Lenses: The Long and Short of it

Gary Hart Photography: Howling Dog at Sunset, Bandon Beach, Oregon

Howling Dog at Sunset, Bandon Beach, Oregon
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/50 seconds
F/11
ISO 100

I hope everyone is doing well. I’ve been sequestered at home since returning from Anchorage two weeks ago (visiting my daughter, a trip that seemed okay when I left, but really stressed me when it came time to fly home). Social distancing, shelter in place, quarantine, or whatever you want to call it, we’re all coming to terms with our new reality in different ways. With my wife stuck in Southern California and no kids at home to entertain or educate, I’ve been left to my own devices as I try to fill my days productively: processing images, learning new skills, cleaning up my website and social media pages, and rescheduling workshops. I hope you’re staying safe and happy.


My previous blog post detailed my current equipment lineup and got thinking about me lens choices, specifically about how much I use each lens. Much as a golfers try to identify the ideal club for the unique location and lie of their ball, photographers have to identify the lens that creates the shot they’re going for. Every scene has many variables requiring a seemingly endless number of decisions, from the exposure settings that manage the scene’s motion, depth, and light, to the focus point, to framing.

Prime lenses are undeniably sharper and more compact than zooms, but sharpness gap has narrowed so much in the best lenses that, for me at least, the convenience of being able to refine my framing in my viewfinder justifies whatever small (and often imperceptible) quality they sacrifice. (But zoom versus prime is a personal choice, and a debate I refuse to have with anyone.)

Framing is the most obvious reason to select one lens over another, but it’s certainly not the only reason. As a general rule, the more I want to emphasize my foreground, the wider I’ll go, sometimes filling my frame with a nearby subject and significantly shrinking the background. Telephoto lenses are great for isolation shots that highlight a single aspect of the distant landscape, and also to compress the apparent distance between near and far subjects.

The lens choices we make say a lot about our vision in the field—what we see and how we chose to express it. So, to get a better idea of my own lens choices and maybe identify potential creativity-limiting biases, I created a 2019 lens-use report in Lightroom. Here’s a screenshot for that report detailing the number of frames I shot with each lens in my bag in 2019:

2019 lens use breakdown

And here’s the breakdown:

  • —  (3 images): This is (was) my 24mm f/1.4 Rokinon (its name is unlisted here because this lens doesn’t communicate any information to the Sony bodies) that used to be my dedicated night lens—until I sold it after getting the…
  • Sigma 20mm f/1.4 (10 images): I bought this lens about a month before Sony announced their 24mm f/1.4 GM lens (I hope this will silence the people who assume my Sony Artisan status provides inside knowledge, and who think I’m holding out when I say I don’t know of any new Sony equipment on the horizon). This is a very good lens, but it’s also massive. I bought it to become my dedicated night lens, a status it held for about a month—until it was replaced by my 24mm Sony f/1.4 (more below). I only used the Sigma once, side-by-side with the new 24mm Sony, and decided the Sony was slightly (but noticeably) sharper (and much, much smaller and lighter).
  • Sony FE 12-24mm (388 images): Not a high volume lens, but the 12-24 has become essential because it allows me to do things I once believed to be impossible (see my previous blog post). Even though I like to have a polarizer on all of my lenses, I don’t mind too much that this lens doesn’t take filters, because it’s so wide that I’d get differential polarization (which I hate) in the sky anyway.
  • Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 GM (1609 images): Since part of this lens’s focal range is covered by the 12-24, and the rest is covered by my 24-105, you could argue that it’s redundant. But this may just be the sharpest non-prime lens I own, (unlike the 12-24) it takes filters, and f/2.8, while not as fast as I’d like for night photography, is in fact fast enough. And sometimes when I’m photographing the Milky Way, I want more sky than my 24mm f/1.4 lens gives me—this is especially true in New Zealand, where the Milky Way is higher in the sky than it is in North America. Plus, as a general rule, the extreme ends of a lens’s focal range are not usually its best, so when find myself shooting the 12-24 or 24-105 at or near 24mm, (and I’m not being lazy) I’ll switch to the 16-35. One other reason I love this lens is that it delivers the sweetest sunstar of all my lenses.
  • Sony 24-105mm f/4 G (3322 images): My most heavily used lens and it’s not even close. I actually took more pictures with this lens than I did with all my other lenses combined. These numbers are skewed slightly by the fact that this is my primary lightning lens, because in an active electrical storm my Lightning Trigger might fire hundreds of times with only a handful of visible strikes (it rarely misses the visible strikes, but also catches many strikes that I or my camera didn’t see). But even accounting for that, my 24-105 is the volume winner by such a wide margin for the simple reason that it has a broad focal range that covers both the moderate wide and telephoto zones. It’s also really sharp, and relatively compact. That said, seeing these numbers makes my think maybe I’ve gotten a little lazy and should think more about the possibilities with the other lenses in my bag.
  • Sony 24mm f1.4 GM (208 images): My latest dedicated night lens, I haven’t a single picture with this lens when the sun was out. Super sharp, and so compact I don’t even know I’m carrying it (it actually squeezes into the front pocket of my Levis. I just got the 20mm f/1.8 G lens, which is even smaller, but haven’t used it—I’ll probably use both at night (only) rather than try to decide between the two.
  • Sony 70-200mm f/4 G (83 images): I love this lens, but it has been replaced by the 100-400 and I rarely carry it anymore. To save weight in my camera bag, I did take the 70-200 to New Zealand last June instead of the 100-400, and really appreciated having a lighter bag (especially since NZ is very tight on carry-on weight).
  • Sony 90mm f/2.8 G (6 images): Wow, only 6 images with this crazy sharp lens. Part of that low number is because I only carry this lens when macro is my primary objective, and part of it is because I’ve really gotten into using my extreme telephotos with extension tubes for my close-focus work. But maybe I need to dust this lens off and use it more in 2020.
  • Sony 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 GM (603 images, including teleconverter): The majority of my 100-400 images are of the moon, but I use it for other stuff too. In spring and fall I add extension tubes and do creative selective focus, and sometimes it’s fun to just put it up to my eye and slowly pan a landscape to identify subjects to isolate. Adding the Sony 2X teleconverter is like putting this lens on steroids, essentially doubling all the things I like about it. The teleconverter costs two stops, but I see no appreciable degradation of image quality—it’s definitely the sharpest telephoto/teleconverter pair I’ve ever used.
  • Sony 200-600 f/5.6-6.3 G (114 images, including teleconverter): Since lens is pretty new, so far I’ve only used it for the moon. But wow, if you want to make your moon big, try this lens with the 2X teleconverter and APS-C (1.5) crop. I’m looking forward to trying it for the selective focus work I use the 100-400 for.

About this image

The sea stacks at Bandon Beach on the Oregon Coast make a great starting point for an image, but because there’s so much else going on here, I try to avoid making the sea stacks my ultimate goal. Since the scene at Bandon varies quite a bit with the tide and sky, when I photograph here I like to wander at the water line and identify features that I can assemble into a composition: sea stacks, reflections, surf, sun, and (fingers crossed) clouds.

The reflections following waves receding on the very gently sloping beach are better at Bandon than most beaches because the water doesn’t recede as quickly, and there’s more surface area for them to form. The best reflections happen when there are clouds and or color in the sky, so I like to arrive early enough to pick my composition, then wait for the magic.

On this April evening I found a little creek, fed by runoff from recent rain, leading right into Howling Dog (often misidentified as Wizard’s Hat, which is a short distance south). The sun was behind the clouds as I worked on my composition, but the clouds were moving so fast, I knew the sun would appear soon. But I’d found my shot early enough that when the clouds parted, I was ready. A film of thin clouds subdued the sun’s brightness, making exposure easier. All I had to do was wait for a wave to wash up and recede, then click.


A Collection of Images, from Long to Short

Select an image for a closer look, exposure info, and a slide show

 

2019 Highlights: Social Distancing Edition

What have you been doing with your spring “vacation.” Sequestered here in the Gary Hart Photography World Headquarters, I’ve been spending a lot of time going through my 2019 images and have already uncovered a half dozen or so that qualify for my 2019 Highlights post. It’s a welcome relief from coronavirus news and the stress of rescheduling workshops. As I work, I’m starting to realize that the coolest thing about going through past images isn’t finding new images to process and share, it’s reviving the faded memories of wonderful moments in nature.

