Capturing a Sense of Place

People aren’t interested in blueprints; they want to sense the painter’s involvement and pleasure in the subject . . . Paint a sense of place.   — Paul Strisik

Think of a place … where you live, where you grew up, or just a favorite place you like to go. If you were to share just one image to tell the story of that place, or why it matters to you, what would that image show? Now, think of another place, like New York City, Washington DC or even Florida. What would that one image be? When we photograph places we love with care and craft, it shows. When we photograph places we’ve never been, we have to work harder to express our fascination and awe.

As photographers, we have the opportunity to be a part of that “want to be there” movement. So, how do we do that? If we want to express the uniqueness or character or what makes a place special, we need to be able to articulate these things – verbally and visually. Sometimes, this means having a list of potential subjects – the “must haves” and the “want” list. However, more often and more defining are the descriptive words and phrases you use when you’re talking about those places. Those are the images you seek.

Shrimp boats in Engelhard Harbor, Hyde County, NC. What I love about the harbors is that the scene is always similar, but different. The boats change, and the names of each one make me wonder what the origin is. I fancy Wonder Woman, Miss Genelle, Miss Peaches, and I wonder about the sinking or sunken wrecks. I admire the fishermen who work harder than anyone I know and wouldn’t trade that life for anything. I also know that there’s an uncertain timeline for these vessels and the lifestyle. It’s why I visit and visit and visit these places as often as possible.

One definition of “sense of place” is a conscious awareness or sensation of a physical environment, region or location. This incorporates the emotional response to the place as well as its physical nature. The places I find special and visit most often are not always the most beautiful at first glance. Yet, my emotional connection to them allows me to present them in ways and on different levels from the first-time visitor who comes as a blank slate.

When we make plans to travel (near or far) and add new places to our “bucket lists,” what factors play into drawing us to those places? What makes us want to return over and over again? How do they make the cut? We may have read or heard about them. The odds are higher that we have seen images that inspire, invite and create a longing inside us to “be there.” What we’ve connected with is a sense of each place, to which we respond not only visually but emotionally and, sometimes, spiritually.

Don’t Give Up. Say It. Show It.

Our first time anywhere can be overwhelming and create in us an anxiety that comes from the desire and perceived need to photograph everything we’re seeing. It is this angst that can cause us to lose focus and detach from the moments and the place to the point that we’re simply grabbing shots or shooting and hoping that we leave with something good. There are various ways to lessen this impulse and calm the anxiety and pressure.

Dogwood tree in fall forest at Weymouth Woods Nature Preserve. If I use this image to illustrate “Say It and Show It,” I would say, “I love how the trunk and limbs of this tree are leaning and dark in contrast with the surrounding tall and straight trees. I love how it is different and how the fall colors of the forest allow it to stand out.” Then, I would work to find the best angle to express that, paying attention to edges around the frame, giving the tree a foundation of leaves and allowing it to be the star. It is among my favorites of trees, and I will visit in different seasons. Spring would be perfect.

I see this happen during workshops. When I do, I talk with each person about slowing down and stepping back to focus on what they find most interesting. I ask them to “say it” first and to clarify with enough detail to get them going. Tell me what made you stop. Then, I direct them to keep photographing until what they said they were drawn to is on the back of their LCD screen. I’ll crop it later” is not a good excuse to leave. In fact, the attitude of “fixing” in post what could be done in the field does a disservice to the subject and the photographer. Leaving it for later is lazy. Remarkable things happen when one stays with anything long enough. This is one of the techniques I use often, especially when I get stuck. Say it, and stay longer. It works. Let’s face it, we all have the potential to become overwhelmed and lose direction. By verbalizing these things, we give ourselves a direction or path to follow and a relative destination.

Icons, Elements and Details Tell the Story

Sometimes a single image can tell someone exactly where you’ve been and why you wanted to be there. More often, the story is told with a series or collection of images that, when seen together, provide the bigger picture.

Capturing the beauty of Pharsalia Plantation and the surrounding area in Nelson County. This collection includes the icons, elements and details of this spectacular place and shares in every image what made me stop.

One way to be sure you leave a place with images that capture its essence is to focus on three things: Icons, Elements and Details. The icons are things that are easily recognizable, well known and familiar to the masses (lighthouses, monuments, land features). They can also yield the “postcard” image that everyone does. Consider the Great Smoky Mountains and Cades Cove. These are the subjects that are uniquely and universally connected with the place. Sparks Lane is a “must-have” image, but do it your way. Doing it differently is the challenge. Get the “standard” shot out of the way, and then “do you.”

Outer Banks Fishing Pier at Sunrise. When you visit the Outer Banks, the piers and lighthouses are among the icons. But we know that there is so much more …

The elements are familiar things that are connected and commonly associated with the location such as geography, plants, wildlife, structures, people and cultures. These can be illustrated within landscapes, grand and intimate, as well as in smaller sections or parts of the place. If I’m photographing coastal North Carolina and fishing villages, my collection of images would be incomplete without shrimp boats, crab pots and fishing nets. If I’m lucky, the collection would also include some of watermen at work in the harbors. Because these places remind me of my father’s work of repairing and building boats, and because I grew up on Long Island near the water, I connect more deeply with these places. Finding the things that make each area special is easy for me around the docks.

