Moving the eye

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Dawn, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, California

Sierra Dawn, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, California
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f/4
.4 seconds
ISO 100

With virtually every still camera now equipped with video capability, the last few years have seen an explosion of nature videos. When done well, videos of nature can be quite effective, conveying motion and engaging both eyes and ears to reveal the world in a manner that’s closer to the human experience than a still image is. But like other sensory media whose demise has been anticipated by the arrival of something “better,” (with apologies to Mark Twain) let me say that the rumors of still photography’s death at the hands of videography have been greatly exaggerated.

Just as I much prefer reading the book to watching the movie, I prefer the unique perspective a still image presents. For example, while motion in a video is similar to being there, a still image gives me the freedom to apply my own motion, at my own pace. A video’s frame rate dictates the pace of my relationship with the scene, while entering the world of a photograph gives my eyes the freedom to linger and explore a scene’s nooks and crannies, to savor its nuances at my own pace.

In a video my eyes are essentially fixed while the scene moves before them. In a still image, on the other hand, my eyes do the moving, often following lines in the scene the way a hiker follows a trail to reach a destination. But also like a hiker, I can choose to venture cross-country through an image to more closely scrutinize whatever looks interesting.

About this image

I’d been in the Eastern Sierra, exploring the Alabama Hills specifically looking for scenes near the famous Mobius Arch that didn’t include the arch. Detouring from the well-worn path back to the car, I headed up a rocky creek bed that was carrying water for the first time in recent memory. Soon the creek’s quiet whisper was replaced by the sound of a more agitated rush, hinting at a little faster water somewhere around the next bend. Continuing upstream, I scrambled up a large boulder and was rewarded with an unobstructed view of the Sierra Crest, freshly glazed with snow. Below me the creek cut a diagonal path across weathered granite, rushing through a narrow gap and over a rocky ledge.

The light was poor for photography that evening, so my camera stayed in my bag. Instead, I simply cinched my jacket against the January wind and appreciated the view. Standing there, I thought about the next day’s sunrise, its softer light, and (especially) the nearly full moon that would descend through twilight’s pastel hues.

Having already plotted the moon’s path, I was able to visualize its nearly full disk at the top of my frame, low in the sky between Mt. Whitney and Mt. Williamson. But including the creek in the same frame would pose a problem. Normally I’d drop to creek level to shrink the middle-ground, but because the creek was in a steep-walled ravine of its own creation, any view that included the creek and the Sierra Crest needed to be on higher ground. So I scanned the nearby terrain and soon found a narrow gap between two elevated rocks, just wide enough for me and my tripod with a little creative contortion (by both tripod and photographer), and just high enough to see the mountains.

The next morning I beelined back to “my” spot and went right to work in the predawn gloaming. Wedged into the rocks about five vertical feet above the creek, my perch felt more awkward than dangerous. To fit the entire scene, I used the full width of my Sony/Zeiss 16-35 lens. I was thrilled by how well each visual element meshed vantage point: the mountains—Lone Pine Peak, Mt. Whitney, and Mt. Williamson connected to the tumbling cascade by a slash of moonlit creek, and moon as the scene’s exclamation point. I even liked the way the nearby granite sand and rocks, and the shrubs stripped bare by winter cold and wind, filled the empty surroundings with a pleasing textures and shapes without distracting.

Once I identified and refined my composition until I was confident I’d done as well as I could with it, I clicked at regular intervals to capture the entire sunrise sequence. The moment of this image was darker to my eyes what you see in this frame, dark enough that the creek still reflected moonlight. I was particularly grateful for the dynamic range of my Sony a7RII, which allowed me to capture all this wonderful detail in my scene without turning the moon into a useless white blob.

Images that Move the Eye

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6 Comments on “Moving the eye

  1. Absolutely fabulous shot of Mt. Whitney Gary. Really enjoyed the article….the how you previsualized the scene etc.

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