Posted on April 12, 2020
Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, I hope you’re safe and well.
As nice as it is to stroll up to a scene and find the image of my dreams just sitting there, waiting for you to click the shutter, the most memorable photography usually comes from the shots I have to work for. That “work” can take many forms, but the bottom line is, I prefer feeling like I earned an image. And honestly, photographers can’t afford to just sit around, waiting for a gift from heaven to land on their sensors.
Many years ago I broke down the work that consistently good photography requires into a mnemonic I call, “The 3 P’s of Nature Photography”:
To the pain
So which of my 3 P’s do I credit for this one?
Perched on a cliff above the frigid, churning Atlantic felt a little insane, especially given my less than comfortable relationship with heights. But I had found the only place I could get the angle I wanted. Adding to my discomfort was the numbing cold that made me feel like I’d lost my feet below my ankles, amplified by a piercing wind that turned tiny snowflakes into stinging projectiles. But when you schedule a photo workshop for January, as Don Smith and I now do each year, you had better be prepared to suffer a little. And while it has been said that life is pain, my life would have been far less painful had I opted to wait in the idling bus. But to consider missing the opportunity to photograph Londrangar in a snowstorm was, well, inconceivable.
This was our group’s first full day in Iceland, and so far the weather had ping-ponged between miserable and almost miserable. When we arrived at Londrangar, it wasn’t snowing and was merely almost miserable; within 30 minutes a snow-bearing squall blew in and quickly turned things miserable. When wind increased and the visibility decreased, some retreated to the bus, but when the snow started frosting the rocks, I decided to venture out onto the insane cliffs. Was I in danger? I considered the rocky terrain and decided I’d be fine if I watched my step and made no sudden moves. Once I found my composition, I experimented with motion blur and eventually went extreme, employing my Breakthrough 6-stop polarizing ND for a 30-second shutter speed.
Experiences like this remind me that no matter how miserable conditions are, when the photography is good, even when I’m very aware of the cold, I just don’t feel the pain.
Skip to the end
Most of us are probably looking for distractions as the pandemic shutdown enters its second month. The next time you find yourself with a little extra time, or even when you’re crazy-busy but just need a mental break, try picking one of your favorite images and try to identify which (or how many) of the 3 P’s you invested in its capture. Unless I am wrong (and I am never wrong), your shrinking world will feel just slightly better.
To the Pain
Posted on April 5, 2020
Sitting down to write this blog, I looked at my watch and realized that if the world were normal, I’d be about an hour from starting my Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers photo workshop. In that alternate reality, I’d probably be just wrapping up my pre-workshop reconnaissance, circumnavigating Yosemite Valley to check the status of variables such as the amount of water in the falls and access to roads and vistas that sometimes (and seemingly randomly) close. And I know I’d be excited by the Yosemite weather forecast, which calls for rain and maybe even snow, a rare treat for Yosemite in April.
Instead, I’m reclined by the fire at home, laptop right where its name suggests it should be, watching the rain, listening to latin jazz (Azymuth, if you must know), and trying to figure out what to blog about. I don’t know about you, but this whole shelter-in-place thing is getting old. I have no quarrels with the SIP mandate, but days have started to blend seamlessly from one to the next with so little variation that I’m starting to wonder if we’re all immersed in a real-life “Groundhog Day,” where we’re doomed to repeat each day until we learn to treat each other better.
So far I’ve lost five workshops to Coronavirus, and have a sixth on life-support, but really, when I stop to consider the big picture, I have nothing to complain about. I’m healthy, as are all the people who matter most to me. I have a roof over my head and food in the fridge (and toilet paper on the shelf!), and I’m doing things I’d never have done had I not been forced to break the routine of my former, “normal” life.
I’ve written recently about returning to unprocessed images from past shoots, like this one, but there’s been other cool stuff happening in my life as a direct result of imposed solitude. For example, much as Phil (Bill Murray) (eventually) used his recycled Groundhog Day to to learn the piano, I’ve taken it upon myself to do something that I always said I was going to do but never seemed to find the time: learn video.
For years I’ve felt like I’m the only person on Earth with a digital camera who doesn’t do video, and for just about as long have vowed to fix that, but now it’s actually happening. Yay me. I doubt you’ll ever see me accepting an Oscar, but an unexpected benefit of this whole I-have-no-idea-what-I’m-doing experience has been the opportunity to walk a mile (or two) in the shoes of the people who pay me to teach them photography in my photo workshops.
Learning new stuff can be intimidating, frustrating, and humbling. But like anything worth doing, I know the reward will far outweigh the pain, and I can’t help but feel that my world will be just a little better on the other side of this mess.
Next, maybe a little ice sculpting….
About this image
This image of El Capitan is another new one from that great Yosemite snow day with my brother last February. You can read about the day here: Escape From Yosemite. To get out to this spot, I had to trudge through so much hip-deep fresh snow, that I was sweating profusely, despite the cold. I love being the first person at a spot after a snow, but it also makes me feel a little guilty to spoil the pristine powder (but not so guilty that I won’t do it).
To get all of the reflection I needed to get a little closer to the edge of the (4-foot or so) snowbank than made me comfortable. If it had collapsed I’d have gone into the river for sure—I wouldn’t have been swept to my death, but I’d have had a pretty miserable drive home. (Plus my brother would have laughed at me.) But I managed to stay upright long enough to capture this frame.
One more thought: This is another one of those shots that I couldn’t have gotten without my Sony 12-24mm G lens. Before getting this lens I’d have used my Sony 16-35 GM lens, but I wouldn’t have been able to get El Capitan, the Three Brothers, and the reflection. As I mentioned in my It’s In the Bag post, I don’t use this lens a lot, but I sure love having it for times just like this.
A Reflection Collection
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on March 30, 2020
I hope everyone is doing well. I’ve been sequestered at home since returning from Anchorage two weeks ago (visiting my daughter, a trip that seemed okay when I left, but really stressed me when it came time to fly home). Social distancing, shelter in place, quarantine, or whatever you want to call it, we’re all coming to terms with our new reality in different ways. With my wife stuck in Southern California and no kids at home to entertain or educate, I’ve been left to my own devices as I try to fill my days productively: processing images, learning new skills, cleaning up my website and social media pages, and rescheduling workshops. I hope you’re staying safe and happy.
My previous blog post detailed my current equipment lineup and got thinking about me lens choices, specifically about how much I use each lens. Much as a golfers try to identify the ideal club for the unique location and lie of their ball, photographers have to identify the lens that creates the shot they’re going for. Every scene has many variables requiring a seemingly endless number of decisions, from the exposure settings that manage the scene’s motion, depth, and light, to the focus point, to framing.
