Posted on December 6, 2013
I’ve spent a lot of the last few months photographing “big picture” locations: Hawaii, the Grand Canyon, Bryce/Zion, Arches/Canyonlands, Yosemite. Visiting these spots, it’s impossible to not be sucked in by the grandeur, often at the expense of more intimate beauty right in front of you. But because nature’s beauty doesn’t need to shout, I make a conscious effort to mix intimate photo opportunities in with the grand stuff, and am always on the lookout for the subtle qualities that make a location special.
In early November, while Don Smith guided half of his workshop group to photograph Zion’s Watchman at sunset, I took the other half of the group (those who already had their Watchman shot, or who were just more interested in something less frequently photographed), up the canyon to the Temple of Sinawava. Meandering the trail up toward the Narrows, I demonstrated to those who stayed with me how I identify and photograph narrow depth of field, telephoto isolations of autumn leaves. As darkness fell, a few of us found ourselves more than a half mile up the trail with less than ten minutes to get back to the cars. Hustling back, I wasn’t even looking for photos when something about this tree against the red canyon walls stopped me. Even though I didn’t really have time, I quickly set up my tripod and composed, squeezing off three quick frames before jogging the rest of the way back to the waiting group with seconds to spare.
Posted on December 2, 2013
Imagine that you want to send an eight-inch fruitcake to your nephew for Christmas (and forget for a moment that you’ve been come that relative), but only have a six-inch box. You could cut off one end or the other, squish it, or get a bigger box. If the fruitcake represents the light in a scene you want to photograph, your camera’s narrow dynamic range is the box. Of course the analogy starts to fall apart here unless you can also imagine a world where box technology hasn’t caught up with fruitcake recipes, but the point I’m trying to make is that whether it’s fruitcake or light, when you have too much of something, compromises must be made.
So, forgetting about fruitcakes for a moment, let’s look at this image of Bridalveil Creek in Yosemite. In full daylight on a sunny day the creek would have been a mix of sunlight and shade far beyond a camera’s ability to capture in a single frame—photographing it would have forced me to choose between capturing the highlights and allowing the shadows to go black, or capturing the shadows and allowing the highlights to go white. But photographing the scene in full shade compressed the dynamic range naturally, to something my camera could handle—suddenly everything was in shadow, and all I needed to do was keep my camera steady enough for the duration of the shutter speed necessary to expose the scene at the f-stop and ISO I chose.
This illustrates why “photographer’s light” is so different from “tourist’s light.” It also explains why your family gets so irritated when you base your vacation stops on when the light will be “right.” (Or, if you (wisely) defer to your family’s wishes, you get so frustrated that your vacation photos don’t look like the photos that show-off in your camera club submits for every competition.)
I love photographing a colorful sunset as much as the next person, but I’m never happier as a photographer than when I’m able to play with a pretty scene in full shade. Overcast skies are great because they allow me to photograph all day, but because clouds are never a sure thing, at every location I photograph I try to have weather-independent spots that will allow me to photograph when clear skies fill the rest of the landscape with sunlight. For example, Bridalveil Creek—nestled against Yosemite Valley’s shear south wall, much of the year Bridalveil Creek is in full shade until at least mid-morning, and then again by mid-afternoon. I never have to worry about what the light is here because I know exactly when I’ll find it in wonderful, (easy) low contrast shade.
The morning I captured this image was one of those blue sky days that can shut a photographer down, but I knew exactly where I needed to be. Arriving at about 8 a.m., I had several hours of shooting in easily manageable, constant light. As I scrambled up the creek toward the fall, I fired off a few frames but nothing stopped me until I came across this small pool swarming with recently fallen leaves. A couple of “rough draft” frames were enough to know that there was an image in here—I just needed to find it.
I suspected I needed to be closer, but between the large, slippery rocks and frigid creek, movement was quite difficult. Nevertheless, with each composition I seemed to manage to work my way a little closer, until I finally found myself at water’s edge. I started my composition at eye level, but that gave me too much water. To better balance the background cascade, middle-ground pool, and foreground leaves, I dropped down to about a foot above water level—this allowed me to include the foreground leaves with a telephoto that brought the cascade closer and shrunk the water separating the two.
Framing the scene this way required zooming to 60mm; because I wanted as much sharpness throughout the frame as possible, I stopped all the way down to f22 (an extreme I try to avoid). While the dense shade made the scene’s dynamic range manageable, it also made it quite dark; adding a polarizer to cut the glare subtracted two more stops. Sometimes I can increase my ISO enough to achieve a shutter speed that gives a little definition in the water, but given all the other exposure factors I just cited, my water was going to be blurred no matter what ISO I chose. So I decided to go the other direction and maximize my shutter speed to emphasize the motion of the leaves swirling on the pool’s surface.
