Welcome back for another installment of my monthly Behind the Camera feature. It is here that I will tackle a question that has come up during the month which requires more than just a simple answer to cover. I’ll also use it from time to time to share what has been on my mind recently which was where I went last month when I discussed my views on whether or not photography was art. That one took a lot out of me and pretty much emptied my mind which is a great thing, but here I am at the start of another month drawing a complete blank as to what to talk about. There have been no great questions that have popped up, and I have no real thoughts. So I guess we will just call it a day and move on to the next one. Thanks for joining me for this brief entry!
You know I’m longer winded than that when it comes to photography. I did have to reach out on social media to get a good topic for this month though because I really had no idea what to cover. I had several responses and two of them kind of jumped out to me as being fun to talk about. The first one was from Rick Cornell and he just wanted to know a little about how I find the subjects that I do.
“You seem to have covered a lot of ground finding places to photograph. Could you share how you locate and develop leads to get into some of these places? Do you just travel around hunting, contact locals, check newspapers? It would be nice to hear HOW you do, not necessarily specific locations.” –Rick
The second question came a couple of days later from Sharis. her question was interesting and I honestly thought that I had covered it in a previous Behind the Camera because it just seemed so obvious.
“How do you choose your subjects? What’s the pull?” –Sharis
I went back and looked through my previous entries and didn’t find anything that specifically answered that question which really surprised me. I alluded to it in a few entries, but the more I thought about it, I could see a link between these two questions and they really played off of each other quite well. Essentially, what I am going to be tackling today is how I choose my subjects, and then how I find the subjects that I am trying to capture. It might come as a surprise to you that this is a lot like the chicken or the egg joke in that I really don’t know which comes first much of the time. This is going to be an interesting entry and I’m not really sure how it will flesh out, but I am excited about sharing this very basic part of my photography with you. I hope you enjoy the ride and learn a little about how I am able to bring these images to you. Also, if you missed my last blog on the Carolina Thrift Store sign, I go into detail about my creative process from seeing the sign, to the final image and it really fits the theme of this entry quite well.
The egg comes before the chicken, isn’t it obvious?
When I was young and heard that famous joke, my instinct was always to say that the egg came first because the chicken hatched from the egg. Disagree with me if you like, but that is a true statement. For the purposes of this blog, the “egg” is the idea or the concept with the chicken being the subject. No really, I’m not crazy…my Mother had me tested. One of the ways that I am able to create my images is by starting with an idea. That could be an image in my head that is just a concept, or it could be an image that I have seen in the past which made me want to try something similar. At this point, I would have no subject in mind at all, just that formula that I was looking for as I was traveling around. You can imagine that this is the more frustrating way of doing photography because I have this creative idea that I want to put on paper, but just can’t find the right scene to make it happen. I have to leave it in my head until I find the right situation and combination of elements so that I can bring that idea to life. These are usually the images that get the “where did that come from?” response from my audience. They are typically nothing like what I would typically create, but yet somehow ring true to my personal style.
Here is an example of an image that falls into this category. I love the style of autos from the 50’s with the big character and I’ve photographed them quite a bit over the years. I’ve always had this concept of the shiny chrome grill, but one that had just the hint of tarnish and age while still being highly reflective. The idea was to capture an image not unlike those that I had seen of the chrome polished to a high level of glossy perfection. This is not really my style, and I wanted to have just the hint of decay in with that, but still having the reflections give the abstract quality that I wanted to bring out of the chrome surfaces. It was a loose concept that I carried around for quite a while but you can imagine finding this specific level of sheen to the chrome might be a difficult task. It wasn’t until I had started photographing an early 50’s Buick that I saw my opportunity to capture this abstract image that I was after.
I’ll talk more about this Buick again, but it was pure luck that I found it. I was coming back through town after driving around looking for other subjects to photograph when I passed by a section of Old 421 in North Wilkesboro that I had not been on before. Since I didn’t really have any other destination in mind, I turned down the road and started hunting. I found this Buick sitting there in the most odd position and decided that I wanted to give it a try. While working on the overall picture of the car, the bumper caught my attention and before I knew it that concept in my head popped up and screamed “this is the one!” It was at that moment, that the egg turned into a chicken and that loose concept of a photograph turned into a digital file on my camera. It was not something that necessarily would have jumped out at me had the idea not been in my head to start with so it was totally a product of my imagination giving me a way to capture this if it ever presented itself.
