Posted on March 7, 2021
I’ve written quite a bit about Horsetail Fall over the last few weeks, but believe it or not, I have a few words to add.
In recent years it has become fashionable for photographers, myself included, to criticize the whole trophy shot phenomenon that creates a rugby scrum of photographers jostling to get their own version of something that’s been photographed a million times before. I’m thinking about, to name just a few, events like sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, the Maroon Bells fall color reflection, the light shaft in Upper Antelope Canyon, and of course the February sunset light on Horsetail Fall.
Each experience has its own set of undesirable challenges that make it easy for many to wonder why others go through so much hassle to capture something that’s virtually guaranteed not to be anything close to unique. But this year’s Horsetail Fall event was kind of an epiphany for me because on the fourth attempt in two weeks (twice with my first workshop group, once with my second group, and once by myself), it suddenly occurred to me how much I was enjoying myself.
More than anything else, photography should make us happy. For me that happiness comes from witnessing nature at its most special, and Horsetail Fall at its best is truly special. Indescribably special.
But that wasn’t my epiphany. Last month’s epiphany was realizing how much being surrounded by thousands of awestruck others adds to the experience, which is where I think the Horsetail Fall experience is unique compared to most other trophy shots.
That’s because most of these trophy scenes are overrun by far more photographers than can comfortably (or even uncomfortably) fit, creating a Darwinian competition that usually spells disappointment for the defeated majority. At these spots I’ve witnessed failure, tears, and actual fistfights as too many photographers jockey for not enough positions.
I won’t argue that the Horsetail Fall scene is ridiculously crowded. But to photograph Horsetail Fall from Northside Drive (the more challenging, and competitive, Southside Drive perspective is now off-limits during Horsetail Fall season), you’re pointing up, and most likely using a telephoto lens (or at least not using a wide angle lens). This means that no matter how many people are trying to view the fall, no one is in anyone else’s shot. The result is a tailgate party atmosphere as the entire crowd unifies around a single goal: that special light on Horsetail Fall.
About this image
My second February workshop was scheduled for the full moon, so I made clear to everyone who signed up that even though we’d be there right in the heart of “Horsetail Fall season,” Horsetail Fall wouldn’t be a priority. But when the crowds pretty much wiped out one of my planned sunset locations, and with the Horsetail Fall conditions so ideal (water in the fall, no clouds), I decided we’d give Horsetail one shot.
By this (my fourth) attempt I had the traffic and parking strategy down to a science, so we were easily in position and set-up with about 90 minutes to spare. I actually like getting there so early because it’s cool, especially for those who haven’t witnessed Horsetail Fall before, to see the light warm as the vertical shadow advances across El Capitan’s face.
While watching the light change, we all chatted and laughed amongst ourselves and with the other nearby gawkers. Some of our neighbors had cameras too, and some were just there to watch.
With so much time to kill, a few of us even spent some time walking up and down Northside Drive, taking in the party atmosphere. Unlike most of the trophy scenes I’ve photographed, I saw lots of kids and even a few (leashed) dogs. Many people had brought chairs and ice chests, some were barbecuing, and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.
About 15 minutes before sunset the light had acquired an amber hue and the photographers stopped chatting and went to work. The light this evening warmed steadily, from amber to the deep orange in this image. I tried to time each click for when the wind near El Capitan’s summit caught the falling water just right, spreading it into a glowing veil.
After such a great Horsetail Fall experience with the previous week’s group, it’s impossible not to compare the two. On this evening we had less concern about the light because there was no sign of clouds. And though the prior week’s clouds had created a unique opportunity to have some character in the sky, I was pretty sure that there was a little more water this week. I also noticed that the last light was thinner, more tightly focused on the fall, but also didn’t stretch as far down the fall. And while the color wasn’t quite as red as it had been the prior week, I heard no complaints.
A Few Trophies of My Own
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on February 28, 2021
So much to do after two workshops in the last two weeks (and all the planning and recovery that goes with them). I had ambitious plans to return home late Friday night and hit the ground running first thing Saturday morning, so imagine my frustration to walk into my chilly house (I’d turned off the heat before I left), equal parts hungry and tired, at about 11 p.m. to find my internet down. When I discovered no dial tone on my landline (yes, I still have a landline), I realized this was a Comcast problem. Uh-oh. Having dealt with Comcast problems in the past (don’t get me started on their automated phone support system), I set aside food, warmth, and sleep to immediately call Comcast tech support. (Cold, hungry, tired, and no internet—suddenly I knew how the Donner Party must have felt.)
After about two hours on the phone (no, I do not want to reset my modem for the eighth time!), the best I could do was arrange for a Sunday house call—not bad for Comcast, but certainly not great for someone with a business to run, especially given all I had to do. I went to bed strategizing my Saturday, figuring I could at least load and process my images, and handle my basic internet needs by turning my phone into a wifi hot spot. But Saturday morning when I tried to connect my computer to my phone and load a page, my computer just stared back dumbly. I checked my reception and saw it bouncing between one and zero bars. I found a corner by the window that at least seemed to stay at one bar and called T-Mobile. Turns out a tower was down, but at least they were sorry. (I actually think T-Mobile’s tech support is very good, especially after dealing with Comcast.) And for some reason my Adobe Creative Suite wouldn’t load either (usually it works fine without connectivity, but I didn’t have the bandwidth to debug the problem without internet).
The additional technical frustration between then and now included multiple support calls with Comcast and T-Mobile and a trip to the Comcast store to swap out my modem, all culminating with a visit from a very nice Comcast technician who fixed the problem and told me the support rep I talked to yesterday could have fixed it over the phone. Sigh.
So here I am, it’s Sunday night and have a blog to write. I loaded my images, grabbed one from Friday night, processed it, and here you go. Now for something to say….
I’d scheduled my Yosemite Winter Moon workshop around this grand finale, a full moon rising from directly behind Half Dome right at sunset on Friday evening. The rest of the workshop had already been really nice—multiple rainbows on Yosemite Falls (Upper and Lower), a warmup moonrise on Thursday night, and even a bonus Horsetail Fall shoot (I’d made it clear that the moon, not Horsetail Fall, was the priority for this workshop) when it became clear the conditions would be perfect, and I had cracked this year’s NPS Horsetail Fall restrictions code—but this moonrise is what we’d all been looking forward to.
Because of the crowds in the park and the fact that the moonrise was apparently not a secret (how I long for the good old days), we got to our moonrise spot above the Tunnel View vista about two hours early. After not seeing a single cloud for the entire workshop, the first thing we saw as we unpacked and set up our gear was a bank of thin clouds that had set up camp low on the horizon, directly behind Half Dome. At first they appeared to be moving on and I was pretty optimistic about our moonrise, but as the appointed hour approached I grew increasingly pessimistic—not only were clouds thickening, they were expanding.
Sure enough, zero hour arrived with no sign of the moon, but we did get some nice color in the clouds and the group, while disappointed, seemed happy enough with what did get. The scene was so nice in fact that we were in no rush to leave despite the darkening landscape. Which is why we were still primed and ready for action when I noticed a faint glow in the clouds above Sentinel Rock. Could it be?
Yes it could. What started as a glow quickly revealed itself to be the lunar disk we’d been waiting for. And though it wasn’t apparent to our eyes, it was clear that the moon had edged into a patch of thinner clouds, because as we frantically clicked, actual lunar detail started to emerge. In fact, the clouds that originally thwarted our moonrise turned out to be a benefit when they moderated the moon’s brightness enough to allow us to photograph long after it have been too bright.
In my prior blog post I wrote about the joy of unexpected gifts from nature, events that seem to come out of nowhere, just when you’ve about given up hope. Now it had happened in consecutive workshops. I realize that moments like this are the exception, but they really do more than make up for all the disappointment nature likes to deal.
Worth Waiting For
Posted on February 21, 2021
Everything was progressing perfectly. With a little strategic planning and vehicle shuffling, I’d successfully navigated my workshop group through the teeming throng to the El Capitan Picnic Area. When we’d arrived, more than two hours earlier, there was hardly a cloud in the sky and everyone was pretty confident that the Horsetail Fall gods would smile upon us this evening. Spirits were sky-high, but I just held my breath and crossed my fingers…
For those who have been living under a rock and have never heard of Horsetail Fall, for most of the year it’s probably Yosemite’s most anonymous waterfall. But for a couple weeks in February, it seems like all the photographers on the planet (and their cameras) assemble to pray for the confluence of conditions that renders this El Capitan trickle an otherworldly shade of red: the position of the setting sun (a mid- to late-February thing), water in the fall (depends on rainfall and/or snowmelt), and a clear path for sunset light to travel from the horizon to El Capitan (cross your fingers).
I’d made last week’s workshop group very much aware of the uncertainties, warning them in advance not to get too high or low about anything they see leading up to the 5-minute Horsetail Fall sunset window. But despite my admonishment, and the arrival of a seemingly endless swarm of puffy clouds above and near El Capitan’s nose, as the magic moment approached and the sunlight on the fall held steady, they couldn’t contain their excitement.
About an hour before sunset a countdown started—every few minutes someone would check the time and announce how many minutes were left until showtime. My job was to be the wet blanket, trying to temper their enthusiasm with stories of times (So. Many. Times.) when everything looked perfect until just a couple of minutes before the main event, when some unseen cloud on the horizon snuffed the sunlight and crushed the spirit of every person who had already mentally printed and framed their Horsetail Fall image above the sofa. One hour; 50 minutes; 45 minutes; 30 minutes; 20 minutes… And then it happened—less than 20 minutes before sunset, the clouds dancing around El Capitan’s nose thickened suddenly the light was gone.
In my many years leading photo workshops I’ve had more special moments than I can count—the warm light, vivid color, spectacular clouds, breathtaking celestial event, or whatever else makes a group giddy with excitement. These moments are the most rewarding part of leading photo workshops and may be the number one reason it never gets old for me.
But every once in a while a group and I share something that’s so off the charts magical that I can count it, and recall every little detail and who I was with. There was the 2-hour Grand Canyon lightning storm punctuated by a sunrise rainbow; the Lake Wanaka sunset that turn the sky red from horizon to horizon; the unexpected northern lights display at Glacier Lagoon in Iceland; the rainbow at the bottom of the Grand Canyon that spanned from rim to rim—and few more magic moments that I’ll never forget.
You never know when these events are going to happen, and they’re infrequent enough that you never really expect them. Nevertheless, when the light on El Capitan shut off, I switched from wet-blanket mode to cheerleader mode. I explained that experience has taught me that you really can’t anticipate what the Horsetail Fall light will be in five minutes based on its light right now. What really matters when the sun gets that low is what’s happening on the horizon, which isn’t visible down there amidst the granite and trees of Yosemite Valley. But I don’t think I convinced anyone.
About five minutes before sunset, many people around us started packing up their gear and shuffling off in defeat. I told my group we were staying put until five minutes after sunset, and shared stories of two previous February evenings when Horsetail Fall’s light had disappeared shortly before sunset, only to return after all had seemed lost. They still weren’t convinced, and I’d be lying if I said I believed that’s what was in store for us this evening—until I glanced up and saw a shaft of light moving up from the bottom of the fall. Before I could get the words, “There it is!” out of my mouth the entire fall was glowing red. Not orange-red, or pink, or reddish—it was red, actual RED.
I’ve only seen Horsetail Fall this red once before. People who have never seen Horsetail Fall at its best can’t believe that it really can as red as it can get in the pictures (and having seen the actual thing, I can tell when a picture’s red has been juice), but it’s very real—thanks to the same phenomenon that turns clouds red at sunset.
We got about three minutes of unforgettable magic this evening, but I’m pretty sure everyone who saw it left with a memory that will last for the rest of their life. I know I did.
