Pick a Number …

At the heart of all photography is an urge to express our deepest personal feelings – to reveal our inner, hidden selves, to unlock the artist. –Galen Rowell

There is value in stepping back from our work and looking at it from different perspectives. In doing so, we will learn more about ourselves and our path and patterns. Our images reveal not only what we see, places we’ve been and what peaks our interest, but also how we see them and, if we’re lucky, how we feel about them. We can observe images and easily recognize and remember our disconnectedness from a subject. We wish for better. Then, there are the images that bring us back to a moment and evoke a palpable sense of engagement and attention. Those are the images and subjects that speak to us and our audience below the surface. Those are the ones we allow to be imperfectly perfect.

MAN ON STREET ACROSS FROM CAPITOL BUILDING This is an image that haunts me. I cannot “un-see” it, and I cannot forget that it was taken immediately after visiting one of the most beautiful buildings I have visited. This man was on the sidewalk across the street.  I wrestled with myself about taking the picture and almost didn’t. In that moment I learned something about myself. I don’t ever want to take another image like this unless I can do more than capture a broken moment in someone’s life. It was only one image, but one I will never forget.

We all know and have seen images that have been worked to perfection on a technical level and yet are void of impact and emotion. (We’ve probably taken them, too.) While we can appreciate the efforts of technical mastery, these are the same images that lose our interest quickly and are easily forgotten. Then, there are images that yank us in, draw our attention and keep us there – not because of technical perfection but because they speak to us on a deeper and more connected emotional or spiritual level. They touch our souls. We as the photographer/artist (and the viewer/audience) connect with what we have chosen to put in the frame and how we have chosen to finish the image in our refinement process.

If you want to learn more about your work, how you see the world, or patterns within your vision, take a closer look. How do you photograph places you spend time in? Are you a “big picture” person, and your images reflect that? Do they speak to the essence of places that touch your heart or do they simply document what you’ve seen and say “I was here”? Do you tend to see and photograph the smaller stories, intimate landscapes, moments that might have been missed by others, or even by you, if you had hurried by? Or do you find yourself going in deeper still to the point that “context” and place are not part of the stories you tell?

FLOWING IN THE PETALS OF A DAHLIA – This image was created using the Tamron 90mm macro lens with Nikon 6T supplemental close-up lens.

Take a good, long look. See what you learn about yourself by looking at the images. Can you remember what made you stop? What held your attention then? What holds your attention now? Are they the same? Do you see something more or different? Do your images reflect those moments? Do they bring you back in time? Challenge yourself to gather a cohesive collection (or more) from your archives. See what you discover.

One way to embark on the challenge is to follow the “Seeing in Sixes” project by Lenswork. To give you some insight, Lenswork describes these sets as “a visual cousin to the haiku or six-word storya compact expression of a single nature, possibly a story, definitely a theme, held together stylistically, and making a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Tight, distilled to the essentials, impactful, deeper than what is possible with a single image.”

DAHLIA STILL LIFE – This image was created with the Lensbaby Velvet 85 in my living room and a texture from Topaz Texture Effects.

Over the course of the last six months I have heard in three different ways the call to “see in six.” First, from a fellow photographer who submitted to the Seeing in Sixes project. Then, two other photographer friends shared with me the first two volumes of the Seeing in Sixes books. Finally, a challenge came through an in-depth mentoring course by David DuChemin (The Compelling Frame). I got the message, and I did it.  It has been an enlightening endeavor, even with the constraints I gave myself with the dahlias. It has inspired me to look at and gather more collections that reflect a part of who I am, how I see and what I love.

DAHLIA PETALS IN ABSTRACTION – This image was created using the Tamron 90mm lens and adding the Nikon 6T supplemental close-up lens.

For my set of six, I chose images I had taken within a six-week timeframe. My dominant subject during that time was (and still is) my “dates with dahlias.” Along with the constraints of time and subject, my third requirement was that each frame needed to reflect something more about me and my connection to the subject. Each one needed to be personal and unique to how I see and feel about dahlias. There were no other “rules.” The six images shared here are “me.” Each one speaks to more than “This is a dahlia.” I recognized and accepted long ago that I am not a documenter. I am an interpreter. My best work reflects not only what is “real” and what I see, but rather what I see and how it makes me feel.

