The Jump and Why

It’s December so it’s time to think about some holiday presents for my family. Yesterday, for the first time ever, I considered giving my brothers, sister, and sons a Christmas present that I created with my photographs – a photo calendar. You might remember from my last post that I said, “I’m not taking great photos but I am taking much better photos than a year ago – even my wife thinks my photos are better.” And if my wife thinks my photos are much better then they must actually be good enough to put on a calendar for my family. So I went to Lightroom to find a dozen photos to use in my calendar.

If you haven’t ever used Lightroom you should give it a chance for a number of reasons. The most common explanation for using Lightroom is the power it has to edit photos – like Photoshop only a lot less complicated. But I have found that Lightroom allows me to build a library that makes it easy to find my favorite photos. So yesterday I used the collections I had created to identify the photos I wanted to use for the calendar. As I started picking photos I remembered that about two years ago my wife and I had taken trips to the Grand Canyon, Bryce, and Arches. Ah-ha, I bet there are some good photos in those collections that I can use in the calendar.

But no, there weren’t many good photos even though I thought they were quite good at the time. It didn’t take me long to get smacked in the face with a very clear message – my wife was correct (and no husband who has been married more than 40 years ever wants to admit his wife is correct) … my photos are much better now than they were a year ago. But why? What makes my photos from late in 2015 better than the ones in early 2015, or the photos from 2013? Ah-ha, here is something to share on my journey. I went back to read my last post and here is the key message I shared, “I believe reflection is important in everything we learn. I have found that I am better at learning to be a photographer if I take time to reflect on what I have learned.”

And this fits in perfectly. In a sense, I have been “photographer” all my adult life. I’ve taken thousands of pictures since I was in high school and most, if not all, of my pictures were snap-shots of family and vacations and events. In the last year my pictures have become photographs, and the photographs have become much better. Why? What have I learned? And since this learning has worked for me, could it work for you? Yesterday I took time to reflect on what I have learned by going back and looking at photographs from a couple years ago. I was very surprised to find that the photos from two years ago that I rated as “good” (Lightroom allows me to rate all my photos) I would rate as barely OK.  I did find that I could “clean-up” some of those photos in Lightroom. But I could only do a mild clean-up since the photos were taken in .JPG, and I’ve learned to take all my photos in RAW. I can’t explain everything that I have learned – oh my, not even close. But I can post some photos with some explanations.

OK Randy, Give us some Examples with Photos

I read a lot of photography books and some of them I read and re-read.  As I learn more about photography I can get more from my favorite books the second or third time I read them.  One of my favorite photographers to read is Bryan Peterson (who runs the Bryan Peterson School of Photography at www.  I have read his book Learning to See Creatively many times and I just happened to be reading it again last night when I came across this quote which explains a key change in how I shoot photographs now, “When asked what kind of photographs command the most attention, my answer is always the same.  They’re successful because they’re limited to a single theme or idea – and they’re always organized without clutter.  Amateurs, in their haste to record the image, end up with pictures that often have too many points of interest.”  Every time I read that I think about how I should make sure I implement it into my own photography.  But it isn’t easy to remember, especially in an environment that is as panoramic and beautiful as a National Park.  Let me give you some examples.

Grand Canyon National Park

At the end of the day when my friends and I were on the photo shoot in Yellowstone with Henry Holdsworth the sky had gotten overcast. But Henry gave us a line to remember: “When the sky is white, shoot it tight. When the sky is blue, it’s up to you.” Pretty simple idea to remember and apply when the sky is overcast. I must admit I haven’t always remembered that great line on overcast days, but when we were in the Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP) I never ever considered how boring the sky was because I was looking at the incredible beauty of the Grand Canyon.

GCNP Before (1 of 1)

These two photos are not exactly the same but taking the “boring sky” out of the picture sure does help.   Waiting for the sun to cast a little light on some of the canyon could have had even more of an impact. Waiting for the right light is critical to good photos and can make some photos great – but not this one. One other thing I learned from my Grand Canyon photos is that when we are surrounded by the incredible beauty of nature we easily forget the importance of narrowing the point of interest.  I like the photo below much better because I have decreased “the clutter.”

