Exploring the familiar

Gary Hart Photography: Old Tree, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite

Snow on Old Tree, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 24-70
1/30 second
F/16
ISO 100

I spend a lot of time guiding and teaching photographers who have traveled a great distance to capture a particular shot: Horsetail Fall in February, the spring moonbow on Yosemite Fall, the Milky Way above the Kilauea Caldera, to name just a few. They’ve seen an image on my website or someone else’s and have decided want to add their version to their portfolio. Many have saved money and vacation time for years for the opportunity; others have been chasing the shot without success more times than they can count. Either way, it’s a real rush watching it happen for them.

But given that my “job” is guiding people to the scenes I (and others) have photographed many times, the captures that make me happiest are the one’s I’ve never seen before. So, as much as I enjoy leading workshops, it’s a particular treat when I can get out by myself and photograph something new.

Finding new scenes can happen by accident, but there’s no substitute for conscious, calculated exploration. For example, a typical day in Yosemite has lots of blue sky and flat light hours that aren’t conducive to the type of photography I enjoy. Rather than waste that time simply waiting for the good stuff to happen, I spend the lousy light time collecting new scenes for later use. In Yosemite that usually means deciding on a subject (Half Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Fall, and so on) and poking around looking for foregrounds to put with it. Whether it’s walking the bank of the Merced River searching for a reflection of Half Dome, or scrambling granite slopes for a fresh view of Yosemite Valley, there are new perspectives and subjects to be mined everywhere.

When I find something I like, I try to figure out the conditions that would make the best photography. Sometimes this is simply a matter of plotting a moonrise or moonset; other times the best photography requires very specific weather or light—whatever the condition might be, I do my best to get myself there to photograph it.

I photographed this scene just a couple of weeks ago, but view I found on one of these reconnaissance missions several years ago. The first time I saw the tree, I imagined it etched with snow. Unfortunately the tree’s location—perched on a ledge above a vertical drop of several hundred feet, is not for the faint of heart, even in the most benign conditions. And getting out here in snow can be downright dangerous.

On my most recent Yosemite trip earlier this month (sandwiched between my Yosemite moonbow workshop and a week-and-half in the Columbia River Gorge), my desire for something new trumped my “respect” for heights. I took a long way around to avoid the cliff as much as possible, then did my best not to look down. As worked, every shift of foot or tripod was planned and tested before execution.

Exposure was pretty straightforward, but depth of field was a concern. I stopped down to f16, but chose not to go any smaller due to diffraction (light bending around small apertures to fill the entire sensor can inhibit resolution) concerns. As always in these scenes where I might not be able to achieve complete front-to-back sharpness, I biased my sharpness to my foreground—rather than focusing on Half Dome, I focused on a branch toward the back of the tree.

I actually returned to this scene the next morning, when the snow was much thicker and the light much more difficult. I haven’t had a chance to work with those images, so stay tuned….

A Gallery of the Shot Less Taken

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When seasons collide

Gary Hart Photography: Spring Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite

Spring Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 24-70
1/8 second
F/11
ISO 100

Ever notice how the best photography happens at nature’s boundaries, the interface separating disparate elements? Sometimes it’s visual elements, like the collision of surf and shore or the intersection of shadow and light. But often we’re moved by images that capture the transition of our experience of the world, such as the color and light that happens when we shift between night and day, or distinctive elements of two seasons together in one frame.

Sunrises and sunsets are a daily occurrence, but the opportunity to capture snow and autumn leaves, or snow and spring flowers, comes just once a year. And until last week, with Yosemite’s waterfalls approaching a summer trickle, and the spring dogwood bloom at least a month early, prospects for the elusive snow with dogwood opportunity didn’t look good.

Storm brewing

Despite Yosemite Valley’s snowless winter, the optimist in me steadfastly monitored an incoming storm, openly defying my internal pessimist that knew the promise of snow would surely fade as the designated day neared. In recent years the pessimist has prevailed in these internal conflicts, thanks to a stream of promising storm after promising storm detoured into the Pacific Northwest by a persistent ridge of high pressure.

