Posted on January 20, 2019
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.
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
Click an image for a closer look and a slide show.
Posted on January 13, 2019
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.
Yosemite Winter Reflections
Posted on January 6, 2019
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.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on December 30, 2018
I’ve always struggled with the “top-whatever” end-of-year countdown of my favorite images because the choices are so subjective and mood dependent, and so many images are favorites as much for their memories as they are for their aesthetic value. And coming up with a predetermined number is arbitrary, and inevitably requires choices I don’t want to make and will almost certainly regret later. One year I may have only seven or eight images that thrill me; the next year I might have two dozen. This year I chose 27, and I still have some left to process.
So rather than attempt to rate and rank my images at year’s end, I prefer using them as a catalyst for reflection. Each December I go through everything I’ve processed from the waning year (this year I know of several that would certainly qualify as a highlight but they’re as yet unprocessed) think about the circumstances of their capture.
I remember the New Year’s Eve solo drive to Yosemite to photograph the full moon rising behind, followed by a night drive to the other side of the Sierra (a six hour drive in winter) where I hoped to capture the full moon setting behind Mt. Whitney. The Yosemite part of that trip was spectacular, the Mt. Whitney half was a photography flop, but I enjoyed the entire journey.
I remember nearly a month in New Zealand, photographing the South Island’s unmatched beauty in its most beautiful season (hint: brrrrrrr). In New Zealand I hiked on a glacier, photographed the (far superior) Southern Hemisphere version of Milky Way, was chased through a fjord by leaping dolphins, witnessed one of the most vivid crimson sunrises I’ve ever seen, and logged hundreds of quality kilometers with a group of wonderful people.
I remember a solo drive to Yosemite to photograph fresh snow, never a sure thing regardless of the forecast. I approached Yosemite on the evening prior, I felt like a lone spawning salmon fighting up current against the continuous stream of headlights evacuating Yosemite in advance of the storm. I settled into my room in dark and dry Yosemite Valley, and woke to so much snow that I couldn’t find my car. I’m convinced there is nothing, nothing on Earth more beautiful than Yosemite Valley with fresh snow, and with the park mostly vacant and the noise-damping quality of powdery snow, for a few hours I felt like I had heaven all to myself.
I remember chasing lightning on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, the thrill (and relief) when everyone in both workshop groups captured lightning, and an especially spectacular lightning storm that started in the telephoto distances and chased us to the cars. This year’s Grand Canyon workshops were altered by fires burning in and near the park and I feared that they’d spoil the photography—instead, in addition to all the lightning, we ended up with spectacular red-rubber-ball sunrises and sunsets that allowed genuinely unique images in this heavily photographed destination.
I remember arriving on the Big Island shortly after Kilauea had shut down after 35 years of continuous eruption, and discovering that between the just-concluded Kilauea eruption and the recently depart remnants of Hurricane Lane, I’d lost nearly half of my locations. Instead I ended up finding alternate photo spots that I like even better than the ones I lost. The high point (literally and figuratively) of that trip turned out to be a chilly, first-ever sunset and Milky Way shoot from atop 13,800 foot Mauna Kea.
I remember my Yosemite Fall Color workshop group finding Yosemite Valley at peak fall color, and three beautiful moonrises in my just concluded winter moon workshop. And while thousand of photographers jockeyed for position beneath bone dry Horsetail Fall in February, my workshop group set up elsewhere and photographed one of the most beautiful sunsets of the year.
I remember way back in January, along with my Death Valley workshop group, photographing my first-ever lunar eclipse (on the heals of my first-ever solar eclipse in August of 2017).
And I remember trudging through Grand Canyon sand by starlight to a spot that I’d decided before nightfall was probably not a good Milky Way candidate, and discovering that I was wrong. It turned out the level of the Colorado River level had changed in the night, replacing mushy sand with a swirling pool that rendered the Milky Way’s reflection as a luminous abstract.
