This scene caught my eye: giant waves crashing against sea stacks, forcing the resting gulls to take flight. I was transfixed by the scene as the sun caught the waves and birds, leaving the sea stack in shadow. I hoisted by 100-400mm lens onto my tripod and fired away for about an hour in an attempt to capture the movement of waves and gulls.
What catches your eye?
This axiomatic inquiry shows up routinely in landscape photography books and instructional videos. In my experience, it is an example of advice that is so simple, so self-evidently true that, it has, until recently, escaped close examination. Not unlike the phrases “follow your heart” or “you do you,” it is easily dismissed as a trite aphorism: forgettable at best, annoying at worst. Curious to see the impact of employing such a simple mantra, I decided to use it as a guide on my daily photographic wanderings on the Oregon Coast. A month later, these are my thoughts.
‘What catches your eye?’ has nothing to do with anybody else. The phrase bears no resemblance to the latest composition or processing trends on Instagram. It does not even acknowledge generally accepted composition “rules” and guidelines. The phrase has everything to do with you. Your vision. Your interests. Your sensibility. Your eye. If landscape photography is the art of capturing the interplay of form and light, then we are all students of observation, responding with our cameras to the elements that compel us. Our predilection for one scene over another is of critical importance. It is highly significant, that, when presented with the same scene, you compose your image one way and I another. Those differences, that shift in perspective, is everything.
Over the years, I have fallen into the trap of mindlessly combing Instagram and Facebook for the latest and greatest landscape images. Two things happen, one consciously and one subconsciously, when I engage in the social media scroll. First, consciously, I become discouraged. I think, ‘wow, my images aren’t as powerful, impactful or interesting as these.’ The dangerous game of comparison takes hold and inspiration is lost. In the conscious examination of other’s work I tend towards the negative. Instead of celebrating the incredible image before me, I become sullen. Talk about an inspiration killer! Instead of looking at the images and getting pumped about my next photography outing, I contemplate posting all of my gear on eBay. This happens more often than I care to admit.
Secondly, subconsciously, and I think this is far worse, the most popular style of photography enters into our way of seeing. The algorithm of social media platforms favors what is popular and, therefore, we, unwittingly, are exposed to a distillation of a trend in photography. For example, Instagram set off a wave of simply composed, faded images with muted color palettes. The minimalism, I believe, reflects the nature of the viewing medium: tiny screens require simple, quickly readable images. I suspect the treatment of tones and colors - faded and muted - it is a response to the trend of bold, saturated colors that dominated the 90s and early 2000s. Should we find ourselves spending too much time on the platform, that style, that way of seeing, seeps into our subconscious and influences the way we photograph. Undoubtedly, it has an attractiveness to it. Should we follow the path of what is trending, we may find moderate success amongst the crowd, but we risk losing our personal vision. After a bout of looking at Instagram or Facebook, I find myself looking for specific types of compositions in the field based on what have been viewing on those platforms. That influence is powerful! In allowing myself to be guided subconsciously by the trends, I lose out on the exploration - and joy! - of following my own artistic vision.
Photography loses its power when we begin adapting and/or emulating other photographer’s points of view into our own. The power of the photograph wrests in each individual photographer’s take on a subject. I am not suggesting that traditional photographic rules - i.e. rule of thirds, use of lines, golden ratio - should be scorned and the viewing of other photographer’s work should be avoided. I think there can be great value in examining images and identifying characteristics that elevate images from ordinary to extraordinary. Rather, I am suggesting that those exercises should be excised in moderation. They - composition rules and looking at other’s work - are useful only insofar as they inspire us to connect more deeply with what catches our eye.
My style, over the years, has evolved into ultra wide landscapes with exaggerated foregrounds and punchy colors. This came about as a result of initially being drawn to photography books that featured these types of images. It is a style of image has been around for decades, but especially boomed in the early 2000s as a result of digital photography processing techniques - focus stacking and dynamic range management - that allowed photographers to push the envelope on this exaggerated hyperrealism. Undoubtedly, I have been heavily influenced by what many photographers have already done. In spite of the tone of the blog, I am at peace with this. You have to start somewhere. Eventually, and hopefully sooner than later, one has to decide how to embrace their own personal vision and define their own style, contributing their unique perspective to the scene. In this way, I am a work in progress.
This is all fine to speak about theoretically, but how does it work in practice? For me, it has meant spending less time on social media. I don’t scroll Instagram and I occasionally glance at Facebook. I do spend time on YouTube watching a few choice landscape photographers. These channels (Expressive Photography; Thomas Heaton; Adam Gibbs) precipitate inspiration for me. They delve into the philosophical world of landscape photography. They get me excited to be out with my camera. They promote the philosophy of ‘what catches your eye?’
In the field, everything has changed. With ‘what catches your eye?’ in the fore of my mind, I walk slowly and observe. I leave my camera in my bag or around my neck. I just look. Obviously, looking is nothing new, but it is the quality of looking that has changed. Instead of looking for compositions out of the gate, I simply look for things that catch my eye: a rock with interesting color or texture, light catching a sea stack, patterns in the sand, notable waves, etc. Previously, I thought about the composition before I even knew what unique elements existed in the landscape. I thought about what the epic wide-angle shot would look like. I entered new landscapes with preconceived notions about how I would exaggerate a foreground element - rock, leaf, sand - with an expansive backdrop - sky, mountain, ocean. I may as well have stayed home and built the image in Photoshop! I did not leave space to be responsive to the surprising and interesting elements that makes every landscape unique.
Back to the ‘what catches your eye?’ walk: walking slowly and observing. I don’t think about photography. I think about what is interesting or special about the place. I walk with curiosity. Then, the moment something catches my eye - wow, the wave peaks are catching the morning light as gulls swoop to and fro! - I stop. The rule I’ve made for myself with this mantra is, when something catches my eye, no matter how seemingly simple, I try to photograph it. If it is a static situation - a pattern in the sand, driftwood, etc. - I set my camera bag down and walk around the subject. I look for the interplay of light and form. How does the light complement the form? When I feel like I have a general idea of what angle to photograph from, I pull out my camera and then - finally! - begin the process of composing the image. If it is a dynamic situation - fleeting light, waves, etc. - I skip the subject walk-around and jump straight to composing through the viewfinder. Guided by the subject and the subconscious application of composition techniques I arrange the elements of the image in a way that feels right. I try not to overthink the composition. I go with my gut. Undoubtedly, the broad rules of composition slip in - rule of thirds, balance, simplify, etc. - but ultimately they play a supporting role to the natural composition that the subject suggests. More on this in a future post.
This approach of ‘what catches your eye?’, while not only being a lot of fun, has been hugely rewarding photographically. I find myself enriched by the exercise of tuning into the beautiful minutiae of the landscape. For the first time in years, I am excited about a collection of images. My growing Oregon Coast catalog is filled with miniature landscapes, wildlife, dynamic light, abstracts, and, of course, classic wide-angle images. The catalog is filled with visual representations of my experience in those special places. The images represent what I saw and how I felt in the seeing. This paradigm has turned my previous methodology on its head. Instead of entering the landscape with compositions in mind, I enter with wide-eyed curiosity. I don’t care if the images are epic wide-angle shots. My concern lies in having been tuned into the unique beauty of a place. It is more important to me that the images are reflections of my experience than it is that they are any good. If they are good also, well, that’s a bonus.
So, it all comes down to this: what catches YOUR eye? Well, this sentence, at the moment. Get out there! Look! See! Write! Photograph! Paint! Connect with the Earth!
Onwards and upwards,
P.S. The 'Oregon Coast' gallery will be up sometime in February. Stay tuned!