A River Runs Through It

Gary Hart Photography: Sapphire Cathedral, Vatnajökull GlacierIceland

Sapphire Cathedral, Vatnajökull Glacier, Iceland
Sony a7R V
Sony 12-24 GM
.8 seconds
F/18
ISO 50

Among the greatest joys of my photographer’s life is the opportunity to witness rare and exotic beauty I might otherwise have missed. An erupting volcano? Check. The dancing colors of the northern lights? Check. Shafting light in a Southwest slot canyon? Check. Southern Hemisphere night sky? Check. The view from the bottom of the Grand Canyon? Check.

In my California-born-and-raised world, glaciers certainly qualify as beauty both rare and exotic. Fortunately, this photography life takes me to New Zealand, where I get to walk on a glacier, and most recently, to Iceland, where I actually get to walk in a glacier. How cool is that? (Very, actually—no pun intended.)

Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in Iceland, and the second largest in Europe. As recently as the 19th Century, Vatnajökull extended all the way to the Atlantic, but thanks to our warming planet, in most places it is now a few miles inland.

As alarming as that is, a consolation prize is the beauty Vatnajökull’s shrinking has produced. Glacier Lagoon is filled with Vatnajökull’s meltwater and decked out in large chunks of calved glacial ice; nearby Diamond Beach is bejeweled with the remnants of the lagoon’s ice; and Sapphire Ice Cave (and its predecessors) was formed in the wake of Vatnajökull’s retreat.

Ice caves are dynamic phenomena that can change noticeably from week-to-week, and over a span of many weeks or months will eventually become unrecognizable. They form when glacial runoff finds, or makes its own, path through glacial ice. Since flowing water is always warmer than the surrounding ice, these voids and channels continue expanding as more ice melts. When the runoff finds a different path, or diminishes in the freezing winter months, the spaces in the ice remain and an ice cave is born (or reborn).

Perhaps the most striking feature of an ice cave is its color. Contrary to popular opinion, this blueness is not reflected color from the sky, but from an inherent quality of the ice itself. Snow is opaque, but centuries of pressure from snow accumulating above compresses the older underlying snow, forcing out air and leaving only translucent ice crystals. As sunlight passes through these ice crystals, all but the shortest visible wavelengths are absorbed, allowing only the blue wavelengths to pass through to bless our fortunate eyes.

Each year Don Smith and I take an Iceland photo workshop group to visit the current incarnation of the Vatnajökull ice cave, and each year it’s completely different. So far it has been in more or less the same location for every visit, but this time, using a bridge across a small creek near the entrance as a reference point, I noticed it had retreated at least 100 yards in the last year. The glacier guides say that within a year or two this cave could be inaccessible or completely gone, requiring the them to find another ice cave to blaze a tourist path to. (They’re only open to visitors in winter, one more reason winter is my favorite time to visit Iceland.)

With two Iceland workshops this year (still playing COVID catch-up), Don and I visited the Vatnajökull ice cave twice, 9 days apart. This version is dubbed Sapphire Ice Cave by the guides (earlier versions have been Crystal and Diamond), about 9 days apart. This created a great opportunity to compare, contrast, and witness firsthand the gradual changes that accumulate with time to completely end the cave, or transform it into something brand new.

Iceland’s ice caves can be extremely crowded, making photography difficult. In previous years we’ve started well before sunrise to be the first out there, but this year the morning weather didn’t look good, so we switched late afternoon to be the last people to leave. To lighten my load for the one-mile walk, I pared my camera bag to nothing but my (brand new) Sony a7R V body, Sony 24 – 105 f/4 G lens, Sony 12 – 24 f/2.8 GM lens, and Really Right Stuff Ascent tripod.

Upon arriving with our second group, rather than start shooting immediately, I took a couple of minutes to survey my surroundings and get a handle on what had changed in the last 9 days. The most obvious difference was the river running through the cave. Recent rain, augmented by warmer temperatures, had created mini (and not-so-mini) springs and even a couple small waterfalls that poured in from intra-glacier reservoirs and streams. And then there were the seemingly ubiquitous and aggressive ceiling drips that (given my many layers) were surprisingly adept at targeting my neck and sliding down my spine. All this water united on the cave’s floor to form the shallow but swift river splitting the length of the main chamber before exiting through the main entrance. (This new river made instantly clear the puzzling presence of a makeshift metal bridge spanning nothing but dry rock and dirt on our first visit.)

Soon other differences came into focus: in addition to the flowing water, I noticed subtly altered curves, a few missing or blunted outcrops, and a handful of overhead portals that provided new views to the sky above. At one point during our visit a small rockslide sent several dozen softball-size rocks crashing about 10 feet from an elevated ice shelf, an instant reminder of an ice cave’s perpetual dynamics (and of why visitors are required to wear helmets at all times in the cave).

Our guide, provided by our Iceland guiding service to assist both workshop groups, was fellow Sony Ambassador Albert Dros (Albert is from the Netherlands; Ambassadors in the US are called Sony Artisans), whose energy is matched only by his creativity (check him out). Albert had most of the group occupied photographing Artie, our ice cave driver/guide (yes, there were 4 guides for 12 workshop participants in the ice cave portion of the workshop: Don, Albert, Artie, and me), whom he had drafted as a model to establish scale for everyone’s images.

With a few minutes to myself, I was both ready and able to begin taking actual pictures. I warmed up by attempting to reprise compositions remembered from the earlier visit. But once I became comfortable with the ice cave’s changes, I moved on to new compositions that emphasized those differences.

I started by concentrating on the waterfalls with my 24 – 105 lens, using long-exposure motion blur to help them stand out. But when I noticed that the view beyond the cave entrance was filled with a nice mix of clouds and sky, I saw an opportunity to highlight the ephemeral river (and to test the dynamic range of the a7R V). Time for my 12 – 24 lens.

Setting up shop on the bridge, I started composing versions of the scene you see here, first horizontal, then vertical. It took a few frames, but I eventually found the combination of position on the bridge, tripod height, and left/right framing (at 12mm) that allowed me to include the new natural skylights on the left (with enough distance from the edge), all of the cave’s entrance (and the sky beyond), plus the ideal balance of river and ceiling.

I wanted to smooth the water enough to eliminate distracting (in my opinion) texture freezing the motion would create.  Lacking a neutral density filter for the 12 – 24 lens, I stopped down to f/18 and dropped to ISO 50, which allowed a nearly 1-second shutter speed—just slow enough.

The river was in shadow, but the water’s blueness really came out with the extra light my camera was able to capture. As with the ice cave’s color, the color of glacial water also is not simply reflected sky—or in this case, the ice’s blue. Rather, the water’s color is actually determined by the glacial silt it carries.

To understand this, now might be a good time to mention the counterintuitive truth that even receding glaciers move forward. Gravity carries a glacier downhill, but the glacier can still be retreating despite this downhill motion if it melts faster than it advances. As a glacier moves, embedded rock fragments at its base behave like sandpaper, grinding the rock over which it slides into finer and finer particles, the finest of which is called glacial flour. As the glacial meltwater carries all this scoured rock downhill, the heavier particles soon sink, while the finer glacial flour remains suspended in the runoff.

Most of the light striking water infused with glacial flour is absorbed by the fine suspended particles, but the green and blue wavelengths aren’t absorbed; instead they scatter back to our eyes and we are treated to blue, green, or turquoise water. The exact hue of flowing glacial meltwater is determined by the size of the suspended particles and the wavelengths (color) they scatter.

