Having set up on the dangerously narrow pedestrian walkway that fringes the Nisqually River Bridge, I’d been shooting the sunset for about thirty minutes, when I realised the shots weren’t expressing the scene. I’d caused a couple of minor tailbacks when traffic leaving the park had stopped dead in the road behind me to copy the shot, but the sky was not to my taste. There’s a certain kind of tobacco coloured sunset, where the colour sits low and feels muddy to the pedantic eye.
At first I’d shot some exposures for the sky and the trees, thinking I’d fix the uninspiring mood by blending them into a manual HDR. Suddenly I realised, however, that it wasn’t the camera’s dynamic range at fault – it was the scene. Even if I blended it perfectly, it wouldn’t feel right.
How a photograph “feels” was on my mind, in fact , having re-listened to some excellent David duChemin interviews about what we choose to shoot and how. This one got me thinking especially – there’s some super insight in his thoughts and they hit home.
So I stopped thinking about what the scene looked like, and focused on what it felt like. How would I shoot that.
I’m not saying the result is perfect. It could be a little personal, and thereby contrived. Forgive me if the following strays to pretension – it’s an attempt to express how it felt right, the process I followed and why.
Stood in the growing darkness, the departing cars had thinned to a dull grumble of distant, tree-muffled tyres every fifteen or twenty minutes. I saw one wink through the stands of forest on the far ridge. It felt like a shift was underway; the park’s day time inhabitants were leaving, and an older natural force was waiting to take it’s turn.
One of the things that had appealed to me about the scene was the way the haze of the distance marked out the ridges. Seeking to emphasise this haze, I racked my lens’ tilt to the extreme, and let the slopes drop out of focus. Two things happened – first, the haze became a blur, as if mist was swallowing the valley. That felt right – it felt like the ancient, liquid silence that was seeping out of the forest with the night. Our world was blurring, the neat boundaries shown to the sun were slipping beneath a sea of shadow. Secondly, the distant lights of a car blinked wide into a bokeh highlight. Sat against the slope like an eye, it suggested a strange native American face, gazing up at the moon – which was also emphasised by the tilt’s blur.
There was a solemnity to it. We’d read earlier that day about the Nisqually River and the Nisqually tribe that called it home long before even the first settlers arrived from Europe. Since then, they’ve been moved from the river, had treaties retracted, revised and reneged upon and endured as a miserable series of circumstances as one can imagine. Something about the stoic face, part of the land, unmoving, gazing moonward, felt appropriate to that legacy.
I sketch the above as much for myself and future reference as anything. Imperfect as the shot no doubt is (yes, the “eye” looks a little bit too like a Lightroom pin), it feels important to my process of learning.
When I first started to take pictures, I thought the skill and the goal was to capture a recognisable version of what one saw. Some years later, I finally realised that it could be more – given the laws of physics, the workings of the camera, the light and geometry of the scene, one could do more than capture what it looked like to the human eye – one could express many versions of that scene – through long exposure, for instance, one could discover a scene previously invisible.
As you take that concept to the extreme, however, you are left with the question – what version of this scene should I shoot, given so many possibilities? The answer I am coming to, and it may be different for others, is that one should shoot how it feels.