Seeing double

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Mirror, Half Dome, Yosemite

Autumn Mirror, Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
30 seconds
ISO 50

People stay away from Yosemite in autumn because that’s when the waterfalls are at their lowest. But believe it or not, Yosemite isn’t all about waterfalls. El Capitan, Half Dome, Cathedral Rocks, the Three Brothers (I could go on) are great subjects in their own right. Subtract the waterfalls but add the yellows, oranges, and reds of Yosemite Valley’s many deciduous trees and you have what I think is a pretty a fair trade. And when the water is low, the usually turbulent Merced River smooths to a reflecting ribbon of glass; suddenly, pretty much any scene can be doubled at your feet.

These reflections add layers of creative possibilities impossible the rest of the year. Usually I photograph a reflection scene several ways: splitting it in the middle for a 50/50 mirror effect, isolating the reflection only, emphasizing the reflection with just enough of the primary scene to establish context, and using a partial reflection to accent to the primary scene. Then I decide later which I like best.

In this image I split the frame 50/50, but dialed down the reflection with my polarizer. Even polarized, the bright sky’s glare washed out much of the river surface, painting the outline of El Capitan like a negative that uses the trees with a jigsaw of submerged river rocks.

In this image I split the frame 50/50, but dialed down the reflection with my polarizer. Even polarized, the bright sky’s glare washed out much of the river surface, painting the outline of El Capitan like a negative that uses the trees with a jigsaw of submerged river rocks.


Winter Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

This one is all about the reflection, with the snow-covered forest used to frame El Capitan’s image in the Merced River. Here I dialed my polarizer to a mid-point, holding the reflection of El Capitan but dialing down the homogenous gray sky.


In the image above I went with a more conventional composition, emphasizing El Capitan’s bulk against clouds that were spitting small, wet snowflakes.

Here I used a more conventional composition, emphasizing El Capitan’s bulk against clouds that were spitting small, wet snowflakes.

About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Mirror, Half Dome, Yosemite

I took another favorite approach for the featured image at the top of this post, using a long exposure in low light to smooth moving water and enhance the reflection. My workshop group had already had a nice shoot that evening—it started with warm, late light on Half Dome, some nice color at sunset, and rapping up with textured clouds above Half Dome as darkness fell.

By the time I captured this frame the scene was much darker than what you see here. With the reflection disturbed by slight ripples and floating bubbles, the darkness of post-sunset twilight enabled me to extend my shutter speed to 30 seconds, which smoothed the reflection and turned the bubbles into soft white streaks.

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A Gallery of Yosemite Reflections

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Dressed for chill

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Morning, Leidig Meadow, Yosemite

Autumn Morning, Leidig Meadow, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1/15 second
ISO 125

A regrettable reality of my life is that the best conditions for photography are usually the absolute worst conditions to be outside. Fortunately, I’ve been hardened by decades of San Francisco Giants games at Candlestick Park, the coldest place on Earth. As a photographer, I continue to embrace my mantra for warmth at the ‘Stick: Too much is always better than not enough.

For me it’s all about layers: silk, wool, down, and Gore-Tex. I start winter mornings with wool socks, waterproof boots, silk long-johns (if it’s extremely cold), flannel lined jeans, wool long-sleeve undershirt, wool Pendleton or lined cotton shirt, vest, down jacket, gloves (I have a variety from thin to thick), neck gaiter, and a hat or band that covers my ears. I add and remove layers as conditions dictate, and don’t always wear everything, but I’m never too far from this stuff in winter. And if it’s raining or snowing, I add waterproof pants, a waterproof parka, waterproof boots, and a wide-brim waterproof hat to keep myself dry, freeing my umbrella to keep my gear dry while shooting.

The basic clothes I pack in my suitcase before each trip, but the gloves/hats/umbrella etc. are in a gym bag that is always in my car. In the car I also keep an extra pair of shoes and socks, towel, and garbage bag (to cover my camera when it’s on the tripod). With all this paraphernalia, I’m nice and toasty in whatever extremes the winter throws at me, and I can never use weather as an excuse for missing a shot.

