Posted on June 11, 2020
Reclined beneath a ceiling of stars, at the foot of a tree that matured long before the time of Christ, it’s pretty difficult to feel important. That sense of awe is why I love making images that juxtapose the ancient bristlecones against the Milky Way. But, with a 40% moon parked in Sagittarius and completely washing out the brilliant galactic center, I had other plans for this chilly autumn evening. Instead of setting up for the view of the southern sky, I circled the tree to put my back to the Milky Way and the moon, and pointed my camera north. Now, with the north celestial pole in my frame, I was ready for a long exposure of the sky above the old bristlecone, using moonlight to illuminate the tree and turn the stars into parallel arcs surrounding the north star.
While counting down my 31 minute exposure, I zipped my coat and studied the bristlecone’s gnarled trunk and twisted branches, thinking of all the history that has unfolded in the several millennia it has spent earning its scars. But “history” is far broader than our earthbound perspective. In fact, to the stars I captured in this image, the 31 minutes of photons each delivered to my sensor where completely different than 31 minutes that I spent waiting for my exposure to complete. For example, the light striking my sensor from Polaris (the North Star) originated during a 31 minute span sometime in American colonial time (there’s some uncertainty about the distance of Polaris, but it’s probably 400 light years away, give or take 50 or so years). And even the light from the closest stars is a few years old, while the most distant starlight in my frame is older than this tree.
Star trails are a great example of the camera’s ability to reveal aspects of the natural world missed by our “right now” human bias. From this narrow perspective, at any given time the Universe appears fixed. But observing the night sky for a few hours, you soon realize much more is going on. Those apparently stationary points of light overhead all follow the same east to west arc across the celestial sphere, ultimately disappearing beneath the horizon, or behind the glow of daylight. Most return to nearly the same place twenty-four hours later, but a few noticeably shift relative to the stellar background. For millennia, explaining these wanderers—the planets—while maintaining our perceived position at the center of the Universe required convoluted solutions that defied scientific scrutiny. Then Copernicus, in one elegantly simple paradigm shift, removed Earth from the center of the universe and set us spinning about the Sun, pouring the foundation for humankind’s understanding of our place in the Universe. The humbling truth is that we inhabit a small planet, orbiting an ordinary star, on the outskirts of an average galaxy.
Thanks to Copernicus, Galileo, and others who followed, we now take for granted that Earth revolves about the sun, secured by gravity’s invisible string. And while it appears that our star-scape spins above our heads, it’s actually you and me and our seven-plus billion Earth-bound neighbors who are spinning. Locked into our terrestrial frame of reference, distracted by the problems of life, we stay generally oblivious to the celestial dance overhead. But I can think of no better way to get some perspective on our place in the universe than to look skyward on a dark night, far from city lights.
Posted on June 3, 2020
If you follow me on social media, you know that I don’t get political online. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have political opinions, but photography needs to make you happy, and there are already too many unhappy photographers to inject politics into the mix. I’ve also learned, and I have the people I’ve met in my workshops to thank for this, that individuals with completely different social and political beliefs are not idiots, uncaring, morons, crazy, or whatever other pejorative you might be inclined to hurl. They’re good people who arrived at their values and beliefs through a completely different combination of family history, opportunities, life experiences, good/bad fortune, and present circumstances, than you and I have.
But I’m writing this post because yesterday, like millions of others, I shared a completely black image on my Instagram page to show my support for BLM. Not only did I feel like solidarity on the issue of police not killing innocent people is important right now, I also thought, wow, here’s something everyone can agree on. And for the most part I was right—I was thrilled to see the truly diverse support this simple act received, crossing traditional political and social boundaries.
On the other hand, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that this support wasn’t universal. I got a little pushback on my Facebook page (swiftly dealt with—to borrow from the late, great Tom Petty, it’s good to be king), and noticed that the number of followers of my Instagram page, which goes up every day, declined yesterday—from that I can only infer that some people were reflexively unfollowing anyone who posted a black image. To those people, I say good riddance.
Call me an optimist (or naive), but I’m hopeful that the United States has finally reached a tipping point, and real change is in store. So to pivot from politics to photography, I’m sharing this image from the 2017 total eclipse, because nothing in my portfolio expresses my hope better than the instant of sunlight’s return after a total solar eclipse. For those who haven’t had the privilege to witness one (mark your calendars for April 8, 2024), a total solar eclipse is one of those transcendent moments in nature where humans’ insignificance is impossible to deny. I don’t think I’ve ever felt smaller than I did at the instant I clicked this picture.
Because I can’t help but think that so much of our planet’s divisiveness would evaporate if we all had a clearer picture of our place in the Universe, I’m going to close with a few quotes from astronauts, who are uniquely qualified to speak on the subject:
- Anousheh Ansari, the first Iranian in space: “The actual experience exceeds all expectations and is something that’s hard to put to words… It sort of reduces things to a size that you think everything is manageable, all these things that may seem big and impossible… We can do this. Peace on Earth — No problem. It gives people that type of energy, that type of power…”
- Neil Armstrong: “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”
- Ron Garan, Shuttle and International Space Station astronaut: “When we look down at the earth from space, we see this amazing, indescribably beautiful planet. It looks like a living, breathing organism. But it also, at the same time, looks extremely fragile.”
