Photographer’s Guide to Bryce Canyon National Park

Earth shadow tints the sky over Thor's Hammer in pastel shades of blue and pink in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. (Bret Edge)

Earth shadow tints the sky over Thor’s Hammer in pastel shades of blue and pink in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. (Bret Edge)

I first visited Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park in 2005.  Melissa and I spent a half day touring the overlooks before unanimously deciding that we were unimpressed and should move on to a more interesting location.  In 2012 I was passing by Bryce Canyon on a motorcycle trip when something compelled me to give it another shot.  I rode through a summer monsoon storm along the scenic drive to the end at Rainbow Point, stopping at each overlook to enjoy the view.  I don’t know what inside of me changed but this time, I was awestruck.  I called Melissa and convinced her we needed to plan a trip to Bryce.  She reluctantly agreed.  We came back with our son later that summer and she too was surprised to find herself fascinated by this marvelous canyon.  We camped for two days and hiked among the fanciful hoodoos.  I’ve gone back a couple more times in the last year and am already eagerly planning another trip.

You would think it relatively easy to create beautiful photographs at a place this scenic.  You would be wrong.  Bryce Canyon is a complex place.  Finding a cohesive composition in the right light requires careful study.  Though I’ve visited a number of times I have exactly one photo from Bryce that I consider print-worthy and only half a dozen or so that are marketable (excluding outdoor adventure photographs).  With this post I hope to share a few lessons I’ve learned over several visits that may help to increase your chances of producing quality images.

General Strategies for Photography at Bryce Canyon National Park

The vast majority of overlooks at Bryce Canyon face more or less east so in the morning you’re essentially shooting into the sunrise.  Yes, there are exceptions at some of the side canyons but generally speaking you’ll greet the morning sun head on.  Use this to your advantage!  The light that Bryce Canyon is famous for is that soft, warm glow of reflected light and at Bryce it is strongest at sunrise.  The red hoodoos and badlands absorb sunrise light and bounce it onto the backsides of hoodoos, filling in shadows and giving the entire scene an amazing radiance.  Use a small aperture (i.e. f/16 or smaller) to create a sunburst just as the sun creeps above the horizon.  If you’re including sky in your composition be prepared to deal with the extreme dynamic range between bright sky and darker canyon.  In the past I used graduated neutral density filters.  Now I blend exposures by hand using luminosity masks and am far more pleased with the results.

Don’t stop photographing right after sunrise.  Mid to late-morning is also excellent as you’ll still find wonderful reflected light even hours after sunrise.  This is also a good time to utilize longer focal length lenses to isolate hoodoos or features inside the canyon for a more intimate view.

Afternoon and sunset is a more challenging time to photograph at Bryce Canyon.  The setting sun casts long shadows into the canyon at most overlooks and only the tops of the hoodoos are bathed in light.  Don’t give up though!  Ten to thirty minutes after sunset you may find a pastel pink and blue sky appear above the canyon – Earth Shadow – and a soft glow upon the landscape.  This light is exquisite and very easy to work with as it is low in dynamic range; you can usually record the entire scene in a single exposure.  Clouds may also offer an opportunity for sunset photography as they bounce light into the canyon, filling in some of the shadows just enough to prevent them from completely blocking up.

Choosing the right lens for photography at Bryce Canyon can be challenging.  You will be tempted to go wide by the seemingly endless views but beware of distortion that causes hoodoos on the edges of the frame to bend outward.  I’m not suggesting that you keep your wide angle lenses stashed away – just know that you will need to make some perspective corrections in post-processing.  There are a couple of ways to avoid this: use a tilt/shift lens or stitch two or more frames together to create a single image.  If I had one, a tilt/shift lens would be my first choice.  If you choose to stitch photos together I recommend that you use a moderate focal length of around 50mm and shoot in a vertical orientation.  This technique is often used to create panoramic photographs but if you only use two or three frames you can create an image with a normal aspect ratio.  Another benefit to this technique is that the final image will likely be of a higher resolution than a single-frame photograph.  Go ahead and make those large prints!  Jim Goldstein wrote an excellent tutorial titled “Mastering Digital Panoramic Photography” that I highly recommend for those of you who are new to this technique.

Every season has something to offer at Bryce Canyon.  Spring temperatures are very pleasant and wildflowers begin to bloom, adding dashes of color to the landscape.  In the summer, dramatic storm clouds build almost every afternoon.  Aspen leaves turn bright yellow in fall and contrast sharply against dark evergreens.  Winter snows create unique and peaceful scenes and also drive away most tourists but be prepared for brutally cold conditions.

Locations to Photograph at Bryce Canyon National Park

What Bryce Canyon National Park lacks in size it more than makes up for in opportunity, which is to say that you’ll find yourself in a target rich environment the moment you cross into the park.  Familiarize yourself with the park before you arrive by visiting the Bryce Canyon National Park website.  Here you can read the aptly named park newspaper, “The Hoodoo“, which also contains valuable information about hiking trails and a good map that provides a birds-eye view of the park.  For a map with more detail I highly recommend the National Geographic Trails Illustrated topo map, #219.

