Archive for the ‘composition’ Tag
Looking south toward Mt. Jefferson from iconic Timberline Lodge, Oregon.
At the end of a winter’s day skiing, this is looking south toward Mt. Jefferson from iconic Timberline Lodge, Oregon.
This is the 3rd and final part of my little series on shooting alternate versions of the same basic subject. Check out Part I and Part II for the nuts and bolts of varying composition and other factors just enough to create alternates without completely changing the image. Today I want to discuss a very important part of alternate versions: the review. This is where a lot of novice photographers tend to become frustrated, so this post includes some basic advice designed to help you use precious review time wisely.
Last time I mentioned how it’s important at first to be aware of why you are shooting an alternate of the same subject. It could be as simple as grabbing a quick vertical. Or it could be a version that concentrates attention on one particularly strong subject by using a large aperture, thus throwing the background out of focus. Or you can change multiple things about the image, getting low and close while rotating to horizontal, zooming out a bit, and including less sky.
An old pile dike along the Columbia River in Oregon.
Review on the LCD
It’s a good idea to think about why you shot different versions when you review the images later, whether on your camera’s LCD screen or on the computer monitor. Speaking of the LCD, I see plenty of photographers checking out their photos during the shoot. That is fine if you’re checking things like focus and exposure; in other words, making sure you don’t need to re-shoot. Or if you want to get a human subject more interested in the shoot. But don’t take too much time looking at the back of the camera. Avoid the trap of getting too caught up in review when you should be concentrating on your subject and the light.
I try to review the images on my camera’s LCD very soon after shooting. I do this not only to delete images with obvious problems right away, in order to make more room on the card. But I also like doing a quick inventory of my alternate versions while the shoot is still fresh. It is easier than you think to delete images you should have kept. Unlike a computer, your camera doesn’t have a trashcan where you can recover deleted images. It’s forever!
For example, you might think you have useless repeats of the shot when you actually had in mind at the time good reasons to capture an alternate version. Maybe your reasoning was unconscious and maybe it wasn’t. But if it was, reviewing on your LCD soon after the shoot has the effect of bringing it right up to the surface of your mind. I don’t always keep alternates at this stage. Sometimes I realize my reason for the alternate was rather superficial.
Despite a significant difference in composition, the light and atmosphere are similar enough to call this vertical of the above image an alternate version.
Review on the Computer
No matter how conscious you are while out shooting, when you’re viewing and rating the different versions on the computer later, deciding which to keep, it’s helpful to note what sets each alternate version apart. The differences are often subtle but important for what you’re trying to get across in an image. Were you trying to emphasize an interesting foreground with an alternate version? Next time out will you get low and close while the light is at its best instead of doing that as an afterthought?
While it’s perfectly natural and appropriate to prefer one version over another, be careful about your judgments. For example you may prefer the vertical version of a scene you just shot in dramatic sidelight. But that doesn’t mean you should always photograph scenes like it vertically. Say you return in softer, more subtle light. The horizontal may turn out to be the better choice.
Another reason to avoid overemphasizing personal preference is the existence of considerations that have nothing to do with whether one version is better than another. A horizontal version, for example, may obviously look better because of layering or other characteristics of the scene. But what if someone loves the image and wants to frame and hang it in a place that will fit a vertical but not a horizontal? Or what if a magazine likes it but needs one that has more negative space? That’s yet another way to shoot an alternate, by the way. By zooming out and/or flipping the camera to include more blank sky, water, or other similarly plain space, you allow room for type, mastheads and the like.
The vertical of the opening image includes the weather vane atop the lodge.
Using Review to Grow
As you review more and more shoots you’ll naturally learn which kinds of images you like better for which kinds of subject and light. You might notice yourself gradually shooting slightly fewer alternate versions. But the idea behind doing alternate versions is to increase not decrease your options.
Although learning your preferences is a good thing, don’t over-generalize and end up missing opportunities. It’s important to realize that every scene and every moment’s light and mood is unique. Also unique is the message you want to get across in the image. Alternate versions can help you accomplish this most important of photography goals, but only if you do them.
The rocky coastline of the northern Baja Peninsula, Mexico.
One thing I’ve learned over time is not to force myself to judge when I’m reviewing images on the computer. Of course I do mostly prefer one shot over others, and one version of that shot over alternate versions. But when there’s no clear winner I don’t spend a lot of time forcing myself to decide. I just give the two an equal number of stars, label them both with copy names (a field in Lightroom just below the filename), and move on.
Most important is to keep an open mind. Open to other possibilities while you’re out there shooting, and open to different ways of evaluating images on the computer. As with all thoughtful post-shot review, considering your reasons for creating alternate versions can inform your next shooting session in interesting ways. It can also force you to grow as a photographer. For example you might find yourself better defining your style. Shooting and then reviewing different versions could lead you to explore a certain way of shooting in more depth. Thanks so much for reading and I hope your weekend is a fun one. Happy shooting!
For this alternate version of the above image I waited until deep dusk (which allowed a longer exposure). I also got lower and closer to the foreground rocks and relied on artificial lights from a hotel to illuminate them.
