This Is A Crappy Photo

A desert tree silhouettes against a sunset sky, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

I captured this tree silhouette at the peak of a glorious sunset in the heart of the Namib desert. I spent some time with this tree, crafting the photo. I wanted to reduce the tree to a graphic form against the beautiful colors of the sky. Because the tree was reaching to the right, I oriented its trunk to the far left of the photo so that it is reaching into the frame and up and over the distant mountains.

After taking a look on the computer, and doing some basic processing, I was really happy with it. That is until I showed it to my wife Kerry, and was met with a frown and shrug of the shoulders. “It doesn’t really do anything for me,” was the response I remember.

Now to give a little bit of background, Kerry has a great eye for photography and is certainly not one to heap praise where it is not due. As surprised as I was by her reaction, I knew I needed to pay attention to this critique because of her impeccable taste. So what went so wrong?

A desert tree silhouettes against a sunset sky, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.
A desert tree silhouettes against a sunset sky, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

The more time I spent with the photo, the more I began to agree with her review. I finally realized that I was the victim of an age old pitfall of art. I had spent so much effort creating the photo, I was attributing more value to its end result than I should have. Okay, so its not a horrible image. But like all good husbands, I agree with my wife – it doesn’t do that much for me either. The fine branches of the silhouette are too chaotic and it has a relatively weak subject matter. The colors of the sunset are not enough to hold the main focus of the image.

Since I share many successful photos with you, I thought I’d share a failure. Well, maybe not a failure, but one that leaves me with a “meh” feeling. The lesson here is to seek honest, unbiased feedback for your work. Oh, and wives makes great critics!

Gear I used to create the photos in this post:

Storm In The Desert

Pre-dawn sunlight turns rare desert storm clouds orange over the Namib Desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

The crackling of distant thunder woke me from a deep sleep at 4:30 in the morning. Instantly wide awake, I looked to the floor-to-ceiling windows to see flashes of light behind the thick drapes. I made my way out of the door of my bungalow to the balcony overlooking a wide expanse of the desert valley. Suddenly a lightning bolt ignited the night sky, silhouetting the 1000 foot dunes in the distance.

It was my last morning in the middle of the Namib Desert in western Namibia. I stood on the balcony in awe of mother nature’s light show. Lightning continued to split the sky as pregnant thunder clouds rolled across the endless dune fields. A dry cool wind was whipping across the desert floor, bringing respite from the African heat. All at once, the sky opened up and I stood in one of the most impressive downpours I’ve ever witnessed. This land receives only 10 mm of rain each year, and here was buckets of water drenching everything to the horizon.

Pre-dawn sunlight turns rare desert storm clouds orange over the Namib Desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

Although I was now soaked, I found that I couldn’t bring myself to go inside. After twenty minutes of intense rain, it suddenly stopped. Ten minutes after that I was dry, thanks to the return of the desert’s typical aridity.

I gathered my gear and met up with my traveling companions, who I was planning to join to do an aerial shoot at sunrise. Obviously these plans were quickly scrapped, as none of us wanted to be tossed around in a small aircraft in the middle of a thunderstorm. Instead, we headed out into the desert where we got into position to capture this marvelous sunrise over the Naukluft Mountains. Clear sky to the far east allowed the sun to light up the underside of the storm clouds, painting the sky a deep red. A couple of gemsbok oryx crossing the desert floor in front of the mountains added the icing on top.

Rain falls from a storm cloud over the Namib Desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

With rain still pouring from clouds in places, we chased the light through the dunes, hoping to capture this phenomena.

A rare rainfall turns the giant dunes of the Namib Desert wet, forming patterns across the dune’s massive face, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

Although there was not enough accumulation to create pools of water (I was hoping to find a reflection opportunity), the wet sand lent a very different look to the massive dunes. The water softened the edges of sand cut by the wind, diffusing the contours into abstract patterns.

A rare rainfall turns the giant dunes of the Namib Desert wet, forming patterns across the dune’s massive face, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

After about an hour of dramatic lighting, the skies cleared up into their usual blue. I felt so fortunate to witness such drama on my last morning in the desert.

