Let’s all take a breath and step away from the ledge

Tree at Sunset, McGee Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Tree at Sunset, McGee Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra
(Exposure data unavailable)

National Forest Service commercial photography policy (it’s not as bad as you think)

I’ve received a number of inquiries (some quite panicked) in the last few days asking my opinion about the “new” National Forest Service policy regarding commercial photography. I’ve actually read some media accounts that imply that simply whipping out your iPhone and snapping a mountain lake risks a $1,000 fine. After doing a little research, I’ve confirmed that this is yet one more example of the media whipping the public into a frenzy by selecting a few facts and presenting them in the most sensational way. Here’s an example: http://www.esquire.com/blogs/news/1000-dollar-fine-for-pictures-in-the-forest.

Not being an expert on the subject, I can’t really say whether there are any factual errors in that article. But I can say that it’s a pretty self-serving (he’s certainly received a lot of attention) distortion of the actual policy I found posted on the National Forest Service website (http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5355613.pdf). Here’s the excerpt from the NFS document that applies to me and my photography:

“Still Photography: A special use permit is required for activities on National Forest System lands when the purpose is to: (1) Promote or advertise a product or service using actors, models, sets, or props that are not part of the site’s natural or cultural resources or administrative facilities; or (2) Create an image for commercial sale by using sets or props. In addition, a permit may be required if no activities involving actors, models, sets, or props are proposed when: (1) The activity takes place in an area where the general public is not allowed; or (2) In situations in which the Forest Service would incur additional administrative costs to either permit or monitor the activity.

As far as I’m concerned, this policy doesn’t sound unreasonable, nor does it sound like my livelihood is in imminent peril, and I’m pretty sure no one’s photographic life is jeopardized.

As someone who conducts 10-12 photo workshops each year, I’m a strong advocate for reasonable rules and restrictions that protect the natural resources that are the foundation of my business (and my mental health). I have no problem jumping through all the necessary hoops—liability insurance, first aid certification, group size, and so on—and paying the annual fees (usually in the $200-$250 range) that each workshop location’s permit process requires. I also find the people I deal with at these locations to generally be quite helpful, reasonable to deal with, not to mention downright flexible when a unique situation arise (like the time I overlooked an application deadline and didn’t discover my error until the last minute).

It’s interesting that this issue should arise right now, as I’m in Grand Tetons National Park helping Don Smith with his photo workshop here. The talk around town is about a moose that had to be put down a couple of days ago when she broke her leg after being spooked by a hoard of overzealous wildlife photographers. It’s a rare trip that I don’t witness photographers do illegal or foolish things that imperil themselves (not to mention the lives of those who would need to rescue them), frighten or threaten wildlife, and damage the fragile ecosystem. It’s this very small minority of selfish and/or ignorant photographers who put all photographers in a bad light, leaving National Park and Forest authorities no choice but to implement tighter regulation. I’ve spoken up and intervened at times, but I often regret the times that I just shook my head and walked away after witnessing something I knew to be wrong.

So. Would I support the kind of heavy-handed National Forest Service regulations that the media implies is coming our way? Absolutely not. And while I don’t think something like that is imminent, I do wish photographers would do a better job of policing themselves, both by managing their own behavior, and by respectfully speaking up when another photographer behaves irresponsibly before we’re all affected by more restrictive policy and stricter enforcement.

About this image

What better way to demonstrate my lack of concern by posting this image from Inyo National forest. This tree on the dirt road to McGee Creek had been on my radar for several years, but I’d never found the conditions suitable to photograph it. But following an afternoon fall color shoot at the creek, the vestiges of sunset lit these tilde-shaped clouds. I knew exactly where I wanted to be but wasn’t sure I had time to get there. I raced down the road, pulled my truck to the side, and had time for just a couple of frames before the color faded.

A National Forest Gallery

Addition by subtraction

Gary Hart Photography Hawaii Sunset

Sunset on the Rocks, Puna Coast, Hawaii
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
29 mm
8 seconds
ISO 200

In my previous blog post I mentioned that I lost a couple of my Hawaii locations to Hurricane Iselle. Not only was the loss no big deal, it proved a catalyst that jarred me from my rut and into more exploring.

