The confluence of the Green (left) and Colorado (right) rivers on the final morning of my paddle adventure.
This is the first October in 11 years that I’m not in Acadia National Park adoring the coast and chasing fall colors. Ongoing pandemic concerns and strict travel constraints cancelled my photography workshops there this year (one of which would have started today…). Those same reasons cancelled my appearance at this year’s Out of Acadia conference too. When I made those tough decisions, I felt sadness, disappointment, and frustration.
Requisite selfie at the start of my trip at Potash Boat Ramp
You know what wasn’t cancelled, though? Life.
I decided to use this unusual gift of time to explore another place that holds great meaning to me: the Colorado River. A couple of weeks ago, I went on a six-day solo paddle on my stand-up paddleboard through Meander Canyon, a 47-mile stretch of flatwater through Canyonlands National Park outside of Moab, Utah I’d not yet experienced—but had wanted to for years.
I launched at the Potash Boat Ramp, and after learning to faithfully follow the bubble line around sand bars to avoid getting stuck, watching big horn sheep rams climb impossible cliff walls, and listening to the river lave the shore each night, I ended at the magical confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers. I even had the confluence to myself for 21 whole hours! Yes, tutus and dancing and wine were involved! Don’t worry, eagles and ravens supervised.
So while Acadia wasn’t in the cards for this year, the trip gave me the chance to not only get some fresh air and deepen my connection with the river (which did wonders to uplift my spirits), but it also helped me create new photos for an upcoming exhibition and gather words for a new book project.
As my smart mama used to tell me growing up, “If one door closes, push another one open.” You just never know what kind of meanders your life will take…
See below for some photographs from the trip:
My first camp after a 16-mile paddle, near mile 31 (distance measured from the confluence)
Foam bubbles collected against my SUP during a rest stop. How long do you think I stood there and photographed them?!
Sunrise view from my camp on Day 3 (near mile 12). I hadn’t intended on traveling so far on the second day (about 20 miles), but camps weren’t exactly where they were supposed to be per the map… I was treated to this glorious sand bar and view for my extra efforts.
The Loop refers to an S-curve in the river that travels four river miles but loops back to within a quarter-mile of itself. From this viewpoint, which required a stair-step climb for a half-mile, you can see both sides of the river at the same time…this is the beginning of the Loop looking downstream at mile 11.
The Colorado River had remarkably low sediment, so the bucket I brought to settle water using alum became an extra piece of gear to drag along…until I realized I could fill it with cool water and have it serve as my wine cooler!
View from my camp on Day 3 (mile 7). I had blue skies almost the entire trip–except for night 3 (and the last morning of my trip at the confluence). As the sun started to set, a few poofs of clouds crested the cliffs in front of me. Then a few more, then streaks. I ran to the nearest eddy, which was all of ten feet in front of my tent, to make this image. As I like to say, sometimes “we must suffer for our art.” (LOL)
The view from my SUP on day 4, about 5-6 miles from the confluence
Looking downsteam at the Colorado River (officially the start of Cataract Canyon) after the Green and Colorado merged at sunset on day 5.
Sunrise at the confluence looking towards the Green River on day 6.
Jumping for joy at the confluence where I camped for two nights until the Tex’s Riverways jetboat picked me up and returned me to Potash (a two-hour-plus boat ride UP the Colorado River).
While the trip was 47 river miles, my Garmin InReach logged 57.5 miles from start to finish. Why the 10.5 mile discrepancy? The extra distance I likely covered constantly zig-zagging across the river following the bubbles and avoiding sand bars…(which I was mostly successful at doing…)
What do you do when your photography workshops get cancelled and you can’t see your photography friends? Why, you get together remotely and make a video from home instead!
In hopes of spreading joy and laughs, a group of women from my Sheography community recently joined in from across the United States and Canada and, well, we wanted to have some fun. Here’s what we came up with: https://youtu.be/JOGylOUFzwY
Thank you to all the amazing women who contributed to this compilation video–and involved their spouses, grandkids, pets, inflatable flamingos, toilet paper, maybe even Sasquatch, and of course, bubbles! It was a blast to put together with all of them. We hope it brightens your day!
