Order Out of Chaos

Well believe it or not, our little island paradise does in fact have a winter. Every once in a while Jack Frost pays us a visit with a nice blast of snow. Usually its no more than a half an inch all winter long. Well lucky for us, we received a whopping two inches today!

As the snow began to fall and accumulate, one thing was immediately obvious to me, this was really wet snow. I love wet snow, its the best for making snowmen, snowballs, and igloos in the backyard. Most of what I love about wet snow, as opposed to dry snow like out west, is that it sticks to EVERYTHING. It sticks to trees, mailboxes, fire hydrants, speed limit signs (I once argued my way out of a speeding ticket under the notion that there was snow on the sign and I had never driven the road before). Seeing how that the snow began to pile up on all of the leaves and branches of the forest behind me, I grabbed up my gear, hopped into my Tacoma and headed for Nags Head Woods Nature Preserve. This little piece of land is phenomenal. The Nature Conservancy really knew what they were doing when they bought this up. If you have never been to Nags Head Woods, go. Most the presever is composed of a 10,000 year old dune system that towers upwards of 30 – 40 feet above the rest of the landscape. All of which is heavily forested. Driving the dirt roads along the backside of the preserve reminds me of when I lived in Boone North Carolina up in the mountains. There are live oaks here that are estimated to be 500 years old, loblolly pines with 3ft bases, and a species known as woolly beach heather that is said to have not lived this far south (othere than Nags Head Woods) since the last ice age.

Upon reaching the preserve, I was completely overwhelmed. To say that I suffered from sensory overload would be a vast understatement. The snow was deep enough to make things interesting, and it was stuck to everything! All of a sudden the Outer Banks reminded more of Maine that the Southeastern barrier islands that they are. This was one of those times when you walked up and just want to start spinning around in circles clicking away at the shutter button (something I recommend against if your still shooting film!).

The problem with this sort of situation however is that we are experiencing the lanscape through our emotional response to what we see. Just because something pulls at your heart strings with nostalgia and beauty, doesn’t necessarily make it photographic. As beautiful as this snowscape was, artistically speaking, it was pure chaos – a jumbled mess really. Therefore the key to making successful photographs here was to organize the chaotic elements.

In this sort of situation, I usually spend a couple of hours evaluating, experiencing, and experimenting before successful photographs begin to emerge. Today was no different. Several problems to be overcomed began to reveal themselves. First off there was the general lack of color. Sure this lent itself nicely to black and white photographs – which I made many – but I wanted color. Therefore I had to search out those areas that were not so, well, monochrome. Second, there was the pure chaos of the situation. This is the Southeast, and this is a barrier island – meaning, the forest often times appears almost impenetrable.

With this photograph, you can see that I decided to go with the good ‘ol rule of thirds. If you do not know what that is, just simply imagine a tic tac toe board across your photograph. From here you attempt to line up prominent elements along the vertical and horizontal lines as well as their intersections. Considering the chaotic nature of the landscape today, I figured I needed all the help I could get in trying to anchor the photograph and order it. Thus you see that he road and the tree are both about where the two vertical lines would be, with the tree running all the way up. Next I lined up the confluence of the trees branches at what would be the intersecting point of the vertical and top horizontal line. This of course does not guarantee a successful photograph, but it does help at times. The real trick to all of this was to find just the right spot where all of the elements lined up together. I wanted the rule of thirds, I wanted the road so that the viewer at the sense of walking through the scene, I wanted color, light, depth, order, and an interesting spread on limbs with snow on them to compliment the photograph. This is why I spend hours working a location like this. As I shoot, I realize I want each one of these elements – often times one at a time over the course of an hour or more. This, for me, is the key to successful landscapes. Experimenting, taking mental notes, and slowly but surely working out the kinks of composition and lighting. I have gone out with so many photographers who might shoot for 30 minutes or so and then get bored with the situation. While I am still experimenting, trying to figure out what exactly I want, they are usually back in the truck or worse – asking me if I’m done yet lol!

I guess what I am really trying to say here, is that when you are confronted by a chaotic scene slow down, experiment, take your time, and try and try to organize it. When you do, you will find that often times bringing order out of chaos will produce some fabulous photographs.

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