“Photography’s gift isn’t the ability to reproduce reality, it’s the ability to expand it.”
(The sixth and final installment of my series on photographic reality.)
So far I’ve written about focus, dynamic range, confining borders, motion, and time, but I think most obvious (and also I’m afraid most overlooked) difference separating the camera’s vision from our own is the missing dimension: depth.
Photography attempts to render a three dimensional world in a two dimensional medium—the most photographers can hope for is the illusion of depth. While anyone can put a camera to their eye and compose the lateral, left-to-right aspect of a scene, translating their own three-dimensional experience to their camera’s two-dimensional reality is a leap that many miss. This may explain why a sense of depth is often the most significant quality separating a merely good image from an outstanding image.
Achieving the illusion of depth starts with looking beyond your primary subject and finding a complementary foreground or background: If your primary subject is nearby, find a background object, shape, or color that frames, balances, and/or helps your subject stand out; conversely, if your primary subject is in the distance, look for foreground elements that can lead your viewers’ eyes through the frame without distracting or competing for attention.
Once you have your foreground/background elements worked out, your composition isn’t complete. In your three-dimensional view, size and distance are easily interpreted, something we stereographic humans take for granted. But your scene’s depth is lost to your camera. In a two-dimensional world aligned objects at varying distances loose the separation that makes them stand out—you need to visually separate these merged objects—put them on different lines of sight—to allow your viewer to imagine the depth you see at capture. I can’t emphasize how important this is.
In my many years of observing and assisting other photographers working to improve their images, I’ve decided that the single most significant factor holding them back is their ignorance of, or unwillingness to wield, their control over their images’ depth relationships. There seems to be an invisible force that binds tripods to their first landing place. Overcoming this force (to which I’m not immune) requires vigilant attention to each visual element in your frame and taking whatever steps necessary to ensure that each stands alone. If you can’t achieve separation from your current position, move! Simply repositioning a little left/right, up/down, forward/backward really can make a huge difference. In other words, in a static landscape, it’s your job to be dynamic.
With the benefit of a 360 degree view, it was clear that all the elements were in place for a spectacular sunset atop Yosemite’s Sentinel Dome. An afternoon rain had scoured the air of color-robbing particles, and an opening on the west western horizon left a clear path for the setting sun to illuminate the clouds above Half Dome to the east. But as spectacular as I expected the color above Half Dome to be, I wasn’t going to be satisfied with just another pretty picture of Half Dome at sunset.
One of the things I like most about photographing from Sentinel Dome is the variety of foreground subjects: rocks, cracks, and of course the solitary jeffrey pine made famous by Ansel Adams and others, now dead and on its side. On this evening, guessing (hoping) that the earlier downpour had filled indentations I remembered on Sentinel’s southeast flank, I headed over there.
One thing I pride myself in is arriving at a location early, well before the best conditions, to allow time to anticipate the light and assemble the elements of my composition. Being such a deliberate shooter, this is really a necessity for me. So when I found these pools right where I’d hoped, I was able to take the time to figure out how to use them. I started by moving around quite a bit, first to find the angle that would best frame Half Dome with the pools, then forward and backward to get an idea of the best distance and focal length that would give Half Dome enough size while giving the pools enough room. A factor in these distance/focal-length considerations was finding the angle that would allow me to include a reflection of the clouds, which meant moving up and down as well. In this case I dropped quite low, probably no more than a foot off the ground, taking care not to get so low that the bottom of Half Dome merged with the edge of Sentinel Dome. With the composition worked out, I did some depth of field figuring and decided that I’d better stop all the way down to f20 to ensure a perfectly sharp foreground and acceptably sharp Half Dome.I focused on the granite about eight feet away and think I did a pretty good job achieving front-to-back sharpness. (Today I’d use the DOF app on my iPhone, but checking it now confirms that I did okay.)
Being on a tripod with no motion in the scene meant I was able to go with whatever shutter speed gave me the exposure I wanted, at my camera’s native ISO 100. I metered on the foreground and used a graduated neutral density filter to darken the bright sky, starting my exposures before the best color started (you never know when the color will peak—it’s best to have a few too many images than to realize after the fact that the color you’re waiting for isn’t coming), monitoring my histogram and adjusting down in 1/3 stop increments as the light dropped.
On this evening the color just kept getting better and better, until the air seemed to buzz with color and the entire landscape glowed red. Believe it or not, the red was even more vivid than what you see here, but I decided to tone down the saturation a bit because there comes a point where Mother Nature seems to defy credibility. This remains one of my favorite images.