#976. The way we shoot – Part 5: Engineered serendipity

By Nancee Rostad | How-To

Mar 09

This morning while gazing out the laundry room window as I folded towels, my eye was caught by the interesting shadows, reflections, and light patterns on the wet asphalt outside my home.

Wet Asphalt 1

Folding abruptly stopped, camera was located, and the shooting commenced. This is how it typically happens for me. Some might call it opportunistic, which it clearly is, but I call it serendipity.

Wet Asphalt 2

My advice is to always be on the lookout while in your home territory. I’ve had the experience of driving by a boarded up building for months, not noticing anything interesting about it until one day the light was just right, perhaps the subject was a bit wet, maybe something had been added to the scene, whatever – now it looked totally different, and photographically inviting. I stopped, spent 20 minutes or so shooting the scene and wound up with a series of images which still delight me. Within a few months, the building had been torn down. So shoot when you see it! Another time I overheard a hotel clerk say that the local boat basin was frozen over.

Wet Asphalt 3

Within minutes I was in the car with my equipment! Frozen over indeed, with soft sunlight slightly melting the top layer of ice, creating a beautiful canvas for reflections. I spent a very happy hour or so walking along the boat docks, finding wonderful patterns & reflections to shoot.

A-ply-ed Art

The next day the ice was mostly melted and the fishing boats were able to leave the docks.

When actually planning a shoot, timing it with the weather forecast is crucial. The perfect weather for me is an overcast sky, something we experience frequently in the Pacific Northwest.

Tempestuous, Bandon, OR
Storm Surge, Bandon, OR

Also of interest is the possibility of stormy weather along the coast. To make the 7 hour drive to Bandon, Oregon (a favorite location) worthwhile I look for a combination of high surf advisory & high wind forecasts which will produce stunning waves, piles of sea foam, and blowing sand on the beach.

Butte, MT
Butte, MT

Even with a promising forecast at any location I still keep these things in mind: to avoid disappointment, I expect nothing; time will always be spent poking around for subject matter; and I won’t waste time taking meaningless photos in order to feel productive. Even if I end up with nary a good image, I will have learned something from the experience!

On Thin Ice, Ucluelet, BC

If possible, I’ll drive to almost any western US location. In fact, it’s my little secret that much of my landscape, or even in-town photography is shot from the driver’s seat of my car. There I’m always in the shade, or out of the rain and wind or freezing temps. No need for a tripod – although there’s always one in the car. If necessary, I brace my camera + lens on the opened window. As a woman, usually traveling alone to remote locations, I feel safer in my car. If someone stops to ask if I need help, I’m protected from further interference. I can move the car to improve the view, no one stops to ask what I’m photographing, and no one will be hovering their iPhone over my shoulder in a vain attempt to take the same shot I’ve lined up!

Jigsaw Puzzle, Ucluelet, BC

These things have all happened to me when I’ve been out of the car with my camera & tripod. I got so tired of the “what are you photographing?” question while in Arches NP (with all those beautiful red rock formations) that I replied “the ocean” to their inane questions. People tend to quickly sidle away when you give them an answer like that. However, I have been known to drive to a location and then hoof it around until I locate a subject. Out in the broader landscape areas I’m usually shooting from the car for comfort and security.

Ice Dream, Ucluelet, BC

While on a shoot, I’m busy composing possible images in my head even before I pick up my camera. I look for unusual light and shadow in the landscape, or interesting lines, shapes, colors, or any number of abstract possibilities. Generally, I’ll take a couple of test shots to try to determine if I’m heading in the right direction or if a more complex idea is forming and needs a bit of time to percolate and resolve itself. If everything seems to be lining up, then the shooting begins….for awhile. I can and do quickly lose interest in a subject, which means that it’s time to move on. This is why shooting alone usually works best for me. Although, I occasionally find a shooting buddy with similar styles.

