It’s been awhile, but I thought it was time to post another photo critique. This time I’ll look at an image by David Silva from Yosemite’s high country.
Light and Weather
David found some amazing lenticular clouds flowing over Yosemite’s high peaks just before sunset. (Where was I that day?) David told me that he and his wife were driving over Tioga Pass to the eastern Sierra when he noticed some interesting clouds forming. He considered stopping earlier, but decided to push on to Olmsted Point, and was able to make it there in time to catch the light on the clouds and peaks before the sun set.
This was perfect timing. There’s a nice orange glow on the highest peaks, creating a warm-cool color contrast. The last light highlights Mt. Conness in the distance, creating a small-but-important focal point. The clouds fit into the gap between the peaks is perfectly. There’s a beautiful, dramatic, late-day mood to the scene.
David used a 16:9 panoramic format on his Canon SX280 camera for this scene. Of course the camera is just cropping the image to create that format, which could easily be done later, but setting the panoramic format in the camera might help to better visualize the final composition while you’re in the field.
(Those kind of in-camera adjustments only apply to JPEGs. Some cameras might let you choose a panoramic format when using Raw mode, but the Raw file won’t be cropped when you first view it in software.)
That panoramic format certainly works for this scene, as it conveys the broad extent of the cloud formation. The image is relatively clean and uncluttered, and the clouds and ridgelines create a nice pattern of dark and light layers across the frame.
The only quibble I have with the composition is that there’s too much empty sky above the clouds. That empty sky is probably the least interesting part of the photograph, and anything that’s not adding to the image is diluting it’s impact, at least slightly.
The original JPEG file (which David sent me) has even more space above the clouds. David said he cropped the top in order to divide the image into thirds: ⅓ sky, ⅓ clouds, and ⅓ landscape. But from my point of view there are two problems with this idea. First, the clouds and peaks are slightly diagonal, so if you manage to divide the frame into thirds in one area, the proportions will be different elsewhere. In David’s original crop (at the top of this post), the right side of the frame is roughly divided into thirds between the sky, clouds, and land, but that ratio falls apart on the left side, leaving too much sky above the most interesting, eye-catching part of the photograph.
Second, and more importantly, I think that trying to make a photograph fit the rule of thirds hurts more often than it helps. The universe is too wonderfully varied for any rule to fit every composition. Sometimes the rule of thirds works, but sometimes the center of the frame is the best place to put your subject, and sometimes it’s better to put the subject (or horizon line) right near the edge of the frame. Every situation is different. If you fill the frame with interesting stuff, leave out distractions, and keep the image clean and simple, the composition will probably work regardless of where the focal points or horizon lines end up in the frame.
To help you hone in on a composition, ask yourself, “What’s the most interesting part of this scene/subject?” Or, as I wrote last year, you can do the opposite: After you’ve made your initial composition, ask yourself what’s the least interesting part of your photograph – and then get rid of it. In this case, I think the least interesting part of this photograph is the sky above the clouds, and maybe the very right edge of the frame. So I’d crop a little off the top and right, like this:
To me this slight crop makes the image a bit more dynamic.
With such dramatic light and clouds, there are bound to be other compositions that could work as well. David did try some other, non-panoramic compositions;, and put two of those on Flickr, which I’ve included here:
David told me that although he ended up liking the panoramic version best, he tried other compositions because you can never be sure. And I agree that David’s panoramic image works better than the two other versions he put on Flickr. But I think there were other possibilities.
This might be a good time to ask that first question: “What’s the most interesting part of this scene?” In this case, the most interesting parts of the scene are on the left side. If we really narrow it down, the really eye-catching areas are Mt. Conness (the distant, sunlit peak) and the stacked, layered clouds directly above.
I think David tried to hone in on that area with his two alternate compositions, which was a great idea, but perhaps he didn’t quite get the balance and framing right. It’s tricky; the panorama is the most natural composition for this scene, and when you try to zoom in you have to cut off the sides or tops of the clouds, and it can be difficult to figure out where to do that. But I think there are tighter views that work, and I’ve included three possibilities here (cropped from the original panorama):
None of these are necessarily better than the panorama, but they’re options that I would have tried (had I been lucky enough to be there), so I’d have more choices later. I might have a slight preference for the vertical, but they all have their merits. Some versions might work better for different situations; the panorama needs to be seen big, while other, tighter compositions would stand out when displayed at a smaller size.
