Professional Nature Photographer Kevin Sink Shares Valuable Tools for Landscape Painters

Professional Nature Photographer

Kevin Sink

Shares Valuable Tools

for Landscape Painters

Photograph © Kevin Sink
Photograph © Kevin Sink

   Nature photographer Kevin Sink specializes in bringing the beauty and healing power of nature to the places it is most needed—hospitals and healthcare institutions across the country. Sink's work is available through Henry Domke Fine Art, a company founded by a former doctor, specifically to bring artwork to the stressful environments of medical facilities. The work processes that Sink uses to find the right landscape in the right moment for his photographs parallel the scouting processes of many plein air painters. He writes, "Just being out scouting for scenes and practicing a mindful approach and listening to what the landscape is saying is a great stress reducer." Sink shared with us some of the practical and effective tools he uses in his work. 

   Nature is a capricious boss for artists.  To maximize our creative potential, we need to have an intimate knowledge of the environment.  Compare being on a promising prairie landscape at mid-day just after all the clouds have disappeared with being there at daybreak with shadow play and warm light bathing that same romantic topography.  It’s a make or break comparison, and Mother Nature calls the shots.

Photograph © Kevin Sink
Photograph © Kevin Sink

Photograph © Kevin Sink
Photograph © Kevin Sink

   As a natural landscape photographer, I’m at the mercy of weather and environment in real time, and the best opportunities can be brief. I listen to how nature guides my creative interpretation, then use the camera to capture the reflected light before me. There are things I can do on the computer at home to shape and embellish light, shadow, contrast and color, but if I’m not in the right place at the right time, I’m up the creek without a paddle. Garbage in, garbage out. I believe this applies to painters as well.

   The camera and knowledge are control points in the process. Nature is not. However, there are things I can do to cultivate my working relationship with nature. I use several tools to intuit the environmental rhythms that shape light.  This list is not by any means exhaustive, and I’m continually learning, but these tools have been invaluable so far.


   I use the PhotoPills app many times a day while photographing. It knows your precise geographic location, the time of year, etc. and shows a graphical plot in real time of where the sun is and where it will be at sunrise, sunset and all points in between. Rarely do I serendipitously show up at peak dramatic light. I just point my phone from horizon to horizon and the camera shows the scene with the arc of the sun in yellow.  I can plan on when to come back for an optimal return.

Screen Shot from PhotoPills App

Weather Underground  

   Speaking of coming back, nothing governs my life more than weather. My favorite resource for weather info is Weather Underground, specifically the ten day plot of weather parameters. (Use the link, then enter your location.)  This looks a tad cumbersome but trust me, it’s worth the few minutes study for quick interpretation from then on. Here are the key things I look for:

Weather Underground Screen Shot

   Also, if you scroll down on this Weather Underground page, you can see the sun & moon rise & set data:

Weather Underground Screen Shot

College of DuPage SATRAD  

   You gotta love clouds. In nature photography we have a saying: “blue sky of death”.  If my goal is to render a dynamic landscape photograph, solid blue skies are a killer. I use the College of DuPage SATRAD website to watch cloud patterns, types and movement.

Screen Shot from College of DuPage Website
Click on "View Localized Sectors" to show local selections.

Screen Shot from College of DuPage Website
Click on a dot closest to you.

Screen Shot from College of DuPage Website

Use the "Play" button or the slider to show how the clouds have changed
and moved over time. This can be helpful in projecting your own ideas
for the next few hours. (Click and drag the slider to the left to go backwards
in time, then back to the right to show development and direction of clouds.)

