I was recently asked to help judge a photography exhibition. Some of the work was spectacular, full of emotion and life. Others, not so much. So what makes a good image? I’ve been asked this question many times, and this recent experience gave me pause to think about the topic a little more in-depth. So I figured I’d share my thoughts on the subject and solicit other opinions as well. And for this exercise, I’m primarily referring to landscape and skyline photography.
I think the technical aspects of an image are important:
– correct exposure: no underexposed darks or blown highlights unless intentional
– correct or intended focus and sharpness…. This can include a range in depth of field from a single focal point to a sharpness from the foreground to the far distance.
After the basics, the composition should be considered:
– the subject of the image should be obvious, whether a single object such as a bluebonnet or a vast Texas landscape like the Chisos Mountains.
– leading lines… This is very important for me. I like line, angles, curves, and anything that leads the eye to guide me to the subject. I also want those lines and angles, whenever possible, to intersect with the corners of the image exactly. These lines could be composed of roads, water, buildings, rocks, and anything that allows the eye to flow.
Within the composition of an image, I look for elements that make up a scene.
– first, unless I’m going for a minimalist approach, a sky with good, if not dramatic clouds, is a must. I shoot mostly at sunrise or sunset and always hope for pleasing colors, but even a nice blue sky with high wispy clouds can be pretty nice and can complement a nice foreground, often making an average image much stronger. I also always know when and where the moon will appear. Often, the appearance of our moon can enhance an otherwise dull sky.
– foreground element(s)… When I photograph a field of bluebonnets, I really like to have a few of the flowers up close to show the detail. For this, I’ll often shoot several images for varying depth from front to back and blend them together on photoshop. Other foreground elements could include rock formations, trees, logs, and even silhouetted people.
– background elements… In most cases, I want a sharpness throughout the scene, especially for those vast Texas landscapes. I want folks to see what I saw and feel the wonder of the scene.
When all of these factors are taken into account, you have potential for a strong image. That being said, the most important aspect of a photograph is the impact it has on the viewer. Does it capture your attention? Does it make you pause or think “wow.” Does it tell a story? It can be technically perfect, but if the image leaves the viewer void of emotion, it loses its impact.
In my recent experience of judging photographs, I saw several images that showed superior planning and execution, but came away feeling nothing. Conversely, some of my highest scoring images had minor technical or compositional issues, but left me gazing longer, wanting to know more about the story being presented. Emotional appeal – or impact – makes or breaks an image.
I like to think I practice what I write. And I know some of my images come up short. But many times what I think are average photographs turn out to be best sellers. The images I like the most barely get a second glance. So no matter what anyone says, if you enjoy photography, keep on shooting. Unless you are utterly daft at the point and shoot, you’re sure to appeal to someone!
I’ve been asked several times where my favorite places are to photograph the Texas landscapes. Folks also want to know my secret places. So what follows are my thoughts on those most preferred locales, in no particular order.
Caddo Lake is a sprawling swampland created by the New Madrid earthquake of 1812. This shallow lake is home to the largest cypress forest in the world. Draped in moody Spanish moss, these giant trees brood over the lake like watchmen. A boat is a must-have for this area. The ability to skirt through small channels and cross wide areas of water only three feet deep opens up a plethora of opportunities. Sure, I guess you could try wading, and I’m sure the resident alligators would like that, too!
The Gulf Coast
I love the coast, especially the harbors. Yes, the beaches are nice, but I enjoy photographing the life the fishing boats bring at dawn as the chug in with their nightly catch. I follow the seagulls around and try to include their activity in unison with the shrimp boats arrival. My favorite little harbor is the Rockport-Fulton boat docks. If you can catch a colorful sunrise with no wind, you’ll be in coastal photography nirvana.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
An hour from the nearby town of Van Horn, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is remote and rugged. It’s iconic mountain is El Capitan, though El Cap rests in the shadow of the tallest point in Texas, Guadalupe Peak. Rising from the Chihuahuan Desert, El Capitan has served as a landmark for travelers for hundreds of years. If you have the time or motivation, hit the trail and make the easy hike up to the summit of Guadalupe Peak. Other trails await, as well, hold canyon,s, lost maple groves, and even sand dunes.
Big Bend National Park
Even more remote than the Guadalupe Mountains, Big Bend rises from the desert and might be my favorite Texas landscape to capture. This national park offers just about everything – springtime bluebonnets, slot canyons, hidden rock formations, a beautiful river, and a diversity of climates ranging from desert Eco systems to lofty, high altitude forests. Big Bend is also known as the dark sky capitol of the country. If you are willing to stay out late or rise early, the Milky Way is yours to both enjoy and photograph. Another appealing aspect of this park, at least to me, is the lack of tourists. I’ve photographed this heart of this park, the Chisos Mountains, from the desert floor with a tripod in the middle of the road and not seen another person for my entire time there. I’ve also been on a dirt road shooting the landscape with rivers of bluebonnets in the foreground for hours. Over several hours, I never saw another soul.
Texas Hill Country State Parks
I could lump these last two areas into one topic, but the are vastly different. I’m fortunate to live in the Texas Hill Country with easy access to several state parks. each has its own unique personality. Enchanted Rock offers a short climb to its well known granite slab. But most tourists don’t have a chance to explore other parts of the park. Moss Lake, just behind the dome, can yield wonderful reflections at sunrise and sunset. From nearby Turkey Peak you’ll have great views of the distant rolling hills. And in May and June you’ll find the prickly pear cacti’s colorful blooms of red, orange, and gold.
Along with Enchanted Rock, Lost Maples State Park blazes with reds and gold each fall, but also has great hiking trails open all year.
