Tag Archives: South Carolina

Let Go Of The Literal

One of the best pieces of advice I can give a beginning photographer to help he or she create better compositions – an aspect of photography with which they all say they struggle – is to let go of the literal and embrace the abstract. That doesn’t mean you should start making abstract images, although that’s not necessarily a bad idea either, but instead see the scene abstractly.

So instead of seeing mountains, trees, rocks, and a river, for example, you would look for shapes and lines and how they relate to each other and the surrounding image frame.

For the image above, the corresponding abstract diagram could look like the one that follows:

Notice it contains no reeds, reflection of trees, nor lily pads, but only a poorly-drawn half oval shape and some radiating lines. The literal is gone and all that’s left is the abstract. I could ask myself, “Is this an interesting design that holds my attention?” If no, I would move on. If yes, I have something to work with.

When working with students in the field, I might ask them to squint their eyes a little so the the literal is blurred out and all they can faintly see is the skeletal structure of the scene. This is good practice if you’ve never tried it. The literal just fleshes the image out.

When photographing in a beautiful place, it is too easy to be seduced by the scene’s literal beauty and overlook what really makes a strong composition. The way I see it, there is always time to sit back and appreciate the beauty of nature. In fact, I force myself to step away from the camera from time to time to just sit back and soak it all in. That’s important for many different reasons. But when it’s time to get to work, I’m looking much deeper into the scene for the abstract qualities that are going to take it beyond just a pretty picture and into the realm of true artistic interpretation. That means letting go of the literal.

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No Place Like Home

“The Tree God” Canon EOS 5D MarkIII, Canon 24-105 f4 @ 24mm, 1/40 second @ f20, ISO 320

Spending time photographing old haunts after a significant absence is a lot like catching up with an old friend. No introductions, formalities, or small talk are needed. You just pick right up where you last left off.

I’ve been spending some time in the South Carolina Lowcountry getting reacquainted with some old photographic “friends” like this one. It’s so easy to make a connection with the camera and lens, especially when the emotional connection has already been made years ago. The connection doesn’t feel forced or contrived, it just feels right.

I’ve always contended that photographers do better work with subjects and places with which they are intimately familiar. When I travel to a new location, it usually takes me days before I can do anything meaningful with the camera. The introductions and small talk I mentioned earlier are necessary in order to take the relationship to the next level. It usually involves finding your way around, scouting possible compositions, and just getting yourself oriented but it’s still deeper than that. Making an emotional connection to a place takes lots of nurturing and time – and time is often something we don’t have a lot of.

So after traveling the world photographing so many exotic locales over the past few years, I’m back home. The image making is comfortable, effortless, and deeply satisfying. The small talk has been logged years ago and the affair has been rekindled with nothing more than a suggestive glance.

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Water and Motion

Curiously, one of the most often-asked questions I receive (aside from inquiries on which camera I use, which is just plain ridiculous) is how I make the moving water in my images smooth, silky, foggy, like cotton candy, etc. It’s curious to me because of how easy it is to do. A camera, lens, tripod, polarizing filter, and some overcast light are all that’s needed to achieve a long shutter speed in order gain this effect.

I call this the illusion of motion since a still photo cannot literally illustrate movement but a long shutter speed can still express it effectively.

But merely saying you need a long shutter speed is not enough information for a beginning photographer. For example, how long is long enough?

Roaring Fork, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee. 1-second exposure @ f16

For most stream and waterfall images, I usually aim for a shutter speed in the range of 0.5 to 2.0 seconds. The example above has an exposure time of 1 second, which seems just about right for this image. I prefer the illusion of motion in my water images most of the time but I still want to retain texture and detail in the water. Under most circumstances, exposure times over 2.0 seconds renders the water as an unattractive, featureless white smear.

Yet this is not always the case. There are other factors that must be considered before deciding on a desired shutter speed.

1)   The volume of water. As a general rule, the greater the water flow, the faster the shutter speed. A heavy waterfall with a great volume of water will lose more texture and detail with a longer shutter speed than a similar waterfall with less water.

2)   The focal length of the lens. If you think about it, the water (or any moving object for that matter) must travel a much greater distance to span the image frame with a wide-angle lens than a telephoto.

3)   The subject’s distance. Again, the same principle in #2 also applies here. The farther away the stream or waterfall, the longer the water must travel to span the image frame than a closer subject.

4)   Personal taste.

Schoodic Point, Acadia National Park, Maine. 1/8 second @ f11

Schoodic Point, Acadia National Park, Maine. 1/8 second @ f11

Of the four factors listed above, personal taste – or scene interpretation – is probably most important. For example, a relatively slow shutter speed can express grace or fragility. A faster one can project raw power or even violence. In the example above, the relatively fast shutter speed of 1/8 second expresses the explosiveness of the wave as it crashes on the rocks. Had I chosen any slower shutter speed and the detail in the exploding wave would have been lost.

