Befriending the Photographic Scene

Yesterday’s strolling around Winnipeg’s riverside area reminded me that, often, the best photography opportunities are rendered not through an instantaneous and stunning reaction to a scene, but by its patient study and observation. First-impression wonderment at initial angles and symmetries of structures led to even better image creation once I took the time to move all about them, study them and see multiple perspectives on the same objects.

This is an advantage of a pocket digital, even for the film photographer. Film waste for marginal or ultimately unimpressive shots is minimized through the capability of ready evaluation of the product. “Nahh, that’s not right. This shot’s lame. Won’t waste film on it. I should try it from over there, where it looks like I can frame it with some overhanging trees.” …or… “Hey, contrast is better here than I thought. I’ll pop off a slide or two.” …or… “I thought it was cool from over there, but the effect here is absolutely amazing if I can expose this right. Time to whip out the film SLR and blast away with some serious bracketing.”

I still, and always will, prefer to shoot our sky with minimal human evidence, the occasional windmill, endless two-lane highway or radar dome excepted for symbolic effect. But “permanent” structures or static scenes are becoming more and more valuable to me, not only as supplements but as subjects. For one thing, they’re not as sudden, frantically photographed or distressingly ephemeral as the most photogenic of turblunt, stormy turbulent skies. One can take many snapshots, experimenting with compositions, exposures, lighting and subject positioning (more aptly, my positioning around the subject) before picking the best, hurling away the least desirable into a digital never-never land, and shooting only the most pleasing compositions with actual film. I could shoot a dozen or hundred little digitals for each higher-resolution film slide exposed (as I also did in Europe the previous weeks).

That is one advantage of shooting stationary objects (bridges, old architecture, flood debris) under slowly changing light conditions. [Again, this luxury isn’t usually available under storms!] I haven’t been much of a photographer of human construction for my 20 years of shooting, preferring the natural and specifically the sky, but that’s slowly changing. Best of all, sometimes I can combine my undiluted old preferences with the new as well, such as some crisp altocumulus I shot:

1. …through a fascinating, circular and square, “bifurcated keyhole” (as I called it) window arrangement in an old stone wall at St. Boniface University’s outdoor plaza,
2. …around a solar silhouette of the cable-welding spire of a space-age pedestrian bridge over the river,
3. …texturing the sky through trees, framing the university’s famous silver-domed edifice.

In a waterside scene, a nice documentary style shot of a watermark on some outdoor stairs led me to a large, bleached driftwood log on the steep embankment on the other side. This in turn pointed toward flood debris piled up against a bridge piling, in the river beyond. The ultmate shot included all three and conveys much more than any of the components would about the flood that was and the river that is — even if the prts of the whole themselves were well photographed.

The point is: Sure, shoot the first impression of a scene or object. But don’t walk off in search of another photo op quite yet. Sit and study a scene. Walk around it, over it, under it or through it, as possible. Play with lights and shadows already there. Wait for others, time permitting. You’ll see many scenes in one, and experience quality as minimal expense to quantity (the former being more important anyway).

Hang out with a scene for awhile. Befriend it and it will befriend your lens. Don’t just shoot and run, if you can help it.

These are lessons tried and true to many who seriously wield a camera, but which need reinforcement and reminder from time to time. And maybe that’s the benefit of stepping out of one’s photographic specialty or expertise, as I did yesterday. Those lessons can be blended back into future shooting of the more comfortable and familiar subjects, to great enrichment of both the experience of the moment and of the photographic product.

After all, one should see with the eyes and immerse with the soul, at least for a thoughtful instant (as in a fast-changing storm scene), before pointing the lens.

Now, in common with every film shooter, I just hope the actual pictures come out as hoped (and unlike some film die-hards, as the concurrent digitals indicate they should). So where are the pix? Still only in the cameras, unfortunately; I’ll upload the digitals and link this entry to them after getting home (where I left the USB device for my memory card).


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