Posted on May 9, 2022
Think about what goes into making a landscape image. If the scenes and conditions are our raw materials, then it would be logical to say that our camera gear is our tools. But in addition to cameras, lenses, and other physical photography hardware, I’d say that our photography toolkit also includes the techniques we employ to deal with nature’s fickle whims.
And speaking of fickle whims, it’s impossible to deny that conditions make some scenes easier than others. But as much as I long for crimson sunsets, vivid rainbows, mirror reflections, and a host of other natural phenomena that can make virtually any shot feel like a slam dunk, these things are not always available when I want to make an image. For me, one of the greatest challenges is overcoming the boring (cloudless) skies that my California home is known (and loved) for. Not only do blank skies add rarely anything to a scene, they’re responsible for harsh light and the extreme dynamic range that even the best cameras struggle to handle. What’s a photographer to do?
For starters, we need to open our mind (and eyes). One of photography’s less heralded gifts is its ability, over time, to teach us to tune-in to nature’s subtleties, and how to leverage conditions that we once viewed as too difficult, into beautiful images. Fortunately, difficult doesn’t mean impossible—in fact, difficult can be downright fun. And the truth is, there are a lot of ways to overcome boring skies. Here are some suggestions:
- Shade: One of my favorite approaches to blank skies is photographing moving water, spring flowers, and fall color in full shade. While not spectacular, shade light is shadowless and easy to work with. It also makes it easy to blur water without a filter.
- Reflection: For the best reflections, look for sunlit subjects (the brighter the better) reflecting in still, shaded water.
- Sunstar: Any time the sun’s up, a sunstar is a readily available addition option for spicing up your scene. Position yourself so all but a small sliver of sun is blocked by an opaque object (such as a tree, rock, or the horizon), dial your f-stop to f/16 or smaller. Note that some lenses deliver sharper, more defined sunstars than others, and in general, wide lenses work best, especially primes and high quality zooms.
- Silhouette: Blank skies at sunrise and sunset are a great opportunity to create silhouettes that emphasize color and shape by eliminating everything in the scene except color and shape. Better still, incorporating a crescent moon (which always rises just before the sun, and sets just after the sun), can take silhouette scenes to the next level.
- Stars: Don’t forget the night sky. Often when I’m disappointed by a lack of clouds at a nice location, I just wait until dark and photograph the scene by moon- or starlight.
- Black and white and infrared: While I don’t photograph B&W and infrared, they are wonderful techniques for dealing with harsh midday light.
Given their frequency, I’ve become pretty good at making the best of blue sky days in Yosemite. While last month’s Yosemite Waterfalls and Dogwood photo workshop did enjoy a few clouds, we also dealt with a fair amount of blank skies. For our first sunrise we photographed silhouettes and a rising crescent moon. And later in the workshop we spent a couple of hours photographing dogwood in the shade (mixed with a little sunlight) in the Fern Springs / Pohono Bridge area. But I think my favorite blue sky shoot came at Cathedral Beach on the workshop’s penultimate afternoon.
Cathedral Beach is an up-close view of El Capitan right on the Merced River. The low and slow flow of autumn makes a glassy reflection here, and in the months closer to the winter solstice, when the sun is farther south, all of El Capitan gets spectacular late afternoon light. But by mid-spring the river rushes and swirls with snowmelt, and the sun has moved so far north that only El Capitan’s west-facing wall gets late sunlight. But as you can see, all is not lost.
Viewing El Capitan from Cathedral Beach that afternoon, the first thing to catch my eye was the gorgeous light etching the otherwise shaded granite’s vertical plunge. No less spectacular was the brilliant backlight illuminating the cottonwood and grass across the river and reflecting color in the river.
I pulled out my (brand new!) Sony A1 and pondered my lens choice. Since capturing all of El Capitan from this location requires something wider than 24mm, I’d normally go with my Sony 16-35 GM or 12-24 GM lens here. But with no clouds and most of El Capitan in shade, I really wanted to eliminate the sky, most of the granite, and the less interesting surrounding foliage, so I reached for my Sony 24-105G lens.
This scene worked as a horizontal or vertical, but I finally zeroed in on the vertical composition because it was the best way to distill the scene down to its essentials: El Capitan’s edge light, the backlit foliage, the reflection, and the gold-flecked riverbed beneath parallel ripples. I moved along the riverbank until all this good stuff aligned with the set of grassy mounds catching light in the near foreground. I wanted front-to-back sharpness, so I stopped down to f/16 and focused on the most distant of the foreground mounds. And even though I didn’t have a mirror surface, I dialed the reflection up with my polarizer to add a little color to the river.
In Yosemite it’s hard to take a bad picture, but some are more rewarding than others. While I doubt it will be one of those images that goes viral, this image makes me especially happy because finding it and assembling all the components took a little creative effort.
The Cure for Blank Skies
Posted on May 1, 2022
It doesn’t take much time with my images to figure out that I love photographing the moon. Large or small, full or crescent, it doesn’t really matter. Almost every one of my moon images is the product of plotting the time of its arrival (or departure), then making sure I’m there to photograph it. Using astronomical tables and topo map software, I’ve been doing this for more than 15 years—long before the availability of the astronomy apps that tremendously simplify the process with pretty decent accuracy. And while I recommend these (new fangled) apps to everyone who wants to photograph anything celestial above a particular terrestrial scene, I still do it the old fashioned way for no other reason than it’s more fun. But, as much as I’d love to tell you that I plotted this moonrise from last Wednesday morning in Yosemite, I have to admit that this one was largely a matter of just happening to be in the right place at the right time (aided by just a dash of advance knowledge).
Yosemite Valley is not a great sunrise location because nearly all of its vistas face east, which means photographing towering monoliths in full shade (the sun’s behind them), against the brightest part of the sky. We always hope for clouds to add color to the sky and subdue some of the sun’s brightness, but too frequently end up with blank skies.
Nevertheless, in most of my Yosemite photo workshops I take my group to Tunnel View for our first sunrise. I choose Tunnel View for that first sunrise because when clouds aren’t present, we can still turn the distinctive outlines of El Capitan, Half Dome, and Cathedral Rocks into silhouettes. Not only does this give my students the opportunity to create something a little different than the standard Yosemite image, it’s also a good way to get them thinking about photographing the way their camera sees rather than the way their eyes see (a real point of emphasis in my workshops).
