Posted on November 29, 2020
I warned you that you’ll be seeing images from this month’s Yosemite snow day a while. …
As I may have mentioned, the conditions this day were so off-the-charts-spectacular that I probably could have closed my eyes and still had a good chance for a useable image with any click. But I knew I had an opportunity capture something truly special, so I forced myself to slow down and work with purpose at every stop.
Lots of variables go into creating a successful landscape image. Many people struggle with the scene variables—light, depth, and motion—that are managed by their camera’s exposure settings: shutter speed, f-stop, ISO. Others struggle more with the composition variables: recognizing, isolating, and framing a subject. And then there’s the overlap between these two sides of image creation that requires simultaneous, synergistic mastery. So I thought I’d use this image to demonstrate my image creation process.
What was I thinking?
Glassy reflections and the ability to include the Three Brothers makes this location beside the Merced River one of my favorite El Capitan views. But, as much as I love this spot, for years it also frustrated me because my widest lens was only 16mm, forcing me to choose between El Capitan and Three Brothers, or their reflection, but never both. My frustration vanished a few years ago when I added the Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens to my arsenal.
But now I was armed with the brand new Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens. Though I’d used it some in my Yosemite Fall Color photo workshop a week earlier, my own photography isn’t a priority during a workshop, so this would be my first chance to give my new lens the undivided attention it deserved. And what better spot to do that?
I approach every scene starting with my camera at its best ISO (100) and the lens’s “ideal” f-stop (generally f/8 – f/11, where lenses tend to be sharpest, the depth of field is good, with minimal diffraction). Given that motion wasn’t a factor in this scene (I was on a tripod, the wind was calm, and the river’s slow motion didn’t concern me), I stuck with ISO 100. And while the snow and floating leaves were an essential part of my immediate foreground, the 12mm focal length this scene required provided more than enough depth of field at f/10, no matter where in my frame I focused. (At 12mm and f/10, the hyperfocal distance is less than two feet.) In this case I just focused on the leaves and didn’t think about DOF again.
With my ISO and f/stop established, I simply put my eye to the viewfinder of my Sony a7RIV and dialed my shutter speed until the histogram looked right. Since this was a fairly high dynamic range scene (big difference between the darkest shadows and brightest highlights), I knew the exposure wouldn’t look great on my LCD image preview—my highlights would be a little too bright, my shadows a little too dark, but since the histogram looked good, I knew I’d be able to fix the highlights and shadows with a couple of easy Lightroom adjustments.
Some scenes you can walk up to and plant your tripod pretty much anywhere without much thought. But the variety of foreground and middle-ground elements here made the simple decision of where to set up my tripod very important. Normally I use the tall trees cut off near the center of this image as framing elements, and to block empty sky just left of El Capitan. But with clouds in what is all too often blank blue sky, and unable to find a foreground that worked from that position, I moved downstream and found a ribbon of autumn leaves hugging the riverbank that would make a great foreground.
I was pretty pleased so far, but I still had be careful to position myself so the floating leaves framed the reflection rather than blocked it. Try as I might, I wasn’t able to avoid blocking some of the Three Brothers reflection, but overall I was satisfied to include the leaves and all of the El Capitan reflection without blocking the nose of El Capitan.
Next I started working on the left/right aspect of the scene. The things that get left out of an image can be as important as what’s included. This is especially true on an image’s perimeter frequently, where distractions are easy overlooked by photographers too focused on their primary subject. This framing can managed by some combination of position, focal length, and aim (where my camera is pointed). In this scene I’d already worked out my position, focal length was non-negotiable because I had to be at 12mm (my lens couldn’t go any wider than 12mm, and composing longer than 12mm would have cut off the top and/or bottom of El Capitan). That left only framing option the direction my camera is aimed. Not wanting to cut of any of the riverbank, I shifted my view right until the bank formed a continuous line from the bottom of my frame until it disappeared into the mass of autumn tinted shrubbery on the middle-right.
When I thought I had things just right, I clicked a frame, stood back, and reviewed my composition on my LCD, made a small tweak to add a little more on the right and subtract a little from the left, then waited with my eyes on the rapidly shifting clouds and light. Each time I liked what I saw, I’d click another frame until I was satisfied I had something worth keeping.
The Many Faces of El Capitan
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Posted on November 22, 2020
Between peak fall color dancing on reflections everywhere, and a sky that oscillated all day between heavy snowfall and dramatic clearing, this November day was just one of those days when it was best to keep moving. In these conditions that’s easier said than done because whatever I’m photographing is so beautiful, it’s hard to leave. The result is a memory card full of spectacular, but similar, images. So, after a lifetime of photographing Yosemite in spectacular conditions, I’ve learned not to forget that it’s just as beautiful somewhere else.
By the time I made it out to this Half Dome view just a couple of Merced River bends upstream from Sentinel Bridge, I’d circled the valley so many times I was almost dizzy. My usual lens here is my Sony 24-105 f/4 G because I don’t usually think the surrounding scenery justifies shrinking Half Dome and its reflection with a wide lens. But with snow draping towering evergreens and golden cottonwoods, and a mosaic of autumn leaves lining the riverbank, this was no ordinary day.
Though I’d just gotten the Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM in August, this was only the second time I’d gotten to use it (thank-you-very-much coronavirus), so I figured what the heck and twisted it onto my Sony a7RIV. Then I moved up and down the riverbank looking for the best foreground to put with the rest of this glorious scene. I eventually settled on this spot, drawn by the way the colorful leaves arced and seemed to frame Half Dome’s reflection.
To shrink the empty area between the leaves and reflection, I splayed my tripod legs and dropped it as low as possible, then plopped down in the snow to compose (grateful for my camera’s articulating LCD). The closest leaves were just a couple of feet away, but I really, really wanted the scene to be completely sharp throughout my frame. I was pretty sure that at 12mm and f/11 I had enough depth of field to safely focus anywhere, but why take a chance? I opened my hyperfocal app and confirmed that my hyperfocal distance was just one foot. Nevertheless, since the databases these apps use don’t take into account the extreme resolving power of a GM lens on 61 megapixel sensor, I bumped to f/16 (diffraction be damned) and went to work.
At first I was annoyed by the constant drips from overhead branches that kept disturbing my reflection, but quickly discovered that by timing my clicks, I could use the concentric waves as an accent, without losing the reflection. The single leaf that floated in just below (above?) Half Dome’s reflection was a bonus.
I just updated the Reflections article in my Photo Tips section, but am sharing it below as well
(and check out the Reflections Around the World gallery at the bottom)
Okay, so that’s pretty basic. How about this one?
Wikipedia: The change in direction of a wavefront at an interface between two different media so that the wavefront returns into the medium from which it originated
Whoa, I hope that’s not on the test.
Who doesn’t love the soothing tranquility of a crisp reflection? And like a metaphor in writing, a reflection is an indirect representation that can be more powerful than its literal double thanks to its ability to engage the brain in different ways than we’re accustomed. Rather than processing the scene directly, we first must mentally reassemble the reflection’s reverse world, and in the process perhaps see the scene a little differently.
Reflections are a powerful photographic tool as well. Water’s universal familiarity makes it an ideal subject for photographers frustrated by their camera’s static representation of our dynamic world. Just as we freeze or blur a waterfall to express turbulent motion, we can include a reflection to convey serenity.
