Photo Journal: The View, Hudson Valley

Olympus E-M1, f/11@1/30 sec, ISO 200, 24mm, no filters

Snow is always something that gets me to brave the cold and head out on the trail. It’s not that I don’t like the winter, because I do, but I don’t tolerate sub-freezing temperatures very well. But with a little preparation and the right clothing, I never pass up a hike in fresh snow. There’s something special about the solitude that a snow covered trail creates that I seldom feel anywhere else.

Keeping my hands warm is my biggest problem as I suffer from poor circulation in my finger tips, and so I rely Hot Hands Hand Warmers which work great. They last for about 5-6 hours, and I put them into my jacket pockets as soon as I get up. Once I’m into a hike, my pockets become small heaters that I can slip my hands into when the gloves come off to work the controls on my camera.

The temperatures were in the low teens when I headed out on this pre-dawn morning, and the sky was fairly overcast. However, I could see breaks along the horizon and I wondered if that might create dramatic light, as it often does.

I was heading to a familiar place, the rocky summit of a small mountain in the lower Hudson Valley with expansive views of the area. Hiking up bare rock covered with snow and ice is not something I attempt unless I’m wearing micro-spikes, so they’re always in my backpack just in case.

At the summit, the sky was mostly grey except towards the east which was a golden red. There were many potential compositions, and finding a place to start can be difficult. But I always rely on the simplest approach-watch the light. And as the sun crested over the horizon, it bathed a small part of the foreground with a delicate yet beautiful warm glow, and I used it to anchor a composition that I felt best captured the scene.

Tonal variation, what painters call values, are really important for creating the illusion of depth in a photograph. And controlling those values, or contrast, is also key to the type of image, and the emotion you want to convey.

In general I prefer not to have the sun in my images because controlling the overall values becomes much more difficult. The sun expands your tonal range dramatically, and that means shadows become much less subtle and nuanced, elements I try to maintain in my photographs.

But I couldn’t avoid the sun in this case in order to keep the composition that I felt was strongest. Relationships are everything in composition, and so generalities are always at the mercy of specific opportunities.

The are several critical factors that I think about when deciding to keep the sun in the image.

  • The light has to be diffused and soft- this makes the exposure more manageable—one single capture in this case, and also makes the light, even including small areas that are blown out, more beautiful.
  • I expose for the most important highlights and shadows- I consider the clouds and sky, observing their relationship to the tonal variations. And I carefully consider the shadows and darkest darks, and whether they need to maintain detail or not.

If I don’t need to maintain some shadow detail in the darkest darks, I let them clip. Don’t be afraid to clip deep shadows- they add depth and “soul” to an image. But most important, it’s a question of how they work within the whole composition; the way they balance visually with the middle tones and highlights.

That was my approach to the composition here, and ultimately it becomes a question of how to lead the viewer through the image in the strongest manner possible. What did I feel and how can I convey that to the viewer.

Compositional analysis: The red area at the bottom defines the foreground and anchors the image, both with its shape (diagonals left and right) and with light. The blue area define the middle ground and darkest values, the bridge from the foreground to the sky – it adds the important depth. The orange lines highlight repeating shapes that also add depth and movement. The yellow line shows the general direction that I want to viewer to follow, and the overall “frame” of the composition.


I processed the single capture in Lightroom 6.4, using a variety of brushes to suggest areas of highlight and shadow, otherwise known as dodging and burning. This further reinforces depth and lets the light take center stage.

Notice how the small bushes on the right side of the frame are simply dark shapes, creating the “middle ground” between the lighter foreground and background where the sun is. This area “bridges” the light from front to back, again adding tremendous depth without the need for shadow detail.

The Print

A final print is where I decide if the image works for me or not, and I made a proof print on an Epson P800 and Canson Infinity Platine Fibre Rag 300gsm. I thought about paper choice for while, but what I think is most important is the weight and depth of the darker areas balanced against the single point of light and it’s effect on the landscape. Platine Fibre Rag, and its great ability to reproduce deep shadows, conveys the “feel” of the image beautifully.

It was dark and almost ominous when I made the image, with the warm light along a small part of the horizon as the only variation. Platine is great for this image (notice I didn’t say this “type” of image, because every image must be evaluated individually,) and with careful soft-proofing, the print maintains its overall brightness and doesn’t look “dark.” This is a common complaint I hear from students, but can be corrected with careful editing, a calibrated monitor, and the proper use of great paper.

Of course the paper is only as good as the ability of the printer to produce great black density and color, and the Epson P800  excels at both. (Stay tuned for a field test on the Epson P800 and how to best optimize Canson papers for it.)

Printed on 13 x 19 Canson Platine Fibre Rag on an Epson P800. Lots of contrast, yet it remains smooth ad soft, like the light in the original scene.

