On September 24, 2021, I was shooting at the Boicourt Trail at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I woke a bit early and got out for the great color that would hopefully happen at sunrise. I wasn’t disappointed! However, my purpose for going there today was to hike down to the burning coal vein and try and get a few photographs.
It was during this hike that I thought to myself, I really need to write down my creative process and share it with anyone that cares to listen or read about it.
I started thinking about the previous three weeks of hiking and photography which included Isle Royal National Park, Minnesota’s North Shore, and five days here at TRNP. I figured I could distill it all down to 5–7 steps. I initially wrote seven steps in my journal so when I got back home I could easily pick it up again. Then I whittled it down to five main items with a few sub items that get buried in the details.
I’ve covered this on my podcast, and you can listen to it here at the end of this article. If you’re a member over at Latitude Photography School you can watch the Design and Creativity in Photography Lesson 3.0, Formmaking: Making Photographs Checklist. There’s also a downloadable PDF you can grab at the end of this article. It’s sized for most cell phones and you can have it for easy reference when you’re out in the field.
Once back in the office I dove deep into my thousands of images and came up with a few from Isle Royale National Park that I want to focus on. These five images really illustrate the main point of the whole checklist. So let’s get started.
1 Always Keep my “why” in mind.
This is certainly a very large and foundational idea that is important to understand. And it requires its own series of articles and discussions to really do it justice.
In short, understanding who you are and why you click that shutter button will help you achieve a consistency in your image making. Consistency is important. It helps you develop a style and people start to expect certain things from you too. Also, being consistent strengthens your message that you’re trying to communicate.
If you don’t know your fundamental purpose for why you create the photographs you make, you should spend some time contemplating that. Don’t let your answers to this fundamental question start to take on anything related to composition or style. If you bring “creative solutions” to the table at this time, well, it’s just premature. We’re talking about purpose here.
If you’re interested, my “why” is to satisfy my curiosity about things in general, and to make compelling images to communicate that curiosity and to tell the story of what’s happening before me.
OK, so I’m “curious.” What does that mean? To me it means that I’m always wondering “what if” or “what’s that like” or “I want to go see and experience that.” It also means that I’m not usually motivated by the big icons of a place. I’m more interested in the details. Certainly, I need the icons for recognizability, but the details and the little vignettes are what really excites me about travel/outdoor photography. I then want to make compelling images. This is starting to bring in some “creative solutions” that I warned against earlier. But it’s still generic enough to not be too bothersome. The idea here is that if I make boring images, no one will care to enjoy them. In fact, they WON’T enjoy them, and that’s a problem. So it’s my job as a photographer to find ways to make these scenes that I enjoy so much enjoyable and interesting for the viewers. And then there’s the idea of the story. I’m always interested in the story of the image. Sometimes it requires more than one image to tell the story, sometimes it’s all done in one image. Either way, the story is important.
2 Identify specifically what intrigues me about the scene.
Whether it’s a concrete object or an abstract thought or idea, work to have clarity of purpose for the image or scene. This is the first step to establishing your composition. But it’ll be revisited again and again in the next step.
For now, boil it down to one word or phrase.
I often find myself sitting and waiting for inspiration too. Sometimes it’s not obvious. Sometimes it doesn’t come to me and I just move on.
Having clarity of purpose is key and my goal is to frame up the scene with that in mind. If you’re not sure what your purpose is, then I recommend selecting something at random in your scene, and make that your primary purpose. Your creative ideas start flowing and you start developing solutions to the problem. You may even then shift your thoughts and realize there’s an entirely different purpose you need to be shooting for here. Go for it! Change up what you’re shooting and go with it! My point here, to just get started. Many times we wait for inspiration and it never comes. It’s our job as photographers to keep digging and before you know it, you’ll uncover some beautiful golden nuggets. But if you don’t find them, don’t sweat it. Just move on…
3 How can I strengthen the composition?
This is where we’ll get deep into some pics. With this first image for example, what intrigues me about it? Specifically. (This comes from step 2.)
For me, it’s all about the water and the interaction with the rocky shore. The wind-blown trees provide a nice bit of interest, but it’s all about those waves. I also included the bush on the right for a bit of other visual interest. I thought that was really cool.
The first item I look at to strengthen the composition is to consider the surrounding environment. To consider the main subject and the context of its surroundings. How can I make it better? In this example below, I simply waited a few moments and captured a frame with different wave actions.
Interesting for sure, and I do love both of these images. But as you’ll see in step five (we’re getting there eventually) I’m all about working the scene too. So let’s do that a little more here.
The second item to look at for strengthening the composition is to ask myself, what design principles are at work here? This certainly requires that we have a bit of knowledge about these design principles. And that’s the primary purpose of my Design and Creativity course that’s a part of Latitude Photography School. But for now, I’ll just toss a few of them out there.
