No Camera, No Regrets (and No Problem)
Posted on May 23, 2023
I’m not going to pretend that my version of this beautiful Japanese maple tree is unique. Just Google Portland Japanese Garden and you’ll see dozens of similar images of this very tree. And a search for “most photographed tree in the world” will surely include this tree somewhere on the list. But the story of its capture—which includes elements of discovery, insight, surprise, awe, and even a little resourcefulness—is different than the story of any of my other images, making it one of my favorite images of the year despite its lack of uniqueness.
As anyone who has tried to combine a family vacation with a photography trip can tell you, the best time for photography is pretty much the worst time to be outside: sunrise happens when most people would rather be asleep; sunset almost always interferes with dinner; night photography is cold and keeps you up too late; and wild weather (snow, rain, fog) can make pretty much everyone cranky. Conversely, a warm and sunny afternoon, when everyone (without a camera) is awake, fed, and longing to enjoy the outdoors, is just about the worst time to take (good) pictures.
I’ve learned (and observed) that trying to mix serious photography with a family/friend vacation leaves everyone dissatisfied. That’s why, before departing on any trip, I decide whether I’m going to be a photographer or a tourist—one or the other, never both. On trips when I’m a tourist, with the prime goal to relax and and enjoy the sights with the people I love, I just leave my camera home and simply bask in Nature’s splendor. My lights-out and rise times are determined by comfort and enjoyment—my own and those with me—while my forays into Nature consider only convenience, and are timed for the most pleasant conditions to be outside. Following this approach keeps my body and mind fresh, my loved ones happy, and gives me a relaxed perspective that ultimately benefits my photography.
Last week my wife and I drove to Portland to visit friends, taking the long way to enjoy a three-day scenic drive up the California and Oregon coasts. Despite the undeniable beauty I knew we’d find on our route, my camera bag stayed home, and we enjoyed a truly great trip—relaxing, rejuvenating, absolutely gorgeous, and lots of fun. I think I can add enlightening as well, because whatever I lost in images was more than made up for in insight and perspective that’s only possible with no camera between me and Nature. (Photographers: try this sometime.)
One of the many highlights of our trip was Friday’s visit to the Portland Japanese Garden, a location I’ve long known of but never visited. The entire garden is beautiful and worthy of photographing, but its Japanese maple is probably the most recognizable specimen there. This beautiful tree has been featured in National Geographic magazine, and, as a classic “trophy shot” in every sense of the word, graces the portfolios, walls, books, and galleries of many (many) nature photographers.
Like most landscape icons, this maple’s beauty completely justifies the attention it receives, so even without my camera I was anxious to put my own eyes on it. Fully embracing vacation mode, before our visit I did zero research on the tree, and knew only that it was in the Portland Japanese Garden. Strolling the garden late Friday morning, I scanned for what I imagined, from the many photos I’d seen, what the tree must look like: maybe 20 feet tall with a symmetrical 25-foot spread, alone and dominating a grassy hill, and likely surrounded by gawking, selfie-seeking tourists.
When I found nothing of the sort, I was mildly disappointed, but simply shrugged and prepared to exit the garden for lunch and the rest of the day’s activities elsewhere in this beautiful city. But when my wife detoured into the garden’s gift shop before our departure, I opted to take one more shot at finding the tree. And for the first time all week, I set aside my tourist perspective and allowed myself to start thinking like a photographer, trying to see each tree the way a camera might see it. That’s when it occurred to me (duh) that a wide angle lens positioned low could create an illusion of size that doesn’t exist, and the object of my quest may in fact not look anything like I’d imagined it. Armed with that mental reset, I retraced my steps through the garden, reevaluating the trees I’d previously walked right past.
I’d only made it a couple hundred yards (on a trail I’d already traveled a couple of times) when I came across a smallish red maple on a grassy slope, protected by a (very) short wood fence, sharing its space with a few nondescript shrubs, and sporting a dense canopy that dropped to just a couple of feet above the ground. At first glance there was nothing to distinguish this tree from any other maple in the garden, a fact underscored by the scores of tourists walking right past it without so much as a glance.
But something about this tree tweaked my photographic Spidey-sense, so I approached the fence and ducked under the leafy canopy. Instantly I experienced something akin to what Harry Potter must have felt when he slipped into the Weasley’s tent in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”
Quite simply, this was a different world. And even though at first glance it didn’t look at all like the pictures of the tree I’d seen, as soon as I saw it through the wide angle lens in my brain, everything fit into place. At this point, now hopelessly in my photographer-mind, I registered the tiny leaves, illuminated by sunlight gently filtered by thin clouds, and the way they radiated a diaphanous glow that emphasized their rich red. Next my eyes landed on the spiderweb shadow pattern cast on the lawn by the tree’s twisted branches.
Some things are just so beautiful they must be preserved, but instead of being frustrated that I didn’t have my “professional” camera, I whipped out my iPhone (14 Pro), switched its camera to the widest lens, dropped to ground level, and clicked one frame. At that point I had no plan to do anything more with my image than share it with my wife and save it as a keepsake of our trip. But when I showed the picture to my wife, she was especially excited and wanted to see the tree with her own eyes. So back we went.
In the 2 minutes it took us to return to the tree, I mentally critiqued my original capture and identified a few things I’d like to do differently. Then it occurred to me that this might be a great time to try out my iPhone’s raw capture feature for the first time (a raw image is unprocessed image data that requires a little more processing, but offers more flexibility and creates a better quality image). Back at the tree I took 6 more pictures, each in raw mode, each from a slightly different perspective. In the process, I used a variety of canopy/shadows ratios (lots of canopy, lots of shadow, and equal amounts canopy and shadow).
Importing and processing the Apple ProRAW images was no more difficult than with my regular cameras’ raw images—I simply AirDropped the files onto my computer, imported them into Lightroom, then processed them as I would any other image. And I’ve got to say that I was blown away by the image quality—both the detail (some of which is lost in the jpeg and web upload compression of the image I share here), and the dynamic range.
My final thought on this experience goes to something I write about a lot: the differences between human vision and the camera’s vision, and how to leverage those differences to create an image. Often my thoughts emphasize framing, subject relationships, and what I call photography’s “Creative Triad”—motion, light, and depth—that can be controlled with the exposure variables. But one more creative tool that can enable photographers to create something vastly different than the human experience is focal length.
A long focal length can compress the distance separating near and far objects, while a wide focal length can open up a small space to make it look much larger than it is (a feature used without shame by just about every real estate photographer). To illustrate how much the 13mm full-frame equivalent focal length of my iPhone exaggerated the size of this tree, I commissioned a lovely 5′ 3″ model (aka, my wife) to stand in front of the tree and allow me to photograph her using the phone’s 24mm full frame equivalent focal length. Hard to believe they’re the same tree, but I promise they are.
This trip was an excellent reminder that you don’t need a camera to be happy on vacation. I’m not saying I’m ready to throw away my professional cameras, but there’s peace of mind knowing that I can go out sans camera and tripod and still capture something I can share and print without apology.
The World of Trees
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Water, Water Everywhere
Posted on May 15, 2023
Do you know the waterfall in Yosemite with the longest single drop? How about in the entire United States? If I said it’s in fact the same waterfall, most people would guess Yosemite Falls. Most people would also be wrong.
The answer is Ribbon Fall, a surprisingly unheralded waterfall that plummets 1612 feet into Yosemite Valley, a little west of El Capitan and just across the valley from Bridalveil Fall. But despite its unmatched height, Ribbon Fall is tucked into a granite notch and takes a backseat to several other Yosemite waterfalls.