Water reflections come in many forms, from a mirror-sharp inverted mountain shimmering atop a still pool, to an abstract shuffle of color and texture on an undulating lake. Without getting too far into the physics of light, it’s important to understand that every object we see and photograph (that doesn’t generate its own light) comes to us courtesy of reflected light. For example, when sunlight strikes Half Dome in Yosemite, some of the sun’s photons bounce straight back into our eyes, and there it is.
But other photons head off in different directions—some are captured by other sets of eyes, while others land on the surface of the Merced River. Some of these photons penetrate the water to reveal the submerged riverbed, while others carom off at the same angle at which they struck the water, like a pool ball striking the cushion, or a hockey puck off the boards. The ricocheting photons that travel from Half Dome and bounce off the river, reach our eyes as a reflection. In other words, what we call a reflection is in fact re-reflected light (reflected first from El Capitan, then by the river).
Mirror reflection recipe
The ingredients for a crisp, mirror reflection is pretty simple: still water, a sunlit subject that’s much brighter than the water’s surface (the greater the contrast the better), and a view angle that matches the angle from the water’s surface to the reflection subject. (The best reflections are usually found on shaded water because there are fewer photons to compete with the photons bouncing from the reflected subject.)
In the image on the left, with El Capitan in direct sunlight but the slow moving Merced River still shaded, my biggest challenge was finding floating fall leaves to include with my reflection. Once I found this spot, my only option was to use my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens (on my Sony a7RIV body), which gave me a field of view just wide enough to fit El Capitan, Three Brothers, the reflection, and the floating leaves into my frame.
Playing the angles
Understanding that reflected photons leave the water’s surface at the same angle at which they arrive—imagine the way a tennis ball bounces (if it weren’t affected by spin, wind resistance, or gravity)—helps us get in position for the reflection we want.
A few years ago I found myself atop Sentinel Dome right after an intense rain shower had turned indentations in the granite into small, glistening pools. Rather than simply settle for the vivid sunset coloring the clouds above, I decided to include the sunset reflected in the pools as well. At eye-level the pools reflected blue sky, so I dropped my tripod as low as it would go, almost to granite level, positioning my lens at the same angle to the pools that the red light leaving the clouds struck the water.
When the water’s in motion
As spectacular as a crisp, mirror reflection in still water is, it’s easy to overlook the visual potential of a reflection that’s not crisp, or to forget your camera’s ability to render a soft or abstract reflection much better than your eyes view it. While a crisp reflection often dominates the primary subject in an image, a splash of reflected color or shape can provide a striking accent to a dominant primary subject. And a reflection that’s lost to the continuously varying angles of rippled or choppy water, magically appears when a long exposure smoothes the water’s surface.
In this image from Lake Wanaka on the South Island of New Zealand, all the ingredients were in place for a special sunset reflection until a light breeze disturbed the lake’s surface with gentle undulations. By attaching a Breakthrough 6-stop neutral density filter to my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens (Sony a7RIII camera), I was able to achieve a 30-second exposure that complete smoothed the lake’s surface. While not a perfect mirror, the resulting reflection has a very pleasing soft, gauzy look. The long exposure smoothed the distant clouds as well.
Where to focus
An often misunderstood aspect of reflection photography is where to focus. Though it seems counterintuitive, the focus point of a reflection is the reflection subject, not the reflection surface. This isn’t such a big deal in a scene like the Half Dome reflection at the top of the post, where the focus point of everything of visual significance is infinity, but it’s a very big deal when you want both your reflection and rocks or leaves on the nearby water surface sharp.
The El Capitan reflection on the right is very different from the Half Dome reflection above, where the extreme depth of field ensured sharpness whether I’d focused on anything in the scene or on the reflection. But here the leaves that were my scene’s primary emphasis were just a couple of feet from my camera, while El Capitan was several thousand feet distant. Even though the leaves floated atop the El Capitan reflection, focusing on El Capitan would have softened the leaves. To increase my depth of field, I stopped down to f/18 and focused several feet into the foreground leaves, then magnified the image on my LCD to verify that all of the leaves were sharp. Though El Capitan is slightly soft, a soft reflection is far more forgivable than a soft foreground.
It seems that reflections often feel like a fortuitous gift that we just stumbled upon. But given that reflections are entirely beholden to the laws of physics, they’re far more predictable than many of the natural elements we photograph. Taking a little time to understand the nature of reflections, and how they’re revealed by a camera, enables photographers to anticipate their appearance.
Reflections Around the World
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on November 15, 2020
A lot of factors go into creating a nice image. Much of the emphasis is on composition, and the craft of metering and focusing a scene, but this week I’ve been thinking about an often overlooked (or taken for granted) component: Opportunity.
This has been on my mind because a week ago I got the rare opportunity to be in Yosemite for the convergence of my two favorite conditions for photography there: peak fall color and fresh snow. Toss in multiple clearing storms and ubiquitous reflections, I have a hard time imagining anything topping that day (okay, maybe if there’d been a full moon…).
Every photographer who has shared a beautiful image has probably had to endure some version of, “Wow, you were sure lucky that happened.” And indeed, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve received a gift from nature—most recently, last Sunday in Yosemite. But as I think about the blessings of this day, I’m reminded of Louis Pasteur’s oft repeated observation that chance favors the prepared mind. In other words, opportunity is great, but it’s not completely random, and you have to be ready for it.
A favorite quote of Ansel Adams and the generation of photographers who succeeded him, Pasteur’s (translated) words have been repeated and paraphrased to the point that they verge on cliché. But like most clichés, Pasteur’s words achieved this status for a reason. (In this case I can substitute “opportunity” for “chance” without really changing the meaning.)
Granted, I did indeed feel extremely lucky that the weather gods decided to drop snow on Yosemite Valley, a location that doesn’t get tons of snow anyway, just as the valley’s fall color peaked. But to simplify that opportunity down to a lucky convergence that I just happened to be present for, completely discounts the fact that my being in Yosemite that particular day was no accident. I’d been monitoring the Yosemite Valley forecast all week, cleared my schedule when it looked like snow might fall, then made the nearly 4-hour drive with no guarantees.
This does not make me a genius—I wasn’t the only photographer there, far from it. And I wasn’t granted inside information, or motivated by divine intervention—I just checked the weather forecast and acted. And while it was chilly (around 30 degrees), and wet, I didn’t really endure what I’d call extreme hardship (unless you consider spending 24 hours with my brother extreme hardship). 😬
So the first part of the preparation->opportunity equation is simply the ability to recognize the potential for good photography, combined with the willingness to act (and maybe to endure a little inconvenience and discomfort). The second part of the equation is the ability to take maximize the opportunities that manifest, whether they be the product of your proactive initiative (like monitoring the forecast and getting yourself on location), or simply a fortuitous (unexpected) happenstance (right place, right time).
At the very least, taking full advantage of photographic good fortune requires the basic ability to manage exposure and focus variables to control photography’s creative triad: motion, depth, and light. (Seriously, you cannot tap a scene’s potential without these skills, I promise.) But bolstered by this foundation, the next step is a little more subtle because it’s so easy to be overwhelmed by the beauty before you, and to just start clicking because the conditions pretty much guarantee a nice image, regardless of the effort.
