Tag Archives: Photography

Sense behind Sensor (2) – Let There be Light!

Light is essential to human existence, so it is to photography.  The word “photography” is originated from Greek, meaning “drawing with light”.  Light is the single most important component in a photograph.   Without light, the camera records nothing.

While the light is essential for photography, quality light is essential for quality photography.  Landscape and nature photographers go out in the dark and return in the dark just to seek the golden light of sunrise and sunset for its brilliant color.  But quality light is not just limited to sunrise and sunset, soft light of blue hours pre-dawn and post dusk is my most favorite light for landscape, overcast light filtered through cloudy sky is perfect for flower photos, even the harsh light in the middle of day can be quality light if the shadow is the main interest.  There is no best light, just the best light to satisfy the artistic vision of a photographer.

I traveled to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park last spring to seek the soft light it is famous for.  In the field of Cades Cove, a dead tree in the middle of field caught my attention.  It was an ordinary dead tree that I would have it cut down if it were in my backyard.  But I envisioned what it might look like in the golden light of Smoky.


I came by three days in a row to wait for the quality light I had in mind.  The first morning was too foggy that I couldn’t even see the tree from the road.  The second morning was opposite, no fog at all.  The third morning, the valley was filled with light fog.  The soft light through the fog turned dead tree into lively golden branches.  What an extraordinary transformation!


Good Morning

A few months later, I was at Ruby Beach in Olympic National Park.  It is a popular beach with great scenery.  However, it is also well known for its often gloomy sky at sunset.  Without quality light, it was just a tourist snap shot.


I came back the second evening.  The light was much better.  Most photographers would photograph the sea stacks from the side because the golden light would lit up the rocks.  But I wanted to do something different.  I saw an opportunity because there was some light fog hanging over the beach to diffuse the light.  I decided to stand behind rocks to shoot straight into the sun.  I carefully positioned my camera at a position that the sun was barely peeking out behind the rock to create sun burst effect.  Too much sun would cause to too much contrast for camera sensor to handle.  At the same time, I framed my shot so that my composition took advantage of the shadow on the sand as leading lines to lead viewer’s attention into the main object.


The Golden Beach

Light is the life.  A photograph can’t live without light.

Sense behind Sensor (1) – Left Brain vs Right Brain

I have been traveling across North America to give photography lectures in recent years.  One of the topics I went over many times is artistic vision in photography.  During this holiday season, I decided to collect my thoughts and write a series of articles about the subject.

Human brain is divided into left and right hemispheres.  Left brain thinking is more analytical, while the right brain is more intuitive.  In another word, left brain is more technical and right brain is more artistic.  Does photography rely on left brain or right brain?  This art vs technology debate is an age old discussion that has never come to an end.

Well, photography is at first a technology.  A lens focuses the light reflected or emitted from objects onto the photo-sensitive material, film or image sensor, inside a camera during a timed exposure.  The light is then recorded chemically or electronically and processed into an image.  Photography is not possible without technology.  A properly exposed image is intimately tied to a series of correctly determined parameters: focus, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc.  Modern technology has made life really easy for photographers.  Press a button, you get instant gratification.  That has in a way caused an explosive popularity of photography.  Photography is no longer a skill that can only be mastered by fortunate few.  Everyone with a camera can satisfy their inner desire to be a master.

However, the advancement of technology also became one of the obstacles for many beginners to elevate to a higher level as it has led to a commonly held perception that there is a transfer of creative responsibility from photographer to camera equipment.  When a non-photographer looks at an image, the first impression that comes to the mind is often like this: “Nice picture.  He must have a nice camera”.  As we advances down our photography journey, we no longer make that kind of obvious remark.  But the old philosophy is hard to shake off.  Instead of saying “a nice camera”, we now think of high quality lens, sophisticated post processing technique, etc.

What makes an image successful is not just camera parameters, there is another aspect of photography that is difficult to measure scientifically: composition, contrast, color, light, mood, etc.  It is the artistic aspect of a photograph.

What is art?  Art is “the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others”, according to Britannica Online.  We spend so much time and effort to study the technical aspect of photography.  While it is essential to a successful image, we often lose sight of creativity and imagination.  We often see a technically perfect picture of a picture-perfect scene that lacks soul and feels documentary or descriptive.  “A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense, and is, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety” – Ansel Adams.

