Entrance to Death Valley.

Entrance to Death Valley. Gavin Seim.

This is one of those photographs that I overlooked for awhile. It’s not earth shattering and it may never be seen as one of my best, but the more I look at it the more it tells a story. The harsh afternoon sun, the heat waves fading into the distance. The approaching car, escaping from the clutches of the tortured hills.

The long line of the road leads my eye in and then it curves away. I know the place beyond is dry and barren. At least I think I know. But at the same time, my sense of adventure wants to go there anyways. It senses there’s beauty (and perhaps water) just over those mountains.

For Photographers. How it was made… Canon 5D2, 70-200 2.8L, 200mm, f11, 1/400th, iso200.

This is on the highway that enters Death Valley from the Nevada side. It’s late afternoon. Not really the ideal time to get great light, but I’m learning that any light can be good if you approach correctly. For the mood of this image the harsh light works. The distant haze, the heat parched road, the empty expanse of desert.

The process was done in LR. As usual I started with my own silver presets and worked until the tones seemed fitting to the scene. The important part came as I started at this trying to decide what it needed. Then I did what I should have done from the start. I started playing with the cropping. I particularly enjoy LR for cropping, because you can drag, skew, stretch and examine infinite crops without committing. You just try things and it can really open your eyes.

The sky on this cloudless afternoon was particularly bland, so to me the critical element become the lower areas. I had made the exposure in typical landscape fashion with sky and space. I should have been thinking more about how to portray what I had before me, instead of trying to make something I didn’t have. This was not a fiery sunset and because I looked at the scene without thinking it through like I should have, this image was destined to the barley seen whisperings of my hard drive. But then I stopped and looked closer. I sliced it up and the image was transformed.

By leaving only a sliver of sky peeking through, I had an emotional context for the barrenness that laid out before me. When here in person, you feel the expanse and the danger of a place like this. But a two dimensional plane it does not come across so much. Cropped this way however, the desert mountains loom over us and the sky is being swallowed up by their height. I think this lends a great deal of drama to the scene. With the sky out of the way, the story can be told unfettered. Yet there is just enough of it that the eye has a sense of position and something to bounce off of.

Below is the un-cropped version. The sky is boring and it kills it for me. I love skies and I have a tendency to include them all the time even when they don’t really belong. I think the key to a great landscape is thinking. All you need is one great image. So stop and consider what it is you want to capture and why. It can change everything. Gavin Seim.

Un-cropped, the scene loses a lot of drama. The sky is very bland as well and makes the mountains seem insignificant.

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