It’s all about relationships

Star Trails Above an Ancient Bristlecone, Schulman Grove, White Mountains
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
28 mm
31 minutes
ISO 100


Think about how much our lives revolve around relationships: romance, family, friends, work, pets, and so on. It occurs to me that this human inclination toward relationships almost certainly influences the photographic choices we make, and the way our images touch others.

Whether it’s conscious or not, photographers convey relationships in their images. A pretty sunset is nice, but a pretty sunset over the Grand Canyon or Yosemite is especially nice. Likewise, why be satisfied with an image of a rushing mountain stream when we can accent the scene with an autumn leaf? And that tree up there on the hill? It sure would look great with a moon. These are relationships, two distinct subjects connected by a shared moment.

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

On the other hand…

Some of my favorite images are of a solitary subject, and element in nature that stands alone in the scene—what’s up with that? I’ve decided (since this is my blog) that this the exception that proves the rule. As much as humans gravitate to relationships, what person doesn’t long for the peace of solitude from time to time? In the case the tree in the image below, it’s the absence of a relationship that draws us, or more accurately, it’s the tree’s relationship with an otherwise empty scene that appeals to the relationship overload we all experience from time to time.

Tree at Sunset, McGee Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Solitary Tree After Sunset, McGee Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra
It’s the isolation of this small tree, its relationship with the void, that makes this image work for me.

Star Trails and Ancient Bristlecone: About this image

At 4,000+ years, the bristlecone pines of the White Mountains, east of Bishop, California, are among the oldest living things on Earth. They’re also among the most photogenic. Each year I take my Eastern Sierra photo workshop group to photograph the bristlecones of the Schulman Grove. Given the (rather gnarly) one hour drive would get us back to our hotel in Bishop quite late on the eve of a particularly early sunrise shoot, and night temperatures above 10,000 feet in late September are quite chilly, I’ve never kept the group out here for a night shoot. Until this year.

With clear skies and a 40 percent crescent moon, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to photograph these trees with just enough moonlight to reveal their weathered bark without washing out too many stars. Here was an opportunity to create the kind of relationship we all look for—juxtaposing these magnificent trees against an equally magnificent night sky. So after a nice sunset shoot, but before it became too dark, I had everyone find a composition they liked, lock it in on their tripod, and focus using the remaining light. When the stars started popping out, we began clicking—I started everyone the initial exposure settings, and helped them ensure that their images were sharp, but pretty soon most of them were managing quite fine without my help.

Our first frames were pinpoint stars, relatively short (30 seconds or less) exposures at wide-open apertures and very high ISOs. As the darkness became complete, we were equally thrilled number of stars and the amount of tree and rock detail the faint moonlight brought out in our images. Eventually most in the group wanted to recompose, which required re-focusing, no trivial task in the darkness. Normally an infinity focus on the moon will suffice at night, but the trees were so close, and our apertures so wide, that I felt it would be best to focus on a tree (to ensure its sharpness at the possible risk of slight softness in the stars). We found that by hitting the tree with an extremely bright light (or two), we could see just enough detail to manually focus. But just to be sure, I insisted that everyone verify their focus by scrutinizing a magnified image on their LCD.

When I was convinced that everyone had had success with pinpoint stars, I prepared them all for one final, long exposure star trail shot. Using the last pinpoint composition and focus (after verifying that it was indeed sharp), I did the math that would return the same exposure at 30 minutes that we’d been getting at 30 seconds—in this case, adding 6 stops of shutter speed meant subtracting 6 stops of ISO and aperture. When everyone was ready, we locked our shutters open in bulb mode, and then just kicked back and watched the sky.

My favorite part of these group shoots are these times when we can all just kick back together and appreciate the beauty of the moment, without the distraction of a camera. Overhead the Milky Way painted a faint white stripe through Cassiopeia, a couple of satellites danced faintly among the stars, and several meteors flashed. I didn’t even mind the occasional plane cutting the darkness (it didn’t hurt to know that Photoshop makes removing them quite simple now), and tried to guess its destination.

This shoot was certainly about finding the relationship between the these trees and the night sky they’ve basked beneath every night for thousands of years. But it was also about the stories and laughs we shared that night, cementing relationships between people who were strangers just a couple of days earlier—I know from experience some of these relationships will end with the workshop, but many will continue for years or even lifetimes.

A gallery of relationships in nature

Click an image for a closer look, and to enjoy the slide show

Photographic reality: Expand time

Cascading Ferns, Russian Gulch Fall, Mendocino
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
81 mm
.6 seconds
ISO 400

“Photography’s gift isn’t the ability to reproduce your reality, it’s the ability to expand it.”

(The fifth installment of my series on photographic reality.)

There’s probably no better example of the difference between a camera’s reality and yours than the way we handle motion. In my previous post I compared the camera’s ability to accumulate light to the serial, real-time processing of seamless instants we humans do. In a static world, given the right exposure a photographic image can be rendered fairly literally (missing dimension notwithstanding). But photograph a world in motion and wonderful things start to happen.

A slow shutter speed allows a sensor to record the position of everything it “sees” during the exposure, expanding one frame into a recreation of every instant of its capture. When the capture includes objects in motion, the result a scene very different from the human experience: Rushing water smoothes to white, wind-whipped flowers blur to color, and Earth’s rotation renders stars as parallel streaks of light.