At the end of the day, at last light, a long exposure of the shrimpers in Port Royal, South Carolina. With the help of Topaz Impression, I’m able to accentuate the feeling I had as I watched the light go down on these boats.

The details complete the picture of a place. This includes macro and close-ups of the elements. Sticking with the coastal theme, this could include barnacles on floats, work gloves, white boots, the texture and pattern of wear on the boats, boat names and much more. And don’t forget the critters of an area. It’s the slowing down that allows one to notice those unique details that are intimately connected with the location. Wherever you are, put your “noticers” on. Find something? Move in closer, explore more intently. Bring it home.

Gloves, baskets and floats. All details that tell the story of life on the water from the waterman’s perspective near Chincoteague, VA

Use All Your Senses

From the time we are born and in every moment of our lives we use at least one of our five senses. We see, hear, taste, touch and smell and learn how to adapt to whatever environment we are in. Our senses work together and allow us to experience life on many levels. They also allow us to tune into our emotions and develop emotional connections.

No matter where we are or what we are photographing, we use our visual sense to create images that ultimately communicate what is happening in one moment of time in one specific place. However, what we see does not have exclusive rights to dictate what we photograph. What we hear and feel and smell also contribute to the images we create. Our state of mind also plays a part in what we notice and when we stop for a photo opp.

Misty morning fog in the forest on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina.

Scenario: You’re in the woods in spring after a rain shower. The lush green soaked with raindrops and saturated colors of the flowers, grasses, leaves and trees telegraph that moment and that place to you – the first viewer. Responding to the post-rain light, the peace and quiet and freshness, you have the opportunity to communicate what you see and how it makes you feel to those viewing the image. If done well, they are right there with you. And, they want to be there.

When creating images, consider how being in a place makes you feel. Work to identify what creates those feelings, and then work to weave them into your images.

Room of arches and shadows at Fort Pulaski, Savannah, Georgia. While most people who entered this “dead end” alcove spent an average of two minutes here, the light and shadows of this small room would have kept me captivated and exploring for hours. I did not want to leave.

Awareness, Meaning and Purpose

When we photograph different locations, we generally want to share something that we’ve seen or that has a specific meaning for us. We have something to say.

Environmental photographers who shoot areas where acres of trees have been clear cut may want to bring awareness of habitat destruction. Their approach to subjects is more literal and documentary in order to shed light on situations that need attention. Photojournalists tell stories with their images. A travel photographer shooting bright colored umbrellas lined up on a white sandy beach under a beautiful blue sky may want to entice people to that place for pleasure. A person who photographs wildflowers or other creatures found in nature wants to share a part of what excites them. We all put in the box what matters to us and present our view of the world. Styles of photography may range from recording to interpreting to artistic or graphic, depending on the purpose behind the images.

This scene, an old boat with the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse in the background, felt “old” to me from the start. Interpreting with textures allowed me to express the scene as it felt to me.

With our images we tell stories, capture and preserve moments in places that mean something to us. We photograph to convey what moves us on a sensory level as well as intellectual. What and how we photograph can be very personal or commercial. Either way, we bring our life experience up to the moment the shutter is pressed. We see differently. That’s why when you put ten photographers in the same place, you will likely end up with ten completely different images. “Wow, where was that?” “How could I have missed it?” Common phrases spoken and heard among those who stomp the same grounds.

Becoming a “Local Tourist”

In many ways, whether we’re talking about walking out our back door or driving to New Mexico or flying to Alaska, capturing a sense of place is “travel” photography. If we’re trying to sell our home and take pictures of the house and rooms, we’re capturing a sense of place. It’s all about creating images that communicate what we want others to see and that have the effect we intend.

There are places in Chincoteague NWR that can be simply magical in early hours. This is one of them. Visit this spot every time I’m here. Different every time. Even though I’m not here often, I still have favorite places and could describe each one clearly. As a photographer, my job is to put those words and thoughts and feelings into my images so that the viewer understands as well.

There’s a difference in the way we photograph places we know, love and are intimately familiar with and places we’re visiting for the very first time. There’s a difference in the images people take as tourists, and the images people take when they know an area well or have lived there all their lives.

The “tourist” (even you or me) may be at a location only once. It may not be possible or affordable to return. We are stuck with the existing light and weather conditions. That said, a well-tuned tourist/photographer knows how to work the light and weather to create appealing images in spite of less than ideal conditions. What if you could never return to a place, what images would you regret not taking or rushing through?

If I were never going to walk this trail ever again, I’d want to take this scene home above all others – even the spectacular views across the mountain tops. It is the one thing that made me stop and say, “I can’t leave here without this.” Every place speaks to us differently.

The “local” photographer is familiar with the area, knows people to talk with to gain access to places not open to the public, knows the best time of day or year to shoot certain subjects, and knows the right place to be for the best shot. The local can come back when the light or weather is best. The local tunes in to those “character and culture” elements and works to maximize the opportunities.

The best way to become a “local-tourist” is to do your homework. Learn as much as you can about your subjects and the area you’re planning to visit. Use guide books, the internet, network with locals who know and shoot in the area. Build relationships with those who live and work in the places you visit, respect their wishes regarding access to their property. It’s important to be good stewards and good examples.

Parking on Ocracoke Island is slim to none. Your best modes of transportation are your feet or a bicycle. One trip to the island provides that lesson. Homework …

The Beauty of Networking

There are very few “secret” places. The internet has taken care of that. There are, however, always new places to discover and experience. Learning from and sharing with other photographers can be a good thing as long as we behave as we should and share as openly as we’re able. Networking builds relationships and also allows us to discover beauty in places we might have missed.

One of the photographers I reached out to was NANPA member, Jerry Monkman. I was new to NANPA and photography and had limited time to photograph on a trip to New Hampshire. I told him I had three days in the area and asked what should I NOT miss. He sent me an amazing list and told me not only to check out Nubble Light (Cape Neddick Lighthouse), but also what time of day. There were scenes I would have missed were it not for Jerry’s list and generosity.

Without the help of fellow photographer, Jerry Monkman, I would have likely visited at a less flattering time of day.

Another one is Jim Clark, former NANPA President, mentor and friend. Jim is an amazing photographer, storyteller and instructor. His images can teach anyone quite a lot about capturing a sense of place. Some of my favorite locations are ones that Jim introduced me to or reminded me of. While looking for new places to explore in West Virginia and, more recently, the Eastern Shore of Virginia, I reached out to Jim and learned even more about places he’s photographed for years and connected with people he’s met – good people. Over these many years since we first met, I have learned a lot more than photography from Jim. I’m thankful. Networking is wonderful, and we should share the wonderful places and people we know.

When the tide is high in Greenbackville, VA, on Eastern Shore, fishermen fish and floats float. Without Jim Clark’s tip, I would have missed this very small fishing village. My advice – bring boots.

Finally, Remember to Pay Attention to the Basics

Whenever and wherever you’re shooting, always remember the basic tools and techniques that will allow you to capture quality images: the right lens, a good, stable tripod, proper exposure, good composition and clearly defined subject. These are the elements you can control. Weather, on the other hand, is always subject to change. Good shooting techniques, creative thinking and vision will enable you to produce good images in most situations. Cloudy or white-sky days are wonderful for macro and close-up photography because the light is even and diffused (no harsh shadows to compete with your subject).

By putting on your “noticers,” you’re able to interpret a scene differently. (Roan Mountain trail on the way to Round Ball)

Work the scenes (great and small). Many a treasure can be found when you explore the scene and extract from it. Shoot vertical and horizontal formats. Don’t forget the nooks and crannies that hold even more good stuff. Be patient and persistent. Be a good editor in the field – learn what to leave in and what to leave out. Don’t put the viewer to work to figure out what you want him or her to see or feel. Engage yourself, connect with the place and invite the viewer of your images into your favorite places. Share your experience through the imagery.

Simple curves in the marsh grasses on an overcast day on Cedar Point Tideland Trail in North Carolina. Many folks walk this mix of boardwalk and dirt trail in search of birds. On this day, birds were scarce and light was sketchy. The sky would not have added to this image.

And, by the way, don’t forget your own backyard – where you live. Photograph the familiar in different ways. Look for the hidden gems – they are there. We often miss what is right in front of us or don’t photograph things because they are in or near where we live. We have a misguided impression that they will be around forever. This is simply not true.

We knew its days were numbered, but hoped the state would let nature take its course and give us more time to capture the rustic beauty of Frisco Pier in the, Outer Banks, NC. Numbered days before this icon is only a memory.

McNeel Mill in West Virginia near Cranberry Glades Botanical Area on Hwy 219. The fate of this mill is uncertain. Without attention or interest to restore, this, too, will be history.

Challenge yourself to photograph close to home. Celebrate what makes it special. Visit and revisit places and continue to photograph them. You’ll find that the place you see now is not the one you will see in the future. Both the place and you will change. You will not regret having taken some time to make those memories of where you live. In fact, doing so may even help you refine your seeing and noticing skills for when you travel afar.

Night shot of the Renaissance building in Uptown Greenville, NC. I live here and have never paid attention to this building. Thanks to an evening photo walk, I will in the future. The city is growing and changing every day. It is not the same town I moved to 35 years ago. Wishing I had known then what I know now about how time changes places.

Night image of light fixture and shadow on textured building. Another detail I would have missed in my own town without a scheduled photo walk event. The scene did not look like this, but it felt the way you see it here.

Come-Back Places – A Look at “My Barns”

They aren’t always beautiful. In fact, they’re sometimes plain. Yet, over and over and over again, they simply call your name.

This is “Book Hen.” One of my favorites in 2004 (from a slide). It is now gone – building burned as a result of spontaneous combustion from damp hay.

If we think about “come-back” places, we will realize that we all have them. Some are across an ocean or continent, others cross-country. Some are just down the road and others even further. A “come-back” place is one that inexplicably draws you back and calls your name. Some of these go back to our much younger days, and most of them hold a special place in our hearts. The reasons why can be very different – memories, solace, excitement, peace, and so on.

“Book Hen” just a few years later, maybe 2006. Already fading and peeling.

EARLY COME-BACKS When I was growing up in a small town on Long Island, NY, I was a bike ride away from several places along the edge of the Great South Bay – ones that gave me a sense of peace and quiet. They were places to think and to be present with all my senses. What I remember about them was the cool, quiet breezes blowing through my hair, the smell of salt air wafting above the water, the lapping of small waves making their way to the shoreline. I remember the warmth of the sun on my face with eyes closed pointing up toward the sky. I remember a simpler time.

