Looking for Compositions: Previsualization in Landscape Photography

One of the ways landscape photographers have legitimized their craft as an artform is by this idea of previsualization. This artistic direction is epitomized by Ansel Adams, who preached the idea of envisioning the photograph before taking it. This kind of determined and deliberate approach to making photographs is very different than the tradition of photojournalism. Henri Cartier-Bresson coined the term the decisive moment to describe what it was he hunted for in his compositions. For him, previsualization was impossible. To capture that elusive moment required stealth, spontaneity, and quickness. In this dichotomy, you can sense something of the idea posed by Jeff Wall that photographers are either farmers or hunters.

There is another category that is not part of Wall’s interesting configuration and that is photographer as shepherd. On any given day, you can find this version of photographer trying to get a group of people to stand in a particular pattern in front of a picturesque background. The drive of this work is to assemble a group, to bring them into a space and to make photographs out of their synchronized smiling. For the shepherd photographer, there is something of the hunter and of the farmer in their process. They need to both have studied the landscape to know the light and how to use it in a composition, but they are also looking for those moments of emotional truth when laughter or joy spark in their subjects. The shepherd photographer leads a group and sometimes must charm them to feel comfortable in the setting.

The shepherd photographer can previsualize a lot of the elements and they must be ready to respond to spontaneous things that happen in the landscape with the light. The landscape photographer can focus more on previsualization because they don’t need to pay attention to subjects who are constantly moving and may not be altogether agreeable to the process. The landscape never minds. The journalist has all kinds of other challenges, including the risk of being confronted by people who may not want their photograph taken.

The portrait photographer is like the shepherd but has a more intimate relation to the subject since it is a one-on-one situation. In the portrait session, you can see parallels to all different kinds of professional relationships. The portrait photographer is part director, part trainer, part coach, part therapist, part friend. There is a psychological component to portrait photography that makes it very interesting.

Each of these different modes of photography requires a different set of skills and habits. You are looking for different elements in each field but the thing that is common to all modes of making photographs is the idea of looking for compositions. For a photograph to work, it needs a powerful composition. The way a photograph leads the eye around the image is the make-or-break element for all the different kinds of photography. Composition is the unified field of photography.

The question of what makes a good composition is highly personal and it is through answering that question that a photographer develops a sense of style. When making photographs, you are constantly studying how the world translates into a two-dimensional form through all kinds of various technological constraints. You must learn about depth of field, compression of images through the distortion of a lens, and other optical effects of photographic technique. Through experimentation, you can learn what elements you need to exist to take a good photograph.

One of the ways that you can look for compositions is by walking. As you walk and notice the shifting perspective between elements you can begin to see when certain alignments happen. For example, there is a composition I have been eyeing that I am going to photograph this morning. This is my previsualization. It is of the surfer sculpture on West Cliff with the aloes in full bloom right now. I have been watching the flowers for some time getting ready for when they are peaking to get a shot of this iconic spot. Yesterday as I was walking my dog by, I saw exactly the shot I wanted as I moved along the sidewalk the flowers the sculpture and the boardwalk behind it all came into an alignment that felt like something clicking into place. That is the feeling. It’s like a seat belt fastens. All the sudden you just know that it is secure.

So, I’m calling my shot this morning and painting the picture of the photograph that I am going to take before I get out there and get it. Previsualization, baby. It’s an interesting practice that takes some time to get to. You have to know what shots are possible, you have to study a particular location over a period of time, and then you must time it correctly so that the light adds in the final elements to the alignment of subjects in space. When all of these things come together, you have a magical photograph. The trick to managing that is to do tons of work ahead of time figuring out what is possible so that you can zero in on one idea and find the ideal moment to realize your composition.

If photography is to live up to its name and function as writing and not just decoration, then composition is key. It is through assembling the elements of a photograph in a particular form that great photographs are achieved. To do this, you need to study and practice photographing your subject over time so that when you see that alignment happen you can be prepared to follow through on your vision. 

