Many years ago when I was trying to really understand how photos worked, I used to spend time going through published photos and analyzing them carefully. How did this photographer use space? Why did this photographer put the subject there? What did the use of a particular focal length do for an image?
That was very helpful to me, so I am am starting a new series that looks at specific photos I have taken and then takes them apart, deconstructs them, explodes them, to look at what is happening in them and why I might have done what I did. That’s always a little dangerous because that requires one to accept a certain amount of vulnerability. I hope this helps you as well.
This photo was taken at dawn in the Santa Monica Mountains. The early light has just reached this rocky ridge and still features a strong warmth to it. This is a great example of why it is important to use a specific white balance and not rely on auto white balance outdoors. Auto white balance would remove that warm color cast, but it would also fool you because the photo would still look “okay.” Unfortunately, that very important color would not be there and most photographers would not fix it in Lightroom or Camera Raw because the photo would look “okay.” The warm colors have an important cold/warm color contrast with the sky color.
The highly directional light with strong shadows is very important to the image. It creates that strong presence to the rough rock at the bottom of the image, which then has an interesting contrast to the differently textured sky. Texture contrasts can be an important part of nature photography.
This image is a little unusual for me in that it is cropped from a horizontal. I needed a vertical for a book project I am working on now (more about that as I go along), and I really liked what was happening with the light in this image, so I decided to check out what might happen with a vertical from the original shot.
I like the original horizontal. The light is very important and gives the scene a lot of life. In addition, I love the wonderful pattern of the sky. But I had no vertical of this. I find I don’t shoot as many verticals as I used to (not necessarily a good thing), largely because these days, I need verticals much less. Digital slideshows favor horizontals, as do a number of digital projects I have been working on.
I like the way the vertical abstracts the scene, yet still gives a feeling of place. I am personally not attuned to doing abstracts divorced from their reality (some people love this and do it very well). But I do like a simple, abstract sort of design to a composition that still holds a reference to the original scene as the vertical does. Notice, though, I am not trying to hold the whole rock formation at the left. That was important to the horizontal, but not to the vertical. Actually, I kind of like the strength of the simplicity of the vertical.
The vertical creates a very strong spatial relationship of ground to sky in the composition now. That was in the original horizontal, but not to the degree it is now. I also love the hint of bush at the right that adds a visual counterpoint to both rock and sky. It really helps that that bush is in the shadow and silhouetted against the sky.
The large space used by the sky is important because it creates an interesting dynamic to the relationship of sky and ground. There is a tension from the use of space that keeps the viewer connected to the image. It also strongly creates a feeling of looking up across the scene.
Something else that is quite interesting about this image for me. The original was shot with a 9-18mm lens (Micro Four Thirds; equivalent in 35mm-full-frame would be 18-36mm, and APS-C would be 12-24mm). I am finding that I don’t use that lens much anymore. I used to use that focal length range a lot, but now I seem to be gravitating more to the 12mm focal length for wide shots (35mmFF – 24mm; APS-C – 16mm). The cropped shot is closer to 12mm.
Or maybe I am coming back to it. I used to love this focal length and it was my go-to focal length for many, many years when shooting film. The very wide focal lengths do some interesting things, but I am less interested today in such extreme effects. The 12mm works very well for me to give a strong wide-angle effect without being too strong for me.