Photography Student Questions and Answers

Are you a photography student working on a school project about interesting photographers? I'm frequently contacted by students (grade school, high school, and college/university) who want to learn more about my photography. Many of the questions I receive are very insightful and really make me think about how and why I create art. I try to respond to every inquiry that comes my way, since I know how important it is to support students while they are developing their skills.

In this blog article, you will find a list of questions from photography students and my answers. I hope the responses help provide some insight into my photography and creative process. The questions and answers are arranged into four groups: art and photography, photography gear/software/printing, the creative process, and general photography advice. If you have a question that isn't covered here, please don't hesitate to ask me a question.

Important note: My bio page also contains information about how and why I create art.

Rowena Sunrise

"Rowena Sunrise" The first rays of sunlight shining down over a field of Arrowleaf Balsamroot at Rowena Crest, Oregon in the Eastern Columbia River Gorge.

Student Questions and Answers: Art and Photography

Question: What is your favorite quote about photography or art?

Answer: I have 3 favorite photography/art quotes!

  • “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.” – Ansel Adams
  • “Not all photographs are meant to serve the same purpose and thus should not be judged by the same criteria” - Guy Tal
  • “Never be limited by other people's limited imaginations.” ― Mae C. Jemison

Question: Why do you create art?

Answer: Excellent question! Photography provides me with a medium to expressively communicate my feelings about experiences in the wilderness. Sometimes I find words are inadequate to describe these emotions, but photography provides a way for me to effectively express myself. My goal is to convey a feeling of peaceful calm through my photographs and to make the viewer feel some of that positive energy. I am passionate about creating large fine art prints of my photography and I am always excited when someone connects with my artistic vision and considers hanging a print on their wall.

Waiting and Wondering

"Waiting and Wondering" A beautiful Caribbean sunrise at a secluded beach in Tulum, Mexico.

Question: What is fine art photography?

Answer: Fine art photography is created by artists who use the medium of photography to expressively communicate an idea, mood, or emotion. This is quite different from documentary/representational photography, which is used to portray a subject in a literal and objective way. Documentary photography is all about the subject, whereas fine art photography is all about the artist and how they see the world.

Question: Which artists inspire you?

  • Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) - Painter who specialized in atmospheric landscape scenes
  • Carleton Watkins (1829-1916) - Early landscape photographer who influenced the National Parks movement
  • Ansel Adams (1902-1984) - Famous for black and white Grand Landscapes and promoting photography as fine art
  • Guy Tal - Creative artist who uses both photography and writing as forms of creative expression
  • Marc Adamus - Creative artist who creates impactful and dramatic wilderness images
  • Floris van Breugel - Creative artist who uses thoughtful compositions and brilliant use of light
Tangible Silence

"Tangible Silence” Fresh snowfall in a beautiful Ponderosa Pine forest in Central Oregon on a cold winter day.

Student Questions and Answers: Photography Gear, Software and Printing

Question: What types of cameras and lenses do you use?

Answer: I currently use a variety of professional grade, full frame Nikon dSLR and mirrorless camera bodies and Nikkor lenses. I also occasionally use drones for aerial photography. These cameras and lenses allow me to capture high resolution / high-definition photos that are ideal for creating large fine art prints. Since I use high quality cameras and lenses, the enlarged prints are not grainy or pixelated.

Question: What is the best camera for beginners?

Answer: Good cameras for beginners include: iPhones, point and shoots, and entry level digital SLR/mirrorless cameras. Ultimately it depends on what you want to do with your images after you capture them. If you want to make big prints to hang on the wall, a digital SLR/mirrorless camera is a good choice. If you will only be posting images online, an iPhone or a point and shoot camera are good choices.

Warm morning light and mountain ridges combine to create a beautiful arrangement of layers in the high desert of Southeastern Oregon.

"Stratification" Warm morning light and mountain ridges combine to create a beautiful arrangement of layers in the high desert of Southeastern Oregon.

Question: Is a Canon camera better than a Sony or Nikon camera?

Answer: In 2022, Canon, Nikon and Sony all make outstanding cameras and high quality images can be made with any brand. It's mostly comes down to personal preference.

