One of my earliest photographic lessons was that clicking a picture of a beautiful subject, no matter how beautiful, does not ensure a beautiful result. A vivid sunset can indeed be quite pleasing to the eye, but picture of that sunset riddled with rooftops and telephone poles—well…, not so much. This got me thinking more about the individual components of a beautiful scene, and how I might best emphasize them and eliminate distractions.
Like most landscape photographers, I started with the low hanging fruit, concentrating on sunrises and sunsets in beautiful locations, but it wasn’t long before I realized that I wasn’t the only person doing this. Of course I haven’t stopped targeting this obvious beauty, but I also started looking for ways to capture nature’s more subtle beauty.
A Yosemite sunset, where everything in the scene is at infinity and stationary, can be captured on today’s cameras in full automatic mode. But framing, focusing, and freezing/blurring more intimate subjects requires complete mastery of motion, depth, and light. This mastery requires a clear understanding of the exposure variables: shutter speed, f-stop, and ISO. Fortunately, I had the advantage of cutting my photographic teeth back before cameras could control every aspect of exposure and focus, and with no ability to check my decision until the pictures returned from the lab, the wrong exposure choices wasted precious dollars—a great motivator.
One of the first intimate subjects I turned my camera toward was the dogwood that decorate Yosemite Valley each spring. Even though I was pretty comfortable with my camera’s exposure variables, it still took a little effort to figure out how to blend these technical skills with the composition side of the craft. The key for me was consciously identifying the qualities of my subject that draws my eye. For example, with dogwood, it’s the symmetrical flowers, the flowers’ candelabra-like spacing, the tree’s translucent petals and leaves, and (especially) the illusion of weightlessness of a suspended dogwood bloom.
Armed with that understanding and my exposure skills, I developed a toolbox of techniques for highlighting these features. Whether it was a close composition with a narrow depth of field against a soft forest background, a swaying dogwood branch suspended above flowing water, or a single bloom with a blurred Yosemite icon in the background, I was having a blast. And it was easy to these techniques to many subjects, from colorful leaves in autumn, to brilliant poppies each spring.
About this image
The dogwood in Yosemite Valley were at peak bloom, but I was dealing with the dynamic range problems inherent to a sunny spring afternoon. Photographers are frequently admonished to “Never blow the highlights,” but I saw an opportunity to use the bright sky to my advantage. Finding a shaded branch with three perfect dogwood flowers high overhead, I moved around until the branch was directly above and against the blue sky. Spot-metering on one of the flowers, I knew that everything my eye saw as blue, my camera would turn a hopelessly overexposed white that becomes a perfect background for these beautiful flowers.
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