Photography Is Not Just One Thing

In the last post, I talked a bit about how a photojournalistic approach has helped me “get the shot” in varied conditions. A photojournalistic approach is about communicating how you connect with your subject so that others can, too. I happen to love that approach and you will see it in much of my work.

Not everyone likes that approach. There are many approaches to photography, but one of the most common is looking at each image as art first. My friend Art Wolfe is truly an artist who takes this approach. He is one of the finest photographic artists I have ever known. Every one of his images have been carefully crafted based on his background in art. And they are beautiful! (This photo is from The Art of the Photograph that Art and I did. Art’s website is at You can call 888-973-0011 or email to license this image or purchase a limited edition print.) 

Photo © Art Wolfe

Now what happens when two photographers get together to discuss images and they have very different approaches, such as an art first bias or a photojournalistic bias? There is a natural tendency to be critical of work done by the “other” approach, often more so than of work done by folks with a similar inclination. Psychologically, we are hard-wired to favor things that connect with our world view, so if our world view is based on art, we may have little patience with someone else’s world view based on photojournalism.

(I want to be clear that this is not necessarily an either/or idea. Folks doing a photojournalistic approach may create art, and those doing an art approach may look for photojournalistic elements.)

There is a very strong bias toward the art approach among photographers, especially among folks who do critiques at camera clubs. So much photography instruction is about applying art ideas to photography, which can be great. I do work to apply art ideas to my work as well.

But the problem comes when people start making arbitrary judgements about work that doesn’t fit their world view of what photography “should be.” This can make people uncomfortable following their own path in photography when it differs from a pervasive bias. I have given talks to camera clubs showing a different approach at times, and then I will often get quiet comments from some members who feel “relieved” that their photography is okay. The pervasive art bias makes them feel not okay.

The way we deal with this is to take photographs and photographers as they are, not as they “should be” based on our personal approach. Be open to possibilities that you can learn from others, yet still retain your own preferences.

There are more approaches to photography than simply these two, such as documentary, abstract, record-keeping, and so forth. Each approach demands the photographer take different approach to image making. You can still evaluate how well a photograph meets its objectives based on what it is trying to do, but not based solely on what you are trying to do with your work. I try to do that approach in my workshops and critiques, and it seems to work pretty well.

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When You Have to Get the Shot

As I drove into the forest service recreation area, I saw all these white spots on the hillside next to the road. Flowers! I wanted to know what they were, so I had to stop and check them out.

They were Mariposa lilies! Several species are common throughout California and a great sign of the California spring (also called calochortus after the scientific name). I had never seen so many at one time! Usually I had found one here and there through a landscape, but not like here. They aren’t as spectacular as the California poppies or the “superbloom” that sometimes occurs after a big winter rainy season (like this year), but there is something about them that makes them so beautiful, especially when you get close.

I knew I had to get some photographs. The problem was that it was about 11 AM. The sun was high and the light was not overly attractive, especially for anything beyond a close-up.

Close-ups often work well at any time of day because you can always control the light by moving around your subject, shading it or the background, and so forth. You can’t do that with bigger scenes and here was a big scene of Mariposa lilies.

I know, of course, the story for a nature photographer is that you always “have to” photograph at sunrise and sunset or near those times. Of course, those are great times to be out and photographing because the light can be absolutely beautiful. But nature doesn’t just exist at those times. So how do we get interesting photographs of nature when we aren’t there at the “right” time?

Early in my career, I worked as a staff photojournalist for the publications at the Minnesota Department of Transportation. As a photojournalist, my job was to go out and get the picture. I could not go back at another time or anything else like that. I had an assignment to get out and get a certain photograph at a certain time, when a highway engineer, for example was only available at a certain time, or a state legislative transportation committee was only meeting at a certain time. It was my job to get an interesting and engaging photograph that could be used in our publications. No excuses. This is true of any photojournalist.

I think this definitely colored my approach to nature photography. Even though I have been photographing nature since I was a kid, this photojournalistic approach made me think about how I did my nature photography. I photographed for one of the state maps while at MN/DOT, and I only had a certain amount of time to go around the state doing that. I was photographing nature for the map, but if I came into a location and the weather wasn’t perfect, I had to find a way to make an interesting photograph.

I think sometimes nature photographers get trapped by the “rule” that you can only photograph at certain times. There is no question that there are times where nature photography is difficult. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

So back to my Mariposa lilies. I started photographing them in different ways. First, I used a telephoto to isolate the flowers against out of focus flowers behind them. The telephoto also compressed distance to make of the flowers in the background look more plentiful. That type of closer work often does give you interesting pictures when the conditions aren’t ideal. However, I wanted something that gave a feeling of where these flowers live, which was up in the Southern Sierra Nevada mountains.

I tried some wide angle close-ups, which as you know I love to do, but the light wasn’t quite giving me what I wanted.

What to do?

One thing about finding a photograph in difficult conditions is to really have a mindset that you are going to find a photograph. Notice I did not say that you are going to take a photo. Find a photograph means that you can’t simply point your camera at the subject and snap a shot because that’s all you’ll get, a snapshot. And it probably won’t be very interesting as a photograph. To find a photograph starts by taking a mindset that you are going to find an interesting, engaging photograph, maybe even something a little different than what you even expected.

So I started looking at these flowers again and realized that if I laid down on the ground, I could get a dramatic shot of the flower against the sky with mountains in the background. So I laid down on the ground and started shooting. This was not a simple thing either. I worked the shot to find the best photograph I could, so I kept looking at the background to see where the mountains would show up, how the flower in the foreground would relate to them, and what showed up in terms of out of focus flowers on the hillside as well. But as I worked the scene and played with it, I found a shot that I really liked. The light actually made the flower look great even though the overall scene didn’t have the drama of other times of the day. But it didn’t matter. I still had my shot.

Sometimes you have to think beyond simply finding a beautiful scene and capturing that. It can help to think about how can you make an interesting photograph with what is in front of you. That could take some work and some time to do. But it can be well worth doing.

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The Importance of Shallow Depth of Field

Shallow depth of field is an important part of the craft of photography. So often I get questions about how to get more depth of field, which can be important, yet getting less can be really, really helpful in creating better photos. It is a cool technique often missed by photographers who get stuck feeling they always have to have a lot of depth of field.

Just this week I photographed my son and his fiancé in a city park. We had no time to go to some other location, so park it was. I deliberately shot with very shallow depth of field to isolate them against a nice background that showed none of the park, the people there, the buildings in the distance, and so forth. The shot showing some of the background is from my wife’s iPhone — it gives an idea of the conditions.

Shallow depth of field is very important to nature photography, too. It can be a huge help in making sure your subject stands out in the photograph regardless of the surroundings. Exactly like my son and future daughter-in-law’s photos.

The easiest way to get shallow depth of field is to shoot aperture-priority exposure with your lens wide open (this means choosing the biggest f-stop which is also the smallest number) and using a telephoto focal length. The telephoto focal length also helps to compress stuff in the background, making it tighter and often less distracting.

For the photos of my son and his fiancé, I used my 40-150mm f/2.8 set to 150mm and f/2.8 (that lens on my MFT system is equivalent to 300mm in 35mm-full-frame and 200mm in APS-C formats). Sure, I had to back up to get the shots, but that backing up helped compress the background, making it more attractive, while that combination of 150mm and f/2.8 gave me extremely shallow depth of field. That meant making sure my focus was right on the eyes of the couple (any time eyes are out of focus, the photo will look out of focus to most viewers).

All of these photos required me to back up to get the shot, NOT stand in one place and zoom.

So if you are ever feeling trapped by a background, try getting out the lens you have with the longest, most telephoto focal length, then shoot with the widest lens opening (the smallest number). Then give this a try with other subjects. You may find it a lot of fun!

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Change of Venue

You may have noticed a change for my blog. I am moving my blog,, here, maybe temporarily, maybe permanently. The original site has to be moved, but I am not sure when the person working on it can move the archived, older blog posts. Until then, new posts will appear here. 

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Being Me – Being You

Be me2It has taken me a long time, a lifetime in fact, to learn a very simple rule for getting the best from my photography. Be me.

Over the years, I have chased the looks of photographs made by well-known photographers I liked. It is one thing to be inspired by others, but truly, the only people who can do their work are those photographers themselves.

I have chased gear that others had, even have been envious. Instead of focusing on the gear that is most appropriate to me. Gear is obviously important because without it, we can’t photograph. But thinking too much about the gear others have is a distraction from my own photography. Be me.

Be me1I have chased the latest techniques hoping that would lead to a breakthrough in my photography. Learning new techniques is always valuable, but not when they overwhelm who I am as a photographer. I really don’t have to know everything about every new technique. Some really aren’t for me. Be me.

I have chased the approval of people important to me, from other photographers to family. Sure, people close to me are important, but not as arbitrary evaluators/critics of what I do. I can desire to learn what people think, but only as one input of many and an input I can chose to use or not. Be me.

I have worked hard to produce work that no one can criticize. That is unrealistic and ultimately restrictive. It also guarantees mediocrity. If I try to please everyone, I end up pleasing no one, especially myself. Be me.

