Where there’s smoke…

Gary Hart Photography: Sun and Smoke, Sierra Foothills, California

Sun and Smoke, Sierra Foothills, California
Sony a6300
Sony 100-400 GM
Sony 2x teleconverter
ISO 100
f/16
1/8 second

Humans, we have a problem

Earth’s climate is changing, and the smoking gun is ours. Sadly, in the United States policy lags insight and reason, and the world is suffering.

Climate change science is complex, with many moving parts that make it difficult to communicate to the general public. Climate change also represents a significant reset for some of the world’s most profitable corporations. Those colliding realities created a perfect storm for fostering the doubt and confusion that persists among people who don’t understand climate science and the principles that underpin it.

I’m not a scientist, but I do have enough science background (majors in astronomy and geology before finally earning my degree in economics) to respect and appreciate the scientific method, with all its checks and balances. I also spent 20 years doing technical communication in the high tech industry (tech writing, training, and support). So I know that the fundamentals of climate change don’t need to intimidate, and the more accessible they can be to the general public, the better off we’ll all be.

It’s personal

Recently it feels like I’ve been living on the climate change front lines. On each visit to Yosemite, more dead and dying trees stain forests that were green as recently as five years ago. And throughout the Sierra (among other places), thirsty evergreens, weakened by drought, are under siege by insects that now thrive in mountain winters that once froze them into submission. More dead trees means more fuel, making wildfires not just more frequent, but bigger and hotter.

Speaking of wildfires, for a week last month I couldn’t go outside without a mask thanks to smoke from the Camp Fire that annihilated Paradise (70 miles away). I have friends who evacuated from each of this November’s three major California wildfires (Camp, Hill, and Woolsey), and last December the Thomas Fire forced a two-week evacuation of Ojai, where my wife and I rent a small place (to be near the grandkids). Our cleanup from the Thomas fire took months, and we still find ash in the most unexpected places (and we were among the lucky who had a home to clean).

The debate is dead

Despite its inevitable (and long overdue) death, the climate change debate continues to stagger on like a mindless zombie. We used to have to listen to the skeptics claim that our climate wasn’t changing at all, so I guess hearing them acknowledge that okay-well maybe-the-climate-is-changing-but-humans-aren’t-responsible can be considered progress.

Despite what you might read on social media or fringe websites, climate change alternative “explanations” like “natural variability” and “solar energy fluctuations” have been irrefutably debunked by rigorously gathered, thoroughly analyzed, and closely scrutinized data. (And don’t get me started on the whole “scientists motivated by grant money” conspiracy theory.)

Science we all can agree on

One thing that everyone does agree on is the existence of the greenhouse effect, which has been used for centuries to grow plants in otherwise hostile environments.

As you may already know, a greenhouse’s transparent exterior allows sunlight to penetrate and warm the interior. The heated interior radiates at longer wavelengths (infrared) that don’t escape as easily through the greenhouse’s ceiling and walls. Because more heat is added to a greenhouse than exits, the interior stays warmer than the environment outside.

There’s something in the air

Perhaps the most common misperception about human induced climate change is that it’s driven by all the heat we create when we burn stuff. But that’s not what’s going on, not even close.

Our atmosphere behaves like a greenhouse, albeit with far more complexity. The sun bathes Earth with continuous electromagnetic radiation that includes infrared, visible light, and ultraviolet. Solar radiation not reflected back to space reaches Earth’s surface to heat water, land, and air. Some of this heat makes it back to space, but much is absorbed by molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, forming a virtual blanket that makes Earth warmer than it would be without an atmosphere. In a word, inhabitable.

Because a molecule’s ability to absorb heat depends on its structure, some molecules absorb heat better than others. The two most common molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, nitrogen (N2: two nitrogen atoms) and oxygen (O2: two oxygen atoms), are bound so tightly that they don’t absorb heat. Our atmospheric blanket relies on other molecules to absorb heat: the greenhouse gases.

Also not open for debate is that Earth warms when greenhouse gases in the atmosphere rise, and cools when they fall. The rise and fall of greenhouse gases has been happening for as long as Earth has had an atmosphere. So our climate problem isn’t that our atmosphere contains greenhouse gases, it’s that human activity changes our atmosphere’s natural balance of greenhouse gases. While water vapor is our atmosphere’s most prevalent greenhouse gas, water creates a feedback loop that increases the heat caused by carbon dioxide—if carbon dioxide raises the temperature of the air, the air can hold more water, which increases the temperature more. Water vapor also responds quickly to temperature changes, leaving the atmosphere relatively fast as rain or snow. The other greenhouse gases hold their heat far longer.

The two most problematic greenhouse gases where climate change is concerned are carbon dioxide (CO2: one carbon atom bonded with two oxygen atoms) and methane (CH4: one carbon atom bonded with four hydrogen atoms). The common denominator in these “problem” gases is carbon. (There are other, non-carbon-based, greenhouse gases, but for simplicity I’m focusing on the most significant ones.)

Carbon exists in many forms: as a solo act like graphite and diamond, and in collaboration with other elements to form more complex molecules, like carbon dioxide and methane. When it’s not floating around the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas, carbon in its many forms is sequestered in a variety of natural reservoirs called a “carbon sink,” where it does nothing to warm the planet.