- Edward Gibson, Skylab astronaut: “You see how diminutive your life and concerns are compared to other things In the universe.”
- Jeff Hoffman, Space Shuttle astronaut: “You do, from that perspective, see the Earth as a planet. You see the sun as a star – we see the sun in a blue sky, but up there, you see the sun in a black sky. So, yeah, you are seeing it from the cosmic perspective.”
- Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut: “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’”
- Nicole Stott, Space Shuttle and ISS astronaut: “We have this connection to Earth. I mean, it’s our home. And I don’t know how you can come back and not, in some way, be changed. It may be subtle. You see differences in different people in their general response when they come back from space. But I think, collectively, everybody has that emblazoned on their memories, the way the planet looks. You can’t take that lightly.”
The View From Earth
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on May 31, 2020
For many years my website has featured my workshops, while my social media pages (WordPress blog, Instagram, and Facebook) have been where I’ve shared my latest photography. While I originally kept galleries on my Eloquent Images website, I rarely updated them and after a while the website galleries ceased being a reliable reflection of my current work.
About three years ago I redesigned my website, completely changing the interface and removed the galleries entirely, doubling-down on my blog galleries. But when I started hearing from people that they couldn’t find my latest images online, I realized that, even though they’re really easy to find in the galleries right here on my blog, many people don’t take the trouble to look for them—if they don’t see a Galleries option on the website, they just move on. I made a mental note that I need to bring my website galleries back, but between workshops and travel, I never found the time.
Well guess what—suddenly I have time! So a few weeks ago I asked my webmaster to add galleries to my website, and I’ve spent the last couple of weeks populating them, and having far more fun than I could have imagined. My webmaster labeled my six galleries Gallery 1, Gallery 2, …, Gallery 6. Hmmm, surely I can do better than that. I thought long and hard about more descriptive names, trying on locations and other similarly prosaic labels, before deciding I need themes to describe my motivations for clicking my shutter.
You may or may not know that when I decided to make photography my profession, I promised myself that I’d only photograph what I want to photograph, that I would never take a picture just because I thought it would earn me money. I’d just seen too many miserable photographers earning a living but hating what they do. But since all I want to photograph is nature (which, while universally loved, is not universally purchased), I needed to come up with a way to earn money. I landed on photo workshops, which perfectly leveraged my prior career in technical communications (tech writing, training, and support) and my love for both photography and nature. Not only did this enable me to photograph only what I love, my images turned out to be the perfect intro and marketing tools for my workshops: if you like my images, you’ll probably like my workshops; if you don’t like my images, you probably won’t be happy with my workshops. (Of course I do sell images too, but image sales isn’t an essential part of my business and never motivates me to take a picture.)
So I guess it should have been no surprise that thinking about what my gallery themes should be would lead me down this rabbit hole of introspection. Many photographers create spectacular images that reveal the damage humans are doing to our natural world, but I seem to simply be driven to share nature’s beauty, both the obvious and the overlooked. Rather than a conscious choice, this is more an organic outcome of a life spent seeking and finding happiness in the natural world, combined with regular old human nature that causes most of us to find pleasure sharing the things we love most: “Here’s something that makes me happy—I hope it makes you happy too.” Here’s where the rabbit hole led me—I can’t think of a clearer distillation of the things in nature that move me:
- Four Seasons: Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall
- Color and Light: Sunlight’s interplay with air, land, and water
- Water Like Glass: A Time for Reflection
- It Came from the Sky: Unexpected gifts from above
- In the Flow: Water on the move: Waves, waterfalls, and whitewater
- Celestial Carousel: Sun, Moon, and Stars
These galleries are a work in progress. Assembling them, I quickly realized that many of my images would work in more than one gallery, but I decided not to duplicate any image. Rather than a comprehensive retrospective, my new galleries are more of a summary of my own favorites. But I’m still adding to them, so feel free to suggest additions you think I’ve overlooked. Or simply browse and enjoy.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on May 25, 2020
On a quiet spring morning you step from the car and are greeted by electric-pink rhododendrons basking in splashes of early sunlight. Your arms prickle at the morning chill, but you wisely decide to leave the sweater behind, closing the door as softly as possible to preserve the peace. At a mostly overgrown gap in the foliage, you part the branches and step onto a dirt track that leads into the forest.
Following the trail a short distance, you realize you’re witnessing a competition for sunlight, each rhododendron spreading and stretching to get its share, but within a few hundred yards your route descends into old-growth redwoods benefiting from a multi-century head-start. These trees tower above everything, intercepting all but a handful of the sun’s rays, and the rhododendrons have surrendered.
As the trail descends further, you feel like you’re moving back in time. Ducking a spider web that spans the trail, you privately celebrate that you’re the first to pass this way today. Down here, the sunlight has to work harder to penetrate the canopy so the chill remains, but now its invigorating tingle propels you forward.
Before rounding a hairpin bend you pause, inhale, and listen. Gradually, what seemed like absolute silence reveals itself to be breeze-induced swish from swaying redwood boughs. Shortly after your steps resume, a bird’s cry warns the forest of your approach. You’re dropping faster now, but the tap-tap of your feet is dampened by the trail’s powdery surface.
