What’s on your hard disk?: A project for a sunny day

One of the risks of making photography your livelihood is the possibility (likelihood?) that the business will preempt the photography. Even though I’ve consciously chosen to continue photographing only what I want to photograph without concern for the marketability of an image, when I return from a trip the demands of the business often leave little time for my captures.

A few days ago I received a request for an image that sent me digging through my archives. I found what I was looking for, but in the process stumbled upon a few images I’d forgotten about; probably nothing that will make me rich, but at the very least some that make me happy. This got me thinking that every photographer might benefit from occasionally revisiting rejected captures. Often our first impression, influenced by the mood of the moment, is entirely different from our current impression. You’ve no doubt grown as a photographer, re-defined your tastes, refined your eye, improved your processing skills–all factors that might lead to different conclusions about past rejects. The next time you find yourself in a photography state of mind, and the bright sun and blue sky outside offer little promise, try returning to past captures. If an image stops you, open it and play a bit. Correct flaws, experiment with different crops, sharpen–whatever you think it might need. Who knows, you may just find yourself pleasantly surprised by what’s there.

Today’s image is one such find. As a Yosemite photo destination, Valley View is probably second only to Tunnel View in popularity. I take all my workshop groups to Valley View, and usually can’t resist a peek when I’m in the park on my own, but rarely photograph there anymore. But on a visit a couple of autumns ago, finding the light and clouds irresistible, I set out to see if I could create something I didn’t have. With the clouds enshrouding El Capitan lending an air of mystery, I chose a vertical composition to eliminate less compelling surroundings. Rather than emphasize the almost irresistible reflection in the meandering Merced, I adjusted my polarizer to reveal the river-rounded rocks beneath the surface. The result was a high-key perimeter framing the darker scene that gives the frame a negative feel, where the darkest regions do the most work. Despite liking it as soon as it flashed in my LCD, I thought little more about this image until I stumbled upon it last week. While this won’t likely be the image I retire on, at the very least it nudged me into digging a little deeper on my hard drives to see what else might be out there. Stay tuned….

Shoot now, think later

Gary Hart Photography: Sunrise Trio, Crescent Moon Above El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite

Sunrise Trio, Crescent Moon Above El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite

Magic moments in nature are rarely static, and reacting to them as they happen is rarely productive. But taking the time to do you homework helps you anticipate these special moments well enough to consistently put yourself in position before they happen. Understanding the conditions necessary for a rainbow, anticipating a sky favorable for a colorful sunset, and  plotting the moon’s position above an iconic landscape puts nature photographers in position to photograph the magic. But when that magic happens, it’s time to turn off your left (logical) brain and give control to your right (creative) brain. In other words, don’t think, shoot!

A lot of thought goes into taking a picture, but when comes time to click the shutter, the impulse needs to start from your heart, not your brain. After many years conducting photo workshops, I’ve concluded that a prime factor hindering photographers’ ability to shoot from the heart (along with an inflexible adherence to photography “rules”) is their struggle to master metering, exposure, and their camera. I’m afraid that the “intelligence” built into today’s cameras misleads people into thinking their camera can handle everything. It can’t. Mastering photographic fundamentals until they’re second nature, until they happen without conscious thought, frees you to connect with the beauty of the moment and compose by feel.

My most recent spring workshop group made the most of its opportunity to photograph this once in a lifetime* moonrise event from Half Dome View on Big Oak Flat Road, across the Merced River Canyon from Yosemite’s more heralded Tunnel View. Our goal was to underexpose the scene just enough to silhouette Yosemite’s two most recognizable monoliths against the rich twilight glow on the eastern horizon. Automatic metering would have made a mess of this.

The moonrise happened on our final morning, giving the group three days to overcome any automatic-mode bias in favor of the manual control this scene required. We’d exorcised most of the exposure kinks with a silhouette shoot from Tunnel View the morning prior, and visited Half Dome View the prior afternoon to familiarize everyone with the scene. A 4:45 a.m. departure got us in place about fifteen minutes early, more than enough time to set up tripods, frame initial compositions, meter, and focus. When the moon appeared, everyone was ready to stop thinking and simply shoot.

We were dealing with two changing variables that morning, the moon’s ascent and the increasing light. As the moon moved first toward (and partially behind) and then above Half Dome, the compositional balance in the frame changed. And the brightening of the sky, gradual enough that the eye couldn’t really register change from moment to moment, necessitated constant exposure adjustment.

Throughout the shoot I called out reminders to vary compositions, wide/tight and horizontal/vertical, and monitor exposure. If you train yourself to glance at your histogram every few frames, exposure adjustment at sunrise is simply a matter of making a one-click-at-a-time (1/3 stop in most cameras) exposure subtraction—no need to re-meter or even look through the viewfinder for anything besides composition.