Dawn and part of a frozen waterfall in Zion National Park. 16 mm., 1.6 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100
Sometimes you have just one opportunity to get a shot. You have to whip that camera up and shoot. If you’re not ready the moment is gone. But more often there is time to capture different versions of the same subject. Since landscape photography is so applicable to this, and because I do a lot of it (I’m not alone!), I’m going to use landscape photography to illustrate ways to create alternate versions of an image.
There are several main ways to vary a landscape shot. Let’s look at those that change the composition but keep the same main elements of the scene the same.
- Format. Changing between horizontal (or landscape) and vertical (portrait) formats is the easiest way to create alternate versions of an image. Normally a vertical emphasizes the height of things like trees and mountains. It can also give a greater sense of depth. Horizontals emphasize a sense of space and can lend a serene feel to a landscape. I usually try to get both unless the picture definitely lends itself to one or the other.
- Point of View. Point of view (POV) can be changed in many ways. I did a mini-series on POV that explores this very important subject. One of the most common ways to vary POV is by changing camera height. Depending on how close the foreground is, changing height will also change the distance to that foreground, which can greatly change the look of an image.
Vertical of the image at top. I lowered POV, got closer to the foreground and thus emphasized the ice and sandstone while reducing the apparent size and importance of the background mountains and sky. 16 mm., 1.3 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100.
- Proportion of Sky vs. Land. Changing POV in turn can change this variable. It involves changing the relative amount of sky vs. land in the image, a very common thing for landscapers to do. For example, simply tilting the camera down or shortening your tripod legs takes you from an image dominated by sky to one dominated by the landscape below. The possible variants are nearly endless. For example you can change from nearly fifty-fifty to almost all land with just a sliver of sky. You could even shoot with the horizon in the middle, but that works well only in certain situations.
- Distance from Subject/Foreground. As long as you don’t exclude a main element (in which case it’s a different picture), you can change the feel by simply moving closer to or further from the closest element in the frame. Try doing this without changing any of the variables above. It’s hard to do, isn’t it?
A rainbow and a tall fir tree frame Vista House in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge. 35 mm., 0.4 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100.
As just mentioned it can be tough to change just a single variable when you’re taking multiple shots of the same thing. Of course you don’t have to limit yourself to one variable. And you shouldn’t. We’re not doing science experiments, we’re shooting pictures. But if you’re curious and want to see more clearly what the effects of changing a certain variable look like, go ahead and control the other variables. Play scientist for awhile.
Next time we’ll look at a few other variables you can change to create alternate versions of your landscape images. Thanks for reading. Have a fun weekend, one filled with laughter and plenty of pictures!
Which version do you like, this horizontal or the vertical above? By changing format & using a slightly longer focal length, the tree and top of the rainbow are cropped off. The light has also changed slightly. 50 mm., 0.5 sec. @ f/13, ISO 100.
Yellow balsamroot fill the foreground in this recent image of Mount Hood in the early morning.
I’ve posted previously on using foreground elements in landscape photography. We’ll look at it from a slightly different angle here, adding a bit of subjective opinion (surprise!) along the way. But don’t worry, there’s plenty objective advice on successfully using foreground as well.
They are important, obviously. But I think too many landscape photographers think they need to include close foregrounds in every picture. I’ve also fallen prey to the frantic search for foreground while light is happening, but I’m more relaxed about it now, taking what is there. The fact is I don’t think foreground is absolutely critical to a successful landscape photograph.
Foreground is certainly worth keeping in mind however. It can add a sense of depth and, for very close foregrounds (the subject of last Friday Foto Talk), it can put the viewer in your pictures. So how do we go about using foreground judiciously?
I visited this little waterfall near Lake Quinault, Washington this week. A mossy log forms a partial leading line in the foreground.
- DEFINE FOREGROUND BROADLY. It can be close, even very close. But it doesn’t have to be. A larger foreground subject can be placed further away in a composition and still act as a fairly dominant element. If you place it too close it may be too dominant. You don’t want the viewers to lose sight of that beautiful background. Bonus: foreground elements that are even slightly further away will be easier to keep in focus along with your background.
Recent sunset on the Oregon Coast at Ecola State Park. No real foreground here, just middle-ground sea stacks.
- FOCAL LENGTH IS IMPORTANT. Since balancing elements is important in any photo, focal length matters quite a lot. If you’re at a very wide angle, say 16-20 mm. on a full-frame camera, you’ll need to get closer to the foreground subject so it doesn’t get lost. Again, how close depends on its size, but also in the way it contrasts with the rest of the scene (color for example). Exception: if you’re wanting to show a sense of scale, you may want a fairly small looking foreground subject. Live subjects (especially humans) can be smaller in the frame because we naturally lock onto them whatever their size.
Sunset beach stroll on the lovely Andamon Sea island of Tarutao, Thailand. Humans can be fairly far away and look small, and still be a kind of foreground subject for the image.
- OBSERVE OBSERVE! I’m always looking near and far when I’m out scouting locations or when the light is nice and I’m shooting. I’ll get my face up close to see what a very close composition might look like. I’m not the type to look through the viewfinder while searching for compositions. I only do that once I see something I want to shoot, in order to dial in the exact composition I want.
Thought I’d throw in one showing how I’m getting around on this little surprise trip back to the Pacific Northwest.
