Being a better fisherman

Bridalveil Dogwood, Yosemite

Bridalveil Dogwood, Yosemite (April 2004)
Canon EOS 10D
1/15 second
ISO 100
48 mm

Many of us would probably be better fishermen if we did not spend so much time watching and waiting for the world to become perfect.” ― Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

I don’t fish. But then, Norman Maclean’s words really aren’t about fishing anyway. I’m reminded of his quote every time I see photographers frozen by minutia, mired in the moment by small distractions that matter very little on the path to their grand objectives (better pictures): There’s dust on my sensor, this lens is soft, the light was better yesterday, it’s too cold, it’s too hot, it’s too wet, and so on.

Near the top of photographers’ list of self-imposed obstacles seems to be an insecurity about their gear. Instead of doing what photographers do (photograph), many spend far too much time reading reviews, scouring specifications, checking prices, and abusing photography forums. Whether their goal is to rationalize the merit of their current equipment, or to justify the expense of a new one, all this makes me wonder how much they enjoy the actual act of photography.

There’s nothing wrong with your camera (or mine)

A related behavior I’ve observed since my switch from a Canon SLR system to a Sony mirrorless system is an irrational obsession with the photo equipment of other photographers (for example, mine). I’m always happy to answer questions about my photo gear (okay, almost always), but I’ve detected an underlying tone of insecurity in some (not all) of the queries, as if my camera choice somehow invalidates theirs. Some have wanted reassurance that their camera is still okay (it is), and others have actually tried to “suggest” that I’ve made a mistake (I haven’t).

I know I haven’t made a mistake because my needs are my own, I’m quite happy with my new gear, and I’m getting pictures I couldn’t have gotten before. End of debate. And for those who fear that their camera may be less than perfect, let me just say that there are many good reasons to get a new camera, to replace an entire system even, but seeing another photographer do it is not one of them.

A blast from the past

If you have a working DSLR of pretty much any vintage, you can get usable captures. To illustrate this point in my workshops and training, I go all the way back to 2003 and my Canon 10D, my first DSLR. Shooting with my 10D today, I’d probably be crazy-frustrated with the 6 megapixel, 1.6 crop sensor, it’s postage-stamp LCD, poor low-light performance, and limited dynamic range—but that doesn’t change the fact that I got great images from that now ancient beast, images that I’ve enlarged and sold (in person, to people who could walk right up and scrutinize each pixel) prints up to 24×36. Images that people still buy. In other words, if the images I got from that camera are still usable, there’s no reason 10D images clicked today wouldn’t be usable.

Time is on your side

So how long should you wait before replacing your camera? That’s an individual decision based on many personal factors. My general recommendation is to hold off on a new camera until you’ve upgraded all your primary glass (the lenses you might use on any shoot) and your support system (tripod and head) to the best possible. These things will serve you far longer than whatever the latest and greatest camera might be, and really, the longer you can put off that new camera purchase, the better the technology will be when you’re finally ready to do it.

I digress

That doesn’t mean there won’t be temptations. For example, like an ex-girlfriend trying to lure me back with triple-D implants, Canon has announced a 50 megapixel sensor. Yikes. But if she really understood me, was in tune with my deepest desires, she’d have known I wouldn’t be impressed, not even a little. It’ll be interesting to see how the other manufacturers respond to Canon’s move. I’m okay standing on the sidelines of a megapixel war as long as manufacturers understand that most serious photographers prefer sensors that emphasize quality over quantity.

But anyway….

Once you have all your lens and support ducks in a row, maybe it’s time to think about upgrading your body. Maybe. Start by asking yourself what’s important to you. The Canon 5D Mark III filled most of the basic camera criteria for me: full frame, 100 percent viewfinder, (decent) weather sealing, functional live-view (much better than the 1DS Mark III it replaced in my bag), and multiple card slots (miss that in my Sony a7R). I ignore many oft-touted features that are important to others but mean little to me, such as: resolution, autofocus, video, in-body image stabilization, and touch-screen LCD.

Landing the metaphor

I guess the point is that buying a new camera is never an emergency (unless you don’t have one). Take your time, set your budget, and be honest with yourself about what you need (and don’t need). In the meantime, grab whatever you have and get out there and shoot—you can’t land fish without putting a line in the water, and you can’t take pictures without putting the world in your viewfinder.

