Photo Critique Series: “Another Lousy Sunset” by Ken Hornbrook

"Another Lousy Sunset" by Ken Hornbrook

“Another Lousy Sunset” by Ken Hornbrook

The critique is finally here—thanks for your patience!


This week’s photograph was made by Ken Hornbrook at Bandon Beach along the Oregon coast. There’s some wonderful sunset color in the sky, plus blue and orange reflections in the water, creating great color contrasts throughout much of the frame. Any photographer standing at this beach that evening would be excited about the possibilities. But what do you do with that light, that color?


Ken found a great camera position to take advantage of the colorful sunset and interesting shapes of the rocks. It looks like he moved into a small cove or gap between cliffs or sea stacks. This created a nice window, with dark shapes on the sides framing the view of the stacks beyond. The curving, colorful V-shape of the water in the foreground leads our eyes smoothly from bottom to top. It even has a bit of an S-curve. I’ve pointed out problems with foregrounds in previous critiques, but I think this one really works, and adds a lot to the photograph.


Photo Critique Series: “Badwater Lake” by Grant Kaye

“Badwater Lake” by Grant Kaye

“Badwater Lake” by Grant Kaye

This week’s photograph was made by Grant Kaye at Badwater in Death Valley National Park, California. The water in this place may be bad to drink, but it’s good for photography. It’s always interesting to see water in the desert, and this spot often has great reflections, especially with clouds at sunrise or sunset, like the ones Grant captured in this image. It’s easy to see why Badwater attracts lenses.


With reflection images, horizon placement is a key decision. It’s usually better to avoid putting the horizon across the middle of the frame, as this cuts the photograph in half, and often creates the feeling of two different photographs stuck together. (I pointed out this problem in another recent critique.)

But there are exceptions to any rule. With reflections, putting the horizon in the middle emphasizes the symmetry between the elements above the horizon and their reflections below, and can be an effective way of expressing calm and serenity, or simply creating repetition and a unified composition. Placing the horizon above or below the center can also work: pointing the camera down emphasizes the reflection; pointing the camera up emphasizes the actual objects above the water.

In this photograph Grant chose put the horizon above center and highlight the foreground and the reflection. I often like this approach, as reflections have richer color than the real objects they’re reflecting. Here this arrangement also accentuates the converging lines of the clouds—they all seem to point to a spot behind the peaks in the center of the image. Overall the composition is simple and direct, with a strong radiating design.


Photo Critique Series: “Ptarmigan Lake” by Chris Alexander

"Ptarmigan Lake" by Chris Alexander

“Ptarmigan Lake” by Chris Alexander


This week’s photograph was made by Chris Alexander in Glacier National Park, Montana. That’s the second time recently that I’ve critiqued a photo from this park. Obviously—and no surprise to anyone who’s been there—a beautiful place!

This composition works very well. The bottom two-thirds of the photograph has sweeping, repeating, U-shaped curves that help tie everything together and frame the background peaks. The lake and mountains provide focal points: my eyes work in a triangle around the frame, going from the lake to the prominent peak on the right, over to the peaks on the left, then back to the lake, sometimes detouring around the lower basin to look at the snow patches and trail. The overall design is simple and strong.

If I could quibble with something, it would be the bright spots along the edges that tend to draw my eyes out of the frame, including the snow patch in the lower-left corner, another snow patch near the upper-right corner, and of course the sky.


Photo Critique Series: “Juniper and Monolith” by Jeremy Long


This week’s photograph was made by Jeremy Long in Joshua Tree National Park, California. The image is an interesting study

"Juniper and Monolith" by Jeremy Long

of both composition and light. Of course it’s impossible to separate the two, as one always affects the other, but when analyzing a photograph it helps to consider each aspect on its own.

Warm, early-morning sunlight rakes across the scene from right to left, highlighting the rock obelisk and making it look three-dimensional. Most of the foreground juniper remains in the shade; a rock formation probably blocked the sun from hitting the tree. Initially I thought it might be better to see sunlight striking the juniper as well, but the shade sets up a nice contrast with the lighter background, focusing attention on the shape of the tree rather than it’s color and texture, and that emphasis on shape works well here.

The clouds add a nice touch. While I wouldn’t call this spectacular light, it’s very good, and perfectly appropriate for the subject.


The main feature of this photograph is the juxtaposition between the arching tree and the rock obelisk. The fact that this idea comes through so clearly demonstrates how well Jeremy composed the image. The design is clean and simple, and the main elements stand out clearly, with little extraneous clutter.

