This photograph is from October of 1995 – deep in the archives.
Most of my photographic ideas arise spontaneously, as I react to the light, weather, and my surroundings. But sometimes an idea pops into my head at home, or while driving, or, especially, while falling asleep.
The idea for this footprint image was one of those occasions when an idea just popped into my head, though I don’t remember exactly where or when. I had been experimenting with light painting at dusk and at night, using flash and flashlights, and somewhere during that time I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to show a line of footprints on a sand dune, and use a flashlight to make the prints glow?”
Dogwood and giant sequoia in the fog, Sierra Nevada, California. Fog is a wonderful complement to forest scenes; here, some ephemeral fog lasted just long enough for me to capture this image. 70mm, polarizer, 0.7 seconds at f/16, ISO 100.
People seem to love trees and forests. I know I do.
But forests can be difficult to photograph. Natural forests are usually a study in chaos, with haphazard arrangements of branches, trunks, logs, and leaves. There’s an organic order to all that, with trees and understory plants growing to take advantage of small patches of sunlight, and a cycle of birth, growth, death, and decay.
But visual order can be hard to find amid all that clutter. The chief challenge in photographing forests is usually finding a way to simplify things, and make order out of chaos.
The Out of Chicago Live online photo conference last month was so much fun. I think everyone who participated relished the opportunity to focus their attention on photography for a few days, rather than on the coronavirus. And the lineup of speakers and presentations was outstanding. I got to see some of the presentations live, but there were many, many others that I missed, so I’ve been catching up by watching the recordings of the sessions.
And you can do that too, even if you didn’t attend the conference as it was happening. Every session was recorded, so you can enroll in the conference after the fact and see them all – over 100 sessions, including presentations, tutorials, panel discussions, and image reviews. You can find more information, including a complete list of every session, here:
I made this photograph in March of 2004, with a 6-megapixel Canon 10D. That was my first digital camera, purchased only about nine months earlier, in the summer of 2003. The low resolution made this camera unsuitable for “serious” work, so for about two years I carried around both the Canon 10D and my Mamiya 645 film camera. I used the Canon for snapshots, and, when time allowed, to capture digital versions of my film images, so that I only had to scan the film captures when I really needed the extra resolution (like when making prints, or sending files to publishers).
I quickly learned to love digital capture. It was just so much easier: I could see the results right away, use the histogram to check the exposure, and magnify the image to see if everything was in focus. When photographing moving water I didn’t need to guess about the right shutter speed because I could try several, see the effects immediately, and dial in the shutter speed that best suited the situation. I found that the digital camera invited experimentation and creativity, because I didn’t have to pay for film and processing, and could see and refine the results of an experiment in the field. And, as if all that wasn’t enough, the dynamic range far exceeded transparency film, so the resulting images looked less harsh and more luminous. Resolution aside, when I compared images from my Mamiya and my Canon, I almost always preferred the ones from the Canon.
Redbud above a rapid in the Merced River, California
My mother grew up in the Panama Canal Zone, in the hills above Panama City, running and playing all year in the tropical weather, watching sloths in the trees outside her bedroom window, shaking her shoes out each morning to make sure there were no scorpions inside.
When she was 13 years old her family moved to Queens, New York, but later, in the early years of her marriage, she and my father migrated to the outer suburbs, and once again she was surrounded by nature. She would often point out beautiful things she noticed to my brothers and me: the first buds of spring, a sunset, ice-coated branches, a bird singing, autumn leaves starting to turn…
Spring colors, Mariposa County, California. 78mm; seven focus-stacked frames blended with Helicon Focus; each frame was 1/8 sec. at f/16, ISO 250.
I hope you’re all staying safe and not going too stir-crazy. I’m sure, like most of us, you’re anxious to be able to get out and photograph again. In the meantime, here are some thoughts about an often-overlooked aspect of composition that I hope will help you the next time you pick up your camera…
Balance doesn’t get talked about much, but it’s a vital aspect of composition. While looking for compositions I’m always thinking about balance – so much so that it’s become an unconscious act. I intuitively reject any composition that would feel unbalanced, and I’m often making subtle shifts in my camera position or framing to improve the balance of a photograph.