Here you can see the very fine surface texture that Platine Fibre has that differentiates it from a smoother but similar paper like Canson Baryta. I love how this texture is barely visible yet adds a nice depth to landscapes with fine texture; snow and distant mountains both gain extra dimension.

Detail is sharp yet organic and natural  – again conveying the softness of the scene without losing the essence of the textured landscape. 

I hope this in-depth explanation is useful, and please don’t hesitate to share your questions or feedback. It’s all a learning process, and I’m still an infant in my creative exploration. We can all learn together with the skill every infant is born with; curiosity. Thanks for reading!

February 2016 Free Desktop Wallpaper – Hudson Highlands, NY

The February 2016 Free Desktop Wallpaper is now available for download.

As always, come closer to nature in the Hudson Valley.


2880 x 1800 (Retina Displays)

1920 x 1200

1920 x 1080

1680 x 1050


First determine your screen size. Your Current Resolution Is:

Then click on the link for the correct size. When the image opens in a new browser window, right click on the image and select “Set as Wallpaper” (on a Mac, select “Use Image as Desktop Picture”).

Why The Discomfort Zone Leads To Better Creative Work

Campobello Island, CA

Talent is one of those enigmas that seems to come up whenever we’re faced with our most difficult creative challenges. Do we have enough of it? Can it be cultivated or taught? Does it matter?

I like to think of talent as the acknowledgment that you possess the curiosity, motivation, and work ethic needed to become exceptional in a specific area. In other words, a skill you can learn and master. While there will always be more “talented” people around you, the reality is they also went through the same process of discovery and hard work to become as good as they are. Every time I’m awed by an artist in any medium, I’m never surprised to discover they worked at their craft for decades, if not a lifetime.

In his great book “The Little Book of Talent,” Daniel Coyle offers many tips and ideas to learn and potentially master a desired skill. The idea is not to become the “best” in the world, but rather to achieve a skill level you thought was entirely out of your reach.

One powerful idea is to find your “sweet spot” or what I prefer to call your discomfort zone. It’s the place where you’re right on the edge of your ability, where you learn best and fastest.

We can operate in three basic modes when practicing any skill, especially a creative one like photography. Here’s how Daniel describes each one in the book:

  • Comfort zone: Ease, effortlessness. You’re working, but not reaching or struggling.
  • Discomfort zone: Frustration, difficulty, alertness to errors. You’re fully engaged in an intense struggle—as if you’re stretching with all your might for a nearly unreachable goal, brushing it with your fingertips, then reaching again.
  • Survival zone: Confusion, desperation. You’re overmatched: scrambling, thrashing, and guessing. You guess right sometimes, but it’s mostly luck.

You want to be in the discomfort zone as often as possible.

That includes every aspect of your photography, from shooting in the field to editing in Lightroom. Sometimes you succeed, but mostly you fail. Failed attempts are as important as successes because we learn from our many mistakes. Failure doesn’t mean complete failure, but rather the awareness that it’s not quite what you’re after.

I always tell students on my workshops that if the images are coming too easily, they are not challenging themselves enough. Often that means they’re resisting my suggestions to get out of their comfort zone. I understand that, but I also know it’s not going to lead to significant improvement.

Here are a few ways to instantly get into your “discomfort zone.”

  1. On your next shoot leave all your lenses behind but one, and even better, choose it randomly.
  2. Tape a business or card or other heavy weight paper over your cameras LCD preview and spend an hour shooting this way. You’ll be amazed at how much more you “see,” how distracting the technology is.
  3. Buy and use prime lenses-this will drastically change your approach. Don’t want to buy? Rent a lens for a weekend from Lensrentals.
  4. Take a workshop – Of course this depends on the instructor, but my approach to workshops is to put each student into their discomfort zone as often as possible, period. I’m not interested in helping students make trophy shots. I want to influence the way students approach creative photography, and help explore their personal vision. It’s also the reason I teach, because it puts me in my discomfort zone every single time.

I practice each of these regularly, and I can tell you that operating in my discomfort zone has been the key to my growth as a landscape photographer, printmaker, and teacher. And I’m exploring new skills like drawing and painting. They all add to my creative “well” and help me express what I want to share.

Pursue and take advantage of your discomfort zone as often as possible. Yes it can be frustrating and scary, but it’s where the breakthroughs are, the edge of what you’re capable of. Keep that edge moving forward and you’ll surprise yourself in ways you never imagined.

I’ve been there, and I’m still there. It’s not easy, because the comfort zone is very seductive and enticing in today’s popularity driven world. I’ve been there too.

But your creative fire needs fuel, and that fuel is what you can “barely” do.

“One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.” – Albert Einstein

And if you want more ideas for developing your skills, be sure to check out the rest of Daniel Coyle’s book, highly recommended.

