Olympus E-M1, 1/8000 sec @f/4, ISO 200, no filters
Seeing is as much about what you see with your eyes as it is about what you feel with your heart. That’s a cliche for sure, but it’s the best way I can describe why I made this image. We all see and experience the world differently, and becoming aware of what you respond to in any given moment is really important. I look for scenes that resonate with me—that make me aware of something inside that I didn’t feel the moment before I saw it.
A sense of mystery, of wonder, of gratitude.
I was driving along the Colorado River during a rare thunderstorm in Utah, and as I crested a hill, light suddenly filled the sky in front of me. Luckily it was easy to pull off the road, so I immediately parked, grabbed my bag and tripod and walked along the road to find the best vantage point.
You have to imagine that all around me the sky is grey and very ominous, but in this relatively small area, clouds were parting to let some light shine through. This added lots of depth and drama to the sky, a sort of energy that attracted me in a visceral way.
This scene is backlit, meaning the direction of light is towards the viewer, and this makes the outlines of the canyons and mesas very graphic. The shapes and layers of the different mesas are what I wanted to balance with the bright clouds in the sky so that each depends on the other for the composition to work. It’s this tension that I saw and felt originally and wanted to try and capture.
Whether I’ll succeed is always a question that lingers in my mind, but over time I have found that the less I worry about that and focus on reacting to the scene in front of me, the more rewarding photography becomes. Let me phrase that another way; the mere noticing of both the scene and how I reacted is the whole point of photography for me. I had found something to interpret, to try and capture in a way that told the story of it and how I experienced it.
Another thing that I reacted to was that while this landscape is usually dominated by the color red (it’s a desert after all), here that familiar red is missing, replaced by cool shades of blue. It was a departure from the expected, the norm. Mystery can be an essential component of a photograph, and I’m always on the lookout for anything that shifts the viewer’s expectations.
The final key to this image was simplifying it to the essential components. In other words, how much can I remove yet still retain the drama of the moment?
I used an Olympus 40–150mm f/2.8 lens on my Olympus E-M1 and tried to isolate just what was most visually attractive. That’s when I noticed a yin-yang design to the frame; highlights on the left sweeping down and darkness on the bottom right sweeping up, with a punctuation on either side – the single cloud pointing down and left to the corner of the Butte on the right. There are also implied diagonals starting from the bottom left and right, and that provides the visual anchor that leads the viewer up the to sky where the drama and energy are.
One I locked down on the composition, it was a matter of getting the best exposure. I exposed for the highlights, simply because that’s the most important detail in the image. The shadows aren’t nearly as important from a detail perspective because they move the viewer up using the shapes and tones to the clouds where the energy is. The shadows make the highlights all the more important and dramatic. As usual, a few minutes later the light softened until it was gone and it started to rain. And it felt so good.
Red lines indicate the lines and shapes that create the tension between the dark and bright areas of the image. Yellow is where the shadows/shapes help lead the viewer into the image and to the areas of “energy.” The orange lines indicate the implied diagonals. Notice how all the points and lines in the foreground balance with the points and shapes in the sky 9red lines.) That creates the “yin-yang” design I mentioned above.
I hope these explanations are useful to you from the perspective of how I think about making images. The tools are important, but the process of not only composing an image, but discovering an image is much more important in my opinion, and more rewarding creatively.
If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below. I am always eager hear from you and help others continue to expand and grow as creative photographers. Thanks for reading!