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.