Abstraction of the Love Barn.

I’ve been away from that town for thirty-five years now, and the last time I went to see my childhood home, I had to count houses, and still wasn’t sure if I had it right. It had changed so much, and there was no house number on it. I suspect those long-ago come-back places are either no longer around or are so changed that I would not be able to find or recognize them if I did. So, I am happy and comfortable in remembering them, the person I was then, and the peace they provided and why I kept going back to them. They were a good beginning.

Corner of the “Love Barn” when you could actually read the words and see the face.

AND THEN, THERE ARE MY BARNS.  I have a collection (growing) of “come-back” places. Each one holds my attention and brings me back for different reasons. You cannot imagine how many GPS pushpins are in my Garmin for “awesome” trees. They are everywhere. Why is that? And, I love old barns and buildings and farms and the rural landscape. But why? When I dig a little deeper into what makes each place resonate with me enough to create a “must return” attitude toward them, it’s clear that some of those reasons are rooted in my childhood and the experiences I had and their influence on me – even if I didn’t recognize or acknowledge the impact as it was happening. Something else, my “come-back” places are only good. I am not drawn back to revisit negative things of old.

Meet “Cameron,” the little kitten we rescued along with her brother while visiting the barns. She just sat and watched us as we photographed. I still wonder what lucky people got the two of them. A rescue took them in for us after seeing how awesome they were.

So, these places draw on something below the surface, even when they are not inherently or obviously beautiful. Excellent example – MY BARNS – this wonderful place of the “not so beautiful” nature that continually calls me back to visit the barns just outside of Cameron, NC. I first “met” them and began photographing them as best I can remember in the summer of 2004. This was early in my photography journey, and I was excited to be introduced to new, different and quirky places off the beaten path and under the radar (still am).

Section of Cameron Barns with hand and electrical box

Always finding something new and different in these barns.

I’ve been visiting and sharing my barns ever since. Why is that? I’ve figured it out. These barns resonate with my personal history, and they continually feed my desire to discover new things, beauty and something different in what others might easily and simply view as old and broken down. The barns challenge and inspire me. Each visit delivers something I haven’t noticed or seen before. Each visit reminds me that “my barns” – like me – will not be here forever. In fact, each visit brings news and discovery that one more is gone and sometimes forecasts perhaps the next one to go. Even as I make the two- hour trek several times a year, I know that someday all of them will be gone. I’m relatively certain that the “Barnstormers” will not be back to repaint the old or find new barns to paint. Very likely, this “come-back” place of mine will one day become a very fond memory, not unlike those places along the shoreline of the Great South Bay. The barns will no longer exist, but will be ever retrievable in my mind, memory and photographs. They are a piece of my life history.

I called this side of the barn and images from it “Mutt Barn.” The entire barn is gone now.

This side of the barn (now gone), I called “The Race Barn.” Many a group photo were taken in front of this.

THE BACKSTORY OF THE PAINTED BARNS OF CAMERON, NC. They had their start with a young local artist, David Ellis, in 1999, who organized a group of artists, The Barnstormers, from near and far came to Cameron and painted on almost all sides of at least seventeen barns and buildings, trucks and tractors and other farm equipment. The community rallied around the artist with food, lodging, supplies and enthusiasm. They returned, I believe, a few times, but have not been back since 2004, when I began my visits. Cameron is a small crossroads town in Moore County about eleven miles south of Sanford, known for its antique stores and semi-annual antiques street fairs than for the barns.

Back side of Race and Mutt Barn in Cameron, NC. Another view of the barn that is gone.

If you find yourself in Cameron (not on Sunday or Monday), you must have lunch at The Dewberry Deli & Soda Fountain, which is downstairs below The Old Hardware Antiques. As long as I’ve been visiting my barns, I’ve been coming to and bringing others to the Deli to enjoy the great food and unique, old-time atmosphere. If you must visit Cameron on Sunday or Monday, pack a picnic lunch.

WHAT’S SO SPECIAL ABOUT THESE BARNS? – Anyone who has been with me at the barns can tell you how passionate I am about these now much older, painted, faded, peeling, weather weary warriors of another time. In part, this passion comes from being a photographer and being attracted to things that attract my interest. These barns are perfect subjects for Wabi Sabi images – challenging anyone to find the art and beauty in decay. However, I believe my connection to them goes deeper and further back into my family history and influences from childhood.

My father grew up on a farm, and everyone in his large family worked it. His parents and my great-grandmother came to America from Poland. They were farmers. Farming then (and even now) is not an easy life. It requires long, long, long hours, hard work and an acceptance that the rewards reaped in part rely on a dependence of nature to provide the right amounts of sun and rain to produce a worthy harvest. It is my belief that most farmers farm because they share a passion for the land and what it provides, and they love what they do, and they are not afraid to work hard. I’ve never met a lazy, land-hating farmer, so that’s my take.

When my three sisters and I were growing up, we had what I remember to be a very large garden (felt like a mini-farm).  Whether it was or not, it felt as I remember like it was as big as a football field. It probably wasn’t. We grew corn, potatoes, string beans, tomatoes, peas, eggplant, squash, cucumbers, strawberries, peppers and much more.

