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Clearing Storm Sunset

Posted by
Don Smith (California, United States) on 2 April 2010 in Landscape & Rural.


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Oftentimes when great light is happening, I am in a frenzied mode of what I like to term "heightened - awareness." All my senses are attuned to the rapidly changing light and weather. I don't always like to shoot like this because it can seem a a bit haphazard. When the light finally dies away, I will usually review one memorable scene, which may have been the one I was originally after, and forget about the other moments, relegating them in my mind to seconds.

Well every once in awhile, these "seconds" come screaming off the computer screen, and my reaction is "I don't even remember shooting that!" Have you ever experienced this? Today's image was a case of great sunset light coinciding with a clearing late-winter storm. For approximately 10 minutes there was great light in virtually every direction I turned! As Galen Rowell once said, "My first thought is always of light." If you have followed my blog and/or writings with any regularity, you have heard me state that subject is generally third on my list of elements I look for in crafting a landscape image. I will usually seek out great light (such as in this image), and/or great color, then I will find something to put with it. This has been a successful formula and one I rely on when struggling to make meaningful images. Most often, my failures are absent of either great light, or vibrant color, or worse, both!

Fortunately this clearing storm at sunset offered me a quality of light in the form of the low-angled sun crafting shadows and highlights across the green hills of the Diablo Range, and also great color both in the saturated greens of the wild grass and the warmth in the clouds (complimentary colors). I also like how the shadows/highlights of the clouds mimicked that of the hills. The cool blue above the clouds added visual tension by allowing for a juxtaposition of warm/cool colors.

In reality, my subject could be both the beautifully lit clouds and the rolling hills, yet when I first arrived 30 minutes prior to making this image, I would not have thought twice about trying to capture either as the light was void of color and the scene looked flat.

I encourage participants in my workshops to make their own list of what is important to them for a successful landscape image, and I encourage you to do the same. Go back and look at your memorable images - your Top 10, and see if you can find a unifying visual theme. Jot these elements down and place them in an order of priority. The next time you are in the field and struggling to make an image, go back to your list. I will guarantee you will bring back consistently better images.

Technical notes: I used a Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 3-stop, soft-edge, Graduated Neutral Density Filter to hold exposure back on the clouds and allow the foreground hills to blend naturally.

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III 1/5 second F/16.0 ISO 200 120 mm

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Fred from Manila, Philippines

I think I experience the same. The kind of trance-like state that you experience triggered by good light and good location? Where you seem to be always need to be aware of what's going on around you? It's actually doing me bad. Six times out of 10, I will miss the "good subjects" laid out by nature because I keep thinking of the technical side; I haven't learned how to "feel" the shot yet. But I'm stirring myself in the right direction. I think I'll get there.

The juxtaposition of colors in the frame is just wonderful Don. And I like how you composed the frame, only 1/8th of the frame for the hills and clouds all on top, shows how dominating the clouds are in the landscape, while trees give more scale values. Well done shot. Glad you gave notice to this shot.

2 Apr 2010 5:08am

@Fred: Good morning Fred. We had a similar situation yesterday evening on the last shoot of my Spring Big Sur Workshop. I had the group at the north end of Pt. Lobos State Reserve and had beautiful clouds hovering along the headlands and extending out over the ocean to the south. There was a clear horizon to the west. I don't advocate waiting for light, then running around trying to find a scene. I do advocate playing the"what if" game, studying the possibilities of light and where the action may take place. The more one puts themselves in nature, the more intuitive this becomes.

Roger from Bronx, United States

I love how the hills cast shadows upon themselves. Thanks for explaining your thoughts on each of your photos!

2 Apr 2010 5:09am

@Roger: Thanks for coming back and following my posts Roger. I'm happy to share the knowledge.

Richard from Montferland, Netherlands

Brilliant composition with fantastic light and colors.

2 Apr 2010 5:58am

@Richard: Light is everything in photography, and I don't mean mid-day light. Seek quality light and your images will instantly improve.

