Photography: The Geometry of Nature

Nature truly is a wondrous place

In the December 2013 online edition of Discover Magazine, an article written by physicist and cosmologist Dr. Max Tegmark proposes that “everything in the universe is made of math.”

I’m not a mathematician. Finding math challenging I gravitated toward history and geography in college. So, while most of Dr. Tegmark’s article sailed over my head, I did get the gist that there is mathematics in nature, everywhere we look, even if we don’t necessarily recognize it as such at the time. Now, that, I understand.

Rockport, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As a photographer, I look through my camera’s viewfinder and use math to compose visually and see natural and man-made objects in the form of geometry. My eyes are grabbed by circles, angles, lines, arcs, ellipses, rays, and spirals created by beaches, bridges, rivers, rock formations, trees, canyons, waterfalls, and other things I see in the landscapes around me.

Monahan Sands State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The rule of thirds and golden ratio both use mathematics to achieve appealing photo compositions.

Corpus Christi, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The rule of thirds states than an image is most pleasing when its subjects or regions are composed along imaginary lines which divide the image into thirds—both vertically and horizontally. The rule of thirds divides a photograph into vertical and horizontal thirds. Important compositional elements are placed at the intersection of the vertical and horizontal lines.

Bernstein Forest, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The golden ratio is an ancient mathematical concept used to design everything from the pyramids in Egypt to photographs in popular fashion magazines. The ratio is 1:1.618.

McAllister Covered Bridge, Parke County, Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Also known as the Golden Mean, Phi, or Divine Proportion, this law was made famous by Leonardo Fibonacci around 1200 A.D. He noticed that there was an absolute ratio that often appears throughout nature, a sort of design that is universally efficient in living things and pleasing to the human eye.

Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since the Renaissance, artists and architects have designed their work to approximate this ratio of 1:1.618. It’s found throughout the Parthenon, in famous works of art like the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, and it’s still used today.

Great White Egret at Corkscrew Sanctuary, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It is actually quite amazing that a rule so seemingly mathematical can be applied to something as varied and subjective as photography. But it works, and surprisingly well. The rule of thirds is all about creating the right aesthetic trade-offs. It often creates a sense of balance—without making the image appear too static—and a sense of complexity—without making the image look too busy.

Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Savannah, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I use that geometry to create scenic images filled with natural frames, leading lines, and orderly or abstract patterns. When you compose a landscape photo, you probably don’t realize you may have chosen that scene based upon geometry. You just know there is something about that landscape catching your attention and worthy of a spot on your memory card.

Lynx Lake near Prescott, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park screams large-scale geometry with its arc-shaped scoops of land. As I stood at the view area at Sunrise Point, I noticed the triangle created by the tree trunk and the hanging branches and included them in the composition. In retrospect, I could have used a slightly wider angle to include more of the tree.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Featuring similar geometric shapes, Cedar Breaks National Monument sits at over 10,000 feet and looks down into a half-mile deep geologic amphitheater.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park has over 2,000 natural stone arches, in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins, and giant balanced rocks. This red-rock wonderland will amaze you with its formations and inspire you with its sunsets.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument features three majestic natural bridges that invite the viewer to ponder the power of water in a landscape usually defined by its absence.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The landscape in these Utah parks may seem static but the powers of wind, water, and time constantly sculpt new worlds. Arches and bridges are both fragile, natural rock sculptures. Both are formed with water and time but with different processes. Seeping moisture and frost shape arches while running water carves natural bridges.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go back and look at landscape images you’ve captured. Do you see the natural geometry in your photo compositions? You’ve actually seen and photographed the mathematics of nature.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…
The more one looks, the more one sees. And the more one sees, the better one knows where to look.

—Tielhard Chardin

Travel Photography Guide

Travel photography is exciting and gives you a chance to explore new subject matter and photography styles

In today’s post I’ll offer a little guidance on what images to take and how to create a stunning travel portfolio. One aspect I love about travel photography is the diversity of techniques available to create a well-rounded image set.

The No. 1 rule: Engage the viewer! Your viewers may never visit your location. So, a travel photographer must convey a sense of place, mood, emotion, taste, and smell through captivating images. In other words, snapshots just don’t cut it.

Mount Washington Resort, New Hampshire © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Below you’ll find an outline of subjects and techniques to help you photograph your next travel story—and engage the viewer! From simple family vacations to travel books, try these tips to creatively photograph your travel adventures.

Brooks County Courthouse and the old Chisholm Trail, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“It’s a small world after all” and we know a lot about other places without having been there. For example, when I say “San Antonio” most people think of the Alamo and the River Walk. Or, if I mention “New Orleans,” the French Quarter comes to mind. 

The Alamo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Photographing iconic structures and characteristics of a location establishes where you are and gives the viewer a starting point. Often these subjects are clichés, at least in the sense that they have been photographed thousands of times.

San Antonio River Walk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take the shot. But, cliché subjects require fresh perspectives, interesting light or different angles to show the viewer an iconic landmark in a new way. Make it your mission to photograph the Alamo unlike it ever has been photographed before or during a special event or reenactment (see photo below).

Reenactment during the anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go shopping. Yes. That’s what I said: Go shopping! But be sure to shoot photographs while shopping. Farmers markets, swap meets, and street fairs are great locations for photography.

Galt Farmers Market, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Try some of the local flare and photograph the kiosk vendors. Think about what makes the market special. Local foods and crafts paint the picture of the area and you can almost taste the fresh peaches and apples in those orchard fruit stands.

Baskets of fruit and vegetables at a local market © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Experiment with depth of field and photograph baskets of fruit and veggies up close. Shooting wide open will result in soft blurry backgrounds which helps reduce clutter. Also, look for interesting beams of light filtering through the scene.

Truth BBQ in Brenham, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Food can make or break a trip for many people. Yet, despite how important food is during a trip, many photographers never take photos of food during their travels.

Boone Tavern Hotel, Berea, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here’s a quick tip: Sit near a window with diffused light and let the chef do all the food styling. Plus, you can use the simple diffused light coming in through a window to compose compelling food images. Remember that although food photography is very detail-orientated, try to keep it simple. And, take several steps back for a compelling image through the window as the outdoors street scene unfolds often with amazing pastel shades.

Plaza of Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many regions of the country are defined by their architecture whether it’s adobe construction in New Mexico or the opulent mansions of the Gilded Age.

Loretto Chapel, Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Adobe structures are extremely durable in arid climates and account for some of the oldest existing buildings in the world. Located on the historic Santa Fe Plaza, the Palace of the Governors (see photo below) served as the seat of Spanish colonial government for centuries. The building was named a Registered National Historic Landmark in 1960 and an American Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1999.

Historic Newport © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nowhere in New England compares to the Gilded-Age splendor of Newport, Rhode Island. This coastal town is set upon cliffs dotted with some of the most spectacular mansions of the 19th century including The Breakers (see photo below) but that’s far from the only draw.

The Breakers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Research the area you’ll be visiting. Architecture isn’t all about big buildings or churches. You might try photographing a cobblestone alley or an old library interior or renowned book store (think, Powell’s in Portland, the world’s largest independent book store) with volumes of books.

Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Savannah, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, don’t forget about the countryside, landscape, and wildlife. They can be a major draw for travelers and photographers. Landscapes are often best photographed in early morning or late afternoon light. Stormy weather can result in very dramatic images and provide a fresh look to an iconic scene. Wildlife can also be an important part of a travel portfolio. Decide if wildlife defines your location and photograph the species that identify the area.

Early morning light at Usery Mountain Regional Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you can see, there is an almost limitless array of subject matter at your disposal when it comes to RV travel photography. But remember what’s important as a RV travel photographer: Capture the essence of the destination through creative, stunning photographs of diverse subject matter.

Cerulean Warbler at Falcon State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Greater Roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beauty can be seen in all things, seeing and composing the beauty is what separates the snapshot from the photograph.

—Matt Hardy

Tips for Photographing National Parks

National parks, along with being natural treasures, are a gift to photographers of all levels

Home to inspiring sights, like the rugged hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park, the big trees of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, and the natural stone arches and other landforms of Arches National Park, national parks offer some of the most captivating locations around the world for photographers.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Before heading to a national park, consider the following tips to ensure your photos are as striking as America’s breathtaking backdrops.

Few places across the U.S. and Canada can rival the picturesque combination of majestic wildlife and dramatic landscapes found in national parks.

Ask a Park Ranger for Ideal Vantage Points

Sugarlands Visitor Center, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When it comes to finding the perfect angles inside the national parks, a park ranger can be your greatest friend. Not only do rangers know where to find scenic spots, they know where and when the animals are most active and the location of the best vantage points for sunrise and sunset photos. This information is particularly beneficial when visiting the mountain parks of the West.

Park rangers can also offer insider tips on the park’s lesser known hidden treasures, which will provide you with unique perspectives.

Start Early: Get Out Before Sunrise

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is when most people are still sleeping, and the animals are up and out. The morning mist still lingers, and, if lucky, some ground fog may add to the atmosphere. In addition, the wind is usually calm at this time, making for easy great reflections macro shooting.

Plus, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful natural light and gorgeous colors.

Stay Out Late

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The same applies for shooting at sunset. The best light for photography can be found as the sun is low along the horizon (golden hour) when the light is like butter and everything looks great.

At this time, abundant wildlife can often be found roaming and grazing.

Stay Until Dark for Low-Light Scenes

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With the new digital cameras, we can just about shoot in the dark. Animals come out as darkness approaches, and we can get these shots of them by turning our ISO up, making the cameras more sensitive to light.

Enjoy Your Surroundings

Canyon de Chelly Nationa © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved l Monument

Take time to enjoy the sights, smells, and sounds of the park. During the middle part of the day, when the quality of light is poor, put your camera away, and get out and hike. Keep in mind future compositions, but mostly enjoy your majestic surroundings.