Here’s the “new” stuff I’ve found so far

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Reflection, El Capitan and Three Brothers, Yosemite

Winter Reflection, El Capitan and Three Brothers, Yosemite
Heavy snow had closed Yosemite Valley to incoming visitors, but my brother and I had arrived the day before (as most of the current visitors were heading for the exits), so it felt like we had the park to ourselves. We trudged about 100 yards through four foot drifts to get out to this spot.

 

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Reflection, El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks, Yosemite

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Reflection, El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks, Yosemite
This is looking west from the same location as the previous image. Maybe there’s something on Earth more beautiful than watching a Yosemite snowstorm clear, but I haven’t seen it.

 

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Storm, El Capitan in the Snow, Yosemite

Winter Storm, El Capitan in the Snow, Yosemite
This was one of our first stops that morning. The snow was still falling when we stopped at El Capitan Bridge (you can see it streaking in the lower left), but the blue sky told us we needed to work fast.

 

Gary Hart Photography: Sand Like Glass, Bandon Beach Sunset, Oregon

Sand Like Glass, Bandon Beach Sunset, Oregon
I blogged about this image last week, but I like it so much that I’m sharing it again. One of my favorite thing about photographing a beach sunset is the sand reflections that appear as a wave recedes. I was so taken by the reflections this evening that I wasn’t even aware that two Bandon Beach icons were in my frame: Howling Dog (the pointy rock in the distant left) and Face Rock (the large, most distant rock near the center).

 

Gary Hart Photography: Island in the Sand, Bandon Beach, Oregon

Island in the Sand, Bandon Beach, Oregon
Farther down the beach later that evening, the light had started to warm when I found a couple of rocks that formed virtual islands in a reflective pool. These pools only last for a few seconds, so you have to be fast (or just wait for the next wave).

 

Gary Hart Photography: Howling Dog at Sunset, Bandon Beach, Oregon

Howling Dog at Sunset, Bandon Beach, Oregon
This is also Bandon Beach, but it’s three months later. Unlike my earlier image that reduced Howling Dog (no, this is not Wizard’s Hat) to a bit part, this composition features Howling Dog front and center (I must admit, from this angle, it does look more like a wizard’s hat than a howling dog). I like the way the little stream picks up the sunset light and guides my eye into the frame.

 

Gary Hart Photography: Lightning Strike, Grand Canyon

Lightning Strike, Grand Canyon
This was the first shoot of last year’s first Grand Canyon Monsoon workshop. The forecast said mostly sunny and no rain. The forecast was wrong.


Here’s my original 2019 Highlights post

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We’ve reached that time of year where everyone is compiling their Top 10 lists. I like retrospectives as much as the next person, but I’ve always resisted assembling these “top-whatever” end-of-year countdowns of my own images. Then last week Sony asked me to provide my favorite image of 2019 and I struggled mightily because it felt like they were asking me to pick a favorite child—which, as we all know, can vary on a daily basis. (Just kidding—I love you girls!) But seriously, I did hesitate because I wasn’t sure Sony and I aren’t defining “favorite” the same, and in fact favorite for me can mean many things that are easily skewed by mood and memory.

So instead of attempting to rate and rank my images at year’s end, I prefer using them as a catalyst for reflection. Each December I go through the images I’ve processed from the waning year and reflect on the circumstances of their capture. Rather than focus on individual images, I’ll start by reflecting more on the experience surrounding three memorable shoots that stand out from in a year filled with too many individual highlights to detail here (but feel free to go through my 2019 blog posts). And if you’re just here for the pictures, jump to the bottom to see a gallery of 2019 images that make me happy (including some new images that I’ve never shared).

