Digital photography the old fashioned way

Moonlight, Garrapata Beach, Big Sur
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
4 seconds
ISO 400
35 mm

Photoshop processing sometimes gets a bad rap. There’s nothing inherently pure about a jpeg file, and because a jpeg is processed by the camera, it’s actually less pure than a raw file. As a general rule, the less processing an image needs, the better, but sometimes raw capture followed by Lightroom/Photoshop processing is the only way to a successful image.

I’ve always considered myself a film shooter with a digital camera. But that doesn’t mean that I’m opposed to processing an image—in fact, processing is an essential part of every image. But just as Ansel Adams visualized the finished print long before he clicked the shutter, success today requires understanding before capture a scene’s potential, and the steps necessary to extract it later Lightroom/Photoshop.

For example

A couple of weeks ago, while co-leading Don Smith’s Big Sur photo workshop, our group had an early morning shoot that was equal parts difficult and glorious. The plan was a Garrapata Beach sunrise featuring the moon, one day past full, dropping into the Pacific at sunrise. But high tide and violent surf banished us to about 500 square feet of sheltered sand, and the cliffs above the beach (it’s bad for business when workshop participants get swept out to sea). Compounding the difficulty, the most striking aspect of the scene, a nearly full moon, was too bright for the rest of the scene. But despite the morning’s difficulties, I set to work trying to make an image because, well, that’s what photographers do.

As much as I wanted to be on the sand, aligning the moon with the the best foreground from down there would have made me a sitting duck for the waves. So I made my way along the cliff to an off-trail spot above a group of surf-swept rocks. It turns out the higher perspective was perfect for emphasizing the reflected moonlight that stretched all the way to the horizon.

With long exposures on a tripod, photographing the moonlight and beach wasn’t a problem. But adding the daylight-bright moon burning through the pre-dawn darkness made capturing the entire range of light in a single frame (a personal requirement) difficult, and perhaps impossible. Nevertheless, I spot-metered on the moon to determine the maximum exposure that would retain the ability to recover overexposed lunar detail later in the Lightroom raw processor. But even after maximizing the moon’s exposure, I didn’t have nearly enough light for the rest of the scene without first darkening the sky further using five stops of graduated neutral density (stacking my Singh-Ray three-stop reverse and two-stop hard GND filters). So far so good.

Satisfied that I could make the exposure work, but with very little margin for error, my next concern was finding a shutter speed that allowed enough light without risking motion blur in the moon. Because I needed sharpness throughout the frame, from the beach right below me all the way out to the moon, I couldn’t open all my aperture all the way. Whipping out my DOF app, I computed that focusing twenty feet away at f8 would give me sharpness from ten feet to infinity. Bumping to ISO 400 at f8 brought my shutter speed to four seconds, a value I was confident would freeze the moon enough. I clicked several frames to get a variety of wave effects, ultimately choosing this one for the implicit motion in foreground wave’s gentle arc.

In Lightroom, I cooled the light temperature slightly to restore the night-like feel. Using five GND stops at capture required significant Photoshop brightening of the sky to return it to a reasonable range. A few years ago this would have introduced far too much noise, but the latest noise reduction software (I use Topaz) is amazing. As expected, even after all my exposure and processing machinations, I still needed to process the raw file a second time to recover the highlights in the moon. Because the two versions were the same capture, combining them in Photoshop was a piece of cake.

A Gallery of Favorite Seascapes

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

Alpenglow: Nature’s paintbrush

Red Dawn, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, California
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
168 mm
.8 seconds
ISO 100

The foreground for Mt. Whitney is the rugged Alabama Hills, a disorganized jumble of  rounded granite boulders, familiar to many as the setting for hundreds of movies, TV shows, and commercials. These weathered rocks make wonderful subjects without the looming east face of the southern Sierra. What makes this scene particularly special is the fortuitous convergence of topography and light that rewards early risers with a skyline dipped in pink–add a few clouds and it’s a photography trifecta.

We’ve all seen the pink band above the horizon opposite the sun shortly before sunrise or after sunset. Sometimes called “the belt of Venus,” this glow happens because sunlight that skims the Earth’s surface just before sunrise (or shortly after sunset) has to battle its way through the thickest part of the atmosphere, which scatters the shorter wavelengths (those toward the blue end of the visible spectrum), leaving just the longer, red wavelengths capping the horizon. When mountains jut high enough to reach into this region of pink light, we get “alpenglow.” Towering above the terrain to the east, the precipitous Sierra crest, anchored by 14,500 foot Mt. Whitney (the highest point in the contiguous 48 states) and 13,000 foot Lone Pine Peak, is ideally located to receive this sunrise treatment.

