Photography: Vision & Problem Solving

The Osguthorpe Barn near Park City, UT. Captured by Adam Barker Photography.

For those of you who live in or near Park City, UT, you will quickly recognize this barn. It is certainly one of the more photographed structures in northern UT. And rightly so! The Osguthorpe Barn (or McPolin Barn depending on who you talk to) has greeted visitors and locals alike traveling in to Park City since 1921. Simply put, it is a classic.

I have photographed here many times before, I’ll

do so many times in the future. It is the utmost in Americana, and I enjoy the challenge in finding new ways to capture the barn and its surroundings.

I arrived at this location later in the morning, and low fog was just beginning to thin out. I was excited to be at this spot with conditions I’d never seen before! I worked through several compositions, but none of them really worked as a whole.

Finally, I settled on a wider angle image, utilizing cattails as my FG subject. I’ve shot from this exact location before in the winter, but this time the grouping of cattails seemed more elongated towards the barn, and a vertical composition seemed more appropriate.

I actually began composing this image with my 16-35mm lens. I wanted to incorporate a more complete wide angle foreground, but I still wanted to maintain emphasis and hold the viewer’s attention on the barn itself. With the 16-35mm stopped down for maximum DOF, the scene felt busy, and my eye simply wouldn’t settle on the barn as I’d like it to.

Finally, I chose to pull out my 24mm tilt shift lens. By both tilting my plane of focus and shooting at a wide open aperture of f4.5, I was able to have my cake and eat it too.

The cattails are selectively blurred, giving context and providing the FG filler that I was looking for. Yet the sharp contrast in sharp vs. blurred takes the eye directly to the barn. Why didn’t I just shoot my 16-35mm wide open? Being a super wide angle f2.8 lens, it wasn’t giving me quite the separation that I needed from a DOF standpoint. Why didn’t I throw on a longer lens and utilize a shallow aperture to achieve that separation? Throwing on a longer lens would have effectively flattened this scene. I would have gotten that separation, but I would not have achieved the depth I get from a wide angle composition–I would not have that immediate, engaging FG element grab the viewer in the same way it does from a wider angle approach.

Much of photography is about simple problem solving. It all begins, however, with a clear vision of what you hope to capture. Know what you want out of a location. Know what type of image you hope to come away with. This will serve as your mental blueprint as you work through the small problems to achieve your final photographic goal.

Are you creating teasers or pleasers with your landscapes?

Sunset image with storm light in Lake Powell, UT

Are your landscape images teasers or pleasers? I ask this question of my workshop students all the time, as it really requires us to think about HOW we construct an image, and ultimately what kind of viewing experience results.

Think of each image as a visual journey. Just simply associating your image with a journey implies that there is a destination at which the viewer will arrive. Does this destination live up to the journey?

Take this image for example. Photographed during a particularly dramatic evening in Lake Powell, I was ecstatic when the storm clouds parted on the horizon and allowed for several minutes of intense gap light.

This visual journey begins in the lower right hand corner of the frame, winding up and through the image, finally arriving at the climactic “destination” of intense light on the sandstone butte above.

Think about the visual journey in each of your landscape images, and you’ll be creating pleasers, and forgetting the teasers.

Long Lens Morning: Cascade Peak & Middle Provo River

Winter image of Cascade Peak and Middle Provo River by AdamBarkerPhotography

Banger morning. Middle Provo River. Cascade Peak.

The quick and dirty:
Perfect comp for a long lens shot with engaging elements from front to back of the frame. Think of your photographic frame in three-dimensional terms as a loaf of bread. Long lenses squish that loaf of bread, putting the back slice right up against the front slice. Additionally, this was shot at exactly 90 degrees to the sun, allowing me to utilize the Singh-Ray Filters LB warming polarizing filter to the fullest, deepening the sky, and giving the snowy peaks extra pop.

Better Fall Photography

Storm clouds and fall color in northern Utah's Wasatch Mountains.

Storm clouds and fall color in northern Utah's Wasatch Mountains.

