Posted on February 7, 2022
I woke in my hotel room this morning to find a 6-inch snow drift (I measured) on the floor beneath my window, and still more snow frosting the curtains and wall. An expanding glacial lake stretched almost to my bed. Honestly, the risk of turning my room into an ice cave is never a consideration when opening the window at bedtime back home—but this is not home, not even close.
So why would someone choose to leave scenic, mild California for frigid Iceland in early February? Believe it or not, there are many reasons, including snowy volcanic peaks, a mind-boggling assortment of waterfalls, shimmering ice caves, all-day low-angle light (the sun in early February never ascends higher than 10 degrees), and hour-long sunrises and sunsets. (I could go on.)
But the number one motivator, the thing that most inspired Don Smith and me to consider an Iceland photo workshop in the middle of winter, and that drove a dozen people to sign up for it, is the potential to witness nature’s mesmerizing celestial dance, the northern lights.
Our planet is continuously bombarded by solar energy. When this perpetual solar wind encounters Earth’s atmosphere, a narrow range of wavelengths (infrared and visible) passes through to warm us and light our way. But other energy wavelengths in the solar wind interact with the molecules they encounter, stripping electrons and creating an atmospheric charge imbalance.
Instead of penetrating our atmosphere to create havoc on Earth’s surface, most of these ions (charged particles) are intercepted by Earth’s magnetosphere, our protective magnetic shield. Under constant bombardment from the sun, the magnetosphere forms a teardrop-shaped shield around Earth, with the battered side that faces the sun compressed, and the shielded side behind Earth stretching much farther into space.
As Earth rotates, the daylight side at any given moment faces the thinner, compressed region of the magnetosphere, while Earth’s night side looks out toward the extended region of the magnetosphere. Particles ionized by the sun are pushed by the solar wind from the daylight side of the magnetosphere to the upper regions of the polar latitudes on Earth’s leeward (night) side.
The result of these atmospheric machinations is an accumulation of ionized molecules dancing high in the night sky, creating an atmospheric oval of geomagnetic activity that increases with the intensity of the solar wind. The greater the solar activity, the greater the oval’s size and the intensity and range of the aurora display.
The aurora’s color depends on the molecules involved, as well as their altitude. The most plentiful and frequently activated molecules vibrate in the green wavelengths, but reds and blues are possible as well, depending on the intensity and altitude of the activity.
To view the northern lights, you need all of the above: the right location, activity in the magnetosphere, and clear skies. As with terrestrial weather, there’s no such thing as an aurora “sure thing”—the best we can do is put ourselves in position to be as close to the auroral oval on nights with the greatest chance for activity. Planning a winter trip to the high latitudes (the higher the better), like Iceland, is a good start—then just pray for clear skies.
Essential to aurora chasing is access to and comprehension of the Kp- (or K-) index. The Kp-index is a 0-9 scale of atmospheric electromagnetic activity, with 0 being little or no activity (get some sleep), and 9 being the most extreme activity (don’t forget the sunglasses). Many governments and scientific organizations issue regular Kp forecasts that seem about as reliable as a weather forecast—pretty good, but far from perfect. There are many websites and smartphone apps that will provide you with up-to-date Kp forecasts for your current location—some will even issue alerts.
Meanwhile, back in Iceland
This is my third trip to Iceland in winter, all with my friend and fellow pro photographer Don Smith: in 2019 to scout for our planned workshop, then in 2020 and 2022 for our workshops. On all three trips we’ve been guided, chauffeured, and entertained by our Icelandic guide, (the unforgettable) Óli Haukur.
On our previous two winter Iceland visits, it seemed the aurora was toying with us, tantalizing us each evening with clear skies (yay!) and just enough aurora potential to drive us out to wait in the cold dark night (meh), before ultimately disappointing (boo!). But on both trips, after a week of torture, the aurora finally came through with a dazzling display on the trip’s penultimate night (phew).
This year, the aurora gods played a different game. On our first night we were based near Kirkjufell (English translation: Church Mountain), arguably Iceland’s most iconic landmark—not to mention the north-facing vantage point that makes Kirkjufell a perfect foreground for photographing the northern lights. But, in a stunning plot twist, instead of the clear skies and KP-1 or 2 we’d been accustomed to, this year’s opening night’s aurora forecast was KP-6—the highest KP rating I’d had for any of my Iceland visits (even the big display nights). However…
Remember the aurora big 3: location, activity, and sky? We had location and activity, but even two out of three isn’t enough. So my ecstasy was quenched the instant I checked the Kirkjufell weather forecast: cloudy, with a chance of snow. But, because photographers will endure all kinds of abuse when a good shot is even remotely possible, our group bundled up and went out anyway. One small benefit: Though we certainly weren’t the only ones out there, the weather forecast and overall COVID-reduced tourist numbers made Kirkjufell’s crowd much more manageable than it would have been.
But crowds aren’t the only limiting factor at Kirkjufell. Night photographers there also need to deal with light leaks from the nearby village of Grundarfjörður (just as easy to pronounce at it is to spell), a couple of lights on the mountain, random headlights from the parking area, and a highway that runs along the base of the mountain and right through any composition that includes it. (Fortunately there weren’t a lot of cars, because each one lights the mountain for at least two minutes before its arrival.)
When we arrived at the Kirkjufell parking lot, there was no visible sign of the northern lights, but there were a few stars visible above the mountain, giving me a slight surge of hope. A couple of us tried test frames and our cameras picked up a slight green glow, nothing to write home about, but enough to justify making the short hike out to the prime viewing area. Though there was space for everyone in our group to set up with a good composition, it was crowded enough to make it difficult to move around a lot.
For the first hour or so we stood around waiting for the aurora to improve, clicking occasional frames to check its status. Most of this time the aurora was a benign glow, just bright enough to make out with the naked eye as a faint, colorless glow on the horizon. Our cameras, on the other hand, with their ability to accumulate light and brighten the darkness, easily pulled out some color. Nothing spectacular, but at least everyone was getting nice, albeit unspectacular, images.
Eventually a few in our group reached their chill threshold and began packing up. When I saw more clouds moving in from the west, I texted our guide that we were heading back to the bus (to call this beast a mere “bus” doesn’t really do it justice)—then joked that if that doesn’t start the light show, nothing will. (All photographers know that the best stuff doesn’t happen until at least one person packs up his or her gear.)
And sure enough, just as I collapsed my tripod and started zipping my bag, I took one last northward glance and saw actual, naked eye green. By the time I had my tripod re-extended and camera mounted, the color was really starting to kick in and stretch skyward. Soon we saw curtains of green waving in the solar wind, first a little right of the mountain, and soon directly behind it.
I can’t say that the composition I got here is much different from the composition everyone else got, but there were a few framing decisions that I was very particular about. I used my Sony a7RIV with my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens wide open, starting at ISO 1600 and 10 seconds before quickly bumping to ISO 3200.