The result of all these glacial machinations is a the overwhelming blueness you see here.

BTW

I continue to be blown away by the dynamic range of the Sony sensors. As you may know, I never blend images, so the ability to capture with one click the entire range of tones in a scene like this is extremely important to me. On my LCD (jpeg) preview, the shadows in this image looked nearly black, while the highlights appeared hopelessly bright. But I trusted my histogram and the Sony raw file, and a couple of tugs of Lightroom’s Highlights and Shadows sliders validated that trust.

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Rare and Exotic Beauty (I Might Otherwise Have Missed)

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Lights, Camera, Action!

Gary Hart Photography: Wings of Angels, Aurora Above Dyrhólaey, Iceland

Wings of Angels, Aurora Above Dyrhólaey, Iceland
Sony α1
Sony 12-24 GM
10 seconds
F/2.8
ISO 3200

A couple of posts back I wrote about Nature’s gifts, natural phenomena that sometimes augment the ordinary enough to defy belief. In that post I cited reflections, relatively ubiquitous phenomena that improve nearly every scene they touch. Toward the other end of the commonness continuum are auroras, colorful lights that dance randomly in the frigid darkness high above Earth’s extreme latitudes.

While everyone has seen reflections, many live their life without ever witnessing an aurora. For most of us, viewing an aurora requires travel at the absolute worst time of year for travel, and then venturing outdoors in the darkest, coldest hours of the day. And even then, there’s no guarantee of success. Some nights the aurora simply doesn’t show up, other (many) nights auroras perform their dance behind a curtain of clouds.

So what’s the deal?

Despite all appearances to the contrary, auroras aren’t magic. Our planet is continuously bombarded by solar energy; a narrow range of these wavelengths (infrared and visible) battles all the way through Earth’s atmosphere to the surface to warm our bodies and light our way. But other wavelengths in the solar wind interact with atmospheric molecules they encounter, stripping their electrons to create ions, which causes a charge imbalance in the atmosphere.

Instead of penetrating the atmosphere to generate havoc on Earth’s surface, most of these ions are intercepted by the magnetosphere, our planet’s protective magnetic shield. The magnetosphere is a teardrop-shaped barrier surrounding Earth—battered by the relentless solar bombardment, its sun-facing side is spread out and compressed to about 6 to 10 Earth radii thick, while the shielded side behind Earth (from the Sun’s perspective) is stretched up to 60 Earth radii into space behind us (beyond the Moon’s orbit).

As Earth rotates inside the magnetosphere, the daylight side at any given moment looks through the wide, compressed region, while the night side peers out toward the extended region. Particles ionized by the sun are pushed by the solar wind from the daylight side of the magnetosphere to the upper regions of the polar latitudes on Earth’s leeward (night) side.

The result of these atmospheric machinations is an accumulation of ionized molecules dancing high in the night sky, creating an atmospheric oval of geomagnetic activity that waxes and wanes with solar activity and the intensity of the solar wind.

The aurora’s color depends on the molecules involved, as well as their location in the magnetosphere. The most plentiful and frequently activated molecules vibrate in the green wavelengths, but reds and blues are possible as well, depending on the intensity and altitude of the activity.

Known colloquially as the northern or southern lights, and more technically the aurora borealis in the Northern Hemisphere and aurora australis in the Southern Hemisphere, to see them you need all of the above: the correct location on or near Earth’s surface, activity in the magnetosphere, and dark, clear skies.

As with terrestrial weather, great effort is taken to predict the aurora, but there’s no such thing as an aurora “sure thing”—the best we can do is put ourselves in position to be as close to the auroral oval on nights with the greatest chance for activity. Planning a winter trip to the high latitudes (the higher the better), like Iceland, is a good start—then just pray for an active sun and clear skies.

Another key to successful aurora chasing is access to and comprehension of the Kp- (or K-) index. The Kp-index is a 0-9 scale of atmospheric electromagnetic activity, with 0 being little or no activity (get some sleep), and 9 being the most extreme activity (don’t forget the sunglasses). Many governments and scientific organizations issue regular Kp forecasts that seem about as reliable as a weather forecast—pretty good, but far from perfect. There are many websites and smartphone apps that will provide you with up-to-date Kp forecasts for your current location—some will even issue alerts. On my iPhone I find the Aurora Pro app essential for both planning and real-time aurora chasing.

Gary Hart Photography: Electric Night, Kirkjufell Aurora, Iceland

Electric Night, Kirkjufell Aurora, Iceland

Last week, armed with all this aurora knowledge, loads of preparation, and a healthy dose of hope, Don Smith and I embarked on the first of this year’s back-to-back Iceland photo workshops ready for action. We’ve had pretty good luck in all of our previous visits, but are wise enough to Nature’s fickle ways not to be too cocky.

After having (what from all reports was) a beautiful display erased by clouds the workshop’s first night, we were blessed with a truly magnificent show at Kirkjufell the next night. Not only did the sky behind the mountain light up, the colorful lights careened about the sky in all directions. On our ride back to the hotel, Don and I agreed that this show rivaled the Glacier Lagoon aurora show on our first trip to Iceland that we considered the best we’d seen so far. The group was happy and life was good.

Departing Snaefellsnes Peninsula for Vik the next morning with a tremendously successful aurora shoot already in the bank, I thought to myself that wishing for anything more would be downright greedy. And since Vik lacks the really great north-facing views that are ideal for photographing the aurora, I wasn’t counting on another northern lights shoot that night.

Nevertheless, because the sky was clear and the aurora forecast was decent, after dinner in Vik we went aurora chasing anyway. Rather than opt for the more sure but mediocre north-facing view, we instead drove to Dyrhólaey, a coastline/ocean vista with nice views in all directions except north. Our rationale was that a truly great display can be viewed in any and all directions, and since we already had our northern lights success in the books, why not just go for broke?

Smart move. An aurora was already blasting so strongly when we arrived that we started photographing the instant we rolled off the bus and didn’t make it out of the parking lot for about 15 minutes. And while the previous night’s aurora display at Kirkjufell rivaled our best ever, this one easily topped it.

Once ensconced at the vista, we spent most of our time photographing westward, where the view up the coastline was the best available, and from where a persistent series of brilliant red and green beams radiated. Very much aware that the show was great in all directions, at one point I glanced southward, out over the Atlantic, and just had to photograph what I saw.

There really wasn’t a lot happening in the foreground, but a few small islands (more like large rocks) saved the day. I took several frames facing south, but chose the one I’m sharing today because it I find its beautiful angel wing shape truly unique.

After using my brand new Sony a7R V at Kirkjufell the previous night (it performed wonderfully), for this entire shoot I used my Sony a1. For both shoots, because the aurora spanned most of the sky, I shot almost exclusively with my Sony 12 – 24 f/2.8 GM lens at 12mm—and would have gone wider if I could have. With the aurora changing continuously, I shot wide open and used ISOs between 3200 and 6400 to keep my shutter speed at 10 seconds or faster. I’m thrilled with how clean these high ISO images were from both cameras, and won’t hesitate to use either one for any future aurora shoot.

