Saguaros as Far as the Eye Can See

Saguaro National Park, in Arizona, is a special place. The sheer density of the Saguaro Forest is captivating and I love how the cacti look against the red rock.

Usually I photograph them from ground level, often from a low angle looking up to emphasize their immense size. But seen from above, you get a totally different feel for the place.

To get a good vantage point, we got some advice from the park ranger and hiked up a hill to a look out which gave us a good view of the valley.

Distant Cactus by Anne McKinnell

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On the way, we came across a few people that couldn’t find the trail. Being from BC, where there are lots of inuksuks, the trail was plainly visible to us with these kinds of markers pointing the way, but apparently other people were expecting wooden signs with arrows!

At least you can’t get too lost up here because you can easily see the parking lot below (it is just out of the frame in the foreground of the image).

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How to Create a Good Composition in a Crowded Desert Scene

The Senoran Desert, in southern California and Arizona, is packed with all sorts of cacti and other plants. You never have to go far to find a good subject to photograph. In fact, deciding on which subject to photograph and isolating it from the rest of the plants is the most challenging part!

Creating a good composition in a crowded desert scene is a matter of elimination, isolation, and careful placement of the remaining objects in the frame.

Have you ever been impressed by the grand scene in front of you, but then when you try to photograph it all in one frame, it falls flat? That’s when you need to make some choices and start eliminating objects from the frame.

Look at the scene and decide what is most important. Then, what secondary subjects help to tell the story or give the scene a sense of place.

In the desert, there are lots of opportunities for making a composition of a lone cactus – isolating a single cactus is a good tactic for making a clean composition. But once you have a bunch of those you start looking for scenes that are more challenging without being too cluttered.

In this photograph I made in Quartzsite, Arizona, I was struck by how this little group of Saguaro Cacti looked like a family. I decided to make them the main subject. It may seem obvious when you look at the photo, but there were cacti all around me, all potential main subjects of a photograph.

Saguaro Cactus in Quartzsite Arizona by Anne McKinnell

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Once I had the main subject, I had to decide what secondary subjects added to the scene. In this case, it was the mountains in the background. I could have made the photograph facing the other direction, with more Saguaros in the background, but I liked how the mountains added a sense of place and depth to the image.

Finally, I like to look at the edges of the frame and the negative space that balances the image. As you can see, there is a lot of scrubby brush in the desert that can really clutter up your image. But if I wanted to some negative space around my Saguaro family, I would have to include some of that brush. I decided to include a patch of rocks in the foreground to make the bottom edge clean so the image appears less cluttered. I used the rule of thirds to place the main subjects in the frame and allowed lots of empty space around to balance the dominance of the Saguaros.

Some people just have a natural eye for this stuff and can do it without really thinking about it. I’m actually not one of those people! I usually stand around and contemplate things like what the main subject should be, what secondary subjects add to the scene, and how I can make an interesting graphic design out of the elements in front of me.

The only trick is to get there early enough that I can make all of these choices and settle on a composition in time to catch the good light. Good light is essential.

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Desert Sunset at Joshua Tree National Park

One of the reasons I like going down south in the winter (and there are many) is the incredible sunsets in the desert.

It seems like every day is a clear blue sky day with no clouds and then, as the day goes on, the clouds move in just in time for sunset.

There are stages to the sunset that we just don’t get on the coast. Or perhaps it doesn’t happen frequently enough that I noticed the stages before.

The part I like most happens after the sun dips below the horizon. For a quick moment there is still an orange streak on the horizon and just when the sky starts to get darker and you think the show might be over, the underside of the clouds light up and turn an intense shade of red. I like this even more when the clouds break up a little and there is some of the dark purple/blue sky behind them, as the sky gets ready for twilight. You get all the best parts of sunset and twilight in one sky.

It doesn’t happen very often, but every once in awhile all the necessary elements for a perfect sunset align, like it did when I made this desert sunset photo at Joshua Tree National Park.

Sunset at Joshua Tree National Park by Anne McKinnell

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I probably go out for a sunset shot 100 times before I get a sky like this. The thing is, it only lasts a moment, and you have to be ready. It’s even better if you can get a subject with an interesting shape in the foreground to form a silhouette.

