Posted by: kerryl29 | November 30, 2009


In my last blog entry, I discussed visualization, the process by which one conceives of a shootable image in one’s mind’s eye, and then goes about the process of trying to actually capture that image.  I mentioned that while I’ve had some success doing this, it’s been extremely modest.  As I discussed in the last entry, my typical workflow is more in line with trying to keep an open mind about what I might shoot at a given location and then seeing what the light and landscape reveal to me.

Taking this a step further, when I visit a site with a certain type of shot in mind (as opposed to a specific visualized image), I still try to keep my eyes open for other shots–outside of the anticipated milieu–both on location and even after I leave it.  Every once in awhile in circumstances like these, light and subject matter come together to produce something special.

There are few things as satisfying as coming up with a noteworthy shot when expectations were non-existent.

One such experience for me took place on a brief trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in April of this year.  I had been waiting for an opportunity to photograph a white fringed phacelia-laden woodland after failing to take advantage of the chance to do so during a visit the previous year.  I had scouted a location one day and returned late in the afternoon the following day to produce some images.  It had been a breezy, blue sky day (much to my chagrin) and to capture the scene in even light I had to wait for the sun to drop behind a ridge line to the west.  In the hour or so that passed before this happened, I defined several specific compositions that I found particularly pleasing.  When the sun finally fell below the ridge, bathing the scene in shade, I got my shots, packed up my things and prepared to head out of the park for the evening.  Within a mile’s drive on the winding mountain road, I caught a glimpse of something so impressive that I pulled into the first available turnoff and ran several hundred yards back up the road to get a better glimpse.  I saw a tree in its full spring finery, backlit by the setting sun, brilliantly contrasted by a background mountainside in full shade.  The wind had dropped to next to nothing by this time and the budding leaves were shimmering like jewels in glorious light.  I ran back down to the pullout where I’d left my car, hauled my gear out and sprinted back to the viewing point to photograph this unanticipated treasure.

Backlit Tree, Newfound Gap Road, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

I hadn’t been looking for this shot–or any shot, for that matter, at least not consciously.  But evidently my mind was open, just enough, to see this opportunity when it smacked me in the face (visually speaking).  Now, had I not waited out the phacelia scene as long as I did, I wouldn’t have tripped upon the above image.  It was only because I happened upon the scene when I did that all the elements needed to make it happen fell into place.  Serendipity.

I had a similarly fortuitous experience on the Oregon Coast this summer.  I had descended on a particular turnout along the coast highway with the intention of photographing Heceta Head Lighthouse at sunset.  The problem was that marine layer fog kept billowing over the headland; not only wasn’t there going to be a sunset, the lighthouse itself wasn’t visible!  After waiting in vain for the fog to lift for the better part of the hour I packed up my things and, discouraged, headed down the highway.  The vagaries of the marine layer are well-known to anyone who’s spent any time along the coast and sure enough, just a few miles south of where I’d been grumbling about the fog, the highway curved around another headland.  From this spot, the marine layer was dissolved enough to reveal the dunes of the Baker Beach Recreation area below and the marvelous post-sunset light on the clouds and breaking waves of the Pacific.  From an unofficial gravel pullout protected by a guard rail, I tried to make the most of the scene before the light disappeared.

Pacific Sunset, Baker Beach Recreation Area, Oregon

Once again, I hadn’t been looking for or expecting this scene.  In fact, because of the discouraging experience at Heceta Head, I was almost certainly in a more negative mood than I had been prior to spotting the tree in the Smokies.  But evidently I was still cogent enough to be at least subconsciously alert to some of the possibilities that were, quite literally, staring me in the face.  And, once again, if not for the specific set of events that allowed me to come across this scene at precisely the point I did, this moment would never have been revealed to me.

Serendipity:  it can be a wonderful thing as long as you give yourself a chance to experience it.


  1. Both serendipitous images are lovely but the second is way up there in keeper territory. I’ve been influenced by the work and teachings of John Daido Loori. He and his teacher (Minor White) suggest we go out to photograph without expectations and allow ourselves to discover images we might otherwise miss because of a narrow focus.

  2. […] I take.  Occasionally, it’s an overwhelming variable in the equation of success, as I have documented in the past.  But this is the exception to the rule.  A clear majority of the time luck plays an important […]

  3. […] a vision a few times.  But this is the exception to the general rule, which typically follows a more serendipitous undertaking.  As I intimated, even when I approach a location with a clear, specific idea of what I expect to […]

  4. […] without prejudice. There’s nothing implicitly wrong with fulfilling a vision; I noted that I’ve done so myself, more than once. But the danger, as I see it, of relying heavily (or exclusively) on this approach […]

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