2 FAQs

Here are my answers to the two aurora questions I hear most frequently:

  • Can you see the aurora’s color?
    • For most auroras there simply isn’t enough light to see any (or much) color. But in no way does this detract from the beauty. And when the aurora really gets going, yes, you can indeed see color—at one point this night it did brighten enough that the color was clearly visible, so bright in fact that I had to drop my exposure by 4 stops to avoid blowing out the highlights. And the color you see in my (and probably most) aurora images appears right there on the LCD after capture—in other words, rather than a Photoshop manipulation, aurora color in an image is mostly a simple product of the camera’s ability to accumulate photons.
  • Can you see the aurora move?
    • Sometimes you can’t see the aurora’s actual motion, but from minute to minute you become aware that its shape is noticeably different. And the bigger and brighter the aurora’s display, the faster it moves, until its motion becomes clearly visible—I’d compare the speed to a fast moving cloud. And a better word than “move” for what an aurora does might be “change.” While clouds seem to scoot across the sky, an aurora continually shifts and moves—the more intense the display, the faster the change.

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A Gallery of Iceland Auroras

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Upping Your Vertical Game

Gary Hart Photography: Moonrise and Clouds, El Capitan, Yosemite

Moonrise and Clouds, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7R IV
Sony 24-105 G
1 second
F/11
ISO 100

Greetings from Iceland. Perhaps you noticed that this picture is in fact not Iceland, but that’s only because I simply haven’t had a chance to process my images from the past week. There are many reasons to visit Iceland in winter, and I will very enthusiastically share examples in future posts (northern lights, anyone?), but today I’m sharing one more image from last month’s Yosemite workshop. And because I’m fully immersed in a workshop that occupies me day and night (chasing the low light by day, and the aurora by night), I’m dusting off (and polishing up) a post on a topic that is as important to me today as it was when I wrote it 12 years ago.

Let’s Get Vertical

Who had the bright idea to label horizontal images “landscape,” and vertical images “portrait”? To that person let me just say, “Huh?” As a landscape-only photographer, about half of my images use “portrait” orientation. I wonder if this naming bias subconsciously encourages photographers to default to a horizontal orientation for their landscape images, even when a vertical orientation might be best.

Every image possesses an implicit visual flow that’s independent of the eyes’ movement between the scene’s elements. Understanding that the long side of an image subtly encourages the visual motion through the frame—left/right in a horizontal image, up/down in a vertical image—photographers can choose visual symmetry or tension with the visual movement between the scene’s visible elements.

For example, because a waterfall flows down, orienting a waterfall image vertically complements the water’s motion, instilling a feeling of calm. Conversely, a waterfall image that’s oriented horizontally can possess more visual tension because of the natural inclination for the eye to move laterally in a horizontally oriented image. While there’s no absolute best way to orient a waterfall image (or any other scene), you need to understand that there is a choice, and that choice matters.

By moving the eye from front to back, vertical images can enhance the illusion of depth so important in a two-dimensional photo. Even though a still image lacks the depth dimension, there’s a sense that distance increases from the bottom up in its 2-dimensional world. The viewer’s eye is drawn first to a strong visual element in the foreground, then naturally flows up, and away, from there. The left/right tug of a horizontal image conflicts with this. (Many factors go into creating the illusion of depth, so I’m not saying that horizontal images inherently lack depth.)

More than just guiding the eye through the frame, vertical orientation narrows the frame, enabling us to eliminate distractions or less compelling objects left and right of the prime subject(s). Vertical is also my preferred orientation when I want to emphasize a sky full of stars, dramatic clouds and color, or (as I was reminded earlier this week) an aurora that rockets skyward.

In these scenes with especially dramatic skies, not only do I orient them vertically, I put the horizon near the bottom of the frame to further underscore the drama. When the sky is dull and all the visual action is in the landscape, I’ll put the horizon at the top of my frame. And when the landscape and sky are equally compelling, I have no problem splitting the frame in the middle (regardless of what the photo club rule “experts” might proclaim).

While a horizontally oriented scene is often the best way to convey the sweeping majesty of a broad landscape, I particularly enjoy guiding and focusing the eye with vertical compositions of traditionally horizontal scenes. Tunnel View in Yosemite, where I think photographers tend to compose too wide, is a great example. The scene left of El Capitan and right of Cathedral Rocks can’t compete with the El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall triumvirate, yet the world is full of too-wide Tunnel View images that shrink this trio to include (relatively) nondescript granite that can’t hold a candle to the main scene.

When the foreground and sky aren’t particularly interesting, I tend to shoot fairly tight horizontal compositions at Tunnel View. But when a spectacular Yosemite sky, snow-laden trees, or cloud-filled valley below demand attention, vertical is my go-to orientation because it frees me to celebrate the scene’s drama without diluting it.

When I composed the scene in this image, the moon had just popped out of the clouds. Knowing when and where it was supposed to arrive, I’d been set up with my Sony a7R IV mounted with my Sony 200-600 lens and 2X Teleconverter, hoping to capture the moon BIG as it edged up from behind El Capitan. When the clouds threatened to completely wipe out the moonrise, I’d have been thrilled with any lunar appearance. By the time this wish was fulfilled, I’d long since abandoned my big moon plan and switched to my Sony 24-105 lens.

Because the clouds and color stretched across the sky, and Bridalveil Fall was flowing nicely, I naturally did a horizontal composition of this scene wide enough to include all the good stuff. But that composition shrunk the moon to more of a strong accent, and I wanted something with the moon more front-and-center.

Gary Hart Photography: Moonrise and Clouds, Tunnel View, Yosemite

Moonrise and Clouds, Tunnel View, Yosemite

Flipping my camera to vertical, I increased my focal length to limit my terrestrial subjects the business end of El Capitan, with an incognito Half Dome lurking in the background. The longer focal length enlarged the moon enough that, while not the BIG moon I’d once imagined, it stands out far more prominently than it does in my horizontal version.

Breaking News

The night before last, my Iceland workshop group was treated to what may have been the most spectacular northern lights display I’ve ever witnessed. Until last night, when we topped it. Stay tuned to this channel for images (as soon as I get a chance to process them and write some—by my next blog, I hope).


Let’s Get Vertical

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Playing the Cards You’re Dealt

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Veil, Half Dome, Yosemite

Winter Veil, Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7R IV
Sony 24-105 G
8 seconds
F/16
ISO 160

In family hearts games when I was a kid, I loved to “shoot the moon” (tremendous reward for success, extreme cost for failure). But simply wanting to shoot the moon wasn’t enough to make it happen, and I didn’t really start winning until I learned to separate my desires from the reality in my hand—I know now to evaluate my cards when they’re dealt, set a strategy, then adjust my strategy as the game unfolds. It’s that way for most card games, and it’s that way with photography.

Given nature’s fickle whims, I try not to lock in on something I want so much that I miss what I can have. I got my latest reminder last month in Yosemite, when I really, really wanted to shoot the moon. It was the workshop’s first sunset, and I knew exactly where I wanted to be to start my workshop group off with a beautiful full (-ish) moon rising above Half Dome at sunset. I’ve written about the weather related moon frustrations in this workshop in other recent posts, but this is where it all began.

This evening’s frustrations were compounded by the fact that not only was the moon a no-show, for most of the our time there it looked as if Half Dome would be joining it. So when we arrived out here, I had to reassure everyone that there really is a view of Half Dome right up there, and it’s really beautiful, I swear.

Because I’d told them before starting the short hike out to this spot that our target would be the moon and Half Dome, when neither appeared, it would have been easy to simply stand around and wait for something to change. So I tried to point out some of the other, more subtle opportunities available.

