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