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Olympus E-M1 Mk II, 1/100 sec @f/8, ISO 200, 24mm, no filters

If I had to compare my approach in landscape photography to another art form, the one that immediately comes to mind is jazz, and specifically jazz improvisation. That’s no surprise considering it’s what I listened to most as a teenager and studied in my four years at the Berklee College of Music. After graduation, I shifted more towards music production since it combined my interests in both technology with music, plus it paid the bills more easily.

But my love and appreciation of improvisation is stronger than ever and certainly influences how I capture images. It’s based on a few key ideas which I mentioned in my previous post, namely that:

  1. I’m open to any possibility without being attached to the outcome.
  2. I remain engaged with the light and the landscape as fully as possible.
  3. The “rules” of photography (whether part of the art or craft) serve as a guide, but nothing more. Any rule can be broken if it leads to a stronger image.

What I like most about this approach, however, is that it encourages a “beginner’s mind,” because there’s always room for improvement, for growth, for a better response. No matter how many times you’ve played the same song or visited the same location, a new creative possibility is available every time—and that’s exciting indeed!

Of course, there’s no guarantee that you’ll discover it every time, (or even some of the time), but you can be sure that the effort is always worth it. You have to be on the path before you can discover what the path has to reveal.

This image is very much the result of that approach. I simply walked into the landscape without any preconceptions of what to photograph. Other than being aware of what time the sunrise would occur, I didn’t think of much else aside from giving back to nature what it gave me; attention and gratitude.

As I walked further into the desert I noticed a small sand dune that sparked my curiosity, so I headed towards it to see what I would find. I reached the top of the dune about 10 minutes before sunrise and simply waited for the light to arrive as I contemplated my surroundings and how great it felt to be in the desert once again. The sky was totally clear, the air fresh and cool, and the silence inescapable.

Before long, dramatic light was everywhere creating saturated colors, interesting shadows, and a sense of visual acceleration. I was immediately taken by the lines and textures that appeared in the sand in front of me that lead my eye all the way to the distant rocks and mountains beyond.

I started with a basic vertical composition emphasizing the strongest lines and shapes I saw in order to create a sense of depth. From there I improvised, changing the orientation and position of the camera as I considered how best to capture the moment. This is where a tripod really becomes critical. It provides an anchor to a compositional idea and lets me explore it thoroughly before deciding to move elsewhere.

This is not so easy to do without a tripod, and I rely on this restriction to help me hone in on the best possible composition. Sure you can crop afterward, but if you can make more confident decisions in the field, why not take advantage of that while the raw materials are available? I feel most creative and emotionally connected when I’m in the field improvising with the light, not afterward in front of my computer wishing I had looked and seen more deeply.

From Initial Idea to Final Image

The sequence below shows how I adapted my composition to find what I thought worked the best. Constant attention to the light and the edges of the frame are what help most here, and I simply wanted to make sure there were no weak areas in the image.

I start with the camera low to the sand. trying to use the lines to lead the viewer into the image. But even as I press the shutter button, I’m struggling with the lone bush and the bright rock walls on the right. But I’m engaged visually and creatively, and that’s where it all starts.

 

I move the camera slightly and try to simplify the bush, but again still struggling with the bright distant rock walls. I realize the bush is not really adding to the image, so…

 

I adjust my position again and remove the bush – much simpler in the foreground – now I have to resolve the image in the background…

 

As the light becomes stronger, I decided to play to that and change the background to pick up the distant bushes that now have light and provide a nice diagonal, plus introduce a “cooler” shape, the distant mountains. Much more depth now…but the horizontal orientation adds too much of a good thing…

 

Switching back to a vertical orientation brings the emphasis back to the foreground lines and simplifies the background to simpler shapes and a better balance between the warm rocks on right and cooler mountains in the distance. This is the original raw file before editing.

This whole sequence lasted about 3-4 minutes, but it felt much, much longer. The time span isn’t important—that’s highly dependent on the available light. But it shows how important remaining engaged with changing conditions is to the creative process,  refining an idea until it feels right. 

