Dogwoods in autumn, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Dogwoods in autumn, Yosemite. 118mm, 1/2 sec. at f/16, ISO 1600.

Are you good at picking your best photographs while you’re in the field? Do you always know which ones are going to be your favorites, or do you sometimes find that the ones you thought were going to be great aren’t, while others turn out to be better than you thought?

I’ve been making photographs for a long time, and usually have a pretty good idea of when a photograph will work and when it won’t. Sometimes my field judgements are pretty good, and the images that I most look forward to seeing on a bigger screen turn out to be my favorites. But other times I’m surprised. A photograph I was anxious to see on a large monitor turns out to be disappointing, while another one ends up being a favorite.

I’ve had that experience often enough to mistrust my ability to edit my own images in the field. I rarely delete photographs in the camera unless they’re obviously flawed (like being out of focus, or severely under- or overexposed).

And if I find a promising scene, I don’t just make one composition and move on. I know the first idea may not be the best one, so I keep looking. If I have time (if the light’s not changing quickly), I view the scene or subject from every reasonable angle, and photograph every composition that seems promising – not just the one that I think might be the best at the time, because my field judgement about which composition might be the best could be wrong. My motto is, “Leave no compositional stone unturned.”

Recently Claudia and I were photographing a colorful patch of dogwoods near Highway 120, above Yosemite Valley. I’ve included four images here from that afternoon. Which is your favorite?

My favorite is probably the one at the top of this post. But in the field I didn’t think so. At the time, I thought I’d prefer this one:

Autumn forest, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Autumn forest, Yosemite. 50mm, 1 second at f/16, ISO 1000, polarizer.

It’s the same group of trees, but from different vantage points with different lenses. It was already getting dark when I made that second image, with the breeze kicking up, so it would have been easy to call it a day. But as I worked my way back to the car I saw another possibility, and decided I should try it. That ended up being the photograph at the top of the post. I like that one a little bit better because, to my eye, it has better rhythm and flow.

You might prefer that second image, and that’s fine – it’s all subjective. The point is that if I hadn’t kept looking I wouldn’t have made the photograph at the top of the post, and wouldn’t have given myself the option to decide later which one I preferred.

Earlier that afternoon I saw this composition:

Red dogwood, autumn, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Red dogwood, autumn, Yosemite. 184mm, 4 seconds at f/16, ISO 100, polarizer. Four focus-stacked images blended with Helicon Focus.

On the back of the camera, the foreground pattern of branches stood out distinctly, and looked pretty striking. But when I looked at it later, on a bigger screen, it didn’t seem to work as well. I think there are probably too many distractions in the background.

But I kept looking, and a short distance away I found this composition:

Dogwood and sugar pines, autumn, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Dogwood and sugar pines, autumn, Yosemite. 122mm, 2 seconds at f/16, ISO 100, polarizer.

At the time I didn’t think much of this one, but it ended up being probably my second-favorite image from that day. It’s pretty busy, but it has a focal point (the stem of the dogwood just left of center), which helps to create a little order out of all the chaos. It’s a riot of color that maybe is just cohesive enough to avoid being too busy and visually confusing.

On that afternoon among the dogwoods I kept working and kept looking in order to give myself as many choices as I could. Because you never know for sure which ones you’ll like best when you review the images later.

— Michael Frye

Related Posts: Dogwood Rebirth; Intimate Landscapes with Wide-Angle Lenses; A Beautiful Autumn Day in Yosemite

P.S. Unfortunately, those higher-elevation dogwoods probably lost a lot of leaves in today’s wind. Meanwhile, it’s kind of a weird autumn in Yosemite Valley. We were in the valley on Thursday, and while there was some color, it was patchy. The big-leaf maples were about 40% yellow and 20% bare, while the rest, strangely, had turned brown. About half the black oaks were also brown, while the rest were a mix of green and gold. It looks like it might be a pretty good year for the cottonwoods, but they were still probably 70% green, so give them another week or two. And the dogwoods also need a bit more time, as they too have a lot of green leaves. (And keep in mind that the valley dogwoods don’t get the vivid reds that the higher-elevation ones do.)

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, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, 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: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael 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.