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FYI, your nephew would probably prefer an Amazon gift card. And if you must send a fruitcake, this one looks good (feel free to try it and send a sample).
Posted on November 29, 2013
On this Thanksgiving weekend, the next installment in my semi-regular Favorites series is an image that, every time I look at it, reminds me of my good fortune for being able to do what I do.
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I photographed this sunset scene on Ke’e Beach on Hawaii’s northernmost island, Kauai (while co-leading Don Smith’s Kauai workshop). I love this image for the way it conveys Hawaii’s tranquility far better than any words can. As Hawaii sunsets go, there really wasn’t anything particularly special about this one. Instead, I like to think that this image works not because of the vivid color or iconic landscape that everyone loves, but because the absence of all that drama so effectively reflects the peace we all seek. The equilibrium between Hawaii’s water, wind, and warmth, and the relaxed pace this equilibrium inspires in all who live or visit here, so thoroughly dilutes life’s pain and anxiety, that the balance of the Universe becomes instantly clear.
Posted on November 19, 2013
Wow, it seems like only yesterday that the moon was just tiny dot hovering above Half Dome.
No, the moon didn’t magically expand, nor did I enlarge it digitally and plop it into this image. What happened is that I waited two days and moved back; what happened is the difference between 40mm and 400mm; what happened is a perfect illustration of the photographer’s power to influence viewers’ reaction to a scene through understanding and execution of the camera’s unique view of the world.
The rest of the story
My workshop group captured the “small” moon at sunset on Thursday, when it was 93% full and the “official” (assumes a flat, unobstructed horizon) moonrise was 3:09 p.m (an hour and 40 minutes before sunset). That night the moon didn’t rise to 16 degrees above the horizon, the angle to Half Dome’s summit as viewed from our location beside the Merced River, until almost exactly sunset. Because it’s so much higher than anything to the west, Half Dome gets light pretty much right up until sunset—look closely and you can see the day’s last rays kissing Half Dome’s summit.
Flat horizon moonrise on Saturday, when the moon was 100% full, was at 4:24 p.m., only about twenty minutes before sunset. But Tunnel View is nearly 500 feet above Yosemite Valley; it’s also 5 1/2 miles farther than Half Dome than Thursday’s location—this increased elevation and distance reduces the angle to the top of Half Dome to just 6 degrees. So, despite rising over an hour later, when viewed from Tunnel View, the moon peeked above the ridge behind Half Dome just a couple of minutes after sunset (if we’d stayed at Thursday night’s location, in addition to being hungry and cold, by Saturday we’ have had to wait until after 6:00 for the moon to appear).
My objective for full moon photography is always to get the detail in the moon and the foreground. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, these were workshop shoots, and experience has shown me that the most frequent failure when photographing a rising moon in fading twilight is getting the exposure right—the tendency is to perfectly expose the foreground, which overexposes the daylight-bright moon (leaving a pure white disk). This problem is magnified when the moon catches everyone unprepared.
So, both evenings I had my group on location about 30 minutes before the moon. While we waited I made sure everyone had their blinking highlights (highlight alert) turned on, and understood that their top priority would be capturing detail in the moon. I warned them that an exposure without a blinking (overexposed) moon would slightly underexpose the foreground. And I told them that once they had the moon properly exposed (as bright as possible without significant blinking highlights), they shouldn’t adjust their exposure because the moon’s brightness wouldn’t change and they’d already made it as bright as they could. This meant that as we shot, the foreground would get continually darker until it just became too dark to photograph.
(A graduated neutral density filter would have extended the time we could have photographed the scene, but the vertical component of Yosemite’s horizon made a GND pretty useless. A composite of two frames, one exposed for the moon and one exposed for the landscape would have been a better way to overcome the scene’s increasing dynamic range.)
Compare and contrast
Thursday night’s scene, which would have been beautiful by itself, was simply accented by the (nearly) full moon. Contrast that with my visit a few years ago, when I photographed a full moon rising slightly to the left of its position last Saturday’s night. But more significant than the moon’s position that evening was the rest of the scene, which was so spectacular that it called for a somewhat wider composition that included the pink sky and fresh snow. And then there’s the above image, from last Saturday night—because the sky was cloudless (boring), and snow was nowhere to be seen, I opted for a maximum telephoto composition that was all about the moon and Half Dome.
The wide angle perspective I chose Thursday night emphasized the foreground by exaggerating the distance separating me, Half Dome, and the moon; the snowy moonrise image found a middle ground that went as tight as possible while still conveying the rest of the scene’s beauty. Saturday night’s telephoto perspective compressed that distance, bringing the moon front and center. Same moon, same primary subject: If Thursday night’s moon was a garnish, Saturday’s was the main course.
