Photographic Examples-9-Totem Pole

Alain Briot

Totem Pole, Monument Valley

Mood as source of inspiration

I visited this location several times prior to creating this image.  However, each time the light was flat, the sky cloudless and I did not feel inspired to create a photograph. 

This particular time things were vastly different.  A sandstorm was blowing through the valley and storm clouds were moving rapidly in the sky. I was immediately stunned by the quality of the light:  the sand suspended in the air created a soft golden glow; the light was diffused yet direct.  It was midday and shadows were noticeable but not as harsh as they usually are at that time of day.  The clouds were moving fast over the valley, creating a sense of urgency because each interesting compositions created by the cloud patterns lasted only for a couple of minutes.

When I arrived at the spot where I took this photograph, the light had taken a soft and almost golden quality, a consequence of the clouds acting as a giant diffuser for the sunlight and of the red sand flying in the air giving a warm color to the light. Because I knew this location well, I was immediately able to recognize the uniqueness of this lighting situation.  I also knew that it would not last long.  The minute the clouds cleared up, or the minute the sand stopped blowing, this unique light would be gone.

I therefore set to work immediately, inspired by the light, the cloud formations and the constantly changing patterns of light and shade that were cast on the sandstone spires in the distance. The problem was finding the proper composition, and I struggled with that during the entire shoot, which lasted barely 15 minutes.  Because I did not have much time to narrow down the exact final composition, I created images using several lenses, slightly varying how much of the landscape I was including in each image.  I also created images with different clouds and shadow patterns.  Later, in my studio, I selected the image above from all the ones I created that day because it best expressed how the scene felt to me when I experienced it. In only a few minutes this magical scene returned to a mundane mid-day look. The enchanting qualities that so attracted me were gone forever.

In the studio I worked hard looking at each image in detail, trying to decide which composition best expressed the feeling of the scene as I remembered it.  I eliminated vertical views because they did not share the expanse of land and cloud. I eliminated tight croppings for the same reason.  I eliminated wider views because they diluted the interest too much, taking away the impact of the Totem Pole.  I also worked for a long time on the tonal and color adjustments of the image, trying to recreate the soft golden glow of the sandstorm.  I eventually selected the image above from all the ones I created that day because it best expressed how the scene felt to me when I experienced it.

Alain Briot
Vistancia, Arizona
February, 2011


About Alain Briot

Alain Briot creates fine art photographs, teaches workshops and offers DVD tutorials on composition, printing and on marketing photographs. Alain is also the author of Mastering Landscape Photography.  This book is available from Amazon and other bookstores as well as directly from Alain.  You can find more information about Alain’s work, writings and tutorials on his website at

Alain welcomes your comments on this essay as well as on his other essays available in Briot’s View on this site. You can reach Alain directly by emailing him at