It’s All About Relationships

Gary Hart Photography: Moon and Mist,Tunnel View, Yosemite

Moon and Mist,Tunnel View, Yosemite
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1 second
F/11
ISO 100

Think about how much our lives revolve around relationships: romance, family, friends, work, pets, and so on. They’re such a big part of human existence that it’s no wonder most of the significant compositional choices photographers make involve relationships between elements in our scenes, either to one another or to their environment.

A pretty sunset is nice, but a pretty sunset over the Grand Canyon especially nice. Likewise, why be satisfied with an image of mountain cascade when we can accent the scene with an autumn leaf? And wouldn’t that tree up there on the hill look great beneath a setting crescent moon? Conscious choice or not, these are all relationships—distinct elements connected in a shared moment.

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Some photographers are better than others at creating relationships; some do it instinctively, seemingly pulling relationship from thin air no matter where they are to find a nearby tree that perfectly complements a distant peak; others are more calculating, identifying the potential for a future relationship and taking the steps to be there when it happens—a moonrise, the Milky Way, or a rainbow. Most photographers fall somewhere on the continuum connecting these two extremes. And contrary to what you might read online or hear in your camera club, there is no single “best” approach to creating photographic relationships.

The more we can think in terms of finding relationships in nature, adding that extra element to our primary subject, or finding multiple elements and organizing them, through positioning and framing, in a way that guides the eye through the frame, the more our images will connect on a subconscious level that draws people closer and holds them longer.

Relationship heaven

Yosemite visitors burst from the darkness of the Wawona Tunnel like Dorothy stepping from her monochrome farmhouse into the color of Oz. This is Tunnel View, a veritable who’s-who of Yosemite icons chock full of ready-made relationships for photographers to feast on: El Capitan, Cloud’s Rest, Half Dome, Sentinel Rock, Sentinel Dome, Cathedral Rocks, Leaning Tower, and Bridalveil Fall. That’s a lot of stuff to take in without a camera, so it’s easy, especially for first-time or infrequent visitors, to just snap a picture of the whole thing and call it good.

If you keep the camera out a little longer, or visit Tunnel View a few times, relationships within the relationships start to pop out: El Capitan and Half Dome, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall, Bridalveil Fall and Cathedral Rocks, and so on. But as nice as these combinations are, Yosemite’s truly special stuff doesn’t happen until the conditions cooperate by serving up a clearing storm, rainbow, fresh snow, or rising moon.

I’m fortunate to live close enough to Yosemite to time visits with the idea of adding these little extras to my images. Some of these trips come up at the last minute, spurred by a weather forecast that promises snow or lightning. Other trips I can plan months or years in advance, based on where the sun, moon, or stars will be, or maybe to catch a seasonal feature like fall color. These are the visits that I usually time my Yosemite workshops for: light on Horsetail Fall in February, a moonbow or the dogwood bloom in spring, fall color each autumn, or a rising full moon in winter.

About this image

My goal this December evening a few years ago was a nearly full (96%) moon rising through the twilight hues above Half Dome. It had been on my calendar for over a year, but thanks to a winter storm, the main event was in doubt when I arrived. Fortunately, the clouds soon relented, parting just as the sky started to pink up. As a bonus, the departing storm left the valley floor glazed with a treetop hugging mist. (Talk about an embarrassment of riches.)

When I photograph a scene with so much going on, I first decide the feature or features to highlight—which brings me back to the relationship thing. The entire scene this evening, from El Capitan on the left to Leaning Tower on the right, was beautiful, but I knew the more of it I included, the smaller the moon became—and to me the moon was the star of this show.

When assembling elements in any composition, I start by identifying the objects with visual weight—the objects that will draw viewers’s eyes. Contrast, mass, color, position all play a role in determining visual weight. In this case I identified the moon, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall (in that order). Sometimes I can adjust these obects’ relationships to each other by strategic positioning—moving left/right, forward/backward, up/down—but here I was perched on a cliff behind the conventional Tunnel View vista, which limited my mobility.

Evaluating the scene, pretty much everything I wanted in this image was between Half Dome and Cathedral Rocks. I quickly decided that a vertical composition would be best to feature the color in the sky and fog on the valley floor without going wider than necessary. And while I’d normally try to avoid having the two “heaviest” objects on the same side of my frame (the moon and Half Dome), in this scene the right side of the frame had enough extra stuff to balance things. In addition to Bridalveil Fall, I also had bulky Cathedral Rocks and a solitary evergreen standing boldly against the fog.

My final decision was how to handle the nearby evergreen lurking on the right. To gain some separation between the tree and Bridalveil, I moved as far left as my surroundings allowed, enabling me to use the tree as a natural frame on the right border. Click.


Yosemite Relationships

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Yosemite for the First Time—Again

Last Light on Half Dome, Yosemite Valley
Sony a7R III
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
1/9 second
F/9
ISO 100

On Wednesday I made a quick trip to Yosemite to meet my (old and new) friends and fellow photography pros Don Smith and Ron Modra, plus Ron’s wife MB. Since I’d never met Ron and MB in person (though from conversations with Don I felt like I already knew them), and Ron had never been to Yosemite, I broke my personal rule to stay clear of Yosemite from Memorial Day through September (summer is for the tourists). Plus, after a lifetime of visiting Yosemite, there are few Yosemite firsts remaining, so I live vicariously through the first Yosemite experiences of others.

We met in El Portal, where I deposited my car and hopped in the back of Don’s car with MB. With Don driving and Ron riding shotgun, we headed up the hill discussing a strategy to make the most of our time. The plan we crafted was quickly discarded when we learned at the Arch Rock entrance station that Glacier Point, which had been closed since Saturday night, had just opened.

