Skip to main content

Another Look with Art Wolfe

Lesson 4 of 5

Abstract Nature Photography Critique

Art Wolfe

Another Look with Art Wolfe

Art Wolfe

Starting under


Get access to this class +2000 more taught by the world's top experts

  • 24/7 access via desktop, mobile, or TV
  • New classes added every month
  • Download lessons for offline viewing
  • Exclusive content for subscribers

Lesson Info

4. Abstract Nature Photography Critique

Lesson Info

Abstract Nature Photography Critique

People have come to us and want to have their work critiqued. But I'm always in Timbuktu or in Deli or, or, or. And so, over the next three months I've decided to travel less. I'm having a minor operation which means I have to be home. And so, during that time, I've decided to open myself up and my time up to critique portfolios and, there's various levels. I mean, we are charging for it but there are various amounts of slides. And you can do everything from a Skyped interview, a one-on-one, to less formal. And so, come to our website and take a look. And, I'm not quite sure where within that website. But, I think you'll find it pretty fast. So, with nature and wildlife, we're gonna start off with this image as it comes up. And it's, it's kind of a confusing category I think for a lot of people. I'm traveling around in the last couple of years teaching a full day seminar called photography as art. And it is mostly about abstract. But it's connecting abstract expressionism and art movem...

ents to photography. And we do a lot of work in degraded environments around the world. You know. We're pulling beautiful images out of the decay. Now, with, within the nature abstract there's less work to be seen. There's less work to be mined. And I think it reflects that in the seven or eight images that we'll be taking about. And you could consider, you know, a tight shot of a flower as an abstract. And in fact Ernst Haas did amazing work with flowers and details where you weren't even sure what part or what flower you're looking at. This is a, an image that I, as I look at it, the first instinct that I would have, is to take this image and make it a vertical. So I'm gonna click onto photo, and just rotate it counterclockwise. And to me I look at this image, and I might even then, as I look at that, flip it horizontal. Let me look at that now. And this work was submitted with a white border. And I kinda wanna get rid of that because it's kinda overwhelming. So I'm just taking that border and saying goodbye to it. Okay. So let's look at that image. So as a vertical, there's more verticality in that image, whether it was shot that way or not. I think it reads better this way. I'm gonna take down the highlights a little bit and open up the shadows. And we talked about vignetting in one of the questions. I think this image probably would benefit from a little bit of vignetting. So, I, go to this healing brush. I think it's called the healing brush. As I say before, I'm not an expert on LightRoom. But let's just see what happens when we, let's okay. With very light subjects, you cannot go too far before it starts to affect the image. And when I did that, I noticed it went a little green. So I'm pulling the tint slightly to the right towards the magenta. And I'm gonna again darken it a little bit because I want the center of this flower, which is argumentatively the darkest part to be contributing to the shot. There's not a lot I can do with this image. I think the benefit of it is, at least the photographer got in on a level where they truly are intentionally abstracting the image. The other really wise choice was to photograph it in soft light. All too often people photograph flowers with really bright sunshiney conditions. And it overwhelms the soft color palette of most flowers. So the color and the shade, or the lighting of this image really works. And it looks like a not a daffodil, but a, what's that, a narcissus. Am I right on that? I think. Maybe. Any rate, the details that are going within the center of it, I think, are the most critical thing. And maybe even a tighter shot towards that might even make it even more abstract. Because it's that really jagged edge of these petals in the middle that become more engaging to me. I, there's very little that I can do with that image. But that's what I would do with that photograph. When I look at this image, over the years we, we tried to play with subjects and engage them on different levels. And taking longer exposures. And moving the camera up and down has been done quite a bit now. And so this is a variation on that theme. I think it's fairly effective because there's a luminescence that happens with these young trees. This looks like it's photographed in a forest that was replanted and so all the trees are the same age. There's a beautiful symmetry to the horizontal lines that are running countered by those verticals. So those horizontal limbs on the vertical trunks all work to the benefit of this image. I think having a few of the trees surrounding by darker areas bring them forward and creates then a sense of depth. So, there's a rhythm to this image and a luminescence that is conveyed by the choice of moving the camera slightly during the process of the shutter, exposure. It's a very balanced image. So I look at it. My eye navigates evenly throughout the entire image. There's no one area that pulls my eye away from the rest of it. So I would say this is fairly successful. With this image, I think the, the water droplets in both of these areas work. I think that, I wanna change the exposure a little bit. I'm gonna take the exposure down a little bit and I already look like I forgot to reset this. So let me reset this. This is the way the original image came in. And so I think that that sharpness of the blue and the orange, which are complimentary colors, actually overwhelm the disrupted water, whether it was a rain drop that hit the water or not, I think softening that exposure will help open up our vision to the water