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The Echo of a Shape at Jumbo Rocks

When I am photographing, I always keep my eye out for strong shapes since they tend to lead to strong compositions. Any shape will do: circles, squares, triangles, curves.

During my last visit to Joshua Tree National Park in California, I went back to a place I had been before, Jumbo Rocks, where there are all kinds of interesting rocks to photograph. But there was one rock in particular that intrigued me: a round rock balancing between some diamond shaped rocks. You can see my first photograph of it here.

Building on the shapes idea, I like to photograph what I think of as the echo of a shape. That’s where your main subject is a particular shape and then there is something in the background that is the same shape. This isn’t a formal type of composition or anything! I just got this idea while thinking of music one day and how the chorus is repeated, and I wondered if I could do that in photography by repeating shapes.

I had great fun scrambling over the rocks trying to find one that was just the right shape where I could put my original subject in the background.

Jumbo Rocks at Joshua Tree National Park by Anne McKinnell

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To me, this photo is more interesting than the original because of the repeating shape.

Later, I found a third rock to put in front.

Jumbo Rocks at Joshua Tree National Park by Anne McKinnell

I can never decide which one I like best!

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Joshua Tree National Park Panorama

Joshua Tree National Park in California is such a unique landscape that I really wanted to make a panorama image that would convey the vastness and the sheer quantity of Joshua Trees.

The first few I tried didn’t turn out so well though! The trees looked so small and unimpressive. I realized that the perspective I was using made all the trees carry the same importance and no particular tree was the main subject. So I tried getting close to one tree, placing it purposefully in the frame, and making it the star of the photo while the others provided a background.

Joshua Tree Panorama by Anne McKinnell
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One feature I love about the Sony NEX6 mirrorless camera is the ability to quickly and easily make a panorama. I think a lot of cameras come with this feature nowadays, but now that I have it in the Sony mirrorless camera, I really miss it when I am using my DSLR.

Instead of having to mess around with special pan heads to make a sequence of photos around a single axis, with a panorama enabled system, you can simply sweep your camera in the direction you specify while the camera takes the shots. Not only that, but you don’t even have to stitch them together in post processing, the camera does all the work for you!

With these technical matters taken care of, we can spend our time on the things that really matter most in a photograph, like using composition effectively to make a photo with impact.

Some people think that technology is replacing the techniques that used to be reserved for savvy professional photographers. But in my opinion, technology is taking care of these things for us so we can focus on the artistic side of photography.

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Pacific White-Sided Dolphin Encounter in Discovery Passage

It was one of the best boating days I’ve ever had. My first time going through Seymour Narrows, up Johnstone Strait, to Kelsey Bay on an absolutely glorious day.

Johnstone Strait by Anne McKinnell
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On the way home though Discovery Passage I spotted some porpoises a little ways off on the starboard side, so I decided to take a swing over there and see what was there. I was expecting some harbour porpoises, but as soon as I turned my boat towards them, all the fins turned towards me and I knew right away those were no harbour porpoises!

I felt the adrenaline start to surge because I knew these guys wanted to play – Pacific White-Sided Dolphins!!! A pod of about 15-20 of them.

Dolphin Tail by Anne Mckinnell

I was testing a lens I’m planning on taking with me to Africa – the 16-35 f/2.8L – so I quickly put that on knowing a wide angle lens would help me get the dolphins in the frame.

It’s quite a challenge driving the boat and photographing at the same time!! With the whales, I just put the boat in neutral or cut the engine and then photograph, and I only have to worry about how far the boat drifts. But the dolphins only play with a boat that’s moving so I knew I had to keep going.

Dolphin Abstract by Anne McKinnell

Sometimes I’m a little worried because they get so close to the boat. They love to swim in the wake right behind the engine! Then then go under the boat and jump on either side, go under again, and jump in front, all while I’m travelling at about 15 knots. I was actually getting splashed by the dolphins – which is really something special :)

But the dolphins are super agile and fast, so there’s really nothing to worry about. They are about 7-8 feet in length, weigh 300-450 pounds, and can easily swim 30 knots.