Learn more about Sheography, my all-women’s photography workshops, at www.sheography.com. We put the HER in photograpHER. And as you can see, FUN is always on the schedule! Even in quarantine!
PHOTO: A quick iPhone snap of my backyard camp. It ain’t a beach on a river, but it’s still home…
Two nights ago, I heard the hoot-hoot hoot-hoot-hoot of an owl calling through my open window in the dark. I couldn’t understand what it had to say, or if it was saying anything at all, my mind cluttered by coronavirus, uncertainty, and change. But it soothed me.
I’ve been home now for 25 days straight, an eternity for a wanderer like me. It’d be easy to feel sad, disappointed, even angry, as plans to float rivers, photograph coastlines, spend time with friends and family, and more fell apart in what feels like a blink of an eye. An understandably distraught friend wrote me yesterday, “Life has been cancelled!”
When he said that, I recalled the owl’s song. The owl knows nothing about the plight of the human race right now. It’s life isn’t cancelled. Although it may feel otherwise, and that’s ok, ours isn’t either. Life is still happening all around us. It’s ours to still live fully, albeit differently, if we so choose.
Late last night, I walked into my gear room, where my still-packed dry bags for a cancelled river trip sat stacked neatly in a line. I dug out my tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, pillow, and headlamp, maybe some dark chocolate-covered cherries too. I headed to the patch of artificial grass in my backyard to camp with the palo verde tree, Orion, and of course, the owl. If I couldn’t be on a river or on a coast, I could still be outside.
Around three, I woke again to the familiar chorus: Hoot-hoot hoot-hoot-hoot. The owls message was now clear to me: If you can’t change the rules, change the game.
The Tale of the Colorado River Croc
(or, How I’ll Never Forget the Line through Lava Falls)
I could start this story in the traditional way, with “Once upon a time” or “Long ago, in a faraway land.” But I’m a river guide in training. I’ve learned to start all river stories with “NO SHIT! This really happened!”
So: NO SHIT! This really happened!
There I was, just another speck of sand clinging to a thirty-five-foot motorized boat at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I wasn’t alone. The boatman, Lars, and the swamper, Josh, were in charge of the eight-day operation, both guides from Hatch River Expeditions, the commercial outfit I had hired for a private charter.
I was on board as the photography guide and instructor. I had convinced fifteen unsuspecting guests to join me on a trip called “the Grand Canyon Rafting Photography Retreat.” “It’s such a cool trip,” I had said to lure them in. When Lars motored us into our overnight camp around river mile 159—159 miles into our 188-mile trip—it was 108 degrees Fahrenheit. “That is cool,” I told them. “I mean, compared to yesterday’s 113 . . .”
In the shadow of a thousand-foot cliff, Lars shooed us off his boat, and onto a series of long, narrow, stair-stepped ledges made of black and beige Tapeats Sandstone. Our camp for the night. The place didn’t have a name. It was a wide spot in the canyon just big enough to fit a kitchen, a groover, sleeping cots organized in two rows on rock shelves stacked like bleachers, and a yard-sale assortment of clothes and camera gear. After we unpacked the boat, Lars pointed out the high-water line, which doubled as the “don’t-camp-below-here-or-you’ll-die” line. Four of us took three steps back. A voice from the back suggested we name this prime riverside property “Lars’s Ledges” (which wasn’t to be confused with The Ledges, a formal camp upstream near river mile 152). We were all living like Lars now, like real river guides: living on the edge by living on the ledge.
PHOTO: Camping on Lars’s Ledges. Photo courtesy of Jacque Miniuk.
The late afternoon sun started tracing the backbones of ocotillo-lined ridgelines and spotlighting distant serrated spires. A sign from the river gods to commence the Ritual of Noctis. Change into camp clothes (a fancy term for pajamas you’ve worn for six nights straight). Set up cot. Wash hands. Eat. Clean dishes. Brush teeth. Check under cot for rattlesnakes. Pour sand out of shoes. Then, as the sliver of sky overhead sings its soothing lullaby from cobalt to navy to purple to black, fall asleep.
