How to “read” my photographs.

Okay, I’ll let you in on the secret to my photographs… how I make my “magic” so-to-speak. I utilize up to five main ingredients in every single one of my photographs. Some have only one, some have all five. Some have different amounts of each. But they all have at least one of these ingredients. When you are finished reading this, you should be able to view any of my photographs and identify which of these ingredients I used, and to what extent the success of the photograph relies on it.

Color

Color often makes or breaks a photo. And it isn’t as simple as just capturing as much color as possible and over-saturating until your eyes bleed. It must be controlled in a very coordinated way. Some of my favorite color photographs only have one color.

Red On White. A simple monochromatic color scheme.

Red On White. A simple monochromatic color scheme.

For photographs with multiple colors, I often use a painters color wheel to make sure each of the colors fits into a coordinated color scheme. I either subtly de-saturate or shift colors that do not fit, or I simply don’t take the photograph.

Sunset at Glacier - Many various shades of reds and blues, and just a touch of yellowish-orange, all carefully balanced.

Sunset at Glacier – Many various shades of reds and blues, and just a touch of yellowish-orange, all carefully balanced.

 

Guides

If you show 100 people a strong photograph, and you had some method of tracking their eye movement within the first second or so, you’ll find that they all pretty much follow the same path. That’s because a strong photograph leads the eye around the frame.

There are several ways to do this, but two of my favorite ways to do this are with lines and tonal variation.

Lines… well, they are lines. Anything in an image that makes a line, or a curve. They can be real or implied. Lines are strong geometric elements, and serve as great guides for the eye. I often use them to lead the eye into the photographs to give it a feeling of depth.

Harvest Road - Trail in the grass leads the eye to the horizon.

Harvest Road – Trail in the grass leads the eye to the horizon.

I also love to use tone to guide the eye. Our eyes are drawn to brightness before darkness. So if I create a subtle gradient from darkness to bright, the eye will almost certainly be pulled in that direction. I often use this to my advantage and love to wait until the clouds create just the right shadows to pull the eye into the distance, as demonstrated beautifully in “Monument Valley Cumulus.” This photograph, one of my favorites, has such a great feeling of depth.

Monument Valley Cumulus

Monument Valley Cumulus

 

Light

Some great photographs are really average subjects and not-so-interesting compositions taken under incredibly interesting lighting conditions. Although I use the terms good light and bad light when I’m in the field, I really mean interesting light, and un-interesting light. Admittedly, the difference between the two is difficult to describe.  But as an example, uninteresting light is straight-down noon-light without a cloud in the sky. Sunrises and sunsets are considered to be the best light, especially for color photography, because the light is coming in a more pleasing angle and is quite colorful.

Imagine “Tseyi Sunrise” with noon light. Not so good.

Tseyi Sunrise

Tseyi Sunrise

 

Simplicity

The simpler an image is, the easier it is to understand. It really needs to be about one “thing”, and all the other elements should carefully support that “thing” without becoming their own “thing”. Got it? If something doesn’t add to the photograph, it takes away. So everything should benefit, or it shouldn’t be included.

Starry Cypress - Very simple photograph and composition.

Starry Cypress – Very simple photograph and composition.

 

Moment

Moment is something that can break all the rules and might even transcend technical or compositional flaws in some cases. It is when something happens that is rare, unique, unbelievable, etc. Sometimes it’s planned, sometimes it’s luck, but it’s always a special thing to experience in person, and it can make a great photograph. The trick is to be ready for it, and to have the knowledge and experience to take advantage.

Lightning With Rainbow - Right place at the right time, with the right knowledge, experience, and the right equipment.

Lightning With Rainbow – Right place at the right time, with the right knowledge, experience, and the right equipment.

 

There are other ingredients that I could list here, but then the list would get too long and you would be less likely to read it all. Besides, these are my most used ingredients right now. I cannot think of one photograph of mine that doesn’t use at least one of these as primary “hook”.

Of course, as I photograph more, I learn more, and my technique is always subject to change as I grow as a photographer. I might even come back in a few years and re-write this list with completely new ingredients! But for now, this is where I am. I hope that having read this, you will be better able to understand each of my photographs now.

-Tim

Waiting for the Light

I want to show you a series of photographs that led up to my popular photograph Guadalupe Sunrise.  Notice the time stamps and how just a bit of waiting for the right light can be the difference between boring and excellent. I recognized that the sun was low in the sky and the clouds were moving quickly, therefore the light was changing quickly. It was just a matter of time.  In this case, less than 13 minutes.

Time: 8:33:48AM

Time: 8:33:48AM

Time: 8:43:46AM

Time: 8:43:46AM

Time: 8:45:28AM

Time: 8:45:28AM

Time: 8:45:46AM

Time: 8:45:46AM

Time: 8:45:59AM

Time: 8:45:59AM

Time: 8:46:18AM

Time: 8:46:18AM

Note that the final creation Guadalupe Sunrise (not shown here) is a composite of the second and last photographs.  Also note that there is only the same basic processing applied to these images, and with the exception of the first being at f/10, the rest are f/14, 1/8 of a second, at ISO 100.