Attitude Is Everything for Making Forward Progress

How often have you approached a new location with the explicit goal of making your best landscape photograph? Or maybe a few good photographs? That sounds redundant doesn’t it? After all why else would you visit a new location with your camera bag?

But have you ever considered that this might be the wrong approach to take for success? That having the specific goal of capturing your best image yet may actually hinder your results? Is it possible that there’s a better approach? As you may have guessed by now, I think there is.

I believe the single most important factor in making meaningful landscape photographs is your attitude. My dictionary defines attitude as “a settled way of thinking or feeling about someone or something, typically one that is reflected in a person’s behavior.” For our purposes here, I’ll propose that a healthy attitude is a specific mindset, one that’s conducive to curiosity and open mindedness.

When you start with a goal, you limit your ability to change direction, to adapt to changing conditions, both internally and externally. Seeing is all about spontaneity, and a goal for a specific image is almost never as fluid as simply letting your vision lead the way.

Variability is the norm in nature and that requires a constantly changing and improvising approach when it comes to creative capture. There’s one thing I’ve realized over over again in my work, and also in the many hours I’ve spent working with students in the field. It’s the attitude that has the largest impact on forward progress in your photography.

You might be thinking at this point that forward progress doesn’t actually translate to great or meaningful images. But in fact progress and making your best images are intrinsically connected. You can’t make the best image possible if you aren’t making forward progress. At least not if you want to avoid repeating yourself—in other words, all your images look the same.

And I’ll assume if you’re reading this blog that you want to improve, want to push yourself creatively, and gain confidence and a greater sense of personal vision.

Your attitude affects what you look at, what you notice, and ultimately what you see. And as I mentioned before, it also directly affects your ability to connect with what’s happening around you.

How can you improve your attitude? Here are a few ideas to contemplate.

  • Notice the light, not the time.
  • Don’t ask if there’s anything to photography, ask “what can I learn right now?”
  • After each press of the shutter, focus more intently on the subject, not less. (I almost never see this on workshops, it’s quite the opposite-the more images made, the less engagement there is with the moment, and the more I see students engaged with their cameras.)
  • Finally, worry less about each picture, and focus on making lots of images in a way that keeps you inspired and motivated.

”Don’t worry about unity from piece to piece–what unifies your work is the fact that you made it.” Austin Kleon

Your attitude, why you photograph, and how that translates to your approach in the field, is what will have the greatest influence on your creative output.

And if you really want to push this idea to the limit, start with an attitude of gratitude, the rest will naturally flow from there.

“Take that tool in your hand and let it discover your joy.” – Robert Genn

Questions, feedback, and comments always welcome – lets learn together.

Photo Journal: Shapes of Light

Olympus E-M1 |  f/2.8 @1/400 sec, ISO 400, 180mm, no filters

On a recent hike along a creek, I was captivated by some great organic shapes and textures that had formed in certain frozen areas of the shoreline. I’ve been experimenting with pattern a lot lately, and this gave me a perfect opportunity to try and capture images in the winter that don’t say “winter.”

The challenge in making any good image is capturing interesting compositions that create motion. You can do that in many different ways of course, utilizing the basic design elements like line, color, perspective, and of course light. But when the subject matter lends itself to shapes and patterns, like the frozen surface of water does, it’s the perfect opportunity to practice keeping things simple! In this case I wanted the shapes and textures to become secondary to the overall design, and that helps to keep the viewer moving through the image.

This is a not an easy thing to do, because as I mentioned in my last photo journal, we gravitate towards things we can label. But it’s a great exercise in so many ways; learning to slow down, learning to explore a potential composition from many different angles, and most of all learning the art of simplicity.

This image in particular was a direct result of simply staying with an idea long enough to “see the bigger picture.” At first it was just the interesting lines, then I noticed the organic nature of the curves and how they created larger shapes that seemed to “move” within the frame. I tried both vertical and horizontal compositions, but it was placement of the dark spots that finally made me choose this particular arrangement. I simply chose the strongest arrangement to my eye— a diagonal.

This is an example of the gestalt principle of continuation, where our eyes will continue along an implied line—bottom left to top right. That anchors the image and provides the motion I spoke about earlier.

None of this is to suggest that you should like this image. I do, but that’s not the point, even for me. My personal goal is to try and see things differently whenever I go out, to continually question my initial approach, and see if there’s a composition  that’s  simpler and better. 

Better images result from your creative process, not from measuring your success rate. Far better to ask if you challenged yourself to see differently. The successes will take care of themselves.

Question yourself constantly. Are you defaulting to what’s worked in the past?

“Don’t try to be an artist all at once, be very much of a student. Be always searching, never settle to of something you’ve done before. Always be looking for the unexpected in nature—you can have no formulas for anything; search constantly.” – Charles W Hawthorne (Hawthorne on Painting)