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Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online
Pictures in the Mind 
by Jim McGee

Ugh. It's 6AM and according to my mapping software I've got a three and a half hour drive ahead of me. The majority will be the New Jersey Turnpike up past Newark and New York. You know the ugly part you see at the beginning of every Sopranos episode? Then I'll head west toward the Delaware Water Gap where things get more picturesque.

I stop and get two 20 ounce coffees to ease me through the ride and head north with the cruise control locked in. The State Police are having a party on the side of the road every couple of miles this morning so there'll be no making time. In an effort to amuse myself I start taking pictures while I drive.

Now before anyone starts typing a horrified email about my having a camera to my face instead of watching the road, let me assure you that my camera was safely tucked away in the trunk. So how was I taking pictures? With my mind of course.

Most folks wouldn't argue with the statement "the more you shoot the better you get". Practice improves your photographic skills and no skill improves more with practice than composition. Once you get past the basics of learning about diagonals and the "rule of thirds" much of your compositional skills revolve around your ability to see. 

Now by "seeing" I don't mean your ability to read an eye chart. I mean your ability to recognize lines and color; to see and notice the color and contrast of light; and to see the interplay of shapes and lines and arcs before you. And then once you've seen a place where all those things come together to recognize the lens, and angle, and location to shoot from that brings it all together into something that is hopefully pleasing to the eye. Would a wide angle lens from a low shooting position work best to capture this scene or would I be better to get more distance between myself and the subject area and shoot the whole thing with a telephoto to compress the scene?

Then there's the ability to recognize and isolate that one item, that one thing, or that one person, that all by itself tells a story or connects with the viewer in some way that evokes emotion. You can practice all these things without a camera, and after a while you can do it in that detached part of your mind that has nothing to do with your driving.

The urban sprawl from Newark to New York City provides ample subject matter. It is an amazing urban industrial landscape of complex overlapping highways, rail lines, and massive pipelines all glistening in the soft "magic hour" light. They feed into huge manufacturing facilities, into refineries, gargantuan holding tanks, and stacks of cargo containers piled ten high. Their lines and complexity give your mind an amazing array compositional possibilities. Sprinkled amongst all of this industrial clutter are small lakes and streams populated by water fowl. Their presence incongruous amid all the piping and steel, they present an opportunity to comment on man and nature. How you interpret that interaction, good or bad, is all a function of your composition.

Weaving amid all of this are rail lines. Their curving tracks providing the photographer with lines that allow you to lead the viewer's eye through and image. And at Newark airport, skimming just above all of this, are huge airliners flying so low you can make out the rivets on their bodies as they come in above the highway to touch down on runways that run parallel to the road. They're so low in fact that you could include them in your composition with just a 35mm lens.

Turning north and west away from New York I drop off of the turnpike and onto a local route. It is both a main street and a busy thoroughfare slicing through small towns. This area has grown; probably overgrown, in the last few years. In some instances you find yourself on a highway passing right by old churches and main street remnants from both the recent and distant past. A bright white church contrasted against a stormy sky and illuminated by a beam of light breaking through the clouds catches my eye. So much has crowded up around it that the only way to shoot it would be up close with a wide angle lens. The resulting distortion would have to be used carefully so that the church would appear to soar rather than fall backwards in the image.

An old feed store adjacent to a mini-mall also speaks of the changes in the area. How to frame such a shot to convey a decade of rapid change in a single image? I finally decide that despite the compelling subject, there just isn't a line of site that boils the scene down into a simple image. That too is a compositional skill that is learned over time - recognizing when a shot just won't work no matter how much you want it to.










Forty minutes later I find myself in another world. No more urban sprawl. Now the feed stores are still selling feed, the deli has a sign out that offers "full service deer butchering", and main streets are still just a collection of small shops clustered around one or two restaurants or a diner.

Rolling through farm country I look for those rural roadside elements that speak to a different way of life. They are sagging sway-backed barns, old or abandoned homes, farm equipment, and weathered gray fences that line the roadsides and fields. The light has changed from the soft light of early morning but the subjects are just as interesting. One of the advantages of creating images in your mind is that you can keep shooting when the light goes sour

When my meeting is over later that afternoon I have a short window for some real photography before I need to head south for a dinner meeting three hours in the other direction. I decide that my best bet is to spend a few minutes focusing on just one subject instead of rushing around and trying to photograph a bunch of different things. A simple fence post catches my eye by the side of the road and a quick u-turn gets me in position to shoot it. The low contrast of the overcast light will allow me to capture a lot of detail in the old wood and barbed wire. That in turn will give me a lot of options when it comes time to dodge and burn to create the look I want in the final print. I take my time playing with angles and tripod positions and finally decide on a couple of compositions that are close to what I had pictured from the driver's seat. I even take time to shoot an adjacent gate that was invisible from the road. Twelve frames of black and white later I'm back on the road feeling relaxed and settled. I know that I've gotten the image that I wanted from that fence post. It may not be worthy of a gallery but I felt like I'd completed the homework assignment for my daylong self assignment on composition..

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