Vision and Creativity


Sea stacks, late afternoon, northern California coast, USA

Sea stacks, late afternoon, northern California coast

Learning photography is often a process of figuring out what works and what doesn’t. As beginners we usually learn what doesn’t work from our own images, and what does work from looking at photographs and photographers we admire. And that leads to a natural tendency to try to recreate the images and styles of others.

As we spend more time behind the camera we build up our own repertoire of ideas that work – for us. And naturally, when faced with decisions about where to go, or what light to look for, or what lens to use, we gravitate toward places, compositions, lighting situations, and techniques that we’ve used successfully before.


Storm Clouds Over Mono Lake

Convey a Mood

Storm clouds over Mono Lake, CA, USA. 50mm, 20 seconds at f/8, ISO 100, ten-stop ND filter.

Claudia and I spent many days in Lee Vining over the last month-and-a-half. We’ve done three night photography workshops there, and the iPhone workshop Robert Eckhardt taught for us at Bodie.

Before one of our night workshops Charlotte Gibb and I headed to a favorite Mono Lake viewpoint, hoping for a photogenic sunset. When we first arrived we found some dramatic storm clouds and virga over the lake (virga is rain that doesn’t reach the ground). Later the sun broke through, soft of, off in the distance, and we even saw a faint rainbow. I photographed it all, but my favorite images were the early ones of those dramatic clouds. That wasn’t what I was expecting or hoping for, but it’s what I got, and I really liked the mood that sky created.


The Camera in Your Pocket

Carmel Mission, Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA, USA

Carmel Mission, Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. Even when a church or museum allows photography (as was the case here), a smartphone camera is less obtrusive than a big SLR.

Last month Claudia and I went to Carmel to assist our good friend Robert Eckhardt’s iPhone photography workshop. Robert is a highly creative photographer, a great instructor, and knows more about iPhone photography than anyone I’ve ever met. This is the second time we’ve done this workshop, and both editions have been really fun. Everyone (including me) learned a lot, and we had a great time photographing around Carmel and processing the images right on our phones.

Participating in this workshop made me reflect on how much smartphone photography has progressed in just a few years. Smartphone cameras have gone from novelty items to highly-capable devices, and a plethora of apps allow you to do just about anything imaginable to the photographs you take on your phone. (And some things that you would never imagine until someone makes an app for it.)


Editing Your Work

Reflections along the Merced River, winter, Yosemite NP, CA, USAReflections along the Merced River, winter, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Reflections along the Merced River, winter, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

It’s become a tradition on this blog to ask my readers to help pick my best images of the year, so on January 1st I’ll be posting the nominees for 2016 and asking all of you to vote for your favorites. It’s always fun to see what people pick!

Last year readers voted this snow scene into the top ten. It actually got the fifth-most votes, which was a pleasant surprise for an intimate landscape like this. (You can see last year’s nominees here, and the top ten here.)


Intimate Landscapes with Wide-Angle Lenses

Autumn forest with dogwoods and ferns, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Autumn forest with dogwoods and ferns, Yosemite, October 13th. I stood on a log to see over the foreground dogwoods and into the forest; the focal length was 35mm.

I’ve made many images of intimate landscapes over the years, and the vast majority of them were taken with a telephoto lens (usually my 70-200mm zoom). It makes sense to use a lens with a narrower angle of view when focusing on a small piece of the landscape and trying to eliminate clutter in complex forest scenes. Telephoto lenses are also great for compressing space and emphasizing patterns – typically key components of intimate landscapes.

But lately I’ve found myself using wide-angle lenses more and more for smaller scenes. Part of the impetus for this was just buying a new lens. This past July I purchased a new wide-angle zoom (the Sony Vario-Tessar FE 16-35mm f/4 ZA OSS), and it’s natural to want to use and test a new piece of equipment, so I started pulling this lens out in many situations just to see what it could do. But another part of the impetus was just the desire to do something different. I’ve had plenty of practice composing intimate landscapes with telephoto lenses, and I wanted to force myself to look at these scenes in a new way.


Aspen Kaleidoscope

Aspen-covered hillside, Bishop Creek Canyon, Inyo NF, CA, USA

Aspen-covered hillside, Bishop Creek Canyon

During our recent trip to the eastern Sierra I hiked up a trail I’d never been on before. I hoped the trail might lead to view overlooking a hillside full of aspens. It didn’t – at least not directly. I had to leave the trail and work my way out on some rock outcrops, where I did finally reach a spot with a view of that aspen-covered hillside, and made the photograph above.

I was pretty happy with that image; I liked the curving line of bare trunks, and the way the clumps of pines in the lower-right and upper-left corners played off each other. But my eyes kept getting pulled to some aspens next to the rock outcrop. The leaves on these trees displayed a wonderful kaleidoscope of hues – yellow, orange, red, green, even a bit of maroon. I realized that these aspens right in front of me had at least as much photographic potential as the ones on the distant hillside.