As I neared the end of this evening’s ceremony, I wasn’t tired. Neither were the guides. Josh invited me to join him and Lars for a rendezvous on the boat where they slept. This was my fourth trip with Lars, my second with Josh, but I still felt like I had been summoned to the popular kids’ table at a high school cafeteria.
I bounced across the unloaded S-rig, feeling my way in the dark by memory around the oblong-shaped doughnut and long, torpedo-like tubes attached on either side like outrigger pontoons. I found a perch on top of a metal food box in the back of the boat. I took my shoes off, my cyan-colored Crocs, and set them next to me. My feet dangled inside the floorless raft, where I could hear, but not see, the Colorado River rushing beneath me.
Earlier versions of these “baloney boats” had sealed floors and thus were not self-bailing. Assistant crewmembers used buckets to remove water from the boats so they wouldn’t sink in the rapids. These lucky individuals were known as “swampers.” Even though the Grand Canyon Expeditions founder Ron Smith ripped out the floor years ago—a design known now as the self-bailing “S-rig,” the “s” for Smith—the term “swamper” lives on. Before you ever think of becoming a head boatman, you have to do time as the swamper, at the beck and call of the boatman. On this trip, in addition to leading the photography activities, I was the swamper to the swamper. I was doing double time.
“Wanna beer, swamper?” Josh asked me. Lars didn’t drink.
“Is the pope Catholic?” I said, turning toward the sound of his voice.
He opened the cooler.
“What was that?” Josh asked.
I had no idea. I couldn’t see anything other than a faint V-shaped silhouette of the canyon walls and stars sparkling overhead. I turned on my headlamp.
“Where’s my shoe?” I spotted my left Croc on the food box beside me, but not my right. “I think that was my shoe.”
“Oh, that shoe is gone,” Josh said, handing me a cold one.
“If you fell in here without a life vest, you’d die,” Lars’ voice boomed in the dark from across the boat. His 280-plus trips down the river had worn him into a realist. “Maybe you’d resurface ten days later downstream like dead bodies do. Probably after Lava Falls somewhere. Or maybe you’d just stay in the river. Yeah, that shoe is gone.”
I took a long swig of beer. Josh did the same. I shrugged and said, “It could have been worse. It could have been the beer.”
“The first rule of being a river guide is to keep your shoes on your feet,” Lars said. “If you step on a stick and it goes through your foot, or you get even a simple infection, you’re getting helicoptered out. Trip’s over. What are you going to say to your clients then?”
My shoulders fell. I had passed all previous swamper training exams, which had included tying tidy taut-line hitches, grilling Texas toast without burning it, digging up band-aids in the first aid kit, discouraging clients from making oven mitts around their hands with toilet paper, and pushing wet—and hopefully clean—butts over rocky steps in narrow side canyons. I was failing this quiz, though. Maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a river guide after all. Or maybe I’d find my way. One thing was sure: I wasn’t about to sit and wait for the other shoe to drop. I picked up my left Croc and put it back on.
“I have Chacos with me,” I said sheepishly. I didn’t dare tell Lars that I referred to those sandals as the Death Shoes, wearing my Crocs whenever I could. The Death Shoes had caused dime-sized blisters to bubble on both of my heels and etched long abrasions across the top of my feet. I’d never feel thankful to be off a river, but I was glad I would have to suffer in the Death Shoes for only another thirty-six hours.
Several more rounds of banter and beers passed, and finally conversation tapered off. Josh gave me a piggy-back partway back to my camp on the lower ledges. I hopped on one foot the rest of the way, too independent and too damn stubborn to let a higher-up carry me any farther. While I sat cross-legged on my canvas cot, I slid my left shoe into my dry bag so I wouldn’t lose it. Although I didn’t know what I’d do with a single shoe. Be half a river guide?
