As far as the eye can see

Gary Hart Photography: Starry Night, Mather Point, Grand Canyon

Starry Night, Mather Point, Grand Canyon
Sony a7S
Zeiss 28mm
15 seconds
ISO 25,600

“As far as the eye can see.” How many times have we heard, and even uttered, those words without really considering their true meaning? Just how far can the eye see? Adults use the expression to convey wide open spaces, and as a kid I remember arguments on the playground about who had seen the farthest, trying to one-up each other with our ocular feats.

To me the words “as far as the eye can see” reveal a misconception that our eyesight somehow travels to a distant location and returns a real-time picture of a person, tree, building, mountain, or whatever for our brain to process. That perception might work for terrestrial scenes, where the time it takes a distant image to reach our eye is so imperceptible that for all intents and purposes, we are witnessing the scene in real time—what we see is happening as we see it.

Let’s take a tour of this night scene from the Grand Canyon to see how that real-time visual model works. Standing at Mather Point on the South Rim, our eyes start with nearby trees lining layered sedimentary cliffs, quickly plummeting to the river-scarred basalt of the inner canyon nearly a mile below. Beyond looms the similarly layered wall of the canyon’s North Rim. So far our eyes have traveled only ten miles or so, but on a clear day they could continue another hundred miles or so before dropping off the horizon.

Scan any terrestrial scene this way and it’s easy to believe our eyes have done the work—when we see an object, we feel like we’re sharing a simultaneous reality. But this shared reality concept falls apart as soon as you elevate your eyes above the Grand Canyon and beyond the horizon to the celestial sphere overhead, where everything (except the small meteor that’s burning up in our atmosphere just a few miles away) was over and done years before it entered my lens.

That delay is the time it takes starlight to span the immense distances of interstellar space. Instead of a simultaneous reality, each star in our sky is on its own clock. In other words, we’re not seeing the stars in this image as they are today, we’re seeing them as they were tens, hundreds, or thousands of years ago.

But back to this distance thing. If starlight takes so long to get here, how far did it travel? Or more specifically, just how far can the eye see? Consider that light travels about 186,000 miles in one second. That’s more than 15 billion (twice the population of Earth, BTW) miles in a day, and nearly 6 trillion miles in a year. These numbers are beyond human comprehension, but suffice to say, a light year is a really long way.

So the next time someone says “As far as the eye can see,” remember this image. Ten miles to the opposite rim of the Grand Canyon, or 100 or so miles to the horizon, aren’t even a drop in the interstellar bucket. To comprehend visual distance, individual stars are a good place to start, but they’re still in Earth’s general neighborhood. Beyond the pinpoint stars, this image captures the glow of our Milky Way Galaxy’s spiral arm that’s home to Earth, a few thousand light years distant—now that’s more like it. But wait, there’s more. In Sagittarius, opposite the view in this frame, is our galaxy’s center. There the Milky Way’s glow reaches our eyes after a mind boggling 25,000 light years. Surely that must be the limit of human vision.

But before you run out and brag to friends that you can see 145,000,000,000,000,000 miles (the distance light travels in 25,000 years), we’re still not done. See that roundish smudge of light on the left side of the frame? That’s the Andromeda Galaxy, the Milky Way’s nearest neighbor, 2.3 million light years away. At 13,340,000,000,000,000,000 miles, that truly is as far as the eye can see.

A few words about this image

Last week I helped Don Smith with his Northern Arizona workshop. After a 12 hour drive from California, Don and I had dinner near the South Rim before heading out to chilly Mather Point to try our new(ish) Sony a7S mirrorless cameras in what is the most difficult location I’ve every tried night photography.

Because I do everything with one click or not at all, I’ve never had any success photographing the stars on a moonless Grand Canyon night. Moonless night photography is difficult in any location, but at the Grand Canyon it’s like photographing a black pit.   Honestly, I never imagined I’d be able to make it work.