This old truck is another one of my images that falls into this category. I have been spending a lot of time over the years looking at pictures of old rusted cars and I have seen quite a many from the Route 66 areas that were kind of desolate and had a certain color palette to them. With the desert area and the rust, there was a lot of brows and orange tones that paired with the desolate locations. They were all great scenes and ones that I wished I could capture here, but even during our Summer droughts, North Carolina isn’t very well known for desert conditions. That doesn’t mean that I have to travel to get the concept down as a photograph though. It was just an egg of an idea that I had in my head for probably a year or more that wasn’t ready to hatch a chicken until a friend of mine messaged me about a location on Hwy 268 North of where I lived that had promise. It was an old Ford truck sitting on the side of the road at a repair shop. No, it wasn’t in the desert, but the colors of the patina on this truck were perfect for my vision. The fact that it was sitting on its frame rails completed the look for me. The picture that he included had been shot from the road and the composition wasn’t anything like what I was after, but the potential was there.
Based on this tip from Bud, I headed out there to check things out. When I arrived at the shop, I could see why the picture had been taken like it was. It was a very cluttered background and they had tried to simplify it as much as they could to have the truck stand out. I still didn’t like the composition and wanted to get in closer. There were no trespassing signs posted all around and that is something that I don’t mess with. I want to respect the property of others as I would want them to respect mine. The shop was closed and nobody was around. If memory serves, there was a guy washing his truck in the car wash on the side of the shop so I stopped to talk with him. He said that he thought that the owner lived in the house around the corner so I went over there and knocked on the door. There was no answer there either. Recalling that my friend had left a phone number for the owner of the shop in the message, I pulled that up and gave it a call. I was surprised to have gotten an answer, but I was talking with the owner of the property. The connection was not great and after I had explained my reason for the call, the call dropped. I called back with no answer. I figured that was my answer, but I left a voicemail just in case. It was a little while later that he called back and gave me permission to enter the property. I was able to turn that egg into a chicken once I got to the other side (continuation of the joke, LOL!) of the truck and saw the road and the empty sigh post in the background. The ground wasn’t desert toned, but thanks to a little color science in Lightroom, I was able to capture the color palette that I was after. I ended up with that desolate mood for this old truck which I had been after for quite some time. To this day, it still brings to mind those Route 66 images that I have seen in the past.
One final example of how an egg became a chicken is this image from Topsail Island. For the longest time, I had been wanting to do a minimalist image with strong geometric shapes on a high key background. For this to work, I would need water that could be smoothed and a very limited background. This was not quite the easiest scene to find when you are based in Winston Salem, NC. However, while at the beach on a family vacation, I took the opportunity to go out in the mornings to capture images from around the area. Not being overly familiar with the location, I had to use my Google Maps to scout around. What I saw a short distance away on the back side of the island was what looked like an area with some docks and possibly a few piers along the calm side of the island. I knew that there would be possibilities for some visual interest in the water so I planned on walking out there the following morning.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to be getting but since the morning forecast didn’t really look like much color, I decided to give it a chance and see if I could find some long exposure subjects. I certainly lucked out here because I found the remnants of a dock still sticking out of the water. The reflections were perfect and the water was calm for being this close to the ocean. I wasn’t sure if this was going to be in color or black and white at this stage because the light hadn’t really started to come up. However, as the light increased, I could tell that there wouldn’t be much sense in making this a color image because the overall shade was going to be a cool blue. I opted to shoot this as a black and white image and use the high contrast back lit pilings as my visual anchor for the image.
I was really impressed with the finished image and to this day it is still one of my favorite coastal themed images. That egg of an idea made it into a chicken of a photograph. Scouting it had just been a matter of looking at the satellite mapping of the area and figuring out where I might best be able to find what I had in mind. These maps are very good especially for finding things in new areas. It might not be exact, but it will get you close to certain landmarks or features that you are interested in capturing.
You have to have a chicken before you can have an egg…Duh!
As I got older and started to think about that age old joke a little bit more I realized that you can’t have an egg without a chicken. It was the cycle of life, there is a string of generations here that all create babies to grow up and have more babies. How could the egg come first? Hey wait a minute….I finally get the joke after all these years!
More times than not, I will find inspiration by seeing something that catches my eye. Once I get excited about a scene I will start to figure out how best to photograph it. In the case of this picture from the Taubman Museum in Roanoke, VA, Toni and I had been driving up to Natural Bridge and had seen the building from the highway. The geometry of it captured my attention and I knew that I had to photograph it. That was the chicken and I had to work on the egg of a concept. I spent the next couple of weeks thinking about the best lighting for the building and the best time of day for it. I knew that I wanted to do it in a fine art feeling and I wanted to have a lot of options with the sky. I needed it to be rather simple as a background because clouds would have competed with the shapes of the building. With the way it was situated, I figured that morning light would be the best way to get it and that was when I chose to do it.
