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Backlit Cottonwood and Red Rock, Zion Canyon

Posted by
Don Smith (California, United States) on 22 November 2010 in Landscape & Rural.

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At the conclusion to my recent Arches/Canyonlands Workshop, Gary Hart and I spent a couple extra days photographing at both Bryce and Zion National Parks. Much to our surprise, Zion Canyon was in peak fall color. Our first day in Zion was overcast and rainy - perfect for capturing the vibrant colors of fall. We both went our separate ways and met up four hours later exhausted but contented. The next morning we awoke in the dark and once again made our way towards the end of the canyon. Facing the prospect of an 11 hour drive home, we agreed to photograph for about two hours then depart for California.

Today's image was one of the last I captured as I wandered back towards the car. As my workshop students repeatedly hear me say, Look for quality light and color first, then find something to put with it. I didn't start out to photograph this cottonwood (one of thousands in the canyon), but with the backlight, it simply glowed against the various red rock canyon walls making it the main focal point of the image.

Using a 70-200 mmL lens, I moved about until I positioned the lines of the branches against the outline of the rock formations. I did this with the camera off the tripod until I found the framing that felt right, then I brought the tripod back in to match what I had found. Remember, tripods are important, but make them match your vision - don't be a slave to them.

Besides the light and color in this image, I had to pay special attention to lines. It was very important that the lower branch of the cottonwood remained separated from the darker red rock on the right side of the frame in order to create the illusion of depth. I played with this positioning very carefully. I had to also make sure I included the union of the two branches in the lower lefthand corner of the frame. Had the two branches simply emanated from the bottom of the frame it would have looked disjointed.

Lastly,I made sure that the lower branch served as a diagonal to allow the eye to move through the frame. Diagonals, as you know, provide both visual movement and excitement. They are alert lines (think of a tree falling over in a forest).

Processing was fairly straightforward. I did adjust the color temperature in Adobe Camera RAW until it felt (there's that word again) right. When I tell other photographers that they must feel an image, I mean they need to have an emotional attachment to what they are photographing. For me, there has to be a certain emotional tug, an excitement about what I am trying to capture. I hope I am explaining this clearly as I think this is so crucial for any type of image one tries to create, regardless of the genre.

Try one time hanging out at a favorite location without your camera. I believe they can be a detriment to truly learning the subtleties of reading light. Become a true student of light. Master it and be aware of its nuances. Light is everything in photography; learn its language and let it work its magic in your images. Also, learn to set that alarm early, yeah it may be cold and you may have to skip breakfast (heavens know I love my coffee) but it will be well worth the effort. Light is at its best on the fringes of the day. Once the sun is overhead, go off and do something else (for me, that usually means heading towards the nearest Starbucks). I see so many awesome images shot under the wrong light. Take a look at yours. Are you truly shooting under the best light available?

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III 1/2 second F/11.0 ISO 100 200 mm

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