RAW Developing

Developing the image in Lightroom Classic 7 was rather straightforward, with most of the work being done in the Basic Panel. Setting the proper white and black points really optimizes the tonal range, adding saturation and depth in the shadows. I was careful not to add too much Clarity, as I find it has a tendency to remove the subtlety in an image if overused. I wish I could share more, but really the light and simplicity of the image make editing both easy and fun.

The Print

There was little question in my mind that a textured matte paper was the ideal paper to convey both the texture and the warmth of the image. In fact, the whole experience of making the images was rather meditative, and while there is strong contrast, the sense of place and the way I felt, what I heard, and certainly what I saw is the most important part of the print.

I chose Canson Infinity Printmaking Rag for its subtle and dimensional texture, as well as its ability to hold detail and black density to the degree I feel is needed to make the print work. I printed it on my Canon Pro-1000, and the color is both saturated and organic, and the detail is evident without looking “digital.”

Hope this helps you in your quest to make better images and prints. None of this implies my image is perfect or can’t be improved, or that it appeals to everyone. What matters to me is that you adapt ideas for your own work and that you remain willing to continue to seek improvement.

This image is in the past for me—what matters now is the next experience to grow and learn from my mistakes.

RR Jr

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This Post Has 12 Comments
  1. Thank you, Robert! ‘Always so much appreciated — your Photojournal entries, in particular! While I always learn from and inspired by your philosophy, approach, and technique, I have to say, I too am very drawn to that foreground clump of grass in your initial image. Thanks again!
    Hillel

    1. Thanks for the feedback as always…as Miles Davis used to say, you can always play that note (or use the grass) in the next composition if it works better.

  2. Thanks, Robert. I enjoyed this piece very much. You explain your approach so clearly and with strong writing. I am savoring the implications of key idea number 1: being open to any possibility without being attached to the outcome.

    1. Yes that’s a tough one to adopt because we are so focused on results in our society, but being ok with the unknown is so important to the creative process – Da Vinci showed us that long ago.

  3. Neat story. Showing the various versions before the final one is very helpful. I would likely have struggled to incorporate the foreground clump of grass, but that would have ended up in a more conventional shot not as strong as your final. I guess you have to decide what the subject is.

    1. Thanks for the feedback Pat – yes it’s important to define the subject as clearly as possible and in my case it was “light” from the very beginning. Deciding that helped me eliminate the grass because it made the image simpler and stronger—as long as light remained the strongest element. We often get caught up in the literal, but the “feel” of the image is what matters most.

  4. Hi Robert,

    Great article!

    I loved your thought process capturing an interesting image. I saw the bush in the first photos wondering why they remained in the photo. Ah, read on to see the next couple of photos and and realize change the camera position. I actually think by moving the camera left a bit and allowing the mountains to go darker plus stronger side lighting on the sand creates a stronger final composition.

    BTW, I can’t dance, sing nor do I play a musical instrument, but I’m developing a love for Jazz.

    Rich

  5. Hi Robert, there are several coincidences, I studied 2 years of guitar music and 1963 at the National School of Music in downtown Mexico City, it is also part of my inspiration when I am editing a photograph. I really like the way you’re composing the shot. I started studying photography very late in life, almost at the age of 50. It’s a wonderful and very difficult world, everything for me was new I never read Art, Literature, poetry, my world was Medicine and surgery until I retired I could dissipate more time to photography… Greetings.
    Cordially Federico Flores Moy.

  6. Robert,
    Thanks for sharing. I always enjoy reading your postings on how you experience the environment that surrounds you; mentally, physically, and spiritually. And how you go through a process that hopefully leads to creating a photograph that projects that experience along with the emotions you were feeling at that time.
    Hope all is well in Beacon. My own photographic journey is slow at the moment due to work (this is not an excuse). Your postings not only motivate, but they give me insight into what I can potentially do to enhance my own photographic process.
    Take care,
    Thomas

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