The Sky’s the Limit

Gary Hart Photography: Look to the Sky, Milky Way and Mauna Kea Gemini Observatory, Hawaii

Look to the Sky, Milky Way and Mauna Kea Gemini Observatory, Hawaii
Sony a7S II
Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art
20 seconds
F/1.4
ISO 6400

I sometimes rail against camera clubs for their rule-bound creative constipation (yes, I know there are exceptions). On Hawaii in September I was reminded that I’m not immune to the same malady.

Because Nature doesn’t have a monopoly on beauty, earlier in my photographic life I was somewhat less discriminating with my choice of subjects, photographing anything outdoors that I found beautiful. Many of my bridge and skyline images were on (or atop) my personal bestseller list, but as my career evolved I found myself resenting the intrusion humankind on nature and less inclined to include it—unconscious choices that evolved into my present style, photographing a world untouched by humans. The mere presence of a building, fence, path, or even a human is now enough for me to put my camera down. I’ve never felt it’s wrong to photograph those things—in fact I enjoy others’ photos of these things—it’s just that I’m not drawn to them as a photographer.

But this year’s Big Island workshop forced me to reevaluate my bias. As you might already know, not only do I love night photography in general, and Milky Way photography in particular, I’ve also been an astronomy enthusiast since childhood. The Big Island trip is one I always looked forward to because we photograph the Milky Way above Kilauea. But (unless you’ve been living under a rock) you probably know that early this year Kilauea experienced a spectacular eruption that altered the Hawaii landscape and terminated the Kilauea eruption that had been underway since 1983, much like the grand finale marks the end of the Independence Day fireworks show.

Pele’s festivities started in early May with a 6.9 magnitude earthquake that kicked off daily 5+ magnitude earthquakes, a sequence lasting for three months and precipitating an incremental collapse of the summit caldera. When the ash finally settled, there was no more eruption at the summit (or anywhere else on the Big Island).

Losing my Milky Way vista was an infinitesimal loss compared to the losses suffered by others on Hawaii, but I still faced a challenge to replace it with something that would satisfy a group of photographers expecting a night shoot above an erupting volcano. Enter Mauna Kea. I’d always been reluctant to take a group here because the road is rough and steep, and the air at (nearly) 14,000 feet is very thin (and cold!). I’d been up there before, but on this year’s pre-workshop reconnaissance mission another visit to Mauna Kea’s summit encouraged me enough to offer the option to the group. After explaining my concerns in the orientation, I asked how many wanted to give the summit a shot and the enthusiasm was unanimous.

We summited with little drama (though the check engine light in my rental car came on about halfway up) and the group quickly scattered to take in the incredible view that included Maui, a blanket of cloud tops, and the glistening Pacific. While the rest of the group photographed a beautiful sunset, my focus was on two people having difficulty with the altitude—they ended up retreating to a spot about 6000 feet down the mountain and enjoyed a beautiful shoot of their own.

After sunset we enjoyed the view and waited for the sky to darken. Fortunately I’d told the group before leaving to pack warm clothes (because I knew the Mauna Kea summit was a possibility), but next year I’ll tell them to pack for winter because it was cold up there. But when the Milky Way came out the cold somehow became a bit more tolerable.

Awestruck by the Milky Way’s beauty, I scanned my surroundings for a subject to put with it. Of course the obvious choice was the Gemini Observatory right in front of me. Similarly awed to be in the shadow of this impressive instrument, I rationalized that it would be okay to photograph a manmade something whose purpose was probing the celestial mysteries that had mesmerized me for most of my life. I’m so glad I did.

I’ve photographed the Milky Way many times from the bottom of the Grand Canyon, which is about as dark as the sky can get, but this night I learned firsthand why they put observatories on mountain peaks. Not only is the sky dark, the air atop Mauna Kea is both pristine and unfettered by atmosphere (well, at least by much atmosphere). This clarity was made obvious when I studied my images and found virtually every one etched by at least one meteor. The image I share here captured five (!) meteors in a single 20 second exposure. Because none share a common point of origin, they couldn’t be the progeny of an unheralded meteor shower—I think meteors just show up better in the clear, dark air at 14,000 feet.

We descended the mountain equal parts frigid and elated. I can’t wait to reprise this shoot next year and have promised myself that both my group and I will be much more prepared for the cold. I don’t think this success will much change my desire to photograph only natural subjects, but I will approach scenes with my mind a bit more open.

