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Find The Best Time – The Story Behind The Photograph

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Constellation VIII, Uyuni, Bolivia, 2013

It had been a very long drive. Looking for other exotic locations along the way, we (I was traveling with colleagues Seth Resnick and Eric Meola) had taken the long way around, traveling for five days at high altitude, up to 5,000 meters, through Bolivia’s Altiplano to Salar de Uyuni the largest salt desert in the world. On arrival we began looking for water, which was seasonal and unpredictable. Unsuccessful at first, at first we found only mud beneath a cracked crust, later we found a few wet stains, still later a larger area slick enough to glisten in the sun, much later a larger slick against a mountain that offered limited reflections, and finally, late on the second day we found a large expanse of water. But there was wind and in many areas the water was too deep to access. We waited at our nearby hotel, made completely of salt; the walls and floors and tables and desks and chairs were all made of salt. Returning for the day’s final light, we found the wind had moved the water and then died down leaving a glassy sheet of perfect reflections as far as the eye could see, ringed by clouds. Walking on/in it was disorienting. You felt like you were walking on/in the sky. And then the color began to change and bloom. It was divine. We spent hours photographing, until the light faded and the winds picked up again. We returned the next day, our final day, to find similar almost ideal conditions and later the new introduction of lightning storms and rainbows behind us. We felt exceptionally fortunate.
If there was no rain, there would be no water to hold reflections; we would have been limited to making photographs of cracked salt patterns, a few piles of salt, and the distant mountains. If there were no clouds, there would be little to reflect. Even though this type of weather was typical at this time of year, and this time of year only, there were no guarantees. We had not only timed it just right and planned for enough time to succeed in, we also got lucky.
Stack the odds in your favor and do your research to know when optimal conditions are most likely to occur. There are situations where you can take actions to increase the probability of ideal conditions occurring and there are situations when you can’t – and knowing which situation you’re in is important. In situations where you can’t be more proactive, it’s wise to plan for a little extra time, in case you have to wait for ideal conditions to arise. It’s never easy to know when it’s best to move on and when it’s best to wait it out. Prior experience helps but it will only get you so far. Keep your eye on the weather and seek out local knowledge whenever possible.
Questions
How can you best prepare to make the most of optimal conditions?
What are optimal conditions for the task at hand?
When are you most likely to experience optimal conditions?
Is there anything you can do to increase the likelihood of optimal conditions occurring?
Is there anything you can do to improve current conditions?
When is it better to move forward rather than wait?
When is it better to take a new approach rather than return?
Find out more about this image here.
View more related images here.
Read more The Stories Behind The Images here. 
Find out about my Atacama Desert Argentina digital photography workshop.

Contact Sheet – Italy, Acquasanta

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I enjoy seeing the flow of thought that becomes visible in contact sheets. One idea builds on (or diverges from) another. Some moves are repetitive; some moves introduce one or more significant variations. As I work, I ask questions like, “On what level does an image work?”, “What is a significant variation?”. “When do two or more images reinforce each other?”.

Will these images make the cut? It’s unlikely. But themes within them will resurface in future finished work. In fact they already have. These themes have been with me ever since I began photographing; they look very similar to two images I made for my first exhibit and are related to images in several existing series like Illumination, Refraction, and Resonance.
Even if these images and what I learned from making them bears no fruit, it was time well spent. I truly enjoyed the better part of an hour savoring and playing with light.
View more Contact Sheets here.
View finished images here.

Be Prepared – The Story Behind The Photograph

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Illumination XXVI, Jokulsarlon, Iceland, 2012
French microbiologist Louis Pasteur famously remarked, “Chance favors the prepared.” Just showing up doesn’t guarantee success. You can stack the deck in your favor by being prepared. To be prepared you have to find answers to a lot of questions – or at the very least know what questions to ask … like where to go, when to go, how long to stay, what to bring, how to use what you bring, what you hope to accomplish, what your priorities are, and what you bring to the situation that is unique, for starters.
To get this image (and others like it), I had to do a lot of preparation. I thoroughly understood the subject; following Yogi Bhajan’s advice ““If you want to learn something, read. If you want to understand something, write. If you want to master something, teach.” I had done all three. I was in the right place; Iceland is on the auroral oval. I was there at the right time: as Iceland is just south of the arctic circle, skies are dark enough for a long enough period of time at only certain times of the year. I brought the right equipment; a sturdy tripod with a good mount and a fast lens were essential, plus there was new game changing camera technology that generated less noise at higher ISOs, which would open up new possibilities. I knew how to use the equipment; using your camera in the dark and focusing on a star doesn’t become fluid without some practice. I performed relevant tests to find out how much time it took before stars trailed and how high I could dial my camera’s sensitivity up before without getting objectionable levels of noise. I learned from my failures; after careful examination of images from the previous week I found out how shallow the depth of field or focus was at very fast apertures and that certain lenses produced unacceptable artifacts. I took stock of my community’s previous accomplishments; I looked at a lot of images of auroras, identifying what made some more successful than others. I made some time for self-reflection; I noted what was likely to make my images more authentic and what would make them more likely to stand out from others’ images, either on their own or through their relation to my other work, and I prioritized what I wanted to accomplish. All of this preparation contributed to my being able to work quickly and make the most of each passing moment in a focused way that was most likely to generate results that were relevant to satisfying my goals.
It was so easy to make dramatic images that night and there were so many other photographers making images around me that the bar was raised, which called me to succeed not just on others’ terms but more importantly on my own terms and not just once but multiple times.
Some preparation is specific to a task and/or a moment. A great deal of preparation is more general and cumulative. Often, one builds on the other. Author Malcolm Gladwell suggests that mastery comes when we put in 10,000 hours. Even if you haven’t put in the 10,000 hours to achieve general mastery you can still master the moment; and if you have put in the time, you’ll be able to master many more moments. I’ve often been asked, “How long does it take you to make an image?” I answer, “Anywhere from 15 minutes to 6 months – but the real answer is 47 years and counting.”
Questions
How many kinds of preparation do you need to do – physical, mental, emotional, communal? Why?
What kind of preparation do you need to do the most/least of? Why?
At what point do you get diminishing returns from continued preparation?
Can you be overprepared?
When does preparation become avoidance?
Find out more about this image here.
View more related images here.
Read more The Stories Behind The Images here.