(Note: I would never recommend doing such severe cropping after the fact, as you’re throwing away too much resolution. It’s always better to zoom in and get the composition right in the camera. I’ve included these cropped versions only to show what some of the other possible compositions were.)
As I mentioned earlier, David used a Canon SX280 for this image – a “point-and-shoot” camera. He told me, “My primary reason for being out in nature is not to take photos. It is to be there, in nature, experiencing to its fullest… Consequently, I’ve made a conscious decision to carry as light weight camera as possible, and no other equipment.”
And that’s perfectly valid. We all photograph for different reasons, and lightweight equipment has a lot of appeal. The image quality from modern point-and-shoot digital cameras is excellent, and your eye is always more important than your gear anyway.
For me, the biggest drawback to this particular camera is that it lacks Raw mode. With JPEG mode the image is processed in the camera, which means less flexibility in processing the image later – especially with things like white balance, sharpening, noise reduction, exposure, and highlight recovery.
All this means that you have to pay more attention to getting everything right in the camera, and I think David did that pretty well here. The image was hand-held, with a shutter speed of 1/50th of a second at f/8, ISO 80. Normally I’d consider 1/50th of a second a bit slow for hand-holding, but since the focal length was only 5mm (!), 1/50th should be fast enough.
F/8 is the smallest aperture on this camera, and although I have no personal experience with this, I’ve heard that you can actually get some bad diffraction with point-and-shoot lenses at f/8, so f/5.6 might produce sharper photos with this camera. With such a short focal length, and no objects close to the camera, f/5.6 or even f/4 would have been sufficient to get everything in focus.
The biggest technical issue here is that the edges of some of the clouds look a little hot – overexposed and lacking detail. In the original, unprocessed JPEG those areas look a little better, though the very brightest areas still lack some texture. In both versions the histograms looks fine, with nothing pushed up against the right edge, so I suspect that JPEG compression may be at work here. With a Raw file it would probably be easy to bring out more detail in the edges of those clouds. These washed-out areas are relatively small, so they don’t detract much from the overall impact of the photograph, but they’re also the brightest things in the frame, so your eye goes right there.
Also, the panoramic crop results in a fairly low-resolution file, limiting the possibilities for making large prints. Stitching together two or more standard-format frames would have created a higher-resolution file.
Aside from minor cropping, David adjusted the white balance in Photoshop, and used Topaz Adjust to “get a little more detail and pop.” To me the white balance and overall contrast look about right. The biggest problem, as I pointed out, is the lack of detail in the edges of the clouds.
With many landscape photographs the sky is brighter than the foreground, and it often helps to darken the sky, lighten the foreground, or both. I used Lightroom’s Adjustment Brush to darken the sky, and lighten the area around Mt. Conness slightly. Then I boosted the overall Exposure a bit, which had the effect of lightening the foreground. I think this slight dodging and burning helps create a better visual balance between the foreground and sky. The difference is subtle, so here’s a before-and-after comparison:
This is a powerful photograph of a spectacular weather event in the Yosemite high country. The composition is clean and strong, and the light and moment are wonderful. I think some minor cropping, along with a little dodging and burning, would improve the image, and there were some alternate compositions that could have worked as well. But I think most of us would love to have this image in our portfolios.
As always, I’d love to hear your comments. How do you like the photograph overall? Do you prefer the original crop, or a different version? Have you had any experience taking serious photographs with point-and-shoot cameras?
Thanks David for sharing your photograph! Please take a look at his work on Flickr and on his website.
— Michael Frye
As part of being chosen for this critique David 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!
Related Posts: What’s the Least Interesting Part of This Photograph?; Photo Critique Series: Visual Flow in a Photograph of Half Dome
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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael 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.
