Picture of the Month The Magic Hour
Every landscape photographer knows that there is an optimal time of day to shoot — generally in the late afternoon or early morning. I'm not a morning person so I will confine this discussion to the afternoon. That's when the light is best both in terms of color and in terms of detail. Warm tones usually predominate (at least when the sun is shining) and the shadows cast by objects reveal detail that might otherwise be hidden or subdued on either overcast days or during midday when the sun is overhead. This does not mean that striking landscape shots cannot be produced on cloudy days or even when it's raining. In fact, the light immediately after a storm is one of my favorite times. Even landscapes lit by moonlight can be very effective.
But what about this image by NYIP Graduate Allan Mendez? Well, let's examine it in the context of NYIP's Three Guidelines. The subject is pretty straightforward as are most landscape images. Here we have a prominent foreground of shrubs or small trees lit by a low sun, then an undulating middle distance of small hills, and finally more hills in the distance. There is little evidence of human habitation apart from a road or two traversing the middle distance and possibly a house of some sort on the horizon though it's hard to be sure looking at this jpeg. The sun is obviously low in the sky on the right (though not directly visible in the frame) and nicely accentuates the feeling of pastoral peace and beauty. I especially like the way the scene seems to be spread out in three distinct layers, a compositional conceit I often employ myself in my own work. It lends a sense of depth in what after all is a two dimensional rendering of a three dimensional subject.
How did the photographer draw attention to the subject? The light is the key. One might argue that the foreground is the most important element since it is well lit with lots of detail. Imagine if this part of the image were completely in shadow. Not only would the feeling be completely different; anyone viewing it might wonder why so much emphasis was placed on an area in shadow. However, here the eye is naturally drawn to the sunlit foreground. In fact, I suppose it could be maintained that those shrubs and small trees are really the subject, not the entire vista. I don't interpret this shot that way but others may feel differently.
Can this image be simplified?Are there any elements that distract from the main theme? Well, that depends on what you think the subject is. But take a look at that sky. I think that it takes up a little too much of the scene. How about we crop a little of it? The result of such a crop as I have done here emphasizes the land more and gives the photo a panoramic look besides. Personally, I don't care much for the aspect ratio of panoramics but that's just me. They certainly can work for landscapes but in certain photo contests I have helped judge, I've seen portraits shot in that mode. One particularly egregious example had the portrait subject shoved all the way to one side with not much of anything in the rest of the image. It was as though the camera was stuck in panoramic mode. Eeek!
Finally, let me pose a question to the reader — are landscape images a boring postcard-like cliche? Well, I suppose they can be but only if you think natural beauty is boring. Ugliness has its place (I'm thinking of some industrial landscapes I've photographed in New Jersey as well as elsewhere) but I don't usually put such scenes in my camera's viewfinder. I much prefer scenery like this shot. But my landscape/waterscape images almost always contain a human element even if it's only a single individual doing something. And maybe some element that adds mystery or tension to offset the relaxed pastoral feel. I do like Allan Mendez's photo. But I think I would like it even more if there were someone running frantically down the road being pursued by a large animal. Now that would illustrate tension!