Hawaii Big Island Photo Workshop


Human Influence (just to prove I can do it)

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That Didn’t Suck

Gary Hart Photography: Glacial Reflection, Nun's Veil and Tasman Lake, New Zealand

Reflection on the Rocks, Nun’s Veil and Tasman Lake, New Zealand
Sony a7RIII
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
1/13 second
F/11
ISO 100

One evening in New Zealand

I get to a lot of locations and see so many spectacular sights that they sometimes run together. But every once in a while I experience a shoot I know I’ll never forget.

One of (many) highlights of the New Zealand workshop is the hike to Tasman Lake in Aoraki / Mt. Cook National Park. The reward for this short, steep (335 stairs) hike is a 270 degree view that includes 12,000 foot Mt. Cook, icebergs drifting atop turquoise Tasman Lake, Nun’s Veil (pictured here), and the Tasman Valley.

At the trailhead most of the workshop group decided the trail was too icy and opted for a beautiful but less treacherous view a couple miles back down the road. As Don led them to the alternate spot, I guided four members who wanted to brave the icy trail. It turns out the ice wasn’t a big problem, and in fact was completely gone from the trail within a couple hundred yards, and we made it to the vista short of breath but otherwise unscathed.

I’d been up here a few times, but it was the first time for the others, so it was fun to watch their reaction as they summited. Because the trail ends here and the viewing platform is fairly compact, we were able to work in close proximity all evening—having others to share our awe with enhanced the experience even more.

The Tasman Lake view is one of those vistas that’s far too broad to capture with a single frame; any attempt to do so shrinks every feature to the point of insignificance. Opting to divide and conquer by identifying and isolating the scene’s most compelling features, my eye instantly landed on the reflection of Nun’s Veil’s in a small pool down the slope. I soon hopped the vista’s small retaining wall to better center the reflection in the pool, then spent much of the evening here working on compositions that included the reflection. My clicking intensified as light on Nun’s Veil warmed, coloring the wind-whipped snow encircling the peak.

As if all that wasn’t enough, a few minutes after the light left Nun’s Veil, a full moon appeared just to the right of the peak. Despite the advancing night, we were able to photograph the moonrise for a few minutes before the scene became too dark to capture detail in the foreground and moon. But even facing a walk down the icy trail in the dark, we lingered in the moonlight just to marvel at the majesty. As we donned our headlamps for the walk back down the trail, I heard one of the members of the group call my name. “Gary,” long pause. “That didn’t suck.”

New Zealand Photo Workshop



Like reflections? Here’s an article on reflections I wrote a few years ago.

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Reflections

Who doesn’t love the soothing tranquility of a good reflection? And like a metaphor in writing, a reflection is an indirect representation that can be more powerful than its literal double by virtue of its ability to engage the brain in different ways than we’re accustomed. Rather than processing the scene directly, we first must mentally reassemble the reflection’s reverse world, and in the process perhaps see the scene a little differently.

Reflections are a powerful photographic tool as well. Water’s universal familiarity makes it an ideal subject for photographers frustrated by their camera’s static representation of our dynamic world. Just as we freeze or blur a waterfall to express turbulent motion, we can include a reflection to convey serenity.

Water reflections come in many forms, from a mirror-sharp reverse of a mountain atop a still pool, to an abstract shuffle of color and texture on a choppy lake. Without getting too far into the physics of light, it’s important to understand that every object we see and photograph (that doesn’t generate its own light) comes to us courtesy of reflected light.

Mirror reflection recipe

The ingredients for a crisp, mirror reflection like the El Capitan image at the top of the page is pretty simple: still water, a reflection subject that’s much brighter than the water’s surface (the greater the contrast the better), and a view angle that matches the angle from the water’s surface to the reflection subject. (The best reflections are usually found on shaded water because there are fewer photons to compete with the photons bouncing from the reflected subject.)

The El Capitan reflection above was a perfect confluence of reflection conditions. Clean, still air, dense shade on the river, and El Capitan’s fully exposed, reflective granite, make early morning the best time for El Capitan reflections. On this April morning I made my way down to the Merced River hoping to photograph the first light on El Capitan reflected in the Merced River. Finding my route down to the river blocked by spring flooding, I was forced to improvise. The morning air was clean and calm, and the ephemeral lake was mirror-still.

Circling the flooded meadow, I found a gap in the trees that opened onto the most complete view and reflection of El Capitan and the Three Brothers I’ve ever seen. So complete in fact, that I couldn’t include it all with my 16-35mm lens at its widest focal length. Fortunately, I was able to borrow a Canon 11-24 lens and Metabones IV adapter from a friend (thanks, Curt!), just wide enough to fit the entire scene at the lens’s shortest focal length.

