Sunday afternoon it was very windy in the canyon. I found the scene above, with a redbud against the flowing river, and waited for half an hour for the wind to die down before giving up and walking upriver. On my way back to the car it seemed that the wind had calmed a bit, so I set up my tripod again, only to realize that it was almost as windy as before. I waited another half hour, and finally it became perfectly, completely still for about a minute, and I was able to make this photograph.
Archive for the ‘Vision and Creativity’ Category
A Trip to Crane Flat
Yosemite got some much-needed precipitation last week – over an inch total. I kept checking the radar and satellite images online, looking for an opportunity to photograph a clearing storm. Friday morning seemed promising, so I drove up to Yosemite Valley early, but found no snow. It looked like the snow level had been around 5,000 feet, higher than forecast. Worse, from a photographic perspective, the skies were clear and there was no mist.
Shortly after sunrise I noticed light striking a ridge near the tunnels on Highway 120, and on a whim decided to drive up to Crane Flat. I thought Crane Flat would at least have some fresh snow, since it’s at 6,000 feet.
Indeed there was fresh snow – over a foot of it. I parked at the Tuolumne Grove trailhead and walked along the plowed road. The sun had just reached parts of the main meadow, and I found some interesting small subjects to photograph, like tree-shadows on the snow.
Some shafts of sunlight slanting across the snow caught my attention, and then some mist began rising near the edge of the meadow, behind the shafts of light. I immediately recognized the potential to make an image that went beyond an abstract study of shadows – a photograph that had a mood.
Depth can be a powerful tool in photography. Our medium is two-dimensional, but a sense of depth, an illusion of space and distance, can make the viewer feel like part of the scene, and literally and figuratively add another dimension to a photograph.
A Common Formula
This image of El Capitan follows a common formula for creating a three-dimensional effect in landscape photographs: find an interesting foreground (preferably with some leading lines), get the camera low and close to that foreground, and use a wide-angle lens.
A wide-angle lens by itself can’t create a sense of depth. Wide-angle lenses make things look smaller, and therefore more distant, but if everything looks small and distant there’s no sense of depth. The 3-D effect only happens when you put the wide-angle lens close to something in the foreground. That proximity makes the foreground look big, but things in the background still look small. The optics create an exaggerated size difference between near and far objects, and our brains interpret that as depth and distance.
This wide-angle, near-far look is common today, but it wasn’t always so. Though he wasn’t the first to use this perspective, master landscape photographer David Muench popularized this technique through his many beautiful books, and a lot of people have followed his lead.
But this look has become so popular that I think landscape photographers have stopped looking for other ways to create a sense of depth, and by doing that we’ve limited our options. We owe it to ourselves and our viewers to explore other paths, and create images with depth and meaning that go beyond this one formula.
Mike Osborne and I just completed our Eastern Sierra Fall Color workshop this past weekend. It was a lot of fun—wonderful people, beautiful weather, and lots of color.
The focus of this workshop was composition and creativity, and it was great to see the participants growing and learning during the class. I saw a lot of beautiful compositions and imaginative ideas on the back of people’s cameras and in the evening image-review sessions.
One of the things we talked about during this class was the creative process. This process varies from one person to another, of course, and can also change depending on the situation and subject. Sometimes—especially with my nighttime work—I plan out every detail in advance. At other times—particularly if I’m in what Mike calls a “target-rich environment,” with interesting subjects and light—then I tend to work quickly, reacting to the changing light and photographing whatever catches my eye at that moment.
The accompanying photographs show a small demonstration of that “reactive” process in an aspen grove on Saturday afternoon. When we first arrived at this spot the trees were in the sun, and the backlit orange leaves against the blue sky were a striking sight. We all tried different compositions—looking up, looking into the sun, using both wide-angle and telephoto lenses. Of my own images, I ended up liking the wide-angle frame at the top of this post the best, with the sun about to dip behind the background ridge.
At Tenaya Lake last week my workshop student and I watched and photographed a spectacular, constantly-changing cloud display for over two hours. I made many images, including the one at the top of this post (you can see two more here and here). With the lake in the foreground every composition included a prominent horizon line, so I was often thinking about where to place the horizon in the frame.
It’s not always an easy decision. If you’ve ever read any books on composition you probably learned about the rule of thirds. And when applied to horizons this means you should place the horizon a third of the way from the top or bottom of the photograph. And you probably also read that you should, at all costs, avoid putting the horizon in the center of the frame.
As many of you already know, I’m not a big fan of the rule of thirds. It’s too restrictive, too limiting when applied to the infinite number of possible subjects and situations a photographer can encounter. It’s useful sometimes, but shouldn’t be taken as dogma.
I think this applies to horizons as well. Sometimes putting the horizon a third of the way from the top or bottom works. Sometimes it’s better to ignore the rule and put the horizon right in the middle, or near the top or bottom of the frame.
The future is uncertain, so we try to control it by planning. We think that if we do A and B the result will be C. But sometimes there are too many variables that we can’t account for, so the result might not be C—it could be D, or E, or even Z.
Photographers often try to plan. We imagine that if we go to a certain location at a certain time we’ll capture a certain photograph. Sometimes this works, but frequently the weather doesn’t cooperate or conditions aren’t right.
I’ve been trying to embrace uncertainty lately, both in my day-to-day life and in my photography. Rather than attempting to control everything, I’m opening my mind to the possibility that unexpected events could be good—that on any day, or any moment, something surprising but wonderful could happen.