Fall is quite possibly my favorite season. Perhaps it’s because the change in the air is so dramatic. Color, crispness, cooler temps–it’s allllll good. Fall pushes photographers everywhere to dig out both their camera and their personal commitment to creating meaningful imagery. It’s exciting to see the lanscape change so drastically, and quite honestly–there’s beauty in nearly every direction. Nothing fuels a photographer’s fire like gorgeous subject matter at a stone’s throw from nearly every canyon drive.

I’ve had opportunity to get out quite a bit with several workshop students and shoot some of fall’s finest here in northern Utah. The weather, however, has been challenging for the most part, with clear skies and warm temperatures. It has forced us to get creative and really search for meaningful shots without dramatic skies. We did luck out one morning with fantastic storm clouds, and we took full advantage, knowing it was a gift.

An AdamBarkerPhotography workshop student shoots first light at Silver Lake, Brighton, UT.

An AdamBarkerPhotography workshop student shoots first light at Silver Lake, Brighton, UT.

While gorgeous in their own right, colorful leaves don’t themselves a memorable image make. I imagine you, just as countless others, have come home from your fall photography forays only to find your images were flat and struggled to convey the sense of grandeur that you witnessed in person. The challenge, is depth. Conveying depth in our fall images is what really helps to take the viewer “there”. A flat mountainside with pretty leaves just won’t cut it. Sure, it’s pretty. But does it have impact? Probably not. Read below for a couple of tips on creating fall images with depth.

Fall color in Utah's Wasatch Mountains.

Fall color in Utah's Wasatch Mountains.

1. Establish compositional zones. Find foregrounds, middle grounds and backgrounds for your images. Longer lens shots fall images here in the Wasatch are particularly well suited to this, with intersecting ridge lines and areas of strong color.

Late light long lens landscape at Snowbird, UT

Late light long lens landscape at Snowbird, UT

2. Search out broken light. Spotty clouds cast spotty or broken light. This random placement of lit and shaded areas carries viewers through the frame and creates that near/far perspective that helps to convey three dimensionality.

An AdamBarkerPhotography workshop student waits for evening light amidst swirling storm clouds.

An AdamBarkerPhotography workshop student waits for evening light amidst swirling storm clouds.

3. Use a polarizing filter. Even better, know where and how to use it most effectively. A polarizer will help to reveal full color in the foliage, by removing the natural sheen or reflection. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly (especially on those boring, crystal clear days), a polarizer will deepen skies, helping to add depth and interest to your fall photos. A polarizer is most effective when shot at 90 degrees to the sun–find those compositions that help the polarizer help you!

Dawn light and fall color at Park City's iconic Osguthorpe Barn

Dawn light and fall color at Park City's iconic Osguthorpe Barn

4. Change your angle to the sun. Fall color takes on a completely different look, depending on your angle to the sun. Front lit aspens can appear dull and washed out, but as soon as place that light source behind them, they glow with life. This is a technique you can use to capture stunning imagery even into the mid-day hours.

An AdamBarkerPhotography workshop student, enveloped by backlit aspens.

An AdamBarkerPhotography workshop student, enveloped by backlit aspens.

5. Use Grad ND Filters. Not sure what they are? Search this blog or get on the Google. I use Singh Ray filters–the best! There’s absolutely no better tool out there for balancing difficult dynamic ranges and allowing you to capture dramatic skies.

Storm clouds and lightning bolt at first light over Utah's Wasatch Mountains.

Storm clouds and lightning bolt at first light over Utah's Wasatch Mountains.

6. Get out there. The golden rule of landscape photography. Simply being there will allow you to make magic. It’s too easy to stay home and wait for what you think might be the perfect conditions to capture that five-star fall keeper. How do you know that you haven’t already missed it? Nothing helps to get the creative juices flowing like being out in nature. You’re sure to find something that floats your boat, and then some. Forget the boring weather forecasts or lackluster color-get out there and find a way to excel behind the lens.

Interested in putting this into practice in the field with yours truly? Check out my workshop page for details.

Instinct: Use It

Lupine Wildflowers and sunstar at sunset along the Duchesne Ridge, UT

Lupine Wildflowers and sunstar at sunset along the Duchesne Ridge, UT

Simply put, last night was a gift. It was amazing. It was perfect. It was everything you could ever want behind the lens bottled up into four minutes of ridiculous organized chaos and color and mosquitos and sore knees and…wonder.

