Stop, Look, Listen and See

When photographing a new subject or a new place it is so easy to set up as soon as you arrive and start shooting, subconsciously working through the toolbox of techniques that you have been accumulating since the first day you picked up a camera.  But how can a piece of art be admired, appreciated and respected if your workflow does not provide the time to fully appreciate the scene before you?  Adopting this rapid-fire technique is akin to taking something without giving anything back in return.  As with anything else, before you take something you need to ask permission.  I learned a very important lesson recently, which led me to realize that permission is only granted once you have connected with the subject and formed some kind of an understanding.  While the landscape happily offers itself up to you, unless you understand your reaction to the scene in front of your eyes you will not truly see it and your final images will be nothing more than documentary evidence that you were there.  And so the question becomes how do you connect with the subject?

During a recent week-long photography workshop in Death Valley, California, we photographed the Mesquite Sand Dunes. Our first visit to the dunes was late afternoon and we stayed until just after sunset.  I have never photographed sand dunes before and it was overwhelming.  Lines, shapes and patterns were everywhere and I was guilty of just setting up and snapping away.  However, when I looked at my images afterwards, I realized that I had simply been taking “I was here” shots and hadn’t really looked to see what was so amazing about this landscape.  We went out to the dunes again the following morning, which gave me another chance to do better.  We were up well before sunrise and after finding a spot I liked I just stood there, listening to the sound of the morning awaken from its slumber.  Long before the sun began its journey over the mountains that formed the horizon I scoped out potential shots and then sat back, waiting for the light to paint its strokes on these massive, natural sculptures.  Once the sun breached the horizon I went to work.  It was magical watching the shadows transform the dunes, adding depth and dimension to what was beforehand a flat, monotone scene.  I knew I only had 20 minutes or so before the magic show in front of me would end and  therefore, rather than running across the dunes chasing new compositions, I just stood where I was and moved my camera around, making incremental adjustments to capture the constantly changing scene.  I became totally immersed in what I was seeing and the act of taking photographs became a secondary consideration.


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  1. Did you try the new method of converting to B&W that you talked about?

  2. No Steve – this is the old i am going to try the new way and see what I can come up with.

  3. If you can get better tonal range I will genuflect and offer beer at the alter. 😉

  4. Amen and amen. Such a well written post Arthur and your thoughts are spot on. And the image is wonderful. A great line leading you right into the image. Well done.

  5. Just curious Arthur, what new technique 0are you thinking about trying.. Recently I cames across one in The Black and White Photography actually in Magazine section at Barnes and Noble”

  6. Buzz, its a technique master B&W photographer Chuck Kimmerle shared with our group during the death valley workshop I took part in a couple of weeks ago. He achieves amazing tonal separation in his images and he shared with us some thoughts to consider in post processing – check out his work and you will see what I mean

  7. To me—Looks like he is getting good dynamic range -then cutting bzck on the contrast somehow.This resuls in a smoother transistion of tones, which equates to more tones. Also, possibly using a full frame camera with more than 12 bits of information.

  8. I think the “somehow” is largely Chuck’s vision, which when combined with knowhow re post processing is very powerful. He sees intimate details in the expanse of landscape that the rest of us would simply pass by. Look carefully at his Zion work – it will blow you away.

  9. Stop referring to me as master. You sound like my wife on fetish night. And, nicely written and thought out article. Wish I were as clear and concise as you, Arthur.

    And Buzz, you are mostly correct, a FF camera. My conversion method is pretty simple and I don’t mind sharing (post-processing secrets are silly). I start with a black to white gradient map adjustment layer to see the basic grayscale image, then beneath than place a b/w adjustment layer and make LIGHT adjustments to alter the tonal relationships. Nothing too drastic as they can introduce noise, banding and edge artifacts.

    Then, depending on the image, I will adjust the opacity of the gradient map layer or remove it entirely, although I almost always keep it. Simple. The trick, though, is not in the layers themselves, it is how they are used.

  10. Good Post and advice! …Especially in those situations where it is the first time at a both a visually rich AND ephemeral scene like the example you give here. Taking time to experience the environment and calming ones self before ripping-off exposures can be a real exercise in discipline. The ability to review and return as you did helps too. Good advice for trip planning. The other thing that might be interesting would be to discuss how photo references you looked at prior to the trip influence your readiness once there?

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