One eye on the ocean, the other on the volcano

Gary Hart Photography: Heavenly Fire, Kilauea Caldera, Hawaii

Heavenly Fire, Kilauea Caldera, Hawaii
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
10 seconds
ISO 3200

September 16, 2014

It’s easy to envy residents of Hawaii’s Big Island—they enjoy some of the cleanest air and darkest skies on Earth, their soothing ocean breezes ensure that the always warm daytime highs remain quite comfortable, and the bathtub-warm Pacific keeps overnight lows from straying far from the 70-degree mark. Scenery here  is a postcard-perfect mix of symmetrical volcanoes, lush rain forests, swaying palms, and lapping surf. I mean, with all this perfection, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, let me tell you….

Last month Tropical Storm Iselle, just a few hours removed from hurricane status, slammed Hawaii’s Puna Coast with tree-snapping winds and frog-drowning rain that cut electricity, flooded roads, and disrupted many lives for weeks. Touring the area in and around Hilo, it’s easy to appreciate Hawaiian resilience—thanks to quick action, hard work, and continuous smiles, most visitors would find it difficult to believe what happened here just a month ago. But on drive south of Hilo along the Puna Coast, I witnessed firsthand Iselle’s power in its aftermath. There beaches have been rearranged beyond recognition and entire forests have been leveled.

But despite its impact, Iselle is already old news. This month residents of Hawaii’s Puna region have done a 180, turning their always vigilant eyes away from the ocean and toward the volcano. In late June Kilauea’s Pu`u `O`o Crater dispatched a river of lava down the volcano’s southeast flank. Since Pu`u `O`o has been erupting continuously since 1983, this latest incursion didn’t initially raise many eyebrows. But the flow has persisted, advancing now at about 250 yards per day. While this is isn’t “Run-for-your life!” speed, it’s more like high stakes water torture because there’s very little that can be done to stop, slow, or even deflect the lava’s inexorable march. Residents of the communities of Kaohe and Pahoa can do nothing but watch, pray, and prepare—if the volcano persists, they’re wiped out. Not only that, the lava flow also threatens the Pahoa Highway, currently the only route in and out for the thousands of residents of the Puna region.

Recent reports of increased activity on Muana Loa have also notched up the anxiety. Lava from its last eruption, in 1984, threatened Hawaii’s capital, Hilo, before petering out with just a few miles to spare. Because Muana Loa eruptions tend to be larger and more explosive than Kilauea eruptions, any increased activity there is taken very seriously.

Had enough? Well, there’s more thing: With its funnel-shaped bay and bullseye placement in the Pacific Ring of Fire, Hilo is generally considered the most tsunami vulnerable city in the world. Fatal tsunamis have struck the Big Island in 1837, 1868, 1877, 1923, 1923, 1946, 1960, and 1975. Yesterday my photo workshop group photographed sunrise at Laupahoehoe Point, where damage from the most deadly tsunami to strike American soil is still visible. That tsunami, in 1946 (before Hawaii became a state), traveled 2,500 miles from the Aleutian Islands to kill 159 Hawaiians, including 20 schoolchildren and 4 teachers in Laupahoehoe.

Despite this shopping list of threats and hardship, I don’t get the sense the Hawaiians want sympathy. Despite the unknown but potentially devastating consequences facing them, both imminent and potential, no one here is feeling sorry for themselves. There’s much talk about the current lava flow that will directly or indirectly impact every resident of the Big Island’s Hilo side, but no hand-wringing—life goes on and smiles abound. Indeed, everyone here seems to have sprung into action in one way or another, shoring up old long abandoned roads (the jungle claims anything left unattended with frightening speed), helping people move possessions to safe ground, offering temporary shelter, and whatever else might help.

The Aloha spirit is alive and well, and I have no doubt that it will persevere in the face of whatever adversity Nature throws at them.