Iceland northern lights

I can think of no better way to start a year than the opportunity to photograph something I’ve fantasized about seeing for my entire life. When Don Smith and I traveled to Iceland last January, I had two goals in mind: scout for our upcoming photo workshop, and see the northern lights. The scouting trip was a great success, but with just a couple of days to go, and not for lack of trying, we still hadn’t seen the northern lights.

On our penultimate night we finally witnessed a nice aurora display that spread ebbing and flowing veils of green, coloring the sky above Glacier Lagoon from the horizon to about 45 degrees—I was thrilled and felt like my aurora dreams had been fulfilled. Then came our final night, when I learned what a real northern lights display is.

There really are no words to describe this experience, so I’ll just let my images speak for me. I will say that two-dimensional, still images don’t fully convey the experience of witnessing the aurora in person, but they do at least least give you an idea of the drama and magnitude: for one thing, the foreground was darker than what I captured (though it was bright enough that I walked around without a flashlight); the aurora moves, maybe at about the speed of the minute hand on a clock. And while the previous night’s display was only in the northwest and covered no more than a quarter of the sky, the display this night at times spread across the entire sky and needed to constantly spin around to make sure I wasn’t missing something.

Read more about this night of a lifetime: Chasing the Northern Lights

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New Zealand winter night

Don and I did two winter photo workshops on New Zealand’s South Island in 2019. The first was our regularly scheduled New Zealand winter workshop, the second was a workshop we put together to guide a group from the Sony Alpha Imaging Collective. Though night photography was a priority for both groups, the moon and clouds hindered the first group’s efforts (until our final night, but that’s another story).

The second group fared better in the night photography department in general, one day in particular stood out. We started with a 3 a.m. starlight shoot at Lake Wanaka, then made the 3-hour drive to Aoraki National Park, where we spent a day photographing spectacular fog and hoarfrost along the way, and glaciers, lakes, and mountains once we arrived. Following our beautiful sunset on the shore of Tasman Lake, we bundled up to wait for dark and were rewarded with one of the most breathtaking Milky Way shoots in my life (which has been filled with many Milky Way shoots).

All I could think about on the foggy 3-hour drive back from Aoraki was curling up in my warm bed and getting some much needed sleep. But when we pulled into our hotel a little before midnight and I looked up and saw stars, it felt like someone had flipped the switch on my reserve generator and I just had to go back out and shoot some more. So while everyone else headed to their rooms to process images or sleep, I grabbed my camera gear and raced to the lake. For the entire 10-minute walk to Wanaka’s iconic willow tree, I kept an eye on a bank of fog massing on the far shore and willed it to hold off long to allow me a few frames.

Finding the view of the tree completely devoid of people (a personal first), I photographed for nearly an hour in glorious solitude. While waiting for each exposure to complete, and with nothing in my world but me, my camera, and a sky full of stars, I reflected on the last 21 hours realize this was the perfect cap to what was no doubt one of the most memorable photography days of my life.

Read more about this day seemed to last forever: The Longest Day

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Grand Canyon electrical storm

Each year starting in 2013, Don and I have guided two photo workshop groups around both rims of the Grand Canyon, chasing the lightning, towering clouds, and dramatic light of the Southwest’s summer monsoon. This year’s Grand Canyon monsoon trip was filled with lots of great memories and photography that included rainbows and more lightning strikes than I can count, but one experience in particular stands out above the rest.

The best vantage point for an electrical storm on the Grand Canyon North Rim is probably the twin view decks at Grand Canyon Lodge. Not only do these open-air decks provide a beautiful, sweeping view of the canyon, they’re shielded from lightning by a network of lightning rods, and anchored by an enclosed viewing area for retreat when the action gets too close.

We’d been watching a storm build in the distant west, but unlike most storms here, this one moved toward us and didn’t veer or fade as it approached. The storm arrived so quickly, and so mesmerized were we by its power, that it was almost on top of us before we could react. The rain was just starting to pelt us when Oza Butte, about a mile away, was stabbed with multiple strokes that made everyone jump and gasp. That was our signal to grab our gear and race for cover.