I wondered if I captured “it”. I wondered how “it” could be so overwhelmingly gorgeous. I wondered if anyone else had seen “it”. I was certain no one else had seen it like I had. It was impossible. In fact, it was UNpossible. There was no way that anyone else in the world had witnessed nature in such harmony as I had.

At least, that’s what I was telling myself. And I believed it.

Instinct is what you rely on when logic leaves your brain. And believe me, when you get conditions like this in front of your lens, logic will depart. In a hurry. You’ll be left with the most beautiful scene anyone on this earth has ever laid eyes on, and you’ll be bumbling around like a teenager in a Victoria’s Secret store.

Take a deep breath. And rely on what you have done so many times before. Which brings me to my point–if you haven’t done it “so many times before”, you’ll not have much to fall back on when things hit the fan in a good way.

Practice really does make perfect. And in the end, it is a simple practice of sorts that will capture moments like this for all of time. The more you shoot, the more you learn. The more you learn, the more capable you are of handling whatever happens to present itself in front of your lens. Interestingly enough, we only think of practice coming in handy when things go bad. But what about when things go…good??? When conditions are best for capturing five-star imagery is when you will feel the most pressure to perform. Because there’s no reason you shouldn’t come home with something spectacular. And really, there’s no excuse if you’ve done your homework and have…practiced.

Shot with Canon 5D MkII, 16-35 2.8 II, Singh Ray 4-stop Reverse ND Grad, Gitzo tripod

Create More Dynamic Images

A hiker backpacks through the Mt. Timpanogos Wilderness Area, UT

A hiker backpacks through the Mt. Timpanogos Wilderness Area, UT

If you follow my blog posts, Facebook posts, or have ever been to one of my seminars or workshops, you know that I use the word “dynamic” like nobody’s business. I talk about creating DYNAMIC images to no end.

What does that mean in layman’s terms? Sure it’s a nice word that sounds legit, but what does it mean to create a dynamic image? Let’s examine this image a bit and see what it is about it that makes it dynamic (IMHO–of course).

1. Light. This image sings with life because of the broken light highlighting both the hiker in the FG and distant rolling hills in the BG.

2. Subject. The hiker is dressed in appropriate clothing for the activity, and most importantly, he’s wearing colors (including the backpack) that help him to stand out and draw the viewer’s attention. It was simply good fortune that the colors on him happen to match the colors in his surroundings to a T, but I’ll take it!

3. Composition. By getting low to the ground, I’m able to include another element of color and shadow adding depth and dimension to the overall scene. I always look for areas of contrast within the frame that will carry the viewer through the image. We see that here with a shadow/highlight/shadow/highlight pattern from FG to BG. Additionally, the subject has been placed in one of the thirds intersects of the frame, giving it aesthetic balance and plenty of context for where the hiker is headed.

4. Exposure. I intentionally underexposed this image by a 1/2 stop or so to give it a bit more drama and to make sure and not overexpose the greens in the flowers. Additionally, this underexposure deepens the shadows and emphasizes the contrast between bright and dark areas of the image.

The next time you’re out shooting, write the word “dynamic” on the back of your hand, and give yourself a little reminder!

Shot with Canon 5D, 70-200 2.8IS, Singh Ray LB Warming Polarizer

Composition Tip: Fill the Frame

Image of brown trout in Brodin Ghost Net caught and release on a fly in the Weber River, UT

Image of brown trout in Brodin Ghost Net caught and release on a fly in the Weber River, UT

Fill.
The.
Frame.

Too many times our images are left wanting. Sometimes this has to do with including too much, sometimes it has to do with including too little. Sometimes, it has nothing to do not with what we include, but HOW and WHERE we include it.

Fall foliage in Big Cottonwood Canyon, UT

Fall foliage in Big Cottonwood Canyon, UT

In general, study the edge of your frame when you shoot and make sure there is nothing distracting that’s impeding upon either the subject or message (or both) of your image.

I have a rule I try and hold myself to: Make an image as interesting or engaging as possible with as little as possible.

Schooner in Sausalito Bay with San Francisco Skyline in background.

Schooner in Sausalito Bay with San Francisco Skyline in background.