MK from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Yeah, I had those. Mostly they r trial shots i did just to check on the exposure. Back to ur image. This image has every rite to scream n shout. Its that good. No, its wonderful.

2 Apr 2010 6:59am

@MK: Thanks MK. Sometimes the light gets even better than I can anticipate. That is why I like to take time prior to the good light to scout possible locations.

Tamara from Aarschot, Belgium

These hills are so beautiful ! I guess all seasons are great there but spring must be... magical !

2 Apr 2010 9:05am

@Tamara: In the coastal hills of California, spring is the best time of year!

Stefan from Thiersee, Austria

Just beautiful!

2 Apr 2010 11:41am

@Stefan: Thanks Stefan.

Curly from South Shields, United Kingdom

A wonderful capture Don, no more than we have come to expect, I do get envious of those who can travel around and find these wonderful locations. Some of us have to make what we can of urban life and light.

2 Apr 2010 11:55am

@Curly: I am very fortunate in that I made this image 15 minutes from my home. Say what you will about California, but I am partial, it is a beautiful and diverse place to live.

Sylvie49 capture image from Vallée de la Loire, France

Perfection, excellent .

2 Apr 2010 12:50pm

@Sylvie49 capture image: Thank you Sylvie.

Barbara from Oakland, United States

Don, this is just gorgeous. I love the yellow light in the clouds and the definition of the hills brought out by the light and shadow. And, as has been said above, the composition is great - limiting the hills to a narrower portion of the image at the bottom of the frame. Just lovely!

2 Apr 2010 7:47pm

@Barbara: Thanks Barbara - I trust you are doing well. Have a fantastic Easter weekend!

steve loos from hollister, United States

Don; the light this evening was beautiful - but as you say it lasted just a few minutes. I was standing behind my home looking at the Diablo Range, hoping someone was out there with a camera!

3 Apr 2010 8:31am

@steve loos: This is my favorite time of year to be out there Steve. Following a storm, the air is so clean that the light displays a vibrancy not seen most of the time.

Julie Brown from Indianapolis, United States

Gorgeous sky!. Perfect example of compositional design. Hmmm, wonder where I learned this?

3 Apr 2010 3:08pm

@Julie Brown: Hi Julie, it was a pleasure getting to know you and work with you in Big Sur. We had a really fun group of people. I thought the sunset at Pt. Lobos on Thursday was perhaps the best I had photographed from there. I hope you are getting caught up on your rest!

DarkElf from Perth, Australia

this is just brilliant! i like the hills sitting low in the frame and the amazing light and colours of the clouds taking over and adding great strength and drama to the composition!

3 Apr 2010 3:37pm

@DarkElf: One of the many aspects of landscape photography that I learned through the writings/images of Ansel Adams, is that when one has a fantastic sky, feature it. Conversely, when the sky is bland, minimize it.

Julie Brown from Indianapolis, United States

Hi Don. I had a great time with you and Gary and the rest of our group in Big Sur. I agree-Point Lobos was awesome! Can't wait to start working on those images. It was a long travel day yesterday, but I slept in this morning. Thanks for a wonderful workshop experience!

3 Apr 2010 3:49pm

@Julie Brown: Thanks for attending Julie. I hope you learned a lot and came back with some outstanding images. Let me know when you post some of them!

Tracy from La Selva Beach, United States

I have had the frenzied feelings you talk about! Although sometimes I have a hard time getting things right in the camera when that happens to me! But I figure practice makes "perfect"- or at least it makes the odds better! The light here is awesome! And I love the way the edges of the clouds are blowing around- almost as if Old Man Winter himself was up there blowing them!

4 Apr 2010 10:47pm

@Tracy: We all get that "frenzied feeling" though perhaps my sports photography background helps me a bit. Thanks for your nice comments. I hope you had a fantastic Easter!

Julie Brown from Indianapolis, United States

Don, I have posted Big Sur images for this entire week. I am pretty happy with them, although I see room for improvement. It was a great location,
I definitely learned a lot, and plan to see you and Gary again!

6 Apr 2010 12:08am