Develop Your Creative Vision
Taking the Ordinary and Bringing Out the Extraordinary
By: Glenn E. Mitchell II
Ansel Adams, by nearly all accounts, was a great photographer. His portraits captured the soul of his subjects. His landscapes inspired countless photographers. He paid careful attention to exposure. But what set him apart was his creative vision, his ability to visualize an image (which he called previsualization) before he tripped the shutter button.
Not every Ansel Adams image was a great image. The curators of the Ansel Adams Gallery can show you boxes full of negatives that were not deemed worthwhile to work in the darkroom. That’s the way of photography for many of us. When I go out to do outdoor photography, I consider it a good day if I return from the field with a literal handful of images that are worth even loading into Adobe Photoshop®.
What always impressed me about Ansel Adams was his deliberative approach to photography. He would come to know a place. Really know it, so he could be there at the right time.
Timing is absolutely critical. Sometimes serendipity smiles, and you’re lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time. In photography, as with many other human endeavors, fortune favors the prepared. No one knew that better than Ansel Adams.
I happened to see a two-track one day leading off the road near Lamont, Florida. I was driving from Tallahassee to my office in Tampa, and I was driving along a less-traveled route. It was early morning in late summer. As I drove past the two-track, something told me that canopy of trees I just passed would make for a nice shot. So I reversed the car, stopped, and explored. I do this sort of thing. Something will catch my eye. I will stop and study the possibilities for a few minutes and then make a mental note to return at a more fitting time. The two-track, the forest canopy, and lifting ground fog excited my creative imagination. What was missing was fall foliage, and that was just a few weeks away.
I waited those several weeks for fall to arrive. Fall foliage in Florida is often rather somber. Every few years, we get some bright yellows and reds. Fortune favored me last autumn. I got out of bed early one Saturday A.M. As I made the forty mile drive to the site, I noticed that the ground fog was beginning to lift. I quickened my pace. If I arrived too late, the fog would be gone, and I would have to try another day. When I arrived, I was rewarded with beams of sunlight dappling the rutted two-track path. Faint wisps of ground fog were still evident. The fall foliage was just the right touch. Nice yellows and golds. I had to work quickly. Because I had gone over the shot in my mind, I was prepared.
“Sun Dappled Path,” a lonely two-track path angling off the highway near Lamont, Florida.
Serendipity played her part in this image. My drive past the rutted two-track one late summer morning started the creative process. This image owes a lot to creative vision: I was able to imagine the photographic possibilities and return when autumn changed the leaves and the warm shafts of early morning sunlight were wreathed in lifting ground fog.
The very best photojournalists have the ability to take rather bleak, mundane subjects and through a combination of composition, exposure, and lighting craft an image that excites us. Michael Reichmann’s images on The Luminous Landscape can capture the dramatic in something like salvaging a supertanker in Bangladesh. The squalid working conditions and lack of concern for worker safety is palpable in his images. The best photographers can do that. They can evoke strong emotions with their images.
Some might argue that creative vision is an innate skill: some people are born with the ability to see something ordinary and turn their vision into a profound work of art. In my own case, I believe it is more learned than innate. I have read widely and studied the images of a great many photographers, and I continue to discover photographers whose work excites me. I learn from their work.
I believe we are surrounded by many photographic possibilities. Something as ordinary as a rusted bolt head can result in an exciting image, when a craftsman like John Shaw marries his creative vision to his considerable experience with a macro lens. We need an experienced eye and mastery of technique to inspire people when the same subject would otherwise go unnoticed.
My outdoor photography is a very deliberative process. I have a final print in my mind before I press the button on my shutter cable. The question I ask myself is this: “What do I need to do to help me make that print?” I am forever telling myself to slow down, sweep my eye all around the viewfinder, step back and consider all of the creative possibilities. I like working with a photographic gray card and a mini Macbeth color checker card when I shoot botanical images. Yes, I know I can use the Auto White Balance setting on my Canon 1Ds MkII and then later twiddle with the white balance and other settings in Adobe Camera Raw and get the same result. Performing a custom white balance and taking the pains to try and get the exposure and color “dead on” in the field means I have to slow down. This gives me time to think about the final image I want to craft.
You need to be sensitive to colors, shapes, textures, and how they can combine or contrast, if you want to make an exciting image. I believe that Ansel Adams would have embraced digital photography. It is so empowering. We can bracket our shots not just from one perspective but from multiple points of view. Where the cost of film and its processing was an important consideration, with a fist full of memory cards we can be more daring and entertain more creative opportunities.
Digital photography offers us so many more creative possibilities after we press the shutter release than the days of photographic film. I don’t miss the days of shooting Fuji Velvia and wondering if I nailed the shot or all those noxious smelling chemicals in the color darkroom. Consider my image, “Sun Dappled Path.” I used my Photoshop skills to enhance those yellows and golds in the autumn foliage and even the shaded greens. I had a creative vision from the start, but the RAW file, my digital negative, was just the first step to a beautiful print.
“Sunset at Lanark, Florida”
Digital negative for “Sunset at Lanark, Florida”
This was true also with my image, “Sunset at Lanark, Florida.” The digital negative was just the first step in crafting the image I had in mind.
