Hope for the best, prepare for the worst

First Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite

A regrettable reality of my life is that the best conditions for photography are the absolute worst conditions to be outside. Fortunately, I’ve been hardened by a lifetime of Giants games at Candlestick Park, the coldest place on Earth. As a photographer, I continue to embrace my mantra for warmth at the ‘Stick: Too much is always better than not enough.

For me it’s all about layers: silk, wool, down, and Gore-Tex. I start winter mornings with wool socks, waterproof boots, silk long-johns (if it’s extremely cold), flannel lined jeans, wool long-sleeve T-shirt, wool Pendleton shirt, down jacket or vest, gloves (I have a variety from thin to thick), and a hat or elastic band that covers my ears. I add or remove layers as conditions dictate. If it’s raining or snowing, I add waterproof pants, a waterproof parka, and a wide-brim waterproof hat to keep myself dry; I use an umbrella to keep my gear dry while shooting.

The basic clothes I pack in my suitcase before each trip, but the gloves/hats/umbrella etc. are in a gym bag that is always in my car. In the car I also keep an extra pair of shoes and socks, towel, and garbage bag (to cover my camera when it’s on the tripod). With all this paraphernalia, I’m nice and toasty in whatever extremes the Sierra throw at me. And I can never use weather as an excuse for missing a shot.

While it was quite chilly the morning I captured El Capitan with a veneer of fresh (and unexpected) snow, I didn’t miss a beat. I had packed for cold, and always have wet weather gear in the car. Not only did my waterproof attire keep me warm and dry in the show, it also enabled me to traipse through the frigid Merced River to the small, rocky island that gave me the perspective I wanted. Later, back at the car, I used a towel borrowed from my hotel room (and returned!) to dry my tripod.

Of course a little bit of planning helps. For example, in Hawaii the problem isn’t cold, it’s rain. Since the temperatures in Hawaii are so comfortable, I wear as little as possible, and only clothes that dry fast. Cotton is a big no-no–instead my 24×7 wardrobe is some variation of running shorts or swimsuit, running tank top or T-shirt, and flip-flops or sandals. When it rains, I play in the rain, while the umbrella and plastic garbage bag (poor man’s waterproof camera cover) that live in my camera bag keep my gear dry.

Raindrops, Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Hawaii It was pouring when I took this, but the only thing I needed to worry about was keeping my camera dry.

Finding your camera’s “truth”

Gossamer Twilight, Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur

Something I teach, write, and lecture on frequently (ad naseum?) is the photographer’s obligation to understand, not fight, the camera’s vision. Some people seem to get this; others, not so much. So I’ve decided to try a slightly different tack.

Visual “Truth” is relative

Without getting too philosophical, it’s important to understand that, like your camera, your view of the universe is limited and interpreted. In other words, there is no absolute visual truth. Instead, we (you, me, and our cameras) each have our own view of the world that’s based on many factors–some we can control, others we can’t. When you look through a viewfinder, the more you turn off your visual biases and understand your camera’s, the more successful your photography will be.

Limited vision

Before lamenting your camera’s limitations, pause to consider that what you and I see is incredibly limited as well. The visible (to the human eye) portion of the electromagnetic spectrum is a minuscule part of the infinite continuum of electromagnetic radiation bombarding each of us, every instant of every day. For example, X-ray machines “see” waves in the one nanometer (one billionth of a meter) range; TVs and radios “see” waves that are measured in centimeters; humans, on the other hand, only see waves between (about) 400 and 750  nanometers.

Using this knowledge, astronomers peer into space with tools designed to see objects at wave lengths invisible to us. X-rays allow doctors to view bones hidden beneath opaque skin, and night vision technology uses “invisible” (to us) infrared radiation (heat) to see objects complete darkness. In other words, in the grand scheme of things, there’s no single absolute visual standard–it’s all relative to your frame of reference.

