in the ‘wrong’ direction. The giant butte that we had come to photograph was now behind me and too close to show its form. For whatever reason, I felt compelled to hike up to this point, not really conscious of what I might find there. I photographed the giant butte that day as well, but this view turned out to be my clear favorite.

The pitfalls of creativity are many, and these five lessons certainly do not address them all. These are the nuggets of advice that seem to have been most beneficial to me, but there are many more. What advice has helped you to get greater satisfaction out of your creative efforts? Please feel free to share your comments on this article below.

 

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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 FacebookTwitter and 500px.

Does a Landscape Photograph Need a “Subject”?

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

 

Of all of the terms that typically appear in discussions of photographic composition, the word “subject” may be the most confusing. In typical explanations, a photograph has a subject when it presents a main feature as being distinct from its setting, which is everything else in the image. These explanations usually assert that the lack of a subject will cause the eye to become restless as it searches for something to lock onto, making the viewer lose interest quickly. Without a subject, they say, the viewer will be left wondering what the photo is ‘about’.

While there is some real value in this concept, the use of the word “subject” to describe a compositional feature conflates the realms of form and meaning, making it potentially confusing for anyone who would like to apply the concept in their own photography. The main problem with applying the term is imagining its opposite, the idea that a landscape photograph could be devoid of a subject. We are likely to see the river, the desert, the ocean, the chain of mountain peaks, or whatever feature might have inspired us to press our shutter button, as the subject of our resulting image—after all, aren’t the features in the image what the photo is ‘about’? What follows in this article is an attempt to answer that question by cutting the cake a different way, to provide an alternative framework for understanding the ideas behind the typical usage of the word “subject” and for determining when these ideas might be relevant for a given photograph. This framework can be explained with three simple concepts: Hierarchy, Intention, and Meaning.

Hierarchy: Providing a Sense of Order

In a previous article for the Photo Cascadia blog, I discussed the concept of visual hierarchy and provided a brief explanation of what it can accomplish and why it is not the only mode of organization that can result in compelling photographs. The use of the word “subject” in discussions of composition aligns closely with what I described as the primary point of interest in an image—the locus where the eye knows to stop between explorations of the frame. While there may be other points of interest in a photo, the primary one will stand out from all else and will generally provide a sort of terminus for eye movement in the composition. Light, color, texture, mass, or form may all contribute to establishing visual hierarchy, but the result will be the same: the eye will have a home base where it can rest, and the overall image will seem well resolved.

Although hierarchy is only one possible organizing principle, it is essentially what discussions of the proverbial subject aim to describe. A common alternative term is “anchor”, a label often given to any compositional element that has the most visual weight in an image. While that term nicely avoids the suggestion of meaning, it comes with its own set of potentially confusing implications. An anchor stops movement, yet it is something that is connected to the ground and that has great mass; therefore, it is an awkward term to use when describing something like a sunstar or a crashing wave that may be at the top of a photo’s visual hierarchy. Regardless of what you call the primary point of interest in a photograph, it will help to provide a sense of order. Besides hierarchy, schemes that can establish order include, patterning, connecting forms, visual echoes, and dualities, among others.

 

Pearly Gates

“Pearly Gates”: This photo has two strong points of visual interest, the mountain and the cluster of flowers. The sunstar, bright sky, window of mist, and lines of the cliffs all emphasize the mountain as the primary point, but the flowers register as an important element too. The size of the cluster of flowers relative to the mountain encourages eye movement between them and suggests meaningful connections.

 

Intention: Providing the ‘Aha Moment’

But is order really necessary? What do we gain from it?

The main benefit of any organizational scheme is that it makes the decisions that went into a composition seem intentional: order indicates the will of the photographer who found or created it. Without any such scheme, a photo is likely to seem random and unresolved, leaving viewers to wonder what they are supposed to make of its various elements. Therefore, a lack of order tends to be less satisfying than compositions that indicate a high level of intention. When a viewer recognizes a clear photographic motivation, they have a satisfying ‘Aha Moment’, which will secure their interest and will encourage them to appreciate the other merits of the photo more fully.

So while there may be artistic arguments in favor of compositions that seem arbitrary or accidental, the most compelling images tend to be the ones that allow viewers to make sense of what they are seeing so that their appreciation can extend to deeper levels.

