A Day in the Life

Gary Hart Photography: Multi-Strike Lightning, Vishnu Temple, Grand Canyon

Multi-Strike Lightning, Vishnu Temple, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/8 second
F/16
ISO 200

My eyes pop open at the very first piano note of Pat Metheny Group’s “Minuano.” It’s 4:10 a.m., precisely 30 minutes before I’d told my group we’d be taillights-up-the-road for the day’s sunrise shoot. No matter how soothing the day’s chosen wakeup tune, any wakeup time that starts with a “4:” is jarring. Since my rule is to be at the cars to load 5 minutes before departure (because I wait or go looking for no one—if you’re not there at the designated time, I assume you’ve opted out), I have less than 25 minutes to shower, shave, dress, and walk (hike) to retrieve my car from the far reaches of the Grand Canyon Lodge parking lot. So as much as I’d love to close my eyes and continue listening to one of my favorite songs, my feet are on the floor before the percussion chimes in, and I reach full speed long before the song does. I know I won’t slow down until lights out tonight.

Twenty-five minutes later I’m idling in the darkness, waiting for the group to load into the cars. While waiting I quickly check my phone for a signal—never a sure thing on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. One bar of LTE—enough to open my lightning app and check, for the first of what will no doubt be dozens of times by day’s end, for any nearby activity. As expected, nothing so far. With everyone accounted for and ready, I put my car in gear and lead our small parade to Point Imperial.

My first group’s Point Imperial sunrise had been one for the ages and I secretly cross my fingers for the second group to experience something similar. It’s still dark and early when we pull up, but not so dark that I can’t see that the horizon is choked by clouds. As the twilight brightens we enjoy soft light beneath a sky-full of interesting clouds, but no sunrise color. When the 5:40 sunrise comes and goes without the sun making an appearance, I visually survey the group sense no disappointment. With no other locations on the morning’s schedule, I’m in no rush to leave. When it’s finally clear that everyone’s done shooting, I gather the group by the cars and give them a quick summary of my plan for the rest of the day. We’re back at Grand Canyon Lodge by 7:00.

What I’d shared before our Point Imperial parking lot gathering was that the day’s lightning forecast was very promising, and rather than try to chase it, our cabins’ proximity to the rim makes Grand Canyon Lodge the ideal place to hang out and wait for the lightning to come to us. The plan for the morning is to enjoy a few hours of free time (to breakfast, sleep, hike, process images, or whatever) while I monitor my lightning app and keep an eye on the South Rim, which is clearly visible across the canyon from the lodge’s view decks. At the first sign of any activity, I’ll send a group text and we’ll gather to start shooting as quickly as they can get down there. But I also encouraged them to monitor the skies themselves, because monsoon storms can ramp up with surprising speed. And if the sky is still quiet at 11 a.m., we’ll do image review and training in the lodge auditorium (where we’ll also have a view of the rim and any potential lightning). My final instruction was to bring their cameras and Lightning Triggers, because lightning trumps training and there’s a good chance we won’t finish the training.

By 11 a.m. my app shows lightning popping near Flagstaff, less than 100 miles south. A good sign, because monsoon storms usually move up from the south, and often (but not always) lightning near Flagstaff bodes well for storms of our own. My fingers are crossed as I start the image review.

The lightning starts firing across the rim a little before 1 p.m., just as I wrap up the image review—perfect timing (for which I can take no credit). As is frequently the case, this doesn’t start as an especially dynamic display, but it’s enough to get everyone hopeful. The workshop started 24 hours earlier with a similar lightning show that delayed our orientation before fizzling after an hour or so. Even though that storm didn’t amount to much, it was active enough that a few in the group had already captured a lightning strike or two. It also gave everyone a small taste of the lightning photography experience, and gave me the opportunity to make sure everyone was up to speed with their Lightning Triggers and best approach for capturing lightning. But today we want more.

Gary Hart Photography: 90-Degree Lightning, Wotan's Throne and Angel's Gate, Grand Canyon

Right Angle Lightning, Wotan’s Throne and Angel’s Gate, Grand Canyon

Though not spectacular, today’s is in fact more, lasting over two hours, with strikes spread from southeast to southwest across the South Rim. The pattern for most of the afternoon seems to be one cell remaining active for 20 or 30 minutes, and as it starts to fade, someone notices another cell has come to life somewhere else, and we turn our attention in that direction.

Unlike yesterday, some of this afternoon’s strikes have real personality. Many take a rather circuitous route to earth (like the image on the right), a few feature multiple bolts (separate strokes) or forks (one bolt with multiple prongs), and most produce lots of spidery filaments that only really show up in a photo. Though not the most prolific lightning show I’ve seen, by the end I’m confident everyone in my group has captured something nice—a huge relief.

But we’re not done. Even though the prime time for lightning is behind us, we still have our late afternoon drive out Cape Royal Road to visit most of the remaining unseen North Rim vistas, and wrapping up with sunset at Cape Royal. And though I’m not terribly optimistic, if the clouds depart, we’ll stay out there for a Milky Way shoot.

By the time we depart for Cape Royal Road, there’s no sign of lightning activity in the vicinity. Not necessarily a death knell for our lightning chances, but not a particularly good sign either. After a couple of short-ish stops at Vista Encantada and Roosevelt Point, we spend about 45 minutes at Walhalla Overlook. My cell signal is intermittent out here, but as we’re about to leave Walhalla I get enough of a signal to open my lighting app and see that there’s quite a bit of new activity about 50 miles south—a little too far for quality photography, but worth monitoring nevertheless.

It’s an easy .4 mile walk out to Cape Royal Point, with a handful of photo possibilities on the way. In the parking lot I give everyone a brief orientation about the opportunities there and send them down the trail. Before grabbing my gear, I let everyone get ahead of me so I can check on them on my way out. By the time make it to the point at the end of the trail, I see several photographers with lightning triggers (some from my group, some from another small group) pointing toward Vishnu Temple. Looking in that direction, it doesn’t take long to figure out what has gotten their attention: a massive thunderhead has set up camp about 30 miles south and is sending massive bolts earthward every 20 or 30 seconds.

I race to set up my camera and Lightning Trigger, then run around like Paul Revere trying to hail those in the group who have lagged behind. Since we’re so scattered, it’s impossible to know exactly who’s where, but within five minutes or so I’m relatively confident that everyone knows what’s happening.

For the next hour we enjoy what I instantly dubbed one of my top-5 lightning shoots of all-time. It has everything I dare hope for, both in terms of lightning quality and quantity. Plus personality—lots and lots of personality. And if you read my post from two weeks ago, you know that the missing ingredient is often composition. But, as if everything else isn’t enough, this evening some of the very best lightning aligns beautifully with Vishnu Temple, one of Grand Canyon’s most distinctive and recognizable monuments.

Then, just about the time the lightning to the south slows down, another storm blazes up in the east that is at least as prolific, violent, and chock full of personality. Unlike many in my group, I delay turning to this display because I don’t like the composition quite as much, but after seeing some of the incredible strikes happening in that direction I just can’t resist. When darkness falls and the activity finally starts to slow, we make our way back to the cars for a very happy drive back to the lodge.