This location was at first glance an exposed, twenty foot cliff above the Pacific with a great view up the Puna Coast, past palm trees and surf-battered, recently cooled lava. But, as with most spots, there’s a lot more if you take the time to look. Exploring the dense growth lining the coast here soon brought me to views of tiered, reflective pools. While getting these views required a little bushwhacking followed by some creative rock-hopping, I know if I were by myself, that’s where I’d have ended up. But when leading a group I need to be more careful—it’s one thing when I injure myself doing something stupid, and something entirely different to guide others into risky spots.

Each group is different when it comes to risk taking—in this case when I offered to guide the group toward the pools I’d found the previous day, only two followed, so I returned to the rock platform where everyone seemed quite content with the spectacular view—the rocks and pools will wait for another visit. And while everyone may have missed a few photo opportunities on the safety of our cliff, not only did we still get some great stuff, we were in close enough proximity that laughter abounded (all without missing a click, of course).

About twenty feet below us, large waves sent explosions of spray skyward; occasionally a perfect coincidence of wave and wind dusted the group with a fine mist that was more refreshing than soaking. Our view here was northeast, which meant the setting sun was more or less behind us. By this, our final sunset, everyone had started to understand why I say my favorite sunrise/sunset view is usually away from the sun. Not only is the light easier to manage in that direction, the Earth-shadow paints the post-sunset (or pre-sunrise) horizon with rich pink and blue hues that the camera can reveal long after they’ve faded to the eye.

The best views were straight up the coast, so I quickly decided a vertical composition was the way to go here. I experimented with different shutter speeds to vary the blur in the waves, but as the scene darkened, each blur became some variation of extreme motion blur. The other major variable in the scene was how wide to compose. With a large tree overhanging the rocks toward the back of the scene, including lots of foliage proved better than truncating everything but the protruding crown of that one tree.

I captured this frame about five minutes after sunset. Giving the scene enough light to bring out detail in the shaded, dark-green foliage without washing out the color in the sky, I employed a two-stop hard-transition Singh-Ray graduated neutral density filter. Instead of the standard GND horizontal orientation, I turned it vertically, aligning the transition with the coastline. To mask the transition, I vibrated the filter slightly left/right throughout the entire eight-second exposure. Smoothing the tones in Lightroom/Photoshop became quite simple, thanks to the GND at capture.

My periodic rounds during our shoot seemed to indicate that everyone was happy—this in spite of a couple of extreme drenchings at the hands of two large waves that far exceeded all that had preceded it to land squarely atop those on the southeast corner of our perch—but it wasn’t until someone exclaimed at the end of the shoot, “This is the best spot yet!” that I knew I’d found a keeper. My former (“lost”) locations were nice, but it was good to be nudged into remembering that unknown opportunities are usually just a little exploration away.

Upcoming Hawaii workshops

Maui Tropical Paradise (two nights in West Maui, two nights in Hana), March 2-6, 2015

Hawaii Big Island Volcanos and Waterfalls, September 14-18, 2015

A Hidden Hawaii Coast Gallery

Click an image for a larger view, and to enjoy the slide show

One eye on the ocean, the other on the volcano

Gary Hart Photography: Heavenly Fire, Kilauea Caldera, Hawaii

Heavenly Fire, Kilauea Caldera, Hawaii
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
10 seconds
ISO 3200

September 16, 2014

It’s easy to envy residents of Hawaii’s Big Island—they enjoy some of the cleanest air and darkest skies on Earth, their soothing ocean breezes ensure that the always warm daytime highs remain quite comfortable, and the bathtub-warm Pacific keeps overnight lows from straying far from the 70-degree mark. Scenery here  is a postcard-perfect mix of symmetrical volcanoes, lush rain forests, swaying palms, and lapping surf. I mean, with all this perfection, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, let me tell you….

Last month Tropical Storm Iselle, just a few hours removed from hurricane status, slammed Hawaii’s Puna Coast with tree-snapping winds and frog-drowning rain that cut electricity, flooded roads, and disrupted many lives for weeks. Touring the area in and around Hilo, it’s easy to appreciate Hawaiian resilience—thanks to quick action, hard work, and continuous smiles, most visitors would find it difficult to believe what happened here just a month ago. But on the drive south of Hilo along the Puna Coast, I witnessed firsthand Iselle’s power in its aftermath. There beaches have been rearranged beyond recognition and entire forests have been leveled.

