Here's an image from the first of two Eastern Sierra workshops last fall. Photographing Mono Lake's South Tufa at sunrise requires (okay, not literally, but you get the idea) arriving at least 30 minutes before sunrise (earlier is better). You can begin shooting here as soon as the eastern horizon starts to light-up, starting with long exposure tufa silhouettes, proceeding to captures of the fabulous color intensifying in the east, then turning around for the sunlight descending the looming Sierra peaks in the west, and culminating with fabulous warm light that skims the lake surface to cast long, dramatic tufa shadows. (Arriving early has the added advantage of allowing you to claim your turf, as it's pretty much a sure thing that by the time the sun rises the place will be swarming with photographers.)
The calm air on this chilly morning made for glass-like reflections. A wide composition allowed me to maximize the foreground reflection, and caused the tufa towers to shrink into the distance. I chose to put the horizon line toward the top of the frame to further emphasize the reflection. I positioned the tall tufa tower on the right to anchor that side of the frame; a smaller tufa island anchors the frame on the left.
A few words about color in nature. I love color and look for scenes where the color pops, but based on comments I hear and read (such as, "Those colors aren't real," whatever that means), I honestly believe many people forget how vivid color in nature is. Flowers, sunrises and sunsets, animals, water (I could go on but you get the point) all display brilliant colors that the camera struggles to reproduce.
I often wonder whether most people's memory of vivid scenes is superseded by their camera's inadequate rendering. I picture them looking at their images when they get home, and rather than understanding the limitations of their camera, they think, "Gee, I guess it wasn't quite as vivid as I remember."
The next time you're watching a sunset, stay with it for at least 20 minutes after the sun disappears, making a conscious effort to register the color for the duration. I think you'll find there's nothing subtle about even the most ordinary sunset. Mentally compare the color in the sky to anything you've ever captured in a photo. I bet the sky wins.
But photographing that color requires more than putting your camera to your eye and autoexposing. I frequently have to watch the RGB histogram when photographing a sunrise/sunset or backlit poppy (for example) because the luminosity histogram will show me I've captured all the detail, but it won't tell me when I've blown (oversaturated) a color channel, a very real possibility.
The unfortunate consequence of the camera's color capturing shortcomings is that many frustrated photographers overcompensate, with hideous results, in post-processing. And overcompensation isn't limited to digital shooters: Anyone remember Fuji Velvia? (This whole "film is better than digital" topic is a debate for another day, but I'll deliver the first salvo by saying that anyone who shoots Velvia is automatically disqualified.) I'm afraid Velvia and misuse of the saturation slider has damaged the credibility of all color shooters.
So what's a photographer to do? For me it's about getting the color right at capture to minimize or eliminate any need to touch the saturation control. Often this means underexposing much of the scene to hold the most vivid color. Today's Mono Lake image is a great example. I used a graduated neutral density filter to darken the sky some, but since I was shooting into the brightest part of the sky, I still had to underexpose the foreground to avoid losing color. In post-processing I was able to bring the foreground up a bit, but since I didn't want the foreground detail to distract from the color and shapes that define this image, my dodging was pretty limited. Making the color pop, while keeping it as accurate as possible, was a simple matter of slightly bumping the contrast.
* Website: Eloquent Images
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