About this image

My Hawaii photo workshop began Monday afternoon, but my brother and I arrived on the Big Island on Friday because I hate doing any workshop without first running all my locations to make sure there are no surprises. And this time it turned out to be a wise move—not only did I get a couple of extra days in paradise, I did indeed encounter surprises, courtesy of Iselle, when I discovered two of my go-to locations were inaccessible due to storm damage. I spent Saturday searching for alternatives and by Saturday’s end had a couple of great substitute locations. That night we celebrate with a night shoot on Kilauea. (I was going to visit Kilauea anyway, but if I’d still been stressing about my locations, I probably wouldn’t have been in the right mindset to photograph.)

We arrived to find the Milky Way glowing brightly above the caldera and immediately started shooting. Because I already have several vertical compositions of this scene that I really like, but not as many horizontal, I started horizontal. That turned out to be a good thing, because by the time I’d captured a half dozen or so frames, a heavy mist dropped into the caldera to quickly obscure the entire view (one more example of our utter helplessness to the whims of Nature).

In this frame I went quite wide, not only to capture as much of the Milky Way as possible, but also to include all of the thin cloud layer painted orange by the light of the caldera’s fire. This is a single click (no blending of multiple images), though I did clone just a little bit of color back into the hopelessly blown center of the volcano’s flame.

A Kilauea Gallery

Click and image for a larger view, and to enjoy the slide slow


Ticket to paradise

Gary Hart Photography, Hawaii Big Island Sunrise

Hawaii Sunrise, Puna Coast, Big Island
Canon 1Ds Mark III
1 second
ISO 100

Tomorrow I head off to the Big Island for my annual workshop there. Not a bad gig.

One of the great things about Hawaii is the fact that there is no such thing as a private beach—all beaches are open to everyone. Of course that doesn’t give tourists carte blanche to do as they please, and some locals can be pretty territorial about “their” beaches. But I’ve found that if you treat the beaches with respect (leave it as you found it, or better), honor the many areas of spiritual significance (don’t go traipsing through burial grounds and religious sites), and don’t disturb the locals (use your inside voice), most Hawaiians are quite happy to share their beautiful coast and lush rain forests.

Unlike the smooth beaches and gentle surf of the Big Island’s Kona side, the Hilo side is bounded by rugged, volcanic beaches—not great for swimming, but fantastic to photograph. It’s this way because Kilauea has been in some degree of activity for many centuries, and most of this volcanic activity is focused on the Puna Coast south and west of Hilo. The result is pretty much ubiquitous black rock and sand like you see here.

Driving the narrow road that follows the Puna Coast is one of my favorite things to do on the Big Island—on every visit I “discover” another hidden gem (or two) like this. I found this anonymous beach while exploring one afternoon a couple of years ago, and rose early the next morning to get out there for sunrise. Many Hawaii sunrises and sunsets have clouds all the way down to the horizon, but on this morning, much to my delight, the rising sun found its way through a gap in the clouds.

One more thing I love about Hawaii? Well, there’s the ability to photograph sunrise in a tank top, shorts, and flip-flops. Can’t wait….

A Big Island Gallery

(Click an image for a closer look, and to enjoy the slide show)

Nuts and bolts at the Grand Canyon

Too Close, Lightning on the North Rim, Grand Canyon

Too Close, Lightning on the North Rim, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
1/8 second
ISO 100

The bolts started around 1:15; the nuts showed up about ten minutes later. There were 14 of us. We were stationed on the outside viewing deck of the Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim, tripods, cameras, and lightning triggers poised and ready for action. The “action” we were ready for was lightning, and more specifically, the opportunity to photograph it.

The storm had started fairly benignly, poking at South Rim a comfortable distance away, far enough in fact that we heard no thunder. But as often happens, we became so caught up in the intensifying pyrotechnics that we failed to appreciate how much our sky was darkening and that the bolts were in fact landing closer. We continued in exhilarated ignorance until a tripod-rattling thunderclap returned us to the reality of the moment. Hmmm.