After a quick stop at Tunnel View to give Ron what should be everyone’s first Yosemite view, we zipped up to Glacier Point. Getting out of the car at Glacier Point, I immediately discovered that the beautiful spring day I’d dressed for had turned to winter. But cold is no match for the enthusiasm of the first time witnessing any of Yosemite’s spectacular views. Not only were the clouds spectacular, they did us the courtesy of parting just enough to illuminate Half Dome for a few minutes.

Our successful Glacier Point detour foreshadowed a spectacular day pinballing about Yosemite Valley, hitting all the spots a first-timer needs to see. Even the weather gods smiled on us, delivering thunderstorms filled the sky with billowing clouds and spread beautiful diffuse light across the park, without much rain.

I’m usually the driver for others’ first time Yosemite experiences, so riding in the back seat allowed me to rubberneck like an actual first-timer. There’s El Capitan! there’s Bridalveil Fall! there’s Sentinel Rock! And on down the list of Yosemite celebrities wearing their spring best. We were a little late for the dogwood, and the blooms that remained were in tatters, but everything else was green and the waterfalls were thundering, even for May. At each stop Ron’s excitement reminded me of a kid on Christmas morning, and seeing it all through his eyes, I totally got it. (Ron shot for Sports Illustrated for many decades—I imagine his reaction was no more enthusiastic than mine would be my first time in a Major League clubhouse.)

By 6:30 or so we’d worn Ron and MB out (well, Ron at least). With the rain starting to fall again, they declared their mission accomplished. With little sign of an impending sunset, and against the advice from Don and me, they decided to call it a day so Ron could get back and open the presents he’d so enthusiastically collected all day.

Our last stop was Valley View, where I realized that despite the beautiful conditions, I’d been so caught up in the view that hadn’t taken my camera from my bag all day. Chatting with MB while Don and Ron worked the beautiful scene, we agreed that sometimes it’s nice to enjoy nature without a camera. I know I missed some gorgeous photography, but I felt enriched by the conversation and laughter, and the sublime surroundings I often miss behind a camera.

But…

Saying our goodbyes in El Portal, I noticed breaks in the clouds. Hmmm. Instead of returning to my home in Sacramento, my destination that night was a heretofore undermined hotel between Yosemite and my Thursday destination in Southern California. But with an hour to go until sunset, I did a quick calculation and decided to forego the quickest route (down 140 to Mariposa) and detour back through Yosemite.

Back in the park I found the clouds still hanging in there, delivering the same nice but unspectacular light we’d enjoyed all day. But encouraged by my preview of the sky approaching from the west, I parked at Tunnel View for a few minutes, just to see what happened. I chose Tunnel View for its proximity to my (revised) route, and because when good stuff happens in Yosemite, it usually starts at Tunnel View. Plus, it’s pretty hard to mess up this classic view. And given that my long day was still several hours from ending, I simply wanted to take a pretty picture and Tunnel View was just the low hanging fruit I needed.

So there I waited in my car, one eye on the view, the other on my watch—30 minutes until sunset, 25 minutes, 20 minutes…. About 30 seconds after deciding nothing was going to happen, the granite next to Leaning Tower (the flat granite face just right of Bridalveil Fall) lit up like it had been hit with a spotlight. I was in business.

To get away from the photographers and tourists teeming about the standard vista, I climbed the granite behind the parking lot until I felt alone. I started wide, with my Sony a7RIII and Sony 24-105 lens (I’ve always felt 16-35 is too wide for Tunnel View). When a second spotlight hit Half Dome, I reached into my bag for my Sony a7RII and Sony 100-400 GM. I spent the rest of the shoot switching between the two bodies, trying all the compositions I’ve become so familiar with over the years. My goal this evening wasn’t an artistic masterpiece or some never seen Yosemite perspective, I simply wanted a low-stress shoot that captured this iconic Yosemite scene at its very best. Mission accomplished.

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A Yosemite Spring Gallery

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Yosemite in a Raindrop

Gary Hart Photography: Yosemite in a Raindrop, Valley View, Yosemite

Yosemite in a Raindrop, Valley View, Yosemite
Sony a7RIII
Sony 100-400 GM
15mm extension tube
ISO 3200
f/20
1/200 second

I’ve been to Valley View in Yosemite about a million times. For those not familiar with Yosemite Valley, Valley View (sometimes called Gates of the Valley) is the classic view of El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall, with the Merced River in the foreground, that represents Yosemite in countless calendars, postcards, and advertisements. Though all this attention is justified, after a million visits and counting (okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating just a little), you’d think it would be easy to take Valley View’s beauty for granted. But I don’t get tired of visiting here, not ever.

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite

Valley View, Yosemite

Like most spots in Yosemite, the scene at Valley View varies greatly with the season and weather. In spring, Bridalveil Fall explodes from beneath Cathedral Rocks, and the surrounding forest is dotted with blooming dogwood. In autumn, rocks dot the Merced River, and colorful leaves mingle with glassy reflections. And on still winter mornings, a low mist hugs Bridalveil Meadow just across the river, while churning clouds surrounding El Capitan after a storm are a sight to behold. Nevertheless, I’m often content to keep my camera in the bag and just privately appreciate Valley View’s majesty.

But I’m a photographer, and sometimes it’s hard to experience this beauty passively. On those visits when I’m moved to photograph Valley View, I challenge myself to find something that hasn’t been done a million times. The final morning of last week’s Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers photo workshop was gray and damp, with occasional sprinkles lingering from a heavier overnight rain. We’d been here earlier in the workshop (in different conditions), and I hadn’t planned to photograph this time, but spotting raindrops clinging to the branches of the shrubs that line the river, I recognized a unique opportunity.

