When you get up early and leave at 4:30 in the morning for a sunrise shoot there are no guarantees. You pick a location that has potential and, by getting out so early, you up the potential for great light. It might, and then it might not happen. But you’re out there anyway.
When you arrive, the desert is still dark. You stand by your car, talking quietly with friends, sipping hot coffee and watching the emerging light on the eastern horizon. There is a sense of eagerness balanced with patience. Often, however, just being there is its own reward and coming home with a keeper is icing on the cake.
The earth brightens quickly this time of day and soon you grab your gear and head out into the desert. For me, just wandering and not looking for anything in particular is the best approach.
I prefer to let images come to me rather than hunting them down. When something I see stops me in my tracks, these turn out to be the best photographs. It’s not because I’m searching for leading lines or applying the rule of thirds or any other of the many ‘rules’ of composition. I don’t like to think when I’m photographing; I prefer to become quiet and simply experience. And when I’m in that state of mind I stop in my tracks because it just feels right. And the stop is usually followed closely by an utterance of surprise and joy – “Oh Wow!”.
Such was the case with “Sheep Pass Morning.” The morning shoot was winding down, meaning the sunrise had come and gone and the wonderful golden hour light was quickly fading. I wandered aimlessly and “Boom,” there it was. I was excited. This just felt right. And yes, I did say, “Oh wow!”
I set up my camera and composed the shot. I was conscious of the cluster of rocks in the lower right corner and their relationship with the Joshua trees on the right edge. I was conscious of outcrop of rocks on the left, the mountain range in the background (Queen Mountain) and the clouds. All these elements were in my mind but mostly I was seeking balance and harmony. During that time, distant Queen mountain into shadow so I waited for the light to came back, cheering it along. Then the moment came and I tripped the shutter.
I must confess, when I uploaded the file to my computer I was a bit disappointed. That’s not what I remembered. I didn’t feel the same excitement and enthusiasm I experienced when I was out there. Also, when I trip the shutter, I’m not trying to capture all the beauty I see in the camera but, rather, capture an image that will give me the most to work with in the digital darkroom. I wanted to give myself a good starting point.
Transforming the RAW image right out of the camera into an expression, an interpretation of what I saw and felt occurs in two broad steps. The first step involves making adjustments in Lightroom. In the final step the adjustments are made in Photoshop.
The Lightroom step begins with adjusting the overall brightness and contrast. In the desert I had intentionally overexposed the image a little so I corrected for that and then paid particular attention to the highlights and shadows. I didn’t do much by way of color saturation, just a little Vibrance. Oh, and I did intensify the blues a little because I wanted the shadows to convey the coolness of the desert morning. The rocks and foliage already captured the warmth of the rising sun.
I also did some Nik magic. I don’t use Nik much but this one I decided to give Color Efex Pro a go and it worked out well. The image took on an ethereal quality.
This is close to what I experienced, very close.
Sometimes the Photoshop step gets very involved, doing fine tuning of the image and preparing it for printing. I don’t think a photograph is truly done until it looks great on paper. And often that is a very tall assignment – color management notwithstanding.
But in this case the Photoshop adjustments were very subtle. All I did was brighten the highlights ever so slightly and vignette the corners and edges. This also turned out to be a photograph that was not hard to get looking good on paper. Here’s the final result.
Art, including fine art photography, is not about documenting the world but interpreting it. Through art we get to experience the world as others see it and in so doing, enrich our own experiences.
For me, this photograph captures the essence of Joshua Tree National Park at its most peaceful. True, Joshua Tree and all deserts for that matter can be brutal places and particularly harsh, even fatally so, on those who do not understand the dangers and are unprepared.
But the desert holds tremendous beauty for those with the eyes to see it. My hope is that through this photograph I can share the beauty I find there. I would like to leave you with this thought by one of the great photography pioneers, Minor White.
“We should photograph thing, not only for what they are, but for else they are.”