By the time the raindrops started plopping the lightning show had reached such a crescendo that we found all kinds of rationalizations for persistence in the face of potential death: “I think it’s moving west of us,” or, “The lodge’s lightning rods will protect us,” or, “If it were really that dangerous, the hotel staff would make us leave.” (Ummm: When the strikes are that close, it doesn’t matter where the storm is heading; lightning rods are to protect the (smart) people inside the lodge; the hotel staff isn’t paid enough to go outside for anything that risky.) I wish I could say it was common sense that eventually drove us all inside, but the reality is that when the heavy rain finally arrived, it became impossible to keep the front of our lenses dry.

So what is it about danger that brings out the stupid in photographers? I used to be able to use the “I’m from California and we don’t get lightning so I don’t know any better,” defense, but that won’t fly anymore because I do know better: I know that lightning can strike 10 miles from its last strike; I know that if you can hear the thunder, you’re too close; and I know a lightning strike can be fatal, and those who survive are often left with a life-long disability.

And it’s not just lightning. While chasing potential shots, one photographer I know scaled a cliff far beyond my his skill level, drove without hesitation into (but not out of) a raging creek, and became hopelessly mired in the mud on a narrow jungle track. And how often do we hear news reports of a photographer plummeting to her death while angling for a better shot, or the partial remains of a photographer discovered in the stomach of an unfortunate grizzly?

We each have our own safety threshold, a comfort zone beyond which we won’t venture. I have a really tough time getting within three feet of any vertical drop greater than 50 feet, but I know photographers who can spit into the Colorado River from the 1,000 foot vertical rim at Horseshoe Bend. I’ve lived in California my entire life and am always disappointed when I miss an earthquake. On the other hand, I’ve had people tell me they’ll never set foot in the Golden State for fear of a fault slipping.

But back to this lightning thing. It’s not as if I stand on a peak shaking my fist at the sky and dodging bolts like Bowfinger crossing the highway. I will go inside when lightning lands too close—I just think I probably don’t do it quite as soon as I should, and who knows, maybe someday I’ll be sorry (or worse). But I’m happy to report that the score on this particular afternoon was: Photographers—250-ish (the number of images with lightning), Lightning—0 (the number of photographers lost). Next year? Tornados.

Join Don Smith and me for next year’s Grand Canyon Monsoon photo workshop


A Grand Canyon lightning gallery

The right stuff at the Grand Canyon

After Sunset, Point Imperial, Grand Canyon

After Sunset, Point Imperial, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
8 seconds
ISO 100

I’ve been to the mountaintop 

Personal growth should be a lifelong journey. But as a longtime tripod evangelist, I considered many truths carved in stone. Granted, like everyone else, my tripod use (and selection) evolved through my formative photography years. On my path to (perceived) enlightenment, I made the same mistakes most photographers make, mistakes like settling for the tripod I could afford rather than tripod I needed, which only meant spending more money than I would have when I eventually (inevitably) broke down and bought the tripod I needed. And there were those dark years when I believed that in most cases a hand-held shot was just as good as one captured on a tripod. But since my “the center post is more trouble than it’s worth” epiphany about ten years ago, I pretty much believed I knew it all where tripods were concerned.

But last month at the Grand Canyon, I realized that over the last couple of years, some of my tripod truths weren’t immutable as I’d imagined. This was underscored for me during a shoot at Point Imperial, the canyon’s highest vista, when I was able to use my Really Right Stuff tripod and live-view to get shots that wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago.

My (original) tripod commandments

For years my tripod sermon was delivered something like this:

  • A tripod for every shot—no exceptions
  • Sturdy trumps everything
  • Forego the center post—it’s destabilizing, adds extra weight, and makes it impossible to drop your camera to the ground (without a shovel)
  • Size does matter—you need a tripod that’s tall enough for you to see through your viewfinder without stooping (without extending the center post)
  • Ball-head all the way for landscape shooters (no pan/tilt, no exceptions)
  • An L-plate will change your life

Those are the basics; the other tripod variables—cheap vs. light (you can’t have both, no matter what the salesperson or marketing brochure says), three vs. four leg sections, leg-lock design, and collapsed length (for transport in a suitcase or camera bag)—come down to personal preference and budget.