Photography is a combination of art and technique.  As Arnold Newman best described it: “visual idea combined with technology combined with personal interpretation equals photography.  Each must hold its own; if it doesn’t the thing collapses”.  To move beyond simple descriptive record of reality, one needs to evoke emotional responses in the viewer mind.

So, which half of the brain is more important?  The key for a photographer to elevate his/her work to a higher level is to find the right balance between technical knowhow and artistic creativity.  A photograph without technique is a snap shot, a photograph without idea is a record shot.  A good photographer must use the whole brain.


Wake up Call

Night at Big Sur – When Life Takes Detours

I spent a few days in September of 2014 to photograph the Big Sur region of California’s central coast.  A small waterfall called McWay Falls at beach attracted my attention.  I decided to stay with it to shot the sunset.  Big Sur, however, is known for its constantly cloudy, foggy weather.  The evening hour around sunset was predictably cloudy.  The sunset was disappointing.  But I still stayed a couple of hours after sunset, hoping the cloud would clear up so I can take some night shots.  The magic did not happen.  So I left scene to drive back to my hotel in Monterey Bay.While I was driving on the twisting mountain road, all the sudden I felt that there were some stars visible in the sky.  I pulled over.  To my delight, the sky was clearing up.  I went back to my hotel, slept two hours, got up and drove an hour in the dark back to the waterfall.  Now the sky was totally clear.  It was so clear that I can see Milky Way with my naked eyes.  I knew this was my lucky day.
 I spent so much time there the previous day.  So the composition was straightforward even in the complete darkness.  I took two shots, one for the sky and one for the foreground.  I tilted camera upward slightly for the sky shot to include more sky while tilting it down for foreground shot, with the intention to stitch them together for a 1:1 aspect ratio.  After taken the shots, I realized that foreground was too dark.  So I left the camera on the tripod untouched, and waited another two hours or so in the dark.  At about one hour before sunrise, it started to have some light in sky and foreground became visible to the eyes.  I took the third shot, just for the foreground.  Back at home, I stitched first two shots together and cropped the image to 1:1 ratio.  Then I aligned the third shot just to blend in the areas I wanted to show more foreground details.
Almost a year later, in July of 2015, I went up to Big Sur again with two friends from California. We checked in at a hotel at south end of Big Sur before we head out to photograph sunset.  Big Sur was cloudy as usual in the evening.  We stayed a couple of hours after sunset to see if the sky will clear up like it did for me a year ago.  This time, I was not so lucky.  We started to drive back to hotel in disappointment.Our fortune got even worse a couple of miles away from the hotel.  A construction crew blocked the Highway 1 to repair the road damaged by a landslide.  No one was allowed to pass between 10:00PM and 7:00AM.  The crew told us to take a detour.  Not just any detour – a three hour detour.  We had to drive north and then head east across the mountains to reach another highway to go south.  It was already midnight.  What choice do we have?  We started our journey onto the mountain road.When we reached the top of mountain, we saw stars! The Milky Way was so clear that I can almost reach out to touch it.  To make things even more interesting, dense low fog rolled in from the ocean, filled up the valley in front of us.

Rivers of Sky

Rivers of Sky

Life is full of detours, we just need to learn to appreciate every moment.


Bald Eagles on Mississippi

The bald eagle is American national bird because of its association with authority and statehood.  Its majestic beauty and great strength attract thousands of bird watchers and photographers to the Mississippi River bank, where bald eagles feed on the fishes near the dams during winter months.

I always come to Loc & Dam 14 on Mississippi each winter.  Like anything else in nature, it has been hit or miss.  Sometimes, I can only see a couple of eagles flying far and away for a whole afternoon.  Two weeks ago, I hit the jackpot.   It had been a harsh week that temperature stayed in single digit for the entire week.  A heavy snow covered field that eagles had nowhere else to find food supply but to come to the unfrozen open water under the dam.  The light was great and the action was none stop from the time we arrived around 11:00am to sunset.

Here Comes the Fish

I have photographed bald eagles catching fish over Mississippi hundreds of times.  But at the moment it races down to the water surface to grab the fish, it has never failed to electrify my brain and keep my heart singing.  This is the moment that is worth photographing for a lifetime as it my heart praises the creator of this magnificent creature.

