First Things First

2/1/2023

“Put first things first and we get second things thrown in; put second things first and we lose both first and second things.”


– C.S. Lewis

In a recent Portfolio Review with a very talented and creative nature photographer, I began our session as I always do; by asking what they thought I could offer in terms of feedback on their images. While their portfolio is mainly made up of unique, creative, and fantastic intimate scenes, they shared their admiration for my ability to not only photograph intricate details, but grand landscapes as well; something they feel they struggle with. They remarked that my portfolio has nice variety to it–having a wider range of scenes since I don’t limit myself to one “style" of photography–and so they inquired if I had any insight or suggestions on how they could also start making better photographs of the grander landscape in order to diversify their portfolio.

"Dark Brilliance"

“Dark Brilliance” 16-35mm @20mm

     In hopes to learn how to make images of either wide or small scenes, I have heard of many photographers going out to photograph with only one particular lens. This way they will be forced to only photograph the kinds of scenes the lens is capable of capturing and potentially break out of the habit of making photographs as they usually would. From a logical standpoint, this practice makes sense. If you are limited to using only one kind of lens, then you will only be able to make the photographs that kind of lens can produce. However, from a creative standpoint, this doesn’t mean that they will also be significant or meaningful photographs. Just because you only brought a certain lens, it doesn't mean that the subjects that speak to you will then lend themselves well to that focal length. 

     By putting this in practice, the most you can hope for is to better understand the optical effects, limitations and strengths of using a certain lens, which is indeed useful knowledge. But like the famous expression goes, if you walk around with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Limiting yourself to only one lens will not only cause you to ignore other potential scenes, but also force you to bend your visualization to suit the lens, rather than choosing the lens that best suits your vision. Deciding what lens you will use before going out and observing the landscape is akin to deciding to only photograph in a certain orientation, image ratio, or at a certain tripod height. You will be trying to force everything you see to fit within a “box,” as opposed to creating the ideal box around it.

     When practicing photography as a creative art form, the equipment you use to photograph a certain scene should not dictate how you photograph it. Instead, the scene you are photographing should dictate what equipment you decide to use. Just like a mechanic does with a screwdriver, wrench, or jack, I only utilize each of my tools as often as I require them. A great work of art is never the result of using a certain piece of equipment. Great works of art are born of great concepts.

"Serenade"

“Serenade” 16-35mm @16mm

     I never go into nature with hopes or expectations to make any certain style of photograph. In fact, I don’t expect to make any photographs at all. My primary motive is to take in my surroundings, since it always results in slowing down and feeling more calm, amazed, and grateful. I don’t spend a lot of time in nature because I am a photographer, rather, I’m a photographer because I spend a lot of time in nature. While I don’t always bring my camera along, even when I do it’s not the purpose of my visit. It is only in case I experience something that I feel like photographing, granted it is something capable of being photographed. I then share those photographs on the chance that they might impact someone else, and help them to appreciate and value the things I have photographed more.

     My observation of the landscape does not get clouded by any expectation or hope to make a certain kind of photograph. It is not until something speaks to me that I begin to decide the best way to photograph it. If I happen to use a telephoto lens to photograph a scene it is because there are smaller details that I want to magnify, layers that I want to compress, the subject is far away, or it is necessary in order to exclude other things around it. If I use a wide angle lens to photograph a scene it’s because its distortion is needed in order to best portray the subject and fit everything into the frame that I want to include. It is never just because I feel like using a specific focal length. The perspective, framing, timing, and camera settings are also all based on the subject and lighting I am photographing, choosing whatever I feel complements it the best.

"Bokeh Bouquet"

“Bokeh Bouquet” 70-300mm @300mm

     Whenever I end up making a photograph of a wide scene, it is only because I already visualize it as a wide scene, before I even pull out my camera or begin to choose what equipment I will use. I also approach making images of “grand landscapes” and “small scenes” in the same way. In both, I decide what the photograph is about and frame up the rest of the scene, paying attention to lines, balance, and visual flow; including secondary objects that complement the subject, excluding any objects that detract from the subject, and capturing it all in the lighting that both hides and accentuates all the right things. The only real difference between “grand landscapes” and “small scenes” is a matter of scale. It’s also worth mentioning that I have still made many “grand landscapes” with a telephoto lens as well as many “small scenes” with a wide angle lens.