Oceans are Earth’s largest carbon sink. And since carbon is the fundamental building block of life on Earth, all living organisms, from plants to plankton to people, are carbon sinks as well. The carbon necessary to form greenhouse gases has always fluctuated naturally between the atmosphere and natural sinks like oceans and plants.

For example, a growing tree absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, keeps the carbon and expels oxygen (another gross simplification of a very complex process); this process stops when the tree dies. As the dead tree decomposes, some of its carbon is returned to the atmosphere as methane, but much of it returns to the land where it is eventually buried beneath sediments. Over tens or hundreds of millions of years, some of that sequestered carbon is transformed by pressure and heat to become coal.

Another important example is oil. For billions of years, Earth’s oceans have been host to simple-but-nevertheless-carbon-based organisms like algae and plankton. When these organisms die they drop to the ocean floor, where they’re eventually buried beneath sediment and other dead organisms. Millions of years of pressure and heat transforms these ancient deposits into…, oil.

Coal and oil (hydrocarbons), as significant long-term carbon sinks, were quite content to lounge in comfortable anonymity as continents drifted, mountains grew, and glaciers crept. Through all this slow motion activity on its surface, Earth’s temperatures ebbed and flowed and life on the surface evolved accordingly.

Enter humans. We have evolved, migrated, and established civilizations based on a relatively stable climate. And since the discovery of fire we humans have burned plants for warmth and food preparation. Who knew that such a significant advance was the first crack in the climate-change Pandora’s Box?

Burning organic material creates carbon dioxide, releasing sequestered carbon. For thousands of years the demand for fuel was met simply by harvesting dead plants strewn about on the ground and the reintroduction of carbon to the atmosphere was minimal. But as populations expanded and technology advanced, so did human’s thirst for fuel to burn.

We nearly killed off the whales before someone figured out that those ancient, subterranean metamorphosed dead plants burn really nicely. With an ample supply of coal and oil and a seemingly boundless opportunity for profit, coal and oil soon became the driving force in the world’s economy. Suddenly, hundreds of millions of years worth of sequestered carbon was being reintroduced to our atmosphere as fast as it could be produced—with a corresponding acceleration in greenhouse gases (remember, when we burn hydrocarbons, we create carbon dioxide).

Compounding the fossil-fuel-as-energy problem is the extreme deforestation taking place throughout the world. Not only does burning millions of forest and jungle acres each year instantly reintroduce sequestered carbon to the atmosphere, it destroys a significant sink for present and future carbon.

Scientists have many ways to confirm humans’ climate change culpability. The most direct is probably the undeniable data showing that for millennia carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere hovered rather steadily around 280 parts per million (ppm). Then, corresponding to the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen steadily and today sits somewhere north of 400 ppm, with a bullet.

Humans don’t get a pass on atmospheric methane either. While not nearly as abundant in Earth’s atmosphere as carbon dioxide, methane is an even more powerful greenhouse gas, trapping about 30 times more heat than its more plentiful cousin. Methane is liberated to the atmosphere by a variety of human activities, from the decomposition of waste (sewage and landfill) to agricultural practices that include rice cultivation and bovine digestive exhaust (yes, that would be cow farts).

While the methane cycle is less completely understood than the carbon dioxide cycle, the increase of atmospheric methane also correlates to fossil fuel consumption. Of particular concern (and debate) is the cause of the steeper methane increase since the mid-2000s. Stay tuned while scientists work on that….

Balancing act

For humans, the most essential component of Earth’s habitability is the precarious balance between water’s three primary states: gas (water vapor),  ice, and liquid. Since the dawn of time, water’s varied states have engaged in a complex, self-correcting choreography of land, sea, and air inputs—tweak one climate variable here, and another one over there compensates.

Earth’s climate remains relatively stable until the equilibrium is upset by external input like solar energy change, volcanic eruption, or (heaven forbid) a visit from a rogue asteroid. Unfortunately, humans incremented the list of climate catalysts by one with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, and our thirst for fossil fuels.

As we’re learning firsthand, even the smallest geospheric tweak can initiate a self-reinforcing chain reaction with potentially catastrophic consequences for humanity’s long-term wellbeing. For example, a warmer planet means a warmer ocean and less ice, which means more liquid water and water vapor. But that’s just the beginning. More liquid water swallows coastlines; increased water vapor means more clouds, precipitation, and warmer temperatures (remember, water vapor is a greenhouse gas). Wind patterns and ocean currents shift, changing global weather patterns. Oh yeah, and ice’s extreme albedo (reflectivity) bounces solar energy back to space, so shrinking our icecaps and glaciers means even more solar energy to warm our atmosphere, which only compounds the problems.

Comparing direct measurements of current conditions to data inferred from tree rings, ice and sediment cores, and many other proven methods, makes it clear that human activity has indeed upset the climate balance: our planet is warming. What we’re still working on is how much we’ve upset it (so far), what’s coming, and where the tipping point is (or whether the tipping point is already in our rearview mirror).