If you know optics, you know that a convex shape bends outward (so water striking its surface would run off; water striking a concave surface would pool inside). Due to this curvature, photons passing through a convex lens are diverted toward the center, where they converge and cross to create an inverted image at the point of convergence (focal point).

In fact, the human eye is a convex lens, projecting its inverted image onto the back its sphere, an image your brain promptly reverses. And photographic lenses are a complex arrangement of convex lens elements that ultimately project onto your camera’s sensor an upside-down image that’s flipped for display by the camera’s firmware.

Compared to these two examples, a dangling raindrop is elegant simplicity. Bound by surface tension, water molecules naturally form a spherical shape that is flattened or stretched slightly by gravity. Because water molecules form an electrostatic bond with foreign surfaces as well, they also adhere to things like leaves and branches, sometimes appearing to defy gravity. This small gift from nature turns a raindrop into a natural convex lens. Courtesy of this natural lens, those who peer closely into a water drop will see an inverted microcosm of the surrounding world, a view that changes with the viewing angle.

There’s potential beauty inside every water drop, but on this morning at Valley View I was in the fortuitous position to photograph raindrops holding one of the most beautiful scenes on Earth. I found a quintet of raindrops lining a branch that had nothing behind it but river. Tiptoeing close, I aligned myself and the raindrops with the Valley View scene and extended my tripod to branch level. I started with my Sony 90mm on my Sony a7RIII, adding extension tubes to get even closer. After working with this combination for a few minutes, I switched to my Sony 100-400 GM (still with extension tubes).

The image you see here is from the 100-400. Depth of field with such a close focus point is paper thin, so I stopped down to f/20 and bumped I my ISO to 3200 to ensure a shutter speed fast enough to minimize the risk of motion blur. To focus, I magnified the raindrop scene in my mirrorless viewfinder. Exposing to avoid blowing out the bright highlights in the (inverted) sky also darkened the river, creating the ideal background.

Join my 2020 Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers photo workshop

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The Many Views of Valley View

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Get out of the way (and let the scene speak for itself)

Gary Hart Photography: Nightfall, Full Moon and Yosemite Valley, Yosemite

Nightfall, Full Moon Above Yosemite Valley, Yosemite
Sony a7R III
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
1/6 second
F/10
ISO 100

As aggressively as I seek creative ways to express nature with my camera, and as important as I think that is, sometimes a scene is so beautiful that it’s best to just get out of the way and let the scene speak for itself. I had one of those experiences last month at Tunnel View in Yosemite.

There’s a reason Tunnel View is one of the most photographed vistas in the world: El Capitan, Half Dome, Cathedral Rocks, Bridalveil Fall—each would be a landscape icon by itself; put them all together in one view and, well…. But the view this evening was truly transcendent, even by Yosemite standards. In Yosemite Valley below, trees and granite still glazed with the snowy vestiges of a departing storm seemed to throb with their own luminance. And above Half Dome a full moon rose through a sky that had been cleansed of all impurities by the departing storm, an otherworldly canvas of indigo, violet, and magenta.

On these crystal-clear, winter-twilight moonrises, the beauty rises with the moon, reaching a crescendo about 20 minutes after sunset, after which the color quickly fades and the landscape darkens. Unfortunately, a some point before the crescendo, the dynamic range becomes so extreme that no camera (not even the dynamic range monster Sony a7RIII) can simultaneously extract usable detail from a daylight-bright moon and dark landscape.

I’d driven to Yosemite solely to photograph this moonrise, an eight hour roundtrip for 40-minutes of photography. Starting with the moon’s arrival about 20 minutes before sunset, I’d juggled three camera bodies and two tripods, first shooting ultra long, then gradually widening to include more of the snowy landscape. Already my captures had more than justified the time and miles the trip would cost me, but watching the moon traverse the deepening hues of Earth’s shadow, I wasn’t ready to stop.

I’ve learned that with a scene this spectacular, conveying the majesty doesn’t require me to pursue the ideal foreground, or do creative things with motion, light, or depth of field. In fact, I’ve come to realize that sometimes a scene can be so beautiful that creative interpretations can dilute or distract from the very beauty that moves me. On this evening in particular, I didn’t want to inject myself into that breathtaking moment, I just wanted to share it.

To simply my images, I opted for a series of frames that used tried-and-true compositions that I’d accumulated after years (decades) of photographing here, the compositions I suggest as “starters” for people who are new to Yosemite, or use myself to jump-start my inspiration: relatively tight horizontal and vertical frames of El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall; El Capitan and Half Dome; or Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall. In the image I share above I concentrated on Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall, capping my frame with the wispy fringes of a large cloud that hovered above Yosemite Valley.

Simplifying my compositions had the added benefit of freeing all of my (limited) brain cells to concentrate on the very difficult exposure. The margin for error when photographing a moon this far after sunset is minuscule—if you don’t get the exposure just right, there’s no fixing it in Photoshop later: too dark and there’s too much noise in the shadows; too bright and lunar detail is permanently erased. The problem starts with the understandable inclination to expose the scene to make the landscape look good on the LCD, pretty much guaranteeing that the moon will be toast. Compounding this problem is the histogram, which most of us have justifiably come to trust as the final arbiter for all exposures. But when a twilight moon (bright moon, dark sky) is involved, even the histogram will fail you because the moon is such a small part of the scene, it barely (if at all) registers on the histogram.