It was this original thought from the highway that had lead me to choose this as a location to shoot. I had no idea how I was going to compose anything and even looking at Google Maps didn’t help that much because I couldn’t get the angles that I wanted to see. I just went there and knew that once I started working it, that I would be able to find some really awesome compositions. That was what happened. I got the basic images that I had previsualized to begin with and then started to work my way around the rest of the building to find other design features that I liked. This one was shot from the railroad tracks on the back side, underneath the bridge that carried the road above. The angle was difficult and to make matters worse, I was trying not to wake up the homeless guy sleeping near by. It was the shape of the building that inspired me to come back and work this image out and it is still one of my favorites years later.
Remember that grill from earlier? I said we would talk more about this car later on and here we are. I had been out driving around and taking roads through North Wilkesboro that I had not driven on before when I found this car. I obviously have a soft spot in my heart for cars of this era so there was no surprise that it caught my attention while I was driving. There it was sitting between a fenced lot with heavy machinery on one side and a metal sided building on the other side. There was general clutter behind the car and the sun was more or less above and to the rear of the car. In short, the setting was lousy for a photograph of the car, but it was just too good to pass up on. I pulled over and got parked and started to figure out how to capture this car. The first thing that I had to do was remove the “For Sale” sign from the bumper which was just propped behind the bumperette so no problem there. The second was how to capture this gorgeous car in the problematic setting and lighting.
If you will remember from earlier I had this great concept in my mind of the chrome grill on a car like this, but that didn’t enter my head because I was so struck by the car as a whole. It wasn’t until I was well into shooting the overall scene that I saw the bumper for what it was and the vision came to mind that would work here. I guess it is like a basic filing system, the ideas don’t pop up readily but have to be pulled out of the folders. When I had gotten done with the overall images of the car that I was after I started to concentrate on the isolations. This was when I saw the grill and my egg of an idea popped out at me. You can even see the basic idea coming to light on the driver’s side of the bumper if you look close in this picture.
In this case, it was the overall scene that had caught my eye and then I started to work on ideas that I had for situations like this. That is kind of how things will go most of the time. There will be a scene that catches my eye and then as I work through it, I am pulling on ideas that I have had in the past, or from previous compositions that have worked to get the most out of the scene. Of course, the longer I do this, the more ideas I will have tucked away in my filing system. I just hope I get better at retrieving them quicker.
Much of what I find to shoot isn’t visible to the naked eye, and many times the scenes discover me rather than the other way around. In this example, all of the vehicles that he had were tucked in behind the house and unable to be seen from the road. I would have never known they were there had it not been for a chance meeting. I had been out at my favorite Rat Rod Builder’s Workshop doing some light painting and had stopped to chat with him for a bit. He was with one of his customers who had commissioned him to build a car and we started to talk for a bit. I was told later on that Dean had shown his customer the images that I had shot that night and he was really impressed. As luck would have it, this customer had a bunch of parts cars out behind his house and invited me to come out to photograph them.
I worked out a time when it would be convenient and arrived at the house. He took me out back and I think there were about 10 or so vehicles tucked into the woods. From here I had to figure out how to compose the images. Having no idea what I was going to find, I had to work out compositions on the fly and figure out how best to capture the ones that were in a position to be photographed. One of my favorites from this location was this one car that was sitting out away from the others. It was actually in the goat pasture on the other side of an electric fence. It was the one that I thought I had the best chance of getting a full shot of so I really worked on capturing that car through different compositions. It was the condition and the random bullet holes that really captured my imagination and that was what I tried to convey with the image.
There are times that I will see a scene that catches my eye, but I just don’t know how to capture that in a photograph. In this example, I had seen the Cadillac sitting here at an old service station. It was a huge old car with a nice patina on it which drew me in. It was obviously yard art for the front of this business. There was another store beside of it, and the area around the car was very cluttered. If you are familiar with the size of a Cadillac, you can imagine how difficult it was to get a photograph of the entire car in a tight area to where it made sense and all of the elements came together. I had the scene, but I had no idea what to do with it.
