Posted on March 16, 2018
Because I don’t want my camera making any decisions for me, I’ve always metered in manual mode. For most of my photography life, my manual metering approach was to start with the best f-stop for my composition, spot-meter on the brightest part of the scene, and dial my shutter speed until the meter indicated the proper tone. In my film days I sometimes hedged my bets by bracketing high dynamic range scenes; with a digital camera, rather than bracket, I check my histogram and re-shoot only if I missed the exposure on the first try. While this approach has served me well, my metering life became much easier with the advent of live-view (pre-capture) histograms, and easier still since my switch to mirrorless.
Trust your histogram
The histogram is a graph of the tones in an image (you can read more about it here). Instead of clicking and hoping as we did in the film days, the addition of a histogram on virtually every digital camera gave photographers instant feedback on the exposure of every image. Better still, live-view histograms give us that exposure feedback before clicking the shutter.
Each camera manufacturer uses its own metering mode terminology. Whatever your camera, instead of spot metering, choose a metering mode that uses the entire frame. With my Sony mirrorless bodies, I set my metering mode to Entire Screen Average.
Using the pre-capture histogram, I start the metering process as I always have, using my camera’s best ISO (1oo for the Sony a7RIII), and the best f-stop for my composition (unless motion, such as wind or star motion, forces me to compromise my ISO and/or f-stop). With ISO and f-stop set, I slowly adjust my shutter speed with my eye on the histogram in my viewfinder* (or LCD) until I’m satisfied with the histogram. Ideally I’ll have a little room on both sides of the histogram, but in a high dynamic range scene my histogram might not fit the boundaries, and I’ll add exposure until the histogram bumps against the right side.
Most mirrorless bodies offer highlight warnings in their pre-capture view (called “zebras” on my Sonys). While these alerts aren’t nearly as reliable as the histogram and should never be relied on for exposure decisions, I use them as a signal to check my histogram. The first time I meter a scene, my current exposure settings can be far off from where I’ll end up—in this case, I push my shutter speed fast until the zebras appear, then refine the exposure using the histogram.
Because I trust the post-capture histogram a little more than the pre-capture histogram, when there’s little margin for error in my exposure, I verify it by checking the review (post-capture) histogram. While the luminosity (white) histogram gives you the detail you captured, it doesn’t tell you if you lost color. Washed out color is always a risk when you push the histogram all the way to the right, so it’s best to check the RGB (red, green, blue) histogram to ensure that none of the image’s color channels are clipped.
An often overlooked aspect of mastering in-camera metering is learning your camera. Not only does every camera interpret and report its exposure information a little differently, the histogram returns is a jpeg histogram—raw shooters almost always have more information than their camera reports and it’s important to know how much more. For example, with my Sony a7R bodies, I know I’m usually safe pushing my histogram’s exposure graph a full stop beyond the boundary, and I have no problem using every available photon.
A few years ago I was photographing a sunrise at Trillium Lake just south of the Columbia River Gorge. Finding the open sky on Mt. Hood’s east side much brighter than the lake and (especially) trees, after composing and focusing, I cranked my shutter speed until the zebras appeared (they usually show up before the histogram reaches the right side), then clicked more deliberately until the histogram hit the right side.
At that point the left side of the histogram was still clipped slightly, but because I knew I still had one more stop to play with on the highlights side, I clicked one more time with my eye on the left (shadows) side of the histogram and saw that the shadows were still slightly clipped. Since each click adds (or subtracts) 1/3 stop, I had two more clicks before I reached my 1-stop-over highlight threshold. The second shutter speed click moved the left side of the histogram just enough to eliminate the shadows clipping, and I was ready to shoot (with 1/3 stop to spare!).
After capture, I checked my review RGB histogram to ensure that I’d captured all the scene’s detail and color. In Lightroom I was able to easily recover the highlights that my camera told me were clipped, and pull all the detail I needed from the shadows.
* Though these instructions are for mirrorless shooters, much of what I say also applies to DSLR shooters with access to a live-view histogram.