- COMPOSE HOLISTICALLY. If your foreground includes interesting patterns or leading lines, anything that helps the viewer to move on to the rest of the image, more the better. But I don’t think in terms of abstract patterns, only the subject (see below). So if I find a foreground subject that is interesting in some way, especially with regard to the overall environment I’m in, then I position myself to take advantage of any leading lines, layering effect, etc.
* Most landscape photographers will counsel that you look for the abstract patterns, leading lines and the like. Though they’re important to include in photos, I think that’s putting the cart before the horse. We are naturally attracted to patterns, and once you have a good amount of time behind the lens, you do this without any conscious effort. What requires conscious effort is to find subjects that mean something. And in the case of landscape photos with foreground, that means finding multiple elements (hopefully meaningful subjects) that work together well.
On California’s coast, these large cobbles in the foreground are piled atop a wave-cut bench eroded and notched by the same kinds of rocks tumbled about during storms.
- MIX IT UP. I try to capture a variety of angles on a subject or scene. If I come back from a shoot with only images with close foreground, I don’t feel I’ve succeeded, especially if the light was good. I want images with at least a couple different foreground elements, some close and some a little further away. I also like getting a few with no real foreground elements (maybe mid-ground).
I will post a follow-up that uses an example shoot to show how to make foreground just one part of your landscape images, not the whole enchilada. Have a wonderful weekend!
Day’s end on beautiful Lake Quinault, Olympic Peninsula, Washington. The cedar trees form framing foreground elements.
Beautiful light floods the Columbia River in Oregon at sunrise, and Beacon Rock (my subject) is almost lost as a result.
You hear all the time about the importance of light in photography. And most often light is combined with rich color as being one and the same thing. I believe there is a myth now being perpetuated among landscape photographers in particular. It’s that light and natural color saturation are to be sought out and “obtained” in your photos, almost to the exclusion of all else.
I’ve said quite a number of times in this blog that light is important. And it is! Quality of light, specifically how rich and soft it is, is certainly worth seeking out, for any subject or type of photography. But I think many of us have gone too far.
By the way, most of the photos in this post I’ve never posted (even on Facebook) and they don’t appear on my website. Enjoy!
A tree with light on the Oklahoma prairies. Because it’s in silhouette, the light & color behind it can be almost as fine as it wants to be.
Here are a few things about light that I think you should give some thought to:
- Light will come. This is the best thing about light on planet Earth. It is so varied, so wonderful in its ability to reinvent itself every single day, that if you’re patient, the light you wish for will come. It’s not just that, if you’re patient and persistent, you don’t need to settle for “sub-par” light. The truth is that you can shoot that “knock your socks off” light one night, and then the next night get nice, subtle light that’s more appropriate for your subject.
- Have you digested that last point? Light, though very important, should in most cases not trump subject. You can even add composition as being more important than light. Composition and subject are so tightly tied together that it’s near impossible to think of them as being separate. If you let it, light can be the subject. Then you’ve succeeded in making a photo that, while it will invariably get plenty of wows and love on the internet, is just another photo (among millions) that is about light.
Light that was just too good. I decreased saturation for this sunset along the Cimarron River in western Oklahoma, but it’s still a photo that is ‘about the light’.
- Do not shoot the light. Now I’ll admit when I see great light I go like a madman looking for something to shoot. It is part of what being a photographer is all about. Don’t fight that, it’s fun! All I’m saying is that if you regard your photography as an art form, your process should be much more about subject and composition first, then light. If you put light first you’re setting yourself up for getting away from using photography as a way to express yourself, which is the point as far as I’m concerned.
The subject in this image from Snow Canyon, Utah is lichen. The light is good but I don’t think it overwhelms the subject. This is an exception, as it appears on my website because I liche it!
- Think of light as just one more element in your photograph. You have two choices with natural light. Either make the best of what you’ve got in front of you or come back tomorrow, or the next day, or next week. If you have a favorite spot near home that you return to time and time again, and then go on a trip where you have but one chance at a given location, you know what a tyrannical master light can be. But think of it like a model who doesn’t show up one day. Give her another chance and she’ll probably show the next day.
The sunstar (aka sunburst) is probably too prominent, but at least the subtle light & color doesn’t take away from these ferric concretions eroding out of sandstone near Page, Arizona. I promise I didn’t place them, I don’t do that!
- There is such a thing as light that is too good. There is no photographer I know who will agree with that statement when I say it like that. But now, after some years of chasing light, I know it to be true. Everything depends on your subject and composition. But sometimes, the light just seems to be so good that it swamps your subject. Or, to put it another way, that stupendous light tends to overwhelm the intention of your photograph, whether you realize it at the time or not. If you’re a typical photographer who’s in love with great light, I’m guessing you’re not aware of it when it happens.
Harsh and disagreeable light was what I had here at East Zion, but a cute bighorn lamb negotiating the terrain is the story.
- As you mature as a photographer, you’ll come to desire different light for different subjects and compositions. There is no such thing as light that is perfect for everything. It all depends on what you want to do with that light. Of course it doesn’t hurt to experiment, to try unconventional light for your subject. But if you can figure that out you’re pretty far along in knowing both photography and your own style.
