Thursday, May 13, 2010

June 2009 - Coloradoan Xplore Column

For most of my adult life I ran around with a fly rod chasing anything that swam. When asked “what do you like about fly fishing?” I usually answered, “It’s not just the fishing I enjoy, it’s also the places my fly rod takes me.” The same is now true with photography. The journey is as much a trill as the final result. I like where my camera leads and I enjoy how the world looks through a camera lens.

Learning to translate how my eye and my camera sees took asking a lot of questions, trial and error. There are distinct differences in field of view, focusing and dynamic range of light. For instance, our eyes see roughly 180 degrees. Except for specialty lenses, a cameras field of view is much less. Our eyes focus at roughly 3 degrees, basically a single point or a very narrow band. A camera can be in focus across the field of view and to infinity. Where our eyes make up the difference is with rapid eye movement. Our eyes constantly shift around, rapidly jumping from one object to another, making it appear our entire field of vision is in focus. Our eyes also have much more capability to identify detail across a broad range of light, seeing 12 to 14 stops of light. Our cameras can see something like 5 stops of light, across shadows and highlights. When it comes to dramatic contrast range there is no way a camera can capture everything our eyes see in one image.

Learning to see as your camera sees is an important skill for all photographers. Without it, you’ll consistently be scratching your head looking at an image and saying, “well that’s sort of what it looked like.”

With landscape work I have a photograph in mind I want to make. Every now and then something just catches my eye. Driving to Denver a couple weeks ago this is exactly what happened. The rolling hills east of the Berthoud exit stopped me in my tracks. The hillsides to the east of the interstate are covered with alternating strips of maturing winter wheat and fallowed soil. These green and deep mocha patterns undulate diagonally toward the horizon. It was late in the day, the light was low in the sky. In my minds eye I saw a photograph with this mosaic crop pattern, lit with great afternoon light and towering thunderheads billowing on the horizon painting pastel hues. I’ve now made 6 trips to this spot and have yet to take my camera out of the car.

When composing a new scene I’ve found I have to scout the location and plan thoroughly how I’m going to set up to make an appealing image. I’ve knocked on doors to secure permission to walk into the field. I’ve watched morning and evening light to see what I like better. I’ve wandered around the wheat field to find the location that gives me the best rendition of the scene floating in my head. I’ve also studied the horizon to identify distracting objects like oil wells, farm houses and tree lines. Anything I don’t want in the shot. There are also a couple of “tricks” I use when studying a scene. One is called the squint test. This is where you squint your eyes while looking at your scene. This helps to see contrast similar to how the camera will capture it. Where the shadow and highlights live. It’s not exact, but it works for me. Another is to cover one eye. This gives me a feel for how I want to handle focus and depth of field. The farmer told me he’ll be cutting this field in July so I have a couple more weeks to make a photograph. If I don‘t get it done, it’ll go in my field journal as another “to do” item on what’s becoming a long list. Seasons are short and time always seems to run away from me.

Coming attractions:

The menu of choices for July is pretty deep. My first choice would be wildflowers. Start in the parks and valleys of Rocky Mountain National Park and work your way up in elevation over the month. There are wildflower festivals in some of the mountain towns. Crested Butte is one that comes to mind in mid-July. The Snowy Range outside Laramie is another choice spot. For wildlife look in the open bowls on Trail Ridge. Both elk bachelor and nursery herds can be found comfortably grazing in many areas. Keep an eye on the skies if you wander off the road up there. Afternoon thunderstorms appear quickly. I’ve huddled under rock outcroppings more than once waiting for lightening squalls to pass.

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