There’s no whining in photography

Moonset, Soberanes Point, Big Sur
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
10 seconds
ISO 50
28 mm

January 2012

I just wrapped up a long week that underscores the best and worst of my life as a landscape photographer. In the plus column I’ll put visits to Big Sur and Yosemite and the opportunity to spend quality time with a great bunch of photographers; in the negative column goes long days, dull weather, and lots of solo miles.

Sunday morning I left for Big Sur to co-lead Don Smith’s winter workshop, where we spent three-and-a-half days yo-yoing up and down one of the most beautiful coasts in the world. Wednesday night, after photographing sunset with the group at Point Lobos, I made the long trip home, arriving with barely enough time to repack my suitcase and gas-up before hitting the road for Yosemite Thursday afternoon. Following a sunrise to sunset day guiding two photographers from the Netherlands around Yosemite, I drove home late Friday.

But when a long week includes scenes like today’s image, you can see I have little to complain about. I’m extremely fortunate to live where I do, less than four hours drive from locations people travel around the world to visit: Yosemite, Big Sur, San Francisco, Point Reyes, Muir Woods, the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts, the Napa and Sonoma Wine Country, Mt. Shasta, Mt. Lassen, Lake Tahoe, and Mono Lake.

As has become California’s norm this winter, Big Sur delivered mild temperatures and cloudless skies. But, since poor conditions should never be an excuse for staying inside, here’s a little secret for dealing with bland skies: the best light for photography comes before the morning sun reaches the scene, and after the evening sun leaves. Without direct light, the entire landscape is bathed in even, contrast-smoothing light reflected from the sky, and the pastel hues of the Earth’s shadow colors the sky and paints the horizon. All you need to capture the magic is a decent camera (any digital SLR will do) and sturdy tripod.

I time all of my moonrise/moonset shoots for the small window when the moon is in this day-night transition zone—often, the more clear the sky, the better the twilight color on the horizon opposite the sun (and right where the full moon sets/rises). But adding a full moon in limited light like this can be tricky—the moon is daylight bright, while the rest of the scene is in deep shade. Some photographers blend multiple images to handle the extreme contrast; I prefer graduated neutral density filters. For example, to capture the above image of the moon setting into the Pacific at Big Sur’s Sobranes Point, I used a Singh-Ray three-stop reverse GND filter to subdue the moon and hold the sky’s color during an exposure that had to be long enough to reveal the foreground detail.

It was more night than day when Don and I got the group to Sobranes Point for our sunrise shoot. A white strike of moonlight reflected on the black Pacific, and nearby sea stacks, mere shapes in the dark, were under continuous assault from the violent surf. Following a brief orientation, everyone spread out along the cliffs—Don led some of the group southward along the cliffs; I guided the rest northward toward a not yet visible arch. When my eyes adjusted and the light came up, I wound my way along a narrow path that ended on a granite prominence jutting thirty feet or so above the ocean. While most of the waves crashed harmlessly beneath me, every few minutes a particularly large surge would strike at just the right angle, obliterating my view with spray that rose twenty feet above my head (see below). Had the generally prevailing onshore wind not been absent that morning, I’d have been thoroughly drenched. After the first wave explosion I was a bit uneasy about my location, but once I realized I was out of range I kind of enjoyed the ride.

All the visual activity makes this a tricky scene to photograph—I’ve shot here a number of times, but until now have never come away with anything that completely satisfies me here. With most of the action is on the right side of the frame, I’ve always found wide, horizontal compositions unbalanced. Going for a tighter vertical orientation to emphasize the strong coastline, I never find a left edge that doesn’t cut the sea stacks awkwardly. And horizontal or vertical, with a host of smaller rocks protruding from the nearby surf, I struggle placing the bottom of my frame. But adding the moon’s significant visual weight to the left of the frame gave me the horizontal balance I wanted, and hiding the protruding foreground rocks behind the weathered granite cliff gave a solid base for my composition.

When I finally found a composition that worked, I needed to find the focus point that would maximize the depth of field. A quick check of the hyperfocal app on my iPhone told me that f16 at 28mm would give me sharpness from 2 1/2 feet to infinity if I focused on the foreground granite about five feet away. To ensure correct focus, I used my camera’s live view and magnified my focus point 10x. There wasn’t enough light to even think about freezing the surf at a useable ISO, so I just went with a long exposure that smoothed the water.

When photographing waves, many photographers fail to account for the change from one frame to the next. So, knowing my composition was locked securely in place on my tripod, I stood back and monitored the waves closely, clicking about a dozen frames to capture a range of surf action, from placid to violent. This ten second exposure included a single moderate wave and several minor swells.

I was probably cold, damp, and sleepy, but I don’t remember. And it would have been easy to complain about the boring skies, or feel sorry for myself during my many lonely hours behind the wheel, but mornings like this one are exactly why I do this, and a perfect example of why there really is no whining in photography.

11 Comments on “There’s no whining in photography

  1. Gary, I am ALWAYS so inspired by your phenominal work. Hoping one day I’ll be able to attend one of your workshops. I love your posts as well! You always so willing to share! Thank you for continuing to inspire me!

  2. iPhone hyperfocal. I understand hyperfocal (hat,ball,rifel) but how do you determine the the focal point , “if I focused on the foreground granite about five feet away-” Why not 3′?
    The 5′ is what I am asking about. I know you are not out there w/ a tape measure. Does your info button on your camera give you that? I have an old 5D Mark I, no live view , just great resolution. So how do I do the same w/ this camera?

    • The hyperfocal point for any f-stop/focal-length/sensor-size combination is the closest point of focus that still allows for sharpness out to infinity–it’s the best way to ensure maximum depth of field. Focused on the hyperfocal point, everything, starting halfway between you and that point, and extending all the way out to infinity, is “acceptably” sharp. So when I have a scene that requires maximum depth of field, I start by plugging the variables (f-stop, focal length, sensor size) into my iPhone app to determine the closest point I can focus and still retain sharpness to infinity (if I can’t get the DOF I need, I go with a smaller aperture, wider focal length, or just accept that my distance will be a little soft).

      Once I determine the distance of the hyperfocal point, I just estimate the the distance. If it’s fairly close, I simply imagine myself lying down between my lens and my subject–I’m about 5’9″, so in this case I chose a point that I figured my shoulders would reach if I were to lie down. If the distance is a little greater, I use multiples of my body length. If it’s a lot greater, I take advantage of the fact that I pitched all the way through college and can still gauge 60 feet, six inches within a few inches (seriously). Or I use multiples or fractions of the pitching distance to get fairly close.

      • Thank you! I have followed your, “What the point” advice w/o an iPhone and most of my images are tack sharp from foreground to infinity. I wish there was a way to calculate these in the field w/o an iPhone or itouch. Again I truly enjoy your post and your non-HDR although I understand the why of those images

  3. so I guess you were using the scale on your lens–but I did not think that was a sensitive enough scale. Right or wrong? Which lens did you use?

  4. Gary,
    Not only are your photographs absolutely breath-taking and inspiring, you’re also an awesome writer and teacher. In the short time since I’ve discovered your work, I feel like I’ve gained privileged access to a real master at his craft. Thank you so much for sharing your vision and your thoughts about process. See you next time at Starbucks!

    • Thanks, Milmon. I’m lucky to be able to combine my two passions, photography and writing, into a career. As long as people like what I do, I can continue to forego cubicle-land in favor of my Starbucks corner. Fingers crossed.

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