Posted by: kerryl29 | November 11, 2013

Seeing in the Field, Part III

This is the third part of the “seeing in the field” series, an ongoing dialogue between myself and Tom Robbins.

The introduction to the series is here and Part I and Part II can be read via the corresponding links.

With Part III, we’re altering the formula slightly.  In this installment, we’ll look at images that were made on excursions to places where scenes other than that represented by the selected image were the main impetus for the trip.  We’re essentially taking things up a notch with a conscious focus on one thing:  what is it about something else that compels us to take notice?

For this installment, I’ll set the scene for the included image and then Tom and I will engage in a dialogue to try to tease out something of the creative process that led to the shot’s capture.

Setting the Scene

Among the places I visited on my trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (October, 2013) was Tahquemenon Falls State Park, in the eastern part of the UP.  I’d never been to the park before, so upon arriving there some time was spent–in less than ideal light–scouting the place.  The park is divided into two principal areas–that around the better known and more spectacular Upper Tahquemenon Falls and, a few miles downstream, Lower Tahquemenon Falls (which is actually a series of smaller waterfalls in the same general vicinity on the Tahquemenon River).  After looking over the Upper Falls area, I moved on to the Lower Falls, with the expectation of photographing the cascades and the river before returning to the Upper Falls in late afternoon.  Upon arriving at the Lower Falls parking area, as I prepared to hit the trail, my attention was immediately seized by a huge, ancient birch tree in a relatively open area near the trail head.  This was one of the tallest white birch trees I’ve ever seen, and among the most majestic, perched as it was in this open area.  But there was more to the tree than its size; the birch was surrounded by a mix of deciduous hardwood trees which were at or near peak fall color.  The middle and upper reaches of the white birch trunk and boughs stood out boldly among the chaotic hues.

I was struck by the graphic nature of the scene.  Shooting the entire tree–while possible–didn’t interest me.  What caught my attention was the relatively small area where the trunk split into a series of three upper boughs.  I liked the shape of the tree, in addition to the way it separated nicely from the surrounding color.  From a distance of several hundred feet, I captured this image at 370 mm.

Birch Trident, Tahquemenon Falls State Park, Michigan Image Copyright Kerry Mark Leibowitz, All Rights Reserved

Birch Trident, Tahquemenon Falls State Park, Michigan
Image Copyright Kerry Mark Leibowitz, All Rights Reserved

The Dialogue

Tom:  The white birch tree photo is work of elegance. Its straightforward composition, combined with the texture of the bark and the autumn leaves, rewards the contemplative viewer with an image of subtle beauty.

You indicate that your primary objective at the time was waterfalls, so it is remarkable that this subject caught your eye, especially since it was around the length of a football field away. Your eye was clearly attracted to its size and the contrast of its branches with the background of fall foliage. Many, perhaps most, of us might have enjoyed the scene for several seconds and then trudged off to the waterfalls. However, you identified its potential and took the time and effort to create the image. Recognizing the potential of a subject requires some degree of experience (technical photography knowledge), as well as measure of keen observation (aesthetic). Do you feel one played a larger role in identifying the subject than the other? Is it possible that one informs the other to the extent that the distinction is irrelevant?

Kerry:  That’s a very good set of questions.  My inclination is to say that my spotting this subject and recognizing it as a shot has a lot more to do with aesthetic considerations than technical ones.  However, I can’t help but wonder, after some thought, if my tendency to think this way is mostly a function of sufficient technical experience at this point in my development as a photographer–that implementation of the technicals is now reflexive–sub-conscious, if you prefer–for me.  I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to say that I never consciously think about it these days, but I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest that it quite literally is never the first thing that comes to mind when I spot a scene.

A bit of digression here:  my sense is that the technical aspects of photography–as critically important as they are for obtaining the results one is after–can really get in the way of seeing in the field until the photographer reaches a point of comfort with them to the extent that they’re never really top of mind until one moves from the notion of whether a potential issue is compelling to the point of determining how to execute it.