But despite its impact, Iselle is already old news. This month residents of Hawaii’s Puna region have done a 180, turning their always vigilant eyes away from the ocean and toward the volcano. In late June Kilauea’s Pu`u `O`o Crater dispatched a river of lava down the volcano’s southeast flank. Since Pu`u `O`o has been erupting continuously since 1983, this latest incursion didn’t initially raise many eyebrows. But the flow has persisted, advancing now at about 250 yards per day. While this isn’t “Run-for-your life!” speed, it’s more like high stakes water torture because there’s very little that can be done to stop, slow, or even deflect the lava’s inexorable march. Residents of the communities of Kaohe and Pahoa can do nothing but watch, pray, and prepare—if the volcano persists, they’re wiped out. Not only that, the lava flow also threatens the Pahoa Highway, currently the only route in and out for the thousands of residents of the Puna region.

Recent reports of increased activity on Muana Loa have also notched up the anxiety. Lava from its last eruption, in 1984, threatened Hawaii’s capital, Hilo, before petering out with just a few miles to spare. Because Muana Loa eruptions tend to be larger and more explosive than Kilauea eruptions, any increased activity there is taken very seriously.

Had enough? Well, there’s more thing: With its funnel-shaped bay and bullseye placement in the Pacific Ring of Fire, Hilo is generally considered the most tsunami vulnerable city in the world. Fatal tsunamis have struck the Big Island in 1837, 1868, 1877, 1923, 1946, 1960, and 1975. Yesterday my photo workshop group photographed sunrise at Laupahoehoe Point, where damage from the most deadly tsunami to strike American soil is still visible. That tsunami, in 1946 (before Hawaii became a state), traveled 2,500 miles from the Aleutian Islands to kill 159 Hawaiians, including 20 schoolchildren and 4 teachers in Laupahoehoe.

Despite this shopping list of threats and hardship, I don’t get the sense the Hawaiians want sympathy. Despite the unknown but potentially devastating consequences facing them, both imminent and potential, no one here is feeling sorry for themselves. There’s much talk about the current lava flow that will directly or indirectly impact every resident of the Big Island’s Hilo side, but no hand-wringing—life goes on and smiles abound. Indeed, everyone here seems to have sprung into action in one way or another, shoring up old long abandoned roads (the jungle claims anything left unattended with frightening speed), helping people move possessions to safe ground, offering temporary shelter, and whatever else might help.

The Aloha spirit is alive and well, and I have no doubt that it will persevere in the face of whatever adversity Nature throws at them.

About this image

My Hawaii photo workshop began Monday afternoon, but my brother and I arrived on the Big Island on Friday because I hate doing any workshop without first running all my locations to make sure there are no surprises. And this time it turned out to be a wise move—not only did I get a couple of extra days in paradise, I did indeed encounter surprises, courtesy of Iselle, when I discovered two of my go-to locations were inaccessible due to storm damage. I spent Saturday searching for alternatives and by Saturday’s end had a couple of great substitute locations. That night we celebrated with a night shoot on Kilauea. (I was going to visit Kilauea anyway, but if I’d still been stressing about my locations, I probably wouldn’t have been in the right mindset to photograph.)

We arrived to find the Milky Way glowing brightly above the caldera and immediately started shooting. Because I already have several vertical compositions of this scene that I really like, but not as many horizontal, I started horizontal. That turned out to be a good thing, because by the time I’d captured a half dozen or so frames, a heavy mist dropped into the caldera to quickly obscure the entire view (one more example of our utter helplessness to the whims of Nature).

In this frame I went quite wide, not only to capture as much of the Milky Way as possible, but also to include all of the thin cloud layer painted orange by the light of the caldera’s fire. This is a single click (no blending of multiple images), though I did clone just a little bit of color back into the hopelessly blown center of the volcano’s flame.

A Kilauea Gallery

Click and image for a larger view, and to enjoy the slide slow


Ticket to paradise

Gary Hart Photography, Hawaii Big Island Sunrise

Hawaii Sunrise, Puna Coast, Big Island
Canon 1Ds Mark III
1 second
ISO 100

Tomorrow I head off to the Big Island for my annual workshop there. Not a bad gig.

