It’s only cold on the outside

Gary Hart Photography: Moonstar, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Moonstar, Thor’s Hammer, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Sony a7R II
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
30 seconds
ISO 3200

We all all have different hot/cold comfort thresholds, a temperature above or below which it’s just too hot or cold to feel human. Of course wind and moisture can move the needle a little bit, but let me just say that regardless of the other factors, after spending a few days in Bryce Canyon NP co-teaching a workshop with Don Smith, I’ve determined that the comfort threshold for my California bones is somewhere north of 20 degrees.

That Bryce is cold in November wasn’t really a revelation because couple of Novembers ago I experienced one of the coldest shoots of my life there, a sunrise at Rainbow Point (9,000 feet) where the temperature was 10F and the wind was a constant 35 MPH. Informed by that experience, I showed up this year with full body armor that included multiple layers of silk, wool, down, fleece, and pretty much every other insulation material known to humankind. This visit wasn’t nearly as cold as I experienced a couple of years ago, but layers or not, cold finds exposed skin like a hungry mosquito and virtually ever minute outdoors tested my comfort threshold.

But despite appearances to the contrary, I’m not complaining. Discomfort is part of being a nature photographer, and miserable conditions definitely keep the crowds at bay. These thoughts bring to mind a phenomenon I’ve been aware of my entire photography life: when the shooting is good, the conditions just don’t matter. I’m not saying that I’m not aware that it’s cold, or hot, or wet, I’m saying that good photography somehow turns off the part of my brain that registers discomfort.

On this year’s Bryce visit we had low temperatures in the teens and low twenties, with a little wind. We also had quite a few clouds, but on our last night, when the skies cleared and the stars appeared, Don and I took the group to Thor’s Hammer for a night shoot. With a 95% moon rising more than 90 minutes after sunset, we knew we’d have about an hour or so of quality dark sky photography. The air that night was wonderfully clear, but without the cloud’s insulation, the temperature plummeted as soon as the sun went down and we found ourselves shooting in the coldest temperatures of the trip—somewhere in the teens, I’m certain.

I was well bundled head-to-toe, but gloves and photography don’t mix, especially night photography when you need to locate and adjust all the camera’s controls by feel. So I spent most of the evening with my delicate digits exposed to the elements, full commando. Of course adjusting camera settings with finger-shaped ice cubes is only marginally better than the gloved alternative, but somehow I managed.

It didn’t hurt that the pristine air and remote, moonless darkness made for a dazzling sky. I positioned myself to align Thor’s Hammer with the faint, outward-facing part of the Milky Way in Cassiopeia, trying both vertical and horizontal compositions. Without moonlight, the faint-to-the-eye Milky Way seemed to leap from the blackness on my LCD. Especially exciting were my vertical frames, which revealed near the top the fuzzy disk of the Andromeda Galaxy, our sister galaxy, a mere two-and-a-half million light-years away.

I was having so much fun that I completely forgot how cold I was, and I think that goes for the rest of the group as well. About the time we thought we’d accomplished all there was to accomplish, the clouds on the eastern horizon came alive with the glow of the approaching moon. Everyone seemed to be having such a good time that Don and I decided we should stick around long enough to catch the first rays of moonlight on the red hoodoos.

Most of my full(-ish) moon photography takes place when there’s enough ambient daylight to capture both landscape and lunar detail in a single frame. But since daylight was long gone well before the moon arrived, my exposures that night had been all about maximizing the amount of light reaching my sensor to bring out the foreground. So when the moon showed up my original exposure became far too much and I needed a different plan. I had a couple of options: either find a composition that didn’t include the moon, or figure out a way include the moon in my frame without ruining the picture.

Since the moon was above the best part of the scene, I decided to try for a “moonstar” and repositioned myself to balance it with Thor’s Hammer. Letting the moonlight do the heavy lifting on the hoodoos, I was able to get all the foreground detail I needed, with enough light left over to enhance my moonstar by stopping down to f/8. When we were finished the walk up from Thor’s Hammer is short but steep, perfect for warming my frigid blood, but despited my frozen digits, I honestly have no memory of discomfort.

This was a truly exceptional experience I’ll never forget, a perfect memory to highlight on the eve of Thanksgiving here in America.

A Starry Night Gallery

Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.

