The subject of this critique is a photo by Kyle Jones called “Mount Shasta and Lake Siskiyou,” from the far northern reaches of California. I think this image has some interesting things to teach us about space and separation in a composition, and shutter speeds for water.
Light and Weather
You’re looking north here, with the sun rising to the right (east) and illuminating Mt. Shasta. The low-angle sidelight creates some nice texture on the mountain ridges and highlights the cloud. The faint mist on the water adds a little early-morning mood. Conditions here weren’t extraordinary, but certainly more interesting than if the sky were clear and cloudless. Despite the cloud and mist the mood here is bright and sunny rather than dramatic or mysterious. It looks like this was made a little after sunrise, since the light was already hitting the trees on the left, so perhaps catching the very first light on the peak would have added a stronger mood—but I like the feeling of this photograph as it is.
Composition—Space and Separation
Kyle told me: “I arrived well before dawn and spent some time trying to find a composition I liked along with a shutter speed that looked good in the water. I wanted an ‘imperfect’ reflection with some ripples in the water and I didn't want to blur the water with a long shutter speed. I took about 25 shots with just the water in the foreground before I found this rock. I thought it anchored the shot well and I liked the fact that the rock had some character. I took another dozen shots at various shutter speeds with this rock in the foreground, finally settling on this one as my favorite.”
Overall the composition in this photograph is simple, clean, and strong. All the main elements—cloud, mountain, reflection, and the foreground rock—stand out clearly, with little unnecessary clutter.
However, while I like simplicity, and rarely advocate including empty space in a photograph, in this case I think the composition is too tight. Three important elements have been cut off along the edges of the frame—the cloud, the reflection of the cloud in the water, and the reflection of the foreground rock.
Important objects along the edge of the frame need to be either completely included or cut off enough to show that you meant it. If just the edge of an object is missing it looks accidental, like you weren’t paying attention—which you probably weren’t! Here I yearn to see the whole shape of that cloud, and its reflection, and see the complete round shape of the rock and its reflection as well. Cutting off the edges of those elements makes the photograph feel cramped, and this mountain scene should feel majestic and expansive.
When composing a photograph our attention is often focused on the middle, and it’s easy to overlook the edges. To prevent this, try to get into the habit of running your eyes along the edge of the frame before you press the shutter. This effort will often reveal small distractions that could be excluded, or the edge of an important object that has been cut off. Since reflections aren’t “real” solid objects we often pay less attention to them, so make a conscious effort to pay extra attention to how reflected objects meet the edge of the frame, or merge with other objects.
Speaking of mergers, there’s one small one here between the foreground rock and the reflection of the cloud. It’s just as important to have separation between elements within the photograph as between objects and the edge of the frame. Here that separation could have been achieved by taking a step to the left, which would have moved the cloud reflection to the left relative to the rock, and given both the rock and the cloud reflection their own distinct shapes. Or moving far enough to the right could have placed the cloud reflection to the right of the rock.
Of course moving even further could have kept the rock out of the frame completely. While the rock isn’t bad, does it really add much to the photograph? It does “anchor” the image, as Kyle said, and adds some depth. But the photograph would be simpler without it, and the beautiful rippled reflection might be emphasized more if it wasn’t competing with the rock for attention.
Centering and Symmetry
The composition is quite symmetrical, both vertically and horizontally, with the horizon in the center, and the mountain centered left-to-right. I’m not a stickler for the rule of thirds, as every situation has its own logic, and sometimes the center is the best place to put your subject. With reflections, like the one in this photo, centering the horizon creates symmetry and repetition, as the bottom of the photograph mirrors the top, and this often works very well.
The problem here is that the image is not symmetrical—that foreground rock interrupts the symmetry and throws the image slightly off balance. If the rock is going to be in there I think it would work better to avoid that centered horizon and give the foreground, with the water and rock, a little more space than the sky. And by taking a step to the left and putting some separation between the rock and the cloud reflection, as I suggested above, you could move the mountain toward the left side of the frame and balance it with the rock on the right.
Again, of course, Kyle could have moved far enough left or right to keep the rock out of the frame, and then the symmetrical, centered composition might have worked better. But even then it wouldn’t be perfectly symmetrical, since the water was rippled, so perhaps putting the horizon a little above center and giving more emphasis to the interesting, wavy reflection might have been more dynamic.
