From Dreary to Dreamy

From Dreary to Dreamy

Just in case you’re unaware, all of my images are available as big, beautiful photographic prints. More than just pretty, they tell elaborate stories that celebrate Chicago’s wondrous habitats and inhabitants. Click here for more information.

Shelves of ice form along the sandy shore of a turquoise Lake Michigan at Illinois Beach Nature Preserve in Zion, Illinois.

Shelves of ice form along the sandy shore of a turquoise Lake Michigan at Illinois Beach Nature Preserve in Zion, Illinois.

On overcast days like this, I usually stay home. Rarely do gray skies help a photograph. This is why magical snow-covered trees on an overcast day will make your heart sing, while a photo of the same scene will come off as depressing. Gray skies kill photographs.

During a recent gloomy afternoon, I visited the Lake Michigan shoreline and was able to transform a dreary situation into this dreamy photograph. This article is about how I puzzled and constructed the image from the worldly elements before me. This artistic collaboration within the glorious constraints of the real world is what makes photography so exciting and rewarding for me. Painters often use a trick that fools the human brain. They eliminate “nonessential details,” which distract from communicating a subject’s essence. However, as a (representational) photographer, I have no choice, which is why I developed a style for making images that convey a subject’s essence amidst the infinite detail.

Just like those breathtaking snow-covered trees, even the wonderful, whimsical ice shelves are no match for a gloomy day. But the turquoise teals from calm waters amidst the late-afternoon blues of distant clouds made all the difference. Yet, the scene remained a bit unimaginative and compositionally trivial. Graphically, it needed something to break up the uniform triangle of brown pebbles between shore and shelf. It needed some magic.

Strolling for a while atop the ice shelf, I found what I was hoping for. A curious length of sandy ice mounds grabbed my attention. The mystery of their formation added that element of magic. And graphically, the warm-colored blobs complemented the green of the lake, while their texture contrasted with the flat uniformity nearby. They act as cairns that keep you fixed to the shore. And their moderate height gives your eye (and the virtual self in your mind) a gentle boost up and onto the ice shelf. (Read more about this in the footnote.)

Positioned between mounds and water, you’ll see a strand of crystal filigree. This is an important controlling compositional element—”controlling” because it guides your eye and, like a guardrail, keeps you from wandering. This delicate stretch of white garland, along a waterline of contrasting stones, escorts you into the distance while keeping you from entering the aqua abyss.

Interestingly, the fantastical features of the ice shelf turned out to be the least influential element in composition. And that’s perfect. When collaborating with the world, Mother Nature has a say. It’s rare that my pictures follow my original plan.


When we look at a picture, we insert the idea of our physical selves into that world. Your eye will not venture into areas that appear blocked, dark, cramped, brambly, or dangerous. You will only travel into open and available spaces while bouncing between obstacles, like a Roomba. I teach about this in my fascinating and fun Make Great Pictures, Now! class in composition. Visit Creative Eye Workshops for more information.


This entry was posted in Chicago Nature, Digital Photography, Illinois Nature Photography, Lake County Illinois Nature, Landscape Photography, Nature, Nature Photography, Photography Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

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