Posted on November 21, 2022
It feels trite to wait until Thanksgiving week to detail blessings I feel year-round, but there’s nothing like a global pandemic and all its disruptions to refocus priorities. Pre-Covid Thanksgivings were an opportunity to remind myself to appreciate my life by concentrating on the big stuff like good health, a loving family, and a career that lets me travel and (almost) never feels like work. Since Covid, I’m simply grateful for the resumption of family gatherings (large and small), unrestricted travel, and (not insignificantly) the return of the bottom half of everyone’s face—things I swear I’ll never again take for granted.
Another thing I’ve grown to appreciate about my current life, also underscored by the pandemic, is the autonomy of self-employment. While losing workshops was incredibly stressful, once I convinced myself that the lost workshops were simply postponed and not cancelled, I was able to use the downtime productively—without flapping in the ever-changing breeze of government and employer workplace rules.
I do have to admit that sometimes the idea of a 9-to-5 job with weekends and paid vacations sounds mighty good (I’m speaking in very general terms and don’t mean to offend anyone pinned to a cubicle 10 hours per day just to pay the bills—I’ve been there), but the bottom line is that I do love the flexibility of having complete control of my schedule.
When I left the 9-to-5 world to pursue this crazy passion more than 15 years ago, the vanished safety net was a great motivator—I was only as successful as the next art show (which I no longer do) or photo workshop. Weekends? Holidays? Irrelevant. Back then, the closest I got to a vacation was when my wife and I traveled to scout for a new workshop. And alarm clocks? They’re for workshop sunrises only.
But as the years go by (is it me, or is time moving faster?), I’ve come to truly value my freedom—in no small part because I’ve learned how to manage it. Today I can look at my calendar and, if nothing’s there, do whatever I want. And while that might mean cramming the things that must be done into times when others might be in their recliner watching HBO, or sunbathing at the beach, it’s 100 percent my choice and I love it.
The pandemic restrictions also helped me realize that I may have even started to take for granted my home that’s close enough to Yosemite that I can drive there and back in a day. To prevent this in the past, each time I enter the park I’ve always tried to imagine I’m viewing it for the first time, but since the pandemic I’ve been doing this with renewed focus and appreciation and it feels good.
An under-the-radar revelation when my workshops resumed was how much I missed the people. I knew I missed my workshop students, but it surprised me how much I enjoyed their return. This month’s Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections group, a wonderful blend of humor and enthusiasm that made my job easy, did nothing to dispel my enthusiasm.
Since there was a little bit of weather during most of the workshop (nice clouds, a little rain and snow), I deviated from my typical schedule, one day delaying my normal midday break when the conditions were too good to stop, and throughout the workshop adjusting my visits to other locations to account for the special conditions.
The fall color and reflections were in fact spectacular as advertised, but with the waterfalls pretty much their normal autumn dry (Bridalveil Fall was a trickle, Yosemite Falls was just a wet stain with no visible water flowing), we turned to Yosemite’s monoliths for background and reflection subjects.
Perhaps Yosemite’s most underrated granite feature is the Three Brothers. While technically not a monolith (a triolith?), the Three Brothers—Lower Brother, Middle Brother, and… (go ahead, guess)…, wrong(!), it’s Eagle Peak—is to my eye one of Yosemite’s most striking features. Nevertheless, despite its towering presence above the heart of Yosemite Valley, many Yosemite visitors never see the Three Brothers. That’s because when viewed from the east, Three Brothers looks an ordinary granite wall that just kind of blends into the scenery, and from most west-side vantage points, it’s blocked by El Capitan. And nowhere in the valley is Three Brothers clearly visible without a small effort (you can’t just pull into a vista and hop out of the car to view it.)
So it’s always fun to walk my groups out to this spot on the Merced River for their first look at Three Brothers. Even here, with the view dominated by El Capitan, I sometimes need to point upstream to the Three Brothers and let them know this will be their only opportunity to photograph it.
On this chilly morning earlier this month we started at the spot with the best El Capitan view (least obstructed by trees) and a decent Three Brothers view. I told the group that about 100 yards downstream they’d get a better Three Brothers view and reflection, as well as a decent (partially tree-obstructed) El Capitan view. I gave them plenty of time for both spots and encouraged them to take advantage of it.
On the morning of our visit, golden cottonwoods colored the reflection that stretched from riverbank to riverbank and was fringed by a sprinkling of leaves. The sky was mostly cloudy, but every once in a while a shaft of sunlight would break through and spotlight part of El Capitan or the Three Brothers for a few seconds. Even though I come here a lot, I found these conditions were too nice to resist taking a few clicks of my own.
I was looking for leaves to put in my foreground when I found this view at the downstream vantage point. Getting out here required some serious mud sloshing (thank you waterproof boots!), but thanks to an encroaching shoreline and photobombing patch of grass, still struggled to get the entire reflection. I finally decided that by elevating my tripod to the max and planting it as far into the river as my arms could reach, I could separate Lower Brother’s reflection from the shoreline and get 2/3 of the brothers—the best I could do. My polarizer I oriented to remove the reflection from the leaves, but was still able to spare enough of the Three Brothers and trees reflection to recover it in Photoshop.
Have a great Thanksgiving! (I realize this is an America-only holiday, but I strongly encourage everyone, holiday or not, to pause from time to time to appreciate their good fortune, whatever it might be.)
I’m also thankful for heated seats and noise cancelling headphones.
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Posted on November 14, 2022
One million words
January 2023 will mark the start of my (more or less weekly) Eloquent Nature blog’s 13th year. Not counting the 30 or so sporadically created Photo Tips articles, today’s post will be number 710. Doing the math, that actually turns out to be more than 1 blog post per week; at 1500 words per post (a conservative estimate), I’ve written more than 1 million words. Yikes.
According to WordPress, I have nearly 40,000 followers, but so far have resisted the urge to monetize my creation. I have nothing against money (I in fact kind of like it), but haven’t yet found a way to generate dollars from my blogging effort without detracting from the page or cheapening the visitors’ experience. (So, you’re welcome.)
But my motives aren’t entirely altruistic. Writing about creativity and inspiration each week encourages introspection that has given me a clearer understanding of myself and the creative process. And my (obsessive) desire to understand my subjects has cause me to research and ponder countless topics that might otherwise have been off my radar.
My drive to write just seemed to happen organically. I remember in first or second grade, each Monday we’d be assigned a list of spelling words (am I dating myself, or do they still do that?) to learn for the spelling test that always came on Friday. To help us learn that week’s words, the week’s homework assignment was to a create “spelling sentences,” one for each word. Instead of spelling sentences, I would write spelling stories that used every one of a the week’s words—I can’t explain why, except that I thought it was fun.
And ever since, whether it was in school or at work, I somehow became the designated writer—not necessarily because I was better at it, more because I was the most willing to do it. From there it wasn’t much of a leap for that willingness to write to become part of my job description. Eventually I became a tech writer for a large Silicon Valley tech company.