Question: Do you use photoshop?

Answer: Yes. I use a combination of Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop to develop my images. I capture my images in the RAW file format, so they must be post processed before I can share them with my audience. Almost all photographers use photoshop to fine tune their images. Some use photoshop just a little and others use it much more. It depends on what you are trying to achieve with your art.

Question: Does good photography gear make you a better photographer?

Answer: Not necessarily. Gear does not improve your creativity, composition, or the light. It's only a tool to help you create art. A talented photographer/artist can create stunning images with any camera. It's important to learn how to use your gear so you can intuitively create unique images. After mastering the technical side of photography, it’s much easier to create artistic photos.

House of Stars

"House of Stars" A panoramic view of the Milky Way captured before sunrise at the summit of Haleakala in Maui, Hawaii.

Question: Are there any tools you use to plan your landscape photography shoots?

Answer: I use a variety of apps and websites to prepare for my landscape photo shoots or learn more about a location. For predicting the weather, I use several apps and websites including: Windy app (reasonably accurate forecasting worldwide), NOAA forecast discussion (local meteorologist’s rationale for the current US weather forecast), NOAA GOES Image Viewer (high resolution satellite imagery).

For location scouting, I use several apps including: The Photographers Ephemeris / Photo Pills (Sun/Moon scouting apps), Google Earth (location scouting app), ACME Mapper 2.2 (free high rez topo maps), Garmin Earthmate / Gaia GPS (GPS maps which can be used offline on iPhone/Android) and Stellarium+ (Night planning app for star/Milky Way locations).

Valediction

"Valediction" Mt Washington catches the first light of the day on a crisp (5 degrees F) winter morning.

Question: What is your favorite type of print?

Answer: In 2022, it seems like you can print on almost anything. I've tried many different types of prints and my favorites are: TruLife® Acrylic Prints, ChromaLuxe® Metal Prints and Fine Art Paper Prints. If you want to see my descriptions of each of these print types, you can check out my Limited Edition Fine Art Prints page.

Ice Lightning

"Ice Lightning" An abstract image of the ice crack formations and blowing snow on the surface of the frozen Abraham Lake, Alberta, Canada.

Student Questions and Answers: The Creative Process

Question: What is your creative approach to photography?

Answer: My goal is to use photography to expressively communicate my feelings about an experience in the wilderness. I view photography as a form of art and I focus on capturing the mood/emotion of a place rather than a literal translation. I spend time searching for strong compositions that interact with the light in a compelling way and try to create depth by using transitions to give my photos a 3D feel. I previsualize about 10% of my images and the other 90% are created by working with the conditions, the light and what I'm feeling inside at that moment.

Question: What is your approach to post processing?

Answer: I use a 2 step process each time I post process an image. Step 1 focuses on the science of photography. In this step, I am processing to overcome the limitations of the camera/lens using the following techniques: blending for dynamic range, focus stacking, merging panoramas and reducing noise in night images. Step 2 focuses on the art of photography. In this step, I use the post processing tools to expressively and creatively develop the image into a completed photograph. I don't use any presets or shortcuts since I want to have full control over the final image.

Awakening

"Awakening" Summer wildflowers and sunset alpenglow at Mt St Helens National Volcanic Monument.

Question: How would you describe your photographic style?

Answer: Vibrant, peaceful, landscapes.

Question: What makes a good photograph? / How do you make an appealing photograph?

Answer: I believe strong photographs contain several of the traits listed below. As the number of traits present in a photograph increase, it generally becomes a better photo.

  • Excellent composition
  • Light on the subject
  • Strong emotion, feeling or mood
  • Effective transitions
Sparkle and Fade

"Sparkle and Fade" Shimmering sunrise light illuminates a snow covered Mount Chephren in Banff National Park, Canada.

Question: What tips do you have for creating a good composition?