droplets. And perhaps a crop. Making it a little tighter. I wanna kind of get over that edge that is overwhelming the texture of the water. Bring it in a little bit. Still retain some of the blue and the orange. But I wanna bring more attention to the subtleties of the disrupted surface of the pond. Yeah. There's not much more that I would do with this image. Perhaps darken it. Let's take a look at it now. So yeah, that's what I wind up with. As I said in the last statement, or the section, what I try to do is retain the essence of what you as photographers were after when you took the picture. In some cases, there's not much I would do as evidenced before. And sometimes I'm radically altering it. But in these particular ones, there's not much I would change. I, look at this image, now we're gonna make it full-frame. I think this image is very hard for me to read because I think it's been processed quite a bit. I like the balance of the image. And there's texture in it. I want to know exactly what I'm looking at. Is it detail of moss in a, and, I can't quite tell what it is because the shadows and the light and and maybe also the sharpness of the image. Let's look at the numbers if there's any up here. Yeah there's no detail whatsoever on how that was shot. What the ISO was. So it doesn't give me too much to go on. And let me, why am I off center here? Let's see. What have I done? Okay. That's better. So, as I look at this mystery image to me my eye navigates evenly through it. I can tell it's sharp. I can tell that the photographer really zoomed in on an abstract. So it really is conveyed. But I also wanna be let in on the secret. I wanna be in on it. So when I do abstracts of bark and lichens, and any subject I might choose in nature, and try to make it, I wanna draw you in. For instance, beautiful lines within an old stump are, is a great subject because within those grains of wood can be hidden faces which we would call metaphoric. In this particular case, there's nothing metaphoric. There's an image in here. But the very fact that it's been processed and is not as sharp as I would like, I can't quite get the scale. And that opens up more questions than I wanna answer. And so, let me, I'm not quite sure why this is jumping when I hit the, oh well. I guess I can grab this. See I wanted to hit fit. So what we did is we kind of hid some of these things but I'm seeing it's maybe trapping me. So what I would also think as another alternative lastly on this image is just to open it up and maybe make it just simply a vertical image. And again it becomes less, I still want it to be sharp. But I see this really operating as an abstract without that gray area in the middle that we see in the previous incarnation. So perhaps that's the best thing I could do. That one area kind of draws my attention because it's not like the rest of the image so that's where my eye goes. And in an abstract, that's not exactly what I'm after. You know, I want the entirety of the image. So, yeah. When working with an abstract, do you, you're saying you want to give some clues in your images to what you're looking at when it comes to nature. But do you not feel that at some point leaving it open up to interpretation of the viewer almost like a Rorschach or a you know, just leaving it wide open? Or maybe leaving it as that person did, leaving the clue in the title is maybe sometimes appropriate? Maybe if you left it in a title you are letting the audience in on the perspective. I think that, I did an entire book called Vanishing Act, where I hid the animal in plain sight in front of you, but ultimately I wanted always for people to find the animal. So that, as I said before, we're communicators. We can do all sorts of things with hiding the subject in front of you. Or taking abstracts. But ultimately at the end of the process I want 'em to know what I shot. If it's totally open ended, they walk away more confused. So I think you can shoot total abstracts but give them a little bit of clue as to scale or subject. I want them to walk away with that satisfaction that they got what I was after. And if it's completely confusing, it's not about, my communication is less realized. That's my opinion on that. So that's the frustration I felt with that. I can look at almost any subject and really figure out what it is. And I would love that journey to figuring what it is. But if it, in this particular case, had it been tech sharp, I probably would have known the scale. So they don't have to tell me anything more. But just the way it's been processed. Maybe it was shot with a low-end camera. There's so much work on it that it kind of overrides the kind of detail that that kind of an image needs. Does that make sense to you? It's a good question. But I think that's the answer is, make it as obscure as possible but give us that last detail that let's us unlock that mystery. Because it's a process. I talked about horizons and straightening out horizons. Well in an image like this, we read things. I mean us as humans, read verticals. Whether you're aware of it or not, we are so programed to see things in a line, verticals. But also horizons. And in a water abstract like this there we, it's at an angle, so what I do with a lot of my reflections is make sure that the lateral movement of the water is also correct. So that's the cue that I'm reading in that image. And you could argue if you totally wanna make it, you know, as dramatic as possible you would do that. But, when you look at that, you know it's off. Your head is kind of tilting to try to right it. So it's abstract enough just to have it as water. And so I'm lining up those vertical sweeps of the water. And it can be, and I'll close this, so we can make it as large as you want. And I love the blue and the orange are natural complimentary colors. So that works. And so complimentary colors, when, they're opposites on the color wheel. Blue and orange. Yellow and purple. And red and green. And so there's a vibration that occurs between these color