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Principles of Photographic Improvisation – Contribute Something and Try Something

In my last post, I mentioned how I am reading The Soul of the Camera, the Photographer’s Place in Picture-Making by David duChemin, and I described his first of four “rules” or “principles” of photographic improvisation – agreeing or to say “yes” and not “no.” Today, I look at the second and third principles – Contribute Something, and Try Something.

To contribute something, you need to make the scene your own. DuChemin explains, ” Photography is not objective… We bring our own thoughts, opinions, points of view, and interest to the scen and to every single decision, from aperture to focal length to shutter speed to composition. We chose what to include and exclude. It’s not so much about what’s there as it’s about what I see and how I see it.”

Say you travel to a famous landmark or scene and want to photograph it. Don’t worry about how others have done so, make the scene you own. Sure, take that one composition that you’ve seen before, the shot the maybe even inspired you to come in the first place, but then explore the subject scene on you own, making your own compositions. Or as DeChemin says, “Own it. Add to it. Make every photograph you create a collaboration with what’s before you.”

This, I think, directly relates to the third principle, try something. DuChemin urges his reads to “take a risk and try something. Don’t just wonder what would happen if you moved the camera over to the right. Move it! Slow the shutter, use a wide lens. Listen to the questions, but don’t let them go without a response. And if the first answer doesn’t work, try again.”

It doesn’t even have to be a famous scene, just maybe one you’ve been to or photographed many times before. Do you take the same shot again and again? Perhaps. But to improvise, you’ve got to make it new again for you. Maybe try black and white, or shoot it with your phone instead of you DSLR, or shoot only high-key images, whatever!  Sometimes to make it your own you need to try something different.

For example, for the past several years, I’ve been offering walking photo tours of downtown Seattle. These tours are great for my clients, as they see Seattle through fresh eyes. But I’ve seen it and shot it all before. It’s a real challenge for me to find something new. So on a couple trips, I pulled out the fish-eye lens. Now, a lot of what I shot didn’t work so well, but some of the images aren’t so bad. In fact, they are kind of fun, and definitely something I made my own by trying something I hadn’t done before, even after shooting the same places dozens of times before – such as Pioneer Square (above and below), the ferry terminal (below), and the waterfall garden (below). That is photographic improvisation.

Principles of Photographic Improvisation – Say Yes

I’m currently reading The Soul of the Camera, the Photographer’s Place in Picture-Making by David duChemin. This book is full of nuggets of photographic wisdom, and I can highly recommend it to any photographer who wants to improve their game. You will not find much in the way of technical details about how to shoot great images. Instead, duChemin discusses the photographer’s mind and it relationship to picture-making.

There are easily dozens of blog post topics I could cover based on this book, but for now I’ll discuss his four “rules” or “principles” of photographic improvisation; the first of which is to agree or to say “yes” and not “no.” That is, say yes to the scene in front of you even if it was not what you expected or intended. You could say this is to go with the flow (which duChemin also talks about earlier in the book). Say yes to photographing what the world gives you rather than turning your back on the scene and giving up because it isn’t what you wanted. Accept what’s there and make the most of it.

Not much of the moon could be seen behind Rainier earlier this month due to clouds

A couple weeks ago, I went over to Fox Island Bridge to take a photo of Mount Rainier with the full moon rising behind it right before sunset. This situation only happens on two days each year: the day before the full moon in both June and August. Last August I tried for the same shot with only limited success. I was disappointed from that shoot, and that probably set me up to ignore the principle of saying yes. The weather was not ideal, and the view of the moon was not very good. I snapped a few shots, including the shown here, and packed up and went home disappointed. I failed to look for what else nature might be offering up. It was a few days later that I read about duChemin’s first principle.

I should have known better even before reading the book. I had a similar idea earlier this year. Back in February, I wanted to photograph the full moon setting behind the Olympic Mountains at sunrise. On the appointed day, I got up early and drove across town to Brown’s Point in Northeast Tacoma. When I got there, the Olympics, let alone the moon, were obscured by clouds. I climbed back in the car and headed toward home, thinking that perhaps I still might get some decent sunrise shots from the Cliff House parking lot. Sure enough, Mount Rainier was visible and the rising sun painted it and the low hanging clouds, as shown on the featured shot above and the other images below. I didn’t get what I wanted, but I said yes to what was given, which wasn’t bad at all.

