Photography’s Creativity Triad: Light

Gary Hart Photography: Red Maple Twins, Zion National Park

Red Maple Twins, Zion National Park
Sony a7RII
Sony 100-400 GM
ISO 1600
f/16
1/10 second

Photography’s Creativity Triad

Rather than attempting to reproduce a scene exactly as we see it, enduring photographs reveal unseen aspects of our world. Capturing this hidden world requires understanding and mastery of photography’s “creativity triad,” the three aspects of a scene that distinguish the camera’s vision from human vision: motion, light, and depth.


Light is arguably the single most important element in an image. And the way a camera handles light may very well be photographers’ single biggest frustration—while our eyes can pluck detail from the deepest shadows to the brightest highlights, with a camera we can have shadows, or we can have highlights, but we can’t have both. Photographers go to great lengths to mitigate the shortcomings of their camera’s dynamic range (range of light a camera can pull detail from in a single frame, from shadows to highlights): Artificial light, blending of multiple exposures, and graduated neutral density filters absolutely have their place, but we often overlook the opportunity limited dynamic range provides.

In my previous post I wrote about how the camera’s ability to accumulate light over the duration of a single frame can reveal motion that’s invisible to the naked eye. Where light is concerned, while many see it as a limitation, I see my camera’s “limited” dynamic range as an opportunity to hide distractions and emphasize features. Whether it’s a Yosemite silhouette that emphasizes shape, or a high-key autumn image that highlights color, narrow dynamic range doesn’t need to be a handicap.

Red Maple Twins, Zion National Park

Last week I was in Zion National Park, co-teaching Don Smith’s workshop there. Zion’s yellows were peaking while we were there, but most of its red maples were about a week past prime. Nevertheless, I was able to find enough crimson leaves to keep me happy.

One morning I found a group of leaves dangling away from most of the tree. Seeking the best way to isolate the leaves from their surroundings, I experimented with different positions and focal lengths, starting with a half dozen or so leaves against a background of soft-focus branches and leaves. I love my new Sony 100-400 GM lens for isolation shots like this and had fun composing these leaves with a variety of focal lengths. The longer I worked on the scene, the more my eye was drawn to the shape, crimson translucence, and vein pattern of one pair of leaves in particular.

Suddenly, simplicity was the operative word. Strategizing the best way to separate these two leaves from their surroundings, I quickly realized a background of more leaves and branches, no matter how soft, was too distracting. But most angles that eliminated background foliage blended my my leaves into Zion’s towering red sandstone walls. Eventually I found a position far enough beneath the tree to put the backlit leaves against the cloudy sky.

Though my Sony a7RII has enough dynamic range to capture the entire range of light from shadows to highlights (with a little help from Lightroom/Photoshop, pulling up the shadows and down the highlights), I found the texture in the clouds almost as distracting as the branches. Instead, I metered on the leaves, which, though nicely backlit, were nowhere near as bright as the sky. My histogram showed that I’d clipped the sky, which I knew would put my leaves against a white background.

With no background detail to blur, I was able to stop down to f/16 and expand my depth of field to get more of both leaves in focus. The downside of this stop-down decision was significantly less light on my sensor, necessitating a longer shutter speed to achieve my desired exposure. For a shutter speed that overcame a breeze wiggling the leaves, I bumped to 1600 ISO. While my plan at capture was to put the backlit leaves against an entirely white background, when I started processing the image, I realized I’d captured a patch of blue sky (revealed by pulling the Lightroom Highlights slider to the left). I decided to keep blue sky while still hiding the texture in the clouds in the “blown” highlights.


Playing with Light

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Photography’s Creativity Triad: Motion

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Spiral, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

Autumn Spiral, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite
Sony a7RII
Sony 100-400 GM
ISO 50
f/16
20 seconds


Photography’s Creativity Triad

Rather than attempting to reproduce a scene exactly as we see it, enduring photographs reveal unseen aspects of our world. Capturing this hidden world requires understanding and mastery of photography’s “creativity triad,” the three aspects of a scene that distinguish the camera’s vision from human vision: motion, light, and depth.


Motion: Autumn Spiral

The human experience of the world unfolds like a seamless movie of continuous instants, while a camera accumulates light throughout its exposure to conflates those instants into a single frame.

Last week in Yosemite I got an opportunity to play with motion while photographing autumn leaves blanketing nearly every exposed surface below Bridalveil Fall. Beneath the fall Bridalveil Creek splits into three branches I love to explore—up- or down-stream, it doesn’t matter—searching for more intimate scenes. Last week I stayed close to the trail—not by design, but because I found enough to occupy every available minute.

