Nature is only as random as our ability to understand it

Yosemite Rainbow, Tunnel View

Double Rainbow, Tunnel View, Yosemite Valley
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1/5 second
ISO 100
17 mm

Louis Pasteur said that chance favors the prepared mind. It was one of Ansel Adams’ favorite quotes. But, as appropriate as the quote is, I’m sure Adams cited Pasteur only after enduring countless “Wow, you were so lucky to be there for that” reactions.

To the casual observer, nature’s wonders do indeed feel random. Who doesn’t feel lucky when a full moon pops over the mountains just as the  monotonous highway bends east, or when dirty snow and bare trees are suddenly glazed in white by an unexpected snowstorm? (Or when Yosemite Valley is suddenly framed by an arcing double rainbow?) But there’s nothing random about any of these phenomena. Some natural phenomena can be predicted with absolute precision—for example, it’s easy to pinpoint the position and phase of the moon for any location and time, past or future. And while weather can sometimes (usually?) appear random, every weather condition, from temperature to the most violent storms and purest blue skies, is a precise function of  atmospheric conditions, ocean currents, and terrain; we perceive weather as random only because its complexity overwhelms our current capabilities.

Nature photographers should feel blessed by these natural wonders over which we have no control, but our good fortune is not random. By taking the time to understand our subjects and study our environment, we do our best to anticipate image-worthy events. While we can never guarantee that the sky will be clear enough to reveal the rising moon we counted on, or that the predicted convergence of moisture, temperature, and barometric pressure will manifest to transform our world from crusty brown to pristine white (or that the setting sun will find the perfect path to the falling rain), we can put ourselves in position to be there when it happens.

None of this stuff makes me unique—though we all approach our photography in our own way, most successful nature photographers do everything they can to minimize the randomness in our efforts, to maximize the chance for “special.” My own path was fairly organic. My entire life, beginning long before my first camera, I’ve been drawn to science, to the how and why of nature. As a child I devoured books by Herbert S. Zim and Isaac Azimov (he wasn’t just a science fiction writer). In school I took every possible astronomy, geology, meteorology class. I even started college as an astronomy major, then geology, before the (necessary) quantification of the concepts I loved so much threatened to sap my passion (that is, I couldn’t handle the math beyond calculus). Fortunately my passion survived and I’ve been able to find a career that rewards me for understanding and anticipating natural phenomena. (It hardly seems like work.)

About this image

Which brings me to today’s Yosemite Valley rainbow image, an incredible stroke of good fortune that I (proudly) take credit for anticipating. This was a May evening a few years ago. May is usually the beginning of California’s interminable blue sky summer, but this year a persistent low pressure system that had set up camp off the coast pumped daily impulses of moisture into Northern California. I was in Yosemite to meet a private workshop customer and his girlfriend for dinner so we could plan the following day’s photo tour of the park. That afternoon’s drive from home had been a mixture of sun and showers; I entered Yosemite Valley in the midst of a steady rain that had been splashing my windshield for at least thirty minutes. But despite  clinging rainclouds that obscured the surrounding granite walls, I knew the broken sky I’d recently driven through was headed this way and would probably arrive before sunset, about two hours away—and with that clearing would come the potential for openings that could allow sunlight to reach the still falling rain. With the sun already low and dropping, and its angle pointing any Tunnel View shadow in the direction of Yosemite Valley, I had the potential for all the rainbow recipe ingredients.

But of course I had dinner plans, and no phone number to reach my customers. So I beelined to Yosemite Lodge to meet them as planned, plotting my sales pitch the entire way. I was pleased to find them waiting when I arrived—while in my mind I was jumping up and down, pointing and shouting (“Rainbow! Soon! Hurry!”), I maintained the illusion of calmness through our introductions, then explained as cooly as possible that there was a chance for a rainbow, if they were interested. Fortunately they were open to the change of plans and I wasn’t forced to resort to begging.

On the twenty minute drive back to Tunnel View I’d calmed enough to remind myself that we could very well be chasing wild geese and did my best to moderate their expectations, explaining that a rainbow is far from a sure thing, and that what we’re doing is merely putting ourselves in position in the event that does happen.

At Tunnel View the rain was still falling, but I could see signs of clearing to the west. So far, so good. I guided my customers to my favorite Tunnel View vantage point, above the parking lot and away from the crowds, where we sat on the granite in the rain and waited. Despite their positive attitude, as the cold and wet began to seep in, it dawned on me that convincing new customers to skip dinner to sit in the rain isn’t the most sound business strategy.

The view of had opened considerably from what it had been when I first pulled into the valley, so I encouraged them to go ahead and shoot, rainbow or not. I really can’t remember how long we waited—long enough to get pretty soaked—before a shaft of sunlight broke through to illuminate the rain falling along the north rim of the valley, for about five minutes painting a vivid partial double rainbow in front of El Capitan and disappearing into the clouds above Half Dome. Yay! While this wasn’t a complete rainbow (only one pot of gold), it was definitely the nicest rainbow I’d ever seen at Tunnel View and we clicked without a break until the rain stopped and the rainbow faded.

When the show was over we just sat and marveled at the view, giddy about our good fortune, completely oblivious to the dark cloud approaching from behind. As quickly as the rain had stopped a few minutes earlier, it returned, this time with a vengeance, coming down in diagonal sheets (visible across the top of the frame above). Behind us and out of sight the sun had almost completed its journey to the horizon and, rather than being blocked by clouds as it had been earlier, was able to slide its final rays beneath them to completely illuminate the rain falling across the valley’s breadth. The rainbow appeared almost immediately, intensifying to quickly become a double bow connecting Yosemite Valley’s north and south walls. It lasted so long that I actually started running out of compositions.

We had a great day the next day, but nice as it was, the photography was a bit anticlimactic. Much like starting the Fourth of July fireworks show with the “grand finale” extravaganza, I realized that it would have been nice to have arranged for the rainbow to appear at the end of our session. Back to the drawing board.

Learn a more about rainbows and how to photograph them.

7 Comments on “Nature is only as random as our ability to understand it

  1. Great story  Dah 

    Sent from my Verizon Wireless 4G LTE Smartphone

  2. Another excellent post, Gary. I’m off to Rocky Mountain National Park for two weeks end of July, and this post is further encouragement to continue my advance preps in earnest. Not enough to know the best hikes, the best spots – light and drama planning (even to stack the odds in my favor) are a must. Every time I’ve ever done halfway decent prep before heading out, it’s paid off. I’ll likely never achieve your stacking of the odds, but even so, my lesser planning almost always pays off.

  3. Gary, So very true about preparation. Wonderful image (you are blessed) and great story behind the image! Thank you! I like the logo is that new? Kelly

  4. Pingback: Favorite: Sunrise Mirror | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

  5. Pingback: These are a few of my favorite things | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

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