In Cannabis We Trust

During the pandemic, the cannabis plant and the industry surrounding it have become more valuable than ever before. State by state, we are creeping towards federal legalization as the evidence continues to grow in the places where it already has been made legal for recreational use. Legalizing weed is the most SENSIble thing to do. With one stroke from a pen, a switch would flip that could empower hundreds of thousands of people with work, liberate tens of thousands from incarceration, and would potentially provide all of us with the therapeutic tools we need to heal and grow stronger.

Canada legalized recreational cannabis with the Cannabis Act in 2018. Mexico in on the verge of passing their legalization bill. Just as California couldn’t stand by and watch Colorado capitalize on legal weed, it seems beyond inevitable that the US as a whole will finally abandon its stance against cannabis as history continues to show that legalizing cannabis is not just an experiment, but a full-fledged transformation of global drug policy.

Cannabis users who have experienced legalization may have varying views of what legal weed looks like for the people who care most about the plant, but there is a widespread consensus among its advocates that cannabis is a beneficial plant and that making access to quality bud safe and affordable would be a good thing.

When will the US recognize its potential for leadership in the embrace of cannabis and hemp products? If cannabis is federally legalized, will that speed up the process of incorporating hemp commodities into our agricultural and industrial plans? When will we see the ascendency of Hempcrete as a building material? How soon can we phase out plastic and replace it with hemp alternatives?

These questions have urgent importance, and the more we elevate the topic as a priority the sooner we can start working on these powerful problem-solving practices. It is perhaps understandable that people are still resistant to legalization as it shows the power of the anti-drug campaigns that have ideologically backed the drug wars. If you didn’t have personal experience with cannabis, it might still seem like a dangerous or negative thing.

The truth is, cannabis is beneficial to many many people.

When you listen to leaders in the cannabis space, a common story you hear is one of conversion through injury or illness. Oftentimes, these folks will have been extremely conservative people who were anti-cannabis and believed the propaganda against the plant. After being recommended cannabis to deal with seizures, pain, or the side effects of chemotherapy, a great number of people have converted to become stoners who sing the praises of the plant and advocate for it.

One of these people was Jack Herer. He is one of the most iconic examples of a conservative converting to cannabis after trying it for the first time in his 30s. Herer opened up a head shop and started researching cannabis and hemp and became a spearhead for legalization. His book The Emperor Wears No Clothes is a cornerstone work in the legalization movement. Herer became one of the legends of cannabis during his time and he started out starkly against the plant as a Goldwater conservative.

Just as Jack Herer changed his mind about cannabis, we have seen a major shift in attitudes. The more states legalize cannabis, the less the stigma against cannabis users is able to stick, and lots of people you may not have thought were cannabis users have stepped out of the closet. We no longer see cannabis use in the same way. We are getting experienced. Jimi Hendrix would be proud.

Erin Schwartz: Executive Assistant Extraordinaire

We are in a weird spot as a culture. I think most people would agree with that. Things have shifted in ways we don’t even understand yet. Major world historical events like the Covid-19 pandemic are formative for the generations who live through them. Your age and your social position have a lot to do with how you are able to navigate those challenges, how the times affect you. This is a generational event.

One year of involuntary widespread unemployment is going to have major psychological effects on people. This has to be expected in order for us to be able to help, in order to survive. We need to be ready. We need to actively be finding ways to assist ourselves and others to adapt. What do we need to focus on? 

In order to climb our way out of the economic and energetic abyss into which we’ve fallen, we are going to need leadership. We need collaborations. We need positivity. We have to think about the situation critically and work creatively to find solutions. What is the new need, how could it be a new market? How can we address it? What positive energies can we summon to help us overcome our despair?

Enter the alpha executive assistant, Erin Schwartz. The pandemic has restricted so many of our movements, but some personalities are indomitable. Some people have overcome tough situations before and are emotionally equipped to face uncertainty without falling apart. Erin is one of these people. She has that warrior like strength that you need in times like these.

