The lightning show

Gary Hart Photography: Twin Forked Lightning, North Rim, Grand Canyon

Twin Forked Lightning, North Rim, Grand Canyon
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1/4 second
ISO 50

I’ve always been something of a weather geek, the more dramatic the better. So when I can combine photography with dramatic weather, I’m in heaven. But as a lifelong Californian (where electrical storms are newsworthy), lightning photography usually requires a road trip. So…

Each August, Don Smith and I pack our camera gear and Lightning Triggers and travel to the Grand Canyon to photograph the summer monsoon’s vivid sunrises, sunsets, and rainbows, and (fingers crossed) dancing lightning. For the last five years, we’ve turned these trips into back-to-back photo workshops, starting with two days on the South Rim followed by two on the North Rim, and reversing that order for the second workshop. It’s where I am right now, in fact.

We always get great photography at the Grand Canyon in monsoon season, but lightning is fickle, and never a sure thing. A few groups have been completely (or nearly completely) shut out, but in recent years we’ve been extremely fortunate, with all of our participants going home with multiple lightning images. Don and I have enough lightning images of our own (which doesn’t mean we stop trying for more), but we’re always anxious until everyone in our group gets at least one.

The forecast for this year’s first group didn’t look good for lightning at the start of the workshop, and we did a lot of hand wringing and forecast checking (and rechecking). The customary Grand Canyon monsoon spectacular sunrises and sunset kept people happy, but it was lightning they wanted. We told them not to stress, that the North Rim (the second half of the workshop) has always been good to us, then uttered silent prayers to the lightning gods.

Thursday, our final full day, dawned clear, and despite a somewhat more promising forecast, we were apprehensive. By mid-morning a few clouds had popped up above the canyon, but by 1:00 p.m. nothing promising had materialized and we went ahead with the planned image review keeping one eye on the canyon. During a short break I ran back to my cabin to grab my water bottle and was startled by the distinct rumble of thunder—by the time I made it back to the meeting hall I had heard several thunder claps and I told everyone to grab their gear, it’s showtime!

The group spread out on the Grand Canyon Lodge’s two viewing decks while Don and I bounced around making sure their scenes were properly composed and metered, and their triggers were firing. The activity started slowly, with a few strikes across the canyon, spanning several miles of the South Rim, making it difficult to decide exactly where to point the cameras. Nevertheless, each strike drew a cheer, with the most dramatic bolts eliciting shouts and whoops worthy of a three-pointer at the buzzer.

We all started with relatively wide compositions that maximized the odds of capturing lightning, but that also shrunk it in the frame. Soon the activity increased and became isolated to a large cell in the west, and we all focused our cameras toward Oza Butte. For the next ninety minutes, Mother Nature put on a display that thrilled us all, delivering single, double, triple, and even quadruple strikes. Lightning is too fast for human reflexes, but our Lightning Triggers were up to the task, clicking (virtually) instantly at every visible strike, and also at many too faint for the eye or camera to pick them up.

As soon as I returned to my cabin I uploaded my images into Lightroom. Due to a variety of factors, some bolts stand out more than others, so I carefully scrutinized each frame to ensure nothing was missed, flagging the ones with lightning. The frames with multiple and forked strikes get a star. When all was said and done, of the 302 frames my Lightning Trigger snapped that afternoon, 46 contained lightning, with 13 starred for multiple or forked strikes.

Everyone in the group captured many lightning strikes that afternoon. The strike I share above fired at the peak of last Thursday’s show, when the lightning was at its peak, repeatedly stabbing the rim with single, multiple, and forked bolts, and even strikes like this one, with multiple forked bolts in a frame spanning just 1/4 second.

One more thing

For very valid reasons, video has replaced still photography for many uses. Lightning isn’t (or shouldn’t be) one of them. Its life measured in microseconds, a lightning bolt is gone before your brain has a chance to process what your eyes just saw. By the time your brain does register a lightning strike, the magnificent detail that makes each bolt as unique as a snowflake are gone forever. But a still image freezes that instant, enabling all who view to appreciate a lightning strike’s beauty and scrutinize its exquisite detail to their heart’s content.

Next year’s Grand Canyon workshops

A Lightning Gallery

(Favorite lightning images from this and previous years)

Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.

