The Making of a Photograph: “Denali Zen”

The Making of a Photograph:

In the summer of 2004, Alaska experienced an unusually busy and destructive fire season.  According to the Alaska Division of Air Quality, it was the warmest and third driest summer on record.  By the end of August, nearly 6.6 million acres had burned in a total of 701 fires spread out across the state.  The bulk of those fires, though, occurred in an area known as the Interior, which spans from north of Denali National Park up to the southern foothills of the Brooks Range.  There were so many particulates in the air, recorded levels in Fairbanks were over the EPA Hazardous 24 hour level for 15 days.

At the end of August, I went to Denali National Park & Preserve for a long weekend.  I was going to stay at the Denali Backcountry Lodge in Kantishna and give two evening slide show presentations, and a daytime photo session on macro photography out at Wonder Lake.

But, as a result of the summer’s fires, there were no grand scenic vistas to behold that autumn in Denali National Park.  The grand views from Polychrome Pass were absent; any view of Denali (Mt. McKinley) itself was completely absent.  I had to take a flight seeing tour with Kantishna Air and get above the smoke ceiling of 9,000 feet in order to see The Mountain.

When heading out of the park, a lone willow standing off the side of the road in Thorofare Pass caught my attention.  I hiked a short way off the road to approach the tree, and noticed how the smoke haze was affecting the overlapping mountain ridge lines in the background.  While the smoke may have obscured the normal expansive views, it helped to create delineation between the mountain ridges that would otherwise not be visible.  But the smoke also created a very bright overcast, creating some exposure challenges.

I selected a classic “Rule of Thirds” composition, placing the tree in the lower right part of the composition.  Rules of composition are meant to be guidelines, not necessarily to be followed as law.  This time, however, it worked out well for what the scene had to offer.  To balance out the exposure challenges, I used a three-stop graduated neutral density filer, placing the dark parts of the filter on the flat, smoky sky.  I maximize the depth of field, I selected an aperture of f/22 and let aperture priority set the shutter speed.

This image was selected as the Best in Category for Scenics in the 2005 Alaska magazine photo competition.  You can view and purchase it in my Denali National Park gallery.

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