And what’s the big deal about an L-plate?

And L-plate is an L-shaped plate (duh) that attaches at the bottom of your camera and wrapping 90 degrees up one side. It’s really just a two-sided quick-release plate—instead of the standard quick-release that only mounts to the bottom of your camera (forcing you to rotate the head 90 degrees to orient the camera vertically), to orient an L-plate-equiped body vertically, you pop the camera off the head, rotate the camera 90 degrees, and reattach it to the head using the plate’s other side, keeping the head upright (unchanged). Not only does this keep your camera at the same height regardless of its orientation, it’s just much more stable.

Lacking an L-plate, photographers whose tripod is tall enough when the camera is oriented horizontally are sometimes force to stoop or contort when they switch to vertical. Without realizing it, they often compensate for this awkwardness by simply avoiding vertical compositions. I know this because I was one of those photographers—when I switched to an L-plate, my percentage of vertical compositions increased markedly (I actually verified this using Lightroom filters to count the number of horizontal and vertical frames in my library), to the point where my vertical/horizontal images are about 50/50.

What’s your MTH?

By the time they’re serious enough to sign up for a photo workshop, most (but not all) photographers have a sturdy tripod. Still, things aren’t necessarily completely rosy. In addition to a deficient head—either a pan/tilt, or a ball head that’s not strong enough for the camera/lens it’s trying to support (both problems easily solved by going to and picking the head that best suits your needs, but that’s a discussion for a different day)—a too-short tripod is where I see most novice photographers struggle. Stooping, even just a few inches, may not seem like a big deal at first, but it gets old really fast.

Your minimum tripod height (MTH) is the shortest tripod you can use without stooping or raising the center post. Here are the steps for determining if a trip is tall enough for you:

1. Start with the tripod’s fully extended height (legs extended, center post down), easy to find in the manufacturer’s specifications
2. Add the height of your ball-head (if you have a pan/tilt you need a new head and will be doing this calculation all over again when you get it)
3. Add the distance from the base of your camera to the viewfinder

This gives you the tripod’s maximum usable height. Wait a minute, you say, that’s still not tall enough. To get your MTH, there’s one more step:

4. Subtract 4 inches from your height to account for the distance from the top of your head to your eyes.

Old dog, new trick

But in the last year I’ve experienced a minor conversion, opening my mind enough to modify my rigid tripod height recommendations (I used to believe that a tripod that extended above my standing height was unnecessary weight and length)—not only should your tripod be tall enough to use while you stand upright, the ideal tripod is even taller than that, at least 4 inches taller than your viewing height when the legs are planted on flat ground. Extra tripod height allows me to comfortably stand on the uphill side of my camera when the tripod on uneven ground. (If you’re a landscape shooter, how often do you photograph on flat ground?)

Of no less significance is the way a tall tripod allows me to shoot over obstacles. In “ancient” times, photographers needed to to see through their viewfinder to compose and (sometimes) meter, but with the genesis of live-view came the ability to compose and meter without the eyepiece. So while a tall tripod has always been helpful for shooting on level ground, to me this ability to shoot over obstacles is the real game changer.

Going straight to the source

My conversion started with a pilgrimage to Really Right Stuff in San Luis Obispo, about a year-and-a-half ago. I was ready for a new tripod and wanted the best. I’d been quite happy with my Gitzo tripods, but they were purchased before RRS offered tripods—given my long-time experience with RRS heads and L-plates, and what I’d observed in my workshops, I thought I should see whether RRS tripods had supplanted Gitzo at the tripod summit.

RRS doesn’t actually have a retail store, but their beautiful new facility has a nice reception area with many products on display—you might even find the lobby empty when you walk in, but it won’t be long before a door from the back opens and you’ll be greeted by someone who knows more about tripods than you do. My expert was Erik—he spent close to an hour, first patiently demonstrating why the RRS tripods are the best tripods in the world (the comparison was to Gitzo, but his emphasis was on what makes RRS tripods great, rather than what makes Gitzo tripods bad, an approach I appreciated), and then helping me determine which model would best suit me.