A Canon 10D Gallery

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Megapixels are overrated

Starlight, Half Dome, Yosemite

Starlight, Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7S
Zeiss 28 mm f2
Metabones Canon EF to Sony NEX Mark IV adapter
15 seconds
ISO 12,800

As regular readers know, in November I switched to Sony, replacing my 22 MP Canon 5D Mark III DSLR with the mirrorless 36 MP Sony a7R, plus three Sony lenses. My decision to switch had nothing to do with resolution and everything to do with the Sony’s image quality, dynamic range, and high ISO performance. Oh yeah, and the compactness of mirrorless. And after watching other DSLRs surpass the once upon a time state-of-the-art 5D Mark III, I just became tired of waiting through rumors. And when it finally came, Canon’s announcement of a 50 megapixel replacement for the 5D Mark III DSLR only validated my decision to abandon the company I’d been loyal to since the advent of my digital conversion, about a dozen years ago.

Doubt that I don’t secretly covet the 50 megapixels of the new Canon 5DS? Well, last month I put my money where my mouth is and purchased a 12 MP Sony a7S (more expensive than the a7R). That’s right, 12 megapixels—a pixel count that has been in the rearview mirror of most DSLRs for about eight years.

My a7R will remain my primary camera because it does everything I need it to do in most situations, and gives me extra resolution (I’m not opposed to more megapixels, I just don’t want them at the expense of the things I consider more important). In other words, if I can’t notice a difference, I’ll take as much resolution as I can get. But the best landscape images are often found in the most challenging light, so when the chips are down—like when I need extreme dynamic range or (especially) high ISO for low-light (moonless) night photography—I’ll turn to the a7S.

What’s wrong with more megapixels?

In digital photography, light enters through a lens, hits the sensor (which replaces the little rectangle of film we used to expose and develop), where it’s measured, digitized, and stored. Voila, a digital image is born.

Looking closer, we see that a sensor is an array of microscopic electronic light-catchers called “photosites.” On any given sensor, not all photosites are created equal (each one measures a specific color, either red, green, or blue), but for simplicity sake, it’s enough to know that one photosite equals one pixel—that is, a 36 megapixel camera has 36 million photosites, and a 50 megapixel camera has 50 million photosites.

A full-frame, 35mm DSLR has a fixed amount of sensor real estate upon which to place its photosites. Sensor technology continues to evolve, allowing more photosites and improved image quality with each sensor iteration, and spurring constant turnover as photographers chase the latest and greatest. But for any given technology, the fewer the photosites (lower megapixel number), the better the image quality.

The only ways to add more photosites to a fixed sensor area are to shrink the photosites, and/or cram them closer. Simply put, a larger photosite collects more light than a smaller one, making it more efficient. Think of a bucket: the bigger the bucket, the more water it holds before overflowing. And the farther apart the photosites are, the better they dissipate (heat is the enemy of pretty much all things electronic) and the less they interfere with the surrounding photosites.

There are advantages to a higher (mega)pixel count—larger prints, being the most cited benefit. A higher pixel count also increases the margin for error, allowing photographers to compose wide and crop later. But image quality is not one of those advantages, and in fact, the vast majority of photographers (including pros) don’t ever come close to needing the pixel count their cameras deliver.

Pro photographers have already figured out the inverse relationship between megapixel count and image quality. Look no further than the $6,000 Canon and Nikon flagship pro bodies to see that pro photographers hopped off the resolution escalator long ago: Canon’s 1DX is 18 MP; Nikon’s D4s is 16 MP.

Unfortunately, cameras are designed not for the expert minority, they’re designed for enthusiast majority. So until the consuming public figures out that they’ve been had, megapixels will continue to sell cameras, and camera manufactures will continue stuffing more onto our sensors.

Last week I got a firsthand example of the joys of low-resolution photography….

Seeing in the dark

I love night photography. While I’ve enjoyed and taught moonlight photography for many years, I’ve always been frustrated by the limitations of starlight (moonless) photography. Composition and focus are difficult at best in nearly total darkness, and getting adequate light into a moonless-night image usually requires unpalatable ISO and/or shutter speed compromises. But after hearing so many amazing things about the low light, high ISO performance of the 12 megapixel a7S, I just couldn’t resist (“Hi honey—uh, look what followed me home…”).

