Improve your relationships

Gary Hart Photography: Sand and Sky, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley

Sand and Sky, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
.4 seconds
ISO 100

Following a nice sunrise on the dunes, my workshop group had started the undulating trek back to the cars. While we hadn’t gotten a lot of color that morning, we’d been blessed with virgin sand beneath a translucent layer of clouds. Quite content with the soft, low contrast light for most of the morning, right toward the end the sun snuck through to deliver high contrast, light-skimming drama that provided about five minutes of completely different photo opportunities. But the sun had left and it was time to go.

Camera gear secured and backpack hefted onto my shoulders, I pivoted with my mind already on our next stop. But my plan to beeline back to the cars was interrupted when I turned and saw that fingers of cirrus clouds had snuck up behind us. It wasn’t just the clouds, it was the way their shape was mirrored by the pristine, ribbed sand that started at my feet and climbed the dune in front of me.

I quickly dropped my bag and pulled out my a7RII and 16-35. Despite my rush, before extending my tripod, I paused to study the scene. As nice as it was, I realized there were a couple of things I could do to improve it. First I circled the dune until the clouds and ripples were more closely aligned. A good start, but at eye level, the barren slope of Tucki Mountain was too prominent in the frame. I found that by dropping my tripod to about a foot above the sand, I could perfectly frame the dune with the mountain.

I composed my frame at 16mm, as wide as my lens would go, to emphasize the nearby sand, make the dune appear much larger than it really was, and give the clouds enough room to spread. To ensure sufficient depth of field, I stopped down to f16 and manually focused about two feet into the frame. While I thought a vertical orientation would be the best way to move my viewers’ eyes from front to back and to emphasize the linear nature of the parallel clouds and sand, before packing up I captured a couple of horizontal frames too.

I think the lesson here is how easy it is to miss opportunities to control the foreground/background relationships in our scenes. With my group already on its way back to the cars, I was in a hurry and could have very easily snapped off a couple of frames from where I stood when I saw the scene. Instead, I took just a little more time to align my visual elements. Despite my delay, I made it back to the cars with the rest of the group (no chance of anyone getting lost, since the cars were visible from the dunes)—I was a little more out of breath than I otherwise would have been, but that was a sacrifice I was happy to make.

Often the difference between an image that’s merely a well executed rendering of a beautiful scene, and an image that stands out for the (often missed) aspects of the natural world it reveals, are the relationships that connect the scene’s disparate elements.

In this case I only had to move a few feet to align the ridges in the sand with the clouds. But more than an alignment of sand and sky, dropping to the ground enabled me to reduce a less appealing middle-ground and replace it with much more interesting foreground and background. If I’d have dropped even lower, I could have hidden the mountain entirely, but I liked the way its outline mimicked the dune’s outline, and decided to leave in just enough mountain to frame the dune.

The next time you work on a composition, ask yourself what will change if  you were to reposition yourself. And don’t forget all the different ways that can happen—not just by moving left or right and between horizontal and vertical, but also by moving up and down, and forward and backward. Not to mention all the possible combinations of those shifts.

Photo workshop schedule

A gallery of relationships in nature

(Images with a not-so-accidental positioning of elements)

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Let’s get vertical

Gary Hart Photography: Yosemite Sky, Tunnel View, Yosemite

Yosemite Sky, Tunnel View, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
.8 seconds
ISO 100

Who had the bright idea to label horizontal images “landscape,” and vertical images “portrait”? To that person let me just say, “Huh?” As a landscape-only photographer, about half of my images use “portrait” orientation. I wonder if this arbitrary naming bias subconsciously encourages photographers to default to a horizontal orientation for their landscape images, even when a vertical orientation might be best.

Every image contains implicit visual motion that’s independent of the eyes’ movement between the image’s elements. Following the frame’s long side, this flow provides photographers a tool not only for guiding viewers’ eyes, but also for conveying a mood.

For example, orienting a waterfall image vertically complements the water’s motion, instilling a feeling of calm. Conversely, a waterfall image that’s oriented horizontally often contains more visual tension. While there’s no absolute best way to orient a waterfall (or any other scene), you need to understand that there is a choice, and that choice matters.

By moving the eye from front to back, vertical images often enhance the illusion of depth so important in a two-dimensional photo. I find that a foreground element that adds depth to  whatever striking background has caught my attention is often lost in a horizontal image.

More than just guiding the eye through the frame, vertical orientation narrows the frame, enabling us to eliminate distractions or less compelling objects left and right of the prime subject(s). Vertical is also my preferred orientation when I want to emphasize a sky full of stars, or dramatic clouds and color.

Want to emphasize a beautiful sky? Go with a vertical image, putting the horizon near the bottom of the frame. When the sky is dull and all the visual action is in the landscape, put the horizon at the top of your frame. When the landscape and sky are equally compelling, go ahead and split the frame across the middle (regardless of what the “experts” at the photo club might say).

Gary Hart Photography: Double Rainbow, Yosemite Valley

Double Rainbow, Yosemite Valley

While a horizontally oriented scene is often the best way to convey the sweeping majesty of a broad landscape, I particularly enjoy guiding and focusing the eye with vertical compositions of traditionally horizontal scenes. Tunnel View in Yosemite, where I think photographers tend to compose too wide, is a great example. The scene left of El Capitan and right of Cathedral Rocks can’t compete with the El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall triumvirate, yet the world is full of Tunnel View images that shrink this trio to include (relatively) nondescript granite.

When the foreground and sky aren’t particularly interesting, I tend to shoot fairly tight horizontal compositions at Tunnel View. But when a spectacular Yosemite sky, snow-laden trees, or cloud-filled valley demand inclusion, vertical is my go-to orientation because it frees me to celebrate the drama without diluting it.

About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Yosemite Sky, Tunnel View, Yosemite

Yosemite Sky, Tunnel View, Yosemite

I captured this image last week, at the end of a one-day private tour. Leaving home at 6 a.m., my plan was to enjoy Yosemite Valley and save my photography for the next two days, when I’d be by myself and a storm was forecast. Indeed, my students and I spent the day beneath a layer of gray clouds that, while great for photography, were decidedly unspectacular. With occasional sprinkles to remind us of the looming storm, I was just happy that the serious rain held off until we finished, and that the ceiling never dropped far enough to obscure Yosemite’s icons.

Since my students had left their car at our Tunnel View meeting place, my plan was to wrap up with a “sunset” there. Of course, given the thickening clouds, we had no illusion that we’d be photographing an actual sunset, and were in no hurry to get there.

So imagine my surprise when, while photographing Bridalveil Fall from the turnout on Northside Drive, I saw hints of warmth on Leaning Tower—not direct sunlight, but indirect light that indicated there was sunlight somewhere nearby. I turned and peered through the trees behind me, and saw small patch of direct sunlight on El Capitan. “We need to go!” I barked this so suddenly that I’m surprised I didn’t frighten them. To their credit, we were packed, loaded, and back on the road in 30 seconds, and at Tunnel View in less than ten minutes.

For the next 30 minutes we enjoyed a lesson in Yosemite weather, one more chapter in my as yet unwritten book, “You Can’t Predict What Yosemite Will Be Like in Five Minutes Based On What It’s Like Right Now.” The sunlight started on El Capitan, pouring through an unseen hole in the clouds somewhere down the Merced River Canyon behind us. Once El Capitan was fully illuminated, the light went to work on Half Dome. Soon a formation of broken clouds moved into view overhead, then continued sliding above Yosemite Valley until the entire scene was more sky than cloud.

This image was captured toward the end of the show, after the clouds had moved well into the scene and just before the fading vestiges of warm light left El Capitan and Half Dome. It’s a real treat when the sky at Tunnel View can compete with the scene below, but in this case the sky deserved all the attention I gave it.

Tip of the day

I can think of no single piece of equipment that will make vertical compositions easier than a Really Right Stuff L-plate (there are less expensive options, but I agree with the consensus that Really Right Stuff plates the best). An L-plate is, as its name implies, and L-shaped piece of metal that attaches to your camera’s tripod mount, replacing the standard quick-release plate. Unlike a flat quick-release plate, an L-plate wraps around one side of the body.

Each side fits the standard Arca-Swiss quick-release mount: for a horizontal image, the camera is mounted to the tripod head by part of the plate attached to the camera’s underside; for a vertical composition, you release the camera, rotate it 90 degrees, and attached the part of the plate that wraps the camera’s side. This detach/rotate/reattach can be done in about one second, even in complete darkness.

In addition to speed and convenience, and L-plate ensures maximum stability by keeping your center of gravity directly above the intersection of the tripod’s legs. It also keeps your eye-piece in nearly the same position regardless of the orientation, eliminating the need for you to dip your head or raise your center-post each time you go vertical.

Due to each camera’s unique dimensions, configuration of memory card and battery bays, and electronics ports, L-plates are camera-specific. That means when you get new camera, you’ll likely be getting a new L-plate—a small price to pay for the benefit you’ll get.

Workshop schedule

A vertical gallery

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Finding a new sandbox

Gary Hart Photography: Flaming Dunes, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley

Flaming Dunes, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
.4 seconds
ISO 100

One of my photographic goals is to create images that allow viewers to imagine our world untouched by human hands. That goal sometimes conflicts with the expectations of my photo workshop students, who want to visit the iconic locations they’ve traveled so far to photograph. For the most part I’ve learned to balance those conflicting goals by mixing the popular views with hidden perspectives I’ve found over the years, but in some spots that’s easier said than done.

Few location make it more difficult to escape the crowds than the Mesquite Flat Dunes in Death Valley. The problem with Death Valley’s sand dunes is not just all the people, but that each step, by each person, is etched in the sand for days or weeks. And every year I have to look a little harder to find the pristine sand.

When I first started leading workshops out here (nearly ten years ago), I simply led my groups out onto the large dunes that everyone wants to photograph. I’d found a roadside parking spot, a little up the road from the dunes’ parking area, that shortened the hike and reduced the effort by traveling parallel to the dunes rather than sending us up and over each dune. After fifteen or so minutes of traipsing through sand, we’d usually find a spot that, while not completely untouched by footprints, was at least clean enough that careful composition could isolate enough virgin sand to please everyone.

But other photographers had similar ideas, so few years ago I admitted defeat and decided that it was better to photograph clean sand on the lower dunes than abused sand on the high dunes. After a little scouting I found another spot that, without too much effort, landed us in clean, untouched sand. The dunes here were not as dramatic as the high dunes, but everyone (including Yours Truly) was much happier to have clean sand to play with.

But this year I found a few footprints at this alternate location, and while it wasn’t enough to ruin our sunrise dune shoot, I could read the writing on the sand. Rather than wait for the crowds to catch up, for this year’s dune sunset shoot (the dunes are just too photogenic to do only once), I marched the group out to a completely new dune location, about as far off the beaten path as I felt they could handle. Though this trek took us nearly a mile from the road, our effort was rewarded with flawless sand as far as the eye could see.

To this point in the workshop we’d been blessed with nice clouds, but not enough direct sunlight for good sunrise/sunset color. On this day the forecast called for a return to more standard Death Valley blue skies, and sure enough, that’s the way it started. With the sunlight I was hoping to mix in a few clouds so we could finally get our color, but that afternoon a gray stratus layer rolled in and it looked like we were in for another bland.

Nevertheless, the group was enjoying the soft light on our pristine dunes when we noticed a shaft of sunlight illuminating a distant peak far north of our location. Over the next fifteen minutes or so this late afternoon light expanded south, along the Grapevine Mountains in the east; with it came gaps of blue sky that passed enough warm sunlight to fringe the clouds remaining overhead.

I’d been isolating the dunes and mountains with a telephoto, but when it became clear that we were about to bathed in 360 degrees of colorful sky, I quickly switched to my 16-35 and encouraged everyone else to do the same. The color soon followed, starting gold and slowly transitioning to pink. People were exclaiming and pointing at color and light in all directions so quickly that spinning to keep up almost made me dizzy.

Right before this shot I was photographing color in the east that was so spectacular that I turned to admonish those pointing in any other direction, only to realize that the scene in the west was at least as spectacular as what I’d been shooting. I whipped my tripod around and pointed my camera westward, toward a throbbing wheel of coral cloud, its pink spokes radiating outward to color the white sand.

At these moments I have to consciously force myself to avoid mindless panic shooting. Rather than capture every second of the rapidly changing color, I slowed down enough to ensure everything was right. The depth of field at 16mm depth of field was pretty extreme, so I felt pretty comfortable at f11, and chose a focus point just a few feet in front of me. And while I was pretty confident that my Sony a7RII could handle the dynamic range, I hedged my bets by subduing the brilliant sky with a Singh-Ray 2-stop hard-transition graduated neutral density filter.

It seems like every workshop has at least one memorable shoot, a convergence of landscape and light that unites the group in shared euphoria, and this evening on the dunes was certainly that for this workshop. But honestly, this is a shoot that will stand out in my mind for a long, long time, and I think the others felt the same way. We’d planned to do a moonlight shoot after dinner that night, but it seemed that everyone wanted a little more time to bask in the afterglow of what we’d just witnessed. So, citing our two-mile roundtrip hike and the prospect of fewer clouds the next day, I postponed that plan—I got no complaints.

My 2017 Death Valley workshop is full, but there’s a waiting list…

My complete workshop schedule

A Death Valley Gallery

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Yosemite and me

Double Rainbow, Yosemite Valley

Double Rainbow, Yosemite Valley
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1/5 second
ISO 100
38 mm

My relationship with Yosemite doesn’t have a beginning or end. Rather, it’s a collection of asynchronous memories that are still forming. In fact, some of my Yosemite experience actually predates my memory. The earliest memories, like following bobbing flashlights to Camp Curry to watch the Firefall spring from Glacier Point, or warm evenings in lawn chairs at the garbage dump, waiting for the bears to come to dinner, are part of the glue that bonds my family.

My father was a serious amateur photographer who shared his own relationship with Yosemite. One of my most vivid Yosemite memories is (foolishly) standing atop Sentinel Dome in an electrical storm, extending an umbrella to shield his camera while he tried to photograph lightning.

Gary Hart Photography: My first workshop

Lecturing my first workshop group on the virtues of tripod use

As I grew older, I started creating my own memories. While exploring Yosemite’s backcountry I reclined beside gem-like lakes cradled in granite basins, sipped from streams that started the day as snow, and slept beneath an infinite canopy of stars—all to a continuous soundtrack of wind and water.

Given this history, it’s no surprise that I became a nature photographer, using my camera to try to convey the essence of this magic world. In the last 35 years my camera and I have returned more times than I can count, sometimes leaving home in the morning and returning that night, eight hours of driving for a six hour fix. Other trips span multiple days, each one starting before sunrise and lasting through sunset, and sometimes well into the night. But despite the fact this is my livelihood, it’s never work.

About ten years ago I started guiding photographers through Yosemite. Now I get to live vicariously through others’ excitement as they experience firsthand the beauty they’ve previously seen only in pictures. Many of these people return many times themselves, sometimes in other workshops, sometimes on their own. Either way, I’m proud to be a catalyst for their nascent relationship with this special place, and know that they’ll spread the love to others in their lives.

Of course I’ve seen lots of change while accumulating my Yosemite memories. Gridlock is a summer staple, the bears have been separated (with moderate success), the Firefall has been extinguished, and backpacking requires permits, water purifiers, and bear canisters. And now there are rumblings that some of the park’s cherished names—The Ahwahnee, Curry Village, the Wawona Hotel, Yosemite Lodge—will be lost to corporate greed. But despite human interference, Yosemite’s soaring granite and plummeting waterfalls are magnificent constants, a vertical canvas for Nature’s infinite cycle of season, weather, and light.

(An earlier version of this essay appears on my website)

Join me in Yosemite

My Yosemite

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Doing the math

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite

Autumn Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
1/160 second
ISO 800

A few days ago Sony asked me to do a couple of small pieces on “my favorite landscape lenses.” Hmmm. My answer?

My favorite lens is the lens that allows me to do what I need to do at that moment. In fact, to avoid biasing my creativity, I consciously avoid approaching a scene with a preconceived notion of the lens to use.

What I mean is, when I charge into a scene too committed to a lens, I miss things. And “favorite” tends to become a self-fulfilling label that inhibits growth. Rather than picking a favorite, I’m all about maximizing options.

I went on to say:

Because the focal range I want to cover whenever I’m photographing landscapes is 20-200mm, the three lenses I never leave home without are my Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4, Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4, and Sony 70-200 f4.

I have other, “specialty” lenses that I bring out when I have a particular objective in mind. For example, my Tamron 150-600 when I’m after a moonrise or moonset, or my Rokinon 24mm f1.4 when the Milky Way is my target. And even though I have a bag that will handle all of these (plus three bodies, thank you very much Sony mirrorless), I need to weigh the value of lugging lenses I probably won’t use against inhibited mobility in the field.

Ruminating on this favorite lens thing kindled my curiosity about which lenses I really do favor—so I did the math. (Okay, I let Lightroom Filters do the math.) Of the 10,395 times I clicked my shutter in 2015, here’s the breakdown:

Primary lenses (always in my bag)

  • Sony/Zeiss 16-35mm f4: 3064
  • Sony/Zeiss 24-70mm f4: 3529
  • Sony 70-200mm f4: 1566

Specialty lenses

  • Rokinon 24mm f1.4 (night only): 189
  • Zeiss Distagon 28mm f2* (night only): 161
  • Tamron 150-600mm* (mostly moon and extreme close focus): 1886
*Canon Mount with Metabones IV adapter

There are a lot of qualifiers for these numbers—for example, the total may be skewed a bit for the 24-70 as it is the lens I use most for lightning photography, and when my Lightning Trigger is attached and an active storm is nearby, it can go through hundreds of fames in a relatively short time (even when I’m not seeing lightning). Also, since getting the Tamron 150-600, I sometimes used that lens as a substitute for the 70-200, something I virtually never did with Canon and my 100-400 (which I didn’t particularly like). And I haven’t used the Zeiss since getting the Rokinon, so I really could lump those two together.

What does all this mean? I don’t know, except that I have a fairly even distribution between wide, midrange, and telephoto. That’s encouraging, because I never want to feel like I’m too locked into a single lens. But two things in particular stand out for me: the high number of 16-35 images, and the low number of 70-200 images.

The 16-35 number is significant only in comparison to my Canon 17-40 and 16-35 numbers from previous years, which were much lower (especially the 17-40). Wide angle clicks went up quite a bit when I replaced my Canon 17-40 (which I was never thrilled with) with the Canon 16-35 f2.8 (which I liked a lot more). But I don’t think they were as high as they are with my Sony/Zeiss 16-35, which is probably a reflection of how pleased I am with the quality of those images, combined with the lens’s compactness. The jury is out on whether it signals a transition in my style, but it’ll be worth monitoring.

The most telling statistic to me is how few 70-200 images I took. I really like the lens, so it’s not a quality thing. And as I said earlier, some of that is an indication of how much I enjoyed shooting with the big Tamron, but that’s not the entire answer. My Canon 70-200 f4 was one of my favorite lenses, and I always enjoyed using it to isolate aspects of a scene, and maybe I’m not doing that so much since my switch to Sony. So here’s a goal for 2016: Don’t forget the 70-200. Stay tuned….

About this image

This another image from my recent Yosemite snow day. It’s just another example of how much I enjoy photographing Yosemite when its seasons are changing—either snow with autumn leaves, or snow with spring dogwood and waterfalls.

During one of the breaks when the clouds lifted enough to expose Yosemite’s icons, I was at a spot above the Merced River with a nice view of El Capitan. I like this spot for the dogwood tree I can align with El Capitan, and because it’s not particularly well known. I found it about ten years ago while wandering the bank of the Merced River looking for views—something I encourage anyone who wants to get serious about photographing Yosemite to do.

I tried a few different things here, starting with closer compositions using my 70-200 and 24-70 to highlight the snow on the leaves with El Capitan in the background. I eventually landed on this wide angle view that used the snow-dusted dogwood tree to balance a more prominent El Capitan. Because the window is narrow here, I struggled with how to handle the tree on the left. I eventually decided, rather than featuring it or eliminating it, to just let its textured trunk frame the scene’s left side.

Sharpness throughout the frame was essential. With the trunk less than three feet away, shooting at 16mm was a life-saver, giving me front-to-back sharpness at my preferred f11 (to minimize diffraction)—as long as I focused about five feet away. Focus handled, my next concern was the breeze jiggling the leaves. At ISO 100, my shutter speed in the overcast, shaded light was 1/20 second; increasing my ISO to 800 enabled a much more manageable 1/160 second. Click.

Workshop schedule

Yosemite in transition

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Think before you shoot

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Arrives, El Capitan, Yosemite

Winter Arrives, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
1/8 second
ISO 125

True story: I once had a woman in a workshop who put her camera in Continuous mode and every time she clicked her shutter, she held it down and waved her camera in the general direction of a scene until the buffer was full. When I asked what she was doing, she said, “There’s bound to be a good one in there somewhere.” We were in Yosemite, so I couldn’t really disagree with her. But I’m guessing she wasn’t seeing a lot of growth as a photographer.

I tend to fall on the other end of the photography spectrum. Rather than a high volume of low-effort images, much of my photography style carries over from my film days—back then, a photographer who wasn’t careful might return from Europe to find that the photographs cost more than the trip. With our wallets forcing us to be more calculated and discriminating with our captures, we took our time, checked and double-checked our compositions and settings, and relied much more on our tripods.

Times have changed. While every film click costs money, every digital click increases the return on our investment. So far, so good: Combined with a histogram and instant review, digital shooters can click liberally, secure in the knowledge that each shot can be better than the one preceding. But I fear that this great benefit digital has bestowed, combined with powerful processing capabilities, has engendered a “shoot now, think later” mentality among many photographers. Rather than taking advantage of digital’s instant feedback to ensure that everything’s perfect at capture, these photographer adopt a high volume approach that sometimes hits a bullseye, but does nothing to improve their aim.

While there’s nothing wrong with lots of clicks, to advance your photography, each click needs a purpose. That purpose doesn’t even need to be a great image, it can simply be an I-wonder-what-happens-if-I-do-this experiment. Or it can be an incremental approach that begins with a “draft” and works toward perfection.

For example

On my recent snow day in Yosemite, I tried to highlight locations a little off the beaten path (as much as that’s possible in Yosemite). One of my stops was along Southside Drive, a little west of the crossover (to Northside Drive). Traipsing through wet snow, I made my way through the trees down to the Merced River. Bounding El Capitan Meadow, here the river widens and slows, as if gathering strength for its headlong charge down the Merced River Canyon.

The relatively open views and leisurely pace of the Merced River at this spot makes this one of my favorite place for full reflections of El Capitan. Ever on the lookout for juxtaposed disparate elements, I didn’t have to venture too far upstream before the collision of autumn leaves and winter snow stopped me. Parallel yellow and white, El Capitan reflection, towering evergreens, snow-etched oaks, swirling clouds, all against a granite background: I knew there was a shot in here somewhere, and I was going to work these elements until I found it.

To identify the shot, I started with an initial, “rough draft” click, then stood back and critiqued my result. With that frame as a foundation, I made incremental refinements, adjusting individual aspects rather than trying to fix everything at once: My horizontal orientation became vertical to highlight the (more or less) parallel snow and leaves; I determined the lowest f-stop that would ensure front-to-back sharpness and carefully refined my focus point, selecting leaves about a quarter of the way into the frame; I shifted slightly left to avoid merging the snowy log with El Capitan’s reflection; and finally, I tweaked the borders slightly (micro-zooming and -widening) to ensure that no significant visual elements were cut off. With everything set, I watched the shifting clouds and clicked when they did something interesting.

I was satisfied after about a dozen frames—far more than I could have afforded in my film days, but a far cry from my workshop student’s machine gun approach. No doubt she’d have gotten something I didn’t get, but I like this one. I bet I had more fun, too.

Join my

Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop

Gary Hart workshop group at Tunnel View, Yosemite

An El Capitan gallery

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2015 retrospective: Who needs vacations?

Gary Hart Photography: Moonlight Magic, El Capitan, Yosemite

Moonlight Magic, El Capitan and Clearing Storm, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
30 seconds
ISO 3200

I was hungry, wet, and cold. With the blacktop obscured by a slippery white veneer, I carefully followed my headlights and a faint set of parallel tire tracks through the tree tunnel. Though the storm that had lured me to Yosemite was finally clearing, that show was lost to the night and dense forest canopy. But even without another clearing storm to add to my Yosemite portfolio, I was quite content with what I’d photographed that day.

Just as my heated seats started to kick in and visions of dinner filled my head, I rounded a curve and reflexively hit the brakes, sliding not so gracefully into the empty Valley View parking lot. With no forethought I bolted from the car, then had to grab the door to keep from losing my footing on the icy pavement.

Always a beautiful place for photography, Valley View this time was quite literally one of the most beautiful sights I’d ever witnessed. I inhaled cold air and held it. Instead of racing for my gear, I exhaled slowly and gaped through puffs of breath: Ice-glazed trees and granite, moonlight infused clouds draping El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks, and the glassy Merced River spreading before me like a luminous carpet. But the scene’s centerpiece, the element that really took the experience over the top for me, was a full moon embedded in the night sky like a brilliant gem, illuminating every exposed surface.

Gathering my wits along with my gear, I started to think about photographing the scene. Because the moon was too bright to photograph (and I have the pictures to prove it), I composed to capture my favorite aspects of the rest of the scene: the clouds, the reflection, and the frozen moonlight magic—the moon would remain out of the frame, to the right.

In most moonlight images, my scene is back far enough that everything is at infinity regardless of my f-stop. But the nearby trees and rocks meant this scene needed to be sharp from just a few feet away all the way to the stars, which meant a small aperture and very precise focus point selection. A quick check of my hyperfocal app told me that focusing five feet away at f11 would give me the depth of field I needed. Once my eyes adjusted, the moonlit branches were just bright enough to focus on.

But at f11, even with the brilliant moonlight, getting enough light to reveal the scene required other compromises. Pushing my shutter speed to 30 seconds—the after-dark threshold that the risk of star motion prevents me from crossing—I had to bump my ISO to 3200. Fortunately, the a7R II was up to the task—while I did get a fair amount of noise in the shadows, it cleaned up nicely in processing.

Leaving Valley View that night, the chill and hunger I’d felt earlier had disappeared. Photography is funny that way—we put ourselves in the most miserable conditions, then completely forget how miserable we are when Nature delivers. The key is to remember this capacity when we’re debating whether to set the alarm for zero-dark-thirty, or skip a meal, or brave the elements.

This El Capitan moonlight moment turned out to be my final 2015 photo shoot, a fitting conclusion to a year filled with highlights. Breaking in a new camera (or three) while learning a completely new system and way of shooting (Sony mirrorless), I visited the dunes of Death Valley, the rain forests of Hawaii, Yosemite’s glacier-carved granite (many times), Grand Canyon top and bottom—to name just a few. I photographed lightning, rainbows, snow and ice, an active volcano, spring wildflowers and fall color, the moon in many phases, and the Milky Way above some of the world’s most spectacular scenery. How fortunate I am to have job that I don’t need a vacation from!

At the end of 2014, while reflecting on the beauty I’d witnessed that year, the new friends I’d made, not to mention countless new memories with old friends, I wondered what 2015 would bring. And now I know. In one year I’ll do a similar retrospective on 2016, and while I have no idea what’s in store, I’m confident my good fortune will continue.

So let’s go….

Join me in a photo workshop

Here’s what my 2015 looked like

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



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