We do know that we’re already experiencing the effects of these changes, though it’s impossible to pinpoint a single hurricane, fire, or flood and say this one wouldn’t have happened without climate change. And contrary to the belief of many, everyone will not be warmer. Some places are getting warmer, others are getting cooler; some are wetter, others are drier. The frequency and intensity of storms is changing, growing seasons are changing, animal habitats are shifting or shrinking, and the list goes on….

We won’t fix the problem by simply adjusting the thermostat, building dikes and levees, and raking forests. Until we actually reduce greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, things will get worse faster than we can adjust. But the first step to fixing a problem is acknowledging we have one.

About this image

The Camp Fire had been burning for ten days, devouring Paradise and filling the air in Sacramento with brown smoke so thick that at times not only could we not see the sun, we couldn’t see the end of the block. But on this afternoon, when an orange ball of sun burned through the smoke I donned a mask, grabbed my camera bag, and headed for the hills.

I have a collection of go-to foothill oak trees for sun and moonsets, but most of these trees are too close to my shooting position for the extreme telephoto image I had in mind. Too close because at this kind of focal length, the hyperfocal distance is over a mile. So I made my way to a quiet country road near Plymouth where I thought the trees might just be distant enough to work. But I’m less familiar with this location than many of my others, so I didn’t know exactly how the trees and sun would align. Turning onto the road, I drove slowly, glancing at the sun and trees until they lined up. Because there wasn’t a lot of room to park on either side, I was pleased that the shoulder at the location that worked best was just wide enough for my car.

Envisioning a maximum telephoto shot, I added my Sony 2X teleconverter to my Sony 100-400 GM lens. While my plan was to use my 1.5-crop Sony a6300, when I arrived the sun was high enough that that combination provided too much magnification, so I started with my full frame Sony a7RIII. But soon as the sun dropped to tree level I switched to the a6300 and zoomed as tight as possible.

When I started the sun was still bright enough that capturing its color made the trees complete silhouettes, with no detail or color in the foreground. But as the setting sun sank into increasingly thick smoke, it became redder and redder and my exposure became easier. It always surprises me how fast the sun and moon move relative to the nearby horizon, so found myself running around to different positions to get the right sun and tree juxtaposition as the sun fell. The smoke near the horizon was so thick that it swallowed the sun before it actually set.

Later I plotted my location and the sun’s position on a map and realized that I was pointing right at San Francisco, about 100 miles away, with a large swath of the Bay Area in between. Then I thought about this air that was thick enough to completely obscure the sun, and the millions of people who had been breathing that air for weeks.

I’d be lying if I said I don’t like this image—it’s exactly what I was going for. But I’d be very happy if I never got another opportunity to photograph something like this.

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Solar Energy

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Waiting for the Stars

Gary Hart Photography: Nightfall, Schulman Grove, White Mountains, California

Nightfall, Schulman Grove, White Mountains, California
Sony a7R III
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
Breakthrough 6-stop ND filter
30 seconds
F/11
ISO 400

The bristlecone pines are among the oldest living organisms on earth. Some of these trees pre-date the Roman Empire by 2000 years—and they look every year of their age. The more harsh a bristlecone’s environment, the longer it lives.

As with the giant redwoods, it’s humbling to be among the bristlecone pines. What they lack in bulk they make up for in character, with their corkscrew branches, gnarled trunks, and intricate texture that make them fascinating subjects from any angle or distance, with any lens from wide to macro.

The plan this evening was to photograph these trees until sunset, then wait until dark and photograph them beneath the Milky Way. Despite an afternoon that included rain, fog, and lots of overcast, my hardy Eastern Sierra workshop group bundled up and toughed it out with the hope we’d get lucky. Occasionally patches of clear sky would tease us, only to vanish as quickly as it appeared.

Not getting what you came for is no reason to put the camera away, and I encouraged everyone to keep shooting while we waited. Because I was preparing everyone for a potential night shoot, I just found a composition I liked, set up my tripod in the fading light, and clicked a frame every couple of minutes.

When the darkness was nearly complete and there was still no sign of the Milky Way, we decided it head back down to the cars. I like to be the last one down the trail when we come out of the bristlecones in the dark, so I shot for a few more minutes while the rest of the group packed up. This image is my final frame of the evening. With no moon and a mostly cloudy sky, it was too dark to effectively compose and focus, so I stuck with the composition I’d started with when it was brighter. I used a 30-second exposure at f/11 and ISO 400 to capture more light than my eyes saw. That long exposure also really conveyed the motion in the clouds that had been whipping around overhead all evening. The rather ethereal quality I captured here is a perfect example of why twilight is an underrated time for photography.

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A Few Bristlecones

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Fresh Takes

Gary Hart Photography: Half Dome Autumn Reflection, Sentinel Bridge, Yosemite

Half Dome Autumn Reflection, Sentinel Bridge, Yosemite
Sony a7RIII
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
1/8 second
F/11
ISO 100

I love the iconic captures as much as the next person—scenes like Yosemite’s Horsetail Fall in February, Upper Antelope Canyon’s famous light shaft, or McWay Fall’s tumble into the Pacific, are both gorgeous and a thrill to photograph. But standing elbow-to-elbow with hundreds (or thousands!) of photographers, each recording virtually identical images that are already duplicates of thousands of prior images, while nice, doesn’t necessarily stimulate my creative juices.