As you may know, my goal is to photograph the world in a way that allows viewers to imagine it untouched by humans. So I took care to avoid including the footbridge that mars the left side of the scene. (I did have to clone out a small piece of bridge that snuck in under the cover of darkness to photo-bomb me.) Down the hill on the right side of the scene I had to contend with a pair of photographers (and their lights), plus the lights from Grundarfjörður, but I hid them behind the right side of the frame.
The top of the frame I set at the base of the thick clouds covering most of the sky. On the bottom, I took care to include enough of the riverbank to create a continuous white frame.
Given the clouds, it’s impossible to know the extent of the aurora’s spread, but I don’t think while we were there it ever reached the KP-6 we’d been promised. Nevertheless, it was a real treat for all of us—especially those who had never seen the northern lights. We finally left when the clouds closed in, but on the trip back we drove into clearer skies and actually stopped to photograph a little more along the side of the road. We didn’t get back to our hotel until midnight, but no one minded.
The last thing I want to mention here is my processing decisions. While everyone there that night got more or less the same version of this scene, I’ve seen several different processing approaches (from others in the group), resulting in noticeable differences in the finished products.
Because night images usually take in a lot more light than the human eye sees, there’s not really any way to say how it “really looked.” But I’m happy to share my own processing choices and why I made them, and try not to argue with anyone else’s night photography choices (within reason).
The unprocessed raw preview of this image looked very similar to this finished version, but there were a few important adjustments I wanted to add. I started in Lightroom by cooling the temperature of the entire scene to shift the yellow-ish daylight cast my camera’s auto white balance imposed, to a blue-ish, more night-like cast.
And very important to me during processing was minimizing signs of human influence on this naturally beautiful scene. In addition to cropping out that tiny section of bridge and a few rogue house lights, I cooled and subdued the town’s warm, artificial glow brightening Kirkjufell’s east (right) slope (many people liked this glow). And to bring out Kirkjufellsfoss (the waterfall), the turquoise water, and snow-cover shoreline, I brightened the foreground a little.
Several days have elapsed since I started this post. Since then we’ve had a couple more northern lights shoots—nothing spectacular, but very nice. We’ve also had lots of fun and a few adventures that I’ll share in future posts. Oh, and the snow drift in my hotel room was dealt with swiftly by the hotel staff—with no harm, financial or otherwise, on the perpetrator. (The hotel staff was very nice about the stupid American’s open window in a blizzard, and I got the distinct impression that this wasn’t their guest-room-snow-removal rodeo. And in my defense, it wasn’t snowing when I went to bed.)
My (Growing) Northern Lights Collection
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on January 31, 2022
We tend to photograph the things we love most, but I don’t think that necessarily happens consciously. For example, I never appreciated the role the sky plays in my photography until someone pointed it out a few years ago. Browsing my galleries to verify, I was amazed at the percentage of my images that include at least one of the following: the sun, the moon, stars, a rainbow, lightning, or dramatic clouds. (And more recently, the northern lights.)
While I never set out to be a “skyscape” photographer, given my background, I guess it makes sense. (Or more succinctly, “Duh.”) As an astronomy enthusiast since I was a child, and an armchair meteorologist since my late teens, I spent most of my formative years with my eyes and mind on the sky. I continued these childhood interests into adulthood, studying both astronomy and meteorology in college (I even majored in astronomy for a few semesters), and to this day can’t pass up a book or article on either topic. Even without a camera, I can spend hours watching clouds form and dissipate, or gazing at the stars.
A few tips for good sky photography
- The amount of sky and landscape a frame gets is pretty much a function of the visual appeal of each: the better the sky relative to the landscape, the more frame real-estate it gets. Both nice? No problem splitting the frame in the middle (despite what the “expert” at your camera club says).
- Clear sky? Use the absolute minimum sky possible—sometimes that’s a thin strip at the top of the frame; other times it’s no sky at all.
- Great sky? Give it most of your frame, with only something like a tree, rock, or water feature as a visual anchor.
- Watch the clouds. Clouds can add as much to a scene as the landscape feature you’re there to photograph. While the rules for compositional elements in the sky are no different than they are for elements in the landscape, I’m afraid clouds are frequently overlooked, leading to things like a towering thunderhead with its top cropped, or a rogue patch of blue intruding into a uniformly cloudy ceiling. Sometimes these things can’t be avoided, but you should always make the edges of your frame a conscious choice, even in the sky.
- As great as clouds are, I especially enjoy including special elements that can be subjects in themselves (like a rainbow, lightning, the Milky Way, the moon, and so on). Rather than showing up and benignly accepting whatever the scene delivers, I aggressively pursue sky subjects by planning my visits to coincide with the best chance for something interesting in the sky. I start with a landscape scene I like, then figure out what sky feature or features I might be able to put with it. How can I get this scene with the Milky Way? What about a full or crescent moon? A rainbow? Lightning? ( (And before you ask, I refuse to add a sky in post—like everything else I photograph, all of my images that include the sky happen with one click.)
- Weather phenomena require a little knowledge and planning, and a lot of luck. For example, whenever I shoot in rain, or just when there’s the potential for rain, I figure out where a rainbow would appear if the sun were to break through (your shadow will point to the center of the rainbow). And don’t think you can just go out and photograph lightning because you’re in an electrical storm and have a camera. Not only is capturing lightning very difficult without knowledge, experience, and the right equipment, it’s just plain dangerous. Read my tips for photographing lightning.
- Night photography is about the stars, so make sure you give enough of your frame to the sky to highlight the stars. My rule of thumb is 2/3 sky, but sometimes I’ll do even more. And exceptions are okay (always!): if the foreground is more spectacular than the starry sky, go ahead and split the frame evenly between the sky and landscape, or give it more landscape than sky.
- While photographing the Milky Way’s isn’t as dangerous as photographing lightning (unless you walk off a cliff in the dark), like lightning photography, including the Milky Way (the right way) also requires a lot of knowledge and experience, as well as the right equipment. Read my tips on photographing the Milky Way.
- The moon is predictable, requiring only clear skies, a sturdy tripod, and maybe some warm clothes. Before any photo trip, I make a point of knowing the moon’s phase and rise/set times and position. Read my tips for photographing the moon.
About this image
I captured this scene on the final morning of this year’s Death Valley photo workshop. After three glorious days in Death Valley, we made the 90 minute drive to Lone Pine for a chance to photograph the Alabama Hills at sunset and sunrise. While Death Valley and the Alabama Hills are spectacular landscapes, both are plagued by chronic blue skies, so (speaking of planning for the sky) this workshop is always scheduled around the full moon.
We’d had fantastic clouds throughout our Death Valley stay, but the forecast for Lone Pine was clear skies. No problem, I thought, we’ll have the moon. And we did indeed get the moon, but we also got a bonus layer of thin cirrus clouds that turned a brilliant pink shortly before the sun touched the tallest peaks.
I’d been focused on the moon’s slow descent toward Mt. Williamson (the next peak to the north and just out of the frame on the right) when the color started to kick in. Instead of sticking with Plan A (the moon), I quickly reevaluated the scene and decided that the color in the clouds was best above Lone Pine Peak (on the left) and Mt. Whitney. Vivid color like this doesn’t last long, so I just took the foreground before me, grateful to be in the Alabama Hills, where there’s no such thing as a bad foreground.
