In terms of light I love this time of year. Waking up when it's dark and watching the dawn break is my morning routine. I also enjoy going to bed when it's dark.
Where I live we get our fair share of rain during these darker months. My photography takes me into the forests, even on days of light rain. This is the light I love. It's soft and the rain clouds don't create bright spots in the open areas. The greens of winter don't have have as much yellow as you find during the spring. Which is another factor when working working with winter light.
This is not to say that we don't get bright blue skies and clear days. We do. On those days I need to be out early to photograph before the sun tops the trees.
If you spend any amount of time photographing nature I hope you can find the beauty of the shorter, darker days that comes with winter.
We All Have One
Yes, we all have one. Some are fortunate enough to have more than one. What is it? What do you have that you might not know about? It's a favorite tree!
"Trees are are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth." Herman Hesse
You know that tree that you always stop to admire and appreciate? That could be your tree. I have more than one. Perhaps you, too, have numerous trees that are special. Please don't tell me you don't have one. You just might now yet be aware of it. If you truly don't have a special tree you are missing out on a very special relationship.
The tree in this image here is one of my favorites. It's a Vine Maple tree. Although it looks small it is older than it looks. One clue is the amount of moss covering it. That takes years, often decades to acquire that kind of moss coverage.
Trying to create a decent image of this tree has baffled me for five years. The background is messy and chaotic. Everything is close to the same shade of green. Achieving any kind of separation between this tree and the background has bordered on impossible. Even when we have had thick fog I have sat and waited, but the fog never penetrated the trees to reach ground level.
And then came a spur-of-the-moment hike this year. Fall colors were still on some trees. The yellow colors of the leaves gave me something to make this tree stand out from the surrounding forest. Why did I never think to come here in the fall? But in five years it never crossed my mind. It's already on my calendar for next year. I will come earlier in the season and make as many trips as it takes to improve on this image.
This serves to reinforce my theory that revisiting a location is just as important as the location when seeking to create a compelling image.
Revisit, Revisit, Revisit
I woke up to fog recently. Thick, beautiful, get lost in fog that a photographer dreams about. With camera gear in hand I was soon headed out to take advantage of this dream. Most of the time the fog doesn't make it into the hills and valleys where I normally go hiking. So I chose to go to one of the two rivers that border the town.
It's been almost two years since I have been to this spot. Most of the year it doesn't offer much for photography. Fall is the exception. River plus autumn foliage and fog sounded like a perfect formula.
But I was too early. On my last visit it was the in November and bit late for prime foliage color. This time it was October, but the leaves just hadn't started to change yet. Well I had the river and the fog. But the fog had settled in so thick I could barely make out the other shoreline. This is a spot I need to re-visit, maybe more than once to get the color I wanted.
Location, location, location, might be right for real estate. But in photography you need the location and weather or light to make it all work. Remember to revisit often.
Perception in the Field
Perception: our sensory experience of the world.
Developing your perception as a photographer takes practice. I would say it is a life-long practice that you will engage every time you photograph. For a photographer perception is how we see the difference between an interesting sight in the world and an interesting subject for an image.
Close your eyes and snap a photo. The result will probably tick the failure box on some level. You haven't engaged with the subject. It doesn't matter if the subject is a tree, building or person. To grow that basic photo into something beyond a surface level image you need to see beyond the basic.
I see a tree and while it may be a stunning specimen of a tree, I need to see what is it that makes it deserving of a photo or will make it something the viewer will stop and stare at. Is it the bark? Could it be the pattern of the leaves or needles? Whatever it is I need to perceive what that tree has to offer that will make a meaningful image. And then I can begin to develop a plan to bring that tree to life as an image.
Not everything you see in your chosen photographic genre will be worthy of a photograph. Your perception will slowly become aware of what stands out. What makes you stop and look twice today you might not have noticed last year.
Your perception develops as you study and learn about light, shadows, line, and weather. You start to see how all of this affects your chosen subject. You start to engage with the subject. and then you start to realize that rarely, if ever will everything you need for a perfect photo come together perfectly. You start to work the scene because your perception has developed and you are instinctively engaging with the scene.
Before you snap that photo of a pretty subject, stop an take a deep look around. What will make your photo different from the thousand other photos of the same scene or subject?
"Mysterious and little-know organisms live within reach of where you sit. Splendor awaits in minute proportions."
E. O. Wilson
I spend most of my time photographing the small things in the forest. My macro lens opens up a whole new world of amazing plants and sometimes the creepy things. You don't need to go to the Amazon forest to see exotic species. Nature is full of exotic species in your own backyard even if they aren't cute and cuddly.
I first noticed these creatures when I photographed some moss on a wet rock. Looking a the images on the computer revealed tiny species on the rock. I've never been able to get a good image of these bugs with my camera set-up, but now I know they are there and I am always looking.
We have rain coming this week after four months of almost no rain. Like the moss these creatures can and will rehydrate with this moisture and life in the forest, on the smallest of scales, will continue. There is so much I have yet to discover in the forest. I could spend a year examining one small area and still not see all that is there.