I do believe I’ve said all there is to say about this subject. In fact I’ve never heard anyone in photography talk about this, and I think it may be the most important of my photo-related posts. But if you know of some book or blog that talks about light this way, please enlighten me! Hope your holiday preparations are coming along nicely. Happy shooting, and use that light judiciously!
I’ll end with a shot from a sunset that I’ve never posted anything from, in Montana’s Flathead Valley. I couldn’t do anything with this light because it suffused and overwhelmed the available subjects, subtle old cabins and grasslands in probably my favorite valley in the northern Rockies.
My girl in the late afternoon sun: doesn’t get much simpler than that!
A lot of my Friday Foto Talk posts have been quite long and involved, so much so that I’ve had to split them up into parts, or installments. In keeping with the week’s topic, this one will be as short and simple as I can make it.
Many people recommend keeping your photographs as simple as possible. Pick a strong subject and exclude everything else. It’s good advice, but as usual only as far as it goes. In other words, you won’t be doing a great deal of shooting if you strictly follow that. There’s more out there than just single-subject compositions.
A young Himba woman in northern Namibia is way too beautiful to include much of her surroundings.
My approach is this:
- I look for cool stuff in places I like to be.
- I try to time it so that I’m out there shooting that cool stuff in great light.
- I frame that stuff in my viewfinder in a way that looks cool (shows it to its best advantage). The only rule I tend to follow when photographing is the rule of thirds, and there are exceptions to that. All else is situation dependent (and thus not a rule).
- Before I press the shutter I zoom (with either the lens or my feet) so as to exclude anything that seems extraneous. Sometimes I zoom in with my feet and zoom out with focal length.
- If the light is still there, I work the subject some. Most of the time this results in a picture (or three) within the picture, a composition that is narrower than the original. Usually the effect is to simplify the composition.
- Later, behind the computer, I will crop down if I change my mind about the composition. This also simplifies, but at a cost to file size.
A landscape that has its focus on the Columbia River, but also includes plenty of forest and other typical Oregon springtime vegetation.
A word about cropping. Normally I don’t crop much if at all, but that wasn’t the case when I was less experienced. You have to crop on the computer for awhile before you start cropping in camera; it’s a normal part of learning. And you don’t want to start cropping in camera because some ‘expert’ said you should, then get back in front of the computer and realize you should have included more in the frame. Take your time and let it develop naturally. Instead, just work the subject (see below).
A composition of medium complexity, and the kind of scene you’ll find while hiking above the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon, captured in everyday mid-afternoon light.
Now the question is this: what compositions end up being “better”, the wider angle more complex ones or the zoomed in simpler ones? It’s one of those loaded questions in photography, the kind you find people answering with way too much certainty. In fact, you have to answer it when you’re rating your shots. But I believe, like much else in photography, that it is purely subjective.
There’s a lot going on in this image from Death Valley, California: the compressed limestones of Rainbow Canyon in the foreground, Panamint Valley with its dunes, the Panamints and dark Grapevine Mtns. beyond.
I probably have more keepers that are simple than complex, but that doesn’t mean some of my all time favorite shots aren’t complex. Complex can be awesome! But if you have a strong subject, you should try to get a few shots where it is isolated, where anything around it is so out of focus (or vignetted) that anything outside of the subject is unrecognizable. The subject alone is the picture.
Then go ahead (quickly while the light is good!) and work it so that you get some shots with just a little bit of the subject’s surroundings, whether in soft focus or sharp. And if it seems right, and especially if the light is great, get some shots where a lot of your subject’s surroundings are included. Later you can decide which (if any) you like best.
Cactus flowers in bloom recently in the southern Utah desert.
Keyword all those different compositions, using the same search terms so they will all come up when you’re looking for something. Later on you may have a use for a shot you didn’t particularly like at first. I’ve even sold pictures this way, shots that weren’t on my website, even those that didn’t show up here on the blog.
Ooh darn, I think this may be a bit too long and complex. Oh well…Everybody have a simply fun weekend!
A bare tree holds on in a remote area of southern Laos that was bombed heavily during the Vietnam War.
The White River Valley, living up to its name, and Mt. Hood at sunrise.
I have noticed a trend in photography-related tips on the web lately. It has gotten somewhat away from the nuts and bolts of exposure, etc. and gone in two directions. One is tricks and tips to get certain looks. If you want your pictures to look like this, do this or that with filters or on the computer. The other is sort of a reaction to the plethora of similar-looking images we see on the internet. It involves composition, specifically how to compose pictures in a creative way. This second trend is more interesting and relevant than the first.
Morning sun hits fir trees on Mt. Hood, which got a late-season snowfall earlier this week.
Once you’ve got the basics of photography down – being very familiar with your camera and lenses, knowing the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed & ISO), and knowing how to control sharpness and depth of field – it’s time to learn how to make compelling images. The way I see it, great images depend on three things: Subject, light and composition. Putting yourself in front of interesting subjects is the most important, but it’s also the most subjective. One person’s fascinating subject is another’s boring one. Light I’ve blogged about before, and it is certainly important. Even so-so subjects can look good in great light. And good subjects look spectacular in great light. But even though it helps if you can put all else in your life aside to go out when the light is good, quality of light is largely outside our control.
Water flows down and disappears into a mossy carpeted hillside in Oregon.
