Finding the Essence of a Subject

The Large Dunes at Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley CA
The Large Dunes at Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley CA

One of the most important – if not the most important – skill in photography is composition.  It is the sine qua non in making a photograph.  When working with a skilled photographer or teacher, I am always asking them, “what do you see?  How would you compose this shot? What am I not seeing in the subject?”  In philosophy, essence is the attribute that makes something what it fundamentally is.  Finding this essence in photography makes the difference between good and great photos.

When we were in Death Valley a couple of weeks ago, Mary and I walked southeast from the parking lot at the Mesquite Dunes near Stovepipe Wells.  Most people walk straight at the largest dunes and climb them.  As a photographer, we wanted, and needed clean dunes and these were off to the right.  If you have never walked in the desert, you may not know how hard it is to judge distance.  The dunes always look so close, but are often times a mile or more away from you.  We stopped a ways back and used our telephotos.

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 With each shot, I zoomed in to create a cleaner and cleaner composition with less clutter and subjects.

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The more I zoomed in, the more abstract the composition.  It became about the shapes and the shadows.

My final and favorite composition
My final and favorite composition

You can always crop your original photo later in processing, but you lose megapixels and you loose the feeling of discovery that you experience in the field as you work a subject.  I usually “see” in 24 mm wide angle.  Mary usually “sees” in 70-200 telephoto.  In this case, having a telephoto and a far subject drew me closer and closer.  My eyes originally did not see this composition, but I discovered it as I worked the subject at various focal lengths.

Finally, here is a good reminder to all us, again.  Always ask yourself the John Shaw questions:

Why am I taking this photograph?  What do I want to show the viewer?

1.  Have I chosen a good subject, out of all that are available to me?

2.  Is this good light for this subject?

3.  Is there a pleasing background?

4.  Have I made a pleasing composition?

5.  Am I sure about my choices?

Which dune photo do you like best?  It depends on how you like to see.

Here is our popular blog on how to photograph sand.

Here is a plan to photograph the key sites in Death Valley in a weekend.

To see more of our photographs, please go to


  1. Loretta

    These 5 tips are some of the best I’ve come across. I get so excited about a subject, that I don’t stop to consider and wind up with less than I thought I saw. Thank you!

    1. pamphotography

      Loretta, thanks for the note. Own teacher Jack Graham always reminds us to slow down to go fast. i am like you, I get so excited that I kind of fall over myself. I have to remember to breathe, relax, and take it slower to get better photos. Thanks

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