Posted on June 3, 2016
“Chance favors only the prepared mind.” ~ Louis Pasteur
A few days ago someone on Facebook commented on my previous Grand Canyon rainbow image that getting “the” shot is more about luck than anything else. I had a good chuckle, but once I fully comprehended that this person was in fact serious, I actually felt a little sad for him. Since we tend to make choices that validate our version of reality, imagine going through life with that philosophy.
No one can deny that photography involves a great deal of luck, but each of us chooses our relationship with the fickle whims of chance, and I choose to embrace Louis Pasteur’s belief that chance favors the prepared mind. Ansel Adams was quite fond of repeating Pasteur’s quote; later Galen Rowell, and I’m sure many other photographers, embraced it to great success.
As nature photographers, we must acknowledge the tremendous role chance plays in the conditions that rule the scenes we photograph, then do our best to maximize our odds for witnessing, in the best possible circumstances, whatever special something Mother Nature might toss in our direction. A rainbow over Safeway or the sewage treatment plant is still beautiful, but a rainbow above Yosemite Valley or the Grand Canyon is a lifetime memory (not to mention a beautiful photograph).
A few years ago, on a drive to Yosemite to meet clients for dinner (and to plan the next day’s tour), I saw conditions that told me a rainbow was possible. When I met the clients at the cafeteria, I suggested that we forget dinner and take a shot at a rainbow instead. With no guarantee, we raced our empty stomachs across Yosemite Valley, scaled some rocks behind Tunnel View, and sat in a downpour for about twenty minutes. Our reward? A double rainbow arcing across Yosemite Valley. Were we lucky? Absolutely. But it was no fluke that my clients and I were the only “lucky” ones out there that evening.
Before sunrise on a chilly May morning in 2011, my workshop group and I had the good fortune photograph a crescent moon splitting El Capitan and Half Dome from an often overlooked vista on the north side of the Merced River. Luck? What do you think? Well, I guess you could say that we were lucky that our alarms went off, and that the clouds stayed away that morning. But I knew at least a year in advance that a crescent moon would be rising in this part of the sky on this very morning, scheduled my spring workshop to include this date, then spent hours plotting all the location and timing options to determine where we should be for the moonrise.
I’d love to say that I sensed the potential for a rainbow over the Grand Canyon when I scheduled last month’s raft trip over a year ago, then hustled my group down the river for three days to be in this very position for the event. But I’m not quite that prescient. On the other hand, I did anticipate the potential for a rainbow a few hours earlier, scouted and planned my composition as soon as we arrived at camp, then called the rainbow’s arrival far enough in advance to allow people to get their gear, find a scene of their own, and set up before it arrived.
As I tried to make it clear in my previous post, anticipating these special moments in nature doesn’t require any real gifts—just a basic understanding of the natural phenomena you’d like to photograph, and a little effort to match your anticipated natural event (a rainbow, a moonrise, the Milky Way, or whatever) with your location of choice.
But to decide that photographing nature’s most special moments is mostly about luck is to pretty much limit your rainbows to the Safeways and sewage treatment plants of your everyday world. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve prepared for a special moment in nature, changed plans, lost sleep, driven many miles, skipped meals, and suffered in miserable conditions, all with nothing to show for my sacrifice. But just one success like a rainbow above the Grand Canyon is more than enough compensation for a thousand miserable failures. And here’s another secret: no matter how miserable I am getting to and waiting for my goal event, whether it happens or not, I absolutely love the anticipation, the just sitting out there fueled by the thought that it just might happen.
Posted on May 30, 2016
Perhaps you’ve noticed that many popular nature photographers have a “hook,” a persona they’ve created to distinguish themselves from the competition (it saddens me to think that photography can be viewed as a competition, but that’s a thought for another day). This hook can be as simple (and annoying) as flamboyant self-promotion, or an inherent gift that enables the photographer to get the shot no one else would have gotten, something like superhuman courage or endurance. Some photographers actually credit a divine connection or disembodied voices that guide them to the shot.
Clearly I’m going to need to come up with a hook of my own if I’m to succeed. Flamboyant self-promotion just isn’t my style, and my marathon days are in the distant past. Courage? I think my poor relationship with heights would rule that out. And the only disembodied voice I hear is my GPS telling me she’s “recalculating.”
