My technology can beat up your technology

Gary Hart Photography: Looking Up, Lower Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Looking Up, Lower Antelope Canyon, Arizona
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1/100 second
ISO 200

For some reason, the technology choices of others seem to be the source of profound angst to many (self appointed) online “experts.” Whether it’s vinyl vs. digital, Windows vs. OS X, Android vs. iOS, Nikon vs. Canon, mirrorless vs. SLR, nothing incites in-your-face rancor like someone else’s technology choice. While I’ve been quite content to remain on the sidelines during these pointless battles, I must confess to being an occasional (amused) observer.

One thing I’ve observed during these skirmishes is that most desperate attacks seem to come from the side playing catch-up—the underdog. I mean, was there anyone more annoying than an Apple user in the nineties?

On the other side, it seems that the job of the front-running users who are under attack, the users with the technology embraced by the masses, is to respond with smug condescension. Which of course only further inflames the underdog. I mean, is there anyone more smug than an Apple user in 2016?

(Before you accuse me of Apple-user bashing, let me assure you that I’m a committed Apple zealot who long ago lost track of the number of iDevices within arm’s reach. You could plug in Nikon/Canon, vinyl/digital, and so on and easily find the same attack/condescend cycle repeating.)

But given all this, imagine my concern since exiting the Canon/Nikon battle zone—suddenly I was photographing with gear that seemed too anonymous to incite emotion among the masses. Where had I gone wrong? Which is why it was with great excitement that I read a blog post disparaging Sony mirrorless shooters—to be more specific, Sony full-frame mirrorless shooters, a fraternity of which I’m a card carrying member. It was like the new phone book had arrived and suddenly, “I’m somebody!”

According to this self-proclaimed authority, as a Sony shooter I’m an ignorant lemming with dubious lineage and poor bathing habits. (Okay, so maybe I made up the last couple of points, but I have no doubt the argument would have gotten there soon enough.) Rather take offense, I viewed this blogger’s anti-Sony rant as a badge of honor, a sign that my Sony mirrorless gear has achieved enough status to stir the juices of the insecure. Not only that, I’m now in a position to respond with condescending smugness—a significant milestone indeed.

But seriously

Okay, but seriously, who cares? Who? Cares? Are people really that insecure about their technology choices that they feel threatened by mine? I have my own very specific photography needs, as I’m sure you do. You can’t pretend to know my needs, I can’t pretend to know yours. I find no offense (or, I must confess, interest) in the equipment you choose, and certainly hope that you find none in mine.

On the other hand, I’ve reached the point in my career that my equipment choices do affect the decisions of others. People who like my pictures ask what equipment I use, and my opinion on the equipment they should purchase. While I’m happy to answer these questions (as my time permits), the real answer is that the equipment matters very little in relation to the person operating it. Today’s technology is pretty much across-the-board amazing compared to what used to be considered state-of-the-art. The limiting factor in your photography will almost certainly not be your equipment.

My advice is to filter out all the noise, target the few features that are most important to you and the way you shoot, and identify the system that best suits you. It almost certainly won’t be exactly the same as the system that best suits the online experts, no matter how loudly they make their case.

All that said, I’d like to explain why I’m confident that I’ve found the best camera system for my photography. It comes down to the realization over the year-and-a-half I’ve been shooting Sony full-frame mirrorless that I’m getting images that I never could have gotten with my Canon DSLRs. For me, that means ridiculous dynamic range from my a7RII, and similarly ridiculous high ISO performance from my a7SII. It also means more room in my bag, enabling me to carry more gear, which makes me more prepared for whatever Mother Nature delivers.

The most recent validation of my Sony system was captured late last month, on bright afternoon visit to Lower Antelope Canyon near Page, Arizona. Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons are narrow slot canyons carved in red sandstone by millennia of extreme drought punctuated by brief flash-floods. I’ve photographed these canyons many times in the last ten or so years; while I’ve always loved photographing there, I’ve also been frustrated by the extreme dynamic range that forces me (and pretty much everyone else) to decide between the scene’s highlights or shadows.

Since I don’t blend images (if I can’t shoot it in one click, I don’t shoot it), dynamic range is a huge deal for me. Our cameras just can’t capture in one click the range of light—from darkest shadows to brightest highlights—that our eyes see. But that doesn’t prevent me from trying to squeeze out as much dynamic range as my camera will allow (and hoping for more).

Already aware that my Sony a7RII (and the a7R before it) has more dynamic range than any camera I’ve ever used, on this year’s Antelope Canyon visit (helping good friend Don Smith with his Northern Arizona workshop) I decided to put the camera to the test with an extreme dynamic range scene that has always overwhelmed any camera I’ve thrown at it: in one frame, attempting to capture detail in the red rock buried in Antelope Canyon’s deepest shade, and the brilliant, sunlit blue sky outside.

On this visit, for most of the walk through Lower Antelope, a thin layer of clouds obscured the blue sky overhead. But as we were heading toward the exit, I looked up and saw a break in the clouds through the narrow slit overhead. I quickly metered the scene, targeting the brightest part of the remaining clouds and pushing the highlights as far I could without clipping (overexposing) them beyond recovery. On my LCD the image looked like a failure, with blinking (overexposed) highlights and black shadows.

Despite the unusable appearance on the camera, on my computer a small miracle happened: Tugging Lightroom’s Highlights slider to the left restored all the detail to the clouds and blue to the sky. Given my careful exposure, this wasn’t a total surprise, but on previous attempts, capturing blue sky in an Antelope Canyon image always was a death knell for the shadows. So imagine my surprise when I started pulling Lightroom’s Shadows slider to the right and rich red sandstone magically appeared, even in the darkest shadows. It was all there!

Does this mean that my new Sony mirrorless bodies are better than my Canon DSLR bodies? I can’t say, nor will I try to say—we each make the choice that best suits our style and needs, and all the online ranting from experts shouldn’t sway us. But for me, regardless of what others might say, or how loudly they might say it, I know I’m getting images that I never could have gotten before. And that’s really all that matters.

Previously impossible (shots I wouldn’t have gotten before)

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Mastering the mayhem

Gary Hart Photography: Divine Radiance, Upper Antelope Canyon

Divine Radiance, Upper Antelope Canyon
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 24-70
1/3 second
ISO 400

Last week I joined (contributed to) the elbow-to-elbow fray in Upper Antelope Canyon. Helping Don Smith with his Northern Arizona workshop, I’ve done this every year for nearly ten years (I’ve lost exact count). While I never tire of the cathedral-like power of beaming, bouncing sunlight, I find that, like most beautiful, easily accessed locations, it’s difficult to separate Antelope Canyon’s beauty from its mayhem.

Upper Antelope’s mayhem is multiplied by narrow, twisting sandstone walls that contain, reflect, amplify, and spread every sound along the canyon’s entire length, and make it impossible to move without dodging, brushing, or jostling another human. It’s a claustrophobe’s worst nightmare—even people who’ve never experienced claustrophobia find the experience unnerving.

It’s in these environments that I most appreciate the limited perspective of a still camera, its ability to isolate the essence of a scene and separate it from all sensory distractions. As difficult as the Upper Antelope Canyon experience is, I can visit my images later and remember only the best things about being there. Gone is the noise and congestion, tripods and camera flashes, and all the concomitant distraction and anxiety. I’m left with graceful curves in layered sandstone polished smooth by water, wind, and time, and the heavenly glow of reflected sunlight.

About this image

Though the workshop group was ours, Don and I must defer to our Navajo guide when we’re in the canyon, which means we aren’t allowed to teach. Our job is mostly to not get in anyone’s way. While we do monitor the group to make sure no one’s missing an opportunity, much of our time is spent hanging in the back, waiting for the “prime” shots we’ll only get a chance to photograph if there’s time when everyone else is done. This has turned out to be a blessing for me, because it’s forced me to find my own stuff, especially stuff that’s on the walls above everyone’s head, or even straight up, at the ceiling.

The image here is a straight-up ceiling capture found while waiting for the group to finish photographing a shafting ray of sunlight further up the canyon. In the narrow confines of a crowded slot canyon, crouching to see through a viewfinder, or lying down to get beneath the camera, is not practical. It’s in these awkward situations that have given me a real appreciation for the Sony mirrorless bodies’ articulating LCD, which makes photographing these straight-up scenes about as difficult as glancing down at a cell phone.

Another advantage to the straight-up composition is that it has no top, bottom, left, or right. By rotating my camera on the tripod, I was able to turn the overhead opening into a diagonal, which I found more compelling orienting it horizontally or vertically. In fact, when I processed this image I decided to reverse the top and bottom of the image, resulting in an orientation that’s no different than if I’d have rotated my camera 180 degrees at capture (try doing that with conventional, straight-ahead image).

And finally, I just have to say something about the dynamic range of the a7R. The difference between the brightest highlights and darkest shadows in this scene was far beyond what I’d have attempted with my Canon 5D Mark III. And while my histogram told me I’d gotten the full range of tones, I didn’t completely believe it until I actually got it on my computer, pulled down the highlights, pulled up the shadows, and looked closely.

Read my tips for photographing Upper Antelope Canyon

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 An Antelope Canyon gallery

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Blinded by the light

Inner Glow, Upper Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Inner Glow, Upper Antelope Canyon, Arizona
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
2.5 seconds
67 mm
ISO 400


Sometimes we’re so focused on the spectacular, we overlook the sublime

Upper Antelope Canyon near Page, Arizona, is known for its brilliant light shafts that seem to originate from heaven and streak laser-like through open air to spotlight the canyon’s red sandstone walls and dusty floor. Sometimes multiple shafts are visible, ranging from pencil thin to tree-trunk thick. The rare combination of conditions the shafts require include clear skies and the high sun angle only possible midday on the long side of the equinoxes. The shafts also require airborne dust—easily stirred by wind or footfall, but often augmented by the Navajo guides who carry plastic scoops to toss the powdery particles skyward.

Beam, Upper Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Beam, Upper Antelope Canyon, Arizona
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1 second
70 mm
ISO 400

Photographers from around the world flock to Page each spring and summer, packing Upper Antelope Canyon like Manhattan subway commuters in hopes of capturing their version of this breathtaking phenomenon. Given the crowds, it would be an understatement to say that the experience isn’t as inspiring or peaceful as the photos make it appear. But it is mesmerizing, so much so that when the beams fire, it’s difficult to concentrate on anything else. And therein lies the rub—the color, curves, and lines that are Antelope Canyon’s essence are overpowered its most famous quality.

The only way to get access to Upper Antelope Canyon is to join a tour led by a Navajo guide (I’ve never had a bad guide). The photo tour (as opposed to the  standard, shorter “tourist” tour) of Upper Antelope gets you two hours in the canyon—one hour to photograph the beams in the company hundreds of oblivious tourists and competing, desperate photographers, and a second hour once the canyon has emptied, when it’s possible to walk its one hundred or so yards in relative peace and appreciate the qualities that make Antelope Canyon special.

As cool as the light shafts are, it’s this quiet hour that I’ve come to enjoy most, both as a photographer and as a lover of all things natural. Without the shafts hypnotic pull, I’m free to appreciate light’s interaction with Mother Nature’s handiwork. Layered sandstone carved by centuries of sudden, violent flash floods separated by months of arid heat. The floods have scoured the hard walls smooth, crafted narrow twists and broad rooms, and finished the walls with multifaceted curves and lines that reflect sunlight in all angles like a house of mirrors. Each ray of light entering from the extremely narrow opening at the ceiling is reflected at least once, and usually many times before reaching its viewer’s eyes (or camera). Shaded sections create dark frames for the illuminated sections that seem to glow with their own light source. As the light shifts or the viewer moves, shapes appear—a face, a bear, a heart—and disappear to replaced by new shapes limited only by the viewer’s imagination.

The bifurcated Antelope Canyon experience exposes an important reality: Dramatic light and color can blind viewers to a scene’s true beauty. While brilliant light and vivid sunsets grab your eyes in much the same way a rich dessert immediately satisfies your taste buds, we can’t live forever on this visual dessert. The images that sustain, the ones that draw us back and hold our attention once we’re there, are more often the subtle explorations of indirect light that allow us to make our own discoveries.

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“Trophy” shots

Flowers and Red Rocks, Horseshoe Bend, Colorado River, Arizona

Flowers and Red Rocks, Horseshoe Bend, Colorado River, Arizona

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In my recently completed Hawaii Big Island workshop, the topic of “trophy shots” came up. (My definition of a trophy shot is a prominently displayed photograph of a scene captured previously by someone else.) Often these are “iconic” tourist scenes, places like Tunnel View in Yosemite, Old Faithful in Yellowstone, Delicate Arch in Arches, or Niagara Falls (I could go on). But with the digital-fueled photography renaissance, it seems that the number of trophy destinations has grown proportionally. For example, long an anonymous waterfall on El Capitan’s southeast flank, Horsetail Fall now draws thousands of photographers to Yosemite each February. And if you’ve ever jostled for position in front of Canyonlands’ Mesa Arch at sunrise, or at Antelope Canyon’s dazzling midday heavenly beam (below), you’ve been an active participant in a trophy hunt.

This isn’t an indictment of trophy photography—heaven knows I have my share of trophy-qualifying images. It’s more about me puzzling why so many photographers pursue them with such passion, and display them with such pride. To me the joy of photography isn’t duplicating what others have already done, it’s looking for something new, especially at frequently photographed locations. Of course these famous shots draw many photographers to my workshops, and I do my best to help them bag their trophy. Nevertheless, my challenge to workshop students is always, rather than make the trophy your goal, make it your starting point.

If the standard view is horizontal, look for something vertical; if it’s wide, try a telephoto. Chances are, if this shot is so special, there’s lots of other special views and subjects nearby. Challenge yourself to find a unique foreground, a different angle, or simply turn around and see what’s behind you.

Regrettably, some of my very favorite images, the images that give me the most satisfaction, are met with shrugs, while my trophy shots like Horsetail Fall and Antelope Canyon, compositions that are a dime a dozen, are among my most popular. Sigh. But when I decided to do landscape photography for a living, I started with a personal promise to only photograph what I want to photograph. And frankly, if someone else has done it, I just don’t get that much pleasure from re-doing it. Sometimes I’ll use the trophy compositions to warm up, but it seems the longer I do this, the more inclined I am to simply leave my lens cap on unless I see something I’ve never seen before.

Among the trophy destinations that I frequent each year is Horseshoe Bend near Page, Arizona. On my first visit I got my trophy shot, and on subsequent visits I’ve sometimes tried to upgrade that composition if I think conditions are better than I’ve had before, but with each visit I spend less time repeating previous efforts and more time looking for something new. Which is how I ended up with the image at the top of this post.

Spring Reflection, Horseshoe Bend, Arizona

Spring Reflection, Horseshoe Bend, Arizona :: This is my Horseshoe Bend trophy shot. On this spring morning I did my best to use the broken clouds and sunlit cliffs reflecting in the Colorado River, and a solitary clump of wildflowers in the red rocks, to set my version apart from the thousands of similar compositions that preceded me.

Rather than limit myself to the “standard,” sweeping, (breathtaking) full horseshoe (Spring Reflection, above), I looked for something in the foreground to emphasize. I found a little clump of yellow flowers clinging to the cliff, 2,000 vertical feet above the Colorado River. Taking most of the bend out of the frame allowed me to use the foreground rocks to frame the flowers and guide your eye to the clouds building in the distance. Unfortunately (for sales), removing the horseshoe from Horseshoe Bend means this image won’t resonate with nearly as many people, but that’s okay.

Heavenly Beam, Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Heavenly Beam, Antelope Canyon, Arizona :: Here’s my Antelope Canyon trophy shot. It really is an amazing scene that sells lots of prints, but there’s really nothing in it to set it apart from the thousands of others just like it.

Heavenly Beam, Upper Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Bathed in Light, Upper Antelope Canyon, Arizona :: While not dramatically different, at least this Antelope Canyon image is my own. I found it by looking up, over the heads of hundreds of other photographers lined up to get their trophy shot.

I’m not trying to portray myself as a creative genius (call me an aspirational creative genius)—I imagine that many of my “unique” images aren’t completely unique. But at least they’re my own (if others preceded me, they did so without my knowledge). We all take pictures for different reasons, and if the trophies give you the most pleasure, go for it. But honestly, does the world need another sunset from Tunnel View (guilty)? Or salmon-catching grizzly from Katmai National Park (not guilty)? If you’re trying to set yourself apart as a photographer (and maybe even make a few dollars doing it), look beyond the trophies to show the world something it hasn’t seen before. I may not be there yet, but that’s what keeps me shooting.

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