Microwaving Your Images?
Probably Not a Good Idea!
The landscape photography student sat upright on the rock with an unbending grace; his palms placed softly on his knees— his posture indicating a detachment from the beauty of the land and light that surrounded us. His stillness seemed to suggest a contempt for the field class; fellow students felt his aloofness veiled a fear of failure for he was indeed struggling with this first day of landscape composition. I did not think it was either of these.
What I knew of him was from his Master Class application and social media. He was a chef and a fine one according to the words and pictures I found on Facebook and LinkedIn. Five Star restaurants and food critics raved about his culinary arts, and he had published several cookbooks. In the morning briefing, he spoke quietly, telling his fellow students and me that he was here because he wanted to learn the art of landscape photography and that photography had been a lifelong passion, but until recently, he had little time to pursue this dream.
“Twenty more minutes to blue hour,” I yelled from my perch on a granite boulder, and down-canyon, three other students acknowledged the callout. Behind me, a bird sang a few sundown bars and further up the trail, a coyote pitched a friendless howl, a bark meaningless and profound in the quickly advancing twilight. “Having a tough day,” I said to the chef student. “The first day of a Master Class can be overwhelming.”
He is a big man who at the end of this long day now appears undersized. His fall season clothes are fashionable Patagonia outdoor, new, tight, just untagged and bit high on the waist. In the dimming light, his face has a pale color, nearly bloodless I thought, an empty gaze if stamped there by a machine and forever unmovable.
“I’m just not getting it,” he said, his voice flat, discouraged. “I hear everything you say, read what you write, listen to the other students, and I’ve read tons about landscape photography, as well as spending hours watching video tutorials. Now a whole day has nearly gone, and when I look at the images on the back of my camera, I got jack.”
During the day, I reviewed his work frequently and noted that he had good camera skills but his compositions were chaotic, without direction, and now at the end of our first-class day he had captured gigabytes of featureless snapshots. Throughout our field assignments, I provided hands-on instructions, personal encouragement, and suggested corrections. He listened quietly but made no improvements. Instead, he continued to mash his shutter button in rapid-fire sequences, creating a cyclorama of definition-free scenics, his pace as if the desert landscape were to disappear before he could squeeze them into a closet of personal pixels.
“Well, then,” I prodded, “If your work is not where it should be, what do you think is wrong?”
Another shoulder shrug, less emphatic now, and then he turned towards me. “I don’t know really— maybe part of it is sensory overload; maybe I’m trying too hard, or maybe this is not my thing.” His tone had changed from flat to exasperation.
“You’re a chef, right?” I asked.
“An excellent chef I’ve learned,” I said brightly. “So, let me ask you something about cooking?”
“Sure,” he said, eager for a chance to chat within his comfort zone.
“What do you think of microwaves?”
“Yeah, for cooking.”
“You’re kidding,” he said emphatically. “I mean they are OK to heat something in a pinch, but when you cook, you cook, and that takes time. Nuking food… that’s not cooking, that’s cremating.”
“Really… so what do you cook with?”
An energetic smile crossed his face, and color returned to his cheeks. “Pots, pans, dishes, broilers, stoves, all kinds of professional utensils and containers that fit the recipe, and my style of cooking. I’m particular about my gear, right down to my favorite measuring cup.”
“But if a microwave is a much faster why go to all the trouble of using such specialized pots and spending so much time slaving over a hot stove?” I asked.
“If you want great food,” he instructed, “you need to be able to see the action, look into the pans and see how things are going. Is that the crust I want, is the glaze just right—smell and sample to taste, and adjust with heat, spices, all to create dishes that people love.”
“I see,” I said, “I suppose you use some mighty fine recipes too?”
“When I started cooking, I used all kinds of recipes; some were easy others were more complex. As time went on, I learned more and began to experiment, and today I write my own,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll dig out an old recipe and rework it into something new.”
I turned away from him, observed the silent sweep of blue light overcoming the remaining pink in Shadow Valley, and saw that the other students had come up the trail and gathered around us. “So,” I said my tone a bit prosecutorial, “you don’t like microwaves, but you enjoy pots pans, and a great stove, is that right?”
Yep,” he said firmly, “ you need to invest time, temperature and spice to create great food. By itself the recipe has no soul; it’s up to the chef to bring the heart to the recipe.”
I stood up and dug my toe into the dirt at my feet and let a long pause pass. “Well sir, tell me something— if you don’t like microwaves why are you microwaving your pictures?”
“Microwaving my pictures?” he asked. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that every time you lift the camera to your eye, you just zap what’s in front of you. You look, look, and look some more, but you are not seeing. You’re clicking your shutter like you were pulling a nickel slot handle. Simply put— you are nuking your images.”
Taste the Landscape
I paused and caught the grimace on his face, and I could tell the truth of his situation was creating some pain. “Slow down and see, then let what you see simmer in your heart. Taste the landscape, look into the soul of the scene, and see if it has the right edges or crust as you say in the culinary arts. Treat your viewfinder as if you were looking into one of your pans and see what is going on, and then slowly stir your visual cues to create a meaningful and unique image. Once you let yourself feel what is in front of you, then you will begin to simplify and compose images that viewers can feel too.”
He began to nod with slow but perceptible indications of understanding. “And if you need some additional spice,” I said with a softer tone, “well you can season to taste in post-production.”
He slipped off the boulder and stood up, “Well I suppose your right, cause whatever I’m doing now isn’t getting the job done.” He paused, looked away and then back his facial expression softer and accepting. “I need to slow down and see, on that, I agree, but there is one thing else I need.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“ I need a visual recipe, a place to start,” he said an easy smile on his face now.
“Ok, I said, “I have one.” I turned and pointed towards Shadow Valley. “The sun is down, and this is a blue hour, a time when we can create amazing images from the soft, cool light. I’ll give you a recipe for this time of day, but remember by itself the recipe has no soul. It’s up to the photographer to bring heart to the image.”
He chuckled at the return metaphor. “Thanks,” he said grabbing his camera pack. “Hey, do you have a name for this recipe?”
“I do,” I said. “I call it the Blue Light special.”