With another 4-something wakeup in my immediate future, my lights are out before 10 p.m. I sleep very well.

A few words about this image

Gary Hart Photography: Multi-Strike Lightning, Vishnu Temple, Grand Canyon

Multi-Strike Lightning, Vishnu Temple, Grand Canyon

Today’s image is just one of many captured shortly after I arrived at Cape Royal this evening. The lightning came so frequently, and so much of my attention was on members of my group, that I have no specific memory of this particular set.

One thing that I love about still photography is its ability to freeze action that happens too fast for the eye/brain to register. Even if I did remember seeing this particular lighting trio, it came and went so suddenly that I’d have had no idea how much character it possessed.

The prominent point in the foreground is Vishnu Temple, a pyramid-shaped landmark that stands in striking contrast to nearby flat-topped Wotan’s Throne, when seen from most of the South Rim vistas.

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Lightning With Personality

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

 

Beam Me Up

Gary Hart Photography: Evening Glory, Desert View, Grand Canyon

Evening Glory, Desert View, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/100 second
F/20
ISO 100

I won’t lie: The primary reason I go to the Grand Canyon in monsoon season—and for that matter, the primary reason most people sign up for my Grand Canyon monsoon workshops—is to photograph lightning. But as we all know, lightning is a fickle phenomenon, even during the Grand Canyon’s usually electric monsoon season. Because lightning is never guaranteed, I always do my very best to moderate my own expectations, and to let people who sign up for a workshop know I can’t promise it. But still…

Fortunately, the Grand Canyon in any season is pretty spectacular, and especially so during the monsoon. The carved sediment’s enduring beauty, combined with billowing cumulus clouds that turn some shade of pink, red, and/or orange at sunrise/sunset, and sometimes (fingers crossed) deliver vivid rainbows, makes the Grand Canyon summer monsoon my favorite time to be on the rim, even without lightning. But still…

The forecast the for the final day of this year’s second (and final) workshop was “Sunny,” the first such forecast I’d seen in my nearly two weeks at the Grand Canyon. But I’ve learned that a monsoon “Sunny” forecast just means fewer clouds, and rarely no clouds. And you never know—even with no rain or clouds in the forecast, I made sure everyone in the group packed a Lightning Trigger because I can share multiple stories of similar Grand Canyon forecasts that nevertheless resulted in lighting. Alas…

If you were expecting one of those plot-twist happy endings, you’ll be disappointed. Because as you might infer from this image, we did not get any lightning this evening. But as you can also see, we had no reason to be disappointed.

After a short stop at Moran Point, the group and I spent the rest of that afternoon and evening photographing my three favorite Grand Canyon vistas, first at Lipan and Navajo Points, before setting up for our final sunset at Desert View.

All three of these views stand out for their view of the Colorado River’s 90 degree detour from a north/south trending river to an east/west trending river. Standing on the rim at any of these vistas offers expansive views north, upstream and into Marble Canyon, and west, downstream toward what’s arguably Grand Canyon’s most iconic stretch. I can’t think of any other rim view that offers bigger, better views of the canyon than these east-most South Rim vistas. (But Hopi Point is close.)

Despite lowered expectations, we departed this afternoon hoping for lightning (which, I should add, given the two sunset lightning shoots that preceded this sunset, was downright greedy). Instead we found the canyon walls bathed in warm light shafting through scattered clouds hang above the western horizon. Not lightning, but too shabby either.

Even before the light started to warm, I decided that the best show this evening would be to the west, featuring the canyon’s receding ridges below the setting sun. And with a slight haze hanging in the canyon, what excited me most was the potential for sunbeams streaming through openings in the clouds and gaps in the ridges.

I digress

This might be a good time to explain the difference between some popular but different phenomena popular among landscape photographers: sunstars (or sunbursts, starbursts, and probably some other labels I’ve missed), sunbeams, and crepuscular rays.

  • Sunstars are diffraction spikes that are created in the lens when sunlight is bent by the slight change of direction at the intersection of the lens iris’s blades (that comprise the aperture). They’re a photographic phenomenon, visible in the viewfinder and resulting image, but not to the unaided eye.
  • Sunbeams are atmospheric phenomena caused when sunlight passes through openings in clouds or landscape features like tree branches or mountain peaks. They’re visible to the unaided and most prominent when the atmosphere is filled with water or dust particles that scatters the sunlight.
  • Crepuscular rays are sunbeams that happen at twilight, only when the sun is below the horizon and its light passes through clouds, mountain peaks, or some other unseen obstruction beneath the horizon. As a subset of sunbeams, crepuscular rays are also atmospheric phenomena visible to the unaided eye, and benefit from airborne dust or water vapor.

So anyway…

Expectations reset, I shifted to the dual potential for both a large sun and sunbeams, and prepared accordingly: already on my Sony a7RIV was my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens; to my Sony 𝛂1 I added my Sony 100-400 GM lens and Sony 2X Teleconverter. I started shooting as soon as the sunbeams appeared, using the wider setup to capture as much canyon and shafting light. Early on I occasionally switched to the telephoto; once the sun dropped below (most of) the clouds and the sunbeams faded, I finished up entirely with the telephoto combination.

The trick to exposing a scene like this with one click (always my goal) is to make sure I don’t blow out (overexpose) the highlights. While I had no expectation of capturing detail or color in the sun (it was too bright to prevent from blowing out), I knew the surrounding clouds and sky had the potential to turn a rich yellow-gold before the sun dropped below the horizon. Saving the sky color would mean underexposing the canyon, but closely monitoring my histogram enabled me to capture just enough foreground light to retain the outline of the ridges shrinking in the distance, at the same time preventing that great sky color from washing out.

The result is this image, with a sky that’s remarkably close to what I saw and a foreground that’s much darker than my eyes saw. Since this image is all about the sky and sunbeams, letting the canyon go dark (-ish) aided that emphasis. Even though the canyon looked nearly black on my camera’s image-review screen, a moderate Lightroom Shadow-slider increase confirmed later that the dark foreground contained exactly the amount of detail I wanted. Score another win for the histogram. (And if you’re wondering why I used f/20, it’s because I’d set up for a possible sunstar and forgot to switch back to the f/11 I usually default to.)

One more thing

Lest you feel sorry for my second workshop group for not getting lightning, let me reassure you that this group did not lack for quality lightning. At Cape Royal two nights before this, we witnessed what I instantly called one of the top-5 lightning shoots of my life. Then at Hopi Point the next night, we witnessed a lightning display that arguably topped it. I have so many excellent lightning images from these two shoots that I haven’t had time to go through them and decide which ones to process. And since I shared a lightning image (from the first workshop) last week, I figured I’d share something that’s not lightning. But rest assured, I’ll be sharing more lightning soon. Lots more.

Grand Canyon Photo Workshops


More Monsoon Magic

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Wait for it…

Gary Hart Photography: Electric Sunset, Hopi Point Lightning, Grand Canyon

Electric Sunset, Hopi Point Lightning, Grand Canyon
Sony 𝛂1
Sony 24-105 G
.4 seconds
F/16
ISO 200

Landscape photographers have a couple of ways to make nice images. By far the most important is the ability to see the special but less obvious, then know how to compose and expose that special vision in ways that clarify and convey the previously unseen beauty. But sometimes we just need to know when to show up and where to point the camera, and the patience to wait for the special to come to us.