combinations. It excites the rods and cones in our eyes. And that's one of the reasons that many master painters incorporated a lot of times complimentary colors in their color palette. The impressionist painters did it all the time. So that as a subject really works in this particular case. But, I think, changing the alignment of this image helps this image out a lot. And, it's nice that I use the term impressionist painters because when I look at this image I think of impressionist painters. I think of Claude Monet and how he did a lot of water shots in his paintings. But right now I think there's two things fighting against this image. A, I think it's very contrasting and dark. And so what I'm gonna do is crop it into a panoramic. Which simplifies the complexity of the image. But it still allows the essence of the reflections. And then I'm gonna brighten up the exposure. I still have retained a lot of the leaves to give scale to the image if that's what the photographer wanted I'm gonna be faithful to that. But now there's a rhythm. And notice where I cropped this. I'm framing the edge of that with a dark trunk. And that holds your eye in. If I just added that, that little bit of bright area surrounded by dark brings unwarranted notice. So, I usually crop harnessing the eye and retaining the eye in there. And I'm also aligning these verticals. So it's still an abstract. But I think in this particular case less is more. And I think it's easier to read this. And yet is still faithful to the beauty of the reflections, the color palette, and then the foreground leaves gives scale and perspective to the image. So I think it changes this image quite dramatically but it makes it a lot easier to read. And going back to the original. You can see how the darkness of it. There's just so much going on. I've simplified the image. Now this is a pretty simple image. This is a edge of a wall. Probably a sandstone along the ocean. And you can see tiny little barnacles. But they're so small in the frame that they really sit back as a texture element. I would argue that maybe tightening up this composition a little bit and still retaining these beautiful lines in the sandstone. But by scale then, you're allowing the barnacles or the sea to be that story. Letting people in on scale. You, this image could operate complete on an abstract level going to our point. Or it could be still an abstract that shows a little bit of context to what you're looking at. And you could have it both ways on that. 'Cause one way or the other we know it's a sandstone wall. And it's still flat enough and textural that it's an intentional, it's drawing people in because it's not a typical landscape. Right? You talked about complimentary colors several times. Not just abstract photography but in nature how much do you apply your knowledge, your background as, from painting, how much of that applies to your photography? Or gives you an advantage knowing the complimentary colors and working in the nature? So how do you apply that and how important is it? How I apply that is, I'm, you know, as I'm walking, I'm a broad based photographer. You know, I don't shoot weddings. Or bar mitzvahs. Or graduations. But abstracts in cities to wildlife to portraiture, to landscapes. I have a very broad interest. And the part of that came from my training as a painter. I was always kind of inspired to open up and broaden my perspective and it's served me well. I'm just as excited to go out and shoot tomorrow as I was 35 years ago. And that's a good thing. 'Cause you never wanna run out of ideas and inspiration. But, when I'm out, I've got all these kind of things in the back of my head. You know, graphic design. And elements of design. Texture. Pattern. Line. I know cultures. I'm well traveled and so I have a broad range of subjects that I can draw from. And one of those visual cues that I'm always on the hunt for is color combinations. Because I know that if I, like what we saw earlier today, was a red and green wall that we're right juxtaposed. That I instantly know becomes a more exciting subject than perhaps an orange and green wall, which doesn't quite work on that same vibration. So we want to excite the retinas in our eyes. It's one more element that becomes more graphically interesting to us, whether you could articulate it or not. It is unquestionably something that people respond to. Color matters. And complimentary colors excite. So I'm using every element that I can draw in to make a shot much more exciting to you. Or have an emotional impact to you. And complimentary colors are one. The alignment of lines also excite our eyes. You know, there's entire groups of artists that all they do is study the effect of alignment of lines that are, you know, aligned. And that has an affect on our eyes. And you would know that if you watch tv and you ever see somebody wearing a suit that the lines are so tight suddenly the tv is kind of vibrating to your own eye. That's what happens. And we're always counseled to wear fairly solid colors when we're on tv because the tv has a hard time picking up those fine lines that are closely aligned. But in photography I'm looking for things like that. Anything that gives my subject one more element to work with I'm after, and color is one of them. Okay? It was long answer for a short question. Nearly every image you've shown is, you've brought down the highlights. So I'm wondering if we have a tendency to over-expose images and should we stop down? So you know, the answer is, not only am I taking the highlights down, but I'm opening up the shadows. Then I'm going to whites and darks. And you would think that then I'm overriding everything I've done in the first two. The highlights and the shadows. But in fact, they slightly do different things. I know this because Eric Chan, who is responsible for the developmental module in LightRoom, has been my roommate when we've been up in the Arctic. And I've asked him expressly, "Eric, what are you doing with this and why are you doing