A close look at this image will reveal that it’s not perfect—there’s a fair amount of noise, and a little motion in the stars (made worse by jpeg compression). Cleaning up the noise softened the image some, but eliminating it completely resulted in an noticeable plastic look, so I tried to find a balance. But flaws notwithstanding, given that the only thing illuminating my scene was the stars and a faint (imperceptible to the eye) ambient glow from the sky, to get this much detail is nothing short of amazing.

This is just my second night shoot with the a7S, so I’m still working out the best combination of f-stop/ISO/shutter-speed variations. I haven’t scrutinized everything yet, but I have many variations to play with, from this night at Mather Point, and the next night as well, when Don and I took a few from the workshop group out to Yavapai Point.

One thing that is an absolute game changer for me is the ease with which I can focus on the stars with the Sony a7S. With my Canon 5D Mark III and its pretty great LCD, I was able to live-view manual focus, but it took some work. With the a7S focusing was just a simple matter of putting my eye to the viewfinder and dialing the focus ring until the stars sharpened—a couple of seconds at most. Composition was also much easier with the a7S.

But clearly there’s room for more image quality as the extremely limited light of a moonless night at the Grand Canyon forces many compromises. My Zeiss 28mm f2 lens is generally quite sharp, but it’s noticeably less sharp at its widest apertures. And there’s quite a bit of noise at 25,600 ISO (but the fact that I can shoot anywhere near that high is simply amazing). Of course I’d like to use an even higher ISO to allow a smaller (sharper) aperture and faster shutter speed (less star motion), but I won’t be greedy (yet). Right now I don’t know what excites me more—that I’m able to capture night scenes I never dreamed were possible, or what technology will deliver next. It’s a great time to be a photographer.

A Stellar Gallery

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The grass is greener

Gary Hart Photography: Under the Weather, Sierra Foothills, California

Under the Weather, Sierra Foothills, California
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1/8 second
ISO 100

“You’re so lucky to live so close to <fill in the blank>”: Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Big Sur, San Francisco, Muir Woods (and countless other coastal redwood sites), Point Reyes, the Napa Valley wine country, Mt. Shasta, Mono Lake. I hear it all the time. Okay, I’ll concede that—I’m lucky.


Their implicit message is, “If only I lived closer to such-and-such, my photography would be so much better.” But you know what? We all have our grass-is-greener longings. When someone tells me how lucky I am to live where I live (I am), I can usually counter with, “Yeah, but I’d love to have the skies that you get.” Because the sad truth is, for someone who loves dramatic weather and interesting skies as much as I do, California is definitely not the place to be.

My advice to anyone who lives in Nebraska, or Texas, or Illinois, or pretty much anywhere else that lacks California’s dramatic scenery, is to emphasize your skies (which are almost certainly more interesting than mine). Keep a mental database of interesting foregrounds (they don’t even need to be particularly photo-worthy by themselves)—a single tree, reflective lake, cascading stream, whatever—that you can get to fairly quickly when the sky shows potential.

When photographing your subject beneath an interesting sky, place it at the bottom of your frame, compose wide, and give 2/3 or more of the frame to the sky (the better the sky, the more real estate it deserves). Vertical compositions often work great when you want to emphasize the sky. Is it Yosemite or the Grand Canyon? No, but I could be a very happy photographer shooting nothing but great skies for the rest of my life.

I digress

So. As you might guess, on the rare occasion when it looks like something special might happen overhead, I’m all over it. Unfortunately, and despite my proximity to so many world-class locations, there’s not a lot I like to photograph within a few minutes of my home.

I got a frustrating reminder of that a few years ago when, during a heavy (for California), persistent rain, I looked out the west-facing window of my home on Sacramento’s west side and saw nothing but clear sky on the horizon. Hmmm. Knowing three things: 1) the sun sets in the west 2) weather in Northern California moves from west to east 3) a rainbow needs low sunlight and airborne water, inferring an imminent rainbow wasn’t rocket science. All I needed was an east-facing scene.

