Mastering Focus (Hyperfocal and Otherwise)

Gary Hart Photography: Floating Leaves, Valley View, Yosemite

Floating Autumn Leaves, Valley View, Yosemite
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
Canon 24-105 f/4 L
1/15 second
F/16
ISO 100

What’s the point?

It seems like one of photography’s great mysteries is achieving proper focus: the camera settings, where to place the focus point, even the definition of sharpness are all sources of confusion. If you’re a tourist just grabbing snapshots, everything in your frame is likely at infinity and you can just put your camera in full auto mode and click away. But if you’re a photographic artist trying to capture something unique with your mirrorless or DSLR camera and doing your best to have important visual elements objects at different distances throughout your frame, you need to stop letting your camera decide your focus point and exposure settings.

Of course the first creative focus decision is whether you even want the entire frame sharp. While some of my favorite images use selective focus to emphasize one element and blur the rest of the scene, most (but not all) of what I’ll say here is about using hyperfocal techniques to maximize depth of field (DOF). I cover creative selective focus in much greater detail in another Photo Tip article: Creative Selective Focus.

Beware the “expert”

I’m afraid that there’s some bad, albeit well-intended, advice out there that yields just enough success to deceive people into thinking they’ve got focus nailed, a misperception that often doesn’t manifest until an important shot is lost. I’m referring to the myth that you should focus 1/3 of the way into the scene, or 1/3 of the way into the frame (two very different things, each with its own set of problems).

For beginners, or photographers whose entire scene is at infinity, the 1/3 technique may be a useful rule of thumb. But taking the 1/3 approach to focus requires that you understand DOF and the art of focusing well enough to adjust your focus point when appropriate, and once you achieve that level of understanding, you may as well do it the right way from the start. That ability becomes especially important in those scenes where missing the focus point by just a few feet or inches can make or break and image.

Where to focus this? Of course 1/3 of the way into a scene that stretches for miles won’t work. And 1/3 of the way into a frame with a diagonal foreground won’t work either.

Back to the basics

Understanding a few basic focus truths will help you make focus decisions:

  • A lens’s aperture is the opening that allows light to reach your sensor—the bigger this opening, the more light gets in, but also the smaller your DOF.
  • Aperture is measured in f-stops, which is the lens’s focal length divided by the aperture’s diameter; the higher the f-number, the smaller the aperture and the greater the DOF. So f/8 is actually a bigger aperture (with less DOF) than f/11. This understanding becomes second nature, but if you’re just learning it’s helpful to think of f/stops this way: The higher the f-number, the greater the depth of field. Though they’re not exactly the same thing, photographers usually use f-stop and aperture interchangeably.
  • Regardless of its current f-stop setting, a camera maximizes the light in its viewfinder by always showing you the scene at the lens’s widest aperture. All this extra light makes it easier to compose and focus, but unless your exposure is set for the widest aperture (which it shouldn’t be unless you have a very specific reason to limit your depth of field), the image you capture will have more DOF than you see in the viewfinder. The consequence is that you usually can’t see how much of your scene is in focus when you compose. Most cameras have a DOF preview button that temporarily closes the lens down to the f-stop you have set—this shows the scene at its actual DOF, but can also darken the viewfinder considerably (depending on how small your aperture is), making it far more difficult to see the scene.
  • For any focus point, there’s only one (infinitely thin) plane of maximum sharpness, regardless of the focal length and f-stop—everything in front of and behind the plane containing your focus point (and parallel to the sensor) will be some degree of less than maximum sharpness. As long as the zone of less than perfect sharpness isn’t visible, it’s considered “acceptably sharp.” When that zone becomes visible, that portion of the image is officially “soft.” When photographers speak of sharpness in an image, they’re really talking about acceptable sharpness.
  • The zone of acceptable sharpness extends a greater distance beyond the focus point than it does in front of the focus point. If you focus on that rock ten feet in front of you, rocks three feet in front of you may be out of focus, but a tree fifty feet away could be sharp. I’ll explain more about this later.
  • While shorter focal lengths may appear to provide more depth of field, believe it or not, DOF doesn’t actually change with focal length. What does change is the size of everything in the image, so as your focal length increases, your functional or apparent DOF decreases. So you really aren’t gaining more absolute DOF with a shorter focal length, it just won’t be as visible. When photographers talk about DOF, they’re virtually always talking about apparent DOF—the way the image looks. (That’s the DOF definition I use here too.)
  • The closer your focus point, the narrower your DOF (range of front-to-back sharpness). If you focus your 24mm lens on a butterfly sunning on a poppy six inches from your lens, your DOF is so narrow that it’s possible parts of the poppy will be out of focus; if you focus the same lens on a tree 100 feet away, the mountains behind the tree are sharp too.
Whitney Arch Moonset, Alabama Hills, California

Moonset, Mt. Whitney and Whitney Arch, Alabama Hills, California
With subjects throughout my frame, from close foreground to distant background, it’s impossible to get everything perfectly sharp. Here in the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California, I stopped down to f/16 and focused at the at the most distant part of the arch. This ensured that all of the arch would be perfectly sharp, while keeping Mt. Whitney and the rest of the background “sharp enough.”

Defining sharpness

Depth of field discussions are complicated by the fact that “sharp” is a moving target that varies with display size and viewing distance. But it’s safe to say that all things equal, the larger your ultimate output and closer the intended viewing distance, the more detail your original capture should contain.

To capture detail a lens focuses light on the sensor’s photosites. Remember using a magnifying glass to focus sunlight and ignite a leaf when you were a kid? The smaller (more concentrated) the point of sunlight, the sooner the smoke appeared. In a camera, the finer (smaller) a lens focuses light on each photosite, the more detail the image will contain at that location. So when we focus we’re trying to make the light striking each photosite as concentrated as possible.

In photography we call that small circle of light your lens makes for each photosite its “circle of confusion.” The larger the CoC, the less concentrated the light and the more blurred the image will appear. Of course if the CoC is too small to be seen as soft, either because the print is too small or the viewer is too far away, it really doesn’t matter. In other words, areas of an image with a large CoC (relatively soft) can still appear sharp if small enough or viewed from far enough away. That’s why sharpness can never be an absolute term, and we talk instead about acceptable sharpness that’s based on print size and viewing distance. It’s actually possible for the same image to be sharp for one use, but too soft for another.

So how much detail do you need? The threshold for acceptable sharpness is pretty low for an image that just ends up on an 8×10 calendar on the kitchen wall, but if you want that image large on the wall above the sofa, achieving acceptable sharpness requires much more detail. And as your print size increases (and/or viewing distance decreases), the CoC that delivers acceptable sharpness shrinks correspondingly.

Many factors determine the a camera’s ability to record detail. Sensor resolution of course—the more resolution your sensor has, the more important it becomes that to have a lens that can take advantage of that extra resolution. And the more detail you want to capture with that high resolution sensor and tack-sharp lens, the more important your depth of field and focus point decisions become.

Hyperfocal focus

The foundation of a sound approach to maximizing sharpness for a given viewing distance and image size is hyperfocal focusing, an approach that uses viewing distance, f-stop, focal length, and focus point to ensure acceptable sharpness.

