As I was scrolling through my Google + stream this morning. I came across a post by a longtime, established, and relatively renowned photographer with an image posted two ways – both in color and black and white, with the question,
“Which one do your prefer?”
“I’d prefer for you, the photographer, to be decisive and choose which one works best! I’d prefer not to see photographs in both color and black and white.” I wanted to holler back. But I didn’t. I suppose I didn’t want to ruffle anyone’s feathers. With that said, I think it’s a worthy topic to look at and discuss, and this is my forum – so it’s fine. If I ruffle feathers from here – so be it.
So, what’s my issue here?
While working with a Maui Photo Workshop participant recently, I was asked a good question: how do you find your compositions? It hasn’t been a common question among my students, even while discussing the many facets to composing mindful and compelling images, but I think it is a good question. Of course, there is no one way I find my compositions, but there are a number of ways that seem recurrent. Here are 5 ways I find my compositions.
The Jungle. Maui, Hawaii
1. I go where I feel compelled. I explore.
Oftentimes when I go out shooting, I head out with no particular destination in mind, and with no image in my mind’s eye. In these cases, I go where I feel compelled. I often say that landscape photography is all about putting yourself in the right place, at the right time, with the right frame of mind. So, where is the “right place”? Anywhere you feel compelled to photograph, and where you can visually arrange the elements into a compelling image. It’s enjoyable to work this way – to go out without expectations or pre-visualizations, guided by your feelings and intuitions, and see what happens.
Pier. La Jolla, California
2. I go to the same spots over and over. I study the scene.
This is another common approach that I take with many of my compositions, and has led to many of my most successful photographs. Once you find a composition that has promise, resonates with you, and is a place that you enjoy spending time, go back time and time again. I have spoke about the importance to studying the subject HERE. Whether working near home or while traveling, this is a strong approach toward making successful and compelling images. Not only does your chances for dynamic light, exciting tidal conditions, or some other interesting element increase, but your relationship with the subject deepens and often comes through the final image, making it more expressive.
Surrendering. Maui, Hawaii
3. I allow the elements within the frame to dictate. I am present and aware.
With landscape photography, it’s best to be present and aware to the conditions around you. When you bring your awareness to the movement of the oceans water, the breeze passing through the trees overhead, the clouds moving through the sky, or the rain in the distance, you will often find that a composition becomes clear. You can work backwards from there. For example, with Surrendering, I noticed how the waves would come ashore, reverse back and collide with the next breaking wave, causing a unique vertical splash in one area. After noticing this within the scene before me, I worked through composing the scene, making an optimal and creative exposure, and then waited for that one extra element that would set the entire scene off – in this case it was the color in the clouds from sunset.
Hoodoo Storm. Near Bryce Canyon, Utah
4. I allow the weather to dictate where I go. I remain flexible while exploring.
Sometimes when you are out exploring to see where you may feel compelled to shoot or heading to a scene that you have shot many times before, the weather is playing a factor and you can’t ignore it. Perhaps you have one thing in mind but it’s down-pouring there, so you have to adjust. Such was the case when I made Hoodoo Storm. I was at Bryce Canyon and was planning on shooting through the sunset light, when a thunderstorm moved in and unleashed a lot of rain. I jumped in the car and headed west, hoping to get to the edge of the storm. 30 minutes later, I made my way out of the rain, found a promising hill to hike up from the road, and discovered a compelling composition directly before me as the sun-setting light lit the underbelly of the clouds, resulting in a dynamic and compelling image.
Moonset. Bandon, Oregon
5. I research and study the landscape before visiting. I use technology to assist.
Although the 4 methods above are my primary approaches to finding my compositions, I do tend to add an element of research online, especially before traveling to a new locale. Google Maps might be one of the most exciting online tools for photographers in researching a shoot to a new locale. Before my last trip to Oregon and Washington, for example, I studied the entire coastline of the two states to determine the sea-stacks I might be most drawn to. Then, I used Google Images to get a visual feel of the surroundings. From there, I was able to pinpoint one particular sea-stack along Oregon’s central coast that I was very drawn to, and a couple months later I was able to commit several days to photographing it, resulting in a series of images titled Rock Study.