True story: A few years ago I was guiding a workshop group at a location with a beautiful view of El Capitan. When the beauty is off the charts like this, rather than insert myself, I often just stand back and observe. And while doing this, I watched one member of the group approach the riverbank and survey the scene—so far, so good. But… Suddenly she popped the camera off her tripod, switched it into continuous mode, pointed downstream, and pressed the shutter and slowly swept the camera in a 180 degree arc—in 5 seconds she’d probably captured at least 50 images. Stunned, it was over before I could intervene. When I regained my composure, I asked her what in the world she was doing. She just smiled and said, “It’s Yosemite, there’s bound to be something good in there.” I couldn’t argue. (This was actually a lighthearted moment that we all had fun with for the rest of the workshop.)
Which brings me to this image from last Sunday. When I pulled up to Valley View, the snow had just stopped (temporarily), glazing every exposed surface pristine white. If any scene qualified for my workshop student’s machine gun, spray and pray, approach, this was it.
The main event at Valley View is El Capitan, but my eye was drawn to the amber trees across the Merced River, their glassy reflection, and the endless assortment of yellow leaves drifting through the scene. I also liked the way Bridalveil Fall, though definitely not gushing, etched a white stripe on the granite beneath Cathedral Rocks. Rather than settle for the easy scene, I made my way about 50 feet upstream from the parking lot to a spot where El Capitan is mostly blocked by trees, but Bridalveil Fall, Cathedral Rocks, the colorful trees, and the reflection, are front and center.
Framing this scene, I dropped as low as possible to emphasize the reflection and eliminate some spindly branches dangling overhead (and said a prayer of thanks for the articulating LCD on my Sony a7RIV). After one frame, I decided the bright gray clouds reflecting on the nearest water to be distracting, so with my eye on my LCD, I dialed my polarizer until the the reflection was off the immediate foreground without erasing the reflection of the scene across the river. This darkened the bland part of the river and helped the rest of the reflection stand out.
I also realized the darker foreground could use some sprucing up. While I could say that I was lucky that a pair of leaves drifted by just beneath the Cathedral Rocks reflection, their inclusion (and position) in this image was no accident. The river was dotted with fairly continuous stream of drifting leaves, so with my composition in place, I simply waited for them to drift into my scening. I took several frames with different leaves in different positions, but liked this one because this pair so nicely framed Bridalveil Fall.
The moral of this story
I think too many photographers are limited by their own mindset. Make your own opportunities and prepare to take full advantage of them when they happen. Learn the basics of exposure and focus technique (it’s not hard). You have enough access to weather forecasts, celestial (sun, moon, stars) data, and nearby beauty (no matter where you live) to anticipate a special event and plot a trip. And once you’re there, take in your surroundings (ideally, before the action starts), avoid the obvious, and challenge yourself to not settle for the first beautiful scene to grace your viewfinder. And no matter how beautiful that image looks on your LCD, ask yourself how it could be better.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on November 8, 2020
There’s something to love about each season in Yosemite. In winter it’s snow—never a sure thing, but when it happens, it feels like hitting the jackpot. Come spring the waterfalls have filled, the valley is green, and the dogwood are popping. And while the crowds keep me away from Yosemite Valley in summer, this is the season to explore the exposed granite and pristine water of Yosemite’s high country.
And then comes autumn, when Vernal and Nevada Falls are a shadow of their spring selves, and Bridalveil Fall is a mere trickle. Even booming Yosemite Falls, the valley’s spring centerpiece and instrument of it’s continuous soundtrack, has vanished by September, its existence reduced to a dark outline on the light granite, like the negative of a crime scene chalkline.
Enter autumn (which in California doesn’t really start until the end of October). The vacation crowds have returned to work and school, Yosemite mornings are infused with a biting chill, and the perpetual blue skies of summer are brushed with clouds that hint of the coming winter. Almost overnight the oak, cottonwood, maple, and dogwood trees have fired up, warming Yosemite Valley with vivid yellows and reds.
Perhaps my favorite part of autumn in Yosemite is the now relaxed Merced River. Starved of the same snowmelt the feeds its iconic waterfalls, the Merced River forms a glassy ribbon that twists through the center of Yosemite Valley like the center line on a mountain highway. Framing the river, yellow cottonwoods and their deciduous cousin reflect their hues, creating spectacular complements to Yosemite’s icons.
Last week’s Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections workshop group got to enjoy the Merced River at its reflective best. Following a particularly dry winter and summer without a drop of rain, the river was so low that in places it would have been possible to walk across without getting your knees wet. On our penultimate morning I guided the group to one of my favorite riverside views to photograph the first light on El Capitan and the Three Brothers.
This is one of those spots that’s so close to El Capitan that there’s no such thing as a lens that’s too wide here. After years of trying to fit in using the 16-35 glass, a few years ago I got the Sony 12-24 f/4 G and a whole new world opened. But a couple a months ago I got I’ve the Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens, but haven’t been able to use it (thank-you-very-much COVID). That was about to change. I twisted on to my Sony a7RIV, attached the combo to my tripod, and started moving up and down the riverbank, working with my well-scattered workshop group and sneaking in a frame or two between students.
I was looking for scenes that would allow me to juxtapose floating leaves, El Capitan and the Three Brothers, and of course the magnificent reflection. After about an hour of finding stuff that was close but not quite right, I found this scene just a few minutes before it was time to head to our next location (because the light waits for no one). Including everything wouldn’t have been possible with my 16-35 lens, but the 12-24 was exactly what the doctor ordered. I quickly framed it up at 12mm, making sure to include colorful leaves floating at my feet, and to avoid cutting off El Capitan and its reflection. At 12mm depth of field wasn’t a concern, so I just set my aperture to f/10 and focused on one of the foreground leaves (with so much DOF, I would have been fine focusing on anything in my frame).
Between the sunlit granite and densely shaded trees, dynamic range was extreme, but I monitored the histogram in my viewfinder as I increased my shutter speed, stopping just as the it nudged the graph’s right edge. This resulted in a scene that looked quite dark in the shadows, but a glance at the left side of this histogram told me what I later confirmed in Lightroom—I had all the shadow detail I needed.
BTW, I love my Sony 12-24 f/4 G, but the Sony 12-24 GM is ridiculously good—incredible detail (at 61 MP!) without distortion. I’m a convert. (Can’t wait to try it for astro.)
Yosemite in Autumn
Posted on November 1, 2020
I just wrapped up my Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections photo workshop, my first workshop since February. And as you can see from this image taken on our final morning, this year’s workshop absolutely lived up to its name. We enjoyed lots of fall color, and reflections at virtually every twist and turn of the Merced River. We also got to photograph a nearly full moon rising above Yosemite Valley at sunset, and saw more bears than I’ve seen in years (maybe even since my childhood).
All the great photography more than compensated for COVID-related and other difficulties that tried to mess with our mojo. We started with the threat of a fire-danger-induced PG&E power outage and a missing (essential) computer cable. The power shutoff never manifested (phew), but I have no one to blame but myself for the missing HDMI cable that allows me to connect my computer to a TV or projector, and that always lives in my computer bag, I swear (I’ll use the 8-month hiatus as an excuse). Apparently HDMI technology hasn’t made it to Yosemite yet, but a 90-minute round-trip drive to a hardware store Mariposa set things right and we were off and running. Everyone was onboard with the COVID protocol that included masks for group gatherings, outdoor meetings (which worked surprisingly well once I ditched my not-quite-bright-enough projector and moved the TV outside), and suspension of ride-sharing. The no ride-sharing thing is what concerned me most, but a few people volunteered to partner up (completely optional—anyone who wanted to drive alone, could), and we ended up with “only” six cars in our caravan. By pulling over regularly to reassemble, and proactively coordinating our parking strategy, not a single car got separated or missed a shoot.