One of the great things about Hawaii is the fact that there is no such thing as a private beach—all beaches are open to everyone. Of course that doesn’t give tourists carte blanche to do as they please, and some locals can be pretty territorial about “their” beaches. But I’ve found that if you treat the beaches with respect (leave it as you found it, or better), honor the many areas of spiritual significance (don’t go traipsing through burial grounds and religious sites), and don’t disturb the locals (use your inside voice), most Hawaiians are quite happy to share their beautiful coast and lush rain forests.

Unlike the smooth beaches and gentle surf of the Big Island’s Kona side, the Hilo side is bounded by rugged, volcanic beaches—not great for swimming, but fantastic to photograph. It’s this way because Kilauea has been in some degree of activity for many centuries, and most of this volcanic activity is focused on the Puna Coast south and west of Hilo. The result is pretty much ubiquitous black rock and sand like you see here.

Driving the narrow road that follows the Puna Coast is one of my favorite things to do on the Big Island—on every visit I “discover” another hidden gem (or two) like this. I found this anonymous beach while exploring one afternoon a couple of years ago, and rose early the next morning to get out there for sunrise. Many Hawaii sunrises and sunsets have clouds all the way down to the horizon, but on this morning, much to my delight, the rising sun found its way through a gap in the clouds.

One more thing I love about Hawaii? Well, there’s the ability to photograph sunrise in a tank top, shorts, and flip-flops. Can’t wait….

A Big Island Gallery

(Click an image for a closer look, and to enjoy the slide show)

Nuts and bolts at the Grand Canyon

Too Close, Lightning on the North Rim, Grand Canyon

Too Close, Lightning on the North Rim, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
1/8 second
ISO 100

The bolts started around 1:15; the nuts showed up about ten minutes later. There were 14 of us. We were stationed on the outside viewing deck of the Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim, tripods, cameras, and lightning triggers poised and ready for action. The “action” we were ready for was lightning, and more specifically, the opportunity to photograph it.

The storm had started fairly benignly, poking at South Rim a comfortable distance away, far enough in fact that we heard no thunder. But as often happens, we became so caught up in the intensifying pyrotechnics that we failed to appreciate how much our sky was darkening and that the bolts were in fact landing closer. We continued in exhilarated ignorance until a tripod-rattling thunderclap returned us to the reality of the moment. Hmmm.

By the time the raindrops started plopping the lightning show had reached such a crescendo that we found all kinds of rationalizations for persistence in the face of potential death: “I think it’s moving west of us,” or, “The lodge’s lightning rods will protect us,” or, “If it were really that dangerous, the hotel staff would make us leave.” (Ummm: When the strikes are that close, it doesn’t matter where the storm is heading; lightning rods are to protect the (smart) people inside the lodge; the hotel staff isn’t paid enough to go outside for anything that risky.) I wish I could say it was common sense that eventually drove us all inside, but the reality is that when the heavy rain finally arrived, it became impossible to keep the front of our lenses dry.

So what is it about danger that brings out the stupid in photographers? I used to be able to use the “I’m from California and we don’t get lightning so I don’t know any better,” defense, but that won’t fly anymore because I do know better: I know that lightning can strike 10 miles from its last strike; I know that if you can hear the thunder, you’re too close; and I know a lightning strike can be fatal, and those who survive are often left with a life-long disability.

And it’s not just lightning. While chasing potential shots, one photographer I know scaled a cliff far beyond my his skill level, drove without hesitation into (but not out of) a raging creek, and became hopelessly mired in the mud on a narrow jungle track. And how often do we hear news reports of a photographer plummeting to her death while angling for a better shot, or the partial remains of a photographer discovered in the stomach of an unfortunate grizzly?

We each have our own safety threshold, a comfort zone beyond which we won’t venture. I have a really tough time getting within three feet of any vertical drop greater than 50 feet, but I know photographers who can spit into the Colorado River from the 1,000 foot vertical rim at Horseshoe Bend. I’ve lived in California my entire life and am always disappointed when I miss an earthquake. On the other hand, I’ve had people tell me they’ll never set foot in the Golden State for fear of a fault slipping.

