Crozet Calendar Clinic: Debbie Smith

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Debbie Smith’s photograph was featured in March of the 2015 calendar.

Each month a prize-winning photograph from the archives of the Crozet Calendar will be published together with a story from the photographer of how the image was made and commentary by Sam Abell about the merits of the photograph.

I find it easy to remember my mantras about composing photographs—until something exciting happens in front of me. Then all hell breaks out in my mind and I begin to “chase the rabbit.” That is, I let the exciting action control the composition instead of the other way around. But fine images are made when photographers keep cool and bring the composition, including the dynamic action, under their artistic control.

Debbie Smith successfully faced down such an exciting situation when a flock of bluebirds suddenly descended on the birdbath at her home one cold, gray January day. As she recalled:

“My initial reaction to seeing the birds was, “Oh my gosh, I have to get a picture!” The birdbath is located adjacent to our back porch and the images were taken through glass, using a 300mm lens and no flash. I recall thinking, ‘No sudden moves and don’t open the door!’

“I had spotted a number of different birds at the heated bath that winter, but had never seen so many at one time. Fortunately, I had the camera ready. The series taken that afternoon includes 19 images, shot in 6 minutes before the birds flew.  This was absolutely a “right place at the right time” moment. It would have been nice to turn the camera horizontally for a different perspective, but porch columns partially blocked that possibility.”

Debbie works from home and always has her digital 35mm camera nearby. Plus she has her iPhone handy. As she said, “Nothing is off limits. I enjoy catching a moment before it slips away. The world is an interesting place and it’s nice to look back at memories of what it offers.”

With those words Debbie defines the essence of documentary photography—an optimistic belief that life will unfold in unexpected and interesting ways. It’s then the mission of photographers to capture those moments before they slip away.

I try to do that by meeting the world half way. That means being personally alert and photographically ready. But the world has to do its part by meeting me half way—which is exactly what happened to Debbie.

She met the world well—by being alert to the unexpected arrival of the birds. She was ready—camera nearby and 300mm lens close by. She kept her cool—“No sudden movements!”

And the world met her more than half way—the bluebirds arrived and didn’t depart. They stayed for six minutes. For a photographer that is a luxuriously long time.

Debbie was also true to another guiding principle of mine: To consistently make the best photograph that can be made. That doesn’t mean the picture will be great. But it usually means it will be good—as good as it can be. So I try to steadily be in the good zone when I’m working. Greatness, I tell myself, goes through goodness.

What is “the good zone?” It’s that mental place where you remember your mantras about how to compose, time and fully finish photographs. Where your camera is nearby and there isn’t “rust” on it—or you. Where you keep your cool and resist the temptation to chase the rabbit. Where you studiously bring the compelling subject into your refined composition.

Debbie’s picture has all the hallmarks of coming from that good place. She’s made the best picture that could have been made. That’s revealed when she considers switching from vertical orientation to horizontal but can’t because that view is blocked. She’s thinking, “Can this picture be better? Is there anything I can do to improve it? No.” After swiftly reaching that conclusion she fully commits to vertical and concentrates on crafting the best picture possible of the clustered blue birds. That occurs when she captures a hovering bird. The height of the bird makes the image a true vertical. The flight brings the picture to life.

In the end, is it a strong enough composition to win our admiration? At first I had doubts. True, the content was compelling—that’s a lot of bluebirds! But the composition seemed tight. Birds were spilling over the edge of the frame. Where was “the space around things” that I usually desire in a composition? (It was probably in the un-getable horizontal orientation.)

But over time I’ve grown to like the density of Debbie’s composition. After all, the subject of the picture is density—the remarkable concentration of bluebirds all packed into one place. And what are bluebirds if not one of the most affecting creatures that could appear in your life and fill—then over fill!— the frame of your photograph. What’s not to like about that?

As Debbie said, “The world is an interesting place.” And it’s photographers like her that remind us of that truth with well-made, once-in-a-lifetime, photographs like Bluebirds at the Birdbath. 

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