Pretty much any sunrise or sunset at a nice location qualifies for the show up and wait approach, as can popular classics such as Yosemite’s Horsetail Fall in February, or the midday shaft of light in Upper Antelope Canyon’s main room. But whether it’s a planned sunset that went even better than hoped, or a rainbow that seemed to materialize out of nowhere, in their own way these gifts from Nature that don’t require great vision are just as thrilling as the hidden discoveries we work so hard for.

Lightning photography requires a lot of the show up and wait approach, because all the compositional skill in the world can’t make a great lightning image if the lightning doesn’t happen. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been photographing lightning and seen a beautiful composition—some perfect combination of landscape and conditions—in a different direction, and said to myself, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great if the lightning fired right there.” Unfortunately, lightning is a fickle phenomenon that rarely does what photographers want it to do. In fact, it sometimes feels like the lightning is consciously avoiding the composition I want, always in favor of something much less interesting. Sigh…

Right now I’m at Grand Canyon, trying to take advantage of its expansive vistas that frequently provide views of multiple rain cells with lightning potential. While the vast majority of these potential lightning sources never deliver, my original approach to photographing them was to maximize my chances by identifying and targeting the cell with the most potential, without concern for the composition. An alternate approach to photographing lightning is to target the rain cell with the nicest composition, regardless of the strength of its potential—then hope.

Because I’ve learned that lightning neophytes are usually thrilled to capture any lightning, I generally encourage my workshop students, most of whom have never captured great (or any) lightning images, to favor success over the best composition by simply pointing in whatever direction the lightning is most likely to fire.

I’ll never forget the first time I traveled to the Grand Canyon with the sole desire to photograph lightning, and those first few fruitless days on the rim, pointing my camera toward a promising cell only to see it fizzle. I’d have given anything to have just one frame with lightning, composition be damned. And I also never forget the thrill the first time my camera captured lightning.

Ten years later, I’ve reached the point in my lightning photography where I’ve had enough successful captures that I can afford to be a little more selective. In recent years I frequently find myself pointing at the potential lightning spot that has the composition I like most, shunning the one that appears most likely to produce lightning. It’s often a recipe for failure, but the infrequent successes more than compensate.

I got my most recent dose of compensation last Wednesday evening, in this year’s first (of two) Grand Canyon monsoon photo workshops. My group had already enjoyed several lightning shoots from various locations on the South Rim, but nothing spectacular so far. For sunset Wednesday evening, we took the shuttle out Hermit’s Rest Road (no cars allowed). There are many vistas on this route, so I gave my group enough time to visit as many stops as the wanted to, with the understanding that we’d all gather back at Hopi Point to shoot sunset together there.

Soon after arriving at Hopi Point about 45 minutes before sunset, I checked my My Lightning Tracker app and saw that all of the activity was at least 50 miles away and didn’t really align with anything interesting. While the view at Hopi Point is one of my favorites, I’ve photographed here so much that now I only bring out my camera when there’s potential for something spectacular—either lightning, or great color and/or clouds. So my camera stayed in the bag.

With almost 100 percent cloud cover, my decision seemed reasonable, but as the sun dropped, a small opening appeared on the western horizon, directly in the sun’s path. “Hmmmm,” I said, inching toward my bag. I looked again. A sky filled with clouds and a hole on the horizon is the ideal combination for a colorful sunset, so I pulled out my Sony α1, already loaded with my Sony 24-105 G lens, and set up shop along the rail to wait with the rest of my group.

As we chatted, it became pretty clear that the opening would persist through sunset, and that something nice was in store. A few minutes later, when a small rain curtain spread just to the right of the sun’s path, I said out loud, “All this scene needs is a lightning bolt.” I was half joking, but this thought prompted me to check my lightning app one more time. Still nothing really exciting, but there were hints of distant, minor lightning activity in the general direction of the sunset, so I pulled out my Lightning Trigger—just in case. I encouraged the rest of the group to get theirs out too, then quickly scanned the horizon for other rain curtains with potential for lightning—I saw a couple that might produce, but nothing promising enough to justify anyone diverting from the sunset.

Then we waited and clicked as the sun dropped and started to light the sky. It turned out that the opening wasn’t as open as we’d hoped, so not enough sunlight made it through to color the entire sky, and we never actually even saw the sun. But all was not lost, as the clouds near the horizon throbbed a brilliant reddish orange and I could tell by all the clicking that everyone was pretty thrilled.

When a few higher clouds lit, I oriented my camera vertically and angled farther upward for more sky than I usually include here (Pro tip: the Grand Canyon is usually more interesting than the sky.) Already pretty content with what I had so far, imagine my surprise when, just as the color reached its crescendo, a streak of light darted from the clouds and kissed the horizon. My first reaction was that it came from higher in the sky than I’d have expected, but it happened so fast and unexpectedly that I really wasn’t sure what I’d seen. In fact, if the rest of the group hadn’t exclaimed in unison, I might not have believed I’d seen it at all.

The unified exclamation quickly turned to joyful laughter from those who had taken the time to attach their Lightning Triggers, and regretful moans from those who hadn’t. When a couple of people defied my recommendation to not check to see if they’d captured the bolt (you have to turn off the Trigger to review images, and often lightning’s not as visible on the review screen as it is on a computer) and reported success, I couldn’t resist and checked mine too.

There it was. I instantly saw why it had appeared to originate so much higher: the bolt had emerged high, slid across the front of the thunderhead, and weaved through a window in the clouds before disappearing and emerging one last time. And perfectly aligned with the Colorado River, it couldn’t have struck in a more ideal place if I’d have drawn it in myself.

I’ll admit that this image isn’t a creative masterpiece (the composition isn’t much different from several of my other Hopi Point images), but I will take a little credit for being there, and also for the foresight to be ready for lightning when its possibility wasn’t obvious. And honestly, it was simply an honor to be there for something so magnificent—my only job was to wait, and not screw it up.

My Lightning Gallery || My Lightning Photo Tips Article


Worth Waiting For

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Watch Out For That Tree

Gary Hart Photography: Reflection on the Rocks, Wanaka Willow Tree, New Zealand

Reflection on the Rocks, Wanaka Willow Tree, New Zealand
Sony a7RIV
Sony 12-24 f/4 G
1/5 second
F/11
ISO 100

I’m incredibly blessed to make my living guiding enthusiastic photographers to many of our planet’s most beautiful locations. While this makes my life far too rich for complaint, let me say (without complaining) that a particular challenge imposed by frequent return visits to the same locations is finding unique ways to photograph them.

My usual go-to approach at these familiar locations is to play with the scene’s “creative triad,” using the exposure variables manage my images’ motion, light, and depth. Whether it’s blurring or freezing water, going for silhouettes or high key, or choosing depth-of-field from narrow to extreme, I love love playing with these variables to create something unique. But some scenes don’t even offer a lot of those opportunities.

Never is that more clear than when I visit the solitary willow tree near the south shore of Lake Wanaka in New Zealand. This striking tree just stands by itself in a lake (most of the time), with little motion, silhouette, or depth of field options to play with.

