Discover your inner Magellan

Sometimes I wonder if humans’  inherent need for discovery has been dulled by the proliferation of artificial stimuli. Television, movies, the Internet, and video games are indeed pretty amazing, but if Magellan were alive today, do you think he’d be riveted to “The Discovery Channel” or hunched at his computer, probing Google Earth? If Magellan had a camera, would he be online mining GPS coordinates and posting forum queries requesting suggestions for photographing Delicate Arch, Half Dome, or Antelope Canyon? I suspect 21st century Magellan wouldn’t be satisfied with duplicating the feats of others; he’d be the one navigating uncharted territory no matter what his pursuit.

(As you may have figured out) there are many, many great photo spots in Yosemite. Each year I lead eight to ten photo workshops and classes, not to mention a number of private Yosemite tours. Many of my customers arrive with specific shots in mind, pictures they’ve long admired and wanted to add to their portfolios. I’d be negligent if I didn’t do everything possible to help them get their dream shots, but because I’d be equally remiss if I didn’t encourage them to discover their own beauty, I give them the same challenge that motivates me: Make the “iconic” scenes your starting point, not your objective. In other words, get the shot you came for, then look for ways to make the world uniquely your own.

That can mean exploring new territory, dropping to your hands and knees to look closer, or simply asking “What if?” and making the effort to find out. What’s pretty cool about pursuing discovery is that, for me at least, photography instantly becomes as much about the experience of the world as it is about the images that result. And, my photography benefits. Talk about synergy.

This location I found by simply meandering a trail that parallels the Merced River west of Yosemite Lodge. (I’m not claiming this was a heretofore  an unknown spot, just that it hasn’t made the tourists’ radar yet.) I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but the relative peace of these excursions are a welcome respite from Yosemite’s often frenetic energy. I  have no idea what motivated Magellan, nor do I pretend to be making significant inroads into the body of world knowledge (yet), but I can sure appreciate his drive to uncover something new, a drive that I’m sure is buried somewhere in each of us.

It’s in the bag

Probably the question I am most asked is some variation on, “What lens should I use?” While I’m happy to answer questions, this one always makes me cringe because the implicit question is, “Which lenses can I leave behind?”

What many photographers fail to realize is that the “proper” lens is determined by the photographer, not by the scene. While there’s often a general consensus on the primary composition at a location, that pretty much just means the first composition everyone sees. But those are just the compositions I want to avoid, and you should too if your goal is to capture  something unique (as I suggest it should be).

One of the things I emphasize in my photo workshops and lectures is the role of sacrifice in landscape photography. I’m not talking about risking your life, but I am talking about a willingness to experience a little discomfort and inconvenience to get a unique shot. That means venturing out in miserable weather, rising well before the sun, and (gulp) skipping dinner. And yes, it even means lugging a little heavier camera bag than you might prefer.

I pretty much carry everything with me when I shoot, regardless of the burden or inconvenience, because experience has taught me that best way to guarantee I’ll need a lens is to not pack it. On the other hand, I realize some people have physical limitations that sometimes requires equipment compromise, and many photographers aren’t as hardcore as I am (some are more hardcore). But the lens you choose is part of the creative process that defines you as a photographer; it’s a personal decision that I’m happy to assist, but reluctant to dictate.

So the next time you find yourself wondering what lenses to leave out, rather than asking someone else to make the lens choice for you, try researching and asking questions that will help you understand the location better, then pack your bag with that information in mind. Don’t get me wrong: I’m totally fine being asked for help deciding which lenses to leave behind, I just think the ultimate decision should be based on your creative instincts.

The above image is from a backpack trip in the Twenty Lakes Basin, just north and east of Yosemite. In addition to a backpack filled with food and gear, I also carried my 1DS body, my three primary lenses, and a tripod. I was a little cranky about shlepping all this gear up and down 11,000+ foot mountain passes, but not nearly as cranky as I’d have been if I hadn’t been able to make the compositional decisions I’m accustomed to. For this shot I rose before sunrise and trekked to this spot on an unnamed lake I’d scouted the previous afternoon. My original plan was to try some telephoto shots of the first light on North Peak, but when I saw the skimming light of the day’s first rays illuminating this patch of wildflowers, I quickly switched to a wide angle lens and dropped low to to fill the foreground with wildflowers.

