Ira Glass, Crap, Creativity and Serendipity

I haven’t done a lot of nature photography this winter.  Lots of excuses, none of them particularly good.  I’m doing a lot of other work, so it’s not like I’m getting rusty or anything, but standing by a river with a camera recharges my soul in a way that other subjects just don’t do (though, fortunately, many come close).

We’ve been finally catching up on a large backlog of podcasts here and we spent a day or two listening to “This American Life“, which along with “Radiolab” is perhaps some of the best radio ever made.  After listening to the master storytelling in these two programs I rewatched a set of YouTube videos where Ira Glass talks about storytelling and the message in the second video just whacked me over the head.  His words were about radio and video production but they apply equally to photography and really just about any creative pursuit.  These are not new ideas, but somehow hearing someone like Ira, who is at the top of his game, talk about this process was extremely visceral.  Here’s Ira’s wisdom on photography (even though he doesn’t say it explicitly):

All photography is trying to be crap.

I encourage you to watch this:

Shortly after watching this on my Apple TV I happened to visit a Flickr stream of a good friend of mine, Bob Travis, who regularly posts his photos online.  Bob is a true amateur photographer – he shoots for the love of the craft and it is integrated into his day-to-day life.   I got a big dose of envy looking at the past month or so of his images: jazz musicians, outdoor scenes, his cat (I assume it’s his cat).  They’re not all masterpieces, but that’s not the point.  They are consistently packing an emotional punch and Bob continually hones his craft.

So I got off my butt at headed outside, intent on photographing something… anything.  It was probably going to be crap but so what.  I needed to get back into a rhythm.  No car.  Damn. So short of a long hike I’d be photographing my tired old backyard.   Blaring afternoon sun with no clouds.  All the classic reasons to not do landscape photography.  Screw it.  Grabbed the 5D Mark 2, 24-70mm, and the tripod and headed down the stairs.

I wanted to push myself a bit.  I decided to stand in one spot and make as many photos as I could for an hour or so, so I plunked myself next to the river, staring into the glaring sun and a landscape I’ve photographed, quite literally, thousands of times.  The river helps because there really is always something different, but after a two decades of being at a single location there is some repetition.  Click.  Crap.  Click. Crap.

Hmmm.. what to do?   A few months ago I purchased an 3-stop ND filter for my video work (shooting video with a HDDSLR like the Canon 5D Mark II requires filters if you want to have control over depth of field since you are rather constrained on shutter speed).  Although I knew there were good photographic reasons to have the filter, I had not really used the filter for still work yet.  Bolted that filter on along with a polarizer.  In the viewfinder the reflections of the blazing sun was reduced to the equivalent of a full moon.

Cool, I’ll make a few long exposures of the river — no need to wait for a cloudy afternoon as I normally would.  There were a couple of clouds popping up so I might get lucky.  Heck, I’m just trying to make the best out of a lousy situation.  I spent a couple of hours working that spot and saw some promising images coming up on the review screen.  Later in the evening when I brought them up in Lightroom I realized I had stumbled into something I didn’t really expect, but what happened that afternoon might turn into a complete exhibit for me by the time I’m done exploring this technique and certainly will provide an image or two for my 2010 theme.

When you typically shoot long exposures of waterfalls or rivers one is seeking the misty or feathery look that is, to be fair, a bit of a cliché.  I was admittedly going for this with the filters and exposure settings, but what came back looked more like a particle collision from the Large Hadron Collider (hey, I’m a geek)…

Instead of soft light painting the image, the moving water and the strong sun was creating millions of specular highlights that traced through the image.

At a distance the images have a similar feel to the classic long exposures, but there is something different about them.  As you get closer the detailed traces of the individual drops of water and air bubbles all become visible.  Somewhat of a fractal experience in a way.  While I’m very much into documentary photography, I find abstract work to be where I get my biggest kick of endorphins.  I don’t know if others will find these images as beautiful and mesmerizing as I do, but I’m hoping it’ll touch a few others as it did for me.

My original shooting was with a wide-angle (24-70mm) lens and the magic was in the details, so I went out a couple days later with a different lens intent on exploring those details.  The 70-200mm lens was the next experiment and it produced some images that I’m very happy with, but I’ll likely push this even further with the 100-400 — although I start running into depth-of-field issues pretty quickly…  Plus I need to play more with different exposure lengths.  (Further rambling omitted.)  Of course now the weather forecast is for a solid week of overcast skies, so I’m going to have to content working on these images I’ve captured so far — and now I get to see what else I can do with a cloudy sky.

But all that technical stuff really doesn’t matter!

Whether or not these images translate to the large prints I think they’ll do well as, the lesson has been learned: get out and shoot.  Push yourself and be ready to find nothing but crap and toss it out.  But by the act of doing this you might discover something wonderful hiding in plain sight in the unlikeliest of places.

Thanks Ira!

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