The more I looked at it, the more elements I was removing because they didn’t help further the story. This is what makes a good photograph I think, so I really spent some time working on that aspect. When I finished going through that task, I was left with a composition of the corner of the car because it was the only way I could make sense of the whole scene. I’m not kidding, I came up with a shot of the headlight group on the passenger side of the car which was done as a black and white image to further simplify it. The idea of removing what you don’t like in a composition can get out of hand at times.
It was here that I realized that I might have taken a bit too much out of the composition so I started adding some things back in. There was still no way to get the entire car in the frame, but I was able to get a front quarter shot of the car which included part of the old store. It told the story without including the entire car. With the perspective I used, I was able to block out the building in the background while including just the most interesting part of the store that it was positioned in front of. With the sky above, I was really happy with how that one turned out, and ended up with two from this location that I really loved. So how did I luck up and find this gem?
That is simple….I went out to Randolph County and got lost. This is what I do most of the time which yields some of the best images that I have. I will pick an area of the state based on the weather patterns or possibly based on some previous scenes that have worked out. It is all a throw of the dice when I set out on these treks with just an area of operation in mind. I had gone out to Randolph County on this day at the recommendation from a friend of mine at work who said that there were lots of old barns out that way. I had been out there and looked, but didn’t see a lot of barns that would make good pictures, but had seen some great potential with old cars. I spent a good bit of time and several trips through the area looking for rusted treasures and I found a few out there. It was an area where I had seen potential and kept coming back to after that original recommendation. It really comes down to where there is one, there are likely to be more subjects.
How do I find the scenes?
I’ve talked a lot about what draws me to a scene and how I work a scene when I get there, but none of that matters if I can’t get to the scene. Finding the places that I do looks like there is something impressive to talk about, but in all reality it is just dumb luck or seeing where other photographers are going. This has changed through the years as I suspect that it will for most photographers. I think we all start out in our little worlds seeing where other photographers are going to capture scenes that we like. As a landscape photographer, that is pretty easy because it seems that parks are one of the best places to go to find that unspoiled landscape.
The Blue Ridge Parkway was one of my first subjects to photograph out of the gate as a landscape photographer. I was loving images of the mountains and since I had gone to school at Appalachian State University (c/o 96) I was familiar with a chunk of the Parkway as it went through Boone and Blowing Rock. Wanting to capture images of the mountains, that was the area that I focused on and I found all of the little points along the way that I found interesting like this image from Price Lake. There are times that I want to have water in my images, especially when there is color in the sky so I will go out there for sunrise and sunset many times and have captured so many different moods of the lake over the years. Of course, when I am going out for something specific, I will always keep my eyes out for other potential compositions whether or not the lighting is good for them at the time. This is where I will get the eggs along the way while I am focused on a specific scene or idea. By going through the areas repeatedly, I will start to get a much better understanding of the area and what it has to offer in terms of compositions and images. After some time passes, I will find the right conditions to turn those gathered eggs into full grown chickens of photographs.
Not too far from Price Lake is this little scene that I have passed by hundreds, if not thousands of times over the years. It is just a tree on the top of a hill and it will go unnoticed by most, but over time I started to see this for what it really was as a composition. I started to photograph it under different skies and found that it had a lot of different personalities. It became something that I would check out each time I drove past to see if there was something special about the lighting. This particular evening, I was driving through just before sunset and was looking for a composition to put under the sky that was looking promising. When I got here, I loved how the fence was going to catch the light and was hoping that the color would spread over the scene since the sun was actually setting in the opposite direction. I had my egg of an idea based on familiarity with the scene and the hopes in what the sun was going to do. From there, I just set up the composition and waited until the light did what I was hoping it would do. I was rewarded with this chicken of an image. It is my favorite image from here I believe, and it was a scene that I had never really paid attention to until one day when the clouds were particularly interesting over it. From that point on, I found that I was drawn to it because I kept thinking that there was a better image to be had from there. I’m still not done, but after several successful captures, I’m thinking that I probably have a pretty good handle on the really good captures here.
The progression on the Parkway has developed a much deeper understanding of the locations that it has to offer and most of them I have photographed many times over in search of those perfect conditions. This is probably one of the best examples I can think of when it comes to an evolution of my photography based on familiarity with a location. I started going to Doughton Park around 13 years ago for photography. I had stumbled on the picnic area one day as I was looking for subjects to photograph. The first time out I found a lot to capture, but the conditions weren’t great. Since then, I have been back countless times and have gotten very familiar with the different aspects of the park as well as the characters that it has in different lighting.
