The Time it Takes

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What separates the best landscape photographers from the rest of us? And I definitely consider myself one of “the rest of us.”

A major part of the answer, I think, is that the best photographers simply work harder. They’re willing put in the time it takes to get a memorable photograph.

Craig Varjabedian is an excellent Santa Fe photographer. Once, while in the countryside, he came upon a small religious shrine with three crosses at its side. He visualized a photograph of the scene with a full moon in a particular area of the sky. For months he made reconnaissance visits when the moon was full. He studied lunar charts. He eventually decided that conditions for the shot would be right at 5:00 on November 21st. He was there, and the result was a unique image.

Many of Jerry Sieve’s photographs have appeared on the cover of Arizona Highways. One was a photograph of the red-rock country near Sedona, Arizona, in the snow. The image looks effortlessly beautiful. Sieve knew where to go and where to place his camera, however, because he’d spent time getting to know the area. To get the shot, he’d made a long drive into a snowstorm in the iffy hope of getting dramatic light as the storm cleared. His effort might easily have come to nothing.

When I interviewed Jack Dykinga, he discussed how he spends a lot of time getting to know the places he photographs. Getting to know those places involves walking around and looking carefully. He’ll spend days waiting for the right conditions. For every time that he finally finds them, there are many more times when he doesn’t.

If the finest photographers have to work hard, the rest of us certainly do. It takes time to get to know a place in more than a superficial way. It also takes time to recognize the photographic possibilities.

The photographs in this blog entry are all of places I’ve visited repeatedly. By the time I took them, I knew what image I wanted. There was nothing difficult about actually taking this shot:

But the image was only possible because of what I had already learned during other visits. I had previously selected the point of view and the camera position, after studying the ruin from every angle. I’d also decided that sunrise would offer a better shot than sunset. From watching the sun rise at several ruins in the area, I knew that the red-rock walls would glow softly and beautifully as the first rays of sunlight struck the ruin, but only for a few seconds. As the sun kept rising, the light would become overpowering. I wanted to take the photograph during the few seconds of that soft glow. Taking the photograph took little time. Acquiring the knowledge of the place that allowed me to do so took quite a bit.

Spending time in a place also increases our chances of finding the right light after the long hunt. The difference between good photographs and mediocre ones is often the light. When we get to know a place, we can make better judgments about the time of day and weather conditions that are likely to produce the best light. Even then, light is never entirely predictable. We have to keep trying and failing in the hope that one day we’ll be in the right place at just the right moment.

It’s hard for those of us with day jobs and mortgages to spend days getting a feel for a place, but we can make the best use of what time we have. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Concentrate your efforts on a few places or subjects that really move you.
  • Go back when you can, as many times as necessary.
  • Learn from each visit. Find the best compositions. If a photograph isn’t right, figure out why. Think through how you’ll correct the error the next time.

Many people think that getting good photographs is a matter of having “a good eye.” I think it’s more a matter of having an alarm clock, and being willing to set it. Are the results worth the effort? That depends entirely on our goals. I’d rather take a few satisfying photographs than a lot of middling ones that leave me thinking, "I could do better."

Besides, if we concentrate on a few places we love, going back for another visit isn’t really a chore. It’s a pleasure.

Don Peters’ photographs can be seen at http://cornflakeaz.smugmug.com/

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Excellent inspiring article.

ggivensjr, thanks!  I'm glad you found it useful.