Mirrorless Metering Gallery
Posted on March 9, 2018
One of the questions I’m asked most is how to blur water. It’s really not that hard when you know how to control your exposure variables, and in fact if you’re photographing moving water in the right light, it’s easier to blur the water than it is to freeze it.
Here are the essential elements for blurred water:
- Sturdy tripod: The longer the shutter is open, the greater the blur effect; even with a stabilized lens and/or body, it’s pretty hard to hand-hold at a water-blurring shutter duration and avoid camera shake that blurs the rest of the scene.
- Camera with exposure control: Since motion blur is partially a function of shutter speed, you’ll need to be able to control your camera’s shutter speed. A mirrorless or DSLR camera will do the job for sure, but many of the more sophisticated point-and-shoot cameras will work as well.
- Whitewater: While it’s possible to smooth any moving water, the silky water effect most people want requires whitewater.
- Shade or overcast: Water in direct sunlight is so bright that, without a neutral density filter, a shutter duration long enough to blur it will completely and irrevocably overexpose it.
With these basic ingredients, and a little knowledge of exposure management, you’re ready to go. While motion blur requires the shutter remain open long enough for the water’s motion to blur, there’s no magic shutter speed that achieves this. The amount of blur will vary from a lot to none at all, depending on the following factors:
- Shutter speed: A digital sensor (or piece of film) records the position of everything in the scene throughout the duration of the exposure. If something moves while the shutter is open, it will blur—the more it moves, the more it blurs.
- The water’s speed: The faster the water moves while the shutter is open, the more of the frame it will span and the greater the blur. But it’s not just the water’s speed that determines the blur—other factors are…
- The water’s distance: It’s not actually the water’s speed that matters, it’s the distance across the frame that the water moves while the shutter is open. So the farther away the water is, for any given focal length, the less of the frame it will span (and the less blur you’ll see).
- Focal length: Increasing the focal length is the equivalent of moving closer. A longer focal length magnifies everything in the frame, including the distance across the frame the water travels while the shutter is open.
- The water’s direction of motion: Water moving across the frame will blur more than water moving away from or toward the camera.
Most of the above motion blur factors affect the composition too, so achieving motion blur without compromising the composition usually comes down to managing the shutter speed. Choosing a shady scene or overcast day is a good start, but here are a few other ways to keep the shutter open longer:
- Neutral density filter: An ND filter will darken the scene without changing anything else (such as the color cast)—typically by at least 3 stops, and usually more. I don’t often use an ND filter for whitewater because I only shoot water in shade or overcast and find I can achieve enough blur without it.
- Polarizer: A polarizer cuts light by 1 to 2 stops, but that’s secondary to the polarizer’s primary function, which is to reduce reflections. Whether it’s sheen on rocks and leaves, or light bouncing off darker water, reflections are everywhere, even in a shady or overcast scene. I never photograph moving water without a polarizer, and gladly accept its longer shutter speed side benefit.
- Low ISO: The lower the ISO, the less sensitive to light the sensor is, and the longer the shutter duration necessary to make up for that decreased sensitivity. Your camera probably has a native ISO of 100 (most likely) or 200—that’s the ISO that achieves the best image quality, and the ISO you should start at for your motion blur shots. Some digital cameras offer a lower, emulated ISO that, while not increasing the image quality (unlike film, where the lower the ISO or ASA, the better the image quality). Usually the ability to access this emulated ISO needs to be enabled in your camera’s menu system.
- Small aperture: Because I prefer basing my aperture choice on the depth of field I want, and by what will give me the sharpest results (less diffraction and most corner-to-corner sharpness), I usually go to my minimum ISO before choosing an aperture smaller than f/11 (remember, the bigger the f/ number, the smaller the aperture, so f/16 is smaller than f/11).
Armed with this knowledge, you’re ready to go. One important thing to keep in mind is that motion blur is never just blurred or not blurred. Rather, there are degrees of blur. That’s why, when possible, for any given scene I try different ISOs and f-stops, adjusting the shutter speed to compensate and vary the blur effect.
