Step Aside and Let Nature Do Its Thing

Gary Hart Photography: Nature's Curves, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley

Nature’s Curves, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1 second
ISO 125

Once upon a time, my most frequently asked question was some version of, “Did you put that leaf (or whatever) there?” (No.) When digital photography and Photoshop processing started to gather momentum, those questions expanded to whether or not I added the moon or the Milky Way to an image. (Again, no.) And now, with effortless sky replacement, any beautiful sunset seems to generate dubious looks. Sigh.

As discouraging as this cynicism is, given the number of photographers who seem willing to manipulate the natural world, viewers of today’s images have every right to be skeptical of their origin. But nature photography’s prime objective should to reveal natural beauty—and when we succeed, viewers’ first reaction shouldn’t be skepticism.

Order vs. chaos

The main reason I’ve always resisted manipulating scenes and manufacturing images is that I try to approach my photography with the mindset that Nature is inherently ordered and unimprovable. Sometimes natural beauty slaps us in the face; other times we have to look a little harder. But I’m afraid in a world where humans go to great lengths to suppress fires, divert rivers, raze forests, and in countless other ways try to control, contain, and otherwise manage the natural world, we’ve fostered the arrogant mindset that we can do it better.

When Nature gets “out of control,” we label it chaos and try to “fix” it. But what humans perceive as “chaos” is actually just a manifestation of the universe’s inexorable push toward natural order. I mean, think about it: Imagine that all humans leave Earth for an extended tour of the Milky Way. While we’re gone, no lawns are mowed, no buildings maintained, no fires extinguished, no floods controlled, no Starbucks built. Let’s say we return in 100 Earth years*. While the state of things upon our return would no doubt be perceived as chaotic, the reality is that our planet would in fact be closer to its natural state. And the longer we’re away, the more human-imposed “order” would be replaced by natural order—and I dare say, more beautiful.

I’m thinking about all this because there’s nothing like a visit to pristine sand dunes to remind a person that Nature doesn’t need our help when it comes to creating beauty. The exquisite choreography of dipping and soaring arcs, lines, and parallel grooves that form naturally when sand, wind, and gravity combine and are left alone is both beautiful and humbling.

I got my most recent dose of sand dune splendor last week, when I guided my Death Valley workshop group out onto the Mesquite Flat Dunes. Given their proximity to the highway and the tiny enclave of Stovepipe Wells, these dunes are almost aways swarmed by people and stained by enduring footprints. To avoid both, I take my groups on a one-mile cross-country (no trail) hike out to a spot much more likely to reward us with virgin sand.

When last week’s visit delivered as hoped, we made the trek twice—once for sunset, and again the next morning for sunrise. The sunset shoot featured a gorgeous red sky in all directions that had everyone spinning in circles to avoid missing something. But I actually enjoyed our sunrise shoot even more, when an 80-percent cloud cover created a natural softbox that let the dunes do their elegant thing.

It was still completely dark when we parked and started our morning hike—dark enough that I just kind of pointed my headlamp in the general direction I wanted to go, confident that it didn’t really matter exactly where in the dunes we’d end up. Because footprints in sand are forever (in the context of a 90 minute photoshoot), part of my job is finding a spot where we can all set up in relatively close proximity, then to play traffic cop to ensure no one strays into sand that might be photo-worthy. After scaling and descending several dunes, I finally paused atop an elevated sand platform. Surveying our surroundings in the first gray light of dawn, my eye was instantly drawn to a graceful serpentine ridge arcing across the face of the dune just opposite us. With enough space for the entire group, a view that spanned nearly 270 degrees, and a gorgeous foreground element, I decided that we’d found our spot.

One of the things I love about photographing sand dunes is that there are compositions for every lens in my bag, from my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM to the Sony 100-400 GM (and the Sony 200-600 if I hadn’t left it in the car). I played with several lenses before zeroing in on the arc that had originally grabbed my eye. For this feature I used my Sony 24-105 GM on my Sony a7RIV, starting fairly wide to include more dunes and some sky, then gradually zooming tighter to isolate the arc.

While I do all of my photography on a tripod, for dunes especially I like to take my camera off the tripod, put my eye to the viewfinder, and slowly scan the scene until something stops me. I can’t even tell you exactly why I stopped with this composition, except to say that it just felt right.

As these dunes illustrate (and I hope my image conveys), Nature creates the most astonishing beauty. I have no illusions I can improve on Nature’s offerings, but as long as I keep looking, I’m pretty confident that there’s enough naturally occurring beauty to keep me occupied for the rest of my life.

* Since this is my fantasy, I’ve chartered a spaceship that accommodates all of humankind and travels at 90 percent of the speed of light. While Earth has indeed aged 100 years during our holiday, we travelers return only a year older. (Dubious? Don’t take my word for it, ask Albert Einstein.)

Sand Dune Splendor

Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.

2020 Highlights: Quality Over Quantity

Being a photographer is more than just capturing images, it’s also very much the experiences that go with their capture. So looking back on a year most notable for its lowlights, and browsing a portfolio that’s by far the smallest of any year since I’ve called myself a photographer, I’m surprised by the number of 2020 experiences that give me shear joy to relive.

So far so good

January 2020 kicked off what appeared to be shaping up to be a banner year, with wonderful conditions in Death Valley and the Alabama Hills: reflections at Badwater, a Zabriskie Point moonset, and a series of beautiful sunrises and sunsets. The year’s first month wrapped up in Iceland with too many highlights to mention, but none more memorable than  back-to-back northern lights shoots on the workshop’s final two nights. February followed with some fantastic moonrises in Yosemite—so far so good.