But for some reason this storm was different, and while the forecast details changed daily, the one constant was that it seemed determined to defy the ridge. Not only that, this new storm originated in the arctic—what it lacked in tropical (drought busting) moisture, it made up for with air cold enough to deposit snow all the way down to Yosemite Valley.

Obi-Wan Kanobe, you’re my only hope

So, despite the fact that I’d just returned Saturday night from four days in Yosemite (for my spring photo workshop), I found myself on the road back Tuesday morning. With my (4-wheel-drive) Pilot in the shop for some minor body work, I congratulated myself for having the good sense to rent a Jeep when I scheduled the work, even though at the time snow was the last thing on any Californian’s mind.

The queue at the Yosemite entrance station was backed up about a 1/4 mile, and as I idled in a steady rain (the outside temperature was 38F, and with 1500 more feet to climb, I had no doubt it was snowing in Yosemite Valley), it occurred to me that I didn’t actually see anything indicating 4WD anywhere in or on the vehicle. Of course surely a Jeep will have 4WD, but for peace of mind I reached for the manual in the glovebox….

The manual provided no encouraging or discouraging words. As I crept toward the entrance, chain requirement signs seemed to be taunting me, I saw several cars ahead of me turned away for not having chains or 4WD. Approaching the booth, I still wasn’t sure whether I had 4WD (I think I knew, but I was in serious denial), but it dawned on me that without it, my trip was in jeopardy. I rolled to the entrance window and the ranger eyeballed my Jeep—I waved my National Park pass in front of him, and without coming to a complete stop uttered, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”, then held my breath as he moved me along. Phew.

Of course my problem was more than simply getting into the park—if conditions truly did merit chains, I knew of no Jedi tricks that would spare me. The snow appeared just a couple of miles up the road, but by the time I got there it was no longer falling and the road turned out to be clear all the way up to the valley. The rest of the afternoon I photographed Yosemite Valley sporting a light but nice dusting of snow. Parking the car for dinner at Yosemite Lodge, I crossed my fingers that the predicted overnight snow would hold off until I retreated to my hotel below the snow line.

No such luck. Stomach full, I exited the cafeteria to at least an inch of new snow, now falling fast enough that my visibility was severely limited and traction was dubious—beautiful indeed, but extremely stressful for this driver. With no other cars on the road, I split the gap in the trees (all actual signs of a road had been obliterated) all the way down the mountain, poking along at about 10 miles per hour but still occasionally unable to resist flipping on my high-beams to recreate a slow-motion Millennium Falcon shift into hyperspace effect.

All’s well that ends well

I made it down the hill without incident, then immediately started stressing about the next morning. If the snow fell this hard all night, Yosemite would surely be spectacular, but lacking chains or 4WD, I’d not be able to get there to enjoy it.

I rose at 5:30 and headed back into the park in the dark. Much to my relief, the snow had stopped in the night, and at each “Chains required” sign I rationalized that the warning was left over from the night before and decided to continue until I actually encountered snow and ice on the road. In Yosemite Valley I found every tree and rock fringed with snow, but the roads were fine.

Freed to concentrate on photography, I knew I had about two hours of quality shooting before the clouds departed, the light hardened, and snow dropped from the trees. My first stop was a personal favorite spot beside the Merced River, too small for a group, where I hoped to find blooms on the dogwood tree that aligns with El Capitan and the Merced River.

I arrived just in time to catch the morning’s first light on El Capitan, the moment made even more dramatic by the diaphanous vestiges of the departing storm. I worked the rapidly changing scene hard, shooting entirely with my 24-70 lens, but using pretty much every millimeter of the lens’s focal range before heading up the hill to Tunnel View.

