The Range of Light

Twilight Crescent, Mt. Whitney

Twilight Crescent, Mt. Whitney
Sony a7R II
Sony 70-200 f/4
1/3 second
F/11
ISO 160

“… the mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city…. Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light.” — John Muir

Anyone who has spent time in or around the Sierra Nevada has to agree that there’s something special about its interaction with light. Towering one to two miles above the surrounding terrain for nearly all of its 400-mile length, the Sierra Nevada are California’s most prominent natural feature. But it’s not just prominence that sets the Sierra apart. The Sierra are almost entirely granite, an intrusive igneous rock comprised primarily of light-toned feldspar and liberally infused with lustrous quartz and mica. Because igneous intrusive rocks form deep beneath the Earth’s surface, constituent minerals cool and harden slowly enough for large, reflective crystals to form.

In addition to its inherently reflective qualities, granite is quite hard and resistant to erosion. Unlike the overlying sedimentary and metamorphic rock that washed downhill as the Sierra pushed (and continues to push) upward, granite remains intact when subjected to wind and rain. Eventually small cracks form; water percolating into these cracks expands as it freezes, widening the cracks further until the granite fractures and a large block separates. The result is large vertical and domed surfaces whose extreme slope and hardness are particularly inhospitable to plant life, even well below the timberline. Granite’s hardness also means that rather than crumbling beneath the weight of the numerous glaciers to scour the Sierra, much of the Sierra granite has been polished to a glassy sheen.

Granite’s light complexion, reflective inclusions, and abundance of exposed, polished surfaces make the Sierra particularly inclined to reflect the color of whatever light illuminates it. This relationship with light is quite evident in Yosemite Valley, nestled in the range’s more moderately sloped west side. When the sun strikes Yosemite’s Half Dome and El Capitan at day’s end, warm sunset light paints these monoliths in brilliant orange and red hues just before the sun is snuffed by the horizon. While this color can be seen at sunset year round, it takes center stage each February when sunset shadow and light conspire to highlight normally insignificant Horsetail Fall’s tumble down El Capitan’s east face.

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As exquisite as the light on Yosemite’s granite is, I’m even more drawn to the Sierra’s east side, which gets its best sun at sunrise. Unlike the Sierra’s gradually sloped, relatively moist, and largely foliated west slopes, the Sierra’s east side is much steeper, drier, and therefore sparsely foliated and more exposed. Enhancing the drama, the Eastern Sierra’s towering granite face also catches the earliest possible sunlight, sunlight that has traveled farther and through purer air (because there fewer airborne pollutants in the morning in general, and the sunlight east of the Sierra traverses much less densely populated terrain).

My favorite place to watch the light play on the Eastern Sierra granite is in and near the Alabama Hills, two vertical miles beneath Mt. Whitney and the Sierra’s most precipitous section. Looming above the Owens Valley, 14,505 foot Mt. Whitney is the highest point in the 48 contiguous United States. Unlike many towering peaks that stand by themselves, Mt. Whitney is bounded by 13,000 foot Lone Pine Peak and 14,000 foot Mt. Williamson, all connected by a serrated ridge of 13,000+ foot sharks tooth prominences.

Before sunrise I like to arrive early enough to see the Sierra crest reflect the pale blue of the pre-dawn sky, then watch it warm gradually as the sky brightened before the approaching sun. The color reaches a crescendo when the sun’s longest wavelengths first kiss the highest peaks with pink alpenglow. As the rest of the sun’s visible wavelengths join the party, the crest warms to amber before finally cooling beneath the daylight-blue sky.

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At the end of the day the best color arrives after the sun has long disappeared behind the crest and the entire scene is illuminated by a sky well on its way to night. Though the mountains’ color is more subtle than the sunrise show, the Eastern Sierra’s granite when imbued with the pale mauve of evening twilight is no less beautiful. Eventually night takes over and once again the Sierra granite throbs a soft blue.