Soon there’s a new sound, subtle and difficult to separate from the wind in the branches. As the trail’s decline moderates, the rhythm of your footfall slows and the new sound finally separates from wind’s gentle swish: rushing water. The creek is nearby but not yet visible. You follow the trail around fallen redwood that nature has repurposed as a giant fern garden and there it is, springing from the dense understory. With the creek comes more ferns and few flying insects, and a smell that’s pleasantly, paradoxically musty and fresh.
Your path parallels the creek now, spongy beneath your feet. You know the sun is well up, but the morning light is subdued, dusk-like. The creek’s music builds with each step, a soundtrack preparing you for something significant. One more bend and you’re facing your goal, a glistening cataract tumbling thirty vertical feet over mossy logs and rocks, framed by ferns.
You’ve arrived at Russian Gulch Fall, deep in the perpetually damp, green hills east of Mendocino on California’s north coast. Down here it’s easy to imagine a world untouched by humans, and finding this eden empty is heaven. The staircase down to the fall is carved into the hillside and almost invisible; the weathered redwood bridge crossing the creek, just downstream, blends with the surroundings to form the ideal platform from which to imagine a prehistoric reality. Even if you’re not so inclined, it’s difficult to be down here without lapsing into something akin to meditation.
About this image
I’ve been to Russian Gulch Fall a number of times, alone and with other photographers. I try to make it to the fall before midmorning, before the sun rises high enough to penetrate the dense redwood canopy and create too much contrast for my camera to capture.
On this morning I arrived early enough to work the scene for a full two hours before tiny patches of sunlight blighted the forest floor and sent me packing. And work it I did, starting wide and trending tighter as I became more familiar with the scene.
I started by orienting my polarizer, an often overlooked component in a forest water scene like this. Many people think the polarizer’s purpose is to make the sky more blue, but I think its greatest benefit is removing the sheen from foliage and rocks, especially (but not exclusively) when they’re wet. Between the two stops of light lost to the polarizer, and the dense forest dark, achieving a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the water without severely compromising my ISO and f-stop was impossible, so I just went with extreme blur in the water.
The morning air seemed perfectly still, but to guard against an imperceptible breeze nudging the ferns during my exposure, I bumped my ISO to 400. I selected f/11 to ensure front-to-back sharpness, which gave me a one second exposure that created extreme motion blur that I thought made the delicate strands of plummeting water quite nice.
A handful of people came through while I was down there, pausing briefly to savor the scene before continuing on or turning back, but for the most part I had the fall to myself. I photographed until the sun climbed into the treetops, paused a few minutes to bask in the quiet, then started the trudge back to the present.
Keeping the world out
Even when I’m surrounded by people, or signs of human influence, I try to photograph the world as if I’m the only one who has ever been here. It’s not that I don’t like people (I love and need people, as this pandemic has confirmed for me), it’s that I recharge in their absence, and my photography is an extension of that part of me. Whether I’m photographing at a location where I am indeed completely alone, as I was that morning at Russian Gulch Fall, or in the midst of a workshop group, or rubbing elbows with hundreds of gawking tourists (I’m looking at you, Antelope Canyon), I frame my scenes to convey a feeling of solitude.
Many of the images in the gallery below were captured in the presence of others, but the feeling I get from viewing them now is no different than it would be had I been completely alone. While many of my images feature the sky, for this gallery I selected smaller, more intimate scenes that soothe.
Alone in the World
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on May 20, 2020
“Many of us would probably be better fishermen if we did not spend so much time watching and waiting for the world to become perfect.”
― Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It
I haven’t fished in years (decades), but of course Norman Maclean’s words really aren’t about fishing anyway. Nevertheless, I’m reminded of this quote every time I find myself frozen by minutia, mired in the moment by small distractions that matter very little, or looking for excuses not to take pictures.
There are a lot of reasons not to take a picture—tell me if any of these sound familiar: “The light was better yesterday”; “The light will be better tomorrow”; “It’s too cold”; “It’s too hot”; “It’s too wet”; “I’m hungry”; “there’s dust on my sensor”; “This lens is soft,” and on, and on….
This Vestrahorn shoot came toward the end of the 10-day Iceland workshop Don Smith and I led in January of this year (was that really only 4 months ago?!). As the sun disappeared on this chilly winter evening, there were a lot of reasons not to stay out photographing: it was cold, I was wet, the clouds, it was getting dark, and there was a 90-minute drive separating us from dinner. It had been a nice shoot, but I was a little disappointed that the sky that had looked quite promising all afternoon, never really delivered the color I’d been waiting for. But before heading back to the van, I wandered up the beach a bit and found this rocky section that was different from the waves, and the reflections left in their wake, I’d been concentrating on all afternoon. As I reconsidered whether to call it a day, I came upon a lone shell embedded in the sand. With the light fading fast, I quickly dropped my tripod as low as it would go and set up with my Sony 12-24 G lens on my Sony a7RIV, and went to work.
