My first trip to Zion National Park – June 2019

Springdale UT

Zion National Park – June 2019

I’ve always wanted to visit Zion National park for both the hiking and photographic opportunities. It’s one of the most visited national parks so crowds have kept me away. I finally decided to go in early June 2019 and crowds were reasonable, especially early morning. The hiking was some of the most strenuous I’ve had in a while. As a result, my photography was mostly limited to my iPhone as I wanted to keep my pack light. While Im not super pleased with my images I feel I got enough to remember the trip. Looking forward to returning in the coming years, especially in the fall.  If you decide to visit, I highly recommend reviewing Joe’s Guide to Zion. His tips were really useful both for hikes and photography. Enjoy the Images!


Zion National Park – June 2019

Yosemite – June 2018


Yosemite Valley 2018

I had the opportunity to spend a week in Yosemite Valley in early June. I’ve been wanting to visit Yosemite for many years after watching a number of documentaries on John Muir and his work to preserve and protect this amazing space.

While the weather conditions were good, they were almost too good. As you can see nearly zero clouds which unfortunately make for uninteresting sky in landscape photos. All that said I feel very fortunate given the nasty fires that have plagued California this summer. The fires forced closures in Yosemite valley for over a week in August, so Im thankful for my early June visit.

My favorite image is the 1st one taken at Tunnel View lookout at sunrise. I used a small aperture and slight underexposure to get both the starburst on the left and to draw out the morning shadows. Not a terribly original composition as this is probably one of if not the most photographed places in Yosemite, but I like it the more I look at it.

My next favorite is the shot of upper and lower Yosemite falls taken from up at Glacier Point at a height of nearly a mile above the valley floor. If you look closely you can see a number of hang gliders crossing the valley. There just happened to be about a dozen hang gliders taking off from Glacier Point that morning so I was able to get some nice shots of them.  I highly recommend visiting Yosemite if you get the chance. Im sure I’ll return one day.


Smartphone or DSLR Photography?

One thing that cannot be argued is that Smartphones, and in particular the iPhone, have changed not only the technology and social landscape but has completely transformed the digital camera marketplace. So I’m often asked by friends and family, do I even need a camera or is my smartphone good enough? A few of my thoughts below….

As I approach my 50th birthday I’ve seen a lot of changes in photography. My 1st photography experience was with a film camera (Canon A-1) in high school back in the 1980s. It was in this class I learned how the camera worked, developing film in a darkroom, building a pinhole camera and much more. I picked up my 1st digital camera in 1999….Canon PowerShot s10 with a whopping 2.1 megapixels!

Image credit to Check them out!

Through the 2000’s I upgraded cameras every few years through the Canon D series DSLR line eventually making the switch to the 5d full frame digital line ending up at my current Canon 5d mark iv.   But it was in 2007 when the 1st iPhone released that everything changed. Apple decided that the camera shouldn’t be an afterthought on a phone as it was on most flip phones of the day, it was treated as a 1st class citizen. And with each new release, the camera, lens and software got better and better and people took more and more pictures. All this time the camera manufactures just viewed a smartphone as a toy and not really competition in their business.  Fast forward to today and with few exceptions, most modern smartphones are completely capable of replacing a fixed lens point and shoot digital camera, like the Canon PowerShot cameras I used to own.  There is almost no reason for anyone with a smartphone to invest in an entry-level point and shoot camera. This is evidenced by the rapid decline in the sale and production of these entry level types of cameras.

In addition to the smartphone, one thing I’ve observed is young people have no nostalgia for the old ways of taking photos the way I learned back in the 80’s with a complex camera with switches and dials and archaic terms like F-Stop and ISO!   They want fast, touch screen, convenient, internet and social media connected devices to take photos.  And they aren’t alone. More images are taken with smartphones than any other device by a longshot. Why?  Quite simply virtually everyone has a smartphone and it’s always with them. It is expected that by 2020 nearly 2.9 Billion people will own a smartphone (* This growth in smartphone ownership, combined with ubiquitous internet access and free or low-cost cloud storage, has allowed everyone to photograph everything they see. With the power of these devices…why wouldn’t you capture every cool thing you see in the world around you.

So, does this mean the death of the DSLR camera as we know it? Not necessarily. Should a young person or someone just getting into photography even bother with buying a DSLR or learning all the terms and techniques of DSLR photography? My short answer is it depends. If you are happy with the quality of images you are getting from your smartphone….don’t change. A good smartphone is expensive enough without investing in a DSLR, lenses etc. It’s a very expensive hobby getting into DSLR photography. I can attest to the thousands I’ve spent on cameras, lenses, photo software and mountains of accessories.