Iconic for a Reason

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Once upon a time photographing even the most popular scenes in solitude wasn’t difficult. The tourists who overwhelm the best known views during the comfortable times of day would vacate just when the photography started getting good. But with the proliferation of digital photographers and easy exchange of information in our connected world, there aren’t many photography secrets anymore, and the opportunities to make unique images have become more challenging than ever. And if you do capture something special, posting it online is sure to immediately draw photographers like cats to a can opener.

Given that Yosemite Valley’s eight square miles attracts over five million visitors each year, you’d think it would be impossible to find unique perspectives. But on even the busiest summer day, rising for sunrise will give you at least a couple of peaceful hours. And of course in Yosemite’s backcountry, while relatively crowded by wilderness standards, solitude is always just a short detour away.

But the iconic spots earned their recognition for a reason, and first-time (or infrequent) Yosemite visitors want to see them too. For my workshops, in addition to sharing with my students a variety of my favorite more hidden Yosemite spots, I’ve learned to take them to the Yosemite locations they’ve come to know from a lifetime time of viewing Yosemite pictures.

The first visits to vistas like Glacier Point, Tunnel View, Valley View, and Sentinel Bridge still inspire the awe they always have. It’s easy for photographers, overcome by the majesty before them, to fall back on their memory of others’ images and settle for their own version of the same thing. Rather than suggest that my students avoid doing this (for many, these images are the very reason they signed up in the first place), I suggest that they start with the iconic shots they know, but don’t make it their goal. Rather, I encourage them to use those familiar imagers as a starting point for a fresh take that’s more uniquely theirs. I won’t pretend that this approach always, or even frequently, results in something that no one has ever captured, but I think everyone’s photography benefits when that is the goal—not just the images captured today, but the ability to see and execute better images tomorrow as well.

In this year’s Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections workshop we spent most of our time bouncing from one beautiful scene to the next. Autumn, with its colorful leaves and ubiquitous reflections, provides more opportunities for unique captures than any other season, and the color this years was fantastic. But that didn’t prevent us from checking off the icons.

Speaking of icons, my rule of thumb in Yosemite is El Capitan in the morning and Half Dome in the afternoon. But after breakfast one morning, one of the cars said they wanted to go check out Sentinel Bridge, one of the best Half Dome reflections in the park. Normally I resist photographing Half Dome in the morning because its face doesn’t get direct sunlight until late afternoon, but on the way to breakfast I’d noticed the cottonwoods upstream were beautifully backlit and I thought it might be worth checking out. So I scrapped my original plans and we detoured back to the bridge (hey, never let it be said that I’m not flexible).

I’m so glad I listened to the votes from the other car that morning because we ended up with one of the workshop’s highlight shoots. Half Dome was in full shade, sky was a bland blue mixed with a few thin clouds, but the backlit trees were off the charts. We all started with the wider, more conventional views, capturing Half Dome and the trees doubled by their reflection. But that doesn’t take long, and soon I was encouraging everyone to keep working it.

When working out a composition, I always try to figure out where the scene’s action is. In this scene the highlight for me was the upstream trees and their reflection. Wanting as little as possible of the fairly boring sky, I went with a horizontal composition. I also thought a horizontal composition would be best for framing the cottonwoods and reflection with the shaded trees on both sides of the river. To leave no ambiguity about what this image is about, I removed the actual Half Dome entirely, leaving its reflection for context only.

With my Sony 24-105 f/4 G on my Sony a7RIII, I zoomed to a composition that put the “action” front and center, making sure to get all of Half Dome’s reflection but minimal sky, balancing the backlit trees and their reflection toward the top of the from, and framing everything with the darker trees on the edges. Depth of field and motion weren’t concern, so I went with my default ISO 100 and f/11, focused, and clicked.

As anyone who has been in one of my workshops knows, the first click is a draft, an image to review and refine. Evaluating the picture on my LCD, I ran my eyes around my frame and made a few micro adjustments to ensure a tight composition without cutting off the tops of the sunlit tree in the top center, the shaded trunks on the left and right, and the cloud above (below?) Half Dome.

Judging from the variety of images shared in the image reviews, this shoot was a highlight for everyone else too. Some found their own takes on this upstream scene, while a few ventured across the road to capture a completely different scene looking downstream. Not a bad result for a location that wasn’t even on my radar for that morning.

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Fresh Takes on Yosemite’s Icons

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It’s the People

Gary Hart Photography: Floating Color, El Capitan, Yosemite

Floating Color, El Capitan, Yosemite

The ability to earn my living visiting the most beautiful places in the world is plenty of reason for gratitude, but that’s not what I’m thinking about today. Today I’m thinking about all of the people my workshops have connected me with, and all the laughter and learning they have added to my life.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to the people part of photo workshops when I started, but I had no idea how much of the joy I get from leading photo workshops comes from the people. Over the last dozen or so years, my workshop students have taught me about their countries, professions, hobbies, religions,… I could go on. I’ve watched workshop participants from virtually every continent on Earth (no penguins yet), with wildly diverse values and world views, blend seamlessly and enthusiastically. Observing this, I’ve learned that despite the exterior tensions that seem to divide our world today, humans have far more in common than we imagine.