Just when I thought I’d reached an impasse that threatened to keep me mired in photographic anonymity, a little word percolated up from my memory, a word that I’d heard uttered behind my back a few times after I’d successfully called a rainbow or moonrise: “Genius.” That’s it! I could position myself as the Sherlock of shutter speed, the Franklin of f-stop, the Einstein of ISO. That’s…, well, genius!
And just as the fact that none of these other photographers are quite as special as their press clippings imply, the fact that I’m not actually a genius would not be a limiting factor.
Okay, the truth is that photography is not rocket science, and nature photographers are rarely called to pave the road to scientific or spiritual truth. Not only is genius not a requirement for great photography, for the photographer who thinks too much, genius can be a hindrance. On the other hand, a little bit of thought doesn’t hurt.
It’s true that I’ve photographed more than my share of vivid rainbows and breathtaking celestial phenomena—moonrises and moonsets, moonbows, the Milky Way, and even a comet—from many iconic locations, but that’s mostly due to just a little research and planning combined with a basic understanding of the natural world. An understanding basic enough for most people who apply themselves.
For example, this rainbow. It was clearly the highlight of this year’s Grand Canyon raft trip, and while I did call it about fifteen minutes in advance, I can’t claim genius. Like most aspects of nature photography, photographing a rainbow is mostly a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Of course there are thing you can do to increase your chances of being in the right place at the right time. Whether it’s an understanding of rainbows that enables me to position myself and wait, or simply knowing when and where to look, when I do get it right, I can appear more prescient than I really am.
The essentials for a rainbow are simple: sunlight (or moonlight, or any other source of bright, white light) at 42 degrees or lower, and airborne water droplets. Combine these two elements with the correct angle of view and you’ll get a rainbow. The lower the sun, the higher (and more full) the rainbow. And the center of the rainbow will always be exactly opposite the sun—in other words, your shadow will always point toward the rainbow’s center. There are a few other complicating factors, but this is really all you need to know to be a rainbow “genius.”
In this case it had been raining on and off all day, and while rain is indeed half of the ingredients in our rainbow recipe, as is often the case, this afternoon the sunlight half was blocked by the clouds delivering the rain. Not only do rain clouds block sunlight, so do towering canyon walls. Complicating things further, the window when the sun is low enough to create a rainbow is much smaller in the longer daylight months near the summer solstice (because the sun spends much of its day above 42 degrees). So, there at the bottom of the Grand Canyon on this May afternoon, the rainbow odds weren’t in our favor.
But despite the poor odds, because this afternoon’s rain fell from clouds ventilated by lots of blue gaps, I gave my group a brief rainbow alert, telling them when (according to my Focalware iPhone app, the sun would drop below 42 degrees at 3:45) and where to look (follow your shadow), and encouraging them to be ready. Being ready means figuring out where the rainbow will appear and finding a composition in that direction, then regularly checking the heavens—not just for what’s happening now, but especially for what might happen soon.
We arrived at our campsite with a light rain falling. The sun was completely obscured by clouds, but knowing that the sun would eventually drop into a large patch of blue on the western horizon, I went scouting for possible rainbow views as soon as my camp was set up. When the rain intensified an hour or so later, I reflexively looked skyward and realized that the sun was about to pop out. I quickly sounded the alarm (“The rainbow is coming! The rainbow is coming!”), grabbed my gear, and beelined to the spot I’d found earlier.
A few followed my lead and set up with me, but the skeptics (who couldn’t see beyond the heavy rain and no sunlight at that moment) continued with whatever they were doing. After about fifteen minutes standing in the rain, a few splashes of sunlight lit the ridge above us on our side of the river; less than a minute later, a small fragment of rainbow appeared upstream above the right bank, then before our eyes spread across the river to connect with the other side. Soon we had a double rainbow, as vivid as any I’ve ever seen.
Fortunate for the skeptics, this rainbow lasted so long, everyone had a chance to photograph it. Our four guides (with an average of 15 years Grand Canyon guiding experience), said it was the most vivid and longest (duration) rainbow they’d ever seen. (I actually toned it down a little in Photoshop.)
