More than a quarter century ago I was a senior at Brigham Young University, trying to finish up the business and accounting classes I needed for my degree in Business Management. I enjoyed the economics classes the most, where we discussed current events and learned how to read the Wall Street Journal. During my last semester I wrote a thesis about Hong Kong sovereignty returning to Chinese Communist control in 1997, after the 100 year British Lease on the islands expired. While I was in the library one day doing research I asked a library worker for some help in finding micro films and old newspapers with specific articles. After gathering dozens of articles, facts, maps, historical documents, etc I sat back and began to sift through it all. I recalled a bit of advice the worker had given me … “when your stuck, step back and ask yourself, ‘What do I see?'” My conclusion in 1985 was that China would be stupid to threaten the capital markets of Hong Kong in which they hugely benefited, and so through minimal political invasion, would allow many capitalist practices to continue – and they have. That’s what I saw.
In the world of photography we sometimes have to step back and ask ourselves the same question – “what do I see?” Of course, this is a rhetorical question, since no answer would be correct for any two people. Each of us sees differently, and what we see makes us feel differently. There are times when we see the obvious, without ever seeing the intricate layers below the obvious.
When I first began submitting images into the online photo behemoth called I-Stockphoto there is a point at which you keyword your images. At first I had difficulty coming up with a reasonable number of keywords. I read their little helpful blurb on key wording and I saw that phrase again – “What Do You See?” I sat back in my office chair and gazed at my submitted photo and thought about those words. I wish I could recall the first set of images (I could go research them up by date, but I don’t want too) – so lets pretend it is one of my favorites on I-Stockphoto, and a best selling image. Here it is:
As I was walking along the path leading down the hill from the Bachelor and 3 Graces sequoias back towards the parking lot I stopped in my tracks when I saw this. It was an obvious shot – the powerful red bark glowing in the filtered morning light, other similar trees in the background. I shot about ten variations of this image, all in five shot brackets to guarantee a close to perfect exposure of each set-up. Then I moved on.
A few months later I had already sold this image as fine art four times (one a 30×40 print that really stuns the viewer) and was key wording it in I-Stockphoto (ISP). The list of descriptive phrases that help buyers search for “the” image were slow in coming. Forest, Sequoia trees, Yosemite, California – those were all easy enough. Pine trees, Landscape Photography, Flora, Mountains – slowed me down some. Then those words sounded in my head again – what do I see?
Ancient, Grove, Timeless, Stately, Old, Bark, Primordial, Ageless, Timber, Wood, Shelter, Animal Homes, Wilderness, Woodlands, and Monument. My clumsy mental blinders seemed to be lifted and I was having a creative key wording renaissance. Now, some of those terms would be rejected by ISP, but you see my point. The obvious beauty of the shot, with its foreground ring of baby pines leading the eye up to rising red-barked Sequoias that are layered back in the image, was really a scene of subjects and ideas in depth.
That’s how I try to see now. Nature photography is eye candy for the soul of both the photographer and the image viewer. Using some of the simple compositional techniques that are common in photography, like: rule-of-thirds, foreground elements, color, patterns, depth, disappearing lines, etc force us to look harder, and deeper, as we walk the forest floor hunting for images. Others don’t see what I see, some are better at it, and some are less practiced – but photography gives us a place to start. This journey can all begin with the phrase, “What Do I See?”