My Best Tip for Better Photographs

I am generally a pretty friendly guy when out shooting landscapes.  Being friendly, I often get a lot of questions.  The questions range from “what camera do you use?” to “why do you have those filters on the front of the camera?”.  The former question will almost always lead into a discussion of why some other brand of camera is better than the one that I am using.  Frequently, this comment is followed by a long dissertation about equipment in an attempt to show off technical knowledge about cameras and lenses.  However, I was recently asked by a young fellow what single piece of advice I would recommend to a novice landscape photographer that would make a significant improvement in their photographs.

At first, I was tempted to throw out something about learning your camera, or taking a class or in-field workshop from one of the many wonderful landscape photographers.  Education is something that I highly value.  While I pondered my answer, I noticed that his camera was still in the bag.  I asked if he intended to take some photographs.  To my surprise, he said no, he was on his way to dinner.  I would love to be able to tell you that I gave him some inspirational answer before he wandered off.  Unfortunately, my brain doesn’t work that fast.

A few months went by before the question popped back into my head.  We were at a camera club meeting and I happened to overhear a conversation between two fellow photographers.  They were discussing the various merits of using filters versus high dynamic range (HDR) techniques.  The conversation went back and forth for a while before I realized neither had ever actually used either technique.  They were full of knowledge and opinions but had no experience.  It was at that point, the young man’s question came back to me.

The answer I wished I had given the young man to become a better photographer  was practice.  Take your camera out of the bag and use it!  I would add that there has to be intent behind the practice to make it really useful.  Shooting with intent means practicing specific skills in a wide range of conditions.  It also means critical evaluation of the results.  For landscape photography, this often means getting up before the sunrise or being out after sunset.  It means doing the work to put yourself in the best situation to catch the very best light and composition and practicing with the equipment you have to learn what will happen when you shoot with a variety of camera settings, elevations, angles and lenses.  Practice taking photographs from different heights, and learn how getting down lower to the ground affects the composition.  Practice with wide angle and telephoto lens to see what impact they will have on your composition.   Try out a variety of techniques, including using neutral density gradient filters and/or the methods for HDR photography.   Learn about focus stacking and try it out during a photo session and with the associated digital darkroom methods.

I am a big fan of education.  However, you gain virtually nothing if you do not go out to practice what you learn.  Having more knowledge without experience will not make you a better photographer! Perhaps your first attempt at a new skill will not yield great photographs.  This happens to me all the time.  However, don’t give up after one disappointing attempt.   Do some more research (e.g., reading or videos) and try the technique again and again.   With practice, the knowledge will yield greater proficiency and more satisfying images.

Another reason to go and practice a skill is that it helps you learn when it will be most useful.    You may know how but do you know when and will you recognize the opportunity when it arises.  In my experience, recognizing the opportunity only comes with a lot of practice.

So my advice to that young man is to forget about going to dinner.  Get your camera out and practice with intent, practice your skills and take more photographs, lots and lots of photographs under all types of different conditions and then critically analyze the results.  Then start all over again!


Adaptation to New Conditions

It is getting extremely busy and challenging to create photographs in the iconic spots, like Antelope Valley. We have taken the approach that these challenges are unlikely to change and started to look for ways to deal with the situation. To a significant extent we have started focus on less popular and harder areas to access. We also decided to up our skill level. We took a Masters Photography course last spring. The most important thing we got out of the class was being ready to get the “shot”.   One of the goals of the training was preparation to shoot in Antelope Valley.  Before we joined the photo-tour of Antelope Valley, we went to one of the less popular slot canyons (on Wire Pass Trail) and spent the day practicing with the settings we would need use in during the Antelope Canyon tour. We even did some count-down shooting (getting a shot under strict time constraints). It was great training and made the difficult conditions during the photo tour much more manageable. We also found that since we were really prepared, the Tour Guide was much more willing to work with us.  We have worked the training into our work flow and had the chance to use it several times since last spring.   Adapting to crowds is going to be the new normal and being prepared is at least part of the solution.



What camera should I buy?

RockyShore_iphone-0044“I want to take better pictures.  What camera should I buy? ”  Corinne and I get this question a lot.  In most debates over what camera is better, we have little experience and as a result have little to contribute to this discussion.  However, we believe that for new photographers, this is the wrong question.

