In many ways photography is an exercise in fitting a thousand pounds of reality into a ten-pound bag.
One would think that in a place as beautiful as Montauk, great pictures would be easy. Montauk is full of great vistas, interesting places, wonderful people, and amazing light. But as photographers quickly find out, the more amazing the vista the harder it is to capture.
All cameras are puny and flawed compared to the human eye which sees brightness over a range of 1,000,000,000 to 1. No wonder, pictures are all too often dumbed-down, unsatisfying snippets of reality.
But cameras do have some advantages. A shooter’s first task is to learn a camera’s capabilities and attempt pictures that are within those capabilities. Camera phones and other small sensor point & shoot cameras are capable of taking wonderful pictures in medium to bright light. For these smaller units, it is best to avoid back lighting, bright sun and dark shadows. These conditions are difficult for any camera. If you have a choice, opt for the very early morning and late afternoon to early evening when the sun is softer and more diffused.
If you can’t wait for the ‘sweet light,’ try a reflector. For a few bucks, buy a K-mart white shower curtain liner, and lay it on the ground in front of your kids just out of the picture. It will fill in the shadows. Remember to keep it between the sun and the subject.
Make notes, on what works and what doesn’t. When a picture doesn’t work, keep at it until you find a combination that does. Always take along a small notebook or use the notes application on your smart phone. There is no faster way to get better.
Montauk is not just emotionally special, it is physically unique in that relative to the rest of the east coast from New Jersey to Florida, Montauk juts out 120 miles into the ocean, that changes things, our beaches are oriented east-west rather than north -south, our weather moves and changes more quickly, the air is cleaner, the light more revealing. It is a treasure shared by the east end of the south shore, and parts of The Vineyard, Nantucket, Block Island & parts of the Cape. Painters have long revered ‘Long Island Light”, it is light with great drama, great clarity, and great subtlety.
If you are patient you can teach yourself to see what many miss. It sounds overly obvious but you must see it before you can photograph it. In my experience it is almost as if the place repays your respect and patience by revealing its wonders slowly.
To see if you agree, stand in one spot at the ocean for one hour between 5-6 p.m. in the summer. Look around; really look, with an observer’s eye. You will see things change before your eyes. If you don’t see it, stay longer, or come back tomorrow. Learning to really look in an inquisitive and relentless way, teaches us to truly see.
Dorothea Lange said, “A camera is a device that teaches us how to see without a camera”, and learning to see without a camera helps us take better pictures. It is a virtuous circle. It can also help us and others better appreciate the gift of Montauk.
Above all, enjoy the experience.