Spring is a State of Mind
Posted on March 20, 2023
According to the calendar, today is the first day of spring—so…, Happy Spring! On the other hand, here in Northern California Mother Nature is delivering very mixed signals. A few trees are blooming, and every few days the sun pops out long enough to forgo a jacket or sweater—but the rain still seems to be coming several times a week, which means (lots of) snow is still falling in the mountains. And the temperatures remain chilly enough that I’ve only dared a short-sleeve shirt once, and my shorts and sandals are still buried in the closet.
Attempting to jumpstart spring, on Saturday my wife and I took advantage of a brief break between storms to drive up into the foothills to check out some of my favorite poppy spots. Usually by mid-March I’ve made this foothills trip several times and am deep into processing the year’s poppy bounty. But on Saturday’s drive we didn’t see a single poppy. Not. One. Poppy. While I was a little disappointed, I certainly wasn’t surprised.
Despite the wildflower shutout, it was a nice drive, and with definite hints of spring. We saw some blue sky, lots of water in the creeks, and hills covered with that happy emerald green that’s only possible in spring (Californians know what I’m talking about).
Our first stop was the site of what remains one of my favorite, and most successful, poppy images. We found the hillside blanketed with peak green, but no poppies. We stayed long enough for me to pull up the picture on my phone and try to figure out where I’d stood for this shot. The fence persists in a similar state of skewed dilapidation, and as my eyes followed its line I mentally relived scaling the deceptively steep hillside. So steep, in fact, that I jettisoned gear to make it up the steepest spot.
A short distance down the hill from this spot is a road that has been the source of many of my favorite poppy images. Sadly, when we got there we found it gated with a “Road Closed” sign, an all too common site this year. This was the final nail in this year’s poppy photography coffin.
But I wasn’t going to go down easy because all this nostalgia really got my poppy juices flowing. So, with no new poppy images to work on, the next day I decided to dig into the archives and try to uncover some I’d missed in previous years. Since I often don’t have time to process everything from any given shoot, I was hopeful that I wouldn’t need to look too long. Starting with a search of processed poppy images, I quickly identified a rainy day shoot from a few years ago that had potential for untapped opportunities.
It actually rained lightly the entire time I was out there, but some of my favorite photography has happened in the rain. And even though poppies don’t usually open when it rains, I found the raindrops more than enough compensation. And with rain gear in my car for just these situations, I stayed warm and dry. My camera? Not so much. I tried working with an umbrella, but after a few minutes realized I was one arm short and just decided to test the water resistance of my Sony a7RIII. I’m happy to say that it passed with flying colors.
A couple of years ago I wrote an article for “Outdoor Photographer” magazine on what I call creative selective focus. (You can read my blog version of this article here.) In it I write about using minimal depth of field to emphasize very select aspects of a scene, and letting the surrounding scene retreat to a complimentary blur.
If you read the article, you know the 3 primary factors for minimizing depth of field: large aperture (small f-number), long focal length, and close focus point. While I could have used my Sony 90mm f/2.8 macro, for close focus photography I really like the compositional flexibility of a zoom lens, so this afternoon I went with my Sony 100-400 GM lens. To increase my focal length (and shrink my depth of field) further, I added my 2X teleconverter (which, I might add, handled the rain perfectly as well). And to focus even closer, I added 26mm of extension. My original plan was try a few lens/extension-tube/teleconverter configurations (including my macro), but I was having so much fun that I ended up shooting with this setup the entire time.
There’s no free lunch in photography—the downside of adding a teleconverter and extension tubes is significantly reduced light. A 2x teleconverter cuts two stops of light, which means my 100-400 that’s normally wide upon f/5.6 at 400mm, wide open becomes f/11. To compensate for light lost to the smaller aperture, added extension, and a cloudy sky, I shot everything this afternoon at either ISO 1600 or ISO 3200 (grateful that there was no wind).
One of the cool things about this kind of photography is how different the world looks through the viewfinder. I love putting my eye to my camera, moving the lens around, and changing focus slowly to see what snaps into view. In this case I was looking for poppies to isolate from their surroundings, as well as nearby features (like other poppies) that I could soften enough to complement my primary subject without competing. Sometimes I had a general idea of a subject before looking through my camera, other times I’d just explore with my eye to my viewfinder until something stopped me.
Because depth of field shrinks not only with focal length, but also with focus distance, every frame I clicked this afternoon had a paper-thin range of sharpness. With such a shallow depth of field, none of these images would have been possible without a tripod. With my composition set on my tripod, I’d pick a focus point (usually, but not always, a prominent raindrop), focus in my viewfinder until I was pretty certain it was sharp, then magnify the focus point in my viewfinder to confirm and tweak the focus.
I finally called it quits when the rain picked up and the approaching twilight forced too much shutter speed compromise.
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My Favorite Poppies
Posted on March 14, 2023
In the Alabama Hills to photograph sunrise in neck-craning proximity to the Sierra Crest, I knew precisely what time, on this date, the sun’s first rays would color the towering granite, and exactly when a 98% moon would would disappear behind the left flank of Mt. Williamson, California’s second highest peak.
Clocks and calendars enable us to time some aspects of our lives, like sunrises and moonsets, to within microseconds. But when I scheduled this sunrise moonset more than a year ago, I had no idea whether the sky would be clear, perhaps feature a few clouds that would catch the sunrise hues, or be completely filled with overcast that would block sunlight and hide the moon. I didn’t know how much snow would drape the peaks, or whether the peaks even would be visible at all.
Clocks and calendars are essential, but as a self-employed landscape photographer, I’m beholden to far more fundamental constructs than the bustling majority is. I work when there’s work to be worked, and play when (fingers crossed) there’s play to be played. The business side of my life sometimes requires a clock and calendar, but the actual photography part is governed by fundamental laws of nature that transcend the rest of the world’s clocks and calendars.
The irrelevance of conventional time measurement is never more clear than immediately following a time change. On the second Sunday of each March, when “normal” people moan about lost sleep and having to rise an hour earlier, the sun thumbs its nose at Daylight Saving Time and rises a mere minute (or so) earlier than it did the day before. So do I. And on the first Sunday of November, as others bask in their extra hour of sleep, I’ll get to sleep an entire minute longer. Yippee.
The immutable natural laws that are the foundation of our clocks and calendars, that keep the world on schedule and enable us to precisely predict events like sunrise/sunset, the moon’s phase and position, as well as countless other celestial phenomena, are also solely responsible for the uncertainty that torments the lives of landscape photographers. While I can’t tell you what thrills me more, the impeccably punctual appearance (or disappearance) of a full moon, or the unpredictable explosion of a lightning bolt, I find it ironic that the precision of a moonset and the (apparent) randomness of a lightning strike are ultimately the product of the same celestial choreography.
Earth’s rotation on its inclined axis and revolution about the Sun, the Moon’s monthly journey around Earth, are are timed to microseconds. But this celestial dance also drives the atmospheric and tidal machinations that generate weather, stir oceans, and make every day unique and unpredictable.
