Technique Tuesday: Making Order out of Chaos

The following is an excerpt from “The New Art of Photographing Nature”, and for more photos of the natural world, specifically magnificent trees world-wide, check out my latest recently published book “Trees: Between Earth & Heaven”!

MAKING ORDER OUT OF CHAOS

The elements that go into making a good image are basically the same for photography as for art, with one significant difference. An artist is faced with a blank piece of paper or canvas and has to construct a whole image by putting together the design elements–line, color, form, space, perspective–all of which he must create for himself. A photographer is given all these same elements in his viewfinder and basically subtracts the material he finds distracting and unessential to his statement.

Good photography is decision-making. It is not a passive process. The eye must learn to detect the essential and make it into a meaningful arrangement. Initially, nature appears random and chaotic. Our mind needs to make order out of chaos, to create relationships between things in order to understand them. When we look at something, we subconsciously focus our attention on some aspects and ignore others; we filter everything through our experience and our emotions.

The camera makes no such distinctions or evaluations. It records everything it sees. It is, therefore, the photographer’s responsibility to edit the camera’s view and select those elements to be captured. Understanding what goes into making a strong composition can improve a photographer’s personal statement. Freeman Patterson stated it beautifully when he wrote: “The camera always points both ways. In expressing the subject, you also express yourself.”

In a good composition, one has the distinct impression that nothing could be added to or subtracted from the picture. This sense of completeness–of balance–is the key. Balance does not, however, imply symmetry. Asymmetrical compositions can be balanced. We will explore these concepts as we move from chapter to chapter, discussing where to place the subject, how to make it stand out, how it relates to the other elements within the frame, and what creative options you have to work with to make a stronger photographic statement. There are some guidelines that can be followed, but none of them are so absolute they should be adhered to constantly.

Art Wolfe: “In the first image, the tree is silhouetted against a much lighter pink sky. In the second, it is against a part of the cloud closer in value to that of the tree, but the composition is still not quite there. In the third, the cloud is now in complete balance with the value of the dead tree, and I have recomposed the tree to fill out all four corners of the composition. To my eye, it is a more harmonious image.”

Martha Hill: “We are talking about very subtle distinctions here. Many people will like the first image over the third because of the luminous quality of the pink background. And it is clearly a matter of personal taste.

What makes the third photograph so appealing to me is the ethereal quality of the light. The background colors gradate very subtly from pink to lavender to blue in an even tonality, giving a sense of serene harmony and balance. The linear design of the tree branches is weighted slightly off-center, thus creating a delicate imbalance.

The spatial depth in the picture is also ethereal. As in an Asian painting, the sense of three-dimensional space is ever so subtly there, as the lighter tone of the tree brings it forward from the background. The branches reach to the edges of the frame, also bringing the tree to the frontal plane of the picture space. To me, this third version is shibui, which in Japanese describes something of an understated, highly refined elegance.”

For more insights and technique tips, check out “The New Art of Photographing Nature”!

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Join Me at Kenmore Camera’s Digital Photo Expo This Weekend!

This coming Saturday 11/3 from 10:30 AM -12:30 PM I will be signing my new book TREES: Between Earth & Heaven at Kenmore Camera’s Digital Photo Expo at the Lynnwood Convention Center.

Come for me but stay for all things photography! This is Kenmore Camera’s biggest event of the year and there is fantastic line-up of world-class photographers across many genres coming to share their knowledge and inspire you.

The industry’s leading manufacturers will show their latest gear and answer your questions. There will be plenty of deals on cameras, lenses, tripods, bags, lighting, memory and more.

See you there!

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Exclusive Pre-Order Deal Ends Soon! TREES: Between Earth & Heaven

Time is running out to receive exclusive bonuses with your purchase of TREES: Between Earth and Heaven! Pre-order before the 29th for these additons to what is a gorgeous and comprehensive book of many of the world’s great trees. Each copy sold benefits Roots of Peace, so not only will you get a beautifully printed book singed by yours truly along with an 8 x 10″ print, personally packaged with care by my staff – you’ll also be supporting the great cause of creating sustainable, vibrant flora world-wide.

 

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Flashback Friday: Denali 1988

This excerpt is from “Photographs from the Edge”, which not only details the stories behind some of my most well-known captures from across the globe and throughout my career, but is also filled with tips and tricks and equipment information.


August 1988: “Rising Mist”, Alaska Range, Denali National Park, Alaska USA
Nikon F3, Nikkor 200-400mm f/5.6 lens, f/8 for 1/250 sec., Kodachrome 64

The nature of the photo: Mountains are well known for their fast rising and falling air along their slopes. Glider pilots in mountainous areas will fly right at a mountain side when the thermals are right, then catch a fast moving ride going up with the air. They often describe this as running and jumping onto an elevator that is already moving upward.


Years ago I was working on a book entitled Alakshak, The Great Country, a Sierra Club book about Alaska. I spent a lot of time crisscrossing Alaska gathering photos for it. As part of this journey, I wanted to get some aerial shots of mountains in the Alaska Range. So I found myself in a small plane above the mountains working in the hours between 11 pm through 1 am.

In the summer, this is a key time because the light is most dramatic then. During summer solstice in Alaska, most of the day is bright sunshine and you only have a few hours of twilight with bold light and color. I was using the shortest hours of the day to capture the most radical light.

In this image, the light of the sun on the Arctic horizon illuminating a few misty cloud sweeping up a slope at around 18,000 feet. While I like this image and I have long loved photographing mountains, it is not the photo itself that brings back memories of this moment. This was shot over 25 years ago, and I remember it all these years later because of the absolute turbulence that our plane would encounter as the plane would fly long the lip of the ridge.

I fly a lot, and I have been on planes around the world in some very remote locations. However, I’m not a happy camper when the plane drops 20 feet in an instant as it was doing here. I can often circle in ever tighter circles around the subject with my mind so focused on the shooting that being scared is not part of the equation. However, when a plane is dropping and rising with the thermals like this, it is uncomfortable at best and frightening usually.

I remember spot metering the brightest part of the frame which was simply the wispy cloud. I compensated for the brightness by exposing to make that cloud bright with detail. By contrast then the surrounding mountains and distant valley remain fairly dark by comparison. This shot shows off the ephemeral nature of clouds and light. Within seconds of shooting this, the sun dropped below the horizon, and the entire moment was gone in an instant.

Photo tip:
Spot metering can be a helpful technique when the light is dramatic and you have to be sure you get the brightness values right. In this shot, spot metering determined the exposure for the bright cloud, but that would have meant the clouds were dark and the rest of the scene even darker. That exposure has to be adjusted to make the clouds bright, not dark, by adding exposure to what the meter shows.

For this and many, many more stories behind some of the most notable photographs from a lifetime of world travel, pick up Photographs From the Edge today and make a note at checkout that you’d like me to sign it!

 

 

 

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Time is Running Out on Trees: Between Earth & Heaven Pre-Order Bonuses!

On October 29th Trees: Between Earth & Heaven will be published. Thank you so much to everyone whom has already pre-ordered the book – I can’t wait to hear what you think! I have a feeling you’ll love it as much as I do – the early production copy I’ve reviewed is printed beautifully and I couldn’t be happier with the way it’s turned out.

There is still time to pre-order the book and receive the bonuses offered through my online store. If you’re looking for a thoughtful, meaningful holiday gift – look no further! Not only do I anticipate this book to bring awareness to trees world-wide, Roots of Peace will plant trees for every copy sold!

Pre-ordering Trees: Between Earth & Heaven will not only get you a signed copy of the book, but an 8×10 print as well!

 

 

 

 

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Technique Tuesday: Photographing Reflections

This excerpt is from “Photographs from the Edge”, which not only details the stories behind some of my most well-known captures from across the globe and throughout my career, but is also filled with tips and tricks and equipment information.



June 2013: Canyon Wall Reflection, Kimberley, Australia
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 24-105mm f/4 lens, f/4 for 1/1250 sec., ISO 2000

The nature of the photo: The Kimberley region of Australia sits in the far northwestern part of the continent. The area is known for its sandstone and limestone gorges and steep cliffs. The land has a maximum height of a little over 3,000 feet, but the terrain is so steep that the country is difficult to move through except by boat along the coast.


The fine art world has long been important to me, since that was what I studied in college. Many painters have influenced my own work. The image here reminds me of the work of Gustav Klimt and his homage to the pointillist painters of his time. These included a series of paintings of women with very ornate dresses.

As I traveled by boat through the inlets and canyons along the coast in the Kimberley area of northernwestern Australia, I found that the reflections of the canyon walls in the water reminded me of the color palette and design within Klimt’s dresses. In this image, you can see the ocher-colored cliffs reflected in the disrupted surface of this saltwater inlet, along with the blue sky above.

I love these moments where the abstraction takes on all sorts of forms that remind you of other things, things that become metaphors for me. You can get lost looking at the details of this image, seeing “faces” and other shapes. I find that these abstracted pieces with embedded images draw the viewer into them.

In the center of this photo, I see the eye and ears of a goat. Other people will see something entirely different. That’s how an image like this one can engage people on a very different level than simply one of recognition.

Photo tip: Water is a wonderful reflective surface in nature and offers so many opportunities for the observant photographer. Look for reflections, both on still water and on water that is disturbed and creating unique patterns and rhythms. Be careful of using a polarizing filter with reflections because it can remove key elements of those reflections on water.

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Technique Tuesday: Capturing Wildlife in the Moment

This excerpt is from “Photographs from the Edge”, which not only details the stories behind some of my most well-known captures from across the globe and throughout my career, but is also filled with tips and tricks and equipment information.


July 2014: Rufous Hummingbird and Chick, Seattle, Washington, USA
Canon  EOS-1D X, EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXT lens +1.4x, ƒ/20 for 1/125 sec., ISO 4000

The nature of the photo: All hummingbirds are remarkable birds for their amazing flight abilities. However, the rufous hummingbird, a bird about three-inches long and weighing about a tenth of an ounce, has the longest migration of any U.S. bird its size. It may go the distance from Alaska to well into Mexico, and some scientists think it may go as far as Panama.


I have spent 30 years developing and cultivating a Japanese-inspired garden around my house in Seattle. It has filled in nicely, creating a wild space by my home. I planted some black pines in my garden early on to provide year-round structure and color, besides refuge for birds and other wildlife. I have steadily shaped and pruned them bonsai style to help them fit into the space of my garden.

In 2014 as I was working on my trees, I found a bird staring me in the face. As I looked down past the bird, there was the nest. A rufous female hummingbird had chosen to nest in my beloved black pines! That sort of discovery still excites me after so many years connecting with nature.

A hummingbird nest is so tiny, no more than 2 inches across. The bird covers her nest with lichen, so it is easy to miss in the lichen-covered black pine. But luck had been with me, so I quickly descended from my stepladder and forgot about pruning the trees that day.

I wanted to photograph the mother as it raised its young, so I set up my camera about 10 feet away from the nest. Even that close, hummingbirds are really small, so I needed to use a 200-400mm lens at 400mm plus a 1.4x converter. I could then take pictures from the lawn chair without being so close to the nest as to disturb the mother. I had a field day for the next two weeks as this hummingbird raised its young.

Photo tip: Wildlife photography is rarely about just capturing the animal in a photograph. Timing can be critical to getting the remarkable, striking shot. You have to keep shooting, always paying attention, to be sure you do get that shot. Shooting your camera continuously will not necessarily get the shot, though, because the key moment may be between frames.

