Thursday, November 26, 2009

On Not Quite Seeing, but Close Enough

Pretty close to 90% of taking satisfying pictures is seeing the picture that you want among the chaos and clutter in which the visual world presents itself. Every photographer has days when seeing is easy, when good images just jump out of scenes he has seen hundreds of times before. I suppose that good photographers have a lot of those days. For most of us, on most days, it's not that easy. You can look where you know there's got to be a good picture and not find anything.

Then there are the days in between. On a recent visit to an airport in southern California I ran across this plane. It's a Lockheed PV-2, a reliable but not very famous US Navy patrol bomber from World War II. This one doesn't look like much now, but it's at the beginning of a long restoration by an owner famous for top-quality restorations, so in several years it should be quite a showpiece. What fascinated me about the aircraft was the way the late afternoon light brought out the patina in its metal surfaces.

But where was the picture? With other aircraft, cars, and clutter all round, it was not easy to find. I tried to clear my mind ("let the force guide you"; "be the ball"; whatever) as I walked around it looking for the angle, the composition I wanted. I didn't quite get there. But I did sense that the front of the engine nacelle and the cockpit area were of the most interest to me, and I felt that I would want a telephoto perspective to focus attention on the surfaces rather than the 3-dimensional forms. I took this shot, which I knew I didn't like, but which I hoped might contain something I liked somewhere.

When I got home, I took another hard look at it. Obviously those cars at lower right would have to go. At length I realized that I could remove them, isolate attention on the bits of the image that I really wanted, and also solve the distracting diagonal aspect of the plane's posture by rotating it 11 degrees to the right and cropping carefully. Had I been seeing better that day, I would have twisted my camera and made that picture on the spot. Luckily I had composed widely enough to give me room for the rotation. This gave me the composition that I wanted, with the things I wanted to be in the frame present, and nothing looking artificially cut off.

All that remained was to bring out the patina with a slight increase in saturation, and address California's air pollution issues by tinting the sky slightly blue. I'm not saying that the result is a great picture, but it was what I wanted out of this situation, and satisfied me enough to justify my walk around the airport. And it was almost -- but not quite -- seen at the time.

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