Posted on June 19, 2022
Last night I completed a 30-hour odyssey that started in Sacramento, included stops in San Francisco, Fiji, and Aukland, before finally reaching its merciful conclusion in Queenstown, New Zealand (one car, one taxi, one bus, three airplanes, and lots of airport walking throughout). So forgive me if I’m not in shape (or in the mood) for writing a new blog. Instead, in honor of Father’s Day, I’m sharing this blog post from a couple of years ago honoring my father. I did, however, muster the energy to write few paragraphs about this image taken on the first night of last month’s Grand Canyon raft trip, which I have added at the bottom of this post, just above the gallery.
Had we not lost him 18 years ago, my dad would be turning 92 next month. He was a such a vibrant, healthy person, both mentally and physically, that I have no doubt he’d still be going strong if Alzheimer’s hadn’t taken him. I have always been grateful for Dad’s love, gentle discipline, wisdom, advice, and laughs (can’t forget the laughs), but it takes being a parent to fully appreciate our own parents’ love, and their influence on the adults we become.
Dad was a United Methodist minister who literally practiced what he preached. Just one example: In 1965, when Martin Luther King issued a plea for clergy to join him on his voting rights march to Montgomery, Dad borrowed money and flew across the country to join Dr. King in Selma, Alabama (where he was on national TV getting arrested with hundreds of other marchers).
His was an inclusive, Jesus-centric theology that honored all religions and people. He’d do things like open his pulpit to the local rabbi on Sunday morning, then reciprocate the following Saturday with a sermon of his own at the synagogue. Dad welcomed everyone into his churches, and became an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights long before it reached the mainstream. He frequently provided odd-jobs around the church to people who were down on their luck, and I lost track of the number of homeless people, including families with young children, we housed while they tried to get back on their feet.
In addition to the values he instilled, so many of the things that define my personality are directly attributable to my dad’s influence. My positive spirit, sense of humor, and love for sports were absolutely modeled by Dad. And when asked how I became a photographer, the instant answer has always been that my dad was a serious amateur photographer whose 80-hour work week offered too little time to pursue his passion, so he made up for lost time on our summer family vacations. So frequent were our photo stops, I grew up believing that a camera was just a standard outdoor accessory.
But I think his influence on my photography goes deeper than that. More than simply modeling camera use, Dad instilled in me his appreciation of nature’s beauty, and his longing for its soothing qualities. I realize now, because I see it in myself, that it’s not simply photography that dad loved, he was motivated by an insatiable desire to record and share the people and places he loved.
On a minister’s budget, our family summer vacations were, without exception, camping trips—always tent-camping, though in the later years we splurged on a used, very basic tent trailer (no kitchen, bathroom, or any of the other luxuries available in today’s tent trailers). These vacations usually took advantage of the mountain scenery within a few hours of our California home (we were just as close to the ocean, but our vacations were almost always in the mountains), but a few times our family (Dad, Mom, my two younger brothers, and I) hit the road for a much longer camping trip. Some of my most significant childhood memories came on the full month we camped all the way across the United States and back, and a multi-week camping adventure into and around the Canadian Rockies.
Of our more frequently visited destinations, Yosemite was the clear favorite. Marveling at the Firefall from Camp Curry and Glacier Point, waiting in lawn chairs with hundreds of fellow tourists at the Yosemite garbage dump for the bears to arrive for their evening meal (really), rising in the dark for a Dad and Gary (only) fishing expedition to Tuolumne Meadows, family hikes up the Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls, are just a few of the memories that I realize in hindsight formed the bedrock of my Yosemite connection.
My favorite Dad photography story happened when I was about ten. It involves an electrical storm atop Sentinel Dome, and his desire to photograph a lightning bolt, a desire so great that it trumped common sense. As his ignorant but trusting assistant, to keep his camera dry I stretched high to extend an umbrella above Dad’s head. (In his defense, as Californians, the novelty of lightning obscured a full comprehension of its dangers.) We didn’t get the lightning, and more importantly, it didn’t get us. But that’s not the end of the story.
After risking our lives on Sentinel Dome, the family ended up at Glacier Point, just down the road. Dad had returned to tourist mode as we browsed the shop at Glacier Point Lodge, no doubt seeking souvenirs that would fit our meager budget. But when a vivid rainbow appeared out of nowhere to arc across the face of Half Dome, Dad was ready with his camera still draped around his neck. Watching Dad’s excitement, better than any souvenir, this felt as if God was giving him a much deserved, “I got your back.”
I love you, Dad.
About this image
Another life-long interest I can thank my dad for is my love for astronomy. Even though Dad’s interest in astronomy was little more than an enthusiastic marveling at the stars we saw on our summer camping trips, as soon as he sensed my attraction to the night sky, he went to work figuring out how to get me a telescope. Limited, as always, by his minister’s salary, he somehow negotiated with a fellow Kiwanis member and serious amateur photographer the gift of a no longer used 6-inch reflector telescope that was far better than anything I could have hoped for. (I was especially proud to discover this photographer’s name in the photo credit for a nebula image in one of my astronomy books.)
Today I trace my lifetime fascination with the night sky all the way back to this simple act of support from my father, a fascination that manifests today in a love for photographing the stars above my favorite landscapes. It’s why so many of my workshops attempt to account for the night photography opportunities, including my annual Grand Canyon raft trip, which I always schedule a moonless week in May.
Because in May a view of the brilliant core of the Milky Way requires a good view toward the southern horizon, and the Grand Canyon trends mostly east-west, and campsites are first-come, first-served, it’s not necessarily a sure thing. Other important factors are an open view of the river for a foreground, and raft parking upstream from our river view.
In the eight years I’ve done this trip, I’ve identified several target campsites, and on the first night of this year’s trip we found at a new camp that instantly became one of my favorites. The problem here was the only place to put the rafts was right in front of the view, so as soon as we had the rafts unloaded I went exploring and found a great little beach a couple of hundred yards downstream.
The problem was that getting here required a little boulder scrambling that was doable for most in broad daylight, but not an option in the utter darkness of a Grand Canyon night. But just past the boulder field I found a spot with enough room for campsites and a straight, easy walk down to the river. So I advised the group that anyone interested the best night photography should lug their gear up the hill and over the boulders now.
At least six others took my advice. Relying on my aging body’s inability to sleep through the night, I didn’t bother setting an alarm and woke up naturally (always the best way) around 2 a.m., just as the Milky Way’s core was slipping over the canyon wall. I found two or three already shooting away at the river, and during the hour or so I was down there we were joined by several others.
Most of us started at the most easily accessed spot right on the river, but after a while I moved a few dozen yards downstream to see what the view was like there. After negotiating a few boulders, I found myself on a flat sandstone platform just a couple of feet above the river, with what I thought was an even better view. I let everyone know my discovery and was soon joined by two or three more adventurous souls. A great start to a great trip.
One more thing
I’m sure my dad had no idea at the time the significance his simple act of support would have on the rest of my life. Just something that I hope all parents, or prospective parents, keep in mind.
Posted on June 13, 2022
I used to consider my 16-35 lens ultra-wide (by many definitions, it is), and as such, all the focal width I needed—the difference between 12mm and 16mm didn’t seem enough to justify another lens. I photographed in blissful ignorance until 2015, when, on a spring morning in Yosemite, I borrowed a friend’s Canon 11-24 lens. With the help of my Metabones adapter, I mounted the lens to my Sony a7RII and peered into the viewfinder toward a familiar scene that I’d only known through my 16-35 lens. The scene that greeted me had instantly transformed into something I’d never imagined possible. Suddenly I could capture everything rather than having to decide what to exclude.
The epiphany that there is indeed a significant difference between 16mm and 12mm caused me to briefly entertain the idea of buying (and adapting) my own Canon 11-24 lens. But that lens’s extreme bulk, that was matched only by its extreme price tag, quickly cured me of that urge. My reward for passing on the Canon lens came two years later, when Sony announced the 12-24 f/4 G lens that was less than half the weight, almost half the price, and just as sharp. A couple of years later Sony added a 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens, even sharper than its predecessor, while still faster, smaller, and (a little) cheaper than its Canon counterpart.
So of course I now own both (because I couldn’t bring myself to part with the G when I got the GM). Now my primary Sony 12-24 is the GM lens, but I don’t hesitate to use the G version when ounces matter, such as on my Grand Canyon raft trip, or when I’ll be doing significant hiking. (I also bring it to my Yosemite workshops to loan to Sony shooters at some of the spots that beg for 12mm.)
While I don’t use my 12-24 lenses as much as I use my 24-105 or 16-35 lenses, that focal range has become such an important part of my creative workflow in the field that I can’t imagine not having one with me at all times. Not only does a 12-24 provide greater compositional flexibility, I feel like it’s upped my creative game too.
But, to paraphrase Spider-Man (okay, so actually it was his Uncle Ben), with great power comes a steep learning curve. Despite the fact that wide angle is the reflex response to most landscapes by virtually every tourist who picks up a camera, I quickly discovered that good ultra-wide photography is not easy. From shrunken backgrounds to skewed verticals, wide angle lenses pose problems that magnify as the focal length widens. Fortunately, these problems can be turned to opportunities when they’re fully understood. With that in mind, here are a few insights that might help:
- Put something in your close foreground. I can’t emphasize this too much. Some of my wide angle images put the primary subject front and center, but when the background scene is my main subject, I try to find something of visual interest for my foreground. Browse the gallery at the bottom of this post and note how many images have an empty foreground (Hint: Not very many). Sometimes I’m able to include something as striking as a mirror reflection or colorful leaves, but often my wide angle foregrounds are as simple as a rock or shrub. If there’s nothing at my feet and I need to find something a little farther away, at the very least I want the foreground of my wide image to be filled with features worthy of the space they occupy.
- In a rectilinear lens (which most wide lenses are), parallel lines will be rendered straight only if the camera is level. To confirm, try this: Mount an ultra-wide lens (whatever your widest lens is) on your camera, point it at a row of nearby trees, and slowly tilt the camera up and down while looking through your viewfinder. Note how the trees straighten as the camera approaches level, and increasingly skew the more the camera tilts. For example, the two images below were captured the same day using 12mm with the same 12-24 f/4 G lens—see how straight the trees are in the El Capitan image compared to the Yosemite Falls image? In other words, when you see extreme tilt in an ultra-wide lens, blame (or credit) the photographer, not the lens.
- Take advantage of the extreme depth of field wide angle provides. For example, at 12mm and f/11, the hyperfocal distance is 18 inches (focus 18 inches away and everything from 9 inches to infinity will be acceptably sharp). Stop down to f/16 and the hyperfocal distance is 12 inches (acceptably sharp from 6 inches to infinity). While hyperfocal focusing in today’s age of extreme resolution is a little more nuanced than that, the point is, you can get really close to your subjects and be sharp from front to back. Read more about hyperfocal focusing.
About this image
My annual Grand Canyon raft trip has so many mind-blowing sights that I really can’t give you a favorite—the best I can do is offer an unranked list of favorites. I’ve already shared images from last month’s trip of two on that list (Little Colorado River and Elves Chasm), so today I’m sharing a third: Deer Creek Fall.
Deer Creek Fall is visible from the Colorado River and far from a secret, but my guides and I have become pretty good at getting it to ourselves, and this year we succeeded wonderfully. While about half the group embarked on the short (1/2 mile) but steep (!) hike to the slot canyon above the fall and the beautiful “patio” area beyond, I stayed behind to photograph a rainbow at the bottom of the fall, and to wait for the light to improve. Since you can walk right up to this 150 fall (and under it if you’re adventurous), I immediately reached for my Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens and attached it to my Sony α1.
Starting at the fringe of the pool beneath the fall, I played with a variety of compositions before eventually clambering down into this little cascade about 30 feet downstream. And when I say into, I really do mean in-to—to get close enough and align the cascade with the fall, I had to stand in about 18 inches of rushing water with my tripod splayed in three directions—two legs nearly horizontal and planted on opposite sides of the creek, and one leg pressed against a submerged rock. To use my viewfinder, I had to drop down and sit on a rock with my legs in the creek above my knees. While I wasn’t any any personal danger, I was very aware of the precarious position I’d put my (brand new) camera in and the potential for it to get swept downstream.
Once I had the general setup stabilized, I did my standard click-evaluate-refine cycle, gradually inching closer until the cascade was less than 2 feet away. With each adjustment I found myself dropping lowerSettling on a composition I liked, I focused on the rocks and played with a variety shutter speeds. You might get an idea of how close I was, and how fast the water was moving, when you realize that this was captured at 1/4 second.
Posted on June 5, 2022
Spend enough time viewing landscape images on Facebook and Instagram and it soon becomes clear that dramatic spectacle and saturated color generates the most fan attention. Fueled by this knowledge, photographers seeking online praise try to outdo the drama and color of prior images, both their own and others’, with every shoot. The unfortunate consequence is a photographic feedback loop where one ostentatious image spawns increasingly ostentatious images, which then encourage even more ostentatious images, and on, and on….
This accelerating cycle reminds me of Top 40 music, where one breakthrough success generates a flood of uninspired clones. Catchy tunes are fine for a few listens, but few possess staying power and are soon forgotten. Contrast that to artists like the Beatles (am I dating myself?), who aggressively resisted repetition of prior success in favor of new sounds—sounds that the world has been listing to pretty much nonstop for nearly 60 years.
Admittedly, few artists are blessed with the Beatles’ creative genius, but that’s no excuse to shortcut your own creativity. As with music, images that elicit a reflexive Like and Share from digital passersby, and (if you’re lucky) maybe even a “Stunning!” in the comments box, are usually forgotten with the next click. But images that resonate on a personal level by revealing something unseen, or by touching a hidden place inside the viewer, have the power to grab people in their tracks and not let go.
