Dare To Be Different

Gary Hart Photography: Snowfall, Tunnel View, Yosemite

Snowfall, Tunnel View, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
1/15 second
F/9
ISO 100

What does it take to make a great landscape image? The answer to that question could fill volumes (so I hope you don’t expect the final word in one blog post), but for starters, it seems pretty obvious that a great landscape image should involve some combination of beautiful scene and compelling composition. Of course it’s possible for one side of that scale to tilt so strongly that it renders the other side all but irrelevant: I’m thinking about the masterful composition that manages to extract beauty from the most ordinary scene, or the scene that’s so spectacular that it would be virtually impossible to not return with a beautiful image.

But as much as photographers should strive for the former, I’m afraid ubiquitous cameras and information have given us too much of the latter—because it’s easier. Not only can today’s photographers learn where to be and when to be there with the tap of an app (or the click of a mouse), even when unexpected beauty suddenly materializes before our eyes, we’re almost certainly armed with a tool to capture it. Add to this the power of today’s computers and software to actually manufacture beauty (don’t get me started…), and I’m concerned that the world is becoming numbed to the appreciation of photography as a craft—the ability to see the less obvious beauty and convey it by deftly controlling the scene’s framing, motion, depth, and light.

This is especially relevant to me because I make my living serving people who dream of getting “the” shot at my workshop locations. Usually they’ve seen some other photographer’s version of their “dream” shot and simply want one of their own to display and share. Whether it’s sunset light on Horsetail Fall, a lightning strike at the Grand Canyon, or fresh snow at Tunnel View, I completely understand their motivation and I do everything in my power to make it happen (I love photographing these things too). But still…

In addition to helping my workshop student get their dream image, I also encourage them to make these shots their starting point, not their goal. Photograph the icons without shame, but don’t stop there, also find your own perspective on the scene’s beauty. That could be identifying a foreground element that complements a glorious background, going vertical when the obvious composition is horizontal, introducing motion or focus blur to part of the scene, or any number of large or small compositional twists.

My own approach when photographing a scene imbued with obvious inherent beauty—such as a spectacular sunset, vivid rainbow, or breathtaking vista—is to remind myself not to settle for something I’ve already done, no matter how beautiful it might be. While that’s a relatively small challenge at new or less familiar scenes, this approach makes familiar places like Tunnel View in Yosemite (arguably the most beautiful vista on Earth, and one that I’ve photographed more times than I can count) a much higher photographic bar to clear. So high, in fact, that I rarely take out my camera at Tunnel View anymore. (Well, at least that’s the mindset when I get there—I’m a sucker for this scene and sometimes can’t resist photographing a beautiful moment here because some scenes are too beautiful to ignore—but you get the point.) Even still, these days I pretty much only photograph Tunnel View when I can include some a scecial, transient element, like the moon or a rainbow. Or fresh snow.

Last month my Yosemite Winter Moon workshop group had the immense good fortune to start just as a cold winter storm finished dropping 8 inches of snow on Yosemite Valley. For a couple of reasons, we started at Tunnel View—first, because it’s the best place to introduce first-timers to Yosemite’s majesty; second, it’s probably the best place in Yosemite to view a clearing storm. The scene that greeted us was as spectacular as you might imagine—and as also you might imagine, it wasn’t something I hadn’t seen before.

My original plan was to keep my camera in the car, but once I got everyone settled into their spots and was confident they were content (and wanted to be left alone), I couldn’t resist the beauty, no matter how familiar. Oh—and before I go any farther, let me make clear that I am not trying to say, nor do I in any way believe, that this image is more special than thousands of other Tunnel View images that preceded it (or even that were captured that day). I just want to use it to illustrate my approach, and the decisions that got me to something that turned out to be a little different for me. But anyway…

The first thing I usually I preach about photographing Tunnel View is to not go too wide. As beautiful as the entire view is, the real (permanent) visual action is between El Capitan on the left, and Leaning Tower (the diagonal, flat granite face angling up from Bridalveil Fall) on the right. Another problem at Tunnel View is that the sky in Yosemite is usually boring (cloudless), and the foreground trees are nothing special. So not only does the real estate left of El Capitan and right of Leaning Tower pale in comparison to the primary scene it bookends, composing wide enough to include that extra granite also means shrinking the best stuff (from left to right: El Capitan, Cloud’s Rest, Half Dome, Cathedral Rocks, Bridalveil Fall, Leaning Tower) while including more bland sky and trees. Therefore, my go-to lens for Tunnel View is my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens. And when I want to isolate one or two of the primary features, I’ll switch to my Sony 100-400 GM lens.

But this afternoon, with the entire landscape glazed white, those scruffy foreground trees were suddenly a feature worthy of inclusion. So, rather than starting with the 24-105 on my Sony a7RIV, I reached for my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens. Going wider created another problem: that large tree on the left is a usually an obstacle, a potential distraction always that must be dealt with. My standard approach is to move to the right to completely eliminate the tree from my composition, but this afternoon the vista was so packed with gawkers and photographers that moving around without encroaching on someone else’s space was difficult-to-impossible. Because I got my group setup before grabbing a spot for myself, I’d found myself stuck farther to the left than I like, making my plan to shoot the scene extra-wide while eliminating the tree even more problematic. So, grateful once again for the snowy glaze, I decided to use my arboreal nemesis to frame the left side of my composition (if you can’t beat ’em…). For the right side of my frame, I chose to go wide enough to include a couple of more prominent trees in the middle distance, as well as the interesting clouds swirling near the rim behind them.

In any composition, the decision between sky and foreground always comes down to which is more interesting—in this case, despite some fairly interesting clouds overhead, those clouds couldn’t compete with the snowy foreground. To maximize the snowy foreground, I put the bottom of my frame in the homogeneous white snowbank at the base of the shrub line just a few feet below me—just low enough to allow me to include only the most interesting clouds.

And finally, because I know someone will ask, even with so much detail from near-to-far, at 20mm and f/9, my focus point was pretty much irrelevant (hyperfocal distance was 5 feet). As something of a control freak in my photography life (understatement), I’ve always been a manual focus evangelist, but I’m getting lazy in my old age and in this case I just hit my back-button focus button to autofocus somewhere in the scene (wherever the focus point happened to be), then clicked with the knowledge I’d be sharp throughout.


More Tunnel View Magic: One Spot, Many Takes

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2021 Highlights: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Last week I shared a brief summary of the year just passed; this week I offer the fruits of all that labor.

Leading photo workshops for a living, I spend a lot of time in places I’ve visited many times, but it seems each spot feels more a part of me with each visit. This year in particular, I sought opportunities to add the Milky Way, a moonrise, fresh snowfall, an electrical storm, or some other transient natural phenomenon to my scene to further elevate these familiar landscapes.

But thrilling images notwithstanding, for me, and I suspect (hope?) for many, the true joy of nature photography isn’t the image itself, it’s the chase—all the planning and physical sacrifice that made it possible—as well as the humbling awe of being there. Last year, despite its difficulties, was chock-full of those experiences.