Posted on November 18, 2013
The highlight of my just completed Yosemite Autumn Moon photo workshop was a full moon rising above Half Dome at sunset. But rather than settle for just one Half Dome sunset moonrise, I’d “arranged for” three. Clouds shut us out on sunset-moonrise number two, but sunset-moonrise number one was a huge success. (And sunset-moonrise number three, from Tunnel View, was so special that I’ll dedicate a whole blog post to it.)
Any location’s “official” sun and moon rise/set times assume a flat horizon—if you read that today’s moonrise is at 5:00 p.m., you need to account for the time it takes for the moon to rise above whatever obstacles (mountains, hills, trees) are between you and the flat horizon. And due to the same motion around Earth that causes the moon’s phases, anyone planted in the same location night after night would see the moon rise about fifty minutes later each day (this is an average—the nightly lag varies with many factors). For example, a moon that hovered right on the horizon at sunset last night will rise too late to photograph tonight.
While you can’t do anything about the moon’s absolute position in the sky, you can control the elevation of your horizon simply by changing your location. In other words, careful positioning makes it possible to photograph a moonrise at sunset on multiple nights—move lower and/or closer to the horizon to delay the moon’s appearance, higher and/or farther to view the moon sooner.
The earlier the moon will rise, the closer to your subject (for example, Half Dome) you should be to increase the angle of view; the later the moonrise, the farther back and higher you should be. So, positioning ourselves on the valley floor, close to Half Dome, provided a steep angle of view that delayed the moon’s appearance on Thursday night, when it rose (above a flat horizon) several hours before sunset. Conversely, standing at elevated Tunnel View a couple of nights later decreased our angle of view, enabling us to see the moon sooner when official moonrise is closer to sunset.
Last Saturday night, from Tunnel View on Yosemite Valley’s west side (farthest from Half Dome) the moon was “scheduled” to appear about five minutes after sunset—that would put it in the magenta, post-sunset band with just enough light for about ten minutes of shooting before the dynamic range (the brightness difference between the sunlit moon and darkening foreground) shut us down. While that was the shoot we were most looking forward to, for Friday night I’d picked a mid-valley spot by the Merced River that would put the moon above Half Dome just about sunset. And for our initial sunset on Thursday evening, I took the group to a riverside spot on Yosemite Valley’s east side, much closer to Half Dome.
Clouds obscured the moon Friday night, but Thursday night was a real treat. Not only did we find the fall color in the cottonwood trees upriver still hanging in there (despite a fairly early autumn in most of Yosemite Valley), the clouds parted just in time for the moon’s arrival. In addition to Half Dome, the trees, and the moon in the distance, we were able to get a mirror image of the scene reflected on the glassy surface of the Merced River at our feet.
While the downside of moving closer to Half Dome (or whatever your subject is) is that the wider focal length necessary to include the entire scene also shrinks the moon, I’ve always believed a small moon adds a powerful accent that makes an already beautiful scene even more special. But what if you prefer your moon big? Simple: just wait a day or two, and move back as far as possible. Stay tuned….
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One final point: Notice the cool (blue) color cast of this scene. This is an indication of not just the rapidly advancing twilight, but also the depth of the shade there in the shadow of the steep valley walls and dense evergreens. An image’s color temperature is a creative choice made during processing by photographers capturing in raw (unprocessed) mode. While warming the light would have made the trees more yellow, I decided that the coolness adds a soothing calmness that is lost in the warmth of a daylight scene.
Posted on November 13, 2013
(Okay, so technically it’s a river.)
Spending last week co-leading Don Smith’s Bryce/Zion workshop, I got a taste of my own medicine: the first opportunity to photograph something I’ve long wanted to photograph (usually I’m the one showing others something for the first time). In this case it was Zion’s (aptly named) Narrows, a deep gouge carved in red sandstone by millions of years of Virgin River flow and flood. So vertical and narrow is the canyon that most of the route is wall-to-wall river that requires spending about eighty percent of your time walking through the river rather than beside it. Unfortunately, this hardship appears to be no deterrent to swarms of hikers of all ages, shapes, and fitness levels.
I’ve wanted to photograph the Narrows for a long time, but didn’t think this would be the year because Don and I usually head home immediately after a fall workshop (to allow time to recover before the next workshop—starting Thursday we’ll be in Yosemite for my Yosemite Autumn Moon workshop). But when several of our long-time workshop participants (now as much friends as customers) invited Don and me to join them on their post-workshop hike up the Narrows, we couldn’t resist.