Most of the fallen leaves had come to rest on granite, but those that had landed on the creek had been instantly swept downstream until they came to rest in sheltered pools, pushing up against and accumulating the rocks that bounded the pool. I found some pools that were entirely covered with leaves of varying shades of yellow and (just a little) green.

This little scene was downstream from the third bridge. The leaves here had been accumulating in this pool for a few days, leaving it more than half covered on this my final day in Yosemite. More than the golden pool, what really drew my attention from the bridge was a small collection of leaves, soon to become part of the pool’s autumn mosaic, swirling in a slowly spiraling current.

I set up my tripod right on the bridge, pulled out my new Sony 100-400 GM lens, dialed my polarizer to minimize reflections, and went to work. Because so much was happening in the scene, I started toward the lens’s wide end, but quickly found myself tightening each composition until I got down to a version of what you see here.

Once I had my composition, it became all about the motion in the leaves. When photographing landscape subjects in motion, each click can render a completely different image, so I’ve learned to never stop at one (or two, or three…). Whether it’s ocean waves, churning whitewater, or spinning leaves, I always make sure I have a variety of motion effects from which to choose. In this case, while the leaves were spiraling in a fairly consistent current, it seemed that with each rotation at least one leaf would go rogue, either slowing, accelerating, or making a break for the perimeter. The result was a distinctly different spiral with each capture.

I experimented with shutter speeds between ten and thirty seconds. Sometimes I’ll use a neutral density filter to stretch my shutter speed, but for this scene I was using a polarizer (minus two stops), it was quite early (shortly after sunrise) in an always densely shaded location, and darkened even further by the dense clouds of an approaching storm. In other words, the scene was dark enough that I could get the shutter speed all the way out to thirty seconds with my f-stop and ISO settings. When I was done, I had about 20 frames to choose from (one more argument for the tripod), identical except for a little different swirl.

While a still camera can’t capture motion as humans view it, in the right hands the camera absolutely does capture motion in ways that I’d argue can be even more appealing than being there. In this case, the spiral nature of this pool’s motion is much more apparent in this image than it was witnessing it firsthand.

Because there always has to be a moral…

The moral of this story is the importance of being able to manage your exposure variables: You can’t control motion, depth, and light without knowing how to achieve the shutter speed, f-stop, and ISO that serves your creative objective with minimal image quality compromise. That means retaining full control of your exposure settings by shooting in manual, aperture priority, or shutter priority modes. (And if you choose aperture or shutter priority, you must be able to manage your camera’s exposure compensation dial.)

Learn About Photographing Motion


World in Motion

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How a polarizer works

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Reflection, North Lake, Eastern Sierra

Autumn Reflection, North Lake, Eastern Sierra (2010)
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
Canon 17-40L
1/5 second
F/16
ISO 200

Some people couldn’t care less how a polarizer works—they’re satisfied knowing what a polarizer does, and how to make it happen. But if you’re like me, you also need to understand why things behave the way they do.

Put simply…

A polarizer eliminates reflections. On the surface that not might seem so desirable for someone who likes photographing reflections as much as I do, but reflections are a much bigger part of our visual experience than most people know. Virtually every object reflects at least a little, and many things reflect a lot more than we’re aware. Worse still, these reflections often hide the very surface features and color we most love to photograph.

When reflections hide an object’s underlying beauty, a polarizer can restore some of that beauty. I use a polarizer when I want to capture the submerged rocks or sand hidden by the reflection atop a river or lake, the rich color overwhelmed by glare reflecting from foliage, or the sky’s deep blue washed out by light scattered by atmospheric molecules.

Put a little less simply…

In reality, reflections are merely collateral damage to your polarizer. What a polarizer really does is eliminate light that’s already been polarized. To understand what’s really going on with a polarizer, read on….