I could go on and on about my memories of 2018, but all these great memories also remind me of the unknown highlights in store for 2019. Certainly the planned trips, which include my first-ever Iceland visit (with Don Smith in preparation for our 2020 workshop), my first-ever Oregon Coast workshop (with Don Smith), another raft trip through the Grand Canyon, a return visit to New Zealand, and on and on. But what excites me more than anything is the inevitable surprises, those special moments that dazzle when dazzling is the last thing you expect. Bring it on!
(Click an image for a bigger view, and to see a slide show)
Posted on December 23, 2018
With a wide variety of spectacular and diverse east-facing views, I can think of no better place to photograph a moonrise than Yosemite. I especially like the December full moon because it aligns so well with Half Dome, not just on the night it’s full, but on the nights leading up to the full moon.
When I realized that this year’s December full moon was so close to Christmas, I almost didn’t schedule my annual Yosemite Winter Moon workshop, but then I figured that since I’ll be there anyway, I may as well. I’m so glad I did—the workshop filled, and the skies were clear enough (never a sure thing in December) that we photographed the moon on three of the workshop’s four nights, culminating in a very special moonrise to wrap up the workshop (a topic for a future blog post).
The closer it is to full, the closer to sunset the moon rises, arriving several hours before sunset a few days before it’s full, then a little later each evening before rising right around sunset on the full moon day. Since a waxing (increasing in fullness) moon is always higher at sunset than it will be the next day, with a little planning, it’s possible to time several consecutive days’ shoots to coincide with the moon rising right around sunset. For this year’s workshop I’d planned three sunset moonrises for my group, each (more or less) aligning the moon and Half Dome, getting farther from Half Dome each day.
About this image
While the first of my planned moonrise shoots was Wednesday, when the moon rose above the flat horizon about two hours before sunset, the horizon in Yosemite is anything but flat. I took my group to a favorite location beside the Merced River on Yosemite Valley’s east side, less than three miles from Half Dome, where the relatively steep view angle to the top of Half Dome means that it takes the moon a couple of hours to climb into view here.
Though not labeled on the map, this spot isn’t a secret to photographers, so I arrived about 45 minutes early, partly to allow everyone time to prepare, but also to ensure that we wouldn’t need to battle anyone else for position. I told everyone that the moon would appear at around 4:30 from directly above the top of Half Dome, and suggested that they be ready with their compositions beforehand.
My own composition had been planned long in advance—having photographed more than my share of moonrises from this wide angle location, I decided on an extreme telephoto approach this time. I added my Sony 2X teleconverter to my Sony 100-400 GM lens, mounted the pair on my tripod, and attached my (full frame) Sony a7RIII. I pointed my 800mm of focal length at Half Dome’s summit and waited. <Continues below>
Prior Moonrises From This Location
I never tire of seeing the glow of the moon’s leading edge peak above the horizon, and this evening was no exception. When the moon nudged into view, the sounds of chatter and laughter were instantly replaced by clicking shutters. Watching the moon grow in my viewfinder, I adjusted my composition slightly before each click. When the moon gained separation from the granite to become fully visible, I panned slowly to the right and saw that with the right framing it would appear nestled into a subtle bowl-shaped curve atop Half Dome and locked in a composition that would last for a few minutes as the moon continued its ascent. A thin wisp of cloud scooted through the scene as I clicked this frame, lit by the day’s final rays.
One more thing
Looking at the distant world at 800mm reveals previous invisible detail. So once I’d settled on a composition that I could stick with for a few clicks, I allowed my eye wander the frame and noticed dangling icicles lining Half Dome’s rim. I continue to be blown away by the sharpness of the Sony 100-400; not only is this lens unbelievably sharp, I literally cannot tell a difference when I pair it with the Sony 2X teleconverter.
Posted on December 16, 2018
Nothing draws the eye quite like a large moon, bright and bold, with a striking foreground. But something happens when you try to photograph the moon—somehow a moon that looks to the eye like you could reach out and pluck it from the sky, shrinks to a small white speck in a photo.
While a delicate accent of moon is great when properly framed above a nice landscape, most people like their moons BIG. The trick isn’t photographing a large moon, it’s photographing a large moon with a nice landscape.
Bigger is better
Crescent or full, the moon will be as big as the focal length you choose—photograph it at 16mm and the moon registers as a tiny dot; photograph it at 600mm and your moon dominates the frame.
But a landscape image with a large moon requires more than just a long focal length. If big was all that mattered, you could attach your camera to a telescope, point skyward, and get a huge moon. But without a landscape to go with your huge moon, no one would know whether you took the picture standing on a beach in Hawaii, atop a glacier in New Zealand, or beside the garbage cans in your driveway.
“Big moon” is a subjective label, but I usually won’t use it unless I can photograph the moon at 200mm or longer. And while a 200mm lens is okay, the moon doesn’t really start to jump out of the frame for me until I approach 400mm.
My go-to big moon lens is my Sony 100-400 GM because it provides good magnification along with focal length wiggle-room for pulling back when I need to fit a foreground subject that’s a little too close. A telephoto zoom also provides focal length flexibility that allows you to balance your composition, or add variety with a series of different compositions. Of course you can always switch lenses mid-shoot, but you don’t fully appreciate how fast the moon is moving in the sky until you try to align it with a terrestrial subject in a telephoto composition.
When I want a moon even bigger than 400mm gives me, I add a 2X teleconverter and voilà, I’m at 800mm. Bigger still? Out comes my 1.5-crop body and I’m zoomed all the way to a 1200mm equivalent.
Often the most difficult part of including a large moon with a specific landscape subject is finding a vantage point far enough back to fit the subject and the moon. But the farther back from your foreground subject you can position yourself, the longer the focal length you can use, and the bigger the moon will be.
For example, I love photographing a big moon rising behind Half Dome in Yosemite. But at Yosemite’s popular east-side locations, even 200mm is too close to get the moon and all of Half Dome in my frame. And while Yosemite’s most distant east-facing Half Dome vistas are up to 10 miles away, Half Dome is large so that even at that distance the longest focal length that will include the moon and all of Half Dome isn’t much more than 400mm.
A little easier for me is including a big moon with smaller foreground objects like a prominent tree. Near my home in Northern California are rolling hills topped by solitary oaks that make perfect moon foregrounds when I can shoot up so they’re against the sky. And since these trees are much smaller than Half Dome, even vantage points that are less than a mile away lets me zoom all the way up to 1200mm.
Depth of field
With subjects so far away, it’s easy to forget about depth of field. But extreme focal lengths mean extremely limited depth of field. Depth of field isn’t a concern when Half Dome is your closest subject and it’s ten miles distant, but when your foreground is an oak tree on a hill that’s a mile away, you absolutely need to consider the hyperfocal distance.
For example, at 800mm and f/11 (with a full frame sensor), the hyperfocal distance is about a mile-and-a-quarter (look it up)—focus on the tree and the moon will be soft; focus on the moon and the tree is soft. But if you can focus on something that’s a little beyond the tree, at maybe one-and-a-half miles away, the image will be sharp from front to back.
When I’m not sure of my subject distance, I estimate as best I can, focus on a point beyond my foreground subject, then review my image magnified to check sharpness. If my focus point is in my frame, great, but I won’t hesitate to remove my camera from the tripod to focus on something behind me that’s the right distance (if you do this, to prevent refocusing, be sure you use back-button focus or are in manual focus mode when you click your shutter). It’s always best to get the focus sorted out before the moon arrives, a good reason to arrive at a new location well in advance of the moon’s arrival.
Location, location, location
As your focal length increases, your compositional margin for error shrinks. You can’t expect to go out on the evening of a full or crescent moon, look to the horizon, and automatically put the moon in the frame with your planned foreground subject.
Even when the moon and your foreground do align, once the moon appears, you’ll only have a few minutes before it rises out of your telephoto frame. This means extreme telephoto images that include both the moon and a foreground subject are only possible when the moon is right on the horizon, making proper timing essential.
Like the sun, the moon traces a different path across the sky each day. This path changes with each lunar cycle (from full, to new, back to full); whether the moon is full or crescent, a location that perfectly aligns the moon and foreground one month will probably be nowhere close the next.
Coordinating all the moving parts (moon phase and position, foreground subject alignment, subject distance, and rise/set timing) requires some planning and plotting. When I started photographing the moon, in the days before smart phones and apps that do the heavy lifting, I had to refer to tables to get the moon’s phase and position in the sky, manually plot the alignment, then apply the Pythagorean theorem to figure the timing of the moon’s arrival above (or disappearance behind) the terrain.
Today there are countless apps that will do this for you. Apps like The Photographer’s Ephemeris and Photo Pills (to name just two of many) are fantastic tools that give photographers access to moonrise/set data for any location on Earth. There is a bit of a learning curve (so don’t wait until the last minute to plan your shoot), but they’re infinitely easier than the old fashioned way.
When the moon is a small accent to a wide scene, it’s often enough to just show up on its full or crescent day and shoot it somewhere above your subject. But because the margin of error is so small, planning for a big moon image is best done months in advance.
I identify big-moon candidate locations near home and on the road, and am always on the lookout for more. My criteria are a prominent subject that stands out against the sky, with a distant east or west facing vantage point. Over the years I’ve assembled a mental database ranging from hilltop trees near home, to landscape icons like Half Dome, Mt. Whitney, and Zabriskie Point (Death Valley).
With my subjects identified, I do my plotting (I still do it the old fashioned way) and mark my calendar for the day I want to be there. That often means waiting close to a year for the alignment I want. And if the weather or schedule doesn’t cooperate, my wait can be longer than that.
About this image
<Some may recognize this from the horizontal version of this moonrise I’ve shared for years; I just processed this vertical version.>
A few years ago I scheduled a spring Yosemite workshop to coincide with a 3% crescent moon that I’d computed would slip into the narrow gap between El Capitan and Half Dome about 45 minutes before sunrise on our final morning. Though we were all at the same place, photographing the same thing, the true magic was simply being there to witness a special moment that probably won’t repeat for decades.
The afternoon before this moonrise, I brought the group to this spot on Big Oak Flat Road so they could familiarize themselves with the location and plan their compositions. During this preview someone asked exactly where the moon would rise, and I confidently blurted that it will appear in the small notch separating El Capitan and Half Dome, between 5:15 and 5:20 a.m. I’d never actually photographed a moonrise from this spot, and as I spoke to the group I became painfully aware of how small the opening is—even the slightest error in my plotting could find the moon blocked by El Capitan or Half Dome.
Sunday morning we departed dark and early (4:45 a.m.), full of anticipation. We arrived at Half Dome View a little after 5:00, early enough to enable everyone to set up their tripods, frame their compositions, and prepare their exposure settings. Then we waited, all eyes locked on the notch.
And then there it was, the slightest point of moonlight edging into that small gap between Yosemite’s iconic monoliths. Phew. The rest of the morning was a blur of shutter clicks and exclamations of delight.
Before the shared euphoria abated, I suggested to everyone that they take a short break from photography and simply appreciate that they’re probably witnessing the most beautiful thing happening on Earth at this moment (a feeling every nature photographer should experience from time to time). It’s always exciting to witness a moment like this, a breathtaking convergence of Earth and sky that may not occur again exactly like this in my lifetime. It’s even more rewarding when the event isn’t an accident, that I’m experiencing it because of my own effort, and that I get to share the fruit of my perspiration with others who appreciate the magic just as much as I do.
Posted on December 9, 2018
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.
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….
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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