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Great Laguna Beach Sunset

Last night was one hell of a sunset here in So Cal. Luckily, I was scheduled to take a student to Laguna Beach for a lesson/shoot. We picked a beautiful beach just below the Montage Resort where it was low tide and plenty of rocks abound for good foregrounds. It had been a really long time since I've visited this beach for some photos, and when I returned, I kind of remembered why it had been so long.

Although this area at low tide is really interesting, it is a little bit tougher to get a good shot than in some of the other places I've visited. It's actually quite deceiving because the rocks look great, the tide pools look great, the reflections look great, but the problem is just how dark the rocks are and how little variation in color there is. The rocks are really dark brown and the sea life covering it is really dark green. As a result, the subtle textures and colors can be difficult for your camera to capture. Without some practice, careful composition and spot-on exposure, the details get lost and the foreground ends up looking like just a big, boring mass of ugly rock.

Thankfully, that stunning sunset made for some great reflections.

Why Other People’s Pictures Are Better

Ahh, so peaceful...oh, except for the shirtless guys fishing to my right and the stretch of houses and volley ball net behind me.

There are so many great photographers out there. Thanks to digital cameras, the Internet, lots of resources for learning, great books, online tutorials, etc, etc, it's a piece of cake to find excellent photography. And I'm talking all types of photography - landscapes, wildlife, portraits, commercial - whatever. Just browse around Flickr for any length of time and you're bound to find some really fantastic work.

Now if you're anything like me, seeing all this great work out there can sometimes be discouraging. I've stumbled upon other photographer's sites only to leave feeling like I'm nothing but a small-time beginner. I'm not going to lie, I've wasted entire days stuck all up in my head thinking about how great someone else's work is compared to mine. Even photographers I admire, seeing their success in the art and business of photography has caused me some serious upset, self-doubt and sadness. The first time I saw Peter Lik's website...my brother practically had to talk me down from the proverbial ledge so I wouldn't just give up and find another career - and that was within the past year!

Sound crazy?

I know, I know. I'm sounding like a big, self-pitying baby right now. Self-deprecation is not an admirable trait and doesn't do anyone any good, but I'm trying to make a point here. The point is, there's always someone better than you. And I don't mean they're actually better than you, I mean you will always think there is someone better than you. No matter how great your work is, no matter how much success you have, you'll always find someone with better pictures, more success, a more impressive publication list, a better resume, blah, blah, blah.

The grass is always greener...

Well, there's a reason other people's pictures look better to you even though they aren't necessarily any better than yours. I isolated this reason after hundreds of hours wasted ruminating over someone else's "better" pictures. Now that I know it, I try to remind myself every time I start to get this way. Here it is...

When you look at your pictures, there's no mystery. There's no mystique. There's no "wow" factor...not to you anyway. That's because you were there when you took the shot. You saw the half-naked tourist just out of frame that was rubbing sun-tan lotion all over himself. You could smell the trash can 10 feet away. You just finished a 2-hour long drive in heavy traffic to get there. Your stomach was growling. You know there was a Ranger Station just a few hundred feet to your left.

But when you look at a landscape from Peter Lik or Galen Rowell or David Muench, you see a magical land of color and light where there isn't a sign of civilization for a hundred miles in any direction. You get a tangible emotional response and you can almost feel the peacefulness in the landscape. The picture is just...*sigh*...magical.

Little do you know, they also had a few annoying tourists 5 feet to their left, there was a highway right behind their back and the roar of a generator from a nearby RV was blaring the entire shoot. But you didn't experience any of that, so the picture is untainted. Their picture might not even be any better than yours, but they just did a hell of a good job hiding anything that would kill the mood and the true communication of the photo.

You see what I'm getting at?

So that's the real problem: To you, there's no magic in your shots because you were there. There's nothing new and no mystery. But everyone else's photos are filled with mystery, wonder, magic and newness. As a result, you'll think their picture is better - even if yours is just as good.

There's a real life experiment you can do that will prove this theory. All you need to do is find some amazing magical shot that really blows you away, find out where it was taken, then go check out the location sometime. Walk around, hang out...then when you get back home, look at that picture again. Trust me, it won't have the same impact it did before. It will still be an amazing picture and you'll be impressed by how well the photographer captured the location, but the mystery will be gone. You'll know what was just out of frame.

But do you want to know the good news about all this? Most everyone you show your picture to wasn't there when you took the shot, so they're going to see a magical land of color and light in your images. They're going to be blown away by your shots even though you're just "a pretty good photographer." They'll be enthralled by the mystery and emotion of it all. Just don't tell them about the ugly stuff you framed out - it takes away the magic. Simply be happy you did your job well.

Now don't get me wrong...of course there are some better photographers out there and of course some other people's work is better than yours. But more often than not, it's just this phenomenon going on. The hard part is reminding yourself of this so you don't start invalidating your own success.

You took a great picture. Just understand that you can't possibly get the same response out of it you'd like to get. But don't worry - other people will.

Horseshoe Bend

Well, I just got back from a vacation/photo trip to Lake Powell and Page, AZ with my beautiful girlfriend. It was a blast and, I'm not going to lie, I wish we were still there. But life and business must go on - as much as I'd like to go on vacation for a living.

On the day we arrived, there was a gorgeous double rainbow over the lake. It was so intense, all the way. I snapped some casual shots of it from the balcony of our hotel room. What a great way to start the trip...

Most of the trip was relaxation, jet skis, swimming and food, but I did manage to get out at sunset to Horseshoe Bend for some pictures. Fortunately, I picked the best sunset of the whole trip to get out there, so the clouds and light were fantastic. Lightning was flashing off in the distance on 3 sides of us, the clouds were dramatic, the hike was gorgeous and the company was even better. The only thing from the shoot that was a little weird was the European tourist who asked me to put his memory card in my camera, take a picture and give it back to him so he could have a copy. I hesitated at first, but then I thought, "Eh, what's he going to do? If he finds out some way to sell it, I'll just ask him for tips." His gasp upon reviewing the shot was reward enough.

I was a little worried about shooting Horseshoe Bend because the absolute best shot (right down the center to highlight the curve and symmetry) has been done a thousand times before. I thought it'd be difficult to get a unique shot. I did my best to switch it up a bit, but the classic shot is still the best I think. Here are my results. This first one is my favorite - I just can't get enough of those clouds and their reflections in the Colorado River!

I wish I could say I planned this, but I was lucky to find out this time of year places the sun exactly down the center of frame when it sets. That nice little starburst at the perfect spot made the shot, in my opinion:

After shooting the hell out of Horseshoe Bend, I turned my camera the other way for a different landscape. I used a slow shutter speed to blur the the clouds just a bit in order to highlight their motion:

And lastly, I tried my best to capture the lightning, but man is that hard! I think I'm getting a little better at it, but I really only get one chance a year to attempt it. That makes the learning curve quite slow. Here's all I got (click for a larger version):

There you have it! I hope you enjoyed the shots!