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Moonscape, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley

Posted by
Gary Hart (California, United States) on 10 September 2010 in Landscape & Rural and Portfolio.

Today's sunrise image from Zabriskie Point in Death Valley is a companion to my previous image. I post it now to highlight an approach that's near and dear to my heart: composition bracketing. If you've followed my blog or attended my workshops you've no doubt heard me mention composition bracketing because I've been talking about it for years. But some things bear repeating (and repeating, and repeating...).

In the days of film photography, when no capture was certain until the image returned from the lab or darkroom, bracketing for exposure was often the best way to ensure success. You'd compose a beautiful but difficult-to-meter scene, expose it as best as you could, then hedge your bets by bracketing that exposure by a stop or so in either direction--surely (fingers crossed) one of these would be exposed right.

But notice I said "in the days of film photography." I'm amazed by the number of digital photographers who still routinely bracket for exposure. Certainly if you plan to HDR (high dynamic range blending of multiple images) an image, you must bracket exposures. But I'm afraid HDR has become the saturation slider of the last couple of years, a useful tool that's been abused beyond reason. For digital photographers who understand metering and can read a histogram (it's not rocket science, I promise), bracketing for exposure insurance is just a waste of time and storage. But that's a topic for another day.

On the other hand, while each shutter click in film photography costs money (film and processing), each digital shutter click increases the return on your investment (you've already sprung for the camera). But rather than waste energy bracketing exposures, digital shooters are better served by taking advantage of digital's "free" images by bracketing compositions--call it, "variations on a scene." Huh? Put simply, composition bracketing means not settling for your first take on a beautiful scene. Often the first composition that comes to you is the composition that comes to everyone else; the real creative stuff doesn't come until you live with the scene a bit, try a few things, and just reach that organic place where your logical brain submits to your creative brain. Composition bracketing is trying different orientations, focal lengths, and lenses, changing exposures and polarizer effects, varying motion blur and depth of field--whatever it takes to shake things up. It also means repositioning yourself to alter the relationship between elements and/or adding/subtracting elements by repositioning yourself.

My previous image was a little more conventional representation of this classic Death Valley scene, with the Moon and Manly Beacon being the clear points of focus. Here, by going vertical and a bit wider, I was able to emphasize the color, texture, curves, and lines of the alluvial ravines that make Zabriskie Point unique, and turn the Moon into an accent.

I finished my previous post with encouragement to move around to position the Moon (or other celestial object) relative to the terrain. More than controlling lateral placement, you can hasten the Moon's (or Sun's or whatever) set by moving forward, or down a slope, and delay its set by moving back, or up a slope. In this case the Moon stayed put as I altered my composition without moving anything but my camera. In my next blog I'll take this moving around approach to the absolute opposite extreme. Stay tuned....

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

Julie from Easton, United States

The textures in these rocks are just so awesome! You can actually see how lava has made them, cooled and then hardened for all to see....and the colors, wonderful!

10 Sep 2010 5:05am

Tamara from Aarschot, Belgium

I like both presentations (landscape and portrait) of this wonderful place. The details of the rocks on the foreground are really incredible in both shots... Great work, as usual Gary ;) Have a nice day !

10 Sep 2010 8:21am

Sevi from Zurich, Switzerland

beatiful picture and intersting text :)

10 Sep 2010 6:04pm

Wild Mustang Photography from Carlisle, United States

Stunning composition! Beautiful colors and POV!!!

11 Sep 2010 2:33am

Denny Jump Photo from Easton, PA, United States

Gee I missed this one yesterday Gary and I am upset about that. This additional companion view is so unique and I totally hear what you are saying about changing things up, moving around, and "bracketing" not necessarily (or just) for exposure but moving yourself and your compositions around within the same basic scene.. What a difference a few feet can make or a different aperture or iso or distance or all of the above! Your lessons are so easy meaningful and valuable - I have trouble remembering things so I usually have to re-read most material, but it's coming with your help. Thank you so very much - this or the other one may just be the one I "pull the trigger" on next time they come around :-) Having your work on my wall would be the highest honor! All the beat Gary and thanks again. Denny

12 Sep 2010 1:40am

Tracy from La Selva Beach, United States

Good reminders as always Gary! I seem to be becoming a "vertical junkie" and really have to force myself to make some horizontal images these days! This is a great way to think about it- bracketing compositions makes so much sense....I am heading off on a photography loop this week- North Tahoe to Mono Lake, then back home on 120 through Yosemite---Any advice on hidden gems that I should plan for?

12 Sep 2010 2:42am

DarkElf from Perth, Australia

this is an amazing place - so completely different to everything else around! and you do it some great justice with your photo here! wonderful composition and good even light to bring out all the fascinating details of the valley! the moon is juts the perfect icing on this "cake"! i completely agree with what you say about taking different compositions of the same place - i think it is a great learning and experience building exercise...

13 Sep 2010 2:55am

VisualStoryteller from Cape Cod, United States

Composition bracketing! I have not seen your previous comments about this and agree it is well worth repeating. Just last evening I was gazing up at a brilliant crescent moon high above Lewis Bay looking south-southwest with a rapidly gathering cloud structure around it. The moon's elevation was still quite high so there were no foregraound anchor points to include in my composition, so I 'took' a picture in my mind and went back inside (I was actually walking my dog and had no camera).

Since you have often mentioned the amount of planning that you do when making images that include the moon, and have referenced astronomical tables that predict where and when the moon will show up for the 'session' I would appreciate a link to such info. I have watched the crescent moon above the bay here on Cape Cod for a few nights now (when the sky is clear or partly cloudy) but have been frustrated (and tired after a while) trying to pick a time when it is 'rising' or 'setting' above Nantucket Sound and the Hyannis Port jetty; both within view from a beach on the south cape that I frequent. Suggestions?

13 Sep 2010 12:24pm

@VisualStoryteller: Moon tables are available online--that's a good place to start. Also, while I haven't used it, I've heard great things about The Photographer's Ephemeris: http://stephentrainor.com/tools. It's helpful to know that the moon rises about an hour later each day, and it's easier to photograph at sunset the day before it's full and at sunrise the day after it's full.

VisualStoryteller from Cape Cod, United States

In addition to capturing the moment when the moon is lower in the sky, I took note of your suggestion to move up or down a slope to 'change' the location and plan to place the camera on the beach, so to speak, with some rocks from a nearby jetty providing an anchor point. Just need that moon to cooperate and get a little lower in the sky. (I thought about 'moving' it with Photoshop, but that would be too easy)

13 Sep 2010 12:28pm

Denny Jump Photo from Easton, PA, United States

Case in point to my diatribe of yesterday: I just Re-read your text here today and the part about the first composition oftentimes being the most "seen" scene, just sunk in like a boulder falling into Crater Lake...If we hang around and use our imagination a bit, the ensuing "takes" can very much end up being the more unique. I am proud to say that I have actually experienced this myself. I'll compose one way, than another, and perhaps even another. The one I did of the backlit leaves that you liked a few weeks ago, was actually like a third take I think. So again thank you very much Gary! All the best - Denny

13 Sep 2010 5:20pm

Magda from Vancouver, Canada

what an amazing terrain

24 Sep 2010 5:14pm