And therein lay the rub: It’s at least a 30 minute drive to any scene that would do the rainbow justice. Of course with more than an hour until sunset, I figured there was time if I hurried, so I tossed my gear in the car and headed east, toward a small tree that stands by itself atop a hill east of town. And sure enough, within ten minutes of my departure, the rainbow did indeed manifest as expected. What also manifested was rush hour traffic.

For the next hour, I (along with what seemed like ten million commuters) were treated to a vivid double rainbow framing all six lanes of US 50. Poking along at less than 10 miles per hour, we were also beneficiaries of ample opportunity to appreciate the spectral splendor. On the positive side, this rainbow was so beautiful that I couldn’t even muster much impatience—I just sat there in traffic and marveled. And as if its beauty weren’t enough, this rainbow persisted longer than any rainbow I’ve ever seen, lasting at least an hour—all the way up until I pulled my car to a stop in front of the tree. True story.

Deja vu

Fast-forward four years. A couple of months ago I looked out the very same window during on a rainy afternoon and saw the same clear horizon I’d seen four years earlier. Within minutes I was in my car and heading toward the same tree. This time the traffic cooperated and I made good time, arriving at “my” tree about 30 minutes before sunset.

Sadly, despite all the signs pointing in the right direction, the rainbow never happened. Waiting for the sun to appear, I photographed saturated clouds in a steady rain, at no point not believing its appearance was imminent. Just about the time the sun appeared, the rain stopped. And then, about the time the rain returned, the sun set. Oh well.

Am I complaining? Of course not. I didn’t get my rainbow, but I did get a rare opportunity to photograph Midwest skies right here in Northern California. And I hope this image illustrates my point—wasting energy longing for what’s over there obscures the beauty at your feet. Good photography doesn’t need a towering monolith or double rainbow, it just needs a creative eye and a little persistence.

 A Gallery of Skies

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Chased by rainbows

Gary Hart Photography: Rainbow and Surf, Wai'anapanapa Black Sand Beach, Maui

Rainbow and Surf, Wai’anapanapa Black Sand Beach, Maui
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1/5 second
ISO 50

Okay, you might guess that as a nature photographer I spend a lot of time chasing rainbows. True, but I swear that in Hawaii it feels like rainbows are chasing me. Hawaii is the only place I’ve ever been where rainbows just appear with no warning, where I can be standing in full sun beneath a handful of puffy clouds, glance toward the horizon, and do a double-take—where’d that come from?

Because of Hawaiian rainbow’s seemingly spontaneous inclinations, the first thing do after landing at a photo site on the Islands is run through my rainbow checklist:

  • What’s the elevation of the sun? If the sun is lower than 42 degrees above the horizon, a rainbow is possible—the lower the sun, the higher and more complete (greater arc) the rainbow will be. If the sun’s near the horizon, a towering, nearly half-circle rainbow is possible; if the sun is higher, closer to 42 degrees, only a horizon-hugging, flatter rainbow is possible.
  • What’s the direction of the sun? A rainbow always appears directly opposite the sun—the best way to determine where it will appear is to find your shadow, which will point directly toward the rainbow’s center (and its apex).
  • If a rainbow does appear, where do I want to be? Armed with the answers from the first two questions, I know whether a rainbow is possible and exactly where it will appear. Now all I need is a composition for it. Pre-planning my rainbow composition prevents the Keystone Cops panic that typically ensues when a photographer looks skyward and spots a rainbow, but has nothing to put with it.
  • (Notice there’s no mention of rain here—I realize a rainbow requires rain, but in Hawaii the randomness of rainbows is a function of the rain’s fickle nature. Rain can be far enough away to be invisible, or it can sneak up on you with no warning. In other words, if I used the presence of rain as a criterion, I’d be defeating the entire purpose of the checklist.)