Before I knew it, the “blue hour,” that magnificent transition from day to night (and back) that always looks better on an image than it does to the eye, had taken over. If you’ve ever stayed out to photograph after your eyes tell you it’s time to go in (or started shooting a little early while waiting for sunrise), you know what I’m talking about. What we humans perceive as darkness is really just our eyes’ relatively limited ability to gather light at any given instant. But a camera’s sensor (or a rectangle of unexposed film) can patiently accumulate all the light striking it for whatever duration we prescribe, thereby stretching its “instant” of perception indefinitely. Advantage camera.
On a clear night, you can actually watch the Earth’s shadow descend and engulf the landscape in deepening blue light. And unlike daylight (and moonlight) photography, when a discrete light source casts high-contrast shadows that test a camera’s dynamic range, and starlight photography, when the light is so faint that extremely long exposures are required to register any foreground detail at all, in the pre-sunrise/post-sunset gloaming, a camera can still “see” these diminishing vestiges of daylight. Given enough exposure, the image’s world is rendered blue, and because the entire sky is the light source, this blue hour light is spread so evenly that most shadows disappear.
When I can, I’ll stay out at least long enough for the first stars to pop out. On this evening, because I didn’t want the rest of the group to have to wait for me, I wrapped up before the stars appeared, but still stay out long enough to capture this 8-second exposure—my very last image of the evening. The perfection I’d been watching and waiting for never made it to my eyes, but fortunately my camera revealed that it was there all along.
Posted on May 12, 2020
A rainbow forms when sunlight strikes airborne water droplets and is separated into its component spectral colors by characteristics of the water. The separated light is reflected back to our eyes when it strikes the backside of the droplets: Voila—a rainbow!
There’s nothing random about a rainbow—despite their seemingly random advent and location in the sky, rainbows follow very specific rules of nature. Draw an imaginary line from the sun, through the back of your head and exiting between your eyes—when there are airborne water droplets to catch that light, a will rainbow form a full circle at 42 degrees surrounding that line (this won’t be on the test). Normally, because the horizon (almost always) gets in the way, we see no more than half of the rainbow’s circle (otherwise it might be called a “raincircle”). The lower the sun is, the more of the rainbow’s circle we see and the higher in the sky the rainbow extends; when the sun is higher than 42 degrees (assuming a flat horizon), we don’t see the rainbow at all unless we’re at a vantage point that allows us to look down (for example, looking into the Grand Canyon from the rim).
Read more about rainbows on my Photo Tips Rainbows Demystified page.
Moonlight is nothing more than reflected sunlight—like all reflections, moonlight is a dimmer version its source (the sun). So it stands to reason that moonlight would cause a less bright rainbow under the same conditions that sunlight causes a rainbow. So why have so few people heard of lunar rainbows (a.k.a., moonbows)? I thought you’d never ask.
Color vision isn’t nearly as important to human survival in the wild as our ability to see shapes, so we evolved to bias shape over color in low-light conditions. In other words, colorful moonbows have been there all along, we just haven’t be able to see them because they’re not bright enough. But cameras, with their ability to dial up sensitivity to light (high ISO) and accumulate light (long exposures), “see” much better in low light than you and I do.
While it’s entirely possible for a moonbow to form when moonlight strikes rain, the vast majority of moonbow photographs are waterfall-based. I suspect that’s because waterfall moonbows are so predictable—unlike a sunlight rainbow, which doesn’t require any special photo gear (a smartphone snap will do it), capturing a lunar rainbow requires at the very least enough foresight to carry a tripod, and enough knowledge to know where to look.
Nevertheless, even though we can’t see a moonbow’s color with the unaided eye, it’s not completely invisible. In fact, even without color, there’s nothing at all subtle about a bright moonbow—it may not jump out at you the way a sunlight rainbow does, but if you know where to look, you can’t miss a moonbow’s shimmering silvery band arcing across the water source.
Yosemite Falls moonbow
Despite frequent claims to the contrary, moonbows can be seen on many, many waterfalls. Among the more heralded moonbow waterfalls are Victoria Falls in Africa, Cumberland Fall in Kentucky, and (of course) Yosemite Falls in Yosemite National Park.
Yosemite Falls is separated into three connected components: Upper Yosemite Fall plummets about 1400 feet from the north rim of Yosemite Valley; the middle section is a series of cascades dropping more than 600 feet to connect the upper and lower falls; Lower Yosemite Fall drops over 300 feet to the valley floor. While there are many locations from which to photograph the moonbow on Upper Yosemite Fall, the most popular spot to photograph it is from the bridge at the base of Lower Yosemite Fall.
The Lower Yosemite Fall moonbow is not a secret. Arrive at the bridge shortly after sunset on a full moon night in April, May, and (often, if the fall is still going strong) June, and you’ll find yourself in an atmosphere of tailgate-party-like reverie. By all means come with your camera and tripod, but leave your photography expectations at home, or risk appreciating the majesty of this natural wonder. In springs following a typical winter, the mist and wind (the fall generates its own wind) on and near the bridge will drench revelers and cameras alike. After a particularly wet winter, the airborne water and long exposures can completely obscure your lens’s view during the necessarily long exposures. And if the wet conditions aren’t enough, if you can find a suitable vantage point, expect to find yourself constantly jostled by a densely packed contingent of photographers and gawkers stumbling about in limited light. Oh yeah, and then there are the frequent flashes and flashlights that will inevitably intrude upon your long exposures.