The hyperfocal point is the focus point that provides the maximum depth of field for a given combination of sensor size, f/stop, and focal length. Another way to say it is that the hyperfocal point is the closest you can focus and still be acceptably sharp to infinity. When focused at the hyperfocal point, your scene will be acceptably sharp from halfway between your lens and focus point all the way to infinity. For example, if the hyperfocal point for your sensor (full frame, APS-C, 4/3, or whatever), focal length, and f-stop combinition is twelve feet away, focusing there will give you acceptable sharpness from six feet (half of twelve) to infinity—focusing closer will soften the distant scene; focusing farther will keep you sharp to infinity but extend the area of foreground softness.

Because the hyperfocal variable (sensor size, focal length, f-stop) combinations are too numerous to memorize, we usually refer to an external aid. That used to be awkward printed tables with long columns and rows displayed in microscopic print, the more precise the data, the smaller the print. Fortunately, those have been replaced by smartphone apps with more precise information in a much more accessible and readable form. We plug in all the variables and out pops the hyperfocal point distance and other useful information

It usually goes something like this:

  1. Identify the composition
  2. Determine the closest thing that must be sharp (right now I’m assuming you want sharpness to infinity)
  3. Dig the smartphone from one of the 10,000 pockets it could be in
  4. Open the hyperfocal app and plug in the sensor size (usually previously set by you as the default), f-stop, and a focus distance
  5. Up pops the hyperfocal distance (and usually other info of varying value)

You’re not as sharp as you think

Since people’s eyes start to glaze over when CoC comes up, they tend to use the default returned by the smartphone app. But just because the app tells you you’ve nailed focus, don’t assume that your work is done. An often overlooked aspect of hyperfocal focusing is that app makes assumptions that aren’t necessarily right, and in fact are probably wrong.

The CoC your app uses to determine acceptable sharpness is a function of sensor size, display size, and viewing distance. But most app’s hyperfocal tables assume that you’re creating an 8×10 print that will be viewed from a foot away—maybe valid 40 years ago, but not in this day of mega-prints. The result is a CoC three times larger than the eye’s ability to resolve.

That doesn’t invalidate hyperfocal focusing, but if you use published hyperfocal data from an app or table, your images’ DOF might not be as ideal as you think it is for your use. If you can’t specify a smaller CoC in your app, I suggest that you stop-down a stop or so more than the app/table indicates. On the other hand, stopping down to increase sharpness is an effort of diminishing returns, because diffraction increases as the aperture shrinks and eventually will soften the entire image—I try not to go more than a stop smaller than my data suggests.

Keeping it simple

As helpful as a hyperfocal app can be, whipping out a smartphone for instant in-the-field access to data is not really conducive to the creative process. I’m a big advocate of keeping photography as simple as possible, so while I’m a hyperfocal focus advocate in spirit, I don’t usually use hyperfocal data in the field. Instead I apply hyperfocal principles in the field whenever I think the margin of error gives me sufficient wiggle room.

Though I don’t often use the specific hyperfocal data in the field, I find it helps a lot to refer to hyperfocal tables when I’m sitting around with nothing to do. So if I find myself standing in line at the DMV, or sitting in a theater waiting for a movie (I’m a great date), I open my iPhone hyperfocal app and plug in random values just to get a sense of the DOF for a given f-stop and focal length combination. I may not remember the exact numbers later, but enough of the information sinks in that I accumulate a general sense of the hyperfocal DOF/camera-setting relationships.

Finally, something to do

Unless I think I have very little DOF margin for error in my composition, I rarely open my hyperfocal app in the field. Instead, once my composition is worked out and have determined the closest object I want sharp—the closest object with visual interest (shape, color, texture), regardless of whether it’s a primary subject.

  • If I want to be sharp to infinity and my closest foreground object (that needs to be sharp) is close enough to hit with my hat, I need a fair amount of DOF. If my focal length is pretty wide, I might skip the hyperfocal app, stop down to f/16, and focus a little behind my foreground object. But if I’m at a fairly long focal length, or my closest object is within arm’s reach, I have very little margin for error and will almost certainly refer to my hyperfocal app.
  • If I could hit my foreground object with a baseball and my focal length is 50mm (or so) or less, I’ll probably go with f/11 and just focus on my foreground object. But as my focal length increases, so does the likelihood that I’ll need to refer to my hyperfocal app.
  • If it would take a gun to reach my closest object (picture a distant peak), I choose an f-stop between f/8 and f/11 and focus anywhere in the distance.

Of course these distances are very subjective and will vary with your focal length and composition (not to mention the strength of your pitching arm), but you get the idea. If you find yourself in a small margin for error focus situation without a hyperfocal app (or you just don’t want to take the time to use one), the single most important thing to remember is to focus behind your closest subject. Because you always have sharpness in front of your focus point, focusing on the closest subject gives you unnecessary sharpness at the expense of distant sharpness. By focusing a little behind your closest subject, you’re increasing the depth of your distant sharpness while (if you’re careful) keeping your foreground subject within the zone of sharpness in front of the focus point.

And finally, foreground softness, no matter how slight, is almost always a greater distraction than slight background softness. So, if it’s impossible to get all of your frame sharp, it’s usually best to ensure that the foreground is sharp.

Some examples

Sunset Palette, Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite

A hat’s toss away: The closest pool was about 6 feet from my lens. I stopped down to f/20 (smaller than I generally like to go) and focused on the back of the pool on the left, about 10 feet away.

A baseball throw away: The little clump of wildflowers (lower right) was about 35 feet away and the trees started another 35 feet beyond that. With a focal length of 55mm, I dialed to f/11 and focused on the most distant foreground tree, getting everything from the flowers to Half Dome sharp.

Gary Hart Photography: Tree and Crescent, Sierra Foothills, California

Honey, fetch my rifle: With everything here at infinity I knew could focus on the trees or moon confident that the entire frame would be sharp. In this case I opted for f/8 to minimize diffraction but still in my lens’s sharpest f-stop range, and focused on the tree.

Why not just automatically set my aperture to f/22 and be done with it? I thought you’d never ask. Without delving too far into the physics of light and optics, let’s just say that there’s a not so little light-bending problem called “diffraction” that robs your images of sharpness as your aperture shrinks—the smaller the aperture, the greater the diffraction. Then why not choose f/2.8 when everything’s at infinity? Because lenses tend to lose sharpness at their aperture extremes, and are generally sharper in their mid-range f-stops. So while diffraction and lens softness don’t sway me from choosing the f-stop that gives the DOF I want, I try to never choose an aperture bigger or smaller than I need.

Now that we’ve let the composition determine our f-stop, it’s (finally) time to actually choose the focus point. Believe it or not, with this foundation of understanding we just established, focus becomes pretty simple. Whenever possible, I try to have elements throughout my frame, often starting near my feet and extending far into the distance. When that’s the case I stop down focus on an object slightly behind my closest subject (the more distant my closest subject, the farther behind it I can focus).

When I’m not sure, or if I don’t think I can get the entire scene sharp, I err on the side of closer focus to ensure that the foreground is sharp. Sometimes before shooting I check my DOF with the DOF preview button, allowing time for my eye to adjust to the limited light. And when maximum DOF is essential and I know my margin for error is small, I don’t hesitate to refer to the DOF app on my iPhone.