I’ve somehow managed to avoid the trap that befalls many creatives, where merely attempting to monetize their passion robs them of its joy. And I feel extremely lucky to have two creative pursuits, photography and writing, that give me great pleasure and synergistically combine to support me financially.
I’m thinking about this because I’ve decided to (slightly) change my blogging schedule, and I’ve found that a surprising number of people seem to notice when my weekly post is late, even by just a day. (Nothing abusive, more like occasional mild disappointment.) Of course it very much pleases (and surprises) me to hear that people actually look forward to my posts and actually read them.
So what’s this big change? For years my personal commitment was to post a new blog each Sunday. I’ve actually become pretty good at meeting this goal, but as my wife recently pointed out, this commitment pretty much blows up our weekend. Since we both work from home, on schedules entirely of our own making, weekends are really just a state of mind for both of us (there’s a reason we’ve each set our watches to display the day of the week)—I never considered our lost weekends a big deal. But I do have to admit that it would be nice to be a little more in sync with the rest of the world’s weekend state of mind, and have therefore made the radical decision to move my weekly blog day to, wait for it… Monday. Whoa.
(Only a writer would come up with 500 words explaining something that could have been said in 10 words: Effective this week, new blog posts will appear on Mondays.)
If you’re still with me (thank you), you’ve probably already forgotten about the image at the top of this post. It’s another product of last week’s incredibly rewarding Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections photo workshop. Rewarding because it was a great group that very much deserved the wonderful photography we enjoyed: nice clouds throughout, a couple of clearing storms, a colorful sunrise (not as common in Yosemite as you’d think), (only) one morning of bright sunlight that came just as we were in the perfect spot for it (Cook’s Meadow elm tree, if you must know), and even a little snow.
And what’s a “fall color and reflections” workshop without actual fall color and reflections? This year’s Merced River was its usual low and slow reflective self, and the fall color was just starting to peak. So yeah, a pretty good week.
The workshop’s final shoot was at one of my favorite Yosemite Valley Half Dome views, just upriver from Sentinel Bridge. I photograph here a lot. A. Lot. So much that I rarely get out my camera when I’m with a group. But I made an exception this time because I liked the clouds hovering around Half Dome, the light was just so darn nice, and I found a foreground I could work with.
Finding unique images at frequently photographed locations is usually some combination of special conditions and/or a new foreground. The conditions this evening, while not spectacular, were definitely good, and I was able to combine that with a static pool in the Merced that had accumulated a colorful assortment of leaves and pine needles. Dropping my tripod/camera to about 2 feet above the ground, I eliminated a large empty gap between the leaves and Half Dome’s reflection to make my foreground about nothing but the best stuff.
Because the group was my priority, after finding my composition, I just left the tripod/camera in place while I worked with them, returning every 5 or 10 minutes to fire off a handful of frames. The clouds around Half Dome were changing rapidly, so even though my composition didn’t change (at all), each session gave me something a little different.
The only other thing that changed with each click was my polarizer orientation. This was one of those catch-22 conundrums where dialing up the reflection with my polarizer also dialed up the reflective (color robbing) sheen on the floating leaves, and brightened the water on which the leaves floated (reducing the contrast between the leaves and their background). Dialing the reflection down to maximize the color of the leaves and blacken the water also nearly erased the Half Dome and clouds reflection.
So with each visit to my camera, I fired at least one frame with the reflection maximized, another with it minimized, and a couple somewhere in between. I found that I could in fact hit a midway point with the polarizer that spared most of the reflection beyond the leaves (Half Dome and the clouds), and reduced most of the reflection on and around the leaves.
I won’t pretend that I’ve created a brand new take on this frequently photographed view, but I am pretty pleased to have found a new variation on one of my favorite scenes.
See you next Monday…
Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections
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Posted on November 6, 2022
It amuses (and frustrates) me when photographers guard their information like state secrets. Photography isn’t a competition, and I’ve always felt that the more photographers can foster a sense of community, the more everyone benefits. (I will, however, protect locations at risk of being damaged by too much attention.) With that in mind, I’m sharing below some of the photography insights I’ve learned from a lifetime of Yosemite visits, and encourage you to share your own insights, wherever and whatever they may be, when the opportunity arises.
I get asked all the time, what’s the best season to be in Yosemite? For many reasons, including the fact that everyone defines “best” differently, that’s an impossible question to answer. So instead I try to identify the pros and cons of each season in Yosemite and let the questioners decide for themselves what sounds best to them.
- Winter: Because the crowds have vacated, Yosemite is at its most peaceful in winter. And it’s never more beautiful than when smothered with fresh snow, but in the relatively warm temperatures of Yosemite Valley, snowstorms only happen a few times each winter so I try to time my visits so I can be there during a storm.
- Spring: With its booming waterfalls, vivid greens, mirror-like vernal pools, and ubiquitous dogwood blooms (okay, so technically they’re bracts), spring is classic postcard Yosemite. Spring is also when the crowds return.
- Summer: For tourists only—but if you find yourself in Yosemite on a crowded (understatement) summer day, rising at the first sign of pre-sunrise light will give you at least a couple of hours of glorious peace.
- Autumn: By autumn the crowds have left, and while Yosemite’s waterfalls have fallen silent, the low and slow water turns the Merced River into a reflecting ribbon that splits Yosemite Valley. The resulting mirror reflections of granite monoliths mingling with the season’s red and gold are one of my favorite things to photograph in Yosemite.
Another question I get asked a lot is some version of, “Where in Yosemite should I photograph sunrise/sunset.” Again there’s no absolute answer, so I just try to provide enough information for the questioners to make their own decisions.
- Sunrise: Yosemite is not an inherently good sunrise location. In fact, on a typical California clear sky morning, it’s pretty lousy. That’s because most of Yosemite Valley’s best views face east, toward shaded subjects against the brightest part of the sky. Clouds flip the equation, subduing the bright sky and (fingers crossed) filling it with color. But even the cloudless days aren’t an excuse to stay in bed. On these days try to be in position for the first light on El Capitan, about 15/20 minutes after the “official” (flat horizon) sunrise. And in winter Yosemite Falls also gets beautiful morning light.
- Sunset: Even without clouds, Half Dome gets nice sunset light year-round. In the long-night months (from the autumnal equinox to the vernal equinox) so does El Capitan. In the long-day months (from the vernal equinox to the autumnal equinox), the late light goes to Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Fall.
Send in the clouds
Regardless of the season, clouds change everything, especially when storm clouds that swirl about Yosemite’s monoliths. Even high or thin clouds can be difference makers that paint the usually boring sky with color and (if you’re lucky) reflect in foreground water.
