After 15 years in the photography business and supporting a wife and two girls with this gig, I think I have enough mileage to answer a question I’m often asked – How do I make my photography better? I’m also asked at least a few times each month if I offer guided trips or lessons, but I currently just don’t have time. My two young daughters keep that from happening! And fortunately, I sell enough through vendors and designers and private clients so that I don’t have to go to shows or run workshops just yet. Working with folks and helping them improve something they love to do will be fun when I have more time. Going to sell my work at art fairs – not so much.
So here are the things I look for – in no particular order…
Be Creative… Yes, there are certain locations that have been photographed a zillion times. And for good reason – the particular view is usually stunning. But remember to look around – high and low and at different angles, different foreground, etc. and see if you can put your own spin on it. So instead of being a copycat like a few photographers are, be creative and challenge yourself to see things differently. Sometimes you can’t find different vantage points, and that’s ok; However, sometimes you can. And the light will always be different from hour to hour, day to day and season to season.
Follow the Lines… Leading lines are integral in my photography. In the deserts of Big Bend and Palo Duro, I look for lines in the rock that lead to something important in the image. I nearly always try to have these lines start at a perfect corner. I also use roads, rivers, and lakes to create lines leading to a central point.Notice the path in Caprock Canyons S.P. below that leads to the main focus.
Clouds change from white to pink to darker hues over Caprock Canyons State Park on a cool October evening. This view comes from the beginning of the Upper South Prong Trail.
Look up… I believe skies are important. They compliment an image, and partly cloudy or sunrise/sunset skies nearly always take the photograph from a good to great shot, especially when you have reflections across still water. If you see my website, I rarely have an image that does not have clouds of some sort. In those images with no clouds, I’ll often have a moon or even the Milky Way (for nighttime photography).Below is one of the best skies and reflections I’ve ever seen – taken at sunrise along the Pedernales River.
Reflections of clouds beneath a magnificent sunrise highlight this image from the Texas Hill Country. The sun had a nice glow on the horizon, and the pool along the Pedernales River in front of my was clear and calm. Only the fish and me were awake on this perfect September morning. It was a nice way to start the day!
About those Clouds… I normally shoot towards the sun before sunrise. After the sun has appeared over the horizon, and if I I’m not done shooting for the morning, I’ll shoot away from the sun (with the sun at my back). Unless I’m going for some retro, artistic look (which is not my style), I avoid shooting in the direction of the sun from post-sunrise to mid-day. Otherwise, the clouds will be overexposed and washed out, and the foreground will lose its crispness and color. This goes back to my original cloud-point… The sky needs to be worthy of the image.I think the sunset enhanced this photograph of a hay bale and took it to the next level.
Under an amazing Texas sky, bales of hay are ready for the winter harvest. It was a bit windy on this evening, but the colors left me no choice but to wander out in this grassy field and capture the fleeting sunset.
Don’t Look too Far… I need an alluring foreground to anchor the shot. To me, the foreground is like a bee to a flower. If I’m a bee, the flower needs to draw me closer and lead me into the scene much like a leading line. This attention-grabber could be a wildflower, cactus, river, road, interesting rocks, or anything else in the “front” of the image. And it needs to be in focus, but I’m thinking the focus part is a given.The flowers in the foreground here are striking (to me) and immediately capture my attention.
A red patch of Indian paintbrush highlights this wildflower photograph taken near New Berlin, Texas. The sunrise was amazing on this morning, painting the sky in red and orange strokes. On the ground, a thin layer of frost covered the delicate petals of red, yellow, and purple as pre-dawn temperatures dropped into the low 30s. It was cold out there, but the landscape was covered with soft colors all the way to the tree line.
This wildflower photograph was taken on private land with permission from the owner.
Divide into Thirds… I imagine you’ve heard of the “rule of thirds” if you are exploring photography. When you look at magazines or advertisements, notice how many images – even everyday stuff like cars, houses, shoes, and so on appear in a “thirds” format. You may notice a trend. Most fancy cameras allow for the screen to show a grid divided into 9 squares (3 rows, 3 columns) to help your composition. For whatever reason, the rule of thirds appeals to us humans as more pleasing to the eye. Maybe a psychologist can explain the whys of that, but it works! Can you see the way the cactus and sunset appear in different thirds of the image below?
A sunburst signals the last light of day over a field of Indian blankets (also known as firewheels). A prickly pear cactus shows off its blooms and adds a nice contast to the reds and oranges. This simple scene was found along a rural road in the Hill Country.
Don’t forget to Turn Around… This may go with the “Be Creative Portion” of this blog, but there have been several times I’ve turned around when shooting, especially on a trail, only to notice a better composition behind me rather than in front of me. You just never know.
Take a lot of photographs… By taking a lot of photos (I prefer in RAW format), you’ll accomplish two things: 1) You’ll have more to work with. Sometimes I’ll take a certain photograph as an afterthought. Only after looking at it later I’ll realize I like it better than many others. 2) You’ll practice more and figure out what you like and what you don’t like after studying your files back at home.
That’s it for now. I could write volumes about this subject and what I’ve learned over the years. Maybe I will someday! In the meantime, get out there and take some photographs!
Safe Travels, Friends, and be kind to others.
Images from Texas