I’m happy to report that everyone was successful that morning. A quick review of my image series shows that I captured thirty-two frames over twenty-two minutes, eighteen horizontal and fourteen vertical. I shot everything with my 100-400 lens, and used the entire focal range from 100mm to 400mm (the majority were closer to 400mm than 100mm), trending wider as the moon rose. The image in this post was captured about twelve minutes after the image in last Monday’s post. Not only has the moon moved quite a bit, the light has increased significantly, and the sunrise color has really started to kick in.

I have no memory of consciously making exposure decisions, but I know my process in the field well enough to predict the progression of my settings. Reviewing my EXIF data confirms that once I got my initial exposure, I shifted into unconscious exposure mode (small adjustments, without re-metering, as the light changes). My “default” settings (for best image quality) are f11 at ISO 100 (adjusting shutter speed to control the exposure), but that morning I started at f8 and ISO 400 to allow a faster shutter speed because my first exposures were long enough that I was concerned about motion-blur in the moon and a stiff wind.

As the light increased, I first increased my shutter speed because the wind made vibration my prime concern (rather than noise from a too-high ISO, or softness from a less-sharp f-stop). When my shutter speed was no longer measured in seconds, I adjusted my ISO down to 200; as the light increased more, I went to f11, the aperture at which that lens is sharpest (for me). After that my shutter speed increased in 1/3 stop increments until the light from rising sun washed out the foreground/sky contrast I needed. There were no frame-to-frame adjustments greater than one stop.

* Once in a lifetime because it will be many, many years before a 3% crescent moon slips through the narrow gap separating El Capitan and Half Dome in the pre-dawn sky.

Join Me in Yosemite for a Photo Workshop

A Gallery of Yosemite Moons

The other ninety-nine percent

Cradled Crescent, El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite
Canon EOS 1DS Mark III
4 seconds
400 mm
ISO 400

Thomas Edison said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” (Without claiming genius) I think this applies to photography as well: Many successful images are more the product of being in the right place at the right time than divine inspiration. Of course anyone can stumble upon a lucky convergence of location and conditions and come home with a great photo, but the “genius” behind creating great photos consistently is preparation and sacrifice–a.k.a., perspiration.

The moonrise on the final sunrise shoot of last week’s Yosemite workshop spurred these thoughts about inspiration and effort. We were all in more or less the same place, photographing the same thing. And while everyone probably captured very similar images (in this case of a crescent moon squeezing between El Capitan and Half Dome), the true magic was simply being there.

But why were we the only ones there to witness this special moment that probably won’t repeat for decades? Determining the moon’s altitude and azimuth from any location on Earth is as easy as visiting one of many websites, or using one of many astronomical software applications such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris or (my preference) the Focalware iPhone app. Armed with this data, aligning the moon’s rise with any landmark isn’t rocket science.

Based on my calculations and plotting, I scheduled my “Yosemite Dogwood and Rising Crescent” workshop to coincide with a sunrise crescent moon. The dogwood bloom isn’t as reliable, but I know interesting weather is still possible in Yosemite in late April and early May. What we ended up with was mostly clear skies (great for tourists, but definitely not for photographers) and a very late dogwood bloom in Yosemite (probably two weeks behind “schedule”), forcing me to shift the daytime emphasis of my spring workshop to rainbows. I’m happy to report Bridalveil and  Yosemite Falls delivered more photogenic rainbows than I can count, from a number of different locations.

As spectacular as they were, overshadowing the rainbows was the moonrise on our penultimate morning. I promised the group that departing at 4:50a.m. would get us to Tunnel View in time to photograph a 7% crescent moon rise above Yosemite Valley, between Sentinel Dome and Cathedral Rocks, in the pre-dawn twilight. (I knew this because I’ve been calculating moonrise and moonsets in Yosemite and elsewhere for many years, and have photographed more of these from Tunnel View than any other location.) That moonrise came off exactly as advertised–so far so good.

But the Tunnel View success, as beautiful as our images were, was merely a warm-up that gave everyone an opportunity to hone their silhouette exposure and composition skills in advance of the rare moonrise opportunity I’d planned for the next morning. When scheduling this workshop I’d determined that about 45 minutes before sunrise on May 1 of this year (2011), a delicate 3% crescent moon would slip into the narrow gap between El Capitan and Half Dome for anyone watching from Half Dome View on Big Oak Flat Road.

Lunar tables assume a flat horizon, so unless I’m at the ocean, the primary uncertainty is when the moon will appear above (or disappear below) the not-flat horizon. Once I’ve photographed a moonrise (or set) from a location, I simply check the precise time of its appearance (or disappearance) against the altitude/azimuth data for that day to get the exact angle of the horizon from there. Until I have this horizon information, I only have the moon’s direction and elevation above the unobstructed horizon and can only make an educated guess as to the time and location of its appearance.

