Shoot for Joy

I recently had the opportunity to listen to and shoot with Bryan Peterson at the Out of Acadia conference in Maine.  During his talk (and subsequent excursions out in the park), Bryan talked about the difference between shooting for satisfaction and shooting for joy.  According to Bryan, a "satisfactory image" is the bucket list image, the one you can buy at the gift shop.  For landscape photographers, satisfactory images are often those iconic locations you have to shoot, the ones that everyone shoots (postcards) but you need as part of your portfolio to legitimize your portfolio. 

But, "joyful" images are those you create and thus are unique to your portfolio.  They are, in a way, discovered by you and in his talk, Bryan challenged us to discover more joy in our photography because, as he explained, what drives photographers are not the satisfying shots, it’s the joyful shots.  

(Side note:  Dean Shareski has been writing and talking about the importance of joy in education for a long time.  His TED Talk on this topic can be found here)

Vermont Sunset Stowe, VT

Vermont Sunset
Stowe, VT

After his talk I thought quite a bit about my portfolio, I found a lot of truth in Bryan's words.  Of all of the images I have created over the years, there is one that is undoubtedly my most talked about.  It's also an award winner.  

This cow was not bringing me joy when I first saw her.  I had positioned myself in a field in beautiful Stowe, VT, using a meandering fence as a leading line toward Mount Mansfield with a beautiful summer sunset overhead.  While waiting for the light to be just right, dozens of cows came running across the field, right up to the fence I was using in my shot.  Curses! They were now in my shot.  Cows in the foreground are not iconic!  I picked up my gear and starting moving around, looking to somehow engineer a composition that excluded the cows, but wherever I went they all followed.  They simply wouldn't get out of the way!  After ten minutes, the number of cows mirroring my every moment had dropped to just one.  But she wasn't giving up, when I moved, she moved.

By this point, my family and friends were well into dinner and most likely a few local brews back at the condo we rented and I couldn't shake this freakin' cow.  She was in the way, the light was fading, and I was angry.  My iconic (read:  satisfying) shot of a summer sunset over Mt. Mansfield was going to be lost.

And then it hit me, the sunset wasn't the subject, SHE was.  She was the "joyful shot" waiting to be created. Once I stopped feeling sorry for myself and realized I was missing the REAL shot, I took the camera off the tripod, cranked the ISO up to 1600, hand held it close to the ground tilted up, and hit the shutter.  Once.  I would like to say that the matching colors of the flowers and the sunset coupled with the cow staring right at the camera was all planned, but in reality it was just dumb luck... nothing preplanned, nothing thought out.  It was simply an instinctive action to capture something different, something no one else had. 

Sitting in Bryan's talk in Acadia, more than year after this image was created, I realized that I was in Stowe shooting for satisfaction (the iconic Vermont sunset), but the magic happened when my mindset opened itself up to shooting for joy.  As a result, not only has this image become my best selling image (by far) it is one that no other photographer has. 

She is all mine, and that fills me with joy.

 

PS:  Recently she became a covergirl having won the AAA Northern New England 2017 Photo Contest. 

Holy Cow

Holy Cow

Shooting An Icon

Bass Harbor Light at Sunset ISO 50 / 28 mm / f18 / 1/5 sec

Bass Harbor Light at Sunset
ISO 50 / 28 mm / f18 / 1/5 sec

When I signed up for Out of Chicago's Out of Acadia workshop back in the spring, I knew that Bass Harbor Lighthouse would be a must stop.  Living and shooting in New England I had yet to make my way to this icon and I knew that this would be my opportunity.  

The Bass Harbor Light at sunset was the first excursions I signed up for.  When I saw that it would be led by Nick Page, it became a no-brainer.  I have been a fan of Nick's for several years and know I was going to learning from him was a big reason I chose to attend Out of Acadia.  Nick is relatively new to the landscape photography game, but his growth has been astounding, so to check off a bucket list shot with him was too good to pass up.  

