Posted on March 27, 2019
In January I made my first visit to Iceland in preparation for the winter workshop I’ll be doing there with Don Smith next January. And after a lifetime spent in the middle latitudes, one thing that was impossible to ignore was the quality of the winter light at 65º (-ish) latitude. Not only do sunrises and sunset last forever, but during our entire visit the sun never rose higher than 8º above the horizon. This got me thinking about light in general, and how we sometimes take it for granted. Or, if we don’t exactly take light for granted, how we often don’t take the time understand this thing that makes or breaks us. So I dusted off an article I wrote several years ago, updated the information there, and added some new images.
You’ll find the story of this Iceland sunrise toward the bottom, just above the gallery.
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.
Good light, bad 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 an image that defies any 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 is a true art that allows them to create their own “good” light. Nature photographers, on the other hand, rely on sunlight and don’t have that 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 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 energy 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—the very narrow range of wavelengths between ultraviolet and infrared that the human eye sees, in the wavelength 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 the light’s wavelengths. The amount and wavelengths of light that’s scattered or absorbed is determined by properties of the object. 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 its component 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 and travel 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) find homogeneous blue sky boring. Additionally, when the sun is overhead, bright highlights and deep shadows create contrast that cameras struggle to handle.
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 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 contrast range in shade is 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 don’t include the sky. And when the midday sun shines bright, I try to find subjects in full shade. Overcast and shade is also the best light for blurring water.
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 there 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’ll only the lush redwood forests along the California coast in rain or fog.
Though I plan obsessively to get myself in the right place at the right time, 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. If I drive to Yosemite for sunset light on Half Dome and am met with thick overcast, I don’t insist on photographing Half Dome. Instead, I detour some of my favorite deep forest spots, like Fern Spring or Bridalveil Creek.
Other times finding the best light is simply a matter of turning around and looking the other direction. Mono Lake is one of those places that reminds me to keep my head on a constant swivel, or risk getting so caught up on the sunrise in front of me that I miss the rainbow behind me.
About this image
This view of Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss on Snæfellsnes Peninsula is the Tunnel View of Iceland—even though you’ve already seen a million pictures from this very location, every photographer who visits Iceland wants their own version. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
Don Smith and I were here in January, scouting for our 2020 Iceland Winter Sights and Northern Lights photo workshop. Hiring a local guide to show us around, we gave him complete autonomy over our schedule (and even if we did know enough about Iceland to tell him what we wanted to see, we couldn’t have pronounced it anyway). We’d spent the prior day driving to the peninsula, dodging snowflakes, and helping dig stranded Canadians (who should know better!) out of roadside ditches. But the weather gods smiled on us this morning, and I would say that our first sunrise was a harbinger of good fortune ahead.
On this first morning I was still trying to wrap my head around a 10:30 a.m. sunrise (a brilliant idea that should be adapted worldwide) when we pulled up to Kirkjufellsfoss. (And just so we’re clear, the mountain is Kirkjufell, the waterfall is Kirkjufellsfoss.) I immediately recognized the scene, though in most of the images I’ve seen of Kirkjufellsfoss, the water was liquid and the surrounding landscape was green.
Snow and ice dominated this morning, which I thought was pretty cool because it gave us the opportunity to capture the scene at least somewhat differently from the way it’s typically done. The biggest problem I had to deal with was working around the dozen or so other photographers, and waiting for selfie-wielding tourists to vacate the scene (thank you Content Aware Fill).
Sometime during this sunrise show an Iceland sunrise fact that dawned on me (see what I did there) is how long twilight lasts at 65º latitude. I’m talking quality light that starts at least an hour before sunrise and just keeps going and going and going. When we finally packed up our gear, nearly an hour after sunrise, there was still color in the sky. We left not because the shooting was poor, but because we had other sights to see. In fact, the pink you see here lasted so long, I pretty much ran out of ways to photograph it. I guess another way of putting this would be that an Iceland sunrise is over faster than you can say Kirkjufellsfoss on Snæfellsnes Peninsula. (But of course, so was the Mueller investigation.)
Light at its finest
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Posted on March 24, 2019
I’ve been to Valley View in Yosemite about a million times. For those not familiar with Yosemite Valley, Valley View (sometimes called Gates of the Valley) is the classic view of El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall, with the Merced River in the foreground, that represents Yosemite in countless calendars, postcards, and advertisements. Though all this attention is justified, after a million visits and counting (okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating just a little), you’d think it would be easy to take Valley View’s beauty for granted. But I don’t get tired of visiting here, not ever.
Like most spots in Yosemite, the scene at Valley View varies greatly with the season and weather. In spring, Bridalveil Fall explodes from beneath Cathedral Rocks, and the surrounding forest is dotted with blooming dogwood. In autumn, rocks dot the Merced River, and colorful leaves mingle with glassy reflections. And on still winter mornings, a low mist hugs Bridalveil Meadow just across the river, while churning clouds surrounding El Capitan after a storm are a sight to behold. Nevertheless, I’m often content to keep my camera in the bag and just privately appreciate Valley View’s majesty.
But I’m a photographer, and sometimes it’s hard to experience this beauty passively. On those visits when I’m moved to photograph Valley View, I challenge myself to find something that hasn’t been done a million times. The final morning of last week’s Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers photo workshop was gray and damp, with occasional sprinkles lingering from a heavier overnight rain. We’d been here earlier in the workshop (in different conditions), and I hadn’t planned to photograph this time, but spotting raindrops clinging to the branches of the shrubs that line the river, I recognized a unique opportunity.
If you know optics, you know that a convex shape bends outward (so water striking its surface would run off; water striking a concave surface would pool inside). Due to this curvature, photons passing through a convex lens are diverted toward the center, where they converge and cross to create an inverted image at the point of convergence (focal point).
In fact, the human eye is a convex lens, projecting its inverted image onto the back its sphere, an image your brain promptly reverses. And photographic lenses are a complex arrangement of convex lens elements that ultimately project onto your camera’s sensor an upside-down image that’s flipped for display by the camera’s firmware.
Compared to these two examples, a dangling raindrop is elegant simplicity. Bound by surface tension, water molecules naturally form a spherical shape that is flattened or stretched slightly by gravity. Because water molecules form an electrostatic bond with foreign surfaces as well, they also adhere to things like leaves and branches, sometimes appearing to defy gravity. This small gift from nature turns a raindrop into a natural convex lens. Courtesy of this natural lens, those who peer closely into a water drop will see an inverted microcosm of the surrounding world, a view that changes with the viewing angle.