Rather than the histogram, for these dark sky moon images I monitor my LCD’s highlight alert (“blinking highlights”), which is usually the only way to to tell that the moon has been overexposed. If the moon is flashing, I know I’ve given the scene too much light and need to back off until the flashing stops—no matter how dark the foreground looks. This is where it’s essential to know your camera, and how far you can push its exposure beyond where the histogram and highlight alert warn you that you’ve gone too far.

When I’m photographing a full moon rising into a darkening sky, I push the exposure to the point where my highlight alert just starts blinking (only the brightest parts of the moon, not the entire disk, are flashing), then I give it just a little more exposure. I know my Sony a7RIII well enough to know that I can still give it a full stop of light beyond this initial flash point and still recover the highlights later. The shadows? In a scene like this they’ll look nearly black, a reality my histogram will confirm, but I never cease to be amazed by how much detail I can pull out of my a7RIII’s shadows in Lightroom and Photoshop.

I continued shooting for several minutes after this frame, and discovered later that even my final capture contained usable highlights and shadows. I chose this image, captured nearly five minutes before I quit, because it contained the best combination of color, lunar detail, and clean (relatively noise-free) Yosemite Valley.

Photograph next year’s February full moon in my Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop

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Letting Nature Speak for Itself

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Love What You Shoot

Gary Hart Photography: Snow and Reflection, El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite

Snow and Reflection, El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite
Sony a7RIII
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
1/25 second
F/11
ISO 100

Feel the love

One frequently uttered piece of photographic advice is to “shoot what you love.” And while photographing the locations and subjects we love most is indeed pretty essential to consistently successful images, unless we treat our favorite subjects with the love they deserve, we risk losing them.

My relationship with Yosemite predates my memories, so it’s no wonder that Yosemite Valley plays such a significant role in my photography. Of course my love for Yosemite doesn’t make me unique, and like all Yosemite photographers, I’ve learned to share. While it’s nice to have a location to myself (I can still usually find a few of those spots in Yosemite Valley), I’m happy to enjoy Yosemite’s prime photographic real estate with other tourists and photographers. In fact, I get vicarious pleasure watching others view the Yosemite scenes I’ve been visiting my entire life.

But

In recent years I’ve noticed more tourists and photographers abusing nature in ways that at best betrays their ignorance, and at worst reveals their indifference to the fragility of the very subjects that inspire them to click their shutters in the first place. Of course it’s impossible to have zero impact on the natural world—starting from the time we leave home, we consume energy that pollutes the atmosphere and contributes greenhouse gases. Once we arrive at our  destination, every footfall alters the world in ways ranging from subtle to dramatic—not only do our shoes crush rocks, plants, and small creatures, our noise clashes with the natural sounds that comfort humans and communicate to animals, and our vehicles and clothing scatter microscopic, non-indigenous flora and fauna.

A certain amount of damage is an unavoidable consequence of keeping the natural world accessible to all who would like to appreciate it, a tightrope our National Park Service does an excellent job navigating. It’s even easy to believe that we’re not the problem—I mean, who’d have thought merely walking on “dirt” could impact the ecosystem for tens or hundreds of years? But, for example, before straying off the trail for that unique perspective of Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, check out this admonition from the park.

Hawaii’s black sand beaches may appear unique and enduring, but the next time you consider scooping a sample to share with friends back on the mainland, know that Hawaii’s black sand is a finite, ephemeral phenomenon that will be replaced with “conventional” white sand as soon as its volcanic source is exhausted, as evidenced by the direct correlation between the Hawaiian islands age (and the cessation of volcanic activity) and their proliferation of black-sand beaches.

While Yosemite’s durable granite may lull photographers into environmental complacency, its meadows and wetlands are quite fragile, hosting many plants and insects that are an integral part of the natural balance that makes Yosemite unique. Not only that, they’re also home to native mammals, birds, and reptiles that so many enjoy photographing. Despite all this, I can’t tell you how often I see people in Yosemite (photographers in particular) unnecessarily cutting trails and trampling fragile meadows and shorelines, either to get in position for a shot or simply as a shortcut.

Don’t be this photographer

Still not convinced? If I can’t appeal to your environmental conscience, consider that simply wandering about with a camera and/or tripod labels you, “Photographer.” In that role you represent the entire photography community: when you do harm as Photographer, most observers (the general public and decision makers) go no farther than applying the Photographer label and lumping all of us into the same offending group.

Like it or not, one photographer’s indiscretion affects the way every photographer is perceived, and potentially brings about restrictions that directly or indirectly impact all of us. If you like barricades, permits, restrictions, and rules, just keep going wherever you want to go, whenever you want to go there.

It’s not that difficult

Environmental responsibility doesn’t require joining Greenpeace or dropping off the grid (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Simply taking a few minutes to understand natural concerns specific to whatever area you visit is a good place to start. Most public lands have websites with information they’d love you to read before visiting. And most park officials are more than happy to share literature on the topic (you might in fact find useful information right there in that stack of papers you jammed into your center console as you drove away from the park entrance station).

When you’re in the field, think before advancing. Train yourself to anticipate each future step with the understanding of its impact—believe it or not, this isn’t a particularly difficult habit to establish. Whenever you see trash, please pick it up, even if it isn’t yours. And don’t be shy about gently reminding other photographers whose actions risk soiling the reputation for all of us.

A few years ago, as a condition of my Death Valley workshop permit, I was guided to The Center for Outdoor Ethics and their “Leave No Trace” initiative. There’s great information here–much of it is just plain common sense, but I guarantee you’ll learn things too.

Now go out and enjoy nature–and please save it for the rest of us.