We arrived at the lighthouse 90 minutes before sundown and found a traffic jam.  We considered leaving and finding another location, but a quick recon of the area showed that many people were coming and going, so parking would be available soon.  However, finding a traffic jam along the coast of Maine was a sobering reminder of why these locations are considered icons: everyone wants an image of Bass Harbor Light in their portfolio.  Much like it's sisters to the south, Nubble Lighthouse and Portland Head Light, Bass Harbor Light is a must get for all New England landscape photographers, a fact that we were quickly reminded of when we tried to pull into the already full parking lot.  

The difference between Bass Harbor and other lighthouses though, is that Bass Harborhas a much smaller footprint upon which to shoot.  Where Nubble and Portland Head Light each have tons of space and multiple angles allowing photographers to spread out, Bass Harbor really has just one area from which to shoot... and it's not very big.  On our evening, there were 150+/- photographers vying for the postage stamp sized area to shoot.  We were lucky, though.  We were able to find a location that our group could share when the time came to capture the moment.  Here are images by Alex McClure and Nick of the area we claimed and the viewpoint we were shooting (that's me in the first orange shirt):

Bass Harbor Crowds Credit:  Alex McClure

Bass Harbor Crowds
Credit:  Alex McClure

Bass Harbor Viewpoint Credit:  Nick Page

Bass Harbor Viewpoint
Credit:  Nick Page

What you can't see in either of these images are the individuals found in between the rocks, crouched in crevices and stationed on the other side of the large boulder from which Alex captured his iPhone shot above.  As I mentioned above, I would estimate that there were 150 +/- people in the area, all trying to stay out of the composition of their neighbor.  

So, yeah, it was busy.  We were shooting an icon, with the hoards.  But as the sun set and blue hour set in, the others left our group behind.  Alone on the Maine coast with the icon to ourselves, Nick turned to the group and said, "this is when the image gets interesting". 

If you take a look at the shot of the group from above, you will note a lone photographer down on the rocks by the water.  That is Mark Denney, one heck of a photographer in his own right.  Mark positioned himself on a tiny rock outcrop that got smaller and smaller as the tide rose.  He had the best angle of all of us and, once the crowds left, blue hour set in, and the red light on the lighthouse became more visible, we all took turns shooting the icon from that vantage point.  With a tide pool just in front of the outcrop providing a nice reflective surface, that location, at that time, made our last shots of the iconic Bass Harbor Light the more interesting ones.  

Bass Harbor Light ISO 1000 / 28mm / f11 / 1.6 sec

Bass Harbor Light
ISO 1000 / 28mm / f11 / 1.6 sec

And another interesting composition was found when we explored a small puddle on the rocks:

Bass Harbor Reflection ISO 1000 / 27mm / f11 / 30 sec

Bass Harbor Reflection
ISO 1000 / 27mm / f11 / 30 sec

Like other icons, Bass Harbor Light requires some planning, and perseverance to get "the shot" for your portfolio.  But with patience, and a willingness to stay to "when the image gets interesting" you can not only get that iconic shot, but more interesting images as well. 

 

Gear used for these shots
Camera:  Canon 5D Markiii
Lens:  Canon EF 16–35mm f/2.8L III USM Lens
Tripod:  Manfrotto MT055CXPRO4 055 Carbon Fiber 4-Section Tripod with Horizontal Column
Tripod Head:  Really Right Stuff 055 Ball Head
Camera Bag:  Pro Trekker 450 AW Camera Backpack From Lowepro
Filters:  LEE Filter System

Thomas Heaton Challenged Me... Twice

Portland Head Light in Letterbox Format ISO 400 / 25 mm / f11 / 1/8 sec.

Portland Head Light in Letterbox Format
ISO 400 / 25 mm / f11 / 1/8 sec.

First, yes, it was THAT Thomas Heaton.  For those of you not familiar with Thomas' work, go check out his Youtube channel.  Ten hours later when you are done binge watching his work, come back here and finish reading this post.  You'll understand why this was so meaningful to me.  

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Out of Acadia workshop organized by Out of Chicago in Acadia National Park in Maine.  With 100 passionate participants and 20 professional photographers and venders to help with our techniques, strategies, gear, etc in the iconic Acadia National Park there was no shortage of "aha" moments to be had.  But, when Thomas Heaton challenged me personally, twice, it wasn't hard to take note.  