There’s potential beauty inside every water drop, but on this morning at Valley View I was in the fortuitous position to photograph raindrops holding one of the most beautiful scenes on Earth. I found a quintet of raindrops lining a branch that had nothing behind it but river. Tiptoeing close, I aligned myself and the raindrops with the Valley View scene and extended my tripod to branch level. I started with my Sony 90mm on my Sony a7RIII, adding extension tubes to get even closer. After working with this combination for a few minutes, I switched to my Sony 100-400 GM (still with extension tubes).
The image you see here is from the 100-400. Depth of field with such a close focus point is paper thin, so I stopped down to f/20 and bumped I my ISO to 3200 to ensure a shutter speed fast enough to minimize the risk of motion blur. To focus, I magnified the raindrop scene in my mirrorless viewfinder. Exposing to avoid blowing out the bright highlights in the (inverted) sky also darkened the river, creating the ideal background.
The Many Views of Valley View
Posted on March 16, 2019
After a winter that didn’t seem like it would ever end, spring has finally arrived in California. With poppies springing up throughout the state, and the dogwood bloom right around the corner, this seemed like a good time to update my Creative Selective Focus article.
In this day of ubiquitous cameras, automatic exposure modes, free information, and powerful processing tools, taking a good picture has never been easier. But capturing a great photo, an image with enough uniqueness to stand out from the rapidly expanding crowd, seems to be getting harder and harder.
It seems that some photographers have decided to attack this problem by risking life and limb to chase increasingly exotic subjects. This is great for those with the time, money, and physical ability to allow it, but there are other opportunities closer to home.
One of photography’s most accessible and underutilized paths to unique images is creative depth control. Anyone with a camera can compose the two-dimensional, left/right/up/down aspect of a scene. But in a photograph, the front/back plane—the scene’s depth that we human’s take for granted—is missing. Conveying this missing depth requires abstract vision and camera control beyond the ability of most casual photographers.
While skilled photographers frequently go to great lengths to maximize front to back sharpness—depth of field (DOF)—many ignore the ability of limited DOF to:
- Guide the viewer’s eye to a particular subject
- Provide the primary subject a complementary background that doesn’t compete
- Provide background context for a subject (such as its location, time of day, or season)
- Smooth or eliminate a busy and distracting background
- Create an image that no one will ever be able to duplicate
They call it “bokeh”
We call an image’s out of focus background its “bokeh.” While it’s true that bokeh generally improves with the quality of the lens, as with most things in photography, at least as important than the lens is the photographer behind it. More than anything, achieving compelling bokeh starts with understanding how your camera sees the world, and how to translate that vision to your photos. The image’s focus point, its depth of field (a function of the sensor size, f-stop, focal length, and focus distance), and the characteristics of the blurred background (color, shapes, lines) are all under the photographer’s control.
No special equipment required
Compelling bokeh doesn’t require special or expensive equipment—chances are you have everything you need in your bag already. Most macro lenses are fast enough (large aperture) to limit DOF, have excellent optics that provide pleasing bokeh, and allow for extremely close focus (which shrinks DOF). And a telephoto lens near its longest focal length has a very shallow DOF when focused close.
Many of my selective focus images are accomplished without a macro or even a particularly fast lens. Instead, preferring the compositional flexibility of a zoom, I opt for my 70-200 and 100-400 lenses.
One piece of equipment that will allow you to shrink your DOF without breaking the bank is an extension tube. An extension tubes is an empty (no optics) cylinder that attaches between the camera and lens to shift the focus range closer to the camera: with an extension tube you can focus closer, but you can no longer focus to infinity. Most extension tubes pass communication between the camera and lens so you can still meter and autofocus.
Not only are extension tubes relatively inexpensive, depending on the lens, they enable you to focus as close or closer than you could have with a macro lens. Extension tubes can also be stacked—the more extension, the closer you can focus (and the shallower your DOF). And because extension tubes have no optics, there’s no glass to compromise the quality of the lens (unlike a teleconverter or diopter).
But there’s no such thing as a free lunch in photography—the downside of extension tubes is that they reduce the amount of amount light reaching the sensor: the more extension, the less light. Fortunately, given the high ISO capability of today’s cameras, you can usually recover this lost light by simply bumping your ISO.
Managing depth of field
The amount of softness you choose falls somewhere on a continuum that starts with an indistinguishable blur of color that includes unrecognizable shapes, and ends with soft but easily recognizable objects. When using creative soft focus, I usually go for a background that’s soft enough that it doesn’t simply look like a focus error or compete with my subject. In other words, I usually (but not always) want my background really soft.
Your DOF will be shallower (and your background softer):
- The closer your focus point
- The longer your focal length
- The larger your aperture (small f-stop number)
A macro lens and/or extension tube is the best way to get extremely close to your subject, to create the absolute shallowest DOF. But sometimes you don’t want to be, or can’t get, that close. Or maybe you want just enough DOF to reveal a little (but still soft) background detail. In this case, a telephoto zoom lens may be your best bet. And even at the closest focus distances, the f-stop you choose will make a difference in the range of sharpness and the quality of your background blur. All of these choices are somewhat interchangeable and overlapping—you’ll often need to try a variety of focus-point/focal-length/f-stop combinations to achieve your desired effect. Experiment!
Composing a shallow DOF image usually starts with finding a foreground subject on which to focus, then positioning yourself in a way that places your subject against a complementary background. Or you can do this in reverse, starting with a background you think would look great out of focus, then finding a foreground subject that would look good against that background.
Primary subjects can be whatever moves you: a single flower, a group of flowers, colorful leaves, textured bark, a clinging water drop—the sky’s the limit. A backlit leaf or flower can radiate with a glow that appears to originate from within, creating the illusion it has its own source of illumination—even in shade or overcast, most of a scene’s light comes from the sky and your subject will indeed have a backlit side. And an extremely close focus on a water droplet will reveal a world that’s normally invisible to the unaided eye—both the world within the drop, and a mini-reflection of the surrounding world.
My favorite backgrounds include things like parallel tree trunks, splashes of lit leaves and flowers in a mostly shaded forest, flowers that blur to color and soft shapes, pinpoint jewels of daylight shining through the trees, sunlight sparkling on water. I also like including soft but recognizable landscape features that reveal the location—nothing says Yosemite like a waterfall or Half Dome; nothing says the ocean like crashing surf.
