Posted on July 24, 2022
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Variations on a Tree
Posted on July 17, 2022
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.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on July 10, 2022
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.
(Beautiful moments I had no reason to expect)
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on July 3, 2022
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.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on June 28, 2022
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
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.
Posted on June 19, 2022
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.
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.
Posted on June 13, 2022
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.
Posted on June 5, 2022
Spend enough time viewing landscape images on Facebook and Instagram and it soon becomes clear that dramatic spectacle and saturated color generates the most fan attention. Fueled by this knowledge, photographers seeking online praise try to outdo the drama and color of prior images, both their own and others’, with every shoot. The unfortunate consequence is a photographic feedback loop where one ostentatious image spawns increasingly ostentatious images, which then encourage even more ostentatious images, and on, and on….
This accelerating cycle reminds me of Top 40 music, where one breakthrough success generates a flood of uninspired clones. Catchy tunes are fine for a few listens, but few possess staying power and are soon forgotten. Contrast that to artists like the Beatles (am I dating myself?), who aggressively resisted repetition of prior success in favor of new sounds—sounds that the world has been listing to pretty much nonstop for nearly 60 years.
Admittedly, few artists are blessed with the Beatles’ creative genius, but that’s no excuse to shortcut your own creativity. As with music, images that elicit a reflexive Like and Share from digital passersby, and (if you’re lucky) maybe even a “Stunning!” in the comments box, are usually forgotten with the next click. But images that resonate on a personal level by revealing something unseen, or by touching a hidden place inside the viewer, have the power to grab people in their tracks and not let go.
Of course this sounds great in theory, but how is it accomplished? If the answer were easy, we’d all be doing it. But, like Dorothy and the Ruby Slippers, perhaps we’ve had the power all along.
Because most people long for a connection to the world around them—not simply a connection with nature, but also a connection with kindred souls—a good place to start would be to give viewers of your images something of yourself to latch on to, by concentrating on subjects that resonate with you.
Which might be why my own photography took a significant leap forward when I started photographing simply to please myself. In other words, the more I pursue moments in nature that touch me personally, (as if by magic) the more unique, gratifying, and successful my images became. While my most personal images don’t please everyone, the people they do reach seem to feel a deeper connection than they do to my images intended to impress. And best of all, they make me happy.
About this image
I’ve spent many hours at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, roaming the banks of the incomparable Little Colorado River near its confluence with the Colorado River. I’ll never forget my reaction the first time I saw the Little Colorado’s impossible blue. I had no inkling of what was in store when I hopped from the raft and rounded the corner, but when that blue hit my eyes I stopped short and stared for a few seconds trying to process it, then spun around and strode back to the raft to tell my lead guide, “We’re going to need more time here.”
Despite all the time spent here (and admittedly, it hasn’t all been photography—on warmer days my group enjoys cooling off by floating down a natural water chute about 1/2 mile upstream), I’ve struggled to make images that I feel really does the scene justice. But last year something clicked when I started looking closer, emphasizing the intimate beauty at my feet: the juxtaposition of red, white, and blue water and rock; the rock’s rich texture; the curves, angles, and levels of the limestone layers; and the play of the river among all these elements.
This year I took my look-closer approach a step further. After spending a hot afternoon at the Little Colorado doing more swimming than photography, I rose at 5:00 the following morning to return along with a half-dozen hardcore photographers in my raft trip group for a solid hour of just-plain-photography (taking advantage of our campsite directly across the river that allowed us to shuttle back and forth). While I landed that morning with no real plan, after a handful of uninspired clicks I came across this little rapid that stopped me in my tracks. Exactly 101 images later it was time to hustle back to the raft.
That’s right, 101 images of this one little rapid—and it was probably the most photography fun I’ve had all year. Every single frame was different from the others, and know I’d have found 101 more unique captures if I’d have had time.