 

The Connection

“The Connection”: A clear organizing principle can provide an image with a strong sense of intention.

 

Meaning: What a Photo is ‘About’

Those deeper levels of appreciation ultimately involve interpretation, the process of deciding what an image is about, which involves more than just recognizing a subject within it. Contrary to what the term “subject” implies, a main compositional element is not necessarily the source of a photo’s meaning. Meaning emerges out of the organizing principle that governs an image as a whole, not merely from any single feature within it. In other words, what a landscape photograph’s various features collectively suggest is ultimately what the photo is ‘about’. If a photo depicts a rainbow over a dried lakebed with arcing mud cracks in it, the photo is not simply about one of those two features or the details within them; the echo of the rainbow’s form in the mud cracks indicates a relationship between the rainbow and the lakebed, and therein lies the potential for identifying meaning, however anyone wants to interpret it. (To read some possible interpretations of the described image, see the article that I wrote about it previously.)

 

Sweet Nothings

“Sweet Nothings”: While the hill in the foreground is the most dominant element in the frame, it is not necessarily the “subject” of the image.

 

Putting it All Together

In short, the simple answer to the question posed in the title of this article is no, landscape photographs do not need a “subject”. What they need is to hold the interest of the viewer, and that is most likely to happen when an image conveys a sense of intention. An ordering principle such as hierarchy can get a viewer past the point of looking for purpose and onto deeper levels of appreciation. The age-old term “subject” has earned its place in so many discussions of composition because it attempts to identify what is probably the most common method of creating order. Clearly the term has its shortcomings, but the ideas behind it are relevant for many photographs and are worth salvaging. I hope that reformulating those ideas through the connected concepts above may help more photographers to appreciate the value in the ideas and may help to prevent misunderstandings.

As with any compositional decisions, the time for conscious analysis of these concepts may not be while you’re out in the field, rushing to catch some spectacular light. An instructor once said to me when I was in art school, “Creativity is a messy place.” We don’t always arrive at our best ideas by thinking methodically about them, and compelling compositions don’t always result from stopping to ponder the full implications of our decisions. Nonetheless, analysis is extremely valuable when selecting images for editing and when tricky compositional situations present themselves in the field; if creative instincts alone are not quite bringing about that ‘Aha Moment’, a bit of analysis can help to point the way forward. Also, thinking about composition helps us to internalize ideas about it and to draw upon them later subconsciously.

Can you think of any other compositional terms, like “subject”, that may be confusing to many people? If so, please feel free to share them in the comments below. And as always, your thoughts about this article are also very welcome!

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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 FacebookTwitter and 500px.

Erin Babnik Joins PhotoCascadia

Friday, October 9th, 2015

ViaFerrataWithSnow1PhotoCascadia is proud to announce the addition of Erin Babnik as a new full time member of the team! If you didn’t previously know Erin’s photography then hopefully you were introduced to her when she began contributing to the PhotoCascadia blog back in March of this year. Erin has the distinct honor of being the first and only person to be asked to join PhotoCascadia since the six original members formed the group several year ago.

Since the beginning, PhotoCascadia’s mission has been to explore areas of natural beauty, encourage appreciation and conservation of wild places and offer inspiration by sharing our images, our stories, and our knowledge with other photographers who share our passion. We were quite content with the group and were not looking for a new member.

Erin BabnikHowever, over the past several months it became clear that Erin was too good a fit not to be a member. She is smart, humble, kind, energetic and generous. Her photos are of the highest quality and artistry and were already admired by the group before we knew who she was. In addition to being a talented photographer she is an educated art historian, an excellent writer and has great energy, passion and vision. Erin’s love of nature, adventure, exploration and sharing her knowledge aligns directly with the PhotoCascadia mission. During the time she has been contributing articles to the PhotoCascadia blog she has engaged, inspired and connected with our readers in a very positive way. Finally, hailing from northern California, she lives on the southern boundary of the Cascadia region so she knows, explores and photographs the area intimately.

Please join us in giving Erin a very warm welcome! You can look forward to seeing a lot more from her in the future!