I suggested using the swirling clouds, bare trees, and pristine snow to convey a frigid wintry atmosphere. And the reflection, while not as dramatic as it can be here, nevertheless nicely complimented the scene, while a long exposure, in addition to smoothing the reflection, could stretch the white dollops of drifting foam into white steaks that reveal the Merced River’s motion.

I visit this spot so much that I often just leave my camera in the bag here, but as I pointed out these subtle features to my group, I started talking myself into the opportunity to photograph something new. So, partly to demonstrate to others and partly to actually capture something of my own, I pulled out my Sony a7RIV and Sony 24-105 and went to work.

While the scene was dark enough to get exposures of a second or so without a neutral density filter, I wanted something a little longer and added a Breakthrough 6-stop Dark Polarizer. I started with horizontal frames that maximized the foreground reflection and middle-ground wintry scene, but when Half Dome’s outline started to materialize through the clouds(a harbinger of good things to come?), I changed my emphasis. And because I’d already been working the scene’s other elements, it was a simple step to start incorporating Half Dome into my compositions.

Half Dome never appeared completely, but for a few minutes it did peek out enough to be recognizable. In fact, the  ethereal feel the clouds create are a big part of this image’s appeal for me. This was an 8-second exposure at ISO 160. I wish I could say I chose ISO 160 because 200 was too fast and 125 was too slow, but I’m guessing that my intent was to use ISO 50 for the longest possible shutter speed, but while fumbling with my camera wearing bulky gloves (it was as cold as it looks), I accidentally turned the ISO dial.

This evening is a good reminder that consistently successful nature photography not only requires the ability to anticipate conditions and establish a plan, but also to maintain enough flexibility to adjust when things don’t play out as expected. No shoot is a guaranteed success, and sometimes nature’s cards just don’t fall right. But the more options you have, and the more you can read and respond to conditions, the more winners you’ll come home with.

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Variations on a Scene: Different Takes on the Same Location

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Nature’s Gifts: Reflections

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn on Ice, El Capitan Reflection, Yosemite

Autumn on Ice, El Capitan Reflection, Yosemite
Sony α1
Sony 16 – 35 f/2.8 GM
1/4 second
F/18
ISO 100

Sometimes Nature delivers us something that’s so beautiful, it just has to be a gift. When we think of Nature’s gifts, it’s often in terms of locations, like Yosemite or Grand Canyon (gifts indeed!). But today I’m thinking about Nature’s transient beauty: the perfect arc and vivid colors of a rainbow, a brilliant crimson sunrise or sunset, or an aurora dancing among the stars (I could go on)—beauty that can simultaneously surprise and wow us.

Underrated on Nature’s list of gifts are reflections. Doubling the scene, reflections signal tranquility. And like a metaphor that engages the brain in ways different than we’re accustomed, a reflection is an indirect representation that can be more powerful than its literal double. Rather than allowing us to process the scene directly, a reflection challenges us to mentally reassemble its reverse world, and in the process perhaps see the scene a little differently.

Reflections can feel like a fortuitous gift that we just stumbled upon. But given that reflections are entirely beholden to the laws of physics, they’re far more predictable than many of the natural phenomena we photograph. Taking a little time to understand the nature of reflections and how they’re revealed by a camera enables photographers to anticipate their appearance and craft their relationship to the surrounding landscape in an image.

Without getting too far into the physics of light, it’s important to understand that every object we see (and photograph) that doesn’t generate its own light, comes to us courtesy of reflected light. In other words, what we call a reflection is in fact re-reflected light (reflected first from the object itself, then by the water).

For example, when sunlight strikes El Capitan in Yosemite, some of the sun’s photons bounce back into our eyes, and there it is. But other photons head off in different directions—some to be captured by different sets of eyes, while others land on the surface of the Merced River far below. A few of these photons penetrate the water, illuminating leaves and rocks on the submerged riverbed, while others carom off the water at the same angle at which they struck—only in the other direction, much the way a pool ball ricochets off the pool table’s cushion. When our eyes are in the path of these bounced photons, we see a reflection.

The recipe for a mirror reflection

Water reflections come in many forms, from a mirror-sharp inverted m­­­­ountain peak glistening atop a still pool, to an abstract shuffle of color and texture on an undulating lake. Both have their place in creative photography.

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Reflection, El Capitan and Three Brothers, Yosemite

Autumn Reflection, El Capitan and Three Brothers, Yosemite

The ideal recipe for a mirror reflection is pretty simple: still water, a sunlit subject that’s much brighter than the water’s surface (the greater the contrast the better), and a view angle that matches the angle at which the sunlight struck the water’s surface. And while a sunlit subject and shaded surface aren’t essential, the more photons striking the reflected subject, and the fewer non-reflected photons (ambient light) striking the reflective surface, the greater the contrast that helps the reflection stand out.

El Capitan Autumn Leaves, Yosemite: With El Capitan getting direct sunlight and the slow moving Merced River still shaded, I had the sharp reflection I hoped for. With just a little bit of searching, I positioned myself to include nearby floating autumn leaves.

Playing the angles

Just because you don’t see a reflection in the still water in front of you, doesn’t mean there’s no reflection—it just means you’re viewing from the wrong angle.

Understanding that reflected photons leave the water’s surface at the same angle at which they arrive—imagine the way a tennis player anticipates the ball’s bounce to get in position—allows us to position ourselves to photograph the reflection we want. For example, if the angle from your subject to the water is 40 degrees, its reflection will bounce off the water at 40 degrees in the other direction.

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Palette, Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite

Sunset Palette, Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite

To locate the reflection, set your camera aside and move up/down, backward/forward, and left/right until you see find it. Then bring your camera back in and position it exactly where your eyes were when you saw the reflection.

Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite: One summer evening I found myself atop Sentinel Dome shortly after an intense rain shower had turned indentations in the granite into small, reflective pools. Seeing the potential for a spectacular sunset above Half Dome, I wanted to include the colorful clouds reflected in the pools. At eye-level the pools reflected nothing but empty sky, so I dropped my tripod almost to granite level until my lens found the angle that intercepted the red clouds just above Half Dome bouncing off the still water.

When the water’s in motion

As spectacular as a crisp, still water mirror reflection is, it’s easy to overlook the visual potential of a reflection that’s not crisp, and to forget your camera’s ability to render a soft or abstract reflection much better than your eyes view it.

Gary Hart Photography: Before the Sun, South Tufa, Mono Lake

Before the Sun, South Tufa, Mono Lake

While a crisp reflection can dominate an image, a splash of reflected color or shape can beautifully accent a striking primary subject. And a reflection that’s lost to the continuously varying angles of rippled or choppy water, magically appears as a soft outline when a long exposure smooths the water’s surface into a gauzy haze.

South Tufa, Mono Lake: In this sunrise image, all the ingredients were in place for a special reflection. Just as the color arrived, a light breeze stirred the lake’s surface with gentle undulations. I used a 6-stop neutral density filter to enable a multi-second exposure that completely smoothed the lake’s surface. While not a perfect mirror, the resulting reflection has a very pleasing soft, gauzy look.

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Autumn Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Where to focus

An often misunderstood aspect of reflection photography is where to focus. Though counterintuitive to some, the focus point of a reflection is the reflection’s subject, not the surface it reflects on. This isn’t a big deal when the focus point of everything of visual significance is infinity, but it’s a very big deal when you want both your distant subject’s reflection and the nearby rocks or leaves on or in the water surface to be sharp.

Photographing a distant subject reflecting in a pool of leaves requires the same hyperfocal depth of field approach you’d use for any other close-to-distant image: small aperture and a focus point slightly beyond the closest thing that needs to be sharp.

