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  • Dave Butler

Writing Like a Photographer

By Dave Butler

Imagine that you’re a landscaper photographer, visiting the west slopes of the Rocky Mountains for the first time. If you’re an American, you’ve gone beyond the ‘Northern Rocky Mountains,’ crossed the border into Canada, and – with a sudden flash of understanding -- realized that there are more mountains north of the border. For a moment, you ask yourself: “hey, wait a minute. How can we call our mountains the Northern Rockies, when the mountain range continues to the north, beyond the border?” But then, you recognize that you’ve side-tracked yourself. Like I’ve just done.

Back to photography. You step out of your truck, breath in the fresh air, stretch, contemplate the peaks painted in snow around you, and ask yourself another critical question: “how can I possibly do justice to this?”

When photographers are faced with choices about how to capture their subjects on memory cards, they contemplate challenges around composition, such framing, balance, contrast, movement and pattern. Then, they must decide between lenses. They pull their bulky camera bag out of the truck, open it, and peer in. Do they use a wide-angle lens to capture the entire valley? Or do they pick a telephoto lens to pull out a specific distant object, such as a scraggly veteran Ponderosa pine? Or do they move closer and use a macro lens to shoot that same tree’s rugged bark, which looks like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle? Do they use a tripod? A fast shutter speed, or a long exposure? Filters? A flash? Do they try to get the image right ‘in-camera,” or do they rely on computer software to edit it later?

Because I’m a photographer and a novelist, I try to approach my storytelling in the same way as I do when creating images. For each step in a story’s plot, I find it helpful to think about I approach a potential photographic subject -- how I compose the scene, how I decide what time of time of day is best to be there, and how I decide what ‘literary lens’ to use.

Like a wide-angle lens would do, do I tell a broad sweeping story, trying to describe all the components, from horizon to horizon? Do I attempt to create a comprehensive picture so readers can imagine themselves there – the sights, the sounds, the smells, how things feel to the touch? To do this, I often pay attention to where my eyes go first, and how and where they move around the scene.

Or, do I apply a literary telephoto lens, focusing in (pun intended, of course…) on specific components of the scene, ignoring unnecessary detail, finding the most critical and relevant slice of the bigger picture?

Perhaps a macro lens approach is best. With that, I could focus on minute details – the steam rising from a mug of coffee, the pulsing veins on the back of a hand, the twitch of an eyelid, the slight hint of an exotic perfume, the touch of a breeze on the back of the neck? That brings the scene down to its most essential elements.

Like most writers, I’m still learning which tools in my literary camera bag to use, and when. The potential devices are many, each with its own advantages. But that’s one of the aspects of writing I love the most – figuring out how to best tell a story, how to create a compelling image for my readers. Only they know if I succeed.

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