Simple

Champagne Glass Poppies, Merced River Canyon
Canon EOS 10D
1/1000 second
F/2.8
ISO 100
100 mm

Yesterday NPR and Jazz24.org released their Jazz 100, “the 100 quintessential jazz songs of all time.” Topping the list was one of my jazz favorites, the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Take Five.” Listening to “Take Five” this morning I was particularly struck by the simplicity of its sound, and it occurred to me that simplicity is an essential and often overlooked element in photography.

Spend a little time on photography websites and it’s easy to come away feeling visually assaulted. Saturated sunsets, crashing waterfalls, and swirling clouds can make wonderful photographs, but some of nature’s most divine beauty is best revealed by subtracting elements we’ve been brainwashed into thinking are necessary. Just as many of the pieces on the Jazz 100 are quite complex, simplicity is certainly not necessary for a successful image. But it seems many photographers have forgotten how effective a simple image can be. As my parents used to advise (shout), louder is not necessarily better. And neither is a lot of activity in a frame. To be effective, a scene’s elements (shape, color, lines, texture) need to work together; if they can’t, it’s better to isolate the most compelling aspect and remove distractions, no matter how beautiful they are.

Case in point: A poppy-covered hillside is a beautiful thing, but so are the graceful curves and translucent gold of a single poppy. The poppy in the foreground of this image was just one of thousands blanketing a hidden hillside in the Merced River Canyon just west of Yosemite Valley. After photographing the entire scene I gradually moved closer until I found myself sprawled on my stomach beneath this one poppy. Conveying its simple elegance was all about removing distractions: rocks, weeds, and yes, even the thousands of other beautiful poppies in the background. In this case I used selective focus, attaching an extension tube and dialing up a wide aperture to limit the depth of field. Focusing on the poppy’s leading edge turned everything else in the frame to a smear of color.

Did I achieve Brubeck’s mastery of my world? I think not—but it’s nice to have something to aspire to.

Don’t mess with the Tripod Police

The Tripod Police

You’re wandering the banks of the Merced River in Yosemite near sunset when, without warning, El Capitan emerges from a swirl of clouds; at your feet a mirror reflection of the scene mingles with smooth granite rocks. Bringing your camera to your eye, you find the composition that works best is a 30mm vertical frame. But keeping El Capitan and the foreground granite sharp requires f16. Hmmm. In the fading light, at ISO 100 the meter suggests 1/2 second. Even with image stabilization that’s a bit of a stretch at 30mm. Unfortunately, your tripod is a) strapped to your camera bag (a misdemeanor); b) in the car (a felony); or c) at home in the closet behind the tux you haven’t worn since your first wedding (a capital offense). So you bump the ISO to 400, dial the aperture to f11, and push the shutter speed to 1/16 second. Your finger is poised on the shutter-release when from behind a tree you hear, “Tripod Police! Step away from the camera!” Uh-oh.

Fortunately, the Tripod Police are a kinder, gentler force. Their objective is not to punish, it’s to rehabilitate. As a fully deputized tripod officer, I must say that in my workshops I’ve cited more than a few tripod offenders. Of course it’s all in good fun–some workshop participants repent on the spot, others just laugh and wave me away. And while I’m really (I swear) not offended when they choose to forego their tripod, I do think it’s important that they understand what they’re giving up.

Disclaimer: The tripod comments that follow aren’t directed at the many for whom nature photography is simply a great way to spend time outdoors and record those memories–if using a tripod saps the pleasure from your photography, leave the tripod at home. But if your photography pleasure derives from capturing the best possible images of nature, or if you aspire to make money with your photography, no single piece of equipment will improve your results more than a tripod.

Photography without compromise

In this day of image stabilization and improving sensor sensitivity,  satisfactory results can often be achieved through careful hand-holding. But most photographers love printing their images large, the larger the better, and a large print is an unforgiving reproduction that reveals even the tiniest flaws. No matter how steady your grip, the steadiest hand-held image will never be sharper than it would have been with a good tripod.