The third key to great images, composition, is definitely within our control. A huge amount of information is available on composition: rules, reminders, do thises and don’t do thats. A lot of it is repetitive, and I’ll admit to blogging about some of these tips. But I was thinking yesterday about how I learned good composition, and how I became able to shoot creative compositions (something I’m still learning). I am very sure my way is not the only way to learn composition, but I think it is simpler than most. Most important, it leads to developing your own unique style. Nobody wants to follow along and copy the images of other photographers, at least nobody who is honest when they say that photography is an art.
The countryside outside of Portland, Oregon is where all sorts of shrubs and trees used in landscaping are grown.
My way to creative composition involves only one ‘rule’, if I can even call it that. It’s a rule you follow whenever you are around things you may want to photograph, a rule you practice whether or not you have a camera in your hands. It is practicing enthusiastic observation.
I’ll give an example from my own experience. I never learned any of the rules or methods behind good composition prior to getting into photography. Way before I got my first camera I was very interested in nature and the way people have influenced and been influenced by it. I was an enthusiastic reader. I wanted to know natural history in the same depth as those poets and writers: Thoreau, Emerson, Aldo Leopold, Stegner, Muir. I wanted to know people and the way they interacted with nature like Hemingway, Steinbeck, Ed Abbey and Annie Dillard. I looked carefully at everything I saw. I stooped down, climbed trees or got on top of rocks, walked around to see things backlit by sunlight. I drew close and almost touched things with my eye. I turned over rocks and logs.
The upper Sandy River on Mount Hood in Oregon.
When I got a camera, almost immediately I noticed that these different viewpoints yield different pictures, even though the subject was the same. Even the mood or the story of the picture was changed with viewpoint slightly shifted. I also learned that most pictures look better when you place important things off to the side somewhat, or when you don’t run the horizon straight across the middle.
Believe it or not, you can learn all the rules and methods behind good composition on your own, and you can learn them much better than reading or having someone tell you. You only need to open your eyes and really look. You need to be observant, especially during shooting but also when you view the pictures afterwards.
A church in the small town of Camas, Washington.
Being observant takes practice, and it requires a sort of relaxed focus. Your body is relaxed but your eyes are most definitely on-the-job checking out anything and everything. Your mind is both relaxed and focused. To give a non-nature/landscape example, if you’re a very astute people-watcher, you’re likely to be a good street or portrait photographer.
By the way, I have seen a lot of photographers moving around with the camera up, trying out possible pictures. And photography teachers encourage this. I think this takes away and distracts from observation, which should have priority. For me, observation comes first, then a decision to take a picture, then the camera comes up to my eye. I prefer to get the broader view and mentally zoom in and out with my eyes/brain.
The western Cascade Mountains of Oregon filters moisture out of clouds coming in from the Pacific.
When I decide to take a picture, I have in mind a general focal length. So I choose a lens (or zoom in/out) and frame the picture, making sure to look carefully at the edges and corners for “junk” that doesn’t add to the picture. Of course my approach is different if I already have in mind the picture I want from a previous visit. But I still practice observation, I expect pictures other than the one I’m going for to present themselves. Among other things, the fickle nature of light and weather conditions can change things greatly.
The second part of the rule, being enthusiastic, is what I blogged about in one of my first Friday Foto Talks. If you are curious about your subject and enthusiastic about shooting it, your images will be that much better. If you love photography enough to spend all kinds of hard-earned cash on spendy cameras, lenses, tripods, backpacks, etc., then you must really love photography, right? It means when you’re out shooting you are really into it – both the subject matter and the total immersion you get from the act of photography.
Mount Hood peeks out from low clouds on a frosty morning after overnight snowfall.
My opinion of a person who walks up to a viewpoint and plops their tripod down, waits for the light to get good, then shoots a bunch of pictures with very similar composition (perhaps with his camera taking pictures automatically every few seconds, ugh!) is that that person must not really like photography much. Why get into such an expensive hobby (or a career that is anything but lucrative) if you don’t really love it?
But if you like it, really like it, you’re going to be a bundle of energy, always trying to see what other compositions are available. You’ll move around a lot before really starting to shoot (a common tip). You’ll get low or high to change viewpoint (another common tip). You will work the subject (that’s another). You will zoom in because you’re interested in the ‘picture within the picture’ you just captured (yet another). You’ll draw ever closer, even creeping along on your belly if your subject is some furry critter (recall the quote, “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”).
Spring runoff flows down the Salmon River in Oregon.
See the trend here? There are many tips and rules that can be boiled down into one principle: enthusiastic observation. Don’t hold anything back; open your eyes wide and go for it. Put your soul into it! It’s how I learned all those things without ever picking up a book. If you combine enthusiasm with well-practiced observational skills, I really think that good, creative compositions will come naturally.
So that’s all there is to it. Get out and shoot this weekend. And have fun!
The setting sun lights up Mount Hood as it watches over the Columbia River.
Low clouds and fog fill the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon, helping to set off Vista House, subject of this recent image.
I think photographers take clouds for granted. Most of us seem to believe there is nothing special or difficult about photographing them. But most of us also seek out clouds when we are out shooting. So I think they’re worth a second (and third) thought. Whether doing landscape, outdoor portrait, street, really any photography is made more interesting with clouds. They make the light that much nicer.