Of course this sounds great in theory, but how is it accomplished? If the answer were easy, we’d all be doing it. But, like Dorothy and the Ruby Slippers, perhaps we’ve had the power all along.
Because most people long for a connection to the world around them—not simply a connection with nature, but also a connection with kindred souls—a good place to start would be to give viewers of your images something of yourself to latch on to, by concentrating on subjects that resonate with you.
Which might be why my own photography took a significant leap forward when I started photographing simply to please myself. In other words, the more I pursue moments in nature that touch me personally, (as if by magic) the more unique, gratifying, and successful my images became. While my most personal images don’t please everyone, the people they do reach seem to feel a deeper connection than they do to my images intended to impress. And best of all, they make me happy.
About this image
I’ve spent many hours at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, roaming the banks of the incomparable Little Colorado River near its confluence with the Colorado River. I’ll never forget my reaction the first time I saw the Little Colorado’s impossible blue. I had no inkling of what was in store when I hopped from the raft and rounded the corner, but when that blue hit my eyes I stopped short and stared for a few seconds trying to process it, then spun around and strode back to the raft to tell my lead guide, “We’re going to need more time here.”
Despite all the time spent here (and admittedly, it hasn’t all been photography—on warmer days my group enjoys cooling off by floating down a natural water chute about 1/2 mile upstream), I’ve struggled to make images that I feel really does the scene justice. But last year something clicked when I started looking closer, emphasizing the intimate beauty at my feet: the juxtaposition of red, white, and blue water and rock; the rock’s rich texture; the curves, angles, and levels of the limestone layers; and the play of the river among all these elements.
This year I took my look-closer approach a step further. After spending a hot afternoon at the Little Colorado doing more swimming than photography, I rose at 5:00 the following morning to return along with a half-dozen hardcore photographers in my raft trip group for a solid hour of just-plain-photography (taking advantage of our campsite directly across the river that allowed us to shuttle back and forth). While I landed that morning with no real plan, after a handful of uninspired clicks I came across this little rapid that stopped me in my tracks. Exactly 101 images later it was time to hustle back to the raft.
That’s right, 101 images of this one little rapid—and it was probably the most photography fun I’ve had all year. Every single frame was different from the others, and know I’d have found 101 more unique captures if I’d have had time.
Using my Sony 24-105 G lens on my Sony α1, I started with a tighter, horizontal composition, refining until the framing felt balanced, then ran a series of shutter speeds (by varying my ISO) ranging from 1 second to 1/100 second in (more or less) 1-stop increments. Then I’d find a new composition by going slightly wider, and occasionally changing my position and orientation. For each composition I’d use a similar series of shutter speeds, though it wasn’t long before I decided that the range I liked best was between 1/2 second and 1/30 second. (I like shooting motion with a range of shutter speeds so I can defer my final choice until I can view everything on my large monitor at home.)
Not until the last 10 minutes or so did I expand my composition enough to include the red rock platform on which I stood. Sometimes it takes working a scene for a while to distill it to its truest form, and it turns out really I love the strong diagonal this originally overlooked addition adds, not to mention the extra color and texture.
Like many of my favorite images, I know this one won’t accumulate the abundance of Likes that a landscape icon beneath a vivid sunset might, but it’s these intimate frames that capture the essence of the scene that make me happiest.
Tapping the Essence
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on June 1, 2022
Yesterday I wrapped up my eighth Grand Canyon raft trip. I had no idea on my first one in 2014 that I’d still be doing this trip 8 years later (with number nine already on the schedule), or that it would have such a profound effect on my life. But here I am.
Most people’s perception of the Grand Canyon comes courtesy of expansive views from the rim, ideally in person, but often only in photographs. But on my first trip I learned that Grand Canyon’s obvious macro beauty from the rim belies the micro beauty below. Down here, the potential to be surprised by a bubbling spring, tumbling waterfall, or narrow slot canyon awaits at every twist of the river.
And some of the raft trip’s appeal is more visceral than visual. I’m thinking specifically of the river itself, which offers long stretches of contemplative floating, punctuated by thrilling E-ticket (look it up) rapids. Early in the trip I’ll need to reassure a nervous bunch of rafters cowering toward the back of the raft with each approaching riffle (baby rapid); by trip’s end, the bigger the rapid, the more rafters we have jockeying for a spot up front on the raft’s pontoons.
Another reason to love this trip is the Grand Canyon’s night sky, which is quite likely the darkest sky I (or anyone else) has ever experienced. Every night on the river I shun the tent in favor of a celestial shelter. Reclined on my cot, eyes plastered open, I fight sleep until I spy a meteor. While waiting, my gaze drifts across stars that range from brilliant to completely invisible virtually anywhere else on Earth, connecting these pinpoint lights into patterns as I try to comprehend our Universe’s expansiveness.
But honestly, as great as all this other stuff is, my favorite part of these trips is the people. We enter the canyon as a disorganized cohort of uncertain, anxious, strangers, and emerge, bonded by teamwork and shared experience, a cohesive knot of friends. One of my greatest (and proudest) pleasures is standing back and observing the interaction of the new friendships that my trip has enabled—many friendships will last the rest of these individuals’ lives. And I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the friendships I make, the new people with whom I’ve formed (what I hope will become) lifelong relationships.
About this image
After tumbling over layers representing millions of years Earth’s history, Royal Arch Creek drops into an emerald pool nestled in a mossy, fern lined, red rock alcove: Elves Chasm. Getting there requires a bit of rock scrambling—there’s a trail of sorts, but in several places the route is interrupted by an inconvenient rock, ledge, or pool. Fortunately, Elves Chasm is only a couple of hundred yards from the Colorado River (mile 116). With small cascades and pools along the way, even those who can’t make it all the way to the pool will find plenty to see and photograph.
Despite the difficult access, this little gem isn’t a secret, and it often teems with gawkers. I’ve been doing this raft trip long enough that my guides and I have become pretty good at timing our Elves Chasm visit so we have it to ourselves (fingers crossed), in the best light (full shade), and this year we succeeded wonderfully.
Because of the confined space, my group had to negotiate photo opportunities, with everyone taking turns at the best spots and no one locking into one place for too long. I waited until everyone was done before setting up this shot on a narrow shelf along the chasm’s right wall. A few years ago I captured a horizontal version of this scene that I like, so this time I concentrated here on something vertical.
By the time I clicked this frame, the morning sun had already started to stain the rocks above, and it wasn’t long before it leaked into the chasm itself, marking the end of photography time and the beginning of tourist time. Appropriately, as my group joyfully scrambled back down to our rafts, we encountered another group on their way in, thrilled to find their destination in full sun.