it?" And he would explain it. So I would not advocate underexposing. But, generally in any scene, even in this room, there's highlights and there's shadows. And we're kind of exposing for the in between. We're always, a camera is designed if you're exposing for the in between, you are getting the vast majority of the image in front of you well exposed. Then by doing that, the highlights are naturally a little blown out. So by taking down the highlights we're taking down and trying to, making sure the highlights are not blown out. So no, don't underexpose your images. Stay the course. Use LightRoom or some other post processing, you know, a lot of people use Capture One. I'm not really trying to sell LightRoom to you but it is in fact a very good tool for somebody like me who's not technical I get fairly proficient in using that. When do you, how do decide when to sort of maintain that original crop factor size versus sort of unlocking it and going to something different? So, first and foremost, I'm cropping a lot to show and make an image a little more graphic and simple. Just because I think the photographers are you know, most photographers see a subject, and they aim the camera at it, and as they become better and better at composing it becomes naturally tighter and to the point. But most people see a subject and they instantly aim the picture at the horse in the field. And it's usually too loose. It's usually less realized and graphic. So I'm using the crop in this particular case to show you what to do next time around when you pick up the camera. Because I'm not really advocating cropping. I'm advocating shoot it right the next time around. So the crop is just a tool for educating. But, the question then lies, when would I not use a 35 millimeter crop. There's a lot of images that are benefiting by the panoramic format. A lot of images benefit. You know, it's been are, kind of somewhat arbitrary that we wound up with a four by six and a two by three 35 millimeter crop. Somebody made those decisions a very long time ago. But that's been the agreed upon format for the vast majority of photographers. So what I would argue that a square crop is not a 35 millimeter. And therefore I know the person that shot that shot cropped it, and I would rather have them shoot it maybe better the first time around. And maybe think well a square format better serves this image. And all I see is a crop. So I want people to shoot faithful to the format of the camera and make adjustments at the time they take the picture. Going back and, as we look, let's turn on the crop right here. And if we go down and this arrow has mind of its own but we'll hit that. And if you go down here. These are all different formats. But all of these down here are basically panoramics. But they're only three out of about, well, there's actually about five here. There's probably about ten different camera systems that have different panoramic formats. So I'm less concerned trying to be faithful to one or the other. If it looks good in the frame, I'm going to stick with it. We sell a lot of panoramics as prints. And, that's where I stand on that. But usually if it's a 35 millimeter, I try to make it 35 millimeter. Now let's get back to this image. This image is a square format. And, you make come away from today and say, "Well, Art's a nice guy but he's got a little bit of a hangup on these things." (laughing) Which may be, well be true. But, so I'm gonna crop it in like this. And then I'm gonna go and, hit 35 millimeter, and that's what a 35 millimeter is. So, all right. That's pretty tight. But where's the energy of this image. It really lies in the connection between these two baboons. They're in captivity. They're hugging each other for security. They're in a foreign environment. I don't want that square dark. I don't like the square format so I'm letting go of that. I'm gonna hit that. And so then, I'm gonna say, I'm gonna use the vignetting since we brought that up before. And I'm gonna increase this brush size. Make it a little larger. And then I'm gonna darken this. So it's at minus 43. So that may be too dark. Or it may be just right. So I'm gonna darken all the way around this to bring greater emphasis to the connection between these two animals. And then, you know, there's detail in captive environment so I'm gonna black that out. I don't necessarily want any of that detail. And that's the way I look at this image. I would say, you know, there's that connection between the two. They're clinging to each other for security. The rest of the detail around that is extraneous and it looks obviously post cropped. And I want people to think this is the way I saw it.

Class Description

Join legendary wildlife and conservation photographer Art Wolfe, as he critiques a select group of nature photographs. In this curated review, you'll get expert insight into improving your work in the field and through post-processing so you can begin capturing unforgettable images of the world.

Art critiques images in the following categories:

  • Wildlife
  • Landscapes
  • Abstract Nature Photography
  • Portraits and Travel


Sal Ahmed Photography

Nice to have well known and our local world famous Art Wolfe to critiques our works.Glad to have a chance to have him critique my Hummigbird image with a top score. Is like to me winning an award. Thanks Creative live for the opportunity.

Tanya Lillie

What an amazing opportunity to learn from a master. Thank you Art Wolfe for sharing your expertise and teaching us to simply take "Another Look." Thank you Creative Live for yet another great session.

Bob & Lorraine

Outstanding class with Art Wolfe's critique of student's work. Thrilled one of our images (Snowy Egret) was selected, honored Art felt it needed no other cropping and even though it was one of the last images reviewed and short on time, would have loved to hear if the image required any other adjustment. Will try Art's "Highlights down, Shadows up" in Lightroom Classic to see if the image looks any better.