If you are still reading on, it means you may have found a photography limitation in your smartphone. Maybe you want to go pro, shoot professional portraits, weddings, product photography, sports/action photography, fine art photography, astrophotography or one of the many other types of photography.  Or maybe you just have a passion for photography and feel you’ll get your best images with a DSLR. All great reasons to consider a DSLR.

Going pro. If you plan to become a paid professional photographer you will quickly find a smartphone just won’t cut it. The reason I state this is that when someone is paying you for your images, the stakes are higher.  Quality images matter. Printing images or at least having high-resolution digital images that have been painstakingly edited are very important to buyers. There is a big difference between posting a 2 mb jpeg image from your iPhone on Instagram that will viewed in a little screen vs a 30mb professional image that will be printed on a 30x 60 canvas or used in a national advertising campaign. The imperfections and limitations of small file format jpeg smartphone images come to light when compared to what you can do with a DSLR. Most new photographers or those who didn’t come up in the era of digital cameras are likely unaware of those differences until they delve deeper into the craft of photography.  The image quality that comes from small files/low megapixel smartphones, just can’t match modern DSLR cameras (some in the 20-50 Megapixel range). Also DSLRs have a wide variety of high quality lenses that can’t currently be matched by smartphones.  That said, there may come a day when smartphones are advanced enough to replace a DSLR…but I think it will take some time.  For now the tool of choice for pro photographers is a DSLR or a Mirrorless Interchangeable lens camera. I won’t got into the details of each of these…see some of my prior blog posts on equipment.

All that said, Smartphones are not without merit. When it comes to practicing your craft and taking great images, you can still practice core concepts in photography using a smartphone (Subject, light, exposure, background, edges).  For example, just today I challenged myself to go out and take a solid landscape image with my iPhone 6s Plus. So at lunch I hiked out into the forest preserve next to my house and found this interesting isolated set of trees contrasting nicely with the overcast sky and layered color of the tall grasses. I took 4 shots of these trees adjusting my composition, moving in closer, removing distractions, centering and decided this was the best of the four. I shot this in RAW format on the iPhone with a program called ProCam. I did some slight color and contrast adjustments in Lightroom CC and a 16×9 crop.  I’ll let you judge if it’s a good landscape image. My point being, if you want to practice photography, I absolutely think you can do it with a smartphone.  Now would I print this on a large canvas? Not likely…it has a lot of noise in the image and not nearly the detail I know I could get with my 5d mark iv on a tripod, but still not bad quality for a post to the web.


Apps!  One of the most compelling thing about smartphones is Apps.  There are a ton of photography apps and photo editing apps for smartphones. Some are quite good, some not so much. Apps are a unique advantage for Smartphones over DSLRs as they allow you to edit your images right on your smartphone and post them within seconds. While camera manufacturers are getting better in this area…they are way behind in ease of use of their editing apps and even the software in the DSLR cameras themselves…although Mirrorless cameras are a bit more advanced in this area.

Image editing workflow. Most pro photographers who shoot with DSLRs go through a painstaking process of downloading images to a computer, importing them into an editing program (Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom) then doing all sorts of edits, then exporting them, posting them to their website, social media, and for the best shots, printing them. Paying customers have different expectations. If someone is paying you for high quality images, the investment in the above workflow and larger image size may be the price to pay to get the quality you need to be a pro photographer. You just need to decide if you want to take that leap, and invest in all there is to learn about DSLR camera and photo techniques.

All of this “workflow” may be overwhelming for beginner photographers…it seems like overkill to most young people I talk to, and I completely understand why they see it this way. The digital workflow of a smartphone is so much faster and efficient. With the above image I chose to download to Lightroom cc and edit on a PC, but I just as easily could have done this on my phone with Lightroom mobile. 

So if you aren’t ready to move to a DSLR, can’t afford it or both, I say keep practicing with your smartphone. Just know that much of the photography advice you’ll find on the web will be biased towards DSLR photography. I think this is slowly changing but just be aware of that bias as you look for advice in online photography groups and websites. Many photographers make the unspoken assumption that if you are into photography that you have a DSLR. I personally don’t follow that edict. I love anyone’s passion for photography regardless of the tool they are using to capture their images.

