Revisiting a Theme

October 9, 2011 by: Sam

This tale is about expectations as they apply to the amateur photographer, and the experience I gained from revisiting a theme that I had high expectations for.

Exceptional photography does not always follow the “I came, I sought, I conquered” attitude we sometimes have once we begin mastering our cameras. The technical “ah ha” moments that further our knowledge still need commitment to memory as obvious, second nature reactions to our photographic environment. In other words, experience. Experience becomes the master tool set for producing the best results. But prior to achieving that mastery of all you survey, there are other productive ways to produce satisfying photography while building that most cherished experience.

One way is to revisit a scene you’ve captured in the past. A scene that’s received a reasonable amount of effort and preparation, with at least some expectation of the final result being a quality representation of your skill. From a landscape photographer’s perspective, this can mean revisiting a precise location and subject as this example illustrates; while an auto enthusiast may try locking down a certain perspective or journalistic statement on different subjects at auto shows. But as obvious as all of this sounds, if your not recreating a very specific idea for this exercise, you’ll miss out on the comparison feedback.

First attempt: Overworked and under exposed; armed with some technical knowledge, but no clear intent or determined way of applying the knowledge properly.

Second attempt: Better composition and use of natural lighting. Less time spent in post digging for something to appease expectations, and more options for final crop.

My example takes me back a couple of years now, to a photo opportunity I made for myself one brisk Sunday morning. Well, actually two brisk mornings, but I’ll get there momentarily. The scene of interest was a sunrise over the water, which for me is canal with the prospect of random passing freighter ships. My initial attempt was really one of my first forays into twighlight colors. I had just gotten off from some reading about the golden hours of the day, and was ready to put my knowledge to practice.

The access area was a boat inlet, with docks for smaller boats, a beacon light, and various other maritime objects to silhouette against the sunrise. The subject I chose was a series of dock supports where the dock platform has long been removed. My initial results where pretty good. All solid on my tripod, my long exposures where sharp as twighlight started in. I made a ton of exposures right up to sunrise. The only changes made where to shutterspeed to balance the the light from the approaching morning, with a few bracketed groups at timely intervals for possible HDR play.

The glory of this story is the return visit several months later. After working with all the initial shots, I made a clear decision at least for composition changes prior to my return. My first results gave the horizon a level of importance in the image. Obviously, the sun is going to rise from that line. But after review, the horizon took away from the mysteriousness of the dock supports; and while pretty, made for an uninteresting, rather uninteresting photograph overall.

On my second visit, I positioned the horizon higher in the composition, which added depth overall instead of it competing with the subject. This decision was assisted by calmer waters that morning, revealing reflections of the posts off the water and compelling me to include them as part of the subject. I took my preferred light shots much earlier in the twightlight before the sun made color changes to the sky, allowing for more slow shutter shots to further smooth the water. I was also blessed with cloud cover, which subdued the sky – completely out of my control but a definite winner for the overall outcome. Another unintended outcome was the cropping of the supports, which are much closer edge-to-edge in the scene. something I didn’t plan for, but in retrospect, gave me more options in post.

The two versions where probably taken about 8 months apart, so the processing is completely different between the two images, but I must say that processing time was much, much less the second time around. I wasn’t fixing mistakes as much as finalizing adjustments.

This should be some testament to the “knowledge, practice, repeat” cycle that grants us experience, and that revisiting a theme can reveal a milestone in our journey for experience. It also proves that actual point of sunrise in a sunrise shot is sometimes over rated.


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