As you may have guessed, many of the scenes in the gallery above were shared with workshop participants. It took losing more than a dozen workshops to the pandemic to fully appreciate how much it lifts me to experience Nature’s best displays with people who are as awestruck as I am, and I felt blessed to get that back in 2021.

On the other hand, I feel similarly blessed for those rare opportunities to commune with Nature in meditative solitude. With 16 workshops last year (and all the planning and organization they required), I had precious few truly private photo moments in 2021. But the opportunities I did have still resonate clearly.

Looking forward

Another thing that happens when I review images from the year just ended is a reminder of the visual treats in store for the coming year. I have no idea what I’ll see in 2022, but I’ve been doing this long enough to know that I’ll create more images that thrill me, and more memories to sustain me.

Thanks to each of you for your support, in whatever form that takes. Whether you’re a workshop student, an avid follower, or just a casual browser, I’m so happy you’ve joined me on this amazing ride.

See more in my…

2021 Highlights Gallery

2021 In Review: Pedal to the Metal, While Tapping the Brakes…

Gary Hart Photography: Massive Moonrise, El Capitan, Yosemite

Massive Moonrise, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 200-600 G
Sony 2x teleconverter
ISO 400
f/16
1/80 second

As COVID started ravaging my workshop schedule way back in March 2020, my private mantra was, “Just hang on until August.” As we approach our third pandemic year with the Omicron variant raging, how misguided that dream feels today. While 2020 was pretty much lost to COVID, 2021 was the year things seemed poised to return to normal. And while not the Disney happy ending I’d envisioned, in many ways that proved true.

Even though I had to postpone my 2021 January workshops—one in Death Valley, as well as the Iceland workshop I do with Don Smith—it seemed things were improving. And improve they did: In quick succession I did two Yosemite workshops in February, followed by three more Yosemite workshops, one each in March, April, and May. Another 2021 spring highlight came in May, when I returned to the Grand Canyon for my beloved raft trip. Amidst all this, Don Smith and I managed to get in our April Oregon Coast and Columbia River Gorge workshops. So far, so good.

Despite missing most of 2020 and a few COVID-related inconveniences, these resurrected workshops felt surprisingly normal—not only was I thrilled to get back to my locations, spending time with the groups reminded me how much I missed having people to share the beauty with. And it seemed the people in my groups were just as happy to return to nature, and to interact with others in the relative safety of the great outdoors, as I was.

Approaching mid-year, Don and I did lose our spectacular New Zealand workshop for the second year in a row, but we’d been resigned to that for many months and had a solid plan in place. I was actually philosophical about the New Zealand loss, rationalizing that I was ready for a breather following my brutal spring schedule, and the similarly ambitious schedule coming in the second half of the year (trying to make up for my 2020 losses).

The second half of the summer was back to pedal-to-the-metal mode, with three Grand Canyon workshops (back-to-back-to-back) in July and August, followed by a return to the Big Island of Hawaii in September. Autumn didn’t get any easier, with back-to-back Eastern Sierra workshops in September and October, and another Yosemite workshop in November.

If all this seems like a lot, let me assure you, it was. But, in the midst of this breakneck pace, October brought a real tap-the-brakes moment: Despite COVID precautions and all 11 participants/leaders fully vaccinated, following my second Eastern Sierra workshop, 7 people (including me) tested positive for COVID. Fortunately, no one became seriously ill (I felt like I had a moderate cold for less than a week—no fever, headache, or fatigue, but 4 days with absolutely no sense of smell). I know it would have been far worse had we not been vaccinated—a blessing for which I’ll be eternally grateful—but it was a reminder to stay vigilant.

The grand finale

Fully recovered, I wrapped up my busy year in December with a spectacular Yosemite workshop. This “Winter Moon” workshop delivered ample portions of both winter and moon—lots of snowfall that gave way to clear sky just in time for the full moon on our final shoot.

Fellow Yosemite (among other places) photographer Michael Frye was doing a workshop at the same time, but we communicated regularly and adjusted our plans to prevent our groups from ending up at the same spots at the same time. After learning that we both planned to be at Tunnel View for Friday’s sunset moonrise (we agreed there’d be enough room to make it work), an event that was no secret to the photography community in general, I knew it would be crowded.

While there’s quite a bit of room at Tunnel View, it’s not infinite, and parking can sometimes be a problem, so I got my group up there about 90 minutes before sunset (and about 75 minutes before the moon would appear). While we waited, I made sure everyone knew when and where the moon would appear, and encouraged them to work on compositions before the moon appeared.

Though I had two tripods with me, I didn’t think it would be fair for one person to take two spots and instead just set up one tripod and readied two bodies and lenses: a Sony a7RIV with my Sony 200-600 G and Sony 2X Teleconverter (1200mm), and a Sony a7RIV with my Sony 24-105 G. My plan was to start with the telephoto body as the moon appeared, then switch to the wider body as the moon climbed and moved away from El Capitan.

As you can see, the workshop grand finale was a spectacular success. The moon appeared near the (barely visible) frozen trickle that will become Horsetail Fall just a few minutes before sunset, just as the day’s last light kissed El Capitan. I shared one of the wider images in last week’s post; this week I’m sharing a 1200mm image from shortly after the moon’s arrival.

Note the size of the moon in these two images that were taken on the same night, from the same location. While it would be spectacular to have the large moon in the scene with both El Capitan and Half Dome, that would be impossible from any earthbound vantage point. From Tunnel View, magnifying the moon with a 1200mm focal length only gives me a small fraction of El Capitan, while widening the scene enough to include both of Yosemite’s granite icons shrinks the moon to small disk. The results are so different, I won’t even try to suggest that one is “better” than the other.

Epilogue

So, in case you weren’t keeping score, in 2021 I had 3 workshops rescheduled, while adding 16 workshops notches to my belt—a personal record. Yet despite this very productive year, 2021 didn’t usher in the Disney happy ending I’d hoped for. It seems very possible that Don and I will lose New Zealand again in 2022, and Omicron has forces to reschedule one of the two Iceland workshops scheduled for January.

My other 2022 workshops are still on schedule, but I’m monitoring Omicron closely and hoping it fades as quickly as it started (monitoring positive signs from South Africa and other countries ahead of us—with fingers crossed).

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2021 Highlights

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These Are Two of My Favorite Things

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Moonrise, El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite

Winter Twilight Moonrise, El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/25 second
F/8
ISO 100

Camera or not, two of my very favorite things in nature are a rising moon, and the rich pink and blue twilight sky opposite the sun after sunset*. Once a month, in the days around the full moon, these phenomena converge, and I get an opportunity to photograph the moon actually in the best part of the sky. I spend a lot of time trying to identify the scenes above which to photograph these celestial displays, and the best time to be there.

As a one-click photographer, for years the primary obstacle to photographing these scenes has been capturing (in a single frame) detail in the daylight-bright moon and a rapidly darkening landscape. In my early digital years, I found that the window of exposure opportunity—the time from sunset until the foreground became too dark to capture with one click—ended about 5-10 minutes after sunset (this can vary somewhat with several factors, such as longitude and terrain), just as the best color was ramping up. I could extend that window by 5 minutes or so by using a graduated neutral density filter to subdue the moon’s brightness by 2 or 3 stops, but GNDs come with their own set of problems—especially when the scene doesn’t have a homogenous, horizontal space near the horizon to disguise the GND boundary.

