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, and because of that I place a high priority on capturing images that don't look like those of other photographers. One of the best ways to enhance originality is to simply get off the beaten path. Oh sure, I've been to my share of popular places. They have their value. However, the mark of a great landscape photographer isn't the ability to visit glamorous locations, it's the ability to find the glamor in ANY location. A truly great photographer can wander into virtually any landscape, even the most obscure and seemingly mundane places, and with hard work and a creative eye come away with something spectacular.


Simplicity

Creativity is not the ability to make the simple complicated.
It is the ability to make the complicated simple.
That being said, I strive to produce bold, uncluttered
compositions with a strong sense of harmony and balance.


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. I'm not religious at all. Still, I was intrigued when I heard a local rabbi say 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


 
Ocotillo in the desert beneath Four Peaks in the Mazatzal Mts., Arizona
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Devil's Bridge on the Coconino National Forest, Arizona (part of the red rock country near Sedona)
 
 
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.  
         
   
From Geology Vista about half-way up the Catalina Mts. looking southeast
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.

   
    Sunrise at Coal Mine Canyon on the Navajo and Hopi Reservations in northern Arizona
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

   
   
Grand Falls (aka "Chocolate Falls") on the Little Colorado River, Arizona
   
    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

 
 
Twilight at Willow Lake on the edge of Prescott, Arizona
 

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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. And contrary to what some people think, HDR is not "cheating". HDR does not artificially add or enhance colors in a photo, it simply preserves colors that are already there. If vibrant colors don't naturally exist in a landscape to begin with, HDR cannot make them magically appear.

 
 
Havasupai
Exposure #1
The ground is properly exposed, but
the sky is overexposed to the point
of being almost completely white.

 
Havasupai
Exposure #2
The sky is properly exposed, but
the ground is underexposed to the
point of being almost cmpletely black.
 
 

Havasupai
The two images above are merged in Photoshop to
create a proper exposure across the entire scene.
In this way, all of the colors that naturally occur in this
landscape, in both the land and sky, are preserved.
 


 
Combining Multiple Techniques
 
 
  Grand Falls (aka "Chocolate Falls") on the Little Colorado River, Arizona
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

People constantly ask what type of camera I use. Here's my answer. The photos throughout this website were taken over the past 15 years with five different cameras ranging from dirt cheap to very expensive. If you can tell exactly which pictures were taken with the "bad cameras" and which were taken with the "good cameras" I'll give you a million dollars. I know it's not the answer people want to hear, but if you're getting poor results with the camera you're currently using then perhaps you should learn how to shoot. All that's really important, equipment-wise, is that you have a camera you can control 100% manually so you (not the camera) can select the shutter, aperture, ISO, point of focus, white balance, etc. If you can shoot manually, understand light, develop a good sense of composition and put lots of time and effort into your photo shoots then you can produce great images. In fact, I am quite certain that ANYONE who gets off "auto" mode and simply trys hard can eventually produce great images. It's not rocket science, it's just photography. Still, to do it well requires skill and effort, not expensive equipment.

As for lenses, I use three zoom lenses that together range from 16mm to 300mm (wide-angle to telephoto). Some people say fixed lenses yield sharper images than zoom lenses. First of all, that has not been my experience. Any difference in quality is virtually imperceptible. Secondly, in the wilderness there are trees, creeks, cliffs and such that often exist exactly where you prefer to stand in order to get the exact composition you want. This may not be a problem in a photo studio but it's a HUGE issue in the wild. Zoom lenses allow you to stand on one side of a natural obstacle or the other, then compensate by zooming in or out. In short, on rough terrain zoom lenses give you a level of creative flexibility that is infinitely more important than whatever miniscule difference in image sharpness a fix lens might provide. And it's worth noting that nobody has EVER said to me, "Hey, I'll buy that photo because it's so sharp." Customers do, however, buy photos that are interesting and creative.

I also carry two flashes in my camera packpack, always. Their range is of course limited but under some conditions (when the main subject is not too big or far away) they're great for filling in shadows and lighting up an otherwise dark foreground. As with all my other equipment, the make and model of my flashes don't matter, it's how I use them that counts.

As for a tripod, I use one that's worth its lack of weight in carbon-fiber (lighter than aluminum). It's big enough to provide good stability yet small enough that I can actually hike with it. Really big, gigantic, over-size tripods tend to be used by ego-driven people more interested in looking cool than in actually hiking any significant distance into the wilderness and thus by 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 going to hike back to your vehicle in the dark (and yes, despite what safety freaks and amateur outdoorspeople may say, you CAN hike 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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