The other big wildcard in moon and moonlight photography is the weather, but a last minute check with the National Weather Service confirmed that all systems were go there. Nevertheless, despite all my obsessive plotting, checking, and double-checking, having never photographed a moonrise from this location, and the fact that an error would affect not just me but my entire group, I couldn’t help feel more than a little anxious.

The afternoon before our second and final pre-dawn moonrise, I brought the group to Half Dome View so they could familiarize themselves with the location and plan their compositions. Due to the horizon uncertainties I just described, the first time I photograph a moonrise/set from a location, I generally give my group only an approximate time and position for the moon’s rise/set. But during this preview someone asked exactly where the moon would rise, and I confidently blurted that it will appear in the small notch separating El Capitan and Half Dome between 5:15 and 5:20 a.m. (about 25 minutes after the official, flat-horizon moonrise). Standing there that afternoon, however, I realized how small the notch really is, meaning that even the slightest error in my plotting could find the moon rising much later, from behind El Capitan or Half Dome. So I quickly qualified my prediction, explaining that I’ve never photographed a moonrise here and the uncertainty of knowing the horizon. But given all of my perfectly timed waterfall rainbow hits so far, not to mention our Tunnel View moonrise success earlier that morning, I had the sense that my group had unconditional (blind) confidence in me. (Yikes.)

Sunday morning we departed dark and early (4:45 a.m.), full of anticipation. We arrived at Half Dome View a little after 5:00, early enough to enable everyone to set up their tripods, frame their compositions, and set their exposures. Then we waited, all eyes locked on the gap separating El Capitan and Half Dome. Well, almost all eyes–mine made frequent detours to my watch and the Focalware iPhone app responsible for my bold (rash?) prediction. (What was I thinking, promising a moonrise into a paper-thin space in a five minute span from a spot where I’d never photographed a moonrise?) My watch crawled toward the 5:15-5:20 window: 5:15 (Is the notch shrinking?); 5:16 (It’s shrinking–I swear I just saw Half Dome inch closer to El Capitan); 5:17 (I entered the coordinates wrong, I know I did–what if it comes up behind us?). Surely this wasn’t the kind of perspiration Edison was thinking about.

As I frantically re-checked my iPhone for the umpteenth time, somebody exclaimed, “There it is!” I looked up and sure enough, there was the leading sliver of nearly new moon perfectly threading that small space between El Capitan and Half Dome. Phew. The rest of the morning was a blur of shutter clicks and exclamations of delight (plus one barely audible sigh of relief). (How could I have even dreamed of doubting the tried and true methods that had never failed me before?)

Before the shared euphoria abated, I suggested to everyone that they take a short break from photography and simply appreciate that they’re probably witnessing the most beautiful thing happening on Earth at this moment (a feeling every nature photographer should experience from time to time). It’s always exciting to witness a moment like this, a breathtaking convergence of Earth and sky that may not occur again exactly like this in my lifetime. It’s even more rewarding when the event isn’t an accident, that I’m experiencing it because of my own effort, and that I get to share the fruit of my perspiration with others who appreciate the magic just as much as I do.

A Crescent Moon Gallery

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

My camera can beat up your camera (and other photography myths)

Redbud, Merced River Canyon

Redbud, Merced River Canyon
Canon EOS 10D
2/3 second
F/32 (the only way I could get the shutter speed I wanted)
ISO 100
80 mm

The difference between a pro and an amateur photographer
Want to know how to tell a pro landscape photographer from an amateur? Here are a few telltale indicators:
  • The pro photographer has no emotional attachment to her camera and refuses to invest any energy in the “My camera can beat up your camera” debate
  • The pro photographer is the one with duct tape on his tripod and camera bag
  • The pro photographer is the one pointing her camera in the opposite direction from all the other photographers
  • The pro photographer is the one using the garbage bag to protect her camera from the rain
  • When you ask the pro photographer for his business card, he takes longer than .5 nanoseconds to produce it, and when (if) he finds it, it resembles a used napkin
  • The pro photographer never asks, “How many megapixels is that camera?”
The megapixel myth

For me the last point, this megapixel thing, is a particular irritation, because until we all get wise to the reality that megapixels are not a measure of image quality (they’re merely a measure of image size), the camera manufacturers will continue shoving megapixels down our throats rather than giving us something of real value, like wider dynamic range or clean high ISO performance. And consider this: All things equal (identical technology), the more megapixels on a sensor, the lower the image quality. That’s because increasing the megapixel count requires smaller and/or more densely packed photosites, both of which reduce image quality.

How much resolution do you need? While there’s no absolute answer, consider that many of my most successful images are jpegs captured many years ago with my six megapixel Canon 10D. The riverside redbud image at the top of this post is one of my top sellers, an image that I still sell at 24×36 without apology.

Here are few more of my 6mp 10D jpeg favorites (all images I have no problem enlarging to 24×36 or larger):

Bridalveil Dogwood, Yosemite

Champagne Glass Poppies, Merced River Canyon

Poppy and Surf, Point Reyes National Seashore

Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

What does all this mean?
It’s hard to deny that digital cameras have improved. A lot. But the new technology is greatly underutilized by most photographers, the majority of whom display primarily online and rarely print larger than 12×18. Granted, more megapixels increase the margin for error (ability to crop a usable image from the original image) of any frame. And improved technology give newer cameras better dynamic range and high ISO performance than their predecessors. But most of these improvements are of limited value to the vast majority of photographers.

Of course photography needs to be a source of pleasure. So if it makes you happy to have the newest, fanciest, and most expensive equipment, by all means go for it. But understand that the latest camera is not a shortcut to professional success. If better photography is your goal, and you have a less than unlimited budget for camera gear, increased resolution should be toward the bottom of the dollar priority list, far below essential equipment that will make a tangible difference in your images and serve you for many years, additions like the highest quality lenses possible and a sturdy tripod that’s easy to carry and use.

Added 3/2/12: I’ve been shooting with the same camera since 2008. In that time I’ve purchased lenses, tripods, four new computers (two desktops, two laptops), a new printer, and lots of processing software upgrades. Each of these purchases has made a tangible difference in my results. And while I’ll probably be replacing my four-plus year-old camera this year, it won’t be to add resolution. It will be because the new technology finally gives me significantly better dynamic range and high ISO performance.

Added 3/8/14: I’ve now been using my 5DIII for two years. Is it better than my 10D? Absolutely, not even close. But I’d say that for at least 80 percent of my images, the differences between my 10D and 5DIII images make virtually no practical difference. So three years after this post, I still say that unless you have an unlimited photography budget, if you already have a DSLR of any vintage, you’re much better off spending your money on the best lenses and tripods (and maybe even a workshop or two).

Bracketing in the digital age

Poppy With a View, Point Reyes National Seashore, California
Canon EOS 10D
1/90 second
ISO 100
24 mm

Remember the uneasy days of film, when we never knew whether we had exposed a scene properly until the film was processed? As insurance we’d bracket our exposures, starting with the exposure we believed to be right, then hedge our bets by capturing the same composition at lighter and darker exposure values. Today digital capture gives us instant exposure confirmation, yet the practice of exposure bracketing persists among inexperienced photographers.

Film shooters carefully budget their shutter clicks because they pay for film and processing by the exposure; digital photographers paid for their exposures when they purchased their camera. In other words, while every film click costs you money, every digital click increases the return on your investment. This means that using a digital camera, you can shoot to your heart’s content with little to no added cost, a great opportunity get the most out of your significant hardware investment and grow as a photographer. These “free” captures may also explain the persistence of exposure bracketing by so many digital photographers who think nothing of tripling the number of shutter clicks. But unless you plan to blend images later, exposure bracketing is a waste of time, shutter-cycles (the shutter is often the first thing to wear out on digital SLRs), and storage. Instead, trust your histogram and spend your extra shutter clicks on a more productive approach: composition bracketing.

Composition bracketing is “working” a scene by capturing composition and camera-setting variations to be decided upon later, when you review your images on a large screen. If you shoot your scenes both horizontally and vertically, you already composition bracket. But don’t stop there: Before looking for something else to shoot, shoot the current scene wider and tighter, move around to change the foreground or background, experiment with depth of field and motion blur, and so on.

For example, a few years ago I spent a couple of days photographing wildflowers in Point Reyes. Visualizing a solitary poppy with the coastline soft in the background, I was pleased to find this fearless subject clinging to Chimney Rock’s precipitous west slope. From my vantage point above the poppy, the background was a mix of dirt and weeds, but dropping down to poppy-level instantly juxtaposed it against the ocean. A blue ocean was better than dirt and weeds, but I wanted coastline so I rotated (with one eye on the cliff) until the poppy was framed by the curving shore. To fill the frame with the poppy and achieve the narrow depth of field I sought, I added an extension tube to my wide (24-70) lens.

Here I am refining my composition for this poppy. I ended up dropping lower and closer before bringing in my tripod. (The slope was as steep as it looks here.)

Dropping low enough to place the entire poppy against the surf put me too low for the tripod I was carrying. But since nailing the focus point is particularly essential these shallow depth of field images, I don’t even consider hand-holding close focus shots. In this case I placed my tripod on its side and carefully rested the lens on one of the legs, using my bunched jacket to cushion against vibration and my remote release to click without disturbing the precarious equilibrium. As you might imagine, because this was in the days before live-view, composing was an exercise in contortion and patience.