The Photographer's Ephemeris 3D

   I use The Photographer’s Ephemeris 3D for every trip I go on. It plots the way the light hits the land in 3D, for anywhere, anytime of your choosing. There’s a nice short video of what it does here.  Here’s a screenshot of what you’ll see on the app:

Screen Shot from Photographer's Ephemeris 3D

Google and Google Maps

   Sometimes just deciding where to go for compelling landscapes is challenging—especially when traveling. I do tons of online research before I go on a trip. Here are some strategies I employ:

   Find land with no or minimum disturbance from man. MUCH easier said than done. Almost all land in the lower 48 states has been altered by white settlement. However, there are efforts in many states to preserve lands that resemble how they looked prior to settlement. The Missouri Department of Conservations “Natural Areas” program is one fine example. Other resources to look for are conservation associations like The Nature Conservancy, The Prairie Enthusiasts of Wisconsin, etc. Natural areas have a certain aura to them that’s hard to describe, but often with striking aesthetics.

   Google Maps search:  Just enter “Tallgrass Prairie Preserve” in the Google search bar, and then click on the “Images” button at the top. You will then be greeted with a screen full of photographs from the place. This can give you an excellent overall feel for the place.

Screen Shot from Google Map Search

   For a variation on the above, search for landscape photography from the area. For example, “Tallgrass Prairie landscape photography” or “Tallgrass Prairie Photography Workshops”. These searches often show websites with rich collections of photos to give you an idea of what’s there.

   Google Maps viewed in topographical mode. For landscape photography, a sense of depth is much easier to convey where there are distinct hills and valleys. The topographical base map in Google maps is wonderful for this, but you need to be used to reading such maps. It’s something I’ve done since high school (Fred Flintstone’s class ☺), so it comes naturally.

Screen Shot from Google Map Search

All Trails

   I use an app called All Trails to find appealing and popular hikes in an area, which very often yield outstanding views and features. Just enter the name of a town, park, or area you’d like to explore, and it will give you a list of hikes in that area, the distances, elevation changes, how to get there, etc. One very nice perk to this app is that when you look at the "Photos" section of a hike, it shows pictures of the area. The most recent pictures taken are shown first. People use this app a lot, and although the pictures are just phone photos and often not all that great, they do show the extent of spring leaf-out, fall color progression, and the like, so you have an idea of what the place looks like now.


   Keep a library of locations you might like to visit. Different places look best at different times of year. One woodland may look substantially better in fall, and another puts on its best face in the spring. I create a Google Map for all the locations I travel to, both from online research and from my own field work. When a free Saturday comes up, you can review the map to see where might be best at that time of year. Here’s my map for Wisconsin:

Screen Shot from Google Map Search
Photographs and notes for each location can be saved, then seen, by clicking on the pin.

Mark II Artist's Viewfinder

   For framing compositions in the field, it can be overwhelming to take it all in, and it can be beneficial to make a card with a cutout window to simply hold up to frame a scene. I use an app for cameras but it works well for any type of composition. It’s called Mark II Artist's Viewfinder. You program in the different aspect ratios you might consider. Then you use the phone’s camera to zoom into and out of a scene to see how the land might fall into compositional restraints. You can even take a picture of the result for later review/comparison with other aspect ratios and zoom levels. It just simplifies the chaos of looking at a scene, allowing our mind’s eye to find what’s most relevant to us. The numbers you see below are the focal lengths. I use two fingers to pinch in and out to widen or narrow the field of view.  

Screen Shot from Mark II Artist's Viewfinder


   Lastly, I always carry a GoPro with me. It’s light, portable, and a fun thing to document the area with. But wait!  There’s more! I take a few minutes to roam around with the GoPro, using its different focal lengths to film and explore.  I’ve been really surprised at how many compositions for still photographs I’ve found in this process. I think switching to something fun and not taken very seriously frees up your mind. You have a liberty to  investigate the surroundings with a more open, playful mind. At the very least, you come away with some fun video for memories' sake or use on social media. Here’s an example of a recent composition I found while playing with the GoPro:

Photograph © Kevin Sink

Photograph of Kevin Sink, photographer

To see more of Kevin Sink's work,
visit Henry Domke Fine Art
All images copyright Kevin Sink

Copyright Hulsey Trusty Designs, L.L.C. (except where noted). All rights reserved.
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