I’ll wrap with a few recommendations :

  • YouTube- There are many great resources on YouTube to learn about photography. While I haven’t found a great channel dedicated to “smartphone photography” if you search on the term you will find tons of postings. One in particular I thought was fascinating was a competition two pro photographers who run the web site did a few months back. They both took compelling studio model portrait images using only an iPhone and studio lighting. Their results were quite impressive….shared in their Fstoppers YouTube channel.
  • Apps: There are hundreds of photo apps for smartphones…my best advice here is to explore in the app store for your particular smartphone. A few apps I use regularly are Snapseed, Prisma, ProCam, Microsoft Pix. I also use a number of complementary Adobe mobile apps that are companions to their PC desktop editing software such as Lightroom CC,  Photoshop Express..but there are many more.
  • If you do look to other photographers for critiques of your images in online forums such as FaceBook photography groups,  it’s a good idea to let them know you are shooting with a smartphone. I also recommend you provide as much setting detail for the image as you can. All image files taprocamken with digital cameras (smartphone or dslr) include metadata in the file that tell the shutter speed, ISO, F-stop, camera, lens, focal length used when taking the image. The challenge with smartphones is this data isn’t easily accessed while viewing the file on the phone….at least on the iPhone. Some smartphone camera apps (Like the ProCam I use) will give you the option to view the image data as well as manipulate these settings when taking images. (example above).

As always, I welcome any comments and feedback. Keep at it making great images.


Portraits & Candids


Photography tips: How to get sharp images

I help answer questions on a number of beginner photography groups. One of the most common questions or issues I see posted is challenges with out of focus or “soft” images.  Often there isn’t a single reason people have soft images. Soft or out of focus images can be caused by a number of things.  Some of them are just lack of knowledge about camera settings. Some softness can be due to more complex factors such as lighting and other conditions that require you to troubleshoot and make adjustments to your settings. Here are a few things to consider to get in focus images.

Get out of “Auto” mode.  With a beginner photographer who is having issues getting sharp focus, the common thing I see is they are still using the fully automatic (A) setting on their camera. The issue with this setting is that the camera controls all the settings for the camera including the focus point. In most digital cameras if you have it set to full Auto, the camera will use what is called multi-point focus. Meaning it is evaluating multiple objects in the image and making a “judgement” as to how to focus the lens based on those objects. Often the focus point is a compromise between those subjects meaning no one subject will be in total sharp focus. For example if you are taking a portrait image in Auto mode this means that background and/or foreground elements close to your subject could draw focus making your intended subject look “soft” or out of focus. The best way to correct this is to take back control of the focus point.  Without getting into the choices of other settings (Aperture mode or TV/Shutter or Manual mode) the easiest way to fix this is to switch from full Auto mode to P (Program AE) mode. Again, Im assuming you are a beginner. Optimally you should learn to shoot in Manual or one of the other “creative” settings such as Aperture or Tv/Shutter mode.  Program mode is similar to the Auto mode but the key difference is you can control which focus point is used to lock focus.    When you depress the shutter button halfway it should start to focus and you should see the focus point highlighted in the viewfinder (in red for Canon). If you don’t see any focus point indicator this setting may be turned off. Get your camera manual and check to see where you can turn on the focus point highlight alert in the menu settings. Then when focusing you can place that focus point on your intended subject to make sure the lens is focusing where you intend it to focus.

Auto Focus. Get an understanding of how auto-focus actually works on your camera. Grab the manual and look up auto-focus. Most cameras by default will start to auto-focus when you half depress the shutter button. If you slowly apply pressure you’ll notice the button doesn’t go all the way down. It goes about halfway and then you should hear your lens start to focus. Once you fully depress the shutter it will take image.

Check your diopter. If you have a DSLR, the viewfinder has this little tiny wheel usually on the right side of the viewfinder. While looking through the viewfinder you can turn this wheel to sharpen the view through the viewfinder. If this isn’t dialed in correctly you may be inadvertently seeing an out of focus view through the viewfinder causing you to manually focus incorrectly.

Lens Autofocus button. check your lens body to make sure it’s set to AutoFocus. It is possible to bump this switch and unintentionally have the lens in Manual focus mode and you may not even be aware of it. If you do this and aren’t actually manually focusing the lens, it won’t actually focus and every image you take will be out of focus.

