Look Past the Expected
by Jim McGee
Before going to a new location you should find out as much as you can about it. If possible take some time and look at what other photographers have done with that location. What do you like about what they've done and how you might compose the scenes differently? Look at maps and/or trail maps to get a feel for where the light will fall at different times of day. By doing some up front work you'll have a better chance of being in the right place when the light gets interesting. If you're in a tourist location check out local art galleries for paintings of the location. They can be a great, and often overlooked, source of inspiration.
If you're going back to a place you've visited previously take a look at your own images. What would you, or could you, have done differently?
This process is called pre-visualization. Doing your homework dramatically increases your chances of getting great images. It allows you to be in the right place when the light is breaking, and alerts you to iconic or signature images that an area is known for. In most cases it beats the alternative, which is wandering around aimlessly hoping something picturesque will fall into your lap.
There are times however when I've succumbed to too much planning. We've all done it. We become photographers on a mission. We have twelve things to shoot today! Don't dawdle. We've got things to shot and film to burn!
But the tunnel vision that comes from that approach can lead to poor images. I know I've fallen victim to it myself. When tunnel vision strikes you don't take enough time to work a subject and you stop noticing other things around you. You're totally focused on getting the shot you have in your mind - to the exclusion of all else.
But you should always keep in mind the old maxim: When every photographer is looking one way, look in the other direction.
It's a lot harder to do than it sounds but it's worth practicing. Some of my favorite shots happened when I stuck my head out from behind the camera and just looked around.
On The Cliffs of Moher, Southwest Ireland
I knew the weather would be a matter of luck and that I couldn't do anything about that. What I didn't count on were the crowds. When we arrived mid-morning the guide explained very seriously that the path up to the watchtower was perfectly safe. But we should be careful if we hiked out along the cliffs. The narrow path along the cliff edge was a dirt track made slick and muddy by the misting rain. The wind was blowing stiffly in off the ocean. That was good he explained, it was usually on days when the wind was blowing out that people were lost over the edge. According to our guide there are several deaths each year on the cliffs. There was no humor in his voice.
So with my fear of heights left behind in the parking lot I hiked out along the edge south of the tower. The rain blew steadily in on the wind making it seem like a long hike but was probably less than a half mile. With a 20mm lens I was able to frame the cliffs, surf, sky and tower into a composition that I felt gave scale to the image. The people shrank to insignificance with this composition. But the slate gray sky looked dull. Big dramatic thunderheads would have been great. What I had was pea soup that showed no signs of clearing. Being part of a group I killed as much time as I could out on the cliffs hoping for a break in the clouds before I had to hike back in. No dice. Today the weather gods were laughing at photographers.
Feeling disappointed I hiked down toward the parking lot and then back up the wide path to the watchtower. Any thoughts of a moody image of the solitary tower against the threatening sky were dashed. There were just too many people milling around. I stood for what seemed like an eternity with the tower framed in my viewfinder waiting for a break, but every time someone walked into my frame. When yet another tour bus disgorged a crowd I turned away in disgust to walk back down the hill.
But I had been too focused on the tower. What I had totally missed behind my back was a little guy in his rain slicker and "wellies" feeding a pony. I had time to catch one quick grab shot before he scampered away. To this day it remains one of my favorite shots from Ireland.
Chasing the Light in Zion Utah
We wound up on the shoulder of route 9 east, just outside of Virgin Utah, firing away at Mt. Kinesava as the light shifted and changed. You could actually watch the subtle changes in the tone and color of light as it played across the Navajo sandstone face of the mountain. It was the kind of light that photographers dream about and I was captivated by what I was seeing in the viewfinder.
But thankfully I hit the end of the roll and had to reload. I say thankfully because when I turned to go into the trunk for another roll of film I saw what was going on in the sky behind me.
That same wonderful light was illuminating the spreading clouds from below and a single tree stood out on the ridge against that magic sky. The clouds formed a natural leading line for the eye to follow and lent texture to this simple composition. No filters were used for this image. The exact color of the sky was recorded on Provia 400F - and it only lasted a few fleeting moments. As great as the light was on Mt. Kinesava, this simple elemental image of a single tree on a ridge silhouetted against that beautiful sky remains my favorite from that location.
Special Delivery in Old San Juan
The next day I shot numerous sites as we followed our guide around this beautiful old city. I kept my eyes open. I saw a lot of old railings but none with climbing ivy.
Late in the afternoon a few days later I had wandered well out of the tourist area, down back streets and alleys, photographing architecture when I came across of all things an ivy covered railing!
I stooped to look it over. The railing looked appropriately aged but the leaves of the ivy were pretty ragged. Evidently some local insects had made a salad out of it. As I was looking through my viewfinder I heard angry yelling in Spanish a little way down the block. The neighborhood I was in hadn't raised any safety concerns and when I looked around I saw an older gentleman yelling up at the balconies of a building. Several floors up an old woman walked out onto a balcony and with hands gesturing wildly started yelling back at the old boy. In a moment she grabbed a basket off the balcony tied to a long rope. The basket was lowered down and the old fellow loaded groceries into the basket. The feigned anger gone they laughed and chattered as she hauled away on the rope and I snapped away with my camera. She saw me out of the corner of her eye and after bringing the groceries in gave me a smile and a wave. It was door-to-door delivery Old San Juan style. I never did get a shot of the railing and ivy but what I did get was something much better.
The moral of these stories is that while planning, patience, and perseverance are all necessary qualities for a photographer you also need to be open to what's going on around you. Be ready to drop all those pre-conceived notions in a heartbeat if something interesting presents itself. Those found moments and those found images just may turn out to be your best - or at least your favorites.