The final piece of the composition puzzle is your focus point. This creative decision can make or break an image because the point of maximum sharpness is where your viewer’s eyes will land. In one case you might want to emphasize a leaf’s serrated edge, in another its intricate vein pattern. Or maybe you’ll need to decide between the pollen clinging to a poppy’s stamen, or the sensual curve of the poppy’s petals. When I can’t decide, I take multiple frames with different focus points.
Exposing selective focus scenes is primarily a matter of spot-metering on the brightest element, almost always the primary subject, and dialing in an exposure that ensures that it won’t be blown out. Often this approach turns shaded areas quite dark, making your primary subject stand out more if you can align the two. Sometimes I’ll underexpose my subject slightly to saturate its color and further darken the background.
And let’s not overlook the importance of a good tripod. In general, the narrower the area of sharpness in an image, the smaller the focus point margin of error. Even the unavoidable micro-millimeter shifts possible with hand-holding can make the difference between a brilliant success and an absolute failure, making a tripod essential.
Virtually all of my blurred background images are achieved in incremental steps. They start with a general concept that includes a subject and background, and evolve in repeating click, evaluate, refine, click, … cycles. In this approach, the only way to ensure consistent evolution from original concept to finished product is a tripod, which holds in place the scene I just clicked and am now evaluating—when I decide what my image needs, I have the scene sitting there atop my tripod, just waiting for my adjustments.
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Posted on March 10, 2019
With advanced exposure and metering capabilities, cameras seem to be getting “smarter” every year. So smart, in fact, that for most scenes, getting the exposure right is a simple matter of pointing your camera and clicking the shutter button. That’s fine if all you care about is recording a memory, but not only is there more to your exposure decision than getting the amount of light in your picture, there are many reasons to over- or underexpose a pictures. For the creative control that elevates your images above the millions of clicks being cranked out every day, giving control of one of its most important responsibilities to your camera overlooks an undeniable truth…
Your camera is stupid
Sorry—so is mine. And while I can easily cite many examples, right now it’s just important that you understand that your camera thinks the entire world is a middle tone. Regardless of what its meter sees, without intervention your camera will do everything in its power to make your picture a middle tone. Sunlit snowman? Lump of coal at the bottom of your Christmas stocking? It doesn’t matter—if you let your camera decide the exposure, it will turn out gray.
Modern technology offers faux-intelligence to help overcome this limitation. Usually called something like “matrix” or “evaluative” metering, this solution compares a scene to a large but finite internal database of choices, returning a metering decision based on the closest match. It works pretty well for conventional, “tourist” snaps, but often struggles in the warm or dramatic light artistic photographers prefer, and knows nothing of creativity. If you want to capture more than documentary “I was here” pictures, you’re much better off taking full control of your camera’s metering and exposure. Fortunately, this isn’t nearly as difficult as most people fear.
Laying the foundation
The amount of light captured for any given scene varies with the camera’s shutter speed, f-stop, and ISO settings. Photographers measure captured light in “stops,” much as a a cook uses a cup (of sugar or flour or almonds or whatever) to measure ingredients in a recipe. Adding or subtracting “stops” of light by increasing or decreasing the shutter speed, f-stop, or ISO makes a scene brighter or darker.
The beauty of metering is that a stop of light is a stop of light is a stop of light, whether you control it with the:
- Aperture: The opening light passes through when the shutter opens, measured in f-stops
- Shutter speed: The time the shutter is open, allowing light to pass through the aperture to reach the sensor—slower shutter speeds mean more light; faster shutter speeds mean less light
- ISO: The sensitivity of the sensor (or film) to light
But while an aperture stop adds/subtracts the same amount of light as a shutter speed or ISO stop, the resulting picture can vary significantly based on which exposure variable combination you choose. Your shutter speed choice determines whether motion in the frame is blurred or frozen, while the aperture choice determines the picture’s depth of field. And while an ISO stop also adds/subtracts the same amount of light as shutter speed and aperture without affecting motion and depth, image quality decreases as the ISO increases. So getting the light right is only part of the exposure objective—you also need to consider how you want to handle any motion in the scene, and how much depth of field to capture.
For example, let’s say you’re photographing autumn leaves in a light breeze. You got the exposure right, but the leaves are blurred. To freeze that blur, you halve the time the shutter is open (faster shutter speed) to freeze the motion, but also reducing the light reaching the sensor by one stop. To replace that lost light, you could open your aperture by a stop (change the f-stop), double the ISO, or make a combination of fractional f-stop and ISO adjustments that total one stop. That’s a creative choice your camera isn’t capable of.
Today’s cameras have the ability to measure, or “meter” the light in a scene before the shutter clicks. In fact, most cameras have many different ways of evaluating a scene’s light. Your camera’s metering mode determines the amount of the frame the meter “sees.” The larger the area your meter measures, the greater the potential for a wide range of tones. Since most scenes have a range of tones from dark shadows to bright highlights, the meter will take an average of the tones it finds in its metering zone.
Metering mode options range from “spot” metering a very small part of the scene, to “matrix” (also know as “evaluative”), which looks at the entire scene and actually tries to guess at what it sees. Each camera manufacturer offers a variety of modes and there’s no consensus on name and function (different function for the same name, same function for different names) among manufacturers, so it’s best to read your camera’s manual to familiarize yourself with its metering modes.
Since I want as much control as possible, I prefer spot metering because it’s the most precise, covering the smallest area of the frame possible, an imaginary circle in the center three (or so) percent (depending on the camera) of what’s visible in the viewfinder. Spot metering, I can target the part of the frame I deem most important and base my exposure decision on the reading there.
Spot metering isn’t available in all cameras. In some cameras, the most precise (smallest metering area) metering mode available is “partial,” which covers a little more of the scene, somewhere around ten percent.
Don’t confuse the metering mode with the exposure mode. While the metering mode determines what the meter sees, the exposure mode determines the way the camera handles that information. Most DSLR (digital single lens reflex) and mirrorless cameras offer manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, and a variety of program or automatic exposure modes. Serious landscape photographers usually forego the full automatic/program modes in favor of manual (my preference) or aperture/shutter priority modes that offer more control.