A National Park Secret

Gary Hart Photography: New Day, Grandview Point Sunstar, Grand Canyon

New Day, Grandview Point Sunstar, Grand Canyon
Sony a7R II
Sony 12-24 f4 G
1/8 second
ISO 100

America’s National Parks have always been busy in the summer, but in recent years the summer crowds have virtually overwhelmed many of our parks. Between gridlock on the roads, more cars than parking places, and hip-to-hip tourists at the vista rails, what was once an opportunity to commune with nature has become a survival of the fittest endurance test.

My solution has been to avoid the national parks in summer, but for many summer is the only time to visit the special locations they’ve longed to see for their entire lives. And the only thing worse than visiting Yosemite or Grand Canyon in summer, is never visiting them at all.

Though I can’t make the crowds go away, let me offer an experience-based suggestion that is guaranteed to enhance your national park experience: Sunrise. Or more accurately, the morning hours from about thirty minutes before sunrise until around two hours after sunrise.

For most people the idea of rising before the sun on a vacation is laughable, but therein lies the genius. If you can overcome the urge to be most people, you can enjoy America’s most crowded national parks, at the height of the summer rush, in glorious peace. You won’t be alone, but you’ll be savoring the day’s first rays with a microscopic subset of the park’s total visitors, kindred spirits who relish nature and solitude as much as you do, who speak softly, stroll slowly, and respect personal space.

About this image

As much as I try to leave the national parks to the tourists in summer, my desire to photograph the lightning and rainbows of the Grand Canyon’s summer monsoon leaves me no choice. A couple of days ago, Don Smith and I guided our photo workshop group out to photograph sunrise at Grandview Point on the always crowded South Rim. Grandview is one of Grand Canyon’s most popular spots, but leaving our hotel about 45 minutes before sunrise got us out there about a half hour before the sun, and long before the tourists had even hit their snooze button the first time.

There were just a couple of other cars in the parking lot, the same lot that in just a few hours people will be circling in vain for five, ten, even fifteen minutes. Having Grandview virtually to ourselves, the group was able to spread out and find their own view of the canyon without competing with the teaming midday hordes that most people experience there.

Along with a few other people in the group, I set up in front a concave sandstone rock with a view across the canyon to where the sun would soon appear. Because this is my first trip with my new Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens, I’ve been making a point to familiarize myself with it, so I twisted it on and went wide. With a clear horizon and relative dearth of clouds, I dialed my f-stop to f/18 to ensure a good sunstar when the sun crested the horizon, and composed a frame.

When photographing a sunrise, the advancing light makes it impossible to set the exposure very far in advance. In these rapidly changing conditions, I love my mirrorless Sony a7RII’s pre-capture histogram in my viewfinder—I just kept my eye on the histogram, dropped the shutter speed in 1/3-stop increments as the horizon brightened, and was ready to hit the ground clicking the second the sun appeared.

Grand Canyon Monsoon Photo Workshops

Workshop Schedule || Purchase Prints

A Grand Canyon Gallery

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Going wide

Gary Hart Photography: El Capitan and Three Brothers Reflection, Merced River, Yosemite

El Capitan and Three Brothers Reflection, Merced River, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony 12-24 f4 G
1/25 second
ISO 100

After years of drought, in spring of 2016 I had the good fortune to photograph Yosemite Valley with actual flooding—nothing devastating, just enough for the Merced River to overspill its banks and create reflections where meadows normally exist. One such location was a spot beneath El Capitan, where I found myself faced with the challenge of capturing more scene than my 16-35 lens could handle.

Stitching multiple frames was an option, but because I have a thing about not doing things I couldn’t do with film, my goal is to always capture a scene with one click (this is my problem, and in no way do I mean to discourage others from entering the 21st century). One benefit of my self-imposed one-click rule is that I often find creative compositions I might have overlooked had I settled for the easy solution, but in this case I really, really wanted to photograph the entire scene. The photography gods were smiling upon me that day, as I was leading a workshop and the photographer assisting me generously offered to loan me his Canon 11-24 f/4 lens (thanks, Curt). Since I had in my possession a Metabones adapter that allowed me to pair Canon glass to my Sony body, I leapt at the opportunity.