Genius? Hardly. Just a little knowledge and preparation mixed with a large dose of good fortune.
One more thing (May 31, 2016)
The vast majority of photographers whose work I enjoy viewing achieved their success the old fashioned way, by simply taking pictures and sharing them (rather than blatant self-promotion or exaggerated stories of personal sacrifice). In no particular order, here’s a short, incomplete list of photographers I admire for doing things the right way: Charles Cramer, Galen Rowell, David Muench, William Neill, and Michael Frye. In addition to great images, one thing these photographers have in common is an emphasis on sharing their wisdom and experience instead of hyperbolic tales of their photographic exploits.
Posted on May 25, 2016
A couple of weeks ago I blogged about shooting sans tripod on my recent Grand Canyon raft trip. My rationale for this sacrilege was that any shot without a tripod is better than no shot at all. I have no regrets, partly because I ended up with Grand Canyon perspectives I’d have never captured otherwise, but also because shooting hand-held reinforced for me all the reasons I’m so committed to tripod shooting.
Much of my tripod-centric approach is simply a product of the way I’m wired—I’m pretty deliberate in my approach to most things, relying on anticipation and careful consideration rather than cat-like reflexes as my path to action. That would probably explain why my sport of choice is baseball, I actually enjoy golf on TV, and would take chess or Scrabble over any video game (I’m pretty sure the last video game I played was Pong). It also explains, despite being an avid sports fan, my preference for photographing stationary landscapes.
Despite this preference, for the last three years my camera and I have embarked on a one week raft trip through Grand Canyon, where the scenery is almost always in motion (relatively speaking, of course). And after three years, I’ve grown to appreciate how much floating Grand Canyon is like reading a great novel, with every bend a new page that offers potential for sublime reflection or heart pounding action. And just as I prefer savoring a novel, lingering on or returning to passages that resonate with me, I’d love to navigate Grand Canyon at my own pace. But alas….
The rock in this image was a random obstacle separated from the surrounding cliffs at some time in the distant past, falling victim to millennia of dogged assault by rain, wind, heat, cold, and ultimately, gravity. Understanding that the river is about 50 feet deep here makes it easier to appreciate the size of this rock, and the magnitude of the explosion its demise must have set off.
Unfortunately, viewing my subject at eight miles per hour precludes the realtime analysis and consideration its story merits, and I was forced to act now and think later. In this case I barely had time to rise, wobble toward the front of the raft, balance, brace, meter, compose, focus, and click. One click. Then the rock was behind me and it was time to turn the page.
Posted on May 19, 2016
Every once in a while an image so perfectly captures my emotions at the moment of capture that I just can’t stop looking at it. This is one of those images.
After two relatively benign days of peaceful floating punctuated with occasional mild riffles and only a small handful of moderate-at-best rapids, the group was feeling pretty comfortable on the river. But our guides had made it pretty clear that we hadn’t really encountered anything serious yet, and most in the group were a little anxious about what was in store for day-three—”rapid day.”
Our second night’s camp was a few miles downstream from the Little Colorado River, just ten minutes upstream from Unkar, our first major rapid. I could tell people were getting a little anxious because, as the only person on the trip to have done it before (this was my third trip in three years), I spent much of the evening reassuring people that while the rapids were indeed an E Ticket ride (on that scale, we’d so far navigated no more than two C Tickets), they were more thrilling than threatening. Of course I had to qualify my reassurance with the disclaimer that last year Unkar, tomorrow’s very first rapid, had tossed me from the raft and into the Colorado.
With 28 rafters and 4 guides, my group filled two J-Rig rafts— massive, motorize floating beasts with room for 15+ people and more than a week’s worth of supplies and equipment. When we’re just floating with the current, J-rig rafters can stand and stretch, and even wander around the rafts with relative ease. But when a rapid approaches, we have to hunker down and lock onto the designated hand-holds in one of the raft’s three three riding zones:
The next morning we pushed off a little before 8:00. I’d decided before the trip that, given our history, I wanted to be up front for Unkar. I was joined on the tubes by only one other rafter, while everyone else, uncertain about what was in store, crammed into the two back areas. (We called our other raft the “party raft”—their tubes were packed with rafters throughout the trip.)