Long ago view of four of the barns in this section. Just this past year, the first barn disappeared. Vanished without a trace.

Each day, as the garden grew, my sisters and I would have to hoe and weed at least two rows each, pick whatever was ripe and ready, carry it “all the way back to the house” (such drama), and help do what needed to be done with it. We had to “work” the garden. I remember loving when the sweet peas and string beans were ready and usually tried to claim those rows (the “snacker” rows). I also remember hating the potatoes and their dry dirt harvest. We had to follow behind my father’s tractor as he plowed up the dirt to reveal those potatoes. No snacking and much harder, dirty work.

Sisters in the garden. Think this is where the potatoes grew. That’s me, wiping the sweat from my brow. (Notice the outfits and anklets. My mother made most of our clothes, too.)

I don’t think any of us really liked all those “hard hours” and work in the field. However, I do see now how those times influenced me and provided me with a strong work ethic and sense of pride and understanding the value of putting in the time. The work ethic of both my parents was instilled in me by way of example and experience, by being made to do what we would have preferred not to. We raised the garden not for fun, or to see what would grow, but to feed our family. My parents married at age 21. By the time they were 25, they had four girls to raise (and feed). I cannot imagine what that was like. I’ve never had children and didn’t marry until I was 43. The life I lead, in comparison, has been so very different. However, if I had been blessed with children, I know I would have made them “work” as well.

“Bliss Barn” on the corner in infrared.

So, when I drive through rural areas of the state and country – through farmland – and see the barns and buildings that belong there, I am reminded of that part of my upbringing that helps me appreciate what those places, barns, buildings, trucks and tractors represent. For me, they illustrate hard work, a passion for the land, providing for families, a sense of pride and responsibility, and the knowledge and acceptance of the dependency on the whims of nature on the harvest.

Pokemon Kid nestled in the autumn leaves.

My emotional and spiritual connection to these painted barns – my barns – goes deeper than the peeling paint, the grain of the wood and the leaning of walls from time and the elements. They bring me “home” on a level I have only in recent years figured out. Photographically, these barns just keep giving from an endless supply of potential in subjects, approaches and creative possibilities.

Do you have a “come-back” place (or many)? Somewhere you can’t help but going back to year after year or as often as possible? Think about what it is that makes you return … and why you can’t help but go back. The reasons may surprise you as you connect the dots. They may explain or confirm some things about you and your history, and may also give you new perspectives on these old, favorite places. Like me and “my barns, you might understand more fully why these places matter to you, and why they keep calling you back.

As for my barns, they are fading and falling and vanishing. Still, I will go until the last one falls …

“Falling Down.” I knew when I took this image (infrared) that it would be the last time I would see it. I was right. This past year the four other barns that remained in this section either fell or were taken down.

 

The door is nearly off the barn now, and some of the paper is missing.

American Gothic with a twist

Children on the side of the barn. This scene is no longer accessible as the trees and briars have overgrown and claimed the space.

The front side of the Love Barn in its early days.

The front side of the Love Barn with faded paint and autumn leaves.

For the Love of Trees

Never say there is nothing beautiful in the world anymore. There is always something to make you wonder in the shape of a tree, the trembling of a leaf.  ‑-Albert Schweitzer

Etherial image of bamboo and leaves in forest as the wind whispers through it.

Ethereal image of bamboo and leaves in forest as the wind whispers through it.

“Go outside and find something to do.” This was the mantra of my mother for as long as I can remember. And, so, we did. We climbed trees, hiked in the woods, made up games using trails of leaves. For years, we camped in the forests up and down the East Coast. Our lives were filled with all sorts of outdoor adventures.

Grand old live oak in Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, SC. This tree survived many storms in its life. Sadly, now, the entire top bend of the tree is gone.

Grand old live oak in Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, SC. This tree survived many storms in its life. Sadly, now, the entire top bend of the tree is gone. (Faux color infrared image)

It’s no wonder that I have an affinity for trees. It should come as no surprise to anyone that I am drawn to them in my photography or that I connect with them on a poetic and metaphoric level.

Infrared landscape of Black/white infrared image in the Pixie Forest on Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina with trail leading through woods

Infrared landscape of Black/white infrared image in the Pixie Forest on Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina with trail leading through woods

When I was younger, I wrote poetry under the shade of many trees in many seasons. Now, instead of words on paper, I see the poetry within the forest and the trees. The stories their life rings could tell are likely nothing short of amazing. I imagine the stories told and written beneath their branches, the storms survived and the seasons shared.

Rare snow-covered trees inEastern North Carolina

Rare snow-covered trees in Eastern North Carolina

The trees are survivors, rooted and grounded to the earth and all its miracles. In their life and death, the trees are safe havens, providers of food and life. In their span of years, long or short, they offer opportunities for renewal and rebirth. Trials by fire, wind and rain are withstood in ways similar to our own.

Their character is revealed in the curves and lines of their branches and limbs. In the bulk and bend of their bones the years on this earth are revealed.

There are those that bend and those that break and snap. If I could be a tree, I might wish to be a blend of oak and willow – strong, beautiful, protective, graceful, flowing, tolerant and flexible.

Detail of young Rhododendron growing out of crack of rock wall.

