Visual balance

Olmsted Point is one of my favorite easily accessible locations in Yosemite. I enjoy it for the different (from the more common Yosemite Valley angles) view of Half Dome, the range of wide to tight composition possibilities, and for its many foreground options. I visit Olmsted Point a lot, both on my own and with workshop groups. It’s where we shoot the final sunset of my Eastern Sierra workshop, which is how I ended up there two weeks ago.

Before arriving I knew the waxing crescent moon would be quite high that evening, but standing there on Olmsted Point’s granite I saw a wide vertical composition that would form a triangle connecting the moon, Half Dome, and Cloud’s Rest. Going that wide meant that the moon would be quite small in an otherwise empty sky, but I know from experience that even a very small moon carries enough “visual weight” to support a significant portion of the frame.

In my previous post I talked about distilling a scene to its essence through the use of color, shape, light, and line. Usually these essential qualities define or in some significant way affect physical objects such as a tree, a rock, an iconic landmark, or the moon. The (subjective) difference separating a snapshot from effective artistic expression is coherent assembly of these compositional elements. Among other things.

Also important is avoiding distractions and balancing the frame. Which brings me back to this tiny crescent. Volumes have been written on artistic composition. While I won’t deny their validity or function, my experience has been that many aspiring photographers get so bogged down trying to follow photographic canons like the rule of thirds and leading lines, that they fail to trust the instincts that are the true source of creativity. For that reason my training avoids prescriptive instruction in favor of intuitive concepts.

As much as many aspiring photographers would like a composition formula that dictates where to locate each element in their frame, successful composition ultimately comes down to feel. The last thing I check before clicking my shutter–after I’ve identified the general composition, determined depth of field, eliminated distractions–is the sense of balance in the frame. To explain photographic balance I use a  term I call “visual weight,” which I define as any object’s ability to pull the viewer’s eye–think of it as gravity for the eye.

If you’re looking for a formula, you’ve come to the wrong place because an object’s visual weight is subjective and determined by the viewer. Visual weight can be a function of the object’s size (or not), brightness (or not), color (or not), shape (or not), or position in the frame (or not). Imagine a rectangular plane perfectly balanced horizontally on a fulcrum–to maintain its equilibrium, any added weight must be counterbalanced by a corresponding weight elsewhere on the plane. Visual weight is the virtual equivalent: Imagine your frame (or 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.

So what does all this have to do with a tiny moon’s ability to balance a frame? I thought you’d never ask. Visual weight defies quantification because it’s mostly a function of each viewer’s perception: The largest component of visual weight is an object’s emotional tug. Years of photographing the moon whenever possible and in any phase, has caused me to realize that to most people few things in nature have a stronger emotional tug than the moon.

I was once told by a magazine that moon images don’t work because they’re too small (a misconception they’ve since corrected)–if I’d have stuck with “conventional wisdom,” I’d have never followed my instinct to shrink the moon with wide compositions, and in the process discovered that they do indeed work. And if I hadn’t tried to understand why I’m able to get away with a tiny moon, I’d have never attempted to comprehend and define visual weight. I suppose the most significant message here is more than the concept of visual weight, it’s to never let conventional wisdom trump your instincts.

That evening on Olmsted Point I was already pretty pleased with my results when Mother Nature punctuated Cloud’s Rest and Half Dome with pink-fringed clouds, just as the setting sun bathed the scene with its last light. It’s these little gifts that make memorable moments feel like magic.

Keeping it simple

Setting Crescent, Lone Pine Peak, California

Last week I guided my Eastern Sierra workshop group into the Alabama Hills to photograph the Sierra crest at sunset. We stayed until the sky darkened enough to reveal a sliver of moon low in the west, just about to vanish behind Lone Pine Peak. While my eyes easily pulled detail from the shadows of the distant mountains and nearby boulders, and simultaneously registered the deep twilight blue in the much brighter sky, I knew there was no way a camera could capture both.

The conventional “solution” to limited dynamic range like is to use a computer blend multiple frames at different exposures into a single HDR (high dynamic range) image, or to suppress the brightness of the sky with a graduated neutral density filter. While these are perfectly valid techniques, I’m afraid the knee-jerk inclination to render the world exactly as we see it short-changes the camera’s unique ability to remove distractions and distill the world to its essential elements: color, shape, light, and line.