I drove home thankful for enough snow to photograph, but not so much that I couldn’t navigate, and for the rare opportunity to leverage the late snow and early spring into images capturing the best of both seasons.

Join me in Yosemite next spring

An El Capitan Gallery

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Half Dome moonrise

Gary Hart Photography: Spring Moonrise, Half Dome, Yosemite

Spring Moonrise, Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1.3 seconds
F/11
ISO 80

Last week I was in Arizona (Grand Canyon, Page, Sedona); next week it’ll be Oregon (Columbia River Gorge). But this week my focus is little closer to home, as I enjoy the familiar confines of Yosemite Valley.

The big news here is the water, or rather, the lack thereof. In a lifetime of visits to Yosemite, I’ve never seen the water lower in spring than it is this week, not even close. Most years, the water in Yosemite’s falls peaks in May; this year the flow peaked in February. On my visit to the bridge beneath Lower Yosemite Fall, always a guaranteed drenching in spring, I didn’t feel a single drop. The reflective vernal pool in Cooks meadow is a dirt hole, and the Merced River, which normally roars through Yosemite Valley in spring, is drifting near its leisurely autumn pace.

While these dry conditions might force Yosemite photographers to alter some plans, there is a silver lining to this week’s metaphorical cloud. Thursday night my Yosemite Moonbow and Dogwood workshop group was able to photograph sunset from Glacier Point, which opened last week, the earliest opening on record. And Friday morning we photographed dogwood blooms that already starting to pop out everywhere, a month early.

A particular highlight came Wednesday night. I’d taken my group to a favorite location beside the Merced River, a location I visit so frequently that I usually leave my camera in the car here. But this night, with spring-green cottonwoods framing the upstream riverbank and mix of clouds, sky, and sunlight above Half Dome, it was clear that the conditions were primed for something special. My ace in the hole was the nearly full moon, obscured by clouds when we arrived, that emerged right on cue, just as the sunset pink sky reflected in the Merced River, to provide a perfect accent to an already beautiful scene.

The operative word is accent. As I explained to my group, the moon doesn’t need to be large to be effective. Glowing disk or thin crescent, the moon carries so much emotional weight that, over the right scene and properly placed in the frame, it creates a simple accent that turns a conventionally beautiful scene into something special.

Yosemite, with its host of east-facing vistas, is my favorite spot to photograph a moonrise. Whether it’s a full moon at sunset, or a crescent at sunrise, I do my best to find the Yosemite view that best aligns with the rising moon, scheduling as many workshops and personal visits to coincide with this marvel. When possible the view I choose includes Half Dome, Yosemite’s monolithic centerpiece.

When I can position myself at one of Yosemite’s more distant western vistas, on the opposite side of Yosemite Valley from Half Dome (such as Tunnel View), I have the option of using a telephoto lens to isolate Half Dome in the frame with a magnified moon. When the moon rises too early at one of these distant vantage points, I set up on the east side of Yosemite Valley and closer to Half Dome (raising the horizon so the moon appears later), usually near the Merced River, and use a wide lens that includes the entire scene that uses the moon as an accent.

Of course you don’t need to travel to Yosemite to include the moon in your images. With a little bit of homework, you can find a rising moon in any east-facing scene, or a setting moon in any west-facing scene. To read more about photographing the moon, read the Full Moon and Crescent Moon Photo Tips articles.

 A Half Dome Moonrise Gallery

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Mastering the mayhem

Gary Hart Photography: Divine Radiance, Upper Antelope Canyon

Divine Radiance, Upper Antelope Canyon
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 24-70
1/3 second
F/11
ISO 400

Last week I joined (contributed to) the elbow-to-elbow fray in Upper Antelope Canyon. Helping Don Smith with his Northern Arizona workshop, I’ve done this every year for nearly ten years (I’ve lost exact count). While I never tire of the cathedral-like power of beaming, bouncing sunlight, I find that, like most beautiful, easily accessed locations, it’s difficult to separate Antelope Canyon’s beauty from its mayhem.