Check Out PHOTOGRAPH – Issue 4

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Issue 4 of PHOTOGRAPH (quarterly add free emagazine) is now available.
It’s packed with Portfolios / Q+As (this time from Nick Hall, Kathy Beal, and Sam Krisch – two of whom are members of my Next Step Alumni) and columns / articles (including contributions by David duChemin, Martin Bailey, Michael Frye, Chris Orwig and more). My Creative Composition column focuses on using Space in compelling ways.
Purchase PHOTOGRAPH issue 4 for $8.
Subscribe to PHOTOGRAPH for $24 (save $8).
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Stay In The Zone – The Story Behind The Photograph

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Constellation VI, Selljalandsfoss, Iceland, 2012

I had tried my hand at this subject and failed a number of times. It was easy to make the standard high impact postcard images of this famous location. Selljalandsfoss, Iceland is a marvelous waterfall that you can circle in front of, around, behind and back again. It’s particularly dramatic in the winter when the stairs that lead behind it freeze over and the walls around it freeze up forming icy stalactites of all sizes that periodically crash to the ground. It’s particularly divine on evenings when the setting sun sets the sky and the waterfall afire. In all the times I’ve visited Selljalandsfoss, the light has been like this only twice. Good enough results the first time lead to my knowing what I needed to do to excel – and I was able to do it. Well before sunset, I walked behind the waterfall, and sat quietly without interruption for the better part of two hours, listening to the thundering sound of the cascading water, feeling its vibrations in my body, and watching the water slowly change color from white, to cream, to gold, to pink, to coral, to mauve, to lavender, to gray, to black. I never took my eyes off the water, seeing endless patterns continually appearing, disappearing, and reappearing. I was enthralled, enchanted, transported in one of the more intensely inspiring moments of my life. I made a thousand exposures and collected enough material for a body of work. When you’re in the zone you stay there and you don’t do anything that might disrupt your flow.
What specifically is flow?  A mental state when people are completely absorbed with energized focus while harnessing emotions aligned with performing and learning activities. Some say that how and when flow happens is a mystery; they give up on solving this riddle because there are so many conditions that contribute to failing to achieve, achieving, sustaining, and disrupting flow – and they vary between individuals and individual moments. Others, love mysteries, like flow; they look to the most common causes for achieving and sustaining flow and incorporate individual differences and sensitivity to current conditions into attempts to achieve and maintain it. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly suggests that we enter states of flow or peak performance when we rise to challenges that interest and stretch us but aren’t beyond our ability to meet, placing us in a curious emotional state that lies between the poles of boredom and anxiety. Throughout the ages cultures have studied flow (using many different names) and we continue to learn more and more about it every day. My recommendation is that you too study flow – personally.
For instance, from previous experiences I know I tend to achieve states of flow more frequently and more deeply when I connect with a subject emotionally and my understanding of it is deep enough to ask more specific questions while creating something in a way that involves physical activity with sustained concentration. The natural world is almost always involved in some way. Reflection before, meditation during, and contemplation after, all aid this process for me.
You can profit from other people’s experiences of flow, what they create in it, and the paths they find to it, but don’t expect yours to be identical – your experience may be very different. In your study of flow, beware of limiting attitudes and superstitious behavior. Above all, pursue flow actively. Take action. Don’t ask “What happens if …?” hypothetically and preemptively. Instead, ask “What happens when … ?” during practical experimentation. Then look at probabilities and stack them in your favor. All you need to do is to find your tipping point(s) and trigger them. How do you know when you’re in the zone? You’ll know. And so will everyone else. When you’re in the zone, there’s no denying it. You’re usually there when you’re doing your best work and feel most alive.
Questions
What are the benefits of being in the zone?
How do you know when you’re in the zone?
What does it take for you to get into the zone?
What can you do to get into the zone faster?
What can you do to get into the zone more frequently?
What can you do to stay in the zone longer?
Find out more about this image here.
View more related images here.
Read more The Stories Behind The Images here.