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Agave Sedona

Agave Sedona
A group of Agave plants grow near Sedona, Arizona

Challenging Techniques for Challenging Scenes

In March of 2019, I was in Oak Creek, Arizona, just outside of Sedona, hiking along some of the many trails in the area, hoping to come across a scene that would work with the “cloudy bright” skies overhead.

Cloudy skies mean soft light. The clouds act to diffuse the sunlight which creates soft contrast over the landscape, meaning no deep shadows or especially bright highlights. The amount of clouds also meant that the chances of any sort of sunset light would be very low, especially considering the amount of clouds to the west.

Most landscape scenes work best with directional light, preferably from a low angle, which creates highlights and shadows which help add definition to the forms in the landscape. Low angle light also usually results in warm-colored light which is an added bonus. Cloudy light is cool in color and non-directional, and, if you’ve read my blog post on the making of my image “Tangled” you’ll know that this kind of light works well with close-up scenes of nature. In other words, Intimate Landscapes.

So on this particular day, that was the kind of scene I was seeking, some detail in the landscape I could focus on (pun only kind of not intended). But the longer I was out hiking, the clouds started to break up overhead, allowing beams of sunlight to paint the landscape from time to time. So this resulted in a bit of an odd combination of light: soft, but directional too.

I was walking past this group of Agave plants when the clouds happened to part enough for the sun to illuminate just the Agave, with bits of dappled light hitting other parts of the landscape in the background. If a movie were being made of my life, this is where the angelic choir would sing “AAAAAAAAAAAAAA!” It was truly one of the most remarkable examples of serendipity I’ve encountered. The universe pointed at that spot and bellowed “THERE’S YOUR PICTURE!!!!”

Besides the light, another aspect of this scene attracted my attention: I like how the life cycle of the Agave plant is represented in the scene. You see that thin, white tree-looking thing going straight up just to the right of the center of the image? That’s called a Century Plant and it’s a flowering stalk that can grow up to 15 feet tall and is the last stage of an Agave plant’s life. There is a dead Agave behind a bush at the base of that stalk. That’s the one that sprouted the Century Plant. The Agave in the foreground of this image are likely the offshoots of that older Agave. I only wish that the stalk were in bloom when I was there, but, beggars and choosers.

The trick for creating this image was re-creating the light as I saw it in that split second before the clouds moved back over the sun. As the sun was moving in and out from behind the clouds, I knew I could probably capture what I saw by waiting and shooting several images as the sun lit up parts of the landscape, especially those Agave in the foreground. Due to the clouds, there was never a time when the whole scene was in sunlight, which was just as well because it was the dappled light that really made the scene work.

A consideration for how I was going to capture this image was also the fact that I didn’t have a lens with me that was wide enough to get the full scene. If I moved back too far to try to squeeze the composition into a single frame with the widest lens I had with me, too many distracting elements would intrude on the scene, such as the slope of the slight hill I was on and some branches from trees that were beside me from this position, but which would be in front of me if I moved back.

So, I knew I would be resorting to my favorite landscape photographic technique which is shooting a multi-row panorama. This also worked well with the need to shoot many images to capture the changing light on the landscape. (Multi-row Panoramas were the subject of another, earlier, blog post titled “Sometimes it is Hard to say DONE“.) 

One last little problem needed to be solved and this was the one that would make capturing this scene much more complicated: The lens I would use would not have the depth of field to get everything in focus from foreground to background. I would have to combine the multi-row panorama technique with focus stacking, which requires multiple images to be taken for each position of the panorama, at different focus point from foreground to background. These would then be combined to create a single image that is sharp through the entire scene.

The panorama would take 12 images to make: 3 rows from bottom to top with 4 images per row from left to right. But the focus stack would take 5 images for each position of the panorama. The first image of the focus stack would capture a few feet in the foreground in focus, the second image would have the focus point a bit further into the scene and the in-focus area would overlap with the first image, and so on until the last image of the focus stack would have sharp focus from about half-way into the scene all the way through to the sky and buttes in the background. So, 60 images would be needed in total to capture this scene. I had to figure this all out in advance in order to work out how I would shoot the scene.

I concentrated on the foreground first, waiting as the sun went in and out of the clouds, making sure I was able to get at least one image of each Agave plant in some amount of directional light. Then I would capture the rest of the images for the focus stack for each position, not really bothering with how the sun was lighting up parts of the background. I knew I would end up with that dappled light look that attracted me to the scene to begin with given how long it would take me to capture all the images (which was about 20 minutes from beginning the first exposure to finishing the last.) The clouds moving across the sun would ensure that the light would be a little different with every image I took.

After all the images were taken, it was then a matter of combining everything into a single image. Normally, this would be a matter of using Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop to combine the focus stack images for each of the 12 positions of the panorama and then combining those 12 results into the multi-row panorama itself, but this scene required more manual intervention. I needed to make sure that the parts of the images with the best light on the areas I wanted to accentuate were used in the final composite images. With each step of the process, I needed to edit what the software did to ensure it didn’t use an unlit part of an image, for example, instead of one that had better light.

In all, it probably took me about 2 weeks to get this image to where I was happy with the result.

Another advantage to the multi-panorama technique is an amazing amount of resolution in the image. This allows the image to look sharper and have more noticeable detail regardless of the size of the print. 

There is a famous church in Sedona called The Chapel of the Holy Cross, sometimes called “The Church of the Red Rocks” or, simply, “The Church in the Rocks.” This scene just happens to be looking right in the direction of that church. It’s at the base of the butte just right of the center of the image. Don’t see it? Here is it in a 100% crop of the full image:

The Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona in the distant background of my image

That was a lot of information to throw at you, wasn’t it? Sorry about that. Let me summarize here because I know that was confusing:

I saw a great scene with great light that took a metric crap ton of images to capture because I like to make things hard on myself and it took me two weeks or so to put all those images together to recreate the look that attracted me to it in the first place. <Deep breath> Whew!

Thanks for indulging me in my irrational need to overly explain my process. I do enjoy the craft behind my art. I hope you enjoy reading about it.

Stephen Girimont

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