There are images that I carry around in my head, sometimes for years, before I actually create them.
This is one such image. I pre-visualized it for two years before I had the opportunity to shoot it.
I consider it to be the best photograph I have ever taken. Yet, during those two years when I was visualizing it, I was seeing the wrong image in my head. I had always seen this image in vertical; but it turned out that shooting it in horizontal format produced a much stronger composition.
The genesis of this image lies in a thought that Joe Rossbach shared with me: that his favorite time to photograph Great Falls is right after a storm, when river is at its most turbulent. The bigger the storm, the more dramatic the images the falls yield.
I have photographed Great Falls many times but never got anything like Joe’s majestic images. So, I resolved to get there in the wake of the next major storm to pass through the area. My opportunity came when Hurricane Sandy struck the northeastern United States on 29 October, 2012.
I reached the falls at five in the afternoon on the day after Sandy had passed overhead, just as the already subdued light was beginning to fade. As I expected, the river was swollen and angry, a full fifteen feet above its normal level.
In my previous visits to the Falls, I had noticed this lone tree, growing out of a rocky outcrop close to the river’s edge, its limbs bent over under years of pressure from the wind. I knew that, once the tree was bare of leaves, its branches would form strong graphic lines, upon which I could anchor an effective composition.
A key element of the composition that I had foreseen was separating the lower branches of the tree from the tops of the trees on the opposite bank of the river. To achieve this, I spread my tripod flat on the ground, by the water’s edge, and shot upwards into the tree.
Given the heavy cloud cover and fading light, I was able to make a single, five-second exposure, which caused the surface of the river to blur, further roiling the already angry surface of the water.
I shot thirty-two frames in vertical and, almost as an afterthought, two in horizontal. Checking the images on the LCD screen of my camera, I was thrilled, knowing that I had captured precisely the image I had spent two years contemplating.
Yet, when I got home and put the images up on my computer screen, it was immediately obvious to me that the horizontal composition was by far the stronger. It wasn’t even close.
Somehow, the horizontal composition just feels more natural, better balanced. I think it’s because, when the eye follows the graphic lines of the tree from left to right, the horizontal frame gives the eye space to move into, circle around the bottom of the image, then work back up the tree. By contrast, with the vertical composition, the eye travels along the lines of the tree, then immediately crashes into the right side of the frame, after which, it has nowhere to go.
There’s an old saying in photography, “When’s the best time to shoot a scene in horizontal format? Right after you’ve shot it in vertical.”
Nowadays, I always shoot both.
(Click on an image to enlarge it)