In the Moment:
Michael Frye's Landscape Photography Blog

Weekly Photo Critique: “Chino Hills SP 1” by Robert Bruns

"Chino Hills SP 1" by Robert Bruns
“Chino Hills SP 1” by Robert Bruns

This week’s photograph was made by Robert Bruns in Chino Hills State Park, California. What initially attracted me to this image was its strong composition. It’s simple and clean, with a prominent focal point—the central trees. It’s full of diagonal lines and triangles: a large, long triangle in the lower-right corner, another in the middle left, a small one behind the trees, more within the trees themselves, and subtle triangles in the negative space of the sky in the upper-left and upper-right corners. It’s very well seen.

I could go on here about another successful violation of the rule of thirds, but I’ll just refer you to previous critiques here and here.

Last week I discussed the conflict that photographers often face between finding a strong composition and conveying a sense of place. Robert managed to walk that line pretty well here—the design is exemplary, and we get a feeling for the kind of area this is, with its dry, grassy hills. Robert said that this area had burned the previous year, and “It was nice to see it coming back to life.”

Technically this is well executed—the exposure looks perfect, and everything appears to be in focus. The white balance looks neutral, but I might prefer something a bit warmer. More contrast would also liven up the image a bit. Here’s a modified version with both warmer color balance and added contrast, plus lightened a bit overall:

Modified version with warmer color balance, more contrast, and lightenedLightened version with warmer color balance and more contrast

Despite the strong composition, and the changes I made, this image still seems to be missing something. I enjoy contemplating the design, but it’s not the kind of photograph that makes you stand up and say “Wow!” Yet it’s hard to find ways to improve it. One issue is the subject. A strong design can sometimes overcome an ordinary subject, and nearly did here, but not enough to completely captivate me. The other problem is the light—it’s rather bland. Some warm, low-angle sunlight would be perfect. I think low frontlight would be best, but sidelight or backlight might also work.

Of course you can’t always catch perfect light, but I suspect that Robert lives close to this spot, since not many out-of-state visitors put Chino Hills on their itinerary. And while Chino Hills may not be Yosemite, any natural place—heck any place, period—has its charms. And proximity is a great advantage—you can return repeatedly, learn where some of the best locations and subjects are, get to know the weather patterns, and plan to come back to certain spots when the light and weather are right.

I think we all make better photographs of places and subjects that we know well, and that we’re passionate about. Sometimes I hear people say that it’s easy to take good pictures in Yosemite: ”Just point the camera anywhere.” But if you’ve tried to make good photographs of this park you know how untrue that statement is. It can be very difficult to convey the beauty and grandeur of such a place in a photograph. If I’ve had any success at it, it’s because I know Yosemite well, and I’m passionate about it.

The New Jersey shore might seem like a far cry from Yosemite. But one of my online students last year showed many beautiful images of that coastline. They had great color, and a wonderful feeling of space and light. He knew the area well, loved it, and it showed.

Another student once showed me a portfolio of landscape photographs. They seemed rather ordinary. Then, almost as an afterthought, he showed photographs of his kids—and they were great. This was clearly a subject that he was passionate about.

So photograph places and subjects that you know and love. Your passion and knowledge will make the mundane seem magical. And it helps if you can work close to home, and visit your subjects again and again.

Thanks Robert for sharing your image! You can see more of his work on Flickr.

I’ll be taking next week off to teach a workshop, but will post another critique on May 11th or 12th.

As part of being chosen for this week’s critique Robert will receive a free 16×20 matted print courtesy of the folks at Aspen Creek Photo. If you’d like your images considered for future critiques, just upload them to the Flickr group I created for this purpose. If you’re not a Flickr member yet, joining is free and easy. You’ll have to read and accept the rules for the group before adding images, and please, no more than five photos per person per week. I’ll be posting the next critique on May 11th or 12th. Thanks for participating!


Dogwoods, New Leaves, and Waterfalls

Backlit dogwood blossoms
Backlit dogwood blossoms


New green leaves are just starting to appear on the deciduous trees in Yosemite Valley, and by this weekend there should be a lot of fresh green color everywhere. Most of the dogwoods have sprouted the little green discs that are precursors to the full while blossoms. If the weather had stayed warm I would have said that this weekend would be good for dogwood photography, but the cooler, wetter pattern that’s set in this week may slow that down, and most dogwoods probably won’t be in full bloom until sometime next week or the following weekend (May 8th and 9th).

