Looking Versus Seeing

November 02, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

It's not what you look at that matters. It's what you see.
~Henry David Thoreau 

Fortunately, you don't need exotic locations to find great subject matter. Even the most "ordinary" places can be extraordinarily interesting. Conversely, shooting in far-flung destinations doesn't guarantee you'll produce exceptional photographs.

Intriguing subject matter is all around us. It's just a matter of seeing it.

Sometimes that's easier said than done. For those just starting out with photography, it takes time to develop this skill. The more you practice the better at it you'll become. That said, even experienced photographers can have days when it's difficult to find compositions. 

If subject matter seems to be elusive, there are things you can do to jump-start your ability to "see." SHIFTING SANDSHIFTING SANDMesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Death Valley National Park, California

Slow Down
Be present in the moment. Engage with the landscape; give it a chance to guide you. Take your time and you'll notice more details. 

Be Patient
You'll see different things at different times of day, in different weather, or in different seasons. When you spot something of interest it might not be the best time to make the photograph (i.e. the light isn't good or the conditions aren't conducive), but once a potential subject has been identified you can tuck the idea away in your back pocket and try again later. This is just one of the reasons returning to locations over and over again, far from being boring, is so beneficial.

It's almost impossible to "exhaust" a place.

Put distractions out of your mind. The only "to do" list you should be concerned about while you're out with your camera is connecting with what you see around you. 

Look Past the Obvious
Instead of searching for specific subjects, try focusing on things like light and shadow, colors, contrast, textures, shapes, lines, and patterns.

Consider how you can use various camera settings to do something creative with a scene. 

Try to avoid labeling what you're looking at. We tend to think about objects we've categorized less imaginatively.

When something captures your attention, think about the WHY. What specifically caught your eye? How would you describe it? How does what you've noticed make you feel? How can you translate that into a photograph?

Be Willing to Linger
If you're drawn to an area, stick around. Keep exploring. Keep shooting.

Let Go of Expectations
Showing up expecting to make a photograph, or with very definite ideas about what you want to capture, or even expecting specific conditions is restrictive. Expectations often create tunnel vision, and can end up leaving you frustrated. Keep an open mind and you're more likely to recognize possibilities. 

The landscape is often cluttered. Distill the scene to its essence. What can be subtracted?

Consider a forest: often overwhelming and challenging to depict. Rather than including hundreds of trees in the shot, try whittling it down to a dozen, or a handful. Or make a single tree the focal point.

Remove anything that doesn’t need to be in the photograph. 

Have Confidence in Yourself
What others are looking at - or shooting - is irrelevant. Concentrate on your own vision. The crowd might have blinders on: so focused on one thing that they've failed to notice even better opportunities nearby, hiding in plain sight. Trust your judgment. Interesting subject matter isn't always immediately obvious.

Get Enough Rest
It's difficult to be creative when you're overtired. Neither the eyes nor the brain are going to function the way you want them to if you're exhausted. I rarely sleep well when camping; this is, obviously, an issue when I'm working out in the field. To compensate, I try to find an hour or two during the day to take a break and - at the very least - just sit and close my eyes. 

Hit the Pause Button
If you're just not feeling it, don't beat yourself up. Stow the camera for a while. Take a break. Do something else. Enjoy your surroundings and the experience of simply being there. Check out locations you haven't previously explored. 

Creativity on demand doesn't work. 

The great thing about "seeing" is that there can be a real uniqueness to it. Take five photographers to the same area at the same time and have them shoot for a while. It's more than likely they will make a variety of images - perhaps markedly different.

The more nuanced your vision, the more creative your images will become.

Even in often-photographed locations, therefore, you can create something unique - and you can continue to find new and interesting subject matter in places you visit over and over again. 

In Local News

Yellowstone National Park is now closed to vehicle traffic until next spring. It will reopen for oversnow travel on December 15th.

Likewise, the Teton Park Road (Inner Loop) in Grand Teton National Park is now closed for the season from the Taggart Lake trailhead to the Signal Mountain Lodge. Until the road becomes snow-covered this is a great opportunity to use it for biking, hiking, running and rollerblading. Moose-Wilson Road is also now closed for the season and will remain unplowed from Death Canyon Road to Granite Canyon trailhead. Antelope Flats Road and the road down to Schwabacher Landing are still open. How long that lasts will depend on weather conditions. Expect to see them gated by the first part of December if not sooner.  

While I'm on the subject of GTNP, it turns out I wasn't imagining things: September really was busy. Normally June, July and August are the peak months but not this year. This past September was the second busiest ever, with more visitors in the park then than during the month of June. Who knew GTNP could have used "See You in September" as its theme song for 2023? 

Year-to-date there have been well north of three million visits to the park. That doesn't necessarily mean three million people; for example, each time I enter it's counted as one visit and I'm in there dozens of times in a year. Still, that's a lot of folks coming to see the Tetons.

About the Photograph

Unlike more expansive shots of the sand dunes within Death Valley National Park (which I've made, too), this is a different look at the subject. On this November day I was struck by the combination of rich light, increasingly dramatic shadows, and spectacular lines and patterns in the sand - as well as the way they abruptly disappeared. Since there had been no wind for a few days, there were footprints everywhere pretty much as far as you could see; I had to hike quite a way before finally finding some undisturbed real estate. It was just in the nick of time, too, with only about 30 minutes left before the sun set.

Composing tightly was going to be my only option (thanks to the omni-present footprints) but that was fine since I was going for something more abstract.

I like the image on its own merits, but also because it's an unusual capture of the Mesquite Dunes.


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