Most would agree that, by virtue of their prominence and undeniable aesthetic appeal, Yosemite and Bridalveil Falls deserve the most Yosemite Valley waterfall love. Views of Yosemite Falls dominate the east side of Yosemite Valley, and its 2425 total drop is 800 feet more than Ribbon Fall’s. Rather than reaching Yosemite Valley in a single precipitous plunge as Ribbon Fall does, Yosemite Falls tumbles to the valley floor in three distinct steps: Upper Yosemite Fall (1430 vertical feet), the middle cascades (675 vertical feet), and Lower Yosemite Fall (320 vertical feet).
Bridalveil Fall, while less than half the height of Ribbon Fall, is Yosemite’s most exposed waterfall, as well as the first waterfall visitors see upon entering Yosemite Valley. It’s unshielded drop from a hanging valley beneath Cathedral Rocks makes Bridalveil Fall easy to see from much of the valley’s west end, including Yosemite Valley’s two most popular vistas, Tunnel View and Valley View. It’s unprotected exposure to the whims of the numerous breezes dancing along the valley’s steep granite, lift and twist the fall’s abundant mist into diaphanous sheets that resemble, wait for it… a bride’s veil.
I’ve always found it interesting that Yosemite Falls has a much larger watershed than Bridalveil Fall, and therefore in any calendar year delivers more water than Bridalveil Fall. But, because the primarily granite watershed feeding Yosemite Falls repels snowmelt and instantly propels it valleyward, in a typical year it’s usually dry by the end of July. On the other hand, Bridalveil Fall’s largely organic watershed absorbs snowmelt and releases it gradually enough to make Bridalveil the only waterfall in Yosemite Valley that runs year-round.
The two other most commonly known Yosemite waterfalls are Vernal and Nevada Falls. Technically not in Yosemite Valley, this stair-step pair is sourced by the Merced River, which means, like Bridalveil, they also flow year-round. It doesn’t hurt Vernal and Nevada Falls’ notoriety that they also happen to be prime destinations on Yosemite’s most heavily traveled trail.
But while these “big four” waterfalls get the most attention, Yosemite is actually full of many unheralded but still beautiful waterfalls that spring to life each spring. One of its least herald-worthy waterfalls is Horsetail Fall, which is usually hard to spot, even when you know exactly where to look for it. But somehow Horsetail managed to negotiate a February sunset spotlight that draws thousands of gawkers each day, and for a few weeks is bumped to the top of Yosemite’s waterfall hierarchy.
The Horsetail Fall mayhem is so extreme that the National Park Service has implemented a reservation-only admission system for most of February, closed certain parts of Yosemite Valley, and closed traffic lanes to accommodate pedestrians. Then March arrives and just as suddenly as it sprang to celebrity status, Horsetail Fall returns to total anonymity—until next February.
Spring visitors entering Yosemite Valley through the Arch Rock entrance are teased about the waterfall experience awaiting them by Cascade Fall, just off the road a couple of miles west of the valley. I’ve always found this high volume (in spring) waterfall more impressive to the eyes (and ears) than to my camera—I just haven’t found a combination of location and light that moves me enough to photograph it. But I do enjoy seeing Cascade Fall and always make a point of admiring it through the windshield as I drive past.
A Cascade Fall view I do like to photograph in spring (and wet winters) is Upper Cascade Fall, just upstream from the its lower relation and very photographable from a small bridge on Big Oak Flat Road (the route into Yosemite Valley through the Big Oak Flat entrance). It’s right next to the road, with parking on both sides of the bridge, but many tourists drive right by because unless you twist you head as you cross the small bridge, you’ll completely miss it.
Another Yosemite waterfall I’ve always admired but have had little success photographing is Sentinel Fall. Just west of Sentinel Rock on Yosemite Valley’s south wall, Sentinel Fall cascades more than 2000 feet down to Yosemite Valley in a series of steep steps.
And though I don’t have a lot of images of Sentinel Fall, that’s not for lack of trying. My favorite place to photograph it is the north side of Leidig Meadow, just beneath the Three Brothers (but too close to the Brothers to really see them). From here, with a wide lens I can include Half Dome and Sentinel Rock with Sentinel Fall. In fact, if I really worked at it, I could even work the Merced River into my frame as well.
I have waterfalls on my mind right now because Yosemite 2023 record snowpack is in the process of becoming Yosemite’s 2023 record runoff. And while the flooding probably won’t rival the atmospheric river fuel January 1997 flood event, it has already closed parts of Yosemite Valley for a few days, and I wouldn’t be surprise if we experience more closures before it’s over.
To get my eyes on all this water, and the waterfalls it feeds, my brother Jay and I made two trips to Yosemite in the last few weeks, one on each side of the Yosemite Valley closure. As I wrote in my previous post, the first trip was a photographic dud, but the second trip was a great success. Most of our time was spent doing close dogwood photography, but we also found some wider views.
Our last stop was at a spot above the Merced River with El Capitan in the background, and a nice dogwood tree in the foreground. The weather that day had ranged from slightly drizzly to a light rain, but nothing too intense or difficult to deal with. By the time we made it to this spot, most the rain was done, but the clouds were still hanging around enough to drape El Capitan and create a rapily changing variety of effects as they rose, dropped, and parted. Though the tree was flowering nicely, we were a few days early for its peak bloom, with most of the blooms small and yellow-greenish, but still photographable enough to complement the scene.
I’d be lying if I said I was here to photograph Ribbon Fall, but at some point toward the end of our 30 or so minutes here I noticed the clouds that had completely obscured the wall west of El Capitan had parted just enough to reveal the top of the fall. I quickly switched to a horizontal orientation, framed up a composition that included the dogwood tree, a little bit of the Merced River, and El Capitan.
I stopped down to f/16 for a little extra depth of field, then carefully (manually) focused on one of the farther back dogwood flowers (technically the dogwood’s flower is the center cluster, and the parts surrounding it that we want to call flowers are really bracts). By then the clouds had risen enough to mostly swallow the fall, so I just waited and hoped it would reappear. It teased me for about 10 minutes, never coming out completely, but eventually it show enough of itself for me to get a few clicks in.
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The Dogwood Days of Spring
Posted on May 8, 2023
In my first 14 years leading photo workshops, I never had to cancel a workshop. I have had to scramble a bit thanks to government shutdowns, hurricanes (really), closed roads, and power outages, but no cancellations. That record changed abruptly in spring 2020 when COVID-19 shut down the world, eventually costing me 14 workshops. Then, just as things started to reopen during the pandemic, extreme fire danger in the Eastern Sierra forced me to shut down another workshop.
By doubling up on workshops, and thanks to the patience and understanding of my affected customers, over the subsequent couple of years I was ultimately able to weather the cancellation storm with minimal (manageable) long term damage. In fact, this year’s second Iceland workshop in January was the final COVID make-up workshop—with clear sailing ahead, what could possibly go wrong?
Well…. First, a historically wet and cold winter delivered a historically deep Sierra snowpack. Then, after a cool spring, unseasonably warm temperatures last week goosed the dormant Sierra snowmelt, much of which had nowhere to go but Yosemite Valley, which forced closure of Yosemite Valley, flushing my May Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers photo workshop along with it. Not only was this bad news for my customers (not to mention my business), spring happens to be a personal favorite time to be in Yosemite. And this year I was particularly looking forward to all the water in Yosemite’s waterfalls and vernal pools.
