Working Through Visual Puzzles

In Equipment & Technique, Landscapes, Polarizing Filters, Scenes & Scenarios by Don Smith

Maple Leaves on Fallen Redwood
Maple Leaves on Fallen Redwood, Nisene Marks State Park, California
Sony a7R, Sony 70-200mm @ 200mm, f/20, 4 seconds, 100 ISO, Singh-Ray Neutral Polarizer

It has been my observation in teaching workshops for the past 10 years that there are two types of photographers: There are those whom I call the “trophy hunters,” they have scoured the internet regarding the area they are photographing and are there to shoot the icons. Then there are those who’ll find their own twist on the icons, then move along and find an image that no one else spotted.

There is nothing wrong with shooting the “trophy shots;” in fact, as a workshop leader, I’d be remiss if I did not add them to my list of locations. But I strongly encourage my students to move along after shooting the icons and find something that is uniquely their own.

But this is what will separate the wheat from the chaff as the old idiom goes. My more experienced students seem content in going their own way, while my less experienced students don’t know where to point the camera.

For those students, I try to give them steps to follow. All I have to go by is my experience and that of other pros whom I respect.

Let’s face it, obvious scenes are easy to compose, but less obvious scenes need a trained eye, experience. To simply say, “you were born that way” does not hold water as far as I’m concerned. I wasn’t born with a gift of vision; rather, I had to train my vision through study of master works (paintings and photographs), application, and analysis of what I captured. This has to be done over and over through the years.

After 40+ years of photographing, here is the path I follow in finding images that are not immediately obvious. I call this process, “working through visual puzzles.”

“I wasn’t born with a gift of vision; rather, I had to train my vision through study of master works (paintings and photographs), application, and analysis of what I captured. This has to be done over and over through the years.”

Pay Attention To Emotional Tugs

I created the image (above) the other day in Nisene Marks State Park in Aptos, California. It is a beautiful deep-forest park located in the Southern Santa Cruz Mountains. There are lots of second-growth redwoods, maples, cottonwoods and alders, along with lush green ferns and moss.

While driving through the park, I just allowed my senses to remain open to anything (light and color usually dominating). To my left, my eye was drawn to some maples near peak fall color below a hillside that were peaking through the redwoods and firs. I call this an “emotional tug.”  I’ve learned over the years to pay attention to these “tugs” as they can portend a potential starting point for building a successful composition.

Maple Leaves and Aptos Creek
Maple Leaves and Aptos Creek, Nisene Marks State Park, California
Sony a7R, Ziess 24-70mm @ 24mm, f/22, 6 seconds, ISO 100, Singh-Ray Neutral Polarizer

My search for a possible image began with a walk on a nearby trail. I got to mid-level of the hill and spotted some nice scenes, but nothing that really moved me. I feel that similar to a sport, we need to “warm up” our eye (really our vision). I begin by just getting the camera to my eye and composing. I will also put the camera down at times and just quiet my mind and open my senses.

If nothing is still evident, I will move on. I sensed the potential for a really nice image was there, so I kept poking around and eventually ended up at the base of the ravine at Aptos Creek. It had rained overnight and earlier in the day, and now fog was moving in off the nearby Pacific Ocean. There was not a drop of wind – perfect conditions!

Do You Make Images Or Take Images?

At this particular section of the creek, I spotted a multitude of fallen maple leaves. I sensed that I had all the elements to work with (running water, fall leaves, thick forest, perfect light) but I also felt a certain angst that I could not find a compelling composition. Paying attention to my “emotional tugs” had brought me to this spot: I knew I had the elements to “make” an image that  would be my own, not one that everyone else came to shoot.

A situation like this really makes me have to dig within. I try to relax my mind (not easy for me to do) and reduce my elements to shapes and lines. If the composition was obvious, I could simply “take” an image and move to another location.

Start Tight And Work Backwards

The old saying, “compose and eliminate what isn’t needed,” works a lot for me when I can easily see a composition. But when I am struggling, as I was with this composition, I will oftentimes flip the saying around and start tight, then loosen the frame. Again, this seems to “jump start” my creative process – similar to my “warm up” session that I listed above.

The first thing that caught my eye as I walked up to this scene was this log covered with fallen maple leaves (above). I knew this would be a good starting point. I positioned the redwood to create a diagonal line through my frame. Diagonals are action lines and naturally draw your viewer’s eye through the frame, so I always try to use these lines when I spot them.

It was a good starting point, but it wasn’t the best I could do. I knew that I might be close, so I carefully slid down a muddy section and reached the creek. Everything looked so jumbled to me: (fallen redwoods, a plethora of colorful fallen leaves, a creek, deep forest background with mixed maples, soft light) – “come on Don, focus your mind, an image is here, dig it out – concentrate – find the connections!”

This may seem to you as frustration, but it is truly what I love about photography, it’s a puzzle, and my challenge is to find and arrange the pieces into a meaningful composition.


Getting Closer To A Finished Composition
Sony a7R, 24-70mm @ 70mm, f/16, 2.5 seconds, ISO 100, Singh-Ray Neutral Polarizer

Just to the right of the fallen redwood, I composed this image of maple leaves on four fallen redwoods that spanned Aptos Creek. I first thought of composing the redwoods and using them as my foreground. I really liked the colorful maple in the background surrounded by second-growth redwood.

This is when the spark inside of me told me that I was nearing my desired composition. I could sense that I had something, but it just had to be refined. Could I add another layer to this composition?

Once You Find Your Composition, Refine, Refine Refine…

I worried about the scene becoming too chaotic. Then, I simply looked down around where I was standing for another foreground. As if a message from above (hey, who doesn’t need divine intervention at times) a maple leaf fell from an overhanging branch and landed smack on the foreground log that you see cut-off in the bottom right of the image above.

Instinctively, I zoomed back to 24mm, moved two feet to my right and lowered my tripod. Through my viewfinder, I knew I had it. “how did you not see this initially,” I wondered? I didn’t care, I spotted it now and spent the next 20 minutes carefully shooting, analyzing and recomposing.

I knew there was a lot going on in this composition, so I made certain that I refined and positioned the elements as best I could. I don’t move elements in my scene; rather, I move myself and the camera’s position to the scene.

My other concern was proper depth-of-field. It took careful placement of focus at f/22 to achieve sharpness from back-to-front, but I eventually got it.

In total, I spent over two hours to arrive at this final composition. Shortly after moving to another nearby location up from the creek, I heard a loud snapping noise and a rather large branch (the one that had deposited my divine leaf) came crashing down two feet from where I was standing to capture my final image. I’m not sure what that divine message meant, but glad I wasn’t nearby to receive it fully!

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