Exposure was easy, a fact confirmed by my histogram. But after going to all this trouble to set up my shot, I wasn’t about to fire off a single frame and move on. So I bracketed my compositions, timing several exposures for different background wave action, a surprisingly significant frame-to-frame change. And even though I believed minimal DOF was best, I knew that my postage stamp sized LCD wouldn’t tell me if I’d achieved the best DOF. So I followed my initial wide-open shot with several frames at a variety of smaller f-stops (and a correspondingly slower shutter speeds). Good thing, because the background in the original f4 exposure was far too soft–the frame I ended up choosing was at f8. While the exposure was identical for each frame, I attribute my satisfaction with this image to the choices due to my calculated composition bracketing.

Yosemite Falls moonbow

My annual Yosemite moonbow workshop starts Thursday, and if Mother Nature cooperates (and Congress can get its act together enough to keep our National Parks funded), everyone in my group should have something like this by the end of the workshop.

Given the right conditions, photographing the Yosemite Falls moonbow isn’t rocket science. These conditions–ample flow in the fall, a full moon at the correct angle, and (fingers crossed) clear skies–align most reliably each spring, a fact not lost on the general public. Unlike the February Horsetail Fall spectacle, the Yosemite Falls moonbow attracts as many awestruck observers as serious photographers. Most end up the bridge at the base of Lower Yosemite Fall, where I captured the above image. This is the closest location to view the moonbow, but the crowds and heavy mist here make photography difficult. I usually start my groups here at the lower fall, but I also take them to other less crowded vantage points as well (but if I shared them here, they would no longer be less crowded, would they?) .

Under ideal conditions the moonbow at the Lower Yosemite Fall bridge is bright enough to appear to the naked eye as a shimmering silver band. But even the brightest moonlight isn’t enough to allow the human eye to register the moonbow’s color. With its ability to accumulate light, a camera can reveal the moonlight’s entire spectrum. Advantage camera.

Even when you can’t see a moonbow–because, for example, you’re too far away or the moonlight is reduced by thin clouds– your camera can still bring it out with a long enough exposure, if you know where to position yourself. With the moon low on the horizon (less than 38 degrees), your shadow (cast by the light of the full moon) will point to the center of the moonbow (the apex of its arc)–the lower the moon, the greater its arc. (This approach also works if you’re trying to photograph an “invisible” moonbow in falling rain.)

To capture this image I stood on a bench and shot over the top of about one hundred heads, praying for 30 consecutive seconds without mist or a (totally useless) flash from one of many point-and-shoot cameras. I couldn’t resist going vertical and wide (17mm) to include the Big Dipper, which was perfectly positioned to appear as if it is Yosemite Falls’ source. Experience has given me the “go-to” full moon settings I used here: ISO 400, f4, 30 seconds.

<< My Shoot the Moon article in Outdoor Photographer >>

Making lemonade in the Grand Canyon

A lot of thought goes into scheduling a photo trip or workshop, with the prime goal being to photograph the desired location in the most photogenic conditions. For example, I try to schedule most of my workshops around the moon, timing them so the group can photograph a rising/setting full or crescent moon and then stay out after dark for moonlight or star trails. Another consideration is the likelihood of interesting weather, a prime reason you don’t see any California summer workshops on my schedule.

Regrettably, the most we can expect from these schedule machinations is to merely improve our odds before submitting to the whims of Mother Nature. The subjective aspects of film photography–the delay before results can be viewed, the black box of film processing (what exactly does happen at the lab?) or the fickle chemistry of the darkroom–make it a bit more nuanced than digital photography. This may explain why digital photography tends to attract people with a technical bent and accustomed to complete control.

The truly great photographers of days past–I’m thinking of Ansel Adams, but there are many others–achieved control over their images through a tedious evolution that brought mastery of the craft with it. Digital photography on the other hand creates the illusion of total control almost from the outset, and the craft of photography suffers for it. For these photographers the nuance/control dichotomy creates a wicked paradox, and I’m afraid this is where the wheels fall off for photographers who are accustomed to full control of other aspects of their lives. When faced with conditions beyond their control (the rule in landscape photography), instead of adjusting and adapting, digital-only photographers often head home in frustration, overlook the best subjects or light in favor of the shot they came to capture, or resort to extreme post-processing manipulation to strong-arm images back toward their original expectations. Much of my time during workshops is spent trying to encourage these participants to step back, take a breath, and adjust to the conditions rather than trying to force shots that aren’t there (no matter how badly they want it).