Pacific White Sided Dolphin by Anne McKinnell

So I have to look ahead to drive the boat and avoid logs, and then quickly look back or to the side and photograph. I don’t even try to look through the viewfinder, I just hold up my camera, aim in the general direction, and hope for the best.

They played with me for about 20 minutes! I got about 200 photos of splashes – and a few that actually had a dolphin in the frame.

Dolphin #1 by Anne McKinnell

Dolphin #2 by Anne McKinnell

Dolphin #3 by Anne McKinnell

Dolphin #4 by Anne McKinnell

Dolphin #5 by Anne McKinnell

Eventually I got into a place that had a lot of current and whirlpools and then a big bunch of kelp, so I had no choice but to slow down. At that point, the dolphins left me and I watched them swim off into the distance with a big smile on my face.

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Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach, Oregon

The photo in yesterday’s post was made on a foggy afternoon at Cannon Beach, Oregon.

The next day, the skies opened up and the sun shone on Cannon Beach’s iconic Haystack Rock. But there was still just enough fog lingering behind the rock to give the photo lots of mood.

Haystack Rock by Anne McKinnell
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I found a spot where I could use a low angle to get some nice round rocks in the foreground to add depth to the scene.

Both this photo and yesterday’s photo were made with my Sony NEX6 and the 18-55mm lens.

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Another Foggy Day at Cannon Beach, Oregon

As my summer on Vancouver Island draws to a close and I start getting ready for my trip to Africa next month, I realize I have so many photos from our last snowbird season down south that I still haven’t shared with you!

I’m going to share as many of them as I possibly can over the next few weeks because I have a ton of new photos from British Columbia coming and I know I’m going to have lots of wildlife photos for you after my trip.

So here it goes!

Today’s Photo – Cannon Beach, Oregon

One thing I love about Cannon Beach, Oregon, is that you can always count on there being weather. It’s never just an average ho hum day. It’s either brilliant sunshine, dramatic cloudy skies, amazing sunset colours, or moody fog.

I made this photo on one of the moody foggy days back in December (which also happened to be my birthday).

Foggy day at Cannon Beach, Oregon by Anne McKinnell
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How Cute is a Baby Burro?

Baby animals are always pretty cute, but I’m not sure there are any as cute as a baby burro!

At our campsite in Why, Arizona, I could often hear the burros eeyore-ing off in the distance. So one evening, as the light started to get soft and golden, I decided to take a walk on a trail behind the campsite and see if I could find them.

Burro and Saguaro

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I walked for 10 or 15 minutes and then sure enough, I could hear them! But, they were back towards the campsite. So back I went, the way I came, and every time they eeyore-ed I adjusted my direction, picking my way through the cacti, to get closer.

Soon enough I found them, a whole herd of them, walking, eating and even playing! I kept my distance so as not to spook them, but followed them along in the direction they were going.

Arizona Burro

Pretty soon, I found myself back at the campsite and discovered where they were going. The baby pool! I saw a baby pool when we got to the campsite, but it never dawned on me that it was a drinking pool for the burros!!

Burros drinking from pool

As I was watching them all come to the pool, a little fluffy one ran out from between the adults!

Baby Burro

Since I had to look it up, I thought you might be curious too – a burro is a small donkey. They are no taller than an average human and weigh around 250 pounds.

I made all of these photos with my Sony NEX6 and the 55-210mm lens.

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Turn Point Lighthouse, Stuart Island, Washington

As you probably know by now, I love boating. Probably as much as I love photography. Sometimes I even get to combine the two.

I made this photo while boating this summer in Boundary Pass, which marks the border between Canada and the USA. The Turn Point Lighthouse marks the point where the border takes a sharp turn.

Turn Point Lighthouse by Anne McKinnell
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It doesn’t always look like this! This was a particularly calm and clear day when there was still quite a bit of snow on the Olympic Mountains in the background. I loved how the ocean was so smooth and soft in contrast to the rugged mountains.

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