Sunday, April 17, 2011

Zen Monk or Trigger Happy ?

Upper Antelope Canyon, USA

Two years ago, while traveling through Arizona and Utah, I had the opportunity to go to one of the most amazing places I've ever been to: the slot canyons near the town of Page, on the state of Arizona, near the Utah border. These canyons are best known to all the world as the Antelope Canyons (Upper and Lower), and are worth seeing even if you're not a photographer.

Both of these canyons are extraordinarily beautiful, specially around the middle of the day when the sunlight enters from the top and lights up the narrow canyon walls, at some times of the year creating light beams, due to the lit particles of sand in the air. Both are also extremely dangerous to visit on rainy days, as flash floods can occur and there is virtually no place to escape once we're inside the canyon. Both are also on the Navajo reservation, one on each side of the road. And you have to pay to visit them both. There was a time not so long ago when photographers could take photos of these marvels relatively alone and undisturbed, but now they have become a mandatory place for tourists. There is a difference, though, when approaching these canyons photographically. And I find it interesting that this difference also illustrates the differences in approach of several landscape photographers.

Upper Antelope Canyon can be visited only in a guided tour that leaves from Page. There is a normal 2 hour tour, or the 4 hour photo tour. These are often packed with people. I couldn't book a photo tour so I had to settle for the normal one. Take into account the time it takes to reach the canyon and you realize that you have only about 1 hour inside the canyon. Take into account that you don't have much light and you realize that your exposures are normally around 15 to 30 seconds. So during the hour I spent there I had to manage setting up the tripod, composing, taking some 15 to 30 second shots while avoiding the other tourists from passing in front of my camera for that time. And I had to move on from spot to spot to keep up with our tour guide... I was in trigger happy mode, and could barely pause to think about what I was doing.

Lower Antelope Canyon, USA

Lower Antelope Canyon can only be visited with a Navajo tour guide, but you are more or less free to be there for as much as you like (not exceeding 4 hours) and it's much less crowded. You don't have to follow the guide, he's just there to make sure everything is ok, and you can go back and forth on the canyon as you please, so you can take your time to compose and shoot the way you want. There are still people coming and going but if you ask them too, they won't stand in your shot or will wait patiently for you to finish exposing before passing by.

These two places are in a way symbolic of two ways of shooting a landscape. I've met photographers that exhibit a zen-link patience. They are extremely methodical, will choose a spot, and then wait patiently for that bit of light that they envisioned. I've also met people that shoot anything that moves (well not literally because most landscapes don't actually move that much, but you get the point). They will go to a spot take a few shots from various angles, then move on to the next spot and so on.

I'm still trying to figure out on which of these categories I belong. I don't believe one is necessarily better than the other. Each person is different, so maybe one photographer's personality makes him choose one approach over the other. What I try to do is choose what works best for getting my shots. In fact my time in the Antelope Canyons taught me to be flexible and learn to do both, depending on the circumstances I was facing. As with lots of things in life, flexibility is the key...

So which one are you ? Trigger Happy ? Or Zen Monk ?...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Doing justice to an old friend

Adraga Surf, Sintra-Cascais Natural Park, Portugal
I recently had some nice surprises while looking through my old film archive for photos that I may use for online sales. It seems that, for some strange reason that I cannot comprehend, there were a few images lying around the archive to which I had not payed proper attention in the past.

Here's one of those images.  It was shot on Adraga Beach, a beach near Sintra that is well known to Lisbon-based landscape photographers because of some oddly shaped rocks. Yet there was nothing odd about the rocks in the image, just a soft light hitting them as the waves and the surf rolled in. I liked this image the moment I saw it in the archive. I like the composition, the shadows on the rocks, the light reflected on the waves. It may not be one of my best shots, but for me it just has a nice, balanced feel.

What puzzles me is how this image could have been unnoticed for years on my archive. I don't really understand why I overlooked it for so long. Maybe at the time I was so interested in shooting the odd shaped rocks in the beach with a nice sunset sky, that I didn't pay any attention to the other shots I took during the afternoon. And since that shooting session didn't provide me with the images I wanted in the first place, I overlooked all others... Big mistake.

But hey, we learn from our mistakes, right ? Well some people do anyway, and I sure try to learn from mine. Sometimes I need to look at my images objectively and with no preconceived expectations in order to see them for what they are and not for what I wanted them to be. And sometimes even if I didn't capture what I originally wanted to, what I bring home can actually be very beautiful.

So I guess this image deserved that I did it justice after being forgotten for so long. I humbly apologize to it and hope to learn from my mistakes...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Shutting out the 'busy' world

White Stork leaving nest, Alcacer do Sal, Portugal
During Christmas Holidays I took the time to read the eBook 'Close to Home' by photographer Stuart Sipahigil. It's a nice read, you can finish it in an afternoon, it has great photos, and it talks about something that I sometimes experience: how hard it is to find photographs on your own 'backyard'.

According to the book, this happens because of our difficulty to find something extraordinary out of our daily lives. We are so accustomed to the routine that it's really easy to pass by good photographs without noticing them. I believe this happens because we do not stop and give ourselves time to see what's in front of us. Not to look, but to really see. Absorb it, feel it with all our senses.

I work in an office building. Everyday I see people come and go out of the building, queuing up for the elevators to take them to their workplace, coming down for a ritual smoke or coffee, and talking to their beloved ones or their bosses on the telephone. How often do these people stop to look at what's around them ? Not very often, I imagine... They just don't have the time... Neither do I sometimes, because I'm one of them (apart from the ritualistic smoke... I don't smoke).

Looking back, I feel that most of my best photos were taken either during vacations or on photo tours. But it's not because I get to travel to new and exciting places. It is because those are times when I am able to completely shut out the busy world around me. No, I do not stop talking to my beloved ones when I'm on vacation, but I keep that to a minimum. One phone call every two or three days at specific times just to let them know I'm ok. No family visits, no work, nothing more. It's at those times when I'm able to absorb the world around me and try to make some sense of it, at least photographically.

Normally I keep daydreaming about how great it was if we were less busy and would be able to stop and see what's around us more. My new year's resolution is to stop daydreaming and actually do it. Not to come up with excuses that I don't have enough time to go out and photograph, but to make time for it. Schedule a day every week or so in which I do exactly what I would do if I were on vacations: shut out the 'busy' world and go out and experience the 'real' world no matter what.

I did that last saturday and even though I did not come up with photos that are absolutely astonishing, I managed to shoot some that I believe are nice. I share with you today one of those and hope you like it. And I leave you with a challenge: every now and then, take a day off that 'busy' world you live in, and go and feel like what the 'real' world is all about. You won't regret it...