This simple exercise served me well a couple of weeks ago on Maui when, while photographing a wave-swept rock on the Wai’anapanapa Black Sand Beach near Hana, a vivid rainbow segment materialized above the eastern horizon. There had been no hint of rain, so I was pretty focused on my subject and not really thinking about rainbows. But since I’d run through my routine rainbow checklist earlier, I knew exactly where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. In this case it was a simple matter of shifting to the other side of the rock I’d already been photographing and back up the beach a little bit.

A horizontal composition allowed me to balance the rainbow with “my” rock while including enough of the lush, palm tree studded peninsula to infuse a tropical feel. The next (easily forgotten) step was to ensure that my polarizer was properly oriented (a mis-oriented polarizer will erase a rainbow). Finally, timing my click before the waves swept too far ashore allowed the black sand beach play a prominent role in the bottom third of my frame.

Want to learn the how, when, and where of rainbow photography? My Rainbows Demystified article in my photo tips section is a good place to start.

Join me on Maui in 2016

 A Gallery of Rainbows

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

Going with the flow

Gary Hart Photography: Sand and Foam, Wai'anapanapa Black Sand Beach, Maui

Sand and Foam, Wai’anapanapa Black Sand Beach, Maui
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1/3 second
ISO 100

One bad apple

Believe it or not, one of the questions I’m asked most frequently is whether I’ve ever had anyone attend a workshop who I would not allow in a future workshop. My answer has always been an immediate and emphatic, No. That changed in a recent workshop, which got me thinking that a successful photo workshop is as much about the people as it is about the location and conditions. And while one bad apple can indeed spoil the whole bunch, it won’t if I do my job.

In the (unnamed) workshop in question, it soon became clear to everyone that my problem participant (who I’ll call PP) was just an unhappy person who wasn’t going to be satisfied no matter what I did. When PP’s complaints started, my first reaction was that I needed to fix something I must be doing wrong, but when I started getting complaints about PP from other workshop participants, my focus had to change—it’s one thing to have an isolated disgruntled customer, but when that customer affects the experience of the entire group, my priority has to be the group.

For example

A successful photo workshop requires flexibility. Certainly in the timing and location of the shoots (which vary with conditions), but also flexibility of standard operating procedure as circumstances dictate. For example, over the years I’ve observed that much of the group connection happens in the vehicles, on the way to and from a shoot, and I’ve found that nothing enhances group chemistry better than getting everyone to ride with different people each day. But after watching participants pretty much trample each other to avoid riding with PP, I relaxed my switch vehicles “rule.” It seemed PP had found a comfort zone with two other participants who seemed satisfied with the arrangement, and I was quite content to not disturb that.

On the other hand, I can’t allow someone’s unhappiness to affect my role as a teacher and leader. I’ve learned that it’s never productive to take these things personally—I’m sure this person was struggling with things far more important than photography, and I just happened to get caught in the crossfire. Looking at it that way, I was actually able to feel compassion for my antagonist, and continue giving her the assistance she needed. We achieved a civil detente during our shooting and training time that allowed PP to get questions answered, and the rest of the group to shoot and learn without distraction.

It didn’t hurt that the rest of the group was relaxed and positive (as most groups are). We ended up with lots of truly special photography, many memorable moments, and tons of laughs—great images were made, new friendships formed, and old friendships recharged. (That several from this group are already signed up for future workshops is an endorsement that speaks even more clearly than the “Thanks for a great workshop” kudos I always appreciate.)

The big picture

One bad customer experience notwithstanding, to say that leading photo workshops has exceeded my expectations would be a vast understatement. I came into it with nearly 20 years of technical communications experience (training programmers, tech writing, tech support), and thirty years of photography experience. And as a California native who grew up camping, backpacking, and (later) photographing all of my initial workshop locations (Yosemite, Eastern Sierra, Death Valley), I was intimately familiar with my subjects. Piece of cake, right?

The big unknown for me was the people—I like people, but would every group feature a PP (or two)? (I also underestimated the business side of things, but that’s a different story that at least has a happy ending.) I mean, no longer would I be lecturing programmers and IT geeks in an air conditioned training room, delivering a canned presentation I’d offered countless times before. Leading photo workshops meant herding a group of individuals possessing a broad range of fitness, skill, equipment, expectations, and needs, through remote areas in extreme, unpredictable conditions. What could possibly go wrong?

It turns out, not too much. First, I’ve always felt that my best photography memories often come in the most extreme conditions. And guess what—most other photographers feel the same way, and will gladly endure extreme conditions in exchange for great photography. They’ll also forgive difficult conditions that prevent potentially great photography: a downpour that makes photography impossible, clear skies that bathe beautiful scenery in harsh light, clouds that block a much anticipated moonrise, and so on. The key for dealing with difficult conditions is to always have a backup plan (or two).

But what about simple human diversity? Surely combining a bunch of people with so many differences would be a recipe for disaster. Concerned about mixing struggling beginners with impatient experts, I originally toyed with the idea of minimum equipment and experience requirements. What a mistake that would have been. While most of my workshops include photography skills ranging from enthusiastic beginner to experienced pro or semi-pro, rather than create tension, these differences create a synergy as the experts love sharing their knowledge and experience with anyone who will listen.

Of course diversity encompasses more than photography skill. I’ve had workshop participants from every continent except Antarctica, and (I’m pretty sure) every state in the U.S. I’ve had doctors, lawyers, programmers, accountants, veterinarians, athletes, dentists, clergy, CEOs, writers, actors, musicians, stay-at-home moms, stay-at-home dads, and on and on. In one workshop I had a rocket scientist and a brain surgeon. I’ve had a woman who biked across America, and a man who hiked the entire Pacific Crest trail. I’ve had gays and lesbians, outspoken liberals and conservatives, a woman in a wheelchair, a man in the final stages of cancer, and a 9/11 survivor.

The common denominator transcending all this disparity? A passion for photography that unites strangers long enough to overcome superficial differences and appreciate deeper similarities: a love of family, friendship, nature, sharing, laughter.

Going with the flow (about this image)

I often joke that I don’t photograph anything that moves. Clearly that’s not true, as people love to point out all my flowing water, lightning, and star trail images. But adding motion to a static landscape does introduce a new layer of complication. How we deal with that motion is equal parts aesthetic instinct to convey the illusion of motion in a compelling fashion, and the technical skill to simultaneously expose properly and freeze the motion at the right time, or blur it the desired amount.

When dealing with surf I usually start with finding the right composition. When I’m satisfied with my composition, I move on to my depth of field decisions (f-stop and focus point), then meter the scene. Only when my composition and exposure are ready and waiting atop my tripod, do I start think about clicking my shutter.

Rather than one or two clicks and done, when I really like my composition I sometimes (often) click several dozen times before recomposing, varying the wave action and shutter speed with each click. (Since my exposure is set, changing my shutter speed requires a compensating ISO and/or f-stop adjustment.) Despite the fixed composition, this approach uses the motion of the waves to make each frame different from the others, often significantly different.

Following each click, I evaluate the image on my LCD for small composition and exposure refinements, and to better understand my camera’s translation of the waves’ motion. It’s not long before I have an idea of what type of wave to look for, when to time my click, and the shutter speed that creates the effect I want.

On Maui’s Wai’anapanapa Black Sand Beach (near Hana) a couple of weeks ago, I used a rock protruding from the black sand to anchor my foreground. I chose a vertical composition to give the rock more of my foreground than a horizontal frame would have, and to allow me to include more of the sky, which I thought had appealing clouds.

Most of the waves petered out far short of the rock, but I soon realized that the waves that worked best were those that came far enough up the beach reach or even encircle the rock. I also decided that the waves that advanced farthest created their nicest effect on their way back out. With these insights in place, there was nothing more to do watch, wait, and click. Every once in a while a wave would slide just far enough up the beach to tickle my (bare) toes and I’d click a couple of times.