(Particularly memorable moments I’ve shared with a workshop group)
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on February 14, 2021
After losing 12 workshops to COVID since last February, today I returned to Yosemite for my Horsetail Fall workshop. To say I’m excited would be an understatement. I’m also a little apprehensive. One thing I’m not too worried about is COVID, because I’ve put in place protocol that will keep everyone in the group safely distanced: things like suspended carpooling (everyone can drive their own car), and Zoom for meetings and image review sessions, among other things. And this won’t be my first pandemic workshop because last October I was able to get one in, so I know my protocols work without significantly impacting everyone’s experience.
My anxiety is always a little elevated going into my Horsetail Fall workshop because Horsetail Fall is very important to most of the people who sign up, but many natural unknowns make it impossible to guarantee. Usually it’s the light that thwarts us, some unseen cloud on the horizon that snuffs the sunlight at the last minute. Last year the light was great, but the fall was dry. But I’m hopeful because this year there is lots of water in the fall, and the weather forecast is promising (fingers crossed).
Compounding my standard Horsetail Fall apprehension this year is some new rules put in place due to COVID, and the crowds Horsetail Fall always attracts—the most stringent Horsetail Fall viewing restrictions ever—and it’s entirely up to me to make sure these restrictions don’t affect my group.
Of course this is Yosemite, a place where things always seem to work out for photographers. But even though I have a Horsetail Fall plan that I’m pretty confident will work, and the things I worry about never happen anyway (to quote Tom Petty), I won’t breathe easily until I’ve seen exactly what form “work out” takes in this workshop.
About this image
But anyway… Rather than recycle an old Horsetail Fall image (which you can see below anyway), I’m sharing another image from my December snow day in Yosemite. This is the Three Brothers, probably Yosemite Valley’s most anonymous rock formation. Anonymous not because it’s less worthy than other Yosemite landmarks, but because there are just not that many places to view it.
To align the Three Brothers with the ribbon of autumn leaves, I had to alternately scale and boot-ski a few snow drifts to make my way to the river’s edge. To eliminate a couple of other photographers from my frame (not to mention more than a few footprints in the snow, I moved forward and extended one tripod leg into about a foot of river water. This put my viewfinder out of reach, but by bracing myself on the tripod to keep from joining it in the frigid river, I was able to get a clear enough view of my camera’s LCD to compose this frame. (It’s awkward angles like this that really help me appreciate live-view on the LCD.)
I like to include some kind of knowledge or insight in each blog post, but this week workshop prep has left me without a lot of time. Instead, I’m sharing my Horsetail Fall article, just updated with all the 2021 Yosemite NPS changes. You can also find this article in my Photo Tips section.
2021 Horsetail Fall update
While much of the Horsetail Fall article below is still valid, crowds and COVID have led the NPS to make some fairly impactful changes.
- Access to Yosemite is by reservation only. In other words, if you don’t have a reservation, you will be turned away at the gate. The reservation system will be in effect through February at least, which means for the entire duration of the 2021 Horsetail Fall season. You can make a reservation here: https://www.recreation.gov/timed-entry/10086745. If you have lodging in Yosemite Valley, your reservation is included.
- From noon until 7 p.m., all parking on Southside Drive between the El Capitan crossover and Swinging Bridge is prohibited.
- Also between El Capitan crossover and Swinging Bridge, the entire area between the Merced River and Southside Drive side is closed. In other words, you can’t photograph Horsetail Fall from the south bank of the Merced River. This will be strictly enforced.
- All parking on Northside Drive between Yosemite Valley Lodge and the El Capitan crossover is closed. You also won’t be permitted to unload or stop on this stretch of road. To view Horsetail Fall, the NPS wants you to park in the Yosemite Falls parking area just west of Yosemite Valley Lodge, and walk to the viewing area at or near the El Capitan Picnic Area. This is about 1.5 miles each way, but it’s flat, and one lane of Northside Drive will be blocked for pedestrians.
- Here’s the NPS Yosemite Horsetail Fall page: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/horsetailfall.htm
Please respect these restrictions. The minority of photographers who ignore rules, or try to cut corners, reflect poorly on all photographers, which only leads to even tighter restrictions and risk complete loss of access to Horsetail Fall.
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 when flowing strong 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.
Don’t call it “Firefall”
One important thing before I continue. To avoid outing yourself as a Yosemite rookie, don’t make the mistake of calling Horsetail Fall the “Firefall.” Yosemite’s Firefall was a very real nightly display of burning embers pushed from Glacier Point every summer night. It was as spectacular as it sounds. The phenomenon started in 1872 and continued until the National Park Service, concerned (among other things) about the crowds it drew, terminated the Firefall in 1968.
Anyone who has witnessed or seen pictures of Horsetail Fall would agree that “Firefall” would be a great name for it, but those of us fortunate (and old) enough to have witnessed the actual Firefall know the difference between Horsetail Fall and the Firefall, and will never confuse one for the other.
(Oh yeah, and it’s Horsetail Fall, not Horsetail Falls.)
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 (at the top of the page) was captured February 9. I’ve also had success photographing it right up until the end of February. But the stripe of sunset light on El Capitan is thinnest (and therefore most tightly focused and photogenic) in the third week of February—the prime benefit of doing it a week earlier is light almost as good, with far fewer people.
- 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 or even a day or so.
- 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 and relative ease of access, two spots have become the go-to Horsetail spots for most photographers.
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. 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 to find several clearings with views of the fall.
Merced River south bank bend
Photographed from a 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 behind you toward Sentinel Rock (which also gets fantastic late light), almost directly above 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 one-way 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. In recent years, all parking on Southside Drive between El Capitan Crossover and Swinging Bridge has been banned, if you plan to shoot here, prepare to walk a mile or more.
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. There are definitely other places in Yosemite Valley with view of Horsetail Fall, they just take a little hunting—I suggest walking the south bank of the Merced River, and ascending the 4 Mile Trail. And 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, don’t wait until the light is perfect—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—just keep shooting . 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 (if you’re lucky) red. The best light is in the final five minutes before sunset.
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 300mm or full frame. I use my Sony 24-105 and 70-200 (or more recently, my 100-400) 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.
A frequent rookie mistake is cutting the waterfall off at the bottom. I’m not saying there’s never a reason to do that, but unless you consciously decide to truncate the fall because you think it’s the way to compose your frame, make sure you include the diagonal ridge that Horsetail disappears behind.