Prime lenses are undeniably sharper and more compact than zooms, but sharpness gap has narrowed so much in the best lenses that, for me at least, the convenience of being able to refine my framing in my viewfinder justifies whatever small (and often imperceptible) quality they sacrifice. (But zoom versus prime is a personal choice, and a debate I refuse to have with anyone.)
Framing is the most obvious reason to select one lens over another, but it’s certainly not the only reason. As a general rule, the more I want to emphasize my foreground, the wider I’ll go, sometimes filling my frame with a nearby subject and significantly shrinking the background. Telephoto lenses are great for isolation shots that highlight a single aspect of the distant landscape, and also to compress the apparent distance between near and far subjects.
The lens choices we make say a lot about our vision in the field—what we see and how we chose to express it. So, to get a better idea of my own lens choices and maybe identify potential creativity-limiting biases, I created a 2019 lens-use report in Lightroom. Here’s a screenshot for that report detailing the number of frames I shot with each lens in my bag in 2019:
And here’s the breakdown:
- — (3 images): This is (was) my 24mm f/1.4 Rokinon (its name is unlisted here because this lens doesn’t communicate any information to the Sony bodies) that used to be my dedicated night lens—until I sold it after getting the…
- Sigma 20mm f/1.4 (10 images): I bought this lens about a month before Sony announced their 24mm f/1.4 GM lens (I hope this will silence the people who assume my Sony Artisan status provides inside knowledge, and who think I’m holding out when I say I don’t know of any new Sony equipment on the horizon). This is a very good lens, but it’s also massive. I bought it to become my dedicated night lens, a status it held for about a month—until it was replaced by my 24mm Sony f/1.4 (more below). I only used the Sigma once, side-by-side with the new 24mm Sony, and decided the Sony was slightly (but noticeably) sharper (and much, much smaller and lighter).
- Sony FE 12-24mm (388 images): Not a high volume lens, but the 12-24 has become essential because it allows me to do things I once believed to be impossible (see my previous blog post). Even though I like to have a polarizer on all of my lenses, I don’t mind too much that this lens doesn’t take filters, because it’s so wide that I’d get differential polarization (which I hate) in the sky anyway.
- Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 GM (1609 images): Since part of this lens’s focal range is covered by the 12-24, and the rest is covered by my 24-105, you could argue that it’s redundant. But this may just be the sharpest non-prime lens I own, (unlike the 12-24) it takes filters, and f/2.8, while not as fast as I’d like for night photography, is in fact fast enough. And sometimes when I’m photographing the Milky Way, I want more sky than my 24mm f/1.4 lens gives me—this is especially true in New Zealand, where the Milky Way is higher in the sky than it is in North America. Plus, as a general rule, the extreme ends of a lens’s focal range are not usually its best, so when find myself shooting the 12-24 or 24-105 at or near 24mm, (and I’m not being lazy) I’ll switch to the 16-35. One other reason I love this lens is that it delivers the sweetest sunstar of all my lenses.
- Sony 24-105mm f/4 G (3322 images): My most heavily used lens and it’s not even close. I actually took more pictures with this lens than I did with all my other lenses combined. These numbers are skewed slightly by the fact that this is my primary lightning lens, because in an active electrical storm my Lightning Trigger might fire hundreds of times with only a handful of visible strikes (it rarely misses the visible strikes, but also catches many strikes that I or my camera didn’t see). But even accounting for that, my 24-105 is the volume winner by such a wide margin for the simple reason that it has a broad focal range that covers both the moderate wide and telephoto zones. It’s also really sharp, and relatively compact. That said, seeing these numbers makes my think maybe I’ve gotten a little lazy and should think more about the possibilities with the other lenses in my bag.
- Sony 24mm f1.4 GM (208 images): My latest dedicated night lens, I haven’t a single picture with this lens when the sun was out. Super sharp, and so compact I don’t even know I’m carrying it (it actually squeezes into the front pocket of my Levis. I just got the 20mm f/1.8 G lens, which is even smaller, but haven’t used it—I’ll probably use both at night (only) rather than try to decide between the two.
- Sony 70-200mm f/4 G (83 images): I love this lens, but it has been replaced by the 100-400 and I rarely carry it anymore. To save weight in my camera bag, I did take the 70-200 to New Zealand last June instead of the 100-400, and really appreciated having a lighter bag (especially since NZ is very tight on carry-on weight).
- Sony 90mm f/2.8 G (6 images): Wow, only 6 images with this crazy sharp lens. Part of that low number is because I only carry this lens when macro is my primary objective, and part of it is because I’ve really gotten into using my extreme telephotos with extension tubes for my close-focus work. But maybe I need to dust this lens off and use it more in 2020.
- Sony 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 GM (603 images, including teleconverter): The majority of my 100-400 images are of the moon, but I use it for other stuff too. In spring and fall I add extension tubes and do creative selective focus, and sometimes it’s fun to just put it up to my eye and slowly pan a landscape to identify subjects to isolate. Adding the Sony 2X teleconverter is like putting this lens on steroids, essentially doubling all the things I like about it. The teleconverter costs two stops, but I see no appreciable degradation of image quality—it’s definitely the sharpest telephoto/teleconverter pair I’ve ever used.
- Sony 200-600 f/5.6-6.3 G (114 images, including teleconverter): Since lens is pretty new, so far I’ve only used it for the moon. But wow, if you want to make your moon big, try this lens with the 2X teleconverter and APS-C (1.5) crop. I’m looking forward to trying it for the selective focus work I use the 100-400 for.
About this image
The sea stacks at Bandon Beach on the Oregon Coast make a great starting point for an image, but because there’s so much else going on here, I try to avoid making the sea stacks my ultimate goal. Since the scene at Bandon varies quite a bit with the tide and sky, when I photograph here I like to wander at the water line and identify features that I can assemble into a composition: sea stacks, reflections, surf, sun, and (fingers crossed) clouds.
The reflections following waves receding on the very gently sloping beach are better at Bandon than most beaches because the water doesn’t recede as quickly, and there’s more surface area for them to form. The best reflections happen when there are clouds and or color in the sky, so I like to arrive early enough to pick my composition, then wait for the magic.
On this April evening I found a little creek, fed by runoff from recent rain, leading right into Howling Dog (often misidentified as Wizard’s Hat, which is a short distance south). The sun was behind the clouds as I worked on my composition, but the clouds were moving so fast, I knew the sun would appear soon. But I’d found my shot early enough that when the clouds parted, I was ready. A film of thin clouds subdued the sun’s brightness, making exposure easier. All I had to do was wait for a wave to wash up and recede, then click.