I was gearing up for a recent workshop and reviewing notes from the participant and saw that she had done a number of photo workshops in the past. I was familiar with one of the photographers listed. It had been awhile since I’d checked out his website, so in one of my many daily distractions, I headed over to see what was new. The first thing I noticed was the steady dose of “Master” that was dropped all over the website. Master this, Master that. Learn from the Master. Buy the best book ever by the Master. Background of a Master. Initially, I thought it was kinda funny. Then, kinda embarrassing. Who does that? (Besides Lik, of course!)
When I think of a Master, I think of a Kung Fu Master who can be challenged by 20 men and overcome them all with one hand behind his back. Or, a Zen Master who is awakened and fiercely present, burning so bright that those in his company taste nirvana. Li Mu Bai from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was a badass Master! Fo’ real!! He certainly didn’t need to go around calling himself Master. Everyone else recognized him as Master and referred to him accordingly. He had reached a level of such mastery that it spilled into all aspects of his life and rendered him egoless. Awake.
That’s what I think of when I think of “Master” – where such mastery in one area spills into all the other areas of one’s life and the result is a certain level of heightened awareness, egoless-ness, and inter-connectedness. And, let us not forget – humility! Is a Master really a Master if he/she is obviously ego-based? Ego-driven? And going around saying, “I am Master. Bow down before me.” Not in my world. Not in my eyes.
Of course, I do think there are Master photographers. Michael Kenna is a Master. Christopher Burkett is a Master. Edward Burtynsky is a Master. David Fokos is a Master. And you know what? You won’t find the use of the word “Master” anywhere on their websites!! Let us not forget, “Masters” do not have to announce themselves to the world and convince us of their mastery.
I have announced an “immersive” photo workshop that will be held in San Francisco this summer, August 10th and 11th, 2013. San Francisco is one of my favorite places to photograph, and I am excited for this unique opportunity to work with 2-3 participants during an exciting photography-filled weekend. We will focus our efforts on the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, dramatic cityscape images, city night images, and more. More information is HERE.
PAINTED FOREST Maui, Hawaii 2013
A number of years ago, I decided I wanted to make a successful image or two of the Rainbow Eucalyptus trees. I am aware of a few small groves of these trees here on Maui, and I had my sights on one of them in particular. These trees are extraordinary. Beautiful. Perhaps the most stunning tree on the planet! Well, no matter – one of the most stunning anyways. Really, they look as if they were hand-painted by Salvador Dali himself!
As a subject to a successful landscape photograph, this can be very easy to bugger up. How? The most common mistake would be to include too much in the scene, allowing these other elements to take away from the trees. Another aspect that I was hyper-aware of is that these trees have been photographed once or twice before. Okay, many times before. I didn’t want to just go out and do the norm, the expected. I wanted to do something special, something different. So, I waited. I resisted doing the norm and getting the standard shot to include into my portfolio, desiring something more expressive and personal.
A couple of years ago, the vision became clear in my mind’s eye. I visualized a way to capture these trees in a way that was different, personal and of-my-own-style, while bringing the viewers attention solely to the beauty of the trees. I’d shoot them at night! – while introducing my own light source. Now, with the image clearer in my mind, it was just a matter of doing the work.
On a few separate occasions, I recruited a friend to journey to the other side of the island, in the dark of night, to assist me in my attempts to bring vision to expression. On each of those occasions, I came close to my vision. Sometimes very close, making it difficult to decide whether the images were worthy of releasing into my portfolio and to the world, or if I should work harder and try again. Each time, after living with the images for some weeks, I ultimately determined that they did not live up to the vision I had. The work was not done.
My energy waned some, and nearly a year passed before I returned to give it another go, but the idea and vision stayed with me, and I trusted that it was simply a matter of time before it would happen. Early 2013, while driving home from a shoot, I get to thinking about the trees. It’s nighttime. I’m in the neighborhood. I’m feeling motivated. But, I’m alone. The thinking-mind tries to start talking me out of it: It’s totally dark. The shoot will be too tough with no assistance. What if zombies get me. And on it went. As I approached the trees, I was still 50/50 whether to stop or B-line it home: I am kinda hungry. I still have an-hour drive home. A glass of wine would be awesome right now. As the trees neared, the will to shoot won and I pulled the truck over, geared up, and headed out to shoot the trees in the dark of night.