Which brings me to the above image from last month’s Grand Canyon trip. Don Smith’s past Northern Arizona workshops were a little later in the spring, and while very productive, they were also frustratingly dogged by the blue skies that are an unfortunate fact of life in American Southwest. (As many readers know, Don and I reciprocate on our workshops, trading off assisting each other in an arrangement that’s as productive as it is enjoyable.) So when Don scheduled this year’s Northern Arizona workshop for mid-March to capitalize on a full moon and improve our chances of seeing more clouds, I was all for it.

And clouds we got. Unfortunately, these clouds weren’t the lightning popping, rainbow bending, snow blanketing variety we’d hoped for. Instead, we were greeted by gray-painting, haze producing, moon blocking stratus that played havoc with our plans. To Don and me any clouds are an upgrade from sunny skies that limit quality photography time to about twenty minutes before and after sunrise, but I’m afraid most of the group, harboring visions of neon sunrises and a lunar disk suspended above the canyon, was a harder sell.

For our second and final Grand Canyon sunrise we assembled at my favorite Grand Canyon photo location, Desert View, about 30 minutes before the sun’s scheduled appearance. Here the canyon’s plunge toward the Colorado River is less precipitous than other view points, allowing compositions that gradually lead the eye through the frame. And unlike many rim locations, where the views are primarily straight across to the other side, Desert View is on a pivot point where the river’s general orientation changes from north/south to east/west. Standing on the rim here gives expansive, unobstructed views upstream, to the north, and downstream, to the west.

Overhead that morning was a promising mix of clouds and sky, the most promising sky of the trip, but the view into the canyon was obscured by a soupy haze. The inhibited visibility and a frigid wind were enough to chase several workshop participants back to the cars, but I hope those who stayed learned a lesson that morning. Rather than lamenting the inability to capture the Canyon with the classic alternating brick-colored ridges, jutting mesas, and sheer ravines that seem to stretch all the way to infinity, I encouraged everyone to look for images that emphasize the myriad rocks and trees in the foreground.

Walking I west along the rim I found a gnarled tree, its twisting trunk and limbs seeming to mimic the Grand Canyon’s tributaries and meandering flow. I tried several compositions featuring this tree, snapping the image above early in the shoot, just as the clouds started to throb with the pink glow of sunrise. At that early hour the indirect light reaching the canyon floor was largely reflected from the glowing clouds, further enhancing the color in the already vivid red rock below. A graduated neutral density filter enabled me to extract color and detail from the shadowed canyon while holding the color in the much brighter sky.

Unbeknownst to me, the haze that morning turned out to be an asset, not a hindrance. While I didn’t get the “classic” crystal clear infinity view so popular with photographers, I got what appears to my eye to be a soothing pastel watercolor of this breathtaking location. Not exactly what I’d envisioned, but something that pleases me even more because I don’t have anything else quite like it.

When life gives you lemons….

Photographing the Grand Canyon: It’s not as easy as it looks

Sunset, Hopi Point, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1 second
ISO 100
28 mm

As a photographer weaned on the no less breathtaking but far more finite confines of Yosemite, transitioning to photographing the Grand Canyon shattered a long-established template for success. In Yosemite Valley I’m surrounded by looming walls as familiar as they are spectacular. Attempts to capture Yosemite’s grandeur generally involve isolating or combining specific subjects: El Capitan, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and so on.

But when photographing from the rim of the Grand Canyon, no single subject stands out. Rather, I’m instantly overwhelmed by both the vast expanse of the vista and the enormity of its scale. The problem is, as far as the camera is concerned, breadth and size are mutually exclusive: The wider I compose to include the vista, the more everything in the frame shrinks; the tighter I compose to convey the size of the canyon’s features, the more the vista shrinks. But perhaps the greatest hurdle is the Grand Canyon’s great distance, with dramatic red ridge after red dramatic ridge seeming to continue into infinity. This visual depth is completely lost in the camera’s two-dimensional vision.

While I’m not sure I’ve completely mastered the Grand Canyon, I feel like I’m finally getting the hang of it. The above sunset photographed from Hopi Point demonstrates the approach that seems to work best for me, which is to find something for the foreground that complements the background I’m trying to highlight. The Grand Canyon’s rim is rife with interesting trees and shrubs, but in this case I wanted to photograph the sun on the horizon, using the river to lead the eye through the frame. But I couldn’t find an appealing foreground subject. Since experience has shown me that something in the foreground anchors the viewer and is essential to the depth I want to convey, rather than forego any foreground subject at all, I settled for two pretty ordinary shrubs on the canyon’s rim. Because they’re not particularly compelling, I positioned the shrubs at the edge of the frame, allowing ample room for the eye to move easily along the more interesting rim and through the rest of the frame.