Using my Sony 24-105 G lens on my Sony α1, I started with a tighter, horizontal composition, refining until the framing felt balanced, then ran a series of shutter speeds (by varying my ISO) ranging from 1 second to 1/100 second in (more or less) 1-stop increments. Then I’d find a new composition by going slightly wider, and occasionally changing my position and orientation. For each composition I’d use a similar series of shutter speeds, though it wasn’t long before I decided that the range I liked best was between 1/2 second and 1/30 second. (I like shooting motion with a range of shutter speeds so I can defer my final choice until I can view everything on my large monitor at home.)
Not until the last 10 minutes or so did I expand my composition enough to include the red rock platform on which I stood. Sometimes it takes working a scene for a while to distill it to its truest form, and it turns out really I love the strong diagonal this originally overlooked addition adds, not to mention the extra color and texture.
Like many of my favorite images, I know this one won’t accumulate the abundance of Likes that a landscape icon beneath a vivid sunset might, but it’s these intimate frames that capture the essence of the scene that make me happiest.
Tapping the Essence
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on June 1, 2022
Yesterday I wrapped up my eighth Grand Canyon raft trip. I had no idea on my first one in 2014 that I’d still be doing this trip 8 years later (with number nine already on the schedule), or that it would have such a profound effect on my life. But here I am.
Most people’s perception of the Grand Canyon comes courtesy of expansive views from the rim, ideally in person, but often only in photographs. But on my first trip I learned that Grand Canyon’s obvious macro beauty from the rim belies the micro beauty below. Down here, the potential to be surprised by a bubbling spring, tumbling waterfall, or narrow slot canyon awaits at every twist of the river.
And some of the raft trip’s appeal is more visceral than visual. I’m thinking specifically of the river itself, which offers long stretches of contemplative floating, punctuated by thrilling E-ticket (look it up) rapids. Early in the trip I’ll need to reassure a nervous bunch of rafters cowering toward the back of the raft with each approaching riffle (baby rapid); by trip’s end, the bigger the rapid, the more rafters we have jockeying for a spot up front on the raft’s pontoons.
Another reason to love this trip is the Grand Canyon’s night sky, which is quite likely the darkest sky I (or anyone else) has ever experienced. Every night on the river I shun the tent in favor of a celestial shelter. Reclined on my cot, eyes plastered open, I fight sleep until I spy a meteor. While waiting, my gaze drifts across stars that range from brilliant to completely invisible virtually anywhere else on Earth, connecting these pinpoint lights into patterns as I try to comprehend our Universe’s expansiveness.
But honestly, as great as all this other stuff is, my favorite part of these trips is the people. We enter the canyon as a disorganized cohort of uncertain, anxious, strangers, and emerge, bonded by teamwork and shared experience, a cohesive knot of friends. One of my greatest (and proudest) pleasures is standing back and observing the interaction of the new friendships that my trip has enabled—many friendships will last the rest of these individuals’ lives. And I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the friendships I make, the new people with whom I’ve formed (what I hope will become) lifelong relationships.
About this image
After tumbling over layers representing millions of years Earth’s history, Royal Arch Creek drops into an emerald pool nestled in a mossy, fern lined, red rock alcove: Elves Chasm. Getting there requires a bit of rock scrambling—there’s a trail of sorts, but in several places the route is interrupted by an inconvenient rock, ledge, or pool. Fortunately, Elves Chasm is only a couple of hundred yards from the Colorado River (mile 116). With small cascades and pools along the way, even those who can’t make it all the way to the pool will find plenty to see and photograph.
Despite the difficult access, this little gem isn’t a secret, and it often teems with gawkers. I’ve been doing this raft trip long enough that my guides and I have become pretty good at timing our Elves Chasm visit so we have it to ourselves (fingers crossed), in the best light (full shade), and this year we succeeded wonderfully.
Because of the confined space, my group had to negotiate photo opportunities, with everyone taking turns at the best spots and no one locking into one place for too long. I waited until everyone was done before setting up this shot on a narrow shelf along the chasm’s right wall. A few years ago I captured a horizontal version of this scene that I like, so this time I concentrated here on something vertical.
