Paja grass tussocks - story and analysis

05 April 2017

Paja grass tussocks

The place shown on this picture is located on 3900m altitude in Chilean Altiplano, about 20km from the village of Socaire and 100km from San Pedro De Atacama. I came here by bus to Toconao and then hitchhiking for the rest of the distance. My plan was to acclimatize for 1 day in Socaire, but the Chilean couple that picked me up was going to Lagunas Altiplanicas, so I decided to travel with them. When we passed this place I liked it so much, that decided to take the risk and spend one night there. I love the Paja grass and for me it is one of the symbols of Altiplano.

Now let me describe the difficulties which a photographer faces when shooting in Altiplano. The first problem is the weather. Photographers often tell stories how they are spending days waiting for the best light. Here, in the Chilean Altiplano, waiting won't work, at least most of the time. This area is in the rain shadow of the Andes, which makes it a cloudless place, especially outside the raining season. And if you don't have unlimited time here, well, wish you luck with the waiting! When such conditions are present, it is better to work with what you have intead wasting time waiting for something that may not happen... especially when it is an expensive travel.

Cloudless weather brings two problems:

1. Empty flat sky, which is a bad compositional object because the lack of variation
2. Harsh shadows, which often cause fragmented composition

My solution - shooting after sunset and before sunrise in the so called "Blue hour", which is actually quite short at this latitude. When sun goes under the horizon the whole sky becomes a diffuse light source, which means that there are no cast shadows and one can work with the local tonal value of the objects. When the atmosphere is clear, as in the case of Altiplano, shortly after sunset the sky becomes deep blue-violet with visible color and tonal gradients. This turns it into an interesting object which has color and tonal variation. Also its blue light unifies colors of the scene.

The second big difficulty is caused by the open and mostly empty landscape. In this barren place it is very hard to find contrasting objects for a center of interest. Most things have similar tonal values and it's difficult to create compositions based on tonal patterns. My solution of this problem is to use color variations and foreground textures.

Here my goal is to create a picture, whose center of interest are the grass tussocks. The main problem is how to compose the picture without making the tussocks look like a structurless mass of grass. For this purpose I'm searching for a place with proper placed lonely tussocks. Separating at least one tussock is very important for the following reasons:

1. Separation makes it a compositional object
2. It shows clearly the tussocks' structure, which facilitates the spectator to perceive them as repetitive objects, and create rhythm
3. Creates variation in their size.

Here, in this picture, the main tussock is not only dimensionally separated from others, but also tonally, because the soil around it is a bit darker.

The next topic is the focal distance and view point choice, and these two thing are interconnected. The main goal is to achieve balance between the tussock and the volcano in background. These two objects are counterpointing each other and are balanced not only by size, but by their position in the frame (diagonally placed). I have to mention that proper tussock size (manipulated by changing the view point distance) creates perspective and depth. The view point height is important to separate the tussock and to maintain proper pictorial distance between it and the volcano. The lens focal distance is 24mm (in 35mm format).

Post processing is simple. There are the usual white balance and curves corrections. Also there is a light gradient to darken upper part of the sky in order to help closing the composition.

So, that's all. I hope it is interesting and helpful.

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