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A Cellular Sketch Book

A mobile phone's camera is a ready sketch book when you're exploring locations.

March 13, 2019 Landscapes / Practical Matters

Any artist knows the value of a sketch book when inspiration strikes. A quick drawing of a scene or subject can be the kernel of a more-refined artistic work later. Capturing the moment on a sketch pad is like making a snapshot, so the idea won't fade before the artist gets back to the studio.

A photographer can do the same sort of thing with a quick click of an ever-present cell phone camera. In an instant, you can "sketch" a prospective location and file it away for future reference. This is a sure way to keep a visual reference of a potentially photogenic scene or subject you want to get back to in different light, in different conditions or in a different season.

A quick "sketch" of a marsh I'd like to return to on a better day for photographs.

That's what I did earlier this winter on a less-than-photogenic day. I'd been waiting for winter too long. Cloudless skies, leafless trees, colorless sunrises and sunsets and warm temperatures all melted my dreams of perfect winter landscapes.

l was suffering from reverse cabin fever. Nice weather was keeping me indoors. Every night I dreamed of fresh snow and icy ponds. Every day those dreams were dashed by perfectly boring conditions. So I went for a hike.

A nature preserve nearby had been on my list of places to explore. It was reported to have native woodlands, a restored prairie and spring-fed streams that widened to ponds and marshes that were home to waterfowl, muskrats and occasionally beavers.

I packed my camera gear, a lunch, a thermos of coffee, a few layers of warm clothing and an extra pair of boots. Then I drove to the parking spot closest to the stream. The weather was still unremarkable for photographs and ideal for hiking. I grabbed a pair of binoculars, a walking pole, a trail map and a note pad and walked to a trail on a ridge where I got a sense of the geography.

Without a camera pack on my back and a tripod on my shoulder, I fell into my wanderer's pace. It's not a hiker's pace and not a photographer's pace. Hikers are logging miles. Photographers are aimed at locations. Wanderers are just wandering, looking for whatever pops up.

This was risky. What if I came across something remarkable? The light was working against me and I was still clearing the office fog out of my head, so I'd live without it. And if I came across a scene I'd like to see again in better conditions, I'd make a record photo of it with my smart-phone camera. The image above is one of them -- without the snow and ice I dreamed of.

Now I have a sketch of the pond that reminds me what it looks like, where to set up and what the light looks like at that time of day. I filed it in an album I named "Photo locations" in my phone's image gallery. I'm in the habit of doing this when I'm scouting locations for a workshop or for myself during poor conditions or in midday light, so the album is one of the largest in the gallery.

The marsh photograph above is stored along with photos of a trail map, trail markers, confusing forks in the trail, unique features and facilities like a restroom, a warming hut and a bird-feeding station. All these snapshots will make it easier to plan my next trip here when winter returns. One can always dream, you know.

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