On this evening in the Alabama Hills, nothing else my eyes registered could compete with the color in the sky, the sharp outline of Lone Pine Peak, and the disappearing slice of moon. Metering on and slightly underexposing the sky, I captured nothing but the crescent moon above Lone Pine Peak’s strong outline, both embedded in the sky’s natural blue. All of the shadowed detail that would have distracted from the scene’s essence, disappeared in the black. The punctuating wisp of cirrus, pink with sunset’s last gasp, was a gift.

Macro magic

Rose Grape (Medinilla), Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Hawaii

The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden is photographer heaven. Meandering its verdant paths through a breathtaking assortment of tropical plants, a photographer could take an hour to move ten feet. Eventually the trails make their way all the way down to the crashing surf of Onemea Bay. And if that isn’t enough to occupy you, just as you think you’re ready to exit, you stumble upon a multi-tiered waterfall that could occupy a photographer for hours by itself. I gave each of my recent workshop groups four hours to explore the garden’s immaculate trails, but I don’t think anyone felt they came close to tapping the potential there.

The first group visited the garden in rain that ranged from gentle mist to tropical downpour. Rain softens the light and adds glistening drops to every surface–if you’re prepared, there are no better conditions for macro photography. Because Hawaii’s rain is warm and (usually) vertical, an umbrella is sufficient to keep the camera and lens dry. And a person can only get so wet–you quickly reach a point where you won’t get any wetter, no matter how long you stay out. My approach to photographing in Hawaiian rain is to wear at little as possible (no cotton!)–in this case I wore a swimsuit, running tank-top, and flip-flops; my camera (on a tripod) sported a plastic garbage bag that came off only when it was time to shoot. An umbrella sheltered the camera and lens while I composed and clicked.

One of the things I love most about macro photography is the way the intimate, invisible world suddenly snaps into focus. This world is always present–all you need to do is look. And unlike many broad landscape images, no two macro images ever seem the same.

Not only is the macro world magnified, so are changes in each composition’s creative components: The relationship between objects changes dramatically with any repositioning of the lens; tiny depth of field changes significantly alter the result; the smallest miss in focus point can ruin an otherwise beautiful image; and even minuscule motion can blur a delicate line into a distracting smudge.

For these reasons, I can’t imagine attempting serious macro photography without a tripod. I start with a composition, exposure setting, focus point, and DOF that I think will work, then stand back and carefully scrutinize the result in my camera’s LCD. It’s a rare image that I don’t improve following this initial review. My changes can range from a different f-stop to change the DOF, to a complete  repositioning of the lens to alter a foreground/background relationship. Regardless, with my camera on a tripod, I can take my time identifying problems and compositional variations, comfortable in the knowledge that the image I’m reviewing is still sitting right there in my viewfinder until I’m ready to make my adjustments.

In this image, captured in a light rain, I used an extension tube on my macro lens to get as close as possible to these colorful medinilla berries. My focus point was the dangling water droplet. Capturing the scene’s miniature reflection in the drop required perfect focus, so I used my camera’s live-view, magnified ten times, to ensure precision. I clicked several frames until I got the composition just right, then several more for at different f-stops for DOF variety. Reviewing the choices on my large display at home, I decided that the wide-open, f2.8, image gave me a smooth background that allowed the berries to stand out, and was pleased to see that I had indeed nailed my focus point (thank you, live-view).

Over the volcano

Pu'u O'o at Night, Jagger Museum, Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

The night before photographing my Milky Way image, I took my workshop group to the popular Halema`uma`u Crater overlook at the Jagger Museum. I’ll never forget my first sight of the radiant caldera at night from there, and was excited to share the experience. As is often the case on Kilauea, a dense cloud cover soon gave way to a mixture of clouds and stars above the crater. We were all thrilled, but had no idea that the volcano had a grand finale planned.

