How I Make Photographs


 
 


General Approach

When doing nature and landscape photography I strive
for the following three qualities. I don’t always achieve
every quality in every image, but it's the goal.

Originality
The best perspective is the one nobody else has seen. Often this requires taking a creative rather documentary approach to photography. I don't merely capture landscapes, I interpret them. I also believe that an original, creative eye can find interesting compositions anywhere. Even the most “mundane” landscapes hide vignettes of stunning harmony and balance – if you make the effort to find them.

Simplicity
Creativity is not the ability to make the simple complicated.
It is the ability to make the complicated simple.

Transcendence
Great nature photographs transcend mere “pretty” and exist in the realm of “beautiful.” It’s what separates fine art from postcard snapshots. But it’s more than that. A local rabbi once said during a sermon that great nature photographs look like “little rectangles of God.” No one can really say why some photographs feel Spiritual and others don’t, but you know the good rectangles when you see them.



Composition
Like most photographers, I use all sorts of traditional
compositional principles, from leading lines and
the rule of thirds to symmetry and balance.

Except when I don't.


Special Techniques

Like nearly all photographers, I touch up my images in Photoshop by
tweaking the contrast, saturation, sharpness, etc. However, I keep editing to a minimum, believing strongly that the better the original image, the better the final result. Dramatic light, vibrant colors, and creativity in general are achieved in the field when I hit the shutter, not at home when I turn on the computer. I use a wide range techniques when making photographs including, but certainly not limited to, the following.

 

Flash


 

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Some people believe if you're photographing nature you should use only natural light.

Whatever.

Often an object in the foreground is much darker than the background, so I use a flash to balance the exposure. In the photo on the left, the ocotillo was originally so dark it looked like a silouhette, so I lit it up by placing a remote flash to the left of the plant. Larger objects, like the Devil's Bridge at right, may require multiple flashes (in this case, three). So if the lighting in these images looks a bit unnatural...well...it is! But these photos looked like this when they were taken and I like the somewhat surreal look achieved by adding my own light to the foreground.
 


Backlighting
  Keeping the sun to your back is not a bad rule for photographing friends at a BBQ with a point-and-shoot. But if you want to get creative, that's the first rule you need to throw out the window. A very high percentage of my images are backlit. This can create a wide range of effects.  
         
   

Most photographers strive for as much detail as possible in every photograph they make. Ocasionally I do the opposite. By shooting almost directly into the sun, multiple ridges in distant mountains are reduced to elegantly simple tones, from dark on the bottom to light at the top. In this case, the sun is hovering just above the top of the photo (so that I'm shooting toward it, but slightly under it).
   
   


Backlighting causes anything translucent to "glow." In this case, the sun shining through the leaves of a wild raspberry plant from behind give the red tones extra vibrancy. Backlighting also makes the little "puff balls" in the grass sparkle so much that most people think the grass is covered with morning dew, even though it's completely dry on a warm afternoon.

   
   
Backlighting can cause lens flairs (glare on the lens). Normally I try to avoid lens flairs by using a hood on the lens or by holding a wide-brimmed hat over the lens to block some of the incoming sun. Occasionally, though, lens flairs are unavoidable. In this case, lens flairs occur across the image as red spots, especially in the lower-right. Not all photographs look good with lens flairs, but in some images, like this one, they add an artistic touch that enhances the photo.
   


    Long Exposures

   
   
   
    To give flowing water a silky smooth look, simply lengthen the shutter speed. The longer the shutter, the smoother the water. Ocasionally I use a neutral density (gray) filter or polarizing filter to eat up a couple stops of light just so I can use a longer shutter speed.    


 
Twilight

 
 
 

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Sunset is usually a great time to make photographs – but often twilight is even better. The extremely soft, almost surreal colors in the photo of Willow Lake at left only happened after the sun dipped below the horizon. Twilight is also a good time to photograph scenes that, at sunset, have harsh shadows. The photo of Lake Powell at right was taken at twilight to almost completely eliminate shadows that just minutes earlier made the entire bottom half of the image extremely dark. Because of low light, most twilight shots require long shutter speeds, so stabilizing the camera with a tripod is extra important.

 


  Patterns to Infinity

 
 
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I often zoom in closely on a pattern so that it runs off the edges of the photograph. This suggests to viewers that the pattern continues indefinitely, perhaps for a very long time. For example, people often assume the field of poppies in the photo above is huge when it fact it pretty much disappears just beyond the left and right edges of the image. In the other photo, the elegant pattern in the sand gets messed up just beyond the edges of the photo, but by framing a small part of it very tightly I imply that it continues unbroken across a large area.