Last week was my first opportunity to use the a7S beneath the stars, at a favorite Yosemite night spot beside the Merced River. Given that I  was leading a workshop, this shoot was not about my photography—the priority that night was (in this order) 1) Make sure no one walks into the river, and 2) Help everyone get at least one successful night shot. Nevertheless, I did manage to squeeze in a few frames of my own.

Bouncing back and forth between photographers in the dark, I occasionally stopped by my camera long enough to find a composition with the a7S and my Canon-mount 28 mm Zeiss F/2 (and the Metabones adapter). Jupiter was front-and-center, hovering above Half Dome, a focus gift for the group (finding focus in the dark can be a show-stopper for beginners). But rather than take the easy way out, I tried focusing on much less bright stars, just to see if it was possible.

I’m thrilled to report no problem focusing on even moderately bright, magnitude 2 and 3 stars by centering one in my electronic viewfinder, magnifying the view to the maximum, and dialing the focus ring until the star shrunk a fine point. What had taken a minute or two of effort on my 5D III, including multiple exposures to verify sharpness, took about ten painless seconds on the a7S (it didn’t hurt to have an f2 lens—this might take a little more effort if your fastest lens is f2.8 or f4).

Each time I visited my camera, I tried a different ISO/f-stop/shutter-speed combination. And while I’m not sure I got the most out of the a7S, I’m ecstatic about my results that night. I haven’t had time for extensive comparisons to determine the exposure combination that works best, but I learned enough to know that I’m going to love shooting with at night with the a7S.

I’m sharing here an image from that night, one I just pulled up and processed quickly. At ISO 12,800 is it noise free? Absolutely not, not even close. But at an ISO I wouldn’t have dreamed of with my Canon bodies, I found the noise pretty manageable and the results more than acceptable. And to fully appreciate what you see here, you have to understand how completely dark it was out there—to pull out this much detail from so much darkness is nothing short of miraculous.

Based on that one shoot, I think ISO 25,600 will be usable as well. I’m going to keep playing with it, trying to find the a7S’s ISO/F-stop/shutter-speed/noise-reduction sweet spot, over the next few months. I leave for Maui next week, but the moon will be in my night sky while I’m there. I’ll have have dark skies again at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in mid-March, but the trip I’m really looking forward to is my Grand Canyon raft trip in May, when we’ll have no moon and some of the darkest skies on Earth. So stay tuned.

Yosemite after dark

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Seeing the light

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Sunset Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 24-70
2.5 seconds
ISO 100

On the first night of this year’s Yosemite Horsetail Fall photo workshop I’m pretty confident that my group got to photograph what will turn out to be Horsetail’s only truly red display of the year. I’d love to say that this was due to particular genius on my part, but mostly it was just plain good luck (with maybe just a little bit of experience tossed in). But for me the evening’s highlight was the sunset that followed (above), and particularly the ease with which my new Sony a7R captured the scene’s tremendous dynamic range.

But first, a few words about Horsetail Fall…

I generally schedule my Yosemite Horsetail Fall photo workshop early in the window for capturing the red sunset light that (when all the stars align) kisses the narrow strip of El Capitan granite occupied by Horsetail Fall. Later in February the stripe of color is even thinner and more precisely focused on the fall, but I prefer avoiding the crowds and all the drama they bring (especially important when leading a group), and sacrifice a small iota of perfection for a significant chunk of flexibility and peace of mind.

But in addition to a clear western horizon and very specific angle of sunset light, getting The shot also requires water in the fall—no sure thing even in the wettest of years, but especially problematic in a drought year. This year Horsetail Fall was completely dry until the weekend before my workshop. Then, miracle of miracles, a drenching rain recharged all of Yosemite’s falls and Horsetail Fall suddenly sprang to life.

The flow was best on Monday, the day before my workshop started and the first day the clearing storm allowed the sunlight to reach El Capitan, but while Horsetail received nice light that evening, it was more amber than the red that photographers covet. By my group’s first shoot on Tuesday evening, the water had diminished significantly, but still flowed enough to etch a discernible white stripe on the gray granite, and send occasional wisps of mist swirling skyward.

