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Barrel Cactus, Hell's Gate, Death Valley NP

Posted by
Don Smith (California, United States) on 8 February 2011 in Landscape & Rural.


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Continuing along with my discussion about how I make images (please see my two previous posts for further discussion), I wish to discuss today the importance of creating depth in an image. We all know that a photograph is a two-dimensional medium. We see the world in three-dimensionality. So how do we make an image look more to how our eyes saw the scene?

Well, in my opinion, there are many ways. Shadows/highlights, patterns, lines, shapes, texture all play a part in creating the illusion of depth. Perhaps the simplest way is to look for strong foreground elements. Remember, we want to lead the viewer's eye through our scene, not have it fixate on one portion. Starting with a strong foreground sets the stage for a strong visual image assuming there is something in the mid and background portions of the frame to pull the viewer's eye through the frame.

Hell's Gate in Death Valley National Park is one of those locations that one would pass by in the middle of the day with no thought as a workable location for making images. But under the correct light, in this case sunset, a bevy of photographic possibilities begin to emerge. When I am on location looking for a foreground element, I simply look for what is natural to the landscape. Sometimes the smallest rock or foliage can be the star of the show if positioned properly in my frame.

Thinking I wanted something colorful to match the warm sky, I had some options. While working with a workshop student (as part of Gary Hart's DV workshop), we identified some lichen-covered rocks and they would have worked; however, I was aware that barrel cactus grew in this area and my search began. I walked up a rather steep trail and spotted a couple of clustered cacti growing along a loosely-shaled hillside. Taking my time, I moved towards this cluster as it allowed me to position the cactus with the Death Valley Buttes in the background. I immediately envisioned a vertical frame with the cactus filling at least three-fifths. I used my 16-35 mmL Series II Canon lens (set at 31 mm) and experimented with compositions with the camera off the tripod while lying on my side. By planing the camera/lens at a 45-degree angle to the cactus, I was able to extend the depth-of-field and allow the foreground cacti to appear larger than it really was. Once I was satisfied with my composition, I moved the tripod into place to match where I wanted the camera to be. In this case, no more than a foot off the ground. My Gitzo tripod has no center column so it is easy to spread the legs low to the ground.

At first I tried to control the bright sky with the help of my graduated neutral density filters but felt the transition line was too noticeable. I quickly discarded my filters and went to work bracketing my frames (by changing the shutter speeds) and then blended the images together later in Photoshop. I made two finished versions of this scene, one HDR and the other that you see here using layers and masks and blending portions of each frame. The HDR version could not quite get the sky looking the way I wanted.

Clearly the foreground cacti is the attention-grabber with the remaining cacti leading the eye into the frame. The buttes serve as just another layer of interest and the colorful dusk sky finishes the frame. The image has many layers resulting in a scene with a lot of depth (at least the illusion of depth). Do all scenes need a strong foreground element? Well, that's your call. Many of my successful images include a foreground element(s). I challenge myself to at least look for a suitable foreground with all my compositions. Challenge yourself and see if the depth of your images improves!

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III 1/15 second F/22.0 ISO 250 31 mm

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