Creativity Doesn’t Always Follow the Rules

Waterfalls are easily one of my favorite natural features and favorite things to photograph. I enjoy them so much that I even authored an eBook called The Essential Guide to Photographing Waterfalls back in 2011. In it, I share a number of tips and recommendations, one of which is that generally I prefer to photograph waterfalls on overcast days, when cloud cover softens the harsh contrast of glittery water flowing over dark rocks.

Well some rules are meant to be broken and this is one of them. Given the right conditions, the right setting, and the right tools you can create beautiful waterfall images when the sun is shining.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Smoky Mountains, Great Smoky Mountains, national park, waterfall, Tennessee
Waterfall in Sunlight : Prints Available

The sun shines through a canopy of trees framing a waterfall in the Great Smoky Mountains.

I took this photo while visiting the Great Smoky Mountains with photographer Greg Downing in Tennessee back in 2013. It had rained hard the previous day, and I was excited to go find a good waterfall to photograph because I knew they would be flowing. By the time we reached these falls, the weather had improved by normal standards, but it proved tricky for waterfall photography. It was partly cloudy and breezy, which meant the slow shutter speeds I would typically use the blur the moving water would also show any movement in the leaves from the wind. It also meant the light kept changing, from full sun, to partial sun, to complete cloud cover. I took a lot of shots from different angles, trying different techniques, hoping to capture something memorable.

For this image, I snapped the shutter as the sun emerged from behind the clouds, purposefully allowing highlight details to blow out. I was aiming for the bright, fresh feeling of spring, which I think translates well. It took several years of reworking this shot to get it to the point where I feel comfortable sharing it, but even if it isn’t the best waterfall shot I’ve taken I like how its so different from many of my other photos of similar subjects.

Never Delete Potential

One of the most challenging things about being a photographer is editing down your photos and keeping them organized. My collection of photographs spans more than 20,000 images, and I’ve probably shot over a million frames to get them. After a shoot, I make it a point to delete all of the garbage as soon as possible. I then usually select my favorite images – the ones that obviously stand out as being something special. But in between the obvious junk and the obvious winners are a bunch of in-between photos, ones that are neither incredible nor terrible, and these can be the hardest to work with.

Of my 20,000+ image collection, roughly 250 photos are currently displayed on my website and not all of those are the clear winners that emerge immediately following a successful shoot. Many of those photos are ones that have been played with, set aside, and reworked over and over again. Sometimes, I’m not in the right headspace to edit them correctly when I first shoot them. Sometimes, they are technically challenging photos with extreme dynamic range, funky color balance, or any other number of issues that take a while to work through correctly. During a particularly successful shoot, I might have a lot of good but very similar images, and I generally only pick a handful of those to work up. Occasionally, I haven’t yet mastered the skill, the technology doesn’t yet exist, or I don’t possess the software I need to really bring out that photo’s full potential. There can be any number of reasons why a good photo doesn’t make my first cut or first edit.

If a photo isn’t good, it’s okay to delete it. Sometimes I keep bad photos for their sentimental value or uniqueness – for example, when we first got our dog I took a lot of photos of him playing outside and many of them were a little backfocused but I held onto them until I later got better ones – but in general, do away with anything that is misfocused, unintentionally blurry, or poorly composed, especially if to the point that it won’t even hold up for web display. Some photos are just bad. If you like a photo, but the exposure or color are just a bit off, it’s a little noisy, or some other fixable detail makes you take pause, then hold onto it. Some day you may possess the skill, patience, time, or technology to turn that photo into something special. I often spend shooting lulls going through old photos and working on ones that have potential to see what I can make of them. It helps me “do photography” when I’m not actively shooting and creating new images.

Here is one such photo. It’s kinda an extreme example, but you get the idea. I shot this years ago, but only recently processed to the point where I’m actually happy with it. As you can see, it needed quite a bit of tweaking from the RAW file to really bring out its potential.

clouds, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica, rocky, beach, dusk
Last Light on the Clouds : Prints Available

The fading colors of the setting sun illuminate the clouds over the rocky beach at dusk.

Picking the Right Size Print

I’m not an art consultant or interior designer, but I do know a thing or two about choosing and displaying photographs on walls.

Many people struggle over picking out the right art to enhance their living or work space. They focus on picking pieces with colors and a frame that matches their furniture or compliments their rug, often overlooking one of the most important aspects of buying art to fit a specific space – size and spacing.

In order for artwork to have a meaningful impact it needs to be the right size and have the right proportions. Art should complement the other objects in the room, either filling the space provided for it or purposefully juxtaposing the area in inhabits. A too small picture looks incredibly out of place over a giant couch, and a horizontal image doesn’t work well in a vertical space.

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Art that is the wrong size just doesn’t work, no matter how beautiful it is. This image of St Marys Falls is way too small for my office, and it looks out of awkward and out of place even though its nicer than the drooping banner and wrinkled poster on either side. The poster to the right is a much better fit for the amount of wall space and large bricks.

Photographs, like wall mounted TVs, also need to be hung at the right height. Too high and they make a space look unfinished and incomplete, too low and they are awkward to look at. In general, photographs hung on blank walls should be centered at around eye level. Since people vary in height, a good rule of thumb is 60-66″ from the floor to the center of the photo. This of course varies with artwork that is long and vertical or artwork hanging near or around other objects, such as furniture or over a fireplace.

My advice when purchasing a photo:

1) Don’t skimp on size. Too big is almost always better than too small. Unless you have a clutter free home and very minimalist decorating style where empty space is a thematic design element, art that is too small for the space it occupies will nearly always look cheap.
2) Prioritize proper proportions. Many people spend a lot of time matching colors when they should be focused on balanced proportions. If you are one of those folks who have a long sectional couch, don’t put an oddly tall rectangular art piece over it. This is where a panoramic image or triptych really stands out. If you are hanging artwork over furniture, it is generally recommended that artwork should be 2/3 to 3/4 the length of the piece of furniture in order to provide the right balance, although I think you can play around with those numbers a bit.
3) Don’t forget the frame. If you plan on matting or framing your art, keep in mind that this will not only add size to the finished piece, but will also change the proportions slightly. For example a 20×40 inch photo with has a ratio of 1:2 without a frame, but if you add framing that is 3 inches thick, the overall artwork becomes 26×46 inches with a ratio of closer to 1:1.4. Plan for the frame when buying your piece.

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Art that is proportional to other objects in a space makes the space feel balanced. This photograph has a similar amount of above and below it as it does from side to side and is a litle less wide than the small couch.

If you aren’t sure what size to buy, I suggest creating a mock up. It may sound silly and it certainly takes a little time, but the 10-15 minutes and inexpensive supplies this exercise involves are definitely worth it, especially if you are considering spending upwards of several hundred dollars on art for your home or office. Here’s what you’ll need:

1) Large piece of paper or cardboard. This can really be any material, as long as it is big enough to represent the artwork. If you are considering a really big piece you might want to use something larger or more durable, like a thin sheet of plywood, but for smaller pieces cardboard, foam core, or wrapping paper should be sufficient.
2) Measuring tape.
3) Straight edge.
4) Scissors, box cutter, or any tool sufficient to cut clean edges of the material you are using.
5) Hanging supplies. Painter’s tape is perfect for lightweight materials, because it leaves no residue on the walls.

You can go about this one of two ways. Either start by making the mock up the size of the artwork you are considering, or design the mock up to be the ideal size and then find art that closely matches. Essentially you are going to make a cardboard cutout of the art and hang it in the space you envision it. If supplies are limited, start big and gradually trim your stencil down until you get the ideal size. You’ll quickly get an idea of how the size of the artwork plays with its surroundings.

Adding art to your home is a beautiful way to make a space feel lived in and loved, and in a work setting art can help liven up dull spaces and make them feel welcoming. Resist the temptation to buy art you love in a smaller size to keep the price affordable. Make your investment count by choosing art that compliments the space it is given. If you really must stretch a tiny budget, buy something big, inexpensive, and mass produced from a box store like Ikea to fill the space temporarily, then save up for a truly incredible piece by your favorite artist in the right size that will last for years to come. You won’t regret it.

PS: I really love articles by interior designer Emily Henderson and she did a great one about hanging art. Check it out for many awesome examples of art that is the right size and art that isn’t, as well as additional tips on how to measure and select properly sized pieces.