Technology to the rescue

One of the main reasons I switched to Sony in 2014 was the dynamic range of the Sony Alpha sensors, and few situations underscore that advantage better than these twilight moonrises. With my new cameras, suddenly my post-sunset threshold jumped by at least 50%—an advantage that continued progressing with each Sony sensor iteration.

Along with improved sensor technology, advances in processing software enabled me to get even more out of each image. Probably biggest processing improvement is in the noise reduction software that reduces blotchy, image softening, detail robbing noise that’s the prime limiting factor when you pull up the shadows of a twilight moonrise. Noise reduction software doesn’t restore lost image data, but it can bring out the best of what you did capture, allowing you to push back the twilight moonrise window just a little more. (I use and recommend Topaz DeNoise AI.)

Time for an Ansel Adams quote

Ansel Adams famously said, “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” Put in today’s terms (and far more prosaically), all the technology in the world doesn’t do much good if you don’t know how to use it. For example, me: I know now that I probably packed up too early, mistakenly thinking the twilight moonrise photography window had closed—simply because I didn’t know how to get the most from my camera.

In fact, proper exposure is probably the single biggest struggle most photographers have when photographing a twilight moon. The most frequent mistake is trying to make the picture look good on their LCD, which invariably results in a preview image with gorgeous foreground beneath a brilliant white lunar disk—a disk that, on closer scrutiny, is hopelessly stripped of detail.

Photographing both a full moon and the landscape, with detail, starts by understanding that, in a high dynamic range scene, an ideal exposure rarely looks good on the LCD. I repeat: In a high dynamic range scene, an ideal exposure rarely looks good on the LCD.  The key is making the image as bright as possible without blowing the highlights, providing the best opportunity to restore the highlights and shadows in post-processing.

While it’s usually best to trust the image’s histogram in extreme dynamic range situations, since the moon is such a small part of most images, it rarely registers on the histogram. This small but important detail makes it possible to capture a histogram that looks great, while ending up with a moon that’s hopelessly blown (detail-less white).

So if you can’t trust the image or the histogram, what can you trust? I thought you’d never ask. While the histogram is helpful for the landscape part of the scene, when I photograph a full moon, I monitor the moon’s exposure with my camera’s highlight alert feature—on my Sony Alpha mirrorless bodies that the “zebras” (pre-capture highlight warning stripes on all mirrorless and some DSLR cameras), but DSLR shooters can use the post-capture blinking highlights.

My twilight moonrise recipe

My process for a post-sunset moon starts with metering in manual mode (because I want complete control of my exposure). I set the ISO to 100 (my Sony a7RIV’s native/best ISO), and the f-stop to whatever I think will give me the sharpest image. The exposure is controlled with the shutter speed.

While the moon’s brightness doesn’t change, with a rising full moon, the landscape will continue to darken, making a foreground exposure that was perfect a minute or two ago not quite so perfect now. As the scene darkens, I add light by deliberately increasing my shutter speed in 1/3 stop increments (that is, one click at a time), with my eye on the moon.

When the zebras appear, I use my knowledge of my a7RIV to squeeze the most possible light from the scene. Raw shooters almost always have more detail than their histogram or highlight alerts indicate (different cameras’ highlight alerts engage at different points). This means you can add still light after the first alerts appear in the moon. When I first detect the zebras on my a7RIV, I know I can push my highlights 2/3 to 1 full stop brighter and still recover detail later.

If you’re shooting with a DSLR that doesn’t offer pre-capture zebras in your viewfinder, you may still be able to get them on the live-view LCD (some DSLRs offer them, some don’t). If not, you’ll need to check the post-capture blinking highlights after you click. Camera familiarity is no less essential when reading the blinking highlights of post-capture DSLR image preview highlight alerts than it is with the pre-capture zebras on a mirrorless camera.

Another thing I’ve started doing to get the most light out of the scene is pushing my highlights beyond the point where I’m certain I haven’t blown them out, then magnifying the moon in the preview image—if I see detail, I know not only am I still good to go, I may even be able to squeeze another 1/ or 2/3 of a stop more light out.

Still learning

Straight from the camera, the shadows in this image were nearly black. But I’m constantly amazed by the amount of usable data I can pull from the darkest shadows of my Sony a7RIV.

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Twilight Moonrise, El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite

Winter Twilight Moonrise, El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite

What I’m starting to realize now is how much usable detail I have in the shadows of my a7RIV. This image was captured just Friday night, on the final night of my Yosemite Winter Moon workshop. It was more than 20 minutes after sunset and my foreground looked so black on the LCD that I figured it was unusable. But the scene was so beautiful, I just couldn’t make myself stop shooting. (A friend who happened to be standing next to me for most of the evening had left about 10 minutes earlier, despite my protests that he was leaving too soon.)

So imagine my surprise when I opened it in Lightroom, pulled up the Blacks (to about 30), Shadows (all the way), and Exposure (about two stops) sliders and saw plenty of detail and very fixable noise. A quick treatment from Topaz DeNoise AI confirmed what what I’d just seen—my twilight moon window is now open until at 20 minutes after sunset. Amazing.

(I’ll have more on this fantastic finale to a fantastic workshop in a future post. Spoiler alert: This isn’t the only image from this shoot.)

* When I say sunset, you can infer that I mean sunrise as well, with everything happening in reverse, on the other side of the sky. 

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Twilight Moon

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The Shots (Almost) Not Taken

Gary Hart Photography: Milky Way Reflection, South Tufa, Mono Lake

Milky Way Reflection, South Tufa, Mono Lake
Sony a7SIII
Sony 14mm f/1.8 G
ISO 6400
f/1.8
20 seconds

Between a lot of travel last week and preparing for a workshop that starts this week, I somehow managed to process an image yesterday. And today I’m going to attempt to squeeze out a quick blog post around a gathering that’s a 5-hour roundtrip away. Let’s see what happens…

This image makes me think about other memorable shoots that might not have happened had I stuck with the original plan, or succumbed to the easy (more comfortable) exit. These experiences are a testament to the Wayne Gretzky (or was it Michael Scott?) wisdom that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

I’m thinking about the rainbow above Yosemite Valley that I wouldn’t have gotten had I stuck with my plan to meet a private workshop student for dinner—instead, I met him and his girlfriend at the restaurant and insisted that we forego dinner to go sit in the rain, because I thought a rainbow might be possible. Or a very cold morning at Lake Wanaka, New Zealand, when I woke to fog so thick that I could barely see 100 yards. Or setting my alarm for 4:30 a.m. to photograph sunrise, even though I had a 12-hour drive home and the forecast promised a zero-percent chance of rain—only to be gifted a 2-hour electrical storm that ended with a rainbow.

Normally I do the Milky Way shoot in the bristlecones on my Eastern Sierra workshop’s second night, but new permit restrictions thwarted that plan (turns out clouds and wildfire smoke would have stopped us anyway). So I resorted to Plan B, promising that we’d give the Milky Way a try after the Olmsted Point sunset shoot on the workshop’s final night.

