Posted on May 9, 2021
My relationship with Yosemite doesn’t have a beginning or end. Rather, it’s a collection of asynchronous memories that I’m still forming. In fact, some of my Yosemite experience actually predates my memory (and I have the pictures to prove it—see below). The earliest memories, like following bobbing flashlights to Camp Curry to watch the Firefall spring from Glacier Point, or warm evenings in lawn chairs at the garbage dump, waiting for the bears to come to dinner, are part of the glue that bonds my family.
While my relationship with Yosemite may not have a beginning or end, it does have a few hiccoughs. The most recent, and by far most significant, was the abrupt halt to my regular, and often unscheduled, visits to Yosemite. BC (before COVID) I’d make 20 or 30 trips per year to my home-away-from-home, some planned far in advance (both workshops and personal trips), but many only after dropping everything with just a few hours notice, when it looked like something special might taje place. But COVID closures, and further restrictions that required me to apply for approval to visit, saw my 2020 visits plummet. Let’s see, from March 2020 through January 2021 there were only three: two last July for Comet NEOWISE (8 hours of driving for 1 hour of photography each time), and one for my late October fall color workshop (my only 2020 workshop since February, anywhere).
Glacier Point plays a role in many of my Yosemite memories, but none are more permanently embedded than a visit when I was probably 8 or 9. My father was a serious amateur photographer whose his own relationship with Yosemite influenced me. One of my most vivid Yosemite memories is (foolishly) standing atop Sentinel Dome in an electrical storm, extending an umbrella to shield his camera while he tried to photograph lightning firing across the valley.
Being Californians with little lightning experience, we had no idea how foolish this was—the lightning was a couple of miles away, which seemed a safe distance. But later that afternoon we attended a ranger talk at Glacier Point, we learned that lightning can travel more than 10 miles and that elevated and fully exposed Sentinel Dome is probably the last place you’d want to be in an electrical storm. He said this with a chuckle, as if to imply that he knew no one present would be foolish enough to attempt this. The kicker to this story came at Glacier Point later that afternoon, when seemingly out of nowhere a rainbow arced across the face of Half Dome. I’ll never forget my father’s excitement—the resulting image was the source of his greatest photographic pride, and the print he made still graces my mom’s wall.
As I grew older, I started creating my own Yosemite memories. On countless trips into its vast backcountry, I relished reclining beside gem-like lakes cradled in granite basins, sipping from streams that started the day as snow, and nights beneath an infinite canopy of stars—all to a continuous soundtrack of wind and water.
Given this history, it’s no surprise that I became a nature photographer, using my camera to try to convey the essence of this magic world. A big part of my “new” (it’s now more than 15 years) career is the opportunity to share Yosemite with other photographers. But despite the fact photography is now my livelihood, visiting Yosemite is never work. Now I get to live vicariously through their excitement, watching them experience firsthand the beauty they’ve previously seen only in pictures, or opening their eyes to new perspectives of familiar Yosemite scenes. I’m humbled that I might be a catalyst for others’ nascent or expanded relationships with this special place, and that they might spread their love to others.
Of course I’ve seen lots of change while accumulating my Yosemite memories. Gridlock is a summer staple, the bears have been separated (with moderate success), the Firefall has been extinguished (no, Horsetail Fall is not the Firefall), and backpacking requires difficult-to-obtain permits, water purifiers, and bear canisters. In recent years, the new park vendor has spoiled many of Yosemite’s institutions with what I can only label as corporate greed that places their bottom line above the visitor’s experience.
But I’m thrilled to return to something resembling the old normal. Each time I return I’m reminded that despite human interference, Yosemite’s soaring granite and plummeting waterfalls are magnificent constants, a vertical canvas for Nature’s infinite cycle of season, weather, and light.
About this image
An extremely dry winter allowed for the early opening of Glacier Point, just three days before the start of my Yosemite Waterfalls and Dogwood photo workshop. It’s a always nice to share this spectacular view with others, and this year’s group had a large number of Yosemite first-timers, a particular treat.
When we arrived I was pleased to see that it wasn’t too crowded, but I still had to spend a little time negotiating space along the rail facing Half Dome and Tenaya Canyon for a few people in my group. One potential spot, where the railing protruded from a steeply sloping granite boulder, was especially precarious (not dangerous, though you definitely didn’t want to drop anything), with tricky footing that required grippy shoes, creative tripod arrangement, and a firm grasp of the bar to stay upright. A couple of people tried it and decided it wouldn’t work for them, so after finding no more takers, I ended up settling there.
Though we did have some nice clouds behind Half Dome and distant Mt. Conness, there was no sign of clouds further south. I focused most of my attention on Half Dome and the clouds, but once the sun set I pointed my camera toward the lovely alpenglow deepening on the eastern horizon above Nevada and Vernal Falls. I thought the nearby trees and vertical granite face made a nice foreground, but couldn’t quite get them all in without also including the wall and railing I was braced against. After even more tripod machinations, I managed to elevate my tripod to the maximum height possible—high enough. Using the trees and cliff face on the right of my frame to balance the visual weight of the waterfalls on left, I focused on the dead tree and clicked.
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Posted on May 2, 2021
Photography is all about compromise. For example, while everyone wants a lens that’s sharp, fast, compact, and cheap, the most we can usually get is two of these things. And photographers’ compromises aren’t limited to our equipment. Simply adding light to a scene can lead to frustrating, make-or-break compromises. Freezing a flower bobbing in an afternoon breeze requires a fast shutter speed. But increasing shutter speed means less light, forcing me to choose between opening my aperture at the cost of depth of field, or increasing my ISO and living with more noise. What’s a photographer to do?
The bottom line for me is any compromise, no matter how small, is not acceptable unless it’s necessary.
I approach each scene knowing that my Sony Alpha camera’s (currently an a7RIV) “ideal” ISO is 100—this is the ISO that render’s the cleanest (least noise) image. I’m going to shoot everything at ISO 100 unless I have a specific reason not to. (Or I forgot to reset it from the prior image, always a possibility.)
I also approach my scenes with the understanding that my lens has an ideal f-stop range that I want to stay in unless circumstances dictate otherwise. Because I rarely take the time to test every lens at every possible focal length and f-stop combination, I usually make the mostly safe assumption that my lenses are sharpest between f/8 and f/11. Wide open or stopped all the way down, most lenses tend to be a little less sharp, especially in the corners. And stopping down to a small aperture also increases image softening diffraction (the spreading if light that happens when it passes through a small opening).
Shutter speed manages motion, but using a tripod takes camera motion out of the equation, which means I never need to compromise my ISO or f-stop to avoid camera shake. And as a landscape photographer, most of my subjects are stationary, so whenever possible, I use my camera’s native ISO (100), an f-stop between f/8 and f/11, and control my exposure with the shutter speed: If nothing is moving, what difference does it make if my shutter speed is 1/10 second or 10 seconds? (Hint: None.)
Nature is not static, and sometimes I need to deal with motion in my scene. Whether it’s a tumbling cascade, wind-blown flower, or the celestial sphere circling above, I have to decide the shutter speed that achieves my desired motion effect. Or perhaps getting a frame sharp from foreground flowers to distant peaks forces me to stop my lens all way down to f/22, or capturing foreground detail on a moonless Milky Way night requires me to open up all the way to f/1.4. Either way, compromise has entered the equation.
When compromising my exposure settings it helps to know the limits of my equipment, how far I can push my exposure choices into the compromise zone without significant, unrecoverable quality loss. For example, while my camera’s native ISO is 100, I know I can push it much higher and still get a very usable image. And my Sony lenses are still sharp enough outside their ideal f-stop range that I don’t hesitate to use whatever f-stop the situation calls for. (This quality isn’t exclusive to Sony—other quality cameras and lenses do quite well when pushed to extremes.)
Compromise my image quality to achieve a desired result reduces my margin for error, making it extremely important that I make the right choices. Probably the most extreme compromise situation I encounter is the moonless-night darkness necessary for photographing the Milky Way. Even with my fastest lens, the Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM, wide open, to get a shutter speed that avoids stretching the pinpoint stars to little dashes, I have to push my camera’s ISO beyond thresholds I never imagined would be possible just a few years ago. This forces choices like, do I go with ISO 6400 and less noise but more star motion (longer shutter speed), or ISO 12800 and more noise but less star motion?
It would be nice if there were absolute answers to these compromise questions, but that’s rarely the case. Usually it’s matter of experience-based reckoning shaded by multiple choice processing options. In other words, I make the best guess I can, and often hedge by trying my second-, third-, and (sometimes) fourth-best guess. With several images to choose between, I scrutinize each closely and decide which will give me the best result.
About this image
I’m thinking about all this compromise stuff because I just processed this image from last week’s Yosemite spring workshop. The dogwood were exploding throughout Yosemite Valley, so my group spent several sessions dedicated mostly or entirely to dogwood. With my favorite Yosemite Valley dogwood zone closed due to roadwork, most of our dogwood time was spent on Northside Drive near Valley View.
I look for dogwood flowers or branches I can isolate against a strong background, and quickly landed on this one above the Merced River. It was late afternoon and the granite wall beneath Cathedral Rocks was catching the warm sunlight, spreading its gold reflection on the Merced River. With my Sony 100-400 GM lens (on my Sony a7RIV) to isolate the branch, I shifted position and focal length until I arrived at a composition that set the dogwood blooms against the gold background, framed by soft (out of focus) dogwood festooned branches in the background. I experimented with several f-stops before deciding f/9 gave me the best combination of sharp dogwood and soft background.
The problem was, at ISO 100 and f/9, getting the exposure I wanted meant a shutter speed of 1/10 second, not workable in the afternoon’s gentle but steady breeze. So I increased my ISO to 800, which gave me a 1/80 second shutter speed. A quick magnification of the image in my LCD told me I’d nailed the sharpness, but just in case, I increased the ISO to ISO 1600, for a 1/160 second shutter speed. (Turns out I didn’t need the faster shutter speed, but better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.)
The Art of Compromise
Posted on April 25, 2021
Last week I got to preview the brand new, and top secret (at the time) Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM lens. I really didn’t have time for this, but this was the lens I’ve been praying for pretty much my entire photography life and I just couldn’t say no. This isn’t so much a review as it is a summary of my experience using it, and my first impressions.
It was a Monday morning (April 12) and Don Smith, his wife Beri, and I were on the road to Bandon, Oregon when the call from Sony came in. It went something like this:
Sony: Would you be willing to try out the new Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM lens.
Don and Gary: Duh—uh, sure!
Sony: We’d need 10 images each, including 2 night images apiece, by Sunday.
Don and Gary: We have a workshop starting tomorrow, but we’ll figure it out.
Sony: Oh, this lens is a secret, so nobody can see you using it.
Don and Gary: Oh, wow—okay, we’ll be careful.
Sony: And one more thing. There’s only one lens, so you guys will need to share.
Don and Gary: (Eyeing each other suspiciously) Uh, sure…
The lens was overnighted arrived the next day, just as the workshop started. By then Don and I had agreed to a sharing plan that would give each of us equal opportunity to use the lens without affecting the workshop, and had even come up with an answer in the (we hoped) unlikely event that anyone asked what lens we were using. (I only had to lie once.)
I checked the moon schedule and determined that the only two nights that week suitable for night photography were our first two with the lens, which were our only two remaining nights in Bandon. Fortunately, with late sunsets and early sunrises, we had no group night shoots planned), so the only cost was sleep.
Don got it the first night, but I went out with him to scout for potential compositions and get up to speed on my as yet unused (thank-you-very-much, COVID) Sony a7SIII. The next night was my night—I went out solo and I had the entire beach to myself.
The first thing to strike me about this lens was its compactness, which just blew me away. How can a lens so wide, and so fast, be so small and light? But it also felt quite solid in my hand, which I took as a good sign. It has an aperture control ring on the lens (with a toggle to choose between click or “unclick”), but I especially appreciated the aperture ring’s “A” position, which allows me to set my aperture with the camera’s aperture control dial as I do with all my other lenses. (Since I will use this lens a lot at night and need to do everything by memory and feel, the more I can control my settings without doing something different, the better.)