For the next 90 minutes, I worked through the process of making the images, with a goal of making two successful photographs. From my earlier experiences, I already had a good idea of the look that I was after, and how to achieve it with my painting-with-light techniques. Nearby cows roaming about in the surrounding fields sure did sound like zombies coming to get me, but I stayed focused and remained mindful to the myriad aspects that would make this work, or not. Once I felt that I had successfully captured good strong foundations in-camera, I headed home, anxious to see if they would translate to print.
I am happy to say that they do translate well to print, and do represent my initial vision very well!
RAINBOW TREES Maui, Hawaii 2013
I often speak with my Maui photo workshop students about how to make personal-expressive work, and working through “the process”. It is important – recognize the path as a process and do the work. Allowing yourself to have a vision in your mind, and then working backwards from there is an exciting way to work! Vision to expression. Working this way, the process of making photographs is very rewarding and the path is a joyful one.
As the world of photography and image making is proliferating, so is the behavior of seeing-and-repeating. In recognizing and bringing awareness to this, continually look to create work that is more personal, more expressive, and more communicative. Pass on the obvious photographs and delve deeper. Ask continually: What am I feeling? What am I wanting to communicate? What do I want to express? It has been very exciting working with workshop students in regards to this, and bringing it to the forefront of our attention. Activating the right-brain and bringing balance to the overactive thinking-mind. It is important to remember – artwork is feeling based, and it resonates (or not) with people on a feeling level. The more you can approach the work from a personal feeling based place, the more likely you are to communicate that. The more you are able to communicate that, the more compelling your photography is bound to be.
I look forward to delving even deeper into this with workshop participants in a La Jolla photo workshop I have just announced for August!
For the past 6 months or more, I have been putting myself out there quite a lot and working with people individually in personalized photography workshops here at my home base of Maui. I’ve gotta say, after years of dealing primarily with people in relation to selling artwork, I am really enjoying working with earlier-on-the-path photographers and passing on my knowledge, thoughts, perspectives and skills. I never really pre-visualized myself as a “teacher”, but I’m diggin’ it! So much so, that I am taking my act on the road. I am excited to announce a 3-day intensive workshop for the passionate photographer in my ol’ stomping grounds of La Jolla California. I spent 4 years there shooting essentially a three mile stretch of coast, which resulted in a big turn of direction in my work, leading to more personal and expressive images – many of which became award winners. Anyways, I am stoked! I can’t wait to head back there, after over 3 years of being away, and working with a small group of 4-6 people and passing on some important skills and perspectives. If you are interested, or if you know someone who may be, you can check out the details HERE.
It has been on my wishlist for quite a long time to view and photograph the lava flowing into the ocean on Hawaii’s Big Island, but for the past few years, the flow has not really been doing much. A couple of months ago, it finally broke through and is now providing surface activity and ocean entry where visitors can get close and witness this amazing spectacle. From the National Park side, it is a 6-8 mile hike each way across lava fields, which pretty much rules that option out. From the Kalapana side, it is approximately 2 miles hike each way, but this side is private property and there is a certain amount of state and landowner control, preventing people from simply walking in on their own to view the lava. So what is one to do? Here on Maui, I heard through the “coconut wireless” about a travel company called Poke-A-Stick Tours, that took people out to the lava. I called and spoke with Cheryl, owner/guide/host extraordinaire, and planned a couple of days with her afternoon sunset hikes out to the lava flow.
It’s 4:30am. Crazy to think that I’ve already been awake for over an hour – not that I’m thinking, and not that I’m really awake! But here I am, at Isaac Hale State Park on the Big Island of Hawaii with 20 other walking zombies that look a lot like sleepy tourists, all anxious and curious by the adventure that awaits us.
Captain Shane Turpin and crew of two pull up alongside our gathered group of sleepwalkers in a big truck, towing an awkward looking passenger boat hitched on a trailer. After some curt dialogue about the what-and-what-not’s to our impending trip, we climb a ladder and board the boat. The driver then drives us down to the boat ramp, backs us in to the water, and before we know it, we are free from the trailer and moving out past the breakers into the dark sea.
I have my pack full of camera gear with two layers of water resistant protection at my feet. I’m wearing a fleece and and a raincoat, which keeps me warm in the surprisingly cool morning and does well enough keeping me dry against the waves that are continuously splashing and blowing into the boat and in my face. My shorts are soaked. I feel like a Navy Seal going out on a special night mission, but keep getting pulled back to reality by the chitter-chatter of over-talkative tourists. Isn’t O-dark-early a time for quiet? I wonder to myself, curious as to how some people can never be still and silent.