By the time I clicked this frame, the morning sun had already started to stain the rocks above, and it wasn’t long before it leaked into the chasm itself, marking the end of photography time and the beginning of tourist time. Appropriately, as my group joyfully scrambled back down to our rafts, we encountered another group on their way in, thrilled to find their destination in full sun.
This is the only image of the trip I’ve processed so far, but I promise more are on the way…
Visions of Raft Trips Past
Posted on May 22, 2022
I’ve spent the last week moving, and with my annual Grand Canyon Raft Trip for Photographers launching Tuesday, I haven’t had a lot of time for blogging (and much else). But I’m still committed to posting a new blog each week, so I’m sharing a new image from one of this spring’s Yosemite workshops, and a brief description of its capture. I also dusted off and polished up the Rainbow article from my Photo Tips tab. I’ll be off the grid until May 31, so next week’s post will likely be a little late.
It’s become a tradition to kick off my Yosemite spring workshops with a rainbow on Bridalveil Fall. Though the timing varies with the date, I’ve done it enough to narrow the rainbow’s start down to about a 2 minute window for whatever date I’m there. Not only is this little dash of rainbow a thrilling spectacle and beautiful introduction to Yosemite, it also creates an (unjustified) illusion of genius for the workshop leader.
With rain and maybe even a little snow, this year’s weather forecast for our first day looked great in many ways, but not so much for rainbows. But rainbow or not, Tunnel View is a great spot to start a workshop because it’s the most complete view of all things Yosemite. It’s also the first place Yosemite’s storms clear, so even without sunlight something special might be in store.
The storm was just starting to clear when we arrived and I almost got trampled as my group raced to set up. Between the swirling clouds and Half Dome’s appearance (not always a sure thing during a Yosemite clearing storm), things were already going pretty well when shafts of light broke through to illuminate random parts of the valley and surrounding granite.
I checked my watch and crossed my fingers when I realized that we’d be able to add a rainbow to Bridalveil if the light were to make it there. A couple of minutes later Leaning Tower (the diagonal just to the right of the fall) lit up, and a few seconds later a small patch of light hit the evergreens in front of the fall.
After telling everyone what was about to happen, I set up my composition and said a little prayer that the light would cooperate. The patches of light quickly expanded and merged and there it was. I often shoot this rainbow with a telephoto because the sky is so often blank blue, but the whole scene was so beautiful this afternoon that I went with my Sony 24-105 G lens on my (brand new!) Sony a1.
This was the very first time I’d used this camera, and while I thought I’d set it up to match my Sony a7RIV, I soon discovered that I’d missed a few things. For example, I usually shoot in single shot mode, but my a1 was in fast continuous mode, an oversight that became apparent when my first shutter press (slow and gentle, as always) fired off 6 identical frames before I released my finger. My goodness is this camera fast.
I have so many images of this rainbow that I only photographed it for a couple of minutes—just long enough to be confident that I’d captured something I didn’t have. When I finished shooting I just stood back to watch the rainbow move up the fall—and to listen to the exclamations of marvel from the group.
Fortunately none of my settings oversights were a major hindrance and were quickly corrected. Since that afternoon I’ve used my a1 enough to know that I’m going to love using it, and can’t wait to try it out in the Grand Canyon this week.
Read on to learn about rainbows, how to anticipate them, and how to photograph them…
All About Rainbows
Let there be light
Most people understand that a rainbow is light spread into various colors by airborne water drops. Though a rainbow can feel like a random, unpredictable phenomenon, the natural laws governing rainbow are actually quite specific and predictable, and understanding these laws can help photographers anticipate a rainbow and enhance its capture.
The sun’s visible wavelengths are captured by our eyes and interpreted by our brain. When our eyes take in light comprised of the full range of visible wavelengths, we perceive it as white (colorless) light. Color registers when some wavelengths are more prevalent than others. For example, when light strikes an opaque (solid) object such as a tree or rock, some of its wavelengths are absorbed; the wavelengths not absorbed are scattered (reflected). Our eyes capture this scattered light, send the information to our brains, which interprets it as a color. When light strikes water, some is absorbed, some passes through to reveal the submerged world, and some light is reflected by the surface as a reflection.