Gary Hart Photography: Spring Reflection, El Capitan and Three Brothers, Yosemite

Spring Reflection, El Capitan and Three Brothers, Yosemite

That was an epiphany moment for me, because even though I knew that the difference between 11mm and 16mm is more significant than it sounds, I’d never really compared the two focal lengths side-by-side. Replacing my 16-35 with Curt’s 11-24, suddenly I had the entire scene in my viewfinder, with room to spare. Not only that, I learned as soon as I put the images up on my monitor that the Canon lens was really sharp—I was in love. Sony shooter or not, I came home fully intending to purchase the Canon lens, and came very close to making a big mistake.

My decision not to pull the trigger on a Canon 11-24 purchase was three-fold: 1) it was $3000 2) it’s so massive that it could never be a full time resident of my camera bag 3) I knew Sony was committed to expanding their lens lineup, and that I’d be wracked with regret if Sony released a similar lens soon after I’d sunk $3,000 into a lens that could double as a boat anchor. But still….

Imagine my relief when my Sony doused my Canon fantasies with an ultra-wide lens of their own this spring. Given the opportunity to test the Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens before it was announced, I immediately took it to Yosemite where the flooding on the Merced was even more extreme than last year. Finding “my” spot underwater, I probed the riverbank for nearby vantage points and found the view I’ve shared at the top of this post.

It wasn’t difficult to see that the Sony 12-24 is every bit as sharp as the Canon 11-24. And not only does it not require an adapter to use on my Sony bodies, it weighs less than half of what the Canon ultra-wide weighs. I ordered the 12-24 immediately and this week packed for my first trip with it.

When I drive to a photo destination I bring virtually every piece of camera gear I own, but when I fly, I need to be a little more selective. As I chewed on what to bring and what to leave out, not only did I quickly confirm that the 12-24 would make the cut, I discovered that the new lens is small and compact enough to occupy a permanent space my camera bag.

Which brings me to another thought. I shoot Sony mirrorless for several reasons—foremost is the image quality: Sony’s unmatched combination of resolution, dynamic range, and low-light capability is exactly what I need for landscape photography. And after a few growing pains, I’ve come to love the electronic viewfinder and can’t imagine ever going back. Sony’s lenses are as sharp or sharper than anything I had from Canon, but I don’t think the compactness of Sony’s f/4 glass gets the credit it deserves for their ability to provide so much quality in such a compact package. How compact? They’re small enough to slide into a slot in my bag oriented up/down (resting on an end rather than along a side), which gives me so much more room for more gear (and what photographer doesn’t love more gear).

Here’s what’s in my camera bag (F-stop Tilopa) for this week’s trip to the Grand Canyon:

  • Sony a7RII
  • Sony a7SII
  • Sony a6300
  • Sony 12-24 f/4 G
  • Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f/4
  • Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f/4
  • Sony/Zeiss 70-200 f/4 G
  • Rokinon 24 f/1.4
  • Two Lightning Triggers

That’s three (!) bodies and five (!) lenses, with room for even more stuff. Photographer heaven.

A few words about wide angle photography

Despite the fact that wide angle is the reflex response to most landscapes by virtually every tourist who picks up a camera, good wide angle photography is not easy. From diminished backgrounds to tilting verticals, wide angle lenses pose problems that can be turned to opportunities if they’re fully understood. I’ll save a full discussion of wide angle photography for another day, but here are a couple of tips that might help:

  • Put something in your foreground: Many of my wide angle images put the primary subject front and center, but even when the background scene is my main subject, I try to have something of visual interest in my foreground. Browse the gallery below and note how many images have an empty foreground (Hint: Not very many). Sometimes I’m able to include something as striking as a mirror reflection or colorful flowers, but often my wide angle foregrounds are as simple as nearby rocks or leaves. If there’s nothing at my feet and I’m required to use something distant, at the very least I want the foreground of my wide image to be filled something worthy of the space it occupies.
  • The tilting of vertical lines caused when you’re close to your subject is minimized when the sensor is on the same plane as the subject (not tilted up or down): Mount on your camera a wide angle lenses at its widest focal length, point it at a row of nearby trees (or some other vertical lines that spans the edges of your frame), and tilt up and down while looking through your viewfinder. At what point do the trees appear straightest? Most slanted? I rest my case.

Going Wide

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All’s well that ends well

Gary Hart Photography: Rainbow Reflection, Queen's Bath, Kauai, Hawaii

Rainbow Reflection, Queen’s Bath, Kauai, Hawaii
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1/15 second
ISO 100

Most photographers will tell you that some of the best locations are a bit of a pain to get to. Not necessarily death-defying dangerous, just a pain. Not only is Queen’s Bath on Kauai one of those locations, this year getting there required dealing with the Hawaii equivalent of the troll who lives under the bridge.