45 minutes-to-an-hour later, we arrive at our destination – New Earth, in the form of hot molten lava flowing steadily into the Pacific Ocean, splendidly steaming and smoking and wonderfully beautiful. Captain Shane maneuvers the boat with effortless ease, to within yards of the lava. I feel the radiance on my face and legs, and within minutes, the glowing heat dries my wet shorts. The lava meets the sea at a number of different spots along a 1/4 mile stretch of coast. In some spots, the thick fiery substance slowly drops into the water, and in other spots it’s gushing, as if it is being pumped out of the earth. It is totally awesome to view this spectacle in the dark of night!
As wonderful as it is to the eyes, attempting to photograph hot molten lava in the dark of night from a moving boat in a rough sea, is completely futile. I practice patience and wait for the light of a coming sunrise to illuminate the scene while enjoying the moment – which to my delight, has proven to be so powerful of a scene that it has rendered some silence from the tourists. Amen!
Before too long, the light of day takes over the darkness and I am able to start working with the camera. The Captain slowly runs the boat parallel to the coast so the passengers on one side are able to view and photograph, then turns back the other way allowing the others the spectacular view. With this method, you are face to face with the amazing sight, or looking out to sea and the setting of a crescent moon. During the 5-minute periods of looking out to sea, I review my images and quickly adjust my settings to better capture this dynamic scene. In the end, there’s probably not more than 10 minutes of optimal light to shoot images while being face to face with the lava.
One aspect of concern is that half-a-dozen times, we are completely immersed in the gaseous fumes spewing out of the planet. Just 2 days ago, I was told by a guide while hiking into the lava flow on foot, “Don’t breathe that smoke and gas – it will kill you.” I also remember reading online in my research that it is very dangerous to breathe. Apparently, I am the only one on this boat that has been told this or read this in my research! The Captain obviously does not seem concerned, and every time we are immersed in smoke and gas, I am the only one aboard that responds by burying my face and eyes into a relatively protective cocoon I’ve formed inside my fleece and raincoat. On the occasion I peer out, my eyes burn and I quickly burrow back into my cocoon. These periods are fleeting, maybe 30-45 seconds at a time, and it’s easy enough to cover up, but it still leaves me wondering, how harmful is this? If not for me on this one-time experience, then for the Captain and his crew who do this multiple times daily?
Morning has broken, the sweet light is fading, and we make our final pass by the lava before heading back to our starting point. The seas are a little rougher now, but no one seems to mind much, buzzed with the high of a spectacular experience freshly emblazoned in heart and mind. To see Mother Nature creating more land, New Earth, right in front of my eyes…what an insanely incredible experience!
CHECK OUT THE ENTIRE PORTFOLIO TITLED NEW EARTH HERE
The photo workshop side of my business is growing all of the time and Maui Photo Expeditions has been a lot of fun so far. I am looking to expand some trips outside of Maui and would love to get over to the Big Island more, so will be actively planning group trips over there. In the meantime, if you are visiting the Big Island of Hawaii and would like to discuss a personalized one-on-one workshop like I provide here on Maui, please Contact Me. I am happy to island-hop over! See details to my Maui Photo Expeditions HERE.
During one of my Maui Photo Expeditions this week, while working with a cool couple from Orange County, our emphasis turned to the element of “time”. Of course, if you follow my work, you know this is my favorite aspect to photography – especially extending the exposure out to be quite long. Through the use of neutral density filters, or the time of day or night, you as the photographer can control whether your shutter speed is 1/250th of a second, or two minutes, and everything in-between. By using different exposure times, you create different effects and evoke different feels in your image, translating and communicating different messages. So first, get mindful as to how you’re feeling and what it is you want to communicate, simplify, and then determine what shutter speed will best translate what you are feeling.
With this photograph, I used a shutter of 1/2 second. Two minutes would have evoked a serene and peaceful feel, but I wanted the big winter surf to be the focal point and to evoke a sense of Mother Nature’s raw power. The final element that finishes this capture is the warm light from the setting sun, captured moments before it dipped below the horizon to end another beautiful day in paradise.