GCNP after (1 of 1)

Double Arch at Arches National Park

On to Arches National Park, with many tempting vistas; Wow, look how beautiful this scenery is? And the sky is blue, so it is up to me. But did I really need all this sky and all that sage brush?

Double Arch before (1 of 1)

Arches National Park is really great for photography because the park is small and conveniently located (a 5-10 minute drive from Moab which makes it an easy drive for sunrise) with over 2,000 arches that are from 3’ to over 300’ wide. It’s tempting to take thousands of shots. But what makes those pictures into good photographs? Probably the most important ingredient I tried to learn in 2015 was composition and in 2013 I didn’t have many compositional skills to fall back upon.

Double Arch after (1 of 1)

The original shot of Double Arch isn’t bad.  But is that sky necessary and what does the sagebrush add to the photo? In 2015 I’ve worked at cutting out distractions and clutter; thank you Bryan.  And Henry taught me to  pay attention to the edges to avoid drawing the viewers attention away from what you are trying to get the viewer to focus upon. In 2013 I didn’t have any idea what I was trying to get the viewer to focus upon; Hey this is a great environment, enjoy it like I am enjoying it. For the revised photo #2 I have taking out the blue sky at the top and most of the sagebrush at the bottom.  That cropping decreases the distractions and helps focus the viewer on the texture and contrasting colors.

North Window in Arches National Park

The Windows Section in Arches is amazing. You can walk around the North and South Windows to place the sunrise and/or sunset to highlight the beauty. In 2013 I didn’t realize how important exact sun placement was for composition, but I did get there for sunrise and was amazed at the desert environment. There was sagebrush all around with gnarled juniper trees that looked like they were hundreds of years old. Oh boy, will those juniper trees add to my photographs. Well, maybe.

N Widow Before (1 of 1)

There were beautiful wispy cloud and a deep blue sky in the background with great texture in the juniper tree. But the photo (above) was too busy. There are all those wispy clouds; should the viewer focus on the clouds? And those roots and all that sand in the foreground; should the viewer focus on the foreground? I think I wanted the viewer to focus on the arch but honestly I can’t be sure. Cropping out much of the sky and the foreground (below) seems to help.  And the juniper tree limbs have some leading lines to the arch. This photo is still pretty busy without a clear focus point. And you know what? I hope that reflecting on this photo will help me when I am taking photos in the future. There needs to be a clear focal point and the composition needs to lead the viewers eye to that point.

N Window After (1 of 1)

Balanced Rock in Arches National Park

Certainly composure is one of the most important aspect of my photographic improvement in 2015. But I would be remiss if I didn’t address what I have learned about Lightroom from my colleagues at the Teton Photography Group (TPG). Back-in-the-day I thought of post-processing as “cheating” where the photographer changed how the scene actually looked. But one of my first memories from the TPG was when someone asked if I had ever worked in a darkroom and if I had burned and dodged a B&W photo. If it were OK to make changes to a B&W photo in a darkroom, would it be OK for color in Lightroom? I didn’t need to answer that question and a few minutes later I was convinced to always shoot in RAW.

Balanced Rock before (1 of 1)

There is a slight compositional difference between the photo above and below.  But the most significant difference is in the “pop” in the photo below. There is a slightly better composition in the photo below with a better foreground and the tall rock on the right gives some balance and framing. But the key is the deep blue in the sky and red and clarity in the rock on the sides and in the foreground. Honestly, the photo below actually reflects the color and clarity of that early morning in 2013.

Balanced Rock after (1 of 1)

Near Double Arch in Arches National Park

Not only does Lightroom allow us to crop and add saturation and clarity it also allows photographers to clean-up problems like spots in the sky (I’ve gotten better at not allowing spots but they happen) or lens flare.