To understand the interaction of water and light that creates a rainbow, it’s simplest to visualize what happens when sunlight strikes a single drop. Light entering a water drop slows and bends, with the shorter wavelengths bending more than the longer wavelengths: refraction. Refraction separates the originally homogeneous white light into the myriad colors of the spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet (in that order).
But simply separating the light into its component colors isn’t enough to create a rainbow. Actually seeing the rainbow spectrum caused by refracted light requires that the refracted light be reflected back to our eyes somehow.
A raindrop isn’t flat like a sheet of paper, it’s spherical, like a ball. Light that was refracted when it entered the front of the raindrop, continues through to the back of the raindrop, where some is reflected. To view a rainbow, our eyes must be in the correct position to catch this reflected spectrum of color—fortunately, this angle is very consistent and predictable.
Red light reflects at 42 degrees, violet light reflects at 40 degrees, while the other spectral colors reflect back between 42 and 40 degrees. That’s why the top color of the primary rainbow is always red, the longest visible wavelength; the bottom color is always violet, the shortest visible wavelength.
Follow your shadow
Every raindrop struck by sunlight creates a rainbow somewhere. But just as the reflection of a mountain peak on the surface of a lake is visible only when viewed from the angle the reflection bounces off the lake’s surface, a rainbow is visible only when you’re aligned with the 42 – 40 degree angle at which the raindrop reflects light’s refracted spectrum of rainbow colors.
Lucky for most of us, viewing a rainbow requires no knowledge of advanced geometry. To locate or anticipate a rainbow, put your back to the sun and picture an imaginary line originating at the sun, entering the back of your head, exiting between your eyes, and continuing into the landscape in front of you—this line points to the “anti-solar point,” an imaginary point exactly opposite the sun from your viewing position.
It helps to remember that your shadow always points toward the anti-solar point—and toward the center of the rainbow, which forms a 42 degree circle around the line connecting the sun and the anti-solar point. Unless we’re in an airplane or atop a mountain peak, we don’t usually see the entire circle because the horizon gets in the way. So when you find yourself in a mixture sunlight and rain, locating a rainbow is as simple as following your shadow and looking skyward—if there’s no rainbow, the sun’s probably too high.
High or low
Sometimes a rainbow appears as a majestic half-circle, arcing high above the distant terrain; other times it’s merely a small arc hugging the horizon. As with the direction of the rainbow, there’s nothing mysterious about its varying height. Remember, every rainbow would form a full circle if the horizon didn’t get in the way, so the amount of the rainbow’s circle you see (and therefore its height) depends on where the rainbow’s arc intersects the horizon.
While the center of the rainbow is always in the direction of the anti-solar point, the height of the rainbow is determined by the height of the anti-solar point, which will always be exactly the same number of degrees below the horizon as the sun is above the horizon. It helps to imagine the line connecting the sun and the anti-solar point as a fulcrum, with you as the pivot—picture yourself in the center of a teeter-totter: as one seat rises above you, the other drops below you. That means the lower the sun, the more of the rainbow’s circle you see and the higher it appears above the horizon; conversely, the higher the sun, the less of the rainbow’s circle is above the horizon and the flatter (and lower) the rainbow appears.
Assuming a flat, unobstructed scene (such as the ocean), when the sun is on the horizon, so is the anti-solar point (in the opposite direction), and half of the rainbow’s 360 degree circumference will be visible. But as the sun rises, the anti-solar point drops—when the sun is more than 42 degrees above the horizon, the anti-solar point is more than 42 degrees below the horizon, and the only way you’ll see a rainbow is from a perspective above the surrounding landscape (such as on a mountaintop or on a canyon rim).
Of course landscapes are rarely flat. Viewing a scene from above, such as from atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii or from the rim of the Grand Canyon, can reveal more than half of the rainbow’s circle. From an airplane, with the sun directly above you, all of the rainbow’s circle can be seen, with the plane’s shadow in the middle.
