Last weekend I took a much needed trip out into the Columbia River Gorge to shoot some creeks and waterfalls. It’s been a while since I have been immersed in an intimate forest scene with moving water…..something that my soul and spirit needed.
I took off for Gorton Creek, which is a fantastic little creek that cascades down a hillside in the Gorge, complete with two distinct waterfalls, Emerald Falls and Gorton Creek Falls. The initial hike in is fairly easy, maybe one mile on a well defined trail that follows the creek. The rest of the hike to the 80 foot Gorton Falls is not on a developed train and required climbing over rocks, scrambling up hillsides and wading through the creek to make it to the final falls.
But, back to the title of this post and why I’m writing…..Even before I had left my truck to begin the hike, I began the mental process of trying to get “in the zone” photographically; to change my vision to “see” artistically, to look for patterns, shapes and colors that would result in pleasing compositions. Generally I need to “warm up” to get in the zone. Just like regular exercise, this is exercise for the brain and it needs to warm up. Getting in the zone is not an instant process for me, but one that is gradual as I open myself up to my surroundings. Because I don’t live in the zone all of the time (shock!), depending on what’s going on in my life, I can get in the zone fairly quickly, or, it maybe takes some time to work my way into a creative place. There have also been times that no matter how hard I try I couldn’t get there and I end up at a location and I don’t “see” anything that I want to shoot.
On this particular morning, I knew I was distracted by life as I pulled in to the parking lot so I started to focus my thinking on putting aside life and embracing photography and my surroundings. As I began to walk up the trail, listening to the rush of water across the creekbed, the birds singing in the early morning light, smelling the fresh forest scents and feelign the soft trail underfoot, my vision began to open up to my surroundings, to observe subtle details, to take in the macro view as well as small micro views in the forest and how the subtle light shifts affect the scenes. I wasn’t in a rush to snap any pictures at this time, I was more focused on getting into the zone so that when I did decide to shoot, I could do better work by being more in touch with my subject. So on I hiked until I reached my first planned stop of Emerald Falls.
A waterfall is a very noticeable feature and one that is automatic to stop and shoot. It doesn’t take a lot of creativity or insight or awareness to stop and take some classic NW waterfall shots. Knowing that there are some “easy” shots to take of the falls, I got out my camera and set up to shoot to get the the traditional shots out of the way, which might free me up to be more creative afterwards. As I shot the waterfall, first using traditional lenses and techniques, then striving for some more unique shots by using different shutter speeds or longer focal length lenses, I found myself moving deeper into the zone, feeling more creativity flowing, feeling more connected to my surroundings.
Once I had worked the waterfall enough and felt I had at least a few images that were keepers and I could be happy with, I stepped away from the camera to refresh my vision and my mindset. When I arrived at this location, I was so focused on the waterfall because it’s hard to ignore, I didn’t take enough time to appreciate other parts of my location. So I consciously took a step back mentally and reapproached how I viewed my surroundings.
I find that when I’m in the right frame of mind, I’m far more attuned to the scene and it can “speak” to me in ways that I don’t notice when I’m distracted or in a hurry. My vision sharpens, my creativity expands and my senses are heightened, which enables me to look at a scene with a much different perspective. When nature “speaks” to me, it means I am in touch with my surroundings, that I have made a connection and can “feel” my photographs more so than just “seeing” them. There is something basal about this connection and when I have it, I feel that I produce better work which is more creative and more artistic. It’s something that I always strive for, but don’t always attain.
As I stepped back and surveyed the scene again, I began noticing small details all around me. The shape of tree trunks, the texture of rocks, the pattern of ferns dotting the forest floor the movement and texture of the water in the creek. In this heightened sense of awareness my excitement grew as I saw many more photographic opportunities than just the obvious waterfall nearby. I grabbed my camera and began working the scene again, but now with this heightened awareness and a new sense of creativity. During these periods I also make a very conscious effort to throw out most of the “rules” of photography and shoot from a very creative perspective and experiment with wildly different apertures, shutter speeds and compositions. I spent another 30 minutes exploring the scene with ultra-wide angle to zoom lenses, different points of view, etc. trying to capture the connectedness I was feeling with the scene. The scene below is one that caught my attention and drew me to it, to try and capture what I was seeing. The curve of the water as it moved around the small rock and the converging flows all came together into an intimate composition. The sense of motion, the abstract nature of a "micro scene", the texture of the water and the solidity of the rock were all elements that drew me in. I know that if I didn't step back and open myself up to the scene, I would never have seen this. It is a subtle detail in a much larger scene that is so easy to pass by when you are in a hurry or just focused on one subject (waterfall). These kinds of shots are "gifts" and ones that I value as much, or even more, than the more obvious shots.
Creatively satisfied, I finally packed up my camera and continued on my hike to the larger waterfall. At this location, I didn’t get as deep in to the zone as I was previously. I shot the scene in a traditional manner as well as more creatively, yet since I was still coming down off the glow of the earlier waterfall, I didn’t expend as much energy to get as “deep” into the scene. Yet, I still came away with some great images of a beautiful waterfall.
So my point in this post is this……as you approach and photograph a scene, slow down (your thoughts and your movements), open your mind, get attuned to your surroundings, listening closely for the scene to speak to you….you might be amazed what it may tell you.