Learn the “Exposure Triangle”– I know this sounds complex but without a basic understanding of Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO, you will struggle with getting sharp images. I blogged on this topic in last month here. You can also just do a Google search for “Exposure Triangle” and find ton’s of articles.

Focus point.  I see many photographs where they seem blurry or out of focus not because the photographer didn’t focus at all, but because they focused on the wrong or unintended part of the subject. I see this most often in portrait images. This suggestion drifts more into technique than technical but I strongly advise portrait photographers to get tack sharp focus on the subjects eyes.  Humans are drawn to the eyes so when eyes are out of focus it causes a tension in the image. Work to get tack sharp focus on eyes whenever taking intimate portraits. This applies to nature/animal and pet images as well.

Camera shake.  When shooting in low light, your camera will do everything it can to obtain a proper exposure automatically (with the exception of manual mode where you need to make all setting adjustments). If you are shooting in low or natural light often the camera will slow down the shutter speed to let in enough light to the camera sensor to get a proper exposure.  If the camera must slow down the shutter speed below say 1/250sec if you can’t hold the camera very still when you depress the shutter you may get movement or blur in your images. There are a variety of techniques to address this:

  • use a tripod or mono pod to stabilize the camera. I discuss this in my equipment blog post.
  • In combination with a tripod, consider using a cable release or the self timer setting on your camera to delay shutter release until after you’ve let go of the camera. This will help avoid any unintended shaking of the camera.
  • with a tripod use a setting on your camera called “Mirror lockup”. This setting moves the mirror into the up position before operating the shutter to avoid risk of camera movement with slow shutter speeds.  Typically this is used for long exposures not usually portrait photography.
  • If you must shoot handheld, stabilize yourself by leaning up against an object, wall, pole or something that can provide stability.
  • If shooting hand held, learn to use your body to stabilize your camera. Wedge the arm you use to hold your camera into your stomach/side with your elbow planted against your body use it as a sort of anchor to stabilize your whole arm and by extension the camera. This takes a bit of practice, but pro photographers can do this very well.

Subject movement.  Often you cannot control the movement of your subject. If you can, just ask them to remain still, particularly for portraits. If you are doing more candid shots you may not want to interfere with your subject so you’ll need to do your best to mitigate their movement. One way to do this is to use a faster shutter speed to stop action. You can do this by switching your camera to the Tv(Shutter priority mode). Typically shutter speeds of 1/250sec or faster will stop action in moving subjects to get them sharp.

Lighting challenges.  This gets a little more advanced and requires you to understand the “Exposure Triangle”. Light is everything when it comes to photography. In general better lit subjects will be sharper.  For example if you have a brightly lit day and your subject is moving, you have a good chance at getting a sharp image as you’ll be able to use a fast shutter speed and still get good exposure. If it’s an overcast day you may find that you (or the camera) will require a slower shutter speed to get a proper exposure. If the shutter speed needs to slow down too much (say below 1/250sec) you introduce many of the challenges I mentioned above with camera shake and subject movement. There are a few ways to deal with lighting challenges:

  1. Add artificial or indirect light. In natural light settings you can use equipment like reflectors and defusors to capture light and redirect it to your subject.
  2. Flash. Flash is used predominantly in portrait photography but I’ve also seen it used outdoors very effectively to fill in shadows caused by the sunlight on subjects. There are mountains of info on flash photography. If you intend to do portrait photography, you will need to learn and master flash photography and related equipment. That is beyond the scope of this blog, but an area where you can find many articles to advise you on equipment and technique. A simple first step it to purchase what is called an off camera flash (Speedlite is a common term). These are more advanced flash devices that go well beyond the flash on your camera.
  3. Aperture. If you can increase the Aperture setting (lower F stop #). This will open up to allow more light to the sensor, thus allowing you to use a faster shutter speed to stop action and get a sharp image.
  4. Increase ISO. Another option you can use independently or in combination with opening up the Aperture is to increase the ISO. ISO controls the light sensitivity of the camera senor. A higher ISO # will allow more light to be absorbed by the senor thus allowing you to increase your shutter speed to stop action and get a sharp image.
  5. Use Manual focus. Modern cameras do an awesome job at auto-focus. Unfortunately it’s because of this fact that many photographers forget or don’t even realize they can take their camera off auto-focus and manually turn the focus ring on their lens to dial in sharp focus. I highly recommend doing this in low light settings in particular. The reason being is that often lower end lenses and low end cameras do a less than optimal job of auto-focus in low light. You’ll hear the camera/lens “searching” for the right focus moving slowly back and forth and often not ever achieving sharp focus. If you catch your camera doing this, consider NOT using auto-focus, shift that tab on the side of your lens from AF to MF (Auto Focus to Manual Focus) and then look through the viewfinder and work to manually dial in focus using the focus ring on the lens body.

