© Paul Mozell
A day of nature photography can be approached with certitude, a casual air, rapid-fire shooting, orÂ a blend of all strategies. More often than not, I’m hoping to get a feeling of being in the zone, and experience some prolonged periods of creative clarity when photographic compositions appear before my eyes without effort. It’s a bit like a runner’s high, or endorphin rush.Some years ago I began to practice sitting on the forest floor watching the scene before me, looking somewhat blankly into the distance. Call it Zen, call it simple, but the result for me is an awareness of new compositions, well before I have lifted the viewfinder to my eye. I have found that if you deliberately search the space before you for something to photograph, then you might only discover what you are expecting to see; based on your prior experiences. But, in a relaxed near-meditative state of awareness, new images seem to appear.
Renowned photographer Frans Lanting has stated that he takes a measured and analytical approach to nature photography. There are times when I go this route as well, forsaking the contemplative method I just described. My interest in architectural photography, and perhaps a childhood growing up among the skyscrapers of Manhattan, informs my quest for linear forms and verticality in the natural world. I am drawn to lines of trees, breakwaters at the shore, and other subtle suggestions of symmetry. Who knows, I may just be submitting to the human tendency to find order in a chaotic universe?
As pleasing as a scenic overlook may be to our binocular human eyes, once printed to a flat screen or sheet of paper, that image may be darn well boring. Likewise, the brilliant colors of a sugar maple in early October, or the intense hues of a bed of tulips in a well tended garden may not support a good photograph on their own. We are easily fooled.
As much as digital imaging has altered and in many ways enhanced the way that I make photographs, I still harbor a resistance to continuous, rapid frame rate shooting. This has a lot to do with my father Al Mozell who gave me a special monetary “allowance” just for film, when I was about 10 or 12 years old. I kept it in a black and yellow plastic Kodak filter canister. This small sum was intended to teach me the value of each frame of Verichrome 120 film that I shot in my Rolleicord twin lens reflex. Later on, I learned to shoot with even greater care when I started working with a view camera for landscapes and architecture. With all that said, let it be known that I do appreciate the freedom that we now all have to shoot with joyful, digital, abandon; especially when the twilight is fading, the base runner is sliding, the heron is taking off, and the fashion model is leaping. These are the times it really pays to be a master of the advanced settings of your camera.
On those days when I’m not finding anything to photograph, especially when I’m being paid to bring back memorable images, I must deconstruct a scene in my mind before clicking the shutter. I ask myself, in this nearly featureless landscape before me, or this dense wall of trees, to which single feature is my eye drawn? Is there a shape that stands out, but not obviously, like the constellations in the night sky? Is there something here that doesn’t fit in? How then can I compose the shot so that the viewer is compelled to hunt for that hidden feature or relationship? Or, should I make it very obvious?
Another compositional game I play is called, “Why is this not a good photograph?” When the default photograph from the mountain top is a wide angle shot of of the dramatic and hazy ridgeline in the distance, I look for patterns of shadow and shape that can be isolated with a long lens.
It’s not about the equipment, rather about how you see the world. And, if you’re the quick-draw type, inclined to let the motor drive to the talking for you, challenge yourself once in a while and sit down and absorb the beauty before you. Conversely, if you are a slow shooter like me, break up the pattern once in a while and just react to a scene, banging away at a high frame rate. Somewhere in the chaos you’ll expose a real winner.