El Capitan Reflection, Yosemite: Photographing autumn leaves atop El Capitan’s reflection required impossible depth of field to capture sharpness throughout. Even though the leaves and reflection were just a few feet in front of me, focusing for a sharp reflection would have softened the leaves. To increase my depth of field, I stopped down to f/18 and focused toward the back of the closest group of leaves, then magnified the image on my LCD to verify that all of the leaves were sharp. Though El Capitan’s reflection is slightly soft, a soft reflection is almost always more forgivable than a soft foreground.

Polarizer

Gary Hart Photography: Reflection on the Rocks

Reflection on the Rocks, Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

Put simply, a polarizer cuts reflections. Most photographers use a polarizer to darken the sky, and while that can be a nice effect, the polarizer’s value is far greater than that. More than to darken the sky, polarizers remove subtle reflective sheen that washes out color on foliage and rocks.

An underappreciated polarizer use is to erase a reflection to reveal submerged rocks, leaves, and texture. After photographing a reflection with no polarizer or polarization minimized (maximum reflection), rotate the polarizer to minimize the reflection (maximum polarization) and capture submerged features hidden by the reflection. You might be surprised by how different the two images are, and how much you like both versions.

Lake Wanaka, New Zealand: But a polarizer isn’t an all or nothing tool. When photographing the solitary willow tree in Lake Wanaka, I carefully watched the reflection in my viewfinder while rotating my polarizer, stopping when I reached a polarization midpoint that included some reflection, while still revealing the mosaic of stones just beneath the lake’s surface.

Rainbows

Rainbows are a very special kind of reflection that happens when light is refracted (separated into its colorful wavelengths) upon entering airborne water droplets. This refracted light reflects off the back of the droplet to create a rainbow.

Because the laws of physics apply to all reflections, we know that a rainbow would actually form a full, 42 degree circle if it didn’t encounter the horizon. The center of this circle is at the anti-solar point—the point exactly opposite the sun (with your back to the sun, imagine a line from the sun through the back of your head and exiting between your eyes). That means that your shadow will always point at the rainbow’s apex. And the lower the sun, the higher the apex will be. Read more about rainbows.

Gary Hart Photography: Rainbow Bridge, Colorado River, Grand Canyon

Rainbow Bridge, Colorado River, Grand Canyon

Double Rainbow, Colorado River, Grand Canyon: Understanding rainbow physics allowed me to anticipate a rainbow despite a black cloud blocking the sun and drenching everyone in my raft trip group. When I saw that the sun was about to pop out of the cloud and into a large patch of blue sky, I rallied my group and pointed to where the rainbow would appear. A few minutes later their skepticism turned to ecstasy when we all started capturing images of a double rainbow bridging the Grand Canyon.

Outside the box

Reflections also provide wonderful creative opportunities. An often overlooked opportunity is the potential found in reflections that aren’t mirror-like. And, in addition to the more conventional reflection composition that’s split somewhere near the middle to give more or less equal frame real estate to the subject and its reflection, some of the most creative reflection images concentrate entirely, or almost entirely, on the reflection.

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn on Ice, El Capitan Reflection, Yosemite

Autumn on Ice, El Capitan Reflection, Yosemite

I found this El Capitan reflection at Cathedral Beach on the final afternoon of last month’s Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop. After capturing a crisp, top-to-bottom El Capitan reflection, I repositioned myself to juxtapose much of El Capitan against the faceted veneer of ice topping the river. An added bonus of water still enough for ice to form was that it allowed drifting, recently fallen autumn leaves to settle and accumulate on the river-bottom here.

Finding the best spot combine the reflection, ice, and leaves in a single frame, I dropped low enough to get a sharp reflection El Capitan’s nose in the still, iceless water close to the shore. To ensure sharpness in the ice and the reflection (as well as the distant trees and El Capitan), I stopped down to f/18 and focused midway into the ice.

Almost all of the foreground was shaded, but with bright, direct sunlight brightening the clouds and El Capitan, this scene’s dynamic range was a real factor. But my reflection-centric composition eliminated the clouds brightest granite, making the exposure much easier. Finally, I tried multiple polarizer positions until I found the one with the best combination of reflection and submerged leaves.

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Mirror, Valley View (El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall), Yosemite

Sunset Mirror, Yosemit

I was so focused on the other visual elements in this scene, I didn’t fully appreciate the bare trees across the river. But when I started processing the image and viewed it on my large monitor, I was pleased by how much they add to the wintry feel of this image.

Double your pleasure

Whether it’s a shimmering mirror, a gauzy haze of color and shape, or a colorful rainbow, reflections are a gift from Nature—camera or not. By doubling the beauty surrounding us, reflections have the power to elevate ordinary to beautiful, and beautiful to extraordinary.

For photographers, reflections provide boundless creative opportunities. When exploring outdoors with a camera, some reflections seem to jump out and grab us by the eyeballs, while others require a little more work. Either way, when properly conceived and executed, a reflection image possesses a visual synergy, conveying beauty that more than doubles the scene’s two halves.

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El Capitan Reflections

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Looking Back at 2022

This is my final blog post of 2022. Going through my images from the past 12 months, I can’t help but celebrate my blessings. What you might (I hope) view as a pretty picture, represents to me a thrilling moment in Nature. And believe me when I say that I remember the experience of witnessing every single image I share here.

2022 was the year my photography life returned to something resembling pre-pandemic “normal.” When the year’s photography highlights started with a northern lights show above Kirkjufell in Iceland, I should have recognized it as a harbinger of blessings in the year to come.

In no particular order, those blessings included returning to New Zealand for the first time in 3 years. Highlights there included a return to Doubtful Sound and Fox Glacier, snowcapped peaks, glacial lakes, and the incredible Southern Hemisphere night sky, where the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds ride high, the Milky Way is reversed, and the cohort of constellations is completely new. And I was extremely relieved to find that the vandalized solitary willow in Lake Wanaka hadn’t lost its essence.

Closer to home, the Grand Canyon, which never lets me down, shared even more gifts than usual. Especially memorable were a foggy sunrise that was unlike any sunrise I’ve ever witnessed, a new view of the Milky Way above the Colorado River (in darkest sky possible), and some of the most thrilling lightning experiences of my life—both in quality and quantity. On Hawaii, enhancing the lush beauty and rugged coast was the return of Kilauea’s eruption, which I hadn’t seen in 5 years. Seeing the volcano’s bubbling lava, and photographing the Milky Way above its incandescent glow, felt almost spiritual. And Yosemite, my special place, was as special as ever.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge all the wonderful people I got to share these moments with. Not only do my workshop students enable me to sustain this wonderful life, they are kindred spirits who make these moments in Nature even better. I have no idea what’s in store for 2023, but my 2022 experiences are a reminder that more special awaits, and I can’t wait to find out what it is. Stay tuned…


My 2022 In Pictures

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Putting It All Together

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Mirror, Valley View (El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall), Yosemite

Sunset Mirror, Valley View (El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall), Yosemite
Sony α1
Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM
1/6 second
F/11
ISO 100

Nature’s most spectacular visual moments come thanks to the glorious confluence of its static and dynamic beauty. Nature’s static beauty is its fixed features, the mountains, oceans, lakes, rivers, trees (and more) that inspire us to travel great distances with our cameras, confident in the knowledge that they’ll be there when we arrive. Nature’s dynamic beauty is its transient elements, like the light, clouds, color, weather, and celestial objects, that we try to anticipate—but that often surprises/disappoints us.