For many years I’ve been helping my friend Don Smith with his Kauai workshop (it’s a tough job, but, well, you know…). One of the highlights of the Kauai trip is Queen’s Bath, a surf-pounded lava shelf accessed by a short but steep trail through dense rainforest. When it’s dry the trail isn’t a big deal if you can avoid the deep ruts and protruding roots, but after any rain the route down is more waterslide than trail. We’ve had enough falls (including a broken bone that happened when someone who had been in the group tried to go down on her own after the workshop), that we won’t even attempt the hike if it has rained.

Queen’s Bath is on the wet side of Hawaii’s wettest island. Most years we pull up to the trailhead in the dark (well before sunrise), inspect the conditions, and move on to another location because the QB trail is too slippery. But after last year’s disappointment it occurred to me that maybe the funky tire-chain-like shoe attachments (AKA, YakTrax) that I use in winter to keep from slipping on ice might be worth a try. Don took that suggestion and ran with it; after a little research he found actual crampons on sale on Amazon, sent the upcoming group the link, and told them crampons or YakTrax would be required footwear for Queen’s Bath.

On our scouting mission to Queen’s Bath before the workshop started we negotiated the slick slope like velcroed mountain goats. While congratulating ourselves on our genius down at Queen’s Bath, we were warned by a couple who had arrived a little after us that there was a “crazy lady” (their description, not ours) yelling at everyone parking in the Queen’s Bath parking area for making too much noise. (Mind you, this is Kauai, where the roosters are at full volume well before sunrise.) We shook our heads and chuckled, but didn’t think much about it.

Driving away later that morning, we discovered that our SUV had a flat tire—weird, but stuff happens. We soon learned that there’s only one AAA truck on all of Kauai, so rather than wait, Don and I decided to answer the age-old question, “How many photographers does it take to change a tire.” (FYI, it’s two: one to change the tire, and one to make sure everyone knows he’s doing it all wrong.)

Fast forward to the next morning when, group in tow now, we charged down slope in the rain without a single slip. (Score one for genius.) The rain intensified soon after we arrived on the lava shelf, and for a while it looked like we might need to retreat. But soon we saw brightening clouds in the east, and not much later the rain stopped and out popped a full rainbow. The rainbow lasted at least 15 minutes, and the light stayed nice much longer than that. Thanks in no small part to the crampons, no one fell on the muddy trail or rain-slickened basalt, and everyone ended up with some fantastic photos and the morning seemed a huge success.

We were still basking in the glow of our beautiful morning as we returned to the cars—until someone noticed that the license plates were missing from our three vehicles. Huh? Suddenly yesterday’s ranting neighbor and our flat tire took on an entirely new meaning: Crazy Lady had vandalized our cars. I understand that photographers can be a little insensitive to their impact on their surroundings, but in our defense, Don and I always lecture the group about being quiet in the Queen’s Bath parking area, then monitor closely to ensure that no one forgets. We don’t allow any conversation or laughter in or near the parking area, so the only sounds we make are doors closing and feet shuffling—not completely silent, but certainly quieter than Kauai’s ubiquitous chicken population.

It’s possible that our nemesis was interrupted in her vile act, because we soon found the license plates and screws, as if they’d been haphazardly stashed as she made a hasty retreat. We recovered our property and with the help of someone’s screwdriver reinstalled the plates and departed without further incident. I have no idea how regularly this neighbor’s crazy manifests, but since it happened to Don and me on consecutive days (and we had exchanged our rental car with the flat tire, so there’s no way she knew it was the same people), I suspect she’s a serial vandal. But the bottom line is, no real harm was done, and we ended up with a great story and some fantastic images. So I guess all’s well that ends well.

A few words about this image

Rainbows feel like random gifts from heaven, but there’s really nothing random about them. Monitoring the conditions, you can usually anticipate the rainbow and get yourself in the best position to photograph it. What’s the best position? Successful photography is all about juxtaposition of visual elements, and (as much as we wish it were so) very rarely is the perfect relationship between the various elements in a scene exactly where you happen to be standing right now.

When a rainbow is one of your elements, it helps to understand that the rainbow’s center will always be at the anti-solar point (where your shadow points) and the rainbow will move with you.  If you want your rainbow over that tree, or mountain, or lake, just move until they align.

