30 Jun

There is More to Nature Photography than the Golden Fifteen Minutes


Seed pod macro photograph.

Seed pod. Canon 6D, 100mm macro, f/2.8, 1/200 sec, ISO 800 (handheld)

One of the most prevalent pieces of advice offered to landscape photographers is also one of the most limiting: “Shoot during the golden hour.” And, if you observe a mass of photographers at some popular locations, the advice actually seems to be put in practice as, “Shoot during the golden fifteen minutes and only if there are colorful clouds filling the sky.” For photographers living by this golden hour mantra, you may be missing a lot of what nature has to offer.

While I thoroughly enjoy photographing grand landscapes under beautiful light, I have come to enjoy photographing small scenes–abstracts, intimate landscapes, and macro photographs–even more. Years ago, one of the main reasons that I took up landscape photography was because it offered one of the only times I could quiet my mind. At the time, I was in graduate school and working a stressful, full-time job. I was almost always working through a long to-do list or thinking about working through a long to-do list. During the brief periods of time I could get out for photography, the act of focusing enough to create a photograph was an escape from that stressful and busy life I had created for myself. Photographing smaller scenes in nature–like finding a beautiful patch of corn lilies  or exploring a patch of sand dunes to photograph the light and shadows at the end of the day–was so rejuvenating.

Corn Lily Twins.

Corn lily twins. Canon 5D2, 17-40mm @ 40mm, f/22, 1/6 sec, ISO 400

I started seeking that feeling of a focused, relaxed mind more frequently through photography and eventually realized that something was wrong if the only time I was able to have a quieted mind was while photographing out in nature. That realization came more than three years ago, at which point I decided to scale back my work and take some time off for photography and travel. Although I did not really have any formal goals for this break, I did want to spend significantly more time on taking photographs of smaller scenes and develop a stronger portfolio of those kinds of images.  Images of smaller scenes  have always felt more personally significant to me, and the process of crafting these kinds of photographs is meditative, relaxing, and rejuvenating – something I seriously needed at the time and still thoroughly enjoy.

I have been very fortunate to spend most of my time in the field over the last few years with a like-minded photographer, my partner Ron Coscorrosa. It is probably rare to find someone else who is excited about photographing a small seed pod for more than an hour (said seed pod above) or who is content to wander around a forest with no real plan for an afternoon, photographing along the way. This mutual appreciation for these kinds of experiences and photographs has led us to spend a great deal of our photography time focused on these smaller scenes–and we both have developed much more extensive portfolios of these types of photos as a result.

Vermont fall colors.

Vermont fall colors. Canon 5D2, 70-200mm @ 145mm, f/14, 1/13 sec, ISO 400, polarizer.

Since we both really enjoy making these kinds of photographs, we decided sometime last year that this topic would make a good eBook–maybe something about 30 to 40 pages, a few tips, and some photos. Well, fast-forward to this month and we have been thrilled to release our latest e-book, Beyond the Grand Landscape: A Guide to Photographing Nature’s Smaller Scenes, to a very positive response. Our project got a little out of control, since the eBook comes in at around 175 pages and features more than 250 photographs. In addition to covering information about our creative approach to photographing these kinds of scenes, a review of key compositional practices, the importance of light, technical fundamentals, and a detailed discussion of twelve of our photos from start to finish, we also include interviews with four photographers with strong and inspiring portfolios of intimate landscapes – Alex Mody, Justin Reznick, Greg Russell, and Robin Black.

Frost-covered trees.

Frost-covered trees. Canon 5D2, 100-400mm @ 400mm, f/11, 1/50 sec, ISO 400.

We wrote this eBook because we find a great deal of meaning and satisfaction in making these kinds of images and would like to encourage more photographers to pursue these kinds of subjects instead of relentlessly focusing on only those limiting golden fifteen minutes at the beginning and end of the day.  Next time you are out in the field, we encourage you to spend some time just exploring and looking for interesting details to photograph.  We hope you will be pleasantly surprised at all of the opportunities and photography subjects you find when you spend some time moving beyond the grand landscape.  Here are a few ideas to help get you started:

