Photo Journal: Making of Desert Light, Utah

Olympus E-M1, 1/8000 sec @f/4, ISO 200, no filters

Seeing is as much about what you see with your eyes as it is about what you feel with your heart. That’s a cliche for sure, but it’s the best way I can describe why I made this image.  We all see and experience the world differently, and becoming aware of what you respond to in any given moment is really important. I look for scenes that resonate with me—that make me aware of something inside that I didn’t feel the moment before I saw it.

A sense of mystery, of wonder, of gratitude.

I was driving along the Colorado River during a rare thunderstorm in Utah, and as I crested a hill, light suddenly filled the sky in front of me. Luckily it was easy to pull off the road, so I immediately parked, grabbed my bag and tripod and walked along the road to find the best vantage point.

You have to imagine that all around me the sky is grey and very ominous, but in this relatively small area, clouds were parting to let some light shine through. This added lots of depth and drama to the sky, a sort of energy that attracted me in a visceral way.

This scene is backlit, meaning the direction of light is towards the viewer, and this makes the outlines of the canyons and mesas very graphic. The shapes and layers of the different mesas are what I wanted to balance with the bright clouds in the sky so that each depends on the other for the composition to work. It’s this tension that I saw and felt originally and wanted to try and capture.

Whether I’ll succeed is always a question that lingers in my mind, but over time I have found that the less I worry about that and focus on reacting to the scene in front of me, the more rewarding photography becomes. Let me phrase that another way; the mere noticing of both the scene and how I reacted is the whole point of photography for me. I had found something to interpret, to try and capture in a way that told the story of it and how I experienced it.

Another thing that I reacted to was that while this landscape is usually dominated by the color red (it’s a desert after all), here that familiar red is missing, replaced by cool shades of blue. It was a departure from the expected, the norm. Mystery can be an essential component of a photograph, and I’m always on the lookout for anything that shifts the viewer’s expectations.

The final key to this image was simplifying it to the essential components. In other words, how much can I remove yet still retain the drama of the moment?

I used an Olympus 40–150mm f/2.8 lens on my Olympus E-M1 and tried to isolate just what was most visually attractive. That’s when I noticed a yin-yang design to the frame; highlights on the left sweeping down and darkness on the bottom right sweeping up, with a punctuation on either side – the single cloud pointing down and left to the corner of the Butte on the right. There are also implied diagonals starting from the bottom left and right, and that provides the visual anchor that leads the viewer up the to sky where the drama and energy are.

One I locked down on the composition, it was a matter of getting the best exposure. I exposed for the highlights, simply because that’s the most important detail in the image. The shadows aren’t nearly as important from a detail perspective because they move the viewer up using the shapes and tones to the clouds where the energy is. The shadows make the highlights all the more important and dramatic. As usual, a few minutes later the light softened until it was gone and it started to rain. And it felt so good.

From Skitch
Red lines indicate the lines and shapes that create the tension between the dark and bright areas of the image. Yellow is where the shadows/shapes help lead the viewer into the image and to the areas of “energy.” The orange lines indicate the implied diagonals. Notice how all the points and lines in the foreground balance with the points and shapes in the sky 9red lines.) That creates the “yin-yang” design I mentioned above. 

I hope these explanations are useful to you from the perspective of how I think about making images. The tools are important, but the process of not only composing an image, but discovering an image is much more important in my opinion, and more rewarding creatively.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below. I am always eager hear from you and help others continue to expand and grow as creative photographers. Thanks for reading!

July 2015 Free Desktop Wallpaper – Dragonfly Canyon, Utah

The July 2015 Free Desktop Wallpaper is now available for download. While Dragonfly Canyon is almost always dry, a quick decision to visit after a rare thunderstorm provided me with a beautiful experience of sight and sound – definitely worth the wet clothes!

As always, come closer to nature in the southwest.


1920 x 1200

1920 x 1080

1680 x 1050

1280 x 800


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”).

Photo Journal: Canyon Lines, Utah

Canyon Lines, Utah – Olympus E-M1, 1/80 sec @f/8, 90mm, ISO 200, no filters

One of the things I see students struggling with most often is knowing where to start—the equivalent of the writer’s blank page. As any writer knows, that’s the most intimidating part of the writing process, where the fear is greatest.

Photography is very much the same especially when we’re in a new location for the first time. Or perhaps you’re revisiting a familiar location but don’t quite know where to start so that you don’t feel like you’re repeating yourself. I’ve been in both situations countless times, as a photographer and a workshop leader. What I can tell you is that there is always a solution, depending on how you look at the problem. “Looking” is the key, and it’s where and how you look that can help you get past the blank page, whether on paper or in your minds eye. But first you have to be in the right frame of mind.