Safe inside as the storm raged around us, everyone in the group buzzed about “the big one.” I moved around the room and confirmed that nearly everyone had some version of this spectacular strike, then scrolled through my own frames holding my breath until I came across this one. Many in the group only had the bolt on the right because that’s the direction the lighting had been firing. I was silently patted myself on the back for having the foresight (good luck) to have widened and shifted my composition to the left shortly before this bolt hit. First, because it seemed like the storm was moving in that direction, and also because I wanted my composition to include more canyon.

Read more about this hair raising experience: I Just Have to Share This

Gary Hart Photography: Lightning Explosion, Oza Butte, Grand Canyon North Rim

Lightning Explosion, Oza Butte, Grand Canyon North Rim



2019 Highlights (Updated March 2020)

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Hunkered Down

Gary Hart Photography: Sand Like Glass, Bandon Beach Sunset, Oregon

Sand Like Glass, Bandon Beach Sunset, Oregon
Sony a7RIII
Sony 16-35 GM
1/30 second
F/18
ISO 100

So how has your world been upended by the coronavirus? Fortunate for me, mine so far has been firmly pegged on the inconvenience side of the coronavirus inconvenience-tragedy continuum. I’ve had to reschedule a couple of workshops, answer lots of concerned e-mails, and abandon some firmly established routines, but (as far as I know) no one in my circle has even gotten sick. So you won’t hear me complaining.

One thing this shelter-in-place time has provided is the opportunity to mine my image folders for forgotten gems that my (formerly) busy schedule never allowed me to process. And you know what? It’s actually kind of fun. I have some shoots that I’ve mentally bookmarked as “sure things,” but the coolest thing is that I’m finding stuff I’d completely forgotten about. I started with this image from January 2019 at Bandon Beach (for no other reason than it was in the oldest folder on the hard drive that happened to be in closest reach), and it turns out this is the first image I’ve processed from this scouting trip Don Smith and I took fourteen months ago—one of the shoots I’d completely forgotten.

In addition to going through old images, and to prevent myself from going completely stir crazy, I plan to take this opportunity to spend more quality time with my camera. One of the nice things about landscape photography is that it can be both a group or a solitary endeavor, and both are pretty great The group aspect I’ve covered pretty thoroughly with my workshops, but the solitary part has suffered in recent years. Spring is one of the best times to photograph the foothills near my Sacramento home, and with everyone’s travel so restricted, I plan to take full advantage of the reduced crowds during what’s normally one of Yosemite’s busiest seasons.

I also think I’ll try to do some of that education and skill refreshing that I always say I need to get to, but never do. And who knows—maybe I’ll even find more time for my blog….

About this image 

Don and I were in Bandon scouting locations for our shared Oregon Coast photo workshops that were scheduled to kick off a couple of months later. We’d been to Bandon a number of times before, so the goal this evening wasn’t so much to identify photo spots as it was to become more familiar with the light, tide, and surf here.

I started this evening way up at the north end of the beach and slowly made my way south. The tide was out, exposing lots of sand and rocks that had been submerged on previous visits, and the thing that most drew my eye was the reflections on the sand left by receding waves. In most places the reflections faded as the water percolated downward into the sand, but in the spots where extra water was funneled by rocks embedded in the beach, deeper indentations created pools. At first I was just content to look and mentally compose, but when the sun approached the horizon I got my camera out and went to work. I started with a few sunstars as the sun dropped into the clouds, but the best stuff didn’t come until after the sun disappeared.

I don’t have any specific memories of composing this shot, but I can tell by looking at it that my mindset was to pair the foreground rocks and reflection with the background sea stacks. To emphasize the rocks and reflection, I went wide and got very close, allowing them to nearly fill my frame. Then I waited for a wave to flood the scene, and recede to reveal a reflection.

Hang in there everybody (and wash your hands!).

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Life’s a Beach

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Reckless at Bandon

 

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Reflection, Bandon Beach, Oregon

Sunset Reflection, Bandon Beach, Oregon
Sony a7R III
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
.8 seconds
F/18
ISO 50

January

In January Don Smith and I flew to Oregon to get eyes on the damage caused by the Eagle Creek fire in advance of our (now just completed) annual Columbia River Gorge photo workshops. Not knowing what we’d find there, we allowed lots of time to scout new locations to replace the ones we lost. Fortunately the fire damage, while tragic and extensive, was limited to a very small part of our workshop area and we were easily able to find suitable substitutes for the two waterfalls we lost.