In a region packed with waterfalls, Upper Horsetail Fall (sometimes called Ponytail Fall), is one of my favorites. After a short but steep hike from the road and (lower) Horsetail Fall, hikers round a bend for the first view of the source of the roar heard from several hundred yards down the trail. Most waterfall trails either cross the source river or creek upstream, above the fall, or down stream, below the fall. The Upper Horsetail Fall trail goes behind the fall.
On this visit, before venturing behind the fall, I scrambled down the slope on the right and set up near creek level, in front of the whitewater and just downstream from the pool. After a little bit of visual exploration, I settled on the essence of my composition: the rushing water in the foreground, with the waterfall prominent in the background, balanced by the brilliant green of a freshly leafed-out tree. The compositional variations mostly centered around how much of the fern-infused rock on the left, and the angled tree trunk on the right, to include.
Another compositional choice to weigh was whether to allow the foreground rock to merge with the rock just behind it, in the center of the creek. Normally I try to avoid merging elements at different distances, but in this case the solution would have been to move a couple steps to the right, which would have put the fall more behind the tree. Since the waterfall is the scene’s most prominent element, I decided to maximize its presence.
The darkness of the surrounding forest was enhanced by a thick overcast, making motion blur virtually inevitable, so I just embraced it. Often the greatest difficultly with photographing motion blur surrounded by dense foliage is that a shutter open long enough to blur water is also open long enough to pick up wind motion in the leaves. On this morning I was fortunate to have virtually no breeze, and my 1-second exposure blurred the water and froze the leaves. Mission accomplished.
Posted on March 2, 2018
I recently spent some time going through and processing a bunch of Columbia River Gorge images, from many years of visits, I haven’t had time to get to until now. This is the first of several I’ll be posting over the coming weeks.
The first time I visited the Columbia River Gorge, I couldn’t believe I’d lived my entire life without visiting here. For a landscape photographer, the Columbia River Gorge area has everything: lush forests, thundering waterfalls, majestic volcanoes, sparkling streams, and glassy lakes. It’s almost unfair that this year-round beauty is enhanced by the vivid colors of spring wildflowers and autumn foliage.
The Columbia River cuts a wide channel through lava flows that ended around 10 million years ago, leaving a layer of basalt that’s more than a mile thick. Basalt’s hardness is responsible for the gorge’s proliferation of waterfalls. Rather than eroding into gently sloping terrain as softer rock does, the basalt cliffs carved by the Columbia River maintain their verticality, creating resilient platforms that launch the numerous rivers and creeks that drain this saturated region. The result is waterfalls, lots and lots of waterfalls: Tall waterfalls, short waterfalls, wide waterfalls, skinny waterfalls, single waterfalls, multiple waterfalls, plummeting waterfalls, cascading waterfalls….
But it would be a mistake to assume that the Columbia River Gorge experience is all about waterfalls. Bookended by majestic volcanoes, the area surrounding the Gorge is a pastiche of rivers, streams, and lakes that are beautiful subjects by themselves, and as wonderful foreground material for whatever mountain happens to be in view.
On the Oregon (south) side of the Columbia River, Mount Hood towers over the picturesque orchards of the Hood River Valley. Across the river is Washington and its seemingly endless evergreen forests that unfold in the shadows of Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens.
Trout Lake is about a half hour north of the river on the Washington side. Technically not part of the Columbia River Gorge, Trout Lake is nevertheless part of the broader Columbia River Gorge experience. And while I wouldn’t call Trout Lake hidden, or particularly unknown, it’s far enough off the beaten path to avoid trampling by ogling tourists.
Filling with sediments that started their journey on or near Mount Adams, Trout Lake is on its way to becoming a meadow. Its relative shallowness makes it less likely to be disturbed by waves that spoil reflections reflections. While a reflection like the one in this image is far from a sure thing, neither is it a rare occurrence. They’re more common here in the calm air around sunrise, but as this picture illustrates, I’ve found reflections on Trout Lake at sunset too.
Filtered by thin clouds, the light this afternoon had been rather subdued—nice, but unspectacular. Sunset was similarly forgettable. But as I started to pack up, a whisper of pink in the previously bland clouds above Mount Adams gave me pause. Hmmm. Often this kind of color is just there to mess with me (you know what I’m talking about), but I paused to watch the color intensify, until finally I could no longer resist.