Really, the number one rule for better photography, for more satisfying photography, for more authentic images is to be me. And for you to be you.

Cannon Falls, MN

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The Joy of Minnesota Nature

Here is a sampling of photos from my recent trip to Minnesota. I am working to find images and compositions true to the area and authentic to Minnesota nature rather than simply taking generic nature photography ideas and applying them to Minnesota.

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Louisville Swamp area, Minnesota

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Louisville Swamp area, Minnesota

Question mark butterfly, Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Carver Rapids, Minnesota

Question mark butterfly, Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Carver Rapids, Minnesota

Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, Nerstand, Minnesota

Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, Nerstand, Minnesota

Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, Nerstand, Minnesota

Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, Nerstand, Minnesota

Cannon Falls, MN

Cannon Falls, MN

Cannon Falls, MN

Cannon Falls, MN

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Bloomington, Minnesota

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Bloomington, Minnesota

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Carver Rapids, Minnesota

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Carver Rapids, Minnesota

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Louisville Swamp area, Minnesota

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Louisville Swamp area, Minnesota

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Carver Rapids, Minnesota

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Carver Rapids, Minnesota

You can see more of these images at joy-of-nature-galleries. Check out my new book and short course package here.

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Photo Deconstruction and Exploding Images!

Cover 1Many years ago when I was trying to really understand how photos worked, I used to spend time going through published photos and analyzing them carefully. How did this photographer use space? Why did this photographer put the subject there? What did the use of a particular focal length do for an image?

That was very helpful to me, so I am am starting a new series that looks at specific photos I have taken and then takes them apart, deconstructs them, explodes them, to look at what is happening in them and why I might have done what I did. That’s always a little dangerous because that requires one to accept a certain amount of vulnerability. I hope this helps you as well.

This photo was taken at dawn in the Santa Monica Mountains. The early light has just reached this rocky ridge and still features a strong warmth to it. This is a great example of why it is important to use a specific white balance and not rely on auto white balance outdoors. Auto white balance would remove that warm color cast, but it would also fool you because the photo would still look “okay.” Unfortunately, that very important color would not be there and most photographers would not fix it in Lightroom or Camera Raw because the photo would look “okay.” The warm colors have an important cold/warm color contrast with the sky color.

The highly directional light with strong shadows is very important to the image. It creates that strong presence to the rough rock at the bottom of the image, which then has an interesting contrast to the differently textured sky. Texture contrasts can be an important part of nature photography.

This image is a little unusual for me in that it is cropped from a horizontal. I needed a vertical for a book project I am working on now (more about that as I go along), and I really liked what was happening with the light in this image, so I decided to check out what might happen with a vertical from the original shot.

Cover 2I like the original horizontal. The light is very important and gives the scene a lot of life. In addition, I love the wonderful pattern of the sky. But I had no vertical of this. I find I don’t shoot as many verticals as I used to (not necessarily a good thing), largely because these days, I need verticals much less. Digital slideshows favor horizontals, as do a number of digital projects I have been working on.

I like the way the vertical abstracts the scene, yet still gives a feeling of place. I am personally not attuned to doing abstracts divorced from their reality (some people love this and do it very well). But I do like a simple, abstract sort of design to a composition that still holds a reference to the original scene as the vertical does. Notice, though, I am not trying to hold the whole rock formation at the left. That was important to the horizontal, but not to the vertical. Actually, I kind of like the strength of the simplicity of the vertical.

Cover 1The vertical creates a very strong spatial relationship of ground to sky in the composition now. That was in the original horizontal, but not to the degree it is now. I also love the hint of bush at the right that adds a visual counterpoint to both rock and sky. It really helps that that bush is in the shadow and silhouetted against the sky.

The large space used by the sky is important because it creates an interesting dynamic to the relationship of sky and ground. There is a tension from the use of space that keeps the viewer connected to the image. It also strongly creates a feeling of looking up across the scene.

Something else that is quite interesting about this image for me. The original was shot with a 9-18mm lens (Micro Four Thirds; equivalent in 35mm-full-frame would be 18-36mm, and APS-C would be 12-24mm). I am finding that I don’t use that lens much anymore. I used to use that focal length range a lot, but now I seem to be gravitating more to the 12mm focal length for wide shots (35mmFF – 24mm; APS-C – 16mm). The cropped shot is closer to 12mm.

Or maybe I am coming back to it. I used to love this focal length and it was my go-to focal length for many, many years when shooting film. The very wide focal lengths do some interesting things, but I am less interested today in such extreme effects. The 12mm works very well for me to give a strong wide-angle effect without being too strong for me.


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