Whenever I consider leaving something behind, I remember moments like this. I’m not suggesting that you lug Hermione’s purse to every shoot; just try to remember that the images will last far longer than the discomfort.

Happy Birthday, Dad

Today would have been my father’s 81st birthday. Dad was one of those people who did everything well, but I don’t think there was anything he enjoyed more than photography. His work kept him so busy that the only time he ever got to take pictures was when he was on vacation, but he made up for lost time then. I’ll be eternally grateful for his love of the outdoors that laid the foundation for my own passion for nature.

Because our family vacations were spent camping, hiking, and fishing, I grew up believing that a camera was a standard outdoor accessory. When I became old enough to pursue (and fund) my own interests, I purchased a camera of my own and pretty much never let go of it. But like Dad, personal imperatives (family, work, bills) kept photography in the hobby category for most of my adult life. And with our own conflicting, demanding schedules, we found little time to shoot together, though I think there was an implicit understanding that those days would come. Alzheimer’s disease was the last thing anyone expected.

Sentinel Dome is the site of my most vivid photographic memory of my dad, which I wrote about in my first WordPress blog. My brother, Jay, and I go shooting together quite a bit and we share the feeling that Dad is watching and maybe even pulling some strings for us, a feeling that’s never stronger than it is at Sentinel Dome.

The color of this Sentinel Dome sunset was off the charts. There’s really not much I can say to people who doubt the red in this image, except maybe to suggest that they should get out more. Color in nature far from subtle, and the color of this sunset, while not unprecedented, was at the most vibrant extreme of anything I’ve witnessed, one of the few times when it’s seemed that the air actually buzzes with crimson and the entire world assumes the color of the sky. I remember in the middle of it all looking down and seeing the hair on my arms literally standing on end, vibrating red.

These goose-bump moments are pure joy. I know Dad experienced them, and I can’t help thinking of him when they happen to me. While I’m sad Dad never got to see the product of his legacy, I know he’d be proud of my success, just as I’m proud of him.

My very own Everest

Poppy Hillside, Sierra Foothills
Canon EOS-1D Mark II
1/250 second
ISO 320
Canon 70-200 f/4

Highway 49 is a meandering, two-lane road connecting the historical dots in California’s Gold Country. Each spring the route is framed by countless scenes like this, scenes that seem to grab your steering wheel and force you to the side of the road for a closer look. Often it’s difficult to find a place to park safely, especially on weekends, when drivers’ attention is more on the scenery than the road. But at this location, a wide, dirt pullout allows gawkers to park well out of the path of harm and admire the view in peace.

The intensity of the wildflower bloom in California each year is a moving target that seems one part winter rainfall, one part spring warmth, and one part some other mysterious factor thats’s as elusive as the Higgs boson. Some years our hillsides explode like July 4th fireworks; other years expectations fizzle like a match in water. But we’re never completely shut-out, and my March drives along Highway 49 have become as much a rite of spring as baseball’s Opening Day.

Whatever the missing link is, in 2005 all the components converged to elevate California’s wildflower bloom to legend status. Most of the attention that year was on Death Valley, which had a bloom that painted the normally parched valley yellow, making network news and drawing visitors from around the world. But while most of the world’s attention was on Death Valley, the rest of California found itself similarly rewarded. Of course it didn’t take long for the word to get out among California photographers, and on the first available day I grabbed my camera and headed for the hills.

At this spot near the Mokelumne River I found a solid carpet of poppies that spread up a steep hill and disappeared over the crest. Unfortunately, I had no ladder to scale the (nearly vertical) fifteen foot escarpment separating me from this bucolic scene. A couple of other photographers poked around at highway level, using telephotos to capture their masterpieces while still safely rooted to terra firma, but I had higher aspirations.