Of the two prime Horsetail Fall locations, the picnic area on Northside Drive is usually a better place for a group because there’s more parking, and room for hundreds of photographers to work without getting in anyone’s way. But because the Horsetail throng was still a week or so away, I was able to squeeze my entire group into my favorite Horsetail location, the much less accommodating Southside Drive vantage point that provides a better angle and more compositional variety.

We arrived to find the waterfall fully lit—a good sign. I made sure everyone had a good vantage point, and while we waited (fingers crossed) for the show I suggested a variety of wide and tight compositions, and emphasized the importance of capturing the extreme highlights.

Watching the shadow’s slow advance toward the fall, we endured the standard fickle light that always seems to torment Horsetail Fall photographers: “Looking good so far… Here come the clouds—not a chance tonight…. Oh wait, it’s going to happen!… No, there it goes… Look! It’s coming back!” About five minutes before sunset, with no light on the fall and a thin layer of clouds dulling most of the visible sky, a few nearby photographers packed up and headed to dinner. But I know better and told my group sit tight. Sure enough, just two minutes after the exodus a faint pink glow appeared on Horsetail, and within 30 seconds the fall was throbbing red. The show lasted about three minutes, long enough for everyone to get their Horsetail Fall shot, and for me to breathe a sigh of relief. The rest of my workshop just became a lot easier.

With a Horsetail success in our pocket, I was able to concentrate the remainder of our workshop evenings on Yosemite’s other sunset marvels, but that didn’t keep me from checking the fall each time it was within eyeshot. The next day it was no more than a wet stain on El Capitan, and by Friday it was bone dry. And with no storms forecast for at least a week (and probably through the end of February), I think this year’s Horsetail Fall window has already slammed shut.

Gary Hart Photography: Horsetail Fall, El Capitan, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall, El Capitan, Yosemite (February 2015)

The rest of the story

As someone who has photographed Horsetail Fall many times, and as nice as the fall was, my personal highlight this evening was the sunset that followed, when the clouds on the western horizon glowed bright red and spread their color in the Merced River. The first hint that something nice was in store was a soft pink glow above Yosemite Falls up-river and behind us. Many turned their cameras in that direction, but I kept my eye on the deepening red behind El Capitan. Beautiful, but a difficult capture. With the sky still quite bright but the entire foreground in full shade, the dynamic range would have been nearly unmanageable for my Canon cameras (without using a graduated neutral density filter or HDR blending). To be safe I could have tried a GND, but darkening the sky would have also meant darkening El Capitan (and more work in Photoshop). So I decided to give the scene a try without aid to see how the Sony a7R would handle the extreme contrast.

Exposing to make the highlights as bright as possible without clipping them, the shadowed foreground appeared nearly black on my LCD. But remembering that I constantly admonish my workshop students to trust their histogram and never make exposure decisions based on the picture in the LCD, I found hope in a histogram that skewed dark but still indicated detail in the shadows.

In my room that night I uploaded my card to my laptop and immediately went to the sunset images. Not only did the Shadows slider bring out the detail my histogram had promised, the shadow detail was unbelievably noise free. The rest of the processing was refreshingly straightforward. The result was this El Capitan image from a perspective I’ve never attempted without emphasizing Horsetail Fall.

I’m still getting used to the extra dynamic range of the a7R, and have yet to find its limit (but I’m pretty sure it’s less than infinity). Having this much dynamic range opens so many doors to landscape photographers, who have no control over the light Mother Nature delivers. In addition to the sunrise/sunset possibilities, I’m particularly excited about the opportunities extra dynamic range opens for my full moonrise and moonset image. I’ve always felt that the window for capturing usable detail in both the moon and foreground opened no more than fifteen minutes before sunrise, and closed no more than fifteen minutes after sunset.

As much as I embrace the creative possibilities brought by limited dynamic range (silhouettes, hiding distractions the shadows, high-key backgrounds), I guess the point is that more dynamic range means greater creative flexibility. With the processing control available from Lightroom and Photoshop, it’s much easier to return an extreme dynamic range capture to the kind of limited dynamic range image we’ve learned to deal with in camera, than it is to stretch more dynamic range from a camera that isn’t inherently capable of it. It’s a whole new world….

