Working The Landscape

In this excerpt from his book Capture the Magic, Jack Dykinga guides us through the process of exploring a scene and a composition to create special images
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Working the landscape means making an effort to keep finding new compositions. In the series from White Sands National Monument in New Mexico (this page) and the series from Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park (next page), Jack Dykinga continued to experiment with the scenes as the sun rose. He let his thinking evolve with the light.

Occasionally, strong images appear to suddenly jump into my camera, but that's not the norm. I usually spend a lot of time fussing about compositions. I circle the principal elements to imagine compositions, I change the camera angle, I shoot into the light or with the light, and I change lens focal lengths. I call this working the situation.

Of course, there's always something about a subject or scene that draws my initial attention. The challenge is to create an image that shows the viewer the aspect I found so interesting. After hiking all over the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, I found a curved yucca emerging from a partially buried base in a pristine section of dunes. I loved the simplicity of the scene. The series of six images shown here demonstrates how I worked the situation.

My first image was made as the predawn Earth-shadow light began to illuminate the sky [Fig. 1]. I wanted to show the transition of color in the sky and composed accordingly. I left plenty of room at the top of the frame to illustrate the light known as the Belt of Venus and photographed the progression of the light's intensity and color until I felt I had what I was after. Ultimately, this occurred when the first light of dawn kissed the mountainous background.

Then my attention shifted to the mountains, which were becoming more important as they became illuminated. I had lost the gradation in the sky, so I deemphasized the sky by tilting the camera downward. The result is seen in the second image [Fig. 2].

While I felt the composition worked in the second image, it was not as strong as my initial image. I took a few remaining sips of coffee and watched and waited.

As the sun rose higher, new elements of design became apparent. Strong shadows extended across the dune field, creating new, but quickly changing opportunities. Where once I enjoyed the luxury of slow, deliberate and careful composing of photographs, I was now hurriedly reacting to shadows on the move to capture the third image [Fig. 3].

I watched the yucca fairly glow in the dawn light as shadows created form and design. In this next photo, I shifted position to emphasize the shadows of the yucca itself [Fig. 4]. But my own footprints were mucking up the composition so I carefully repositioned to avoid showing my missteps.

One of the things I learned from the publishing world is to make images in both vertical and horizontal orientations, so I oriented the camera to portrait position to photograph the fifth image [Fig. 5].

The placement of the yucca stalk against a dune-shadowed background afforded me a new way to frame. In the sixth image, using dark shadow bands at the top and bottom of the frame, I was taking advantage of natural landscape elements to concentrate interest on the curved yucca [Fig. 6]. But let's look at the distances around the frame. The base of the yucca nearly mirrors the distance of the top shadow line. The yucca blades at the left are set off, and are illuminated and framed against the background shadow. Finally, the direction that the yucca is leaning leads the eye into the frame.

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Although I captured multiple images of the same scene, each photograph was still a product of careful composition. Nevertheless, they were created quickly with the rapidly changing light.

Many years ago, I photographed the Grand Prismatic geyser pool in Yellowstone National Park. More recently, I was teaching nearby and wanted to revisit the pool and photograph it again, this time using my new Nikon D800E digital camera.

I remember being instantly in love with this geyser, especially at sunset. The sinuous rivers of red algae seemingly run right into the setting sun. But as the saying goes, "You can't put your foot into the same river twice." Time and weather conspired to show me something different, and I captured this first dark, moody image [Fig. 7].

Before taking the second image, I concentrated on the details within the rivers of red. I worked the situation and achieved this very different result [Fig. 8].

Dykinga wanted to show the slippage in ancient, petrified sand dunes. The obvious illustration is in Fig. 11. This image shows the up-and-down shift quite literally. Getting past the literal, Dykinga made the photo shown in Fig. 12, where the main interest goes from the fracture line to the blue striations.

As the algae painted the surface of the bacterial mats, they were juxtaposed against the turquoise geyser water. As the angle of the setting sun became pronounced, it highlighted the edges of the bacterial mats, creating bold diagonal lines that I was able to capture in the third image [Fig. 9].

The changing light shifted the emphasis, creating yet another design [Fig. 10]. So light creates shapes and forms, which, in turn, change compositions and design.

Working the situation is another way of thinking outside the box. My goal for these two photographs was to create an image for my German calendar, which celebrates the designs in stone that are particularly visible here in the American Southwest [Fig. 11, Fig. 12].

I wanted to show the slippage that occurred eons ago in these petrified sand dune formations. The misalignment of rock layers along the fracture line was what piqued my interest and the contrasting subtle colors added to the composition. I felt satisfied with the design in the first image, but I wanted to try something different.

To create the second image, I shifted the principal subject from the fracture line to the striations of blue. These are two approaches to the same scene, but with a subtle shift in the center of interest.

You can see more of Jack Dykinga's photography at Learn more about his book Capture The Magic at

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