A great thing about digital capture is the instant validation of the LCD—when I’m not sure, or when getting it perfect is absolutely essential, after capture I pop my image up on the LCD, magnify it to maximum, check the point or points that must be sharp, and adjust if necessary. Using this immediate feedback to make instant corrections really speeds the learning process.

Sometimes less is more

The depth of field you choose is your creative choice, and no law says you must maximize it. Use your camera’s limited depth of field to minimize or eliminate distractions, create a blur of background color, or simply to guide your viewer’s eye. Focusing on a near subject while letting the background go soft clearly communicates the primary subject while retaining enough background detail to establish context. And an extremely narrow depth of field can turn distant flowers or sky into a colorful canvas for your subject.

In this image of a dogwood blossom in the rain, I positioned my camera to align Bridalveil Fall with the dogwood and used an extension tube to focus extremely close. The narrow depth of field caused by focusing so close turned Bridalveil Fall into a background blur (I used f/18 to the fall a little more recognizable), allowing viewers to feast their eyes on the dogwood’s and raindrop’s exquisite detail.
An extension tube on a macro lens at f/2.8 gave me depth of field measured in fractions of an inch. The gold color in the background is more poppies, but they’re far enough away that they blur into nothing but color. The extremely narrow depth of field also eliminated weeds and rocks that would have otherwise been a distraction.

There’s no substitute for experience

No two photographers do everything exactly alike. Determining the DOF a composition requires, the f-stop and focal length that achieves the desired DOF, and where to place the point of maximum focus, are all part of the creative process that should never be left up to the camera. The sooner you grasp the underlying principles of DOF and focus, the sooner you’ll feel comfortable taking control and conveying your own unique vision.

About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Floating Leaves, Valley View, Yosemite

Floating Autumn Leaves, Valley View, Yosemite

Yosemite may not be New England, but it can still put on a pretty good fall color display. A few years ago I arrived  at Valley View on the west side of Yosemite Valley just about the time the fall color was peaking. I found the Merced River filled with reflections of El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks, framed by an accumulation of recently fallen leaves still rich with vivid fall color.

To emphasize the colorful foreground, I dropped my tripod low and framed up a vertical composition. I knew my hyperfocal distance at 24mm and f/11 would be 5 or 6 feet, but with the scene ranging from the closest leaves at about 3 feet away out to El Capitan at infinity, I also knew I’d need to be careful with my focus choices. For a little more margin for error I stopped down to f/16, then focused on the nearest rocks which were a little less than 6 feet away. As I usually do when I don’t have a lot of focus wiggle room, I magnified the resulting image on my LCD and moved the view from the foreground to the background to verify front-to-back sharpness.

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Playing with Depth: A Gallery of Focus

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Getting centered

Gary Hart Photography: Daybreak, Mono Lake, Eastern Sierra, California

Daybreak, Mono Lake, Eastern Sierra, California
Sony a7R III
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
Breakthrough 6-stop ND filter
1 second
F/18
ISO 200

What do you think would happen if I submitted this image a camera club photo competition? The sunstar and golden glow might elicit a few oohs and ahhs at first, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be long before the resident Rule enforcer dismisses it because the horizon and sunstar are centered. And while “never center your subject” is great advice for a beginner who automatically bullseyes every subject, reflexively reciting “Rules*” is a cop-out for faux experts who lack creative instincts. (Of course I’m not talking about you, I’m talking about that guy standing over there by the cookies.) Worse still, photographers who blindly follow Rules are leaning on a crutch that will only atrophy their creative muscles.

This is important

Rules are not inherently bad, but it should be the photographer controlling the Rules, not the other way around. In fact, if you’re following the Rules, you’re not being creative. One more time: If you’re following the Rules, you’re not being creative. 

A couple of examples

Among the most frequently repeated Rules is the Rule of Thirds, which dictates that the primary subject be placed at the intersection points in an imaginary grid dividing the frame into horizontal and vertical thirds (think tic-tac-toe). Part of the ROT mandate is to never center the horizon, but to instead place it one third of the way up from the bottom or down from the top. Reasonable advice for people who like their images to look like everyone else’s, but it completely ignores the myriad reasons for doing otherwise.

Visual artists are often told to give their subjects more space in the frame in the direction they’re looking. In other words, if the subject is gazing rightward, place them left of the frame’s center so they’re looking across the frame and not directly into a virtual wall. But to cite just one cinema example among many, in a scene in the movie “12 Years a Slave” I noticed Solomon Northup longingly gazing directly into the left border of the frame, with a vast open sky behind him. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this framing subtly but effectively conveyed Northup’s physical and emotional confinement. But who doesn’t know someone who’d ding this framing at the photo club competition?

About this image

Rather than blindly following the ROT, my horizon placement is a function of the relative visual appeal of the sky vs. the foreground: Whichever is better between the foreground and sky gets the majority of the frame real estate.

Anticipating a sunstar to culminate last Friday’s Mono Lake sunrise, I scanned the muddy lakeshore until I found a foreground that would compliment what was happening in the sky. Given the color reflecting on the lake surface and the diagonal symmetry of the small tufa islands before me, my original thought this morning was to bias the composition to favor the foreground. But peering through my viewfinder it was impossible not to miss the way the clouds seemed to emanate from the point of the sun’s imminent arrival. I decided to emphasize the symmetry by splitting the scene with the horizon, and centering the sun.

This isn’t to say there was no other way to compose this scene—there are almost always many ways to compose a scene. For example, I could have moved to my right to get a little separation between the sun and the tufa islands, placing the tufa a little left of center and the sun right of center. And/or I could have angled the camera down to get more lake, putting the top of the frame just above the darker clouds near the sun. When things are happening slowly I usually give myself as many compositional variations as I can think of, but when the light is changing fast (as it does with a rising or setting sun), I find I’m much better off just sticking to one thing and making sure I have it right.

The other thing I did here was add my 6-stop Breakthrough neutral density filter. This allowed me, despite the extremely bright sunlight, to achieve a 1-second exposure that smoothed the water just enough. I captured this with a single click and without a graduated neutral density filter, relying entirely on the dynamic range of my Sony a7RIII to retain virtually all the scene’s extreme shadow to highlight range.

Shed the crutch and go forth

Rules serve a beginning photographer in much the way training wheels serve a child learning to ride a bike: They’re great for getting you started, but soon get in the way. As valuable as these support mechanisms are, you wouldn’t do Tour de France with training wheels, or the Boston Marathon on crutches.

In my workshops I’m frequently exposed to creative damage done to people rendered gun-shy by well-intended but misguided Rule enforcers. Camera clubs and photo competitions are great for many reasons, but I’d love to see them declared no-Rule zones. And if your group can’t no nuclear on Rules, I suggest at the very least adding a no-Rule (“best image that breaks a Rule”) competition or category to acknowledge that the Rules are not the final word.

My suggestion to everyone trying to improve their photography is to learn the Rules, but rather than simply memorizing them, do your best to understand their purpose, and how that purpose might conflict with your objective. Then, armed with that wisdom, each time you peer through your viewfinder, set the Rules aside and simply trust your creative instincts.

