A star in the east

Gary Hart Photography: Yosemite Falls Sunstar, Yosemite

Yosemite Falls Sunstar, Yosemite (Sony 12-24 f/4)
Sony a7R II
Sony 12-24 f4 G
1/30 second
ISO 100

When Sony asked Don Smith and me to try out their new lenses, I immediately knew where I wanted to be in Yosemite with the 12-24 f4 G lens. After great success photographing El Capitan and Half Dome as I’ve never been able to before (okay, well there was that one time last year when I borrowed a friend’s ultra-wide lens), I was ready to go home. But before leaving, I decided to walk up to the bridge beneath Lower Yosemite Fall.

With my Yosemite Moonbow and Dogwood workshop starting in just five days, my goal this morning was more to see exactly how wet it is on the bridge than it was to take any more pictures, but I decided to take my camera anyway. On the way back I played with ultra-wide (12mm) vertical compositions of this scene. Still getting used to how much I can actually fit in my frame at 12mm, I flipped the camera to horizontal and was startled to find the sun in the right corner of my viewfinder. Startled because from my location, the top of Yosemite Falls is due north (0 degrees), and the sun at that time was at 125 degrees azimuth (35 degrees south of due east).

I quickly came to terms with this revelation and repositioned myself until the sun was behind a tree, dialed to f/20, composed, metered and focused, then clicked as the sun peaked out. For the next ten minutes or so I moved as the sun moved, keeping my lens right on the edge of the shadow.

I knew the sunstar’s highlights would certainly be clipped, but I wanted to give the shadows as much light as possible without losing the highlights in the waterfall. And as important as the histogram is in these scenes with brilliant highlights and dark shadows, I knew that it wouldn’t tell me the entire story. As I increased the light by lengthening my shutter speed, in my viewfinder (I love mirrorless!) I monitored both the shadow side of the histogram and the highlight alert in the fall. I know that shooting raw, I can increase the exposure a stop beyond where the highlight alert appears, but in this case I found that I only needed to add 2/3 stop before the histogram showed me that I had all the recoverable data in the shadows I needed.

A few words about sunstars

Sunstars can be overdone, but they’re often the best way to make something interesting in difficult light. When I find myself wanting to photograph a clear sky scene facing the sun, I often use the sunstar to add visual interest to a sky that is otherwise pretty boring. Often the sunstar makes an excellent counterbalance to another strong visual object. And while a sunstar isn’t exactly what our eyes see when we look toward the sun, I think it makes a pretty good substitute for the blinding experience of looking into the sun. Take a look at the gallery of images below and ask yourself how many of these images would have been as visually appealing without a sunstar spicing up the sky.

To capture a sunstar, use a small aperture (I usually use f/16 or smaller), remove any filters (to minimize flare), and place the sun on a hard edge with most of the sun obscured: the horizon, a cloud, a tree, a flower, and so on. The more sun visible, the bigger (and more blown out) the sunstar will be. As a general rule, I try to avoid too much sun. And since each lens creates a slightly different sunstar, it helps to experiment with different lenses to determine which ones work best.

I’ll be on my annual Grand Canyon raft trip, off the grid and unable to respond, until May 30

Workshop Schedule || Purchase Prints

A Sunstar Gallery

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The cat’s out of the bag…

Gary Hart Photography: Spring Rainbow, Catherine Creek Trail, Columbia River Gorge

Spring Rainbow, Catherine Creek Trail, Columbia River Gorge
Sony a7R II
Sony 16-35 f2.8 GM
1/125 second
ISO 400

For about three weeks I’ve had to bite my tongue about two new Sony lenses I got to try out a few weeks ago. But yesterday Sony announced their brand new 16-35 f2.8 GM and 12-24 f4 G lenses and I’m free to share.

I spent most of this week just outside of Santa Barbara, California with a hundred or so Sony Artisan and Creative Collective photographers at Sony’s Kando Summit. This event was revelatory in many ways: Not only did I get to commune with fellow Sony Artisan’s who had previously been just names on e-mails and pictures on Facebook, I also learned that the future of photography is in the very capable hands of the Collective members—such an impressive group of creative, intelligent young adults.