Hunting Island, South Carolina. 30-second exposure @ f18

In the example above, I preferred no detail in the water.  I wanted this image to reflect pure simplicity and any waves on the ocean’s surface would only be unwanted, unnecessary distractions. A 30-second exposure smoothed out the water, giving me the simple, elegant image I was hoping for.

To achieve shutter speeds of many seconds, you will need a low ISO and/or small aperture and/or low ambient light and/or filtration. As to the latter, I use neutral density filters for long exposures when the ambient light is too bright. Neutral density filters are made of darkened glass which absorbs light without imparting any color cast to the image.

For beginners, a 3-stop ND Filter is a good start. A 10-stop ND Filter will allow for much longer exposures even in bright sunlight, but it’s difficult to focus and compose the scene in the viewfinder since the filter is nearly opaque.

A third alternative is the Singh Ray Vari ND, which allows you to change the strength of the filter to fit each lighting situation.

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Visual Economy

Visual economy, or minimalism, is becoming ever more popular today in art and design. Counterposed to the cluttered, busy, and frazzled realities of modern life, many weary souls are seeking refuge in simplicity wherever it can be found. From art and fashion to the relief of our computers and automobiles, clean and simple design is winning the day and the marketplace is keeping score.

The most effective design is often the result of the least design. A Zen master might surely offer a nod to that sentiment. Or he wouldn’t –  just to have it acheive even greater effect. This is the apparent paradox that most photographers, artists, and designers come to understand in due time. More is usually less just as less is quite often more. True clarity of the subject’s character is only revealed after all non-essential elements and details, which don’t contribute to the essence of the overall composition, are eliminated.


This beach scene was created with the concept of visual economy in mind. Not only did I erect my tripod where any extraneous clutter is excluded from the image frame, but I also deliberately opted for a long shutter speed to negate any distracting waves or details in the water. Waiting for a large wave to wet the foreground sand also allowed for a symmetrical reflection.

This image is featured in my latest eBook, South Carolina Wonder and Light which can be purchased for download in my Earth and Light eStore.

Technical details:

Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina
Canon EOS 5D Mk2, Canon 24-105L @ 105mm, 30 seconds at f18, ISO 100. 6-stop Neutral ND filter.

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Now there’s a ten-dollar word if I ever saw one. Friggatriskaidekaphobia is the ugly spawn of Frigga, the Norse goddess for whom the day Friday is named, and triskaidekaphobia, the fear of the number thirteen. The very existence of the word  illustrates just how deep fear and superstition are ingrained the very fiber of humankind. In fact, an estimated 20 million people – in the United States alone – are affected by real fear over this date.

It ought to go without saying that fear over a date on the calendar is more than just a little irrational. But then, humans are irrational by their very nature, or at least that’s my unlettered opinion.

As I was writing this, I paused for a moment to consider whether I suffered from any crippling phobias myself. All I could come up with was the very real fear of 23-letter words that I could neither spell nor pronounce. But there was a period during my Riverventure canoe expedition when I did experience an episode of unexplainable fear and near panic. This is what I wrote then:

I feel like I’ve always had a healthy respect and admiration for our apex predators in the wild, especially those that present the occasional hazard and inconvenience  to us humans. But as I closed in on the coastal plain, I contracted an irrational case of “gator phobia.” Dozens of 14- to 16-foot specimens sunned themselves along the shorelines of the river, including one that quietly slid into the dark water and stalked my canoe from behind for several hundred feet.

Alligator on the Santee River, South Carolina

At Santee State Park, the staff was abuzz over news of a nearby non-fatal alligator attack on a man who was swimming in Lake Marion during a company picnic. There were newspaper clippings posted on the bulletin board replete with color pictures and the gruesome details that were hardly fit to print. Soon, the cold-blooded creatures occupied most of my waking thoughts. When I paddled over a submerged log, it was a gator. A harmless mud turtle was a gator. When I heard a splash or a bird flew overhead and cast its shadow across the water, it was – you know the routine – a gator. The phantom creatures in my head became a far greater hazard than any real one would be.

With passing time and additional encounters, however, I became philosophical about their presence, eventually embracing them as a living metaphor for the disappearing wilderness of the great Coastal Plain. I no longer looked into their cold eyes with fear, but instead saw fear and mistrust reflected back at me. With exploding suburban sprawl and more frequent contact with humans, cohabitation would not bode well for these misunderstood animals and I sensed they knew it – September, 2007.

If the fear of a very real creature that could easily wrap its jaws around a canoe and launch me into a death spiral to the bottom of a muddy lake can be overcome, there may be hope yet for sufferers of the above titled f-word. So relax, come out from under the bed, go to work, and enjoy this phenominal Friday the Thirteenth!

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