If you select aperture or shutter priority mode, you specify the aperture (f-stop) or shutter speed, and the camera sets the shutter speed or aperture that delivers a middle tone based on what the meter sees. But you’re not done. Unless you really do want the middle tone result the camera desires (possible but far from certain), you then need to adjust the exposure compensation (usually a button with a +/- symbol) to specify the amount you want your subject to be above or below a middle tone.
For example, if you point your spot meter at a bright, sunlit cloud, the camera will only give your picture enough light make the cloud a middle tone—but if you’ve only given your scene enough light to make a white cloud gray, it stands to reason that the rest of your picture will be too dark. To avoid this, you would adjust exposure compensation to instruct your camera to make the cloud brighter than a middle tone by adding two stops of light (or however much light you want to give the cloud to make it whatever tone you think it should be).
Rather than aperture priority, I prefer manual mode because I never want my camera making decisions for me. And once it’s mastered (a simple task), I think manual metering is easier. In manual mode, after setting my aperture (based on the depth of field I want), I point my spot-meter zone (the center 3% of the scene in my viewfinder) at the area I want to meter on and dial in whatever shutter speed gives me the amount of light I think will make that subject (where my meter points) the tone I want. That’s it. (In manual mode you can ignore the exposure compensation button.)
Trust your histogram
I see many people people base exposure decisions on the brightness of the image on the LCD. The typical approach is some variation of: 1) Guess at the exposure settings 2) Click 3) Look at the picture on the LCD 4) Adjust 5) Repeat. Not only is this approach lazy, it’s a waste of time and woefully inaccurate.
I call it lazy because these photographers (but of course I don’t mean you) don’t care enough about their craft to apply a skill that only takes minutes to learn (see above), a skill that will serve them best in the most difficult exposure situations. But that’s not the real problem—the real problem is the inaccuracy introduced by trusting the image on your LCD.
LCDs vary in brightness because viewing conditions change. With a brightness adjustment in every camera’s menu, many photographers simply turn their brightness to maximum because it’s easier to see, especially in sunlight, and a bright picture usually looks better. Other photographers use an auto-brightness setting that adjusts with ambient light—the more light it detects, the brighter the display.
Regardless of your LCD’s brightness setting, the variation in brightness of the screen and/or the ambient light make the image on the LCD a very unreliable exposure indicator. When people tell me their images are usually too dark on their computer or in prints, the first thing I do is check the brightness of their camera’s LCD—if it’s set to maximum, they’re likely fooled into thinking the exposure was brighter than it actually was.
How do you fix this? Simple: Learn to read a histogram, and never use your camera’s LCD for exposure decisions again. The histogram is as simple as it is useful.
One more time
So let’s review. Start by selecting your metering mode (the way your meters”sees” the scene: spot, partial, matrix, and so on), then take your camera out of auto exposure mode and put it in manual (my recommendation) or aperture priority (if you prefer) mode. (Remember, I’m a landscape photographer so I never use shutter priority; if you’re shooting action, to better control the motion in your frame, you probably want to consider shutter priority if you don’t like manual exposure.)
Before metering, set your camera to whatever aperture you decide your composition calls for. Then meter, remembering that your camera isn’t telling you what the exposure should be, it’s telling you the exposure that will make what it sees a middle tone. Finally, correct the meter’s middle-tone bias by dialing in the shutter speed (in manual mode) or exposure compensation (in aperture priority) that gives the correct exposure.
After you click, check your histogram to be sure you got the exposure right.
What’s the correct exposure? That’s a creative choice that’s entirely up to you—feel free to play until you’re comfortable with your results. And the more you do it, the easier it gets.
Below are some sample images and the thought process I followed to get the exposure.
Now get to work
Don’t wait to apply all this for the first time until you really, really want the shot. Instead, find a time when the results don’t matter and play with your camera to find out how much control you have over exposure. In fact, you can do this right now in your backyard or even sitting right there in your recliner. Meter something nearby, set an exposure, and click. Look at the result, adjust the exposure, and click again. Watch your histogram, and watch how its shape shifts right as you increase the exposure, or left as you decrease it. Continue doing this until you’re confident in your ability to make a scene brighter or darker, and can consistently achieve the exposure you expect.
About this image
It not too difficult to figure out how Iceland’s Diamond Beach got its name. A black sand beach on Iceland’s south coast, just down stream from Glacier Lagoon, Diamond Beach is dotted with glistening blocks of ice ranging in size from a refrigerator ice cube, to an entire refrigerator.
As spectacular as Diamond Beach was on my first visit, it was also unlike anything I’d ever seen, so it took me a little while to figure out how I wanted to shoot it. I tried a few frames that used long shutter speeds to blur the motion of the waves around the ice, but when the sun appeared, I saw another opportunity.
With my Sony 12-24 G lens on my Sony a7RIII, I set up just a couple of feet from one of the larger icebergs, went all the way out to 12mm, and waited for the sun to peek above the ice, hoping to capture a sunstar. As I waited, I tweaked my exposure settings, dialing my aperture to f/18 to maximize my depth of field and to enhance the sunstar effect. When the sun appeared I was in business; as it rose, I dropped my camera lower to keep just a small sliver of sun visible above the ice.
Any frame that includes the sun is frame with lots of dynamic range. To get my exposure right for this image, I relied entirely on the histogram and ignored the image on the LCD, with its nearly black shadows and white sky. Despite the way histogram told me I’d captured all the tones, and I confirmed that as soon as I started processing in Lightroom.
Taking Control in Difficult Light
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Posted on March 3, 2019
As aggressively as I seek creative ways to express nature with my camera, and as important as I think that is, sometimes a scene is so beautiful that it’s best to just get out of the way and let the scene speak for itself. I had one of those experiences last month at Tunnel View in Yosemite.
There’s a reason Tunnel View is one of the most photographed vistas in the world: El Capitan, Half Dome, Cathedral Rocks, Bridalveil Fall—each would be a landscape icon by itself; put them all together in one view and, well…. But the view this evening was truly transcendent, even by Yosemite standards. In Yosemite Valley below, trees and granite still glazed with the snowy vestiges of a departing storm seemed to throb with their own luminance. And above Half Dome a full moon rose through a sky that had been cleansed of all impurities by the departing storm, an otherworldly canvas of indigo, violet, and magenta.
