Photo Critique Series: Space and Separation in a Mt. Shasta Photograph

Mt. Shasta and Lake Siskiyou by Kyle Jones

Mt. Shasta and Lake Siskiyou by Kyle Jones

I know it’s been awhile since the last critique; it’s been hard to find the time lately. But many of you have told me how much you like the critiques, and I really appreciate that, and I’m happy to have the opportunity to do another one. I’m writing this critique, rather than doing it by video, because, well, it’s just easier. But I may still do video critiques again in the future.

The subject of this critique is a photo by Kyle Jones called “Mount Shasta and Lake Siskiyou,” from the far northern reaches of California. I think this image has some interesting things to teach us about space and separation in a composition, and shutter speeds for water.

Light and Weather

You’re looking north here, with the sun rising to the right (east) and illuminating Mt. Shasta. The low-angle sidelight creates some nice texture on the mountain ridges and highlights the cloud. The faint mist on the water adds a little early-morning mood. Conditions here weren’t extraordinary, but certainly more interesting than if the sky were clear and cloudless. Despite the cloud and mist the mood here is bright and sunny rather than dramatic or mysterious. It looks like this was made a little after sunrise, since the light was already hitting the trees on the left, so perhaps catching the very first light on the peak would have added a stronger mood—but I like the feeling of this photograph as it is.

Composition—Space and Separation

Kyle told me: “I arrived well before dawn and spent some time trying to find a composition I liked along with a shutter speed that looked good in the water. I wanted an ‘imperfect’ reflection with some ripples in the water and I didn’t want to blur the water with a long shutter speed. I took about 25 shots with just the water in the foreground before I found this rock. I thought it anchored the shot well and I liked the fact that the rock had some character. I took another dozen shots at various shutter speeds with this rock in the foreground, finally settling on this one as my favorite.”

Overall the composition in this photograph is simple, clean, and strong. All the main elements—cloud, mountain, reflection, and the foreground rock—stand out clearly, with little unnecessary clutter.

However, while I like simplicity, and rarely advocate including empty space in a photograph, in this case I think the composition is too tight. Three important elements have been cut off along the edges of the frame—the cloud, the reflection of the cloud in the water, and the reflection of the foreground rock.

Important objects along the edge of the frame need to be either completely included or cut off enough to show that you meant it. If just the edge of an object is missing it looks accidental, like you weren’t paying attention—which you probably weren’t! Here I yearn to see the whole shape of that cloud, and its reflection, and see the complete round shape of the rock and its reflection as well. Cutting off the edges of those elements makes the photograph feel cramped, and this mountain scene should feel majestic and expansive.

When composing a photograph our attention is often focused on the middle, and it’s easy to overlook the edges. To prevent this, try to get into the habit of running your eyes along the edge of the frame before you press the shutter. This effort will often reveal small distractions that could be excluded, or the edge of an important object that has been cut off. Since reflections aren’t “real” solid objects we often pay less attention to them, so make a conscious effort to pay extra attention to how reflected objects meet the edge of the frame, or merge with other objects.

Speaking of mergers, there’s one small one here between the foreground rock and the reflection of the cloud. It’s just as important to have separation between elements within the photograph as between objects and the edge of the frame. Here that separation could have been achieved by taking a step to the left, which would have moved the cloud reflection to the left relative to the rock, and given both the rock and the cloud reflection their own distinct shapes. Or moving far enough to the right could have placed the cloud reflection to the right of the rock.

Of course moving even further could have kept the rock out of the frame completely. While the rock isn’t bad, does it really add much to the photograph? It does “anchor” the image, as Kyle said, and adds some depth. But the photograph would be simpler without it, and the beautiful rippled reflection might be emphasized more if it wasn’t competing with the rock for attention.

Centering and Symmetry

The composition is quite symmetrical, both vertically and horizontally, with the horizon in the center, and the mountain centered left-to-right. I’m not a stickler for the rule of thirds, as every situation has its own logic, and sometimes the center is the best place to put your subject. With reflections, like the one in this photo, centering the horizon creates symmetry and repetition, as the bottom of the photograph mirrors the top, and this often works very well.

The problem here is that the image is not symmetrical—that foreground rock interrupts the symmetry and throws the image slightly off balance. If the rock is going to be in there I think it would work better to avoid that centered horizon and give the foreground, with the water and rock, a little more space than the sky. And by taking a step to the left and putting some separation between the rock and the cloud reflection, as I suggested above, you could move the mountain toward the left side of the frame and balance it with the rock on the right.