Stability problems are even more pronounced in the limited light conditions (such as sunrise, sunset, and stormy weather) that landscape photographers crave. Achieving hand-held sharpness in anything but the harshest light means resorting to image-degrading compromises like higher ISO or a larger than ideal aperture. The flaws introduced by these compromises are sometimes not visible in a 4×6 print or 6×9 72-dpi Flickr gallery. But let’s imagine that your father-in-law has requested a 24×36 print of the pride of your portfolio–a hand-held, 400 ISO Grand Canyon sunrise that looks great in your Flickr gallery–for his law firm’s reception area. (A real coup after that whole llama farm investment fiasco.) What do you tell him when he asks if you can do another one that’s not so “mushy” and doesn’t have all that “sludge in the shadows”? Oops.

A tripod provides a rock-solid foundation that removes image degrading compromise from ISO and aperture choices. A tripod simplifies your decisions in the field because you no longer need to decide between a potentially soft image and an image with extra noise and/or reduced depth of field. I have no problem increasing my ISO when there’s motion in the scene (flowing water, blowing leaves, etc.), or opening my aperture when I want to minimize DOF. But why would I compromise my image quality, even slightly, with a higher ISO or larger aperture to minimize motion introduced by me, when my tripod will completely eliminate that motion without compromising quality? As a professional, I never know how large an image may need to be, so I can’t afford to compromise the quality of my images, not even a little. I don’t really care that in today’s cameras ISO 400  is almost as clean as ISO 100, or the DOF at f8 is almost as good as it is at f11.

The ideal f-stop

There’s an ideal f-stop for every  capture. Really. For many this ideal f-stop concept is the lightbulb moment that becomes the tipping point in their appreciation of their tripod’s value.

We all know that depth of field is controlled by the aperture, which is measured in f-stops. Because f-stop management is the key ingredient for rendering our three dimensional world in photography’s two dimensional medium, the best landscape photographers use aperture to regulate depth (the missing dimension), not shutter speed. (Shutter speed is for motion management.)

Determining an image’s ideal f-stop is essential to the creative process. It’s a moving target based on the depth-of-field the composition requires, and the aperture at which the lens is sharpest. The ability to manage a scene’s front-to-back component by creating the illusion of depth separates successful landscape photographers from everyone else. Sometimes a scene calls for maximum DOF, sometimes minimum, and sometimes something in-between–regardless, good photographers know that every composition has only one aperture that returns the result they seek.

But even when the entire scene is at infinity (no foreground subjects, so depth isn’t a factor), the f-stop still matters because every lens has still a single f-stop that renders the sharpest result–for some lenses this difference is small, for others it’s significant. In other words, when DOF isn’t a factor, I choose my lens’s sharpest f-stop. (Some photographers put each lens through extensive testing to determine its sweet spot; others trust that the sweet spot is usually be the camera’s mid-range, typically f8-f11, and default in that range unless their results suggest closer scrutiny.)

Put simply, in a static scene (no moving subjects), a tripod allows you to base your f-stop choice entirely on what the scene calls for; if depth isn’t a factor, you should choose the f-stop at which the lens is sharpest.

Compose yourself

Still not convinced? Consider also the control a tripod gives to your composition process. It slows you down (a good thing), making it easier to consider each element in the frame and its relationship to the other elements. Combined with depth of field management, careful management of the elements in your frame is the part of photography that separates the art from the snapshot.

Before capturing any image, I look for distractions on the side of the frame (objects cut off or intruding), merged elements at different distances (that rob the scene of depth), and attempt to achieve general sense of visual balance throughout the frame. Next I carefully determine the ideal focus point (selecting the ideal f-stop has little value if your focus is off). Having my composition locked in place on my tripod enables me to ensure my focus point is precise, and when necessary, makes it easy to check depth of field with the DOF preview button.

After capture, I study the histogram and composition for any possible setting adjustments or composition refinements. Sometimes it helps to step back from the camera and imagine the image on the LCD framed large, on a wall. With a tripod I can do all this at my pace, sometimes through the view finder, other times scanning the broader scene. When I’m ready, the original image is still sitting right there, exactly as I just captured it.

Advanced digital techniques image such as image stitching (for panoramas or high resolution capture), HDR (high dynamic range blending of multiple images for exposure management), or focus blending to increase depth of field are all difficult to impossible without  a tripod. As is mirror lock-up to reduce mirror-slap induced vibration.

For example…

I’m rarely interested in photographing when the light is bright enough to allow uncompromised hand-held capture. While I don’t usually photograph in midday sunlight, I make exceptions when my subjects are backlit and the brightest thing in the scene. Flowers work great for this, which is why I was poking around on the banks of the Cosumnes River on a sunny afternoon last spring. And even though these flowers were brightly lit, without my tripod, I wouldn’t have been able to achieve my objective.