Detail of young Rhododendron growing out of crack of rock wall.

It is in the trees that I see a magical dance of swaying and rustling leaves and limbs, wafting scents of flowering buds, the sight and sounds of birds and bees and butterflies wafting through pollen showers of spring and finding a landing zone on the bare branches of winter. There is the dance of flying, falling showers of gold and red and orange that covers the forest floor with an amber blanket. In every season there is a new dance, never to be repeated … ever.

Roots and moss and autumn leaves on a trail in West Virginia

Roots and moss and autumn leaves on a trail in West Virginia

It is in the trees that I see solitude and strength, mystery and beauty along with the wondrous gathering of tree next to tree next to tree and so on to blanket the land with community and a place to commune with the natural wonders of the earth. It is in the trees that I see life, each one unique, each one with its own struggles and triumphs.

In each one that draws and holds my attention, I see hope and beauty from seed to sprout to mature trees and snags through to the rotting, fallen logs. In each there is a home to new and different life.

It is that lifetime of experience from early years in the forests and among the trees that has shaped my interests and direction in the journey of photographer/artist. From their roots and trunks to leaves and branches . . . I see them. And I see me.

Heart in tree at Chincoteague NWR seen after getting news that my great niece, Ella, was born early. Just love in the trees...

Heart in tree at Chincoteague NWR seen after getting news that my great niece, Ella, was born early. Just love in the trees…

Exposed roots in park in Greenville, South Carolina

Exposed roots in park in Greenville, South Carolina

Blanket of autumn leaves on the forest floor.

Blanket of autumn leaves on the forest floor.

Interpretive landscape of live oak and pine forest in Outer Banks

Interpretive landscape of live oak and pine forest in Outer Banks

For Love of the Light We Cannot See

What do we call visible light? We call it color. But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.
― Anthony Doerr from All the Light We Cannot See

Coastal Marsh in Infrared

Coastal Marsh in Infrared at 590nm – Harsh midday light that was not conducive to color photography.

It’s been over six years since I was introduced – hook, line and sinker – to infrared photography. Even before I processed my first image, I was hooked (and I knew it). It began one spring day when a box from Mark Hillard containing a Canon 20D converted to 590nm arrived on my doorstep. Keep in mind, I’m a Nikon shooter and had to learn to navigate the Canon. I had no idea what a nanometer (nm) was, and my brain hurt just thinking about what I might be getting into.

Bodie Light Sunset - Faux Color Infrared at 590nm

Bodie Light Sunset – Faux Color Infrared at 590nm

I’m not a science or math geek, so words like nanometer, infrared, wavelength, spectrum and conversions made my head spin. In the end, what that early experience (or inexperience) did for me and my photography was gave me opportunities do “happy dances” in light too contrasty and “terrible” for general color photography, especially landscapes.

The other challenge for me, initially, was that I absolutely LOVE colors! All of them, though purple in any hue is my favorite. When shooting infrared at 590nm, all my images on the back of the LCD reminded me of a negative. Pretty much all color was removed, which left the bare bones of the image subject to stand on its own in form, structure, composition and exposure.

Infrared image of Gresham's Mill in Georgia at 590nm

Infrared image of Gresham’s Mill in Georgia at 590nm – Raw Image Processed First

What I discovered was that shooting infrared was helping me see the landscape in ways I had not been able to before. It also helped me visualize the scene in black and white, another longstanding challenge that began to fade away the longer I embraced infrared (IR).

Infrared image of Gresham's Mill in Georgia at 590nm

Infrared image of Gresham’s Mill in Georgia at 590nm – Processed for Faux Color after the Raw image was processed

There are endless possibilities for capturing and sharing the world of infrared. IR filters can be used, but for a more fluid shooting experience, having a camera converted to specific wavelengths (for example, 590nm, 630nm, 665nm, 720nm (standard) and 830nm (b/w) makes more sense. A number of companies offer conversions. I had my Nikon D90 converted by LifePixel and have been very pleased.

Infrared image of Gresham's Mill in Georgia at 590nm

Infrared image of Gresham’s Mill in Georgia at 590nm – Processed for black/white using the Faux Color version.

I chose 590nm because it offered the possibilities for me to play with a big box of color crayons in faux color processing, and I could produce great black/white versions of those same images. Now, after only a few days of shooting with another Canon converted to 830nm, I am equally hooked to black/white IR imaging and plan to convert another Nikon body so I can experience black/white photography in ways I never have before.

There are many reasons why I love infrared photography, but perhaps the top three I will share here provide some insight into how it changed my way of seeing the world and expanded my photographic horizons.

Bald Head Island boathouse in marsh at 590nm - Long Exposure Faux Color Infrared

Bald Head Island boathouse in marsh at 590nm – Long Exposure Faux Color Infrared

First, IR photography breaks barriers. It is fantastic during harsh, midday light. What that means for me is that I can shoot all day long in color and infrared without limitations. When other photographers put their cameras down because the light is “bad” for color imaging, I turn to my 590nm infrared and shoot, shoot and shoot. For those who know me, I’m not a sleeper, so midday naps are unheard of for me. And, I always have snacks and water in the car, so eating is secondary to photography.

