Escape from Yosemite

Gary Hart Photography: Fresh Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite

Fresh Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite

Cold, wet, exhausted, and ecstatic after a day-and-half of photographing Yosemite Valley glazed with new snow, my brother and I were ready to go home and count our treasures. Gingerly following my headlights down icy Highway 140, I rounded a bend a couple of miles downhill from the Arch Rock entrance station and found my path blocked by an iron gate spanning the road and securely padlocked in place. I knew the park had been closed earlier, but we had been told by the front desk at Yosemite Valley Lodge that 140 had opened hours ago. I glanced at the steep hillside abutting the road and wondered if my Outback could somehow make it around the gate, and quickly discarded the thought. That I even considered it at all was an indication of how desperate I was to go home.

We’d arrived in the park Monday afternoon, got a room at the lodge, and hunkered down against the incoming storm. What had been forecast to be 3-5 inches of overnight snow had just been upgraded to 12-16 inches, so we knew we’d wake Tuesday morning to something exceptional. A peek through the curtains in the predawn darkness confirmed a world of white, with the snow still falling hard. A check of the Yosemite road conditions hotline confirmed it: not only were all park entrances closed, all roads in Yosemite Valley were closed.

I trudged through the snow in the twilight to survey the photography potential near the lodge and found the view of Yosemite Falls completely obscured by clouds. The cafeteria was open, but serving nothing because the employees couldn’t make it to work. At the adjacent Starbucks I found only two people had been able to negotiate the snowy darkness to get to work—it turned out to be the Starbucks manager and his wife, a non-employee drafted into action and put on the front line.

On my way back to my room I swung by the parking lot and checked my car. About the time I identified the correct white lump, Yosemite Falls made an appearance and I hustled back to the room for my gear. But by the time I got there it had been swallowed by clouds.

My brother and I spent most of the rest of the morning watching the skies, waiting for the views of Yosemite Falls or Half Dome to clear enough to photograph, or simply for the snow to slow enough to allow us to photograph some of the closer views. We the snowfall abated late morning, we ventured out into the elements and forged a trail through the snow to the bridge beneath Yosemite Falls, because any photography is better than no photography.\

Shortly after returning to the room we got a call from the front desk telling us outbound Highway 140 had reopened. We had no plans to evacuate, but I took this as a signal that the valley roads would be open too (otherwise, what use would there be to open 140). So we dug out my Outback and hit the road. With snow still falling, the next few hours were spent circling Yosemite Valley, stopping occasionally when a view appeared, waiting for the clearing that had been promised for late afternoon.

When the storm broke, it broke fast. Blue sky appeared and spread quickly and we move around with much more urgency, hitting as many locations as possible while the snow remained on the trees and before the clouds disappeared completely. Most of the views I chose required battling our way through several feet of fresh, wet snow, an exhausting exercise almost always rewarded with a spectacular view. Pristine snow signaled that we were the first people at every spot we visited. In hindsight that should have been a clue that the park was more shut-down than we realized, but we were too excited by the sights for rational thought.

By the time we got to the day’s final location, the clouds had all but vacated the sky. A thin skin of ice obscured the reflection I’d hoped for, so I went exploring and found this view of El Capitan framed by snow-dipped shrubs. A small cloud hovered on El Capitan’s summit, reflecting a faint pink courtesy of the sun’s last rays. Framing the scene with my Sony 12-24 (on my Sony a7RIII), I widened all the way out to 12mm and moved to within a couple of feet of the shrubs to include as much snowy foreground as possible. A perfect cap to a memorable day.

But now I found myself standing in the middle of Highway 140, jiggling the padlock on the gate to make sure it was really locked, scanning the shoulder for escape routes, and wondering if I was going to make it not only home, but to the Bay Area for a talk I was scheduled to give the following day. I had no phone number that would connect to a human at that hour, and no cell signal with which to do it anyway.

Just about the time I was about to return to my car and admit defeat, a pair of headlights rounded the curve. But instead of pulling up behind us, the truck drove around my car and pulled right up to the gate. This wasn’t a tourist who had missed the same memo I had missed, it was a large work truck filled with maintenance workers returning to the yard after a long day in the park. Soon the driver’s door opened out popped the driver, fumbling with a lump of keys. I couldn’t believe my luck when the gate swung open, but I darted through before he could change his mind (or tell me that he didn’t have the authority to let anyone exit). Without slowing I waved my thanks and motored past him, heading home.


