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It's all about the light...

November 22, 2016


Twice a year, I make a trip to the Smoky Mountains for a photography workshop.  It's become more than just a trip, it's a pilgrimage really, to my favorite place to explore and take photographs.  And it's a reunion of friends that have become more like family in ways that still surprise me.  This October's workshop proved to be another fun weekend of laughing and learning and discovery. 


One of the instructors in the Spring workshop is Bill Lea.   Bill is an amazing photographer, having written more than a few books about the Smoky Mountains and his beloved bears.  I have been lucky enough to get to know Bill and share stories and walks in the woods with him and I always come away with a photography pearl.  One of his favorite "Billisms" is "It's all about the light!"  I've heard him say this so many times, and while I felt like I understood what he meant, I got a true lesson during this trip on just how important this concept is to our photography.  


So here is a story, a lesson.  About Elkmont.  About serendipity.  About the absolute joy of understanding that it truly is "all about the light."


It was Sunday morning and the workshop attendees took off to explore Elkmont.  This area of the Smokies is a real treasure, not usually crowded with people but full of photographic opportunity.  It has old buildings, tall trees that put on a real show in the autumn, a troll bridge that always delights me and a stream that has multiple cascades and if you are lucky, amazing colors and light.  


One of the students in the workshop happened to have the same camera as I do, and he had a question about how to set the camera.  He called to me as I was walking up from the stream, having spent a good long time playing in the cascades and getting some images that made me smile.  I walked over to him and offered some thoughts on adjusting his camera, and then I looked up towards the water and there before me was a scene like I've never seen before.  I was at just the right angle to see this amazing reflection of the autumn colors dancing in the water, with just the exact light and ripples to make the reflection almost like a Monet painting!  And as if that weren't enough, there were actual leaves floating on the top of the water, to lend a realistic flair to the "painting" and enough small patches of blue sky reflected to make the scene make sense.  I immediately knew this was special, so I hurriedly set up my camera and tripod and worked hard to try to capture the magical moment before it was gone.


Here is a shot of the full scene, with very little adjustment in post processing.








I knew immediately after seeing the shot on my LCD that a close up was in order, so I went in tighter and got a shot that shows the actual leaves playing in the painting.






 I happened to be a the same place the next afternoon and wanted to revisit the magical section of the stream that had produced one of my favorite shots of the weekend.  Hmmm, I know it was right here...


The exact same spot, but now is harsh afternoon sunlight.




What?  How can this be?  My beautiful impressionist painting was a dull, lifeless stream bed!  Ahhh, as Bill so often says, it really is all about the light!  The magical light of the day before, that created that surreal oil painting was now just water.  I had to take a photo with this blog post in mind, because this was such a perfect illustration of the importance of light in creating magic.  


These 3 photographs have so much to teach us.  So if you are still hanging in there and reading this long winded post, here are some thoughts on what this experience hammers home.


1.  It's good to be helpful.  Had I not been willing to help someone with their camera, I would have walked away from the stream and never seen the reflection.  


2.  Have your "head on a swivel!"  Another favorite saying of one of the instructors Tom Vadnais.   You have to look around to make sure you are seeing everything and taking advantage of the situation, watching for special light or changing conditions.  It's easy to get "stuck" on one subject or one area in a location, thereby missing shots that are developing.  Don't let that tripod grow roots!!  Move around a location and really look for new opportunities that you didn't notice at first.  


3.  Collect assets while you are in the field.  This is something I learned from Suzanne Rose, an amazing photographer and all around fun lady that I studied under in Door County last January.  At first, I didn't understand what she meant.  What was I collecting?  But when I understood, when I "got it," I knew it was something I would always remember.  Suzanne taught me to set up my shot with just the exact composition and exposure that produced the photograph I was seeing in my mind.   Get that shot and make sure it's good.  Once that's "in the bag," collect all the other assets you might need when you get home.  Try a different exposure or shutter speed, to change the blur on the water or capture those leaves a little sharper when that breeze is perhaps a little more robust than you thought.  

Shoot wider!  Maybe you get home with a wall hanger from that "in the bag" shot but need to it be 16 x 20 and it can't be cropped to that size. You can take your wider shot that perhaps isn't the composition you wanted in the field, but now you have enough assets to crop it to the size you need.  It's an extra asset that you just might be glad you have when you are home and can no longer visit that little cascade or mountainside.  

Go in close for a tight shot of just the elements of the original composition.  Those just might be wonderful images on their own. That was certainly the case with the tight reflection shot at this location.  The wider shot was what I was after but it turns out that the tighter shot with the juxtaposition of the real leaves and the "painted" leaves is my favorite shot!  Had I not been in the frame of mind of collecting assets, I might have missed that tight shot and thus my favorite shot of the day!

Thank you so much, Suzanne, for making me a collector of assets!  You know you are a good teacher when your students think of you every single time they are out in the field with their camera.  

If you don't like the phrase "collecting assets," you can use what my friend Peg calls it--getting her "basket of possibilities!"  Love this!!


4.  Finally, it really is all about the light.  Thank you Bill, for teaching me this lesson.  Thank you Elkmont, for showing me this lesson in real time and driving home it's importance.  


If you are still reading, thank you for staying with me this long.  I couldn't wait to share this experience with all of you, because there are real lessons here for taking your photography to the next level.  Learn to see the light, look around, collect your basket of possibilities and think of Bill and Tom and Suzanne (and maybe even me!!) when you put that nail in the wall and hang up that framed beauty!


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