An El Capitan Gallery

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 Yosemite Horsetail Fall Photo Workshop

Learn the when, where, and how of photographing Horsetail Fall

Mirrorless and my telephoto renaissance

Gary Hart Photography: Dawn Close-up, Mt. Whitney, Alabama Hills, California

Dawn Portrait, Mt. Whitney, Alabama Hills, California
Sony a6000
Tamron 150-600 @256 mm (384 mm full-frame equivalent)
Metabones Canon EF to Sony NEX Mark IV adapter
.4 seconds
ISO 200

Going smaller

Like most people, my original expectation for my nascent mirrorless world was a significantly lighter backpack, and indeed, I haven’t been disappointed. In my Canon days my primary pack was an F-Stop Tilopa with a medium ICU (F-Stop’s interchangeable internal module for storing and organizing gear), which held my 5D Mark III, Canon 16-35 f/2.8, 24-105 f/4, and 70-200 L lenses, plus a Zeiss 28 f/2 (for night photography). Unless I specifically planned a shoot that required it, my Canon 100-400L lens traveled with my backup Canon body in a separate bag—not a big deal when I’m driving to a destination, but pretty much a non-starter when I have to fly (which I’m doing more and more).

After moving to the mirrorless Sony a7R, I immediately started using my smaller F-Stop Guru backpack, which easily handled the new body and the Sony equivalent of my primary Canon glass: Sony/Zeiss 16-35 F/4 and 24-70 f/4, Sony 70-200 f/4 G, plus the (Canon mount) Zeiss 28 f/2 and a Metabones adapter that allows me to use my Canon glass on a Sony EF mount body. This configuration gave me essentially the same focal range I had with Canon, in a significantly smaller, lighter package. Not only that, I can use a lighter tripod and head. Score.

But, since I hate shooting without a backup body and had heard fantastic things about the camera, I soon purchased a Sony a6000. This amazing little mirrorless camera’s 1.5 crop sensor makes it an ideal complement to my full-frame a7R, has (slightly) more resolution than the 5DIII, and (so far) appears to offer (at least) comparable image quality, with better dynamic range than the Canon. And with a little bit of rearranging, I found I could fit the a6000 into my Guru bag without jettisoning anything else.

The result of this downsizing is a camera pack that’s light enough to hike without feeling like a backpacker, and to ride a bike without feeling like I’m about to tip over.

Going bigger

For my ultra-telephoto needs, my plan all along had been to  to use the Canon 100-400 with the Metabones adapter. But since the 100-400 had always been my least favorite lens—awkward to use, and not particularly sharp—I had no real plans to add it to my regular lens rotation. But my ears perked up when I started hearing my friend and similarly recent Sony convert (and fellow pro photographer) raving about the Tamron 150-600 lens. Hmmmm….

The Tamron 150-600 arrived shortly before I departed for last week’s Death Valley Winter Moon photo workshop. Because the Tamron lens isn’t available with a Sony EF mount, it would require an adapter as well. Don had been shooting the Sony A-mount version of the Tamron paired with Sony’s converter; I opted for the Canon mount version, reasoning that I could use it on my remaining Canon bodies should the need ever arise, and I already have the Metabones adapter. (Word on the street is that the Sony A-mount Tamron with the Sony adapter has much better autofocus than the Canon/Metabones combination, but I don’t need autofocus.)

First reaction? This is not a small or light lens. But as soon as I started using it, two things became clear: it’s much easier to use than my Canon 100-400, and it’s noticeably sharper. Suddenly, size notwithstanding, I had a lens that I could see myself using regularly.

If I’d still been lugging my Canon gear, I’d have had to sacrifice essential lenses each time I planned to use the 150-600. But with the mirrorless system and a little reconfiguring of the compartments in the Tilopa ICU (moving around the padded, Velcro-attached partitions), I can now carry in a single camera backpack (that fits in every overhead bin I’ve ever encountered, including the puddle-jumpers): three Sony bodies (a7R, my brand new a7S, and the a6000), plus lenses that give me a focal length range from 16 to 900 mm (the 150-600 lens is a full-frame equivalent of 225-900 mm on the 1.5-crop a6000). Life’s good.

In the field

So, what does a photographer do with all this new imaging power? Use it, of course. Visiting familiar locations as much as I do, I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to find a completely new way to see these landscapes.

The image at the top of this post was from my first time using the Sony a6000 and Tamron 150-600. To get a better handle on the conditions, I left home two days before the workshop, spending the first night in Lone Pine, near the Alabama Hills just beneath Mt. Whitney. After a moonlight shoot in the Alabama Hills, the next morning I rose before sunrise, strolled from my hotel room across the highway, and set up my tripod with the Tamron 150-600 mounted and a6000 attached.

The first time I aimed this combination at Mt. Whitney (the highest peak in the 48 contiguous United States), zoomed all the way out to 900mm (600mm x 1.5), and dialed in the focus, was an epiphany. Previously unseen rocks and trees snapped into view, and vortices of wind-swept snow spun on the summit. Amazing to my eye, but at 900 mm actually too close to find a composition I liked. So I pulled all the way back to a little less than 400 mm (256 x 1.5), framed up the mountain, and waited for the pink that always kicks off a Mt. Whitney clear-sky sunrise.

I captured this frame about ten minutes before sunrise. Being a little concerned about such a long focal length in low light, I hedged my bets slightly by using ISO 200 to halve my shutter speed. Since I notice little difference between ISO 100 and 200 on the a6000, I think 200 will be my standard ISO when I use the 150-600 on this body. But we’ll see.

The rest of the week was a rediscovery of ultra-telephoto photography. When I first switched to digital about twelve years ago, I started with a 1.6 crop Canon 10D, and my only telephoto lens was a 70-300, making images up to 480 mm a routine part of my capture paradigm. Isolating distant subjects, magnifying closer subjects, compressing foreground and background subjects—it was all a simple matter of reaching into my camera bag. But since switching to full-frame, and replacing the 70-300 with the (faster, optically better) 70-200, ultra-telephoto photography took backseat to more conventional landscapes, and I eventually forgot how much I enjoyed it when it was more convenient. Ultra-telephoto became something I had to plan, rather than a creative option available whenever the inspiration struck.

Gary Hart Photography: Moonset, Wildrose Peak, Death Valley

Moonset, Wildrose Peak, Death Valley
This is a 563 mm equivalent (375 mm X 1.5) sunrise moonset capture from Dante’s View

Don was assisting my Death Valley workshop (Don and I trade off assisting many of each other’s workshops), and I’m sure by the end of the week the group had grown weary of hearing Don and I gush about the fun we were having with our new toys. Sand dunes, moonrise, moonset, distant peaks—no natural feature was safe from our magnifying eye. A particular highlight came dark and early one morning at Dante’s View, when I turned the a6000 and 150-600 to Jupiter, low on the horizon near Telescope Peak, gathered the group around my LCD, zoomed to 600mm, and shared the glowing disk of our solar system’s largest planet surrounded by the four Galilean moons.

The bottom line

Mirrorless has definitely meant a significantly smaller, lighter bag to handle my “meat and potatoes” 16-200 mm focal length range (that I never leave home without) when mobility is paramount—hiking or biking, I hardly know there’s anything on my back.

But equally significant is the way compact mirrorless gear also allows me expand my creative options without hiring a Sherpa. Now, in the same backpack that once maxed out with a single Canon body (most recently a 5D Mark III) and Canon lenses covering 16-200 mm, I can travel with three mirrorless bodies, plus lenses covering an effective focal range from 16-900 mm (including my 28 mm f/2 Canon-mount Zeiss for night photography). Life’s good.

 An ultra-telephoto gallery (>200 mm)

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Death Valley Winter Moon Photo Workshop

Moonrise Silhouette, Death Valley

Moonrise Silhouette, Death Valley

Sony Digital Imaging

Exceeding the sum of the parts

Gary Hart Photography: Heaven and Earth, New Moon and Venus, Sierra Foothills

Heaven and Earth, New Moon and Venus, Sierra Foothills
Sony a7R
Sony 70-200 f4 G
2 seconds
ISO 400

When I decided to make photography my career, I promised myself I’d only photograph what I love. Not because I believed that’s where I’d find my best images (I wasn’t that calculating), but simply because the only good reason I could come up with for leaving an excellent job with a great company was to do something that made me truly happy. And lucky me—today most of my time behind a camera is spent pursuing subjects that touch a special place in my heart, subjects I’m naturally drawn to, camera or not.