The image above was captured on a frigid January morning. While the best light on the Sierra crest usually starts a couple of minutes before the “official” (flat horizon) sunrise, this morning Mt. Whitney hid behind the clouds until the alpenglow was well underway. Like a piece of art waiting for its spotlight, the cloudy shroud was pulled back just as the sunlight struck Mt. Whitney, and for a couple of minutes it appeared as if a giant paintbrush had dabbed the swirling canvas with pink.

A Mt. Whitney Gallery

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

Trust your instincts

Emergence, Half Dome from Olmsted Point, Yosemite

Emergence, Half Dome from Olmsted Point, Yosemite
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
70-200L F4
3.2 seconds
ISO 400

This week I’ve spent some time going through past images that I just haven’t had time to get to. Unlike many of the images I uncover by returning to old shoots, this one from the final night of my October 2010 Eastern Sierra workshop wasn’t a surprise–the sky over Half Dome that night was magic, something I’ll never forget. Shortly after returning home I selected and processed one, but in conditions like that I always shoot enough variety of compositions that I knew there must be more there. While I have a general rule to only select one image of any scene from a single shoot, this is a perfect example of why I refuse to be bound by rules.

From the Clouds, Half Dome from Olmsted Point, Yosemite

From the Clouds, Half Dome from Olmsted Point, Yosemite
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
24-105L F4
5 seconds
ISO 400

Comparing the two images from that night, what strikes me most isn’t the similarity, but the differences. Despite being captured less than a minute apart, they illustrate creative choices that underscore a point I keep hammering on: Photographers are under no obligation to reproduce human “reality” (because it can’t be done). Because photographic reality is an impossible moving target, my obligation as a photographer is to my camera’s reality. And if I do things right, I can use my camera’s reality to transcend visual reality and convey some of the emotion of the moment.

So, in the “Emergence” (tight vertical) composition, I chose to emphasize Half Dome’s power and nothing else. I centered Half Dome and exposed for its granite face, letting the swirling clouds darken and the foreground go completely black. The dark clouds above Half Dome cap the top of the scene–there’s really nowhere else for your eye to go than Half Dome.

Today’s “From the Clouds” composition is more about the moment’s grandeur. I widened the perspective considerably and brightened my exposure enough to encourage your eye to wander about the frame a bit. There’s no question as to where your eye will end up, it just takes a little longer to get there. In other words, expanding the perspective and providing more light invites you to leave and return to Half Dome at your leisure.

Did I consciously plot this that night? Nope. Honestly, I’m rarely this analytical when I shoot–I just don’t want my left (logical) brain to distract my right (creative) brain. But I do believe that if you cultivate (and trust!) your intuition, creative decisions like this will happen organically. (But learn metering and exposure until it becomes automatic!)

So while I had no conscious thought of how to control your experience of this scene, I’ve done this long enough to know that these creative choices don’t just happen by accident. Without getting into the divine intervention claims trumpeted by some photographers (label it what you will), I believe everyone can access untapped creative potential that takes them far beyond what can be accomplished with the conscious mind. And it starts with trust.

BTW—I prefer the first one (Emergence).

There’s no whining in photography

Moonset, Soberanes Point, Big Sur
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
10 seconds
ISO 50
28 mm

January 2012

I just wrapped up a long week that underscores the best and worst of my life as a landscape photographer. In the plus column I’ll put visits to Big Sur and Yosemite and the opportunity to spend quality time with a great bunch of photographers; in the negative column goes long days, dull weather, and lots of solo miles.

Sunday morning I left for Big Sur to co-lead Don Smith’s winter workshop, where we spent three-and-a-half days yo-yoing up and down one of the most beautiful coasts in the world. Wednesday night, after photographing sunset with the group at Point Lobos, I made the long trip home, arriving with barely enough time to repack my suitcase and gas-up before hitting the road for Yosemite Thursday afternoon. Following a sunrise to sunset day guiding two photographers from the Netherlands around Yosemite, I drove home late Friday.

But when a long week includes scenes like today’s image, you can see I have little to complain about. I’m extremely fortunate to live where I do, less than four hours drive from locations people travel around the world to visit: Yosemite, Big Sur, San Francisco, Point Reyes, Muir Woods, the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts, the Napa and Sonoma Wine Country, Mt. Shasta, Mt. Lassen, Lake Tahoe, and Mono Lake.