For those keeping score at home, that’s 16 workshops lost in 3 years: 1 to fire, 1 to flood, and 14 to pestilence—clearly (as my wife pointed out), famine can’t be far behind. (Anyone who has endured a dinner at the Yosemite Valley Lodge cafeteria knows that’s not as much of a stretch as it sounds.) But seriously, unpredictability is a prime risk of pursuing profession so dependent on the fickle whims of Mother Nature. Still...
This month’s lost workshop was especially frustrating because the National Park Service, looking at the record Sierra snowpack and forecast hot temperatures, preemptively announced the closure of most of Yosemite Valley on the Wednesday before my workshop, which was scheduled to start the following Monday. The closure, they said, would begin at 10 p.m. Friday and continue until Wednesday at the earliest (their words), and possibly longer. Since my spring workshop is set entirely in Yosemite Valley (this year the high country will closed by snow until at least June), and was scheduled to span Monday through Thursday, I had no choice but to cancel. Immediately upon receiving the news, I scrambled to notify the workshop participants, cancel my lodging, and start the process of rescheduling everyone.
So imagine my surprise when, on Saturday, the NPS announced that Yosemite Valley would reopen Sunday, 3 days sooner than their promised “earliest.” Sigh. I instantly contacted my workshop hotel to see if it was too late to reinstate my group’s lodging (it wasn’t), then reached out to the cancelled group to find out who was still able to attend. I told them that even if only half were still available, I’d go ahead with the workshop as originally planned (but also that I’d still honor my cancellation policy for those who could no longer make it). Turns out all but 3 had already cancelled flights or made other plans, sadly confirming that my cancelled workshop count would officially hit 16.
As frustrating as this experience has been, I can’t really fault the NPS. The current Yosemite snowpack is truly unprecedented, and with no upstream dams on the Merced River or its tributaries, there’s absolutely no control over the runoff—the snowpack will send as much water as it wants to, whenever it wants to, and we downstream humans just need to deal with it. Which is exactly what the NPS did: In an abundance of (justifiable) caution, they decided to act proactively by clearing Yosemite Valley before the forecast extreme heat put them in react and evacuate mode. So while I appreciated the advance warning, since the snowmelt wasn’t as extreme as predicted, they soon reversed course—unfortunately too late to save my workshop.
All this got me thinking about how difficult it must be to manage Yosemite. With around 4 million visitors per year, Yosemite is one of the most visited national parks in the United States (the world?). Keeping all these people both safe and happy, while simultaneously protecting the wellbeing and beauty of this most special resource seems like an impossible task.
Yosemite’s total footprint is nearly 1200 square miles (slightly smaller than Rhode Island), but most of this area is remote backcountry that’s accessible only on foot. And instead delighting in the joys of High Sierra hiking and backpacking, virtually every one of Yosemite’s annual visitors tries to cram into the (slightly less than) 6 square miles of Yosemite Valley.
The result is, on a typical summer day, literally more cars in Yosemite Valley than parking places. Those lucky enough to score a parking spot are wise to leave their car there for the duration of their stay and navigate the park on foot, bicycle, or shuttle. In such a compact area teeming with pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles, each with their own agenda—picture the occupants of Car 1 (including the driver) craning to admire the waterfalls and monoliths overhead, as the driver of Car 2 in front of them spies a pedestrian (or or cyclist, or deer) and slams on the brakes (SMASH!)—it’s a miracle there isn’t even more mayhem than there is.
Another problem the NPS constantly fights is the people who believe the rules only apply to everyone else and decide it’s okay to traipse through a clearly off-limits meadow, or climb over a protective guardrail: “I’m just one person and I’ll be quick”(photographers are especially frequent offenders). And then there are the people who treat Yosemite’s wildlife like personal pets who they need to feed and pose with for selfies.
Witnessing all this bedlam has caused me to realize that, despite my love for Yosemite and the care I take to follow the rules (and to ensure that my workshop students do as well), my mere presence in Yosemite risks making me part of the problem. As a result, I no longer schedule workshops for weekends, or during Yosemite’s most crowded months. In fact, I now refuse to visit Yosemite for any reason from mid-May through mid-October—even when someone offers to pay me for a private tour.
Though I generally resist doing anything in Yosemite in May, this month’s just-cancelled workshop was right on the cusp my self-imposed workshop curfew. But because the May full moon (necessary for a moonbow) fell in the first week the month, the dogwood bloom usually peaks the first week of May, and by starting May 1 I could completely avoid a weekend, I went ahead and scheduled it. I worried a little about the crowds, but never dreamed flooding would be my downfall.
On the other hand, the Yosemite Valley shutdown wasn’t without a small personal upside. Because I schedule my Yosemite workshops only for the times I’d most want to be there myself, I don’t get a lot of opportunity to photograph Yosemite on my own, during my favorite times to be there. But thanks to the cancellation, I was able to make two (!) personal trips to Yosemite—the first, when I’d normally have been doing last-minute workshop prep, was nice but turned out to be a complete photographic dud; the second, on what would have been the workshop’s final two days, was much more photographically successful.
Anxious to see Yosemite at peak water before Yosemite Valley closed, my brother Jay and I departed early on the Friday morning of the 10 p.m. closure day. Though the forecast called for nothing but blue skies, I hoped flooded meadows, blooming dogwood, and relatively few people would compensate. We struck out on all three fronts: while there was definitely a lot of water in the falls and meadows, the Merced wasn’t nearly as high as I’d seen it in prior wet springs; the dogwood were just starting, still quite tiny and mostly green; and the place was absolutely packed with people, to the point where parking was a real challenge. So we circled the valley a couple of times and drove home.
By the following week (the week my workshop had been scheduled for), the weather had cooled significantly and rain and snow had returned to the Sierra. Not only were these cloudy/stormy conditions better for photography, I figured (hoped) by then the dogwood would be really starting to pop. So on Wednesday afternoon Jay and I drove back to Yosemite, checked-in to our hotel, then made it into the park with about an hour to photograph before sunset.
With the dogwood blooming as hoped, we stopped for about 30 minutes to photograph the flowers (yes, I know they’re technically bracts, not flowers) in a light rain near the Pohono Bridge, then made it to the east side of the valley in time to catch a couple of reflections of Yosemite Falls before dark. We waited in the car for complete darkness, hoping the moon would pop out and give us a moonbow at the base of Upper Yosemite Fall, but the clouds seemed pretty committed, so we retreated to the hotel.
The next day was all about the dogwood, one of my absolute favorite things in the world to photograph. We stopped at most of my favorite dogwood spots, photographing a lot of close selective focus scenes like this one, but also some scenes with dogwood in the foreground and Bridalveil Fall or El Capitan in the background. A persistent light rain only made things better. In short, photography heaven.
This beautiful specimen I found across the road from Valley View, where we ended up photographing for almost an hour-and-a-half. Jay started up the road, while I settled in across from the parking lot and slowly made my way up the road, working both sides as I went. Using my 100-400 exclusively, mostly with extension tubes as well, I started with dogwood that allowed me to include Bridalveil Fall in the background, then the Merced River, and finally simply concentrated on individual flowers, or groups of flowers.
As always, my objective in these close focus scenes is to find a flower or flowers with a complementary background: other flowers, parallel trunks, dark shade, water, and so on. After an hour or so I came across a large tree bursting with large, fresh dogwood blooms and went to work.