But ascending Tioga Pass, we encountered smoke from one of the many wildfires scorching California.  The smoke thickened as we headed west, and by the time we arrived at Olmsted Point, we could barely make out the outline of Half Dome in the smoky distance. We stayed long enough to enjoy a red-rubber-ball sunset, then blew off our “wait for the Milky Way” plan and drove back down to Lee Vining for dinner.

Though we were all a little disappointed to be missing the Milky Way shoot, as we queued up at the Whoa Nellie Deli (look it up), I sensed that many in the group looked forward to a warm and restful evening. Still, at one point I snuck out into the cold to check the sky. Seeing that clouds, smoke, or some combination of both had snuffed them, I confirmed to the group that the Milky Way shoot was off.

Walking outside after dinner, I was already mentally back in my room, but nevertheless glanced skyward and was surprised to see stars. Lots and lots of stars. Without the smoke/cloud blanket to hold in what little warmth remained, the temperature felt like it had dropped another 10 degrees. Part of me really, really wanted to pretend I hadn’t seen the stars and just herd everyone to the cars before they noticed them too, but I knew the Milky Way was a priority for many, and this opportunity was too good to pass. When I suggested that we give it a shot, almost the entire group was onboard (I can’t remember whether anyone opted out, but most didn’t). So we drove out to South Tufa, bundled up, and traipsed down to the lake.

I’ve photographed here more times than I can count (it’s possible there aren’t even numbers that go that high anyway), but only once or twice at night, many years ago. I didn’t have a specific spot in mind, but since South Tufa is on the south side of the lake, and the Milky Way is in the southern sky, I figured we’d likely be shooting in a tufa garden, with the lake at our back and the calcium carbonate towers in the foreground.

But walking east along the lake shore in the dark, we came upon a small peninsula jutting into the lake. Despite having walked by this spot countless times, I suddenly realized it might protrude far enough to allow us to shoot southward and back cross the water, toward a few tufa towers, with the Milky Way in the background.

We used flashlights to walk out and set up, but then photographed by the light of nothing but the stars. Working with an entire group out here in the dark, with no more than three very craggy feet of space between the lake at our feet and a wall of tufa behind us, was a real challenge. Each time someone called for help I had to navigate a treacherous route in near total darkness, taking care not to bump anyone, and being very mindful that the slightest misstep could send me sprawling into the frigid, salty lake (not to mention what that would do to the reflection).

Each time I passed my camera, I checked my previous image, made quick adjustments, and clicked a new frame before moving on to the next person who needed help. I only managed a handful of shots, and while they all looked pretty similar to this, that was just fine. We stayed here for 30 minutes or so, then moved on to the tufa garden I’d originally considered. That was nice too, though many of those images were spoiled by someone light painting the tufa nearby.

Looking over the images from that night, I’m reminded not just of the great photography we enjoyed, but also of how much fun we had out there in the dark, doing something we never imagined we’d be able to do. It would have been very easy after dinner to return with our full stomachs to our warm rooms, and turn in early to be rested for our early start the next morning. But I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the best memories often come from the most challenging conditions. If we’d have followed the strong urge to return to the hotel right after dinner, we almost certainly would have been quite comfortable, content, and completely oblivious to what we’d missed. And what a sad thing that would have been.


Almost Not Taken

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Shooting the Light Fantastic

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Reflection, Cathedral Rocks, Yosemite

Autumn Reflection, Cathedral Rocks, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
2 seconds
F/11
ISO 100

Blue sky may be great for picnics and outdoor weddings, but it makes for lousy photography. To avoid boring blue skies, flat midday light, and extreme highlight/shadow contrast, landscape photographers usually go for the color of sunrise and sunset, and low-angle sunlight of early morning and late afternoon.

Of course the great light equalizer is clouds, which can soften harsh light and add enough texture and character to the sky, making almost any subject photographable—any time of day. Sadly, clouds are never guaranteed, especially here in California. Fortunately, all is not lost when the great clouds and light we hope for don’t manifest.

Spending a large part of my photography time in Yosemite, over the years I’ve created a mental list for when to find the “best” cloudless-sky light on Yosemite’s icons: for Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall, and Cathedral Rocks it’s late afternoon through sunset; El Capitan is good early morning, while Yosemite Falls is best a little later in the morning. And then there are seasonal considerations: Half Dome at the end of the day is good year-round, but Bridalveil Fall and Cathedral Rocks are much better from April through September; while El Capitan gets nice morning light year-round, it also gets good late light from October through February; and while the best light on Yosemite Falls happens in winter, that doesn’t usually coincide with the best water, which comes in spring (unless you’re lucky enough to get a lot of early rain, like we got this autumn).

But even when the sun’s up and the sky is blank, all is not lost. In those situations I head to locations I can photograph in full shade. Yosemite Valley’s steep walls help a lot, especially from November through February, when much of the valley never gets direct sun.

Following our sunrise shoot on the first morning of last month’s Yosemite Fall Color photo workshop, I took my group to El Capitan Bridge to photograph the first light on El Capitan. But as nice as that El Capitan first light was, on this morning I couldn’t help notice the downstream view of Cathedral Rocks across the bridge. With everything on that side in full shade, this downstream scene wasn’t as dramatic as the sun-warmed El Capitan, but the soft, shadowless light was ideal for the colorful trees reflecting in the Merced River.

After encouraging everyone in the group not to check out this downstream view, I went to work on the scene. If the sky had been more interesting, I’d have opted for my Sony 16-35 GM lens to include all of Cathedral Rocks, more trees, lots of reflection, and an ample slice of sky. But the sky this morning was both bright and blue (yuck), so I chose the Sony 24-105G lens for my Sony a7RIV to tighten the composition.

Before shooting, I actually walked up and down at the railing quite a bit, framing up both horizontal and vertical sample compositions, until I found the right balance of granite, trees, and reflection. Because the air was perfectly still, I didn’t need to worry about movement in the leaves, which enabled me to add my Breakthrough 6-stop Dark Circular Polarizer for a shutter speed long enough the smooth some of the ripples in the water.

I guess the lesson here is the importance of understanding and leveraging light. And all this talk about light inspired me to dust off my Light Photo Tips article—I’ve added the updated and clarified version below (with a gallery of images beneath it).


Light

Gary Hart Photography: Three Strikes, Bright Angel Point, Grand Canyon

Three Strikes, Lightning and Rainbow from Bright Angel Point, Grand Canyon

Good light, bad light

Photograph: “Photo” comes from phos, the Greek word for light; “graph” is from graphos, the Greek word for write. And that’s pretty much what photographers do: Write with light.

Because we have no control over the sun, nature photographers spend a lot of time hoping for “good” light and cursing “bad” light—despite the fact that there is no universal definition of “good” and “bad” light. Before embracing someone else’s good/bad light labels, let me offer that I (and most other serious photographers) could probably show you images that defy any good/bad label you’ve heard. The best definition of good light is light that allows us to do what we want to do; bad light is light that prevents us from doing what we want to do.