To turn the sparkling water drops to effervescent sparkles I needed f16, but that small aperture gave me enough depth of field to make the background too busy. So I twisted on a couple of extension tubes (at the expense of the several stops of light) to sufficiently soften the background. Since the meter’s suggested 1/20 second at ISO 100 was not fast enough to freeze the lupine in the slight breeze, I bumped my ISO to 400. The resulting 1/80 second shutter speed was still too slow for hand-holding, but was enough to freeze the lupine if I was careful.

Focus is particularly critical in macro photography. With my composition locked in place on my tripod, I used live-view to magnify my designated focus point 10x and carefully dialed it sharp. With my composition in place I stood back and waited for a lull in the breeze before clicking my remote release. And because the composition was  sitting right there in my viewfinder, the tripod further facilitated my composition process by allowing me to study the LCD and further refine the composition after each click.

I took five frames of this composition, each slightly different than the others. If I follow the progression of the frames, I can see that each was a slight improvement over the previous, an incremental improvement that would have been nearly impossible without my tripod.

Tripod amnesty

Just as the llama farm is now dust in the Peruvian desert (just checking to see how carefully you’ve been reading), all those beautiful hand-held scenes from your unstable past are gone. Fortunately, the Tripod Police offer a wonderful amnesty program that rewards rehabilitated offenders with great new images each time they use a tripod. Just give it a try, and allow enough time for the tripod to become habit. Once you see the improvement, I don’t think you’ll relapse.

The most beautiful thing on Earth right now…

Photographers tend to get so wrapped up in their picture taking that they fail to appreciate what’s unfolding before their eyes. Because this happens to me too, I’ve learned to step away from my camera when the magic is happening and allow myself to appreciate that I may be viewing the most beautiful thing happening on Earth right now.

I had several of these “most beautiful” experiences with my Death Valley workshop group last week. We spent three days in Death Valley, then drove 100 miles up the road to Lone Pine on Friday. During the workshop we photographed two moonrises and three moonsets, each above some of the most unique scenery on Earth.

Dramatic skies have a lot to do with my magic moments, but I’m afraid Death Valley’s chronic blue sky can make things pretty boring overhead. One reason I schedule the Death Valley workshop for mid-winter is to maximize the possibility of clouds (and minimize the possibility of crowds). But even in January the Death Valley skies are often devoid of character; to compensate I schedule the workshop to coincide with the full moon.

Setting Moon, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley

Moonset, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley

Last week we had a few clouds, but the real highlight was the moon. We started with a sunset moonrise over the dunes, followed by sunrise moonsets from Zabriskie Point, Badwater, and the Alabama Hills (Mt. Whitney) on consecutive mornings.

Before the Zabriskie sunrise shoot I had calculated that the moon would drop behind the Panamint Range, perfectly aligned with Manly Beacon, about five minutes after sunrise. This put the moon in the pastel twilight-wedge glow just as the foreground was bathed in sweet, shadowless light of dawn. Of course all the planning in the world is worthless if the conditions don’t cooperate, but we were fortunate that morning, and I can’t imagine any other place on Earth I’d have rather been.

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A Death Valley Gallery

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Make the world your own

El Capitan Reflection

El Capitan Reflection, Valley View, Yosemite
Canon EOS 10D
1/4 second
F22
ISO 100
27 mm

Pretend you’re a musician who wants to make music your career. Let’s say Eric Clapton is your favorite artist, and “Layla” is your favorite song. Do you think your quickest path to fame and fortune would be to record a song that perfectly replicates “Layla”? (Especially given the difficulty you’d have resurrecting Duane Allman.)

So why is it that so many nature photographers with grand aspirations spend so much time trying to duplicate the shots of others, rather than trying to find and refine their own artistic vision? Using Eric Clapton as a model for your music is great—the more you listen to Clapton, the more your guitar playing will be influenced by his craftmanship. But at some point you need to choose between carving your own musical path or languishing in anonymity.

This applies equally in photography. In my photo workshops I encounter many people who have travelled a great distance to duplicate a photo they’ve seen online, in a book, or in a print. I certainly understand the impulse, and I can’t say that my portfolio doesn’t contain its share of these clichés. But, as I frequently urge my workshop students, if you must photograph something exactly as it’s been photographed before, make that version your starting point and not your ultimate goal.