DAHLIA IN BOTTLES – This image was created using the Lensbaby Edge 80 optic and a French Kiss texture called Purple Prose.

Whether consciously or not, we notice things that touch us below the surface, that tug on a part of our heart and awaken a sense of wonder and more. What those things might be are different for everyone. They also change along the way as we experience life, learn new things, meet new people and grow as individuals.

Take a look … pick a number. I challenge you. What does your set look like? What does it reveal about you – as a person and as a visual artist? What does that collection say about what touches your heart? Give it a try and see where your “look back” takes you. Discover what your work tells you about yourself. And keep looking. Those touchpoints have and will continue to change and grow as you do. It will reveal insight and be reflected in ways that may surprise you.

DAHLIA IN BOTTLE WITH ANTIQUE PAPER UMBRELLA – This image was created using the Lensbaby Velvet 56 lens and blending two images – one of the dahlia, the other an antique paper umbrella.

Remember, we all begin our photographic journey with little knowledge of the technical aspects of the craft. What we bring first is a good portion of life experience and a sense of wonder that is in a continual state of evolution. Much of what took my breath away in the beginning of this journey still does – sometimes in the same way and for the same reasons, but not always. Life and learning and people and places along the way have expanded my vision and inspiration, and it always will.

DAHLIA AMIDST MAGICAL COLOR — This image was created with a Lensbaby Sweet 80 optic and blended with a Topaz texture called “Dreamy Day.”

So, pick a number … any number. Add your own constraints for this exercise so that your focus will be limited and purpose-driven. Challenge yourself to do something (ie., same subject) differently, to veer from your usual approach and comfortable style of shooting. See what you see, what you learn and what you feel. Be open and inspired.

DAHLIAS IN SIXES – And here are those six images that fall within the boundaries of a timeframe, a subject and that each reflect a part of me and how I see and feel about the dahlias.

Morning With “Fourteen”

I began to realize that the camera sees the world differently than the human eye and that sometimes those differences can make a photograph more powerful than what you actually observed.                                                                                                         -– Galen Rowell

What feels like a contradiction of seasons is simply a part of nature that I cannot explain. A “fall” leaf fallen on a moss-covered log among the forest still feels fresh to me. This was one of the first images I made during my morning walks with “Fourteen.” What a different view . . .

I feel certain we’ve all had the experience of going to a place for the first time to “check it out.” Several weeks ago, that’s one of the things I did. I needed to see if this place “feels right” for one of my Dig Deeper workshops. It does.

However, to make things even more interesting, I decided to spend a morning walk at this new place with one new lens to “check it out.” I needed to see if I liked it enough to add it to my camera bag(s). I did.

The mushrooms in all shapes, sizes and colors came alive on this wet, misting morning. Seeing the scene through the perspective of “Fourteen” helped me build this image in a way that would not have otherwise happened. The urge to switch to my macro lens, had I taken it with me, may well have changed everything. Herein lies the beauty of focusing on one place with one lens.

So, I spent one of my mornings at this place with a Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens and walked. And, I wondered, “Do I need this lens?” and “What can I do with it that I can’t do with what I have?” Ultra-wide is really not my style. Truth be told, for years people thought of me as one who focused on macro photography. And, yes, it is my Calgon … three macro lenses might suggest that. But macro isn’t everything or the only thing I do in my photography.

With Fourteen I knew there would be some challenges and that my first time out of the gate would be a learning experience. It was. I needed to draw on what I already knew and put myself to the task of getting to know the lens, the place, and the potential of both. I also needed to be prepared to “fail” in order to learn. I forced myself to use only the 14mm for most of the morning. Yes, I did take one other lens, but I didn’t break it out until it was obvious that an image I wanted was simply not possible with the Rokinon. That other lens was the Tamron 28-300mm, which gave me a great deal of flexibility and is a light carry.

The ferns of the forest were dancing all along the semi-steep climb to the top of the hill. The vibrant and varied greens of the wet morning were mesmerizing and made the walk all the more enjoyable. Many, many places to stop, notice, absorb and express my vision.

Back to the ultra-wide Rokinon, which is, by the way, a manual focus lens. Some of the things I learned spending the morning with this lens were expected. Others were not. Here are some of those observations:

     First, I really love my circular polarizer filter for outdoor and nature photography. However, using one is not an option as the front element of this lens is domed. This kept me even more mindful of the subjects I chose and the direction of light and its impact on the subjects.

