Posted on September 4, 2022
One of my favorite summer treats is the smoothie I whip up for lunch on hot days. I grab whatever fruit is available, toss it in my Vitamix with a little macadamia milk and ice, and let it rip. Each smoothie tastes different, but it’s always delicious.
Why am I sharing food prep tips in a photo blog? Because I can think of no better analogy for the Sony Kando event I experienced this week in Sun Valley, Idaho. Though Kando is truly indescribable, I’ll attempt the impossible and explain that it’s Sony’s gift to the creative photographers and videographers who share their love for Sony products with the world (that’s my definition, not Sony’s). Each year Sony takes a couple hundred of these Creatives, tosses them together at Kando, mixes in a variety of creative, social, and educational opportunities (and food!), and presses Blend. The result is a concoction that’s distinctly different from anything that preceded it, but always delicious. Just like my smoothies.
Kando is a Japanese word without a perfect English equivalent, but as near as I can tell it is the feeling of intense pleasure and excitement that happens when we encounter something truly exceptional. I’ve attended each of the four in-person Kando gatherings—Kando 1.0, just north of Santa Barbara; 2.0 at Asilomar near Carmel; 3.0 in Bend, Oregon; and this year’s 4.0 in Sun Valley, Idaho—enough to know that the event is aptly named. There are fundamental similarities between each one: the multi-day structure, the positive energy, and it is populated by many of the same people (blended each year with a liberal sprinkling of new faces)—yet somehow each event feels different in its own stimulating way.
Creativity is always on display at Kando, but this year I think the creativity was on steroids. The mix of Sony Creatives, as always, included a cadre of established photographers/videographers with a massive body of work (many of whom you’d recognize by name, or if not by name, by their work), infused with a liberal dose of young social media “influencers” with 6- and 7-digit followers. Still-photography, video, and even audio were well represented.
Some of the Creatives taught classes or participated in panels discussing their creative process and insights, and everyone shared by example. We were all encouraged to shoot and share throughout the week, with opportunities ranging from models, action, elaborate sets, and field trips available both day and night. At any given instant, it seemed half the Creatives would be creating, and the other half was watching. And I can’t begin to express how much fun it is to watch creative people do their thing.
For me Kando’s greatest lesson is the reminder that creative opportunities are infinite, and we’re limited only by our ability to see them. To say I was in awe of the creativity surrounding me would be an understatement. But I don’t think there was a single person present who wasn’t in awe of the creativity surrounding all of us.
So, fresh off my Kando week with my creative juices still flowing, I’m reaching into the archives for and image from one of my most memorable shoots in recent years. I chose this image for several reasons: in the context of creativity, there’s my recent post about finding unique takes on this solitary tree; then there’s my recent post about fog; and (especially) because a couple of weeks ago I discovered that, for some reason I’m unable to explain, and despite having shared this image many times since its capture in 2019, I’ve never written about it or the shoot—a blatant violation of my personal rule to never share an image without writing something on its capture and/or inspiration.
And in the spirit of full disclosure, my original Wanaka Tree Fog image had some minor flaws that (though not necessarily visible to anyone else) always bugged me, so I reprocessed it. And when I went back to the original raw file, I found another frame captured just a minute or so later that was compositionally very similar, but just a little cleaner to my eye.
This was the first of two New Zealand winter workshops Don Smith and I did in June 2019. The prior evening our group had enjoyed what was probably the best sunset we’ve ever had in New Zealand. We went to bed basking in the glory of that shoot, and woke to dense fog that obscured everything beyond 100 yards.
Since this was a sunrise, and the tree was easy walking distance from our hotel, we’d instructed the group to meet us out there 40 minutes before sunrise. Walking out in the dark, Don and I ran into one workshop participant who told us it was too foggy and he was going back to bed. We tried to convince him that the fog created a spectacular opportunity for something unique, but his mind was made up. At the tree, a couple of others in the group were already shooting, and a few more joined us soon, but I can’t remember whether anyone else was turned away by the fog.
Despite the darkness, it was obvious that something special was happening and I started shooting as soon as I could get set up. To give you an idea of how dark it was when we started, today’s image is a 30-second exposure at f/8 and ISO 100.
As special as the scene was, given its static nature, my biggest concern was finding a sufficient variety of unique takes. The conditions pretty much wiped out the go-to creative tools I use to vary a composition: the air and water was completely still, removing motion as a tool; the lack of any background and my distance from the tree eliminated any depth-of-field opportunities; though the morning brightened slowly, the light was completely uniform and shadowless; and the fog completely obliterated the visibility beyond 100 yards, so it did little good to move around to juxtapose the tree against different backgrounds.
Looking the images in Lightroom’s grid view, I count 38 frames over a 40 minute span this morning. And while I have very little specific memory of most of them, just looking at this history I can see what my mindset was.
The first two frames I captured in rapid fire (well, as rapid as 30-second exposures can be) the instant I hit the lakeshore. I remember being so excited by what was in front of me, I just shot to make sure I had something in case the fog lifted.
The next set of frames, and the bulk of my images from this morning, started about 3 minutes later. I know after comparing the tree in the two sets, that I realized the angle at the first spot was poor and the tree was noticeably compressed. To fix this, I moved along the lakeshore until I had the best possible angle on the tree’s distinctive low, sweeping branch (now gone).
Once I was here and confident that I’d captured something nice, I slowed down and started really working the scene. Each of the 36 images I captured after moving into the better position was distinct from the rest of the images (no duplicates). Of this 36, 20 were horizontal and 16 were vertical. I also varied my focal length and framing, sometimes going wider, other times tighter.
In nearly every frame, the tree is centered on the horizontal axis, and sometimes on the vertical axis too (smack-dab in the middle of the frame). This was because there wasn’t really anything to balance the frame horizontally if I put the tree off-center. But just to cover myself, toward the end I did take a couple of horizontal frames with the tree left and right of center.
I had the most fun playing with my polarizer, emphasizing the reflection in some frames, and revealing the submerged foreground rocks in others. As you can see, I went with one with the rocks visible, but revisiting the images now, I can see others I’d like to process, including one that’s all reflection and no rocks.
Circling back to Kando and this whole creativity thing, I feel like my creativity pales in comparison to some of what I saw last week. But I also know that my own creative process that I tried to share a small part of here, is very personal, and that it serves my objective to share Nature’s beauty and (I hope) inspire others to appreciate Nature as much as I do. But whatever gets your creative juices flowing, I can tell you absolutely that being around other creative people is good for the soul and a great place to start.
The Shot Less Taken
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Posted on August 28, 2022
Maria von Trapp had them, you have them, I have them. They’re the favorite places, moments, and subjects that provide comfort or coax a smile no matter what life has dealt. Not only do these “favorite things” improve our mood, they’re the muse that drives our best photography. Sometimes they even inspire dreams about making a living in photography.