Certainly TEXTURE is coming through. The water has a texture. The rocks, roots, trees, and clouds. They all have CONTRASTING TEXTURE. Two very important design principles that are very strong in this scene. There even happens to be a rainbow in this particular frame which is a bit wider than the previous two images. Also note how the bush on the right has become more prominent in the scene.
I experimented with different shutter speeds until I got the right texture in the water. I didn’t want it to compete with the clouds. I didn’t want it to compete with the rocks and trees. I wanted it to be its own subject. And this shutter speed of about half a second gave that to me. Compare this frame with the previous two frames.
Are there other design principles? Overall shapes, asymmetrical balance from left to right, but rather symmetrical top to bottom. Color. A few lines. All these others are not as strong as TEXTURE and CONTRAST though.
The third step in strengthening the composition is to consider ways to strengthen or decrease the design principles I have available to me. To see what works. I then need to ask myself if the changes make the image more impactful?
Would elevating any of these items, i.e. making it more obvious in the scene, help the image or break the image? If I think it could help, then I need to work on ways to bring those design principles out more.
In this framing, the idea of lines is much stronger. I also have slightly different lighting so there’s more color in the water (it could also be due to my processing in Lightroom).
And finally, our last image. Nearly the same framing as above, but just waiting once again for the water to do its thing. That line in the rock is made much more powerful because the water makes it go further. In fact, because it’s brighter now in that corner, it’s the perfect starting point for experiencing this image. You start there, and then launch towards the middle of the scene. The rest of the image is just eye candy, but that line provides the energy. By shifting my position a bit (compared to the first three images) I’ve changed the influence that the design principles have on the image, and that has changed your understanding and experience of the subject. This is the power of managing the elements available to you and making good decisions about how you’ll use them to craft a compelling image.
4 Confirm the technical parts
- Turn off all preview items in your viewfinder or screen. I wish this were possible on the Canon without having to turn of the auto focus. But alas, to completely clear the screen of all distractions I need to turn that off.
- Really look at the scene. Revisit the previous steps as needed. Are you achieving your goals and is there anything that is distracting?
- Search the border for visual tensions or distractions. Little things that are creeping in from the borders can really wreck an image. Certainly images can be cropped in post production, and when doing so you also want to check for these items that cause a visual tension. They’ll attract the eye and your viewer will not want to look at anything else, at least for a few seconds, and in that short timeframe you’ve ruined their experience.
- Check for mergers. These are items in the scene that have a visual connection, yet they are two totally different objects and by connecting them, they make an odd visual. Think along the lines of a person with a tree growing out of their head. That kind of thing. Work to minimize or get rid of those.
- Verify your exposure settings so you capture detail where you need it. This requires looking at your histogram in camera. It also is a huge benefit when you have more experience because you know more of what to look for, what to expect. For beginners, just make sure nothing is slammed to the far right or the far left of the histogram. If you can’t help it, then you have a high contrast scene and you have a decision to make. What is more important? The highlights or the shadows? (Often the highlights.) With experience you’ll start to better understand what is needed here. Maybe this is another idea for a podcast episode and another article…
- Think about aperture and Depth-of-Field and what the chosen shutter speed will do do your subject too. Like I mentioned about the images above, I experimented with the shutter speed so I would get something that doesn’t cause the water to compete with the other subjects. It was important to me to have the water have its own identity. A slower shutter speed would have made the water more like the clouds, and a faster shutter speed would make it more like the rocks. The additional contrast of textures makes the image more visually interesting.
5 Make the exposure
I’ve already given examples above about how I worked the scene. But the main ideas is, yes, go ahead and make the exposure. Hopefully with all these thoughts running through your head you haven’t missed the shot. Your light is hopefully the same as what you had when you stopped (if that was what intrigued you about the scene) or maybe it’s gotten better!
Also, I recommend taking notes in a journal so you can learn from your decisions. If you take notes and then review them when you’re at the computer, especially if it’s several days later, you’ll be able to learn more quickly what you need to do to make better images. To refine your process.
Once that initial exposure is made, your assignment is to work the scene. You need to modify at least ONE item about your composition and work the scene until you feel that you’re wasting time. With the water shots above I created at least 200 images. Changing perspectives, experimenting with shutter speed and waiting and capturing different wave actions are all part of changing at least ONE item about your composition. When you really work a scene you start to really get a feel for the subject and new ideas are likely to come to mind. Take those into consideration and start the process all over again 🙂
Download the guide
I’ve created an easy to use PDF checklist. Just drop your email in the form below and you’ll get it right away. You’ll also be added to my basic notifications list which means that about every 6–8 weeks you’ll get something valuable like this in your inbox. I probably won’t have a new download each time. But I’m talking about new inspiration, something educational or simply something of interest to the travel/outdoor photographer.
Thanks so much for reading, and don’t forget to listen to the podcast episode below. Until next time, happy shooting!