Da Vinci and Your Photographic Vision

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We all heard about the inconceivable sum paid for Da Vinci's lost painting, Salvatore Mundi. Someone paid $450 million for this painting, which was sold for just $90 a few decades ago.

The link below opens an article by Walter Isaacson of the Alpen Institute, where he describes Da Vinci's genius for creating masterpieces based on the physics and optics of the human eye and the way our brains perceive physical reality.

The challenge for a painter is creating the illusion of three dimensional space on a two dimensional medium. Photographers face the same challenge, of course, and we learn to trick the eye into perceiving the illusion of depth by using techniques such as leading lines, sidelighting, and a softening of focus and atmosphere in the distance. 

I plan to write more about this topic in an upcoming blog post, but for now check out Prof. Isaacson's awesome article. We can apply Da Vinci's techniques to modern art!




How I Do It

My trusty steed and my portable studio. Looking for trouble in the Canadian Rockies.

My trusty steed and my portable studio. Looking for trouble in the Canadian Rockies.

Ansel Adams' most famous image, Moonrise Over Hernandez New Mexico, was made in 1941 in the following way, as described by his son Michael:


“Ansel was driving, and Cedric was in the passenger seat. I was eight years old, half listening to the banter, watching the world fly by out the window. We were in Ansel’s old Pontiac station wagon, heading back to Santa Fe. It had been a long day, and not, apparently, very successful.

"I don’t really remember any discussion about the potential of Moonrise at the time, only that we were moving really fast. Ansel was by nature prone to driving fast, but skilled and certainly not reckless. It was quite a shock, therefore, to suddenly be on the gravel shoulder of the road, fishtailing and dust flying as Ansel slammed on the brakes.

“Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! Grab the camera case! It’s under there, get that out of the way. Where’s the tripod. Film holders ! Hurry ! Where’s the light meter?!! Where’s the light meter?! Oh, no, the light’s going…” Things were flying out of the car and onto the ground as we were frantically grabbing things that Ansel needed."


Adams had mere seconds before he lost the light on the crosses and the shot would be gone forever. He never did manage to find the light meter in time, but as time was running out he suddenly realized that he could expose using the constant luminance of moon, which he knew from experience. Keep in mind that he was setting up his huge and complicated 8x10 view camera on a massive tripod on the roof of the car on top of a special wooden platform he had built for just that purpose. He literally had less than a minute from the time he slammed on the brakes until the light was gone. That he could realize his vision for the shot is a testament to not only his technical skill but also his athleticism and preparation. 

One of his assistants spoke of this preparation:


"He [Ansel] was acutely aware of his surroundings and how different scenes would likely look their best in different seasons or at different times of day, and he would often PLAN to be in the right place at the right time. Luck, of course, offers up many magic moments and Ansel dealt with these through his conviction that “chance favors the prepared mind!” Consequently he had PLANS for how he would handle a stroke of luck—both visually and technically."


In this case, Adams was obviously not prepared enough to be able to find the light meter in under 60 seconds, but his totality of experience made the shot possible regardless.

The Lessons I Learned Early

When I was a young pup kicking around the shoreline of Lake Superior with my two Olympus OM-2n 35-mm film cameras, I also learned the same lessons about preparation. If you want good shots, you need much more than simply a keen artistic eye; you also need to be able to react with knowledge and skill and imagination to rapidly changing conditions and gear failures and physical obstacles while feeling completely stressed out at the chaos that is probably unfolding around you as the light or aurora or rainbow begins to fade.

As a wilderness landscape photographer, I get the shots I do through a variety of steps. Organized roughly from start to finish, they go like this:

  1. Obtain and practice with the needed camera gear. Prepare tactics to deal with dead batteries, balky memory cards, frozen bodies (camera and human!) and other issues that arise during a photo shoot.
  2. Obtain and practice with the needed hiking / camping / kayaking / canoeing / skiing / snowshoeing gear. To photograph wilderness, you need to put yourself out there, so you need to learn how to be able to survive in the great outdoors. Fortunately for me, I love this aspect of my trade as much as taking the shots. In fact, I have frequently camped without any camera gear because I enjoy just getting out there. 
  3. Trip planning and navigation. Also safety / rescue planning. 
  4. Find the time to get out in the field. When I was 18 years old, I did my first big solo backcountry journey, spending 18 days paddling the wild shore of Lake Superior in an area with zero roads or buildings (today the area I was paddling in is a Canadian National Park -- Pukaskwa) and getting out for every sunrise and sunset to make photographs. To make this happen, I had to quit my job plus earn the funds for the 80 rolls of film I brought on the trip. Nothing has changed over the years. To get the shots, I still need to make some sacrifices and get out there where the shots are waiting to be discovered.
  5. Explore! Not just the physical landscape, but also my own artistic vision. I learned early to play with light and compositions and look under every rock and behind every bush (figuratively and sometimes literally speaking) to new ways of seeing. Good photography is a constant process of brainstorming and trying to break off the blinders and see things from new perspectives. This takes an immense amount of mental effort and concentration, but thank god for the display screen on modern digital cameras, which gives you instant feedback on what you are shooting. In the old film days, when I was starting out, there was a two-week turnaround from the time I mailed my film away to the lab in Winnipeg until I got the slides back in the mail. I would normally take images every day, so I received a package or two of slides on nearly a daily basis, by which I could evaluate my successes and failures and make adjustments. (It is SOOO much easier today!)
  6. Wait. And when you are done waiting, wait some more. If you want to shoot a clearing storm, you first need to find a storm. Then you need to hang around doing very little until the storm begins to clear. If you get lucky, you get some good light and the shots work out. If not, go find another storm and wait for that one to clear. Eventually you will get some shots that make you really happy. I have a friend, Marc Adamus, who is famous for the lengthy periods of time he will dedicate to waiting for the light. One night when we were waiting for the aurora borealis to hopefully appear in the minus-20C mountain scene, he told me his philosophy of waiting. He said that he simply reminds himself that if he is lucky enough to get the shot, then he will have that shot for the rest of his life to enjoy. So, the present discomforts of a few sleepless nights in the freezing cold are minor in comparison. Sometimes when you are exhausted on a mountainside in a cold rain waiting for the dawn, it seems a little tough. But even then, I try to see the beauty and just live in the moment and appreciate what I am experiencing. Is it not more awesome than sleeping in a warm bed knowing you soon have to jump in a car and commute to some boring business meeting?!?! I think it is (usually!).
  7. Be quiet. Once you have the right gear and the right location and have done all you can to prepare, I try to still my mind and get into a creative mental and spiritual space and let creativity just happen. This is not always easy to do when your battery dies or memory card fills up or a grizzly bear appears just as the light and composition is coming together perfectly, but it is essential to try. We typically approach most tasks with a lot of judgement and preconceived notions, but in the beginners mind we can see things with a fresh set of eyes and thereby stumble on some new idea or serendipitous happening. There the magic happens!
  8. Follow through. Ansel Adams was not just a master of taking the shot but also post-processing in the darkroom. If we want great shots, we need to invest the time and energy and learning and tears and errors in figuring out how to get the raw materials to a finished state. Post-processing is an art in itself and must be learned to make photographs that fully communicate your personal vision. 
  9. Have some fun! Learn to laugh and have a good time. After all, we expend tremendous amounts of energy and consume huge resources and take deadly risks to capture a few pixels of light on a cheap little electronic sensor. Could anything be more ridiculous? I therefore try not to take myself too seriously. If I miss a perfect shot today, I just laugh it off and know I will have better luck tomorrow or the day after. Remember that we are little mammals that often smell bad (especially after camping for a week or two) running around in the mountains waiting for perfect moments to happen. How cool is that?!?!?!

PostScript: After writing the text above last night, I went for a run this morning and felt that my description was incomplete. A final point I wanted to make is the following: to take great shots, one needs to fight like hell and then fight some more. Fight to take photographs, you may ask? Absolutely. Mike Tyson has a famous saying that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. I used to do a little boxing as a young'un and I can say without hesitation that the emotional challenges and sense of dislocation I sometimes experience in photography are far greater than anything I ever felt when merely absorbing a strong punch in the noggin. Photography like any art form strips you completely bare at times, as you come up against situations that test your limits and reveal your limitations (often in a very public way). Anything worth doing in this world requires grit and a fighting spirit to overcome obstacles and reach the goal. Landscape photography is no different. Someday I will write a blog post that explores this topic more fully, but for now just file my words away in the back of your mind and remember to draw on your inner reserves of grit when things are getting challenging. Good shooting!

Yup, I am smiling because this is FUN!

Yup, I am smiling because this is FUN!