*”Rules” is capitalized throughout to mock the deference they’re given

Eastern Sierra Photo Workshop


Asking for trouble at the camera club

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Focus Magic

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Aspen,Grand Tetons National Park

Autumn Aspen, Grand Tetons National Park
Sony a7RIII
Sony 100-400 GM
Sony 2x teleconverter
15mm extension tube
ISO 1600
f/11
1/60 second


As we enter the fall color photography season, I’m revisiting and revising previous articles. This is the third in the series.


In this day of ubiquitous cameras, automatic exposure, and free information, a creative photographer’s surest path to unique images is achieved by managing a scene’s depth. While anyone with a camera can compose the left/right/up/down aspect of a scene, the front/back plane, a scene’s depth (that we human’s take for granted) is missing from a two-dimensional image. Managing depth requires abstract vision and camera control beyond the skill of most casual photographers. But it’s not hard.

While skilled photographers frequently go to great lengths to maximize depth of field (DOF), many forget the ability of limited DOF to:

  • Guide the viewer’s eye to a particular subject
  • Provide the primary subject a complementary background
  • Provide background context for a subject (such as its location or the time of day or season)
  • Smooth a busy, potentially distracting background
  • Create something nobody will ever be able to duplicate

They call it “bokeh”

We call an image’s out of focus area its “bokeh.” While it’s true that bokeh generally improves with the quality of the lens, as with most things in photography, more important than the lens is the photographer behind it. More than anything, achieving compelling bokeh starts with understanding how your camera sees the world, and how to translate that vision. The image’s focus point, its depth of field (a function of the f-stop, sensor size, focal length, and subject distance), and the characteristics of the blurred background (color, shapes, lines) are all under the photographer’s control.

No special equipment required

Compelling bokeh doesn’t require special or expensive equipment—chances are you have everything you need in your bag already. Most macro lenses are fast enough to limit DOF, have excellent optics (that provide pleasing bokeh), and allow for extremely close focus (which shrinks DOF). A telephoto lens near its longest focal length has a very shallow DOF when focused close.

Another great way to limit your DOF without breaking the bank is with an extension tube (or tubes). Extension tubes are hollow (no optics) cylinders that attach between your camera and lens. The best ones communicate with the camera so you can still meter and autofocus. Not only are extension tubes relatively inexpensive, with them I can focus just about as close as I could have with a macro. They can also be stacked—the more extension, the closer you can focus (and the shallower your DOF). And with no optics, there’s nothing compromise the quality of my lens (unlike a teleconverter or diopter). But there’s no such thing as a free lunch in photography—the downside of extension tubes is that they reduce the amount of amount light reaching the sensor—the more extension, the less light. On the other hand, since I’m using them to reduce my DOF, I’m always shooting wide open. And the high ISO capability of today’s cameras more than makes up for the loss of light.

Many of my selective focus images are accomplished without a macro or even a particularly fast lens. Instead, preferring the compositional flexibility of a zoom, I opt for my 70-200 f4 (especially) and 100-400 lenses. While my 100 macro is an amazingly sharp lens with beautiful bokeh, I often prefer the ability to isolate my subject, in a narrow focus range, without having to get right on top of it. On the other hand, if I have a subject I want to get incredibly close to, there’s no better way than my macro and an extension tube (or two, or three).

Managing depth of field

When using creative soft focus, it’s important that your background be soft enough that it doesn’t simply look like a focus error. In other words, you usually want your background really soft. On the other hand, the amount of softness you choose creates a continuum that starts with an indistinguishable blur of color, includes unrecognizable but complementary shapes, and ends with easily recognizable objects. Where your background falls on this continuum is up to you.

Your DOF will be shallower (and your background softer):

  • The closer your focus point
  • The longer your focal length
  • The larger your aperture (small f-stop number)

A macro lens and/or extension tube is the best way to get extremely close to your subject for the absolute shallowest DOF. But sometimes you don’t want to be that close. Perhaps you can’t get to your subject, or maybe you want just enough DOF to reveal a little (but still soft) background detail. In this case, a telephoto zoom may be your best bet. And even at the closest focus distances, the f-stop you choose will make a difference in the range of sharpness and the quality of your background blur. All of these choices are somewhat interchangeable and overlapping—you’ll often need to try a variety of focus-point/focal-length/f-stop combinations to achieve your desired effect. Experiment!

Foreground/background

Composing a shallow DOF image usually starts with finding a foreground subject on which to focus, then positioning yourself in a way that places your subject against a complementary background. (You can do this in reverse too—if you see a background you think would look great out of focus, find a foreground subject that would look good against that background and go to work.)

Primary subjects are whatever moves you: a single flower, a group of flowers, colorful leaves, textured bark, a clinging water drop—the sky’s the limit. A backlit leaf or flower has a glow that appears to originate from within, creating the illusion it has its own source of illumination—even in shade or overcast, most of a scene’s light comes from the sky and your subject will indeed have a backlit side. And an extremely close focus on a water droplet will reveal a world that’s normally invisible to the unaided eye—both the world within the drop and a reflection of the surrounding world.

My favorite backgrounds include parallel tree trunks, splashes of lit leaves and flowers in a mostly shaded forest, pinpoint jewels of daylight shining through the trees, flowers that blur to color and soft shapes, sunlight sparkling on water. I also like including recognizable landscape features that reveal the location—nothing says Yosemite like a waterfall or Half Dome; nothing says the ocean like crashing surf.

The final piece of the composition puzzle is your focus point. This creative decision can make or break an image because the point of maximum sharpness is where your viewer’s eyes will land. In one case you might want to emphasize a leaf’s serrated edge; or maybe its the leaf’s intricate vein pattern you want to feature. Or maybe you’ll need to decide between the pollen clinging to a poppy’s stamen, or the sensual curve of the poppy’s petals. When I’m not sure, I take multiple frames with different focus points.

Exposure

Exposing selective focus scenes is primarily a matter of spot-metering on the brightest element, almost always your primary subject, and dialing in an exposure that ensures that it won’t be blown out. Often this approach turns shaded areas quite dark, making your primary subject stand out more if you can align the two. Sometimes I’ll underexpose my subject slightly to saturate its color and further darken the background.

Tripod

And let’s not overlook the importance of a good tripod. In general, the thinner the area of sharpness in an image, the more essential it is to nail the focus point.  Even the unavoidable micro-millimeter shifts possible with hand-holding can make the difference between a brilliant success and an absolute failure.

Virtually all of my blurred background images are achieved in incremental steps. They start with a general concept that includes a subject and background, and evolve in repeating click, evaluate, refine, click, … cycles. In this approach, the only way to ensure consistent evolution from original concept to finished product is a tripod, which holds in place the scene I just clicked and am now evaluating—when I decide what my image needs, I have the scene sitting there atop my tripod, just waiting for my adjustments.

September 2018

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Aspen,Grand Tetons National Park

Autumn Aspen, Grand Tetons National Park

Quivering, translucent leaves of yellow, orange, and (sometimes) red make aspen trees the perfect accent for any autumn mountain vista. But it’s the aspen’s knotted white trunks that really draw me, so when I get the opportunity to photograph aspen up close, I usually try to find ways to emphasize the trunks.