Studio photographers’ complete control of the light that illuminates their subjects, a true art, allows them to define and create their own “good” light. On the other hand, nature photographers, rely on sunlight and don’t have that kind of control. But knowledge is power: The better we understand light—what it is, what it does, and why/how it does it—the better we can anticipate and be present for the light we seek, and deal with the light we encounter.

The qualities of light

Energy generated by the sun bathes Earth in continuous electromagnetic radiation, its wavelengths ranging from extremely short to extremely long (how’s that for specific?). Among the broad spectrum of electromagnetic solar wavelengths we receive are ultraviolet rays that burn our skin (10-400 nanometers), infrared waves that warm our atmosphere (700 nanometers to 1 millimeter), and the visible spectrum that we (and our cameras) use to view the world—a narrow range of wavelengths between ultraviolet and infrared with wavelengths that range between 400 and 700 nanometers.

When all visible wavelengths are present, we perceive the light as white (colorless). But when light interacts with an object, the object absorbs or scatters some of the light’s wavelengths.  The amount of scattering and absorption is determined by the interfering object’s properties. For example, when light strikes a tree, characteristics of the tree determine which of its wavelengths are absorbed, and the wavelengths not absorbed are scattered. Our eyes capture these scattered wavelengths and send that information to our brains, which translates it into a color.

When light strikes a mountain lake, some is absorbed by the water, allowing us to see the water. Some light bounces back to the atmosphere to create a reflection. The light that isn’t absorbed or reflected by the water light passes through to the lakebed and we see whatever is on the lake’s bottom.

Gary Hart Photography: Before the Sun, South Tufa, Mono Lake

This vivid sunrise was reflected by the glassy surface of Mono Lake, but just enough light made it through to reveal the outline of submerged tufa fragments on the lake bed.

Let’s get specific

Rainbows

For evidence of light’s colors, look no farther than the rainbow. Because light slows when it passes through water, but shorter wavelengths slow more than longer wavelengths, water refracts (bends) light. A single beam of white light (light with an evenly distributed array of the entire visible spectrum) entering a raindrop separates and spreads into a full range of visible wavelengths that we perceive a range of colors. When this separated light strikes the back of the raindrop, some of it reflects: A rainbow!

Gary Hart Photography: Under the Rainbow, Colorado River, Grand Canyon

Under the Rainbow, Colorado River, Grand Canyon

Read more about rainbows

Blue sky

When sunlight reaches Earth, the relatively small nitrogen and oxygen molecules that are most prevalent in our atmosphere scatter its shorter wavelengths (violet and blue) first, turning the sky overhead (the most direct path to our eyes) blue. The longer wavelengths (orange and red) don’t scatter as easily continue traveling through more atmosphere—while our midday sky is blue, these long wavelengths are coloring the sunset sky of someone to the east.

In the mountains, sunlight has passed through even less atmosphere and the sky appears even more blue than it does at sea level. On the other hand, when relatively large pollution and dust molecules are present, all the wavelengths (colors) scatter, resulting in a murky, less colorful sky (picture what happens when your toddler mixes all the paints in her watercolor set).

Most photographers (myself included) don’t like blank blue sky. Clouds are interesting, and their absence is boring. Additionally, when the sun is overhead, bright highlights and deep shadows create contrast that cameras struggle to handle. That means even a sky completely obscured by a homogeneous gray stratus layer, while nearly as boring as blue sky, is generally preferred because it reduces contrast and softens the light (more below).

Sunrise, sunset

Remember the blue light that scattered to color our midday sky? The longer orange and red wavelengths that didn’t scatter overhead, continued on. As the Earth rotates, eventually our location reaches the point where the sun is low and the sunlight that reaches us has had to fight its way through so much atmosphere that it’s been stripped of all blueness, leaving only its longest wavelengths to paint our sunrise/sunset sky shades of orange and red.

When I evaluate a scene for vivid sunrise/sunset color potential, I look for an opening on the horizon for the sunlight to pass through, pristine air (such as the clean air immediately after a rain) that won’t muddy the color, and clouds overhead and opposite the sun, to catch the color.

Read more about sunset color

Overcast and shade

Sunny days are generally no fun for nature photographers. In full sunlight, direct light mixed with dark shadows often forces nature photographers to choose between exposing for the highlights or the shadows (or to resort to multi-image blending). So when the sun is high, I generally hope for clouds or look for shade.

Clouds diffuse the omni-directional sunlight—instead of originating from a single point, overcast light is spread evenly across the sky, filling shadows and painting the entire landscape in diffuse light. Similarly, whether caused by a single tree or a towering mountain, all shadow light is indirect. While the entire scene may be darker, the range of tones in shade very easily handled by a camera.

Flat gray sky or deep shade may appear dull and boring, but it’s usually the best light for midday photography. When skies are overcast, I can photograph all day—rather than seeking sweeping landscapes, in this light I tend to look for more intimate scenes that minimize or completely exclude the sky. And when the midday sun shines bright, I look for subjects in full shade. Overcast and shade is also the best light for blurring water because it requires longer shutter speeds.

Another option for midday light is high-key photography that uses the overexposed sky as a brilliant background. Putting a backlit subject against the bright sky, I simply meter on my subject and blow out the sky.

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Leveraging light

Whether I’m traveling to a photo shoot, or looking for something near home, my decisions are always based on getting myself to my locations when the conditions are best. For example, in Yosemite I generally prefer sunset because that’s when Yosemite Valley’s most photogenic features get late, warm light. Mt. Whitney, on the other side of the Sierra, gets its best light at sunrise, and I prefer photographing the lush redwood forests along the California coast in rain or fog. Though I plan obsessively to get myself in the right place, in the best light, sometimes Nature throws a curve, just to remind me (it seems) not to get so locked in on my subject and the general tendencies of its light that I fail to recognize the best light at that moment.


The Light Fantastic

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Getting Personal

Gary Hart Photography: Sunrise Reflection, Mono Lake, California

Sunrise Reflection, Mono Lake, California
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
5 seconds
F/18
ISO 400

In my previous blog post I wrote about creating visual relationships between landscape subjects—juxtaposing disparate elements in a scene in ways that move or stop viewers’ eyes. But I’m also a strong believer in the power of personal relationships with landscape subjects. Whether it’s the celestial choreography that decorates our night skies, the atmospheric machinations that spawn thunderstorms and paint rainbows, or the geological processes that build mountains, I’m most attracted to subjects that move me to understand them better.

I can’t remember the first time I laid eyes on Mono Lake, but I’ve always been drawn to its stark beauty, and fascinated by the processes behind the sci-fi exoplanet quality that makes Mono Lake feel like a place from the mind of Asimov or Herbert. Locked in an arid basin with no outlet, Mono Lake is fed by snowmelt from the Sierra that stays put until evaporation carries it away in the atmosphere. But with the runoff infusion comes minerals that don’t evaporate with the lake water. Because there’s no river or stream to carry these minerals away, they accumulate in the water, making Mono Lake more than two times more salty than the ocean.

