Photographing Cacti and Desert Succulents

Saguaro Silhouette.   Nce idea, but this particular shot failed because of wind movement.

Saguaro Silhouette. Nice idea, but this particular shot wasn't a "keeper" because of wind movement. Pity!

(In my three-part introduction to photographing Death Valley (part 2, part 3), I noted that I wanted to spend some time talking about techniques for photographing cactus, my apologies for the delay in getting that finished for you.  I hope it was worth the wait!)

Cacti astonish me. The desert air can be dessicating, a sponge pulling every drop of water out of everything around it, and yet many of these plants have evolved to survive and even thrive in these harsh environments.

For the photographer, cacti offer interesting forms, patterns and texture from their spines, and color from the occasional desert bloom. [Read more…]

The Tuesday Composition: Avoid the Middle, Man.

Virga over the Straits of Magellan: The sky was more interesting than the water, so I used a lot more sky than water.  Sometimes it's that simple.

Virga over the Straits of Magellan. The sky was more interesting than the water, so I used a lot more sky than water. Sometimes it's that simple.

If you like this article, you can now get the book! Joe has expanded the “Tuesday Composition” series into an inspiring new ebook on composition, especially for nature photography. Check it out: The Tuesday Composition.

Last week we talked about working the edges of your photographs. This week, I thought we’d start taking about where we place objects in an image; I like Geir Jordahl’s metaphor of choreography. By moving around, by pointing the camera in different directions, by choosing a framing and focal length and orientation of our shot, we’re including and excluding objects from our image, changing their size and shape and moving them around within our image. While we do not have (outside of Photoshop) unlimited flexibility to rearrange our images this way, we do have quite a number of controls over where we place in our images. So, where should we put them? Where will they look best? [Read more…]

The Tuesday Composition: Working your Borders

The edges of your image (the borders, not the edges within your image), play several important roles in composition.

Puffin and Distraction, Iceland

Puffin and Distraction. Iceland. Don't do this! (Or at least, crop the distracting bit of bird, right.)

If you like this article, you can now get the book! Joe has expanded the “Tuesday Composition” series into an inspiring new ebook on composition, especially for nature photography. Check it out: The Tuesday Composition.

First, it’s easy for distractions along the border of an image to pull the eye “out’ of the image, and thus, they are usually undesirable. Highlights near the edges can be a particular problem. Edge distractions are best noticed and corrected for in-camera. One of the firm habits I have when doing landscape photography is taking a moment before shooting to glance around the edges of a photograph looking for distractions. If I find them, often only a very minor adjustment in camera angle or position is necessary to move the distractions off-stage. [Read more…]

Introduction to Death Valley: Part 3, “And the rest…”

Shafts, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California

Shafts, Zabriskie Point. Death Valley National Park, California. Usually I think of Zabriskie as a morning shot, but afternoon works here.

In this last installment of my introduction to Death Valley, I’ll touch on a few more locations for first-time visitors to Death Valley.

(If you haven’t seen them yet, check out part one and part two.)

Zabriskie Point

One of the classic photographic locations of Death Valley is Zabriskie Point, located just up the road from Furnace Creek. Erosion has carved up these layered, multicolored hills into strangely folded patterns. The main viewpoint overlooks this folded landscape and marks the beginning of trails which descend down into it. I’ve most often photographed Zabriskie in the early morning, the area does not get first light until a half-hour or more after nominal sunrise, but there are things to shoot here all day. [Read more…]

The Tuesday Composition: Areas of Low Contrast, Negative Space

Tree Ballet, Mono Basin, California

Tree Ballet. Mono Basin, California

If you like this article, you can now get the book! Joe has expanded the “Tuesday Composition” series into an inspiring new ebook on composition, especially for nature photography. Check it out: The Tuesday Composition.

Last week we discussed areas of high contrast, this week we’re going to turn around and say a few words about low contrast areas and how they contribute in a composition.

At least one of these effects shouldn’t be too much of a surprise if you read last week’s column. If our eye tends to gravitate over time towards the high-contrast parts of a composition, then it more or less equally gravitates away from the low-contrast areas of the image. I won’t dwell on this aspect of it, if you want a nice, simple example start with the tree at the head of last week’s column and notice that the valley walls don’t pull your eye the way the tree does.