One of the workshop’s highlights came on our final morning, when we photographed Half Dome from Sentinel Bridge. Because Half Dome’s face stays shaded until late in the day, Sentinel Bridge is normally a late afternoon to sunset location, but in autumn the first sunlight to reach the valley floor pours down the river to illuminate cottonwoods lining the far riverbank. I’d taken very few pictures during this workshop (I’ve been to Yosemite once or twice before), but when I saw the opportunity to add a sunstar to this already beautiful scene, I raced back to my car and grabbed my tripod, Sony a7RIV, and Sony 24-105.
Sunstars have become ubiquitous to the point of cliché, but they can be cool when done right. And sometimes they create a lemonade-from-lemons opportunity to add visual interest to a blank sky, high-contrast scene that has little else going for it. In this case the backlit trees made the Half Dome reflection scene pretty nice anyway, but I thought the sunstar gave it a little punch that took it to the next level. And getting a second sunstar from the reflection was a bonus.
Sunstars happen when light spreads out as it passes through the intersection of the lens’s aperture blades, with the number of blades determining the number of points in the star effect. The lens opening (a.k.a., the aperture, which we measure in f-stops), that is made larger or smaller to allow more or less light to reach the sensor, is not a perfect circle that expands and shrinks uniformly. Rather, it’s a circular(-ish), symetrical polygon of overlapping blades that expands or contracts depending on the f-stop setting. While never a perfect circle, the larger the aperture is, the closer to round the opening becomes, and the less the light is spread out by the blades and the less pronounced the sunstar will be. Conversely, the smaller the aperture, the more the blades are closed down, and the more extreme the angles at the intersection of each overlapping blade. Therefore, the general rule for photographing a sunstar is to stop down to a small aperture (high f-stop number). I resist closing all the way down because that can create other problems, like diffraction and soft edges, and find f/16-f/20 to be absolutely fine.
As appealing as a sunstar can be, adding one also creates problems that include lens flare and extreme dynamic range, not to mention a brilliant sunstar can be a distracting eye magnet that risks overpowering the rest of the scene. The good news is, despite the difficulties, creating a sunstar is relatively straightforward, and most of the potential problems can be minimized if you’re careful. Here’s a quick recipe:
- Start with a brilliant, fine point of light: The sun is the most logical, and easiest, candidate, but you can do it with the moon, stars, and pretty much any bright artificial light (lighthouse, headlights, and so on). The smaller the light source, the smaller and more precise the star effect will be, and the less lens flare and blown highlights you’ll have—but also the smaller the sunstar will be. If you use the sun, rather than include the entire sun ( which will work, albeit often to the point of overpowering the scene), it’s usually best to only expose only a small sliver of sun. The most common way to achieve this is to wait until the sun is just barely above the horizon, but you can also also use any terrestrial object: a rock, a tree, a building, and so on. If you use a relatively nearby object rather than the horizon, just position yourself directly on the shadow line—often you can move as the sun moves, staying on the shadow line to extend the sunstar time-window and control the size of the sunstar.
- The smaller your aperture, the better your sunstar will look: I generally use f16 or smaller (larger f-number).
- Remove any filters: I usually have a polarizer on each of my lenses, but I take mine off when photographing a sunstar. A polarizer doesn’t make a difference when you’re pointing into the sun, and the extra glass just adds to the lens flare potential by creating more reflections.
- Watch the highlights: When the sun is actually in your frame, you have highlights that are much brighter than the much of the scene, requiring care to avoid hopelessly white highlights or black shadows. If you have a distinctive foreground shape against the sky, you could turn it into a silhouette, but usually I want more than that in my image. In my Canon days (10D through 5DIII), I used a graduated neutral density filter to subdue the brilliant sun; since switching to Sony, I just monitor my histogram and push the highlights as far to the right as possible without clipping anything more than the center of the sun itself. The result is an image that, except for the sun, looks very dark to almost black on my LCD. But I take comfort in the histogram, which, while bunched up on the left (with a thin spike on the right edge), confirms that most of the shadows are intact. The very first thing I do after importing the image into Lightroom is drag the Highlights slider all the way to the left, and the Shadows slider all the way to the right, and voilà, there’s my scene.
- Different lenses will yield different results: Experiment with your lenses to see which one gives the most pleasing sunstar effect. Generally wider focal lengths render the best sunstars, as do the higher quality lenses.
- Practice: You can practice sunstars any time the sun’s out. Just go outside with your camera, dial in a small aperture, and hide the sun behind whatever object is convenient (a tree, your house, etc.).
Armed with this knowledge, I planted myself in an opening along the Sentinel Bridge rail, dialed my lens to f/20, framed up my composition, and waited for the sun to peek from behind a tree. Sunstars with a mirrorless camera are easy because you can see exactly what you’ll get before clicking—with my eye shifting between the sunstar and my histogram, I started clicking, adjusting my shutter speed by 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop with each click to maximize my options later (more/less light, larger/smaller sunstar). When the sun disappeared behind another tree I stopped shooting, pretty pleased with my initial results. But standing there, waiting for the sun, I realized that when it rose enough for its reflection to bounce off the river, we’d have a chance for a double sunstar—one through the trees, the other off of the reflection. (Technically this isn’t a sunstar reflection because the sunstar happens in the lens, not on the water.)
Since we were all standing in a slightly different spot, the sun appeared and disappeared at a different time for each of us, but I alerted everyone of the double sunstar opportunity so they wouldn’t stop as soon as the sun disappeared behind a tree. While waiting for the sun to return to my position, I enjoyed the reactions as others in the group started having success. I gotta say, as much as I missed my workshop locations during the pandemic “break” (I did!), it’s this group experience that I missed the most. It’s great to be back.
A Galaxy of Sunstars
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on October 25, 2020
One of the great joys of making my living photographing nature is the opportunity to witness the most beautiful scenes in the world. The problem is, most of these places aren’t a secret, so it can be difficult to have them at their best: alone. Fortunately, the best time to take pictures is usually the worst time to be outside—like rain and snow, freezing cold, and ungodly hours. To this list of good times to take pictures, this summer I added one more: During a global pandemic.
In July my brother Jay and I made two visits to Yosemite to photograph Comet NEOWISE, and one to the Grand Canyon to photograph lightning. With the world largely shutdown due to the pandemic, we got to experience firsthand what it must have been like to visit these congested summer destinations before they were overrun by tourists. I remember circling Yosemite Valley on our first visit and feeling disoriented by the lack of cars and the abundance of relaxed wildlife just chilling in the meadows and on the roadside. And at the Grand Canyon, with just two days notice, I was able to get a room just a few hundred yards from the rim for a rate I’d have been thrilled to get in the dead of winter.
One particular highlight in this year achingly short of highlights came on our last night at the Grand Canyon. Though we’d made this trip primarily because lightning was in the forecast, I also knew that rapidly fading Comet NEOWISE would be hanging in the northern sky after sunset. Unfortunately, the vestiges of those thunderstorms we’d come to photograph blocked most of our comet views. We struck out completely on the first night, but the second night we enjoyed a short but sweet comet shoot at Grandview Point before the clouds moved back in. The arrival of clouds following a successful shoot is often enough to send me packing, but having not seen a single other person our entire time out there, I wasn’t quite ready to let go of the opportunity to experience glory the Grand Canyon in absolute solitude.
