Here is an image called “Spire at Rock Cut.” Rock Cut is a location along Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park where the road passes through a cut in a massive outcropping of rock. For photographers, I suspect the cut is most well known for providing a dramatic natural frame through which one can photograph Longs Peak, but this image is not that view. Instead, the spire is the subject of this image – it is this spire that roughly would form the right side of the frame in the more classic view.
This image has me thinking about my approach to shooting landscapes. I like to keep things as simple as I can, so I’m usually only thinking of three things when I evaluate if I’m going to click the shutter or not.
First, the quality of the light. This is by far the most important, and if it’s not there, I don’t shoot. In this image, the sun had already set over the mountains, out of the frame to the right. This created a nice glow in the sky as twilight set in, which set off the clouds and evenly illuminated the spire and the mountains in the background. Check one!
Second, the composition. If the light is good, but the composition doesn’t work, I don’t shoot. Here, my eye was attracted to the shape of the spire and the complementary shape of the grayish cloud in the immediate background just behind the spire. I believe there are several additional shapes and symmetries in the frame, hopefully creating a sense of rhythm. Check two!
Third is what I just call “camera stuff.” This is all the technical details associated with operating the camera to get the desired image. There’s actually a lot of potential details here (you really could become way too obsessed about this, and many people do), but for me it is by far the least important concern, far behind points one and two. If the light and composition are right, I’ll usually try the shot even if I’m unsure about the camera stuff. This image is a good example. Without going through all the technical details, suffice it to say this image was captured just on the edge of being able to use the natural light. If I had tried five minutes later, I doubt there would have been enough light to show any detail on the spire or the peaks, regardless of how I adjusted the camera. As it was, I used a relatively long shutter speed of 15 seconds, which created the motion blur in the clouds. But I got the exposure I wanted out of the camera, so check three!