A Collection of Images, from Long to Short
Select an image for a closer look, exposure info, and a slide show
Posted on March 25, 2020
Ready for some irony? One reason I switched from a Canon DSLR system to Sony Alpha mirrorless (about 5 1/2 years ago) was that Sony’s bodies and lenses are smaller and lighter, yet today I’m probably carrying the heaviest bag I’ve ever carried. What I hadn’t counted on when I made the switch was that smaller gear meant more room in my camera bag, which gave me two options: a smaller camera bag, or more gear. Guess which option I chose. Since people ask all the time about my gear, and it’s been a couple of years since I actually shared it all in one place…
Let’s peek in my camera bag
The contents of my camera bag has evolved over the years, from the vanilla 16-35, 24-105, 70-200 lens lineup that most landscape photographer carry, to my current setup that allows covers 12mm to 800mm (1200mm if you factor in the APS-C crop option) at all times—plus the option to go up to 1800mm (factoring in the APS-C crop factor) if I need it.
Here’s what’s I carry today:
Always in my bag
- Sony a7R IV camera body: My primary body—61 amazing megapixels.
- Sony a7R III camera body: My backup/second body—peace of mind in case I break/lose my primary body; or if I want to have two cameras going at the same time (because you’ll never hear me say 42 megapixels isn’t enough).
- Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens: Though I don’t use it a lot, this lens has allowed me to photograph things I never could, and I love that it’s compact enough to keep with me at all times.
- Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens*: This focal range is covered by other lenses in my bag, but I love the lens too much to leave it behind—crazy sharp, and f/2.8 means it’s fast enough for night photography in a pinch. Plus, it’s a whole lot easier to use with polarizing and neutral density filters than the 12-24.
- Sony 24-105 G lens*: This is my workhorse—what a fantastic focal range! Really sharp, too.
- Sony 100-400 GM lens*: Replacing my 70-200 with this slightly bigger lens doubled my focal range—and it’s a fantastic match with the Sony 2X teleconverter.
- Sony 2X teleconverter
- Filters (in a Mindshift filter bag attached to my tripod): 72mm and 77mm Breakthrough 6-stop polarizing ND filters, Breakthrough 2-stop hard graduated neutral density filter
- Other stuff: Several lens cloths, headlamp, insulated water bottle, extension tubes, Giotto Rocket Blower, and a couple of RX Bars (because photography always trumps meals).
* Plus a Breakthrough polarizer
Specialty Equipment (not in the picture—stays behind until I need it)
- Sony a7S II camera body: For Milky Way and other moonless night photography—it’s “only” 12 megapixels (remember when 12 megapixels was huge?), but this camera sees in the dark.
- Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM lens: For Milky Way and other moonless night photography—I can’t believe how compact this lens is.
- Sony 28mm f/1.8 G lens: For Milky Way and other moonless night photography—this one’s even more compact than the 24mm.
- Sony 90mm Macro: I use this lens a lot with extension tubes to get super close for my creative selective focus work (wildflowers, fall color).
- Sony 200-600 G lens: When I want to go big on a moonrise/moonset—sometimes I’ll pare it with the 2X teleconverter and really go crazy. I also use this lens with extension tubes for selective focus fall color.
- Really Right Stuff 24L Tripod with a RRS BH-55 ball head: Sturdy enough for whatever I put on it, in pretty much any conditions. I also like that, fully extended with the head and camera, it’s several inches taller than I am—without a centerpost.
- Colorado Tripod Company Centennial 2-Series (Breakthrough Filters affiliate) with a RRS BH-40 ballhead: This recent addition is my new travel/hiking tripod. Without extending the centerpost it’s not quite as tall as I like, but it’s a couple of inches taller than the RRS TQC-14 I’d been using before, and just as sturdy.
About this image
In my Canon days, and my first couple of years with Sony, the focal-length range I carried at all times was 16mm – 200mm. With Canon it was mostly a size thing—I just didn’t have enough room for much more than my DSLR body and 16-35, 24-105, and 70-200 lenses. When I switched to Sony, even though Yosemite has some scenes that are too wide for a 16mm lens, I figured Sony lenses covering the same focal range would be sufficient.
Then one spring morning in Yosemite, I was photographing a flooded meadow when a friend loaned me his Canon 11-24 f/4 lens (which I adapted to my Sony a7RII body with a Metabones adapter), and I was in love (with the lens, not my friend). Wow! Even though I knew I wouldn’t use an ultra-wide lens very much, the ability to go wide when the situation calls for it suddenly opened up a whole new world. But as much as I’d have loved a Canon 11-24 of my own, it was just too big and heavy (not to mention expensive) to live full-time in my bag.
Just a year after that ultra-wide epiphany, Sony released its very own ultra-wide lens. Not only is the Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens just as sharp as its Canon counterpart (at about half the price), the Sony 12-24 is less than half the Canon’s size and weight. I was so excited when I realized how compact it is that I instantly reconfigured a few partitions in my camera bag and voila, it fit —without having to jettison anything.
That’s a long-winded way of explaining how I happened to be able to capture this image at a spot in Yosemite that for most of my photography life was too close to photograph El Capitan and its reflection, top to bottom, in a single frame. My brother and I had arrived in the park the previous afternoon, got a room at the lodge, and hunkered down against the incoming storm. What had been forecast to be 3-5 inches of overnight snow had just been upgraded to 12-16 inches, so we knew we’d wake Tuesday morning to something exceptional. A peek through the curtains in the predawn darkness confirmed a world of white with the snow still falling hard. Checking the Yosemite road conditions hotline, I learned that not only were all park entrances closed, all roads in Yosemite Valley were closed.
I dressed and trudged through the snow in the twilight to survey the photography potential near the lodge and found the view of Yosemite Falls completely obscured by clouds. The cafeteria was open, but serving nothing because the employees couldn’t make it to work. At the adjacent Starbucks I found only two people had been able to negotiate the snowy darkness to get to work—it turned out to be the Starbucks manager and his wife, a non-employee drafted into action and put on the front line.
On my way back to my room, I swung by the parking lot and checked my car. About the time I identified the white lump that was mine, Yosemite Falls made an appearance and I hustled back to the room for my gear, but within a couple of minutes it had been re-swallowed. My brother and I spent most of the rest of the morning watching the skies, waiting for the views of Yosemite Falls or Half Dome to clear enough to photograph, or simply for the snow to slow enough to allow us to photograph some of the closer views. We the snowfall finally abated, we ventured out into the elements and forged a trail through the snow to the bridge beneath Lower Yosemite Fall, because any photography is better than no photography.
Shortly after returning to the room we got a call from the front desk telling us outbound Highway 140 had reopened. We had no plans to evacuate, but I took this as a signal that the valley roads would be open too (otherwise, what use would there be to open 140). So we dug out my Outback (no small feat) and hit the road. With snow still falling, we spent the next few hours circling Yosemite Valley, stopping occasionally when a view appeared, waiting for the storm to clear.
