Tag Archives: photographic composition

Expressing my own photographic vision in Yosemite


I went to Yosemite on Feb 18.  As I was driving through the valley, enjoying the scenery and making my images, I noticed a group of about 50+ serious photographers all bunched up at one spot along the South Drive in Yosemite Valley.  They were all standing beside their tripods, with their 70-200mm lenses pointing in about the same direction.  I was curious and couldn’t wait to find out what they were up to.  I stopped my car, walked up to this group and inquired what was going on.  One of them shared with me that the horsetail falls would light up in the last light of the setting sun and that they were all waiting for that magical moment to be photographed.  I immediately recalled my reading of Galen Rowell’s book, “Mountain Light”.  Galen had photographed this phenomenon and had also provided insight into the precise time of the year when this magical phenomenon would occur.  It did not happen all the time, because of the changes in sun’s trajectory relative to the location of the falls.  A special time of the year indeed.


At the time of this writing, I just searched Google Images for “glowing horsetail falls yosemite” and just saw several hundred images, all looking about the same.  There are just a handful of them that are unique.  For example, see this great image, made coincidentally on Feb 18, by Michael Frye – http://www.michaelfrye.com/landscape-photography-blog/2016/02/19/horsetail-el-capitan/.


After settling my curiosity on what was going on, my instinct was to move on and continue to find my own images.  Being a passionate photographer myself, I did not feel like joining them to wait for that magical moment.  My heart was not there.  Joining this crowd to repeat what they were doing, to make an image just like theirs, would not give me any joy and I did not want to have anything to do with it.


I find satisfaction from my photography, only if the photograph represents something I found.  I do not consciously copy what others do and I get no joy from doing so.  Since all of my photography knowledge and skill is based on studying the works of great photographers that have walked before me, no doubt, there is a subconscious influence from them.  My composition style is certainly subconsciously influenced by all the great photographs that I have seen in the books that I have read.  In that sense, I am not original.  At the same time, I do not study a famous photograph of Yosemite tunnel view or Half Dome and go there to duplicate it.  If I had joined that group of 50+ photographers that day, I may have walked away with a stellar photograph of a great phenomenon, but it would not represent my vision and would therefore give me no joy.  I have seen many photographers, many of them in my own photography workshops, who go to a location and do the following.  They set up their tripods, and then look up other famous images of that location on their iphones and try to recreate it.  Being there in excellent light was by itself not sufficient.  They need this iphone review of past great images, to inspire them.  I am exactly the opposite.  When I visit a new location, my research through TripAdvisor, Google, Wikipedia and other sources, is restricted to figure out where to go, but never to study previously photographed images of that location.  I go there, soak it in and let the place talk to me.  Once a particular scene touches my visual heart, I pull out the camera and work on dissolving myself (get lost) into the scene.  I capture some compositions and keep fine tuning until I feel that my vision is exhausted.  In fact, if there is another photographer in the vicinity, I usually walk away until I find some solitude to work my vision unhindered.

That day, when the group I ran into, were set up to capture the glowing horsetail falls, I simply moved on and made my own images.  Here are my 7 keepers from my day trip to Yosemite on Feb 18.  None of them may be as stellar as Michael’s horsetail falls shot, but these are images dear to me as it represents my original vision.  I made them alone and haven’t seen another photographer’s work look similar to these.  These are mine and therefore extremely fulfilling for me.

  1. El Capitan and Afternoon Clouds
    El Capitan and Afternoon Clouds, Yosemite, CA.

    El Capitan and Afternoon Clouds, Yosemite, CA.

    Usually, I refrain from making landscape images in the afternoon.  Most of the time, I shoot early at sunrise or late at sunset.  However, the afternoon clouds offered an incredible sight on Feb 18.  The uninteresting afternoon light prompted me to give it a black and white treatment.

  2. Runoff stream from Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite, CA
    Runoff from BridalVeil Falls, Yosemite, CA

    Runoff from BridalVeil Falls, Yosemite, CA

    While the BridalVeil Falls by itself forms interesting viewing, it did not offer anything photogenic for my eyes.  I ended up spotting this area of its runoff.  In fact, I made over ten different compositions at this spot and finally picked this as my keeper.  The black and white treatment emphasizes the colorless winter look.

  3. Trees and Reflection, Yosemite, CA
    Trees and Reflection, Yosemite, CA

    Trees and Reflection, Yosemite, CA

    Whenever, I see water bodies, I look for compositions similar to this one.  The emphasis is on the reflection in the water, while the trees above water provides the context.  The strong dark tree trunks in the left (along with its reflection) anchors an otherwise floating green scene.

