I’m often asked if I placed a leaf, moved a rock, or “Photoshopped” a moon into an image. Usually the tone is friendly curiosity, but sometimes it carries hints of suspicion bordering on accusation. While these questions are an inevitable part of being a photographer today, I suspect that I get more than my share because I aggressively seek out naturally occurring subjects to isolate and emphasize in my frame. But regardless of the questioner’s tone, my answer is always a cheerful and unapologetic, “No.”
We all know photographers who have no qualms about arranging their scenes to suit their personal aesthetics. The rights and wrongs of that are an ongoing debate I won’t get into, other than to say that I have no problem when photographers arrange their scenes openly, with no intent to deceive. But photography must be a source of pleasure, and my own photographic pleasure derives from discovering and revealing nature, not manufacturing it. I don’t like arranging scenes because I have no illusions that I can improve nature’s order, and am confident that there’s enough naturally occurring beauty to keep me occupied for the rest of my life.
Order vs. chaos
As far as I’m concerned, nature is inherently ordered. In fact, in the grand scheme, “nature” and “order” are synonyms. But humans go to such lengths to control, contain, and manage the natural world that we’ve created a label for our failure to control nature: Chaos. Despite its negative connotation, what humans perceive as “chaos” is actually just a manifestation of the universe’s inexorable push toward natural order.
Imagine all humans leave Earth for a scenic tour of the Milky Way. While we’re gone, no lawns are mowed, no buildings maintained, no fires extinguished, no floods controlled, no Starbucks built. Let’s say we return in 100 Earth years*. While the state of things would no doubt be perceived as chaotic, the reality is that our planet would in fact be closer to its natural state. And the longer we’re away, the more human-imposed “order” would be replaced by natural order.
What does all this have to do with leaves on a rock?
Venturing outdoors with a camera and the mindset that nature is inherently ordered makes me feel like a treasure hunter—I know the treasure is there, I just have to find it. Patterns and relationships hidden by human interference and the din of 360 degree multi-sensory input, further obscured by human bias, snap into coherence when I find the right perspective.
I found this treasure of leaves floating in a pool atop a rock near Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite. What caught my eye was simply the floating leaves, but my image needed to create a relationship between the leaves and their surroundings. With the rock and leaves as my foreground, my background depended on where I set up on the rock’s 360 degree perimeter: pointing upstream included the base of Bridalveil Fall behind a tangle of bare trees; shooting across the creek added a lot of not particularly interesting rocks and trees; putting my back to the creek would have introduced a paved trail; downstream flowed the diagonal slash of Bridalveil Creek.
I chose the downstream view. A wide focal length enabled me to get within a couple of feet of the pool, filling my foreground with the rock, pool, and leaves, while maximizing (and shrinking) the amount of creek and forest in my background.
With the large-scale decisions out of the way, I spent over a half hour (34 minutes, to be precise) refining all the relationships in my frame. For example, I wanted to get high enough that the white water on the near bank didn’t intersect the top of my foreground rock (with the leaves), but not so high that an ugly dirt void left of the foreground rock became too prominent. I wanted to be wide enough that the white water on the right didn’t intersect my frame’s right edge, but not so wide that I included a disorganized mess of downed branches just upstream. I was also careful not to cut off any of the granite bowl containing the pool.
Exposure was easy in full shade (manageable dynamic range). The amount of motion blur in the creek didn’t vary much whether I was at a half second or two seconds, so I just went with ISO 100 (in other words, if I wanted to freeze the water enough to cause a noticeable difference in the blur, I’d have had to raise my ISO to an unacceptable value). I chose f/10 and focused on the back of the rock above the pool. Viewed at 100% my background is very slightly soft, but stopping down enough to make a difference would have resulted in more diffraction throughout the frame than I was comfortable with (since I wanted maximum foreground sharpness at any print size). There was a lot of reflection on this pool, but my (Singh-Ray) polarizer erased it.
* Since this is my fantasy, I’ve chartered a spaceship that accommodates all of humankind and travels at 90 percent of the speed of light. While Earth has indeed aged 100 years during our holiday, we travelers return only a year older. (Dubious? Don’t take my word for it, ask Albert Einstein.)