Stupid cold

Winter Morning, Bryce Canyon

Winter Glaze, Sunrise Point, Bryce Canyon
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
.5 seconds
22 mm
ISO 200

We warm blooded humans have lots of ways to express the discomfort induced by low temperatures, ranging from brisk to chilly to freezing to frigid. But because I’ve always felt that we need something beyond frigid, something that adequately conveys the potential suffering, let me submit: stupid cold. At the risk of stating the obvious, “stupid cold” is when it’s so cold, the only people without a good reason to be outside (for example, the house is on fire) are, well….

Before I get into a recent personal encounter with stupid cold, let me offer a little background. Being California born and raised, I often find myself with a slightly higher cold threshold than many of my workshop participants. I’m not proud to say that pretty much when the temperature drops below 50, I’m breaking out the gloves and down jacket. Without shame. I get a lot of grief for this, but that’s fine because I’m comfortable. In fact, no matter how cold it gets in California, I’ve always been able to bundle up enough to stay comfortable. Viva la Mediterranean climate.

So imagine my chagrin when, while preparing for my recent trip to Bryce Canyon to co-lead Don Smith’s Bryce/Zion workshop, I saw overnight lows in the single digits (!) forecast. I know many people live places that get this cold, but how many of them actually go out specifically at the time when it’s coldest (sunrise)—and then just stand there? Unfortunately, when you’re a photographer, especially a photographer who is counted on by paying customers, staying in bed at sunrise is not an option.

So anyway, single digit lows. Surely, I rationalized, anyone who can endure night games at Candlestick Park in July, can, given enough layers, handle whatever Bryce can dish out. So, employing my tried and true Candlestick Park infinite layer approach, I sucked it up, cleared my closet of all cold weather gear, crammed it into my largest suitcase, then crossed my fingers when the Southwest ticket agent hefted the bulging cube onto the scale (49.8 pounds, thankyouverymuch). Off to Bryce.

So whatever happened to those days when the weather forecast was a crap-shoot, when you never really worried about the forecast too much because it was rarely right? We arrived at Bryce to find temperatures as cold as advertised. Windy too. And as if to rub salt in the wound, the coldest shoot we had was the workshop’s first sunrise, before anyone had a chance to acclimate: 10 degrees fahrenheit and 25 MPH winds (I know, I know, that’s nothing compared to your January Yellowstone bison shoot, or that time in Saskatchewan when you stayed up all night to photograph the northern lights, but you can’t say anything unless you sat through the last pitch of a night game at Candlestick Park).

I must say, my Candlestick more-is-better strategy almost worked. Two pairs of wool socks inside sub-zero rated boots kept my toes nice and toasty for the duration. Silk long-johns, flannel-lined jeans, insulated over-pants—my legs were happy too. And my torso did quite well inside a long sleeve wool undershirt, Pendleton (wool) shirt, Patagonia down shirt, and a down jacket. My ears were cold but tolerable beneath a wind-stop ear band and cozy wool cap. And my nose, cheeks, and mouth were a bit more exposed, but a wool gator took enough of the edge off to make it manageable.

But, despite all the preparation, what thirty years of Candlestick experience hadn’t prepared me for was cold hands. Oh. My. God. I thought I was ready with my thin poly running gloves as liners for thick wool gloves—not even close. The problem was, unless you’re keeping score, watching a baseball game doesn’t require hands unless there’s something to cheer for (a rare event for most of my Candlestick years)—at the ‘Stick I could sit on my (gloved) hands, bury them in pockets or beneath my wool blanket (never left home without one), or all of the above. But a camera, it turns out, requires hands. Fingers too. I quicky found that I could compose and click maybe three frames before the cold drove me to the nearby visitor’s shelter to pound life back into my fingers. Not a productive morning.

After this first sunrise, things improved. Temperatures warmed a bit, the wind abated, my body adjusted (slightly), and I was able to mitigate my hand problem with the purchase of silk liner gloves and thicker wool gloves. I also came away with a new found appreciation of my Hawaii workshops—sunrises in a tank-top, shorts, and flip-flops. Nothing stupid about that.

Compared to the cold we’d experienced at sunrise, at 20 degrees, the afternoon I took this picture was downright balmy. When we arrived at Sunrise Point, the snow that had been falling most of the afternoon was still falling, obscuring the view to the point where many in the group retreated to the car. But those of us who stayed out were treated to a twenty minute window between the lifting of the clouds and the fall of darkness. Not the spectacular color and warm light that generates so much excitement, but wonderful, even light that really allowed the pristine snow to stand out against the red sandstone.

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