Let’s be very clear!  Every modern digital camera has the ability to take stunning photographs.  Every camera has its strengths and weaknesses and at a professional level there are some cameras better suited to certain types of photography (e.g., landscape versus wildlife photography).  However, for new photographers, the make of camera matters very little.

So when we are asked, “what camera should I buy?”  we turn the question around and ask “what camera are you using today?”  Frequently, they will hold up their mobile phone, a point-and-shoot camera, or entry-level digital single lens reflex camera (DSLR). We then ask what they think is wrong with their current camera?  Generally, we get a mumbled response that they aren’t getting the photographs they want and they believe the limitation is the camera.

Recently, in response I (Shawn) have been pulling out my mobile phone and showing a series of pictures.  I get the typical response of “aren’t they lovely” and “I can see what you can do with a really good camera”.  With the prey secure in my trap, I point out that all of the photographs they just looked at were taken with my mobile phone.

It’s only after that demonstration that I can address the real question, which is “what should I be doing to take better pictures? ”  Frequently, I ask if they have looked at their camera manual, watched any YouTube videos, or taken any general photography classes?  For most folks, self-learning from a manual or by trial-and-error is difficult.  So, we suggest they take some instruction, either from a professional photographer in the area of photography they like, at a local community college, or from an online class.



Sometimes the problem is not with the camera that they use, but with fundamentals of setting up their shots.  When photographing people, consider locations where the light is not harsh (e.g., under a shady tree) or where the shadows on their features are minimized.   Eliminating or reducing the sky may prevent the subjects from becoming too underexposed in relation to the surroundings.  For landscapes, a little effort to review the composition can make a huge difference.  Moving to a better vantage point or stepping forward to “crop out” the distracting clutter may help.  Compositions that include some interesting foreground components (e.g., wildflowers, beach driftwood, etc.) as well as the attractive vista can be more visually appealing.

In short, education and practice are the path to better photographs.

And after our conversation with the budding photographer, we frequently get the follow-up question, “Is Canon better than Nikon?” <Sigh>

[All images in this post were taken with an iPhone 6 in the Pacific Rim National Park, BC]

Finding the Right Spot

Jedidiah sunburst-3391

We take a lot of photographs in the remote areas of the Washington State and British Columbia.  We travel to a lot of these places on our boat, Salish Lady.  Our boating/photography trips usually involve challenges of selecting a general location, getting there by boat, finding a safe place to anchor, and then launching the dinghy to get to shore.

I think all serious landscape photographers know that getting just the right light is the most important factor in achieving a STUNNING photograph.  However, without some kind of interest in the composition, even the absolute best light and color can’t move a beautiful photograph into the STUNNING category.

Working in the wilderness of Inside Passage makes it doubly hard.  The environment here is beautiful and overwhelming.  Almost every place you stand feels like it should be the “spot”.  But it is also a very complex environment and our eyes do an incredibly good job at distilling the environment for us.  In a photograph, complexity can get in the way of creating the STUNNING image.

Finding the right spot to take the photograph becomes an obsession.  We spend hours and hours trekking across the shore, up hills, and wandering around on small islands.  Don’t get me wrong; we really enjoy this exploration and would do it even if we never had any intention of taking a photograph.  However, finding a spot with just the right “stuff” drives this process.

So how do we decide on the right spot? All the usual rules of composition apply, but the trick we have found that seems to trump everything is simplicity.  We drive to create a simple image, without distractions, but still something to capture the viewers’ emotions.  We like to allow the simplicity combined with the colors tell the story.  When we are really successful, the image tells a story and hints at the broader beauty of the area.  A goal we strive for but rarely achieve.

So when faced with an overwhelmingly beautiful vista, look for the simple composition.  Have faith that from a simple image the story will be clear.

Back on the Water


We are back on our boat Salish Lady for another year of cruising in the Pacific Northwest (and BC southwest).  This year is a little different because I (Shawn) have semi-retired from some of my business concerns and hope to be fully retired by the end of the year.  Although I still have some business responsibilities, this is the first time in many years where I can set my own agenda every day.

Spending time on our boat has helped with the transition because there are always maintenance tasks to be completed.  She can be a demanding lady at times.  Boat projects are a nice distraction because they are discrete tasks that can be planned and completed in a few days.  It is always nice to progress through a “To Do” list relatively quickly.