Infrared black/white barn near Cameron, NC, falling down next to a freshly plowed field

Infrared black/white barn near Cameron, NC, falling down next to a freshly plowed field. This barn has since collapsed into an unrecognizable pile of rubble overrun by vines and grass.

Second, IR photography reveals what I cannot see with my eyes. Remember, I said that I LOVE color, so visualizing the world in black and white was always a challenge for me (until infrared). It didn’t matter how much I read or knew, I just couldn’t internalize the concept. Colors always got in the way of that process. In addition, because infrared is outside the visible light that our eyes can see, it captures things that we simply cannot see, such as structure in clouds on a white-sky day.

Faux color infrared of stone archway at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, Richmond, Virginia

Faux color infrared of stone archway at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, Richmond, Virginia

And, third, (though not nearly approaching the end of all the reasons I love IR), IR photography provides freedom of expression. It gives me full permission to express my vision. What the camera captures in infrared doesn’t look “real.” The purest photographer, the one whose only desire is to present the world as it really is, could be challenged by IR photography at first.

I do not consider myself a documentary photographer. Rather, I embrace the idea that I am an artist with a camera as my medium. In post-processing infrared images, it’s PLAYTIME. The sessions follow a similar path of steps, but where they lead creatively is all according to the mood of the moment. With reality suspended, wider ranges of interpretation are possible, and that thrills me.

Infrared image of sunflowers in field at 590nm and lightly processed (before channel swap)

Infrared image of sunflowers in field at 590nm and lightly processed (before channel swap). Anything is possible.

The images presented here are just a few examples of what is possible when you put a converted IR camera at 590nm into the hands of an expressive photographer, however skeptical at first. Where you might go with your infrared interpretations is up to you.

Faux color infrared of Sparks Lane in the Smokies. No better way to capture an often photographed place than with infrared and imagination.

Faux color infrared of Sparks Lane in the Smokies. No better way to capture an often-photographed place than with infrared and imagination. Again, this from a converted Nikon D90 at 590nm.

If you’re interested in learning about infrared photography on a more technical level, or seeing where you can go with it at different wavelengths, here are a few options: Mark Hilliard’s blog  at www.markhilliardatelier-blog.com. It’s all Mark’s fault that I’m addicted to infrared. (Join Mark and me on our workshops, we cover both color and IR techniques. An IR Immersion workshop based in Pawleys Island, SC is set for this August.) Join the Infrared Photography Group on Facebook (nearly 6,000 members worldwide) at www.facebook.com/groups/Infraredphotography/. I also recommend LifePixel‘s website for lots more information on infrared photography.

IR GETS THE MOTOR RUNNING ... Faux color nfrared of 1956 Buick parked at Old Car City USA, White, GA

IR GETS THE MOTOR RUNNING … Faux color Infrared (590nm) of 1956 Buick parked at Old Car City USA, White, GA

More . . . or Better?

Each day comes bearing its own gifts. Untie the ribbons. – Ruth Ann Schubaker

There are many ways to consider how you approach your photography. It’s a new year, and I’m giving a lot of thought to my own. So, I figured it might be a good time to share a few observations on what has helped me grow as a photographer, improve my skills and find the courage to dance to my own beat and discover how to express my vision. Yours may be similar and yet entirely different. And the question that comes to mind is “More or Better?”

Mountain Trees in Fog - A Quiet, Peaceful Moment to Savor

Mountain Trees in Fog – A Quiet, Peaceful Moment to Savor

What has troubled me over the digital years is the idea of “more is better,” “I’ll crop it or fix it later,” and “even a blind squirrel finds a nut.” And, how about, “If I take a thousand pictures, surely there will be at least one good one!” Really? There are elements of truth in these phrases, but little potential for growth. And none of them are efficient or effective approaches for a photographer who wants to grow in the craft and find their vision.

Dunes and Clouds in Time - Taking it All In

Dunes and Clouds in Time – Taking it All In

I’m reminded that I began my journey with rolls of slide film … 36 frames of opportunity to capture what held my attention, excited me, made me wander and wonder. Any frame wasted in hopes of “getting lucky” was just that … wasted. At least a basic understanding of exposure and composition was needed to bring home images that made me smile. I love digital imaging for the freedom it gives us to practice, play, experiment and express ourselves. I’m thankful for the film days that provided me with discipline and purpose. They are what has helped me resist being lazy or sloppy in my shooting. Not perfect, but intentional.

Nets and Clouds - A Life of Work

Nets and Clouds – A Life of Work

 

On the concept of More, what might I want more of as a photographer? I’d like more time with the people I love and care about and images that preserve those moments. More quiet time to appreciate the gift of life and the wonders and miracles of nature. More moments of connecting — with everything, including myself. I’d like more time to learn new skills and practice my craft, more time to travel and explore beautiful places. I’d like to have greater awareness, more compassion and more inspiration. More time to focus on and express my creative vision would be wonderful, along with more opportunities to teach, inspire and encourage. (Notice I didn’t say more money for more gear? I have enough.)

If I could have all of the above, that would be better… but having it all is not always possible. So, where does Better fit in all this? No matter where any of us are in our journey as photographers, it is safe to say we want to continue growing, to improve in many different ways. I’d like to find better ways to use my time so that I’d have more time to pursue my passion. I’m always on the lookout for better ways to tell the stories of the people, places and things that resonate within me.