Early last October I guided my Eastern Sierra workshop group up to Whitney Portal at the base of Mt. Whitney to photograph cascading Whitney Portal Fall in late afternoon shade. On the drive back down we squeezed into a small turnout not too far down the road for the closest view of Whitney that doesn’t require a serious hike. This year’s group got a bonus when a thin slice of brand new moon appeared shortly after sunset.

Mounting my Sony 70-200 f4 on my a7RII, I framed the scene as tightly as I could while still including both Mt. Whitney and the crescent moon. Though the sky was clear, a steady stream of small clouds materialized as if issued by a cloud making machine just out of sight behind the crest to the right of Whitney. Each new cloud scooted to the left and dissipated quickly in drier air near the summit. After composing, metering, and focusing, I waited for the next cloud to appear and clicked this frame in the purple twilight.

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The Many Colors of Mt. Whitney

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Up a creek

Gary Hart Photography: Wonderland, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

Wonderland, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f/4
1/4 second
F/10
ISO 100

Many photographers vary their portfolios by visiting as many locations as possible. While I love visiting new locations, I’ve always preferred the kind of intimate familiarity that’s only possible with frequent, quality visits. And as enjoyable as it is photograph the icons, for my personal pleasure I’m most drawn to quiet pastorals and intimate portraits of nature that could be anywhere—wildflowers, fall color, solitary oaks, sparkling reflections, and tumbling creeks can keep me happy for hours.

One of my favorite intimate settings is Bridalveil Creek beneath Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite. Not only is there lots to photograph here, it’s different every time I visit. In spring the water in all three of the creek’s branches roars down the slope beneath Bridalveil Fall like it can’t get to the Merced River soon enough. And I’m especially fond of Bridalveil Creek in autumn, when the flow is often down to a single leisurely trickle, its whispering cascades and spinning pools adorned with vivid yellow leaves. Winter can find Bridalveil Creek in a variety of states that range from a gentle rivulet to a raging torrent. During one particularly cold winter the creek was solid ice, as if some frostbitten wizard had waved his wand and frozen the flowing water in place.

For some reason I haven’t had as much success here in winter as autumn or spring, so this winter I redoubled my efforts. On last month’s snow trip, while waiting for Yosemite’s monoliths to emerge from the clouds, I headed to Bridalveil Creek and found every square inch covered with snow—not a fine etching, but a dense glazing that covered virtually every exposed surface with several inches of white powder.

I hadn’t even crossed the first bridge when I was stopped by the scene here. I extended my tripod and evaluated the possibilities, starting on the bridge before moving down to a rock right on the creek. My first compositions were horizontal, but I eventually adjusted to vertical to emphasize the creek. Following my standard click, review, refine, click process, I finally landed on this composition—just wide enough to include both sides of the creek, and tall enough to include the parallel tree trunks and the creek’s exit from the bottom of the frame. I had to drop down quite low to get beneath an overhanging branch and keep it from occluding part of the creek.

The non-compositional variables I had to consider were motion and depth of field—there was no wind to sway the branches, but I knew the water’s blur would vary greatly with my shutter speed choice. And because I wanted everything in my frame sharp, I needed to be careful with my f-stop choice. The closest point of interest, the snowy foreground rock, was about five feet away. My hyperfocal app told me that at my 22mm focal length and f/8, my hyperfocal distance was about six feet (sharp from three feet to infinity). Because hyperfocal data draws the acceptable sharpness line a little less critically than I do, I stopped down to f/10 and focused on a small rock about eight feet away. Playing with a few ISOs to vary my shutter speed for different water motion effects, I decided I liked 1/4 second because it blurred the creek enough to clearly convey the water’s speed, but not so much that it lost its definition.