"Range of Light"

“Range of Light” 70-200mm @70mm

"Roundup"

“Roundup” 16-35mm @23mm

     On the other hand, not having a certain lens can be a real limitation to what you are able to create. The greater range in focal length that you have available to you, the more possibilities there will be to photograph different subjects. I remember once I added a macro lens to my bag, I began naturally visualizing more scenes that were on the macro scale. After purchasing a 150-600mm lens, the largest telephoto I own, I began noticing objects farther off in the distance that I was unable to reach before. I also started seeing closer objects in different ways, able to zoom in on them even tighter, and in turn create more compression and capture them from different angles. But none of this happened forcefully. Once the option was available to me, my creative scope broadened in the field. Whatever lenses you may carry in your bag are irrelevant until you visualize something you want to make into a photograph.

     If you look at the portfolio I have now, in 2023, it consists of ten different galleries. When I initially started building my portfolio, I didn’t first come up with these ten different galleries and then go out collecting images in order to fill them. I just started by photographing whatever spoke to me; places, subjects, and seasons that I was interested in. As a result, I discovered more sides of nature and my relationship with it deepened, so I began focusing more on certain subjects while also branching out and experimenting with new ones. As my portfolio grew, I had to start breaking it down into individual, more cohesive categories based on repeating themes of subject matter.

     The most recent additions to my portfolio are the “Aspens” and “Rockies” galleries. The images in the former gallery were previously in my “Forests” gallery and the images in the latter gallery were previously in my “Mountains” gallery. Both of these galleries needed to be created as soon as the galleries that they initially belonged to became too large to be cohesively organized. By being put in their own new galleries, they no longer dominate the images in their former galleries and form a much stronger theme with better visual flow.

"Chorus"

“Summoned” 70-300 @166mm

     I never set out to make the kind of portfolio I have today, nor could I have ever imagined it. It has built itself naturally over the last ten years as I have focused on making whatever images I feel inspired to create. My photographs are not born of gallery concepts, rather my concepts for galleries are born of my photographs.

     Any style I have developed as a photographer has not been intentionally crafted. I never aimed to achieve any specific overall look by only making certain kinds of images or photographing them in some premeditated way. It has naturally developed as a result of closely following my own voice and satisfying my own curiosities, not letting trends or fads taint my artistic vision. My curation has shaped it as well, by adding new images that satisfy me and removing any that no longer do.

     Instead of paying attention to whatever equipment you may or may not be using, I would urge you to focus more on the things you are photographing. What kinds of subjects interest you the most? What are you hoping to express through your photographs? How do you find meaning through your photography? Use whatever equipment necessary in order to achieve these things, but never focus on the equipment more than what your photographs are about. If you are only drawn to certain kinds of scenes, then so be it. Don’t box yourself in, but don’t force yourself in another direction either. Put the concepts of your images first and everything else will follow automatically.

     If you really want to broaden your ability to visualize and photograph scenes in the field, instead of limiting yourself to work with only one lens, an exercise I would recommend is simply paying more attention to your surroundings, without trying to force them into any kind of box at all. You can even do this without a camera, and it might be best to purposely leave it behind at first. This way you can just focus on observing the landscape without feeling any hindering pressure to make images.

     When something calls your attention, ask yourself what else it is. Focus on its details and try to see its shape, lines, and textures. Notice the different qualities of lighting all around you throughout all times of the day. Listen to how different things make you feel. This will help you to be able to visualize more creatively than looking through any specific lens will. More importantly, you will also become more familiar with the natural world. The better you understand your subjects, the better you will know how to photograph them.

"Cosmic Space"

“Cosmic Space” 70-300 @95mm



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