I get asked about once every week or so if I put on workshops. While I have shared my experiences and tips in the past with others (working tours), and while think it would be fun (as well as make a little extra money), right now, between business keeping me busy and two young daughters I want to spend time with, I just don’t have extra free minutes. But apart from time spent instructing folks in the field, I do think about what makes, in my opinion, a good photograph. Several years ago, I served as a judge in a juried photo contest. It has been a while since then, and a good long while since I began my photography business, and over that time my tastes have been refined and I admittedly have become quite particular with my photography. So with all that said, here are a few things I look for when I’m perusing photo galleries or critiquing my own images – in no particular order…
1 – The horizon has to be level. Unless you are going for an artsy look, my landscapes always have level horizons. I try to make sure the camera is aligned with the in-camera leveler. But I can also use the ruler tool in photoshop if necessary. Regardless, I need stability! And in panoramas such as the one below of Byers Peak in Fraser, Colorado, an uneven horizon would be very evident.
2 – An interesting sky is necessary. For me, an interesting sky usually means there is something floating around in that big expanse. I like clouds and color. I also enjoy a good night sky Milky Way if the foreground is worthy of attention (more on that to come). Sometimes a rising crescent moon just before sunrise will work, too. But summertime skies of clear blue usually don’t work for me. The sky can also impart mood. Stormy clouds can bring drama to a scene, especially in black and white. Fluffy summer clouds can bring out feelings of fun and laziness. High clouds of red and pink and blue and convey peace and solitude. And a well-done Milky Way can create a sense of wonder and place in the universe. Here, rugged sunflowers called "Old Man of the Mountain" fill the slopes of Rocky Mountain National Park while overhead, a stunning sky adds beauty to the overall effect of this evening photograph.
2a - No blown out skies. Never ever have a sky of white, blown out, over-exposed skies unless you are doing something some might consider artistic.
3 – An interesting foreground solidifies the image. I like to have something “anchor” my images – whether a flower, tree, river, waterfall, or something else. Images that incorporate a foreground object seem to be stable and strong. For me, summertime lends itself to wildflowers, and their details and colors work great for this strategy. And even with night sky and Milky Way photography, I still like to have something in the foreground or on the horizon that counters the stars above. From this image near Vail, pink paintbrush add a splash of color and hold the interest in the foreground.
4 – Leading lines capture attention. I like to use leading lines to draw in the attention of viewers. Leading lines can come from rivers, rocks, hiking paths, and sometimes when the timing is right, clouds. Any number of items can accomplish this, and these visual enticements bring the eye and attention to the focal point of the image. In this Maroon Bells photograph from Maroon Lake, lines from the tree, as well as from the mountains and their reflections, all lead towards the center and the magnificent 14ers in the distance.
5 – Rule of Thirds – This isn’t a hard fast rule, but many great works of art follow the “rule of thirds.” This simply means that you can divide the image into thirds, whether vertical or horizontal, and the focal points will fall across one of the lines that would divide the image into thirds. Think of a tic-tac-toe grid drawn across an image of a sunrise over distant mountains. The sun would more or less fall across one of those grid lines. One-third of the image would be on one side of the sun; two-thirds of the image would be on the other side of the sun. I can still remember learning this as a kid, then noticing how many photographs and works of art use this visual display – and I notice it today in marketing and advertising, as well. In the photograph below from Rocky Mountain National Park, the sky takes up one-third, then the other portion is split with layers and an elk.
That said, there are always times to break from the rule of thirds, and that is where artistic license comes in. So be creative and follow your style!
These five thoughts are just a few of the things I look for and notice when perusing photography. I realize I have my own opinions and what I like, but that doesn’t mean it is right or wrong. I’ve found many times when clients will choose an image of mine that is not one of my favorites, while they pass over some that I think are pretty good. You just never know. Over the years, I’ve learned to shoot for myself and try to convey the beauty I see out there – whether in mountains, rivers, wildflowers, or even the desert. If you find the joy in what you shoot, others will, as well.