Locations that follow are listed in the order in which they appear as you drive through the park beginning at the park boundary just outside of Bryce City.

Fairyland Canyon

I only discovered Fairyland Canyon last year and have yet to make a dynamic image there.  That said, I believe this relatively small overlook has tremendous potential.  The hoodoos below are densely packed into the canyon with Boat Mesa rising to the south.  In August I found colorful rabbitbrush blooming alongside the trail and ominous monsoon storm clouds in the sky.

Sunrise Point

You don’t need solid detective skills to deduce that Sunrise Point is a great spot to photograph sunrise.  However, it is also one of the better spots for sunset photography.  Sunrise Point is on the northern side of Bryce Amphitheater, which is also overlooked at Sunset, Inspiration and Bryce Points.

Sunset Point

I find the views from Sunset Point a little more interesting than those from Sunrise Point.  I wouldn’t call them better – just different.  Sunset Point is a very popular overlook and is often crowed with tourists.  Despite the name, I don’t recommend it for sunset photography unless you’re lucky enough to have great clouds to bounce light into the canyon.  There are some good opportunities here for panoramic photography.

Thor’s Hammer

A short walk down the trail from Sunset Point delivers you to an exceptional view of Thor’s Hammer, perhaps the most famous hoodoo in Bryce Canyon.  I’ve photographed Thor’s Hammer at sunrise, mid-morning and after sunset and all are good for photography.  The image at the top of this post was made 10-15 minutes after sunset using a 24-105mm lens at 47mm.

Wall Street

While you’re at Sunset Point you might as well hike the Navajo Loop that descends into the canyon through Wall Street.  It’s a steep hike but passing below towering walls glowing with reflected light is not-to-be-missed if you’re in shape to safely do the hike.  Look for an impossibly tall pine tree framed on two sides by huge canyon walls – this is an iconic location for photography at Bryce Canyon.

Inspiration Point

This is my favorite viewpoint at Bryce Canyon.  It’s fantastic at sunrise and early to mid-morning but may also offer some great options for sunset photography.  I also find this to be the best location for panoramic photography.  Instead of walking up to the designated overlook veer left and walk along the Rim Trail until you find a perspective that grabs your attention.

Bryce Point

Bryce Point is my second favorite location in the park.  It is on the southern side of Bryce Amphitheater and provides views looking mostly north and east.  It’s great at sunrise and, depending on the conditions, you may find some good sunset opportunities.

Rim Trail

If you enjoy hiking, the Rim Trail runs between Fairyland Canyon and Bryce Point, passing each overlook along the way.  I can’t recommend this hike strongly enough.  Along the way you will pass endless views into the canyon, many of which are as good, if not better than, the designated viewpoints.

Natural Bridge

I like to photograph Natural Bridge (technically an arch, not a bridge) in mid-morning.  The sun is high enough in the sky that it nicely illuminates the features around the arch and bounces ample light onto the underside of the arch, giving it a nice, warm glow.  This is a difficult area to work as you must stay behind the railing and there are a few small trees that require you to be creative with your composition.  But, it is a fascinating location.

Agua Canyon

Agua Canyon affords spectacular views looking east into the massive expanse of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.  Directly in front of the overlook are a couple dramatic hoodoos, one of which, The Hunter, is quite similar to Thor’s Hammer.  I’ve not been at this location for sunrise but I suspect it could be good.  Late-morning light fills the canyon below, eliminating harsh shadows, and sheds light onto The Hunter.

Rainbow and Yovimpa Points

Admittedly, I’ve never photographed at either of the two viewpoints at the very end of the park road.  I find the views less impressive and more open overall.  That said, I do believe there is potential at both overlooks.  At Yovimpa Point you are looking roughly south, which may offer impressive sunset opportunities.  Rainbow Point faces north and east.  You may find good light in the morning or afternoon.  The Bristlecone Loop is a relatively easy 1 mile loop that passes some interesting bristlecone pine trees.  These trees often make interesting subjects for intimate and abstract photographs in soft light.

Inner Canyon

Pick a trail, any trail, that descends into the canyon and start hiking.  It won’t take long and you’ll be surrounded by huge canyon walls, funky hoodoos, arches and twisted old trees.  The entire character of the landscape changes dramatically when you immerse yourself in the canyon.  Some of my favorite inner canyon hikes are the out and back to Tower Bridge, Queen’s Garden Loop and Peek-A-Book Loop.  You will find interesting subjects to photograph in any season and at any time of day.  A word of caution: it’s always much easier going down than coming back up and the park may close trails throughout the year due to ice, snow and/or rockfall.


If you’re a long lens kind of person you’ll find an ample supply of wild creatures to photograph.  Deer, pronghorn, squirrels and a variety of birds are all commonly seen.  Meadows between Bryce Point and Swamp Canyon are often populated by grazing deer among the pines.  Less common but also native are black bears, bobcats and porcupines.