If, knowing all that, you still have visions of a moonbow image, it’s best to come prepared:
- A tripod and digital SLR camera are must (a film camera will work too, but it adds complications I won’t get into here)
- Wear head-to-toe rain gear so you can concentrate on keeping your camera dry
- Bring a chamois or towel—you’ll be using it frequently
- An umbrella can help keep water off your lens during a long exposure
- Practice moonlight photography (you’ll find my how-to of moonlight photography, including exposure settings and focus techniques, in the link) before you get there—trust me when I say that you don’t want to be learning how to photograph by moonlight while you’re trying to capture a moonbow in a mosh pit.
- Don’t have time to practice before your visit? Stop at the top of the Lower Yosemite Falls trail, where you can see the entire fall from top-to-bottom, and practice there—you won’t see a moonbow (the angle is wrong), but the conditions are much easier, and these might just turn out to be your favorite images of the night.
About this image
I’d taken my May workshop group to Glacier Point on this night, so we didn’t arrive at Yosemite Falls until nearly an hour after the moonbow started. This late arrival was intentional because California’s severe drought has severely curtailed the mist at the base of the lower fall. In a normal year the mist rises so high that the moonbow starts when the moon is quite low (remember, the lower the sun or moon, the higher the bow); this year, I knew that the best moonbow wouldn’t appear until the moon rose and the bow dropped into the heaviest mist. Not only that, the later it gets, the few people there are to deal with.
I’d given the group a talk on moonlight photography that afternoon, but we stopped at the top of the trail to practice for about 20 minutes, using the exquisite, tree-framed view of the entire fall. When everyone had had success, we took the short walk up to the bridge and got to work.
We found conditions that night were remarkably manageable—by the time we arrived at the bridge, at around 9:45, the crowd had thinned, and our dry winter meant virtually no mist on the bridge to contend with. I started with couple of frames to get more precise exposure values to share with the group (moonlight exposures can vary by a stop or so, based on the fullness of the moon, its size that month, and atmospheric conditions), then spent most of my time assisting and negotiating locations for my group to shoot (basically, wedging my tripod into an opening then inviting someone in the group to take my spot).
This image is one of my early test exposures—I went just wide enough to include the Big Dipper (just because it’s a test doesn’t mean I’ll ignore my composition). In wetter years I’ve captured move vivid double moonbows and complete arcs that stretch all the way across the frame, but I kind of like the simplicity of this image, and the fact that I was able to include the Big Dipper, which appears to be pouring in the the fall.
Posted on May 7, 2020
Photographing lightning is about 95 percent arms folded, toe-tapping, just-plain-standing-around-scanning-the-horizon—interspersed with random bursts of pandemonium. Usually, after all that waiting waiting around, with the first bolt usually comes the realization that you anticipated wrong and either, 1) the lightning is way over there; or 2) the lightning is right here (!). What generally ensues is a Keystone Cops frenzy of camera bag flinging, tire screeching, gear tossing, tripod expanding, camera cursing, Lightning Trigger fumbling, bedlam. Followed by more waiting. And waiting. And waiting….
I’ve always thought that the waiting part of lightning photography is a lot like fishing (spiced up by the understanding that these fish have the ability to strike you dead without warning). Both are an intoxicating mix of serene communing with nature and an electric current of anticipation. And whether you’re fishing for trying to photograph lightning, the strike far from a guarantee that you’ll reel anything in. Just as fish somehow slip the hook, you a lightning strike can come and go before even the fastest cameras can respond. Most of my lightning “the one that got away” stories turn out to be something I’ve done wrong (and my list of stupid mistakes is too long, and embarrassing, to detail here).
One frustration that I’ve learned to deal with is that when a Lightning Trigger is attached and turned on, the camera is in pre-focus mode (to allow the fastest shutter-lag), which disables LCD review—and I guarantee that the surest way to ensure another lightning strike is to turn off your Lightning Trigger because the second you turn off your Lightning Trigger to see if you got that last strike, a spectacular triple-strike will fire right in the middle of your frame. Guaranteed. (This is an extension of the axiom every photographer knows: The best way to make something you’ve been waiting for happen, is to put away your camera gear.) Though there’s no way to know, I would bet that each time you pull the line out of the water to make sure the worm is still there, the “big one” you’ve been dreaming about swims right by.
Read the lightning photography tutorial in my Lightning Photography photo tips article.
About this image
Still reeling from Saturday’s 12-hour drive to the Grand Canyon for our 2015 Grand Canyon Monsoon photo workshop, and with clear skies in the forecast for Sunday, Don Smith and I planned to take the day to recharge for the workshop that started Monday. But dark clouds after lunch sent us racing up to the rim (a 15 minute drive) to see what was going on (see Keystone Cops reference above).