The First Challenge

The image at the top of this post was taken several years ago at Portland Head Light.  Obviously, it was an epic sunrise in an iconic location.  This is an image that I have sold to clients, have had on the home page of website, and it even won honorable mention in the AAA Northern New England photo contest in 2016.  I love it.  It's one of my "portfolio" shots.  

When I entered the boardroom where Thomas Heaton was waiting to critique my images in front of a group of 15 other photographers I was confident that he would have little to say about this shot.  Seriously, iconic location, epic sunrise, great exposure.  What could he not like?

So, when it was my turn and this shot was shown on the screen, Thomas was mostly complimentary. As I expected, the pro loved my shot. And then he said, "but...". 

Earlier in the session, Thomas talked about how powerful the crop tool can be.  In fact, he said that it "was most powerful tool in Lightroom".  Specifically, Thomas suggested we use the 4x5 crop more frequently, calling it a "classic ratio" that is rarely employed.  His point, that when we crop large (letterbox in my example) the viewer gets lost in the vastness of the image and our main subject is minimized.  On the fly, Thomas re-cropped the gem of my portfolio to the 4x5 ratio:

Portland Head Light in 4x5 Crop

Portland Head Light in 4x5 Crop

I'm not going to lie, I was a bit disappointed when he first cropped it.  The vastness of the ocean, the amazing sky, and the reflection on the water were all minimized. The shot that I had considered one of the best in my portfolio was different, and truthfully I think that bothered me more than that crop itself.   But, Thomas was right.  The lighthouse, which is the main topic of this image was lost in the letterbox crop and while the 4x5 crop minimizes the vastness of the ocean, the wave action, amazing sky and reflection, they are all still there.  The difference however, is the lighthouse is now more prevalent than my original crop.  

What do you think? 

Challenge 2

What made Out of Acadia so special were the excursions led by the professional photographers.  On the second evening, Thomas led a group up Beach Mountain for sunset that I was a part of.  We arrived at our location about 40 minutes prior to sunset. (We got a bit off track, otherwise we would have been there about 30 minutes earlier.  Thanks to Colin Zwirner for getting us the right location.) Once there, Thomas challenged us to find one exposure and wait for the right light.  He told us to not chase different compositions around our locations in ever changing light.  His point, commit to the one epic shot rather than semi-commit to multiple mediocre shots.  

The ridge line we were on allowed for multiple viewpoints and a nice combination of low flora growth and rock outcrops littered the foreground.  In the distance...Great Long Pond and Acadia National Park.  I was determined to work the area to find the right composition and then do was Thomas said, wait for the light.  It took me about 10 minutes to find my composition, which gave me about a half hour to sit and wait for the light.  I needed the sun to get a bit lower in the sky to light up the red plants dotting the composition.  Couple that with a granite outcrop acting as a leading line toward Great Long Pond below and I felt as though I had a winner.  Sure, there were dozens of other compositions and I had to fight the urge to go find them.  I mean, what if I had the wrong composition? What if the "light" never came?  I could have shot that image immediately and moved on to a different composition, but Thomas words were important, so I decided to wait it out.

And I am glad I didBy being patient I avoided the mediocre shot.  Eventually, the side light came and lit up the red brush and granite outcrop.  A quick focus stack (thanks Colin Swirmer) and my image was captured.  What do you think?  

 

Beach Mountain Sunset in 4x5 Crop ISO 50 / 19 mm / f11 / .8sec

Beach Mountain Sunset in 4x5 Crop
ISO 50 / 19 mm / f11 / .8sec

Two Challenges.  Two Take Aways

Thomas' challenges led to two big take aways for me.  First, the crop tool is a powerful way to more clearly identify the main subject of your image.  Second, one powerful image is better than several mediocre ones.  Don't chase mediocrity, wait for epic.  

What do you think?  How do you crop your images?  Do you have the patience to work one composition?  

 

Gear used for these shots
Camera:  Canon 5D Markiii
Lens:  Canon EF 16–35mm f/2.8L III USM Lens
Tripod:  Manfrotto MT055CXPRO4 055 Carbon Fiber 4-Section Tripod with Horizontal Column
Tripod Head:  Really Right Stuff 055 Ball Head
Camera Bag:  Pro Trekker 450 AW Camera Backpack From Lowepro
Filters:  LEE Filter System