Perhaps mesmerized by the rhythm of the surf, I completely misjudged the incoming wave captured here. While no earlier wave had even reached my ankles, this one soaked me well above my knees and drenched most of my shorts. By the time I realized I was going to get wet it was too late to retreat, so I just rode it out, managing this click as the wave washed back out to sea (without me or my camera, thank-you-very-much).

(And I wish I could take creative credit for the wave exploding against the rocks in the background, but that was just fortunate timing.)

Join me on Maui in 2016

A Gallery of Sand and Surf

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

Channeling Wile E. Coyote

Gary Hart Photography

Maui Reflection, West Maui, Hawaii
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1/5 second
ISO 100

“When you want something badly enough, a few mishaps are no deterrent.” Wile E. Coyote

Discovery (September 2012)

Scouting locations for my Maui workshop, I scrambled cross-country down the rugged flank of West Maui’s north side, trying to make my way to a series of lava-rock, reflective tide pools. Once I’d descended to ocean level, reaching the pools still required hopscotching across wet basalt that was a disconcerting hybrid of banana peel slippery and razor sharp. As beautiful as the scene was, I decided access was far too dangerous for a group.

Rather than return the way I came, I continued picking my way along the rugged shoreline, eventually finding another group of connected pools elevated above the surf on a lava shelf. Even more varied and beautiful than the original location, I initially thought this spot wouldn’t be suitable for a group either. But climbing back to my car I stumbled upon an overgrown, unpaved “road” (maybe once upon a time used by vehicles) through the jungle and in the general direction of the main road (up).

After hiking a couple of hundred yards, I parted a branch blocking my progress and found myself back at the highway (“highway” in this case is the one to one-and-a-half lane, mostly-paved Highway 340 circling West Maui), not too far from my car. So, maybe these tide pools could be accessed by a group. Fearing I’d miss this obscure spur from the highway, I saved its position on my GPS and made a mental note to return.

Fool on a hill (March 2013)

The day before my next Maui workshop started, I picked up my friend and fellow photographer Don Smith at the airport. I was particularly excited to share the West Maui tide pools I’d “discovered” (it’s not as if I’m the Edmund Hillary of landscape photography—there are signs down there that indicate the spot is known to locals) and off we went.

Highway 340 circling West Maui will void most rental contracts, even on the best of days. This day the steady rain that had been falling all afternoon seemed to increase with the road’s remoteness, and I found myself wishing for another speed on the windshield wipers as we slalomed around boulders dislodged from the surrounding cliffs by the downpour—at one point we passed a car waylaid by a grapefruit-size rock embedded in its windshield.

Undeterred, we soldiered on. This was Don’s first Maui visit, so I narrated the tour with vigor, enthusiastically pointing out the island’s scenic highlights as we sloshed past, occasionally pausing my narrative long enough to reassure him that the highway was indeed navigable despite increasing evidence to the contrary, promising a worthy payoff at the promised destination.

Closely monitoring my GPS (almost as if I had a brain), at the point of the hidden intersection I veered left into a gap in the trees with surgical precision. Between rapidly oscillating wipers the narrow track at first unfolded just as I’d remembered it, before suddenly narrowing, dropping, and twisting to the right. Dense foliage scraped both sides of the car, which by now was clearly losing purchase in the mud—before Don could finish a sentence that started, “Are you sure…,” it dawned on me that I’d never intended to actually drive this road, that my plan when I marked it six months earlier had been to park at the top and walk down. Oops.

Propelled by momentum, and without the benefit of traction, gravity was now in charge (remember the jungle slide scene from “Romancing the Stone“?). Steering seemed to have less influence on our direction of travel than it did on the direction we faced, so I quickly gave that up. If it weren’t for the road’s deep ruts, I’m sure we’d have careened into the jungle. I held my breath as we approached a bowling ball size boulder and exhaled when the undercarriage passed above unscathed. After the longest hundred yards of my life, the slope moderated somewhat and the car slid to a stop.