Approaching Unkar, the guides’ moods changed: Wiley cut the engine, and we drifted toward the downstream roar while Lindsay delivered a serious lecture about rapid survival. Adding to the tension, on her way back to her seat, for the first time Lindsay checked everyone’s lifejacket and hand holds. Then, before we had a chance panic, the engine fired, the river quickened, and the raft shot forward and plunged into the whitewater.
A major rapid assaults many senses at once. The larger rapids pummel you with a series of waves that toss you in multiple directions at once and barely give a chance to recover before the next rapid tosses you in directions you didn’t know existed. The largest rapids, like Unkar, have multiple stomach-swallowing drops and ascents; you soon learn that the largest are nearly vertical, horizon-swallowing, down/up cavities that run green and smooth with a garnish of churning whitewater dancing on top. Depending on how the raft hits a wave, we could ride over with barely a splash, or crash through in a full emersion baptismal experience.
The soundtrack to the rapid’s visual, tactile, and equilibrium experience is a locomotive roar mixed with screams. You know the ride’s over and you’ve survived when the screams turn to shouts, and finally laughter as everyone dares to take their eyes from the river to make eye contact with the other survivors.
Unkar turned out to be one of the bigger—but definitely not the biggest—rides of this year’s trip. When it spit our boat out the other end, I uncurled my fingers from the ropes and shook the water free, checked all my parts to ensure they were as they were when we entered, then scanned my fellow rafters for their reaction to their first major rapid. The euphoria was clear, and I think if it had been possible, the vote to do it all over would have been unanimous.
As I suspected might happen, surviving Unkar emboldened the group; by the end of the day and for the rest of the trip, we had far more people riding on the tubes, with the limiting factor not so much fear as it was the 47 degree river water with an uncanny ability to penetrate even the most robust “waterproof” rainwear.
That evening, thirty-plus major rapids (and at least as many lesser rapids) farther downstream, we pulled into camp soggy and sore, but far from beaten. The afternoon had turned showery, and the showers persisted as we set up camp, slowing our drying more than adding to our wetness. While the guides prepared dinner in a light drizzle, I wandered down to the river to survey the photo opportunities. I found pictures everywhere—upstream, downstream, across the river—but rather than dive right into my camera bag, I first took the time to savor my surroundings.
The canyon’s pulse, the river’s ubiquitous thrum echoing from rocks that predate the dinosaurs, is simultaneously exhilarating and meditative. Unable to bottle this exquisite balance to take back with me, I turned to my camera, hoping for the next best thing—an image that will bring me back.
Shortly before sunset the rain stopped and sunlight fringed openings in the thinning clouds. By this time several others in the group had joined me at the river’s edge, each camera pointing at a different scene. I’d found mine, I soon tired of the limited foreground options and set out across a field of river-rounded boulders, hopping in my flip-flops toward a promising formation of rocks protruding from the river about a hundred yards away.
It wasn’t until I was all the way there that I realized that the solitary plant I could see protruding from the river wasn’t going to be a distraction to deal with, it was going to be my subject. As the sky colored and darkened, I kept working on this one little plant, positioning and repositioning until the plant, surrounding rocks, and looming peak felt balanced. The final touch that tied the scene up came when I moved a little closer and raised my tripod to its apex so my plant was isolated entirely against the river.
After spending a little more time with this image, I better appreciate why the scene resonated with me then, and why I feel so drawn to it now. The river is rushing here, flaunting the power that tossed and drenched me and my fellow rafters all day, yet this small plant stands motionless for the duration of an exposure that exceeds one second. I admire its calm, the way it towers unfazed above the force that carved this magnificent chasm.
Posted on June 8, 2015
“Uh, we’re going to need more time here”
Before last year’s raft trip, my relationship with the Little Colorado River was limited to the view from the Cameron Suspension Bridge on US 89: Rarely more than a muddy trickle, the Little Colorado seemed better suited as an indicator of recent precipitation than a photo destination. So last year, when Wiley (my raft trip’s lead guide) said we’d be stopping at the Little Colorado River confluence, I shrugged.