Instead of driving back to our hotel, we continued east along the rim, all the way to the end of the road (normally this road continues to Cameron and beyond, but it was closed near the park’s east entrance), ending up at Navajo Point. I had little hope for more glimpses of NEOWISE, but with a view that really didn’t need any help, I set up my camera anyway. Though it was impossible for Navajo Point to be any more empty or quiet than Grandview Point had been, I think the distance from civilization made us feel even more isolated.
Beneath a mix of clouds and stars, Jay and I photographed and gazed for about a half hour. With the canyon illuminated by the light of a 25% waning crescent moon, we could see clearly all the way down to the river. But my Sony a7SII (long my dedicated night camera, since replaced by the Sony a7SIII) did even better, pulling seemingly invisible detail from the darkest shadows. Just as we were about to leave, the clouds parted and there was NEOWISE, as if it wanted to say farewell before embarking on its multi-millennia journey to the fringe of our solar system. I clicked a few frames before the clouds snapped shut and bid my friend goodbye.
I’m not going to pretend that the pandemic was a good thing, or that I’m in any way happy that it happened, but I’ve always believed that our state of mind is what we make it. Like everyone else, I can’t wait for things to return to normal, but when I find myself dwelling on the countless negatives of 2020, I try to remind myself of the year’s blessings that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Perhaps small consolation in light of all the loss, but this night on the rim of the Grand Canyon was one such blessing, not just a high point of my year, but a high point of my life.
One Last Look at Comet NEOWISE (Yosemite and Grand Canyon)
Posted on October 18, 2020
“Natural” is a moving target that shifts with perspective. Humans experience the world as a 360 degree, three-dimentional, five-sense reel that unfolds in an infinite series of connected instants that our brain seamlessly assembles as quickly as it arrives. But the camera discards 80 percent of the sensory input, limits the view to a rectangular box, and compresses all those connected instants into a single, static frame. In other words, it’s impossible for a camera to duplicate human reality—the sooner photographers get that, the sooner they can get to work on expressing the world using their camera’s very different but quite compelling reality.
Despite the creative opportunities the differences between human and photographic vision offers, many photographers expend a great deal of effort trying to force their cameras closer to human reality (HDR, focus blending, and so on)—not inherently wrong, but in so doing they miss opportunities to creatively reveal our natural world. Subtracting the distractions from the non-visual senses, controlling depth of focus, and banishing unwanted elements to the world outside the frame, a camera can distill a scene to its overlooked essentials, offering perspectives that are impossible in person.
Motion is one thing that an image “sees” differently from you and me. But working in a static medium doesn’t mean photographers can’t convey motion, or use motion in a scene to creative effect.
One question I’m frequently asked is, “How do I blur water?” And while there’s no magic formula, no shutter speed threshold beyond which all water blurs, blurring water isn’t that hard (as long as you use a tripod). In fact, when you photograph water in the full shade or cloudy sky conditions I prefer, it’s usually more difficult to freeze moving water than it is to blur it.
The amount of moving-water blur depends on several variables:
- The water’s speed: Whether it’s a flowing river or crashing surf, the faster the water moves, and the greater the blur. And regardless of the speed, white water (surf or whitewater) blurs better than blue or green water.
- The water’s direction of motion relative to your position: Water moving at right angles to your position will blur more than water moving toward or away from your position.
- Your focal length: The longer the focal length, the greater the blur.
- Your distance from the water: Motion blur increases as you move closer
- And of course, the shutter speed: The longer your shutter is open, the greater the blur.
Of these variables, it’s shutter speed that gets the most attention. That’s because focal length and subject distance are compositional considerations, and we usually don’t start thinking about blurring the water until after we have our composition. To achieve a longer shutter speed without overexposing, you need to reduce the light reaching (or detected by) the sensor. There are several tools at your disposal, each with its own advantages and disadvantages:
- Only photograph moving water in overcast or full shade.
- Reduce your ISO (light sensitivity): Many cameras allow you to expand their ISO below their native value (usually, but not always, 100). This capability is often disabled when the camera comes out of the box, so you need to check your manual to see if your camera has a menu setting that enables “expanded ISO” (or whatever your camera manufacturer calls it). Unlike the film days, when a lower ISO (we called it ASA back then) meant better image quality, any ISO value lower than the camera’s native ISO is emulated (manipulated with internal programming) and may result in slightly lower image quality. This degradation isn’t usually enough to make a huge difference, but it’s still something to avoid unless it’s the best way to achieve a longer shutter speed.
- Shrink the aperture (larger f-stop number): A smaller aperture reduces the light that reaches the sensor. It also increases the depth of field, which could be good, bad, or irrelevant. And a smaller aperture increases diffraction, which soften of the image. While this softening isn’t usually a problem unless you’re making big prints, its best to avoid using a smaller aperture than you need. As a general rule, I resist going with an aperture smaller than f/11 (but don’t hesitate to when it’s the only way to achieve my desired effect).
- Add a polarizing filter: In addition to reducing reflections, a polarizer will subtract 1 to 2 stops of light (depending on its orientation). When using a polarizer, you need to be vigilant about orienting it each time you recompose (especially if you change your camera’s horizontal/vertical orientation), and monitoring its effect on the rest of your scene.
- Add a neutral density filter: A neutral density filter is, as its name implies, both neutral and dense. Neutral in that it doesn’t alter the color of your image; dense in that it cuts the amount of light reaching your sensor. While a dark enough ND filter might allow you to blur water on even the brightest of days, it does nothing for the other problems inherent to midday, full sunlight shooting (specifically, extreme dynamic range). ND filters come in variable and fixed-stop versions—the flexibility of variable NDs (the ability to dial the amount of light up and down) means living with the vignetting they add to my wide angle images.
- Don’t even think about any kind of subject blur without a sturdy tripod. For help selecting the right tripod, read the Tripod Selection article in my Photo Tips section.
Other motion blur opportunities
Motion blur opportunities aren’t limited to crashing waves and rushing whitewater. For example, I love using long shutter speeds to smooth the undulations and chop on the surface of an ocean, lake, or flowing river. And a particular favorite approach of mine is blurring something floating atop moving water, like dots of foam or autumn leaves. And my favorite time and place for this is each autumn at Bridalveil Creek in Yosemite. Here, beneath Bridalveil Fall and shaded by Yosemite’s towering granite walls, are countless pools surrounded by colorful trees and fed by tumbling cascades.
The motion of the cascade’s entry and exit creates arcs and spirals of motion in the pool, punctuated by small pockets of stillness near the perimeter. Leaves fall from the trees and land on the water, or flow down from upstream, congregating on the pool’s surface. Some just make a single arced pass before continuing downstream, others join a circular dance that can last for hours. It’s usually impossible to see any organization to the pool’s motion without something floating on the surface, but a long enough exposure with leaves or floating foam will reveal a distinct flow pattern.
After finding a pool adorned with drifting autumn leaves, I set up my tripod and camera, find a composition, and dial in a shutter speed measured in seconds. Depending on the speed of the circulation, sometimes 10-second shutter speeds are enough, but usually I try to go to 20 or 30 seconds. With the help of a neutral density filter, I’ve gone as long as 3 minutes (and maybe longer).