But sadly, turning a passion into a profession often comes at the expense of pleasure because suddenly earning money is the priority. When I decided to make photography my livelihood, it was only after observing other very good (formerly) amateur photographers who, lulled by the ease of digital photography, failed to anticipate that running a photography business requires far more than taking good pictures. Rather than an opportunity for further immersion in their passion, their new profession forced them to photograph not for joy, but to pay the mortgage and put food on the table. And with the constant need for marketing, networking, bookkeeping, collections, taxes, and just plain keeping customers happy, these newly minted photographers soon found that precious time remained for the very thing that led them to become photographers in the first place.
Nearly 20 years ago (yikes), armed with these observations I changed from photographer to Photographer. After seeing what this change had done to others, my transition was founded on a vow to photograph only my favorite things.
It shouldn’t take much time in my galleries to figure out where I find my photographic joy. I could point to locations like Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and New Zealand, but even more important to me than locations are the natural phenomena that fascinate me. Whether celestial or terrestrial, I find myself inexorably drawn to the natural processes that created and affect the world we share.
The why of this starts with growing up in a family that camped for our vacations—I just have lots of great memories of nature. But the other significant factor behind my favorite photographic subjects comes from a fascination with the physical sciences that started in my single-digit years with an interest in comets, and quickly grew to include pretty much anything in the night sky. But even then I wasn’t satisfied with simply looking at the night sky, I wanted to understand what was going on up there. And with that came a realization that Earth is actually part of the cosmos, and soon I was reading about geology and meteorology and pretty much any other ology that had to do with my place in the Universe.
All of this came before I ever picked up a camera. But it might explain why I feel so strongly actually understanding the things I photograph—if they give me join, they’re worth knowing. Whether it’s lightning, reflections, the Milky Way, rainbows, a beautiful location, or whatever, I’ve reached the point where I simply won’t post an image of something I don’t understand.
And because I enjoy writing as much as I enjoy photography, you may have noticed that I also virtually never share an image without writing something about it. I know a lot of people just follow my blog to see my images, and that’s totally fine. But these really are my favorite things in the world, and I truly appreciate that you’ve taken the time to view, and (especially) to read this far.
Keeping in that spirit, here’s a little information about lightning, excerpted from my Lightning Photo Tips article:
A lightning bolt is an atmospheric manifestation of the truism that opposites attract. In nature, we get a spark when two oppositely charged objects come in close proximity. For example, when you get shocked touching a doorknob, on a very small scale, you’ve been struck by lightning.
In a thunderstorm, the up/down flow of atmospheric convection creates turbulence that knocks together airborne water (both raindrops and ice) molecules, stripping their (negatively charged) electrons. Lighter, positively charged molecules are carried upward in the convection’s updrafts, while the heavier negatively charged molecules remain near the bottom of the cloud. Soon the cloud is electrically polarized, with more positively charged molecules at the top than at the base.
Nature really, really wants to correct this imbalance, and always takes the easiest path—if the easiest path to electrical equilibrium is between the cloud top and cloud bottom, we get intracloud lightning; if it’s between two different clouds, we get intercloud lightning. And the less frequent cloud-to-ground strikes occur when the easiest path to equilibrium is between the cloud and ground.
With lightning comes thunder, the sound of air expanding explosively when heated by a 50,000-degree jolt of electricity. Thunder travels at the speed of sound, a pedestrian 750 miles per hour, while lightning’s flash zips along at the speed of light, more than 186,000 miles per second—nearly a million times faster than sound.
Knowing that the thunder occurred at the same instant as the lightning flash, and the speed both travel, we can calculate the approximate distance of the lightning strike. While we see the lightning pretty much instantaneously, regardless of its distance, thunder takes about five seconds to cover a mile. So dividing by 5 the number of seconds between the instant of the lightning’s flash and the arrival of the thunder’s crash gives you the lightning’s approximate distance in miles (divide by three for kilometers).
About this image
As a lifelong Californian, lightning was just something to read about, and maybe see in movies, but rarely viewed in person. And photographing it? Out of the question.
That changed in 2012 when Don Smith and I traveled to the Grand Canyon with our brand new Lightning Triggers and absolutely no clue how to photograph lightning. We returned with enough success to be completely hooked on lightning photography, and a plan to offer Grand Canyon photo workshops focused on the Grand Canyon monsoon and (fingers crossed) lightning. After a few years Don cut back on his schedule and dropped most of his domestic workshops (we still partner for New Zealand and Iceland workshops), but I’ve continued with the Grand Canyon Monsoon workshops. This year I did two Grand Canyon Monsoon workshops, the second of which was probably my most memorable lightning workshop so far—if not for the quantity of the lightning (very good but not record breaking), certainly for the quality.
The image I’m sharing today came on that workshop’s penultimate evening, and came the day after a similarly spectacular lightning show at Cape Royal (I blogged about it two weeks ago). At Cape Royal I commented that this was one of the top five lightning shoots I’ve ever had. Little did I know…
The following night we rode the shuttle out Hermit’s Rest Road, stopping first at the very underrated Pima Point. After spending nearly an hour at Pima, pointing at a potential cell that only teased us, we packed up and headed to Hopi Point for sunset. There really wasn’t much going on when we got there, but the clouds were nice and the sky looked promising for a good sunset.
As sunset approached, what may have been the remnants of the cell that had disappointed us at Pima Point seemed to regroup and start moving from left to right across our scene and toward the canyon. The first reaction to this development was, “No big deal” (fool me once, …). But just one relatively weak bolt was enough to send us all scrambling for our Lightning Triggers. Everything after that is pretty much a blur because as the storm slowly advanced, some unseen force turned the lightning up to 11—both its frequency and intensity.
In my July 31 post I shared an image of a rogue Hopi Point lightning bolt that was somehow perfectly placed above the canyon right at sunset. As the only lightning we saw all evening, this one felt like a gift from heaven. This evening’s lightning was similarly positioned, but much bigger, and I lost track of the number of bolts we saw: double strikes, triple strikes, serpentine strikes—pretty much a lightning photographer’s entire wish list all in one show.
Hopi Point access is by shuttle-only, which means if we miss the last shuttle we’re walking more than 2 miles back in the dark. The lightning was still going strong when we hopped onto the final shuttle in growing darkness, but given what we all knew we had, no one was too disappointed.
Here are a couple of images from Cape Royal the night before this image
And here are the two more images from this night’s shoot at Hopi Point
I realize that I get far more excited about lightning than the average person. And I’m truly sorry for sharing so many lightning images, but you’ll just have to understand that not only is lightning a novelty for me, and (please) recognize my good fortune for being able to make my living photographing nothing but my favorite things.
These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on August 21, 2022
Born and raised in California, my relationship with fog is both long and complex. I spent the first 12 years of my life in the San Joaquin Valley, where winter “tule fog” could be so thick that sometimes drivers could only navigate by opening the door and hanging their head out to follow the yellow line. Accidents involving dozens of cars were common. In elementary school (we called it grammar school back then), my classmates and I celebrated the “fog days” when school was cancelled because the visibility was too poor for the school buses to safely navigate their routes. On the foggy days school wasn’t cancelled, a favorite recess activity was to venture far enough onto the playground for the school to disappear, spin a few times to erase all sense of direction, then try to find our way back to school before the bell rang. And at least once I actually got lost walking to school in a dense fog.