With so much going on visually, this is one of those scenes where it’s easy to unconsciously cut off clouds. Ideally every cloud would be a complete entity, surrounded on all sides by blue sky or other clouds. Of course achieving that is easier said than done, but my goal is to make all of my border choices conscious rather than having to later accept what I got because my attention was elsewhere.
Because in my mind the most important cloud feature was the large, pink blob above and right of Lone Pine Peak, I was very careful to include all of it. And you need to take my word that the clouds that run right up to an edge (or just barely poke in from an edge) were in fact seen and consciously handled. But it was impossible to go wide enough on the right to include all of that cloud; and going wide enough to avoid cutting off the other clouds on the edges would have introduced other, even worse, compositional problems.
My point isn’t to justify my choices, it’s merely to point out that they were conscious. (In fact, you may have evaluated this scene differently and made much better choices.) But this underscores one of the things I love most about photography: the blend of conscious and unconscious. I started this post writing about my love of the sky and how that love unconsciously became a major factor in my personal style. Now I finish by emphasizing my drive to be hyper-conscious. And you know what? Each is equally true.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on January 24, 2022
Once upon a time, my most frequently asked question was some version of, “Did you put that leaf (or whatever) there?” (No.) When digital photography and Photoshop processing started to gather momentum, those questions expanded to whether or not I added the moon or the Milky Way to an image. (Again, no.) And now, with effortless sky replacement, any beautiful sunset seems to generate dubious looks. Sigh.
As discouraging as this cynicism is, given the number of photographers who seem willing to manipulate the natural world, viewers of today’s images have every right to be skeptical of their origin. But nature photography’s prime objective should to reveal natural beauty—and when we succeed, viewers’ first reaction shouldn’t be skepticism.
Order vs. chaos
The main reason I’ve always resisted manipulating scenes and manufacturing images is that I try to approach my photography with the mindset that Nature is inherently ordered and unimprovable. Sometimes natural beauty slaps us in the face; other times we have to look a little harder. But I’m afraid in a world where humans go to great lengths to suppress fires, divert rivers, raze forests, and in countless other ways try to control, contain, and otherwise manage the natural world, we’ve fostered the arrogant mindset that we can do it better.
When Nature gets “out of control,” we label it chaos and try to “fix” it. But what humans perceive as “chaos” is actually just a manifestation of the universe’s inexorable push toward natural order. I mean, think about it: Imagine that all humans leave Earth for an extended tour of the Milky Way. While we’re gone, no lawns are mowed, no buildings maintained, no fires extinguished, no floods controlled, no Starbucks built. Let’s say we return in 100 Earth years*. While the state of things upon our return would no doubt be perceived as chaotic, the reality is that our planet would in fact be closer to its natural state. And the longer we’re away, the more human-imposed “order” would be replaced by natural order—and I dare say, more beautiful.
I’m thinking about all this because there’s nothing like a visit to pristine sand dunes to remind a person that Nature doesn’t need our help when it comes to creating beauty. The exquisite choreography of dipping and soaring arcs, lines, and parallel grooves that form naturally when sand, wind, and gravity combine and are left alone is both beautiful and humbling.
I got my most recent dose of sand dune splendor last week, when I guided my Death Valley workshop group out onto the Mesquite Flat Dunes. Given their proximity to the highway and the tiny enclave of Stovepipe Wells, these dunes are almost aways swarmed by people and stained by enduring footprints. To avoid both, I take my groups on a one-mile cross-country (no trail) hike out to a spot much more likely to reward us with virgin sand.
When last week’s visit delivered as hoped, we made the trek twice—once for sunset, and again the next morning for sunrise. The sunset shoot featured a gorgeous red sky in all directions that had everyone spinning in circles to avoid missing something. But I actually enjoyed our sunrise shoot even more, when an 80-percent cloud cover created a natural softbox that let the dunes do their elegant thing.
It was still completely dark when we parked and started our morning hike—dark enough that I just kind of pointed my headlamp in the general direction I wanted to go, confident that it didn’t really matter exactly where in the dunes we’d end up. Because footprints in sand are forever (in the context of a 90 minute photoshoot), part of my job is finding a spot where we can all set up in relatively close proximity, then to play traffic cop to ensure no one strays into sand that might be photo-worthy. After scaling and descending several dunes, I finally paused atop an elevated sand platform. Surveying our surroundings in the first gray light of dawn, my eye was instantly drawn to a graceful serpentine ridge arcing across the face of the dune just opposite us. With enough space for the entire group, a view that spanned nearly 270 degrees, and a gorgeous foreground element, I decided that we’d found our spot.
One of the things I love about photographing sand dunes is that there are compositions for every lens in my bag, from my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM to the Sony 100-400 GM (and the Sony 200-600 if I hadn’t left it in the car). I played with several lenses before zeroing in on the arc that had originally grabbed my eye. For this feature I used my Sony 24-105 GM on my Sony a7RIV, starting fairly wide to include more dunes and some sky, then gradually zooming tighter to isolate the arc.
While I do all of my photography on a tripod, for dunes especially I like to take my camera off the tripod, put my eye to the viewfinder, and slowly scan the scene until something stops me. I can’t even tell you exactly why I stopped with this composition, except to say that it just felt right.
As these dunes illustrate (and I hope my image conveys), Nature creates the most astonishing beauty. I have no illusions I can improve on Nature’s offerings, but as long as I keep looking, I’m pretty confident that there’s enough naturally occurring beauty to keep me occupied for the rest of my life.
* Since this is my fantasy, I’ve chartered a spaceship that accommodates all of humankind and travels at 90 percent of the speed of light. While Earth has indeed aged 100 years during our holiday, we travelers return only a year older. (Dubious? Don’t take my word for it, ask Albert Einstein.)
Sand Dune Splendor
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on January 19, 2022
Woe is me
I just returned from nearly a week in Death Valley, where I had virtually no connectivity (wifi at my hotel made the Grand Canyon North Rim feel like a Silicon Valley Starbucks). Workshop or not, I try to post something on social media every day, and a new blog article each Sunday, but with no wifi and spotty 3G cellular that struggled just to send or load a text-only e-mail, I felt virtually cut off from civilization (there was a tsunami?!). I know in the grand scheme of things these are small problems, and that I probably missed the world more than it missed me, but still….
Last week I wrote about creating unique perspectives of familiar scenes, and offered some ideas for achieving this. As admirable as it is to make unique images, sometimes Mother Nature delivers something so magnificent that best thing to do is just get out of the way and let the scene stand on its own.
Though last month’s Yosemite Winter Moon workshop wasn’t scheduled to start until the afternoon I took this picture, I drove to Yosemite the evening before the workshop to get a few hours of morning one-on-one time with the multiple inches of snow forecast to fall overnight. And as hoped, I arrived that morning to find every square inch of exposed surface glazed white—and the snow was still falling.