I’d arrived with the RRS TVC 33 in mind, but on Erik’s suggestion ended up switching to the RRS TVC 24L Series 2, even though it has four leg sections (extra work extending and collapsing, but more compact when collapsed) and is quite a bit taller than I (believed I) needed. So tall, in fact, that I can almost (but not quite) use it by extending only three leg sections. I’m not going to go into all the reasons I love this tripod (but trust me, I do), but I will say that the extra 8 or so inches above my MTH (I’m about 5’9″)  has enabled me to photograph in ways I wouldn’t have been able to do without it.

The paradigm shifting “revelations” I share here (extra-tall is important; Gitzo is no longer the Holy Grail of tripods) apply to photography, but one of the things I love about being forced to reconsider long-held “truths” is the reminder that the instant we believe we have all the answers is the instant we stop growing.

Case in point

All this (finally) brings me to the above image from Point Imperial on my recent Grand Canyon trip. Point Imperial is probably my favorite spot on the North Rim. The railed viewing area isn’t quite large enough for an entire workshop group to work comfortably, but there are enough spots nearby that nobody is disappointed. My favorite location here is on the rocks, just below the railed vista, that jut about 1,000 vertical feet above the canyon. There isn’t a lot of room out here either, and very little margin for error, so after guiding the brave photographers who aren’t afraid of heights out to the edge, I found an out of the way spot a few feet behind them.

It turned out this location was no less precarious than everyone else’s, but being behind the others and a couple of large rocks and shrubs made composing a challenge. Looking around, I decided the best view was on an uneven slope right on the edge, the closer the better. Yikes.

This is where I really appreciated the extra inches my tripod offers. Extending each leg fully, I pushed two legs right up to the edge, keeping myself a safe distance back. With the front (closest to the edge) legs’ planted, to elevate further and get the camera even nearer the edge, pushed the leg closest to me toward the cliff until the other two legs were nearly perpendicular to the ground (directly on the edge). Finally, I leveled the tripod with minor adjustments in the height and placement of the leg closest to me. Once the camera was positioned (about five inches above my eyes), I switched on live-view, composed, metered, and clicked.

As evidenced by the long shutter speed, it was fairly dark when I clicked the image above. Often the best light for photography is opposite the sun after sunset (or before sunrise). The smooth quality of this shadowless light, and the gradual deepening of the rich hues on the horizon, are often missed by the casual observer who is mesmerized by the view toward the setting or rising sun (not possible at Point Imperial at sunset), or unable to appreciate the camera’s ability to bring out more light than the eye can see. But then, you already knew that (right?)….

The view from Point Imperial (iPhone panorama)

The view from just below the Point Imperial vista (iPhone panorama) 

Extra credit

Roll over Ansel

Tree and Sunstar, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon

Solitude at Sunset, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
1.3 seconds
ISO 100

A few days ago I was thumbing through an old issue of “Outdoor Photographer” magazine and came across an article on Lightroom processing. It started with the words:

“Being able to affect one part of the image compared to another, such as balancing the brightness of a photograph so the scene looks more like the way we saw it rather than being restricted by the artificial limitations of the camera and film is the major reason why photographers like Ansel Adams and LIFE photographer W. Eugene Smith spent so much time in the darkroom.” (The underscores are mine.) Wow, this statement is so far off base that I hardly know where to begin. But because I imagine the perpetuation of this myth must send Ansel Adams rolling over in his grave, I’ll start by quoting the Master himself:

  • “When I’m ready to make a photograph, I think I quite obviously see in my minds eye something that is not literally there in the true meaning of the word.”
  • “Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative art.”
  • “Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships!”

Do those sound like the thoughts of someone lamenting the camera’s “artificial limitations” and its inability to duplicate the world the “way we saw it”? Take a look at just a few of Ansel Adams’ images and ask yourself how many duplicate the world as we see it: nearly black skies, exaggerated shadows and/or highlights, and skewed perspectives. And no color! (Not to mention the fact that an image is a two-dimensional approximation of a three-dimensional world.) Ansel Adams wasn’t trying to replicate scenes more like he saw them, he was trying to use his camera’s unique (not “artificial”) vision to show us aspects of the world we miss or fail to appreciate.

You’ve heard me say this before

The rest of the OP article contained solid, practical information for anyone wanting to come closer to replicating Ansel Adams’ traditional darkroom techniques in the contemporary digital darkroom. But it’s the perpetuation of the idea that photographers are obligated to photograph the world like they saw it that continues to baffle me.

The camera’s vision isn’t artificial, it’s different. To try to force images to be more human-like is to deny the camera’s ability to expand viewers’ perception of the world. Limited dynamic range allows us to emphasize shapes that get lost in the clutter of human vision; a narrow range of focus can guide the eye and draw attention to particular elements of interest and away from distractions; the ability to accumulate light in a single frame exposes color and detail hidden by darkness, and conveys motion in a static medium.

No, this isn’t the way it looked when I was there

While this sunset scene from Lipan Point at the Grand Canyon is more literal than many of my images, it’s not what my eyes saw. To emphasize the solitude of the lone tree, I allowed the shaded canyon to go darker than my eyes saw it. This was possible because a camera couldn’t capture enough light to reveal the shadows without completely obliterating the bright sky (rather than blending multiple images, I stacked Singh-Ray three- and two-stop hard transition graduated neutral density filters to subdue the bright sky).

To convey a mood more consistent with the feeling of precarious isolation of this weather-worn tree, I exposed the scene a little darker than my experience of the moment. The sunstar, which isn’t seen by the human eye but was indeed my camera/lens’ “reality” (given the settings I chose), was another creative choice. Not only does it introduce a ray of hope to an otherwise brooding scene, without the sunstar the top half of the scene would have been too bland for me to include as much of the shadowed canyon as I wanted to.

I’m not trying to pass this image off as a masterpiece (nor am I comparing myself to Ansel Adams), I’m simply trying to illustrate the importance of deviating from human reality when the goal is an evocative, artistic image. Much as music sets the mood in a movie without being an actual part of the scene, a photographer’s handling of light, focus, and other qualities that deviate from human vision play a significant role in the image’s impact.

A Gallery of My Camera’s World

(Stuff my camera saw that I didn’t)




The right stuff with the left brain

Multiple Lightning Strikes, Grand Canyon Lodge, North Rim, Grand Canyon

Dancing Light, South Rim Lightning, Grand Canyon Lodge (North Rim), Grand Canyon
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
Canon 24-104L
15 1/2 minutes
ISO 200

Left versus right

Writing about “The yin and yang of nature photography” a couple of weeks ago, I suggested that most photographers are limited by a tendency to strongly favor the intuitive or logical side of their brain (the so-called right-brain/left-brain bias). Today I want to address those intuitive (right brain) thinkers who feel it’s sufficient to simply trust their compositional instincts and let their camera do the thinking.

It was a dark and stormy night

There is absolutely nothing creative about this lightning image from last Monday night at the Grand Canyon. This single click image (one frame—no blending) was captured from the viewing deck of the Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim during a nighttime thunderstorm across the canyon. Compounding the darkness of night and the Grand Canyon’s dark pit were dense clouds that obscured a waning gibbous moon—the canyon so dark that I couldn’t see well enough to create anything. To compose, I simply aimed my camera in the general direction the lightning was most active, clicked, and hoped. The original raw file needed cropping for balance, to remove a few lights from the South Rim Village, and to correct a severely tilted horizon.

Don Smith and I had just brought our workshop group back from a sunset shoot at Point Imperial. Some headed back to their cabins to recover from a day that had started at 4:30 a.m., while a few veered to the “saloon” (it’s not quite as raucous as it sounds) for a beer or glass of wine. Lugging my gear back to my cabin, flashes in the clouds above the lodge indicated lightning was firing somewhere in the distant south and I detoured down to the lodge’s viewing deck to check it out. Through the two-story windows of the inside viewing room and before I even stopped walking I saw bolts landing due south across the canyon, and along the rim down the canyon to the west—violent, multi-stroke bolts that illuminated the clouds and canyon walls with their jagged brilliance.

I set up on the west viewing deck with just enough twilight remaining to compose, starting with a composition I liked—it wasn’t in the direction of the most activity, but I’d already seen a couple of strikes in that direction and was hoping I’d catch a bolt or two. But as the sky darkened and my exposures failed to capture anything, it became clear the activity was shifting west and I’d need to adjust my composition. By then the darkness was nearly complete and I simply centered my frame on the black outline of Oza Butte in front of me, going wide enough to ensure maximum lightning bolt captures.

While finding focus for my earlier compositions had been a little tricky, there had been enough light to make focus manageable. But now the absence of any canyon detail made getting a sharp frame extremely problematic using the conventional focus methods. (Contrary to a misconception that lingers from the old film days, when everyone used prime lenses, you can’t simply dial a zoom lens to infinity and assume you’ll be sharp.)

Once I decided on my composition (and focal length), I pointed my camera (still on the tripod) in the direction of the Grand Canyon Village lights on the South Rim centered the brightest light in my viewfinder. I engaged live-view, magnified the scene 5X, re-centered the target light, magnified 10X (5X and 10X are the two magnification options on my 5DIII), and slowly turned my focus ring until the cross-canyon light shrunk from a soft blur to a distinct point. I then swung my camera back toward my the butte and recreated my composition (without changing my focal length).

Because my earlier exposures had been 30 seconds at ISO 1600 ISO, designed to capture just one or two strikes in a composition I liked, but short enough to adjust things relatively frequently. But since my new strategy was to fire directly into the mouth of the beast, and lacking a composition in which I had any confidence, I decided on a long exposure that would capture enough lightning to overcome the unknown but likely relatively bland composition. Instead of 30 seconds, I wanted at least 12-15 minutes of exposure in Bulb mode (instead of a shutter speed that’s fixed at the moment of the click, in Bulb mode the shutter remains open until I decide it’s time to close it).

“You didn’t tell me there’d be math…”

Doing the math: Because each doubling of the shutter speed adds one stop, a 15 minute exposure would add about (close enough to) 5 stops of light to my original 30 seconds:

  1. 30 seconds x 2 = 1 minute—1 stop
  2. 1 minute x 2 = 2 minutes—2 stops
  3. 2 minutes x 2 = 4 minutes—3 stops
  4. 4 minutes x 2 = 8 minutes—4 stops
  5. 8 minutes x 2 = 16 minutes—5 stops

Adding five stops of exposure time meant that keeping the amount of light in my next image unchanged, I’d need to subtract a corresponding 5 stops of light in ISO and/or aperture. But since I thought that my previous exposure was at least a stop too dark, and I guessed that the sky would be darkening even more, I decided to drop only 3 stops, from ISO 1600 to ISO 200 (halving the ISO reduces the light by 1 stop). I made my ISO adjustment, clicked my shutter and locked it open on my remote, checked my watch, then sat back and enjoyed the show.

The 12-15 minute plan was just a guideline—since the difference between 10 minutes and 20 minutes would only be 1 stop, my decision for when to close my shutter had quite a bit of wiggle room. In this case after about 15 minutes I noticed the lightning was slowing down and shifting further west, so I wrapped my exposure and recomposed for my next shot. As it turns out, the next frame only captured a third of the number of strikes this one got because the most intense part of the show was winding down.

The worst is over

If you’re one of those “I have a good eye for composition, but…” folks, congratulations for sticking with me this long. I hope this illustrates for you how important understanding metering and exposure basics, and managing them with your camera, is to maximizing your capture opportunities. This technical aspect of photography isn’t something that should intimidate you—if you can multiply and divide by 2, you have all the math skills you need to figure things out on the fly.

I suspect, and in fact have observed, that most “intuitive” photographers are limited more by their belief that they can’t do the technical stuff than they are by an actual inability to it. What seems to have happened is that they’ve been buried by an avalanche of well-intended but less significant technical minutia covering everything from exposure (e.g., “RGB histograms” and “exposing to the right”), to focus (e.g., “circles of confusion” and “hyperfocal distance”), to printing (e.g., “colorspace” and “monitor calibration”). Many of these things are indeed quite important, but nobody should be expected to tackle them until they have a firm grasp on the basics of metering and exposure, and managing the complementary relationships connecting shutter speed, aperture (measured by f-stops), and ISO. I recommend that you ignore all the other technical buzz until this basic stuff makes sense—not only will you be a better photographer for it, you’ll find that the more “complex” stuff isn’t nearly as complex as it sounds.

Want to learn more?

Try these links:

Exposure basics

Manual exposure

Then go out in your backyard and practice!

But let’s not forget why we go out with our cameras in the first place

You can’t imagine how thrilling it was to watch these bolts firing several times per minute. Not only were they landing in the direction of my composition, they were also going all along the rim to the west. Witnessing this display was an experience I’ll never forget, and photographing it was a highlight of my photography life.

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Sign up for your chance to photograph the Grand Canyon Monsoon in 2015

Release the brocken!

Solar Glory, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon

Solar Glory, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
100 mm
1/30 second
ISO 200

So how cool is this? The shadow is me. It’s called a brocken (named for a mountain in Germany), and the rainbow is a solar glory. This extremely rare phenomenon requires the perfect alignment of sunlight, moisture, and observer, and I just happened to find myself at the fortunate convergence of these conditions.

Yesterday evening Don Smith and I photographed the vestiges of a summer storm at Lipan Point on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. We were there because Zeus had washed out the overnight trip to Toroweap that Don and I had been planning for many months.

Toroweap is a many-thousand foot vertical drop to the Colorado River on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, at the end of a 60-mile unpaved road. We’d rented a 4-wheel-drive Jeep for the adventure, but after talking to several Grand Canyon rangers who strongly advised against going out there in the rain. So we jettisoned Plan A and quickly improvised Plan B: leave the relative peace and quiet of the North Rim and jet back to the South Rim (where our next workshop is scheduled to start Friday).

The storm broke during our four-plus hour drive from the North Rim to the South Rim, and we were greeted with the kind of river-hugging, monolith-draping clouds I’m accustomed to seeing after a Yosemite storm. Our first stop was Navajo Point, but after some great shooting there we saw that the cloud making machine was working overtime below Lipan Point, just a short drive down the road.

Arriving at Lipan Point about an hour before sunset, we grabbed our gear and scrambled out to the point beneath the railed (tourist) vista, a rocky, knife-like ridge jutting into the canyon with sheer drops on both sides. I was happily photographing a scene up-canyon when Don called out, “Hey, do you see that?!” I looked up and saw a cloud drifting up from the chasm on our ridge’s east side, no more than 100 feet from us. The cloud was fully lit by the low sun, and right in the middle was my shadow encircled by a full rainbow. I know enough about rainbows to understand what’s going on: a rainbow makes a full circle around the anti-solar point, but terrestrial viewers usually find the bottom half interrupted by the horizon. But understanding a phenomenon doesn’t make me any less awestruck by its manifestation. I’d seen this once before, on a plane taking off through a rainstorm—I looked out the window and saw a rainbow encircling the plane’s shadow, but by the time I retrieved my iPhone the plane banked and I lost it.

But this time I had my camera ready for action—I shifted a few feet up the ridge to juxtapose the rainbow against a snag and clicked away. For my first few frames I stood off to the side and the shadow my camera captured was of my camera on the tripod, so I moved behind my camera and squared my shoulders. Those frames included my outline, but it wasn’t until I spread my arms and legs that I got the shadow you see here.

Read more about rainbows in my Rainbows article in the Photo Tips section.


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