When we moved to Berkeley the summer before I started middle school (a.k.a., junior high), my relationship with fog changed. No longer a winter phenomenon, fog in Berkeley blew in through the Golden Gate on summer afternoons, turning a shorts and T-shirt lunchtime into a long pants and sweater dinnertime. Most summer days required multiple wardrobe changes.
Playing baseball at Skyline College (San Bruno) and San Francisco State University, I realized that Bay Area fog provided a true home field advantage. I have very vivid memories of sitting in the dugout or bullpen, toasty-warm in my insulated warm-up jacket, and watching our opponent, who had arrived dressed for the comfortable warmth of pretty much any other California location, huddled against the wind and fog in the visitors’ dugout—and, I suspect, contemplating rubbing bats together to start a fire (yes, all baseball bats used to be made of wood, even in college).
Photographing Yosemite in my adult years, I quickly grew to appreciate the fog that hovers on the floor Yosemite Valley on chilly, still mornings. And to many, the shape-shifting fog that wraps Yosemite Valley as a storm clears is the Holy Grail of Yosemite photography.
Though fog comes in many forms, it can be a simple matter of perspective: to the viewer at sea level, a missing mountain peak has been swallowed by clouds; the mountain climber on the summit, however, thinks she’s ascended into a fog bank. Both are right. And while many processes are at play, the bottom line is that fog (and clouds) will form when the temperature of moist air drops to its saturation point.
Despite (or maybe because of) my lifelong relationship with fog, I’m afraid I’ve taken it for granted. This fact became pretty clear one morning at the Grand Canyon earlier this month. On a trip where lightning was the undeniable goal, the most memorable shoot of the first workshop was a foggy sunrise at Point Imperial. To say this wasn’t on my radar would be an understatement.
At 8900 feet above sea level, Point Imperial is the highest vista in Grand Canyon National Park. This extreme elevation provides a top-of-the-world view to the north, east, and south to a who’s who of Northern Arizona landmarks: the Vermillion Cliffs, the Painted Desert, Marble Canyon, and the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers (you can’t see the rivers themselves, but you can see the intersection of their canyons). And as if weren’t enough, Point Imperial’s foreground landscape is dotted with an assortment of prominent mesas, buttes, and other rocky outcrops. My favorite view here is facing east and south, where a natural bowl filled with layered sedimentary prominences is anchored by nearby Mt. Hayden, a towering spire that dominates the view.
Sunrise was still more than 30 minutes away when I guided my first workshop group into the parking lot at Point Imperial. Below us, a few wisps of fog dotted the bowl, but offered no hint of what was in store. With several spots to set up here, in the darkness I was more focused on making sure my group was situated than I was on the scene, but when I looked back toward the view it was pretty clear that the fog was spreading and rising. With everyone in place, I raced back to the car and grabbed my camera bag.
For the next hour or more, we watched (and photographed!) the rocky features become islands in the clouds, submerge completely, then gradually reappear. A couple of times the fog rose enough to completely engulf us and erase the view. The first time this happened, the group was ready to pack up and return to the cabins with the morning’s (already thrilling) spoils, but remembering similar fog formation experiences in Yosemite, I suggested that there’s a good chance the fog will retreat as quickly as it advanced, and that we might be able to photograph everything we just witnessed, only in reverse. Sure enough, within five minutes the rocky island reemerged, and soon the entire view was back. And just when it looked like the show might be over, here came the fog again.
Because my group gets a little spread out at Point Imperial, I wasn’t able to take as many pictures as I otherwise would have, but here are three of the morning’s highlights I did manage to capture (with brief descriptions below).
One Foggy Morning at Point Imperial (July 28, 2022)
Before rising into a cloud layer that covered most of the sky, the sun slipped through a small opening on the horizon long enough to fringe the billowing fog with golden light just as I’d set up for a sunstar. And the sun wasn’t quite done. I’ve always been a fan of the way the rising sun illuminates Mt. Hayden and the surrounding rocks with warm light, but when I glanced in that direction, I saw no direct sunlight on the rocks. I did, much to my surprise, see a small fragment of rainbow that served as a perfect accent to the foggy scene in that direction. The third image came toward the end of the shoot, shortly after the final wave of fog had started to retreat. The rocky spire peaking through the fog in the foreground is Mt. Hayden.
Lots More Fog
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Posted on August 14, 2022
My eyes pop open at the very first piano note of Pat Metheny Group’s “Minuano.” It’s 4:10 a.m., precisely 30 minutes before I’d told my group we’d be taillights-up-the-road for the day’s sunrise shoot. No matter how soothing the day’s chosen wakeup tune, any wakeup time that starts with a “4:” is jarring. Since my rule is to be at the cars to load 5 minutes before taillights time (because I wait or go looking for no one—if you’re not there at the designated time, I assume you’ve opted out), I have less than 25 minutes to shower, shave, dress, and walk (hike) to retrieve my car from the far reaches of the Grand Canyon Lodge parking lot. So as much as I’d love to close my eyes and continue listening to one of my favorite songs, my feet are on the floor before the percussion chimes in, and I reach full speed long before the song does. I know I won’t slow down until lights out tonight.
Twenty-five minutes later I’m idling in the darkness, waiting for the group to load into the cars. While waiting I quickly check my phone for a signal—never a sure thing on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. One bar of LTE—enough to open my lightning app and check, for the first of what will no doubt be dozens of times by day’s end, for any nearby activity. As expected, nothing so far. With everyone accounted for and ready, I put my car in gear and lead our small parade to Point Imperial.
My first group’s Point Imperial sunrise had been one for the ages and I secretly cross my fingers for the second group to experience something similar. It’s still dark-and-early when we pull up, but not so dark that I can’t see that the eastern horizon is choked by clouds. As the twilight brightens, we enjoy soft light courtesy of a sky-full of interesting clouds, but no sunrise color. When the 5:40 sunrise time comes and goes without the sun making an appearance, I visually survey the group but sense no disappointment. With no other locations on the morning’s schedule, I’m in no rush to leave. When it’s finally clear that everyone’s done shooting, I gather the group by the cars and give them a quick summary of my plan for the rest of the day. We’re back at Grand Canyon Lodge by 7:00.
What I’d shared in the parking lot before our Point Imperial departure was that the day’s lightning forecast was very promising, and rather than try to chase it, our cabins’ proximity to the rim makes Grand Canyon Lodge the ideal place to hang out and wait for the lightning to come to us. The plan for the morning is to enjoy a few hours of free time (to breakfast, sleep, hike, process images, chill, or whatever). While they’re doing that, I monitor my lightning app and keep an eye on the South Rim. At the first sign of any activity, I’ll send a group text and we’ll gather to start shooting as quickly as they can get down there. But I also encouraged them to monitor the skies themselves, because monsoon storms can ramp up with surprising speed. And if the sky is still quiet at 11 a.m., we’ll do image review and training in the lodge auditorium (where we’ll also have a view of the rim and any potential lightning). My final instruction was to bring their cameras and Lightning Triggers to the training, because lightning trumps training and there’s a good chance we won’t finish.