Nevertheless, each time I visit Wanaka, I challenge myself to find a version of the scene that’s different from anything I’ve captured. And just because I don’t have my full arsenal of creativity weapons doesn’t mean I’ve arrived completely disarmed.

Without the creative triad, my creativity relies largely on some combination of conditions, juxtaposition, and focal length. As you can see in the gallery below, the conditions at the time of my visit play a huge role in my creative choices. Weather conditions for sure, but also things like the quality of the reflection, the light, and whether it’s day or night.

Because a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ll spare you long explanations and share some examples with just a few words of explanation

Gary Hart Photography: Wanaka Reflection, New Zealand

Wanaka Reflection, New Zealand

New Zealand’s winter clouds are a frequent source of delight. This image was captured late-morning (not usually great light), but the clouds and reflection were so nice that I couldn’t resist shooting. I chose a horizontal composition because it allowed me to include more clouds reflection, while filling the frame top-to-bottom with the tree and its reflection, than a vertical would.



Gary Hart Photography: Red Sunset, Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

Red Sunset, Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

Juxtaposition is almost always a prime consideration. I especially love the snow-capped Southern Alps, so all things equal, I’ll usually position myself so they’re in the background. In this scene the reflection was slightly disturbed by gentle undulations on the lake’s surface, so I added a 6-stop neutral density filter to smooth the water. The resulting 30-second exposure also softened the fast moving clouds—a bonus.



Gary Hart Photography: Gray Dawn, Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

Gray Dawn, Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

But it’s not always about background juxtaposition. For example, one morning the fog was so thick, the background was completely irrelevant, so I chose a spot that best emphasized the tree’s shape and allowed me to fill my foreground with a mosaic of barely submerged stones.



One of the conditions I have at least partial control over is stars. By going out after dark on a clear night, I can include stars. And depending on the timing, I can juxtapose the tree with the Milky Way. Because these images were captured at different times of the night, including the Milky Way resulted in completely different backgrounds. The first image came a few hours after sunset, when the Milky Way hung above the amber lights of Wanaka; the second image came on a different night, a couple of hours before sunrise, when the Milky Way had rotated above the Southern Alps.

 



Gary Hart Photography: Lone Willow Reflection, Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

Lone Willow Reflection, Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

I wasn’t really crazy about the sky when I captured this image, but I liked the background peaks and low-hanging clouds. So I retreated down the lakeshore, away from the tree, and then climbed a gentle slope to distance myself even further, then used a telephoto to enlarge the tree and shrink the distance between it and the mountains and clouds.



About this image
Gary Hart Photography: Reflection on the Rocks

Reflection on the Rocks, Wanaka Willow Tree, New Zealand

This image is the product of a last minute change to the sunset plan in this year’s New Zealand workshop that I do with Don Smith. We had a feeling something special might happen at Lake Wanaka, and wanted make sure we had the group in the best possible spot in case it did. Read more about this evening in my June 28 blog post.The beautiful clouds that had started the evening over the Southern Alps were quickly moving southeast and out of my frame. My options were to hold my position and photograph the tree with the mountains and no clouds, or reposition myself to feature the best of the clouds against the town of Wanaka. I went with the clouds.

Because I saw the potential for a beautiful sky, I went went wide to maximize the sky, choosing my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens on my Sony a7RIV body. I positioned myself so the reflection mirrored the arc of retreating clouds, creating a frame for the tree. I was aware that I was picking up the homes and buildings lining the opposite lakeshore, but felt that was justifiable compromise to ensure the best clouds and sunset color potential.

The light was beautiful when I started, but it just kept improving as the color ramped up. Every few minutes I repositioned myself to keep the tree framed by the shifting clouds. Wanting to feature the flat, multi-toned rocks visible beneath a thin veneer of still water, I dropped my tripod and moved it a foot or so into the water. And finally, I shifted just enough for the trunk to split the gap between two distant peaks. Going vertical allowed me to get the full arc of clouds and their reflection above the rocks, with less far lakeshore than a horizontal composition would have.

This image required very little processing, but I did burn the far lakeshore a little to deemphasize the buildings there.



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Variations on a Tree

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Looking Up Down Under

Gary Hart: Milky Way and Small Magellanic Cloud, Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand

Milky Way and Small Magellanic Cloud, Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand
Sony a7SIII
Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM
ISO 1600
f/1.8
20 seconds

James Webb Space Telescope’s First Deep Field image

Are you as thrilled as I am by the mesmerizing images we’re seeing from the James Webb Space Telescope? There’s nothing like a heaping dose of perspective to remind humans of our insignificance in the grand scheme things, and these images deliver perspective in spades.

I think my favorite Webb image is the view deep into a seemingly tiny black region of sky that reveals thousands of galaxies. How tiny? According to the NASA website, “This slice of the vast universe covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground.”) The light from these galaxies traveled as far as 13.1 billion years to reach us, which means we’re getting a view of our nascent Universe as it was less than a billion years after the Big Bang.

I get another dose of perspective, albeit on a much smaller scale, each time I visit the Southern Hemisphere. After a lifetime living north of the equator, I pretty much take for granted the Northern Hemisphere night sky. When I’m outside after dark, I reflexively look up and locate the Big Dipper. Using the Dipper’s pointer stars, my eyes slide to Polaris (the North Star) to locate north, then slowly scan the surrounding sky for other familiar features: bright stars Arcturus and Spica, constellations Cassiopeia and Corona Borealis, among many. If it’s dark enough, I try to pick out the Little Dipper and the Andromeda Galaxy.

Looking up at night in the Southern Hemisphere is downright disorienting. Most of the stars and constellations are completely unfamiliar (but no less beautiful), and those that are familiar (like Orion), appear “upside down.” (There’s no true up and down in space because up/down, left/right is always relative to the viewer’s frame of reference.) The Milky Way down here is reversed, and I’ll never forget the first time I watched a Southern Hemisphere moonrise and realized that it moved left (north) as it rose—duh.

A personal Southern Hemisphere highlight is the opportunity to see the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. Like the first (only) time I saw the Taj Mahal and Stonehenge, my first view of the Magellanic Clouds was like spotting a celebrity I’d heard about my entire life but never imagined I’d see in person.

The Magellanic Clouds are satellite galaxies of our Milky Way. The Large Magellanic Cloud is about 160 light years from Earth and estimated to contain 30 billion or so stars; the Small Magellanic Cloud is about 200 light years distant and weighs in at around 3 billion stars. It also appears the the SMC orbits the LMC, making it a satellite of a satellite.

In a dark Southern Hemisphere sky, both Magellanic Clouds appear as smudges of light, faint but clearly visible. The diameter of the LMC is about 5 degrees, while the SMC spans less than 2 degrees (for reference, the Sun and Moon are each about 1/2 degree across when viewed from Earth). None of Magellanic Clouds’ individual stars are bright enough to be resolved with the human eye.

About this image

In an earlier post I detailed the night I photographed the Milky Way over Cecil Peak and Lake Wakatipu. It was the first night of the New Zealand winter photo workshop Don Smith and I do each year, and we were pretty pleased that the conditions cooperated so nicely.

