On our way to Yosemite with our friend, Bob, along the Eastern Sierra, we were gifted with a rich twilight and a touch of alpenglow above the dessert.
Our brand new apartment complex bordered farmland in West Salem. We had a corner unit so we could look out over the wilds in two direction in this strange interface between modern city and rural life.
Often I would find photographic compositions presenting themselves through our livingroom window, such as this image of a bird, unfettered, and in flight to wherever its fancy called.
The Mist Trail that winds up stone stairs carved in the mother rock passes Vernal Falls to connect with other back country trails at the top of Nevada Falls. Along the narrow craggy canyon, mammoth rock walls of single giant blocks of granite stand guard.
Taken in the early 2000s during the first backpacking trip Teresa and I made into the Yosemite wilderness.
Majestic Yosemite Falls, seen from across the valley floor as it might have appeared when visitors first arrived at Yosemite.
Scroll down for the story behind the photograph…
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The story behind the photograph:
This was a difficult shot to frame. The camera position was covered in underbrush and swampy/muddy as well. I only had a normal lens, but from a nice dry spot, it wasn’t wide enough to capture the anchor points I wanted at the corners nor to include both the left and right edge points to best effect. I kept backing up into the marsh trying to get it all in, but right behind me was a thick stand of saplings that prevented me from going further back, and if I went behind them, they would show up in the frame and ruin the composition. So, I pushed my back into the bramble of trees as far as I could and eked out just enough extra distance to get just the framing I wanted with nary a centimeter to spare. Worth the effort.
The crossed logs on the bottom provide a foundation for the shot, grounding it.
The grass on the very bottom makes for an edge.
The bright leafless bushes in the mid-right fill what would have been negative space on the rack face, and counteracts that dark area of the background, which is in shadow. Their brightness also draws the eye and provide a diagonal balance to the Falls themselves, which are not only on the left, but facing left as well. That is one of my favorite parts of the composition as an exercise – to put all the weight visually in the upper left, then draw it back into balance using brightness on the mid-right.
The reflection of the bushes also breaks up the darkness of the water and further balances the shot toward the right.
In the upper right corner, a few leafless branches break up the monotony of the sky and provide an anchor to complete the balance of the photograph.
The image is split vertically into two halves, left and right, for symmetry, with the highest point of the mountain in near center, running down through the dividing line between the dark tress and bushes on the left and the right ones on the right, then ending at the roots of the fallen log at the bottom. Again, these are all elements used to balance the top-left-heavy positioning of the Falls,
The point is that they Falls could have been shot in a way to center them or have them on the right so they faced into the frame, but by putting them in this unusual position and then balancing with so many elements, the dynamics of the image are ratcheted up creating a much more energetic and compelling.
I’ll end with a quick note about dividing a shot into thirds, both horizontally and vertically – a compositional trick first documented by the ancient Greeks.
In this shot, notice the vertical has three layers, like a parfait. The top is the rocky mountain, the middle is the band of bushes, and the bottom is the water. The Greeks discovered that when images are divided in threes, it is pleasing to the eye.
Now take a look at the horizontal thirds. The left third follows down the waterfall through the one bright conifer in the background and continues through the highest tip of one of the bright branches.
The right one third begins in the crack to the right of the peak of the mountain. Notice that if you run a line down the middle of the frame from top to bottom beginning at the highest peak, the waterfall on the left and the crack on the right are almost identical in their downward line. They are also equidistance from the center, and so the right one third begins with the crack in symmetry to the Falls, runs down through the center of the bright bushes and terminates in the roots of the log at the bottom.
Now you might think that I compose a shot purely from this technical and intellection approach. Not at all. If I did that, my work would be sterile and lack any passion.
Here is my technique:
I walk out on photo expeditions. I see a subject of interest. I stop and begin to walk around the area, left/right, forward/back until I zero in on the best general location from which to capture it, just by sensing how powerful each position is, almost as if I was triangulating to find the location of a radio signal.
Once I have my general spot, I begin to frame the shot. I do this by now moving the camera left/right and up/down until the power is greatest.
Finally, I consider the image in the viewfinder and ask myself what it is that makes that shot powerful? And then I look toward symmetry, the rule of thirds, light and dark areas, negative space, foreground background, corners, edges, diagonal lines, and anchor points.
I identify these and then fine tune my framing until I can maximize the power of as many of them as possible, always keeping in mind that the overall shot is greater than the sum of its parts, and sometimes one must sacrifice a little on some of the individual compositional elements to the benefit of the image as a whole.
And that, in a nutshell, is a good introduction to photographic composition.
“Yosemite in Black Lace”
Scroll down for photograph details and composition notes…
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This was taken on a mid-winter trip to the valley floor after a recent snowfall. The expedition was given to me as a birthday present, but as I had recently been ill, I was unable to do any serious walking. Still, in strolling near Yosemite Lodge where we were staying, this image presented itself. I felt it was quite an unusual perspective on the grand old icon, featuring it behind a veil of black lace, rather than in the foreground.
As with almost all of my photographs over the decades, when I see the potential for a shot, I mentally select the heart, focus, or primary focus of the image, then begin to walk around the area where I first discovered it, moving closer and farther, side to side, peering at it from tip toe and ground level.
I begin to narrow my wanderings until I am moving in a smaller space, zeroing in on what I believe is the absolute most dynamic position from which to experience the subject.
Once I have set my camera position, I begin to fine tune the composition of the frame. I look to the edges and corners, looking for dynamics that anchor them, point to the subject, or provide counter-balance.
When I have locked down the specific presentation, I snap the shot and move on to the next.
Here are the elements of this photograph that determined my framing – first in broad strokes, and then in details and refinements:
I chose to frame the shot along the top just above Half Dome and along the bottom just below the lowest part of the granite face that could be seen. Since Half Dome is the subject but is in the background, this framing ensured the focus would be on the icon itself, not on the foreground.
Framing on the left was chosen to create a border with the left branch of the silhouetted tree, while the base of the tree is anchored in the lower left corner and leans diagonally into the frame, drawing the eye to the intended center of attention – the crest of Half Dome.
Framing on the right side is more complex. The lower right anchors with largest of the background conifers, which also runs up the right side a bit, providing an edge. The diagonals of the two major branches on the upper right split the diagonal between them, drawing the eye toward the center of the frame.
The nest silhouette in the upper right covers an open snowy area of Half Dome that would have been glaring white and unsightly, drawing attention away from the curve of the crest. The tangle of branches in the mid-right to lower-right add weight to the frame to counter-balance the left-hand side which is heavy with the major tree trunks and the curve of Half Dome which draws the eye toward the left.
Overall, some of the smaller branches follow the curve of the rock on both the left and right in the top 1/3 of the frame with one splitting down and pointing to the center of the frame and the other side of the split pointing up to the crest.
Collectively, they surround the upper face of Half Dome so it becomes almost vignetted behind the “black lace.”