Shooting the Gila Yawns or Wows?
Last updated on Friday, July 18, 2003
Pay attention to exposure when light
and dark areas combine in a composition
Photo by the Author.
Pay attention to small things in the scenery - the texture of tree bark can be as dramatic as a wide open vista
Photo by the Author.
When you visit Southern New Mexico's Gila Wilderness, you'll discover stunning vistas, deep canyons, and high peaks. Stop at a scenic overlook and you're sure to feel the urge to pull out your camera and snap a few shots so you can show friends and family the impressive terrain. But all too often, when you get the film back from the developers, those exciting photos seem flat and uninteresting. They just don't capture the depth and beauty of the scene before you.
Photography in the Gila Wilderness can be challenging. The varied terrain provides a scrumptious buffet to the human eye, but that variety can be difficult to capture through a camera's lens. Although bright flowers dot the landscape in spring, summer, and fall, the browns and greens that provide background can dull into boring flatness. It's all too easy for a three dimensional "wow" to turn into a two dimensional "yawn."
But with creativity, attention to changing details in the terrain, and the right light, you can walk away from the Gila with photos that will evoke ooh's and aah's from any viewer. Some things you can learn only by trial and error. For instance, the Catwalk tends to shoot blue in the morning, or there's a spot just north of the Copperas Vista that provides opportunities for creative composition. By following a few general rules you can find exciting photos that capture the dramatic beauty of the wilderness:
- Follow the light. Light is the essence of photography. Indeed, the word "photography" is derived from two Greek words that mean to write with light. The photographer must pay attention - indeed, homage - to light's direction, character, and color. Front lighting is the "normal" situation - when the sun is behind you, producing a flat, even light. In back lighting, when the light source is behind the subject, dark silhouettes, diaphanous shapes, and many things in between can result. Side lighting, which happens when the light comes from a right angle to the direction you are photographing, creates shadows that determine texture and form, lending a three dimensional quality to the photograph.
- Light also has character, usually termed "soft" or "hard." For instance, hard light - the light of a harsh sun on a cloudless day - can make landscapes look flat and washed out. The soft, diffuse light of a bright yet overcast day provides the perfect situation for photographing colorful close ups. Finally, light's color changes throughout the day. During early morning or late evening, light is warm, with yellow and orange hues. Midday, the light is blue and cool. The warmest, most vibrant shots are usually taken by photographers who are willing to arise early and spend evenings wandering with their cameras.
- Pay attention to exposure. Proper exposure can make the difference between a flat, washed out photo and a "wow." Slight underexposure can create dramatic black areas in composition, while long exposures of a second or more can help you capture the peachy afterglow of the evening. In order to ensure that you get the right exposure, take several shots at different f-stops (apertures) and shutter speeds. A tripod is a good idea for any landscape photography, but essential for shooting in low-light conditions.
- Pay attention to the geography of the terrain. If it's a sunset shot you're looking for, you probably don't want to be in the bottom of the Gila River's Middle Fork canyon. Remember that the light will disappear earlier down in a canyon than it will on top of a mesa. Mesa or mountaintop shots may provide dramatic sunsets and sunrises, but be difficult to photograph at midday.
- Emphasize perspective. A human figure in the foreground can help viewers see just how huge that big tree is. If there are no humans handy, use a flower, oddly shaped tree, or attractive rock to foreground the scenery. Don't forget that tiny spots of color in an otherwise brown landscape can provide effective contrast.
- Hide. The Gila abounds with wildlife: deer, elk, javalina, mountain lions, bobcats, birds, and more. You'll find many opportunities to photograph elusive creatures if you wait quietly for them to come to you. Wildlife tends to congregate near water, so set up a blind in river canyons or creeks, and be prepared to sit quietly for a time. You can also use your car as a blind. Many birds and mammals are accustomed to cars driving by without harassing them, and won't be spooked by a parked car. You'll need a 300mm or longer lens for most wildlife shots, and you'll need a way to stabilize the lens, such as a tripod.
- Get out of the car. Only a minuscule portion of the Gila Wilderness is accessible by vehicle. Most of the stunning sights and photos in the wilderness require time and energy to access. Before you hike out in search of photos, take a look at a topographical map. What does the terrain look like? Is it likely that there will be a steep drop-off to the river canyon? Does it face west or east? Will you be traveling on top of a mesa? The map can help you determine what time of day to shoot, what compositions to expect, and what equipment to bring.
- Use the Southern New Mexico sky, in all its dance of glory. Clouds, colors, lightening, and other heavenly drama occur every day. On a bright blue, cloudless day, the sky should compose less than a third of the frame. But on a day when the sky is filled with clouds of different shapes, colors, and sizes, make it an integral part of the composition.
Clouds can make the difference between a boring shot and high drama in the sky. Photo by the Author.
- Get close. It's tempting, when shooting wide open vistas, to only take photos that show everything you can squeeze into a wide-angle frame. And while many of those photos will be keepers, don't forget that small is beautiful too. Take some closeup shots of that interesting rock with the light on it, from different angles. Or spend some time with the prickly pear and its bright flowers. You'll come out with tight, frame-filling images. If you plan to do a lot of close up work, consider purchasing a macro lens with a focal length in the 105mm range.
The Gila's varied terrain means the photographer must be creative, and respond to the landscape itself. Will there be enough light in the river canyon to shoot in the evening? Will the depth of that beautiful vista with the dramatic mountain peaks in the background be apparent in the photo? Will the composition be more effective if you climb to the top of the ridge?
When you respond to the terrain, you'll discover it changes dramatically as the day evolves. A scene shot in the afternoon may produce nothing but ho-hum photos, while the same scene, shot at dawn, may fill the frame with glorious backlit rock formations. Bring your eye, your awareness, and your camera to the Gila, and it will reward you well.
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