This image is from my most recent venture there and shows that I still don’t have it all figured out. I had never once even thought of this composition even though this is my favorite tree in the entire park. However, it was due to that familiarity with the location that prompted me to try things that I had not done before. I had plenty of pictures of that tree in different lighting so I was happy to experiment knowing that it might not work out at all. That is typically one of the hardest things for photographers to do when it comes to compositions. I know that it is much easier to go for the “hero image” that just jumps out at you rather than risk blowing the light on a composition that doesn’t work out. However, it is breaking from that safety zone that allows you to really express your own creativity. I know I will be back here again and again so if I mess something up, I’m really not out anything at all.
A side note about this particular location and why I’m really harping on finding inspiration in areas that you are familiar with is this. Photographers really get hung up on locations and want to go to far flung places because they have seen an iconic image captured from there. Chances are, if you go there, you will get the same composition and if you are lucky, you will get decent light. You will be reinventing the wheel and unless you capture the scene in magical once in a lifetime light, you probably aren’t going to be as impressed with your own image as the one that brought you there. However, if you concentrate on areas that you are close to and visit often, you will become an expert in those areas and will know the subtle nuances of them which will yield the pictures that other photographers will travel to try and recreate. In short, you will get better images focusing on areas where you are most familiar with. As an added bonus, since I’ve been photographing along the Blue Ridge Parkway for so long I have gotten very familiar with it, and feel comfortable offering workshops out here now, like my Spring Landscape Workshop. It all started because I was familiar with this area and started visiting it frequently for my landscape images.
Landscapes are easy to find for the most part so I don’t expect to have told you much on that front that surprised you. However, the decay aspect of my photography is a much more difficult subject to locate. It is something that I talk about in my Decay Workshop at length, but I can kind of get into it here for the sake of this particular entry. There isn’t anything particularly special about finding these scenes, but something that I have kept in mind when searching is something that I learned in the Police Department. It is called the “Plus 1 rule” which refers to weapons and contraband. If you find one, there is usually another so don’t stop searching. That is my mantra on many aspects of the decay work that I do. Once I find one, there are usually more in the area; but how do I find that first one?
When searching out rural scenes like barns and farms, you aren’t going to look in the city right? Nope, you are going to go out into the country and start your hunting. That same thing applies to rusted cars and trucks. Cities have ordinances that prevent folks from having derelict vehicles on their properties and homeowner’s associations have rules that dictate the conditions of vehicles on the property as well. There are just too many things that will work against finding good rusty examples, but it not a 100%, so keep your eyes out even in the city. For the most part though, you want to go out into the counties where there are no such ordinances and the neighborhoods are usually not governed by associations. That narrows the search area quite a bit when you think about it.
Now that you know what types of places to go looking, the idea is to pick the area that is underdeveloped and has lots of farm land. Even if you aren’t hunting barns, it is the farmers that will have all their old vehicles tucked away on their properties because they were tools and could one day be fixed and used again. Once you find an area that has an old rusted vehicle, you know you are in the right place. Keep looking for that plus 1 either around the same property, or one of the neighboring properties. Turn down those dead end roads and especially the gravel roads.
That was the situation with this image above. I had been out in the area of Traphill which has shown a lot of potential in the times that I have been out here (which started hunting for landscapes at Stone Mountain State Park). I was in the farming community at this point and just turning down roads where I saw old cars. At the top of this particular road there was a shop with a lot of old cars out on the side of the property. None of them would make for a good picture, but it was a start. The deeper I got down the street, the more I saw that had promise. Around one of the curves I found this truck which was perfect for a photograph. There was a story to be told here with the trees, and the colors all worked together.
This photograph prompted contact from the actual property owner who wanted to get a print of this and a few others that I had shot that day from the same family property. We worked out the details and I was out there the next day delivering about eight prints. I only mention that because while I was driving back out to the property, I was looking and saw an old house which I had seen the other day that hadn’t really shown much promise, but with the sky overhead, I could see a photograph developing. Sadly, I didn’t have my camera with me, nor did I have the time that evening. However, the next day, the conditions were very similar and Toni and I went back out there to capture the house.
I was rewarded on this visit by a cat in the window which I hadn’t even seen originally when I started photographing the house. It was that cloudy sky that really pulled off the image for me and made it a success. At this point, I was feeling a bit more comfortable with the area and I was getting used to the various stories that it offered. I started to explore it more thoroughly and as I did I was getting some really great images along the way. I was turning down more and more back roads and finding those little hidden gems and meeting more and more of the folks in the area. It was quickly becoming one of my favorite destinations when it came to rural photography.