Yosemite Winter Scenes

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Iceland Light Show

Gary Hart Photography: Northern Lights, Glacier Lagoon, Iceland

Green Twist, Aurora Borealis, Glacier Lagoon, Iceland

I’ve seen comets, a meteor storm, fireballs, a total solar eclipse, lots of lunar eclipses, the Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy, the Magellanic Clouds, Jupiter’s moons, Saturn’s rings, and many other manifestations of celestial splendor, but I’ve never seen the aurora. So when I scheduled a trip to Iceland this January (the heart of aurora borealis season), ostensibly to scout for the new Iceland photo workshop I’ll be doing with Don Smith next winter, my personal goal was to see the northern lights.

We’d only be in Iceland for one week, long enough for our guide (the expert, energetic, and always entertaining Óli Haukur) to give us a quick view of all the locations we’d visit in next year’s 10-day Iceland workshop (which will also include a local photography guide). With 10:30 a.m. sunrises and 5:00 p.m. sunsets, I didn’t expect the schedule to be too grueling, but I hadn’t accounted for Iceland’s two-hour winter sunrises and sunsets. With many miles to cover beneath a sun that never rises higher than (an extremely photogenic) 8 degrees above the horizon, every minute between our early starts and late dinners was spent spent either driving or photographing (fortunately, the schedule will be a little less compressed during the workshop). But wait, there’s more…. Given our aurora aspirations, each night immediately after dinner, we bundled up and ventured into the frigid dark seeking an electric light show.

For our nightly aurora hunt we’d drive a pretty scene that had both dark skies (not hard to find in Iceland) and a clear view of the northern sky. There we’d sit for an hour or two, fogging the windows in Óli’s spacious Suburban, trading stories and laughs, and periodically stepping into the cold to scan the sky, before ultimately deciding tonight wasn’t going to be the night.

With just two days in Iceland remaining, I was getting a little anxious, but things were looking up (both figuratively and literally). First, Wednesday’s forecast promised completely clear skies, a first for our visit. And Wednesday’s destination was Glacier Lagoon, a magnificent ocean inlet dotted with floating icebergs and a patchwork of thin ice and reflective water that makes an ideal foreground for the northern lights.

The aurora forecast that night was 2 on the 0-9 KP-index of magnetic activity, where 0 is “Enjoy your sleep” and 9 is “Don’t forget the sunglasses” (or something like that), bu Óli assured us that he’s “seen some great shows on ‘2’ and ‘3’ aurora nights,” though I was skeptical because we’d already struck out more than once with a similar forecast. He also told us that his favorite aurora nights are in the 4 and 5 range because with an index higher than that, the aurora can be so intense that an exposure that doesn’t blow the lights is too dark to capture the foreground.

Pulling into the parking lot Wednesday night and turning off the headlights, I immediately spotted a low fog hovering above the lagoon. Except Óli said that wasn’t fog, it was the beginning of the aurora. Dubious, we followed him down to the lagoon. I was thrilled (understatement) when my camera validated Óli’s assertion: My first view of the northern lights!

We spent a couple of hours photographing a low-hanging, fuzzy green bands, with hints of red, that for a few minutes brightened and took on a little definition. On the drive back to the hotel, Don and I could barely contain our elation, while Óli was pleased but relatively subdued. For an Iceland native, this was just another day at the office; for two photographers from California, it was a personal milestone. And then Thursday happened.

All week Óli had told us our best chance for the northern lights would be Thursday, our tour’s final night. We spent that day photographing spots near Glacier Lagoon: sunrise and sunset at Diamond Beach bookending a visit to a glacier ice cave. But as the day progressed, the wind picked up and clouds formed and thickened. We didn’t stress though, because we had our aurora pictures and it was difficult to imagine anything better than what we’d seen on Wednesday.

Nevertheless, despite a 100 percent cloud cover after sunset, we agreed to meet for dinner with camera gear in tow, ready for an optimistic venture back to Glacier Lagoon. And sure enough, emerging from the restaurant we saw the gray blanket had been replaced by ceiling of stars and we were in business. But still no aurora.

Hoping for a little different perspective, we started by scaling a hill overlooking the lagoon, sinking into thigh-high snow and fighting a 40-MPH headwind to summit. That adventure lasted about five minutes before the wind and less than ideal view (you don’t know until you try) drove us back to the site of last night’s success, in retrospect a wise choice indeed.

