My son surprised me by coming into town for Mother’s Day. He spent about five days at home and as an added bonus, he guided me on a photo walk of the Country Club Plaza. Brian is an audio engineer and videographer in Nashville – the boy is creative with a capital “C” – and I am always in awe at his artistic perspective.
In preparation of an upcoming trip to Europe (March, 2015) I want to practice my travel photography skills. I want to learn how to capture what I FEEL in the country and not just the iconic landmarks I see. I reason if I practice this skill in local travels, I will feel more confident in exotic locations. So, we decided to venture to the Plaza and pretended to be tourists.
I chose this location because it has European overtones: red-tiled roofs, spanish architecture, and numerous fountains (second only to Rome). It is also a popular destination, and I wanted to learn how to capture the shot in a crowd. Unfortunately the time of day was not ideal as far as lighting – noon to 2:30pm – so the sun was directly overhead providing a rather flat, lifeless canvas. But that did not deter me from learning.
The first skill I need to develop (and there are many) is to train my eye to see the shot AND train my feet to move around the scene to capture the best shot. For example, this Bolings sign caught my eye (the bright red stripe on the otherwise plain background) … but Brian knew that a focus on the sign was uninteresting; allowing the sign to lead the eye into the outdoor cafe seating area was the shot. It gave context to the photograph, it caused the eye to move around the picture rather than stay in a fixed location, and it told a story.
In fact, Brian constantly made that comment: “You have to decide what story to tell.” Now, I am a budding writer and a retired English teacher, I think I know a little about stories … but it never occurred to me to use those same techniques in my photography. Fascinating (and probably the subject of a future post).
As we walked down 47th street, I tried to view this popular area with a new set of eyes. I imagined the kinds of photos I would want to capture while in Europe. The old-fashioned lampposts in the median, resplendent with hanging baskets of colorful flowers, was the first detail I noticed. But I had no idea how to capture that beauty when parked cars and constant traffic formed a distraction.
Once again Brian taught me to “move my feet” – keep my eye on the lampposts and look beyond to find the shot that is clear and visually appealing. To my surprise we didn’t have to walk far to find the perfect location. Instead of reflective store windows and ugly signage in the background, we found this open area with a beautiful staircase. Brian took several shots at different angles and different focal points. My favorites included the wide-angle shot and the extreme close-up. I was beginning to understand the term, “work the scene”
We continued down the street and I was amazed at the architecture and bright colors. I have missed the beauty of my city by believing it is ordinary; seeing the area as a tourist was delightful! Brian taught me to look at the entire scene – so while my eye is attracted to one building, the distractions around it may not yield the best shot. Keep walking and there will more likely be a better photo to capture the emotion. He was right.
The churches of Europe are something I know I will want to photograph and as luck would have it, we discovered a church on the corner about a block away. Once again, working the scene was the operative word. Brian walked forward, backward, into the street, down on one knee – and then he spotted the trolley and waited for it to enter the scene for even greater context.
It didn’t just end there, however. After we walked around the block and shot a few pictures, we returned to the corner and shot the church from the other side. “You never know which angle is going to yield the best shot” he advised – so don’t stop too early. Keep shooting and make the decision which ones to keep when you get home. Sound advice.
I know Kansas City is known for its fountains – some 200 of them – and I wanted to see how Brian would capture the shot. Fountains are difficult to photograph: they are wide, tall, reflective and surrounded by people. In addition, background is always a concern because of the transparency of the water. But I discovered that the skills learned on our walk are the same skills used in this circumstance. Work the scene; walk around to discover the best vantage point; use your feet to move and out (not just the zoom lens); vary the angle and focal point and be sure to include wide-angle, extreme close-up, and everything in between; look beyond to discover great context; and don’t stop shooting too early – keep shooting and make final decisions at home.
We continued to walk around the area, noticing the flowers, storefronts and other points of interest that I might have otherwise ignored. Brian taught me to watch the light – find balanced-light rather than stark contrast (and balanced shade is better than washed-out in the sun). When taking portraits, try to find a shady spot to avoid harsh shadows, over-exposed highlights, and squinting.
We made our way to Brush Creek, which is absolutely breath-taking. I must confess, I have never taken the time to notice this area, snobbishly thinking that the Midwest had nothing cultural to offer. When I looked at the waterfront from the eyes of a tourist, however, I was reminded of the Seine in Paris: park benches line the riverfront walkway where one can sit and simply relax; geese feasted on dandelions and provided the serenity of nature in the midst of the populated city; the locks of love bridge is even making an appearance in my hometown; and gondola rides (I had no idea these were available) are the quintessential European touch.
It was the perfect Mother’s Day gift … and I can hardly wait to return to the Plaza (and other places around town) and put these lessons into practice.