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.

The best perspective is the one nobody else has seen, and 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, more often than not I'm drawn to obscure locales that most other photographers don't even think about. Also, while doing photography I rarely remain on established trails let alone drivable roads (that's what GPS and topo maps are for).

Getting off the beaten path often means heading into landscapes that most people wouldn’t consider all that glamorous. However, I believe the mark of a truly great photographer is the ability to wander into any landscape, even the most seemingly mundane, and come away with something spectacular. It may be something simple like a single tree, small rock formation or quirky reflection in water, but with hard work and a creative eye a good photographer can get a great shot virtually anywhere. In short, landscape photography isn’t about finding glamorous locations, it’s about finding the glamor in any location.


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.


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 a local rabbi 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.
In short, my church is the wilderness and while photographing it I cannot help but feel as though I'm documenting the work of some Supreme Creator, whomever He, She or It may be. If I do my job well then hopefully people get a sense of that when they see the final product.

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.




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


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 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.

  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.    




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


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.


(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.    

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.

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

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

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
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.


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 2005 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 gourmet chef, "What kind of pots and pans do you use?" Does it 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. YOU decide which lens to use. YOU decide whether or not to use flash, and if so, how. If you can do all of these things, AND if you have a good sense of composition, you're able to see the world the way a camera does, and if you understand the immense importance of good light, any DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera can yield stunning, highly-professional results. So stop asking "What kind of camera do you use?" and learn to shoot.

As for lenses, I have three L-Series Canon 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 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. On that note, it REALLY helps to get the flash off of your camera's hot shoe. The quality of light is almost always better if coming from an angle, so I recommend using some method of firing a flash remotely.

As for a tripod, I use a Manfrotto model that's worth its lack of weight in carbon-fiber (lighter than aluminum). It's big enough to provide good stability yet small enough to carry long distances. Really big, gigantic, over-size tripods tend to be used by ego-driven people more interested in looking cool than in actually hiking 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. 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).