There are, however, two caveats to this.

1. Know how your image will be used. Do you need to leave more negative space than you typically would for logos, copy or other extraneous additions to the image? You may want to shoot several versions of the “same” image; one for you, and one for potential stock/editorial/commercial usage.

Image of Chestnut-mandibled Toucan. Arenal, Costa Rica.

Image of Chestnut-mandibled Toucan. Arenal, Costa Rica.

2. Know when to break the rules. This is a grey caveat. It relies on your creative intuition. There are times when the scene in front of you will be chaotic. The truly skilled photographer will still be able to tame that chaos into an approachable, meaningful image.

Timing Makes All The Difference

Comparison of two images of wildflowers and South Caineville Mesa by Utah landscape photographer Adam Barker.

Comparison of two images of wildflowers and South Caineville Mesa by Utah landscape photographer Adam Barker.

Timing really can make all the difference. Shooting at different times means shooting different light. And different light can give nearly the same image an entirely different feel.

Case in point is this study from my recent trip down to Caineville, UT. These two (nearly identical) images were shot just 13 minutes apart. As you can see, the image on the left still has direct light on the FG flowers. Due to the bluffs to the west, it was impossible to catch the last rays of light on the flowers themselves. This direct light is a bit hot for my taste, but it does accentuate the rows of flowers, and give the FG more of an elongated feel.

The image on the right showcases the flowers in open shade, and succulent late light on South Caineville Mesa. The open shade on the FG gives the viewer access to every last detail, and renders the colors softer and more luminescent. It doesn’t, however, showcase the leading lines of the flower rows.

This truly is the beauty of still photography. And this, really, is how you can go about defining your personal style and your preference to the types of images you’d like to capture. Study the subtle (or not so subtle) difference between images. Are you willing to sacrifice some of the detail in the FG flowers for the compositional definition, or do you prefer the soft tones and colors instead of the open shade? If you had to choose between displaying one or the other of these images, which would it be–and why?

Shot with Canon 5D MkII, 24MM TS-E 3.5II, Singh Ray LB ColorCombo Polarizer, Singh Ray 3-stop Reverse ND Grad

Video: How to Hand Hold Grad ND Filters

Here’s a quick video clip from my instructional DVD that showcases the effectiveness of several filters from Singh Ray. It also gives a good demonstration on how I hand hold my filters when shooting. (to order the DVD, click here)

Why do I hand hold my filters?

1. Speed—in rapidly changing conditions, I want to be able to adjust my shooting position, composition, lens selection or any number of other components quickly and without too much hassle. By hand holding my filters, I’m able to adapt quickly to whatever may present itself in those fleeting moments of magic.

2. Control—many times we find ourselves shooting scenes with parts of the image that may require less filtration than others. By hand-holding my filters, I am able to manually dodge and burn the parts of the image that may require more or less filtration. This is an advanced technique of sorts, but will become more intuitive with time and practice.

3. Versatility—many of the active lifestyle images I shoot are done on unsteady surfaces and without a tripod. There simply isn’t time to screw on a filter holder and even if I were able to, my gradient transitions (where I want that filter line to fall) are never stationary. Hand-holding allows me to micro-adjust that filter placement for each shot.

How do I hand hold my filters?

Let me first say that all of the Grad ND filters I use are the 4 x 6 size. This larger size is much easier to hand hold in general, and nearly essential if you’re shooting wide angle lenses on a full frame sensor.

I generally grasp the edge of the filter between my thumb and index finger or middle finger. Taking special care not to shake the camera, I place the filter flush against the front element of the lens. If I’m shooting at longer focal lengths or with longer shutter speeds, I may remove the filter just slightly from the lens to avoid any sharpness sapping vibration.

Plan. Go. Do.

Sunset over wildflowers near Caineville, UT

Sunset over wildflowers near Caineville, UT

Several years ago I saw an image that struck me. It was a desert landscape, dotted with purple and yellow wildflowers. In a word, it was beautiful. In another word, it was mysterious. I wondered how such a barren landscape, void of color and feeling,  could suddenly spring to life as if fed by some unseen fountain of youth. I had to go there. I had to see it for myself. And really, I had to capture it for myself.