During all of the trips out to Traphill, I kept passing by this Pure Sign which was outside of the Gambill’s Store along the main stretch of road. The sign always caught my eye because it was an old sign and one that had some rust developing from some bullet holes. It fell into what I loved to shoot, but I really didn’t know how best to capture it. It was through repeated trips into the area and seeing it in different conditions that I was finally able to visualize an image when the clouds were looking particularly good around it. Had it not been for finding that original subject in Traphill, I wouldn’t have kept coming back and would have never found the inspiration to capture this sign.
As a side note on the this sign, the store actually ended up belonging to the family of the client that had reached out to me about the truck earlier. She wanted to get a print of this sign as well so when I went back to deliver it to her, we started talking about two old houses that her family owned which she had expressed interest in having photographed. I had looked for them, but hadn’t found them….or at least I thought I hadn’t found them. One of them I had seen several times before and actually wanted to photograph, but couldn’t get in close enough without permission so I didn’t bother with it having no idea that it was the one that she had been talking about. These are some of the funny stories along the way of my photography.
This turned into a very fun session where I was able to get images of the two houses and even managed to get a bucket list image that I had been after for a while. I had this egg of an idea after seeing some images of old bottles over the years from other photographers. I loved the historic look of them and the old country feel, but never really found a scene to capture. I suppose it would have been easy enough to stage the scene to photograph it, but that is not my style at all. I love to photograph it as I find it, and I just hadn’t found the scene until now. As I was working in closer to the house, I saw it and knew that this was the scene to photograph for that idea that I had been carting around in my head for so long. It felt wonderful to finally get the image created and I’m quite proud of it. More to the point for what we are talking about, you can see how one subject will develop into many subjects rather quickly. In a short period of four months or so, I had captured probably 30 images or more from the area all because I started to find things that I wanted to put in front of the camera and kept coming back digging deeper. It is like the Blue Ridge Parkway example that I talked about. The more familiar you become with an area, the more you will find to photograph, and the more you learn about the area the more that you will understand the scenes that you find.
A quick legal side note
Finding the scenes might seem like the hard part, and to a point there is a bit of skill involved in finding the places and being comfortable enough to go hunting for them on these back roads. However, this is the easy part and you are in the safety of your own vehicle during this part of the process. It is only time and gas that you need to be aware of. Once you find the subjects, then the dynamic changes quite a bit. How do you get the picture without getting shot or arrested…in that order actually. Remember, you are in the country and the Sheriff’s Deputies are going to be a while getting there more than likely and property owners in these areas are very likely to have plenty of guns that are easily accessible. I worry about getting shot way more than worrying about talking to the Deputies. So, how do I handle this?
This is another aspect that I talk about in my Decay Workshop because it is very important in this type of photography. I’ll even use the location of the workshop to illustrate my point here. I try to be very respectful of other people’s property when it comes to my photographs. I guess it is a carry over from my days as a police officer and I am very aware of expectations of privacy and where I can legally be as a private citizen. With the scenes I shoot, there are usually two options available to me. The first is I can shoot the scene from the road, or the shoulder of the road which is easement and public right of way as it is part of the street. This extends 10 feet on either side of the road in most cases. Beyond that, I have to enter the property of another which is where things get dicey at times.
It was that first option that I used in the shot above. I had gotten lost out in East Bend and was looking for a good rural scene to photograph. I had passed by a number of barns in the area but nothing jumped out at me as a photograph. It wasn’t until I arrived at this shop that I saw a barn and white firetruck. The overall scene was just too good to pass up. There was a house on one side and a shop on the other, but it was starting to rain so I didn’t want to take the time to knock and ask permission to get onto the property. Since what I was interested in was easily visible from the street I set up on the shoulder to capture this panoramic image. I would have been happy with that, but as I was wrapping things up, the property owner came out and introduced himself. He asked what I was doing and I let him know. Always be honest with the property owners as they are looking for clues that you are up to no good. We chatted for a quick minute and he insisted that I come onto the property and get as many pictures as I wanted.
To make a long story short, Dean and I struck up a friendship and he gave me an open invitation to come out whenever I wanted to for photos. I took him up on that and came back every few months to get new images when I was in a rusty mood. This developed into some other opportunities along the way. One of which came from this Rat Rod Cadillac Limousine which I shot on a subsequent visit under much better conditions than that first day. I found out that the owner of this car just stored it at the shop for simplicity and was getting ready to sell it. Because I had shown Dean what my photographs were all about, he had developed a love for my style and convinced the owner of the car to let me shoot the spread for the add. Because I had done things the right way by being respectful of the property, I was now given the opportunity to do a commissioned shoot on this car which went very well.