We were at El Capitan Bridge when blue sky appeared. Being here in the snow reminded me of an image I’d captured here a year earlier using my 12-24. I’d been blown away that I could get that entire scene in a single vertical frame, but wished there had be more blue sky. But here was a second chance, this time with blue sky, and I set up real fast to reprise that composition.
As I had the first time, I was able to keep my camera level (my lens exactly parallel to the ground) to avoid distorting the trees on edge of the frame. Focus was easy because at 12mm, depth of field feels nearly infinite. Metering was a little trickier than the first time because El Capitan was brighter, but I knew my Sony a7RIII could handle it. Not sure of the best way to handle the falling snow, I tried a few ISO and f-stop combinations, and ended up going with the one that gave me a shutter speed that turned the snow into small streaks of white (the snow showed up better this way).
It’s pretty amazing (and a little disconcerting) how close I came to duplicating that earlier composition. The biggest difference is the trees that have been removed in the last year, victims of the drought and pine bark beetle.
An Ultra-Wide Gallery
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on March 22, 2020
What have you been doing with your spring “vacation.” Sequestered here in the Gary Hart Photography World Headquarters, I’ve been spending a lot of time going through my 2019 images and have already uncovered a half dozen or so that qualify for my 2019 Highlights post. It’s a welcome relief from coronavirus news and the stress of rescheduling workshops. As I work, I’m starting to realize that the coolest thing about going through past images isn’t finding new images to process and share, it’s reviving the faded memories of wonderful moments in nature.
Here’s the “new” stuff I’ve found so far
Here’s my original 2019 Highlights post
We’ve reached that time of year where everyone is compiling their Top 10 lists. I like retrospectives as much as the next person, but I’ve always resisted assembling these “top-whatever” end-of-year countdowns of my own images. Then last week Sony asked me to provide my favorite image of 2019 and I struggled mightily because it felt like they were asking me to pick a favorite child—which, as we all know, can vary on a daily basis. (Just kidding—I love you girls!) But seriously, I did hesitate because I wasn’t sure Sony and I aren’t defining “favorite” the same, and in fact favorite for me can mean many things that are easily skewed by mood and memory.
So instead of attempting to rate and rank my images at year’s end, I prefer using them as a catalyst for reflection. Each December I go through the images I’ve processed from the waning year and reflect on the circumstances of their capture. Rather than focus on individual images, I’ll start by reflecting more on the experience surrounding three memorable shoots that stand out from in a year filled with too many individual highlights to detail here (but feel free to go through my 2019 blog posts). And if you’re just here for the pictures, jump to the bottom to see a gallery of 2019 images that make me happy (including some new images that I’ve never shared).
Iceland northern lights
I can think of no better way to start a year than the opportunity to photograph something I’ve fantasized about seeing for my entire life. When Don Smith and I traveled to Iceland last January, I had two goals in mind: scout for our upcoming photo workshop, and see the northern lights. The scouting trip was a great success, but with just a couple of days to go, and not for lack of trying, we still hadn’t seen the northern lights.
On our penultimate night we finally witnessed a nice aurora display that spread ebbing and flowing veils of green, coloring the sky above Glacier Lagoon from the horizon to about 45 degrees—I was thrilled and felt like my aurora dreams had been fulfilled. Then came our final night, when I learned what a real northern lights display is.
There really are no words to describe this experience, so I’ll just let my images speak for me. I will say that two-dimensional, still images don’t fully convey the experience of witnessing the aurora in person, but they do at least least give you an idea of the drama and magnitude: for one thing, the foreground was darker than what I captured (though it was bright enough that I walked around without a flashlight); the aurora moves, maybe at about the speed of the minute hand on a clock. And while the previous night’s display was only in the northwest and covered no more than a quarter of the sky, the display this night at times spread across the entire sky and needed to constantly spin around to make sure I wasn’t missing something.
Read more about this night of a lifetime: Chasing the Northern Lights
New Zealand winter night
Don and I did two winter photo workshops on New Zealand’s South Island in 2019. The first was our regularly scheduled New Zealand winter workshop, the second was a workshop we put together to guide a group from the Sony Alpha Imaging Collective. Though night photography was a priority for both groups, the moon and clouds hindered the first group’s efforts (until our final night, but that’s another story).
The second group fared better in the night photography department in general, one day in particular stood out. We started with a 3 a.m. starlight shoot at Lake Wanaka, then made the 3-hour drive to Aoraki National Park, where we spent a day photographing spectacular fog and hoarfrost along the way, and glaciers, lakes, and mountains once we arrived. Following our beautiful sunset on the shore of Tasman Lake, we bundled up to wait for dark and were rewarded with one of the most breathtaking Milky Way shoots in my life (which has been filled with many Milky Way shoots).
All I could think about on the foggy 3-hour drive back from Aoraki was curling up in my warm bed and getting some much needed sleep. But when we pulled into our hotel a little before midnight and I looked up and saw stars, it felt like someone had flipped the switch on my reserve generator and I just had to go back out and shoot some more. So while everyone else headed to their rooms to process images or sleep, I grabbed my camera gear and raced to the lake. For the entire 10-minute walk to Wanaka’s iconic willow tree, I kept an eye on a bank of fog massing on the far shore and willed it to hold off long to allow me a few frames.
Finding the view of the tree completely devoid of people (a personal first), I photographed for nearly an hour in glorious solitude. While waiting for each exposure to complete, and with nothing in my world but me, my camera, and a sky full of stars, I reflected on the last 21 hours realize this was the perfect cap to what was no doubt one of the most memorable photography days of my life.
Read more about this day seemed to last forever: The Longest Day
Grand Canyon electrical storm
Each year starting in 2013, Don and I have guided two photo workshop groups around both rims of the Grand Canyon, chasing the lightning, towering clouds, and dramatic light of the Southwest’s summer monsoon. This year’s Grand Canyon monsoon trip was filled with lots of great memories and photography that included rainbows and more lightning strikes than I can count, but one experience in particular stands out above the rest.
The best vantage point for an electrical storm on the Grand Canyon North Rim is probably the twin view decks at Grand Canyon Lodge. Not only do these open-air decks provide a beautiful, sweeping view of the canyon, they’re shielded from lightning by a network of lightning rods, and anchored by an enclosed viewing area for retreat when the action gets too close.
We’d been watching a storm build in the distant west, but unlike most storms here, this one moved toward us and didn’t veer or fade as it approached. The storm arrived so quickly, and so mesmerized were we by its power, that it was almost on top of us before we could react. The rain was just starting to pelt us when Oza Butte, about a mile away, was stabbed with multiple strokes that made everyone jump and gasp. That was our signal to grab our gear and race for cover.