Once you get your “iconic” (that word is a cliché itself) shot, slow down and work the scene. Look for foreground and background possibilities, find unique perspectives. Play with depth and motion. If your original frame was horizontal, try something vertical, and vice versa. Take your camera off the tripod and pan slowly, zooming in and out as you go until something stops you (don’t forget to bring the tripod back before clicking). Still feel uninspired? Try a longer lens—often the truly unique images are tighter shots that isolate elements of the conventional composition.

It’s true that the longer spend time with a scene, the more you’ll find to photograph. Make a mental checklist of the above steps (feel free to add your own) and go through them without rushing: Often the mere mechanical (uninspired) process of seeking something unique gives you deeper insight that leads to a creative capture if you stick with it long enough.

This image of El Capitan reflected in the Merced River resulted from just such an approach. I’d rolled into Yosemite at around 10:00 a.m. on a mid-November morning. The air was crisp and still, scoured clean by an overnight shower. At Valley View I found this perfect reflection, only possible in the quiet-water days of autumn. Working on a tripod, I started my compositions wide and captured many of the beautiful but conventional shots that have been done a million times here. But wanting something different, I removed my camera from my tripod continued probing the scene through my viewfinder. I eventually isolated the reflection, realizing it was so sharp the morning that it was the thing that really set this moment apart. Despite the advancing sunlight that would soon reach the river and wash out the reflection, I didn’t rush.

On my computer at home, it was fun to view my process through the series of captures that morning. I finally zeroed in on this frame that has become one of my most successful images. Did I create the photographic equivalent of “Layla” that morning? Doubtful. But I did come up with an image that pleases me, and something that’s a pretty unique take on this heavily photographed location.

Are you a photographer or a tourist?

Rainbow and Bridalveil Fall

Storm’s End, Yosemite Valley

When the weather gets crazy, do you sprint for cover or reach for your camera? Your answer may be a pretty good predictor of your success as a photographer. It’s an unfortunate fact that the light, color, and drama that make memorable landscape photos all come when most sane people would rather be inside: at sunrise, when the rest of the world is asleep; at sunset, when everyone else is at dinner; and during wild weather, when anyone with sense is on the sofa in front of the fire.

Last spring I guided a photo workshop group through Yosemite. On the final day we circled Yosemite Valley in a steady rain, stopping to photograph many of my favorite cloudy-sky spots. Through it all my hardy group persevered, wet but happy, but by mid-afternoon their energy had started to wane a bit. Rather than risk mutiny, I detoured to Tunnel View to give everyone a breather.

With El Capitan, Half Dome, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall all on prominent display, it’s no secret why Tunnel View is the most photographed location in Yosemite. After a storm, Yosemite’s dramatic landmarks emerge from swirling clouds as if appearing on earth for the first time. Storms in Yosemite clear from west to east, making Tunnel View the first place to capture this unforgettable experience and my go-to place to wait out Yosemite weather.

The rain fell in sheets as we pulled into the Tunnel View parking area. Throughout the workshop I’d tried to impress on everyone how quickly conditions change in Yosemite, but it’s pretty hard to appreciate exactly how quickly until you actually experience a change yourself. So, despite my prodding to the contrary, when I donned my rain gear and invited the group to join me in the rain, they all opted for the warmth of the cars. And there I stood, five soggy minutes later, accompanied only by my tripod and camera (me beneath an umbrella, my camera beneath a plastic garbage bag), when without warning a ray of sunlight broke through, briefly painting a rainbow above Yosemite Valley, from El Capitan to Bridalveil Fall. After rousing the group I had time for three frames before the rainbow faded into the clouds. Everyone else was still wrestling with their gear.

Did I know a rainbow was going to happen? Of course not. In fact, if I were a betting man, I’d have wagered I wasn’t going to get anything but wet. But no matter how slim the odds were, a special image was infinitely more likely in the rain than in the car.

So. Are you a photographer or a tourist? There’s nothing wrong with the tourist mentality that only takes you outdoors with the masses, well rested and appetite sated in midday warmth. On the other hand, if one spectacular success is compensation enough for the other hundred tired, hungry, cold, and wet failures, you may just be a photographer.

