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Shoot the Icons!

Recent Work

I’ve encountered a line of thinking in landscape photography that argues against shooting iconic scenes or locations.  The thought seems to be along the lines that you will never be able to capture an iconic subject as well as the photographer or photographers who made it famous.  Who’s going to capture the Yosemite Valley as well as Ansel Adams?  Or the California coast like Edward Weston?  If a subject has been captured many times by many photographers under many conditions, what can you possibly add to the accumulated body of work that will be new or interesting?  Isn’t anything that you do simply going to be repetitive or derivative of what others already have done?

No, I say.  There are many reasons and much value to be gained from shooting the icons.  It’s probably fair to say the mountain in this image, “Longs Peak, Rising Clouds,” is an icon of Colorado’s Front Range.  Do a search for Longs Peak on Google Images and you will find countless images of it.  Here are a few of the reasons why I don’t hesitate to shoot it again (and again, and again!):

  1. No one sees the world quite like you do.  Everybody has a unique vision.  The subject matter of an image is just the building blocks by which this vision is expressed.  If people get in trouble shooting the icons, it seems to me it’s because they’re simply trying to copy what’s been done before.  Every subject, big or small, iconic or mundane, has limitless possibilities for interpretation and expression.  If you’re in touch with your own vision of the world, it will come through uniquely regardless of your subject.
  2. Shooting the icons trains the creative mind.  If you’ve ever been to an art museum, you’ve probably seen art students practicing sketching the masterpieces of the collection.  As photographers, it’s probably not very profitable to set up your camera in a gallery and shoot someone else’s photograph on the wall.  However, it is valuable to set up your camera and shoot the iconic landscape, in the same way that it is valuable for artists to sketch copies of masterpieces.
  3. There is no preemption in art.  Just because Ansel Adams became famous for his images of Yosemite, and Edward Weston for his images of the California coast, does this mean other photographers are preempted from ever shooting there again?  Of course not.  Did authors stop writing literature after great works by Tolstoy, Dickens, or Hemingway?  Did composers stop writing classical music after great works by Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven?  Every artistic field has limitless opportunities to be explored, and the potential of iconic landscapes are not exhausted by the great photographers who have worked there before.
  4. Icons are marketable.  Yes, it’s true.  People relate to well-known, iconic landscapes and may give your work a second look if they recognize the subject.  It may or may not be an important consideration to you, but it’s something to think about.
  5. Why not?  Especially for digital photographers, there’s really no downside to trying your hand at the icons.  In fact, I might suggest that any opportunity to practice with your camera, especially when faced with the challenge of capturing a well-known, iconic landscape in your own way, is good practice for your photography skills!
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Having a Vision Beats Being a Technician

Longs Peak, Indian Summer

I’m excited to share that five of my images are being shown in Denver this month, including the image above, “Longs Peak, Indian Summer.”

This image is one of my personal favorites.  It was my first image ever to be accepted into a juried exhibition, and has since proven to be one of my more popular images.  But that’s not why it’s one of my favorites.  It’s one of my favorites because it embodies the idea that having a creative vision is more important than being a master technician.

This image was literally among the first captures I ever made when I started pursuing photography back in 2006.  It was taken with my first digital SLR camera, a 6.1 megapixel Pentax *istDL with a Pentax 75-300 SMC lens.  As might be expected from a novice, it had a lot of technical problems.  It sat on my hard drive for six years before my technical skills caught up to my vision for what the image could be.  In 2012, without any advance planning or forethought that I was going to work on it, I suddenly opened it up one day and over the course of several hours created the image above.

Did technical skills play a role?  Absolutely.  A fair amount of work was involved, including sharpening up some blurry edges, evening out the contrast in the foreground, and creating a tonal gradient in the background.  Perhaps most importantly, cropping to the 3.4:1 aspect ratio emphasized the long horizontal lines of the composition in a way that the initial 3:2 aspect ratio did not.

Am I therefore a master digital darkroom technician?  Certainly not.  I know just enough to get me by, and that’s enough.  Don’t get me wrong – I value technical ability and am always striving to improve my technique and skill.   But technique should not get in the way of vision, and skill need only be good enough to communicate the vision underlying an image.

I’m a bit of a perfectionist by nature.  If I had demanded perfect technical ability in the making of this image – both in the initial capture seven years ago and in the digital darkroom editing last year – I would never have made this image at all.  Instead, once I realized my technical ability was sufficient to communicate my vision for the image, I was happy to do so.

For those who are interested, here are the other four images currently being exhibited:

Spire at Rock Cut

Clearing Storm, Mummy Range, Colorado

Longs Peak, Curtain of Clouds

Touch the Sky

You can see them at Alpine Fine Art, 826 Santa Fe Drive in Denver’s Santa Fe arts district.  There’s plenty of other nearby galleries you can visit too, including the John Fielder photography gallery across the street and the Denver School of Photography a couple of doors down.

While you’re in the area, you may as well stop by the Denver Art Museum as well.  The Georgia O’Keefe exhibit is up until April 28th, and I was inspired in particular by a small pencil and watercolor (if memory serves) of an adobe studio doorway I had not seen before.

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f/16 and Be There

Clearing Storm, Mummy Range, Colorado

One well-known axiom of photography goes “f/8 and be there.”  The quote is attributed to (and I had to look this up) New York photojournalist Arthur “Weegee” Fellig, who apparently gave it in reply to a question about how he consistently achieved high quality work.

The meaning behind the quote is fairly simple: ” f/8″ is a versatile, middle-of-the-road aperture that strikes a good compromise between achieving acceptable depth of field while letting in enough light to use a reasonably fast shutter speed to avoid motion blur, and “be there” simply means you can’t capture the image if you’re not there to take it.  Fellig’s formula allows one to shoot quickly without taking undue time to think through the camera settings before hand, undoubtedly a very useful ability for photojournalists capturing fast-moving events.

Landscape photography probably does not conjure up thoughts of fast-moving events in the way that photojournalism does.  Personally, I like taking the time to think about a scene, compose my image, and select the camera settings accordingly.  Don’t be fooled, though – conditions in the landscape can change very fast indeed.  Such was the case for this image, “Clearing Storm, Mummy Range.”

First, the “be there” part.  After spending the better part of an evening driving around Rocky Mountain National Park in a consistently flat, dull, and pouring rain, I was just about prepared to go home.  I figured I would drive the car around one last bend in the road, turn around, and pack it in for the night.  Cresting a rise in the road, though, I was treated to the sight of the trailing edge of the storm, with the rain abating and the sun peeking through the clearing clouds just before it was to set.  The setting sun lit up this view of the Mummy Range like a spotlight.

Now, the “f/8″ part.  The sun was going down so fast that I could literally see the light fading on the peaks as I pulled my car over to the side of the road.  I jumped out of the car, fumbled with setting up the tripod and locking down the ball head as I composed the image, all the while observing the light fade as fast as I’ve ever seen it do so.  Fortunately, I keep my aperture set to f/16 by default, so I simply adjusted the shutter speed to get my desired exposure, did a quick manual focus of the lens, and tripped the shutter.

But wait a minute, shouldn’t I have set my aperture to f/8?  Well, no, for landscapes I am of course interested in maximizing my depth of field, and while landscape conditions can change quickly, they still generally don’t change so fast that motion blur is a problem.  So, I’ve modified the axiom for my needs to “f/16 and be there.”  This formula is flexible enough to meet nearly all my landscape shooting needs, saves me time in fast-changing conditions, and generally simplifies my thought process in the field so that I can concentrate on seeing what’s around me.

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