A few words about this image

This year’s Yosemite Horsetail Fall photo workshop started with bang. Normally I start a workshop with a two-hour orientation, but with six inches of fresh snow on the ground and more falling, I did a lightning orientation (15 minutes) and we sprinted into Yosemite Valley in time to catch the storm’s clearing. We found a world dipped in pristine white powder, a Yosemite photographer’s dream. Normally I like to give my groups lots of time at every location, but in the rapidly changing conditions of a clearing snowstorm (shifting clouds and light, trees shedding snow, and footprints increasing by the minute), I try to hit as many spots as possible while the shooting is ideal.

Our third stop that afternoon was Valley View, one of the top two or three photo spots in Yosemite, for obvious reasons. Having visited here so often, I don’t stop here on every visit anymore, but I’d be sued for malpractice if I didn’t take my workshop groups here—especially when it’s glazed with fresh snow. I hadn’t taken my camera out yet, and wasn’t going to get it out here either, but while working with a couple of people in the group just upriver from the parking lot, I saw this view and couldn’t resist the opportunity for something new.

When Yosemite is covered with new snow, I look for compositions that emphasize the snow and use the icons as background. Not only did this view give me lots of fresh snow for my foreground, the recent removal of several trees (evergreens in Yosemite are dying from drought and insect infestation) that blocked El Capitan gave me a perspective I’ve never been able to photograph.

I set up on the line that gave me the best window between the trees to El Capitan and started with vertical compositions that emphasized the Yosemite icon, but soon switched to horizontal to include Bridalveil Fall and Cathedral Rocks and better feature the reflection. With my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens on my Sony a7RIII camera, I set up close to the nearby snow-covered trees, then kept moving closer, widening my focal length as I went to include as much snow as possible. After framing the scene to include the least possible blue sky, the most snow, and to avoid crowding Bridalveil Fall too close to the right border, I dialed my polarizer to minimize polarization on the water (maximum reflection), metered with an eye on my histogram, focused on branches about four feet from my lens, and clicked.

We made a couple of more stops that afternoon before wrapping up with a truly beautiful sunset at an unexpected (and fortuitous) location. But that’s a story for another day.

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The Many Faces of El Capitan

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Just a Pinch of Moon

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Moonrise Reflection, Bridalveil Fall, Valley View, Yosemite

Sunset Moonrise Reflection, Bridalveil Fall, Valley View, Yosemite
Sony a7RIII
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
1/13 second
F/11
ISO 100

A couple of  weeks ago I wrote about how to photograph the moon big, the bigger the better, to overcome its tendency to (appear to) shrink in a wide angle image. But the moon doesn’t need to be big to be a striking addition to a landscape photo.

To balance a landscape frame, I think in terms of “visual gravity” (or “visual weight”): how much the scene’s various elements might pull the viewer’s eye. Unlike conventional gravity, which is a constant determined by an object’s mass (period, end of story), visual gravity is a more subjective quality that is a function of the characteristics of an object, such as its size, brightness, contrast, or color. Thinking in terms of the visual gravity of the various elements in my scene, I (usually) try to avoid any hemisphere of the frame feeling significantly heavier than its corresponding hemisphere (top/bottom, left/right).

Certainly any object as bright (and contrasty) as the moon will pull the eye. But after noticing that many objects at least as bright or contrasty as the moon somehow lack the moon’s ability to pull the eye, I realized I’d been missing an essential component of visual gravity: emotional connection. There is just something about the emotional pull of the moon that draws the human eye far more than its more tangible physical qualities might suggest.

For years I’ve tried to leverage the moon’s emotional weight, using it to elevate a relatively ordinary scene, or to add a simple accent that takes an already beautiful scene to the next level. Last month I got just such an opportunity at Valley View in Yosemite. This was the first night of my annual Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop. I’d planned moonrises for the other three nights of the workshop, but hadn’t really plotted the first night because the moon would be so high at sunset, and during the moon’s twilight “sweet spot” (when the sky is dark enough for good contrast, but the landscape still has enough light to photograph) the moon wouldn’t align with Half Dome from any of Yosemite Valley’s Half Dome vantage points.

Nevertheless, I chose Valley View for sunset knowing that the moon might make a nice accent above Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Fall. As soon as we arrived it was clear the conditions had aligned for us on this chilly December evening. In the distance Bridalveil Fall disappeared into a blanket of dense fog hovering above Bridalveil Meadow, while the moon mingled with wispy clouds in the twilight pastels overhead. And at our feet, the Merced River made a perfect mirror.

I knew that capturing all this beauty required a fairly wide composition that would certainly shrink the moon. Because a horizontal composition that included the moon and its reflection would have to be so wide that would shrink everything (and include a lot of less interesting foreground trees), I opted for a vertical composition that emphasized the scene’s primary elements: the moon, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall.

For this shot I went wide with my Sony 24-105 G lens on my Sony a7RIII body. Once I had the general arrangement of my frame worked out, I moved along the riverbank until everything felt balanced. I used the trees on the left to block the empty sky, and the trees on the right to balance them. And I’ve always liked the small diagonal tree a little left of center, and think in this composition it makes a good counterbalance for the visual weight of Bridalveil Fall.

Is the moon the primary subject the way it would likely be in a telephoto image? Certainly not. I know some people might think the moon is too small in this composition, but for someone like me, with a lifelong relationship with the night sky, the moon makes a perfect accent. And in this image I think just that little pinch of moon is enough to balance a frame that would otherwise be a little heavy on the left.


Lunar Accents

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Mastering Focus (Hyperfocal and Otherwise)

Gary Hart Photography: Floating Leaves, Valley View, Yosemite

Floating Autumn Leaves, Valley View, Yosemite
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
Canon 24-105 f/4 L
1/15 second
F/16
ISO 100

What’s the point?