I have loved, loved, loved night photography with the first two Sony a7Sx series bodies, but, despite having the a7SIII since last summer, this was the first time I’ve been able to use it. All I can say is that it only took a couple of minutes to know that the a7SIII and 14mm GM are a match made in heaven. Not only does the a7SIII give me clean files at 12800 ISO, when paired with a fast lens like the 14mm GM, even with nothing but starlight, I can compose and focus (without guessing) in seconds. But the thing that excited me most this night was the amount of sky I could capture at 14mm—until now my night lenses have always been the (wonderful) Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM and Sony 20mm f/1.8 G, but
Turns out I’d underestimated the breadth of the 14mm lens’s field of view and my ability to deal with the thin, 6% crescent moon hovering near the western horizon. The amount of light necessary to bring out the stars and beach detail also rendered the much brighter moon a large white blob, meaning that many of the compositions I’d planned were simply not doable without being photobombed by the moon. So I spent most of my time on the south end of the beach, concentrating my compositions on Wizard’s Hat. Bandon’s other iconic sea stacks would need to wait for a future visit.
The tide was out, which allowed me to get pretty close to Wizard’s Hat and its neighbors. That was a good thing, because with a 14mm lens, close is essential, the closer the better. It was also a bad thing, because at the beach, the closer the wetter. Fortunately, the long, nearly flat beach meant no rogue waves crashing atop me without warn, it just meant that when a big wave did crash a couple of hundred feet out, it washed up and over my quickly saturated boots and socks. It wasn’t long before I just resigned myself to wet feet if I wanted to include Wizard’s Hat and the spectacular reflection in the sheen left by receding waves.
After my first few frames I magnified the image in my viewfinder and scrutinized the stars and sea stacks. I checked the sea stacks for focus softness and found none—wow, is focus easy with the a7SIII and a fast lens! I also checked for noise all the way up to ISO 12800 and saw nothing that I knew wouldn’t be cleaned up easily by Topaz DeNoise AI. In the stars I looked for distortion, especially in the corners. I did the entire shoot at f/1.8 to really put it to the test and was blown away by the complete lack of distortion throughout the frame. With each close look confirming what I’d seen in the previous checks, I soon stopped checking and just concentrated on taking pictures.
I love the night sky, and am thrilled that recent technology has allowed me to photograph it so easily. But I always found myself longing for a wider field of view to get as many stars as possible, especially in New Zealand where the Milky Way is so high in the June sky, or at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, where I find myself always wanting to include more sky and foreground. I know the Sony 12-24 f/2.8 lens will give me the breadth I long for, but f/2.8, while fast enough in a pinch, isn’t as fast as I’d like (especially in the near total darkness at the bottom of the Grand Canyon). And a fast lens that requires me to stop down a stop or two to maximize image quality doesn’t really provide much of an advantage. Until now I’ve had to work around these compromises. There are other lenses as fast as, or even a little faster, but the Sony 14mm GM’s combination of breadth, speed, and compactness sets it apart. Factor in the the distortionless corner-to-corner sharpness I saw, and I think I’m ready to declare the Sony 14mm f/1.4 GM my perfect night lens.
One Week in Oregon with the Sony 14mm f/1.4 GM Lens
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Posted on April 18, 2021
With vaccines taking hold and COVID restrictions easing, I’ve suddenly found myself in “be careful what you wish for mode.” I’m currently in Oregon with Don Smith, where we wrapped up our Oregon Coast workshop yesterday, and start our Columbia River Gorge workshop this afternoon. When this stretch is over, I’ll have done five workshops in five weeks. In addition to that, I had an unexpected (but welcome), time-critical project dumped in my lap that has occupied virtually all of workshop down-time. But rather than skip this week’s blog entirely, I’ve pulled one of my most popular from the archives (March, 2011), updated it slightly, and am sharing it today.
As some readers know, fellow pro photographer Don Smith and I partner on many workshops, donating our time as co-leaders for each other’s trips. On a recent trip Don and I stood on a bluff at sunrise gazing at the Big Sur Coast (or was it sunset overlooking Yosemite Valley?) and reminded ourselves of all the people idling in traffic or confined in a cubicle, and how fortunate we are to do what we do for a living.
Not only do photo workshops allow me to see and photograph great stuff, they give me the opportunity to learn from the diverse perspectives of dedicated photographers from every hemisphere on Earth and virtually every state in America. My workshop participants have been, in no particular order, musicians, computer professionals, artists, physicians, writers, lawyers, corporate executives, electricians, accountants, bond traders, active and retired military, other professional photographers, real estate agents, clergy, a classical composer, a Hollywood graphic artist, and a Hooters girl (a very sweet young lady who would completely dash any preconceived impression of what that might mean). One workshop included a rocket scientist and a brain surgeon.
Sometimes the education I gain from this eclectic mix of professions, preferences, and personalities is simply an insight or point-of-view that helps me better understand or inform future workshop participants. And sometimes my education is a bit more, uh, “esoteric.” On the day I captured this image of McWay Fall in Big Sur, I got a little of both.
This was a couple of years ago, on the first day of Don’s spring Big Sur workshop. Driving to the workshop’s first shoot we hadn’t been on the road five minutes when it was discovered my backseat featured a sex therapist and a gynecologist. Uh-oh. While they seemed quite excited by their mutual interest, I was uncertain that the other passengers shared the doctors’ outspoken zeal for the subject and did my best to deflect the conversation into more benign territory. But the doctors were not to be deterred. We spent the duration of the drive listening to these experts compare notes in graphic and excruciatingly uncensored detail. Topics ranged from, uh, well let’s just say we covered everything from oysters to “When Harry Met Sally.” Much to my relief, and after fifty minutes without exhaling, I pulled into the parking area at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park with a car-full of laughing (and, it turns out, just a little better informed) passengers. Phew.
Amazingly, it turned out that the drive wasn’t even the most memorable part of the afternoon. That honor goes to the sunset, which I was fortunate enough to capture in today’s image. When we arrived at the view of McWay Fall, the sun was behind a cloud bank that painted land, sea, and sky matching gray. But successful photography is often not as much about what’s happening now as it is about what’s going to happen later. And few opportunities excite me more than watching the sun slip from the clouds just before it completes its dash for the horizon–exactly what was in store this evening.