Essential terminology

  • Oscillation is motion relative to a fixed point. For example, when you snap a whip, the whip “oscillates” along its length. Without external interference (e.g., friction from the atmosphere or other objects), motion in one direction along the whip will have an identical motion in the opposite direction (e.g., up=down, left right, and so on), and that motion will move forward along the whip.
  • wave is oscillation along or through a medium (such as air, water, or space). The bulge that moves up and down (oscillates) along a cracked whip is a wave. For the liberal arts folks, (in this context) wave is a noun, oscillate is a verb. A wave is measured by its wavelength and frequency—the higher the “frequency,” the shorter the “wavelength.”
  • Frequency is the number of times a wave peak passes a discrete point in a given unit of time (usually one second: “per second”).
  • Wavelength is the distance from one wave peak to the next at any instant frozen in time.
  • A transverse wave oscillates perpendicular (90°) to its direction of motion. To imagine the motion of a transverse wave, picture an ocean wave, which oscillates up and down as it advances through the water. Now think about a bottle floating in the open ocean—bobbing up and down with each wave, it’s up/down motion is perpendicular to the wave’s forward motion, but when that wave has passed, the bottle is in the same place it was before the wave arrived. (Waves don’t move bobbing bottles across the ocean, currents do.)
  • Visible light is electromagnetic radiation that reaches our eyes as a transverse wave somewhere in the wavelength range the human eye can register, about 380 to 740 nanometers (really small).
  • Sunlight (or more accurately, solar energy) reaches earth as a transverse wave with a very broad and continuous spectrum of wavelengths that include, among others, the visible spectrum (lucky for photographers), infrared (lucky for everyone), and ultraviolet (lucky for sunscreen vendors). The oscillation of solar energy’s transverse wave is infinitely more complicated than an ocean wave because light oscillates in an infinite number of directions perpendicular to its direction of motion. Huh? Think about the blades of a propeller—each is perpendicular to the shaft upon which the propeller rotates, so in theory you can have an infinite number of propeller blades pointing in an infinite number of directions, each perpendicular to the shaft. So a light wave oscillates not just up/down, but also left/right, and every other (perpendicular) angle in between.

Polarization

While an unpolarized light wave oscillates on every plane perpendicular to the wave’s motion, polarized light only oscillates on one perpendicular plane (up/down or left/right or 45°/225° and so on).

Polarization can be induced many ways, but photographers are most interested in light that has already been polarized by reflection from a nonmetallic surface (such as water or foliage), or light that has been scattered by molecules in our atmosphere. Light scattered by a reflective surface is polarized parallel to the reflective surface; light scattered by molecules in the atmosphere is polarized perpendicular to the direction of the light.

Polarization can also be induced artificially with a polarizing filter (“polarizer”), a filter coated with a material whose molecular structure allows most light to pass, but blocks light waves oscillating in a specific direction. When unpolarized light (most of the light that illuminates our lives) passes through a polarizer, the light that enters the lens to which it’s attached has been stripped of the waves oscillating in a certain direction and we (through the viewfinder) see a uniform darkening of the entire scene (usually one to two stops).

But that uniform darkening is not usually what we use a polarizer for. (I say usually because sometimes we use a polarizer to reduce light and stretch the shutter speed in lieu of a neutral density filter.) Photographers are most interested in their polarizers’ ability to eliminate reflective glare and darken the sky, which occurs when their polarizer’s rotating glass element matches the oscillation direction of light that has already been polarized by reflection or scattering, cancelling that light. By watching the scene as we rotate the polarizing element on the filter, photographers know that we’ve achieved maximum polarization (reflection reduction) when we rotate the polarizer until maximum darkening is achieved—voila!

The exception that proves the rule

Most photographers know that a polarizer has its greatest effect on the sky when it’s at right angles (90°) to the sun, and least effective when pointed directly into or away from the sun (0º or 180°). We also know that a rainbow, which is always centered on the “anti-solar point” (a line drawn from the sun through the back of your head and out between your eyes points to the anti-solar point) exactly 180° from the sun, can be erased by a polarizer. But how can it be that a polarizer is most effective at 90° to the sun, and a rainbow is 180° from the sun? To test your understanding of polarization, try to reason out why a rainbow is eliminated by a polarizer.

Did you figure it out? I won’t keep you in suspense: light entering a raindrop is split into its component colors by refraction; that light is reflected off the back of the raindrop and back to your eyes (there’s a little more bouncing around going on inside the raindrop, but this is the end result). Because a rainbow is reflected light, it’s polarized, which means that it can be eliminated by a properly oriented polarizer.

About this image

Long before achieving international fame as the background scene for Apple OS X High Sierra, North Lake at the top of Bishop Canyon in the Eastern Sierra has been beloved by photographers. Each autumn this little gem of a lake teams with photographers longing for even one of the following conditions: peak gold and red in the aspen, a glassy reflection, or a dusting of snow.

I visit North Lake multiple times each autumn, sometimes with my workshop groups, sometimes by myself. I’ve found pretty much every possible combination of conditions: snow/no-snow; early, peak, or late fall color; and a lake surface ranging from mirror smooth to churning whitecaps.