Upper Antelope’s mayhem is multiplied by narrow, twisting sandstone walls that contain, reflect, amplify, and spread every sound along the canyon’s entire length, and make it impossible to move without dodging, brushing, or jostling another human. It’s a claustrophobe’s worst nightmare—even people who’ve never experienced claustrophobia find the experience unnerving.

It’s in these environments that I most appreciate the limited perspective of a still camera, its ability to isolate the essence of a scene and separate it from all sensory distractions. As difficult as the Upper Antelope Canyon experience is, I can visit my images later and remember only the best things about being there. Gone is the noise and congestion, tripods and camera flashes, and all the concomitant distraction and anxiety. I’m left with graceful curves in layered sandstone polished smooth by water, wind, and time, and the heavenly glow of reflected sunlight.

About this image

Though the workshop group was ours, Don and I must defer to our Navajo guide when we’re in the canyon, which means we aren’t allowed to teach. Our job is mostly to not get in anyone’s way. While we do monitor the group to make sure no one’s missing an opportunity, much of our time is spent hanging in the back, waiting for the “prime” shots we’ll only get a chance to photograph if there’s time when everyone else is done. This has turned out to be a blessing for me, because it’s forced me to find my own stuff, especially stuff that’s on the walls above everyone’s head, or even straight up, at the ceiling.

The image here is a straight-up ceiling capture found while waiting for the group to finish photographing a shafting ray of sunlight further up the canyon. In the narrow confines of a crowded slot canyon, crouching to see through a viewfinder, or lying down to get beneath the camera, is not practical. It’s in these awkward situations that have given me a real appreciation for the Sony mirrorless bodies’ articulating LCD, which makes photographing these straight-up scenes about as difficult as glancing down at a cell phone.

Another advantage to the straight-up composition is that it has no top, bottom, left, or right. By rotating my camera on the tripod, I was able to turn the overhead opening into a diagonal, which I found more compelling orienting it horizontally or vertically. In fact, when I processed this image I decided to reverse the top and bottom of the image, resulting in an orientation that’s no different than if I’d have rotated my camera 180 degrees at capture (try doing that with conventional, straight-ahead image).

And finally, I just have to say something about the dynamic range of the a7R. The difference between the brightest highlights and darkest shadows in this scene was far beyond what I’d have attempted with my Canon 5D Mark III. And while my histogram told me I’d gotten the full range of tones, I didn’t completely believe it until I actually got it on my computer, pulled down the highlights, pulled up the shadows, and looked closely.

Read my tips for photographing Upper Antelope Canyon


 An Antelope Canyon gallery

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As far as the eye can see

Gary Hart Photography: Starry Night, Mather Point, Grand Canyon

Starry Night, Mather Point, Grand Canyon
Sony a7S
Zeiss 28mm
15 seconds
F/2.8
ISO 25,600

“As far as the eye can see.” How many times have we heard, and even uttered, those words without really considering their true meaning? Just how far can the eye see? Adults use the expression to convey wide open spaces, and as a kid I remember arguments on the playground about who had seen the farthest, trying to one-up each other with our ocular feats.

To me the words “as far as the eye can see” reveal a misconception that our eyesight somehow travels to a distant location and returns a real-time picture of a person, tree, building, mountain, or whatever for our brain to process. That perception might work for terrestrial scenes, where the time it takes a distant image to reach our eye is so imperceptible that for all intents and purposes, we are witnessing the scene in real time—what we see is happening as we see it.

Let’s take a tour of this night scene from the Grand Canyon to see how that real-time visual model works. Standing at Mather Point on the South Rim, our eyes start with nearby trees lining layered sedimentary cliffs, quickly plummeting to the river-scarred basalt of the inner canyon nearly a mile below. Beyond rise the similarly layered wall of the canyon’s North Rim. So far our eyes have traveled only ten miles or so—on a clear day they could continue another hundred miles or so before dropping off the horizon.