Sun Lakes – Dry Falls State Park

Last week, as part of the gradual easing of its stay-at-home order, Washington State opened up the majority of state parks for day-use only. Knowing that I was going into photography withdrawal, Tanya suggested we head out on a photo day. Even though the parks were open, it was suggested people stay local. Well, local is a relative term, and being a Westerner, I don’t mind driving several miles – in this case 200 miles one way. Is that local? It was still in the State of Washington and we didn’t need to stay overnight – that’s local to me.

So last Saturday we packed up a picnic and the camera gear and headed off to Sun Lakes – Dry Falls State Park. Why there? One, it has the raw beauty of the channeled scablands. But perhaps more importantly, I thought there wouldn’t be as many people there as in closer state parks. The weather was sunny and warm, and there was bound to be more than a few people out enjoying the state parks on this first weekend since the pandemic started that they were open. And while there were a fair number of people at the park, the park’s parking lots was not crowded – unlike the several hiking trailheads we passed on the way over the mountains that were overflowing with cars. In fact, the parking for the trail we took in Sun Lakes State Park only had one other car (out of four parking spots – so with us, it was half full; is that crowded?).

Drone shot of Alkali Lake

Sun Lakes State Park is located in the Grand Coulee. The park itself contains at least four lakes, and there are a number of other lakes further down the coulee. That gave this trip the added bonus of having a place to stop before reaching the park for me to fly my drone (drones are not allowed in Washington State Parks without a permit) while Tanya took Benson, our 8-month old, 102-pound Newfoundland, on his first swim. We picked a spot along Alkali Lake, and while Tanya and Benson frolicked in the water, I checked out Alkali Lake and Lake Lenore from the air.

Then it was on to Sun Lakes. The state park has a developed camping (closed) and day-use area on Park Lake with nice green grass and large shade trees. Instead of stopping there, we took the road to Deep Lake, which is developed with a small picnic area with natural vegetation and a boat launch. There were about 10 cars there and several dozen people swimming or fishing in the lake. So instead of taking the lakeside trail, we decided to take the Caribou Trail with climbs the hillside above the lake (not sure why it is named the Caribou Trail, caribou are definitely not native to this desert terrain).

Though I’ve been to Sun Lakes perhaps a dozen times before, I had never been to Deep Lake or on the Caribou Trail, so this was new territory to me. I knew the trail climbed above up toward the top of the coulee, but I didn’t know if it had a view of Deep Lake from up there. It is a relatively short trail, and the official trail ends when reaching the top of the cliffs. No view from there. So we kept walking on a faint unofficial trail, and then, eventually, set off cross country to find a view. And sure enough, we found a view of Deep Lake far below. We sat on the rocks, pulled out our water bottles, and drank in both water and scenery.

After shooting for 15 or 20 minutes, we headed back down the car. We don’t quite have our car setup organized well with the new dog yet. Trying to fit the dog and all the camera gear in the car along with food and drink (which must be separated from the dog) is a challenge. I decided to pack the camera backpack in a different spot after the hike, to be loaded after the dog got in. Unfortunately, after loading the dog, I forgot about the bag and started to back out onto the road only to run over something. You guessed it, my camera backpack!

Luckily, my camera was not in the pack, and a quick check didn’t show anything broken. We drove back to Deep Lake for our picnic dinner. There were a few less people, and we got a picnic table isolated from others. While eating, I checked out the gear in more detail. All the lens seemed to be working okay. However, there are cracks on a portion of the barrel of the Tamron 150-600 mm zoom. Also, the split neutral-density filter is history. Hopefully the lens can be repaired (currently the Tamron repair shop, which is in New York, is closed due to the pandemic).

After dinner, we drove over to Dry Falls Lake, which, not surprisingly, is located at the base of Dry Falls. It was an hour or so before sunset and the light on the cliffs of Dry Falls was particularly nice. The featured shot above is a 4-shot panorama of Dry Falls and Dry Falls Lake.

If you plan on making the trip out to Sun Lakes – Dry Falls State Park, be forewarned that the road to Dry Falls Lake is extremely rough. We did okay in our SUV, and I do think most regular passenger cars would make it, but some cars without much ground clearance could have difficulties. The road to Deep Lake is paved.

We left before sunset so we could get home before 11 pm. All in all, even with the the misadventure with my camera backpack, it was a good day. As always, I welcome your comments.

The view of Deep Lake from near the end of the Caribou Trail.

Telephoto shot of some of the cliffs along Deep Lake.

This is the west end of Deep Lake. The picnic area is in the cottonwood trees next to the boat launch.

Some of the cliffs near Dry Falls Lake.

