I remember reading a story by a well known pro photographer about a group of students he had brought into the field during a class. The assignment, if I remember correctly, was along the lines of going out into the woods to find subjects. About half an hour into the field time, two of the students returned to the shuttle and sat down. Asked why they were back so soon, they responded "There is nothing to shoot here".
He did not comment on how they performed in the course, but I suspect they did poorly. The point of the story, and the one I speak to here, is that this response illustrates a disappointing lack of vision, insight and awareness. Perhaps deadened by the wow-wiz-bang! of modern media, when faced with the reality of our actual world, little of it registers anymore. This is a loss with some very serious implications, and not just for photographer wannabes. Unlike the manufactured and intentionally over amped media that plagues our daily lives, the real world can be one of nuance and subtlety.
Allow me to supply a real life example. One cold January morning, I went through my usual pre-dawn routine, this particular morning headed for the Fire Island public beaches at Robert Moses State Park. My goal was, with luck, to get some spectacular sunrise images. I arrived on the beach with time to spare and set up - 5D body, 24-105mm lens and a full height tripod, polarizers and ND grad filters at the ready. And waited. I noticed two other photographers had also arrived on this particular morning, each had staked out a spot about a 1/8 mile away from mine, one to the west, the other to the east. We all waited for the sun to breach the horizon. As anyone knows who rises this early on anything resembling a regular schedule, truly spectacular sunrises doen't exactly show up on demand. As the old saying goes, "you pays your money and you takes your chances". As it happened, this morning was a very definite dud, for spectacular sunrises anyway. Oh, the sun arrived on time (whew!) but there wasn't a hint of a cloud to be seen, and for a spectacular sunrise, you need very good clouds arranged 'just so'.
As the horizon brightened, it became clear that this was not going to be a successful shoot, at least for the intended target. Sure enough, the other two photographers folded up their gear and left. As for me, I simply changed gears. If the big scene isn't cooperating, maybe something can be found in the more intimate details available. The light was certainly fantastic. As the sun inexorably cleared the horizon, the golden red light absolutely burned across the rippled sand at the surf's edge. I relocated to the edge of some shallow, sandy tide pools and started examining the play of light across the sand. It was amazing. I selected an isolated tide pool, with a clearly reflected sky in the still water, composed the shot and snapped the shutter.
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The extremely flat angle of the sun changes quickly and one can't linger or other opportunities may be missed. After a few shots of the tide pool at different angles, I started working towards the west, looking for any interesting details. Shells of the large quahog clams that the area has long been known for are washed up in great numbers here. I found one that had been scoured by the sea and sand long enough to completely bleach it to white and roughen the hard, polished ridges. The low angle of the sun brought out all the fine details in the shell as it rested in the recently wave swept sand.
(click image to enlarge)
And so it went over the course of the next hour as I moved from one odd or interesting detail to the next. By opening ourselves to other possibilities and refusing to be overwhelmed by the large and the loud, a whole new world becomes available to us. We just have to have to learn to see it.