From there, Dean hired me out to do a photo shoot of his most recent creation which turned out wonderful. This falls into that “plus 1” category as well because after the original photograph that I shot there, I was able to get onto the property and photograph all of his toys and shells of cars. It was this opportunity that turned into another great opportunity for me. Around the end of 2018, I was headed in the direction of starting my workshops and my friend Nick was wanting me to do workshops on subjects that I could specialize on. One of these subjects was in the area of decay. It is very hard to do a workshop with multiple people where we just go hunting on back roads and have to pull off on shoulders to get our photographs. Plus, that draws the wrong kind of attention. However, this is definitely a type of photography where I have a unique ability to capture. Wanting to do a workshop, but wanting it to be consolidated in a target rich environment, it seemed only logical to do it at Dean’s shop. Of course, he was happy to let me host a workshop there which I have done several times since and have another one scheduled in a couple of weeks from now. There are still spots available so get signed up today!
What happens when you can’t shoot from the road and you need to access the property. The safest bet is to locate the house that is most closely related to the area you want to shoot and knock on the door. Chances are, this will be the property owner and you can ask directly. Other times, they will know who the owner is and will help you get in touch with them. Again, honesty is the best policy here and I would say full disclosure is good as well. I will always stress that I shoot things as I find them and will not touch or otherwise manipulate any of the property that I am around. Other than some footsteps, they won’t even know I was there. That was what happened in the case of this old Pontiac near Brevard. I had been shooting waterfalls that morning and saw this car on the way back home and decided to give it a shot. I had to knock on the door of the house because I was going to need to get well into the property in order to capture this car which just had the best patina. The compositions were difficult because of competing elements, but they were much worse from the road so I was happy to get in close. It was simple to get permission here but other times it is more difficult and impossible at other times. I have run into those folks that just don’t want me on their property and I can understand that. After I plead my case, if they aren’t convinced, then I just walk away and don’t push the issue any further. I will leave my card so that they can go onto my site and see what I do with hopes that they will call me back and say they have had a change of heart. I’ll also offer property owners a free 8×10″ print of their choice if they allow me on their property which helps some times.
What if you have to access the property to get the picture and you can’t find anyone around. This is where you have to use your best judgement I think. I will look for “No Trespassing Signs” first of all and if I see any, I will opt not to enter the property. I’ve also learned that in the country, purple paint on trees and posts is a legal indicator just the same as the sign. If it is a commercial location, I will consider where a customer could be as with this image from Randolph County. The car I wanted to photograph was sitting in front of a body shop and there were no signs indicating that I shouldn’t be there outside of business hours. Since I was going to work in the parking lot, I felt comfortable getting the shot, but I made sure that I didn’t do anything that could be considered suspicious or put me in really close proximity to the car. I just really loved the scene and the overall feel, but needed to get in close to get the right perspective.
In other situations, you might find a scene that doesn’t appear to be attached to any other property to where you could knock on the door. Here you look for the signs and fences that would indicate that the owners are intending to keep people out. In this particular situation, I was driving down an old country road in Stokes County if memory serves. I had found farm land and a few old cars in the area and this was my plus 1. I had caught the gleam of chrome through the trees and after looking for a house to knock on without success I pulled off the road to check it out. It was a small embankment and then through a line of trees which brought me to this scene with two old barns and two rusted cars. I looked around and saw nothing indicating that the owners didn’t want anyone there. Knowing the trespassing laws, until I was asked to leave the property, I wasn’t technically trespassing. I weighed my options and decided that if confronted I had a viable reason for being there and would ask permission at that point. if permission was refused, I would have to leave, or be in violation of the law. With that in mind, I did what I could stand, and I captured images for about 30 minutes here. It was a gamble and the least safe out of all of the options I have gone through. Had there been anything indicating that they didn’t want me there, I would have forfeited the scene without question, and that was my attitude if I was confronted. When I was done, there were no indications that I had been there and nothing had been moved at all which is just how I like it.
What do I look for in a scene?
We will wrap this up by answering the secondary question for this month. What is it that draws me into a scene? I think it goes without saying what types of subjects I enjoy photographing so I won’t go through that part. I think the better answer to this question is the qualities that I look for in a scene which will translate to any type of photography. No matter what I am photographing, there are things that I look for each time which have a huge bearing on whether or not I am even going to consider capturing a scene.
