"Late Afternoon, Moraine Hills State Park" by Vivienne Shen
“Late Afternoon, Moraine Hills State Park” by Vivienne Shen

Light and Mood

This week’s photograph was made by Vivienne Shen at Moraine Hills State Park, near Chicago, Illinois.

The light in this image really caught my eye, with the sun peeking through branches, the long tree shadows in the foreground, and the golden, late-afternoon colors. The light, bare trees, and snowy ground combine to create a strong mood—cold and wintry, but with a hint of warmth.

There’s nothing special about the weather here; you could probably capture similar light on any clear winter afternoon. This shows that you don’t need extraordinary conditions to convey a mood—you just need to visually emphasize the conditions you have. Here everything in the frame (snow, bare trees, low-hanging sun) communicates the idea of a cold, clear, winter day.


The numerous trunks and branches make this scene complicated, but Vivienne did a good job of finding focal points and using lines to keep the photograph from becoming too busy or confusing. The most obvious focal point is, of course, the sun. The golden light on the snow in the lower-right corner also draws the eyes, and those two spots are tied together visually by the curving line of the pathway. The spreading V shapes of the trees near the center of the frame add a repeating pattern to help hold everything together.

While the branches in the center of the image have nice structure, those along the top and left edges are more jumbled and confusing, so I think it might help to trim a bit off those sides. Cropping too much off the left edge would interrupt an important line—the curve of the pathway—but it would be easy to cut a bit off the top without losing anything essential. I’ve posted a version below with the left side trimmed slightly, and the top edge cropped a bit more.

With the top and left edges trimmed slightly
With the top and left edges trimmed slightly


One thing that bothers me about this composition is that two main focal points—the sun and the sunlit pathway in the lower-right corner—are both on the right side of the frame. Since there’s nothing equally prominent on the left side, the image feels a bit off balance. Also, that bright patch of light is too near the lower-right corner; I’d like to see a little more space along the bottom and right edges to help hold the eyes in the frame.

By using a slightly wider lens, and pointing it down and slightly to the right, Vivienne could have trimmed those messy branches along the top, put a bit more space around the bright area in the lower-right corner, and made the pathway in the foreground more prominent, possibly even used that path and the shadows as leading lines to draw the eyes from foreground to background.

This idea—using a wider lens, and pointing the camera down and to the right slightly—would have put the sun and bright patch of snow closer to the middle of the frame, but that doesn’t bother me. I’m more concerned with balance and eye movement than following the rule of thirds.

Another issue is the way the prominent tree trunk about a third of the way from the left edge cuts through the curving line of the pathway. By stepping to the right Vivienne could have avoided this merger and made this line a lot stronger. But her choice of camera position was restricted—she needed to partially hide the sun behind a thick branch or trunk to avoid lens flare, and a convenient branch or trunk might not have been available further to the right. As it is she managed to find a spot where she could catch the edge of the sun poking out from behind a branch, while also showing part of that curving pathway between trunks. So the spot she chose was probably the best available.

Technical Considerations

This image was captured with a Canon 5D Mark II, using a 100-400mm lens at 100mm, handheld with a shutter speed of 1/100 sec. at f/18, ISO 400.

I always recommend using a tripod, but Vivienne was rushing to leave the park before it closed, and even without the time constraint it’s difficult to catch the edge of the sun peeking out from behind a branch on a tripod, because by the time you set up and compose the image the sun will have moved. Because of that, these sun-peeking-out-from-behind-a-branch scenes are one of the few situations where I’ll hand-hold the camera.

Given these considerations I think Vivienne made good choices in her camera settings. She needed a fast enough shutter speed to avoid camera shake, and a small enough aperture to keep everything in focus and get that starburst effect from the sun. (You can create starburst effects with any point of light and a small aperture like f/16, f/22, f/32, etc.) Pushing the ISO up to 400 was the only way she could get both a reasonably fast shutter speed and small aperture, and with her camera the noise at 400 ISO should be negligible.

This was a high-contrast scene, but I think Vivienne handled the exposure well. We see some small washed-out areas near the sun, but that’s normal and acceptable with a scene like this (the only real-life situation where we see washed-out areas is when looking at the sun, it’s reflection, or a bright artificial life source). There’s a hint of detail in shadows here, which is just right. Visually, silhouettes serve their purpose by just being dark shapes against a light background, so seeing too much detail in a silhouette can be a distraction. But it’s okay, even desirable, to see just a hint of detail in those silhouettes, as large masses of pure black can make the image look too heavy.

Vivienne said that she used Lightroom’s Fill Light tool to bring out a little shadow detail, which seems like a good decision. The white balance, which she adjusted in Lightroom, looks great, with a nice warm-cool color contrast. Otherwise she didn’t make major changes in software, so it looks like she got it mostly right in the camera.


This image is technically well-executed, with great light and a strong, wintry mood. The composition isn’t perfect, but Vivienne did a good job of simplifying a cluttered scene.

Your Comments

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this photograph. Does the image convey a strong mood to you, as it did to me? Do you think my slight crop improved the image, or do you prefer the original? What about the idea of including more space around the lower-right corner of the image?

Thanks Vivienne for sharing your photograph! You can see more of her work on Flickr.

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As part of being chosen for this critique Vivienne 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. I’ll be posting the next critique in about two weeks. Thanks for participating!