Posted by: kerryl29 | February 23, 2011

On the Relationship of Hay, Sunshine and Photography

It should be obvious–perhaps it is obvious–but it seems to me that the fact that no great images are made during an indoor analytical session is often overlooked.

If it sounds as though I’m suggesting that all one needs is time in the field to produce great images, think again–I’m not suggesting anything of the sort. Time in the field is a necessary, but not sufficient, part of great image making. I’m simply stressing the “necessary” part of the equation.

In fact, “getting out there” when conditions are optimal is really the point of this entry.  (Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with being in the field when conditions aren’t optimal; good things (as pertains to image-making) can happen on such occasions.  At the very least, useful time can be spent scouting a location…or one can simply enjoy spending time in a natural landscape.)  But when it comes to the actual process of image making, for those of us with limited time on our hands–and, let’s face it, that describes nearly everyone–the best time to be out with camera gear in tow is when conditions are conducive to great imagery.

That phrase–when conditions are conducive to great imagery–can obviously mean different things at different times in different places.  And, when I’m away from my typical base of operations–off on a photography trip, for instance–I’m far more likely to be out shooting in conditions that are less than ideal, simply because I’m not necessarily in a position to come back when the situation is impeccable.

When I am at home, however, the key is being in a position to strike when the iron’s hot; when conditions for great landscape imagery present themselves, it’s important to be able to take advantage of them.

During Midwestern winters, as I suggested in my most recent blog entry, ideal conditions frequently revolve around the immediate aftermath of fresh snowfalls.  (Again, I’m not saying that great images can’t be made at other times; they certainly can.  But great images are, in my experience, more highly correlated in this part of the world with fresh snowfalls than during any other set of conditions found during wintertime.)

In early February of this year, the upper Midwest was hit with a genuine blizzard.  I was in northeastern Illinois at the time and we received an estimated 21 inches of snow, accompanied by sustained winds of more than 40 MPH and gusts of better than 60 MPH.  I saw drifts that were more than four feet deep.  Almost as soon as the snow stopped, the skies cleared and the sun came out.  Sunshine after a substantial snowfall is so rare in my part of the world that I had to do a double take.  The notion of having the opportunity to work with woodland shadows on fresh snow was something I’d been hoping to do for years.  I had to–you guessed it–strike while the iron was hot…or make hay while the sun was shining, if you prefer.

Moving around after this blizzard was almost impossible.  In fact, people were asked to stay off the roads for nearly a full day after the snow stopped falling so that crews could do their work clearing all the white stuff.  I honored this request, but the very next afternoon–the back end of a full day of sunny skies–I made my way, with considerable difficulty, to the Morton Arboretum to see what I could find.

I spent some time wandering around–which wasn’t necessarily easy either, considering the size of the drifts in some places–but, late in the afternoon, I finally found what I was looking for.  A shallow, sloping hillside, facing southwest, with a well-arranged group of trees.  I moved around and around, trying to find the right angle with which to capture the effect I was looking for, and waded into a drift that was roughly three feet deep.  Near a tree, beset by some tiny animal tracks, I positioned myself so that I was facing roughly south by southwest, in order to obtain a diagonal angle relative to the shadows cast by a series of trunks.  With my trust 24-70 mm zoom, I tightened the composition ever so slightly, and ultimately captured a series of shots to ensure full dynamic range of the scene’s exposure.  The goal was to convert this image to black and white, without having to resort to silhouettes of the trees.

It took a bit more post processing work than usual, but I achieved my goal.  The final image accompanies this piece.

"Shadowland" black & white; Morton Arboretum, Illinois

The only way I was able to get this image was to be ready when the opportunity presented itself.  The day before, travel was virtually impossible and the Arboretum was, in any case, unable to open and was closed to the public.  That morning the sun was out but its position relative to the trees on the slope was all wrong.  By the afternoon of the next day the clouds moved in.  Two days later, the scene was no longer pristine; footprints had been tracked all across this slope.

You have to make hay while the sun shines.  Or strike while the iron is hot, if you prefer.

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