Here’s a recent example. Hiking through a canyon just outside of Moab, Utah one evening, I was struggling with the blank page. I was enjoying the scenery, but nothing seemed to engage me visually. I kept exploring, looking at the beautiful textures and colors everywhere, just trying to get a sense of the place in general. It was a canyon I had never visited before, so while I was excited, I didn’t know where to begin. I thought about how I would handle this situation with a student.

  • The first thing I always suggest is to take a deep breath, and let go of any pressure to do anything. Forget the camera, and focus on being there.
  • The next thing I suggest is to start with light. Where is the light? What’s its quality, its direction? Its mood and feel?

There is always light if you look closely enough. You may not have the right combination of light and subject matter, but there is always light. It may be bright or dark, hard or very soft, but it’s available if you take the time to notice. Before you start photographing a great subject, whatever that is, you need good light. Great light is even better.

So I wandered further along and thought about the magnificent space I was in. The only place I noticed great light was in the sky. In the canyon, however, everything seemed rather flat from a light and shadow perspective. Then I came across this small puddle of water, and I knew I had my first sentence on the blank page. Here was color, contrast, and great light surrounded by the lines and textures of the canyon. But if I photograph just the reflection, then I really remove the context of what I’m trying to capture, namely how it feels to be inside this canyon looking up at the window above me to the sky.
What I wanted to capture was my experience wandering through this canyon. What’s it like to be in such an intimate space given the vastness of the surrounding landscape?

I pointed my camera down at the reflection and reacted to the lines and shapes I saw in the viewfinder. I found a perspective I liked, then mounted my camera on my tripod in roughly the same position. I find working handheld in very limited spaces helps to visualize potential compositions more easily, similar to using a cardboard viewfinder. How do I balance the blue of the sky with the red of the rocks, the organic s-curve that I now notice, which breaks the jagged nature of the rocks and adds a sense of smoothness and rhythm to the composition? S-curves are the first compositional tool I use.

I decide to split the image in half, reflection on one side and rock surface on the other. This creates lots of tonal and textural contrast and also creates three shapes in total, the rock, the sky, and the darker reflection of the rocks above my head. Groups of threes are second compositional tool.

I often talk about anchoring images in the corners, and here I use broad areas of the large shapes to create the four corners—the bottom left being the main entrance into the picture, with the smooth and less saturated area of the water on the bottom right. Both of these lead-up and into the center of the image, where the light and color is strongest. The two shadows in the upper left and right act as resting areas and counterpoints to the texture and color in the center. Diagonal anchors are the third compositional tool I use.

Overall, what I’m really trying to do is make the composition as strong as possible. By surrounding the texture of the rock on the left with reflections, it helps to add depth to the image and keep the viewers attention on the balance between red and blue, highlight and shadow. Simplicity is something I try to achieve in every picture I make. In fact, I would say it’s the first thing I start with and try to maintain throughout the process.

I tried four or five variations of this picture, but it’s the simplest one that I prefer. Ultimately I want the viewer to see more than just what I’ve photographed. I want to convey what I saw in the canyon as a whole. That is more of an experience than a single picture. It’s my interpretation of a hike in a canyon that I found surreal and beautiful.

2015-06-29 12.15.01

13″ x 19″ printed on Epson 3880 with Canson Infinity Platine Fiber Rag – a beautiful fine art paper with a luster finish, slight surface texture and great color and contrast that really helps emphasize what I want the image to convey. 

Feedback or questions, please let me know below. Thanks for reading!

June 2015 Free Desktop Wallpaper

The June 2015 Free Desktop Wallpaper is now available for download.

As always, come closer to nature in the southwest.


1920 x 1200

1920 x 1080

1680 x 1050

1280 x 800


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”).

Working on Personal Vision

Olympus E-M1,  f/8@ 1/320 sec, ISO 200, 40mm, no filters

Patterns, textures, and colors are everywhere in the southwest, often in the smallest of details. While I love the grand landscape, there’s a personal satisfaction I get from noticing the essence of a location. How can a story be told with a color, or a shape, or ultimately what Jay Maisel calls “gesture?”

One way is to contrast the details with the grand, experiencing “awe” at nature’s beauty and simplicity. That challenges the viewer of your images to observe the world in a new way, and may elicit the same emotions in them that you experienced when you pressed the shutter. For me that’s the ultimate goal of nature photography, to inspire discovery and introspection.

That may seem like something too conceptual, too abstract and far reaching. But it starts the moment you walk into the field with your camera. There’s an extra sense of awareness, of the surroundings, the environment. Then you look and try to see. When you make an image that expresses what you appreciate and resonate with in nature, it brings you one step closer to that elusive concept of “personal vision.”

“The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” – Henry David Thoreau

It’s the hard road in photography for sure, but certainly the most meaningful and worthwhile one you can travel.

Olympus E-M1,  f/11@ 1/2 sec, ISO 200, 24mm, no filters