Seeing the whole frame

Gary Hart Photography: Moonrise Reflection, Leidig Meadow, Yosemite

Moonrise Reflection, Leidig Meadow, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1 second
ISO 100

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.

For example

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.

Using the whole frame 

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

8 Comments on “Seeing the whole frame

  1. Gary……That is a very, very nice image. Congrats. I assume all the roads are open now. We are planning a Route 395 run later this month… just hate how they changed the name of the arch in the Alabama Hills from Sunrise Arch to Mobious Arch. Meunch, Rowell, Lepp and I all knew it as sunrise in the days when there was no rock lined walkway to it. ….heading to Montana in June.

    Dan Blackburn

    • Thanks, Dan. Big Oak Flat road (off 120) into Yosemite Valley is still closed until further notice, and of course 120 through Tuolumne Meadows and over Tioga Pass is closed, probably until June at the earliest. In Yosemite Valley there are closures and detours on the east side—more inconvenient than major problems.

  2. Lovely photo! I could not have put into words why it appeals to me, SO thank you for doing it for me! As always, your writing helps me to learn: I know I’ll be more cognizant of balance in my future landscapes. Thanks for your time and knowledge!

  3. How are you Gary…Well, as you probably know by now the Sony A9 has finally made an appearance. Albeit pro-orders though. I just got back from a Safari Workshop a couple of weeks ago. And from what I’ve been reading about the A9, I’m assuming it’ll primarily be for “action” shots. Yet, I’m not seeing any long telephoto lenses that you can use with the body. Are you interpreting that to be true as well? I’m selling one of my Nikon cameras and a lens so I can get the Sony 70-200mm F2.8. After the safari, the bar has been risen so high that if I saw some antelope or a bear here an there, I just don’t think I would take photo’s. I mean it would definitely have to be in that spectacular range for sure. I saw a lot of colorful birds over in Africa that were just plain unique. I’m even trying to process if I should go the part time “birder” route. For sure raptures, but there are some unbelievable birds with myriads of colors flying around out there that are pretty cool. Hope all is well with you and whatever you’ve gotten yourself into.

    Gary Otto

  4. very beautiful image, and thanks so much for the thoughtful teaching. i am a new owner of a sony a7rii, and would very much appreciate your saying what level you have your “zebra” warning set at, to use it the way you did for this image. thanks.

    • Thanks, Jennifer. I set mine to 100+, and would set it even higher if I could. I find that shooting raw, I the highlights are still quite recoverable at least 2/3-stop beyond the exposure at which the “zebras” appear.

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