Liberty Island

Liberty Island by Thomas Gehrke
Liberty Island, a photo by Thomas Gehrke on Flickr.

There are some photographs that I post that I like more than others. Maybe it goes without saying that anything that I post publicly is something that I like to some degree at that point in time. As my meager skills improve, either on the camera side or editing side, or as better tools become available to me, I occasionally come to loathe some of my older work.

With that said, I really like this one. Although it has very little to do with any sort of technical or artistic merits and more to do with the experience. Two aspects in particular I'd like to talk about.

First there was the emotional impact of seeing the Statue of Liberty in real life.

[This pause was inserted to give time to those who know me personally to regain consciousness and pick themselves off the floor.]

I'm not known as an overtly emotional person. In fact, you probably would not have noticed any changes in my demeanor if you were with me at the time. I did not break down and start crying or anything like that. But standing there, in person, and seeing this sight with my own eyes... well, it had an impact. There wasn't a swelling feeling of blind patriotism. It wasn't a feeling of pride. I'm half Italian, so while jokes abound, I have no relatives who immigrated to the US this way as far as I know. So there was no feeling of walking in the footsteps of my ancestors.

Frankly, I'm not sure what the feeling was.

You see pictures of the Statue of Liberty all the time. Everyone knows what it looks like. We've all seen hundreds of pictures of her (at least). So when we see a photograph I'm sure that most of us probably don't give it much thought at all.

But when you are there in person it is much easier to imagine what all of the people who were there before you might have felt. Was it hope? Pride? Patriotism? Relief? All of the above? Something else entirely? All of a sudden you are hit by a feeling that this pile of copper and steel and stone is much greater than the sum of its parts. You understand that it is an inanimate object, but it's also something more.

What that something is will be different for everyone.

The second reason I like this picture is because it gives me a feeling of accomplishment.

Unfortunately, I tend to be a lazy photographer. The things that we are all supposed to do in preparation for the shot, things like checking lighting levels, setting shutter speed, aperture, choosing the right equipment, focusing, composing the shot, well I am hit or miss on many of those things.

Mentally, I know what I have to do. I also know that while some things can be fixed after the fact, your best final products start with the highest quality materials. It's pretty obvious. But when you are in The Moment and excited about what is going on and picturing how good that final print will look on your wall or in a post on Google+, Flickr or your blog, everything you know goes flying right out the window. The best photographers are those who have trained themselves to do all of these things without thought. It's second nature to them.

I am nowhere close to the best. I am nowhere close to as good as I think my potential is so I have to work at it. I have to force myself think about it.

So how does that apply to this particular picture?

I took two lenses with me on my vacation. They were the two that gave me the most options between wide-angled shots and telephoto shots. I decided that I should only take one of those to the island. It was my 18-50mm Sigma.

Next, I mentally composed the shot I wanted. I wanted something with lots of sky and water with a straight ahead view of the statue. The only way to get it was on a ferry in the middle of the harbor.

I knew I wanted to try getting some bracketed exposures for some HDR processing which meant making sure that the shots could be taken pretty quickly given the fact that I was on a boat in motion both vertically (waves) and horizontally. Because the platform was moving, I would only have one shot at this.

While I waited for just the right moment, I dialed in my focus. I cannot tell you how many times I've been excited about a picture that looked great in the viewfinder and great on the camera's LCD but slightly to horribly out of focus when reviewed on the computer. If I am going to mess something up, it's usually here.

I also framed the shot as best I could while the ferry steamed on. If you check the EXIF data, you'll find that the focal length was set to 23mm. That is unusual for me since I usually live at the extremes. I can always crop things later, right? No! Bad! It's think then shoot! Not shoot and then fix your mistakes later.

And it all worked. No cropping or rotating required. For me it was the photographic equivalent of a golfer's hole-in-one.

I'm not saying it's the best photo in the world. Obviously it's not. Maybe it's not even the best, most artistic one I've personally ever taken. But it's one of the rare moments where I, in my few years as someone who enjoys photography as a hobby, composed, planned, executed and ended up with exactly what I had envisioned. This is the picture that I had in my mind's eye as we boarded the ferry to leave the island. This is the sum of all the emotions I felt as we landed and I looked up at the statue.

This is what photographers try to do. They create something that conveys feelings they themselves might have had that they want to share with you. And they try to leave things open to interpretation so that if a picture moves you emotionally, it is in a way that is colored by your own beliefs and experiences.

I like this picture and I really hope you do to. For whatever reason.