Beside Double Arch before (1 of 1)

I’m not quite to the skill level where I can clean-up all the lens flare, but I’m learning. I can’t say the photo below is a great shot, but it certainly is an improvement. And if I were to be there today I would have waited for the cloud in the lower left corner to have moved more into the center of the blue sky between the rocks. I’ve learned a lot in 2015.

Beside Double Arch after (1 of 1)

What did I learn to Make the Jump ?

Where should I start.  Let me start by saying I believe I have made a huge jump in the past year.  I can’t pin-point the one or two variables that have brought about most of the change but I can give you a list of the four or five ingredients in the journey that seem to have made the most improvement.  Will these help you to have a better journey?  I can’t say for sure but I would sure like to hear from you (in the comments) to tell me and the readers, what has worked for you.  Here are my top 4  or 5 explanations:

Time behind the Lens – “The dozen” almost all pointed this out as key variables in their growth, and I fully agree.  I must admit that being retired has given me the opportunity to have time behind my camera and post-process on my computer.  Everyone has the same number of hours in a week but some of us have an easier access to those hours.

Composition – You can read books and take photography and art classes to  increase your understanding of composition.  And I have found that Bryan Peterson’s comments about avoiding the clutter is maybe the most helpful single idea to remember.  But maybe that is because I live an hour from an incredible National Park.  Keep it Simple Silly (KISS) works but it is easy to forget when the view seems so beautiful.

Take Time to Reflect on Your Past Photos – As we grow as photographers it is likely that our photos will improve – but will you recognize that if your wife/husband/friends don’t mention it to you?  Going back to my past photos and seeing that in 2013 I rated some as 4-star photos was eye opening.  I’ve realized I am a better photographer now, but why?  Reflecting on those photographs from 2013 helps me to recognize what I have done to make my photos better.

Shooting with Other Photographers – Remember that I did not bring my photos to my first visit to the Teton Photograph Group.  I thought their critique would rip my photos to pieces.  But I was wrong.  At the time I had never gone out on a photo shoot with anyone; I was probably worried I would look like a fool.  But in the last year I have changed my attitude and approach completely.  I would love to go out with a fellow photographer every week and it would be a huge bonus if we could sit down and share the photos we took with one another.  To do that you need to find a peer you are comfortable with to take photos, AND are willing to share your photos and ideas about what is good photography.

Building a Peer Mentor Partnership –  Through the TPG I have found a photography partner.  Mario and I try to go out for a shoot at least once a month to talk about photography, find places to take good sunrise photography shots, and share our photographic experience and preferences.  In many ways we are very different: I’m probably 30 years older than Mario and we come from very different cultures.  But we share one thing that is usually the topic of the 3 or 4 hours we spend together early on Saturday morning – we love to take landscape photographs.  Neither of us are expert photographers but we can learn many things from one another.  That we can help one another makes us peer mentors.

Randy’s Goal for 2016

There have been many experiences that have helped me improve as a photographer in 2015.  Two key variables were the Teton Photography Group and creating this blog – both made me think and reflect on learning how to be a better photographer.  I hope that my blog may have helped you to think about how you might become a better photographer.  I’d like to conclude 2015 with a new suggestion for becoming a better photographer that could help anyone but I am specifically addressing it to anyone who lives within about an hour of Jackson WY.  I’d like to start a Peer Mentor Program within the Teton Photography Group.

As a educational psychology professor I started a peer mentor program for my students.  About 25 years ago I had a significant number of students who were having a lot of trouble in my class.  At the end of one semester I talked with a group of students about helping out by offering small study groups for the students who were doing poorly.  Within a couple years I had a couple dozen exceptional students leading study groups in which every student was enrolled – they were called peer mentor study groups.  For the next 20 years I studied the impact of peer mentor learning – and boy did it work.  I would like to apply what I learned about peer mentors to the learning of amateur photographers.

If you are in the Teton Photography Group and are interested in participating, please get in touch with me at  The plan at this time is to work the Peer Mentor Photography Program into the Informal Critiques this winter/spring.  But I may also be able to extend this to folks who can only participate on-line, so if you are interested please let me know.

