By Don Smith
The art of seeing in my opinion is a process which can be learned. I hear from many of my workshop participants that they "don't have a lot of artistic ability." I tell them "try reversing your thinking when in the field." Most amateurs tend to think subject first while most pros think light. Personally I am drawn to quality light and/or great color. In my visual process, subject ranks third on the list. Let's take a look at the two styles and see which category works best for you.
Let's start by examining the traditional way most of us approach photographing a landscape. We usually have a location, or a subject for that matter, which we want to photograph. Many times we are either on vacation or in a location not near our homes and we may simply want to make a record shot. This is thinking "subject first." In other words the old Seals and Croft song: "We May Never Pass This Way Again" plays in our brains and we simply accept the light that Mother Nature is providing - we have no other choice. If we have time in our busy schedules we may think early morning or late afternoon light, but nevertheless, we accept the light that is there, the main intent is recording the subject.
There is nothing wrong with this if the intention of the image is to make it the best you can under the conditions you are presented. But there are times when we want to create a "fine art" image. If one was to follow this path of reasoning, more often than not, by thinking subject first, the image result will be, at best, average. If we are working with color, we might look for something colorful that we can add to the frame especially if the subject itself is less than vibrant. This can help elevate the image somewhat but the third ingredient, quality light, is still needed to take the image all the way to the level of a jaw-dropping shot. In my experience, the chances of all three of these elements coming together precisely at the right time are rare. You'll spend a lot of time spinning your wheels.
So how can we up our chances to create a fine art piece? How can we make the most of our precious time when we get the opportunity to create landscapes? I propose to my students to simply reverse the thought process, start by looking for the light, then the color, and finally the subject. It may not be the subject you started out looking for, but it really doesn't matter, the quality of the light and if you're lucky, great color, will be enough to carry even a mundane subject.
I will use an actual example from a Yosemite workshop I helped teach this pass fall with Gary Hart. I know what your thinking, "Yosemite, how can you miss?" But this situation was a location not in the Valley itself; rather, it was a small lake (think pond) located off Tioga Pass (highway 120) called Siesta Lake. We stopped off about two hours before sunset while on our way to Olmstead Point. As we were getting our gear out of the cars, some of our participants had wandered off ahead of us towards the lake. We were parked directly east of the lowering sun and soon we heard a few participants asking "what are we photographing here?" Gary and I looked at each other and just grinned - this would be a perfect learning situation.
At first we kept quiet and just had the participants wander around on their own looking for picture possibilities. There were looks of bewilderment on most faces and it was evident they were thinking "subject first." After about 10 minutes had passed, Gary and I split the group (he went one direction and I went the other). I asked my group a simple question, "what do you see?" The responses were expected: a pretty lake, towering pines, different colored grasses, etc. They were listing everything about the subject but nothing about the light. Finally I said, "Let's forget about the subject elements and talk about light." We were now a little over an hour out from sunset and the quality of the backlight was evident. I took the group to the south shore of the small lake (90 degrees off-axis from the sun) and just had them observe the quality of the light as it skimmed across all the elements they had just listed. The looks on their faces began to change. They were no longer looking at the subject; instead, they were observing the quality of the light.
Things started getting interesting. Secondly I had them start looking for color. One participant mentioned how he liked some green grasses growing out of a shallow portion of the lake and how they contrasted with the vivid blue of the water itself. I said, "go for it, you have found your picture." The subject (which was the third element in the thought process) was simply some green lake grasses. Later the next day in image review, the picture drew the approval of the other participants. The bottom line, we did not start out thinking "let's go photograph some grass" but we did go photograph some great light and great color, the grass just served as the subject that tied the image together.
The next morning we were back in the Valley at a popular spot called Valley View where the Merced River bends in the foreground and El Capitan is on the left side of the composition and Cathedral Rocks on the right - a can't miss spot! Unfortunately the great sunrise light never materialized. The workshop participant sauntered over to me and said, "You know, my images of Siesta Lake are better than here, I finally get what you mean about the light." As an instructor that felt great, I know many of you who teach have had the same feeling. That student had reversed his visual process. He had experienced firsthand how seeking light first had improved his photography. It's a formula I use the majority of time when I am in the field and struggling to make an image.
I will admit there are times when I am trying to capture that great subject and "hoping" the great light and color will materialized, but again those opportunities are very hit-and-miss. When you are lucky enough to get all three you've hit the grand slam - the portfolio keeper. But as Ansel Adams once said: "Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop." In other words, it just isn't going to happen very often even if you are a professional photographing a lot. For most busy amateurs, your chances are even less as you have less time to be in the field creating.
So try the reverse thinking process the next time you are out with your camera and see if your odds for creating a memorable image don't improve - sometimes dramatically. And who knows, that innocuous piece of grass just may end up being the subject of the year!