Safe inside as the storm raged around us, everyone in the group buzzed about “the big one.” I moved around the room and confirmed that nearly everyone had some version of this spectacular strike, then scrolled through my own frames holding my breath until I came across this one. Many in the group only had the bolt on the right because that’s the direction the lighting had been firing. I was silently patted myself on the back for having the foresight (good luck) to have widened and shifted my composition to the left shortly before this bolt hit. First, because it seemed like the storm was moving in that direction, and also because I wanted my composition to include more canyon.
Read more about this hair raising experience: I Just Have to Share This
2019 Highlights (Updated March 2020)
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.
Posted on March 17, 2020
So how has your world been upended by the coronavirus? Fortunate for me, mine so far has been firmly pegged on the inconvenience side of the coronavirus inconvenience-tragedy continuum. I’ve had to reschedule a couple of workshops, answer lots of concerned e-mails, and abandon some firmly established routines, but (as far as I know) no one in my circle has even gotten sick. So you won’t hear me complaining.
One thing this shelter-in-place time has provided is the opportunity to mine my image folders for forgotten gems that my (formerly) busy schedule never allowed me to process. And you know what? It’s actually kind of fun. I have some shoots that I’ve mentally bookmarked as “sure things,” but the coolest thing is that I’m finding stuff I’d completely forgotten about. I started with this image from January 2019 at Bandon Beach (for no other reason than it was in the oldest folder on the hard drive that happened to be in closest reach), and it turns out this is the first image I’ve processed from this scouting trip Don Smith and I took fourteen months ago—one of the shoots I’d completely forgotten.
In addition to going through old images, and to prevent myself from going completely stir crazy, I plan to take this opportunity to spend more quality time with my camera. One of the nice things about landscape photography is that it can be both a group or a solitary endeavor, and both are pretty great The group aspect I’ve covered pretty thoroughly with my workshops, but the solitary part has suffered in recent years. Spring is one of the best times to photograph the foothills near my Sacramento home, and with everyone’s travel so restricted, I plan to take full advantage of the reduced crowds during what’s normally one of Yosemite’s busiest seasons.
I also think I’ll try to do some of that education and skill refreshing that I always say I need to get to, but never do. And who knows—maybe I’ll even find more time for my blog….
About this image
Don and I were in Bandon scouting locations for our shared Oregon Coast photo workshops that were scheduled to kick off a couple of months later. We’d been to Bandon a number of times before, so the goal this evening wasn’t so much to identify photo spots as it was to become more familiar with the light, tide, and surf here.
I started this evening way up at the north end of the beach and slowly made my way south. The tide was out, exposing lots of sand and rocks that had been submerged on previous visits, and the thing that most drew my eye was the reflections on the sand left by receding waves. In most places the reflections faded as the water percolated downward into the sand, but in the spots where extra water was funneled by rocks embedded in the beach, deeper indentations created pools. At first I was just content to look and mentally compose, but when the sun approached the horizon I got my camera out and went to work. I started with a few sunstars as the sun dropped into the clouds, but the best stuff didn’t come until after the sun disappeared.
I don’t have any specific memories of composing this shot, but I can tell by looking at it that my mindset was to pair the foreground rocks and reflection with the background sea stacks. To emphasize the rocks and reflection, I went wide and got very close, allowing them to nearly fill my frame. Then I waited for a wave to flood the scene, and recede to reveal a reflection.
Hang in there everybody (and wash your hands!).
Life’s a Beach
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on March 9, 2020
To photograph the northern lights, lots of things need to go right. It starts with picking the right time of year, and finding a location far from city lights—the best months and locations can be determined with research and scouting, but far more problematic are the factors beyond my control: solar activity and weather. And unfortunately, when people sign up for a January Iceland workshop, no matter how clear you make it to them the northern lights are not guaranteed, they really, really, really expect to see the northern lights.
Before Don Smith and I scheduled our 2020 Iceland photo workshop, we did our best to maximize our group’s photography opportunities in general, and northern lights chances in particular: we researched Iceland’s prime northern lights months, identified the best guiding service, and in January 2019 spent 10 days with our guide scouting the spectacular Iceland landscape. On this advance trip we even were treated to a breathtaking northern lights show that enabled us to hone our aurora photography skills, and fill our websites with images.
When we announced the 2020 trip we did all the right stuff, providing preparation and educational material that emphasized the disclaimer that we can’t guarantee the northern lights. But as the trip approached and I started receiving good natured (I think) threats (“You better get us the northern lights or I’ll…”), I couldn’t help feeling a little anxious. As early as 10 days before the workshop, I started checking the long-range forecasts, but no matter which resource I chose, and how many times I checked, things weren’t turning out the way I’d hoped. Not only did the weather look pretty bleak (rain, snow, fog), the KP forecast of solar activity was pegged in the 0-2 range (on a scale that goes all the way up to 9). Gulp.
Throughout the workshop Óli (our guide), Don, and I obsessively monitored the forecasts and tried to stay as positive as possible, but with two nights to go, we hadn’t had a hint of northern lights opportunity, and the natives were getting restless. I suspect that the only thing preventing an all-out coup was that the locations and frequent clouds and snow made the rest of the workshop’s photography pretty fantastic. (Okay, seriously, this group was tons of fun and very understanding about our impossible aurora conditions, but I really wanted to deliver for them.)
In the back of my mind was the experience Óli, Don, and I had last year, when the forecasts were bleak until an unexpected uptick in the KP index coincided with a clearing of the sky at Glacier Lagoon on the trip’s last two nights. Throughout this year’s trip, I told myself (and all who would listen) that if it happened once, it could happen again. And guess what…
By the time we wrapped up our sunset shoot at Glacier Lagoon on the workshop’s penultimate day, we all knew that tonight could be the night—the weather forecast had improved to “partly cloudy,” and the KP index had bumped up into the 2-3 range. Far from a sure thing, but definitely worth bundling up and giving it a shot. So after dinner we piled back onto our bus and returned to Glacier Lagoon.
At the lagoon I hopped from the bus to scan the dark northern sky and saw a mix of clouds and stars. There was the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia. And once my eyes adjusted, I found the faint section of the Milky Way overhead and traced its path downward until it disappeared into a mass of clouds—not ideal, but there were enough stars to know we’d be okay. Unlike the previous year’s shoot, the northern lights weren’t visible to the naked eye, so I quickly set up my tripod and camera to take a test exposure, and there it was in my LCD, a faint but distinct green glow hovering above the northern horizon, partially obscured by clouds but unquestionably the northern lights. We were in business.