Eye of Polyphemus - Noticing Beyond the Thing

Eye of Polyphemus – Noticing Beyond the Thing

And while More can be a good thing, it isn’t always Better. We live in an time when most everyone has a way to take pictures and share them with the world. Which is better? To share a single image that speaks to why you stopped and took the time to capture the moment? Or to fill an album on social media with 200 images from one day’s shoot and leave it to the viewer to figure out what in all of them really spoke to you?

I vote for the single image. It shows that the photographer took the time to think about what to shoot and share. You’ll lose me every time around the 5th image if I see the potential for an album that reads like this: “Here’s where I went. I couldn’t decide what I liked best, so you decide for me”. The problem is that it’s your vision an your job to tell your story, not mine. Remember, I’m looking for more opportunities to connect, to learn, and appreciate. Show me the images that make your heart sing. I’ll listen and learn, and so will you.

Eye to Eye - Connecting With a Ghost Crab

Eye to Eye – Connecting With a Ghost Crab

In the seven images included in this piece, what I hope you’ll see and feel is a bit of my visual story. Each one is different and represents moments in time that held my attention and made me think through how I could best portray what made me stop. I often talk to myself and ask, “Why am I stopping? How does it make me feel? It may help you to do the same. You will slow down, see and feel more. Notice in these images what I saw and felt at the time of capture and where I went in processing to further extend the vision. Quiet time, connecting and noticing coupled with textures, long exposures, HDR, macro and panorama — the blending of ideas with techniques. Each image was intentional and part of small series of images, not thousands.

North Carolina Farm Barns in Pitt County Panorama

North Carolina Farm Barns in Pitt County Panorama

 

So, do we want to simply photograph more and produce more images? Or could we be satisfied with being more intentional in our seeing, shooting and sharing and having less volume, more depth and better quality? It’s up to you to decide. More or Better? It depends. Do you want to “level up” in your photography or stay where perhaps you may be and fill more hard drives? For me, I’ll stick with what has been working so far — more of the slower pace, more awareness and photographing from the heart.

A String of Bleeding Hearts

A String of Bleeding Hearts

 

Favorite Places | Where Will You Go?

We all have favorite places–the ones that seem to call our names. And they call for many reasons and at different times of the year. Each one beckons when we need it most.

Duck prints on ice in winter at Lake Mattamuskeet NWR

Duck prints on ice in winter at Lake Mattamuskeet NWR

Since we’re in the middle of winter, perhaps it’s fitting to share one of my favorite places that is filled with natural winter wonders – Northeastern North Carolina.

It’s more of a region than one singular location, and it includes waves of migratory birds and people. I love the birds and celebrate those moments when I capture good images. Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge abound with a variety of birds and bear and other wildlife and offer photographers and nature lovers endless possibilities to enjoy a visit.

However, the northeastern part of North Carolina, especially Hyde and Tyrrell Counties, call my name for more than birds or wildlife. For me, it’s the love of the land and sea reflected in the rural landscape that does it.

The shrimper fleet in Engelhard, Hyde County, NC

The shrimper fleet in Engelhard, Hyde County, NC

From the weather-worn shrimp boats in Engelhard and Swan Quarter to the open farmland with lines and lines of crops to community churches and abandoned buildings and tools of both trades left for nature to reclaim — I cannot help but long for my next return visit. It’s more than “liking” these amazing subjects. I feel connected in ways I’ve only begun to understand. I must continue to visit and revisit and share this area while it remains as it is. We’ve seen it happen – barns fall, boats sink, and then the landscape changes into something that lives only in memories.

In winter, when most of the green is gone, what’s left are patterns in trees, leftover crops for wildlife, cold winds and so much to discover during the days of short light. Expect the unexpected. I have my favorite spots to revisit, but am still surprised to find new opportunities unfold (even though they’ve always been there for me to find).

Morning light patterns & textures at Lake Mattamuskeet NWR

Morning light patterns & textures at Lake Mattamuskeet NWR

This pull of the rural landscape is not unnatural to my own history. My father grew up on a farm on Long Island. He’s worked his whole life as a master craftsman on boats, building and fixing. Growing up, we spent time tending a very long garden (digging, planting, weeding, harvesting and enjoying the fruits of our labor). We also helped my father at his shop (sanding, sweeping, and anything else that needed to be done.) I’m proud of the work ethic he and my mother instilled in me and my three sisters. I’m thankful to be able to understand that the lives of farmers and fishermen are not easy; that they are filled with hard work and a love for what the land and sea provides. I recognize a passion for doing what does not come without effort or without disappointments. I recognize and admire the perseverance I see. And that’s what keeps me coming back to this special place. What follows are just a few reasons why.

Winter sunset among the cypress trees at Lake Mattamuskeet

Winter sunset among the cypress trees at Lake Mattamuskeet

Solitary cypress tree at sunset on Lake Mattamuskeet

Solitary cypress tree at sunset on Lake Mattamuskeet

Canal dock with crab pots in Hyde County

Canal dock with crab pots in Hyde County

Pungo Trees

Faux color infrared of field tree framed on Pocosin Lakes NWR

Winter cypress trees at Lake Mattamuskeet - A Different View

Winter cypress trees at Lake Mattamuskeet – A Different View