Again, of course, Kyle could have moved far enough left or right to keep the rock out of the frame, and then the symmetrical, centered composition might have worked better. But even then it wouldn’t be perfectly symmetrical, since the water was rippled, so perhaps putting the horizon a little above center and giving more emphasis to the interesting, wavy reflection might have been more dynamic.

Of course all of my suggestion here assume that Kyle could have used a wider lens. He told me this image was made with a 28-75mm lens at 28mm, but I’m pretty sure he owns shorter focal lengths than this. If not, vertical framing might have worked, though maybe only without the rock. Since the main points of interest are in the middle, a vertical orientation, eliminating some dead space on the right and left sides, would have been worth considering. To show the potential of that idea, I (crudely) cloned out the rock and cropped the sides. Imagine this as a vertical photograph, with a little more room at the top, and even more at the bottom:

Without the rock a vertical orientation might work (imagine a little more room at the top here, and even more room on the bottom)

Without the rock a vertical orientation might work (imagine a little more room at the top here, and even more room on the bottom)

Whenever you compose a photograph ask yourself, “What catches my eye the most? What do I really want to emphasize?” If I were standing in front of this scene my answer would have been, “The ripples.” Yes, there’s a big mountain out there, but the ripples are just gorgeous, and visually more interesting than anything else. I might have even zoomed in and made an abstract of just the water—something I did in a similar situation last year (see the second photo in this post). But if I was going to include the mountain then a vertical orientation, without the rock, would fill most of the frame with mountain, cloud, and rippled reflections, with a minimum of space devoted to less interesting elements.

Technical Considerations

The photo was made with a Canon XT camera on a tripod with a Tamron 28-75 f/2.8 lens at 28mm. It was shot at ISO 100, 1/10s, and f/7.1. Kyle says he’s sure he used a polarizer, and is pretty sure he used a Singh-Ray 2-stop soft-edge graduated neutral-density filter.

This version was processed in Lightroom 3. Kyle says that he used the Camera Standard profile and Adobe’s daylight white balance. “I used the point curve to add some contrast and added a little recovery (5) to keep some detail in the clouds. Exposure, Fill, Blacks, Brightness, and Contrast were all set to zero and the Clarity/Vibrance/Saturation all set to 15. I also used the Adjustment Brush to select the foreground rock and increase its exposure (by 0.78) to bring out some detail.”

The overall exposure looks great. If Kyle did use the graduated filter—and it looks like it to me—it worked well to balance the light of the mountain and clouds with their reflections. Kyle avoided using too strong a filter and making the reflection lighter than the actual cloud, something you would never see in real life. The brightest part of the cloud still looks a little hot, so using a little more Recovery (or bringing down Highlights or Whites in Lightroom 4) might help.

I love that Kyle chose a fast enough shutter speed to preserve the ripples and textures in the water. You don’t need perfectly calm water for great reflections. In fact it’s often more interesting when there are some small ripples like this—as long as you use a reasonably fast shutter speed to preserve the appearance of those ripples, rather than letting the water blur and smooth out.

Everything appears to be in focus at this small image size, but there’s considerable depth here, and  f/7.1 is not a very small aperture, so I wonder if everything would really look sharp at a bigger size. A smaller aperture like f/11 or f/16 would have provided enough depth of field to make sure both foreground and background were sharp. (You can see a slightly larger version here.)

Of course setting a smaller aperture would have required using a slower shutter speed, potentially blurring the water, unless you pushed up the ISO. Personally I would have been willing to live with a  little more noise from the higher ISO to make sure that I had both the aperture and shutter speed I needed.

The polarizing filter might be a little overdone. The giveaway is that the blue sky is darker in the middle and lighter on the sides, something you wouldn’t see in real life. Polarizers have a very strong effect with sidelight, sometimes too strong, so in situations like this I prefer to rotate the polarizer to less-than-maximum strength so that it’s effect isn’t obvious. It’s easy to darken blues later in software to increase the contrast between clouds and sky if necessary.

The processing looks great. Shadows are dark, as shadows should be, but with a hint of detail.The overall contrast seems just right, and the saturation isn’t overdone,. The white balance looks perfect. Again, a little more Recovery might bring out more detail and texture in the cloud.


Overall I think this photograph is well-seen and well-executed. Though I’ve nitpicked it to death, the flaws are relatively minor. Yet paying attention to small details can make the difference between making a good photograph and a great one.

Your Comments

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this image. Do you think the composition works overall? Do you agree with me that there should be more space at the top and bottom, and some separation between the rock and cloud reflection? And what about that rock—do you like it, or would the photograph be stronger without it?

Thanks Kyle for sharing your photograph! You can see more of his work on Flickr or on his web site.

