The Story Behind The Photo (Week 1)

Last month, Scott Sheppard interviewed me over on Nik Radio. It was basically a 30-40 minute interview on how I got into photography and Photoshop, what inspires me and a bunch of other things. Here’s the link in case you missed it.

Anyway, back to our story. Toward the end of the interview, Scott and I started talking about how the story behind the photo is sometimes as captivating or interesting as the photo itself. So it got me thinking about a possible series of posts here on the blog. So… now that you know the story behind the story behind the photo (you may have to read that part twice but I’m pretty sure it makes sense), let’s get started:

The Photo
(click for a larger version)

Location: Dead Horse State Park, Utah (near Moab). Here’s a link to a website with a cool story about the area.
Date: April, 2009

The Gear

  • Camera: Nikon D300
  • Lens: Nikon 12-24mm
  • Aperture: f/11
  • Shutter Speed: 1/500 second
  • ISO: 200
  • Taken on a tripod with No Filters

How I Got the Shot
The plan was to get to Dead Horse Point to shoot sunrise. Whenever I shoot landscapes, I try to give myself enough time to walk around before the sun comes up (or goes down) to see what I want to shoot. I try not to shoot just one area. I find that we get caught up and just stand there shooting the same thing over and over again and end up with only 1 photo (well, 300+ photos, but they’re all of the same thing). So I make it a point to look around and get a plan together of several areas to shoot. So when the sun comes up, I shoot one thing for about 5 minutes (maybe more time or maybe less depending on how good it looks). Then I move to another location for 5 minutes and another… you get the idea. That way, within 30 minutes you’ve got a lot more chances for a great photo rather than just one. Now, it doesn’t always work out that way and there’s not always that many areas to shoot in one location – but the day I took this photo it did.

I setup for sunrise to shoot the vast canyons that you see at Dead Horse Point. It almost looks like a smaller version (but not that small) of the Grand Canyon. I knew I was only going to shoot there for a few minutes, and then move on to another view. Here’s one of the first photos.

(click for larger version)

Everything went as planned and that’s exactly what I did. But, on my walk over to the 2nd location I wanted to shoot sunrise from, I’m walking down this path and I see this tree. I think “That looks kinda cool” The sun was hitting the side of the tree and the rocks and the sky looked great. So I stopped, set my tripod down and took a few photos and that’s how I got the shot.

An Interesting Side-Note
About a year later, Scott Kelby was teaching a workshop in Moab and they went out to Dead Horse Point. He asked if I knew any good photo spots and I told him about the tree (and showed him the photo). The day he was there he calls me up and says “Dude, I had no idea that the tree you showed me was only 3-4 feet tall!”. I guess it just looks larger in the photo but if you stood next to it, I think it would barely come up to chest height :)

Post Processing
The first time I processed this photo was with Photoshop CS4. I used Photomatix Pro and CS4 but I was never really happy with it. I re-processed it when CS5 came out using the improved Refine Edge dialog to select the tree. That way I could adjust the tree and the sky separately and it worked out beautifully. Then I finished the photo off with Nik Color Efex Pro (the Tonal Contrast filter as well as a vignette).

Thanks for stopping by. Let me know what you think of the new feature and if I should continue The Story Behind the Photo. Have a great day! :)

  • Juan Carlos Gomez

    Thanks for sharing, you arevan inspiration and the kowledge of how you take your photos is amazing

  • Toni

    Matt- i really like the idea of the stor behind the photo, keep it up. Also, on a side note, I love your new website…

    • Toni

      sorry for the typo, gotta slow down and read it before I hit post ;)

  • Fuad Babayev

    Good story and excellent shots! Thanks for sharing!

  • Pete

    Great post, I always love hearing the details behind a shot. Both the technical (shooting and post) as well as the non-technical.

  • Francis

    Thanks Matt. It’s always nice to hear about the thought process and planning involved when figuring out what to shoot. Looking forward to more stories.

  • dan topham

    Thanks for sharing this Matt. I sure like your site and hope you will continue with “The story behind the photo” it offers some great insight into photography.

  • Stephen Coss

    Awesome! Yes please continue the series. It helps to know how you got the shot just as much as the blind critiques you and Scott have been doing on The Grid!
    Thank you

  • http://Underconstruction Vineet Potdar

    Tha ka for sharing.

  • http://Underconstruction Vineet Potdar

    Boy, iPhone spellcheck sure does mess up sometimes :)

  • Melvin Molder

    Matt, I really enjoyed the shots and the story. Keep them coming….

  • Allen Weitzman


    Great image but one question please. If shooting at 1/500th of a second, was a tripod necessary?

    Just askin’


    • Matt Kloskowski

      For me it is :)
      I want my landscapes as sharp as possible.

  • Tom Marantette

    Matt, Great photos and I really appreciate your “Behind the Photo” write up. See you in Las Vegas.

  • Lance Levine

    Very interesting to get the inside thoughts about the shot. Thanks.

  • Christer K

    Very interesting to read “The Story Behind the Photo” it brings a new dimesion to the photo. So keep up the good job. And thanks for sharing…
    /Christer K

  • Jan Gemeinhardt

    I like this “The Story Behind the Photo” great idea. Thank you for sharing.

  • Gregg Mack

    Matt, that’s a very nice photo. I really like the concept of “the story behind the photo”. I hope you do more of them from time to time!

  • Jay Stockhaus

    Great story and photograph. I have a photo of that same tree, but at sunset.

  • Kristina Jacob

    Great story and awesome image! That tree looks so much bigger in the photo!
    Thanks for sharing!

  • Kevin Finch

    Matt, I really like the story behind the photo approach (and I like the photo!); it’s great to hear what’s going on at the time of capture and back at the computer.

  • http://ljsaltiel Len

    Excellent back story Matt. Love Dead Horse and that image of the tree is killer. I shot the same tree but yours is much better.

  • Steve L

    I also like reading and hearing the story behind the photo. And, as you mentioned in the interview, that doesn’t necessarily limit things to f-stops, shutter speed, etc. The “story” is more fun!
    Looking forward to more….

  • Mark

    Great image Matt, Question why did you pick f/11 instead of say f/22

  • Tom Bruno

    Great article. The creative thought that goes into getting a terrific shot like this one is super interesting. Also, I did a double take when you wrote how tall, or short, that tree is. I said, Huh? and had to look again.

    I echo others here with questions on the best technique for sharpness and depth of field. I keep reading that after f8 diffraction cancels out resolution, but when I shoot even at 24 mm at f8, I lose a lot of depth of field. For maxing out landscape sharpness and DOF have you found a “magic number” for aperture? A sweet compromise of all the factors?

    Keep writing in this vein, it’s terrific.

    Tom B