“It’s right there Young Man! Ha, ha, ha, ha…”
Okay, for all those out there that have no idea what I’m talking about and may be starting to think I’m going insane, I’ll let you in on an inside joke. When Ian and I were in Belize last winter we hired a guide to take us up the Monkey River for a day of exploring and shooting. We were most interested in checking out the rain forest and perhaps getting a crack at shooting some howler monkeys. The boat ride up river was about an hour or so and our guide dutifully spotted and called our attention to a wide variety of wildlife along the way. However, he had a somewhat unorthodox way of calling our attention to what he was spotting. Rather than providing a clue to an animal’s location, like caiman at 3 o’clock facing left, near the dark log he would simply call out something like “Caiman! You see it! It’s right there young man!” And then he would proceed to laugh hysterically when our heads rapidly panned back and forth in search of his illusive offering. Let’s just say that he took particular pleasure in ribbing Ian for what he perceived as Ian’s lack of visual acuity. Or perhaps he was just fond of Ian’s boyishly good looks, we’ll never know for sure. Suffice it to say, his tip was not as good as it could have been…
So what does this little anecdote have to do with today’s image? Simple, photography is about Seeing. And what our Belizean guide highlights is how much better one’s vision becomes with familiarity, time on task and local knowledge. He is so much better at Seeing what’s hiding around every bend because his eyes and brain are acutely tuned to his surroundings. He easily Sees what we don’t not because he’s innately better at it; he’s just been doing it all his life. He Sees the repetition and pattern in his surroundings and notices right away when something interrupts it, whether it’s an animal to spot for a client or a potential danger to his boat and personal safety.
Seeing photographically is no different in my opinion. There is no substitute for time on task, practice, training, putting in the miles or any other sports metaphor you care to use. If you relegate yourself to shooting well-trodden icons you’ll never learn to See for yourself, not to mention your portfolio will look like everyone else’s (Ian’s written a couple of great posts about this recently). If, when on a photo trip, you run from location to location crossing them off your list without a second, third or fourth look, you won’t learn to See, especially not the full potential that exists in any given location. If you plunk your tripod and camera down in the first or most convenient spot you find you won’t learn to See. If you only occasionally get out to shoot you won’t learn to See and if you’re a long time shooter you’ll run the risk of being rusty and out of shape, perhaps not just photographically also.
There is no easy recipe for learning to See, you’ve got to put in the time exploring, observing and experimenting. It’s a process or journey if you will. And for all the photographers I know it’s one that never seems to end. We don’t all of a sudden come to some epiphany and scream out “I can See, I can See!” It’s a long slog. If anything, you might start to realize your percentage of keepers increases during any given photo outing or trip. New subjects, locations, and conditions constantly present new challenges for us as we attempt to make compositional order out of the chaos that is the natural world. But having a deep well of previous experiences, observations and successes will aid in how well we See what’s in front of us.
The below image was made recently in Acadia National Park on the coast of Maine. I’ve been photographing the Maine coast for the past 13 years and don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a more glorious or intense sunrise in all of that time. Having arrived 45 minutes before sunrise I could already tell something special was about to happen. I headed to a section of coast, not far from perhaps the two most iconic spots in the park, which were no doubt packed with photographers, and like previous trips had the beach to myself (with the exception of one other young man who had boyishly good looks). The light started to get really good, and really intense, very quickly. I scrambled around for a couple of minutes not happy with my attempts when the voice of our Belizean guide rang in my head. “Don’t you See it young man?” After calming myself down and walking back from the proverbial cliff of photographic panic, I finally began to See it. The puzzle pieces started to fall into place; a nice collection of foreground rocks making a strong diagonal connection to the above and opposing line in the clouds, another diagonal formed by the incoming wave sets, some breaking white water over the immediate foreground to provide some additional energy and visual flow, and of course the light as icing on the cake. “It’s right there Young Man!”
Technical Details: Canon 5DII, EF 16-35 f2.8 II, f11 @ 1 sec., ISO 320, 3 stop reverse grad ND. (A word on processing since I’m sure there are many who will question the color: white balance was left slightly below 5000K, I did some selective contrast adjustments to the foreground, slight boost in contrast to sky, no additional saturation of vibrance to sky colors, it was crazy. And no, the red channel is not clipped…)