In Hawaii, or any location where rain showers are possible, the first thing I do is figure out where the rainbow will appear, and identify compositions to put with it. On this morning at Queen’s Bath, when I arrived I made a mental note of where the rainbow would appear, and when the sky near the eastern horizon started to brighten while the rain continued falling in the west, I moved closer to the ocean to get as much ocean and rainbow as possible in my frame. I also shifted toward an area with a collection of small reflective pools that I thought would make a great foreground, rainbow or not.

When the rainbow appeared, I was ready. After photographing it with a variety of foregrounds for a few minutes, I thought it would be pretty cool to get a reflection of the rainbow. I didn’t have to move far to align myself with the little pool you see in my image; from there it was about micro-positioning, moving closer/farther and up/down to maximize the rainbow’s reflection without cutting off the pools with the edge of my frame. For this image, I ended up about three feet from the pools and just a couple of feet above the rocks.

Read more about rainbows

A Rainbow Gallery

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What’s the deal with Yosemite’s dead trees?

One of the most frequently asked questions in my Yosemite workshops is some variation of, “Why are there so many dead trees?” My standard answer has always been a summary of what I’ve learned from talking to Yosemite rangers: The drought has stressed the trees and made them more susceptible to the bark beetle. This morning I read an excellent summary of the problem on the NPS Yosemite site explaining the problem, and adding to what I already knew, and I thought I’d share what I learned.

The problem

As someone who has been visiting Yosemite for (pretty much literally) my entire life, the tree death in Yosemite Valley in the last five years has been staggering. Yosemite Valley, once a carpet of green, is now stained with large patches of rust-brown dead or dying trees. Scenes I’ve photographed for over 40 years are suddenly marred by these trees.

Going through my portfolio of Tunnel View images, I chose two with very similar compositions that illustrate the tree death. The first, my rainbow image from 2009, shows the green valley floor I remember. The second is a winter scene from 2016, and the tree death is obvious. And sadly, in the year-and-a-half since I took the 2016 image, I guess that at least twice as many trees have died.

Double whammy

The drought has clearly taken its toll on Yosemite’s trees, both by killing the thirstiest outright, and by weakening many others until they become easy targets for a very opportunistic bark beetle. But the problem is not just about weak trees—it’s also about healthy beetles, a lot of them. Consider that while the 2016 image was taken in late January, there is absolutely no snow in Yosemite Valley. Of course the drought has something to do with that, but the lack of valley snow in recent years can also be attributed to warming temperatures. As Yosemite’s climate warms, much of the precipitation that once fell as snow now falls as rain.

Snow doesn’t kill the bark beetle (it’s still not cold enough), but an extreme freeze does. But as the number of sub-freezing days in Yosemite decline, the mechanism that kept the bark beetle in check gets out of whack. While Yosemite’s evergreens have no problem handling an extreme freeze, each freeze kills many bark beetles. But fewer freezing days each winter means more bark beetles, and more bark beetles makes even healthy trees more prone to attack.

Triple whammy

And finally, America’s long-time knee-jerk fire suppression policy has taken its toll. By thinning growth, consuming dead wood, and enabling regeneration, fire is a natural part of maintaining forest health. But for over a century, fires in Yosemite (and pretty much every other national park and forest) were doused as soon as they ignited because they were inconvenient, and they (temporarily) scarred the scenery.

Thankfully that misguided policy is largely behind us, but its legacy remains. We’re left with too many trees competing for the available water. Some die of thirst, while many survivors lack the resources to stave off a beetle infestation.

What’s being done

The National Park Service has undertaken the monumental task of removing dead and dying trees. Because it’s impractical to remove all of them, the emphasis is on those trees that pose a hazard to people and property. Also, in developed areas the NPS has started prophylactic application of a (naturally occurring) pheromone that discourages the beetles from attacking susceptible trees.

No one knows for sure, but it’s possible that the tree death will stabilize, or even start to decline over the next few years. While the current mitigation efforts might help stem the tide, the primary hope is that an equilibrium will be reached as the most susceptible trees die and forest health is restored through better management. Fingers crossed.

From the horse’s mouth

Here’s the link to the NPS tree mortality article.

