The process versus the experience—it’s a constant battle that many of us photographers face on a daily basis. If I had to pick a clear winner, I would say that often it’s easiest for the process to come out on top, leaving the experience overshadowed and neglected.
Stop for a minute and think about how you would approach exploring an area without a camera in hand, and then think about that same experience coupled with the goal of creating an image. It’s almost a guarantee that details, feelings, and even your level of enjoyment are going to get somewhat lost while creating. We’ve all had those times where we put so much pressure on ourselves to create that we end up leaving a location with little to no sense of how it actually felt, or the mood/story we wanted to create. The experience brings with it so many particular traits that influence ourselves and our work in a number of different ways. Being aware of those traits and the importance of building your work around them is key to creating a unique and authentic portfolio. Let’s take a look at how experiences can motivate the image making process.
1. Mood & Conception
A habit that I’ve noticed of many people—including myself at times—is having an urge to jump straight into creating an image without taking any time whatsoever to think about how the location affects them, and what mood or story they want to re-create for their audience. An example would be arriving at an area and immediately composing an image without taking the time to think about the feelings you’re experiencing, what in particular is causing them, and what mood you want to incorporate in the finished image.
When you lack an awareness and understanding of the experience, you’ll more than likely end up creating an image that doesn’t represent yourself or the unique way that you interpret a situation.
This affects so many decisions, both in the field and digital darkroom. Will your image be darker or lighter? Higher or lower contrast? Cooler or warmer? Wider or tighter? What elements will you include? What type of light will be the most complimentary? What will your subject be? What else will you include?
These are only a few examples, but the point is that the groundwork for your image is all based on the initial decisions you make regarding the mood you want to create and the story you want to tell. Those decisions can’t be made without taking the time to consciously and curiously experience your location.
2. Focal Lengths
The most important step during the composition process is making sure you aren’t basing your decisions around technology or recognition, and instead, choosing a focal length and arranging elements in a way that best matches the mood and story you want to create.
For example, a lot of people become fascinated by certain focal lengths and end up creating large collections of images all based around specific lenses, most notably wider angle. Wide angle lenses are attractive for many reasons, and they certainly can add a unique feel to an image by exaggerating the size of foreground elements and providing viewers with a perspective they aren’t used to seeing. That being said, they may not always suit the mood you’re trying to create.
Think about how you want to render your scene. Do you want to stretch out your foreground by using a wide angle lens to create a dynamic feel, or do you want to capture your subject with a more subtle and natural approach by using a more standard focal length. Maybe you’ll use a longer lens to compress your scene and exaggerate size relationships between multiple subjects. The options are endless, so don’t settle for something just because it’s what is most common.
3. Dynamic Elements
I like to refer to a dynamic element as the one thing in an image that completes it, or makes it dynamic. Some examples would be: a specific type of light, fog, snow, movement in clouds or water, colours, colour casts, contrast, brightness etc.
Looking at the list it’s easy to see that these are all things that are often included in landscape images. The problem is that they often aren’t included for specific reasons other than the fact that they’re exciting, or look interesting. Every single dynamic element is going to add or take away from a specific mood in an image, so it’s important to make sure you’re capturing them and using them in a way that’s most effective.
For example, don’t just use a slow shutter speed and smooth out water because it’s a cool looking effect. Maybe your scene has a feeling of power, and by smoothing out the water you actually end up taking away from that mood, when a faster shutter speed and some water detail would have suited the scene best. Or maybe you’re waiting for an epic and colourful sunset to unfold, and when it doesn’t happen you pack up and leave your location without thinking about the options that twilight would provide and the peaceful feeling it could inject into your image.
Don’t just settle for what’s most popular, or what you’re initially served up when you get to a location. Choose the elements that are going to best enhance or add to the mood you’re trying to create.
At the start of this article we talked about how being aware of the experience and the mood you want to create affects the decisions you make while processing your image. In my opinion, the last thing you want to do is approach the processing stage blindly and end up making creative decisions based on what looks right at the time.
When you take the time to be aware of the experience, you end up building yourself a roadmap for how you will process your image in the digital darkroom. For example, let’s say that you’re shooting during the early morning in a forest that is filled with fog, and you want to create an ethereal twilight feel while processing. By being aware of this, you’ll likely lower the brightness of the scene, shift the color balance a bit cooler, lower the contrast, and saturate the blues slightly. By having a clear idea of what mood you want to create, you can make decisions in the digital darkroom with confidence and not approach the process with an influence from outside sources.
The running theme throughout this article, and one that I stress all the time is that you need to build your image from the ground up based on a specific mood or story. Every step of the image making process needs to be completed for a specific purpose, and that all starts with having a strong awareness of your surroundings and feelings while you explore the wilderness.