But as much as that’s true in last week’s tree, it is even more true for Tree Ballet. Save for three small areas of the image (the bare trees and a couple patches of dead grasses) Tree Ballet has no real detail or contrast whatsoever. Whereas the small amount of detail in the valley walls in Morning by the Merced will occasionally pull your eye in to look at what detail is present, the complete lack of sharp detail in Tree Ballet does not. We say that most of this image consists of “negative space”. “Negative space” is the art term for space around the subject of an image. The large area of this image devoted to negative space is important to this image, it emphasizes the cold, isolating fog. [Read more…]

Introduction to Death Valley: Part 2, Geographic Extremes

Capoeira Storm, Badwater, Death Valley

Capoeira Storm. Badwater, Death Valley

Death Valley is a land of extremes. In part one of this series, we talked about its vastness and extreme temperatures. But another way in which Death Valley really “takes geography to eleven” is in elevation. Death Valley’s low point, Badwater, is nearly three hundred feet below sea level but is located almost directly between Dante’s View (over a mile “up” on the near canyon wall) and Telescope Peak, just across the valley at over eleven thousand feet above sea level.

Both the highs and the lows have much to offer photographers. [Read more…]

Introduction to Death Valley: Part I, the Sand Dunes

Dunes Photographers

Dunes Photographers. Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park is both a famous and challenging place to photograph. A desert, Death Valley is one of the hottest locations in the world with recorded temperatures as high as 134 °F. It also usually features dessicatingly low humidity and a nearly universal lack of shade. The Valley is enormous, over one hundred miles and thirty miles long, often leaving you shooting a long distance from wherever you’ll be sleeping.

And yet I keep going back. There’s just too many great photographic opportunities there, and even this brief (two or three part) introduction will only give a short taste of what’s available.

Let’s start with sand dunes.

[Read more…]

The Tuesday Composition: Blacks, Shadows and Silhouettes

Sunset Flames, Second Beach

Sunset Flames. Second Beach

If you like this article, you can now get the book! Joe has expanded the “Tuesday Composition” series into an inspiring new ebook on composition, especially for nature photography. Check it out: The Tuesday Composition.

Two weeks back we looked at how our eyes tend to behave around photographic highlights. This week we’ll spend a little time looking at the flip side of that coin, dark areas in an image.

Silhouettes provide the clearest examples. Much as our eyes seem to want to dwell in highlights, our eyes avoid dwelling in the blacks of featureless silhouettes. I believe that this is one of the reasons that in general, (and I once again must remind you that all of these compositional “rules” are really statements about what tends to happen, not what always happen, not what must happen) we don’t find featureless black areas problematic in color photographs nearly so often as we find blown, featureless highlights.

The featureless black of silhouettes seems to push the eye to the edges of the object being silhouetted, where our eyes will will tend to trace along the edges of the silhouette, emphasizing the shape of that object. Thus the studio lighting maxim, “front-lighting for color, side-lighting for texture, back-lighting for form.[Read more…]

When the Light isn’t Right

Rhododendrons and Redwood Trunks, Damnation Creek Trail

Rhododendrons and Redwood Trunks. Damnation Creek Trail

Sunday the light just wasn’t working for me.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t ugly out. It was a beautiful blue-sky day in far Northern California, where I was just finishing up a much-too-short run to spend a couple days in the redwoods, in part as part of the Save Our State Parks effort. The trip was amazing. But yesterday, full sun and 30 miles-per-hour winds left me uninspired.

Now, I’m far from the first photographer to observe that “the light isn’t right” is often as much a statement about the photographer as the light itself. Yes, it’s likely that a sufficiently creative photographer will find a way to make great images in any light she or he ends up with. On the other hand, it’s also true that some types of light really fit my photographic vision better than others. And no matter what the cause, the question remains, what to do with a day like that? [Read more…]

The Tuesday Composition: Edges

Snowy Pinnacles at Dusk, Ø Fjord, East Greenland (Image Copyright Joe Decker)

Snowy Pinnacles at Dusk. Ø Fjord, East Greenland (Image Copyright Joe Decker)

Much like our eyes are attracted to highlights in an image, our eyes and brains are not only attracted to edges in an image but they also help us in seeing them, allowing us to perceive those edges even when they’re weak or incomplete. This makes edges (lines, contours) an important element of composition.

(That we respond to edges, even minimal ones, is not simply a cultural artifact: The detection and exaggeration of edges in scenes is a function of the brain, in particular, it is one of many functions of the primary visual cortex. This part of the brain operates much in the same way that software sharpening does, if you look near a defined edge between a light and dark area in an image, the lighter area appears even lighter right next to the boundary, the dark edge appears even darker on the other side of the boundary.)

“Snowy Pinnacles” provides a simple example of these principles. As we discussed last week, many viewers of this image will first have their attention drawn to the moon because of our “attraction to highlights”, but from there, it’s likely that many viewers will then begin to look down and to the right, along the edge of the taller pinnacle until they reach the lower pinnacle at the lower right. [Read more…]