Sleep came easily. Waking came sudden. In the middle of the night, a thunderous boom jolted me upright in bed. The river, twenty feet from my feet, sounded different. She no longer mumbled by. She raged and roared and thrashed. Trees snapped like toothpicks. Boulders smashed against boulders. The hardened sandstone underneath me shuddered. I flashed my headlamp toward the channel. The opaque green water had turned to blood. The river had flash-flooded, returning to her true self. This was what she looked like before 1963, when the Glen Canyon Dam upstream stripped her of sediment and changed the color of her waters. In Spanish, “colorado” means “colored red.”
I laughed aloud. I had no hope of getting my shoe back now. If it hadn’t drowned in Lava, the sudden torrent had chewed it into oblivion. I fell asleep again trusting Lars knew where the high water line was.
PHOTO: Lars cooking up breakfast in the morning after the flash flood. Note the change in the color of the water from the photo above. Photo courtesy of Jacque Miniuk.
We woke on the seventh day, yet there was no rest from all the work to be done. The river flowed gently again, as if the flood never happened, but the most violent rapid in the Grand Canyon, Lava Falls, waited downstream. Water there plummets over ancient basalt rocks scattered across the riverbed, dropping 37 feet in height in about 750 feet in distance around holes deep enough to swallow a two-story house. To the outside world, it’s a waterfall. To the rafting community, it’s a bucking class 10 rapid. Or, a test of survival. We’d face our fate in twenty-one miles.
We loaded the boat and chased reflections of cliffs and light between the narrow, near-vertical walls of the canyon for the rest of the morning. From my seat near the back of the boat, I wrapped my feet toe to ankle in athletic tape before slipping into my Death Shoes. Our guests dipped their sarongs and bandanas and hats in the fifty-one-degree water to stay cool. The river stained everything red.
The overnight flood gave us something new to do as we floated: sort through river booty. River booty is like pirates’ booty, except it’s the Colorado River that plunders the goods. The most highly-sought after treasure? An unopened beer chilled by the river herself. And also my missing shoe.
We spied a brim of a hat, half of a gnawed-up bailing sponge, even a torn-up captain’s chair, all drifting by. I pointed to another object bobbing off in the distance. “Lars, what is that? Is that a beaver or a river otter or a . . . ?”
“No. That there is the elusive Grand Canyon gator, the rarest species of alligator in all the world,” Lars said. The rounded head with a long snout swam closer to us.
“Lars! That’s a piece of wood,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“How do you know when a river guide is lying?” Josh said. He didn’t wait for a response. “His lips are moving.”
“That joke is older than Vishnu Schist,” I groaned, referring to the billion-year-old rock exposed in the Inner Gorge of the Grand Canyon.
“Don’t take that schist for granite, swamper,” Josh said. Zoroaster Granite, which is equally as old, criss-crosses the Vishnu Schist formation.
We stretched our legs on a short hike into National Canyon, a narrow side canyon, then continued floating downstream. We pulled into a sandy beach around river mile 168. “Lunchtime!” Lars yelled from the back. “Colleen, tie us off.”
PHOTO: Our group of river rafters at lunch at mile 168 before hitting Lava Falls. Note the tutu (while wearing the Death Shoes).
Another river guide pop quiz! I grabbed a two-foot-long sand anchor, then tiptoed along the right boat tube, careful not to fall in. I unraveled the rope at the front of the boat, then marched twenty or so feet up the beach. After pushing the metal spike into the soft sand, I tied a well-dressed knot.
I too was well-dressed, and feeling it. I was wearing my lucky blue tutu. For Lava.
Lars inspected my work, kicking the three inches protruding out of the sand. “The first rule of being a river guide is to make sure you’ve pounded the sand anchor all the way into the sand. Otherwise the boat will drift downriver. Trip’s over. Then what will you say to your clients?”
“I thought the first rule was to keep shoes on my feet,” I said, pressing down on the anchor with the ball of my foot.
“That is the first rule.”
“Then this would be the second?”