By no means is this a comprehensive guide of every location worth photographing in Bryce Canyon National Park.  Rather, it is a starting point. I wrote it with the hope that it might save you some time and effort as you plan a trip to this most amazing location.  Enjoy!

Looking for some visual inspiration? Here’s a gallery of my photographs of Bryce Canyon National Park.

COMING SOON: eFotoGuide – Essential Guides to Photographing the National Parks and Beyond

An Adventure Tyke in the Valley of Fire

Not too long ago my friend and fellow photographer/dad/outdoor dude Greg Russell wrote a touching blog post titled “Little Mentors“.  I encourage you to read his post but if you don’t have time, the general idea is that we as adults stand to learn much from spending time in nature with children.  They needn’t be your own kids but I strongly encourage you not to randomly adopt one on the trail. Kinda creepy.  At any rate, Greg’s post inspired me to write one of my own about a recent family adventure.

We spent Thanksgiving week camping, hiking and exploring in Nevada’s gorgeous Valley of Fire State Park.  It had been a while since we’d gotten out as a family for more than a few hours.  Work and other obligations have a way of invading our lives, conspiring to prevent us from spending time with those we love.  The weather was perfect and we shared the park with only a handful of other visitors.  My son, Jackson, whom we have affectionately dubbed the Adventure Tyke, is now 2 1/2 years old.  He has boundless energy and I wish it was contagious.  From the moment he wakes to the moment his blue eyes close he’s on the go, charging ahead at 110 MPH.

On our first full day in the park we hiked the 1.5 mile loop at White Dome.  The trail passes an old movie set, climbs and descends sand dunes and passes through a short but scenic slot canyon – a highlight of the trip.  Hiking a mile and a half in as scenic a place as Valley of Fire shouldn’t take more than an hour, even with multiple stops to make photographs.  Being that Jackson is never short on energy we decided to let him start the hike under his own power.  Two and a half hours later, we were back at the trailhead with one exhausted little hiker.  He surprised us by hiking the entire loop on his own!

Of course, everything we passed was of great interest to him.  He would stop and play in the sand, pick up rocks and make me carry them, point out prickly cactus and, in the slot canyon, he announced that there was a tiger just around the corner.  Yes, a tiger. Must’ve been the rare Mojave tiger that lives only in colorful slot canyons and toddler’s imaginations.  We did see a bighorn sheep scampering over a giant mound of slickrock, which Jackson thoroughly enjoyed.

As one who came into photography in the late 90’s from a ten year “career” in endurance sports, where the entire point is to move from point A to point B as fast as possible, it goes without saying that in the last twelve years I’ve gotten slower.  Becoming a photographer caused me to slow down and look at the world differently.  I learned to appreciate the small things – a play of light, tangled branches among colorful leaves or subtle reflections in a gentle creek – all things I would have rushed past several years ago.  Becoming a Dad has slowed me down even more.  When you’re 2 1/2 and outdoors exploring nature, everything is new and interesting and deserving of a few moments of your time.  At times it can be agonizing, like when you’re running late for sunset and you’ve got to stop to thoroughly inspect the 1,000th lizard of the day.  More often than not, it’s a blast.  It brings me mountains of joy to see my son interacting with and enjoying nature.  He wears a perpetual smile when he’s outside.  As a result, I do too.

We’ve all heard the phrase “kids are sponges”.  They’re also mirrors.  Everything we do and say, they do and say.  Jackson loves nothing more than to peer through the viewfinder of my camera and to press the shutter button, usually in rapid fire succession so it sounds like a machine gun going off.  He loves it so much we bought him his own camera, which you can see in the photo above swinging from his backpack.  He points that camera at anything and everything, and I’ll be darned if some of his photos aren’t pretty freakin’ good.  I’ll never force him into anything but if his interest in photography (and motorcycling!) persevere I’ll be the proudest Dad on the planet.  In the meantime, I plan on enjoying every last second in the great outdoors with my little Adventure Tyke.

If you’re a new (or not so new) Mom or Dad who wants to adventure outdoors with your kids, but you’re not quite sure how to start, my wife runs an awesome site called Adventure Tykes filled with tips and ideas to help motivate, inspire and teach you how to get started. Check it out!

Thoughts on Image Value and Effort

Rain Fingers Above the Bonneville Desert, Utah

How often do you see photos posted in online forums or hanging in a gallery, accompanied by a description wherein the photographer recounts the miles hiked, grizzly bears fought off, violent storms encountered and years of preparation before they were finally able to create the image before you?  I see it on a regular basis.  Usually, I have no doubt about the authenticity of the story.  Other times, the claims are a bit dubious.  Regardless, a recent experience left me wondering whether the effort expended to create an image is somehow tied to the value viewers place on an image.  Is a photograph made deep into an inhospitable wilderness more inherently valuable or artistic than an image where the greatest physical effort expended was simply pressing the shutter button?