Scan any terrestrial scene this way and it’s easy to believe our eyes have done the work—when we see an object, we feel like we’re sharing its simultaneous reality. But this shared reality concept falls apart when you elevate your eyes above the Grand Canyon and beyond the horizon to the celestial sphere overhead, where everything we see (except the small meteor that’s burning up in Earth’s atmosphere, just a few miles away) was over and done years before it entered my lens.

That delay is the time it takes starlight to span the immense distances of interstellar space. Instead of a simultaneous reality, each star in our sky is on its own clock. In other words, we’re not seeing the stars in this image as they are today, we’re seeing them as they were tens, hundreds, or thousands of years ago.

But back to this distance thing. If starlight takes so long to get here, how far did it travel? Or more specifically, just how far can the eye see? Consider that light travels about 186,000 miles in one second. That’s more than 15 billion (twice the population of Earth, BTW) miles in a day, and nearly 6 trillion miles in a year. These numbers are beyond human comprehension, but suffice to say, a light year is a really long way.

So the next time someone says “As far as the eye can see,” remember this image. Ten miles to the opposite rim of the Grand Canyon, or 100 or so miles to the horizon, aren’t even a drop in the interstellar bucket. To comprehend the limits of our visual distance, individual stars are a good place to start, but they’re still in Earth’s general neighborhood. Beyond the pinpoint stars, this image captures the glow of our Milky Way Galaxy’s spiral arm in which our Sun is a very small player. This glow is a few thousand light years distant—now that’s more like it. But wait, there’s more. In Sagittarius, opposite the view in this frame, is our galaxy’s center. There the Milky Way’s glow reaches our eyes after traveling a mind boggling 25,000 light years. Surely that must be the limit of human vision.

But before you run out and brag to friends that you can see 145,000,000,000,000,000 miles (the distance light travels in 25,000 years), we’re still not done. See that roundish smudge of light on the left side of the frame? That’s the Andromeda Galaxy, the Milky Way’s nearest neighbor, 2.5 million light years away (not counting refueling and bathroom breaks). At 14,500,000,000,000,000,000 miles (count the zeros—moving from left to right, each zero increases the distance by 10 times), that truly is as far as the eye can see.

A few words about this image

Last week I helped Don Smith with his Northern Arizona workshop. After a 12 hour drive from California, Don and I had dinner near the South Rim before heading out to chilly Mather Point to try our new(ish) Sony a7S mirrorless cameras in what is the most difficult location I’ve every tried night photography.

Because I do everything with one click or not at all, I’ve never had any success photographing the stars on a moonless Grand Canyon night. Moonless night photography is difficult in any location, but at the Grand Canyon it’s like photographing a black pit.   Honestly, I never imagined I’d be able to make it work.

A close look at this image will reveal that it’s not perfect—there’s a fair amount of noise, and a little motion in the stars (and every flaw is made worse by jpeg compression). Cleaning up the noise softened the image some, but eliminating it completely resulted in an noticeable plastic look, so I tried to find a balance. But flaws notwithstanding, given that the only thing illuminating my scene was the stars and a faint (imperceptible to the eye) ambient glow from the sky, to get this much detail in so much darkness is nothing short of amazing.

This is just my second night shoot with the a7S, so I’m still working out the best combination of f-stop/ISO/shutter-speed variations. I haven’t scrutinized all my images yet, but I have many variations to play with, both from this night at Mather Point, and from the next night as well, when Don and I took a hardy few from the workshop group out to Yavapai Point.

One thing that is an absolute game changer for me is the ease with which I can focus on the stars with the Sony a7S. With my Canon 5D Mark III and its (pretty great) LCD, I am able to live-view manual focus, but it takes some work. With the a7S, focusing is just a simple matter of putting my eye to the viewfinder and dialing the focus ring until the stars sharpen—a couple of seconds at most. Composition is also much easier with the a7S.

