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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.

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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!

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Your lucid explanation leaves me gasping. It is all so obvious when explained but I doubt that I would have seen it. Probably my sense of scale would have been a barrier as I would have looked for a larger scene.

    Thank you.

  2. Thanks so much for the detailed description of your thinking process in taking this stunning photo! Very helpful.

    May I ask: What lens did you use to take this with your E-M1? Thanks again!

  3. Great explanation. And amazing image. It’s been too long since I have grabbed my camera and went shooting. This weekend I am heading out. Thanks for the inspiration.

  4. Great blog post! It’s very enlightening to read your thought process in composing this shot. Great image, BTW! I am a big fan of the intimate landscape.

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