Harbinger No. 1 – The Story Behind the Image
I’d like to tell you the story behind the image of Harbinger No. 1; how I came across it, how I created it and how it led to a ongoing portfolio.
My son Jem and I were traveling across Utah on a Father-and-Son road trip, it was summertime and it was 105 degrees in the Utah desert. Driving along I70 just across the border from Colorado we came upon these “mud hills” which caught my eye. They were so void of life that they made me think that this is what the moon must look like.
We stopped and I photographed for a while, but was unsatisfied. While the images were “interesting” they just didn’t feel complete and they certainly were not great. So we packed up and descended down the hill, eager to get back into the air conditioned truck.
But as were returning I saw this lone cloud moving very fast across the landscape. Based on its trajectory I knew that in just a minute it would be perfectly positioned over this dark symmetric hill that I had been photographing and would give my image the focal point that it needed. I ran up the hill as quickly as I could and hoped that I could get at least one shot, all the time thinking about the Ansel Adams story and how he rushed to get just one shot of Moonrise, Hernandez.
I quickly set up my tripod and camera, focused, adjusted my exposure and was lucky enough to get off two shots. I chose the above image of because it was centered above the hills and as many of you have noticed, I love centered and symmetric images. I was so fortunate to have this one perfectly shaped cloud come by and oblige me that day.
I like to name my images with the first word that comes to mind and this image immediately screamed “Harbinger” at me, and the dictionary’s definition became my artist statement:
Harbinger: \?här-b?n-j?r\ noun
1. one that goes ahead and makes known the approach of another; herald.
2. anything that foreshadows a future event; omen; sign.
People most often ask me about the processing of this image and I think that’s because many assume the key to a great image is in the processing. While there is no doubt that processing is important, it’s certainly no more important than the shot or your vision. If you focus on just the processing at the expense of vision or the shot, you may end up with a technically perfect but mediocre image. As an artist I try to focus on all three areas.
My vision for this image occurred at the moment I saw that cloud moving into position and I knew exactly how I wanted this image to look. It was going to be dark and that cloud was going to jump out at you! Sometimes that burst of vision can come later when I’m processing the image, but I don’t think it’s too important when the vision occurs as long as it does occur. Vision is what drives us to force the shot into compliance with our vision.
When I composed this image I purposely centered the cloud and put the horizon in the center of the frame. Why? Because that’s just how the image felt to me. Next, I wanted a dark and graduated sky and so I used a polarizing filter which gave me both. On images i intend to be dark like this, I’ll often underexpose the image by 1 stop and then in processing I’ll dodge up the highlights.
When I converted this image to B&W I decreased the blue color channels to darken the sky, but I couldn’t go as far as I wanted because too much noise was being introduced. So to further darken the sky I burned it down with a very large and soft edged brush that was set at 1%. I work slowly to darken the sky to a pure black at the top and a very light gray at the hill’s edge. I dodged the cloud up so that it had a true white, but I was careful not to overdo it and lose highlight detail. This black sky and almost white cloud created this wonderful contrast that I love.
Next I burned the hills down so that visually they did not compete with the cloud for attention. And lastly I dodged up the very small edge of the ridge line to separate the hills from the sky. The final result is a dark image with a very bright subject, which is my preferred style.
When I created this first Harbinger image I really hoped that I could create an entire portfolio of similar images, but I never dreamed that I’d be lucky enough to find other such opportunities. I thought, how often will I see a single cloud over an interesting setting like this? But strangely enough I have found a few more and slowly my Harbinger portfolio is growing. Click here to see the entire portfolio.
Like all of my portfolios, this idea occurred spontaneously. I find that it’s easy to be creative when you are excited about a concept that inspires you!