After a few seconds of cathartic expletives, Don and I scanned our surroundings. With the car pointing in the the wrong direction (down), I knew getting out started with somehow turning around. A little farther down the slope I spotted a flat, clear space with a short Y-spur that, if we could reach it, might enable us to backup and turn around. I scrutinized the dash for the switch that would engage the 4-wheel drive (I swear the guy at rental agency promised my SUV had 4WD). When we didn’t find it, Don dug the manual from the glovebox—apparently 4WD is an option the powers-that-be at Alamo deem unnecessary on Maui SUVs.

With crossed fingers I gave the car some gas and felt the tires spin with no effect. More expletives. Don and I exited into the rain to survey our predicament—we were embedded in on a road that was soon to become a creek, supported by four mud disks where the tires used to be. Hmmm—that would explain the whole no traction thing. Scraping the tires clean would have been of little value because the next revolution would simply reapply a new layer.

With Don pushing, found that cranking the wheels 90 degrees gained just enough traction to free us and I gingerly rolled the car further downhill and into the open space and down into the Y’s left spur. Yay! With only a little bit of slip/slide drama, I backed slowly and pivoted into the Y’s other spur until the car was turned around and pointed back up the slope we’d just descended.

Now for the hard part. Looking for the first time in the direction of freedom, we came to grips with the chute that had deposited us: Not only was it steep, at the steepest point it curved hard-left but banked steep-right—not exactly a design that would be embraced at Daytona.

I inhaled and goosed the gas and we shot upward, fishtailing like a hooked marlin before losing momentum and coming to a stop no more than fifty feet up the road. This time the car was skewed 45-degrees, its left-front fender in the shrubs on one side, its right-rear fender in the shrubs on the other. When I gave the car gas, the tires spun hopelessly.

More stuck than ever, we started strategizing Plan B—with an hour of daylight remaining and no cell service, we’d need to walk up to the highway and hope to flag down, in the rain, a good samaritan willing to drive two disheveled, mud-caked strangers back to civilization (about 45 minutes away), then hope to summon a tow truck that would extricate us.

While Don trudged up the road, I stayed with the waylaid car, licking my wounds and feeling pretty foolish. Surveying things more closely, it occurred to me that since the road was quite narrow, and the distance and tight curve would make winching difficult, even a tow truck wouldn’t guarantee freedom. If I’d only remembered my Acme Rocket Skates….

With nothing else to do, I decided to take rescue into my hands one last time. Rather than apply the brute force, gas pedal to the floor approach, I put the car in reverse, gave it just a little gas, and cranked the steering wheel back and forth violently until the tires broke free and returned more or less back in the ruts. I applied a little more gas to get it rolling, then let gravity and the rutted road roll me back to the level clearing. Without allowing it to lose momentum, I added a little more gas and rolled all the way to the far back end of the clearing, where I found a small section that was less mud and more gravel.

I’d given myself about 30 feet of relative flat for momentum before reaching the hill. With a small prayer I slipped the transmission into in first and eased the accelerator down, adding gas just slowly enough to avoid losing traction. By the time I reached the hill the pedal was all the way to the floor and I had enough forward speed to avoid much of the fishtailing I’d experienced earlier. Past the crumpled shrubs and protruding rock I shot—as the road steepened my speed dropped and I could feel the wheels spinning but I just kept my foot to the floor. Approaching the curve I felt the car start to tilt right and slow almost to zero but somehow the tires maintained just enough grip to avoid a complete stop. I rounded the curve and surprised Don, who sprinted ahead and turned to cheer me forward.

By now the fishtailing exceeded the forward motion but I didn’t care as long as there was still forward motion. About 20 yards beyond the curve the road leveled and I felt the tires grip rock—freedom! Not wanting to stop until my tires kissed actual pavement, I lowered my window and high-fived Don as I rocketed past and onto the highway. At the top we just couldn’t stop laughing, both at the foolish predicament I’d created, and our utter disbelief that we’d made it out.