Unfortunately, storm clouds often drop all the way to the valley floor, obscuring all the features you traveled to photograph. Rather than giving up, my approach to stormy weather in Yosemite is to wait it out. A clearing storm is the Holy Grail of Yosemite photography, an experience that never gets old, no matter how many times it’s witnessed. And when I say wait it out, I don’t mean just returning to your room and looking outside every once in a while, I mean circling the valley in your car, or parking somewhere with an eye on the sky. Tunnel View is a great spot for this.
My other tip for photographing a clearing storm in Yosemite is not staying in one place too long. If you wait until it’s not beautiful anymore before moving on, you won’t leave until the show’s over everywhere—instead, remind yourself that it’s just as beautiful everywhere else, and move on when you find yourself repeating compositions.
Reflecting on reflections
Regardless of the location or conditions, a reflection can turn an ordinary pretty picture into something special. That’s especially true in Yosemite. Yosemite’s reflection spots change with the season: in spring, they’re best in the vernal pools that form in the meadows, and a small handful of Merced River spots, where it widens (like Swinging Bridge) or pools near the river’s edge; in autumn (and late summer), pretty much the entire Merced River is a mirror. Winter Merced River reflections can be nice too, depending on the weather and amount of runoff.
A lifetime of Yosemite visits helps me pursue its reflections. But even if you don’t know the spots for Yosemite reflections, they’re not hard to find if you keep your eyes open.
The most frequent reflection mistake I see is photographers walking past a reflection because it doesn’t contain an interesting subject. Maximizing reflection opportunities starts with understanding that, just like a billiard ball striking a cushion, a reflection always bounces off the reflective surface at exactly the same angle at which it arrived.
Armed with this knowledge, when I encounter any reflective surface, I scan the area for a reflection-worthy subject and position myself to intercept my target subject’s reflected rays, moving left/right, forward/backward, up/down until my reflection appears. Another important aspect of reflection management is juxtaposing the reflection with submerged or exposed objects in the water.
Putting it all together
These cloud and reflection factors aligned for me in last week’s Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections workshop. Based on the weather forecast when we wrapped up the previous night, I gathered the group early enough for our sunrise departure to swing into Tunnel View for quick survey of Yosemite Valley. If there had been no clouds, clearing storm clouds, or zero-visibility clouds, we’d have stayed there. But when I saw a nice mix of high to mid-clouds, I went with Plan-B and beelined to Valley View.
We arrived more than 30 minutes before sunrise and I was pleased to see only one other car in the parking lot. I’d already brought my group here once, so everyone already had an idea of what they wanted to do—a few went just upstream from the cars to the nice reflection of Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Fall; the rest made their way out to the new-ish (last couple of years) and quite conveniently placed logjam that provides a perspective of El Capitan that previously would have required walking on water to achieve.
I left my gear in the car, moving back and forth between the two cohorts and and monitoring the sky. I’ve photographed here so much, I had no plan to this morning, but when the clouds overhead started to pink up, I couldn’t resist. Rather than grabbing my entire camera bag, I just pulled out my tripod and Sony a7R IV with the Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens already attached and trotted down to the natural platform formed by the log jam.
I knew I didn’t have much time, so I quickly found a spot where, by dropping my tripod a little, I could frame El Capitan’s reflection with several of the many protruding rocks. Since Bridalveil Fall wasn’t flowing very strongly, and the light on El Capitan was better, I went with a vertical composition that featured El Capitan only.
The pink was so intense that for a minute or so, it slightly colored the rocks. Before the color faded, I managed to capture several frames with this composition, each with a slightly different polarizer orientation, but I ended up choosing the one that maximized the reflection.
Yosemite Autumn Reflections
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Posted on October 30, 2022
Consistently finding great photo opportunities isn’t just luck, but neither is it a divine gift. With that in mind, I sometimes refer to “The 3 P’s of nature photography,” describing the effort and sacrifice necessary to consistently create successful landscape images: Preparation, Persistence, and Pain.
- Preparation is your foundation, the research you do that puts you in the right place at the right time, the mastery of your equipment that allows you to wring the most from the moment, and the creative vision honed from prior experience.
- Persistence is patience with a dash of stubbornness. It’s what keeps you going back when the first, second, or hundredth attempt has been thwarted by unexpected light, weather, or a host of other frustrations. Persistence keeps you out there long after any sane person would have given up.
- Pain is the willingness to suffer for your craft. I’m not suggesting that you risk your life for the sake of a coveted capture, but you do need to be able to ignore the lure of sound sleep, a full stomach, dry clothes, and a warm fire, because the unfortunate truth is that the best photographs almost always seem to happen when most of the world would rather be inside.
Of course every once in a while you might come across an image that simply fell into your lap and all you had to do was whip out your smartphone and click. But those images are few and far between, and I daresay are rarely as rewarding as the images you worked for.
Picking a favorite image and trying to assign one or more of the 3 P’s to it is a fun little exercise I sometimes use to remind myself to keep doing the extra work. Take a few minutes to scan your portfolio; ask yourself how many didn’t require at least one of the 3 P’s. (I’ll wait.) …….. See what I mean?
Ready or not, here it comes
For this image, I will thank preparation. But, if you know how obsessively I plan my moonrises, not the kind of preparation you might think. Since I started photographing the moon long before The Photographer’s Ephemeris and other moon-plotting apps were available (long before smartphones, in fact), my moonrise/set workflow has always been to just plot everything manually using location-specific moon altitude and azimuth data, combined with topo map software (pretty much the same thing TPE does behind the curtain). But I didn’t do that for this moonrise because the moon wasn’t on my radar this evening.
Guiding my Eastern Sierra workshop group to Olmsted point for the workshop’s final sunset, I hadn’t plotted the moon because this workshop didn’t coincide with the full moon (I’d scheduled it for peak fall color, not the moon), and because the moonrise doesn’t align with any feature of particular interest at Olmsted Point.
But even when the moon isn’t part of my plan, it’s never far from my mind. (This is where the preparation part kicks in.) I always make it a point to know what the moon is doing, both its phase and general rise/set time and direction, whenever I’m out with my camera. Once I got my group situated on the granite at Olmsted Point, I mentally checked on the moon. Knowing that a 90% waxing gibbous moon would be rising in the southeast a couple of hours before sunset, I wondered how long it would take it to crest the ridge above us.
On my iPhone is an app called Theodolite that I can point at any feature to learn its altitude and azimuth in degrees of whatever I point it at. I wouldn’t trust this data enough to engineer a bridge, but since it works without connectivity, it’s perfect for exactly what I wanted to do—get a general idea of when and where the moon would appear. I pointed Theodolite at the ridge (using my phone’s camera, it computes and transposes the various angles on the display), and learned that the ridge rose 8 degrees above my location.
Next I switched to my Focalware app (which also doesn’t require connectivity) and learned that the moon should appear (rise to 8 degrees) a little less than 30 minutes before sunset. Focalware also gives me the moon’s azimuth at any given time, an angle I was able to find on the ridge using Theodolite (by pointing it at the ridge and shifting the view until the crosshairs aligned with the desired azimuth), giving me a general idea of the location on the ridge where the moon would rise.