By 11 a.m. my app shows lightning popping near Flagstaff, less than 100 miles south. A good sign, because monsoon storms usually move up from the south, and often (but not always) lightning near Flagstaff bodes well for storms of our own. My fingers are crossed as I start the image review.
The lightning starts firing across the rim a little before 1 p.m., just as I wrap up the image review—perfect timing (for which I can take no credit). Everyone has their gear as suggested and we’re set up and ready for action within 5 minutes.
As is frequently the case, this first storm doesn’t start as an especially dynamic display, but it’s enough to get everyone hopeful. The workshop started 24 hours earlier with a similar lightning show that delayed our orientation before fizzling after an hour or so. Even though that storm didn’t amount to much, it was active enough that a few in the group had already captured a lightning strike or two. It also gave everyone a small taste of the lightning photography experience, and gave me the opportunity to make sure everyone was up to speed with their Lightning Triggers and the best approach for capturing lightning. But today we’re ready for more.
Though not spectacular, today’s is in fact more, lasting over two hours, with strikes spread from southeast to southwest across the South Rim. The pattern for most of the afternoon seems to be one cell remaining active for 20 or 30 minutes, and as it starts to fade, someone notices another cell has come to life somewhere else and we turn our attention in that direction.
Unlike yesterday, some of this afternoon’s strikes have real personality. Many take a rather circuitous route to earth (like the image on the right), a few feature multiple bolts (separate strokes) or forks (one bolt with multiple prongs), and most produce lots of spidery filaments that only really show up in a photo. Though not the most prolific lightning display I’ve seen, by the time it’s over I’m confident everyone in my group has captured something nice—a huge relief.
But we’re not done. Even though the prime time for lightning is behind us, we still have our late afternoon drive out Cape Royal Road to visit most of the remaining unseen North Rim vistas, and wrapping up with sunset at Cape Royal. And though I’m not terribly optimistic, if the clouds depart, we’ll stay out there for a Milky Way shoot.
By the time we depart for Cape Royal Road, there’s no sign of lightning activity in the vicinity. Not necessarily a death knell for our lightning chances, but not a particularly good sign either. After a couple of short-ish stops at Vista Encantada and Roosevelt Point, we spend about 45 minutes photographing at Walhalla Overlook. My cell signal is intermittent out here, but as we’re about to leave Walhalla I get enough of a signal to open my lighting app and see that there’s quite a bit of new activity about 50 miles south—a little too far for quality photography, but worth monitoring nevertheless. Because things can change quickly…
It’s an easy .4 mile walk out to Cape Royal Point, with a handful of photo possibilities on the way. In the parking lot I give everyone a brief orientation about the opportunities there and send them down the trail. Before grabbing my gear, I let everyone get ahead of me so I can check on them on my way out.
By the time make it to the vista at the end of the trail, I see that several photographers with lightning triggers (some from my group, some from another small group) are pointing toward Vishnu Temple and beyond. Looking in that direction, it doesn’t take long to figure out what has gotten their attention: a massive thunderhead has set up camp about 30 miles south and is sending massive bolts earthward every 20 or 30 seconds.
I race to set up my camera and Lightning Trigger, then run around like Paul Revere trying to hail those in the group who have lagged behind. Since we’re so scattered, it’s impossible to know exactly who’s where, but within five minutes or so I’m relatively confident that everyone knows what’s happening.
For the next hour we enjoy what I instantly dubbed one of my top-5 lightning shoots of all-time. It has everything I dare hope for, both in terms of lightning quality and quantity. Plus personality—lots and lots of personality. And if you read my post from two weeks ago, you know that the missing ingredient is often composition. But, as if all the other great stuff isn’t enough, some of the very best lightning aligns beautifully with Vishnu Temple, one of Grand Canyon’s most distinctive and recognizable monuments.
Then, just about the time the lightning to the south slows down, another storm blazes up in the east that is at least as prolific, violent, and chock full of personality. Unlike many in my group, I delay turning to this display because the first storm is still showing a little activity, and I don’t like the new composition quite as much. But after seeing some of the incredible strikes happening in that direction, I just can’t resist and recompose in time to catch a few spectacular bolts. When darkness falls and the activity finally starts to wane, we make our way back to the cars for a very happy drive back to the lodge. I’m especially happy because I’m certain I’ve met my personal goal for every monsoon workshop (with room to spare): at least one quality lightning strike for every person in the group.
With another 4-something wakeup in my immediate future, my lights are out before 10 p.m. I sleep very well.
A few words about this image
Today’s image is just one of many captured shortly after I arrived at Cape Royal this evening. The lightning came so frequently, and so much of my attention was on members of my group, that I have no specific memory of this particular set.
One thing that I love about still photography is its ability to freeze action that happens too fast for the eye/brain to register. Even if I did remember seeing this particular lighting trio, it came and went so suddenly that I’d have had no idea how much character it possessed.
The prominent point in the foreground is Vishnu Temple, a pyramid-shaped landmark that stands in striking contrast to nearby flat-topped Wotan’s Throne, when seen from most of the South Rim vistas.
Lightning With Personality
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Posted on August 7, 2022
I won’t lie: The primary reason I go to the Grand Canyon in monsoon season—and for that matter, the primary reason most people sign up for my Grand Canyon monsoon workshops—is to photograph lightning. But as we all know, lightning is a fickle phenomenon, even during the Grand Canyon’s usually electric monsoon season. Because lightning is never guaranteed, I always do my very best to moderate my own expectations, and to let people who sign up for a workshop know I can’t promise it. But still…
Fortunately, the Grand Canyon in any season is pretty spectacular, and especially so during the monsoon. The carved sediment’s enduring beauty, combined with billowing cumulus clouds that turn some shade of pink, red, and/or orange at sunrise/sunset, and sometimes (fingers crossed) deliver vivid rainbows, makes the Grand Canyon summer monsoon my favorite time to be on the rim, even without lightning. But still…
The forecast the for the final day of this year’s second (and final) workshop was “Sunny,” the first such forecast I’d seen in my nearly two weeks at the Grand Canyon. But I’ve learned that a monsoon “Sunny” forecast just means fewer clouds, and rarely no clouds. And you never know—even with no rain or clouds in the forecast, I made sure everyone in the group packed a Lightning Trigger because I can share multiple stories of similar Grand Canyon forecasts that nevertheless resulted in lighting. Alas…
If you were expecting one of those plot-twist happy endings, you’ll be disappointed. Because as you might infer from this image, we did not get any lightning this evening. But as you can also see, we had no reason to be disappointed.
After a short stop at Moran Point, the group and I spent the rest of that afternoon and evening photographing my three favorite Grand Canyon vistas, first at Lipan and Navajo Points, before setting up for our final sunset at Desert View.
