This week’s photo, by Barry Hamilton, is from White Sands National Monument, New Mexico. It features a simple, strong composition, with a clear focal point—the bush. That bush is too near the left edge of the photograph to qualify for the rule of thirds, but I think it works because it’s balanced by the ripples in the dune and the pink clouds. Yet another successful violation of the rule of thirds!
The pre-dawn glow is beautiful. Even though the sun wasn’t up yet, the light has a strong direction from the right, bringing out the texture of the dune. (Soft light with direction is one the subtleties I talk about in this article from Outdoor Photographer.) The pinks, golds, and blues form a pleasing color palette. Viewed larger you can see some nice details, like the animal tracks in the sand.
Barry says he found this shrub while scouting the day before. In my critique from two weeks ago I talked about the importance of flexibility, of adapting to conditions when the light and weather don’t meet your expectations. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan; planning and scouting are still vital components of landscape photography. The more intimately you know a location, the better your photographs will be. When traveling I’d rather spend two weeks in one area, getting to know the best viewpoints and understanding how the light changes, than spend two days apiece in seven different spots.
Technically this photograph is well executed. The contrast in this scene was low, so that made the exposure easy. There’s a lot of depth—the bush was only a few feet away from the camera—but everything appears to be in focus. That seems surprising, since the aperture was only f/9, but Barry told me that he took three frames, each focused at different distances, and blended them together in Photoshop to get the necessary depth of field.
This is a technique I use fairly often when I can’t get everything in focus with my smallest aperture. But with a wide-angle lens like this (28mm), properly focused, it should have been relatively easy to get enough depth of field at a small aperture like f/22. I can only guess that Barry was concerned that his lens wouldn’t be sharp at its smallest opening. Small apertures can cause diffraction, and a theoretical softening of the image. But I don’t believe theories unless I’ve tested them myself. I haven’t used Barry’s lens, a Canon 24-105mm f/4L, but with my 17-40 f/4L and 70-200 f/4L lenses I’ve found that while the center is sharper at middle apertures like f/8 and f/11—which fits with the theory—the corners are much crisper at f/22. So I’d rather sacrifice a little bit of sharpness in the center to gain a lot at the edges. Portrait photographers may not care about corner detail, but landscape photographers should. It’s important to test your equipment under conditions that are typical for you and the type of images you make.
One thing that struck me immediately about this photograph is that it looks flat—that is, lacking in contrast, especially in the foreground. Raw files often seem rather dull at first. (This is an issue I address in my Zone System article for Outdoor Photographer.) Here’s another version where I increased the contrast and lightened the foreground. The added contrast incidentally boosted the saturation as well.
I also warmed up the color balance slightly, but not enough to eliminate the blue tint in the shadowed sides of the ripples. Part of what makes this image effective is the color contrast between the warm yellowish tint of the bush and the cooler blues in the dune, and I didn’t want to lose that by completely neutralizing the tones of the sand. A neutral color balance is not always as expressive as one with a subtle tint.
Digital imaging has given us tremendous power and flexibility in processing our images and changing their appearance. Most people, if they set their minds to it, can learn the tools of Photoshop, Lightroom, Nikon Capture, or whatever software they prefer. I think it’s more difficult to know what to do with those tools—to find the right color balance, or know when you’ve added enough contrast, but not too much. Of course these things are subjective; there are no right or wrong answers. But I think it helps to gain a frame of reference by spending time in galleries and museums. Look at the contrast in prints by Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, or the treatment of color balance and saturation by a modern color darkroom master like Christopher Burkett.
Thanks Barry for sharing your photograph! You can view more of Barry’s work on Flickr.
If you’d like your images considered for future critiques, just upload them to the Flickr group I created for this purpose. If you’re not a Flickr member yet, joining is free and easy. You’ll have to read and accept the rules for the group before adding images, and please, no more than five photos per person per week. I’ll post the next critique on February 23rd or 24th. Thanks for participating!