The darkness made keeping track of people pretty difficult, but since we’d already photographed here, everyone had their own idea of where they wanted to be and quickly scattered. I, and many others, started along the lagoon’s shoreline, but within an hour or so almost everyone had ascended the hillside overlooking the lagoon for a much more expansive view of the horizon.
Even though the aurora had brightened and was now visible to the naked eye, it remained just a green and (occasionally) red glow that lacked definition. Nevertheless, I could sense everyone’s relief—despite maintaining a positive facade, until this night I think most of us had become silently resigned to the fact that the northern lights weren’t in our future. At least they could all now say they’d seen the beauty of the northern lights. And then something amazing happened.
As if someone had suddenly cranked the intensity knob, a visible green shaft climbed skyward from behind the mountains, and within five minutes half the sky was alive with dancing light. The display was so beautiful and unexpected that we all just couldn’t help laughing at our good fortune. This great group that had spent more than a week bouncing around the Iceland countryside, marveling, eating, sharing, shivering, and (especially) dreaming of northern lights, was having a blast photographing together above Glacier Lagoon.
I can’t begin to express the joy I felt that night. It’s always wonderful to witness nature’s marvels firsthand, but sharing a first time with an infinitely deserving group of friends is truly special. After a while I stopped shooting to just watch the show and listen to the joy and felt tears welling in my eyes.
I spent more time this shoot moving around in the dark, helping people in the group with focus and exposure, than I did taking pictures. And it turns out that at some point in these travels, my camera lost focus and more than half of my images, including those from the peak of the aurora activity, are unusably soft. This is only mildly disappointing because 1) in a workshop it really isn’t about my photography anyway, and 2) I already have plenty spectacular Glacier Lagoon northern lights images from last year’s trip.
And despite that setback, I did get enough images to confirm that my Sony a7RIV is an excellent night photography camera. Until this trip I’ve always used my Sony a7SII (or the a7S that preceded it) for my night work, but I decided to save weight by leaving the a7SII home. While the low-light vision of the a7SII makes its viewfinder second to none for night composition and focus, the a7RIV proved good enough for that, and the image quality difference isn’t discernible.
My Aurora Bounty So Far (mostly from 2019)
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Posted on March 3, 2020
One of my most frequently asked questions during a workshop shoot is, “Should I use my polarizer here?” Of course that’s an impossible question to answer absolutely because as a creative choice, the polarizer decision is rarely absolute.
While many people believe the sole purpose of a polarizer is to make the sky darker (deeper blue), blue sky is just a byproduct of the polarizer’s function: to cut reflections. In fact, if someone could design a polarizer that only worked on the landscape and did nothing to the sky, that’s the one I’d be using because: 1) I generally don’t care for blue sky in my images, and 2) a polarizer doesn’t usually darken the sky uniformly.
Before going any farther, I should probably explain a little about what a polarizer does, and how it does it.
A polarizer cuts reflections. It’s a piece of glass mounted on a threaded ring—the threaded ring screws onto a lens, while the glass part of the polarizer rotates independently, allowing the photographer to rotate the glass 360 degrees on the front of the lens. (Contrary to popular belief, a polarizer is a single piece of rotating glass, not one piece of glass rotating atop a second stationary piece of glass.) The polarizer is designed to rotate because its greatest (reflection cutting) effect is at 90 degrees to the light source; at all other angles polarization decreases as the angle moves away from 90 degrees; it becomes nonexistent at 0 and 180 degrees. By watching the scene through the viewfinder as you rotate the glass, you can see the polarization effect change.
On the surface, cutting reflections might not seem so desirable for someone who likes photographing reflections as much as I do, but reflections are a much bigger part of our visual experience than most people realize. Virtually every object reflects at least a little, and many things reflect a lot more than we’re aware. Worse still, these reflections often hide the very surface features and color we most want to photograph.
When reflections hide an object’s underlying beauty, a polarizer can restore some of that beauty. I use a polarizer when I want to capture the submerged rocks or sand hidden by the reflection atop a river or lake, the rich color overwhelmed by glare reflecting from foliage, and sometimes even the sky’s deep blue that has been washed out by light scattered by atmospheric molecules.
Put a little less simply…
In reality, reflections are merely collateral damage to your polarizer. What a polarizer really does is eliminate light that’s already been polarized. To understand what’s really going on with a polarizer, read on….
- Oscillation is motion relative to a fixed point. For example, when you snap a whip, the whip “oscillates” along its length. Without external interference (e.g., friction from the atmosphere or other objects), motion in one direction along the whip will have an identical motion in the opposite direction (e.g., up=down, left right, and so on), and that motion will move forward along the whip.
- A wave is oscillation along or through a medium (such as air, water, or space). The bulge that moves up and down (oscillates) along a cracked whip is a wave. For the liberal arts folks, (in this context) wave is a noun, oscillate is a verb. A wave is measured by its wavelength and frequency—the higher the frequency, the shorter the wavelength.
- Frequency is the number of times a wave peak passes a discrete point in a given unit of time (usually one second: “per second”).
- Wavelength is the distance from one wave peak to the next at any instant frozen in time.
- A transverse wave oscillates perpendicular (90°) to its direction of motion. To imagine the motion of a transverse wave, picture an ocean wave, which oscillates up and down as it advances through the water. Now think about a bottle floating in the open ocean—bobbing up and down with each wave, its up/down motion is perpendicular to the wave’s forward motion, but when that wave has passed, the bottle is in the same place it was before the wave arrived. (Waves don’t move bobbing bottles across the ocean, wind and currents do.)
- Visible light is electromagnetic radiation that reaches our eyes as a transverse wave somewhere in the wavelength range the human eye can register, about 380 to 740 nanometers (really small).
- Sunlight (or more accurately, solar energy) reaches earth as a transverse wave with a very broad and continuous spectrum of wavelengths that include, among others, the visible spectrum (lucky for photographers), infrared (lucky for everyone), and ultraviolet (lucky for sunscreen vendors). The oscillation of solar energy’s transverse wave is infinitely more complicated than an ocean wave because light oscillates in an infinite number of directions perpendicular to its direction of motion. Huh? Think about the blades of a propeller—each is perpendicular to the shaft upon which the propeller rotates, so in theory you can have an infinite number of propeller blades pointing in an infinite number of directions, each perpendicular to the shaft. So a light wave oscillates not just up/down, but also left/right, and every other (perpendicular) angle in between.
While an unpolarized light wave oscillates on every plane perpendicular to the wave’s motion, polarized light only oscillates on one perpendicular plane (up/down or left/right or 45°/225° and so on).
