3 Creative Tactics for Better Photos

As photographers, we are always on the quest for what I call “Optimal Light”; you know, that beautiful light that hangs on the margins of the day - sunrise/sunset. But what if that light was non-existent on the only day you had the opportunity to head out and photograph? Are there any creative tactics for you to use to produce better photos when things aren’t happening the way you truly want them to? Here are three creative tactics that I use when everything else is failing.

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Silhouette // Creative Tactic #(1)

The silhouette is probably my most often used creative tactic when the light is not really what I am looking for. We often believe that sunrise and sunset light always delivers the goods when photographing, but I feel that when the atmosphere is super dry and devoid of any type of cloud system the light is truly only best right before sunrise and right after sunset. I think this happens because the sun isn’t really getting filtered by anything. I see this scenario happen right after a weather system has cleared and right before a new system enters my environment, and I mostly see it in the drier climates around the world. This effect lessens when high pressure stays for a long time because the winds typically start pushing dust and pollution into the upper atmosphere, thus helping to diffuse the light a bit more.

So when I look to this silhouette image, I am looking towards a shape; the outline of whatever my subject is prior to pulling the trigger. The image above was the perfect outline of the head of a bighorn sheep right at sunset in Glacier National Park. I have used this technique with skiers, mountain bikers, trees, flowers and any other subject that has a definable shape that would be recognizable to my viewer. The silhouette image produces one of the most graphically designed formats of the photograph. It is pure simplicity in my opinion.

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Flash // Creative Tactic #(2)

I learned how to use the fill flash technique by reading one of Joe McNally’s books. I have to say the first time that I tried what he wrote about, it was like having Sasquatch cross the road right in front of me - I couldn’t believe how easily it worked. All you need to pull off this technique is a single flash with a set of colored gels, and a way to remotely trigger that flash. The remote allows the flash to be taken off-camera, which in turn allows for you to directionally control your light. The gels then warm up the light coming from the flash so it doesn’t look, well, so flashy. Using a flash really helped when I lived in the Pacific Northwest and winter produced weeks of gray days at a time. This technique works great when shooting still subjects as well as when photographing action. Although you typically only get one shot from the flash, so you need to really work on timing your shutter release.

I used a single, gelled flash off-camera to create this image at Steven’s Pass Ski Area. The key was timing my single frame when my rider got to the perfect point in my composition on the boardwalk. One little trick to use when working an image like this, is to put your frame advance to single shot only. It helps to mentally release the shutter at that single specific moment. It may take a couple of tries to get the timing correct, but from there you will be able to duplicate the action over and over.

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Artificial Light // Creative Tactic #(3)

When I am covering an assignment for a client or magazine I am like a Jack Russell Terrier jacked up on caffeine and steroids weighing in at 200 pounds. I wake up way before sunrise and I don’t stop taking photographs until way after sunset. A big problem we face as photographers is what to do once the sun and any bit of daylight is beyond the ability of our cameras to create any type of photo. This is when I look to artificial light. This type of light differs from the concept of the above scenario in that you do not need a flash. You need your imagination and a light source as simple as a handheld flashlight. That is not your only option though, you have car lights, parking lot lights, town lights, city lights, building lights, are you getting the concept here? Anything that is producing light that allows your camera to see again is useful in producing an image after all of the natural light is gone.

In the above example, I was shooting an assignment for Bike Magazine on mountain biking in the Tetons. We had just finished taking photos with a group of fourteen riders and everyone was congregating in the parking lot of a local bar. It was at that very moment (nine o'clock at night) that the photograph materialized for me. Riders standing in a parking lot with the exterior lights of the bar illuminating my subjects and casting dramatic shadows off into the darkness. This is one of my favorite images from last year.

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