Posted by: kerryl29 | March 17, 2015

Working the Scene – An Exploration

I’ve discussed the concept of “working the scene” frequently on this blog, most prominently, perhaps, here.  But I don’t think I’ve ever really taken the time to describe the idea thoroughly, and I’m going to attempt to extinguish that oversight with this post.

I don’t always work a scene as extensively as I’d like, for a variety of reasons, but I try to do so as often as possible, particularly when I find myself mysteriously charmed by a given venue.  There are places that, for whatever reason, we as photographers seem especially touched by, and when that happens there’s a special incentive to take the time to attempt to visually do justice to the place.  On such occasions, working the scene often feels like a personal responsibility.

In the broadest sense, “working the scene” involves making an attempt to exhaust the conceptual photographic possibilities held by a specific location.  Ordinarily this includes the implementation of at least one of two things:

1) Exploring a wide variety of different perspectives, either by altering position, focal length or, ideally, both.

2) Taking the time to let the place express itself as broadly as possible, assuming that the scene is imbued with dynamic characteristics (the most obvious of which is changing light, though there are others).

In a perfect world, I’d let both of these principles guide me everywhere I shoot.  The world, quite obviously, isn’t perfect, but occasionally the opportunity to invoke both points is made available and can be executed.  I’m going to use one such example from my own experience to illustrate the point:  an evening that I spent at Bandon Beach, Oregon in July, 2009.  I’m going to make an attempt to describe this experience in terms that are of a nuts-and-bolts variety, because I want this post to be as actionable as possible for those reading it.  I sense that there’s a tendency to discuss these non-technical photographic principles in ethereal terms.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing this, but I think that these accounts tend to be so personal, so subjective and so intangible that others reading them either don’t understand them or don’t know how to come to terms with them and make use of them when they’re in the field.  I will try to avoid this pitfall.

Mobile Investigation

The most commonly understood part of working the scene involves movement on the part of the photographer.  With or without camera in hand, the photographer physically changes place, to investigate different perspectives and how they alter the appearance of a scene’s depiction.

Before heading off to Bandon Beach on the July evening in question, I’d already done a bit of scouting of the area, both from high on the bluff overlooking the beach at Coquille Point and Face Rock and on the beach itself, earlier on the same day.  I didn’t have my photo gear with me during the scouting session and I really didn’t take the time to conduct a thorough investigation.  (Bandon Beach stretches for miles.)  About 3 1/2 hours before sunset, amidst a copious dressing of marine layer fog, full photo pack in tow and waterproof rubber boots donned, I descended the lengthy staircase at Coquille Point, all the way to beach level.  I slowly wandered southward, in the direction of Face Rock, near the waterline itself, frequently sizing up the various rocks and seastacks in search of what I felt were the most compelling compositional arrangements.  The tide was relatively low and this “feeling out” process continued all the way to the collection of smaller rocks and seastacks around the headland leading to the Face Rock area.

Bandon Beach in Fog, Oregon

Bandon Beach in Fog, Oregon

It was here that the compositional options were greatest, which was something of a double-edged sword.  A greater number of choices means that there’s a better chance of finding something truly special, but it also brings the burden of potentially feeling overwhelmed and, out of frustration, settling for something rather than pushing the margins to find something better.  (This is a constant battle; experience will, ultimately, tell you when to keep looking and when to stop and make the most of what you’ve already discovered; there’s really no hard and fast set of rules to follow.)

Because the tide was low, it was possible to maneuver in and around many of the stacks without any fear of being swamped by the surf.  Because I had waterproof footwear on my feet, the meandering shallow streams and tidepools in the area were minor impediments, to the extent that they were impediments at all.  I did, however, have to be cognizant of where I stepped because randomly scattered footprints in the wet sand could ruin an otherwise pleasing image.

Bandon Beach Evening, Oregon

Bandon Beach Evening, Oregon

At this point in the process, I was walking around with my camera (24-70 mm lens and polarizing filter attached) and frequently checking perspectives through the lens.  And I was not beyond executing some shots along the way.  Heavily diffused sunlight was frequently penetrating the marine layer, which made for interesting, if not necessarily ideal, lighting conditions.