GettingClose FlowersForMiles ChromaticScale

 

The Seven Virtues of a Landscape Photographer By Erin Babnik

Friday, September 4th, 2015

Requiem960

The landscape photographers who I most admire all seem to have a certain range of qualities in common, habits and characteristics that surely play a large role in enabling these photographers to produce compelling images on a regular basis. What follows is my attempt to identify what may be the seven most essential of those qualities and to explain why I think that they are important virtues for any landscape photographer to nurture. These virtues are Respect, Curiosity, Flexibility, Patience, Speed, Integrity, and Courage.

Respect

With nature as our subject, landscape photographers have a special duty to respect it. Common sense dictates that we should protect whatever is essential to our own goals, but respecting nature goes beyond conservation and advocacy, as important as they are. Developing a relationship with nature is like developing one with a person; the more effort that you make to get to know a person, the better able you are to empathize with that person and to deepen your bonds with each other. Respecting nature means viewing it as a partner rather than as a trophy or a realm to be conquered, and achieving this level of respect allows us to see and to understand nature in ways that not only lead to great personal experiences but ultimately benefit the creative process as well.

Curiosity

The curious photographer will venture farther, look more closely, and experiment more readily. Curiosity is the quality that causes us to find out how a location might appear from a different vantage point, during a different time of day, or in a different season. It is the quality that makes us find the smaller details of nature that can easily be overlooked. When we are out in the field or in the development process, curiosity will lead us to try different techniques and to ponder our stylistic decisions. Being intrigued by our surroundings and our own ideas is what leads to exploration, discovery, experimentation, and creative growth.

Flexibility

Nature is notoriously capricious, having change as its only constant. If you are willing to adjust to conditions and make the most of whatever nature gives you, then the world is your oyster. Being too fixated on a specific outcome can cause us to miss opportunities, so while it is extremely helpful to pre-visualize the potential of a location and a set of conditions, we should also be prepared to adapt or even abandon those ideas as other opportunities present themselves.

Patience

A photographer friend of mine once shared this dialogue that he had with a passing hiker while he was standing behind his tripod one day.

Hiker: “It looks like you’re waiting for something to happen.”

Photographer: “I am.”

Hiker: “Well, what, then?”

Photographer: “I don’t know. It hasn’t happened yet.”

Sometimes simply watching and waiting allows opportunities and ideas to come together in fruitful ways. It can be very rewarding to remain in one place for a while and see what surprises fast-moving weather might bring, what changes may take place between sets of waves, or how a forest might transform as mist or light shift around in it. While the temptation may be great to run around shooting as many compositions as possible, that approach often results in a lot of images that are missing something—missing that special confluence of time and place that results from letting the magic come to you and being ready for it when it does.

Speed

On the other side of the coin from patience is speed, the ability to respond quickly to opportunities and to think on your feet. After waiting patiently for a marvel of nature, you may find it finally arriving rather suddenly and, all too often, in a situation that requires a mad dash, a quick lens change, a host of revisions to camera settings, or all of the above. Being able to respond quickly to ephemera can often make the difference between a great shot and a great memory.

Integrity

Simply put, as creative photographers, it is important that we remain true to our own art. There comes a time after we reach a certain stage of creative development that we have the choice to do what most interests us, or else to do what we think will most interest other people. Naturally, any photographer who shares or shows their photographs cares about how they will be received, otherwise they would keep them to themselves, but caring about those opinions needn’t mean catering to them.

Courage

Landscape photographers often find themselves in wilderness areas, in foreign lands, in extreme weather, on the edges of cliffs, close to pounding surf, or even in all of these situations at once. The dangers of working outdoors are many, making it necessary to exercise caution and good sense, and when those requirements are met, to find the courage to proceed. Perhaps even more courage may be necessary for what follows, however. It can require great bravery to make creative decisions that are risky, to experiment with new ideas and locations, and to release the results to the world at large.

I could easily extend this list to include many more virtues, but these seven strike me as the ones that form a core set that many inspirational landscape photographers seem to have in common. What virtues would you add to this list? If any come to mind, you are very welcome to share them in the comments below.

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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 500px.

