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Leaf and Cascade, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

Posted by
Gary Hart (California, United States) on 19 August 2009 in Plant & Nature and Portfolio.

"Is that the way it really looked?" (fourth in a continuing series)

I'm asked that question quite frequently, and my response is always an emphatic, "No!" The camera and the eye see the world differently; it's silly for any photographer to claim an image is "exactly the way it looked when I was there." A camera's dynamic range, visual depth, and range of focus (to name a few) are all inferior to the human eye. A good photographer doesn't submit to these limitations, he or she turns them into an advantage. Conversely, there are wonderful things the camera can do that the eye can't. All these differences combine to give the experienced landscape photographer an opportunity to create evocative, artistic images in the camera, with very little post-processing required. Today's post continues an ongoing series expressing my thoughts on using your camera's vision to your photographic advantage (and without having to resort to Photoshop enhancement).
Rectangular box (fixed boundaries)

Surveying Bridalveil Creek on this chilly fall morning, I could see the countless rocks, trees, and leaves forming the scene. By moving my eyes left or right, up or down, I could add even more to my view. Pivoting my head expanded my vision further, and rotating myself 180 degrees gave me the same range of vision in the opposite direction. In other words, I stood at the center of a potentially infinite sphere. (Infinite? Ask yourself what's the farthest you've ever seen and you may start by recalling a ship balanced on the distant horizon, then progress to the setting sun viewed from atop a towering peak, before finally landing on a memory of an ocean of stars on a moonless mountain night. Maybe not literally infinite, but certainly distances beyond our ability to comprehend.)

The camera's world is far more limited, constrained by the rectangular boundaries of its two-dimensional universe. Expand the boundaries (wide angle) and its world shrinks; enlarge the world (telephoto) and its boundaries shrink. Just one more reason it's impossible for a camera to precisely recreate the experience of being there.

So what's a photographer to do? Celebrate, of course! We all relate to the world differently, so how boring would the world be if "exactly the way it looked when I was there" was the same for everyone? By using the boundaries of our camera's view, we can pick out what matters most to us and deliver it in the most compelling manner we can muster. We can transcend the literal and create works of art the evoke emotions.

Today's image I captured while leading a workshop in Yosemite. We were all in the same general area beneath Bridalveil Fall, looking at the same things, but each seeing our own version of world. I was the only person to see this leaf, and of course everyone in the group saw many things I missed. Each person left with unique images of their own. In other words, without conscious thought, they all used their camera's "limited" perspective to isolate elements that most resonated with them. Many in the group that morning were drawn to the larger scene of colorful trees and tumbling cascades. Others had their macros focused on individual leaves or drops of water. I saw this clinging leaf, plastered to the side of a wet rock. I liked the metaphor of the water rushing from the mystery of the black shadow toward the spreading light and composed in a way to emphasize this.

When making an image, I try to find a subject that stands out (like this leaf), or a group of elements that I can "assemble" within the frame. Using the left/right, top/bottom boundaries, I position these elements to allow the eye to flow through the frame, and/or come to rest at specific place in the frame. Sometimes I apply the "rule of thirds" (imagining a tic-tac-toe grid on my frame positioning elements to be emphasized near the intersections), but often I just go with what feels right. In that case I like to take a more organic approach that uses people's (myself included) natural inclination to link elements and subconsciously create invisible lines and shapes.

The borders of your image are tools you can use to aid the viewers' movement through your frame. For example, it's helpful to know that the eye tends to move along the long edge--my desire for front-to-back depth is one reason I have so many vertically oriented images.

Sometimes I try to create a virtual world that's completely self-contained within the frame. In that case it's particularly important to avoid unnecessary distractions along the borders. To the extent that it's possible, keep the borders clean, with nothing jutting in or cutting off.

Other times I want to imply a greater world beyond the frame's boundaries. For example, in this image I used the implicit motion of the water to guide my viewers' eyes. Without being conscious of it, viewers of this image know that the water originated in the upper left, and exited in the lower right. They can't see the creek beyond the frame, but they can easily imagine it.

Next post: August 19 (please view my previous posts by clicking the arrow in the upper left of today's image)

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Thanks for visiting. Even if I don't respond, your comments are always read and appreciated.

Anina from Auckland, New Zealand

GREAT shot!
I love the tones
Great mood you created here
The single leaf on the rock is very striking :)

19 Aug 2009 7:35am

@Anina: Thanks, Anina--I'm enjoying your Africa series.

Timber from Toronto, Canada

Eloquent & poetic imagery.. Love this image & the natural elegance.. the entire portfolio is stunning.. clean.. fresh & sparkling ..

19 Aug 2009 8:24am

@Timber: Thanks, Timber. Your description is exactly what I strive for with my photography. I can't say I always succeed for everyone, but it's nice to know when it does.

daniela scharnowski from Berlin, Germany

In my eyes a good interpretation of the longevity of stones - anything else goes by.
Prominent colours and clarity of textures.

19 Aug 2009 6:22pm

john4jack from Corvallis, Oregon, United States

Stunning. The position of the leaf is exquisite.

19 Aug 2009 7:12pm

@john4jack: Thanks, Jack. I'm sometimes asked if I position subjects like this leaf. The answer is absolutely not, but I certainly do look for things that stand out like this. I also position myself in whatever way I think best emphasizes the subject.

dobbino from Cape Town, South Africa

Really like what you have to say about "the rule of thirds" and "what feels right" - I find that sometimes the "rules" become all important, and can take away from a shot "that feels right". It's something one needs to guard against, as always abiding by the rules can sometimes make an exceptional shot just ok. Anyway, maybe I've had too much wine tonight, but for me this image would be superb even without the leaf - it's a wonderful photo.

19 Aug 2009 7:17pm

@dobbino: Thank you, Rob. You hit the nail on the head--it's important to know the rules, but you ultimately must defer to what feels right.

Judy from Brooksville, Florida, United States

This again, is a superb lesson, Gary; I appreciate it, and your photo is wonderful (as always).

I'm bold in asking you to look at today's image, one I took in Nova Scotia years ago. I've always loved it, but the quality is obviously lacking due to an older camera and a scanned photo. This is probably one of my better attempts to get the viewer's eye to move within the frame. Thanks.

19 Aug 2009 9:42pm

@Judy: Thanks, Judy. Take a look at my comments about your post today.

Judy from Brooksville, Florida, United States

Thank you so much for your critique, Gary. Back then I knew nothing about the 'rule of thirds' and about getting something in the foreground, which you have expertly taught me. (There was nothing but gravel at the roadside, so I had little choice in this particular spot. <sigh>) I want you to know how much I appreciate what you share with us from your professional viewpoint, as I am higher with my photos!

20 Aug 2009 12:09am

Judy from Brooksville, Florida, United States

Oops ....... AIM higher!

20 Aug 2009 12:09am

Tracy from La Selva Beach, United States

Great lessons, Gary- And I always read and learn from everyone's comments too- I really agree with what Rob says- It's just gotta feel right!
And of course, this stunning photo is NO exception! Beautifully composed!

20 Aug 2009 2:28am

pernilla from Andonno, Italy

This picture is perfect! Love the composition with the smoth water and different colors of the stones. The leaf adds a great detail.

20 Aug 2009 8:05am

Scott Schilling from San Martin, United States

Gary - wonderful image! I like the composition and the simplicity of colors - very calming to me with a lot of visual interest! I hope you're having a great week. I am heading up to Yosemite tommorrow - Friday, hoping to catch some great clouds with the possibility of some monsoon moisture - we'll see.

21 Aug 2009 3:40am

@Scott Schilling: Thanks, Scott. Wish I could go up to Yosemite this weekend but I have family stuff--hope you come home with something great.