During the restrictive months of lockdown, Erin took charge of her own work life by basically creating a job for herself as a virtual executive assistant. Erin is talented at networking. She thinks of other people and wants to involve them in projects. She has the instincts of a producer. But, she is also a very clear communicator who is not afraid to ask the hard questions or to be strong in her requests.

We are in an era where small businesses are experiencing existential threats, but also where there is a rise in entrepreneurship. It is when we effectively combine the usefulness of the new category of entrepreneur with the needs of businesses to adapt to changing times that fruitful synergies can occur. I have seen it happen so many times in my own work, and this is a time where the opportunity is there for lots of other entrepreneurs.

I became a full-time entrepreneur out of necessity back in 2011-12 and found over time that it is something that I love. I enjoy thinking about business and marketing as much as I do art and literature. I now see them as all so connected there is no way to separate art from business from politics. It’s all intertwined and there is a middle path you can follow, a way to sanely and productively interact with others despite the seemingly divisive times.

I started working with Erin as a model probably three or four years ago. When I work with models, I care more about the results of the collaboration than anything in particular about the person. I’m never looking for a specific look in terms of gender or ethnicity or age. I care about energy and results more than anything. You have to keep it moving and get stuff done, so whenever a collaborator brings that go -etter energy to a project it more often than not leads to more work. 

Momentum is a powerful force in creativity, so when you find someone who is stoked to get pictures, who brings creative energy to the project, it adds to your momentum. The same thing is true in running a small business. You need team players.

Everyone has things they can’t do, but that are important to their work. I work with models because I need subjects for lifestyle and commercial photography. I can’t do that by myself. When I work with a model and have a successful shoot, I am able to deliver lots of great content to a client and that often leads to more work. Their positive energy adds to the overall process. So, I end up working with the people who bring the best energy most consistently. Over the years, Erin has proven to be a reliably positive collaborator.

As I mentioned, Erin brings a kind of alpha energy to her life. She is not one to let circumstances stop her. As a result, she managed to get married during the pandemic and I was honored to photograph the ceremony in beautiful Carmel. With her own wedding as I have seen her do in her life in general, she found the will to bring people together and to accomplish a big thing together. 

This is Erin’s knack. She has an indomitable will and an awareness of how other people could come together to create a larger team to tackle a project, to accomplish a goal. With all that is happening in the world, it is refreshing to be reminded that the human spirit will find a way. Artists generally make their way to the stage one way or another, and we are living in a world more entertaining for their efforts.

I strive to create the best content for brands, which is why I work with people who bring the best energy to the project and Erin is one of those individuals who responds to the potential of a situation. We are all collectively building the future as we go, and this has been a time of rethinking and reimagining what that will be.

As we move into Spring and whatever that brings, it will be good to add new entrepreneurial ingredients into the mix. Now is the time for young people to initiate internships, to look for mentors, to figure out how to get experience in business. It is also the time for businesses to find ways to work with content creators, influencers, virtual assistants and anyone who is able to bring value to the table.

The Work of Landscape Photography

I like to earn my photographs. I don’t think a robot could ever feel that way, but maybe artificial intelligence will include emotional dimensions. Maybe we are not special as human consciousness. Still, I feel better when I do something hard that leads to a great photograph. 

A lot of it has to do with timing. You have to synchronize your life with the light and the landscape. You have to be in the right place at the right time, and if it is hard to get to that place then you have the added reward of achieving something that is difficult. It is not just what the camera can see, but what the body operating the camera feels and why. 

Riding my bike through the mountain trails gives me a ton of physical challenges and a lot of satisfaction. It feels good to climb up to a ridgeline with the power of your own legs and the view is that much sweeter. It also means knowing the trails and how long they take and how fast you can go. It means having enough energy and physical comfort to be able to stop and compose your shots despite the fatigue or the hunger you feel. 

It also adds the element of the unknown. You have some extra elements of chance at work. Getting yourself in the right spot at the right time is much harder when you are riding a bike, but it is also much more rewarding. 