The paradox of photographing Yosemite during a storm is that all of the features you came to photograph are most likely obliterated by clouds. Sometimes visibility is so poor, it’s difficult to imagine the obscured features ever existed—and quite easy to imagine the comfort and warmth of your hotel room. The key Yosemite storm success is to be there when the storm clears—but job-one for catching the clearing part of a Yosemite clearing storm, is first enduring the storm part.
So, rather than succumb to the temptation of comfort and warmth, I armored up and went to work in near zero visibility. After an hour or so of driving around, interrupted by a stop or two (or three) to photograph some of the more intimate nearby beauty, I pulled up to El Capitan Bridge and noticed the clouds starting to lift (fingers crossed). In the still-falling snow, I quickly set up my tripod, grabbed my Sony a7RIV, attached my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens, and hoped.
Without getting too preachy, let me just say that if you ever want to piss off a photographer, look at one of their images and say, “Ooooh, you must have some great equipment.” While that may very well be true, the unavoidable inference is that the beautiful image is a product of the photographer’s equipment, not their photographic vision and skill.
But…. As much as I’d like to say my equipment is irrelevant and I could achieve the same results with a pinhole camera, I’ll admit that I have images I couldn’t have created without the right camera or lens. And this is one of them.
Back on point
I’ve written before about Sony’s 12-24 lenses, and how they feel specifically designed for Yosemite’s ultra-close views of massive monoliths. El Capitan Bridge is one of those views, so close that I’ve always felt that even a 16-35 wasn’t wide enough to do the scene justice. So when Sony released its 12-24 f/4 G lens, this was one of my very first stops. My excitement was validated when I discovered that at 12mm I could indeed get all of El Capitan, plus its entire reflection, in a single vertical frame. I became so enamored of my new top-to-bottom-reflection power that pretty much every subsequent 12-24 El Capitan composition here (both with the original Sony 12-24 f/4 G, and the newer Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM) had been vertical. My goal this morning was to change that.
While the clouds didn’t completely part for several more hours, during this stop at El Capitan Bridge they did lift just enough to reveal all of El Capitan for about 15 minutes. During that time, their swirling vestiges careened across the granite face so rapidly that the scene seemed to change by the second.
Photographically, there wasn’t really a lot I could do for this scene besides not mess it up. Mounting my camera horizontally, I widened my lens all the way out to 12mm, put the top of the frame slightly above El Capitan (to maximize the amount of reflection below it—more sky would have meant less reflection), and used the snow-covered trees on both sides to frame the scene.
Depth of field wasn’t a factor, and very little contrast made metering easy. Wanting a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the falling snowflakes, I dialed to ISO 800 and f/9, which I quickly determined centered my (pre-capture) histogram at a more than adequate 1/250 second. Then I clicked a dozen or so images to ensure a wide variety of cloud formations and falling snowflake patterns, pausing occasionally to appreciate the moment.
This scene felt like a gift that I really didn’t want to overthink. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to photograph it (and the equipment that allowed me to do it justice).
An El Capitan Gallery
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Posted on January 9, 2022
What does it take to make a great landscape image? The answer to that question could fill volumes (so I hope you don’t expect the final word in one blog post), but for starters, it seems pretty obvious that a great landscape image should involve some combination of beautiful scene and compelling composition. Of course it’s possible for one side of that scale to tilt so strongly that it renders the other side all but irrelevant: I’m thinking about the masterful composition that manages to extract beauty from the most ordinary scene, or the scene that’s so spectacular that it would be virtually impossible to not return with a beautiful image.
But as much as photographers should strive for the former, I’m afraid ubiquitous cameras and information have given us too much of the latter—because it’s easier. Not only can today’s photographers learn where to be and when to be there with the tap of an app (or the click of a mouse), even when unexpected beauty suddenly materializes before our eyes, we’re almost certainly armed with a tool to capture it. Add to this the power of today’s computers and software to actually manufacture beauty (don’t get me started…), and I’m concerned that the world is becoming numbed to the appreciation of photography as a craft—the ability to see the less obvious beauty and convey it by deftly controlling the scene’s framing, motion, depth, and light.
This is especially relevant to me because I make my living serving people who dream of getting “the” shot at my workshop locations. Usually they’ve seen some other photographer’s version of their “dream” shot and simply want one of their own to display and share. Whether it’s sunset light on Horsetail Fall, a lightning strike at the Grand Canyon, or fresh snow at Tunnel View, I completely understand their motivation and I do everything in my power to make it happen (I love photographing these things too). But still…
In addition to helping my workshop student get their dream image, I also encourage them to make these shots their starting point, not their goal. Photograph the icons without shame, but don’t stop there, also find your own perspective on the scene’s beauty. That could be identifying a foreground element that complements a glorious background, going vertical when the obvious composition is horizontal, introducing motion or focus blur to part of the scene, or any number of large or small compositional twists.
My own approach when photographing a scene imbued with obvious inherent beauty—such as a spectacular sunset, vivid rainbow, or breathtaking vista—is to remind myself not to settle for something I’ve already done, no matter how beautiful it might be. While that’s a relatively small challenge at new or less familiar scenes, this approach makes familiar places like Tunnel View in Yosemite (arguably the most beautiful vista on Earth, and one that I’ve photographed more times than I can count) a much higher photographic bar to clear. So high, in fact, that I rarely take out my camera at Tunnel View anymore. (Well, at least that’s the mindset when I get there—I’m a sucker for this scene and sometimes can’t resist photographing a beautiful moment here because some scenes are too beautiful to ignore—but you get the point.) Even still, these days I pretty much only photograph Tunnel View when I can include some a scecial, transient element, like the moon or a rainbow. Or fresh snow.
Last month my Yosemite Winter Moon workshop group had the immense good fortune to start just as a cold winter storm finished dropping 8 inches of snow on Yosemite Valley. For a couple of reasons, we started at Tunnel View—first, because it’s the best place to introduce first-timers to Yosemite’s majesty; second, it’s probably the best place in Yosemite to view a clearing storm. The scene that greeted us was as spectacular as you might imagine—and as also you might imagine, it wasn’t something I hadn’t seen before.
My original plan was to keep my camera in the car, but once I got everyone settled into their spots and was confident they were content (and wanted to be left alone), I couldn’t resist the beauty, no matter how familiar. Oh—and before I go any farther, let me make clear that I am not trying to say, nor do I in any way believe, that this image is more special than thousands of other Tunnel View images that preceded it (or even that were captured that day). I just want to use it to illustrate my approach, and the decisions that got me to something that turned out to be a little different for me. But anyway…
The first thing I usually I preach about photographing Tunnel View is to not go too wide. As beautiful as the entire view is, the real (permanent) visual action is between El Capitan on the left, and Leaning Tower (the diagonal, flat granite face angling up from Bridalveil Fall) on the right. Another problem at Tunnel View is that the sky in Yosemite is usually boring (cloudless), and the foreground trees are nothing special. So not only does the real estate left of El Capitan and right of Leaning Tower pale in comparison to the primary scene it bookends, composing wide enough to include that extra granite also means shrinking the best stuff (from left to right: El Capitan, Cloud’s Rest, Half Dome, Cathedral Rocks, Bridalveil Fall, Leaning Tower) while including more bland sky and trees. Therefore, my go-to lens for Tunnel View is my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens. And when I want to isolate one or two of the primary features, I’ll switch to my Sony 100-400 GM lens.
