Familiarity breeds content

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*            *            *

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

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

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Almost Heaven

Almost Heaven, Big Dipper and Fog, Big Sur

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

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

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

Rules are great, but….

Sunrise, Drake’s Bay, Point Reyes National Seashore
Canon EOS 10D
1/3 second
ISO 220
100 mm

Rules are important. The glue of civilization. Bedtimes, homework, and curfews constrained our childhood and taught us to self-police to the point where as adults we’re so conditioned that we honor rules simply because we’ve been told to. (Who hasn’t waited two minutes for a signal to change with no car or cop in sight?)

As important as this conditioning is to the preservation of society, an inability to question rules sometimes impacts areas of our lives that might not be so cut-and-dried. One example would be blind adherence to the (usually) well-intended photography “experts” proliferating online and in print. These self-proclaimed authorities love nothing more than to issue an edict that their disciples are all too happy to embrace. My general advice to anyone seeking advice from strangers is to beware of absolutes, and when you hear one, run (don’t walk) to the nearest exit. The truth is, there are very, very few absolutes in photography.

A more insidious problem is the constraints imposed by our own self-proclaimed rules. These are directives we picked up through education or experience that probably served us well as we learned photography: the rule of thirds, never blow your highlights, and a host of others. But they’re insidious because, while they may be founded on truth, we’re very unaware that they’re hindering our growth. Like walls that give comfort by protecting us from intruders, photographic rules obscure the stars of our creativity.

For example, one of the “rules” that has served me well says that I need a focal point in my frame, a place for the eye to go. And while I agree that this may generally be true, and many images suffer for lack of it, I have to remind myself that there is no official proclamation making this so. Had I not broken that rule early one morning on Drake’s Bay in Point Reyes, I’d have missed what turned out to be one of my favorite ocean images.

The moral is, when you find yourself basing composition or exposure decisions on pre-conceived ideas (either your own or others’) of how things should be, just slow down a bit and challenge yourself to break the rules. Go ahead and get your standard shot, but then force yourself to try something outside your comfort zone. Who knows what you might find.

Blurred water: Fiction and facts

Some people don’t like the silky water effect. While I agree that at times it verges on cliché, the truth is that fast water illuminated by anything less than full sunlight usually offers little choice. In those conditions the question isn’t whether to blur the water, it’s how much?

The argument against blurring moving water that always amuses me is the one that says blurred water “isn’t natural.” The reasoning here is that blurred-water images should be disqualified because we never see blurred water in nature. To these “purists” I ask, how many times have you seen the alternative: individual water droplets suspended in midair for permanent scrutiny? This just underscores a photographic truth I’ve been hammering on for years: The camera and eye record the world entirely differently. Discarding images simply because they aren’t “natural” would not only eliminate all black and white images, it would also eliminate every image that’s not, uh, three-dimensional. Hmmm. Now let’s count how many images that leaves us with….

On the other hand, embracing and leveraging your camera’s unique vision is empowering. It opens the doors to creative possibilities of which blurred water is just a scratch on the surface. While there’s no magic formula, blurred water isn’t hard once you learn to see the world as your camera does.

The prime determining factor in blurred water is the distance any individual water drop moves across your frame while the shutter is open: the more of the frame it spans, the greater the blur. The amount of blur you capture starts with the speed of the water, over which you have no control. But take heart, because there are several variables you can control:

  • Focal length: The longer your focal length (more telephoto), the shorter the distance from one side the frame to the other (a wide angle vista can encompass many miles; a telephoto from the same vantage point can reduce the image’s width to a few hundred yards or less). Since the water moves at a fixed speed, an imaginary water droplet will span a greater percentage of the frame in a telephoto exposure.
  • Subject distance: Moving closer achieves the same thing a telephoto lens does because the closer you are to the moving water, the shorter the distance our water droplet has to travel to span the frame.
  • Shutter speed: The longer the shutter is open, the farther our droplet can travel during our exposure. You can keep the shutter open by reducing your ISO, shrinking your aperture, or cutting the amount of light with a polarizer or neutral density filter.

Because long shutter speeds increase the blur, blurring water is easier when you photograph in reduced light, either overcast or shade. In full sunlight it’s pretty much impossible to blur water without a neutral density filter to cut the light reaching the frame. And you’ll find that the more white the water, the more pronounced the blur. In other words, for any given combination of conditions and settings, while the amount of blur is the same for green water as it is for white water, the blur will be much more noticeable in the white water.

The above image was captured in the late afternoon shade along Mill Creek in Lundy Canyon, just west of Mono Lake. It’s a 1/4 second exposure at ISO 100. I could have gotten more blur if I’d have gone with a smaller aperture (to further reduce the light and allow a longer shutter speed), but I chose f5.6 because I wanted to soften the background make the paintbrush  stand out more.

Cameras are stupid, Part deux

Okay, let’s review.

Would you really allow your camera to choose the focus point for this composition? (Hint: No.) Like exposure, focus is not an absolute that can be determined by sterile, binary analysis; rather, focus is a creative choice that profoundly affects the result. That’s because creating the illusion of depth in two-dimensional image means composing elements at different distances throughout the frame.

Unfortunately, adding depth introduces another layer of complication: Where to place the focus point? Photographers afraid to trust their judgement (or their eyes), mistakenly assume their camera knows better. But resorting to autofocus leads to images that are sharp in the wrong place, or flat, two-dimensional compositional decisions.

Because every image has only one perfectly sharp plane of focus, finding the right point and depth of field is essential. Of the many techniques photographers apply to ensure proper focus, Hyperfocal focusing is the most reliable. Hyperfocal focusing determines the combination of focal length, f-stop, and focus point to ensure the ideal location and depth of the frame’s zone of “acceptable” sharpness. Because finding the precise hyperfocal point requires plugging variables into a chart or (my preference) iPhone app, many photographers mistakenly assume it’s not worth the effort. But like most things that start out difficult, just doing it regularly will quickly reveal the underlying simplicity–it wasn’t long before chart- and app-free, seat-of-the-pants hyperfocal focusing became second nature.

On most fall mornings, the photographers at North Lake (on Bishop Creek in the Eastern Sierra) outnumber the mosquitos, but evenings can be relatively peaceful. For this early October sunset, I immediately recognized the possibility of something special in the sky. And without the swarm of photographers I was accustomed to, I was free to roam the lakeshore in search of a composition that gave me the depth I wanted. I set up in front of this granite archipelago, dropping low and composing vertical and wide to allow the rocks to lead the eye to the spectacular aspen and peaks across the lake.

My general rule in scenes that require more depth of field than is possible, I favor the foreground and tolerate slight background softness. But left entirely to the camera, the foreground rocks in North Lake would have been soft. Instead, at 23mm and f11, manually focusing toward the back of the right-most rock gave me tack-sharp rocks while retaining acceptable background sharpness. A tripod allowed me to refine and lock-in my composition and focus point well in advance of the sunset, enabling me to sit back and simply appreciate the splendor. When the color arrived, all I needed to do was meter and click.

Don’t believe your own eyes?

Cameras are stupid

In a previous life I spent several years doing technical support. For me job-one was convincing people that, despite all error messages to the contrary, they are in fact smarter than their computers. Most errors occur because the computer just didn’t understand: If I misspell a wurd, you still know what I mean (rite?); not so with a computer. A computer can’t anticipate, reason, or create; it will blithely continue repeating a mistake, no matter how egregious, until it is instructed otherwise or it destroys itself. All this applies equally to cameras–no matter how advanced its technology, a camera just can’t compete with your brain. Really.

If I’d have allowed my camera to decide the exposure for this crescent moon rising above Yosemite Valley, I’d have ended up with a useless mess: The camera would have decided that the foreground trees and rocks were important and allowed enough light to reveal them, completely washing out the color in the sky in the process. But I thought the contents of the foreground shadows were a distraction and wanted to simplify the scene to include only the moon’s delicate shape and the silhouette of Half Dome and Sentinel Dome etched against the rich blue of the pre-dawn sky.

