Up a creek

Gary Hart Photography: Wonderland, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

Wonderland, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f/4
1/4 second
ISO 100

Many photographers vary their portfolios by visiting as many locations as possible. While I love visiting new locations, I’ve always preferred the kind of intimate familiarity that’s only possible with frequent, quality visits. And as enjoyable as it is photograph the icons, for my personal pleasure I’m most drawn to quiet pastorals and intimate portraits of nature that could be anywhere—wildflowers, fall color, solitary oaks, sparkling reflections, and tumbling creeks can keep me happy for hours.

One of my favorite intimate settings is Bridalveil Creek beneath Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite. Not only is there lots to photograph here, it’s different every time I visit. In spring the water in all three of the creek’s branches roars down the slope beneath Bridalveil Fall like it can’t get to the Merced River soon enough. And I’m especially fond of Bridalveil Creek in autumn, when the flow is often down to a single leisurely trickle, its whispering cascades and spinning pools adorned with vivid yellow leaves. Winter can find Bridalveil Creek in a variety of states that range from a gentle rivulet to a raging torrent. During one particularly cold winter the creek was solid ice, as if some frostbitten wizard had waved his wand and frozen the flowing water in place.

For some reason I haven’t had as much success here in winter as autumn or spring, so this winter I redoubled my efforts. On last month’s snow trip, while waiting for Yosemite’s monoliths to emerge from the clouds, I headed to Bridalveil Creek and found every square inch covered with snow—not a fine etching, but a dense glazing that covered virtually every exposed surface with several inches of white powder.

I hadn’t even crossed the first bridge when I was stopped by the scene here. I extended my tripod and evaluated the possibilities, starting on the bridge before moving down to a rock right on the creek. My first compositions were horizontal, but I eventually adjusted to vertical to emphasize the creek. Following my standard click, review, refine, click process, I finally landed on this composition—just wide enough to include both sides of the creek, and tall enough to include the parallel tree trunks and the creek’s exit from the bottom of the frame. I had to drop down quite low to get beneath an overhanging branch and keep it from occluding part of the creek.

The non-compositional variables I had to consider were motion and depth of field—there was no wind to sway the branches, but I knew the water’s blur would vary greatly with my shutter speed choice. And because I wanted everything in my frame sharp, I needed to be careful with my f-stop choice. The closest point of interest, the snowy foreground rock, was about five feet away. My hyperfocal app told me that at my 22mm focal length and f/8, my hyperfocal distance was about six feet (sharp from three feet to infinity). Because hyperfocal data draws the acceptable sharpness line a little less critically than I do, I stopped down to f/10 and focused on a small rock about eight feet away. Playing with a few ISOs to vary my shutter speed for different water motion effects, I decided I liked 1/4 second because it blurred the creek enough to clearly convey the water’s speed, but not so much that it lost its definition.

Intimate and Anonymous

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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
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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Letting motion work for you

Gary Hart Photography, Autumn Swirl, Yosemite

Autumn Swirl, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
154 mm
30 seconds
ISO 100

Of the many differences between our world and our camera’s world, few are more significant than motion. Image stabilization or (better yet) a tripod will reduce or eliminate or photographer-induced motion, but we often make compromises to stop motion in our scene, sacrificing depth of field or introducing noise to shorten the shutter speed enough to freeze the scene.

But what’s wrong with letting the motion work for you? While it’s impossible to duplicate the human experience of motion in a static photo, a camera’s ability to record every instant throughout the duration of capture creates an illusion of motion that can also be quite beautiful. Whether it’s stars streaked into parallel arcs by Earth’s rotation, a tumbling cascade blurred to silky white, or a vortex of spinning autumn leaves, your ability to convey the world’s motion with your images is limited only by your imagination and ability to manage your camera’s exposure variables.

I came across the this little scene in the morning shade beneath Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite. A thin trickle of water entering at the top of the pool, and exiting just out of the frame behind me, was enough to impart an imperceptible clockwise vortex. To my eye, the motion here appeared to be random drift, but I guessed a long exposure might show otherwise.

To ensure sharpness from the closest rock all the way back to the cascade, I was already at f22; by dropping my ISO to 100, dialing my polarizer to minimize reflections (thus darkening the scene by two additional stops), in the already low light I achieved a 30-second exposure. The result was an image that recorded the path of each leaf for the duration of my exposure, revealing that what looked like random drift, was indeed organized rotation.

Visualizing the way your camera will record motion requires practice—the more you do it, the better you’ll become at seeing as your camera sees. Sometimes you’ll want just the barest hint of movement; other times, lots of movement is best. I usually bracket exposures to cover a broad range of motion—not only does this give me a variety of images to choose from, each click improves my ability to anticipate the effect the next time.

 A gallery of motion

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