The camera has its own frame of reference. While it records more or less the same visible spectrum our eyes do, the camera is missing an entire dimension: depth. Not only that (since we’re not talking about movies here), a camera only returns a snap of a single instant. And we all know about limited dynamic range and depth of field.

Despite these differences, photographers often go to great lengths to force their camera to record what their eyes see. Not only is this impossible, it doesn’t take advantage of the camera’s ability to see things in ways we don’t.

Interpreted vision

Our visual input is interpreted before we perceive it, in much the same way a camera’s input is processed before it’s output (to a monitor, printer, or whatever). Visual processing happens in our brain, which makes adjustments for things like color temperature, perspective, motion, and so on.

Likewise, every photograph must be processed (interpreted) in some way before it can be viewed, either by the camera (if camera gives you a jpeg or tiff), or by the photographer, using Photoshop or some other processing software.

Visual synergy

In most ways, the eye’s ability to capture light exceeds that of even the best cameras. On the other hand, the camera does do a few things our eyes can’t do: In the image above, captured a year ago at Pfeiffer Beach on the Big Sur coast, I used my camera’s ability to accumulate light to reveal things that, while invisible to my eye, were still quite real.

According to the EXIF data (try getting your eye/brain to record that), the sun had set twenty minutes prior, but my camera was still able to see in the limited light. This twenty second exposure revealed more detail than my eye registered. In doing so it smoothed the surf into a gauzy mist, and captured reflected color lost in my visual darkness.

Another thing I really like about my camera’s take on this scene is the way it reveals the transition of light and color as the view moves away from the sun. Though the eye does register it, our brains, influenced by the subconscious misperception that a cloudless sky is a uniform sky, often overlook subtle differences like this. But capture it in an image and the transition is both striking and beautiful.

So what about the blurred water?

People who criticize blurred water images for being “false” because that’s not the way water is, completely miss the point (I won’t get into the whole cliché argument here, which has more validity). My question to them is, how would you choose to capture water? (It’s a trick question.) When they answer frozen sharp, I ask them how many times they’ve actually seen a wave or water droplet suspended in midair. (Checkmate.)

The point is, a still camera simply “sees” motion differently than we do. Rather than holding our images to an unattainable human standard, we should feel free to appreciate and convey our cameras’ unique perspective. In this Pfeiffer Beach scene, I like the way smoothing the water to an ethereal gauze more accurately conveys the inviting mystery of the sea.

What is real?

Is this image real? While it’s nothing like what I saw, it’s still a very accurate rendering of my camera’s reality. Understanding my camera’s vision enabled me to share a perspective that expands my limited vision and transcends human reality. Pretty cool.

Finding order in nature, one leaf at a time

Autumn Leaf, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
20 seconds
F/25
ISO 100
168 mm

“Did you put that leaf there?” 

I’m frequently asked if I positioned a leaf, moved a rock, or “Photoshopped” a moon into an image. My (truthful) answer is always the same: “No.” I suspect I’m asked this so much because I aggressively search for natural elements and patterns to isolate and emphasize–they’re not hard to find if you look.

We all know photographers who have no qualms about arranging their scenes to suit their personal aesthetics. The rights and wrongs of that are an ongoing debate I won’t get into. But the pleasure I get from photography derives from revealing nature, not manufacturing it. There’s enough naturally occurring  beauty to keep me occupied for the rest of my life.

Natural order

Nature is inherently ordered–in the big picture “nature” and “order” are synonyms. But humans go to great lengths to control, contain, and manage the natural world. We have a label for our failure to control nature: chaos. Despite its negative connotation, what humans perceive as “chaos” is actually just a manifestation of the universe’s inexorable push toward natural order.

For example

Imagine all humans suddenly removed from Earth. No lawns would be mowed, buildings maintained, floods “controlled,” oil drilled, etc. Let’s say we return in 100 years–while the state of things would no doubt be perceived as chaos, the reality is that our planet would in fact be closer to its natural state. And the longer we’re away, the more human-imposed “order” would be replaced by natural order.

