Continuing my recent Eastern Sierra theme, today I share this image of an ancient bristlecone pine in the Schulman Grove of California's White Mountains, east of Bishop. Though technically not part of the Eastern Sierra, the bristlecones get an honorary admission due to their location, on the west side of the White Mountains, that provides a panoramic view across the Owens Valley to the Sierra crest and the Sierra's dramatic east face. A fortuitous byproduct of this proximity is that the bristlecone pine forest is now a much anticipated part of my Eastern Sierra fall workshops. I captured today's image in one of last fall's workshops.
The bristlecone pines, the oldest living organisms on earth, are one of a kind creations. This tree was 2,000 years old at the time of Christ. Interestingly (to me at least), the bristlecones that live in the harshest, most exposed areas live the longest. (There's metaphor there.)
Photographing these marvels is simultaneously a challenge and tons of fun. The challenge is doing them justice--while not particularly large, the bristlecones have a physical presence that's difficult to convey in two dimensions. Like the giant redwoods, it is humbling to be among them. On the other hand, their corkscrew branches, gnarled trunks, and intricate texture makes them complex and fascinating subjects from any angle or distance, great for every lens in your bag from wide to macro.
Thinking about photographing the bristlecones got me thinking about the many factors that go into making a successful image. If you frequently find yourself unsure when you click your shutter, or surprised when something works out, you probably should brush up on your craft a bit. (A workshop is a great way to do this, but you can do it yourself with a little research and discipline.) When you deem something worthy of photographing, having a plan and knowing how to execute it is your most reliable path to consistently successful photography. Having a plan doesn't mean following a formula, it means exposing your frame with a purpose, an intent to convey something. The exposure and composition decisions you make for each shot aren't trivial, but the more you hone your craft, the less these decisions interfere with your creative process.
I intentionally avoid talking a lot about craft in my blog because I think the Internet is overloaded with this kind of guidance, some good, some lousy, and (unfortunately) most pretty convincing. And the person needing guidance the most is the person least equipped to filter it. This problem is compounded by the fact that the information flow is one-way, which often leaves the recipient confused, or worse, heading off in the wrong direction. Inexperienced photographers' tendency to get bogged down (or inhibited or intimidated or confused) by all this input only impedes their creativity in the field.
But I also think it's important to share some of my thought process from time to time. My objective here isn't to give you a recipe to follow to the letter; rather, it's to show you my process so you can form your own, and to underscore the importance of having a plan for every click of the shutter. My approach goes something like this:
The mix of vivid blue and puffy white on this fall afternoon made the sky something I wanted to emphasize, so I positioned myself low, on the downslope beneath the tree, allowing me to shoot up at the tree and sky. To fill the frame I moved very close to the tree and lowered my tripod to near ground level. I selected my 17-40 lens, dialing it as wide as it would go. To increase depth of field I stopped down to f14, a bit more than my default f8-11 range (but I didn't go smaller than that because I know lenses aren't as sharp at their extreme apertures, and also diffraction robs resolution at small apertures). Because the tree was clearly the most important part of the frame, I focused on the trunk--I wasn't too worried about softness behind the tree, and I knew 17mm at f14 would give me lots of depth of field anyway.
Once I had the composition I wanted, I monitored the conditions. The sun was approaching the horizon, and as it did, the light warmed beautifully. When the light was right, I watched the clouds and snapped when the tree stood out against the blue sky visible through a brief opening in the quickly moving clouds. Confident I'd gotten what I wanted, I flipped my camera (which reminds me, I love my L-bracket) and made a vertical version of the same scene.
Next post: July 29 (please view my previous posts by clicking the arrow in the upper left of today's image)
* Website: Eloquent Images
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