Closest to home is Pedernales Falls State Park. The river, canyons, and cypress allow me to always find something new to explore and photograph. Even with varying rises and drops in the river’s level, new compositions and angles continuously emerge.
Texas Hill Country Wildflowers
There is no shortage of information for springtime in the Texas Hill Country. In years when the rainy weather has been generous, especially in April and May, the roadsides and fields come alive with bluebonnets, firewheels, coreopsis, and dozens of other wildflowers. The best locations vary according to local rainfall amounts, as does the best time of month to witness the wildflower explosion, but a few of my favorite areas are the off-the-beaten paths and county roads near Fredericksburg, Mason, and Llano.
If you’ve read this far, thanks! Feel free to peruse my Texas galleries.
If you have questions, don’t hesitate to contact me. I’ll help if I can.
Far from my home in the Texas Hill Country, there is a swamp full of cypress trees, snakes, and alligators. I’d never visited Caddo Lake in the east Texas wetlands until last week, when I had the opportunity to photograph the area. A few friends who are part time residents in a tiny town called Uncertain offered a room and their services as a boat operator/tour guide. After several months of talking about it, I finally had the time to make the 6 hour drive and hang out for a few days.
East Texas, and certainly the area around Caddo Lake and Caddo Lake State Park, offer quite a different lifestyle than does the hill country. It seems everyone either owns a boat or has access to a boat. I think there is a church at least every half-mile of highway, and most residents have a rocking chair somewhere in the front yard or on the front porch. From this vantage point, they smile, wave and watch the world go by.
Besides the uniqueness of Caddo Lake, I also saw or experienced a few things for the first time. I saw a car towing (with a rope) a motorcycle. A guy was riding and steering the motorcycle. Both were pulled over by a police car. I tried fried alligator for the first time. I saw wolf spiders bigger than my hand, and I navigated through swarms of mosquitoes so thick I had to cover my mouth for fear of ingesting them.
Still, the trip was amazing. The cypress forest that sprawls across the 25,000 acres of swamp makes up the largest cypress forest in the world. The trees dripped with Spanish moss, often times resembling a fairy tale scene. On the boat, we weaved in and out of narrow passageways, through cypress and around stumps, (with me) always hoping to see an alligator. Alas, the only alligator I saw was battered and deep fried. I also kept an eye out for Bigfoot, but never saw one. (Several hundred Bigfoot sightings have been reported in this area since 1965 according to the Bigfoot Research Organization). One section of the bayou was called the Cathedral, where the 90-feet high cypress trees leaned in across small back-alley of water. The way through this section was dark and mysterious.
On one evening, the sunset was simply beautiful, and I had the good fortune of using a friend’s duck blind to stabilize the tripod to capture the waning light of day.
I should note here that photographing this area proved challenging. I tend to shoot 99% of my photographs using a tripod. However, you don’t have this luxury around the lake because there is no land. Shooting from a boat in low light is difficult if you want to produce high resolution images that lend themselves to large prints. You really have to crank up the ISO (I had to put it on 1000 several times) just to obtain a fast enough shutter speed to have a chance to produce a sharp image. Many times, there was still too much movement in the boat. I do have plans to return and I’ll have a different strategy! One option is shooting from the fishing pier at Caddo Lake State Park. This little wooden dock offers good views for both sunrise and sunset, but not much in the way of unique perspectives. Still, it is a start.
I enjoyed my time here, and I do look forward to returning soon. Before that, though, I have a few other places and adventures planned. In the meantime, enjoy the rain, Texas!
The month of May brought torrential rains to most of Texas, including my little area of the Lone Star State here in the Hill Country. The lakes are rising, but the devastating effects of flooding could be found in many towns nearby, including Wimberley and Blanco. One of my favorite places to get away for a few hours of sunrise photography, Pedernales Falls State Park, was even closed because of the downpours and flash floods.
This past weekend, I was finally able to access the park again. I headed out in the early morning when it was still dark outside. A line of thunderstorms was far northwest of me – probably Mason and Llano – but moving this way. Usually it is a 30 minute drive from my house to the parking area at Pedernales Falls. But because some low water crossings were still closed, the drive took closer to 45 minutes. On the way over, I actually turned around several times thinking the trip would not be productive – that the thunderstorms would be over me before I could make it to the river for even a short time. Most times, I’m normally not so indecisive, but I wanted this trip to be productive. I was having to quickly decide if I wanted to turn around and head to downtown Austin and wait for the lightening storm or continue to the park. Finally, with time running out, I figured I was close enough, and I headed the last few miles to the river. If you’ve been there, you know access to the main area of Pedernales Falls (where the cascading falls flow) is a 5 minute walk down a dirt path to an overlook, then a stone stairway to the river basin.
I passed this area in the dark, went around a sign, and spent the next hour photographing some amazing light combined with a river as high as I’d ever seen it. And from where I set my tripod, I could tell only days before the water would have been over my head.
I enjoyed sunrise, captured several images and angles later to be stitched into panoramas, and with the storm clouds quickly approaching, headed back to my car. As I climbed the stairs, I looked back at the sign I had passed in the dark. It said “Trail Closed Beyond this Point.” Uh Oh. I couldn’t read that in the dark because I did not have my flashlight on. I figured it warned about no swimming. So I apologize to any state parks folks. I was careful!
Nevertheless, the hour spent here photographing the fast and furious flow of Pedernales Falls State Park was appreciated, and the sunrise light filtering through crazy clouds put on a beautiful pink, orange and blue display. I’m already looking forward to returning again soon.
Be safe out there, and pay attention to the warming signs!