The Anxiety of Infinite Potential

July 02, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Well there's a pretentious title. Perhaps my most pretentious to date! 

So what am I bleating about this time? The Anxiety of Infinite Potential is a term for my experience as I attempt to narrow the vast scope of photographic possibilities for a trip down to what I'm realistically able to achieve in the time I have, and how that affects my approach during the trip.

But wait - before you rush out and use the catchy hashtag - here's what I mean...

 

The Travel Photography Experience

I love travel, and travel photography. When I first start thinking about visiting some awe-inspiring part of the world, my imagination will run wild with the amazing pictures I'll get there. As soon as you think of places like Iceland, The Canadian Rockies, or Lapland, spectacular images spring to mind, and the bar is immediately set very high. The difficulty then, is the research & planning stage, where I have to find out which locations interest me, which are my priorities, and how I might manage to combine those locations into a trip. As I do that, I'm narrowing the scope from the original potential; limiting myself to what is practical to achieve in this trip.

Skógafoss waterfall slow exposure, with blurred clouds and water.Skógafoss BlurThis is the mighty Skogafoss waterfall, in Southern Iceland. It's really a sight to behold, and I'm thrilled to capture it in such green surroundings. We were fortunate to have had a week or so of rain shortly before our visit, and that left the grass & moss in great condition for us to find. I have to somehow transition from almost infinite potential to a definitive, restricted scope. This can be exciting as I decide on the locations I'll be visiting, and I become optimistic about the photos I can take there. But it's also stressful and frustrating as I chip away at that original potential, and get down to something more realistic, which is necessarily more limited. I have to accept that some locations / views / photos aren't going to be possible. And so early in the planning stage I've already drastically reduced my options, and the potential for images I can get from the trip.

As the planning stage continues, I have to decide what time of day I'll be at each site, and somehow chain those together. Sometimes I'll have to be somewhere at sunset which would look better at sunrise, but due to the location it's just not possible to get to for sunrise without having to lose another location. So even within the list of places I am able to visit, I have to prioritise and refine my schedule, which further chips away at that potential. There have to be compromises in order to form a practical itinerary. It can be tough to accept that one location will have to be dropped in order to make others possible.

Sometimes the trip is specifically photography-orientated, and other times it's a case of scheduling in some opportunities as part of a regular holiday. So the degree to which photography can dictate my plans will vary from trip to trip. Fortunately, even as holiday-makers we're keen to get out and experience the scenery, so there's very often a large overlap between things we want to do and see, and things I'd like to photograph. But yes, I probably am a nightmare to go on holiday with - unless you enjoy regimental planning, and constant anxiety. 

We enjoy a road trip, so if there are several disparate locations we want to visit then that's always a good option, rather than having one central base. But this is a key decision to be made early in the planning stage.

  • Will one destination provide the views or environments I want, or would I be frustrated to be a few hours drive from somewhere spectacular which will have to wait for another time?
  • Is it better to travel more, and visit more of the big name locations, or to pick an area, and explore a little deeper?

Loughrigg Fell SunsetLoughrigg Fell SunsetThe sun sets over the Lake District hills, brushing the valley with golden light.
Taken from Loughrigg Fell, during an autumn visit to the Lake District.
Landscape photography, Cumbria, UK.
The answers to these questions depend on many factors. For example, In Norway I wanted to see two or three different fjords, and I wanted to enjoy the scenic countryside between them, so a road trip was the obvious choice. In Finnish Lapland the wider landscape doesn't vary so much (it's all very flat!), and I was keen to see the forests on foot, so that lends itself better to a fixed location with access to hiking trails.  However I juggle these preferences, priorities, and compromises, I invariably end up with a plan I'm pretty happy with - despite having to leave out one or two places I would have liked to include. I then do as much research as possible on the sites we'll be visiting, so that I'm well informed prior to arrival; access, parking, sunrise/sunset times, angle of sun at sunrise/sunset, consideration of lenses/focal-length required, etc

As the trip approaches and we get a weather forecast, the options are further reduced. That amazing sky I'd imagined isn't going to happen for most of the sunrises/sunsets we have, so we'll need to revise our plans accordingly; Either stick with the planned location anyway, and see what I get, or give up and use the time in a location that doesn't need dramatic lighting. If this is a road-trip, then there's often very limited wiggle-room, but if we're staying somewhere central I can always sacrifice a lower priority location to maintain the potential of experiencing a high priority location in better conditions. Nevertheless, that potential which existed in my mind to begin with continues to shrink further and further.

