Posted on June 21, 2020
In virtually all aspects of my life, “think fast” is rarely my default response. Rather, given a choice, I prefer evaluation and analysis to instant reaction. This think-first mindset might also explain why my favorite sport is baseball (which many consider “too slow”), and why I prefer chess and Scrabble to video games (the last video game I played was Pong). So I guess it should be no surprise that, as a landscape photographer, my subjects don’t move. I’m much happier working a scene comfortable in the knowledge that when I’m finally ready, it will still be there.
But nature isn’t truly static, and sometimes I don’t have the luxury of analysis. A few years ago while helping Don Smith with his summer Big Sur workshop, we’d spent most of an afternoon and evening working in the fog (it was billed as a fog workshop). Driving home after a gray sunset, the fog showed no signs of clearing so Don and scrapped the group’s night shoot plans. But climbing toward Hurricane Point, the car suddenly broke through the fog and the world completely changed. We were above the clouds, whose undulating tops seemed to stretch to the horizon where a fading stripe of orange was the only evidence of the retreating day. In the darkening blue sky, the stars had just started to pop into view, with more seeming to appear with every passing second.
Change of plans: Screeching to a halt at the Hurricane Point vista, everyone piled out and raced to set up their gear. As much as I like to take my time when I arrive at a scene, something told me to hurry and once I got to the edge of the overlook and peered over, I saw why. The fog that looked so static and serene from a distance was in fact a roiling soup charging up the steep slope. With a few advance fragments of cloud scooting across my view, I frantically loaded my camera onto my tripod. To save time, I stuck with the lens that was already mounted on my body, pointed in the direction of the Big Dipper, and quickly focused on the stars. This was pre-mirrorless, so without the pre-capture histogram, I just guessed on the exposure. Fortunately my focus and exposure choices were right-on because this was the only shot I got before that foreground fog bank engulfed the world in clouds—score one for instant reaction.
The value of some images can transcend their aesthetic appeal—sometimes they offer lessons as well. For me, this is one of those images. In my workshops I see photographers who are deliberate like me, and others who are constantly in motion. What I’ve come to realize is, wherever we might naturally fall on the deliberate<->reactive continuum, it benefits our photography to sometimes shake things up and come at a scene from a different place than we usually do. I learned from this night’s experience, and others like it, to trust my instincts more. I know I’ll never not be one to take time to pause and consider a scene because that’s how I’m wired. But now when I arrive at a scene, I try to start with the more instinctive shot—even if that turns out not to be exactly the image I end up with, that alternate perspective often sends me down a completely different path than I’d have otherwise taken.
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Posted on June 3, 2018
It was 4:00 a.m. and I’d spent the last two hours photographing the Milky Way’s brilliant core above the Colorado River. In about 75 minutes the guides would be ringing the “coffee’s ready” gong, signaling the start of another day at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Collapsing my tripod, I performed a little mental math and found slight relief in the knowledge that I might be able to squeeze in one more hour of sleep. That relief vanished in the time it took to turn and glance toward the northern sky and see the Big Dipper, suspended like a celestial mobile in the notch separating the canyon walls.
My Milky Way position had been chosen for its unobstructed view of the southern sky; the best view of the Big Dipper was clear across the campsite, at a sheltered pool just beyond our rafts. The moonless night sky at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is so dark that the Milky Way casts a slight shadow, but once your eyes adjust, it’s surprisingly easy to navigate without adding light. Trudging across through the sand, I passed a handful of other solitary photographers, anonymous shapes enjoying the darkness as much as I was. I stopped few times to answer questions and point out the Big Dipper, then moved on.
Setting up on the steep, sandy slope above the river, I gazed at the Big Dipper and privately chuckled at my good fortune—this prime photo opportunity hadn’t manifest because I proactively made myself seek a scene away from my original subject (as I encourage my students to do), it was a chance glance after I’d mentally put myself to bed. When we landed at that spot the prior afternoon, I’d been so focused on the southern exposure and the Milky Way opportunity in that direction that I hadn’t even considered that there might be something facing north too. Shame on me, but sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.
Checking my first Big Dipper frame, a couple of things became instantly obvious: though sunrise was still an hour away, and my eyes could detect no sign of its approach, with the same exposure I’d been using for most of the night, the sky was noticeably brighter on my LCD; more significantly, the Big Dipper was reflecting in the river. I realized that pool below me, while not flowing, was sloshing enough that the reflection didn’t stand out to my eyes, but it was smoothed enough by a multi-second exposure that the water mirrored a blurred but clearly visible reflection of the bright Dipper stars.