The first thing that I look for is simplicity and the ability to isolate the elements that I want to capture. No matter what I am shooting that particular day, I am always faced with beautiful subjects that I would love to photograph, but that aren’t situated away from other elements that don’t go with the story. For instance, recently Toni and I were out driving in a location where there were two Miatas out behind a house that she thought I might like to photograph. I was definitely interested in the scene for a couple of reasons and was happy to go and check it out. When we got there, there were two cars there as promised, but one was parked in a carport, while the other was off to the side of the carport facing the other direction. There was no way to isolate them and have a composition that flowed.
When I am photographing barns and old houses I am always looking for simple scenes that offer no competing elements for the main subject. In the example above, I positioned the camera in a way that used this old hospital to block the view of a rather large house just to the side of it. I was also able to keep a storage shed to the left of the frame out of view from this angle. Had I shifted in any direction, I would have been forced to include an element that didn’t go along with the story that I was wanting to capture with this solitary building. Being able to isolate and simplify what I am wanting to shoot is a big part of what draws me into a scene.
The next thing that I will look at is the lighting of a scene. This will dictate if I shoot the scene that day, or come back later on. There are many different types of lighting that can be worked with, but for the most part, I love the diffused light of a cloudy day as you see above. If the sun is out, I have to take into account the direction of the light as well as the intensity. If the lighting doesn’t work, I will come back another time. It is as simple as that.
Colors are another important aspect of the images that I capture. I will evaluate the colors of the scene and make sure that the compliment or contrast to make sure that it will be visually appealing. If this part doesn’t really pan out, I will look at doing the scene in black and white to concentrate on the lighting and the composition more than anything else. In general though, I want to make a cohesive image which has all of the colors working in the same direction for the mood I am after.
I talk about “the story” of a scene quite often, and that might be the most important part of the puzzle for me when it comes to what scenes draw me in. It might seem a little odd to think of a photograph in the terms of a story, but there are several different points where they relate to each other. A story could be something as simple as scene that is captured that makes you think about the history of the subject. This is where my decay photography comes into play quite often as the subjects that I capture all have history to them. I try to capture them in a way that prompts the viewer to imagine the past life of that subject and include enough clues to get that imagination rolling while not giving so many clues that it becomes just a picture of a location that no longer seeks a connection with the viewer.
My landscape images are a little more difficult to describe an actual story though. These images are less about engaging the imagination to fill in the details of the life events of the subject and more about engaging the other senses. The story in a landscape image is primarily about emotion and reaction. This is the story, and the composition guides the viewer through the frame in order to have them arrive at the intended reaction. Take for instance this recent image from Price Lake which we talked about before. The story here is one of calm and relaxation. It is a story that you can sit down and read over and over to relieve your stress and anxiety. It engages you sense of smell, your sense of hearing, and well as the sense of touch as you can feel the warm air on your skin. The sense of sight becomes secondary in this image as your imagination takes over and transports you to this place. Again, this is not a picture to document what was in front of the camera, it is a picture with a story to share.
It is that story that is the result of all of my efforts in finding locations, composing them, and finding the best light for them. What draws me to a scene is simply put…what is the story that it offers? I’m after more than just a pretty picture. I want something that forces the viewer to become engaged with the scene. I want there to be questions that come up which can then be entertained through looking for clues through the image. Whether it is the history of an old rusty truck, maybe an old church, or a mountainous landscape, I want the viewer to be there with me while I was capturing the scene and have an interest in what was captured. Beauty in a photograph is as fleeting as beauty on a person. It can only be appreciated for so long before the need for substance comes to light. I strive to capture scenes that are pretty, but also have that substance to keep the interest going long after the initial “wow, what a great scene” passes.
I hope that this answers the questions that were asked. It was a little harder to really put the answers into words than I would have thought. They are simple questions, but I hated to come here and say that I get lost and lucky to find the scenes, and look for things that engage my imagination to capture. In essence that is what I do more often than not. I am even getting to where I plan fewer and fewer of my treks around specific compositions and subjects because I want the mood to strike at the time that I am capturing the image because that is when I get the strongest images. It might be that loose concept that has been floating around in my head, or me responding to what is right there in front of me, but in the end, what draws me to a scene is more emotional than aesthetic.
Thank you for joining me and I hope you enjoyed this Behind the Camera. I’m sorry that it got a little lengthy, but there was a lot that I wanted to share on the subject. If I’m lucky, it will enable you to understand my photography more than you have, and possibly will prompt you to look at your own photography a little differently as well. If there is something that you are interested in learning about my photography, please don’t hesitate to ask and you might find it will become the next featured entry.