  4. Trees and Reflection, Yosemite, CA
    Trees and Reflection, Yosemite, CA

    Trees and Reflection, Yosemite, CA

    This is another interpretation of the scene depicted in image 3 above.  I couldn’t resist the lure of the panoramic.  There is something very attractive about the 1:3 format for me.  A series of floating dark tree trunks are anchored by the strong pair of dark tree trunks on the right of the image.  Several individual frames were stitched to create this one.  Viewing this in a larger size on a large monitor brings out its glory better.  Try viewing this same image on a large monitor from my website gallery in the panoramic section.

  5. Vertical Face of El Capitan, Yosemite, CA
    Vertical face of El Capitan, Yosemite, CA

    Vertical face of El Capitan, Yosemite, CA

    Later in the afternoon, the clouds continued to mesmerize.  This time, I witnessed how the vertical face of El Capitan and its magnificient size could be emphasized by showing how it rises into the clouds.  Again, couldn’t resist the lure of the 1:3 format, but in the lesser used vertical form.  I stitched several frames vertically to create this.  The vertical pano format also emphasizes the height of this famous rock.  The uninteresting afternoon light called for black and white treatment.

  6. Trees and reflection, Yosemite, CA
    Trees and Reflection, Yosemite, CA

    Trees and Reflection, Yosemite, CA

    Here is another location that offered an excellent photo opportunity with mirror reflection of interesting trees with dark trunks.  I shot this originally in the native format of 2:3, but cropped a little to emphasize the reflection.  Again, this image has a greater impact when viewed in larger size.  View this in the Landscapes (color) section of my website gallery.

  7. Trees and reflection, Yosemite, CA
    Trees and Reflection, Yosemite, CA

    Trees and Reflection, Yosemite, CA

    This is another interpretation of the same scene shown in image 6.  Again, I couldn’t resist the lure of the 1:3 panoramic format.  It is debatable which of image 6 and 7 is better.  I like both of them because I made them – my wife and kids love image 6 better.  This image is also better enjoyed as viewed larger from the panoramic section of my website gallery.

Walking away with 7 landscape keepers from one day’s shoot is unusual for me.  I usually find one keeper out of a day’s worth of effort.  Some of these images will eventually be deleted.  I think two of them may survive over time.  Since these are my new babies, I like all of them for now.


My point of this blog is not to belittle those that wanted to create the magic originally seen in Galen’s image of horsetail falls.  In fact, I am not sure if Galen was the first one to do it, but certainly his image is the earliest I have seen.  Also, Michael Frye’s image points out how one can be original even today, with the same old location.  My point, however, is that I see far too many photographers attending my workshops who are very happy simply recreating other images they have seen.  In fact, they keep visiting the same iconic locations that have been over-photographed.  Through this post, I want to encourage at least some of you serious photographers to go out and open up to find your own images.

It takes three visits …

When a new place is to be photographed, doing a great job on the first and only visit to the place is indeed rare.  I know this from first hand experience.  Whenever I visit a new place, I rarely succeed making a great image on the first day.  Usually, the first day is spent in just acclimatizing myself to the new location and developing a broad idea of the possibilities of the place.  On the second and third days that I am in the new location, I start to make images.  When I visited Yellowstone for the first time, I made good images on the second and third days, not the first day that I got there.  When I photograph locally around my house, a bulk of my landscape photographs are made over the weekend and typically one day of the weekend (such as a Saturday or a Sunday).  Therefore, my best local landscapes are made when I revisit the same location three consecutive weekends.

Earlier this month, I photographed the Big Basin Redwoods State Park, which is located about 90 minutes from my home in San Jose, CA.  On my first visit to this place, I hiked with a friend and my son for several hours and had no images taken.  On our return, just by luck, I found a tree and the surrounding forest interesting and made a vertical panoramic stitch.  I would have been perfectly happy not making a single image in that visit, but I took advantage of the opportunity and made this image.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Boulder Creek, CA, USA

Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Boulder Creek, CA, USA.  Image made on first visit to location.  Usually, I am happy making no images on the first visit.

This image was made by shooting several vertically overlapping images that were stitched together in Photoshop.  Not a bad image for my first trip, but most people expect a lot of images from just one trip.

Now, on the way back from this first trip, I observed that the morning fog had settled on part of the road and furthermore, since the sun had risen quite a bit by our return, we also witnessed godbeams in several parts of the road.  However, due to earlier commitments, we could not stop to photograph.  I made a mental note of the location on the road and the time we saw that light, promising to come again soon.

The next day, I made my second visit to the same location, timing myself based on the previous days’ observation.  Lo and behold, the same light appeared on several sections of the road and I was able to make several images with greater ease and higher success.  Here are a few of them.

Early morning fog along road, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Boulder Creek, CA, USA

Early morning fog along road, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Boulder Creek, CA, USA.  Image made on my second visit to this location.

Trees and Morning Fog, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Boulder Creek, CA, USA

Trees and Morning Fog, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Boulder Creek, CA, USA.  Image made on second visit to this location.