Mono Lake is probably most know for its tufa towers. These calcium carbonate (limestone) formations are the residue of submerged springs submerged that are only exposed when the lake level drops due to drought, or redirection of mountain runoff (to green Southern California lawns). Not only does the tufa add to Mono Lake’s otherworldly ambiance, it makes a great photographic subject.

One of the coolest things about Mono Lake is its quite recent history of volcanism. Cool (to me) because when people think about volcanoes in the US, they might think about Hawaii, where Kilauea is currently erupting, or maybe the Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest, with its array of striking cone-shaped peaks that seemed poised to erupt at any minute—as Mt. St. Helens did quite dramatically in 1980. But they probably don’t think about Mono Lake, which made the Top-25 in the latest USGS National Volcanic Threat Assessment report. In fact, Mono Lake is home to some of the United States’ most recent volcanic eruptions, with some of its visible volcanic features formed by eruptions that happened less than 200 years ago.

Even to the untrained (non-geologist’s) eye, evidence of the Mono Basin’s recent volcanism is easy to find if you look for it. Cinder cones dot the landscape, and near Black Point you’ll find volcanic fissures and thick black sand left over from recent eruptions. The lake’s two islands, Negit and Pahoa, both have volcanic pasts. Pahoa Island is the site of Mono Lake’s most recent volcanic activity, and Negit Island is home to the a cinder cone formed in an eruption less than 2,000 years ago.

All this cool natural history has a lot to do with why I spend so much time photographing Mono Lake, and why my Eastern Sierra workshop groups do three different shoots there. Everyone enjoys the sunrise and sunset shoots at Mono Lake’s always popular South Tufa, but a particular highlight of these workshops is our final sunrise on the lake’s remote north shore, where the signs of recent volcanism are more apparent. Navigating the unmarked (and unpaved) roads in the pre-sunrise darkness, and with no trail to the lake, each group ends up at a slightly different spot, but it never seems to matter. (I could save the GPS coordinates, but since the lakeshore varies so much with water level anyway, it wouldn’t really matter. Plus, I kind of enjoy the randomness.)

After the north shore sunrise, we usually wrap up the workshop with fall color in Lundy Canyon, but for this year’s second workshop I moved that shoot to the afternoon prior because the forecast for our final morning was rain—lots of rain. The evening before, I warned the group of the chance the morning shoot would be washed out, but gave them a departure time just in case. If we woke to a light rain, I promised we’d give sunrise a shot, but if it was dumping, the roads, which are already marginal, might very well be unnavigable. Privately pessimistic, I was surprised to wake the next morning and see dry pavement out my window—and even more surprised to walk outside to find the sky overhead filled with stars. Hmmm, maybe we can pull this off…

That optimism was short-lived. By the time we parked and started the walk through the darkness to the lake, incoming clouds had erased the stars, filling the sky, except for a narrow opening on the eastern horizon. Once everyone was settled in at the lake, I went to work trying to find a composition of my own. After determining that the sun would appear somewhere near the left side of the Negit Island cinder cone, I moved around to spots that allowed me to organize the randomly scattered tufa platforms into something coherent and connected to the background.

As the light came up, it was pretty obvious that the rain had arrived across the lake and was heading in our direction. On the other hand, the opening on the horizon was hanging in there, creating the potential for a pretty special sunrise—and maybe, fingers crossed, a rainbow.

As I composed for the sun’s arrival, I dialed the aperture of my Sony 24-105 f/4 lens (on my Sony a7RIV) to f/18 in anticipation of a sunstar, and added a Breakthrough 6-stop Dark Polarizer to smooth the ripples in the water with a long exposure. While the rainbow never manifested, the sunrise was indeed special. The curtain of rain and moisture on the horizon subdued the sunstar a bit, but that was more than made up by the orange fringe the rising sun painted on the clouds, and the vivid sunbeam reflection on the lake surface. The first sprinkles of rain started landing just as the sun disappeared for good, and by the time we’d trudged through the volcanic sand back to the cars, it was really starting to come down. But no one seemed to care, and I couldn’t help privately celebrating another memorable chapter in my long relationship with Mono Lake.

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A Mono Lake Gallery

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Stop the Car!

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Surprise, Upper Yosemite Fall, Yosemite

Autumn Surprise, Upper Yosemite Fall, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/5 second
F/11
ISO 100

Nature photography is all about identifying and creating relationships—between subjects, or between subjects and their environment. The relationships in some of my images require meticulous planning to align a predetermined foreground subject with a celestial feature like the Milky Way or a rising/setting moon. Other relationships happen when I travel to combine a beloved location like Yosemite with natural phenomena like fresh snow or fall color. And then there are those fortuitous “stop the car!” moments, convergences of time and place that are the product of alert scrutiny and quick reaction.

This image falls into the third, “stop the car!”, category, with maybe a little of the second, location/natural-phenomena thing—because I did definitely schedule my Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections photo workshop to coincide with the moving target of Yosemite’s fall color peak, and this year it worked out perfectly. But what I couldn’t have anticipated was a historic storm dowsing Yosemite with over six inches of rain one week before the workshop, creating spring flow in the falls that just begged to be photographed with the ubiquitous autumn foliage.

My group found this scene on the workshop’s first evening. Driving toward our sunset destination, we popped out of the forest and were treated with our first views of Yosemite Falls. I’d timed our departure from our prior shoot at Tunnel View to allow sufficient time at our sunset destination, but when I saw this towering oak covered crown-to-base with golden leaves, I slowed instantly, driving slowly with one eye on the tree until it aligned with Upper Yosemite Fall. I told everyone this was a bonus stop, and every minute we spent here would be a minute we couldn’t spend at the sunset spot, but got no complaints. And a quick look at the thick clouds told me sunset color was unlikely this evening anyway.

There was also a stand of yellow cottonwoods just left of this tree, providing even more compositional possibilities. Feeling a little less rushed, I encouraged everyone to move around, reminding them that they had complete control of the trees relationship with the fall. A couple of people wandered up the boardwalk over the meadow to the river, but most of the group stayed right on the sidewalk and worked on some version of what you see here.

I grabbed my tripod and Sony a7RIV with the Sony 24-105 (I have two a7RIVs and keep each loaded with one of my two most frequently used lenses, the aforementioned 24-105 and the Sony 16-35 GM) and started with a wider composition that framed Upper Yosemite Fall with the colorful cottonwoods and oak. But going that wide meant more sky and meadow than I wanted, so I soon whittled my composition down to just the oak and waterfall. My first frames had the fall to the left of the tree, but later I moved a little bit up the road for some frames with their positions reversed. This is one of the earlier ones.

For this shot I was careful to position myself so the fall dropped into a notch in the tree’s crown, moving back enough to ensure separation between the two. I also made sure the tree didn’t jut into the sky—I find it jarring when a foreground subject is cut by the horizon and try to avoid it when possible. Other compositional considerations were how much sky and meadow to include. While I liked the brooding clouds, I decided that they didn’t offer enough character to merit a lot of frame real estate. Similarly, I thought the texture in the meadow was fine (it wasn’t a negative), but didn’t think it deserved any more of my frame than the sky. So I composed to minimize the sky and meadow, using them as more of a frame for the top and bottom of the scene. And finally, I took care to keep the brilliant yellow tree on the distant right away from the edge of my frame. With low contrast and an entire scene at infinity for my focal length and f-stop, exposure and focus were easy.