Back in the lagoon parking lot, we sat and watched a faint aurora ebb and flow, suddenly aurora snobs (“This is nothing like last night”). What looked promising out my north-facing side window one minute, all but disappeared the next, but then we noticed new activity in the western sky out the windshield. This ramped up so fast that we bolted down to the lagoon like Keystone Cops, and by the time I was set up the had become a green and (occasionally) red psychedelic extravaganza.

The next two hours were a blur as I witnessed what was quite possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life (rivaled only by, and impossible to compare to, the total solar eclipse in August 2017). Starting across the lagoon, in the western sky, the show gradually moved south(defying all my expectations), forcing me to constantly  shift further up the lagoon to keep the ice and water in my foreground.

With my head on a swivel, I watched glowing tendrils stretch skyward, some touching both the east and west horizons, others pulsing, spiraling, and doubling back,. It felt like I was inside a giant lava lamp. At one point I tore my eyes from the show above the lagoon and saw the entire eastern sky ablaze with tangled green ribbons. so intense that I turned my back on the lagoon and quickly scaled the snowy hill behind me for a better view in the other direction. Within ten minutes things picked up again over the lagoon and I raced (and occasionally tumbled) back down the hill.

Lessons learned

This is the only picture from that night that I’ve processed so far. And while it definitely should give you an idea of what I saw, it’s just a fraction of night’s mesmerizing display. Though the color wasn’t nearly this vivid to the eye, thanks to the camera’s extreme light gathering capability, this is pretty much the way it looked in the viewfinder of my Sony a7SII, and on my LCD preview after capture. About the only significant processing I did was tone down the green reflecting on the snow—not because it wasn’t there, but because I feared that keeping the actual amount of green I captured would strain credibility.

Getting a shot like this requires a significant amount of good fortune for sure, but all the good fortune in the world will do you no good if you don’t bundle up and get yourself into the extreme latitudes in winter. Also helpful is a little experience with night photography, specifically the ability to control your camera, compose, and focus in extremely low light.

While I benefited from an a7SII that can virtually see in the dark (making low light composition and focus a breeze), pretty much any relatively recent DSLR will do the job. Add to that a sturdy tripod and wide (24mm or wider), relatively fast glass (f/2.8 or faster, though I was able to make my Sony 12-24 f/4 lens work when the show was at its peak), and you’ll be fine.

I can’t emphasize too much how important finding a foreground to go with your aurora is. The northern lights are so spectacular, it’s easy to just show and forget to compose the scene. An aurora show like this changes so quickly, intimate local familiarity to know where to be without hunting is a big help. Our guide got us to a location with a wealth of foreground opportunities, but it certainly didn’t hurt that this was my third visit to Glacier Lagoon in two days. And when you get there, make sure you find both horizontal and vertical compositions.

And finally (because I know you’re going to ask), a few words about exposure settings. Keep in my that this was in fact my first rodeo, so you might find better advice elsewhere. But my Thursday shoot did benefit from knowledge gained Wednesday night. Specifically, my moonless night photography had been mostly limited to star trail and Milky Way shoots, where it’s all about maximizing light. But despite the moon’s absence for both of our northern lights shoots (though I’m told the moon isn’t the aurora deal-breaker it is with a Milky Way shoot), the rules are different for an aurora shoot because the sky’s brightness changes by the minute, and it’s often much brighter than a Milky Way sky.

On Wednesday I started with exposure settings closer to my Milky Way settings, using exposure times in the 15-30 second range because it’s virtually impossible to give a Milky Way scene too much light (with 2019 or earlier camera technology). But with an aurora, there is definitely such a thing as too much light.

When my exposure blew out the aurora during the Wednesday shoot, I took the opportunity to drop my ISO and f-stop, thinking that would improve my image quality. But the fingers of color shift so quickly in an active aurora like Thursday’s, a long a shutter duration blurs the display’s definition. On Thursday I tried to keep my shutter speed at 10-seconds or faster (faster is better), which was no problem given the aurora’s brightness.

By now you’ve probably figured out that you need to check your highlight alert and histogram with every frame, and adjust accordingly. And unlike most scenes, the RGB histogram is essential—many times my luminosity histogram (the white one) looked fine, but the RGB histogram’s green channel was seriously clipped.