Embracing the concept that nature is inherently ordered makes it easier to find order when you explore the world with your camera; photographic success suddenly becomes a function of your ability to convey nature’s order with your camera. Elements and relationships, lost in the  confusion of 360 degree human sensory input, can snap into coherence in the rectangular confines of a photograph.

What does all this have to do with a leaf on a rock?

The leaf clinging to a wet rock was just one of thousands of colorful leaves decorating the cascades of Bridalveil Creek in Yosemite. By carefully positioning it within the finite boundaries of my frame, I was able to make the leaf stand out from the confusion of the competing elements surrounding me. In other words, I’m controlling your experience of this moment by giving your eyes a single element on which to focus, and capturing it against a simple background that allows you to plug in your own sensory memories. Hear the water? Feel the chill?

An autumn gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

Reflections on the polarizer

Autumn Reflection, North Lake, Eastern Sierra
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1/5 second
F/16.0
ISO 200
22 mm

Polarizer 101

Photographers who think a polarizer is only for darkening the sky miss opportunities to saturate color and and emphasize texture in shade or overcast. Even worse, some photographers screw on a polarizer without understanding how it works, mistakenly believing that merely having it attached is sufficient.

The amount of polarization any composition calls for is a creative decision that can make or break an image. And unfortunately, a mis-oriented polarizer is worse than no polarizer. With no Photoshop substitute to help you recover, your only option is to get the polarization right at capture.

This won’t be on the test

So what does a polarizer do?

It helps some people to understand that a wave of light oscillates perpendicular to its direction of motion–picture the way a wave in the middle of the ocean rises and falls as it advances: the wave moves forward, but the water moves up and down. In very simple terms, by removing light that oscillates in a specific direction, a polarizing filter removes reflection. Polarization (reflection reduction) is most pronounced when your lens points 90 degrees (perpendicular) to the direction of the sun (or other light source); its least effective when the lens points directly toward or away from the sun.

A  circular polarizer (what you want for today’s digital SLR cameras) screws to the front of your lens. Rotating the polarizer’s outer element relative to its fixed, inner element, varies the orientation and amount of polarization. You can see its effect (sometimes large, sometimes small) through your viewfinder or on your live-view LCD.

What a polarizer does for you

With reflections minimized by a polarizer, pale blue sky is transformed to a deep blue, the natural color and texture of rocks and foliage pops, and clouds that were barely visible suddenly snap into prominence. Or, imagine mountains reflected in a still alpine lake: As you rotate your polarize, the reflection is replaced by rocks and leaves dotting the lakebed; keep turning and the reflection returns.

So what’s the catch?

Lost light

A polarizer costs you one to two stops of exposure, depending on the polarizer and the amount of polarization you dial in. Since aperture manages depth, landscape photographers usually compensate for the lost light with a longer shutter speed–one more reason to use a tripod.

Differential polarization

Because a polarizer’s effect varies with the direction of the light, and wide lenses cover such a broad field of view, light strikes different parts of a wide scene from different angles. The result is “differential polarization”: parts of the scene that are more polarized than others.

Differential polarization is particularly troublesome in the sky, appearing as an unnatural transition from light to dark blue across a single frame. This effect can often be reduced, but rarely eliminated, with careful dodging and burning in Photoshop. Better yet, avoid images with lots of (boring) blue sky.

Vignetting

A standard polarizer is comprised of a circle of polarized glass mounted in a frame that screws into, and rotates relative to, the fixed lens beneath. Many also include an outer ring with threads for attaching other filters. The field of view of ultra-wide lenses can be so great that, at their wider focal lengths, they include the polarizer’s frame: vignetting. Polarizer vignetting manifests as dark edges on your images, particularly at the corners.

Most of the best polarizer manufacturers offer a low-profile version that mitigates vignetting. Low profile polarizers are more money (oh well), usually require a special lens cap (usually just a minor annoyance), and don’t have external threads (not an issue for me).

Where’s the rainbow?

