Good Times at Badwater

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Reflection, Badwater, Death Valley

Sunset Reflection, Badwater, Death Valley
Sony a7RIV
Sony 12-24 G
.8 seconds
F/11
ISO 100

When I decided to make my living as a photographer, about 15 years ago, I promised myself that I would photograph only what I want to photograph. That’s one reason, and perhaps the prime reason, I built my business around photo workshops rather than image sales. Because not only do photo workshops align with some of my personal strengths, they allow me to select my photography subjects and compositions for their personal appeal instead of their salability. By photographing and sharing only the images that most please me, I give potential customers a pretty good idea of what I have to offer—if you don’t like my photography, you probably shouldn’t sign up for my workshops.

That’s a long way of explaining why you see so many moon and stars, lightning, rainbow, and reflection images in my portfolio: I can photograph anything I want, and photographing those things makes me happy. With all the online ridicule and disagreement in the online photography community, sometimes its easy to forget what a joyful endeavor photography is (or should be).

In 2005, the very first time I visited  Death Valley as a photographer, there was water on the Badwater Playa—so much water that a kayaker scooted atop its surface. But I didn’t appreciate the uniqueness of that experience enough to take full photographic advantage, which is is how I ended up waiting 15 years to see water at Badwater again.

The Badwater lake was much smaller this year than it was in 2005. That year, the water lapped at the shoulder of Badwater Road; this year the lake was a 10-minute walk from the road. And I don’t know how deep it was in 2005, but this year it wasn’t deep enough for a kayak, not even close. In fact, I’m pretty sure I could have walked all the way across in sneakers without getting my socks wet.

But because the lake was so shallow, the reflection was off the charts. So nice in fact that I took my workshop group out here twice, once for sunrise and again a day later for sunset. For the sunset shoot most of us ventured far enough into the lake that we were entirely surrounded by reflection. The sky that evening was a disorganized medley of thin clouds that throbbed with sunset color, and its reflection completely surrounded us.

The water was thin enough that the polygon patterns that Badwater is famous for remained clearly visible at our feet. Composing this spectacular sunset, I went with my 12-24 lens to include as much sky and water as possible, dropped low, and positioned myself to feature the symmetry of the polygon patterns.

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|| Here’s an updated version of my Photo Tips article on reflections ||

Reflections

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Reflection

Dictionary.com: The return of light, heat, sound, etc., after striking a surface.

Okay, so that’s pretty basic. How about this one?

WikipediaThe change in direction of a wavefront at an interface between two different media so that the wavefront returns into the medium from which it originated

Whoa, I hope that’s not on the test.


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 thanks to 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 shimmering atop a still pool, to an abstract shuffle of color and texture on an undulating 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. For example, when sunlight strikes El Capitan in Yosemite, some of the sun’s photons bounce straight back into our eyes, and there it is: El Capitan!

But other photons striking El Capitan head off in different directions—some are captured by other sets of eyes, and others land on the surface of the Merced River. Some of these photons pass beneath the river’s surface to reveal the submerged riverbed, while others bounce off. The ricocheting photons that travel from El Capitan and bounce off the river, reach our eyes as a reflection. In other words, what we call a reflection is in fact re-reflected light (reflected first from El Capitan, then by the river).

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.

Sunset Palette, Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite

Sunset Palette, Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite

Playing the angles

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 of 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 out in a 25 second exposure achieved with the help of 6-stop neutral density filter.

Where to focus

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Autumn Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

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.

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 foreground.

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.

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A Reflection Gallery

Click an image for a closer look and slide show.

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