This year the mercurial photography gods smiled on me and my Death Valley workshop group. For our 3 days in Death Valley, instead of the blank blue sky that often greets me here, we had a wonderful mix of clouds and sky—enough clouds to make the sky interesting, but enough sky to allow the sun to color the clouds at sunrise and sunset.
On the workshop’s penultimate day we drove to Lone Pine to wrap up with a sunset and sunrise shoot in the Alabama Hills. The highlight of this trip is always the Alabama Hills sunrise that I try to accent with the moon, just a day past full, setting behind the Sierra Crest. But this is winter, and these are the Sierra Mountains, so success is far from guaranteed.
A few years ago I drove to Yosemite on New Year’s Eve (because what else is there to do on New Year’s Eve?) to photograph a full moon rising between El Capitan and Half Dome. After a successful shoot (nearly thwarted by clouds), I hopped in my car and made the 6 1/2 hour drive to Lone Pine to photograph the moon setting behind Mt. Whitney.
I’d picked out a location along Highway 136 where I could align the moon and Mt. Whitney, and far enough back to allow an extreme telephoto big moon while still including all of Whitney. I went to bed really looking forward to this opportunity to get an image I’d thought about for years, and woke to clouds that completely obscured the moon and Sierra Crest. With nothing better to do, I still drove out to my spot, and even caught a very brief glimpse of the moon about 1/2 hour before zero-hour, but ended up not clicking a single frame. Such are the travails of anyone who pins their hopes on Nature’s fickle whims.
My plan this morning was far less grand. Since I was leading a workshop group, the goal was to get everyone in place for the best possible photography, not to assuage my own failed moonset wounds. And the good fortune that blessed us in Death Valley followed us to Lone Pine. (You can read more about this morning here.) In addition to a clear view of the moon and mountains, I was especially grateful to find the entire Sierra Crest frosted top-to-bottom with snow.
My photography day began in near darkness with my Sony a7R V and Sony 100-400 GM lens, photographing the descending moon throughout the morning’s many stages of advancing light. My starting focal length was 100mm, wide enough to include some of the Alabama Hills, then went progressively tighter as the moon dropped.
My favorite big moon images don’t usually happen until the moon is within a moon-width of the horizon, but I like to give myself a little wiggle room to get the composition balanced and focus just right. So when the moon got about 3 diameters from Mt. Williamson, I turned to my Sony α1, which was standing by with my Sony 200-600 G lens and Sony 2X Teleconverter already attached. And while 3 moon diameters might sound like a reasonable cushion, if you want to appreciate the speed at which the moon transits the sky, try pointing 1200mm at it and keeping it in your frame.
I love my Really Right Stuff Ascend tripod, but because the camera-shake margin of error is microscopic at 1200mm, I had the α1 pre-mounted on my (much more robust) RRS 24L Tripod with the RRS BH-55 ball head (carrying 2 tripods is a luxury I allow myself when I don’t have to fly to my location). I bumped to ISO 800 for a 1/500 second shutter speed, and switched from my standard 2-second timer (beep, beep, beep, BEEEEEEP—the Sony mating call) to a 5-second timer (I’m not crazy about any of Sony’s remote options, wired or wireless), to give the whole setup plenty of time to settle down—probably overkill, but I was taking no chances.
With my composition ready and focused, I just let the moon slide through my frame and started clicking. The alpenglow on Mt. Williamson was just about peaking when to moon first touched it. Perfect timing.
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More Massive Moons
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It’s All About the People
Posted on March 6, 2023
As I’ve made abundantly clear in earlier blog posts, 2023 started with my busiest ever workshop stretch. But I’ve finally reached enough of a lull in my schedule to start processing the fruits of all this labor—not nonstop, but maybe one or two images a day if I’m lucky. Part of me feels a little overwhelmed by how how long it could take at that rate, especially since I’m just two months into the year with many more trips ahead. But another part of me looks at the things I’ve seen and photographed and remembers how uncertain I was when I turned my stable life upside-down to start leading photo workshops. If you’d have told me that in 17 years I’d have more images than I have time to process, I’d have taken it with no questions asked, so no complaints.
To say that leading photo workshops has exceeded my expectations would be a vast understatement. I came into it with 20 years of technical communications experience (teaching a programming language, tech writing, and tech support), and thirty years as a serious amateur photographer. And as a California native who grew up camping, backpacking, and (later) photographing all of my initial workshop locations (Yosemite, Eastern Sierra, Death Valley), I was intimately familiar with my subjects. Piece of cake, right?
That said, since photo workshops weren’t really much of a thing 17 years ago, I was totally winging it when I started. Having never actually taken a photo workshop myself, I didn’t even have a template for how it should be done, so I just structured mine the way I thought I’d like a workshop to be run if I were to attend one. Since then I’ve learned so much—and of course much of what I’ve learned is stuff I didn’t even know that I didn’t know. (For example, walkie-talkies seemed like a good idea, so I invested in 15 of them and now have a box of 15 once-used walkie-talkies somewhere in my garage.)
A big unknown for me was the people part of the equation—I like people, but (perhaps you’ve noticed) people can be difficult. Would every group have a difficult person (or two, or three, or…), and how would I handle them? I mean, no longer would I be lecturing programmers and IT geeks in an air conditioned training room, delivering a canned presentation I’d offered countless times before. Leading photo workshops would mean herding a group of individuals with a broad range of fitness, skill, equipment, expectations, and needs, through remote areas in extreme, unpredictable conditions. What could possibly go wrong?
It turns out, not too much. First, I’ve always felt that my best photography memories often come in the most extreme conditions. And guess what—it turns out most other photographers feel the same way, and will gladly endure extreme conditions in exchange for great photography. They’ll also forgive difficult conditions that prevent potentially great photography: a downpour that makes photography impossible, clear skies that bathe beautiful scenery in harsh light, clouds that block a much anticipated moonrise, and so on.
But what about basic human diversity? Surely attempting to integrate a bunch of people with so many differences would be a recipe for disaster. Concerned about mixing struggling beginners with impatient experts, I originally toyed with the idea of minimum equipment and experience requirements. What a mistake that would have been. While most of my workshops include photography skills ranging from enthusiastic beginner to experienced pro or semi-pro, rather than generating tension, these differences have created a synergy, as it turns out most experts love sharing their knowledge and experience with those who need it.
Of course diversity encompasses more than photography skill. I’ve had workshop participants from nearly every continent (no penguins so far), and (I’m pretty sure) every state in the U.S. My workshop participants have been, in no particular order, musicians, computer professionals, artists, physicians, writers, lawyers, corporate executives, electricians, accountants, bond traders, active and retired military, other professional photographers, real estate agents, clergy, stay-at-home dads and moms, a classical composer, a Hollywood graphic artist, and a Hooters girl (a very sweet young lady who would completely dash any preconceived impression of what that might mean). In one workshop I had a rocket scientist and a brain surgeon. I’ve gotten to know a woman who biked across America, and a man who hiked the entire Pacific Crest trail. I’ve had (many) gay and lesbian couples, outspoken liberals and conservatives, a couple of people in a wheelchair, a man in the final stages of cancer, the patriarch of a family that endured one of America’s most public (and irrational) scandals, and a 9/11 survivor. So it’s not hyperbole to say that I’ve learned as much from my students as they’ve learned from me.