HOW LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHS TELL STORIES

Monday, July 13th, 2015

By Erin Babnik

When a photograph depicts a person, it is likely to suggest storylines in a fairly straightforward manner. A single or predominant person appearing within a scene will read easily as the story’s protagonist, and details in the image will help to establish strands of the narrative. Even photographs that contain only hints of human activity may express stories with relative clarity; the inclusion of a vehicle, a tent, or a personal belonging of any sort can provide a host of clues for surmising the circumstances of a scene, the events that may have preceded them, and the events that are likely to follow. But what about photographs that present no indications of human presence or even any animals in relatable scenarios? How do they tell stories?

Whereas images with figures in them have the potential to narrate quite literally, those that display natural features exclusively tend to require more interpretation, a difference not unlike that between prose and poetry. Landscape photographs generally tell their stories with relative subtlety, ambiguity, open-endedness, and mystery, but they are nonetheless capable of narration. If we find nothing meaningful in a compelling landscape photograph, it is only because we haven’t considered the implications of what makes it hold our attention. As I hope to demonstrate with a single photograph, landscape images can communicate stories on at least three different levels: the natural, the personal, and the metaphorical.

Twinsies960px

The photograph that I have chosen to use as an example shows a scene from the Mojave Desert, just after a rainstorm. The view presents a playa etched with wide mud cracks, lying beneath a dark, cloud-filled sky. Arcing across the darkness, a full rainbow springs from a mountain ridge at the left to open desert at the right. In the foreground, two especially wide cracks in the playa dominate the rain-splattered earth, each curving inward from either side of the frame and echoing the form of the rainbow above them. This simple description identifies the essential features of the photograph, but it omits any attempt at explanation or interpretation. Reducing a photo to its descriptive attributes misses out those qualities that make landscape photographs special as representatives of an art form that combines ‘found’ views with personal experiences and expression. Even though it may happen subconsciously, ideas about a landscape photograph will eventually come forward for the interested viewer, affecting the connection that the viewer will have with it. The following three categories explore some of the ways in which a photograph may convey those ideas and thereby suggest stories.

THE NATURAL LEVEL

Any nature photograph tells a story of creation, one about the natural processes that were at work in the formation of the geological features depicted. In the case of the desert playa, the bowl-shaped depression with its pattern of cracks sprawling across the surface evince the evaporation of a shallow lake that once existed in this location. What was originally muddy sediment of the lake’s bed has since contracted and cracked through the process of desiccation after the last of the water evaporated. The rainbow, as an indicator of both the sun and the rain, demonstrates the role that weather plays in affecting the topography of the area: rain created the lake, and then the sun caused it to vanish. These events are distinct chapters in a story that is perpetually in progress.

THE PERSONAL LEVEL

While a photograph may omit people within its frame, one person is always implied by its existence: the photographer. Behind every landscape image is a story of its making, even if that story never accompanies the image in any written form. Looking at the photograph of the desert scene, a viewer could guess much about the experience of the photographer at that moment: this person traveled to a remote area, hiked to a dried lakebed, probably got a bit wet from the rain, and then was treated to the spectacle of a full rainbow. Anyone who has visited a similar area or has witnessed similar conditions will be able to project additional details into the story based on personal experience, while others may embellish the narrative with details derived purely from a vivid imagination. The story could be envisioned as one of great adventure, of personal struggle, or of simple pleasures, but regardless of how well any of these ideas may match with the actual circumstances of the photograph’s creation, they still form part of its story for the viewer who imagines them. In this regard, the viewer mentally occupies the space of the photographer, and the two become elided as that implied individual who appears nowhere in the picture and yet serves as its protagonist.

THE METAPHORICAL LEVEL

The symbolic power of natural features allows them to suggest stories of a more timeless and universal quality. While symbolism can be very culturally relevant, the realities of nature provide experiences that people across the globe tend to share and to understand similarly. For example, a rainbow may have different spiritual or political connotations in different cultures, but most people will understand it as a phenomenon that occurs when a storm breaks and the sun begins to shine, so it is likely to register as something that marks the end of a difficult experience and as a herald of positive change. At the very least, a rainbow represents something highly ephemeral, a marvel that lasts a short while and is always fresh and new. In the photograph from the Mojave Desert, the rainbow appears in alignment with much older features, the cracks in the playa surface that resemble the rainbow’s form. For the viewer willing to ponder it, this coincidence may suggest a story of rebirth or renewal: the fractured past versus a bright future. Alternatively, it could suggest a happy symbiosis between old and young, an encapsulation of the cycle of life, or an epiphany revealing a connection between disparate ideas. Many more possibilities for interpretation exist, and any one of them may resonate without the need to go through any amount of deliberate analysis—sometimes we simply know that a photo is ‘speaking’ to us, without being fully conscious of what it’s saying.

