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Dusk Sky and Lone Oak

Posted by
Don Smith (California, United States) on 20 August 2010 in Landscape & Rural.

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There have been many mentors in my photographic journey (going on 40 years now - 30 as a professional) but at the forefront is Ansel Adams. I have mentioned many times that I have read virtually all of Ansel's books (I still re-read many of them). As with any artist, there were recurring themes that seem to resonate in many of his images and writings. One constant with Ansel was in featuring fabulous skies.

Granted, the bulk of Adam's work was with black-and-white film (though he did begin to experiment with color late in his career). Nevertheless, the grandfather of landscape photography never passed on an interesting sky; in fact, oftentimes the sky was the star of the image with the landform relegated to a minutia of the frame. One of Adam's favorite filters was a Kodak Wratten #25 Red, which allowed for dramatic separation between white clouds and blue sky (turning blue to black). As much as digital processing allows us to manipulate color, color filters allowed black-and-white artists manipulation (at capture) over their medium. Artful burning and dodging in the darkroom allowed for further balancing of tones.

The idea of featuring a great sky is deeply embedded into my photographic vision. When I see the potential for an awesome sky, I won't hesitate to feature it. Today's image is an excellent case in point. I captured this image in the Diablo Mountain range about 20 minutes from my home at dusk. Subtropical moisture had produced a wonderful cloud cover with an opening to the west. Once the sun set (and thanks to the curvature of the earth) this beautiful palette of pink hues presented itself. The rolling hills, dotted with oaks, served as my landform.

I must confess that the original frame is a horizontal. I was so focused on featuring the sky that I ignored the possibility of a vertical, at least until I got back to my computer. During the RAW processing of this image, I wondered if it would be possible to simplify the frame further by cropping. Playing with the crop tool is an invaluable way to train your eye. Personally I don't worry too much about retaining aspect ratio, though if you are trying to train your eye I would recommend staying with the 2 x 3 ratio (similar to our 35mm cameras).

What I finally saw (by simply moving the crop tool) was the repetition of these three small hills as they receded towards the horinzon. The lone oak served as my anchor and the total of the land was about 1/8th of the total frame. It is important to note that the canopy of the oak does not merge with the lines of the tops of the three hills (especially the right downslope of the forefront hill). This is important in that it helps to create the sense of depth for the viewer's eye. Had I allowed the tree to merge, this depth-clue would have been severely compromised. We have to constantly remind ourselves that we view the world in 3-D, but we are working with a 2-dimensional medium. Shadows and highlights help tremendously to create a sense of depth, but with flat light, we have to pay extra attention that the elements contained in our image do not merge (overlap).

This finished crop in essence placed more emphasis on the sky by simplifying my frame and eliminating much of the landform originally featured in my horizontal. The net result was a much stronger composition from my original vision. Had I originally spotted this vertical scene through my camera, I would have tried moving more towards my left to see if I could have positioned the oak between the second and third hill. This may have strengthened the composition even further.

My good friend and teaching partner Gary Hart often tells workshop students that even though an image may not be a strong composition as presented (during our image review sessions) that he bets the image the photographer wanted is contained within the frame (he often proves his point by using the crop tool). In other words, what drew us to the scene is oftentimes in the frame, but the composition was not refined enough at the time of capture. Cropping allows us to prune away the distracting elements and in return, a stronger image emerges from the chaos.

If you are serious about improving your photographic skills, I urge you to sit down with 3-5 images you have captured but were disappointed with when you viewed them on your screen. Select your crop tool (in whatever editing program you are using) and begin to play. See if you can't find the finished image within the image you originally captured. Think of simplifying your frame and prepare to be amazed as a stronger image emerges. In time, these skills will carry forward to the field and you will find yourself refining your composition at the point of capture!

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III 8/5 seconds F/16.0 ISO 100 70 mm

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