But this afternoon, with the entire landscape glazed white, those scruffy foreground trees were suddenly a feature worthy of inclusion. So, rather than starting with the 24-105 on my Sony a7RIV, I reached for my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens. Going wider created another problem: that large tree on the left is a usually an obstacle, a potential distraction always that must be dealt with. My standard approach is to move to the right to completely eliminate the tree from my composition, but this afternoon the vista was so packed with gawkers and photographers that moving around without encroaching on someone else’s space was difficult-to-impossible. Because I got my group setup before grabbing a spot for myself, I’d found myself stuck farther to the left than I like, making my plan to shoot the scene extra-wide while eliminating the tree even more problematic. So, grateful once again for the snowy glaze, I decided to use my arboreal nemesis to frame the left side of my composition (if you can’t beat ’em…). For the right side of my frame, I chose to go wide enough to include a couple of more prominent trees in the middle distance, as well as the interesting clouds swirling near the rim behind them.
In any composition, the decision between sky and foreground always comes down to which is more interesting—in this case, despite some fairly interesting clouds overhead, those clouds couldn’t compete with the snowy foreground. To maximize the snowy foreground, I put the bottom of my frame in the homogeneous white snowbank at the base of the shrub line just a few feet below me—just low enough to allow me to include only the most interesting clouds.
And finally, because I know someone will ask, even with so much detail from near-to-far, at 20mm and f/9, my focus point was pretty much irrelevant (hyperfocal distance was 5 feet). As something of a control freak in my photography life (understatement), I’ve always been a manual focus evangelist, but I’m getting lazy in my old age and in this case I just hit my back-button focus button to autofocus somewhere in the scene (wherever the focus point happened to be), then clicked with the knowledge I’d be sharp throughout.
More Tunnel View Magic: One Spot, Many Takes
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on January 2, 2022
Last week I shared a brief summary of the year just passed; this week I offer the fruits of all that labor.
Leading photo workshops for a living, I spend a lot of time in places I’ve visited many times, but it seems each spot feels more a part of me with each visit. This year in particular, I sought opportunities to add the Milky Way, a moonrise, fresh snowfall, an electrical storm, or some other transient natural phenomenon to my scene to further elevate these familiar landscapes.
But thrilling images notwithstanding, for me, and I suspect (hope?) for many, the true joy of nature photography isn’t the image itself, it’s the chase—all the planning and physical sacrifice that made it possible—as well as the humbling awe of being there. Last year, despite its difficulties, was chock-full of those experiences.
As you may have guessed, many of the scenes in the gallery above were shared with workshop participants. It took losing more than a dozen workshops to the pandemic to fully appreciate how much it lifts me to experience Nature’s best displays with people who are as awestruck as I am, and I felt blessed to get that back in 2021.
On the other hand, I feel similarly blessed for those rare opportunities to commune with Nature in meditative solitude. With 16 workshops last year (and all the planning and organization they required), I had precious few truly private photo moments in 2021. But the opportunities I did have still resonate clearly.
Another thing that happens when I review images from the year just ended is a reminder of the visual treats in store for the coming year. I have no idea what I’ll see in 2022, but I’ve been doing this long enough to know that I’ll create more images that thrill me, and more memories to sustain me.
Thanks to each of you for your support, in whatever form that takes. Whether you’re a workshop student, an avid follower, or just a casual browser, I’m so happy you’ve joined me on this amazing ride.
See more in my…
Posted on December 26, 2021
As COVID started ravaging my workshop schedule way back in March 2020, my private mantra was, “Just hang on until August.” As we approach our third pandemic year with the Omicron variant raging, how misguided that dream feels today. While 2020 was pretty much lost to COVID, 2021 was the year things seemed poised to return to normal. And while not the Disney happy ending I’d envisioned, in many ways that proved true.
Even though I had to postpone my 2021 January workshops—one in Death Valley, as well as the Iceland workshop I do with Don Smith—it seemed things were improving. And improve they did: In quick succession I did two Yosemite workshops in February, followed by three more Yosemite workshops, one each in March, April, and May. Another 2021 spring highlight came in May, when I returned to the Grand Canyon for my beloved raft trip. Amidst all this, Don Smith and I managed to get in our April Oregon Coast and Columbia River Gorge workshops. So far, so good.
Despite missing most of 2020 and a few COVID-related inconveniences, these resurrected workshops felt surprisingly normal—not only was I thrilled to get back to my locations, spending time with the groups reminded me how much I missed having people to share the beauty with. And it seemed the people in my groups were just as happy to return to nature, and to interact with others in the relative safety of the great outdoors, as I was.
Approaching mid-year, Don and I did lose our spectacular New Zealand workshop for the second year in a row, but we’d been resigned to that for many months and had a solid plan in place. I was actually philosophical about the New Zealand loss, rationalizing that I was ready for a breather following my brutal spring schedule, and the similarly ambitious schedule coming in the second half of the year (trying to make up for my 2020 losses).
The second half of the summer was back to pedal-to-the-metal mode, with three Grand Canyon workshops (back-to-back-to-back) in July and August, followed by a return to the Big Island of Hawaii in September. Autumn didn’t get any easier, with back-to-back Eastern Sierra workshops in September and October, and another Yosemite workshop in November.
If all this seems like a lot, let me assure you, it was. But, in the midst of this breakneck pace, October brought a real tap-the-brakes moment: Despite COVID precautions and all 11 participants/leaders fully vaccinated, following my second Eastern Sierra workshop, 7 people (including me) tested positive for COVID. Fortunately, no one became seriously ill (I felt like I had a moderate cold for less than a week—no fever, headache, or fatigue, but 4 days with absolutely no sense of smell). I know it would have been far worse had we not been vaccinated—a blessing for which I’ll be eternally grateful—but it was a reminder to stay vigilant.
The grand finale
Fully recovered, I wrapped up my busy year in December with a spectacular Yosemite workshop. This “Winter Moon” workshop delivered ample portions of both winter and moon—lots of snowfall that gave way to clear sky just in time for the full moon on our final shoot.
Fellow Yosemite (among other places) photographer Michael Frye was doing a workshop at the same time, but we communicated regularly and adjusted our plans to prevent our groups from ending up at the same spots at the same time. After learning that we both planned to be at Tunnel View for Friday’s sunset moonrise (we agreed there’d be enough room to make it work), an event that was no secret to the photography community in general, I knew it would be crowded.
While there’s quite a bit of room at Tunnel View, it’s not infinite, and parking can sometimes be a problem, so I got my group up there about 90 minutes before sunset (and about 75 minutes before the moon would appear). While we waited, I made sure everyone knew when and where the moon would appear, and encouraged them to work on compositions before the moon appeared.