Thinking about photographs as bearers of meaning may not be necessary for the creation or the enjoyment of them, but it can be very worthwhile in either case. For the photographer, giving some thought to the stories that a location may suggest can help with the creative process, both in the field and during image development. Interpretation can also help with the process of self-curation, since those images that seem to narrate most clearly are often the ones that hold the greatest visual interest. For the viewer, taking a moment to consider a photograph’s possible narratives will slow down the viewing process, allowing greater appreciation of what an image has to offer, which is infinitely more rewarding than having knee-jerk reactions while consuming images in rapid succession.

If you enjoyed reading about the possible implications of my desert photograph, you may be interested to hear the actual story of its making. I will share my experience of that morning in a post to my Facebook page on August 3, so I encourage you to follow me there and to look out for that post. In the meantime, please feel free to share your thoughts on this topic in the comments below.

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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 500px.

Five Compositional Patterns Worth Finding in Nature

Monday, May 25th, 2015

By Erin Babnik

Landscape photography entails a variety of challenges that can make a successful outing feel like a real triumph, but chief among them may be the task of ‘organizing’ nature through image composition. Nature’s many forms typically coincide in haphazard displays until an act of framing and alignment brings a sense of order to the chaos. Fortunately for those of us who are willing to look for them, there are numerous patterns common in the natural world that can give an image some essential structure. The five patterns that I have chosen to feature in this article each work well as a primary compositional scheme, providing an image with strong grand forms that can register a clear sense of intention. While these five are among the more prevalent patterns in landscapes, there are many others worth finding, and creating an exhaustive list of them would probably be impossible. At the same time, even these five patterns have qualities in common, owing to their shared reliance on aesthetic principles. Having a strong understanding of the fundamentals and complexities of those principles will always provide the greatest foundation for making compositional decisions, but recognizing patterns can be an excellent aid in thinking abstractly and in responding to visual stimuli.

While I chose to feature these five patterns because of their prevalence in nature, they also have in common a tendency to work well in combination with strong hierarchical arrangements: compositions that feature a point of visual interest that registers as the primary one in a scene. Of course, not all successful compositions must employ the principle of hierarchy; for example, some images, especially many abstracts, derive their visual interest from a complete lack of it, presenting instead a kind of patterning that keeps the eye entertained by subtle variations within an otherwise homogenous collection of forms. My own habits favor hierarchy, however, so the examples that I have included here are of that sort.

Before committing to any one of these patterns in the field, it may be helpful to remember some tips for maximizing their effectiveness. Above all, for any of these patterns to read well, they should probably be dominant structures in a scene, clearly expressed and not competing with any other strong forms. Secondly, for them to help to establish a sense of visual hierarchy, they will have to contribute to the overall order of the image, ensuring that the viewer’s attention gets directed towards whatever part of a scene constitutes its primary point of interest. In other words, forms that lead to or emphasize a feature will tend to strengthen that feature visually, playing a supporting role and helping the eye to identify where it should rest between explorations of the frame. Lastly, it is important to keep in mind that lines in nature may correspond with these forms and still not read well if the light in a scene is working against them, so it is never enough simply to find lines—those lines will require light that helps to define them. Indeed, light may be the very quality that creates forms that would not exist otherwise.

With those caveats in mind, we can now have a look at each of these five patterns separately. The icons below summarize each pattern graphically for the sake of clarity and recall, but they are not intended to represent complete compositions or to depict the exact forms that a pattern must take. These patterns are simple components that may appear in combination with other elements, and the icons are merely suggestive of a range of possibilities that exists for each pattern.

