A Year of West Coast Photography: 10 Things I Learned
One year on the West Coast, Part 5
One year ago I moved from New York to California. I decided to undertake a photo-a-week project to document my first year on the West Coast while trying to become a better photographer and refine my style. Here are ten things I learned in the process:
- I’m a nature photographer
When I started this project I had vague ideas about San Francisco landmarks and signs of life around the city I could photograph, but I soon discovered they inspired me less than the natural world. I listened to my instincts and soon portraits, still life compositions and street photography took a back seat to coastlines, forests and mountains. I found a subject I want to focus on.
- Studying the conditions is critical
I started scouting locations before taking shots and this helped immensely. This wasn’t just about finding the right places but considering the optimal conditions. I started looking at the times of sunrise and sunset, the position of the sun on the horizon and the way it tracked across the sky, the weather, and even the pattern of the tides. Understanding all of these elements and how they affect the scene allowed me to make better choices and produce better results.
- Accidents happen
So far I’ve had tripods tumble, memory cards corrupt, filters shatter, cameras drown and viewfinders crack. Each incident has been painful and costly. They taught me how to minimize the risk and take better care of my equipment, but I also learned that sometimes shit just happens. Sometimes you need to take chances for the best photographs.
- I like refined elements
Maybe this relates to my work as a designer, but simple, bold and graphic compositions with a clear focal point hold more appeal for me than highly detailed, busy images. I also like refined but vibrant color palettes. These are things I’ve achieved sporadically and areas I want to work on.
- Aesthetic consistency is surprisingly difficult
In designing a book to collect the best photographs I’ve taken over the past year I found selecting which ones to include was the easy part. When I began to study which ones would pair well on a page the inconsistencies became glaring. Photos often featured similar subjects but varied depth of field and vibrancy presented a body of work which was far more inconsistent than I had previously appreciated.
- Filters make a huge difference
I’ve studied a lot of processing techniques and I know my way around Photoshop, but there’s no substitute for getting it right in camera. Filters helped me balance the light and handle exposure. Picking the right ones and learning which filters add little value have helped, but also forced me to slow down and be more considered. I’ve taken better shots as a result.
- The pros and cons of social media
I post my images on Flickr (everything), Instagram (a lot of stuff), and 500px (only the best). I try not to think about that when I’m taking photos though, because they’re for me. Likes are great for the ego but it’s easy to get distracted and lose sight of why you’re taking the shots. I’ve learned that social media is great for inspiration and support, but the more you engage with a community the more you get out of it.
- The subtleties of long exposures
I’m fascinated by long exposures. Photography is often about capturing a moment in time but long exposures allow me to study the passing of time on a place and uncover aspects of a scene that aren’t immediately visible. The difficult part is deciding when to use the technique and how to control the effect: sometimes I want to simplify the composition and create a sense of peace by turning water into glass, other times I want to hint at motion without blurring it completely.
- Visualize first
It’s so tempting to walk around with the camera in front of your face looking at everything through a lens and using that as a guide for what to shoot. Studying Ansel Adams taught me to slow down and tap into how I feel about a location. Taking the time to think, then visualizing how an image could reflect those thoughts, forces you to decide what a photograph should express before taking it. The resulting image will be more meaningful with a degree of self-expression.
- I’ve only started finding my voice
One lofty goal I set for myself was to find my voice as a photographer. I learned that my photos are are about building a connection with the new place I call home and that self expression can be very subtle. I’m moving in the right direction but I have a long way to go.
At the end of this project I feel like a better photographer; not a great one, but a better one. I aim to keep improving through refining my skills and greater continuity, but I also want to become a better artist and that’s going to be harder.