But clearly there’s room for more image quality, as the extremely limited light of a moonless night at the Grand Canyon forces many compromises. My Zeiss 28mm f2 lens is generally quite sharp, but it’s noticeably less sharp at its widest apertures. And there’s quite a bit of noise at 25,600 ISO (but the fact that I can shoot anywhere near that high is simply amazing). Of course I’d like to use an even higher ISO to allow a smaller (sharper) aperture and faster shutter speed (less star motion), but I won’t be greedy (yet). Right now I don’t know what excites me more about the a7S—that I’m able to capture night scenes I never dreamed possible, or what low-light technology Sony will deliver next. It’s a great time to be a photographer.

A Stellar Gallery

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The grass is greener

Gary Hart Photography: Under the Weather, Sierra Foothills, California

Under the Weather, Sierra Foothills, California
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1/8 second
F/11
ISO 100

“You’re so lucky to live so close to <fill in the blank>”: Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Big Sur, San Francisco, Muir Woods (and countless other coastal redwood sites), Point Reyes, the Napa Valley wine country, Mt. Shasta, Mono Lake. I hear it all the time. Okay, I’ll concede that—I’m lucky.

But…

Their implicit message is, “If only I lived closer to such-and-such, my photography would be so much better.” But you know what? We all have our grass-is-greener longings. When someone tells me how lucky I am to live where I live (I am), I can usually counter with, “Yeah, but I’d love to have the skies that you get.” Because the sad truth is, for someone who loves dramatic weather and interesting skies as much as I do, California is definitely not the place to be.

My advice to anyone who lives in Nebraska, or Texas, or Illinois, or pretty much anywhere else that lacks California’s dramatic scenery, is to emphasize your skies (which are almost certainly more interesting than mine). Keep a mental database of interesting foregrounds (they don’t even need to be particularly photo-worthy by themselves)—a single tree, reflective lake, cascading stream, whatever—that you can get to fairly quickly when the sky shows potential.

When photographing your subject beneath an interesting sky, place it at the bottom of your frame, compose wide, and give 2/3 or more of the frame to the sky (the better the sky, the more real estate it deserves). Vertical compositions often work great when you want to emphasize the sky. Is it Yosemite or the Grand Canyon? No, but I could be a very happy photographer shooting nothing but great skies for the rest of my life.

I digress

So. As you might guess, on the rare occasion when it looks like something special might happen overhead, I’m all over it. Unfortunately, and despite my proximity to so many world-class locations, there’s not a lot I like to photograph within a few minutes of my home.

I got a frustrating reminder of that a few years ago when, during a heavy (for California), persistent rain, I looked out the west-facing window of my home on Sacramento’s west side and saw nothing but clear sky on the horizon. Hmmm. Knowing three things: 1) the sun sets in the west 2) weather in Northern California moves from west to east 3) a rainbow needs low sunlight and airborne water, inferring an imminent rainbow wasn’t rocket science. All I needed was an east-facing scene.

And therein lay the rub: It’s at least a 30 minute drive to any scene that would do the rainbow justice. Of course with more than an hour until sunset, I figured there was time if I hurried, so I tossed my gear in the car and headed east, toward a small tree that stands by itself atop a hill east of town. And sure enough, within ten minutes of my departure, the rainbow did indeed manifest as expected. What also manifested was rush hour traffic.

For the next hour, I (along with what seemed like ten million commuters) were treated to a vivid double rainbow framing all six lanes of US 50. Poking along at less than 10 miles per hour, we were also beneficiaries of ample opportunity to appreciate the spectral splendor. On the positive side, this rainbow was so beautiful that I couldn’t even muster much impatience—I just sat there in traffic and marveled. And as if its beauty weren’t enough, this rainbow persisted longer than any rainbow I’ve ever seen, lasting at least an hour—all the way up until I pulled my car to a stop in front of the tree. True story.

