The making of: ‘Shadowed peaks’

I feel almost as if this is an image which ‘got away’. It’s very close indeed to my pre-visualisation of it, but not quite there.

The shot was taken early in the morning, high up on the Bolivian Altiplano. What I’d envisaged was that the two clouds – virtually the only ones in the sky that morning – would drift at a rate which would cast their shadows on the very top of each volcano at the same time. It didn’t happen: in this finished image, the far cloud has already passed the peak, heading rightward. It did come close though, and I still very much like the composition as the shadow on the foreground cone is perfectly positioned; I feel I can live with the minor one being just a little less than ideal.

I mentioned pre-visualising above, which suggests some considerable degree of planning. In practice, I made this image only about ten to fifteen minutes after first seeing the volcanoes, let alone the clouds and their shadows tracking towards the peaks. I had been fortunate enough to come over a rise in the ground in the Land Cruiser I was sharing with three other tourists just as the clouds formed and began to move towards their positions in the image.

'Shadowed peaks'

This was a five day trip from San Pedro de Atacama, in Chile, to the Salar de Uyuni, in Bolivia. The way these tours work is that the drivers more or less follow a beaten path to certain places that they think people will want to stop at, which basically means ‘all of the lagoons, and a couple of impressively large rocks‘. It’s far from being the ideal situation for photographers, but I was fortunate that there was another, similarly-afflicted tourist in the vehicle who also saw this scene developing. We both asked the driver, very nicely, to stop. Then we asked him to drive back a kilometre or so to get the darkened area of desert into the shot as a leading line, mainly since, with our rather inadequate Spanish, the whole ‘stopping the car’ process had taken rather longer than might be considered ideal. And then we waited. Fortunately, it was a relatively short wait: the other two passengers would quite possibly have become impatient had we insisted on just sitting in the desert watching a couple of clouds move for more than a very few minutes! As it turned out these two non-photographers proved to be very tolerant over the next few days though, and our driver quickly became used to being the last of the group of vehicles to arrive at every place – without exception. We tipped him well at the end!

The light levels were remarkably balanced between sky and foreground in this composition, so I had no need to use any graduated filters. I also didn’t have a polariser on the lens at the time, though the colour of the sky might suggest that there is. The altitude here is around 4,300m. so even a sky which has not been deliberately polarised by using a filter tends to be visibly polarised to the naked eye, hence the very deep blue colour. I took this shot in both portrait and landscape and I preferred this version; partly since it fits the subject matter slightly better, but also since the landscape version at this wide angle shows radical variation in the blue from left to right, which is so extreme that it rather spoils the image.

As to the very wide angle (this is the equivalent of 15mm on a full-frame SLR) I used it partly since we were too close to the volcanoes to use a longer focal length, and also because it emphasised the foreground dark line in the desert, which I thought was an important compositional element to lead the viewer’s eyes to the two mountains.

I think I can safely say that the only thing I’ve learnt from this photo so far is that sometimes, you get lucky….

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