Blurred water

Labeled as cliché and unnatural by people who don’t understand photography, blurred water gets a bum rap. The cliché part ignores the fact that most rapidly moving water photographed in the best light (shade or overcast) is virtually impossible to not to blur. The “unnatural” label just cracks me up—when asked, detractors reply that freezing the motion (the only other option) would be more natural, to which I reply (usually to myself only, tongue firmly clamped between teeth), how many times have you seen water drops frozen in midair? The truth is, the camera and human eye handle motion differently, and photographers need to accept and appreciate it. Once you can accept that blurring water is often the best way to imply motion in a static medium, the fun begins.

First you need to understand that you can’t just blur every moving river, stream, or wave. Motion blur requires a slow shutter speed, impossible with water in full sunlight without a neutral density filter to cut the light. So you need to start by finding moving water darkened by overcast or shade (any sunlight in the frame at all will overexpose and likely ruin the image). Whitewater is best; if you find yourself photographing whitewater in shade or overcast, the question isn’t how to blur, it’s how much?

Unfortunately there’s no magic shutter speed for motion blur. The amount of blur you get depends on the speed of the water, how close you are to the water, how much you’re zoomed, and the angle of your capture relative to the direction of motion (and maybe some other things I’ve overlooked). And while there isn’t a ideal amount of blur, I find that there’s sweet spot (that changes with all the variables above) between very slight blur that’s not quite enough and just appears scratchy, and extreme blur that’s pure white. In some tight compositions of extremely fast water you get beautiful slight blur at 1/1o second; with wider compositions and/or slower water, the same amount of blur requires 3/4 second or longer. And achieving noticeable blur in a wide capture of a distant waterfall may require several seconds of exposure. My advice is to bracket your shutter speeds, varying your ISO and/or f-stop (take care that you don’t choose an f-stop that compromises your depth of field)—you’ll find the more you do it, the more you’ll get a sense for what works.

In the image of Russian Gulch Fall near Mendocino (at the top of the post), I arrived early enough to allow a full two hours to work the scene before sunlight blighted the forest floor. And work it I did, starting wide and trending tighter as I became more familiar with the scene. The dense forest dark didn’t allow a fast enough shutter speed for effective slight blur without severely compromising ISO and aperture (depth of field), so I just went with the extreme blur. Even though the air seemed perfectly still, I was a little concerned about slight wind motion in the ferns, so I bumped to ISO 400 and f11 (at 80 mm, f11 gave me about a 15 foot range of front-to-back sharpness–just enough). This resulted in a one second exposure that caused extreme blur (I call it extreme because I didn’t notice much difference between one second and five seconds) that, as it turned out, made the delicate strands of water quite lovely.

One other often overlook component of a forest water scene is a polarizer: I wouldn’t even attempt a scene like this without the glare reducing benefit of a polarizer. (And a polarizer has the added bonus of reducing the light by a couple of stops.)

Bristlecone Star Trails, White Mountains, California

Star trails

Star trails—parallel streaks of light caused by Earth’s rotation during a long exposure–are an extreme example of the same motion effect that blurs water. I find that moonless nights work best for star trails—a moonlit sky is usually too washed out for effective star trail photography, while the limited light of a moonless night maximizes the motion by allowing even the dimmest stars to shine through.

On a moonless night, a large aperture and high ISO can record enough light to allow a relatively fast 30-second shutter speed that records stars as near pinpoints of light, but doesn’t allow enough light to fully eliminate the foreground. On the other hand, a slower shutter speed that accumulates enough light to reveal the foreground also results in streaking stars—star trails. An added advantage of star trail photography is that the exposures are long enough to enable a smaller aperture (more DOF and better image quality) and lower ISO (less noise).

Some people have great success combining a series short-exposure frames to create a single star trail image, but all of my images are single-click capture (that’s just me, I have no problem with those who choose to blend multiple captures) using a trial and error approach I’ve worked out over the years. I start by taking a test (throw-away) exposure at my camera’s highest ISO and lens’s widest aperture, then tweaking the exposure and repeating until I get it right. I’ve also found that in the near total darkness of a moonless night, these test exposures are the best way to ensure my composition and focus are okay. Once I have my exposure, composition, and focus right (it usually takes two or three images), I figure out how many stops of light my desired shutter speed (usually around thirty minutes) adds to my successful test exposure, then subtract an equal amount of light through a combination of aperture and ISO reductions. (I’ll try to post a more thorough tutorial on my approach to star trails soon.)

I photographed the above bristlecone pine against backdrop of streaking stars with three friends who were light painting the tree—sweeping the beam of a bright flashlight across the trunk and branches for the first few seconds of exposure to illuminate the tree’s weathered wood enough for their cameras to capture the exquisite detail. But all my images use only natural light, so I opted for a silhouette, positioning myself as low as I could get to juxtapose as much of the tree against the sky as possible.  I started my exposure as soon as the others’ light painting ended (no more than ten seconds), and for the next twenty-two minutes the four of us reclined there at nearly 11,000 feet, watching the sky and waiting for the exposure to complete. We talked and laughed some, but mostly we just appreciated a sky dense with stars and silence so complete (and foreign) that it almost hurt my ears. We were well down the road toward our hotel in Bishop before my camera finished its processing, and it wasn’t until I was able to view the image on my laptop that I knew I’d had a success.

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