Michael, as always, very helpful. Let me just say “Please, please, please, please,…,please try to find some time to do these critiques more often”. Many thanks again, Lenya
Thanks Lenya – I’ll try. 🙂
Nice to see that you are resuming the photo critique series. I always appreciate the way you approach these and, as I think I’ve told you before, I often point to them as examples of best practices when it comes to critiquing photographs. When I started reading this post I first looked at the image and thought, “What would I try here.” My initial list included of things I might try included:
Altering the existing image:
A crop that would remove material from the right side of the frame beyond that small round lenticular just to the right and above the tallest peak, and which might remove a bit of the sky at the top of the frame. I might consider cropping a bit from the left as well, perhaps at a point just right of the low point on the ridge.
I would have something to say about the highlights in the clouds. Such a common problem to see them just plain blown out (as in the long diagonal) and to see the red channel over-saturated (as in the stacked clouds right above Conness). With a raw file I might try to recover some texture on the front edge of the highest cloud and perhaps suppress the red/yellow tone of that brightest cloud above Conness, though that is tricky stuff!
Perhaps a bit of curve adjustment to get a bit more shadow detail in the forest and around the area above Tenaya.
If I could shoot it again:
Aside from the stuff mentioned above (exposure and crop) I might consider a slightly lower angle to get just a bit more of the foreground forest in the image. Maybe.
What I like about the photo:
Great clouds! Not only are they beautiful in their own context, but the way that the center of the lenticular mass sits in the low area above Conness is either darned good luck or great planning. The timing of the shot was pretty good, too. Other possibilities exist, but getting that lovely bit of last light on Conness makes a very big difference. This is a great example of how important it can be to learn to read the conditions, and to be ready to drop everything and be in the right place at the right time when the world offers them to you. And it also helps to know the place and its patterns well enough that you can see and understand what is happening and have a good idea of where to go to make a photograph out of it.
Now, let’s see what Michael wrote…
”The universe is too wonderfully varied to any rule to fit every composition.” – Indeed!
Ah, he made more exposures than the one at the start of the post. Didn’t know that.
Having been in a similar place for something like a decade (“My primary reason for being out in nature is not to take photos. It is to be there, in nature, experiencing…”) during which I made few photographs and then gradually started working my way back beginning with cameras like this one, I can understand where he is coming from. It is a choice — small, light, and simple gear that is adequate to “record your wonder” (as Colin Fletcher once described it) or allowing the photography itself to become your gateway to greater engagement with and understanding of this world. Not an easy call, and each has its pluses and minuses.
Dan, thanks very much for your comments. They’re always interesting and thoughtful. And I’m glad you like the critiques!
So nice to hear from you. and, I’ve always enjoyed your photos, and Michael’s too, of course.
just to comment on your suggestion: slightly lower angle to get just a bit more of the foreground forest.
I agree completely. and I think the problem was keeping highway 120 out of the image. I think if I’d dropped the angle a little, I would have gotten the road.
Thanks again for you impute. And to michael for being so generous in critiquing my image.
You’re welcome David. Thanks for sharing your photo with us, and for your willingness to suffer the slings and arrows of a critique!
It was/is a pleasure. Thought I’d let you know: I went and took a look at the metal print I have up of this image, and turns out I did the cropping out of the sky on that. Glad to have discovered this. Also, I really enjoyed looking at your versions of alternate crops. Highly educational.
I’m with Lenya – would love to see more of these. Have sent this to a friend who hasn’t seen your tutorials. They’re super-constructive and give more alternatives and things to consider than I tend to have on my mind.
Re your question, have any of us used a pocket camera for ‘serious’ stuff — that will depend on others’ definition of that word. For me, I want to capture scenes that are of unusual interest to me, sometimes just to document them, sometimes to try to get the feeling of my experience. Am not camera-artistic yet, but trying to work on that in the future.
When I was last in Yosemite, May 22-26, 2012, I was overjoyed to see, on the last full day I was there, that a storm was coming in, with some snow. Got to Yosemite’s Tunnel View at about 2:00 and stayed until almost 7pm, with 90% of it gray like fog or raining. I had my Canon SX260 (older sibling of the one used for your lesson) and a Canon SX10-IS, a purse camera w/ fixed lens w/ 20x zoom. No RAW used.
