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Artistic Vision Beyond the Obvious

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too often we get too caught up in the excitement of our subject to take a step back, take a deep breath, and allow our own artistic vision to flow. We arrive at an exciting destination and switch from artistic vision to, “getting the shot”. We travel half way around the world dreaming of the unique images that we are going to create, but when we arrive, we panic; we cling to safety and shoot what is in front of us in fear of “missing the shot”. Staying safe ensures we will come home with images to show and share; proof that we have been to some remote, exotic location.

When we first pick up a camera, we are so excited by the possibilities that we are happy just learning the buttons, dials, focusing and exposure. We use the camera as a tool to seek out the exotic, snapping away, and are thrilled when we take a technically acceptable image; it’s in focus, the exposure is good, and nothing is clipped out of the frame. This is an important part of learning the craft, but we end up stagnating in this learning phase for way too long. Every time we get back from a location, we begin to wonder why our images aren’t more exciting. They are from a different place in the world, but technically they seem to be the same. The faces are different, the background is different, the animals are different, but the style is still boring and lifeless.

Whether it is a portrait of a lion or a portrait of a person, STOP CLICKING!! There are times when I still take that quick grab shot to satisfy the nagging need of, “getting the shot”; a habit that is hard to break, but it is a quick one or two clicks and then I quickly move on. Most times, when editing my images, I delete the “safe shot”, as it has no emotion, no connection, or creative expression. It is only a snap shot of something I found extraordinary or exciting in that very moment.

I am constantly striving for motion and emotion in a still photograph. This generally means I am breaking all the rules by manipulating my camera settings to over expose, under expose, or to create movement using slower shutter speeds. This also means that I risk deleting 99% of what I shoot; in turn, possibly “missing the shot”, but who is “the shot” for? Learning to trust your artistic vision, letting go and thinking quickly all come when you have confidence in your process because you quit caring about what others think. When you become so completely immersed in what stirs your soul that you lose yourself in the artistic process, your photographs will become artistic beyond the obvious.
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In this image I slowed my shutter to 1/50 and focused on the still subjects. The edge of the river dropped off. The wildebeest would pause until the build up from the back pushed them forward catapulting them into the river. The slow motion of wildebeest falling into the water puts movement into the image.

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Dust is always one of my favorite moody elements; add light, a slower shutter speed of 125 for a softer focus and the movement of the elements and you have an artistic painterly image.

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This is a pan-blur technique. I slowed my shutter to 1/30, focused on my front subjects, held down the shutter while panning with the moving herd.

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In the migratory herds, the zebra tend to be calm and still, while the wildebeest are are nervous and constantly moving. Similar to the fist image, I slowed my shutter to 1/20, focused on the still zebras, and the moving wildebeest in front are blurred by their motion.

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When elegant herds are on the move they surround the babies to protect them. I chose to go in really tight, focusing on and framing the young elephant, and slowing the shutter just enough to blur the motion of the faster moving older elephants.

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I have not been in the Mara just after the big rains. In some area’s the grasses were as tall as my Land Rover. Although it was challenging, I love the creative aspect of all the tall grasses. As the light was getting bright and I was heading back to camp, I came across these two Dik-Dik’s standing very still. They are usually very shy and run off quickly.  I made the creative choice to use a slow shutter speed so the blowing grasses would blurr and to over expose the image, creating this artistic look.

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There was beautiful light at sunrise, I could have easily captured the technically perfect shot with golden light on this lion, but I chose to do the opposite. I position myself for backlighting and underexposed by -1.67.

Nevada Wier recently wrote a great article about techniques that help you to make unique and personal images. Learning, developing and grasping these techniques before you travel half way around the world will give you the confidence to take artistic risks. You can grab your camera and hit the streets to practice or take a creative workshop. Personally, I am more inspired by surrounding myself with other passionate photographers feeding off each other’s creativity, rather than going out solo practicing tips I have read about. This is one of the reasons I love teaching the spirit-n-Light Creative workshops. Although I am there helping photographers with their creative process, I always come away inspired by their images, passion, and ideas.


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Piper Mackay is a world, wildlife and cultural photographer, based in Long Beach, California. She believes compelling visual images help to protect what is right in the world. Her work takes her to very remote locations, living cross culturally in the villages and environments that she is documenting.

Her work is heavily concentrated on the African continent, a land she fell in love with when she first touched foot on it’s rich red soil. Her passion for the natural world has grown into a lifelong commitment to inspire others to explore, respect and preserve the beauty of our fragile planet.

She believes compelling work comes when you invest time, living the stories you are trying to tell. It is important to interact and gain the trust of those whose stories you are telling, especially when sensitive and complicated. The world has enough images of poverty, pain and disaster, much more needful is imagery that reveals the beauty and dignity of the communities that are, except by their geography and circumstances, very similar to our own. Powerful images help shape the view of the world and play an important role in disseminating how cultures and wildlife are coping with the rapid changes happening in the developing world.

Piper’s images have been displayed at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, The Museum of History and industry, and The Art Wolfe gallery, as well as local galleries. Her work has been featured in Nature and travel publication through representation of several photo agencies, including Rangefinder, Nature’s Best, Birders, and the World Wildlife Fund. She is an independent photographer and available for assignment work.

Her prior career in the fashion industry, where she was deeply involved with combing color and texture, has greatly enhanced her approach to the unique look and feel of each culture and photographic subject. This also gave her a strong background in business and marketing. Please visit Piper’s website at www.pipermackayphotography.com.

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