Relationships

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Every Picture Tells a Story

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Evening, El Capitan, Yosemite

Autumn Evening, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/15 seconds
F/10
ISO 100

Let’s have a show of hands: How many of you have been advised at some point in the course of your photographic journey to “tell a story with your images”? Okay, now how many of you actually know what that means? That’s what I thought. As good as the “tell a story” advice is (it is indeed), many photographers, with the best of intentions, parrot the advice simply because it sounded good when they heard it. But when pressed for details, are unable to elaborate.

Telling a story with a photo is probably easier when photographers can physically stage subjects and light to suit their objective (an art in itself), or in journalistic photography intended to distill the the essence of an instant by connecting it to an easily inferred chronology: a homeless man feeding his dog, dead fish floating in the shadow of belching smokestacks, or a wide-receiver spiking a football in the end zone.

This isn’t to say that we landscape photographers can’t tell stories with our images, or that we shouldn’t try. Nor does it mean that any one photographic form is inherently more or less creative than another. It just means that the rules, objectives, advantages, and limitations differ from form to form. Nevertheless, simply advising a landscape photographer to tell a story with her images is kind of like a baseball coach telling a pitcher to throw strikes, or a teacher instructing a student to spell better. Okay, fine—now what?

Finding the narrative

First, let’s agree on a definition of “story.” A quick dictionary check reveals that a story is “a narrative, either true or fictitious … designed to interest, amuse, or instruct….” Okay, that works.

The narrative part is motion. Your pictures need it. Narrative motion starts with a connection that grabs a viewers, pulling them into the frame, then compelling them to stay with visual motion that moves their eyes through the frame, providing a path to follow and/or a place to land. Put simply, the viewer needs to know what they’re supposed to do in the image.

While narrative motion happens organically in media consumed over time, such as a novel (in the mind’s eye), movie, or video, it can only be implied in a still photograph. And unlike the staged or journalistic photography mentioned above, landscape photographers are tasked with reproducing the world as we find it, in a static mediumanother straitjacket on our narrative options. But without some form of narrative motion, we’re at a dead end story-wise. What’s a photographer to do?

Photography as art

Every art form succeeds more for what happens in its consumer’s mind than for what it delivers to the consumer’s senses. Again: Every art form succeeds more for what happens in its consumer’s mind than for what it delivers to the consumer’s senses. A song that doesn’t evoke emotion, or a novel that doesn’t paint mental pictures, may entertain but is soon forgotten.

Just as readers of fiction unconsciously fill-in the visual blanks with a mental visualization of a scene on the page, viewers of a landscape image will fill-in the narrative blanks with the personal stories the image inspires. In other words, an image should offer a place for the viewer’s own story to unfold.

Of course the story we’re creating isn’t a literal, “Once upon a time” or (with all due respect to Snoopy) “It was a dark and stormy night” story. Instead, the image we make must connect with our viewers’ stories to touch an aspect of their world: revive a fond memory, provide fresh insight into a familiar subject, inspire vicarious travel, to name just a few possible connections. If we offer images that tap these connections, we’ve given our image’s viewers a reason to enter, a reason to stay, and a reason to return. And most important, we’ve given them a catalyst for their internal narrative. Bingo.

Shoot what you love (not what you think your audience will love)

Think about your favorite novels. While they might be quite different, I suspect one common denominator is a protagonist with whom you relate. I’m not suggesting that immediately upon finishing that book you hopped on a raft down the Mississippi River, or ran downtown to have a dragon tattooed on your back, but in some way you likely found some personal connection to Huck Finn or Lisbeth Salander that kept you engaged. And the better that connection, the faster the pages turned.

And so it is with photography: Our viewers are looking for a connection, a sense that there’s a piece of the photographer in the frame. Because we can’t possibly know what personal strings our images might tug in others, and because those strings will vary from viewer to viewer, our best opportunity for igniting their story comes when we share our own relationship with a scene and let viewers find their own connection.

What? Didn’t I just say that it’s the viewer’s story we’re after? Well, yes—but really what needs to happen is the viewers’ sense of  connection between our story and theirs. If you focus on photographing the scenes that most move you, those scenes (large or small) that might prompt you to nudge a loved-one and say, “Oooh, look at that!,” the more you’ll see and the greater your chance of establishing each viewer’s feeling of connection. Whether you’re moved by towering mountains, crashing surf, delicate wildflowers, or prickly cactus, that’s where you’ll find your best images.

Where did you get those shoes?

The cool thing is that your viewer doesn’t need to understand your story; she just needs to be confident that there is indeed a story. That’s usually accomplished by avoiding cliché and offering something fresh (I know, easier said than done).

For some reason this makes me think of Steely Dan lyrics, which rarely make sense to me, but were always fresh and I never for a second doubted that they did indeed (somehow) make sense to Donald Fagen. In other words, rather than becoming a distraction, Steely Dan’s lyrics were a source of intrigue that pulled me in and held me. So when I hear:

I stepped up on the platform 
The man gave me the news
He said, You must be joking son 
Where did you get those shoes?

I’m not bewildered, I’m intrigued.

These lyrics aren’t trying to tap my truth, they simply reflect Donald Fagen’s and Walter Becker’s truth (whatever that might be).

Even though I usually have no idea what Steely Dan is talking about, the vivid mental picture their lyrics conjure (which may be entirely different, though no more or less valid, than your or their mental picture) allows me to feel a connection. You, on the other hand, may feel absolutely nothing listening to “Pretzel Logic,” while “I Want To Put On My My My My My Boogie Shoes” gives you goosebumps for KC and the Sunshine Band. Different strokes….

Returning from the abstract to put all this into photographic terms, the more your images are true to the world as it resonates with you, and the less you pander to what you think others want to see, the greater the chance your viewer’s story will connect with yours.

About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Evening, El Capitan, Yosemite

Autumn Evening, El Capitan, Yosemite

One of the things I’ve tried to do during the pandemic is make my workshop groups a little smaller, dropping down from 12 participants plus me and the photographer assisting me, to more like 8-10 participants plus me and my second photographer. Not great for my bottom line, but safer and easier to manage in this time of social distancing.

In my Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections photo workshop that wrapped up a little more than a week ago, not only did I enroll fewer students, I also had a couple of last minute cancellations that I chose not to fill after my assistant photographer had to bail too. The result was a group of 6 photographers plus me, exactly half my normal group size.

One big advantage of this downsized group was that I was able to take them to some views that I think are too small for a normal-size group—I show them where these spots are so they can go on their own, but that means I don’t get to visit.

One of these locations is the view of El Capitan in today’s image. I’ve always liked this spot for the way the Merced River guides the eye right to El Capitan, and for the trees that frame the scene. The result is a clear path for the viewer’s eye to follow, and an obvious destination for they eye to land.