It seems like one of photography’s great mysteries is achieving proper focus: the camera settings, where to place the focus point, even the definition of sharpness are all sources of confusion and angst. If you’re a tourist just grabbing snapshots, everything in your frame is likely at infinity and you can just put your camera in full auto mode and click away. But if you’re a photographic artist trying to capture something unique with your mirrorless or DSLR camera and doing your best to have important visual elements objects at different distances throughout your frame, you need to stop letting your camera decide your focus point and exposure settings.

Of course the first creative focus decision is whether you even want the entire frame sharp. While some of my favorite images use selective focus to emphasize one element and blur the rest of the scene, most (but not all) of what I’ll say here is about using hyperfocal techniques to maximize depth of field (DOF). I cover creative selective focus in much greater detail in another Photo Tip article: Creative Selective Focus.

Beware the “expert”

I’m afraid that there’s some bad, albeit well-intended, advice out there that yields just enough success to deceive people into thinking they’ve got focus nailed, a misperception that often doesn’t manifest until an important shot is lost. I’m referring to the myth that you should focus 1/3 of the way into the scene, or 1/3 of the way into the frame (two very different things, each with its own set of problems).

For beginners, or photographers whose entire scene is at infinity, the 1/3 technique may be a useful rule of thumb. But taking the 1/3 approach to focus requires that you understand DOF and the art of focusing well enough to adjust your focus point when appropriate, and once you achieve that level of understanding, you may as well do it the right way from the start. That ability becomes especially important in those scenes where missing the focus point by just a few feet or inches can make or break and image.

Where to focus this? Of course 1/3 of the way into a scene that stretches for miles won’t work. And 1/3 of the way into a frame with a diagonal foreground won’t work either.

Back to the basics

Understanding a few basic focus truths will help you make focus decisions:

  • A lens’s aperture is the opening that allows light to reach your sensor—the bigger this opening, the more light gets in, but also the smaller your DOF.
  • Aperture is measured in f-stops, which is the lens’s focal length divided by the aperture’s diameter; the higher the f-number, the smaller the aperture and the greater the DOF. So f/8 is actually a bigger aperture (with less DOF) than f/11. This understanding becomes second nature, but if you’re just learning it’s helpful to think of f/stops this way: The higher the f-number, the greater the depth of field. Though they’re not exactly the same thing, photographers usually use f-stop and aperture interchangeably.
  • Regardless of its current f-stop setting, a camera maximizes the light in its viewfinder by always showing you the scene at the lens’s widest aperture. All this extra light makes it easier to compose and focus, but unless your exposure is set for the widest aperture (which it shouldn’t be unless you have a very specific reason to limit your depth of field), the image you capture will have more DOF than you see in the viewfinder. The consequence is that you usually can’t see how much of your scene is in focus when you compose. Most cameras have a DOF preview button that temporarily closes the lens down to the f-stop you have set—this shows the scene at its actual DOF, but can also darken the viewfinder considerably (depending on how small your aperture is), making it far more difficult to see the scene.
  • For any focus point, there’s only one (infinitely thin) plane of maximum sharpness, regardless of the focal length and f-stop—everything in front of and behind the plane containing your focus point (and parallel to the sensor) will be some degree of less than maximum sharpness. As long as the zone of less than perfect sharpness isn’t visible, it’s considered “acceptably sharp.” When that zone becomes visible, that portion of the image is officially “soft.” When photographers speak of sharpness in an image, they’re really talking about acceptable sharpness.
  • The zone of acceptable sharpness extends a greater distance beyond the focus point than it does in front of the focus point. If you focus on that rock ten feet in front of you, rocks three feet in front of you may be out of focus, but a tree fifty feet away could be sharp. I’ll explain more about this later.
  • While shorter focal lengths may appear to provide more depth of field, believe it or not, DOF doesn’t actually change with focal length. What does change is the size of everything in the image, so as your focal length increases, your functional or apparent DOF decreases. So you really aren’t gaining more absolute DOF with a shorter focal length, it just won’t be as visible. When photographers talk about DOF, they’re virtually always talking about apparent DOF—the way the image looks. (That’s the DOF definition I use here too.)
  • The closer your focus point, the narrower your DOF (range of front-to-back sharpness). If you focus your 24mm lens on a butterfly sunning on a poppy six inches from your lens, your DOF is so narrow that it’s possible parts of the poppy will be out of focus; if you focus the same lens on a tree 100 feet away, the mountains behind the tree are sharp too.
Whitney Arch Moonset, Alabama Hills, California

Moonset, Mt. Whitney and Whitney Arch, Alabama Hills, California
With subjects throughout my frame, from close foreground to distant background, it’s impossible to get everything perfectly sharp. Here in the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California, I stopped down to f/16 and focused at the at the most distant part of the arch. This ensured that all of the arch would be perfectly sharp, while keeping Mt. Whitney and the rest of the background “sharp enough.”

Defining sharpness

Depth of field discussions are complicated by the fact that “sharp” is a moving target that varies with display size and viewing distance. But it’s safe to say that all things equal, the larger your ultimate output and closer the intended viewing distance, the more detail your original capture should contain.

To capture detail a lens focuses light on the sensor’s photosites. Remember using a magnifying glass to focus sunlight and ignite a leaf when you were a kid? The smaller (more concentrated) the point of sunlight, the sooner the smoke appeared. In a camera, the finer (smaller) a lens focuses light on each photosite, the more detail the image will contain at that location. So when we focus we’re trying to make the light striking each photosite as concentrated as possible.

