What Makes Good Landscape Photography?

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.

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Pedernales River June Sunset 1 : Prints Available

One of my favorite stretches of river in Pedernales Falls State Park is this small cascade. If rains have fallen recently, the river creates some small and beautiful falls that glide over the limestone rock. This image from the Texas Hill Country is a composite of several photographs. One image was a long exposure using a heavy filter to create the ribbon-like qualities in the flowing river. The other exposures helped control the differences in the light of sunset. All were blended together to create this small moment of a peaceful summer evening.

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.

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Wildflowers at the End of the Storm 1 : Prints Available

Between Llano and Mason in the Texas hill country, storm clouds move to the east as the sun sets in the west over this lone Oak tree and a field of mixed wildflowers, including bluebonnets, coreopsis, and paintbrush.

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!

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Favorite Texas Photography Locations

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
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!

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Reflections of Caddo Lake 1 : Prints Available

Scenes like this abound at Caddo Lake in east Texas. When the winds are calm, the reflections of cypress in the brackish water appear as if a mirror was resting on the water’s surface. I chose this particular composition because of the added splash of color mixed in with the cypress and spanish moss.

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.

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Rockport Harbor Sunrise 11 : Prints Available

After almost giving up on any color from the skies on this morning the clouds suddenly lit up in reds and oranges. The little harbor between Rockport and Fulton, Texas, along the gulf coast turned shades of morning. While the colors were beautiful, they only lingered for a few minutes.

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.

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El Capitan Sunrise 5 – Guadalupe Mts : Prints Available

El Capitain is probably west Texas’ most well known peak. It is the 8th tallest summit in Texas at 8,085 feet and rests in the shadow of the highest point, Guadalupe Peak. From the road that cuts around this Texas national park, you can pick up a trail that leads you up to this point. Eventually, the path connects with the El Capitan Trail and affords wonderful views of this rugged landscape.

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.

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Big Bend – Bluebonnets and a Rainbow : Prints Available

After a storm over the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park, a rainbow appeared in the east as clouds still loomed over the western landscape. Bluebonnets and other Texas wildflowers were thankful for the water, and I was thankful for such a beautiful scene.

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.

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Enchanted Rock Prickly Pear Evening 1 : Prints Available

Enchanted Rock State Park offers many great sights, but in the summer when the prickly pear are blooming, the blooms can really glow with bright colors. Though technically not a Texas wildflower, I still include these flowers in this gallery because it seems the best place for them!

Along with Enchanted Rock, Lost Maples State Park blazes with reds and gold each fall, but also has great hiking trails open all year.

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Lost Maples State Park – November Stroll : Prints Available

November colors come to Lost Maples State Park, a small refuge for an ancient colony of Red Maples trees. Each Autumn, the colors light up the trails and make for wonderful strolling in the cold, clean air.

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.

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April Sunrise 1 – Pedernales Falls : Prints Available

I didn’t think I’d get much light this morning, but for a few brief moments a portion of the sky over the Texas Hill Country and Pedernales Falls State Park lit up in pinks and reds. This little park close to my house is where I go when I need a respite from the world.

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.

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Texas Reds – Wildflowers at Sunset 1 : Prints Available

The last sunlight of day streams across a lonely field of Texas wildflowers – this time red firewheels. On a stretch of dirt road north of Llano in the Hill Country, scenes like this were everywhere in May. The hard part was picking a location for the moment of sunset.

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.

Bayous and Cypress of Caddo Lake

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.

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Uncertain, Texas : Prints Available

Uncertain, Texas, is a small town on the shores of Caddo Lake. The economy is based mostly on tourism – hunting, fishing, and boating. The days are humid, quiet, and life is good.

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.

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Caddo Lake – the Cathedral 1 : Prints Available

On a stretch of bayou on Caddo Lake, cypress trees rise high and arch over the murky water below. This area of east Texas wonder is called ‘the Cathedral’ and welcomes visitors – almost always in boats – with a long tunnel of trees. The scenery is breathtaking and mysterious, and the drift through this section of the lake is not soon forgotten. On a stretch of bayou on Caddo Lake, cypress trees rise high and arch over the murky water below. This area of east Texas wonder is called ‘the Cathedral’ and welcomes visitors – almost always in boats – with a long tunnel of trees. The scenery is breathtaking and mysterious, and the drift through this section of the lake is not soon forgotten.

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.

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Caddo Lake Sunset 3 : Prints Available

The colors of fading sunlight emblazened the sky over Caddo Lake in a palette of orange and blue and gold. The day had been mostly overcast, but when a few breaks in the clouds appeared just before sunset, a friend and I headed out on the lake and found a place to stabilize a tripod and capture this amazing end of the 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.

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Caddo Lake State Park Black and Whtie 1 : Prints Available

Cypress trees draped in spanish moss rest along the shores of Caddo Lake. This image, taken at Caddo Lake State Park, captures the reflections of these stately trees in the calm waters at sunset.

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!

Happy Travels

~ Rob

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Texas Floods and Pedernales Falls State Park

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.

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Flood on the Pedernales River 7 : Prints Available

The Pedernales River Runs high and strong after a month of rains in May of 2015. Seen here from the overlook at Pedernales Falls State Park early in the morning, the usually calm and meandering river is overflowing its banks.

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.

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Flood on the Pedernales River 2 : Prints Available

The usually tranquil Pedernales River nearly stretched from one cliff to the other even after several days of no rain. In the weeks prior to this photograph being taken, rains flooded the Texas Hill County leaving much of the landscape devastated, a sharp contrast to the beauty of a sunrise on a quiet May morning.

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Flood at Pedernales Falls Panorama 2 : Prints Available

Floods rolled through the Pedernales River Valley and across the Texas Hill Country after torrential rains fell for weeks. This panorama comes from Pedernales Falls State Park at sunrise several days after the river crested at historic levels.

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!


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