Before and After: Behind the image with Ignacio Palacios
Professional travel and landscape photographer Ignacio Palacios has published a new e-book, Dissecting Award-Winning Shots: Landscapes Vol. 1, and we've got an exclusive excerpt to share with you.
This is an image I took in Mongolia at sunrise in the Gobi Desert whilst running a photography workshop. Desert regions and sand dunes are truly great subjects to photograph in the realm of landscape photography. Few types of subject matter invite you as strongly to truly refine your compositional skills through looking just at lines, layering and the finesse of great light. All the ingredients are there, it’s just a matter of applying yourself and getting yourself into positioning at the right place, and at the right time.
What works about this image
This minimalist, graphical interpretation of a dune moves the image into a more abstract than literal realm and its luscious curves imbue an appealing amount of sensuality into the image. Its high contrast, colour rich and square presentation also lend it a sense of boldness, strength and solidity.
The compositional strength of this image has been achieved largely just using light. It was taken at exactly the right moment in terms of time of day and the angle of the early dawn sun. Researching the ideal position to be ready at the predetermined location is almost always a worthwhile investment of time and reaps its rewards more often than not. This is particularly relevant in a location such as this where the light changes with incredible speed and you won’t necessarily have time to pick up and move in response to it. As you can see from the image taken just a few minutes later, the light and the resultant image has already changed significantly and, in this case, loses some of its compositional and graphical strength as a result…
The brightest part of the image in the bottom left catches the viewers eye first and serves as the main point of entry to the image. The softer area on the bottom right works to anchor the image somewhat and provides another, gentler point of entry. The viewers eye is then directed upwards diagonally along the highlighted edges of the dune to complete the journey in the last open area of warmly lit dune wall at the top of frame.
The area of brighter dune in the bottom right hand side serves as a counterpoint to the largest mass of shadow diagonally opposite in the upper left.
A choice of longer telephoto focal length has compressed the image and simplified the composition. This is mainly through the isolation of key elements from the wider landscape. Cropping has also strengthened its simplicity. In the original capture there is a large area of negative space on the right-hand side that really doesn’t add much to the image.
By cropping this out and repositioning the framing, the viewer’s attention is directed more clearly to the central diagonal line running through the image. This crop works to enhance an angular flow upwards and across the image and adds a sense of dynamism and movement that wasn’t present as clearly in the original, wider capture.
The final crop presents us with a much more graphical interpretation and becomes far more about lines and shapes than it does about the literal location. The shadowed areas combined provide a trifecta of triangular shapes and work well to offset and complement the single curving diagonal line. The square presentation adds a more grounded and earthy feel to the image and an additional linear strength to its already significant graphic appeal.
This square crop in combination with diagonal feature is a consistent combination in many of my award-winning images such as Spa Pool, Salar de Uyuni and Paine Grande previously explained in the book. It often provides a sense of grounding and containment, graphical strength combined with a sense of movement and dynamism.
Care has been taken in the timing, cropping and composition of the image to maintain and establish an appealing visual balance to the image. Both shadow and light areas have been distributed around the frame in three distinctive areas in terms of their amount and positioning.
Despite the spread of their positioning, collectively the visual weighting of both light and shadow in these regions evens out through the entire expanse of the image establishing a sense of stability and increasing visual ease.
Rhythm and Flow
Starting from the brighter bottom left entranceway we are then invited to meander slowly along the delicious curving diagonal line up and across the image in a beautifully sensual left to right flow. The sweeping curves within the image slow us down on that journey and are the key instrument in presenting the visual rhythm of the image along the curvature of the dunes edge.
Enhancing contrast can add drama, punch and visual impact to your image, but it’s a fine line as to where you may be sacrificing important shadow or highlight detail by taking it one step too far.
Be sure to have a good look at your histogram when you are shooting and also during your post-production process to ensure you retain all your shadow and highlight detail (unless of course you are going for a full silhouette!).
Shadows can add so much to a picture, whether subtle and refined, or bold and comprehensive as they are here. They can be spectacular for bringing another level of emotion into an image and generating some more surreal qualities...
Shadows can help to direct attention to specific areas in a composition. At the same time as they can reveal form, they can be used to hide features that may be better left unseen. They can be used to introduce drama, interest, or mystery to a photo.
By intensifying the shadow areas of this image, the structure of the dunes becomes far more defined and visually striking. Rather than getting a bit lost in the washed out areas of dune shadow that we see in the original capture, we are lifted into the dramatic dimensionality of the richer and more graphical final image.
Purists may argue that shadows are at their most powerful and potent when used in black-and-white photography, but I tend to disagree. Why not have the best if both worlds as we do here?!
Adding contrast or darkening an image often affects saturation levels. Sometimes this works in a complementary way and sometimes it doesn’t as not only the saturation, but the colour hue as well that can shift in the process. There are techniques within Photoshop that allow you to change the overall image density or dodge and burn without effecting the colour hue, but that’s for another time! In this case adding contrast and saturation has created a rich golden hue that forms an integral part of the emotional appeal of the image. It beautifully supports the sensuality of the shapes through its luxuriantly warm tonality. Warm tones generally reflect warm emotions, and this is certainly the case with this image.
Print competitions are notorious for being judged under bright lighting conditions which can blow the highlights out and open up the shadow areas further to see what detail is or isn’t present.
During the printing process you generally want to pull the tonal range back from either end of the histogram to allow for a slight blocking up of the blacks and a loss of detail in the whites in translation to print. This also helps to take account for the brighter judging lights. If 0-250 is the full range of dark to light on the histogram, 10-240 serves as a slightly safer boundary to keep within. With competitions like the Australian Professional Photography Awards, you are given the exact specifications of the lighting for the judging and, if you are so inclined, you can set up lights accordingly during your printing process.
In reality, prints will not often be viewed under this level of lighting, or from as up close as during a print awards. But if you’re going to invest your time, energy and money into printing for a competition, it’s well worth keeping these things in mind! Far too often I’ve heard the chant of the judges looking for a reason to take off points along the lines of… ‘the highlights are blown out or there’s no detail in the shadows!’
About the book: Ignacio's latest eBook, Dissecting Award-Winning Shots: Landscapes Vol. 1, takes a close look at some of his amazing images. "I have handpicked a selection of landscape images that have received an array of national and international photographic awards and accolades to showcase and explore in depth key aspects of composition, technique, light and storytelling that help contribute to their success," he says.
You can find out more about the book here, and get a copy with an exclusive 10% discount for AP readers by using the code IP10OFF when you order.