Intimate and Anonymous

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The illusion of depth

Gary Hart Photography: Frozen Reflection, Half Dome, Yosemite

Frozen Reflection, Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1/40 second
F/9
ISO 100

It seems too obvious to mention, but I’ll say it anyway: Photography is a futile attempt to render a three-dimensional world in a two-dimensional medium. Unfortunately, that reality doesn’t seem to keep people from putting their eye to their viewfinder and clicking without regard for their camera’s unique view of the world. But here’s a secret: Anyone with a camera can manage the lateral (left-to-right) aspect of a scene, but the photographers who distinguish themselves are those able to convey the illusion of depth by translating a scene’s actual depth to their camera’s virtual depth.

Creating the illusion of depth isn’t rocket science. It starts with seeking a foreground for your beautiful background, or a background for your beautiful foreground. Once you’ve figured out your foreground or background, do your best to ensure that the elements at varying depths don’t merge with each other—the more elements in your frame stand alone, the more you invite your viewers to move incrementally through the frame, hopping (subconsciously), front to back, from one visual point to the next. Getting elements to stand apart often requires some physical effort on your part (sorry): Moving left/right, up/down, foreword/backward changes the relationship between objects at varying depths, sometimes quite significantly.

With your foreground and background identified, decide whether you want the entire image in focus, or selective focus that guides your viewer to a particular point in the frame. With all your pieces in place, you’re ready to choose your f-stop and focus point. (Here’s some extra credit reading: hyperfocal focusing techniques.)

About this image

The primary subject here is Half Dome, but I had to work incorporate all the other wonderful things going on this afternoon: fresh snow, beautiful clouds, warm sunlight, and an abstract reflection.

With Half Dome as my centerpiece, my biggest concern was organizing the other visual elements into a coherent image. I started with the decision that a vertical orientation would make the most efficient use of the scene, allowing me to include the river at the bottom of my frame and Half Dome at the top without shrinking the scene and introducing less interesting elements on the left and right. I didn’t want too much sky, but I found a break in the clouds for the top of my frame.

I could have moved a little to the right and made the reflection my entire foreground, but I decided to use the snowy riverbank to convey an illusion of depth. Because there wasn’t too much visual interest in the snow, I included just enough snow to frame the left side of my scene. A focus point about 20 feet away gave me sharpness throughout my frame. Click.

Focus and depth of field simplified

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A Gallery of Depth

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Managing light, depth, and motion in nature

Gary Hart Photography: Snowcap, El Capitan, Yosemite

Snowcap, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
3.2 seconds
F/10
ISO 50

Independent of composition, photographers have three scene variables to play with when setting up a shot: light, depth, and motion. And not so coincidentally, we have three exposure parameters with which to manage those variables: shutter speed, f-stop, and ISO. The exposure parameters have a reciprocal relationship—an increase/decrease in one can be compensated by a corresponding decrease/increase in another—but merely getting the “correct” exposure with a random combination of exposure values can yield wildly different results. This is why I never want my camera making decisions for me, and always photograph in manual mode. It’s also why I tell my workshop students that they should be able to defend (explain their reason for) every exposure value.

My approach to metering

As a landscape photographer who is always on a tripod, I’ve removed camera shake from the exposure equation, so the only motion that concerns me is motion in the scene. Unless I’m trying for a motion effect (for example, blurring moving water or freezing wind-blown leaves) I use the f-stop and ISO that yields the absolute sharpest, cleanest image—no quality compromise (such as a large f-stop or high ISO) to subdue camera shake. This allows me to approach every scene at ISO 100 (most camera’s best ISO) and f/8 – f/11 (the maximum depth of field possible with minimal diffraction, and also the range where most lenses tend to be sharpest), and only deviate when my scene variables dictate.

Once I determine my composition, I refine the f-stop to ensure to depth of field that achieves my desired effect, then dial my shutter speed to whatever value delivers the proper exposure. My ISO only moves from 100 when motion in the scene requires it. For example, photographing at night requires a shutter speed fast enough to minimize star motion and I’m force to increase my ISO to 800, 1600, or higher, depending on the amount of light and the focal length at which I’m shooting.