But back to this lightning thing. It’s not as if I stand on a peak shaking my fist at the sky and dodging bolts like Bowfinger crossing the highway. I will go inside when lightning lands too close—I just think I probably don’t do it quite as soon as I should, and who knows, maybe someday I’ll be sorry (or worse). But I’m happy to report that the score on this particular afternoon was: Photographers—250-ish (the number of images with lightning), Lightning—0 (the number of photographers lost). Next year? Tornados.

Join Don Smith and me for next year’s Grand Canyon Monsoon photo workshop


A Grand Canyon lightning gallery

The right stuff at the Grand Canyon

After Sunset, Point Imperial, Grand Canyon

After Sunset, Point Imperial, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
8 seconds
ISO 100

I’ve been to the mountaintop 

Personal growth should be a lifelong journey. But as a longtime tripod evangelist, I considered many truths carved in stone. Granted, like everyone else, my tripod use (and selection) evolved through my formative photography years. On my path to (perceived) enlightenment, I made the same mistakes most photographers make, mistakes like settling for the tripod I could afford rather than tripod I needed, which only meant spending more money than I would have when I eventually (inevitably) broke down and bought the tripod I needed. And there were those dark years when I believed that in most cases a hand-held shot was just as good as one captured on a tripod. But since my “the center post is more trouble than it’s worth” epiphany about ten years ago, I pretty much believed I knew it all where tripods were concerned.

But last month at the Grand Canyon, I realized that over the last couple of years, some of my tripod truths weren’t immutable as I’d imagined. This was underscored for me during a shoot at Point Imperial, the canyon’s highest vista, when I was able to use my Really Right Stuff tripod and live-view to get shots that wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago.

My (original) tripod commandments

For years my tripod sermon was delivered something like this:

  • A tripod for every shot—no exceptions
  • Sturdy trumps everything
  • Forego the center post—it’s destabilizing, adds extra weight, and makes it impossible to drop your camera to the ground (without a shovel)
  • Size does matter—you need a tripod that’s tall enough for you to see through your viewfinder without stooping (without extending the center post)
  • Ball-head all the way for landscape shooters (no pan/tilt, no exceptions)
  • An L-plate will change your life

Those are the basics; the other tripod variables—cheap vs. light (you can’t have both, no matter what the salesperson or marketing brochure says), three vs. four leg sections, leg-lock design, and collapsed length (for transport in a suitcase or camera bag)—come down to personal preference and budget.

And what’s the big deal about an L-plate?

And L-plate is an L-shaped plate (duh) that attaches at the bottom of your camera and wrapping 90 degrees up one side. It’s really just a two-sided quick-release plate—instead of the standard quick-release that only mounts to the bottom of your camera (forcing you to rotate the head 90 degrees to orient the camera vertically), to orient an L-plate-equiped body vertically, you pop the camera off the head, rotate the camera 90 degrees, and reattach it to the head using the plate’s other side, keeping the head upright (unchanged). Not only does this keep your camera at the same height regardless of its orientation, it’s just much more stable.

Lacking an L-plate, photographers whose tripod is tall enough when the camera is oriented horizontally are sometimes force to stoop or contort when they switch to vertical. Without realizing it, they often compensate for this awkwardness by simply avoiding vertical compositions. I know this because I was one of those photographers—when I switched to an L-plate, my percentage of vertical compositions increased markedly (I actually verified this using Lightroom filters to count the number of horizontal and vertical frames in my library), to the point where my vertical/horizontal images are about 50/50.

What’s your MTH?

By the time they’re serious enough to sign up for a photo workshop, most (but not all) photographers have a sturdy tripod. Still, things aren’t necessarily completely rosy. In addition to a deficient head—either a pan/tilt, or a ball head that’s not strong enough for the camera/lens it’s trying to support (both problems easily solved by going to reallyrightstuff.com and picking the head that best suits your needs, but that’s a discussion for a different day)—a too-short tripod is where I see most novice photographers struggle. Stooping, even just a few inches, may not seem like a big deal at first, but it gets old really fast.

