A Photograph From the Archives: My Self-Critique

Wildflowers, Tuolumne Meadows, 1986
Wildflowers, Tuolumne Meadows, 1986

It’s wildflower season in the Yosemite high country, which made me think about this image that I made 25 years ago, in August of 1986, in Tuolumne Meadows.

In the 1980s large swaths of Lemmon’s paintbrush and shooting stars were common in Tuolumne Meadows in the summer. But 1986 brought the best bloom I’ve ever seen there, with this great mix of paintbrush, little elephant’s heads, lupine, shooting stars, penstemons, and… that yellow flower (arrowhead butterweed?). For some reason though wildflowers have diminished in Tuolumne Meadows in recent years, and those great blooms seem to be a thing of the past.

In the summer of 1986 I was working at The Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Valley. On the day I made this photograph I drove up to the high country after work. A thunderstorm had rolled through, leaving the meadows wet and the skies overcast. But just before sunset the sun crawled underneath the clouds and lit up the peaks in the distance.

I actually think I did a pretty good job with the composition here. I needed to find some kind of structure or design to hold the foreground together and lead the viewer’s eyes into the distance. The little V- shaped group of flowers at the bottom of the frame accomplished both those things, giving the foreground some structure and leading viewer’s eyes toward the background. As a bonus, that V-shape mirrors the upside down Vs of the peaks.

The horizon line is high, but I think that’s appropriate here: the foreground is much more interesting than the sky. I’m glad I wasn’t overly concerned about putting the horizon a third of the way from the top.

This photograph was made with an Olympus OM-1, 28mm lens, and Kodachrome 64 film. I don’t remember the shutter speed, but I do remember that I stopped the aperture all the way down to f/22. Although you may not be able to tell at this size, the background is not perfectly sharp. The depth of field was pretty extreme (the closest flowers were only three feet from the camera), so it was hard to get everything in focus, but I wish I’d focused slightly further back and kept the peaks sharp—although if I had to pick one or the other, I’d rather have a soft background than a fuzzy foreground.

What else would I do differently? Well, I wish I’d had better equipment and materials! Kodachrome film didn’t render greens very well, and despite my efforts in Photoshop to coax some life into the greens of this drum-scanned transparency, they still have a dull, bluish cast to them. A warming filter would also have helped, but I had only started taking photography seriously about a year earlier, and didn’t know about warming filters yet. Nowadays of course, with a digital camera, I could just adjust the white balance.

That cyan sky is also a Kodachrome artifact that’s difficult to correct. A graduated neutral-density filter would have helped to darken the sky, though I was able to bring it down in Photoshop a bit. Again, I would do it differently with a digital camera these days, and either simply darken that sky in Lightroom or Photoshop, or blend two different exposures together.


Despite the flaws though, I’m happy with the composition, and I’m glad I have this photograph to remind me of that spectacular wildflower display.

So go ahead—this is your chance to critique one of my photos! What do you think of the composition? What would you have done differently?

—Michael Frye

Related Posts: August Flowers, High Country Wildflowers in Yosemite, Summer Wildflowers, Late Bloomers in the High Country

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author and photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters, plus the eBook Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom. He has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

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    I like the “V” formation as you described. I used to shoot a lot of Kodachrome and Ektachrome also and found the latter gave better blues, but for sky and clouds I always used a polarizing filter. As far as greens go: do you remember Paul Simon’s song “Kodachrome” which contained the words “…gives us those nice bright colors, gives us those greens of summer…”? I guess he didn’t shoot much Kodachrome!

    I like the composition, I would just criticize it on technical factors that you’ve already addressed. The colors are just a little too muted, brighter greens would especially help.

    Thanks for your comments James and Patrick!

    James, your comment about the famous Paul Simon song made me smile. When Fujichrome 50 came out (late ’80s? Early ’90s?), suddenly Kodachrome seemed dull, and overrated! And then of course we got Velvia, and Provia, and better Ektachromes. All seems like ancient history now though.

    Michael, I like the composition but for a slightly different reason. I personally like how the hills come in to accentuate the form of the mountains that mirror the form of the flowers, as well as separate the middle ground from the background. I have only started using a polarizing filter and wonder how that could have brought out the colors.

    Michael, I feel strange critiquing a professional but here goes.

    The bottom 1/3 is the part in focus, which makes it the subject in my opinion, but it is really dark. In the middle 1/3, the flowers are too small to make much impact and are not in clear focus. In the top almost 1/3, the mountains are beautiful but are too small to be the subject and are not in focus. I don’t feel drawn in very much. My eyes are actually drawn to the bottom of the picture. Seeing it larger would probably make a difference though. Using a flash would have made the flowers in the foreground brighter and would probably have made a big difference. I don’t judge composition much as I feel that’s the artistry and individual expression of the artist. I rarely think about the tic-tac-toe board when shooting. I think the most striking pictures I’ve ever seen don’t follow it.

    I can’t imagine how difficult photography was before the instant feedback of digital cameras. The skill it took to get anything acceptable is really amazing.

    Thanks for sharing it and the experience of taking it. I love Yosemite and have many pictures I took there to remind me of it. Some are pretty good, if I do say so myself, and some are just memories. I’ve only been in the autumn. Going during spring is on my bucket list.

    Pat, thanks very much for your comments. A polarizer has its strongest effect with sidelight, so it probably wouldn’t have made a big difference here. It might have cut some of the reflections on the wet grass, which could have been good or bad.

    Brad, I don’t mind your critique at all. We’re here to learn, and besides, this is an old image, and so I have plenty of excuses for it!

    All the things you point out are valid. That dark foreground would have been helped by the aforementioned graduated filter, and certainly I missed the focus a bit here. Subtle use of flash on the foreground might have helped also, though I don’t think I even owned one at the time! But all things to think about for me and others in the future.

    I’m glad you love Yosemite too, and I hope you do get to go in spring. The waterfalls are truly amazing.

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