Without a lot of foreground options, and not much time to go hunting, I simply centered Mount Adams in the top third of the frame and used a solitary protruding rock to create a diagonal with a cinder cone to Mount Adams’ right. While perhaps not my most creative composition, the mountain, color, and reflection make this one of those moments in nature when it’s best for the photographer to get out of the way and just let the scene speak for itself.
Celebrating the Columbia River Gorge
Posted on February 25, 2018
I get a lot of questions in the field during a photo workshop, but about 80% of them are some version of, “Should I do it this way or that way?”:
- “Should I use a polarizer (or not)?”
- “Should I shoot this horizontal or vertical?”
- “Should I shoot this wide or telephoto?”
- “Should I include that rock or leave it out?”
- “Should I…?”
Sometimes people seem so paralyzed by these choices, it seems they’d rather do nothing than make a mistake. Or maybe they’re inhibited by the subconscious belief that we must conserve resources at all costs. From our earliest years, we were admonished to not waste things: don’t leave the water running, turn of the light when you leave the room, clean your plate, and a host of other waste-related rules. Adding to our formative-years stress, when we recovering film shooters got our first adult cameras, already rendered destitute by the new equipment, we were suddenly punched in the wallet by the cost of film and processing. It’s no wonder we try to spare every frame.
Of course conserving resources is important, today more than ever. But my question for digital photographers is, exactly what resources are you conserving? Here’s a revolutionary thought: While every click with a film camera costs money, every click with a digital camera increases the return on your investment. That’s right: every time you take a picture with your digital camera, your cost per click drops.
I’m not suggesting that you put your camera in continuous shooting mode and fire away*. But I am encouraging you to shoot liberally, with a purpose. And there’s no law that says that purpose must be a successful image.
For example, a click can just be a way to get in the mood, or to determine whether there really is a shot there (I don’t always know whether a scene is worth working until I’ve clicked a couple of frames). And I frequently play “what-if?” games with my camera (“I wonder what would happen if I do this…”). I’d be mortified if people saw some of these what-if? images, but I often learn from them. Sometimes I simply learn what not to do, but often I see enough to understand why it didn’t work, and end up with ideas for how it might work the next time.
I usually use my first click the way I use a draft when I’m writing: rather than a completed masterpiece, my goal for the first few clicks of a scene is a foundation to incrementally refine until I reach the finished product. Or when I’m not sure of the best way to handle a scene, I shoot it multiple ways to defer the decision until I view the image on a large monitor.
At the very least, especially when photographing a scene that especially thrills you, shoot it with as much variety as time permits: horizontal/vertical, wide/tight, and as many perspectives as you can come up with. I mean, you never know when a magazine might want a vertical version of the horizontal Grand Canyon rainbow image you just installed on the wall of the local bank.
Photography often requires instantaneous choices, and Nature doesn’t always wait until you’re ready. So because you can’t always have a pro photographer whispering in your ear every time you’re out with your camera, any time you find yourself wondering whether you should or shouldn’t shoot a scene one way or another (or another, or another, or…), just shoot it both ways and rest easy.
* True story: I once had a woman in a workshop put her Nikon D4 in continuous shooting mode, hold the camera in front of her, depress the shutter button, and spin. When I asked her what in the world she was doing, she replied, “It’s Yosemite—there’s bound to be something good in there.”
About this image
I captured this rainbow about 15 minutes after capturing the rainbow in my February 18 post. Pulling into Roosevelt Point a few miles down the road from Vista Encantada (and the earlier rainbow), we were still very much in rush mode. I didn’t have a lot of opportunity to apply my deliberate, what-if?, multiple draft approach. But I did have time to flip my camera and shoot a variety of compositions before the rainbow faded. I started with the wider vertical and horizontal frames you see here, then moved on to tighter compositions.
Grand Canyon Rainbows
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on February 20, 2018
Happy Birthday, Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams’ influence on photography is impossible to measure. Not only Adams’ influence on photographers, but his influence on the viewers of photography as well. Ask 100 people to name a photographer and 99 will name Ansel Adams; ask them to name a second photographer and you’ll get 99 different names.