Good Catch

Crabapple in the Snow

Crabapple is one of the most common trees in Midwest.  But in the world of long and hash winter, crabapple is like a spice on an otherwise tasteless dish.  It had been snowing for a couple of days in Midwest.  I finally can’t take it anymore.  So I decided to go out to Morton Arboretum to photograph some crabapple trees to brighten up my day.  Just when I was photographing this tree, strong wind blew the snow up in the air, helped me to filter out distracting elements at distance.

Crabapple in the Wind

After hundreds of crabapple pictures on my hard drive, I decided to try a new angle.  So I put my tripod on a higher ground over a smaller tree.  The flip screen of my Sony A99 comes handy when I compose the picture from underneath.  At this angle, the background is finally pure.

Fire in the Snow

Angel’s Hair

Zion National Park is gem in the rough southwest desert. It is a popular destination for tourists as well as photographers. I have visited the park many times. What made me to go back to Zion National Park again and again was not its towering mountains, it was the Virgin River that cuts through the valley kept my creativity flowing. The valley is very narrow, the water flows rapidly and the cliffs on both sides are nearly vertical. When the sun shines on the red rock cliffs, their reflection on the river creates interesting colors and patterns.  I could walk along the river bank an entire day to search for inspiration and never got bored.  The texture of water and the color of reflection change rapidly every moment.  I often spent half an hour just to stare at the water in front of me.

I always try to arrive at the scene at least half an hour before sunrise. At Zion National Park, it means getting up early to catch the first bus into Zion Valley. My plan was to photograph the mountain at sunrise. I took some pictures at sunrise. But I was disappointed because there is no cloud in the sky. The sunrise was not spectacular. But I did not leave.

Shortly after sunrise, the sun lit up the red rock cliff like a fire. Because there is no cloud, the light was extremely intense and the color of red cliff reflected on the river was so rich that the river in front of me looked as if it was painted in red. My attention was immediately attracted to the reflection on water.  After stared at the reflection for a while, I suddenly visualized the hair of a beautiful woman floating in front of me.

I quickly acted upon my new found inspiration.  I put my telephoto lens on the camera, mounted camera on my tripod and started to experiment with different shutter speed. My experience told me I should use a fraction of a second shutter speed in this situation.  The water would look too milky with long shutter speed, and too static with short shutter speed.  After some test shots, I finally settled at 1/4 second, where the texture of water started to look like hairs. Once the shutter speed was decided, the choice of other exposure parameters became simple. I had to maintain a large depth of field to keep the image sharp throughout, so I set the aperture at f/13. At this point, light was very intense that I had to lower ISO to 50 to get proper exposure. I would add a neutral density filter in front of the lens if ISO50 were still not low enough.

The river runs fast that the texture in the water changed rapidly. Every photograph looked different. I kept chasing after the reflection on water and photographed until the color faded away.

Back at home, I chose this picture out of nearly one hundred pictures I took at the scene because I like the white water stream that created contrast red reflection and its position in the frame. The post processing started with some general adjustments to contrast and brightness.

One difficulty I ran into immediately was the bright areas on water that made color looked washed out. Here I created a dodge and burn layer, then used Tony Kuyper Luminosity Mask Actions to create luminosity masks over light areas. I chose a brush tool with about 10% luminosity and then darkened bright areas by brushing black color on the dodge and burn layer. This helped me to recover details in highlight region to enhance the smooth texture in the water.


  1. Always pay attentions to details. In an iconic place where grand landscape is dominate; study the surround in great details will lead you to pleasant surprises.
  2. Any light is good light for a specific purpose. Don’t give up when you think the light is not as good as you expected.
  3. Use shutter speed as a creative tool. When photographing moving subject, always experiment with various shutter speed to achieve different effects.
  4. Never stop imagine. Imagination is the source of creativity.


Angel’s Hair

Storm Chaser

Storm Chaser

When I arrived at the Great Sand Dunes National Park, a thunder storm was approaching fast. I decided not to climb up the great sand dune, but shot from foot of the dune instead to avoid the lighting and heavy rain.  Just when I was trying to find my composition, two brave young men went right pass me and climbed all the way to the top.

The rain was pouring and lighting was none stop.  As I put away my equipment, I couldn’t stop turning my head to watch these two brave souls.  What was the view on the other side of dune?  It was only reserved for the challengers.