Last week I was in the Tetons helping my friend Don Smith with his workshop there. While Grand Tetons have some of the most spectacular grand vistas in America, I think I my favorite part of the week was the time we spent among the aspen.

One afternoon mid-workshop we stopped along Moose-Wilson Road. Moose-Wilson Road is a narrow, mostly paved track that winds through aspen groves broken by soggy meadows. Unfortunately, the preponderance of wildlife here makes Moose-Wilson a mecca for wildlife shooters hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the park’s numerous bear, elk, and moose. The mere act of exiting the care here draws wildlife shooters like mosquitos to bare skin, and I spent half of my time with this scene swatting them away.

For this shoot I’d taken the “go big or go home” approach, carrying only my tripod (RRS 24L and RRS BH-40 ball head) and Sony a7RIII with the Sony 100-400 GM attached. The longer the focal length, the shallower the depth of field, but I wasn’t satisfied with just 400mm, so I added my Sony 2X teleconverter to get out to 800mm. But I wasn’t finished—to focus even closer and further shrink my depth of field, I also added a 15mm extension tube. Because both the teleconverter and extension tube reduces the light reaching my sensor, I shot this scene at ISO 1600.

Between interruptions (“What do you see?”; “Is there a bear?”) I made my way to an isolated aspen, then circumnavigated the trunk until I could juxtapose it against a distant grouping of orange-red leaves. For the next 20 minutes I played with variations of the composition you see here, making small refinements after each click to get the right separation between the three aspen in the scene, the best arrangement of knots, and a depth of field that emphasized my foreground aspen with sufficient background blur. And because my depth of field was so shallow, after each adjustment I very carefully chose my focus point on the tree by magnifying it in my viewfinder, then focused manually.


More Examples

Bridalveil Dogwood, Yosemite

Bridalveil Dogwood, Yosemite
This raindrop-laden dogwood image uses Yosemite’s Bridalveil Fall as a soft background to establish the location. An extension tube allowed me to focus so close that the nearest petal brushed my lens.

 

Poppy With a View

Poppy With a View, Point Reyes National Seashore
My goal this gray spring afternoon was to juxtapose a poppy against the distant surf, a relationship made possible by Point Reyes’ Chimney Rock precipitous edge. Once I found the right poppy, I dropped to the ground to frame the flower with the arcing coastline, experimenting with several apertures before finding the ideal balance of foreground sharpness and background softness.

 

Champagne Glass Poppies, Merced River Canyon, California

Champagne Glass Poppies, Merced River Canyon, California
The background color you see here is simply a hillside covered with poppies. To achieve this extremely limited DOF, I used an extension tube on my 100mm macro, lying flat on the ground as close as my lens would allow me to focus. Since my tripod (at the time) wouldn’t go that low, I detached my camera, rested the tripod on the ground in front of the poppy, propped my lens on a leg, composed, focused on the leading edge, and clicked my remote release.

 

Autumn Light, Yosemite

Autumn Light, Yosemite
I had a lot of fun playing with the sunlight sneaking through the dense evergreen canopy here, experimenting with different f-stops to get the effect I liked best.

 

Sparkling Poppies, Merced River Canyon

Sparkling Poppies, Merced River Canyon
The background jewels of light are sunlight reflecting on the rippling surface of a creek. I had a blast controlling their size by varying my f-stop.

 

Dogwood, Merced River, Yosemite

Dogwood, Merced River, Yosemite
Looking down from the Pohono Bridge, finding the composition was the simple part. But as soon as I started clicking I realized that the sparkling surface of the rapidly Merced River was completely different with each frame. So I just clicked and clicked and clicked until I had over 30 frames to choose between.

 

Forest Dogwood, Tenaya Creek, Yosemite

Forest Dogwood, Tenaya Creek, Yosemite
Here, rather than background bokeh, I framed my dogwood flower with leaves in front of my focus point.


Bokeh Gallery

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Improve Your Fall Color Photography

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite

Autumn Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
24-105L
1/15 second
F/16
ISO 100


As we enter the fall color photography season, I’m revisiting and revising previous articles. This is the second in the series.


Improve Your Fall Color Photography

Vivid color and crisp reflections make autumn my favorite season for creative photography. While most landscape scenes require showing up at the right time and hoping for the sun and clouds to cooperate, photographing fall color is often a simple matter of circling the scene until the light’s right. For the photographers who understand this, and know how to control exposure, depth, and motion with their cameras, great fall color images are possible any time of day, in any light.

Backlight, backlight, backlight

The difference between the front-lit and backlit sides of fall foliage is the difference between dull and vivid color. When illuminated by direct sunlight, the side of a leaf opposite the sun throbs with color, as if it has its own source of illumination, while the same leaf’s lit side appears flat—if you ever find yourself thinking that the fall color seems washed out, check the other side of the tree.

While the backlight glow isn’t as pronounced in shade/overcast, when the leaves are illuminated by light that’s spread evenly across the sky, even diffuse sunlight is far more pronounced one side of the leaves than the other, giving the side of a leaf that’s opposite the sky (the side getting less light) a subtle but distinct glow when compared to its skyward side.

Forest Autumn, Yosemite

Forest Autumn, Yosemite

Isolate elements with a telephoto for a more intimate fall color image

Big fall color scenes are great, but a telephoto or macro enables you to highlight and emphasize elements and relationships. Train your eye to find leaves, groups of leaves, or branches that stand out from the rest of the scene. Zoom close, using the edges of the frame to eliminate distractions and frame subjects. And don’t concentrate so much on your primary subject that you miss complementary background or foreground elements to balance the frame and provide an appealing canvas for your subject.

Solitary Leaf, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

Selective depth of field is a great way to emphasize/deemphasize elements in a scene

Limiting depth of field with a large aperture on a telephoto lens can soften a potentially distracting background into a complementary canvas of color and shape. Parallel tree trunks, other colorful leaves, and reflective water make particularly effective soft background subjects. For an extremely soft background, reduce your depth of field further by adding an extension tube to focus closer.

Autumn Bouquet, Zion National Park

Autumn Bouquet, Zion National Park

Underexpose sunlit leaves to maximize color

Contrary to what many believe, fall foliage in bright sunlight is still photographable if you isolate backlit leaves against a darker background and slightly underexpose them. The key here is making sure the foliage is the brightest thing in the frame, and to avoid including any sky in the frame. Photographing sunlit leaves, especially with a large aperture to limit DOF, has the added advantage of an extremely fast shutter speed that will freeze wind-blown foliage.

Leaves and Reflection, Convict Lake, Eastern Sierra

Slightly underexposing brightly lit leaves not only emphasizes their color, it turns everything that’s in shade to a dark background. And if your depth of field is narrow enough, points of light sneaking between the leaves and branches to reach your camera will blur to glowing jewels.

Gary Hart Photography, Autumn Light, Yosemite

Autumn Light, Yosemite

A sunstar is a great way to liven up an image in extreme light

If you’re going to be shooting backlit leaves, you’ll often find yourself fighting the sun. Rather than trying to overcome it, turn the sun into an ally by hiding it behind a tree. A small aperture (f16 or smaller is my general rule) with a small sliver of the sun’s disk visible creates a brilliant sunstar that becomes the focal-point of your scene. Unlike photographing a sunstar on the horizon, hiding the sun behind a terrestrial object like a tree or rock enables you to move with the sun.