A polarizer oriented to minimize reflections will completely erase a rainbow. So if you’re shooting a photographing a rainbow, turn your polarizer until you see the rainbow at its brightest. And if you’re photographing scene that could get a rainbow, pull away from your viewfinder from time-to-time just to be sure that you’re not missing something special.

Me and my polarizer(s)

Always on

Since I’m all about simplicity in the field, and determining whether or not I need a polarizer and then installing or removing it as needed is more trouble than it’s worth, each lens has its own polarizer that never comes off during daylight hours. I remove my polarizer only when I need more light; but remember, I’m always on a tripod, so unless it’s night, or I’m dealing with wind or water motion, the light lost to the polarizer isn’t a concern for me.

But. Shooting with no polarizer is better than using an incorrectly oriented polarizer. If you’re going to follow my “always on” polarizer approach, you must be diligent about rotating the polarizer and checking its effect on each composition, or risk doing more harm than good to your image.

Protection

Like many photographers, I always use a filter as protection for my front lens element; unlike many photographers, I don’t use UV or skylight filters. While it’s possible to stack a polarizer with a UV or skylight filter, I don’t. Instead, (because it never comes off) my polarizer doubles as protection for the front lens element.

Given that my polarizers are in the $200 range, this gets a little expensive when a filter “takes one for the team,” but it’s cheaper than replacing an entire lens, and more desirable than stacking superfluous glass between my subject and my sensor, not to mention the vignetting stacking causes. On the other hand, I will use a graduated neutral density filter with a polarizer, because GNDs perform a specific (not superfluous) function.

The polarizer and lens hoods

To those photographers who complain that it’s a real pain to rotate a polarizer with a lens hood in the way, I have a simple solution: remove the lens hood. I never use a lens hood. Ever. This is blasphemy to many photographers, but I hate lens hoods, which always seem to be in the way (see my “simplicity in the field” comment above). But (there’s that word again), jettisoning the lens hood must come with the understanding that lens flare is real and sometimes impossible to correct after the fact.

When there’s a chance direct sunlight will strike my front lens element, I check to see if shielding the lens helps. With my composition ready (on my tripod!), I peer through my viewfinder and shield my lens with my hand or hat (or whatever’s handy). If the scene becomes darker and more contrasty, and/or random fragments of light disappear, when my lens is shaded, I know I have lens flare and need to manually shield my lens while exposing. Of course if the sun is part of the composition, no shading in the world will eliminate lens flare.

Polarizer techniques

Polarizer on a budget

All scenes don’t benefit equally from a polarizer, and photographers on a budget can’t always afford one for every lens. If you’re only going to go with one polarizer, buy one for your largest lens–as long as you’re on a tripod, it’s not hard to hold (and rotate) a larger polarizer in front of a smaller lens.

Does this scene call for a polarizer?

To determine the polarizer’s effect, rotate the outer element 360 degrees as you peer through your viewfinder (or while viewing the LCD in live-view). Often just holding the polarizer to your eye and rotating it slowly is enough to determine its benefit. Either way, if you can’t see a change, you probably don’t need to worry about a polarizer.

Because a polarizer can also enhance reflections (and glare), whenever the polarizer is on, you must, must, must test its effect with every composition (and especially after switching from horizontal to vertical orientation). Unless I’m trying to maximize a reflection, I rotate the polarizer until the scene appears darkest. If there’s no apparent change, I watch specific objects that might have a slight sheen (water, a leaf, or a rock) as I rotate the polarizer–I almost always can find some change.

It’s not just for the sky

As nice as the the effect on the sky is,  it’s the polarizer’s more subtle ability to reduce glare in overcast or shade that I find irreplaceable. Peering through your viewfinder (or watching your LCD if you’re using live-view), lock your eyes on a reflective surface and rotate the polarizer. The effect is most obvious on water, or wet rocks and leaves, but even when completely dry, most rocks and leaves have a discernible sheen. As you rotate the polarizer, harsh glare is replaced by natural color and texture; continue rotating and the glare reappears. The glare is minimized when the scene is darkest.