Sun rising over a field of lupines, Redwood NP, California. The focal length was 16mm, and the closest objects to the camera were the flowers at the very bottom of the frame, about two feet from the lens. I used my hyperfocal-distance shortcut to find the optimum focus distance, by doubling the distance from the closest object and focusing at four feet. Then I stopped to down to f/16 to get enough depth of field to make both the foreground and background sharp. 16mm, three bracketed exposures at f/16, ISO 100, blended with Lightroom’s HDR Merge.
In this recent post I talked about the importance of having a solid, well-practiced field routine, so that you don’t forget important steps, and you’ll be less likely to panic when the light gets interesting.
One of the steps in my routine, focusing, deserves a little more attention, so I’m going to cover that step in more detail here.
The instructors and topics include all genres of photography, but the lineup of landscape-photography instructors is really outstanding, with people like Alan Ross, Charlotte Gibb, William Neill, Ian Plant, Erin Babnik, David Kingham, Colleen Miniuk, John Barklay, Gavin Hardcastle, Michael Shainblum, Nick Page, Jennifer King, Patricia Davidson, Tim Cooper, Jack Curran, Thomas Heaton, Sean Bagshaw, Joshua Cripps, Matt Payne, Sarah Marino, Royce Bair, Alex Noriega, Jay Patel, Adam Gibbs, Colby Brown, and Alister Benn. Quite a list!
I’ll be giving an expanded version of the presentation I gave for the Out of Yosemite conference in February, called Capturing a Mood. I’ll also be presenting a Lightroom tutorial about using the Range Mask, and participating in a panel discussion called Landscape Composition Secrets of the Pros, along with Charlotte Gibb, Ian Plant, and Adam Gibbs.
Sunbeams from Tunnel View, spring, Yosemite. Having a solid, well-practiced field routine helps me to calmly capture fleeting moments of light like this. 40mm, three auto-bracketed bracketed exposures at f/11, ISO 100.
Do you have a consistent field routine? Do you go through the same steps, in the same order, every time you take a photograph?
If you said no, you’re in good company. Most photographers I work with don’t have a solid, consistent field routine.
But I think having this routine is vital. Without one, you’re likely to forget important steps, like setting the right f-stop, or checking sharpness (and then kick yourself later when you realize your mistake). And when a rainbow suddenly appears over Yosemite Valley, or sunbeams break through the fog in a redwood forest, having a solid, consistent routine that you’ve practiced over and over will help you avoid panicking. You can just go through your normal routine and concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other, knowing that you won’t forget an important step.
Late-afternoon light in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Most of the photographs I made this afternoon didn’t include a foreground. But I saw this rock outcrop, and kept it in mind for the right opportunity. That opportunity came when the sun slid underneath the clouds and highlighted the jagged forms of the outcrop. 16mm, 1/20th sec. at f/16, ISO 400.
Our winter got off to a wet start in late November and early December, but then fizzled. We hardly got any precipitation during most of December, January, and February – traditionally the wettest months of the year in California, when we get the bulk of our annual rainfall.
That pattern changed a bit in March, with a few good storms to help replenish the previously-anemic Sierra snowpack. And one of our largest storms since last spring is moving into California right now, with forecasters predicting three to four feet of snow above 7,000 feet. Our precipitation for the water year (October 1st through September 30th) will still be below average, but these early-spring storms should, at least, leave us with a decent snowpack for this time of year, with closer-to-normal runoff in our rivers and creeks over the next couple of months, and a more typical summer in the high country.
I’ve been using Lightroom since Adobe released the beta version in 2006. Over the years I’ve learned many shortcuts, and in this video I share some of my favorite tips – things I use all the time to streamline my workflow:
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