Personal Techniques

Location, Location, Location

Like Real Estate, photography is all about location --- a "moment" in time at some "position"  of observation. Time-location affects the light and shadows, and Position-location is the key to pleasing composition.

Landscape photography is a good way to start learning photography, because the subjects don't move very fast! Then, once using a camera and particular kind of film have become second-nature, it's easy to move into other kinds of photography. 

Every Image is a Castle

Think of each image as a "castle" --- all by itself, beautiful, and self-contained. It only needs one thing to protect it from "invaders" --- a MOAT.  The primary "invaders" of an image are: poor composition, distractions, and overexposure.

Below is a quick guide to the M-O-A-T sequence I've used for years, and  taught in workshops. (For more details, including some practice tips, see Building a MOAT Around Your Castle.)

Move. The landscape is not moving, but "position" is everything.  Moving forward, backward (exception: on a mountaintop!), left, right, while looking through the camera, is essential. 

Feel, don't Think.  (Thinking is later; adjusting the shutter speed, f-stop, light meter).  Try to stay with feeling the overall image until satisfied it is "right" (and let an image go untaken, if it just doesn't seem to work, and try a completely different position).

Other Stuff.  When it seems like the feeling  is right, looking for "Other Stuff" (distractions in the image) is next. Wires, telephone poles, trash, cars, houses, bright spots, color clashes --- anything that might detract from the image subject or feeling.  This often requires moving oneself some more.

Adjustments.  Now make shutter-speed (is there "motion" in the picture)  and f-stop (for depth-of-field), light meter (meter on the brightest areas), and focus settings.

Time.  Pause. The real secret to better photography is: Take lots of TIME, not lots of pictures. It takes time to do enough "Moving" to be sure of the composition, to ponder "Other Stuff",  and to make "Adjustments". So, take more time to review each of these before you snap the shutter.

There is an interesting thing about landscape photography; one's ability to "see/feel" ebbs and flows during a day, much like the tides. Once, on a private assignment to photograph a fishing village called Moss Landing, I wandered around for fully 2 hours without taking a photo before, slowly, there was beauty everywhere I looked, and in the space of less than an hour I captured more than a dozen unique and interesting photographs. Then, my "atunemnt" disappeared --- but I had what I needed. 

Shutter Speeds and F-stops

I usually don't record information about shutter speeds and f-stops.  (However, it's a MUST to do this when learning photography, or when using a new kind of film).  It's not that these things aren't important --- it's just that, once their effects in situations are understood from experience, the recording of such information (for me, anyway) interferes with the process of "seeing/feeling" --- a mind-state that is counter to the "thinking/doing" of recording technical details.   I rarely "bracket" photos, but only because (a) film was never cheap for me (digital cameras solve that problem, of course), and because of that, (b) I had to learn how to apply the camera's light-metering system to the situation, correctly, the first time. 


I prefer not to use a tripod --- because for me it's the "feeling" of the image that is the key to composition, and very slight movements in position can be the "key" to capturing that magical moment.  Sometimes, because of low light (or for a self-portrait), I'll use a tree or a rock or other means to steady the camera.  In one of my favorite self-portraits (what else can you do when you're alone) on a summit, I left the camera on an ice-encrusted  tree-branch and quickly skied out for a photo of Lake Tahoe, shown above, with myself in silhouette.


I learned a great makeshift monopod-technique from Galen Rowell.  I've always liked to hike with a pair of ski poles, even on dirt trails.  If you cross the two poles, and put each strap over the handle of the other, you will create a very firm "V-notch" in which you can nest the camera lens.  This is much better than a monopod, as it is very rigid left-to-right, and only allows forward/backward movement, which will have no visible effect. With this technique, you can easily shoot at 1/30 of a second (quite possibly less) with a 300mm telephoto, if you also (again from Galen) click the shutter between heartbeats. With a 50mm lens, you can reliably shoot at 1/4 second if you are careful.


Well, few use film any more, and it will be unavailable soon, no doubt. If you do use it, film is a matter of personal choice.  My preference has been for Kodachrome transparencies (color slides).  However, getting the correct exposure is much more difficult with transparency films, and requires that one learn a film's reaction to light-intensities by experimentation and bracketing.  Once that has been done, bracketing becomes usually unnecessary.


To determine your own film preferences, a very useful exercise is to take three cameras (borrow from friends) with three different kinds of film, and take exactly the same photographs. Many people prefer the Fuji films or some of the newer Kodak films.  You will be amazed to see the effect of different films on the same exact image.  

Digital vs Film

Digital cameras will replace film in a few more years, most likely. When 35mm digital cameras can produce 24 megapixels, they will be at  the enlargement capability of 35mm film. However, a fine-grain 35mm film (less than 75 ASA) can be drum-scanned to produce a 24x36 print of very high quality, and today's best 35m digital cameras cannot achieve that.


However, a digital camera is by far the best way to learn and apply the MOAT process, because you can review your work immediately. Newer digital cameras have larger viewing screens, and the more expensive ones allow use of your stockpile of lenses.


With modern digital cameras, there are many "light/balance" settings, and you will need to experiment with those to see the effect in a specific situation.


As with film, the most critical thing to avoid is "overexposure", so it is still best to intentionally underexpose by about 1/2 f-stop. Otherwise, the brighter areas will be "washed out" and the colors there will not be recoverable.

Style & Beginnings

I didn't have a camera until I was almost 30 years old, in 1972, but even before that I knew that I liked the way that photographs could "take you there".  Images that projected some "feeling" of nature were especially appealing.  So, I guess that one's own style comes from whatever one enjoys seeing, because of the memory it produces or the feeling it creates. My own style has been to key on seeing/feeling through the composition --- position, colors, shapes, flow. Those I like best are those that represent "magical moments" that can never be recaptured, because of the uniqueness of the elements in the image .  Some are dramatic, some are serene, some are joyful, some invite you to journey to various parts of the image. Some sample links, within this website, are below.


drama: Garrapata Moods, Horsetail Firefall, The Phoenix, Sunset at Donahue Pass

serenity: Island in Blue, Waterfall lace, Water Rocks, Snow Waves

journeys: Tuolumne Ghosts, Rocky Ridge, Gnarled Roots

joy: Soaring, Pampas Love


In each of them, they seem to encapsulate certain feelings, without distractions.


Words & Pictures

Ansel Adams once made the comment that he didn't like picture books with words or poetry in them about the pictures.  He felt very strongly that an image should stand completely by itself, and that any interpretation or commentary was an interference on the photographic art.


I've put words to each image in this website, in part to share the experience of the moment, in part to (hopefully!) inspire others to know they can find and appreciate and capture similar moments, and in part to provide information that may be interesting or fascinating.


For example, how many people would know that the large boulder sitting on the granite in  Tuolumne Ghosts was left there by melting glaciers more than 10,000 years ago?  Or that Ebb Tide shows a constant occurrence that offers unending enjoyment (and unlimited photo ops) at almost any seashore --- and how that can help your family photos?


To me, the technical details of a photo (anyone's photo) are almost meaningless.  I like images that "take me there", into the image.  If words can add something to the appreciation or understanding or immersion into an image, all the better.


At some point, I may add  a feature to this website that encourages viewers to write their own poems about an image, for sharing in an ongoing "Viewer Contributions" page. Some of my personal poetry you might enjoy is in Reflections.

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