Whether it’s lightning at the Grand Canyon, the Milky Way in New Zealand, the northern lights in Iceland, or a moonrise above Yosemite, my photo trips are (selfishly) timed to maximize my chance for those times when the inherently beautiful scenes are blessed with special conditions. And though relying on the fickle whims of Mother Nature means the disappointments are frequent and frustrating, I’ve learned to roll with them because the thrill of success is greater than the frustration of failure.

But for a photographer, just being there isn’t enough, because, as thrilling as the moment might be, doing it justice with a camera usually requires more than just a simple point and click. Often (usually?), adding the best of Nature’s dynamic elements changes the scene enough to actually shift the balance of visual power—what might be the best picture in more typical conditions, suddenly takes backseat to the ephemeral beauty unfolding before us.

Getting the most from Nature’s glorious confluences means quickly identifying the scene’s best features right now, and finding a composition that emphasizes them—even if that means deemphasizing the static element that drew you in the first place. For example, at Valley View in Yosemite, photographers can choose between El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, or both of the above (not to mention Cathedral Rocks, Leaning Tower, and Ribbon Fall). As I recently blogged, I’ll photograph this scene completely differently depending on the conditions—sometimes ignoring El Capitan or Bridalveil Fall in favor of the other, and other times including both.

And beyond subject choice are decisions like the amount of sky versus foreground to include, horizontal or vertical orientation, wide or tight focal length, polarizer orientation, motion blur in the water, and on and on. All of these choices depend on the conditions, and the way they’re handled can make or break an image.

My Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshops are timed to coincide with a full moon rising above Yosemite Valley at sunset, as well as (fingers crossed) fresh snowfall in Yosemite Valley. Yosemite Valley is the workshop’s known, static commodity; snow and the moon are its dynamic variables. While getting fresh snow is a complete a roll of the dice when scheduling a workshop a year or more in advance, the moon’s phase and position can be predicted with surgical accuracy. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch in photography, so even though I know where to be and when to be there for the moon, I still have to sweat the clouds—especially in winter.

Which is exactly what I did in this month’s workshop. Having billed this as a “winter moon” workshop, I took my students out to a view of Half Dome that aligned perfectly with the first of my three planned sunset moonrises, then watched and waited while Half Dome played games with the clouds and never came out completely. The moon? Not even close. If you read last week’s blog, you know that we finally had a moonrise success on our third and final try. But it’s what happened on the evening in between that stands out most in my memory.

In a static world, for our second sunset I’d have been at another location beside the Merced River, waiting for the moon to crest Half Dome. Because watching the moon rise above Half Dome at sunset is something I hate missing, even when there are lots of clouds, my usual approach is to lean into the moonrise despite the low odds—you just never know when the sky might open and surprise you by revealing the moon (see last week’s blog). But as the time to make the call on our sunset location approached, I could see that the east side of the valley, including Half Dome, appeared hopelessly engulfed by clouds, while the sky on the west side looked much more open. So I reluctantly (and uncharacteristically) pulled the plug on the moonrise and detoured to Valley View for sunset, hoping I wouldn’t regret it.

At Valley View, I instantly saw that the cloud swallowing Half Dome was a blooming cumulus monster that showed no hint of retreating. My decision to blow off the moonrise (somewhat) vindicated, I got my group settled in. While fairly confident we’d get something better than my Plan A Half Dome spot, I didn’t have especially high expectations for anything spectacular.

Pulling out my Sony α1 body, I surveyed the scene. Normally I start at Valley View with my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens, but with such a nice sky this evening, I reached straight for my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens.

I see clouds like this one all the time at the Grand Canyon, but rarely in Yosemite—maybe way in the distance, but rarely this close. It only took two frames to realize the 16-35 still wasn’t wide enough, so I returned to my bag for my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens. Maybe I’ve used this lens at Valley View before, but it’s usually reserved for Yosemite’s closer El Capitan views.

When the cloud lit up and started glowing pink, its reflection switched on too, suddenly making that the scene’s most compelling element. There aren’t many situations where I’d photograph here ultra-wide and vertical, but this time I instantly knew that’s what the scene called for, even if that meant shrinking Valley View’s usually unrivaled landscape features. With my 12 – 24 oriented vertically, not only could I include all of Valley View’s primary static features (El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, Cathedral Rocks), I could also fit the towering pink cloud and its reflection, top to bottom. To avoid including any of the sticks and leaves at my feet, I dropped lower and moved most of my tripod into the shallow water.

This evening’s show was as brief as it was spectacular. If there’s one takeaway, it’s the reminder the most successful landscape images start with finding a combination of Nature’s static and dynamic elements—identifying a location you want to photograph (static), and figuring out when to be there for the best light, color, sky, or whatever (dynamic). But your job isn’t done until you’ve identified what’s working at that moment, and put it into a composition that does the moment justice.


Natural Confluences

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The Third Time’s the Charm

Gary Hart Photography: Moonrise and Clouds, Tunnel View, Yosemite

Moonrise and Clouds, Tunnel View, Yosemite
Sony a7R IV
Sony 24-105 G
1/4 second
F/11
ISO 100

Large or small, crescent or full, I love photographing the moon rising above Yosemite. I truly believe it’s one of the most beautiful sights on Earth. The moon’s alignment with Yosemite Valley changes from month-to-month, with my favorite full moon alignment coming in the short-day months near the winter solstice when it rises between El Capitan and Half Dome (from Tunnel View), but I have a plan for each season. Some years the position and timing are better than others, but when everything clicks, I do my best to be there. And if I’m going to be there anyway, why not schedule a workshop? (He asked rhetorically.)

Strike one, strike two

For last week’s Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop, I’d planned three moonrises, from three increasingly distant vantage points. On our first night, despite the cloudy vestiges of a departing storm, I got the group in position for a moonrise at a favorite Merced River sunset spot, hoping the promised clearing would arrive before the moon. The main feature here is Half Dome, but the clouds had other ideas. Though they eventually relented just enough to reveal Half Dome’s ethereal outline and prevent the shoot from being a complete loss, the moon never appeared. Strike one.

With a better forecast for the second evening, we headed into the park that afternoon with high hopes. But as the sun dropped, the clouds thickened to the point where not only did I fear we’d miss the moon again, I was pretty sure Half Dome would be a no-show as well. So I completely aborted the moonrise shoot and opted for sunset at Valley View, where El Capitan and freshly recharged Bridalveil Fall were on their best behavior. The result was a spectacular sunset that made me look like a genius (phew), but still no moon. Strike two.

Revisiting nature photography’s 3 P’s

Because the right mindset is such an important part of successful photography, many years ago I identified three essential qualities that I call the 3 P’s of Nature Photography:

  1. Preparation is (among many things) your foundation; it’s the research you do that gets you in the right place at the right time, the mastery of your camera and exposure variables that allow you to wring the most from the moment, and the creative vision, refined by years of experience, and conscious out-side-the-box thinking.
  2. Persistence is patience with a dash of stubbornness. It’s what keeps you going back when the first, second, or hundredth attempt has been thwarted by unexpected light, weather, or a host of other frustrations, and keeps you out there long after any sane person would have given up.
  3. Pain is the willingness to suffer for your craft. I’m not suggesting that you risk your life for the sake of a coveted capture, but you do need to be able to ignore the tug of a warm fire, full stomach, sound sleep, and dry clothes, because the unfortunate truth is that the best photographs almost always seem to happen when most of the world would rather be inside.