If your camera struggles with dynamic range, a graduated neutral density filter will help any shot that includes the sky—a two-stop hard GND 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. Since switching from Canon to Sony, I have no problem with the dynamic range and no longer use a GND for Horsetail Fall.
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, it’s best to just shoot it both ways and decide later.
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 or the adjacent sunlit granite. To maximize the color on the fall and El Capitan, I usually underexpose slightly. Because the trees rarely add value beyond framing, they usually work better when very dark green to black, a fact that’s completely lost on your meter (which thinks everything should be a middle tone). And monitor your RGB histogram to ensure that you haven’t washed out the red (Horsetail and El Capitan) or blue (sky) channels.
Highlight Alert (blinking highlights) is your friend. While you should never make your final exposure decision based on the highlight alert, when you see the highlights flashing, check your histogram and adjust if necessary.
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 appreciate the amazing spectacle unfolding before your eyes.
A Horsetail Fall Gallery
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.
Posted on February 7, 2021
For years I’ve been pleading with camera manufacturers to stop giving us more resolution, and instead concentrate on things like improving dynamic range and high ISO performance. And while I still think that would be a better approach, I have to admit that I’m loving having all these pixels to play with.
The catalyst for my resolution revelation was this New Zealand sunset image. A couple of months ago I decided that I wanted to hang a large, vertical print in a space on a wall in my office. I really like this image, but it wasn’t vertical, and the vertical versions I captured that evening weren’t during peak color. In the olden days I’d have just moved on to a different image, but advancing sensor technology has caused me to rethink my position on the resolution race.
In digital photography, light passing through a lens is focused onto a sensor packed with an array of microscopic electronic light-catchers called “photosites.” Each photosite reports information about the incoming photons to the camera’s microprocessor, which interprets the light’s color and intensity at that location on the sensor. That information is digitized and stored with the information from all the other photosites. Voila, a digital image is born.
Digging deeper, we see that not all photosites are created equal, and that (on most sensors, depending on the technology) each photosite measures a specific color, either red, green, or blue. But for simplicity sake, it’s enough to know that one photosite equals one pixel—that is, a 42 megapixel camera has 42 million photosites, and a 50 megapixel camera has 50 million photosites, and so on.
Any digital camera, whether it be a smartphone, a full-frame 35mm mirrorless camera, or whatever, has a fixed amount of sensor real estate upon which to place its photosites. Fortunately, as sensor technology evolves, not only are we getting more photosites, the image quality is improving with it.
But improving sensors can’t change the fact that a larger photosite collects more light than a smaller one, making it more efficient. Think of a bucket: the bigger the bucket, the more water it holds before overflowing. Another undeniable truth is, the farther apart the photosites are, the less each photosite interferes with its neighbors, and the cooler they remain (heat is the enemy of pretty much all things electronic). And while they could solve these problems by just making the sensors bigger whenever they increase the resolution, larger sensors would require different lenses. So there are really only two practical ways to increase a sensor’s resolution: shrink its photosites, and/or cram the photosites closer.
For any given sensor technology, the fewer the photosites (lower megapixel number), the better the image quality. We can define image quality in a number of ways, but as a landscape photographer, the two quality factors that matter most to me are dynamic range (the range of light a sensor can “see,” from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights) and high ISO capability (light sensitivity). That’s why I’ve always hoped that camera manufacturers would stop adding resolution and instead concentrate on dynamic range and sensitivity.
A little history
My first DSLR camera was 6 megapixels, and I was happy. But as sensor technology improved, cameras were able to add photosites without sacrificing image quality, and I was happier. At around 24 megapixels I reached the point where I was pretty convinced I didn’t need any more resolution, and would gladly sacrifice more resolution to get even more quality.
But the manufactures kept going. When I got the Sony a7RIII that I used to capture this New Zealand winter scene, I though surely its 42 megapixel sensor would be the end of the resolution road. Silly me.
Back to the present
Today, not only does my 61 megapixel Sony a7RIV have more resolution than I ever dared dream would be possible, all that resolution has come without sacrificing my coveted dynamic range and high ISO performance. And lately, I’ve actually started to appreciate having resolution horsepower to spare.
First, I’ve come to realize that for the vast majority of scenes I shoot, my Sony Alpha bodies have more than enough dynamic range—so much that I virtually never use the graduated neutral density filters that I once considered essential for managing extreme dynamic range. And for those rare times I need to test my camera’s ISO limits, I have my 12 megapixel Sony a7SIII (12MP sounds small compared to most of today’s sensors, but it’s more than adequate for most uses), that seems to be able to see in the dark. In other words, I rarely find myself longing for more performance.
And more and more, I find myself appreciating the extra resolution. Of course it’s important to get the framing right at capture, but sometimes that’s not possible. For example, when I photograph lightning, the best I can do is loosely frame a nice composition to ensure that I get the lightning somewhere in the frame. At 50 megapixels, I have plenty of resolution to crop in tighter on the bolt, wherever in my frame it fired. Also, a magazine will ask if I have a vertical version of a horizontal image to put on their cover. 50 megapixels is more than big enough to crop a vertical version from the original file, confident that I’ll still have plenty of resolution for even the highest quality publication.
How much resolution? Reversing the original 2/3 crop of my Sony 61 megapixel Sony a7RIV, gives me nearly 27 megapixels. And even my Sony a7RIII, with its “measly” 42 megapixels gives a nearly 19 megapixel file when I crop a horizontal to a vertical (or vice versa).
So when I wanted a vertical print for my office, I didn’t hesitate open the horizontal original of my New Zealand sunset and find a vertical crop that I liked. I ended up going with a 24×36 print of the vertical (taken from the horizontal original) you see at the top of this blog post. And you know what? It looks marvelous.
Posted on January 31, 2021
If you’re fortunate enough to be outside after the sunset color has subsided, but before the world is enveloped in total darkness, you may find yourself basking in the rarified hues of the “blue hour*.” It’s called the blue hour because, wait for it…, the landscape is indeed bathed in blue. (And also because it just rolls off the tongue better than “the blue 20-minutes,” which would actually be more accurate.)
The greatest joy I get from photography is the connection it gives me to the natural world. Whether it’s lightning, a celestial event, a geological feature, some technical aspect of photography, the qualities of light, or whatever, whenever possible, in my blog posts I try to share something of the science behind my subject or its capture. The goal of this sharing isn’t entirely altruistic—it’s also a great excuse to dig deep into things that absolutely fascinate me. And as it turns out, the science behind the blue hour is especially fascinating.
The blue hour actually last less than one hour, with its duration decreasing with latitude because come and go faster the lower the latitude because the sun ascends and descends at a steeper angle. A lower latitude also speeds sunrise, sunset, and the other stages of twilight for the same reason. This means that in Hawaii, if I’m on location 30-minutes before sunrise, I can probably catch the entire show, whereas in Iceland, even if I’m there 90-minutes before sunrise (brrrr), I might miss something. In the mid-latitudes, 20-minutes is a reasonable rule-of-thumb blue hour duration to rely on.
The cool thing about blue hour color is that, unlike daylight blue sky and sunrise/sunset color, it’s not a function of scattered sunlight. (Read my Sunset Color Photo Tips article for more on this.) Instead, until the sun drops about 8 degrees below the horizon, its blue wavelengths are absorbed by ozone in the upper atmosphere. Though this absorption (Chappuis absorption, if you must know) happens when the sun is above the horizon too, its effects are completely overpowered by direct sunlight. But as direct and scattered sunlight fades with the sinking sun, about the time the sun is about 4 degrees below the horizon, the blue ozone sky enjoys its 20-minutes of fame. (In other words, the blue hour reigns when the sun is between 4 and 8 degrees below the horizon.) Because the cones in our eyes require a certain amount of light to register color, this twilight blue is fairly subtle, but still noticeable, to human vision. A camera, on the other hand, with its ability to increase its light sensitivity (ISO) and accumulate light over time (shutter speed), has no problem capturing the dominant blue cast.
Nature photographers love the blue hour, both for the otherworldly hues that aren’t possible any other time of day, and for the exquisitely soft, shadowless light that’s a joy to photograph. The key for getting the most out of blue hour photography is understanding that the camera sees the world differently than you. Some of the best blue hour photography happens after the color is nearly gone from our eyes, making it easy to pack up and go home. But as I said earlier, the camera can see color too faint for our eyes to register. The color camera might pick up can range from a purplish mix of the longest waves of sunlight and the beginning of the blue hour light, to the absolute deep-blue that soon fades to night.
The blue hour is also absolutely the best time to photograph the moon, which is why you see so many moon images in the Blue Hour gallery below. While fitting the dynamic range of a daylight-bright moon above virtually dark landscape is tricky, it’s definitely worth trying because the darker the sky, the more dramatic the moon will appear in your image. (Check out my articles on moon photography in the Photo Tips menu above.)
One of my favorite blue hour subjects is the ocean, because the low light means long exposures that turn the surf into a gauzy haze. In Iceland last January for a workshop, I was photographing the surf washing up onto Diamond Beach in the fading twilight. As the blue hour descended, I was drawn the way the distant snow-covered peaks (that’s Vestrahorn on the right) seemed to glow in the bluish twilight. Looking for something to put in the foreground, my eyes landed on a pair of (relatively) large icebergs just offshore and I positioned myself to align them with mountains.
Though I’d spent most of the evening shooting with my widest lenses, for this shot I switched to my Sony 100-400 GM to compress the distance between the mountains and nearby ice. Before dialing in my exposure settings, I studied the icebergs to make sure they were stationary enough to not blur in a long exposure, and decided it would be work if I could expose between waves. It took a few tries, but I finally managed this 15-second exposure.
* The blue hour of course happens in reverse before sunrise (from dark to light); for simplicity sake, I’ll just describe the evening half of the phenomenon.
Posted on January 24, 2021
Vestrahorn, on Iceland’s southeast coast, is one impressive chunk of rock. Turns out it only reaches 1500 feet above sea level, but the way it juts so abruptly from the volcanic sand of Stokksnes Peninsula, Vestrahorn creates an imposing presence that rivals El Capitan in Yosemite.
This Vestrahorn shoot came toward the end of the 10-day Iceland workshop Don Smith and I led in January of 2020. Arriving late afternoon (which comes pretty early in Iceland in January), the group instantly scattered across the vast, flat plain offered with a variety of foreground options that included black-sand dunes, iced-over puddles, and a vast black sand beach. I made my way down to the beach and, being a sucker for reflections, was quickly drawn to glassy sand behind each retreating wave.
The beach here is so flat that the surf isn’t dangerous (at least it wasn’t on this day), but this was January in Iceland, so I didn’t really want to get wet. On the other hand, getting the reflection I wanted required being well into the wet part of the sand behind a retreating wave, and each reflection only lasted a few seconds before the water soaked into the sand. Emboldened by waterproof boots that reached about a foot up my calf, I wandered out to where it appeared the waves only reached a depth of 2 or 3 inches, not quite far enough to ensure a full reflection with each receding wave, but not too bad.
I really had a blast working this scene, playing with different compositions as the clouds and light above the mountain changed, and varying my timing to capture each wave in different stages of motion, from the frothy white churn at the wave’s front, followed by the floating foam shapes trailing it, and finally the reflective sheen punctuating each retreat. I also tried a variety of shutter speeds, freezing or applying a variety of blur effects to the moving water. When I get into this zone, I lose all sense of time a surroundings…
So imagine my surprise to feel freezing water soaking my feet. I looked down to see that my legs from the knees down had disappeared, and the beach I’d been standing on now more closely resembled a lake. With the tide clearly coming in (hmmm, perhaps that’s why the reflections seemed to be getting better…), my first inclination was to retreat. But the photography was definitely better in the deeper water, safety wasn’t a concern, and I suddenly remembered my running mantra: You can only get so wet, and once you get that wet, you’re not going to get any wetter. If this mindset could get me through several extremely miserable marathons, it could certainly get me through this. I hadn’t planned to soak my feet in the chilly surf, but now that the damage was done, I couldn’t really make it any worse. So I ended up staying out there, joyfully surrounded by reflections, for another 30 minutes.
One of the things I’ve learned over many years of photographing in extreme conditions is the value of backups. Not just backup photo gear, though I do think it’s foolish to take any photo trip with just one body (I’d already had to spend two days on this trip using my backup body, waiting for my primary body to dry after a unplanned dip in the surf), but also backup clothes.
So loading into the van (not sure what to call our vehicle: it was either a huge van or a little bus) at the beginning of each day, I always made sure to leave out a change of shoes and socks. Though my marinating feet were okay while I was shooting, as soon as I finished and started heading back to the van/bus (ban? vus?), they suddenly became wet, frozen stumps. I never imagined something as simple as a dry pair of socks could bring so much joy.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on January 17, 2021
From time to time I’ll edit one of the many articles in the Photo Tips section of my blog, tweaking and clarifying a few things just to keep it fresh. But every once in a while I do a complete rewrite. Here’s my latest such effort, a brand new article explaining how the interaction of sunlight with our atmosphere gives us blue skies and red sunsets. Spoiler alert: Sunsets are red because the sky is blue.
(And of course everything below applies to sunrise, only in reverse.)
Nature photography isn’t rocket science, but a basic understanding of nature’s processes can make the difference between success and failure. That applies even to something as fundamental as sunsets and sunrises, from the way sunlight interacts with the atmosphere, to the conditions necessary for vivid sunset color.
Light and color
Sunlight reaches Earth in energy waves of varying length. The total of sunlight’s visible wavelengths combine give us light that appears white. The colors we perceive when specific wavelengths within the visible spectrum are absorbed or scattered, with each wavelength creating a distinct color. While the visible portion of the sun’s energy generates a virtually infinite number of colors, we’ve all become familiar with the arbitrary color name labels assigned to wavelength points throughout the spectrum.
Moving from the longest visible wavelength to the shortest, visible light breaks down into some shade of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, or violet. Not coincidentally, these are also the colors of the rainbow we see when the white light of the sun, separated by refraction in airborne water droplets, is reflected back to our eyes. Maybe you remember from your college physics days the mnemonic acronym for the rainbow colors and their order (from the outermost to the innermost color): ROY G BIV.
When a beam of sunlight passes through a vacuum (such as space), all of its wavelengths reach our eyes simultaneously and we perceive the visible portion as white. When sunlight encounters something (like a tree, a rock, air molecules, or whatever), some of its light will either be absorbed or scattered, depending on the wavelength and the properties of the interfering medium. So, unless we’re in space, the light that eventually reaches our eyes has either been reflected or stripped of certain wavelengths by whatever it encountered on its journey.
For example, a patch of fresh snow reflects all of the sun’s visible wavelengths uniformly and appears white to our eyes. A piece of coal uniformly absorbs most of the sunlight that strikes it, so we see coal as black. And when sunlight strikes a leaf, all of its wavelengths except those that we perceive as green are absorbed, while the green wavelengths bounce to our eyes.
Color in the sky
Since our atmosphere is not a vacuum, sunlight is changed simply by passing through the air. In an atmosphere without impurities (like dust, smoke, and water vapor), light interacts only with air molecules. In very simple terms, an air molecule will scatter any wavelength that’s smaller than it is, so the shortest wavelengths are most easily scattered. This scattering of incoming solar energy by atmospheric molecules becomes a filter that catches the violet and blue wavelengths first, allowing the longer wavelengths to pass through and continue their journey to more distant eyes.
When the sun is overhead, sunlight travels through a relatively small amount of atmosphere. The wavelengths that reach our eyes are the first to be scattered, the short violet and blue wavelengths, making the sky blue (the sky appears more blue than violet because our eyes are more sensitive to blue light).
On the other hand, when the sun is on the horizon, the light that reaches our eyes has passed through much more atmosphere than it did when the sun was directly overhead. The shorter violet and blue wavelengths are long gone, bluing-up the sky for others on their way, and the only remaining wavelengths are the longer, less easily scattered, orange and red wavelengths. It’s sunset! (Or sunrise.)
Airborne impurities dampen the atmosphere’s filtering process, so contrary to popular belief, a vivid sunset requires clean, unpolluted air. That’s because smoke, dust, and water molecules are much larger than air molecules. Rather than only scattering specific colors the way tiny air molecules do, larger molecules scatter much more completely—in other words, instead of scattering only the blue and violet wavelengths, polluted air catches lots of orange and red too (and everything in between).
Anyone who has blended a smoothie consisting of a variety of brightly colored ingredients (such as strawberries, blueberries, cantaloupe, and kale—uh, yum?) knows the smoothie’s color won’t be nearly as vivid as any of its ingredients, not even close. Instead you’ll end up with a brownish or grayish muck that at best might be slightly tinted with the color of the predominant ingredient.
Verify this yourself: The next time a storm clears, check the color in the sky—whether it’s midday blue, or sunset red, it’s easy to see how much more vivid the color is when the air is clean. And what’s better known for its sunsets, Hawaii, where it rains almost daily, or Los Angeles, with its urban sprawl and exhaust-spewing vehicles?
Another source of color at sunset has become all too familiar to anyone in or near wildfire-prone regions is red-rubber-ball sunsets when a fire is nearby. A vivid sunset requires intense sunlight, the more intense the better. In a typical brilliant sunset, while the rest of the sky is filled with color, the sun itself is far too bright to photograph as anything but a white disk (without rendering the rest of the scene much too dark). But when sunlight has to battle its way through smoke particles, the total amount of light is significantly reduced and there’s not enough scattered light of any wavelength to color the sky. But look straight at the sun—it’s so inherently bright that some of its longest wavelengths have battled their way to your retinas, turning the sun red while the rest of the sky is a murky brownish-gray.