Though I had two tripods with me, I didn’t think it would be fair for one person to take two spots and instead just set up one tripod and readied two bodies and lenses: a Sony a7RIV with my Sony 200-600 G and Sony 2X Teleconverter (1200mm), and a Sony a7RIV with my Sony 24-105 G. My plan was to start with the telephoto body as the moon appeared, then switch to the wider body as the moon climbed and moved away from El Capitan.
As you can see, the workshop grand finale was a spectacular success. The moon appeared near the (barely visible) frozen trickle that will become Horsetail Fall just a few minutes before sunset, just as the day’s last light kissed El Capitan. I shared one of the wider images in last week’s post; this week I’m sharing a 1200mm image from shortly after the moon’s arrival.
Note the size of the moon in these two images that were taken on the same night, from the same location. While it would be spectacular to have the large moon in the scene with both El Capitan and Half Dome, that would be impossible from any earthbound vantage point. From Tunnel View, magnifying the moon with a 1200mm focal length only gives me a small fraction of El Capitan, while widening the scene enough to include both of Yosemite’s granite icons shrinks the moon to small disk. The results are so different, I won’t even try to suggest that one is “better” than the other.
So, in case you weren’t keeping score, in 2021 I had 3 workshops rescheduled, while adding 16 workshops notches to my belt—a personal record. Yet despite this very productive year, 2021 didn’t usher in the Disney happy ending I’d hoped for. It seems very possible that Don and I will lose New Zealand again in 2022, and Omicron has forces to reschedule one of the two Iceland workshops scheduled for January.
My other 2022 workshops are still on schedule, but I’m monitoring Omicron closely and hoping it fades as quickly as it started (monitoring positive signs from South Africa and other countries ahead of us—with fingers crossed).
Posted on December 19, 2021
Camera or not, two of my very favorite things in nature are a rising moon, and the rich pink and blue twilight sky opposite the sun after sunset*. Once a month, in the days around the full moon, these phenomena converge, and I get an opportunity to photograph the moon actually in the best part of the sky. I spend a lot of time trying to identify the scenes above which to photograph these celestial displays, and the best time to be there.
As a one-click photographer, for years the primary obstacle to photographing these scenes has been capturing (in a single frame) detail in the daylight-bright moon and a rapidly darkening landscape. In my early digital years, I found that the window of exposure opportunity—the time from sunset until the foreground became too dark to capture with one click—ended about 5-10 minutes after sunset (this can vary somewhat with several factors, such as longitude and terrain), just as the best color was ramping up. I could extend that window by 5 minutes or so by using a graduated neutral density filter to subdue the moon’s brightness by 2 or 3 stops, but GNDs come with their own set of problems—especially when the scene doesn’t have a homogenous, horizontal space near the horizon to disguise the GND boundary.
Technology to the rescue
One of the main reasons I switched to Sony in 2014 was the dynamic range of the Sony Alpha sensors, and few situations underscore that advantage better than these twilight moonrises. With my new cameras, suddenly my post-sunset threshold jumped by at least 50%—an advantage that continued progressing with each Sony sensor iteration.
Along with improved sensor technology, advances in processing software enabled me to get even more out of each image. Probably biggest processing improvement is in the noise reduction software that reduces blotchy, image softening, detail robbing noise that’s the prime limiting factor when you pull up the shadows of a twilight moonrise. Noise reduction software doesn’t restore lost image data, but it can bring out the best of what you did capture, allowing you to push back the twilight moonrise window just a little more. (I use and recommend Topaz DeNoise AI.)
Time for an Ansel Adams quote
Ansel Adams famously said, “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” Put in today’s terms (and far more prosaically), all the technology in the world doesn’t do much good if you don’t know how to use it. For example, me: I know now that I probably packed up too early, mistakenly thinking the twilight moonrise photography window had closed—simply because I didn’t know how to get the most from my camera.
In fact, proper exposure is probably the single biggest struggle most photographers have when photographing a twilight moon. The most frequent mistake is trying to make the picture look good on their LCD, which invariably results in a preview image with gorgeous foreground beneath a brilliant white lunar disk—a disk that, on closer scrutiny, is hopelessly stripped of detail.
Photographing both a full moon and the landscape, with detail, starts by understanding that, in a high dynamic range scene, an ideal exposure rarely looks good on the LCD. I repeat: In a high dynamic range scene, an ideal exposure rarely looks good on the LCD. The key is making the image as bright as possible without blowing the highlights, providing the best opportunity to restore the highlights and shadows in post-processing.
While it’s usually best to trust the image’s histogram in extreme dynamic range situations, since the moon is such a small part of most images, it rarely registers on the histogram. This small but important detail makes it possible to capture a histogram that looks great, while ending up with a moon that’s hopelessly blown (detail-less white).
So if you can’t trust the image or the histogram, what can you trust? I thought you’d never ask. While the histogram is helpful for the landscape part of the scene, when I photograph a full moon, I monitor the moon’s exposure with my camera’s highlight alert feature—on my Sony Alpha mirrorless bodies that the “zebras” (pre-capture highlight warning stripes on all mirrorless and some DSLR cameras), but DSLR shooters can use the post-capture blinking highlights.
My twilight moonrise recipe
My process for a post-sunset moon starts with metering in manual mode (because I want complete control of my exposure). I set the ISO to 100 (my Sony a7RIV’s native/best ISO), and the f-stop to whatever I think will give me the sharpest image. The exposure is controlled with the shutter speed.
While the moon’s brightness doesn’t change, with a rising full moon, the landscape will continue to darken, making a foreground exposure that was perfect a minute or two ago not quite so perfect now. As the scene darkens, I add light by deliberately increasing my shutter speed in 1/3 stop increments (that is, one click at a time), with my eye on the moon.
When the zebras appear, I use my knowledge of my a7RIV to squeeze the most possible light from the scene. Raw shooters almost always have more detail than their histogram or highlight alerts indicate (different cameras’ highlight alerts engage at different points). This means you can add still light after the first alerts appear in the moon. When I first detect the zebras on my a7RIV, I know I can push my highlights 2/3 to 1 full stop brighter and still recover detail later.
If you’re shooting with a DSLR that doesn’t offer pre-capture zebras in your viewfinder, you may still be able to get them on the live-view LCD (some DSLRs offer them, some don’t). If not, you’ll need to check the post-capture blinking highlights after you click. Camera familiarity is no less essential when reading the blinking highlights of post-capture DSLR image preview highlight alerts than it is with the pre-capture zebras on a mirrorless camera.
Another thing I’ve started doing to get the most light out of the scene is pushing my highlights beyond the point where I’m certain I haven’t blown them out, then magnifying the moon in the preview image—if I see detail, I know not only am I still good to go, I may even be able to squeeze another 1/ or 2/3 of a stop more light out.
What I’m starting to realize now is how much usable detail I have in the shadows of my a7RIV. This image was captured just Friday night, on the final night of my Yosemite Winter Moon workshop. It was more than 20 minutes after sunset and my foreground looked so black on the LCD that I figured it was unusable. But the scene was so beautiful, I just couldn’t make myself stop shooting. (A friend who happened to be standing next to me for most of the evening had left about 10 minutes earlier, despite my protests that he was leaving too soon.)