The image you see above was not photographed in a wild and remote location.  I didn’t backpack 30 miles wearing a 100 pound backpack in stinging rain with lightning crashing all around.  No, all I did was pull to the side of I-80 so my son could go pee.  I saw potential in the cracked mud, mountains and ominous sky so I casually strolled to my truck (in flip flops) where I reached in, grabbed my camera and tripod, then walked 30 feet to the very spot where this image was made.  My biggest challenge was wrangling a persistent 2 year old who was intent on peering through the viewfinder and making his own photo while I tried to nail the composition before the fast moving storm in the distance was upon us.

I posted this image on flickr and, to date, it has received 793 views, 41 favorites and 21 comments after flickr added it to the explore page.  If you’re familiar with flickr you’ll understand that 800 views is nothing compared to what truly popular images receive.  For me, it’s a bunch.  I didn’t mention that I made the photo mere feet from a busy interstate with cars and semis whizzing by at 80 MPH.  I wonder if I had, would the photo have received so many likes and comments?

What are your thoughts?

Pixels Vs. Prints: Which Do You Prefer?

Until last year I had never enjoyed the thrill of making my own photographic prints.  When I needed a print, I’d send off a file (or slide) to whatever lab I was using at the time and they’d ship the print directly to me or my client.  With only a few exceptions my image viewing experience consisted of staring at a photo on a computer monitor.

Then, I bought an Epson Stylus Photo R2880 printer and everything changed.  If that sounds like a dramatic statement – it is.  It’s also quite true.  I started making my own prints.  Whenever I wanted.  On whatever paper I wanted.  It didn’t take long and I was addicted to the smell of fresh ink on photographic paper as a new print rolled off the printer, landing ever so gently in the catch tray.  Is there a difference between viewing an image on a computer monitor and holding an actual print, that you made, in your hands?  You’d better believe it.

As an artist I like to have complete control over my work from start to finish.  While it is true that you maintain a degree of control when you do all the post-processing on your photos before sending them off to a lab, you’re really not closing the loop.  The ultimate control comes when you conclude the image making process by crafting your own print.  Today’s inkjet printers are capable of producing professional quality archival prints that rival and, in my opinion, exceed those made using more traditional methods like Cibachromes.  They’re sharper, more detailed, just as colorful and can be made using a diversity of papers.

While difficult to quantify, there is a certain pleasure and satisfaction in handling an honest to God hand-crafted print.  It is a tactile experience.  You feel the weight of the paper, the texture.  Unseen details emerge.  Perhaps you feel pride in the knowledge that the print you are holding was born of your own creativity, and that without your vision and skills it would cease to exist.  I get none of this from viewing an image on a computer monitor.

I’ve also noticed that people react differently when viewing my photographs in print.  On the computer (or iPad), they quickly flick through the images.  When I hand over my portfolio book I’ve noticed that they linger on each image.  They don’t madly flip from one page to the next.  Do people, even non-photographers, appreciate a fine art print more than they do an image on a screen?  It would seem so.

Five Things Every New Adobe Lightroom User Should Know

I’ve been using Adobe Lightroom as my RAW converter and photo editor of choice since version 1 launched a few years ago.  Until last year I still relied on Photoshop to complete the bulk of my editing work.  Why?  Because I was stubborn – an old curmudgeon who didn’t want to change.  Looking back, I wish I’d taken the advice of my friend and Lightroom guru Nat Coalson, who for years has been extolling the virtues of completing as much work as possible within Lightroom.

Finally I got smart and listened to Nat’s advice.  I now do about 90% of my processing within Lightroom, only using Photoshop to blend multiple exposures or for complicated cloning – both of which just can’t be done in Lightroom’s current version.  Even then, I import the finished product back into Lightroom so my entire image collection is in one place and easily searchable.

Lately I’ve noticed that many of my landscape and nature photography workshop clients are just now diving into Lightroom.  Many of them are doing so with trepidation.  Some of them are taking the plunge because I’ve badgered them into it.  Regardless, if you’re new to Lightroom I’ve got a few tips to share that are guaranteed to save you time and effort down the road.  These tips come from my own hard won experience.  I hope they help you find Lightroom bliss.

Keyword From the Start

You may not be a professional photographer or even have any aspirations to become one.  It doesn’t matter.  Metadata is king and you should keyword your images from the very beginning.  I also recommend that you enter a title and description for each photo.  Why?  If you ever plan to upload your images to flickr, your own website or any other photo sharing sites, the title, description and all of your keywords will automatically carry over.  I didn’t keyword from the start and as my stock photography business grows, I’m really wishing I had.