The Trees of Yosemite

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Workshop prep: It’s more than just showing up

Gary Hart Photography: Twilight Reflection, Mount Tasman and Mount Cook, Lake Matheson, New Zealand

Twilight Reflection, Mount Tasman and Mount Cook, Lake Matheson, New Zealand
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
2 seconds
ISO 100

A couple of years ago a friend joined a New Zealand photo workshop and found that his leaders had never been to New Zealand. In lieu of scouting, these leaders had done a lot of googling, studied some maps, and read a few guides. During the workshop, they were still trying to put things together without firsthand knowledge of drive-times, the length (or difficulty) of the hikes, where to find the best views (not just the popular ones), the best photography conditions for each location, and how early to arrive or long to stay. Yikes.

Though I can only speak for myself, I can’t image that this is common practice—I believe most workshop leaders are both responsible and prepared. But this story did get me thinking as Don Smith and I started planning our own New Zealand photo workshop. Even the most thorough armchair research can’t prepare a leader for how to respond to the unexpected: extreme weather, a sudden closure or detour, or even a simple cloud that obscures a planned moonrise.

Which is why, before adding a workshop, I do a lot of scouting. A lot of scouting. Not just for my customers’ benefit, but for my own mental health. This might have something to do with being backup obsessive (compulsive?)—whether it’s data, batteries, keys, or photo locations, I just can’t sleep without knowing I can handle an unexpected loss without a hiccup.

At first this was easy because I started with workshops in locations that I’ve been visiting my entire life: Yosemite, Death Valley, the Eastern Sierra. These spots are all just a few hours from my home, so scouting was mostly a matter of double-checking to confirm what I already knew, maybe revisiting under certain conditions.

But when I started adding workshops a little farther afield, at locations where I didn’t have a lifetime’s knowledge, I had to do cram courses to get up to speed. I started with the standard internet searches, map scouring, and guide reading, but any photo-related activity that anyone can do without getting out of the recliner is hardly photography. Armed with this background knowledge, I was ready to put my money where my browser was, and follow-up with multiple, lengthy visits to my new location.

I started doing these scouting trips thinking that I’d just be confirming the knowledge I’d gleaned from my recliner. How wrong I was. As important as this research is, recliner-knowledge pales in comparison to the insight gained by interviewing (pestering?) locals, and simply driving/hiking around constantly asking myself, “What’s over there?”

Another thing I’ve learned is that the priorities for a scouting trip are different than the priorities for a photo trip. I certainly take my camera, and do my best to get as much quality photography time as possible, but a necessary frustration of a scouting trip is the inability to land at every spot at just the right time. Sometimes it’s because I don’t know the right time until I’ve actually put my eyes on a spot, but usually it’s just that there isn’t time to put my eyes on every location at just the right time.

On this month’s New Zealand scouting trip with Don Smith, one spot we’d targeted was Lake Matheson, just outside the little town of Fox Glacier. After seeing the pictures and reading the reports, we knew Lake Matheson offered striking reflections of Mount Tasman and Mount Cook that made it a possible sunrise or sunset spot for our groups. But our long day had started several hours away at Lake Wanaka, detoured east (away from Fox Glacier and Lake Matheson) on an unpaved road through a mountain valley, before finally meandering up and over Haast Pass to New Zealand’s west coast. Further distracted by an unexpected abundance of photo opportunities on Haast Pass, Don and I didn’t pull into Fox Glacier until 90 minutes before sunset.

Checking into our hotel, we learned that that the best views at Lake Matheson were at the back of the lake, about a one-mile walk from the parking lot. Since this was a sunset candidate for the workshop, as tempting as it was to go straight to our room and then to dinner, we bolted for the lake. We arrived with just enough time to hike out to the views, but hadn’t anticipated the rainforest and how beautiful the hike itself would be. With little time to spare, we were forced to race by many lush, intimate scenes that would have justified the hike even without the views, but that’s why we scout—next year, when we return with our groups, now we know to arrive early enough for everyone to enjoy the rainforest as much as we longed to.

We ended up setting up shop for sunset at what we’d learned was the final, and consensus “best,” mountain view on the two-mile lake loop. For a first visit this was probably the best choice, though I think in future visits I’ll make an effort to find something a little less conventional. Though we didn’t get much in the way of clouds, we enjoyed beautiful light on the peaks right up until sunset. As the air chilled, a thin layer of radiation fog formed above a meadow just beyond the lake, and a few wisps of clouds formed beneath the crest.