In photography we call that small circle of light your lens makes for each photosite its “circle of confusion.” The larger the CoC, the less concentrated the light and the more blurred the image will appear. Of course if the CoC is too small to be seen as soft, either because the print is too small or the viewer is too far away, it really doesn’t matter. In other words, areas of an image with a large CoC (relatively soft) can still appear sharp if small enough or viewed from far enough away. That’s why sharpness can never be an absolute term, and we talk instead about acceptable sharpness that’s based on print size and viewing distance. It’s actually possible for the same image to be sharp for one use, but too soft for another.

So how much detail do you need? The threshold for acceptable sharpness is pretty low for an image that just ends up on an 8×10 calendar on the kitchen wall, but if you want that image large on the wall above the sofa, achieving acceptable sharpness requires much more detail. And as your print size increases (and/or viewing distance decreases), the CoC that delivers acceptable sharpness shrinks correspondingly.

Many factors determine the a camera’s ability to record detail. Sensor resolution of course—the more resolution your sensor has, the more important it becomes that to have a lens that can take advantage of that extra resolution. And the more detail you want to capture with that high resolution sensor and tack-sharp lens, the more important your depth of field and focus point decisions become.

Hyperfocal focus

The foundation of a sound approach to maximizing sharpness for a given viewing distance and image size is hyperfocal focusing, an approach that uses viewing distance, f-stop, focal length, and focus point to ensure acceptable sharpness.

The hyperfocal point is the focus point that provides the maximum depth of field for a given combination of sensor size, f/stop, and focal length. Another way to say it is that the hyperfocal point is the closest you can focus and still be acceptably sharp to infinity. When focused at the hyperfocal point, your scene will be acceptably sharp from halfway between your lens and focus point all the way to infinity. For example, if the hyperfocal point for your sensor (full frame, APS-C, 4/3, or whatever), focal length, and f-stop combinition is twelve feet away, focusing there will give you acceptable sharpness from six feet (half of twelve) to infinity—focusing closer will soften the distant scene; focusing farther will keep you sharp to infinity but extend the area of foreground softness.

Because the hyperfocal variable (sensor size, focal length, f-stop) combinations are too numerous to memorize, we usually refer to an external aid. That used to be awkward printed tables with long columns and rows displayed in microscopic print, the more precise the data, the smaller the print. Fortunately, those have been replaced by smartphone apps with more precise information in a much more accessible and readable form. We plug in all the variables and out pops the hyperfocal point distance and other useful information

It usually goes something like this:

  1. Identify the composition
  2. Determine the closest thing that must be sharp (right now I’m assuming you want sharpness to infinity)
  3. Dig the smartphone from one of the 10,000 pockets it could be in
  4. Open the hyperfocal app and plug in the sensor size (usually previously set by you as the default), f-stop, and a focus distance
  5. Up pops the hyperfocal distance (and usually other info of varying value)

You’re not as sharp as you think

Since people’s eyes start to glaze over when CoC comes up, they tend to use the default returned by the smartphone app. But just because the app tells you you’ve nailed focus, don’t assume that your work is done. An often overlooked aspect of hyperfocal focusing is that app makes assumptions that aren’t necessarily right, and in fact are probably wrong.

The CoC your app uses to determine acceptable sharpness is a function of sensor size, display size, and viewing distance. But most app’s hyperfocal tables assume that you’re creating an 8×10 print that will be viewed from a foot away—maybe valid 40 years ago, but not in this day of mega-prints. The result is a CoC three times larger than the eye’s ability to resolve.

That doesn’t invalidate hyperfocal focusing, but if you use published hyperfocal data from an app or table, your images’ DOF might not be as ideal as you think it is for your use. If you can’t specify a smaller CoC in your app, I suggest that you stop-down a stop or so more than the app/table indicates. On the other hand, stopping down to increase sharpness is an effort of diminishing returns, because diffraction increases as the aperture shrinks and eventually will soften the entire image—I try not to go more than a stop smaller than my data suggests.

Keeping it simple

As helpful as a hyperfocal app can be, whipping out a smartphone for instant in-the-field access to data is not really conducive to the creative process. I’m a big advocate of keeping photography as simple as possible, so while I’m a hyperfocal focus advocate in spirit, I don’t usually use hyperfocal data in the field. Instead I apply hyperfocal principles in the field whenever I think the margin of error gives me sufficient wiggle room.

Though I don’t often use the specific hyperfocal data in the field, I find it helps a lot to refer to hyperfocal tables when I’m sitting around with nothing to do. So if I find myself standing in line at the DMV, or sitting in a theater waiting for a movie (I’m a great date), I open my iPhone hyperfocal app and plug in random values just to get a sense of the DOF for a given f-stop and focal length combination. I may not remember the exact numbers later, but enough of the information sinks in that I accumulate a general sense of the hyperfocal DOF/camera-setting relationships.

Finally, something to do

Unless I think I have very little DOF margin for error in my composition, I rarely open my hyperfocal app in the field. Instead, once my composition is worked out and have determined the closest object I want sharp—the closest object with visual interest (shape, color, texture), regardless of whether it’s a primary subject.

  • If I want to be sharp to infinity and my closest foreground object (that needs to be sharp) is close enough to hit with my hat, I need a fair amount of DOF. If my focal length is pretty wide, I might skip the hyperfocal app, stop down to f/16, and focus a little behind my foreground object. But if I’m at a fairly long focal length, or my closest object is within arm’s reach, I have very little margin for error and will almost certainly refer to my hyperfocal app.
  • If I could hit my foreground object with a baseball and my focal length is 50mm (or so) or less, I’ll probably go with f/11 and just focus on my foreground object. But as my focal length increases, so does the likelihood that I’ll need to refer to my hyperfocal app.
  • If it would take a gun to reach my closest object (picture a distant peak), I choose an f-stop between f/8 and f/11 and focus anywhere in the distance.