Like most people, I have my share of strong opinions about the way things in the world should be. But the people I’ve met in my workshops have shown me that a person’s “goodness” is not determined by his or her political views or any other category that we so conveniently like to slot people into. I’ve seen firsthand that no political affiliation, religious preference, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity has a monopoly on warmth, passion, generosity, empathy, patience, or humor. Even more encouraging, I don’t think these workshop epiphanies are mine alone. Workshop after workshop, I get to observe a dozen of the most diverse people imaginable not just set aside differences and work side-by-side, but actually form friendships that transcend conventional boundaries, deep friendships that often continue long after the workshop ends.

I went into the photo workshop business fully prepared to teach others, but completely unprepared for the learning others would offer me.

About this image

With the fall color for this year’s Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections workshop peaking, I had to work overtime to balance the need for quality photo time at each stop with my desire to get my group to all the photo spots. On the workshop’s final day we finally made it to Cathedral Beach, a great up-close view of El Capitan that’s always good for reflections in the fall.

With El Capitan in full sunlight, the river in shade, and nothing stirring the water, all the ingredients were in place for a nice reflection. We’d been photographing reflections all week, but I didn’t get the sense that anyone was tiring of them. Drifting cottonwood leaves added to the beauty and the group quickly spread along a hundred yards or so in search of a composition to make their own.

Often shooting a scene like this I start wide, but this afternoon I started with my Sony 100-400 GM lens, playing with close-ups of the leaves and reflection. After wringing every possibility from this approach, I went to the other extreme and switched to my Sony 12-24 G lens. A wide composition needs a strong foreground, usually the closer the better, so I dropped down to river level and started working on variations of this scene.

While the water was calm, I was close enough to the leaves that even the slightest ripples risked motion blur, so to increase my shutter speed I dialed my Sony a7RIII to ISO 400. At 12mm I have a tremendous amount of depth of field, but the leaves were so close that I decided to play it safe and use f/16. After a check check of my hyperfocal app, I focused on a leaf about 18 inches from my camera knowing that would give me sharpness from the closest leave all the way out to El Capitan.

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An El Capitan Gallery

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Taking Yosemite for Granite (sorry)

Gary Hart Photography: Face to Face, Half Dome from Glacier Point, Yosemite

Face to Face, Half Dome from Glacier Point, Yosemite
Sony a7RIII
Sony 100-400 GM
ISO 100
f/11
1/6 second

Yosemite, like most of the Sierra Nevada, was carved from an intrusive igneous rock (subterranean magma that cooled without reaching the surface). This subterranean magma cooled slowly enough for its primary constituents, quartz and feldspar, plus mica and other minerals, to form crystals that fuse into an extremely hard matrix: granite. The granite waited patiently in the dark while overhead oceans advanced and receded, leaving thousands of feet of new sediment behind.

Beginning tens of millions of years ago, a slow-motion collision of tectonic plates uplifted the granite and its overlying sedimentary layers. As the ancient mountain range rose, erosion accelerated the demise of the sedimentary layers, eventually exposing the much harder granite. As the uplift continued, rivers moved faster, carving V-shaped river valleys that included the predecessor of what we now know as Yosemite Valley.

Then came the glaciers, an irresistible force meeting granite’s immovable object. Instead of breaking apart and collapsing as a lesser rock might, Yosemite’s granite stood tall as the glaciers cleared out the ancient Yosemite Valley, carving it into the U-shaped feature we know today—a flat floor bounded by vertical cliffs.

Granite’s hardness also affects the way it breaks up when exposed to the elements of weathering. Instead of crumbling under wind and rain like softer rock, or cleaving along aligned planes of weakness, granite retains its shape until fracturing along microscopic cracks caused by external stress such as pressure or weathering. These cracks allow water to seep into the rock. Of course you remember from high school science (right?) that unlike most substances, water expands when it freezes. This expansion pushes open the cracks, allowing even more water to seep in after the ice melts. This crack/seep/freeze/expand cycle continues until the rock fails, splitting along the expanded crack. In this process large chunks of granite are shed, often quite suddenly, while the remaining granite stands tall.

Granite’s unique qualities are on exquisite display in Yosemite Valley, where streams bursting with snowmelt tumble over shear granite walls, and granite monoliths tower 3,000 feet above the Merced River. Yosemite and Bridalveil Falls are Yosemite’s most recognized waterfalls, but look up on a spring day and you might count a dozen or more. The waterfalls dominate in spring, but Yosemite’s monoliths endure year-round, drawing visitors from around the world in every season. El Capitan, the largest chunk of granite in the world, is a climbers’ mecca, and few mountains have a more recognizable profile than Half Dome.

