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Fall Color, Tenaya Creek, Yosemite

Posted by
Gary Hart (California, United States) on 24 May 2010 in Landscape & Rural and Portfolio.

People sometimes have the mistaken perception that professional landscape photographers wander about the landscape waiting for divine inspiration to strike. Then when "it" happens, we simply raise our cameras and capture ephemeral magic with a single click. If only it were so....

This image represents a very calculated search for fall color isolated against raging water. In this case the water was Tenaya Creek in Yosemite, and it was raging because just a couple of days earlier Yosemite had received six inches of rain, enough to temporarily transform its autumn trickle to full spring flow. With overcast sky to moderate the light, conditions were ideal for just such a shot.

When I found this branch jutting over the rushing creek, there was no question I'd found what I was looking for, but I'm afraid my work was far from done. If you were to look at my desktop as I browse my images from that morning, you'd see not a single divinely inspired frame, but a dozen or so very similar frames as I tried to find the perfect combination of composition, depth, and motion. This was not a machine-gun, fire-as-many-frames-as-possible-hoping-something-works approach. Rather, it was organized and calculated to give me options to select from at home where I could examine my images on my large monitor.

The advent of digital marked a paradigm shift in photography: In the film days each click of the shutter cost money and was rarely taken lightly; with digital photography each shutter click increases the return on the photographer's investment. While most former film shooters retain their healthy respect for each frame, I'm afraid many new digital photographers have adopted a machine-gun approach that severely limits their photographic growth.

But it doesn't need to be this way. The economies of scale inherent to digital photography are a huge advantage to the photographer who shoots every frame with a purpose. In other words, when you think about each click, the more images you take, the more improvement you'll see. No longer does a successful image need to be defined as one that works, it can simply be an image that advances your skill.

So anyway, as I worked on this frame, my first couple of captures were to refine my composition: I knew I wanted these leaves against the water, but it was important that they be completely against the water and not merged with the surrounding rocks. And speaking of the surrounding rocks, another essential consideration was ensuring that I cut them off (on the sides of the frame) in a way that didn't distract or draw the viewer's eye out of the frame. I also had to be careful to balance the frame, give the leaves room, and avoid distractions (twigs, branches, or rocks) jutting in from the sides.

After two or three frames I knew I had my composition, but there were two big variables I couldn't completely manage with my eye: the motion of the water and the depth of field. So (with my composition frozen on a tripod!) I systematically adjusted my ISO, aperture, and shutter speed to find the right combination of motion and depth, taking care to cover a complete range of variables. I reviewed each frame in my LCD to narrow my possibilities, but it wasn't until I was home that I determined this one gave me the best results. I decided that more background detail distracted from the primary subject (the leaves), but more softness started eased too much texture in the rocks.

Of course these decisions are subjective; another photographer (you, for example) might have made entirely different choices. But right or wrong (however you define it), not only are these the decisions that make photography art, making them and seeing the result is one of my greatest pleasures in photography.

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

Charlie from Bristol, United Kingdom

Beautiful colour. I'm inclined to agree with you on some of your above points. I'd say that the 'machine gun' approach is very counter productive. Always plan before even picking up the camera and try and get the shot in one, as if you were working with film.

When out shooting I always plan in this order:
Camera settings

Then get out there and take the picture.

24 May 2010 9:41am

Tamara from Aarschot, Belgium

Marvelous fall colors indeed, and the milky effect of the water on the background works very well... Perfect composition :)

24 May 2010 11:07am

Barbara Kile from Ft. Worth, United States

Yes, I love those 'unmerged' leaves! That alone would make or break this image. You found a wonderful spot and everything is a perfect fit!

24 May 2010 1:10pm

john4jack from Corvallis, Oregon, United States

Wonderful composition and selective focus.

24 May 2010 2:46pm

Tracy from La Selva Beach, United States

I am always amazed at how much thinking, and working goes into making an image! Here we see the final cut, and it is all too easy to think- "Oh, that looks so simple- I'll just go out and "grab" something similar..." I love to hear about all the prep work that goes into getting even the shots that APPEAR simple! And all that work and consideration pays off here- I love it!

24 May 2010 3:13pm

MK from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Beautiful composition n colors

25 May 2010 1:55am

Sandy Weston from Madison, Maine, United States

Nice composition and great DOF!

25 May 2010 2:25am

DarkElf from Perth, Australia

excellent composition work here and thanks for the information and explanation of your steps! this does look beautiful and you have done well to have the colourful leaves nicely set against the water rather than the rocks - superb!

25 May 2010 3:00am

payam from tehran, Iran

perfect compo!

25 May 2010 5:48am


your gallary is perfect!

25 May 2010 7:03am

✿ Anina ✿ from Auckland, New Zealand

WOW! What an amazing shot! I like how the leaves simply 'pop from the screen'. And the milky water is simply wonderful! Everything works so well. Very well done
5 stars.

25 May 2010 10:03am

CherishedKeepsakePhotography from Chapmanville, United States

wonderful write up..
and the perfect capture .. with plenty of detail and coloring to see..well done

25 May 2010 3:23pm

Pixator from kerman, Iran

very beautiful shot!5*****

25 May 2010 3:26pm

Kelly Morvant from United States

Beautiful shot and I appreciate the detailed breakdown of your thought processes. The information is very helpful. Thanks!

25 May 2010 4:16pm

Dave from Folsom, United States

Remember the story I told you about my photographer friend that would say "you don't take a picture you make it"

25 May 2010 8:43pm

Didier DE ZAN from somewhere, France

Very beautiful

26 May 2010 4:58am

Denny Jump from Easton, PA, United States

Hi Gary - Coming to the realization that digital photo preparation should be as calculated and deliberate as that of any film mode prep is a key learning element here. Very often, I STILL get bitten by that little gremlin. Nevertheless thank you for this very KEY point. I am old so I learn slowly :-) All the best - Denny

26 May 2010 11:54am

Dutch from Chicagoland, United States

Congrats on the Color Spotlight!

26 May 2010 3:31pm

@Dutch: Thanks, Dutch, I'd never even heard of the Color Spotlight until you mentioned it. (I'm pretty sure I win a free car.)

Demo from Villeneuve d, France

I love it !

26 May 2010 8:01pm

Vitor Martins from Lisboa, Portugal

Superb compo, with an amaizing light and a great sense of a 3D image.

27 May 2010 8:39am

Dutch from Chicagoland, United States

Artists, actors, photographers.. somewhat delusional even if brilliant ;) A car! You know I hadn't heard about the color spotlight either until someone told me about it so now I look at that too.

28 May 2010 1:14pm

✿ Anina ✿ from Auckland, New Zealand

Congratulations on the Color Spotlight! Well deserved.

29 May 2010 11:38am

dkc from Xanthi, Greece

One beautiful photo! A well deserved spotlight too!

31 May 2010 6:16pm

Reiner from Germany

Simply beautiful.

23 Jul 2010 11:27am