Buy A Lightroom Reference Book

The Adobe engineers did a remarkable job of designing Lightroom to be extremely powerful while remaining user friendly.  Nearly every adjustment in Lightroom can be accomplished through the use of sliders.  However, some of the terms may be confusing to those who are new to Lightroom.  Clarity, vibrance, black point – huh?  Additionally, there are keyboard shortcuts, presets, camera and lens profiles, catalogs, collections, ratings and more that aren’t exactly intuitive.  A good reference book, like Nat Coalson’s “Lightroom 5: Streamlining Your Digital Photography Process” will save you get you up and running with a minimum of time and frustration.  There are also several fantastic websites with tons of useful information.  One I visit regularly is The Lightroom Queen.

Keep It in Lightroom

This one took me a while to adopt.  I really wish it hadn’t.  I use Lightroom for 90% of my processing, switching over to Photoshop only to do exposure blends, complicated cloning and image prep for print.  Until Lightroom offers layers and a better cloning tool I’m forced to use Photoshop for these techniques.  However, Lightroom does have a powerful printing module that I simply haven’t yet explored.  I will soon.

Why keep everything in Lightroom?  Lightroom’s database capabilities are second to none.  By cataloging all of your images inside Lightroom you’re ensuring that they’re always easy to reference.  You can search for images using a number of variables, including keywords.  If you’re a stock photographer this is especially important as it eliminates the hassle in trying to find images for photo submissions.  All of your images under one roof?  Nice!

Back-up Your Lightroom Catalog Early and Often

This is probably the single most important advice I can offer.  We all know the value of backing up our data yet not all of us do it as often as we should.  I’m guilty of it in some regards but not when it comes to my Lightroom catalog.  Luckily, Lightroom makes it stupidly simple to ensure you never forget this critical step.  Lightroom can be set up to prompt you about a back-up every time you quit the program.  At that point you have the option to back-up the catalog or just close the program.  Take it from someone who learned this lesson the hard way: back up your catalog every time you close Lightroom. In my early days of using Lightroom I was far too lax about this.  My catalog became corrupted and, because I’d never backed it up, I lost all the work I’d done on every single image in the catalog.  All of it.  Hundreds of hours worth.  Don’t let this happen to you.

Presets Speed Up Your Workflow

Lightroom allows you to create presets for certain functions, such as exports and keywords.  Generally speaking, you’ll save quite a bit of time and effort if you set up presets for commonly used actions.  For example, if you spend a lot of time photographing in Arches NP you can create a preset containing keywords that apply to all images from Arches.  One click and the keywords are automatically populated.

I also frequently use export presets.  A recent photo submission consisted of almost 200 images that needed to be at a specific size and in jpeg format.  First I added all the images for the submission to a “collection”, then I created an export preset, selected the entire collection and started the export.  A few minutes later the entire submission was ready to be burned to a CD and shipped off to the client.

Bonus Tip: Plug-ins Are Your Friend

No, you don’t have to use plug-ins to really benefit from Lightroom.  But, I find that they make my life much easier.  Unless you’re new here, you already know I’ve got a love affair with Google’s Nik Collection.  There are dozens of other plug-ins that allow you to work faster and smarter, some of which are even free.  This link to the Adobe Lightroom website will give you an idea of what types of plug-ins are available.  If you find a few that work for you, you’ll soon realize just how much of a timesaver they are.

So, there you have it.  My five – okay, six - tips for new Lightroom users.  If you’ve got a tip to share I hope you’ll do so in the comments section below.  I’m certainly not a Lightroom expert and would love to hear how you’re using it to speed up your workflow!

Quick Guide to Photographing the Moab Area

I wrote the following short article for the 2011 Moab Guest Guide.  I thought I’d re-post it here in the event someone needs a quick and dirty primer on photographing the Moab area.  It’s certainly geared more for the casual point and shooter, but you just never know whose reading this stuff.  Enjoy!

Creating memorable photos in Moab is almost as easy as pointing your camera in any direction and pressing the shutter button.  Towering sandstone spires, massive natural arches, breathtaking canyons and even alpine splendor all compete for your attention and will quickly fill camera memory cards.  Use the following tips and you’re sure to return home with photos that will fill your family and friends with envy.

Get Up Early and Stay Out Late – The single best way to improve your photos is to shoot at sunrise and sunset.  The light is richer and the long shadows cast by a lower sun reveal details in the landscape not evident in mid-day light.

Composition, Composition, Composition – Equally important, take your time composing a dynamic scene.  Include a foreground, mid-ground and background to give your photo depth.  Don’t place your primary subject dead center in the frame.  Use the “rule of thirds”: imagine lines drawn on your image that divide it into thirds horizontally and vertically.  Place your main subject at the intersection of these lines to create a more pleasing composition.  Try different perspectives instead of shooting everything from standing height.  Get down low or seek a higher vantage point.

Blue Skies Aren’t Always Best – Bad weather doesn’t equal bad photography.  Actually, some of the best landscape photographs are made as a storm approaches or breaks up.  Ominous clouds in the sky add interest and potholes in sandstone filled with rainwater catch ephemeral reflections.  Be safe, though: Don’t enter slot canyons when thunderstorms are imminent and return to your car when lightning is present.