Warm sunshine this past weekend pushed the water level in the falls and Merced River way up. The flat rock that I referred to on my other blog was almost completely submerged on Monday morning, and the “kick” at the top of Upper Yosemite Falls was mostly buried. But again the current cooler weather pattern will cause the waters to recede a bit until the next warm spell.


Tips for Photographing Lunar Rainbows

Half Dome and Upper Yosemite Fall with a lunar rainbow
Half Dome and Upper Yosemite Fall with a lunar rainbow


In Friday’s post on my other blog I described some of my experiences attempting to photograph lunar rainbows, but here are some tips for capturing your own moonbow images.

The moon will become full at 5:19 Wednesday morning, so Tuesday night will provide the brightest moonlight, and the best chance to photograph a lunar rainbow this month—if the weather cooperates. Unfortunately the forecast calls for rain. If the predictions are faulty, and some moonlight manages to break through the clouds, cool temperatures will probably limit the amount of spray on Upper Yosemite Fall, so Lower Yosemite Fall may work better. For the upper fall, you might be better off waiting for the next full moon on May 27th. For detailed information on times and places to photograph lunar rainbows in Yosemite, see Don Olson’s site.

For those who aspire to capture lunar rainbows, here are some tips.


Any digital SLR will work, but full-frame sensors usually produce less noise and work better for the long exposures required at night. A sturdy tripod is essential, plus a locking cable release or electronic release. You’ll want a good flashlight or headlamp, a watch to time long exposures, and a cloth for wiping spray off the lens if you’re at the lower fall. Long exposures drain batteries quickly, so make sure your camera battery is fully charged—and your spare too.

Focus and Depth of Field

To make exposure times reasonably short, you’ll have to keep your aperture wide open, or close to it. That means you won’t get much depth of field, so try to exclude foregrounds from your compositions. This shallow depth of field makes focusing critical. It’s obviously difficult to focus manually in the dark, and autofocus won’t work either. In the past I’d just manually set the lens at infinity, but many lenses now focus past infinity, making the correct focusing point difficult to determine. The solution is to find something distant that’s bright enough to focus on, like the moon itself, car headlights, or perhaps a bright light that you place far away. Then focus on that bright spot, using either manual or autofocus. The most precise method is probably focusing manually during a zoomed-in look in live view. Once you’ve set the focus, turn autofocus off and don’t touch the focusing ring—leave the lens set at this distance for all your images. You might even tape the focusing ring so it doesn’t move. (more…)

Weekly Photo Critique: “Rock Creek—Beautiful Stream” by Steve Williams

"Rock Creek—Beautiful Stream" by Steve Williams
“Rock Creek—Beautiful Stream” by Steve Williams


I’m pleased to announce that, beginning this week, each person who’s image is selected for a critique will receive a free 16×20 matted print courtesy of the folks at Aspen Creek Photo. Aspen Creek was created by Rich and Susan Seiling, the founders of West Coast Imaging. I’ve used West Coast Imaging for all my drum scans, and know they set high standards and produce great results. Aspen Creek Photo offers excellent prints, similar in many ways to the high-end work produced at West Coast Imaging, at very affordable prices.

Now, on to the critique… This week’s photograph was made by Steve Williams along Rock Creek, on the eastern slope of my home mountain range, the Sierra Nevada. The small cascade is an intriguing subject, and the slow shutter speed (1/2 second) that Steve chose works well, giving the water that silky, flowing look, and creating a contrast in textures betweensmooth, ethereal water and solid rocks and grasses. There’s a nice, quiet, intimate feeling to the image; it seems like a peaceful place that I would enjoy spending time at.

A small aperture, f/20, kept everything in focus. At first glance the exposure seemed a bit dark to me, and the white balance looked too blue—the white water, or what should be white water, has a distinct blue cast. Using the eyedropper tool in Lightroom, I clicked on the white water, and that made an immediate improvement. The photograph seems warmer, the colors livelier, and the scene more inviting. This color temperature change also boosted the red and green channels, making the image appear brighter as well as warmer. The exposure now looks perfect.