It wasn’t long before I found this flower with everything I wanted: it was in perfect shape, with a fully intact central flower cluster and none of the spots or taters that mar older blooms; it glistened with rain; in the background was a similarly flawless specimen; and everything was surrounded by splashes of bright green embedded in dark shade.
I composed as tightly as I could while still including all of both flowers and the arcing branch supporting the nearest one. Even though the breeze was minimal, given limited light I set my ISO to 800 to guard against subtle motion blur. I knew I couldn’t get the entire bloom sharp, so I took special care to focus on the center, then magnified my capture to doublecheck focus after each click.
It’s never a good thing to cancel a workshop, for many reasons, but sometimes good things can come from bad situations if you simply maintain an open mind and keep moving forward.
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A Dogwood Gallery (including a few new ones from this trip)
Image Building (the old fashioned way)
Posted on May 1, 2023
Today it’s possible to open an app on your computer, type in a few descriptive terms, and faster than you can take a sip of coffee your very own beautiful image will appear. No frozen extremities, missed meals, or sleep deprivation required. What could possibly be better than that?
I’ll tell you what’s better: the frozen extremities, missed meals, and sleep deprivation necessary to witness Nature at its best, and to remind me that the best things in life are even better when a little sacrifice is involved. There’s simply no substitute for the multi-sensory opportunity to worship with nature—coming away with a beautiful image is just icing on the cake of the experience of simply being there.
Icing this winter morning’s cake involved more than a little effort, as well as a good degree of physical discomfort. Dyrhólaey, on Iceland’s South Coast, has a network of short but steep trails leading to broad vistas of rugged lava cliffs, a long black sand beach, several sea stacks (including distant Reynisdrangar), and lots of open sea. (It’s also the location of a truly epic aurora show about 10 days earlier, but that’s a different story.)
Since this was a week or so into a workshop (the second of two Iceland workshops Don Smith and I did this past January), and Dyrhólaey is so spread out, after the brief location orientation everyone had scattered quickly to search out their own scene, leaving me to my own devices. Iceland’s interminable gray winter twilight was already underway when we arrived, but actual sunrise was still an hour away, so there was no real rush.
This morning’s temperature (F) and wind (MPH) were both in the teens, but I was bolstered by multiple layers covering virtually every square inch of delicate California skin. Not immediately drawn to any one scene, I was quite content to wander the trails, taking in the view. On my travels I connected with as many in the group as possible, keeping my eyes open for potential images along the way. Eventually I found myself atop the highest point, enjoying a bird’s eye view of the violent surf’s relentless pounding. I stood there at least 15 minutes, completely mesmerized by waves arriving from all possible directions, each one reacting to the rocks a little differently than the waves preceding it.
This surf was on a different scale than anything I’d seen in California or Hawaii—more violent, and clearly more determined to punish anything in its path. Each wave exploded impressively onto the rocks, but occasionally just the right combination of size and direction resulted in a nuclear explosion that mushroomed far enough skyward to obscure some of the sky.
While the sky lacked clouds to add visual interest and catch sunrise color, I recognized the potential for a sunstar when the sun finally crested the horizon. With this thought in mind, I managed to pull myself away from my perch and move along the cliff’s edge, identifying and organizing the various elements for a possible composition.
I knew the sun would be the strongest background element, and decided that putting it on the right of my frame would provide the best foreground. Widening my frame to 27mm allowed me to balance the sun with Reynisdrangar (the 3 sea stacks in the distance). With that framework in place, I moved around looking for the best combination of close foreground that would also allow me to include the large rock with the greatest potential for a big wave. Since the sky wasn’t especially compelling, and I really liked the surf and rocks below me, I minimized the sky in favor of the much more interesting foreground.
Hoping for a sunstar, I stopped down to f/20, which had the added benefit of extra depth of field cushion. I focused on the large grassy patch. With my composition in place, I just stood back and waited for big waves, clicking each time one reached its apex. The biggest waves were few and far between, but I crossed my fingers for one to land while the sun was still on the horizon.
Turns out I got one really big wave—not the biggest I’d seen, but big enough. And as you can see, haze on the horizon meant the sunstar never materialized, but it also kept the sun from washing out the sky’s rich gold sunrise hues. (I actually think I like it better without the sunstar, which might have overpowered the rest of the scene.)
This is probably not a picture that will make me rich, but I like it not only for whatever aesthetic value it might possess, but also for the reminder of this beautiful Iceland morning, the sacrifices we nature photographers make in pursuit of our passion, and for the way my effort to assemble the scene’s disparate elements into a coherent scene actually came together (never a sure thing).
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Posted on April 24, 2023
For everyone who woke up today thinking, “Gee, I sure wish there were more Yosemite pictures from Tunnel View,” you’ve come to the right place. Okay, seriously, the world probably doesn’t actually need any more Tunnel View pictures, but that’s not going to stop me.
Visitors who burst from the darkness of the Wawona Tunnel like Dorothy stepping from her monochrome farmhouse into the color of Oz, are greeted by a veritable who’s who of Yosemite icons: El Capitan, Cloud’s Rest, Half Dome, Sentinel Rock, Sentinel Dome, Cathedral Rocks, Bridalveil Fall, and Leaning Tower.
Camera or not, that’s a lot to take in. First-time visitors might just just snap a picture of the whole thing and call it good. For more seasoned visitors like me, the challenge at Tunnel View is creating unique (or at least less common) images. But that’s not enough to keep me from returning, over and over.
Many people’s mental image of Yosemite was formed by the numerous Ansel Adams prints of this view. And while it’s quite possible those images were indeed captured at Tunnel View, many Adams prints assumed to be Tunnel View were actually captured from nearby Inspiration Point, 1,000 feet higher.
Before Wawona Tunnel’s opening in 1933 completed the current Wawona Road into Yosemite Valley, the vista we now know as Tunnel View was just an anonymous granite slope on the side of a mountain. Before 1933, visitors entering Yosemite from the south navigated Old Wawona Road, a steep, winding track more suited to horses and wagons than motorized vehicles. Inspiration Point was the Tunnel View equivalent on this old road.
To complicate matters further, there are actually three Inspiration Points in Yosemite. The original Inspiration Point is the location where the first non-Native eyes feasted on Yosemite Valley in the mid-19th century. Decades later, Old Wawona Road was carved into the forest and granite to provide an “easier” (relatively speaking) route between Wawona and Yosemite Valley. The valley vista that was established on this route and labeled Inspiration Point is the one popularized by Ansel Adams. But today that version of Inspiration Point has become so overgrown that hikers hardy enough to complete the steep climb up to the Ansel Adams Inspiration Point, must make their way a short distance down the slope to a spot where the view opens up, forming the New Inspiration Point. But I digress…
My total visits to Tunnel View, which predate my oldest memories, by now have to exceed 1,000. At first I had no say in the matter, having simply been a passenger on family trips since infancy. But when I became old enough to drive myself, my Tunnel View visits increased—most Yosemite trips included multiple visits.
The Tunnel View counter started clicking even faster as my interest in photography grew. More than just a one-of-a-kind scene to photograph, Tunnel View is also the best place in Yosemite to survey Yosemite Valley for a read on the current conditions elsewhere in the valley.
And as I’ve mentioned (ad nauseam), the view at Tunnel View is beautiful by any standard. And as it turns out, beauty is a pretty essential quality for a landscape image. Unfortunately, another essential landscape image criterion, especially for landscape photographers who pay the bills with their photography, is a unique image—ideally (aspirationally), but not necessarily, a one-of-a-kind image. So Tunnel View’s combination of unparalleled beauty and easy access means million of visitors each year, which makes finding something literally unique (one-of-a-kind) here virtually impossible.