We came straight here from our sunset shoot, then waited for the sky to darken enough for the Milky Way to appear. Toward the end of the shoot, once everyone was locked in and feeling good about their results, I started to look for ways to do something a little different and my eyes landed on the Magellanic Clouds. But there were a couple of problems: first, there’s a lot of sky between them and the Milky Way, which was still going to be my primary subject; second, they were both above a blob of large shrubs (or small trees) on the lakeshore.

It’s times like this that I especially love the wide field of view of my Sony 14 f/1.8 GM lens. This lens is always great in New Zealand because the Milky Way’s core here is so high in the sky, the wide field of view enables me to get lots of Milky Way and foreground. This evening I found that by going horizontal at 14mm, I could in fact get the Milky Way and Small Magellanic Cloud in my frame without crowding either too close to the border.

But now the ugly shrubs were in my frame too. The solution for that problem was simply to walk about 50 yards up the lake. Engaging the Bright Monitoring feature on my Sony a7SIII (Sony shooters need to look up this underused feature that’s fantastic for night photography—mine’s assigned to a custom button on all of my bodies), I saw in my viewfinder that the shrubs were no longer a problem.

I only shot here for about 5 minutes, but by the time I made it back to the group, the group was ready to head back to the hotel for dinner—always a good sign that everyone was happy with their results.

Here’s my Photo Tips article on Milky Way photography

New Zealand Photo Workshops


Looking Up

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Unexpected Rewards

Gary Hart Photography: Clearing Storm, Hooker River, New Zealand

Clearing Storm, Hooker River, New Zealand
Sony a7RIV
Sony 12-24 f/4 G
1/4 second
F/16
ISO 100

One summer when I was a kid, my family took a camping vacation to the Canadian Rockies. Bits and pieces of that trip return to me as vague memories, but one memory permanently etched in my brain is the color of Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. My dad, a very passionate amateur photographer, was frothing with excitement and must have exhausted half his film budget (remember those days?) at Moraine Lake alone. Nevertheless, and despite my dad’s pictures, I couldn’t fully process a world where water could be that color, and for many years after that doubted my memory.

Long before visiting New Zealand I accepted that water really can be that color, but still had few opportunities to view it. Then I started visiting New Zealand, where photographing the lakes and rivers gives me a little déjà vu—it’s just plain disorienting to see water this color.

So what’s going on?

In areas of persistent cold, snow often accumulates faster than it melts. Over many years of accumulating, the snow’s weight compresses it into ice and a glacier is born. A glacier is incredibly heavy; since pressure decreases the freezing point of ice, at the interface between the glacier and the underlying rock (where the pressure of the ice’s weight is greatest), melting ice lubricates the glacier and allows it to move downhill. The glacier’s extreme weight, combined with this forward motion, breaks up the rock. Embedded with rock fragments, the glacier behaves like sandpaper, grinding the rock on which it slides into finer and finer particles. The finest of these particles is called “glacial flour.”

Meltwater from the glacier flows downhill, carrying scoured rock with it. While the larger rock particles simply sink, the glacial flour remains suspended in the runoff. While most of the sunlight striking water infused with glacial flour is absorbed by the suspended particles, the green and blue wavelengths aren’t absorbed; instead they scatter back to our eyes and we are treated to turquoise water. The water’s exact hue (whether it appears more green or blue) is determined by the size of the suspended particles, which dictates the relative amount of green and blue wavelengths they scatter.

About this image

After losing two years to COVID, Don Smith and I were thrilled to resume our annual New Zealand winter photo workshop last month. I’ve been home for about a week now and despite (surprisingly mild) jet lag, am slowly making my way through my images. We had so many special moments that it’s hard to decide which one to process next—but I’m not complaining. I chose this one because it stands out as one of the trip’s most unexpected treats.

Our last stop before returning to Queenstown was Twizel, a tiny town near Aoraki / Mt. Cook National Park. A couple of days earlier we’d rushed here from Te Anau, hoping to make it up to Tasman Lake ahead of a storm. Our effort was rewarded with a nice Tasman Lake sunset shoot, and though the storm did come in overnight as promised, we even managed to squeeze in a beautiful sunrise at nearby Lake Pukaki before the sky completely opened up.

The rest of that day was wet and gray. Despite the nasty weather, we drove back up to the park that afternoon, but eventually turned around because the farther we drove, the harder it rained. And since we’d logged a lot of miles in the last 9 days, the group didn’t seem mind a little break. Instead of taking pictures, we spend a couple of nice hours sharing images by the fire.

Based on the rain and forecast, on the morning we were to leave for Queenstown we had no reason to expect any quality photography. But we’re photographers, and this was our final full day in what is arguably the most beautiful country in the world, so we headed back up to the national park with no plan except to see what we could find. For the entire 45 minute drive the gray ceiling hid the mountains and showed no sign of lifting. We decided to head for the bridge over the Hooker River and see what happened.

We decided to hang out near the bridge over the Hooker River, and weren’t there long before the clouds started to brighten. Soon patches of blue appeared overhead. A few minutes later rapidly thinning clouds draped Mt. Blackburn and the surrounding peaks, catching the warm rays of the morning sun to create a clearing storm experience that rivaled anything I’ve seen in Yosemite.

We had about 45 minutes of great photography before more clouds smothered the peaks. I photographed from both sides of the river, but my favorite position was in the middle of bridge. This narrow, one-lane bridge had a pedestrian walkway, but it was on the upstream side—to get this shot I had to stand on the bridge with one eye on the scene and the other on the road. At one point a bus approached and I vaulted the rail onto the pedestrian walk, then waited while the bus squeeze by with about 6 inches room on each side.

That morning was a great reminder to each of us that the best photography often happens when you least expect it. We had no reason to believe conditions would improve, but we went out anyway. Many times the conditions never improve and we’re disappointed—as we had been the previous afternoon—but these times when Nature surprises is a more than ample reward for all the prior disappointment.


Unexpected Rewards

(Beautiful moments I had no reason to expect)

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

New Zealand Night

Gary Hart Photography: New Zealand Night, Milky Way Over Cecil Peak and Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand

New Zealand Night, Milky Way Over Cecil Peak and Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand
Sony a7SIII
Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM
ISO 1600
f/1.8
20 seconds

If you know anything about me, you know how much I love the Milky Way—not only to photograph, but also just to look at. And by the Milky Way (since pretty much everything we see with the naked eye is part of the Milky Way), I (especially) mean the galactic core.

I think it’s pretty cool to realize that the galactic core photons that tickle our retinas actually bubbled up 26,000 years ago, rushing at light’s speed limit for 152,844,259,702,773,800 miles without so much as a bathroom break—a feat any dad would envy (anyone who has been on a family roadtrip knows what I’m talking about). Many of the galactic core’s photons don’t make it past its abundant dust and gas molecules—remnants of stars past, and the building blocks of stars future—that create the dark gaps marbling the white starlight. So distant is the Milky Way’s core that all we see on Earth is the glow of countless stars and the surrounding dust and gas—the pinpoint stars we see are all much closer than the core.