Any comments on this post, or any 2015 post, would be greatly appreciated.




Moving Forward

On my last post I talked about our trip to Coeur D’Alene and some of the problems I faced due to not thinking ahead (not bring all my lenses) and getting lazy (with my graduated neutral density filter.) So I learned a lesson that you would expect me not to repeat. Ah-ha, you’re thinking I’m going to make the same mistake again. So let’s see what I learned.

Last week I took a trip to Oxbow Bend in the Grand Teton National Park on a very chilly November day. Not only was it chilly (single digits) but also very windy. As I drove along the outside loop of the park I could see the sun sinking in the southwest among good clouds. I was hoping for a spectacular colorful sunset as I drove north trying to predict where I should stop, setup my tripod, and wait for the perfect time and place to get shots as the sun dropped behind the mountain peaks.

Oxbow Bend was as far north as I could go and still have a chance for some good foreground and a good mountain background. I stopped, got out of the car, and began to setup my tripod with the complete neutral density filter gear. I could see that the sky was quite bright but the foreground was much darker, and getting darker by the minute – and I didn’t want to make the same mistakes that I made at Coeur D’Alene. The weather was quite different; the sky had great clouds but a blustery wind in single digit temperature is brutal … at least for me. Gut it out Randy, this should be worth it.

The water was mostly frozen with an unusual little “pond.” I thought this would make a nice leading line to the mountains including a reflection of the sun coming through the clouds. But what should the exposure be? The sky was mostly bright with some dark clouds and most of the foreground was dark; time for a neutral density filter. But the small pond of water was fairly bright in the middle of fairly dark snow foreground. Oh boy, this is a challenge. So I bracketed a number of shots hoping to find the right exposure when I got home.

It was really cold and my hand were about to freeze. Rearranging the neutral density filters meant I had to take my gloves off (yikes, really nasty) and I’ve learned my lesson about waiting for the perfect shot. I think the hour wait was worth frozen hands – just mild frostbite? There wasn’t a lot of color in the sky but the shadows in the clouds were interesting. But the biggest payoff was that I learned something that will help me move forward and apply my new experience to future photo shoots. I learned that sometimes the range of light is so extreme (high dynamic range) that even a neutral density filter may not solve the problem.

That night I was in Jackson WY taking a class from Aaron Linsdau (a TPG colleague) on Lightroom. He showed us how to turn-on the “blinkies,” not just for areas that are too bright (washed-out) but also for areas of photos that are too dark. When I got home and put my images into Lightroom I found that I could not change the exposure to avoid the blown-out blinkies (over-exposure) and the under-exposed blinkies. It was disappointing but there was clearly another lesson to learn.

I didn’t have frostbite, I didn’t have the great photo I was hoping to get, but I learned to be more aware of the range of exposure from extremely bright to extremely dark. When the range of light is from very bright to very dark the photo has “high dynamic range” (or HDR) and that HDR is very likely to be too extreme for the camera; there will be parts of the image that are overexposed AND other parts that are underexposed.

For many years there was no solution other than to spend long hours in the darkroom burning-and-dodging, or now to spend long hours at the computer with Photoshop. But fairly recently many post-processing programs have added a sub-program that can combine multiple images that are identical except for the exposure. My Lightroom 6 has the ability to merge a multitude of images that are identical except for the exposure. The program allows Lightroom to combine the images into a photo that minimizes the burn-out and then allows you to use Lightroom on the HDR image to use the Basic sliders to adjust the photo.

What I am trying to suggest is that if you have an understanding of exposure and recognize scenes that have extreme dynamic range you can address the problem post-processing IF you take multiple photos of the scene by bracketing. Let me show you what I did at the chilly sunset at Oxbow. I used my neutral density filters to darken the sky but it was still much too bright in places compared to the foreground.

The first image was shot at ISO 100, 1/80 sec at f/11. Notice the lens flare at the left of the sun. The sky is overexposed in places with sun-burnout.  Notice that the right and left edges are black due to neutral density filter.  After Lightroom 6 did the HDR edit I was able to crop these out.