There are only two small things I can nitpick about the composition. First, I’d like to see a little more breathing room between the top of the rock and the juniper. Although they don’t actually merge, they come close, and putting a bit more space between these two elements would help the main idea stand out more clearly, and make the whole photograph feel more balanced. Just lowering the camera position a few inches would have accomplished this.

Second, the two main elements are in the center and left of center, with mostly empty space to the right. Perhaps Jeremy was trying to show more of the clouds, but to me those clouds, while nice, don’t carry the same weight as the rock and tree, and the image would feel more balanced if the camera were pointed slightly more to the left.

Technical Considerations

Jeremy captured this image with a Nikon D700 and 14-24 mm lens at 24 mm. The shutter speed was 1/10 sec. at f/22 and 200 ISO.

That small aperture helped keep everything in focus, and the photograph looks quite sharp. The exposure also looks perfect, with detail in the clouds and all but the darkest shadows. The overall contrast looks about right.

This kind of situation presents a difficult white balance problem.  If you watched my first white balance video you’ll remember that I usually recommend color temperatures around 5000K to 5500K—daylight—for images with sunlight, like this one. Setting a higher color temperature makes an image more amber or yellow, which enhances warm tones in objects lit by low-angle sunlight, like the rocks in this photograph. But warming the image also adds yellow to the blue sky, and blue and yellow are opposites. Push the color temperature high enough and the sky will turn gray. Raising it even a little will make the sky muddy.

Jeremy told me that he set the color temperature to 6686K. This warm color balance made the rocks look great, but the blue sky has lost some of its vibrance. So I took this image into Photoshop and used a Selective Color adjustment layer to subtract yellow from just the blues. This helped purify the sky color and restore some of it’s natural brilliance. I also subtracted cyan from the yellows, making the rock obelisk a bit warmer. The differences are subtle, so I’ve included a side-by-side comparison.

Left: the original image; Right: modified with Photoshop's Selective Color toolLeft: the original image; Right: modified with Photoshop’s Selective Color tool 

In my next, and last, video on white balance I’ll explain exactly how to use Photoshop’s Selective Color tool to get rich, warm tones on the landscape while keeping vivid blues in the sky.


This photograph has good light, a clean, simple composition, and is technically well executed. Overall it’s very well done.

What I’d say to Jeremy, and to anyone else who can compose and execute a photograph this well, is to try and take the next step, and make photographs that capture a mood, or somehow convey the feeling of what it was like to stand in a particular place at a particular time. The juxtaposition of the rock and tree in this photograph is interesting and eye-catching, but not particularly moving. And I know Jeremy is capable of capturing a great mood—here’s one example.

Your Comments

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this photograph. Do you agree that there should be more space between the tree and rock? What do you think about the sky color?

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

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As part of being chosen for this week’s critique Jeremy 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 in two weeks. Thanks for participating!


Photo Critique Series: “Rabbitbrush and Storm” by David Thomas

"Storm and Rabbitbrush" by David Thomas“Rabbitbrush and Storm” by David Thomas

First, my new eBook, Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, will actually be released tonight at 1:00 a.m. PST, not today as I said previously. I’ll have more details in my next post tomorrow morning.

On to the critique…

This week’s photograph was made by David Thomas near Bishop, California, on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada.


David said that he and his dad were driving north on Highway 395 when he noticed a storm gathering over the Sierra crest beyond this dense field of rabbitbrush, “perfectly arranged, waiting to be composed.” The clouds, falling rain, and patch of blue sky provide a dramatic background, and the yellow flowers add an eye-catching foreground. There’s actually not much sun in the scene, but that works well here, especially on the rabbitbrush, where sunlight would have created harsh shadows and visual confusion. The soft light brings out the yellow color of the bushes and helps simplify the scene. The combination of blue sky and yellow flowers creates a nice warm-cool color contrast.


Photo Critique Series: “Wild Goose Overlook” by Travis Villa

"Wild Goose Overlook" by Travis Villa

“Wild Goose Overlook” by Travis Villa

Composition and Light

This week’s photograph was made by Travis Villa in Glacier National Park, Montana. Travis wrote on Flickr, “This is one of the most spectacular sunrises I have ever seen, complemented by an already beautiful location. I felt very grateful to have a good balance (not too many or too few) of clouds in the sky that morning.”

Indeed it is a spectacular scene. Wish I had been there! The color and light are dramatic; I especially like the clouds over the pointed peak on the right half of the frame. (I’m sure someone knows the name of the peak.)