I think the Snake River Plain in southern Idaho is one of the prettiest places in the world and one of the hardest places to photograph. It’s expansive and grand and as you drive you’ll see heavenly light and subtle color and texture changes that make it seem like you’re driving through a painting.
But when you stop to make a photograph, you’ll see that it’s difficult to make a picture that expresses the beauty you see with your eyes. Idaho isn’t the only place that offers this obstacle. Most beautiful places can stymie even experienced photographers. Here’s a simple technique to help you make the most of any place you photograph.
Narrow It Down
Before you set up your camera, say to yourself, “I like this picture because ________.” Fill in this blank very thoroughly. The color of the sky, the texture of the clouds, the soft grass brushing against the solid elements, the s-curve of the stream, the color of the water, the birds flying around the cliffs, and so on. Find all the things you love about what you see, then pick one as a subject for your photograph.
Photographers often include too much stuff, too many subjects in a photo. By making one of those favorite elements the subject of your picture, you’ll better communicate the feeling of being there, the feeling of enjoying that element. Once you’ve created a picture of that feeling, go ahead and make a picture of the other things you liked.
Write It Down
You may want to write the ideas down, or record them on your smartphone. If you’re like me, you’ll probably get excited about shooting one thing, and maybe become discouraged when the picture just isn’t working. Go back to your list and try the next element and the next. One of them is sure to allow you to make a picture that helps your viewer feel some of your awe at the scene.
Choose the Settings for the Subject
As you focus on an element, you’ll make decisions about camera settings that will help you share your story. For instance, I was visiting Malad Gorge State Park and I was impressed with the wavy golden grass that continually moves around the contrasting colors of green sage and the stalwart variegated basalt. I’ll practice with Plotagraph Pro to animate the grass in this scene, but in a still photo, it’s difficult to show the movement and softness of the grass. For the photo above, I chose a wide aperture (f/2.2) to help the grass in the foreground to be in soft focus, while the tall sage is sharp. The soft focus helps the grass appear soft and brush-like, while the sage is more stationary. I chose a 25mm lens to show some depth, but it’s not so wide that the background is diminished and the sky becomes a major subject. While I was shooting, I was thinking about how I might finish the picture on the computer to emphasize the colors and contrasts that are so striking in real life.
Be More Present
Each time you start to make a picture, say to yourself, “I like this picture because _______.” Your answers will help guide your vision and your technical considerations so you can make a picture expressing the feelings that struck you at the time you enjoyed the moment. Why not try this exercise even when you don’t have a camera with you? You’ll become practiced at seeing and isolating subjects and become a more proficient and intentional photographer. You’ll also better enjoy the process of making pictures and you’ll be more present for the moment you’re photographing.