by Jim McGee
We all do our best photography when we don't have a care in the world. Relaxing allows you to see things you would normally overlook when you're stressed and your mind is on a million other things.
But all too often when we get away for a relaxing day or we head out to a photo destination we're revved up and on a schedule. We have places to go, things to shoot, a schedule to keep! It all becomes like so much work - the very thing we're out to get away from.
One of the problems with working at an Internet company is that there is seldom time off to stop and "smell the roses" let alone set up a tripod and shoot them. So in order to improve both my photography and my marital bliss I've developed a formula for putting the office out of my mind, improving my photography, spending a little time with my wife and actually relaxing in the process.
First forget about getting up at the crack of dawn and chasing the magic light.
Yes I actually said that. The object here is unwinding for a relaxing day of shooting. Now the light might be magic at sunrise; but if you've chased your spouse out of bed at 4am, and snarled at each other for an hour while rushing around and trying to get out the door before sunrise - the experience will be something less than magic.
You can take pictures any time of day, really you can, and still have that magic light around sunset to look forward to. So this once head out at a decent hour, stop for a nice leisurely breakfast, joke with the waitress, and don't even think about that camera bag out in the car.
Pick a location where there's little traffic (if you live anywhere near New York or Los Angeles you can stop laughing now). Traffic is stressful and kind of defeats the purpose of the trip. Or better yet pick an area with no particular location in mind. Stop in shops and antique stores. Pull out at scenic overlooks. Prowl through galleries and look at the scenery. Put the windows down in the car and breath in the fresh air or hop on a motorcycle and get some bugs in your teeth. Put your cares behind you.
But for the first two hours don't even think about touching that damned camera. Put it in the trunk if you have to, but don't even think about photography and you're absolutely not allowed to shoot a landscape no matter how good it looks.
At some point in the morning when you're finally beginning to unwind you'll see something small. It might be on the shelf of an antique store or something on a table at a roadside stand and it will catch your eye. Now you're allowed to bring out the camera - but only the camera and a "standard" lens. Something like a 28-80mm or a 28-105mm. Nothing fancy. Don't actively look for things, and don't spend time "working" a scene (unless you want your spouse to throw something at you), just grab shots of things that catch your eye. Keep it light. Keep it fun. If you have a digital you're NOT allowed to look at the LCD while shooting.
Go grab lunch.
As the afternoon eases by you can open up your possibilities a little more. Look at houses and street scenes. Take a picture of a front porch or a sidewalk café. But again, don't spend a ton of time or thought on composition. Take grab shots of whatever catches your eye. You'll find that when you're relaxed you're not thinking about photography - it's just happening. When your photography flows you'll get your best shots.
As the day winds down and you start wending your way home, let your eye do the same thing with the surrounding landscape. But don't think about big "Ansel Adams" compositions. Look for little things that catch your eye in a scene. It could be a fence post, a little stream that creates a path into the scene, or an old car sitting just so.
Now the light is getting soft and you've unwound your creative eye enough that you'll be able to do something with that wonderful light. So go ahead. Now you can pull out the tripod and shoot.
When you go back through those "throwaway shots" from early in the day you might be pleasantly surprised at what you've got; and it's likely those end of day landscapes are better than what you'd have shot stressed out in the early morning.
A Practical Lesson
Have you ever had a day shooting where everything just seemed to flow? One of those days when great images just kept popping up in your viewfinder?
Whether your game is golf, tennis or photography you do your best when you're relaxed and not trying to force something to happen. Too often when photographers find themselves in a great place, or in a great landscape, or in great light they feel that they can't waste the situation. "I'm here, I have to do something wonderful with this!"
We put stress on ourselves and that stress just gets in the way. The good news is that the ability to let things flow is something you can learn. When you get away for Sunday drive in your own back yard there is no stress to produce something great. You can just relax and shoot silly little things that catch your eye. And in a perverse twist that may just be when you create some of the images that you'll come to like the best.
Maybe it's time for a Sunday drive.