All three of these views stand out for their view of the Colorado River’s 90 degree detour from a north/south trending river to an east/west trending river. Standing on the rim at any of these vistas offers expansive views north, upstream and into Marble Canyon, and west, downstream toward what’s arguably Grand Canyon’s most iconic stretch. I can’t think of any other rim view that offers bigger, better views of the canyon than these east-most South Rim vistas. (But Hopi Point is close.)
Despite lowered expectations, we departed this afternoon hoping for lightning (which, I should add, given the two sunset lightning shoots that preceded this sunset, was downright greedy). Instead we found the canyon walls bathed in warm light shafting through scattered clouds hang above the western horizon. Not lightning, but too shabby either.
Even before the light started to warm, I decided that the best show this evening would be to the west, featuring the canyon’s receding ridges below the setting sun. And with a slight haze hanging in the canyon, what excited me most was the potential for sunbeams streaming through openings in the clouds and gaps in the ridges.
This might be a good time to explain the difference between some popular but different phenomena popular among landscape photographers: sunstars (or sunbursts, starbursts, and probably some other labels I’ve missed), sunbeams, and crepuscular rays.
- Sunstars are diffraction spikes that are created in the lens when sunlight is bent by the slight change of direction at the intersection of the lens iris’s blades (that comprise the aperture). They’re a photographic phenomenon, visible in the viewfinder and resulting image, but not to the unaided eye.
- Sunbeams are atmospheric phenomena caused when sunlight passes through openings in clouds or landscape features like tree branches or mountain peaks. They’re visible to the unaided and most prominent when the atmosphere is filled with water or dust particles that scatters the sunlight.
- Crepuscular rays are sunbeams that happen at twilight, only when the sun is below the horizon and its light passes through clouds, mountain peaks, or some other unseen obstruction beneath the horizon. As a subset of sunbeams, crepuscular rays are also atmospheric phenomena visible to the unaided eye, and benefit from airborne dust or water vapor.
Expectations reset, I shifted to the dual potential for both a large sun and sunbeams, and prepared accordingly: already on my Sony a7RIV was my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens; to my Sony 𝛂1 I added my Sony 100-400 GM lens and Sony 2X Teleconverter. I started shooting as soon as the sunbeams appeared, using the wider setup to capture as much canyon and shafting light. Early on I occasionally switched to the telephoto; once the sun dropped below (most of) the clouds and the sunbeams faded, I finished up entirely with the telephoto combination.
The trick to exposing a scene like this with one click (always my goal) is to make sure I don’t blow out (overexpose) the highlights. While I had no expectation of capturing detail or color in the sun (it was too bright to prevent from blowing out), I knew the surrounding clouds and sky had the potential to turn a rich yellow-gold before the sun dropped below the horizon. Saving the sky color would mean underexposing the canyon, but closely monitoring my histogram enabled me to capture just enough foreground light to retain the outline of the ridges shrinking in the distance, at the same time preventing that great sky color from washing out.
The result is this image, with a sky that’s remarkably close to what I saw and a foreground that’s much darker than my eyes saw. Since this image is all about the sky and sunbeams, letting the canyon go dark (-ish) aided that emphasis. Even though the canyon looked nearly black on my camera’s image-review screen, a moderate Lightroom Shadow-slider increase confirmed later that the dark foreground contained exactly the amount of detail I wanted. Score another win for the histogram. (And if you’re wondering why I used f/20, it’s because I’d set up for a possible sunstar and forgot to switch back to the f/11 I usually default to.)
One more thing
Lest you feel sorry for my second workshop group for not getting lightning, let me reassure you that this group did not lack for quality lightning. At Cape Royal two nights before this, we witnessed what I instantly called one of the top-5 lightning shoots of my life. Then at Hopi Point the next night, we witnessed a lightning display that arguably topped it. I have so many excellent lightning images from these two shoots that I haven’t had time to go through them and decide which ones to process. And since I shared a lightning image (from the first workshop) last week, I figured I’d share something that’s not lightning. But rest assured, I’ll be sharing more lightning soon. Lots more.
More Monsoon Magic
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Posted on July 31, 2022
Landscape photographers have a couple of ways to make nice images. By far the most important is the ability to see the special but less obvious, then know how to compose and expose that special vision in ways that clarify and convey the previously unseen beauty. But sometimes we just need to know when to show up and where to point the camera, and the patience to wait for the special to come to us.
Pretty much any sunrise or sunset at a nice location qualifies for the show up and wait approach, as can popular classics such as Yosemite’s Horsetail Fall in February, or the midday shaft of light in Upper Antelope Canyon’s main room. But whether it’s a planned sunset that went even better than hoped, or a rainbow that seemed to materialize out of nowhere, in their own way these gifts from Nature that don’t require great vision are just as thrilling as the hidden discoveries we work so hard for.
Lightning photography requires a lot of the show up and wait approach, because all the compositional skill in the world can’t make a great lightning image if the lightning doesn’t happen. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been photographing lightning and seen a beautiful composition—some perfect combination of landscape and conditions—in a different direction, and said to myself, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great if the lightning fired right there.” Unfortunately, lightning is a fickle phenomenon that rarely does what photographers want it to do. In fact, it sometimes feels like the lightning is consciously avoiding the composition I want, always in favor of something much less interesting. Sigh…
Right now I’m at Grand Canyon, trying to take advantage of its expansive vistas that frequently provide views of multiple rain cells with lightning potential. While the vast majority of these potential lightning sources never deliver, my original approach to photographing them was to maximize my chances by identifying and targeting the cell with the most potential, without concern for the composition. An alternate approach to photographing lightning is to target the rain cell with the nicest composition, regardless of the strength of its potential—then hope.
Because I’ve learned that lightning neophytes are usually thrilled to capture any lightning, I generally encourage my workshop students, most of whom have never captured great (or any) lightning images, to favor success over the best composition by simply pointing in whatever direction the lightning is most likely to fire.
I’ll never forget the first time I traveled to the Grand Canyon with the sole desire to photograph lightning, and those first few fruitless days on the rim, pointing my camera toward a promising cell only to see it fizzle. I’d have given anything to have just one frame with lightning, composition be damned. And I also never forget the thrill the first time my camera captured lightning.
Ten years later, I’ve reached the point in my lightning photography where I’ve had enough successful captures that I can afford to be a little more selective. In recent years I frequently find myself pointing at the potential lightning spot that has the composition I like most, shunning the one that appears most likely to produce lightning. It’s often a recipe for failure, but the infrequent successes more than compensate.
I got my most recent dose of compensation last Wednesday evening, in this year’s first (of two) Grand Canyon monsoon photo workshops. My group had already enjoyed several lightning shoots from various locations on the South Rim, but nothing spectacular so far. For sunset Wednesday evening, we took the shuttle out Hermit’s Rest Road (no cars allowed). There are many vistas on this route, so I gave my group enough time to visit as many stops as the wanted to, with the understanding that we’d all gather back at Hopi Point to shoot sunset together there.
Soon after arriving at Hopi Point about 45 minutes before sunset, I checked my My Lightning Tracker app and saw that all of the activity was at least 50 miles away and didn’t really align with anything interesting. While the view at Hopi Point is one of my favorites, I’ve photographed here so much that now I only bring out my camera when there’s potential for something spectacular—either lightning, or great color and/or clouds. So my camera stayed in the bag.