Next time you stop to rest when hiking take a moment to examine where you are sitting. Move some leaves and see what you can with your naked eye. Pull out a magnifying glass to help bring the exotic to life before your eyes. Whether you look at the big picture or the smallest of the small, I hope you never stop looking and discovering awe.
Seeing and the Photographic Eye
On your first trip into the forest nothing is really obvious. There is so much to see. It's hard to take it all in. Is this chaos or is this a beautiful wild-scape full of unknown parts?
Those of us who enter the forest often have learned to see what is right before our eyes, to see all the parts that create the whole of chaos. Without practice we are confused by the light patterns, shadows and miss the hidden obvious.
It would be the same for me if I were to walk the streets of a big city. The lights, people, cars and jumble of architecture would blind me. It would take time and practice for me to see all that is basically hidden in plain sight. The photographic eye needs training no matter where or what you are photographing.
I have an exercise that I do often to help me to see the details regardless of the environment I find myself in. I pick a search target for that day. This gives my mind something to search for and relate to. Some days it's a particular species of tree. A tree sounds big and easy to see, but in a forest seeing that one particular species can be challenging. But if I educate myself on the particulars of that species my brain will have something to focus on and the search becomes easier.
Try it for yourself. Whatever it is that you love to photograph pick something that your brain can lock onto. No matter how long you've been creating images this is a practice that will keep you stretching mentally and learning to see, not better, but more with your photographic eye.
Everyday life is full of noise. We're so used to some sounds that we tune them out, but they are still there. Some of those everyday noises are unwanted voices in our heads. You know the ones I'm talking about.
On the way home from a doctor's appointment I stopped by a river to take a short hike. This area usually has a lot of bird activity. But today I only saw a flock of male Common Mergansers. Occasionally I could hear a bird off in the distance, but overall it was a very quiet morning.
We're heading into fall now. There are signs of fall as the leaves are starting to turn color. I found a few of our native hazelnuts that were waiting for the Jays to find them. I was able to find a handful of wild blackberries, two red currents and one red cap for a morning snack. Crisp mornings and cool nights are all telling us to enjoy being outdoors now.
These quiet moments in nature are some of my most productive times. The voices in my head turn to positive conversations and ideas. This is when I realize my future projects or how to proceed on what I am currently working on.
Quiet is a precious place and state of mind. A blessing we should all experience more often.
The Importance of Exploring
Today I went exploring. Miles driven down dirt roads. Dodging potholes big enough to swallow a small car while taking in the beauty of the forest.
Most of my trips I have specific areas in mind that I want to photograph. Those areas have grown stale. That creates a stagnation in my images.
I took a few photos as records of what the area has to offer. I took a short hike and found a small mountain stream. Water level was low, but there is evidence that it does have a decent flow, probably in the spring.
Whether or not you are a photographer taking a day to explore something new is a good thing. It serves to re-energize your mind and body. You come away refreshed.
I now have several new places to hike and discover over the next year.
Far below me at the bottom of the ravine I can hear the sound of a stream. The day is warm, but the bubbling sounds of the water gives the illusion of coolness. What is it, I wonder, about the sound of water that draws me in and give me peace? Does anyone else experience that feeling:
The forest is dotted with large stumps. Reminders of when it was last logged. I stop to stare in awe of their size
I am a slow hiker. Every few feet it seems I need to stop, look and listen to the forest. I haven't been on this trail in a couple of years. The recently logged areas that were replanted are showing improvement. Two years ago the new trees were showing a lot of new growth turned brown. This year I see a lot of new growth that is tender and green. The little trees have grown taller. This is promising.
I don't care for hiking through the logged areas. The summer sun beats down with nothing to provide shade. I am surrounded by old gray stumps. This year the foxglove, an exotic species, have taken hold in the logged areas. I am a strong supported of protecting our native plants. But the foxglove are too pretty to not enjoy today.
The size of the stumps is amazing. My children will see few trees today that are allowed to live to become the giants that were common in my childhood. They will be left with stumps serving as reminders.
Learning the Words
When you know the right words you begin to see more clearly. Everything around you becomes infused with meaning which leads o a more intimate understanding. Your mental light bulb becomes brighter.
I am slowly learning the words of the plants that surround me in the forest. The words that are their scientific names are more difficult to remember. But I am learning, slowly. As I Iearn I start to better understand the plants and their characteristics.
As I sit here in the wet forest, with raindrops making their way to the round, I am surrounded by words. So many are just a whisper to I am not yet ready to hear them. When I am ready they will speak loudly and I will finally learn those words. The world around me will expand for me over and over. All it takes is an open mind willing to listen and taking the time to learn.
Take a few moments to stop and look around you. Listen deeply. The more you listen the more you will see. Your world will grow with meaning and understanding, one word at a time.
Chery Day is a photographer and writer that spends a lot of time in the woods.