Getting the most from your sunset images
Any time rain has cleared the atmosphere and the remaining clouds are mixed with sunlight, there’s a good chance for a vivid sunrise or sunset. I have a few go-to locations near home, and at my frequently visited photo locations (Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Hawaii, and so on) that I beeline to when the conditions for color in the sky look promising.
Wherever I am, as I prepare my shot shortly before the sunset show begins, I look for clouds receiving direct sunlight. This is the light that will most likely color-up at sunset, starting with an amber glow that transitions to pink, and red. Conversely, if no clouds are getting light shortly before sunset, that may be an indication that the sunset will fizzle. But don’t give up, because Nature is full of surprises.
A couple of mistakes inexperienced photographers often make is giving up on sunset too soon, and forgetting to check the sky behind them. Some of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen have happened when the sun slipped through an unseen hole in the clouds just below the horizon. And shortly after the sun sets, the pink vestiges of the longest wavelengths still color the eastern horizon. As this color deepens, the steely blue of the Earth’s shadow starts to descend. This combination of rich color and soft, shadowless light creates some of the best color and light for photography. Even when the scene appears too dark to your eye, don’t forget that your camera can accumulate light and bring out color and detail lost to your eye.
Maximizing color in the high dynamic range conditions of a sunset requires careful exposure. Rather than trusting the preview image on your scenes with extreme contrast, it’s essential to trust your histogram. If the histogram for a high dynamic range sunset scene looks good (highlights and shadows not clipped), it’s likely that on the LCD the highlights will look too bright, and the shadows too dark. Resist the urge to fix one or the other in the field, and instead trust that you’ll be able to recover both in processing later. If you’re not sure (or just don’t trust your ability to read the histogram), backet your exposures by a stop or two around what you think is best.
And don’t forget to check your RGB histogram—even if the luminosity histogram looks good, it’s possible that the red channel is clipped and you’ll need to reduce your exposure a little.
About this image
It was January 2015 and I had only recently made the switch from Canon DSLR to Sony Alpha mirrorless. With fewer than 1000 frames shot on my new Sony a7R, I was already blown away by its dynamic range compared to my Canon 5DIII and was anxious for opportunities to reap its benefits.
On this winter evening I ended up in the foothills south and east of Sacramento, my go-to photo location closest to home. I have a number of spots here, each highlighted by one or more oak trees atop a west-facing hill that gives me great silhouette opportunities from the back side.
Rather than return to one of my tried and true spots, I wanted to find something new. I was alarmed at all the development underway in this once pastoral area, but I was able to get to this spot because a new road had been carved into the hills behind it. Construction had already begun and while it’s illegal in California to cut down our beautiful oaks, it seems that they can develop right up to them and it wouldn’t be long before this trio was completely surrounded by homes. It was pretty clear that this shot wouldn’t be possible if I were to return in even just a few weeks.
As you can see here, I once again confirmed the dynamic range of my new Sony sensor. The other thing I remember being excited about was the extra resolution. My longest lens at the time was the Sony 70-200 f/4 and I wanted to shoot this tighter. I just shot it at 200mm, but found that I had plenty of resolution to crop it down to what you see here.
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show.
Posted on January 10, 2021
A year ago Don Smith and I, with the aid of our Icelandic guide (the legendary Óli Haukur), had a blast sharing Iceland’s winter beauty with a great group of photographers. But our trip wasn’t without its challenges. One of our earliest locations was Kirkjufell, arguably Iceland’s most recognizable mountain. While proponents of Vestrahorn might debate this, no one will deny that everyone who visits Iceland wants a picture of Kirkjufell, just as everyone visiting Yosemite wants a picture of Half Dome. And even though Kirkjufellsfoss (the nearby waterfall) is gorgeous and the obvious foreground for Kirkjufell images, the mountain really is the main event here.
So imagine our disappointment on the morning our workshop group visited Kirkjufell and found the mountain completely obscured by clouds. Not only that, the temperature was 25 degrees (F), and a 40 MPH wind made it feel like 5 degrees and turned the sleet into rocketing needles. In other words, it was stupid-cold. Nevertheless, our hardy group geared up, braved the short trudge out to the vista, and went to work without complaint.
While waiting for Kirkjufell to emerge (fingers crossed), I turned my attention to the tiered, multi-channel, ice-encrusted Kirkjufellsfoss. In normal conditions, while waiting for the Kirkjufell to appear it would have been natural to fire off a few oooh-that’s-pretty clicks of the waterfall. But without the distraction of Kirkjufell (or anything else more than 1/2 mile away), I set up my tripod and actually worked the scene like an actual photographer (go figure). And as often happens when I spend quality time with a scene, the longer I worked this one, the more I saw.
With so much going on, the trickiest part of making this image was managing all the scene’s visual elements while minding my frame’s borders. As much as we try be vigilant, sometimes the emotion of a scene overwhelms our compositional good sense—we see something that moves us, point our camera at it, and click without a lot of thought. While this approach may indeed capture the scene well enough to save memories and impress friends, it’s far from the best way to capture a scene’s full potential. So before every click, I do a little “border patrol,” a simple mnemonic that reminds me to deal with small distractions on the perimeter that can have a disproportionately large impact on the entire image. (I’d love to say that I coined the term in this context, but I think I got it from Brenda Tharp—not sure where Brenda picked it up.)
To understand the importance of securing your borders, it’s important to understand that our goal as photographers is to create an image that not only invites viewers to enter, but also persuades them to stay. And the surest way to keep viewers in your image is to help them forget the world outside the frame. Lots of factors go into crafting an inviting, persuasive image—things like compositional balance, visual motion, and relationships are all essential (and topics for another day), but nothing reminds a viewer of the world outside the frame more than an object jutting in or cut off at the edge.
When an object juts in on the edge of a frame, it often feels like part of a different scene is photobombing the image. Likewise, when an object is cut off on the edge of the frame, it can feel like part of the scene is missing. Either way, it’s a subconscious and often jarring reminder of the world beyond the frame.
And there are other potential problems on the edge of an image. Simply having something with lots of visual weight—an object with enough bulk, brightness, contrast, or anything else that pulls the eye—on the edge of the frame can throw off the balance and compete with the primary subject for the viewer’s attention.
