Expect the Unexpected

Gary Hart Photography: High Sierra Nightfall, Crescent Moon and Venus, Yosemite

High Sierra Nightfall, Crescent Moon and Venus, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 100-400 GM
1/2 second
ISO 400

With so many natural variables beyond our control, and no matter how creatively we visualize, thoroughly we plan, and precisely we execute, landscape photographers go into every shoot uncertain of success. But making consistently successful images depends not only on our ability to visualize, plan, and execute, but also on our ability to recognize and respond to unexpected opportunities.

The truth is, your creativity’s greatest limitation is probably your own biases. Put in more practical terms, don’t allow yourself to be swayed by preconceived notions of what “the shot” is, what equipment you’ll need, and whether the opportunities are exhausted.

We cover this kind of stuff in my workshops, where one of my most frequently asked questions is, what lens should I bring? I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the underlying essence of this question is, what lens can I leave behind? And since it’s a photography truism that the lens you need is the one you left at home, I’m usually reluctant to give an absolute answer. In fact, I usually encourage people to bring all they can carry.

A couple of weeks ago my brother Jay and I made a quick trip to Olmsted Point in Yosemite to photograph the Milky Way. I’d chosen Olmsted because I think it’s the best easily accessible (with a car) place to photograph Half Dome with the Milky Way; I chose this night because clear skies were forecast, and a brand new moon meant the darkest possible sky. Though I knew a small sliver of one-percent moon would be visible for an hour or so after sunset, as soon as I realized the moon would be nowhere near Half Dome, I didn’t give it another thought—this trip was all about the Milky Way and Half Dome. Period. Nevertheless, I packed all my gear because…. Well, why not?

I’m afraid that for me, “all I can carry” requires at least two camera bags, which of course isn’t usually practical when flying, given the space and weight constraints. But when I drive to a location from home, I forgo the Sophie’s Choice equipment decisions and just pack everything. Everything. Which is why, for a trip on which I’d only planned to use my Sony a7SIII and (brand new!) Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM lens, the back of my Outback contained (among many other things) my Sony a7RIV and Sony 100-400 GM.

The other part of being prepared is to no be so locked onto your objective that you fail to recognize other opportunities. This is a problem I’m frequently reminded of in my workshop image review sessions, when everyone shares one of their images from the workshop for my feedback. We’re all going to the same locations at the same time, but it’s a rare session that at least one person doesn’t share something that causes others, myself included, to exclaim, “Wow, I didn’t see that!” The lesson here is, the instant you think you know “the” shot is the instant your creative door slams shut.

This lesson also applies to the belief that the show is over, or that the show isn’t going to happen. Some of my most unforgettable photography experiences have happened because I stayed just a little longer after it seemed pretty obvious that Mother Nature was done, or decided to go out when there was every indication that nothing was going to happen.

We pulled into Olmsted Point a little after sunset. Job-one was changing out of my Sacramento-summer T-shirt and shorts, and into my High-Sierra-night long-johns, flannel-lined jeans, wool shirt, and down jacket. But while changing, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the wisp of crescent moon setting behind a granite ridge far north of the scene I’d come to photograph. And joining the moon on its journey to the horizon was Venus, a visual bonus I hadn’t anticipated.

Sufficiently fortified against the elements and unable to take my mind off the moon and Venus, I discarded my plan to make the 1/4 mile hike up to Olmsted Point before the darkness was complete (rationalizing that I could probably do this hike blindfolded anyway). Standing at the car I mentally framed a shot, then extracted my tripod, a7RIV, and 100-400. While setting up in the parking lot would have worked, I decided to scramble up the adjacent granite slope for an elevated vantage point that reduced some of the foreground clutter.

It was pretty dark by the time I was in position and had everything assembled, but since I was only interested in creating silhouetted shapes to go with the moon, the darkness wasn’t a big problem. I shot until the moon dropped out of sight. Because I had to move around a bit to adjust the relationships between the trees and the descending moon and Venus, I only managed nine frames before the moon was gone

The Milky Way delivered as expected, but I found extra pleasure thinking about this moon shoot that kicked off the night and delivered something as satisfying as it was unexpected.

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A Gallery of the Unexpected

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2 Comments on “Expect the Unexpected

  1. Good day Gary,

    I read in https://garyhartblog.com/photo-tips/digital-metering-and-exposure/ that you use a spot meter to meter highlights vs pattern or matrix. Most modern mirrorless camera have a highlight warning of some sort. With this turned on or activated, as you know you just adjust the SS in M exposure mode to preserve the highlights and not clip the blacks via the histogram. Of course this does depend on the DR of the camera. The XT3 Fuji I use dose not have the DR of the Sony but is reasonable, not great. My question is why do you see the need to use a spot meter with highlight warnings turned on?

    Too with this image you show a F16. Going by your estimation of the hat, baseball and rifle for the focus point (guess on the tree) and where you were focus from across from Olmsted point, I would think you would be in the F8-11 range.Can you explain why F16.

    I set my F stop based on my focus point and or desired DOF, (roughly hat F8 etc), unless astro and then wide open, set my ISO lowest possible, adjust SS to preserve the highlights, then adjust the ISO and SS again based on the histogram. At night the histogram is shifted to the left as the majority of the image is dark with spikes on the right adjust via SS and little in the middle as few mid-tones. All is normally M exposure. Hopefully this is clear.

    Hope to hear from you if time allows and you understand my questions……


    Tom Gibson Photography 831-233-2152(c)

    https://tomgibson.smugmug.com/ https://www.instagram.com/tlgphoto7/


    • Hi Tom. Yes, I think I understand, but correct me if I don’t. I used to spot meter back when I first wrote this article, and in fact I still think it’s beneficial for photographers to know how to spot meter in manual mode, but live view histograms have rendered that approach obsolete, as I go on to explain later in the article (updated many years later).

      I do think it’s a huge mistake to base exposure decisions on the highlight alert, because they’re not terribly accurate, especially for photographers shooting raw. They invariably alert far too soon, causing you to not get everything out of your highlights and often creating unnecessary noise in the shadows. So I use the highlight alert only as a reminder that I’m approaching the exposure threshold and need to be especially careful monitoring my histogram.

      I usually just seat-of-the-pants my f-stop choice, but in this case, at 400mm with trees just a couple of hundred yards away, I knew DOF would be limited. So I referenced my hyperfocal app and learned that the hyperfocal distance was more than 1/4 mile at f/11, so I stopped down to f/16, then very carefully chose my focus point because I still had a very small margin for error. Even so, I magnified to preview image on my LCD to confirm that both the moon and the closest trees were sharp.

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