Opinions

Roads More Traveled

by Royce Howland | March 23, 2011

© Royce HowlandThe famous Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken,” ends with a few lines that are easily seen as inspiration for the outdoor photographer:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

But what of the roads more traveled? Should I pack the camera away on these roads, or can I approach them photographically in a way that makes all the difference?

The Lure of the New

Photography is based on the visual, and as such it starts with seeing the photographic possibilities in something. (Steet photographer Garry Winogrand said it several different ways – “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.”) Perhaps this is literal sight, actually witnessing something compelling and being prepared to photograph the moment. Or perhaps it’s a visualization of something in the mind that causes the photographer to spend months or even years seeking out a thing not yet seen by eye.

Either way, there’s no denying the human tendency to be attracted to new sights. The rare subject, the never experienced conditions, the exotic locale at the end of an arduous journey… all of these have a way of naturally sharpening visual perception and firing the creative spark to make photographs that are interesting. (If for no other reason than the novelty factor.) I’ve felt this myself, and experienced the creative energy in looking for new things. Going off the beaten path, I’ve taken some roads less traveled by, and had a lot of fun and worthwhile experiences doing so.

Abraham Mountain © Royce Howland

Abraham Mountain is iconic, but often pictured as part of a wide, horizontal view. Here I stood on a rock pile alongside the road, and took a tight, vertical view to emphasize the layers and towering aspect of the mountain peaks.

It’s not always feasible to take that less-traveled road, however. In my previous article “Pepper Dreams” I wrote about how I came to understand “that something good and creative could be anywhere – literally right outside my front door in a little pot that I normally walk by without a glance.”

Should I keep the camera ready when I’m on an often-traveled road, or in a familiar place? Absolutely! Thinking more about it since writing “Pepper Dreams”, I’ve reinforced my belief that the way I approach roads more traveled can make a bigger difference to my photography than how I respond to novel situations and subjects. It’s not whether the road is new or well-trodden, it’s my state of awareness that lets me latch onto the photographic opportunities that are all around. It’s in the presence of the familiar that I most need to hone my ability to really see.

Tap Into the Familiar

I’d like to point out a few approaches to roads more traveled. The first is found in familiar places that appeal to the creative impulse, places that are sought out, not in spite of their familiarity, but because of it. These places come packaged with both the intention and opportunity to make photographs of what has become well known to the photographer. By tapping into a deeper awareness, a new level of creativity can be achieved.

Canyon wall © Royce Howland

The heavy, geometric canyon wall was home to an organic, twisted branch offering a splash of color against the rock. I carved out a detailed composition which, though small, evokes fall in the canyon.

Many photographers have at least one favorite place – some place where photographs often present themselves without struggle. Days or weeks of exploration over time have brought an intimate understanding of the setting and all of its elements, of how the light and seasons interact. Coming to such a place, the stress of needing to make “productive” use of time falls away, like sinking into a comfortable recliner with a cherished book. Intuition is plugged in and the subconscious is at work; it can be effortless to move through the space while creativity recharges. Without the pressure to find something interesting on a one-time experience, the eye can absorb whatever is there to be seen and the mind can respond to it. As well, future plans can be laid to return to promising settings when conditions are even better; there is no urgency to “get the shot” right now.

In this circumstance, photographic opportunities can be rich and rewarding. One method of tapping the familiar is to pick a setting and photograph it repeatedly over time, creating a study of the effects of the changing light and seasons. Another is to peel back the layers of familiar subjects, and look for something that hasn’t been remarked upon before – perhaps a series of small details or different perspectives. Yet another is to search for something that has changed, or something to which personal response has changed, during the passage of time. Still another is to work past the more surface elements, in search of essence: one or more photographs that capture a true sense of place and the enduring experience of it.

On the road less traveled, the absence of familiarity eliminates these opportunities. Only by continuing to take a road more traveled is it possible to become immersed, to mine a deeper level of experience and convert it to creative expression. This is all about moving beyond a casual kind of familiarity, into a more bone-deep level of awareness.