After the white balance was adjusted with the eyedropper in Lightroom
After the white balance was adjusted with the eyedropper in Lightroom


How you handle white balance (or color temperature, or color balance) depends, to a great degree, on whether you’re shooting Raw or JPEG. With Raw the white balance isn’t set in the camera, so it’s easy to adjust later in software. I always shoot in Raw, and usually just leave the camera set to automatic white balance, because it’s a simple matter to make corrections later in Lightroom with the eyedropper or color temperature slider. If the color balance might be tricky, as when photographing flowers or fall foliage at dusk, I include a white or gray card in one of the frames, then click on that card with the Eyedropper later in Lightroom and apply that same white balance setting to the other images made in the same light.

With JPEGs the white balance is set in the camera. While you can adjust it later in software, big changes can be problematic, so it becomes more critical to get it right in the field. You’ll need to set the white balance manually more often.

When you do need to adjust the white balance of a JPEG in software, it’s much easier to do so in Lightroom or Camera Raw, using that Eyedropper tool and the Color Temperature slider, than in Photoshop proper. (To open JPEGs in Camera Raw, select the image in Bridge, then choose File > Open in Camera Raw.)

First crop, eliminating distracting elements along the bottom and left edges
First crop, eliminating distracting elements along the bottom and left edges


Changing the white balance in this photograph made a big improvement, but the composition still seemed a bit messy. Edges are always critical, and there are a number of objects here that are half-in, half-out of the frame, including the tips of two branches on the left edge, a rock just above them, and a rock along the bottom edge. The lower-right corner also seems a bit cluttered.

With that in mind I cropped this into a vertical, including just the cascade and the far bank. This was better, but it still seemed like there was something missing. When in doubt I ask myself what catches my eye the most. In this case the answer was easy: the flowing water. So I made several other, tighter crops, picking out interesting sections of the small rapid.

While Steve’s original composition is not exactly a wide, sweeping landscape, it does capture enough of the scene to give us some sense of place—a quiet, grass-lined creek. While I think my tighter crops are stronger designs, they lose some of that feeling and sense of place. This points to a dilemma that photographers often confront. We may prefer to capture a wider view, one that shows what an area looks like. Sometimes we can do so and make a clean, strong composition in the process, but often that wide view includes extraneous clutter. If we pick out a detail, a small piece of that scene, we can often make a strong design out of it, but then lose the context and sense of place.

Second crop
Second crop


So what do you do? Capture both. Take the wide view, but then keep looking, and find those interesting details.

When evaluating the images later, you’ll probably find the abstract close-ups more compelling. In photography, design always trumps subject. There’s something about interesting lines, shapes, and patterns that catches our attention and intrigues us as viewers. A photograph needs an incredibly compelling subject—like an exploding volcano, or a wolf dragging down a caribou—to overcome poor design.

Third crop


One more thing: By making these crops I’m trying to show alternate compositions, things that might have worked better than the original image, and trying to give you ideas for finding better compositions in the field. But I don’t mean to suggest that it’s okay to be sloppy, to capture a wide view with the intention of cropping later. Removing large sections of an image throws away too many of those megapixels you’ve paid so much for, leaving you with a low-resolution image that can’t be enlarged. While minor trimming is fine, it’s always better to frame the scene as precisely as possible in the camera, and keep as much of that precious resolution as possible.

Fourth crop

Fourth crop

Thanks Steve for sharing your image! You can see more of his work on Flickr.

As part of being chosen for this week’s critique Steve will receive a free 16×20 matted print courtesy of the folks at Aspen Creek Photo. If you’d like your images considered for future critiques, just upload them to the Flickr group I created for this purpose. If you’re not a Flickr member yet, joining is free and easy. You’ll have to read and accept the rules for the group before adding images, and please, no more than five photos per person per week. I’ll be posting the next critique on April 27th or 28th. Thanks for participating!


Spring Progression

Redbud and oaks, spring 2007Redbud and oaks, spring 2007

The redbud in the Merced River Canyon are a bit past peak, with many starting to leaf out, but at least half are still in prime condition, so good photographs of them can still be made for at least the next few days. Meanwhile in Yosemite Valley the deciduous trees have buds but no new leaves. The April snowstorms have delayed the appearance of the vivid green leaves of the cottonwoods, alders, maples, and oaks. I expect we might see that green around the end of the month. The dogwoods will probably also be late; while they typically start blooming around the end of April, they might blossom a week or two later this year.