 

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Technique Tuesday: Horizon Placement & Depth

AW: One of the most common errors I see in portfolio reviews is the placement of the horizon in the middle of the photograph. In my opinion, this flattens out the image, creating less of a sense of depth.  Placing the horizon high in the frame or low, on the other hand, can create a dynamic that allows the eyes to wander through the image far more easily.

In the first image, with the horizon in the middle, the eye just stops. In the second, the high placement of the horizon allows me to add more foreground, showing the expanse of beach and tide. There is a nice play between the forms of sand and the drama of the setting sun.  In the third shot, with the horizon low in the frame, the focus is on the sun and how it reflects on the water, giving greater emphasis to the clouds overhead. High and low horizons create less predictable images and to my mind, offer a greater sense of depth and drama.

MH: Because the horizon line is so straight, it cuts the picture space into definite sections and has to be factored into what you want to emphasize.  In each of these images, we get a slightly different sense. Placing the horizon in the middle might be desirable if stability and tranquility are what you want to convey.  However, it relies on a very dramatic sunset to make a powerful statement.

With a horizon placed high in the frame, the foreground becomes more important, and requires either a texture or an interesting detail.  However, if the drama of the sky is more powerful, then lowering the horizon is a better option.

This lesson and more from The New Art of Photographing Nature – Order yours today in my online store! As always, include a signature request and I’ll be sure to sign any books ordered through the store- however, my time between travels is limited so please note this can delay orders. If you want to get your prints and books signed in time for the holidays, now is the time!

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Technique Tuesday: Diagonals

Often you’ll hear artists talking about diagonal lines within a composition. Diagonal lines can be very important to an image because of how they affect the mood and visual impression of a scene. However, diagonals are not just about line. You can have diagonal shapes and patterns as well.

Diagonals are always dynamic elements within a picture. They create a strong feeling of movement because the eye wants to move along a diagonal. There is something about the human mind that wants to follow a diagonal line. We will also follow a vertical line up and down, though we won’t really follow a horizontal line. Putting a diagonal line in with a vertical or horizontal line will create a very dramatic contrast. That can be a dynamic way of using a composition, but it can also be very distracting and disturbing for the viewer. You have to be careful about how you are using diagonal lines, shapes and patterns.

Diagonals also give a very strong dynamic feeling to an image because most diagonals in the real world are objects that have some sort of tension to them. A diagonal will typically be something that is moving or has the potential of movement. Diagonal objects in real life can look like they are ready to fall down so there is always a certain tension there. In addition, we know that if something that can move is placed on a diagonal surface, it is going to move down that surface because of gravity. That doesn’t mean that diagonals used in your photograph are looking like things are going to fall or roll down – it just means that there is a tension and movement there that people react to.

There is something very interesting that happens with diagonals when they are combined with horizontal and vertical lines. They can look like they are a support beam. Think about when you play the game, hangman. Most people draw the hanging post with a diagonal line between the vertical and horizontal lines to make it look like it has more support.

Okay, all of this can seem very esoteric and not very applicable to that landscape with a stream running through it. Yet as you start to look at that scene, you will start to see diagonals there that can help structure your composition and create a stronger design. Once again, becoming aware of these elements of design will help you use them within your composition.

Excerpt from “The Art of the Photograph” – pick it up today in my online store!

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Book Signing This Weekend at Kenmore Camera!

I’ll be in town this weekend between trips and will be spending some time on Saturday signing books at Kenmore Camera’s Customer Appreciation Day! The first 100 customers will be receiving a FREE copy of “Edge of the Earth, Corner of the Sky”, and my assistant Libby will be on hand with some other goodies. Other books will be available for purchase and signature, so come on by and check out the festivities.

Kenmore camera will be offering special savings for the event, so this would be a great time to come and pick up that gear you’ve been holding out for. A Canon rep will also be on hand to answer questions you might have about their products.

Hope to see you there! If you can’t make it but would love a signed book for yourself or as a gift all pre-orders of my latest book, Trees: Between Earth and Heaven” will be signed and shipped out this fall!

 

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