Develop Saturation of Awareness

During the final credits of the video “Creative Outdoor Photography” he made with Frans Lanting, Galen Rowell talked about the concept of saturation of awareness. What he said resonated with me, and it drives home the idea of going deeper into familiarity. Here’s an excerpt of what Rowell had to say:

“The difference between a professional and an amateur is often the professional will shoot more bad pictures. We spend a lot of time working a situation, and if something’s good or has potential we may come back day after day, week after week to make it right. To tune our creative vision into something that really works.”

“And once you have it, then you have a saturation of awareness of that subject. That’s the time to move in and use that feeling within you, that response to that subject matter, to do something even better… When you think it’s right, it can be even better. Just push it as far as you can. If you think you have something close to the camera, get it closer. Try it bolder. Try to make your images communicate as powerfully as possible. Make the elements just sing, and simplify them. And that doesn’t happen the first time. It takes getting in there and working with it, and responding emotionally to the subject.”

Graveyard Flats © Royce Howland

Graveyard Flats is a spot in among grand mountain views, where river water flowing over broad flats creates a vast array of intimately detailed scenes. Many would drive on by, never exploring the visual array accessible with each step into the flats.

I have some places where I’m working to develop this saturation of awareness. One is the David Thompson Country region in the front ranges of the Canadian Rockies. Though it’s not well-known at large, I seek it out not for the novelty factor, but because I’m becoming more deeply aware of the richness of its possibilities. True, many of these are immediately obvious. But the personal reward I’m now finding comes from getting down through the layers of the obvious, trying to further push my ability to see, and working the details.

Like Rowell said, when you think it’s right, it can be even better – and that’s exciting stuff! This is rare on the road less traveled, where things usually appeal at a more surface level, because of their very newness. Only on the road more traveled is it possible to build up that saturated level of focus, and push something good to become great. To see and express something that wouldn’t be apparent to another competent photographer visiting the same place for the first time. Far from being an exercise where trophies are collected before moving on, digging down to this level of awareness can be a long-term project where persistence pays off.

Use Persistence to Trump Luck

Another key approach to roads more traveled is to look for – and be ready to seize – good fortune. Outdoor and nature photographers know that chance can play a big part in coming away with compelling photographs, and it’s important to be prepared to take advantage of a lucky break. But fortune also can be fickle: record-breaking torrential downpours, an unexpected road closure, an illness, sleeping in after driving through a nerve-wracking, late-night storm… these and hundreds of other chance events can sap the success of a one-time experience.

Instead of holding out for the chancy opportunity of the novel, take advantage of the road more traveled and overcome luck with persistence. On any well-traveled route, take note of locations; at any often-visited location, closely observe the subjects. Actively consider the possible situations in which good photographs could be made. Spend a little time every so often to visually explore these places. Go a short way down a side street, or around that corner that’s always turned past; see what might be there, just out of sight. For any by-passed sign or feature of the land about which the thought “I wonder…” has ever come up, go take a closer look and find out. Develop a catalog of possibilities and keep them in mind during repeated travels – when that lucky break does happen, you’ll know how best to use it, and where.

While maintaining the mindset that something interesting will be found, also push back on the busy “gotta get there” pace whenever possible. I know I often get fixated on the journey as just a bunch of dead time until I reach the destination, and in so doing I leave too little time along the way. It’s important to build in some free time – there’s no point in persistently putting yourself in a position to experience something interesting if there’s no time to do anything about it!

Persistence is more than just rote repetition; it’s actively working to make your own luck. With a camera handy, cultivate an opportunistic readiness to carpe diem. If you’re frequently in a photographable locale, have some specific locations or subjects in mind, and have some time to respond, then you’ve reduced the weight of luck in the equation. Instead, you’ve put yourself in the position of the truism “f/8 and be there”!

Canola field © Royce Howland

I’ve logged countless hours and kilometers driving the north-south highways between Edmonton and Calgary. Here, I took note of an interesting canola field and planned a bit of extra time on my return trip to stop and make a composition that evokes summer on the prairies.