A few afternoons ago Claudia and I were in the Yosemite high country near Tuolumne Meadows. We had planned to meet up with a friend, but somehow we missed finding her, so we found ourselves in this beautiful area with no particular plans. And a thunderstorm rolled through. Interesting weather always makes my photographic antennae perk up.
We ended up following the storm, hoping to see a rainbow, and eventually we did. But if a rainbow can be unexciting, this one was. Or at least my photographs of it were. This spur-of-the-moment plan actually worked—I found a rainbow. But the resulting photograph didn’t work.
Night photography offers wonderful opportunities to be creative. The low light allows you to use long exposures to record movement, like star trails or moonlit clouds. And since the natural light is so dim, you can easily overpower it with a flash or flashlight and add your own light to a scene.
That aspect of night photography—light-painting—has intrigued me for a long time. Adding your own light to a nighttime scene gives it a new dimension; it instantly transforms the landscape into something different, something we never see in real life, and adds a mysterious, surreal element to the photograph.
The accompanying image has both movement, in the form of star trails, and light-painting. I used a flashlight to trace the branches of this bristlecone pine snag, then painted zig-zag lines over the rocky foreground. I made this photograph with medium-format film back in September of 2000. Some test exposures with a Polaroid back helped me get the light-painting right, then I switched to real film (probably Provia), did the light-painting again, and then left the shutter open for another 90 minutes to record the star trails. You can see more examples of my light-painting techniques in my nighttime portfolio.
I learned light-painting with film, which was a slow trial-and-error (mostly error) process. Digital cameras make the learning curve much easier, because you can experiment and see the results immediately. If you’ve never tried night photography before this might be a fun summertime project—a way to stretch yourself a little and exercise your imagination. Summer is a great season for photographing landscapes at night, since the Milky Way is prominent, and the warm nighttime temperatures make it more comfortable to stay out late.
Whether you’re an experienced night photographer or a beginner, I recommend reading Lance Keimig and Scott Martin’s excellent book Night Photography: Finding Your Way in the Dark. Also, you can find tips about focus and exposure for moonlit landscapes in my post about photographing lunar rainbows.
And if you prefer hands-on learning there’s still space in my Full Moon Night Photography workshop later this summer (July 31st and August 1st). This is a great way to get personalized instruction and learn night photography in a fun, supportive group atmosphere. Rooms have been set aside for this workshop in Yosemite Valley and are still available if you register soon.
Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author and photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite 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.
It’s not often that you get to hear a master photographer explain how he made one of his greatest images, so I was thrilled to find this short video of Sam Abell describing how he made his classic photograph of cowboys branding cattle in Montana.
I love this statement: “What we’re all trying to do is make a layered, deep, complex, complicated photograph that doesn’t look complex or complicated.”
In talking about composition in my workshops and books I emphasize simplicity, since I think the single most common mistake people make is including too much in the frame. But my favorite images are rich and complex, without crossing the line into being busy and confusing. Obviously it takes years of experience to be able to make photographs like that – and Abell’s experience and mastery are on full display in this image.
Everyone develops routines and habits: waking up at the same time every day, eating the same thing for breakfast, taking the same route to work… and on and on. Routines are beneficial in some ways—they help us avoid spending time and energy making small, unimportant decisions every day.
In photography, routines can help with the technical, left-brained stuff. Always putting lens caps in the same place in your camera bag, or the same pants pocket, can help save time and avoid frustration. Checking off a mental list before pressing the shutter can prevent mistakes. Did you adjust the polarizer? Focus? Set the right aperture? Shutter speed? Did you check the histogram? What’s your ISO?
But routines also dull the senses, and in photography that can be deadly. I’ve photographed this small waterfall in Yosemite many times, but always in the shade. Soft light works well for subjects like this—it makes it easy to use slow shutter speeds, and simplifies the lighting. So I’d never even considered visiting this spot when sunlight was hitting the water.
Last weekend I was shooting footage for some instructional videos in Yosemite Valley. I wanted to talk about using slow shutter speeds with moving water, but the crew only had one day in Yosemite, and the schedule only allowed us to visit this waterfall at noon. As we approached the fall I thought, hmm, this might work. Backlight filtering through the trees created some interesting patterns, and as the sun moved it started to highlight just the right spots. As I was demonstrating how different shutter speeds affected the appearance of the water, I was looking at the images on my viewfinder and thinking, “Wow, that looks pretty cool!”
A Tale of Two Photographs
Reading David duChemin’s eBook A Deeper Frame got me thinking about how we perceive depth and space in photographs, and how lens choice affects that perception.
David says that because photography turns “a world of three dimensions into two,” that “if we aim to create photographs that create within the reader a deeper, fuller, longer experience, it falls to us to recreate that depth.”
There’s no question that wide-angle lenses are better tools for creating a sense of depth in a photograph than telephoto lenses. Telephotos make objects appear closer together than they really are, compressing space and flattening the perspective. Wide-angle lenses make objects appear farther apart than they really are, expanding the sense of space, and, if used correctly, creating an illusion of depth.
These two photographs from my recent trip to the redwoods illustrate the difference. Both images include the same rhododendrons and redwoods.
In the top image I stepped back with a telephoto lens (130mm) and isolated part of the bush against two redwood trunks. It looks like the rhododendrons are only a few feet in front of the trees, but they’re not. They’re at least 20 feet away—illustrating the compression effect of the telephoto lens. The sense of depth is minimal.