Open to the Unexpected

When you go out to shoot do you know before you leave exactly what you want to find? Many people do. I feel sorry for them. I greatly prefer to “go out empty” as Jay Maisel would say and let the amazing world around me surprise and delight me. Learn to expect the unexpected.

This is absolutely my opinion and my photographic style. I am a fine art photographer who works primarily outdoors. The world outside is my canvas. If I were a portrait or commercial photographer I would have to do things differently. When there are crews and talent and art directors and contracts to fulfill, I recognize that the photographer has to plan and organize tightly. I am glad that that is not my world. I thrive on spontaneity.

Subjective vs. Objective

In a recent webcast by Chris Murray on Nature Photographer’s Network, he discussed the idea of objective vs. subjective photography. (Sorry but this is a fee site, but you can sign up for a free month.) It was a good talk. He spend a lot of time on his journey from objective to subjective.

He characterized objective images as ones that document a scene and subjective images as images that convey how the artist felt about or responded to the scene.

I think most of us start out objective. It happened naturally when we point our camera at a beautiful landmark and get a picture that makes us say “wow, that’s beautiful”. But if it has no more interpretation by us, it is not really different from the hundreds or thousands of other captures of that scene.

The thing I want to point out here, though, is that Chris said when shooting objective images he would research a location, decide the time of year and time of day that would be best for it, and go there and sit until the conditions were what he expected. He told about camping on a mountain for 3 days waiting for the image he visualized.

The image he got was a beautiful scene in the Adirondack Mountains. But my reaction to it was “meh…”. (Sorry Chris). To me it did not have any passion or depth. He got almost exactly the shot he planned, but my thought was “why?”.

What do you miss?

What did he miss while he was waiting 3 days on that mountain for the “right” time and conditions? Maybe nothing, but maybe a lot. To me that is too great a price to pay.

I have heard other photographers talk about fighting for a tripod spot at a grand, iconic spot, realizing that they were about to take the same shot that thousands of others take every year. Then they turn around and see a scene the other direction that is more meaningful to them. One that most of the other photographers failed to see because they were totally fixated on the iconic scene.

I try to be open and aware of what is around wherever I am. Same applies as much if I am walking a downtown street as if I am in a wilderness. Wonderful images can be discovered anywhere.

Avoid preconceptions

If you decide before you head out what you want to shoot, you put mental blinders on yourself. It is a fact that you only see what you expect to see.

This is called “selective attention”. A famous, effective, and short demonstration of this is in this video. Watch it! It is very enlightening. I won’t give a spoiler here, but this applies to any of us. If you are only looking for birds you will tend to only see birds.

Maybe that works OK for you. It’s not what I want for me. I want to be open to all the exciting things around me. And there are a lot of them. Many of my favorite images are things I would not have known to look for if I was making a list beforehand. I don’t want to miss out on the excitement of truly seeing and openly exploring what an area has to offer..

Grow

We all need to practice our skills and our visualization. Even the most famous and experienced photographers make themselves take time for personal projects to keep from getting stale and to grow in creative ways. Learning to avoid the trap of preconception can be part of that growth.

All artists need constant practice. Pablo Casals was possibly the greatest cellist.

The world’s foremost cellist, Pablo Casals, is 83. He was asked one day why he continued to practice four and five hours a day. Casals answered, “Because I think I am making progress.”
— Leonard Lyons

Repetition is one thing. I have advocated for that before. It is necessary. But there are other ways of learning to break your habit of preconception.

A great thing to do is to go minimalist. Go out for a day of shooting with one camera body and one lens. I can hear you sputtering now. ☺ “But I might need my fisheye; or I might need 400mm”. No, not if you don’t have it. Practice getting great shots with what you have.

An interesting thing happens when you let go and go with it. Let’s say you just take your 50mm prime. When you get into it, you will quickly start to see the world from the 50mm perspective. This is probably a type of selective attention, but it is forcing you in a different dimension. Instead of being selective on subjects, you are selecting your viewpoint on the world around you. It is a great exercise.

I did something similar on a larger scale. My natural vision is telephoto. My ideal lens is 70-200mm. Even longer is great for me sometimes. I like to crop in on details. But for over a year I have switched to mainly shooting with my wonderful 24-70mm. I think it has helped me grow in my creativity. I am surprised at some of the new things I see.

Let yourself be surprised!

For me, my art is a voyage of discovery. It is exciting because I never know what I will find. I like to be surprised!

When I can get into seeing the excitement and possibilities all around me there is sometimes so much to shoot that I have to just stop and take some deep breaths. Slow down. Decide how I feel about what I am seeing and what I want to say. Pace myself. It can be an embarrassment of riches. I am drowning in the imagery.

The image with this article is an example. I was head down by a lake shooting grass and reflections. That is all I was paying attention to. Eventually I noticed that things were changing and getting colorful. Looking up, I discovered this gorgeous thunderstorm was forming practically right by me. This became the picture. The other images I shot that day are forgotten.

It even applies to post processing. Sometimes I shoot frames just because my instinct tells me there is something there I am not consciously seeing. Sometimes whatever I was drawn to becomes apparent in post. As I work an image, something magical begins to emerge. It is like creating an image in front of me on the screen directly from light and the manipulations I am doing to coax out an elusive something. That is a joy, too. It is the kind of surprise that makes art worthwhile.

So I invite you to stop limiting yourself artificially. Don’t block your vision by deciding in advance what you only want to find. Let go. React. Be open to the unexpected. Go out empty, as Jay Maisel famously says. Enjoy discovering what there is instead of being frustrated by what you can’t find.

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