Rain Band, Boulder, UT
Sunrise, Boulder, UT

As far as camera equipment goes, I have a Canon 5D MarkII (yes, only a MarkII) and two lenses: one telephoto & one semi-wide angle…..that’s it…..that’s all I need or would ever use. I never carry around a tripod. I use a smallish lightweight, black waterproof roll-top backpack with no visible branding while traveling. New equipment really never even crosses my mind.

Painted Hills, OR
Painted Hills, OR

In addition, it’s my personal belief that I don’t need to photograph everything I see. Many beautiful scenes are meant to be kept in your memory, only in part because they may be difficult to capture with your camera. For example, from my oceanfront hotel room in Tofino, BC I noticed a huge bright red full moon which was perched directly on the horizon, with a calm blue-black ocean beneath and a stunning dark blue cloudless sky in the background. Simple, yet unbelievably beautiful! Now, I could have grabbed my camera and quickly shot a few frames, but I paused and let the beauty of that scene become indelibly imprinted in my mind where it still resides, easy to see whenever I like. To me, this is a true Zen experience, one that I hope to have again and again.

Fairytale Forest

To sum it all up, my method is a combination of the following: I flit, I hover, I contemplate, I muse, I experiment, I observe, I ignore the obvious & and often the rules, I become calm and centered, I try not to worry about not finding a suitable subject, and I keep an open mind. All this may not be conventional, but it works for me, and more importantly, it’s the way I shoot. From photography I’ve learned patience & humility. I’ve also learned that I need to be creative to be truly happy.

You can find the other posts in this series here.


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  • Michael Fleischer says:

    Hi Nancee,

    Wonderful abstract pictures with great patterns and subtle colours.
    It sounds so cool & healthy and convey a clear sense of exploration, joy and the love
    of the chase of found possibilities…to your keen eyes & hearts content!

    Fairytale Forest and Jigsaw Puzzle are simply brilliant.


    • Nancee Rostad says:

      Thank you for your kind comments Michael! I so appreciate that you took the time to read my post and to comment on it – it means a lot to me. If you’d like to know the story behind “Fairytale Forest”, check out my reply to Frank. “Jigsaw Puzzle” was taken on that wonderful day at the frozen boat basin.

  • philberphoto says:

    Ah, Nancee! There comes a time, a blissful moment when text doesn’t matter any more, because the images do all the talking. Not that your texte isn’t worth reading, it very much is. But it could have been the phone directory of yore, for all I care, such is the enjoyment I got from your pictures. Let me just say, there is not one that wouldn’t adorn my walls with lasting grace and elegance… just so inspiring…. I will try to keep that space when next I shoot…. wow….

    • Nancee Rostad says:

      Dear Philippe, you do know how to make a lady blush! I so appreciate and do take to heart your lovely comments, they mean a lot to me. Thank you, thank you!

  • Jean-Claude Louis says:

    Some wonderful images, Nancee, and interesting reading ! Fairytale Forest is a masterpiece. Bravo !

    • Nancee Rostad says:

      Thank you for your kind comment, Jean-Claude! I really appreciate that you took the time to look at my post – it means a lot to me. If you’re interested in how “”Fairytale Forest” came about, the story is in my reply to Frank.

  • pascaljappy says:

    Couldn’t agree more. That Fairytale Forest is absolutely stunning. I really like Jigsaw puzzle as well.

    Thank you for sharing your views on how to shoot, Nancee!

    • Nancee Rostad says:

      Thanks, Pascal. I truly appreciate your support and encouragement! If you’re interested in how “”Fairytale Forest” came about, the story is in my reply to Frank.

  • Lad Sessions says:

    Nancee, You have such a good “eye” (connected most importantly to a superlative processor!) that you see beauty in scenes and patterns most of us would miss, or at least not capture so perfectly. I truly enjoy looking at your photos—call them what you will, abstracts, compositions or simply found beauty. I learn from just looking. But I also learn, and take heart, from your “method.” Stabilizing a camera/lens on a car windowsill allows you to concentrate on what’s really important, while lugging a tripod and other gear can often prove stifling. Anyway, I just adore Fairytale Forest; I keep looking back to it. But there are others equally compelling. Thank you for sharing this. Lad

    • Nancee Rostad says:

      You’re too kind, Lad! I’m so happy when people “get” my photography, it makes it all worthwhile. If you’re interested, my reply to Frank contains the story of how “Fairytale Forest” came about. It truly was “found beauty”, as you so aptly put it.

  • Pascal O. says:

    Dear Nancee, your previous article on Kyoto was just an appetizer compared with this selection.
    The sheer breadth of the subjects, the quality of your photography are astounding.
    Not only for their exceptional, creative, different beauty but also, as you point out, for their “simplicity” which, for an ignoramus like me, aptly hides the considerable amount of preparation required. Absolutely remarkable. This is most inspiring. Thank you.

    • Nancee Rostad says:

      Your lovely comments are making me blush, Pascal! Thank you for taking the time to comment on my post – I really appreciate it.

  • Frank Field says:

    Wonderful images go to the receptive mind and the prepared photographer. Everyone is an image to savor. I especially enjoyed the last one: Fairy Tale Forest with its balanced composition, appealing yet subtle colors, and texture that just does not stop. Images of the chaos of a forest are challenging to capture and you have done a superb job.

    • Nancee Rostad says:

      Thanks for your kind comments, Frank. I so appreciate that you took the time to rely to my post. The Fairytale Forest image seems to be the favorite with several people, so here’s how it came about. I was on my way back from Montana and decided to pull off the freeway to retrieve something from the back of the car. As I turned onto a frontage road, I noticed the beautiful light, textures, and colors in the roadside forest. Chaotic, but charming and a bit magical. A couple of photos later I was on my way again. I didn’t do much more than straighten the image – all colors are as captured. Serendipity!

  • jean pierre guaron says:

    Your closing paragraph provides us with a summary of this post. And I absolutely agree with every word of it! 🙂

    What I also found extremely illuminating was your summary of the gear you use. The operative word here is “use”. You take incredibly good photos – yet there are whole camera shops scattered all over the world, offering us all sorts of “things” to “help us improve our photography” – and you are ignoring all of it. I can’t – here – describe the laughter this has produced, as I think of those words in your post. I recently told Pascal I’ve given up on “GAS” – I am going to stubbornly stick with the gear I have now, and devote my efforts towards learning how to make better use of it all. Starting with devouring four huge manuals – a total of around 1300 odd pages, for each of my two main cameras (ie, a total of nearly 3,000 pages!). (I do have a small camera that I treat rather shamelessly as a “point & shoot”, but that doesn’t count).

    And I collapsed laughing at your reference to someone with an iPhone peering over your shoulder and taking the same view. An idiot did that to me, a year or so back, when I was experimenting to see what I could do with a 2 metre equivalent focal length. He even showed me his effort. It was difficult trying to be polite about it. Never mind – at least he left, after that.

    The rest of us will have to feel deprived. The photos you HAVE shared here (and by simple a priori logic, photos that you DID take) are so good that I can only wonder about the shots you cannot share, because the only copies are wedged in your brain. From time to time I have had a similar experience – once because I chose not to take the photo (I deemed it “inappropriate” to do so), and the other because at 1 o’clock in the morning I hadn’t anticipated that I needed a camera (as well as the dog!) so I simply couldn’t take the shot. But those shots will be with me till I die.

    • Nancee Rostad says:

      Thank you for your kind comments,Jean-Pierre. I’ve always said that it’s not the camera, it’s the photographer! However, in the talented group of DS photographers, I assure you that I’m the least technically skilled person, and I really couldn’t explain how my images turn out the way they do! I’ve always been an artist, but when I picked up a camera 12 years ago, I knew that I had found my medium. You and I seem to be kindred spirits, always ignoring conventional thinking and finding humor in everything!