Starting at Grand View Point, we quickly set up our tripods, attached our Lightning Triggers to our cameras, and aimed toward promising clouds in the east, up the canyon, and waited. Soon these distant clouds weakened, but a new batch of clouds overhead darkened, and a breeze picked up—usually a sign that rain is coming. Aside from the spectacular beauty, another great thing about photographing lightning at the Grand Canyon is the expansive vistas that allow you to photograph distant lightning. Basically, we want to be photographing someone else’s storm—if you’re in the storm you’re photographing, you’re too close. So when the rain started falling we packed up and bid a hasty retreat; by the time we made it to the car, the rain had turned to hail we could hear thunder. Since the storm appeared to be moving west, we drove east to get on the back side of it, eventually ending up at Lipan Point—one of my favorite spots for lightning because it has long views both up and down the canyon.
We set up west of the Lipan vista, enjoying relative peace and quiet away from the summer tourist swarm. The cell that had chased us from Grand View was diminishing, but we could see an even more impressive cell moving up to replace it from the south. The first bolts this storm fired were above the flat, scrub pine plain south of the rim, but it was moving toward the canyon so we set up and waited. At first I hedged my bets, composing wide enough to get lightning over the less aesthetically pleasing terrain, along with the canyon. But as the cell moved out over the canyon, my composition moved with it.
When photographing lightning, not only do you need to get the light right, you need to make sure your shutter speed is slow enough to capture secondary and tertiary strikes, but fast enough that the lightning doesn’t get lost in the background. That’s because a long shutter speed, even if the rest of the scene is perfectly exposed, will wash out the lightning (not problem at night, when there’s plenty of contrast). The light this afternoon was particularly schizophrenic, so because I prefer photographing lightning in manual metering mode (I explain in the lightning tutorial linked above), I had to frequently monitor the changes and adjust my exposure accordingly.
That afternoon we enjoyed about a half hour of quality shooting before lightning moved too close for comfort. In that span I saw at least a half dozen canyon strikes, not an especially active storm by Grand Canyon standards, but one that delivered several photogenic strikes like this one (my favorite of the bunch). Lightning photography can be mesmerizing, and when the strikes just keep getting more and more spectacular, it’s easy to lose track of (or not care) how close the storm is. Fortunate for us this afternoon, a second active cell snuck up behind us and jarred us from our trance. It was over less photogenic terrain, so we managed to pull ourselves away before things became too dangerous.
Grand Canyon Lightning
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on May 4, 2020
Some of the best things that have happened in my life would not have happened had something bad not happened first. Not only does this apply to life’s important things, like relationships and careers, I can also say the same thing about my photography.
In 2013, the politicians we Americans elected to serve us got in a pissing match about the budget and the public suffered. When they shut down the government, the workers who could least afford it lost their income, and people who had been planning vacations to our national parks had to cancel or find alternatives. I make my living conducting photo workshops in the national parks, so to say I was anxious about the government shutdown would be an understatement.
Because of the timing, the shutdown affected my friend Don Smith’s workshops even more that it affected mine—I lost one sunset shoot in my Eastern Sierra workshop (and simply replaced it with an alternate location), but Don lost the Grand Tetons the day before the start of his workshop there (and still managed to make it work with alternate locations just outside the park), and it looked he was going to lose his Arches/Canyonlands workshop too.
As many of you may know, Don and I sometimes trade off assisting each other’s workshops, and I was scheduled to help him in Arches/Canyonlands. Don wanted to find alternate locations for his Arches/Canyonlands group as he’d done in the Tetons, but a schedule conflict prevented him from traveling to Moab early to scout. With an opening in my schedule, I volunteered to do the advance scouting instead. I flew out a few days early and spent that extra time identifying options in areas surrounding the parks’ boundaries.
It turned out that while I was out there, the state of Utah paid the federal government to reopen their parks, so by the time the workshop started everything was back to business as usual. But because of that advance scouting trip, that only happened because of the government shutdown, Don was able to give his participants several really nice spots that would never have happened without the shutdown.
The highlight of the entire workshop was a trip to Monument Valley to photograph the full moon rising above The Mittens that would never had happened without the shutdown. I knew we’d have a full moon during this workshop and was looking for places to photograph it outside Arches and Canyonlands NPs. My first evening in Moab, on a whim I checked the sunset moonrise above The Mittens and realized it would align perfectly. Even though the drive from Moab to Monument Valley was 2 1/2 hours, Don and I thought this opportunity was too good to pass up. When we shared the opportunity with the rest of the group at the orientation, even though we now had access to Arches and Canyonlands and didn’t need to drive to Monument Valley, everyone was excited to do it.
We left early enough to allow the group to explore some of the beauty along the route, enjoy the loop drive through Monument Valley, and even have dinner at the spectacular (and aptly named) The View restaurant. And as you can see, the moonrise itself was a rousing success. All because our original plans were blown up by the national parks closure.
The moral of the story
I’m not saying that a global pandemic is a good thing, and certainly am not trivializing the true tragedies COVID-19 has brought. But I do believe that those of us not affected by extreme COVID loss can find comfort in the positives that come from an experience we can all agree feels quite negative. Here’s my list of things that have happened thanks to COVID that would not have happened with business as usual (in no particular order):
- I’m learning video!