Oh yeah, and don’t make the rookie mistake I made. Extreme cold like this (it was probably around 20F) will suck the life from a lithium ion battery. But because I’ve grown so accustomed to the great battery life of my Sony a7RIII, I forgot to make sure I’d packed my backup battery. I had one back in the room, which made it about as useful as chocolate frying pan. My battery started at 100%, dropped to 70% in about thirty minutes, and completely died 5 five minutes later. Fortunately Don took mercy on me and loaned me one of his four batteries. On Thursday I was much smarter: not only did I bring my backup battery, I brought an Anker portable charging cube and a charger.

I’m writing this on the plane home from Iceland, about to lose the charge on my laptop, so you’ll need to wait until a future post to learn more about the fascinating science of auroras (because I think it’s important to understand what you photograph). And let me just apologize in advance for the number of aurora images I’ll be sharing over the coming months (I’ll do my best to spread them out some, and I certainly have many other Iceland delights to share).


Celestial Wonders

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Seeing the Entire Scene

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

Breaking Light, El Capitan and Three Brothers Reflection, Yosemite

As you might imagine, between my own images, my photo workshop participants’ images, browsing other photographers’ pages, and simply being connected to social media, I see a lot of images. A. Lot. Of. Images. And curse or blessing, I can’t help but have opinions—whether my own images or others’, some work wonderfully, others not so much.

There’s a lot that goes into creating a successful image, but if I could whisper in the ear of every photographer just before they click the shutter, it would be a reminder to, “See the entire scene.” It happens to all of us: We’re so drawn to a pretty scene or striking subject that we become blind to what’s happing in the rest of the frame. And it’s the what’s happening in the rest of the frame that separates a mere pretty snap of a beautiful scene from wall-worthy print that satisfies for years.

Dream world

Writer John Gardner talked about creating a “vivid and continuous dream” that so completely immerses readers in the imaginary world on the page, the physical world surrounding them temporarily disappears. Any distraction that jars the reader from the page and back into the present world is a failure.

The same applies to photography. As nature photographers, we invite the viewers of our images into a virtual world of our creation. To encourage these viewers to stay and explore our virtual world, we might offer them a fresh perspective, enable vicarious travel, or perhaps tap latent memories. Regardless of the reason, the longer they stay in our virtual world, the more successful our image. But when a jutting branch on the frame’s border reminds viewers of the world out the scene, or a bright rock tugs their eye and competes for attention with scene’s prime subject, our spell is broken.

Compromise

Sadly, nature rarely presents itself exactly as photographers want it. So many decisions we make are compromises: we bump the ISO to enable the small aperture and fast shutter speed the scene requires; we cut off a rock on the left because panning right would introduce garbage can; we can’t tighten a composition to eliminate a shrub because doing so would cut the top of a mountain; we don’t polarize the sky because the polarizer erases a rainbow; and on and on…. Given these realities, our goal doesn’t need to be perfection, it’s often just to slow down and see the entire scene to ensure the decisions that bring our image as close to perfection as possible.

For example

This flooded Yosemite meadow is a spring phenomenon caused by extreme runoff following a relatively wet winter. Some years it doesn’t happen at all, but last spring’s Yosemite workshop group was fortunate to be there during the few days the Merced River overflowed its banks here (I returned a couple of days later and found the river had receded). I could have plopped my tripod down (or simply raised my camera to my eye) anywhere in a 100 yard radius and been virtually assured of a beautiful picture.

But as beautiful as it was, and as much as I wanted to start clicking, my first stop to take it all in had some problems. From my original vantage point, the stand of trees on the right obscured the Three Brothers, so I moved left along the water’s edge. But given more trees on the left, it soon became clear that part of El Capitan would be obscured. My compromise was to find a spot that exposed both El Capitan’s nose and the Three Brothers.

I’d left the car with my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM Sony (on my Sony a7RIII) body because that lens had a polarizer for controlling the reflection—dial it up for the maximum reflection, dial it down to reveal the grassy texture just beneath the water, and maybe even a find midpoint with some reflection and some submerged grass. But 16mm wasn’t wide enough, so I sacrificed reflection control and switch to my Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens.

With my position and lens worked out, I was ready to frame my composition. I felt a little sense of urgency because I didn’t want to miss the rapidly moving splashes of light scooting across El Capitan, but I also didn’t want to rush so much that I missed a problem in my frame.