My Yosemite Waterfalls and Dogwood workshop was scheduled to (fingers crossed) coincide with the park’s peak spring runoff and dogwood bloom, which usually happens around May 1 (+/- a week or two). This year I chose the last week of April because I’d rather be a little early for the dogwood than a little late, and to avoid the weekend crowds. Though I hadn’t considered the crescent moon when I scheduled it, as the workshop approached I checked and saw that on our first morning an 11% crescent would rise nearly 90 minutes before sunrise. Unfortunately, this moon aligned poorly with all of Yosemite’s icons, and to be visible at all would need to climb above the much higher walls southeast of Tunnel View. On the other hand, I saw that the crescent would be trailing a nice planetary alignment that included Mars, Venus, and Jupiter—maybe not great to photograph, but pretty nice to see.
When we arrived the sky was dark enough to enjoy the planets, but there was no sign of the moon. As feared, there were no clouds, so after getting my group going with their silhouettes, I started thinking about the moon again. Knowing that it was almost directly beneath Jupiter, about 1 1/2 times the distance separating Venus and Jupiter, I was able to pretty closely approximate where the moon would rise. And I realized that when it did rise, the sky would still be plenty dark enough.
I let my group know what would be happening and quickly ran to my car to grab my tripod, Sony a7RIV, Sony 200-600 G lens, and Sony 2X Teleconverter. Zooming my lens all the way out to 1200mm (go big or go home), I trained it on the small tree on the far left of this image and waited. The moon actually appeared just slightly left of the target tree, close enough that I didn’t need to recompose. The ridge here was so steep that it took more than 10 minutes for the moon to completely separate, creating the illusion that it was sliding uphill. merge
The most exciting part of this otherwise serene morning came when a commercial jet zipped into the scene, contrail trailing, and someone realized it was on a collision course with the moon. What ensued was a brief scramble to photograph the collision. Thwarted by my 2-second timer (a further reminder why I don’t photograph anything that moves), I got nothing but contrail, but at least two in the group got the moon/jet convergence.
A Crescent Moon Gallery
Posted on April 24, 2022
Our lives revolve around relationships: romance, family, friends, work, pets…. Even that clown who cut you off on the freeway, for a few brief (I hope) seconds, might just be the most powerful influence in your life.
Like most words in the English language, “relationship” can mean more than one thing. On the macro scale are the specific personal connections that matter to us—not just people, but also places, things (I actually love my new dishwasher), music, sports teams, and so on. On a micro scale, we have spacial juxtapositions that can be either planned or random, and the realization that it’s possible to draw a straight line relating any two objects on Earth (or in the Universe, for that matter).
I know this isn’t first time I’ve written about relationships (it won’t be the last), but they’re very important to photography because they play a significant role in literally every image we capture. My image choices are very much determined my relationship with my subjects, while my images’ ability to connect with others is a function of the relationships, both conscious and unconscious, they tap in the minds of my viewers.
In addition to finding those personal connections, as I wrote in last week’s post, spacial relationships that connect visual elements and guide the eye have the power to move viewers’ through the frame (good), pull them out of the frame (bad), and to signal viewers what it is they’re supposed to see and do in the image (good).
Laying the foundation
In this image from the final shoot of last week’s Yosemite workshop, it’s easy to see how all those relationship factors combine to create an image. It all starts with a life-long relationship with Yosemite that predates my oldest memories. Campfires, hiking, the Firefall, bear watching, transient friendships with kids in nearby campsites, fishing with my dad, are all among the many vivid contributors to my Yosemite memory mosaic.
My love of the night sky is related (there’s that word again) to this Yosemite connection, and started just a few years later. Its seeds, sown on summer nights falling asleep beneath a sky full of stars on family camping trips, germinated with my first telescope when I was 9 or 10, and flourished under the dark skies of the High Sierra backcountry.
Putting it all together
When I started getting serious about photography, my love for (and proximity to) Yosemite made it the ideal place to start. It’s hard to take a bad picture in Yosemite, so at first I was content with my own version of the more conventional scenes seen in postcards, calendars, and travel brochures.
Soon I grew to appreciate the importance of light, and started timing my Yosemite visits around the best opportunities for sunrise/sunset color, warm light, and waterfall rainbows—my first conscious attempts to create relationships between fixed terrestrial subjects and ephemeral natural conditions. This epiphany led to the realization that instead of being satisfied with great light on Half Dome, a tumbling cascade, or mirror reflection, why not accent the scene with fall color or elegant dogwood? Whether not I was conscious of it at the time, I’d gone all-in on creating my own visual relationships: disparate elements connected in a shared moment.
Incorporating the night sky came later, but at some point I realized that, while a Yosemite sunset is nice, a Yosemite sunset that includes the moon might be especially nice. Suddenly I found myself obsessively calculating and logging the horizontal and vertical angles at every conceivable Yosemite vista, and plotting the moon’s altitude and azimuth to determine when and where it would appear above Yosemite Valley. (This was long before the days of the Photographer’s Ephemeris, Photo Pills, and other tools of that ilk.)
Back to the present
Somehow, that long and continuous thread lead me and my workshop group to the Bridalveil Fall vista on Big Oak Flat Road in Yosemite last Friday evening. More than a year earlier, I’d plotted this moonrise and scheduled a workshop to photograph it—among other things, like the moonbow beneath Lower Yosemite Fall and the poppy bloom in the Merced River Canyon.
But simply planning for a relationship doesn’t make it so. This year’s poppy bloom was a complete swing-and-miss, and clouds dogged our entire workshop, wiping out our moonbow.
But all was not lost. The clouds made for spectacular skies, while the sun came out enough for the group to capture a variety of waterfall rainbows on Bridalveil and Yosemite Falls. And there was enough water in Tenaya Creek to justify the 1 1/2 mile hike up to Mirror Lake for the Half Dome Reflection. We even got to photograph the earliest dogwood that had just started to pop out near Valley View, an unexpected treat.
And I still had one relationship ace up my sleeve: the moonrise on our final night. As often happens in Yosemite, the Friday forecast was frustratingly noncommittal: partly sunny. So it’s no wonder my moonrise optimism waxed and waned all day as the sky wavered between blue (yay!) and gray (boo!).
I’d figured that the moon would appear above Leaning Tower (above and just right of Bridalveil Fall) at around 7:15 p.m., so I got the group in place about 7:00. Even though we had more clouds than sky, a small gap on the western horizon let just enough sun through to spotlight Bridalveil Fall. There was even enough of an opening above the fall to give me hope that we’d see the moonrise right on schedule, and I set up my (brand new!) Sony a1 with the Sony 200-600 lens and 2X Teleconverter in anticipation. But by the time 7:15 arrived, that window had slammed shut.
The next opportunity was another opening in the clouds about 2 degrees higher, and I kept my eyes on it knowing the moon would probably rise into it around 7:25—about 10 minutes before sunset. With the moon higher, I set aside the a1 and 200-600 in favor of (one of) my Sony a7RIVs and my Sony 24-105. As I watched the small patch of blue sky, I realized it was shrinking, further delaying (and threatening to completely wipe out) the moon’s appearance.
We experienced brief euphoria when the moon finally peeked above the clouds at around 7:30, just long enough to capture 2 frames that had it more than 1/2 visible. Then it was gone.
I still faced a 4-hour drive home, but since the clouds were changing so fast and we were already there, I decided not to call the workshop quite yet. About 20 minutes later, right at the tail end of the window when there’s still enough light to capture detail in the moon and foreground (with one click), I was starting to consider pulling the plug for good when a small bright patch got my attention. Suddenly the clouds parted just long enough for me to grab 2 more frames that included most of the moon, before snapping shut for good.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on April 18, 2022
Put me firmly in the camp of those who prefer reading the book to watching the movie. Watching a movie, my gaze is fixed as the scene unfurls before my eyes at a predetermined pace—if something requires scrutiny or triggers my imagination, I have to pause or rewind (often not an option—or at the very least, a source of irritation to others in the room). Reading a book, I’m free to pause, ponder, revisit, and imagine to my heart’s content.
This ability to control the pace of my relationship with the world may explain why I prefer still photography to video capture. Acknowledging that video provides expressive opportunities that still photography can’t, I can’t help but think the power of still photography is under-appreciated.
One important distinction is that the motion in a video is applied by the medium; in a still image, the source of the motion is my own eyes. And while a video dictates the pace of my relationship with the scene, entering the world of a photograph gives my eyes the freedom to linger and explore the scene’s nooks and crannies, to savor its nuances at my own pace.
This still photography bias could be explained by the fact that in virtually all aspects of my life, “think fast” is rarely my default response. Rather, given a choice, I prefer analysis and comprehension to instant reaction. This evaluate-first mindset might also explain why my favorite sport is baseball (which many consider “too slow”), and why I prefer chess and Scrabble to video games (the last video game I played was Pong).
So I guess it should be no surprise that, as a landscape photographer, my subjects don’t move. I love having the time to craft a scene—to position myself, frame my subjects, and manage the exposure variables (that control motion, light, and depth)—confident that when I’m finally ready, my subject will still be there.
But, as we all know (and as Spider-Man reminded us), with great power comes great responsibility. To succeed, we photographers must be sensitive to our viewer’s experience. Is it clear what the picture is a about? Is there a place for the eye to land, and/or a path for the eye to follow?
Just plopping the viewer of an image into the scene without any clues about what to do there is an invitation to a quick exit. Which is why I try in every image to include visual signals to guide my viewer’s eye and make it as clear as possible what they’re supposed to be doing in the world I’m offering. And once they’re there and have examined whatever it is I’m trying to show them, they’re much more inclined to explore further and discover more of the scene’s subtleties.
Visual signals can take many forms. One popular device that I very consciously try not to think about is “leading lines.” Not because I think they’re inherently bad or wrong, but because we’ve heard about them to the point of eye-glazing cliché, and I fear that many photographers (and photography contest judges) have given them too much power—at the expense of other similarly, or even more, important factors. I’m not saying that my images don’t use leading lines, I’m just saying that I only use them when they work organically, without conscious thought.
That said, I am drawn to diagonals—a rock, shoreline, leaning tree trunk, fallen log, and so on. While these diagonals can indeed connect objects and lead viewers’ eyes, I’m more interested in the diagonal’s power to simultaneously move the viewers’ eyes across two planes of my scene: up/down and left/right.
And any line, whether horizontal, vertical, or diagonal doesn’t need to be an actual visible line—virtual lines work too. To understand the concept of a virtual line, I think in terms of visual “visual weight”: any object in my frame that, by virtue of its mass, brightness, position, or some other quality that creates enough visual gravity to pull a viewer’s eye in its direction. I try to avoid visually heavy objects that pull the eye away from the important parts of my frame, and to pair visually heavy objects that the viewer can subconsciously connect into a virtual line.
Another visual aid that I sometimes employ is a virtual frame—some object within the boundaries of my actual frame that holds my viewer’s eye in the scene, or nudges it it back into the scene the way the cushion on a pool table bumps the ball back into the action.
About this image
In last week’s Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers workshop (in which we got neither moonbows or wildflowers, but nevertheless enjoyed absolutely spectacular photography conditions), we made the 1 1/2 mile walk up to Mirror Lake. This is one of those hikes that’s as much about the journey as it is about the destination. Along the way I kept my eyes peeled for opportunities to pair Half Dome with churning Tenaya Creek. With Half Dome virtually straight up, of the way I was thwarted by the dense forest canopy, but as the trail steepened for its final ascent to the lake, I found a small gap I thought might work.
After climbing down among the jumbled boulders separating the trail from the creek, I pulled out my Sony a7RIV and attached my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens. While my Sony 16-35 GM would probably have worked here, I loved the extra room the 12-24 gave me to compose this scene that was beautiful from top to bottom.
With a little scrambling I was able to frame Half Dome with a pair of leaning tree trunks, dropping low to avoid blocking any of its face with a rogue branch. Not only did the leaning trunks provide a nice diagonal to move the eye, they also created a virtual frame to hold the eye in the scene. From my position I was also able to use the rushing creak to create a second diagonal. At 12mm, I was able to include many of the nearby rocks, the closest of which were no more than 2 feet away. These rocks made a great virtual frame across the bottom of the scene.
At 12mm and f/16, I knew I had plenty of focus wiggle room to achieve full front-to-back sharpness, and focused on a rock just a couple of feet into my scene. I wanted to put a slight blur in the water, but the 12-24 isn’t really filter-friendly (it can be done, but requires an expensive and awkward filter system that I haven’t found enough need for), so I couldn’t use a neutral density filter. Fortunately, the water here is so fast that the amount of blur I wanted wouldn’t be a problem. Turns ISO 50 and f/16 gave me enough blur to smooth the motion without losing its definition, exactly what I wanted.
It’s always interesting when I discover that I’d photographed a seemingly random scene before and used a similar composition. On the one hand, it’s a reminder to be careful not to get in a compositional rut, but on the other hand, it’s a confirmation that my compositional process is not random and likely reflective of my personal style.
One more thing
It’s interesting to compare these two images, capture almost exactly 5 years apart. The first one used 13mm, while last week’s was 12mm. The angle of view was similar but not identical, and I was closer to the creek in the first shot. The biggest difference between the two is the amount of sky and the amount of motion blur. Though I have no specific memory of my thoughts when I approach the earlier image, I know my process well enough to know exactly why they’re different. In the early image the sky was lousy (blank blue), and I composed to minimize it; in last week’s image I had clouds that were nice enough to justify including them. And the early image came after sunset (as I was walking back from Mirror Lake), so it was dark enough that it would have been very difficult to get anything but completely blurred water in the extremely fast (and much higher) creek.
Moving the Eye
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on April 11, 2022
I’ve said it before: Capturing our three-dimensional world in photography’s two-dimensional medium is impossible. But take heart, all is not lost—it is possible to give your images the illusion of depth.
It’s pretty easy to put a camera to your eye and frame up the flat, left/right and up/down aspect of a scene. But translating your own three-dimensional experience into your camera’s two-dimensional reality requires bit more insight and effort. I grew up in a family where my parents, and pretty much every significant relative it seemed, had at least one large and glossy David Muench book on the coffee table (remember coffee table books?). Starting as far back as I can remember, I used to love paging through Muench’s beautiful images of the Southwest, California, America’s national parks, and more, just marveling at the grand majesty. Though I wasn’t gazing with a critical eye, I can’t help but believe that some of Muench’s front-to-back framing approach must have rubbed off on me. It wasn’t until I started leading photo workshops that I realized that not everyone understands the importance of front-to-back relationships, and how to make them happen.
Achieving the illusion of depth starts with looking beyond your primary subject to find a complementary foreground or background: If your primary subject is nearby, find a background object, shape, or color that frames, balances, and/or helps the subject stand out. Conversely, if your primary subject is in the distance, look for foreground elements that can lead your viewers’ eyes through the frame without distracting or competing for attention.
Once you have your foreground/background elements worked out, your composition isn’t complete. In your three-dimensional view, size and distance are easily interpreted, something we stereographic humans take for granted. But your scene’s depth is lost to your camera. In its two-dimensional world, aligned objects at varying distances loose the separation that makes them stand out. To overcome this, you need to visually separate merged objects by putting them on different lines of sight, setting them apart from the scene’s other elements, allowing your image’s viewer to infer the depth that you see naturally. I can’t emphasize how important this is.
In my many years of observing and assisting other photographers working to improve their images, I’ve decided that a lack of depth management could be single most significant factor holding them back. And there seems to be an invisible force that binds tripods to their first landing place. Overcoming this force (to which I’m not immune) requires vigilant attention to each visual element in your frame, then taking whatever steps (figuratively and literally) necessary to ensure that each element stands alone. If you can’t achieve separation from your current position, move! In other words, in a static image, you’re the one who to be dynamic.
Arriving at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon in Iceland in February, it was instantly clear that the scene had everything necessary for a special image: Low-hanging clouds that softened the light, turquoise ice that colored Iceland’s typically monochrome winter landscape, and crystal clear water that reflected the ice’s color and revealed submerged pastel pebbles. I could have set up my tripod anywhere and captured something beautiful, but I walked the lagoon’s shore, searching for a foreground to go with the gorgeous background, until I was finally stopped by these ice disks that seemed to have been placed like stepping stones.
I like elements that move diagonally across my frame, so I started by positioning my tripod accordingly. Turns out I loved the ice disks and colorful submerged pebbles so much that I decided to make them the feature of my frame. Attaching my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 lens to my Sony a7RIV, I dropped my tripod as low as it would go and scooted it into the water, getting as close as I could to the ice. I used my Breakthrough 6-stop Dark Polarizer to smooth the water, taking care I to turn the polarizer to the point where the submerged pebbles appeared, but not so far that I lost the color reflecting in the background. Shooting this at 16mm allowed me to get extremely close to the foreground ice and pebbles and fill most of the frame with the nearby ice disks, while demoting the much larger turquoise icebergs to lovely background observers.
One more thing
The first time I saw Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, I was blown away by this lake that had large turquoise ice cubes bobbing in water so clear that it can look like the ice is floating on air. So, as I try (need) to do with all of my subjects, I researched.
I learned that Jökulsárlón is a relatively new lake that formed in the mid twentieth century when its upstream glacier, Breiðamerkurjökull, started receding (glaciers don’t actually defy gravity and back up, they simply start melting faster than their ice is replenished). The weight and friction of an advancing glacier carves deep gouges in the Earth as it inches forward and pushes some of the carved out rock and sediment ahead of it—when the glacier retreats (as most of the world’s glaciers seem to now be doing), this debris remains in place, forming a terminal moraine that can act like a dam for glacial meltwater.
Jökulsárlón is the lake that formed in the scar exposed by Breiðamerkurjökull’s retreat, filled by glacial meltwater. While it’s relatively new, at nearly 1,000 feet deep, Jökulsárlón is Iceland’s deepest lake. Its icebergs have calved from the still receding Breiðamerkurjökull. So now you know.
The Illusion of Depth
Posted on April 5, 2022
More than 15 years ago I left a good job at an excellent (and very well known) tech company to pursue a career in nature photography. After all, I had a good camera and years of amateur photography experience—what could possibly go wrong? Turns out I had no interest in any of the kinds of photography that actually make money, so (in hindsight) my decision was somewhat riskier than I had imagined. But, while photography hasn’t brought me great financial fortune, I do indeed feel rich beyond all measure.
Since first picking up a serious camera in my early 20s (an Olympus OM-2, if you must know), I’d been a very content amateur photographer, able to choose my photo destinations and the images I clicked for the sheer joy they brought. Period. But, being stuck in a job that stifles your creativity tends to make you rethink life choices.
At the time I’d found myself swept up in the earliest waves of the photography renaissance spurred by digital capture. I loved the instant feedback and control it brought, and started fantasizing about a transitioning my livelihood to photography. But as I started plotting my transition, I sensed that a significant risk of turning one’s passion into a profession is making choices based on the income they generate rather than the pleasure they bring. Hoping to keep the joy in my photography, I made a personal vow to only photograph what I want to photograph, and to never take a picture just because I thought it would earn money.
To honor this commitment while still paying the bills, I blended my 20+ year career in technical communications (tech writing, training, and support) with my years of photography experience and subject knowledge, to create a photography business based on photo workshops rather than image sales. (Of course I do sell images too, but because I’ve always viewed image sales as a bonus rather than something to something I rely on, I’ve been able to honor my commitment to only take pictures that make me happy.) And here I am.
I’m thinking about this right now because sometimes I’ll come across an image that reminds me how lucky I was to have been at these places when I would have otherwise been fighting traffic or imprisoned in a cubicle. I found today’s image while engaged in one of my favorite idle time exercises: Start with a favorite image, return to the folder for that trip, and look for unprocessed images captured in the conditions of that day. This time, overdue for a blog post, I didn’t go too far back, ending up revisiting my images from the snowy opening day of last year’s December Yosemite Winter Moon workshop.
Given how happy the previously shared images from this day make me, this choice was low hanging fruit, but I’m actually a little surprised to have found something I like as much as, or more than, what I already had.
When I’m in the park by myself I tend to avoid from the popular spots. But these spots are popular for a reason, and since this was the workshop’s first day, I wanted to give my group a chance to photograph the iconic scenes in the best conditions. Granted (speaking of low hanging fruit), Valley View is one of those spots that really doesn’t need help to be beautiful, so adding fresh snow almost seems unfair. But after a lifetime of visiting Yosemite, I can honestly say that it doesn’t get much better than this, and it was a treat to be able to share that beauty with an appreciative group. The fact that this was the first view of Yosemite for some (but I didn’t have the heart to tell them it’s not always like this) made it even more memorable for me.
For this composition I used the snow-capped rocks to add a little foreground interest. They’d have been pretty hard to avoid anyway, but I was very conscious of where I set up my tripod to control where the rocks landed in my scene—not too close to the borders, and not merged with the important parts of the reflection.
In addition to the snow, the clouds this afternoon were truly special—not only the swirling fragments between El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks, but also the column that appears to be tumbling down El Capitan like a waterfall. Just another day at the office….
The View From My Office
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on March 29, 2022
Things go wrong. Or, as more succinctly attributed to 20th century aerospace engineer Edward Murphy, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”
In my previous post I wrote about some of the physical hardships nature photographers endure while chasing their shots. This got me thinking about all the things that can go wrong for a photographer, in the field for sure, but also at home, in the office, and on the road. I’m talking about lost, stolen, or broken gear, computer crashes, failed memory cards, and so on. I’ve personally experienced my share of these crises, and in workshops have witnessed firsthand the mishaps of others, ranging from amusing, to frustrating, to devastating.
In Iceland four photographers who believed they were being cautious lost cameras and lenses to a sneaker wave. In my most recent Yosemite workshop, a woman dropped her telephoto lens and cracked its body, then a little while later (in a completely unrelated mishap) discovered that none of the data on her memory card was readable. I’ve had workshop students lose cameras and computers to theft, and have a friend who drove off with his camera bag on top of his car and when he returned just a couple of minutes later, it was gone. I once had a memory card with an entire workshop’s worth of images somehow slip from my pocket while I was on a walk near home. The one thing each of the victims in these mishaps had in common was none of us believed anything would go wrong when we set out that day.
But yes, things do in fact go wrong. My trademark move seems to be leaving gear behind. I’ve done it several times, usually when I’ve set something down while working with a group, then forgetting about it when it’s time to move to the next location. My most recent such offense occurred on last May’s Grand Canyon raft trip, but there have been others before that. I usually rationalize this carelessness by playing the “I was distracted by my workshop group” card, but how then do I explain the time I reached into the trunk of my Lyft and realized I’d left my entire camera bag on the sidewalk in front of the Las Vegas Marriott?
Another source of trauma inflicted on our expensive gear is our own fumble-fingers. Here I don’t think I’m any better or worse than the average photographer—drops happen. In my many decades as a photographer, I’ve had a couple of drops that cost me a body and lens, but nothing that compares to the trauma I witnessed in a Yosemite workshop a few years ago.
This was during the peak of a record-breaking spring runoff, when every river and creek in the park flowed savagely high and fast. We were at Bridalveil Creek, beneath Bridalveil Fall. Normally this is a fairly benign creek, with photogenic cascades that tumble musically between reflective pools. But on this morning the creek was a roaring white torrent, higher than I’ve ever seen it, with no distinct cascades or pools—just a frothing churn.
In typical springs my groups leave the trail and wander upstream and down among the cascades, but this morning each person had safely set up somewhere along the paved trail. I was on the middle of three stone bridges that span the creek, and could feel the water’s vibration in my legs, something I’d never imagined was possible. About 15 feet to my left was one of my workshop students, a recent college graduate in the midst of a cross-country photo trip with his dad. He’d set up near the spot where the creek accelerated and disappeared beneath the bridge.
While marveling at the scene, I became aware of sudden movement on my left and looked just in time to see my student’s tripod, camera, and lens tip into the water (I learned later it had been an inadvertent hip-check as he bent for his bag) and get sucked faster than a flushing toilet under the bridge to downstream points unknown. I could see by his forward lean and the flex in his knees that his first reflex was to leap after his gear, a decision that very likely would have been fatal. He came to his senses before I could reach him or even call out, and instead let out the most pained wail I think I’ve ever heard. For the next 30 minutes he was literally inconsolable as he processed the loss of his camera, favorite lens, only tripod, and memory card containing I don’t know how many days worth of images, not to mention the ramifications of all this loss on his trip with his dad.
I’m sharing all this not to frighten you, but to remind you that being careful is only half the equation, and that you can act now to minimize the trauma of the inevitable unexpected equipment loss or failure. We all tend to get excited enough about a trip, or distracted by a scene, that our judgement suffers—we skip steps, leave things out, underestimate risks, and so on. And sometimes technology simply fails.
I have enough experience, both my own and witnessing others, to feel comfortable offering practical suggestions for preserve not just the wellbeing of your gear and images, but more importantly, your own mental wellbeing. Below are some of the things I do to keep myself sane when the unexpected tries to ruin my day:
- Insure your gear: I’ve lost track of the number of times someone in one of my groups has damaged or lost a piece of equipment in one of my workshops, and told me it’s not insured. At the very least, add your equipment to your homeowner’s insurance policy. Better still, get a completely separate policy, so when you file a camera gear claim, your entire homeowner’s premium doesn’t go up. For 20 years my gear has been insured through my membership in NANPA (North American Nature Photography Association)—the premiums are reasonable, the claims service is fantastic, and (because it’s a group policy) my claims don’t affect my rate. They even insure my computers. One time I lost a lens in the middle of a trip (set it down at a location and it somehow walked away before I returned—sigh)—I filed a claim right on the spot, ordered a new lens that was delivered the next day, and my check was waiting for me when I got home.
- Backup gearCamera: If you’re serious about photography, you really should have more than one camera body. For those photographers whose work is close to home and not time critical, I suppose if something breaks you could just go home and wait for it to be fixed, or for its replacement to arrive. But most of us shoot in situations where being without a camera for even a few hours or minutes means missing opportunities that will never come again. Full frame shooters on a budget should consider an APS-C (cropped sensor) backup body. They’re less expensive, more compact, and give you 50% more reach on all your lenses. I’ve been known to set down a full frame body in favor of my APS-C backup camera to make the moon as big as possible.
- Lens: Duplicating every lens in your bag is a luxury few can afford, but no matter how convenient that 18-300 lens is, you should never go on an important photo trip with only one lens.
- Tripod: If you’re as obsessive about using the tripod as I am, you’ll have more than one (I’m embarrassed to say how many I own). It’s a luxury I can’t afford when I fly, but when I drive to a location I always have a second tripod in my car. For workshops I don’t have to fly to, I also bring a loaner tripod and have lost track of the number of times someone has needed to borrow it.
- Image management—backup, backup, backup. And then backup some more. Below is my own image management workflow—I’m not saying you need to do what I do, I’m just saying that your image management needs to be organized, regular, and redundant.Because all my cameras take two cards (something I highly recommend), my image backups start with each click. I know there are several options for handling these extra cards, but I don’t think any is as important as insuring against data loss. Cards do fail (see above), and as rare as that might seem, cards go missing too (see above). When I lost my card, my reaction was, “Oh crap, I need to buy a new card,” not, “OH CRAP! I’VE LOST AN ENTIRE WORKSHOP WORTH OF IMAGES!”
- When I travel to a shoot, I try to import my images every day (and always when I think I’ve captured something special, but during a workshop I sometimes don’t have the time or energy at the end of the day). Because I like the option of processing on either of my two computers, my import destination is a 4TB SSD drive that lives in my computer bag. And even if I have imported my images, I never delete my cards until I get home. Those times I’m especially excited about what I’ve captured, before flying home I take the time to copy my images to a second SSD drive that stays in my suitcase. That means for the duration of my trip, I have two copies of my images in my camera (which lives in my camera bag), one copy on an SSD drive in my computer bag, and one copy on an SSD in my suitcase. Having them in so many locations while I travel makes it very unlikely I’d lose every copy.
- As soon as I’m home, I copy all of the trip’s images to a 10TB spinning drive that lives on my desk and is automatically backed up to the cloud using Backblaze. And finally, I also copy those images to a RAID 6 NAS (network attached storage) that lives in my office.
About this image
I captured this lightning strike during the same storm that produced the thunderhead in the image I shared last week. It came nearly 40 minutes later, when the sun was near the horizon and the light was noticeably warmer. The rain curtain that’s so visible here was just starting to form in the earlier image, but once it did form it remained pretty stationary and continued to dump like this for at least 45 minutes—no doubt generating flash floods up the canyon.
Something I’ve learned when photographing lightning is to keep my eye on the sky. There’s so much waiting, long lulls where nothing happens, that it’s easy to get distracted by the view, fellow photographers, or a smartphone. As much as I try to advise everyone in my groups to keep watching, attention usually wanes until one or two people exclaim excitedly about a bolt—but by the time the rest of the group looks up (no matter how fast they are), it’s too late. By staying vigilant, you get a good idea of where your camera should be aimed, when the activity is waining, the direction the cell is moving, and whether activity is picking up elsewhere.
One of the cool things about photographing lightning at the Grand Canyon is the breadth of the view, which often provides multiple active cells to choose between. While this cell remained active for quite a while, most of its lightning was behind the rain and we were only aware of it when it registered in our lighting app (usually within a minute or two after the strike).
There were actually a couple of cells delivering more visible lightning, but one was more distant, and the other was out over the Painted Desert and away from the best view. So I stayed zeroed in on this cell, hoping to capture a bolt against the rain curtain. I got a couple that were close, but this is the only one to pierce the rain curtain during its peak.
I had one more realization while watching this intense downpour—anyone fortuitously positioned on the North Rim, perhaps somewhere around Roosevelt Point, would be enjoying an absolutely epic rainbow. All you need for a rainbow is direct, low-angle sunlight directly behind you as you look toward airborne water droplets. I had two out of three—low-angle sun striking airborne water droplets (you can clearly see the sunlight illuminating the falling rain)—but I was in the wrong place. Oh well.
Lots of Lightning
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on March 20, 2022
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. — Wayne Gretzky” — Michael Scott
Rules are important. The glue of civilization. Bedtime, homework, and curfews constrained our childhood and taught us to self-police to the point where as adults we’re so conditioned that we honor rules simply because we’ve been told to. (Who among us doesn’t always wait for the signal to change, even with no car or cop in sight?)
As important as this conditioning is to the preservation of civil society, rules can sometime keep us from taking shots that might have turned out to be special. Rather than trusting their own instincts, less than confident photographers are often held back by blind adherence to the (usually) well-intended photography “experts” proliferating online, in print, and maybe even in your very own camera club. These self-proclaimed authorities love nothing more than to issue edicts for their disciples to embrace. But my general advice to anyone seeking photography guidance is to beware of absolutes, and when you hear one, run (don’t walk) to the nearest exit. The truth is, there are very, very few absolutes in photography. (Remove the lens cap?)
A more insidious hindrance to photographers is our own rules—things we truly believe to be true. These are like training wheels that served us so well at the start that we never considered removing them: the rule of thirds, never blow your highlights, don’t center the horizon, everything sharp from front to back, avoid bright sunlight, just to name a few. But they’re insidious because, while they may be founded on some basic truth, they also hinder our growth. Like walls that give comfort by protecting us from intruders, photographic rules obscure the horizons of our creativity.
The truth is you often don’t know whether an image will work until you click the shutter—and sometimes not even until you get home and look at it on your computer. The more you’re able to turn off that internal editor (who keeps repeating all the rules spewed by others), the better your results will be. Just remember this: If you’re not breaking the rules, you’re not being creative.
The image I share above might never have happened had I followed a couple of rules—one I hear all the time from well-intended photo judges, another I often impose on myself: A photo judge might ding it for the centered lightning bolt and (more or less) centered horizon; and I may have never had the opportunity to photograph this beautiful thunderhead at all had I not overcome my personal aversion to photographing in midday light.
The afternoon I captured this came during one of three Grand Canyon Monsoon photo workshops last summer. The sky was blue and the forecast for lightning not so great, but we headed out toward Desert View that afternoon anyway. Shortly after pointing east along the rim on Highway 64, I saw this towering thunderhead blooming in the distance. Given all the twists and turns on the road, I wasn’t even sure at first it would be in our scene at Desert View. And since our destination was still about 30 minutes away, I was even less confident that even if the thunderhead was over the canyon, it would still be active by the time we got there.
I was assisted in this workshop by my friend and fellow photographer Curt Fargo. I can always count on Curt, realtime lightning app open, relaying instant reports on the activity as we drive, and it wasn’t long before he determined that thunderhead had to be where the app showed a lot of lightning activity about 15 miles up the canyon from Desert View—not exactly close, but at least the viewing angle would work. At that point all we could do was drive, watch the cloud, and pray it didn’t peter out before we got there. (Why is the speed of the car in front of you always inversely proportional to the amount of hurry you’re in?)
As you can see, we made it. Rather than drive all the way out to Desert View, we stopped at the first good view of the canyon and thunderhead—Lipan Point, about two miles closer with a much shorter walk to the rim. By the time we were set up the lightning activity had peaked, but we still got a few strikes. We also got to watch this cell absolutely dump an ocean of water on one spot for nearly an hour, no doubt creating a significant flash flood for whatever canyon drained it. This is the only image I captured that included the entire thunderhead.
The moral is, whenever you find yourself basing composition or exposure decisions on pre-conceived ideas (either your own or others’) of how things should be, just slow down a bit and challenge yourself to break the rules. Go ahead and get your standard shot, but then force yourself to try something outside your comfort zone. And remember Michael Scott.
Breaking the Rules
Posted on March 13, 2022
Photography should, first and foremost, make you happy. But every once in a while, for some reason (I have to be really bored) I’ll surf over to an online photography forum or Facebook photography group, only to be instantly reminded why it’s been so long since I visited. The litany of online insults, one-upmanship, and destructive criticism makes me wonder whether there are any happy photographers out there.
Of course I know there are, because I meet them all the time: in my workshops, on location, or simply sharing their images online. I don’t know whether the same photographers who seem so happy when they’re taking pictures do a Jekyll to Hyde transformation as soon as their butts hit the computer chair, or whether there are two types of photographers: those who actually take pictures, and those who simply prefer their computer to Mother Nature (no wonder they’re so unhappy).
Of course getting out to take pictures does require more effort than sitting at a computer. And nature photography usually requires some level of sacrifice because the best time for photography is usually the worst time to be outside: sunrise, when we’d rather be in bed; sunset, when we’d rather be at dinner; crazy weather, when we’d rather be warm; and after dark, when we’d rather be in front of the TV. But I’ve decided that there’s something about witnessing Nature’s majesty that transcends any transient discomfort and inconvenience. And doing it with people who appreciate it as much as you do makes it even better.
Don Smith and I got another reminder in last month’s Iceland photo workshop. On this trip we dealt with all the wind, snow, and frigid temperatures you’d expect in Iceland in February. And then there were the long days and bumpy miles—not to mention a fair share of unexpected hardship. For example, less than 36 hours after clicking this image, several members of our group were nearly swept into the North Atlantic by a rogue wave. Then there were the hotel room snow drifts (note to self: Don’t sleep with the window open in Iceland in February), the lost and found camera bag, the stolen airport shuttle….
But despite all this difficultly, this trip was an absolute blast. This night is a great example. It must have been freezing, but I have no memory of that now. But I do remember standing on the beach beneath Vestrahorn with the rest of the group that night, the waves washing over (and sometimes into) our boots, waiting for the northern lights. Approaching from behind was a storm that, according to the forecast, threatened to close the roads. This scene is beautiful in any conditions, and to be able to photo Vestrahorn under the stars, with even a little bit of aurora, was truly special. Doing it with a group of like-minded, fun loving friends is something I’ll never forget.
What you see here is about as good as the aurora got—nice, but nothing spectacular. Nevertheless, we were having such a great time, we stayed out in the cold dark until the clouds swallowed the stars. Back at the bus, with a storm threatening and an hour’s drive back to the hotel, we were anxious to get on the road. So imagine our chagrin when Óli (or Icelandic guide) turned the key and got nothing but a click. If you’ve every photographed Vestrahorn from here, you know this isn’t one of those places where you can just walk out onto the road and flag down a car. Uh-oh. It would have been easy, understandable even, for people to be upset—or frightened, or angry. Instead, while Óli worked his phone trying find help (the cellular coverage in Iceland is fantastic, FYI), we just continued enjoying each other’s company.
As it turned out, we only had to wait an hour or so for a friend of Óli’s to come out and give us a jumpstart (one more reason why it pays to have a local guide). He also arranged for another friend to drive our direction with van large enough for the entire group, in case the battery charge didn’t hold. Rather than wait for the backup vehicle to arrive, we just started driving in toward the hotel—the other vehicle met us halfway and followed us from there, but we made it without need for more help.
The next morning the battery was dead again, and we were stuck at the hotel all morning while the bus was being repaired (turned out to be an alternator problem). As luck would have it, the storm was so bad that we’d have had to stay in anyway. That afternoon we were picked up for our visit to the ice cave, and the bus was good as new when we returned. So all’s well that ends well.
Worth the Sacrifice
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on March 7, 2022
One of my personal rules for photography is knowledge of my subjects—I simply get more pleasure from an image when I know something about what I’ve captured. Of the many potential subjects available to a landscape photographer, mountains have always been a particular draw for me. Living my entire life in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada has certainly influenced that connection, as have fond memories of family camping trips in the mountains throughout my childhood, and Sierra backpack trips with friends in my teens and beyond. In college I even majored in geology for several semesters (after astronomy, but before eventually earning my bachelor’s degree in, yawn, economics), and was most interested in the processes responsible for mountain building: tectonics and volcanism.
Given all this, I guess it makes sense that after returning from last month’s Iceland trip I found myself digging a little deeper into the origins of Kirkjufell, the prominent peak that is arguably Iceland’s most recognizable landmark. Game of Thrones fans who recognize Kirkjufell (Arrowhead Mountain) will be relieved to know that, after several visits over the last few years, I can confirm that the White Walkers appear to have moved on. (But come to think of it, maybe that shouldn’t be much of a relief….)
Kirkjufell rises slightly more than 1500 feet above Breiðafjörður Bay on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Given Iceland’s volcanic origins, it would be reasonable to assume that this cone-shaped peak is just one of of the island’s many volcanos. But that assumption would be incorrect. Skeptical? The mountain’s clearly visible parallel strata layers are a giveaway that Kirkjufell is not a volcano. (And viewing from other angles would reveal that Kirkjufell isn’t really cone-shaped either.)
Though many of Kirkjufell’s layers were indeed laid down by lava or explosive debris from nearby volcanos, these igneous layers are interspersed with layers of submarine sediment deposits, each layer a product of the environment at the time of its deposition. Kirkjufell’s base layer was a large lava flow that happened sometime in the last 5 to 10 million years (relatively recently in Earth’s grand geological picture). After that came millions of years of alternating sediment and volcanic deposits, separated by thousands or millions of years for which there’s no record.
This assortment of parallel layers created a horizontal layer cake of strata bearing no resemblance to the mountain we know today (or any mountain for that matter). Because all sedimentary layers are deposited horizontally, and Kirkjufell has a slight SE-NW tilt, it would also be reasonable to assume that at some point since the last layer went down, the entire area to the southeast rose relative to the area northwest.
Once all Kirkjufell’s layers were deposited and tilted, the area was squeezed between two glaciers that carved away most of the surrounding rock, leaving the remaining peak jutting above the glaciers like an island. When the glaciers retreated, the peak we see today remained.
The other striking feature in this image is the pink that spreads in the shadowless pre-sunrise/post-sunset sky of civil twilight, when the sun is around six degrees or closer to the horizon. Sometimes called the “Belt of Venus,” we get this color because the only the longest, red wavelengths are able to traverse the atmosphere once the sun drops below the horizon.
The interface between the Belt of Venus and the blue-gray Earth’s shadow directly is called the “twilight wedge,” a designation earned because you can sometimes see the earth’s curve in the shadow, with its apex at the anti-solar point (directly opposite the sun). At sunset, the gradual upward motion of the shadow gives the appearance of a wedge being driven into the darkening sky.
About this image
I won’t pretend that there’s anything especially unique about my composition here (and I have the pictures to prove it)—it’s one of those scenes that improves more with conditions than composition, especially if you haven’t been here enough to get really familiar with it.
Because this was the first evening of photography for Don Smith’s and my 2022 Iceland photo workshop, Don and I stayed especially close to the group. From past visits I knew that to align Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss (the waterfall), you’re pretty limited for places to set up, but we managed to find prime tripod real estate for everyone. I encourage my groups to move around as much as possible, but the thick snow and steep drop to the river further limited our mobility, so we just lined up along the cable barrier between the trail and the drop. And because there were other people besides our group out there, once you landed a vantage point, you were pretty much stuck there until someone moved.
Given the mobility limitations and my desire to align the mountain and waterfall, my composition options were mostly focal length choices. Another, self imposed, compositional limitation was my desire to exclude the footbridge just out of my frame on the left. I like to believe that if I’d have been here by myself, with lots of time to explore, I’d have come up with something a little more creative. But I’m certainly not complaining—between the fresh snow and beautiful sky, the conditions for photography were off the charts and everyone was thrilled.
This image came late in the shoot, just as the twilight wedge reached peak color. By then I was pretty familiar with all my composition options and opted to go with my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens at 17mm (an my Sony a7RIV body). Turns out my resulting composition is remarkably similar to my northern lights image from later that night, and a sunrise image I captured here 3 years ago. Since I clearly have this composition nailed, I’ll need to challenge myself to find something different next year.