Do Sweat the Small Stuff: How Attention to Small Details Can Bring Big Rewards

“S-shaped” pattern of pinecones

“S-shaped” pattern of pinecones

Story and photos by F. M. Kearney

They had all gathered in the same spot – practically standing shoulder-to-shoulder. When new members joined the group, they were careful in setting up so as not to bang into the legs of the other tripods already planted in their perfectly chosen spots. All the cameras were pointed in the same direction waiting for that special moment.

This could easily describe the scene at any confined location where nature photographers gather to shoot a majestic wonder in just the right light from just the right angle. It’s very similar to the press corps or the paparazzi awaiting the arrival of a politician or a celebrity, but minus the pushing, shoving and shouting. Nature photographers are a much more civil bunch. You’ll never hear anyone yelling, “Over here!” to a sunset! However, the one thing many of us are guilty of is focusing only on the obvious.

It’s easy to know what the subject of your photo should be when you’re standing in front of El Capitan, The Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls. These grand displays don’t need to be pointed out or “discovered.” The real challenge is finding the beauty in things that others would overlook, or outright dismiss.

Several years ago, I was shooting winter scenes in The New York Botanical Garden. I was preparing to leave having spent a long day capturing a series of beautiful, but predictable, snow-covered landscapes. On my way out of the forest area, I stumbled upon (almost literally) one of the most wonderful, natural compositions I had ever seen. Partially buried in the snow, was a perfect “S-shaped” formation of pinecones (pictured above). The only reason I didn’t trample right over it was because I’ve always been in the habit of treading carefully through snow scenes. There’s nothing worse than ruining a classic winter wonderland with your own footprints. This formation wasn’t much bigger than a footprint and would be virtually invisible to most people in their quest for the more traditional grand view.

I shot that photo 25 years ago, and to this day, it remains as one of my favorite intimate landscapes. It taught me to be more aware of my surroundings, and to keep a close eye on what’s happening in unusual places.

When shooting a dramatic sunrise or sunset, turn around and look at the sky in the opposite direction. Sometimes, the light in that portion of the sky can be just as beautiful (or even more so) than the light around the sun.

When walking through a forest, look back, look up, or in this case, look down for interesting subjects.

In a way, I find intimate landscapes even more intriguing than the grand scenes. World wonders are impressive, indeed, but they are also limited in number and have been photographed countless times. There are an infinite number of intimate landscapes to be found. If you have a macro lens, your choices of subject matter are truly unlimited. Also, world wonders will be on display forever – allowing everyone who wants to see them do so at their leisure, whereas, intimate landscapes are fleeting and unique. The pinecone formation was a one-of-a-kind creation – most likely, wiped away forever the very next day. I sometimes wonder how many intimate little wonders we pass by, or trample over, on our way to the “main attraction.”

Great shots aren’t always derived from the usual suspects. It pays to slow down and to look beyond the obvious.