LiveView.  If you are using a tripod and shooting still subjects consider using the LiveView setting on your camera to see a real time view of the image. You can then use the magnifying button to zoom in and get a magnified view of your subject to make sure it’s tack sharp. Using this in combination with manual focus is one way pro photographers get tack sharp images. Again, this may not be practical for all types of photography but is used very often in Nature and Landscape photography.

Custom Autofocus button. It’s important to note that if you half depress the shutter to autofocus then lift your finger and recompose and then depress the shutter again, the camera refocuses on the new subject at the new autofocus point. Again understanding how your camera auto-focus works is important. While I don’t recommend this for beginner photographers, it is possible to separate the autofocus feature to a completely different button on your camera so that you can focus independent of the camera shutter button. If you find that you need to focus then reframe often you may want to consider this button customization. Again this is often a custom function you can learn about in your manual.

Lens sweet spot.  All camera lenses have what is called the sweet spot. The means there is a focal range and Aperture range in which the lens achieves it’s most sharp focus. This is more of an issue in telephoto lenses and one of the reasons many pro photographers use Prime or single focal length lenses. If you do have a telephoto lens, do some research to learn what the sweet spot is both for focal range and aperture for your lens. Often telephoto lenses are sharpest in the “middle of the range” like an Aperture range of F8-11 and at their lower end of the focal range. Higher end telephoto lenses can achieve better sharpness at the extremes, but they all have limitations.  If you are planning to do a particular type of photography, it’s worth investigating which are the sharpest lenses for the type of photography you prefer. Also consider prime lenses to get the sharpest images. While not as convenient as telephoto (zoom) lenses, they are often less expensive and often provide sharper images.

Lens defects. Most lenses work flawlessly for many years, but they can fail. If you’ve exhausted everything above and are still getting soft images, it’s worth having your lens serviced and calibrated, especially if it’s an expensive lens and particularly if you are hard on your equipment or have dropped your camera and/or lens. Most manufactures allow you to mail your equipment in to have them serviced by an authorized dealer. Again, I view this as a last resort. If possible test your lens a different camera body to see if it’s consistently having issues on more than one camera. If so, it’s likely a lens issue.


Tips for composing great photos

This is the third in my series of posts on photography. In my first two posts I focused on the equipment and technical aspects of photography. For this post I’ll focus on the artistic aspect of photography often called composition.

What I love about photography is that the equipment, the technical and the artistic aspect of making great photos are all equally important. Over time the technical and equipment aspects become second nature which frees up your mind to focus on the creative side of photography.

When I first started to get into photography about 10 years ago, I remember struggling to find interesting subjects or what I call “seeing” the subject.  Over time what I learned is that the more you learn about photography and composition, the more you see interesting subjects all around you. You start to recognize shapes, patterns, curves, interesting ways the light impacts a scene and so much more. Improving photo compositions takes lots of practice, trial and error and feedback from others. I strongly recommend taking photography workshops that focus on critiquing your images. I believe workshops helped me improve my images over time.  If you can’t afford workshops, take a photography night class at a local community college. Most offer continuing educations courses. If that’s not an option find a friend whose work you admire and go shooting with them. Have them look at your compositions and give feedback. Share your work online and ask others for constructive criticism, particularly those whose work you admire. If you don’t ask for feedback it will be very difficult to learn and improve.

Often what I see in many images posted online is what I call “documentation” shots. People tend to see an interesting subject and snap a photo without composing.  Often what they “saw” that drew them to take the photo just doesn’t come through as compelling or there are so many distracting elements in the photo that it’s hard for the viewer to see the subject.   Some of the challenge is many who take photos don’t understand or haven’t yet mastered some of the technical aspects of photography. There are simple practices you can use to improve your compositions. These practices will help to reveal the subject and your personal experience of the beauty or interest that compelled you to take the photo. If you learn a few of the techniques below and use them in combination with some of the technical mastery I discussed in my last post, I promise you will see dramatic improvement in your images.

