A Landscape Photographer’s Journey
What I wanted was simple, to travel to cool spots, shoot iconic photo landscapes, do it as a pro and as an art form. Mostly, the dream was about evoking that particular connection we all have with the earth.
So 6 years ago, I kicked things off by writing a photo enthusiast book on the best shot locations at the Utah National Parks. These parks are world-famous, full of iconic shot locations: Angels Landing, The Narrows, Bryce Amphitheater, Mesa Arch, Delicate Arch, Temple of the Sun. If nothing else, the book was a good excuse to capture places I love. … Like The Narrows.
In my mind, Zion is just behind Yosemite in terms of world class parks. And The Narrows is my must do Zion photo hike.
The hike starts with getting off the Zion bus at the Temple of Sinawava and hiking River Walk … Then, when that hike ends, you stow gear, grab a walking stick and head upstream for a few miles. The water’s always a bit cold, usually knee-deep and I’m a wimp. So I brought a dry-suit. Once in, you notice how slick the rocks are even without the current. And you slowly wade up river till you find you’ve entered the largest slot canyon you’ll ever meet.
The cliffs here go up a thousand feet and continue for miles. Along the way, there will be intriguing photo spots – if you can see them. That’s rule one for photography, see light and composition as the camera does. And in The Narrows, sunlight bounces from one canyon wall to the other till it penetrates to river level. By then, the orange and yellow tones have gotten thick as oil paint.
Following the Light, Sacred Southwest Portfolio
The camera loves this light. When I saw this section of river, the choices were obvious. That chamber up ahead, glowing orange, was my background, the curve of the green river was midground, and the rapids just in front of me would draw the eye in. Nice.
I also decided to play with shutter speed. Shutter speed is an obvious question when you’re in a river. So I looked at a 10 sec. shutter speed as well as fast ones. I found that at 1 ½ sec., the river ahead got nice and smooth and the rapids took on a subtle motion blur. That was the right choice.
Mesa Arch is the most iconic shot in Canyonlands National Park and probably the most challenging. It’s a 30 foot long stone arch that stands there, right on the edge of a thousand foot drop. Sometimes tourists climb up there and pose, just to tempt the gods. That’s frowned on by the Park Service.
The idea is to shoot through that arch, capturing the sunrise, the warm glow of the arch and the shadow lands below. The challenge is cameras don’t have the dynamic range of the eye. So the sky and shadow areas get blown out unless you shoot in Raw format, use a tripod and do exposure bracketing (don’t ask).
The other challenge is logistical. Photogs from all over the world want this shot in their portfolio and the person next to you may well be from Japan or Europe or even Utah. So you show up an hour before dawn to pick a spot. Otherwise you’re trying to convince a sleep-deprived photographer to give you their spot.
Sunrise, Mesa Arch, Sacred Southwest Portfolio
A Mountain Park
The Western parks, Grand Teton, Glacier and Yellowstone are just as intriguing as the Southwestern parks in their own way. And in the last couple of years, I’ve returned to all of them to capture the unique power of the mountains. Yellowstone is America’s oldest park with one of the most varied landscapes in North America.
My photograph of buffalo grazing in the high plains of Western Yellowstone was personal to me. I had prints of the western paintings of Frederick Remington and the Hudson River School when growing up. In fact, the vast landscape paintings of the Hudson River School fostered our country’s love of nature — which led to the creation of our National Parks. So I wanted to capture some of Yellowstone's primal nature on my 2019 trip.
It was pure accident, finding all the bison congregating in West Yellowstone. So when I saw this family of buffalo looking for food on a snowy morning, I quickly pulled over. I used a zoom to capture them without getting close, placed them just entering the frame with the sulphurous smoke of Midway Geyser Basin in the background.
First Snow, Yellowstone, Mountain Places Portfolio
The Utah trips helped me see all that goes into pro level landscape photography. It’s a different beast from doing phone snaps. You’re getting up before dawn, shooting at Golden Hour, staying at a shot location till you understand how to unwrap the scene. And the challenges increase when you’re traveling. Because now, you’re dealing with travel logistics on a daily basis and shooting locations you’ve never seen before.
Iceland is like Disneyland for landscape photographers. The island seems straight out of Norse mythology, Game of Thrones, even with tourists. Most visitors stay in Reykjavik and then do day tours. But for serious photographers, the Ring Road is where it’s at. It’s a 2-lane blacktop that weaves through 1000 miles of fjords, waterfalls, black sand, glaciers, sulfur paint pots. I did two photo trips along the Ring Road, in early May and August of 2018.
My goal was to take my work to a new level in terms of composition, post production, and printing. I wanted folks to experience the sensory textures, the colors, the mythic quality of Iceland.