Half Dome is a bit of a misnomer, but one look at it the name is easy to visualize a rounded dome that lost a full half of its mass to a passing glacier. The reality is that Half Dome’s current shape is fairly close to the rock that was exposed by millions of years of erosion. While Yosemite’s glaciers filled most of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome was tall enough to protrude from the ice sheet and avoid direct contact. Half Dome’s shear face resulted from a single fracture that separated a large slice of granite to expose the flat granite face we all recognize.

After a nice day photographing fall color and reflections El Capitan’s shadow, we finished our day at Glacier Point for a face-to-face view Half Dome. The gray stratus blanket that had permitted a full day of sweet photography in diffuse the sunlight was about to become a liability for anyone longing for a colorful sunset.

Half Dome gets light all the way up to, and in fact even a couple of minutes beyond, the “official” (flat horizon) sunset. But because the view of Half Dome faces east, and the view to the west is obscured by terrain, there’s no way to know whether the horizon is clear in the direction of the setting sun. Even on cloudy days like this, my rule in Yosemite is to never give up on sunset until at least five minutes the after the official sunset time has passed. When a couple of people in the group started rumbling about heading back to the cars, I issued one of my favorite Yosemite proclamations to all within earshot: Never try to predict the conditions in five minutes based on the conditions now. I knew the odds were long for capturing anything more than darkening shades of gray fading to black, but without cameras they’d be zero.

I have no idea whether they truly believed me, or simply stayed put to humor me, but either way, I started to look pretty smart about five minutes before sunset when we spotted a faint glow on Half Dome. I held my breath as the sun slipped into a clear slot of unknown size on the horizon behind us to paint Half Dome with warm light. I hadn’t planned to shoot that evening, but as the light intensified I was glad I’d dragged my bag around anyway. As I quickly set up my tripod and extracted my camera, I urged everyone to keep shooting because there was no guarantee that this would last—just as I’ve witnessed many of these last minute miracles in Yosemite, I’ve also seen euphoria dashed in a heartbeat when the sun was suddenly snuffed right at the climactic moment (Horsetail Fall is notorious for this). But this evening the light held strong, warming to a golden crescendo, then fading to pink that intensified to a rich red that colored the sky from horizon to horizon.

The light tones of quartz and feldspar, plus its crystalline nature, make granite especially reflective. So while Yosemite isn’t especially known for its sunsets, when they do get red like this, granite’s inherent reflectivity causes the entire landscape to throb with a crimson glow. It’s one of my favorite phenomena in nature.

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I ended up photographing the entire sunset with my Sony 100-400 GM lens on my Sony a7RIII. Not because I didn’t have a wealth of wide angle shots to choose from (I did!), but because I was working with my group and the telephoto compositions were simpler. Simpler in the sense that (for me at least) a wide shot requires a bit more strategic planning to first identify the frame’s foreground, middle-ground, and background elements, then position myself to give them a coherent relationship. A telephoto composition, on the other hand, has always felt more intuitive than strategic (though each generally requires elements of strategy and intuition), so I’m usually able to put my camera and telephoto to my eye, then move and zoom until something feels right.

With so many views at Glacier Point, the group had scattered a little before sunset, so I was only with about half of them for the good stuff at the end. Back at the cars I checked in with those who had gone elsewhere and found that while most had photographed it, a couple had watched the show from the parking lot. Sigh.

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Half Dome Near and Far

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The Sky’s the Limit

Gary Hart Photography: Look to the Sky, Milky Way and Mauna Kea Gemini Observatory, Hawaii

Look to the Sky, Milky Way and Mauna Kea Gemini Observatory, Hawaii
Sony a7S II
Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art
20 seconds
F/1.4
ISO 6400

I sometimes rail against camera clubs for their rule-bound creative constipation (yes, I know there are exceptions). On Hawaii in September I was reminded that I’m not immune to the same malady.

Because Nature doesn’t have a monopoly on beauty, earlier in my photographic life I was somewhat less discriminating with my choice of subjects, photographing anything outdoors that I found beautiful. Many of my bridge and skyline images were on (or atop) my personal bestseller list, but as my career evolved I found myself resenting the intrusion humankind on nature and less inclined to include it—unconscious choices that evolved into my present style, photographing a world untouched by humans. The mere presence of a building, fence, path, or even a human is now enough for me to put my camera down. I’ve never felt it’s wrong to photograph manmade subjects—in fact I enjoy others’ photos of these things—it’s just that I’m not drawn to them as a photographer.

But this year’s Big Island workshop forced me to reevaluate my bias. As you might already know, not only do I love night photography in general, and Milky Way photography in particular, I’ve also been an astronomy enthusiast since childhood. The Big Island trip is one I’ve always especially looked forward to, partly for the opportunity to photograph the Milky Way above Kilauea. But (unless you’ve been living under a rock) you probably know that early this year Kilauea underwent a spectacular upheaval that spewed lava, altered the Hawaii landscape, and ultimately terminated the eruption that had been underway since 1983, much as the grand finale marks the end of the Independence Day fireworks show.

Pele’s festivities started in early May with a 6.9 magnitude earthquake that kicked off daily 5+ magnitude earthquakes, a sequence lasting for three months and precipitating an incremental collapse of the summit caldera. When the ash finally settled, there was no more glowing lava at the summit (or anywhere else on the Big Island) to accent the Milky Way.

