Hazy Superstitions

Flatiron, seen dimly through a hazy morning
Flatiron, seen dimly through a hazy morning

Sometimes you spend a good deal of time searching or waiting for that perfect shot: for the lighting to be just so, for the clouds to line up just right, whatever it might be.  At some point you realize that it’s never going to be just the way you want and you have to work with what you’ve got.  So you do.  And it turns out that amazing things can happen even when conditions aren’t perfect.  It’s about looking for the picture that’s there, not the picture you want to be there.

Superstition Mountains, AZ – December 24, 2012

I share this image because it is both a poignant memory for me and a turning point in my efforts to become a better photographer.

The setting was rather mundane.  It was Christmas Eve and not a whole lot was going on.  I wanted to take advantage of the time off work and go shoot.  So I headed to one of my favorite locations in the Superstition Mountains, the road leading up to the First Water trailhead.  I was hoping to get some good sunrise pictures but it ended up being an incredibly hazy morning.  Since the mountains were east of me I was facing into the rising sun.  As a result my view was greatly diminished.  I headed out on a trail that runs parallel to the face of the mountain, hoping conditions would improve.  They did not.

Up to this point in my photographic endeavors I typically focused on getting the sharpest, clearest, most evenly exposed image that I could.  But the haze was giving me all kinds of problems.  If it was a clear, sharp image I was after I might as well head home, something I considered doing.

I tried a couple of my favorite vantage points and was discouraged at what I saw.  Even at a distance of less than half a mile from the cliff face there was hardly any detail to be seen.  The mountains were reduced to mere silhouettes.  Shadows deep in the rocks, normally black, were tinged with a light blue.  At this point I was trudging more than hiking, discouraged at my prospects.

When I arrived at the junction with the Siphon Draw trail something changed.  My perspective, formerly one of discouragement, now saw something more; it saw possibility.  I realized that I could complain about the lack of “perfect” conditions or I could make do with what I had.  It began to dawn on me that if I was to make great photographs then I had to look a lot harder and get more creative than I normally would.

I began to experiment.  To compose more carefully I set up my tripod.  Maybe it’s a crutch for me, but I find it helps slow me down and think about the composition.  I positioned my camera low to the ground to reduce visibility of the trail in front of me and provide a different perspective from the usual standing height.  Flatiron became my subject initially.  It’s a prominent feature as well as a popular hiking destination and seemed to be an obvious focal point.  But the pictures I took were lacking, the essence of the scene was missing.

Taking a break from the camera I evaluated the scene in front of me and asked myself what it was that I was really drawn to.  With this in mind I began to notice that it was the rays of light pouring over and around the mountain features that really caught my attention.  I focused more on them.  The results were better, but I was still struggling with the exposure, rooted to the idea of eliminating blown highlights and underexposed shadows.  It was then that I had another epiphany and made the decision to clip the sky in the final exposure.  Finally, things started to look good.  It took a few pictures but I finally got something I was happy with and headed home.

Back at home I reviewed the images I captured.  I was shooting into the sun and the color in my images was pretty washed out and blotchy in patches.  There was a lot of lens flare as well.  I opted to process the image in black and white.  It resolved any color issues and allowed me the flexibility I needed to adjust the contrast to emphasize the shafts of light pouring through gaps in the mountain.  The final image captured what stood out to me: the obscuring haze, the sense that sunlight was pouring through gaps and cracks, and the feeling that the sunlight had mass, almost as solid as the stone of the mountains.

From this picture I learned to never discount a scene for perceived imperfections.  Sometimes the flaws of a scene may really be an indictment of our inability to see the beauty that is there.  I also learned to disregard “rules” for taking good pictures.  At most many of the rules we learn can be used as guides – useful when applicable but to be set aside when circumstances dictate different approaches.  Blown highlights can be such a guide.

Ever since this outing I’ve been more willing to experiment and more willing to take the time to look for the soul of the scenery, the beauty that our eye is drawn to either consciously or subconsciously.  It was an outing that changed my approach and made me more eager than ever to get out and take pictures.

The Technical Details

  • Camera: Nikon D600
  • Lens: AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G IF-ED
  • Focal length: 78mm
  • Aperture: f/9
  • Shutter: 1/320
  • ISO: 200