Sedona: composition workshop

Sedona, Arizona is a popular tourist destination that is renown for its classic western scenery.  The red rock buttes of Sedona have appeared in many western movies.  This first series gives an overview of the typical terrain around Sedona. A broad hilly valley bordered by numerous buttes and cliffs. The spot for these shots is on the Brewer Trail just 1.5 mi. from downtown Sedona, very easy to get to. We are looking south past the side of the hill for the Airport Mesa Vortex, across the valley of Oak Creek, toward Twin Buttes.

Two cameras with four lenses were used.  A Canon 50D with Sigma 10-20mm and Tamron 17-50mm plus a M4/3 Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Panasonic 12-32mm and Sigma 19mm prime.  The focal length for the shot is usually noted.  Both cameras use “crop” sensors, the figure in parenthesis is the full frame effective value for that shot.  Post processing was done with the ACDSee Pro 9 program.

Click on any photo for a larger view, with slideshow for all of the images.

M4/3 12-32 zoom M4/3 12-32 zoom, at 12mm. (24mm in old SLR terms)

The red rock slope on the right is very dominate.  This results in a lopsided composition, not good.

12-32 at 20mm (40) 12-32 at 20mm (40)

Zooming in to a more normal focal length brings out the Twin Buttes better.  The visual weight is still left leaning toward the right side of the frame.  But I do feel this view is in better balance than at the other two focal lengths.  So this one is the keeper.

12-32 at 32mm (64) 12-32 at 32mm (64)

This mild telephoto really shows off the Twin Buttes.  A more dramatic shot than the wider focal lengths.  However, the spaciousness of the broad valley around the buttes is now lost.  So this is an Ok composition, but the 20mm version fits my original vision better.  Hard to take a bad photo in Sedona!!!

Sigma 19mm (38) Sigma 19mm (38)

Vertical frame this time, with the horizon low in the frame.  There is a common “rule” for landscape photography to keep the horizon line away from the mid point. However, that is not my reason for putting the horizon below the middle. I wanted the emphasis to be on the Twin Buttes feature. Aiming the camera high simply cut out a lot of foreground stuff that would have competed with the buttes for our attention. Also I am an addict for showing lots of sky . . .

Sigma 19mm (38) Sigma 19mm (38)

This is the more common theme for landscape composition.  Show the near foreground to give the picture more depth.  Which does work, only I don’t understand the need for depth in the first place.  So this shot can be dismissed as a half hearted attempt.

For this section we will look at the age old question of horizontal versus vertical frame.  These were taken at various locations around Sedona.

Ship Rock: vertical frame
Ship Rock is just north of Sedona, seen here from the Jim Thompson trailhead.  The vertical shot was with the M4/3 12-32 at 17mm (34).  The horizontal one is the 10-20 at 17mm (27).  The square frame is a crop of the horizontal frame.  None of these are bad, by any means, but my pick is the square frame.

This set was taken with the Sigma 19mm (38).

The location is the Huckaby trailhead, just east of Sedona.  In the distance is the Giants Thumb.  Both the vertical and horizontal shots are uncropped.  The square version is a crop of the vertical shot.  Again, my pick would be the square one.


One of the best known features for Sedona is the Chapel of the Holy Cross, located on the eastern side of the valley, about midway down.  It is on the backside of the Twin Buttes mountain shown in an earlier set.
The vertical frame was shot with the Sigma 19mm (38).  The square frame was cropped from a vertical 17-50 shot at 17mm (27).  While the horizontal was also taken with the 17-50 at 17mm (27).
The vertical example is at a disadvantage.  The clouds were not as nice as in the other two shots, even though these were taken just a few minutes apart.  My preference here is the horizontal, mainly for showing off all the beautiful rocks.