Answer: There are several compositional techniques that I use in my photos. Notice I did not call these compositional rules. There are no rules in art and sometimes breaking the rules can lead to a compelling photograph. When you are first starting out, these techniques can help provide a more structured approach to photographing in the field. Below is a list of compositional techniques to help get you started:

  • Leading Lines - Leading lines converge in the distance, which moves the eye into the scene and creates depth.
  • Transitions - Transitions can be used to create depth in an image (dark to light, cool to warm, large to small, etc).
  • Classic Near-far Compositions - Repeating objects give a sense of depth to the image.
  • Counter Point - Using two main points of interest in an image to keep the eye moving through the frame.
  • See in Threes - The eye/brain favors odd numbers of primary subjects in an image. Odd numbers keep the eye from subconsciously dividing the frame.
  • The Human Element - Including a person in the frame provides a sense of scale.
  • Framing - Frames the main subject and keeps the eye moving into the scene.
  • Layers - Layers can be used to create depth with telephoto lenses.
  • Atmosphere - Allows for the creation of depth in an image. Atmosphere increases as the distance from the camera increases.
  • Centered Compositions - One of my favorite compositions! Creating order in the chaotic natural world.
  • Abstracts - Images lack scale. Focus on shapes, lines, form.
Three dramatic, glaciated peaks pierce the sky in the fjords of Patagonian Chile.

"Fangs" Three dramatic, glaciated peaks pierce the sky in the fjords of Patagonian Chile.

Student Questions and Answers: General Photography Advice

Question: Did anything happen in your career that you wish you could have a "do over”?

Answer: Early in my career, I wish I would have not worried so much about whether people liked my photography. I view photography as art, and anything considered art is not going to be liked by everyone. I spent way too much time trying to create images I thought other people would like instead of focusing on what I enjoyed. These days, I create everything for myself. It's wonderful if people like my work, but if they don’t, it doesn’t bother me one bit.

Question: What advice do you have for new photographers who are just getting started?

Answer: Get out and practice as much as you can. It takes years to learn how to correctly capture images in the field and then post process them effectively. I've been shooting for about 12 years and I’m still learning new techniques. Practice really does make perfect. You need to know exactly what to do (and how to do it quickly) so you don’t miss capturing an image in the field.

Beautiful fall colors at the world famous Laceleaf Maple (Acer palmatum) Tree on a foggy autumn morning at the Portland Japanese Garden, Portland, Oregon.

“Pure Imagination”Beautiful fall colors at the world famous Laceleaf Maple (Acer palmatum) Tree on a foggy autumn morning at the Portland Japanese Garden, Portland, Oregon.

Question: How do you earn money through landscape photography?

Answer: There are several ways to make money through landscape photography including: print sales, image licensing, teaching photography workshops and commissioned photography for magazines or websites. For my business, I primarily earn money from print sales and image licensing agreements.

Question: What is your favorite photo from the start of your career?

Answer: “Alvord Desert Sunrise” (2010) This is one of the first photos I was truly happy with. I started photographing seriously in 2009 and spent the first couple years struggling to create photos which inspired me. This photo is the first time everything came together for me. It captures the feeling of solitude and calm I felt that morning. Compositionally, I used a near/far composition and the steam created some nice depth. I also photographed the scene early in the morning to get the soft and even light.

Alvord Desert Sunrise

"Alvord Desert Sunrise" Early morning light at Borax Hot Springs in the Alvord Desert of Oregon.

Question: What is one of your favorite recent photos

Answer: “Into Forever” (2021) This is a photo I created in 2021 and it's one of my recent favorites. It’s a photo from Maui, Hawaii which captures the essence of a tropical sunset in the islands. It’s colorful and relaxing and instantly gives me the feeling of sitting on the beach watching the sunset with my family. Compositionally, I used an “S” curve in the foreground water leading out to the ocean/sky and a “counter point” (the points are the palm tree and the sun) to balance the scene.

Gentle sunset light illuminates coconut palm trees and rocks at a secluded beach in Maui, Hawaii.

"into Forever" Gentle sunset light illuminates coconut palm trees, waves and sand at a secluded beach in Maui, Hawaii.

Question: What is your all-time favorite photo?