For example…

There’s Yosemite, for sure. And pretty much anything celestial. Dramatic weather, dogwood, poppies, oak trees, reflections all thrill me. I could go on…. And as much as I enjoy these subjects individually, I love combining more than one to create (what at least feel to me like) a natural synergy. I mean, photographing Yosemite Valley is always great. And who doesn’t like to see a rainbow? But finding a rainbow arcing above Yosemite Valley? Well, you get the point….

While Yosemite Valley is a bit of a drive, and rainbows are unpredictable, ephemeral phenomena, the oak trees I love so much are deeply rooted less than an hour from home. And the moon is nothing if not predictable. So combining these favorites simply requires combining a small amount of effort with a little cooperation from the weather.

Marking my calendar

Between workshops, I made a point of highlighting the evening of this January’s full moon in my calendar. And rather than return to one of my tried-and-true foothill oak views, I left early enough to explore. After a great afternoon and many discoveries, I finally landed at the end of a new, graded but unbuilt cul-de-sac with a clear view of a distant trio of hilltop oaks.

While waiting for the moon to appear, I fired a few frames, silhouetting the trees against the sun descending through the orange sky, an unplanned and special juxtaposition in its own right. When the moon finally emerged above the darkening horizon, it was flanked by Venus. And when Mercury appeared a few minutes later (center-right, beneath the moon), I had a celestial triangle balanced above the terrestrial oaks. Synergy.

A gallery of natural synergy

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The real California

Gary Hart Photography: California Sunset, Sierra Foothills

California Sunset, Sierra Foothills
Sony a7R
Sony 70-200 f4 G
1/200 seconds
ISO 100

I love driving the Sierra foothills east of my home in Sacramento, one eye on the road, the other scanning for gnarled oaks I can photograph against the sky. To my very California eyes, these are the scenes of home—not the palm trees and surf boards most people picture when they think of my home state.

California’s oak trees have inherent beauty that’s underscored when they’re silhouetted against a sunset horizon. I’ve accumulated many go-to locations for just this kind of scene, but because much of the joy of photography is the seeking, one afternoon last week I left home with plenty of time to explore some of the many untried foothill roads south of Highway 50.

My first detour took me into one of many new subdivisions that threaten the very foothills I love so much. Soon these wide open spaces will be smothered by homes, but right now they’re simply etched with a varicose pattern of fresh pavement. As sad as this “progress” makes me, on this afternoon it gave me access to some views I’ve never had.

I wound as far back into the hills as the roads would allow, eventually ending up at the end of a cul-de-sac with a straight-shot view of three hilltop oaks. Because the afternoon was still young, I continued exploring, but as sunset approached, I knew this view was the one that would give me what I wanted—not just a sunset, but a sunset with a two-percent crescent moon flanked by Venus.

I arrived about fifteen minutes before sunset, surveyed the scene to find the best place align the moon with the trees, then watched the sun drop to the horizon. My original plan was to simply wait for the moon to appear, but when a the sun dropped into a translucent film of thin clouds gave that gave it yellow-orange cast, it occurred to me this would be a good opportunity to further test the dynamic range of my new Sony a7R. So out came my 3-stop Singh-Ray reverse graduated neutral density filter and my Sony 70-200 lens (sadly, the Canon 100-400 and Metabones adapter were at home), and I went to work.

Not only was I able to get a usable silhouette that still retained the color in the sun, the 36 megapixel resolution of the a7R allowed me to crop my result to more closely match the 400mm focal length I wished I had. Life’s good.

A Sierra Foothills Gallery

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

More thoughts on the Sony a7R

Gary Hart Photography: Rocks at Sunset, Garrapata Beach, Big Sur

Rocks at Sunset, Garrapata Beach, Big Sur
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1/15 seconds
ISO 100

Read my original thoughts on the Sony a7R in my November 25 post, “New trick, old dog.

It’s been about two months since I switched my primary camera from a Canon 5D Mark III to a Sony a7R. After a lifetime of seeing the “actual” world through my viewfinder, (for me at least) there has been some adjustment to trusting a digital facsimile of the world. I’m actually surprised by how long the adjustment is taking, but I’m getting there (and your results may vary). And this is really more my problem than the camera’s—I have no significant complaints with the camera’s interface or handling.