Tell a Story – Include people in your photos for scale.  It’s easy to get sucked into panoramic vistas, but small scenes are just as interesting.  Colorful flowers, gnarled juniper trees and striated sandstone all make wonderful subjects that nicely compliment your grand landscape photographs.

Stability is Critical – Any pro landscape photographer will tell you their single most important piece of gear is the tripod.  Without it, you can’t expect sharp photos in low light at sunrise and sunset.  Even a small, inexpensive tripod like the Gorillapod will hold your camera steadier than you can.  Remember to use the camera’s self-timer to release the shutter.

It’s Not About the Gear – Don’t discount the power of a point & shoot camera.  You don’t need expensive cameras and lenses to create stunning photos.  Use the tips above – shoot in good light, develop good compositions, go out in bad weather, tell a story and use a tripod – and you’ll return home from your vacation with a dozens of images to brag about!

The Best Photography Advice I’ve Ever Received

Sunset on Sandstone Fins, Utah

Over the years I’ve received much great advice that has contributed significantly to my growth as a photographer.  While guiding a photographer last week who was only bitten by the photo bug a few months ago, I offered a simple piece of advice: “Sweep the edges of your viewfinder before making an exposure.”  It was something I learned ten years ago while reading a “how-to” book published by Arizona Highways.  At the end of the day I was happy to hear her say that she learned more during our few hours together than she had in several months on her own.  I always find it rewarding to help other photographers learn and grow as artists.

On the drive home I began to reminisce about all the little nuggets of wisdom I’ve learned in the past eleven years.  Some came from books, others from magazines and even more from other photographers.  Regardless of their origin, each one has benefitted me in some way.  Like many of you, I never want to stop learning.  No doubt, the advice below is only the beginning of what will surely be an even longer list in another eleven years.

Sweep the Edges - Since I mentioned this one in the introduction to the article I thought I’d start off with it.  It’s also one of my favorites and something I do every time I compose an image without even thinking about it.  Very simply, once you have composed a scene in your viewfinder do one final visual sweep of the edges of the frame before depressing the shutter button.  You’re looking for little distractions.  It might be a branch intruding into the frame, a bright spot in a corner or even the foot of your tripod creeping into the bottom of your composition.  This will also force you to slow down and spend more time crafting a deliberate composition.

Don’t Forget to Turn Around - I read this very early in my career in a “how-to” book published by Arizona Highways that seems to have been discontinued.  The author’s point is simple: no matter how awesome the scene before you is, always remember to glance over your shoulder because it just might be even better behind you.  I follow this advice on nearly every photography outing and it has netted me some of my favorite images.

Don’t Forget to Look Down - I learned this lesson while viewing Tom Till’s image of colorful desert wildflowers pushing through cracks in mud.  The placard next to it explained that while Tom was photographing a grand landscape he happened to look down and found a scene far more original and interesting than the one he had intended to photograph.  You just never know what you’ll find if you keep an open mind!

Include People in Your Photos - This one certainly won’t apply to everyone.  However, it’s a valuable tidbit of advice that has certainly been favorable to my bank account.  My good friend Todd Caudle, who has been one of the most generous and inspirational pro’s for the entire length of my career, is responsible for this one.  While photographing wildflowers at Lost Dutchman State Park about ten years ago, Todd suggested that I consider including people in my photos.  Todd suggested that photographing my girlfriend at the time while hiking, climbing, canyoneering and mountain biking would open doors to some of the outdoor magazines.  I didn’t take his advice seriously until I met my wife, Melissa, a few years later.  It’s a shame I waited.  Had I immediately began following Todd’s advice I surely would have been published much sooner.

Look For and Exploit Reflected Light - We’ve all seen photos of Antelope Canyon’s sculpted walls glowing neon with reflected light.  Until I gathered this piece of advice from uber-talented photographer and friend Guy Tal, I wasn’t aware that reflected light was so prevalent in nature.  And, it even happens on a grand scale.  Clouds reflect light back down on to the landscape and massive cliffs bounce light all the way across the Colorado River canyon near Moab.  Snow reflects light into shadows.  Once you learn to identify reflected light you can easily use it to your advantage – even when photographing in mid-day.

Don’t Immediately Set Up Your Tripod - I can’t remember where I learned this but it’s made a huge difference in the quality of my compositions.  Upon arriving at a location spend some time exploring the area before you plant your tripod.  Experiment with different vantage points.  Try getting low to the ground or finding an elevated perch.  Maybe you’d originally intended to go wide angle but a more interesting scene in the distance demands a telephoto?  Even a few steps to the left or right of you’re standing could make a dramatic difference.

