Despite where the title of this post might make your mind go, this is not about losing my virginity. This post is about the way I feel and work with my camera whenever I go to a new location and how that impacts the images I come home with.
Whether you’re a photographer or not, I’m sure you know the feeling of going to a cool place in nature where you’ve never been before and getting overwhelmed by what you see. As a photographer that feeling seems to get multiplied by 10, as you feast your eyes on all the photographic possibilities the location presents.
In the past I felt I could make the most of my time at a location by trying out as many things as possible within my time there and making a whole bunch of images. While it all felt great at the time and I thought the images would also be great – I got home to find I had a card full of at best mediocre shots that I wasn’t overly happy with or one generic, pretty landscape shot of the whole scene as I saw it.
If you’re just looking to take some shots to record what you experienced on your trip, then the above approach is fine. But over the years I have learned that if you want to make artistic images that have depth and feeling beyond a mere pretty scene, you really need to be intimately acquainted with the locations you go to shoot. That means going back to the same place year after year, learning the light; the weather patterns; the geology; the human and natural history; the plant and animal life, etc.
You should also spend your time at your chosen location wisely. Do you want to run around wildly with your camera taking as many photos as possible and come home with a card full of photos that are just OK. Or do you want to come home with one (or two if you’re lucky) well-crafted, artistic images that are filled with meaning beyond their visual aesthetic? Which you prefer likely depends on what you like about photography and you goals with the medium – but mine is the latter.
I will be the first to admit that I still feel totally overwhelmed when I go to a beautiful place for the first time. This is particularly true about the ocean. I grew up next to the ocean but now live far inland, so whenever we head to one of the coasts I’m like a kid in a candy store who has eaten too many Gummy Bears. But I’ve resigned myself that this is pretty much inevitable and I take the following approach when I go to a new location for a quick trip: Find my own take on an obvious composition that shows the whole scene; determine when the light will be best for the shot and get it all planned out in my head; then head off to check out the rest of the location while I wait for the right light for my pre-planned composition. Or something to that effect. This approach at least ensures (if the light and weather cooperate) I’ll have one high-quality shot of the incredible scene I’ve witnessed.
If I get the chance to spend a few days or more – or go back to that same location multiple times, the place will lose that veneer of newness and the jittery feeling of awe will wear off. It’s still an incredible place, but now I can appreciate it for its more subtle points and beauties. My photographs become more reflective of the character of the place and how I feel inside when I’m there because I have to look deeper into it – as opposed to simply how stoked I am to see a great new place I’ve never been before.
Simply put, the more time you spend in a place you love, the more intimately you will get to know it and the better able you will be to uncover with your camera the subtle details and beauties that exist there. And the more images like this that you make, the more you will learn that it’s not necessarily nature itself you’re photographing, but your own feelings and thoughts projected upon it.