Hiker And Halfdome

A backpacker stands on an outcropping admiring the view while Half Dome rises high overhead, Yosemite National Park
A backpacker stands on an outcropping admiring the view while Half Dome rises high overhead, Yosemite National Park

I created this photo on a backpacking trip a few weeks ago. I set out with a couple of friends, Frans and Mark, and our three day plan was to hike along the northern rim of Yosemite Valley from Snow Creek to Yosemite Falls.

I knew our best photo opportunities would likely be on the first evening. Snow Creek is located along the rim of Tenaya Canyon, directly across from the face of Half Dome. I had been here once before, and ever since that trip I had been visualizing the photos that I wanted to create there.

Primary on my list was a shot of a backpacker with the face of Half Dome looming high above. Half Dome is most famously viewed from the side, as most photographs of it are taken from the perspective of Yosemite Valley. In order to be successful, this photo had to have a few specific characteristics.

First of all, I knew I needed to use a long lens. I wanted to render the backpacker fairly large in frame, but also render the dome as large as possible. This meant that I needed to be close to the hiker and stack the layers of depth on top of one another, so that both near and far subjects would be large in the photo. Had I used a wide angle, the dome would be much smaller than in my vision.

Secondly, I wanted to shoot this in late afternoon with clear skies to the west. When the sun sets, its light moves all the way up Yosemite Valley and strikes the face of Half Dome, giving it a warm orange glow. On this particular day, I could have done with some clouds to the south and east, so that I’d get a little sky interest, but I worked with what nature gave me.

One thing I didn’t think about beforehand was the fact that the plateau from which I was shooting would be completely in shadow. This meant that in order to properly expose the cliff face, the backpacker would be too dark to clearly see details. After some experimentation, I decided to go with high contrast and render the backpacker as a detail-less graphic silhouette. I think this works very well in the final image, as it creates more emotional impact for the viewer. Those who travel this nation’s back country can easily see themselves standing in the photo, experiencing a glorious sunset.

Mark and Frans graciously volunteered to be my models, and I ended up choosing this photo of Mark as my favorite. In order to add more of the scene, I took additional photos of Half Dome and stitched them to the first shot to create a panorama. This really completes the scene, showing the entire cliff from which Half Dome emerges. We had a great (and cold) three days in the wilderness, and as I suspected, the photos I took from Snow Creek ended up being my favorites.

Mono Lake Osprey

Clutching the remains of a fish he caught, an osprey takes off out of a nest after he delievered dinner to his nesting mate, Mono Lake, CA
Clutching the remains of a fish he caught, an osprey takes off out of a nest after he delivered dinner to his nesting mate, Mono Lake, CA. Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS lens with the EOS-7D. ISO 1600. Evaluative metering 0 EV: 1/320 sec. at f/5.6

Last week I took a photography trip to the eastern Sierra to capture some spring time action over there. I went with a photographer friend to the south end of Mono Lake in hopes of a great sunset. Unfortunately, the skies were clear and the light was flat. Instead of a lasting sunset glow, it was as if someone just turned out the lights.

Fortunately, there were two pairs of osprey nesting near the shore in large nests built on top of two tufa towers. Just before dusk, the males came in close to the nests with fresh-caught fish. We had a brief show during which they perched on nearby tufa towers, enjoying their dinner, before they returned to the nests to deliver what was left to their respective mates.

An osprey clutches the remains of a fish in its talon as it perches on top of a tufa tower, Mono Lake, CA
An osprey clutches the remains of a fish in its talon as it perches on top of a tufa tower, Mono Lake, CA

During this time, the sun set and the light left. However, just before it got completely dark, I managed to get a shot of one of the males leaving the nest with the rest of the fish dinner. Because the sun was well over the horizon, it back lit the birds. I knew I could not get enough detail on the birds, so I underexposed and went with a full silhouette, emphasizing the graphical shape of the osprey taking off.