Winter weather brings moody clouds in the forests of western Oregon.
I’ve been going out in bad weather lately, looking for low-clouds and fog to set the typical atmosphere of the oft-stormy Columbia River Gorge near home. It got me thinking about all the things one needs to consider when including clouds in photographs. By the way I consider fog to be simply a cloud at ground level; blame the scientist in me.
So here are a few things to keep in mind when including clouds in your compositions:
- When composing images, use cloud patterns to your advantage. For example, when clouds form lineear patterns, use them to complement the patterns in your foreground. They can help to define a vanishing point. And layered clouds can help bring out the often more subtle layering in your foreground. Also you can use clouds to help frame things, sort of like a natural vignette.
In this image from the Canyonlands area, Utah, layered clouds help to highlight the layers of color in the landscape.
- Depending on what you’re shooting, the right amount of cloudiness is key. So it’s worth trying to match the type of photography you’re doing with the clouds. Some examples follow.
- With landscape photography near sunrise or sunset, a broken, partly to mostly cloudy sky can yield amazing light. The ideal situation is when the low sun peaks underneath the clouds. The light bounces off and is refracted by the clouds on its way to your subject. This lengthens wavelengths, making light more orange or red. It also bounces that reddish light onto the landscape, and generally gives things a beautifully soft glow. You can easily be skunked too, when the sun sinks into a bank of clouds while the rest of the sky has perfectly scattered clouds. Nothing ventured nothing gained.
Light can be a little harsh & contrasty in the desert southwest. Clouds late in the day help soften things in this image near Moab, Utah.
- If you are shooting outdoor portraits, a relatively thin overcast sky can act like a giant soft-box, diffusing the light source so that it falls evenly over your subject. Of course beautiful light at golden hour can result in wonderful portraits too. But sometimes the light is just too warm on your subject and you need to adjust for that later on the computer. Overcast skies give you light that ‘gets out of the way’. Macro photography is similarly benefited when there is a continuous cloud cover.
This spring tulip has nice even light due to the overcast sky. Clouds also blessed my subject with water droplets.
- When low clouds and fog invade your scene, a scenario that’s very common at sunrise, you should not be too disappointed. Shoot the fog if it looks good, or simply wait for it to lift. Sometimes it begins to dissipate very soon after sunrise, giving you magical light and atmosphere.
Mist and fog shrouds the celebrated view of Mount Rainier from Reflection Lakes.
The images above and below were shot at Mount Rainier National Park as this was happening. Other photographers had arrived at this popular spot, only to be discouraged by the thick fog. They drove away as soon as they arrived. Meantime I was hanging around shooting the fog. When the sun started breaking through, they rushed back (I heard slamming doors up on the road). But the transition from fog to full sun was very quick and I was the only one who was able to catch it by the lake (instead of from the road). I was too busy shooting to feel smug; that came later!
The fog lifts quickly!
- When the cloud cover is heavy and there is very little chance of seeing the sun, certain types of nature and landscape subjects shine. This is a great time to shoot during the day, with none of the time pressures you feel at golden hour. Another advantage: it’s a great time to try black and white.
An angry sky in the Columbia River Gorge develops as a warm moist front moves in right after a day of snow and freezing rain.
- Low, heavy clouds can lend a moody feel similar to fog. I will often go out in the worst weather just to see if I can capture one of these moody scenes. Be selective; featureless cloudy skies do not tend to create this atmosphere as easily. Go for times of rapid weather changes instead.
Along a back-road in the Columbia River Gorge, with typical clouds and rain.
- A day with continuous cloud cover, however, is a great time to shoot in the forest. It’s similar to outdoor portrait and macro photography. The light is even, without the hot spots that plague sunny days in the trees. Since the light is usually very dim, bring a tripod. While more open landscapes lack color in these conditions, the forest’s green-dominated colors are richer and more vibrant. If it has rained recently, use a circular polarizing filter to tame reflections and make colors pop. If things are real dim and dreary, go with the mood – try black and white.
A small creek in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge rolls through a mossy forest.
- Clouds can easily be the main element in a photo. If they are interesting enough, you shouldn’t be shy about featuring them in your images. For instance when crepuscular rays invade a foggy forest (image below), a situation my friend calls “Jesus rays”, I almost always shoot so that the foreground is subtle or completely absent.
Winter is a great time to catch fog in the redwoods of northern California.
- And speaking of making clouds the focus of your shots, you can always shoot nothing but sky. This rarely makes a good image on its own, but can always be combined (composited) with other images that lack a nice sky. I can count on one hand the times I’ve done this; it’s because I really prefer capturing a single moment (and I’m painfully slow with Photoshop!). But I continue to shoot interesting skies. I place them in their own collection inside Lightroom. Who knows, there may come a day when I want to do more compositing. I try never to say never.
An early winter storm moves across the Alvord Desert in Oregon.
- When the sun is bright, contrast between the blue sky and white clouds can be pretty intense. Be careful about overexposing the clouds. A little overexposure and contrast is okay; viewers expect this in a sky like that. Programs like Lightroom do a great job of recovering highlights, so you can tame the contrast to some extent. But no software can recover highlights where exposure is completely blown out (lacking detail). Sure the sun, moon, and a few other exceptions can look natural when they’re blown out. But you should avoid it in clouds; you don’t want solid white with zero detail.