Regardless of the effect, there’s no rule that requires you to turn the polarizer to one extreme or anther (maximum or minimum reflection). Rotate the outer element slowly and watch the scene change, stopping when you achieve the desired effect.

In the North Lake autumn reflection scene at the top of the page, I was able to find a midpoint in the polarization that kept the best part of the reflection (the mountains and trees), while still revealing the submerged granite rocks at my feet.

Floating Leaves, Merced River, Yosemite

In the above image of autumn leaves floating in the Merced River, I used my polarizer to completely dial down the reflection, creating the illusion of leaves suspended in empty space. Polarizing away the reflection also helped the leaves’ color stand out by eliminating distracting glare.

Redbud, Merced River

An emergency neutral density filter

A polarizer can also be used as a two-stop neutral density filter by dialing it to maximum polarization (minimum light). In this image of a redbud above the surging Merced River, even at ISO 100 and f32, I couldn’t reach the 3/4 second shutter speed that would give me the motion blur I wanted. But the two stops of light I lost to my polarizer was just enough to get me where I wanted to be.

If you’re serious about your photography

Use only quality polarizers; you don’t need to spend a fortune, but neither should you skimp. Not only does the quality of the optics affect the quality of your results, I’ve also seen many poorly made polarizers simply fall apart for no apparent reason.

I advise buying polarizers that are commensurate with your glass–in other words, if you have top-of-the-line lenses, it makes no sense to use anything but top-of-the-line polarizers. I use Heliopan, Rodenstock, and Singh-Ray (I refuse to purchase anything from B+W until they fix their low profile lens cap, a problem they’ve know about for years).

My personal recipe for using a polarizer

  1. Always on during the day (but if you do this, you must check the orientation with each composition)
  2. No other filters except a graduated neutral density filter, when needed
  3. Compose my shot and lock it in place on my tripod
  4. Turn the polarizer to get the effect I want
  5. Expose the scene
  6. Check for lens flare and shield if necessary
  7. Click

Just do it

Like anything else in photography, using a polarizer is an acquired skill that improves with use. You don’t need to immediately jump in with both feet, but I suspect once you tune in to the polarizer’s benefits, you’ll have a hard time photographing nature without one.

Seeing the small stuff

Leaves and Light, Yosemite

*   *   *   *

In a recent post I mentioned that I don’t photograph Yosemite’s Tunnel View much anymore. It’s not that I visit Tunnel View any less frequently, or love being there any less than I once did; it’s more the growing realization collecting images already done (by myself or others) doesn’t really excite me. The longer I do this, the more I appreciate the simple pleasure of  capturing a moment in nature, of finding a small detail or ephemeral scene that’s often overlooked and will never be repeated.

On a recent fall visit to Yosemite I meandered the bank of the Merced River near the Pohono Bridge and Fern Spring. As is often the case this time of year, a number of photographers were stationed on and near the bridge, and the usual swarm of tripods jockeyed for position around the spring. But the world was blissfully quiet among the trees. While the dogwood, usually fiery red in early November, were still mostly green, the maples flashed brilliant yellow. Even the slightest breeze sent a few leaves wafting, but closer scrutiny of those still holding tight showed many with a few molecules of spring green, a sign that the fall display wasn’t quite finished.

Positioning myself beneath an overhanging branch, I zoomed my 70-200 tight, separating the branch from its surroundings to make it appear suspended in midair. Despite a gray overcast and dark evergreen canopy, a few dots of light leaked through overhead. Usually I’ll compose bright sky out of a frame like this, but here I decided to feature it, dialing in a large aperture (f5.6) to soften the individual pinpoints into overlapping jewels. Because a narrow depth of field makes the focus point particularly critical, I switched to live-view and magnified my LCD to ensure precise focus. The narrow depth of field also smoothed the background trees, erasing distractions and setting the sharp foreground leaves against a complementary canvas of color, shape, and light.