When Don Smith and I started considering a New Zealand workshop, the Milky Way became a huge factor in our decision to hold it in winter. Not only is winter when the mountain ranges spanning New Zealand’s South Island are blanketed with snow, in the Southern Hemisphere winter also happens to be when the Milky Way’s brilliant core is opposite the sun and highest in our sky. This, combined with New Zealand’s clean air, relatively sparse population, numerous mountain-lined lakes (for foregrounds), and winter’s long nights, make it one of the best places on Earth to view and photograph the Milky Way.

Of course winter comes with a couple of complications too—nights can be cold, but that’s usually manageable, with lows most nights in the 30s or low 40s. The bigger winter concern is clouds, which as you might imagine are quite common. While clouds make for wonderful daytime photography, they can totally wipe out a night shoot. Because of this, we’ve gotten pretty good at monitoring the weather just prior to the workshop and strategizing our night shoots to (fingers crossed) ensure that the group gets at least one quality Milky Way shoot.

In this workshop’s 9 nights, we stay in 5 locations. Over the years we’ve identified good Milky Way spots for most of them, but it wasn’t until our last pre-pandemic workshop that we found a good spot near Queenstown. Queenstown, on the shore of Tahoe-sized (but not shaped) Lake Wakatipu, has to be one of the most beautiful towns in the world. But between poor viewing angles and city lights, I’d all but given up finding a good Queenstown-area Milky Way spot until the 2019 workshop, after clouds had wiped out all previous opportunities. Down to our final night, I pulled out the map one more time to look one more time looking for a place that might work, and found this spot right on the lake, just opposite 6,000 foot Cecil Peak.

Fast-forward to this year. We usually don’t do a night shoot on the workshop’s first night (also in Queenstown) because people are just settling in, very much dealing with jet lag, and we haven’t had much chance to get everyone up to speed with Milky Way photography. But since the forecast for the next 10 days didn’t look great for night photography, we decided to give it a shot just in case it turned out to be our only opportunity.

After a nice sunset shoot we beelined straight to our Milky Way spot to wait for the stars. The night was chilly, but not too bad. One of the things I love most about night photography with a group is the fun and camaraderie it fosters. This night was no exception, and despite the chill (or maybe because of it), I felt like this cohort that had been complete strangers just a few hours earlier had already started to bond wonderfully. (In other words, we had a blast.)

Don and I spent much of our time bouncing between participants, answering questions and checking on their success, but we managed to find time for a few shutter clicks on the way. We also had one guy in the group whose winter clothing and tripod were in his suitcase, which unfortunately was still in Sydney. Though Qantas was still trying to locate it, he’d attached a tracking device to the suitcase that allowed him to monitor its location with his phone, but he couldn’t reach a human at Qantas to educate them. (It took them 3 days to find it and finally get it to him.) He was doing okay comfort-wise with borrowed clothes, but it’s pretty hard to photograph the Milky Way hand-held, so Don and I traded off loaning him our tripods.

As you can see, the clouds stayed away and we had a very successful shoot. Turns out Don and I are geniuses because this was indeed the workshop’s only Milky Way opportunity. The clouds that arrived the next day stayed in one form or another for the rest of the workshop, bringing some off-the-charts photography with them—making it even easier to appreciate knowing we already had a successful Milky Way shoot under our belts.

One more thing

When I’m leading a group, I’m not really able to focus on my own photography. Because we started shooting before the sky became completely dark, I started with my Sony a7SIII at ISO 1600 instead of the ISO 6400 I usually use with my Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM wide open. But it wasn’t until we were wrapping up that I realized I’d never increased my ISO once the sky darkened completely. I ended up taking just 2 or 3 frames at ISO 6400 and was concerned the other images might be too dark. When I finally checked my results on my computer, I was thrilled with how clean my 1600 ISO images were, even after increasing the exposure. There will always be noise in a 20-second high ISO image, but Topaz DeNoise AI was able to clean it up beautifully.

If you scan the gallery below, you may notice that I already have a similar composition from a previous shoot. I’d identified something different from this night to process, but when several in the group asked for a demo of my night processing one rainy afternoon in Twizel, I pulled up this one and confirmed that ISO 1600 was fine. After finishing processing this image for the group (maybe 10 minutes), I liked the results enough to keep it. I’ve been so busy since returning that I haven’t had much processing time, so when I sat down to write this blog, I was happy to have this one ready for action.

Here’s my Photo Tips article on Milky Way photography

New Zealand Photo Workshops


New Zealand

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Before and After

Gary Hart Photography: Reflection, Lake Wanaka Willow Tree, New ZealandReflection, Lake Wanaka Willow Tree, New Zealand
Sony 𝛂1
Sony 24-105 G
1/20 second
F/11
ISO 100

I’m sitting in the Queenstown, New Zealand airport waiting to board the first of four flights that will total 26 hours and land me a mere 2-hour drive from home. While I’m still coherent, I’ll attempt to whip out this week’s (slightly late) blog post, using low hanging fruit from the just-completed New Zealand workshop: The always beautiful Wanaka Willow Tree.

Each year (that we’re not thwarted by a global pandemic) Don Smith and I guide one or two groups of photographers to our favorite locations on New Zealand’s indescribable South Island. In a land brimming with highlights, right near the top of this workshop’s highlights is our visit to the lone willow tree in Lake Wanaka.

The Wanaka Willow is arguably the most photographed tree in the world. Rising in solitary splendor from the glassy surface of Lake Wanaka, further enhanced by a backdrop of snow-capped peaks, the graceful outline of this arboreal icon has pleased visitors for decades. With free public parking just 100 yards away (or a five minute stroll from the workshop hotel), the tree’s effortless access makes it easy for all to enjoy.

I first photographed the tree in 2017, and have returned maybe a dozen times since—sunrise and sunset, day and night. In addition to the wonderful photography, on each visit I’m struck by the pleasure viewing it brings to everyone present. Whether they came to photograph, meditate, or simply gaze, each visitor is soothed by its presence, and seems infused with an infectious, positive spirit.

So, right at the start of the pandemic, to say I was mortified to learn that someone had vandalized this glorious tree would be an understatement. Visitors that morning in March 2020 were shocked to discover that overnight someone had taken a saw to several of the branches, including the graceful bottom branch that dipped toward the water before arcing skyward. I won’t even try to comprehend what would motivate someone to damage this source of so much joy for so many people, but it’s disturbing to know that we share the same planet.

Given all this, I was somewhat apprehensive about my first post-pandemic visit to the Wanaka Willow. Had it been ruined? Will we be forced to strike Wanaka from our New Zealand workshop destinations?

After photographing it twice on this month’s trip, I’m happy to declare that, while the Wanaka Willow may be (metaphorically) down, it’s far from out. Despite its scars, this solitary survivor has maintained its essence, and the joy remains. This year’s experience showed me that the Wanaka Willow’s appeal is so much more than its distinctive outline, and given its sublime setting, the new version has a chance to establish a new distinctive (albeit somewhat less graceful) outline.

The Wanaka Willow Before and After

Every time Don and I take a group to Wanaka, we like to give them a preview of the tree so their first exposure to it isn’t in the dark, at the start of the sunrise shoot. This year we checked that box with a lunch stop as we passed through town on our way to Fox Glacier.