 IMG_0983_web  IMG_0984_web
  Cathedral Rock, north face: vertical frame
This is the north face of Cathedral Rock.  As seen from Back ‘O Beyond road, about 3.5 miles SSW of downtown Sedona.  All of these were take with the Sigma 19mm (38).  The square frame is a crop from the horizontal shot.  My preference is the horizontal shot, the wider horizon gives a more spacious feel.
Cathedral Rock, north face: square frame Cathedral Rock, north face: horizontal frame


  Cathedral Rock classic: vertical frame
Cathedral Rock is the crown jewel of Sedona, and this is why.  The classic view, from the west side, with Oak Creek in front.  Look familiar?
The 17-50 zoom was used for these.  At 32mm (51) for the vertical shot and 30mm (48) for the horizontal.  The square version was cropped from the horizontal shot.
For once I cannot pick a favorite.  This is a jaw dropping vision with any frame.
IMG_0930_web IMG_0930_web (2)

Next we will have a look at another challenge in composition, juggling multiple objects.  In this case a yellow field, plus fence, plus mill shed, plus big tree (on the left), plus Cathedral Rock.  Both shots were taken with the Sigma 19mm (38).

Cathedral Rock, mill shed 1  
Some of the common “rules” in composition are:
Get Close – to give the image a clear center of interest.
Use Diagonals – for drama.
Have a feature in the near foreground – for depth.
This shot checks off all 3 boxes.
Cathedral Rock, mill shed 2  
Here I chose to move back. Mostly to give the two main objects, the mill shed and Cathedral Rock, each its own space to breathe.  Which sacrificed the fence diagonal, and gave both the mill shed and Cathedral Rock equal weight.
In spite of breaking those popular rules above, I would much rather have this picture hanging on my wall.

Shadow Boxing:  Next up deals with light, rather than the geometry of composition.  On a day with patchy cloud cover your are left to try and catch sunny spots, as they come and go.  This scene was taken from the Dry Creek Vista, located about 3.5 miles NW of downtown Sedona.  The view is toward the NE, Capital Butte on the right, with the high Wilson Mountain (really a big mesa) off on the horizon.  All 3 shots were taken with the 12-32 zoom.  The first at 22mm (44), the other two at 27mm (54).
In #1 there is nice light on the right side of Capital Butte, but an awful lot of the rest of the scene is in shadow.
With #2 we finally get some light on the red rock feature in the middle, and a different pattern on Capital Butte.
#3 really lights up Capital Butte nicely.  “Oh well” for the rest.

Capital Butte #1
Capital Butte #2
Capital Butte #3


Now for a look at how much to offset the center of interest for a picture.

Chapel of the Holy Cross: near center Chapel of the Holy Cross: moderate offset Chapel of the Holy Cross: far offset
Nearly centered.  If that far mountain top did not exist, this might have been Ok.
Sigma 19mm (38).
A moderate offset.  Which works best in my view.  Note this offset is a little less than the common “rule of thirds”.
Sigma 19mm (38).
A more dramatic offset.  Just too close to the edge of the frame for me.
17-50 at 31mm (50).

Next look will be at arranging foregrounds for depth.  Not one of my strengths.  The subject is Bell Rock.  A rather small feature in the Sedona scheme of things.  It’s located to the east of Cathedral Rock.  The vantage point is an easy trail not too far from the Yavapai Vista trailhead.  Note vortex cloud over Bell Rock (local joke).

Bell Rock - with shadow tapestry in the key of red Bell Rock - framed Bell Rock - close up
 The shadow of this rustic bush is the most interesting foreground I could find.  Kind of overpowers Bell Rock itself, but I can live with that.
17-50 at 17mm (27)
 Same view, with the camera raised to cut out enough foreground to put the emphasis squarely on Bell Rock.  Technically a stronger composition than the first.  I’m happy with both.
17-50 at 17mm (27)
 Zoomed in a bit to cut back a lot on the foreground.  This does put Bell Rock in command of the composition.  Still, not my choice.
17-50 at 22mm (35)


Wrapping Up:
Besides my nattering on about composition, I hope these photos convey my enthusiasm for the scenery of Sedona.  It is unique within Arizona, if not the world.  Now to close out with a few links that may be helpful –
paper map for Sedona area (Amazon)
Larry Lindahl – Sedona photographer, author, guide
Forest Service site for the Wilderness reserves