 

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THE PLUNGE

RainDance

Click for more: Example 2 (by David Cobb) | Example 3 (by Adrian Klein)

Compositions featuring this pattern will contain a prominent mass or collection of elements that attract the eye to the foreground and then plunge it into the background of a scene. The form that directs the eye may originate from any area near the bottom of the frame. If the shape of the pattern leads to a clear visual payoff in the background, then it will help to establish that background feature as the primary point of visual interest.

THE ECHO

CurveAppeal_II

Click for more: Example 2 (by Kevin McNeal) | Example 3 (by Kevin McNeal)

When one prominent element in a scene repeats the forms of another, it creates a visual ‘echo’, as it were. The related elements strengthen each other by association, and if one of them is the primary feature of the scene or else leads to it, then the entire image is likely to have a strong sense of hierarchy and intention. Finding an ‘echo’ in a scene will usually give the viewer that ‘aha moment’ that can make viewing an image particularly exciting.

THE LAYER CAKE

CatchingAir

Click for more: Example 2 (by Sean Bagshaw) | Example 3 (by Chip Phillips)

When overlapping layers have adequate separation, they can create an exciting sense of depth in a scene. Layers that share visual qualities will also provide an image with a certain rhythm that helps to hold it all together. Hierarchy in this case will be established by one layer being picked out in some way, perhaps by light or by it containing a strong element that anchors the entire scene.

THE ARROW

CrypticalEnvelopment

Click for more: Example 2 (by Chip Phillips) | Example 3 (by Chip Phillips)

Similar to The Plunge, this pattern leads the eye into the background, but in this case using diagonal lines that may leave room for negative space or for an area of texture in the foreground. The lines may be literal (that is, solid lines) or suggestive (that is, made up of repeating elements that cohere into lines), and they will typically emanate out of the lower corners or else near to them. Whatever area the diagonal lines point towards will become the focus of attention, so it is usually best if the viewer can find something interesting there.

THE HUB

TheConnection

Click for more: Example 2 (by Sean Bagshaw) | Example 3 (by Zack Schnepf)

This pattern is characterized by a multitude of strong lines or forms all converging on a single element. The directional forces may originate in any area of the frame, and there may be any number of them, but a strong element will pull them all together.

As I mentioned above, these five patterns are just a selection that have certain aesthetic principles in common, such as their ability to create directional force or to help establish a visual hierarchy. Are there any patterns that you tend to find often in nature that are not represented here? If so, please feel free to describe them in the comments below.

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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.

Creative Approaches to Landscape Photography: The Thrill of Discovery

Monday, April 6th, 2015

Last week we introduced and welcomed Erin Babnik as a new contributor to the PhotoCascadia blog. This week we are proud to publish Erin’s first feature piece. Make sure to visit Erin’s website to learn more about her and explore her exhilarating photographs.

By Erin Babnik

The American conservationist Aldo Leopold famously said that, to people with imagination, the most valuable parts of a map are where it is “blank.” He was of course referring to wilderness areas, which most people never see and have to imagine in order to appreciate what is there, how it works, and why it matters. Although his message was aimed at the protection of these areas, he felt that humans should have firsthand experiences with them. It may seem counterintuitive for someone to encourage human presence in areas that need protection, but he believed that it was necessary for us to develop personal relationships with nature—after all, to quote one of Leopold’s contemporaries, “we can only love what we know” (Aldous Huxley). He therefore praised outdoor activities that imposed minimal impact on nature while fostering awareness and appreciation of it. Landscape photography at its best rises to the challenge of that noble goal, giving photographers at least one good reason to spread out and explore those blank places on the map. What about more artistic reasons, though? As I hope to explain here, the rewards of exploration and discovery can be well worth the extra effort that may go into approaching new horizons.


Moondial

It is easy to think of a map as a display of straightforward, factual information, but it is actually an interpretation of a place, just like a photograph is. A map picks out certain areas and omits others, telling us what is supposedly important to know. In general, any point of interest that features prominently on a map will have a correspondingly large corpus of photographs representing it; the more famous that a place becomes through photographs, the more likely it will be to appear prominently on a map, and vice versa. Just like a map, a large corpus of photographs will ultimately interpret a location, typically establishing a norm for it that repeats in photographs like a resounding echo. These patterns emerge for good reasons, usually because they do a particularly good job of communicating what is special about a place, but they also amount to a kind of conceptual baggage, both for photographers and for viewers of their photographs. Whether we like it or not, a norm will haunt a place, even if we attempt to avoid it—we can accept or reject a norm, but our efforts exist in relation to it either way. This predicament then extends to the viewer, since the process of viewing a photograph will involve whatever memories a viewer may have of existing imagery.