Every time you lift the camera to take a photo you should be thinking through a few things. Over time these will come naturally but when first starting out, it’s ok to say them in your mind (or out loud if you don’t mind people hearing you talk to yourself). Subject, Light, Background, Edges and Exposure.  Each of these areas deserve an entire blog post but I want to keep it simple for now so I’ll just share a few tips.

First I’m going to tell a little story.  I recently posted an image on a Facebook photography group that garnered some attention.  I took this photo nearly 10 years ago when I was first getting serious about photography. I was on a week-long photo workshop in Door County WI.  The subject was an old tree in a cemetery during the peak of fall color.   At first, I just composed a typical shot which captured the entire tree in its setting. It wasn’t a bad photo but it was uninspiring.  It captured the brilliant yellow in the leaves and the enormity of the tree, but it still didn’t inspire me.  I wasn’t capturing the drama of this old tree that probably sat there for a hundred years through hard winters, hot summers, beautiful falls as people came and went, lived and died.  I stood staring at this tree for 10 minutes and Lou (the workshop instructor) walked up and said, “Yes! That’s a great subject. Let’s see what you have.” I showed him my shot of the tree. He’s said, “that’s a good start. Tell me what is drawing you to this subject.” I told him the enormity and grandeur of the tree and brilliant color. I also like the strength that I see in the trunk and main branches.  Lou suggested getting in closer on some of those details.  This is what is call “working” the subject. I walked up to the tree, right to the base and looked at the texture of the bark. It had this mixture of green and brown and rough texture that really showed the age of the tree. Then looking up from the base I noticed how the main branches appeared to have a human like quality of reaching up and away like a composer waving his arms out to his orchestra. (Side note, I did a Google image search of my image years later and the result that came back was “Best guess for this image: Musical composition” so I feel validated on my impression of the composition). It was an odd thought but it stuck with me and drew me to focus on that aspect in my composition. I leaned up against the trunk of the tree and composed a few different shots up into the branches of the tree to try to capture the structure in the tree.  I tried a few different angles along the base. Below is a series of photos leading up to my final selection. As you can see, I went through trial and error working the subject before coming to a composition that I liked. I literally had dozens of images but showing a few below.   You can click-through to see the detail of my progression in working the image.

I share this story because it was an epiphany for me. It’s when I first realized that photos that inspire people often have a dramatic perspective and getting that perspective just right requires experimenting with the subject with many different angles. Often these compelling photos will have odd angles, high or low perspectives or even zoom in on small details. I tell this story because I feel very strongly that working your subject and really thinking about what moves you about the subject will help you refine your composition to focus on the elements that capture what you “see”. Working a subject can feel awkward at first, as it did for me, but as you do it more it will become second nature. Never accept that first shot as your only image. Force yourself to spend time with a subject before moving on. I promise you’ll be glad you did.

Now on to the tips!

Positioning your subject When it comes to your subject, consider positioning it off-center. Positioning the subject off center provides more interest. Now this isn’t a rule, but a general guide. There are certain circular subjects that look best centered (like a sun flower). In the above photo you can see I positioned the trunk to the left. I did this on purpose to give the branches room to flow up and to the right  through the frame as this was their natural flow.  Positioning this way allows the viewer to come into the photo from the strong base and be led up into the big yellow canopy and the strong branches which lead you up and to the right. In any composition you want to have purpose in how you lead the viewer through the photo. It should have a natural flow. Give your subject room in the image. Consider how close your subject is to the edge of the frame. If it’s a moving subject consider placing it so it has room to move through the frame. If the subject is naturally pointing in one direction place it so that the subject has room move in that direction. In the case of the tree above, I positioned the base so that the branches which naturally moved to the right had room to flow throughout the frame to the right. Notice how I gave the top branch room in the frame, not too close to the top of the frame.

Vertical and Horizontal compositions  Try both with every subject you shoot. You’ll be surprised. I tried a vertical with my tree shot but the trunk over powered and it cut off the smaller branches and how they lead to the right. It didn’t look natural.  I settled on a horizontal as the best composition, but always try both. You’ll be surprised.

Placement of the Horizon  As with keeping subjects off-center, when composing shots that include the horizon, avoiding splitting the sky and land equally in the frame. If you give one or the other more space, you draw the focus to the area of interest in your photo.  If there is more interest in the sky, say dramatic cloud structure, consider including more of the sky in the frame. If there is little interest in the sky don’t include much, or in some cases, any of the sky.  Again, this is not a rule but a guide. When shooting reflections there are some cases where you may want to split 50/50 to emphasize mirroring aspect of the reflection. This works best with smooth water. Also if you do include the horizon, particularly one with a hard line in the image, it’s very important to make sure the horizon is level. If it’s not level this will be very obvious to the viewer and draw attention from your subject.  As with all of these guidelines experiment with different compositions. Have fun with it!

