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