  • Make smaller scenes a priority:  Coming to see smaller scenes as an equal or greater priority to grand scenics is important in developing a deeper portfolio of these kinds of images.  Some of my favorite photographs of small scenes were taken during a sunrise or sunset–instead of taking photos of grand landscapes.  This requires giving up the grand landscape opportunity during the golden hour to instead focus on photographing smaller scenes.  For example, the photo at the top of this post was taken during a stormy sunset at a beautiful mountain lake.  I chose to focus on the seed pod instead of the lake.
  • Take your time and explore:  Taking these kinds of photos typically require more than driving up to an overlook and setting up your gear.  Instead, they require exploration, experimentation, and time spent getting to know a place beyond the most obvious views.  Moving beyond the overlook, getting off the most popular trail, and seeking to find out what is around the next bend can help open up all kinds of photographing possibilities.  And while you are exploring…
  • Strive to notice details: The seed pod at the beginning of this post was about the size of a plum, and from afar looks like a gigantic dandelion gone to seed–pretty much a weed.  Up close, each individual seed looks like a tiny, upside-down umbrella, with elegant stems radiating from a central point.  With a macro lens, a photographer can create all kinds of interesting photographs of a tiny subject that most people would walk by without a second thought.  Taking the time to notice these kinds of details and taking the time to try photographing them can open up all kinds of photographic opportunities.
  • Consider a subject’s abstract qualities:  Take the photograph of frosty trees above.  In viewing this scenes, the repeating triangle shapes initially attracted me to taking this photograph.  Without the frost and lighting, these same trees would not have the same depth and the triangles would not be as obvious.  Being able to identify these kinds of abstract forms in nature can be a very helpful skill in developing a deeper and more interesting portfolio of photographs of smaller scenes.
  • All light can be good light.  One of the best things about seeking out these kinds of photographs is that opportunities are available all day under almost any lighting and weather conditions.  I love photography too much to be limited to spending only an hour or so a day doing it while traveling.  Looking for and photographing small scenes allows us to photograph all day if we want to, instead of being limited by the golden hour that is often best for grand scenics.

If you enjoy photographing smaller scenes and abstract subject in nature, please share some of your tips and recommendations for creating these kinds of photos in the comments below.  If you would like to learn more about this topic, consider buying Beyond the Grand Landscape through the Dreamscapes store. 

Sarah MarinoAbout Sarah Marino (7 Posts)

Sarah Marino is a landscape and nature photographer based in Colorado and her work focuses primarily on the American West. Sarah is also the co-author of Forever Light: The Landscape Photographer's Guide to Iceland, Desert Paradise: The Landscape Photographer's Guide to Death Valley National Park, and Beyond the Grand Landscape: A Guide to Photographing Nature's Smaller Scenes, all of which are available through the Dreamscapes Store. You can view Sarah's work at NaturePhotoGuides.com.


  • Sarah,
    You have emphasized a great point that is especially pertinent to many of us who are amateur photographers and do not always have the opportunity to be at the right places during the golden times. Also, the old adage, “there is no bad light, just bad photographers” may be applicable here.
    As for my “tip” I love to image aspen leaves in the autumn and backlighting these tranlucent leaves close up at even high noon gives them a glowing look. Also, in an autumn aspen forest, with a high sun shining through a canopy of yellow and gold leaves, the white trunks will take on a pleasing golden tone as if one was using a gold reflector.

  • […] talented Sarah Marino (reposted on Ian Plant's board) sums up my views to the subject nicely. There is More to Nature Photography than the Golden Fifteen Minutes | Dreamscapes Reply With […]

  • Thanks for this Sarah. We need more photographers letting others know there are times other than sunrise and sunset when one can takes great photos (and that sunrise and sunset don’t guarantee great photos).

  • […] One of the most prevalent pieces of advice offered to landscape photographers is also one of the most limiting: “Shoot during the golden hour.” And, if you observe a mass of photographers at some popular locations, the advice actually seems to be put in practice as, “Shoot during the golden fifteen minutes and only if there are colorful clouds filling the sky.” For photographers living by this golden hour mantra, you may be missing a lot of what nature has to offer. MORE… […]

  • The problem with intimate photography, at least for the pros, is that it rarely sells well. The preponderance of grand landscapes on this site says as much. It takes appreciation of subtle textures, color and light patterns. The buying public is not receptive to that type of imagery. Even the advanced enthusiasts, aka the majority of people who attend workshops, don’t seem to care much about that. A few years ago Guy Tal was offering such a workshop but then stopped. When I asked why he said that it was, commercially speaking, not doing well. He now does a few tours of safe bets such as Death Valley that sell out reliably. Oh the irony…

    Alas the subtle landscape is far more difficult to shoot. Several pros who are excellent at the grand landscape have said that they have trouble visualizing the potential of an intimate scene until it stares them in the face. With the grand landscape you can follow a reliable formula and still get semi decent images. Slap on a wide angle, tilt it down, get real close to something or find a leading line, pay minor attention to middle ground and background, wait for pink sky, turn vibrance to 11, post on 500px and wait for the pulse to shoot up.

    What I like the most about your advice is to be opportunistic about it. In 2012 I attempted to spend an entire year without including the horizon in any of my photos. The frustrations outnumbered the successes by a far wider margin that typical even for me. Now, while scouting the grand location in mid day I always have the camera with a 70-200 attached out of the backpack, looking for the right opportunity. And while parked in front on the grand scene I always look left, right, and down to see if I am missing something. Should probably head to the estore now to check out your opus.