Sanity check

Gary Hart Photography: Nightfall, Half Dome and Sentinel Fall, Yosemite

Nightfall, Half Dome and Sentinel Fall, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1/2 second
F/9
ISO 100

Are you insane?

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Hmmm. For some reason this makes me think of the thousands of aspiring landscape photographers with portfolios brimming with beautiful images that they can’t sell.

Despite a great eye for composition, all the latest gear, insider knowledge of the best locations, and virtual guru status with Photoshop, somehow they haven’t managed to separate themselves from the large pack of other really good photographers. Their solution to anonymity is more: more locations, more equipment, more software. (Perhaps you even know such a photographer.) Compounding the problem, many photographers have become so mesmerized by technology that they turn over control of the most important aspects of their craft to their camera, completely discounting the most powerful tool at their disposal, the one on top of their shoulders.

Knowledge vs. understanding

Just as a new camera won’t make you a better photographer, neither will simply upgrading your knowledge of the latest gear, or accumulating . Knowledge is nothing more than information ingested and regurgitated. On the other hand, understanding is fundamental insight into the workings of a process. While knowledge might enable you to impress table-mates at a dinner party, understanding gives you the ability to use information to create new knowledge—solve problems.

Many photographers invest far too much energy accumulating knowledge, and far too little energy understanding what they just learned. For example, I see many photographers relying on a formula for determining the shutter speed that freezes star motion at a given focal length, oblivious to the fact that this formula doesn’t consider other equally important variables such as display size and the direction the camera is pointing (yes, that’s important). Similarly, simply knowing that a longer shutter speed, bigger aperture, or higher ISO means more light is of limited value if that knowledge doesn’t translate into an understanding of how to manage light, motion, and depth with your camera.

Take control

Pretty much anyone can pick up a camera, put it in auto exposure mode, and compose a nice image. While the automatic modes in most cameras “properly” (conventionally) expose most scenes, they struggle in the limited light, extreme dynamic range, and harsh conditions that artistic nature photographers seek. Worse than that, relying on the automatic exposure modes eliminates a photographer’s best opportunity for creativity—the ability to control a an image’s depth, motion, and light.

Too many aspiring photographers are stuck creatively because their unwavering faith in technology leaves them with a critical deficiency in two fundamental, related photographic principles:

  • How a light meter determines the exposure information it gives youThis seems so basic, but auto-exposure and histograms have fooled many into thinking they understand metering and exposure. (Don’t get me wrong—the histogram is a wonderful tool for the photographer who truly understands it.)
  • How to use the reciprocal relationship between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to manage photography’s three variables: light, depth, and motion. This is the universal tool that enables photographers to handle the limiting factors of every scene.

Books and internet resources are a great place to start acquiring these principles, but the knowledge you gain there won’t turn to understanding until you get out with your camera and apply them. When these principles become second nature, you’ll be amazed at what you’ll be able to accomplish with your photography.

Insanity is in the mind of the beholder

If landscape photography already gives you everything you want, by all means continue doing what you’re doing. But if you’re having a hard time achieving a creative goal, I suggest that the solution is likely not doing more of what you’re already doing. Instead, start by reevaluating your comprehension of fundamental photographic principles that you might not have thought about for years. You’ll know you’re there when you have complete control of the light, motion, and depth for every scene you encounter, know how to get the result you want, or understand why it’s simply not possible.

Do I really think you’re insane for doing otherwise? Of course not. But I do think you’ll feel a little more sane if you learn to take more control of your camera.

About this image

The image at the top of the post is from a visit to Yosemite this past December. I’d guided my workshop group here for the rise of a nearly full moon, crossing my fingers that clouds wouldn’t obscure our view. The clouds exited just in the nick of time for us to enjoy a beautiful moonrise into the indigo twilight. I started with fairly tight compositions when the moon was close to Half Dome, but in the still, chilled air shortly after sunset, a thin radiation fog formed above Leidig Meadow and I started looking for a wider composition that would add the meadow to the moon and Half Dome.

Before thinking about the scene’s light, depth, and motion variables, I spent a lot of time just assembling the elements of my composition. I decided to frame the scene with Half Dome on the left and Sentinel Fall on the right, positioning myself so a group of tall foreground evergreens, mirrored by towering Sentinel Rock in the background, anchored the center of my frame. I knew that would require a wide composition that would render the moon very small, but I moved back as far as I could to allow the longest possible focal length to avoid shrinking the moon to pinhole size.

By far my biggest exposure concern was dynamic range—the moon is daylight bright, while the rest of my scene was deeply shaded. Normally I trust my histogram in these high dynamic range situations, but in this case the moon was so small that I knew it wouldn’t register. Instead I used my Sony a7RII’s pre-capture “zebra” highlight alert that indicates the parts of my scene that are overexposed.

At just a little wider than 24mm, with no significant detail in my immediate foreground, I stopped down to a fairly diffraction safe f/9. I’m always at ISO 100 unless I can’t achieve the amount of light I want at my ideal aperture and shutter speed, and in this case ISO 100 worked just fine. With my f-stop and ISO set, I increased my shutter speed slowly, checking the moon after each 1/3-stop click for the zebras (if you don’t shoot mirrorless, you can set blinking highlights and check the moon for “blinkies” when you review the image on your LCD). Since I know my camera well enough to know that I could push my exposure at least a full stop beyond the point where the zebras appeared, then recover the highlights in the Lightroom raw processor.

This image looked quite dark on my LCD, and the histogram was way to the left, but after loading it onto my computer and pulling the Lightroom Shadows slider to the right, I recovered an unbelievable amount of clean (low noise) detail, even in the darkest shadows. I just continue to be blown away by the dynamic range of this a7R Mark 2 sensor that enables me to capture scenes I’d never imagined possible in my previous (Canon) life. In this case I probably could have brightened the image further in processing, but I wanted a more moody, twilight feel.

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Yosemite Less Traveled

(Unconventional takes on the most beautiful place on Earth)
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8 Comments on “Sanity check

  1. Gary —love the shot. Minor comment– in your last para. you refer to the camera as the a7r Mark II–?? Is that a typo. The more relevant question is that I know you shoot at ISO 100 a lot . Does say shooting at a slightly higher ISO 125-200 have any noticeable impact on the image, giving you move flexibility on aperture and shutter speed ? Best regards Charlie

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    • Hey Charles, the A7RII exists, and I think Gary has been shooting with it for a while now. As for the second question … I would argue that unless you have circumstances that dictate otherwise (need SS to stop motion from wind or need a different aperture for a creative decision), shoot at the lowest base ISO that you can for the cleanest image.

  2. Gary, for those of us without an electronic viewfinder, would you recommend trading ISO for shutter speed to nail down the exposure? Then going and trading back for the final image? Meaning, shoot higher ISO to get a faster SS for quicker evaluation and then go back down to ISO 100 and required SS for the final shot. Maybe it doesn’t matter with the moon, since you likely won’t have seconds worth of SS, but it might be helpful in other situations? Or is this not a good way to go about it since the dynamic range of the image depends on the ISO, and you are using the histogram to evaluate.

    Thanks for the thoughtful posts. I’ve been reading for a little over a year now and this is my first comment. I truly enjoy reading and re-reading your blog.

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