Yosemite Falls In Winter

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.

Composition Notes:

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.