The mottled light over the amphitheater at Cedar Breaks National Monument makes for a confusing landscape photo.
The mottled light over the amphitheater at Cedar Breaks National Monument makes for a confusing landscape photo.

Okay now, students. Put away your books and take out a nice sharp pencil. We are going to have a pop quiz! Well, maybe not really, but kind of.

We are going to use the lessons learned from our past few tutorials to dissect this image. Is it a good photograph? A bad one? And if it is bad, why? What can we learn from it?

I don’t think it is a very good pic. There is a basic flaw with this photograph which you should recognize from our previous talks.

The location, Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah, is awesome. The clouds — quite pretty. The light … ah yes, the light. It is boring and flat, which means there are not enough shadows to make the details stand out.

When I shot this, I waited until the clouds created patterns on the landscape, because it was the wrong time of day to create a stunning photo with dramatic light.

But all that did was make the image confusing. There is too much going on. Without the cloud patterns the landscape was like a big bowl of rocks all about the same color. The patterns just added to the visual jumble of rocks in a bowl.

So, what to do? I had three choices: Stick around until later in the day waiting for better light; try to find a different location that would make better use of the light I had or take a snapshot to show I was there.

Option number one was not an option. I was six hours from home and wanted to keep traveling so I wouldn’t have to spend another night on the road. (Montana to Barstow, Calif. is a LONG trip.)

Option number two — no time for an extended exploration. So I went for Option number three —  snapshot time!


We haven’t talked much about composition yet so let’s think in general terms about creating the best image using the photo above as an example.

Composition and framing go hand-in-hand with light to turn an ordinary scene into an extraordinary one. Good composition is knowing what to include in an image and what to leave out.

When you are shooting landscapes you are dealing with immovable elements. The mountain is not coming to you, so you must go to the mountain.

You have to position yourself in the right spot and decide which strong pictorial elements should be the focal point of your image.

In the image above there is no point of interest. No strong part of the image that grabs the eye. Everything is far away and about the same size. So in addition to its lack of dramatic lighting, it has nothing really to seize our attention. All in all a pretty lackluster photo — but it makes a great example of what not to do.

Next column: Composition

“I almost never set out to photograph a landscape … My first thought is always of light.”

— Galen Rowell


  1. I look for good contrast, interesting abstracts, and the BIG 5!
    1.Horizontal line ______
    2. Vertical line 1 1
    3.Curved line ( ( ) )
    4.Diagonal line or leading eye line : / /
    5.Contrast (dark and light).

    And thanks so much for these visual insights!!
    Capturing the beauty of the earth in an illusive moment!

  2. Hello Lara;

    I just read my email subscription to the Desert USA and what a pleasant surprise to see your “101” page.

    I very much enjoy your personal and photographic point of view: your a women, so you shoot with a softer more personal look that male conterparts, with their rigid, strong and power statements. You do have a real mixed bag of subjects and that, Lara is a real plus in the visual world. You shoot clean, with strong composition and (this is one of my favorites) you don’t need a lot of gear to shoot with or to impress others…

    Your writing compliments your photo style very well, with the same personal, yet focused approach.

    I don’t know how you goto DESERTUSA, but I’m glad you did, like I tell my girls… “nice job!!!”


  3. I think your photo of Cedar Breaks is a GOOD photo. Having been there several times, I am familiar with the cloud formations that seem to play havoc with details of the landscape. But I really feel you captured a lot of depth, as clouds reflecting their shadows upon land are almost like shooting water scenes with the land’s reflection in the photos- only in reverse. So, in this case, you managed to capture the clouds’ reflections upon the land, and the mottled land scenery is stunning because of it. I could imagine myself hiking along, going in and out of the sun’s direct light.

  4. I think the last point you make has much more to do with the picture’s problems than the shadows. The lack of an interest-drawing “focus” to the picture leaves the viewer with nothing to do but poke through the jumble of shadows. The shadows themselves are a problem moreso because they obscure the most important parts of the cliff—its summit and foot.

  5. I have photographed this location several times myself and have to agreement with your critique of your work. Those who know this location would agree with your assessment as the beauty of this pot is not well expressed with that capture. The importance of light and contrast to draw attention to a point of interest cannot be over-emphasized. My best shots of this location were during winter when the snow creates a dramatic contrast of color. While light is still important, I got away with it not being the best time of day due to the drama of that contrast. Thanks for your blog, there is always something to learn about the artform of photography.

  6. You can’t always be somewhere at the best time of the day, usually early morning or late in the day, and you can’t control the light or the clouds in the sky. So, you have to make the best of what you are given. Instead of waiting for the right time of day or moving locations, I would move back up a little to catch something in the forground, a plant, flowers, trees or rocks. If none of those are there, put your camera on a tripod and set the self-timer and put yourself or someone with you into the picture looking over the landscape. Make sure they are in the lower one third of the picture looking into the landscape not at the camera.


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