Don and I rallied the troops and told them not to be deceived by the flat scene, to prepare for a sudden and dramatic change in the color and light when the sun popped from behind the clouds. We told everyone that the display wouldn’t last long and encouraged them to forego the current moment and search for a composition that would work when “the moment” happened. With about ten minutes to pick a spot, refine our compositions, and ready our cameras, I ended up working with about half the group at this location. Don stationed himself with the rest of the group a couple hundred feet up the trail.
After getting everyone situated, I opted for this wide shot that used the fall and sun to balance the frame. To reduce the contrast between the sky and foreground I stacked two graduated neutral density filters (totaling five stops); to get the starburst effect I stopped down to f18. Because everyone in my group was ready and comfortable enough with their camera, we were all able to capture our own version of this special moment.
I’m afraid Don wasn’t so fortunate. Most of his group was successful, but with little warning one of his people decided that this very moment was the absolute best time to learn the manual metering techniques Don and I had covered in our orientation. Despite suggestions from Don (and stronger “urgings” from her husband) to shoot the way she’s most comfortable now and defer the learning to later, she insisted that now is the time to crack the manual metering puzzle.
To Don’s credit, he passed his opportunity at this magic moment to work with her. So while Don didn’t get his shot (kind of the photographer’s equivalent of taking one for the team), we did come away with a great cautionary tale we now spin to all of our workshop participants: Practice, practice, practice, when everything’s static, but when the magic happens, always, always, always revert to what’s most comfortable.
All in all, a very educational (and productive!) day. I don’t remember the drive back up the coast that night, but given the sunset we’d witnessed I’m pretty sure the primary topic was photography. Over the course of the workshop our woman did in fact learn manual metering (as she has demonstrated in subsequent workshops), and Don will forever be able to tell people about “the one that got away.” I, on the other hand, learned how long I can hold my breath.
A Seaside Gallery
Posted on April 11, 2021
Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time photographing with my good friend and fellow Sony Artisan Don Smith. Both in workshops and on our personal trips, we’ll head out into the scene or meet back later at the car, and more often than not I’ll have a wide angle lens on my camera, while Don will have a telephoto. Each of us would usually end up with images that pleased us, and I think Don would agree that neither of us could say whose images were “better”—they were just different. But those observations have made me conscious of my wide angle bias, and helped remind me that I may in fact be missing a telephoto opportunity.
What’s it all about?
I’ve always felt strongly that an image needs to be about something, and the photographer’s job is to make it clear to viewers what that something is. I usually accomplish that with my wide lenses by positioning strong elements throughout my frame in a way that creates virtual connecting lines that guide my viewers’ eyes. The problem is, the wider the focal length, the greater the chance of introducing unwanted elements that pull my viewers’ eyes off their prescribed path.
The cure for this problem is often to simplify the scene by going tighter with a telephoto. That doesn’t necessarily mean forgoing the wide version; rather, it can just be a matter of also trying the scene through a telephoto to see what else might be there. If that doesn’t come naturally to you in the field, you might be able to teach yourself how many telephoto shots you left in the field (and to train your eyes in the process) by opening any wide angle image in Photoshop (or your photo editor of choice), setting the crop tool to 2/3 aspect ratio (to match what you see in your viewfinder), and see how many new compositions you can find.
Practicing what I preach
Over the years I’ve gotten better about using my telephoto, but I’d be lying if I said it’s usually the first thing I reach for when I work a landscape. My standard workflow in the field (not conscious, just the way I seem to work naturally) is to start wide and go tighter as I become more familiar with the scene. But last week I got a great reminder of the value of a telephoto as I was driving home from real nice poppy shoot in the foothills near Jackson, California. It was just a few minutes after sunset and my mind was already on dinner when I rounded a bend and saw an oak-studded hillside completely blanketed with poppies.
I was very familiar with this hillside because it’s the site of one of my oldest, and favorite images, captured in spring of 2005 (read the story). A 24×36 print of this 2005 scene graces the wall in my living room above my fireplace. The one thing I’ll never forget about photographing it is how much steeper this hill is than it appears in the image—so steep, in fact, that when I decided to scale it to get a better vantage point, I jettisoned my tripod so I could have two hands free to hold on and pull myself up. While it wasn’t quite mountain climbing, it was steep enough that I’d have rolled all the way to the bottom had I fallen (much like this).
But this time there was no time to ascend the hill because the scene was rapidly darkening (and the photographer is rapidly aging). The conditions weren’t quite as good as back then either: there were no clouds and the sky was completely colorless. But still, it was just so pretty…
I made the split-second decision to brake and pull over. Safely on the shoulder, I quickly hopped out, grabbed my tripod and Sony a7RIV, and surveyed the scene. I wanted to feature one striking oak that stood alone about 2/3 of the way up the hill, and tried to determine the best way to do it. The fence from my old image was not too far off to the right of the tree, but I now try to avoid manmade objects in my scenes—in fact, the 2005 image is the only image in my current portfolio I can think of with anything manmade. Other nearby concerns were a couple of kind of scraggly trees that definitely didn’t merit inclusion, a few brown patches, and several unsightly rocks. And the sky added absolutely nothing.
It was clear that the best way to highlight the oak and poppies was to eliminate all the surrounding distractions with a long telephoto. Given the distance, perhaps 350 yards, I went straight to my Sony 200-600 G lens. For this image I used 500mm, which completely eliminated all the problems. The light was dimming fast, and a slight breeze stirred the poppies, so I bumped my ISO to 400, focused. I ended up taking 18 frames, some a little wider, some a little tighter, but all more than 400mm. Most of my frames were horizontal, but I finished with a couple of verticals just to cover my bases. Then I packed up and headed to dinner.
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Posted on April 4, 2021
“Chance favors only the prepared mind.” ~ Louis Pasteur
Successful nature photography requires the convergence of physical objects, position (relative to those objects), light, weather conditions, the right equipment, and mastery of craft (did I miss anything?). Though we can control many of these factors, the overriding element that trumps everything else is plain old luck. But despite the undeniable luck factor in photography, most photographers bristle at the suggestion that a particular capture was “lucky.” For good reason.