Camera in one hand, tripod in the other, and camera bag on my back, I located a route I thought I could manage and went all Galen Rowell on the “cliff.” I’m in good shape, but conditioning wasn’t the limiting factor here…. Let’s just say that I have a healthy respect for heights. Sure enough, about halfway up, it became clear something had to go. Not wanting it to be me, I jettisoned the camera bag, bullseying a cushioning shrub about eight feet below, and continued upward. About five vertical feet higher, and maybe three feet from the top, the route steepened to 90 degrees. Hmmm. Using a protruding root as a hand-hold, I reluctantly said goodbye to my tripod, rationalizing as it plummeted toward base camp that I’d find something on top upon which to brace my camera. Finally, still one free hand short, I gently slung my camera into the weeds at the top. Sufficiently unencumbered, I took a deep breath and triumphantly “summited.” After a couple of seconds of self congratulation, I scrambled up the much more manageable but nonetheless deceptively steep slope toward the densest field of poppies.

In all seriousness (and because I’m afraid some people just don’t get my humor), scaling this cliff was a challenge, but it was neither death defying nor a monumental physical achievement. (A fall would have hurt, and perhaps even produced a bruise, sprain, and maybe even a little blood, but it wouldn’t have killed me.) On the other hand, I did feel a sense of achievement up there, that feeling you get when you push yourself beyond normal boundaries. And my effort did reward me with something nobody else has, an image that, it turns out, has outsold every other image in my portfolio.

I’m not used to working without a tripod, but I was able to brace the camera on a dilapidated fencepost for this shot. Not completely confident of the post’s stability, I bumped my ISO and aperture to achieve a fast enough shutter speed to ensure sharpness.

Sometimes I try to understand what it is about this image that draws people. In addition to the wall-to-wall poppies, a few unanticipated factors helped. The afternoon sun, which was about to disappear behind the hills to the west, created a perfect combination of light and shadow. Also, just about simultaneous with the best light, a series of cumulus clouds appeared, rising like smoke signals from behind the hill, adding just enough visual interest to a very blue but otherwise boring sky. And finally, the rotting fence, which I originally planned to compose out of my frame, turned out to have far more character than I could see from the highway.

While all these factors combine to make a nice image, I think what really sets it apart for people is the single skewed fencepost. My theory is that the fencepost is a flexible metaphor for whatever form individuality takes in the viewer’s life (even if he or she can’t consciously identify it): whether it’s solitude, independence, leadership, or whatever, I suspect most people find something in that maverick fence post that resonates personally. I can’t say that I was thinking any of this as I clicked my shutter (I wasn’t), or even that I consciously focused on the fencepost (I don’t remember), but I have grown quite fond of that little guy who will probably be the first to go when the fence is repaired.

And by the way, by widening my perspective enough to see beyond my immediate surroundings, I found a much easier way down the hill. There’s metaphor there, too. Sigh.

Workshop Schedule

Pushing the limit

(Images captured outside my mental or physical comfort zone)

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Sunset, Any Beach, Hawaii

The last few years I’ve spent quite a bit in Hawaii, but I really can’t say which island I prefer. All have gorgeous around-the-clock weather, more waterfalls than you can count, dense and colorful rain forests, and spectacular volcanic beaches. More recently my photographic attention has been focused on the Big Island and Maui, but I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface. Both have lots of rain forests and waterfalls. The Big Island has Kilauea and is much less crowded (especially the more photogenic Hilo side); Maui has Haleakala and the breathtaking Road to Hana. But rather than leave you hanging, I’ll continue my extensive research on this question and will gladly keep you apprised of my findings.

I return to Hawaii’s Big Island for one or two workshops each September, and starting March 2013 I’ll offer a four-day Maui workshop that includes two nights in Hana. There are more places to photograph on Hawaii than there’s time to photograph, so my Hawaii workshop schedule is a bit problematic. We certainly squeeze in lots of photo time, both day and night, but the Islands’ slow pace is infectious–it’s simply impossible not to spend time hanging by the pool and strolling by the beach, so I need to factor in quality downtime for my participants. And then there are those Mai Tais….

Check out my website for more info on my Hawaii photography workshops.

Akaka Fall is the centerpiece of Akaka Falls State Park, a lush, tropical rainforest splashed with reds and yellows so vivid they almost hurt your eyes.

