Patience is a Virtue

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I remember the not too distant days of visiting a pretty place with a film camera in hand and trying to make a nice photograph. I loved shooting 35mm Velvia slide film… the colors were rich and saturated, and the detail when viewed through a loupe on the light table was absolutely stunning. I can still remember waiting a couple of days for the film to return from the lab, anxious to see if I had actually managed anything worthwhile.

I would always bracket for exposure, so a roll of Velvia with 36 exposures actually meant only twelve distinct compositions. Quite often I would shoot just one roll of film in an entire morning, and even today when shooting digitally and relatively free from the capacity limits of slide film, I consider myself somewhat discerning about how often I press the shutter. Rather than click just because I can, I prefer to take my time in any given locale, really exploring the landscape in an attempt to come away with maybe one good photograph that I feel good about.

When shooting digitally today though, I can pretty much tell right away if I am on the right track, and if not, I can make adjustments to both composition and exposure on the fly. The LCD on my digital camera allows me to review an image instantly, allowing for tweaks to be made to compositions, and the histogram gives me all the information I need to know about whether or not I have made an accurate exposure. This is all good, and it is one of the biggest reasons why we can improve our photography skills much faster than if we were still shooting film and waiting several days for feedback. You would think that the days of needing to be thrifty with exposures are gone, since the capacity of an 8GB compact flash card far outweighs the limits of a roll of film – but – there is a lot to be said for being frugal with the the number of clicks we make, taking the time to really “see” a composition… waiting for the right conditions… visioning a particular moment… before pressing that shutter button. Digital makes it easy to take a lot of photographs, but it doesn’t mean they are going to be good photographs.

Here was me thinking I was quite discerning, making fewer exposures than the average digital photographer… but then I ran into Ben Horne, the prince of patience. When I say I ran into Ben, I mean that in a virtual sense. I first “met” Ben on the landscape board of the Fred Miranda web site where he always contributes great information and offers insightful and helpful critiques. Based in San Diego, Ben documents his travels to places like Zion National Park and the Colorado Plateau through his excellent blog, and like many photographers, he is generous in his willingness to share details of his vision, ideas and techniques. Ben is a different kind of cat though… he doesn’t shoot digitally, he shoots on film… big film. While I like to reminisce how nice a 35mm slide looked, I cannot imagine how impressive a medium format – or an 8×10 – transparency looks!

Ben’s work is spectacular, and I always get inspiration from the process he employs on his extended trips for photography. Usually traveling solo, he details his experiences of searching for what is often a pre-conceived vision, and his behind the scenes videos of his adventures are especially interesting. The more restrained methodology and approach of a large-format landscape photographer – especially one as good as Ben – is quite something to behold, and I highly recommend checking out his work. Ben will spend days (and many return trips) familiarizing himself with a location, trying to understand the intricacies of the landscape and how the light interacts with it at different times of the day and in different conditions. If everything lines up the way he wants it to, he will press the shutter perhaps once that day… that’s right, once!  He just returned from a 10 day trip to one of my favorite places – Death Valley National Park – and from Day One I thoroughly enjoyed vicariously coming along for the ride with him as he shared his stories of what seems like an awesome trip.

The photographs in this post are from my visit to Death Valley in February 2010 when the salt flats at Badwater were just starting to become flooded. The conditions on my trip were similar to what Ben experienced this year too, and it is always cool to see an iconic location like this in unusual circumstances. While Ben’s remarkable photographs certainly inspire me to get out with my own camera, I think what I admire most about his work is the patient and demanding approach he takes toward attempting to capture the beauty of nature. He is extremely passionate about his photography and he is constantly learning his craft… good lessons for us all.

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6 thoughts on “Patience is a Virtue

  1. I admire your discipline and really like the concept of being frugal with the number of shutter clicks even when you don’t have to be. Those images of Death Valley are stunning. ~Lili

  2. Enjoyed this thoughtful post, and I also follow Ben’s work and writings in a couple of places. There is no question that the slow and methodical approach is one way to get to know a subject intimately and to produce some very compelling images.

    However, I’d like to suggest that it is not the only way to come to know a landscape intimately.

    Like Ben, I almost always work alone, frequently staying out “in the landscape” while I work – I usually camp rather than enjoying the luxuries of hotel rooms and the like. (Though I will enjoy said luxuries from time to time!) I make a lot of exposures, though I most certainly do not shoot constantly from morning until night. You would often find me – camera-loaded pack on my back – wandering around not making photographs, just looking and trying to “see” the place.

    But, in addition, for me the act of photographing itself is just as powerful and, I might argue, for some of us a more focused way of “getting inside the landscape.” With camera in hand and while making photographs the intensity of my awareness and focus increases tremendously and I see much more clearly and more creatively.

    I’m not arguing for one approach over the other. And that, really, is perhaps my point. There are many ways to find a relationship with the landscape as a photographer, and the most productive ways will be very different among a variety of photographers. Rather than necessarily trying to emulate what works for one particular photographer (even one doing work as admirable as that which Ben produces) I think that each of us must find our own individual way of being and seeing in the landscape.

    Take care,

    Dan

    • David Patterson

      Dan… thanks for such a thoughful comment! As you know, I have enjoyed and been inspired by your photography for some time, and I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts.

      I couldn’t agree more that we should strive to find our own path as a photographer, and we should each be prepared to adapt both to our surroundings and the conditions that are prevalent. There are times – especially when the light is changing rapidly – that I will make more exposures, and I agree that it is by actually making photographs that we can improve. There are always many compositions to be created from any scene, and what better way to experiment (and learn) than to shoot it!

      It might sound like I am hedging my bets here, but while I do believe there is merit to learning from a methodical approach like Ben’s, I totally agree that it is but one way… and the key of course is to find your own way.

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