For most of the Summit the hardware show-stealer was the brand new Sony a9—each of us got our own a9 to play with (but not to keep) for the duration of the event, along with many great photo opportunities (models, sets, and demonstrations) provided to us by Sony. Without going into a lot of detail, I predict that time will prove that the Sony a9 is an actual photography game changer and not just another “next great camera” cliché.

But the availability of the a9 wasn’t a surprise; the surprise (to almost everyone else) was the announcement of the new 16-35 and 12-24 lenses, and their instant availability (again only to borrow). Since I’d already had nearly a week of quality time with them, I passed on this opportunity, but had to jump aside to avoid being trampled by a stampede of photographers intent on getting their hands on these two new lenses.

Don Smith and I were just wrapping up our back-to-back Columbia River Gorge workshops when Sony asked us if we could stay a couple of extra days to try out their two new (super-secret) lenses. They overnighted them to us, and since we had them for a week, Don and I decided we had time to try them for a couple of extra days at our favorite locations closer to home. For me that was Yosemite (Don went to Big Sur). Since I knew I wanted the 12-24 in Yosemite, I took the 16-35 for our two extra days in the CRG.

First Impressions: 16-35 f2.8 GM

The first thing that struck me about this lens was its compactness. As a landscape shooter always on a tripod, I value compactness over speed in a lens, but this one gives me both. Of course it’s not as compact as my Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4, but it’s noticeably more compact than my Canon 16-35 f2.8 was. I was also pleased with its smoothness of operation and speed of focus—this lens is definitely a joy to use.

Of course compactness and ease of use mean nothing if a lens isn’t sharp, and I can tell you with certainty that this lens is as sharp as we’ve come to expect Sony’s GM lenses to be—that is, ridiculously sharp from corner to corner and throughout the aperture range. I haven’t really taken the time to do a/b tests against any other lenses (I leave the pixel-peeping to others), but I did magnify many images to 100% (on my 27-inch iMac Retina 5K monitor) and can’t imagine that I have any lenses sharper than this one (including primes).

First Impressions: 12-24 f4 G

Even more than with the 16-35, the 12-24 blew me away with its compactness. I’ve handled the Nikon 14-24 f2.8 many times, and actually used Canon’s 11-24 f4, and as sharp as those lenses are, the first thing I remember about those lenses is their heft—they’re beasts, and just too heavy to carry in my bag for regular use. Not so with the Sony 12-24: This lens is 1/3 the weight of Canon’s 11-24—in fact it’s noticeably lighter than the Canon 24-105, and not much heavier than the Canon 17-40. Wow.

Like the 16-35, this lens just felt good on my camera and in my hand. The operation was smooth, and focus was fast and easy. Having rarely shot with a lens this wide, I found myself frequently surprised by how much more I could get in my frame at 12mm than I can at 16mm—suddenly things not possible with a single click before were very doable. With so many views of very large and close subjects (such as El Capitan and Half Dome), this lens was made for Yosemite. And I did an actual double-take at the top of the trail to lower Yosemite Fall when I realized I could get the entire fall and a sunstar (with the sun behind my right shoulder) in one frame (see the gallery below).

Sharpness? Again, I didn’t do any pixel peeping beyond magnifying my images to 100%, but they looked every bit as sharp as the Canon 11-24 images that blew me away when I used it a year ago. I will own this lens the first day it’s available.

About this image

On the first evening with our new toys, Don and I went to Catherine Creek on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge. At the trailhead Don headed off in one direction and I went in the other, eventually ending up at this tree that I remembered from previous visits.

With the wind blowing like crazy, probably 25-35 MPH, this lens was perfect for the wide scenes that deemphasize motion. To further ensure against any motion blur I bumped my ISO to 400 and went to work. I started by balancing the tree with a small waterfall that was down the hillside to my left, but when a surprise rainbow fragment popped out above the Columbia River I quickly shifted position. My exposure variables were already set, so all I had to do was compose, focus, and shoot. Good thing, because the rainbow faded quickly and I only had time for a handful of images before it was gone completely.