With almost 100 percent cloud cover, my decision seemed reasonable, but as the sun dropped, a small opening appeared on the western horizon, directly in the sun’s path. “Hmmmm,” I said, inching toward my bag. I looked again. A sky filled with clouds and a hole on the horizon is the ideal combination for a colorful sunset, so I pulled out my Sony α1, already loaded with my Sony 24-105 G lens, and set up shop along the rail to wait with the rest of my group.
As we chatted, it became pretty clear that the opening would persist through sunset, and that something nice was in store. A few minutes later, when a small rain curtain spread just to the right of the sun’s path, I said out loud, “All this scene needs is a lightning bolt.” I was half joking, but this thought prompted me to check my lightning app one more time. Still nothing really exciting, but there were hints of distant, minor lightning activity in the general direction of the sunset, so I pulled out my Lightning Trigger—just in case. I encouraged the rest of the group to get theirs out too, then quickly scanned the horizon for other rain curtains with potential for lightning—I saw a couple that might produce, but nothing promising enough to justify anyone diverting from the sunset.
Then we waited and clicked as the sun dropped and started to light the sky. It turned out that the opening wasn’t as open as we’d hoped, so not enough sunlight made it through to color the entire sky, and we never actually even saw the sun. But all was not lost, as the clouds near the horizon throbbed a brilliant reddish orange and I could tell by all the clicking that everyone was pretty thrilled.
When a few higher clouds lit, I oriented my camera vertically and angled farther upward for more sky than I usually include here (Pro tip: the Grand Canyon is usually more interesting than the sky.) Already pretty content with what I had so far, imagine my surprise when, just as the color reached its crescendo, a streak of light darted from the clouds and kissed the horizon. My first reaction was that it came from higher in the sky than I’d have expected, but it happened so fast and unexpectedly that I really wasn’t sure what I’d seen. In fact, if the rest of the group hadn’t exclaimed in unison, I might not have believed I’d seen it at all.
The unified exclamation quickly turned to joyful laughter from those who had taken the time to attach their Lightning Triggers, and regretful moans from those who hadn’t. When a couple of people defied my recommendation to not check to see if they’d captured the bolt (you have to turn off the Trigger to review images, and often lightning’s not as visible on the review screen as it is on a computer) and reported success, I couldn’t resist and checked mine too.
There it was. I instantly saw why it had appeared to originate so much higher: the bolt had emerged high, slid across the front of the thunderhead, and weaved through a window in the clouds before disappearing and emerging one last time. And perfectly aligned with the Colorado River, it couldn’t have struck in a more ideal place if I’d have drawn it in myself.
I’ll admit that this image isn’t a creative masterpiece (the composition isn’t much different from several of my other Hopi Point images), but I will take a little credit for being there, and also for the foresight to be ready for lightning when its possibility wasn’t obvious. And honestly, it was simply an honor to be there for something so magnificent—my only job was to wait, and not screw it up.
Worth Waiting For
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Posted on July 24, 2022
I’m incredibly blessed to make my living guiding enthusiastic photographers to many of our planet’s most beautiful locations. While this makes my life far too rich for complaint, let me say (without complaining) that a particular challenge imposed by frequent return visits to the same locations is finding unique ways to photograph them.
My usual go-to approach at these familiar locations is to play with the scene’s “creative triad,” using the exposure variables manage my images’ motion, light, and depth. Whether it’s blurring or freezing water, going for silhouettes or high key, or choosing depth-of-field from narrow to extreme, I love love playing with these variables to create something unique. But some scenes don’t even offer a lot of those opportunities.
Never is that more clear than when I visit the solitary willow tree near the south shore of Lake Wanaka in New Zealand. This striking tree just stands by itself in a lake (most of the time), with little motion, silhouette, or depth of field options to play with.
Nevertheless, each time I visit Wanaka, I challenge myself to find a version of the scene that’s different from anything I’ve captured. And just because I don’t have my full arsenal of creativity weapons doesn’t mean I’ve arrived completely disarmed.
Without the creative triad, my creativity relies largely on some combination of conditions, juxtaposition, and focal length. As you can see in the gallery below, the conditions at the time of my visit play a huge role in my creative choices. Weather conditions for sure, but also things like the quality of the reflection, the light, and whether it’s day or night.
Because a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ll spare you long explanations and share some examples with just a few words of explanation
New Zealand’s winter clouds are a frequent source of delight. This image was captured late-morning (not usually great light), but the clouds and reflection were so nice that I couldn’t resist shooting. I chose a horizontal composition because it allowed me to include more clouds reflection, while filling the frame top-to-bottom with the tree and its reflection, than a vertical would.
Juxtaposition is almost always a prime consideration. I especially love the snow-capped Southern Alps, so all things equal, I’ll usually position myself so they’re in the background. In this scene the reflection was slightly disturbed by gentle undulations on the lake’s surface, so I added a 6-stop neutral density filter to smooth the water. The resulting 30-second exposure also softened the fast moving clouds—a bonus.
But it’s not always about background juxtaposition. For example, one morning the fog was so thick, the background was completely irrelevant, so I chose a spot that best emphasized the tree’s shape and allowed me to fill my foreground with a mosaic of barely submerged stones.
One of the conditions I have at least partial control over is stars. By going out after dark on a clear night, I can include stars. And depending on the timing, I can juxtapose the tree with the Milky Way. Because these images were captured at different times of the night, including the Milky Way resulted in completely different backgrounds. The first image came a few hours after sunset, when the Milky Way hung above the amber lights of Wanaka; the second image came on a different night, a couple of hours before sunrise, when the Milky Way had rotated above the Southern Alps.
I wasn’t really crazy about the sky when I captured this image, but I liked the background peaks and low-hanging clouds. So I retreated down the lakeshore, away from the tree, and then climbed a gentle slope to distance myself even further, then used a telephoto to enlarge the tree and shrink the distance between it and the mountains and clouds.
This image is the product of a last minute change to the sunset plan in this year’s New Zealand workshop that I do with Don Smith. We had a feeling something special might happen at Lake Wanaka, and wanted make sure we had the group in the best possible spot in case it did. Read more about this evening in my June 28 blog post.The beautiful clouds that had started the evening over the Southern Alps were quickly moving southeast and out of my frame. My options were to hold my position and photograph the tree with the mountains and no clouds, or reposition myself to feature the best of the clouds against the town of Wanaka. I went with the clouds.
Because I saw the potential for a beautiful sky, I went went wide to maximize the sky, choosing my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens on my Sony a7RIV body. I positioned myself so the reflection mirrored the arc of retreating clouds, creating a frame for the tree. I was aware that I was picking up the homes and buildings lining the opposite lakeshore, but felt that was justifiable compromise to ensure the best clouds and sunset color potential.