Your minimum tripod height (MTH) is the shortest tripod you can use without stooping or raising the center post. Here are the steps for determining if a trip is tall enough for you:

1. Start with the tripod’s fully extended height (legs extended, center post down), easy to find in the manufacturer’s specifications
2. Add the height of your ball-head (if you have a pan/tilt you need a new head and will be doing this calculation all over again when you get it)
3. Add the distance from the base of your camera to the viewfinder

This gives you the tripod’s maximum usable height. Wait a minute, you say, that’s still not tall enough. To get your MTH, there’s one more step:

4. Subtract 4 inches from your height to account for the distance from the top of your head to your eyes.

Old dog, new trick

But in the last year I’ve experienced a minor conversion, opening my mind enough to modify my rigid tripod height recommendations (I used to believe that a tripod that extended above my standing height was unnecessary weight and length)—not only should your tripod be tall enough to use while you stand upright, the ideal tripod is even taller than that, at least 4 inches taller than your viewing height when the legs are planted on flat ground. Extra tripod height allows me to comfortably stand on the uphill side of my camera when the tripod on uneven ground. (If you’re a landscape shooter, how often do you photograph on flat ground?)

Of no less significance is the way a tall tripod allows me to shoot over obstacles. In “ancient” times, photographers needed to to see through their viewfinder to compose and (sometimes) meter, but with the genesis of live-view came the ability to compose and meter without the eyepiece. So while a tall tripod has always been helpful for shooting on level ground, to me this ability to shoot over obstacles is the real game changer.

Going straight to the source

My conversion started with a pilgrimage to Really Right Stuff in San Luis Obispo, about a year-and-a-half ago. I was ready for a new tripod and wanted the best. I’d been quite happy with my Gitzo tripods, but they were purchased before RRS offered tripods—given my long-time experience with RRS heads and L-plates, and what I’d observed in my workshops, I thought I should see whether RRS tripods had supplanted Gitzo at the tripod summit.

RRS doesn’t actually have a retail store, but their beautiful new facility has a nice reception area with many products on display—you might even find the lobby empty when you walk in, but it won’t be long before a door from the back opens and you’ll be greeted by someone who knows more about tripods than you do. My expert was Erik—he spent close to an hour, first patiently demonstrating why the RRS tripods are the best tripods in the world (the comparison was to Gitzo, but his emphasis was on what makes RRS tripods great, rather than what makes Gitzo tripods bad, an approach I appreciated), and then helping me determine which model would best suit me.

I’d arrived with the RRS TVC 33 in mind, but on Erik’s suggestion ended up switching to the RRS TVC 24L Series 2, even though it has four leg sections (extra work extending and collapsing, but more compact when collapsed) and is quite a bit taller than I (believed I) needed. So tall, in fact, that I can almost (but not quite) use it by extending only three leg sections. I’m not going to go into all the reasons I love this tripod (but trust me, I do), but I will say that the extra 8 or so inches above my MTH (I’m about 5’9″)  has enabled me to photograph in ways I wouldn’t have been able to do without it.

The paradigm shifting “revelations” I share here (extra-tall is important; Gitzo is no longer the Holy Grail of tripods) apply to photography, but one of the things I love about being forced to reconsider long-held “truths” is the reminder that the instant we believe we have all the answers is the instant we stop growing.

Case in point

All this (finally) brings me to the above image from Point Imperial on my recent Grand Canyon trip. Point Imperial is probably my favorite spot on the North Rim. The railed viewing area isn’t quite large enough for an entire workshop group to work comfortably, but there are enough spots nearby that nobody is disappointed. My favorite location here is on the rocks, just below the railed vista, that jut about 1,000 vertical feet above the canyon. There isn’t a lot of room out here either, and very little margin for error, so after guiding the brave photographers who aren’t afraid of heights out to the edge, I found an out of the way spot a few feet behind them.

It turned out this location was no less precarious than everyone else’s, but being behind the others and a couple of large rocks and shrubs made composing a challenge. Looking around, I decided the best view was on an uneven slope right on the edge, the closer the better. Yikes.

This is where I really appreciated the extra inches my tripod offers. Extending each leg fully, I pushed two legs right up to the edge, keeping myself a safe distance back. With the front (closest to the edge) legs’ planted, to elevate further and get the camera even nearer the edge, pushed the leg closest to me toward the cliff until the other two legs were nearly perpendicular to the ground (directly on the edge). Finally, I leveled the tripod with minor adjustments in the height and placement of the leg closest to me. Once the camera was positioned (about five inches above my eyes), I switched on live-view, composed, metered, and clicked.

