Lots of variables go into creating a successful landscape image. Many people struggle with the scene variables—light, depth, and motion—that are managed by your camera’s exposure settings: shutter speed, f-stop, ISO. Others struggle more with the composition variables: identifying, isolating, and framing a subject. (I’m not denying that there’s overlap between the exposure and composition sides of image creation, but leveraging that overlap requires independent mastery of both sides.)
Getting the exposure variables out of the way
Because I want to write more about the composition decisions that went into this image, I’ll only touch briefly on my exposure choices for the above image. I approach every scene with at my camera’s best ISO (100) and lens’s “ideal” f-stop (generally f11, where lenses tend to be sharpest, the depth of field is good, and diffraction is minimal).
Given that motion wasn’t a factor (I was on a tripod, the wind was calm, and the river’s motion didn’t concern me), I stuck with ISO 100. And even though the submerged rocks provided lots of visual interest in the immediate foreground, my 16mm focal length provided more than enough depth of field at f11—focusing about four feet into the scene would give me sharpness from around two feet to infinity. That was easy.
With those two variables established, I spot-metered on the brightest part of the scene and set dialed my shutter speed until the exposure was as bright as felt I could get away with without hopelessly blowing the highlights. This ensured that my scene (shadows included) was as bright as I could safely make it.
Here’s what I was thinking
Reflections of El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall make Valley View one of the most photographed locations in Yosemite Valley. I usually I try to find something a little different than the standard view here, but the cloudy vestiges of a passing storm reflecting in the Merced River provide an irresistible opportunity to take advantage of everything that makes Valley View so special.
Some scenes you can walk up to and plant your tripod pretty much anywhere without much difference in your background subjects (though that’s rarely the case with foreground/background relationships). That’s not the case at Valley View, where the difficulty starts with distracting, non-photogenic shrubs on the near riverbank—to keep them out of the frame, you need to hop the rocks all the way down to the river.
The bigger problem at Valley View is getting all the primary elements into the image—too far to the left, and El Capitan disappears behind a stand of evergreens; too far to the right and another stand of evergreens occludes most or all of Bridalveil Fall. I moved into the fifteen-foot section of riverbank that gives me what I consider an adequate view of both, and started studying the submerged and protruding rocks right in front of me, looking for a workable foreground.
I’ll often move around quite a bit to control foreground/background subject relationships; in this case I found little benefit from shifting and stayed more or less in the same place. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t vary my shots—I tried a variety of compositions, but wide and tight, horizontal (above) and vertical (below). Some used lots of sky, while others (like this one) minimized the sky to emphasize the foreground. Still others were of the reflection only, or of the reflections with just a thin stripe of the opposite riverbank. The other variable I played with was my polarizer, which I turned to maximize and minimize the reflection, plus a combination (like both images here).
As with many images, composition at the top of the page required some compromises. I liked the way the vertical version leads the eye through the scene, and frames it with the two most striking elements—El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall. But I also wanted a horizontal rendering that would open up the scene and express its broad grandeur.
An often forgotten component of successful photography is what gets left out—an image’s perimeter are frequently home to distractions overlooked by photographers too drawn to their primary subjects. So the problem making a Valley View horizontal composition that’s wide enough to include the reflection and river rocks, is the introduction of potentially distracting elements on the far left and right.
In this case my greatest problem was the scene’s left side, with its bare trees, brown riverbank, and exposed rocks, it was rife with potential distractions to deal with. Shifting the entire composition to the right would have thrown the frame off balance, and added a lot of real estate that wasn’t worthy of the scene. Going tighter would have sacrificed too much river rock and reflection, an essential feature in my mind. I could have removed my shoes and socks, rolled up my pants, and walked forward through the (frigid) water—that move would have solved all my problems, but probably wouldn’t have been appreciated by all the other nearby photographers.
I ended up using the trees and rocks to frame the left side of the image, taking care to allow the entire arc of the riverbank to complete so it didn’t look like the nearby rocks (on the left) belonged a different scene. The vertical version doesn’t have these problems, and though it sacrifices the breadth of the horizontal composition, hold a gun to my head and I might tell you it’s the vertical version I prefer. (But it’s nice to have a choice.)