Another difficulty photographing the Grand Canyon is the extreme contrast between the bright sky and deeply shaded canyon at sunrise and sunset, a contrast the eye handles far more easily than a camera. The best light in Yosemite Valley comes at sunset, when the sun is at your back for most compositions that include El Capitan or Half Dome. But the Grand Canyon offers an unobstructed view of the horizon in all directions–as difficult as it is to photograph, it’s pretty hard to ignore the rising and setting sun. And the canyon’s precipitous sides put much of it in deep shadow when the sun is on the horizon.

For this sunset I’d arrived at Hopi Point about an hour early, allowing time to plan and set up my composition. When the sun reached the horizon I combined two- and three-stop graduated neutral density filters, which enabled a long enough exposure to bring out the canyon’s shadow detail while holding back color-robbing brightness in the sky. (The Grand Canyon is a great place for hard-transition or reverse GNDs because the linear horizon is a great place to hide the dark-to-light transition.) The sunburst was achieved by using a small aperture (f18) and timing my exposure just as a thin sliver of sun peaked beneath a cloud.

While I’m still not as productive at the Grand Canyon as I am in Yosemite (and other more familiar locations), I really do enjoy the challenge and am encouraged by the growing satisfaction I feel following each trip. My fingers are crossed that I was able continue this trend with the images from my latest visit. Stay tuned….

Conveying a three dimensional world in a two dimensional medium

Fresh Snow, Cook's Meadow, Yosemite

Fresh Snow, Cook’s Meadow and Half Dome, Yosemite
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1/8 second
ISO 100
32 mm

With the (seemingly endless) upward spiral of digital resolution comes a fair amount of hand wringing over the future relevance of still photography as an art form. It’s currently possible to pan a scene with a digital video camera and pluck individual frames for web use. And what, the paranoid landscape photographer laments, will we do when everyone with a high-resolution digital SLR can walk up to a beautiful scene, snap a single wide frame, and in the comfort of their office (or recliner) crop many compelling smaller images for print?

Relax. Regardless of the number of usable frames in a video, or printable crops from a single still-camera click, images captured without consideration of the scene’s front-to-back dimension are still just flat, two-dimensional snapshots. The snapshot world has always been the domain of tourists who simply want to save a memory (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and is rarely a productive path for truly creative photographers.

The missing dimension

Many  photographers do pretty well with a more literal interpretation of the world, but struggle understanding how their camera’s view of the world differs from theirs, and how to take advantage of those differences. Foremost among these differences is the missing depth dimension.

Rendering our three dimensional world in a two-dimensional medium requires a paradigm shift for photographers accustomed to capturing the world as it appears to their eyes. But while it’s impossible to create a true three-dimensional image with a standard camera, it is possible to create the illusion of depth.

Creating this illusion starts with of a couple of simple principles. First, never settle for your primary subject. When when your primary subject is in the background, force yourself to seek a complementary foreground. Conversely, when your subject is in the foreground, pay special attention to the background.

Your complementary subject doesn’t need to be compelling, it just needs to provide a brief stopping point on a different plane from your main subject, or a path for the eye to follow through the frame. Leading lines, like a fence, creek, or lakeshore, guide the eye through the frame. Or you can create virtual leading lines with a prominent rock, shrub, or tree that your viewers can subconsciously connect to the primary subject. In most cases, you’ll want your complementary object to connect diagonally to the primary subject.

But the illusion of depth can also happen without leading lines. Simply giving your subject a foreground or background with visual interest can be enough, such as the snowy meadow beneath Half Dome in the image here.

An easily overlooked flaw that can rob a scene of depth is merged visual elements on different front-to-back planes. For example, even though to your eye that distant rock is clearly behind the tree right in front of you, unless the two are completely separated horizontally (left/right, up/down), in the camera’s two-dimensional world they’ll appear at first glance to be a single object. Often the solution is as simple as moving left/right, forward/backward, or up/down.

About this image

Photographing Yosemite with fresh snow, it’s easy to get so caught up in your own reaction to the beauty that you forget the camera will “see” it differently. Rather than concentrate on Half Dome above Cook’s Meadow’s snow-etched elm, I paused to better understand what made this moment feel special. At my feet stretched the meadow, normally brown and tramped by visitors, transformed by a pristine marshmallow meringue of new snow.

Dropping to snow-level, I used a wide vertical composition that emphasized the foreground, allowing the undulating snow to carry the viewer’s eyes into the larger scene in the distance. The sky wasn’t particularly interesting, so I minimized its presence in the frame and gave as much real estate as possible to the snowy foreground. At f16 and 32mm, focusing on the edge of the nearest pool, about 7 feet into the frame, gave me sharpness from 3 1/2 feet to infinity.

Sunset, Hopi Point, Grand Canyon

Sunset, Hopi Point, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
4 seconds
ISO 100
28 mm
* * *
This image is all about the distant Grand Canyon and sunset. Nevertheless, I found a couple of unassuming shrubs for my foreground to create the illusion of depth. I took care to separate them far enough to allow the eye to flow easily into the canyon and beyond. And having the shrubs near the border also signals that they’re not significant subjects. My focus point was on the rim, just a little behind the right shrub.