About this image

In this image from last Monday’s snow day in Yosemite, I wanted to smooth the rapidly flowing Merced River to smooth chop that I thought might distract from rest of this spectacular scene, but first I had to get everything else in place. I on a fairly tight vertical composition that eliminated  everything on the left and right of El Capitan. I used the snow-capped boulders in the foreground to create a little depth, and included just a little sky for some extra color (if the clouds swirling about El Capitan had been more interesting, I might not have done this).

Aligning the foreground boulders was both tricky and awkward. First, I had to wade through a couple of shallow pools to reach a one-rock island (not much bigger than a basketball), then thrust my tripod into the water as far to the left as I could and still operate my camera. A focal length too narrow would have cut off important elements, and too would have introduced distractions just outside this frame. Where the camera was positioned, I couldn’t get my eye to the viewfinder without going for a swim, and there was too much light to see my LCD clearly. So I pulled my camera from the tripod and framed the composition to get the right focal length. With my composition established, I decided f/10 was the largest aperture that would ensure front-to-back sharpness, and focused on a ripple a little behind the boulders.

Finally ready to shoot, I returned the camera to the tripod and used what I could see of the LCD to guess the final composition. After each click I removed the camera and reviewed the image in my electronic viewfinder (another reason I love the EVF), adjusting two or three times until the composition was right.

With my composition framed exactly as I wanted, my exposure dialed in, and my focus point set, I was ready to play with the motion. I started by dropping my ISO to 50 (almost as good as ISO 100, but with slightly less dynamic range), but still couldn’t get the shutter speed long enough without shrinking my f-stop to a less than ideal, diffraction inducing number.

The solution was my Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter. Because my Vari-ND is 77mm, I had to stretch to hold it in front of my 67mm Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4. Dialing the filter ever so slightly darker between exposures and adjusting my shutter speed to maintain the correct exposure, I ended up with a variety of motion effects. I found that this one, at around 3 seconds, smoothed the water enough while retaining just enough texture for visual interest without being distracting.

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A Gallery of Motion

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It ain’t over till it’s over

Gary Hart Photography: After Twilight, Valley View, Yosemite

After Twilight, Valley View, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
30 seconds
F/8
ISO 800

(How many photography blogs out there quote Yogi Berra? Just sayin’….) During the 1973 baseball season, Yogi Berra was asked about his last place Mets’ chances in the pennant race. His reply, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” was greeted with chuckles, but Yogi got the last laugh when the Mets rallied to make it all the way to the World Series. I couldn’t help thinking of Yogi’s quote on my drive home Monday night with this image, my final click of the day, still fresh in my mind.

When the weatherman promised snow down to 2500 feet on Monday, I drove to Yosemite late Sunday night so I could beat sunrise and have an entire day to play. And snow I found, lots and lots of it, and still falling. The snowfall continued throughout morning, so heavy that my first few hours were limited to photographing close scenes, interspersed with lots of waiting for conditions to improve. But a little before noon the clouds started to thin and the snow became more showery and I was in business.

When the clearing started in earnest I was at Valley View (but it didn’t look anything like this). The rest of the day I spent dashing around Yosemite Valley, chasing the clouds’ parting and the light that came with it. It’s so much fun watching a storm clear in Yosemite, poised beneath Yosemite Falls or Half Dome or El Capitan, and wait for the big reveal when the clouds to pull back.

For sunset I ended up trudging through about 18 inches of virgin snow to a favorite Half Dome reflection spot by the Merced River, recently rendered much less accessible by major roadwork underway in the valley. Throughout the day I’d crossed paths several times with good friend Don Smith who had driven up for the day with our mutual friends Scott and Mike, and they eventually joined me at sunset. As we shot we shared stories of the day—for example, how they had just missed getting crushed by a falling tree (true story). After a half hour of really nice photography, a large cloud set up shop atop Half Dome right around sunset, completely obscuring the scene’s main attraction. Satisfied with a tremendous day of photography, we declared the day, “Over.”