Location, Location, Location: Photography and Natural Light

So much of life depends upon location. Realtors know this better than most, but photographers also are expert in understanding place. Yesterday I photographed my friends Natalia, Antonio and Derek. Natalia and Derek are realtors. Hence, the title.JJT.14.June.2020.Natalia.Antonio.Derek-20A favorite collaborator over the years, Natalia Lockwood has become a powerhouse broker of homes and it is fun to watch her grow.JJT.14.June.2020.Natalia.Antonio.Derek-5This is Derek Scranton who was voted Capitola’s “Best Realtor” in the Santa Cruz Sentinel’s Readers’ Choice Awards. Super nice guy, easy going and fun. Contact him if you are in the market for a home.JJT.14.June.2020.Natalia.Antonio.Derek-24What a team! Their smiles say it all. We chose Loch Lomond for our shoot, and found some great pockets of light along the lake. FYI, you are allowed to visit the lake for fishing and hiking, but no hanging out, as we learned.JJT.14.June.2020.Natalia.Antonio.Derek-26The homie Antonio is a capoeira master and with supreme flexibility he busted out some moves real quick. JJT.14.June.2020.Natalia.Antonio.Derek-27Had to take the opportunity to get a few shots of one of my favorite couples.JJT.14.June.2020.Natalia.Antonio.Derek-28By the way, Antonio and I talked about podcasts the whole time. He’s the only person I know who loves podcasts as much as I do. Always fun to link up with kindred souls.

JJT.14.June.2020.Natalia.Antonio.Derek-29What are your favorite podcasts? Going to be brainstorming some ideas with Antonio. Could be something cool in the works! These are wild times and we need to be discussing the issues.JJT.14.June.2020.Natalia.Antonio.Derek-21

Mountain Cure

With all of the tragedy going on in the world, mental health is super important and hard to come by. Exercise is key for my mental well being. So is being in nature. With a camera on my back, I jumped on my bike to put in some miles on the trails to achieve both goals and to make some photographs in the pretty early-summer light.JJT.13.June.2020I’ve been thinking a lot about how photography is so much more than a way of documenting the world, and when I experiment with long exposure blurs it sometimes matches how I feel better than a tack sharp image. I like to experiment with drawing with the light. It decomposes the image and shows how cameras work while using all of the points of light to draw lines. JJT.13.June.2020-26I think that there is a value to both kinds of photographs: experimental and documentary. While I enjoy the feeling of experimenting with a camera to get surprising results there is also something really rewarding about a photograph that looks and feels like the world it was made in.JJT.13.June.2020-5JJT.13.June.2020-24JJT.13.June.2020-4JJT.13.June.2020-7JJT.13.June.2020-3

Same Sun

A huge part of being a photographer is studying light, just like a writer pays attention to language. It is the medium. The camera is a tool that uses light to render images about subjects. Therefore, we need to be very familiar with the ever-changing qualities of light.JJT.Anna.SV.web-6One of the ways I make a practice of studying light is by continually being out in the landscape. Hiking, mountain biking, always being out there with a camera is critical to knowing your light and locations. When you study light for a living you learn that the difference between various kinds of light can range from excruciating to ecstatic. Riding your bike mid day facing the sun without shades is a blinding and painful experience, especially during summer. As the day begins to transpire and the earth starts to cool there is a window of beautiful light that softens and illuminates subjects with a distinctly magical effect. It’s the same sun, but radically different light.JJT.Anna.SV.web-8For this shoot, I was visiting the location for the first time. This meant that I did not know when the light would disappear over the horizon. Located north of Santa Cruz in the mountains there are canyons and ravines that get dark a lot earlier than it does along the coastline. This means that the last direct light is going to be brighter, but it also has the potential of showing up in beams that work like spotlights.JJT.Anna.SV.web-10The chiaroscuro effect has always been a favorite due to the dramatic interplay of dark and light and can really help the subject to pop in the composition. By positioning Anna directly in a beam of light there is a wonderful contrast to the light softening as dusk arrives.JJT.Anna.SV.web-20After the direct light is gone at a mountain location like this, there is still a lot of wonderful soft light that you can use to create brighter more evenly lit compositions. With a little bit of backlit highlight in her hair, I like the warm rural feel of the above shot. Anna is originally from Russia, and there’s something really cool to me about the look of traditional Russian clothing in Northern California settings.JJT.Anna.SV.print-23Portraiture is a dynamic challenge of using light and location to create interesting and pleasing compositions featuring the subject. Knowing your light is as important as knowing the technical aspects of your craft so that you can give all of your attention to the subject during the shoot.JJT.Anna.SV.print-25Another great thing to do with portraiture is to incorporate the life of the subject. Anna wanted to get some photos with her cat and it really brought out some of her personality. You can see it in her smile. How about that expression on the cat?JJT.Anna.SV.print-28This photo really succeeds at Portraying Anna to me, because in the gesture of her arms holding her cat and in her expression slightly laughing at the experience you can see the way she sounds and who she is.