Answer: This is a difficult question for me to answer, since I really enjoy most of my photos, but I’ll go with “Above the Clouds” (2012). This photo captures everything I’m trying to achieve as an artist. One of the primary goals of my art/photography is to convey a peaceful and calm feeling through my work and I believe “Above the Clouds” achieves this goal. I created the photo in the mountains/wilderness, which are places I’m passionate about. My wife was sitting next to me that evening, making it even more special. I can also make beautiful prints of the photo which look great hanging on the wall. Compositionally, I used layers to create depth in the scene and give it an expansive, open feeling. There are 8 layers here if you look closely. Starting at the bottom there are red wildflowers, green plants, purple flowers, trees, distant ridge, clouds, mountain, and sky.

Above the Clouds

"Above the Clouds" Summer wildflowers (lupine and paintbrush) and sunset alpenglow on Mount Adams from the Goat Rocks Wilderness in Washington.

Question: What is your least favorite photo?

Answer: It's difficult for me to chose one! If I don’t like a photo, I usually take it off my website and it’s unlikely to be seen again. My choice is “The Stars Above” (2018). This photo is my least favorite, because I still can’t quite decide what I’m trying to say with the photo. I was a bit rushed on the morning I created the image, since I was late arriving at this spot. I feel I could have done much better with the composition if I had more time to evaluate different spots. I still have the photo on my website since I really like the light on the mountains and the stars. If I could do it all over again, I would have probably moved to a different spot on the lake and zoomed in more on the mountains and sky. I think a square composition with a small amount of the lake, the mountains and the sky/stars would have been more effective. Next time I’ll get a better night/twilight photo from this area!

Question: What is your favorite mountain range to photograph?

Answer: My favorite mountain ranges are the Andes (Chile, Argentina - Patagonia), Cascades (Oregon, Washington, British Columbia) and Rockies (Canada, United States).

Question: Where in the world did you take the pictures in your "Coastlines" gallery?

Answer: I capture images all over the world. I live in Oregon and capture many images in the Pacific Northwest, but I have also been to Iceland, Patagonia (Chile, Argentina), Hawaii, Mexico, Canada, Washington, Idaho, California, and Arizona.

Kiwanda Light

"Kiwanda Light" Sunrise light and a large wave crashing into the sandstone at Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area on the Oregon coast.

Question: What are the top 3 items to consider when designing a photographic portfolio?

Answer:

  1. You need a common theme between all the images in the portfolio. You can create a portfolio of images of certain subjects (ex/: mountains, waterfalls, oceans, etc), locations, time periods, or characteristics (ex/: black and white, high contrast/high saturation, low contrast/low saturation, specific colors, etc).
  2. The images all need to be strong to belong in a portfolio. Only your best work should show up in a portfolio. You must learn to be honest with yourself to determine how good an image actually is before placing it into a portfolio.
  3. Have someone you know and trust take a look at the portfolio and ask them for feedback. Sometimes a fresh set of eyes is exactly what you need to make a strong portfolio of images.

Question: Are you a successful photographer?

Answer: I'll let you be the judge of that! I'm 12+ years into my photographic journey and feel like I’m just getting started!

Question: Do you have an assistant or do you work alone, and why?

Answer: I work alone. Maybe in the future I will have an assistant to help with things that I don’t have time to do.

After the Storm

"After the Storm" Sunset light illuminating Mount Jefferson above an alpine lake and wildflowers in the Cascade Range of Oregon.

Question: How did you get started in photography?

Answer: In the mid 2000s I was doing a lot of backpacking and hiking in my free time. I would often bring a point and shoot camera along on these journeys, so I could share the photos with friends and family when I returned home. I really enjoyed photographing nature, but quickly became frustrated by the disconnect between what the camera captured versus what I experienced in the wilderness. In 2008, I stumbled across the stunning landscape photography of Marc Adamus and I decided to focus on improving my photography skills. After studying Marc's work, I realized the best way to improve was to start learning landscape photography techniques and to upgrade my equipment to a digital SLR camera and lenses. After many years of practice (and lots of frustration), I learned the key elements of composition and how to use camera field techniques and processing methods to give my images depth and 3 dimensionality. I also learned how to read the weather and the light to determine the best times to photograph my subjects. After obtaining these skills, I noticed I could finally use my photography to communicate the emotions I experienced while traveling through the wilderness. In 2022, I continue to refine my creative process and artistic vision.

Triumph

"Triumph" Early morning light shines upon a mountain and small stream in the backcountry of Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.

Question: Did you formally study photography in College / University?

Answer: I did not formally study photography in college. When I was in elementary school, I did a few summer photography camps at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, but otherwise I don't have any formal training. I'm mostly self-taught, with a lot of help from other photographers I know and respect.

Question: Why do you choose to work with primarily landscapes?

Answer: I photograph subjects I know well and love (nature) and I try to show viewers my unique perspective. I am drawn to the beauty, emotions and moods of nature and my goal is to expressively communicate my feelings about these experiences. I seek to establish meaningful connections with the places and subjects I photograph and aspire to show the viewer why these places are important to me and why they are worth preserving for future generations. I enjoy landscape photography immensely and often find myself in a state of "flow" when creating in the field or developing images. The flow state is a desirable position for creatives where they are fully engaged and immersed in their work and time often seems to just melt away.

The Milky Way and billions of stars rise above Mt Hood and a beautiful lavender field at Lavender Valley Farms in Hood River, Oregon.

"Lavender Dreams" The Milky Way and billions of stars rise above Mt Hood and a beautiful lavender field at Lavender Valley Farms in Hood River, Oregon.

Question: Do you live in a place surrounded by nature? If so, does it motivate you to go out and shoot?

Answer: I'm fortunate to live in Portland, Oregon which is completely surrounded by beautiful landscape photography locations. I can travel a few hours in any direction and be at a stunning location (mountains, rainforests, waterfalls, coastlines, deserts). The easy access motivates and inspires me to visit these places often.

Question: What's the most difficult encounter you've had when shooting nature photography?

Answer: My most difficult nature photography encounter involved shooting frozen waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge. After a powerful winter storm dropped 10-12 inches of snow in the area, I decided to make a trip to the Gorge to photograph the waterfalls and streams. The cold temperatures (15-20 degrees F) created very challenging conditions for photography. The main problem was that if something got wet, it would immediately freeze (tripods, cameras, boots, waders, etc). After 5 minutes of shooting in a stream, my tripod froze up and I could no longer adjust it. To make matters worse, while standing in the water (with waders on), I noticed my feet were starting to feel wet. Not good...my waders were leaking! Once my feet went numb, it was clear that it was time to go, since toes are much more important than images! This was one of my most memorable trips to the Gorge. I learned a lot about photographing in cold weather and also got a new pair of waders!

Inspired by the stunning Iceland aerial photographs by Haraldur Diego (aka Volcano Pilot) this black sand abstract focuses on form, texture and flow.

"Origins" Inspired by the stunning Iceland aerial photographs by Haraldur Diego (aka Volcano Pilot) this black sand abstract focuses on form, texture and flow.

Final Thoughts

Thanks for reading my answers to photography student questions! I hope you found the information in this article useful. I'm always happy to support students who are just getting started in photography. Publishing this article is a way for me to give back to the art form that has enriched my life so deeply. If you have a question which I didn't cover, you can contact me here - Ask Scott a Question.

Updated: 3/26/2022

Sunset alpenglow illuminates Mount Adams and a field of summer wildflowers (lupine and paintbrush) in the Goat Rocks Wilderness...

Above the Clouds

Sunset alpenglow illuminates Mount Adams and a field of summer wildflowers (lupine and paintbrush) in the Goat Rocks Wilderness of Washington. I'm often asked which photograph from my galleries is my favorite. It's difficult for me to pick one, but this photo has emerged as my favorite, since it captures everything I’m trying to achieve as an artist. There are three reasons why this photo is so special to me: 1) The primary goal of my art is to convey a peaceful and calm feeling to the viewer, and I believe “Above the Clouds” achieves this objective. 2) I created the photo in the wilderness, which is a place I’m passionate about. 3) My wife was sitting next to me that evening, which makes it even more meaningful.

Fine Art Limited Edition of 100 - ©2012 by Scott Smorra