Use Variation, Not Just Repetition

Another creative bonus can be extracted from repetition along the road more traveled. If a setting has potential but isn’t clicking, don’t either abandon it or just keep repeating the same thing over and over. Instead, train the eye to see past the ordinary by varying the components that can create interest. What can be varied? In my photo tours and workshops, I often encourage participants to constantly ground their work in three fundamental factors – subject, composition and light. Push these factors to create something beyond the routine.

Documentary photographer Elliott Erwitt commented on the idea of ordinary subjects: “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

See an ordinary subject or a too-obvious composition? Look at things in a different way – don’t take interest at face value, compose it into the frame. Get closer, or move further back. Get lower, get higher, or move to the side. Go wider, or go tighter. Put the subject in a bigger context, or strip the context away. Frame it vertically, horizontally or crop it square. Take a piece of the subject instead of the whole thing. Find abstract forms to emphasize, play with the balance of the elements. Working with the visual design, there are many ways to make something ordinary look extraordinary.

Regarding light, pictorialist photographer Leonard Misonne said this: “Light glorifies everything. It transforms and ennobles the most commonplace and ordinary subjects. The object is nothing; light is everything.”

See something bland? Put different light on it and find a way to make it compelling. Photograph with side light to bring out texture, or with backlighting to go for dramatic rim-lighting and silhouettes. Use strong light to make bold highlights and shadows; or go with diffused light to enhance moody atmosphere. Shoot in the dark, under a full moon or no moon. Use artificial sources of light to selectively showcase certain elements, surfaces or angles. Over-expose, under-expose, or use HDR to compress the contrast. Use golden-hour light, mid-day light or filters to change the color cast of the illumination. Photographing any subject is about working with the light on it – so take the creative challenge to find lighting that’s beyond the mundane.

Photographically speaking, boring subjects are probably at least half in the mind of the photographer. I’ve learned that if I put in the effort to be interested in what I’m looking at, no matter how many times I’ve been there or how dull it may seem, chances are I can find something to photograph. Is this really so surprising? After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder… and so is boredom.

Virtually endless treatments can be experimented with on the road more traveled. Look again at those subjects and locations encountered so frequently that they have fallen off the radar. Instead of going on by, use the opportunity of repetition to hone creativity. Work to see the potential interest in repeatedly over-looked subjects, and use variations in composition and light as the foundation of photographing something distinctive.

Johnson Lake © Royce Howland

Johnson Lake is a popular spot for tourists. In winter, while others cross-country ski or walk along the lakeshore, I head for the small outflow under a foot bridge that has enough vigorous, open water to create an array of crazy ice formations. Every visit is different.

Take the Road More Traveled!

The road less traveled is the holy grail for many photographers. The excitement of novel sights and the thrill of new experiences have an undeniable appeal, and can translate into a peak experience for creativity. If the opportunity presents itself, there are many good reasons to venture down that new road.

But for many of us, the reality a lot of the time is that we’re on that more-traveled road. Is this just a case of being stuck on a back-road to nowhere, a test of endurance away from the journey of creativity? If I think about it, how many roads do I go along so frequently that I’ve lost the ability to properly see them? How many familiar roads have I traveled, but just cruising on auto-pilot without any real depth of experience? In fact, the real issue is not the novelty of the road, it’s what I’m prepared to do to make something of whatever opportunities I have.

Glenmore Reservoir © Royce Howland

The Glenmore Reservoir is an artificial body of water near where I live in Calgary, large enough for boating. If the sky is looking interesting, I can get there in about 10 minutes and choose from a number of vantage points looking across the water.

Don’t be content to let creativity take a back seat. Seek out the road more traveled with your eye, mind and camera ready. Tap into familiarity and develop a saturated awareness to uncover new possibilities. Use persistence to eliminate the factor of luck, and apply variations to drive to a new level of creativity in use of subject, composition and light. How you approach the road more traveled can make all the difference!

About the Author

Royce Howland is a photographer and IT consultant based in Calgary, Alberta. He's also a member of the editorial team at NatureScapes.Net. Whether in the front yard, driving to work, out on the prairie or up in the Canadian Rockies, he tries to remember to keep seeing while on the roads more traveled. To see more of his work, visit www.vividaspectphoto.com.

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