Juggling cats on Maui

Facing West, Molokai from West Maui, Hawaii

Facing West, Molokai from West Maui, Hawaii
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
16/5 second
ISO 100
20 mm

Coordinating all of the rapidly changing exposure and composition variables sometimes feels like juggling cats (thankfully without the bloodshed). The difficulty is compounded by the unfortunate need to simultaneously process input from two sides of the brain (creative and logical) that don’t often play well together.

For me an image usually starts with a feeling or connection, not just the scene’s now, but also for its what-might-be. Using that seed, a general idea for a composition emerges. Next, I evaluate the scene’s exposure, depth, and motion variables, and how to best manage them with my camera’s aperture, shutter, and ISO settings. Usually compromises are required, as one need usually contradicts another (see “cat juggling,” above). And finally, when I think everything’s in place, I return to my creative instincts and allow my intuitive side to actually click the shutter—that is, it has to feel right. Often this is a multi-click process requiring multiple frames, with analysis and refinement in between, each frame informing the next until I’m satisfied.

Below is a summary of my mental process as I tried to turn this beautiful Maui sunset into a photograph. Its genesis came long before the final click (and the beautiful color that made this moment special).

  • Hmmm—beautiful scene, with real potential for sunset color -> Wander around a bit in search of a foreground to go with the Pacific sunset.
  • Love these pools—would love to balance them with the setting sun and Molokai in the distance -> If I stand here, this long pool creates a nice diagonal pointing toward Molokai, and connecting the background pool on the left with the sun creates a corresponding (balancing) diagonal in the other direction.
  • Don’t want to cut Molokai off -> Definitely need the 17-40.
  • But if I go too far right with my composition, I crowd the sun and cut off part of the reflective pool on the left -> Go super-wide with the 17-40.
  • Don’t want to go all the way out to 17mm and risk losing sharpness at the corners -> 20mm will work.
  • Yeah, I think I can do something with this composition -> Set up the tripod.
  • Lots of dynamic range here -> Time for the Singh-Ray graduated neutral density filters. Three soft? Horizon still too bright. Two hard? Maybe. Three reverse? Even better. Will deal with disguising the GND transition in Photoshop.
  • Need to be sharp from front to back -> Small aperture, but not so small that diffraction or softness (lenses tend to be less sharp at their extreme apertures) is a problem. Hmmm, at this wide focal length (20mm) my hyperfocal app says f11 will give me “acceptable” sharpness. To increase my margin for error I stop down to f16 because I know from experience, at f16 on my camera, diffraction and lens softness will be tolerable.
  • But there’s only one plane of perfect sharpness, so even at f16, I need to make sure the perfectly sharp plane is in my foreground -> Live-view focus on the small rock jutting diagonally near the front of the large pool at my feet.
  • Great sunset color reflecting in the background pool -> With my polarizer, dial reflections up. But…
  • Love the green translucence of the foreground pool -> Dial reflections down.
  • Sigh -> Find middle point with the polarizer.
  • My GND darkens the clouds on the right too much -> Will need to dodge in Photoshop, but dodging could expose noise—make sure ISO is 100 despite the fading light.
  • Without direct sunlight, these black rocks are sure dark -> Push exposure (increase shutter speed because aperture and ISO are already decided) as far to the right (in the histogram) as possible.
  • The timing of the waves completely changes the image -> Monitor the waves’ break and action; time exposures for the desired effect.
  • At 3.2 seconds the motion blur in the waves creates a nice, dynamic texture, but be careful that the waves don’t overrun the foreground pool -> Wait for a large wave to break on the farthest rocks, pause for a second, then click. (If my shutter speed had been too long for the desired wave effect, I’d have bumped my ISO and dealt with the noise in processing.)
  • The setting sun is a ticking clock leaving only a small window when everything comes together -> Expose too soon and the sun blows out and the color fades; expose too late and the sun is gone (tick, tick, tick…).
  • Click, review, adjust, repeat until satisfied (or time’s up).
  • Move on to another scene and start over.

Join me in a future Hawaii photo workshop

A Hawaii gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh your screen to reorder the display.

11 Comments on “Juggling cats on Maui

  1. I love this article Gary! I love to see how different photographers approach landscape photography! I really enjoy your photography on your Facebook page!

  2. Great review of thought process-I usually get about halfway through,click and take my chances,not getting the photo quite right,…
    Look forward to a live demo at fall workshop.

  3. Gary, I enjoyed reading your “in the field workflow”, very informative.

  4. Gary,

    Great image and explanation of your thought process. Hope your spring allergies are holding up.

    Steve Hirsch

    • Thanks, Steve. My allergies are just starting to kick in, just in time for my favorite time of year to be outside. (The care package you sent last year was a huge help.)

  5. Seems to me that photography is like juggling, but with each toss something different comes down to catch (I tossed a bean bag and now I have a banana?). Or maybe it’s like joggling (juggling + jogging (I hate the word jogging)), which really *is* a thing. Great photo and loved peeking inside the amazing brain that managed to create this gorgeous image.

    • Thanks, Leslie. I think my metaphor falls apart under close scrutiny, but your refinement helps. I learned to juggle when I played baseball (pitchers have lots of down time) but never managed to carry it over to my running. Guess it’s not too late. 🙂

  6. The mental gymnastics of photography! Great insight into your process, mine is similar, albeit a bit more trial & error and sometimes, just sometimes, success. Even if I don’t capture the image in my head, the process is always good, particularly in such a magical location. Heading to Kauai with the family soon, this time, with my ‘big girl’ camera in tow….hope I can capture some of that magic. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Thanks, Susan. Trial and error is a completely valid approach as long as every click has a purpose—even if it doesn’t result in a masterpiece, it advances your understanding.

      Kauai is awesome—enjoy!

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