Searching for Serendipity – Eloquent Images by Gary Hart| Eloquent Images by Gary Hart
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Miriam-Webster defines serendipity as, “Finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.” Wikipedia calls it, “An unplanned fortunate discovery.” Though I can’t quibble with these definitions, I think photographers can create their own serendipity by keeping their eyes and mind open to unexpected opportunities.
Sometimes Mother Nature bludgeons us with serendipitous events that are too obvious to ignore—for example, a double rainbow suddenly coloring a gray downpour, a sunset that ramps up just as you’re about to pack up your gear, or maybe a Rocket streaking through the Milky Way. But Nature’s more subtle gifts usually require our internal serendipity receivers to be tuned a little more sensitively—the unexpected is there if we keep an open mind.
Unexpected gifts of Nature are probably my greatest joy in photography. But given the importance of planning and execution nature photography requires, it’s easy to understand how we might become so fixated on a specific plan that serendipity slips by undetected. The intense focus of a subject can shrink the world, allowing photographers to get the most out of a scene. However, it can also lead to scenes being overlooked.
Over my many years photographing Nature, I’ve learned that rather than being mutually exclusive, laser focus and openminded awareness not only can coexist, they can actually collaborate to create photographic synergy.
Toward this goal, I’ve established a few techniques that nudge me into examining my surroundings more closely. These simple steps have become so ingrained in my photographic process that they no longer require conscious thought—in other words, the mere act of concentrating on my primary subject doesn’t mean my surroundings are denied the attention they deserve as well.
The first, and simplest, of these techniques is to periodically stop and do a slow 360, keeping a few questions in mind: What’s going on with the light, sky, shadows? What in the landscape catches my eye? Is there any movement? I then try to anticipate the next few minutes’ movements of each factor to force me to think about these observations more carefully.
Another way to shake my single-minded focus while working any given scene is making sure I don’t move on without checking in on different perspectives: switch my camera’s orientation, zoom tighter and wider, reframe and/or adjust focus to emphasize different elements in my composition, and reposition my camera to change foreground/background relationships. I can’t tell you the number of times something unexpected and even better has magically appeared just because I adjusted some aspect of my perspective.
Even with these tools, extended periods of time away from my camera may cause my serendipity generator to creak. So, following my recent two-and-a-half month workshop break, last month’s Death Valley / Alabama Hills workshop proved to be just what I needed.
Both locations, because of their unique and varied features, are excellent places to lubricate the works and get my imagination humming. This workshop group in particular had a diverse and strong vision, which inspired everyone (including myself) during our daily images reviews.
I have scheduled this workshop to coincide the full moon. Our moonsets are sunrises because the best full-moon views in Death Valley and Alabama Hills are to the west. But that doesn’t mean we never see a sunset moonrise too. Even though the view isn’t great, and I never actually plot and plan a Death Valley moonrise, wherever I photograph a Death Valley sunset, I try to keep an eye on the east horizon for the moon’s arrival.
I took our group to Badwater on the second evening to capture the sunset, and to get a rare opportunity to photograph Lake Manly. Badwater Basin, which is usually dry, can be temporarily restored by extreme runoff, adding inches of water to the basin that can stretch for many miles. You can also find out more about this by clicking here. version of Lake Manly is the vestigial runoff of Tropical Storm (and former hurricane) Hilary that laid waste to Death Valley last August.
The photography this evening was everything we’d hoped for—calm winds for a pristine reflection, and just enough nice clouds to catch the sunset color. The best Badwater views are west, towards 11,000 foot Telescope Peak and north, up into the valley. So while I knew the nearly full moon would be rising above the valley’s east wall this evening, lacking any kind of a view in that direction, the moon’s arrival wasn’t really a priority. I glanced in that direction occasionally, and then doubled down when a group of clouds began to catch the sunset light on the eastern horizon.
And suddenly there it was, edging above the shear valley wall a little north of Dante’s View. With nothing beneath the moon but nondescript brown cliffs, at first I was content to simply watch it climb, but as the clouds closed in on the moon and their pink continued to intensify, I couldn’t help repositioning my camera.
The scene was a serendipitous composition, as the colors, clouds, and moon were all moving quickly. Since the scene was all about the pink cloud and rising moon, I used my 24-105 lens to zoom in on the subject and minimize the other elements. I also underexposed the image slightly to highlight the color, and darken the barren mountain ridges.
This evening, the Badwater view was spectacular. Especially when sunset began to color the sky. It would have been easy to miss this convergence of color, moon, and clouds. Instead, on an evening filled with the beautiful conditions I’d hoped for, I also got to enjoy one of those serendipity moments I love so much.
A Gallery of Serendipity Scenes (That I Didn’t Come Looking For)
Click any image to browse the gallery.
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