For a break today, my first full day on campus at Thompson River University, I do the thing I enjoy most– wandering around with my camera.
I do cite a subtle and maybe overlooked tip for photography is “to look for the light.” This means much more than conventional wisdom of having your back to light sources, which often does work to best light a subject outdoors. But there is just as much beauty in breaking that, taking photos directly into the light, or using strong side lighting.
But I’d been thinking about something I probably operate at a more instinctual level, from experience with the camera, there is a feeling when I am in certain places, or noticing the way light is highlighting vividly, or when it is absent, or when shadows and light have interplay. I cannot pinpoint it, but its a gut feeling in those moments that there is interesting light at work. And that means I then amplify my awareness and look more intently as to where I might find it.
You see, most of photography is done by figuring out how to remove most of what you see, that is composition by cropping out with just the camera view finder.
The photo above was taken in a non descript location, the stairwell of the building Gardner Campbell works in at Virginia Commonwealth University. But when I looked up, as I tend to do, and scan around me, I got that feeling from the way the light was coming in the windows, the geometries of the elements, the shadow on the wall… it told me that maybe there was an interesting photo in that place.
I am seeing this now at almost 5pm in the student union, I am looking at the vivid last daylight strike a vivid streak across the valley, lighting up the city of Kamloops at the based of dark brooding mountains. There is a photo there (well actually it was better yesterday):
I am not writing this just to whaffle about photography techniques, though I do really enjoy myself writing about the thoughts behind a photo as much as I like reading about the ideas of others, like Tom Woodward wrote last night on his photo of a couple’s kiss with a dog in front of a 7-11:
I was actually trying to shoot the dog here and the kiss started. The camera was extended at arms length and nearly on the ground. As a result, I wasn’t sure I’d got the shot until I looked later. You don’t often see zombies kissing so that was pretty fortuitous. The whole image tells a pretty interesting story with 7-11, cigarette ads, that big guy in the corner … it’s another version of Americana.
Photography is more than just snapping photos, damnit. Well to me it is.
But I have been noodling if there is a similar process at work when swimming among the firehose of information in a space like Connected Courses or the whole damn web in general. Is there a sense you get when just scanning, of something like “good” or “interesting” light in photography that takes you to interesting ideas?
Is it a clever title? a turn of a phrase? a provocative link? a vague link that does not indicate where it goes? The familiarity of the source url or the curiousness of it? What are the suggestions in the flow that help you clue in to what tends to be more interesting than not?
Because, I conjecture, if you can hone your senses for seeing nuanced suggestions of good/worthy/intriguing ideas out there in the information flow, you can get much more out of it than just getting soaked.
I don’t know. Play along with me. Tell me what clues your senses, if you really do have an attention span less than a goldfish, how well do you use it?
— Maha Bali, PhD ??? ???? ? (@Bali_Maha) October 27, 2014
What I do know is my photos.
Visiting my friends Brian and Keira was special too for the opportunity to take photos of their dog Dexter, a super canine creature who was defied death and defeat more times than one can count. He does seem to avoid the camera, but I spotted him laying on a mattress in a room; there was a sharp light coming in a window that was sharp on his front, leaving the back in the dark.
I was pretty sure there was a good photo in this space.
So yes, pay attention to not just the bright ideas, but also the vaguer shadows, and their intersections.
The mixture of vivid light and dark shadows of leaves on the Administration Building at Chico State University called to me. This combined with the regality and suggestion of what an edifice suggests speaks loudly too as a metaphor.
Among the information flow, I try to look for things that are representative or suggestive of other ideas outside their same domain.
Obviously sunsets like this one over Beatty Nevada loudly yell as a photo opportunity, but a sky by itself is detached. By having the foreground elements of palm trees and desert shrubs, and letting them become silhouettes by exposing the shot for the sky works here. Well, to me. This is a deliberate action when I took the shot to use the foreground.
How to we use foreground to shape perspective on ideas? Is it working with near and far? Is it thinking about the big picture and the practical? Grab a metaphor, any metaphor.
The brief yellow glory of aspen trees in the mountain slopes of Flagstaff as easy to see. But I tossed maybe 5 other shots because the angle did not catch the color or the framing was wrong. Looking up against the Arizona sky accentuates the deep blueness of the sky. People elsewhere buy polarizing filters to get this effect, we get it in Arizona for free.
With ideas, it helps just to look in different directions that straight on.
These tawny pine needles in a tree n my home in Arizona yelled out at me too. This is not vivid sharp light, but it was the kind that makes the colors pop, especially in contrast with the trunk and the green matte background of the trees. It might not have worked against the dulled sky. Choosing a dark background for a shot where the aperture is wide open makes a world of difference.
Or think about focussing on a key detail, or paying attention in a way that Gardner Campbell teaches us, to zone in not on the whole forest, but the nugget that moves us.
I always look for light and patterns in reflections like in these buildings in downtown Auckland. You have to move around often to see how things change or overlap. They present mirror worlds and juxtapose objects and often mix the light in unexpected ways. I focus much on buildings in dense urban environments but just as much on puddles in the forests, a rear view mirror out a car window, water on a lake.
Likewise look for interesting patterns in ideas that reflect off of other ones.
You can get interesting photos in crappy light, as this dark and stormy day at Ragland Beach. The shadowy figure of my friend Nigel’s son, the lines of water, and the vague boundaries of the clouds work for me (yes some of this is done with photo editing). But you can get great mood setting photos in poor light.
More flat light on these trees at the park near this beach. I went for this because the light had a softness on the trees and as much for the symmetry of the shape. Again, it’s not textbook lighting. Don’t leave your camera at home just because it is a cloudy day. Don’t dismiss ideas in places you may not expect them.
Knowing the light was very bright at the end of this ramp suggested to me I could create a suggestion of moving into a mysterious zone. This was all about knowing how this light would work with the darker tones of the foreground. Contrast is your friend in photos (and ideas too).
In teaching visual creativity, I ask my students to look for the use converging lines as one of those patterns they might pay attention to. In a photo they work incredibly well to give depth, or suggest where the eye should go. This cattle guard off of the Beeline Highway in Arizona does not get interesting until you get a low angle in it and tilt the camera to get that convergence. And the rusty patterns give it texture.
Shifting perspective, need I say more? Looking for how things converge just by changing a point of view, relevant in information sorting? Yup.
And sometimes you just have to have experience knowing what makes the light work. Pointing into the light, using a lens with a wide open aperture, a background with point light sources– voila, loving the bokeh effect. I knew what would likely happen if I focused on the poppy in the front using a wide open aperture settings. It’s not accidental, but also knowing my tools does not guarantees success. In this case, experience is my guide, but sensing the light draws me to try it out. It does not always work, but each time it does– reinforces the process.
The same thing for idea sensing- you get better at it with practice, and knowing/refining the tools you use. Again and again and again. But not just by some sheer 10,000 hour Gladwell drum banging monkey, it’s the practice and the reflection on practice that matters.
So… am I just stretching? Or showing off photos? Again, the approach of thinking about my photo approach, and then thinking about it again in reflection works as a process to refine my ideas. It’s not a matter of being “right” on a subject or touting your book/article/etc, it’s abut a practice of the mind.
What kind of light do you see?