Of course these distances are very subjective and will vary with your focal length and composition (not to mention the strength of your pitching arm), but you get the idea. If you find yourself in a small margin for error focus situation without a hyperfocal app (or you just don’t want to take the time to use one), the single most important thing to remember is to focus behind your closest subject. Because you always have sharpness in front of your focus point, focusing on the closest subject gives you unnecessary sharpness at the expense of distant sharpness. By focusing a little behind your closest subject, you’re increasing the depth of your distant sharpness while (if you’re careful) keeping your foreground subject within the zone of sharpness in front of the focus point.

And finally, foreground softness, no matter how slight, is almost always a greater distraction than slight background softness. So, if it’s impossible to get all of your frame sharp, it’s usually best to ensure that the foreground is sharp.

Some examples

Sunset Palette, Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite

A hat’s toss away: The closest pool was about 6 feet from my lens. I stopped down to f/20 (smaller than I generally like to go) and focused on the back of the pool on the left, about 10 feet away.

A baseball throw away: The little clump of wildflowers (lower right) was about 35 feet away and the trees started another 35 feet beyond that. With a focal length of 55mm, I dialed to f/11 and focused on the most distant foreground tree, getting everything from the flowers to Half Dome sharp.

Gary Hart Photography: Tree and Crescent, Sierra Foothills, California

Honey, fetch my rifle: With everything here at infinity I knew could focus on the trees or moon confident that the entire frame would be sharp. In this case I opted for f/8 to minimize diffraction but still in my lens’s sharpest f-stop range, and focused on the tree.

Why not just automatically set my aperture to f/22 and be done with it? I thought you’d never ask. Without delving too far into the physics of light and optics, let’s just say that there’s a not so little light-bending problem called “diffraction” that robs your images of sharpness as your aperture shrinks—the smaller the aperture, the greater the diffraction. Then why not choose f/2.8 when everything’s at infinity? Because lenses tend to lose sharpness at their aperture extremes, and are generally sharper in their mid-range f-stops. So while diffraction and lens softness don’t sway me from choosing the f-stop that gives the DOF I want, I try to never choose an aperture bigger or smaller than I need.

Now that we’ve let the composition determine our f-stop, it’s (finally) time to actually choose the focus point. Believe it or not, with this foundation of understanding we just established, focus becomes pretty simple. Whenever possible, I try to have elements throughout my frame, often starting near my feet and extending far into the distance. When that’s the case I stop down focus on an object slightly behind my closest subject (the more distant my closest subject, the farther behind it I can focus).

When I’m not sure, or if I don’t think I can get the entire scene sharp, I err on the side of closer focus to ensure that the foreground is sharp. Sometimes before shooting I check my DOF with the DOF preview button, allowing time for my eye to adjust to the limited light. And when maximum DOF is essential and I know my margin for error is small, I don’t hesitate to refer to the DOF app on my iPhone.

A great thing about digital capture is the instant validation of the LCD—when I’m not sure, or when getting it perfect is absolutely essential, after capture I pop my image up on the LCD, magnify it to maximum, check the point or points that must be sharp, and adjust if necessary. Using this immediate feedback to make instant corrections really speeds the learning process.

Sometimes less is more

The depth of field you choose is your creative choice, and no law says you must maximize it. Use your camera’s limited depth of field to minimize or eliminate distractions, create a blur of background color, or simply to guide your viewer’s eye. Focusing on a near subject while letting the background go soft clearly communicates the primary subject while retaining enough background detail to establish context. And an extremely narrow depth of field can turn distant flowers or sky into a colorful canvas for your subject.

In this image of a dogwood blossom in the rain, I positioned my camera to align Bridalveil Fall with the dogwood and used an extension tube to focus extremely close. The narrow depth of field caused by focusing so close turned Bridalveil Fall into a background blur (I used f/18 to the fall a little more recognizable), allowing viewers to feast their eyes on the dogwood’s and raindrop’s exquisite detail.
An extension tube on a macro lens at f/2.8 gave me depth of field measured in fractions of an inch. The gold color in the background is more poppies, but they’re far enough away that they blur into nothing but color. The extremely narrow depth of field also eliminated weeds and rocks that would have otherwise been a distraction.

There’s no substitute for experience

No two photographers do everything exactly alike. Determining the DOF a composition requires, the f-stop and focal length that achieves the desired DOF, and where to place the point of maximum focus, are all part of the creative process that should never be left up to the camera. The sooner you grasp the underlying principles of DOF and focus, the sooner you’ll feel comfortable taking control and conveying your own unique vision.

About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Floating Leaves, Valley View, Yosemite

Floating Autumn Leaves, Valley View, Yosemite

Yosemite may not be New England, but it can still put on a pretty good fall color display. A few years ago I arrived  at Valley View on the west side of Yosemite Valley just about the time the fall color was peaking. I found the Merced River filled with reflections of El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks, framed by an accumulation of recently fallen leaves still rich with vivid fall color.

To emphasize the colorful foreground, I dropped my tripod low and framed up a vertical composition. I knew my hyperfocal distance at 24mm and f/11 would be 5 or 6 feet, but with the scene ranging from the closest leaves at about 3 feet away out to El Capitan at infinity, I also knew I’d need to be careful with my focus choices. For a little more margin for error I stopped down to f/16, then focused on the nearest rocks which were a little less than 6 feet away. As I usually do when I don’t have a lot of focus wiggle room, I magnified the resulting image on my LCD and moved the view from the foreground to the background to verify front-to-back sharpness.

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Playing with Depth: A Gallery of Focus

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