Seeing What's in Front of You
After determining the best time to be somewhere to get images of what you are after, you set out on your journey. You're on a quest. Maybe you will find what you are after, and maybe you won't. Nature sometimes has other plans. But if presented with an equally compelling but different opportunity, will you take advantage of it? Will you even notice it? This may sound at first like an odd question to contemplate, but bear with me while I explain.
I wrote last week about thinking more rather than shooting more as a means of improving one's photography. That got me to thinking about the process of being a photographer and how people approach their craft. As a result, I wanted to present some of those thoughts here, both since that's what I get to do as author of this blog, but mostly in the hopes that what I've observed and learned over the years might make things easier for others who are learning the art of photography.
Each of us is constantly presented with the same 360 degrees of experience in all directions. We can't possibly give our full attention to all of it. In order to make sense of what is around us, we have to filter things as to whether they are important or not. And to one degree or another, everybody self-determines what they deem to be important.
In prehistoric times, what was important was whether you could eat something, or whether it might instead eat you. If it moved, it could be a threat. While our filtering mechanisms rarely need to be this primal anymore, they are still active in many ways. A group of tourists walking down an unfamiliar, busy downtown street could easily yield different impressions for those involved. One may be fascinated by the variety of people they pass and remember little else in detail. Another may talk of nothing but the architecture of the buildings when these tourists compare notes later. A third may be interested mainly in window shopping. Each sees predominantly what they set out to see. It's not that they don't see beyond their filters, but the focus of each is narrowed based on what interests them. If a prehistoric saber tooth tiger were to jump out of nowhere on that downtown street I suspect all three would take notice. But to the extent that their primal reflexes don't need to kick in, each filters their experience as they see fit based on their background.
In large measure, this same filtering process affects what we see and how we see in our daily lives, not just as a tourist on an unfamiliar downtown street or when saber tooth tigers threaten. Some things we take notice of, other things we don't. Some people notice more than others, but each of us unconsciously filters our experience to some degree as a matter of course and as a means of effectively and efficiently dealing with the world around us.
It's easy to fall into the same habit when on a quest for something we hope to take pictures of. If something doesn't fit what we are looking for, we tend to pass it by, unless it jumps out at us. When looking for the best view of sunset on the mountain, you might well be missing that same light filtering through the trees behind you, or perhaps the smaller details along the trailside you are hiking in search of that mountain view. It's annoyingly easy to fall into this trap in fact. I'm sure you've done so just as I've caught myself doing so too. This is the kind of thing you sometimes realize later on, looking back at what you got pictures of and what you didn't. It's also sometimes the kind thing you never realize, missing the opportunity completely.
I'm a planner by nature. I do my best to be in the right place at the right time. But what defines "right place" and "right time" is determined by what one hopes to get images of. There is no "right time" for everything. So the very concept implies a purpose. And a purpose leads to the kind of filtering that makes it difficult to see what is actually in front of you, rather than only what you hope to see. Unless you are open to other possibilities, it's easy to miss what you aren't looking for.
So what's the answer? I certainly don't advocate skipping any planning. Travel costs too much these days to go somewhere without at least trying to optimize the timing of your trip and knowing where to go once you get there. That's not the answer.
But what I do recommend is, once you've done all your planning and arrived at your destination, be open to whatever you may find. When you get your camera bag and tripod out of the car, leave your planning behind. It will still be there when it's time to get you to your next destination, but at least for the time being, go out shooting with just your gear and an open mind. You may find what you originally set out to shoot, but you may find something else instead. Either way, you'll now be ready to encounter it. And once you do, it's time to start applying that thoughtful approach to making the most of what you find I talked about last week.
I truly believe great shots are possible whatever you may find. The trick is to be able to see what's in front of you.