What I did get which showed something of what I saw (but only 3D and a huge screen could capture the magnificence of what I saw) are snapshots. But they’re ‘serious’ in that I wanted to get what I could of what I saw, with the small cameras. They were hand held in drizzle (held under jacket when rain was heavier or I went to my car to wait), and I slid a rectangular, plastic, 4-stop GND filter up and down in front of the lens to catch foreground/background better (impossible w/o), which I bought from the Adams Gallery shop and had a lesson on that day.
Pics from that day are at https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrysbasten/sets/72157630024083908/
Also, the Canon SX260 (20x zoom also) gets wildlife pictures like this at our SF Zoo.
The animals are seldom close to us, so the zoom, while compromised on this little camera, losing texture and tightness vs a DSLR, can capture some nice moments and it does fit in a pocket. It was also only $189.
Have been using the DSLR mainly for the zoo But traveling light or having a decent camera always with you and getting a picture at all when wanted is important. (I’m now using a Sony RX100 for that but I miss a long zoom lens, though its original image is very tight and smooth.)
Thanks for your comments Andrys. I’m glad you’ve had some success with point-and-shoots. The Tunnel View images are very nice.
Correction! I’ve used a Canon SX260 for 2 years but was uising my earlier Canon S95 for some of those shots of Yosemite. The Canon SX10 IS is also fixed lens and small, but larger than the S95 as it’s not slim, part of the Powershot series. I got the Canon SX260 to replace the S95 the next month because of the zoom. Sorry to confuse. But it’s still a point & shoot.
Good to have the critiques back. I have really missed them. My favorite alternative is number 2. I feel like it puts a spot light on Mt Conness. Great job on the critique and the photographer.
I agree that the critique series is very helpful. It’s as close as we can get to seeing thought your very talented eyes.
I do use a point and shoot when I need a light weight option or when I don’t want to put my expensive gear in harms way. I use a Nikon Coolpix P7100. It shoots RAW, with full manual controls and has Nikkor ED glass with 28-200mm equivalent Optical zoom and up to 800mm with the digital inhancement. F2.8-5.6 speed, and 10 MP all for around $200. It is slightly bigger than the pocket cameras but I am willing to trade size for all of the shooting flexibility and it still weighs less than 1 lb. I tend to keep it in the car for those unexpected photograhy moments.
Michael, thanks again for sharing all of your photography insight and knowledge.
Thanks for your comments Monica. There are many compact and point-and-shoot cameras with Raw mode, and personally I couldn’t live without it. I’m glad you’re enjoying your Coolpix.
Quick note. I suspected that the location of highway 120 in the lower part of the frame might have been the limitation. (I’ve pushed that limit a few times and somewhere I have some photographs featuring car roofs and motorcycle helmets along the lower margin… 😉
You know, I think Yosemite needs to hire a viewshed consultant. 🙂
John – Clearly! Though they may actually have one. 🙂
First of all I must say I’m highly impressed with the effort you put into this critique. With today’s boost of social media, it’s rare that you see comments longer than “awesome” and “super shot”, the few people who do critique often limits into some sentences. Nice to see that someone still takes time to do some proper critiques.
As for the shot, it is pretty beautiful. I mean, who can’t love a shot with a cloud as sexy as that? I love the soft glow on the top of the mountain, it creates some mood and also brings out the sky even more in my opinion.
I do strongly agree with you that there is a little too much “empty sky” over the lenticular cloud. Personally I would have tried to add some more of the foreground in to the image. Tilt the camera a little down, or lower the tripod (if used) or something like that. By the looks of the other images, the foreground includes trees, a lake and some hills. This might have worked as a favour to the composition, by leading you’re eyes into the cloud, even tho that cloud is an eye-catcher no matter the composition. However it is hard to say how the foreground is, when I’m not there myself.
Over all I think this is a nice picture that David has every reason to be proud of.
Thanks very much Christian – glad you liked the critique, and I appreciate your thoughtful comments. Dan Mitchell mentioned the possibility of including more foreground in his comments above, and David replied, saying that he couldn’t do that without including the road.