      • jean pierre guaron says:

        And just as everyone else in the group is saying, I adore “Fairytale Forest”.

        My head is a curious place – I seem to be able to think all sorts of things at the same time – my reactions to external stimuli obviously depend how they are processed in that space – I carry around in it the things that matter to me – they get kind of “wedged” in there, and never go away – some are art – some is music – some a things like a particular sunset – or a sculpture – or the call of a bird.

        Things I don’t like, I cannot store in there. They don’t/won’t/can’t stay. They are expunged, and that’s that. All that remains is a sort of inbuilt “filter”, that blocks them out – my conscious mind will never again recognise them. There’s a story behind that, as to “why” that’s how my mind developed, but that’s for another time.

        So when I saw “Fairytale Forest” it was instantly added to the library in my head. Like the 12 ethereal photos of Lake Eyre, in the centre of Australia, that I saw at a recent exhibition here. And one of Adam’s photos – I think he described it as sailing, off Barcelona.

        You might own the original – but I am carrying it with me forever, along with all my other cherished memories.

        And please don’t ever dream of suggesting that you aren’t a talented photographer, ever again! 🙂

        • Nancee Rostad says:

          Oh, Jean-Pierre, I love how you think! In fact, DS should start a new series about “How Photographers Think” – I’m sure it would be fascinating. I couldn’t be more pleased that “Fairytale Forest” will live in the gallery of your memories.

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    thank you for sharing these lovely photos!
    I’ll be coming back to many of them…

    I’m most strongly drawn to your wet asphalt and ice photos – and it is rare to see varied light and varied colours enhancing each other so well, as well as the Painted Hills ones.
    And especially to Fairytale Forest – which among other things makes me think of the moment when Rat, Mole and little Otter heard (and met) the Faun [The Wind in the Willows].
    – * –

    > “Engineered serendipity”
    Yes, a very good expression!

    And sometimes the engineering is just going for a walk (which is when I miss my pocket zoom..).

    • Nancee Rostad says:

      Thank you for your lovely comments, Kristian! I love how you’ve related Fairytale Forest to a scene from The Wind in the Willows – one of my all time favorite books! If you’d like to know the story behind Fairytale Forest, check out my reply to Frank. I can’t take credit for “Engineered Serendipity” – that was Pascal J’s genius invention.

  • Dallas says:

    Nancee, I think its all been said above, but wow, thanks for sharing, the Fairytale Forest is a true gem, well done

  • Alan says:

    I join the chorus for Fairytale Forest. It gets a triple wow. Lovely. What more can one say!

  • Pascal ravach says:

    Dear Nancee, what could be added to all the comments?
    Fairytale Forest and Jigsaw Puzzle are the kind of images that stay printed in the mind…
    Simplicity of the approach, eerily results… a wonderful journey!

  • PaulB says:


    I really like this series of images. Particularly that so many of them were taken right under your nose. Or, maybe under your feet. 😉

    Seven hours drive to Bandon, OR?

    It sounds like you are pretty close to Olympia, WA. That would make three of us in the greater Puget Sound area.


    • Nancee Rostad says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Paul! I live in Kirkland, WA (aka: the Covid-19 epidemic epicenter)and if I leave home at 6:00 am (to miss traffic), I’m in Bandon by 1:00 pm.
      If you’ve never been, I highly recommend it! I did a month long artist residency there in 2011, so it seems like home to me.

      • PaulB says:


        You are welcome.

        I was in Bandon in the fall of 2006. I took a large format workshop with Chuck Farmer. We stayed right at the beach and had a wonderful safari to the local junk yard. It was great fun, and I have always wanted to go back.

        • Nancee Rostad says:

          Sounds like it’s time for you to visit Bandon again, Paul. I’m heading there on Tuesday for a few days of Vitamin Sea.

  • chuck says:

    I love your work. It connects with me and my esthetic. Keep it up and keep posting.

    • Nancee Rostad says:

      Thanks for your nice comment, Chuck. I will definitely be posting more in the future.

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