So imagine my surprise when I opened it in Lightroom, pulled up the Blacks (to about 30), Shadows (all the way), and Exposure (about two stops) sliders and saw plenty of detail and very fixable noise. A quick treatment from Topaz DeNoise AI confirmed what what I’d just seen—my twilight moon window is now open until at 20 minutes after sunset. Amazing.
(I’ll have more on this fantastic finale to a fantastic workshop in a future post. Spoiler alert: This isn’t the only image from this shoot.)
* When I say sunset, you can infer that I mean sunrise as well, with everything happening in reverse, on the other side of the sky.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on December 12, 2021
Between a lot of travel last week and preparing for a workshop that starts this week, I somehow managed to process an image yesterday. And today I’m going to attempt to squeeze out a quick blog post around a gathering that’s a 5-hour roundtrip away. Let’s see what happens…
This image makes me think about other memorable shoots that might not have happened had I stuck with the original plan, or succumbed to the easy (more comfortable) exit. These experiences are a testament to the Wayne Gretzky (or was it Michael Scott?) wisdom that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
I’m thinking about the rainbow above Yosemite Valley that I wouldn’t have gotten had I stuck with my plan to meet a private workshop student for dinner—instead, I met him and his girlfriend at the restaurant and insisted that we forego dinner to go sit in the rain, because I thought a rainbow might be possible. Or a very cold morning at Lake Wanaka, New Zealand, when I woke to fog so thick that I could barely see 100 yards. Or setting my alarm for 4:30 a.m. to photograph sunrise, even though I had a 12-hour drive home and the forecast promised a zero-percent chance of rain—only to be gifted a 2-hour electrical storm that ended with a rainbow.
Normally I do the Milky Way shoot in the bristlecones on my Eastern Sierra workshop’s second night, but new permit restrictions thwarted that plan (turns out clouds and wildfire smoke would have stopped us anyway). So I resorted to Plan B, promising that we’d give the Milky Way a try after the Olmsted Point sunset shoot on the workshop’s final night.
But ascending Tioga Pass, we encountered smoke from one of the many wildfires scorching California. The smoke thickened as we headed west, and by the time we arrived at Olmsted Point, we could barely make out the outline of Half Dome in the smoky distance. We stayed long enough to enjoy a red-rubber-ball sunset, then blew off our “wait for the Milky Way” plan and drove back down to Lee Vining for dinner.
Though we were all a little disappointed to be missing the Milky Way shoot, as we queued up at the Whoa Nellie Deli (look it up), I sensed that many in the group looked forward to a warm and restful evening. Still, at one point I snuck out into the cold to check the sky. Seeing that clouds, smoke, or some combination of both had snuffed them, I confirmed to the group that the Milky Way shoot was off.
Walking outside after dinner, I was already mentally back in my room, but nevertheless glanced skyward and was surprised to see stars. Lots and lots of stars. Without the smoke/cloud blanket to hold in what little warmth remained, the temperature felt like it had dropped another 10 degrees. Part of me really, really wanted to pretend I hadn’t seen the stars and just herd everyone to the cars before they noticed them too, but I knew the Milky Way was a priority for many, and this opportunity was too good to pass. When I suggested that we give it a shot, almost the entire group was onboard (I can’t remember whether anyone opted out, but most didn’t). So we drove out to South Tufa, bundled up, and traipsed down to the lake.
I’ve photographed here more times than I can count (it’s possible there aren’t even numbers that go that high anyway), but only once or twice at night, many years ago. I didn’t have a specific spot in mind, but since South Tufa is on the south side of the lake, and the Milky Way is in the southern sky, I figured we’d likely be shooting in a tufa garden, with the lake at our back and the calcium carbonate towers in the foreground.
But walking east along the lake shore in the dark, we came upon a small peninsula jutting into the lake. Despite having walked by this spot countless times, I suddenly realized it might protrude far enough to allow us to shoot southward and back cross the water, toward a few tufa towers, with the Milky Way in the background.
We used flashlights to walk out and set up, but then photographed by the light of nothing but the stars. Working with an entire group out here in the dark, with no more than three very craggy feet of space between the lake at our feet and a wall of tufa behind us, was a real challenge. Each time someone called for help I had to navigate a treacherous route in near total darkness, taking care not to bump anyone, and being very mindful that the slightest misstep could send me sprawling into the frigid, salty lake (not to mention what that would do to the reflection).
Each time I passed my camera, I checked my previous image, made quick adjustments, and clicked a new frame before moving on to the next person who needed help. I only managed a handful of shots, and while they all looked pretty similar to this, that was just fine. We stayed here for 30 minutes or so, then moved on to the tufa garden I’d originally considered. That was nice too, though many of those images were spoiled by someone light painting the tufa nearby.
Looking over the images from that night, I’m reminded not just of the great photography we enjoyed, but also of how much fun we had out there in the dark, doing something we never imagined we’d be able to do. It would have been very easy after dinner to return with our full stomachs to our warm rooms, and turn in early to be rested for our early start the next morning. But I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the best memories often come from the most challenging conditions. If we’d have followed the strong urge to return to the hotel right after dinner, we almost certainly would have been quite comfortable, content, and completely oblivious to what we’d missed. And what a sad thing that would have been.
Almost Not Taken
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on December 5, 2021
Blue sky may be great for picnics and outdoor weddings, but it makes for lousy photography. To avoid boring blue skies, flat midday light, and extreme highlight/shadow contrast, landscape photographers usually go for the color of sunrise and sunset, and low-angle sunlight of early morning and late afternoon.
Of course the great light equalizer is clouds, which can soften harsh light and add enough texture and character to the sky, making almost any subject photographable—any time of day. Sadly, clouds are never guaranteed, especially here in California. Fortunately, all is not lost when the great clouds and light we hope for don’t manifest.
Spending a large part of my photography time in Yosemite, over the years I’ve created a mental list for when to find the “best” cloudless-sky light on Yosemite’s icons: for Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall, and Cathedral Rocks it’s late afternoon through sunset; El Capitan is good early morning, while Yosemite Falls is best a little later in the morning. And then there are seasonal considerations: Half Dome at the end of the day is good year-round, but Bridalveil Fall and Cathedral Rocks are much better from April through September; while El Capitan gets nice morning light year-round, it also gets good late light from October through February; and while the best light on Yosemite Falls happens in winter, that doesn’t usually coincide with the best water, which comes in spring (unless you’re lucky enough to get a lot of early rain, like we got this autumn).
But even when the sun’s up and the sky is blank, all is not lost. In those situations I head to locations I can photograph in full shade. Yosemite Valley’s steep walls help a lot, especially from November through February, when much of the valley never gets direct sun.
Following our sunrise shoot on the first morning of last month’s Yosemite Fall Color photo workshop, I took my group to El Capitan Bridge to photograph the first light on El Capitan. But as nice as that El Capitan first light was, on this morning I couldn’t help notice the downstream view of Cathedral Rocks across the bridge. With everything on that side in full shade, this downstream scene wasn’t as dramatic as the sun-warmed El Capitan, but the soft, shadowless light was ideal for the colorful trees reflecting in the Merced River.
