by Gary W. Stanley
Over the past few years, I’ve written on many different subjects, everything from basic photography to advanced techniques. Photography attracts many people with a variety of interests. Now as most of you know I am a landscape, nature and wildlife photographer. Even if I were to limit the scope of my photography to just nature or landscape, I could never even come close to covering and capturing on film or digitally all the aspects of that individual category.
I’m thankful that’s indeed the case, and that there are in fact so many facets to our own particular photographic experience, that we should never run out of things to shoot. That said; let’s just take a look at one portion of nature photography, Patterns in Nature.
Time after time, we photograph great sweeping landscapes in nature. John Shaw once said, in part, that nature has the ability to withstand the closest scrutiny. The closer you look the more details you see and the more it holds up to the closest observation. Seeing is a very big part of that observation. To successfully photograph a subject, in this case patterns, we need to recognize what that subject is and then figure out how to photograph it.
When you are seeing photographically, creatively or “on the jazz,” as I like to call it, it seems relatively easy to recognize Patterns in Nature. But seeing, visualizing or recognizing the potential for an interesting photograph such as Patterns in Nature, isn’t a gift, it’s acquired. So let me share some tips on how to begin seeing patterns in nature.
Your First Clue: Quite often the very first clue to photographing any image is to recognize the potential for a photograph. You’re driving along on a back country road for example, and something catches your eye. Perhaps it’s a patch of color with a large rock in the middle of that color. Maybe it’s the repetition of mountains in the distance or a reflection in a pond. Each of these situations are clues that should send a signal to you that there is potential here for a photograph.
Look Harder: Stop your car, get out and take a closer look. Don’t try this on a busy interstate (it’s probably illegal anyway). You may be walking along a trail instead of driving a car, it really isn’t important, but looking closer is. By looking closer, you’re putting aside the other various distractions so you can more carefully examine the photographic potential. This may seem trivial, but trust me here, it’s vital. Often I take that brief moment to do that and then realize that it wasn’t as great as I first thought, get back in my car or continue walking down the trail looking for another composition.
Work the Subject: Once you feel comfortable with the subject that you’ve found, get your equipment set up and begin photographing. Gee, that almost sounds too simple right? You’re right, it is simple, but it’s what comes next that really matters. I call it working your subject. I tell people that usually one of two things happens to me when I’m working a subject. I’ll set up my tripod, compose, focus, meter and shoot. I’ll continue trying various compositions moving around my subject, shooting, moving recomposing and shooting again. Often it will be the very first composition that I like the best, then other times as I continue to work my subject I find new, more interesting compositions with my final shot being the one that I like the best.
In the example of the rocks and ferns, it was the color that caught my eye first as I drove along a back road. I parked the car, grabbed my equipment and set up my first composition and shot. I saw a few distracting elements in the composition, so I moved in closer to crop out those distractions. Finally I composed even tighter to just concentrate on the strong color patterns and lines created by the gray rock, the yellow ferns, and the dark foreground vegetation. As it turned out, I think I like the second image the best.
It’s this working of your subject that has helped me to see better photographically. This has been a key to finding Patterns in Nature.
Move Closer: Because I am so used to seeing the grand landscape, I have to remind myself to move closer. You can do this a couple of ways; one way is to physically move closer, the other is to optically move closer. Moving closer physically isn’t always an option, so I will generally move closer optically using my lens to zoom in, thus creating a tighter composition. By doing this, you are eliminating distracting parts of your composition and are now able to simplify it. Walking along the boardwalks in Yellowstone I was able to do this consistently. Having been to these locations before, I now wanted to shoot something a little differently, and looking for patterns was a good way for me to do this.
Compose Carefully: Our fall tour to Acadia National Park is always a favorite of both mine and of those who attend. One of my personal favorite locations in the park features a fabulous area of Huckleberry, with a mix of rich green pine and lichen covered rocks. Your first view of this spot is almost overwhelming. It really challenges the viewer to find order out of chaos. I recommend taking the time to compose very carefully, looking and looking again, trying to select a composition that is pleasing, yet not too cluttered. For me, it’s a great place to photograph both the traditional landscape as well as Patterns in Nature.
Equipment: For me, the most versatile type of lens for this kind of work has been a zoom lens in the 24-200mm range. The reason is simple; I’m lazy! Actually it’s because I can use the wide angle 24mm part of the lens to compose my landscape shot, then look around for a more intimate landscape or pattern, compose again without having to change lenses. It may be that nothing catches my eye, so I move around some more until something of interest does catch my eye. I can carry my camera bag on my back instead of having to pick it up and set it down every time I need to take out a different lens.
A tripod is essential if you want to be able to work your composition carefully. If you are using film, use a fine grained, slow speed, slide film such as Velvia, Provia or an equivalent print film if you work with negatives. If you’re shooting digital, I recommend shooting using the RAW settings to allow you the freedom of adjustment later in the computer. Once in the computer, I find it easier to duplicate my old favorite film, Velvia, because it’s easier to view the image on my monitor instead of on a small LCD screen. However, if you prefer shooting using the JPEG High setting, you can set your white balance to a warmer, more Velvia-like setting as well.
In Conclusion: Photographing Patterns in Nature all boils down to patience, taking the time to look more carefully at your surroundings, really learning to see more creatively. It means being willing to take the time to work your subject in an effort to find the composition that pleases you most. I believe you’ll find that it may very well change the way you look, not only at your photography, but also the way you look at nature itself.