Playing the angles

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Palette, Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite

Understanding that reflected photons leave the water’s surface at the same angle at which they arrive—imagine the way a tennis ball bounces (if it weren’t affected by spin, wind resistance, or gravity)—helps us get in position for the reflection we want.

A few years ago I found myself atop Sentinel Dome right after an intense rain shower had turned indentations in the granite into small, glistening pools. Rather than simply settle for the vivid sunset coloring the clouds above, I decided to include the sunset reflected in the pools as well. At eye-level the pools reflected blue sky, so I dropped my tripod as low as it would go, almost to granite level, positioning my lens at the same angle to the pools that the red light leaving the clouds struck the water.

When the water’s in motion

Gary Hart Photography: On the Rocks, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite

On the Rocks, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite

As spectacular as a crisp, mirror reflection in still water is, it’s easy to overlook the visual potential in a reflection that’s not crisp, or to forget your camera’s ability to render a soft or abstract reflection much better than your eyes view it. While a crisp reflection often dominates the primary subject in an image, a splash of reflected color or shape can provide a striking accent to a dominant primary subject. And a reflection disturbed by the continuously varying angles of rippled or choppy water magically appears when a long exposure smoothes the water’s surface.

In the image on the right, the El Capitan reflection undulating atop the Merced River was barely perceptible to my eyes. But the reflection came to in a 25 second exposure achieved with the help of 2-stop hard graduated neutral density filter that subdued the day’s last rays on the clouds and El Capitan, and a neutral polarizer (with the reflection dialed up) that cut the light on the entire scene by a couple of stops. And since a reflection is never as bright as the actual scene, using a GND meant I need to do a little dodging and burning in Photoshop.

Where to focus

An often misunderstood aspect of reflection photography is where to focus. Though it seems counterintuitive, the focus point of a reflection is the reflection subject, not the reflection surface. This isn’t such a big deal in a scene like the El Capitan reflection at the top of the post, where the focus point of everything of visual significance is infinity, but it’s a very big deal when you want both your reflection and rocks or leaves on the nearby water surface sharp.

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Autumn Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

The El Capitan reflection on the right is very different from the El Capitan reflection above, where the extreme depth of field ensured sharpness had I focused on anything in the scene or the reflection. But here the leaves that were my scene’s primary emphasis were just a couple of feet from my camera, while El Capitan was several thousand feet distant. Even though the leaves floated atop the El Capitan reflection, focusing on El Capitan would have softened the leaves. To increase my depth of field, I stopped down to f/18 and focused several feet into the foreground leaves, then magnified the image on my LCD to verify that all of the leaves were sharp. Though El Capitan is slightly soft, a soft reflection is far more forgivable than a soft fore

Think ahead

It seems that reflections often feel like a fortuitous gift that we just stumbled upon. But given that reflections are entirely beholden to the laws of physics, they’re far more predictable than many of the natural elements we photograph. Taking a little time to understand the nature of reflections, and how they’re revealed by a camera, enables photographers to anticipate their appearance.

For example, in Yosemite I know that low flow makes autumn the best time for reflections in the Merced River. On the other hand, when the Merced is rushing with spring runoff, Yosemite’s meadows often shimmer beneath tranquil vernal pools. I plan many trips (and workshops) to take advantage of these opportunities.

 

Workshop Schedule || Purchase Prints


A Reflection Gallery

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New Zealand on Ice

Gary Hart Photography: Glacial Flow, Tasman River, New Zealand

Glacial Flow, Tasman River, New Zealand
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
1 1/3 second
F/16
ISO 50

One summer when I was a kid my family took a camping vacation to the Canadian Rockies. Bits and pieces of that trip return to me as vague memories, but one memory permanently etched in my brain is the color of Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. My dad, a very passionate amateur photographer, was frothing with excitement and must have gone through half his film budget (remember those days?) at Moraine Lake alone. Nevertheless, and despite my dad’s pictures, I couldn’t fully process a world where water could be that color and for many years after that doubted my memory.

Long before visiting New Zealand I accepted that water really can be that color, but still had few opportunities to view it. Then I started visiting New Zealand, where photographing the lakes and rivers gives me a little déjà vu—it’s just plain disorienting to see water this color.

So what’s going on?