This scene is nice in any season, but I find it especially nice in autumn, when the nearby dogwood flashes its extreme red, and splashes of yellow accent the towering evergreens upstream. We hit the jackpot on this visit, with the dogwood at its crimson best, and the late afternoon light warming the granite and reflecting gold in the river.

The view here is elevated about 15 (very) vertical feet above the river. Armed with my Sony a7RIV and 24-105 G lens, I planted my tripod right on the edge to eliminate a few foreground distractions, and used the dogwood to frame the right side of my scene, moving as far to the right as I could with merging the red leaves with El Capitan. Though the rich blue sky nicely complemented the sunlit granite, and I was grateful for a few wisps of clouds, I wasn’t particularly excited about the sky and decided to put the top of my frame just a little above El Capitan.

With my composition set up, I shot several frames, some with my polarizer oriented for maximum reflection, some for minimum reflections. When it was time to review and process my images from this shoot, I chose this one with the reflection dialed down because the fall color is more vivid (less affected by glare), and the subdued El Capitan reflection was bright enough, and stood out better against the polarizer-blackened water.

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Every Picture Tells a Story

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Motion in Nature

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Swirl, Half Dome, Yosemite

Autumn Swirl, Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
20 seconds
F/16
ISO 50

As a landscape photographer, I often joke that I don’t photograph anything that moves—no wildlife, no pets, no portraits, no sports. And don’t even think about asking me to do your wedding. I’ve always been a deliberate shooter who likes to anticipate and prepare my frame with the confidence my shot will still be there when I’m ready—landscape photography suits me just fine (thankyouverymuch).

But as much as I appreciate the comfortable pace of a static landscape, the reality is that nature is in constant motion. Earth’s rotation spins the moon and stars across our night sky, and continuously changes the direction, intensity, and color of the sunlight that rules our day. Rivers cascade toward sea level, clouds scoot and transform overhead, ocean waves curl and explode against sand and rock, then vanish and repeat. And even a moderate breeze can send the most firmly rooted plants into a dancing frenzy.

Photographing motion is frustrating because a still image can’t duplicate the human experience (not to mention the technical skill required to subdue it without compromising exposure and depth). But motion also presents a creative opportunity for the photographer who knows how to create a motion-implying illusion that conveys power, flow, pattern, and direction.

While a camera can’t do what the human eye/brain do, it can accumulate seconds, minutes, or hours of light, recording a scene’s complete history in a single image. Or, a camera can freeze an instant, an ephemeral splash of water or bolt of lightning that’s gone so fast it’s merely a memory by the time a viewer’s conscious mind processes it. This is powerful stuff—accumulating motion in a long frame reveals hidden patterns; freezing motion saves an instant for eternal scrutiny.

For example

When I photograph the night sky, I have to decide how to handle the motion of the stars (yes, I know it’s not really the stars that are moving). Freezing celestial motion is a balancing act that combines a high ISO and large aperture with a shutter speed long enough to squeeze every possible photon from a dark sky, but that stops before discernible streaks form. Or, I can emphasize celestial motion by holding my shutter open for many minutes, stretching the stars into parallel arcs.

Lightning comes and goes faster than human reflexes can respond. At night, a long exposure can be initiated when and where lighting might strike, recording any bolt that occurs during the exposure. But in daylight I need a lightning sensing device like a Lightning Trigger, that detects the lightning and fires the shutter faster than I can. If I succeed, I can reveal intricate filaments of electricity my eyes missed.

Moving water is probably the most frequently photographed example of motion in nature, with options that range from suspended water droplets to an ethereal gauze. I’m always amused when I hear someone say they don’t like blurred water images because they’re not “natural.”

Ignoring the fact that it’s usually impossible to achieve a shutter speed fast enough to freeze airborne water in the best light for photographing it (shade or overcast), I don’t find blurred water any less natural than a water drop suspended in midair (when was the last time you saw that in the real world). Blurred water isn’t unnatural, it’s different.

Sometimes a long exposure can smooth distracting ripples to enhance a reflection. I often add a neutral density filter and employ this technique when I arrived at a lake or river hoping for a reflection, only to find my plan thwarted by a waves or a wind-whipped surface.

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Swirl, Half Dome, Yosemite

Autumn Swirl, Half Dome, Yosemite

A long exposure can also reveal patterns of motion that are too slow to discern. Which brings me to today’s image from the penultimate night of last week’s Yosemite Fall Color photo workshop

I’d guided my group through the woods to bend in the Merced River that’s usually a glassy reflection in the still autumn flow. But just a week before the workshop, a 6-inch rainfall filled the waterfalls and accelerated the normally languid Merced into a more spring-like flow. Great conditions for most of our photography, but not so much for reflections.

This Half Dome view, known to photographers but just far enough off the beaten path to discourage most tourists, is always a highlight of my Yosemite workshops. I especially like it autumn, for the colorful cottonwood just upstream, and the (usually reliable) glassy surface. This year the cottonwood delivered, but the rapid flow disturbed the mirror reflection I’m accustomed to.

No problem. I suggested to my group that an ND filter would enable an exposure long enough to flatten the water—the result wouldn’t be a mirror reflection, but the gauzy effect would create an ethereal reflection that would be both striking and distinctive.

Working individually with photographers in my group, I soon noticed small patches of foam drifting by in the flow—not just occasionally, but pretty much continuously. I knew from experience that a long exposure would blur them into parallel streaks (like star trails), especially in the darker water, and got a few people started adding this effect to their images.

Then I noticed a collection of foam patches trapped in a small zone of sheltered, (apparently) static water just a few feet upstream. While helping one of the members of the group find a composition here, it soon became obvious that this water was in fact moving, albeit too slow to see.

Once I was confident that everyone was successfully engaged with the scene, I went upstream about 20 feet and looked downstream, searching for something different than the standard view here. I ended up having a blast photographing the slow motion swirl patterns in the foam (and occasional leaf) that clearly wasn’t static, using a few trees and their reflections downstream as my background.

Finally, after shooting that scene to within an inch of its life (each frame was completely different from the previous), I returned to the more conventional upstream composition to see if I could use these swirls to create something a little different.

This was probably 10 minutes after sunset, just possibly my favorite light for photography, and now dark enough to forego the ND filter. The biggest trick here was finding a position with a view of Half Dome, the fall color, the reflection, and with enough swirls to occupy a significant part of the frame.

First, I moved upstream as far as I could move without losing Half Dome and the golden cottonwood behind the nearby trees. Next, to maximize the foreground swirls, I dropped my tripod as near to the ground as I could.

But, from this new perspective, dialing my polarizer to maximize the reflection also enhanced the sky reflection enough to nearly obliterate the foam swirls. So, with my eye on the Half Dome reflection in my viewfinder, I dialed my polarizer just far enough for Half Dome to stand out, but not so much that the water  with the swirling foam and leaves lost its blackness.

Setting my Sony a7RIV to ISO 50, and dialing my Sony 24-105 G lens to f/16, enable me to keep my shutter open for 20 seconds—plenty of time to reveal the patterns of motion. A bonus was the leaves and foam flowing much faster in the main river channel, creating linear streaks that I didn’t notice until I processed the image.

Read more about photographing motion

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Motion in Nature

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