The sunlight cloud casting a shadow over the impressive North face of the EigerThe North Face Of The EigerThe Eiger was a really impressive sight close-up.
I struggled to see it through the cloud on my first visit, but I went back a few days later and was treated to the sight of the cloud gradually clearing as the sun burned through. This was my favourite shot of the day, showing the swirling cloud, harsh mountain sunlight, and the imposing Eiger itself.

Landscape Photography, Kleine Scheidegg, Switzerland.
During the trip, the light can change quickly. In unfamiliar surroundings, I have to think on my feet, and react to the situation. With Travel Photography, it's rarely possible to achieve the photos I have in mind prior to a trip, simply due to the number of variables involved. Rarely wishing to repeat trips, I'm often in unfamiliar surroundings. It's easy to get caught out, trying to get the best pictures I can, but floundering; not even reaching my own potential, let alone the kind of photos I'd envisioned before the trip.

In the last year I've been to Sweden, Norway, The Lake District, Lapland, and Snowdonia, and I've experienced the same feeling for each trip. Even when I do come home with some photos I like, I still rue the missed opportunities and the locations that didn't work out - whether that was my fault or just bad luck/weather. Whatever happens, I can't possibly reach the potential that was there to begin with.

 

It's Graph Time

The Anxiety of Infinite Potential - GraphThe Anxiety of Infinite Potential - GraphA graph showing the correlation between potential and anxiety.

Conception

  • At the moment the trip is conceived, the potential is huge. There are so many opportunities for amazing photos in these beautiful places.
  • Anxiety starts low.
  • Optimism is good. This will be fun, and I'll get some lovely photos.

Planning

  • As we start to plan the trip, we narrow down the wider potential to what's realistic to achieve in the time available.
  • As potential reduces, anxiety increases almost inversely, and I start to pin my hopes on a plan coming together.
  • Optimism peaks here, as I know where I'll be going, and what I'll be doing. I've seen other photos from there, and they're amazing. So it stands to reason I'll get some just as good!

Trip

  • During the trip the original potential and opportunity has narrowed to just a small amount of room for manoeuvre. Sure, I can switch some things around, but in the wider scheme of things, there's not much of the plan I can change at this point.
  • Anxiety peaks as I realise all my planning, potential, and opportunities have lead me to this beautiful place which I have to now capture in a photo. But this isn't really the light / weather / conditions I was hoping for. - "Things never work out for me!"
  • Optimism falls as self-doubt creeps in, and I accept the conditions on the day, rather than whatever I'd hoped for.

Post Trip

  • Potential reaches its low-point, but there's still a little wiggle-room available to process the RAW files in a different way.
  • Anxiety is falling as my opportunity is over, but I still can't help but look back at what could have been.
  • Optimism bottoms-out at an all-time low, as I come to terms with not getting the shots I had in mind.

Long Term

  • Potential remains low, but as long as I have the RAW files, I might make something of them in the future.
  • Anxiety returns to base level as I move on.
  • Optimism rises from initial despair on returning home, and I start thinking about a return visit in the future, or my next trip. I always end up thinking I can do better next time.

 

It's a Trap

Landscape photo of the clouds over the Aurlandsfjord arm of the Sognefjord in NorwaySognefjord LandscapeClounds gather above the Aurlandsfjord section of the enormous Sognefjord.
The imposing low cloud was a real feature of the fjord region of Norway. I like string blue hues in my landscapes, and Norway was great for that, with these dark brooding skies.
Photographed from the Stegastein viewpoint.
Fine art landscape photography, Norway.
It's not spoiling my enjoyment of photography, but I'm sure there has to be a better way of dealing with the inevitability of seeing plans transition from imagination to reality, and not dwelling on what could-have-been.

