The yin and yang of nature photography

Clearing Storm, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite

Clearing Storm, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite
Canon 1Ds Mark III
17 mm
1/8 second
F/11
ISO 100

Conducting photo workshops gives me unique insight into what inhibits aspiring nature photographers, and what propels them. The vast majority of photographers I instruct, from beginners to professionals, approach their craft with either a strong analytical or strong intuitive bias—one side or the other is strong, but rarely both. And rather than simply getting out of the way, the underdeveloped (notice I didn’t say “weaker”) side of that mental continuum seems to be in active battle with its dominant counterpart.

On the other hand, the photographers who consistently amaze with their beautiful, creative images are those who have negotiated a balance between their conflicting mental camps. They’re able to analyze and execute the plan-and-setup stage of a shoot, control their camera, then seamlessly relinquish command to their aesthetic instincts as the time to click approaches. The product of this mental détente is a creative synergy that you see in the work of the most successful photograpers.

At the beginning of a workshop I try to identify where my photographers fall on the analytical/intuitive spectrum and nurture their undeveloped side. When I hear, “I have a good eye for composition, but…,” I know instantly that I’ll need to convince him he’s smarter than his camera (he is). Our time in the field will be spent demystifying and simplifying metering, exposure, and depth management until it’s an ally rather than a distracting source of frustration. Fortunately, while much of the available photography education is technical enough to intimidate Einstein, the foundation for mastering photography’s technical side is ridiculously simple.

Conversely, before the sentence that begins, “I know my camera inside and out, but…,” is out of her mouth, I know I’ll need to foster this photographer’s curiosity, encourage experimentation, and help her purge the rules that constrain her creativity. We’ll think in terms of whether the scene feels right, and work on what-if camera games (“What happens if I do this”) that break rules. Success won’t require a brain transplant, she’ll just need to learn to value and trust her instincts.

Technical proficiency provides the ability to control photography variables beyond mere composition: light, motion, and depth. Intuition is the key to breaking the rules that inhibit creativity. In conflict these qualities are mutual anchors; in concert they’re the yin and yang of photography.

About this image

With snow in the forecast for a December morning a few years ago, I drove to Yosemite and waited out the storm. When the snow finally stopped, I made the best of the three or so hours of daylight remaining.

Rather than return to some of the more popular photo locations, like Tunnel View or Valley View, I ended up at this spot along the Merced River. Not only his is a great place for a full view of El Capitan, it’s also just about the only place in Yosemite Valley with a clear view of the Three Brothers (just upriver and out the frame in this image). Downriver here are Cathedral Rocks and Cathedral Spires.

As I’d hoped, the snow was untouched and I had the place to myself. My decision to wrap up my day here was validated when the setting sun snuck through and painted the clouds gold.

Yosemite Winter

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4 Comments on “The yin and yang of nature photography

  1. Very true for a lot of people I have seen and of myself as well. I often find myself getting bogged down in my own technical nature and when all is said and done I say to myself, “this was the shoot I was going to try something different”. I think my technical abilities become my go to place and a place of comfort when I am “in the moment” because I know I can technically produce a good shot; but I could have done more. Something I definitely need to work on! Thank you for the great blog!

  2. Most magnificent! Great picture, great scene, great place, GREAT PHOTOGRAPHER!!!!

  3. Pingback: The right stuff with the left brain | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

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