The first step was logistics. I did weeks of research on 500px and Instagram to find the best shot locations. I put thumbnails of each spot on an island map. I booked my lodging based on those photo locations. I bought warm clothing … and warmer clothes once I got there.
That early May trip was a wake up call from Iceland’s weather gods. It had just snowed at Keflavik Airport and I was driving a stick shift rental through the slush … jet lagged. By 7 AM I was on the Ring Road driving along the South Coast, past sheep pastures and farm land, in a wind that could take the door off a car. I took in the landscape, how it stretched into the distance. With the snow, the color palette was like a black pen and ink landscape.
Next morning I was at Black Sand Beach. The Vik beach isn’t the most dramatic location in Iceland but for me, it’s the most classically perfect. It’s at Iceland’s southern tip and the waves can come in big. They’ve posted warning signs about this beach but each year a tourist or two gets pulled out of the cold, dark currents. So at 4:25 that morning, I left my gear way above the high water line, set up the tripod, looked at what I had to work with.
Vik Black Sand Beach, Iceland & Faroe Islands Portfolio
I’d been to Reynisfjara a year earlier in March (and got nothing good enough). So I knew the composition elements as if they’re a mathematical formula: balance the basalt cliffs and a black sand beach against waves, weird sea stacks, sunrise.
A good composition can take time. And I took in how the white foam stood out on black sand. But the six-sided basalt columns were what got my attention. I used a wide angle lens and got close to the black rock.
I tried variations of long exposure shots as the waves rushed in and flowed out. Too unsettling. But I liked the effect you get when a wave hits its high point on the beach and stops for a sec. The composition still didn’t resonate till I noticed that the black columns had been rubbed as smooth as your hand by the waves. I adjusted the composition to feature that texture. Nice. And then there was a break in the clouds – yes, finally some dawn color.
After two days at the South Coast BnB, my next stop would be a hotel close to Skaftafell, a national park with hiking trails, a famous waterfall and a massive glacier. It was 100 miles further east on the Ring Road.
The Ring Road is a 2-lane blacktop, Iceland’s version of Rt. 66. After Vik it stays close to the coast for a while, past the horse riding places and more waterfalls. But I arrived at the Skaftafell hotel too early. Time to explore.
I went looking for a scenic sod church I knew was further east in Hof. The “town” was just a handful of houses, a graveyard and this traditional sod church built in the 1880s. It’s one of only five sod churches still in use. And it's perfect. I felt I had wandered into Lord of the Rings.
Sod Church at Hof, Iceland & Faroe Islands Portfolio
My approach wasn't to document the church, to center it in the frame as if to say, I was here. To me, each image should be an art work and the composition should be shaped to evoke mood, balance, context. But after an hour of shooting, I didn’t have anything I liked. I started thinking about how good a warm shower would feel.
Then I saw an old tree in the back corner of the churchyard. The rough trunk, covered in moss. The branches reached out towards the sod church. That was the shot. I lay down in the wet grass, close to the tree roots, so as to frame the church and include the graveyard. Now I could get my shower.
This image isn’t a postcard travel shot. But it’s the real Iceland. And my post production style evoked the mythic Iceland, the place you see in Game of Thrones. A year later, this photograph won a First Place at the OC Fair Photo Contest.
It was our first night in Venice, I was deep in jet lag. So I grabbed my DSLR, a little Gorillapod tripod and wandered the islands from St. Marks Square on up. … At midnight I came across a quiet residential spot and an ornate door that leads to the canal.
Venice at Midnight, Iconic Italy Portfolio
By midnight Venice is mostly in bed, one way or another. No motorboats, no gondola rides, quiet. And this spot was so peaceful, so authentically Venice, the perfect respite for jet-lag. I went with a long exposure (13 sec.) to get the canal as still as a mirror. The canal itself is the “leading line” and I anchored it with color, with that golden door. The contrast of light and dark gives the image a sense of mystery and style –a gothic romance set in another century. It’s been a popular Italy print for me.
I used the same playbook a couple of years later when we visited the Amalfi Coast – shoot early, shoot late. That entire coast is a thing of beauty, like an Italian version of Big Sur – but with elegant towns like Positano, Ravello, Amalfi that are historic and visual gems.
At Amalfi, I wanted a touch of history, a view of harbor and cliffs, and the pastel color palette that’s so popular along the coast. The challenge is that the harbor area gets jammed up with buses and tourists by 9AM.
Early Morning, Amalfi Breakwater, Iconic Italy Portfolio
Amalfi’s deserted at dawn. So I started a morning walkabout, tripod in hand. I wanted to use the breakwater to tell the story. It gives a strong visual line that connects the harbor with the city with the distant hills. For the harbor, I chose a 10 second exposure to smooth the water. And I discovered the locks there on the railing. Cool.