Most successful images require one or more of these three essential elements. Chasing the moon last week in frigid, sometimes wet, Yosemite got me thinking about the 3 P’s again, and how their application led to a (spoiler alert) success on our third and final moonrise opportunity.

Meanwhile…

As we drove into the Tunnel View parking lot, about 45 minutes before sunset, our chances for the moon looked excellent. There were a few clouds overhead, with more hanging low on the eastern horizon behind Half Dome, but nothing too ominous. My preparation (there’s one) had told me that the moon this evening would appear from behind El Capitan’s diagonal shoulder, about halfway up the face, and that area of the sky was perfectly clear. So far so good.

Organizing my group along the Tunnel View wall, I pointed out where the moon would appear, and reminded them of the previously covered exposure technique for capturing a daylight-bright moon above a darkening landscape. Eventually I set up my own tripod and Sony a7R IV, with my Sony 200 – 600 G lens with the 2X Teleconverter pointed at ground 0. In my pocket was my Sony 24 – 105 G lens, which I planned to switch to as soon as the moon separated from El Capitan. Then we all just bundled up against the elements and enjoyed the view, waiting for the real show…

But, as if summoned by some sinister force determined to frustrate me, the seemingly benign clouds hailed reinforcements that expanded and thickened right before our eyes. Their first victim was Half Dome, and it looked like they’d set their sights on El Capitan next. By the time sunset rolled around, my optimism had dropped from a solid 9 to a wavering 2. I knew the moon was up somewhere behind the curtain and tried to stay positive, but let everyone know that our chances for actually seeing it were no longer very good. I reminded them not to get so locked in on waiting for the moon that they miss out on the beauty happening right now. Ever the optimist, I switched to my 24-105, privately rationalizing that even without the moon, we’d had so much spectacular non-moon photography already, nobody could be unhappy. But still…

At that point it would have been easy to cut our losses, come in out of the cold (pain), and head to dinner. But I have enough experience with Yosemite to know that it’s full of surprises, and never to go all-in on it’s next move. So we stayed. And our persistence (we’ve checked all three now) was rewarded when, seemingly out of nowhere, a hole opened in the clouds and there was the moon. The next 10 minutes were a blur of frantic clicking and excited exclamation as my group enjoyed this gift we’d all just about given up on.


A few full moon photography tips

  • Sun and moon rise/set times always assume a flat horizon, which means the sun usually disappears behind the local terrain before the “official” sunset, while the moon appears after moonrise. When that happens, there’s usually not enough light to capture landscape detail in the moon and landscape, always my goal. To capture the entire scene with a single click (no image blending), I usually try to photograph the rising full moon on the day before it’s full, when the nearly full (99% or so illuminated) moon rises before the landscape has darkened significantly.
  • The moon’s size in an image is determined by the focal length—the longer the lens, the larger the moon appears. Photographing a large moon above a particular subject requires not only the correct alignment, it also requires distance from the subject—the farther back your position, the longer the lens you can use without cutting your landscape subject.
  • To capture detail in a rising full moon and the landscape (in a single click), increase the exposure until the highlight alert appears on your LCD (any more exposure blows out the moon). At that point, you can’t increase the exposure any more, even though the landscape is darkening. You’ll be amazed by how much useable data you’ll be able to pull from the in nearly black shadows in Lightroom/Photoshop (or whatever your processing software). In the image I share above, my LCD looked nearly black except for the single white dot of moon. Eventually the scene will become too dark—exactly when that happens depends on your camera, but if you’re careful, you can keep shooting until at least 15 minutes after sunset.

Learn More


Moon Over Yosemite

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Near, Middle, Far

Gary Hart Photography: El Capitan and Floating Autumn Leaves, Yosemite

El Capitan and Floating Autumn Leaves, Yosemite
Sony α1
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
1/2 second
F/11
ISO 100

I’m in Yosemite for a workshop so my blogging time is significantly curtailed, but let’s see what happens…

Photography is the futile attempt to render a three dimensional world in a two dimensional medium. It’s “futile” because including actual depth in a photograph is literally impossible. But impossible doesn’t mean hopeless. One of the simplest things photographers can do to elevate their images is think about their scene in three dimensions, specifically how to create the illusion of depth by composing elements at multiple distances from the camera.

Many photographers miss opportunities by simply settling for the beautiful scene before them instead of looking for ways to make it even better. A more productive approach is to start with the beautiful aspect of the scene you want to emphasize (brilliant sunset, backlit flower, towering peak, vivid rainbow, plunging waterfall, whatever), then aggressively seek an object or objects nearer or farther to complement it. Of course that’s sometimes easier said than done, but this near/middle/far mindset should be present for every capture.

Thinking foreground and background is a great start, but merely having objects at varying distances isn’t always enough—you also need to be aware of how those objects guide your viewer’s eye through the frame. We hear a lot of photographers talk about using “leading lines” to move the eye, but a line doesn’t need to be a literal (visible) line to move the eye, because viewers will subconsciously connect objects to create virtual lines.

To help me achieve virtual lines that move the eye, I think in terms of “visual weight”: a quality of an object that tugs the eye like gravity, subconsciously pulling the viewer’s gaze in its direction. These qualities include, among other things: mass, shape, brightness, contrast, color, texture, and sometimes just position in the frame. A single one of these qualities can give an object visual weight, but combining then can be even more effective.

Additionally, an object’s emotional power can boost its visual weight. For example, a small moon can pull the eye more than a larger bright cloud, and Half Dome has more visual weight than a random rock occupying the same amount of frame real estate.

With my primary subject and complementary (eye moving) objects identified, I still need to consider the linear connection between these visual components. I like diagonal relationships because of the visual tension created by moving the eye along multiple planes. While creating these virtual diagonals requires careful positioning, it’s surprising how many photographers just remain planted with their tripod as if it has grown roots—either they don’t see the benefit of repositioning, or don’t think moving is worth the effort.

Whatever the reason, it’s important for photographers to understand the power of shifting position to control foreground and background relationships: move left and your foreground shifts right relative to the background; move right and the foreground shifts left relative to the background. Either way, the closer the foreground is relative to the background, the more dramatic the shift. And contrary to what you might believe, it’s impossible to change foreground/background perspective with focal length—to change perspective, you must change position: forward/backward, left/right, up/down.

An often overlooked shift that can be quite powerful is up/down. Often I’m able to un-merge objects at different distances by simply raising my tripod or climbing atop a nearby rock. Dropping low will emphasize the closest elements, and when my frame has a large and boring empty space (such as a field of weeds or dirt) between the foreground and background, I drop lower to shrink that gap.

It’s taken me a while to figure out the best way to convey these concepts to my photo workshop students. In most workshops, I find that many of the students haven’t picked up their cameras in weeks or months (or years!), so I’ve learned give them time to get back in their creative zone before laying all this stuff on them.

For example, in my Yosemite workshops I usually start with the classic shots that probably drew them to the park in the first place, places like Tunnel View and Valley View, where there are obvious compositions that lead to easy success. At the first image review I give a little talk on composition and moving the eye (among other things), then everyone shares images and I offer my feedback.

By the second day, armed with that foundation and a little Day 1 success, they’re usually ready to challenge their creativity and attack the less heralded spots whose beauty is more subtle. This growth is obvious as soon as the Day 2 image review. I’m frequently blown away by how quickly they’ve refined their inherent creative vision well enough to see beyond the obvious and find compositions that are both beautiful and unique.

