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The Necessity of Photographing Light

One of the best things you can do to improve your images is to photograph light instead of objects. It’s something I focus on in every workshop and is central to the way I myself compose images.

I shared this in a recent newsletter and received some feedback which I think misunderstood the concept. The concern was that if you photograph light, the image might become more “abstract art” than an identifiable landscape.

While I can appreciate that, the confusion lies between how we perceive things in reality and how a photograph communicates that to the viewer.

When we experience a landscape, there’s a lot more going on than simply what we see with our eyes. (If not then you should seriously question your motivation to make a photograph.) And even what we see is significantly influenced by our subjective perception.

For example, research has shown that not only is color subjective, but certain colors provoke strong feelings in people. Blues and purples are more pleasant than yellows, for instance, while greens tend to be the most arousing.

Yet the photographic medium limits us to a single sense, the visual sense. Within that we understand and use what we can call the “visual language.” Light in all its variations is a major component of that language.

Photographing light does not mean ignoring the subject of your landscape. It means using light to give meaning and emphasis to the center of interest, to imbue the image with a sense of depth that goes beyond the literal.

What I strive for the most is to make the location and subject matter almost irrelevant, in favor of evoking an emotion. That’s because when I see a tree, or a lake, or a seascape, I want to convey what I feel, not what I see. I want the image to resonate with the viewer.

Light is the most powerful way to convey that. When a photograph or painting resonates with me, it’s almost always because of the way the artist has used light in a powerful convincing manner.

Study light in all its forms, from a beautiful red sunset to a foggy misty day. It will reveal much when you look closely.


Everything in this image is composed around the light, and how it affected lines, shapes, colors, patterns and drama.


Light forms the shapes and creates interest, energy, and scale. Very little about the actual “objects” interests me. The light is what I see and feel. 

The Image-Centric Approach to Paper Selection

One of the most common questions I receive about fine art printing is Which paper is best for…black and white images, or landscapes, or portraits?” And I totally understand those questions because I used to ask myself the same questions when I started down the path of printing my own work.

But eventually either you start to look at other paper options and wonder if there’s a better choice, or one (or many) of your prints don’t quite work as well as you’d like on your “chosen” paper.

Perhaps you’ve had the feeling that there’s something missing, but you don’t know exactly what that is. Or you simply accept the doubt because you think that’s the best you can do given the materials at hand. I’ve been there too.

On one such occasion, I decided to experiment with some sample papers I had received from my local dealer, and before the day was over, a whole new world had opened up to me. I had stumbled upon a new way (at least for me) of imagining my prints, and my landscape photography. For the first time I saw more of what I had envisioned in the field simply by using a paper that had a different texture or finish than what I was used to.

And that’s when I learned that there was more than one approach to selecting papers, one that could potentially allow me to become more creative with my prints. I learned that papers that have more contrast or saturation don’t lead to better prints. Nor is texture to be avoided with highly detailed images. It all depends on what you want to say with your prints. 

Lets examine the two approaches that I think are most common amongst photographers and print makers.

  • Paper-centric Approach – In a paper-centric approach, you evaluate different papers and their characteristics and decide which paper is best for you. This implies that most if not all of your images will be printed on this paper. You may have more than one favorite paper, but the focus is generally on the paper, not the image.
    When photographers ask me to recommend a paper for their images, or for a particular subject matter, ie. landscapes, I can tell they are using this approach. My answer is usually I don’t know.

  • Image-centric Approach– Instead of finding one paper that works best for your images, or even which paper is best for b&w or HDR, you evaluate each image based on what you’re trying to convey and choose a paper that best complements or strengthens that vision.
    The paper selection comes after you’ve determined what the image is about, not before. This allows you to be much more expressive with your prints, and use the unique qualities that a great paper can add to your images.

Because I use Canson Infinity papers, there is an exceptional range of high quality papers to choose from. But this doesn’t mean that I select from the whole range  because there are some papers that generally don’t complement the style of my images. 

Once you identify the papers that do complement your style and vision, and get to know those papers well, you can leverage them for their strengths and make stronger prints. I also love how this promotes a creative approach to print making, which can lead to many eye-opening surprises

I’m not saying that one approach is necessarily better than the other, but for me the image-centric approach definitely allows me to make the most expressive prints possible. It lets me become more creative and effective with paper selection. Given that we have the choices and technology that were never available to generations of photographer before us, I think it’s an artistic privilege tat I want to take advantage to produce the best work I can. 

Learning how to match an image to a specific paper requires at least these four factors:

  1. Clarity about what the image is about and how you want to convey that to the viewer.
  2. Understanding the specific tonal, textural, and aesthetic characteristics of a specific paper or range of papers.
  3. Allowing a print to become an object separate and distinct from the digital file or representation on your monitor or electronic device. Too often we fall into the trap of wanting to match what we see on screen, yet I believe this is a mistake. These are distinct mediums with their own unique ways of representing tone and color. Furthermore, this diminishes the role of the paper in creating a new or enhanced interpretation of the image—the reason we print in the first place. What matters most is not matching what we see on screen, but making a print we can be proud of. 
  4. Trial and error – Yes it’s unavoidable that paper will be wasted, but it’s the only way to truly learn the nuances of paper selection. Printing workshops can help as well, assuming paper selection is a major focus. (We dedicate a large portion of our workshops to this very topic.)

A painter adapts his approach and methods to the medium he’s painting on for the greatest aesthetic and emotional impact. Likewise I think a similar approach to paper selection yields the most captivating prints. Combine that with the excellent papers available from Canson Infinity, and there’s much to explore for the creative print maker.

