Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Taking the perfect photo isn't so easy at all

I notice it every autumn, but it still takes me by surprise each year: how for a span of several weeks, starting in late September and lasting through mid-November, you simply cannot turn your head in any direction in Carlisle and not see a landscape worthy of a calendar photo. In one direction, it’s Norwegian maples turning a flaming yellow, outlined against a blue sky; in another direction it’s pumpkins and hearty mums on a doorstep, or black and white cows grazing in the midst of a still-green field, or footpaths speckled with multicolored fallen leaves.

“You cannot take a bad picture around here in autumn,” I remarked one day last week.

And then I tried taking some pictures and discovered how blithely wrong I’d been.

It’s actually really difficult to capture beautiful scenes with a beautiful photo. To any of my photographer friends, this sentiment doubtlessly sounds as obvious and trite as it would if a non-writer were to say to me, “To my surprise, it’s not that easy to write a really good poem.”

Right. Because if it were easy, as they say, everyone would do it, whether “it” is taking photos or crafting poetry.

This was a problem because I really wanted to take some great photos around my parents’ farm to use in a cover design for a cookbook my mother and I are working on together. It was a stroke of inspiration, I thought, when I came up with the idea of using a farm photo montage for the cover, and the perfect time of year for it, too: all I’d need to do was walk around the farm for twenty or thirty minutes snapping pictures, and in no time at all, I’d have my magnificent autumn montage.

But taking perfect pictures is hard. Sure, I can look through the lens – or on the camera’s screen – and see what looks to me like a beautiful view, but once I actually snap it, I see that the shadows are dense, or the sky looks gray rather than blue, or the foreground is more of a distraction than it seemed to be when I framed the same shot in my mind’s eye.

I should know this, because it’s true for writers as well. Just as you can look at a tableau of cows grazing and think you’ve got the perfect shot until you take the picture and see the mud and the dark shadows and the car in the distant background, you can come up with the perfect essay concept, and then find when you try to write it that your perfect concept is not quite as easy to articulate as you thought. Other words get in the way, and the idea that seemed brilliant when it was still in your mind starts to dissipate when you try to commit it to paper.

By now I’ve taken dozens of photos for the cookbook cover, hoping eventually I can winnow them down to nine to make a three-by-three square photo montage. The photos won’t be perfect, just as my words are never perfect. I’ll have to be content with knowing how many I deleted to find these few that might be almost worthy of what I pictured in my mind’s eye.

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