It’s fun to browse the thumbnails from a shoot in chronological order to see the evolution of that day’s process. While can’t always remember specific choices, it’s always clear from the progression of my images that I was indeed quite conscious of what I was doing. I can look at one thumbnail and usually predict what the next will be.
This January morning in the Alabama Hills started for me about forty-five minutes before sunrise. When the sun finally warmed Mt. Whitney, a 95% waning gibbous moon was about to dip below the Sierra crest; comparing images, it’s clear I’d moved no more than twenty feet from the location of that morning’s earliest images. This is pretty typical of my approach—unlike many (but not all) photographers, who actively bounce around a location in search of something different, I tend to seek the scene until I find it, then work it to within an inch of its life. If I’m moving around, it usually means I haven’t found something that completely satisfies me.
Is mine the best approach? Of course not, but it is the best approach for me. There is no all encompassing rule for workflow in the field, except maybe to be true to your instincts. Because I happen to be very deliberate in my approach to many things, and can be incredibly (obsessively?) patient when I sense the potential for something I want, that’s the way I shoot. But, regardless of changing conditions and possible compositional variations, some photographers would go crazy locking into one scene. And just as my deliberate approach continually reveals details I’d have missed had I moved on sooner, it sometimes cheats me of even better opportunities waiting just around the corner. But I learned a long time ago not to stress about what I might be missing (because for me it’s even worse to chase what’s around the corner only to find what I end up with doesn’t match what I left).
Early on this chilly morning I found a relationship between a nearby stack of boulders and the distant Sierra peaks (Mt. Whitney in particular); the more time I spent with the scene, the more I saw and the better all the elements seemed to fit for me, so I just kept working. It didn’t hurt that conditions were changing almost as quickly as I could compose. Clouds ascended from behind Mt. Williamson as if churned out by a cloud making machine, sprinted south past Mt. Whitney, and disappeared behind Lone Pine Peak. On their way they took on whatever hue the rising sun was delivering, from white (before the sun) to vivid pink to amber.
Comparing today’s image to the image in my previous post, I see that my composition shifted to account for the moon. In the earlier image the most prominent boulder and Mt. Whitney serve as a set that anchors the center of the frame. In the later image I keep the set together but offset them to the left to balance the moon’s extreme visual weight. And while at first glance it appears both images were captured from the same spot with just slight focal length and direction adjustments, the height and position of the foreground boulder relative to Mt. Whitney’s summit shows that I’ve moved a little left and about twenty feet closer.
Relationships between elements in a frame are essential to an image’s success—controlling these relationships is a matter of moving up/down, left/right, forward/backward. Without remembering my decision to move that morning, I can still reconstruct my likely thought process: The more I worked the scene, the more clear I became on where the boulders’ left and right boundaries should be. Moving left and closer let me go wide enough to include the moon and clouds, fill the foreground with no more of the foreground boulders than I wanted, and balance the frame with the boulder/Whitney pair on the left and the moon on the right.
So while I do indeed stick with one scene for a long time, I’m far from static. Each frame is slightly different from the previous one. Like most of my favorite images, this Whitney sunrise moonset is an evolution; it started in the dark, evolving with the conditions and my growing familiarity with the scene’s elements.
There are no guarantees in nature, and I’ve had my share of “panic shoots” when something unexpected forced me to run around frantically searching for a scene to go with the moment. But when this morning’s dance of light, clouds, and moon blended into one of those magic moments photographers dream about, I was ready.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.