Losing my Milky Way vista was an infinitesimal loss compared to the losses suffered by others on Hawaii, but I still faced a challenge to replace it with something that would satisfy a group of photographers expecting a spectacular night shoot. Enter Mauna Kea. I’d always been reluctant to take a group here because the road is rough and steep, and the air at (nearly) 14,000 feet is very thin (and cold!). I’d been up there before, but on this year’s pre-workshop reconnaissance mission another visit to Mauna Kea’s summit encouraged me enough to offer the option to the group. After explaining my concerns in the workshop orientation, I asked how many wanted to give the summit a shot and the enthusiasm was unanimous.

We summited in late afternoon with little drama (though the check engine light in my rental car came on about halfway up the mountain) and the group quickly scattered to take in the incredible view that included Maui, a blanket of gauzy cloud tops, and the glistening Pacific. While the rest of the group photographed a beautiful sunset, my focus was on two people having difficulty with the altitude—they ended up retreating to a spot about 6000 feet down the mountain and enjoyed a beautiful shoot of their own.

After sunset we simply drank in the view waiting for the stars to pop out. Fortunately I’d told the group before leaving to pack warm clothes (because I knew the Mauna Kea summit was a possibility), but next year I’ll tell them to pack for winter because even with jackets and gloves, it was cold up there. But when the Milky Way came out the cold somehow became a bit more tolerable.

Awestruck by the Milky Way’s shimmering ribbon, I scanned the surroundings for a subject to put with it. In the rocky, treeless terrain the obvious choice was the Gemini Observatory right in front of me. Similarly awed to be in the shadow of this impressive instrument, I rationalized that it would be okay to photograph a manmade something whose purpose was probing the celestial mysteries that had mesmerized me for most of my life. I’m so happy bent my rule.

I’ve photographed the Milky Way many times from the bottom of the Grand Canyon, which is about as dark as the sky can get, but this night I learned firsthand why they put observatories on mountain peaks. Not only is the sky dark, the air atop Mauna Kea is both pristine and unfettered by atmosphere (well, at least by much atmosphere). The sky’s clarity was made obvious when I studied my images and found virtually every one etched by at least one meteor. The image I share here captured five (!) meteors in a single 20 second exposure. Because none share a common point of origin, they can’t be the progeny of an unheralded meteor shower—it seems meteors just show up better in the clear, dark air at 14,000 feet.

We descended the mountain equal parts frigid and elated. I can’t wait to reprise this shoot next year and have promised myself that both my group and I will be much more prepared for the cold. I don’t think this success will much change my desire to photograph only natural subjects, but I will approach scenes with my mind a bit more open.

Hawaii Big Island Photo Workshop


Human Influence (just to prove I can do it)

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That Didn’t Suck

Gary Hart Photography: Glacial Reflection, Nun's Veil and Tasman Lake, New Zealand

Reflection on the Rocks, Nun’s Veil and Tasman Lake, New Zealand
Sony a7RIII
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
1/13 second
F/11
ISO 100

One evening in New Zealand

I get to a lot of locations and see so many spectacular sights that they sometimes run together. But every once in a while I experience a shoot I know I’ll never forget.

One of (many) highlights of the New Zealand workshop is the hike to Tasman Lake in Aoraki / Mt. Cook National Park. The reward for this short, steep (335 stairs) hike is a 270 degree view that includes 12,000 foot Mt. Cook, icebergs drifting atop turquoise Tasman Lake, Nun’s Veil (pictured here), and the Tasman Valley.

At the trailhead most of the workshop group decided the trail was too icy and opted for a beautiful but less treacherous view a couple miles back down the road. As Don led them to the alternate spot, I guided four members who wanted to brave the icy trail. It turns out the ice wasn’t a big problem, and in fact was completely gone from the trail within a couple hundred yards, and we made it to the vista short of breath but otherwise unscathed.

I’d been up here a few times, but it was the first time for the others, so it was fun to watch their reaction as they summited. Because the trail ends here and the viewing platform is fairly compact, we were able to work in close proximity all evening—having others to share our awe with enhanced the experience even more.

The Tasman Lake view is one of those vistas that’s far too broad to capture with a single frame; any attempt to do so shrinks every feature to the point of insignificance. Opting to divide and conquer by identifying and isolating the scene’s most compelling features, my eye instantly landed on the reflection of Nun’s Veil’s in a small pool down the slope. I soon hopped the vista’s small retaining wall to better center the reflection in the pool, then spent much of the evening here working on compositions that included the reflection. My clicking intensified as light on Nun’s Veil warmed, coloring the wind-whipped snow encircling the peak.

As if all that wasn’t enough, a few minutes after the light left Nun’s Veil, a full moon appeared just to the right of the peak. Despite the advancing night, we were able to photograph the moonrise for a few minutes before the scene became too dark to capture detail in the foreground and moon. But even facing a walk down the icy trail in the dark, we lingered in the moonlight just to marvel at the majesty. As we donned our headlamps for the walk back down the trail, I heard one of the members of the group call my name. “Gary,” long pause. “That didn’t suck.”