“No. It’s also the first.” Lars bounded onto the boat.
“Let me guess. All the rules for being a river guide are first?”
“You’re catching on quick there, swamper.”
“How is that even possible? If all the rules are first, then none of them are,” I said, taking an armful of food from him to set up on the beach.
“Law of the river.”
“Created by who?”
“Oh right. I forgot. Lars’s Law of the River.”
For lunch, our group smashed peanut M&M’s into peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, devoured our twenty-seventh tube of Pringles, and slunk from one patch of shade to another as the sun cast shadows of willow and tamarisk across the shore. We didn’t linger. Lava loomed twelve miles ahead.
After a bouncy ride through Fern Glen Rapid, a class 2, Lars cut the motor, looked at me, and asked, “How do you approach Lava?”
I had studied many historical explanations in the Great Library of Almighty River Knowledge—the internet—of how to run Lava. Seven days of river time, withdrawn from technology, though, had turned my brain to mush. I couldn’t remember.
“Very carefully?” I said, laughing. When I saw he wasn’t joking, I straightened up.
“Follow the bubble line?” The easiest way through a rapid usually entails following the bubble line through its smooth V-shaped tongue.
“You’ll drop over the Ledge Hole and die,” Lars said. “Do you go left or right of the bubble line?”
I had a fifty-fifty chance. “Um. Left?”
I winced. I hadn’t kept count of all the ways I could have died so far, but I was starting to wonder if talking with Lars was dangerous to my health.
“Then right!” I said.
“Hug the right side to avoid the Ledge Hole,” Lars said. “But stay left so you don’t get sucked into the Pourover.”
Maneuvering a boat, especially one the size of a small barge, down the narrow navigable channel between the Ledge Hole and the Pourover requires a surgeon’s precision. The Ledge Hole, on the left, spans almost half the river. The Pourover, on the right, tumbles over a smaller, but no less dangerous, pit closer to shore. Rafters must punch through what sits between, the Hump Wave, a long, feisty lateral wave they fear—until they see what’s next.
“Then get ready for two more big hits,” Lars said. “First, the V-Wave. Don’t get turned around there, otherwise you’ll end up in the Corner Pocket on the right. Then, T up for Big Kahuna.”
First, the V-Wave. Its two lateral waves form the open jaws of a laughing hyena lying on its side. The teeth of the two waves devour boats that aren’t angled right. Then the hyena laughs and keeps frothing at the mouth. The alternative is to take a spin in Corner Pocket, where the swirling current holds rafts hostage and shreds them against Cheese-Grater Rock. It’d take a boat as long to get out of Corner Pocket as it would a dead body to resurface there. Maybe longer. And likely in worse condition.
Then it’s Big Kahuna. “Kahuna” is a Hawaiian word for sorcerer or wizard. That wave is a magician all right. It makes rafts disappear. Boats spill into a trough so deep they vanish from view. Seconds later, they crash into a ten-foot standing wave. If your boat hasn’t folded into a human taco once you hit what feels like a slab of concrete, then it stays submerged underwater as it plows through the crest. Lucky rafters resurface eventually. Smart ones bring a snorkel.
Lars revved the engine and off we went to meet our doom. From a quarter mile away, the roar of Lava echoed through the canyon. Soon after, the bubbling cauldron came into view, foaming and cackling. We made the requisite offerings to the river. Circled around Vulcan’s Throne. Looked up at the small arch on river right, the canyon’s Eye of Horus. Tightened down boat straps, life vests, and butt cheeks.
“It might get a little splashy,” Lars said, which is code for “Hang on. We might die.”
He led us into the maw to the right of the bubble line and executed the plan to perfection. In eighteen seconds, it was over: just like that, we were through Lava Falls. The Ritual of Aqua commenced. Hooting and hollering. Exaggerating the size of Big Kahuna. Cleaning fish out of our ears. Our boat had busted a tube strap in the V-Wave, but Lars blamed that on me wearing a tutu.