Tom:  Ah, this gets directly to the issue. I suspect that the experienced oil painter might make very similar observations when comparing his current methods with the early stages of learning his art. Important technical decisions such as color combinations, paint thickness, and many others get in the way of producing the finished painting. The beginning painter might work through all considerations and eventually produce a fine result. The experienced one, with a greater knowledge of technical aspects of his medium, will move from concept to finished work much more efficiently. 

Kerry:  I think you’re right.  I suspect that the technical facets that underlie any art form–and I daresay that this applies every bit as much to non-visual forms of art as visual ones–are impediments to the creative process until they reach a subconscious status in the mind of the artist.

I’ll try to illustrate this point using the specific image at hand.  I saw this scene without any thought–conscious or otherwise, I think–about technicals.  All that was in my mind at the time I spotted it was how does it speak to me aesthetically?  And after staring at it for awhile–kind of fine-tuning it a bit in my head–I determined that there was something about it that compelled me to try to photograph it.  It wasn’t until then that the technical side of the equation began to rear its head:  what lens?  Telephoto, and a long one at that.  Exactly what focal length would be determined in the process of fine-tuning the composition, which would have to be done by examining the scene through the viewfinder.  Exposure choices?  ISO as close to base (100) as possible, as always.  Aperture?  As close to f/7.1 as possible (due to the D800E’s diffraction limitation point), but it might require as much as f/11, depending on depth of field realization.  Shutter speed?  At least 1/30 of a second, because it was on the breezy side and I wanted to keep the foliage sharp.

But all of those technical considerations were employed–and very consciously so, I might add–in pursuit of the aesthetic goal.  So in answer to your final question, I guess the answer is yes–there is a “both sides of the equation” aspect to this self-dialectic (of sorts).  What am I trying to achieve artistically and how do I go about putting it into place technically?  Much of the second part of that is done almost instinctively–a function of experience–at this point.  Sometimes it’s essentially completely instinctive; occasionally it will be very much a conscious turning of the crank.  Sometimes it’s somewhere in the middle.  But the commonality here, I think, is that it’s always being done in an attempt to carry out an artistic goal.

Tom:  I agree. To take this idea one step further, a photographer’s aesthetic vision—his ability to “see”—is influenced by his technical experience. All technical decisions in photography, and there are many, involve weighing the consequences of one variable with another. There is no free lunch. Knowing what works and what doesn’t for a given situation is described as thinking through the lens. For example, if there are aspects of a prospective scene that cannot be technically addressed, then it is dismissed for the time being. In this instance, aesthetic vision is filtered by technical considerations.

Traditional advice to beginning photographers is to get out and shoot lots of photos. This is a great suggestion. It works because the photographer’s knowledge of the technical aspects sooner or later become instinctive, as you say.

Kerry:  Exactly so.  I think that “thinking through the lens” is, conceptually, identical to the notion of “seeing as your camera does.”  That’s one of the most important things the novice photographer can learn–how the camera “sees” differently than the human eye.

Tom:  Your 370 mm focal length is interesting. Why did you select this? Compression of elements, perhaps? Would a shorter lens with a closer point of view have worked?

Kerry:  I couldn’t really get any closer to the subject without materially changing the shot.  This birch was huge–I’d guess something on the order of 60 feet tall–and the spot where the boughs diverged was probably 30 or 40 feet off the ground.  As I moved closer to the subject I would be raising the angle at which I was shooting–pointing in more of an upward direction.  And that would have introduced several things I didn’t want:  one is that it would have moved much–if not all–of the background color out of the shot.  A second is that it would have made the divergence in the branches more oblique.  And finally it would have allowed large areas of open sky to leech into the shot, which would have introduced some exposure issues into the process that otherwise didn’t exist.

So basically, to continue the theme, it was a combination of aesthetic and technical issues that caused me to choose this specific focal length.  I would have preferred to go a lot shorter, but there simply was no other way to achieve this particular shot.

Tom:  A thoughtful image, such as your birch tree, will elicit feelings from its viewers—this may be the primary measure of its success. In my case I see metaphor: the splitting trunk as paths taken, or not taken; the autumn leaves as transience contrasted with the solid trunk as permanence; the cool bark as a winter to come and the leaves as a summer now gone. Did you have any such thoughts as you created the image?

