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Snow-Covered Alders, Yosemite National Park

Posted by
Don Smith (California, United States) on 3 January 2011 in Landscape & Rural.


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I am fortunate in that I live less than three hours from Yosemite National Park. This affords me the luxury (as I would term it) to follow storms and make a beeline for the Park when conditions look promising. Monitoring a series of post-Christmas storms, one such opportunity arose last week as the weather forecast indicated snow levels dropping below 2,000 feet and a clearing storm with temperatures remaining low.

This bodes well for Yosemite where clearing storms generally can open a small window of opportunity before rising temperatures bring a sudden demise to the freshness of the snow. Snow scenes photograph best when the snow looks fresh. Yet on this particular day, the temperature in the Valley hovered around 14-degrees (-10 Celsius) allowing me to photograph throughout much of the day.

What started out as a sunny day enveloped into soft-light as clouds began to form by noon. Prior to the cloud cover arriving, I sought-out locations where back and side-lighting would add definition to my images. One such area is El Capitan Meadow. There is a grove of black oaks that sits below the base of Cathedral Rocks and with backlight, looks like a studio-lit scene.

Though I did work that area, what first caught my eye upon arrival was a row of bent alders catching about a 135-degree rim light from the rising sun. The luminance of the rim light allowed for definition between the maze of branches and what I felt brought the scene to life. Fortunately the sun illuminated the warm-toned moss and allowed for a controllable range of contrast. Had the snow on the branches been hit by direct sunlight, the contrast range would have exceeded the capture ability of my sensor and would have been unmanageable - in a sense, the light would have been backwards. Yes HDR could have controlled the contrast but the scene would have lost is luminescent feel.

One must remember that we see the world with two eyes sending signals to our brain and rendering in our minds a scene in three-dimensions. Our cameras capture the scene in two dimensions and this is often why we are disappointed with the finished image. Thus, we need the assistance of depth clues. Rim lighting provides a way of creating depth and I believe this is why this image succeeds (though you the audience may tell me differently). There is a harmony throughout the first two-thirds of this frame as the branches tend to flow like a piece of music with each brach delineated from the next in succession pulling the eye through the frame. The transition of light stops about two-thirds into the frame, though what caused this I cannot quite recall (perhaps a cloud). In a sense, I feel it completes the image as the softness of the far snow-covered trees are darker in tone than the lit trees allowing the eye a stopping point before exiting the scene (something I would not want).

In a sense, this image represents a confirmation of many thoughts I have had regarding my image-making within the past year. This is another example of the realization of a previsualized image. The light is what helped me to make the transition from a literal capture to an artful representation. True these are trees, but my perception of the way I wanted to represent these trees was aided by the snow and the light and hopefully I took the step from simply recording a literal image to capturing an artistic representation of these trees. This image reveals more of a sense of how I felt about these trees than just simply saying. "here are some trees!" Hope this all somehow makes sense. The bottom line was that the image successfully conveyed the emotional connection I made with these trees. Under different light, I perhaps would not have given these trees a second glance (though I was drawn to their repeating curved lines).

You have undoubtedly read before on my blog how I cannot change the light in nature but I can change my relative position to the light. I believe this leads to a good lesson for location shooters - find the light first, then find your scene. In locations you are familiar with this becomes easy. I knew the light in El Capitan Meadow would be at its best once the sun crested the eastern escarpment. I had tried to photograph these trees before but the scene always looked flat and chaotic because the branches tended to blend together. With the rim light, the branches (and moss) glowed and enabled a sense of depth to the scene as each branch serve to create its own layer in the frame.

Find the light, then find the subject - think of it a reverse-engineering your images and watch simple scenes such as this become more eye-catching. This is all part of learning to read light and does not happen overnight. My belief is the fastest way to improve your photography is to study light and all its nuances. The beauty of studying light is it requires no camera, just a peaceful mind receptive to what nature provides.

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III 2/5 seconds F/16.0 ISO 100 200 mm

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