The common denominator connecting all this disparity? A passion for photography that unites strangers long enough to overcome superficial differences and appreciate deeper similarities: a love of family, friendship, nature, sharing, and laughter.
Of course it hasn’t all been a Disney movie. One question that comes up from time to time is whether I’ve ever had anyone attend a workshop who I would not allow in a future workshop. For a long time my answer was an immediate and emphatic, No, everyone’s been great. About 8 years ago one person changed that answer, but fortunately that turned out to be a one-off situation that hasn’t been repeated. (And thankfully that person has not attempted to sign up for another workshop.)
The bottom line is that a successful photo workshop is more about its people than it is about the location and conditions. My job is to create an environment that fosters connection, guide them to the best photography possible, then step back and let the participants themselves enjoy each other.
About this image
Of course great locations and conditions can certainly contribute to the happiness factor, and nothing makes a group happier than photographing the spectacular sights they signed up for in the first place.
I’ve already shared a couple of northern lights images from the first of the two Iceland workshops Don Smith and I did in January. Both of those images came from the workshop’s third night of photography, which I called the most spectacular aurora display I’ve ever witnessed. But after spending more time with my images from the previous night, I’m thinking maybe that proclamation was a little too hasty. But anyway, it’s not a competition, so who cares?
On our first night the group was completely shutout by an overcast sky. It didn’t help that later that night I got a text from an Icelandic friend congratulating me on getting the northern lights on the workshop’s first night, and I had to reply that unlike his vantage point in Reykjavik, we had wall-to-wall clouds up on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
While the aurora forecast was also good for our second night, the clouds persisted all day. But with clearing forecast that night, we ate dinner at a restaurant just a few minutes from Kirkjufell, then kept an eye on the sky. While waiting for the clouds to part after dinner, we got to watch Iceland’s handball team compete in the handball equivalent of the World Cup. I played a little handball in high school, this is a completely different sport (something like a soccer/basketball hybrid) that is clearly a huge deal in Iceland because half the town was crowded into this little pizza place to watch it. (It’s really a lot of fun to watch and many of us in the group got into it enough that we watched Iceland’s remaining tournament games as well.) But anyway…
The sky was just starting to clear when the game ended; by the time our bus parked at Kirkjufell the lights were dancing in all directions and we raced to the view as fast as our crampons would take us. Since this was most of the group’s first northern lights experience, I spent a few minutes getting people situated with exposure and focus. It was nice that we were the only ones out there (when we started), so everyone was free to spread out and make their own compositions.
Looking up at the variety of colors and ever-shifting forms felt like standing inside a celestial lava lamp. I started with my Sony a1 and Sony 20mm f/1.8 G lens, but the lights covered so much sky that I soon switched to my Sony a7R V, which I’d pre-loaded with my Sony 12 – 24 f/2.8 GM lens.
I moved around based on where the display was best at the moment, most of the time trying to align the aurora with Kirkjufell, but at one point I dropped down to the bottom of the slope and shot in the other direction to capture fanning shafts in the sky above Kirkjufellsfoss (the waterfall). When a magnificent arcing beam stretched across the northern sky, starting in the northeast and continuing out toward the western horizon, I was extremely grateful to have a wide enough focal length to capture the entire arc with Kirkjufell.
Though the temperature was about 10 degrees, with a 20+ MPH wind (and gusts closer to 40 MPH), I hardly noticed the cold. And I suspect no one else did either, because I didn’t hear a single complaint.
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2023 So Far
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You Had to Be There
Posted on February 27, 2023
I was never one of those analog purists who had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the digital world. Despite a pretty extensive and carefully curated album collection, I jumped into the CD revolution early (1980) and with both feet, then embraced the transition to MP3 and subsequent digital audio formats with similar fervor. (Part of me still longs for the sound of vinyl, but since my daughter and son-in-law now have custody of my old turntable and albums, I’ve retained unlimited visitation privileges.) And as much as I love the tactile and olfactory experience of an actual book, not to mention the soothing presence of a filled bookshelf, overwhelming convenience made my transition to Kindle-reading fast and painless.
So when nascent digital cameras appeared on the scene around the start of the 21 Century (are we really almost 1/4 of the way through it?), it should be no surprise that I was an early adopter. I acquired my first digital camera in 2000, and haven’t clicked a single frame with my (beloved) Olympus OM-2 since purchasing my first DSLR in 2003.
I love too many things about digital photography to list them all, but coming instantly to mind are digital capture’s immediate feedback that enables me to tweak exposure and composition right now, the ability to change my ISO (known to photographers as ASA) with each frame, and not having to wait for the slides or prints to return from the lab to review my images. And to my eye, the quality of a large digital print surpassed prints from my medium of choice, color transparencies, many (many) years ago.
The advent of digital photography also brought tremendous power over the finished product—suddenly color photographers could enhance images in ways we’d only dreamed of. Dodging, burning, saturation, blending, focus stacking—soon it became clear that the possibilities are limited only by the photographer’s imagination (and Photoshop skills).
But, as Spider Man reminds us, with great power comes great responsibility. The line separating appropriate/inappropriate digital manipulation has always been fuzzy, with each photographer deciding individually where to place it. An unfortunate byproduct of this freedom is that some photographers have pushed the bounds of credibility with their processing so much that the credibility of all photographers has suffered. It saddens me to know that many people (who don’t know me) will look at an image like this Sierra moonset and immediately assume that I added the moon.
As much as I appreciate the ability to process my images, I’ve never been able to comprehend some photographers’ desire to pretend they were there for something they didn’t actually see. For me (and many other nature photographers, I’m sure), photography is first about honoring nature rather than to dazzle an audience. That doesn’t mean I don’t take processing steps to make my scenes look their best, it just means that I want my creativity to happen in my camera, not my computer. Which is why for me the real thrill photography isn’t as much the image itself (and the attention it garners), as it is the being there to witness the moment.
Speaking of being there…
While I didn’t schedule this year’s Death Valley winter workshop specifically because of the opportunity to photograph the moon setting behind the Sierra Crest, this moonset was very much on my radar once the workshop was in my calendar. I do schedule the Death Valley workshop around the full moon setting at sunrise, but that’s because it aligns nicely with Manly Beacon from Zabriskie Point. And because the Alabama Hills are just a 90-minute drive from the workshop’s base in Death Valley, after 3 days photographing Death Valley, we wrap up the workshop in the Alabama Hills. Since the moon always sets a little later than it did the prior day, and the Sierra Crest rises much higher than the mountains beyond Zabriskie Point, in addition to the Zabriskie moonset, I’m also able to time the Alabama Hills visit for the best morning to capture the (nearly) full moon setting behind the Sierra Crest.