One sunrise early October of 2010 I hit the North Lake trifecta. Crossing my freezing fingers that the reflection would hold until I was ready, I lowered my tripod on the rocky shore and framed the aspen-draped peak and its vivid reflection. I used a couple of protruding rocks to anchor my foreground, slowly dialed my polarizer until the entire lake surface became a reflection, and clicked. But rather than settle for that shot, I reoriented my polarizer until the reflection virtually disappeared and a world of submerged granite rocks appeared. I clicked another frame and stood back to study the image on my LCD.

As much as I liked the rocky lakebed version, I knew there was no way I could pass on the best reflection I’d ever seen at North Lake. So I returned my eye to my viewfinder and very slowly dialed the polarizer again, watching the reflection reappear across the lake and advance toward me until the entire mountain unfolded in reverse atop the lake. Stopping just at that midway polarization point, I had the best of both worlds: my pristine reflection and an assortment of submerge rocks.

I Use Breakthrough Filters


Dialing In My Polarizer

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Aspen abstract

Gary Hart Photography: Aspen Abstract, Lundy Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Aspen Abstract, Lundy Canyon, Eastern Sierra
Sony a7R II
Sony 70-200 f/4
1/25 second
F/4
ISO 400

I recently started rereading Ansel Adams’ “Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs,” a book I’d recommend to anyone interested in the thinking side of photography. Though much of the book covers equipment and techniques that are irrelevant to today’s digital photographer, Adams’ words reveal a vision and mastery of craft that transcends technology. Like him or not (I do!), you can’t deny that Ansel Adams possessed an artist’s vision and an ability to convey that vision in ways the world had never seen.

©Ansel Adams Aspen, New Mexico, 1958 "The majority of the viewers... think it was a sunlit scene. When I explain that it was diffused lighting from the sky and also reflected light from distant clouds, some rejoin, 'Then why does it look the way it does?' Such questions remind me that many viewers expect a photograph to be a literal simulation of reality."

©Ansel Adams
Aspen, New Mexico, 1958
“The majority of the viewers (of this image) think it was a sunlit scene. When I explain that it was diffused lighting from the sky and also reflected light from distant clouds, some rejoin, ‘Then why does it look the way it does?’ Such questions remind me that many viewers expect a photograph to be a literal simulation of reality.”
Ansel Adams in “Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs”

Another takeaway from the book is Adams’ clear disdain for pictorialism, a more abstract approach to photography that (among other things) uses the camera’s unique vision to interpret the world in ways that are vastly and intentionally different from the human experience. Preferring instead the more literal front-to-back sharpness of the f/64 group that became his hallmark, Adams had little room for pictorialists’ soft focus and abstract images.

I, on the other hand, love using limited depth of field to emphasize my primary subject and disguise potential distractions. When we explore the world in person, our ability to pivot our head, move closer or farther, and change perspective allows us to enables us to lock in on a compelling subject and experience the scene in the way we find most meaningful. But an image is a constrained, two-dimensional approximation of the real world as seen by someone else. The photographer shares his or her experience of the scene by guiding our eyes with visual clues about what’s important and how to find it.

This reality wasn’t lost on Ansel Adams. Despite his distaste for soft focus techniques, Adams guided viewers of his images with in other ways, particularly his use of light. He knew that the camera and human eye handle light differently, and used every trick at his disposal, both at capture and in the darkroom, to leverage that difference.

At the risk of initiating a debate about the relative merits of the two techniques, I’ll just say that I’m a fan of both and am not afraid to apply whichever approach best suits my objective. And I suspect that if Ansel Adams were photographing today, he would be taking full advantage of the creative possibilities created by today’s technology.

Last October I was exploring the aspen grove at the end of the Lundy Canyon road near Mono Lake. With fall color peaking I put extension tubes on my Sony 70-200 f/4 looking for subjects that I could get close to, but with a distant enough background to maximize focus contrast (sharp/soft). I’ve always felt that soft focus aspen make a great background, but they need to be soft enough that individual leaves and trunk detail don’t distract.

I started looking for dangling leaves, either individual or bunches, but soon turned my attention to stark white aspen trunks that stood out in striking contrast against the distant wall of yellow leaves. I soon zeroed in on this trunk for its well-spaced knots, gentle curve, and clean, textured bark, plus the nice assortment of parallel trunks at varying distances in the background.

This frame I shot wide open at the closest possible focus distance to get the softest background focus. To emphasize the white trunks, I exposed the scene as bright as I could without clipping the highlights in the primary trunk. On my camera’s LCD at capture this image looked pretty much as you see it here, and required minimal processing.

