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My ongoing conservation work with Scenic Hudson is not only some of the most meaningful work I do, it’s also the most creatively challenging. It puts me in difficult situations where I often have no idea how I’m going to capture an image or series of images that convey some essence of the location. On top of that, I’m often visiting for the first time, without any trails to follow, and a tight deadline.

I usually receive a map of the area with boundaries and points of interest, but it’s very general and really just a rough guide. I also use satellite imagery to get a better sense of the terrain and familiarize myself with the location. But, I’ve learned over the years that regardless of how much I prepare, there’s nothing like actually being on location to see what the light is doing, especially during the morning and evening hours.

Light is the essential element and everything else plays an important but supportive role by comparison. Whether it’s a pristine landscape or a former industrial site being reclaimed for recreational activities, the available light and its qualities are the very first things I look for.

After light, I rely on the basic principles of good composition—what I formulate as LCU. Am I leading the viewer? Is there a clear center of interest? And is there compositional unity? On top of that, I also have to consider whether the image achieves what I’ve been hired to do—communicate the natural beauty and inherent value of a location.

Arriving at the location for this assignment I immediately felt I was in trouble (a very familiar feeling!) Dense woods with no trails to follow, steep and uneven terrain, and a limited time window as the sun would rise quickly in a clear, cloudless sky. Wanting to keep it simple, I grabbed my trusty Canon 1DS mk III, and one lens, the 24-105 L f/4.

Why? Because one lens prevents me from thinking about lens choices, and 24mm to 105mm provides all the range I need to go from the big picture to the intimate. And I have used this combination so much that I don’t think about the camera at all—it’s become second nature and adds almost zero cognitive load. That is really helpful when I’m searching for ideas and trying to maintain as much awareness as possible. While things may seem static, the light is constantly changing, and that is something I don’t want to become disconnected from.

After hiking a bit and getting a feel of the place, I noticed the colors of the foliage becoming brighter and more saturated the closer I got to the shore of Hudson River. As more light streamed in I felt a sense of energy coming from the background—typical of backlit scenes. That was the first element I decided I wanted to capture. The next step is the actual composition. What do I put into the frame and how do I make sure I maintain a “sense of place?”

That’s when I noticed some boulders near by, emphasizing that same energy with the rim light on their top edges, and deep shadows beneath. Behind them were a series of seemingly random trees, but that’s where the compositional frame works its magic. Looking through the viewfinder starts the process of deciding how to arrange and distribute all the shapes, and arrive at some possible solutions.

And for me that process must be informed by my awareness of the moment. What do I really see? What do I feel? How is what I see in the viewfinder a response to that? I know these are difficult things to articulate and even harder to grasp simply from reading this, but it’s what I believe goes on in my mind as I make decisions about what will work and what won’t.

As I looked and followed the light, I thought, “yes, this might work.” The three boulders, all of varied shapes and distance from the lens, lead into the scene nicely. They also ground the image and provide the contrast that makes the light more present. The trees continue that motif and provide additional vertical shapes that move the viewer into the distance, the shoreline, the connection to the “story.” Finally, the leaves are free to dance above and throughout the frame, providing the color, the feeling of warmth, light, and energy I wanted to convey.

Take away any of these elements, and the composition becomes much weaker. Yet add more and it also becomes diluted and chaotic. I was surrounded by trees in every direction, yet I only needed a handful to unify the composition, as best I could.

I setup my tripod, made a few captures shifting from horizontal to vertical format in case one was stronger than the other, and then moved on to explore further ahead. An important point to stress here is that I don’t spend any time at all analyzing what I captured or worrying about whether I’ve been successful—aside from making sure I’ve captured the desired data on the camera’s sensor. I check the histogram, make any adjustments for the light and for the sensors limitations, and capture again.

In this case, the contrast range in the scene was very strong, so I suspected it might go beyond the sensors capabilities. So the only thing I’m concerned with after I press the shutter is this question: Did I make the best possible exposure given the light in the scene AND my aesthetic goals? That’s the only way I can determine whether I should clip the highlights or the shadows (or both) and by how much. I need to make an aesthetic judgment based on the composition and what I want to convey in the image.

I can, and sometimes do, capture two images with varying exposures to blend afterwards, but in this case given the complexity of the image (and the subsequent blend) didn’t even consider it. And I don’t use HDR much because it’s not conducive to my way of seeing and photographing.

What matters in the image and why?

  1. Preserving as much of the highlights as possible without compromising the shadows on the rocks and trees, which will provide some nice deep variation in the shadows yet feel dark and supportive of the light.
  2. I am willing to clip some of the brightest highlights because of point #1 and also because I don’t need to preserve them completely since they really function as backdrop for the sunlit leaves and contribute to the aura of bright diffused light—more emotional than literal.

This technical/aesthetic process is all I pay attention to in terms of my camera, not whether the image is actually any good. I save that for when I’m back home in front of Lightroom and am in a better position to make that judgement—not in the field when I’m trying to remain as aware of the creative potential as I possibly can, not to mention the constantly changing conditions. (This is something I discuss and promote on my workshops as much as possible.)

Analysis

The original undeveloped RAW file.
A simplified (using the Cutout filter in Photoshop) black and white version of the image which makes it much easier to visualize the shapes and tonal ranges in the image that I used to create the compositon. The color version below shows how the shapes interact once the color is added.
Red Lines: Show the basic eye path through the composition. Even when your eyes move to the upper left, the highest contrast area in the center remains the dominant. The “light” does all the work here. Blue Lines: Create the unity in the image with pattern and repetition. This is the “glue” that creates harmony from chaos. Yellow Lines: The ground plane that also helps balance the image from all of the chaos created by the leaves above.
Before and after of the original vs the final developed image.

Developing

Developing the image in Lightroom Classic was fairly straight forward and consisted of the usual adjustments to improve contrast, vibrance, and shadow separation—nothing special or difficult. Raising the shadows and adding some selective clarity with an adjustment brush helped to emphasize the light rays which add a bit of energy and sparkle to the dark foreground rocks.

Sometimes an image needs quite a bit of work, and sometimes it doesn’t, as in this case. The important thing is to know when and why. Starting with a clear sense of what you are trying to say with an image is a giant step along that path.

Conclusion

The mechanical process of making an image should be guided by your senses, your feelings, and your combined experiences up to that point in time. If you want to imbue your images with something more than just what the sensor captures—your personal vision—then I no of no other way to get there.

The point here is not to claim that my image is a perfect representation of these ideas, but rather that as my images improve, I get better at using these ideas intuitively. I’m confident that if you apply some of these ideas, your own work can and will improve significantly.

RR Jr

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Hi Robert! Hundreds of millions of images are taken daily in a constant stream capturing reality. Thank you for sharing your approach. Your story about creating this shot is helpful. I find the image very attractive and share the idea that LCU in the Hudson Valley can be challenging!

    1. Thanks Brett, glad you enjoyed it. Writing about it and describing the thought process is definitely harder than actually making the image…but it’s a valuable exercise I suggest for anyone who wants to improve their work. Doing this will help clarify your own approach and reveal areas where you are either operating too comfortably or perhaps incompetently without even knowing it. I’ve been in both places many times!

  2. I so appreciate these descriptions of your creative promptings, your workflow in the field, followed by the studio-based analysis and tweaking. I resonate with the over-arching feelings of the in-field experience being driven by the creative and emotional impulses/flow with technical considerations, while being obviously relevant and necessary, are really side matters to the experience.
    One question: as regards capture of an appropriate exposure [how much of the highlights can be blown out (?)] do you actually try to determine that in-field, or just take a few shots to have it covered? Were it me, I’m thinking, that way I can give it the minimal attention it needs, and address the matter later in post-processing. ‘Maybe take one shot at the darkest exposure (minimal or no highlights blownout) and just maybe two more of increasing EV.

    1. Thanks Hillel, glad you found it helpful. Excellent question, and what I advise is to adopt the same approach I mentioned in my response above in terms of stretching. We improve and grow when we stretch just beyond our abilities, but not so much that we feel out of control or need to rely on luck (in the “roll of the dice” way:) I have done this so many times that I feel comfortable determining the exposure in the field and transferring more of my uncertainty (stretching) to experimenting with difficult compositional challenges as I mentioned in the article.

      In the past, I would certainly have spent more time with exposure since it was something I was less certain of, both in terms of the camera’s idiosyncrasies and how I could exploit that aesthetically. Slowly I developed both (which is why I keep using this camera when the margin of error is small) and so I don’t worry about blown highlights in an image like this as explained. But for others, it may be better to capture a few exposures as you mentioned because this is your area of stretching and that is where you have the most potential for learning. For others it may be avoiding these high dynamic range situations all together until they are comfortable with using the histogram and exposure meter…it’s all relative and no one area is better or worse—just be sure to keep stretching yourself when you get comfortable!

      Just to add more insight, imagine the exact same situation in the exact same location and time, but in the winter where the tress have no leaves—I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t clip the highlights at all because now the sky IS the dominant shape and plays a totally different role compositionally. Make sense?

      1. Yes, certainly makes sense. ‘And I relate to the “stretching” in terms of knowing intuitively what I need to do at the time, with the scene, given the conditions. Yeh, I might say I yearn for the maturation of the stretch so that I do know intuitively, and wouldn’t need to “cover my bases” with a few shots. ‘And I know that only comes with practice and attention to learning (I could forever just take multiple exposures to cover my bases, and never ask the questions to learn from those experiences so as to become more intuitive…make sense?).
        Thanks!

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