Photographers are responsible for every square inch of their frame—not just the primary subject, but every other point of visual interest, and the relationships of those points to each other. Nevertheless, there’s a natural tendency give too much attention to the primary subject at the expense of the rest of the scene. The result is moments in nature that felt special in person fall flat in an image.
I’m a tripod evangelist because there’s just too much going on in most scenes to nail an image on the first click: Reviewing a hand-held image requires us to pull the camera down from the scene we just shot, while composing on a tripod, we can evaluate and refine without changing the prior shot, ensuring that each subsequent click is an improvement of the prior click.
We wrapped up last week’s Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers workshop in Leidig Meadow, photographing Half Dome reflecting in small vernal pools. I’d spent most of the evening photographing about 30 feet west of this spot, mostly tighter (but still fairly wide) compositions that used the stump in the center of this frame as a foreground balance-point for Half Dome, and the tall trees splitting the middle to frame the right side. The sunset color had left Half Dome, and I saw that most of the group was starting to pack up.
The April full moon doesn’t align well with Half Dome, so it wasn’t a consideration in that night’s sunset plans. But because the moon (two days from full) rose about two hours before sunset, as the light faded I guessed that it might just about be high enough to top the valley wall. With low expectations I glanced toward the high ridge just east of Sentinel Rock (partially visible on the right in this image), where, what to my wondering eye should appear (oh, wait a minute, wrong story)…, and saw the glow of the moon’s leading edge pushing up through the trees.
I called out to the group and soon everyone was back in action. The window to could capture foreground and lunar detail in a single frame was closing fast, but I knew I’d need to relocate to include the moon effectively.
One important concept I try to convey to my workshop students is “visual weight,” the idea that elements in the frame draw the eye the way gravity tugs an object earthward. Visual weight isn’t quantifiable like gravity; it can vary with many factors that change with the conditions, perspective, and even the viewer (that is, visual weight isn’t entirely a function of the object the object itself). Qualities of an object than can pull the eye in an image include: size, brightness, color, contrast, position in the frame, and emotional connection (for example, the moon).
In this scene I felt that the moon and Half Dome carried equal visual weight: Half Dome for its bulk and iconic status, the moon for its brilliance and emotional pull. Given this, if nothing else I needed to balance the two of them in my frame, so I moved eastward along the pool’s bank until Half Dome and the moon were equidistant from their respective sides, connected by the diagonal of the ridge. The diagonal was a bonus, because another important concept is the power of diagonal lines, both literal lines or lines implied by a virtual connection between two objects, and their ability to generate visual tension by moving they eye along two planes at once.
My next concern was how to handle the rest of the scene. I try to avoid cutting strong elements in my frame, so I opted for a vertical that included all of the tall nearby evergreens and their reflection. This required nearly all the width my 24-70 lens offered (if I’d have had more time, I’d have switched to my 16-35), and shrunk the moon quite a bit. Since I’ve always believed that even a small moon (in a wide composition) carries lots of weight, I don’t usually worry too much about that if the rest of the composition calls for it, and I’m happy with my choice here.
With the primary subjects handled, I still needed to address the rest of the frame. My prime concern was the grass in the reflection—though it doesn’t carry nearly the visual weight of Half Dome and the moon, it does have some visual pull, especially the way it stands out against the pristine reflection. I try to avoid anything that my draws the eye to the edge of my frame, so after evaluating my first click on my LCD, I tweaked the composition slightly to keep the borders as free of grass clumps and blades as possible.
In a perfect world the large clump on the bottom left would have had a little more room around it, but the world rarely cooperates perfectly and I soon realized that going wider to give that clump more space would have introduced even greater distractions elsewhere. I was also aware that the stump that had been a focus point of my earlier compositions (lots of visual weight), in my new position was mostly swallowed by the reflection, but there was nothing I could do about that.
The hyperfocal distance at my current focal length and f-stop was 9 feet (focusing nine feet in would have given me “acceptable” sharpness from 4 1/2 feet to infinity), but since the closest grass was at least 10 feet away, I focused farther into the scene to ensure an even sharper background.
Exposing a scene like this on my Sony a7RII is so easy it feels like cheating: I just kept dialing my shutter speed longer until the “zebra” highlight alert appeared in the moon, then pushed the exposure another 2/3 stop knowing I could easily recover the moon’s highlights in Lightroom.
Though this was billed as a “Moonbow and Wildflowers” workshop, we got neither: clouds prevented us from photographing the moonbow in Yosemite Fall, and the wildflowers in Merced River Canyon weren’t quite ready for primetime. But I don’t think anyone in the group would trade what we got for what we’d planned. This workshop included (daylight) waterfall rainbows, multiple clearing storms, more reflections than we could count, and even a little snowfall. Our shoot this evening was a fitting finale.