Home ESSAYS AND INSPIRATION Visualization: The Hunt for the Light

Visualization: The Hunt for the Light

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In my recent essay on visualization, I discussed the historical and modern day significance of this concept in photography as well as the role that a composition card serves in bridging the vision in the mind to its tangible realization into an image. In this follow-up essay, I will discuss the interplay of other critical aspects of visualization that accompany, if not transcend, the tangible aspects.

In my first essay, I postulated that artistic vision, the light, and skill of the photographer are three integral components that form the basis for the construction of a photograph. Light, in particular natural light, is a powerful and cherished tool for the photographer. Many photographers may be blessed with the desired light from the outset to get their shot. Others must be patient and await the moment. Then there are those passionate photographers and artists who choose to approach the hunt for the light as a challenge and journey.

To further examine the integral roles that artistic vision and the light play in this process, I will share with you the chronicle behind the making of one salient photograph. It is a story of a dream, an obsession, and perseverance that led to this photographer’s consummation of visualization. What is unusual is that the chain of events started 2½ years before I even made the exposure. Yes, it took that long for me to fulfill process. First, some background.

In May 2009, four months before I had relocated to San Diego, CA, USA, to start a new job, little did I realize that I had begun both a conscious and subconscious journey that would change my life. In the months leading up to the relocation, I enjoyed visiting San Diego to relish the beauty and recreation. At the time, I was already an outdoorsy person and very active with physical fitness and hiking. I had not yet discovered the world of photography, although in retrospect the first seeds of that passion were already starting to sprout.

It was during one particular weekend get-away to San Diego that I discovered the beauty of Torrey Pines State Reserve. For those who are not familiar with this reserve, it is a California state park that is situated between the beach communities of La Jolla and Del Mar. This nature reserve is one of two homes to a rare pine species, the Torrey Pine (Pinus torreyana), which is indigenous to this small strip of coastal California and to Santa Rosa Island, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara, CA. In addition to its botanical and conservational significance, Torrey Pines is replete with hiking trails and beautiful sandstone coastal bluffs that offer spectacular views of the coast. In my humble opinion, this is one of the most beautiful places in the US. On my first visit to this park, I instantly fell in love with it and spent the entire weekend hiking and taking snap shots with my point and shoot camera. If there was one spot that captured my imagination here, it was most surely a delightful trail named Broken Hill.

KODAK EASYSHARE Z1012 IS Digital Camera @ 5.85mm, ISO 64, 1/400, f/2.8

KODAK EASYSHARE Z1012 IS Digital Camera @ 5.85mm, ISO 64, 1/640, f/2.8

Broken Hill is popular with locals, tourists, hikers, and nature photographers. This short, winding trail leads to a beautiful sandstone canyon overlooking the ocean. The canyon is bounded by a golf course to the south, the ocean to the west, and the remainder of the reserve to the north. The view, the scent of coastal sage and of the Torrey Pine, and the distant sound of the crashing tide, stimulate all senses and render this spot psychologically memorable. In the snap shot above, made in late May 2009, with the wind blowing against my back and ruffling my loose spandex top like a flag flapping in the wind, I never felt more at peace with Nature and life. I felt as if I belonged in this region and that this would be a promising next step in life. On my first visit here, I took several snap shots with my camera (a Kodak Easy Share Z1012), which by the way I had purchased the week before at a local office supply store (gasps!). In addition to the inspirational boost of witnessing this natural beauty, I realized that I was enjoyed taking snap shots of this scenery. I mean, I really liked it. Little did I realize that I would soon find myself returning to this reserve and this trail on a monthly basis. In retrospect, this particular hike was where my interest in photography was born.

After I had moved to San Diego, I made a plethora of visits to Torrey Pines to jog, hike, and make more photographs. What differed about my photography exploits at this point was that I was now keen on making photographs with purpose and meaning and that captured and conveyed the emotion and beauty that was I experiencing at that moment in time, in stark contrast to bland touristy snap shots. Indeed, that evolution of my concept of a photograph was significant. I began to see my point and shoot camera not as a tourist companion to record prosaic memories of various scenes, but rather as a tool to interpret the world in front of me and make a photograph that has impact and tells a story.