Not only was I able to alert my group to this bonus moonrise, I was able to tell them when and where to look. The light on Half Dome was so good that some decided to pass on the moon, but those who wanted to photograph it had plenty of time to set up with their desired lens and composition.
For the moon’s appearance, especially when there isn’t an iconic landscape feature to pair it with, I like going long, the longer the better. Even though I had no expectation of using it, I’d still carried my Sony 100-400 GM lens on the short hike out to Olmsted—because, well, you never know. That, combined with my Sony 2X Teleconverter (which I also always carry), gave me 800mm.
There was nothing special about the ridge, so I tried to find a tree (or trees) to juxtapose with the rising moon. Though I knew about where the moon would appear, I wouldn’t know exactly where to point until I actually saw it. So I identified a few potential target trees, then pasted my eyes on the ridge.
By the time the moon rose, the warm light from the setting sun was just about to leave the granite. I raced to the spot that aligned with the first tree I’d identified and went to work. As soon as the moon separated from the ridge, I sprinted along the granite until I could frame it with a pair of trees, shifting slightly after every two or three clicks.
The preparation I credit for this image starts with my general sense of the moon’s phase at rise time. I was also there with all the tools I needed, from my long lens and teleconverter, to a couple of apps that allowed me to get the information I needed on the fly. And finally, because the moon ascends surprisingly fast, it helped a lot to have pre-identified my foreground targets.
Moon Over Yosemite
Posted on October 24, 2022
Imagine you have a guitar and want to make music your career. Since Eric Clapton is your favorite artist, and “Let It Rain” is your favorite song, you you work hard until you can play it perfectly. But wait—before you move on to “Layla,” let me suggest that your best path to musical fame and fortune is not to replicate the works others, no matter how great they are. (Also, there’s a reason Duane Allman isn’t answering your calls.)
Using Eric Clapton as a model for your music is fine—the more you listen to Clapton, the more your guitar playing will be influenced by his creativity and craftsmanship. But at some point you need to choose between carving your own musical path, or languishing as a cover artist.
Make the world your own
The same applies to photography. In my photo workshops I encounter many people who have travelled great distances to duplicate a photo they’ve seen online, in a book, or in a print somewhere. I certainly understand the desire to create your own version of something beautiful, and I can’t say that my portfolio doesn’t contain its share of photography clichés—but, and I can’t emphasize this too strongly, if you must photograph something exactly as it’s been photographed before, make that recreation is your starting point, not your ultimate goal.
Once you’ve captured your “icon” (that word is a cliché itself) shot, take a breath and spend a little more time with your scene. Identify what draws your eye and ways to emphasize it. Look for alternate foreground and background possibilities (move around), seek unique perspectives (move around some more), tweak your exposure variables to experiment with depth and motion. If your first inclination was to shoot horizontal, try vertical, and vice versa.
It also helps to remove your camera from the tripod and pan slowly, zooming in and out as you go until something stops you (don’t forget to return to the tripod before clicking). Even if nothing immediately jumps out, I promise that the simple act of slowing down and spending time with a scene will reveal overlooked secrets that might spur further creativity.
One of the easiest ways to stretch your style is taking lens choice off autopilot. The expansiveness of most landscape scenes almost begs for a wide angle lens that includes it all, but if your goal is to create something rather than covering what’s already been done, consider a telephoto lens for your landscapes.
I sometimes catch myself automatically reaching for a wide lens, only going to a telephoto when I see a specific composition that requires one. But I’ve learned that those times when I’m struggling to find a shot, the easiest way to reset my creative instincts in the field is often to simply view the scene through a telephoto lens, just to see what my wide-angle bias might be missing.
If telephoto vision doesn’t come naturally to you in the field, you can train your eye in the comfort of your own home 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. (I’m not suggesting that you shoot everything wide and crop later—this crop tool suggestion is simply a method to train your eye.) But whether you do it in the field, or later in Photoshop, once your eye gets used to seeing in telephoto, you’ll find virtually every scene you photograph has telephoto possibilities you never imagined were there.
Still not convinced? In addition to providing a fresh perspective, telephoto lenses offer undeniable, tangible advantages in landscape photography:
- Bigger subject: Bigger isn’t always better, but there’s often no more effective way to emphasize your subject than to magnify it in your frame.
- Isolate: By zooming closer, you can banish distractions and unwanted objects to the world outside the frame, distilling the scene to its most essential elements.
- Highlight the less obvious: Sometimes a scene’s compelling, but more subtle, qualities are overwhelmed by the cacophony of dramatic qualities that drew you in the first place. By all means, shoot the grand drama that drew you, but take the time to discover the smaller stuff that’s there.
- Selective focus: The longer your focal length, the shallower your depth of field. One of my favorite ways to emphasize a subject that might otherwise be overlooked is to render it as the only sharp object surrounded by a sea of soft color and shape.
About this image
I love aspen. Not only are they beautiful trees, they’re fascinating subjects. For example, did you know that a stand of aspen is actually a single organism connected by one common, extensive root system? In other words, each trunk that we identify as an individual tree is in fact part of (and genetically identical to) every tree surrounding it.
A single aspen stand (known, appropriately enough, as a “clone” of aspen), can be tens of thousands of years old. The oldest and largest aspen clone, in Utah’s Fishlake National Forest, is the oldest, largest living organism on Earth (much older and larger than any of the far more heralded bristlecone or sequoia trees).
On last year’s visit to Lundy Canyon, I went exploring the aspen clone on the trail to Lake Helen with my Sony 12-24 GM, seeking to capture the sturdy trunks emerging from a gold-carpeted forest floor (image on the right).
This year, looking for something different, I went at this same aspen clone with my Sony 100-400 GM lens (on my Sony α1), trying first to isolate a single leaf against the colorful background. After a few unsatisfying attempts, I turned my attention to the aspen trunks, looking for a way to emphasize their stark whiteness, papery texture, and protruding knots.
It took a while, but I finally found a tree that offered the combination of separation and background I was looking for. There was nothing especially distinctive about the tree I found, but it displayed a healthy white bark, a prominent knot to anchor my frame, and was separated enough from the surrounding trees that I could get it perfectly sharp, while significantly softening its neighbors.
I started with vertical compositions, but as soon as I switched to horizontal I knew that’s how I wanted to handle this scene. With that determined, I spent the rest of my time making micro-adjustments to my position and focal length, looking for the perspective and framing that gave me the absolute minimum merging of trunks. I also experimented with a variety of focal lengths and f-stops before deciding that I liked the absolute softest background best. I shot the image I share today at nearly 400mm and f/5.6 (wide open).
While I started this post writing about creating unique images, I know I’m not the first person to photograph aspen like this. (Nor do I mean to imply that I’m the Eric Clapton of landscape photography.) But I do feel it’s important for all photographers, myself included, to constantly seek fresh takes on old subjects by pursuing the qualities that move them, and experimenting with new ways to reveal them.
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Posted on October 16, 2022
Once upon a time, moonlight was the only kind of night photography I did. As lifelong astronomy enthusiast, I’ve always been mesmerized by all the stars that come out when the moon is down, but film and the earliest digital cameras were just not capable of adequately capturing the world after dark without help from multiple exposures or artificial light (dealbreakers for me).
While waiting for digital technology to catch up with my Milky Way aspirations, I watched other photographers achieve beautiful results using night photography techniques that didn’t appeal to me: Light painting (long exposures with foreground subjects illuminated by artificial light), and blue-hour blends (one image captured with the foreground illuminated by twilight “blue hour” sky, blended with a second image of the stars from later total darkness at the same location).
Longing for something different than moonlight, while staying true to my one-click natural light objective, I added star trails to my night sky toolbox. Start trails allowed me to keep my shutter open long enough to reveal the landscape beneath a moonless, star-fill sky—albeit with star streaks that bore no resemblance to the pinpoint stars I was so fond of gazing at. Another perk star trail photography was the opportunity to kick back beneath a star-filled ceiling while waiting for my exposure to complete.
When digital sensors finally improved enough to enable usable starlight (moonless) images, I was all-in. Armed with my newly acquired Sony a7S camera (and subsequent versions) and super-fast and wide prime lenses, I aggressively pursued images of the Milky Way’s brilliant core above my favorite landscapes.
So thrilling was this Milky Way revelation, I all but dropped moonlight photography. In fact, moonlight and Milky Way photography are mutually exclusive because when the moon is full, the Milky Way is lost in the moon’s glow. So by 2015, the only moonlight photography I was doing came during my annual spring moonbow workshops in Yosemite, where bright moonlight is required for the lunar rainbow’s appearance.
As much as possible I time my trips, both personal and workshops, for moonless nights to maximize the Milky Way photography opportunities. One exception is my annual autumn visit to the Eastern Sierra, which is always timed for early October to coincide with the best fall color while letting the moon phase fall where it may.
When the moon cooperates, the dark skies east of the Sierra are ideal for Milky Way photography
This year’s Eastern Sierra visit was joined by a waxing gibbous moon that was well on its way to full (the day after my scheduled return home). Yet despite the nearly full moon, I longed for a night shoot. So on my first night in Lee Vining I decided to revisit (non-moonbow) moonlight photography for the first time in seven years and drove out to Mono Lake’s South Tufa after dinner. (Shout-out to the Whoa Nellie Deli.)
With my very first click, memories of how enjoyable moonlight photography is came rushing back: Composition and (especially) focus are orders of magnitude easier than with Milky Way photography; there’s no worry about getting lost or tripping over something (or someone); and even with the sky washed out by moonlight, the camera captures many times more stars than my eyes see. None of these insights were actually new, but they still felt like revelations because I’d been doing nothing but dark sky photography for so long.
This might be a good time to mention that for anyone interested getting into night photography, I strongly encourage starting with moonlight. Unlike Milky Way photography, you don’t need fancy gear—just a decent tripod, any mirrorless or DSLR body, full frame or cropped, made in the last 20 years (pretty much since the first digital cameras) will work, and an f/4 lens is plenty fast enough. Read my Photo Tips article on moonlight photography for more detailed instruction on moonlight photography.
One thing that made this Mono Lake night especially nice was the disappearance of the light breeze that had chopped up the reflection at sunset a couple of hours earlier. The lake wasn’t quite mirror-like, but the surface had settled to gentle undulations that smoothed completely in my multi-second exposures, revealing a gauzy reflection that stood out beautifully in each image. And the 82% moon, while not quite full, was more than bright enough to illuminate the water and limestone tufa towers better than any light painting could have.
I started with images of just water and Mono Lake’s iconic “shipwreck” tufa feature beneath the stars, but soon went exploring for a more interesting foreground. When I found the scene in this image, I oriented my Sony 𝛂1 vertically to maximize the sky, and widened my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens to 16mm to include more foreground than I usually do in a night image.
In almost all of my night images I simply focus on the stars, but this foreground started about 5 feet away and had so much interesting (important) detail, I stopped down to f/8 and focused about 6 feet from my camera to ensure front-to-back sharpness. Using my 𝛂1’s Bright Monitoring feature (I highly recommend to Sony mirrorless shooters who do night photography that they assign it to a custom button), I was able to manually focus through my viewfinder.
To compensate for the light lost to the smaller aperture and less than completely full moon, I bumped my ISO to 3200 and exposed for 20 seconds—less than ideal, but the 𝛂1 handles ISO 3200 easily, and at 16mm there’s not much visible star movement in a 20 second exposure, so I wasn’t worried.
I was only out here for about an hour, but it was such a joyful experience, and I’m so pleased with my results, that I know there’s a lot more moonlight photography in my future.
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Posted on October 9, 2022
To prove that Hawaii Big Island photography isn’t all just magma, Milky Way, and macro, I’m sharing this image from last month’s workshop on my favorite Hawaiian island. With all due respect to Big Sur, the combination of shimmering tide pools and rugged black basalt hammered by violent surf makes Hawaii’s Puna Coast the most beautiful coastline I’ve ever seen. What especially thrills me here is the creative opportunities provided by the ocean’s motion on and around the rocks.
Of the many differences between our world and our camera’s world, few are more obvious than motion. Image stabilization or (better yet) a tripod will reduce or eliminate photographer-induced motion (camera shake), but photographers often make unnecessary compromises to stop motion in their scenes, sacrificing depth of field with a too large aperture, or introducing noise with a high ISO that shortens the shutter speed enough to freeze motion in the scene.
Understanding that it’s impossible in a static photo to duplicate the human experience of motion actually opens creative opportunities. Because a camera records every instant throughout the duration of an image’s capture, photographers who can control their exposure variables have the power to reveal motion in ways that are both visually appealing and completely different from the human experience. Whether it’s a lightning bolt frozen in place, stars streaked into parallel arcs by Earth’s rotation, a vortex of spinning autumn leaves, or violent surf blurred to silky white, your ability to convey the world’s motion with your images is an important skill that’s limited only by your imagination and ability to manage your exposures.
I’ve had a blast freezing lightning bolts with fast shutter speeds, not just for the undeniable thrill of the chase, but also for the opportunity to scrutinize the intricate detail of these explosive, ephemeral phenomena. But on the other end of the motion continuum are long exposures that reveal nature’s movement patterns—movement that’s either too slow for our eyes to register (such as stars or clouds), or too complex to mentally organize into something coherent (like surf).
Silky water images take a lot of flak for being overused and unnatural, but there really are only two ways to capture moving water in a still photo: frozen in place, or blurred. Each has its place, but because the world unfolds to humans like a seamless movie of continuous instants, while a camera accumulates light throughout its exposure to conflate those instants into a single frame, neither is “natural” from the human perspective.
Fortunately, your options for expressing water motion in a still frame aren’t truly binary (frozen or blurred)—they’re a continuum of choices ranging from discrete airborne droplets to blur completely devoid of detail. And there’s a big difference between slight blur that expresses a wave’s movement while retaining its overall size and shape, and extreme blur that purees every detail into a homogenized soup.
For this image from last month’s Hawaii Big Island photo workshop, I wanted to convey both the intensity and the extent of the pounding surf. Not only were the waves exploding on the young basalt, many were surging far onshore.
It was it still quite dark when I pulled my group up to this sunrise spot. Dark isn’t a problem, but the pounding rain was. So we waited in the cars until the rain slowed to something more manageable and the sky had brightened to a dull gray. I gave my group a brief orientation on the location and set them free. Since this was toward the end of the workshop, everyone scattered pretty quickly in search of their own inspiration, and I was left to my own devices.
Along with a couple of others in the group, I made my way down the shoreline a bit, carefully picking my way over the slick volcanic rocks. Stopping occasionally to survey the options, I ended up playing with several compositions before landing on this one. I especially liked the way the large waves climbed the rocks here, then followed a curved channel to a large pool at my feet. The biggest waves replenished the pool, leaving swirling patches of foam in their wake and creating motion that was ideal for a long exposure.
Using my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens on my Sony 𝛂1 camera, I set up my composition so the channel moved across the scene’s left foreground—at 16mm, I found I could fill the rest of my frame with the wave action lining the receding coastline. I minimized the homogenous gray sky to maximize the far more interesting rocks and wave action below. The final compositional consideration was finding the left/right position that avoided any white surf or spray from leaking out of the frame.
After a little trial and error, I found the composition that worked. But where surf is involved, framing is only half of the composition equation, because each wave completely alters the scene. With help from my Breakthrough 6-stop Dark Polarizer, I tried shutter speeds up to 15 seconds, timing the start of each exposure for different points in the wave. I ended up with 16 versions of this composition that ranged from a completely still foreground pool, to the pool overflowing with frothing white. I chose this image because the motion was in the middle of that range, with foam covering most of the pool, but not so much that it lost all definition.
Though I was set up on a rock ledge a couple of feet above the pool, the largest wave actually reached my elevated perch. After this year’s experience in Iceland, I was extremely careful not to take my eye off the ocean, so I saw this big wave coming all the way. I was actually in the middle of an exposure, but seeing that the wave would lose its power by the time it reached me (fingers crossed), and since I was wearing shorts and sandals, I just held my ground and let it sweep over the rocks and wash up around my ankles. Quite refreshing, actually.
Playing With Motion
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Posted on October 2, 2022
One of my favorite things about Hawaii’s Big Island is the diversity of the photo opportunities—not just its variety of beautiful subjects, but also the opportunities to apply many different types of nature photography. Between Kilauea, the Milky Way, black sand beaches, rugged coastline, numerous waterfalls, and an entire nursery-worth of exotic flowers, I have no problem employing every lens in my bag on subjects near and far.
For example, while I can’t be much farther from my subject than I was for the Milky Way image in my last post, I can’t be much closer to my subject than I was to this raindrop laden flower in Lava Tree State Park near the Puna Coast. Ironically, to photograph the distant Milky Way, I used an extreme wide lens (Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM) that shrinks everything even more, while this pink Indian rhododendron, though only a few feet away, I photographed using my Sony 100-400 GM lens at 400mm, to get even closer.
Lava Tree State Park is a lush, peaceful 1/2 mile loop liberally decorated with a variety of exotic subjects. Though not necessarily spectacular, the trail’s colorful flowers, dense foliage, and ghostlike lava-encrusted trees, make it a workshop favorite. Better still, my groups are often the only people there.
Lava Tree’s abundant greenery sprinkled with vivid blooms create intimate scenes that I especially love photographing in Hawaii’s (frequent) overcast and rain. This year’s visit came on a very wet morning that had already caused my workshop group to sit in the cars for 30 minutes at our sunrise location, waiting for a downpour to ease (it did).
Lava Tree was the morning’s second stop, and it was obvious the rain that had delayed our sunrise shoot had only recently ended here. Rather than guide the group to a specific spot, I gave an orientation summarizing what to expect and offering suggestions for how to approach it, then set them free to wander (the best way to photograph here). Giving everyone a head-start, I slowly made my way along the trail, checking on each person as I encountered them. At each stop I found every exposed surface festooned with sparkling jewels of rain, creating a seemingly infinite number of compositions.
The pink flower (that I now believe to be a malabar melastome, also known as Indian rhododendron—correct me if I’m wrong) in this image caught my attention for the the way it stood out from its verdant surroundings. When I paused to look closer, I found that positioning myself just right let me frame the flower with a V of delicate fern fronds.
Working with my Sony α1, I went strait to my 100-400 GM and added a 15mm extension tube. Being able to zoom tight and focus close allowed me to eliminate nearby distractions, either banishing them to the world outside my frame, or blurring them until they softened into the background.
For me the world looks a lot different in a telephoto close-up, particularly using when extension tubes shrink my focus distance even more. Unlike larger landscapes, I often don’t have a clear idea of what my composition will look like until I actually see these close scenes in my viewfinder. Every image becomes a process of capture, refine, capture, repeat until I’m satisfied (or give up)—an approach that’s especially important in close-focus photography, when even the slightest shift of composition, focal length, or focus can completely change an image.
It took a handful of frames to land on this composition, but when I did, I knew I’d found something worth working on. Needing to keep track of my group, I didn’t spend as much time at this spot as I ordinarily would have, but I moved on pretty happy with what I had.
One thing I did try before leaving was a horizontal composition, but I didn’t like the way making the composition tight enough to eliminate background distractions (bright spots and dead ferns), also cut off the top of the framing ferns’ graceful arc—a dealbreaker.
Fortunately, just one pink flower in the background saved the day for my vertical composition. Without it, the top half of my frame would have been too empty. By simply including that little splash of color, even though the flower is very soft, was enough balance the frame.
The lesson of this image (and the gallery below, I should add), is that beauty is everywhere if we slow down and take the time to see it. As much as I like this little scene (I do), on this short walk I no doubt walked right past thousands of others that were just as beautiful. Next time…
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Posted on September 25, 2022
So what’s happening here? (I thought you’d never ask.)
The orange glow at the bottom of this frame is light from 1,800° F lava bubbling in Halemaʻumaʻu Crater atop Hawaii’s Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano. It’s also a beautiful example of the final act of our planet’s auto-recycling process.
Propelled by the mantle’s inexorable convection engine, Earth’s tectonic plates endlessly jostle about, sometimes sliding past each other, often colliding. When the lighter of the colliding plates is pushed upward, mountains form. While this is happening, the denser plate is forced downward, beneath the uplifting plate, a process called subduction. As the downward force persists, the subjected crust continues downward into the mantle, where intense heat melts the rock until it’s absorbed into the mantle.
Around the globe subduction is constantly, albeit very slowly (on the human scale), adding new material to the mantle. To make room for this new material, magma somewhere else is forced out at weak points in Earth’s crust and volcanoes are born. Sometimes these volcanoes push up above the land in front of the subducting plate—that’s what’s happening in the Cascade Range of the the Pacific Northwest.
A hot spot can also form in the middle of a tectonic plate. For the last 40 million years the Pacific Plate has drifted slowly northwest above a hot spot, leaving a string of 80 or so volcanoes in its wake. Most of these have since eroded away, or never made it to the surface at all. The Hawaiian Islands as the youngest in this island chain, haven’t had time to erode into their eventual oblivion. The Big Island of Hawaii is the youngest of the islands, and the only one still volcanically active, though it’s believed that Maui isn’t completely finished.
Another island, Kamaehuakanaloa Seamount, is building up south of Hawaii and should make its appearance sometime in the next 100,000 years (could be much sooner). But until that happens, we get to enjoy Kilauea—and eventually (inevitably) Mauna Loa (last eruption, 1984), Hualalai (last eruption, 1801), and maybe even Kohala (last eruption, 120,000 years ago) and Mauna Kea (last eruption 4 million years ago) could come back to life.
The vertical white band above the crater represents world building on an entirely different scale. You no doubt recognize it as light cast by billions of stars at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. So dense and distant are the stars in the Milky Way’s core, their individual points are lost to the surrounding glow. The dark patches partially obscuring the Milky Way core’s glow are large swaths of interstellar gas and dust, the leftovers of stellar explosions—and the stuff of future stars. Completing the scene are pinpoint stars in our own neighborhood of the Milky Way, stars close enough that we see them as discrete points of light that humans imagine into mythical shapes: the constellations.
The Milky Way galaxy is home to every single star we see when we look up at night, and 300 billion (-ish) more we can’t see—that’s nearly 50 stars for every man, woman, and child on Earth in our galaxy alone. And recent estimates put the total number of galaxies in the Universe at 2 trillion—a number too large to comprehend.
Our Sun, the central cog in the Solar System, is an insignificant outpost in the Milky Way suburbs. It resides in a spiral arm, a little more than halfway between the urban congestion at the galaxy’s core and the empty wilderness of open space.
Everything we see is made possible by light—light created by the object itself (like the stars and lava), or created elsewhere and reflected (like the planets, or Halemaʻumaʻu’s walls). Light travels incredibly fast, fast enough that it can span even the two most distant points on Earth faster than humans can perceive, fast enough that we consider its arrival from any terrestrial origin instantaneous. But distances in space are so great that we don’t measure them in terrestrial units of distance like miles or kilometers. Instead, we measure interstellar distance by the time it takes a photon of light to travel between two objects: one light-year is the distance light travels in one year—nearly 5.9 trillion miles.
The ramifications of cosmic distances are mind-bending. While the caldera’s proximity makes its glow about as “right now” as anything in our Universe can be—for all intents and purposes, the caldera and its viewers are sharing the same instant in time. On the other hand, the light from the stars above the caldera is tens, hundreds, or thousands of years old—it’s new to me, but to the stars it’s old history.
Imagine Proxima d, a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, a mere four light-years distant and the star closest to our solar system. If we had a telescope with enough resolving power to see all the way down to Proxima d’s surface, we’d be watching what was happening there four years ago. Likewise, if someone on Proxima d today (2022) were peering at us, they’d be viewing a pre-Covid world and learn that Dunkin’ Donuts was dropping “Donuts” from their name (how did I miss that?). Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, which paused its activity in August 2018, would be black. (Anything you regret doing in the last 4 years? Take heart in the knowledge that everywhere in the Universe outside our Solar System, it hasn’t happened yet.)
So what’s the point of all this mind bending? Perspective, I guess. To me, the best landscape images don’t just tip the “that’s beautiful” scale, they also activate deeper insights into our relationship with the natural world. And few things do that better for me than combining, in one frame, light that’s 25,000 years old with light caused by the formation of Earth’s newest rock.
About this image
In 2018, after years of reliable activity, Halemaʻumaʻu Crater went out in a blaze of glory. This renewed vigor included fountaining lava, daily earthquakes, and the complete collapse of the crater as I’d known it.
Even more impactful, lava draining from the summit flowed into the Pacific to create nearly 900 acres of brand new land, on the way overrunning nearly 14 square miles of land and destroying more than 500 homes. The spectacle ended in August, one month before that year’s Big Island workshop.
Kilauea’s current eruption started in September 2021, just two weeks after that year’s workshop ended. Between sporadic eruptions and Covid, I haven’t been able to enjoy one of my favorite sights, the Milky Way above an active Kilauea, since 2017. Needless to say, in the weeks leading up to this year’s trip I kept my fingers crossed that Kilauea would keep going. It didn’t disappoint.
Given the caldera’s collapse and the new eruption, I knew things on Kilauea were completely different from any previous visit. So on my first evening back on the Big Island (I always fly in 3 days before the workshop to check all my locations), I made the 40 minute drive up from Hilo to get my eyes on it.
At the vista that once housed the now closed Jagger Volcano Museum, and that used to be the primary place to view the eruption, I started chatting with a photographer who was set up with a long telephoto, waiting for the full moon to rise. It turned out that she volunteers at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and does a lot of photography for the park. She very generously provided me with great information that saved me a lot of scouting time, including the best places to view the new eruption, and how to avoid the crowds I’d heard so much about.
Based on her input, after sunset I parked at the Kilauea Visitor Center and took a 1/2 mile walk along the Crater Rim Trail to the point where my new friend had promised the lava would be visible. I chose this spot over the closer view that most people seemed to prefer for a couple of reasons: fewer people (and easier parking), it would be an easier walk for my group (you can only go as far, or as fast, as the slowest person), and (especially) because I thought it would align better with the Milky Way.
To say that I was thrilled with the new view would be an understatement. Though clouds obscured the Milky Way that evening, I was pretty confident the alignment would be fine—not the perfect alignment I got from the spot I’d always used before, but definitely close enough that it would be no problem getting the eruption and Milky Way in the same frame.
The thing that excited me most was that I could actually see the lava. In my 12 years visiting Kilauea, I’ve only been able to see lava at the summit once (check the gallery below)—in the other visits we could clearly see the lava’s beautiful orange glow, but the lava lake was too low to be visible from the rim. But now not only was the lava visible, the perspective was close enough to actually see it bubbling and splattering on the lake’s surface. I hadn’t brought my camera, but I took a quick snap with my iPhone, then walked back to the car in the dark, pretty stoked by what I’d be able to share with my group.
I returned to the volcano the next night to check out more locations, especially interested in my old viewing spot. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could still see the glow at least as well as I could with the earlier eruption, and that it still aligned perfectly with the Milky Way.
I took my workshop group up to Kilauea on our second night—since it’s a real highlight, I like to do the volcano early in the workshop so we can come back if clouds shut us out. After a few other stops waiting for darkness, we started the short (and easy) hike out to the new lava viewing sight shortly after sunset.
Fog hovering over the caldera obscured the sky at the vista, but no one cared because for most (all?), it was the first time they’d seen lava. Without stars, this was a total telephoto shot—since everyone in the group was shooting mirrorless, we could all magnify our viewfinder and get an up-close, live look at the bubbling lava. It appeared to be bursting from a vent near the caldera wall, like a massive waterfall springing from a mountainside. In addition to the constant rolling and popping on the lake’s surface, every minute or so we could see a much bigger explosion that sent lava careening about the crater—pretty cool for all of us.
I spent most of my time working with people in the group and didn’t photograph too much. Eventually I did manage a few telephoto frames and was pretty happy with how things were going in general—not so much for my images, but mostly because everyone seemed as excited as I’d hoped they’d be.
About the time I was thinking of heading over to my other spot, the fog suddenly thinned and the Milky Way appeared. Everyone immediately switched to wide angle lenses and started working on completely different images. For the next 20 minutes or so we alternated between clicking and waiting as the fog came and went. Again I spent much of that time working with my group, but I managed to get in a few Milky Way frames, including this one.
I’ve got my Milky Way exposure down, and focus for this image was actually easier than most Milky Way scenes because of the brightness in the caldera. Since the Milky Way requires an exposure too long to freeze most motion, all detail in the lava was lost, but I still think it’s pretty cool to know what that glow really is. (Full disclosure: I used Photoshop’s Content Aware Fill tool to fill in a tiny blown-out white patch where the hottest lava was too bright for my night exposure.) The biggest problem I had to deal with is the guy standing next to me (not in my group), who insisted on using a red light (great for telescope or naked eye view, but absolutely the worst light source for night photography). So I had to time my clicks for the times he turned it off, then hope he kept if off until my exposure complete.
Eventually the clouds thickened and showed no sign of leaving. Since everyone was pretty happy with what they had, we packed up and headed back. But it turns out we weren’t done, because by the time we made it backto the cars, the stars were back out—so I took everyone over to my other view. There was no fog at this spot and the Milky Way remained out the entire time we were there. We had another great shoot, despite a crazy wind that hadn’t bothered us at all at our first spot. But that’s a story for another day…
Near and Far
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Posted on September 18, 2022
On Friday morning I said goodbye to Hawaii until next year. Leaving Hawaii, I always make sure to reserve a seat on the left side of the plane so I can plaster my eyes to the glass on takeoff for a farewell look as we parallel the shoreline. There’s Onomea Bay and the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Akaka Fall, Umauma Falls, Laupahoehoe Point….
It’s pretty cool, the special connection I feel to these places I only visit once a year. In Hilo, every time I pull my rental car out of the airport and point it toward the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel that will be my home for the next week, it feels like I’m coming home to a place I left just yesterday.
From the Milky Way, to magma, to macro, the Big Island may have the widest variety of quality photography of any place I visit. Throw in rugged black sand beaches, exploding surf, frequent rainbows, and temperatures warm enough to photograph sunrise in flip-flops and shorts, and it’s easy to fantasize about selling my house and moving here fulltime.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of this year’s images. In fact, I was so busy with the workshop that I didn’t even have time to load them onto my computer until my flight home. But I didn’t need to check my captures to know that this year’s trip was pretty special. On my group’s first shoot, we enjoyed a rainbow segment (not a full arc) beautifully positioned above our beach scene, then got another partial rainbow at the next morning’s sunrise shoot. By the time the workshop ended, we’d hit all the other Hawaii highlights I cross my fingers for: Kilauea’s eruption (for the first time since 2017), the Milky Way, rainbows, and perfect light for creative focus photography at each of our rainforest stops.
It’s hard to know where to begin, but since it’s the only image I’ve processed so far, I’ve chosen this little scene from the incomparable Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. This year I used every lens in my bag there, but with soft, overcast light (that turned to a warm downpour just as we were leaving), I spent most of my time photographing flowers and leaves with my Sony 100-400.
One of the points I try to impress on my workshop students is that, whether near or far, a landscape image isn’t just a click, it’s an iterative process that starts with an idea—a plan for the best way to organize and emphasize the scene’s significant elements, then improves with each subsequent click. The first click is like a writer’s rough draft, and subsequent clicks are revisions on the way to perfection. After each click, the photographer should stand back and evaluate the image on the LCD (I love the large, bright viewfinders and LCDs on today’s mirrorless cameras), refine (exposure, composition, depth of field, focus point), then click again. Repeat as necessary.
This approach is particularly valuable in macro and close-focus images of intimate scenes where even the slightest adjustment to composition, depth of field, and focus point can dramatically alter the result. It’s a prime reason I’m such a strong tripod advocate (evangelist)—when I’m done evaluating, the shot I just evaluated is sitting right there on my tripod, waiting for me to apply whatever adjustments I deem necessary.
Whether it’s fall color or colorful flowers, I try to find a subject to isolate from the rest of the scene. This afternoon at the botanical garden I was drawn to floating lilies and their reflection, and ended up working this one little scene for at least 30 minutes.
Starting with my Sony 100-400 GM lens on my Sony a7RIV, I added a 25mm extension tube so I could focus closer. A neutral polarizer reduced the floating leaves’ waxy sheen, which helped emphasize their deep green. Of course this also reduced the flowers’ reflection, but I found that they were bright enough to still stand out against the darkened water. Exposure was pretty straightforward in the shadowless light. Though the air was fairly still, I used ISO 400 to ensure a shutter speed fast enough to control for slight undulations on the pond’s surface.
At 250mm and f/5.6 (wide open for the 100-400 GM), I shot through foliage lining the shore between me and the flowers. The extremely narrow depth of field allowed me to use this nearby foliage to frame my subjects with soft shades of green. After two or three click/evaluate/refine cycles, I had the framework of my composition in place.
Following a few minutes of shooting that saw me try a variety of f-stops, horizontal/vertical framing variations, and a range of polarizer orientations (minimum to maximum reflection, as well as points in between), I shifted about four feet to my right, to a spot that I thought provided even better foliage framing.
I played with this new composition even longer, running all the variations I’d tried at the previous spot, and adding some focal length changes as well. One thing that became especially obvious the longer I worked the scene was how much the polarizer helped me achieve the effect I was going for. Eliminating the reflection darkened the water to the point that the lilies appear to be floating on air. When I dialed up the reflection with my polarizer to brighten the flower reflection, I lost the contrast between the water and reflection, which made the flowers less prominent—the exact opposite of my objective.
With all my composition variations, I ended up with enough choices that I’ll probably find one or two more versions to process, but this version of the simple composition that first drew me seemed like a good place to start. And while I know these intimate images don’t generate the attention that the more in-your-face images do, photographing and viewing them makes me really happy, and that’s all that matters.