Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Fine Tuning Your Vision

On a blustery Iceland day along the south coast, the light was fading fast. I spotted a glistening chunk of ice in the waves and wanted to try to create something out of it. Its was a tough photographic challenge. The sea, if captured with a fast shutter speed, made for a confusing image. There was no separation between the ice and the waves. It all blended together and looked awful. The only answer was a long exposure to smooth out the sea water as waves poured around the ice. I was lucky that the ice block was heavy enough that it didn't move during the long exposure. If the ice lost its sharpness, I had no photograph. Initially, I had previsualized this image as a B/W photograph. Then, the guy next to me on the beach was shining a green laser on the ice. The light was so bright and colorful, it completely changed my perspective on the drab scene. I asked for a quick blast of light on my ice chunk and magic just appeared.

How many times have you heard, "Geez, you've got a good eye?"

That's a rewarding compliment for any shooter. It makes the photographer feel like they've tapped into something special, unique, and personal. It's why we do what we do. Half the fun of being a photographer is getting out and exploring, putting ourselves in a position to capture a moment that is definitively ours. The second half is being successful at communicating our vision inside a single frame. Lets face it, content is everything. It requires timing, good exposure, and more often than not, luck. But, I've always defined luck using that old photojournalism slogan,  "F/8 And Be There!" Ya can't win if you don't enter, right? You have to be out there making photographs, searching for subject matter, refining your craft to create great photographs. A musician can't get better without practicing. And, neither can a photographer.

The great photographer Henri Cartier Bresson once said, "Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst." It takes time to polish your vision. There are many layers to understanding the depths of photographic communication. Following your own instincts is the most important step. When subject matter calls out to you, that's a message. Listen to it. This is the first step in defining your own style. It came from you, not someone else. Set aside what you've seen done before on similar subject matter. Ask yourself, "what is it that drew me in?" Was it the color, texture, or composition? Were there visual relationships between the clouds and waves? Was a monochromatic scene interrupted with subtle colors in the moss in the foreground? Whatever it was, find that answer.

Once you understand what it was that called out to you, the next step is capturing it. Sounds easy, right? This is where photography is challenging and requires work. How one records that message is the difference between a snapshot and a photograph. The right ingredients of lens, aperture, perspective and exposure all combine to fine tune your vision. Exploring your subject thoroughly often reveals little secrets that further stimulate your imagination. You get to know your subject intimately. Sometimes giving your subject a 360ยบ walk around provokes you to seeing it in a new way. Maybe from behind is the best side? By the time your done following your instincts, examining your subject, you know it so well that chances are pretty good you'll walk away with the essence of that moment. If nothing else, you leave with enough material that in your edit, one image will speaks louder than the others. Suddenly, your style is developing.

Giving yourself options during an edit forces you to become a better photographer. Too many photographers just show everything. They are afraid to make choices. And consequently, they bore
their audiences with repetition. When you ween through images, asking yourself why one frame is better than the other, even though they are similar, you learn more about your own images. There is a reason one frame is stronger than the other. Image by image, you eliminate the weakest in the herd. By the time you make a final select, you have the strongest image..........and you know why! 

You are a better photographer for plowing through that process.

Other considerations for fine tuning personal vision include preference for color or black & white. My roots are in black & white. The intense tonal relationships that beckon my camera
based on tonal values alone still reach me. At times, I only see in B/W. It's a different way of seeing, more organic perhaps. I say that because my past (film days) dealt with light sensitive silver halide crystals that become excited when exposed to light and came alive when processed in chemicals. Digital is different, but nonetheless part of seeing in B/W for many photographers is a way of seeing, period. For them, its reality. Color can at times infect content with color alone. A case where color dominates the photograph first, overriding content. However, isn't that just the flip side to allowing B/W tonal values define the image? There is no right answer to this. Its a personal choice based on the individual situation. Choosing the right medium to allow your voice to be heard is just good decision making. It's a question of personal style fine tuning your vision.

We spotted the well known black & white church in Budir along the western fjords and knew immediately this scene demanded representation in B/W.  The clouds, the stone wall and grasses simply blended in tonal magic. There was never any question of using this in color. Use of a wide angle lens added drama to the scene. But, I was careful not to go too wide. I didn't want to lose the connection with the white crosses to the right in the cemetery.

In the case of the "Blue Door" at Skogar Folk Museum, I watched everyone walk passed the door. The blue had me so excited. It was like glacial blue. Perfect for Iceland, right? I had to wait for everyone to leave the room so I could huddle into a corner and aim my wide angle at the door. The hues of blue in the corners confirmed my stop. The image had balance and color that electrified my vision of this simple yet complicated scene.

Along the coast I spotted a cliff with marvelous columnar geology, relatively common in Iceland. It was another overcast, dreary day and perfect for this type of photograph. Using a telephoto lens, I framed the subject and using a long exposure, waited for the wave action to provide me with a highlight in a fairly grey scene. I choose B/W over color for two reasons; One, the rocks were a lovely tone a gray, and secondly, the lower portion of the rocks had a green algae growth to competed with the geology. By choosing not to go with color, you don't see this distraction and the power of the volcanic action moves forward.


  1. The famous South African golfer, Gary Player, always said, "The more I practice, the luckier I get."

  2. Wise words, Layne. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Great post, and love that ice picture. I've been inspired to 1 try more B&W, and 2) buy a little laser. :)