With a few extra days on our hands, Don and I beelined to the Oregon Coast to see for ourselves what we’d been seeing in beautiful images for years. And in the back of both of our minds was the opportunity to check out the area’s potential for a photo workshop. The scenery didn’t disappoint, and workshop plans began to take shape.

After a great, albeit wet (waves to my waist), sunset shoot at Cannon Beach, we headed down the coast the following morning, photographing in a light, intermittent rain along the way. As the day progressed, so did the rain. By the time we made it to Face Rock Beach, an hour or so before sunset, visibility was just a couple hundred yards in sideways rain. Rain and wind is not usually enough to deter us (wind is worse), but everyone we ran into in Bandon urged us to head inland before the incoming storm hit, or risk being stuck there. Not knowing the area and with a flight to catch the next day, we heeded the advice and evacuated to Eugene without a single Bandon image. But by then we had a workshop framework in mind and knew that we’d be back to Bandon for multiple scouting trips.

April

We returned to the Oregon Coast a few weeks ago, about a week before this year’s Columbia River Gorge workshops. In addition to general feet-on-the ground quality time on and near the coast, we were especially anxious for a second shot at the spectacular sea stacks of Bandon. This time we took a couple of days to make the trip from Cannon Beach to Bandon, encountering occasional rain that diffused the light and made for wonderful photography along the way. (It’s easy to see why the Oregon Coast is so lush.) But pulling into Bandon, the sideways rain was (still?) falling—does the sun ever shine here?

Despite the conditions, Don and I were so determined to photograph Bandon that nothing short of a tsunami would have kept us off the beach. Donning our rain gear, we trekked out to a strip of sand separating the violent surf from the rocky cliffs and set up, thankful for low tide. The rain and wind made photography difficult, but it gave me time to familiarize myself with this spectacular beach. At one point it started hailing, but brightness near the western horizon gave me hope that conditions would improve before the sun set. The rain stopped about 30 minutes before sunset. Benefiting from my newly gained insights, I was prepared to take full advantage of the remaining light and went right to work.

The photography was spectacular, but I hadn’t fully accounted for ramifications of the incoming tide—shots that had looked so promising earlier were now a bit more dicey. I found that I could make tenuous positions work most of the time, but every dozen or so waves included at least one that sent me scurrying for higher ground. So far none had made it all the way up to the cliffs, but as a native Californian, I’ve been around the beach enough to know that you should always anticipate a wave that’s at least twice the size of the biggest wave you’ve seen so far. So while I knew even the biggest waves to that point would have at worst soaked me, I knew the potential existed for a life-threatening “sneaker” wave.

Photographing Cannon Beach in January, I’d been quickly soaked to my ankles by an unexpected wave, and figured what the heck and just stayed out until the surf regularly washed up to my waist. But the surf there was more gentle, and behind me was gently sloping sand—and I only felt cold there, never in danger. But pinned by cliffs at Bandon, prudent decision making would have driven me to more open sand with an easy exit to high ground. But that’s not where the pictures were. So I continued photographing with a wary eye on the surf.

It soon became clear that the frequency of my wave dodging was increasing with time. At one point I left my tripod and camera to rescue my camera bag, once believed to be safely stashed atop a rock. I return to find my tripod on its side and my camera face down in the sand. There was no water damage, and the landing was soft enough to avoid impact damage, but a veneer of sand rendered it unusable until I could clean it off.

With my 16-35 and a renewed vow to be more careful, I went back to work. Every two or three waves forced me to race to higher ground (I’d ruined a pair of shoes at Cannon Beach in January, and didn’t want to double my loss with their replacements), but as the sky started to color, I soon realized that these big waves also left a reflective sheen in their wake. I captured this image just as the sunset color peaked. Just a few minutes later the advancing ocean took over the beach and drove Don and me to higher ground.

Brand New Oregon Coast Photo Workshop

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A Coastal Gallery

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