Photo Journal: Snow and Trees, Hudson Valley

Olympus E-M1,  f/5.6 @1/100th sec, ISO 640, 80mm (35mm format), no filters

We’ve had some significant snow fall in the Hudson Valley recently, and wth the forecast calling for more during the morning hours, it was an invitation I couldn’t resist.

Hiking in the snow is one of my favorite activities, and if it’s snowing, its all the more special. Instead of the sublime silence that you normally experience in the woods with snow on the ground, there’s the almost inaudible, yet unmistakable sound of snow crystals in the air. 

There’s also the ephemeral diffusion that snow imparts on the landscape, similar in many respects to fog, yet more energetic and transitory-the individual flakes create movement, streaks, and even directional lines.

It’s all fascinating visually, but capturing something that has a sense of harmony is difficult at best. I’ve been in situations like this many times, but often return with images that seem like a bunch of elements thrown together haphazardly.

As I came across this scene however, I recognized the potential for a good composition containing the three elements that I look for in every image – otherwise known as “LCU.”

  • Does the composition Lead the eye? Yes, the staggered pattern of the tree roots creates a diagonal starting at the bottom left and moves up through the middle ground continuing up along the dark shapes of the trees.
  • Is there a Center of interest? Yes, the trees themselves have the strongest tonality and visual weight in the image, and they create a pattern and rhythm that is easy to see. This promote a sense of importance, distinct from the background.
  • Does the composition look Unified? Yes, and this is where the falling snow and the effect it creates as I mentioned above, helps to add a sense of continuity from front to back, and also adds a diagonal component to add tension to the vertical nature of the trees.

While I was using a tripod, I did raise my ISO to 640 because I wanted to make sure my shutter speed froze the snowflakes just enough to prevent them from becoming white streaks only. A quick check on my LCD at 1/30th sec (ISO 200) showed that wasn’t the case. I also wanted to maintain a good depth of field so that the background trees looked distinct, adding to the sense of rhythm and pattern of the whole scene.

All of this is an exercise in analysis, important to understanding the compositional decisions I made in the field. But I really don’t think about these things in such specific terms until it’s time to explain them in writing, like I’m doing now.

Otherwise, I prefer it to remain more organic, more intuitive, more improvisational. I made other images, reacting to tonal variations, the changing snow, and most importantly my own emotional response.

I walked slowly, stopping often to simply observe, respond, and smile. I realized how fortunate I was to feel the snow hitting my face, the cold awakening me to the simple beauty of nature, and life.

The red lines show the main path leading the viewer, established at the bottom corner, and repeated by other similar shapes and tones diagonally and dimensionally (front to back) adding to the sense of depth. The yellow lines show the rhythm created by the vertical shapes of the trees -notice the variation in their tones and their spacing, no two are the same. That mostly comes from moving the camera ever slow slightly left and right to change their relative positions, and relationships. The green boxes represent the major division of the composition creating the background, and tonal balance, for the dark trees. 

Photo Journal: Fall Light, Maine

Olympus E-M1, 96mm, f/11 @1/250, ISO 200, no filters

In my previous article, Photographing the Familiar with Fresh Eyes, I provided some suggestions for photographing familar landscapes that have work for me as I return to favorite locations over and over again. I thought I would share some of what that looks like in practice on a recent outing to Eagle Lake in Acadia National Park. I used most of those suggestions to some degree or another in making this image. The important thing to remember is that I don’t think of them as a checklist, but really just an approach that helps me stay focused and inspired.

In the Field

I was visiting Eagle Lake before an upcoming workshop, thinking about making some basic pencil sketches in my sketchbook. I’ve photographed there many times before, so I wanted to try something different yet creatively challenging.

But, I always have my camera with me, so I couldn’t resist making a few photos at sunrise. (I didn’t like the results once I reviewed them later.) Afterwards I decided to walk around the shoreline enjoying the morning and stopping here and there to notice the light and make some quick sketches. As I continued to walk the shoreline, the quality of the light really caught my attention. It was soft and even through most of the scene, with a small amount breaking through the clouds and illuminating colorful foliage on the distant mountain.

The stillness of the water created a wonderful bright reflection of the sky, but since most of the grasses and rocks were not in direct light, their graphic shapes created silhouettes that stood out and added depth and interest in a simple way. This also created a reduced contrast range which would enhance the softer quality of the entire scene, and allow me to capture it in one exposure.

Light was the single most important part of my decision to consider making the photograph. That already helps me differentiate this image from the others I’ve made because it’s unlikely I have captured this type of lighting situation before.

There were lots of foreground elements I could have captured with a wide angle lens, but that would have diluted the essence of the image, the light. More trees along the shoreline, more foreground grasses, more rocks—none of that would have added to the image, it would have detracted. All I needed was the basic essentials and the rest is left to the viewers imagination.

Also, a wide angle lens distorts the scene, pushing the background further into the distance, and with it the light I wanted to make more prominent, not less.

I used an Olympus E-M1 with the 40-150mm f/2.8 lens mounted on an FLM tripod set to 96mm to compress the scene, yet maintain some foreground to background movement with the grasses in the lower part and the gradation of the sky leading the viewer up to the color on the mountain and the sky. The depth is maintained I think, by having larger elements become smaller as they move up the composition, and by the silhouettes balancing the brighter, more colorful parts of the image in the upper half.

The vertical orientation is critical because it enhances that visual movement from bottom to top where the lines and center of interest are. Unity is provided by keeping those elements as simple as possible – just enough sky, water, foreground, and background. Too much clutter in the water and the viewer never really gets past that part of the image, which is the largest. It’s the gradation that provides the movement, with some graphic elements to provide tension and context.

I was aware that depth of field might be an issue, so I used an aperture of f/11, which on my mirrorless camera (M4/3 sensor) at 96mm is plenty for this image. The foreground grasses were at least 100 feet away from me, so I was confident I would have enough to render the grasses and the distant mountain relatively sharp for a large print.


The red lines represent the general path I want the viewer to follow in the image making the light the center of interest. The yellow lines represent the gradient that also emphasizes the movement from bottom to top. The blue lines show subtle repeating shapes getting larger from bottom to top.

Finally, being aware of how fleeting this situation was, I wanted to keep all of my focus and attention on nature, not the back of my camera. Sure, I checked the first few images to make sure my histogram wasn’t clipping highlights or shadows (otherwise I don’t know if I’ve captured all of the available tones in the scene). But after that I watched the light intently as it grew stronger and stronger and eventually became too harsh for the image I had in mind.

I don’t get this right all the time, in fact I fail most times, assuming we define failure as not making a successful image. But for me it’s always a win-win situation, because I continue to practice presence and awareness, and try not to make any judgements before I see what nature has to offer.

If you can learn to simply recognize the difference between your judgments and what’s actually in front of you, captivating images that are also more meaningful will come your way.

The Print


13″ x 19″ printed on Canson Infinity Print Making Rag 310gsm / Epson P800 printer

I printed this image on Canson Infinity Print Making Rag, which is a mat paper with a very distinct but fairly smooth texture. That texture helps to unify the image adding some surface interest to all parts of the image— the water, the mountain, and the sky. Smooth areas in the image are not compromised by the texture because the strong graphic shapes and the light are what create the path for the viewers eye to follow.

The lower contrast range of a mat paper also helps complement the softness of the scene—providing richness in the shadows without making them too dominant. Dmax or density—the amount of black ink a paper can hold with clarity—is important when an image can benefit from it.

However, in this case, it would actually distract from the feel I want to impart with the image. Knowing what you want to convey with your image is critical to choosing the right paper. It gives you more creative control of how a viewer perceives your work, a personal and important aspect of developing your vision.

If you print your own work, this too helps to interpret the familiar in your own unique way.

Photo Journal: Herring Cove, Campobello Is., NB

Olympus E-M1 | f/4 @1/15 sec, 62mm (Olympus 40-150mm), ISO 200, no filters

So much of landscape photography is about being open to discovery. We may have an idea of what a potential image might look like, but that’s only possible given certain circumstances, many of which are usually out of our control.

That’s really the story of this image. On several visits to this shoreline at Herring Cove in New Brunswick, I considered several approaches to making an image. What I could use as foreground elements, how I might position my camera, what lens and focal length I might use.

I imagined an image that featured the rocks that only become exposed at low tide, perhaps with more rocks in the middle ground to create depth, and finally the many different hues of green in the trees in the background to create color variation and interest. The sky area would provide the cool blues that so often help add depth to an image—as we know warm colors come forward, cool colors recede. And so I had a plan.

On my final visit at sunrise however, nature had her own plans as usual. And this to me is the moment when photography becomes most exciting, when the chance to enter a “flow” state is greatest. Plans and preconceptions give way to single-minded attention and spontaneity.

At least they should if you want to give as much of yourself as possible to the moment; where flow happens and your creative instincts can take over.

As I looked at the scene, I decided that the sky, the colors, and the light were my subjects, certainly not what I had envisioned before. And so I reversed my previous idea for a composition. I would use the colors and patterns of the sky to create the image, and balance that with the foreground elements as a compliment.

The dark silhouettes of the trees and shoreline became areas to contrast the energy of the colors—a passive area that provides even greater interest to the active area—the sky.

Dark shadows, especially silhouettes, also influence the rhythm of an image, in that they slow down the viewer’s eye to some degree. This influences the feel of an image, and helps to focus the attention on what I wanted to convey—that very elusive quality we all need to share in our images, emotion.

Visual Design

From a design standpoint, I used a basic diagonal from bottom right to top left. The reflection in the immediate foreground served as a way to enter the image, and also provided the repetitive semi-circular shapes that I played with to lead the viewer’s eye up to to the tress and sky. There are three of them, which is a fundamental element you should always look for in your compositions. Three similar shapes, patterns, or colors for example, is almost always visually interesting.

But all of that is secondary to the sky, and this is where I had the greatest challenge and difficulty. How much sky? Where do I place the horizon? Which part of the sky has the strongest colors and greatest variation? These are all questions I asked myself in the brief moments I worked this scene, because as you well know, time is the other factor, changing the conditions by the second. Ultimately what I’m after is the simplest image possible that contains the essence of my experience.

The only way I know how to solve these kinds of problems is to remain engaged in the energy of the moment and focus on responding, not reacting. My definitions are as follows:

  • Responding: using the fundamentals of camera technique and composition intuitively, and staying open to the visual elements as they are, without judgment or expectation. A spontaneous moment follows another spontaneous moment. Connection to the landscape and your personal interpretation is higher or highest.
  • Reacting: self-criticism, judging the images you’re making while making them, and generally becoming more and more trapped in the mechanics of the process. Connection to the landscape and your personal interpretation is much lower, or lowest.

The only way to be more “responsive” is to eliminate as many variables as possible that you can control, so that you can focus on the real task, the creative process. When you don’t have to think about lens choice, focal length, exposure settings, and compositional options, you’re free to focus more on how to capture a scene as strongly as possible, aesthetically and emotionally.

I don’t care if the images I’m capturing work or don’t work when I’m in the field, I only care about responding. The histogram is the only thing I check on the LCD to make sure I’ve captured the proper tones. I know that may sound hard to believe, but what other option is there really?

The time to judge and evaluate your images is when the moments to respond are over, which are often brief and elusive. For me that time is back at home on my computer.

As long as I’m in the field, I’d rather take advantage of that opportunity, that privilege really, to keep my vision (both physically and emotionally) connected to the reality around me. Plus research has shown your brain works much better when you remain engaged on a single task versus switching between the creative side and the editing side—from left to right sides of the brain.

I made eight images starting at 5:42am and ending at 5:46am, and then the color was gone. You can see in the screenshot of Lightroom below that most of what I struggled with was the upper left corner, balancing the trees, the tones in the sky, and the relationship of both to the reflection in the lower right. There’s also a nice tonal line in the sky upper right that I also considered, but I felt it wasn’t as important as the lower right in terms of establishing the strongest diagonal.


The red lines show the general path I want to viewer to follow through the images based on the strongest lines along areas of highest contrast. Notice they flow along a diagonal path and divide the image between the “active” area (shown by the yellow lines) and the less active, or “passive” area (shown by the grey lines. The concept of active and passive areas influence the unity of an image, its visual rhythm, and the over focal point – in this case the vibrant colors and patterns of the sky. BTW – I never really think about the labels – “sky” for example, when composing, but rather about color, tonal values, lines, and how they all relate. 

This to me is really the key to the image, where to place the division between the main axis of the image – color vs no color, detail vs very little detail, and dark shadows without any life vs the real life of the image. The reflection in the sand at the bottom is critical in so many ways, yet is only complementary, like the intro to a song. 

The Print


Here’s a print of the image on Canson Infinity PrintMaKing Rag (printed on an Epson P800), probably my favorite mat papers for images where I really want to de-emphasize the photographic nature of an image, and bring attention to shapes, colors, patterns, and the feel of the relationships they create. Shadow detail is not the key here, but rather how the tones and colors work together without overpowering each other. A mat paper is great when nuance and subtlety is most important to the vision of the photographer. For me it conveys more of what I felt standing on the beach that morning.

None of this is easy or obvious, and comes from years of practice and error, lots of error. But hopefully these “notes’ provide you with idea and inspiration you can use in your own path, which is certainly as valid as anyone else’s.

Please share your thoughts and questions, it’s always an honor to read what you have to share.

Photo Journal: Tree Light, Mohonk Preserve

Over the years I’ve come to realize more and more that making an image is as much about what we bring to a moment as it is what the moment has to offer. Nature offers or confers an invitation for visual and emotional engagement, but we must be willing to listen, to receive, to see.

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert says, “Curiosity is the truth and the way of creative living,” and it’s the curiosity that will never let you down in nature. For me that pretty much describes how I made this image. It’s the constant curiosity I have in how light interacts with shapes, colors, forms, and our visual sense of the world. But mostly it’s how that makes me feel.

It had rained all night and the forecast called for more light rain, so I wasn’t sure what to expect at the Mohonk Preserve near my home. I decided to go anyway because I’d rather spend time in nature under almost any condition versus staying at home or visiting my local cafe (as much as I enjoy that.) Mohonk is also near and dear to my heart. It was and continues to be my training ground so to speak, a place I know intimately yet never tire of visiting.

It was wet and foggy when I arrived but the forest had a wonderful feel that can best be described as serene and unmistakable. It’s a place I know well, both emotionally and physically. This is why you’re here, I thought as I walked on the trail, trying not to hope for anything but rather to give my fullest attention.

That’s not an easy thing to do, and too often I have found myself wanting something more: better light, more clouds…less this, more that. But none of that “mental baggage” makes any difference does it. In fact it makes matters worse, because the attention, the curiosity, is diminished, or even gone completely.

How do I know this? Because it’s happened to me many, many times. And guess what, it’s never resulted in a better picture. It’s only when I remain aware and curious that I might have the chance to see more deeply; to remain engaged.

After about 2 hours of wandering and capturing a few images here and there, I decided to head home, happy about the time I had spent amongst friends (trees) and wondering when I would return. Just then the fog started to lift just a bit and very subtle light started to penetrate the forest floor.

As the fog lifted, I followed the light as it became warmer higher in the forest canopy, and I saw this particular scene. My initial and sole attraction was the lone tree projecting out from the rock wall. Why this tree? Because its gesture, (an term I learned from Jay Maisel), was accentuated by its silhouette and the bright warmish light behind it. It also lacks color whereas the area surrounding it contains the only green in the composition, adding emphasis to its meaning.

I wanted to make the image simply about that little tree, but it’s the scale I also wanted to capture because that really adds a sense of depth and drama. A relatively narrow focal length was needed to isolate that area since I was standing at least 50-60 feet away from the tree and rocks. I initially started with a horizontal orientation, but I quickly switched to a vertical format to take advantage of the lines and major shapes, which are all moving vertically.

It wasn’t until I started to “frame” the composition that I noticed the pattern of the large “masses,” from very dark, to light, and back to darkness. And because the strong lines lead without any ambiguity, I “pushed” that very dark area on the left more and more into the composition in an effort to make the transition that much more dramatic. As long as I could maintain a general diagonal design, and the light remained warm and beautiful, the shadows would help make the image that much more powerful.


The red lines show the main leading lines as well as the division between the 3 masses, all having different tonalities and texture but unified by pattern. The yellow lines show that variation and how they move the eye towards the center of interest (green.) The orange lines indicate the highlights and detail that I made sure not to clip on my cameras histogram. Shadows clipped in the darkest areas.

In my recent talk at B&H, I explain the three core elements of composition: leading lines, center of interest, and unity. When I bring the viewfinder to my eye, these are the things I’m looking for simultaneously, and they directly affect how I move the elements around in the scene.

I made a few exposures careful not to clip the highlights because I needed the detail on the rocks. Camera settings on my Olympus E-M1 were:  f/4 @ 1/125, 60mm (40-150mm lens), ISO 400, no filters. And of course as always happens, things never remain the same, and the light moved on.

I’m often asked how to capture fog, and the answer is I don’t capture fog. I try to capture light because that’s the thing that provides the energy for an image. The fog certainly adds a special element to the light, but nonetheless it’s the light that I look for. Fog affects contrast, color, detail, and of course light. And all of these influence the mood of an image, which ideally is simply a reflection of the photographers emotional experience at the moment the shutter button was pressed.

So instead of photographing fog, try to look for variation and interesting light. It’s how fog affects a scene that’s interesting, not the fog itself.

During a recent printing workshop where I had the print displayed, I was asked to talk about this image, and I found myself at a loss of words. That’s ironic given how much I’ve written here, but I suppose it was similar to being asked to describe my feelings at that moment. nI simply said I was reacting to my curiosity, to my gratitude, and to my need for moments such as these.

Develop and Print

I often talk about how an image can suggest a feel, a mood, an ambiance. And that’s what I want to convey with this image, so developing the image and selecting a paper is about maintaining those impressions as faithfully as possible. The shadows aren’t important with respect to detail, they add drama and support the light, so a mat paper is ideal from that standpoint alone.

Original RAW capture

In addition, the light needs to be communicated as softly and as nuanced as possible, yet retain the contrast in the lone tree with it’s suggestive shape and motion. A random but subtle texture would also add interest to the dark areas in all four corners, as well as add some dimension to the center rock.

A paper that’s up to that challenge is Canson Infinity’s PrintMaking Rag, and it works great for this image. This print is 13” x 19” wth a 1.5” border on the left and right side. It really captures what I remember about the moment, in a way that is both clear yet subtle. I want to invite curiosity in a print, and I think the paper leaves room for that tonally without compromising the very important details in the highlights.

Printed on Canson Infinity PrintMaking Rag, 310gsm, Epson P800 printer. 

I’d love to hear your feedback, so feel free to contribute below. Thanks as always for your attention.

Photo Journal: Lower Courthouse Reflection, Utah

Canon 5DS R |  f/14@1/30 sec, ISO 100, 29mm, no filters

I’ve been a bit quiet here on the blog for a few reasons, mainly because of a busy travel schedule. I’m currently in Moab, Utah for the upcoming Arches and Canyonlands workshop, just days after a ten day trip to northern Italy with my family. That was mostly a personal trip but I did manage to capture a few interesting images which I will post soon.

Another reason is simply a lack of time due to several projects I’m working on. But no worries, I am very much committed to the blog and sharing as much as possible in hopes that if helps you in your creative pursuits.

I wanted to share an image I captured a few days ago while hiking in one of the lesser known areas of Arches. It was late in the evening and I didn’t think I would have any opportunities to make the kind of image I had in mind. I didn’t start the hike with a specific image in mind, that’s something that develops as I respond to what I see. In fact I wouldn’t even want to start with a pre-visualization because I think that inhibits your potential connection to what’s actually happening in nature.

Lets not forget, Ansel Adams talked about “visualization,” which means that in real time he formed in his mind a picture of what he saw and felt. That’s a dynamic and fluid situation that keeps you engaged with nature. Where is the light at every instant? How is if affecting the tonality, highlights and shadows, and most importantly your internal dialogue?

So as I thought about where I was and how I felt, I imagined an image that felt cool and dark, yet had something that captured the beauty I saw and the gratitude I had for opportunity to experience it yet again. But it was simply too dark and the contrast too extreme to make an image of the interior of the canyon and the golden light hitting the walls above. That’s when I came across this pool of water and wondered if I might have enough of a reflection to “fill” the foreground with the same warmth and light above.

I got my tripod fairly low to the ground and worked the composition for what seemed like too long of a time considering the light was slowly disappearing as it moved up the canyon walls. As I looked through the viewfinder, I realized it was important to keep the entire reflection of the tall rock intact, and also important to get a sharp silhouette of the trees on the right. I didn’t want to retain shadow detail, I just wanted the shapes because the it’s the blue sky in the reflection that adds the contrast, the “cool” element I mentioned before. It keeps the feeling of being inside of a canyon, which felt cool. Too much detail in the reflection or the canyon background and the image becomes too busy, less clear.

When I first edited the image in Lightroom, I thought I wanted to lighten the foreground, but I found it moved away from the feel I wanted the image to have. So I tried darkening it even further and that made the silhouettes more effective, and the blue color of the sky darker and richer. A little bit of highlight recovery for the brightest part of the sky and I was basically done. I must admit I was tempted to lighten some of the trees and other foreground elements, but every time I did, it moved away from the image I had in mind.

It’s so tempting to repeat the things that have worked in the past, or to follow conventional ways of capturing and processing our images. But as I always tell my students (as a way of reminding myself), use your eyes. Look at the image on your monitor and decide if it resonates with you, never mind what the controls or camera settings are.

There are no formulas, no presets, and no guarantees in creative photography. The only thing you can be confident in is your emotional connection to the subject. Then you try again, and again, and again.