I love paper and how it impacts and refines my vision as a landscape photographer. If you want to elevate your prints, or your photography though print making, the use of the right paper can make all the difference and set you on a new path of photographic discovery as it did for me years ago.

I’ll share more tips and insights about paper selection in future posts. Thanks for reading!

Photographing the Familiar with Fresh Eyes

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“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” – Confucius

So often students will ask me how is it that I can return to familiar locations over and over again and keep the experience, not mention the images, fresh, creative, and productive. That’s a perfectly valid question and one I have tried to answer myself over the years.

For me is starts with a mindset, one that doesn’t guarantee success, but puts me in the best possible attitude for success.

There is certainly much to be said about the excitement of a new place, something I enjoy as much as any other nature photographer I suspect. There’s no denying the thrill of seeing something for the first time, up close in person. It’s the reason why we love spending as much time as possible in nature, and the more variety the better.

Yet it is also unreasonable to think that the only time to photograph is when we find ourselves in a new and unique environment. (Read more on the importance of familiar landscapes. )

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Approaching a familiar landscape with fresh eyes however is an extremely valuable skill to practice. I say “skill” because the approach can be learned for sure. Here are some suggestions I’ve used and field tested with success and hope you consider adopting when faced with the familiar.

  • Stay present – The more you remain engaged in what’s actually happening, the more likely you are to see and feel. Without some kind of emotional connection, it will be hard to convey anything more than a picture of the objects you photograph instead of what you’re responding to. A simple daily meditation practice can also be extremely helpful.
  • Look for light first – No matter where you are, light is the essential ingredient in a captivating image. Others will respond to that first no matter where the image was captured. The easiest way to move beyond location is to photograph light and it’s ability to convey emotion, mystery, and meaning.
  • Avoid judgement and self-criticism – Avoid the insatiable desire to check and judge every image captured on your cameras LCD. Once you press the shutter button, remain connected with the thread of inspiration that made you press the shutter to begin with. Keep your eyes engaged, look deeply, explore variations on the composition, and stay aware of the subtle changes in light. The more you stare at your LCD, the further away you get from what matters—the present moment of discovery.
    The thread of creativity can be very thin, and total concentration is the only thing that will keep it from weakening, or breaking all together. I can not stress this point enough–editing is best left for after you’re done creating. The more you remain in the right side of your brain, the more effective you will be as a photographer. 
  • Try something outside your comfort zone or instinctive approach – Not sure where to start? Try something put of the norm, like a different lens or focal length than what you’d normally use, or better yet just bring one lens in your bag. Resist the urge to move as soon as you think there’s nothing left to capture. I often return to familiar locations and simply stay in one spot because I can—there’s no rush to go anywhere else because I’m ok with just being where I am.
    Somehow I become more aware of things I would have missed before because I was too busy looking for the right place instead of exploring all options.
    There’s a difference between working with the canvas in front of you versus wandering around trying to find a canvas. That simple limitation will force you to consider elements more closely before dismissing them for something imagined.

The challenge of familiar places is that it puts the onus of creativity where it belongs—on you. That means you have to push yourself to see what’s really there instead of relying on the new, which always seems exciting at first. It makes you work harder for images, helping develop your vision and your sensitivity to what really resonates in your heart.

Yes it’s difficult, but it’s a sure way to make images that are your own when everything comes together. It will also help you become more objective about your work, because you won’t become seduced by novelty, but instead evaluate an images on it’s aesthetic merits.

Progress is made when you reach for what’s just beyond your grasp, and you have a sense of what you need to do to succeed. Valuing that experience is how you come to approach every opportunity equally, regardless of where you are. 

The Eye vs the Camera

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Flowers at Bowtie, UT – Canon 1Ds Mk III, 1/125 sec @f/11. ISO 200, 25mm, no filters

One of the things I try to instill in students is the importance of understanding that a camera does not “see” the way our eyes see. While this may seem obvious, it is surprising how many photographers assume that what they see on their monitors at home is somehow an accurate representation of what they reacted to when they made the picture.

I specifically used the word “reacted,” because that’s what we do when something inspires us visually at first, and then emotionally soon after, to setup the tripod and make a picture. Of course we don’t notice them being separate, we simply see something that makes us feel a certain way and start snapping away.

How we feel is the essential component of any creative expression, and as photographers it’s what we strive to include in the pictures we make.

The more we make the picture about our feelings and less about the photography itself, the more effective and meaningful our work becomes.

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This is the image the camera captured – but the image above is what I saw and felt.

Neuroscience is discovering more and more about how the brain works, and in particular how what we see is mostly a construct of the brain. It receives information from the retina and then interprets and combines that with context, experience, and perceptual shortcuts that enable us to make sense of the world in very short period of time – milliseconds.

A camera sensor captures exactly what is in front of it, without any of these subjective elements. That’s ok if you’re interested in documenting reality. But if you want to express what you feel, then you have to think about how developing an image in Lightroom can aid or hurt the success of your work.

It also shows how we can all stand in front of the same scene and make different pictures, even with the same exact cameras. It’s your uniqueness as a person that makes the difference.

Needless to say, it’s essential to control the outcome. Simply relying on the camera to faithfully capture the essence of your “reaction” is likely to leave you feeling frustrated.

This TedEd video explains more on how the eye and the camera are different. While it focuses on video cameras, the underlying technology is the same.

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