Hawaii isn’t just endless sand beaches. The Big Island and Maui in particular have miles and miles of volcanic beaches like this–short on sand, but long on drama.

This is just one of what seems like hundreds of waterfalls on the Road to Hana, Maui—you’ll quickly realize that some waterfalls exhilarate, while others soothe.

This is the Kilauea Caldera on the Big Island. I can’t imagine anything more breathtaking than peering into an active volcano, unless maybe it’s peering into an active volcano at night.

Are we having fun yet?

Every once in a while, when I’m really bored, I’ll surf over to one of the photography forum (discussion) sites, only to be instantly reminded why it’s been so long since I visited. The litany of complaints, insults, and one-upsmanship makes me wonder whether there are any photographers who truly enjoy their craft. Of course I know there are, because I meet them all the time: in my workshops, whenever I go out to shoot on my own, on my Facebook page, and right here on my blog. I don’t know whether the same photographers who seem so happy when they’re in the field do a Jekyll to Hyde transformation as soon as their butts hit the computer chair, or whether there are two types of photographers: those who actually take pictures, and those who simply prefer their computer to Mother Nature (no wonder they’re so unhappy).

Photography should be, first and foremost, a source of pleasure. How long has it been since you asked yourself why you enjoy photography? And how much photography time do you dedicate to the thing you most enjoy? This is a particular issue for pros, many of whom made photography their livelihood out of the shear joy of taking pictures, only to find the making money part of the business sapped the joy from their picture taking.

I was a serious (and happy!) amateur photographer for many years before I started doing it for a living. When I left my (very good) job to pursue photography full time, it was with a personal commitment to only photograph what I want to photograph: nature and landscapes. I (naively) created a business model that I believed would enable that, and see in hindsight how extremely fortunate I am that it has worked out.

But enough about me. How do you define photographic pleasure? Whether photography is simply an excuse to get out and enjoy nature, an essential medium for creative expression, or a passion that drives you to capture the “best” (however you define “best”) image without regard for personal comfort and convenience, make sure you don’t lose the zeal that moved you to pick up a camera at the start.

As I said earlier, a cornerstone of my own photography is the fervent conviction to photograph only landscapes—no weddings, portraits, candids, or even wildlife (in other words, nothing that moves). But the image above is an exception that makes me happy every time I look at it. To me it’s a perfect reminder of the passion that fuels me and so many other photographers. This was one of those magic moments in nature that transcend conventional standards of comfort (rest, warmth, and full stomachs) to deliver pure joy.

I’d gotten my workshop group up dark and early and assembled them at Yosemite’s Tunnel View in blizzard conditions. Despite the fact that visibility was zero and we were all hungry, sleep deprived, and cold, everyone persevered without complaint. Nobody suggested we return to the hotel or depart for breakfast. Not a word was uttered about diffraction, resolution, soft lenses, back-focus, dynamic range, high-ISO noise, or any of the countless other problems seem to haunt the computer photographers. In fact, for the entire time we waited (and long before the photography improved), the mood was unanimously festive.

As you can see here, conditions did in fact improve. But I’ve done this long enough to know that even if they hadn’t, everyone would have been happy at (our long overdue) breakfast. Indeed, I know they’d have been happy for the rest of the day, not because of anything I did, but simply because they were doing something they love.

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The rewards of misery

(Images that wouldn’t have happened without a little suffering)

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A landscape photographer’s time

Double Rainbow, Yosemite Valley

Double Rainbow, Yosemite Valley
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
38 mm
1/5 seconds
ISO 100

On my run this morning I listened to an NPR “Talk of the Nation” podcast about time, and the arbitrary ways we Earthlings measure it. The guest’s thesis was that the hours, days, and years we measure and monitor so closely are an invention established (with increasing precision) by  science and technology to serve society’s specific needs; the question posed to listeners was, “What is the most significant measure of time in your life?” Most listeners responded with anecdotes about bus schedules, school years, and work hours that revealed how our conventional time measurement tools, clocks and calendars, rule our existence. Listening on my iPhone, I wanted to stop and call to share my own relationship with time, but quickly remembered I wasn’t listening in realtime to the podcast. So I decided to blog my thoughts here instead.

Landscape photographers are governed by far more primitive constructs than the bustling majority, the fundamental laws of nature that inspire, but ultimately transcend, clocks and calendars: the Earth’s rotation on its axis, the Earth’s revolution about the Sun, and the Moon’s motion relative to the Earth and Sun. In other words, clocks and calendars have little to do with the picture taking aspect of my life; they’re useful only when I need to interact with the rest of the world on its terms (that is, run the business).

While my years are ruled by the changing angle of the Sun’s rays, and my days are inexorably tied to the Sun’s and Moon’s arrival, I can’t help fantasize about the ability to schedule my spring Yosemite moonbow workshops (that require a full moon) for the first weekend of each May, or mark my calendar for the blizzard that blankets Yosemite in white at 3:05 p.m. every February 22. But Nature, despite human attempts to manipulate and measure it, is its own boss. The best I can do is adjust my moonbow workshops to coincide with the May (or April) full moon each year; or monitor the weather forecast and bolt for Yosemite when a snowstorm is promised (then wait with my fingers crossed).

The insignificance of clocks and calendars is never more clear than the first morning following a time change. On the last Sunday of March, when “normal” people moan about rising an hour earlier, and the first Sunday of November, as others luxuriate in their extra hour of sleep, it’s business as usual for me. Each spring, thumbing its nose at Daylight Saving Time, the Sun rises a mere minute (or so) earlier than it did the day before; so do I. And each fall, on the first sunrise of Standard Time, I get to sleep an an entire minute longer. Yippee.

Honestly, I love nature’s mixture of precision and (apparent) randomness. I do my best to maximize my odds for something photographically special, but the understanding that “it” might not (probably won’t) happen only enhances the thrill when it, or maybe something unexpected and even better, does happen. The rainbow in today’s image was certainly not on anybody’s calendar; it was a fortuitous convergence of rain and sunlight (and ecstatic photographer). My human “schedule” that evening was a 6 p.m. get-to-know/plan-tomorrow dinner meeting with a private workshop customer. But seeing the potential for a rainbow, I suggested that we defer to Mother Nature, ignore our stomachs, and go sit in the rain. Fortunately he agreed, and we were amply rewarded for our inconvenience and discomfort.

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A Gallery of Rainbows

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Shoot the moon

Mono Moonlight, South Tufa, Mono Lake || Cassiopeia suspended above towering, moonlight-illuminated tufa. With the moon at my back, my exposure settings were ISO 400, f4, and 20 seconds.

Moonlight photography is both simple and rewarding. In my “Shoot the Moon” article that appeared in the April 2010 Outdoor Photographer magazine, I shared my exposure recipe and a few tips to ensure moonlight success. This post summarizes the moonlight material from that article.

Equipment for moonlight photography

At the very least you need a tripod sturdy enough to support your camera. And while some point-and-shoot cameras are capable of the necessary exposure settings, I highly recommend a single lens reflex (SLR) camera for the control it allows and its ease of use in difficult conditions. A wide, fast lens works best, ideally at least as wide as 24mm and as fast as f4. Wider and faster is better; lenses a little longer and a little slower are still manageable. To minimize camera shake, don’t extend the center post, and use a remote (cable) release or your camera’s two- or ten-second timer.

Composition for moonlight

Composition is subjective and ultimately up to the creative instincts of the photographer. Having said that, I can still offer some experience-based suggestions:

  • It’s easier to identify potential moonlight locations and subjects in advance, in daylight
  • Avoid lots of intricate foreground detail–you’ll usually be focusing at infinity
  • Look for reflective subjects like water or granite, or subjects with a strong outline that stands out against the sky, such as trees or prominent rocks or mountains
  • Compose with the sky occupying at least 2/3 of the frame–it’s the starts that make night photography special; a frequent mistake photographers make is to not include enough sky
  • Try to include recognizable constellations, such as the Big Dipper, Orion, or Cassiopeia

Moonlight exposure

Assuming the moon is at your back (where it should be to fully illuminate your foreground and maximize the number of stars visible), here are the manual exposure (don’t use auto-exposure in moonlight) values I recommend for full moon (full moon +/- 1 one day) photography:

  • ISO 400
  • f4
  • 20 seconds

These settings will get your exposure within one stop; when the exposure is complete, check your LCD and adjust the light up or down. Though my moonlight shots almost always use a fairly wide focal length, to minimize star movement when I need more light, I usually opt for ISO 800 rather than increasing my shutter speed much higher than 20 seconds. If you have a lens that’s faster than f4, all the better–in that case you shouldn’t have much trouble keeping your ISO at or below 400, and your shutter speed at or below 20 seconds.

Focus in moonlight

By far the greatest difficultly people have photographing in moonlight is finding accurate focus. Accustomed to reliable daylight autofocus, they scratch their heads when everything seems to be set properly, yet their camera refuses shoot. Invariably the camera is hunting in vain for focus because moonlight just isn’t bright enough for autofocus. And since there is no fixed infinity point on a zoom lens (trust me), the old prime lens trick of dialing the focus all the way out to infinity doesn’t work either.

Fortunately, all is not lost. Follow this multi-step process each time you adjust your focal length and all will be fine:

  1. On a tripod, compose your shot
  2. Without changing your focal length, remove the camera from the tripod and autofocus on the moon
  3. Return your camera to the tripod and switch the lens to manual focus (remember, don’t adjust your focal length!)
  4. Shoot

Processing moonlight images

I strongly encourage you to shoot in raw mode. A raw image increases your margin for error (it’s easier to correct mistakes in a raw image than in a jpeg image), and gives you total control over your light temperature (the color of the light). Light temperature is important because most moonlight images seem to look like daylight with stars (too bright and warm). You can avoid this problem by exposing a little darker than daylight (the exposure settings I suggest above should result in a histogram skewed slightly to the left, as it should be), and cooling the color temperature down to the 3,000-4,000 degree range in the raw processor. (If none of this processing stuff makes sense, ignore it and continue shooting in jpeg mode until you learn how to process raw images.)

Let’s get vertical

Gary Hart Photography: Storm's End, Tunnel View, Yosemite

Storm’s End, Tunnel View, Yosemite
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
1/30 second
ISO 100
40 mm

Whose bright idea was it to lable horizontal images “landscape,” and vertical images to be “portrait”?  To them, let me just say: “Huh?” As a landscape-only photographer, about half of my images use “portrait” orientation. Sometimes I wonder if this unfounded naming bias explains why so many people default to a horizontal orientation for their landscape images, missing some great opportunities to improve their photography in the process.

Every image contains implicit visual motion that’s independent of the eyes’ movement between the image’s compositional elements. Horizontal or vertical, the eye tends to move along the frame’s long side, a reality that allows photographers to complement the eye’s movement among the frame’s compositional elements (for example, a vertically oriented waterfall image), or to create tension by contrasting the elements’ visual motion with the frame’s long border (for example, a horizontally oriented waterfall image).

Vertical images can also enhance the illusion of depth so important in a two-dimensional photo, because the natural tendency to follow the long side of an image enhances the front-to-back eye movement so essential to the sense of depth.

More than just guiding eye movement through the frame, vertical orientation also narrows the frame, essential when we need to eliminate less compelling objects to the left and right of the prime subject(s). I use this approach quite a bit at Yosemite’s Tunnel View, where I think photographers generally tend to compose too wide (more on this below).

This image is entirely about the amazing cloud illuminated by Eastern Sierra sunset light. To capture it I found a single tree atop a ridge for the bottom of the frame, oriented the frame vertically, and gave the cloud over 80 percent of the frame. A horizontal orientation that captured this much of the cloud would have introduced distractions on the right and left, and shrunk the cloud significantly.

A vertical orientation is a great way to emphasize something dramatic in the close foreground, distant background, or sky. I love showing off a beautiful sky by placing the horizon at the bottom of a vertical frame; conversely, I can focus most of the attention on a compelling foreground by placing the horizon at the top of a vertical frame. The more dramatic the element I want to emphasize, the more room I’ll give it by placing the horizon line closer to the top or bottom of the frame.