- I emptied a storage unit I hadn’t visited in four years and that was sucking $170/month from my checking account
- My garage is cleaner that it has been in years, in spite of (in fact because of) the infusion of mostly useless junk from my storage unit
- I’m refinancing my house and saving $$$
- I’ve learned that I can go (at least) 6 weeks without a haircut
- I’m walking 7-10 miles per day and have started running again
- I’ve processed tons of images that I had completely forgotten about (and even sold some)
- I’ve learned (or at least been reminded) that “success” isn’t as money-centric as we tend to believe
I can’t wait to return to “normal” (whatever that may be), to get out and photograph the nature I love so much and reconnect in person with my workshop students. But in the meantime I find comfort in the knowledge that in many ways I’ll be better for this experience. I hope you can say the same thing.
Change of Plans: Images That Happened Because Something Went Wrong
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Posted on April 29, 2020
True story: I once saw a guy taking 10-second exposures of the moonbow at the base of Yosemite Falls, hand-held. When I gently suggested that his image might be a little soft, he assured me that he would just sharpen it in Photoshop.
I won’t deny that digital capture and processing has given photographers more flexibility and control than ever, and processing can indeed correct a number of problems, but processing is not a panacea—if the image was garbage going in, it’ll be garbage going out. Processing software and skills are an essential part of good photography, but the best images are still created in the camera.
Just as Ansel Adams visualized the finished print before clicking the shutter, success in digital photography still starts with understanding how the camera’s vision differs from your own, and taking the steps necessary to leverage those differences at capture. While Adams was indeed a master in the darkroom, that skill would have been wasted without his intimate knowledge of his camera and film, combined with his understanding of exposure, that ensured the best possible negative and print once he got into the darkroom.
Of course (spoiler alert) photography has come a long way since Ansel Adams’ roamed the earth. Digital photographers now have more control than ever, and incredible capture tools that allow us to correct problems instantly. But I fear all this power has intimidated some photographers, and made others lazy. Fortunately, like many things that seem scary-complex going in, just scratching the surface a little starts to reveal a foundation of very simple principles.
One of the simplest things you can do is learn how to read a histogram, then train yourself to rely on it. It’s the relying on the histogram part where most photographers fall short. One of the most frequent mistakes I see inexperienced photographers make is basing their exposure decision on the way the picture looks on the back of their camera. The LCD is great for composition, but trusting it for exposure is a huge mistake.
Additionally, and here’s another thing that’s often overlooked: take the time to learn how your camera’s actual capture differs from what its histogram tells you. The histogram is based on a jpeg preview, but if you’re shooting raw, you almost always have more information than the histogram shows you. Each camera model is different, so you need to do a little observing or testing to determine how far you can push your camera’s histogram beyond its boundaries and still get usable data. Shooting this way, the jpeg that comes out of the camera may indeed show blown highlights or unrecoverable shadows, but they’ll come back like magic in Lightroom/Photoshop (or whatever your processing paradigm).
When I photographed this moon rising above Yosemite Valley last February, even though the color and exposure of the finished image you see here is pretty close to what my eyes saw, the image that appeared on my camera’s LCD screen looked nothing like this. The sky was washed out, and the reflection was lost in the shadows. But a quick check of my luminosity histogram told me that I’d captured all the scene’s detail, and verifying with the RGB histogram confirmed that I’d gotten all the color as well.
Usually a perfect histogram is all you need to get the exposure right, but in this case I also had make sure I had detail in the moon, which was by far the brightest thing in the scene. Normally I only use my camera’s highlight alert features (“zebras” pre-capture, blinking highlights post-capture) as a reminder to check my (nearly always more reliable) histogram, but here the moon was too small to register on the histogram. So as I added light, I closely monitored my highlight alert, bumping the exposure in 1/3-stop increments until the flashing appeared. But wait, there’s more! Just seeing the highlight alert wasn’t enough to tell me the moon was blown out. I know my Sony a7RIV well enough to know that I can push my exposure at least a stop beyond where the moon starts blinking and still recover the lunar details in post. This little piece of knowledge enables me to give my moon images the most light possible, ensuring less noise when I pull up the shadows.
In Lightroom I pulled down the highlights, pulled up the shadows, tweaked a few other things (color temperature, vibrance, clarity), then moved the image to Photoshop, where I did some noise reduction (Topaz DeNoise AI), dodging and burning, and (finally) sharpening. Voilà.
More Twilight Magic
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Posted on April 26, 2020
When I was a kid, my family took a camping vacation to the Pacific Northwest. We packed our Ford Country Squire station wagon so full that it almost felt as if my brothers and I were an afterthought, hooked up the tent trailer, and pointed north. As with all of these Hart-family summer vacations, we covered ridiculous miles and saw a mind numbing selection of diverse natural wonders, but my strongest memory from that trip is a warm afternoon hike on Mt. Rainier that ended at an ice cave. Gazing upward inside the cave, I rotated slowly, mesmerized by the diaphanous blue ceiling and its intricate curves. Not quite believing my eyes, I did my best to lock the scene in my brain. Over the years that memory remained as vivid as ever, but the more time passed, the less I trusted it—could something really have been that beautiful? On a snowy January morning in Iceland, I found out.
