Last week I went to see Jon Favreau’s “Chef.”* As someone whose relationship with food is decidedly skewed to the consumption side, I was surprised by how much this film activated my artistic instincts. (In hindsight: “Duh.”) A line that particularly resonated was advice from Favreau’s character to his 11 year-old son (federal copyright laws that forbid me from employing a recording device in a movie theater force me to paraphrase here): “First you choose your ingredients, then you decide what to cook.” Not only does that simple statement beautifully define the difference between a cook and a chef (a cook duplicates, a chef creates), I think it applies equally well to photography.
Do you approach your shoots with a “recipe,” a preconceived notion of what you’ll find and how you want to photograph it? Unless you’re content to photograph only what others have before you have photographed, this is the wrong approach. The longer I do this, the more convinced I become that best photographers examine the ingredients at hand, identify what’s best, and only then decide the most appealing way to prepare them.
All of us rafters came to our Grand Canyon raft trip with ideas of what we’d find, and the photographs we wanted to return with. But because a tight schedule, National Park Service regulations, and the needs of a large group trumped all personal wishes, our campsites were rarely selected with photography as the prime consideration. Each evening I’d have several people ask some form of, “What should I photograph here?” I soon realized that what I needed to do was to help them overcome their photographic expectations and desires, to tear up the “recipe” they brought to the Grand Canyon “kitchen,” and concentrate the ingredients available right now. It wasn’t as if we didn’t have wonderful ingredients, it was just that the ingredients didn’t really work with the meal they’d planned to prepare.
Our third campsite was in a narrow gap between vertical, river-carved walls. Beautiful as it was, the scene was rather confined and lacking the broad views that lend themselves to the expansive majesty we’d grown so accustomed to. While the outer canyon walls, in places, jutted above the steep inner walls confining us, I quickly decided that these views didn’t really compete with some of the wide views we’d already photographed, and were sure to encounter as we continued downriver. I walked along the riverbank with my camera, examining the elements at hand.
What struck me first was horizontal banding on the shear inner wall and the Colorado River’s deep jade hue. I walked a little upstream to a spot where the smooth river was disturbed by section of gentle rapids, hoping that a little whitewater would help the green stand out. Not only did the white and green work wonderfully together, a shutter speed of about 1/2 second blurred the rapids into horizontal bands that beautifully complemented the banding on the inner canyon wall. Nice, but I still needed a foreground. Widening my composition with my polarizer dialed to remove reflections, I found that river rocks beneath the smoother water near the bank stood out enough to add visual interest to my foreground.
I could have stopped here, but I still thought the foreground could use a little more weight. I moved a little farther upstream to where a group of river-smoothed rocks protruded from the river. It took a little doing to fit them into my composition without including other nearby distractions, but I finally found something that worked. Nevertheless, I thought my first couple of frames had too much empty space between the visual weight of my foreground rocks and the visual motion of the blurred rapids, so I shrunk this space and further emphasized my foreground rocks by dropping my tripod to about 18 inches above the ground.
*Great movie, BTW.
I’m doing it all over again in 2015 (May 11-18)—contact me if you’d like to join me.