Finding the Spot

The seacoast is, by definition, a dynamic landscape.  Whether it’s the tide, the light, the surf or a combination of all three, it’s always changing.  It never looks quite the same, even from moment to moment, which is one of its many great appeals.

Bandon Beach at Sunset, Oregon

Bandon Beach at Sunset, Oregon

On the day in question, after actively working the scene for the better part of three hours, I decided to ease into the passive state of engagement.  What do I mean by this?  I had identified a basic composition, using a series of particularly interesting rocks and seastacks, that appealed to me a great deal, and as the day moved to within 30 minutes or so of sunset, I decided to plant myself in position to capture this specific scene under the changing light.  The marine layer was sufficiently thick to prevent a “real” sunset, but there was still plenty of interest, complemented by the changing light.  I shot at this spot, with minimal movement on my part, until I lost the light completely, and then trudged back along the beach in the gloom to the same Coquille Point staircase I had used to reach the beach hours earlier.

Bandon Beach at Sunset, Oregon

Bandon Beach at Sunset, Oregon

The point is that the series of photographs that I made at the tail end of the day still represented “working the scene,” but with a different spin than had been the case earlier.  In the earlier instance, I was “working” by directly changing how I was interfacing with a comparatively static environment.  The changes in the images I was producing during this phase were a function of changing my perspective by transporting myself around the area.  Once I planted myself in a single spot, the “working” had to do with capturing the scene as it manifestly metamorphosed.  Yes, I moved a little bit, but given the size of the space I was operating within (remember, the beach here stretches for many miles), my movement was miniscule.  The largest share of what makes this series of images unique from one another is what was happening, organically, to the scene itself as the light and surf did their thing.  In this case, “working the scene” meant hanging around long enough to capture it throughout the varying phases of its expression.

Bandon Beach at Sunset, Oregon

Bandon Beach at Sunset, Oregon

Exactly how one goes about working the scene varies depending upon the specifics–the subject matter, the light and how quickly it’s changing, the variety of gear at hand, and so forth.  But time permitting, whether to work the scene should rarely, if ever, be an open question because the answer should always be “yes.”

Bandon Beach at Sunset, Oregon

Bandon Beach at Sunset, Oregon

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Responses

  1. This is something I look for and strive for and seldom have the time.

    Loving and living life fully with His grace,

    Dan

    >

    • Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

  2. Great tips! Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks, Denise.

  3. You wrote: “A greater number of choices means that there’s a better chance of finding something truly special, but it also brings the burden of potentially feeling overwhelmed and, out of frustration, settling for something rather than pushing the margins to find something better.”

    This is so true. I find the temptation to “settle” apparent in the work of so many. Working the scene can be hard, but as your photos above demonstrate, oh so rewarding.

    • Thanks very much, Ellen. No question about it, working the scene will pay off, sooner or later (probably sooner).

  4. A thorough description of “working the scene” with accompanying photos that show the pay-off.I will read this a number of times to remind myself of the process. Well done and thank you.

    • Thanks, Jane. Glad you found the post worthwhile.

  5. Great explanation and great photos to go with it – thanks!

    Nancy

    • Thanks very much, Nancy!

  6. Very interesting article…

    Thanks a lot for sharing these stunning images and detailing the story behind…

    Have a beautiful day 🙂

  7. These photographs are impossibly beautiful. Thanks so much for blogposting them!

    Sean Alden Fitzgerald
    Colorado Springs, CO

    • Thanks very much for the kind words.

  8. Thank you Kerry for cutting to the chase without the airy fairy that mostly gets put up about working the scene. I hadn’t consciously thought out that you moving yourself and the light or scene moving were both two different parts of the ‘working the scene’. Your images really explain the concept well.

    • Thanks very much, Lee. I’m really glad that you found this post of some value.

  9. Thank you for sharing your insights as you took these beautiful pictures. I have been taking photos since I was a child. You have given me some good ideas to deepen my skills in the art of photography. You take absolutely beautiful photos! Thank you for sharing them with us.

    • Thanks very much for the kind words; they’re much appreciated.

  10. Love the photos and excellent essay, too. Well done, Kerry. 🙂

    • Thanks very much, Frank.

  11. I LOVE IT

  12. […] numerous occasions on this blog, I’ve described and discussed the notion of working the scene.  Briefly put, the concept involves investigating a location carefully, rather than simply […]


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