Here’s another long-awaited installment in my photo critique series. This time we’ll look at a photograph by Vaibhav Tripathi called “Winter Mist Rising Beneath Half Dome,” from my home territory, Yosemite National Park. It’s an interesting study in composition, and directing the viewer’s eye.
Light and Weather
The light is soft — no direct sunlight anywhere. Soft light is great for intimate scenes, but big, sweeping landscapes like this usually need sunlight to create contrast and keep the photograph from looking flat. Yet there’s actually a beautiful quality to the light here. This was made at dusk, and there’s a hint of alpenglow illuminating Half Dome, some blue in the sky, and of course the mist in the middle ground. The upper half of the photograph in particular has a luminous quality, and there’s a quiet, misty, mystical mood to the image. I also like the subtle hues and the warm-cool color contrast.
There are a lot of interesting things going on in the frame: Half Dome, the elm tree beneath it, the pines peaking through the mist, the grass hummocks in the foreground, and the reflection of Half Dome in the water.
With all those different items it would be easy for the photograph to become too busy and visually confusing, but it doesn’t: all the main elements stand out clearly, and the composition overall is fairly clean.
Yet to me it doesn’t all quite fit together. There are too many things vying for my attention, and they all have similar visual weight. Should I look at Half Dome, the elm, the pines on the right, or the foreground? I’m not sure. When composing a photograph you can’t be wishy-washy — you have to decide what’s most important to you, and make that choice obvious to the viewer.
Also, the eye doesn’t flow easily between all the different elements in the photograph. Half Dome, the elm, the reflection of Half Dome, and the most interesting grass hummocks are all on the left half of the frame. While I like the misty pines in the upper-right, the lower-right quadrant of the image isn’t as interesting, and it seems like my eye has to take a detour to get to those pines. Also, the (relatively) bright patch of water in the lower-right corner pulls my attention out of the frame.
Part of the reason things don’t flow here is the centered horizon. Centered horizons can work well with reflections, where the bottom half of the image mirrors the top, creating symmetry and repetition. But when the top and bottom are different — and they’re very different here — a centered horizon makes it look like you have two separate photographs randomly stuck together, and your eye doesn’t flow easily between the two halves. Again, it’s better to decide which is more important — the top or the bottom — and emphasize one or the other.
So how could this be composed differently? Vaibhav sent me several alternative views that he tried. There isn’t space to show those other compositions on this page, but you can see them here. Vaibhav said he liked the one at the top of this post best. I think a case can be made for the first image on the other page, where the lower-right corner of the frame seems more complete and more interesting. But the centered horizon in that version still interrupts the visual flow, and the small patches of snow near the bottom edge are a little distracting.
So, were there other possibilities? I think so. Working with the original image at the top of this page, I tried many different crops and found two that I think are more cohesive. The first has a slightly panoramic aspect ratio, and emphasizes the most eye-catching things in the top half of the photo — the trees, mist, and Half Dome:
The second is a squarish vertical that emphasizes Half Dome, the elm tree, the foreground grass hummocks, and the reflection. This still leaves the horizon centered, so ideally I’d like to include more of the area below the edge of the frame, and emphasize that foreground pattern more (if there was nothing too distracting below what’s visible here). This vertical composition eliminates some of the less-interesting space in the lower-right corner of the original, and the eye travels more smoothly around the frame on a roughly oval path:
(As always these crops are meant to show how a photograph might be composed differently. Severe cropping throws away a lot of pixels, and limits how large a print you can make, so it’s always better to get the framing right in the camera.)
There are a couple of other minor issues with the original composition. The horizon is tilted. I know the ground slopes in this spot, but not that much. However that’s an easy fix (I corrected it in the cropped versions above). By moving the tripod just a few inches to the left the reflection of Half Dome would have been perfectly placed within the open patch of water, avoiding the slight merge of that reflection and the grass hummock below.
This image was captured with a Nikon D700 and Nikkor 16-35mm f/4 lens at 32mm. Vaibhav used the camera’s native ISO (200), with a shutter speed of 0.4 seconds at f/16. Vaibhav didn’t mention using a tripod, but he must have, as 0.4 seconds is a too slow a shutter speed to handhold the camera and get a photograph that looks this sharp.
It’s usually easy to find the right exposure for low-contrast scenes like this, and the exposure here looks perfect. There’s a lot of depth to the image, and Vaibhav did a good job of getting everything in focus by using a small aperture (f/16) to get sufficient depth of field (you can see a larger version here).
Vaibhav did minimal processing to this photograph. He used Nikon Capture NX2 initially, adjusting the white balance to 5850K to get a warm-cool color contrast, and making a few other small tweaks. Then he took the image into Photoshop and added a curve to “bring out the mist and the warmth/luminescence in the foreground.” The photograph hasn’t been cropped.
To me the processing looks about right. The white balance seems perfect; Vaibhav succeeded in getting that warm-cool color contrast, and the snow in the middle ground looks neutral. The overall contrast looks good too — enough to give the image some life, but not enough to make this soft, misty photograph look harsh. And I’m glad Vaibhav resisted the urge to pump up the saturation and spoil the subtle color palette.
This image is technically well-executed and processed, and Vaibhav succeeded in capturing the luminous, quiet, mystical mood of this scene. The composition is clean and simple, but I think a little more care in framing would have made the image more cohesive and improved the visual flow.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about this photograph. Do you like the mood? Do you think the composition works overall? What do you think of the alternate crops I presented?
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As part of being chosen for this critique Vaibhav 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. Please, no more than five photos per person per week, and make sure your Flickr profile has an email address where I can contact you. 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 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.