Natural Style

Richie Schmidt in SC

Surfing with style is hard to do, it’s an art form with a steep learning curve (ba dum dum cha).

Drawing lines

Richie Schmidt draws lines in the water like a painter attacking a wall.

Ramps that move and break

Richie’s surfing is a reminder that when you have a passion for your craft the results show in your style.

4 Fun Reasons Why I Enjoyed Shooting the Hanloh Pad Thai Meal Kit

JJT.6.May.2020-5

1. The ease. You ever feel that sense of flow when everything is just kind of happening gracefully and you don’t even need to push, there is just a beautiful controlled forward movement? It’s like riding a skateboard down a hill with a gentle incline and smooth surface, you can go as fast as you want or just cruise and enjoy the feeling of effortlessness.

 

It’s been a little like that for me at times lately with my photography. I’ve been embracing the opportunity to work on studio lighting and creating still life compositions with products and food at home. The result of that work is that sense of fluidity that allows me to work fast and get great results.

 

Now, I don’t want to give the illusion that this flow has come easily. It hasn’t. I’ve worked my ass off numerous times and for a long time to get where I am in my abilities. I know what feels good to me, so I can pretty reliably say when I am on or off and the results always follow that feeling.

JJT.6.May.2020-2

For me, an important part of the process of shooting food is appetite. You have to be hungry. That’s why I work out so hard, doing my 700 pushups and squats and hiking or biking tons of miles. A lot of photography is sitting at a computer, so it’s super important for me to be as physically active as possible. You don’t often think of fitness and photography in the same context, but for me it is critical that they go together.

JJT.6.May.2020-8

Well, when I received the text to shoot the meal kit, I was hungry as could be from working out, so I was all primed to go. For those who don’t know, Hanloh is a Thai food pop-up here in Santa Cruz and they always have delicious authentic flavors. I was excited to see what this Pad Thai kit would create.

JJT.6.May.2020-10

2. The aura. The variety of color texture and form inside this meal kit made a beautiful subject to shoot. As soon as I opened the box, I could tell that it was going to be fun. Sometimes things just have that kind of magical presence to them and good marketers always try to create it for the consumer. It comes from the combination of an authentic and powerful cultural object and an enthusiastic appreciator.

JJT.6.May.2020-9

It’s like when a kid sees a skateboard or an electric guitar for the first time. That thing kind of hums and glows with this magical aura and that is exactly how the ingredients appeared to me. I also feel that way about wine and beer. To me, those drinks are almost more beautiful to look at than to taste.

JJT.6.May.2020-6

What makes something pleasing to look at? Where is the source of beauty? While I have studied these questions for thousands of hours, the experience is the only thing that really makes sense. We don’t know why we like things, but we’re lucky we do.

JJT.6.May.2020-11

3. The people. All of my work is motivated by people I respect, and this was no exception. The beer is from my sister’s brewery Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing. Through working with Emily (the best community builder I have ever known) I met Lalita Kaewswang, who is the woman behind Hanloh. An intensely smart culinary artist, Lalita is passionate about her craft, and that always inspires me.