Deja vu

Fast-forward four years. A couple of months ago I looked out the very same window during on a rainy afternoon and saw the same clear horizon I’d seen four years earlier. Within minutes I was in my car and heading toward the same tree. This time the traffic cooperated and I made good time, arriving at “my” tree about 30 minutes before sunset.

Sadly, despite all the signs pointing in the right direction, the rainbow never happened. Waiting for the sun to appear, I photographed saturated clouds in a steady rain, at no point not believing its appearance was imminent. Just about the time the sun appeared, the rain stopped. And then, about the time the rain returned, the sun set. Oh well.

Am I complaining? Of course not. I didn’t get my rainbow, but I did get a rare opportunity to photograph Midwest skies right here in Northern California. And I hope this image illustrates my point—wasting energy longing for what’s over there obscures the beauty at your feet. Good photography doesn’t need a towering monolith or double rainbow, it just needs a creative eye and a little persistence.

 A Gallery of Skies

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Chased by rainbows

Gary Hart Photography: Rainbow and Surf, Wai'anapanapa Black Sand Beach, Maui

Rainbow and Surf, Wai’anapanapa Black Sand Beach, Maui
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1/5 second
F/11
ISO 50

Okay, you might guess that as a nature photographer I spend a lot of time chasing rainbows. True, but I swear that in Hawaii it feels like rainbows are chasing me. Hawaii is the only place I’ve ever been where rainbows just appear with no warning, where I can be standing in full sun beneath a handful of puffy clouds, glance toward the horizon, and do a double-take—where’d that come from?

Because of Hawaiian rainbow’s seemingly spontaneous inclinations, the first thing do after landing at a photo site on the Islands is run through my rainbow checklist:

  • What’s the elevation of the sun? If the sun is lower than 42 degrees above the horizon, a rainbow is possible—the lower the sun, the higher and more complete (greater arc) the rainbow will be. If the sun’s near the horizon, a towering, nearly half-circle rainbow is possible; if the sun is higher, closer to 42 degrees, only a horizon-hugging, flatter rainbow is possible.
  • What’s the direction of the sun? A rainbow always appears directly opposite the sun—the best way to determine where it will appear is to find your shadow, which will point directly toward the rainbow’s center (and its apex).
  • If a rainbow does appear, where do I want to be? Armed with the answers from the first two questions, I know whether a rainbow is possible and exactly where it will appear. Now all I need is a composition for it. Pre-planning my rainbow composition prevents the Keystone Cops panic that typically ensues when a photographer looks skyward and spots a rainbow, but has nothing to put with it.
  • (Notice there’s no mention of rain here—I realize a rainbow requires rain, but in Hawaii the randomness of rainbows is a function of the rain’s fickle nature. Rain can be far enough away to be invisible, or it can sneak up on you with no warning. In other words, if I used the presence of rain as a criterion, I’d be defeating the entire purpose of the checklist.)

This simple exercise served me well a couple of weeks ago on Maui when, while photographing a wave-swept rock on the Wai’anapanapa Black Sand Beach near Hana, a vivid rainbow segment materialized above the eastern horizon. There had been no hint of rain, so I was pretty focused on my subject and not really thinking about rainbows. But since I’d run through my routine rainbow checklist earlier, I knew exactly where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. In this case it was a simple matter of shifting to the other side of the rock I’d already been photographing and back up the beach a little bit.

A horizontal composition allowed me to balance the rainbow with “my” rock while including enough of the lush, palm tree studded peninsula to infuse a tropical feel. The next (easily forgotten) step was to ensure that my polarizer was properly oriented (a mis-oriented polarizer will erase a rainbow). Finally, timing my click before the waves swept too far ashore allowed the black sand beach play a prominent role in the bottom third of my frame.

Want to learn the how, when, and where of rainbow photography? My Rainbows Demystified article in my photo tips section is a good place to start.

Join me on Maui in 2016


 A Gallery of Rainbows

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

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