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Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online
The Mind's Eye
by Gary W. Stanley

After writing last month's article, "What Really Matters," I began to realize just how easy it is to get wrapped up in the equipment side of photography with all of its technical issues. My intention was to remove some of the obstacles that get in our way and hinder us from doing what photography has allowed us to do since its introduction: create the world as we see it in our Mind's Eye.

Ansel Adams did it, Ernst Haas did it, Galen Rowell did it, and many still do. They recognized that darkrooms, cameras, lenses and film were just the tools of the trade that allowed them to do what they did best: capture what they saw in their mind.

Much like an artist uses a brush, a canvas, and a palette of color, we as photographers capture images based upon the way we see. The image is our interpretation of the world at that moment. Interestingly the "Mind's Eye" has a very simple definition: "The imagination."

Ask yourselves: Am I exercising my mind's eye? What can we do to help capture photographically what we are seeing in our mind's eye? I want to take you through the mental thought process, covering the various steps necessary to achieve good results with our photography and our creativity.

About Equipment: Should we go out and buy every photographic accessory known to man and see if this helps develop our creativity? Silly, yes, but I bet that if in the past year I've used even half the stuff I have stored in my closet or even in my camera bag for that matter I would probably go into shock.

Of course, it really isn't about buying equipment; it's about using it. We need to make the effort to use those tools if we want to expand our vision. Sometimes I feel like all I've done by carrying that stuff in my camera bag is to show people all the neat things I have that I don't use. Sound familiar?

The Tripod: Let's make sure that at the very least, we are using good technique. Unless the situation does not reasonably allow for the use of a tripod, use it! With the exception of your camera, lens and film, it is the single most important tool in the photographic process.

A tripod will help you do what you need to do most; concentrate on creating the image that you see in your mind. This hands-off approach is critical. Besides helping you to steady your camera and keep it vibration free it affords you the opportunity to slow down and really look at your composition. You can step away from your camera and look for distracting elements that may otherwise spoil a great shot.

A Cable Release: Like a tripod, a cable release helps you keep your hands away from the camera at the time of exposure. "This is a little over simplified don't you think, Gary?" Maybe, but I'm not done yet. You may use good technique in this area, because most of us know how important it is, but maybe there are other areas that we could improve on.

Lenses and Your Composition: Choosing a lens that matches your personal vision is important. If you want to express the vast openness of the southwest for example, a wide-angle lens will help you to do this. What will help even more is to give the viewer a sense of depth. You can add a three-dimensional quality to your photograph by including a foreground subject. It may be a tree, a large rock, or a person. Remember, it's not about how expensive the lens is, but rather, how well you use it. If you do what you do correctly, chances are the lens will do what it should do correctly.

You may select a telephoto lens to take advantage of its ability to compress the apparent distance between objects in the composition. Mountains for example, are often photographed this way. Whatever lens you use, always try to leave a little room around the outside of the composition so that your image is not too close to the edge of your frame and appears crowded. This also provides a margin of error should the image need to be cropped.

Film: Choosing the right film for your taste is as important as the choice of colors a painter uses for their painting. A film's color palette is very important. You may want a very saturated film, or a film with good color accuracy. Ask yourself: "does this film help me to capture image I saw with my Mind's Eye?"

Filters: A good knowledge of the use of filters can also be a valuable tool in your effort to capture the image that the mind's eye sees. Filters, if used properly, can be an extension of your film palette. A polarizing filter is my first choice, or more specifically, a warming-polarizer. This filter helps to remove the glare or reflection off of water and foliage, allowing the color beneath that reflection to come through. The fact that my polarizing filter also incorporates a warming filter helps to bring back the warm colors lost when using the polarizer alone.

Because of your film's narrow exposure latitude you may not be able to capture the entire range from dark shadow detail to highlight detail. Graduated Neutral Density filters are essential in holding down the contrast range of many subjects. While our eyes may be able to see the tonal range between the bright sky and the darker foreground, our film may not. A graduated neutral density filter can solve this problem. The square filters from LEE that I use are a dark neutral color on the top half and clear on the bottom half and are large enough to use with my wide-angle lenses. Various colored graduated filters used judiciously can help enhance our visual perception of a particular scene as well.

Reflectors and Fill-Flash: While I personally don't use fill-flash as often as I could (I forget), I do use reflectors especially in close-up work. Next to filters, these are probably the tools in our camera bag that we are least likely to drag out, even though they could make the difference between a good shot and a great shot. In nature you want to be able to control shadow detail and the tricky lighting that we sometimes encounter. When photographing mushrooms for example, I will use a reflector held below my subject to bounce some light underneath to add detail that would have been lost in shadows otherwise. If these tools are taking up space in your camera bag, why not take them out a give them a try? They could be a key to capturing what you see in your mind onto film.

The Rule of Thirds: The compositional rule of thirds is crucial to any artist. Learning this rule and exercising it well can capture the viewer's attention probably more than any other photographic technique. Placing your subject high in the composition encourages the viewer to look across the foreground leading their eye up to your main subject. Place your subject low in the composition and your viewer sees your main subject. Their eyes continue through the composition on up to the brilliant sunset (or mountains etc.) in the background. Yes some rules are meant to be broken. You may have a subject so compelling that you could place it just about anywhere and it would work well, so experiment!

Line, Shape, Texture and Form: The other artistic tricks of the trade, if you will, are the use of these four simple elements of good composition. S curves show the eye a pleasant way to flow through a composition. The use of strong lines (usually diagonals) will visually direct the eye to its final destination point. Texture and form add interest and depth to your image and are enhanced by side lighting. These are tools that can add valuable information and interest to your photograph. Practice them and learn to use them.

Mental and Physical Exercise: Okay, we have all this other stuff working for us, have we left anything out? Well, actually yes! The mental process incorporates several things: First there is the mental checklist that you should go through every time you photograph, and even before you even leave the house. Did I leave my film in the refrigerator? Is my ISO set correctly? Is my camera's exposure compensation dial still set at plus two? Is auto focus on or off? What lens will I need for the morning shoot? Oh no, don't tell me I forgot to put film in the camera!

Then, there is the mental process of remembering to check and see if your horizon line is straight. Did you allow for adequate depth of field? Is there anything distracting in the composition? Where should I place the subject in the composition so that I can more effectively draw the viewer into my photograph? Did I work the subject, shooting vertically as well as horizontally?

The physical part of this exercise has a great deal to do with being creative and using your imagination. Ask yourself: Is there another angle of view that might improve this composition? What if I get physically lower to the ground? What if I look for a higher vantage point? You know, if I move over there, the side lighting will make this image much more dramatic. The whole point of this exercise is to be prepared before you actually take your first photograph. You want to be able to concentrate on only one thing: and that is your Mind's Eye. Finally, I share with you my favorite piece of advice, present company included: If you really want to capture the images you see in your Mind's Eye follow the suggestions above and then get your lazy bones out of bed, grab your stuff and get out there and enjoy yourself! 

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