Once the blur patterns reveal themselves in my images, I tweak my composition and shutter speeds accordingly. Because there are usually many leaves, and each leaf takes a slightly different path depending on its size and interaction with other swirling leaves, each click results in a unique image. I’ll sometimes work a single composition for 15 or 20 minutes, collecting as many motion patterns to choose between as possible, before moving on to another composition or scene.
The image I’ve shared here is a 15-second exposure, captured at Bridalveil Creek in 2009. Because this location is always in full shade, and this was a cloudy day, the scene was dark enough that I could slow my shutter enough with just a polarizer. I’ve always felt like a polarizer is essential to remove glare from the water, leaves, and rocks in these scenes, but at the time I always had to decide between a polarizer or neutral density filter—I couldn’t do both. (I now have a Breakthrough 6-stop darkening polarizer that achieves the best of both worlds.)
World In Motion
Posted on October 11, 2020
(Or, Channeling My Inner Oz)
With virtually every still camera now equipped with video capability, the last few years have brought an explosion of nature videos. When done well, videos can be extremely powerful, conveying motion and engaging both eyes and ears to reveal the world in a manner that’s closer to the human experience than a still image is. But like other sensory media whose demise has been anticipated following the arrival of something “better,” (with apologies to Mark Twain) let me say that the rumors of still photography’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
Just as I enjoy reading the book more than watching the movie, I prefer the unique perspective of a still image. Though motion in a video may feel more like being there, a still image gives me the freedom to linger and explore a scene’s nooks and crannies, to savor its nuances at my own pace.
In a video my eyes are essentially fixed as the scene moves before them. In a still image, my eyes do the moving, drawn instantly to a dominant subject, or perhaps following lines, real or implied, in the scene the way a hiker follows a trail. But also like a hiker, I can choose to venture cross-country through a still image and more closely scrutinize whatever looks interesting.
The photographer needs to be aware of a still image’s inherent lack of motion, and more importantly, how to overcome that missing component by moving the viewer’s eyes with compositional choices. With this in mind, I usually like my images to have an anchor point, a place for the viewer’s eye to start and/or finish. To do this, I identify the scene’s anchor and other potential elements that might draw the eye, then position myself and frame the scene so those secondary elements guide the eye to (or frame) the primary subject.
But sometimes a scene stands by itself, as if every square inch fits together like a like a masterful tapestry. When nature gifts a scene like this, rather than imposing myself by offering visual clues to move my viewer’s eye, I like to step back and channel the Wizard of Oz. Specifically, what Dorothy must have felt when she first opened the door of her ramshackle, monochrome world onto the color and wonder of Oz. That’s how these scenes make me feel, and that’s the feeling I want my images to convey.
In a scene filled edge to edge with the awe and wonder of discovery, the last thing the viewer wants is to be told where to go and what to do. (And just look at all the trouble Dorothy got into when she started following the Yellow Brick Road.)
By getting out of the way and letting the scene speak for itself, my viewer has the freedom to explore the entire frame. Of course that’s easier said than done, but in the simplest terms possible, my sole job is to find balance and avoid distractions.
As much as aspiring photographers would love a composition formula that dictates where to locate each element in their frame, moving the eye, finding balance, and avoiding distractions ultimately comes down to feel. Please bear with me as I try to put into words how this inherently intuitive process manifest for me.
To explain the concept of balance and motion in a still image, I use what I call “visual weight (I’ll just shorten it to VW),” which I define as any object’s ability to pull the viewer’s eye—think of it as gravity for the eye.
An object’s VW is subjective, based on a variety of moving targets that include (to a greater or lesser degree) an object’s size, brightness, color, shape, and position in the frame. VW can also be affected by each viewer’s personal connection to the elements in the scene.
Take a wide angle moon for example. The moon is small and colorless (not much VW), but also bright with lots of contrast (high VW). Then factor in the viewer’s personal connection to the moon. If I’m more drawn to the moon than someone else, the moon’s visual weight would be greater to me. Since I can’t worry about what others think when I compose a shot, what you see in my images reflects the VW that a scene’s elements hold for me, and probably explains why I have so many moon images.
After many years (decades) of doing this, visual balance usually happens intuitively, without conscious thought. But until you reach this point, I have a mental exercise you can apply to your own images, preferably as they appear in your camera’s viewfinder or on its LCD.
Imagine a flat board perfectly balanced horizontally on a fulcrum (like the tip of a pen)—to maintain its equilibrium, any added weight must be counterbalanced by a corresponding weight elsewhere on the board. Visual weight is the virtual equivalent: think of your frame as a print (a stiff, metal print rather than a floppy, paper print) balanced on a fulcrum. Any visible element that pulls the eye tips the frame from horizontal (makes it out of balance) and must be counterbalanced by an element with corresponding visual weight.
Because of the subjective nature of visual weight, your choices might differ from mine. That’s okay—it’s important to be true to your own instincts, which will in fact improve with practice.
The VW concept applies to eliminating distractions too. Without getting too deep into the weeds (there are lots of potential distractions in a scene, and ways to deal with them, but that’s a blog for a different day), the idea is to avoid objects that pull the eye away from the essence of the scene (as you see it), or that simply overpower the scene. In the image at the top of this post, flying monkeys emerging from the Merced River might be pretty cool (and could even gain me some notoriety), but they would not serve my goal to convey a sense of wonder and awe and would in fact be a distraction.
Other potential distractions besides flying monkeys are things like branches and rocks that jut into the scene, creating the sense that they’re part of a different scene, just outside the frame. Another common distraction is objects that are mostly in the scene, but trimmed by the edge of the frame. Since it’s virtually impossible to avoid cutting something off on the edge of most frames in nature, I just try to minimize the damage by being very conscious of what’s cut off and how it’s cut, usually trying to cut boldly, down the middle, when possible. I’ve always felt that objects jutting into a scene, or slightly trimmed by the edge, feel like mistakes, while something cut strongly down the middle feels more intentional.
Yosemite seems to be filled with more than its share of scenes that that don’t need my help assembling a composition. At most scenes I start with the simplest composition and work my way to something more complex. I can usually tell when a scene stands by itself when I end up deciding my early compositions are the way to go.
I’d driven to Yosemite on this November morning chasing a fortuitously timed storm that was forecast to drop snow on peak fall color. The day started gray and cold, the valley floor white with wet snow beneath dark clouds that blanketed all of Yosemite’s distinctive features. But by late morning the clouds brightened and started to lift, slowly unpeeling Yosemite Valley’s soaring granite walls and monoliths.
I happened to be at Valley View when the show started in earnest. Because the scene contained everything I was there to photograph—Yosemite icons (El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks, Bridalveil Fall) decorated with snow, fall color, reflection—I started with this composition that took it all in in a pretty straightforward manner. Standing right at river’s edge, I chose horizontal framing because it was the best way to include the icons without diluting them with too much sky and water. Though I didn’t want to go too wide, because there was so much happening top-to-bottom, from clouds to reflection, I went a little wider than I usually do.