Through his use of relationships, perspective, and tones, Adams’ images masterfully emphasized light and shape to guide viewers’ eyes and emphasize aspects of his scenes that he found most compelling. An entire generation’s relationship with nature was unconsciously shaped by the prints of Ansel Adams, not because they showed the world as we already knew it, but because they showed us the world in new and exciting ways.
Now that I’m a photographer, Adams’ influence manifests most in the freedom to render the natural world as my camera sees it, liberating me from the impossible task of duplicating human vision. The camera and the eye experience the world differently; rather than fight that difference, Adams’ photography celebrated it.
Today’s photographers perpetuate Adams’ vision with the help of far more advanced tools, tools so advanced that it’s easy to overlook the foundation he laid for us. On blogs and forums I see some rolling their online eyes at all the Ansel Adams adulation, discounting his influence and labeling his photography pedestrian and prosaic when compared to current efforts: “What’s the big deal?” they say. To those dubious photographers I respond, criticizing Ansel Adams’ by comparing his monochrome masterpieces to the striking, vivid, blended, and stitched images captured today is like criticizing Lewis and Clark for toiling more than two years on a route that can now be traveled in a few days.
About this image
Last week’s Yosemite Horsetail Fall workshop wrapped up at one of my favorite spots in Yosemite Valley, a spot I’ve photographed so many times that it’s an enjoyable challenge to find something unique. The light on Half Dome that evening was beautiful, but nothing I hadn’t seen before. Rather than settle for the beautiful but conventional shots of Half Dome and its reflection, I scanned the scene for quality light elsewhere.
It wasn’t long before my gaze landed on a small stand of deciduous trees, stripped bare by winter cold, basking in the warm rays of the day’s last sunlight. As I pondered the scene, a rogue beam slipped through to illuminate the crown of a single evergreen, punctuating the otherwise monochrome scene with a splash of color.
Though my eyes could see a confusion of textured granite and tangled branches in the dark background shadows, I knew that detail would be nothing but a distraction in an image. But as Ansel Adams so magnificently demonstrated, an image’s full potential isn’t realized unless the finished product, and the processing required to get there, is visualized and executed at capture.
Well aware of late afternoon light’s ephemeral nature, I quickly mounted my Sony 100-400 GM lens to my tripod, attached my camera, and framed my composition. Taking advantage of the camera’s limited dynamic range (when compared to human vision), I gave the scene just enough light to reveal the sunlit trees. Given my a7RIII’s extreme dynamic range, I knew I could pull detail from the shadows in Photoshop if I wanted to, but in this case I went the other way. Processing the image in Lightroom on my computer, I enhanced the contrast, banishing the distracting background to virtually black shadows, leaving only the shape and light that drew my eye in the first place.
Influenced by Ansel Adams
Posted on February 18, 2018
When the weather gets crazy, do you sprint for cover or reach for your camera? Your answer may be a pretty good indicator of your success as a landscape photographer. It’s an unfortunate fact that the light, color, and drama that make the most memorable landscape photos all come when most sane people would rather be inside: at sunrise, when the rest of the world is asleep; at sunset, when everyone else is at dinner; and during wild weather, when anyone with sense is on the sofa in front of the fire.
Not only do clouds keep tourists at bay, they’re usually a prerequisite for the best nature photography. Whether they simply diffuse sunlight to subdue extreme contrast into something much more camera-friendly, or contort themselves into diaphanous curtains and towering pillars that are subjects themselves, clouds are a photographer’s friend.
And with clouds, often comes rain. But the photographer willing to go out in the rain is also the photographer who captures lightning, rainbows, and vivid sunsets and sunrises. The key to photographing in rain is preparation. Regardless of the forecast, I never travel without my rain gear duffel that contains everything necessary to keep me dry and focused on photography: waterproof hat, gloves, parka, rain pants, and boots for me, and an umbrella for my camera. My go-to rain cover is a plastic garbage bag that keeps my camera and lens dry when I’m searching or waiting for a shot. The final essential wet weather accessory is a towel or chamois to dry any gear (especially the front of my lens) that gets wet.