As nice as the warm light is opposite the sun just before sunset and after sunrise, I’ve always preferred the soft pink and blue pastels and shadowless landscape of the pre-sunrise and post-sunset alpenglow. Some locations are great for this, and others aren’t so much. Mt. Whitney, with its serrated peaks that jut high enough to make it into the pink part of the pre-sunrise sky above the Alabama Hills, is the alpenglow poster child that I judge all other locations against.

As revealed by this image, this evening’s visit was enough to demonstrate that Lake Matheson offers sunset alpenglow potential to rival Mt. Whitney at sunrise. That means we’ll need to make sure the group comes armed with flashlights so we can keep out a little longer than we would if we wanted to get them back to the van before dark.

Join Don Smith and me in New Zealand

Gary Hart Photography: Mt. Eglinton, Mirror Lakes, New Zealand

Alpenglow: The Twilight Sky Opposite the Sun

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Meeting a celebrity

Gary Hart Photography: Lone Tree, Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

Lone Tree, Lake Wanaka, New Zealand
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
20 seconds
ISO 200

For those who don’t recognize it, this is the much-photographed willow tree that inhabits Lake Wanaka on New Zealand’s South Island. I’ve seen it described “the most photographed tree in the world,” and while I doubt that’s true, it is at least among the world’s more photographed trees.

Seeing a popular subject like this for the first time is a lot like meeting a celebrity. While I’ve never been one to be terribly star-struck by famous subjects, I could certainly understand the tree’s appeal—a graceful trunk and spreading branches beside a shimmering lake beneath snow-capped peaks. Adding to the tree’s appeal is the fact that it usually juts from the lake and is surrounded by reflections.

Though we’d heard stories of mornings with close to 100 photographers crowding around the tree, the morning Don and I visited, the crowds had no doubt been kept at bay by a recent drought that has exposed the tree’s base, and by temperatures in the 20s. We were fortunate to share the scene with a half-dozen or so other good natured photographers who were more than happy to work together to ensure that no one was in anyone else’s way.

I was well aware of the popularity of this tree, and the difficulty of finding a fresh interpretation on my one-and-only visit. But that didn’t keep me from doing my best, and for such a simple image, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes to make it happen: foreground/background relationships, framing, depth of field, motion, and light all factored into my creation of this image.

Don and I had walked down to the tree the night before, so I’d had 12 hours or so to chew on my approach. Evaluating the scene in the pre-dawn gloaming, I started by determining the background I wanted. Since the snowy peaks were easily the most striking background feature, I found a position that I thought best aligned the peaks with the tree, eliminating most of the less appealing brown peaks on the right and all of a grove of evergreens on the left. But this just established the line I needed to be on—I still had to find the right distance and framing.

Since I didn’t find the exposed lakebed terribly appealing, and the pre-sunrise sky was pretty boring, I wanted a tight composition that minimized both. Most of the other photographers seemed to be shooting the scene fairly wide, but I found that by moving about 40 back from the tree, at around 70mm I could both compress the distance to the mountains and fill my frame with the tree. But 70mm created depth of field considerations that required careful selection of my f-stop and focus point. My DOF app told me that stopping down to f/16 and focusing about 40 feet behind the tree gave me sharpness from the tree back to the mountains, a fact I confirmed on my LCD after clicking this frame.

There was no wind to move the branches, but the lake surface was slightly disturbed by small waves. Because this was about 20 minutes before sunrise, the scene was still fairly dark and I had no problem using a long exposure to flatten the water.

But how much light? Often when presented with a striking tree, I try to put the tree entirely against the sky and underexpose slightly, so the tree stands out in silhouette. But the only way to position this tree against enough sky for an effective silhouette would have been to lay beneath it and shoot up. Not only would this have required an extremely wide focal length that would have shrunk the mountains and introduced far too many other less interesting elements, it would have also put me smack in the middle of everyone else’s frame.

Instead of a silhouette, I went the other direction, giving the scene extra light to allow the dark tree stand out in contrast to the bright lake, mountains, and sky. I’m not sure I would have tried this high-key solution had a silhouette been feasible, but in hindsight this was clearly the way to go. It’s a good reminder to not get so stuck in my conventional approach that I lose sight of other possibilities.

Join Don Smith and me in New Zealand next year

A Gallery of Outstanding Trees

Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.



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