A Walk in the Park | Want better scenic photos?

Written by by LeMoyne Mercer. Posted in May

Does anyone ask to see your vacation photos? Me neither, usually. Even family suddenly find an urgent reason to leave for the mall. Other people’s pictures are boring—even when we are polite enough to pretend they are not. For that matter, some people find their own pictures boring within hours of when they were taken. But, magically, after 25 years or so, they become intriguing again. We really shouldn’t have to wait that long to honestly and sincerely enjoy our pictures.


Our friends Rick and Sharyn invited us to visit them in Hilton Head on our way home from Savannah. Imagine my surprise when Sharyn asked if they could see pictures from our trip to Alaska. (Whoa, Nellie!) When someone asks to see your pictures without being coerced, you feel quite flattered. Humbled even. No. I wouldn’t go quite that far.

Sharyn didn’t know that I took 1,439 pictures. Even if each were a gem of the photographer’s art, she and Rick could never sit through, well, let’s see what that would be. Five seconds to look at each times 1,439 = 7,196 seconds. Divided by 60 seconds in a minute = 119.9 minutes. What the heck, let’s just call it two hours. Zzzzz.

So I used my laptop to edit my selection of the best and added some titles and even a music sound track. Now I have a 13 minute, 45 second program. Which, Shirley says, is still 13 minutes too much.

But Shirley and I have diverging opinions about what constitutes an interesting photo. You should know in advance that she has not approved anything that I am about to say. So this column is essentially no different from any other I have written since 1996.

Don’t get yourself killed

Ok. This is serious now. Over the years I have nominated tourists for the coveted Boobis americanis Award because they demonstrated that Darwin was right: You screw up, you die.

At the top of Alberta Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park there was a fellow positioning himself to take the perfect picture. To get it, he decided to cross the stream on a fallen log. Do you suppose that a narrow log mere inches from a rushing torrent might have been a little damp? Do you suppose that if he got swept over the falls he might have survived? No need to worry about drowning. As Butch told Sundance, the fall would probably kill him.

Driving down from the summit of Signal Mountain in Grand Teton National Park we found the road blocked by cars while people got out to take photos. Near the road, two grizzly bears were feeding. A couple of geezers were skulking up on the bears using all of their finely honed Daniel Boone skills. One decided to get even closer.

Shirley turned to the woman next to her. “What does that idiot think he is doing?”

“That idiot is my husband,” she replied, “and you’re right, he is an idiot.”

In Yellowstone, there was an elk jam as tourists parked right in the road to take photos. A fellow in a red ball cap, carrying a camera with a huge lens, walked towards an elk with an impressive rack. The elk walked away. Red Cap followed. Elk moved. Cap followed. Finally, the elk turned and lowered his rack in Red’s direction. What do you suppose his body language was trying to suggest? And how can a photographer with a $700 lens not know what “zoom” means?

Finally, and I told you this was serious, a woman from Michigan wanted an even better shot of the spectacular Canyon of the Yellowstone. She stepped over a retaining wall, clearly marked with signs that say don’t do that, lost her footing, and fell 500 feet.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel might be worth dying for. Most vacation photos are not.

Get some scenery in your scenics

In the Everglades, we were talking to our friends Kay and Darryl about their trip to Alaska. Kay said we could see their photos because they were still on the camera. She had taken a whole dozen pictures on their trip. (Kay is careful to avoid boring people with too many photos.) All of the pictures featured their dog Ginger next to their RV with some bushes in the background. They could have been pictures of a trip to Connecticut as far as I could tell.

In a similar vein, we know two couples who went on a cruise to Alaska. They took a few more pictures than Kay. Most of them were of each other mugging for the camera like Larry, Moe, and Curly. (Shep was holding the iPhone.) I understand that some cruises serve spirituous libations.

Hush, now. Promise not to tell Shirley I said this because she vehemently disagrees. On the trail up to Hidden Canyon in Zion National Park, a mother paused to take pictures of her kids lined up in front of a boulder. She had her back to some of the most amazing scenery in the whole world. Shirley insists that the important thing was that mom captured them having a good time. She’s undoubtedly right. Still, I think it would be nice to see why the kids were having a good time. It takes an excruciatingly small effort to turn around and face the other direction so the picture could include Zion Canyon.

For that matter, the picture would be even more interesting if the kids were doing something instead of just standing there. Get them hiking, fishing, fighting over the last s’more. Any action is inherently more fascinating than a mug shot. Unless, of course, it is an actual police mug shot. Then everyone really would want to hear about what you did, allegedly, on your vacation.

And a word about selfies: Everywhere you go there are people holding their cell phones at arm’s length. Not much scenery in a selfie because the head(s) takes up all the space. Maybe you could get another tourist to take your picture from a little more than arm’s length away. Then do the same for him.

And here’s a tip that overlaps with “Don’t get yourself killed”: Last February, a Phoenix TV newscast included the advice to avoid taking selfies with rattlesnakes. Shirley and I thought the talking head was just being whimsical. Our friends Joan and Doug, who live in Phoenix, said, “Oh, no. He’s serious. People do the dumbest things.”

Get some recognizable faces

Sometimes the problem is not that faces overpower the picture but they are almost totally lost. You probably have some of those pictures in which the people are so far away that you can’t tell who they are. And if you do want people to be recognizable, for Pete’s sake, have them remove the shades. Who is that behind those Foster Grants? Eyes are expressive and identifying. There is a reason that robbers at the 7 Eleven and celebrities seeking anonymity wear sunglasses. True, sun in the face makes people squint, but I don’t remember a rule that says you have to look directly into the sun. A slight change of angle can probably satisfy both photographer and photographee.

Create some depth

How do you give a two-dimensional image the feeling of three dimensions? Scenic photos often benefit from the deliberate choice by the photographer to include foreground, middle ground, horizon line, and sky. The relative size of objects also provides visual clues. Including people in a scene, even people you don’t know, helps establish scale and distance.

Parallel lines, such as railroad tracks or a receding highway, seem to converge as they approach the horizon. The walls and roof line of a building appear to converge at the horizon line even though we know that they are parallel. A building photographed straight on looks flat. Create depth and the appearance of three dimensions by shooting from a slight angle so that a side wall is included.

Another technique is to include a “frame” inside the picture—not to be confused with the one around it. A common frame in scenics is a tree branch in the foreground that arches over the focal point. Shooting the point of interest through an actual arch is another literal-minded way to distinguish what is near from what is far.

The center of interest

Every photo should have a dominant focal point, but it should not be smack in the geographic center. (There is a reason it is called the “dead” center.) For a more dynamic and pleasing composition, mentally divide the viewfinder into three parts. Place the point of interest either in the left or right third of the scene. Likewise, don’t put the horizon line right in the middle. If there is a dramatic sunrise or sunset or other reason to emphasize the sky, put the horizon line in the lower third. If the sky is not the main interest, put the horizon in the upper third. If you are shooting a close-up, there may be no horizon included at all. But I didn’t really need to tell you that.

Many digital cameras and some iPhones can superimpose a grid with two horizontal and two vertical lines on the viewfinder that help you compose according to this Rule of Thirds. The principle was discovered by the ancient Greeks. I don’t know if they used Canons or Nikons.

The grid lines also help you maintain a straight horizon line so the ocean does not run uphill in a beach scene. Unless, of course, you are still trying to compose one of those artsy photographs that can be appreciated only by the truly sophisticated.

While you are composing your picture, also check the edges of the viewfinder. A photo bomb is an otherwise decent picture into which some undesired element has intruded. Perhaps you did not notice that rather flamboyant person in the background or the utility pole growing out of little Hannah’s head.

The human brain filters out most of the irrelevant sights and sounds of everyday life so that we can focus on what is important to us. A camera doesn’t do that. What it sees is what you get. Until you learn to consciously look at everything in the viewfinder, you will continue to digitize all kinds of visual garbage that you really don’t want in your pictures. Thanks to technology, though, you can now edit out the garbage.

Back in the Olden Days, I bought Kodak pre-paid mailers so film could be sent off for developing while we were still in Colorado or Wyoming or wherever. (Ask your grandfather what film was.) Pictures were waiting when we returned home. Today, images can be reviewed immediately and are so remarkably inexpensive that you can delete the disappointing stuff instead of saying “Oh, crap!” when you get home. And every time you take a little walk in the park you can practice your photographic skills so you won’t have to hit that delete button quite so often.❦