From our vantage point this year the moon set behind the south flank of Mt. Williamson, one of 15 14,000’+ peaks in California, and at 14,380′ second only to Mt. Whitney (14,500′) in elevation. I’ve photographed some version of this Sierra moonset many times over the last 20 years, but a couple of things made this year’s experience particularly special for me.
First was the absolutely incredible volume of snow blanketing the Sierra. California’s extremely wet winter translates to lots of snow in the Sierra, all the way from Gardnerville to Lone Pine (about 200 miles) it was more snow than I’ve ever seen on the east side of the Sierra. And as if that weren’t enough, a cold storm a couple of days before our arrival had freshened up the existing snow, and added snow all the way down to the peaks’ intersection with the Alabama Hills.
The morning’s second special factor was the timing of the moon’s disappearance behind the Sierra Crest, which coincided perfectly with the morning alpenglow kissing the peaks. We’ve all seen the pink band above the horizon opposite the sun shortly before sunrise and after sunset. Sometimes called “the belt of Venus,” this glow happens because sunlight skimming Earth’s surface just before sunrise (or shortly after sunset) has to battle its way through the thickest part of the atmosphere. This scatters the shorter wavelengths (those toward the blue end of the visible spectrum), leaving only the longer, red wavelengths low on the horizon. When mountains are high enough to jut into this region of pink light, we get “alpenglow.” (In the Zabriskie Point image, imagine much taller mountains that reach into the pink region.)
BTW, I’ve actually processed three images from this morning’s moonset, the other two bookending this one’s capture. But because my photography is about my relationship with my subjects, I don’t like to share an image until I’ve written something about it. I’ll be sharing them in a blog post soon (-ish?), but you can actually preview the other two in the gallery below (you’ll need to find them yourself, but it won’t be hard to figure out).
Read more about moon photography
More Sierra Crest and Death Valley Moonsets
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Posted on February 20, 2023
I just wrapped up what was no doubt the most intense work/travel stretch of my 17 years leading photo workshops. It started the second week of January with 3 weeks in Iceland leading 2 workshops with Don Smith (with no break in between). After the long flight home (that’s a story for different day), I had just one day to recover before driving nine hours to Death Valley (still very much jet lagged) for another workshop that started the next day. Returning from Death Valley, I actually had a few days to lick my wounds before heading off to Yosemite for my Horsetail Fall workshop (with crowds that make it pretty intense by itself).
I have no one to blame but myself for this schedule (it seemed like such a good idea at the time). And I won’t say that I’m not looking forward to a few weeks off before my next workshop. But honestly, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. And I should also say that despite appearances to the contrary, I’m actually home far more than I’m on the road, and when I’m home, I’m really home (unless I’m at Starbucks, without a lot of places I’m expected to be. So don’t feel too sorry for me.
The people I get to share my workshops with are constant source of energy and joy that sustains me through these difficult stretches. But today I’m (selfishly) thinking about the bucket-list worthy sights and locations my frequently nomadic life has afforded me. It’s an exercise I try to go through regularly to avoid taking my many blessings for granted.
I’m thinking about this right now because I returned just a few days ago from another Horsetail Fall workshop, where I could be at serious risk of taking for granted a truly beautiful and unique spectacle that I’ve seen literally dozens of times, but that is a genuine bucket list experience for so many others.
One way I try to avoid taking my blessing for granted is to revisit my annual Highlights galleries: 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022. I love creating these galleries not only because the process reminds me of the sights I’ve seen over the past year, but also because it gets me excited for the still unknown sights in the upcoming year. And each time I revisit them, I’m reminded of how lucky I was to have been witness to such beauty. Invariably, after opening a gallery, I’ll find myself thinking, oh wow, surely this was my best year (not necessarily my best photographs—just my best year for the things I got to see), then I go on to another year and have exactly the same thought.
Another thing this exercise makes pretty clear is the things in Nature that excite me most. I’ve always believed that we each make our best pictures when we follow our heart to the subjects we love most. For me that’s locations to which I feel a personal connection, like Yosemite and Grand Canyon, and natural phenomena like weather and all things celestial. Not so coincidently, these are also the subjects I most love studying and understanding.
For the longest time I would say the most beautiful sight I’d ever witnessed was a comet—I just couldn’t imagine anything matching it. Then in 2017 I witnessed a total solar eclipse and that list became two. Then (I bet you know where I’m going here) I saw the northern lights. So now my most-beautiful list is three.
I’ve seen the northern lights many times since that first experience, but that first one always stood out as the best. But Nature always seems to be trying to top itself, and this year it finally managed. The first Iceland workshop group got two consecutive nights with spectacular northern lights shows—the first night at least matching my previous “best,” the second night topping it.
Because I blogged about that night a few weeks ago, I won’t go into all the details. The image I shared in that earlier post was more of a spontaneous capture away from the best scene, simply because the display was so spectacular. The image I’m sharing today is the scene I spent most of the night pointing at because it had the best combination of foreground and aurora display. The dancing lights changed so much from one minute to the next that I could pluck any one of dozens of images from this scene, label it “best,” and get no argument.
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A Few of My Many Blessings
Bonus Blog Post: Horsetail Fall 2023
Posted on February 17, 2023
I returned last night from my Yosemite Horsetail Fall photo workshop and thought I’d briefly share my observations on this year’s experience (since so many people seem to be interested).
First, let’s review
Horsetail Fall is minor waterfall trickling down the east side of El Capitan’s south-facing granite in late winter and early spring, and after a rain. Even when flowing at its best, Horsetail Fall is barely visible from the floor of Yosemite Valley. But for about 2 1/2 weeks in February, thanks to a confluence of terrain and solar alignment, the very last sunset light striking El Capitan illuminates the thin strip of granite occupied by Horsetail Fall. Depending on atmospheric conditions, this light can range from amber to orange to pink to red, giving the impression that the fall has been hit with a colored spotlight. Comparisons to molten lava are apt.
Ansel Adams knew about it and photographed it, but it wasn’t until photographer and writer Galen Rowell started photographing and writing about it did it get people’s attention. When I started photographing Horsetail Fall more than 20 years ago, you could drive up to the best views on either side of the Merced River less than an hour early, find parking, and join a handful of other photographers. But when the media discovered it, Horsetail Fall became a phenomenon. Soon thousands of people were flocking to view it each February evening, praying for enough water and no clouds blocking the sunset light.
For examples of Horsetail Fall through the years, check out the gallery at the bottom of this post. And to read my tips for photographing it, read the Horsetail Fall article in my Photo Tips section.
I can confirm that our wet winter has provided enough snowpack for an at least decent flow in Horsetail Fall through the entire viewing window, which ends late February. The one wildcard in that prediction is the temperature because extreme cold can slow snowmelt and freeze the fall. We saw a little of that on Wednesday evening, when the light was good, but the flow less than what my group saw on Monday because Wednesday’s temperatures were just so cold.
Crowds this year were about normal, which means extreme, but well behaved (friendly and happy) and not a problem for anyone who doesn’t show up at the last minute. I can’t begin to express what a good job the NPS Yosemite folks do to manage the seemingly unmanageable number of people vying for their own view of the Horsetail spectacle.
My advice is to show up at least an hour early—2 hours early is better, but earlier than that is probably not necessary. Come prepared for an easy walk of at least one mile on a flat, paved road. And don’t settle for the first place you see people setting up to view—there are decent places to view from the first parking turnout on the right past Yosemite Valley Lodge, all the way down to the El Capitan Picnic Area.
The farther east you set up, the less straight-up you have to look (better, I think), but the less of the fall you see (it’s more in profile than straight-on). On breezy days, when the fall is blowing, I prefer being more east to better capture the backlit mist; on still days when Horsetail is flowing straight down, I prefer the more straight-on view closer to the picnic area (more west).
And speaking of Monday evening…
Since I bill this as a “Horsetail Fall” workshop, capturing the fall at sunset has to be my priority until it happens. This is always stressful for me because there’s no way to tell in advance whether Horsetail will light up at sunset—for every time it seemed certain to happen but didn’t, I can cite another time when it looked like there was no way it would happen, yet it did. (More on this year’s examples later.)
This Horsetail priority is tough for me because there’s nothing inherently special about the Horsetail Fall photo spots—if you’re position to photograph it and the light gets snuffed, you pretty much end up wasting a sunset. I monitor the weather reports and current conditions and try to make an educated guess, usually erring on the side of being in position (and praying)—since the people in my groups have traveled great distances and paid me money to see Horsetail Fall do its thing, I’d rather go down trying instead of opting for a better sunset spot because I didn’t think Horsetail would light up, only to find out that it did and we missed it. But still…
So anyway, Monday was our first sunset and the conditions looked good. Real good, in fact—Horsetail was flowing nicely (for Horsetail—it’s not a very impressive fall, even with lots of water), and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I got my group in place more than an hour before sunset, and we all watched the light warm beautifully, right on schedule.
Sunset this evening was 5:35. On a typical (successful) Horsetail evening, the best light starts about 5 minutes before sunset, and keeps improving until about 5 minutes after sunset, starting out gold, transitioning to orange, and sometimes, if you’re lucky, continuing until it glows an unreal red right before snuffing out.
Much to our chagrin, on this particular evening, the once promising light on Horsetail completely disappeared about 20 minutes before sunset. Since we’re standing on the valley floor with no view of the horizon, we have no way of knowing anything about the position and size of the cloud that has thwarted our dreams, and can only hope that the sun finds a hole before dropping below the horizon.
And hope we did. I tried to display a positive front, reminding everyone of the many times I’ve seen the light return about the time all hope was lost, while simultaneously checking the weather forecast for rest of the workshop on my phone and mentally planning a new strategy: Tuesday, not so good; Wednesday, maybe; Thursday (our last night), maybe.
Then, right around 5:30, the light switched back on and we were suddenly in business. After that, instead of teasing us as Horsetail seems to love doing, the light held strong all the way to the beautiful end. Better still, we enjoyed the entire spectrum of Horsetail hues, up to and including the coveted red, and ecstasy reigned. As did my relief.
With a successful Horsetail Fall experience for our first sunset, I was free to thumb my nose at the Horsetail crowds for the rest of the week, and to share other Yosemite sunset locations in blissful peace. Nevertheless, when the skies cleared on Wednesday, I gave my group the option to reprise Horsetail Fall—7 voted to try something different, and 5 wanted to give Horsetail another shot, so I arranged for those 5 to do their own Horsetail thing while I took the remaining 7 elsewhere. The rogue 5 ended up very happy with their second Horsetail show (though cold temps had cut the flow a bit), while the rest of us enjoyed a gorgeous pink and blue post-sunset Belt of Venus display above Half Dome from Tunnel View.
I think the most interesting story is what happened on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. On Tuesday the forecast called for clouds and a slight chance of snow. When we set up at Valley View about 45 minutes before sunset, the top third of El Capitan was completely engulfed in clouds. Then it started snowing. So imagine my surprise when, about 20 minutes before sunset, the rest of El Capitan appeared and everything suddenly lit up. For about 10 minutes the light was spectacular, and it looked like the Horsetail crowd about 2 miles east was was about to witness another Horsetail miracle—until the light disappeared for good about 10 minutes before sunset. But even though it didn’t happen, this experience was further confirmation that in Yosemite, it’s absolutely impossible to predict the light in 5 minutes based on the light right now. (And why I never, never, never, leave a Horsetail Fall shoot early.)
The second such reminder came Thursday night, when I had my group in place for sunset beneath Half Dome. The day’s forecast called for “increasing clouds.” All afternoon, as promised, Yosemite Valley had been blanketed by a veneer of gradually thickening clouds. About the time I’d accepted that we’d have a non-sunset of pleasant, soft, gray light beneath the cloudy ceiling, Half Dome illuminated as if it had been hit by a spotlight. For 10 minutes or so, right up until sunset, we enjoyed spectacular orange light on Half Dome. I haven’t heard what the Horsetail people beneath El Capitan saw this evening, but it’s quite possible that El Capitan and Horsetail Fall lit up similarly.
The image above is from Monday evening, right around sunset. You can clearly see the orange turning to pink.
The second image is from about 3 minutes later, several minutes after sunset, near the peak of the red. The color and light faded soon after this.
Read about photographing Horsetail Fall
A Horsetail Fall Gallery
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Posted on February 14, 2023
Last week’s blog image was an ultra-wide scene chockfull of beauty, ranging from nearby frosted trees and shrubs, to a sky filled with sunset pink clouds, topped with a small dot of moon. It took a bit of work, but I was eventually able to find the position and framing that allowed me to assemble these diverse elements into something coherent.
But because nature doesn’t really care about what we want, photographers frequently must deal with objects we really don’t want or need in our images, or simply can’t make work together. So making a good photo can be as much about what you leave out as it is about what you put in.
Fortunately, we have an array of techniques for subtracting these unwanted elements. One method is careful control of the exposure variables (shutter speed, ISO, and aperture) to disguise or eliminate distracting detail. For example, we can use a long shutter speed to smooth choppy water, a large aperture to soften a busy background, or a silhouette to cloak distractions in black shadow.
But I think the simplest form of distraction subtraction is compositional cropping—shrinking the frame until only the most necessary elements remain. And because nothing shrinks the world better than a long focal length, I rarely leave home without a telephoto zoom—telephoto for shrinking the world, zoom for realtime selective framing.
My midrange zoom lens used to be a 24-70, but I replaced it many years ago with a 24-105. Though 70mm is technically telephoto, I don’t really feel like I’m approaching anything remotely telephoto until I get up to around 100mm. But once i do, I’m actually surprised by how much I appreciate that extra 35mm for the ability to refine my frame it provides. Today I shudder to think about how many images I left unclicked in my 24-70 days, simply because I didn’t take the time to switch to a longer lens when I reached 70mm. (I like to rationalize that I wasn’t really being lazy, I just had failed to discover compositions that would have been obvious had I zoomed a little tighter—it’s likely a little of both.)
For years my fulltime (in my bag at all times) long zoom lens was a 70-200. But after switching to the more compact Sony Alpha mirrorless system, I suddenly had enough room in my bag for something longer. As soon as it was released, Sony’s 100-400 GM lens, while far from tiny, immediately replaced my 70-200. Despite the extra bulk, I find its size manageable enough given the extra focal range control it offers.
I got a firsthand taste of that appreciation in Iceland last month. When Don Smith and I took our workshop groups to Glacier Lagoon, we were surprised to discover far more lagoon than glacier. Normally, large pieces of ice calve from Jökulsárlón Glacier frequently enough to keep the lagoon liberally stocked with floating chunks of ice in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. But prolonged extreme cold in Iceland this year preempted this calving process. There was so little ice, in fact, that the first group didn’t even bother photographing here.
The second group arrived to find the lagoon engulfed in dense fog. There was still not much ice, but through the fog we could see enough floating icebergs on the lagoon’s far side, plus a handful more of small ones a little closer, to photograph. My eye was instantly drawn to the largest, and most distant, iceberg, attracted by its size, shape, and color, plus the way its dazzling blue shimmered atop the relatively calm water.
Without hesitation I reached for my Sony a7R V and Sony 100-400 f/5.6 GM lens. Not only did this long telephoto enable me to nearly fill my frame with the iceberg and its reflection, by zooming out close to 400mm and framing carefully, I was also able to banish a number of small, black birds (that would have mimicked sensor dust in my image), several photobombing indistinct blobs of ice bobbing closer to my camera, and a couple of larger neighboring icebergs I didn’t want sharing the stage with my subject. Tight framing also eliminated most of the bland gray sky and water, keeping only enough to provide contrast for my subject.
One final tip for telephoto landscapes
Because the field of view can be radically different from what my eyes see, when using a telephoto lens, I find it especially helpful to slowly pan the scene with my eye to the view finder until something stops me.
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Transcending the Trophy
Posted on February 7, 2023
With the digital-fueled photography renaissance, it seems that the number of trophy destinations has grown proportionally. For example, once no more than an anonymous trickle on El Capitan’s southeast flank, Horsetail Fall now draws thousands of photographers to Yosemite at sunset each February. And long gone are the days of a peaceful midday walk in the quiet coolness of Antelope Canyon.
Because I’ve photographed all of these scenes, and no doubt will continue doing so, I completely understand the urge to bag the trophy shot. They’re trophies because they’re beautiful, and (usually) relatively easy to access. But what puzzles me is why so many photographers pursue trophies to the exclusion of opportunities to create something uniquely their own. To me, the greatest joy of photography isn’t duplicating what others have already done, it’s the search for something new—especially at frequently photographed locations.
That said, I can’t deny that the opportunity to capture a trophy draws many photographers to my workshops. But while I do love helping my workshop students land their trophy, my job doesn’t end there—a significant part of my responsibility is challenging them to not make the trophy shot their goal, make it their starting point. Chances are, I tell them, if a shot is special enough to achieve trophy status, there are lots of other special views and subjects nearby.
Transcending the trophy is a mindset. Once you’ve bagged your trophy, see if you can identify a unique foreground or background, or approach the scene from a different angle. And if the standard view is horizontal, look for something vertical; if it’s wide, try a telephoto—and vice-versa.
And don’t forget that there might be great stuff happening behind you—you’ll never know if you don’t turn around. I try to make a point of checking behind me, but sometimes I need a reminder. For example…
Don Smith and I wrapped up the last day of this year’s back-to-back Iceland photo workshops with an afternoon in the Golden Circle. A recent storm had dumped loads of fresh snow everywhere, a great way to wrap up two fantastic workshops. After spending a couple of hours at massive Gullfoss waterfall, we took the group to Strokkur geyser for our final sunset.
Strokkur is a towering geyser in a beautiful setting. Erupting up to 125 feet every 5 to 10 minutes, Strokkur’s frequency allows many do-overs if you don’t get it right the first (or second, or…) time. This year fast-changing clouds and fresh snow added a new visual dimension I was especially excited to take advantage of.
I think the best shot here is getting the geyser backlit by the setting sun, so I positioned myself accordingly and waited, adjusting my position and composition after each eruption. As the sun set and I prepared for the next eruption, I noticed that our guide Albert Dros was on the other side of the geyser, pointing the exact opposite direction my camera pointed. Normally when I see another photographer not taking what I think is the best shot, I don’t think much of it. But since Albert is such a fantastic photographer, I glanced over my shoulder to see what I was missing. Yikes.
I instantly forgot the geyser, grabbed my gear, and “raced” toward the snow-glazed trees that were now framed by electric pink clouds, and garnished with a dollop of moon. Much to my frustration, the trail was completely coated with ice—since I’d decided to forego the crampons, to avoid falling I could only move about as fast as I do in those dreams when I’m trying to run for my life in a normal speed world, but find I can only move in slow motion (I’m not the only one who has those dreams, right?).
Fortunately, Iceland twilight is slower than any slow-motion dream, and I covered the 50 feet over to this scene with plenty of time to work the composition. I already had my Sony 12 – 24 f/2.8 GM lens mounted on my Sony a7R V, which turned out to be perfect for emphasizing the snowy scene in my immediate foreground, while still maximizing the colorful clouds. Of course this shrunk the moon to almost microscopic proportions—some may disagree, but I kind of love the small moon as a delicate accent to this already magic scene.
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Transcending the Trophy
A River Runs Through It
Posted on January 31, 2023
Among the greatest joys of my photographer’s life is the opportunity to witness rare and exotic beauty I might otherwise have missed. An erupting volcano? Check. The dancing colors of the northern lights? Check. Shafting light in a Southwest slot canyon? Check. Southern Hemisphere night sky? Check. The view from the bottom of the Grand Canyon? Check.
In my California-born-and-raised world, glaciers certainly qualify as beauty both rare and exotic. Fortunately, this photography life takes me to New Zealand, where I get to walk on a glacier, and most recently, to Iceland, where I actually get to walk in a glacier. How cool is that? (Very, actually—no pun intended.)
Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in Iceland, and the second largest in Europe. As recently as the 19th Century, Vatnajökull extended all the way to the Atlantic, but thanks to our warming planet, in most places it is now a few miles inland.
As alarming as that is, a consolation prize is the beauty Vatnajökull’s shrinking has produced. Glacier Lagoon is filled with Vatnajökull’s meltwater and decked out in large chunks of calved glacial ice; nearby Diamond Beach is bejeweled with the remnants of the lagoon’s ice; and Sapphire Ice Cave (and its predecessors) was formed in the wake of Vatnajökull’s retreat.
Ice caves are dynamic phenomena that can change noticeably from week-to-week, and over a span of many weeks or months will eventually become unrecognizable. They form when glacial runoff finds, or makes its own, path through glacial ice. Since flowing water is always warmer than the surrounding ice, these voids and channels continue expanding as more ice melts. When the runoff finds a different path, or diminishes in the freezing winter months, the spaces in the ice remain and an ice cave is born (or reborn).
Perhaps the most striking feature of an ice cave is its color. Contrary to popular opinion, this blueness is not reflected color from the sky, but from an inherent quality of the ice itself. Snow is opaque, but centuries of pressure from snow accumulating above compresses the older underlying snow, forcing out air and leaving only translucent ice crystals. As sunlight passes through these ice crystals, all but the shortest visible wavelengths are absorbed, allowing only the blue wavelengths to pass through to bless our fortunate eyes.
Each year Don Smith and I take an Iceland photo workshop group to visit the current incarnation of the Vatnajökull ice cave, and each year it’s completely different. So far it has been in more or less the same location for every visit, but this time, using a bridge across a small creek near the entrance as a reference point, I noticed it had retreated at least 100 yards in the last year. The glacier guides say that within a year or two this cave could be inaccessible or completely gone, requiring them to find another ice cave to blaze a tourist path to. (They’re only open to visitors in winter, one more reason winter is my favorite time to visit Iceland.)
With two Iceland workshops this year (still playing COVID catch-up), Don and I visited the Vatnajökull ice cave twice, 9 days apart. This version is dubbed Sapphire Ice Cave by the guides (earlier versions have been Crystal and Diamond), about 9 days apart. This created a great opportunity to compare, contrast, and witness firsthand the gradual changes that accumulate with time to completely end the cave, or transform it into something brand new.
Iceland’s ice caves can be extremely crowded, making photography difficult. In previous years we’ve started well before sunrise to be the first out there, but this year the morning weather didn’t look good, so we switched to late afternoon to be the last people to leave. To lighten my load for the one-mile walk, I pared my camera bag to nothing but my (brand new) Sony a7R V body, Sony 24 – 105 f/4 G lens, Sony 12 – 24 f/2.8 GM lens, and Really Right Stuff Ascend tripod.
Upon arriving with our second group, rather than start shooting immediately, I took a couple of minutes to survey my surroundings and get a handle on what had changed in the last 9 days. The most obvious difference was the river running through the cave. Recent rain, augmented by warmer temperatures, had created mini (and not-so-mini) springs and even a couple small waterfalls that poured in from intra-glacier reservoirs and streams. And then there were the seemingly ubiquitous and aggressive ceiling drips that (given my many layers) were surprisingly adept at targeting my neck and sliding down my spine. All this water united on the cave’s floor to form the shallow but swift river splitting the length of the main chamber before exiting through the main entrance. (This new river made instantly clear the puzzling presence of a makeshift metal bridge spanning nothing but dry rock and dirt on our first visit.)
Soon other differences came into focus: in addition to the flowing water, I noticed subtly altered curves, a few missing or blunted outcrops, and a handful of overhead portals that provided new views to the sky above. At one point during our visit a small rockslide sent several dozen softball-size rocks crashing about 10 feet from an elevated ice shelf, an instant reminder of an ice cave’s perpetual dynamics (and of why visitors are required to wear helmets at all times in the cave).
Our guide, provided by our Iceland guiding service to assist both workshop groups, was fellow Sony Ambassador Albert Dros (Albert is from the Netherlands; Ambassadors in the US are called Sony Artisans), whose energy is matched only by his creativity (check him out). Albert had most of the group occupied photographing Artie, our ice cave driver/guide (yes, there were 4 guides for 12 workshop participants in the ice cave portion of the workshop: Don, Albert, Artie, and me), whom he had drafted as a model to establish scale for everyone’s images.
With a few minutes to myself, I was both ready and able to begin taking actual pictures. I warmed up by attempting to reprise compositions remembered from the earlier visit. But once I became comfortable with the ice cave’s changes, I moved on to new compositions that emphasized those differences.
I started by concentrating on the waterfalls with my 24 – 105 lens, using long-exposure motion blur to help them stand out. But when I noticed that the view beyond the cave entrance was filled with a nice mix of clouds and sky, I saw an opportunity to highlight the ephemeral river (and to test the dynamic range of the a7R V). Time for my 12 – 24 lens.
Setting up shop on the bridge, I started composing versions of the scene you see here, first horizontal, then vertical. It took a few frames, but I eventually found the combination of position on the bridge, tripod height, and left/right framing (at 12mm) that allowed me to include the new natural skylights on the left (with enough distance from the edge), all of the cave’s entrance (and the sky beyond), plus the ideal balance of river and ceiling.
I wanted to smooth the water enough to eliminate distracting (in my opinion) texture freezing the motion would create. Lacking a neutral density filter for the 12 – 24 lens, I stopped down to f/18 and dropped to ISO 50, which allowed a nearly 1-second shutter speed—just slow enough.
The river was in shadow, but the water’s blueness really came out with the extra light my camera was able to capture. As with the ice cave’s color, the color of glacial water also is not simply reflected sky—or in this case, the ice’s blue. Rather, the water’s color is actually determined by the glacial silt it carries.
To understand this, now might be a good time to mention the counterintuitive truth that even receding glaciers move forward. Gravity carries a glacier downhill, but the glacier can still be retreating despite this downhill motion if it melts faster than it advances. As a glacier moves, embedded rock fragments at its base behave like sandpaper, grinding the rock over which it slides into finer and finer particles, the finest of which is called glacial flour. As the glacial meltwater carries all this scoured rock downhill, the heavier particles soon sink, while the finer glacial flour remains suspended in the runoff.
Most of the light striking water infused with glacial flour is absorbed by the fine suspended particles, but the green and blue wavelengths aren’t absorbed; instead they scatter back to our eyes and we are treated to blue, green, or turquoise water. The exact hue of flowing glacial meltwater is determined by the size of the suspended particles and the wavelengths (color) they scatter.
The product of these glacial machinations is the overwhelming blueness you see here.
I continue to be blown away by the dynamic range of the Sony sensors. As you may know, I never blend images, so the ability to capture with one click the entire range of tones in a scene like this is extremely important to me. On my LCD (jpeg) preview, the shadows in this image looked nearly black, while the highlights appeared hopelessly bright. But I trusted my histogram and the Sony raw file, and a couple of tugs of Lightroom’s Highlights and Shadows sliders validated that trust.
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Rare and Exotic Beauty (I Might Otherwise Have Missed)
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Lights, Camera, Action!
Posted on January 23, 2023
A couple of posts back I wrote about Nature’s gifts, natural phenomena that sometimes augment the ordinary enough to defy belief. In that post I cited reflections, relatively ubiquitous phenomena that improve nearly every scene they touch. Toward the other end of the commonness continuum are auroras, colorful lights that dance randomly in the frigid darkness high above Earth’s extreme latitudes.
While everyone has seen reflections, many live their life without ever witnessing an aurora. For most of us, viewing an aurora requires travel at the absolute worst time of year for travel, and then venturing outdoors in the darkest, coldest hours of the day. And even then, there’s no guarantee of success. Some nights the aurora simply doesn’t show up, other (many) nights auroras perform their dance behind a curtain of clouds.
So what’s the deal?
Despite all appearances to the contrary, auroras aren’t magic. Our planet is continuously bombarded by solar energy; a narrow range of these wavelengths (infrared and visible) battles all the way through Earth’s atmosphere to the surface to warm our bodies and light our way. But other wavelengths in the solar wind interact with atmospheric molecules they encounter, stripping their electrons to create ions, which causes a charge imbalance in the atmosphere.
Instead of penetrating the atmosphere to generate havoc on Earth’s surface, most of these ions are intercepted by the magnetosphere, our planet’s protective magnetic shield. The magnetosphere is a teardrop-shaped barrier surrounding Earth—battered by the relentless solar bombardment, its sun-facing side is spread out and compressed to about 6 to 10 Earth radii thick, while the shielded side behind Earth (from the Sun’s perspective) is stretched up to 60 Earth radii into space behind us (beyond the Moon’s orbit).
As Earth rotates inside the magnetosphere, the daylight side at any given moment looks through the wide, compressed region, while the night side peers out toward the extended region. Particles ionized by the sun are pushed by the solar wind from the daylight side of the magnetosphere to the upper regions of the polar latitudes on Earth’s leeward (night) side.
The result of these atmospheric machinations is an accumulation of ionized molecules dancing high in the night sky, creating an atmospheric oval of geomagnetic activity that waxes and wanes with solar activity and the intensity of the solar wind.
The aurora’s color depends on the molecules involved, as well as their location in the magnetosphere. The most plentiful and frequently activated molecules vibrate in the green wavelengths, but reds and blues are possible as well, depending on the intensity and altitude of the activity.
Known colloquially as the northern or southern lights, and more technically the aurora borealis in the Northern Hemisphere and aurora australis in the Southern Hemisphere, to see them you need all of the above: the correct location on or near Earth’s surface, activity in the magnetosphere, and dark, clear skies.
As with terrestrial weather, great effort is taken to predict the aurora, but there’s no such thing as an aurora “sure thing”—the best we can do is put ourselves in position to be as close to the auroral oval on nights with the greatest chance for activity. Planning a winter trip to the high latitudes (the higher the better), like Iceland, is a good start—then just pray for an active sun and clear skies.
Another key to successful aurora chasing is access to and comprehension of the Kp- (or K-) index. The Kp-index is a 0-9 scale of atmospheric electromagnetic activity, with 0 being little or no activity (get some sleep), and 9 being the most extreme activity (don’t forget the sunglasses). Many governments and scientific organizations issue regular Kp forecasts that seem about as reliable as a weather forecast—pretty good, but far from perfect. There are many websites and smartphone apps that will provide you with up-to-date Kp forecasts for your current location—some will even issue alerts. On my iPhone I find the Aurora Pro app essential for both planning and real-time aurora chasing.
Last week, armed with all this aurora knowledge, loads of preparation, and a healthy dose of hope, Don Smith and I embarked on the first of this year’s back-to-back Iceland photo workshops ready for action. We’ve had pretty good luck in all of our previous visits, but are wise enough to Nature’s fickle ways not to be too cocky.
After having (what from all reports was) a beautiful display erased by clouds the workshop’s first night, we were blessed with a truly magnificent show at Kirkjufell the next night. Not only did the sky behind the mountain light up, the colorful lights careened about the sky in all directions. On our ride back to the hotel, Don and I agreed that this show rivaled the Glacier Lagoon aurora show on our first trip to Iceland that we considered the best we’d seen so far. The group was happy and life was good.
Departing Snaefellsnes Peninsula for Vik the next morning with a tremendously successful aurora shoot already in the bank, I thought to myself that wishing for anything more would be downright greedy. And since Vik lacks the really great north-facing views that are ideal for photographing the aurora, I wasn’t counting on another northern lights shoot that night.
Nevertheless, because the sky was clear and the aurora forecast was decent, after dinner in Vik we went aurora chasing anyway. Rather than opt for the more sure but mediocre north-facing view, we instead drove to Dyrhólaey, a coastline/ocean vista with nice views in all directions except north. Our rationale was that a truly great display can be viewed in any and all directions, and since we already had our northern lights success in the books, why not just go for broke?
Smart move. An aurora was already blasting so strongly when we arrived that we started photographing the instant we rolled off the bus and didn’t make it out of the parking lot for about 15 minutes. And while the previous night’s aurora display at Kirkjufell rivaled our best ever, this one easily topped it.
Once ensconced at the vista, we spent most of our time photographing westward, where the view up the coastline was the best available, and from where a persistent series of brilliant red and green beams radiated. Very much aware that the show was great in all directions, at one point I glanced southward, out over the Atlantic, and just had to photograph what I saw.
There really wasn’t a lot happening in the foreground, but a few small islands (more like large rocks) saved the day. I took several frames facing south, but chose the one I’m sharing today because it I find its beautiful angel wing shape truly unique.
After using my brand new Sony a7R V at Kirkjufell the previous night (it performed wonderfully), for this entire shoot I used my Sony a1. For both shoots, because the aurora spanned most of the sky, I shot almost exclusively with my Sony 12 – 24 f/2.8 GM lens at 12mm—and would have gone wider if I could have. With the aurora changing continuously, I shot wide open and used ISOs between 3200 and 6400 to keep my shutter speed at 10 seconds or faster. I’m thrilled with how clean these high ISO images were from both cameras, and won’t hesitate to use either one for any future aurora shoot.
Here are my answers to the two aurora questions I hear most frequently:
- Can you see the aurora’s color?
- For most auroras there simply isn’t enough light to see any (or much) color. But in no way does this detract from the beauty. And when the aurora really gets going, yes, you can indeed see color—at one point this night it did brighten enough that the color was clearly visible, so bright in fact that I had to drop my exposure by 4 stops to avoid blowing out the highlights. And the color you see in my (and probably most) aurora images appears right there on the LCD after capture—in other words, rather than a Photoshop manipulation, aurora color in an image is mostly a simple product of the camera’s ability to accumulate photons.
- Can you see the aurora move?
- Sometimes you can’t see the aurora’s actual motion, but from minute to minute you become aware that its shape is noticeably different. And the bigger and brighter the aurora’s display, the faster it moves, until its motion becomes clearly visible—I’d compare the speed to a fast moving cloud. And a better word than “move” for what an aurora does might be “change.” While clouds seem to scoot across the sky, an aurora continually shifts and moves—the more intense the display, the faster the change.
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A Gallery of Iceland Auroras