Bad Weather = Good Photography - Another great piece of advice whose origin escapes me.  Bad weather often creates the most dynamic conditions for photography.  Menacing clouds, storm light, fog, rain and snow can all contribute to amazing photography.  Or they can flat out suck.  That’s the chance you take when you wander out on a stormy day to make photographs.  But instead of bemoaning the fact that rain is in the forecast, get excited by it.  Overcast?  You couldn’t ask for better light for intimate landscapes.  Fog?  If it’s winter you might find hoar frost.  Summer?  Look for features in the landscape playing hide and seek behind a veil of fog.

Adapt to the Conditions - This one ties in nicely with the one above.  Most of us have probably taken a trip to a far off location with the intent of photographing our hearts out only to find lousy weather upon our arrival.  There is alwayssomething to photograph.  It may not be what you came for, but if you stay positive and learn to adapt you will be able to make images.  I don’t remember where this one came from but it’s advice I’ve learned to follow.  Bonus: Not only do I get to make photos regardless of the conditions, but I’m much happier and less stressed out, too.

A Bad Day in the Mountains is Better Than a Good Day in the Office - This one comes to us from Todd Caudle.  And you know what?  He’s right.  Wouldn’t you rather hike ten miles into the mountains to photograph sunrise at an alpine lake only to be defeated by a dull gray overcast than spend one stinkin’ minute staring at your computer monitor?  I would.  I will add one small caveat: A bad day in the mountains is better than a good day in the office – so long as you don’t have to cut off your own arm!

Certainly you’ve all received some sage advice over the years.  Why not share it with us in the comments section below?  I, for one, am always open to good advice!

Six Mistakes I Still Make and How You Can Avoid Them

Last week I wrote about the best advice I’ve received from other photographers during the last 12 years of my career.  This week I thought I’d go the opposite direction and share a few mistakes that, after all that time in the field and great advice, I still can’t seem to avoid.  Some are humorous and others are just downright annoying.  What mistakes do you find yourself making over and over again?

That Pesky Damn Lens Cap - I can’t tell you how many times I’ll put the viewfinder to my eye only to see…nothing.  Yeah, I forget to take the lens cap off all the time.  Fortunately, I realize the error before pressing the shutter button.  I don’t feel too bad about this as years ago I read that Ansel Adams once forgot to put film in his camera during a workshop he was teaching.  Okay, so the great one only made such a silly mistake once.

Invincible Tripod Syndrome (ITS) - We’ve all done this.  Some of us learned from our mistakes while others (me) still haven’t.  We set up our tripod, mount our camera and expensive lenses to it and then walk away.  Do this enough times and eventually gravity will rear it’s ugly head.  I’ve had cameras blown over in the wind, knocked over in the water and I’ve even tripped over my own tripod leg.  I saved that one from near death.  I know the consequences and yet I continue to roll the very expensive dice.  That qualifies for stupid, right?

Image Stabilization Times Two - What is a tripod?  It’s image stabilization.  There’s no such thing as too much image stabilization, right?  Wrong.  Most lenses that feature built-in image stabilization/vibration reduction are likely to produce blurry images if you leave the IS/VR turned on while your camera is locked tight on a tripod.  You see, when your camera is secure in a ballhead and IS/VR kicks on, the movement of the gyro inside the lens is enough to introduce vibrations that may result in blurry images.  I’ve blown more images than I care to remember because of this bonehead move.  Whether or not the IS/VR will cause blurry images is a function of luck, shutter speed and the lens you’re using.  Why chance it?  Make it a habit to turn off IS/VR before using a tripod.

The Dust Magnet - Sensor dust is the bane of every digital photographer.  Most modern DSLR’s have some kind of ultrasonic cleaning mechanism that does a remarkable job of keeping sensors virtually dust free.  Still, it’s never wise to leave your camera turned on when changing lenses – especially in the field.  Doing so exposes what is esentially a magnetically charged sensor to the environment, thus inviting dust to take up residence inside the camera.  I don’t do this often but every once in a while, when I’m rushing, it’ll happen.  It’s usually followed by a string of self-deprecating expletives.

Lens Envy - An illness I’ve never been able to overcome is gear envy.  If only I had that new lens/camera/computer/software/backpack/filter/truck my images would be soooooooooooo much better.  In fact, I’ve pretty much given up on even trying to beat this one.  I’m a gearhead.  Always have been, always will be.  I just need to realize that I don’t need to justify a purchase by pretending to believe it’s going to make me a better photographer.

More is Better - In compositional terms, more is rarely better.  And yet, I find myself cramming more and more into a composition until it loses cohesiveness.  I’m usually able to realize this in the field and make adjustments on the fly to resolve the issue.  Occasionally, I don’t discover the error until I see the images on my computer monitor.  The best compositions and thus, photographs, are not usually those which contain everything.  Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Now that I’ve bared my soul it’s your turn.  Share some of the mistakes you still make.  I bet you’re not alone and perhaps we can all learn from them.