One of the highlights of the winter workshop Don Smith and I do in Iceland is a trip to an ice cave. But like most things in nature, ice caves are ephemeral, never a sure thing. On last year’s scouting trip, Crystal Ice Cave on Vatnajokull Glacier was closed, so we got to tour what I’d call more of an “ice crevasse” instead—pretty cool, but nothing like my childhood ice cave memory. But this year the glacier gods smiled on us, and on a snowy morning about half-way through the trip Don and I piled our group into a large van (small bus?) with the biggest tires I’d ever seen, and headed onto Vatnajokull Glacier. There were a dozen photographers in our workshop group, plus Don, me, Óli (our Icelandic guide), and the local glacier guide/driver we’d hired for that morning. To beat the crowds, Óli had gotten us out well before sunrise (not as taxing as it sounds when you factor in the 10 a.m. Iceland January sunrise). Our adventure started on a regular highway, but soon detoured off-road across undulating snow and ice that bore very little resemblance to an actual road. After 20 or 30 minutes of jostling, our vehicle had gone as far as the terrain allowed, so we parked and tumbled into the frigid air. Our glacier guide issued helmets and crampons, delivered a brief orientation, then led us into the darkness across more snow and ice.
Following an uneventful, nearly 2-mile hike, we rounded a corner and got our first glance at a gaping opening at the base of the glacier just as the day started to brighten. From the outside, Crystal Ice Cave was an unimpressive black void beneath a massive chunk of ice, but the instant I stepped inside, my childhood ice cave memory came surging back. Only this time, I had a camera.
Not only were we the only ones in the cave (two hikers who had arrived before us had quickly moved on to less accessible parts of the glacier), an overnight snowfall had completely erased all signs of any previous visitors’ tramplings in the patchwork snow that accumulates on the floor beneath small, natural skylights in the cave’s ceiling. Though we had the cave to ourselves, sharing such a wide composition with a dozen other photographers makes taking a picture without someone in it pretty difficult, but the whole group worked well together, sticking to the perimeter, taking turns, and avoiding leaving footprints in the pristine snow.
Awaiting my turn to photograph, I craned my neck and gaped at nature’s masterwork. An ice cave forms when glacial runoff finds, or makes its own, path through the glacial ice. Flowing water is always warmer than the surrounding ice, so with time the channels the water creates expand as more ice melts. When the runoff finds a different path, or diminishes in the winter months, the channels in the ice remain and an ice cave is born (or reborn). Ice caves are blue because centuries of pressure from above compresses opaque, accumulating snow, forcing out air and leaving translucent ice crystals that light can pass through. As sunlight from the surface travels through the ice, all but the shortest visible wavelengths are absorbed, leaving only the blue wavelengths to reach fortunate eyes.
When my turn came to photograph this marvel, I was ready with my Sony a7RIII (my a7RIV and had a small mishap with the Iceland surf and was drying back in my room) and 12-24 G lens. I lowered my tripod to about 18 inches above the ground and composed this 12mm frame to emphasize the faceted ceiling. At 12mm, I was wide enough to also include some of the polished black rocks framing the nearby snow.
I know what you’re thinking: This picture needs a person “for scale.” First, let me say that, because I always try to capture the world devoid of human influence (that is, as if humans don’t exist) I don’t put people in my images. But I acknowledge that adding a person often gives a scene a focal point that a creates a more personal connection with the viewer. So even though the shot of a single person standing in an ice cave has become something of a cliché, compositions become cliché for a reason, and I won’t deny that many (most?) people would like this image better if there were a person somewhere in it. But because leading workshops means my income doesn’t depend a lot on image sales, I’m blessed to be able to photograph the world in the ways that make me happiest, without having to worry about pleasing others.
But let me get back to the scale thing for a second. Despite what others may tell you, adding a person to a scene like this rarely conveys true scale when you try to take in as much of the scene as possible with a wide angle lens. Rather than conveying scale, adding a relatively distant subject (rock, tree, person) to a wide angle scene will exaggerate the expanse of the scene, and shrink the subject. There’s nothing wrong with this—I do it all the time in my landscape images—just don’t say you’re doing it for scale. (Real estate photographers know that a wide angle lens will make even the smallest room look spacious.)
But anyway… I spent a long time in the ice cave making all kind of wide compositions, but as often happens, I switched to a longer lens and started trying to isolate elements of the scene, getting progressively closer as time passed. Shortly before we left, I must have spent at least 20 minutes working on a single water drop dripping from the ceiling every 10 seconds or so. I have no idea if I got anything worth sharing, but I was sure happing a blast.
We packed up when the cave started to fill with selfie-stick toting gawkers. It wasn’t until the hike back that I fully appreciated how fortunate we were to have the ice cave virtually to ourselves for so long. Based on the virtually uninterrupted string of people heading toward the glacier as we headed out, I’d wager that the ice cave experience for anyone arriving after we left wouldn’t be too different from Upper Antelope Canyon at midday (or the New York City subway at rush hour).
One more thing
Ice caves are one of the canaries in Earth’s climate coal mine. As our planet warms, glaciers recede and their ice caves disappear. I know now that the Rainier ice cave of my youth was part of Paradise Ice Caves. Sadly, Paradise Ice Caves disappeared in the late 20th century, so you, your kids, their kids, and so on will never be able to pile into the family car like we did, and create a memory that lasts a lifetime. Sadly, Crystal Ice Cave probably won’t survive this century, and the clock is ticking on all the world’s ice caves.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.