Scenically Anemic

October 7, 2010 

While I've often pointed out my portrait sucktitude, there's another area of my photography that's even more deficient. When it comes to scenic shots, I just don’t get excited and I think that apathy shows. To me, pretty shots of scenery are good for the ceilings above dentists' chairs and for showing off to friends to make them jealous of that super sweet hike you went on.

I don't want to downplay the patience and skill it takes to make a great landscape photograph, however. The behind the scenes stories of elite nature photographers braving the elements for weeks just hoping to get the right conditions in the right lighting are inspirational — just not to me.

Thankfully, I'm not often called upon to shoot stuff like this because I always feel like kind of a jerk when I do. Earlier this week was a prime example when I headed out to get a photo to help illustrate a story about permits being issued for some south Richland apartments. Showing the location of a story is the most common reason I have to flex my tiniest of photographic muscles. In this case, a chat with reporter Pratik Joshi clued me in on what piece of land was up for development. Despite my efforts to find some interesting composition, this was the best I could come up with:

Yawn.

It was reminiscent of a similar snorefest from back in March, when my job was to show the proposed site of the Hanford Reach Interpretive Center in Columbia Park. I channeled my inner hard-worker and gained access to an apartment overlooking the proposed site:

After blacking out from boredom, I thanked the tenants and wandered around Columbia Park, looking for more interesting photos. I kinda liked this snap from the old campgrounds,

but of course it wasn’t relevant to the story.

Agriculture stories also spawn these assignments. When warm weather had many anticipating an early asparagus harvest, I drove out onto the P-K Highway in search of some spunky spears. I thought this shot was OK in that it has the irrigation pipes in the background as a scene setter,

but the photo ran small, so we went with this straightforward detail:

Both are pretty lame, though, falling short of the “pretty but lame” lens that I generally view scenic photos through.

A few days later, the Washington State Employment Security Department announced that there were nearly 2,000 more jobs in the agricultural industry in January over last year, and I set out to find a photo to go with it, settling on this vineyard in north Pasco:

I think the centered composition works in this one, but the muddy colors and flat lighting are nauseating. Shot at a better time of day, I think this scene could really sing, so when I had the task of getting a generic vineyard photo to accompany a recent story about cool weather delaying this year's grape harvest, I planned on shooting at Goose Ridge before sunset to play in that sweet golden light. Unfortunately, that’s all I really planned for, and my other weekend duties kept me from scouting out a good spot beforehand. Totally banking on the pretty light to guide me, I showed up and made a dorky sunset photo:

I wandered around a bit, apparently only using the moth-part of my brain and was once again frustrated with the obvious shots I was getting:

As I scrambled to find something interesting, I made it to the edge of the vineyard and saw the sun dipping below the horizon. I frantically fired off some quick shots, trying to figure out how best to light the grapes, which were now in complete shadow. Everything looked harsh until I looked down at the light-colored dirt and used it as my reflector:

The lighting is not as soft or as well-balanced as I would like, but I didn't have long before the sun was gone and I was rushing off for a late arrival at the Americans game.

It's not that I can't see or appreciate the beauty of a well-done landscape photo, I just lack the visual literacy to be able to distinguish a good landscape from a great one. As a photojournalist, my aim when I'm shooting is to capture the moment, the mood, the emotion. At this point in my career, I feel like my photojournalism literacy is good enough that I can join in conversation with some pretty damn good photographers, some of whom I had the pleasure to meet at APhotoADay’s annual Geekfest conference, but I know I still have a long way to go. When it comes to the visual literacy of landscapes, however, I'm at about the level where I can ask where the bathroom is.

It's when these genres cross is when I feel I'm most successful. This scene-setter of the Burgess brothers playing pickle ball is probably my strongest from the story:

And working in the landscape is ironically my favorite part of covering cross country:

But those photos hinge on the small moment within the frame (the impending hit and the symmetrical running) and neither would be of any interest without the people. Learning how to see and express the subtle elements of a scene to elevate it beyond being just a background is something I need to work on, but it's one of many. At this point, it's on my back burner.

~~~~~

kyau@tricityherald.com
(509) 585-7205
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