Chilly Oxbow (1 of 4)

The second image was shot at IS0 100, 1/125 sec at f/11. The lens flare is mostly gone and the sky is slightly overexposed in places near the sun and underexposed in other places .

Chilly Oxbow (2 of 4)

The third image was shot at ISO 100, 1/200 sec at f/11. Whoa, the sky in this shot is very underexposed as is the foreground.

Chilly Oxbow (3 of 4)

This was my first experience using the Lightroom software for high dynamic range, so you have to cut me some slack. And I didn’t plan for using the HDR software when I took the images, so I probably didn’t take the right bracketing shots. BUT this experience got me started and taught me the importance of bracketing to get the extreme underexposure and extreme overexposure. Here is the image that the Lightroom HDR created for me and includes some post-processing I did to the HDR image. It certainly isn’t a great exposure (I am still a moderate amateur) but it was worth the experience and learning that it produced.  You might notice that I’ve even learned how to put my name on the photo in Lightroom.

Chilly Oxbow (4 of 4)

What Did I Learn ?

  1. Suck-It-Up Randy, It’s Winter in the Mountains – Now that it is winter in the mountains there are many opportunities to get great shots. But I have to be ready for them. I had warm clothes but layered gloves are critical. Since it is worth it to stick around to get those really great shots, I have to be ready from head to foot and especially to my hands.
  2. I’m Ready to Move Forward – The Teton Photography Group gives me the opportunity to work and take photo shoots with some really great photographers – many are super-amateurs, I view them as professional photographers. On many occasions I have been pretty intimidated by this situation; they haven’t intended to intimidate me, I’ve just been hesitant to say “Slow don’t I don’t understand.” I suspect some of you may, at times, have felt the same way. My strategy has been to avoid high-tech approaches to photography and stick to learning the photo triangle (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO) and composition. I felt I didn’t need to use fancy-dan approaches since I live in an environment with amazing opportunities. I’m not taking great photos but I am taking much better photos than a year ago – even my wife thinks my photos are better. So I think I am ready to take some baby steps into more advanced approaches. Maybe even take a few more classes.
  3. Be More Reflective – As an educational psychology professor I emphasized personal reflection to my students. Most of the students in my class were there to learn to be teachers. My goal was to give them many opportunities to reflect on how they were learning and how they could become better learners; To be a good teacher you have to understand how people learn. I believe reflection is important in everything we learn. I have found that I am better at learning to be a photographer if I take time to reflect on what I have learned. In fact, I have found that writing this blog has been a “good teacher” for me because I have to take time to think about how I am learning and share it with you.
  4. Be Aware of the Dynamic Range of the Exposure – On our shoot with Henry he emphasized the histogram over and over. Whenever the histogram goes beyond the left or right extremes you have a High Dynamic Range problem. The way to solve this problem is to take time to think about what exposure will be needed to catch the very bright areas of the image and what exposure will be needed to catch the very dark areas of the exposure. Then bracket the shot to include all the brightness/darkness.

And What Helps You to Learn ?

When I began writing this blog my goal was to share my photography journey with you to give you an opportunity to learn from my experience. I started by sharing some of the information I received from “the dozen” (a group of twelve amateur photographers who answered twelve questions about photography). Based on some of the feedback I received from the readers I have moved to sharing more of my own experiences and photos of those experiences.

Now after eight posts to the blog I would like some feedback from the readers to help me write the 2016 editions of I have been exploring the possibility of adding a critique page to the blog that would give you the opportunity to share your photos and what you are learning – but I need to know if that is something you would value. So here are three approaches I could take in 2016. Please give me some feedback in the comments section about your preferences:

  1. FirstanAmateur should include more information from the dozen.
  2. FirstanAmateur should include more from Randy’s journey.
  3. FirstanAmateur should give readers more opportunities to share their journey including their own photos for critiques.

Please get back in touch with your suggestions. FirstanAmateur is for all of us to learn together and I need to know how you are learning to make this blog more effective.