Am I the shadow?
The caster of the shadow?
Or, the light?
Who am I?
• • •
I am the shadow.
The caster of the shadow.
And, the light.
Am I the shadow?
The caster of the shadow?
Or, the light?
Who am I?
• • •
I am the shadow.
The caster of the shadow.
And, the light.
You could spend an entire lifetime photographing the San Francisco Bay Area and still not capture it all. It is one of those rare gems – packed full of scenic vistas and perspectives that can keep the passionate photographer endlessly inspired. It certainly keeps me visually interested and coming back, year after year. I still continue to find new vantages that compose nicely in the photographic frame. But what if you are only coming to the city for a weekend, where do you go? I will share with you some of my favorite locations to photograph in San Francisco. Some of them are very iconic, some of them are a bit less widely known. Alternatively, you could join me personally and explore my favorite spots alongside me during one of my SF photo workshops.
GOLDEN GATE SUNRISE San Francisco, California
#1. Battery Spencer This spot is certainly no secret, but regardless, it is one of the most spectacular locations to photograph. And not just in San Francisco, but perhaps the entire country! This is called Battery Spencer. Get up there at sunrise or sunset and be prepared to be blown away! It feels like the Golden Gate bridge is close enough to reach out and touch, which is a very cool feeling. If you can translate some of that feeling photographically, you are likely to make a powerful photograph. You can use wide angle lenses all the way to longer lenses for countless perspectives. Get creative and experiment. For the above photograph, I was in position well before sunrise and prepared when the light started to get sweet. The thick fog helped keep the composition simple and clean – making it all about the light, color and atmosphere.
If you were interested in learning about long exposure photography techniques and were to do a Google search: “how to long exposure photography”, you would find 32,300,000 search results giving you 1000 lives worth of information, tips, pointers, techniques and more. Over 32 million! Long exposure photography is obviously a very popular topic, and one you could study forever. However, studying the topic of photography technique is not nearly as exciting as actually going out and photographing, so let’s tweak the question and ask “why”. Why make long exposures? Asking “how to” activates something in the thinking-mind that wants to research, study, and gain knowledge. Curiously asking “why” is born out of a different part of our self and activates something else entirely – the inner creative. When activated, the inner creative is more inclined to go out and photograph life and experiment with different techniques – not just sit at home and read about them. When you understand the why, the how to comes quite naturally.
There are countless reasons why to make long exposure photographs. Let’s look at some of them and you will begin to not only see the endless possibilities, but likely begin to feel sparks of inspiration that with some focused attention, will allow you to go out and make fire with your photographs.
You can create a hint of movement in the water, as seen here with a 1/15 second exposure of a wave exploding against the rocks. Why? Because you don’t want your photos to look like the guy who jumped off the tour bus and took a quick snap. And, it lends itself more to the feeling that the wave is blowing up into the sky.
INTERSECT Maui, Hawaii
If you close your eyes and visualize your living room and the various elements within the room, what do you see? A sofa, a coffee table, an entertainment center, a TV, art, and probably quite a number of other elements. Now, let me ask you – which element is the largest in the room?
If you are like most people, your response might be – the sofa, the TV, or the entertainment center. If you think a bit more cleverly, you might say – the walls. What most people don’t recognize is, there is much more “space” than anything else, by far. Physicists tell us that 99.999% of the universe is space – no-thingness. Oddly, science can be so much more bizarre than science fiction! If you removed all the empty space from the entire human race, leaving only electrons and the other subatomic particles, all seven billion human bodies would fit in the space of a sugar cube. That’s just mind boggling stuff, right? But that gives you a sense of how much space there is in relation to form – yet we rarely bring our attention to the space.
With the living room exercise, it points out how we as people are living primarily form-based. That is to say, our attention is always going from one form to the next to the next – whether it be the external forms of the world, or the hyper-active thought-forms continuously flowing through our minds seemingly on auto-pilot. We are form-conscious beings, but is this our natural state? Isn’t it odd that 99.999% of everything is space yet we hardly bring our attention to it?
There we were on Shell Beach in Southern California’s “Jewel” – La Jolla. If you consider shorts, t-shirt and flip flops ideal attire, then the mid-August weather was just perfect. The sweet morning light was just beginning to show herself to those of us eager enough to be awake, which on this morning included myself and seven photography workshop participants who were joining me for one of my California workshops. Shell Beach seemed like an ideal location to take seven passionate photographers for a sunrise – it’s small and intimate, yet contains many elements that can be arranged well for a diverse style of seeing photographic compositions. It’s only as wide as a football field, yet both sides lead upward to steep cliffs that stretch out toward the sea, undercut with partial caves on the sides and a scattering of rocks throughout the beach, with a couple large rocks just offshore where pelicans and cormorants linger about. Having photographed this spot many times before, I knew good compositional arrangements could be made, but of course, it is also quite easy to include too much or too little and fall short of success as well. So, an ideal setting to place students – a place where they can make it work, or not, and then discuss the why’s and why not’s as to what is working and what is not working in real time.
One of my favorite things is to hike down Sliding Sands Trail in the Haleakala National Park, the night before the full moon, during sunset time. It gives me a chance to get down inside the crater, one of my favorite places on the planet, during the time of optimal-sweet light. With or without camera, I recognize this as an incredible life-experience – one that I always try and make time for, at least a few times a year. Last night, I was able to share this experience with a Maui photo workshop participant who was looking for an adventurous photographic expedition during his island vacation to Maui. It so happened that on this particular day, the moonrise was the most dramatic of the year! With the sun perfectly opposite the moon, the light and size of the moon appeared to be 14% larger and 30% brighter than normal! It only made sense for us to venture into the crater from atop the 10,023 foot peak, and put ourselves in an epic and otherworldly place (inside a volcanic crater) for this special moonrise! As good fortune would have it, we were graced with an insane sunset and the light was so sweet.
The Big Island was clearly visible, seemingly close enough to touch, as the large and brilliant moon arose above it. Me – as much as I was ooh’ing and aah’ing the moonrise to the right of this scene, I couldn’t resist focusing my photographic efforts on the sweet, brilliant, and colorful light that presented itself to my lens in this composition. Here, in Hawaii, being much closer to the equator, this period of sweet-light does not last long. It is fleeting. Ephemeral. You put yourself in in the right place, at the right time, and hope for the best. Last night, I found myself at the right place at the right time – very cool to be able to share the experience with another passionate photographer!
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?
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.
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!