These are the judges comments for Angela’s photograph “Grand Mesa Fall”…
Picture as submitted…
Edited for discussion….
It’s interesting that one judge suggests cropping from the top which eliminates part of the background desert landscape, while the other judge suggests the opposite by including more sky. I can see Angela’s thought in the matter… if the sky lacks any sort of drama, take it out of the picture. That’s well and fine, except in this case it throws off the balance of the picture. It feels pinched at the top. I agree that it should go one way or another, but cropping off the top makes it feel even more pinched, and eliminates much of what likely attracted the photographer to the scene in the first place…. which is the contrast of warm fall colors on the Mesa with the cool desert colors in the background. The background makes the picture a little different than most fall colors images, so I vote for giving the top a little more breathing room.
Now, if you think doctoring a boring sky in the computer is an inexcusable distortion of truth, close your eyes for a minute. But before I begin messing with the sky, remember that you almost always have an opportunity to improve the picture by going back under different conditions. Most really good landscape photographers scout the composition for a picture, but might return to the scene several times before light and atmospheric conditions produce the best picture. The rest of us take what we get no matter the light, forget about it, and go on to the next shot. Maybe wait awhile – after all, clouds in the mountains change by the minute. Or return to the scene (if you can) the next day. I can hear Angela screaming that she needs to go to work the next day. Of course, that’s the way it is, but the best landscape photographs are typically created out of either sheer luck for being in the right place at the right time when all of the elements manifest perfectly, or persistence.
On the other hand, we’re living in a Photoshop world, so consider helping nature along the path to a better picture. Keep in mind that not all clouds suitable for the purpose are created equal. In this case, I think a sky with really bright blue and contrasty white clouds would compete with the Bookcliffs. Something that blends with the mountains in the background and just opens up the space, but maintains the tranquility of the scene would be good. I keep a vast library of cloud pictures for just this reason. But before you condemn this as Photoshop cheating and think we are the first in history to fake it, consider the fact that photographers from the 19th century blended a couple of pictures together in the darkroom to address the limitations of film’s limited tonal range of that era. The fact that sky and clouds were used from a different day was never, to my knowledge, a big issue.
Regarding the judges “improvements,” I have never understood the criticism that there’s “no real center of interest,” or “mountains draw eye away from fall colors” as they’ve expressed here toward Angela’s picture. I think it’s a ridiculous comment. Would they prefer a huge oil rig rising out of the scene? We can’t look at two things in one viewing? I think the human brain can handle slightly more complex images… a nice landscape photo invites the viewer to wander throughout the scene without getting stuck on a single element. Again, the background mountains and fall colors create such an interesting dichotomy that to eliminate one or the other defeats the purpose of the picture.
Regarding any perceived softness that one judge sees, the solution simply lies in a slight bit of additional sharpening in post-processing…. not changing the aperture. A quick glance at this picture’s metadata indicates the picture was shot at F/9, which is within the range of maximum sharpness that about any lens will provide.
I don’t see this scene as “late” fall. I see it as peak color season. The confusion arises possibly from the aspens on the left that are in the shade. Those look a little muddy, although lightening the image overall isn’t gonna really change that. Think about it like this…. If you take black and lighten it, all you get is gray. It doesn’t change the color or add detail. In this case, lightening the trees in the shade isn’t gonna give the picture any more pop to the color. Try this instead… in Photoshop, draw a loose selection of the trees in the shade with the lasso tool, and feather the edge 100 pixels or so, so that the changes don’t produce a hard edge. Then go into “Levels” and scoot the mid-tone slider to the left in the red channel, and the mid-tone slider to the right in the blue channel. Doesn’t need to be much. That step effectively reduces blue and adds yellow, making that area of trees look more orange and less muddy… as they naturally appear in the shade during the time of day in this picture. Keep in mind… there are probably a hundred ways to accomplish the same thing in post-processing. Increasing saturation typically does the same thing by increasing the dominant colors and lowering the minor color. Using levels or curves just gives more precise control over the changes. The picture could benefit from just a slight increase of overall saturation… without getting too surreal in color.
Anyway, these are the changes that I think improve the picture. By all means, reply with a rebuttal or another opinion. That’s what I always found to be the most valuable part of club competitions… not that one picture is better than another, or that doing this or that even improves a picture, but that the discussion becomes the process by which all of us learn to become better photographers.