Every picture has a story

Bridalveil Dogwood

Bridalveil Dogwood, Yosemite National Park
Canon EOS 10D
1/15 second
F/22.0
ISO 100
48 mm

Every picture has a story. (And as Rod Stewart reminded us, every picture tells a story as well, but it’s not necessarily the same story and that isn’t really what I want to talk about anyway.) The story of a compelling nature photograph can include every bit of the good stuff that makes for gripping narrative in a book or movie: adventure, peril, suffering, and yes, sometimes even romance, humor, and foolish mishaps.

The story of this image goes back to the beginning of the story of my path as a nature photographer, all the way back to an afternoon when the ten-year-old me joined my father, a serious amateur photographer, on a hike to the top of Sentinel Dome in Yosemite. For those unfamiliar with the most beautiful place on Earth, Yosemite’s Sentinel Dome is a towering, rounded knob of granite that does indeed appear to stand sentinel above the surrounding terrain. At 8,000 feet, its summit provides a 360-degree highlight reel of Yosemite’s most dramatic features: Cathedral Rocks, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, and Half Dome, among others, are all on prominent display here. With the exception of a single gnarled jeffrey pine, exquisitely captured by Ansel Adams and many other photographers (and now dead and lying on its side), Sentinel Dome’s summit is also as bald as a bowling ball.

On the day of our hike thunderstorms had been firing all afternoon, stabbing the granite near El Capitan and Yosemite Falls just across the valley. Dad’s goal was to photograph lightning, and what vantage point better than Sentinel Dome with its panoramic view, not to mention a photogenic tree for the foreground. My dad wasn’t a stupid man, but personal experience has since helped me understand how his desire to “get the shot” can temporarily overwhelm good sense. So, when the storm crept closer and rain started to fall on our location, rather than descend to safety, Dad handed me an umbrella and asked me to extend it high above his treasured Leica.

So there I stood, proudly and without question, perched atop an elevated and completely exposed peak, extending heavenward a metal rod. I have no memory of fear or even of being aware of the foolishness of our efforts—I just remember sensing Dad’s intense desire to get his shot, and wishing with all my heart for the lightning bolt that would make it happen.

We didn’t get our lightning that day, and more importantly, the lightning didn’t get us. But later that afternoon, as the whole family enjoyed the view in a light rain just down the road at Glacier Point, the storm broke and delivered without warning a brilliant rainbow that arced magnificently across the face of Half Dome. My father, despite being transformed by family priorities from photographer to tourist, still dangled his Leica from his neck—he simply had to lift the camera, meter the scene, and click to get the shot of his lifetime.

Here’s my dad’s Half Dome Rainbow, captured on a summer afternoon in the mid-sixties.

I’ll never forget the contrast of Dad’s emotions that afternoon, which ranged from frustration and disappointment atop Sentinel Dome, to shear euphoria at Glacier Point. I experienced them as strongly as if they were my own, and while photography dropped from my radar as I spent the remainder of my youth occupied with the typical distractions of adolescence, few childhood memories are more permanent than that one. In hindsight it’s clear that Dad’s emotions were a microcosm of the reasons I became a nature photographer. For every success there are ten disappointments, but every once in a while you’re gifted with a surprise that makes all the frustration worthwhile.

Fast-forward to 2004. A gentle spring rain falls as I wander the banks of the Merced River in Yosemite Valley. I have image in mind. Like that afternoon on Sentinel Dome, I have no guarantee of getting the shot I want: a dogwood bloom with one of Yosemite’s landmarks in the background. I make several stops, and as I search I’m only vaguely aware of the steady but light rain (fortunately, there’s no lightning).

I can’t remember how much my thoughts this wet morning drifted to the afternoon on Sentinel Dome with my dad all those years ago, but I have no doubt that it was prime catalyst in my path from enthusiastic assistant, to serious amateur, and ultimately to full-time professional photographer. I now completely understand that need to get the shot with little concern for the consequences, and how easy it can be to mentally eliminate distractions, discomfort, and physical obstacles (and sometimes good sense).

I got my shot that day, a raindrop-festooned dogwood blossom, large and sharp in the foreground, with a roaring Bridalveil Fall soft in the distance. On my drive home I was cold, wet, and happy. Photography’s funny that way. Thanks, Dad.

A sampling of personal favorites

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