Photography is All About Exploration!

You might not have been aware of it, but ever since the first moment you thought about getting into photography, you’ve been an explorer. And ever since the first time you put that camera to your eye, you’ve been exploring science and mechanics, physics, emotions, the psyche, yourself, and you probably didn’t even know it. And it’s this exploration that brings us all the rewards that communicating with our fellow man can bring and it’s a lot. And as with any form of communication, sometimes the message doesn’t quite get across the way we intended. This sends us back to looking for more answers, exploring still further with our camera. I can think of no grander pursuit!

How can I, a fellow explorer, help you on your journey? The pressure is on, to write a post that accomplishes more than just fill a web page. It’s really no different than the pressure of when you put your camera to your eye and you go click (we all know that one). The quest for perfection is an awfully powerful one. It pushes our explorations probably more than any other factor. The funny thing to me is I’ve never seen a definition for the perfect photograph. I have for good ones, bad ones, great ones, favorites and especially those that suck. But I’ve never seen one for the perfect photograph. That begs the question then. What are we striving for in our photographs? Where are our explorations supposed to take us in the end? I’m literally starting my 31st year today being behind a camera full-time and I’m just as scared, excited, curious and in love today as I was my first year. And that’s all because as any explorer will tell you, a map is only as good as the person who drew it. Problem is, we have no map or it’s inaccurate so every day is an adventure!

When it’s a cloudy, rainy day, the one thing we tend to long for is the sunshine. (I firmly believe some of the worst weather brings out some of the best photography.) During a power outage, our instinct is to instantly grab a flashlight and turn it on. We make fun of moths heading to the flame and going down in flames in the process, but we’re not so different. We love and are drawn to light in all its shades, colors, emotions and complexities. It’s a science we explore (and at times curse) every bloody time we pick up the camera. And it’s an aspect of photography that requires a lifetime of exploration to master. There is no easy answer when it comes to light. More than a meter, a histogram, a curve can read, light is something that you first have to feel deep inside to begin to bring it out in your photography. (You might wanna check out my book Captured, which has a chapter on just this topic.)

That feeling then must be translated with the science of exposure so it reaches out and grabs the viewer of your photograph. The problem with the science of exposure as I’m sure you’ve experienced is it often leaves us flat. At the very least, it can take the fun out of photography thinking about all that Clipping and Zones and stuff they say you are supposed to worry about. Perhaps putting a mood to exposure might make it simpler and your photography more meaningful. Exposure = emotion, no matter how you clip a highlight or bury a shadow, if you expose to evoke a feeling, can you really go wrong? Sure you can, hence the perfect exposure eludes us some of the time because emotion is something we tend to keep buried deep inside of ourselves, safe from others. We put labels like “blown out highlights” or “lost in the shadows” when a photograph’s exposure doesn’t work, but to the lay person who doesn’t know these terms, they simply have either a positive or negative reaction to our photograph. Tap into the viewer’s emotions and your exposure will always be as perfect as we can get! Most photographers don’t learn this until way too late in their explorations, which means you might wanna try it sooner rather than later.

Still the second most commonly asked question I receive is, “What’s the best f/stop?” I liken this question to “What’s the best adjective to describe a great photograph?” The answer to both questions is whatever fits your style of communication best. But there is no map taking you to that answer for your photography. You have to explore for a long time to find that answer. I’ve been doing this photography thing for a while now, so I have explored long enough to know that for birds, I’m going to be at f/8, wide open for big game, and for landscape, whatever best brings the eye to the subject. What if you don’t know that?

Whenever your mind says, “What IF?” pull on that thread to see where it takes you. If you wonder what f/stop is best, shoot a test! Put your hand in front of your lens and take a picture of it. Just like in the movies, your hand acts like a clacker and tells you a test is coming. Now shoot the photo with all the f/stops available with you. The last frame should also be a picture of your hand to signify the end of the test. Once back at the computer, put all of these tests in a folder labeled “Photo Explorations” and refer to it often. Soon you’ll learn what f/stop is the best, for YOUR photography. But there’s the rub to that knowledge. It might take a turn tomorrow if your new explorations completely change those numbers. And that’s OK!