When you get a composition you like, try several frames, varying the amount of sun visible in each. The smaller the sliver of sun, the more delicate the sunstar; the more sun you include, the more bold the sunstar. You’ll also find that different lenses render sunstars differently, so experiment to see which lenses and apertures work best for you.

Autumn Light, North Rim, Grand Canyon

Autumn Light, North Rim, Grand Canyon

Gary Hart Photography, Autumn Glow, Yosemite

Autumn Glow, Cook’s Meadow, Yosemite

Polarize away the foliage’s natural sheen

Fall foliage has a reflective sheen that dulls its natural color. A properly oriented polarizer can erase that sheen and bring the underlying natural color into prominence. To minimize the scene’s reflection, slowly turn the polarizer until the scene is darkest (the more you try this, the easier it will be to see). If you have a hard time seeing the difference, concentrate your gaze on a single leaf, rock, or wet surface.

Fallen Color, Rock Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra

A polarizer isn’t an all-on or all-off proposition. Slowly dial the polarizer’s ring and watch the reflection change until you achieve the effect you desire. This is particularly effective when you want your reflection to share the frame with submerged feature such as rocks, leaves, and grass.

Morning Reflection, North Lake, Eastern Sierra

Blur water with a long exposure

When photographing in overcast or shade, it’s virtually impossible to freeze the motion of rapid water at any kind of reasonable ISO. Rather than fight it, use this opportunity to add silky water to your fall color scenes. There’s no magic shutter speed for blurring water—in addition to the shutter speed, the amount of blur will depend on the speed of the water, your distance from the water, your focal length, and your angle of view relative to the water’s motion. When you find a composition you like, don’t stop with one click. Experiment with different shutter speeds by varying the ISO (or aperture as long as you don’t compromise the desired depth of field).

Leaf, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

Autumn Leaf, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

Reflections make fantastic complements to any fall color scene

By autumn, rivers and streams that rushed over rocks in spring and summer, meander at a leisurely, reflective pace. Adding a reflection to your autumn scene can double the color, and also add a sense of tranquility. The recipe for a reflection is still water, sunlit reflection subjects, and shaded reflective surface.

When photographing leaves floating atop a reflection, it’s important to know that the focus point for the reflection is the focus point of the reflective subject, not the reflective surface. This is seems counterintuitive, but try it yourself—focus on the leaves with a wide aperture and watch the reflection go soft. Achieving sharpness in your floating leaves and the reflection requires an extremely small aperture and careful focus point selection. Often the necessary depth of field exceeds the lens’s ability to capture it—in this case, I almost always bias my focus toward the leaves and let the reflection go soft.

Autumn Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Fallen Leaves, Valley View, Yosemite

Nothing communicates impending winter like fall color with snow

Don’t think the first snow means your fall photography is finished for the year. Hardy autumn leaves often cling to branches, and even retain their color on the ground through the first few storms of winter. An early snowfall is an opportunity to catch fall leaves etched in white, an opportunity not to be missed. And even after the snow has been falling for a while, it’s possible to find a colorful rogue leaf to accent an otherwise stark winter scene.

Fall into Winter, Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite

First Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite

First Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite

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To better understand the science and timing of fall color, read

A simple how and when of fall color



A Gallery of Fall Color

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:: More photography tips ::

A Fall Color Primer

Gary Hart Photography: Fallen Color, Rock Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Fallen Color, Rock Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra
Canon EOS-1D Mark II
1/3 second
F/9.0
ISO 100
85 mm

Autumn has arrived, my favorite season for creative photography. To kick off the festivities, I’m sharing an updated version of a post I wrote a few years ago explaining the often misunderstood process responsible for it all.


Few things get a photographer’s heart racing more than the vivid yellows, oranges, and reds of autumn. And the excitement isn’t limited to photographers—to appreciate that reality, just try navigating the Smoky Mountains backroads on a Sunday afternoon in October.

Innkeeper logic

But despite all the attention, the annual autumn extravaganza is fraught with mystery and misconception. Showing up at the spot that guy in your camera club told you was peaking at this time last year, you might find the very same trees displaying lime green mixed with just hints of yellow and orange, and hear the old guy behind the counter at the inn shake his head and tell you, “It hasn’t gotten cold enough yet—the color’s late this year.” Then, the next year, when you check into the same inn on the same weekend, you find just a handful of leaves clinging to exposed branches—this time as the old guy hands you the key he utters, “That freeze a few weeks ago got the color started early this year—you should have been here last week.”

While these explanations may sound reasonable, they’re not quite accurate. Because the why and when of fall color is complicated, observers resort to memory, anecdote, and lore to fill knowledge voids with partial truth and downright myth. Fortunately, science has given us a pretty good understanding of the fall color process.

It’s all about the sunlight

The leaves of deciduous trees contain a mix of green, yellow, and orange pigments. During the spring and summer growing season, the green chlorophyl pigment overpowers the orange and yellow pigments and the tree stays green. Even though this chlorophyl is quickly broken down by sunlight, it is continuously replaced in the process of photosynthesis that sustains the tree during the long days of summer.

As the days shrink toward autumn, things begin to change. Cells at the abscission layer at the base of the leaves’ stem (the knot where the leaf connects to the branch) start to thicken, blocking the transfer of carbohydrates from the leaves to the branches, and the movement of minerals to the leaves, that had kept the tree thriving all summer. Without these minerals, the leaves’ production of chlorophyl dwindles and finally stops, leaving just the yellow and orange pigments. Voila—color!

Sunlight and weather

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

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

On the other hand, freezing temperatures destroy the color pigments, bringing a premature end to the color display. Drought can stress trees so much that they drop their leaves before the color has a chance to manifest. And wind and rain can wreak havoc with the fall display—go to bed one night beneath a canopy of red and gold, wake the next morning to find the trees bare and the ground blanketed with color. And of course all these weather factors come in an infinite number of variations, which makes each year’s color timing and intensity a little different from the last.

Despite our understanding of the fall color process, Mother Nature still holds some secrets pretty close to her vest—just when we think we’ve got it all figured out, she’ll surprise us. For example, last year’s Eastern Sierra fall color featured lots of black leaves that I attributed to California’s extreme drought conditions. With the drought persisting, and in fact intensifying, this year, I feared this fall would be even worse. So I was quite pleased to find everything going along right on schedule, with lots of yellow, more red than usual, and hardly a black leaf to be seen. Go figure.

About this image

Driving Rock Creek Canyon north and east of Bishop, I pulled my car over at a random spot and wandered over to the creek. I found trees beyond peak and the creek bank blanketed with yellow aspen leaves, by far the predominant color in the Eastern Sierra. As I turned to return to my car my eyes caught a rare flash of orange. Moving in that direction, I found matching red-orange leaf less than a foot away.

I’m sometimes accused of placing or arranging leaves in my scenes, something I never do, but I understand why people might think that. I very consciously look for leaves that stand out from their surroundings that I can isolate in my frame.

Circling this scene, I didn’t have to work to hard to decide that a symmetrical diagonal arrangement was the way to go. A thin overcast made exposure easy.

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A Fall Color Gallery

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Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM Lens: First thoughts

Gary Hart Photography: Moonlight, Sierra Foothills, California

Moonlight, Sierra Foothills, California
Sony a7R III
Sony 24 f/1.4 GM
10 seconds
F/1.4
ISO 1600

Today Sony announced the lens I’ve been waiting for: the Sony 24, f/1.4 GM. I got a sneak preview of this lens on Maui last week, and again once I got home home. Hurricane Olivia, my workshop (no one was supposed to see me using the lens), and food poisoning significantly limited my use of it, but I did get to play with it enough to share a few thoughts.

Night photography is all about capturing light, the more the better. We bump our ISO as high as the image quality permits, dial in our lens’s widest aperture, and open our shutter as long as we can without obvious star streaks, pushing each exposure variable as far as possible squeeze out every last photon. The shortcomings of each of these compromises is mitigated by an improvement in the others, which is why night photography with the fastest possible lens means I can get the same exposure with a little less star motion and/or noise. So f/1.4 is great, currently pretty much as good as it gets for a lens wide enough for night photography.

Of course fast and wide isn’t much good if the lens is lousy, or difficult to use. I haven’t used the 24 GM a lot, but I’ve used it enough to know that lousy and difficult won’t be a concern.

First Impression

My very first impression, and I suspect this will be everyone’s first impression, is how small this lens is. When I knew it was coming my way I started strategizing how I’d rearrange my bag to accommodate it, but it turns out all I needed to do was empty the slot with a couple of extension tubes and my 2X teleconverter. Contrast that with the Sigma 20mm f/1.4, which is an absolute beast of a lens, both in weight and volume, that could never just live in my bag. But I flew home  with the Sony in my bag and was completely unaware of the extra weight. Well done, Sony!

Gary Hart Photography: Two Galaxies, West Maui

Two Galaxies, West Maui

I only got one night to use the on Maui before I had to return to the real world, and my location options had been severely limited by the recent passage Tropical Storm Olivia (downgraded from a hurricane shortly before landfall), so I drove about half-hour from my condo in Napili to the ultra-dark skies on the northern-most tip of West Maui, where I stumbled in the dark down to the edge of a cliff above the Nakalele Blowhole and shot into a 30-MPH headwind. Not the most ideal conditions, but I made it work for my purposes.

The benefit of a fast lens like this is not just the amount of light it allows into an image, it starts with the simple ability to see enough to simply compose and focus. And as I expected, both composition and manual focus were a piece of cake with Sony 24 1.4. For the Maui night shoot I composed, then magnified the viewfinder of my Sony a7SII and twisted the focus ring until the stars were the finest possible points of light—it took all of about 3 seconds. After my first exposure I magnified the image to verify that it was indeed sharp, then didn’t worry about focus again.

The image on the right features the dimmest part of the Milky Way, opposite the brilliant galactic core we all love to photograph. As a bonus, I also captured M-31, the Andromeda Galaxy—its fuzzy glow in the upper right has traveled over 2 million lightyears and is the farthest we can see with the unaided eye.

About this image

I’d have liked to have done more starlight photography after getting home from Maui, but by the time I recovered enough from a most unwelcome bout of food poisoning that showed up the day I returned, the moon was too prominent in the night sky. Nevertheless, a couple of days ago I sucked it up and drove out to the foothills about an hour from my home and put the lens through its paces beneath a 70 percent gibbous moon.

With the moon high over my right shoulder I looked for scenes facing northeast, where the skies were the least polluted by city glow. I eventually settled on a nearby hillside dotted with oaks fortuitously punctuated by an organized formation of the only clouds in the sky. With so much moonlight present I went with the Sony a7RIII instead of the Sony a7SII. Shooting moonlight at f/1.4 enabled me to get away with a 10-second exposure at ISO 1600.

In the past I’ve usually auto-focused on  the moon for my moonlight scenes, but for laughs this night I tried autofocusing on the trees and was shocked to hear my focus indicator beep. Wow, I’ve never been able to autofocus on anything by moonlight, even when the moon was completely full. Next I tried autofocusing on a random star and again heard the confirmation beep—another first. And finally I magnified the view and manually focused on the tree: 3-for-3. Admittedly, with the recent ability to do starlight photography (moonless nights), I don’t do as much moonlight photography as I once did, and I’ve never done it with an f/1.4 lens (because it really isn’t necessary). Nevertheless, I think night focus struggles will be a thing of the past with this lens.

Processing my night images, the first thing I checked was the stars in the corners. In many years of night photography I used three dedicated “night” lenses (lenses that I only use for night photography): Zeiss 28mm f/2, Rokinon 24mm f/1.4, and Sigma 20mm f/1.4. In quest of more light I’ve shot all of them wide open, but I’ve had to live with a fair amount of coma (comatic aberration). My first reaction is that is that this lens is cleaner wide open than any of them.

The bottom line

I haven’t had tons of time to spend with my images, but my first impression is that I’m blown away by this lens. I’ve grown to accept that if I want quality in a lens I need to accept bulk along with it. Apparently that’s not the case, because this lens gave me crazy sharp images wide open, yet felt not much larger than a baseball in my hand.


A Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM Samples

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A Maui Memory

Gary Hart Photography: West Maui Tide Pool Sunset, Hawaii

West Maui Tide Pool Sunset, Hawaii
Sony a7R III
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
Breakthrough 6-stop ND filter
20 seconds
F/16
ISO 50

March 2018

Each year I do back-to-back workshops in Hawaii, one on the Big Island and one on Maui (it’s a tough job, but…, well, you know…). This year’s Big Island workshop was complicated first by the recent Kilauea eruption, and then by Hurricane Lane, which deposited 50 inches of rain on our host city Hilo just days before the workshop.

To get my eyes on the damage wrought by Mother Nature, and to scout more alternate locations, I flew to the Big Island five days early (see “tough job” reference above). Despite the complications, the workshop turned out great, with a fantastic group and a few new locations (including a beautiful sunset and Milky Way shoot atop Mauna Kea) added to my tried and true favorites, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

But my dreams of a stress-free Maui workshop were dashed when Hurricane Olivia took laser aim at Maui. Each day I’d check the forecast hoping to see that she had changed course, and each day I was disappointed. Finally, with just a couple days to go, I completely overhauled the workshop, switching lodging and itinerary to avoid the worst of the storm and get the most the island had to offer. I’m happy to say that despite Olivia, we only missed one morning of the workshop and managed to get our Haleakala sunrise in, plus spend a nice day on the Hana road.

My first location adjustment was switching one of my favorite Maui sunset locations, usually a second day destination, to the workshop’s first night because I wasn’t sure we’d be able to get out there the rest of the week. Between dense rainforest and steep, uneven lava, even the walk down here is a bit harrowing, so when I told the group that a few years ago I tried to drive down to this spot, they couldn’t quite believe it. Returning to this spot made me think that it might be time to share the story of my self-inflicted misadventure again. So I dusted off a blog post from five years ago (can’t believe it’s been that long!):

March 2013

On my September scouting trip for my upcoming Maui workshop I hiked cross-country down the rugged flank of West Maui, searching for lava-rock tide pools I’d read about. Scrambling down a steep hill and over sharp rocks, I found the beach I was looking for but decided it was too dangerous for a group. Rather than return the way I came, I continued picking my way along the shore and eventually found another spot I liked better. At first I thought this wouldn’t be suitable for a group either, but climbing out I found an overgrown dirt road/trail leading back to the highway (“highway” in this case is the one-and-a-half lane, mostly-paved, rental-agreement-voiding Highway 340 circling West Maui). But fearing I’d miss this obscure spur from the main road, I saved the trailhead on my GPS.

Last Sunday, the day before my Maui workshop started, I picked up Don Smith (Don assisted this workshop; I’ll return the favor in one of Don’s workshops) at the airport and was excited to share with him the spot I’d “discovered” (it’s not as if I’m the Lewis and Clark of landscape photography—there’s enough debris down there to indicate the spot is known to locals) and off we went. The steady rain that had been falling for most of the afternoon increased with the road’s remoteness and soon we were slaloming around boulders dislodged from the surrounding cliffs by the downpour—at one point we passed a car waylaid by a grapefruit-size rock embedded in its windshield.

Undeterred, we soldiered on through the intensifying rain. This was Don’s first Maui visit, so I narrated the tour with vigor, enthusiastically pointing out the island’s scenic highlights as we passed them, pausing only occasionally to reassure Don that the highway was navigable despite increasing evidence to the contrary, punctuating my confidence with, “And just wait until you see the scene at the end of this ‘secret’ road I discovered.”

Closely monitoring my GPS, at the prescribed location and without hesitation (for dramatic effect) I veered left into a barely distinguishable gap in the trees almost as if I had a brain. The narrow track unfolded between rapidly oscillating wipers, immediately plummeting the steep hill and twisting right. Dense foliage brushed both sides of the car, which by now was clearly losing purchase in the mud. Don hadn’t quite finished a sentence that started, “Are you sure…,” when it began to dawn on me that I’d never intended to actually drive this road, that my plan when I marked it six months earlier was to park at the top and walk down. Oops.

Propelled by momentum and without the benefit of traction put us completely at gravity’s mercy, careening downward (picture the jungle mudslide scene from “Romancing the Stone”). Steering seemed to have more influence on the direction the car faced than it did on its direction of travel and I quickly gave that up. Were it not for the deep ruts that occasionally nudged us back on course, I’m sure we’d have bounced into the jungle. I held my breath as we approached a boulder jutting from the roadbed and exhaled when the undercarriage passed above unscathed. Shortly thereafter the slope moderated somewhat and we slid to a stop, miraculously still on the “road” (more or less).

After a few seconds of cathartic expletives, I scanned our surroundings. Backing up the slippery road was out of the question, but a little farther down the slope we spotted a flat, clear space with a small Y-spur that might enable us to at least turn around. I scrutinized the dash for the switch that would engage the 4-wheel drive (I swear) the guy at rental agency promised my SUV had. When we didn’t find it Don dug the manual from the glovebox—apparently 4WD is an option the powers-that-be at Alamo deem unnecessary on Maui. Uh-oh.

With crossed fingers I gave the car some gas and felt the wheels spin with no effect. More expletives. Don and I exited into the rain to survey our predicament: the road was fast graduating to creek status, and where rubber tires were supposed to be, instead were four mud disks. Scraping the tires clean had little value because the next revolution simply reapplied a fresh layer.

Back in the car I found that cranking the steering wheel hard in both directions gained just enough traction to un-mire the tires and I gingerly rolled the car downhill, away from safety, but at least into a relatively flat, open space. Yay! Once on level ground, and with only a little bit of slip/slide drama, I gingerly pivoted the car into the adjacent spur and nudged back around to face the direction we’d just come. Progress!

Now for the hard part. Looking for the first time toward freedom, we came to grips with the chute that had deposited us: Not only was it steep, at the steepest (and muddiest) point it curved hard-left, but banked hard-right—not exactly an arrangement that would be embraced at Daytona.

I inhaled and goosed the gas and we shot upward, fishtailing like a hooked marlin before losing momentum before coming to a stop a mere fifty feet closer to freedom. This maneuver had also managed to skew the car at a 45-degree angle to the road, its left-front fender in the jungle on one side, its right-rear fender in the jungle on the other. When I gave the car gas the tires spun hopelessly.

Facing defeat we started strategizing Plan B: With an hour of daylight remaining and no cell service, we’d need to walk up to the highway and hope to flag down, in the rain, a good samaritan willing to drive two disheveled, mud-caked strangers back to civilization (about 45 minutes away), then hope to summon a tow truck that would extricate us.

While Don trudged through the rain up to the main road to get help, I stayed with the car, licking my wounds and feeling pretty foolish. It occurred to me that since the road was too narrow for a tow truck, and the distance and tight curve would make winching difficult, even a tow truck wouldn’t guarantee freedom.

Watching Don head back up the hill to seek help, I decided to give extraction one more shot. I shifted the car into reverse, gave it some gas, and cranked the steering wheel back and forth violently until the tires broke free and the car rolled out of the jungle and back onto the muddy trail and back down to the clearing below. So far so good. Once there, I gave the pedal a gentle nudge and reversed slowly all the way to the clearing’s back side (another 20 feet), where I hoped there might be a little more gravel and less mud—and most importantly, a little more room to gather momentum.

With a small prayer I slipped the transmission into in first and floored the accelerator, rocketing ahead with enough forward speed to avoid much of the fishtailing I’d experienced earlier. Peering through flailing wipers I aimed for the small opening that had deposited us, shooting past crumpled shrubs and protruding rocks until the road steepened. With the steepened incline the energy of my forward momentum was replaced by spinning wheels that spewed mud like a dirty firehose, but I just kept my foot to the floor.

Approaching the curve I felt the car start to tilt right and slow almost to 0, but somehow the tires maintained just enough grip to avoid a complete stop. The fishtailing had returned, now exceeded the forward motion but I didn’t care as long as I still had forward motion. I rounded the curve and surprised Don, who dove into the jungle just up the road and turned to cheer me forward. Just as my forward motion was about to to hopelessly be completely transformed into spinning wheels the road leveled, my rear tires grabbed something solid, and I shot forward. Not wanting to slow until the tires kissed pavement I lowered my window and high-fived Don as I flew past and onto the highway. At the top we just couldn’t stop laughing, both at the foolish predicament I’d created, and our utter disbelief that we’d made it out.

March 2018

This year’s visit was far less eventful. We parked at the top and entire group made it down to the water on foot, without incident. After receiving a brief summary of the scene and a return time, the group quickly scattered in search of one of the seemingly infinite number of great photos here. I kept my camera in the bag as I moved around to work with everyone, eventually finding myself atop a jagged rock ridge about 20 feet above pounding surf.

When I saw the sunset color reflecting in the water, I pulled out my Sony a7RIII and added my Breakthrough 6-stop neutral density filter to my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens. Carefully monitoring my histogram, I dialed in a long exposure that smoothed the surf and blurred the streaking clouds. In my Canon days I’d have needed a graduated neutral density filter (or multiple images) to capture the entire dynamic range in this scene, but the a7RIII has about 3-stops more dynamic range (an entire GND worth!) than my Canon DSLRs did, enabling me to capture this scene’s entire range of light with one click.

A Hawaii Gallery

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

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