Listen to Don and I discuss the new lenses on the Alpha Universe Podcast

Sony 16-35 f2.8 GM and Sony 12-24 f4 G Sample Images

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Spring has sprung

Gary Hart Photography: Dogwood and Redbud, Merced River, Yosemite

Dogwood and Redbud, Merced River, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony 70-200 f/4
1/40 second
ISO 200

I spent most of the last week in Yosemite and can confirm that spring has definitely sprung there. The Merced River, swollen by snowmelt, is overspilling its banks, flooding meadows and submerging riverside trails. Reflections are everywhere, and viewing the waterfalls without getting wet? Forget about it.

Another spring highlight is the moonbow that colors the mist beneath Yosemite Falls. A fortunate convergence of Yosemite Falls’ southeast exposure and the angle of the rising full moon when the snowmelt is at its peak make Yosemite one of the best locations in the world to witness a lunar rainbow. I was able to photograph it three times last week, twice with my workshop group and once with a private tour customer. Easily visible to the naked eye as a silvery arc in the billowing mist, a long exposure reveals the moonbow’s true colors.

But of all the spring treats Yosemite offers, for creative photography I think the dogwood might be my favorite. For just a few short weeks in April and May, these graceful blooms shower Yosemite Valley with splashes of white that remind me of the Fourth of July sparklers of my childhood. But unlike the ephemeral sparks of a sparkler, the dogwood progress in slow motion so I can appreciate them at a much more relaxing pace.

I found this branch at the Bridalveil Fall vista on Northside Drive, about a mile east of Valley View. The river was gold with late light, and the air was still as I went to work on the scene. Careful positioning allowed me to juxtapose three layers in my frame: in the foreground is the dogwood branch with varying degrees of detail; the middle-ground is a blend of heavily blurred redbud and more dogwood; all this spring beauty stands out against a backdrop of the sunlit Merced River. I experimented with different depths of field by varying my f-stop, focal length, and focus distance until I was satisfied.

Yosemite Spring

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Moving the eye

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Dawn, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, California

Sierra Dawn, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, California
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f/4
.4 seconds
ISO 100

With virtually every still camera now equipped with video capability, the last few years have seen an explosion of nature videos. When done well, videos of nature can be quite effective, conveying motion and engaging both eyes and ears to reveal the world in a manner that’s closer to the human experience than a still image is. But like other sensory media whose demise has been anticipated by the arrival of something “better,” (with apologies to Mark Twain) let me say that the rumors of still photography’s death at the hands of videography have been greatly exaggerated.

Just as I’d much prefer reading the book to watching the movie, I prefer the way a still image allows me to view the world in ways that give me a fresh perspective of the world. For example, while motion in a video is similar to being there, a still image gives me the freedom to apply my own motion, at my own pace. While a video’s frame rate dictates the pace of my relationship with the scene, entering the world of a photograph, my eyes can linger to explore a scene’s nooks and crannies and savor its nuances at my own pace.

In a video my eyes are essentially fixed while the scene moves before them. In a still image, on the other hand, my eyes do the moving, often following lines in the scene the way a hiker follows a trail to reach a destination. But also like a hiker, I can choose to venture cross country through an image to more closely scrutinize whatever looks interesting.

About this image

I’d been in the Eastern Sierra, exploring the Alabama Hills specifically looking for scenes near the famous Mobius Arch that didn’t include the arch. Detouring from the well-worn path back to the car, I headed up a rocky creek bed that was carrying water for the first time in recent memory. Soon the creek’s quiet whisper was replaced by the sound of a more agitated rush, hinting at a little faster water somewhere around the next bend. Continuing upstream, I scrambled up a large boulder and was rewarded with an unobstructed view of the Sierra Crest, freshly glazed with snow. Below me the creek cut a diagonal path across weathered granite, rushing through a narrow gap and over a rocky ledge.

The light was poor for photography that evening, so my camera stayed in my bag. Instead, I simply cinched my jacket against the January wind and appreciated the view. Standing there, I thought about the next day’s sunrise, its softer light, and (especially) the nearly full moon that would descend through twilight’s pastel hues.

Having already plotted the moon’s path, I was able to visualize its nearly full disk at the top of my frame, low in the sky between Mt. Whitney and Mt. Williamson. But including the creek in the same frame would pose a problem. Normally I’d drop to creek level to shrink the middle-ground, but because the creek was in a steep-walled ravine of its own creation, any view that included the creek and the Sierra Crest needed to be on higher ground. So I scanned the nearby terrain and soon found a narrow gap between two elevated rocks, just wide enough for me and my tripod with a little creative contortion (by both tripod and photographer), and just high enough to see the mountains.

The next morning I beelined back to “my” spot and went right to work in the predawn gloaming. Wedged into the rocks about five vertical feet above the creek, my perch felt more awkward than dangerous. To fit the entire scene, I used the full width of my Sony/Zeiss 16-35 lens. I was thrilled by how well each visual element meshed vantage point: the mountains—Lone Pine Peak, Mt. Whitney, and Mt. Williamson connected to the tumbling cascade by a slash of moonlit creek, and moon as the scene’s exclamation point. I even liked the way the nearby granite sand and rocks, and the shrubs stripped bare by winter cold and wind, filled the empty surroundings with a pleasing textures and shapes without distracting.

Once I identified and refined my composition until I was confident I’d done as well as I could with it, I clicked at regular intervals to capture the entire sunrise sequence. The moment of this image was darker to my eyes what you see in this frame, dark enough that the creek still reflected moonlight. I was particularly grateful for the dynamic range of my Sony a7RII, which allowed me to capture all this wonderful detail in my scene without turning the moon into a useless white blob.

Images that Move the Eye

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Dogwood days

Gary Hart Photography: Forest Dogwood, Yosemite Valley

Forest Dogwood, Yosemite Valley
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/80 second
159 mm
ISO 800

People ask all the time for my favorite season in Yosemite, and I really can’t give them an answer that doesn’t sound like a press conference by a waffling politician—there are things I love about each season in Yosemite, so asking me to choose is like asking me to pick a favorite child. But I can tell you what I like about each season, and I’ve always felt that spring in Yosemite is the most consistently photographable—it doesn’t really matter what the conditions are, I can always find something to photograph.

Spring is when Yosemite’s waterfalls peak, and Yosemite Valley starts to green up. Many of the meadows are home to ephemeral pools that reflect Yosemite’s iconic monoliths, soaring cliffs, and plunging waterfalls. And with all the water in the falls, spring sunshine means rainbow opportunities from many spots if you know when to be there.

Maybe my favorite Yosemite spring treat is dogwood, which usually peaks around May 1, give or take a week or two. I enjoy photographing dogwood in any kind of light, from sunshine, to overcast, to full shade. In sunshine, I put backlit blooms against a dark background, expose for the flower, and go to town. The translucence of these backlit flowers gives them a luminosity that appears to originate from within. In overcast and shade, I opt for soft focus that emphasizes my primary subject and reduces the background to colors, lines, and shapes.

Regardless of the light,  I start with a bloom, group of blooms, or entire branch, that I can isolate from surrounding distractions. Once I identify a likely candidate, I maneuver myself until I can get the subject against a complementary background, such as shade, shape, and color.

I worked this scene for about a half hour before I was satisfied. I started with the flower-laden branch and moved around a bit until the background was right. Then I tried a variety of focal lengths to simplify, balance, and soften the composition. Once I was satisfied with my composition, I used live-view to focus toward the front of the center cluster. Finally, I ran the entire range of f-stops from f4 to f16, in one-stop increments, to ensure a variety of bokeh effects to choose from.

A Dogwood Gallery

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Seeing the whole frame

Gary Hart Photography: Moonrise Reflection, Leidig Meadow, Yosemite

Moonrise Reflection, Leidig Meadow, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1 second
ISO 100

Photographers are responsible for every square inch of their frame—not just the primary subject, but every other point of visual interest, and the relationships of those points to each other. Nevertheless, there’s a natural tendency give too much attention to the primary subject at the expense of the rest of the scene. The result is moments in nature that felt special in person fall flat in an image.

I’m a tripod evangelist because there’s just too much going on in most scenes to nail an image on the first click: Reviewing a hand-held image requires us to pull the camera down from the scene we just shot, while composing on a tripod, we can evaluate and refine without changing the prior shot, ensuring that each subsequent click is an improvement of the prior click.

For example

We wrapped up last week’s Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers workshop in Leidig Meadow, photographing Half Dome reflecting in small vernal pools. I’d spent most of the evening photographing about 30 feet west of this spot, mostly tighter (but still fairly wide) compositions that used the stump in the center of this frame as a foreground balance-point for Half Dome, and the tall trees splitting the middle to frame the right side. The sunset color had left Half Dome, and I saw that most of the group was starting to pack up.

The April full moon doesn’t align well with Half Dome, so it wasn’t a consideration in that night’s sunset plans. But because the moon (two days from full) rose about two hours before sunset, as the light faded I guessed that it might just about be high enough to top the valley wall. With low expectations I glanced toward the high ridge just east of Sentinel Rock (partially visible on the right in this image), where, what to my wondering eye should appear (oh, wait a minute, wrong story)…, and saw the glow of the moon’s leading edge pushing up through the trees.

I called out to the group and soon everyone was back in action. The window to could capture foreground and lunar detail in a single frame was closing fast, but I knew I’d need to relocate to include the moon effectively.

One important concept I try to convey to my workshop students is “visual weight,” the idea that elements in the frame draw the eye the way gravity tugs an object earthward. Visual weight isn’t quantifiable like gravity; it can vary with many factors that change with the conditions, perspective, and even the viewer (that is, visual weight isn’t entirely a function of the object the object itself). Qualities of an object than can pull the eye in an image include: size, brightness, color, contrast, position in the frame, and emotional connection (for example, the moon).

In this scene I felt that the moon and Half Dome carried equal visual weight: Half Dome for its bulk and iconic status, the moon for its brilliance and emotional pull. Given this, if nothing else I needed to balance the two of them in my frame, so I moved eastward along the pool’s bank until Half Dome and the moon were equidistant from their respective sides, connected by the diagonal of the ridge. The diagonal was a bonus, because another important concept is the power of diagonal lines, both literal lines or lines implied by a virtual connection between two objects, and their ability to generate visual tension by moving they eye along two planes at once.

My next concern was how to handle the rest of the scene. I try to avoid cutting strong elements in my frame, so I opted for a vertical that included all of the tall nearby evergreens and their reflection. This required nearly all the width my 24-70 lens offered (if I’d have had more time, I’d have switched to my 16-35), and shrunk the moon quite a bit. Since I’ve always believed that even a small moon (in a wide composition) carries lots of weight, I don’t usually worry too much about that if the rest of the composition calls for it, and I’m happy with my choice here.

With the primary subjects handled, I still needed to address the rest of the frame. My prime concern was the grass in the reflection—though it doesn’t carry nearly the visual weight of Half Dome and the moon, it does have some visual pull, especially the way it stands out against the pristine reflection. I try to avoid anything that my draws the eye to the edge of my frame, so after evaluating my first click on my LCD, I tweaked the composition slightly to keep the borders as free of grass clumps and blades as possible.

In a perfect world the large clump on the bottom left would have had a little more room around it, but the world rarely cooperates perfectly and I soon realized that going wider to give that clump more space would have introduced even greater distractions elsewhere. I was also aware that the stump that had been a focus point of my earlier compositions (lots of visual weight), in my new position was mostly swallowed by the reflection, but there was nothing I could do about that.

The hyperfocal distance at my current focal length and f-stop was 9 feet (focusing nine feet in would have given me “acceptable” sharpness from 4 1/2 feet to infinity), but since the closest grass was at least 10 feet away, I focused farther into the scene to ensure an even sharper background.

Exposing a scene like this on my Sony a7RII is so easy it feels like cheating: I just kept dialing my shutter speed longer until the “zebra” highlight alert appeared in the moon, then pushed the exposure another 2/3 stop knowing I could easily recover the moon’s highlights in Lightroom.

Though this was billed as a “Moonbow and Wildflowers” workshop, we got neither: clouds prevented us from photographing the moonbow in Yosemite Fall, and the wildflowers in Merced River Canyon weren’t quite ready for primetime. But I don’t think anyone in the group would trade what we got for what we’d planned. This workshop included (daylight) waterfall rainbows, multiple clearing storms, more reflections than we could count, and even a little snowfall. Our shoot this evening was a fitting finale.

Using the whole frame 

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A few of my favorite things

Gary Hart Photography: Yosemite Falls Reflection, Swinging Bridge, Yosemite

Yosemite Falls Reflection, Swinging Bridge, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f/4
1/20 seconds
ISO 100

I love being a photographer, but it’s an unfortunate reality that turning your passion into your profession risks sapping the pleasure when earning money takes priority over taking pictures. When I decided to make photography my livelihood, it was only after observing other very good amateur photographers who, lulled by the ease of digital photography, failed to anticipate that running a photography business requires far more than taking good pictures. Rather than an opportunity for further immersion in their passion, their new profession forced them to photograph not for love, but to put food on the table. And with the constant need for marketing, networking, bookkeeping, collections, taxes, and just plain keeping customers happy, these newly minted photographers soon found that little time remained for the very thing that led them to become photographers in the first place.

I changed from photographer to Photographer about twelve years ago. After seeing what the change had done to others, my transition started with a vow to photograph only what I want to photograph, and to never photograph something simply because I thought I could sell it. In my case that meant sticking with landscapes: no people or wildlife (in other words, pretty much nothing that moves).

But how to make money? For that answer I had to look no farther than my career in technical communications: For five years I’d been a technical writer for a (very) large high tech company; before that I’d spent fifteen years tech training, supporting, documenting, and testing a programming language for a small software company. This experience, combined with a lifetime of camping, hiking, backpacking, and (of course) photographing throughout the western US, made photo workshops a logical choice. Today my workshops, supplemented by writing and print sales, allow me to pay the bills, visit favorite destinations, and explore new locations.

And most importantly, my new life has allowed me to concentrate on photographing the subjects and locations I love most. In no particular order (and far from all-inclusive), my favorite subjects include: poppies, the Milky Way, the moon (both crescent and full), rainbows, moonlight, fresh snow, dogwood, bristlecone pines, lightning, fall color, reflections. Among my favorite locations are Yosemite Valley, Grand Canyon’s North Rim, the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, California’s foothills, Maui’s bamboo forest, and Kilauea Caldera.

Of course nothing beats photographing a favorite subject at a favorite location. To maximize my opportunity to combine favorite subjects and locations, I monitor weather forecasts, check local condition reports (to learn where the trees have turned or the wildflowers are blooming), study natural phenomena to learn how to anticipate an event (such as rainbows and lightning), and plot celestial alignments and add them to my calendar.

Despite (and more likely because of) a lifetime of visits, Yosemite Valley remains at the top of my favorite locations. I can’t give you a favorite season, but I can tell you that my favorite time to be in Yosemite is just after a snowstorm, when every exposed surface is glazed white and overhead swirls an ever-changing mix of clouds and blue sky.

Today’s image of snowy Yosemite with Upper Yosemite Fall reflected in the Merced River is the product of a week’s worth of monitoring weather reports and schedule shifting. That day started with a lock-down blizzard that obscured all views beyond 100 yards, but by late morning the clouds started to lighten and lift and soon the clearing was underway in earnest. Sometimes when a storm clears in Yosemite I’ll pick a spot and work it through the entire clearing process; on this day I took the other approach, moving around capture the clearing in a variety of locations.

I ended up at Swinging Bridge in mid-afternoon. The Merced River widens and slows here, making reflections possible even in high water months. Though Swinging Bridge no longer swings (but I remember when it did), it does bounce enough to jiggle a tripod at the slightest step. To minimize the vibration, I try to set up my tripod atop one of the bridge’s support pillars, but that didn’t give me the exact angle I wanted on this afternoon so I just needed to take extra care to stay still and time my clicks when the bridge was empty.

In the fifteen or so minutes I photographed here that afternoon I tried a variety of compositions, horizontal and vertical. I also played with my polarizer, sometimes maximizing the reflection, other times dialing it down to reveal the rocky riverbed below. Most of my compositions were a little tighter than this, but here I went with a vertical orientation wide enough to include lots of blue sky, and the trees and their reflection from top to bottom. My polarizer was turned to the partial range, enough to capture Upper Yosemite Fall’s reflection, while still revealing some of the submerged smooth stones nearer the bridge. The trees were partially lit by cloud-filtered sunlight just starting to break through.

A Gallery of my Favorite Things

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