I was running a photographic workshop in the Inverpolly and Assynt areas of Scotland. Most of the places we visited were simply stunning, and the participants were excited about, and more than happy with, all the locations. I wish I could say the same about the Scottish weather; it was not very favourable on some of the days. We were all looking forward to having snow on the ground, but to no avail.
However, as a very important exercise, I wanted to take them to a location where I knew they would have a difficult time finding a composition. Having someone take you to a stunning location and guide you through the composition process is one thing, being left alone in a vast, empty space is another.
I believe that all photographers should go through the ‘blank canvas’ exercise, which basically means, you visit an empty area (such as a vast sandy beach) and try to find something to photograph. I have been through this experience myself and indeed, it does sound cruel. However, it is a vital exercise in your progressive experience and I recommend it highly.
It was our fourth day in the area and, after a stunningly scenic drive from Ullapool through Inverpolly, we finally arrived at Achnahaird Bay. We spent some time around the bay and all enjoyed the rugged shoreline with the odd rock formations and large pebbles; some had a great time in the sandy part of the bay, although accessing it was a bit of a struggle for others.
After lunch we drove a short distance from the bay to a salt marsh. Upon our arrival and having left the minibus behind, we crossed the road and the salt marsh came into view. It was then that one of my participants said “what are we doing here?” Photography, I replied. “But, there is nothing here” she said. My reply to this was “there are many pictures; we just need to find them.”
So, we started walking onto the salt marsh. There was a strange air of bewilderment amongst the group; I could almost hear people thinking “what on earth are we doing here”? When we reached the chosen destination, I asked them all to rest their gear, and started talking about compositions; how to look for a picture and what to do in order to find it. I pointed out a few examples and asked them all to walk around and see what they could find. They were all armed with viewfinder cards which I provided. These are specially made cards that greatly assist photographers with their compositions; made out of special polypropylene material with an opening of 6x4cm that resembles a very large viewfinder.
Photography is all about light, patterns, shapes, leading lines and colours. It should not make any difference where we are, whether or not the location is stunning, or whether or not the light is amazing. It is up to us to trace those shapes and patterns to create an image. I admit that it can be slightly frustrating when one is faced with empty space. However, after my explanation on how to find a picture in the middle of a salt marsh, they were all more than happy with the exercise and all managed to find their own compositions.
The lesson from this article is that we should not judge a location by first impressions; we should always be optimistic and try our best to do justice to the location. Sometimes it is easy to find a composition, sometimes less so; it is up to each individual entirely.