Another thing to prepare for is a lot more sensor dust. Unlike and SLR, which has a mirror and shutter to protect the sensor, a mirrorless sensor is pretty much exposed to the elements when the lens is removed. At the very least you’ll want to blow the sensor after each use, and do more aggressive cleaning very regularly.

On the positive side of the ledger, I appreciate the a7R’s extreme customizability. And I’m finding focus-peaking and (especially) the focus magnifier to be a godsend for my shooting style—I obsessively seek subjects from near to far in my frame, and am more than happy to forego the speed of autofocus for the precision of manual focus. As my trust in the a7R’s electronic focus aids grows, I find manual focusing so effortless that I never even attempt autofocus (nor do I miss using it).

But more important than interface and usability pluses and minuses, I continue to be blown away by the quality of the images I get from this camera. The a7R’s dynamic range is the stuff of dreams, and the sharpness and resolution continue to thrill me. I’m admittedly not a pixel-peeper, but I’ve not encountered any of the lens concerns some have reported online—my Sony/Zeiss 16-35, 24-70, and Sony 70-200 lenses are sharper than my Canon L glass. Period. I purchased the Metabones Canon-to-Sony adapter fully expecting to use my Canon lenses a lot, but so far have only used the Metabones once (it works fine).

I do have a concern about the sturdiness of the the a7R lens mount—all my lenses wobble too much where they connect to the body, and with minimal pressure can be removed without pressing the unlock button (some more easily than others). Conducting workshops gives me unique exposure to other cameras, and I can say that I’ve seen several a7Rs and they all exhibit this problem. But in a refreshing change of pace from my Canon experience, it appears that Sony has quickly (albeit tacitly) recognized the problem and improved the mount in its newer a7S and a7II bodies. While I’ve heard nothing about a lens mount recall of the first generation Sony a7 bodies (a recall that I feel would be justified), I won’t stress it too much because I found a simple and inexpensive solution: The Fotodiox TOUGH E-Mount completely fixed the problem on my a7R. I consider the Fotodiox mount a must for any Sony E-mount body the preceded the a7S. Installation is quite simple, but here’s a word to the wise: Before attempt the replacement, watch the video on the Fotodiox page; also note that you’ll need a Phillips #000 screwdriver (despite the picture on the website, one isn’t included with the mount).

And since we’re talking about things you might want to purchase, the a7R does not come with a battery charger. Instead, Sony gives you a USB cable that plugs into your camera and connects to the provided adapter (or any other USB adapter—I can plug their cable with my iPhone, Kindle charger, or computer). The problem with this is that the battery needs to be in the camera while you charge, making it impossible to charge a battery while you use the camera, not a great scenario for such a power-thirsty camera. You could spend another $50 or on Sony’s charger, or you could do what I did and buy a third-party charger. For about $27 on Amazon I got a Wasabi charger that includes two batteries (haven’t tested them, but at the very least they can be backups that hold me until I can get a primary battery charged), a car charger, and European adapter. I also ordered one more Sony battery as my primary backup (but I’m kind of obsessive about having backups).

And speaking of backups, perhaps the best indication of my level of commitment to the new Sony is that I just ordered a Sony a6000 (and the Fotodiox TOUGH E-mount). I can’t afford not to have a backup body, and the a6000 is a perfect complement to the a7R—in addition to its rave reviews, the a6000 is quite compact, is only around $700 (even cheaper if you shop around), takes all my EF mount lens, and with a 1.5 crop sensor, gives me extra focal length when I need it (in other words, it’s more than a backup). So it looks like I’m all-in with Sony. Stay tuned….

A few words about this image

The image at the top of today’s post is from my Big Sur visit early this month. I share it here because it’s a great example of why I’m so excited about the dynamic range of the a7R. Since I don’t blend images (just my personal style), I needed to capture this scene with one click. Even with the great dynamic range, I used a Singh-Ray 3-stop graduated neutral density filter to hold back the sky, had to pull the highlights down and shadows up the shadows a little in Lightroom, and do a little dodging and burning in Photoshop. But all things considered, this was a remarkably straightforward capture with the a7R (not much work to expose and process).

If you’re thinking about purchasing filters (like the graduated neutral density filter I used here), you can’t to better than Singh-Ray. For a 10 percent discount on the Singh-Ray site, use the discount code gary10.

A (growing) gallery of Sony a7R captures

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


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