On these crystal-clear, winter-twilight moonrises, the beauty rises with the moon, reaching a crescendo about 20 minutes after sunset, after which the color quickly fades and the landscape darkens. Unfortunately, a some point before the crescendo, the dynamic range becomes so extreme that no camera (not even the dynamic range monster Sony a7RIII) can simultaneously extract usable detail from a daylight-bright moon and dark landscape.
I’d driven to Yosemite solely to photograph this moonrise, an eight hour roundtrip for 40-minutes of photography. Starting with the moon’s arrival about 20 minutes before sunset, I’d juggled three camera bodies and two tripods, first shooting ultra long, then gradually widening to include more of the snowy landscape. Already my captures had more than justified the time and miles the trip would cost me, but watching the moon traverse the deepening hues of Earth’s shadow, I wasn’t ready to stop.
I’ve learned that with a scene this spectacular, conveying the majesty doesn’t require me to pursue the ideal foreground, or do creative things with motion, light, or depth of field. In fact, I’ve come to realize that sometimes a scene can be so beautiful that creative interpretations can dilute or distract from the very beauty that moves me. On this evening in particular, I didn’t want to inject myself into that breathtaking moment, I just wanted to share it.
To simply my images, I opted for a series of frames that used tried-and-true compositions that I’d accumulated after years (decades) of photographing here, the compositions I suggest as “starters” for people who are new to Yosemite, or use myself to jump-start my inspiration: relatively tight horizontal and vertical frames of El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall; El Capitan and Half Dome; or Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall. In the image I share above I concentrated on Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall, capping my frame with the wispy fringes of a large cloud that hovered above Yosemite Valley.
Simplifying my compositions had the added benefit of freeing all of my (limited) brain cells to concentrate on the very difficult exposure. The margin for error when photographing a moon this far after sunset is minuscule—if you don’t get the exposure just right, there’s no fixing it in Photoshop later: too dark and there’s too much noise in the shadows; too bright and lunar detail is permanently erased. The problem starts with the understandable inclination to expose the scene to make the landscape look good on the LCD, pretty much guaranteeing that the moon will be toast. Compounding this problem is the histogram, which most of us have justifiably come to trust as the final arbiter for all exposures. But when a twilight moon (bright moon, dark sky) is involved, even the histogram will fail you because the moon is such a small part of the scene, it barely (if at all) registers on the histogram.
Rather than the histogram, for these dark sky moon images I monitor my LCD’s highlight alert (“blinking highlights”), which is usually the only way to to tell that the moon has been overexposed. If the moon is flashing, I know I’ve given the scene too much light and need to back off until the flashing stops—no matter how dark the foreground looks. This is where it’s essential to know your camera, and how far you can push its exposure beyond where the histogram and highlight alert warn you that you’ve gone too far.
When I’m photographing a full moon rising into a darkening sky, I push the exposure to the point where my highlight alert just starts blinking (only the brightest parts of the moon, not the entire disk, are flashing), then I give it just a little more exposure. I know my Sony a7RIII well enough to know that I can still give it a full stop of light beyond this initial flash point and still recover the highlights later. The shadows? In a scene like this they’ll look nearly black, a reality my histogram will confirm, but I never cease to be amazed by how much detail I can pull out of my a7RIII’s shadows in Lightroom and Photoshop.
I continued shooting for several minutes after this frame, and discovered later that even my final capture contained usable highlights and shadows. I chose this image, captured nearly five minutes before I quit, because it contained the best combination of color, lunar detail, and clean (relatively noise-free) Yosemite Valley.
Posted on February 24, 2019
Roll over, Ansel
Several years ago, while thumbing through an old issue of “Outdoor Photographer” magazine, I came across an article on Lightroom processing. It started with the words:
“Being able to affect one part of the image compared to another, such as balancing the brightness of a photograph so the scene looks more like the way we saw it rather than being restricted by the artificial limitations of the camera and film is the major reason why photographers like Ansel Adams and LIFE photographer W. Eugene Smith spent so much time in the darkroom.”
While it’s true that Ansel Adams and W. Eugene Smith were indeed darkroom masters, statements like this only perpetuate the myth that the photographer’s job is to reproduce the scene “the way we saw it.” And because I imagine that using Ansel Adams himself to peddle this notion must send Ansel rolling in his grave, I’ll start by quoting the Master himself:
- “When I’m ready to make a photograph, I think I quite obviously see in my mind’s eye something that is not literally there in the true meaning of the word.”
- “Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative art.”
- “Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships!”
Do these sound like the thoughts of someone lamenting the camera’s “artificial limitations” and photography’s inability to duplicate the world the “way we saw it”? Take a look at just a few of Ansel Adams’ images and ask yourself how many duplicate the world as we see it: nearly black skies, exaggerated shadows and/or highlights, and skewed perspectives that intentionally emphasize one subject over another, and on and on. And no color! (Not to mention the fact that every image is a two-dimensional rendering of a three-dimensional world.) Ansel Adams wasn’t trying to replicate scenes more like he saw them, he was trying to use his camera’s unique (not “artificial”) vision to show us aspects of the world he wanted us to see, qualities we might otherwise miss or fail to appreciate.
The rest of the OP article contained solid, practical information for anyone wanting to come closer to replicating Ansel Adams’ traditional darkroom techniques in the contemporary digital darkroom. But the assertion that photographers are obligated to photograph the world as they saw it baffles me.
You’ve heard me say this before
The camera’s vision isn’t artificial, it’s different. Dynamic range, focus, motion, and depth are all rendered differently in a camera than they are to the human eye. And while the human experience of any scene is 360 degrees, a still images is constrained by a rectangular box. Forcing images to be more human-like doesn’t just deny the camera’s unique ability to expand viewers’ perception of the world, it’s literally impossible. Which is why I’ve always felt that the best photographers are the ones who embrace their camera’s vision rather than trying to “fix” it.
For example, limiting dynamic range allows us to emphasize color and shapes that get lost in the clutter of human vision; a narrow range of focus can guide the eye and draw attention to particular elements of interest and away from distractions; and the ability to accumulate light over a photographer-controlled interval exposes color and detail hidden by darkness, and conveys motion in an otherwise static medium.