Despite all these reasons to do otherwise, why do so many photographers default to a horizontal orientation of a landscape image? I think it starts with the subconscious need to maintain harmony with the horizontal orientation of the horizon, a bias that starts the first time we put a camera to our eye. It doesn’t help that the placement of the shutter button only encourages this behavior–on most cameras it’s just easier to snap a picture when they’re oriented horizontally.

But I’m afraid the horizontal bias carries over to landscape photographers on a tripod, using a remote shutter release. In this case, in addition to the built-in horizontal-horizon bias, I blame the awkward maneuvering a vertical orientation on a tripod requires–it’s just easier to have your camera sitting right there in the center of the tripod at it’s highest possible elevation. Tilting the camera to vertical drops the eyepiece several inches, forcing the photographer to either stoop or lower the tripod to compose. It’s also destabilizing to position the camera away from the tripod’s center of gravity; some poor-quality tripod heads simply can’t handle the weight of a camera and lens that’s not directly atop the head.

What’s a photographer to do? If you’re really committed to landscape photography, I can think of no single piece of equipment that will improve your experience in the field more than an L-plate. For less than $200, you can purchase an L-shaped plate that attaches to your camera’s base and wraps around one side. The plate is camera-specific (a new camera requires a new L-plate); it attaches to a corresponding quick-release plate on your tripod’s head. Switching between horizontal and vertical is a simple matter of disengaging the quick-release, flipping the camera, and re-engaging the quick-release. Not only is this quite simple and fast, it keeps the camera over the tripod’s center of gravity and the eyepiece always at the same level, regardless of orientation.

The above image from Tunnel View was one of many (duh) I captured that March evening several years ago. I’d waited in a blizzard for two hours, hoping (praying?) for something just like this. When the light appeared just a few minutes before sunset, it was clear that the most compelling aspects of the scene (besides the always compelling El Capitan, Half Dome (lurking in the clouds in the top-center of the frame), Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall was absolutely not the granite cliffs left of El Capitan and right of Cathedral Rocks; it was the clouds swirling above Yosemite Valley, the amazing light, and (especially) the snow-laden trees in the foreground. Going with a vertical orientation seemed like a no-brainer, as it allowed me to capture only the scene’s most beautiful elements, emphasize the foreground trees with a high horizon, and guide my viewers’ eyes through the scene, from the magical trees to Yosemite’s iconic landmarks.

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One unrelated note about today’s image: This is where I met my good friend and fellow pro photographer, Don Smith. Don and I were two of four or five photographers to brave the elements, with no guarantee of success, that chilly afternoon. Because at that time there was room for no more than five tripods in the prime (unobstructed by trees) Tunnel View viewing spot, photographers had to claim and hold their space rather than simply wait in the car for the weather to clear. Over the couple of hours we waited for the storm to clear, Don and I got chatting and a life-long friendship was born. See, you never know what you’ll find when you go out in crazy weather.

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Just Vertical

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Style points

Conducting photo workshops allows me to observe hundreds of other photographers each year. It’s clear that each brings his or her own personality to the act of creating an image, from the way they search for compositions, to the things they notice (and don’t notice). I could go on and on about any of these differences, but today’s image really underscores a particular aspect of my approach, so (since this is my blog) I thought I’d write about that.

Anyone who has ever photographed with me knows how deliberate I am in the field. It starts with a large measure of calculation, evaluating the scene to determine what to include and exclude, and the best way to do it. And when I finally arrive at something I like, I’ll wait as long as it takes for the conditions to be perfect, refining my composition in the process; once everything’s right, I’ll
work the composition to with in an inch of its life. Many charitably label me “patient,” though often it feels more like stubbornness: “I’m not leaving here until I get exactly what I want.” Whatever you call it, this approach works for me because careful observation and measured response is the way I relate to the world.

I’ve observed that other, more spontaneous, photographers are very frenetic in the field, constantly moving and exploring, rarely dallying at one spot at risk of missing something special elsewhere. These photographers expose themselves to more opportunities, capturing far more variety on any given shoot, than I do. While I believe it’s important to observe other photographers and borrow from them when something resonates, ultimate success comes from being true to your own instincts and inclinations. Just as I wouldn’t do well rushing from spot to spot, a more kinetic photographer might go crazy wasting time on one shot when there’s so much other great stuff nearby.