Stylistically, I wanted my post work to echo the Italian cityscape paintings of the 1800s and 1900s. You see these cityscapes all over town – Amalfi has a long tradition of cityscape art and paper making. And I’ve tried to reproduce that kind of detail and texturing.
After the breakwater, I wandered up the narrow streets to shoot the elegant little Amalfi duomo. It’s one of my top 5 Italy churches. And I found a little coffee shop that was open. So I hung out with the locals for a bit and picked up some pastry for our breakfast.
A Technical Note
Sometimes folks ask me if I work on my photos in post. It’s a question more complex than folks realize. The assumption is that there’s such a thing as a pure out-of-the-camera shot that’s being fixed or faked in Lightroom or Photoshop. But even as the shot is taken, Canon or Sony “fixes” the shot with proprietary algorithms to enhance color saturation, contrast, sharpening, noise reduction.
Your iPhone or Samsung makes even more fixes. When triggered, the iPhone camera takes multiple images – darker, brighter, more detailed – and blends them into a single photograph with a higher dynamic range. And since a phone’s CPU is vastly more powerful than that of a pro camera, the post processing happens in an instant.
The reason for all this, the human eye has way more dynamic range than a camera. So either the camera maker or the photographer handles some form of post processing. And like many landscape professionals, I’d rather make those artistic choices than the Canon engineer.
Closer to Home
I’ve lived in the South Bay for over 20 years. It’s my backyard and I shoot here more than anywhere else. PV and the South Bay have a beauty all their own. And anyone who follows our local social media, knows that local landscape photogs are pushing the envelope. I like the challenge of photographing parks and international locations. These iconic landscapes are famous for a reason.
But when you live here, you get to see seascapes of equal beauty in different times of day, seasons, lighting conditions. There’s nothing that compares.
The Pier is iconic South Bay and I’ve photographed it often. This version, one of the first images I ever sold, still works for me because each visual element fell into place so effortlessly.
Last Wave, Manhattan Pier, SoCal Seascapes
Any pier is a leading line. Here it moves the eye out, past folks enjoying the moment, out towards a lightshow that even us locals don’t see often. But the kicker is that surfer in the foreground who’s been working the waves. He’d just done a run but stopped to take it all in. I call this photograph “Last Wave” because that human moment is one all of us recognize.
Three years ago we moved down to San Pedro, at the southern end of the Peninsula. As a result, I’m shooting the cliffs and tidal pools all the time. This image from Abalone Cove could only have happened because of the rains a couple of years ago that turned the Peninsula into a desert garden.
Superbloom Sunset, SoCal Seascapes Portfolio
On that evening, I wandered up to the Abalone Cove overlook and everything clicked. The hills were covered in mustard blooms that light up at sunset. And I’m a sucker for visual elements that allow me to take the viewer into the frame (as you’ve seen by now). So I made use of how the peninsula juts out towards Catalina and towards sunset. I even pulled in the little lifeguard house down below. Art is in the details.
But the rose-colored ice plants, all back-lit, were what made it work. As always, I try to balance the different visual elements. And in post, I made sure the ice plants caught the sunset glow.
I also added the hint of visual depth to this image. The camera image is flat 2D of course, while the eyes see in 3D. So I use a few painterly techniques to evoke depth – and gives you the feeling you’ve entered a sacred space.
Where I’m At Now
So six years after starting the Utah books, I continue to shoot locations wherever I find them. This summer it's been the Eastern Sierras, Faroe Islands and Italy's Dolomite mountains. I also did a gallery show of recent work at bG Gallery in Santa Monica's Bergamot Station.
Humans have been immersed in landscapes: ocean, desert, mountain meadows, rivers, for as long as we’ve been on earth. That connection is built into the DNA. And we need that engagement to feel truly human.
Entrance to the Sanctuary, Iceland and Faroe Islands Portfolio
Tim grew up an Army Brat. So he fell into travel photography early on. He came to the Beach Cities in ’99. Back then, the South Bay was already a hotbed for landscape photography. So he wandered into Pauls Photo and spent a year learn technical camera skills, composition, lighting, Lightroom, etc.
He’s written two travel photography books, Photographing Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks and Photographing Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef National Parks that were well reviewed by the Utah press and Outdoor Photography Magazine. He’s also been a professional writer and travel blogger for many years.
Tim was a First Place Winner at the OC Fair Photography Contest in 2019. He’s been chosen for various juried and gallery shows around the South Bay at in Santa Monica. Contact him at 310-480-7237 for a consultation for home or office needs.