As has become California’s norm this winter, Big Sur delivered mild temperatures and cloudless skies. But, since poor conditions should never be an excuse for staying inside, here’s a little secret for dealing with bland skies: the best light for photography comes before the morning sun reaches the scene, and after the evening sun leaves. Without direct light, the entire landscape is bathed in even, contrast-smoothing light reflected from the sky, and the pastel hues of the Earth’s shadow colors the sky and paints the horizon. All you need to capture the magic is a decent camera (any digital SLR will do) and sturdy tripod.

I time all of my moonrise/moonset shoots for the small window when the moon is in this day-night transition zone—often, the more clear the sky, the better the twilight color on the horizon opposite the sun (and right where the full moon sets/rises). But adding a full moon in limited light like this can be tricky—the moon is daylight bright, while the rest of the scene is in deep shade. Some photographers blend multiple images to handle the extreme contrast; I prefer graduated neutral density filters. For example, to capture the above image of the moon setting into the Pacific at Big Sur’s Sobranes Point, I used a Singh-Ray three-stop reverse GND filter to subdue the moon and hold the sky’s color during an exposure that had to be long enough to reveal the foreground detail.

It was more night than day when Don and I got the group to Sobranes Point for our sunrise shoot. A white strike of moonlight reflected on the black Pacific, and nearby sea stacks, mere shapes in the dark, were under continuous assault from the violent surf. Following a brief orientation, everyone spread out along the cliffs—Don led some of the group southward along the cliffs; I guided the rest northward toward a not yet visible arch. When my eyes adjusted and the light came up, I wound my way along a narrow path that ended on a granite prominence jutting thirty feet or so above the ocean. While most of the waves crashed harmlessly beneath me, every few minutes a particularly large surge would strike at just the right angle, obliterating my view with spray that rose twenty feet above my head (see below). Had the generally prevailing onshore wind not been absent that morning, I’d have been thoroughly drenched. After the first wave explosion I was a bit uneasy about my location, but once I realized I was out of range I kind of enjoyed the ride.

All the visual activity makes this a tricky scene to photograph—I’ve shot here a number of times, but until now have never come away with anything that completely satisfies me here. With most of the action is on the right side of the frame, I’ve always found wide, horizontal compositions unbalanced. Going for a tighter vertical orientation to emphasize the strong coastline, I never find a left edge that doesn’t cut the sea stacks awkwardly. And horizontal or vertical, with a host of smaller rocks protruding from the nearby surf, I struggle placing the bottom of my frame. But adding the moon’s significant visual weight to the left of the frame gave me the horizontal balance I wanted, and hiding the protruding foreground rocks behind the weathered granite cliff gave a solid base for my composition.

When I finally found a composition that worked, I needed to find the focus point that would maximize the depth of field. A quick check of the hyperfocal app on my iPhone told me that f16 at 28mm would give me sharpness from 2 1/2 feet to infinity if I focused on the foreground granite about five feet away. To ensure correct focus, I used my camera’s live view and magnified my focus point 10x. There wasn’t enough light to even think about freezing the surf at a useable ISO, so I just went with a long exposure that smoothed the water.

When photographing waves, many photographers fail to account for the change from one frame to the next. So, knowing my composition was locked securely in place on my tripod, I stood back and monitored the waves closely, clicking about a dozen frames to capture a range of surf action, from placid to violent. This ten second exposure included a single moderate wave and several minor swells.

I was probably cold, damp, and sleepy, but I don’t remember. And it would have been easy to complain about the boring skies, or feel sorry for myself during my many lonely hours behind the wheel, but mornings like this one are exactly why I do this, and a perfect example of why there really is no whining in photography.

The coast is clear

Out to Sea, Garrapata Beach, Big Sur

California is in the midst of the strangest winter I’ve ever experienced: a rainy season without a drop for nearly two months, daytime highs consistently in the sixties, and a virtually non-existent snowpack in the Sierra. January days in the Central Valley are usually wall-to-wall gray; nights are an opaque muck. But this year it’s been an endless cycle of blue skies and twinkling stars. Mornings have been just chilly enough to fool me into donning my winter flannel or wool; by noon I’m rummaging the back of the closet for a polo shirt I haven’t worn since October.

If I sound bitter about this eternal spring, it’s because I feel cheated–winter is for nature photographers. Not only does dramatic weather make great photography, winter’s frigid temperatures, biting wind, and monotonous rain drive the general public inside, leaving the landscape to us photographers. But this winter the most productive thing I’ve done so far is pack my camera off to Canon for some long postponed TLC. Sigh.