Gokyo Lake in Nepal, with that distinctive color that only glacial lakes can have.
To deal with the situation of over-exposed clouds, start by turning on your camera’s highlight warning (blinkies) so that you see on your LCD screen where you have blown out highlights. If your camera doesn’t have that feature, look at your histogram on the LCD and make sure it isn’t climbing way up the right edge. Or you can simply judge over-bright areas by eye. Bring down the exposure and re-shoot until the blinkies go away and you recover some detail in the bright portions. If doing this makes your foreground too dark, use a graduated neutral density filter to darken just the sky and leave the foreground properly exposed.
The Alvord Desert, southeastern Oregon. I used a graduated neutral density filter for this high-contrast scene.
- The opposite can happen too. You can underexpose your sky, especially when you have dark, brooding clouds. Though you can, as above with highlights, recover shadow details later on the computer, it’s not ideal to do this. You can end up increasing noise. It’s better to capture dark clouds either perfectly exposed or somewhat brighter. You can always darken them on the computer later. This is much better than brightening.
So let’s take an example. Say it’s a few hours before sunset and the sky is looking interesting, with broken or layered clouds. You have some decisions to make. Of course, as mentioned, you can go to the trouble: burn gas and time…only to be clouded out. Or you could luck out and get a spectacular show! It’s a gamble that will, sadly, not usually pan out. But it’s worth taking that chance. After all, it’s the only way you’ll get shots with truly amazing light!
- So you wisely decide to go for it. Now there are more decisions. For starters, where to shoot? If you think the sky will be really awesome, consider water, snow, or some other reflective surface. Water can reflect those beautiful clouds. Who doesn’t like double the beauty?
The Lamar River Valley in Yellowstone National Park is a peaceful place at dusk.
- If Mother Nature plays a trick on you and clouds thicken, graying out the sunset, don’t despair. Wait for a bit. I have seen gray, boring sunsets turn into truly technicolor skies after sundown. It doesn’t happen frequently, but on occasion our home star performs a final encore after it’s passed below the horizon. The atmosphere has a wonderful way of bending the light (it’s how mirages are formed). Patience and hopeful realism, along with a headlamp to get back to your car, is all you need. The same thing can happen before sunrise, so try to get there early in case the sunrise itself is dull.
The Grand Tetons in Wyoming appear to have caught fire just after an autumn sunset.
- Lastly, Mother Nature can also play the opposite trick, clearing the clouds out before golden hour. Stick with it. Though clouds are in many ways preferable, remember that a rainy and cloudy stretch has a way of cleaning the atmosphere. When it clears, it’s a great time to shoot pictures with far-away elements. For example, distant mountain and desert vistas are beautifully clear and pristine in fresh-scrubbed air. And if you are using a telephoto lens to capture wildlife, recently cleared air helps get the detail you want in your subjects.
The Colorado Rockies!
As always, these images are copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission. If you are interested in purchase options for any of them, just click on the picture. Please contact me if you can’t find what you want or have any questions or special requests. Thanks for reading and have a great weekend!
Clouds gift a colorful sunset the other day at Crown Point in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge.
The ranch country of southwestern Colorado in late autumn.
This is a more subtle and difficult aspect of photography, a topic I’ve thought about off and on ever since I picked up a camera. Until now I’ve avoided writing about it. It’s one of those things you sort of feel when you see a picture. It can be subtle, and perhaps you don’t notice when it’s missing. But every image that has a sense of place is better for it, often much better.
I’m very subject-centered when it comes to photography. I really only care about the subject. It sometimes seems I only care about light, but that’s because any subject looks better in beautiful light. While a lot of photographers look for a subject (like a person or interesting tree) to put into a scene, for me it’s mostly about the scene itself. That’s because every scene is a place, and I think of places as subjects. Any interesting things – people, animals, rocks or trees – that I can include in the scene are there because they make the place more interesting to look at. For me, they’re smaller elements of the larger subject, the place. But if they don’t really belong there, I don’t really like the picture.
Courthouse Towers in Arches National Park, Utah speaks strongly of the American Southwest.
Okay, so now that you know my biases on the topic, let’s see what we can do about laying out ways to insert a sense of place into your images. By the way, even if you’re mostly a people photographer, or you do wildlife, these tips apply to you, maybe even more so than to landscape photographers. And if you do travel photography, this is important stuff!
- Learn as much as you can about the place: the plants, animals, human and prehistory. Of course you’re going to know more about areas close to home, but don’t get complacent. We’ve all been surprised to learn something we didn’t know about our home-towns or states. Use that knowledge in your photography. The more you know, the better your pictures will be, so when traveling don’t just research places to photograph. Start with the background information and let photo spots fall out from that.
- Study the pictures in magazines like National Geographic. The editors at Nat. Geo. nearly always choose images with a strong sense of place.
This shot of a farmstead in Nepal has a stronger sense of place by virtue of the high Himalayan mountain in the background.
- Photograph during “typical” weather conditions. For example, I live in the Pacific Northwest. This area is most famous for its rain and tall trees. I know (more than many residents) how diverse it is here, with glaciers, deserts and canyons, sunny grasslands. But when I can, and at least in western Oregon and Washington, I do landscape photography during rainy spells. If you avoid the stormy weather here, you are not going to capture images with the strongest sense of place.