By early 2010, photography became my newfound passion. On my off days from my busy work schedule, I allotted as much time as possible to explore San Diego. I relished capturing the emotion and color of the coastal sunsets, the local wild life (seals, sea lions, and shore birds), flowers, and of course, my beloved Torrey Pines. In February 2010, I made a big leap into my photography exploits. Following nine months of photographing with my point and shoot camera, I felt that I had accomplished everything that I could possibly do with that camera and was ready to take the next step. So, I decided to purchase my very first digital SLR camera, which spurred me to explore with more intensity, refinement, and passion.

Fast forwarding into fall 2011, in addition to garnering more experience with the aesthetic and technical aspects of photography, I became attuned to the weather and lighting patterns in coastal San Diego and began to appreciate the quality of light and the effect it exerts on the mood, emotion, and impact on a photograph. That was a huge step in my development process. In October 2011, I discovered the wonders of film photography, which was yet another *big* leap for me. In November 2011, I became inspired by the intersection of light, land, and sea at Torrey Pines. I was fascinated how coastal fog confers an alluring mood and emotion upon a landscape. I began to dream of recording the quality of light at sunrise and sunset at Torrey Pines, in particular at Broken Hill.

I did not dream of just any light – I dreamed of magical light. Light that would transcend all other light to which I had beared witnessed or seen in photographs. Light that would make the landscape and seascape appear atmospheric and mystical. Light that perhaps no one had yet witnessed or photographed at this site. I desired to make a photograph that conveys exactly what I was seeing and feeling at the time and maybe resonates with the viewer. In retrospect, that was an ambitious goal, because I had yet to make any photograph that remotely possessed those qualities. More importantly, that represented the first time that I had ever thought about making such a photograph. That mental leap in visualization was significant. This all goes to the artistic vision to which I had alluded in my first essay. It is this artistic construct – whatever that may be – that initiates the whole process. This dream of the light burgeoned into an artistic imperative. At that critical point, now that I had formed that construct in my mind, the only uncertainty was whether this light even existed. There was only was one way to find out. Thus, began the hunt…

In early December 2011, I began my preparation to make this photograph. I set out to learn everything physically and technically that I would need to get the shot. On my days off from work, I repeatedly scouted Broken Hill at sunrise to study the pattern, directionality, and quality of the light. On my first couple of hikes, I purposefully did not bring my camera – only my notebook and pen and a few small handheld tools: a polarizing filter and two warming filters. In particular, I studied how long past official sunrise it would take for the light to clear the mountains to the east and the tree tops within the immediate vicinity of the reserve. At the spot where I desired to set up my camera and tripod, I used my cusped hands to frame my composition. The light fell upon the face of the canyon at a roughly 45 degree angle. From that vantage point, I rotated my polarizer filter and saw that a fair to good amount and quality of polarization could be afforded, meaning potentially good enhancement of contrast and color. I studied the color temperature of the light and closely observed its evolution from crimson, to orange, to pale yellow, and then to a neutral color as the seconds, minutes, and first two hours elapsed past sunrise. From those color temperature patterns, I easily determined which color correction filter I would need to render the scene as I had visualized it in my mind. I envisioned a warm glow of light permeating through the fog and illuminating the red tones of the sandstone. The 81C filter gave me that best rendition. Although I had not yet discovered the simplicity and utility of the composing card, with each scouting visit I was already framing the photograph in my mind and hands.

In mid-December 2011, I scouted during clear skies at sunrise to make test shots. Using both my cell phone and my regular camera, I was able to refine my exposure and color correction, and more importantly, to cultivate the visualization process as I searched for the light. Actually, one particular test photograph with my regular camera (shown below) came out quite nicely. Under any other circumstance, I would have been content with this print (perhaps some of my fellow photographers would have been, too). In retrospect, I believe this print was my first bonafide attempt to translate an artistic construct in my mind into reality. The visualization process allowed me to create a photograph that conveyed the quintessence of the intersection of light, land, and sea at this reserve. I was encouraged. Above all, I was more satisfied with the process of making that test photo, not necessarily with the end result. As pleasing as that print was, it still did not quell my obsession. I knew there was more to this scene and this light than met the eye…

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Based on my field notes and color slide transparencies, I felt confident what my lens setting and camera exposure would be for the shot. I had it down to the last details: Velvia 50, wide angle lens, hyperfocal distance set to 7 ft, aperture stopped down to f/16, polarizing filter, 81C warming filter, spot metering with placement of the brightest area of the fog onto Zone VII, shutter speed approximately 1-2 seconds, the exact position of my tripod, 15-20 minutes past official sunrise … click. All I needed now was for Mother Nature to come through.