This just happened to be the year I was able to make it down to Caineville. I happened to have some spare time, and was committed to finally making this shoot happen. Caineville is, quite literally, a bend in the road. There’s no stop lights, no gas stations. There’s nothing except for mesas and buttes shaped by time and weather. Gravel ridgelines criss-cross into the distance, clawing their way further towards the base of north and south Caineville Mesas. At the right time of year, and given the proper winter/spring snow and rainfall, the valleys between these small buttes fill with yellow and purple. Seas of beeplant and purplemat flow between the mesas and fluted miniscapes. It is, quite simply, a photographer’s paradise.

Wildflower landscape image shot near Caineville, UT

Wildflower landscape image shot near Caineville, UT

It certainly is one of those places that feels nearly impossible to capture. It’s big and broad and colorful and supremely unique. My best suggestion to shooters hoping to stumble upon this symphony of nature??? Take all your gear, and take all your creative energy. You will need it. There are innumerable ways to shoot the flowers and desert landscape in and around Caineville. Some of it has been shot before, but I guarantee you will find your own nook and your own way of telling this beautiful story to those unable to attend in person.

I was also fortunate to visit Factory Butte, surrounded on many sides by an endless carpet of yellow. From what I understand, it’s a somewhat rare occurrence to see such prolific displays of wildflowers here, and I felt fortunate to be there. Alone. On an absolutely stunning morning.

Factory Butte with Beeplant (amazing widlflowers!)

Factory Butte with Beeplant (amazing widlflowers!)

As this was a solo trip, I had plenty of time to reflect on the experience of shooting such grandiose scenes. I have posted just a couple of tips below that are particularly relevant to the Caineville/Factory Butte area. They are also applicable to any shooting situation in which you find yourself slightly overwhelmed by the beauty and grandeur of what lies before you.

1. Go with a plan. Whether you have a written list, or mental notes of the types of images you’d like to capture, have some sort of “plan of attack”. It will help you to keep a level head and stay focused, to a degree. It’s easy to arrive at these locations and start running around like a chicken with your head cut off. Don’t do it. Be methodical, and don’t forget to enjoy yourself!

Factory Butte and grazing cattle.

Factory Butte and grazing cattle.

2. Be receptive to new images. Although you may have a plan in your head, conditions may cause your photographic plans to vary, and this is A-OK. I really believe that some of the most magical images are visualized on site, from the hip, so to speak. See with your photographic eyes, and don’t be stubbornly committed to an image that may just not be there. Vision can change rapidly, and more than anything, you must be willing to work to find the best image for that exact moment. It may be as simple as changing a lens, or as difficult as hiking a ridgeline. Regardless–make it happen. You’ll be justly rewarded.

3. Shoot different lenses. I guess this could be better suggested in shooting different focal lengths. It’s easy to get stuck in wide angle mode, or telephoto or macro mode. You haven’t properly worked a scene until you’ve at least TRIED numerous different focal lengths and angles. Sometimes the big picture will be incomplete, but there will be “pieces” of that picture that are five-star images in and of themselves. Mess around. Work on seeing through different lenses without having to bring the camera to your eye.

WIldflowers and North Caineville Mesa

WIldflowers and North Caineville Mesa

4. Visit the same locations at different times of day. Simply put–light changes, winds dies down, clouds pour in, more flowers bloom and your mind’s eye transforms. Do yourself a favor and don’t throw in the towel at any given location after one shoot. Many photographers chase that one idealistic image for days/weeks/months/years. Put in your time, and even if you don’t get that keeper this time, you’ll be better prepared the next time you visit the location.

Broken light on North Caineville Mesa

Broken light on North Caineville Mesa

5. Forget what you’ve seen. Let me clarify–forget what you’ve seen online, in others’ portfolios, on postcards, etc. This is perhaps one of the most difficult things to do, as what we’ve seen largely dictates what we hope to capture. Find a way to wipe your mental, emotional and creative slate clean. This is when your own, special style will take over. This is when you will create your own magic. This is what will help you with tip #2 above. Challenge yourself to see what others have not.

Factory Butte with wildflowers

Factory Butte with wildflowers

So now–Plan. Go. Do.