We spent a few minutes watching other boats take their turn down Lava, then turned to putt-putt downstream to our final camp at Whitmore Wash. After a mile or two, excitement melted into melancholy. Chatter silenced. No one wants a river trip to end.
“Hey, look over there! What is that?” someone suddenly yelled from the front of the raft, someone obviously still on river booty duty. I stood up thinking it would give me a clearer view of the sighting.
“Lars! THAT’S MY SHOE! I mean . . . ” I turned to him and changed my voice to mimic his. “That there is the elusive Colorado River croc, the rarest species of crocodile in all the world.”
Lars smiled. He circled around the eddy but couldn’t fit our boat’s big nose into the small gap between fallen boulders. He pulled into a longer eddy thirty feet downstream. Josh disembarked, then bushwhacked through tamarisk and rocks, jumping over at least two sleeping rattlesnakes, maybe three, to rescue my Croc with a fishing net. Back on board, he handed it to me and said, “Don’t lose this again.”
(VIDEO: Josh rescuing the Colorado River Croc: https://youtu.be/cw-S9p8Y0mo)
“My shoe made it through Lava all by itself!” I turned to Lars. “A successful solo run. On its first try!”
“I bet it stayed to the right of the bubble line,” Lars said, grinning.
“Of course it did. It’s my right shoe!”
My clients stood quiet on the tubes looking at me, Josh, Lars, each other, me. One eventually piped up, “So . . . yeah . . . how’d you lose your shoe?”
Before I could answer, Lars chimed in. “Did you know 87 percent of incidents in the Grand Canyon occur on shore? Of those, 96 percent involve alcohol.” He paused. “But 99 percent of statistics about river incidents are made up on the spot.”
“But, Lars, this isn’t a Croc of shit,” I said, waving my shoe in the air. “Remember, I’m a river guide in training. I have to end all river stories with ‘It’s all true.’”
This story originated from my participation in the Fishtrap Outpost writing workshop on the Snake River with Craig Childs. Much gratitude to the Outdoor Writers Association of America for granting me the prestigious 2019 John Madson Fellowship award, which provided financial support to enable me to experience the magic of Hells Canyon for the first time while honing my outdoor writing skills.
I recently had a series of speaking engagements cancelled. Understandable, considering the crazy state of the world right now. (Here’s hoping you and yours are well…and you have plenty of toilet paper…wash your hands!)
But life and learning doesn’t have to come to a complete stop because of self-quarantines and shelter-in-place orders. We just need to approach things differently right now. As is said, “If you can’t change the rules, change the game…”
So in lieu of presenting in person at the local camera clubs, I offered a FREE educational webinar on Thursday, March 19 on a presentation topic I was set to deliver to one club, “Critiquing Your Own Work.”
During this educational talk, I shared:
A framework and series of questions to ask more objectively evaluate your photographs
Examples of successful and less-than-successful photographs to help attendees evaluate composition, lighting, depth of field, focus, story/visual message, color, motion, and more.
The most common pitfalls photographers make (mergers, tilted horizons, etc.) and how to resolve them.
I also hosted a brief Q&A session at the end.
To watch, visit https://youtu.be/ojnO9VBjnZE (the video should appear below in the original blog post):
Because this webinar was so much fun for me (and hopefully for the attendees too!), I plan to expand my online offerings in the coming weeks to include:
One-hour webinars on new topics with Q&A
Small group interactive critique sessions
Photography Basics Bootcamp (a multi-week series with presentations and interactive critiques)
If you’d like to receive notifications about future webinars and other online offerings with me, please join my Newsletter mailing list at http://cms-photo.com/newsletter.html if you aren’t on it already.
I get questions all the time via email, on social media, and during my photography workshops. About anything and everything. I love questions, especially ones that make everyone think.
For whatever reason, the Universe exploded with a greater quantity of inquiries than normal last week. I joked after answering a string of them, “You know, wouldn’t it be hilarious if I started a ‘Dear Bubbles’ advice column?” After I stopped giggling–and I turned off my prefrontal cortex–my next thought was, “Why not?!”