Double Your pleasure
Not all of the light careening about a raindrop goes into forming the primary rainbow. Some of the light slips out the back of the raindrop to illuminate the sky, and some is reflected inside the raindrop a second time. The refracted light that reflects a second time before exiting creates a secondary, fainter rainbow skewed 50 degrees from the anti-solar point. Since this is a reflection of a reflection, the colors of the secondary rainbow are reversed from the primary rainbow.
And if the sky between the primary and secondary rainbows appears darker than the surrounding sky, you’ve found “Alexander’s band.” It’s caused by all the light machinations I just described—instead of all the sunlight simply passing through the raindrops to illuminate the sky, some of the light was intercepted, refracted, and reflected by the raindrops to form our two rainbows, leaving less light for the sky between the rainbows.
Waterfalls are easy
Understanding the optics of a rainbow has practical applications for photographers. Not only does it help you anticipate a rainbow before it happens, it also enables you to find rainbows in waterfalls.
A rainbow caused by sunlight on rain can feel random because it’s difficult to know exactly where the rain will fall, when the sun will break through, and exactly where to position yourself to capture the incongruous convergence of rainfall and sunshine. A waterfall rainbow, on the other hand, can be predicted with clock-like precision because we know exactly where the waterfall and sun are at any give time—as long as clouds don’t get in the way, the waterfall rainbow appears with clock-like precision.
Yosemite is my location of choice for waterfall rainbows, but maybe there’s a waterfall or two near you that might deliver. Just figure out when the waterfall gets direct sunlight early or late in the day, then put yourself somewhere on the line connecting the sun and the waterfall. And if you have an elevated vantage point, you’ll find that the sun doesn’t even need to be that low in the sky.
Spring in Yosemite is waterfall rainbow season, and I know exactly where to be and when to be there for both of Yosemite Valley’s major waterfalls. In fact, given the variety of vantage points for viewing each of these falls, I can usually get two or three rainbows on each fall on any given day.
In addition to clouds, there are other variables to deal with. One is the date, because the path and timing of the sun’s arc across the sky changes with each passing week. Another thing that can throw the timing off slightly is the amount of water in the fall—following a wet winter the spring runoff increases, and with it the amount of mist. Generally, the more mist, the sooner the rainbow will appear and the longer it lasts. And finally there’s wind, which spreads the mist and usually improves the rainbow by increasing its size.
While all these variables make it difficult for me share the exact schedule of Yosemite’s waterfall rainbows from the variety of vantage points, I can give you some general guidance: look for a rainbow on Yosemite Falls in the morning, and Bridalveil Fall in the afternoon. And if you don’t mind a short but steep hike, you can also find a rainbow on Vernal Fall in the afternoon.
Understanding rainbow optics can even help you locate rainbows that aren’t visible to the naked eye. A “moonbow” (lunar rainbow) is a rarely witnessed and breathtaking phenomenon that follows all the natural rules of a daylight rainbow. But instead of resulting from direct sunlight, a moonbow is caused by sunlight reflected by the moon.
Moonlight isn’t bright enough to fully engage the cones in your eyes that reveal color, though in bright moonlight you can see the moonbow as an arcing monochrome band. But a camera on a sturdy tripod can use its virtually unlimited shutter duration to accumulate enough light to bring out a moonbow in full living color. Armed with this knowledge, all you need to do is put yourself in the right location at the right time.
Probably the best known moonbow is the one that appears on Yosemite Falls each spring. Usually viewed from the bridge at the base of Lower Yosemite Fall, the best months are April, May, and June, with May probably being the best combination of moonlight angle and ample water.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon isn’t a secret, and the bridge can be quite crowded on spring full moon nights—in high runoff springs, it can also be extremely wet (pack your rain gear). The base of Upper Yosemite Fall can also have a moonbow when viewed from the south side of Cook’s Meadow, especially in wet springs.
A Gallery of Rainbows
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.