Returning to Wanaka a couple of days later, the original plan called for a sunset shoot elsewhere on the lake, followed by a sunrise shoot at the tree. But with a forecast that included a chance of rain the next morning, we decided the tree shoot in particular is too important to risk and offered to split the group so anyone who wanted to go to the other spot could. Fortunately, the vote was unanimous to stay at the tree.

I love it when things work out and I look a lot smarter than I am. That evening’s sunset delivered beautiful pink clouds reflecting on a mirror surface. I captured this image toward the end of the sunset, after most of the clouds had moved on. As I was about to pack up, I spied one remaining cloud fragment reflecting in the lake and ran down to a spot where I could juxtapose it with the tree. While the earlier brilliant pink had softened to muted pastels, I thought the subdued tones enhanced the moment and perfectly reflected the quiet peace I felt.


More Trees

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Thank You, Dad

Gary Hart Photography: Dark Night, Milky Way Above the Colorado River, Grand Canyon

Dark Night, Milky Way Above the Colorado River, Grand Canyon
Sony a7SIII
Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM
ISO 6400
f/1.8
20 seconds

Last night I completed a 30-hour odyssey that started in Sacramento, included stops in San Francisco, Fiji, and Aukland, before finally reaching its merciful conclusion in Queenstown, New Zealand (one car, one taxi, one bus, three airplanes, and lots of airport walking throughout). So forgive me if I’m not in shape (or in the mood) for writing a new blog. Instead, in honor of Father’s Day, I’m sharing this blog post from a couple of years ago honoring my father. I did, however, muster the energy to write few paragraphs about this image taken on the first night of last month’s Grand Canyon raft trip, which I have added at the bottom of this post, just above the gallery.


Had we not lost him 18 years ago, my dad would be turning 92 next month. He was a such a vibrant, healthy person, both mentally and physically, that I have no doubt he’d still be going strong if Alzheimer’s hadn’t taken him. I have always been grateful for Dad’s love, gentle discipline, wisdom, advice, and laughs (can’t forget the laughs), but it takes being a parent to fully appreciate our own parents’ love, and their influence on the adults we become.

Dad was a United Methodist minister who literally practiced what he preached. Just one example: In 1965, when Martin Luther King issued a plea for clergy to join him on his voting rights march to Montgomery, Dad borrowed money and flew across the country to join Dr. King in Selma, Alabama (where he was on national TV getting arrested with hundreds of other marchers).

His was an inclusive, Jesus-centric theology that honored all religions and people. He’d do things like open his pulpit to the local rabbi on Sunday morning, then reciprocate the following Saturday with a sermon of his own at the synagogue. Dad welcomed everyone into his churches, and became an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights long before it reached the mainstream. He frequently provided odd-jobs around the church to people who were down on their luck, and I lost track of the number of homeless people, including families with young children, we housed while they tried to get back on their feet.

In addition to the values he instilled, so many of the things that define my personality are directly attributable to my dad’s influence. My positive spirit, sense of humor, and love for sports were absolutely modeled by Dad. And when asked how I became a photographer, the instant answer has always been that my dad was a serious amateur photographer whose 80-hour work week offered too little time to pursue his passion, so he made up for lost time on our summer family vacations. So frequent were our photo stops, I grew up believing that a camera was just a standard outdoor accessory.

But I think his influence on my photography goes deeper than that. More than simply modeling camera use, Dad instilled in me his appreciation of nature’s beauty, and his longing for its soothing qualities. I realize now, because I see it in myself, that it’s not simply photography that dad loved, he was motivated by an insatiable desire to record and share the people and places he loved.

On a minister’s budget, our family summer vacations were, without exception, camping trips—always tent-camping, though in the later years we splurged on a used, very basic tent trailer (no kitchen, bathroom, or any of the other luxuries available in today’s tent trailers). These vacations usually took advantage of the mountain scenery within a few hours of our California home (we were just as close to the ocean, but our vacations were almost always in the mountains), but a few times our family (Dad, Mom, my two younger brothers, and I) hit the road for a much longer camping trip. Some of my most significant childhood memories came on the full month we camped all the way across the United States and back, and a multi-week camping adventure into and around the Canadian Rockies.

Of our more frequently visited destinations, Yosemite was the clear favorite. Marveling at the Firefall from Camp Curry and Glacier Point, waiting in lawn chairs with hundreds of fellow tourists at the Yosemite garbage dump for the bears to arrive for their evening meal (really), rising in the dark for a Dad and Gary (only) fishing expedition to Tuolumne Meadows, family hikes up the Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls, are just a few of the memories that I realize in hindsight formed the bedrock of my Yosemite connection.

Here’s my dad’s Half Dome Rainbow, captured on a summer afternoon in the mid-sixties.

My favorite Dad photography story happened when I was about ten. It involves an electrical storm atop Sentinel Dome, and his desire to photograph a lightning bolt, a desire so great that it trumped common sense. As his ignorant but trusting assistant, to keep his camera dry I stretched high to extend an umbrella above Dad’s head. (In his defense, as Californians, the novelty of lightning obscured a full comprehension of its dangers.) We didn’t get the lightning, and more importantly, it didn’t get us. But that’s not the end of the story.

After risking our lives on Sentinel Dome, the family ended up at Glacier Point, just down the road. Dad had returned to tourist mode as we browsed the shop at Glacier Point Lodge, no doubt seeking souvenirs that would fit our meager budget. But when a vivid rainbow appeared out of nowhere to arc across the face of Half Dome, Dad was ready with his camera still draped around his neck. Watching Dad’s excitement, better than any souvenir, this felt as if God was giving him a much deserved, “I got your back.”

I love you, Dad.


About this image

Another life-long interest I can thank my dad for is my love for astronomy. Even though Dad’s interest in astronomy was little more than an enthusiastic marveling at the stars we saw on our summer camping trips, as soon as he sensed my attraction to the night sky, he went to work figuring out how to get me a telescope. Limited, as always, by his minister’s salary, he somehow negotiated with a fellow Kiwanis member and serious amateur photographer the gift of a no longer used 6-inch reflector telescope that was far better than anything I could have hoped for. (I was especially proud to discover this photographer’s name in the photo credit for a nebula image in one of my astronomy books.)

Today I trace my lifetime fascination with the night sky all the way back to this simple act of support from my father, a fascination that manifests today in a love for photographing the stars above my favorite landscapes. It’s why so many of my workshops attempt to account for the night photography opportunities, including my annual Grand Canyon raft trip, which I always schedule a moonless week in May.

Because in May a view of the brilliant core of the Milky Way requires a good view toward the southern horizon, and the Grand Canyon trends mostly east-west, and campsites are first-come, first-served, it’s not necessarily a sure thing. Other important factors are an open view of the river for a foreground, and raft parking upstream from our river view.

In the eight years I’ve done this trip, I’ve identified several target campsites, and on the first night of this year’s trip we found at a new camp that instantly became one of my favorites. The problem here was the only place to put the rafts was right in front of the view, so as soon as we had the rafts unloaded I went exploring and found a great little beach a couple of hundred yards downstream.