In the moonless dark it had been impossible to see anything but black on the eastern horizon, but a little after 10:00, at about the time we were thinking of wrapping things up, an orange glow appeared in that direction. We soon realized that what we’d imagined to be an empty void had in fact been a bank of clouds obscuring the suddenly active Pu’u O’o Crater. It turns out (we learned later) that the less accessible Pu’u O’o had breached earlier in the day, spilling lava and illuminating the sky with a fiery glow that stretched for a half mile down the volcano. And as if this wasn’t enough, the cloud cover reflected the glow in a manner that magnified the pyrotechnics. Punctuating the scene was Jupiter.

Here the camera’s ability to accumulate light was a true asset. Thirty-second exposures at ISO 800 revealed far more than the beautiful orange glow our eyes saw in the clouds immediately above Pu’u O’o. Instead, our cameras revealed the erupting lava setting the clouds ablaze high into the night sky.

Under the Milky Way

Under the Milky Way, Halema`uma`u Crater, Kilauea, Hawaii

I’m violating a personal rule by posting this image, but I just can’t help it. In this  case it’s my “cool threshold rule,” which states (in the privacy of my own brain) that an image must be more than simply cool to qualify for external exposure. By that I mean, no matter how “cool” a scene, I strive for (and try to share only) images that have a creative component that makes them unique in some way. But rules were made to be broken. And since this was another one of those experiences that I was fortunate enough to share with my workshop group, and because I guided the group in their exposure and composition, I’m certain we all got something similar. So this time coolness trumps art, and here we are….

Wednesday night the workshop group had a fantastic experience photographing Kilauea’s Halema`uma`u Crater from the most popular vantage point, the Jagger Museum. As we shot I gazed longingly at the Milky Way shimmering too far to the right of the caldera to include in the frame with the volcano. But Thursday afternoon I did a little mental figuring and thought I might be able to align the crater and the Milky Way by choosing a different perspective. So I made an executive decision (it’s great to be in charge) and changed the plans for Thursday night from a star shoot on Mauna Kea to another Kilauea star shoot (the stars on Mauna Kea are incredible, but there’s not much for the foreground there). I was gratified that support for my change was unanimous, and off we went.

My first stop Thursday night was the Kilauea Iki vista. We arrived to find the stars obscured by clouds and the caldera no more than a distant ember, but within minutes the clouds parted (yay!) to reveal the Milky Way too far left–I’d overshot the adjustment (boo!). Before people could drag out their gear, I herded the group back into the cars and headed for the steam vent vista, about ten minutes away and a little up the road from the Jagger Museum, (silently) optimistic that angle would just about split the difference and put us exactly where I wanted to be. On the trail to the steam vents I didn’t have to walk far to know that we were in luck–there was the Milky Way, in all its pearly splendor, dangling perfectly above the caldera’s glow.

Witnessing a volcano creating brand new earth, against a black sky teeming with stellar pinpoints that have traveled hundreds or thousands of years, is mind numbing. And watching the first image pop up on my LCD is pure euphoria. After helping those who needed it find focus, I gave everyone the exposure values and just stood back, letting each person’s gasp tell me all was well. Pretty cool.

Sunrise on the rocks

Gary Hart Photography: Dawn, Puna Coast, Hawaii

Dawn, Puna Coast, Hawaii
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
10 seconds
ISO 100

I “discovered” this unnamed beach while scouting locations for my Hawaii workshops. It wasn’t on any maps or in any guidebooks, it was just there, tucked into a narrow strip separating the churning Pacific from lush Kapono-Kalapana Road. Through the trees the beach looked promising, so I pulled into a wide spot and explored more closely. A pair of children’s shorts draping a branch near the road, and a warning sign nailed to a tree, were indications that this not a secret location. I feared the sign would threaten severe consequences to anyone who dared trespass, but it simply said, “Private property: No camping or fires. Please enjoy.” So I did.

I’ve probably photographed this beach a dozen times since then. The hanging children’s clothing is always different: shoes, shirts, a swimsuit, but the sign stays the same. For the last few days, on each visit to locations I scouted before the workshop, I’ve scoured the rocks for a lens cap that disappeared somewhere early in my visit to the island. While I have no real hope of finding my lens cap, it’s a great reminder to look more closely at the beauty right at my feet. In Hawaii it’s easy to get distracted by the turquoise surf and billowing clouds, but it’s the jewel-like pools, pillow-shaped rocks, and emerald green moss within arm’s reach that make me feel like beautiful images are possible here any time, regardless of conditions.