But what about that rectangular box that constrains the world of a still image? I can think of no better way to excise distractions and laser-focus viewers’ attention on the target subject than taking advantage of the camera’s finite world. While many nature photographers default to their wide angle lenses to expand the visual box surrounding their landscape images and save their long lenses for wildlife, a telephoto lens is an essential landscape tool. The world can be a busy place—in even the most spectacular of vistas, so much is happening visually that going wide in a still photo to include as much beauty as possible introduces many extraneous features, and risks shrinking the scene’s most compelling elements to virtual insignificance.
The best way to overcome wide angle scene dilution is to forego the conventional view (the first thing everyone sees), identify the aspects of the scene that make it special, and isolate them with a telephoto lens. Whether it’s a striking mountain or tree, backlit poppy, or rising moon, isolation enlarges the target subject and removes any ambiguity about what the image is about. And an intimate, up-close perspective of a subject more commonly seen from a distance can be truly mesmerizing.
About this image
I stood atop two feet of packed snow at Tunnel View, more than eight miles from Half Dome, and ten miles from the ridge that would be ground zero for the moonrise that had drawn me in the first place. Along with two other photographers who also seemed aware of the moon’s plans, I had the best (least obstructed) Tunnel View vantage point to myself. Rising full moon or not, before me the table was set for a spectacular Yosemite feast: Brand new snow glazed every exposed surface, and in the pristine winter air, Tunnel View’s veritable who’s who of Yosemite landmarks—El Capitan, Cloud’s Rest, Half Dome, Sentinel Rock, Sentinel Dome, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall—seemed etched into the scene. Above, dark clouds boiled atop El Capitan, while wispy fog radiated from the valley floor.
Occasionally a tourist would wander up and request help identifying Horsetail’s microscopic filament on El Capitan’s vast granite; one or two even pointed at Bridalveil Fall and asked if that was Horsetail Fall. A couple of people, blissfully oblivious to the Horsetail Fall phenomenon, simply wanted their picture taken with this iconic Yosemite backdrop.
About 150 feet down the wall to my right, at least two-dozen photographers on tripods were inexplicably crammed into a significantly less desirable view. While that vantage point gave them an acceptable sightline to Horsetail Fall (as did my own), the rest of the magnificent Tunnel View vista was partially obscured by trees. The only explanation I could muster for their odd choice was that the first to arrive for some reason set up there, and each subsequent photographer assumed that since others have set up here, this must be the spot.
While Horsetail Fall was irrelevant to my objective this evening, the overnight snow still clinging to the trees was undeniable bonus. Getting to Tunnel View had been an adventure, worse even than I’d expected, and I was glad that I’d allowed ample time. The difficulty started with a 30-minute (Horsetail Fall gawker infused) queue at the Arch Rock entrance station. My suspicion that these were mostly inexperienced photographers and tourists (who’d just read an article or seen a news segment and decided to check it out) was confirmed when I was forced to navigate a slalom course of slipping, sliding, spinning cars that had ignored the very clearly communicated chain controls. The serious photographers, those who had photographed Horsetail Fall before, or who had the sense to research the phenomenon well in advance, had been in position for the five-minute show for hours.
With the moon’s imminent arrival upon a scene that already bordered on visual overload, my plan to ensure that the main purpose of my visit didn’t get swallowed by Tunnel View’s conventional post-storm majesty was to start, while the moon was still right on the horizon, with extremely tight compositions. As the moon rose, I planned to widen my focal length, gradually including more scene and turning the moon into more of an accent.
To achieve this, I was flanked by two tripods, and had three camera bodies fired up and ready for action: my Sony a7RIII, a7RII, and a6300. Atop my Really Right Stuff TVC-24L tripod was my a6300 loaded with my Sony 100-400 GM and Sony 2X teleconverter. This combination gave me a 600-1200mm full-frame equivalent focal range (because the a6300 is a 1.5-crop APS-C sensor). When including the rising moon required reducing my focal length below 800mm, I’d switch to my higher resolution, full frame Sony a7RII. And because the moon would rise just about 20 minutes before sunset, I also had to be aware of the possibility that Horsetail Fall would fire up. To handle that possibility, and to cover all my general wide composition needs, mounted on my RRS TQC-14 tripod was my Sony a7RIII and Sony 24-105 f/4 lens.
I pointed my a6300/100-400 at the point where I expected the moon to appear about 20 minutes before sunset, zoomed all the way out to 800mm (1200mm full-frame equivalent), metered, focused, and waited. I started clicking almost immediately after seeing the moon’s leading edge nudge through the trees, refining my composition slightly after each click until I had the right balance of moon and Half Dome. It always surprises me how quickly the moon moves, speed that’s magnified tremendously at such an extreme focal length. Spending the next 40 minutes frantically changing focal lengths, switching lenses and camera bodies, re-metering and re-focusing, and bouncing between tripods, I felt like the percussionist in a jazz band.
When the moon climbed far above Yosemite Valley and the dynamic range between the daylight-bright moon and nighttime landscape made photography impossible, I paused before packing up my gear and just marveled at the beauty. Horsetail Fall had caught a few late rays of sunlight but never did completely light up. I thought about the disappointment of frigid photographers who had waited patiently in the valley below for a show that didn’t happen, and counted my blessings.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on February 19, 2019
Last week’s Yosemite photo workshop was ostensibly about Horsetail Fall, but it turned out to be so much more than that. In fact, after photographing more snow than I’ve seen in Yosemite in many (many) years, Horsetail Fall was a bit anticlimactic. The only evening that Horsetail Fall got the coveted direct light everyone came on our second day. Going all-in on Horsetail Fall that evening, we got a decent (not spectacular) show that satisfied everyone enough that they were content to return our attention to the rest of snow-covered Yosemite Valley.
Ironically, what could arguably be called the best shoot of a workshop filled with spectacular shoots might just have been at the mega-popular, always packed view of Horsetail Fall on Southside Drive—on an evening when fall didn’t quite light up. To get here we had to trudge 50 yards through 3- to 4-foot deep fresh powder, but we were utterly alone (unprecedented in my many years photographing Horsetail Fall) to watch sunset paint a diffuse glow on El Capitan and magenta clouds overhead. And as the first visitors here since six-inches of snow had erased all evidence of prior human presence, we got to photograph the scene framed by virgin white snow glazing every exposed surface.
Yesterday I returned to Yosemite, making the 8-hour roundtrip not to photograph Horsetail Fall, but to photograph the full (“super”) moon rising behind Half Dome at sunset. But before setting up shop at Tunnel View, I couldn’t resist circumnavigating Yosemite Valley to check out the Horsetail Fall mayhem. With new snowfall decorating the trees and blanketing the roads, conditions were equal parts beautiful and treacherous.