One autumn favorite creative spot is the section of the Merced River from the Pohono Bridge upstream to Fern Spring, and even a little beyond. Fern Spring alone, with its stair-step cascades and a small reflecting pool that’s covered with color each fall, has enough to occupy a creative photographer for hours. And just across the road is a trail that skirts the river and traverses a forest filled with colorful maple and dogwood trees. The entire area is chock-full of creative opportunities that include whitewater, still water reflections, and of course (lots of) fall color.

In last month’s Fall Color and Reflections workshop, once I was satisfied that everyone was comfortable with their cameras and starting to trust their creative instincts, I took them to Fern Spring. Once there, I gave them the lay of the land and encouraged them to explore. Early in the workshop my groups tend to stick close to me, but this afternoon I was encouraged to see everyone instantly scatter. That’s always a good sign that they’re starting to get in the zone—even though it means I need to chase each one down to make sure they’re doing okay.

By the time I’d finished my rounds and confirmed that each person had things under control (and fearing that my presence might actually be a distraction), I was left with about 20 minutes to do a little shooting of my own. I quickly grabbed my camera and beelined upstream to a spot that I can’t take a group to because there’s no room for more than one person, no trail to get there, and it’s frighteningly easy to fall in the river. (I’ve had a couple of minor mishaps here that required changing shoes and socks, and maybe spending a couple of hours in pants wet to my calf, but was always grateful it wasn’t worse).

Rather than a standard fall color location, this is a fallen color spot that accumulates leaves that have drifted downstream from elsewhere to float among the rocks. Each year, the quality of the floating color varies from none to lots—not enough water and the leaves don’t make it into the rocks; too much water and the leaves just wash right by to locations downstream.

I was happy to confirm that this was indeed a good year for the floating color. Being in a hurry, I could have very easily snapped off a couple of frames from where I stood and called it good. But often the difference between an image that’s merely a decently executed rendering of a beautiful scene, and an image that stands out for the (often missed) aspects of the natural world it reveals, is the time it takes to identify and connect the scene’s visual relationships. So I took just a little more time to align the elements.

In this case that meant positioning myself so the foreground rocks and leaves aligned with the middle-ground rocks and reflection, which aligned with cloud-shrouded El Capitan in the background. Words cannot express how awkward this position was, requiring a grand total of 5 splayed legs—3 tripod and 2 human. But still it wasn’t quite right—until I dropped my tripod down to about a foot above the water to make the leaves more prominent.

After setting my exposure, I focused on the third small foreground rock, then dialed my polarizer to reduce the reflection on the leaves while retaining the upstream reflection. Click.

Near, Middle, Far

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Secure Your Borders

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Leaves on the Rocks, El Capitan Reflection, Valley View, Yosemite

Autumn Leaves on the Rocks, Valley View Reflection, Yosemite
Sony a7R IV
Sony 24-105 G
1/40 second
F/16
ISO 100

It’s easy to be overwhelmed at the first sight of a location you’ve longed to visit for years. And since by the time you make it there you’ve likely seen so many others’ images of the scene, it’s understandable that your perception of how the scene should be photographed might be fixed. But is that really the best way to photograph it?

Valley View in Yosemite is one of those hyper-familiar scenes. El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, and Cathedral Rocks pretty much slap you in the face the instant you land at Valley View, making it easy to miss all the other great stuff here. This month’s workshop group visited Valley View twice, with each visit in completely different conditions, which got me thinking about about the number of ways there are to photograph most scenes, and how it’s easy to miss opportunities if you simply concentrate on the obvious. Most scenes, familiar or not, require scrutiny to determine where the best images are—on every visit.

Gary Hart Photography: Sunrise Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Sunrise Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

On our first visit, Bridalveil Fall was just a trickle lost in deep shadow, so I focused my attention on El Capitan, opting for a vertical frame to emphasize El Cap, the beautiful clouds overhead, and the reflection. When we returned a couple of days later, Bridalveil had been recharged by a recent rain, the soft light was more even throughout the scene, and patches of fallen leaves and pine needles now floated atop the reflection. All this called for a completely different approach.

On this return visit, since I thought there was (just barely) enough water in Bridalveil to justify its inclusion, I went with a horizontal composition. It would have been easy to frame up El Capitan, Bridalveil, and Cathedral Rocks, throw in a little reflection and call it good. But (as my workshop students will confirm) I obsess about clean borders because I think they’re the easiest place for distractions to hide.

So before every click, I do a little “border patrol,” a simple reminder to deal with small distractions on my frame’s perimeter that can have a disproportionately large impact on the entire image. (I’d love to say that I coined the term in this context, but I think I got it from fellow photographer and friend Brenda Tharp—not sure where Brenda picked it up.)

To understand the importance of securing your borders, it’s important to understand that our goal as photographers is to create an image that not only invites viewers to enter, but also persuades them to stay. And the surest way to keep viewers in your image is to help them forget the world outside the frame. Lots of factors go into crafting an inviting, persuasive image—things like compositional balance, visual motion, and relationships are all essential (and topics for another day), but nothing reminds a viewer of the world outside the frame more than an object jutting in or cut off at the edge.

When an object juts in on the edge of a frame, it often feels like part of a different scene is photobombing the image. Likewise, when an object is cut off on the edge of the frame, it can feel like part of the scene is missing. Either way, it’s a subconscious and often jarring reminder of the world beyond the frame. Not only does this “rule” apply to obvious terrestrial objects like rocks and branches, it applies equally to clouds.

And there are other potential problems on the edge of an image. Simply having something with lots of visual weight—an object with enough bulk, brightness, contrast, or anything else that pulls the eye—on the edge of the frame can throw off the balance and compete with the primary subject for the viewer’s attention.

Of course it’s often (usually?) impossible to avoid cutting something off on the edge of the frame, so the next best thing is to cut it boldly rather than to simply trim it. I find that when I do this, it feels intentional and less like a mistake that I simply missed. And often, these strongly cut border objects serve as framing elements that hold the eye in the frame.

To avoid these distractions, I remind myself of “border patrol” and slowly run my eyes around the perimeter of the frame. Sometimes border patrol is easy—a simple scene with just a small handful of objects to organize, all conveniently grouped toward the center, usually requires minimal border management. But more often than not we’re dealing with complex scenes containing multiple objects scattered throughout and beyond the frame. Even when you can’t avoid cutting things off, border patrol makes those choices conscious instead of random, which is almost aways better.

As nice as the Valley View reflection was on this visit, it was sharing space with a disorganized mess of rocks, driftwood, and leaves. Organizing it all into something coherent was impossible, but I at least wanted to have prominent color in my foreground and take care  to avoid objects on the edge of my frame that would pull viewers’ eyes away from the scene.

Unfortunately, as I used to tell my kids all the time (they’re grown and no longer listen to me), you can’t always have what you want. In this case, including the best foreground color also meant including an unsightly jumble of wood, rock, and pine needles in the lower right corner. But after trying a lot of different things, I decided this was the best solution—especially since I managed to find a position and focal length that gave me completely clean borders everywhere else in my frame.

I very consciously included enough of the mass in the lower right that it became something of a boundary for that corner of the image (not great, but the best solution possible). I also was very careful to keep an eye on the ever-changing clouds. The light on El Capitan that broke through just as I had my composition worked out felt like a small gift.

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Valley View Variety

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