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A Selective Focus Gallery

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Seeing double

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Mirror, Half Dome, Yosemite

Autumn Mirror, Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
30 seconds
F/8
ISO 50

People stay away from Yosemite in autumn because that’s when the waterfalls are at their lowest. But believe it or not, Yosemite isn’t all about waterfalls. El Capitan, Half Dome, Cathedral Rocks, the Three Brothers (I could go on) are great subjects in their own right. Subtract the waterfalls but add the yellows, oranges, and reds of Yosemite Valley’s many deciduous trees and you have what I think is a pretty a fair trade. And when the water is low, the usually turbulent Merced River smooths to a reflecting ribbon of glass; suddenly, pretty much any scene can be doubled at your feet.

These reflections add layers of creative possibilities impossible the rest of the year. I usually try to photograph each reflection scene several ways—splitting it in the middle for a 50/50 mirror effect, isolating the reflection only, emphasizing the reflection with just enough of the primary scene to establish context, and using a partial reflection to accent to the primary scene—then decide later which I like best.

In this image I split the frame 50/50, but dialed down the reflection with my polarizer. Even polarized, the bright sky’s glare washed out much of the river surface, painting the outline of El Capitan like a negative that uses the trees with a jigsaw of submerged river rocks.

In this image I split the frame 50/50, but dialed down the reflection with my polarizer. Even polarized, the bright sky’s glare washed out much of the river surface, painting the outline of El Capitan like a negative that uses the trees with a jigsaw of submerged river rocks.

Winter Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

This one is all about the reflection, with the snow-covered forest used to frame El Capitan’s image in the Merced River. Here I dialed my polarizer to a mid-point, holding the reflection of El Capitan but dialing down the homogenous gray sky.

In the image above I went with a more conventional composition, emphasizing El Capitan’s bulk against clouds that were spitting small, wet snowflakes.

Here I used a more conventional composition, emphasizing El Capitan’s bulk against clouds that were spitting small, wet snowflakes.

About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Mirror, Half Dome, Yosemite

I took another favorite approach for the featured image at the top of this post, using a long exposure in low light to smooth moving water and enhance the reflection. My workshop group had already had a nice shoot that evening—it started with warm, late light on Half Dome, some nice color at sunset, and rapping up with textured clouds above Half Dome as darkness fell.

By the time I captured this frame the scene was much darker than what you see here. With the reflection disturbed by slight ripples and floating bubbles, the darkness of post-sunset twilight enabled me to extend my shutter speed to 30 seconds, which smoothed the reflection and turned the bubbles into soft white streaks.

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A Gallery of Yosemite Reflections

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Photographic matchmaking

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Pool and Cascade, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

Autumn Pool and Cascade, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
6 seconds
F/16
ISO 200

While everyone loves a pretty scene, I’m afraid our aesthetic sense has been numbed by the continuous assault of “stunning” images online. A picture grabs our eyes on Instagram or Facebook and we reflexively click Like and move on to the next (similarly) stunning image. The photography equivalent of pop music, formula fiction, or (most) network television, these images exit our conscious about as fast as they entered because they fail to make a personal connection.

But every once in awhile an image surprises us and we pause, float our eyes around the scene, examine detail, bask in its mood. Who knows the trigger for such a response? Maybe is as simple as aspect of the scene that spurs a memory or taps a longing. Or maybe the connection reaches deeper than that.

Pictures succeed not just by virtue of their visual elements, but also by how those elements are connected. I used to believe that the sole purpose of including visual elements throughout my frame was to create the illusion of depth in photography’s two-dimensional medium. While I still strongly agree, I think the value of multiple points of visual interest goes deeper than that. Just as humans seek interpersonal connections in our daily lives, I think we’re programmed to favor images with relationships between heterogeneous elements in the nature. Not just Grand Canyon, but Grand Canyon speared by lightning; not just Half Dome, but Half Dome beneath a rising full moon; not just glowing Kilauea Caldera, but glowing Kilauea Caldera beneath the Milky Way.

Creating relationships between elements work on a smaller scale as well (albeit, usually without the opportunity for planning that celestial or meteorological phenomena provide)—small forest scenes and intimate macros benefit from inclusion of multiple elements as well. Of course an image with a disorganized arrangement of elements, no matter how beautiful each is individually, probably won’t get a second look. But find a way to organize a scene’s elements in a way that allows the eye to flow effortlessly through the frame and you have the potential for visual synergy—an image that’s greater than the sum of its visual parts.