Unlike last year, the National Park Service isn’t requiring permits, but they have blocked off many normally open parking areas. Cruising around in my Subaru Outback, I witnessed multiple cars that had foolishly ignored the R2 chain requirement (chains except for 4WD/AWD with snow tires) slipping, sliding, and spinning tires unproductively—some sliding backward downhill and others blocking the road. I also saw many cars parked illegally on the road or in closed parking areas. Given the fact that Horsetail Fall didn’t deliver last night, I doubt they’ll feel that their parking tickets (or towing bill) were worth the indiscretion.
I also talked to people who pulled into Tunnel View 30 minutes before sunset hoping to photograph Horsetail Fall. Some even thought that Bridalveil Fall was Horsetail Fall. If you plan to photograph Horsetail Fall, please do your homework. It truly can a remarkable experience, but it can also be a nightmare for the unprepared.
And speaking of Horsetail Fall preparation…
Here is a just-revised version of the Horsetail Fall article in my Photo Tips section
(Check out the “Breaking News” section if you plan to photograph Horsetail Fall in 2019)
The Horsetail Fall phenomenon
For eleven-plus months each year Horsetail Fall may just be Yosemite’s most anonymous waterfall. Usually dry or (at best) a wet stain, even at its best this ephemeral cataract is barely visible as a thin white thread descending El Capitan’s east flank. When it’s flowing, my workshop groups can be standing directly beneath Horsetail and I still have to guide their eyes to it: “See that tall tree there? Follow it all the way to the top of El Capitan; now run your eye to the left until you get to the first tree…”. But for a couple of weeks in February, the possibility that a fortuitous confluence of snowmelt, shadow, and sunset light might, for a few minutes, turn this unassuming trickle into a molten stripe draws photographers like cats to a can-opener.
The curtain rises in the second week of February, a couple of hours before sunset, when a vertical shadow begins its eastward march across El Capitan’s south face. As the shadow advances, the sunlight warms; when the unseen sun (direct sunlight is gone from the valley floor long before it leaves towering El Capitan) reaches the horizon, the only part of El Capitan not in shadow is a narrow strip of granite that includes Horsetail Fall, and for a few minutes, when all the photography stars align, the fall is bathed in a red glow resembling flowing lava framed by dark shadow. (Some people mistakenly call the Horsetail spectacle the “Firefall,” but that altogether different, but no less breathtaking, manmade Yosemite phenomenon was terminated by the National Park Service in 1968.)
Some years Horsetail delivers sunset after sunset in February, while other years administer daily doses of February frustration. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to predict when all the tumblers will click into place: I know photographers who nailed Horsetail on their first attempt, and others who have been chasing it for years.
When to photograph Horsetail Fall
The “when” of Horsetail Fall depends on the convergence of three independent conditions:
- The sun’s angle is refreshingly predictable, lining up perfectly only in February (and October, when the fall is almost always dry). Common wisdom says the shadow on El Capitan most precisely targets Horsetail Fall at sunset during the third week of February, from around the 15th through the 22nd (or a little later). While I won’t dispute this, I’ve had some of my best success a week earlier, and my favorite Horsetail shot was captured February 9. I’ve also had success photographing it right up until the end of February. On the other hand, I tried Horsetail once on March 1 and found the shadow no longer cooperating. But the stripe of sunset light on El Capitan is most precisely focused on Horsetail Fall in the third week of February.
- Water in the fall varies greatly from year to year, depending on how much show has fallen on the fall’s extremely small watershed, and how much of that snow is currently melting. A large snowpack and warm daytime temperatures are ideal. Sometimes Horsetail can be frozen solid in the morning, but afternoon warmth can be enough to get it flowing in time for the show. And a heavy rain can get it going strong for a few hours.
- Direct sunlight at sunset is the most fickle aspect of the Horsetail experience—for every tale of a seemingly perfect evening when the sunset light was doused by an unseen cloud on the western horizon mere seconds before showtime, there’s another story about a cloudy evening when the setting sun somehow threaded a gap in the clouds just as tripods were being collapsed.
The problem with targeting February’s third week is that it isn’t a secret: I generally prefer sacrificing Horsetail perfection in favor of Horsetail near perfection and far fewer photographers. But I’ll leave that decision up to you.
Where to photograph Horsetail Fall
It’s fun to circle Yosemite Valley on pretty much any mid- to late-February afternoon just to watch the hoards of single-minded photographers setting up camp like iPhone users on Release Day. In fact, one non-scientific way to find a spot to photograph Horsetail is to simply park where everyone else parks and follow the crowd. Unfortunately, as Horsetail’s popularity grows, so does the distance you’ll need to walk.
If Horsetail Fall is on the top of your bucket list, it’s best to pick your spot and show up early. Really early. Really, really early. The downside of this approach is that, because the best locations for Horsetail aren’t especially good for anything else, you’ll sacrifice a lot of quality Yosemite photography time waiting for something that might not happen.
And no one has commanded that you worship with the rest of the Horsetail congregation: Experienced Yosemite photographers know that any west-facing location with a view of the fall will do. If you find yourself in Yosemite with time to kill, try walking the Merced River between Cathedral and Sentinel Beaches—any place with a view to Horsetail will work. But because of their open space, relative ease access and two spots have become the go-to Horsetail spots for most photographers.
* Breaking News *
From the National Park Service, February 2019:
– Stopping or parking on Southside Dr between El Cap Cross and Swinging Bridge is prohibited.
– All pullouts along Southside Dr between El Cap Cross and Swinging Bridge are closed.
– Roadside parking along Southside Dr between El Cap Cross and Swinging Bridge is prohibited.
– Southside Dr between El Cap Cross and Swinging Bridge is closed to pedestrians.
– The Cathedral Beach Picnic Area is closed.
– The Sentinel Beach Picnic Area is closed.
– Stopping or parking on El Cap Cross is prohibited.
– Roadside parking along El Cap Cross is prohibited.
– The number 2 lane (right, northern lane) of Northside Dr between Camp 4 and El Cap Cross is closed to all vehicles.
– Stopping or parking on Northside Dr between Camp 4 and El Cap Cross is prohibited.
– All pullouts along Northside Dr between Camp 4 and El Cap Cross are closed.