The lower half the scene had lots of rocks that I worked to avoid cutting off, finally finding framing that kept my edges completely clean (not always possible). The small rock in the lower left was a little closer to the edge than I’d have liked, but if I’d have gone any wider I’d have introduced spindly branches along the left edge—I chose the lesser of two evils. Likewise, the small rock on the bottom right was also closer to the edge than I preferred, but an entire herd of disorganized rocks massed just beneath my frame prevented me from composing lower. The top of my frame I set just below a distracting (bright) hole in the clouds. I’d have cut the rock on the middle right if I’d have had to, but was fortunate that there was a small break between it and another gang of rocks just off the frame on the right.
The visual balance was more by feel (as it often is). Looking at the image now, I see that offsetting the gap separating El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks, placing it a little left of center, makes the frame feel more balance than if I’d have centered it, but I don’t remember consciously deciding this. To my eye, the balance works for me because El Capitan, the brilliant color, and striking reflection hold more visual weight than the granite, waterfall, and reflection on the other side, so having more of this on the right compensates for this (slightly) lacking VW.
I wish I could defend my decision to use f/20, but I can’t. I only use f/20 when I absolutely have to—or when I was using it for an earlier scene and forgot to set it back to my default f/8 to f/11 range (which is no doubt what happened here).
One more thing
Even though this image is from 2012, it’s brand new, discovered yesterday while mining my raw file archives. The amazing thing to me is that the scene is quite similar, and the composition virtually identical, to an image taken the following year. When I see similar compositions in scenes from entirely different shoots, it tells me that my instincts are guiding me. In both situations these images were my starting point, and I went on to play with more creative compositions later in the shoot. But it just goes to show that sometimes it’s best to let the scene speak for itself.
Letting Nature Speak for Itself
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show
Posted on October 4, 2020
This morning, while going through unprocessed images looking for something to blog about, I came across this image from last June in New Zealand. I realize the world probably doesn’t need any more pictures of this tree (which is why I’d never processed it), but after nearly two months of smoky skies that have robbed California of anything close to a normal sunset, sunrise/sunset color seemed to be a worthy topic, and this image definitely got my juices flowing.
Following a morning that had started with a beautiful sunrise reflection at Mirror Lakes in Milford Sound National Park, Don Smith and I (well, technically it was our driver) pulled the van carrying our New Zealand workshop group into Wanaka a couple of hours before sunset. We had a sunset spot in mind, but with a little time to spare we decided to give the group a quick preview of our sunrise subject, the iconic lone willow tree of Lake Wanaka. We never left.
It was pretty apparent from the instant of our arrival that the ingredients for a spectacular sunset were in place: clouds, clean air, and a clear spot on the western horizon to let sunlight through. Of course nothing in nature is guaranteed, but based on what we saw, Don and I made a calculated decision to alter our plan. Even though our original sunset spot would benefit from the same conditions, we decided that, because the opportunity to photograph this tree was one of the prime reasons most of the group signed up for the workshop in the first place, and sunrise conditions are never a sure thing, staying would give our group the best opportunity for a memorable experience here. Boy did we make the right call.
For this image I used my Breakthrough 6-stop neutral-density polarizer (X4 Dark CPL) to smooth a slight chop rippling the lake. Not only did the resulting 30-second exposure soften the lake surface, it added an ethereal blur to the distant clouds and fog.
Sunrise was in fact completely washed out by fog, but that didn’t mean it was a failure, just different….
And speaking of sunrise/sunset color, I’ve revised my Photo Tips article on that very topic and added it below. So if you want to know why the sky is blue and sunsets are red, read on.
A sunset myth
If your goal is a colorful sunset/sunrise and you have to choose between pristine or hazy air, which would you choose? If you said clean air, you’re in the minority. You’re also right. Despite some pretty obvious evidence to the contrary, it seems that the myth that a colorful sunset requires lots of particles in the air persists. But if particles in the air were necessary for sunset color, Los Angeles would be known for its vivid sunsets and Hawaii’s main claim to fame would be its beaches. (Okay, and maybe its luaus. And waterfalls. And pineapples. And Mai Tais. And…. Well, maybe lots of great stuff, but not its sunsets.)
So what is the secret to a great sunset? Granted, a cool breeze, warm surf, and a Mai Tai are a good start, but I’m thinking more photographically than recreationally. I look for a mix of clouds (to catch the color) with an opening for the sun to pass through and light the clouds. But even with a nice mix of clouds and sky, sometimes the color fizzles. Often the missing ingredient, contrary to common belief, is clean air—the cleaner the better.
Light and color
Understanding sunset color starts with understanding how sunlight and the atmosphere interact to color the sky. Visible light reaches our eyes in waves of varying length. The color we perceive is a function of wavelength, ranging from short to long: violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red. (These color names are arbitrary labels we’ve assigned to the colors we perceive at various wavelength points along the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum—there are an infinite number of wavelength-depenedent colors between each of these colors.)
Because a beam of sunlight passing in a vacuum (such as space) moves in a straight line (we won’t get into relativity and the effect of gravity on a beam of light), all its wavelengths reach our eyes simultaneously and we perceive the light as white. When a beam of sunlight encounters something (like Earth’s atmosphere), its light can be absorbed or scattered, depending on the wavelength and the properties of the interfering medium, and we see as color the remaining wavelength that reach our eyes.
For example, when sunlight strikes a leaf, all of its wavelengths except those that we perceive as green are absorbed, while the green wavelengths bounce to our eyes.
Color my world
Since our atmosphere is not a vacuum, sunlight is changed simply by passing through it. In an atmosphere without impurities (such as smoke and dust), light interacts only with air molecules. Air molecules are so small that they scatter only a very narrow range of wavelengths. This atmospheric scattering acts like a filter that scatters the violet and blue wavelengths first, allowing the longer wavelengths to pass through. When our sunlight has traveled through a relatively small amount of atmosphere (as it does when the sun is overhead), the wavelengths that reach our eyes are the just-scattered violet and blue wavelengths, and our sky looks blue (the sky appears more blue than violet because our eyes are more sensitive to blue light).
On the other hand, because the longer orange and red wavelengths are less easily scattered, they travel a much greater distance through the atmosphere. When the sun is on the horizon, its light has passed through much more atmosphere than it did when it was directly overhead, so the only light reaching our eyes at sunrise or sunset has been stripped of its shorter (blue and violet) wavelengths by its lengthy journey, leaving only the longer, orange and red wavelengths to color our sky. Sunset! (Or sunrise.)
Pollution dampens the filtering process. Rather than only scattering specific colors, light that encounters a molecule larger than its wavelength is more completely scattered—in other words, instead of scattering only the blue and violet wavelengths, polluted air catches some orange and reds too. Anyone who has blended a smoothie consisting of a variety of brightly colored ingredients (such as strawberries, blueberries, cantaloupe, and kale—uhh, yum?) knows the smoothie’s color won’t be nearly as vivid as any of its ingredients, not even close. Instead you’ll end up with a brownish or grayish muck that might at best be slightly tinted with the color of the predominant ingredient. Midday light that interacts with large particles in the atmosphere is similarly muddied, while polluted sunrise and sunset light has already had much of its red stripped out.
Verify this for yourself the next time a storm clears as the sun sets, and compare the color you see to the color on a hazy, summer evening in the city.
Tips for maximizing sunset color in a photograph
Any time rain has cleared the atmosphere and the remaining clouds are mixed with sunlight, there’s a good chance for vivid sunrise or sunset color. I have a few go-to locations near home, and at my frequently visited photo locations (Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Hawaii, and so on) that I beeline to when there’s a chance for color in the sky.