The opportunity to connect disparate elements is everywhere if you look, from the broadest panorama to the most intimate macro. Whatever the scale, the key is not locking onto your subject until you find something to pair it with. In other words, finding a photo-worthy subject should never be your goal, it should be your starting point.

Without diving too deeply into the concept of visual weight (a subject in and of itself), I try to create a frame with balance between visual elements (not loaded too much in on of the scene’s quadrants: upper left, upper right, lower left, lower right). I also try to keep objects with a strong visual tug away from the edges of my frame. And finally, I look to position my elements so they’re connected by virtual diagonal lines.

 

About this image

On the final morning of last month’s Yosemite Autumn Moon photo workshop, I set the group loose in the forest beneath Bridalveil Fall to scour the possibilities in and around Bridalveil Creek. Always a workshop favorite, I usually save the Bridalveil Creek until the workshop’s final day, when my students have found their creative zone after three days of shooting and training. This approach seems to pay off, because no matter how much time I give them in there, it never seems to be enough.

When I found this accumulation of just-fallen autumn leaves floating in a glassy pool, I knew I had the start of a nice scene. Scanning my surroundings, I didn’t have to look hard to find a small cascade to connect with my colorful leaves. But with the pool tucked beneath a fallen log, accessing the best angle was tricky. Sprawling nearly flat on my back beneath the overhanging log, with one tripod leg in the water, turned out to be the best way to maximize the virtual diagonal connecting the leaves and cascade.

The other consideration here was depth of field—the leaves started no more than three feet from my lens, while the cascade was about 12 feet away. To ensure maximum sharpness throughout with getting too far into the diffraction zone, I stopped down to f/16 and focused on the back of the leaves. I wasn’t too concerned about shutter speed and the cascade’s blur because the difference between one and six seconds was insignificant, and freezing the water would have required a ridiculously high ISO, while the pool was so still that I could discern no motion at all.

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A Gallery of Relationships

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On the rocks

Gary Hart Photography: On the Rocks, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite

Reflection On the Rocks, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
25 seconds
F/11
ISO 100

Yosemite is known for its waterfalls, but I gotta say, I think I’m happiest photographing Yosemite when the falls are dry. Not that I don’t love Yosemite’s waterfalls (I do!), but when the falls are dry, the Merced River has slowed to a reflective crawl that paints reflections everywhere. And as an added bonus, when the falls dry up, so do the crowds.

Last month I spent a day guiding a couple from Sweden through Yosemite when the Merced River was at its drought-starved nadir. I’d been looking forward to this day for a while, but two days earlier I’d cracked ribs and my collarbone in a cycling accident—I could walk, I could talk, but I couldn’t do both, and simply getting in and out of the car was an achievement. The seatbelt? Torture. So my camera and tripod stayed in the car all day.

But when we pulled up to Valley View for sunset, I just couldn’t resist the mix of light, clouds, sky, and reflection. By the time I extracted my camera and tripod and made my way down to the river (no more than 20 feet from the car), the sun was about done with El Capitan. There were a few hot spots in the clouds, but my Singh-Ray two-stop hard GND held back the highlights enough to enable enough exposure to bring out the shadows. The resulting 25 second exposure added a gauzy texture to the reflection.

The trickiest thing about photographing a reflection with embedded features is achieving depth of field throughout. Though it seems counter-intuitive, the focus point for a reflection is the focus point of the reflective subject, not the reflective surface. In this case I wasn’t too worried about the reflection because I knew the long exposure would soften it anyway. But I did want to be sharp from embedded rocks all the way back to El Capitan. A quick check of my hyperfocal app told me that at f11 and 28mm, focusing on the closest rock (about ten feet away), would ensure sharpness all the way to infinity.

A public service announcement

I don’t always wear a helmet when I bike. I’m fortunate to live adjacent to a bike trail that can keep me off city streets for virtually all of my bike trips, so (my rationalization went), why mess with a helmet?

My accident last month happened on the bike trail, with no cars in sight, when I clipped a portable barricade with my handlebar and my bike went right while I continued forward. In addition to cracked ribs and collarbone, some nasty road-rash, and a torn-up shirt, my helmet was totaled. I shudder to think what would have happened had I decided not to wear a helmet that day (about a 50/50 chance), and will never, ever ride a bike again without one. I encourage you to make the same promise to yourself.

I return you now to your regular programming.

Yosemite Photo Workshops


A gallery of Yosemite reflections

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