Shadows Are Your Best Friend in Photography

TAURUS-07230In my recent blog post, titled Bring Back The Shadows: The Case Against HDR, I talked about how shadows bring the important elements of subtlety, innuendo and abbreviation into your imagery.

Like any art form, the power of creative photography lies in the process of suggesting your scene and engaging the imagination of your viewer. By only showing a limited portion of your subject matter, you invite your audience to think about what’s NOT there. This allows them to fill in the rest of the story in their minds, and in some cases, attach their own meaning to your image.


By not giving them everything, you allow your viewer to WONDER. That’s the key, because once you do that, you’ve suddenly brought them in as an active participant. In fact, anytime you engage your viewer’s brains, you’re gone a long way towards creating a more successful image.

To equate this to other art forms, think about a favorite song. Music, especially good songwriting tells enough of a story to bring you in and equate the narrative to your own life. The songs that really move us are the ones that make us think and feel. Songs that fail to deliver any kind of meaningful message, or more importantly, allow us to take something way are simply noise. Those aren’t the ones that last.

It’s the same with powerful fiction (and movies). Clive Cussler novels and other summer brain candy aside, a good story isn’t just about engaging descriptions and plot, it’s a narrative that resonates with us somehow and incites is to think about the world in a different way.

Sabina Mackay bouldering, Pitch Penny Boulder, Horsetooth Reservoir, Fort Collins, Colorado

I’m not saying that simply by including lots of shadowed areas in your photo, you’ll suddenly create a visual best seller, but you will go a long way towards making a more compelling shot, if not for the implied story or subject matter itself, but because of a fundamental compositional rule.

By placing bright colors against a dark background, the brain perceives those colors to be more saturated than if they’re set against a bright background. Simply using shadows in your scene helps you create more bold imagery.

Imagine how this shot of the bikers might look if they were set against a white overcast sky, or some other brightly colored environment. The black adds a tremendous amount of visual power here, and it helps saturate those rich reds in their jerseys and helmets. All that black adds a ton of drama to the scene.

Next try to picture what this photo would look like if I had exposed for and shot it while they were still inside the shade. You’d see everything- the trees, the road, the other riders in the background, maybe a street sign and one or two spectators. Like an HDR photo, nothing would be hidden- everything in the scene would be out there in plain sight. Do you think that would make for a compelling composition?

Shadows are your best friend in photography. They’re perhaps the most powerful visual and creative tool you have in the whole process, so don’t cast them aside. Look for them out in the wild and use them to their fullest potential.


A Look at 3 Awesome Travel Tripods

For a long time, most serious outdoor and travel photographers only considered two or three tripod brands: Manfrotto, Gitzo and Benro. Most of the other brands out there were either too heavy for travel and backpacking use or else they just didn’t offer the kind of quality and stability you need for taking great landscape photos.

Times have changed, and a number of other companies have come out with high quality, affordable tripods. Now, when you run into your fellow shooters out in the world, you’re just as likely to see them with a variety of other brands, in addition to Gitzo and Manfrotto.

I’ve led a number of workshops and photo tours during the past few years, and these are the most common tripods I’ve seen with my students and fellow photographers. The common design of all these models is that their legs fold back on themselves, so they all pack quite small. If you’re looking for an awesome travel tripod for a lightweight camera gear setup, I recommend checking out one of these.

Of course, if you’re serious about your photography and you want the best and most stable tripod around, or if you have a heavier setup, the Gitzo GT1545T Series 1 Traveler is still the best quality and most stable travel tripod around. It’s not cheap, but you’ll never regret buying a Gitzo. Ask anybody who owns one.

MeFOTO RoadTrip

MeFoto road tripI’ve probably seen more of these than any other tripod during all the photo torus I’ve led this summer.

I can totally understand why, made by longtime tripod maker Benro, the MeFOTO Aluminum Roadtrip is a very compact tripod that extends to 61″, folds down to only 15″, weighs 3.6lbs, offers very good stability and costs less than $200, including the attached quick release ball head.

The four twist-lock legs lock in two positions, so you can easily set it up on uneven ground, tight spaces or even low to the ground. And they fold back over the center column, so the whole tripod packs quite small; it even comes with its own nylon carrying case that has a shoulder strap for easy transport and storage. And it comes in tons of cool looking anodized colors.

In addition, the RoadTrip has a couple of really cool features: You can remove one of the legs and attach it to the center column, which converts the tripod into a full-size monopod. This is great when you just want extra support when shooting with longer, heavier zoom lenses, like when photographing wildlife or sports.

With a bubble level, foam grip on the monopod leg, a 360-degree pan ball head, and a center column hook for hanging a heavy bag for increased stability, the MeFOTO RoadTrip is easily one of the best values around. Overall, it’s a great little travel tripod for the money, and it’s great for DSRLs and mirrorless cameras.

If you want to shave an additional half pound, they make a Carbon Fiber version of the RoadTrip as well.

MeFotoRoad trip 2

Siuri T2005X Tripod

Siuri Tripod

Siuri is another tripod company that has seen huge growth in the past few years. It’s easy to see why, they make some pretty decent gear.

While they have a wide variety of tripods and ball heads in their catalog, the Siuri T2005X is probably the best all around lightweight tripod that offers decent stability, especially of the price- only $139 without head.

With five twist-lock leg sections that also fold back on the center column and can be set to 3 different angles, the T2005X extends to 60″, folds down to 14.6″, weighs 3.1 lbs,

With forged aluminum legs, it offers a surprisingly high strength-to-weight ratio, which is what you want in a tripod. It also comes with a carry case.

Overall, I’ve been impressed with Siuri tripods, and I’ve seen quite a few of them out there. You’ll need to get a head with the T2005X tripod, this is the one I recommend. 

