Last Friday evening, this professional photographer I know spent several hours photographing an assortment of beautiful Yosemite winter scenes at ISO 800. Apparently, he had increased his ISO earlier in the day while photographing a macro scene with three extension tubes—needing a faster shutter speed to freeze his subject in a light breeze, he’d bumped his ISO to 800. Wise decision. But, rushing to escape to the warmth of his car, rather than reset the camera to his default ISO 100 the instant he finished shooting, he packed up his camera with a personal promise to adjust it later, when his fingers were warmer—surely, he rationalized, removing the extension tubes and macro lens would remind him to reset the ISO too. (You’d think.) But, despite shutter speeds nowhere near what they should have been given the light and f-stop, he just kept shooting beautiful scene after beautiful scene, as happy as if he had a brain.
I happen to know for a fact that this very same photographer has done other stupid things. Let’s see…. There was that time, while chasing a sunset at Mono Lake, that he drove his truck into a creek and had to be towed out. And the two (two!) times he left his $8,000 camera beside the road as he motored off to the next spot. And you should see his collection of out-of-focus finger and thumb close-ups (a side effect of hand-holding his graduated neutral density filters). Of course this photographer’s identity isn’t important—what is important is dispelling the myth that professional photographers aren’t immune to amateur mistakes.
And on a completely unrelated note…
Let’s take a look at this image from, coincidentally, last Friday evening. Also completely coincidentally, it too was photographed at ISO 800 (go figure)—not because I made a mistake (after all, I am a trained professional), but, uhhh, but because I think there are just too many low noise Yosemite images. So anyway….
This was night-two of what was originally my Yosemite ISON workshop—but, after the unfortunate demise of Comet ISON and a week of frigid temperatures in Yosemite, became my Yosemite ice-on workshop. That’s because, to the delight of the workshop students (and the immense relief of their leader), much of the one foot of snow that had fallen the Saturday before the workshop’s Thursday start had been frozen into a state of suspended animation by a week of temperatures in the teens and low-twenties.
Each day we rose to find nearly every shaded surface in Yosemite sheathed in a white veneer of snow and ice. (Valley locations that received any sunlight were largely brown and bare.) And the Merced River, particularly low and slow following two years of drought, was covered in ice in an assortment of textures and shapes from frosted glass to blooming flowers. Adding to all this terrestrial beauty was a waxing moon, nearly full, ascending our otherwise boring blue skies and illuminating our nightscapes.
On Friday night I guided my group to this spot just downstream from Leidig Meadow. There we found the moon, still several days from full, glowing high above the valley floor, and Half Dome reflected by a watery window in the ice. I captured many versions of this scene, from tight isolations of the reflections to wide renderings of the entire display. It’s too soon to say which I like best, but I’m starting with this one because it most clearly conveys what we saw that evening.
I chose a vertical composition because including the moon in a horizontal frame would have shrunk Half Dome and the moon, and introduced elements on the right and left that weren’t as strong as Half Dome, its reflection, and the snowy Merced River. (Sentinel Rock is just out of the frame on the right—as striking as it is, I wanted to make this image all about Half Dome.)
My f16 choice was to ensure sharpness throughout the frame, from the ice flowers blooming in the foreground, to Half Dome and its reflection. As you may or may not know, the focus point for a reflection is the focus point of the reflective subject, not the reflective surface. That means when photographing a reflection surrounded by leaves, ice, rocks, or whatever, you need to ensure adequate DOF or risk having either the reflection or its surrounding elements out of focus. Here I probably could have gotten away with f11, but my iPhone and its DOF app were buried beneath several layers of clothes, and using it would have require removing two pair of gloves.
I’d love to say that I chose ISO 800 to freeze the rapids, but I’m not sure you’d buy it. So I’m sticking with my too many low noise Yosemite images story and moving on. (A few cameras ago, ISO 800 would have meant death to this image, but today, thankfully, it’s mostly just a lesson in humility.)
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.