To dislodge my attention from a scene’s primary focus points, I often use a mnemonic device before clicking: “border patrol.” (Though perhaps in light of current events, I should come up with something different.) Border patrol is a gentle reminder to run my eyes around the border of my frame to check for problems. Potential problems here include cutting off part of a tree on the left or right, a distracting bright spot in the sky near the top of the frame, or inadvertently trimming El Capitan’s reflection on the bottom. (Incomplete reflections and distracting sky holes are some of the most frequently missed distractions.)

In this case I took care to ensure that I got all of El Capitan and its reflection while avoiding a few breaks in the clouds just above this view. I also used the evergreen on the left and the arcing trunks on the right to frame those borders. And by making sure my camera was perfectly level, I managed to keep my vertical lines straight.

Depth of field at 12mm wasn’t a concern; I chose f/10 and focused on the far bank knowing everything would be sharp. Motion wasn’t a concern, so I could just use ISO 100 and go with the shutter speed that gave me the best histogram in the viewfinder (I love mirrorless).


Careful Framing

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The evolution of a landscape photographer

Gary Hart Photography: Dogwood Trio, Yosemite

Dogwood Trio, Yosemite
Sony a7RIII
Sony 100-400 GM
ISO 400
f/14
1/50 second

One of my earliest photographic lessons was that clicking a picture of a beautiful subject, no matter how beautiful, does not ensure a beautiful result. A vivid sunset can indeed be quite pleasing to the eye, but picture of that sunset riddled with rooftops and telephone poles—well…, not so much. This got me thinking more about the individual components of a beautiful scene, and how I might best emphasize them and eliminate distractions.

Like most landscape photographers, I started with the low hanging fruit, concentrating on sunrises and sunsets in beautiful locations, but it wasn’t long before I realized that I wasn’t the only person doing this. Of course I haven’t stopped targeting this obvious beauty, but I also started looking for ways to capture nature’s more subtle beauty.

A Yosemite sunset, where everything in the scene is at infinity and stationary, can be captured on today’s cameras in full automatic mode. But framing, focusing, and freezing/blurring more intimate subjects requires complete mastery of motion, depth, and light. This mastery requires a clear understanding of the exposure variables: shutter speed, f-stop, and ISO. Fortunately, I had the advantage of cutting my photographic teeth back before cameras could control every aspect of exposure and focus, and with no ability to check my decision until the pictures returned from the lab, the wrong exposure choices wasted precious dollars—a great motivator.

One of the first intimate subjects I turned my camera toward was the dogwood that decorate Yosemite Valley each spring. Even though I was pretty comfortable with my camera’s exposure variables, it still took a little effort to figure out how to blend these technical skills with the composition side of the craft. The key for me was consciously identifying the qualities of my subject that draws my eye. For example, with dogwood, it’s the symmetrical flowers, the flowers’ candelabra-like spacing, the tree’s translucent petals and leaves, and (especially) the illusion of weightlessness of a suspended dogwood bloom.

Armed with that understanding and my exposure skills, I developed a toolbox of techniques for highlighting these features. Whether it was a close composition with a narrow depth of field against a soft forest background, a swaying dogwood branch suspended above flowing water, or a single bloom with a blurred Yosemite icon in the background, I was having a blast. And it was easy to these techniques to many subjects, from colorful leaves in autumn, to brilliant poppies each spring.

About this image

The dogwood in Yosemite Valley were at peak bloom, but I was dealing with the dynamic range problems inherent to a sunny spring afternoon. Photographers are frequently admonished to “Never blow the highlights,” but I saw an opportunity to use the bright sky to my advantage. Finding a shaded branch with three perfect dogwood flowers high overhead, I moved around until the branch was directly above and against the blue sky. Spot-metering on one of the flowers, I knew that everything my eye saw as blue, my camera would turn a hopelessly overexposed white that becomes a perfect background for these beautiful flowers.


A Dogwood Gallery

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What is real?

Gary Hart Photography: Color Wheel, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

Color Wheel, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

Visual “truth” is relative

Without getting too philosophical, it’s important to understand that, like your camera, your view of the universe is both limited and interpreted. In other words, there is no absolute visual truth. Instead, we (you, me, our cameras, your dentist’s dog, and so on…) each have our own view of the world that’s based on many factors—some we can control, others we can’t. When you look through a viewfinder, the more you turn off your visual biases and understand your camera’s, the more successful your photography will be.