While preconceptions can complicate the creative process for a photographer, they certainly don’t condemn it, of course. On the contrary, representing a well known view comes with its own set of benefits, and those include more than just the tangible rewards of popular appeal, such as predictable print sales or image licensing. Some creative strategies actually depend upon familiarity to serve as a premise, allowing a photographer to expand upon existing ideas or to engage in visual storytelling in ways that might not be possible otherwise. For example, a photo of a blooming meadow will take on a new layer of meaning if its location is best known for a lake that filled the space before it evaporated. Similarly, a photo of a famous landmark may be particularly interesting or meaningful if it shows that landmark from an ‘unusual’ vantage point. In either case, the ‘different’ photos benefit from familiarity by creating a sort of dialogue with it.

TheDeepEnd

So while the photographer who strives for creativity will find much of value in approaching those bold points of interest on the map, doing so can feel like an act of negotiation, of working within certain creative limits. To be sure, there is room for discovery at any location, but venturing out to relatively unknown territory can throw the creative doors wide open. Any view that we find independently becomes a blank canvas of sorts; it presents a whole range of wonderful creative ‘problems’ to solve. What is the character of this place? What is particularly special about it? What conditions might best bring out its character? Which features here are essential to communicating the experience of this location? How can those features be presented most legibly? Answering such questions gives a photographer the opportunity to ‘define’ the location and to do so with a greater reliance on personal intuition—the less that we have to ‘think away’ other interpretations of a place, the more able we are to have a visceral response to it.

Naturally, more remote locations tend to offer the most opportunity for discovering seldom seen views, but even very accessible places sometimes have areas that get overlooked simply because they lie in the blank place on the map. Operating with an explorer’s mentality can land us deep in the wilderness or right in our own local ‘neck of the woods,’ but either way, we will be invoking a creative process that can be incredibly rewarding. Indeed, researching lesser known areas raises numerous questions that can get the creative gears churning before we ever even leave home. What might I find there? What would I like to find there? How might this place differ from others with similar qualities? How might this place be affected by the seasons? Thinking through the possibilities at this stage becomes a prelude to the visualization process that takes place on location, priming the mind for seeing opportunities upon arrival. In this regard, the photographer is led more by imagination than by knowledge, which is arguably more conducive to creativity. Regardless of where our exploration may take us, we are bound to benefit from the creative exercise, even if we don’t strike pay dirt on every outing.

ChromaticScale

For anyone who is inclined to explore more remote locations for landscape photography, there are a number of resources that can aid in the process. Using Google Earth to explore an area virtually can be a great place to start, allowing the identification of potentially photogenic features and alignments. Topographical maps can also be very helpful in this regard, especially when researching areas where elevation varies a lot and can have a big effect on the types of terrain that might exist there. For example, for mountainous areas, it can be helpful to know if a location is below the tree line, where forests may obscure views. Satellite imagery is another digital resource that any explorer should consult, with the understanding that older satellite images can be quite inaccurate. It is always a good idea to check the date of a satellite image and to look for multiple sources of such imagery. There are companies that sell very high-resolution satellite images that could be worthwhile investments if the images are very current and can aid in the location of desirable features. When exploring on foot, it is immensely helpful to have a good topographical map app that supports offline maps and the creation of waypoints; being able to mark discoveries and to navigate towards areas of potential interest with ease will increase both efficiency and the overall enjoyment of the process.

Although venturing into the unknown is always a gamble, the rewards can be tremendous. There is nothing quite like the thrill of discovering a vantage point, feature, or composition that provides a sense of creative pioneering. Whether an act of exploration takes us to distant lands or to an overlooked niche in our own neighborhood, it always takes us to a creative space that is destined to pay dividends in our future creative efforts. The suggestions included here for finding areas of photographic potential are just some of the more practical ones; anyone who has other recommendations is very welcome to include them in the comments below.

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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 500px.