If at first you don’t succeed (March 2015)

Despite the traumatic memories, I’ve added this location to my Maui workshop rotation (but now we walk down, thank-you-very-much). Nevertheless, for various reasons this location has managed to thwart me—I’d never captured an image that completely satisfied me. The first year our shoot here was washed out by a deluge that made the road impassible even on foot. Last year we were inhibited by persistent showers that were compounded by camera problems.

But this year I gave it another shot, leading the group here at the end of a long day that started with a 3:30 a.m. departure for Haleakala. Dark gray clouds hung low and delivered tangible flecks of moisture, and I feared they’d let loose before the group had a chance to get established. The road was muddy and a little slippery, not like it was for my misadventure, but enough that a few people bailed and called it a day.

The handful who stayed were rewarded with mirror-calm tide pools surrounded by exploding surf. The clouds didn’t permit enough sunlight to color sky, but they retained enough definition and texture to be photogenic. As I moved around to work with each of the workshop participants, I fired a few frames of my own, eventually landing in the spot you see here.

I decided to go with my 16-35 lens to exaggerate the pool at my feet. Following my general policy to place the horizon line separating foreground and sky on the part of the scene with the most visual interest, I gave almost all my frame to the foreground. I rotated my polarizer to a midway point that reflected the sky but still revealed the submerged basalt. Satisfied with my composition, I stood back and watched the surf, timing each click with the most violent collisions.

I captured several more “keeper” images—enough, I think, to more than make up for previous failures (and mishaps) here. Sleep was no problem that night.

A Maui Gallery

Aloha from the top of the world

Gary Hart Photography: Top of the World, Haleakala Volcano, Maui

Top of the World, Haleakala Volcano, Maui
Sony a7S
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
.4 seconds
ISO 100

March 4, 2015

Just a quick update from Maui, where I’m in the midst of my annual Maui workshop (and because there’s nothing better to do when you wake up at 4 a.m. than post a blog). Before the workshop started I held my breath as I warned my group that on our first morning we’d need to leave at 3:30 to photograph sunrise from the 10,000 foot summit of Haleakala. Not only that, they should pack for temperatures in the 30s and wind. Oh yeah, and there’s a chance that the summit would be engulfed in clouds and we’d see absolutely nothing. The only defense I could offer the insane start time was that everyone needs to watch the sun rise from Haleakala at least once in their life.

Yesterday was the day. To ensure that we’d all be able to find a place for our tripods, we arrived an hour before the 6:45 sunrise. Exiting the car at the Haleakala Visitor Center vista, I looked upward, found a sky filled with stars, and immediately whispered a quick thank you to the photography gods. In addition to clear skies, relatively calm wind made the 35 degree temperature feel downright balmy.

It seems that each time I do this, Haleakala’s a little more crowded. Some in the group stayed with the masses lined along the rail at the primary view; those who didn’t mind a short but steep climb in thin air followed me a few hundred yards up a nearby trail to an elevated, less crowded view.

By the time the sun rose, I’d been playing with compositions long enough to have a pretty good idea what I wanted to do. Because of the scene’s extreme dynamic range, I decided to use my new Sony a7S, adding a Singh-Ray 3-stop reverse graduated neutral density filter, a combination that allowed me to capture this shot with a single click. I’ve never been able to capture so much foreground detail, while retaining color in the sun, in a single frame. To get the sunstar, I stopped down to f20 and clicked just as the sun peeked above the horizon.

Our sunrise success was a great start to what proved to be a wonderful (albeit long) day of photography. We descended the mountain shortly thereafter, and after a quick Starbucks recharge in Kahului, wrapped up our morning with a nice shoot in the lush Iao Valley. The afternoon included a sensor cleaning seminar, a blowhole (accented with a few whale sightings), and a cloudy but beautiful sunset on a hidden volcanic beach.

Today it’s the Road to Hana….

A Maui Gallery

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

Announcing my 2016 Maui Tropical Paradise photo workshop

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

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


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