— Michael Frye

If you like these critiques, share them with a friend! Email this article, or click on one of the buttons below to post it on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

As part of being chosen for this critique Kyle will receive a free 16×20 matted print courtesy of the folks at Aspen Creek Photo. 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. Thanks for participating!

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author and photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters, plus the eBooks Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, and Exposure for Outdoor Photography. He has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

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28 Responses to “Photo Critique Series: Space and Separation in a Mt. Shasta Photograph”

  1. Kit says:

    Very nice critique Michael, I enjoy following your blog. I shared it on Linked in and my facebook page too.

  2. Kit Frost says:

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  3. Robert says:

    Michael, a very interesting critique and I like Kyle’s image a lot. Regarding the rock, I think there is enough going on in the foreground with the rippled reflection, and the rock does not add much value. But I do like the width of Kyle’s original shot. Maybe the piece of cloud in the top right could go as well – I found it to be a bit of a distraction.

  4. Michael, I think that I would have zoomed in more on the mist coming off the water in the middle of the frame and placed it toward the bottom of the picture with a small amount of the placid water below. The mountain and cloud would then become more dominant but the mist would add an element of coolness and mystery to the image. This might also emphasize and place in the lower third the concave line of pine trees that could be used to “cradle” Mt. Shasta, if the camera were moved leftward. The rock is not large enough nor has an interesting enough shape to complement Kyle’s picture.

  5. Kirk Keeler says:

    Michael – Great to see the critiques again! You’re right on with your comment on attention to the edges. Of course Kyle’s camera is a cropped sensor, which if it’s like my Canon XTi, the end result is actually a bit larger than what’s seen in the viewfinder (at least with all my Canon lenses). Not a problem if the composition is clean in the viewfinder, but sometimes finding that ‘sweetspot’ to have all the pixels with no cropping can be challenging in certain situations. For me, also checking the image edges after capture on the screen works best. I merely point this out in the event that Kyle’s camera doesn’t capture exactly what he sees in the viewfinder. Nitpicky is a good thing!!

  6. susan freiman says:

    I am grateful for the critique and learned a lot from it.

    I like the rock, which keeps the picture from being just another blah landscape. I would have moved it up a tad, though (to keep the entire reflection) and put it much nearer the right margin.

  7. [...] Photo Critique Series: Space and Separation in a Mt. Shasta Photograph [...]

  8. Michael Frye says:

    Thanks for all the comments everyone – I really appreciate your chiming in. As always, there are varying opinions about the composition. Of course it’s all subjective, and there are no right or wrong answers, and that’s what makes photography interesting!

  9. The cloud reflection touching the rock is where the lightest light hits the darkest dark, drawing a lot of attention to that point. Since the picture is then more about the rock, cutting off the cloud at the top isn’t a big deal, but cutting off the reflection of the rock is. With the full reflection of the rock and the cloud, it would be absolutely clear what the picture is about.

    That said, it’s still a lovely shot. Congratulations to Kyle Jones for being there and for sharing that beautiful view with us.

    • Michael Frye says:

      Clay, I’d still like to see the top of the cloud as well as the reflection of rock and cloud, but you make a great point about being clear what the photo is about – and also that the part about this being a lovely image.

  10. Eric Bier says:


    Thank you very much for sharing your deep knowledge and understanding of photography.

    Your insights on what we see in nature, like the brightness of reflections, and how to pay attention to these things when processing photos are extremely valuable.

    Sometimes I will look for objects to add in the foreground in an effort to create depth in the photo. Many times, the foreground object turns out to be a distraction that I end up cropping out. In this picture, I liked the rock at first, but I much prefer the cropped photo.

    I also wish that more of the cloud had been included, and I agree the a vertical composition would be good.

    Nevertheless, I was captivated by the original photo, and when this happens, I tend to overlook possible improvements, making me grateful to you for teaching how to make great photos.

    BTW, I hope that you are working on a Lightroom 4 ebook similar to your Lightroom 3 ebook. It will be a must-purchase for me.

  11. Geoff Mower says:

    Thanks for an insightful critique of a great image. My question regards the use of a polariser. I often use a polariser to eliminate reflections from water, shiny leaves, etc. If a polariser was used here, wouldn’t that have removed (or at least diminished) the reflections?

    • Michael Frye says:

      Geoff, that’s a great question about the polarizer. You’re right that polarizing filters usually cut reflections, but they behave differently under different circumstances. With sidelight, which is what we see in this photograph, when you rotate a polarizer to its maximum strength it won’t darken a reflection in water like this, though it will cut reflections on leaves. At other lighting angles, turning the polarizer to its maximum (where it darkens the blue sky the most) will darken water reflections.