Crepuscular rays, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Boulder Creek, CA, USA

Crepuscular rays, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Boulder Creek, CA, USA.  Image made on my second visit to this location.

These are just some of the images made during my second visit.  It was much more successful than my first trip.

Interesting thing is that I noticed a great vista point in the location that had bad light when I was returning from both my first and second visits.  To photograph from that vista point, I decided to make a third trip.

The following are couple of images I shot from the vista point, on my third visit.

Foggy morning, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Boulder Creek, CA, USA

Foggy morning, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Boulder Creek, CA, USA.  Image made on my third visit to this location.

Foggy morning, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Boulder Creek, CA, USA

Foggy morning, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Boulder Creek, CA, USA.  My last keeper image from my third visit.  My most favorite image from the three visits.

My last keeper image in this series also happens to be my favorite image from the series.  To reach this image, I had to make three visits.

In general, if you are looking to photograph a new landscape location, give it at least three visits.

Several things happen as you advance from the first to the third visit:

  1. You get very familiar with the roads and the access to key locations
  2. You get very familiar with the photogenic possibilities of the location
  3. You get very familiar with how and when the light is going to start and advance
  4. You get time in between the visits to pre-visualize a composition

In summary, allow time for the new location to grow on you.  Give it at least three visits.

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Discovering unimaginably great photographic compositions

Great photographs are often not imagined that way.  Many advanced amateur photographers I know, step out into location, take an image with the most obvious composition and then walk away with the idea that they are done.  I did this for many years, but I no longer treat my photography that way.  I start with the most obvious compositions and then I stay and I stay and I stay.  I try another composition and yet another composition and keep on going until either physical exhaustion or mental exhaustion or my next chore deadline hits me.  Often, I stay at a location and make hundreds of images.  My best compositions then turn out to be those that are closer to the frame 100 mark and almost never near the frame 1.  The creative juices start flowing after the most obvious compositions are out of the way.  Your brain starts thinking out of the box, after the “in-the-box” thinking is exhausted.  This is in fact, a great way to train your composition skills.  Lock yourself into your closet and force yourself into making 100 different compositions.  Freeman Patterson taught me this through one of his books.  Later, when I attended a seminar by John Shaw, he told us the same thing.  Ever since, I have tried it very often and every time, I come up with some cool images.

Let me illustrate using one example.  This happened two weeks ago.  I was travelling with a fellow photographer in his car.  Fortunately for me, he was driving and we had an hour to drive before our night photo shoot in San Francisco.  He happened to tell me about his new Fuji X100S camera in his glove compartment.  I found myself pulling it out and making hand-held shots.  I made 300 frames that night and will show you a sample of the progression from trash to good (atleast for my eyes).

I started with images like this one.

One of the first images I made in a series of 300. Nothing spectacular. No big deal. But, this is just a beginning.

The first images made in a series will not be necessarily spectacular.  But, it is important to get going.

After a few frames, this is yet another frame that was made.

This image was made shortly after the car started moving. Nothing spectacular here either. But, some ideas are developing. The streaks due to long exposure is triggering a thought …

I want to extend the idea of making light streaks with long exposures.  So, I try some more shots.

The streaks are more prominent in this shot. This is validating that some cool images are possible. Need to try variations, with the same idea.

OK, at this point, I am thinking, “what else I can do with this idea?”  And then, I make an image like this.

Extending the idea of brandishing my camera during a long exposure. Still not a killer keeper, but I want to keep going.

By this time, I want to keep going with the idea further.  Then, after a few frames, I made this image.

Continuing on the streaks during long exposure idea.

Now, the idea of creating an image with streaks during a long exposure, while brandishing my camera, is very encouraging.  This is still not a keeper image for me, but it is getting close.  I want to keep going.

This is getting a lot closer to a clear keeper. In fact, with a crop to remove the emptiness of the bottom most area and the dark top right area, this is indeed a keeper. Very encouraging.

With the right crop, this is a nice keeper.  Let me keep going.

Ooooh! My first keeper, for my eyes. Made by brandishing my camera in circular movement plus bottom left to top right.

By this time, I have completed shooting over 200 frames.  From now on, I went on shooting solid keepers.  Here are some examples.

One of the keeper images, from a series of 300 shot in a one hour car ride. Never imagined this composition, before I started the car ride.

One of the keepers from the series of 300 images made in a one-hour car ride. This composition could not have been imagined prior to the ride.

My favorite so far, from the whole series. To my eyes, this is a lovely composition.

To summarize, you should practice your photographic composition often.  How about 100 images a day?  If not, atleast do 500 images a week.  In any one practice session, include atleast 100 images of a simple subject.  Your composition skills will shoot through the roof, if practiced consistently.  This is more useful than reading tens of books on composition.

If you found this article useful, let me know.  Email me at info@pixgaga.com.  Feel free to forward it, comment on it, and above all please use it.

Good luck with your photographic composition.