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Ti Leaves, Hawaii

Posted by
Don Smith (California, United States) on 8 August 2010 in Landscape & Rural.


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How important is one's imagination when it comes to successful landscape photography? I firmly believe that without our imaginations, we lack a crucial element needed to spot potential scenes in locations that are less than obvious. Let's take a look at today's post. I found these Ti leaves tucked inauspiciously amongst some dense foliage on Hawaii's northeastern side along a loop trail in Akaka State Park. This is not a location that I would expect a student to ask me, "So what are we shooting here?," as there are a multitude of tropical images to be captured along the approximately half-mile loop trail. But believe me, there are some locations where I do get that question. Let me explain.

If we as photographers continue to visit the iconic locations in search of images, we will find them, how can we not? A location does not become iconic without a legion of photographers making images that influence us to the point that we must visit and make our own image. But how different does our image look from the multitudes that have been created before us? How many images of Delicate Arch (Arches National Park), Tunnel View (Yosemite National Park), or even Waimea Canyon (Kauai) have been created from literally the same location where we set our tripod legs?

When we get off the beaten path and trek into locations that have been less explored and photographed, then we must expect that images will not easily jump out at us. We have to dig deeper to find images, and one of the tools we have at our disposal is our imagination. I actually find it more rewarding to create a meaningful image in a less-than-popular location. Elliot Porter was a master at finding meaningful intimate images in areas other photographers would not even put on their bucket list. He created masterpieces out of apparent chaos. He successfully captured the essence of the scene out of clutter. If you have never seen his work I urge you to take some time and study Porter's Images for inspiration.

I am reminded of a workshop I held in Arches/Canyonlands National Parks. I decided to add one of these less than obvious locations at Arches National Park. I indeed had a few students ask, "So what are we shooting here?" I replied that they needed to find the images on their own (though I did help a few students with suggestions of potential scenes). Once the frustration of not spotting the obvious faded, imaginations kicked into high gear and to even my surprise, images of this location were the stars at our next day's image review session. From a teaching standpoint it had great value. I try to incorporate one of theses "less than obvious" locations into the rotation at most of my workshops.

So why do we need our imaginations in obvious locations such as Waimea Canyon, Tunnel View or Delicate Arch? The scene is right there in front of us - right? My answer is so we can try for something a bit different than what the multitude of photographers have done before us. Weather is certainly a scene changer, but sometimes we need more. A friend of mine always says about an iconic location he is visiting for the first time, "I know it has been done by a million other photographers, but it hasn't been done by me." True in the sense that we all have our own personal vision, but harder to put into practice when faced with the iconic scene for the first time. Generally what happens is that images we have seen in the past of the location are so imprinted into our memories that we simply try to reproduce what we remember.

Ansel Adams encouraged the use of one's imagination by teaching students to "see the finished image in their mind's eye." I encourage you to not only "see the image" but see it as a finished image hanging on a wall. Note the tones and elements. Grads allow us to balance tones and framing allows us to add/eliminate elements. Simplify your scene down to its essence (easier said than done) and watch the chaos disappear, and in turn a successful image emerge! Dig deeper on any location you photograph. Challenge yourself to capture something a bit different. Sure it's alright to photograph the obvious, it still is your vision. But to take your image to the next level, push your vision - in other words - use your imagination!

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III 1/50 second F/8.0 ISO 200 200 mm

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