The rugged coast along the northern Olympic Peninsula in Washington is often wrapped in fog.
- When you have a strong subject, by all means zoom in. But also make images with a hint of background, perhaps out of focus. Include shots that are dominated by landscape, with the subject much smaller. Try putting the subject in the background with a ‘typical’ foreground. In other words, mix it up and shoot at a variety of focal lengths and apertures. When you view the pictures later, ask yourself which one has the best balance between impact/interest and a sense of place.
This house in Leadville, Colorado, registered as a historic landmark, is better placed with the foreground picket fence.
- Speaking of strong subjects, when you’re looking for subjects to target, think about how strongly they will place themselves. In other words, photographing waterfalls here in the Pacific Northwest is a no-brainer in terms of sense of place, even if a bit obvious. Some things like lighthouses could be on any coastline. So be on the lookout for elements that will zero in on the specific area.
A very recent image of Latourell Falls in the Columbia River Gorge was captured during typical Oregon weather.
Several subtle elements come together here to place this shot. Look at the plant growth, the unique house, and take a guess where it is in a comment below.
- Move around. This is good general practice, but when combined with an open-minded focus, this can really open up compositions that add a sense of place. Sometimes I’m not even aware of it, but the desire to shoot a composition that is unusual or different will often yield a picture with a strong sense of place.
- While you’re moving around, try shots with very wide angles, focal lengths shorter than 17 mm. Even consider getting a fisheye lens. When combined with getting very close to things, this will help to put viewers into the image, which is part of giving them a sense of place.
- Look for compositions that include the little things that will tell viewers where the place is. This shouldn’t be subtle. People might not know as much about the place as you do, and so need fairly obvious elements to place it. For example, Spanish moss in the deep south, ferns here in the Pacific Northwest, red rocks in the Southwest, eucalyptus trees in Australia and baobabs or mopane trees in Africa.
The ferns and big trees give this image a strong sense of place, and many viewers would recognize the trees as redwoods, greatly narrowing things down.
- Include shots with plenty of depth. I wrote a blog post with tips on adding a sense of depth to your images, so check that out. Anytime your images have the illusion of depth, the viewer is drawn into the image as if they were there. By itself this doesn’t do much for your goal of including a sense of place, but in combination with the other things, it can be powerful.
- Shoot details and small scenes. This allows you to focus on one aspect of a place. It’s a great way to zero in on small elements that help to place the image, things that might get lost if they were part of a larger composition.
The adobe construction is apparent in this image of a historic home in Taos, New Mexico.
- Also do the opposite of the above. Step back and show the surroundings. Sometimes you can be too close, or inside of a place, which robs the viewer of the ability to see its overall setting. Sometimes this is called the “establishment shot”. It establishes the setting.
The mountain town of Ouray, Colorado is closely surrounded by the spectacular San Juan Mountains.
- Don’t forget a good caption. I did a recent post on captions. Although your photo should do most of the work of giving the viewer a sense of place, why not include a good subject-centered, educational caption to fill things out?
- Don’t turn up your nose at shooting the occasional sign, if they’re interesting and can be used to place photos in a slide show.
Crossing into a remote part of Colorado on a lonely road.
- Including some human elements in landscape photographs can help to give them a sense of place. For example, a rail fence says ranch country; when combined with quaking aspens, the impression of a rural Rocky Mountain setting is strong.
Sometimes the residents of an area have done the work for you. Shooting public art like this mural in Taos, New Mexico can add to your image the sense of place felt by the artist. The adobe construction also helps place it.
Colorado in fall means the quaking aspen are in golden leaf.
- One caveat: Beware the cliche! There is a balance between not being too subtle and overdoing things. This is most common with travel photography. If you’re including something like the Eiffel Tower, make it a small part of the scene, or somehow get a fresh take on it. Don’t avoid shooting something like the Taj Mahal straight on, especially in beautiful light. Just move around and try different compositions and perspectives.
Prayer flags in the Himalaya are not hard to find, so they have become super-abundant in pictures. But they still insert a strong sense of place into an image. Just don’t overuse them!
- When it comes time to process your images on the computer, pay close attention to the mood you create. Often it’s useful to try the image in black and white to see if it strengthens its sense of place. The idea of place is tied to that of time, so if you think having an ‘old-timey’ look will help, then go for it! Whatever you do, don’t treat all images in a similar way (such as high contrast and saturated colors). This is from someone who was guilty of that for a time.
Lake Crescent on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula has the kind of low-key atmosphere that harkens back to the old days of summer vacation, a mood enhanced by sepia and film grain.
An image with a strong sense of place can make the viewer a part of the scene, which of course strengthens your images and makes people want to look at them. And it’s not just travel photography that benefits; all sorts of pictures are made better with a sense of place. Have a great weekend and happy shooting!
Road to Nowhere: This image is actually one of my favorite images from the desert southwest. I know many wouldn’t agree, but you tell me. Despite the lack of any obvious identifying features, does it have a strong sense of place?
An image from Arches National Park in Utah profiles the park’s typical ‘fins’ of orange sandstone.