Stray off the Beaten Path

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Instead of staying in your toad or tow vehicle or on a ranger guided tour, hit the trails on your own. The countries’ national parks offer thousands of miles of maintained hiking trails that take you into the mountains, forests, valleys, and canyons that make each one unique. You’ll not only get away from hordes of visitors, but will also have a better travel experience— and in turn, will take better photos.

Try a Polarizing Filter

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A polarizing filter increases contrast, takes haze out of the atmosphere, and takes reflections off water surfaces. The filter needs to be turned while you look through the camera to see the effects. It takes away almost two stops of light, but you can always turn up the ISO to compensate.

Be Creative

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National parks contain some of the most photographed landmarks in the U.S. and Canada which can be both a blessing and a curse. With a myriad of impressive photos capturing iconic landscapes, it’s easy to find inspiration. However, it also becomes difficult to find distinctive angles when shooting the same scenes as millions of other photographers.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

When photographing, turn around, your best picture might be behind you.

—David Huffines

A Photographer’s Guide to the American West

Tips to ensure your photos are as striking as the American West’s breathtaking backdrops

From west to east and north to south, we have toured and photographed numerous National Parks Service sites including national parks, national monuments, national recreation areas, national seashores, and national historic sites and battlefield.

These parks offer a cross section of the best of the best for scenic beauty and historic significance across America.

Canyon de Chelley National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most amazing iconic landscapes in national parks and beyond are found in the American West. Few landscapes are as awe-inspiring as those found in the western states. And who can resist taking lots of photos?

Here are some pointers to help you bring back images you’d be proud to share.

Take the Iconic Photos and Move Beyond

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Everyone wants to capture those iconic images we’ve all seen in books and on postcards. Give it a try and you’ll likely realize it’s not as simple as it may seem. Many of those images were taken from high up on a mountain trail or from down below in a canyon.

Coronado National Memorial, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But even if you get that iconic image, push yourself to something beyond. Move around and go higher, lower, closer, farther away to find a different perspective—one that reflects your personal vision. Simple changes often redefine your image and give a more complete sense of the place.

Include an Interesting Foreground Element

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One problem with many landscape shots is that the subject is far away and there’s nothing of interest in the foreground. That gives landscape images a flat sameness that we want to avoid. As you look at some stunning vista, pay attention to nearby rocks, plants, or even puddles of water that can add interest to your image.

Work with All Kinds of Natural Light

Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Light is the primary ingredient in photography. You’ll encounter various types of natural light throughout the day and from one day to the next. Learn how to make the most of whatever light you have available.

Saguaro National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even dull overcast days can work wonders with landscape photos. Such days bring out natural colors and eliminate what can often be annoying shadows. Take advantage by getting a high perspective so your image is mostly land with very little sky.

Since early morning and late afternoon are the choice times to photograph, plan out at a key location prior to venturing out.

Pay Attention to the Sky

Joshua Tree National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Composing a landscape includes making a decision about how to deal with the sky. Finding the right balance between land and sky is often what makes or breaks a landscape image. Consider the sky and general weather conditions. A blue sky or one with puffy white clouds or threatening dark ones can be an asset to your image and you may want to include more sky and less land.

But if the sky is a uniform dull gray, minimize the sky or eliminate it completely. Nothing spoils a landscape photo more than a swath of white where the sky would have been.

Optimum Sharpness is Paramount

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the great advantages of landscapes is that they don’t move, so you can take your time to compose and get optimum sharpness. What is optimal depends on the image you have in mind, but certainly you want the foreground and middle ground as sharp as possible.

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For maximum control over sharpness, use a tripod. That allows you to take several shots of the same location with different settings so you can decide later which works best for you. Also, you’ll get a sharper image with a higher f-stop. If you’re shooting just the landscape, a slow shutter speed should not pose a problem. But if you’ve got your eye on some wildlife in the landscape or want to capture grasses bending in the wind, vary your shutter speed to get either a sharp image or an interesting blur.

After-Capture Techniques

Glen Canyon Recreation Area, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the great boons of digital photography is that the image-making process continues after you have taken your shot. Today’s digital photography offers an incredible number of options for improving or rethinking our images in the computer.

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One simple tool lets you crop your image in case you were unable to keep an unwanted element out of the frame during shooting. Remember, you can always cut something out, but you can’t add something you didn’t include in the rush of shooting.

As you become more familiar and comfortable using after-capture techniques, they will become a natural part of your photographic repertoire, helping you achieve the aesthetic results you want within one or two minutes.

Petrified Forest National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you work these pointers into your landscape photography, you’ll come up with landscapes that truly look out of this world.

Worth Pondering…

No matter how advanced your camera you still need to be responsible for getting it to the right place at the right time and pointing it in the right direction to get the photo you want.

—Ken Rockwell