Wide-angle shot of Dry Falls and Dry Falls Lake

 

Plan a Photo Trip with Photohound

Tired of having nothing to do while being cooped up during the pandemic? Try exploring the world and planning your next photo trip with PhotoHound. PhotoHound is dedicated to responsibly sharing the best places in the world to shoot travel photography. It was set up by three photographers, Luka Esenko in Slovenia, Jules Renahan in London, and Mathew Browne in Wales. PhotoHound is an outgrowth of the former Snapp Guides, which was started by Luka and Jules. As some you might remember, I did a Puget Sound area guide for Snapp Guides and had one in the works for the Palouse as well. Before I could publish the Palouse guide, Snapp Guides started its conversion to PhotoHound, so I’ve been working with PhotoHound from its very beginning. My Puget Sound and Palouse guides are now available on PhotoHound.

Currently there are 52 guides available on PhotoHound from regions around the world such as the Peak District in England, Singapore, Venice, Patagonia, the Everest region of Nepal, Dubai, and Coastal Montenegro. Each guide is a curated list of photo spots, highlighting the best of each region. Photo spots are individual locations featuring what and how to shoot.

Besides the guides, there are many other photo spots on PhotoHound that are not in guides. In fact, PhotoHound offers over 4,200 photo-worthy spots around the world in 109 countries and territories with more than 14,000 sample images. More spots and images are being added daily.  Each spot gives exact locations and GPS coordinates, descriptions of what to shoot, sample images, suggestions for gear, current weather conditions, current sunrise and sunset times, and more.

While PhotoHound is currently only available for use on a PC or laptop, a smartphone app is slated to be available in a few months. The PhotoHound site is currently in beta testing, and all content is free to users. Eventually, the it will offer both free and paid premium memberships.

PhotoHound is looking for photographers to share their spots and images with the community. Everyone is invited to add new spots – add enough spots and you can become a PhotoHound Pro. Adding new spots easy. Once a spot is added, the PhotoHound team will review and verify the spot before it goes live. You can also add your images to spots that are currently on the site.

Staying at home because of the pandemic, I’ve been spending some time by going through my archives and adding new spots. In the past several weeks, I’ve added several spots in Monument Valley, such as the Totem Pole (the featured image above), as well as:

a couple spots for the Cirque of Towers in Wyoming;

several spots in Utah, such as the Great Gallery

the Arkadi Monastery in Crete;

the Cutty Sark in London;

and more. In total, to date, I’ve contributed 222 spots to PhotoHound. Most are from my Puget Sound and Palouse guides, but I’ve also added spots in Montreal, London, Norway, Spain, Iceland, and a Greece.

So if you are looking for something to do, check out PhotoHound and plan a trip, share your spots and photography, of just see some great images from around the world.

Rivers meet Sea

Now with a stay-at-home order effective for Washington State, I probably won’t be doing much photography away from home for a while. As I mentioned in my last post, Tanya, I and the dog took a hike last weekend. The hike was on the east side of the Olympic Peninsula, which has several rivers running off of the mountains and into Hood Canal. For those of you who don’t know Washington State geography, Hood Canal is a long thin extension of Puget Sound, essentially a fjord. Our trip home from the trailhead took us only the shore of Hood Canal for many miles, thus giving me the opportunity to stop and photograph were river meets sea with my drone.

I made two drone flights, one over the mouth of the Duckabush River and one over the mouth of the Hamma Hamma River (shot above is from the Hamma Hamma). I’m still learning how best to operate the drone and how to best shoot still photography and video with it (still using auto mode, which never do with my Canon 6D and almost never even do with my cellphone). But I think I got some interesting shots.

I was intrigued by the color changes in the water where distributary channels from the rivers had cut into the delta sediments (my geologist side is showing here, distributaries are the opposite of tributaries; they are streams that branch off and away from the main river channel; they typically form where a river discharges into a larger body of water). I mostly shot from an altitude of about 250 to 350 feet. In hindsight, I should have investigated shooting lower. For example, some oblong shapes I though were driftwood, when zooming in on my images, appear to be seals or sea lions.

I would also like to go back to these spots and shoot again later in the year. Most of the vegetation on the deltas had not yet greened up for spring. It will be interesting to compare shots taken in summer with these taken in mid-March. But that will obviously have to wait.

Hope you enjoy the images. Stay safe and healthy out there!

Small channels on the Duckabush delta

Small island on the Duckabush delta, note the seals congregating on the lower end

Curving distributary channel of the Duckabush, small white streaks on the upper mid-left are birds landing in the water

Colors on the Hamma Hamma delta

Channels of the Hamma Hamma

More from the Hamma Hamma delta

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