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Anatomy of a Photo Walk

[This post refers to photos I took yesterday; scroll down to see them.]

"Try harder, dig deeper."

That's the voice in my head now as I go on photo walks. The trouble with finding a passion for an activity is that it forces you to stretch, to grow, to avoid the easy path. While I can -- and do -- still take some quick snaps just to capture the moment or remember a special gathering of people, most of the time I try to use what I've learned about light, composition, color, camera settings, etc., to make the image better. And then I try to learn more.

Yesterday was a perfect example. On my way home from running errands, I figured it was a good chance to drive through Valley Forge National Historical Park -- and keep my eyes open for opportunities.

Valley Forge has numerous photo-ops available year-round: Soldiers'-cabin replicas, statues, cannons, trees, scenic vistas. It's not hard to take perfectly acceptable pictures of any of these. The challenge is to find something new to show, something different -- a new angle, a close-up view, an unusual place, an element of the scene that you don't usually see. Then you break through the cliche into the unexplored and exciting.

When I got to the park, I had no idea where I was going to end up. As it happened, I drove by the Washington Memorial Chapel, and soon after, I saw a driveway leading off to the right into a parking lot. As I pulled into a spot, I began thinking the thought that always leads me to adventure: "Let's see where this goes."

I hadn't walked far when I spotted some deer in the field. I thought they would trot right off when I approached, but they didn't. Snapping pictures of them was tricky because the substantial sun glare made it hard even to see them. One of the joys of digital photography is the freedom to take numerous shots and not have to spend money developing all of them -- or any! I just shot away and then looked at and deleted images later in the (nice warm) car. Did I mention the temperature was about 19 degrees? My trembling hands were another occupational hazard that afternoon, especially when using my zoom.

(There may be photographers out there who can snap only an image or two and nail them, but I haven't met them yet. I take a good assortment of shots and then winnow them to my favorites. I should add that my camera is not at all expensive. A camera class I took this fall stressed that developing an eye is much more important than having a fancy camera. I've seen some great shots snapped on cell phones.)

Turning away from the deer, I saw a gate. Again I thought, "Let's see where this goes." Turned out it was a cemetery. I began stomping through the snow, looking for interesting gravestones, perspectives, whatever grabbed me. And as a family historian, I was probably lucky the snow was covering many of the names, as I would have been tempted to document them on my memory card.

I went off on a number of 'arty' tangents that I concluded were better in theory than in practice -- a red bow against the white snow, a tiny lantern in front of a tombstone, and some fascinating twisty bare trees through which I shot pictures of gravestones until it became clear the combination wasn't doing anything for me. Still, it was worth playing with, just in case. I say that partly because this search led me to what I called the "Frozen Angel" statue, with snow dotting its head and wing, that perched on one small tombstone. Getting that shot with the snow added another great layer to its story, something that would have been missing in July.

Being open to possibilities also led me to a beautiful bud I snapped a close-up of because I loved the faint edging of red, and touches of yellow, that topped the green leaves. One thing photography forces me to do -- and it is incredibly good for me -- is be totally focused, totally in the moment and noticing the small details.

After my icy hands and toes had bitterly complained for some time, I reluctantly left the graveyard, climbed into my car and turned up the heat full-blast. Then I looked through the windshield, saw more deer, and was off again. It was one of those few shots, on my second go-round, that proved my favorite. Then, as I was about to drive away, the contrast of the red door with the surrounding snow caught my attention; in this case, the image formed by the two colors "clicked" -- pun intended.

My last stop that day, before I had to go pick up my son at school, was to see a statue I had driven past earlier in the day. The cliche shot would be a full-figure image from any angle, and I did take that, but for my files only. I really wanted to capture something out of the ordinary, and I kept circling the statue till I saw what I wanted. I ended up taking an upper-body shot because of the statue's hands and the level of detail on the side I was featuring. In addition, I got an unusual picture of one of the statue's boots, which had the bonus of showing the swirling drapery of the baron's cloak. Recently I realized that when a photo is taken of part of a piece of art, the photo essentially becomes a completely new piece of art. That concept fascinates me.

This whole trip fell into place at the last minute, which makes me thankful I have recently adopted the creed, "Take your camera everywhere!" You never know, to use an old photo joke, what will develop.

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