Getting ahead of the shot

Gary Hart Photography: Dawn, Mono Lake and the Sierra Crest

Dawn, Mono Lake and the Sierra Crest 
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
8 seconds
ISO 100

I hate arriving at a photo destination for the first time and having to immediately hit the ground running. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate the value of advance knowledge of landscape and light, and always try to factor in ample scouting time before getting down to serious shooting.

On the other hand, a prime reason people sign up for a photo workshop is to shortcut the scouting process, and for the most part this works pretty well. I (like any other experienced workshop leader) can share my knowledge of a location’s terrain and light to put my groups in the right place at the right time, and to provide insights into what’s in store and how they might want to approach it.

But sometimes there’s no substitute for firsthand exposure to a location before the good stuff happens. This is particularly true for sunrise spots, because the good shooting usually starts before it’s light enough to see the landscape. Unfortunately, a photo workshop’s tight schedule doesn’t always provide the luxury of exposing my groups to a location before it’s time to photograph it, but I do my best.

Mono Lake is a perfect example. The serpentine shoreline of South Tufa, the lake’s most photographed location, is a series of points and coves that offer lake views to the east, north, and west, depending on where you stand. Often nice at sunset, sunrise at South Tufa can be downright world class in any one of these compass directions. The best sunrise photography frequently cycles through (and sometimes overlaps) all three directions as the sunrise progresses. Overlaying South Tufa’s directional light are the vivid sunrise hues that can paint the sky in any direction at any time, and glassy reflections that double the visual overload.

After many years photographing South Tufa, I’ve established a fairly reliable sunrise workflow that helps me deal with these shifting factors. I usually start with tufa tower silhouettes facing east, into the early twilight glow in the east, then do a 180 to capture the magenta alpenglow on the Sierra crest in the west, and finally pivot northward as sidelight warms the tufa towers once the sun’s first rays skim the lake.

But just knowing the direction to point the camera is only part of the Mono Lake equation. In fact, with so many composition possibilities, South Tufa can overwhelm the first time visitor. Not only is there a lot going on here, on most mornings you need to contend with photographers that swarm the shore like the lake’s ubiquitous black flies.

Because of these difficulties, I make a point of getting my Eastern Sierra workshop group out to South Tufa for the sunset preceding the sunrise shoot. In my pre-shoot orientation, I strongly encourage my students to walk around before setting up their cameras, to identify compositions in each direction, and to envision the sunrise light.

It turns out, this year’s South Tufa sunset shoot was beneficial to me as well. With the lake level lower than I’ve ever seen it, the shoreline was virtually unrecognizable—many familiar lake features were now high and dry, and a number of new features had materialized. As alarming as it was to see the lake this low, the photographer in me couldn’t help but feel excited about the fresh compositions the new shoreline offered.

While showing the group around South Tufa’s various nooks and crannies, I spotted a stepping stone set of newly exposed tufa mounds on a north- and west-facing section. I pointed out to those still with me the way tufa could lead the eye through the bottom of the frame to the distant Sierra peaks, and made a mental bookmark of the spot. Sunset that night, with nice color a glassy reflection that’s more typical of sunrise than sunset, that everyone was a little dubious when I told them sunrise could be even better.

The next morning, all the conditions were in place for something special: a mix of clouds and sky, an opening on the eastern horizon to let the light through, calm winds to quiet the lake. Armed with knowledge from the night before, the group quickly dispersed to their pre-planned spots and I found myself mostly alone.

I’ve photographed Mono Lake so many times that I had no plans to shoot that morning, so I wandered around checking on everyone. As often happens when the photography is good (especially late in the workshop, when people have become pretty comfortable handling difficult light and extreme depth of field), I felt like my presence was more distraction than benefit, so I headed over to the spot I’d spied the previous evening (it had the added benefit of being pretty centrally located and well within earshot of my distributed students).

By the time I got there the show was well underway in the east and quickly moving west. It would have been easy to slip into panic-shooting mode and try to find something where things were good right now, but I’ve learned (for me at least) that it’s best to anticipate than react. Instead, because I’d already mentally worked this scene, I knew the composition I wanted and was ready for the color when it arrived.

The extra sixty seconds this bought me was enough to refine my composition, find the f-stop and focus point that would maximize sharpness throughout the scene, meter the scene and set my exposure, and orient my polarizer for the best balance between reflection and lakebed. It turns out that this anticipation was a difference-maker, as the vivid color peaked and faded in about 30 seconds.

Join my next Eastern Sierra Fall Color photo workshop

A Mono Lake Gallery

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I love you, goodbye…

Gary Hart Photography: Fire and Mist, Halemaumau Crater, Kilauea, Hawaii

Fire and Mist, Halemaumau Crater, Kilauea, Hawaii
Sony a7S
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
10 seconds
ISO 3200

Last week I said goodbye to my Sony a7S. More than any camera I’ve owned, this is the camera that overcame photography’s physical boundaries that most frustrated me.

I’ve been interested in astronomy since I was ten, ten years longer than I’ve a been photographer. But until recently I’ve been thwarted in my attempts to fully convey the majesty of the night sky above a grand landscape.

What was missing was light. Or more accurately, the camera’s ability to capture light. Light is what enables cameras to “see,” and while there’s still a little light after the sun goes down, cameras struggle mightily to find a usable amount.

When faced with limited light, photographers’ solutions are limited, and each solution is a compromise. In no particular order, we can increase:

  1. Shutter speed: We can increase the time the light strikes the sensor. While we can usually keep our shutter open for as long as the battery lasts, the longer it’s open, the more motion we capture.
  2. Aperture (a ratio measure in f-stops): Larger apertures (the f-stop number shrinks as the aperture opens) allow more light, with a loss of depth of field. While the DOF loss is usually insignificant in most night photography scenes (because all subjects are usually at infinity), the laws of optics limit the size of of a lens’s aperture.
  3. ISO: We can increase the sensor’s sensitivity to light by increasing the ISO, but not without significant image quality degradation (noise).

Most night photography attempts bump into the limits of each solution before complete success is achieved. For me, the first barrier is usually the f-stop, which is soon maxed. With my f-stop maxed, I’m left with a dance between ISO and shutter speed as I attempt to balance acceptable amounts of motion and noise.

So why not just add more light? Duh. But, while adding light solves some problems, it introduces others. Anything bright enough to illuminate a large landscape (sunlight or moonlight) washes out the stars, and artificial local light (such as light painting or a flash) violates my own natural-light-only objective. Another option some resort to is image blending (one frame for the foreground, one for the sky), but that too violates my personal single-frame-only goal.

My first shot at the night photography conundrum came about ten years ago, when I started doing moonlight photography. I immediately found that the reflected sunlight cast by a full moon beautifully illuminated my landscapes, while preserving enough celestial darkness that the brighter, most recognizable constellations still shined through. But walking outside on a clear, moonless night far from city lights was all the reminder I needed that my favorite qualities of the night sky—the Milky Way and the the seemingly infinite quantity of stars—remained beyond my photographic reach.

To photograph a moonless sky brimming with stars, my next step was star trail photography—long exposures that accumulated enough light to reveal my terrestrial subjects at manageable ISO (not too much noise). Star trails have the added benefit of stretching stellar pinpoints into concentric arcs of light that beautifully depict Earth’s rotation.

While both enjoyable and beautiful, moonlight and star trail photography were not completely satisfying. But the laws of physics dictated that lenses weren’t going to get any faster, and Earth wasn’t going to rotate any slower, so the solution would need to be in sensor efficiency.

Unfortunately, camera manufactures remained resolute in their belief that megapixels sold cameras. So as sensor technology evolved, and photographers saw slow but steady high ISO improvement, we were force-fed a mind-boggling increase in megapixel count.

But cramming more megapixels onto a 35mm sensor requires: 1) smaller photosites that are less efficient at capturing light, and 2) more tightly packed photosites that increase (noise inducing) heat.

The megapixel race changed overnight when Sony, in a risky, game-changing move, decided to offer a high-end, full-frame camera with “only” a 12 megapixel sensor. What were they thinking!?

Acknowledging what serious photographers have known for years, that 12 megapixels is enough for most uses (just 12 years ago, pros paid $8,000 for a Canon 1Ds with only 11 megapixels), Sony bucked the megapixel trend to embrace the benefits of fewer, larger, less densely packed photosites. The result was a light-sucking monster that can see in the dark: the Sony a7S.

Since purchasing my a7S less than a year ago, I’m able to photograph the dark night sky above the landscapes I love. Additionally, I found that its fast shutter lag (since matched by the a7R II) made the a7S ideal for lightning photography. It was love at first click.

And now it’s gone. Last month Sony released the a7S II, and given my satisfaction with the upgrade from the a7R to the a7R II, it was only a matter of time before I upgraded to the a7S II. I’m happy to say that I found a good home for my a7S and in fact may even get to visit it in future workshops.

I haven’t had a chance to use the a7S II, but I assure you it won’t be long, and you’ll be the first to know.

About this image

The image at the top of this post was captured in September (2015) during my Hawaii Big Island Volcanos and Waterfalls photo workshop. Each time I visit here I hold my breath until I see what the sky is doing. I’ve encountered everything from completely cloudless to pea soup fog. I’ve come to hope for a mix of clouds and sky—enough sky for the Milky Way to shine through clearly, but enough clouds to reflect the orange light of the churning volcano.

On this evening we got a combination I hadn’t seen before—clear sky overhead, a few low clouds, and a heavy mist hanging in the caldera. Not only did the mist frame the scene with a translucent orange glow, it subdued the volcano’s fire enough for me to use a long exposure to bring out the Milky Way without blowing my highlights.

We’ll do it again in my next Hawaii Volcanos and Waterfalls workshop

An a7S homage

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On the rocks

Gary Hart Photography: On the Rocks, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite

On the Rocks, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
25 seconds
ISO 100

Yosemite is known for its waterfalls, but I gotta say, I think I’m happiest photographing Yosemite when the falls are dry. Not that I don’t love Yosemite’s waterfalls (I do!), but when the falls are dry, the Merced River has slowed to a reflective crawl that paints reflections everywhere. And as an added bonus, when the falls dry up, so do the crowds.

Last month I spent a day guiding a couple from Sweden through Yosemite when the Merced River was at its drought-starved nadir. I’d been looking forward to this day for a while, but two days earlier I’d cracked a rib and torn my shoulder in a cycling accident—I could walk, I could talk, but I couldn’t do both, and simply getting in and out of the car was an achievement. The seatbelt? Torture. So my camera and tripod stayed in the car all day.

But when we pulled up to Valley View for sunset, I just couldn’t resist the mix of light, clouds, sky, and reflection. By the time I extracted my camera and tripod and made my way down to the river (no more than 20 feet from the car), the sun was about done with El Capitan. There were a few hot spots in the clouds, but my Singh-Ray two-stop hard GND held back the highlights enough to enable enough exposure to bring out the shadows. The resulting 25 second exposure added a gauzy texture to the reflection.

The trickiest thing about photographing a reflection with embedded features is achieving depth of field throughout. Though it seems counter-intuitive, the focus point for a reflection is the focus point of the reflective subject, not the reflective surface. In this case I wasn’t too worried about the reflection because I knew the long exposure would soften it anyway. But I did want to be sharp from embedded rocks all the way back to El Capitan. A quick check of my hyperfocal app told me that at f11 and 28mm, focusing on the closest rock (about ten feet away), would ensure sharpness all the way to infinity.

A public service announcement

I don’t always wear a helmet when I bike. I’m fortunate to live adjacent to a bike trail that can keep me off city streets for virtually all of my bike trips. So, my rationalization went, why mess with a helmet?

My accident last month happened on the bike trail, with no cars in sight—I clipped a portable barricade with my handlebar and my bike went right while I continued forward. In addition to a cracked rib, torn shoulder, and some nasty road-rash (and possibly broken collarbone), my helmet was totaled. I shudder to think what would have happened had I decided not to wear it that day (about a 50/50 chance), and will never, ever ride a bike again without helmet. I encourage you to make the same promise to yourself.

I return you now to your regular programming.

Join me in Yosemite next autumn

A gallery of Yosemite reflections

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Cool stuff on a cold night

Gary Hart Photography: Bristlecone Night, White Mountains, California

Bristlecone Night, White Mountains, California
Sony a7S
Rokinon 24mm f1.4
15 seconds
ISO 6400

About a month ago I huddled with my Eastern Sierra workshop group on a mountainside in the White Mountains (east of Bishop). We were waiting for the stars to come out, but after driving over an hour on a road that would test anyone’s motion sickness resistance, hiking a steep half mile in the thin air above 10,000 feet, and waiting out a couple of rain showers, it looked like clouds might thwart our night photography plans. Since we’d already done all the hard work, I reminded everyone that mountain weather is is fickle and suggested that we’d wait just a bit. Bolstered by sandwiches, a hardy spirit, and good humor, wait we did.

I’ve done this long enough to know that the fun a group has is proportional to the discomfort they’re experiencing. Beneath the darkening sky we clicked between sandwich bites, cursing the chill and finding no end of things to laugh about. Everyone was pretty excited by their camera’s ability to suck detail from apparent darkness, and by the smoothing effect the long exposures had on the shifting clouds. Stars or not, the night was already a success.

To maintain night vision and avoid interfering with exposures, flashlights were forbidden. Instead we used our cellphone screens to illuminate our camera controls. It was so cold that gloves were a necessity, but they had to come off for even the most simple camera adjustment. Despite the discomfort, there were no complaints. About the time it became so dark that we could only recognize each other by voice, a few twinkling pinholes burned through the black ceiling. Multiplying with each minute, the stars slowly congealed into a fuzzy stripe that finally revealed itself to be the Milky Way—we were in business.

Some in the group had never seen the Milky Way; others hadn’t seen it since childhood. Those with night photography experience went right to work, while Don Smith and I helped the others get going. For most, night photography minus moonlight is an exercise in patience: even basic composition involves a fair amount of guesswork, and finding focus is an act of faith. Working with the others in the group, I was especially thankful for my Sony a7S and focus-peaking, which made both composition and focus a snap.

To isolate the bristlecone against the sky and align it with the Milky Way, I scrambled in the dark (remember, no flashlights) across loose rock until I was about 100 feet north of the tree. Balanced on a 30 degree slope, I had to plant my tripod firmly and rely on feel to ensure that it was secure.

Spending time with this image helps me appreciate a photograph’s power to give perspective to our place in the natural world. The bristlecone pine anchoring the frame was a seedling just about the time the finishing touches were being put Stonehenge. That sounds pretty old, until you pause to consider that it’s illuminated by light from the Milky Way, which began its journey to my sensor about 20,000 years before this tree sprouted. And accenting the frame are a pair of meteors, vestigial fragments of our solar system’s formation about 4 1/2 billion years ago. Pretty cool.

Sunrise Mirror, Mono Lake

Join my next Eastern Sierra photo workshop

Gary Hart Photography: River of Light, Grand Canyon, Arizona

Learn more about starlight photography

A night sky gallery

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Big moon

Gary Hart Photography: Big Moon, Yosemite

Big Moon, Valley View, Yosemite Valley
Sony a6000
Tamron 150-600 (Canon-mount with Metabones IV adapter)
1/25 second
ISO 400

A few years ago, Don Smith and I were browsing the gallery of a famous landscape photographer when we came across a striking image of a tree silhouetted against a huge moon. Because the image was clearly a composite—a tree picture transposed atop a picture of a huge moon—we were initially shocked, but soon simply amused by the photographer’s dramatic, “blood pulsing” fiction of his “capture.” To this day, merely quoting a few words from that description will incite Don and me to fits of laughter. (Several years and gallery visits later, we noticed that the hyperbolic description had been removed, and actually got a salesperson at the gallery to acknowledge that the image was indeed a composite.) Yet, amusing as it is, that image turned out to be the seed that grew into a desire to capture something similar, legitimately.

Photographing a large moon is pretty simple—the longer the focal length, the bigger the moon. You can do it from your backyard. The difficulty comes when you want to include a terrestrial object with the moon (without digital shenanigans). Doing so requires an Earth-bound subject at great distance (ideally, a mile or more for the longest focal lengths), elevated against the sky. I’m always on the lookout for potential subjects for such a moonrise, and immediately log each discovery into my mental database.

But even with a subject, there’s the matter of determining the best vantage point, and figuring out when (to the minute, if possible) the moon and subject will align. If you follow my blog at all, you know how hard I work make this happen. Today there are apps that will get you pretty close (PhotoPills and Photographer’s Ephemeris to name the two I’ve used and recommend). But my own fairly convoluted (to others—I’ve been doing it so long that it’s second nature) technique predates these apps, and I find it more precise. Convoluted? At the risk of losing my audience, I’ll just say that it involves my iPhone, my computer, a moonrise/moonset app (Focalware), topographic mapping software (National Geographic Topo!), a scientific calculator app (HP 11c from RLM Tools), and a little trigonometry.

Informed by these resources, I rarely take a trip without knowing the moon’s phase, the best place to photograph it, and exactly when to be there. Often these trips are specifically timed for the moon.

So. Given the pride I take in moonrise/set photography, and my long-time desire to isolate a distant tree against a large moon, I’d love to tell you that I spied this tree teetering on Yosemite Valley’s rim near Dewey Point, plotted the place to photograph it and when to be there, and was waiting with my camera framed and focused when the moon slid into view. Uh, not so much.

Instead, on the day before my Yosemite Autumn Moon photo workshop, I was working with a couple who had hired me to show them Yosemite Valley for a day. After a nice, productive day we were wrapping up with sunset at Valley View, photographing reflections and warm light on El Capitan. My mobility severely limited by a cracked rib sustained in a bicycle accident a week earlier, I was quite content to enjoy the view, leaving my camera in the car.

The sunlight on El Capitan had faded and the shadows were deepening fast when my mind drifted to the moon. I knew it was about 60 percent full that day, and that it had risen (above a flat horizon) a couple of hours earlier, which meant by now it might be close to cresting Yosemite Valley’s vertical south wall. With zero expectations, I casually glanced upward, in the general direction of Dewey Point, and did an actual double-take when I saw an arc of white just cresting the ridge.

I immediately alerted my clients and “rushed” (remember, cracked rib) to the car for my gear. Wanting as much magnification as possible, I reached for my big tripod, 150-600 lens, and 1.5-crop Sony a6000 camera. In the time it had taken to set up and click a couple of quick shots, the moon had risen almost all the way as viewed from my elevated parking area vantage point, so I rushed down to the river to buy a few more seconds of the moon partially behind the ridge (moving down and closer steepened the angle just enough to make difference). From my new vantage point the moon was by itself against the sky, but I spied a solitary evergreen a short distance south of where the moon was balanced and I rushed (there’s that word again, but I have no memory of feeling any pain this time) upstream until the tree and moon converged and quickly zoomed, composed, focused, and clicked.

The processing of this image was pretty straightforward—a slight cooling of the color temperature and a moderate crop for framing was all it needed. While my tale of this evening is more about broken bones than pulsing blood, I’m proud to say that no ethics were harmed in the making of this image.

A big moon gallery (telephoto moon shots)

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Reflection season

Gary Hart Photography: Reflection on the Rocks, El Capitan, Yosemite

Reflection on the Rocks, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1/40 second
ISO 400

It’s reflection season in Yosemite, that time of year when the falls are dry and the Merced River slows to a glassy crawl. Plugging in the golds and reds of autumn makes this my favorite time for creative photography in Yosemite, and explains the volume of Yosemite autumn images in my portfolio.

It also explains why I’ve been to Yosemite three times this month. The month’s first visit, my Eastern Sierra workshop group, we photographed high Sierra reflections and a Half Dome sunset from Olmsted Point—we’d had lots yellow and orange aspen in the canyons above Bishop and Lee Vining, but it was a little early for Yosemite color. The next two trips were primarily focused on Yosemite Valley, ground-zero for autumn reflections. On both Yosemite Valley trips, the Merced River, always low and slow in autumn, was down far enough that I saw places I could have rock-hopped from one side to the other without getting wet.

Today’s image, from about a week and a half ago, almost didn’t happen. I’d been looking forward to this visit (to guide a couple from Sweden) for several months, but a bike accident two days earlier had cracked a rib, torn a muscle in my shoulder, removed copious amounts of skin from my arm, and pretty much prevented me from doing anything requiring movement (or breathing, for that matter).

When I left home that morning I knew I was going to be sore, but I was actually a little surprised by just how uncomfortable I was. Somehow, bolstered by liberal quantities of ibuprofen, I managed to survive the day, quite content to limit my activity to driving, narrating, and and answering questions. Even getting in and out of the car was an ordeal, and photography seemed out of the question. But when we pulled into the parking lot at Valley View for the day’s final stop, the reflection drew me to the rocks like the Sirens of Greek mythology.

Rather than grab my camera bag and sling it over my shoulder as I normally would (the mere thought makes me flinch), I gingerly extracted my tripod, camera, and 16-35 lens, and assembled them them at my car’s tailgate. Given my level of pain and the precarious footing on the rocks by the river, I knew wouldn’t be able to move around as much as I’m accustomed to (or at all), so scanned the route and I very carefully selected my destination before departing on the 20 foot journey. In a perfect world I’d have been able to shuffle slowly, but the route to the river was over a disorganized jumble of granite rocks that made each step feel like a knife had been thrust into my ribcage.

At the river I found a flat granite platform just large enough for both my feet, and a solid rock for each tripod leg. Using the tripod for support, I found that if I moved slowly enough, I could keep the pain to a manageable minimum. Nevertheless, I was even more deliberate than I usually am, strategizing and executing each movement. Soon I developed a workflow that allowed me to do pretty much all I needed to do by only moving my arms from the elbow down.

There were a lot of moving parts to consider as I crafted this image. Since the focus point of a reflection is the focus point of the reflective subject, not the reflective surface, I needed DOF that went from the nearby rocks, just a few feet away, all the way out to El Capitan at infinity. But I couldn’t make DOF decisions until I composed and decided on a focal length. And as I tried to compose, I found that even the slight adjustment in focal length and framing introduced new problems—rocks cut off or jutting in from the side, or even worse, introducing bright sky at the top of the frame.

At one point I thought I finally had it, only to realize that the top rock of the foreground triangle intersected El Capitan. Moving my tripod a few inches to the left solved that problem, but also made it impossible to use my viewfinder without repositioning myself. Rather than destabilize my precarious perch, I decided to forego the viewfinder in favor of the LCD (thank you Sony for the articulating viewfinder).

With a little work I finally found a composition that achieved my framing objectives: balanced foreground, clean borders, and no sky. Now for my exposure variables. I estimated that foreground rocks were about 10 feet away—according to my hyperfocal app, at 40mm and f11, the hyperfocal distance was a little less than 16 feet. I picked a rock about that distance and carefully focused there, thus ensuring acceptable sharpness from about 8 feet to infinity. I decided to go with ISO 400 to mitigate the light breeze that moved the leaves just a little.

The shadows were quite dark, while the cloud reflections contained some hot spots, but I was confident that my Sony a7R II could handle the dynamic range if I was careful. Watching my histogram, I increased my shutter speed until the highlights were right up to the point of clipping.

Finally ready, I realized that my remote cable was in the car. Since there was no way I was going to put myself through an extra roundtrip, I engaged my camera’s 2-second timer and clicked. After reviewing the image on my viewfinder I made a couple of small adjustments and clicked again. I repeated this click/review/click cycle a couple more times, until I was satisfied that I’d achieved my vision.

Photograph reflections like this in my next Yosemite Autumn Moon photo workshop

A gallery of reflections

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The best time of day

Sunrise Starburst, Mono Lake

Sunrise Starburst, Mono Lake
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
1/4 second
ISO 125

Imagine a world that’s so quiet you can hear nature’s every stirring, a place where each breath holds a pristine bouquet of subtle fragrances, and the sky is a continuously shifting kaleidoscope of indigo, blue, yellow, orange, and red. In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m describing the very world we live in, before the sun’s light and warmth draw out the dirty, noisy, oblivious masses.

As a nature photographer I’m quite familiar with this world. And while I can’t say that I relish a 4:30 a.m. alarm, I’ve come to terms with its darkness, frigid temps, and sleep depravity. But I also understand why most people despise early wake-ups, because that used to describe me. We’ve been conditioned by a lifetime of rising for school and work, completely bypassing early morning’s benefits as we rush to obligations, appointments, and responsibilities that are almost invariably less pleasant than staying in bed.

But if you haven’t learned to appreciate the joy of the pre-sunrise world, let me help you reset your bias with a few tips for making early mornings happen:

  • For the full experience, plan to be at your spot at least 45 minutes before the “official” (flat horizon at that latitude and longitude) sunrise for that location. The eastern horizon will already be brightening noticeably by then, but the stars will be visible. (This is for mid-latitude locations—twilight starts earlier in the high latitudes, later in the low latitudes.)
  • Get organized before you go to bed. Lay your clothes out, assemble your gear, make sure everything’s charged, and prime the coffee maker. You do all this so you can…
  • Set your alarm for the absolute minimum time necessary to get ready. Your resolve will be much stronger at bedtime than when it goes off—the less time you have to delay, less the chance that you’ll lose your resolve to the cozy warmth of your bed. This also gives you the maximum amount of sleep possible. And don’t forget, one of the best things about being up when no one else is up and it’s dark is that it really doesn’t matter how you look (so you don’t really need to spend a lot of time on personal hygiene).
  • Under no circumstances use the snooze button on your alarm. Rising early is like ripping off a Band-Aid—the sooner you get it over with, the happier you’ll be; the longer you drag it out, the harder it is. Trust me.

    Three Strikes, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon National Park

    The weather report called for clear skies and no chance of rain this morning. But the lightning was already firing when we walked out to Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Point in the dark, and it was still going when we finally ran out of compositions over two hours later.

  • Don’t be discouraged by the conditions at bedtime or wake-up. Some of my most memorable sunrises have happened on mornings I’d have skipped if I’d relied solely on weather reports, or the way things look when I peek out the window after the alarm. Photography is just one of the benefits of being out before the sun. Even when the photography conditions don’t materialize as hoped, I rarely regret those mornings when I dragged myself out of bed to sit in the cold and dark. The special stuff seems happen when I go out with the attitude that I’m just going to enjoy this special time of day.

For example (the above image)

Getting to this remote location on Mono Lake’s north shore is always an adventure; getting there early enough before the sun can feel downright crazy. We depart an hour-and-a-half before sunrise, navigate a bone-jarring maze of unpaved roads that worsen with each mile, driving until we can drive no further. From there the lake is still a half mile walk. Most of the hike is in volcanic sand, but the last couple hundred yards are through shoe-sucking mud; with no trail or light, it’s no wonder I never end up at the same spot from one year to the next.

Earlier this month my Eastern Sierra workshop group made the annual pilgrimage out here for our final sunrise. We’d been incredibly blessed with great conditions throughout the workshop—great sunrise and sunset color, nice clouds, and glassy reflections at Mono Lake’s South Tufa (always a highlight when it happens). Our luck held as we got all three—color, clouds, and reflection—for this final sunrise.

Sunrise Starburst, Mono Lake

I started shooting in near darkness, with wide, east-facing compositions that included a thin slice of moon flanked by Venus, Jupiter, and Mars. My focus turned more south and west as the sun started to rise and paint the clouds with color. Soon the mountains in the west were bathed with warm light and I turned my attention there. The wind stayed calm, so every direction I shot, I was able to double the beauty with a reflection.

Watching the shadow slide down the mountains, I was able to anticipate the sun’s arrival at my position and turn back to the east just in time to make my sunstar composition. I used a trio of nearby rocks to anchor my foreground, removed my polarizer (I wanted a maximum reflection and didn’t want to worry about differential polarization at my wide focal length), extracted my 3-stop reverse graduated neutral density filter (Singh-Ray), and stopped down to f-20 to enhance the sunstar effect.

When the sun appeared I clicked a half-dozen or so images, each with a little bit brighter sunstar. I chose this one because it was a good balance between brilliant sunstar without washing out too much of the sky around it. Thanks to my GND and the ridiculous dynamic range of my a7R II, I got this scene with a single click. In Photoshop I dodged the top 2/3 of the sky and burn the water to disguise the GND effect, but did very little else.

Join me in the Eastern Sierra next year

The joys of sunrise

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


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