Of course all of my suggestion here assume that Kyle could have used a wider lens. He told me this image was made with a 28-75mm lens at 28mm, but I’m pretty sure he owns shorter focal lengths than this. If not, vertical framing might have worked, though maybe only without the rock. Since the main points of interest are in the middle, a vertical orientation, eliminating some dead space on the right and left sides, would have been worth considering. To show the potential of that idea, I (crudely) cloned out the rock and cropped the sides. Imagine this as a vertical photograph, with a little more room at the top, and even more at the bottom:
Whenever you compose a photograph ask yourself, "What catches my eye the most? What do I really want to emphasize?" If I were standing in front of this scene my answer would have been, "The ripples." Yes, there's a big mountain out there, but the ripples are just gorgeous, and visually more interesting than anything else. I might have even zoomed in and made an abstract of just the water—something I did in a similar situation last year (see the second photo in this post). But if I was going to include the mountain then a vertical orientation, without the rock, would fill most of the frame with mountain, cloud, and rippled reflections, with a minimum of space devoted to less interesting elements.
The photo was made with a Canon XT camera on a tripod with a Tamron 28-75 f/2.8 lens at 28mm. It was shot at ISO 100, 1/10s, and f/7.1. Kyle says he’s sure he used a polarizer, and is pretty sure he used a Singh-Ray 2-stop soft-edge graduated neutral-density filter.
This version was processed in Lightroom 3. Kyle says that he used the Camera Standard profile and Adobe’s daylight white balance. “I used the point curve to add some contrast and added a little recovery (5) to keep some detail in the clouds. Exposure, Fill, Blacks, Brightness, and Contrast were all set to zero and the Clarity/Vibrance/Saturation all set to 15. I also used the Adjustment Brush to select the foreground rock and increase its exposure (by 0.78) to bring out some detail.”
The overall exposure looks great. If Kyle did use the graduated filter—and it looks like it to me—it worked well to balance the light of the mountain and clouds with their reflections. Kyle avoided using too strong a filter and making the reflection lighter than the actual cloud, something you would never see in real life. The brightest part of the cloud still looks a little hot, so using a little more Recovery (or bringing down Highlights or Whites in Lightroom 4) might help.
I love that Kyle chose a fast enough shutter speed to preserve the ripples and textures in the water. You don’t need perfectly calm water for great reflections. In fact it’s often more interesting when there are some small ripples like this—as long as you use a reasonably fast shutter speed to preserve the appearance of those ripples, rather than letting the water blur and smooth out.
Everything appears to be in focus at this small image size, but there’s considerable depth here, and f/7.1 is not a very small aperture, so I wonder if everything would really look sharp at a bigger size. A smaller aperture like f/11 or f/16 would have provided enough depth of field to make sure both foreground and background were sharp. (You can see a slightly larger version here.)
Of course setting a smaller aperture would have required using a slower shutter speed, potentially blurring the water, unless you pushed up the ISO. Personally I would have been willing to live with a little more noise from the higher ISO to make sure that I had both the aperture and shutter speed I needed.
The polarizing filter might be a little overdone. The giveaway is that the blue sky is darker in the middle and lighter on the sides, something you wouldn’t see in real life. Polarizers have a very strong effect with sidelight, sometimes too strong, so in situations like this I prefer to rotate the polarizer to less-than-maximum strength so that it’s effect isn't obvious. It’s easy to darken blues later in software to increase the contrast between clouds and sky if necessary.
The processing looks great. Shadows are dark, as shadows should be, but with a hint of detail.The overall contrast seems just right, and the saturation isn’t overdone,. The white balance looks perfect. Again, a little more Recovery might bring out more detail and texture in the cloud.
Overall I think this photograph is well-seen and well-executed. Though I’ve nitpicked it to death, the flaws are relatively minor. Yet paying attention to small details can make the difference between making a good photograph and a great one.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about this image. Do you think the composition works overall? Do you agree with me that there should be more space at the top and bottom, and some separation between the rock and cloud reflection? And what about that rock—do you like it, or would the photograph be stronger without it?
— Michael Frye
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As part of being chosen for this critique Kyle will receive a free 16x20 matted print courtesy of the folks at Aspen Creek Photo. If you’d like your images considered for future critiques, just upload them to the Flickr group I created for this purpose. If you’re not a Flickr member yet, joining is free and easy. You’ll have to read and accept the rules for the group before adding images, and please, no more than five photos per person per week. Thanks for participating!
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 eBooks Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, and Exposure for Outdoor Photography. 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.