With that, I am excited to introduce my newest endeavor, “Dear Bubbles!” It’ll be an advice column for you, by you. You ask questions about photography, art, and the creative life. Each Wednesday, I’ll shoot out an answer (maybe even a bubbly one!) to a featured question.
For example, Laurie asked, “Why is it the more I learn the worse my photos get?” Awesome question! Have you ever felt this way? I have! You can see my response–the first Dear Bubbles conversation ever!–at www.dearbubbles.com.
So, what’s on your mind? What are you struggling with or curious about? How can I help with your photography? Anything goes! If I can somehow make things a little easier on you, if we can learn and laugh together in this journey, awesome sauce. That’s my hope! The world and outdoor photography industry could use more positive energy, more bubbles, right? Right!
Hit me up with your questions either here in the Comments below or via my email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Then keep an eye on www.dearbubbles.com on Wednesdays! You never know what might bubble up…
“Choose Wisely,” Acadia National Park, ME || Prints available! Click on photo to order yours!
If you’ve spent any amount of time in photography, you’ve inevitably heard about the “rules” of composition. Specifically, we hear messages like “Make the most of leading lines,” “Look for balance,” and my favorite, “If you place your primary subject in the center of your frame–outside one of the four intersection points of the Rule of Thirds–you’ll spontaneously combust.” Then, once we understand what those rules are, we’re advised to “Break the Rules.”
The so-called rules of composition were designed to help photographers organize the chaos of nature into a rectangular frame. Although well-intentioned, such simplistic advice has unfortunately misguided many-a-photographer into believing that following the rules will result in an effective photograph. See, the trouble with rules is they only get you so far—at best, a beautiful, technically-perfect image…which may also look formulaic and uninspiring to you and your viewers.
The key to better composition in photography is not adhering to the Rule of Thirds “better.” It’s not “Making the most of leading lines” more often either (To be honest, I have no idea what that even means). The rules tell us what to do, but fail to explain why we should employ such techniques.
The path to better composition starts with developing your own meaning of a subject or scene then deliberately designing your frame such that you convey that meaning through your use of positioning, visual weight, balance, lines, layers, light, and color. If you understand human perception, you can arrange your visual elements to get your viewers to see and feel exactly what you wish. That is, if you pay attention to how humans think and interpret the world, you already know the “rules” of composition.
I call the above photograph, “Choose Wisely.” When I came upon the scene at Little Long Pond in Acadia National Park in Maine this past fall, I was first drawn to the stark contrast between the colorful and vibrant maple tree on the left of the frame and the bare one on the right. I started wondering what could have caused such a disparity between two trees so close together.
I also started visualizing how I could compose my frame to showcase this difference. I had already decided I didn’t need the full set of branches included in my frame, which dictated the use of a telephoto lens to zoom in on my subject. I had already decided I didn’t need the foggy sky in my frame either to convey my message. It was only after I asked myself whether I needed to show the trunks of the trees when I noticed the small conifer beneath these two maples and a new, more powerful message started to surface.
I started making up a story about this evergreen tree, thinking it appeared to have two choices ahead of it as it grew into adulthood: a vibrant and full life (left tree) or a bare one. But it actually had a third: to be its own self in the only way a conifer knows how. This story set the foundation for all my compositional decisions—I wanted to convey this story, or at least one close to it, with my viewers.
To do so, I intentionally positioned the evergreen an equal distance from either maple tree to show a “stuck-in-the-middle” pull between the two “choices,” the two trees, which I gave equal space to in the frame to create a balance of power between the two—a classic “good vs. evil” conflict. By including a substantial amount of the height in the deciduous trees relative to the smaller conifer in my frame, I established an authoritative relationship (e.g., an adult-child relationship). I experimented in raising and lowering my tripod to give the evergreen just enough space to imply upward growth. (I definitely didn’t want any of its branches touching either of the other trees.) I chose a vertical composition over a more peaceful horizontal orientation to increase tension and drama. In processing, I darkened the background to allow the little evergreen, which was catching a touch of light from the sky on the side facing me, to stand out more.