In areas of persistent cold, snow can accumulate faster than it melts. Over many years of accumulating, the snow’s weight compresses it into ice and a glacier is born. A glacier is incredibly heavy; since pressure decreases the freezing point of ice, at the interface between the glacier and the underlying rock (where the pressure of the ice’s weight is greatest), melting ice lubricates the glacier and allows it to move downhill. The glacier’s extreme weight combined with this forward motion breaks up the rock. Embedded with these rock fragments, the glacier behaves like sandpaper, grinding the rock on which it slides into finer and finer particles. The finest of these particles is called “glacial flour.”

Meltwater from the glacier flows downhill, carrying scoured rock with it. While the larger rock particles simply sink, the glacial flour remains suspended in the runoff. While most of the sunlight striking water infused with glacial flour is absorbed by the suspended particles, the green and blue wavelengths aren’t absorbed; instead they scatter back to our eyes and we are treated to turquoise water. The water’s exact hue (whether it appears more green or blue) is determined by the size of the suspended particles, which dictates the relative amount of green and blue wavelengths they scatter.

About this image

The Hooker Valley track is a spectacular 3-mile hike beneath Mt. Cook to Hooker Lake. This gradually sloped trail follows the Hooker River’s twisting turquoise ribbon, snaking back and forth across the water on three swinging suspension bridges. It doesn’t take too much time on the trail to understand why this is one of the most popular hikes in New Zealand.

This year’s workshop group didn’t have time to do the entire 6-mile roundtrip, but since the beauty starts pretty much in the first 100 yards and doesn’t let up, we guided them up the track with instructions to take their time and photograph without concern for how far they got. It turns out most only made it to the first bridge, initially stopped by the view of the river and mountains, and then by the sunset that colored the clouds above the peaks.

This image came from fairly early in our bridge shoot, when clouds capped the scene and I took advantage of the soft light to stretch my exposure and smooth the water. Here I was a few yards up the trail from the bridge, which allowed me to make the river a diagonal stripe across the frame. Less than thrilled with the fairly boring foreground shrubs, I moved around a bit until I found a large rock to occupy the that part of the frame.

New Zealand Photography Workshop


The Best of New Zealand

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Extracting the Essence

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Light, North Lake, Eastern Sierra

Autumn Light, North Lake, Eastern Sierra
Sony a7R III
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
3/4 second
F/13
ISO 100


Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Morning, North Lake, Eastern Sierra

Autumn Morning, North Lake, Eastern Sierra

Read about the travails leading up to this shoot in my previous post. But enough about that….


I’m afraid that when faced with a beautiful scene, photographers (myself included) sometimes settle for the obvious shot and leave more subtle opportunities on the table. But the most creative photography (though not necessarily the most popular) comes from looking beyond the obvious to find the scene’s essence.

The question photographers should ask themselves is: What about this scene makes it special? That’s really a personal challenge with as many answers as there are photographers seeking them. Once we identify something to emphasize, we need to figure out the best way to guide our viewers’ eyes. The tools at our disposal include our exposure settings to control the scene’s motion, depth, and light, and compositional elements like isolation, juxtaposition, lines, and shapes.

There were many “obvious” shots at North Lake this morning, and my group certainly did its best to exhaust them. But we spent enough time there that I was able to make it around to everyone to encourage them to break free of whatever they were locked onto and try to find something different. A couple dropped low with a wide angle to put foreground rocks close, some extracted a telephoto and isolated the reflection and/or colorful aspen across the lake, while others switched to a vertical composition that emphasized the clouds building above the peaks. Many played with variations of some or all of these approaches. I’ve shot here enough that I pretty content to observe, until…

About an hour into the shoot the clouds behind us parted and a shaft of sunlight snuck through to spotlight the cascade of orange across the lake, and I couldn’t resist. This sweet accent would be lost to wide field of the Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens I’d had on my a7RIII all morning, so I (very) quickly replaced it with my Sony 24-105 f/4 G and went to work isolating the scene’s best elements. Even though I hadn’t shot much, I’d been composing in my head all morning, so I had a pretty good idea what I wanted to do.

In my mind the scene’s best feature was the vivid color and its reflection. But as striking as these features were, to turn it from a scene into a picture, I needed something to move the eye, and a visual landing place. Enter the zig-zag diagonals and fortuitously positioned sunlight.

I wanted to compose as tightly as I could without losing the light and reflection. With the color as my canvas, I simply let the diagonals span the frame (taking care to include the intersection on the left), and the sunlight fall near the top.

Eastern Sierra Fall Color Photo Workshop


Extracting the Essence

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I Just Love Happy Endings

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Morning, North Lake, Eastern Sierra

Autumn Morning, North Lake, Eastern Sierra
Sony a7R III
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
1/4 second
F/16
ISO 100

By the time I made it to North Lake for sunrise, I’d already had a trying morning. After some frustrations with the cars, my Eastern Sierra workshop group had gotten on the road about five minutes later than I’d planned. Fortunately I always schedule a little wiggle room, so we were on track, but still…. Then, just a couple of miles before the turn-off to the lake, I had to swerve to avoid a grapefruit-sized rock in the road, barely avoiding it. Phew. But the middle car in our mini-caravan wasn’t so lucky: Flat tire. Crap.

This year’s group had 13 people (including Don Smith, who was assisting, and me), but this little mishap suddenly dropped us to two cars (10 seats), with sunrise rapidly approaching. Surveying the damage, I decided that rather than make everyone wait, we could still cram all but three of us into the two remaining cars. I sent them up to the lake in Don’s care while I stayed behind with the unfortunate couple and their wounded car. Once everyone was situated at the lake, Don agreed to return in case we weren’t able to replace the tire.

Don pulled up about 20 minutes later, just as I put the finishing touches on the miniature spare. After a brief discussion we decided it wouldn’t be wise to take that (poor excuse for a) tire on the unpaved North Lake road, so the couple decided to return to Bishop to get their tire replaced. Since that would leave us with 11 people to transport with the two remaining cars, Don volunteered to return with them to Bishop while I drove up to North Lake to meet the group.

So I was pretty much worn out by the time I parked, hefted my camera bag onto my back, and started the short walk down to the lake. Making it to the lakeshore right around “official” sunrise, the scene that greeted me was an instant jolt of energy. In nature photography you do your best to time your visit for the best possible conditions, but ultimately have to deal with whatever you’re dealt. The variables we cross our fingers for at North Lake are good color, a crisp reflection, and nice clouds. We hit the trifecta this morning, with peak color from top to bottom across the lake (and everywhere else), water like glass, and a sublime mix of swirling clouds and blue sky. An unexpected bonus was the relatively small number of photographers competing for space at this always popular autumn sunrise spot.

One of the things I like most about North Lake is the variety of fall color here, a rare sight in California. The trees on the slope are a mix of orange and red, while those lining the lake are always vivid yellow. I’ve photographed North Lake a lot over the years, and my own photography during a workshop is never my priority, so I rarely photograph here anymore. But this morning was special and I couldn’t resist, so as I moved around to everyone in the group I found time to fire off a few frames of my own.

The background of the image I share here is a version of the broader, more conventional scene that is usually the starting point for a North Lake fall color composition. (In future posts I’ll share one or two others that I think capture the less obvious essence of the scene.) As always, I worked to find a foreground that complemented the primary scene, finally settling on the tall grass as a frame for the reflection and the the scene beyond—I thought the grass added just enough detail without distracting.) I liked the clouds, but the color was long gone by the time I was able to photograph, so I decided not to include too much sky. Finishing the scene off, I panned left to include a tall, yellow aspen for the left side of my frame. I composed, metered, and focused at eye level, but to get as much reflection as possible, before clicking I elevated my RRS TVC-24L tripod (I love having a tall tripod) to its maximum height, then used the tilting LCD on my Sony a7RIII to restore the composition I’d identified.

Given the way things started out, it would have been very easy to just pack it in and write the morning off as a loss. But despite the difficulties, this turned out to be a wonderful morning of photography for everyone. Just one more reminder that the happiest endings often start with a little hardship.

Eastern Sierra Photo Workshop

Why I Love the Eastern Sierra

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Mastering Focus (Hyperfocal and Otherwise)

Gary Hart Photography: Floating Leaves, Valley View, Yosemite

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

What’s the point?

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

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

Beware the “expert”

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

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

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

Back to the basics

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

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

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

Defining sharpness

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

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

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

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

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

Hyperfocal focus

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

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

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

It usually goes something like this:

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

You’re not as sharp as you think

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

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

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

Keeping it simple

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

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

Finally, something to do

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

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

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

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

Some examples

Sunset Palette, Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes less is more

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

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

There’s no substitute for experience

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

About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Floating Leaves, Valley View, Yosemite

Floating Autumn Leaves, Valley View, Yosemite

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

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

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Playing with Depth: A Gallery of Focus

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Getting centered

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

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

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

This is important

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

A couple of examples

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

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

About this image

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

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

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

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

Shed the crutch and go forth

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

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

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

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

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Asking for trouble at the camera club

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