Kerry:  I’d love to tell you that all of that was going through my head at the time of capture, but if I did I’d be lying through my teeth. 🙂

I don’t know the extent to which what I’m about to say is commonplace for most photographers, but…when I find a scene that I find attractive, compelling, moving (or all of the above) I’m not usually immediately aware of the reason why and I rarely spend any time considering the matter at the time. For better or worse, when I find something that speaks to me I quite literally “shoot first and ask questions later.” Ordinarily, it’s not until I reach the review process that I will invest in the process of determining why; what are the underlying facets about this scene that compelled me to photograph it? In the field, at the time, I don’t think it got much beyond a rather superficial “I really like the contrast of the birch tree trunk/branches and all of the colors of the surrounding foliage” and “I like the way the shape of the branches lead the eye through the frame.”

But when I go through the review process, looking at the image takes me back to the moment of capture and I start speculating directly on the question of why. I’m reminded of the dancing light of the partly cloudy day and the warmer-than-usual conditions of that autumn moment. It’s then that I reflect on how the scene includes the entire cornucopia of colors–from the still (mostly) green leaves of the birch itself to the deep colors of the surrounding maples to the white of the birch bark and how those, for me, epitomize the unfolding calendar (green: spring/summer; yellow/red: autumn; white: winter snow). (I do like your metaphor of the branches representing Robert Frost-like paths, though I must confess it hadn’t occurred to me during the review process.)

But again, that kind of deep, empathic metaphor seldom reveals itself to me at the time of capture.

Tom:  I imagine your experience of relying primarily on the visual appeal of a subject to be a common one. It would be fascinating to discover how many photographers, if any, actually explore the metaphors of a subject while on location.

I developed a little habit some years ago where I attempt to title a photo as it is being created. This is often a handy device for defining the goal, sometimes called the story, of a potential photo. In my case, this sort of thinking occasionally tends to wander into metaphor. I don’t know if this is a good thing or bad, but it’s very likely a good indicator that it is finally time to get out of the woods for the day.

Kerry:  I think that’s a great idea.  I mean, I wouldn’t fixate on the notion of being able to come up with a title at the moment of capture, but to the extent that something does come to mind, it can really help the photographer understand, in real time, why the scene is appealing to him/her.  I have had image titles pop into my head as I’m sizing the scene up–not all the time, not even most of the time, but on occasion–and the resulting images often turn out to be among my favorites.  I have to assume that this is because of a clear connection between the visual and intangible/ethereal underpinnings of the scene that strike a visceral, emotional chord with me.



  1. This series is exactly what I need to help me see the possibilities in landscape photography. Keep them coming please!

    • Thanks very much, Jerry–great to hear that you’re getting something out of this. There will definitely be more in this series.

  2. Oh how I wish I had better technical skills with the camera, but this recent post of mine ( made me think that perhaps I had a faint variation of this same theme….?

    • Yes–variation on a theme, indeed.

  3. Birch trees often speak to me – just did the other day, in fact. I was more interested in the little details – lighting was poor. The tree’s creamy white really stands out against the hardwood backdrop, and the trip of limbs makes a nice composition. I like the idea of titling photos as you’re making them. I agree with you – it could really help me identify what it is about an image that appeals.

    • I’m sure I’ve mentioned this specifically here in the past, but I’m a huge fan of birch (aspens too), and this is one reason, among many, that I love shooting in the North Woods.

      Thanks for taking the time to weigh in.

  4. […] area was a marvelous old birch tree that I simply had to photograph.  (This was the source of Part 3 of the “Seeing in the Field” series of blog […]

  5. Hi Kerry. I just happened across your blog and seeing that Tom Robbins was involved stopped me just as this great birch stopped you. Give Tom a hello for me. 🙂
    This is a great image. It serves as a great example of how a photographer can pinpoint something of interest from among all there is to notice in the field and then distill it down into a cohesive and pleasing composition.
    I’m looking forward to the further discussions.

    • Thanks, Steve. And thanks very much for stopping by. I definitely will pass your greetings on to Tom.

  6. […] introduction to the series is here and Part I , Part II and Part III can be read via the corresponding […]

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