Okay, enough whining. Honestly, every photographer needs conditions to throw a curve from time to time, a reminder that nature photography isn’t all sunsets, rainbows, and shafting light. True creativity rarely comes when Mother Nature smacks you between the eyes with something spectacular, it’s usually best when she forces you outside your box to see the things you miss when the sky lights up or a rainbow arcs.

With that in mind, I head off to Big Sur to co-lead Don Smith’s winter workshop next week. The forecast is for more of the same, but I’m looking forward to the challenge. I do about 80 percent of my photography in the mountains and foothills, so what better location to stretch myself than Big Sur–and what better conditions than blank skies?

Last year Don and I guided the group to Garrapata Beach for sunset. There’s a lot happening here and everyone quickly scattered–some stayed on the cliffs above, some moved up to the creek and calla lilies on the north end of the beach, and others stayed down among the rocks on the south end. To those who stayed near me, I demonstrated some shutter techniques to get different effects from the surf.

When it became clear that the sky wasn’t going to do anything special, I turned my attention to the sand and waves at my feet. To emphasize the textured sand, I opted for an extremely wide, vertical composition, using rocks protruding from the surf a couple of hundred yards distant to frame the upper portion the scene. The bland sky I relegated to a thin stripe at the extreme top of the frame. I decided that f16 gave gave me the best combination depth of field and minimal diffraction–a larger aperture would have risked loss of sharpness throughout the sand; a smaller aperture would have risked loss of sharpness due to diffraction.

When photographing waves, once I get my composition set I click many frames, carefully timing them for various effects. On this evening I added a variable neutral density filter, dialing in a variety of shutter speeds by adjusting the amount of light. Watching my LCD, I decided that my favorite effect was a one second (or so) exposure of a receding wave, and managed several frames like the one above.

I look at this image as the start of a process–it may very well never become particularly “successful” (whatever that means), but I learned a few things that I’m looking forward to applying next week. Stay tuned….

Have you ever seen a moonbow?

Moonbow and Big Dipper, Lower Yosemite Fall, Yosemite

I’m fortunate to have a ringside seat for many of Mother Nature’s most exquisite phenomena, but few excite me more than the shimmering arc of Yosemite’s moonbow. A “moonbow”? I thought you’d never ask….

As you may have figured, a moonbow is a rainbow caused by moonlight. (Don’t be fooled by the fact that your spellcheck doesn’t recognize “moonbow”–it’s a very real thing indeed, and the more technically correct “lunar rainbow” designation just doesn’t seem to convey the magic.) Because a moonbow is a rainbow, all the natural laws governing a rainbow apply. But all this physics isn’t as important as simply understanding that your shadow always points toward the center of the rainbow/moonbow; the rainbow/moonbow will only appear when the sun/moon is 42 or fewer degrees above the horizon (assuming a flat horizon)–the higher the moon/sun, the lower the rainbow. When the moon or sun is above 42 degrees, the rainbow disappears below the horizon.

Each spring, High Sierra snowmelt surges into Yosemite Creek, racing downhill and plunging into Yosemite Valley below. A Yosemite icon, Yosemite Falls drops 2,500 feet in three magnificent, mist-churning steps. On spring full moon nights, light from the rising moon catches the mist, which bends it into a shimmering arc. John Muir called this phenomenon a “mist bow,” but it’s more commonly known today as a moonbow.

While a bright moonbow is visible to the naked eye as a (breathtaking) silver band, revealing the bow’s color requires the camera’s ability to accumulate light. The above image, from a couple of years ago, was captured near the bridge at the base of Lower Yosemite Fall. Not only was it crowded (the moonbow is no longer much of a secret), wind and mist made the necessary 20- to 30-second exposures an exercise in persistence. To include the Big Dipper in this frame (I love the way it appears to be the source of the fall), I composed vertical and wide (19mm). This was a 30 second exposure at f4 and ISO 400.

Moonbow and Big Dipper, Yosemite Falls, Yosemite

Understanding the basic physics of a rainbow makes it possible to photograph a moonbow from other, less crowded locations in Yosemite Valley. In the image on the left, the moon had climbed so high that the moonbow had almost dropped from view. And it was so small at this point that I couldn’t see it at all with my unaided eyes. But I knew it would be there, so I exposed the scene enough to make it nearly daylight bright, again orienting the composition vertical and wide to include the Big Dipper.

<<  FYI, as of this writing, I still have a couple of openings in my two 2012 Yosemite Moonbow photo workshops, April 2-5 and May 2-5.  >>

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.

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