Welcome back to another Behind the Camera feature! In this monthly feature I will usually take a question or idea that has come up in the last month and share my thoughts on it with a little more detail than in a single comment. I’ll be honest, since the beginning of September, I have not had a lot of time to think with all of the changes going on in my life and trying to refocus myself on photography more than ever. In the last days of the month I finally started to think about what I would be discussing with the October feature. Well, more to the point I realized that I hadn’t thought about it at all and it was time to really consider what I wanted to say. Then it hit me, well…Actually, I just saw a post from Nick Page, a terrific landscape photographer, that kind of resonated with me. He was talking about those photographers who do that strategically placed leaf in an Autumn scene right there in the foreground. He did it as a funny commentary on one of the most active seasons for a landscape photographer, but I really think that he was being rather serious about his position. I hadn’t really given it much thought before, but had recognized the element that he was talking about long before he said anything. Then it all kind of came together and reminded me of something that I have held strong in my own photography. Since the beginning, I have always promoted “Shoot it as you find it.” That is a simple way of saying capture the scene as it is and as it caught your eye. I’m all about telling the story of a subject through the image, and part of the story is how I found it in the first place.
From there, I actually started to realize that I had a little bit to say on Nick’s subject and I thought it would be a good starting point to use for this month’s feature. I’ll go ahead and play devils advocate for a second to get things started. One of the comments that I saw on the post that Nick did stated something to the effect that we are artists and if we want a leaf there, we can put a leaf there. Yes, that is true. We are artists and I can see validity to that statement. I’m all about an artistic vision with our images and I have very little problem with a photographer manipulating a scene (as long as no harm is done to the landscape) within reason. Placing a leaf in a key position of an image is not that big of a deal from an artist perspective and it does add a lot of visual impact to a Fall landscape shot. Is it true to the scene though? That is where my opinion comes into play. Nick talks about placing that bright yellow leaf right on a rock where it would have never fallen in the first place. That is not being true to a scene. Moving a leaf a few inches so that it makes sense in the story…that is something completely different and would be part of the scene.
I have moved a leaf a time or two in an image, or even cleared off some leaves that didn’t make sense to my image. This is not to say that I would walk to a different location and get a leaf, and certainly I have never gone into a scene carrying a bag of leaves. However, my daughter would have loved that job about 8 years ago when she was fascinated with counting the leaves that fell out of the trees in the front yard. What I incorporate in a scene that I photograph is readily available in that scene, and the vast majority of the time I leave it all as it is. That is how I stay true to a scene in my photography. For me, everything in a scene tells the story of what I’m looking at. If there are elements there that don’t help that story, I decide if I can compose around them or incorporate them in a different way. If I can’t work all of the elements into the story line, then the image just won’t work for me. I’ll move on and work on something else.
I had the opportunity to run into this very scenario earlier in September when I was in the area of Brevard, NC. I ran across this awesome Pontiac in a field just off of a side road. The car was wonderful with a great deal of patina and it was placed in some nice overgrown grass which was just like I always want to find these cars. The problem was it was sitting right next to an old RV trailer which wasn’t all that picturesque. I had to look at my options and weigh them out. If I was really good with Photoshop, I could have replaced the entire background with something else, but that wouldn’t have been the story of this scene. It would have been a work in fiction which I don’t like dealing with in my photography. I wanted to create an image that was true to the scene and included exactly what was there. I just had to organize in a way that made sense.
For me to get the perspective I liked with the car, I was going to have to go with a wide angle lens which was going to include the trailer, no question about it. I worked around the front of the car for a while until I found a compromise I could live with. I used the trailer with a complimenting brown stripe and the oxidized white siding as a bit of visual balance to keep the eyes around the front of the car. I got down low enough so that the trailer blocked the view of the barn that was behind it. Interestingly enough, the barn would have been a fantastic backdrop for this car, but the RV was in the way. I managed to get the hood ornament positioned right in the brown strip which helped draw attention to that particular element. The trees that appeared just above the trailer added to the depth by giving a firm background to the image while the sky added a sense of scale to the scene. The last part of the story that I was telling was completed in post processing. This was shot in the latter stages of Summer so the grass was still mostly green. I dialed that back in Lightroom to have a more brown appearance which helped keep the trailer from standing out so much and it gave a more painterly feeling to the entire image. The white siding on the trailer was dodged in a bit to reduce the exposure and bring a more aged look to it, again to keep with the theme of the scene. In the end, my compromise paid off and I was able to tell the story that I was wanting to while using an element that I wasn’t all that happy with in the first place. This image is all about family trips and fun on the highways back in the 50’s, only as told 65 years later after time has taken its toll on the vehicles.