This is the only image of the trip I’ve processed so far, but I promise more are on the way…
Visions of Raft Trips Past
Posted on May 22, 2022
I’ve spent the last week moving, and with my annual Grand Canyon Raft Trip for Photographers launching Tuesday, I haven’t had a lot of time for blogging (and much else). But I’m still committed to posting a new blog each week, so I’m sharing a new image from one of this spring’s Yosemite workshops, and a brief description of its capture. I also dusted off and polished up the Rainbow article from my Photo Tips tab. I’ll be off the grid until May 31, so next week’s post will likely be a little late.
It’s become a tradition to kick off my Yosemite spring workshops with a rainbow on Bridalveil Fall. Though the timing varies with the date, I’ve done it enough to narrow the rainbow’s start down to about a 2 minute window for whatever date I’m there. Not only is this little dash of rainbow a thrilling spectacle and beautiful introduction to Yosemite, it also creates an (unjustified) illusion of genius for the workshop leader.
With rain and maybe even a little snow, this year’s weather forecast for our first day looked great in many ways, but not so much for rainbows. But rainbow or not, Tunnel View is a great spot to start a workshop because it’s the most complete view of all things Yosemite. It’s also the first place Yosemite’s storms clear, so even without sunlight something special might be in store.
The storm was just starting to clear when we arrived and I almost got trampled as my group raced to set up. Between the swirling clouds and Half Dome’s appearance (not always a sure thing during a Yosemite clearing storm), things were already going pretty well when shafts of light broke through to illuminate random parts of the valley and surrounding granite.
I checked my watch and crossed my fingers when I realized that we’d be able to add a rainbow to Bridalveil if the light were to make it there. A couple of minutes later Leaning Tower (the diagonal just to the right of the fall) lit up, and a few seconds later a small patch of light hit the evergreens in front of the fall.
After telling everyone what was about to happen, I set up my composition and said a little prayer that the light would cooperate. The patches of light quickly expanded and merged and there it was. I often shoot this rainbow with a telephoto because the sky is so often blank blue, but the whole scene was so beautiful this afternoon that I went with my Sony 24-105 G lens on my (brand new!) Sony a1.
This was the very first time I’d used this camera, and while I thought I’d set it up to match my Sony a7RIV, I soon discovered that I’d missed a few things. For example, I usually shoot in single shot mode, but my a1 was in fast continuous mode, an oversight that became apparent when my first shutter press (slow and gentle, as always) fired off 6 identical frames before I released my finger. My goodness is this camera fast.
I have so many images of this rainbow that I only photographed it for a couple of minutes—just long enough to be confident that I’d captured something I didn’t have. When I finished shooting I just stood back to watch the rainbow move up the fall—and to listen to the exclamations of marvel from the group.
Fortunately none of my settings oversights were a major hindrance and were quickly corrected. Since that afternoon I’ve used my a1 enough to know that I’m going to love using it, and can’t wait to try it out in the Grand Canyon this week.
Read on to learn about rainbows, how to anticipate them, and how to photograph them…
All About Rainbows
Let there be light
Most people understand that a rainbow is light spread into various colors by airborne water drops. Though a rainbow can feel like a random, unpredictable phenomenon, the natural laws governing rainbow are actually quite specific and predictable, and understanding these laws can help photographers anticipate a rainbow and enhance its capture.
The sun’s visible wavelengths are captured by our eyes and interpreted by our brain. When our eyes take in light comprised of the full range of visible wavelengths, we perceive it as white (colorless) light. Color registers when some wavelengths are more prevalent than others. For example, when light strikes an opaque (solid) object such as a tree or rock, some of its wavelengths are absorbed; the wavelengths not absorbed are scattered (reflected). Our eyes capture this scattered light, send the information to our brains, which interprets it as a color. When light strikes water, some is absorbed, some passes through to reveal the submerged world, and some light is reflected by the surface as a reflection.
To understand the interaction of water and light that creates a rainbow, it’s simplest to visualize what happens when sunlight strikes a single drop. Light entering a water drop slows and bends, with the shorter wavelengths bending more than the longer wavelengths: refraction. Refraction separates the originally homogeneous white light into the myriad colors of the spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet (in that order).
But simply separating the light into its component colors isn’t enough to create a rainbow. Actually seeing the rainbow spectrum caused by refracted light requires that the refracted light be reflected back to our eyes somehow.
A raindrop isn’t flat like a sheet of paper, it’s spherical, like a ball. Light that was refracted when it entered the front of the raindrop, continues through to the back of the raindrop, where some is reflected. To view a rainbow, our eyes must be in the correct position to catch this reflected spectrum of color—fortunately, this angle is very consistent and predictable.
Red light reflects at 42 degrees, violet light reflects at 40 degrees, while the other spectral colors reflect back between 42 and 40 degrees. That’s why the top color of the primary rainbow is always red, the longest visible wavelength; the bottom color is always violet, the shortest visible wavelength.
Follow your shadow
Every raindrop struck by sunlight creates a rainbow somewhere. But just as the reflection of a mountain peak on the surface of a lake is visible only when viewed from the angle the reflection bounces off the lake’s surface, a rainbow is visible only when you’re aligned with the 42 – 40 degree angle at which the raindrop reflects light’s refracted spectrum of rainbow colors.
Lucky for most of us, viewing a rainbow requires no knowledge of advanced geometry. To locate or anticipate a rainbow, put your back to the sun and picture an imaginary line originating at the sun, entering the back of your head, exiting between your eyes, and continuing into the landscape in front of you—this line points to the “anti-solar point,” an imaginary point exactly opposite the sun from your viewing position.
It helps to remember that your shadow always points toward the anti-solar point—and toward the center of the rainbow, which forms a 42 degree circle around the line connecting the sun and the anti-solar point. Unless we’re in an airplane or atop a mountain peak, we don’t usually see the entire circle because the horizon gets in the way. So when you find yourself in a mixture sunlight and rain, locating a rainbow is as simple as following your shadow and looking skyward—if there’s no rainbow, the sun’s probably too high.
High or low
Sometimes a rainbow appears as a majestic half-circle, arcing high above the distant terrain; other times it’s merely a small arc hugging the horizon. As with the direction of the rainbow, there’s nothing mysterious about its varying height. Remember, every rainbow would form a full circle if the horizon didn’t get in the way, so the amount of the rainbow’s circle you see (and therefore its height) depends on where the rainbow’s arc intersects the horizon.
While the center of the rainbow is always in the direction of the anti-solar point, the height of the rainbow is determined by the height of the anti-solar point, which will always be exactly the same number of degrees below the horizon as the sun is above the horizon. It helps to imagine the line connecting the sun and the anti-solar point as a fulcrum, with you as the pivot—picture yourself in the center of a teeter-totter: as one seat rises above you, the other drops below you. That means the lower the sun, the more of the rainbow’s circle you see and the higher it appears above the horizon; conversely, the higher the sun, the less of the rainbow’s circle is above the horizon and the flatter (and lower) the rainbow appears.
Assuming a flat, unobstructed scene (such as the ocean), when the sun is on the horizon, so is the anti-solar point (in the opposite direction), and half of the rainbow’s 360 degree circumference will be visible. But as the sun rises, the anti-solar point drops—when the sun is more than 42 degrees above the horizon, the anti-solar point is more than 42 degrees below the horizon, and the only way you’ll see a rainbow is from a perspective above the surrounding landscape (such as on a mountaintop or on a canyon rim).
Of course landscapes are rarely flat. Viewing a scene from above, such as from atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii or from the rim of the Grand Canyon, can reveal more than half of the rainbow’s circle. From an airplane, with the sun directly above you, all of the rainbow’s circle can be seen, with the plane’s shadow in the middle.
Double Your pleasure
Not all of the light careening about a raindrop goes into forming the primary rainbow. Some of the light slips out the back of the raindrop to illuminate the sky, and some is reflected inside the raindrop a second time. The refracted light that reflects a second time before exiting creates a secondary, fainter rainbow skewed 50 degrees from the anti-solar point. Since this is a reflection of a reflection, the colors of the secondary rainbow are reversed from the primary rainbow.
And if the sky between the primary and secondary rainbows appears darker than the surrounding sky, you’ve found “Alexander’s band.” It’s caused by all the light machinations I just described—instead of all the sunlight simply passing through the raindrops to illuminate the sky, some of the light was intercepted, refracted, and reflected by the raindrops to form our two rainbows, leaving less light for the sky between the rainbows.
Waterfalls are easy
Understanding the optics of a rainbow has practical applications for photographers. Not only does it help you anticipate a rainbow before it happens, it also enables you to find rainbows in waterfalls.
A rainbow caused by sunlight on rain can feel random because it’s difficult to know exactly where the rain will fall, when the sun will break through, and exactly where to position yourself to capture the incongruous convergence of rainfall and sunshine. A waterfall rainbow, on the other hand, can be predicted with clock-like precision because we know exactly where the waterfall and sun are at any give time—as long as clouds don’t get in the way, the waterfall rainbow appears with clock-like precision.
Yosemite is my location of choice for waterfall rainbows, but maybe there’s a waterfall or two near you that might deliver. Just figure out when the waterfall gets direct sunlight early or late in the day, then put yourself somewhere on the line connecting the sun and the waterfall. And if you have an elevated vantage point, you’ll find that the sun doesn’t even need to be that low in the sky.
Spring in Yosemite is waterfall rainbow season, and I know exactly where to be and when to be there for both of Yosemite Valley’s major waterfalls. In fact, given the variety of vantage points for viewing each of these falls, I can usually get two or three rainbows on each fall on any given day.
In addition to clouds, there are other variables to deal with. One is the date, because the path and timing of the sun’s arc across the sky changes with each passing week. Another thing that can throw the timing off slightly is the amount of water in the fall—following a wet winter the spring runoff increases, and with it the amount of mist. Generally, the more mist, the sooner the rainbow will appear and the longer it lasts. And finally there’s wind, which spreads the mist and usually improves the rainbow by increasing its size.
While all these variables make it difficult for me share the exact schedule of Yosemite’s waterfall rainbows from the variety of vantage points, I can give you some general guidance: look for a rainbow on Yosemite Falls in the morning, and Bridalveil Fall in the afternoon. And if you don’t mind a short but steep hike, you can also find a rainbow on Vernal Fall in the afternoon.
Understanding rainbow optics can even help you locate rainbows that aren’t visible to the naked eye. A “moonbow” (lunar rainbow) is a rarely witnessed and breathtaking phenomenon that follows all the natural rules of a daylight rainbow. But instead of resulting from direct sunlight, a moonbow is caused by sunlight reflected by the moon.
Moonlight isn’t bright enough to fully engage the cones in your eyes that reveal color, though in bright moonlight you can see the moonbow as an arcing monochrome band. But a camera on a sturdy tripod can use its virtually unlimited shutter duration to accumulate enough light to bring out a moonbow in full living color. Armed with this knowledge, all you need to do is put yourself in the right location at the right time.
Probably the best known moonbow is the one that appears on Yosemite Falls each spring. Usually viewed from the bridge at the base of Lower Yosemite Fall, the best months are April, May, and June, with May probably being the best combination of moonlight angle and ample water.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon isn’t a secret, and the bridge can be quite crowded on spring full moon nights—in high runoff springs, it can also be extremely wet (pack your rain gear). The base of Upper Yosemite Fall can also have a moonbow when viewed from the south side of Cook’s Meadow, especially in wet springs.
A Gallery of Rainbows
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Posted on May 16, 2022
Dynamic vs. static
Photographic composition is all about managing the tension between dynamic and static: the dynamic component is the way the eye moves through the frame, while the static component is the overall balance of the scene’s elements.
To synergize these two potentially conflicting factors, I think in terms the “visual weight” of my frame’s contained elements. Like gravity for the eye, visual weight is the amount each of the scene’s various elements might pull the viewer’s vision toward it. Unlike the measurable weight caused by actual gravity—a constant determined by an object’s mass (I’m talking the Earth-based, Newtonian physics that govern our daily lives)—visual weight is a more subjective quality that can be a function of many things that include the object’s size, brightness, contrast, shape, and color.
On the dynamic side, I use the way the viewers of an image subconsciously connect visually weighted objects and mentally draw virtual lines along which their eyes move. Composing a scene, I first identify the objects that possess visual weight—a rock, flower, tree, mountain, whatever—and work to position them in my frame in ways that guide my viewer’s eyes. Additionally, I generally avoid putting visually weighted objects near the edges of my frame, where they might pull my viewer out of the scene.
For the scene’s static component, visual balance, an approach that works for me to imagining my frame as a perfectly rigid print, laid flat and balanced atop a centered point (like a pencil). As I compose, I want the position of the scene’s visually weighted objects organized on my imaginary balanced print so it will rest perfectly horizontal (no tilt).
Just a dash of moon
The concept of visual weight helped me reconcile a frequent complaint of photographers (and at least one editor who used it to reject an article on moon photography) that the moon appears too small in a landscape image. At some point I realized that the moon’s visual weight, even accounting for its brightness and contrast, was greater than its size alone might suggest. That led me to an essential component of visual weight that I’d overlooked: emotional connection. There is just something about the emotional pull of the moon hovering over a landscape that draws the human eye far more than might be expected from its more tangible physical qualities.
This realization freed me to stop stressing about the size of the moon in my frame. Though I have no problem photographing the moon large when the opportunity presents itself, I also won’t hesitate to leverage a small moon’s emotional weight to elevate a relatively ordinary scene, or enhance an already beautiful scene.
The short hike along Tenaya Lake to Mirror Lake is one of the most popular in Yosemite Valley. Though technically not a lake, each spring (and often in winter and early summer as well) Tenaya Creek brims with snowmelt. Rushing from the high country, Tenaya Creek pauses directly beneath Half Dome, flattening and spreading enough to deliver spectacular reflections.
Even more than the reflections, for me the best part of the Mirror Lake experience is its the neck-craning close-up of Half Dome’s face. When I started thinking about the best way to convey Half Dome’s imposing presence, it occurred to me that letting its looming face dwarf a small moon might be exactly what I need.
I write a lot about my love for photographing the moon large, the bigger the better. But sometimes the moon needs to be small. While the moon here is far from the primary subject it would be in a telephoto image, this image is all about Half Dome. Adding little dash of moon creates a balancing counterweight, helps spice up an otherwise boring sky, and creates a size contrast that emphasizes Half Dome’s massive presence.
Take a look at the images in the gallery below, paying extra attention to the moon’s relationship to Half Dome. In some images the moon is the focal point of the frame, in others it’s a balancing element, and sometimes it’s simply an accent that adds interest to a boring sky.
The Moon and Half Dome
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Posted on May 9, 2022
Think about what goes into making a landscape image. If the scenes and conditions are our raw materials, then it would be logical to say that our camera gear is our tools. But in addition to cameras, lenses, and other physical photography hardware, I’d say that our photography toolkit also includes the techniques we employ to deal with nature’s fickle whims.
And speaking of fickle whims, it’s impossible to deny that conditions make some scenes easier than others. But as much as I long for crimson sunsets, vivid rainbows, mirror reflections, and a host of other natural phenomena that can make virtually any shot feel like a slam dunk, these things are not always available when I want to make an image. For me, one of the greatest challenges is overcoming the boring (cloudless) skies that my California home is known (and loved) for. Not only do blank skies add rarely anything to a scene, they’re responsible for harsh light and the extreme dynamic range that even the best cameras struggle to handle. What’s a photographer to do?
For starters, we need to open our mind (and eyes). One of photography’s less heralded gifts is its ability, over time, to teach us to tune-in to nature’s subtleties, and how to leverage conditions that we once viewed as too difficult, into beautiful images. Fortunately, difficult doesn’t mean impossible—in fact, difficult can be downright fun. And the truth is, there are a lot of ways to overcome boring skies. Here are some suggestions:
- Shade: One of my favorite approaches to blank skies is photographing moving water, spring flowers, and fall color in full shade. While not spectacular, shade light is shadowless and easy to work with. It also makes it easy to blur water without a filter.
- Reflection: For the best reflections, look for sunlit subjects (the brighter the better) reflecting in still, shaded water.
- Sunstar: Any time the sun’s up, a sunstar is a readily available addition option for spicing up your scene. Position yourself so all but a small sliver of sun is blocked by an opaque object (such as a tree, rock, or the horizon), dial your f-stop to f/16 or smaller. Note that some lenses deliver sharper, more defined sunstars than others, and in general, wide lenses work best, especially primes and high quality zooms.
- Silhouette: Blank skies at sunrise and sunset are a great opportunity to create silhouettes that emphasize color and shape by eliminating everything in the scene except color and shape. Better still, incorporating a crescent moon (which always rises just before the sun, and sets just after the sun), can take silhouette scenes to the next level.
- Stars: Don’t forget the night sky. Often when I’m disappointed by a lack of clouds at a nice location, I just wait until dark and photograph the scene by moon- or starlight.
- Black and white and infrared: While I don’t photograph B&W and infrared, they are wonderful techniques for dealing with harsh midday light.
Given their frequency, I’ve become pretty good at making the best of blue sky days in Yosemite. While last month’s Yosemite Waterfalls and Dogwood photo workshop did enjoy a few clouds, we also dealt with a fair amount of blank skies. For our first sunrise we photographed silhouettes and a rising crescent moon. And later in the workshop we spent a couple of hours photographing dogwood in the shade (mixed with a little sunlight) in the Fern Springs / Pohono Bridge area. But I think my favorite blue sky shoot came at Cathedral Beach on the workshop’s penultimate afternoon.
Cathedral Beach is an up-close view of El Capitan right on the Merced River. The low and slow flow of autumn makes a glassy reflection here, and in the months closer to the winter solstice, when the sun is farther south, all of El Capitan gets spectacular late afternoon light. But by mid-spring the river rushes and swirls with snowmelt, and the sun has moved so far north that only El Capitan’s west-facing wall gets late sunlight. But as you can see, all is not lost.
Viewing El Capitan from Cathedral Beach that afternoon, the first thing to catch my eye was the gorgeous light etching the otherwise shaded granite’s vertical plunge. No less spectacular was the brilliant backlight illuminating the cottonwood and grass across the river and reflecting color in the river.
I pulled out my (brand new!) Sony A1 and pondered my lens choice. Since capturing all of El Capitan from this location requires something wider than 24mm, I’d normally go with my Sony 16-35 GM or 12-24 GM lens here. But with no clouds and most of El Capitan in shade, I really wanted to eliminate the sky, most of the granite, and the less interesting surrounding foliage, so I reached for my Sony 24-105G lens.
This scene worked as a horizontal or vertical, but I finally zeroed in on the vertical composition because it was the best way to distill the scene down to its essentials: El Capitan’s edge light, the backlit foliage, the reflection, and the gold-flecked riverbed beneath parallel ripples. I moved along the riverbank until all this good stuff aligned with the set of grassy mounds catching light in the near foreground. I wanted front-to-back sharpness, so I stopped down to f/16 and focused on the most distant of the foreground mounds. And even though I didn’t have a mirror surface, I dialed the reflection up with my polarizer to add a little color to the river.
In Yosemite it’s hard to take a bad picture, but some are more rewarding than others. While I doubt it will be one of those images that goes viral, this image makes me especially happy because finding it and assembling all the components took a little creative effort.
The Cure for Blank Skies
Posted on May 1, 2022
It doesn’t take much time with my images to figure out that I love photographing the moon. Large or small, full or crescent, it doesn’t really matter. Almost every one of my moon images is the product of plotting the time of its arrival (or departure), then making sure I’m there to photograph it. Using astronomical tables and topo map software, I’ve been doing this for more than 15 years—long before the availability of the astronomy apps that tremendously simplify the process with pretty decent accuracy. And while I recommend these (new fangled) apps to everyone who wants to photograph anything celestial above a particular terrestrial scene, I still do it the old fashioned way for no other reason than it’s more fun. But, as much as I’d love to tell you that I plotted this moonrise from last Wednesday morning in Yosemite, I have to admit that this one was largely a matter of just happening to be in the right place at the right time (aided by just a dash of advance knowledge).
Yosemite Valley is not a great sunrise location because nearly all of its vistas face east, which means photographing towering monoliths in full shade (the sun’s behind them), against the brightest part of the sky. We always hope for clouds to add color to the sky and subdue some of the sun’s brightness, but too frequently end up with blank skies.
Nevertheless, in most of my Yosemite photo workshops I take my group to Tunnel View for our first sunrise. I choose Tunnel View for that first sunrise because when clouds aren’t present, we can still turn the distinctive outlines of El Capitan, Half Dome, and Cathedral Rocks into silhouettes. Not only does this give my students the opportunity to create something a little different than the standard Yosemite image, it’s also a good way to get them thinking about photographing the way their camera sees rather than the way their eyes see (a real point of emphasis in my workshops).
My Yosemite Waterfalls and Dogwood workshop was scheduled to (fingers crossed) coincide with the park’s peak spring runoff and dogwood bloom, which usually happens around May 1 (+/- a week or two). This year I chose the last week of April because I’d rather be a little early for the dogwood than a little late, and to avoid the weekend crowds. Though I hadn’t considered the crescent moon when I scheduled it, as the workshop approached I checked and saw that on our first morning an 11% crescent would rise nearly 90 minutes before sunrise. Unfortunately, this moon aligned poorly with all of Yosemite’s icons, and to be visible at all would need to climb above the much higher walls southeast of Tunnel View. On the other hand, I saw that the crescent would be trailing a nice planetary alignment that included Mars, Venus, and Jupiter—maybe not great to photograph, but pretty nice to see.
When we arrived the sky was dark enough to enjoy the planets, but there was no sign of the moon. As feared, there were no clouds, so after getting my group going with their silhouettes, I started thinking about the moon again. Knowing that it was almost directly beneath Jupiter, about 1 1/2 times the distance separating Venus and Jupiter, I was able to pretty closely approximate where the moon would rise. And I realized that when it did rise, the sky would still be plenty dark enough.
I let my group know what would be happening and quickly ran to my car to grab my tripod, Sony a7RIV, Sony 200-600 G lens, and Sony 2X Teleconverter. Zooming my lens all the way out to 1200mm (go big or go home), I trained it on the small tree on the far left of this image and waited. The moon actually appeared just slightly left of the target tree, close enough that I didn’t need to recompose. The ridge here was so steep that it took more than 10 minutes for the moon to completely separate, creating the illusion that it was sliding uphill. merge
The most exciting part of this otherwise serene morning came when a commercial jet zipped into the scene, contrail trailing, and someone realized it was on a collision course with the moon. What ensued was a brief scramble to photograph the collision. Thwarted by my 2-second timer (a further reminder why I don’t photograph anything that moves), I got nothing but contrail, but at least two in the group got the moon/jet convergence.
A Crescent Moon Gallery
Posted on April 24, 2022
Our lives revolve around relationships: romance, family, friends, work, pets…. Even that clown who cut you off on the freeway, for a few brief (I hope) seconds, might just be the most powerful influence in your life.
Like most words in the English language, “relationship” can mean more than one thing. On the macro scale are the specific personal connections that matter to us—not just people, but also places, things (I actually love my new dishwasher), music, sports teams, and so on. On a micro scale, we have spacial juxtapositions that can be either planned or random, and the realization that it’s possible to draw a straight line relating any two objects on Earth (or in the Universe, for that matter).
I know this isn’t first time I’ve written about relationships (it won’t be the last), but they’re very important to photography because they play a significant role in literally every image we capture. My image choices are very much determined my relationship with my subjects, while my images’ ability to connect with others is a function of the relationships, both conscious and unconscious, they tap in the minds of my viewers.
In addition to finding those personal connections, as I wrote in last week’s post, spacial relationships that connect visual elements and guide the eye have the power to move viewers’ through the frame (good), pull them out of the frame (bad), and to signal viewers what it is they’re supposed to see and do in the image (good).
Laying the foundation
In this image from the final shoot of last week’s Yosemite workshop, it’s easy to see how all those relationship factors combine to create an image. It all starts with a life-long relationship with Yosemite that predates my oldest memories. Campfires, hiking, the Firefall, bear watching, transient friendships with kids in nearby campsites, fishing with my dad, are all among the many vivid contributors to my Yosemite memory mosaic.
My love of the night sky is related (there’s that word again) to this Yosemite connection, and started just a few years later. Its seeds, sown on summer nights falling asleep beneath a sky full of stars on family camping trips, germinated with my first telescope when I was 9 or 10, and flourished under the dark skies of the High Sierra backcountry.
Putting it all together
When I started getting serious about photography, my love for (and proximity to) Yosemite made it the ideal place to start. It’s hard to take a bad picture in Yosemite, so at first I was content with my own version of the more conventional scenes seen in postcards, calendars, and travel brochures.
Soon I grew to appreciate the importance of light, and started timing my Yosemite visits around the best opportunities for sunrise/sunset color, warm light, and waterfall rainbows—my first conscious attempts to create relationships between fixed terrestrial subjects and ephemeral natural conditions. This epiphany led to the realization that instead of being satisfied with great light on Half Dome, a tumbling cascade, or mirror reflection, why not accent the scene with fall color or elegant dogwood? Whether not I was conscious of it at the time, I’d gone all-in on creating my own visual relationships: disparate elements connected in a shared moment.
Incorporating the night sky came later, but at some point I realized that, while a Yosemite sunset is nice, a Yosemite sunset that includes the moon might be especially nice. Suddenly I found myself obsessively calculating and logging the horizontal and vertical angles at every conceivable Yosemite vista, and plotting the moon’s altitude and azimuth to determine when and where it would appear above Yosemite Valley. (This was long before the days of the Photographer’s Ephemeris, Photo Pills, and other tools of that ilk.)
Back to the present
Somehow, that long and continuous thread lead me and my workshop group to the Bridalveil Fall vista on Big Oak Flat Road in Yosemite last Friday evening. More than a year earlier, I’d plotted this moonrise and scheduled a workshop to photograph it—among other things, like the moonbow beneath Lower Yosemite Fall and the poppy bloom in the Merced River Canyon.
But simply planning for a relationship doesn’t make it so. This year’s poppy bloom was a complete swing-and-miss, and clouds dogged our entire workshop, wiping out our moonbow.
But all was not lost. The clouds made for spectacular skies, while the sun came out enough for the group to capture a variety of waterfall rainbows on Bridalveil and Yosemite Falls. And there was enough water in Tenaya Creek to justify the 1 1/2 mile hike up to Mirror Lake for the Half Dome Reflection. We even got to photograph the earliest dogwood that had just started to pop out near Valley View, an unexpected treat.
And I still had one relationship ace up my sleeve: the moonrise on our final night. As often happens in Yosemite, the Friday forecast was frustratingly noncommittal: partly sunny. So it’s no wonder my moonrise optimism waxed and waned all day as the sky wavered between blue (yay!) and gray (boo!).
I’d figured that the moon would appear above Leaning Tower (above and just right of Bridalveil Fall) at around 7:15 p.m., so I got the group in place about 7:00. Even though we had more clouds than sky, a small gap on the western horizon let just enough sun through to spotlight Bridalveil Fall. There was even enough of an opening above the fall to give me hope that we’d see the moonrise right on schedule, and I set up my (brand new!) Sony a1 with the Sony 200-600 lens and 2X Teleconverter in anticipation. But by the time 7:15 arrived, that window had slammed shut.
The next opportunity was another opening in the clouds about 2 degrees higher, and I kept my eyes on it knowing the moon would probably rise into it around 7:25—about 10 minutes before sunset. With the moon higher, I set aside the a1 and 200-600 in favor of (one of) my Sony a7RIVs and my Sony 24-105. As I watched the small patch of blue sky, I realized it was shrinking, further delaying (and threatening to completely wipe out) the moon’s appearance.
We experienced brief euphoria when the moon finally peeked above the clouds at around 7:30, just long enough to capture 2 frames that had it more than 1/2 visible. Then it was gone.
I still faced a 4-hour drive home, but since the clouds were changing so fast and we were already there, I decided not to call the workshop quite yet. About 20 minutes later, right at the tail end of the window when there’s still enough light to capture detail in the moon and foreground (with one click), I was starting to consider pulling the plug for good when a small bright patch got my attention. Suddenly the clouds parted just long enough for me to grab 2 more frames that included most of the moon, before snapping shut for good.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on April 18, 2022
Put me firmly in the camp of those who prefer reading the book to watching the movie. Watching a movie, my gaze is fixed as the scene unfurls before my eyes at a predetermined pace—if something requires scrutiny or triggers my imagination, I have to pause or rewind (often not an option—or at the very least, a source of irritation to others in the room). Reading a book, I’m free to pause, ponder, revisit, and imagine to my heart’s content.
This ability to control the pace of my relationship with the world may explain why I prefer still photography to video capture. Acknowledging that video provides expressive opportunities that still photography can’t, I can’t help but think the power of still photography is under-appreciated.
One important distinction is that the motion in a video is applied by the medium; in a still image, the source of the motion is my own eyes. And while a video dictates the pace of my relationship with the scene, entering the world of a photograph gives my eyes the freedom to linger and explore the scene’s nooks and crannies, to savor its nuances at my own pace.
This still photography bias could be explained by the fact that in virtually all aspects of my life, “think fast” is rarely my default response. Rather, given a choice, I prefer analysis and comprehension to instant reaction. This evaluate-first mindset might also explain why my favorite sport is baseball (which many consider “too slow”), and why I prefer chess and Scrabble to video games (the last video game I played was Pong).
So I guess it should be no surprise that, as a landscape photographer, my subjects don’t move. I love having the time to craft a scene—to position myself, frame my subjects, and manage the exposure variables (that control motion, light, and depth)—confident that when I’m finally ready, my subject will still be there.
But, as we all know (and as Spider-Man reminded us), with great power comes great responsibility. To succeed, we photographers must be sensitive to our viewer’s experience. Is it clear what the picture is a about? Is there a place for the eye to land, and/or a path for the eye to follow?
Just plopping the viewer of an image into the scene without any clues about what to do there is an invitation to a quick exit. Which is why I try in every image to include visual signals to guide my viewer’s eye and make it as clear as possible what they’re supposed to be doing in the world I’m offering. And once they’re there and have examined whatever it is I’m trying to show them, they’re much more inclined to explore further and discover more of the scene’s subtleties.
Visual signals can take many forms. One popular device that I very consciously try not to think about is “leading lines.” Not because I think they’re inherently bad or wrong, but because we’ve heard about them to the point of eye-glazing cliché, and I fear that many photographers (and photography contest judges) have given them too much power—at the expense of other similarly, or even more, important factors. I’m not saying that my images don’t use leading lines, I’m just saying that I only use them when they work organically, without conscious thought.
That said, I am drawn to diagonals—a rock, shoreline, leaning tree trunk, fallen log, and so on. While these diagonals can indeed connect objects and lead viewers’ eyes, I’m more interested in the diagonal’s power to simultaneously move the viewers’ eyes across two planes of my scene: up/down and left/right.
And any line, whether horizontal, vertical, or diagonal doesn’t need to be an actual visible line—virtual lines work too. To understand the concept of a virtual line, I think in terms of visual “visual weight”: any object in my frame that, by virtue of its mass, brightness, position, or some other quality that creates enough visual gravity to pull a viewer’s eye in its direction. I try to avoid visually heavy objects that pull the eye away from the important parts of my frame, and to pair visually heavy objects that the viewer can subconsciously connect into a virtual line.
Another visual aid that I sometimes employ is a virtual frame—some object within the boundaries of my actual frame that holds my viewer’s eye in the scene, or nudges it it back into the scene the way the cushion on a pool table bumps the ball back into the action.
About this image
In last week’s Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers workshop (in which we got neither moonbows or wildflowers, but nevertheless enjoyed absolutely spectacular photography conditions), we made the 1 1/2 mile walk up to Mirror Lake. This is one of those hikes that’s as much about the journey as it is about the destination. Along the way I kept my eyes peeled for opportunities to pair Half Dome with churning Tenaya Creek. With Half Dome virtually straight up, of the way I was thwarted by the dense forest canopy, but as the trail steepened for its final ascent to the lake, I found a small gap I thought might work.
After climbing down among the jumbled boulders separating the trail from the creek, I pulled out my Sony a7RIV and attached my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens. While my Sony 16-35 GM would probably have worked here, I loved the extra room the 12-24 gave me to compose this scene that was beautiful from top to bottom.
With a little scrambling I was able to frame Half Dome with a pair of leaning tree trunks, dropping low to avoid blocking any of its face with a rogue branch. Not only did the leaning trunks provide a nice diagonal to move the eye, they also created a virtual frame to hold the eye in the scene. From my position I was also able to use the rushing creak to create a second diagonal. At 12mm, I was able to include many of the nearby rocks, the closest of which were no more than 2 feet away. These rocks made a great virtual frame across the bottom of the scene.
At 12mm and f/16, I knew I had plenty of focus wiggle room to achieve full front-to-back sharpness, and focused on a rock just a couple of feet into my scene. I wanted to put a slight blur in the water, but the 12-24 isn’t really filter-friendly (it can be done, but requires an expensive and awkward filter system that I haven’t found enough need for), so I couldn’t use a neutral density filter. Fortunately, the water here is so fast that the amount of blur I wanted wouldn’t be a problem. Turns ISO 50 and f/16 gave me enough blur to smooth the motion without losing its definition, exactly what I wanted.
It’s always interesting when I discover that I’d photographed a seemingly random scene before and used a similar composition. On the one hand, it’s a reminder to be careful not to get in a compositional rut, but on the other hand, it’s a confirmation that my compositional process is not random and likely reflective of my personal style.
One more thing
It’s interesting to compare these two images, capture almost exactly 5 years apart. The first one used 13mm, while last week’s was 12mm. The angle of view was similar but not identical, and I was closer to the creek in the first shot. The biggest difference between the two is the amount of sky and the amount of motion blur. Though I have no specific memory of my thoughts when I approach the earlier image, I know my process well enough to know exactly why they’re different. In the early image the sky was lousy (blank blue), and I composed to minimize it; in last week’s image I had clouds that were nice enough to justify including them. And the early image came after sunset (as I was walking back from Mirror Lake), so it was dark enough that it would have been very difficult to get anything but completely blurred water in the extremely fast (and much higher) creek.
Moving the Eye
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.