Did I make the most of leading lines? No.
Did I place my subject in the intersection points of the Rule of Thirds? Again no. (And guess what? I haven’t spontaneously combusted…yet…).
Did I pay attention to balance? You bet I did, but not in the way I’ve been told to do.
Did I do so to follow rules of composition? Honestly, I couldn’t care less.
Did I deliver the story in the way I wanted to? Absolutely. This is what I wanted to say about my experience with these trees in Acadia that afternoon.
As Robert Henri said, “Making lines run into each other is not composition. There must be motive for the connection. Get the art of controlling the observer – that is composition.”
So when it comes to composition for your own photographs, rules or human perception? Choose wisely.
“Meet Me in the Middle” from Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains, TN || Prints available! Click on photo to order yours!
While my buddy, Tim Mead, and I photographed in Cades Cove on a recent visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a number of visitors passing us by in cars stuck their heads out the window and asked us, “What are you photographing?”
When we answered with “the fall colors and fog,” “trees,” and “the woods,” their shoulders dropped in disappointment. “Oh. So no bears?”
“No. Just. Pretty. Trees.”
After several rounds of this, we tired of letting people down. Tim suggested we come up with a new response. So we did.
When the next car asked us the standard question, we yelled in unison, “A wolverine!”
The gent leaned out of the window credulously. “A wolverine?”
Tim said while pointing at me, “Yes, a Michigan Wolverine!”
The guy rolled his eyes, shook his head, and laughed as he drove away. It was true! I graduated from the University of Michigan, which makes me a Michigan Wolverine. Go Blue!
I originally called this photograph “Meet Me in the Middle,” but maybe it’s more appropriate to title it, “Just Pretty Trees.” Or “Look! A Wolverine!”
“Walk the Line” in Death Valley, CA || Prints available–click on photo to order yours!
The question “Does every photograph have to have meaning?” came up in one of my Death Valley photography workshops earlier this year. In the flurry of excitement in the workshop’s final hours, I didn’t get the chance to clarify the context of the question with the inquirer, but I assumed there was a flavor of “Why can’t I make an image just because I think it’s beautiful?” behind it. I’ve been noodling on the notion ever since–so much so that I decided to pen an article about it summarizing my thoughts.
If you’d like to hear some of my musings about this topic, check out my latest article with On Landscape, titled “Meaning: You Get to Decide.”
A reasonable subscription (which helps On Landscape pay a fair wage to contributors for their work and keeps their site free of advertising) is required to read the full article. You’ll get access to not only this piece, though, but also additional fabulous insights from talented photographers like Guy Tal, Rafael Rojas, Tim Parkin, Alister Benn, and many others. I routinely find inspirational ideas to improve my work through this online publication.
So what do you think? Does every photograph have to have meaning? Do all of your photographs carry specific meaning? I’d love to hear your answers, so leave a comment below!
“Reflections of Dreams” || Prints available–click on photo to order yours!
What I love most about the creative process is when you release control and let it flow, you never know what might materialize…I sat with my notebook this morning, intending to write out an inspirational New Years Eve message to share with my community. This free verse poem fell out onto the paper:
Bend the heavy rug of your troubles back,
Hold the pieces of your struggles hiding there in your hand, one by one.
Will they serve you well in the journey ahead?
Are they holding you back?
Are they worth keeping?
Turn your face to the light of new opportunities,
Listen to the whispers of your deepest desires and dreams, one by one.
Will they serve you well in the journey ahead?
Are they holding you back?
Are they worth keeping?
Bask in the warmth of today’s fire,
Feeling each moment of peace and joy fill your soul, one by one.
Building your strength and courage for the journey ahead
Where nothing is holding you back,
And everything is worth keeping.
Happy New Year everyone! Make 2019 meaningful. Make every day count!
Thank you so much for your ongoing support and encouragement. I’m so fortunate to know you and have you all in this one beautiful life. I hope our paths cross “out there” in 2019.