This morning’s workshop sunrise was maybe my sixth time here in the last two weeks. The sky was nice but not spectacular, so I decided to emphasize the basalt pillows and quiet pools. I put on my widest lens (17-40) and dialed it out to 19mm to exaggerate the exquisite foreground. The pre-sunrise sky reflected nicely in the pools, but wasn’t yet sufficient to illuminate the black lava. To bring out the character in the nearby rocks, I used a two-stop graduated neutral density filter that held back the much brighter sky enough to expose the foreground detail. Because it was still too dark for a shutter speed that would freeze the violent waves, I opted to blur them into a gauzy mist that (I hoped) would create an ethereal mood. The result was a ten second exposure at f11 and ISO 100.

As we pulled away, an older gentleman hurried across the road to flag me down. I feared we’d inadvertently disturbed his peace, but he was simply wanted to express his admiration for our enjoying the beach so early. He gestured to a home mostly hidden behind dense foliage and said this was indeed “his” beach (technically no beach in Hawaii can be private) and that he was glad we enjoyed it. Then he reached into his pocket and handed me a small black disk, “I found this a few days ago.” I took my lens cap and thanked him for his generosity.

A Big Island Gallery

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


Where the wild things grow

Wild Orchid, Lava Tree State Park, Hawaii

Hawaii isn’t all beaches, sunsets, and palm trees. One of the first things to strike me each time I visit the lush (Hilo) side of the Big Island is the abundance of wild flora considered “exotic” back home. Here, nobody thinks twice about roadside hibiscus, bougainvillea, impatiens, or orchids that would (at the very least) require a trip to Home Depot and months of nurturing to enjoy on the Mainland.

I found this orchid while wandering the trail at the back of Lava Tree State Park in Puna, south of Hilo. Directly across the path from me was a tree draped in yellow hibiscus; just around the next bend the jungle opened to reveal a field of pink orchids stretching a hundred yards to more jungle beyond. This lone orchid was a harbinger of what lay ahead, but before moving on I took the opportunity to isolate it against a background of arcing ferns.

Bouncing between beach sunrise/sunset and rainforest macro scenes can lead to visual whiplash. But the same compositional rules still apply: Find your subject, identify a complementary foreground and/or background, and eliminate distractions. Composing this scene, I thought the dark green ferns made an ideal background for this brilliant pink orchid and carefully positioned myself so the the arcing fronds framed the orchid without intersecting it. Exposing for the bright bloom turned the deepest shadows a natural dark forest-green velvet backdrop. To prevent the intricacies of ferns’ lacework fronds from competing with the orchid, I opted for a large aperture that softened everything but the stamen.

Moonlight on the water

Not a lot of time for blogging right now. I’m in Hawaii for 2 1/2 weeks, leading two photo workshops on the Big Island. Yesterday we departed for sunrise at 4:45 and went pretty much straight through sunset (and beyond), with only a short break for breakfast. We started just as early today, but since we’re staying out late to photograph the Kilauea Caldera beneath the stars, I’m giving the group a little break this morning. So here I am at Starbucks, my home away from home….

The first workshop started Monday, but I arrived with my brother Jay (who’s assisting me) last Thursday to run all my locations in advance. Sunday night was the full moon, so we went to a “beach” (on the Hilo side of the Island, where we’re based, beaches are more rock than sand–great for photography, not so much for sunning and swimming) on the Puna coast hoping to photograph the moonrise above the pounding surf. Of course clouds rule over here, so it wasn’t too surprising that our moonrise was obscured by a bank of towering cumulus clouds on the eastern horizon. By the time the moon appeared, the sky was far too dark to capture detail in the moon and the foreground black lava cliffs. So we could do little more than appreciate the sight (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

We stayed about 30 minutes past sunset, but before leaving I decided try to capture with my camera some of the emotion of the moment. A camera is unable to record the range of light the human eye sees, but our eyes can’t come close to the camera’s ability to accumulate light and reveal detail in nighttime darkness. Since I couldn’t photograph the moon without turning the rest of the scene black, I chose instead to leverage my camera’s unique vision to capture the rocks, surf, and sea illuminated by moonlight.

