Saturday, January 28, 2012

Filmmaker's Journal: working with the serendipity of the moment

Perched on the ledge of a small outcropping of rock, an explosion of white soft coral intermingled with the waving arms of crinoids, against a dark blue backdrop and the faint light from the surface creeping around the edge of the reef wall.

I have used the picture above on several occasions in this blog when talking about coral reef issues and it is a favorite of mine not just for the satisfactory end result but also for the memory of how it came about. It represents what I call the art of the moment which can often be the mainstay of nature photography and videography.

Many long years ago, when the earth was cooling and dinosaurs roamed the planet, I was shooting underwater still photography using a Nikonos V 35mm film camera, which meant no auto-focus, auto-iris - basically no auto-anything. So you had to prepare your shots in advance as much as possible. I was diving on Fiji's Great White Wall, one of the island chain's signature dive sites. The Great White Wall is a wide expanse along a large reef wall in the Somosomo Strait that is covered in white soft coral - small bunches packed in so tight it forms a virtual carpet of white like a fresh layer of snow. At a distance, the soft coral would take on a lavender hue, so shooting wide angle shots meant having to sacrifice capturing the white color. But taking close-ups was a challenge due to a rippin' strong current.

You approached the Great White Wall by descending down about 30 to 40 feet to a large reef head and then drop down another 40 feet or so through a crevice that formed a near perfect tunnel. Once you exited the tunnel, you abruptly turned left - whether you wanted to or not - as there was a powerful current that would sweep you along. You then found yourself flying over the Great White Wall. There was nothing to hold on to without damaging the coral, so your time spent seeing the white coral would only last about a minute before you turned to move out of the current and back to shallower depths.

About half way through the ride over the wall, I saw an outcropping that I thought would make for an interesting shot. But it was fast approaching. I set my focus, set my exposure based on the power of my single strobe at a pre-set distance - all designed to capture this little diversion in the wide expanse of white. However, I looked up and the outcropping was nearly upon me, closer than the camera was set for a proper shot. Frustrated, I thought the moment had come and gone; an opportunity lost.

In an instant, the coral outcropping was right beneath me, whizzing past in a blur. It suddenly occurred to me that there might still be a chance. As I passed, I quickly turned around and with the current continuing to propel me along, I waited for the right moment and took the shot facing backwards and then watched the outcropping quickly sail off into the lavender backdrop of the Great White Wall.

This was in the days of 35mm slide film, so I had to wait until I got home from the trip to see if I was successful in capturing the beauty and singularity of this one geological departure from the Great White Wall's broad, flat expanse. I lucked out. For me, while unbeknownst to all viewers of the image, it is a perfect example of what many wildlife photographers and videographers experience; that combination of preparedness and serendipity that sometimes allows us to capture beautiful images which, a split second later, would be unattainable. That is the art of the moment.

When working on a stage or in a controlled location, the photographer or videographer often works with art by design. You spend time setting your lights, you set marks to ensure your focus will capture the action just right, and you rehearse your camera moves while the actors rehearse their parts. You have the time and the ability to maximize all the resources at your disposal to design the scene the way you would like it to ultimately look. You have a measure of control; art by design. Sometimes the two can work in combination with preparation setting the stage to then catch unexpected magic moments.

For me, both experiences, art of the moment and art by design, can be exciting and very gratifying. Each have their own challenges and each can be fun for wholly different reasons. Either way, they hopefully contribute to the cinematic goal of telling a story in a compelling way without being obvious or intruding upon the viewers' own experience by visually shouting "look at me, look at what I did."

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