After encouraging everyone in the group not to check out this downstream view, I went to work on the scene. If the sky had been more interesting, I’d have opted for my Sony 16-35 GM lens to include all of Cathedral Rocks, more trees, lots of reflection, and an ample slice of sky. But the sky this morning was both bright and blue (yuck), so I chose the Sony 24-105G lens for my Sony a7RIV to tighten the composition.
Before shooting, I actually walked up and down at the railing quite a bit, framing up both horizontal and vertical sample compositions, until I found the right balance of granite, trees, and reflection. Because the air was perfectly still, I didn’t need to worry about movement in the leaves, which enabled me to add my Breakthrough 6-stop Dark Circular Polarizer for a shutter speed long enough the smooth some of the ripples in the water.
I guess the lesson here is the importance of understanding and leveraging light. And all this talk about light inspired me to dust off my Light Photo Tips article—I’ve added the updated and clarified version below (with a gallery of images beneath it).
Good light, bad light
Photograph: “Photo” comes from phos, the Greek word for light; “graph” is from graphos, the Greek word for write. And that’s pretty much what photographers do: Write with light.
Because we have no control over the sun, nature photographers spend a lot of time hoping for “good” light and cursing “bad” light—despite the fact that there is no universal definition of “good” and “bad” light. Before embracing someone else’s good/bad light labels, let me offer that I (and most other serious photographers) could probably show you images that defy any good/bad label you’ve heard. The best definition of good light is light that allows us to do what we want to do; bad light is light that prevents us from doing what we want to do.
Studio photographers’ complete control of the light that illuminates their subjects, a true art, allows them to define and create their own “good” light. On the other hand, nature photographers, rely on sunlight and don’t have that kind of control. But knowledge is power: The better we understand light—what it is, what it does, and why/how it does it—the better we can anticipate and be present for the light we seek, and deal with the light we encounter.
The qualities of light
Energy generated by the sun bathes Earth in continuous electromagnetic radiation, its wavelengths ranging from extremely short to extremely long (how’s that for specific?). Among the broad spectrum of electromagnetic solar wavelengths we receive are ultraviolet rays that burn our skin (10-400 nanometers), infrared waves that warm our atmosphere (700 nanometers to 1 millimeter), and the visible spectrum that we (and our cameras) use to view the world—a narrow range of wavelengths between ultraviolet and infrared with wavelengths that range between 400 and 700 nanometers.
When all visible wavelengths are present, we perceive the light as white (colorless). But when light interacts with an object, the object absorbs or scatters some of the light’s wavelengths. The amount of scattering and absorption is determined by the interfering object’s properties. For example, when light strikes a tree, characteristics of the tree determine which of its wavelengths are absorbed, and the wavelengths not absorbed are scattered. Our eyes capture these scattered wavelengths and send that information to our brains, which translates it into a color.
When light strikes a mountain lake, some is absorbed by the water, allowing us to see the water. Some light bounces back to the atmosphere to create a reflection. The light that isn’t absorbed or reflected by the water light passes through to the lakebed and we see whatever is on the lake’s bottom.
Let’s get specific
For evidence of light’s colors, look no farther than the rainbow. Because light slows when it passes through water, but shorter wavelengths slow more than longer wavelengths, water refracts (bends) light. A single beam of white light (light with an evenly distributed array of the entire visible spectrum) entering a raindrop separates and spreads into a full range of visible wavelengths that we perceive a range of colors. When this separated light strikes the back of the raindrop, some of it reflects: A rainbow!
When sunlight reaches Earth, the relatively small nitrogen and oxygen molecules that are most prevalent in our atmosphere scatter its shorter wavelengths (violet and blue) first, turning the sky overhead (the most direct path to our eyes) blue. The longer wavelengths (orange and red) don’t scatter as easily continue traveling through more atmosphere—while our midday sky is blue, these long wavelengths are coloring the sunset sky of someone to the east.
In the mountains, sunlight has passed through even less atmosphere and the sky appears even more blue than it does at sea level. On the other hand, when relatively large pollution and dust molecules are present, all the wavelengths (colors) scatter, resulting in a murky, less colorful sky (picture what happens when your toddler mixes all the paints in her watercolor set).
Most photographers (myself included) don’t like blank blue sky. Clouds are interesting, and their absence is boring. Additionally, when the sun is overhead, bright highlights and deep shadows create contrast that cameras struggle to handle. That means even a sky completely obscured by a homogeneous gray stratus layer, while nearly as boring as blue sky, is generally preferred because it reduces contrast and softens the light (more below).
Remember the blue light that scattered to color our midday sky? The longer orange and red wavelengths that didn’t scatter overhead, continued on. As the Earth rotates, eventually our location reaches the point where the sun is low and the sunlight that reaches us has had to fight its way through so much atmosphere that it’s been stripped of all blueness, leaving only its longest wavelengths to paint our sunrise/sunset sky shades of orange and red.
When I evaluate a scene for vivid sunrise/sunset color potential, I look for an opening on the horizon for the sunlight to pass through, pristine air (such as the clean air immediately after a rain) that won’t muddy the color, and clouds overhead and opposite the sun, to catch the color.
Overcast and shade
Sunny days are generally no fun for nature photographers. In full sunlight, direct light mixed with dark shadows often forces nature photographers to choose between exposing for the highlights or the shadows (or to resort to multi-image blending). So when the sun is high, I generally hope for clouds or look for shade.
Clouds diffuse the omni-directional sunlight—instead of originating from a single point, overcast light is spread evenly across the sky, filling shadows and painting the entire landscape in diffuse light. Similarly, whether caused by a single tree or a towering mountain, all shadow light is indirect. While the entire scene may be darker, the range of tones in shade very easily handled by a camera.
Flat gray sky or deep shade may appear dull and boring, but it’s usually the best light for midday photography. When skies are overcast, I can photograph all day—rather than seeking sweeping landscapes, in this light I tend to look for more intimate scenes that minimize or completely exclude the sky. And when the midday sun shines bright, I look for subjects in full shade. Overcast and shade is also the best light for blurring water because it requires longer shutter speeds.
Another option for midday light is high-key photography that uses the overexposed sky as a brilliant background. Putting a backlit subject against the bright sky, I simply meter on my subject and blow out the sky.
Whether I’m traveling to a photo shoot, or looking for something near home, my decisions are always based on getting myself to my locations when the conditions are best. For example, in Yosemite I generally prefer sunset because that’s when Yosemite Valley’s most photogenic features get late, warm light. Mt. Whitney, on the other side of the Sierra, gets its best light at sunrise, and I prefer photographing the lush redwood forests along the California coast in rain or fog. Though I plan obsessively to get myself in the right place, in the best light, sometimes Nature throws a curve, just to remind me (it seems) not to get so locked in on my subject and the general tendencies of its light that I fail to recognize the best light at that moment.
The Light Fantastic
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show.