– Roadside parking along Northside Dr between Camp 4 and El Cap Cross is prohibited.
– El Cap Picnic Area is closed to all vehicles except vehicles displaying an ADA placard.
– The speed limit along Northside Dr between Camp 4 to El Cap Cross is 25 MPH unless posted otherwise.
El Capitan Picnic Area
The El Capitan Picnic Area, highlighted by Galen Rowell, remains the most popular Horsetail Fall vantage point. The picnic area’s advantages are
that it is the closest view of Horsetail Fall, has the most parking, has the most room for photographers (by far), and has a bathroom (plug your nose). The downside is there really isn’t a lot of composition variety here, and thousands of others will have already captured something as good as or better than what you’ll get.
If you like people, the El Capitan Picnic Area is the place to be—more than any other Horsetail vantage point, this one has a festive, tailgate atmosphere that can be a lot of fun. I suspect that’s because people arrive so early and there’s little else to do before the show starts. And since everyone is pointing up with a telephoto, it’s pretty much impossible for anyone to be in anyone else’s way, which eases much of the tension that often exists when shooting among large crowds.
You’ll find the parking lot, with room for twenty or so cars, on Northside Drive, about two miles west of Yosemite Lodge. And in recent years the NPS has blocked a lane of Northside Drive to allow more parking (but don’t park illegally because you will be cited). You can shoot right from the parking lot, or wander a bit east where you’ll find several clearings with views of the fall.
Merced River south bank bend
Photographed from the bend on the Merced River’s south bank, El Capitan’s extreme sloping summit creates the illusion that you’re somewhere above Yosemite Valley, eye-to-eye with the top of Horsetail Fall—it’s a great perspective.
I like this location because the river greatly increases the variety of possible compositions, and also because you can pivot your view upstream to photograph Upper Yosemite Fall, and Sentinel Rock almost directly above you (which also gets fantastic late light) while you wait for Horsetail to light up. The downside to photographing here is that there’s precious little room, both to park and to photograph. This requires getting there a couple of hours early, and also can lead to a bit more tension as people jockey for position.
Driving east on Southside Drive, you’ll parallel the Merced River for most of 1.2 miles beyond the turn for Cathedral Beach. The Horsetail Fall spot is right where the road and river diverge. Parallel park right there in one of two narrow but paved parking areas on opposite sides of the road, where you’ll find room for about a dozen cars.
Since there’s so little parking here, and Southside Drive is one-way eastbound, if you find no parking (don’t try to squeeze in where there’s no room—I’ve seen rangers doing traffic control and ticketing cars that don’t fit), it also helps to know that the spot is about a ½ mile from the 4-Mile Trail parking area and ¾ miles west of the Swinging Bridge parking area—an easy, flat walk.
Because of the potential for crowds, the best strategy here is to arrive early and forego what may be a great view from the elevated riverbank (that is sure to be blocked by late-arrivers trying to cram their way in), in favor of getting as close to the river as possible. Standing at river level gives you many more compositional choices, and nobody else can block your wide shots. (But if there are other photographers already set up on the elevated riverbank when you arrive, please don’t be the one who sets up in front of them.)
How to photograph Horsetail Fall
Regardless of where you set up to photograph Horsetail Fall, it’s pretty difficult to find something that nobody else has done. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Since you’ll likely be doing lots of waiting, take advantage of the downtime to experiment with compositions.
When the light begins to warm, it’s time to shoot—because you never know when the light will shut off, it’s best to start early and photograph often. Until the light goes away completely, my rule of thumb is that the light now is better than the light a minute ago. Since you have no idea when the light will disappear for good, just keep shooting, especially in the final fifteen minutes before sunset (trust me on this). I’m not suggesting you hold your shutter down in burst mode until your card fills; I usually tell my workshop groups to fire a frame every minute or two until the fall turns amber, then pick up the pace as it goes (fingers crossed) pink and eventually red. The best light is in the final ten minutes before sunset; that’s when you might have a hard time resisting burst mode.
Viewed from the picnic area, there’s not a lot of visual interest surrounding Horsetail; your most obvious compositions will be moderate telephotos, up to 200mm or full frame. I use my 24-105 and 70-200 lenses almost exclusively here. Use the trees to frame your shots and let them go black; with a telephoto you can isolate aspects of the fall and eliminate the sky and some or all of the trees.
The Merced River bend near Southside Drive is farther away from the fall, with more foreground possibilities, including the river and reflections, so you’ll be able to use a greater range of focal lengths here. Don’t get so caught up in photographing the fall that you overlook wider possibilities that include the river.
From either location I think vertical compositions work best (there’s a reason you don’t see lots of horizontal Horsetail Fall images), but that doesn’t mean there aren’t horizontal opportunities too. I like to identify a go-to composition based on the conditions, then vary between wide/tight and horizontal/vertical. If the sky is boring (cloudless), minimize or eliminate it from your composition. If there are clouds that make the sky interesting, by all means include them.
If your camera struggles with dynamic range, a graduated neutral density filter will help any shot that includes the sky—a two-stop hard angled across El Capitan parallel to the tree line should do the trick. This usually requires some Photoshop dodging and burning to hide the transition, but it’s the only way to darken the brightest part of the sky, which is usually in front of (not above) El Capitan.
A polarizer will alter your results, so if you have one on, make sure you orient it properly. I often have a difficult time deciding between maximizing and minimizing the reflections with my polarizer, so I hedge my bets and shoot both ways. I’ve found that when Horsetail is flowing strongly, minimizing the reflection is best; when Horsetail is more of a wet or icy stain, maximizing the reflection works better. Either way, this is a decision you should make long before the best light arrives.
Automatic metering can be problematic in extreme dynamic range scenes when color is paramount, so I always recommend manual exposure, spot metering on Horsetail Fall. To get the color in the fall and Horsetail, I usually underexpose slightly. The trees have little value beyond framing and usually work better when very dark green to black, a fact that’s completely lost on your meter. And monitor your RGB histogram to ensure that you haven’t clipped the red (Horsetail and El Capitan) or blue (sky) channels. Highlight Alert (blinking highlights) is your friend.
And perhaps most important of all, don’t get so caught up in the photography that you forget to appreciate what you’re viewing. Just take a couple of seconds to stand back and allow yourself to take in the amazing spectacle of Horsetail Fall.
A Horsetail Fall Gallery
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.