Just in case my concept didn’t work with the wide angle shot, I decided to take a different approach while I was still on location. This shows the power of focal length changes in an image and how you can manipulate the scene without ever touching anything. I went with a telephoto lens here which compressed the image and allowed me to focus on a very narrow section of the scene. I backed up about 100 feet from the car and shot this image. Obviously, I was able to miss the RV trailer which was now to the left of the frame, just on the other side of the small tree. There was also a house which had nothing to do with the story to the right of the frame, just beyond the edge. I shot this in a 1:1 crop in camera so that I knew I had everything in place that I wanted. I just wanted to include the car and tree as my two main elements. The tree dictated the upper frame of the image and gave an element that filled the height of the frame. The story here was a little bit different, but I was still able to capture it the way I wanted to originally.
What this image is all about is a car that was parked when that tree wasn’t even there. Over the years, the car aged and the tree grew. Since this car has all of the bits and pieces attached to it, it really looks like time just stood still and it aged in place. When I started processing the image and really got in tune with the story, another story came to mind which is how the title came to be. This car might just wake up some day from its long slumber and wonder where the last 100 years went. At least that is my take on this piece.
The two stories presented here with the same subject show the power of perspective in a photograph. Nothing was moved or changed in the scene to produce two very different stories. In response to the comment I mentioned before…Yes, we are artists with our cameras. We have the ability to shape a scene as we want to, just by moving around. We don’t need to change the scene any to suit a preconceived notion of what art is. Art is what you make it, and if you happen to find that leaf sitting on a rock, or close to it, then capture that scene with the leaf. Don’t bring a leaf because you saw somebody else do it and get a ton of likes on social media. You are no longer an artist at that point, you are just following a mold that somebody else made.
I guess since we are talking about that strategically placed leaf in a landscape image, I would be remiss not to include an image dealing with that topic. Here is my strategically placed leaf, only I had nothing at all to do with the placement. This was just sitting on the ridge of the cascade I was shooting. I loved the splash of color and thought that it balanced the image out quit well so I framed up a shot and captured it. I don’t know how it was glued there like it was, but it never did move. This shows the power of shooting it as you find it. I would have overthought the placement of the leaf and it would have come across as fiction to the viewer. Nature placed this leaf there and who am I to judge if it was in the right place or not. It worked for the image, or rather I created a composition that fit the leaf. Nature provided the scene, I just shared the story.
The idea of shooting a scene as you find it carries through to all types of photography, not just landscapes. We as photographers have a very interesting place in the art community. Our tool of choice is designed to capture reality and record exactly what is seen through the lens. That is the assumption on the part of the viewer. A painter, or sketch artist, on the other hand goes by a completely different set of rules. We are never under the assumption that the work that they create is absolutely true to a scene. It is their perception, and I have said it more than once that I have the utmost respect for those that can create an image from a blank sheet of paper using only their creative mind to dictate what is on that paper. My daughter is like that, and it is amazing when she actually does her artwork. I can’t function like that, I need to find a scene in front of me and then I can capture and portray it through the use of the camera.
When we capture an image with a camera, the result is assumed to be faithful to the scene we saw. However, as I mentioned in the leading image to this feature, I changed the tonality of the grass to fit with the story better. It was much greener in reality. How is that different from strategically placing a leaf in an image, or for that matter placing anything extra in the image? That is for the artist to decide after careful consideration. For me, changing how the colors appear is still being true to a scene and is a faithful representation of what the camera saw. Adding something to the image that was not there to begin with changes the natural look of the scene and creates something that more than likely never existed. Not saying that it shouldn’t be done, but it is a slippery slope because you will eventually get so carried away with placing objects in your scenes you will start to use that as a crutch and you will end up with repeat cameo appearances with the same character. How awkward would that be?
Here is an example of an image where I actually did drag a fallen tree into a particular location at Stone Mountain State Park last year. The clouds were phenomenal that day and I was having a hard time finding a visual anchor for the image. I was getting set up to where I could get the clouds to the best effect and happened to find this small tree about 20 feet away. The angles were wrong on it and I would have been shooting into the trees, but by moving it just a bit down the side of the mountain, I was able to get a fairly interesting foreground. This tree was native to the area obviously so it added to the story. I didn’t move it far, so it was very likely to have ended up in that spot so it fit the scene. Yes, I moved an element into the scene, but it is totally believable when you are looking at the image. That is key when you are changing the scene, it has to look believable to the viewer. There are very few perfectly placed leaves on rocks out there, but you would never suspect that after looking at Instagram.
