Seeing an Icon Differently (Firefall in B & W)

Firefall V.S. Silver Light

The Story:

The digital world is affecting landscape photography in many ways. Advances in digital equipment have made photography accessible and enjoyable for millions of people that never would have picked up a film camera. Digital communication has made many beautiful places “known” to the masses. This combination of factors is encouraging large numbers of people to make pilgrimages to these beautiful iconic spots with the purpose of re-creating images they have seen in magazines and on the web. While these locations have become icons for a reason (beautiful is beautiful!), there comes a time when they have been overdone. We can get so caught up in shooting a scene the way we expect to see it, that we often miss, or even consciously pass up, spectacular alternatives that Mother Nature presents to us in the exact same location. We shut down to the many possibilities that create real magic and excitement in nature.

The above images are perfect examples of the iconic expectation v.s. an unexpected possibility. The image on the left, known as the “Fire Fall” is the expected image. During a brief window of only two weeks each year, the sun sets at just the right angle to illuminate Horsetail Falls, in Yosemite National Park, with beautiful sunset color as the cliffs on either side of the falls become shaded. While this image would have benefitted greatly from heavier water flow, it is still a pleasing representation of an iconic event. I like the image and will make it available to my collectors.

Now, let’s consider the black and white image on the right. I created this image while most other people were merely viewing the scene waiting for the expected “Fire Fall”. I noticed that the evening light, as it narrowed toward the middle of the cliff, gleamed with a magical silver light, creating what appeared to be an elongated heart around the waterfall. This light created a monotone scene, contrasting strongly against the shaded areas of the cliff face. Importantly, I felt this image, and envisioned it in black and white. Like most successful images, this was not an afterthought. I was emotionally moved to create this composition. There was purpose to my shooting (although unplanned). I had to do this! People kept asking what I was doing, and even after I shared what I was envisioning, they were quite content to wait for the same image the crowd was there to see. Fair enough. I now have an image that I am extremely moved by, and which is vastly more dramatic than the light show we had expected. Being open enough to allow your emotions to move you toward a vision is where “the fine art of nature” elevates photography to an art form.

The lesson here is, while it is certainly fine to let the possibility of an iconic image motivate you to visit a particular location, stay open to all possibilities that may present themselves. Often, the unexpected image is the one you will be most proud of. Don’t force the issue for the sake of being different, let it happen naturally. As you build experience, your personal style will develop. Be your own artist, not a copy of someone who has probably copied someone before them.

Enjoy the View!

Photo Tip:
Tip number one, as mentioned above, use available knowledge of iconic locations and conditions to get yourself to the “right spots at the right time”. THEN, stay very open for new and different photographic possibilities. While other people lay around during the day (usually working on the computer trying to make a mediocre shot “good”), get out and scout. I like to fill every available minute on my photo trips with “being out”. Drive the area, look at maps, hike to spots that may be interesting, go for a trail run or bike ride, etc. Figure out your own vision for the area and plan the right time to return to that spot. I like to use the outdoors as my gym. There have been many times when I have done a trail run or hike and come across a new and exciting subject. This shouldn’t feel “hard”. Stay open and see if something presents itself to you. It is very gratifying to “feel” an image. That is “the fine art of nature”. Compare that to how you feel when asking someone in the lineup of photographers, “is that it?”. (Personally, physical exertion opens my mind and spirit to what is around me in a very different and positive way, truly opening my eyes to what I feel!) As the example images above show, sometimes staying open and feeling your own vision simply entails seeing a version of the iconic shot in different light, or with different eyes.

Don’t let yourself get caught up in a technical mindset. Their are so many possibilities with digital photography that many people get caught up in the “engineering”. A majority of people that come to my workshops/tours are overwhelmed with all of the functions on their camera, their raw converter, Lightroom, photoShop, HDR software, etc. (This includes aspiring and current professionals!) They lose sight of the joy of being outdoors (which is why they wanted to take photos to begin with!) and composing pleasing images. The most talented and successful photographers in the world use the most simple of precesses. Research beforehand, scout, observe, shoot in the right light relative to your subject and your vision, compose well, expose properly. The digital darkroom is really a tool to simply fine tune a well executed image. Many people are confusing digital art with photography. Please consider joining me on a group or private workshop/tour. I’d be happy to help you simplify the photographic process, making it both more successful and more enjoyable!

Equipment Used:
Nikon D300 DSLR, Nikon 200-400 F4 AF VR, Gitzo 1325 Carbon Tripod, Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head, Cable Release. PhotoShop CS4 used for stitching and B & W conversion.

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This entry was posted in black and white, digital photography, fire fall, jon paul gallery, National Parks, photo techniques, Yosemite and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .