Posted on October 20, 2019
A few days ago I posted an El Capitan in winter image on Instagram. Since it had been nearly three years since that trip, a lot of the specifics of that day had slipped my mind, but when I pulled up the Instagram image’s raw file in Lightroom to check the capture info, a few more of that day’s (so far unprocessed) images caught my eye. The next thing I knew, I was processing this one, and gradually, some of the day’s details returned to me.
Yosemite Valley had been brown and dry beneath an overcast sky when I checked into the lodge the evening prior, but I woke the next morning to a world of white. (This was no surprise—I’d made the trip because snow was forecast.) The snow was still falling after breakfast, and as usually happens in a Yosemite storm, the clouds completely obscured all of Yosemite’s icons. But knowing that the key to photographing snow in Yosemite is to be out in it when the storm breaks, I was quite content to drive into its midst and wait it out. And break it did, turning to flurries with a mix of clouds and blue sky by late morning. The conditions stayed like that the rest of the day and I was in photographer heaven.
I circled Yosemite Valley all day, sometimes targeting specific spots, other times just pulling over when something moved me. By the time the sun set I was pretty certain that I had lots of good stuff on my card, but most important, I was happy. (If just spending time with your subject, regardless of the photographic results, doesn’t make you happy, you probably should be photographing something else.)
On my way out of the park after sunset I made one last stop to photograph this Valley View scene. With its easy access and riverside views of El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall, Valley View is low-hanging photography fruit. And it’s especially nice with fresh snow. I’d already stopped here at least once before on that day, capturing last week’s Instagram image late that morning, but I couldn’t resit taking one more peek before heading down the canyon and home.
After the trip I processed a couple of images right away, but like so many of my photo trips, most of the images from this day have languished on a hard drive, victims of the priorities of running a business. This whole experience has been a good reminder of how many unprocessed images I have “in the bank,” waiting to be processed. It has inspired me to make a concentrated effort to go back through my archives to see what might be lurking there. I’ve already excavated a couple besides this one, with more on the way.
And speaking of low hanging fruit, I’ve started by going through my Yosemite snow images, because, well…, how can you go wrong with Yosemite and snow?
Winter is coming
Because winter is right around the corner, and we’ve already entered (just barely) the window when snow is possible in Yosemite, here’s my recipe for photographing Yosemite with snow.
The Early Bird Gets the Snow
If you delay your trip until you hear that it snowed in Yosemite, you’re too late. That’s because Yosemite is only 4,000 feet above sea level and actually warmer in winter than most of the United States. When it does snow there, as soon the snow stops, Yosemite’s relatively mild temperatures collude with sunshine, wind, and gravity to clear the trees in a matter of hours. Not only that, park visitors, driven to shelter by the storm, swarm outside to gape as soon as the snow stops, quickly marring the pristine beauty with footprints, not to mention the mud spread by their boots and tires. In other words, the key to photographing Yosemite with snow is being in the park during the storm (and working fast).
Monitor the weather
All winter I monitor the Yosemite weather forecast for hints of a cold storm. But even this isn’t as simple as you might expect—the single biggest mistake people make when planning a Yosemite snow trip is opening whatever weather site or app is convenient and simply typing in Yosemite. Yosemite Valley is only 4,000 feet above sea level, and virtually the entire rest of the park is higher—up to 13,000 feet elevation. And for some reason, even though Yosemite Valley is where you want to be for snow (and pretty much the only place in Yosemite you can be in winter), most weather resources don’t give the forecast for Yosemite Valley. Instead, they pick some other (random?) elevation that is almost always more likely to get snow than Yosemite Valley. You’d be amazed at how much more frequently snow falls just 500 feet above Yosemite Valley than falls in Yosemite Valley, which means a lot of people end up driving to Yosemite to photograph the snow their weather app promised, then end up marinating all day in a cold rain.
I know there are lots of weather forecast options out there, but most lack the resources of the National Weather Service (or they just use the NWS data). The NWS may not always nail the forecast, but they seem to be more consistent and reliable than any of the other options. But even selecting a generic NWS Yosemite forecast can lead you astray. I recently typed “Yosemite” into the NWS’s forecast input field and was given an assortment of similar options, each of which returned a different location in Yosemite (most not Yosemite Valley). So rather than leave it to chance, to ensure a forecast for the correct elevation, I’ve bookmarked the NWS point forecast for Yosemite Valley.
When it snows in Yosemite, they do sometimes require chains. Usually 4WD or AWD cars with snow tires are exempt, but not necessarily. Regardless of the conditions, park rules say if you plan to drive in the Yosemite in winter, you must carry chains—even if you have 4WD/AWD. My Subaru Outback is AWD, but when the weather is threatening, I have been asked if I have chains. So they’ve never asked me to prove it, or had to put chains on, but I always carry chains because if they do find that you don’t have chains when they’re required, you’ll need to just park until it chain requirement is lifted.
Driving to Yosemite
Sometimes the chain requirements aren’t for Yosemite Valley, but they do apply to two of the three routes into Yosemite Valley. When a storm is possible, the best way to avoid snow, ice, and chain requirements is to ignore the guidance of your GPS and Google Maps and enter via Mariposa on Highway 140, which comes up the Merced River Canyon and doesn’t ever get as high as 4,000 feet until Yosemite Valley. (Trust me on this.)
That said, any route into Yosemite is subject to closure or restrictions due to slides, flooding, or downed trees. Always check the Yosemite and Caltrans road conditions pages before you leave (I sometimes check them on the way too).
Weather in Yosemite is very changeable, and a storm forecast that looked promising one day can completely fizzle the next—or vice versa. Some trips I’ve had a week to prepare for, others I didn’t consider going until I woke up and checked the Yosemite forecast that morning. Because I want to be ready at the drop of a hat, all winter long in the back of my Outback are my chains and a duffle bag with all my cold weather gear: waterproof pants, parka, and shoes, wool hat and gloves, and an umbrella.
When possible, I like to be in Yosemite the day before the snow starts. That said, it isn’t usually difficult to get a room in Yosemite at the last minute when a winter storm threatens, and there have been times when I’ve actually waited until I arrived in the park before booking my room (not necessarily a strategy I’d recommend). Nevertheless, the later I wait to leave, the more likely I’ll be delayed or turned back by a road closure.
Once the snow arrives, rather than hole up in my room, I’m out shooting. Even though Yosemite’s storms often erase all signs of its most recognizable features, stormy weather is a great time to photograph swirling clouds and accumulating snow in glorious (and rare!) solitude. Nice soft light too.
As much as I love photographing Yosemite when snows, the poor visibility and near white-out snowfall can reach a point of diminishing photographic returns. But even then, I don’t go in (or home). Instead, I park at Tunnel View and wait for the weather to clear. Tunnel View is the perfect place to wait out a Yosemite storm because it’s on the west side of Yosemite Valley (where the clearing usually starts), provides an elevated vantage point with a view all the way up the valley to Half Dome, and is spectacular to photograph when the storm clears. It even has decent cell service. And if I’m looking for an excuse to turn on the engine and warm things up, I drive through the tunnel for the view westward, a preview of coming weather.
My final advice for anyone is, when the storm clears, move fast and don’t spend too much time at any one spot, no matter how beautiful it is. It’s a pretty safe bet that if the conditions are beautiful right here, you’re probably missing opportunities elsewhere. The peak conditions, with snow draping every exposed surface, don’t last long, so get your shots and move on—or risk missing out. (This is the voice of experience talking.)
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.
Posted on October 13, 2019
Like a teenager with his first car, I was itching to take my brand new Sony 200-600 for a spin. But since I don’t photograph wildlife, my ultra-telephoto lenses are used mostly for the moon, and occasionally close-focus stuff like fall color and wildflowers. And as much as I wanted to try it on the moon, I thought the fall color in my Eastern Sierra workshop would be my first opportunity.
Because I schedule the Eastern Sierra workshop to thread the needle between the best chance for peak fall color at North Lake, while avoiding the Lone Pine Film Festival and the Bishop Classic Car Rally, it’s one of the few workshops I do that isn’t timed for something happening in the sky (like the moon, the Milky Way, the northern lights, or lightning). So imagine my excitement when, before this year’s Eastern Sierra workshop, I checked the moon and realized a 6% crescent would be setting behind the Sierra Crest between Lone Pine Peak and Mt. Whitney on the workshop’s first night. Oh boy!
I got the group in position that evening and we all had a blast photographing the new moon slipping toward the serrated Sierra peaks. It started near Lone Pine Peak, and moved closer to Mt. Whitney as it dropped through the darkening sky. My first frames, while the moon was still pretty high, were fairly wide, but as it dropped closer to the mountains, my composition tightened.
When the crescent was just a few degrees above the crest, I grabbed my 200-600 and went to work. But, also like a teenager with his first car, I soon got the urge to soup it up and reached for my Sony 2X teleconverter. This gave me 1200mm at 61 megapixels. Wow.
I always joke that I don’t photograph anything that moves because I want to know my subject will still be there when I’m ready, so for someone as deliberate as I am, it really is startling to see how fast the moon moves through a 1200mm frame. Okay, maybe not as fast as a lion chasing dinner, or a leaping salmon becoming dinner, but instead of trying to track it, I still found it easier to anticipate the spot where the moon would disappear and let it slip into my frame.
It was 35 minutes after sunset when the moon finally reached the crest, making the trickiest part about this scene the exposure. This is the kind of exposure that begs to be handled in Manual mode because a meter would have no clue that I wanted to capture enough contrast between the sky and peaks to create a silhouette, as well as definition in the moonshadow, without completely blowing out the crescent. I also knew that the properly exposed image would look like crap on my LCD (it would require processing to moderate the extreme dynamic range between the dark mountains and bright moon).
To get the exposure right, I slowly pushed the scene brighter until the small blob of highlights in my histogram (the moon) hit the right side, then gave it one more stop of light (so the moon looked completely blown in the preview), knowing (fingers crossed) I could recover them later. I was slightly apprehensive because I still hadn’t processed any images from my new Sony a7RIV, but I was confident that it would have at least as much dynamic range as as my a7RIII, and just approached the exposure the same. All’s well that ends well—phew.
In a workshop my own photography isn’t a priority, so I didn’t get a lot of opportunity to play with my new toys on that trip. But my sense is that I’m going to love this new lens. Though its size means the 200-600 probably won’t replace my Sony 100-400 GM lens (which I love, BTW) as a full-time passenger in my camera bag, it will almost certainly be my default “big moon” lens. And my preliminary feelings are that the dynamic range of the a7RIV is indeed at least as good as the a7RIII (which is pretty incredible too).
Helping my workshop group with this crescent moon shoot got me thinking about metering, and how important it is to have it down cold. I’ve written a document on metering that I provide to all my groups to help them get up to speed before each workshop, but I’ve actually changed the way I meter in the few years since I wrote it. The old approach isn’t invalid (in fact, I think any serious photographer should be able to meter the old fashioned way), but I do think live-view histograms have made it a lot easier. So this week I rewrote my document and am sharing it below. (Please forgive any typos—it’s a work in progress.)
Cameras seem to be getting “smarter” every year. So smart, in fact, that for most scenes, duplicating a two-dimensional version of what your eyes see is a simple matter of pointing your camera and clicking the shutter button. That’s fine if all you care about is recording a memory, but not only is there more to photography than approximating “reality,” there are many creative reasons to override the camera’s choices.
For the creative control that elevates your images above the billions of clicks being cranked out every day, giving your camera the control of photography’s most important decisions ignores an undeniable truth…
Sorry—mine is too. And while I can easily cite many examples, right now it’s just important to understand that your camera thinks the entire world is a middle tone. Regardless of what its meter “sees,” without intervention your camera will do everything in its power to make your picture a middle tone. Sunlit snowman? Lump of coal at the bottom of your Christmas stocking? It doesn’t matter—if you let your camera decide the exposure, your subject will turn out gray.
Modern technology offers faux-intelligence to help overcome this limitation. Usually called something like “matrix” or “evaluative” metering, this solution compares your scene to a large but finite internal database of choices, returning a metering decision based on the closest match. This works pretty well for conventional “tourist” snaps, but often struggles in the warm or dramatic light artistic photographers prefer—and it knows nothing of creativity. If you want to capture more than documentary “I was here” pictures, you really do need to take full control of your camera’s metering and exposure. Fortunately, this isn’t nearly as difficult as most people fear (or as it once was).
The amount of light captured for any given scene varies with the camera’s shutter speed, f-stop, and ISO settings. Photographers measure captured light in “stops,” much as a cook uses a cup (of sugar or flour or chocolate chips or whatever) to measure ingredients in a recipe. Adding or subtracting “stops” of light by increasing or decreasing the shutter speed, f-stop, or ISO makes an image brighter or darker.
The simple beauty of metering is that a stop of light is a stop of light is a stop of light—it’s always the same amount of light, whether you change it with the:
- Aperture: The opening light passes through when the shutter opens, measured in f-stops (though aperture and f-stop are almost always used interchangeably, aperture is the actual opening, while f-stop is the ratio of the focal length to the aperture size we use to measure the amount of light that reaches the sensor). Since f-stop is a ratio, the higher the number, the smaller the aperture. Doubling the f-stop number decreases the light by two stops; halving the f-stop number increases the light by two stops. To memorize f-stops in one-stop increments, I keep track of two overlapping f-stop series, one starting at f/1, the other at f/1.4. Doubling then interleaving the results returns one-stop f-stop increments: f/1, f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16/, f/22, and so on.
- Shutter speed: The time the shutter is open, allowing light to pass through the aperture to reach the sensor. Doubling the shutter speed (open less time) reduces the light by one stop; halving the shutter speed adds one stop.
- ISO: The sensitivity of the sensor (or film) to light. Doubling the ISO adds one stop of light; halving the ISO subtracts one stop.
But while an aperture stop adds/subtracts the same amount of light as a shutter speed or ISO stop, the resulting picture can still vary significantly.
Your aperture choice determines the picture’s depth of field (DOF), while your shutter speed choice determines whether motion in the frame is stopped or blurred. And while an ISO stop also adds/subtracts the same amount of light as shutter speed and aperture without affecting motion and depth, image quality decreases as the ISO increases. So getting the light right is only part of the exposure objective—you also need to consider how you want to handle any motion in the scene, how much DOF to capture, and the ISO that generates the least noise.
Let’s say you’re photographing autumn leaves in a light breeze. You get the exposure right, but the leaves are slightly blurred at 1/15 second. To freeze that blur, you change your shutter speed to 1/30 second, which also reduces the light reaching the sensor by one stop. To replace that lost light (keep the exposure the same), you could open your aperture by a stop (change the f-stop), double the ISO, or make a combination of fractional f-stop and ISO adjustments that total one stop. Each choice will render a different result, but that’s a creative decision your camera isn’t capable of.
Today’s cameras have the ability to measure, or “meter” the light in a scene before the shutter clicks. In fact, most cameras have many different ways of evaluating a scene’s light. Your camera’s metering mode determines the amount of the frame the meter “sees.” The larger the area your meter measures, the greater the potential for a wide range of tones. Since most scenes have a range of tones from dark shadows to bright highlights, the meter will take an average of the tones it finds in its metering zone.
Metering mode options range from “spot” metering a very small part of the scene, to “matrix” (also known as “evaluative”), which looks at the entire scene and actually tries to guess at what it sees. Each camera manufacturer offers a variety of modes and there’s little consensus on name and function (different function for the same name, same function for different names) among manufacturers, so it’s best to read your camera’s manual to familiarize yourself with its metering modes.
Since I want as much control as possible, I prefer spot metering because it’s the most precise. The spot meter covers the smallest area of the frame possible, an imaginary circle in the center 3% (or so, depending on the camera) of the viewfinder. (Some cameras optionally allow you to spot meter on the current focus point instead of the center of the frame.) When spot metering, I can target the part of the frame I deem most important and base my exposure decision on the light reading there.
Spot metering isn’t available in all cameras (this was more true with older models). In some cameras, the most precise (smallest metering area) metering mode available is “partial,” which covers a little more of the scene, somewhere around 10%.
Regardless of the size of the metering zone, the camera will take an average of what it finds. In some modes that average is evenly extracted from the entire zone, in other modes, the average is biased toward the middle: “center-weighted.”
Don’t confuse the metering mode with the exposure mode. While the metering mode determines what the meter sees, the exposure mode determines the way the camera handles that information. Most mirrorless and DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras offer manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, plus a variety of program or automatic exposure modes. Serious landscape photographers usually forego the full automatic/program modes in favor of the manual (my preference) or aperture/shutter priority modes that offer more control.
If you select aperture or shutter priority mode, you specify the aperture (f-stop) or shutter speed, and the camera sets the shutter speed or f-stop that delivers a middle tone based on what the meter sees. But you’re not done. Unless you really do want the middle-tone result the camera desires (possible but far from certain), you then need to adjust the exposure compensation (usually identified by a +/- symbol) to specify the amount you want your subject to be above or below a middle tone.
For example, if you point your camera’s spot-meter at a bright, sunlit cloud, the camera will only give your picture enough light make the cloud a middle tone—but if you’ve only given your scene enough light to make a white cloud gray, it stands to reason that the rest of your picture will be too dark. To avoid this, you would adjust exposure compensation (the +/- symbol) to instruct your camera to make the cloud brighter than a middle tone by adding two stops of light (or however much light you want to give the cloud to make it whatever tone you think it should be).
Rather than aperture priority, I prefer manual mode because I want control: my camera should not be making decisions for me. And once it’s mastered (it really isn’t hard), I think manual metering is easier. But if you can successfully handle each exposure situation with aperture or shutter priority, you’ll be fine—just stay away from the full automatic modes.
I always try to use my camera’s best ISO, and the aperture that gives me the sharpest frame. Not just the desired DOF, but also the least diffraction (diffraction is a loss of detail caused when light passes through a small opening and spreads slightly—the smaller the opening, the greater the diffraction softening). But sometimes exposure-setting compromise is the only way to achieve the desired results.
For example, when DOF isn’t a consideration, I keep my f-stop in the f/8-f/11 range because it provides a reasonable amount of DOF, and that’s where lenses tend to be sharpest (least distortion), and diffraction is less of a concern (than it is at smaller apertures). But when I need a specific DOF, or want to capture a sunstar (small aperture), I have no problem compromising my f-stop setting to get there.
And I only compromise my ISO when there’s no other way to achieve a certain motion effect. So while ISO 100 is ideal (for my Sony a7RIV and the majority of other cameras), when the wind blows or I want to freeze moving water, I’ll increase my ISO to achieve the motion and DOF combination I need. And if I want a little more motion blur, I have no problem dropping down to ISO 50 to a allow a longer shutter speed.
The simplest way to minimize the need to compromise image quality is to use a tripod. A tripod removes camera shake from the exposure equation, meaning the only time shutter speed matters is when there’s motion in the scene. And when shutter speed doesn’t matter, you can always use the perfect ISO and aperture by going with whatever shutter speed you need, regardless of its length.
Some scenes are all about compromise, even with a tripod. For example, I’d love to photograph the Milky Way at ISO 100, f/8, 1/100 second, but that would give me a black frame. Since star motion increases with shutter speed, I push the ISO as far as I can without getting unfixable noise, open the aperture as wide as I can without obvious distortion—and I still have to live with a shutter speed that gives me a little star motion. All of these exposure choices are compromises that render less than perfect results, but without them, I’d have no Milky Way image at all.
The old fashioned way to meter
Armed with all this exposure understanding, it’s time to think about the best way to read and capture the light in a scene. For most of my photography life, in manual mode I’d set my camera to its native ISO (or to the ISO/ASA of the film I had loaded), determine my aperture (based on the DOF I want and/or the sharpest f-stop for my lens), point my camera’s spot-meter zone at the area on brightest part of the scene, and dial my shutter speed until it indicated the spot-meter zone is the tone I want. (I chose the brightest part of the scene because I know if I don’t blow it out, nothing in my frame will be lost.)
During my film days, and in my early digital life, that approach served me well. In fact, I think every serious photographer should understand metering well enough to do it this way. But….
In the film days, we didn’t know if the exposure was right until the pictures were processed. To insure against missing the exposure, we’d bracket exposures by (usually) one stop on either side of what we believed to be the correct exposure. Today, thanks to the histogram, bracketing is no longer necessary.
The histogram is a graph of the tones in an image, from absolute black to absolute white. Instead of clicking and hoping as we did in the film days, the addition of a histogram on every digital camera (that’s not a smartphone) provides photographers instant feedback on each image’s exposure. Better still, live-view histograms in mirrorless viewfinders, or on DLSR and mirrorless LCD screens, provide that essential exposure feedback before we click the shutter.
While any graph has the potential to evoke flashbacks of high school science trauma, a histogram is really quite simple—simple enough to be read and interpreted in the blink of an eye. And not only is your histogram easy to read, it really is your most reliable source of exposure feedback.
Simple Histogram: The shadows are on the left and the highlights are on the right; the far left (0) is absolute black, and the far right (255) absolute white.
When an image is captured on a digital sensor, your camera’s “brain” samples each photosite (the sensor’s individual pixels comprising the megapixel number used to measure sensor resolution), determining a brightness value that ranges from 0 (black) to 255 (white). Every brightness value from 1 to 254 is a shade of gray—the higher a photosite’s number, the brighter its tone.
Armed with the brightness values for each photosite in the image, the camera starts building the image’s histogram. The horizontal axis of the histogram has 256 discrete columns (0-255), one for each possible brightness value, with the 0/black column on the far left, and the 255/white column on the far right (they don’t display as individual columns because they’re crammed so close together).
Despite millions of photosites to sample, your camera builds a new histogram for each image virtually instantaneously, adding each photosite’s brightness value to its corresponding column on the histogram, like stacking poker chips—the more photosites of a particular brightness value, the higher its corresponding column will spike.
The black-and-white histogram most of us are familiar with is the luminosity histogram. But each photosite on a conventional sensor actually measures the tone of one of three colors: red, green, and blue (RGB). The RGB histogram uses the same pixel sampling process to separate the luminosity histogram into three separate, more granular, graphs, one for each color.
The luminosity histogram shows the detail you captured, but it doesn’t tell you whether you lost color. In fact, the luminosity histogram could look fine even when two of the three RGB channels are clipped (cut off, indicating color is lost). So in high dynamic range scene (extreme highlights and shadows), or scenes with an extreme amount of one color (such a brilliant sunset or a backlit poppy), checking the RGB histogram to ensure that none of the image’s color channels is clipped is especially important. The solution for a clipped RGB channel (or two) is to reduce the exposure.
There’s no such thing as a “perfect” histogram shape. Rather, the histogram’s shape is determined by the distribution of light in the scene, while its left/right distribution (whether the graph is skewed to the left or right) is a function of the amount of exposure you’ve chosen to give your image. The histogram graph’s height is irrelevant—information that appears cut off at the top of the histogram just means the graph isn’t tall enough to display all the photosites possessing that tone (or range of tones).
When checking an image’s histogram for exposure, your primary concern should be to ensure that the none of the tone data is cut off on the left (lost shadows) or right (lost highlights). If your histogram appears cut-off on the left side, shadow detail is so dark that it registers as black. Conversely, if your histogram appears cut off on the right side, highlight detail is so bright that it registers as white.
Trusting your histogram
Basing the image’s exposure on the way the picture looks on the LCD is the single biggest exposure mistake I see photographers make. The post-capture review image that displays on your camera’s LCD is great for checking composition, but the range of tones you can see in your review image varies with many factors, such as the review screen’s brightness setting and the amount of ambient light striking the LCD. Even more important, because there’s more information captured than the LCD preview can show, even in the best conditions, you’ll never know how much recoverable data exists in the extreme shadows and highlights by relying on the LCD preview.
It’s human nature to try to expose a scene so the picture on the LCD looks good, but an extreme dynamic range image that looks good on the LCD will likely have unusable highlights or shadows. As counterintuitive as it feels, exposing a high dynamic range scene enough to reveal detail in the darkest shadows brightens the entire scene (not just the shadows), likely pushing the image’s highlights to unrecoverable levels. And making an image dark enough on the LCD to salvage bright highlights darkens the entire scene, all but ensuring that the darkest shadows will be too black.
In fact, a properly exposed, a scene with both bright highlights and dark shadows, such as a sunrise or sunset, will look awful on the LCD (dark shadows and bright highlights) because there’s information there you can’t see (yet). The histogram provides the only reliable representation of the tones you captured (or, in your live-view LCD display or mirrorless electronic viewfinder, of the tones you’re about to capture).
Starting with the live-view screen, and now in mirrorless viewfinders, we can view our histogram before clicking the shutter. So instead of guessing the exposure settings that return the tones we want, we have an actual pre-capture picture of the tones to monitor and adjust.
Using the pre-capture histogram—almost always in my Sony mirrorless viewfinder, but the histogram on a mirrorless or DSLR LCD screen will work too—I start the exposure process as I always have. In manual exposure mode, I default to my camera’s best ISO (100 for most cameras, but definitely not all, so check your camera’s native ISO), and the best f-stop for my composition. I don’t touch these settings unless motion in my scene, such as wind or star movement, forces an ISO and/or f-stop compromise. With ISO and f-stop set, I slowly adjust my shutter speed with my eye on the histogram until it looks right. Click.
In a low or moderate contrast scene, I’ll have a little room on both sides of the histogram (the graph doesn’t bump up against either side)—a very easy scene to expose. But in a high dynamic range scene, the difference between the darkest shadows and brightest highlights might stretch beyond one or both sides of the histogram. When a high dynamic range scene forces me to choose between saving the highlights or the shadows, I almost always bias my exposure choice toward sparing the highlights, carefully dialing the shutter speed until the histogram bumps against the right side.
When forced to decide between the highlights or shadows, I almost always try to spare the highlights, for a couple of reasons: First, shadows are usually easy to recover than highlights; second, highlights are almost always more important than shadows. In fact, because the human eye is reflexively drawn to the brightest areas of the frame, I rarely have anything important in the shadows of a high dynamic range scene.
The post-capture histogram is usually more reliable than the pre-capture histogram. Sometimes this doesn’t matter, but in a high dynamic range scene, or any time I push my histogram close to the right side, I verify my exposure by checking the post-capture histogram. Another situation that can sometimes fool the pre-capture histogram is blurred (long exposure) whitewater.
Most mirrorless cameras, and many newer DSLRs, offer “zebra” highlight warnings in their pre-capture view. The first time I meter a scene, my camera’s current exposure settings (based on my previous scene) might be far from what the new scene requires. When that’s the case, I push my shutter speed fast until the zebras appear (if my prior exposure was too dark) or disappear (if my prior exposure was too bright), then refine the exposure more slowly while watching the histogram. While these alerts aren’t nearly as reliable as the histogram and should never be relied on for final exposure decisions, I use their appearance as a signal that it’s time to monitor my histogram.
Photographers who shoot raw make exposure decisions with the understanding that the capture exposure is simply the start, and the final exposure is determined by the processing. But the more photons you capture, the greater your latitude for adjustment later.
Trusting the histogram is a great start, but every camera model interprets and displays its exposure information differently. Added to that, the histogram is based on the jpeg the camera displays, so raw shooters always have more image information than their histogram shows—it’s important to know how much more.
With my Sony a7R bodies, I know I’m pretty safe pushing my histogram at least a full stop beyond the left or right (shadows and highlights) histogram boundary. This knowledge enables me to get the most out of even the most challenging high dynamic range scenes.
Practice makes perfect
Like most things in photography, the more you do it, the easier it becomes. For many people reading this, my approach is nothing revolutionary. But if it’s all new to you, or if you feel a little rusty, I suggest that you go out and try it in a low stress situation. Keep working on it whenever you find yourself in a situation where getting the shot doesn’t feel life or death.
When you do get into one of those “Oh my God, look at that!” moments, go back to whatever feels most comfortable to you. I think you’ll find that it won’t take too much practice before the right way is also the most comfortable way.
Big (and Big-ish) Moons
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Posted on October 7, 2019
Nature photographers have a tenuous relationship with clocks and calendars. They’re useful when we need to interact with the rest of the world on its terms, but pursuing our craft requires us to defer to the fundamental laws of nature: the Earth’s rotation on its axis, the Earth’s revolution about the sun, and the moon’s motion relative to the Earth and sun.
While my years are ruled by the changing angle of the sun’s rays, and my days are tied to the sun’s and moon’s arrival and departure, I can’t help fantasize about a world where I could schedule my Grand Canyon monsoon workshop for the lightning bolt and rainbow combination that graces the canyon every August 5 at 2:40 p.m., or the ability to mark my calendar for the blizzard that blankets Yosemite in white every February 7. But nature, despite human attempts to manipulate, subvert, and (when convenient) ignore it, is its own boss. The best I can do is schedule my monsoon workshops to ensure the best odds for lightning and rainbows, or monitor the weather forecast and rush to Yosemite when a snowstorm is promised (then wait with my fingers crossed).
The insignificance of clocks and calendars is never more clear than the first morning following a time change. On the second Sunday of March (or whatever the powers-that-be have changed it to this year), when “normal” people moan about rising an hour earlier, and the first Sunday of November, as others luxuriate in their extra hour of sleep, it’s business as usual for me. Each spring, thumbing its nose at Daylight Saving Time, the sun rises a mere minute (or so) earlier than it did the day before; so do I. And each fall, on the first sunrise of Standard Time, I get to sleep an an entire minute longer. Yippee.
Honestly, I marvel at nature’s blend of precision and (apparent) randomness. I love being able to point to the horizon and say, the moon will appear right there at exactly 5:44. But I also love going out with my camera and an expectation of what might happen, then being completely surprised by what actually does happen.
The aurora in today’s image was certainly not on anyone’s calendar when Don Smith and I planned last January’s Iceland trip. We’d done our best to maximize our odds by scheduling the trip for the heart of aurora season, then performed our due diligence by monitoring the forecast and waiting in the cold and dark each night for something to happen. But nature, while maybe absolutely precise on a cosmic scale, is still largely a mystery to humans. So while it’s possible that the northern lights we witnessed that night were preordained from the Big Bang’s first peep (Heisenberg’s protests notwithstanding), all that matters to me is that I was there to witness them.
Learn about the aurora, and read the story of this night: Chasing the Northern Lights
One Unforgettable Night
Posted on September 29, 2019
After finally witnessing a total solar eclipse and declaring it the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, I started hearing people say things like, “Wait until you see the northern lights.” So when fellow pro photographer Don Smith and I planned an Iceland photo trip to prepare for our upcoming photo workshop, we chose January because it’s right the heart of northern lights season. Could the northern lights’ beauty really rival a total solar eclipse? (Spoiler alert: Yes.)
An Aurora Primer
Our planet is continuously bombarded by solar energy. When this perpetual solar wind encounters Earth’s atmosphere, a narrow range of wavelengths (infrared and visible) passes through to warm us and light our way. But other energy wavelengths in the solar wind interact differently with the molecules they encounter, creating an charge imbalance by stripping electrons.
Instead of penetrating our atmosphere to create havoc on Earth’s surface, most of these charged particles (ions) are intercepted by the magnetosphere, our protective magnetic shield. The magnetosphere is teardrop shaped, with the battered side that faces the sun compressed, and the shielded side behind Earth stretching much farther into space.
As Earth rotates, at any given moment the side facing the sun (the daylight side) looks out through the thinner, compressed side of our magnetosphere, while the night side of Earth faces the extended region of the magnetosphere. Just as the upwind face of a wall or building breaks a wind, the sunward side of the magnetosphere sheds the charged particles and channels them to upper regions of Earth’s leeward (night) side. It’s these ionized molecules dancing high in the night sky that cause an aurora.
The result of these atmospheric machinations is an atmospheric oval of geomagnetic activity corresponding to the intensity of the solar wind—the greater the activity, the greater the oval’s area and the intensity of its aurora activity. The aurora’s color depends on the molecules involved. The most plentiful and frequently activated molecules vibrate in the green wavelengths, but reds and blues are possible as well, depending on the intensity and altitude of the activity.
As with terrestrial weather, there’s no such thing as an aurora “sure thing”—the best we can do is put ourselves in position to be as close to the auroral oval, on nights with the greatest chance for auroral activity. Planning a winter trip to the high latitudes (the higher the better), like Iceland, is a good start.
Another key to aurora chasing is understanding and monitoring the Kp- (or K-) index. The Kp-index is a 0-9 scale of atmospheric electromagnetic activity, with 0 being little or no activity (get some sleep), and 9 being the most extreme activity (don’t forget the sunglasses). Many governments and scientific organizations issue regular Kp forecasts that seem about as reliable as a weather forecast—pretty good, but far from perfect. There are many websites and smartphone apps that will provide you with up-to-date Kp forecasts for your current location—some will even issue alerts.
Let the chase begin
Armed with more knowledge than experience, in the last week of January we set out for Iceland’s frozen hinterlands with visions of auroras dancing in our heads. Fortunate for us, our guide was an Iceland native and an excellent photographer with years of northern lights experience.
By day we photographed all the winter-accessible locations on Iceland’s Snæfellsnes Peninsula and South Coast, benefiting greatly from winter’s 2-hour sunrises and sunsets and a sun that never rose higher than 8 degrees above the horizon. And by night we bundled up and ventured into the frigid dark seeking an electric light show.
For our nightly aurora hunt we’d drive to a pretty scene that had both dark skies (not hard to find in Iceland) and a clear view of the northern sky. There we’d sit for an hour or two, fogging the windows in the guide’s spacious Suburban, regularly stepping into the cold darkness to scan the sky.
We quickly learned the uncertain, frustrating nature of aurora hunting. Nights with potential were stifled by clouds; nights with clear skies were Kp washouts. So with just two nights in Iceland remaining, I was getting a little anxious.
The final two nights would be spent near Glacier Lagoon, a magnificent ocean inlet dotted with floating icebergs and a patchwork of thin ice and reflective water that created an ideal foreground for the northern lights.
The forecasts for Wednesday, our penultimate night, were clear skies, and a 1 or 2 Kp index. Not great, but the best weather/Kp combination of the trip. And our guide assured us that even Kp 1 can deliver an aurora, and Kp 2 can be a very nice display. Pulling into the Glacier Lagoon parking lot beneath a beautiful star-studded sky, we saw no aurora. So we waited.
Soon what I swore was fog appeared above the lagoon, but the guide insisted this was the beginnings of northern lights. Dubious, we followed him down to the lagoon and I was thrilled (understatement) when a long exposure revealed not fog, but my first view of the northern lights! We spent a couple of hours photographing a low-hanging, fuzzy green haze, occasionally infused with hints of red. Except for just a few minutes at its peak, the aurora we photographed that night had no real definition, but I really didn’t care because I could check northern lights off my bucket list. Little did I know that the show that night was just a warm-up for the next night’s experience.
The Kp forecast for Thursday night was 4 or 5, which our guide told us was perfect because anything more than Kp 5 can be too bright. The weather was a different story and all we could do was watch the sky all day and hope. Despite a nearly 100 percent cloud cover at sunset, we optimistically headed back to the lagoon.
Waiting in the lagoon parking lot, the clouds parted to reveal a faint aurora ebb and flow, but stayed in the car because, “This is no better than last night.” (One success and we’re already aurora snobs.) What looked promising out my north-facing side window one minute, all but disappeared the next. Then we noticed new activity in the western sky that went from 0-to-60 so fast that we bolted down to the lagoon like Keystone Cops. By the time I was set up the sky had transformed into a green and red psychedelic extravaganza.
The next two hours were a blur as I witnessed what was quite possibly the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen in my life. Starting across the lagoon, in the western sky, the show gradually moved south (defying all my expectations), forcing me to constantly shift further up the lagoon to keep the ice and water in my foreground.
With my head on a swivel, I saw glowing tendrils stretch skyward, some touching both the east and west horizons, others pulsing, spiraling, and doubling back until felt like I was inside a giant lava lamp. At one point I tore my eyes from the show above the lagoon and saw the entire eastern sky ablaze with tangled green ribbons so intense that I turned my back on the lagoon and frantically scaled the snowy hill behind me for a better view in that direction. Over the course of maybe 20 minutes, that display rocketed heavenward, filled the entire eastern sky from horizon to zenith, shifted north, and finally back to the west and over the lagoon, forcing me race (and tumble) back down the hill.
The display was still going when we left, but at some point it just felt greedy to keep shooting (and we couldn’t wait to return to the hotel to count our riches).
Getting a shot like this requires a significant amount of good fortune for sure, but all the good fortune in the world will do you no good if you don’t:
- Bundle up: Winter nights in the high latitudes might just be the coldest temperatures you’ve ever experienced—dress accordingly because few things will shorten or distract a great shoot faster than cold. In addition to a robust, hooded down jacket, I was comfortably toasty in a wool base layer, fleece, wool hat, balaclava, thin liner and heavy gloves, wool socks, and insulated boots
- Learn how to expose, compose, and focus in extremely low light.
- Spend some time before dark to find a foreground to go with your aurora, and look for spots with views in multiple directions. The northern lights are so spectacular, it’s easy to just show up and forget to compose the scene. And while the northern lights tend to concentrate in the northern sky, an intense display can appear in any direction.
- Monitor your exposure constantly: Unlike Milky Way and other night photography, aurora exposures can change by multiple stops in minutes and sometimes seconds. An exposure that worked to capture the aurora’s color and bring out foreground detail one minute, may completely blow out the aurora the next.
- Bring extra batteries (more than you think you’ll need) and keep them warm. (In extreme cold, li-ion batteries can go from 50% charged to exhausted in minutes.) It’s best to store batteries next to your body, and/or and or close to a heat source, like a hand-warmer pouch. And when a battery runs down, it may be reusable once it’s warmed.
- Don’t forget to set the camera aside and take a few minutes to truly appreciate what you’re witnessing.
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.
Posted on September 22, 2019
Every August for the last seven years, good friend and fellow pro photographer Don Smith and I have done a Grand Canyon Monsoon photo workshop where we attempt to, among many other things, photograph lightning. I say “many other things” because Grand Canyon doesn’t need lightning to be spectacular. And even without lightning, the monsoon storms that build above the canyon most afternoons add beautiful clouds, rainbows, and sunsets to the magnificent vistas. (We also try to include a Milky Way shoot.) But as nice as all that other stuff is, most people come for the lightning. Don and I do our best to establish realistic expectations, because as reliable as the summer monsoon is in the American Southwest, nothing weather related is a sure thing.
This year I got a reminder of that fact by watching the weather forecasts leading up to our workshops. Each year in the weeks before first workshop’s start date, I regularly (obsessively) monitor the Grand Canyon weather forecast. This is a futile exercise that does nothing but add stress because no matter what the forecast is, I get anxious. No lightning? Oh no! This year’s monsoon is a dud (a “nonsoon”). Lots of lightning? Oh no! All the good stuff will be over before we get there. Sigh.
Coming into this year’s workshops, Don and I had done 12 (two per year for six years). For the first few years, I’d estimate that in about half, everyone in the group captured multiple lightning strikes (in some groups the number of successes approached or exceeded 100). In many of the less successful workshop, a few people got lighting and a few didn’t. And a few were a complete shutout. But the last two years had been great, with everyone in both groups getting multiple strikes.
Part of this recent success I attribute to just plain good luck, and part I attribute to experience—Don and I have gotten better at preparing the groups, teaching lightning photography, troubleshooting Lightning Trigger and camera problems, reading and responding to the conditions, and simply knowing where to be and when to be there.
This year’s first workshop would start on July 31, but as July wound down, each day’s forecast called for blue sky. Blank. Blue. Sky. Maybe our run of good luck was about to end. Fire up the anxiety engines. Compounding my stress was the realization that this would be our 13th monsoon workshop. And we had 13 participants—I’m not a particularly superstitious person, but still…. (We normally cap our groups at 12, but a small administrative hiccup resulted in an extra enrollee.)
But, to make a long story just a little shorter, we needn’t have worried. On the day our first workshop started, Mother Nature flipped the lightning switch and by the end of the third day (of five), everyone in Group 1 had their lightning. Phew. As it turned out, that group ended up with multiple lightning opportunities. Halfway there….
The second group had to wait until the fourth day, and only got one good shot at it, but theirs was one of the most spectacular lightning storms I’ve ever witnessed (Lightning Explosion, Oza Butte)—both for its intensity and its proximity.
Don and I usually use the day between workshops to “recharge” (pun unavoidable), but at dinner that evening we’d been monitoring our (fantastic) lightning app, My Lightning Tracker Pro, we saw that lightning was firing nearby and just couldn’t resist going out on our own.
Picking the lowest hanging fruit, we ended up at easily accessible Mather Point. The show was well underway when we arrived, but didn’t need to wait long before our Lightning Triggers started firing. I captured a dozen or so frames with lightning that evening, some with multiple bolts, but the unique, circuitous path followed by one I share above was my favorite.
I recently rewrote the lightning explanation portion of my Lightning Photo Tips article. As you’ll read below, lightning always follows the easiest path to resolve its polarity discrepancy, so I wonder what atmospheric machinations caused this serpentine bolt.
A lightning bolt is the atmospheric manifestation of the truism that opposites attract. In nature, we get a spark when two oppositely charged objects come in close proximity. For example, when you get shocked touching a doorknob, on a very small scale, you’ve been struck by lightning.
The primary process at work in an electrical storm is convection, the circular, up/down flow that happens when heat is applied to a fluid. As air warms, it becomes less dense and rises. The rising air cools with altitude and becomes more dense, causing it to sink. But the sinking air warms as it loses altitude, eventually rising again, and the cycle continues…. (Convection is also the process behind the bubbling of boiling water.)
Convection’s up/down flow creates turbulence knocks together airborne molecules, striping their (negatively charged) electrons. Lighter, positively charged molecules are carried upward in the convection’s updrafts, while the heavier negatively charged molecules remain near the bottom of the cloud. Soon the cloud is electrically polarized, more positively charged at the top than it is at the base.
Extreme polarity can also happen when a negatively charged cloud base hovers above the positively charged ground. Either way, nature resist this charge disparity and tries to resolve it as fast as possible: a lightning bolt.
Nature always finds the easiest path. If the easiest path to electrical equilibrium is between the cloud top and bottom, we get intracloud lightning; if it’s between two different clouds, we get intercloud lightning. A cloud-to-ground strike occurs when the easiest path to equilibrium is between the cloud and ground.
With lightning comes thunder, the sound of air expanding explosively when heated by a 50,000 degree jolt of electricity. The visual component of the lightning bolt that caused the thunder travels at the speed of light, over 186,000 miles per second (from the human perspective, that’s virtually instantaneous, regardless of your distance on Earth). But lightning’s aural component, thunder, only travels at the speed of sound, a little more than 750 miles per hour—a million times slower than light.
Knowing that the thunder occurred at the same time as the lightning flash, and the speed both travel, we can estimate distance of the lightning strike. At 750 miles per hour, thunder will travel about a mile in about five seconds: Dividing the number of seconds between the lightning’s flash and the thunder’s crash by five gives you the lightning’s distance in miles; divide the interval by three for the distance in kilometers. If five seconds pass between the lightning and the thunder, the lightning struck about one mile away; fifteen seconds elapsed means it’s about three miles away.
One of the things I love most about photographing lightning at Grand Canyon is the ability to do it in relative safety. With a few notable exceptions (see Lightning Explosion above), most of the lightning we photograph is at least 10 miles away, distant enough that we rarely hear thunder. I won’t pretend that any lightning photography is completely safe because the safest place to be in an electrical storm is always inside. But standing on one Grand Canyon rim while waiting for lightning to fire on the other rim, as we did this evening, feels more like magic than madness.
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Posted on September 15, 2019
On an impossibly balmy summer evening, this year’s first Grand Canyon Monsoon workshop group waited at Cape Royal (with more hope than optimism) for the Milky Way. We’d just photographed a beautiful sunset, courtesy of light from the setting sun that breached the nearly total cloud cover just enough for color to slip through. An essential part of our sunset success, those clouds were now an obstacle for our Milky Way plans. But this was our last night on the North Rim (where Milky Way photography is best), and we had nowhere better to be, so we decided to give the Milky Way an hour or so.
Cape Royal is nearly 8000 feet above sea level, so I’d come armed with a jacket, hat, and gloves to keep me comfortable during the long wait for complete darkness. They never left my bag. The first “star” to appear was Jupiter (yes, I know it’s a planet), followed by Saturn—especially good news because the Milky Way this summer is flanked by bright Saturn (on the left) and even brighter Jupiter.
Of all the things we do in these workshops, the night shoot might just be my favorite. Even the wait for darkness is fun—once everyone is composed, focused, and properly exposed, we all just kick back, relax, and enjoy the view as the stars start to pop out. On this evening we started shooting in earnest about 45 minutes after sunset, but it was immediately apparent that while the clouds were thinning, the fainter stars, and especially the Milky Way, were still somewhat obscured by a gauzy layer of clouds. But even even with the Milky Way not at its best, the night was so pleasant, and we were having so much fun, so we just kept going. And with each click it became more clear that the clouds were drifting south and the stars were popping out behind them.
We shot for an hour or so, with this image one of the night’s last. As with all my photography, it’s a one-click capture. I know it’s become popular to blend multiple images to get the best possible foreground and sky exposure, but I like doing it the old fashioned way.
One more thing
One of my favorite things to do on nights like this is to forget my camera and take time to appreciate what my eyes see. Not just the beauty, but what it all represents. Feasting my eyes on the Milky Way, I remind myself that the photons striking my eyes started their journey 25,000 years ago. The Grand Canyon? Unlike my Milky Way shoots at (now resting) Kilauea, where most of the landscape isn’t much older than I am (and some is in fact much younger), the Grand Canyon’s layered sediments represent more than a billion years of our planet’s history. Pretty cool.
- Starlight Photography
- Milky Way Photography
- The Milky Way My Way (my night photography processing paradigm)
Grand Canyon After Dark
Posted on September 8, 2019
This picture from last February features two beautiful photographic phenomena, one with (literally) thousands of cameras trained on it, the other virtually ignored. You might be surprised to learn that for most, the “main event” about to take place in this scene wasn’t the moonrise, it was the light on the thin stripe of waterfall trickling down the diagonal shoulder of El Capitan (the top is in shadow). But while (it seemed) virtually the entire photographic world was elbow-to-elbow in Yosemite Valley hoping for their shot at the day’s last light on Horsetail Fall, I was one of a half dozen or so photographers chilling at Tunnel View, waiting for the moon to rise.
When I’d arrived at Tunnel View and saw a herd of several dozen photographers already set up, I was initially heartened to think that so many photographers had foregone the Horsetail mayhem in favor of the moonrise. But why had they set up so far down the wall, behind trees that obstructed their view of Half Dome? It wasn’t hard to conclude that they weren’t there for the moon at all, they were there for Horsetail Fall. And as I waited for the moon, still more photographers showed up, and though there was plenty of room at spots with a far better view of the entire scene (including Horsetail Fall), every single new arrival crammed in to the scrum pointed at Horsetail Fall.
Photographing Horsetail Fall is kind of like dropping a quarter in a slot machine and hoping all the cherries line up: 1. Sun angle—the light’s right only at sunset for a couple of weeks in February (and October, when the fall is dry); 2. Snowmelt—no snowmelt, no waterfall; 3: Sunlight—all it takes is one cloud to block the sun and send everyone home disappointed. The jackpot? Some version of a picture that’s not much different from thousands (millions?) of other pictures.
Don’t get me wrong—the Horsetail Fall phenomenon is breathtaking, unique, and absolutely photo-worthy. But I do think that photographers, myself included, can be somewhat myopic when it comes to subject choice, deciding far too soon what “the” shot is and missing something even better as a consequence. And when they’re not sure what the shot is, instead of trusting their own vision, they just do what everyone else is doing.
We all could be a little better about considering photo opportunities beyond the obvious. Never is this more clear than in the image reviews in my photo workshops. In my image reviews everyone shares an image taken during the workshop (I project the image for all to see), and I offer constructive feedback. When I started doing workshops, I assumed that the prime benefit from the image reviews would be my “expert” critique, and while I like to think my suggestions do help, I didn’t anticipate how effective this image sharing is at conveying to everyone the unlimited possibilities each scene offers. We’re all photographing the same locations, but the variety of images always catches me off guard. In fact, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at a workshop student’s image and thought, wow, how did I miss that?
It turns out the photographers who locked in on Horsetail this evening were disappointed. A rogue cloud, low in the west and unseen from Yosemite Valley, blocked the sun at just the wrong time. But that’s not the point—even if Horsetail Fall had lit up like red magma, there were other things to photograph in Yosemite that evening. And I wonder how many photographers would have opted to photograph the moonrise had they known about it.
I don’t share this image to pat myself on the back—I came to Yosemite specifically for this shot and didn’t really look for anything else. Therefore, it’s entirely possible that something even more special was happening behind me. (One reason I write these blogs is to remind myself of stuff like this.)
In life, we stop learning the instant we believe we have the answer. It’s equally true that photographers stop being creative the instant they “know” what the shot is. Our ability to grow as photographers is determined by our ability to open our eyes (and mind!) to the endless possibilities not yet visible.
An Evening’s Rewards
(Views Away from the Conventional Scene)
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