Rediscover Your Creativity with a Self-Assignment

Pink Sky Above Three Sisters, Utah

Last week I read a great article on friend and photographer Gary Crabbe’s blog about the reality of working a photo assignment.  Gary’s article, and my own experience last year on assignment in Goblin Valley State Park, inspired me to write about a technique you might try next time your creative fire needs a little stoking.

If you’re lucky enough to land a photo assignment, it means that someone thought enough of your work to pay you to create photos of a specific subject for them.  The key word at work in that sentence is photos – as in more than one.  Perhaps there are exceptions but every assignment I’ve ever worked required that I provide a healthy collection of images to the client upon completion of the job.  Adding to the pressure to deliver is the fact that you are likely given a short time in which to make the images.  You’re probably charging a day rate.  Unless you’re a brilliant negotiator your client probably didn’t tell you to take as many days as needed and to send a bill when you’re done.  No, it is more likely that you’re told that there’s only enough money in the budget for a couple of days.  This means that during the “couple of days” you’d better be able to fill some memory cards with enough images to satisfy your client’s needs.

If your natural style of photography contradicts the “spray and pray” method, filling memory cards can be quite challenging.  Although I use a D-SLR I feel my style is more contemplative, not unlike large format photography.  I make far fewer images in a typical day of photography than most, but for the Goblin Valley assignment I had to maximize my time in the area to ensure I delivered enough images to my client.

In the field I discovered that I was taking more chances than usual.  I was staying out past sunrise, photographing all day long and not heading back to the truck until well after sunset.  Knowing that I had to produce forced me to look at the world around me through a different set of eyes.  And, I had to find ways to make compelling images in the middle of the day.  Fortunately, some nearby slot canyons solved that problem.  I found other things to photograph, too.  Grand landscapes, macros, abstracts, intimate landscapes – I found myself burning through memory cards creating all sorts of images.  If there is such a thing as forced creativity, this was it.

Consider this: Your creativity is in the trash and you’re stuck in a rut.  Your mojo is on hiatus.  Why not give yourself an assignment?  Find a local park or nature preserve, or even do something totally different and try your hand at photojournalism.  Pretend that you’re on assignment for a prestigious magazine and you’ve got to deliver images to your client or you’ll risk losing out on future business.  Find ways to photograph mid-day.  Shoot a variety of compositions – some grand, some intimate, some abstract.  Change hats and imagine you’re the client.  What types of images are needed for the project?  Do you need to tell a story about the place?  If so, how are you going to create a visually compelling story with your photographs?  Immerse yourself in your environment and you’ll begin to see differently, with increased sensitivity and regard for your subject.

Give yourself an assignment some time.  I think you’ll find the challenge to be fun and rewarding, and it may just help you claw your way out of the creative doldrums.

Have you ever tried a self-assignment?  Do you have any tricks to share that have helped you find your creative spark?  Please leave a comment!

Escaping the Crowd Mentality at Colorado’s Maroon Bells

So there I was, standing on the shore of Maroon Lake on a chilly autumn morning in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  To my left, about a dozen photographers were lined up with their lenses pointed at the Maroon Bells, which towered over my right shoulder.  I had chosen a spot I’d scouted the evening before, one that was away from the small but growing crowd of shutterbugs.  The morning was calm and the twin pyramidal peaks couldn’t have been reflected any clearer in the perfectly still lake.  I was about a week early for prime fall colors but there were plenty of golden aspens decorating the hillside below the Bells.

Just as the sun began to rise a light breeze rippled the water, destroying that crystal clear reflection.  I’d been to the Maroon Bells to photograph fall colors once before, in 2000.  I had no idea what I was doing then and every one of my photos…well, they sucked.  They sucked bad.  And they were shot on print film.  I’d wanted to return and now, 10 years later and with a little bit more talent behind the lens, here I was.  And the wind was ruining the whole damn moment.

As shutters whirred to my left, I made exactly two exposures of the celebrity peaks before me.  When the wind failed to abate I turned around to check the light on Sievers Mountain.  As I did, I caught a glimpse of a little frosted red plant growing low to the ground and surrounded by a group of it’s less colorful siblings.  Oh mama, this is good!

I grabbed my tripod and camera and ran (I may have skipped in joy, I can’t remember) to the little plant.  There I lowered the tripod and pointed the lens straight at the ground as I worked out a pleasing composition.  The landscape paparazzi stole a glance every now and then as they made exposure after exposure of the Bells.  I made a few images, packed up my gear and started back down the trail to my waiting motorcycle.

I still don’t have a great photo of the Maroon Bells in autumn.  What I do have is a photo that will likely never be replicated.  I have the satisfaction of knowing that when it appeared Mother Nature wasn’t cooperating, she was actually offering a gift to those willing to accept it.  I’m proud of this photo, but I’m even more proud that I was able to adapt to the conditions I was offered and come away with an image that only I saw.  When everyone else was single-mindedly machine gunning exposures of the same thing as the next guy, I was busy creating a truly unique image.  It’ll always be a reminder of my growth and vision as an artist.

Frosted Fall, Colorado