The day had been a mix of clouds and sun, great for photography. The sun was behind the clouds when we tied up on the rocks at the confluence; as I hopped off the raft, camera bags in tow, Wiley told us to be back on the raft in 45 minutes. I remember thinking, Really? Surely we can find a better spot to take advantage of this great light, but I kept my mouth shut. Expectations low, I rounded the corner and stopped like I’d slammed into a brick wall. Unable at first to process what I was seeing, I finally turned and called back to Wiley, “Uh, we’re going to need more time here.” And it was so.
So what happened?
Clearly, somewhere between Cameron and the canyon, the Little Colorado had gotten an infusion. And not just an infusion of regular old greenish-brown river water, but an infusion of mineral-laced, other-worldly turquoise water. It turns out that, after leaving Cameron, the Little Colorado carves a deep (and quite scenic) canyon, a canyon so deep that it cuts into a travertine- and limestone-laced aquifer that recharges and colors its flow. The limestone also paints the river’s bed a reflective white, further enhancing the turquoise hue. (It’s the same color, for the same reason, as the more heralded Havasu Creek.)
Unfortunately, on that first visit, the photogenic clouds and light that had been with us all day took our arrival as its cue to move on, forcing us photograph this beautiful scene in ordinary, harsh, mid-afternoon light. On that visit, despite the extra time, I wasn’t able to capture anything that would do this magnificent spot justice. But I made plans to return, and strategized with Wiley the best way to maximize our chances for good light the next time.
Our original plan for the Little Colorado this year was a late afternoon stop on day 2, but after a windy morning, Wiley suggested stopping early at a more sheltered campsite. Though that meant not getting to the Little Colorado until the morning of day 3, the weather forecast before we departed (to the land of no weather forecasts) had called for lots of clouds and a slight chance of showers for most of the week; the clouds had been with us so far, so I crossed my fingers that they’d hang in there for us.
And hang in they did. For the hour-and-half we had there, the sun made cameo appearances but largely remained offstage. In place of the typical horizon-to-horizon blue sky, we got patches of blue mixing with rapid changing cumulus. When the sun did appear, it spotlighted individual features rather than illuminate the entire scene.
The biggest problem I had was deciding where to point my camera. Usually I identify where the best shot is and concentrate my attention there. In this case, because I couldn’t decide, I shot both upstream and down, hedging my bets with wide and tight, horizontal and vertical compositions. I know I left a lot of shots farther upstream, so I guess I’ll just need to go back next year.
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.
Posted on June 3, 2015
Rafting Grand Canyon last year was a bucket list item, a one-time opportunity to do something I’d dreamed about my entire life. I came into that trip with ridiculously high expectations, all of which were exceeded enough that I scheduled another, then waited a year to find out whether the first one was just lightning in a bottle.
After departing our Las Vegas hotel at 4:45 a.m. and flying to a small airstrip near Lee’s Ferry, we met our guides, absorbed a thorough orientation from Wiley, our experienced, knowledgable, talented, hard working lead guide (this would describe all of our guides), and were on the water before 10:00. We were 2 rafts packed with 28 rafters, 4 guides, equipment, camera gear, and food to sustain the entire operation for six days.
Most in the group were first-timers, excited for sure, but also a little anxious about what lay ahead. Fortunately, starting from Lee’s Ferry, the first day on the river is relatively benign, a gentle float that allows neophyte rafters to ease into the experience and get to know each other. Bobbing downstream at a leisurely pace, we were sprinkled by a few riffles (mini-rapids, unworthy of a name), enjoyed a delicious lunch in the shadow of Navajo Bridge, listened to a couple more brief, on-raft orientation talks, before pulling onshore for the day at around 4:00 p.m.
Our first campsite was at Upper North Canyon in the Marble Canyon section of Grand Canyon (yes, that’s a lot of Canyons). We stumbled through our first “fire-line”—the raft trip equivalent of a bucket-brigade (you know, for when you’re barn’s on fire) that unloads pretty much the entire contents of the raft in about 5 minutes. (By the end of the trip we’d become a well oiled, fire line machine.) After claiming a campsite (picture a 19th century style land rush) and setting up my camp (basically picking a campsite, assembling a cot, and tossing out my sleeping bag), I grabbed my camera and went down to the river in search of an image that would do the view justice.