Because I know many will ask, the image here is a 30 second exposure at ISO 400 and f8. In Photoshop I dodged and burned a little to even the light, and desaturated slightly so to prevent the (surprisingly vivid) color from overpowering the scene.

Familiarity breeds content

Gary Hart Photography: Goodbye Moon, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, California

Goodbye Moon, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, California
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
145 mm
1/40 second
ISO 200

Content (con-tent‘): A state of peaceful happiness….

I’ve photographed Mt. Whitney from the Alabama Hills in sunlight and moonlight, in scorching heat and drifting snow. Sharing favorite spots here with a workshop group is as rewarding as a solitary night under the stars. I’ve never photographed in the Alabama Hills without feeling better afterward than I did when I started.

These feelings aren’t unique to the Alabama Hills; rather, they’re a benefit I’ve come to associate with all the locations I regularly photograph. While new locations are always a treat, visiting familiar terrain like the Alabama Hills, Yosemite, Mono Lake, Death Valley, the California coast, and the central Sierra foothills recharges me in a way not possible at a location that I’m trying to absorb for the first time. It’s like the difference between a quiet reunion with old friends and a raucous party with strangers: both have their place, but the reunion always elevates my spirits.

Content (con‘-tent): Substantive information or creative material….

With familiarity comes the knowledge that I’ll always be able to find something to photograph, regardless of the conditions. I can take my time, let my eyes search the terrain, probe every nook and cranny until something stops me. Everything at a familiar location settles comfortably into place, while at a new location my brain spins at it tries to process a seemingly infinite supply of unfamiliar elements while biased by a lifetime of viewing interpretations from other photographers. As stimulating as it might be, new input is a distraction to the creative process.

My goal, always, is to photograph a scene in a way that it’s never been photographed. That’s usually difficult (especially at many of the locations I photograph), but it seems impossible until I can process a scene and get comfortable with it, something that rarely happens in my first or second (or even third) visit. But each visit to familiar locations like the Alabama Hills seems to peel away additional layers of distraction, allowing me to see just a little deeper into whatever it is that makes that place special.

*            *            *

Sunrise light on Mt. Whitney, and a few minutes later on the Alabama Hills themselves, is a singular treat. The abrupt face of the Sierra towering over the terrain to its east creates rare opportunities witness the unfolding of a new day, as the sun’s first rays kiss the Sierra crest long before they reach observers below. The angle and quality of Mt. Whitney’s first light varies with season and conditions; as I’ve become more tuned to it, I’ve attempted to use this light to highlight the foreground for the larger scene.

Of course the prime show on this frigid morning last January was a full moon setting behind the snowcapped Sierra crest (Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the 48 contiguous United States, is the shark-tooth peak on the left). But rather than “settle” for that exquisite scene, I tried to complement the serrated peaks with the craggy and complementary contours of the nearby boulders. The warm sunrise light on the granite became my friend, creating extreme contrast that further emphasized rocks’ rugged character.

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A Mt. Whitney Gallery

Almost Heaven

Almost Heaven, Big Dipper and Fog, Big Sur

Almost Heaven, Big Dipper and Fog, Big Sur
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
28 mm
25 seconds
ISO 400

On the first night of Don Smith’s Big Sur workshop last week, Don and I gathered our group at (aptly named) Hurricane Point above Bixby Bridge for a round of night photography. While the stars were already out in force as we set up, the last light of day persevered on the western horizon, softly illuminating the sea of fog blanketing the Pacific. The fog, which in California summers lurks offshore by day, was making its nightly assault on the coast. On this evening, under the cover of darkness, it was in full-out attack mode. Rushing to determine the exposure settings for our group of inexperienced night photographers, I managed to fire off three frames before the charging fog engulfed us and we aborted the mission.

I wasn’t sure I’d captured anything of value in my haste until I returned home and found this. It’s a 25-second, 400 ISO exposure that underscores the camera’s ability to accumulate enough light to reveal color beyond the ability of the human eye/brain. In other words, this is pretty much the way my camera saw it: My processing was limited to a slight cooling of the light temperature in the Lightroom raw processor, fairly mild noise reduction, a small wiggle in Photoshop Curves for contrast, and a little dodging to bring out more detail in the fog. Each time I look at this image it revives some of the emotion of being there.

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