Covered head-to-toe with my waterproof wardrobe, I’m ready to photograph whatever Mother Nature delivers. When I’m ready to shoot, my umbrella always comes out first, then off comes the bag and into a pocket. With one hand managing the umbrella, I have one hand free to compose, expose, focus, and click.
When the wind blows it’s often difficult to manage an umbrella and keep my lens free of water droplets. Since my Sony bodies are sufficiently sealed (as are many other mirrorless and DSLR bodies and lenses), I don’t worry about raindrops (but make sure you have the hot-shoe cap in place). Sometimes, when the wind is too extreme, I even briefly set the umbrella aside (but not too far). Once my composition, exposure, and focus are set, I point the umbrella’s convex side into the wind and lower it until it’s right on top of the camera (for maximum rain protection), pull out my towel and dry the front of the lens (and the rest of the camera and lens too if it’s raining hard), then lift the umbrella and click simultaneously (before more droplets land on my lens).
About this image
Last summer’s Grand Canyon Monsoon workshop group had already had a great day. Following a nice sunrise at the always beautiful Point Imperial, we spent two hours on the Grand Canyon Lodge view deck photographing a spectacular electrical storm that delivered multiple lightning captures to everyone in the group. Here’s a sample of the day’s bounty to this point:
When the storm moved too close and drove us inside to safety (we’re resilient and adventuresome, not stupid), it would have been easy to rest on our laurels and call it a day. I mean, who likes getting rained on?
Photographers, that’s who. Don Smith and I herded the group into the cars and headed to Cape Royal Road, where we could follow the Grand Canyon’s East Rim above Marble Canyon all the way to Cape Royal. Knowing that monsoon showers are fairly localized, the plan was to drive out of the cell that was dumping on us at the lodge and either shoot back at it, or (more likely) find another cell firing out over the canyon. In the back of my mind though was the hope for a rainbow above the canyon—dropping in west, the sun was perfectly positioned for rainbows in the east.
The rainbow appeared just after we passed the Point Imperial Road junction, arcing above the forest. Climbing through the trees toward the rim and its views of Marble Canyon, my urgency intensified with the rainbow’s vivid color, but we were stuck behind a meandering tourist who clearly had different priorities. As tempted as I was to pass him, I knew with three more cars following me, that would be a mistake. So we poked along at a glacial pace. After what seemed like hours, the rainbow was hanging in there as we pulled into the Vista Encantada parking area and screeched to a halt—I swear everyone was out of the car and scrambling for their gear before I’d come to a complete stop.
With a full rainbow above an expansive view, I opted for my Sony 12-24 lens on my a7RII, but immediately began to question that choice. While Vista Encantada offers a very pretty view, it’s not my favorite view to photograph because of all the less-than-photogenic shrubbery in the foreground—a telephoto lens would have worked better to eliminate the foreground. But I wanted more rainbow. So after a few failed attempts to find a composition at the conventional vista, I sprinted into the woods in search of something better. This turned out to be a wise choice, as the shrubs here were replaced with (much more appealing) mature evergreens.
In a perfect world I’d have had an unobstructed view into the Grand Canyon, but the world is rarely perfect. I decided to use the nearby trees as my foreground, moving back from the trees just far enough for the rainbow to clear their crowns, then left as far as the terrain permitted, separating the two left-most trees. Composing wide enough to include the trees top-to-bottom also allowed me to include all of the rainbow—suddenly my 12-24 lens choice was genius!
After finishing at Vista Encantada we continued down the road and photographed another rainbow from Roosevelt Point, before wrapping up the day with a sunset for the ages at Cape Royal. A great day indeed, all thanks to weather that would have kept most tourists indoors.
Rainbows, Lightning, and So Much More
A Grand Canyon Monsoon Gallery
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on February 9, 2018
My previous post was about dynamic juxtaposition in landscape photography—combining static landscape subjects with transient meteorological and celestial elements. The other side of the juxtaposition coin I call static juxtaposition: combining stationary landscape objects. I am a little reluctant to use the word “static” because there is one element that absolutely can’t be static in these compositions: You.
