Garth Hagerman Photo/Graphics
Garth Hagerman Photo/Graphics

The Vision Thing

The Delight of Nonphotography

In his book The New Complete Walker, Colin Fletcher describes what he calls “the delight of nonphotography.” On a long backpacking trip, his camera refused to function. His initial trepidation was soon replaced by jubilation, as he was freed from “the tyranny of film.” He writes,

Photography is not really compatible with contemplation. Its details are too insistent. They are always buzzing around in your mind, clouding the fine focus of appreciation.

Fletcher accurately identifies one of the major pitfalls of nature photography. But photography does not have to cloud your focus of appreciation; in fact, it cannot, if your photography is to be more than just documentation of places where you have fiddled with your camera. The key to good nature photography is retaining your subjective, emotional appreciation of the beauty of nature while you exercise the objective, rational skills of photography that enable you to capture that beauty.

I find that one of the keys to maintaining my fine focus of appreciation is to revel in the delight of nonphotography regularly. I frequently leave my camera at home when I hike in parks near my house. Sometimes I think about photography on these walks, sometimes I don’t. Often my mind plods along, preoccupied with the mundane trivialities of my day to day life, but occasionally it soars, revelling in the shapes, sounds, and smells of the natural world. I am convinced that these moments help my photography enormously, even though that help comes in ways that are difficult to quantify or analyze.

Dr. Garth’s First Prescription for Improving your Photography:
Cultivate your awe at the beauty of nature. Go to the nearest wild place, and walk. Leave your camera at home this time. Admire the sweeping vistas, the blue skies, and clouds; get on your hands and knees and look at tiny plants, bugs, and rocks. Sit, still and silent, for a long time. Look. Listen. Smell. Then, when you have gotten drunk from the liquor of wildness, you can begin to think pedestrian thoughts of dynamic range and depth of field, of focal lengths and the Rule of Thirds. Ask yourself “how am I going to capture this wonderfulness on film?”

Once you have sharpened your focus of appreciation, you can begin to put the technical information you've gathered to use. Always remember to maintain that sense of delight in the beauty of nature, even as you execute the myriad technicalities of photography.

I’ve seen (perhaps we’ve all seen) photography on both ends of the creative vision-technical competence spectrum. On one end, there’s photography where the shooter has an excellent eye for subject material and composition, but little technical proficiency. These shots are very frustrating to look at; the subjects are interesting, but the work is marred by unsharpness, poor exposure, or other technical sloppiness.

On the other end of that scale is the work of the highly proficient, but uninspired, photo technicians. Their photos are always perfectly sharp, their compositions are thirded to the max, and they always get to the perfect spot to take that shot we’ve all seen a thousand times when the light is just exactly right. But so what? With no creative vision to go with their technical precision, They are just wallowing in clichés.

But how, exactly, does one go about developing one’s very own creative vision? Pretty much the same way you get to Carnegie Hall… practice, practice, practice. Go out to the field, shoot, look at your results. Figure out what worked, and what didn’t. Read and re-read as much as you can about photography until the technical stuff becomes instinctive. Play with your camera until you can change all the settings in the dark. Go back to the field, shoot some more. Keep in mind our first Dangerous Dichotomy: don’t let the craft of photography blur your focus of appreciation, but don’t pretend that inspiration is a substitute for craftsmanship.