Though our campsite was chosen for its convenience (location, size, topography), its beauty was pretty representative of Grand Canyon’s entire length. Regrettably, pictures and words cannot display the relentless, humbling awe that engulfs all who venture between the Grand Canyon’s vertical walls. But of course that won’t prevent me from trying.
In this scene I was most struck by the color: the white-on-blue sky, red sandstone walls, and deep green of the Colorado River. Bisecting all this color was a set of white, rock-wrapping rapids. I dropped low and compose wide with my 16-35 to emphasize the foreground rocks and rapids; a vertical orientation included the sky and created the sense that the river was flowing into my frame (and eliminated our campsite, which was just out of the frame to the left).
In refreshing contrast to last year’s trip, the clouds cooperated wonderfully, defusing the late afternoon light to subdue the potentially extreme dynamic range. To convey the water’s motion, I experimented with different shutter speeds, ultimately dropping to ISO 50 to maximize the blur.
The clouds gracing this scene were a harbinger of exciting weather ahead. And while that weather made a good deal more discomfort than the previous year’s trip, it also gave us a corresponding increase in the number of photo opportunities. Stay tuned….
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.
Posted on June 20, 2014
Last week I went to see Jon Favreau’s “Chef.”* As someone whose relationship with food is decidedly skewed to the consumption side, I was surprised by how much this film activated my artistic instincts. (In hindsight: “Duh.”) A line that particularly resonated was advice from Favreau’s character to his 11 year-old son (federal copyright laws that forbid me from employing a recording device in a movie theater force me to paraphrase here): “First you choose your ingredients, then you decide what to cook.” Not only does that simple statement beautifully define the difference between a cook and a chef (a cook duplicates, a chef creates), I think it applies equally well to photography.
Do you approach your shoots with a “recipe,” a preconceived notion of what you’ll find and how you want to photograph it? Unless you’re content to photograph only what others have before you have photographed, this is the wrong approach. The longer I do this, the more convinced I become that best photographers examine the ingredients at hand, identify what’s best, and only then decide the most appealing way to prepare them.
All of us rafters came to our Grand Canyon raft trip with ideas of what we’d find, and the photographs we wanted to return with. But because a tight schedule, National Park Service regulations, and the needs of a large group trumped all personal wishes, our campsites were rarely selected with photography as the prime consideration. Each evening I’d have several people ask some form of, “What should I photograph here?” I soon realized that what I needed to do was to help them overcome their photographic expectations and desires, to tear up the “recipe” they brought to the Grand Canyon “kitchen,” and concentrate the ingredients available right now. It wasn’t as if we didn’t have wonderful ingredients, it was just that the ingredients didn’t really work with the meal they’d planned to prepare.
Our third campsite was in a narrow gap between vertical, river-carved walls. Beautiful as it was, the scene was rather confined and lacking the broad views that lend themselves to the expansive majesty we’d grown so accustomed to. While the outer canyon walls, in places, jutted above the steep inner walls confining us, I quickly decided that these views didn’t really compete with some of the wide views we’d already photographed, and were sure to encounter as we continued downriver. I walked along the riverbank with my camera, examining the elements at hand.
What struck me first was horizontal banding on the shear inner wall and the Colorado River’s deep jade hue. I walked a little upstream to a spot where the smooth river was disturbed by section of gentle rapids, hoping that a little whitewater would help the green stand out. Not only did the white and green work wonderfully together, a shutter speed of about 1/2 second blurred the rapids into horizontal bands that beautifully complemented the banding on the inner canyon wall. Nice, but I still needed a foreground. Widening my composition with my polarizer dialed to remove reflections, I found that river rocks beneath the smoother water near the bank stood out enough to add visual interest to my foreground.
I could have stopped here, but I still thought the foreground could use a little more weight. I moved a little farther upstream to where a group of river-smoothed rocks protruded from the river. It took a little doing to fit them into my composition without including other nearby distractions, but I finally found something that worked. Nevertheless, I thought my first couple of frames had too much empty space between the visual weight of my foreground rocks and the visual motion of the blurred rapids, so I shrunk this space and further emphasized my foreground rocks by dropping my tripod to about 18 inches above the ground.
*Great movie, BTW.
I’m doing it all over again in 2015 (May 11-18)—contact me if you’d like to join me.