The problem was that getting here required a little boulder scrambling that was doable for most in broad daylight, but not an option in the utter darkness of a Grand Canyon night. But just past the boulder field I found a spot with enough room for campsites and a straight, easy walk down to the river. So I advised the group that anyone interested the best night photography should lug their gear up the hill and over the boulders now.

At least six others took my advice. Relying on my aging body’s inability to sleep through the night, I didn’t bother setting an alarm and woke up naturally (always the best way) around 2 a.m., just as the Milky Way’s core was slipping over the canyon wall. I found two or three already shooting away at the river, and during the hour or so I was down there we were joined by several others.

Most of us started at the most easily accessed spot right on the river, but after a while I moved a few dozen yards downstream to see what the view was like there. After negotiating a few boulders, I found myself on a flat sandstone platform just a couple of feet above the river, with what I thought was an even better view. I let everyone know my discovery and was soon joined by two or three more adventurous souls. A great start to a great trip.

One more thing

I’m sure my dad had no idea at the time the significance his simple act of support would have on the rest of my life. Just something that I hope all parents, or prospective parents, keep in mind.

Join me in the Grand Canyon


Night Sky

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It’s a Wide, Wonderful World

Gary Hart Photography: Cascade, Deer Creek Fall, Grand Canyon

Cascade, Deer Creek Fall, Grand Canyon
Sony 𝛂1
Sony 12-24 f/4 G
1/4 second
F/16
ISO 100

I used to consider my 16-35 lens ultra-wide (by many definitions, it is), and as such, all the focal width I needed—the difference between 12mm and 16mm didn’t seem enough to justify another lens. I photographed in blissful ignorance until 2015, when, on a spring morning in Yosemite, I borrowed a friend’s Canon 11-24 lens. With the help of my Metabones adapter, I mounted the lens to my Sony a7RII and peered into the viewfinder toward a familiar scene that I’d only known through my 16-35 lens. The scene that greeted me had instantly transformed into something I’d never imagined possible. Suddenly I could capture everything rather than having to decide what to exclude.

The epiphany that there is indeed a significant difference between 16mm and 12mm caused me to briefly entertain the idea of buying (and adapting) my own Canon 11-24 lens. But that lens’s extreme bulk, that was matched only by its extreme price tag, quickly cured me of that urge. My reward for passing on the Canon lens came two years later, when Sony announced the 12-24 f/4 G lens that was less than half the weight, almost half the price, and just as sharp. A couple of years later Sony added a 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens, even sharper than its predecessor, while still faster, smaller, and (a little) cheaper than its Canon counterpart.

So of course I now own both (because I couldn’t bring myself to part with the G when I got the GM). Now my primary Sony 12-24 is the GM lens, but I don’t hesitate to use the G version when ounces matter, such as on my Grand Canyon raft trip, or when I’ll be doing significant hiking. (I also bring it to my Yosemite workshops to loan to Sony shooters at some of the spots that beg for 12mm.)

While I don’t use my 12-24 lenses as much as I use my 24-105 or 16-35 lenses, that focal range has become such an important part of my creative workflow in the field that I can’t imagine not having one with me at all times. Not only does a 12-24 provide greater compositional flexibility, I feel like it’s upped my creative game too.

But, to paraphrase Spider-Man (okay, so actually it was his Uncle Ben), with great power comes a steep learning curve. Despite the fact that wide angle is the reflex response to most landscapes by virtually every tourist who picks up a camera, I quickly discovered that good ultra-wide photography is not easy. From shrunken backgrounds to skewed verticals, wide angle lenses pose problems that magnify as the focal length widens. Fortunately, these problems can be turned to opportunities when they’re fully understood. With that in mind, here are a few insights that might help:

  • Put something in your close foreground. I can’t emphasize this too much. Some of my wide angle images put the primary subject front and center, but when the background scene is my main subject, I try to find something of visual interest for my foreground. Browse the gallery at the bottom of this post and note how many images have an empty foreground (Hint: Not very many). Sometimes I’m able to include something as striking as a mirror reflection or colorful leaves, but often my wide angle foregrounds are as simple as a rock or shrub. If there’s nothing at my feet and I need to find something a little farther away, at the very least I want the foreground of my wide image to be filled with features worthy of the space they occupy.

  • In a rectilinear lens (which most wide lenses are), parallel lines will be rendered straight only if the camera is level. To confirm, try this: Mount an ultra-wide lens (whatever your widest lens is) on your camera, point it at a row of nearby trees, and slowly tilt the camera up and down while looking through your viewfinder. Note how the trees straighten as the camera approaches level, and increasingly skew the more the camera tilts. For example, the two images below were captured the same day using 12mm with the same 12-24 f/4 G lens—see how straight the trees are in the El Capitan image compared to the Yosemite Falls image? In other words, when you see extreme tilt in an ultra-wide lens, blame (or credit) the photographer, not the lens.

  • Take advantage of the extreme depth of field wide angle provides. For example, at 12mm and f/11, the hyperfocal distance is 18 inches (focus 18 inches away and everything from 9 inches to infinity will be acceptably sharp). Stop down to f/16 and the hyperfocal distance is 12 inches (acceptably sharp from 6 inches to infinity). While hyperfocal focusing in today’s age of extreme resolution is a little more nuanced than that, the point is, you can get really close to your subjects and be sharp from front to back. Read more about hyperfocal focusing.

About this image

My annual Grand Canyon raft trip has so many mind-blowing sights that I really can’t give you a favorite—the best I can do is offer an unranked list of favorites. I’ve already shared images from last month’s trip of two on that list (Little Colorado River and Elves Chasm), so today I’m sharing a third: Deer Creek Fall.

Deer Creek Fall is visible from the Colorado River and far from a secret, but my guides and I have become pretty good at getting it to ourselves, and this year we succeeded wonderfully. While about half the group embarked on the short (1/2 mile) but steep (!) hike to the slot canyon above the fall and the beautiful “patio” area beyond, I stayed behind to photograph a rainbow at the bottom of the fall, and to wait for the light to improve. Since you can walk right up to this 150 fall (and under it if you’re adventurous), I immediately reached for my Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens and attached it to my Sony α1.

Starting at the fringe of the pool beneath the fall, I played with a variety of compositions before eventually clambering down into this little cascade about 30 feet downstream. And when I say into, I really do mean in-to—to get close enough and align the cascade with the fall, I had to stand in about 18 inches of rushing water with my tripod splayed in three directions—two legs nearly horizontal and planted on opposite sides of the creek, and one leg pressed against a submerged rock. To use my viewfinder, I had to drop down and sit on a rock with my legs in the creek above my knees. While I wasn’t any any personal danger, I was very aware of the precarious position I’d put my (brand new) camera in and the potential for it to get swept downstream.

Once I had the general setup stabilized, I did my standard click-evaluate-refine cycle, gradually inching closer until the cascade was less than 2 feet away. With each adjustment I found myself dropping lowerSettling on a composition I liked, I focused on the rocks and played with a variety shutter speeds. You might get an idea of how close I was, and how fast the water was moving, when you realize that this was captured at 1/4 second.

Join me for next year’s Grand Canyon raft trip

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Going Wide

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

 

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