Polarization can be induced many ways, but photographers are most interested in light that has already been polarized by reflection from a nonmetallic surface (such as water or foliage), or light that has been scattered by molecules in our atmosphere. Light scattered by a reflective surface is polarized parallel to the reflective surface; light scattered by molecules in the atmosphere is polarized perpendicular to the direction of the light.
Polarization can also be induced artificially with a polarizing filter (“polarizer”), a filter coated with a material whose molecular structure allows most light to pass, but blocks light waves oscillating in a specific direction. When unpolarized light (most of the light that illuminates our lives) passes through a polarizer, the light that enters the lens to which it’s attached has been stripped of the waves oscillating in a certain direction and we (through the viewfinder) see a uniform darkening of the entire scene (usually one to two stops).
But that uniform darkening is not usually what we use a polarizer for. (I say usually because sometimes we use a polarizer to reduce light and stretch the shutter speed in lieu of a neutral density filter.) Photographers are most interested in their polarizers’ ability to eliminate reflective glare and darken the sky, which occurs when their polarizer’s rotating glass element matches the oscillation direction of light that has already been polarized by reflection or scattering, cancelling that light. By watching the scene as we rotate the filter’s polarizing element, photographers know that we’ve achieved maximum polarization (reflection reduction) when we rotate the polarizer until maximum darkening is achieved—voila!
The exception that proves the rule
Most photographers know that a polarizer has its greatest effect on the sky when it’s at right angles (90°) to the sun, and least effective when pointed directly into or away from the sun (0º or 180°). We also know that a rainbow, which is always centered on the “anti-solar point” (a line drawn from the sun through the back of your head and out between your eyes points to the anti-solar point) exactly 180° from the sun, can be erased by a polarizer. But how can it be that a polarizer is most effective at 90° to the sun, and a rainbow is 180° from the sun? To test your understanding of polarization, try to reason out why a rainbow is eliminated by a polarizer.
Did you figure it out? I won’t keep you in suspense: light entering a raindrop is split into its component colors by refraction; that light is reflected off the back of the raindrop and back to your eyes (there’s a little more bouncing around going on inside the raindrop, but this is the end result). Because a rainbow is reflected light, it’s polarized, which means that it can be eliminated by a properly oriented polarizer.
But back to the original question
Should I use a polarizer? I’m still not going to answer. What I will tell you is that I carry a polarizer for every lens in my bag, and when the sun’s out I virtually always have a polarizer on my lens. But my approach comes with some caveats:
- A polarizer cuts the amount of light reaching your sensor by 1 to 2 stops, which means if don’t use a tripod (shame on you), a polarizer requires a faster shutter speed.
- You must get in the habit of orienting the polarizer with each composition, or risk doing more harm than good to your image
While I use a polarizer on pretty much all of my daylight images, there are times I remove it:
- At night (duh), or whenever the scene is so dark that the polarizer’s cost to my exposure settings exceeds its benefit.
- On a wide lens with lots of blue sky, the polarizer’s effect on different areas of the sky can be both obvious and uncorrectable (I can dodge/burn minor differences). On the other hand, I almost always avoid wide shots with lots of blue sky, so this is rarely a consideration.
- When the sun is in my frame—for example, when I’m going for a sunstar—the extra glass a polarizer adds increases the likelihood of unsightly reflections.
- Photographing a full rainbow with a wide lens, a polarizer can eliminate or diminish part of the rainbow.
- When I put on a neutral density filter, my polarizer comes off because stacking filters causes vignetting, the less glass between my subject and sensor the better, and nature abhors stacked filters (every time you stack filters, the photography gods fuse them until you’ve learned your lesson).
- Any time I absolutely need the fastest shutter speed possible without increasing my ISO further, the polarizer comes off.
- I should probably add that I don’t have a polarizer for my Sony 12-24 lens because ultra-wide lenses like this aren’t threaded for filters. Using a polarizer on an ultra-wide lens requires an awkward, expensive system that provides minimal benefit due to the wide field of view.
One time when I absolutely, without exception, always (have I made my point?) use a polarizer is when there’s no sky in my frame. These are the times I’m using diffuse light to capture the color and texture of leaves, flowers, water, and rocks. All of these things reflect, sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly, and that reflection is rarely beneficial.
And finally, a common misconception about polarizers is that their use is either all or nothing (full polarization or minimal polarization). The amount of polarization I dial in depends on the effect I’m going for. For example, each of the four images at the top of this post was captured with the polarizer oriented at a point between maximum and minimum effect by watching the scene as I turned the polarizer, then waiting until I had the combination of reflection/no-reflection I wanted. This allowed me to reveal submerged nearby features while saving the reflection of the more distant subject.
So, when should you use a polarizer? I still can’t tell you, but at least now you have the knowledge to make the decision for yourself.
Managing Reflections With a Polarizer
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Posted on February 23, 2020
Some images are so obvious that all you need to do is frame the scene and click; others require a little assembly.
There was a lot going on visually in this January sunrise at Mesquite Flat Dunes in Death Valley—some of it good, some of it not so good. The not-so-good was the sky, which was clear and infinitely blue—great for being outside, but lousy for photography. The good was the parallel arcs etched in the pristine sand, and the play of light on the dunes’ clean lines and sweeping curves.
My problem this morning was assembling all of this good stuff into a coherent photo. I usually start by finding something to anchor my scene, then construct an image around that anchor using positioning, focal length, and framing. But out on the dunes I couldn’t find a satisfying anchor and my muse was floundering without it. Compounding the difficulty, because I was out there with my Death Valley workshop group, my mobility was limited because when you move through someone’s frame, your footprints become a permanent stain in their scene.
Rather than concede defeat and settle for something not worthy of the morning’s beauty, I switched to my Sony 100-400 GM lens (on my Sony a7RIV), zoomed to 400mm, and slowly panned the dunes in long, sweeping, horizontal arcs, hoping to find the composition that had eluded me so far. The secret to this approach is to pan slowly and disengage conscious thought, allowing my unconscious to guide my eye until something stops it (easier said than done, but surprisingly effective when I can clear my mind). The element in this scene that stopped me was the large sunlit dune at least a mile away.
I started with compositions that emphasized the large dune at the expense of foreground sharpness. That was okay, but when I briefly focused on wind-etched ridges of nearby sand about 100 yards away, the spectacular patterns and intricate detail grabbed my eye and didn’t let go. Reluctant to give up the distant dune that had drawn me in the first place, I stopped all the way down to f/22, computed the hyperfocal distance with a hyperfocal app on my phone, and tried a variety of focus points before finally surrendering to the fact that I couldn’t get both the foreground and background sharp in one frame.