Before lamenting your camera’s limitations, pause to consider that what you and I see is incredibly limited as well. The visible (to the human eye) portion of the electromagnetic spectrum is a minuscule part of the infinite continuum of electromagnetic radiation bombarding each of us, every instant of every day. For example, X-ray machines “see” waves in the one nanometer (one billionth of a meter) range; TVs and radios “see” waves that are measured in centimeters; humans, on the other hand, only see waves between (about) 400 and 750  nanometers.

Using this knowledge, astronomers peer into space with tools designed to detect objects at wavelengths invisible to us. And X-rays allow doctors to view bones hidden beneath opaque skin, while night vision technology uses “invisible” (to us) infrared radiation (heat) to reveal objects in complete darkness. In other words, in the grand scheme of things, there’s no single absolute visual standard—it’s all relative to your frame of reference.

The camera has its own frame of reference. While it records more or less the same visible spectrum our eyes do, the camera is missing an entire dimension. Not only that (since we’re not talking about movies here), a camera only returns a snap of a single instant. And we all know about limited dynamic range and depth of field.

Despite these differences, photographers often go to great lengths to force their camera to record what their eyes see. Not only is their goal impossible, it ignores the camera’s ability to see things in ways we don’t, and the opportunity to provide a fresh perspective.

Our visual input is interpreted before we perceive it, in much the same way a camera’s input is processed before it’s output (to a monitor, printer, or whatever). Visual processing happens in our brain, which makes adjustments for things like color temperature, perspective, motion, and so on. Likewise, every photograph must be processed (interpreted) in some way before it can be viewed, either by the camera, or by the photographer, using Photoshop or some other processing software.

Motion

Capturing motion in a scene is the photographer’s creative choice. Still-photographers can’t capture water motion as we see it, but we can use shutter speed to blur or freeze the water to varying degrees. People who criticize blurred water images for being “false” because that’s not the way water is, completely miss the point. My question to them is, how would you choose to capture water? (It’s a trick question.) When they answer frozen sharp, I ask them how many times they’ve actually seen a wave or water droplet suspended in midair. (Crickets.) The point is, a still camera simply “sees” motion differently than we do. Rather than holding our images to an unattainable human standard, we should feel free to appreciate and convey our cameras’ unique perspective.

But despite its limitations, the camera’s view of motion can expose things missed by human vision. A waterfall frozen in place by a fast shutter speed reveals that what appears to be a mass of solid white water, is really a comprised of individual sparkling droplets. And a long shutter speed reveals patterns in the motion of flowing water.

For example, in the image at the top of this post, when I used a neutral density filter to allow a long shutter speed, a swirl too slow to register to the naked eye appeared. Also interesting to me is the lone stationary leaf, indicating a small patch of calm amidst the swirl.

What is real?

Is this image “real”? While it’s nothing like what I saw, it’s still a very accurate rendering of my camera’s reality. Understanding my camera’s vision, and knowing how to control my exposure variables, enabled me to share a perspective that expands my limited vision and transcends human reality. Pretty cool.


Not What I Saw

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Alone in Yosemite

Gary Hart Photography: Clearing Storm Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Clearing Storm Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7R III
Sony 12-24 f/4 G
1/125 second
F/10
ISO 100

Last winter I spent a glorious day by myself in Yosemite Valley, photographing the vestiges of an overnight snowstorm. Inbound to the park the evening before, a continuous strand of outbound headlights reminded me how different a photographer’s priorities are from the general public’s. For a nature photographer, the best time to be outside seems to be everyone else’s worst time to be outside, but we know that before breakfast, at dinnertime, after dark, and wild weather are when all the best pictures seem to happen.

I arrived in Yosemite Valley with just enough light to see El Capitan and Half Dome engulfed in heavy clouds that hinted at what was in store—but so far no snow. With a storm imminent, I had no problem getting a room at a significant discount, virtually unheard of on a typical Yosemite evening. A light mist started after dinner, and I fell asleep to the sound of raindrops tapping leaves outside my window. The next morning I woke before my alarm and lay still, listening in the darkness to the unmistakable silence of falling snow.

Dressing quickly, I opened the door to six inches of untouched snow. In the parking lot I tried to determine which white lump was my Outback, repeatedly punching the lock button on my key fob and following my ears to the lump that chirped back. A little digging confirmed my discovery, and after a few more minutes of excavation I was able to to ease out of my parking space, carving the first tracks into what was probably the road (fingers crossed).

