Photo: Backlit Cottonwood tree in fall, Big Pine, Inyo County, Eastern Sierra, California

Photo: Backlit Cottonwood tree in fall, Big Pine, Inyo County, Eastern Sierra, California
Purchase Prints or License Usage.

Personal Vision: Listening to what makes you take a photo… or not?

Let me say two things: First, whenever I give workshops, consultations, or presentations, I like to discuss personal vision and style, especially when trying to grow as a photographer. Secondly, this image was featured as part of My Favorite Photos of 2017 collection. So what’s the connection between these two points?

I often talk about personal vision as being that which helps move a photographer beyond those classic icon scenes. Many beginning photographers seem to stuggle with the concept of developing a personal vision or style. Personal vision doesn’t start with the eyes. It really starts with a responsive awareness to an internal spark that connects the head, the heart, and the eyes. The head and the heart help direct the eyes on what to see, while our eyes act as receptors that feed visual stimulus (the fuel) which helps create the spark. Listening to that internal connection –letting that guide us on how we focus on or frame the subject — is what helps us develop our personal vision.

When we see something beautiful, something in us says, “Ahhh… I like that.” We feel it. Conversely, when we see something ugly, it also affects our head and heart. If you think about trying to take a compelling and meaningful photo of something ugly, you still have to find a way to really internally connect with that subject so that your viewer can instantly recognize the story that you’re trying to tell.

Last fall I went to the Eastern Sierra to say a personal farewell to the Mountain Light Gallery in Bishop, California. That same weekend, some members of my local Contra Costa Camera Club were taking a field trip to the area, so I nicely asked if I could tag along. (I judge photo competitions for this awesome club once or twice a year and am a past member.)

At one point there were maybe eight or nine of us photographers standing outside our vehicles chatting while we waited to carpool up to the ancient Bristlecone Pines in the White Mountains.

Image: Backlit Cottonwood tree in fall, Big Pine, Inyo County, Eastern Sierra, CaliforniaPurchase Prints or License Usage.

There I was, standing under a tree, surrounded by other photographers. A moment came when I looked up at the trees that we were standing beneath and saw this beautiful photographic potential. I instantly felt that connection first in my heart. (I really like photographing trees.) Next, my head went to work to assess the photographic potential; Yes, this might really work as a nice shot. I grabbed my camera and started working the composition taking a dozen or more shots.

Now be aware, this group included a number of very talented and prolific photographers, yet I noticed not one other person followed my lead to reach for their own camera. I pay attention to things like this — like when you’ve pulled off on the side of the road in a national park and three other cars pull over to see what you’re taking pictures of, so they start taking pictures, too.

I don’t know why no one else took a photo. I know they all saw me shooting. Perhaps it was the conversations they were having, maybe they couldn’t see what I was seeing, maybe they didn’t like trees, or perhaps they looked at it and thought it just wouldn’t be a good photo. Maybe it isn’t a good photo. I like it, and at least on this day, it was mine, and uniquely mine. Maybe that’s why I included it in my yearly favorites. I was simply responding to that little spark that speaks inside each of us.

How well we listen to that spark is what helps frame our vision of the world, and becomes the definition of our personal style. In workshop image reviews, there’s always one shot where 14 photographers walk past the same exact spot, yet only one person hears that call to make a photo. Usually, this results in a group chorus of “Wow, what a great photo; I never saw that!”

The irony is that just a few hours later the group would encircle one of the most popular and commonly photographed Bristlecone Pines in the White Mountains, one where thousands of shots have already been taken. (Stay tuned for that one.)  Yet standing under this one cottonwood — a tree that has rarely, if ever been photographed — no one else heard the same siren call of that internal spark that I did. That’s the true nature and essence of personal vision, and on this day I found it while standing under some random tree.

* Do you like trees, also? Click here to see more of my Tree and Forest Photos at my Image Archive Library.

** Finally: Wow, if you’ve made it this far, Thank you for reading!  🙂  I’d love to know which image you prefer if you had to hang a copy on your wall: the vertical or the horizontal?

*** EDIT:  It occurred to me after the fact to also ask, “How would you describe (your) Personal Vision in a sentence?”

Gary Crabbe is an award-winning commercial and editorial outdoor travel photographer and author based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, California. He has seven published books on California to his credit, including “Photographing California; v1-North”, which won the prestigious 2013 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Gold Medal award as Best Regional title. His client and publication credits include the National Geographic Society, the New York Times, Forbes Magazine, TIME, The North Face, Subaru, L.L. Bean, Victoria’s Secret, Sunset Magazine, The Nature Conservancy, and many more. Gary is also a photography instructor and consultant, offering both public and private photo workshops. He also works occasionally a professional freelance Photo Editor.


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Join the discussion 7 Comments

  • Maybe some photo enthusiasts feel awkward about the idea that they’d see you shooting, assume there must be something good there and follow suit? Or just not in the mood/groove yet? I know my photographic eye and inspiration is often heavily mood-influenced.

    I think I prefer the horizontal image – it gives more of the feeling of being under the spreading canopy rather than looking towards a tall tree. I also find that that the bare branches in the bottom corners of the horizontal balance each other, whereas in the vertical I find the bottom left corner distracting.

  • Susan O'Donnell says:

    I love the tree gallery photos! Something about the way sunlight filters through the leaves seems so magical. I would probably choose the vertical image…I love to see the sunlight playing upon the leaves. Thank you for sharing this Gary!

  • Mark says:

    I like the horizontal. It has an extra ordinary reach. You can almost hear the strain coming from the tree as it reaches out to the side. With all the branches considered the horizontal has more of a bloom, like a flower. I like the vertical but it seems bare and perhaps a tad cold. While the horizontal appears to have a tad more warmth. Warm images are appealing.

  • I love trees, as well, Gary. I prefer the horizontal, for the same reason as Jackson – it is more the feeling of being under, hence closer to, the tree. I wonder if that preference is influenced by the title of your post…? 🙂
    Thank you for sharing.

  • I love photographing trees and looking at pictures (whether photos or paintings) of them as well. Thanks for sharing your story about how you came to photograph this tree, Gary. I’m going to be different and say I prefer the vertical. Trees are the most anthropomorphic or creatures and the vertical emphasizes this more.

  • Paul says:

    I prefer the vertical image it gives me a sense of the grandeur of the tree

  • Margaret Roder says:

    Hi Gary, my preference is the horizontal, i allows the tree to show off its spreading grandeur and canopy, and your choice of positioning in the frame adds to this feeling. I love photographing trees and thank you for sharing the cottonwood.

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