About this image

On a very chilly morning in late October, my workshop group had wrapped up the sunrise shoot and was heading to breakfast when we passed Leidig Meadow beneath a thin veneer of fog. Knowing that the group was cold and hungry, I kept going, but in the cafeteria parking I polled everyone and found that while about half were ready for warmth and a hot breakfast, the other half wanted to return to photograph the meadow. They got no argument from me. In normal conditions this wouldn’t have been possible because Yosemite’s primarily one-way traffic flow would have required a 20-minute loop to return to this spot, and the fog would likely have been long gone. But this year, extensive roadwork had caused the National Park Service to make every open road two-way, and we were back at Leidig Meadow in two minutes.

Yosemite’s radiation fog can come and go in seconds (I crossed my fingers that it hadn’t dissipated in the five minutes since our original drive-by), so as soon as we parked the group grabbed their gear and scattered. Wanting a foreground that was more than just meadow grass, I ran for this downed tree that I’d seen on an earlier visit.

We only got about five minutes of quality shooting in before the fog was gone. All of my shots were some variation on this composition using the log anchoring the bottom of scene, and Half Dome framed by the nearby trees on the left and distant yellow cottonwoods on the right. To maximize my focal length and make Half Dome larger, I moved back as far as I could without losing my framing. The horizontal trunk was far enough away that I was able to achieve depth of field all the way to infinity when I focused there.

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A Cold Weather Gallery

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Sanity check

Gary Hart Photography: Nightfall, Half Dome and Sentinel Fall, Yosemite

Nightfall, Half Dome and Sentinel Fall, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1/2 second
ISO 100

Are you insane?

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Hmmm. For some reason this makes me think of the thousands of aspiring landscape photographers with portfolios brimming with beautiful images that they can’t sell.

Despite a great eye for composition, all the latest gear, insider knowledge of the best locations, and virtual guru status with Photoshop, somehow they haven’t managed to separate themselves from the large pack of other really good photographers. Their solution to anonymity is more: more locations, more equipment, more software. (Perhaps you even know such a photographer.) Compounding the problem, many photographers have become so mesmerized by technology that they turn over control of the most important aspects of their craft to their camera, completely discounting the most powerful tool at their disposal, the one on top of their shoulders.

Knowledge vs. understanding

Just as a new camera won’t make you a better photographer, neither will simply upgrading your knowledge of the latest gear, or accumulating . Knowledge is nothing more than information ingested and regurgitated. On the other hand, understanding is fundamental insight into the workings of a process. While knowledge might enable you to impress table-mates at a dinner party, understanding gives you the ability to use information to create new knowledge—solve problems.

Many photographers invest far too much energy accumulating knowledge, and far too little energy understanding what they just learned. For example, I see many photographers relying on a formula for determining the shutter speed that freezes star motion at a given focal length, oblivious to the fact that this formula doesn’t consider other equally important variables such as display size and the direction the camera is pointing (yes, that’s important). Similarly, simply knowing that a longer shutter speed, bigger aperture, or higher ISO means more light is of limited value if that knowledge doesn’t translate into an understanding of how to manage light, motion, and depth with your camera.

Take control

Pretty much anyone can pick up a camera, put it in auto exposure mode, and compose a nice image. While the automatic modes in most cameras “properly” (conventionally) expose most scenes, they struggle in the limited light, extreme dynamic range, and harsh conditions that artistic nature photographers seek. Worse than that, relying on the automatic exposure modes eliminates a photographer’s best opportunity for creativity—the ability to control a an image’s depth, motion, and light.

Too many aspiring photographers are stuck creatively because their unwavering faith in technology leaves them with a critical deficiency in two fundamental, related photographic principles:

  • How a light meter determines the exposure information it gives youThis seems so basic, but auto-exposure and histograms have fooled many into thinking they understand metering and exposure. (Don’t get me wrong—the histogram is a wonderful tool for the photographer who truly understands it.)
  • How to use the reciprocal relationship between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to manage photography’s three variables: light, depth, and motion. This is the universal tool that enables photographers to handle the limiting factors of every scene.

Books and internet resources are a great place to start acquiring these principles, but the knowledge you gain there won’t turn to understanding until you get out with your camera and apply them. When these principles become second nature, you’ll be amazed at what you’ll be able to accomplish with your photography.

Insanity is in the mind of the beholder

If landscape photography already gives you everything you want, by all means continue doing what you’re doing. But if you’re having a hard time achieving a creative goal, I suggest that the solution is likely not doing more of what you’re already doing. Instead, start by reevaluating your comprehension of fundamental photographic principles that you might not have thought about for years. You’ll know you’re there when you have complete control of the light, motion, and depth for every scene you encounter, know how to get the result you want, or understand why it’s simply not possible.

Do I really think you’re insane for doing otherwise? Of course not. But I do think you’ll feel a little more sane if you learn to take more control of your camera.

About this image

The image at the top of the post is from a visit to Yosemite this past December. I’d guided my workshop group here for the rise of a nearly full moon, crossing my fingers that clouds wouldn’t obscure our view. The clouds exited just in the nick of time for us to enjoy a beautiful moonrise into the indigo twilight. I started with fairly tight compositions when the moon was close to Half Dome, but in the still, chilled air shortly after sunset, a thin radiation fog formed above Leidig Meadow and I started looking for a wider composition that would add the meadow to the moon and Half Dome.

Before thinking about the scene’s light, depth, and motion variables, I spent a lot of time just assembling the elements of my composition. I decided to frame the scene with Half Dome on the left and Sentinel Fall on the right, positioning myself so a group of tall foreground evergreens, mirrored by towering Sentinel Rock in the background, anchored the center of my frame. I knew that would require a wide composition that would render the moon very small, but I moved back as far as I could to allow the longest possible focal length to avoid shrinking the moon to pinhole size.

By far my biggest exposure concern was dynamic range—the moon is daylight bright, while the rest of my scene was deeply shaded. Normally I trust my histogram in these high dynamic range situations, but in this case the moon was so small that I knew it wouldn’t register. Instead I used my Sony a7RII’s pre-capture “zebra” highlight alert that indicates the parts of my scene that are overexposed.

At just a little wider than 24mm, with no significant detail in my immediate foreground, I stopped down to a fairly diffraction safe f/9. I’m always at ISO 100 unless I can’t achieve the amount of light I want at my ideal aperture and shutter speed, and in this case ISO 100 worked just fine. With my f-stop and ISO set, I increased my shutter speed slowly, checking the moon after each 1/3-stop click for the zebras (if you don’t shoot mirrorless, you can set blinking highlights and check the moon for “blinkies” when you review the image on your LCD). Since I know my camera well enough to know that I could push my exposure at least a full stop beyond the point where the zebras appeared, then recover the highlights in the Lightroom raw processor.

This image looked quite dark on my LCD, and the histogram was way to the left, but after loading it onto my computer and pulling the Lightroom Shadows slider to the right, I recovered an unbelievable amount of clean (low noise) detail, even in the darkest shadows. I just continue to be blown away by the dynamic range of this a7R Mark 2 sensor that enables me to capture scenes I’d never imagined possible in my previous (Canon) life. In this case I probably could have brightened the image further in processing, but I wanted a more moody, twilight feel.

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Yosemite Less Traveled

(Unconventional takes on the most beautiful place on Earth)
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My 2016

Gary Hart Photography: Meteor and Milky Way, Bristlecone Pine Forest, White Mountains, California

Meteor and Milky Way, Bristlecone Pine Forest, White Mountains, California
Bristlecone Night, White Mountains, California
Sony a7SII
Rokinon 24mm f1.4
20 seconds
ISO 6400

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Tonight the calendar clicks over to a new year, ready or not. Most are ready. The general consensus is that 2016 has been a difficult year. Our warming planet lost too many creative souls, and was rubbed raw by contentious elections in every hemisphere. But here we are knocking on the door of 2017.

I’m lucky to have photography and the dose of perspective it provides. Whether it’s a double rainbow above the Grand Canyon, fountains of lava on Kilauea, or a meteor slicing the Milky Way above 4000-year-old trees, our terrestrial problems just seem a little less significant when I’m behind my camera.

As I review 2016’s contributions to my portfolio, I have to admit that the year wasn’t a complete loss. To me these images are so much more than photographs, they’re a reminder that I was there to witness each of these gifts from Nature.

So, without further adieu, here’s a selection of personal highlights from this emotional, transformative, contentious, unforgettable year.

2016 Highlights

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Happy New Year, everyone. Here’s to a great 2017.

– Gary

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The best lens for the job

Gary Hart Photography: Dawn, Tunnel View, Yosemite

Dawn, Tunnel View, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony 70-200 f/4
25 seconds
ISO 200

Probably the workshop question I am asked most is some variation on, “What lens should I use?” While I’m happy to answer any question, this one always makes me cringe because the implicit question is, “Which lenses can I leave behind?”

What many photographers fail to realize is that the “proper” lens isn’t some absolute determined by the scene, a secret known only by the best photographers, it’s a creative choice made by each photographer who visits. While prior captures often imply a general consensus on a scene’s primary composition, that pretty much turns out to be the first composition everyone sees—just the compositions creative photographers should avoid. When I tell you the lens to use, I’m imposing my creative instincts rather than cultivating yours. “Okay, right, I get it. But seriously—what lens should I use?” Sigh.

Suck it up

The best landscape images usually require some sacrifice, so if you’re making lens choices based on what’s most convenient, maybe landscape photography isn’t for you. I’m not talking about risking your life to get the shot, or exceeding your physical limitations, but I am talking about a willingness to experience a little discomfort for your craft. That means venturing out in miserable weather, rising well before the sun, or (gulp) skipping dinner. And yes, it even means lugging a little heavier camera bag than you might prefer.

My general rule is to, at the very least, carry lenses that cover the full-frame focal range from 20mm-200mm. There are some trade-offs in the number of lenses you choose to achieve this. Some carry just one or two zoom lenses, sacrificing speed and image quality for comfort, convenience, and mobility; others go hardcore, lugging an assortment of fast, ultra-sharp primes. I’m in the middle, extremely happy with the combination of quality and compactness I get with my three Sony f/4 zoom lenses: the 16-35, 24-70, and 70-200.

In addition to my three primary lenses, I never go out without my full frame Sony a7RII and 1.5 crop Sony a6300 bodies. Because a 1.5 crop body increases the effective focal length of each lens by 50 percent, with these two bodies I can cover the focal range from 16mm-300mm. I also have a few specialty lenses that may or may not stay in the car (but never at home), depending on the scene, the room in my bag, and how much hiking/climbing/scrambling I’ll be doing: a Tamron 150-600 for extra reach; a Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens for starlight; and a Sony 90mm macro.

So seriously, the lens you choose for a scene is part of the creative process that defines you as a photographer, a personal decision that I’m happy to assist, but reluctant to dictate. In fact, it’s a rare scene that’s worthy of capture with one lens that’s not worthy of capture with another. And another. (And I promise that the surest way to need a particular lens is to leave it behind.) I’m not suggesting that you lug Hermione’s purse to every shoot; just try to remember that your images will last far longer than your discomfort.

Case in point

I do a half dozen or so workshops in Yosemite each year, plus a number of private tours. That means I spend a lot of time at Tunnel View. A lot. But I don’t photograph there much anymore unless I think I can get something I don’t already have, which means I do lots of watching other photographers. One thing I notice is how few photographers use a telephoto lens here. Given the breadth of the view, and the volume of existing wide angle Tunnel View images we’ve been conditioned by, reflexively reaching for the wide angle lens at Tunnel View is understandable. But approaching any scene with a preconceived idea of the best lens limits the array of creative opportunities the scene provides.

One chilly morning at Tunnel View earlier this month, my winter workshop group enjoyed the snowy granite, wispy fog, and pristine air only possible after a winter storm.  Of course we had all of the standard wide angle compositions at our disposal, but when the fog and pastel sky moved me to pull out my camera, it was my 70-200 that I chose to pair with it. I tried a few compositions, before settling on this one that was just wide enough to include Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall, most of the fog, and the only clouds remaining from the storm. Not only would a wide angle lens have shrunk what I felt were the scene’s most significant features, my telephoto lens was able to exclude from my image the bright, empty sky above Half Dome, and most of the dead, brown trees scarring Yosemite Valley.

Because this image was captured 20 minutes before sunrise, the scene my eyes saw was much darker than what my camera captured. Photographers able to see with their camera’s vision rather than their own love photographing in the sweet light only possible at twilight. In this case not only did I benefit from a shadowless foreground, the 25-second exposure smoothed the clouds, fog, and waterfall ethereal quality.

I won’t pretend that this is a groundbreaking capture (far from it), but if I’d have walked up to the scene with a wide angle already mounted instead taking it all in before choosing my lens, I don’t think I’d have been nearly as happy with my results.

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A Tunnel View Gallery

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Deciphering natural order

Gary Hart Photography: Floating Autumn Leaves, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

Floating Autumn Leaves, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
1.6 seconds
ISO 100

I’m often asked if I placed a leaf, moved a rock, or “Photoshopped” a moon into an image. Usually the tone is friendly curiosity, but sometimes it carries hints of suspicion bordering on accusation. While these questions are an inevitable part of being a photographer today, I suspect that I get more than my share because I aggressively seek out naturally occurring subjects to isolate and emphasize in my frame. But regardless of the questioner’s tone, my answer is always a cheerful and unapologetic, “No.”

We all know photographers who have no qualms about arranging their scenes to suit their personal aesthetics. The rights and wrongs of that are an ongoing debate I won’t get into, other than to say that I have no problem when photographers arrange their scenes openly, with no intent to deceive. But photography must be a source of pleasure, and my own photographic pleasure derives from discovering and revealing nature, not manufacturing it. I don’t like arranging scenes because I have no illusions that I can improve nature’s order, and am confident that there’s enough naturally occurring beauty to keep me occupied for the rest of my life.

Order vs. chaos

As far as I’m concerned, nature is inherently ordered. In fact, in the grand scheme, “nature” and “order” are synonyms. But humans go to such lengths to control, contain, and manage the natural world that we’ve created a label for our failure to control nature: Chaos. Despite its negative connotation, what humans perceive as “chaos” is actually just a manifestation of the universe’s inexorable push toward natural order.

For example

Imagine all humans leave Earth for a scenic tour of the Milky Way. While we’re gone, no lawns are mowed, no buildings maintained, no fires extinguished, no floods controlled, no Starbucks built. Let’s say we return in 100 Earth years*. While the state of things would no doubt be perceived as chaotic, the reality is that our planet would in fact be closer to its natural state. And the longer we’re away, the more human-imposed “order” would be replaced by natural order.

What does all this have to do with leaves on a rock?

Venturing outdoors with a camera and the mindset that nature is inherently ordered makes me feel like a treasure hunter—I know the treasure is there, I just have to find it. Patterns and relationships hidden by human interference and the din of 360 degree multi-sensory input, further obscured by human bias, snap into coherence when I find the right perspective.

I found this treasure of leaves floating in a pool atop a rock near Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite. What caught my eye was simply the floating leaves, but my image needed to create a relationship between the leaves and their surroundings. With the rock and leaves as my foreground, my background depended on where I set up on the rock’s 360 degree perimeter: pointing upstream included the base of Bridalveil Fall behind a tangle of bare trees; shooting across the creek added a lot of not particularly interesting rocks and trees; putting my back to the creek would have introduced a paved trail; downstream flowed the diagonal slash of Bridalveil Creek.

I chose the downstream view. A wide focal length enabled me to get within a couple of feet of the pool, filling my foreground with the rock, pool, and leaves, while maximizing (and shrinking) the amount of creek and forest in my background.

With the large-scale decisions out of the way, I spent over a half hour (34 minutes, to be precise) refining all the relationships in my frame. For example, I wanted to get high enough that the white water on the near bank didn’t intersect the top of my foreground rock (with the leaves), but not so high that an ugly dirt void left of the foreground rock became too prominent. I wanted to be wide enough that the white water on the right didn’t intersect my frame’s right edge, but not so wide that I included a disorganized mess of downed branches just upstream. I was also careful not to cut off any of the granite bowl containing the pool.

Exposure was easy in full shade (manageable dynamic range). The amount of motion blur in the creek didn’t vary much whether I was at a half second or two seconds, so I just went with ISO 100 (in other words, if I wanted to freeze the water enough to cause a noticeable difference in the blur, I’d have had to raise my ISO to an unacceptable value). I chose f/10 and focused on the back of the rock above the pool. Viewed at 100% my background is very slightly soft, but stopping down enough to make a difference would have resulted in more diffraction throughout the frame than I was comfortable with (since I wanted maximum foreground sharpness at any print size). There was a lot of reflection on this pool, but my (Singh-Ray) polarizer erased it.

* Since this is my fantasy, I’ve chartered a spaceship that accommodates all of humankind and travels at 90 percent of the speed of light. While Earth has indeed aged 100 years during our holiday, we travelers return only a year older. (Dubious? Don’t take my word for it, ask Albert Einstein.)

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Nature’s Order Revealed

(Coherently combining natural elements )

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Enjoying Yosemite in a fog

Gary Hart Photographer: Morning Mist, Half Dome, Yosemite

Morning Sun, Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
1/100 seconds
ISO 100

One of Yosemite’s most underrated winter treats is the radiation fog that hugs the valley floor on cold, clear, still mornings. Unlike the advection fog that drapes the San Francisco Bay Area (among other places) when (relatively) warm, saturated air passes over the colder ocean and blows inland, radiation fog forms in place  when plummeting overnight temperatures cause airborne water vapor to condense.

A sheltered valley with a cold river, soggy meadows, and a spongy forest floor, Yosemite Valley is ideal for the formation of radiation fog. Each winter, storms fill the Merced River and soak the meadows and forest. On nights when there’s no wind to mix the atmosphere, cold air sinks until it meets the water-laden air near the ground. Because cold air can’t hold as much water vapor as warmer air, and the air on the valley floor is completely saturated, the airborne water vapor condenses as soon as the air chills even slightly: Fog.

Often no more than a thin, gray veneer, in radiation fog that’s dense enough to obscure trees across a meadow, it’s sometimes possible to see stars or blue sky overhead. Viewed from a distance (for example, from Tunnel View), Yosemite’s radiation fog appears to be in constant motion, alternately engulfing and revealing treetops, sometimes rising hundreds of feet and completely disappearing in a matter of minutes. With no wind to move the fog, the reality is that what appears to be motion is primarily fog forming and dissipating in place. Yosemite’s radiation fog persists until the air heats enough to hold the available airborne moisture, or the wind picks up and mixes warmer air above with the colder, saturated air below.

About this image

Last Friday morning I went out to scout a new route to one of my favorite Yosemite spots, a bend in the Merced River upstream from Sentinel Bridge with view and reflection of Half Dome. My Yosemite Winter Moon workshop started that afternoon, but the original access here had been obliterated by major roadwork underway in Yosemite Valley, so I needed to make sure I could still get my group out here.

With very little time to spare, I originally left my camera bag in the car, but didn’t get too far before second thoughts sent me back for it. Good thing—after a few minutes of traipsing across crunchy snow, I made it out of the woods and to the river just in time to catch sunlight illuminating a diaphanous radiation fog. Shadows cast by sunlight passing through evergreen branches created a beam effect in the illuminated mist, while upstream a blanket of fog basked in golden sunlight.

The sun was about to disappear behind the granite ridge beneath Glacier Point and I new I only had a few more minutes of this spectacularly illuminated fog. At first I tried to position the sun behind the trees, but at this distance the treetops were so thin that very little blocking occurred and I ended up with a white blob of blown highlights. So I hustled over to the intersection of the ridge’s shadow with the sunlit ground and prepared for a sunstar. Every lens creates a different sunstar effect, some much better than others, and my Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f/4 is my favorite. Stopping down to f/16, I went to work. Moving with the sun so I was always straddling the shadow line, I was able to shoot for about five minutes before the entire beach was in shade and I was finished.

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Yosemite Fog

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