It wasn’t until I was back at my car that fully appreciated how wet everything was—my gear, my car, and even me (a day of plunging through snowdrifts had been enough for the snow to find its way over the top my waterproof boots and underneath my waterproof outer pants). I decided I’d swing into Valley View on my way out of the valley to use the bathroom and change into drier clothes. In the back of my mind was possibility of a parting shot of El Capitan in the late, blue twilight.

The west end of Yosemite Valley gets much less winter sunlight, so while trees had already started shedding the snow on the east side (where I’d photographed sunset), I pulled in at Valley View to find virtually every exposed surface still glistening white. Bridalveil Fall and Cathedral Rocks clearly visible in the fading light, but El Capitan was cloud-shrouded from top to bottom. Still quite cold, tired, and more than a little hungry, this would have been a perfect excuse to beeline home. But the scene was so beautiful, and the light so perfect, that after changing my clothes I just sat in my car, peeled an orange, and waited for El Capitan to show itself.

I didn’t have to wait long. At the first sign of clearing I hopped out and was completely set up by the river before El Capitan appeared. Bumping my ISO to 800, I composed the standard horizontal frame with El Capitan on the left, Leaning Tower on the right, and the Merced River in the foreground. Often the most difficult thing about shooting in low light like this is finding focus, but despite the fact that it was more 30 minutes after sunset, my Sony a7RII was able to autofocus on Cathedral Rocks. I spent a several clicks refining that original composition and was about to call the day “Over” one more time when something moved me to shift my view to the right. As soon as the image popped up on my LCD I knew I was onto something. I refined for about a half dozen more frames, culminating with the one you see here, until I was satisfied that a great day truly was over.

The lesson here, one I learned many years ago but I see many photographers struggle to grasp, is that the camera can still do fantastic things long after your eyes tell you the show is over. Another satisfying reminder from this day is that it’s still possible to enjoy Yosemite in glorious peace. As someone who has seen Yosemite at its congested worst, I relish the solitude possible when I choose times that the average person (tourists, fair weather photographers) won’t venture out: miserable weather, late at night, before sunrise. The entire time I was out there at Valley View that evening I was alone, and only two cars drove by. As Yogi would say, “Nobody goes there anymore—it’s too crowded.”

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A Twilight Gallery

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Seeing double

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Mirror, Half Dome, Yosemite

Autumn Mirror, Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
30 seconds
F/8
ISO 50

People stay away from Yosemite in autumn because that’s when the waterfalls are at their lowest. But believe it or not, Yosemite isn’t all about waterfalls. El Capitan, Half Dome, Cathedral Rocks, the Three Brothers (I could go on) are great subjects in their own right. Subtract the waterfalls but add the yellows, oranges, and reds of Yosemite Valley’s many deciduous trees and you have what I think is a pretty a fair trade. And when the water is low, the usually turbulent Merced River smooths to a reflecting ribbon of glass; suddenly, pretty much any scene can be doubled at your feet.

These reflections add layers of creative possibilities impossible the rest of the year. I usually try to photograph each reflection scene several ways—splitting it in the middle for a 50/50 mirror effect, isolating the reflection only, emphasizing the reflection with just enough of the primary scene to establish context, and using a partial reflection to accent to the primary scene—then decide later which I like best.

In this image I split the frame 50/50, but dialed down the reflection with my polarizer. Even polarized, the bright sky’s glare washed out much of the river surface, painting the outline of El Capitan like a negative that uses the trees with a jigsaw of submerged river rocks.

In this image I split the frame 50/50, but dialed down the reflection with my polarizer. Even polarized, the bright sky’s glare washed out much of the river surface, painting the outline of El Capitan like a negative that uses the trees with a jigsaw of submerged river rocks.

 

Winter Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

This one is all about the reflection, with the snow-covered forest used to frame El Capitan’s image in the Merced River. Here I dialed my polarizer to a mid-point, holding the reflection of El Capitan but dialing down the homogenous gray sky.

 

In the image above I went with a more conventional composition, emphasizing El Capitan’s bulk against clouds that were spitting small, wet snowflakes.

Here I used a more conventional composition, emphasizing El Capitan’s bulk against clouds that were spitting small, wet snowflakes.

About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Mirror, Half Dome, Yosemite

I took another favorite approach for the featured image at the top of this post, using a long exposure in low light to smooth moving water and enhance the reflection. My workshop group had already had a nice shoot that evening—it started with warm, late light on Half Dome, some nice color at sunset, and rapping up with textured clouds above Half Dome as darkness fell.

By the time I captured this frame the scene was much darker than what you see here. With the reflection disturbed by slight ripples and floating bubbles, the darkness of post-sunset twilight enabled me to extend my shutter speed to 30 seconds, which smoothed the reflection and turned the bubbles into soft white streaks.

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A Gallery of Yosemite Reflections

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Dressed for chill

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Morning, Leidig Meadow, Yosemite

Autumn Morning, Leidig Meadow, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1/15 second
F/11
ISO 125

A regrettable reality of my life is that the best conditions for photography are usually the absolute worst conditions to be outside. Fortunately, I’ve been hardened by decades of San Francisco Giants games at Candlestick Park, the coldest place on Earth. As a photographer, I continue to embrace my mantra for warmth at the ‘Stick: Too much is always better than not enough.

For me it’s all about layers: silk, wool, down, and Gore-Tex. I start winter mornings with wool socks, waterproof boots, silk long-johns (if it’s extremely cold), flannel lined jeans, wool long-sleeve undershirt, wool Pendleton or lined cotton shirt, vest, down jacket, gloves (I have a variety from thin to thick), neck gaiter, and a hat or band that covers my ears. I add and remove layers as conditions dictate, and don’t always wear everything, but I’m never too far from this stuff in winter. And if it’s raining or snowing, I add waterproof pants, a waterproof parka, waterproof boots, and a wide-brim waterproof hat to keep myself dry, freeing my umbrella to keep my gear dry while shooting.

The basic clothes I pack in my suitcase before each trip, but the gloves/hats/umbrella etc. are in a gym bag that is always in my car. In the car I also keep an extra pair of shoes and socks, towel, and garbage bag (to cover my camera when it’s on the tripod). With all this paraphernalia, I’m nice and toasty in whatever extremes the winter throws at me, and I can never use weather as an excuse for missing a shot.

About this image

On a very chilly morning in late October, my workshop group had wrapped up the sunrise shoot and was heading to breakfast when we passed Leidig Meadow beneath a thin veneer of fog. Knowing that the group was cold and hungry, I kept going, but in the cafeteria parking I polled everyone and found that while about half were ready for warmth and a hot breakfast, the other half wanted to return to photograph the meadow. They got no argument from me. In normal conditions this wouldn’t have been possible because Yosemite’s primarily one-way traffic flow would have required a 20-minute loop to return to this spot, and the fog would likely have been long gone. But this year, extensive roadwork had caused the National Park Service to make every open road two-way, and we were back at Leidig Meadow in two minutes.

Yosemite’s radiation fog can come and go in seconds (I crossed my fingers that it hadn’t dissipated in the five minutes since our original drive-by), so as soon as we parked the group grabbed their gear and scattered. Wanting a foreground that was more than just meadow grass, I ran for this downed tree that I’d seen on an earlier visit.

We only got about five minutes of quality shooting in before the fog was gone. All of my shots were some variation on this composition using the log anchoring the bottom of scene, and Half Dome framed by the nearby trees on the left and distant yellow cottonwoods on the right. To maximize my focal length and make Half Dome larger, I moved back as far as I could without losing my framing. The horizontal trunk was far enough away that I was able to achieve depth of field all the way to infinity when I focused there.

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A Cold Weather Gallery

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