The light was beautiful when I started, but it just kept improving as the color ramped up. Every few minutes I repositioned myself to keep the tree framed by the shifting clouds. Wanting to feature the flat, multi-toned rocks visible beneath a thin veneer of still water, I dropped my tripod and moved it a foot or so into the water. And finally, I shifted just enough for the trunk to split the gap between two distant peaks. Going vertical allowed me to get the full arc of clouds and their reflection above the rocks, with less far lakeshore than a horizontal composition would have.
This image required very little processing, but I did burn the far lakeshore a little to deemphasize the buildings there.
Variations on a Tree
Posted on July 17, 2022
Are you as thrilled as I am by the mesmerizing images we’re seeing from the James Webb Space Telescope? There’s nothing like a heaping dose of perspective to remind humans of our insignificance in the grand scheme things, and these images deliver perspective in spades.
I think my favorite Webb image is the view deep into a seemingly tiny black region of sky that reveals thousands of galaxies. How tiny? According to the NASA website, “This slice of the vast universe covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground.”) The light from these galaxies traveled as far as 13.1 billion years to reach us, which means we’re getting a view of our nascent Universe as it was less than a billion years after the Big Bang.
I get another dose of perspective, albeit on a much smaller scale, each time I visit the Southern Hemisphere. After a lifetime living north of the equator, I pretty much take for granted the Northern Hemisphere night sky. When I’m outside after dark, I reflexively look up and locate the Big Dipper. Using the Dipper’s pointer stars, my eyes slide to Polaris (the North Star) to locate north, then slowly scan the surrounding sky for other familiar features: bright stars Arcturus and Spica, constellations Cassiopeia and Corona Borealis, among many. If it’s dark enough, I try to pick out the Little Dipper and the Andromeda Galaxy.
Looking up at night in the Southern Hemisphere is downright disorienting. Most of the stars and constellations are completely unfamiliar (but no less beautiful), and those that are familiar (like Orion), appear “upside down.” (There’s no true up and down in space because up/down, left/right is always relative to the viewer’s frame of reference.) The Milky Way down here is reversed, and I’ll never forget the first time I watched a Southern Hemisphere moonrise and realized that it moved left (north) as it rose—duh.
A personal Southern Hemisphere highlight is the opportunity to see the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. Like the first (only) time I saw the Taj Mahal and Stonehenge, my first view of the Magellanic Clouds was like spotting a celebrity I’d heard about my entire life but never imagined I’d see in person.
The Magellanic Clouds are satellite galaxies of our Milky Way. The Large Magellanic Cloud is about 160 light years from Earth and estimated to contain 30 billion or so stars; the Small Magellanic Cloud is about 200 light years distant and weighs in at around 3 billion stars. It also appears the the SMC orbits the LMC, making it a satellite of a satellite.
In a dark Southern Hemisphere sky, both Magellanic Clouds appear as smudges of light, faint but clearly visible. The diameter of the LMC is about 5 degrees, while the SMC spans less than 2 degrees (for reference, the Sun and Moon are each about 1/2 degree across when viewed from Earth). None of Magellanic Clouds’ individual stars are bright enough to be resolved with the human eye.
About this image
In an earlier post I detailed the night I photographed the Milky Way over Cecil Peak and Lake Wakatipu. It was the first night of the New Zealand winter photo workshop Don Smith and I do each year, and we were pretty pleased that the conditions cooperated so nicely.
We came straight here from our sunset shoot, then waited for the sky to darken enough for the Milky Way to appear. Toward the end of the shoot, once everyone was locked in and feeling good about their results, I started to look for ways to do something a little different and my eyes landed on the Magellanic Clouds. But there were a couple of problems: first, there’s a lot of sky between them and the Milky Way, which was still going to be my primary subject; second, they were both above a blob of large shrubs (or small trees) on the lakeshore.
It’s times like this that I especially love the wide field of view of my Sony 14 f/1.8 GM lens. This lens is always great in New Zealand because the Milky Way’s core here is so high in the sky, the wide field of view enables me to get lots of Milky Way and foreground. This evening I found that by going horizontal at 14mm, I could in fact get the Milky Way and Small Magellanic Cloud in my frame without crowding either too close to the border.
But now the ugly shrubs were in my frame too. The solution for that problem was simply to walk about 50 yards up the lake. Engaging the Bright Monitoring feature on my Sony a7SIII (Sony shooters need to look up this underused feature that’s fantastic for night photography—mine’s assigned to a custom button on all of my bodies), I saw in my viewfinder that the shrubs were no longer a problem.
I only shot here for about 5 minutes, but by the time I made it back to the group, the group was ready to head back to the hotel for dinner—always a good sign that everyone was happy with their results.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on July 10, 2022
One summer when I was a kid, my family took a camping vacation to the Canadian Rockies. Bits and pieces of that trip return to me as vague memories, but one memory permanently etched in my brain is the color of Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. My dad, a very passionate amateur photographer, was frothing with excitement and must have exhausted half his film budget (remember those days?) at Moraine Lake alone. Nevertheless, and despite my dad’s pictures, I couldn’t fully process a world where water could be that color, and for many years after that doubted my memory.
Long before visiting New Zealand I accepted that water really can be that color, but still had few opportunities to view it. Then I started visiting New Zealand, where photographing the lakes and rivers gives me a little déjà vu—it’s just plain disorienting to see water this color.
So what’s going on?
In areas of persistent cold, snow often accumulates faster than it melts. Over many years of accumulating, the snow’s weight compresses it into ice and a glacier is born. A glacier is incredibly heavy; since pressure decreases the freezing point of ice, at the interface between the glacier and the underlying rock (where the pressure of the ice’s weight is greatest), melting ice lubricates the glacier and allows it to move downhill. The glacier’s extreme weight, combined with this forward motion, breaks up the rock. Embedded with rock fragments, the glacier behaves like sandpaper, grinding the rock on which it slides into finer and finer particles. The finest of these particles is called “glacial flour.”
Meltwater from the glacier flows downhill, carrying scoured rock with it. While the larger rock particles simply sink, the glacial flour remains suspended in the runoff. While most of the sunlight striking water infused with glacial flour is absorbed by the suspended particles, the green and blue wavelengths aren’t absorbed; instead they scatter back to our eyes and we are treated to turquoise water. The water’s exact hue (whether it appears more green or blue) is determined by the size of the suspended particles, which dictates the relative amount of green and blue wavelengths they scatter.
About this image
After losing two years to COVID, Don Smith and I were thrilled to resume our annual New Zealand winter photo workshop last month. I’ve been home for about a week now and despite (surprisingly mild) jet lag, am slowly making my way through my images. We had so many special moments that it’s hard to decide which one to process next—but I’m not complaining. I chose this one because it stands out as one of the trip’s most unexpected treats.
Our last stop before returning to Queenstown was Twizel, a tiny town near Aoraki / Mt. Cook National Park. A couple of days earlier we’d rushed here from Te Anau, hoping to make it up to Tasman Lake ahead of a storm. Our effort was rewarded with a nice Tasman Lake sunset shoot, and though the storm did come in overnight as promised, we even managed to squeeze in a beautiful sunrise at nearby Lake Pukaki before the sky completely opened up.