Since I don’t photograph people or wildlife, I often joke that I don’t photograph anything that moves. And because of this, I need to create motion by encouraging my viewers’ eyes to move through my frame, either providing a path for their eyes to follow and/or a place for them to land. Accomplishing this with static subjects isn’t necessarily difficult, but it does require some physical effort.
Most photographers don’t have a problem getting themselves to the general locations that align foreground and background subjects, but many get a little lazy once they’re there, planting their tripods clinging to the spot like a ship an anchor.
Once I’ve arrived at a location and identified my primary subject, I challenge myself to find at least one other element on a different plane. Sometimes that’s easy, other times…, not so much. Nevertheless, when my subject is in the distance, I look for something closer that has visual weight; likewise, if my subject is nearby, I want something with visual weight in my background. Visual weight is something that pulls the eye: a flower, tree, shrub, leaf, reflection, rock—I could go on, but you get the point. Sometimes it’s not even a distinct entity, but rather a pattern, texture, color, or splash of light.
My secondary subject can have strong aesthetic value or not—sometimes it’s there simply to balance the frame, while other times it has almost as much visual appeal as my primary subject. Regardless of its visual strength, my secondary subject’s placement, both in the frame and relative to the scene’s other visual elements, can make or break an image. And lacking a forklift, pretty much the only way to change the relative position of two static objects in a photographic frame is carefull positioning of the camera (and the photographer behind it!).
As a general rule I avoid merging my essential visual elements—to do conflates those elements and sacrifices the illusion of depth that’s so essential in a two-dimentional image. Another thing I try to avoid is objects with visual weight at the edge of my frame because anything that pulls my viewers’ eyes toward the image’s boundary dilutes its impact.
Viewers’ eyes move most effectively through a scene by following lines. Sometimes those lines are tangible, like a horizontal horizon, vertical waterfall, or diagonal river. But often it’s up to me to create virtual lines—an implicit, connect-the-dots path between visual elements, or textures and shapes that frame my primary subject and constrain my viewers’ eyes. For example:
Last week I was at Mobius Arch beneath Mt. Whitney, the final stop of my annual Death Valley photo workshop. After three days of spectacular Death Valley sunrises and sunsets that seem to be trying to outdo the one before it, I didn’t dare to hope that the string would continue when we moved to the Alabama Hills.
The real show here is sunrise, when day’s first rays of sun color the Sierra Crest with alpenglow’s pink hues, even on clear sky mornings. Sunsets here require a little help. The view here faces west, so at sunset you usually find yourself photographing the shaded side of your subjects against the brightest part of the sky—not really a recipe for success. But a few clouds on the western horizon not only add color and texture, they soften the light. And that’s what happened last week.
Before sunset the thin, translucent cirrus layer was lost in the late afternoon glare, but as the sun dropped below the horizon, the clouds picked up its refracted long wavelengths and colored the sky deepening shades of red. Soon the color was so intense that it shaded weathered granite boulders.
The three elements I wanted to feature in my composition were Mobius Arch, the Sierra Crest (Lone Pine Peak and Mt. Whitney), and the colorful sky. As dramatic as the Sierra Crest is, the star of this scene is the arch. With no real access to a telephoto view, filling my frame with the arch means a wide angle lens that includes too much sky. But the vivid color this evening gave me a rare opportunity to include a sky worthy of the rest of the scene.
My Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens allowed me to within a couple feet of the arch while still fitting it in my frame. With the Sierra Crest framed by the arch, I was careful to position myself so both Lone Pine Peak (on the left) and Mt. Whitney (on the right) were visible. Finally, I needed to decide the camera height. When the sky is less interesting, I raise my camera to fill the arch’s opening with the mountains and minimize the sky. But this evening the colorful sky was an asset, so I dropped as low as I could to maximize it.
At such a wide focal length, depth of field was a piece of cake—I didn’t need to check my hyperfocal app to know that I had lots of margin for error. Focusing toward the back of the arch, I easily achieved the front-to-back sharpness I wanted. Click.
A Gallery of Static Juxtapositions