The clouds that had deposited all this powder seemed be trying to squeeze out every possible flake, but they seemed exhausted from their overnight effort and my wipers had no problem keeping up. When the final flake fell a little before 9:00, I was traipsing through drifts near El Capitan Meadow. Patches of blue sky overhead told me it wouldn’t be long before the trees were shedding snow in clumps, so I headed quickly to a favorite spot by the Merced River, hoping for a reflection while the world remained white.

The Merced here was so still and clear that I had to look twice to be sure there really was water in the river. The reflection on the far side was exactly what I had in mind, but the corrugated riverbed on my side was an unexpected complement that wonderfully matched the herringbone clouds above. In the days before my Sony 12-24 lens, I wouldn’t have been able to include all of El Capitan and its reflection in a horizontal frame, but 12mm gave me room to spare (I’m still startled at times by how big the difference is between 16mm and 12mm).

I got lots pictures that make me happy that day, but even more than the pictures, I think I enjoyed the rare opportunity to feel alone in Yosemite for a few hours. The park wasn’t empty, but between the scarcity of people, the reluctance of those who were there to venture onto the roads, and the sound-deadening effect of powdery snow, I had no trouble pretending.

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Yosemite Winter Reflections

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Just a Pinch of Moon

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Moonrise Reflection, Bridalveil Fall, Valley View, Yosemite

Sunset Moonrise Reflection, Bridalveil Fall, Valley View, Yosemite
Sony a7RIII
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
1/13 second
F/11
ISO 100

A couple of  weeks ago I wrote about how to photograph the moon big, the bigger the better, to overcome its tendency to (appear to) shrink in a wide angle image. But the moon doesn’t need to be big to be a striking addition to a landscape photo.

To balance a landscape frame, I think in terms of “visual gravity” (or “visual weight”): how much the scene’s various elements might pull the viewer’s eye. Unlike conventional gravity, which is a constant determined by an object’s mass (period, end of story), visual gravity is a more subjective quality that is a function of the characteristics of an object, such as its size, brightness, contrast, or color. Thinking in terms of the visual gravity of the various elements in my scene, I (usually) try to avoid any hemisphere of the frame feeling significantly heavier than its corresponding hemisphere (top/bottom, left/right).

Certainly any object as bright (and contrasty) as the moon will pull the eye. But after noticing that many objects at least as bright or contrasty as the moon somehow lack the moon’s ability to pull the eye, I realized I’d been missing an essential component of visual gravity: emotional connection. There is just something about the emotional pull of the moon that draws the human eye far more than its more tangible physical qualities might suggest.

For years I’ve tried to leverage the moon’s emotional weight, using it to elevate a relatively ordinary scene, or to add a simple accent that takes an already beautiful scene to the next level. Last month I got just such an opportunity at Valley View in Yosemite. This was the first night of my annual Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop. I’d planned moonrises for the other three nights of the workshop, but hadn’t really plotted the first night because the moon would be so high at sunset, and during the moon’s twilight “sweet spot” (when the sky is dark enough for good contrast, but the landscape still has enough light to photograph) the moon wouldn’t align with Half Dome from any of Yosemite Valley’s Half Dome vantage points.

Nevertheless, I chose Valley View for sunset knowing that the moon might make a nice accent above Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Fall. As soon as we arrived it was clear the conditions had aligned for us on this chilly December evening. In the distance Bridalveil Fall disappeared into a blanket of dense fog hovering above Bridalveil Meadow, while the moon mingled with wispy clouds in the twilight pastels overhead. And at our feet, the Merced River made a perfect mirror.

I knew that capturing all this beauty required a fairly wide composition that would certainly shrink the moon. Because a horizontal composition that included the moon and its reflection would have to be so wide that would shrink everything (and include a lot of less interesting foreground trees), I opted for a vertical composition that emphasized the scene’s primary elements: the moon, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall.

For this shot I went wide with my Sony 24-105 G lens on my Sony a7RIII body. Once I had the general arrangement of my frame worked out, I moved along the riverbank until everything felt balanced. I used the trees on the left to block the empty sky, and the trees on the right to balance them. And I’ve always liked the small diagonal tree a little left of center, and think in this composition it makes a good counterbalance for the visual weight of Bridalveil Fall.

Is the moon the primary subject the way it would likely be in a telephoto image? Certainly not. I know some people might think the moon is too small in this composition, but for someone like me, with a lifelong relationship with the night sky, the moon makes a perfect accent. And in this image I think just that little pinch of moon is enough to balance a frame that would otherwise be a little heavy on the left.


Lunar Accents

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