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Images with depth

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Just another day at the office

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset, McWay Fall, Big Sur, California

Sunset, McWay Fall, Big Sur, California
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
Canon 17-40mm f/4L USM
3 2/3 seconds
ISO 400

As some readers know, fellow pro photographer Don Smith and I partner on many workshops, donating our time as co-leaders for each other’s trips. On a recent trip Don and I stood on a bluff at sunrise gazing at the Big Sur Coast (or was it sunset overlooking Yosemite Valley?) and reminded ourselves of all the people idling in traffic or confined in a cubicle, and how fortunate we are to do what we do for a living.

Not only do photo workshops allow me to see and photograph great stuff, they give me the opportunity to learn from the diverse perspectives of dedicated photographers from every hemisphere on Earth and virtually every state in America. My workshop participants have been, in no particular order, musicians, computer professionals, artists, physicians, writers, lawyers, corporate executives, electricians, accountants, bond traders, active and retired military, other professional photographers, real estate agents, clergy, a classical composer, a Hollywood graphic artist, and a Hooters girl (a very sweet young lady who would completely dash any preconceived impression of what that might mean). One workshop included a rocket scientist and a brain surgeon.

Sometimes the education I gain from this eclectic mix of professions, preferences, and personalities is simply an insight or point-of-view that helps me better understand or inform future workshop participants. And sometimes my education is a bit more, uh, “esoteric.” On the day I captured this image of McWay Fall in Big Sur, I got a little of both.

This was a couple of years ago, on the first day of Don’s spring Big Sur workshop. Driving to the workshop’s first shoot we hadn’t been on the road five minutes when it was discovered my backseat featured a sex therapist and a gynecologist. Uh-oh. While they seemed quite excited by their mutual interest, I was uncertain that the other passengers shared the doctors’ outspoken zeal for the subject and did my best to deflect the conversation into more benign territory. But the doctors were not to be deterred. We spent the duration of the drive listening to these experts compare notes in graphic and excruciatingly uncensored detail. Topics ranged from, uh, well let’s just say we covered everything from oysters to “When Harry Met Sally.” Much to my relief, and after fifty minutes without exhaling, I pulled into the parking area at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park with a car-full of laughing (and, it turns out, just a little better informed) passengers. Phew.

Amazingly, it turned out that the drive wasn’t even the most memorable part of the afternoon. That honor goes to the sunset, which I was fortunate enough to capture in today’s image. When we arrived at the view of McWay Fall, the sun was behind a cloud bank that painted land, sea, and sky matching gray. But successful photography is often not as much about what’s happening now as it is about what’s going to happen later. And few opportunities excite me more than watching the sun slip from the clouds just before it completes its dash for the horizon–exactly what was in store this evening.

Don and I rallied the troops and told them not to be deceived by the flat scene, to prepare for a sudden and dramatic change in the color and light when the sun popped from behind the clouds. We told everyone that the display wouldn’t last long and encouraged them to forego the current moment and search for a composition that would work when “the moment” happened. With about ten minutes to pick a spot, refine our compositions, and ready our cameras, I ended up working with about half the group at this location. Don stationed himself with the rest of the group a couple hundred feet up the trail.

After getting everyone situated, I opted for this wide shot that used the fall and sun to balance the frame. To reduce the contrast between the sky and foreground I stacked two graduated neutral density filters (totaling five stops); to get the starburst effect I stopped down to f18. Because everyone in my group was ready and comfortable enough with their camera, we were all able to capture our own version of this special moment.

I’m afraid Don wasn’t so fortunate. Most of his group was successful, but with little warning one of his people decided that this very moment was the absolute best time to learn the manual metering techniques Don and I had covered in our orientation. Despite suggestions from Don (and stronger “urgings” from her husband) to shoot the way she’s most comfortable now and defer the learning to later, she insisted that now is the time to crack the manual metering puzzle.

To Don’s credit, he passed his opportunity at this magic moment to work with her. So while Don didn’t get his shot (kind of the photographer’s equivalent of taking one for the team), we did come away with a great cautionary tale we now spin to all of our workshop participants: Practice, practice, practice, when everything’s static, but when the magic happens, always, always, always revert to what’s most comfortable.

All in all, a very educational (and productive!) day. I don’t remember the drive back up the coast that night, but given the sunset we’d witnessed I’m pretty sure the primary topic was photography. Over the course of the workshop our woman did in fact learn manual metering (as she has demonstrated in subsequent workshops), and Don will forever be able to tell people about “the one that got away.” I, on the other hand, learned how long I can hold my breath.

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