I saw this lone palm tree following an afternoon of photographing birds at St. George Island, a barrier island near Apalachicola, Florida. On my return to Tallahassee, I was looking for palm trees that I could use another day for a sunset image. Yes, silhouetted palm tree images tend to be trite. So I knew from the start that I was going to need a healthy supply of creative vision to infuse some excitement into the image. While I stood there in the late afternoon, I knew I would need a really interesting combination of colors.
A week or two later, I decided to try for the image. I drove well past the speed limit as twilight approached in order to get to my spot and get my tripod and camera set. I knew the location for the shot. I knew the sky was clear. I saw the creative possibilities in my mind as I raced along the Florida Panhandle coast. I knew I would have to work fast, and I went over that workflow in my mind. I was determined to give fortune an even chance of favoring me that evening while I stood there swatting mosquitoes and noseeums at sunset.
The original image is okay. It is truer to the actual sunset I saw that day at the back of the Lanark Yacht Club. But I didn’t race 80 or 90 odd miles only to faithfully reproduce the sunset on that particular day. Photographic fidelity is a preoccupation for something like crime scene photography, not landscape photography. I had a creative vision of a silhouetted palm against a colorful sunset. When I reviewed the shots on the camera’s LCD, I was confident that my creative vision was there in that digital negative. Like a sculptor, I just needed to chip away what did not belong.
Layers palette for “Sunset at Lanark, Florida”
When you couple your creative vision with mastery of both photographic and digital darkroom technique, you can expect repeatable results. Successful photographs become less the result of luck and more the result of craftsmanship.
You will notice that much of the color and contrast in “Sunset at Lanark, Florida” comes from three duplicate layers, each applying different blends with varying opacities. A final contrast adjustment was done with Levels. The blues and yellows were tweaked with Selective color. A bright edge of backlit clouds needed a bit of protection: a couple of quick brush strokes kept them from posterizing. A few strokes of dodging and burning on a gray-filled overlay layer were the final touch. It took more than a little experience to extract the image I had in mind from the Canon RAW file.
Don’t be deterred, if your painting skills are those of the average preschooler. I’m a photographer, not a sketch artist or a painter. I try to use the brush as little as possible, preferring instead to “paint with light” using layer blends, adjustment layers, and simple masks.
Veterans of the digital darkroom will be familiar with layer blend modes, working with adjustment layers and channels, generating masks, and techniques like using an overlay layer filled with gray to apply dodge and burn. Novices will be bewildered with this part of the discussion. It takes a while to get familiar with all of the creative possibilities in Adobe Photoshop®.
You might find that your creative vision develops faster than your mastery of photographic and darkroom technique. That’s OK. I have gone back and reworked many of my images as my digital darkroom skills have improved. Truth be told, “Sunset at Lanark,” was one of my earliest digital images. It was shot with a Canon D30. My early attempts at developing this digital negative were not all that impressive. Only in the last couple of years have my skills increased to the point where I could craft a print from that digital negative that fully captured my creative vision.
How do you develop your own creative vision?
I suggest you start with images that inspire you. Consider why the photographer chose that particular combination of composition, exposure, and lighting. How might the image look different if one of more of those elements were different? You cannot go wrong by examining the photography of truly fine photographers like Art Wolfe, Michael Reichmann, and William Neill with a critical eye. Buy some coffee table art print books. Visit Web sites where prominent photographers display their talent.
Web sites with contests are another way to develop your creativity. Even if you do not enter, you can see how different photographers interpret the same theme. You get exposed to many different creative viewpoints.
Always be mindful of additional creative opportunities while you work. I visited Desoto Falls State Park in Alabama late one afternoon. The waterfall there is a popular attraction. I tried to find a perspective I liked. Nothing worked. Each time I looked through the viewfinder, what I saw was trite. Unless I climbed in the sort of contraption that Sean Connery used in the movie Medicine Man, there was no way I could come up with a fresh composition.
It was near sunset when I decided to pack up. Heading back to the car, I noticed a small red boat house in the backwater behind the falls. It was completely unexpected. The reflection with the fall foliage was special. Serendipity favored me once again. I just had to be alert to it. The light was fading. To get to the right position, I had to run at breakneck speed through thorns and brush and stand in the middle of a bog along the edge of the water. My tripod was sinking into the bog from the weight of it, the camera, and the lens. I was sinking into the muck up to my ankles. I knew I had a few magical moments to get that image. After that, the sun would set completely and the wonderful light that comes with the last few rays of light at sunset would be lost.
“Boat House at Desoto Falls, S.P.”
This sort of experience has happened over and over in my years behind the viewfinder. I go out in the field to photograph one subject and luck presents something else for me to consider.
Extraordinary photographs are one part vision, one part technique, and two parts serendipity. With regard to serendipity, we have no control over when fortune will favor us. What we can do is develop our creative vision and perfect our technique, and then when serendipity presents us with creative possibilities, fortune will indeed favor the prepared!
© 2005, Glenn
E. Mitchell II, Ph.D. of The Light’s Right Studio