Siuri tripod case

Manfrotto BeFree

Made in Italy by a longtime and very reputable tripod company, the Manfrotto BeFree aluminum version is a great addition to their line, and it’s one of the best travel tripods around.

As with the previous two models above, the BeFree’s legs fold back on itself, which makes this tripod only 15.8″ long when packed up. That’s short enough to fit in most roller bag suitcases and carry on bags.

The four flip-lock leg sections extend to 48″ tall, and the can be set to two different angles. With the center column up, the BeFree extends to 57″. Load capacity is about 8.8 lbs, which is perfect for mirrorless cameras and just about any lightweight DSLR. Probably not the best model for pro DLSRs and long lenses, though.

The Manfrotto BeFree comes with an Arca style quick release ball head, it has a rubberized grip on one of the legs, which makes it more comfortable to carry, and it comes with a nice carrying bag.

I’ve owed more Manfrotto tripods than any other brand, and I’ve always been happy with their quality, features and level of stability. They make great tripods for the money. The Manfrotto BeFree Aluminum only costs $199. They also have a carbon fiber version of the BeFree as well.

Support this site: If you’re thinking about picking up a new tripod, or any new gear for that matter, please consider shopping through these links. It’s your way to let me that you find these reviews helpful, and it doesn’t cost you anything extra. In other words, it’s like a virtual 👍 button. Thanks! – Dan


Recap of My Midnight Sun Glacier Photography Workshop

Learn Photography Online with the Pros

KNIK-01385This past weekend, I ran my Midnight Sun Overnight Glacier Photography Workshop, here in Alaska, and we had a blast! In short, the workshop involved helicopters, camping out in the wild, kayaks and a few million tons of ice. Add all that up, and how can you not have a great time!

With six awesome and enthusiastic participants, we had a nice small group. This allowed for a high level of personal interaction and camaraderie between everyone, and lots of time for me to work with each person on techniques, creative ideas and camera settings.

We started with a great dinner and a photography presentation at the lodge during the first evening, which was followed by amazing sunset. This is a shot looking down the Knik River valley, which provided a gorgeous backdrop for the intense, colorful sky.


On Saturday morning, we loaded into the helicopters and flew over the toe of the massive Knik Glacier out to our campsite on a hillside above Lake George in the heart of the Chugach Mountains. With doors-off on the heli, we were able to shoot clear, unobstructed aerials of the giant ice towers and jagged formations on the Knik. Four of the six people had never been in a helicopter before, let alone shoot photos from one. As you can imagine, everyone was pretty psyched.


After being dropped off on a beautiful, remote hillside above the lake, we set up camp with the help of our wilderness guide. Our location for the next 24-hours gave us clear view across the lake of Colony Glacier, which continuously cracked, crashed and boomed as giant icebergs calved off from the face.

Many of those icebergs drift across the lake, and we spent much of Saturday exploring and photographing these massive ice blocks up close with the use of kayaks and a raft. Everyone captured some amazing images during the course of the day.


In the early evening, we took some time to relax a bit and enjoy a great meal prepared over the campfire. Of course, with our super long days, we had another extended evening photography session. Some people went out in the kayaks again and paddled around the icebergs, others photographed on land- some did both.

We were treated with another beautiful sunset, and a long couple hours of twilight. In my mind, one of the great things about this workshop is being outside in a gorgeous wilderness setting during a full 24-hour light cycle. We were able to photograph an array of impressive scenery not only in a variety of light, but in the very best light possible.

If photography is all about light, it makes sense to try and maximize your opportunity. That’s the main reason I love running with this format- it isn’t just about seeing and shooting cool subject matter, it’s about immersing yourself in the scene and witnessing how different qualities of light affect the subject around you, and learning how to use that light to your advantage.

Although this wasn’t in any way a dedicated Fujifilm workshop (people had a variety of gear), I brought out a handful of Fujifilm X Series cameras and all of my lenses for people to try if they wished. The two Fuji shooters on the trip were able to borrow and test a wide range of glass. For the non-Fuji shooters, I’m fairly knowledgeable about most camera gear, so I can usually help people out with their gear, even if it’s not Fuji.

KNIK-01423 KNIK-01886 KNIK-01400 KNIK-01397 KNIK-01127KNIK-01366On Sunday morning, we enjoyed camp breakfast and had a couple more hours to explore and photograph before our heli-pickup. On our flight back, we looped back around the toe of Colony Glacier to shoot some closeup aerials of the massive ice wall that had been our distant backdrop all day and all night long.

We even saw a huge ice serac calve off and crash into the lake right as we flew past. Although we couldn’t hear the crash over the sound of the rotors, we knew how well the boom would have carried across the lake. In fact, the other three people who were still at camp confirmed that they indeed heard the calve!

Once back at the lodge, we had time to quickly download, preview and share a few photos of the trip with each other, and then enjoy lunch and beers on the deck before our drive back to Anchorage.

For me, this was one of the most fulfilling photography workshops I’ve run. Not only does it take place in an amazing setting, it closely matches the exact areas I like to explore on my own and the WAY I like to adventure and shoot. It’s a great mix of adventure photography, aerials and landscapes.

Also, I like small groups, because it gives me the time and opportunity to work with each person and help them with their photography in the way THEY want to learn. I’m not out to teach people how to take photos like I do, my goal is to help other photographers improve and shoot the best images possible in the style that matches their own vision, no matter what gear or background they have.

I definitely plan to run my Midnight Sun Glacier Overnight Photography Workshop again next year. I don’t have dates piked out yet, but if you’re interested, be sure and get on my newsletter list and you’ll be notified as soon as I do.

Big thanks to everyone who did this year’s workshop, I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people. You guys were awesome.

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