To avoid these distractions, I remind myself of “border patrol” and slowly run my eyes around the perimeter of the frame. Sometimes border patrol is easy—a simple scene with just a small handful of objects to organize, all conveniently grouped toward the center, usually requires minimal border management. But more often than not we’re dealing with complex scenes containing multiple objects scattered throughout and beyond the frame.
In this Kirkjufellsfoss scene I had to contend with ice, rocks, snow, and flowing water. The biggest problem was an assortment of randomly dispersed rocks jutting from the snow at bottom of the frame, and a railed pathway visible just above the fall. It wasn’t too hard to eliminate the path with careful placement of the top of my frame, but if my entire focus had been on the waterfall the rocks might have been overlooked. Border patrol. Placing the bottom of my frame a little higher would have cut off the large rock near the bottom-center, an important compositional element that combines with the fall to create a virtual diagonal; placing the bottom lower would have introduced more rocks that I’d have had to cut off somewhere. Instead, I was able find a clean line of snow that traversed the entire bottom of my frame: perfect! (And lucky.)
One other important compositional element that would have been easily easy to overlook is the switchback snow-line that enters the frame at the bottom and exits at the top (or vice-versa). Diagonals like this are strong compositional elements that I love including whenever possible, so I chose a horizontal composition to allow room for each switchback to complete. The eye subconsciously follows lines like this, so cutting them off on the edge of the frame is an tacit invitation to exit the scene, something I try to check for when I execute my border patrol.
Of course nature doesn’t often cooperate and I’m usually forced to chop off parts of visual elements. When I do this, I always want it to be a conscious decision that doesn’t make my viewer think that I’ve cut off something that belongs in the scene, or that something jutting in is part of a different scene. Usually when I have to cut something on the edge (often impossible to avoid), I try to do it boldly, somewhere near the middle of the object, to signal that was my intent and not just an oversight.
I realize because these things are often only noticed on a subconscious level they may seem trivial, but every image is house of cards comprised mostly of small decisions, and you never know which one might send it crashing down.
I did end up photographing Kirkjufell this morning, but didn’t get anything that thrilled me.
Minding the Border
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on January 3, 2021
Since the start of the pandemic, many (most?) of us have have found lots of time to catch up on books and movies (among other things). Of course that also includes me, and as a photographer I find it hard not to find parallels between my chosen creative medium and these others. The tension in books and movies, whether dramatic, comedic, or some combination of both, originates from the interaction of characters with each other and/or their surroundings, and the change that interaction spawns over time. Which of course got me thinking about whether it’s possible to create tension in a still photograph, and if so, how?
Though we might not be conscious of it, the best photographic images do indeed convey a form of tension. It’s human nature to seek relationships, not just in our lives, but in our art as well. Every relationship has inherent tension, an invisible connecting thread that pulls tighter as the relationship strengthens.
Lacking the passing of time and the change it brings, still-photographers must create tension by setting up relationships between disparate elements in our frame. We signal these relationships, thereby dialing up the tension, through careful positioning of compositional elements (Google “rule of thirds” and “golden ratio”).
The most obvious relationships available to landscape photographers is the juxtaposing independent physical elements in the scene. For example, pairing a foreground tree or flower with a distant peak permanently creates a relationship between two formerly unrelated subjects. Reflections are an easy way to connect a nearby water feature to a distant subject. And then there are the dynamic celestial elements like the moon and stars, and ephemeral weather phenomena such as lightning and rainbows, that make powerful connections with terrestrial subjects.
But wait, there’s more…
Even though no time passes in a still frame, landscape photographers can and do signal time’s advance. Whether conscious of it or not, when we photograph the color and light of the natural boundaries separating day and night, the broken clouds and rainbows of a clearing a storm, or the juxtaposition of elements distinctive to two seasons, we signal the passage of time and the tension inherent in its inexorable march.
Lacking other features to set them apart, the cliched nature of sunrises and sunset images diminishes their power to generate tension—in other words, sunrises and sunsets are a dime a dozen, so if you’re going to photograph one, you’d better make an effort to put it with a strong scene. On the other hand, though it’s always important to seek a strong composition regardless of the conditions, the more rare the change, the better it can overcome an otherwise ordinary scene.
A clearing storm can feel like catching lightning in a bottle (a nice rainbow can elevate nearly any scene), but an even rarer opportunity to capture change is a scene with clear signs of two seasons. That’s especially true in my home state of California, where seasons tend to be more of an afterthought. But that doesn’t mean opportunities to photograph seasonal change here are nonexistent. California does get spectacular spring wildflower blooms, and our autumn color display (though maybe not as spectacular as some other places), can be very nice.
Bracketing spring and autumn on one side is summer, hands-down California’s least photographically compelling season. But on the other side of spring and autumn is winter. While most of the state doesn’t get snow, our mountains do (and lots of it)—capturing late snow on wildflowers and dogwood (an extremely rare event), and early snow on fall color, are real treats.
So maybe I should have warned you that there’d be math…
Which brings me to this image from my visit to Yosemite during an early November snowstorm. I really don’t need to go on any more about this day—if you’ve been reading my blog for the last couple of months, you’re probably well beyond sick of hearing about it. But it does illustrate the synergy of combining two seasons in one image. No one can deny that fall color is beautiful, and fresh snow is beautiful too (which of these is more beautiful is in the eye of the beholder, and a debate for another day). But if we were somehow able to quantify beauty, I suspect that we’d find the total amount of beauty (“beauty-units,” “beauty-bucks”?) in a fresh snow on fall color image would exceed the sum of the beauty derived from an image with fall color plus the beauty of an image with fresh snow.
You could attribute this synergy to the relative rarity of snow on fall color, but I think the power goes deeper than that. There’s just something about change the ups the stakes, so even though this is nothing more than a (totally unprovable) mental exercise (maybe I’ve been locked up too long), I’m sticking with the theory that the synergistic power of an image that combines the distinctive best of two seasons is the tension of change it conveys.
The Tension of Change