If you truly want to excel as an artist, you need to learn how to think sideways instead of straight on. But what do I mean by thinking “sideways”? Let me start by way of analogy, with a classic example of sideways comedy, which goes something like this: a skeleton walks into a bar and says, “barman, give me a pint of beer and a mop”. Give it a moment, you will get it. All right, maybe it is not the funniest joke in the world, but hopefully it gets my point across: sometimes it is best not to hit people head on, but come at them from an oblique angle rather than taking the obvious approach, looking instead for something unanticipated.
Sideways shooting requires being open-minded to new approaches, a curious nature, and a willingness to go the extra mile. Above all, do not just point your camera at the most obvious scene or subject: not only does this represent artistic laziness, but the obvious scene likely has been shot over and over again by other photographers. When working a location, start thinking of ways to move past the conspicuous, to that which is unseen by most others.
Part of what sideways shooting is getting at is the process of artistic abstraction, which is learning to see things for something more than what they really are. One might argue that this process allows one to see things as they actually are, rather than merely as they appear to be. Either way, sideways shooting requires getting into the habit of thinking about things in a non-literal way: you are not shooting a photo of a mountain or a tiger, but rather shooting a shape, a color, or a blur of movement in the shadows. True art springs from abstraction, and from learning to see the world differently from other people.
Let me give you a few practical examples of sideways shooting. I enjoy working with backlighting, looking for the edges of light when making photographs. I often shoot through a screen of intervening elements, such as a cluster of autumn leaves, to create an impressionistic and dreamy wash of out-of-focus colour around my main subject. Whenever I can, I use an unconventional camera position to show a scene from a fresh angle, sometimes experimenting with the "wrong" lens for a scene, in an effort to create something different. Occasionally, I even incorporate flash into my process, using it to alter the natural light in the scene and to challenge viewer perceptions. Perhaps my favourite sideways shooting technique is using long exposures to render a scene in an impressionistic way. In any event, I am always looking for ways to sidestep the "reality" that most people see, and looking for the proverbial skeleton with his beer and mop in an effort to take viewers into unexpected territory.
For example, the image here combines a number of these techniques. First, I looked for an unconventional and unique perspective, using a sandstone ledge that most photographers would find to be in the way as the foreground for my composition. Secondly, I decided to use a long exposure during the waning light of twilight to blur creatively the motion of moving clouds in the sky, waiting for the perfect cloud to drift behind the stone monoliths. I knew I was getting sideways in my thinking, but needed to shift things even more sideways, so I decided to use flash covered with a peach-coloured gel to light the rocks and give them a reddish glow. The result is a photograph that does more than create a literal representation of the landscape; instead, it creates an abstract artistic expression, and more to the point, creates my artistic interpretation of the scene.
Okay, a few of you are now just getting the skeleton joke. You are a bit slow, but you made it. Do not worry; I did not get it straight away either. Sideways thinking takes a bit of practice, but you will figure it out eventually.
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 26 of Landscape Photography Magazine.