But there are a few things I do to increase my chances of capturing something special enough to at least stand out—things you can do at any popular photo spot. Here are three:
- Experiment with focal length — At Tunnel View usually means using a telephoto to isolate individual elements, or combinations of elements: just El Capitan, or El Capitan and Half Dome; just Half Dome, or Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall; and so on. And an extreme telephoto allows me to zero in on just one aspect of a Tunnel View icon: Half Dome’s summit draped by clouds, El Capitan’s bold diagonals, the mist explosion at Bridalveil’s base, to name just three.
- Look behind you — Even though the granite walls outside Tunnel View’s classic view can’t compete with the money shot, failure to keep an eye on the surrounding walls risks missing light and clouds that can at times be spectacular. And even though I don’t photograph manmade objects, I’ve seen some great images by others using Wawona Tunnel to frame Yosemite Valley, or with the tunnel itself as the subject.
- Include special conditions — My favorite Tunnel View approach is to pair this already beautiful scene with one of the many ephemeral natural events possible here. Not only does the east-facing view mean warm late light on all the granite features, it also makes Tunnel View ideally situated for rising crescent (sunrise) and full (sunset) moons, and afternoon rainbows. And its position on Yosemite Valley’s west end means it’s usually the first place in Yosemite Valley that storms clear. Few sights in Nature more spectacular than a Tunnel View clearing storm, and no two are exactly the same.
The image I’m sharing today combines a couple of these approaches: a tighter than typical focal length, and special conditions. Though the Bridalveil Fall rainbow isn’t exactly unique, its combination of beauty and relative rarity keeps me coming back. And because the sun’s angle at any given moment, as well as the angle of view to Bridalveil Fall, are precisely known, I can predict the rainbow’s appearance each spring afternoon to within a few minutes (it varies slightly with the amount of water in the fall).
This rainbow makes a fantastic first shoot for my spring workshops. Usually I’m content to just stand and watch—and listen to the exclamations from my workshop students—but sometimes it’s to beautiful to resist. This year, with beautiful clouds overhead, dappled sunlight below, and a strong breeze to spread the rainbow’s palette, was one of those times.
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A Tunnel View Gallery
Posted on April 17, 2023
It’s all about relationships
I write a lot about relationships in photography. Often I’m referring relationships with my subjects, which could mean gaining better understanding of a location—not just the where and when of its photo opportunities, but its weather and geology (especially), as well as its flora, fauna, and history. (Of course I love visiting new places too, but I’ve never felt particularly driven to expand my portfolio through relentless pursuit of new locations.)
As important as location relationships are my relationships with the natural phenomena that inspire me understand the science behind the ephemeral phenomena that fascinate me enough to photograph them. Things like lightning, rainbows, reflections, sunrise/sunset color, fall color, and anything celestial simply fascinate me and it never feels like work to study them.
But there’s another side to photography’s relationship coin that takes place within the frame of an image. I’m talking about the visual relationships between disparate subjects—juxtaposing one subject with another physical subject (nearby or distant), or elevating a favorite location by photographing it under the spell of a favorite natural phenomenon.
However these relationships happen, it’s only logical that the best photography takes place when intimate knowledge of location and natural phenomena are combined to create the intra-image relationships that make an image sing.
Sometimes this seems so obvious the we make these connections without realizing we’re doing it. when we visit a vista that includes multiple features, or travel to a favorite location to photograph it with sunset light or fall color. Other times we’re beneficiaries of happy accidents, when something unexpected just happens to manifest while we’re there. And while I love happy accidents as much as anyone, we should never count on them.
In general, the more deliberate we can be about consciously combining the things we love in our photography, the better our images will be. Of course some of my favorite images are happy accidents—something unexpected that just happened to take place while I was there to witness it—but the vast majority were more strategic.
So I guess in a way that would make me a photographic matchmaker, aggressively seeking to create relationships, not just with, but for the things I love most. Whether it’s fresh snow in Yosemite, lightning at Grand Canyon, the northern lights in Iceland, or the Milky Way in New Zealand, it’s usually not an accident that I was there. Of course there are no guarantee any of these things will happen as planned, but I always do my best to maximize my odds.
As much as I’d love to claim that creating these matches makes me some kind of photographic savant, I’m afraid it’s far simpler than that. (Like most people) I can read a weather report and get a few days advance notice of snow in Yosemite Valley; I know that the ingredients for a rainbow are sunlight and airborne water droplets (like rain and waterfall mist), and that my shadow always points in the direction of the rainbow’s center; the time window for any location’s fall color peak is generally common knowledge; and the moon and Milky Way follow precise schedules, and there are plenty of resources that reveal their position in the sky at any time, from any location. All I need to do is act on this information.
Tying it all together
Usually all you need to do to understand the relationships I’m seeking in a workshop is to look at the workshop’s name. The image I’m sharing in this blog post was captured during my Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers photo workshop earlier this month—but, as you can see, there is in fact (and fortunately) more to Yosemite in spring than moonbows and wildflowers.
When I scheduled this workshop more than a year ago, I knew for a fact that it would take place during the full moon that’s necessary for the Lower Yosemite Fall moonbow, and that the angle of the rising moon relative to the fall would be just right. And I knew from experience that the odds of wildflowers in April were extremely high. What I didn’t know was whether we’d have clear or cloudy skies, nor could I have anticipated California’s unprecedented wet and cold winter and how it might threaten to throw a wrench in my plans.
This is where the location familiarity part of relationship building comes in handy, as I was able to adjust enough that we ended up with some wonderful photography, albeit something that was much closer to a winter workshop than a spring workshop. This group had chilly temperatures, clouds, a little rain, and lots of snow (mostly on the ground, but a few flakes as well). Nevertheless, as you no doubt know if you read my previous blog post, we were able to catch the very beginning of what has turned out to be a very late (but potentially spectacular) wildflower bloom, so I was able to deliver something as advertised.
The moonbow part of my plan was a little more problematic. While Yosemite Falls is fed entirely by snowmelt, and the Sierra received record snowfall this winter boded well for our chances, the temperatures hadn’t warmed enough yet for the fall to deliver the explosion of mist at its base necessary for the moonbow. (There was nice flow in the fall, just not enough for the moonbow.) We tried, but ended up with a moonlight shoot sans moonbow.
On to Plan B
From the moon to the Milky Way, regular readers of my blog know of my fascination with all things celestial. Orbital geometry aligns Yosemite’s moon with different features as the seasons change, and I try to be there for as many moonrises as possible. Since the full moon happens during this workshop, photographing it is always part of my plan. On the other hand, because the moon doesn’t align as perfectly with Half Dome or El Capitan as it does in winter, it’s more of a bonus than it is something I advertise.
The first night clouds that threatened my moonrise made for great photography, and we kicked off with a nice Tunnel View shoot. Since the wet winter also meant reflective vernal pools in Yosemite Valley’s meadows, to create a sunset match for my workshop students on that cloudy first evening, I opted for the vernal pool in Cook’s Meadow. (For good reason, Cook’s Meadow itself is closed to visitors to allow the meadow to recover from years of pedestrian abuse—we approached the pool from behind, via the trail from the Sentinel Bridge parking lot, and never actually entered the meadow.)
I was actually thinking about multiple matches this evening: not only does this location have a great view of Half Dome, the vernal pool is ideally positioned for a Half Dome reflection. And I knew (but kept to myself for fear of jinxing us) that in the off-chance that the clouds parted, this would be the best location to add the moon to our Half Dome reflection scene.
Between Half Dome, the reflection, and clouds kissed by warm light, I almost forgot about the moon. But about 20 minutes before sunset the clouds opened and there it was. I’d already been strategically moving about to manage the reflection’s relationship to the various features dotting the water’s surface, taking care to frame Half Dome rather than obscure it. So the biggest obstacle I had to overcome was making sure that everyone else had their shot before I got mine.
Since most of us were set up within a few feet of each other, I was able to provide impromptu coaching on how to expose bright enough to capture the shadows without blowing out the moon (read more here). Another (counterintuitive) learning point was to point out that the focus point for a reflection is the same as the focus point for the reflective subject, not the reflective surface (read more here).
One more thing
People ask me if I ever tire of Yosemite, and I can honestly answer, no. Part of keeping Yosemite fresh for me is the infectious excitement that happens when the people I’m with witness something like what we saw this evening. Even without the moon, this Half Dome scene provided a great Yosemite introduction for everyone. But when the clouds lit up and the moon popped out, it elevated to one of those truly special Yosemite moments that I’ll never tire of sharing.
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Posted on April 11, 2023
In last week’s post I wrote about the importance of distilling a scene to its essence. I suggested that the best way to achieve this is to eliminate all but the scene’s most essential elements, and emphasized using precise cropping to banish unwanted objects to the world outside the frame. And while it could be argued that this careful cropping might be the most essential part of the scene-distilling process (or at least the foundation upon which to build), it’s often not enough.
Many (most?) scenes, even after the most surgical cropping, can remain filled with distractions that dilute the image’s impact. Areas of brightness, distinctive but irrelevant features, and objects cut off or intruding at the sides of the frame are just a few examples of visual elements that can distract the eye and confuse viewers looking for clues about the image’s purpose.
But take heart, all is not lost for photographers able to jettison the urge to “reproduce the world just the way I saw it.” The truth is, reproducing the world as we see it is literally impossible, and the sooner you come to terms with that truth, the better off you’ll be.
Setting aside our own reality to leverage our camera’s reality starts with understanding that “reality” is in fact a moving target defined by the medium interpreting it. Humans’ definition of “real” is founded on the three-dimensional, 360 degree, continuous-motion, multi-sense input delivered to our eye/brain collaboration. A camera, on the other hand, captures a two-dimensional, static, mono-sensory version of our very dynamic world.
But before lamenting your camera’s limitations, pause to consider that, in the grand scheme of perpetual electromagnetic energy that surrounds us, what you and I see is an tiny fraction of the infinite continuum of electromagnetic wavelengths continuously (and ubiquitously) careening about the Universe.
For example, X-ray machines peer into the world of electromagnetic waves in the one nanometer (one billionth of a meter); TVs and radios “see” waves that are measured in centimeters; humans, on the other hand, see only the waves in a very narrow band between (about) 400 and 750 nanometers. Understanding all allows doctors to expose subcutaneous secrets, astronomers to explore our galaxy and beyond, and the military and law enforcement to view “invisible” (to us) infrared signatures that reveal people and objects in complete darkness. In other words, there’s no single absolute visual standard—it’s all relative to the frame of reference.
The photographer’s job is to embrace his or her camera’s unique frame of reference, and to understand the power they possess to convey aspects of the world missed by the human experience. That “instant” a still photo is limited to can actually be stretched with a long exposure that compresses a potentially infinite number of instants to reveal, in a single frame, patterns of motion and flow. And the information a camera can’t see gives photographers incredible power to hide or minimize distractions, to control the world inside their frame, and to emphasize select elements over other elements.
All this might explain why I’ve always considered myself a film photographer with a digital camera. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate and use the incredible processing power digital photography brings, but it does mean that the images I process are limited to the photons captured in a single click. I just find no joy in adding information through focus or exposure blending of multiple images. Rather, I prefer leaning into my camera’s visual shortcomings by subtracting the aspects of the scene that don’t serve the image. (There’s nothing wrong with honest image blending, it just doesn’t give me joy.)
The image I share today, a brand new one from last week’s Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers photo workshop, got me thinking about the importance of subtracting distractions, and the power of my camera’s relatively narrow (compared to human vision) dynamic range to emphasize the most important qualities my subject. I’ve always loved the way sunlit poppies seem to radiate from within, as if illuminated by their own internal light source, and am always looking for ways to highlight it.
Based on my observations last month (normally a reliable start to the poppy season in Northern California), and the persistence of California’s incredibly chilly spring (by our standards), I wasn’t even sure I’d have a chance do any poppy photography this year. But scouting my poppy spots near Yosemite for last week’s workshop, I was thrilled to see that the poppies were just starting to erupt. They were still quite small, and rather thinly distributed, but were already plentiful enough to photograph. I reasoned (hoped) that a few days of sun might really kick them into gear, so I planned the workshop wildflower shoot for our final afternoon. It turns out I’d reasoned right, and a few days of sunlight was indeed exactly what the doctor ordered.
I found this solitary poppy jutting from a rocky wall in the Merced River Canyon, about 10 miles west of Yosemite Valley. I was especially drawn to the flower’s warm glow, but no matter how I framed it, the rest of the scene was ugly rock, brown dirt, and scraggly weeds.
I’d armed myself this afternoon with my Sony a7R V camera and Sony 100-400 GM lens; to focus closer, I’d also added two extension tubes totaling 26mm. Though it was only mid-afternoon, with the sun well into its daily descent, the shadows were already stretching deep into nearby nooks and crannies.
After studying the scene, I lowered my tripod and positioned my camera beneath the flower for the best view of its backlit, glowing petals. Instead of trying to make the scene look the way I saw it, I took advantage of my camera’s “limited” dynamic range and underexposed enough to blacken the superfluous background detail. The result is this simple image (which required very little processing, BTW) that, while nothing like what my eyes saw, contains only the elements of the scene I was interested in: the glowing poppy and its softly lit stem on a canvas of black shadow.
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Distilling the Essence
Posted on April 2, 2023
The art of subtraction
Presented with a complex world, the nature photographer’s job is to identify a scene’s visually interesting elements and figure out how to use them in an image. While most photographers have no problem seeing what to include in their images, many struggle with what to leave out. But the best pictures usually work at least as much for what’s not in them as for what’s in them.
That’s because, as much as we seek beauty to add to our images, photography is ultimately an art of subtraction. Our ability to ruthlessly subtract elements that, despite their inherent visual appeal, don’t serve the image is an important skill that’s worth cultivating.
When I look back at old images that somehow ended up pleasing me less than the scene excited me when I photographed it (we’ve all been there, right?), I see now that often the problem was that I included too much. The product of my failure was an image with visual busyness that distracted from the main point, or that completely lacked a point, and confused viewers: “What am I supposed to be looking at here?”
As my photography evolved, I started identifying ways to distill complex scenes. One approach is through careful use of exposure variables to manage what I call photography’s “creative triad”: motion, depth, and light—motion blur to smooth turbulent or choppy water; focus blur to soften background and foreground distractions; and silhouette or high key exposure to erase unwanted elements and simplify the scene to just color and shape.
But even before working the creative triad, distilling a scene to its essence requires ruthless (there’s that word again) cropping—simply knowing what to put in, what to leave out, and the confidence (courage) to do it. Start by identifying the elements in the scene that draw the eye. Think in terms of implicit connecting lines that define their relationship to each other. Move around—forward/backward, left/right, up/down—until your prime elements feel organized.
If you’re still not feeling a connection between all of your prime elements, it’s time to start eliminating things—you can always return to that beautiful subject you composed out and feature it in another composition. And if you’re still not finding visual coherence, don’t be afraid to just click an image, stand back and evaluate it on your camera’s LCD screen, and adjust. Then repeat as necessary.
One simple way to exercise this skill is with the Crop tool in Photoshop or Lightroom. Start with any image (your own or someone else’s—the goal is to train your eye, not to create an image you’ll use), open it in your image processing software of choice (I use Photoshop for this exercise), set the Crop tool to 2/3 aspect ratio (or whatever your camera uses), and see how many new images you can find in the original. Whether the source image was horizontal or vertical, use both orientations of the Crop tool. Again, this is an exercise to train your eye, not to create a usable image, but I’m confident that you’ll find this new vision translates to your viewfinder when you’re in the field.
You can do the same thing on location with a telephoto lens. After you feel like you’ve exhausted all of a scene’s wide options, remove the camera from the tripod, increase your focal length by zooming tighter or switching to a longer lens, and slowly pan with your eye to the viewfinder. Closely monitor your reaction to what you see and honor any urge to stop. The goal isn’t to forgo wide angle compositions, it’s to help identify the scene’s essence, those visual aspects of the scene that matter most. I think you’ll be surprised by what you find (what your eyes originally missed).
Too often we get so caught up in a scene’s grandeur and miss the details that make it special. Most nature photographers when presented with a grand scene go straight to a wide angle lens—a perfectly valid way to start. The problem is, once we feel like we’ve nailed the wide shot, we move on—even if not physically, then at least mentally.
After a long drive from Iceland’s Snæfellsnes Peninsula, still basking in the thrill of the previous night’s aurora show (and oblivious to the show we’d enjoy that night), the Iceland workshop group wasn’t really thinking about much but getting comfortable at our hotel in Vik. But anyone arriving at Skógafoss near Iceland’s South Coast on this January afternoon couldn’t help being excited by the scene’s beauty.
Always an impressive waterfall for the massive amounts of water it dispenses, recent extreme cold (even for Iceland) had turned the abundant mist saturating the surrounding rocks into an icicle convention. But the real eye candy that grabbed everyone’s instant attention was the rainbow ebbing and flowing with the wind above the fall—one second it was there, the next it was gone.
Reinvigorated, we all charged from the bus and “rushed” as fast as our crampons could navigate the frozen path. Wanting to capture all this scene’s beauty, I instantly reached for my Sony α1 which was preloaded with my Sony 16 – 35 f/2.8 GM lens. Each time the rainbow appeared I clicked like crazy, trying a variety of wide compositions and continuing until shadow overtook the fall and the rainbow disappeared for good.
It would have been so easy to be satisfied with my bounty and retreat to the comfortable warmth of the bus. But before leaving I took a few seconds to scrutinize the surrounding ice more closely. And the longer I looked, the more I realized that I was seeing something truly special. I grabbed my Sony a7R V, attached my Sony 100-400 GM lens, and started panning the scene, finally stopping on this beautiful natural ice sculpture.
After attaching my camera to my tripod, I spent the next 20 minutes repositioning, then deliberately clicking and refining, until I was satisfied that I’d found the right location and framing. In the wider image with the rainbow, this section of ice was still illuminated by low, warm sunlight that created deep shadows and bright highlights. But by the time I landed on this composition, the sunlight was gone and all the ice was bathed in cool, soft shadow with minimal contrast.
This is another one of those simple images that probably won’t generate a swarm of social media attention, but it makes me happy because it taps one of the prime reasons I’m a photographer: to reveal Nature’s exquisite intricacies that are often overlooked in favor of more in-your-face beauty.
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Posted on March 29, 2023
Sometimes I start a blog post with a very clear idea of what I want to say, and other times I have no idea what I want to say and just go where my mind takes me. I’ll let you decide which this one is.
Digital manipulation has become so widespread that it threatens the credibility of honestly earned images. And now we’re starting to see a proliferation of AI-generated images, algorithmically created using just a few words of description and a database filled with the past creativity and effort of others—no photographer (or even trip outdoors) required.
I’m thinking about this because the Sierra moonset I’m sharing today would be an easy scene to fabricate on a computer: just take any old picture of a mountain, drop a moon in, and voila—suddenly you’re racking up the social media Likes and a host of “Stunning!” comments. But what fun is that?
Where do you find your photographic happiness? I think that’s an important question all photographers should ask themselves from time to time, especially in this age of digital manipulation and oneupmanship.
Speaking only for myself, the best part of making images isn’t the praise, it’s the actually being there to witness Nature do its magnificent thing. And the greatest joy I receive from the images I’ve created is the memory of having been there.
Another personal source of photographic happiness is cultivating relationships with my subjects. Every time I visit a location, I feel the deeper connection that comes with knowing my subject a little better than I did on the previous visit. Wandering, gazing, pondering—all of these activities are as essential to my image capture process as framing a scene and clicking the shutter.
Of course the happiness photography brings me isn’t all taking pictures. For example, I wrote recently about how much the people I meet and guide in my workshops have blessed my life.
Another aspect of my photography life is the immense simply learning about my subjects brings. If a subject appeals to me enough to merit a photograph, it also fascinates me enough to learn more about it.
In fact, sometimes it’s hard to know which came first, the photography or the fascination. Long before I was a photographer (probably starting when I was 9 or 10), I devoured all things astronomy. And a few years later I developed similar interests in geology and meteorology. I can’t say those pursuits are the sole reasons I became a photographer, but I can say with certainty that they’re the primary reason so many of my images include geological features, celestial objects, and interesting clouds and weather.
My (fairly decent) knowledge of the Sierra Nevada and its geological history dates back to my high school and college days, but it wasn’t until I started photographing the Alabama Hills that learned the fascinating specifics of its geology.
Anyone who has visited the Alabama Hills, and hiked the Sierra, can’t help but recognize the obvious differences between their predominant rock: the light gray Sierra rock is so hard it can be polished to a shine by a gliding glacier, while the Alabama Hills’ gritty brown rock surfaces will crumble beneath your fingers. Sierra peaks and prominences tend to be sharp and angular, while the Alabama Hills features are much more rounded. But do just a little research, and you’ll learn that it’s actually the same rock, comprised of the same minerals, formed at the same time, by the same processes.
Both the Sierra Nevada and the Alabama Hills are carved from granite. Starting more than 100 million years ago, subterranean magma intruded into overlying rock, then cooled to form the granite that makes up most of the Sierra Nevada range and the Alabama Hills. Their significant differences are largely due to the way each weathered after the granite formed.
As this newly formed granite waited patiently below in the dark, oceans advanced and receded, depositing hundreds or thousands of feet of new sediment with each iteration. About 5 million years ago, a slow-motion collision of tectonic plates started uplifting the granite and its overlying sedimentary layers to form the current Sierra Nevada. As the mountains rose, erosion accelerated the demise of the softer sedimentary layers, eventually exposing the much harder (more resistant to erosion) granite. This exposed granite was primarily shaped by mechanical weathering—wind, rain and snow, extreme temperature variations, and and many rounds of glaciation—to form the Sierra Nevada we know today.
While the Sierra rose nearby, Alabama Hills granite wasn’t lifted nearly as high. Settling more than 10,000 feet below the Sierra Crest, the Alabama Hills didn’t experience the same extremes as its elevated sibling. Not subjected to the same extreme mechanical erosional forces, the Alabama Hills granite remained subterranean far longer than the Sierra granite. It was subjected chemical weathering that happens when mineral-laden water percolates through overlying sediment and slowly changes to rock’s composition. This altered granite eventually emerged much softer and much more easily rounded by mechanical weathering than the Sierra granite.
There are actually three geological features in this image. Since I’ve given all of the attention so far to the Alabama Hills and Sierra Nevada, maybe I’ll finish a little lunar love.
Once upon a time, there were four primary theories about the Moon’s origin:
- Capture: Earth captured a wandering asteroid and made it its own
- Accretion: Earth and Moon formed at the same time
- Fission: A large glob of molten material spun off the early, molten Earth
- Impact: A Mars-sized planet collided with Earth, ejecting material that later coalesced to form the Moon
If you said 4, give yourself a pat on the back, this is the current consensus. But this theory leaves much unanswered and unexplained, so just pencil it in for now.
From Earth, we can see three distinct lunar features:
- Light areas: These are the highlands—because they’re the oldest rock on the Moon’s surface, the highlands are the most cratered
- Dark areas: Volcanic flow consisting primarily of basalt (think Hawaiian lava)
- Craters: Vestiges of impacts by meteors and comets
And because the Moon has no atmosphere, its features experience very little erosion. Occasionally a meteor will shake things up a bit, and the Moon is under constant bombardment from micro-meteorites that gradual take their erosional toll, but in general the erosional pace on the Moon is much slower than it is on far more dynamic Earth.
Maybe you find all this science boring, but whatever your photographic subjects, I hope they make you as happy as mine make me.
A few words about this image
This is the third image I’ve shared from this morning early last month. (You can read about the morning in You Had To Be There and Perfect Timing.) It’s the earliest of the three images, captured in the blue hour, before the sky brightened and alpenglow colored the peaks. This is my favorite time of day to photograph the Sierra Crest, especially in winter, when the snowy peaks seem to glow and stand out in stark contrast to the still-dark sky.
Because the Moon was still a fair distance from Mt. Williamson, this is the widest field of view I used this morning. At 100mm I was able to frame the scene just wide enough to include the Moon, Mt. Williamson, and some of the Alabama Hills, without adding too much sky and (ugly) brown foreground. While I could have used my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens, I went instead with my Sony 100-400 GM lens. I was especially thrilled with how well my new Sony a7R V handled the extreme dynamic range of the daylight-bright moon and fairly dark early twilight foreground.
(And in case you’re wondering, I used no digital shenanigans for this image. Like all of my images, this is a single click, not a composite.)
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The Alabama Hills
Spring is a State of Mind
Posted on March 20, 2023
According to the calendar, today is the first day of spring—so…, Happy Spring! On the other hand, here in Northern California Mother Nature is delivering very mixed signals. A few trees are blooming, and every few days the sun pops out long enough to forgo a jacket or sweater—but the rain still seems to be coming several times a week, which means (lots of) snow is still falling in the mountains. And the temperatures remain chilly enough that I’ve only dared a short-sleeve shirt once, and my shorts and sandals are still buried in the closet.
Attempting to jumpstart spring, on Saturday my wife and I took advantage of a brief break between storms to drive up into the foothills to check out some of my favorite poppy spots. Usually by mid-March I’ve made this foothills trip several times and am deep into processing the year’s poppy bounty. But on Saturday’s drive we didn’t see a single poppy. Not. One. Poppy. While I was a little disappointed, I certainly wasn’t surprised.
Despite the wildflower shutout, it was a nice drive, and with definite hints of spring. We saw some blue sky, lots of water in the creeks, and hills covered with that happy emerald green that’s only possible in spring (Californians know what I’m talking about).
Our first stop was the site of what remains one of my favorite, and most successful, poppy images. We found the hillside blanketed with peak green, but no poppies. We stayed long enough for me to pull up the picture on my phone and try to figure out where I’d stood for this shot. The fence persists in a similar state of skewed dilapidation, and as my eyes followed its line I mentally relived scaling the deceptively steep hillside. So steep, in fact, that I jettisoned gear to make it up the steepest spot.
A short distance down the hill from this spot is a road that has been the source of many of my favorite poppy images. Sadly, when we got there we found it gated with a “Road Closed” sign, an all too common site this year. This was the final nail in this year’s poppy photography coffin.
But I wasn’t going to go down easy because all this nostalgia really got my poppy juices flowing. So, with no new poppy images to work on, the next day I decided to dig into the archives and try to uncover some I’d missed in previous years. Since I often don’t have time to process everything from any given shoot, I was hopeful that I wouldn’t need to look too long. Starting with a search of processed poppy images, I quickly identified a rainy day shoot from a few years ago that had potential for untapped opportunities.
It actually rained lightly the entire time I was out there, but some of my favorite photography has happened in the rain. And even though poppies don’t usually open when it rains, I found the raindrops more than enough compensation. And with rain gear in my car for just these situations, I stayed warm and dry. My camera? Not so much. I tried working with an umbrella, but after a few minutes realized I was one arm short and just decided to test the water resistance of my Sony a7RIII. I’m happy to say that it passed with flying colors.
A couple of years ago I wrote an article for “Outdoor Photographer” magazine on what I call creative selective focus. (You can read my blog version of this article here.) In it I write about using minimal depth of field to emphasize very select aspects of a scene, and letting the surrounding scene retreat to a complimentary blur.
If you read the article, you know the 3 primary factors for minimizing depth of field: large aperture (small f-number), long focal length, and close focus point. While I could have used my Sony 90mm f/2.8 macro, for close focus photography I really like the compositional flexibility of a zoom lens, so this afternoon I went with my Sony 100-400 GM lens. To increase my focal length (and shrink my depth of field) further, I added my 2X teleconverter (which, I might add, handled the rain perfectly as well). And to focus even closer, I added 26mm of extension. My original plan was try a few lens/extension-tube/teleconverter configurations (including my macro), but I was having so much fun that I ended up shooting with this setup the entire time.
There’s no free lunch in photography—the downside of adding a teleconverter and extension tubes is significantly reduced light. A 2x teleconverter cuts two stops of light, which means my 100-400 that’s normally wide upon f/5.6 at 400mm, wide open becomes f/11. To compensate for light lost to the smaller aperture, added extension, and a cloudy sky, I shot everything this afternoon at either ISO 1600 or ISO 3200 (grateful that there was no wind).
One of the cool things about this kind of photography is how different the world looks through the viewfinder. I love putting my eye to my camera, moving the lens around, and changing focus slowly to see what snaps into view. In this case I was looking for poppies to isolate from their surroundings, as well as nearby features (like other poppies) that I could soften enough to complement my primary subject without competing. Sometimes I had a general idea of a subject before looking through my camera, other times I’d just explore with my eye to my viewfinder until something stopped me.
Because depth of field shrinks not only with focal length, but also with focus distance, every frame I clicked this afternoon had a paper-thin range of sharpness. With such a shallow depth of field, none of these images would have been possible without a tripod. With my composition set on my tripod, I’d pick a focus point (usually, but not always, a prominent raindrop), focus in my viewfinder until I was pretty certain it was sharp, then magnify the focus point in my viewfinder to confirm and tweak the focus.
I finally called it quits when the rain picked up and the approaching twilight forced too much shutter speed compromise.