When I’m on location and preparing my shot before the sunset show begins, I look for clouds receiving direct sunlight. This is the light that will most likely color up at sunset, starting with an amber glow that transitions to pink, red, and eventually a deep orange.
An often overlooked color opportunity when the air is clean is the horizon opposite the sun after sunset or before sunrise. When the sun is below the horizon, the opposite horizon reveals the transition between the blues of night and the pinks of the sun’s first or last rays the best color of the day. This is especially true when there are no clouds in the direction of the sun. Photographing this twilight color with your back to the sun’s horizon has the added advantage of being much less contrasty and easier to manage with a camera.
Maximizing sunset color in your images requires careful exposure and composition decisions. By far the most frequent problem is overexposure—giving the scene more light than necessary. In scenes of such extreme contrast, your camera can’t capture the entire range of light your eyes see. And of course your camera has no idea what you’re photographing, so if you leave the exposure decision up to automatic metering, you’ll likely end up with a compromise exposure that tries to pull detail out of the shadows at the expense of color in the sky.
Since it’s the color you’re most interested in capturing, it’s usually best to spare the color in the highlights and let your shadows darken. This usually requires some planning—finding striking finding foreground subjects that stand out against the brighter sky, or water to reflect the sky’s color.
When you’ve found your sunset subject and are ready to shoot, base your exposure decisions on your camera’s histogram, not the way the picture looks on the LCD (never a reliable gauge of actual exposure). Remember, since your camera can’t capture what your eyes see anyway, the amount of light you give your scene is a creative decision. After you’ve exposed, make sure you check your RGB histogram to ensure that you haven’t clipped one of your color channels (most likely the red channel).
You can read more about metering in my Manual Exposure article.
For example: Sentinel Dome, Yosemite
Sentinel Dome in Yosemite provides a 360 degree view of Yosemite and surrounding Sierra peaks. Among the many reasons it’s such a great sunset spot is that from atop Sentinel Dome you can see what’s happening on the western horizon and plan your shoot long before sunset arrives. On this summer evening I was up there shortly after an afternoon rain shower. Though air was crystal clear, lots of clouds remained—and there was an opening on the western horizon for the sun to slip through just before disappearing for the night.
Rather than settle for a more standard Half Dome composition, I wandered around a bit in search of an interesting foreground. I ended up targeting this group of dead pines on Sentinel’s northeast slope, a couple of hundred feet down from the summit. It was no coincidence that sunset that night, one of the most vivid I’ve ever seen, came shortly after a storm had cleansed the atmosphere. Not only did the clouds fire up, the color was so intense that its reflection colored the granite, trees, and pretty much every other exposed surface.
For example: Hilltop Oaks, Sierra Foothills
I was driving the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento looking for the right subject to put with this fiery sunset. Earlier in the sunset it had simply been a been a matter of finding a photogenic tree (or trees), but with the sun more than 15 minutes below the horizon, the foreground was so dark I needed a subject to silhouette against the sky—anything else would have been lost in the rapidly blackening shadows. These trees showed up just in the nick of time.
Color like this comes late (or, at sunrise, early), in the direction of the sun long after most people have gone to dinner (or while they’re still in bed). Everything in this scene that’s not sky is black, which is why my subject needed to stand out against the sky. I was so happy with my discovery that these trees have become go-to subjects for me—browse my galleries and count how many times you see one or both of them (often with a crescent moon).
For example: South Tufa, Mono Lake
The air on Sierra’s east side is much cleaner than air on the more populated west side, and the clouds formed as the prevailing westerly wind descends the Sierra’s precipitous east side are both unique and dramatic. Mono Lake makes a particularly nice subject for the Eastern Sierra’s brilliant sunrise/sunset shows. Not only does it benefit from the clean air and photogenic clouds, Mono Lake’s tufa formations and often glassy surface make a wonderful foreground. The openness of the terrain surrounding Mono Lake allows you to watch the entire sunrise or sunset unfold. Many times over the course of a sunrise or sunset I’ve photographed in every direction.
The image here was captured at the start of a particularly vivid sunrise. The air was clean, with just the right mix of clouds and clear sky; perfectly calm air allowed the lake’s surface to smooth to glass. I find that the more I can anticipate skies like this, the better prepared I am when something spectacular happens. In this case I was at the lake well before the color started, but because it looked like all the sunrise stars were aligning, I was able to plan my composition and settings well before the color started.
Posted on September 27, 2020
Photography is the futile attempt to squeeze a three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional medium. But just because it’s impossible to truly capture depth in a photograph, don’t think you shouldn’t consider the missing dimension when crafting an image. For the photographer with total control over his or her camera’s exposure variables (which exposure variable to change and when to change it), this missing dimension provides an opportunity to reveal the world in unique ways, or to create an illusion of depth that recreates much of the thrill of being there.
The Illusion of Depth
Sometimes a scene holds so much near-to-far beauty that we want to capture every inch of it. While we can’t actually capture the depth our stereo vision enjoys, we can take steps to create the illusion of depth. Achieving this is largely about mindset—it’s about not simply settling for a primary subject no matter how striking it is. When you find a distant subject to feature in an image, scan the scene and position yourself to include a complementary fore-/middle-ground subjects. Likewise, when you want to feature a nearby object in an image, position yourself to include a complementary back-/middle-ground subjects.
Creative Selective Focus
Most photographers go to great lengths to achieve full front-to-back sharpness, an art in itself. But sometimes I like to solve the missing depth conundrum with what I call creative selective focus: An intentionally narrow depth of field with a carefully chosen focus point to flatten a scene’s myriad out-of-focus planes onto the same thin plane as the sharp subject. This technique can soften distractions into a blur of color and shape, or simply guide the viewer’s eye to the primary subject and soften the background to complementary context.
When I use creative selective focus to autumn leaves or spring flowers, I usually take the extreme background blur color and shape approach. In the images below, the soft background serves as a canvas for the primary subject.
But sometimes I like my soft background to have enough resolution to be more recognizable. When I take this approach, my goal is to signal the part of the scene I want to emphasize by making it sharp, and to use the soft but still recognizable background for context that tells the view something about the location.
A few years ago I wrote an article on this very topic for “Outdoor Photographer” magazine. You can read a slightly updated version of this article in my Photo Tips section: Selective Focus.
About this image: Creekside Color, Mill Creek, Eastern Sierra
With dense aspen groves, reflective beaver ponds, towering peaks, and even a waterfall, Lundy Canyon just north and west of Mono Lake, has long been one of my favorite fall color locations.
I spent this overcast autumn morning wandering the banks of Mills Creek. The thick growth here often makes this easier said than done, but the rewards of battling my way through trees and shrubs usually makes it worth the scrapes and scratches I always seem to go home with.
Even though it was less than 30 feet from the road, I heard this cascade long before I saw it. Once I got my eyes on it, I had to battle further to get a clear view. I especially liked the red leaves, a relative rarity in California, and wanted to feature them. Here I positioned myself so the leaves framed the creek, and turned my polarizer to reduce the leaves’ glossy sheen.
I used a range of f-stops for a variety of background sharpness options. This one used f/32 (maybe my all-time record for smallest aperture), which gave me enough DOF for to make the creek easily recognizable, but also resulted in a 4-second exposure. (Clearly wind was not a factor this morning.)
Here’s my Photo Tips article on using hyperfocal focus techniques to enhance your images’ illusion of depth: Depth of Field.