Lines, shapes and patterns   In nature, and the man-made world, you’ll see patterns, shapes and lines everywhere you look. You can use these to provide interest in a photo and to lead the viewers eyes through the image.

Curves and leading lines  Notice in the below photo how the tree line on the left “points” to the mountains. The shore line on the right forms a curved line leading to the mountains in the distance. Think about composing your photos to use natural curves and leading lines.

Used shore line to “point” to the mountains in the background…leading viewers eyes

Layers In landscape photography layers are natural patterns you can see in nature. Notice how you can use the natural color and tree line to create a layered pattern that “steps” you through the photo.

bright colors draw the eye in. I used the yellow tree line as my base to lead into this photo

Shapes See how the groups of trees on the left, right and bottom each form a sort of triangle that points to the sky. You can use shapes to lead the viewer’s eye through the frame.


Repeating patterns.  You can find patterns all throughout nature. It’s best to fill the frame when shooting repeating patterns.


Light. In photography, light is everything. Without it there is no photography.  But, there are different types of light.   Light can transform a composition from just ok, to an amazing photo.  Often you’ll get the most compelling photos shooting at what is called the “edges of light”. This means early morning when the sun is just rising or at dusk when the sun is setting. The reason light is best at these times of day is due to the direction and intensity of the light. Sun light is softer and at a lower angle to the earth at these times of day.  I see many photos of subjects which are shot in the middle of the day with bright sunlight. Often they look harsh with too much contrast between dark and light areas. It’s also very difficult to get a good exposure between the light and dark areas when shooting in bright sunlight.  Cameras have limitations. They cannot differentiate between extreme light and dark the way the human eye can. This is why when you shoot in bright daylight the camera has to make a trade-off to either capture the dark areas with proper exposure or the bright areas. If you capture the dark areas, then the sky and highlights are often blown out white with no detail. If you  properly expose the sky then the dark areas are full black with no detail creating a “contrasty” photo that doesn’t look natural. There are situations where this is unavoidable and there are techniques that can help, but your best way to capture good photos is to shoot at the edges of light to get an even properly exposed photo.  This takes dedication as often you are getting up before the sun rises when everyone else is sleeping or you are shooting at sunset when the family is just sitting down to dinner or getting ready to go out. It is a sacrifice to shoot at the edges of light and takes dedication.

Direction of light.  The direction of light can have a big impact on your compositions.  When composing your photo think about the direction of light and how it can positively impact your subject.

Side lighting  This is when the light is coming from one direction. Side lighting can create a soft contrast between light and dark on your subject and provide a “mood” to the photo.  You can use side lighting to show texture in your subjects through the use of shadows an shading to emphasize texture in objects. In the below image I used side lighting to show the early morning mood of this fall setting. Notice the contrast between light and dark on the tree trunks which illuminate the detail of the bark. The leaves also pick up some translucency.


Front lighting This is when the sun is directly illuminating your subject, coming over your shoulder.  I particularly like this for sunsets. Front lighting can reveal color in subjects and create interesting shadows and lines.


Rear lighting This is when the sun is coming from behind your subject. This type of light allows you to capture translucency of subjects. It can also be used to show the definition of a subject. This is fun to experiment with and one of my favorites.

Diffused light Diffused light is filtered either through the clouds or fog. Useful when shooting close up subjects or when you want a softer more balanced light on subjects. The below shot was on an overcast day which allowed me to use a slightly longer exposure to reveal the green in the forest floor.


