Don’t Forget to Look Behind You

By Adrian Klein

We have all seen them, the yellow road signs as we drive warning us “caution ahead” for various reasons; rough road, children playing, aliens landing. Maybe the last one is only found near Area 51. And if we are paying attention that is normally just what we do, keep both eyes focused on what is ahead of us. This is how I feel many of us react when we are at any given photography location once we are “settled” in. We arrive and after surveying the area find a composition that suites us; looking ahead is our own caution sign to not lose guard of what we have going on in front of the lens. This usually relates to the golden hours of sunrise or sunset photography where we are setup for a specific scene to capture. I admit I get caught up in this as well. I scout the scene, setup my equipment and wait for the scene to unfold. Then start photographing, sometimes feverishly, and will be concentrating on a whole host of variables from technical details of camera settings, fine tuning the composition, adjusting tripod legs, filter changes, etc and usually the last thing on our mind is to check what is going on behind us just in case it might be photo worthy. After all we would be taking concentration away from the photos we are doing our best to get to our liking, right in front of us. I believe in staying focused on the task at hand and teach to others to stay focused as well, however there is an exception to almost everything, this included. If you worry that you won’t remember to keep looking around when you are happily photographing away try setting an alarm on your cell phone or watch for the time you anticpate you will be too busy to care what else is going on.

We need to remind ourselves that turning around to see what is behind us might even be better than what is in front of us, even while we are in the middle of photographing. The presence or absence of light is always changing our surroundings, the movement of clouds coming and going, you name it, and thus what is photo worthy and what is not can also constantly change. I know not all scenes lend to this option but many do especially as I mention during the rapidly changing golden hours. In other words we can never get blindly engrossed and over committed to what is setup and forget to keep one eye open regularly surveying 360 degrees around us. There are photographers that believe and teach that you find your composition for the golden light, make sure it’s what you want and don’t move it until the light is gone. There is something to be said about that yet as much as that would be fantastic to rely on for every outing I believe you need to always keep your options open if you are looking to maximize your opportunities. Now I admit I am speaking mainly to the SLR camera crowd, depending on how much time it takes for what you see behind you, changing the setup of medium or large format camera is not normally something that you use the term ‘quick’ with.

I also want to mention that this decision should not be made lightly in all cases and is another reason to a scout area well in advance when possible. Note I said when possible, we don’t always have that option and I am guilty of missing this mark from time to time too. For example if you have a good foreground scene in front of you with a mediocre sky and you turn to see the sky behind you is super duper. I would most likely only change things up if you believe that you can find a complimentary foreground to the super sky (and fast). Otherwise you risk a final image of a nice sky and a lack luster foreground, in other words probably not the image you are after.

Have you thought about this before, that is how many times you have setup and or photograph a scene and ended up taking photos in the complete opposite direction from your original setup and end up liking those as much or more? Think about it. Maybe this is something that comes naturally to you and you do this already, if so that is great, you are a step ahead. I know that I did not train myself to think like this in the beginning and I am sure lost out on some opportunities that I never even saw until they were gone because I failed to re-survey my surroundings. I might as well have been an ostrich with my head in the sand. Maybe that is a little extreme but you get the point. The main purpose of my post is to remind you to look around at all times, be cognizant of what is going on, and not just for the sneaker wave that could come from behind.

With that I leave you with a few images I have in my portfolio that were not planned when I setup for a scene and involved checking behind me during the fleeting golden light moments, and some cases running, to setup for a new scene. This should help give visual perspective into what I mean. Oh, what’s that…no, behind you!


“Between The Clouds” – Taken on Mt Hood, OR. While I was setup to photograph Mt Hood at sunrise this scene of interesting color took place 180 degrees behind me. Fortunately I was paying attention and ready to act, and had looked behind me for possible options in case something happened that did not include the mountain. It was actually harder to pull off than it looks, a slight change in comp to the left or lower would have included unwanted and distracting elements.

“Rock Puzzle” – While teaching a workshop along the Oregon coast I explained to a few of the participants the concepts of abstracts and intimate scenes. While the majority wanted to view the show that was washing up from the ocean we studied and observed what can be found by looking the other way.

“Ice Blue” and “Nature’s Framing” – And sometimes you are lucky enough to get two different images, and good ones at that, just by turning around. The first image was taken just before sunset colors started and I kept at it (remember the ostrich in the sand, that was me on this night!). It was my son, Logan, that was my alert system this evening to what was behind me. I had to run about 100 yards, find a comp and shoot before it was gone. Thanks Logan. Both images taken at Green Lakes in Three Sisters Wilderness, OR.


~ by photocascadia on July 10, 2010.

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