Take Norway for example; The Norwegian Fjords were utterly spectacular, and I absolutely loved it there. But in many cases my photographic opportunities at pre-planned locations were washed away by day-after-day of heavy rain. The images I wanted to capture just weren't possible. Given the potential ahead of this trip, to come back with very few photos was a huge frustration, and remain a long-term disappointment. That said, I still managed a few nice pictures in Norway, despite not being what I had in mind. At the Sognefjord I had visions of dramatic pink & orange skies, shafts of sunlight, and peaceful still water. Of course the conditions I got were nothing like that. But in it's way, it turned out far more interesting. Although at the time I was cursing the bad weather, those heavy rain clouds add their own form of drama to the scene, and by blocking the direct sunlight, the fjord was painted a beautiful deep blue.

It can be intensely frustrating not to have the opportunity to realise the potential of a location due to factors outside of my control. But that's the reality of the situation. No trip is ever going to be perfect, and I'm never going to get all the shots and the weather that I want. It's important to keep a cool head, and keep looking for something interesting to shoot - despite the voice in my head telling me I'm out of my depth and I don't know what I'm doing!

My gut feeling is that the planning stage is key. If I plan well, and cover ideas for all kinds of weather, giving myself plenty of time in my chosen location(s), then the trip goes much more smoothly. The real skill I think, is sculpting that original infinite potential to a trip schedule that gives me the best opportunity to get the photos I want. 

By contrast, my head is telling me that this is nothing to do with planning. This is about me, and how I cope in the heat of the moment; How I'm able (or not) to roll with the punches, and change my plans - being flexible with the opportunities of the time, rather than being tied to a plan. And about the ability to let it go when things aren't working out. It's about knowing that those perfect conditions I have in mind before hand aren't likely to occur, and that I shouldn't hold myself to unrealistic standards. But that's easier said than done.

Lake Louise MoonriseLake Louise MoonriseIn this photo, you can see the moon rising above the lake, as the first rays of sunrise light hit the mountain tops.
Peaceful looking as this scene appears, it was several degrees below zero. It took some motivation, and several thermal layers to go out before dawn, but it was totally worth it. This is one of my favourite
photos from the Canadian Rockies.

Landscape Photography, Lake Louise, Banff, Alberta, Canada.
I guess one solution would be to take pre-organised tours and guided trips, so that these decisions are taken on my behalf by a local expert, who knows the area well. It also means I'm never in the position of having that infinite potential in the first place. But I'm far too much of a control freak for that! I don't like having no say in what I do. Furthermore, I wouldn't feel I deserved the credit when things worked out. Being led to a location, and shown where to point my camera just doesn't fulfil the creative process for me.

Where I think the solution lies for me is in a combination of change-of-approach, and expectation management.

Change-Of-Approach

Rather than rolling up at a popular viewpoint and looking for those post-card classics, I'm increasingly targeting interesting environments and habitats, with no particular images in mind. By targeting what looks like an interesting area, or a particular type of environment (eg forest, mountainlake), I have no definitive shot I feel I must get. I'm planning based on a general feeling for what interests me, and what sort of scenery I want to capture. Of course I'm often still reliant on some interesting weather/light, but that doesn't have to be something specific I had in mind beforehand. I travelled to Lapland hoping for beautiful clear skies and pink sunsets, but my favourite photos turned out to be in the bleakest, blizzard conditions. And I got those by putting myself in an interesting location - whatever the weather, and working the scene as I found it.

Expectation Management

Wherever I visit, there will already be some fantastic photos of that place, from people who not only nailed the execution, but were also in the right place at the right time. The kinds of skies and light which often make these photos so appealing are relatively rare, and the chance of nature putting on that show for me on the day I happen to visit is slim. I guess if I estimated the probability of getting the conditions I want in a location as around 10-20%, that probably reflects an accurate success rate for decent landscape images - at least for me anyway. So objectively, I am getting the kind of return I would expect - it's just in the short term, when I'm there, it's incredibly frustrating for 80-90% of the time! It means that for the average week away, I've done well if I come back with one good shot (or set of similars). Ultimately, the trick is to bear this in mind, and not expect to strike gold at every location I visit when travelling.

-

Post by George Wheelhouse, 2017.

A forest in Finnish Lapland, during a snow blizzard.Finnish Forest BlizzardA forest in Finnish Lapland, during a snow blizzard. It was so cold at this point, but the trees looked fantastic in those conditions, so I persisted, and continued to look for interesting compositions.


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