People say one key difference between the amateurs and the professional photographers is that the professionals take a lot more pictures. That may be true, but there's another difference. The extra images are typically part of a creative exercise; they aren't random shots.
Ansel Adams once remarked that every now and then he arrived on a scene "just when God's ready for someone to click the shutter." I've had my share of images like that, but more often, I have to work at it.
For me, the process works a bit like this: Something strikes my eye, and I keep refining the composition until the image consists only of the essence of what drew me.
A fair amount of the time, this process takes place before I even click the shutter. I may set up the tripod in several different positions, look through the viewfinder, and then decide I can do better before I even turn the camera on.
Other times, I take a number of pictures before I settle on the final composition. I think of them like a brainstorming session an author may have.
I thought it might be fun to share with you the brainstorming images that led to the image at the top of the post. So, here's what I started with:
A gorgeous red oak leaf on a frozen pond. We're off to a good start. What I liked was that I could also see the reflection of the trees on the ice around the leaf. I thought that the trees may need a little more emphasis to make that connection clear, so I waited for the sun to rise more and light up a few of the trees.
Maybe what I really liked was just the reflection of the trees on ice. I often use lakes to capture reflections, so maybe the fact that I was seeing a reflection on ice was what drew me. So I tried a few compositions without the leaf.
And again, maybe the trees needed to be lit so it was more obvious what they were.
The next day, the leaf was gone, but it left behind its impression, giving me the opportunity to do more brainstorming. Again, I started with the leaf impression and the reflection of the nearby trees.
Then I thought the impression — created naturally when the ice under the leaf sublimated at a slower rate than the rest of the ice — was so amazing that it needed more emphasis. If you look close, you can still see reflections of the trees around the edges of the impression.
The next day, more ice sublimated, erasing a little bit of the intricate texture from the leaf impression. The image I got that morning is the one that's at the top of this post. I like that image because it draws more attention to the overall shape of the leaf. Some of the impressions of the leaf's cell walls have disappeared. Still, if you look close, you can still see the reflections of trees around the edges of the impression, though those reflections have grown more abstract.
It took a number of images to reach the final image, but each one was part of the creative process. Each helped me understand what it was that I found most interesting about the scene. The final product wasn't a lucky shot from a full memory card; it was a deliberate result of three days worth of brainstorming in the cold.