Landscape Photography Composition: The Sky Dominant Image
A moment after the failing night sky turns gray, a black, bull nosed dome of jagged lava and cinder cones lifts its stark bulk against the first streaks of sunrise. It’s a red yellow cinder cone, one of seven long ago extinguished Volcano Landmarks in Mojave National Preserve and has the potential to make a landscape photography composition. The volcanic mass is rising from a desert plain of sharp lava rocks, and vuggy, pockmarked cinder cones with a scattering of white topped Indian rice grass starting to reflect the mist laden sunlight that is still below the horizon. I see all of it in the morning gray through my Canon 70-200 lens, and I can feel the creosote bushes brush my sides and tangle my Induro Tripod legs.
I begin to squeeze the shutter cable, making multiple focus stacking and light bracketing images. I like the fundamental structure and have committed myself to wait on the light, capturing sequences of sun streaks until I feel I have an image I can grow into art with a few post-production techniques.
Between sequences, I make entries into my journal, and on this morning, as I often do, I recall Ansel Adam’s quote;
“Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer – and often the supreme disappointment.”
I know as a photographer and as an art photography teacher that the biggest cause of poor landscape image failure is poor composition; compositions without visual cues, voice or purpose.
Let’s face it— landscapes are just out there, unedited scenes that repurpose themselves moment by moment with the light. Landscape photography is not necessarily intuitive, and thus the successful landscape photographer is the one who has learned to compose on several levels; shape, tone, texture, color, contrast, perspective and visual narrative. I tell my students in our National Park Photography Masterclasses that it is the photographer’s responsibility to make compositional choices that will engage viewers at an emotional level with a vision beyond documentation, a vision that is theirs.
The image in my viewfinder is challenging, and as I continue to shoot, I have made several compositional choices with lens angles as I examine the subject relationship to sky and ground. Given how the light is developing I decide to create a Sky Dominant image which will provide an expansive sense and yet if composed properly the great sky color and smooth cloud streaks with work to emphasize and counterbalance the texture of the cinder cone.
In my journal, I note “dramatic loneliness, isolation, friction-filled surface and possible gold foreground; texture juxtaposition exists between sky and ground.” I also make a quick sketch with possible crop lines as the in-camera capture will be too tall and destroy the long blunt nose shape of the cone. I note that I’m intrigued with the slant of the clouds as angles provide motion and emotion.
In time the light moves on from this scene, and I move on too.
Landscape Photography Composition: The Sky Dominant Image
I teach landscape students to choose sky or ground dominant perspective because the choice can make a profound difference in emotional connections and cognitive perception.
Sky dominant images have more sky then ground and just as with a ground dominant image we eliminate the split horizon effect which generally (but not always) makes an image unfocused. However, just because we have more sky in our landscape composition that does not mean that the visual emphasis is on the sky, though it could be. Often sky dominance provides balance to the image in furtherance of an underlying theme or image narration which may be the ground subject.
Let’s see how my new RAW image gets processed
The out of camera RAW image captures the blunt dome shape of the extinct volcano and the beautiful pastel pinks of sunrise in progress. The image is intentionally underexposed to capture the sky colors which are brighter than the ground, and I made several images while on the tripod for completing stack focus work in Photoshop to ensure front to back sharpness. Using a Canon 70-200 mm lens at 70 mm I purposefully emphasized sky over ground and which allowed me to include the entire cinder cone in the image. However, the sky in a 4:3 aspect ratio is too tall, and I will crop to provide a panoramic look with sky dominance.
The first act of composition for landscape photographers is to isolate the subject, clarify the emotions and apply a limited focus. In other words, less, is more, but you need to have the right less.
From my previsualization and journal notes there are several good spatial and tonal cues that I want to accentuate:
- In the tall sky, the blues separate the sky into two distinct cloud/sky elements, which I saw as I squeezed the shutter. Thus, the composition is unbalanced and lacks clarity. By cropping the sky, I can eliminate the false horizon and the two-sky story while maintaining sky dominance. This will impose a limited focus and provide an opportunity to broaden the tonal range in the completed image.
- Accentuate the diagonal line of the cloud formation so that I crop with good entry and exit points. This will provide a sense of movement, power, as well as a counterweight to the bull nose top of the cinder cone.
- Accentuate the dramatic pinks and blues in the sky which will broaden the emotional range.
- Relieve the shadows in Lightroom to provide cinder cone detail.
- Relight certain elements in Photoshop to add visual voice and personal style.
Every compositional and previsualization choice I make is to bring greater depth and emotional range to the picture. This will still be a sky dominant image, but the purpose of the slightly lower sky is to illuminate the height of the cinder cone whereas a much taller sky would diminish this element.
Bob’s Foolproof Lightroom Steps
In Lightroom, I performed my basic Lightroom adjustments to “dial in the image.” If you prefer, you can do this in Adobe Camera Raw. I could also crop the image in Lightroom but I prefer to leave this step to the end of the Photoshop workflow because as I work through the relighting process I will get a better sense of the exact crop point and make sure that my work is building in the emotional navigation that I felt when I captured the images.
In this stage, the clouds are developing well with respect to color but the color and tone works leave them too jagged. I have lifted detail in the cone shadows, but it will need accents and further shadow relief which I can do more effectively in a Photoshop workflow. Moreover, in Photoshop I can be more selective in how I wish to portray color contrast and using curves I will be able to add the drama that I noted in my journal through selective relighting.
I have my aesthetic senses regarding landscape photography composition and choose certain looks to reproduce what I feel and see as a vision beyond what the camera documents. The RAW image provides the words, but I rearrange them to tell a story as I want my audience to get past visual documentation and narration, and to navigate the image with their own feelings. It is beyond the scope of this blog to detail the Photoshop work, particularly how to relight and emphasize the structure. Suffice it to say that emphasizing highlights and relieving shadows in the cinder cone adds depth and life. Bringing forward the foreground yellows adds contrast and warmth as a counter balance to the deep blue of a night fading into a far horizon. The crop design accents the slant of the clouds and provides a sense of motion.
Am I done? Not quite.
I will print the image at scale and then make final adjustments to account for light beyond the computer and texture.
All the Best Light,
Bob, Thanks for letting us look into how your mind and eye work while composing an image. I’m still learning and it really helps to get this guidance.
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