Viewing aurora (or Northern Lights) in Alaska © Michael DeYoung

Do you struggle with becoming more creative as a photographer and coming up with original and compelling landscape images? You are not alone. Rest assured, you can boost your creative skills without meditation, taking hallucinogenic substances, practicing yoga, or going on a month-long retreat in Bhutan.

Don’t get me wrong. All of those things mentioned above can lead to sharpened mental clarity and creativity and sometimes improved health too. I’m just pointing out that you don’t have to resort to those measures to develop your art of seeing.
So, how do I get better ideas? Can I buy some online? Oh, this is always so tough to answer and convey. And a confession – I often struggle with thinking of fresh and creative ideas. I think that’s normal, even for very creative people. The first thing is to find inspiration.


“To be original, you do not have to be first, you just have to be different and better” – Adam Grant




Tip 1: Look at a lot of good pictures. I do this when I feel like I’m in a creative rut or am new and unfamiliar with a location I want to photograph. Yes, the whole world of images is at our fingertips online, but I’d rather go to a bookstore or national park visitor center and study good imagery in print that’s on posters or in photo books. My goal isn’t to copy photos from others on my own camera. It’s to get inspired and motivated to get out and do my own interpretation of the location.

Tip 2: Take a hike. There is solid science behind walking boosting creativity. If nothing else, it’s a stress reliever and that in and of itself helps clear your mind and focus on the creative side of your craft. Walking/hiking/exercise also helps boost energy that can be channeled into your photography.

Backpacker on Lost Lake trail before storm hits. © Michael DeYoung

My favorite thing is a photography focused adventure. This was a mid-September overnight backpack trip to Lost Lake on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula to capture fall colors on the dawn of an approaching storm. We were successful in capturing some great sky and tundra colors before rain set in. This is Lauri packed up and on our way back to the trailhead as the weather worsened and another several day round of rain began.


Tip 3: Visit new places and re-discover familiar places. Find a balance between these. Yes, it’s exciting to go to some beautiful place we haven’t visited yet. That always helps me get motivated to create new work. Balance that out with finding fresh ideas and ways to photograph things and places familiar to you that you’ve photographed many times before. Don’t get jaded with a “been there, shot that” attitude. Shooting familiar scenes in new ways is the hallmark of a good photographer.

Tip 4: Develop a creative workflow you can use in any situation or location. (See below for the one I follow.)

Aurora view from the Richardson Highway near Delta Junction, Alaska © Michael DeYoung

The road north – a view of the Richardson Highway near Delta Junction with aurora and full moonlight. This was from our recent Denali Highway tour.




Workflow isn’t just about processing your digital images after the fact. A good workflow on location helps guide you to the best images a particular location has to offer at that given time. Mine is simple and straight forward.

1. Artisitic first, technical last – Spend more time defining your main subject and studying the light

Sketch with your smartphone camera first if that helps. I just sketch with my camera hand-held to help me hone in on a shot before I get serious and grab the tripod. All landscape images should have a defined subject or center of interest. That center of interest doesn’t always have to be an identifiable, named geographical place, or a specific plant or animal species. Your subject can be a combination of colors, forms, and textures. After you determine what that center of interest is, use design skills to emphasize your main subject.

Photographer capturing landscape image on a glacial lake in Southcentral Alaska © Michael DeYoung


2. Emphasizing your main subject usually means simply making it the biggest element in your frame.

Many shooters try to show too much in one image. It’s easy to get impressed by the scale of your landscape and try to “take it all in” on one frame. This often results in no clear center of interest. The best way to reveal scale in a landscape image is to include a known sized subject like a person or house. Your separation technique for a small subject in a big landscape needs to be really effective, as does the lighting.

3. Do the technical details of the shot last and spend more time on #1.

For exposure, pick an anchor exposure parameter then adjust the other 2 parameters of the exposure triangle around the anchor to get proper exposure. Most of the time my anchor exposure parameter is aperture. If going for an artful, selective focus look, it’s usually wide open. Most of the time I am going for maximum depth of field so I’m at f16, and sometimes at f22. I do focus last because I am zone focusing which is aperture dependent. It’s a bit more complicated than just focusing a third into the frame as many times there is nothing a third of the way into the frame to focus on.

Take your time to achieve proper zone focus. If you have a late model pro level mirrorless camera, use the tools they give you to accurately determine your full zone of focus. They make it easier than it used to be. I press my depth of field preview button, magnify the image for focus assist and move around the image several times, manually tweaking my focus until I’m confident I have the zone of focus I need. After you take your first series of shot(s), go to #4.

4. Push beyond your first idea.

Go into every photo situation understanding that your first idea will is rarely your best or most creative. Hurried, one-attempt photos are rarely good. If something is worth shooting once, it’s worth shooting multiple times. A lot of famous people who changed humanity for the better with a brilliant idea (e.g., Thomas Edison) had many bad ideas. Want more better and creative ideas? Have a few more bad ones first.


Low key sunset along Turnagain Arm south of Anchorage, Alaska, with field of lupine. © Michael DeYoung

This summer I was able to connect with a really nice clearing storm sunset along Turnagain Arm south of Anchorage while the lupine were still in bloom. I focused the “big scenic style” of image I usually go for and this was my first idea and composition.

Intense pink skies reflecting back down on the water of Turnagain Arm with a lupine foreground. © Michael DeYoung

With the tide going out, exposing more mud and the sky getting better and better I hunted around for different compositions, still focusing on the big scenic as I sought to find the right mix of lupine, mudflats, mountains and sky. This was my second idea.

Pink colored water and mud patterns along Alaska's Turnagain Arm. © Michael DeYoung

While the light was still screaming with beautiful color I noticed the patterns and color on just the mud flats which are normally brown, slick, ugly and quite dangerous. I pushed beyond my first idea and came up with a series of compositions that just focused on the water, mud patterns and sky reflection.