On the penultimate evening of Don Smith’s Northern California workshop, Don and I landed our group on the Mendocino Headlands about ninety minutes before sunset. Scanning for elements to assemble into a composition, the first thing that caught my attention were the colorful wildflowers dotting the cliffs. The cove and ocean beyond was clearly photo-worthy (though an assortment of large rocks in the water would need to be handled with care to avoid introducing distractions or disturbing the frame’s balance). On the horizon bloomed billowing cumulus, vestiges of the day’s rain. The sun was still fairly high, an initial hindrance that could potentially become an opportunity if the clouds cooperated as sunset approached. All I needed to make an image was a focal point, a compelling subject to anchor my frame. My eyes immediately darted to a patch of poppies overlooking the Pacific, as if waiting with the rest of us for the sun to set. Though they’d closed for the day, I just couldn’t resist the color and grace of my favorite flower.

Once I identified the elements for my frame, I still had to assemble them into an image and immediately dropped to the ground to exaggerate the poppies and minimize a less appealing patch of weeds behind them. A vertical composition allowed me to fill the entire bottom of the frame with poppies while including a lot of sure-to-be-dramatic sky. Anticipating the position of the sun’s exit, I used the diagonal cliff edge to point at the island and create a virtual triangle (poppies, island, sun) for balance. With everything positioned in my frame, I was pretty sure I’d found my shot, but still had an hour to kill before sunset. No problem–I confidently locked-in the composition on my tripod and rose to check on the rest of the group. Several were set up within a few feet of me; others were distributed up and down the headlands. All were most pleased with the scene and potential for more.

As I moved among the other workshop photographers, I kept my eyes open for other compositions. Singular focus is great, but experience (i.e., a few frustrating misses) has taught me not to be so locked on a subject that I become blind to other great stuff such as changing light or an even better composition I might have missed.

Convinced that I’d made the best choice (for me) that evening, I returned to my camera to wait. But even the act of waiting is far from static. First I made sure my polarizer was oriented properly and readied my graduated neutral density filters. Next, I started the exposure process by identifying the scene’s variables. Knowing first and foremost the foreground poppies must be sharp, I chose f16 for the best combination of depth of field and lens sharpness (to avoid diffraction and soft corners, I try to avoid going smaller than f16). I focused midway through the foreground poppies, confident that, at my chosen 28mm focal length, f16 would ensure complete sharpness in the poppies and acceptable sharpness in the background. But the small aperture also meant a one second exposure at my preferred ISO 100; while the breeze was light, I felt much more comfortable at ISO 400 and 1/4 second.

With all this worked out, I was able to spend the rest of my waiting time monitoring the waves and tweaking my composition. There wasn’t a lot going on in the surf, but I soon realized that the small arch in the middle-right stood out best as a wave washed through. The other dynamic issue was distracting white surf that appeared when waves struck a rock just outside the frame on the left. And I’d initially overlooked a small patch of poppies on the bluff, beyond my foreground patch, but soon appreciated that this bunch nicely filled an otherwise blank space if I took care to avoid trimming it with the frame’s border.

By the time the sun dropped to the horizon and the clouds started to light up, I was so familiar with everything in my scene that slight composition adjustments to account for the rapidly moving clouds were easily handled without impacting the factors I’d identified earlier (surf, background poppy patch, focus point, potential wind motion, and so on). This familiarity also enabled me to occasionally recompose wider, tighter, or horizontal then quickly return to my primary (this) composition.

If you’ve made it all the way to the bottom of this wordy post (congratulations!), you may just be as patient and detail-oriented as I am. But if you’re not comfortable shooting this way, no worries. As you can see, this was a very nice sunset–a quick look at my thumbnails would reveal to some an alarming frame-to-frame similarity. In this case I’m extremely happy to have a large variety of versions of this composition from which to choose, but if I’d have been less than satisfied with my decisions (as sometimes happens), unlike those who moved around that evening, I’d have no alternatives as potential consolation. Truth be told, studying, refining, and becoming intimately familiar with a scene just makes me happy, and if you can’t be happy taking pictures, what’s the point?

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