Background and Edges. Generally what you are looking to do here is simplify and remove distractions from your compositions.  As I noted above I belong to a number of photo groups and see photos from people from all over the world. I often see posts of an interesting subject with tons of distracting elements in the photo, a house in the background half in and out of the frame, telephone lines cutting right through the photo in the foreground, part of a sidewalk or road that’s neither in or out of the photo. It makes me cringe, but I know that the person taking the photo can’t see these distracting elements because they are blinded by their subject.  When I first started shooting 10 years ago, my pictures were filled with distractions. I still struggle with it to this day. We all get super focused on the subject which causes us to miss all the distracting elements in our photos. The human brain naturally ignores distractions which makes it hard for you to see distracting elements when composing. Photographers need to retrain the eye to see these distractions when composing images.  Over time you will get better at this, but start with using the tools of your camera.  After taking each photo look at the LCD and use the zoom feature on the camera to zoom in on the image you just took and move around all the edges and look for distracting elements.  Look at the background for any distracting elements and work to recompose to remove those distractions. Often you can crop out distracting elements in post processing, but it’s best to get the composition right in camera before you get back to your computer. If you are having trouble seeing the LCD, I recommend purchasing a Hoodman Loupe. It’s a small device you hold up to the LCD, like a viewfinder, that blocks out the light.

Distracting background Be aware of bright objects in the background or foreground that can distract from your subject. This can be a bright-colored object or even the sky itself. The eye is naturally drawn to bright objects. Just look at your images with a critical eye beyond your subject and you will see the distractions. A good way to see some of these distractions is to squint at the composition on your LCD, or to stand back away from the LCD and look at the composition. When you do this the key objects in an image will standout including the major distractions. If you squint at the image on the left you’ll see how your eye is drawn to the bright sky in both the top and bottom of the image which in this case adds nothing to the photo. Best to recompose to remove it (image 2)

Check the edges Watch for objects coming into the frame from the edges. Below is an example of a city shot I took more than 10 years ago. As you can see I was so interested in the architecture of this building that my eye could not see the gigantic pole sticking straight into the image! A simple fix would have been to recompose this as a vertical shot to focus on the building in the center. If that didn’t work I could have tried to move to the left to get the pole out of the image.

chiarctour 014

Exposure  Again one of the more tricky things to master in photography is proper exposure. This falls a bit into the technical area but can have a significant impact on the quality of your compositions. One tool in your camera that will help you with proper exposure is called the Histogram. The histogram shows a graphic display of where all the pixels in your image fall in the light spectrum from dark to light. You can typically access the histogram by hitting the “info” button on your camera when viewing the image you just took. While it’s not a foolproof way of getting proper exposure, reviewing the histogram can give you a clue if your image is over or under exposed. Below is a simple example of a view of the histogram with normal exposure, overexposed and underexposed image.


Most photos won’t be displayed as clear cut as this as you will often have a range of dark and light areas in a photo. The most important thing you want to avoid is full black (a hard line on the left) or full blown out white (hard line on the right).  Again, there are exceptions to this rule. There may be cases where you want some areas to go completely black, but in most cases you want to retain detail in the light and dark areas of your images so they look more natural. Again this takes practice and experience. Another tool that can help is the “Highlight Alert” setting in your camera. Usually found in the menu settings, turning this on will display a flashing on your image on the LCD in areas that are over or under exposed. This alerts you that you need to adjust your exposure and can be a good tool to remind you to check your exposure.  Again, look at your images with a critical eye and work to get proper exposure in your images.

AEB (Automatic Exposure Bracketing) In some cases it will be difficult or impossible to get a proper exposure from light to dark depending on the range of light in your scene. Remember, your camera has limitations and can only capture a limited range from dark to light. The human eye can see significantly more detail than your camera can capture. You can compensate for the shortfall in the camera by Exposure Bracketing. You can find this setting in your camera menu referenced as Exposure Compensation or AEB (Automatic Exposure Bracketing). When you turn this on you can set the camera to automatically take a number of photos at different exposures. You can decide to take a range of photos but typically 3 photos is sufficient, 1 photo at  zero (0) or no exposure compensation, 1 photo over exposed (+1)  and 1 under exposed (-1). You can set the amount of over and under exposure by full stops or partial stops (usually by as little as 1/4 or 1/3 of a stop)  depending on the range of light to dark in the scene. I usually start with a 1 stop over and under exposed. Again, this takes some experimentation and practice. Using Exposure compensation allows you to capture a range of photos so you can choose the best exposure when you return to your computer. I personally only use this when shooting in difficult lighting situations or when I know I might want to blend multiple images into an HDR (High Dynamic Range) image (more on this in a future blog).

I hope these tips are useful. If you have any questions feel free to comment or reach out.

2017 Colorado Photography Workshop

These photos were taken by me on a photography workshop in the Gunnison and Ridgway areas of Colorado between Sept 24th-Sept 30th, 2017. Workshop lead by Lou Nettelhorst Photography


Sonoma County CA 2012

Door County WI 2008