From my elevated vantage point, part of the handle’s reflection was lost to the sandy beach—I needed to move closer to the river to include the entire reflection. Remember when I said it’s surprisingly easy to navigate in the moonless darkness? On my first step toward the river I learned that functional night vision applies to avoiding objects, not to depth perception. So, as that first step dropped earthward and I waited for it to touch down, where I expected sand I found only air. The rest of me followed quickly and I was in free-fall. Fortunately the fall was not far, just a couple of feet, but it’s amazing how the disorientation of a blind fall slowed time enough for me to curse the darkness before my graceless splat onto the damp beach.
The beach was damp because the place I landed had been river when I went to bed. I popped up almost as quickly as I landed, the unwitting beneficiary of artificial tides induced by upstream releases from the Glen Canyon Dam, timed to meet the power needs of Las Vegas and the rest of the Southwest sprawl. Had I fallen a few hours earlier, I’d have splashed in chilly river water—not enough river to sweep me to my death, but definitely enough to soak me and my camera. So I found myself sandy but otherwise unscathed—glancing about to see if anyone had seen my fall, I instantly forgave the darkness that had made me more or less invisible. The Rokinon lens I’d had on my camera was caked with sand; since it was too dark to clean it, I switched to my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM.
The rest of the shoot was fairly uneventful, at least until my final frame. Over the next few minutes I inched even closer to the river, which I discovered had receded enough to add about six feet of soggy shore. With each frame I verified my focus, tweaked my composition, and experimented with different exposures.
On my final few frames I was comfortable enough with all of the photography variables that I wasn’t even thinking about the next shot, and instead simply stood and took in the night sky. As I waited for my last frame of the night to complete, a brilliant meteor sprung from the darkness and split the Dipper’s handle. It came and went in a heartbeat, and I held my breath until the image popped up on my LCD and I confirmed that I’d captured it. The perfect cap to a spectacular night.
Posted on February 11, 2012
Death Valley is notorious for blue skies–great for tourists, but a scourge for photographers. Clouds add interest to a scene, and filtering harsh sunlight through clouds reduces contrast to a range a camera can capture. To mitigate harsh sky problems, I schedule my annual Death Valley workshop for winter to maximize the chance for clouds. And hedging my bets further, I time each workshop to coincide with a full moon–that way, if we don’t get clouds, careful location planning allows me to include a full moon in many of our sunrise and sunset shoots, and allows us to photograph Death Valley’s stark beauty by moonlight.
I returned last night from my 2012 workshop. Not only did we have a creative, enthusiastic group, we also were blessed with a wonderful blend of conditions. On our first two days we were treated to lots of clouds (and even a few snow flurries during a sunset shoot at Aguereberry Point) and beautiful sunrise color on the dunes. But by day three the Death Valley sky was back to business as usual and it was time to plug in a moonlight shoot.
I usually opt for moonlight on the Mesquite Flat Dunes near Stovepipe Wells, but during a pre-workshop visit to Badwater it occurred to me that the salt flat’s white surface was tailor made for the light of a full moon. Since the sky didn’t clear until our third day (the moon rises later every day), I was concerned that the moonlight wouldn’t reach Badwater, 282 feet below sea level and in the shadow of 5,700 foot Dante’s Peak, early enough. I briefly considered returning to the more exposed dunes, but finally decided that I could make Badwater work by simply leading the group out onto the salt flat until we reached the moonlight.
Sure enough, we arrived at Badwater a little after 8:00 p.m. to find ourselves in deep moonshadow. But across the valley, Telescope Peak and Badwater’s west fringe already basked in the light of the rising moon. So off we went to meet the advancing moonlight, following our headlamps through the darkness for about a half mile before reaching the advancing moonlight. With headlamps doused we paused in silence to take in our surroundings: Venus was just disappearing behind Telescope Peak and Jupiter sparkled high overhead; Orion and Sirius decorated the southern sky, while Cassiopeia and the Big Dipper straddled Polaris to the north. And rising above the mountains to the east, the moon painted the playa’s jigsaw surface with its silvery glow. Overuse has reduced “breathtaking” to cliché status, but I can’t help think it’s these moments the adjective was intended for.
After sharing exposure settings, a quick refresher on focus in moonlight, and some composition suggestions, I let the group get to work. We found compositions in all directions except due east, where the moon was simply too bright to include in the frame. With everyone working within a 100 foot radius, it was easy (and gratifying) to hear exclamations of delight as images popped onto LCD screens.
So amazing was the experience that we stayed far later than I’d planned. If I’d have been there by myself I’d have probably stayed out much longer, but I wanted to make sure no one was too tired for the sunrise moonset I had planned (also at Badwater) the following morning. The above image of the Big Dipper was captured toward the end of our shoot, when the entire playa was illuminated, but the moonlight hadn’t quite reached the Black Mountains. I used ISO 800, f5.6, and 30 seconds.
My 2013 Death Valley Winter Moon photo workshop is January 25-29–it’s already nearly full.
Posted on August 29, 2011
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.