JJT.6.May.2020-13

The other people who motivate me are the people of Santa Cruz. This is the community I know best and care about most and it is the small businesses, the surfers, the entrepreneurs, the brewers, the naturalists, the teachers, the yoginis, the musicians and all the other brilliant and beautiful kinds of folk in this town. If Portland is where the dream of the 90s still exists, Santa Cruz is where the dream of the 60s was born and where its best parts still thrive. We support our own, here. We shop local.  That’s how we maintain our unique character. It’s the people who are working hard every day to provide the people of Santa Cruz with the culture they enjoy who inspire me.

 

4. The food. Like I said earlier, I work out a lot and that makes me very very hungry. Well, let’s just say that none of this food went to waste, lol.

JJT.6.May.2020-12

It was a pleasure to shoot this meal kit for Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing and Hanloh Thai Food. Thanks for reading my blog and for looking at the photos and I hope you get a chance to try the food and beers!

You can order your meal kit, HERE: https://scmbrew.square.site

JJT.6.May.2020-14

Positive Energy Express

Natalie.bike

With all of the strange changes going down right now, it’s important to be able to find ways to adjust your attitude, especially if you do creative work. What gives you a fresh look at things? For me, one of the surest ways to regain my sense of humor and to renew my will to be productive is exercise. Physical activity helps me to stay in a good frame of mind.

 

I’ve been pushing myself to hike lots of miles during these weeks and that has been a super productive and inspiring practice. Hiking plays a key role in me being my best self and living my best life. I get out to some remote locations during obscure lighting situations for the rarest of photo opportunities. Since photography is writing with light, it helps to have as much information about the terrain you will be describing and the light you will be using.

 

That is one of your biggest jobs as a photographer. Know the landscape. Because it changes day by day, the seasonal variations you experience are invaluable knowledge to getting the best shots. Hiking is ideal for this kind of practice because of the slow and deliberate nature of the decision to go on foot.

 

Although I love the minimalism of hiking, especially when I leave on foot from my door, there is another tool I love to use to explore the landscape and that is a bike. One of our greatest inventions of all time: the bicycle. What a slice of freedom a bike can be.

 

I’ve been teaching my daughter to ride her bike without training wheels for the past week and seeing the amount of joy she gets just by pedaling down the street with me on a skateboard beside her is about the best feeling I have ever had. It reminded me of that pure feeling of freedom you get from movement, with the wind in your face and the ground moving fast underneath you everything feels a lot better. Going fast is fun. Of course, it comes with danger, and learning to be safe is a big part of the project, but seeing the release, especially in this time of emotional confusion and frustration is a beautiful thing.

 

I have also been watching the homeboy Brendan Schaub become a mountain biking maniac. His podcast The Fighter and the Kid, with Bryan Callen, has been a bright source of positive energy during this quarantine, because he refuses to give into the fear and steadfastly keeps finding ways to make the most of his days. For a guy with millions of dollars, he is getting out and mixing it up on the trails and I think it is about as pure and inspiring a project as I have seen.

 

I have also been seeing one of my friends, Natalie Earl, posting about her own bike rides. Getting out for some fresh air and sweating out some worries is a great idea and so I linked up with Nat for a ride. We left from her house and wound our way through weekend traffic up the coast.

 

There’s something so vital and almost primal about getting around on a bike.  It forces you to tap into your instincts. You need your gut to guide you. And the rhythm that develops from dodging traffic gives you a kind of sense of flow that is very much related to creativity.

 

So, this week I joined the Thiccc Boy Bike Club with my friend Natalie and I’m hoping that we can continue to find some joy and release by hitting the road. I’m not going to be giving up hiking, though, because there is no replacing the intimacy of being out in the wild on foot where you can encounter the details and the animals on an even footing.

 

What are you doing to keep your energy positive? How are you getting exercise while staying safe during these strange times?