I am, if I may say so, an excellent writer. The same can not be said for my photography skills. I mean, I do OK with my iPhone for basic selfie and family snapshot purposes. But that's particularly in pretty places that are almost impossible to screw up.
Too often, shots that seem important parts of a trip or experience, like historic buildings, funny signs or just the happy faces of people I love, are…boring. Poorly lit. Off-center. Not suitable for framing.
That’s where photographer Marisa Marulli, of West Palm Beach, comes in.
She believes that one of the basic problems amateur photographers like myself have -- besides a lack of great equipment -- is a tendency to haphazardly point and shoot like we’re running through a mental checklist of the shots we have to take. Instead, we should be taking a deep breath and concentrating on the mood, the moment and what we want to capture.
So Marisa, who left her hedge fund job to become a professional international landscape photographer, now makes a living taking shutterbugs of all skill levels on once-in-a-lifetime photo expeditions. This May, she’s leading people to the mysterious red mountain landscape of Moab, Utah.
She recently took me on a late-afternoon hike through Martin County’s Jonathan Dickinson Park. It's her favorite local place to shoot because its 10,500 acres “are the only place in Palm Beach County that make me feel like I’m somewhere else. There are some parts that look like you’re in another country,” she said.
Let’s go on a walk together, shall we?
For the story, Marisa loans me her 2015 Canon Rebel T6i, which is quite a step up from my iPhone 6, but she says a lot of her lessons are applicable to cell phone cameras, too.
For you, I’ll highlight some of things I learned as we walked and shot -- tips you can try the next time you’re in a picture-taking mood.
Here we go...
We start at the foot of Hobe Mountain, a nearly mile-long trail that rises to 86 feet. It's the highest natural hill in Florida south of Lake Okeechobee. Without comment or instruction, Marisa instructs me to take my first photo of the landscape. I choose a spooky-looking tree.
It’s...OK. Marisa suggests that the OK’ness might come from the natural impulse to just point and shoot. What I should have been doing is focusing on the one specific detail I wanted to capture. She says she finds that her clients take better photos the more immersed they are in their surroundings.
“The further they are away from their day” and the rote motions of their normal routine, the better.
We ride further into the park and walk down a trail. It looks, to me, like cover art for a delightfully-angsty spoken word album. I concentrate on the stillness of it and shoot. Marisa says pathways and trails are popular subjects because they evoke emotion. It’s not bad. I can almost hear the bongos.
Other photographers are here, too. They're quietly waiting for special visitors – a family of bald eagles who have been seen in the park. The father eagle has been seen this time of the evening, flying around looking for food for his youngster, and sure enough, we hear the baby crying out for a nosh. Out here, away from urban noise, it’s easier to tell the difference between, say, the eagle and a red-headed woodpecker hanging out on a tree.
While we wait for the eagles to show their majestic, patriotic selves, I take Marisa’s advice. I start focusing on the lush, green wonder around me. Then I start intentionally taking photos, rather than scattershot.
I capture the prettiest pink flowers, and then a shot of my purple shoe in the wild brush. We've gone far off the beaten path.
In Marisa's expeditions, photographers spend hours exploring, breathing in the experience. It's not about jumping off and on a tour bus in 15-minute increments to shoot the same photo of the Washington Monument or the Leaning Tour of Pisa.
After a while, it seems that we’ve missed the eagles, so we get back in the car and head past the nest. Marisa asks me to concentrate and be thoughtful, focusing on the brown tuft of brush.
I adjust the camera focus and shoot, not sure of what I’ve got but entranced, again, by the gift of being in the same place as eagles in the wild. It feels like an honor. When we take a look later, guess who was in the nest, enjoying some post-dinner solitude? Baby Eagle, or Baby Glen Frey, which I’ve decided is his name.
We stop the car again and start the approximately mile-long hike back to Hobe Mountain.
This is crucial -- leaving my comfort zone and getting immersed in a whole new world. The closest I usually get to enjoying the seasons outdoors is sitting at the pool at the Four Seasons. But out here, I’m inspired, relaxed and connected.
We get back to the observation tower and start hiking up it. The sun is setting now – Marisa likes taking her clients out for the gorgeous light that’s common at this time. Today’s no exception. Seen from the top of the tower, there’s a glistening sheen glowing from the tops of the trees.
After hours out in the park, I’m suddenly aware of everything. I see the overwhelming scope of the landscape as well as the tiny details. These are things I might have missed before.
On the way back down, I remember to take another photo of the first thing I shot at the beginning of our excursion – the weird, bare tree. In this light, and with an intentional focus on its dark curviness, it becomes something mysterious and wild. I’m more than a little stunned that I took it.
The next day, armed with my iPhone and Marisa’s voice in my ear, I take my lessons to a more familiar urban landscape – and my most frequent subject – my son, Brooks.
I don't just tap the screen. No. I take my time. I watch him with the pizza box. I pay special attention to his smile with the scenes of a downtown Saturday all around.
Not all of the photos I take from here on out will be winners. But they’re going to be better because I won’t be so focused on taking as many as I can. Just the right ones.