As evidenced by the long shutter speed, it was fairly dark when I clicked the image above. Often the best light for photography is opposite the sun after sunset (or before sunrise). The smooth quality of this shadowless light, and the gradual deepening of the rich hues on the horizon, are often missed by the casual observer who is mesmerized by the view toward the setting or rising sun (not possible at Point Imperial at sunset), or unable to appreciate the camera’s ability to bring out more light than the eye can see. But then, you already knew that (right?)….

The view from Point Imperial (iPhone panorama)

The view from just below the Point Imperial vista (iPhone panorama) 

Extra credit

Roll over Ansel

Tree and Sunstar, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon

Solitude at Sunset, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
1.3 seconds
ISO 100

A few days ago I was thumbing through an old issue of “Outdoor Photographer” magazine and came across an article on Lightroom processing. It started with the words:

“Being able to affect one part of the image compared to another, such as balancing the brightness of a photograph so the scene looks more like the way we saw it rather than being restricted by the artificial limitations of the camera and film is the major reason why photographers like Ansel Adams and LIFE photographer W. Eugene Smith spent so much time in the darkroom.” (The underscores are mine.) Wow, this statement is so far off base that I hardly know where to begin. But because I imagine the perpetuation of this myth must send Ansel Adams rolling over in his grave, I’ll start by quoting the Master himself:

  • “When I’m ready to make a photograph, I think I quite obviously see in my minds eye something that is not literally there in the true meaning of the word.”
  • “Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative art.”
  • “Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships!”

Do those sound like the thoughts of someone lamenting the camera’s “artificial limitations” and its inability to duplicate the world the “way we saw it”? Take a look at just a few of Ansel Adams’ images and ask yourself how many duplicate the world as we see it: nearly black skies, exaggerated shadows and/or highlights, and skewed perspectives. And no color! (Not to mention the fact that an image is a two-dimensional approximation of a three-dimensional world.) Ansel Adams wasn’t trying to replicate scenes more like he saw them, he was trying to use his camera’s unique (not “artificial”) vision to show us aspects of the world we miss or fail to appreciate.

You’ve heard me say this before

The rest of the OP article contained solid, practical information for anyone wanting to come closer to replicating Ansel Adams’ traditional darkroom techniques in the contemporary digital darkroom. But it’s the perpetuation of the idea that photographers are obligated to photograph the world like they saw it that continues to baffle me.

The camera’s vision isn’t artificial, it’s different. To try to force images to be more human-like is to deny the camera’s ability to expand viewers’ perception of the world. Limited dynamic range allows us to emphasize shapes that get lost in the clutter of human vision; a narrow range of focus can guide the eye and draw attention to particular elements of interest and away from distractions; the ability to accumulate light in a single frame exposes color and detail hidden by darkness, and conveys motion in a static medium.

No, this isn’t the way it looked when I was there

While this sunset scene from Lipan Point at the Grand Canyon is more literal than many of my images, it’s not what my eyes saw. To emphasize the solitude of the lone tree, I allowed the shaded canyon to go darker than my eyes saw it. This was possible because a camera couldn’t capture enough light to reveal the shadows without completely obliterating the bright sky (rather than blending multiple images, I stacked Singh-Ray three- and two-stop hard transition graduated neutral density filters to subdue the bright sky).

To convey a mood more consistent with the feeling of precarious isolation of this weather-worn tree, I exposed the scene a little darker than my experience of the moment. The sunstar, which isn’t seen by the human eye but was indeed my camera/lens’ “reality” (given the settings I chose), was another creative choice. Not only does it introduce a ray of hope to an otherwise brooding scene, without the sunstar the top half of the scene would have been too bland for me to include as much of the shadowed canyon as I wanted to.

I’m not trying to pass this image off as a masterpiece (nor am I comparing myself to Ansel Adams), I’m simply trying to illustrate the importance of deviating from human reality when the goal is an evocative, artistic image. Much as music sets the mood in a movie without being an actual part of the scene, a photographer’s handling of light, focus, and other qualities that deviate from human vision play a significant role in the image’s impact.

A Gallery of My Camera’s World

(Stuff my camera saw that I didn’t)





Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 38,235 other followers

%d bloggers like this: