Posted on October 20, 2016
Photographing snow-covered Yosemite requires planning and patience: planning to ensure your arrival before the snow stops; patience to wait out the storm when visibility is so poor that you can barely see the nearest tree.
When the snow stops, Yosemite’s relatively mild temperatures (usually in the 30s when it snows) conspire with sunshine, wind, and gravity to clear the trees in a matter of hours. Meanwhile, park visitors driven inside by the storm, swarm outdoors to gape, quickly adding footprints and spreading mud with their boots, bikes, and cars. In other words, if you delay your departure for Yosemite until you hear that it snowed there, you’re too late. The key is being in the park during the storm.
All winter I monitor the National Weather Service Yosemite forecast and discussion (in-depth forecast analysis) pages for hints of a cold storm. I know there are lots of weather forecast options out there, but most either lack the resources of the NWS, or simply use the NWS data. The NWS may not always nail the forecast, but they’re more consistent and reliable than all the other options.
Sometimes the weather can change at the last minute, but I’m always ready. (It doesn’t hurt that I live less than four hours by car from Yosemite Valley.) In the back of my AWD Subaru Outback all winter are chains (required to be carried in Yosemite in winter, even with AWD/4WD), a portable charger that can recharge a car battery (among other things) in a pinch, and a duffle bag with all my cold weather gear (waterproof pants and upper shell, hat, gloves, umbrella, and ice grips for my shoes).
Once I decide I’m in, I’m all in. That usually means getting a room in or near Yosemite Valley, driving to the park a day early, and waiting for the snow to start. Once the snow arrives, I don’t hole up in my room, I’m out shooting. Even though Yosemite’s storms often erase all signs of its most recognizable features, stormy weather is a great time to photograph swirling clouds and accumulating snow in glorious (and rare!) solitude.
As much as I love photographing Yosemite in near white-out conditions, I sometimes get too cold, wet, or worn out to continue. But even when I reach that point, I don’t go in. Instead, I park at Tunnel View and wait for the weather to clear. Tunnel View is the perfect place to wait out a Yosemite storm because it’s on the west side of Yosemite Valley (where the clearing usually starts), provides an elevated vantage point with a view all the way down to Half Dome on the valley’s east side, and is spectacular to photograph when the storm clears. It even has decent cell service. And if I’m looking for an excuse to turn on the engine and warm things up, I drive through the tunnel for a view to the west, a preview of coming weather.
My final advice for anyone waiting out a storm at Tunnel View is when the storm clears, don’t spend so much time there that you miss opportunities elsewhere. This is easy to do because the photography will remain spectacular long after you should have moved on to other scenes.
Among my many snowy-Yosemite go-to spots is Cook’s Meadow. On this trip several years ago, until the snow arrived, the meadow was a field of lumpy brown grass, its sentinel elm a bare skeleton in the shadow of Half Dome. But a few inches of overnight snow transformed the bland meadow into an undulating sea of frozen white waves and etched the tree in white.
The snow was still falling when I arrived, wet and fast, slanted by a stiff breeze. Half Dome was gone. I positioned my tripod so the elm stood by itself, balanced in the frame by a stand of evergreens. The falling snow added an interesting dynamic to the otherwise static scene and I chose a 1/4 shutter speed that would blur its motion to streaks of white.
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Posted on October 10, 2016
The morning (last week) I started this post I was photographing South Tufa at Mono Lake in 26 degree temperatures. It’s hard to believe that less than three weeks earlier I was wearing a tank top, shorts, and flip-flops while photographing orchids in Hawaii. And later today I’m off to Moab, Utah.
I’d taken my Hawaii workshop group to Lava Tree State Park, long a personal favorite spot for its quiet beauty and intimate scenes. A recent heavy downpour had soaked the ground and left virtually every square inch of foliage glistening with raindrops. Recognizing an opportunity for some extreme close-focus photography, I immediately loaded my macro and extension tubes into my bag and herded my group onto the loop trail that circumnavigates the park.
In the shade just off the trail at the back of the park, a solitary, raindrop-laden orchid caught my eye—exactly what I look for when close-focus photography is my goal. Unfortunately, even with my tripod extended to its maximum height (6 inches above my head), the flower was a few inches too high to photograph at what I considered a good angle. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t find a position that allowed me to emphasize the orchid and its raindrops without blowing out the brilliant sky in the background. Tugging at the back of my brain as I stalked my subject was that frequently uttered photographic mantra, “Never blow the highlights.” But rather than give up, I stood back and considered my options.
Photographic rules are usually based on sound, proven reasoning that guides the neophyte to competent, appealing images. And while I’ll acknowledge that a broken photographic rule can indeed ruin an image, I’ve also spent my entire photographic career espousing the creative merits of breaking rules. If true artistic achievement means doing something new, and there’s already a rule for something, doesn’t that mean it’s been done? In other words, genuine creativity requires breaking the very rules that are supposed to lead to good images.
So what was my problem? Among the most ubiquitous and absolute pieces of photograph dogma is, “Never blow your highlights!” And for the most part I agree that blown highlights ruin an image—in fact I’ve spent a lot of time writing about how to deal with difficult light, and it’s all been based on the premise that we need to save the highlights at all costs. Over the years I’ve written and spoken about exposure techniques, graduated neutral density filters, HDR blending, and silhouettes to save the highlights.
In this case, after exhausting my conventional solutions, it would have been far easier to move on to a different orchid. But I liked this orchid, with its rich color and shimmering raindrops, and the more time I spent with it, the more I liked it. So what if I make it okay to blow the highlights? What if instead of trying to subdue them, I made the highlights a feature of my scene?
Suddenly unshackled, an entirely new world of possibilities opened for me. I eyed the background and realized that turning the bright sky white, I’d have a striking contrast for the properly exposed orchid. Furthermore, the sky breaking through the canopy overhead would be softened by a paper-thin depth of field—if I could find the right aperture, the effect could be quite appealing.
To focus as close as possible, I added a 15mm extension tube to my macro and worked on identifying the angle of view and front/back relationships, eventually refining my the composition in small increments until all felt right. To mitigate a very slight breeze, I set my ISO to 800 and metered on the flower, ignoring the violently flashing highlights. The final piece of the puzzle was determining the f/stop that would give me the best effect. Rather than trust the result on my LCD, I ran the range of f/stops from f/2.8 to f/16, increasing my shutter speed to keep the exposure uniform. Regardless of the f/stop, with my lens more or less parallel to the orchid’s stem, I had a fairly large area of sharpness that included all of the raindrops, most the flower, and much of the stem.
I know this scene won’t garner as much attention as a vivid sunrise or dramatic lightning strike, but really like this image. So I guess the moral here is if you find yourself bound by rules, aggressively seek the unconventional. If a “rule” applies, go ahead and follow the rule for a shot or two, then challenge yourself to break it. You may end up with more failures than successes (but of course nobody needs to know that), but I’ll bet your successes will turn out to be among your favorite images.
Playing with light
(Creative use of the camera’s “limited” dynamic range)
Posted on October 2, 2016
A few years ago I listened to an NPR show about Time and the arbitrary ways we earthlings measure it. The guest’s thesis was that the hours, days, and years we measure and monitor so closely are an invention established (with increasing precision) by science and technology to serve society’s specific needs. The question posed to listeners was, “What is the most significant measure of time in your life?”
Most callers responded with anecdotes about bus schedules, school years, and work hours that revealed how conventional time measurement tools, the arbitrary units of clocks and calendars, rule our existence. Listening while on my morning run, I was unable to call in to share my own (significantly different) relationship with time, so you’re stuck with reading about it here instead.
Landscape photographers are governed by far more primitive time constructs than the bustling majority. We follow the fundamental laws of nature that inspire but ultimately transcend clocks and calendars: the earth’s rotation on its axis, the earth’s revolution about the sun, and the moon’s motion relative to the earth and sun. The clocks and calendars that have little to do with the picture taking aspect of my life are useful only when I need to interact with the rest of the world on its terms (that is, run the business).
While my days are inexorably tied to the sun’s and moon’s arrival, and my years are ruled by the changing angle of the sun’s rays, I can’t help long for the ability to mark my calendar for the rainbow that arcs above Yosemite Valley at 4:29 p.m. every May 26, or the lightning bolt that strikes the Grand Canyon’s South Rim at 2:45 p.m. each August 18. But Nature, despite human attempts to measure and manipulate it, is its own boss. The best I can do is schedule workshops and personal photo trips to maximize my odds for something special, then show up and hope for the best.
The insignificance of clocks and calendars is never more clear than the first morning following a time change. On the last Sunday of March, when “normal” people moan about rising an hour earlier, the sun thumbs its nose at Daylight Saving Time and rises a mere minute (or so) earlier than it did the day before. So do I. And on the first Sunday of November, as others luxuriate in their extra hour of sleep, I get to sleep an entire minute longer. Yippee.
There’s irony in the immutability of the natural laws responsible for the (perceived) randomness of the very events we landscape photographers covet: earth’s revolution and rotation, our orbiting moon, each predictable in microseconds, set in motion the atmospheric and tidal dynamics that are the catalysts for unpredictable seasons, weather, and waves we photograph. Ironic or not, I love nature’s mixture of precision and randomness. Though I try to maximize my odds for photographically special natural phenomena, understanding that “it” might not (probably won’t) happen only enhances the thrill when something special does happen.
The lightning in today’s image was certainly not on anyone’s calendar, but knowledge of the Grand Canyon’s August monsoon enabled Don Smith and I to schedule our annual Grand Canyon Monsoon workshops for the best time to be there. And despite the uncertainty, it was no fluke that we had our group on the North Rim and within sprinting distance of the Grand Canyon Lodge viewing deck (with Lightning Triggers primed and ready) when the clouds started building and darkening across the canyon.
This turned out to be a special day. After several fruitless afternoons of ticking seconds that stretched to minutes and hours, our group was treated to a two-hour electric show that left us all giddy and breathless. This strike came and went in milliseconds, so fast that I had no idea that it was actually a pair of intertwined bolts, a secret revealed only by my camera’s ability to freeze time.
Right place, right time
Posted on September 24, 2016
Your camera is stupid (and you’re not)
In a previous life, I spent a dozen or so years doing technical support. In this role, job-one was convincing people that, despite all failures and error messages to the contrary, they are in fact smarter than their computers. Most errors occur because the computer just didn’t understand: If I misspel a wurd, you still know what I meen (rite?); not so with a computer. A computer can’t anticipate, reason, or create; given a task, it will blithely continue repeating a mistake, no matter how egregious, until it is instructed otherwise, fails, or destroys itself.
All this applies equally to today’s “smart” cameras—no matter how advanced its technology, a camera just can’t compete with your brain. Really. If I’d have allowed my camera to decide the exposure for this crescent moon scene, I’d have ended up with a useless mess: The camera would have decided that the foreground hillside was important and allowed in enough light to expose distracting detail and completely wash out the color in the sky. But I knew better. Wanting to simplify the scene, I manually metered and banished the insignificant details to the black shadows, capturing only the moon’s delicate shape and a solitary oak silhouetted against the indigo twilight.
It’s scenes like this that cause me to never trust my camera’s decision making, and why, in my (many) decades of serious photography, I’ve never used anything but manual metering. And since I try to have elements at different depths throughout my frame, focus is almost always my decision, not my camera’s, as well.
Today’s cameras are more technologically advanced than ever—their auto exposure and focus capabilities are quite good, good enough that nobody should feel they must switch to manual if they fear it will diminish the pleasure they get from photography. But if you define photographic pleasure as getting the best possible images, try spending a little time mastering manual metering and hyperfocal focus, then use that knowledge to override your camera’s inclinations. In my workshops, where I teach (but never require) manual metering and hyperfocal focus to all who are interested, people frequently marvel at how easy and satisfying it is to take control of their camera.
Overriding my camera’s “brain”
(Images I couldn’t have done in Auto mode)
Posted on September 17, 2016
Photographers frequently complain about what their camera can’t do, and take for granted the things it does well. A lot of this is a frustration with the inability to duplicate the world the way we see it. But honestly, what fun is that? My favorite photographs are those that show me something I might have overlooked or were not visible to my eye to my eye at all. As someone who tries to photograph a world untouched by the hand of Man, I particularly love the camera’s ability to return me to simpler times, reducing a scene to its essence by subtracting reminders of human incursion.
I recently returned to this small stand of oak trees huddled atop a hill in the low foothills east of Sacramento. Since I first photographed this scene over ten years ago, the peaceful country road “my” hill overlooks has evolved into a bustling artery for oblivious commuters. More recently, fencing has sprung up and an arcing dirt road has been carved into the hillside, a harbinger I fear of an impending subdivision. They’re everywhere up here now, these cookie-cutter developments with meaningless, corporate-crafted street names (Aspen Meadows Drive, Teakwood Court), devouring this once bucolic setting like a stage-4 cancer.
Despite the distractions, my camera’s “limited” vision instantly returns me to more peaceful times. Gone in a shutter-click are the highway’s roar and choking exhaust, while the encroaching suburbs are banished by the narrow view of a telephoto lens. And that scar of a road? It disappears in the shadows of the camera’s narrow dynamic range.
Celebrating the camera’s “limited” vision
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Posted on September 12, 2016
I rarely shoot at Mather Point because I’m usually working with workshop students struggling to corral the extreme dynamic range of a summer sunrise there. But on this morning a couple of weeks ago, about half the group had congregated at the rail in near the Mather Point amphitheater, allowing me to set up my tripod and occasionally visit my camera. When it became clear that the clouds were setting up for something special, I prepared my composition, set my f-stop to f/18 (in the sunstar zone), and ready my graduated neutral density filter in anticipation of the sun’s first rays peeking out from behind Wotan’s Throne.
Knowledge is power
As with many of my images, I can trace this image’s creation to long before the shutter clicked. That’s because, whenever possible, I avoid arriving at a location without knowing at the very least when and where the sun will appear or disappear. In this case I was familiar enough with the Mather Point in August to know that the sun would rise between Wotan’s Throne and Vishnu Temple. But I needed to be more precise than that.
We’re living in an era of ubiquitous information, carrying mini computers with the potential to make virtually everyone an instant astronomical genius. Though my own workflow for computing sun/moon arrival/departure information was established long before smartphones, it amazes me both how easy the internet and smartphones have made preparation, and how few photographers do it.
I got a little head start because I studied astronomy in college for a few semesters (long enough to learn that the essential math would would wring the marvel from my mind), enough to have good mental picture of the celestial rotations and revolutions that determine what we see overhead and when we see it.
While I’m just geeky enough to prefer plotting all this stuff manually, for most people I recommend starting with one of the excellent apps that automate most of the process. Of the two apps I recommend, PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris, I prefer PhotoPills because it seems more complete, but they’re both excellent.
If you’ve tried either of these apps and found them too complicated, don’t be discouraged—neither is so intuitive that you should expect to simply pick it up and use it. But each is logical and well designed, and I promise that the more you use it, the easier it will become. In other words, practice!
As with most things in photography, it’s best not to be trying to learn to predict the timing and position of the sun or moon when the results matter. Rather, I suggest that you plot tonight’s sunset from the park down the street, or tomorrow’s sunrise from your backyard. Figure out where and when the sun will set or rise, be there to check your results, and then figure out why it didn’t happen exactly as expected. You’ll be surprised by how quickly your predictions improve after repeating this process a few times. Once you feel comfortable with your ability to anticipate a sun or moon rise or set from home, it’s time to take the show on the road—pick a spot you know fairly well and apply your new knowledge there.
Working it out on the fly
For me, celestial preparation from the comfort of my recliner is only half the job. It’s great when I know exactly where I’ll be and when I’ll be there, but the reality of nature photography isn’t quite so simple. On a first visit to a new location, I often end up places I never imagined I’d be—Hmmm, I wonder where that road goes…, or, Gee, I bet the view from the top of that hill would be great…—often with no connectivity.
On location with no connectivity, I need to be able to figure out the celestial details with only the resources at hand. The two iPhone apps I’ve come to rely on most are Focalware (I couldn’t live without this app) and MotionX-GPS.
- Focalware provides sun and moon rise/set times, the moon phase, and the altitude and azimuth of the sun and moon—all for any any time and date, and any location on earth. It uses my phone’s GPS to determine my current location, but doesn’t require cell or wifi connectivity.
- MotionX-GPS gives me topo maps and the ability to plot point-to-point linear distance as well as azimuth. While its maps do require connectivity to download, I can pre-download them to my phone so they’ll be available when I’m offline.
Using these two apps, plus my basic understanding of astronomical dynamics, I’m able to figure out everything necessary to plan a shoot. On this morning at Mather Point, I pulled out my iPhone and opened Focalware to determine the sunrise time and azimuth. I used the MotionX-GPS Measure tool to drop a pin at my current location, then stretch a line, at the angle of the sunrise azimuth, across the canyon until it intersected the horizon. That was all I needed—seeing that this sunrise line passed just to the right of Wotan’s Throne, I was able to set up the composition I wanted.
A gallery of celestial timing
Posted on September 5, 2016
There’s an axiom in photography (popularized by Thom Hogan): Photographers purchase three tripods: the first tripod is a flimsy, cheap aluminum/plastic monstrosity; next comes a sturdy but heavy “value” tripod; and finally, they spring for the tripod they should have purchased in the first place—a sturdy, light, expensive tripod that will serve them for decades. You’ll save yourself tons of money by biting the bullet and just starting with the tripod that you covet (and probably already know you’ll eventually end up with).
Your primary tripod should be tall enough to elevate your camera to eye level without extending the centerpost (it’s okay if the tripod has a centerpost, though a centerpost adds weight and makes it impossible to lower your camera all the way to the ground). While not essential, even taller is better than a tripod that only extends to eye level because extra height gives you more compositional flexibility, the ability to elevate above obstacles, and easier handling of uneven terrain.
Carbon fiber is lighter and and less prone to vibration than aluminum, but more expensive (see Tripod axiom above). Three leg-section tripods are less work to set up and take down; four leg-section tripods collapse smaller. In theory, the more leg sections a tripod has, the more it’s prone to vibration, but this isn’t a big concern with a good tripod.
For landscape photography, I strongly recommend a ball head (pivoting ball that can be controlled by loosening and tightening a single knob) rather than a pan/tilt (a lever for each axis of motion). And stay away from the pistol-grip ball heads—they don’t handle weight well.
I’m a huge fan of the Arca-Swiss L-plate setup for mounting your camera to the ball head—once you use it, it’ll be hard to imagine how you lived without it. An L-plate is a 90-degree (L-shaped) piece of machined aluminum that mounts flush with the bottom of the camera body, attaching via the tripod mount screw—its L-shape wraps the perpendicular side along one side of the camera body. The entire length of both plate axes are rails that attach (with a lever or knob) to a corresponding mounting clamp on the tripod head. This rail setup is more secure and easier to mount/unmount than a conventional quick-release plate, making switching between horizontal and vertical orientation a simple mater of releasing the clamp, rotating the body, and re-securing the clamp (it takes longer to read the description than to execute it).
Because every camera model has its own dimensions and unique cable, control, memory card, and battery access points, the best L-plates (like Really Right Stuff) are custom-machined for the body (when you get a new camera, you’ll need a new L-plate).
I use two Really Right Stuff tripods: the larger RRS TVC-24L is my primary tripod; I also use a smaller, lighter RRS TQC-14 when I fly or hike. My TVC-24L has a RRS BH-55 (overkill for my Sony mirrorless system— I’d probably get a BH-40 if I had to do it over again); my TQC-14 has a BH-30. I’m about 5’ 9” and without the centerpost extended the TQC-14 is just a little shorter than ideal (I need to extend my centerpost a few inches to get my camera to eye level), but it’s a justifiable compromise when weight and/or storage length is a factor. All of my camera bodies and tripod heads are outfitted with RRS Arca Swiss type L-plates and corresponding clamps.
About this image
Electric Scribble, Grand Canyon Lodge, North Rim
The best nature images reveal aspects of the world that the human eye misses. For example, though lightning strikes so fast that it’s already a memory before the brain can process them, the camera’s ability to freeze an instant in time preserves magic moments like this that otherwise would be lost forever.
Lightning’s speed makes photographing it without a tripod virtually impossible: in daylight, it requires a lightning sensor that mounts atop the pre-composed camera and waits for lightning to fire; at night it can be captured with a manual shutter press, but at exposures far too long for hand-holding.
On this afternoon on the North Rim last month, Don Smith and I had our workshop group set up to photograph a series of active thunderstorms skirting the South Rim about 15 miles away from our vantage point on the Grand Canyon Lodge viewing deck. The deck was packed with people enjoying the show. In crowded locations like this I particularly appreciate the height of the RRS 24L, which gave me the flexibility to elevate above heads and other obstacles. The 24L’s sturdiness gave me peace of mind that my camera would remain stable despite all the heavy footsteps nearby.
Virtually all of the strikes were vertical, cloud-to-ground strokes directly across the canyon. But already having a pretty good selection of images like that, my camera was set up (on my tripod, Lightning Trigger ready for action) to favor the composition I wanted rather than in the direction of the most lightning activity.
Most of my lightning captures this afternoon were recorded relatively close to my memory, albeit with much more intricate detail than my eyes saw. This cloud-to-cloud strike, the only lightning I captured with this composition, followed a far too circuitous path for my eye/brain to register, but it was etched forever in pixels by my sensor. Better still, the resulting 42 megapixel raw file gives me the luxury of much closer scrutiny than you get with this 800 pixel jpeg. Magnifying the full file to 100 percent, I’m able to infer that what I have here is only a portion of a rather tangled mess of electricity that skipped in and out of clouds, appearing, disappearing, and doubling back on itself like a tangled thread—all in the blink of an eye.