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How-to's Travel Stories

On Assignment (3): Saved by the Light

Matt Bradley (mbradley)

Keywords: on_assignment, mbradley, previsualization, photojournalism, national_geographic, light, petrified_forest_national_park, guatemala, gulf_of_mexico

This is the third part of a series on On Assignment.


“Light is the photographer’s most important tool.”

Bob Gilka

Director of Photography, National Geographic Society, 1916 - 2013

Light — the very essence of photography. Without it, you can’t take a photograph, of course. But as most Nikonians know, not just any light will do. A great composition captured in light that’s only fair, usually ends up as only a fair picture.

For a challenging assignment, try photographing rocks within a colorless landscape. That’s basically what I agreed to do while working on the book, America’s Hidden Treasures, since part of my territory was in Petrified Forest National Park. It’s hard to believe this arid landscape was covered by forests in a subtropical climate 225 million years ago. Buried in what is called the Chinle Formation, petrified logs slowly became exposed from eons of weathering and erosion. I quickly realized this assignment was going to be a tough nut. Some of the logs had a little color, but the overall look was pretty underwhelming. I had no choice but to make the most of composition while counting on good light to bail me out. Unrelenting sunlight from high overhead blasted the landscape most of the day, as is typical of summer in the desert Southwest. But as the sun lowered in late afternoon, directional lighting became possible. That was particularly true when I looked up one of the parched and eroded arroyos where the sun beamed brilliant backlight. The log arrangement there suggested a vertical composition. And a 24mm wide-angle lens emphasized the logs in the foreground, providing my center of interest.

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
National Geographic Society
Click for an enlargement


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