Geology makes landscapes look the way they do

I’m no Master of photography - but I know what I like to look at. And in photographing landscapes, I also understand why landscapes look the way they do, and the processes that shapes land at the surface. As a trained geoscientist, some of my existing skills have helped me improve my landscape photography, as well as pointed me toward methods in catching wildlife in their element.


Landscapes each tell a geological story. In part because the underlying structure of the bedrock shapes the land we walk and live on - and gives clues to formation. But also, because climates at the surface of the earth dictate weathering processes, erosion, and will support certain types of vegetation. Mountains in particular are geologically fascinating. Snowy mountains are even better. But patiently awaiting a downpour on top of those snowy mountains? Worth the wait.

Mountains in snow and rain

Patience over the long term, too.

Landscapes form over Geologic Time - hundreds of thousands of years or more (so don’t be rushed). But wildlife – they’ve survived because their observational skills are better than yours. They won’t wait around while you fiddle with the camera settings, or move to catch the best angle. You have to be ready for them … and that takes planning and preparation.

Seal on beach

Each workday, I drive a tree-lined highway to and from work. One fall morning, shortly after the trees had lost their leaves, I was able to see a new massive nest in a tree overlooking a small lake. Days and days went by, and each morning and afternoon I would look. Occasionally, I would see an Bald Eagle sitting near the nest. More days would go by and … wait …a second eagle! Winter passed, Spring sprung, and during that time, the pair have not only occupied the nest, but are raising at least one chick. Some days they’re both near the nest – sometimes only one. But over the past months, I’ve learned some of their behaviors, which trees they prefer to perch on, what time of day they are likely tending the nest. The lake is nestled up against a small New York state park, and that venue may offer the perfect (and safe) viewing position from which to photograph the eaglets’ first flight ….

Hummingbird close up sitting on her nest in a cyprus

Be observant - stop and look around (yes, sometimes without the camera)

Building your observation skills takes concerted effort, but the results can be incredibly entertaining. I am still amazed at how much wildlife is around me on an everyday basis – and I live in a pretty big town. Learning something about animal behaviors can be helpful, and observations made over long periods of time can pay off with good information about how and where to photograph an animal actually doing something – playing, feeding, sleeping.

Learning where to look to see animals, learning the different sounds for different behaviors – baby red-tailed hawks in the nest, angry squirrels, the amazing silence of a bear walking in the woods (they really are silent!) – can give clues to a potentially interesting photograph.

Impassible Death Valley eroding mountains

Situational Awareness is something to develop for your personal safety, too. I’m sure I’m not the first to get caught up in my own world of trying to get ‘the best angle’ that I lose track of what’s around me – traffic, ledges, even branches that I may trip over. Keep one eye on your own safety, first!

Take pictures you actually enjoy looking at.

I take landscapes because I enjoy seeing them – regardless of season, weather, climate – or if a city sits atop them. They tell a geological tale that can be deciphered and applied to our experiences and survival on the planet today. So I focus on images of those landscapes that tell my favorite stories … but I only upload the ones I would hang on my own wall!

Black and White islands in still lake

Photo credits: Heather Mcardle.

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May 17, 2019


Patience, patience and more patience. Truly the key! You hit the nail on the head. Great article! William

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