Actually, I think Art lies in both directions – the broad strokes, big picture but on the other hand the minute examination of the apparently mundane. Seeing the whole world in a grain of sand, that kind of thing.

 –Peter Hammill, English Musician

There are smaller stories everywhere and a world waiting to be discovered beyond the big picture. I know. I find them every day. One thing I have learned and know about myself is that I am far better at finding and seeing the smaller stories than I am at seeing the big picture. I’m detail oriented (not perfect). I pay attention to and notice the little things, sometimes to my detriment. I love words and writing but lean more toward the poetry and short stories. The idea of writing a novel is daunting, though someday I may. I also love capturing my world in photographs, ones that reflect inward motion more often than wide expanse. Even in the beginning of my photographic journey, I was drawn to the details, the overlooked, often unnoticed parts of a scene, place or subject.

My landscapes are more often intimate than grand. In fact, in my early days of photography, the grand landscapes were often “too much” for me to handle with the camera for a variety of reasons. I could see them, even feel them, but the awe and wonder that the grands evoked were elusive in my images. I didn’t know how to “manage” the visual and emotional overload – technically or creatively. I am better at it now, but realize and embrace the reality that I find my best images in the smaller stories. Those are typically the ones that resonate and capture what I see and feel. That doesn’t mean that they’re all in the macro world (which is my Calgon), but simply beyond and within the big picture.

The bigger picture at Beaufort Inlet Seafood.

Moving in close to the front of this steel ship.


It depends, in part, on the bigger picture or place. It’s incredibly relative. If we’re talking about a field of wildflowers, the smaller story is found in the singles and the small bouquets. It is found in the butterfly feeding on nectar, the caterpillar eating leaves, the birds perching and flying among the sunflowers. It is found in the petals and leaves and ladybugs. If we’re talking about the rural landscapes (common scenes where I live), then it is made up of different elements. It is found in the barns, fences, tractors, farm implements and parts and pieces of all of these. It is found in the fields filled with crops of the region and the season. It is found in the farm animals – cows, horses, goats, chickens – and all that comes with them. Think of the feeding stations, the metal buckets, wooden crates. The smaller story is even found in the farmer and farmhands working the land.

You can find the smaller story, even if you’re most comfortable with the grander landscapes. You just might have to work a little harder if doing so doesn’t come naturally to you. For me, breaking down those scenes is easy. And, the beauty of this approach is that I’m not locked into a timetable of the “best light, best time” scenario. It’s the same for you. All day long, every day, there is something to see and discover and capture. Yes, “great” light is magical, but it isn’t on a menu for us to order up whenever we want it. We need to be able to capture images that speak to us and be in the moment no matter what light we’re given.

Look for the good stuff. Use the tools we have to add, hold back or change the impact of the given light.  Some words of encouragement that follow, and a few practical tips for finding the smaller stories, may help you come away from almost any shooting experience with images that you really like, that surprise you (given what you may have had to work with), and a greater appreciation for the “smalls.” You can do this, and you can learn to do it well.

Soooo much potential in these bins of nets and floats and ropes.

The “star” surrounded by the ropes and nets.

A different view from the same bins above.


So, what’s your first step if you’re more of that “big picture” kind of person? Bear with me here, and embrace the challenge. Whether you’ve been a photographer for a long time or you’re just trying to figure things out or you’re somewhere in the middle, the following “mindful moments” exercise gives some guidance. And, when you do the exercise, let me know how it works out for you. Keep in mind, part of this challenge includes your looking at “sucky light” as an opportunity and not an excuse to stay in bed, stay home or turn around and go home.

Start Here:

Pick a day and time to go out in the field to photograph. Commit to the date regardless of the conditions. If it’s a “blah” day at a location you frequent more for the grander landscapes, the scenes that ache for the right light, dramatic clouds and such, GO ANYWAY. Accept that the light and weather is not “perfect” for the images you commonly strive to make and enjoy the most. Again, go anyway, but shift your focus and get a grip on your attitude. Be open to seeing differently.

When you get to “the place,” find a spot. Then, simply sit down and get comfortable or stand there, if you choose. Leave your camera alone. You can keep it with you, but resist the urge to turn it on, attach it to your tripod or even give a quick peek through the viewfinder. Take in the views all around you, starting with that big picture you like so much.

A different view of the red, steel trawler.

And, then, there’s the story told at the docks.

Now, move from the bigger scene – the grand – into noticing the smaller pictures. Direct your attention from the forest to collections of trees to single trees and then to the branches and limbs and down even further into the leaves. Notice the colors, patterns, textures, relationships between the elements. These are the same things you would also include in your grander landscape images. Push yourself to notice more and stay with it. Now, do the same with the ground surrounding you, whether filled with boulders or grasses or flowers or agricultural crops. What are you sitting on and among? Focus on each space, one at a time, and continue the process of breaking things down into smaller and smaller scenes and stories.

Pay attention to what you see and feel (physically, mentally and emotionally). Raise the level of your awareness. Close your eyes if you need to. In fact, go ahead and close them, removing all distractions. Take it all in. Be there for the sounds and sensations. Is there a breeze where you are sitting, or is it fixed with stillness. Is the temperature warm, hot, cool or cold? Can you feel the sun on your face? Can you smell the pine trees or honeysuckle, the grasses or even the dirt? What do you hear? Are there birds chirping, water running, rain falling or leaves rustling? What about traffic or other noises. Do you hear the sounds of an airplane, tractors, metal banging loosely on an old building? Does any of what you sense bring back memories? How might that change how you interpret the scene?