My January 2021 Photo of the Month is ME56, taken in Santee, California during a beautiful sunset.
January has come and gone. The pandemic marches on. Optimism is faint. There have been events going on that made photographic pursuit seem unimportant.
I hiked and traveled sparingly. I even made a few images that I liked. After reviewing my work from the past month, though, it wasn’t a hiking image I selected.
I often have remarked about the online Sunset Industrial Complex, and yet, this indeed is a sunset photograph! Of course, ME56 is different, because the clouds are the subject. Over the years, I have seen so many sunset images where the clouds really are the subject, but people insist on jamming some uninteresting foreground to be a “complete photograph.” But if the foreground doesn’t contribute artistically, why bother with it? So many photographers only chase red clouds, so why add elements that take away from it?
This isn’t a radical notion from me. I have written about this before, but I have been influenced by Alfred Stieglitz’s Equivalents project. It definitely was a radical notion a century ago to photograph weather and present it as art. But that is why Stieglitz is remembered as a Master Artist and others are forgotten.
So here you go. Sunset clouds with no foreground, no cliff edge, no coast, nothing. Study the subject, because there isn’t anything else to distract from it. Deal with it.
People aren’t into this type of work, and that is exactly what I love most about it. 90% of landscape photographers shoot 5% of the available landscapes. Why do what everyone else is doing?
So what I do personally love about this photograph, ME56? The pastels are beautiful. There are reds, pinks, oranges, and blues. One other element I love are the whites. People photographically tend to think of clouds in 2D, as if they are flat. Of course, we know that isn’t true, because we see clouds that vary in altitude and type. But they are all “flat” in photography, since they are always at the infinity end of your lens.
The whites in this image are interesting, because light does refract differently at different altitudes. These clouds, on a 2D image, appear flat but there is much more variation and context there. The white clouds are higher and have a different water density, thus they don’t refract in the same way. To me, this gives the brain context that there is more going on than just a pink cloud.
Some Lightroom Info
One challenge with this project is that I almost always use one of my wider-angle lenses for these images. In this case, it was taken with my Nikon 24mm f/2.8. One thing to know about wide-angle lenses is Fall-Off. The edges always darken – that’s just part of the engineering at wide-angles.
Fall-Off from the lens can be useful for vignetting, but I have made it a point to continue to ask myself if I really need edge burning. I often burn the edges a little in the Effects panel in the Develop Module. This often works, but in this case I already had dark edges that may distract more than accent the subject. So for this image, I kept the Vignetting at a minimum.
Another issue with this panel is that it only works if you have evenly lit edges. This is not the case in this image. The bottom left was much brighter, being that edge was looking West as the day was transitioning to dusk. To work on this, I used the Radial Filter in Lightroom. The Radial Filter is hard to use if you are in the “Fit” part of the Navigator, meaning that the image evenly fills your computer screen. My clicking down and selecting 25%, I was then able to use the Radial Filter in a large bubble that left only that corner to be locally adjusted. You may need to toggle the Invert checkbox to make sure you are editing the corner and not the rest of the image. There, you can make adjustments in one or two corners as needed.
I did leave some light. The corners shouldn’t be evenly lit, because that’s not what I was looking at. I wanted some lightness but not too much brightness. It hints, subtly, that there are things beyond this image to pause and consider. The thing is, your brain fills in these details. Your eye is only focused on a very small point at any given moment. Over 99% of your vision is peripheral, and that is interpreted by your brain. Leaving your brain a small hint of something to fill in is good.
Make More Images That Aren’t Popular
Will other people study these clouds so closely? Most likely, no. But that drives a final point home. I don’t create these images for other people to like. I am comfortable not chasing Instagram Likes. Social media clout and a dollar still won’t get you more than a value menu cheeseburger, so how much value does that clout really give you?
ME56, to me, is beautiful, contemplative, and ultimately rhetorical. It doesn’t need Likes, it doesn’t need recognition, and if anybody, beyond me, spends the time to study it, I will be surprised. Art is a lonely pursuit. If you’re creating art to be popular, you are not an artist. If you’re willing to make art that 7 billion people on Earth will never care about, then you are my kind of artist.
Another month has come and gone. February will be better than January. Let’s hope we can keep saying that each month in 2021.
As always, thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoy the image.
T.M. Schultze is a San Diego-based photographer, traveller, and writer. He writes, photographs, and draws things of the outdoors that have inspired humans for thousands of years. He co-authored the Photographer’s Guide to Joshua Tree Park which can be purchased here.