So, when the workshop ended mid-morning Friday, seven of us donned our rented “waterproof” (ish) socks, shoes, and pants and headed upstream from the Temple of Sinawava. I’d been to Zion a few years ago, but on that visit only walked up as far as the entrance to the Narrows before time and equipment limitations (I wasn’t dressed for hiking through cold, hip-deep water) forced me to turn back. While the paved, one-mile trail to the start of the Narrows is quite beautiful as well, I was able to resist the temptation to pull out my camera. But from the instant I put my feet in the water and started upstream at trail’s end, I found myself overwhelmed both by nature’s ability to amaze, and its power to impose its will. Taking in the magnificence of time’s handiwork, I was also reminded of nature’s ability to do pretty much whatever it wants—it took about a half hour to adjust to the river’s inexorable push and overcome the feeling that the next step would be the one that would douse me from head to toe. But adjust I did, eventually reaching the point where the relatively short detours onto dry land felt unnatural.
We stayed more or less together for a short distance before separating to appreciate and photograph this wonder at a more personal pace. With frequent stops to photograph and gape, plus a short detour into a side canyon, I made it partway through Wall Street, a stretch of canyon where the walls squeeze the river like towering high-rises, before turning around.
About a mile downstream from Wall Street, the river bends abruptly and the canyon widens enough to allow a few deciduous trees to take root. After working this scene from across the river for a few minutes, it became pretty clear that the shots I most wanted would require getting as close as possible to the rapids slithering through a bed of river-rounded rocks that are no doubt completely submerged in spring.
Camera and tripod raised high, I forded at a shallower place just downstream and slowly navigated into a deeper channel in front of the rocks, eventually finding myself hip deep on a sloping, sandy bank. Perfect. I set up my tripod and commenced composing, until a vague sense of disorientation alerted me to the fact that I was sinking like Tarzan in quicksand. Yikes. While I didn’t need to worry about a crocodiles and blow-gun wielding natives, the rapid current and unstable riverbed made keeping my tripod steady quite difficult. I found that it was possible to plant the tripod securely enough, but after each exposure I needed to reposition myself or risk sliding into the chest-deep water behind me (which wouldn’t have swept me to my death, but it would certainly have gotten me and my gear far wetter than I preferred).
Stage two of our adventure was to take place the next day, when Don, Don’s wife Beri (who’d flown out to join our hikes following the workshop), and me were to join some of the Narrows’ group on their hike to the Subway. Zion limits the Subway hike to eighty hikers per day, but we navigated the permit process without complication. Or so we thought.
Arriving, permits in hand, at the trailhead in the pre-sunrise darkness, we found a ranger waiting to accuse Don of running a commercial venture in a restricted area. No amount of reasoning could get him to comprehend that this hike was not part of Don’s workshop (Don recently had knee replacement surgery and wasn’t even sure how far he’d be able to go), that absolutely no money (or other financial considerations) was involved (an e-mail from Don making that clear didn’t sway him), that we were actually just tagging along on the other guys’ hike, and that we were all planning to go at our own pace (in addition to Don’s recent surgery, we represented a pretty wide age and fitness range).
Since we truly were doing nothing wrong, Don could have made things difficult and insisted on his right to continue, but taking the high road, he and Beri simply opted out. And despite the fact that I’m a pro photographer who guides my own workshops, for some reason the ranger would have allowed me to go, but I chose to stick with Don and Beri.
While I’m all for stronger enforcement of the National Parks permit process (something we seriously need given some of the behavior I’ve observed), I found this particular action a little overzealous. While I completely understand why the ranger had questions, and his right to ask them, this kind of blind enforcement of the good guys who follow the rules risks a National Park system with photo workshops guided only by rule breakers who know how to fly under the radar. Nevertheless, in this case I’ll give the ranger a pass because he was quite young and clearly lacked the either experience (or wisdom) to recognize that we weren’t breaking any rules, or the authority to use his better judgment. And as it turns out, we three outlaws ended up having a very nice (albeit more leisurely) day that included a far less strenuous hike up to the Emerald Pools.
Posted on November 7, 2013
In my November 4 post, I wrote at length about a recent morning spent photographing a single leaf I found plastered to a rock beside Bridalveil Creek in Yosemite (and my feelings about staged scenes). While my entire shoot that morning was all about one found leaf, it was just the latest in a long succession of focused visits to Bridalveil Creek. Each time I visit here the creek is different: In spring Bridalveil Creek spills into three distinct branches, each bulging with rushing snowmelt; most autumns, the creek has shrunk one branch, a trickle of its former self, decorated with yellow leaves; in winter the banks are lined with snow and ice crusts the surface. On each visit I usually choose a scene and work it to within an inch of its life. On this most recent morning I spent an hour photographing this one leaf, making sure I left no shot un-shot: Multiple lenses, a range of focal lengths, horizontal and vertical orientation, and a variety of perspectives.
Here are more samples: