Reflecting on the Polarizer

Gary Hart Photography: Aspen Autumn Reflection, Bishop Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Aspen Autumn Reflection, Bishop Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/5 second
F/16
ISO 200

Who else loves reflections? I don’t know about you, but I love photographing them, and even without a camera, I just love staring at them. Part of a reflection’s power is its ability to engage the brain in different ways than we’re accustomed: Rather than processing the scene directly, we first must mentally reassemble the reverse world of a reflection, and in the process perhaps see the scene a little differently. And in a photo, a nice reflection simply introduces a soothing calmness.

So if reflections are so great, why do I spend almost my entire photography life with a filter designed to remove reflections? I’m talking about the polarizer, which I have on nearly all my lenses and rarely remove, except at night (and maybe a small handful of other situations). But truth be told, most reflections in nature aren’t the glassy water we picture when we think of reflections, they’re a distracting sheen that create distracting glare and wash out color on rocks, foliage, and water. And that’s where the polarizers comes in.

Polarizer 101

Put simply, a polarizer removes reflections.

As powerful as today’s image processing software is, one landscape-essential filter that can’t be added after the shot is the polarizer. Valued by inexperienced photographers only for darkening blue skies, more serious photographers value their polarizers more for their ability to remove the sheen that desaturates color, hides submerged objects, and flattens texture.

Even worse than not appreciating their polarizer’s power, some photographers screw on a polarizer without understanding how it works, mistakenly believing that merely having a polarizer on their lens is sufficient. The amount of polarization a composition calls for is a creative decision that can make or break an image. And unfortunately, a mis-oriented polarizer can be worse than no polarizer.

This won’t be on the test

So what does a polarizer do?

If you’re like me, it helps to understand that a wave of light oscillates (vibrates) perpendicular to its direction of motion. A real world example of this kind of motion is the way a wave in the middle of the ocean rises and falls as it advances: while the wave moves forward, the water moves up and down.

A wave of light is much more complex than an ocean wave, oscillating in every possible direction perpendicular to its direction of motion. For example, to represent the direction of motion, imagine a string connecting a light source to the subject it illuminates. To understand the wave’s oscillation, picture the string moving not only up/down, but also left/right and every other angle perpendicular to the direction the wave moves.

And still one more way to view this motion would be to visualize a beam of light (or our string) passing through the center of a spoked wheel, where the axle would be. Each of the spoke pairs (one on each side of the light beam) would represent a direction the wave would oscillate, and there could be an infinite number of spoke pairs.

In very simple terms, polarized light is light that has all but one of its planes of oscillation removed. So returning to our spoked wheel, we’d be left only with the light that oscillates in the direction of one of the spoke pairs.

Without getting too deep (or at least any deeper) into the weeds, a polarizing filter eliminates reflections by removing the light that carries reflections back to our eyes. Polarization (reflection reduction) is most effective when your lens points 90 degrees (perpendicular) to the direction of the sun or other light source; it is least effective when the lens points directly toward or away from the sun.

Polarizers come in two flavors, linear and circular (the designation has to do with the way the polarizer achieves its effect, not the shape of the filter). For today’s digital cameras, you want to use a circular polarizer (which is almost certainly what you’ll be sold if you ask for a polarizer). Most polarizers are comprised of two connected pieces: a circular threaded frame that screws onto your lens’s threads, and an attached piece of polarizing glass (in its own circular frame) that rotates independently of threaded frame. Rotating the polarizer’s glass element relative to the fixed lens varies the orientation, and therefore the amount of polarization. You can see the polarization effect (sometimes large, sometimes small) through your viewfinder or on your live-view LCD.

What a polarizer does for you

With reflections minimized by a polarizer, pale blue sky is transformed to a deeper blue, glare is removed from rocks and foliage to reveal underlying color and texture, reflections are removed from water to expose submerged features, and clouds that were barely visible suddenly snap into prominence. Or imagine mountains reflected in a still alpine lake: As you rotate your polarizer, the reflection is replaced by rocks and leaves dotting the lakebed; keep turning and the reflection returns.

So what’s the catch?

Lost light

A polarizer costs you one to two stops of exposure, depending on the polarizer and the amount of polarization you dial in. Since aperture manages depth and is often non-negotiable, landscape photographers usually compensate for the lost light with a longer shutter speed—one more reason to use a tripod. If motion is a concern, the next best way to compensate for lost light is to increase the ISO.

Differential polarization

Because a polarizer’s effect varies with the direction of the light, and wide lenses cover a broad field of view, light arrives at different parts of a wide scene from different angles. The result is “differential polarization”: parts of the scene that are more polarized than others.

Differential polarization is particularly troublesome in the sky, appearing as an unnatural transition from light to dark blue across a single frame. This effect can often be reduced, but rarely eliminated, with careful dodging and burning in Photoshop. Better yet, avoid images with lots of (boring) blue sky.

Vignetting

A standard polarizer is comprised of a circle of polarized glass mounted in a frame that screws into, and rotates relative to, the fixed lens beneath. Most also include an outer ring with threads for attaching other filters. The field of view of ultra-wide lenses can be so great that, at their wider focal lengths, they include the polarizer’s frame: vignetting. Polarizer vignetting manifests as dark edges on your images, particularly at the corners.

Most of the best polarizer manufacturers offer a low-profile version that mitigates vignetting. Low profile polarizers are more money (oh well), usually require a special lens cap (a minor annoyance), and don’t have external threads (not an issue for me).

Me and my polarizer(s)

Always on

Since I’m all about simplicity in the field, and determining whether or not I need a polarizer and then adding or removing it as needed is more trouble than it’s worth, each lens in my bag has its own polarizer that rarely comes off during daylight hours. I remove my polarizer only when I need more light, want to use a neutral density filter (I don’t like stacking filters), or if I’m concerned about differential polarization.

But. Shooting with no polarizer is better than using an incorrectly oriented polarizer. If you’re going to follow my “always on” polarizer approach, you must be diligent about rotating the polarizer and checking its effect on each composition, or risk doing more harm than good to your image. This is especially important if you change a composition’s orientation between horizontal and vertical.

Protection

Like many photographers, I always use a filter as protection for my front lens element; unlike many photographers, I don’t use UV or skylight filters. While it’s possible to stack a polarizer atop a UV or skylight filter, I don’t. Instead, because it never comes off, my polarizer doubles as protection for the front lens element.

Given that my polarizers are in the $200 range, this gets a little expensive when a filter “takes one for the team,” but it’s cheaper than replacing an entire lens, and more desirable than stacking superfluous glass between my subject and my sensor, not to mention the vignetting stacking causes. On the other hand, I will use a graduated neutral density filter with a polarizer, because GNDs serve a specific (not superfluous) need that doesn’t disappear when a polarizer is added.

The polarizer and lens hoods

To those photographers who complain that it’s a real pain to rotate a polarizer with a lens hood in the way, I have a simple solution: remove the lens hood. I never use a lens hood. Ever. This is blasphemy to many photographers, but I hate lens hoods, which always seem to be in the way (see my “simplicity in the field” comment above). But (there’s that word again), jettisoning the lens hood must come with the understanding that lens flare is real and usually impossible to entirely correct after the fact.

When there’s a chance direct sunlight will strike my front lens element, I check to see if shielding the lens helps. With my composition ready (on my tripod!), I peer through my viewfinder and shade my lens with my hand or hat (or whatever handheld shade is handy). If shading my lens makes the scene darker and more contrasty, and/or eliminates lens flare (random fragments of light), I know I must shield my lens while exposing. Of course if the sun is in my composition, no shading in the world (or lens hood) will eliminate the lens flare.

Polarizer techniques

Polarizer on a budget

All scenes don’t benefit equally from a polarizer, and photographers on a budget can’t always afford one for every lens. If you’re only going to go with one polarizer, buy one for your largest lens, and step-up rings for each lens thread size. Or you could simply hand-hold the larger polarizer in front of the smaller lens (as long as you’re on a tripod).

Does this scene call for a polarizer?

To determine the polarizer’s effect, rotate the outer element 360 degrees as you peer through your viewfinder (or view the LCD in live-view). Often just holding the polarizer to your eye while you look in the direction of your composition and rotating it slowly is enough to determine its benefit.

Unless I’m trying to maximize a reflection, I rotate the polarizer until the scene appears darkest. If there’s no apparent change, I watch specific objects that might have a slight sheen (water, a leaf, or a rock) as I rotate the polarizer—I can almost always find some change. Shooting with a mirrorless camera, I have the benefit of a histogram in my viewfinder. Sometimes when I can’t detect a difference with my eye, I slowly turn my polarizer as I watch the histogram, looking for the histogram to shift slightly to the left (or my highlight alert “zebras” shrink). If you can’t see any change as you rotate your polarizer, you probably don’t need to worry about orienting the polarizer.

It’s not just for the sky

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Reflection, North Lake, Eastern Sierra

Autumn Reflection, North Lake, Eastern Sierra

As nice as the the effect on the sky is, it’s the polarizer’s more subtle ability to reduce glare in overcast or shade that I find irreplaceable. Peering through your viewfinder, lock your eyes on a reflective surface and rotate the polarizer. The effect is most obvious on water, or wet rocks and leaves, but even when completely dry, most rocks and leaves have a discernible sheen. As you rotate the polarizer, harsh glare is replaced by natural color and texture; continue rotating and the glare reappears.

Usually my goal is to dial in maximum polarization, but if I’m photographing a reflection, I turn the polarizer until the reflection peaks. And there’s no rule that requires you to turn the polarizer to one extreme or anther (maximum or minimum reflection). Sometimes I want a little reflection plus a little submerged lake or river detail. In these situations I rotate the outer element slowly and watch the scene change, stopping when I achieve the desired effect. In my North Lake autumn reflection scene, I was able to find a midpoint in the polarization that kept the best part of the reflection (the mountains and trees), while still revealing the submerged granite rocks at my feet.

Floating Leaves, Merced River, Yosemite

In the image of autumn leaves floating in the Merced River, I used my polarizer to completely dial down the reflection, creating the illusion of leaves suspended in empty space. Polarizing away the reflection also helped the leaves’ color stand out by eliminating distracting glare.

Redbud, Merced River

An emergency neutral density filter

A polarizer can also be used as a two-stop neutral density filter by dialing it to maximum polarization (minimum light). In this image of a redbud above the surging Merced River, even at ISO 100 and f32, I couldn’t reach the 3/4 second shutter speed that would give me the motion blur I wanted. But the two stops of light I lost to my polarizer was just enough to snow my shutter speed enough to blur the water.

If you’re serious about your photography

Use only quality polarizers; you don’t need to spend a fortune, but neither should you skimp. Not only does the quality of the optics affect the quality of your results, I’ve also seen more than one poorly made polarizer simply fall apart for no apparent reason.

I advise buying polarizers that are commensurate with your lens quality—in other words, if you have top-of-the-line lenses, it makes no sense to use anything but top-of-the-line polarizers. I use Breakthrough filters because for their quality and emphasis on customer service.

My personal recipe for using a polarizer

  1. (Almost) always on
  2. No other filters except a graduated neutral density filter, when needed
  3. Compose my shot and lock it in place on my tripod
  4. Turn the polarizer to get the effect I want
  5. Check for lens flare and shield if necessary
  6. Meter the scene
  7. Click

About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Aspen Autumn Reflection, Bishop Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Aspen Autumn Reflection, Bishop Creek Canyon

This image is from the second of my two Eastern Sierra workshops earlier this month. Processing it reminded me of the struggle I had deciding how orient my polarizer, because in addition to the glassy water mirroring the colorful aspen across the pond, this scene also contained a lot of reflective sheen that I try to polarize away. What’s a photographer to do?

After a nice sunrise at North Lake, followed by another fall color stop a little down down the road, I set my workshop group free near this small retaining pond just downstream from Lake Sabrina (pronounced “sa-BRI-na,” BTW). There was so much happening here we could have spent hours, but a scene like this needs to be in full shade and the sun was slowly encroaching.

I spent most of my time with a few others in the group, drawn to this mirror reflection of gold aspen with parallel white trunks. After playing with a few different compositions, I ended up concentrating on a pair of leaves clinging to protruding rock as a foreground anchor. I chose a vertical composition largely to eliminate an unsightly stump jutting into the middle of the pond. Sometimes features like that can be the anchor I look for, but everyone working the scene agreed that it was more of a bulky blob than a viable visual element. The top of the frame was limited by the encroaching sunlight—any higher and I’d have had an unwieldy mix of shade and sunlight. And I put the bottom of the frame just above the muddy shore.

As soon as I identified my composition, it became apparent that my biggest problem was going to be what to do with my polarizer. This scene was all about the spectacular reflection, but the rock, leaves, and (especially) blue sky were all washed out by reflections from the bright sky overhead. If I turned my polarizer to maximize the reflection, I also maximize the sheen; turning the polarizer to minimize the sheen also significantly dulled the tree reflection.

My solution was to turn the polarizer slowly, with my eye on my view finder, watching the reflection increase, and stopping just as it reached the rock. The result was a workable compromise—not quite as flat in the close foreground as it would have been had I gone all-in with the polarization, and not quite as vivid as the reflection would have been if I’d have dialed it all the way up (minimal polarization). But my compromise gave me enough to work with in post, dodging (brightening) the “good” reflection, and burning (darkening) the “bad” reflection.

Breakthrough Filters


More Reflections

Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.

The Colors of Autumn

Gary Hart Photography: Aspen Carpet, Lundy Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Aspen Carpet, Lundy Canyon, Eastern Sierra
Sony a7RIV
Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM
1/8 second
F/11
ISO 800

Few things get my heart racing more than the vivid yellows, oranges, and reds of autumn. And after missing most of last year’s fall color thanks to the double whammy of COVID and California’s extreme fire season, I was especially excited as I motored over the mountains for this year’s Eastern Sierra workshops.

Of course as much as I love it, this trip doesn’t come without its anxiety (that’s just how it is when people pay you to deliver a workshop featuring something as unpredictable as fall color). On the other hand (I reassured myself), there’s a whole lot more to the Eastern Sierra than colorful trees (waterfalls, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, the ancient bristlecone pines, Mono Lake, and Half Dome from Olmsted Point in Yosemite). Plus, with Eastern Sierra elevations ranging from 4,000 to 10,000 feet (even higher if you don’t mind hiking), finding yellow (and occasionally orange and red) aspen from late-September through October is usually just a matter of changing elevation. Nevertheless, I have a few favorite autumn locations I love sharing with my groups, and it’s impossible to know in advance whether the color there will be early, peaking, or past peak.

The truth is, timing of the fall color peak is fraught with mystery and misconception. Show up at the lake where someone in your camera club said the color was peaking at this time last year, and you might find the trees displaying lime green, mixed with faint hints of yellow and orange. When you check in to the lakeside inn and ask the old guy behind the counter inn what happened to the color, he shakes his head and says matter-of-factly, “The color’s late this year—it hasn’t gotten cold enough yet.” Arriving at the same inn on the same weekend the following year, you find just a handful of tattered leaves clinging to mostly bare branches—this time the old guy hands you your keynd proclaims, “That freeze a couple of weeks ago got the color started early this year—you should have been here last week.”

While these explanations may sound reasonable, they’re not entirely accurate. The truth is, the why and when of fall color is complicated, and armchair experts resort to memory, anecdote, and lore to fill knowledge voids with partial truth and downright myth. But while we still can’t predict fall color the way we do the weather, science does provide pretty good insights of the fall color process upon which to base our plans.

A tree’s color

The leaves of deciduous trees contain a mix of green, yellow, and orange pigments. During the spring and summer growing season, the volume and intensity of the green chlorophyl pigment overpowers the orange and yellow pigments, and the tree stays green. Even though chlorophyl is quickly broken down by sunlight, the process of photosynthesis that turns sunlight into nutrients during the long days of summer continuously replaces the spent chlorophyl.

As the days shrink toward autumn, things begin to change. Cells at the abscission layer at the base of the leaves’ stem (the knot where the leaf connects to the branch) begin the process that will eventually lead to the leaf dropping from the tree: Thickening of cells in the abscission layer blocks the transfer of carbohydrates from the leaves to the branches, and the movement of minerals to the leaves. Without these minerals, the leaves’ production of chlorophyl dwindles and finally stops, leaving just the yellow and orange pigments. Voilà—fall color!

The role of sunlight and weather

Contrary to popular belief, the timing of the onset of this fall color chain reaction depends much more on daylight than it does on temperature and weather.  Triggered by a genetically programmed day/night-duration threshold (and contrary to innkeeper-logic), the trees in any given region will commence their transition from green to fall color at about the same time each year, when the day length drops to a certain point.

Nevertheless, though it doesn’t trigger the process, weather does play a significant part in the intensity, duration, and demise of the color season. Because sunlight breaks down the green chlorophyl, cloudy days after the suspension of chlorophyl creation will slow the chlorophyl’s demise and the coloring process that follows. And while the yellow and orange pigments are present and pretty much just hanging out, waiting all summer for the chlorophyl to relinquish control of the tree’s color, that tree’s red and purple pigments are manufactured from sugar stored in the leaves—the more sugar, the more vivid a tree’s red. Ample moisture, warm days, and cool (but not freezing) nights after the chlorophyl replacement has stopped are most conducive to the creation and retention of the sugars that form the red and purple pigments.

On the other hand, freezing temperatures destroy the color pigments, bringing a premature end to the color display. Drought can stress trees so much that they drop their leaves before the color has a chance to manifest. And wind and rain can wreak havoc with the fall display—go to bed one night beneath a canopy of red and gold, and wake the next morning to find the trees bare and the ground blanketed with color.

Since the fall color factors come in a virtually infinite number of possible variations and combinations, the color timing and intensity can vary a lot from year to year. Despite expert advice that seems promise precise timing for the fall color, when planning a fall color trip, your best bet is to try to get there as close as possible to the middle of the color window, then cross your fingers.

Of course, fall color doesn’t need to be on the trees to be photogenic…

Up the creek in Lundy Canyon

Catching up from 2020, this year I did two Eastern Sierra workshops. On the second workshop’s next to the last day, I learned that an incoming storm that threatened to dump a few inches of snow on the highest elevations of the Sierra had forced the National Park Service preemptively close Tioga Pass. That meant I’d lose my Olmsted Point (Yosemite) sunset location, which forced me to improvise.

One option would be to return to Mono Lake South Tufa, but we’d just done sunset there the night before. Another option was the spectacular Minaret Vista above Mammoth, but between smoke (which had dogged us intermittently throughout the second workshop) and the incoming storm, there was no guarantee we’d even see the mountains. So I decided to move the Lundy Canyon shoot from the next morning (when it was supposed to be raining), to that night.

The road up Lundy Canyon starts at around 6500 feet and climbs to more than 8000 feet, with the last mile-and-a-half a pretty gnarly dirt road that can be navigated without high clearance if you take it slow. Lined with aspen, the road follows Mill Creek past a few small waterfalls and reflective beaver ponds. The color along most of the road normally peaks in mid/late October, but near the end of the road it can happen earlier.

We parked at the trailhead at the end of the road, about two hours before sunset. With so many options here, the group immediately scattered, some hiked 1/3 mile up the trail to the small lake behind a massive beaver dam and filled by a nice waterfall; a couple walked the short distance back down the road to another beaver pond; a few headed off into the nearby aspen.

The approaching storm provided the cloud cover we hope for when photographing fall color, but it also brought wind—not so great for fall color. I started with the group behind the beaver dam, then found my way into the aspen, where I spent a little time demonstrating my creative selective focus technique to a couple of participants.

I eventually moved deeper into the aspen, first searching for leaves or trunks to isolate against a soft background, but I hadn’t gone to far before I noticed that the entire forest floor here was blanketed with fresh aspen leaves. Hmmmm…

I added my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens to my Sony a7RIV to try something a little different. My thought was by dropping low, setting up close to the aspen, then going ultra-wide and angling slightly down, I could emphasize the white trunks and yellow leaves, and eliminate the (less attractive bare) mountainside in the background.

One thing I try to be careful about is avoiding any view of the world beyond the scene I want to photograph. By eliminating any hint of the world beyond, someone looking at this image could infer that this grove of aspen might just extend all the way to infinity. Of course that won’t be a conscious thought, but that simple exclusion makes the scene more inviting to anyone who loves the quiet and solitude of a deep forest.

Read more about photographing fall color


A Fall Color Gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.

Mono Magic

Gary Hart Photography: Red Dawn, Mono Lake

Red Dawn, Mono Lake
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
Breakthrough 6-Stop Dark polarizer
30 seconds
F/16
ISO 50

Yesterday morning I wrapped up the first of two Eastern Sierra photo workshops with a truly glorious, and unique, sunrise at Mono Lake. The prior morning the group enjoyed a nice sunrise at Mono Lake’s far more heralded South Tufa, but for the final sunrise I like to take my groups to this isolated stretch of shoreline on the north side of the lake.

How isolated? Isolated enough that we never end up at the same spot because there’s no trail or landmark to guide me—we just drive around in the dark on the lake’s network of rutted dirt roads, park the cars, and start walking until we get to the lake (the last hundred yards or so are often in shoe-sucking mud). So far, this shoot has always been a highlight of the workshop. (I do realize I could get the GPS coordinates and follow them back to the same spot if I wanted to, but varying water levels in Mono Lake changes the shoreline so much from year-to-year, it really wouldn’t make much difference anyway.)

Before this workshop started, I was very concerned about how we’d be affected by smoke from the KNP Fire, burning just over the Sierra Crest from the workshop’s starting point in Lone Pine. On Monday those fears appeared to be close to reality when, on the drive down to Lone Pine, I found most of the Sierra smothered by a smoky blanket that only seemed to thicken as I drove south.

Tuesday morning began a little clearer, and while the smoke had increased by the workshop’s start that afternoon, it wasn’t really a problem for our initial sunset shoot. Nevertheless, I had contingency plans in place if smoke threatened any of our upcoming shoots.

It turns out the weather gods were smiling upon us because the skies for Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, the bristlecone piness, fall color in Bishop Canyon, and South Tufa were completely smoke-free. But hints of smoke were in the air as we departed  for the workshop’s final sunset shoot in Yosemite, and become more dense as we ascended Tioga Pass. Our first stop was supposed to include mountains and a reflection, but all we could see was a reflection (of nearby trees). At Olmsted Point, Half Dome was just a hazy outline. Photographers are nothing if not resilient, and we made the best of the conditions by photographing the orange sun above nearby trees and glacial erratics (large granite boulders carried by glaciers and deposited in place when the glaciers retreated).

After a delicious dinner at the Mobil station in Lee Vining (I kid you not—check it out: Whoa Nellie Deli), we actually found the sky clear enough for a Milky Way shoot at Mono Lake. (More on that in a future post.) At this point the workshop had been such a success that I shouldn’t have stressed about the possibility of smoke ruining our final sunrise, but I have to admit the smoke’s return was on my mind as I fell asleep that night.

On the (extremely) bumpy drive out to Mono Lake the next morning, I could see stars overhead, with a mix of clouds and sky near the horizon—ideal conditions for a nice sunrise (fingers crossed). The world was still dark when we finished our trudge out to the lakeshore and spread out, each person searching for their own special composition (I love seeing everyone’s vision and confidence grow as a workshop progresses).

There was no wind, so the lake was nearly flat, with only a few lazy undulations disturbing the color already reflecting on its surface. Despite the darkness, I encouraged the group to start shooting immediately to take advantage of the deep red saturating the clouds on the eastern horizon. But as the light increased, I started to realize something was odd about this color, which didn’t seem to be following the standard sunrise intensity/hue curve.

Looking more closely, I realized these weren’t clouds we were photographing, it was smoke. But unlike the homogenous, view-swallowing smoke that had thwarted the previous evening’s sunset, this smoke hovered in thin bands and wisps. And rather than dull the color as smoke usually does, it seemed to intensify it. I’m sure there’s a scientific explanation for this, but I imagine it has something to do about the size and density of these particular smoke particles. In the meantime, I’ll simply appreciate the gift.

A few words about this image

The shore out here unfolds in a series of mini bays and peninsulas, most no more than 20 or 30 feet in width and/or length. The view is photographable across an arc that’s greater than 180 degrees, with the best direction depending on the light. This morning the real show was in the east, toward Paoha Island, a cinder cone formed by an eruption less than 400 years ago.

I set up with a couple other participants on a flat and dry mini-peninsula that jutted into the lake. The rest of the group was working their own little scene within easy conversational earshot (it’s spectacularly quiet out there), allowing me to call out suggestions (“Try a neutral density filter to smooth the water”) and reminders (“Don’t forget to reset your ISO from last night’s Milky Way shoot!”; “Keep an eye on the red channel of your RGB histogram”), but for the most part everyone seemed pretty focused and content.

The calm lake surface was interrupted by nearby tufa mounds and platforms that created potential visual stepping stones that could move the eye, or completely confuse it, depending on their relative position in the frame. Un-randomizing these elements into something more coherent can feel daunting, and sometimes virtually impossible. I’d worked out my own composition at my initial location, but when a couple of women in the group told me they were struggling to organize the scene into a composition that worked for them, I packed up and headed to their little cove to help.

They were probably no more than 40 straight-line feet from my previous location, but with so many nearby visual elements, their foreground was completely different than mine. First I suggested that they were too wide for their chosen location—even though the view here is expansive, there was so much going on in the foreground at this spot that I thought it would be easier to simplify with a slightly longer focal length. Rather than a 16-35, I suggested switching to a 24-70 or 24-105 lens (I chose my Sony 24-105 for my Sony a7RIV), which would allow them to eliminate all of the distractions up and down the lakeshore and concentrate on the lake itself.

Then I simply narrated my own thoughts as I evaluated the scene, starting by pointing out a nearby trio of tufa mounds that could anchor the frame. This group was just 40 feet or so into the lake, but out of the scene they’d been composing, so we moved about 10 feet to include it. I explained that this foreground anchor didn’t need to be anything special, it was just there to provide a visual starting point for the eye’s path through the frame. With the visual starting point identified, I moved around until the mid-ground tufa mounds cut diagonally across the middle of the frame, taking care that they held enough visual weight on the left to balance the distant cinder cone on the right. Finally, I zoomed to around 70mm to keep the sides of my frame free of rogue tufa mounds trying to photobomb the scene. (Live-view LCD screens, mirrorless or DSLR, are great for demonstrating composition suggestions in real time.)

My next decision was the amount of sky to include. I shared my calculus for positioning the horizon, which is largely a function of where the most visual interest lies—foreground or sky. Here, I explained that while the red smoke was spectacular, it didn’t spread across the sky, so I put the top of my frame right about where the color intensity started to fade, for a 2/1 foreground/sky ratio.

I went nuclear on the shutter speed, adding my Breakthrough 6-stop Dark Polarizer to render a 30-second shutter speed that completely smoothed all detail in the water. Then I dialed the polarizer to maximize the reflection and eliminate submerged distractions on the lakebed, just a few inches beneath the water near my feet. At 70mm I need to be careful about my focus point to keep everything from the closest tufa to the cinder cone sharp, so I stopped down to f/16 and focused on the linear mound barely sticking up behind the foreground group.

The three of us stood side-by-side, tripod legs overlapping, photographing this gorgeous sunrise. We clicked until the color faded, then repositioned slightly shortly before the sun peaked up from behind the left diagonal of the cinder cone, allowing us to finish with a series of beautiful sunstars. Such a great way to finish a workshop.

I just scheduled my 2022 Eastern Sierra workshop a month ago, and it’s already half full


More Mono Magic

Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.

Frozen in Time

Gary Hart Photography: Lightning Strike, Brahma Temple, Grand Canyon
Lightning Strike, Brahma Temple, Grand Canyon

Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/4 second
F/8
ISO 250

I’ve always been intrigued by still photos’ ability to reveal aspects of the natural world that are missed by human vision.  A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the camera’s ability to, through long exposures, blur motion and reveal unseen patterns in moving water. And last week I shared an image that used a long exposure to capture the Milky Way above crashing Hawaiian surf, a 20-second exposure that blurred that explosive wave action into a gauzy haze.

But I think my favorite still image motion effect is probably freezing a lightning bolt—an ephemeral phenomenon that comes and goes so quickly that it is already a memory before it even registers to my brain. The thrill of seeing a lightning strike always delivers a jolt of adrenalin, but it’s not until I can spend time with an image that froze it in time that I appreciate all that happens in a lightning bolt. Multiple prongs, meandering patterns, delicate filaments—each bolt seems to have a personality of its own.

For me, the holy grail of lightning captures is the splash of light that occurs at the primary bolt’s instant of contact with terra firma. Not only is getting the precise timing difficult, the strike also needs to be fairly close, and on a surface that’s angled to face my vantage point.

The lightning in this image checked those boxes, striking just a couple of miles away on the diagonal slope of Brahma Temple facing me. It was one of many lightning strikes captured on the second day of my first (of three) Grand Canyon monsoon workshops earlier this summer. On the day prior we’d had a nice lightning shoot just as the workshop started, but the storm that afternoon had moved parallel to the rim, staying near the South Rim, at least ten miles away.

This afternoon’s storm started in more or less the same area of the South Rim, but crossed the canyon, approaching less than two miles from where my group had set up on the view decks outside Grand Canyon Lodge. Protected beneath an array of lightning rods, and just a few feet from the safety of the fully enclosed lodge Sunroom, this spot is the location of some of my workshop groups’ closest lightning encounters. This afternoon was added to that list.

I usually prefer photographing lightning that’s across the rim, distant enough that we often don’t hear the thunder. At most locations, when the lightning gets as close as it got this afternoon, I’ve already rounded people up and herded them indoors or to the relative safety of the cars. But here I have (barely) enough cellular service to monitor the distance of each strike with my lightning app, and keep everyone apprised of its proximity, so they can make their own call on when to retreat.

Preparing to photograph lightning is a matter of setting up my tripod with my camera and Lightning Trigger, composing a frame that includes the area most likely to receive the next bolt, focusing and metering the scene, then standing back and waiting for the strike (not unlike fishing).

If everything is set up correctly, lightning photography a hands-off endeavor—when it senses lightning, my Lightning Trigger fires my camera’s shutter, then just waits patiently to do it again with the next lightning. So when this bolt hit, I wasn’t even with my camera—I was checking with others in my group. When it struck, it was the closest we’d seen so far. It was also farther to the left than any previous strike—so far, in fact, that I wasn’t even sure it was in my frame.

It wasn’t until I was processing my images that I found that I had indeed captured it. Not only that, this bolt struck close enough, on an exposed surface that was in perfect view for me to capture the precise point of contact in all of its glory. Unfortunately, it was on the far left side of my horizontal frame. This is when I appreciate having my Sony a7RIV, probably the best lightning camera made today. Not only do the Sony bodies have the fastest shutter lag (the time it take for the shutter to respond after receiving the instruction to fire), but 61 megapixels provides a crazy amount of latitude for cropping.

I usually like to get my crop right before capture, but I sometimes need to make an exception when photographing lightning, because I’m never sure where in the frame the lightning will land. In this case, having my lightning strike so close to the left side of a horizontal frame made the image feel very off-balance. To fix the problem, I simply turned it into a vertical composition, eliminating everything on the right 2/3 or the original composition. But with 61 megapixels to play with, the final product was still more than 25 megapixels—more than enough for pretty much all of my uses, including large prints.

Read my tutorial on photographing lightning


Frozen in Time

Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.

 

Confessions of a Happy Photographer

Gary Hart Photography: Heaven and Earth, Milky Way Over the Puna Coast, Hawaii

Heaven and Earth, Milky Way Over the Puna Coast, Hawaii
Sony a7SIII
Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM
ISO 6400
f/1.8
20 seconds

More than anything else, photography needs to make you happy. When photography was my hobby, that wasn’t really a problem—I photographed what I wanted, where I wanted, when I wanted, with no pressure to please anyone else. Pretty nice. But, as I mulled turning photography into my livelihood (nearly 20 years ago!), I couldn’t help thinking about the photographers who had become unhappy after turning their passion into their profession. Suddenly their choices were fueled not by their own creative juices, but rather by their need to pay the bills.

So one of the promises I made to myself when I decided to pursue photography as a career was that I’d only photograph what I want to photograph. Over the years that approach has evolved to cover more than just subject choices—it also applies to my overall approach to photography, from capture through processing, all the way to what I share and how I share it. So I think a more accurate way of expressing my personal key to photography happiness would be that I photograph to please no one but myself.

It’s personal

When you look at one of my images, you’re viewing a subject that resonates with me personally (while I don’t think every photographer can say that, I also don’t think this makes me unique). That personal connection is why most of my images feature some version of the natural processes that have always fascinated me, camera or not: weather and its many manifestations (such as clouds, rainbows, lightning, and snow), geology (like mountains, volcanism, and the other natural processes of landscape building), and of course all things celestial. Communicating that connection is also why I virtually never share an image without writing something about it and/or the natural processes at play.

This need for connection to my subjects also influences my personal photography rules—not the same “rules” that guide and constrain aspiring photographers, but my own rules for what and how I photograph. Rules like natural light only (no light painting, flash, or any other artificial light), and no arranging of subjects in my scene, and so on.

One and done

A big personal rule for me is one-click capture. Though I never really felt much nostalgia for the color transparencies I shot for over 25 years, I’m still driven by a film photographer’s mindset. That doesn’t mean I don’t process my images, or that I don’t appreciate the power of digital processing to convey my subjects at their very best. But I do (among other things) like knowing that each image represents the photons that struck my sensor in the span of a single shutter click. In other words, I am a one-click photographer who gets no pleasure from merging, blending, combining multiple images into a single image.

Preemptive disclaimer

It seems that every time I try to explain these personal motivations and guiding principles, I get a few defensive responses from people who believe I’m saying that everyone should follow my rules, or that I’m somehow superior to photographers who don’t do things the way I do them. Nope. I’m simply saying that my images need to please me and no one else, and hope your own images, however they’re achieved, make you just as happy as mine make me.

Which brings me to…

I’m thinking about all this because today I’m sharing a Milky Way image from my recently concluded Hawaii Big Island photo workshop. And nothing underscores the difference between my own (dinosaur?) approach than today’s computer-enabled (and beautiful) astro images.

For most of my photography life, I was frustrated by the camera’s low light limitations. In my pre-digital days, using my medium of choice (color slides) to photograph the Milky Way above a landscape was just a dream. And my first digital cameras, while perhaps better than slides in darkness, were still not up to the night photography task.

But over the last fifteen or so years, I watched technology improve to the point that one-shot, night-landscape photography became possible—and it keeps getting better. In my first digital attempts, I found that while I could capture the Milky Way, there was not enough light for the camera to pull in discernible landscape detail to go with it. Instead, in those early digital days I settled for moonlight night images—no Milky Way, but plenty of stars above a beautifully moonlit scene.

As I became hooked on moonlight photography, I watched other photographers start having Milky Way success by blending two (and sometimes more) images—one for the Milky Way, and another much longer exposure for the landscape. I actually tried this approach myself, had enough success to appreciate the technique, but soon realized that I derived absolutely no pleasure from these manufactured images and stopped doing it without ever sharing a blended creation with another soul.

My first real Milky Way success came at Kilauea, about ten years ago. Here the orange glow from the churning lava lake provided enough light to illuminate the surrounding caldera, and sometimes even painting the clouds with its volcanic glow. I was hooked.

The next major Milky Way milestone came when I switched to Sony and started using the Sony a7S. Suddenly, not only could I include lots of foreground detail in my one-click Milky Way images, I could see the scene in my viewfinder well enough to compose and focus quickly, without guessing.

And while my night cameras been evolving—from the a7S, then the Sony a7SII, and now the a7SIII—Sony has slipped the final piece of the night photography jigsaw into place with a great selection of fast, wide, and sharp lenses that seem made for the Milky Way.

Waxing nostalgic

For many years I looked forward to my Hawaii workshop more than any other workshop, in no small part because of the opportunity to return to Kilauea, the location of my first Milky Way success and still one of my very favorite Milky Way locations. Then, in August 2018, the Kilauea eruption went out in a blaze of glory—suddenly, I had to scramble for Milky Way locations on the Big Island.

With many locations lost to the recent eruption, in September 2018 I took my group to the Mauna Kea summit, nearly 14,000 above the Pacific. We had a great shoot among the array of telescopes at the summit, but the only thing more brutal than the wind and cold at the top was drive up there. My rental car started losing power and flashing an engine warning light, and a couple of other drivers were (understandably) less than thrilled about violating their rental car agreements. We also had to send a couple of people back down the mountain when they started feeling altitude sickness. (I’d still recommend the experience to anyone—it’s just not something I’m comfortable doing with a group.)

In 2019 scouted the Puna Coast for a good spot, but found much of the access still limited by the 2018 lava flow. I finally settled for section of brand new lava above the ocean, but clouds and moisture-thickened air hindered visibility, and the moonless darkness made it very difficult to safely get close enough to include much crashing surf. The Milky Way made enough of an appearance that were were able to photograph it, but the overall experience was less than ideal.

Given all the obstacles Mother Nature had thrown at me—not just locations and access lost to lava flows, but recent hurricane and flood damage to other locations too—I decided to take 2020 off from Hawaii. (Turns out I’d have had to cancel anyway.) But I missed Hawaii and realized, eruption and Milky Way or not, it’s a pretty great place to photograph. So the Big Island went back on my schedule in 2021.

Despite the aborted eruption and the prior night location difficulties, I was determined to give the Milky Way another shot in 2021. Thinking it might be easier to photograph away from the coast, I found a nice elevated view on Chain of Craters Road in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It was about three miles from the coast, but had a great view of the ocean and recent lava flows, and a few striking trees for the foreground.

I gave the group some Milky Way training on our second afternoon, then drove out to the chosen spot after that evening’s sunset shoot. While the view was indeed magnificent, the wind was so strong that we couldn’t even consider setting up tripods. But since we were there anyway, I kept everyone out long enough for everyone to see the Milky Way emerge from the darkness. While that was more of a consolation prize for people with their hearts set on Milky Way images, it was pretty cool, especially for the folks who have never really seen the Milky Way’s core in a truly dark sky.

Some groups are more excited than others about the chance to photograph the Milky Way, and I could tell that this group was pretty disappointed that our shoot didn’t work out. So I decided to give it one more shot, on the workshop’s final night—no guarantees, but we’d at least go down trying.

Since our final sunset would be on the Puna Coast, I decided that we’d just find a spot out there for the Milky Way. A check of the map confirmed that the galactic core would align nicely with the rocky coast from MacKenzie Point, my planned sunset spot, we just stayed put there and waited for the Milky Way to come to us.

The downside of this location is that it’s rather precariously perched above quite violent surf. But since we were already out there for sunset, I knew everyone would be able to get situated and set up for the Milky Way early enough to avoid moving around much (or at all) in the dark.

The biggest unknown in this plan was the clouds that always seem to lurk along the Puna Coast. But after a day of sky mostly obscured by clouds, a little opening appeared in the south around sunset, and I crossed my fingers. We ended enjoying the most colorful sunset/sunrise of the workshop, then crossed our fingers that the sky would remain open until darkness was complete.

For this shoot I used my Sony a7SIII and Sony 14 f/1.8 GM exclusively. Usually my Milky Way compositions favor the sky over the foreground. But here, long exposures of the waves exploding against jagged volcanic rock created ethereal motion blur that nicely complimented the Milky Way, so I wanted to include as much surf as sky. Not only did I want more foreground than usual, the lower the latitude, the higher in the sky the Milky Way’s core is—having such a wide lens allowed me to include lots of surf and sky.

I only managed to capture seven frames while I “bounced” (tiptoed gingerly) in near total darkness, hyper-conscious of the consequences of a misstep, between people to provide assistance. The southern sky was virtually clear in my first two captures, but each subsequent click revealed an ominous cloud bank encroaching on our sky. Knowing how quickly the rain can strike in Hawaii, and wanting to avoid anything that might cause people to move suddenly in the dark, I called the shoot after about 30 minutes. This is my final image of the night.

Since this was the workshop’s last night and there were no more image reviews, I can’t say that everyone finished that shoot with a great Milky Way image. But I do know that everyone did at least capture the Milky Way, and gained enough insight to do it better the next time. I also know that everyone was happy with the entire experience—which is really what it’s all about.

Learn more about Milky Way photography

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Milky Way One Click Wonders

Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.

 

Return to Paradise

Gary Hart Photography: Surf on the Rocks, Puna Coast, Hawaii

Surf on the Rocks, Puna Coast, Hawaii
Sony a7RIV
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
4 seconds
F/11
ISO 50

I’m still working my way through my Grand Canyon images, but because life goes on, I “had to” spend the last week leading a workshop on my favorite Hawaiian island, Hawaii. (It’s a tough job, but…)

Until last year, I’ve spent a week each year since 2010 on Hawaii’s Big Island. And while I’d love to blame COVID for the missed year, it just so happened that I’d decided to take a break from Hawaii way back in 2019, well before COVID was even a twinkle in some Asian pangolin’s eye.

Just to be clear, it wasn’t that I’d fallen out of love with the Big Island. It was more that in recent years, on each Hawaii trip I had to work around wind, flood, or lava damage that closed or altered some of my locations. (That’s just the way things go for a volcanic island in the middle of an ocean.)

After dealing with those problems, the final straw came in August of 2018, with the cessation of Kilauea’s eruption, and I decided to remove the Hawaii workshop from my schedule. But during that one-year Hawaii hiatus, I realized that I’d come to believe that the eruption, and especially photographing the Milky Way over the eruption, was the main reason for my Hawaii workshop. It took missing a year to realize how much I missed everything else on the Big Island.

I scheduled my 2021 Hawaii Big Island workshop more than a year ago, never thinking at the time that we’d still be dealing with a global pandemic. Nevertheless, people signed up, and I can say now that we were able to pull it off without any trouble—not from COVID, or Mother Nature. The Hawaii COVID protocols are strict but reasonable, and more seriously enforced than I’ve observed on the Mainland, which actually helped everyone feel safer. And all my locations were open, albeit with a few detours around freshly poured lava (from 2018).

I’ve spent quality time on each of the primary Hawaiian islands except Oahu, and while I love them all, I’m especially drawn to the Big Island. When most people think of Hawaii, they think of palm trees, ukuleles, luaus, and sandy beaches. That’s not my Hawaii: I can get my palm tree fix in California, have never been to a luau, don’t really care for Hawaiian music (sorry), and generally prefer the mountains to the beach. But I love clouds, waterfalls, rainbows, lush (and colorful!) foliage, and all things volcanic—all prominent features that the Big Island, especially the  Hilo side, has in spades.

My favorite scenery in Hawaii is probably the Puna Coast, a stretch of rugged volcanic coastline south of Hilo. Immediately downhill from Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, virtually none of the Puna real estate is older than 200 years—some of it is much younger.

Every square inch of Hawaii is a lava flow, a fact that’s never more obvious than along the Puna Coast, where the basalt is so young that it has had little time to weather and erode. Paralleling the coast on Highway 130, the relative age of the land at any given location is obvious if you know what to look for. The youngest lava is exposed for the world to examine, empty black plains of jagged aa (pronounced ah-ah) and ropey pahoehoe (pronounce every vowel: puh-ho-e-ho-e) that achieved their distinguishing characteristics not by virtue of different chemical compositions (they’re identical), but by their temperature at the time they cooled and hardened.

Side note: I used to struggle remembering which lava was which until I realized that “Ah! Ah!” is the sound I’d make if I were to walk on aa barefoot. (Aa is also an essential Scrabble word, BTW.)

With humidity off the charts, and rain a virtual daily event, it doesn’t take long for foliage to establish a foothold in Puna’s fresh lava. And the more the lava ages, the more it’s smothered with green—overwhelmed by trees and shrubs that advance at a somewhat slower, but seeming just as relentless, pace as lava.

On every visit to Hawaii, I make at least one drive down Highway 130 all the way to the end (and back), stopping randomly (and frequently) to walk out to the ocean in search of fresh views to photograph. At each stop I find some version of rugged cliffs, tide pools, or an occasional black sand beach under constant attack by water that seems to fluctuate between blue-green and green-blue, depending on the water’s depth and the cloud cover overhead.

A few years ago I found the view in this image while exploring one of the densest stretches of foliage (oldest lava) on the entire coast. Somehow this spot has managed to dodge Pele’s fire long enough for a tree tunnel to canopy the road, and for the surrounding trees to become so crowded that they appear ready to leap into the Pacific.

Another feature I love at this spot is the large chunks of lava shed by the nearby cliff, then rounded by collisions with the pounding surf and their boulder brothers. The waves here are especially violent, sometimes leaping higher than the surrounding 20-foot cliffs, that with each wave you can hear the rocks knock together.

All this persistent, violent surf makes managing the explosive wave motion an essential part of photographing here.

I digress

A still image can’t display actual motion, but it can convey the illusion of motion. While nothing like our own experience of a world in motion, a well framed and exposed still image can freeze the extreme chaos of a single instant, or accumulate a series of instants into a blur that conveys a pattern of motion. A still image’s rendering of motion can establish the scene’s mood and stimulate the viewer’s imagination into a greater sense of being there.

Combining creative vision and technical skill, a photographer chooses where on the freeze-blur continuum an image falls: The sudden drama of a wave caught mid-crash, or the soothing calm of soft surf. Or perhaps someplace in the midrange of the motion continuum, stopping the waves enough that discrete elements stand out, but not so much that a sense of flow is lost.

One question I’m quite frequently asked is, “How do I blur water?” And while there’s no magic formula, no shutter speed threshold beyond which all water blurs, blurring water isn’t that hard (as long as you use a tripod). In fact, when you photograph in the full shade or cloudy sky conditions I prefer, it’s usually more difficult to freeze moving water than it is to blur it.

The amount of water motion blur you get depends on several variables:

  • The water’s speed—the faster the water, and (especially) the more whitewater (green water, no matter how fast it’s moving, doesn’t usually display a lot of motion blur), the greater the blur
  • Your focal length—the longer the focal length, the greater the blur
  • Your distance from the water—the closer the water, the greater the blur
  • And of course, the shutter speed—the longer your shutter is open, the greater the blur

Of these variables, it’s shutter speed that gets the most attention because focal length and subject distance are compositional considerations, and we usually don’t start thinking about blurring the water until after we have our composition.

Since motion blur increases with the duration your shutter is open, blurring water means reducing the non-shutter light reaching your sensor. Here are the tools at your disposal:

  • Reduce the ISO: The lower the ISO, the less sensitive to light the sensor is, requiring a longer shutter speed to achiever proper exposure.
  • Smaller aperture (larger f-stop value): The aperture is the opening that allows light to enter, so it makes sense that the smaller the opening, the less light will enter for any given length of time, also requiring a longer shutter speed to compensate.
  • Polarizing filter: In addition to reducing reflections, a polarizer will subtract 1 to 2 stops of light (depending on its orientation). When using a polarizer you need to be vigilant about orienting it each time you recompose (especially if you change your camera’s horizontal/vertical orientation), and monitoring its effect on the rest of your scene.
  • Neutral density filter: A neutral density filter is, as its name implies, both neutral and dense. Neutral in that it doesn’t alter the color of your image; dense in that it cuts the amount of light reaching your sensor. While a dark enough ND filter might allow you to blur water on even the brightest of days, it does nothing for the other problems inherent to midday, full sunlight shooting. ND filters come in variable and fixed-stop versions—the flexibility of variable NDs (the ability to dial the amount of light up and down) means living with the vignetting they add to my wide angle images.
  • Tripod: Don’t even think about any kind of subject blur without a sturdy tripod. For help selecting the right tripod, read the Tripod Selection article in my Photo Tips section.

Back to Puna

There’s only one obvious composition at this spot, but it’s such nice composition that I’ve added this spot to my Hawaii workshop “don’t miss” list. This year, that shoot came on the workshop’s final afternoon, on our way to the day’s sunset location.

The best vantage point here is atop a small prominence that juts into the surf; it offers just enough room for a group of a dozen or so photographers to set up tripods and capture their version of the scene without anyone feeling crowded (or, more importantly, without plummeting into the churn below).

With the group safely engaged, I pulled out my Sony a7RIV and 16-35 GM lens and set about photographing this scene using a variety of shutter speeds. I started with fast shutter speeds that froze the waves mid-crash, then added my Breakthrough Dark CPL (a 6-stop neutral density filter that is also a circular polarizer) to blur the water to a gauzy haze. But I quickly realized that getting the blur effect I wanted wasn’t quite as simple as attaching a neutral density filter and going for the longest possible shutter speed.

I love the rounded boulders in the foreground, but found that when I went with a really long shutter speed, the boulders disappeared beneath the accumulated foam of multiple waves. Because the sun was low, and the scene was further darkened by clouds, I figured I could still get decent blur without the neutral density filter, and replaced it with a standard Breakthrough polarizer.

After a little bit of playing, I found that a properly timed four-second exposure gave me the blur effect I was looking for, without obliterating the boulders. Of course each wave is different, both in size and angle of attack, so once I found the shutter speed that worked, I captured at least a dozen frames, picking the one I liked best when I could view my images on a bigger screen.

This day ended with a nice sunset a couple of miles up the road, followed by an even nicer Milky Way shoot. But that’s a story for a different day.

Just scheduled: 2022 Hawaii Big Island Waterfalls and Volcanos

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It’s All a Blur

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Grand Canyon: The South Rim Strikes Back

Gary Hart Photography: Veiled Sunset, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon

Veiled Sunset, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/2 second
F/8
ISO 50

Last week I expressed some pretty strong feelings for why I prefer the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the South Rim. And while I’m not about to issue a retraction, let me just say that the relative merits of the canyon’s two sides are somewhat more nuanced. You might even say that last week’s post was authored by Gary Hart, Human Being. This week’s rebuttal will come from Gary Hart, Photographer.

Like so many arguments, the fulcrum of the Grand Canyon North/South debate is not actually the debate’s subjects, rather, it’s the definition of the argument. In this case, the difference really comes down to how you want to define “best.” If best refers to the overall experience of one rim over another—the “best” I argued for last week—then the North Rim’s simple serenity, alpine setting, and visual variety make it the clear winner. But if best only considers the actual vistas from which beautiful images can be made, then I’m afraid the nod goes to the South Rim and its supply of vast, open views of the world’s most magnificent canyon.

Many of the South Rim vistas offer at least 100 degrees of unobstructed canyon view, and some provide more than 180 degrees. (That’s pretty crazy when you consider that the horizontal field of view of my widest lens, the Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM, is only around 112 degrees.) This sheer expansiveness is what makes Hopi Point a personal South Rim favorite, along with the three east-most vistas: Lipan Point, Navajo Point, and Desert View.

Hopi Point juts into the canyon farther north than any of the other South Rim vistas, giving it the broadest (easily accessible) canyon views possible from the rim. From here you can look at least 20 miles down-canyon; and up-canyon you can see all the way past Wotan’s Throne and Vishnu Temple to almost as far as the Little Colorado River confluence, more than 20 miles away. There’s even a nice downstream view of the Colorado River that’s responsible for all this beauty.

The three eastern vistas provide the only views upstream, past the Little Colorado River confluence, into the Grand Canyon’s north/south, Marble Canyon section. In this direction you’ll also find the best view of the Colorado River on the rim. Downstream the view is more than 40 miles of red ridges and towering monoliths. From Lipan Point there’s even a peek into the canyon’s Inner Gorge (well known to rafters as home to the Grand Canyon’s most thrilling rapids).

On the other hand, this abundance doesn’t come without its costs. A photographer’s job is to take all this jaw-dropping beauty and consolidate it into a coherent image, no small feat. I learned that the hard way on my very first morning trying to photograph the Grand Canyon, when I was gifted fresh snow on the South Rim, yet couldn’t manage to squeeze one usable image out of my camera (let’s blame the camera).

Fortunately, over the years, familiarity has made me more comfortable photographing the South Rim. I find myself particularly drawn to scenes that allow me to combine the Grand Canyon’s inherent beauty with ephemeral weather phenomena like snow, clouds, rainbows, and lightning. I’ve even learned to read the conditions enough to make calculated guesses at where the best opportunities will manifest. If you look at the gallery at the bottom of this post, you’ll see the product of many of those opportunities—some more calculated than others.

The image I share today came from the third (and final) of last month’s back-to-back-to-back Grand Canyon Monsoon photo workshops. We’d started the day with a sunrise shoot on the North Rim, then packed up and started the 4-hour drive to our hotel on the South Rim. As I mentioned in last week’s post, this is such a nice drive, I usually give everyone ample time for a leisurely trip to make a few stops and enjoy the scenery. But lightning was in the forecast for this afternoon, and since we’d been shut out on our two North Rim days, I arranged for us all to meet up again at Desert View, the first South Rim stop after reentering the park. You’ll need to read the aforementioned post for the details of that shoot, but needless to say, by the time we finished that rather lengthy lightning shoot and reconvened at our hotel, everyone was dragging a little.

When I announced that we’d be heading back out for sunset in an hour or so, the response was less than enthusiastic. The enthusiasm was further dampened by the horizon-to-horizon gray clouds that threatened rain and suggested a complete sunset washout was possible. I countered with the my mantra that the best photography often comes during the worst times to be outside, and while I couldn’t promise great images if they went, I could promise no images if they stayed at the hotel.

Everything in my workshops is optional, but my speech managed to convince all but four to join me (who else just flashed to John Belushi in “Animal House”? (language warning)). Including Curt and me, we ended up with seven hardy souls at Lipan Point (six, plus one hardy soul who stayed out there all afternoon).

Sometimes Mother Nature rewards effort and sacrifice. Almost immediately upon arrival, we started seeing lightning firing over the canyon, about 30 miles distant (this is where the Lightning Trigger’s range is appreciated). But the real story this evening was the sun dropping into the rain curtain that was still delivering intermittent lightning.

The sight was so spectacular, I didn’t even mind that no lightning happened in the few minutes the sun was visible. At one point, one of the women in the group uttered almost to herself, “This is the most incredible sunset I’ve ever seen.” I couldn’t argue.

(The toughest thing about this whole shoot was trying not to gush too much the next day in front of those who stayed at the hotel.)

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A South Rim Gallery

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Grand Canyon: North vs. South

Gary Hart Photography: Last Light, Wotan’s Throne, Cape Royal, Grand Canyon

Last Light, Wotan’s Throne, Cape Royal, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RIV
Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM
1/30 second
F/10
ISO 100

North vs. South

When people decide to cross the Grand Canyon off their bucket list, they usually look at a map and see that the South Rim is an easy one hour detour off Interstate 40, or just a little more than three (mostly interstate) hours from Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix. The North Rim, on the other hand, is nearly five hours from the closest major airport, and isn’t really on the way to anywhere. Not only that, most of the Grand Canyon pictures we see came from the South Rim. Great views, minimal effort? The South Rim is the clear winner, right?

If you prefer experiencing your national parks in wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am visits to jaw dropping, expansive vistas, the South Rim is definitely for you. But here’s a little secret: If your outdoor tastes lean toward an actual relationship with nature, the North Rim is better, and it’s not even close.

I realize that “better” is subjective, and you’re welcome to disagree. But for each of the last 9 years (not including 2020), I’ve led at least two Grand Canyon photo workshops that split time evenly between the Grand Canyon’s North and South Rims—if the votes of hundreds workshop participants who spent equal time on both sides mean anything, the North Rim wins in a landslide.

So what gives?

For both workshop participants and myself, an oft-cited North Rim benefit is just plain peace and quiet. Its relative remoteness, limited accommodations and dining, combined with a dearth of luxury amenities that today’s travelers take for granted (like wifi and reliable cellular), work better than a border wall to keep the masses away. But these “hardships” are actually a feature for those of us who prefer communing with nature, rather than simply gawking at it.

Another bonus: As a photo workshop leader, it’s wonderful not having to stress over parking strategies for every shoot, or having to negotiate prime photography real estate with selfie-obsessed tourists (does a tripod possess some kind of cloaking magic that makes a photographer invisible to tourists?). When I’m with a group on the South Rim, I can’t wait to get over to the North Rim to recharge my psyche.

I do love the South Rim’s views—a lot—but I literally cannot think of a single thing on the South Rim that I’d consider scenic that isn’t a canyon view. On the other hand, the North Rim’s canyon views are surrounded by thousands of acres of dense evergreen forest that’s marbled with aspen, and green meadows sprinkled liberally with wildflowers. You could spend an entire North Rim visit surrounded by peaceful beauty without getting a single glimpse of the canyon. (And if you’re lucky, you might even enjoy a view of the bison herd that hangs out near the entrance station.)

And the North Rim’s views, while not as plentiful or expansive as those on the South Rim, are still world class. For lightning photography, there’s no better spot than Grand Canyon Lodge. Protected by an array of lightning rods, with the fully enclosed lodge Sun Room right there for immediate retreat, the Grand Canyon Lodge view faces south, across the canyon, in the direction from which most thunderstorms approach. Rather than chasing the lightning, we can just wait for it to come to us.

But for beautiful views, my two favorite North Rim vistas are Point Imperial and Cape Royal. At nearly 9000 feet above sea level, Point Imperial is the Grand Canyon’s highest scenic view point. It also provides the park’s best view of the Vermillion Cliffs and Grand Canyon’s Marble Canyon. And picturesque Mt. Hayden, a prominent spire that stands front and center against a host of ridges and towers that recede in the distance, makes a perfect visual anchor for Point Imperial scenes.

Cape Royal has the North Rim’s most expansive view, and is probably the best spot on the North Rim to photograph the setting sun. It also offers the closest view of Vishnu Temple, one of the Grand Canyon’s most recognized landmarks. But what really sets Cape Royal apart for me is that it is hands down the Grand Canyon’s best view of Wotan’s Throne, a massive sedimentary monolith rising nearly 3000 feet above the Colorado River.

Even though it stands out as a large, flat-top structure that’s clearly visible from most of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim vistas, when viewed from the South Rim Wotan’s Throne isn’t nearly as interesting as its neighbor, Vishnu Temple. Which probably explains why Wotan’s Throne doesn’t get the love I’ve always felt it deserves. But at Cape Royal, Wotan’s Throne looms just a mile away, and the close view from this side reveals it to be so much more than it appears to be from the South Rim.

About this image

Maybe the best thing about the Cape Royal Wotan’s Throne view is the way it seems positioned, as if by Devine hand, to catch the warm light of the setting sun. Which is exactly what I was thinking about when my third workshop group arrived for the final North Rim sunset shoot of this year’s trip.

The cloudy vestiges of the afternoon’s thunderstorms were scattered across the sky, broken by just a few blue patches. The clouds were beautiful, but what excited me most was the lack of clouds on the western horizon, which would (fingers crossed) provide a perfect path for the sun’s last rays to slip through to color the sky and canyon.

After making sure everyone else was settled, I set about trying to find something for myself. It was pretty clear that the scene both west and south was going to be spectacular at sunset, but I decided that finding a single composition in one direction and would allow me to park my tripod and move around and help people between shots.

I chose the view to the south, for the potential sunset light on Wotan’s Throne, over the view of the actual setting sun in the west. I was drawn to a dead tree precariously perched near a vertical drop of undetermined height (I wasn’t super motivated to find out), and worked hard to safely position myself to balance the tree between Vishnu Temple and Wotan’s Throne, and to get my camera high enough to prevent the tree from intersecting the horizon. While I ended up having to dig my shoes into a steep slope a few feet from the edge, I  felt safe.

Being so close to the tree, I chose my Sony 12-24 GM lens. This would allow me to include lots of sky and canyon. Normally I try to avoid too much sky in my Grand Canyon images, but there was potential this night = for some very special color that would demand a lot of sky.

Waiting for the show to start, I just started composing and clicking to familiarize myself with all the composition possibilities. When the sun finally dropped beneath the clouds to light up Wotan’s Throne, I was ready. Many of my shots were wider, including Vishnu Temple and more sky, but for the few minutes the tree got beautiful light, I tightened my composition a little to better emphasize it.

Even though the tree was just a few feet away, I knew that at 20mm I could comfortably use f/10 (to avoid diffraction) if I focused just a little beyond the tree. Since there was nothing beyond the tree to focus on, I used one of the shrubs on the right that I estimated to be just a little farther away than the tree. Dynamic range was extreme, but well within the bounds of my Sony a7RIV. With my focal length, f-stop, and focus point set, I dialed my shutter speed with my eye on the histogram. Click.

This was probably the nicest sunset I’ve ever seen at Cape Royal. I have more colorful images from this evening, and many that include more clouds, and Vishnu Temple, but I chose this one because it’s the best example I’ve ever captured of the spectacular Wotan’s Throne sunset light I love so much.

Grand Canyon Workshops

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A North Rim Gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.

 

 

(More) Lightning Lessons

Gary Hart Photography: Downpour and Lightning, Desert View, Grand Canyon

Downpour and Lightning, Desert View, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/8 second
F/8
ISO 50

This post is all about different aspects photographing lightning—some of the stuff I write about here is covered in much more detail in my Lightning Photo Tips article, so you might want to start there

I’ve been photographing lightning at the Grand Canyon (especially) and elsewhere for 10 years, but I’m happy to say that I’m still learning. While going through my images from this year’s recently completed Grand Canyon monsoon workshops, it occurred to me that now might be a good time to share a couple of this year’s insights.

Lightning Trigger (where it all begins)

You simply can’t photograph daylight lightning consistently without a lightning sensor that detects the lightning and triggers your shutter. And if you follow my lightning photography at all, you’ve no doubt heard me singing the praises of the Lightning Trigger from Stepping Stone Products in Colorado. (There are a lot of lightning sensors out there, but since Lightning Trigger is trademarked, this is the only one that can legally use “lightning trigger.”) I don’t get anything from Stepping Stone for my endorsement, I just know it’s in my best interests to give everyone in my groups the best chance to photograph lightning, and so far I haven’t found anything that comes close the the success of the Lightning Trigger.

But despite my strong advice to the contrary, every year one or two people will show up with a sensor that’s not a Lightning Trigger. And every year, these are the people who have the poorest lightning success. Sometimes the reason for failure is obvious—like a sensor that allowed the camera to go to sleep after 30 seconds of inactivity. But usually the reason isn’t quite so obvious—I just know that the people with the “other” sensors are much more likely to get shut out. This year was no exception.

The first workshop (of three) started with a bang, with an active storm building across the canyon, about 12 miles away, just before the workshop orientation. Because lightning trumps everything in these monsoon workshops, I cancelled the orientation and herded everyone to the view deck behind Grand Canyon Lodge (I’d advised them to show up with their gear for this very reason), frantically flying around from person to person to introduce myself, help them set up, and make sure their cameras were clicking with each lightning strike.

After about 15 minutes, all but one seemed comfortably settled in, excitedly reporting that their camera was responding to each bolt. In addition to my one participant who wasn’t having success, there was a woman who wasn’t in my group trying to photograph lightning with a sensor—she too was growing frustrate because her camera seemed be ignoring the lightning too. The one thing these two people had in common? Perhaps you already guessed: they were the only two not using a Lightning Trigger.

I actually tried to help both of them troubleshoot the problem, starting with confirming that everything was plugged in right, then quickly moving to lots of fiddling with camera settings, cables, and batteries. But since I could make their sensors respond with the TV remote I always have nearby when I photograph lightning (the easiest way to test a Lightning Trigger in the field), I wasn’t real optimistic—if the remote triggers the camera, the problem is unlikely to be the connection, power, or camera. That leaves the sensor itself as the most likely culprit.

When leading a workshop I don’t have lots of time to get too scientific with my troubleshooting, but think I solved the mystery the next day, when a similar storm started up at about the same time in more less the same place. For the second day in a row we all set up on the Grand Canyon Lodge view deck, and for the second day in a row, the only person in the group whose camera wasn’t responding was the person with the off-brand sensor. (The woman from the prior day wasn’t there.)

While the prior day’s storm moved laterally across the canyon, this storm moved in our direction, approaching to within a couple of miles (and eventually driving us all for cover in the lodge). When, as the storm got closer, the rogue sensor started triggering its camera, I realized that what sets the Lightning Trigger apart from its competition is most likely its range.

My superior range theory got more confirmation on the South Rim a couple of days later. Driving out toward the South Rim’s eastern-most views for our sunset shoot, my eyes were drawn to a massive thunderhead blooming in the distance. With the forecast offering no hope for lightning to chase, that evening’s plan was to make a couple of quick stops at Lipan and Navajo Points, before finishing with sunset at Desert View. But pulling into Lipan Point it was instantly apparent that the thunderhead was straight up the canyon—we weren’t there long before we could also see it was delivering lightning. (One reason I tell everyone to always carry their Trigger, regardless of the forecast.)

Because this turned out to be a spectacular show that lasted until sunset, we never left Lipan Point. Unlike the previous storms, where the lightning was front-and-center in every composition, the lightning this evening was much farther away—between 22 and 25 miles distant, according to the My Lightning Tracker app on my iPhone. While all the Lightning Triggers didn’t seem to miss a single bolt (“not missing” in this case just means firing when there’s a visible bolt—you’ll see below that this is by no means a guarantee that the bolt will be capture), our rogue sensor not seem to see the lightning at all.

Further confirmation of the Lightning Trigger’s range came in the third workshop, when we were photographing lightning more than 30 miles away. I’ve had success with the Lightning Trigger and distant lightning in the past, but this was the first time I’ve had an app (and cellular connectivity) to actually pinpoint the location and distance.

Slower than the speed of lightning (or, About this image)

One of the most frustrating things about photographing lightning is not capturing a spectacular strike. The first half of the capture equation is a sensor that sees the lightning and triggers the camera (see Lightning Trigger discussion above); the other half is having a camera that responds quickly enough to the click instruction from the sensor. And as I’ve said before, all the three major camera brands are fast enough, but where lightning is concerned, the faster the better—and it’s impossible to be too fast. FYI, according to Imagining Resource, Sony Alpha camera’s are the fastest, followed closely by Nikon, with Canon a fair amount slower (but usually not too slow).

I can confirm the Imaging Resource data. While I had good success while using Canon my first few years photographing lightning, my success rate has been noticeably higher since switching to Sony in 2014 (my first Sony lightning shoot was in 2015). But despite a faster camera, the frustration with missed lightning hasn’t disappeared completely. Usually it’s just one or two here and there—I just shrug my shoulders because I know I’ll probably get the next one. But in this year’s third workshop, one especially frustrating shoot got my attention.

The third group didn’t have any lightning luck on the North Rim for our first two days, but the forecast looked more promising for the South Rim half of the workshop. Unfortunately, the best chances were forecast for the day of our 4-hour rim-to-rim drive. Since it’s such a nice drive, I usually give everyone the whole day to make it, suggesting stops then setting them free after the sunrise shoot—we don’t gather as a group again until late afternoon on the other side. But with such a promising lightning forecast, this time I had everyone meet me at Desert View, the first South Rim vista when driving from the North Rim, at 1:00 p.m., hoping that we’d get the workshop’s first shot at lightning.

Setting up on the rim just west of the Desert View Watchtower, we just hung out for awhile, waiting for something to happen. Our patience was rewarded after about an hour, when a few people in the group saw lightning in the east. This was out toward the Painted Desert—not actually over the canyon, but close enough to get lightning and the canyon in one frame. Better yet, it soon became clear that the storm was moving, not just toward the canyon, but toward one of my favorite Grand Canyon views.

This whole shoot lasted at least a couple of hours. Standing there on the rim, we watched the lightning first migrate north, eventually intersecting the canyon just beyond the Little Colorado River confluence. It then started to shift westward, crossed the canyon, continued drifting west, and everyone was pretty excited. That is, until we realized that it was also getting closer. We were preparing to retreat when a bolt hit inside the canyon, less than two miles away, sending our sense of urgency into overdrive.

Since this was this group’s first lightning, everyone was especially excited when their camera clicked with each lightning bolt. Though I knew no one would get every single bolt, with several dozen visible strikes, I was pretty confident everyone’s success numbers would be in the double digits—mine included.

But checking my images in my room that night, I was disappointed to count only three frames with lightning. I was just going to write it off as one of those things—perhaps my LT battery was weak, or maybe I was too focused on working with others in the group (in other words, doing my job) to adjust my composition frequently enough to track the continuously shifting storm.

But when I mentioned my poor success to Curt, my assistant on this trip, he expressed similar results. And talking to the group the next day, we learned that no one else got more than a (very small) handful of strikes. How could a dozen people using a lightning sensor that years of experience proves works reliably, on a variety of cameras, have such similarly poor results on just one shoot? Adding to the mystery, it became clear by the images shared in the image review that the lightning everyone did capture, was all the same strikes. What’s going on?

One of the things I love most about working with Curt is that he’s as inquisitive and bulldog-tenacious tracking down these mysteries as I am. We got to work researching what could be going on, both on our own, and together on a one-hour conference call with Rich at Stepping Stone, the mastermind behind the Lightning Trigger.

Rich suggested that it could be that we encountered a storm that was mostly positive lightning. Positive lightning, which comprises about 5 percent of lightning strikes, usually spends all of its energy in a single stroke, making that one stroke very bright, but also much faster from start to finish. He thought that maybe the lighting was done before everyone’s cameras could react. That made sense.

But after a little research on positive lightning, I (tentatively) ruled it out as our culprit because: 1) I saw nothing that indicates that positive lightning is storm-specific (though I’m open to correction); 2) positive lightning originates near the top of the cloud, and I saw no sign of that in this storm; 3) positive lightning tends to come near the end of the storm, and we photographed this one from start to finish; and finally, 4) positive lightning typically strikes outside the main rain band, and we saw very little of this.

But that conversation with Rich convinced me that our problem this afternoon had to indeed be a caused by lightning that was too fast for our cameras. And after mulling that thought for awhile, then digging deeper into my lightning resources, I theorized that we’d probably just encountered a storm that didn’t have as much juice as the typical monsoon storms I’m accustomed to.

This makes sense if you understand that a typical negative lightning strike that looks like a single bolt to the eye (or camera), is actually a series of strokes following the same channel. The number of strokes in a single lightning bolt varies with the amount of energy the lightning needs to release—the more strokes, the longer the strike seems to last. (As an interesting aside, earlier in the trip Curt got accidental confirmation of lightning’s multiple stroke aspect when, with his camera set to Continuous rather than the Single Shot that I use, he got the same lightning bolt in two, and at least once, three contiguous frames.)

The jury is still out on this theory, but it makes sense. If I learn anything more, I promise to share it. Right now I’m in the process of updating the Lightning Photo Tips article with this and more insights gained since the last update, so that’s the best place to check for new information.

Oh, and the image I share here was one of my three successes that afternoon, so I’m not really complaining.


2021 Grand Canyon Monsoon Highlights (processed so far)

Spoiler Alert: It’s not just lightning

Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.

Smoke on the Landscape (and Fire in the Sky)

Gary Hart Photography: Smoky Sunset, Desert View, Grand Canyon

Smoky Sunset, Desert View, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RIV
Sony 200-600 G
Sony 2x teleconverter
ISO 100
f/18
1/60 second

After 2 1/2 weeks at the Grand Canyon for three monsoon photo workshops, I’ve had very little time (and even less connectivity) for posting, but I wanted to share this image while the experience is still fresh in my mind. Here’s a new image and a short descriptive post, followed by a longer, but far more important, “refurbished” post.

Beauty comes in many forms. Usually it’s some version of thrilling or soothing, but last week I witnessed beauty that I can only label alarming.

My first week at the Grand Canyon (for three workshops) included the monsoon staples people sign up for: beautiful clouds, vivid sunrises and sunsets, rainbows, and lightning—lots and lots of lightning. But when Mother Nature flipped off the moisture switch at the end of the first week, all that monsoon magnificence was replaced by cloudless skies and smoke—smoke in the sky, and smoke in the canyon.

Without the cleansing monsoon showers, visibility into the canyon varied with the fickle winds, ranging from okay to opaque. And even when we could see across to the other side, a thick brown haze hugged the horizon in all directions.

Adopting my best lemonade-from-lemons stance, I encouraged everyone in the second group to appreciate the rare opportunity to include a red, orange, or yellow (depending on the smoke’s thickness) sun in their images. This wasn’t what everyone was hoping for, but I tried to make that point that as depressing as the smoke is, these images shouldn’t feel like a consolation prize because they really can be pretty cool.

Fortunately, the Grand Canyon is ideal for these shots that emphasize the seemingly infinite supply of ridges that disappear into the distance. Normally photographing these receding ridges by pointing toward sunrise or sunset results in a harsh white sky and hopelessly blown out sun. But smoke knocks down the sun’s brilliance, allowing its color to shine through. And, the smoke that robs the vistas of their glorious canyon views also helps simplify images down to basic color and shape. Wide or tight, the result is a relatively unique visual take on the Grand Canyon’s beauty.

I captured this image on the second group’s first sunset. I like starting the workshop at Desert View because we can all set up together along the rim, allowing me to work individually with the participants to identify who will need what assistance throughout the workshop. But once we got settled in, everyone started to work on their own version of the scene and I got a minute to think about my own shot.

I kicked myself for not lugging my Sony 200-600 lens out in the first place, and ended up jogging back to the car to grab it and my 2X teleconverter, hoping to enlarge the sun and apply extreme compression to the disappearing ridges. Adding this combo to my Sony a7RIV, I couldn’t resist starting by zooming all the way out to 1200mm to make the sun as large as possible. After that I played with a variety of focal lengths, ultimately choosing this one, around 600mm, because I could include more of the ridges. The sun slipping into a few wispy cloud fragments just before it disappeared was a bonus.

To avoid washing out the color in the sun, I had to seriously underexpose the foreground. On my LCD, the ridges you see in this image were black—so dark in fact that there was no way to distinguish one from the next. But I love my Sony bodies and knew that my a7RIV had indeed captured all the shadow detail I would need, a fact I easily confirmed upon opening this image in Lightroom.

I should add that despite all the smoke, all was not completely lost for the middle group. For our final sunset, the sky above Cape Royal cleared wonderfully, allowing the sun to paint Wotan’s Throne with beautiful warm light. (The view of Wotan’s Throne from Cape Royal is one of my favorite Grand Canyon views.) Great canyon views and relatively few cross-canyon lights makes Cape Royal my favorite Grand Canyon rim Milky Way location, so we stayed out and enjoyed the best Milky Way shoot of any monsoon workshop I’ve ever had—so great, in fact, that we voted to blow off sunrise to stay out later.

With the monsoon returning for the final week, the third workshop group enjoyed two spectacular lightning shoots and a couple of equally spectacular sunsets. Just as significant, the frequent showers banished the smoke and the visibility returned, at least temporarily. But with smoky summer skies becoming the norm here in the West—and this year most of the country is suffering from our smoke—I fear that we’ve all reached the point where summer outdoor plans will require a smoke contingency, much as we’ve always had to do with the potential for rain.

I’ll be back soon with more conventional Grand Canyon monsoon drama (something this trip didn’t lack), but in the meantime, I hope you take the time to read below and gain a little understand of climate warming and the undeniable truth of humans’ role.

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Where There’s Smoke (2019)

Gary Hart Photography: Sun and Smoke, Sierra Foothills, California

Sun and Smoke, Sierra Foothills, California
Sony a6300
Sony 100-400 GM
Sony 2x teleconverter
ISO 100
f/16
1/8 second

Humans, we have a problem

Earth’s climate is changing, and the smoking gun belongs to us. Sadly, in the United States policy lags insight and reason, and the world is suffering.

Climate change science is complex, with many moving parts that make it difficult to communicate to the general public. Climate change also represents a significant reset for some of the world’s most profitable corporations. Those colliding realities created a perfect storm for fostering the doubt and confusion that persists among people who don’t understand climate science and the principles that underpin it.

I’m not a scientist, but I do have enough science background (majors in astronomy and geology, before ultimately earning my degree in economics) to trust the experts and respect the scientific method. I also spent 20 years doing technical communication in the tech industry (tech writing, training, and support) for companies large and small. So I know enough to know that the fundamentals of climate change don’t need to intimidate, and the more accessible they can be to the general public, the better off we’ll all be.

It’s personal

Recently it feels like I’ve been living on the climate change front lines. On each visit to Yosemite, more dead and dying trees stain forests that were green as recently as five years ago. And throughout the Sierra (among other places), thirsty evergreens, weakened by drought, are under siege by insects that now thrive in mountain winters that once froze them into submission. More dead trees means more fuel, making wildfires not just more frequent, but bigger and hotter.

Speaking of wildfires, for a week last month I couldn’t go outside without a mask thanks to smoke from the Camp Fire that annihilated Paradise (70 miles away). I have friends who evacuated from each of this November’s three major California wildfires (Camp, Hill, and Woolsey), and last December the Thomas Fire forced a two-week evacuation of Ojai, where my wife and I rent a small place (to be near the grandkids). Our cleanup from the Thomas fire took months, and we still find ash in the most unexpected places (and we were among the lucky who had a home to clean).

The debate is dead

Despite its inevitable (and long overdue) death, the climate change debate continues to stagger on like a mindless zombie. We used to have to listen to the global warming skeptics claim that our climate wasn’t changing at all, so I guess hearing them acknowledge that okay-well-maybe-the-climate-is-changing-but-humans-aren’t-responsible can be considered progress.

Climate change alternative “explanations” like “natural variability” and “solar energy fluctuations” popular on social media or fringe websites have been irrefutably debunked by rigorously gathered, thoroughly analyzed, and closely scrutinized data. (And don’t get me started on the ridiculous “scientists motivated by grant money” conspiracy theory.)

Science we all can agree on

One thing that everyone does agree on is the existence of the greenhouse effect, which has been used for centuries to grow plants in otherwise hostile environments.

As you may already know, a greenhouse’s transparent exterior allows sunlight to penetrate and warm its interior. The heated interior radiates at longer wavelengths (infrared) that don’t escape as easily through the greenhouse’s ceiling and walls. That means more heat is added to a greenhouse than exits it, so the interior is warmer than the environment outside.

There’s something in the air

Perhaps the most common misperception about human induced climate change is that it’s driven by all the heat we create when we burn stuff. But that’s not what’s going on, not even close.

Our atmosphere behaves like a greenhouse, albeit with far more complexity. The sun bathes Earth with continuous electromagnetic radiation that includes infrared, visible light, and ultraviolet that we’re all familiar with. Solar radiation not reflected back to space reaches Earth’s surface to heat water, land, and air. Some of this heat makes it back to space, but much is absorbed by molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, forming a virtual blanket that makes Earth warmer than it would be without an atmosphere. In a word, inhabitable.

Because a molecule’s ability to absorb heat depends on its structure, some molecules absorb heat better than others. The two most common molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, nitrogen (N2: two nitrogen atoms) and oxygen (O2: two oxygen atoms), are bound so tightly that they don’t absorb heat. Our atmospheric blanket relies on other molecules to absorb heat: the greenhouse gases.

Also not open for debate is that Earth warms when greenhouse gases in the atmosphere rise, and cools when they fall. The rise and fall of greenhouse gases has been happening for as long as Earth has had an atmosphere. So our climate problem isn’t that our atmosphere contains greenhouse gases, it’s that human activity changes our atmosphere’s natural balance of greenhouse gases.

Earth’s most prevalent greenhouse gas is water vapor. But water vapor responds quickly to temperature changes, leaving the atmosphere relatively fast as rain or snow, while other greenhouse gases hold their heat far longer.

The two most problematic greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide (CO2: one carbon atom bonded with two oxygen atoms) and methane (CH4: one carbon atom bonded with four hydrogen atoms). The common denominator in these “problem” gases is carbon. (There are other, non-carbon-based, greenhouse gases, but for simplicity I’m focusing on the most significant ones.)

Carbon exists in many forms: as a solo act like graphite and diamond, and in collaboration with other elements to form more complex molecules, like carbon dioxide and methane. When it’s not floating around the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas, carbon in its many forms is sequestered in a variety of natural reservoirs called a “carbon sink,” where it does nothing to warm the planet.

Oceans are Earth’s largest carbon sink. And since carbon is the fundamental building block of life on Earth, all living organisms, from plants to plankton to people, are carbon sinks as well. The carbon necessary to form greenhouse gases has always fluctuated naturally between the atmosphere and natural sinks like oceans and plants.

For example, a growing tree absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, keeping the carbon and expelling oxygen (another simplification of a very complex process)—a process that stops when the tree dies. As the dead tree decomposes, some of its carbon is returned to the atmosphere as methane, but much of it returns to the land where it is eventually buried beneath sediments. Over tens or hundreds of millions of years, some of that sequestered carbon is transformed by pressure and heat to become coal.

Another important example is oil. For billions of years, Earth’s oceans have been host to simple-but-nevertheless-carbon-based organisms like algae and plankton. When these organisms die they drop to the ocean floor, where they’re eventually buried beneath sediment and other dead organisms. Millions of years of pressure and heat transforms these ancient deposits into…: oil.

Coal and oil (hydrocarbons), as significant long-term carbon sinks, were quite content to lounge in comfortable anonymity as continents drifted, mountains lifted and eroded, and glaciers advanced and retreated. Through all this slow motion activity on its surface, Earth’s temperatures ebbed and flowed and life evolved accordingly.

Enter humans. We have evolved, migrated, and built civilizations based on a relatively stable climate. And since the discovery of fire we humans have burned plants for warmth and food preparation. Burning organic material creates carbon dioxide, thereby releasing sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. Who knew that such a significant advance was the first crack in the climate-change Pandora’s Box?

For thousands of years the demand for fuel was met simply by harvesting dead plants strewn about on the ground and the reintroduction of carbon to the atmosphere was minimal. But as populations expanded and technology advanced, so did humans’ thirst for fuel to burn.

We nearly killed off the whales for their oil before someone figured out that those ancient, subterranean metamorphosed dead plants burn really nicely. With an ample supply of coal and oil and a seemingly boundless opportunity for profit, coal and oil soon became the driving force in the world’s economy. Suddenly, hundreds of millions of years worth of sequestered carbon was being reintroduced to our atmosphere as fast as it could be produced—with a corresponding acceleration in greenhouse gases (remember, when we burn hydrocarbons, we create carbon dioxide).

Compounding the fossil-fuel-as-energy problem is the extreme deforestation taking place throughout the world. Not only does burning millions of forest and jungle acres each year instantly reintroduce sequestered carbon to the atmosphere, it destroys a significant sink for present and future carbon.

Scientists have many ways to confirm humans’ climate change culpability. The most direct is probably the undeniable data showing that for millennia carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere hovered rather steadily around 280 parts per million (ppm). Then, corresponding to the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen steadily and today sits somewhere north of 400 ppm, with a bullet.

Humans don’t get a pass on atmospheric methane either. While not nearly as abundant in Earth’s atmosphere as carbon dioxide, methane is an even more powerful greenhouse gas, trapping about 30 times more heat than its more plentiful cousin. Methane is liberated to the atmosphere by a variety of human activities, from the decomposition of waste (sewage and landfill) to agricultural practices that include rice cultivation and bovine digestive exhaust (yes, that would be cow farts).

While the methane cycle is less completely understood than the carbon dioxide cycle, the increase of atmospheric methane also correlates to fossil fuel consumption. Of particular concern (and debate) is the cause of the steeper methane increase since the mid-2000s. Stay tuned while scientists work on that….

Balancing act

For humans, the most essential component of Earth’s habitability is the precarious balance between water’s three primary states: gas (water vapor),  ice, and liquid. Since the dawn of time, water’s varied states have engaged in a complex, self-correcting choreography of land, sea, and air inputs—tweak one climate variable here, and another one over there compensates.

Earth’s climate remains relatively stable until the equilibrium is upset by external input like solar energy change, volcanic eruption, or (heaven forbid) a visit from a rogue asteroid. Unfortunately, humans incremented the list of climate catalysts by one with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, and our thirst for fossil fuels.

As we’re learning firsthand in realtime, even the smallest geospheric tweak can initiate a self-reinforcing chain reaction with potentially catastrophic consequences for humanity’s long-term wellbeing. For example, a warmer planet means a warmer ocean and less ice, which means more liquid water and water vapor. Adding carbon dioxide to water vapor kicks off a feedback loop that magnifies atmospheric heat: More carbon dioxide raises the temperature of the air—>warmer air holds more water vapor—>more water vapor warms the air more—>and so on.

But that’s just the beginning. More liquid water swallows coastlines; increased water vapor means more clouds, precipitation, and warmer temperatures (remember, water vapor is a greenhouse gas). Wind patterns and ocean currents shift, changing global weather patterns. Oh yeah, and ice’s extreme albedo (reflectivity) bounces solar energy back to space, so shrinking our icecaps and glaciers means less solar energy returned to space even more solar energy to warm our atmosphere, which only compounds the problems.

Comparing direct measurements of current conditions to data inferred from tree rings, ice and sediment cores, and many other proven methods, makes it clear that human activity has indeed upset the climate balance: our planet is warming. What we’re still working on is how much we’ve upset it (so far), what’s coming, and where the tipping point is (or whether the tipping point is already in our rearview mirror).

We do know that we’re already experiencing the effects of these changes, though it’s impossible to pinpoint a single hurricane, fire, or flood and say this one wouldn’t have happened without climate change. And contrary to the belief of many, everyone will not be warmer. Some places are getting warmer, others are getting cooler; some are wetter, others are drier. The frequency and intensity of storms is changing, growing seasons are changing, animal habitats are shifting or shrinking, and the list goes on….

We won’t fix the problem by simply adjusting the thermostat, building dikes and levees, and raking forests. Until we actually reduce greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, things will get worse faster than we can adjust. But the first step to fixing a problem is acknowledging we have one.

About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Sun and Smoke, Sierra Foothills, California

Sun and Smoke, Sierra Foothills, California

The Camp Fire had been burning for ten days, devouring Paradise and filling the air in Sacramento with brown smoke so thick that at times not only could we not see the sun, we couldn’t see the end of the block. But on this afternoon, when an orange ball of sun burned through the smoke I donned a mask, grabbed my camera bag, and headed for the hills.

I have a collection of go-to foothill oak trees for sun and moonsets, but most of these trees are too close to my shooting position for the extreme telephoto image I had in mind. Too close because at this kind of focal length, the hyperfocal distance is over a mile. So I made my way to a quiet country road near Plymouth where I thought the trees might just be distant enough to work. But I’m less familiar with this location than many of my others, so I didn’t know exactly how the trees and sun would align. Turning onto the road, I drove slowly, glancing at the sun and trees until they lined up. Because there wasn’t a lot of room to park on either side, I was pleased that the shoulder at the location that worked best was just wide enough for my car.

Envisioning a maximum telephoto shot, I added my Sony 2X teleconverter to my Sony 100-400 GM lens. While my plan was to use my 1.5-crop Sony a6300, when I arrived the sun was high enough that that combination provided too much magnification, so I started with my full frame Sony a7RIII. But soon as the sun dropped to tree level I switched to the a6300 and zoomed as tight as possible.

When I started the sun was still bright enough that capturing its color made the trees complete silhouettes, with no detail or color in the foreground. But as the setting sun sank into increasingly thick smoke, it became redder and redder and my exposure became easier. It always surprises me how fast the sun and moon move relative to the nearby horizon, so found myself running around to different positions to get the right sun and tree juxtaposition as the sun fell. The smoke near the horizon was so thick that it swallowed the sun before it actually set.

Later I plotted my location and the sun’s position on a map and realized that I was pointing right at San Francisco, about 100 miles away, with a large swath of the Bay Area in between. Then I thought about this air that was thick enough to completely obscure the sun, and the millions of people who had been breathing that air for weeks.

I’d be lying if I said I don’t like this image—it’s exactly what I was going for. But I’d be very happy if I never got another opportunity to photograph something like this.

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