It’s scenes like this that cause me to never trust my camera’s decision making. In my thirty-five or so years of serious photography, I’ve never used anything but manual exposure. And since I try to have elements at different depths throughout my frame, focus is usually my decision and not my camera’s.

Today’s cameras are more technologically advanced than ever; the auto modes are quite good, good enough that nobody should feel they must switch to manual if they fear it will rob the pleasure they get from photography. But if you define photographic pleasure as getting the best possible results, try spending a little time mastering manual metering and exposure. In my workshops, where I teach (but never require) manual metering to anyone who’s interested, people frequently marvel at how easy it is to take control of their camera. Give yourself some credit and give it a try. And don’t let your camera intimidate you.

Reach for the sky

I’d love to say that every picture I take is a personal synergy of preparation, inspiration, and execution, but I’m afraid it just isn’t so. Sometimes I just go out with no real plan, and no clue about what’s going to happen. Other times my plan is no more than to find out exactly what will happen.

Several years ago  (let’s see, it was probably 2005) I was still relatively new to digital photography. After many, many years shooting 35mm transparencies (slides), I was excited enough about my digital SLR to retire my trusty OM-2 (R.I.P.), but still not completely sure what digital could do for me. Back then it seemed like every trip was two parts photography, one part education.

That fall brother Jay and I traveled to Lone Pine to photograph Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills. Frustrated by boring blue skies during the day, and aware that the moon would be full, on our last night we thought it might be fun to see how our cameras handled moonlight. So we headed up into the Alabama Hills, just west of Lone Pine.

Starting on the paved Whitney Portal Road, we experimented with exposure using Lone Pine Peak and Mt. Whitney as subjects. It only took a few seat-of-the-pants, trial-and-error frames to arrive at exposure settings that worked (and that I still use). Buoyed by the results barely visible on my postage stamp LCD, I suggested we venture deeper into the “hills” (more like a collection of stacked, weathered granite boulders) on the confusing network of dirt roads. Somewhat (but not hopelessly) lost, we ended up setting up at a rocky dead-end amidst a confusion of moon shadows.

This might be a good time to mention that, whether you know it or not, you’re probably more familiar with the Alabama Hills than you might realize. Its jumbled granite and meandering dirt trails have been home to countless cinema chases, gunfights, and ambushes since the halcyon days of John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Roy Rogers. (And imagine my surprise while watching the first “Ironman” movie, to see see Mt. Whitney looming over the Afghan desert.) So it was particularly surreal to be alone in the moonlit night, in the shadow of boulders that very well may have launched John Wayne onto the back of an Indian pony, or from behind which Randolph Scott might have sprung to surprise a retreating train robber. But I digress.

Both Jay and I were concentrating on the Sierra crest, anchored by Lone Pine Peak and Mt. Whitney, beneath a ceiling of sparking stars. During one of my exposures I glanced toward the northern horizon and saw the Big Dipper suspended above a natural granite bridge. On a whim I rotated my tripod 90 degrees, composed a vertical frame wide enough to include the Big Dipper (I couldn’t see the stars in my fairly dim viewfinder), and guessed on the focus. I clicked two frames, then returned my attention to the mountains.

It wasn’t until I returned to the hotel and checked my images on my laptop that I realized I’d captured something that was (in my opinion) special. The other images from than night are accumulating digital dust on a hard disk, but this image of the Big Dipper has become one of my favorite (and most popular).

Even more significant than the image’s success is epiphany it inspired. I’ve always been drawn to the night sky, from the night when I was about 10 and when my best friend Rob and I peered through a  telescope in his front yard and saw the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter. After that, camping and backpack trips were always sans tent just so I’d have an unobstructed view of the pristine night sky, and I read every book on astronomy I could find. In college I even majored in astronomy, that is until the quantification of the cosmos sapped its elegance (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But this one night in the Alabama Hills revived that latent passion and showed me how easy it is to include the stars in my current life.

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