“Which lens is the best lens?” That’s right up there with which f/stop and is such a valid and important question to ask. That is, of yourself! The physics of how glass bends light and delivers it is so bloody amazing and cool and complicated and of course, sexy. No wonder this question comes up. But it’s how a particular lens bends light that makes its selection so important to each individual photographer. So the question still remains, what is the best lens? And to that question I don’t have the answer for folks. If you watch My Camera Bag on my website, you’ll see I’m lookin’ for that answer for myself as it’s in near constant flux. Right now, I feel the best lenses in my bag are:

600 f/4VR AFS

200-400 f/4 VR2

70-200 f/2.8 VR2

24 f/1.4 AFS

The reason this is for all of us is because our photographic explorations are not on some straight line progression but rather a very windy road. Each curve requires its own set of tools to take that turn and while we might have most of the tools to make that curve there are times we need a better one. For example, I prefer 800mm for birds, but no such lens is made any longer by Nikon, so I work with the 600VR with the 1.7x most of the time. The road bump for most is first determining they need that one focal length and then acquiring it (which makes renting such a great thing). That’s probably why this question hangs so often in discussions. Rest assured that just like the perfect photograph, the perfect lens is just as elusive.

With every new camera that comes along, the promise of our photographic life being made simpler is presented us. Be it from personal experience or reading on the web, we all know that right out of the box no camera body takes the perfect photo. It requires input from us to make that investment sing our tune. Some of that input is mechanical, but that has a limit. To get beyond that and to really make our photographs our own, the input has to come from the heart. What “feel” do we want in our photographs? When we take that heartless machine and insert our heart is when our photography goes to a whole new level and our explorations and visual communication starts grabbing other hearts. What I love best about this step in one’s photography is that the mechanical tends to start fading in importance. Gotta have it to start with, but sure don’t need it to continue to move forward.

What do you need to move your photography forward? It’s the same thing any of the greats in any profession will tell you is a must. Passion for what you’re doing! Our history is stuffed with tales of great explorations going down in flames. It is just as stuffed with amazing stories of incredible discovery. Sure, there was some science, mechanics, physics and of course luck, moving these success stories to a happy ending. But connecting all those dots so there was success was heart, emotion, passion, whatever you want to label it, what we are all capable of digging down deep and pulling out from within us. The great photographs come from all those “parts” that are the photographic process only when they are brought together by the heart. And with that knowledge and ability, we start our photographic explorations all over again because we never know where the heart will take us. Fun is the heartbeat of passion and it is from that where longevity in photography is constantly reborn.

You’ve gotta turn your photography upside down at times! Marching down the same path no matter who you are can take the pleasure out of the journey. I’m notorious for hating macro photography, sticking my butt up in the air to take a picture just isn’t natural for a Moose. Still, there are times I have and even once, for a small critter that’s now extinct. There are so many possibilities, genres in photography you could try it’s what I think makes photography such an amazing pursuit. Many know that along with my wildlife photography, I’m now pursuing aviation photography. Other than the correlation that birds fly and planes fly, these are pretty much opposites in genres of photography. I know a lot of wedding photographers who shoot aviation and catalog shooters who do wildlife. I started out in fashion photography, but obviously I didn’t stick with that. The simple act of trying something new is often the genesis of a great adventure!

The more you explore photography the more you’ll know that it is not cut and dry. There is no one answer, no one path, but rather a huge world of possibilities that will light up your passion. Tap that and then make 2011 the year you spread it around. Take that photograph and share your exploration with someone else and put a smile in their heart. It does make the world turn! I leave you with this thought, something a wise man shared with me after reflecting on something I had written. “A good photographer makes an image by holding the camera to his eye, but the great photographer makes an image by holding the camera to his heart!” May 2011 bring you amazing explorations with your camera!

You can keep up with Moose at MoosePeterson.com and WarBirdImages.com