I was very fatigued because the last few years have been extremely stressful. The downtime I have had in the last month to rest and recover has been rejuvenating.

I am now starting to turn my focus to writing and photography, two hobbies that have had the potential to be much more than just hobbies.  In previous years, we had a pretty good stream of articles and photographs that were published in boating magazines, but that activity waned as I had more demands on my time and energy due to my businesses.

Currently, Corinne and I are working on two different book projects.  As I start to put more energy into them, my days have become increasingly busy and it won’t be long before I will whine about never having enough time.  We also plan to put together more of our images with the “she saw/he saw” theme that we initiated last winter.  We post many of these on our Z Frontier Photography Facebook page  (

All-in-all it has been a nice transition to a new focus for my time and energy and I am enjoying the chance to work on some creative endeavors.

Hoping for just the right amount of clouds

Sand Dune Sunset

Landscape photography is most interesting at sunrise and sunset.  Photographers talk about the golden hour, the 30 to 40 minutes before the sun dawns over the horizon and again just as the sun is setting and for the next 30 to 40 minutes.  When the sun is low, there is wonderful light.  At this time of day, the red rocks of the southwest seem to glow from within.  Landscapes seem to come alive.  However, the rocks and trees and bodies of water are usually only a part of the picture.  The sky is also an important component of image.  After a beautiful sunny day, you would expect that photographers would find ideal conditions for some early evening photography.   However, clear skies do not necessarily produce the most pleasing images.  Instead, photographers hope for some clouds, but not so many that they cloak the horizon.  A clear horizon and a scattered set of clouds can be extremely beneficial.   The clouds provide a surface that can reflect the first or last rays of light.  Under the right conditions, the sky can seem to light on fire.  The color in the sky can bring beautiful drama to photographs.

After a mostly clear day spent walking the dunes at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in Utah, we set up for some sunset pictures of the dunes.  In the late afternoon, a fairly thick layer of clouds developed.  We set up to photograph some dunes in the east, hoping there would be a break in the clouds and the last rays of sunlight would generate a beautiful glow to the hills of sand.   The time of the sunset came and we didn’t get the effect that we were expected, but turning around and surveying the hills to the west, we discovered that the clouds had lifted a little from the horizon and we were going to be treated to a little evening color.

The picture above was captured with a Canon 5D Mark III, with a Canon EF 24 – 105 lens at a focal length of 40 mm with a 2 sec exposure and the aperture set at f/16.

Getting Motivated

This winter, we have been making a more concerted effort to get out for some photography day-trips.  We realized that we needed a project to focus our efforts.  To that end, we assigned ourselves a project to create a photo book about hiking the Spring Mountains, with particular focus on Red Rock Canyon National Recreation Area, which is a 30 minute drive from Las Vegas.  I don’t know if the book will ever come to fruition, but it has been a good motivator to get us out hiking.

Finding the motivation to get out for some photography on the weekends can be a little difficult.  We have always enjoyed hiking on the weekends.  It helps clear our brains and the fresh air and exercise feel great.  However, the extra challenge of planning some photography and getting out early for sunrise (or staying out late for sunset) can be a bit of a psychological and logistical hurdle.  By the time we finish a five day work week at our “paying” jobs, we often find it difficult to scrape up the energy and brain-power to concentrate on our creative hobby.  Weekends can also mean accomplishing a few of the chores that don’t get done during the week.  A big part of the challenge is thinking up new places to hike that have attractive photo opportunities.  Selecting a long-term project, like the Red Rock Book, creates focus for our hiking and photography, so it takes a lot less mental energy to get us out there with the cameras.

We recently changed the knapsacks that we use to carry our photography gear.  We switched to Mindshift Rotational-180 Horizon backpacks.  Most of the gear that we need for a day trip is all packed in the bags.  We can literally grab our packs and a couple of bottles of water and go.  Of course it still requires that we charge the batteries and make sure that we have memory cards ready and in the cameras.   However, we make a habit of doing that after we return from each day of photography.

Having a specific set of photographic goals and photo kit that is ready to grab-and-go helps us to overcoming the psychological and logistical hurdles.  We have found that we have a better attitude about getting out to capture great images.