Graceful ferns on the bank of the hill made it easy to take notice. What a wonderful dance to see and capture in this image. Ultra-wide perspective, an even slower approach and patience made this possible.

     Second, you can put a whole lot of stuff in the frame with an ultra-wide lens. The angle of view on this lens is 115 degrees on my full-frame Nikon D810. This means that I need to be super aware of where my tripod legs, my feet, camera strap and other tools (such as diffuser/reflector) are. And, I’ve got to be on the lookout (high alert) for things in the frame that I can or cannot move out of view and what I’m able to compose out of the frame with a step to the left, right, forward or back. A tilt of this lens up or down, I discovered, can create interesting, but mostly unwanted, distortion. I need, as always, to do my best work in the field when creating the image.

     Third, you can only get so close with “Fourteen”. It is not a macro lens, no matter how much I might like it to be. How close can I get? Well, the minimum focusing distance (MFD) for this lens is eleven inches. Since I didn’t research ahead of time and don’t carry a ruler in my bag, I had to figure this out in the field. Fun times. I learned that there’s an obvious advantage with autofocus lenses. When you’re too close to your subject and have crossed the MFD line, using autofocus, you know it. You don’t get the focus confirmation “beep” or the solid ball in your viewfinder. You learn quickly that you’re too close and need to back off. With a manual focus lens, there is no beep; and, depending on where you want to focus, you may not get  a solid ball either.

On this walk we discovered “Chicken of the Woods” (Laetiporus) in all its vibrant waves and intricate design attached to a downed and very wet and moss-covered tree. The ultra-wide lens allowed me to capture a sense of place that would not have been possible in this way with another lens. At least not how I was seeing it.

     Fourth, You need to use your tripod. What??? Yes, you do! I needed to use my tripod. Couldn’t I get a fast-enough shutter speed to handhold? Yes, I could and did. So, why the tripod? Go back and re-read the previous three lessons I’ve shared above. That’s why. If you want  sharp images, do yourself the favor of carrying and using the tripod. And bring along a shutter release cable (or wireless) to increase your chances. Any subtle movement can ruin all your hard work in composing and focusing on exactly what you want your image to look like. Pay attention.

This Chicken of the Woods was about three feet wide. I was VERY close to it (likely 11 inches away, which is the minimum focusing distance of the Rokinon 14mm) . Yet, the ultra-wide lens allowed me to give context. Simply not possible with any of my macro lenses.

I learned a few more things during my “Morning with Fourteen.” I need to study more on how other photographers are using ultra-wide lenses so I can be inspired and learn even more image-making possibilities. And my eyes … they’re not as good as they used to be. With a manual focus lens, ultra-wide or otherwise, I need to work slower and be even more deliberate and attentive. This lens is also great for night photography, which is on my list to learn and do as well.

Finally, I learned that the exercise of forcing myself to use only one lens is a really good one. I will do it again, with this lens and others. You learn to see the world through different “eyes” and angles and push through to reach the lens’ limits as well as understand its potential. Are these images “perfect”? No, but that wasn’t my intention. My goal was to come to a better understanding of the creative tool I had in my hands and where I could go with it.

“Today I have grown taller from walking with the trees” — Karle Wilson Baker . . . This quote mirrors the feeling I experienced among the trees and boulders on “Meditation Hill” on my morning walk.

My “Morning with Fourteen” reminded me that keeping things simple (one lens, one place) opens up a new world of discovery. I gained an appreciation for this new perspective. I spent that morning with my eyes and mind open. I took my time and got to know the lens and the place a lot more than I would have without focus. I had patience – with myself and the lens – and I enjoyed the learning process. (The place, by the way, was Mountain Lens Retreat in Hendersonville, NC. I will be back.)

I enjoyed being exactly where I was, and it felt really, really good. I breathed in the morning mist, listened to the light rain drops hitting the leaves high above. I listened to the birds wake up and smelled the freshness of the forest. I sat down to take it all in – not with the camera, but with my soul.

And, just because I can … though not from my “Morning with Fourteen”, I thought I’d share an image from Looking Glass Falls on a rainy, crowded late afternoon. I clambered down the rocks and under a huge downed tree, laid down on the wet rocks and got dirty. It was an exercise in “careful agility” and an experience that demanded patience. For me, the efforts and “Fourteen” paid up.