      As I point out in this critique, when using a polarizer at its maximum strength with sidelight you can get uneven-looking skies, so I often turn it to less-than-maximum strength. But it makes a difference which way you turn it. While turning the polarizer away from maximum to either the left or right will diminish its effect on the sky, turning it one direction will lighten the reflection, turning it the other will darken it. So you have to pay attention to both the sky and the reflection when you’re using a polarizer with water.

      • Geoff Mower says:

        Thanks for the explanation, Michael. I wondered if it had something to do with the different angles, but the physics of polarisation always gives me a headache!

        Incidentally, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the fact that a master like you will so freely give his time and expertise to amateurs like me. Such generosity of spirit is all too uncommon these days.

        • Michael Frye says:

          You’re welcome Geoff. I don’t understand the physics of polarization either, but I try to look carefully at the effects of the polarizing filter and understand what it does in different situations. I find it’s easiest to do this when the filter isn’t on the lens – I just hold it up to my eye (threads towards me) and turn it.

  12. Kyle Jones says:

    Thank you Michael for using my image for this critique and to everyone for your comments. I really enjoy how we all have different preferences and priorities – they keep photography interesting. I went back and looked at the series of photographs I took that morning, so I could refresh my memory why I had chosen this one as my favorite. In short, I felt it had the best overall reflection. The reflection of the small rock was actually moving frame-by-frame as the water moved and was closer to the edge in this frame than in several others (in my defense, the full reflection is there – Flickr seems to have blurred it). I’d still have preferred to have shot a little wider to give myself some extra margin. The water was a little rougher earlier, so I felt the tighter shots of the mountain ended up less interesting. I’ve uploaded an example here ( if anyone is interested.

    • Michael Frye says:

      Kyle, thanks for sharing your image and subjecting yourself to the slings and arrows of a critique. :)

      And thanks for this explanation, and the link to the other version. That other version has its virtues. I can see why you included less water there, as the surface is more ruffled, but the image is simpler and cleaner. It’s strange that Flickr would have blurred the reflection of the rock. Maybe you can send me an un-Flickrized version and I’ll post it here. Seems like going wider to give yourself more margin would have been a good idea. :)

  13. Lenya says:

    Michael, many thanks for the critique. It is always very helpful (and interesting) to read what you think of making an image. I know it is tough but if only you could find some time to do them more often …

  14. [...] Posts: Photo Critique Series: Space and Separation in a Mt. Shasta Photograph; Redbud and [...]

  15. Brad Strong says:


    The photo does feel cramped. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was until you mentioned it. Including the rock somehow makes it feel crowded. There’s a ton of depth to the shot anyway, and it doesn’t need the rock for depth. It seems to lessen the expansive feel of the shot, and it draws attention away from the mountain and cloud.

    I want to see all of the cloud too. To me it is the main focal point of the picture. I’m not so concerned about the reflections of the rock and the cloud, although I agree that if mostly included, they should not be clipped off at all. If I couldn’t zoom out or back up, I would probably have panned up to get the cloud, got less of the cloud reflections and gotten rid of the rock entirely. I like the version kyle linked to in his response above.

    Not being able to get all of the cloud and all of the reflection in a horizontal composition is a limitation of a 28mm lens on a 1.6 crop camera (and not being able to back up). A vertical composition as you mentioned would have been the answer considering everything.

    All-in-all it’s still a great shot.

  16. Hi Michael, just discovered your website and photographs. Loving the critque concept and am still digesting this one. Really appreciate your sharing attitude to help others learn from your experience. Have a very similar shot of Mt. Shasta from this POV (and several others) and am into panos using PTGui Pro for most of my stitching although have recently discoverd Autopano and checking that out too. Will join your critque group on flickr (am “beautythief” on flickr) and add some of my shots hoping you might choose one to critque sometime. Thank you again for your generosity of spirit.

    Greg Rodgers

    • Michael Frye says:

      Thanks Greg! I’m happy you found my site in the vastness of the web, and I’m glad you like the critiques. You may have seen this already, but if you click on the Critiques category in the right column here you can quickly find all the other critiques. I hope you do submit images for the critique, though there are a lot of submissions, and your odds of getting selected are not great! :)

  17. [...] Posts: Photo Critique Series: Space and Separation in a Mt. Shasta Photograph; Photo Critique Series: Re-Processing a Misty Forest [...]

  18. Natalie says:

    Hi, I was looking for a photo of Mt Shasta to use on some of our websites and stumbled on this beautiful one you took. We’re a local real estate agency in Redding and wondering if we had your permission to use it.

    Thank you so much.

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