 


   
Dramatic
(but Natural) Reflections

   
   
   
   


   
    Trees at the water's edge can create dramatic reflections, especially in the fall when the foliage is yellow, orange or red. Sometime nearby orange or reddish cliffs create similar reflections. Such reflections rarely cover a large area, but if you zoom in on them very closely you get a "pattern to infinity" effect that suggests the colored water covers a much larger area than it really does. Both of the above photos were taken in the same location. The top photo is simply a very small part of the larger scene.    
         

 
HDR
Sometimes the range of light across a scene is so great that it cannot be captured in a single exposure. In the scene below, the sky is far brighter than the ground. I could properly expose for one or the other, but not both. One way to deal with this is to create multiple exposures of the same scene, then merge them later in Photoshop. Any number of exposures may be combined, although it's rare that I merge more than two. HDR (High Dynamic Range), as this technique is called, has become very common, especially with landscape photographers who often shoot very big places under naturally uneven light.

 
 

Exposure #1 (no editing): The ground is
properly exposed, but the sky is too bright.

 

Exposure #2 (no editing): The sky is
properly exposed, but the ground is too dark.
 
 


The two images above are merged in Photoshop to
create a proper exposure across the entire scene
(in this particular shot, a polarizing filter was also
used to eat up a couple stops of light so I could
slow down the shutter to make the water appear
smoother. A bit of contrast and saturation (but not
too much) were also added in Photoshop.
 


 
Combining Multiple Techniques
 
 
 
Many of my photographs combine several of the aformentioned techniques. That photo of the poppies, for example, incorporates not only a "pattern to infinity" but also backlighting and a flash for the foreground (coming from the right side to make the poppies pop a little more). The photo of the smooth, silky waterfall was made by not only using a long exposure, but by employing HDR to properly expose both the water and sky.
 
 
Equipment
 
 

Equipment

Over the decades I have used a variety of cameras ranging from dirt cheap to very expensive. When I first got into photography, at the age of 17, I bought a Canon AE-1 film camera. Since going digital in 2006 I have used the Nikon D70, Nikon D200, Nikon D300, and my current camera, a Canon 5d (full frame). The photos on this website were taken with all five of these cameras. If you can tell exactly which photos were taken with which camera I'll give you $1 million dollars. It makes no perceptible difference whatsover. Decades of experience with many different cameras has led me to the firm conclusion that "What kind of camera do you use?" is the most irrelivant question in all of photography. Unfortunately it's also the one that gets asked the most, making it the most annoying. It's like asking a painter, "What brand of brushes do you use?" or asking a master chef, "What kind of pots and pans do you use?" Does it really matter? The only thing that's important is that you are able to control your camera manually. YOU set the shutter. YOU set the aperture. YOU set the ISO. YOU set the white balance. YOU set the point of focus. If you can do those things, and if you have a good sense of composition and understand light, ANY DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera can yield great results. So if you want good photographs, forget about your equipment and learn to shoot. Initially I learned from photography books. Your local library is full of great "how to" books on photography and they're completely free to check out. So READ them. I have also taken many classes and seminars on all types of photography, and of course I have learned from other photographers. However you prefer to learn, just do it and stop asking, "What kind of camera do you use?"


I also use up to three Nikon SB-800 Speedlights (flashes).
I love them, and believe it or not they work on my Canon camera (although on a Canon they only work in manual mode). But again, it's not the make, model or price tag that matters, it's how a flash is used. Any flash that allows you to control it manually (not just on "auto" or "TTL" mode) will give great results if you know how to use it.


As for a tripod, I use a fairly expensive Manfrotto model that's worth its weight in carbon-fiber (lighter than aluminum). It's big enough to provide good stability yet small enough to hike long distances with. Really big, gigantic, over-size tripods are used by people more interested in making an impression on others than in hiking, and thus people who don't really understand what nature and landscape photography is all about.


No less important than any of the above camera equipment is a good headlamp and GPS. Nature photography isn't just about being in the right place. It's about being in the right place at the right time. If the place is remote and the time is sunset, then guess what; you're gonna hike back to your vehicle in the dark. For that you absolutely must have a reliable light. Any flashlight will do, but for hiking a headlamp is even better (wherever you look, there's light!). As for GPS, I always mark my vehicle's location when heading into the wild. However, the vast majority of time I don't actually need the machine to find my way back, relying instead on good old-fashioned common sense, like taking note of major landmarks during the hike. However, on dark moonless nights it's nice to know my GPS is there – just in case.


My hiking partner also has a light, which dangles from her collar so I can see her when it's dark. However, since she's missing a leg I carry everything else she needs when we go-a-shootin'
(see Jessee The Three-Legged Cowgirl).




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