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

Sunset, McWay Fall, Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park (Big Sur)

Sunset, McWay Fall, Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park, Big Sur

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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A Seaside Gallery

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Is it spring yet?

Poppy Lanterns, Merced River Canyon
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
1/50 second
ISO 200
100 mm

March 3, 2011

With all the recent snow posts, it’s kind of hard to believe that spring has arrived in California. We’re still getting rain here in the Central Valley (and snow in the Sierra), but Northern California skies are more blue than gray, and colorful blossoms are popping up everywhere. While the soon-to-be-ubiquitous foothill poppies haven’t quite kicked in, I know by the end of the month my camera and I will be enjoying leisurely drives through the Gold Country to photograph my favorite wildflower. My foothill drives have become quite a treat for me, not just for the photography, but for the opportunity to meander quiet country roads with the window down and baseball on the radio.

On these drives I often find entire hillsides blanketed with poppies beneath billowing cumulus pillows. Sometimes a spring shower sprinkles the blossoms, closed tight against the weather, with glistening water jewels. When I’m fortunate enough to find the sun diffused by a veneer of translucent clouds, I like to sprawl in the dirt for a bugs-eye view of the tissue-thin, backlit petals that light up as if they have their own internal light source like colorful little lanterns.

I found the poppy in this image at one of my favorite spots near the Merced River west of Yosemite. An extension tube on my 100mm macro lens enabled me to get close enough to smooth the background lupine into a blur of purple. I chose this tight composition of just the base of the closest backlit poppy for the way it emphasized the glowing lantern effect I love so much. Believe it or not, the color was so vivid that I actually had to desaturate it a bit in Photoshop.

Waterfall with a twist

Winter Cascade, Cascade Creek, Yosemite
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
2/3 second
ISO 200
85 mm

When is a waterfall not a waterfall? The next time you’re in Yosemite, stop at the turnout where Cascade Creek meets Big Oak Flat Road and see if you can figure out why this impressive cataract doesn’t merit an official “waterfall” designation. It certainly isn’t for lack of verticality. Or drama. From the bridge on Big Oak Flat Road, Cascade Creek appears to spring full-speed from the heavens before taking a little twist and exploding into a network of violent, staircase cascades before disappearing beneath the bridge. You can cross the road and continue following the whitewater to its convergence with Tamarack Creek and its disappearance around a bend. I guess a waterfall by any other name looks just as sweet.

If you’re fortunate enough to get Horsetail Fall at the right time, it is indeed breathtaking. But how many more pictures like this does the world need?

On the other hand, after again experiencing the annual circus that is Horsetail Fall in February, keeping the Cascade Creek waterfall/cascade relatively anonymous may just be a good thing for those of us who already appreciate it. I find it kind of amusing to compare the always photogenic, in-your-face Cascade Whatever to Horsetail Fall, which usually requires binoculars to locate, even if you know exactly where to look. When I get my groups on location at one of the Horsetail Fall viewing locations (including the picnic area directly beneath the fall), I typically spend at least five minutes helping everyone locate the fall: “See that tall tree at the edge of the parking lot? Follow it all the way to the rock outcrop at the top of El Capitan. Okay, now follow the top of El Capitan to the left until you get to a tree–Horsetail Fall comes straight down from there. See it?” By the time they find it I’m exhausted and they’re puzzled: “Is that what all the excitement’s about? Really?”

Of course when the light’s right, Horsetail Fall doesn’t need much water to become a breathtaking spectacle, and I’ll never tire of showing others the Horsetail “Firefall” effect for the first time. But honestly, given the shear drama and variety of compositions possible, I have a lot more fun photographing Cascade Creek. But let’s just keep it our secret.

Read more about the Horsetail Fall phenomenon

A gallery of waterfalls

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