The anticipation filled me with tension that you could cut with a knife. I paced the floors of my apartment. I day dreamed about the fog and the light … I worried … I lost sleep … I thought it was great! My gear was packed and laid out in bags on my living room floor. My camera was loaded with film, the lens attached, the distance scale set, the filters attached, the knobs and screws of my tripod legs adjusted and re-adjusted. If you were to walk into my living room, you could easily have surmised that I was about to embark on a major trip or adventure. I went to bed wired, anticipating the fog would drift in overnight and I could hop out of bed and get into my car. In retrospect, the psychology was surreal. I felt like a physician on call in the hospital, waiting for my beeper to go off to see a patient in the emergency room … or like a pilot, or a soldier, on ‘high alert’ waiting for the call to deploy. In a peculiar way, I kind of felt like the movie character that Richard Dreyfuss played in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where the character became obsessed with a vision of a far away mountain, a vision that became his calling in life, a journey on which he needed to embark. Well, ok, I was not nearly as obsessed and nutty as Dreyfuss’ movie character, but you get the picture. After weeks of studying my notes, exposures, and scrutinizing the weather reports, followed by a short break to celebrate the holiday season, I was ready for the moment. Then, during a three-day stretch in late December, the fog started to consistently drift in overnight. The time was near …

Day 1: The night before, I was in a zone: focused and mentally sharp. My car and gear were packed. I had preset my coffee maker to brew the next morning. I set my alarm clock, but I really didn’t sleep. I couldn’t … At 3 am, I rolled over in bed, pulled down the blinds, and saw the fog. I was off … As I drove, I was in a hypervigilant state of mind that I had never before experienced. It was pitch black and the visibility was poor, as you could imagine. Torrey Pines is closed for parking at that hour, so I had to park in the lot lining the main road, which meant a long hike up the bluff – a good 300 hundred feet in elevation. Anyone who lives in coastal California knows that wind blowing in from the sea during a winter morning can be bone chilling cold. The air temperature was probably 45F, but the wind chill easily dropped that into the 30s. On the hike up the bluff, I was partially shielded from the wind, but the adrenaline rush and the energy expended hiking up the steep incline kept me warm. After the 2 mile hike to Broken Hill, the fog had enveloped the canyons; but I was immediately concerned that the fog, which was thick as pea soup, would not gently lift in time for sunrise. I waited, and I waited … Alas, the fog was just too thick. There was no magical light bursting through to illuminate the canyons, not even a hint. By the time the fog had broken, (3 hours past sunrise), the sun had moved well above the canyon and flooded it with lifeless, neutral colored light and obliterated the deep shadows and subtle textures that I wanted to record. Just awful. Although I was disappointed, I was not discouraged. I would try again the next morning…

Day 2: The morning began the same way – with high hopes and an undaunted spirit. The fog appeared equally dense. The air was colder, the wind chill more fierce. I marched up the bluff again. Sadly, I had forgotten to pack ample Kleenex in my pockets; my nose was running like a faucet, my sleeves on my coat soiled as a result, but I did not care. On the way up, my back ached from the load of my pack and my tripod. I was humping a lot of stuff besides camera gear, including a coffee thermos and a small folding chair. I reached Broken Hill a little earlier. After I set up, I had enough time to sit down, enjoy sips of hot coffee, and reflect on the events. The mood was so peaceful… Like yesterday, the fog was thick, but I held out hope that maybe, just maybe, magical light rays would permeate and give me that which I had been seeking. Nothing – just dense fog and flat lighting. As a nature photographer, there is no bigger downer than Mother Nature not delivering the goods.

