The Secret of Seeing

Three minutes at 15 feet. This is the safety protocol repeated often to someone who learns how to scuba dive.

Three minutes at 15 feet. This is the safety protocol repeated often to someone who learns how to scuba dive. It is a controlled safety stop in their ascent from the depths to allow their body a little extra time to get rid of any excess nitrogen in their blood. People do all sorts of things in these seemingly long three minutes. They blow bubble rings, hum a tune or reflect upon what they saw.

Wild lupine
Wild Lupine. 

I remember in my early days as a diver finishing my safety stop, climbing back on the boat and listening to the stories of what people saw. How did they see so much more than I did? We were all on the same dive. Their stories of eels, octopi, seahorses, frogfish or a lone burbot hiding on a Great Lakes shipwreck all triggered my envy.

A red trillium grows through bark
A red trillium grows through bark. 

It didn’t take long to catch on to the secret. At first, I thought: I will just follow the dive guide; they know where to look. As it turns out, this wasn’t truly the secret. I was able to overcome some of the jealousy by regaling in those common sightings, but those turned out to be sugar highs. I was missing the thrill of discovery on my own. I remember asking a guide how it is he saw so much. The answer was quite simple: go slow.

Of course! What is the hurry? As a photographer, I take this valuable lesson with me into the woods. The slower I go, the more I truly “see.” You don’t have to look further than a Petoskey stone to see primordial connections. Our state stone is fossilized coral of the species Hexagonaria percarinata.

purple coneflowers in bloom, hepaticas growing through birch bark and leaves.
Purple coneflowers in bloom, hepaticas growing through birch bark and leaves.

Nature’s connections are everywhere. John Muir, the Scottish American author, naturalist and environmental philosopher, famously articulated that in 1869 when he wrote in his journal: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.”

Bush Bay on Lake Huron.
Bush Bay on Lake Huron. 

The joys of discovery remain the same in the woods. Mushrooms, wildflowers and forest creatures all are photogenic subjects. With a healthy curiosity about the natural world, the smallest elements of nature can lead to interesting or beautiful photos. Slowing down and taking the time to look, to wonder and open yourself to discovery can yield to a more mindful photography experience.

A white trillium prominently grows amid woody debris.
A white trillium prominently grows amid woody debris.

It takes time to see photographic potential. It starts with something that catches your eye, maybe a pattern, a color or a shape. Instead of immediately clicking the shutter, walk around it and explore it from all angles. Then simplify as much as possible. Our eyes are drawn to high contrast areas, so stay conscious of what is in the background. If those areas don’t support the subject, they become a distraction.

A dandelion seedling at sunrise.
A dandelion seedling at sunrise.

Allow your eyes to wander the edges of the frame; recompose if something pulls your eyes toward an edge. When the moment feels right, click. Then, go back and explore it again.

Three minutes isn’t a lot of time, and yet, it is. On a dive, it is a serious health precaution; risk mitigation for “the bends.” On a hike, on average, we walk about 828 feet (252 meters) in three minutes. That is a lot of territory. Consider the density of forest life across that distance. How many trees, rocks, animals and plants will you pass if only en route to your destination?

A beautiful bulrush.
A beautiful bulrush

Experiencing the forest with all of our senses is known in Japan as shinrin-yoku, or
forest bathing.” It is through this slow meandering in a forest that we reconnect with nature. We reap health benefits and open ourselves to being more present. If we leave with a few beautiful photographs, it is a bonus. If not, we are still richer for the experience.

White trilliums growing at a local park.
White trilliums growing at a local park. 

The art of seeing need not be a secret, nor should the thrill of discovery. We don’t always have the luxury of time, so it becomes a choice, a mindful examination of what truly is the most rewarding path. Will we follow others or forge out on our own?

After all, what indeed is the hurry?

Born and raised in Detroit, Mark Graf is a fine art photographer whose muse is summoned by an insatiable curiosity of the natural world.

*Photography by Mark Graf

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