The Evolution of a Photograph

ancient forest awash in the surf
I am one of those people that believe there is a big difference between “taking pics” and making photographs. This is one of the first steps towards mastering the art of photography. Once you cross over this line in the sand, you go from Average Joe with a camera, to someone who is beginning to think and see in terms of art and composition. This is not just photography of course, it is all art. The master painters did not just sit down at an easel and create masterpieces. Monet, Cole, Bierstadt would probably roll over in their graves if they heard such an insult to their work. Likewise, if you look at the work of modern day painters such as Jack Saylor and the amount of research, time, and preparation that went into his works of art ( http://www.jacksaylor.blogspot.com/2011/06/blackbeard-painting.html ), than you will realize that art is not something that just happens most of the time.

The same of course does apply for photography. Like the great painters, there is something of an evolution of a photograph in my mind. It typically starts out with an idea – what you hear me call the artistic vision. This idea is usually spawned from my personal experience with a location or an animal. From here, it moves into the scouting stage. Good light is hard to come by and always evanescent, so I scout my locations, camera in hand, to begin to formulate my ideas onto the two dimensional plane of a photograph. Depending upon the location, the scene may be completely static and change only with the light. In other places, such as the edge of the sea, the landscape changes with each day as wind and tides are constantly sculpting the beach in new and different ways hour by hour, day by day. In these situations then it’s a matter of either working with what you have, or waiting till the time is right. After all is said and done, after all the thinking, planning, scouting, etc. . . when you are own location working a subject, literally loosing yourself in what you are doing, a eureka moment can occur and you scrap everything you were going for and incredible things come about from that moment of clarity. These moments for me, only come when I immerse myself fully into the process. This is the evolution of a photograph.

I have been driving by these stumps on the beach for years. Occasionally I have taken the time to photograph them – usually out of necessity such as to accompany a magazine article I am writing. For the most part though, they have always just been a great story and an obstacle to getting home at night. Here on the Outer Banks, these old stumps, logs, and remains of ancient forests that can be found in places along our beaches are what we call wash woods. They are the remains of forests that grew several hundred years ago along the backside of these islands. Barrier islands however are in constant flux and they migrate landward in response to hurricanes, nor’easters, and the steady pace of rising sea levels. As storm surges overwash the island, the water transports millions of tons of sand across the island as well. Basically, the island is being rolled overtop of itself. In the process, the old forest becomes entombed beneath the shifting sands. Centuries later, quite often parts of these forests become unearthed along the edge of the ocean as waves begin the lap away that sand that has kept the intact and preserved for so long. Like I said, cool story.

This blog post is a bit different than others I have written. Instead of a one or two of the finished products, I am showing you a series of images that led up to the finish product – the evolution of the photograph if you will. Like there is an evolutionary process in how we go about creating images, there is also an evolution in how we come about the final product as well.

The image up top is, of course, the finished product. This is the culmination of scouting, a couple hours of experimenting with different compositions, and finally one of those eureka moments of thought and ideas.

Bellow you will find something of a build up to this moment. The first image you can see that I was sticking with my original plant to photograph the stumps and tidal pools by attempting to pull together a pleasing composition with patters, shapes, and reflections. The light was still high and that is specifically when you want to be doing this – that is, before the light gets good. Once you find THAT spot, stick with it and wait for the light. The second image you can see that I had completely changed gears and abandoned my original ideas of photographing the stumps and the pools as part of the landscape. Here I had moved on and found a hollowed out stump in a pool. This time, you can see that I had moved in very close with my lens. I was shooting with a Nikon 12-24mm lens at 12 mms so this composition is with my lens just a few inches away from the stump. I liked this composition much better than anything else that I had put together thus far and decided that I was going to stick it out here till dusk.

Now one thing that I like to do and I have mentioned before on here, is come up with a list of adjectives to describe what I am photographing. Whether it is a wild horse, a bull moose, or these stumps on the beach, adjectives will give you something to work with in terms of the feeling you may want to convey with your image. With these stumps, I was really hard pressed to come up with a good adjective that might convey well in a photograph. But then it hit me. These old forests are called wash woods. So why not create an image of them awash in the surf as the name implies.

As the light got lower and the sun finally set, my shutter speed dropped accordingly. By the time that I made the image above, I was exposing at 4 second shutter speeds. This is SLOW – which I wanted. And when you hit speeds this slow, water begins to not just streak but become wispy and mist like. To control the contrast of the scene, I also used a Singh-Ray 2 stop graduated ND filter to reign in the sky and let what little bit of color was actually up there show up on the sensor. I also included a black and white conversion of this image as well. I started out shooting film. And when I did, I came from the school of thought that you should begin with black and white to learn about light and tonality before moving on to color. For several years I only photographed in black and white before transitioning over to color shortly before digital.

All in all, I’m pretty happy with the way things turned out. When I was photographing to illustrate and article I did on island migration for Wildlife in North Carolina, I joked about trying to make stumps look sexy. Last night though, I think I might of pulled it off.

This entry was posted in Landscape Photography, The Inner Game of Outdoor Photography.