After I got back to my car, I was tired, mentally and physically. My knees and feet also ached. As I sat in my car and reclined, I rolled the windows down. My auricles collected the sounds of the ocean and shore birds and my eyes the vastness of the cold and hazy sea. I pondered to myself, quite critically, “What the f*** am I doing?” For a few moments, doubt creeped its way into my beliefs and rationale for this endeavor. Was all this time, planning, and energy expended worth it? I contemplated that ‘test’ photo that I had captured earlier in the month (already hanging on my wall) and reasoned I could resign myself to that photograph. Couldn’t I? It was a decent photograph, I thought, and I worked hard to get it. But, no sooner than that doubt creeped in that the stubbornness and determination in me obliterated it. I couldn’t give up. In my own peculiar way, I was actually enjoying the adventure, the hunt, and the difficulty. Yeah, I know, strange. At that instant, I felt psychologically upbeat. Tomorrow would be another day…

Day 3: The moment of truth? I slept well. I felt a renewed sense of purpose. Although the fog appeared no different than the previous two mornings, it was neither as cold nor as windy. I marched up the bluff, sipping coffee on the way up, already envisioning my victory lap in another 90 minutes or so. I was feeling it! As I arrived at Broken Hill, I surveyed the scene. The fog was significantly thinner. Fifteen minutes past sunrise, I looked toward the east and could see the light beginning to make its presence. My heart rate shot up. I promptly took spot meter readings off the fog. Then, the fog thickened and sealed off the light. Damn! Thirty minutes past sunrise, I saw a phenomenal site: bright orange light breaking through the fog and illuminating the canyon. The adrenaline rush was in full force. My hands started to tremble… I took another meter reading, set my shutter speed, grasped the cable release, and the moment for which I had been dreaming for weeks and pre-visualizing subconsciously for years, had come to fruition. The light broke through in an instant. It was glorious! Warm, unidirectional, and high contrast light painted the canyon. I closed my eyes, triggered the shutter…click…click. I opened my eyes, raised my arms, pumped my fists, and in jubilation shouted, “Yeahh!!!”. I promptly re-metered and took additional exposures, but the first shot was it. I got it! Even before I saw my developed transparency on the light table, I knew in my heart, mind, and soul that I got the shot. The wait to see the product, though, only augmented the anticipation, the tension inside me, and the entire experience. For 48 hours, I was consumed with mentally retracing the steps in my process and re-living the emotion. I lost a little more sleep. It was awesome! For a photographer, there is not a more triumphant and satisfying feeling in the world.

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Conclusions? Visualization can be construed as an open-ended journey through which the contemplative photographer draws upon his life experiences and unique way of interpreting those events to create an artistic construct. From there, the process becomes a translation of that construct into a composition, which in turn becomes crafted by creativity and the light to ultimately convey what the photographer saw and felt about the subject. The aesthetic, intuitive, and technical elements of this process may mean different things to different photographers; it is a highly individualized process characterized by one’s own unique style and attitude. As I hope this story illustrates, visualization need not represent one attempt to make the image, nor need it reflect a short-term process. On the contrary, it may represent a quest that spans days, weeks, months, or even years. It could represent one successful exposure and print, or perhaps a succession of attempts punctuated by failures. It reflects a continuum that necessarily involves a reassessment of one’s mental constructs, a refinement of composition, a subjective and objective evaluation of the exposure, and learning from the mistakes and failures along the way.

I consider this particular photograph to be meaningful not because it is technically or aesthetically good, or represents a compelling composition. The reason is the faith that I had invested in the process coupled with an unwavering resolve to get the shot. The difficulty, the struggle, the uncertainty, and the disappointments all made the process a satisfying experience. In essence, it was the journey itself, not the end product. Looking back, I am convinced that experience made me a better photographer, and that perceived improvement had absolutely nothing to do with gear (incidentally, I used a 15 year old camera and 20 year old lens for that photograph). There was a vision, there was the light, enough skill (and a lot of luck) to make it happen. That’s all that matters.

I hope you have enjoyed this second essay on visualization. Please, I would invite you to leave your comments or questions below. If you prefer to leave a private message, you are most welcome to do so with your Photography Life account or via email at my on-line gallery. Thank you.

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