Making a Scene

Gary Hart Photography: Spring Evening, Cathedral Beach, Yosemite

Spring Evening, Cathedral Beach, Yosemite
Sony ūĚõā1
Sony 24-105 G
1/3 second
F/16
ISO 50

Think about what goes into making a landscape image. If the scenes and conditions are our raw materials, then it would be logical to say that our camera gear is our tools. But in addition to cameras, lenses, and other physical photography hardware, I’d say that our photography toolkit also includes the techniques we employ to deal with nature’s fickle whims.

And speaking of fickle whims, it’s impossible to deny that conditions make some scenes easier than others. But as much as I long for crimson sunsets, vivid rainbows, mirror reflections, and a host of other natural phenomena that can make virtually any shot feel like a slam dunk, these things are not always available when I want to make an image.¬†For me, one of the greatest¬†challenges is overcoming the boring (cloudless) skies that my California home is known (and loved) for. Not only do blank skies add rarely anything to a scene, they’re responsible for harsh light and the extreme dynamic range that even the best cameras struggle to handle. What’s a photographer to do?

For starters, we need to open our mind (and eyes). One of photography’s less heralded gifts is its ability, over time, to teach us to tune-in to nature’s subtleties, and how to leverage conditions that we once viewed as too difficult, into beautiful images. Fortunately, difficult doesn’t mean impossible‚ÄĒin fact, difficult can be downright fun. And the truth is, there are a lot of ways to overcome boring skies. Here are some suggestions:

  • Shade: One of my favorite approaches to blank skies is photographing moving water, spring flowers, and fall color in full shade. While not spectacular, shade light is shadowless and easy to work with. It also makes it easy to blur water without a filter.
  • Reflection: For the best reflections, look for sunlit subjects (the brighter the better) reflecting in still, shaded water.
  • Sunstar:¬†Any time the sun’s up, a sunstar is a readily available addition option for spicing up your scene. Position yourself so all but a small sliver of sun is blocked by an opaque object (such as a tree, rock, or the horizon), dial your f-stop to f/16 or smaller. Note that some lenses deliver sharper, more defined sunstars than others, and in general, wide lenses work best, especially primes and high quality zooms.
  • Silhouette: Blank skies at sunrise and sunset are a great opportunity to create silhouettes that emphasize color and shape by eliminating everything in the scene except color and shape. Better still, incorporating a crescent moon (which always rises just before the sun, and sets just after the sun), can take silhouette scenes to the next level.
  • Stars: Don’t forget the night sky. Often when I’m disappointed by a lack of clouds at a nice location, I just wait until dark and photograph the scene by moon- or starlight.
  • Black and white and infrared: While I don’t photograph B&W and infrared, they are wonderful techniques for dealing with harsh midday light.

For example

Given their frequency, I’ve become pretty good at making the best of blue sky days in Yosemite. While last month’s¬†Yosemite Waterfalls and Dogwood photo workshop did enjoy a few clouds, we also dealt with a fair amount of blank skies. For our first sunrise we photographed silhouettes and a rising crescent moon. And later in the workshop we spent a couple of hours photographing dogwood in the shade (mixed with a little sunlight) in the Fern Springs / Pohono Bridge area. But I think my favorite blue sky shoot came at Cathedral Beach on the workshop’s¬†penultimate afternoon.

Cathedral Beach is an up-close view of El Capitan right on the Merced River.¬†The low and slow flow of autumn makes a glassy reflection here, and in the months closer to the winter solstice, when the sun is farther south, all of El Capitan gets spectacular late afternoon light. But by mid-spring the river rushes and swirls with snowmelt, and the sun has moved so far north that only El Capitan’s west-facing wall gets late sunlight. But as you can see, all is not lost.

Viewing El Capitan from Cathedral Beach that afternoon, the first thing to catch my eye was the gorgeous light etching the otherwise shaded granite’s vertical plunge. No less spectacular was the brilliant backlight illuminating the cottonwood and grass across the river and reflecting color in the river.

I pulled out my (brand new!) Sony A1 and pondered my lens choice. Since capturing all of El Capitan from this location requires something wider than 24mm, I’d normally go with my Sony 16-35 GM or 12-24 GM lens here. But with no clouds and most of El Capitan in shade, I really wanted to eliminate the sky, most of the granite, and the less interesting surrounding foliage, so I reached for¬†my Sony 24-105G lens.

This scene worked as a horizontal or vertical, but I finally zeroed in on the vertical composition because it was the best way to¬†distill the scene down to its essentials: El Capitan’s edge light, the backlit foliage, the reflection, and the gold-flecked riverbed beneath parallel ripples. I moved along the riverbank until all this good stuff aligned with the set of grassy mounds catching light in the near foreground. I wanted front-to-back sharpness, so I stopped down to f/16 and focused on the most distant of the foreground mounds. And even though I didn’t have a mirror surface, I dialed the reflection up with my polarizer to add a little color to the river.

In Yosemite it’s hard to take a bad picture, but some are more rewarding than others. While I doubt it will be one of those images that goes viral, this image makes me especially happy because finding it and assembling all the components took a little creative effort.

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The Cure for Blank Skies

Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.

 

2 Comments on “Making a Scene

  1. Hello Gary. Great image. Why did you use ISO 50? Is that the native ISO for the new Sony A1?

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    • Thanks, Charles. Actually, I was trying to figure that out myself, and I’m pretty sure what happened was that I put on an ND filter to smooth the water, and dropped to ISO 50 for the longest possible shutter speed. Shortly before taking this shot, I went back to my standard polarizer and just forgot to go back to ISO 100. Turns out I like the slide blur I got at 1/3 second anyway, so all’s well that ends well. ūüėĄ

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