The rest of that day was wet and gray. Despite the nasty weather, we drove back up to the park that afternoon, but eventually turned around because the farther we drove, the harder it rained. And since we’d logged a lot of miles in the last 9 days, the group didn’t seem mind a little break. Instead of taking pictures, we spend a couple of nice hours sharing images by the fire.
Based on the rain and forecast, on the morning we were to leave for Queenstown we had no reason to expect any quality photography. But we’re photographers, and this was our final full day in what is arguably the most beautiful country in the world, so we headed back up to the national park with no plan except to see what we could find. For the entire 45 minute drive the gray ceiling hid the mountains and showed no sign of lifting. We decided to head for the bridge over the Hooker River and see what happened.
We decided to hang out near the bridge over the Hooker River, and weren’t there long before the clouds started to brighten. Soon patches of blue appeared overhead. A few minutes later rapidly thinning clouds draped Mt. Blackburn and the surrounding peaks, catching the warm rays of the morning sun to create a clearing storm experience that rivaled anything I’ve seen in Yosemite.
We had about 45 minutes of great photography before more clouds smothered the peaks. I photographed from both sides of the river, but my favorite position was in the middle of bridge. This narrow, one-lane bridge had a pedestrian walkway, but it was on the upstream side—to get this shot I had to stand on the bridge with one eye on the scene and the other on the road. At one point a bus approached and I vaulted the rail onto the pedestrian walk, then waited while the bus squeeze by with about 6 inches room on each side.
That morning was a great reminder to each of us that the best photography often happens when you least expect it. We had no reason to believe conditions would improve, but we went out anyway. Many times the conditions never improve and we’re disappointed—as we had been the previous afternoon—but these times when Nature surprises is a more than ample reward for all the prior disappointment.
(Beautiful moments I had no reason to expect)
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on July 3, 2022
If you know anything about me, you know how much I love the Milky Way—not only to photograph, but also just to look at. And by the Milky Way (since pretty much everything we see with the naked eye is part of the Milky Way), I (especially) mean the galactic core.
I think it’s pretty cool to realize that the galactic core photons that tickle our retinas actually bubbled up 26,000 years ago, rushing at light’s speed limit for 152,844,259,702,773,800 miles without so much as a bathroom break—a feat any dad would envy (anyone who has been on a family roadtrip knows what I’m talking about). Many of the galactic core’s photons don’t make it past its abundant dust and gas molecules—remnants of stars past, and the building blocks of stars future—that create the dark gaps marbling the white starlight. So distant is the Milky Way’s core that all we see on Earth is the glow of countless stars and the surrounding dust and gas—the pinpoint stars we see are all much closer than the core.
When Don Smith and I started considering a New Zealand workshop, the Milky Way became a huge factor in our decision to hold it in winter. Not only is winter when the mountain ranges spanning New Zealand’s South Island are blanketed with snow, in the Southern Hemisphere winter also happens to be when the Milky Way’s brilliant core is opposite the sun and highest in our sky. This, combined with New Zealand’s clean air, relatively sparse population, numerous mountain-lined lakes (for foregrounds), and winter’s long nights, make it one of the best places on Earth to view and photograph the Milky Way.
Of course winter comes with a couple of complications too—nights can be cold, but that’s usually manageable, with lows most nights in the 30s or low 40s. The bigger winter concern is clouds, which as you might imagine are quite common. While clouds make for wonderful daytime photography, they can totally wipe out a night shoot. Because of this, we’ve gotten pretty good at monitoring the weather just prior to the workshop and strategizing our night shoots to (fingers crossed) ensure that the group gets at least one quality Milky Way shoot.
In this workshop’s 9 nights, we stay in 5 locations. Over the years we’ve identified good Milky Way spots for most of them, but it wasn’t until our last pre-pandemic workshop that we found a good spot near Queenstown. Queenstown, on the shore of Tahoe-sized (but not shaped) Lake Wakatipu, has to be one of the most beautiful towns in the world. But between poor viewing angles and city lights, I’d all but given up finding a good Queenstown-area Milky Way spot until the 2019 workshop, after clouds had wiped out all previous opportunities. Down to our final night, I pulled out the map one more time to look one more time looking for a place that might work, and found this spot right on the lake, just opposite 6,000 foot Cecil Peak.
Fast-forward to this year. We usually don’t do a night shoot on the workshop’s first night (also in Queenstown) because people are just settling in, very much dealing with jet lag, and we haven’t had much chance to get everyone up to speed with Milky Way photography. But since the forecast for the next 10 days didn’t look great for night photography, we decided to give it a shot just in case it turned out to be our only opportunity.
After a nice sunset shoot we beelined straight to our Milky Way spot to wait for the stars. The night was chilly, but not too bad. One of the things I love most about night photography with a group is the fun and camaraderie it fosters. This night was no exception, and despite the chill (or maybe because of it), I felt like this cohort that had been complete strangers just a few hours earlier had already started to bond wonderfully. (In other words, we had a blast.)
Don and I spent much of our time bouncing between participants, answering questions and checking on their success, but we managed to find time for a few shutter clicks on the way. We also had one guy in the group whose winter clothing and tripod were in his suitcase, which unfortunately was still in Sydney. Though Qantas was still trying to locate it, he’d attached a tracking device to the suitcase that allowed him to monitor its location with his phone, but he couldn’t reach a human at Qantas to educate them. (It took them 3 days to find it and finally get it to him.) He was doing okay comfort-wise with borrowed clothes, but it’s pretty hard to photograph the Milky Way hand-held, so Don and I traded off loaning him our tripods.
As you can see, the clouds stayed away and we had a very successful shoot. Turns out Don and I are geniuses because this was indeed the workshop’s only Milky Way opportunity. The clouds that arrived the next day stayed in one form or another for the rest of the workshop, bringing some off-the-charts photography with them—making it even easier to appreciate knowing we already had a successful Milky Way shoot under our belts.
One more thing
When I’m leading a group, I’m not really able to focus on my own photography. Because we started shooting before the sky became completely dark, I started with my Sony a7SIII at ISO 1600 instead of the ISO 6400 I usually use with my Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM wide open. But it wasn’t until we were wrapping up that I realized I’d never increased my ISO once the sky darkened completely. I ended up taking just 2 or 3 frames at ISO 6400 and was concerned the other images might be too dark. When I finally checked my results on my computer, I was thrilled with how clean my 1600 ISO images were, even after increasing the exposure. There will always be noise in a 20-second high ISO image, but Topaz DeNoise AI was able to clean it up beautifully.
If you scan the gallery below, you may notice that I already have a similar composition from a previous shoot. I’d identified something different from this night to process, but when several in the group asked for a demo of my night processing one rainy afternoon in Twizel, I pulled up this one and confirmed that ISO 1600 was fine. After finishing processing this image for the group (maybe 10 minutes), I liked the results enough to keep it. I’ve been so busy since returning that I haven’t had much processing time, so when I sat down to write this blog, I was happy to have this one ready for action.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.