This image was actually shot in the middle of summer. I strategically placed every one of the leaves in this image.
No I didn’t!!! I would still be out there setting this shot up if I did that.
Actually, I am sharing this image for a slightly different reason. Along the same lines of shooting a scene as you found it is having it represented realistically. In one of the Facebook Groups I am a member of, Blue Ridge Mountain Life, Larry Deane made a very good point about Fall Photos and I feel it is worth mentioning here. He warned about oversaturation of images, especially with the fall leaves. That is a real problem for sure because it really gives an unrealistic view of what the mountains offer this time of year. It falls into the same realm as strategically placed leaves in an image. It is all for that wow factor and to garner likes and shares and all that social media stuff. There is just a point where images start to look garish with the saturation levels that are being used by some photographers out there. You have all seen examples of that where the different color channels are actually clipping and you can see that something is completely unnatural with the scene. Not only does it give an unrealistic expectation of things, it actually hurts what could be a really good image. The key to post processing when it comes to saturation is subtlety. Make small changes, and then make sure that the changes make sense and fit the mood of the image.
The image that I have shared here is still one of my favorite Fall images two years after I shot it. It was at the beginning of the season and the colors in the mountains were still primarily green, even at Graveyard Fields. There were pockets of brilliant color though which was what I was excited about photographing. I found this one section well off of the path that had a lot of color and there was one green tree smack in the middle of the scene. I used a long telephoto lens with a limited depth of field to soften and blur the colors around the tree, while making the white bark and the green leaves the anchor for the image. The color contrasts is what sold this image, not the saturation. It was a realistic representation of that small section of the landscape. The assumption was that the colors went on like this for the entire area which they didn’t, but the colors here are faithful to the actual colors that I saw that day.
As a final image for this feature, I would like to talk about this one for a moment. I actually struggled with this scene quite a bit before and during the shoot. I loved the car when I passed by it on the road out searching for new locations. I just knew that the garage would cause me problems. Again, if I were better at Photoshop, I could replace the barn and everything else with a nice mountain scene, or even put the ocean behind it. That isn’t my style though. What I did like about garage was the red and yellow in the windows of the one door that added a bit of warmth to an overall cool color palette. I decided that the garage would stay in the image and be an important part of the composition. When I returned to shoot it several weeks later, I was setting the camera up and and started to realize all of the litter around the car. This wasn’t my property so I didn’t want to touch anything. That is always one of my biggest selling points for getting permission to photograph these old cars. I always promise not to touch anything. My initial thought was to clone out the trash that was on the ground beside the car. It would be easy to do with the random patterns in the leaves.
When I got the image home and started to work on it I considered doing the cloning that I had been planning on. I actually had a revelation about that plan and opted to leave the trash there. Looking at the scene, the trash actually belonged where it was. It told the story of the car and its state of neglect. There was no way I could have strategically placed items in the scene that would have been convincing, but what was there made perfect sense. I left them in place in the image and didn’t think about it again until I selected this image to be in a competition. I again thought about cloning out the trash, and again decided to leave it there. It was printed and framed just like this. The trash really became noticeable at 13×19″ and I started to get worried. Would the cans and bottles distract from the main subject? Would it look less thought out? I admit, I was nervous about this entry going into competition, but my choice was the right one. The print won top honors in the contest and really validated my “Shoot it as you find it mantra.”
Do I have anything against photographers who do heavy image manipulation both in the field and in post processing? Not at all. I respect all photographers who produce good work regardless of their methods. I think that all photographers have their own internal rules and limits for how they create and that is what makes us all unique in a field where our main tool captures only what it can see. My personal choice will always be to shoot it as I find it. I remain not only true to the scene, but true to myself as well.
Thank you for joining me once again for my Behind the Camera Feature. It is always a lot of fun to put together, and allows me to share a little bit about what makes me tick as a photographer. Speaking of Fall colors, there is still room in my upcoming Fall Foliage Workshop which will be at Stone Mountain, NC on Oct 25th. I invite you to come along and learn a little bit about landscape photography while capturing some of the beautiful colors that NC has to offer. Keep in mind that my prints are all for sale, so if one of them speaks to you and you would enjoy having it on your wall, please let me know. It is very much appreciated when you support the artist.