No one denies that photography involves a great deal of luck, but each of us chooses our relationship with the fickle whims of chance, and we have more control than you might imagine. Which is why, like Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell, and a host of other photographers, I embrace Louis Pasteur’s belief that chance does indeed favor the prepared mind. In other words, the more prepared we are, the less luck will effect our outcomes.
As photographers, job-1 is subtracting as much luck as possible from the image capture equation: we hone our craft, get the best gear our budget allows (including backups), painstakingly research our locations, study the science behind the conditions we want to photograph, then sacrifice comfort and convenience (and sleep!) to be in the right place at the right time. Though we definitely appreciate our good fortune when the magic does happen, much of photography’s joy comes from the special effort it took to be there. Yes, it was fortunate that a lightning bolt struck right there, or the clouds parted just as the moon appeared, but it was no accident that we were there when it happened, fully prepared to capture the moment.
All photographers, in one way or another, work to manufacture their own luck. Because I’m particularly drawn to capturing nature’s ephemeral phenomena above its terrestrial wonders, that’s where my efforts are spent. Whether it’s lightning at the Grand Canyon, the Milky Way over Tasman Lake in New Zealand, or a moonrise above Half Dome in Yosemite, I schedule most of my photo trips (both personal and workshops) to maximize my chances for something special. While there’s never a guarantee that it will actually happen, and I’ve been disappointed more times than I can count, that doesn’t stop me from planning and getting out there just in case.
Which is how I happened to be in Yosemite in December 2019 for this moonrise. I’d plotted this alignment more than a year in advance. When I scheduled a workshop to capture it (fingers crossed), I knew full well that December is the wet season in Yosemite, making it entirely possible, maybe even likely, that my much anticipated moonrise could happen entirely behind a curtain of clouds.
Since this was a workshop, my first job is to reduce the luck factor for my entire group. That started with letting everyone know what gear they needed (nothing special: camera, lenses covering 24mm to 200mm, and a tripod), and (more important) getting them up to speed on the surprisingly tricky exposure idiosyncrasies of sunset moonrises. Meanwhile, behind the scenes I obsessively refreshed the NWS Yosemite forecast page every five minutes, trying will the forecast into promising something more definitive than the annoyingly ambiguous “partly cloudy.” No such luck.
The day of the event proceeded as advertised, teasing us with skies that alternated between mostly clear to mostly cloudy. Fickle skies notwithstanding, there was no thought of abandoning Plan A—I’ve been surprised enough by Nature (especially in Yosemite) to know that, no matter what the forecast promised, I’d have my group out there. Another thing I try to do to improve my group’s odds of success is get them on location early enough to familiarize themselves with the scene and its variety of composition options. Even though I’ve photographed this spot countless times, experience has taught me that first time need time to get comfortable with a scene.
Even without the moon, this location is very photo-worthy. So by the time moonrise approached, they’d all had plenty of photos under their belt and were pretty comfortable with the possibilities here. Clouds came and went as we waited, but the moon’s appearance coincided with one of the more clear moments. We started clicking wildly when the moon peeked out from behind Half Dome, then held our collective breaths as Half Dome’s cloud-making machine churned into action, completely erasing the moon within minutes of its arrival. But instead of getting discouraged, we just hung tight and hoped the moon would punch through. Punch through it did, delighting us with a moon/cloud dance that lasted until it became too dark to photograph.
We all felt very lucky walking back to the cars that evening, but we felt so much more than that. Exiting Safeway to see a rainbow arcing over the parking lot is lucky. Period. But when you see an image of one of nature’s ephemeral gifts matched with a beautiful landscape, try to appreciate that its creation, as lucky as the moment might have felt to the photographer, was probably much more than simple good luck.
Fortunately, anticipating these special moments in nature doesn’t require any real gifts—just a basic understanding of the natural phenomena you’d like to photograph, and a little effort to match your anticipated natural event (a rainbow, lightning, a moonrise, or whatever) with your location of choice. Mix in the right gear, the resolve to get out there, and the perseverance not to give up when nature appears to have other ideas, and voila: You’re a photographer! And that’s about as lucky as you can be.
More Self-Made “Luck”
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Posted on March 28, 2021
This has always been one of my favorite images. It’s also one of the oldest images in my digital portfolio. I photographed it 17 years ago (!) with my very first DSLR, a Canon 10D. Despite the 10D’s postage-stamp-size LCD, being able to instantly view and refine my images led to an epiphany that permanently altered the way I photograph: Even though photography is a two-dimensional medium, the ability to visualize and manage its missing dimension—depth—separates artistic photography from snapshots.
I’m sharing this image today because yesterday afternoon I returned to the location of its capture, a hidden hillside in the Merced River Canyon, just west of Yosemite Valley. It was the last day of my Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers workshop, and while there wasn’t enough water to create the explosion of mist a March moonbow requires, the wildflowers were out in force. Rather than pull out my camera and try to reprise this old favorite, I was content to stand by, take in the beauty, and watch my group happily work this now familiar scene. Between occasional iPhone clicks, I mentally returned to that afternoon 17 years ago, and to the lessons I learned that day.
Getting an entire scene, front to back, in sharp focus is important, but fueled by digital photography’s instant feedback, I grew to appreciate the power of shallow depth of field. On shoots like this I’d take a picture, evaluate my result, and notice the way an out-of-focus background smoothes potential distractions into blurs of color and shape. With that realization, I started challenging myself to see how far I could take background blur.
While working on this pair of poppies, my eyes could sharply resolve every background detail, from colorful wildflowers to scraggly weeds, but I found that much detail distracting in an image. Simply blurring the background helped, but I wanted more blur, as well as a background that complemented the closest two poppies that were to be my scene’s focal point.
Circling the poppies, I positioned camera downhill and as close to the ground as possible, which enabled me to shoot uphill, toward the most densely populated part of the poppy covered hillside. To achieve maximum blur, I added an extension tube to my macro lens, set my f-stop to f/2.8 (wide open), and moved my lens to within a few inches of the closest poppy. When the image on my LCD after the first click revealed the hillside blurred into a golden fog, I knew I was on to something.
But I wasn’t done. Nailing the focus point, always important, is even more essential in macro photography. Sometimes the focus point is a difficult choice, but in this case it was pretty clear that the leading edge of the front poppy was where focus needed to be.
With my camera flat on the ground and the lens resting on a beanbag (homemade, from a Ziploc and dried lentils), focus was easier said than done. Had I been doing this today, with my Sony a7RIV, I could have tilted my live-view LCD upward, magnified the front poppy’s leading edge, and focused without getting dirty. But with my ancient Canon I had to do it the “old fashioned” way, sprawling on the ground and contorting to get my eye to the viewfinder. Fortunately, a calm wind gave me the time to get the focus right.
Not only is this one of my personal favorite images, it’s also one of my most popular. And even though the resolution on my 10D was only 6 megapixels, I’ve sold prints of this image up to 24×36. But sprawled in the weeds that afternoon, I had no idea was creating something that would still be important to me 17 years later. Where has the time gone? …
It’s All a Blur
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Posted on March 21, 2021
Most people know how much photographers love their toys. Whether it’s the latest ultra-fast lens, that new space-age composite tripod that’s a full 1/4 ounce lighter, or (especially) a “game changing” camera body with even more megapixels than last year’s game changing camera body (and even though we already have more resolution than we’ll ever need), we can’t wait to get our hands on it and start sharing our new and improved images with the world (while somehow figuring out a subtle way to mention our new gear). But let me share a dirty little secret: Probably the single piece of equipment that most photographers have more versions of than anything else is the camera bag. Yawn. Don’t believe me? Ask any serious photographer how many camera bags they own—if the answer is less than five, they’re lying.
I don’t think anyone can deny that an efficient instrument to store, organize, and transport all this gear is essential. But let’s face it—a camera bag, as essential as it is, isn’t sexy. And when it comes right down to it, what’s the point of having the latest, greatest (and most expensive) gear if it doesn’t foster envy? So we’ll purchase a new bag simply because we can’t imagine living without our newest toy, but never for bragging rights.
Full disclosure: I’m as guilty as the next person of harboring an obscene number of camera bags. More than I can count. In fact, a few years ago I stuffed as many camera bags as I could fit into a 100 gallon garbage bag, shoved it into my attic, and haven’t seen them since.
Here’s my theory
Most photographers fantasize about carrying a compact, lightweight kit in the field (we want all the gear, we just hate carrying it). And to justify the purchase of the next great thing, we convince ourselves that (despite all history to the contrary) this will the final piece of equipment we’ll ever need. Of course since that’s what we told ourselves the last time we bought new gear, our current camera bag is suddenly too small. In other words, our camera bag is always just big enough to carry our current inventory of gear because we never imagine wanting more. Which is all well and good—until we start coveting the next toy.
This cycle repeats many time before the photographer gets wise. And some photographers, even those with a large garbage bag full of slightly used camera bags in their attic, never seem to get wise.
By now you might have guessed…
That’s right, I just got a new camera bag. This time it’s a Shimoda Action X50, to replace the Mindshift Backlight 26L I bought in late 2019. Sigh. In my defense, while I may be a slow learner, I did figure out a few camera bags ago to always get a bigger bag than I think I need. Nevertheless, the need for more space was a factor in this decision because, now that I have two Sony a7RIV bodies, I’ve been trying to store each with a lens attached: my Sony 16-35 GM on one, and my Sony 24-105 G on the other. But this new paradigm suddenly made my Mindshift bag cramped and awkward. Not so bad that I couldn’t have lived with had I loved the bag—but I didn’t, so here we are.
The primary reason to get new bag this time was comfort. While I was originally thrilled with the space and the way my gear fit in the 26L, I made the mistake of not fully loading it and walking around before buying. There are many things to like about the Mindshift bag, but fully loaded comfort over extended distances isn’t one of them. For someone who logs a lot of miles with a camera bag on my back, from trudging switchbacks to scrambling rugged terrain to airport sprints, comfort is essential.
Introducing my new camera bag
I really, really hope the Shimoda Action X50 will be my final camera bag. In case you haven’t figured it out, the numbers both names, the Mindshift 26L and the Shimoda X50, represents the displacement in liters. So the Shimoda has almost twice the capacity. While all of that extra room isn’t just for camera gear (there’s other storage galore), the camera gear section is significantly larger. I can’t imagine either needing, or wanting, to carry any more weight than I currently have, so if I ever decide to replace this one (heaven forbid), it won’t be because I need more space.
The most important thing for me is the X50’s comfort. I had the advantage of test driving a couple in my February workshops. And I’ve been trying mine around the house enough to know that it’s night-and-day better than my Mindshift bag. It feels like an actual back pack, not a camera bag with straps.
Let’s look inside
The contents of my camera bag has evolved over the years, from the vanilla 16-35, 24-105, 70-200 lens lineup that most landscape photographer carry, to my current setup that allows covers 12mm to 800mm (1200mm if you factor in the APS-C crop option) at all times—plus the option to go up to 1800mm (factoring in the APS-C crop factor) if I go with my Sony 200-600.
Here’s what’s I carry today (spring 2021):
Always in my bag
- 2 Sony a7R IV camera bodies
- Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens: Though I don’t use it a lot, 12mm allows me to photograph things I never could before, and I love that it’s compact enough to keep with me at all times. (I also can’t wait for the pandemic to end so I can get out and use it for serious night photography this summer.)
- Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens (plus a Breakthrough polarizer): This focal range is covered by other lenses in my bag, but I love the lens too much to leave it behind—crazy sharp, and f/2.8 means it’s fast enough for night photography in a pinch. Plus, it’s a whole lot easier to use with polarizing and neutral density filters than the 12-24.
- Sony 24-105 G lens (plus a Breakthrough polarizer): This is my workhorse—what a fantastic focal range! Really sharp, too.
- Sony 100-400 GM lens (plus a Breakthrough polarizer): Replacing my 70-200 with this slightly bigger lens doubled my focal range—and it’s a fantastic match with the Sony 2X teleconverter.
- Sony 2X teleconverter
- Filters (in a Mindshift filter bag attached to my tripod): 72mm and 77mm Breakthrough 6-stop polarizing ND filters, Breakthrough 2-stop hard graduated neutral density filter (which I don’t use a lot since switching to Sony, but still nice to have)
- Other stuff: Several lens cloths, headlamp, insulated water bottle, extension tubes, Giotto Rocket Blower, and a couple of RX Bars (because photography always trumps meals).
Specialty Equipment (not pictured—stays behind unless I have a specific plan for it)
- Sony a7S III camera body: For Milky Way and other moonless night photography—it’s “only” 12 megapixels (remember when 12 megapixels was huge?), but this camera sees in the dark.
- Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM lens: For Milky Way and other moonless night photography—I can’t believe how compact this lens is.
- Sony 28mm f/1.8 G lens: For Milky Way and other moonless night photography—this one’s even more compact than the 24mm.
- Sony 90mm Macro: I use this lens a lot with extension tubes to get super close for my creative selective focus work (wildflowers, fall color).
- Sony 200-600 G lens: When I want to go big on a moonrise/moonset—sometimes I’ll pare it with the 2X teleconverter and really go crazy. I also use this lens with extension tubes for selective focus fall color.
- Really Right Stuff 24L Tripod with a RRS BH-55 ball head: Sturdy enough for whatever I put on it, in pretty much whatever conditions I encounter. I also like that, fully extended with the head and camera, even without a centerpost it’s several inches taller than I am.
- Gitzo 1530 tripod with a RRS BH-40 ball head: My travel/hiking tripod. Without extending the centerpost it’s not quite as tall as I prefer, but it’s tall enough and I like the compactness for suitcases and long hikes.
Final camera bag thoughts
A camera bag is personal choice, based on many individual variables. So I’m not recommending against the Mindshift bag, which I found great in many ways. Because everyone’s body is different, I can only tell that the Shimoda was best for me.
If you’re in the market for a camera bag, make sure you try your candidate with weight before purchasing. And don’t just throw the bag on your back and call it good—actually walk around with it, bounce up and down, twist, bend over, take it off and put it on, and so on until you’re sure.
I know this kind of testing isn’t easy in this day of online shopping. If you don’t have a chance to try out your next camera bag before placing an order, find a nearby camera store do your research there. But if accept even a little of the camera store’s goodwill, don’t even think of ordering it online—support your local camera store.
About this image
For better or worse, February is Horsetail Fall month in Yosemite. For years I’ve thought about photographing the fall from the Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point, but never had the time or motivation to make it happen. Though this is my favorite trail out of Yosemite Valley, I hadn’t been on it in years and figured I’d need to scout it first. But this year a couple of people in my first February workshop shot Horsetail Fall from there on their own, and were able to give me enough info that I figured I could make it work without any advance recon.
I drove to Yosemite the afternoon before my February Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop. With all the people, and Southside Drive closed to all parking, I had to walk nearly a mile to get to the Four Mile Trail trailhead. Even I’d been on level ground, my back and shoulders were already fatigued by the time I started ascending the switchbacks. I only had to walk another half mile or so, but by the time I reached my photo spot, I’d decided it was time for a new bag.
After scrambling up a short but steep hillside, I found a small gap in the trees with a good view of Horsetail Fall. Shedding my gear, it was time forget my aches and pains and to get to work. The first thing I noticed was how clearly visible the top of El Capitan was. It’s not visible at all from Northside Drive; it is visible from some of the vantage points on (now closed) on Southside Drive, but this was even better because I could clearly see the Horsetail Creek drainage.
For this shoot I loaded up both a7RIV bodies, one with my 24-105 and the other with the 100-400. Because I was shooting through a window in the surrounding foliage, I thought I’d be shooting mostly telephoto, but when I saw the setting sun slipping through the trees, I recognized a sunstar opportunity as well. This isn’t possible on the valley floor, so I took full advantage. With only one tripod on hand, I frequently switched between my 24-105 and 100-400 bodies, firing non-stop until the light finally faded about five minutes after sunset.
I was already on the verge admitting camera bag my mistake when the pandemic shut everything down, but by the time I made it back to the car that evening my mind was made up. Fingers crossed that I’m finally done.
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Posted on March 14, 2021
Last week marked the one year anniversary of the COVID shutdown. WOW. One year.
In hindsight I realize that I might have been a little naive when this thing started because of the way I’d spent the two weeks prior to the shutdown: first in Scottsdale, Arizona for my annual MLB Spring Training trip (go Giants!), followed immediately by a week in Anchorage, Alaska to visit my daughter. In Arizona at the beginning of March I noticed very little difference in people’s behavior (though I did have to search long and hard for hand sanitizer), but winging my way to Alaska, I was struck by how empty the airports and flights were. Hmmm….
Alaska is where I was when it started to dawn on me that a couple of my upcoming workshops might be threatened. When that realization hit, I remember thinking I’ll be fine as long as I don’t lose the New Zealand trip at the end of June. Ha! I ended up losing 12 workshops, including New Zealand in both 2020 and 2021. And the workshops I have managed to pull off (three so far since last March) have been impacted as well, both in terms of group size and COVID protocol.
But this isn’t a woe is me post, I promise. I have so much to be grateful for, starting with the flexibility of being self-employed and working from home. And of course continued good health of my family and me. Oh, and the fact that I’m still in business.
And just like that, here’s 2021, I’m fully vaccinated, with two workshops in the mirror and six queued up over the next eight weeks (maybe I should be careful what I wish for). Life’s good.
I started this blog with the idea of a sentence or two reflecting on the COVID anniversary before diving into some thoughts on this just-processed image from last November. But here I am, nearly 500 words later….
I don’t need to gush any more about this day, a highlight of my pandemic year—you can just go back through the many blogs I’ve already posted about it (7—I counted). What I wanted to say about this image is how it underscores the importance of not merely settling for a beautiful scene, no matter how beautiful it is (something this one irrefutably was). Creating an image that stands out from all the other pictures of inherently beautiful scenes requires understanding the difference between the way your camera sees a scene and the way you see it. Unlike your experience of the world, a still image is devoid of motion and depth, has limited dynamic range and depth of field, and is constrained by a rectangular box. Managing these differences requires the ability to control your camera’s exposure variables (f-stop, shutter speed, ISO, focal length) to create the illusion of depth and motion.
The clouds had just started to part when I arrived at this reflective bend in the Merced River. It’s easy to get walloped by the beauty of a scene like this, frame up something nice, and click. But after indulging the creative side of my brain (camera or not, this scene really was gorgeous), I forced myself to set my awe aside for a few beats to work out the best way to convey the beauty.
My first step in most scenes is to identify the most important thing—what I want the scene to be “about.” If that important thing is in the foreground, I look for a complementary background; if my subject is in the background, I try to identify a complementary foreground.
In this case my “most important thing” was the entire scene across the river, anchored of course by Half Dome, but supported by the snow-covered trees and the reflection. I wandered the riverbank and found a few things to put in my foreground. I started with a mini cove rimmed with leaves that I used to frame a horizontal composition. Then, looking for something that would be better for a vertical composition, I moved on to these floating leaves and partially submerged log just a few feet upstream. Framing everything up at eye-level, I didn’t like the empty gap between the leaves/log and Half Dome’s reflection, so I dropped my tripod as low as it would go and went to work.
While there was a fair amount of dynamic range, I knew it was well within the capabilities of my Sony a7RIV—if I exposed carefully. But exposing carefully means more than just getting the light right—it means getting the light right with a shutter speed that handles the motion, and with an f-stop that handles the depth.
With a few ripples disturbing the reflection, I wanted shutter speed long enough to smooth the water and twisted my Breakthrough 6-stop Dark Circular Polarizer onto my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens. And since sharpness from the closest leaf to Half Dome’s summit was important, I selected f/16 and focused on the log. (My hyperfocal app assured me that this would give me more than enough depth-of-field for front-to-back sharpness.) Next, with my eye on the viewfinder, I slowly turned my polarizer far enough to remove the reflection from the leaves, but not so much that I erased the primary reflection.
Finally, I was ready to meter and select the shutter speed the gave me a good histogram. At my a7RIV’s native ISO (100), the shutter speed I needed was 1-second. To double that and ensure better smoothing of the ripples, I dialed down to ISO 50. Click.
A COVID Compilation
(Images from the last 12 months)
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Posted on March 7, 2021
I’ve written quite a bit about Horsetail Fall over the last few weeks, but believe it or not, I have a few words to add.
In recent years it has become fashionable for photographers, myself included, to criticize the whole trophy shot phenomenon that creates a rugby scrum of photographers jostling to get their own version of something that’s been photographed a million times before. I’m thinking about, to name just a few, events like sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, the Maroon Bells fall color reflection, the light shaft in Upper Antelope Canyon, and of course the February sunset light on Horsetail Fall.
Each experience has its own set of undesirable challenges that make it easy for many to wonder why others go through so much hassle to capture something that’s virtually guaranteed not to be anything close to unique. But this year’s Horsetail Fall event was kind of an epiphany for me because on the fourth attempt in two weeks (twice with my first workshop group, once with my second group, and once by myself), it suddenly occurred to me how much I was enjoying myself.
More than anything else, photography should make us happy. For me that happiness comes from witnessing nature at its most special, and Horsetail Fall at its best is truly special. Indescribably special.
But that wasn’t my epiphany. Last month’s epiphany was realizing how much being surrounded by thousands of awestruck others adds to the experience, which is where I think the Horsetail Fall experience is unique compared to most other trophy shots.
That’s because most of these trophy scenes are overrun by far more photographers than can comfortably (or even uncomfortably) fit, creating a Darwinian competition that usually spells disappointment for the defeated majority. At these spots I’ve witnessed failure, tears, and actual fistfights as too many photographers jockey for not enough positions.
I won’t argue that the Horsetail Fall scene is ridiculously crowded. But to photograph Horsetail Fall from Northside Drive (the more challenging, and competitive, Southside Drive perspective is now off-limits during Horsetail Fall season), you’re pointing up, and most likely using a telephoto lens (or at least not using a wide angle lens). This means that no matter how many people are trying to view the fall, no one is in anyone else’s shot. The result is a tailgate party atmosphere as the entire crowd unifies around a single goal: that special light on Horsetail Fall.
About this image
My second February workshop was scheduled for the full moon, so I made clear to everyone who signed up that even though we’d be there right in the heart of “Horsetail Fall season,” Horsetail Fall wouldn’t be a priority. But when the crowds pretty much wiped out one of my planned sunset locations, and with the Horsetail Fall conditions so ideal (water in the fall, no clouds), I decided we’d give Horsetail one shot.
By this (my fourth) attempt I had the traffic and parking strategy down to a science, so we were easily in position and set-up with about 90 minutes to spare. I actually like getting there so early because it’s cool, especially for those who haven’t witnessed Horsetail Fall before, to see the light warm as the vertical shadow advances across El Capitan’s face.
While watching the light change, we all chatted and laughed amongst ourselves and with the other nearby gawkers. Some of our neighbors had cameras too, and some were just there to watch.
With so much time to kill, a few of us even spent some time walking up and down Northside Drive, taking in the party atmosphere. Unlike most of the trophy scenes I’ve photographed, I saw lots of kids and even a few (leashed) dogs. Many people had brought chairs and ice chests, some were barbecuing, and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.
About 15 minutes before sunset the light had acquired an amber hue and the photographers stopped chatting and went to work. The light this evening warmed steadily, from amber to the deep orange in this image. I tried to time each click for when the wind near El Capitan’s summit caught the falling water just right, spreading it into a glowing veil.
After such a great Horsetail Fall experience with the previous week’s group, it’s impossible not to compare the two. On this evening we had less concern about the light because there was no sign of clouds. And though the prior week’s clouds had created a unique opportunity to have some character in the sky, I was pretty sure that there was a little more water this week. I also noticed that the last light was thinner, more tightly focused on the fall, but also didn’t stretch as far down the fall. And while the color wasn’t quite as red as it had been the prior week, I heard no complaints.
A Few Trophies of My Own
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