Today, most photographers would simply shoot two frames and blend them in post, a perfectly valid and ridiculously simple solution that (sadly) gives me no satisfaction. So I went the other way and used the limited depth of field to my advantage. Realizing that it was the distant dune’s shape that most appealed to me, not its detail, I went instead for a soft background that focused the frame’s primary attention on the exquisite detail in the nearby sand while retaining the background’s soft shapes and shadows.
I opened my lens to f/5.6, its widest aperture at 400mm, and focused near the middle of the nearby slope. This gave me a front-to-back range of sharpness of nearly 60 feet (according to my hyperfocal app)—enough to keep the entire slope sharp, a fact I later confirmed by magnifying my capture in my mirrorless viewfinder and moving the view around. I also confirmed that the softness of background dunes was sufficient to be clearly intentional (rather than a just-missed focus error).
In addition to using a soft background to emphasize detail on the closest dune slope, I slightly underexposed the entire scene to render the shaded mountainside in the extreme distance extremely dark. The nearly black background created contrast contrast that helped the dunes stand out even better, and virtually eliminated unattractive ruts and ravines in the barren brown slope.
A Death Valley Gallery
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Posted on February 16, 2020
On Thursday night I returned from a week in Yosemite following back-to-back workshops there. The featured goal of my first workshop was to photograph the full moon; the highlight of the second workshop was supposed to be Horsetail Fall. The moon cooperated wonderfully, but Horsetail Fall…? Well…, I’ve got some good news and some bad news…
First, the good news…
Despite reports to the contrary, Horsetail Fall is flowing (and I have the pictures to prove it). Not only that, with no clouds in the forecast, Horsetail Fall’s normally fickle warm sunset light suddenly looks like a pretty good bet. What could possibly go wrong?
The bad news
Unfortunately, you can’t actually see Horsetail Fall’s water from Yosemite Valley (and I have the picture to prove it).
More bad news
No rain or snow is in California’s forecast for at least ten days, which means little chance for more water in the fall. Also, as my group wrapped up our workshop on Thursday evening, the National Park Service was putting up cones and signs to prevent people from accessing all Horsetail Fall views on Southside Drive (such as the one in the above images) between noon and 7 p.m. through February 27.
This is why we can’t have nice things
In recent years, photographers have obliviously trampled sensitive riverbank areas while jostling for Horsetail Fall vantage points. Three years ago the weight of hundreds of photographers caused an entire section of elevated riverbank to crack and slump toward the river, damage that persists and worsens each year.
I know most photographers care about and respect their subjects; it’s sad that a selfish minority have to ruin it for everyone. This problem doesn’t just apply to Yosemite; photographer abuse seems to be pretty universal and I’m afraid we’re going be dealing with more (justifiable) restrictions at other popular photo spots in the future.
The 2020 Horsetail Fall prognosis
Even without visible water, I expect hundreds of photographers, and possibly thousands on peak weekends, to attempt to view Horsetail Fall from the open vantage points on Northside Drive. The El Capitan picnic area is the epicenter of this activity—you’ll need to walk 1 1/2 miles to get there this year—but there are other spots for people with advance knowledge, or who spend a little time scouting.
- For the latest from the National Park Service on Horsetail Fall and its viewing restrictions, visit the Horsetail Fall web page.
- For my general (not year-specific) tips for photographing Horsetail Fall, read my Horsetail Fall Photo Tips article.
About this image
As this year’s Horsetail Fall workshop group learned, a Horsetail Fall photo workshop without Horsetail Fall is not the end of the world. February’s lack of crowds (at any location that’s not Horsetail Fall) is a joy for anyone who has visited Yosemite in spring and summer. And even without snow or clouds, Yosemite Valley has some pretty spectacular in winter. Winter delivers the year’s best light to El Capitan and Yosemite Falls (the late light on Half Dome is always good), and the Merced River is low and slow enough to flash reflections nearly everywhere. Though not at their spring peak, Yosemite and Bridalveil Falls flow nicely in winter, even providing nice rainbows for those who know where and when to look.
The red sunset light that colors Horsetail Fall in February also works its magic on Half Dome. In fact, when there’s no water in Horsetail, I prefer the light on Half Dome to the light on Horsetail because the entire face of Half Dome lights up all the way to sunset (and a little beyond). Another reason to favor Half Dome over a Horsetail Fall of dubious potential (dry, or a good chance clouds will block the light) is that from most of the favored Horsetail Fall vantage points, there’s not much to shoot besides Horsetail Fall—if it doesn’t put on its show, you’ve pretty much wasted a sunset. So for this year’s Horsetail Fall group, most of our sunset shoots featured Half Dome.
Nevertheless, wanting to give everyone an idea of the Horsetail Fall light, for one of our sunsets I chose a popular Merced River spot just upstream from Cathedral Beach. Unlike the most popular Horsetail Fall photo locations, the view here is wide open, with views and reflections of Cathedral Rocks, El Capitan, and the Three Brothers. So regardless of the conditions, the view here is always good—maybe not the classic Horsetail perspective everyone sees, but a good compromise that shows off the Horsetail light while still offering other nice stuff to photograph at sunset.
Arriving about 40 minutes before sunset, we found a few photographers set-up by the road with telephotos trained on (virtually dry) Horsetail Fall, but we were the only ones to venture down to the river. I’d taken my group to the same spot for the morning’s first light on El Capitan, so there was no need to orient them—everyone beelined to the river and went right to work.
Unlike the morning shoot, when the group spread out, we pretty much stayed together at the best view of El Capitan. The first thing I did was attach my Sony 100-400 and 2X teleconverter to my Sony a7RIV and point it at the top of Horsetail Fall. With my camera in APS-C (1.5 magnification) mode, I maxed the digital magnification in my viewfinder and saw that there was indeed water springing from the top of El Capitan—maybe not a lot, but enough to get airborne as it reached the precipice.
After sharing the magnified view on my LCD with the rest of the group, I fired off a couple of frames as evidence of water for any skeptics. Then I went to work on El Capitan’s beautiful, rapidly warming light and its reflection in the Merced River. The light this evening did its classic Horsetail thing, warming and turning orange as the lit patch shrunk with the setting sun. Also in character, the light teased us by fading to nearly nothing about five minutes before sunset, but I knew this had to be due to an unseen cloud because El Capitan stays lit for three or four minutes after sunset.
Sure enough, just two or three minutes before sunset the light bounced back, now with a distinct orange-red hue. For the next five minutes we watched the light redden and fade (the light gets more red as the sun sets, becoming most red just before snuffing out completely), clicking frantically. That evening’s light was about as good as it gets (at least a 9 on a 1-10 scale of what I’ve seen in previous years)—in other words, with water, Horsetail Fall would have been nearly perfect. But water in the fall or not, this turned out to be a pretty successful shoot.
Horsetail Fall from Many Angles
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.