These leaves are brown now, decomposing on the forest floor, or perhaps far downriver. While there’s no doubt in my mind that as I clicked this frame many simultaneous clicks captured whatever was going on at Tunnel View, I’m pretty sure I’m the only person in the world with this image. That’s a nice thought for sure, until I remember that within a few feet of where I stood were an infinite number of other unrepeatable images that I missed. Guess I’ll just have to keep trying….

Magenta moonrise, Half Dome, Yosemite

Magenta Moonrise, Half Dome, Yosemite

With my camera I’m able to create my own version of any view, adjusting focal length (the amount of magnification) and composition to emphasize whatever elements and relationships I find most compelling. Today’s image was captured on the  final shoot ofmy most recent fall workshop, three sunsets after my previous image, from virtually the same location.

On Sunday evening (the first sunset), with Yosemite Valley emerging from swirling clouds and the moon high above Leaning Tower, I chose a wide composition that encompassed the entire scene. Wednesday evening the eastern horizon was partially obscured by a uniform layer of translucent clouds. As the sunset progressed, we watched the moon’s glow rise through the throbbing pink clouds. When it slipped into a small opening I quickly tightened my composition to create a frame that was all about Half Dome and the moon. I made the Sunday moon a delicate accent, the Wednesday moon a bold exclamation point. These decisions remind me that photography is more than simply documenting a moment; it’s taking that moment and using the camera’s unique vision to convey its essence.

One more thing: By the last day of a workshop, relationships have been forged and inside jokes have blossomed.  The group interaction feels more like a family gathering (minus the disfunction) than the assembly of diverse strangers we were three-and-a-half days earlier. On this evening in particular we had a great time laughing about things that anyone who hadn’t been in the workshop couldn’t appreciate. It was lots of fun, and a wonderful way for me to wrap up this year’s fall workshop season.

(More) Tunnel View magic

Moon at Twilight, Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View

This post is for everyone who woke up this morning thinking, “Gee, I sure wish there were more pictures from Tunnel View in Yosemite.” Well, you’ve come to the right place.

Okay, seriously, the world really doesn’t need any more Tunnel View pictures, but sometimes I just can’t help  myself. Call me biased, but I’ll put this view up against any in the world. I’ve been here hundreds (thousands?) of times, but still try to make it my first stop every time I enter Yosemite Valley (even though it’s a slight detour from my standard route into the park). And Tunnel View’s position overlooking the west end of the valley makes it the first place to clear after a storm, so it’s usually where I wait out any weather.

Since most of my workshops usually include a few people who have never experienced Yosemite, I get vicarious thrills by making Tunnel View my first workshop stop. Of course we usually return as I have many favorite times to share this view: any clearing storm, a crescent moon rising in the predawn twilight, a fiery sunset, Bridalveil Fall’s colorful ascending prism each spring afternoon, Half Dome and El Capitan against a post-sunset pink and blue pastel sky, a rainbow arcing across Yosemite Valley, and a full moon rising above Half Dome at sunset. Nevertheless, with a vast portfolio of  all these magic moments, I rarely photograph here anymore.

So what possessed me to take out my camera on the first sunset of last week’s Yosemite workshop? I’m guess still a hopeless sucker for a clearing storm, but the tipping point for me that evening came when I moon popped out, a rare opportunity to photograph something a little different from anything else I have. Including the moon in my frame required going a little wider than I normally do here, about 30mm in this case, which reduced the moon to a small accent punctuating the scene. If you read my post on visual balance, you understand why I like a small moon that’s not necessarily the focal point the frame.

But enough about me. As much as I enjoyed photographing this, it was more fun watching everyone else watch the sunset unfold. The swirling clouds went from gray, to white, and then pink, before finally parting to reveal blue sky and the moon suspended above Leaning Tower. Between clicks I heard giggles of excitement and even a few audible gasps. Pretty cool.

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