New Zealand Photo Workshop



Like reflections? Here’s an article on reflections I wrote a few years ago.

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Reflections

Who doesn’t love the soothing tranquility of a good reflection? And like a metaphor in writing, a reflection is an indirect representation that can be more powerful than its literal double by virtue of its ability to engage the brain in different ways than we’re accustomed. Rather than processing the scene directly, we first must mentally reassemble the reflection’s reverse world, and in the process perhaps see the scene a little differently.

Reflections are a powerful photographic tool as well. Water’s universal familiarity makes it an ideal subject for photographers frustrated by their camera’s static representation of our dynamic world. Just as we freeze or blur a waterfall to express turbulent motion, we can include a reflection to convey serenity.

Water reflections come in many forms, from a mirror-sharp reverse of a mountain atop a still pool, to an abstract shuffle of color and texture on a choppy lake. 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.

Mirror reflection recipe

The ingredients for a crisp, mirror reflection like the El Capitan image at the top of the page is pretty simple: still water, a reflection subject that’s much brighter than the water’s surface (the greater the contrast the better), and a view angle that matches the angle from the water’s surface to the reflection subject. (The best reflections are usually found on shaded water because there are fewer photons to compete with the photons bouncing from the reflected subject.)

The El Capitan reflection above was a perfect confluence of reflection conditions. Clean, still air, dense shade on the river, and El Capitan’s fully exposed, reflective granite, make early morning the best time for El Capitan reflections. On this April morning I made my way down to the Merced River hoping to photograph the first light on El Capitan reflected in the Merced River. Finding my route down to the river blocked by spring flooding, I was forced to improvise. The morning air was clean and calm, and the ephemeral lake was mirror-still.

Circling the flooded meadow, I found a gap in the trees that opened onto the most complete view and reflection of El Capitan and the Three Brothers I’ve ever seen. So complete in fact, that I couldn’t include it all with my 16-35mm lens at its widest focal length. Fortunately, I was able to borrow a Canon 11-24 lens and Metabones IV adapter from a friend (thanks, Curt!), just wide enough to fit the entire scene at the lens’s shortest focal length.

Playing the angles

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

Understanding that reflected photons leave the water’s surface at the same angle at which they arrive—imagine the way a tennis ball bounces (if it weren’t affected by spin, wind resistance, or gravity)—helps us get in position for the reflection we want.

A few years ago I found myself atop Sentinel Dome right after an intense rain shower had turned indentations in the granite into small, glistening pools. Rather than simply settle for the vivid sunset coloring the clouds above, I decided to include the sunset reflected in the pools as well. At eye-level the pools reflected blue sky, so I dropped my tripod as low as it would go, almost to granite level, positioning my lens at the same angle to the pools that the red light leaving the clouds struck the water.

When the water’s in motion

Gary Hart Photography: On the Rocks, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite

On the Rocks, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite

As spectacular as a crisp, mirror reflection in still water is, it’s easy to overlook the visual potential in a reflection that’s not crisp, or to forget your camera’s ability to render a soft or abstract reflection much better than your eyes view it. While a crisp reflection often dominates the primary subject in an image, a splash of reflected color or shape can provide a striking accent to a dominant primary subject. And a reflection disturbed by the continuously varying angles of rippled or choppy water magically appears when a long exposure smoothes the water’s surface.

In the image on the right, the El Capitan reflection undulating atop the Merced River was barely perceptible to my eyes. But the reflection came to in a 25 second exposure achieved with the help of 2-stop hard graduated neutral density filter that subdued the day’s last rays on the clouds and El Capitan, and a neutral polarizer (with the reflection dialed up) that cut the light on the entire scene by a couple of stops. And since a reflection is never as bright as the actual scene, using a GND meant I need to do a little dodging and burning in Photoshop.

Where to focus

An often misunderstood aspect of reflection photography is where to focus. Though it seems counterintuitive, the focus point of a reflection is the reflection subject, not the reflection surface. This isn’t such a big deal in a scene like the El Capitan reflection at the top of the post, where the focus point of everything of visual significance is infinity, but it’s a very big deal when you want both your reflection and rocks or leaves on the nearby water surface sharp.

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Autumn Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

The El Capitan reflection on the right is very different from the El Capitan reflection above, where the extreme depth of field ensured sharpness had I focused on anything in the scene or the reflection. But here the leaves that were my scene’s primary emphasis were just a couple of feet from my camera, while El Capitan was several thousand feet distant. Even though the leaves floated atop the El Capitan reflection, focusing on El Capitan would have softened the leaves. To increase my depth of field, I stopped down to f/18 and focused several feet into the foreground leaves, then magnified the image on my LCD to verify that all of the leaves were sharp. Though El Capitan is slightly soft, a soft reflection is far more forgivable than a soft fore

Think ahead

It seems that reflections often 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 elements 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.

For example, in Yosemite I know that low flow makes autumn the best time for reflections in the Merced River. On the other hand, when the Merced is rushing with spring runoff, Yosemite’s meadows often shimmer beneath tranquil vernal pools. I plan many trips (and workshops) to take advantage of these opportunities.

 

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A Reflection Gallery

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