Hit the brakes

Then came March, and the world shut down. Since the end of February, I’ve had to cancel 11 workshops. Lost to COVID and (in one case) wildfires were the Oregon and New Zealand workshops I share with Don Smith, two Yosemite spring workshops, my Grand Canyon raft trip, two Grand Canyon monsoon workshops, and the Eastern Sierra workshop. I was finally able to squeeze in the Yosemite fall color workshop in October, but have since had to cancel the upcoming Iceland workshop (also a collaboration with Don Smith) in January 2021.

But wait…

After wallowing in the isolation of a severely socially distanced spring, early summer arrived and out of nowhere came Comet NEOWISE. I’ve been comet-obsessed since I was 10 years old, so the opportunity to photograph what is arguably the most breathtaking phenomenon to grace the heavens (rivaled only by the northern/southern lights and a total solar eclipse) above Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, was just the elixir I needed. While my two Yosemite trips were comet-specific (8 hours of driving for about an hour of photography each time), my Grand Canyon trip was a (socially distanced) multi-day affair that also featured lightning and beautiful monsoon skies.

After the Grand Canyon in late July, I didn’t really get to do much photography until my Yosemite fall color workshop in late October—a real treat that enabled me to share with a group Yosemite at its autumn, reflective best. Not only was the photography nice, it was a joy to be back with a group of enthusiastic, fun photographers.

Then, just a week later, I hit the jackpot, spending a day in Yosemite photographing snow falling on peak fall color—not just a highlight of my year, but a highlight of my photography life. And finally, in early December I arranged a last-minute gathering with a few of my favorite photography friends to photograph a Yosemite Half Dome moonrise.

Quality (of experience) over quantity (of images)

Compiling the 2020 Highlights gallery at the bottom of this post, I’ve chosen not to focus on the opportunities lost in 2020, but instead to count the blessings I was granted. From sharing the northern lights with an ecstatic group of photographers/friends, to watching the miracle of Comet NEOWISE suspended above two of the most beautiful locations on Earth, to a magical day photographing Yosemite Valley with fresh snow on fall color, 2020 brought me memories that will stand as some of the most outstanding of my life. I can’t say that I’m not looking forward to 2021 more than I look forward to most new years, but I’m going to let 2020’s losses fade in favor of its indelible highlights.

For example

Click the image for the rest of the story (and check out the entire gallery at the bottom)

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Reflection, Badwater, Death Valley

Sunset Reflection, Badwater, Death Valley (January)

Gary Hart Photography: Heaven Sent, Aurora Above Glacier Lagoon, Iceland

Heaven Sent, Aurora Above Glacier Lagoon, Iceland (January)

Gary Hart Photography: Magenta Moonrise, Half Dome and the Merced River, Yosemite

Magenta Moonrise, Half Dome and the Merced River, Yosemite (February)

Gary Hart Photography: Moon's Rest, Cloud's Rest, Yosemite

Moon’s Rest, Cloud’s Rest, Yosemite (February)

Gary Hart Photography: Comet Neowise and Venus, Half Dome from Glacier Point, Yosemite

Comet Neowise and Venus, Half Dome from Glacier Point, Yosemite (July)

Gary Hart Photography: Comet NEOWISE and the Big Dipper, Grandview Point, Grand Canyon

Comet NEOWISE and the Big Dipper, Grandview Point, Grand Canyon (July)

Gary Hart Photography: Fall Into Winter, Bridalveil Fall Reflection, Yosemite

Fall Into Winter, Bridalveil Fall Reflection, Yosemite (November)

A Gallery of My 2020 Highlights

Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.

Assembly Required

Gary Hart Photography: Dune Patterns, Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley

Dune Patterns, Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley
Sony a7RIV
Sony 100-400 GM
1/30 second
ISO 100

Some images are so obvious that all you need to do is frame the scene and click; others require a little assembly.

For example

There was a lot going on visually in this January sunrise at Mesquite Flat Dunes in Death Valley—some of it good, some of it not so good. The not-so-good was the sky, which was clear and infinitely blue—great for being outside, but lousy for photography. The good was the parallel arcs etched in the pristine sand, and the play of light on the dunes’ clean lines and sweeping curves.

My problem this morning was assembling all of this good stuff into a coherent photo. I usually start by finding something to anchor my scene, then construct an image around that anchor using positioning, focal length, and framing. But out on the dunes I couldn’t find a satisfying anchor and my muse was floundering without it. Compounding the difficulty, because I was out there with my Death Valley workshop group, my mobility was limited because when you move through someone’s frame, your footprints become a permanent stain in their scene.

Rather than concede defeat and settle for something not worthy of the morning’s beauty, I switched to my Sony 100-400 GM lens (on my Sony a7RIV), zoomed to 400mm, and slowly panned the dunes in long, sweeping, horizontal arcs, hoping to find the composition that had eluded me so far. The secret to this approach is to pan slowly and disengage conscious thought, allowing my unconscious to guide my eye until something stops it (easier said than done, but surprisingly effective when I can clear my mind). The element in this scene that stopped me was the large sunlit dune at least a mile away.

I started with compositions that emphasized the large dune at the expense of foreground sharpness. That was okay, but when I briefly focused on wind-etched ridges of nearby sand about 100 yards away, the spectacular patterns and intricate detail grabbed my eye and didn’t let go. Reluctant to give up the distant dune that had drawn me in the first place, I stopped all the way down to f/22, computed the hyperfocal distance with a hyperfocal app on my phone, and tried a variety of focus points before finally surrendering to the fact that I couldn’t get both the foreground and background sharp in one frame.

Today, most photographers would simply shoot two frames and blend them in post, a perfectly valid and ridiculously simple solution that (sadly) gives me no satisfaction. So I went the other way and used the limited depth of field to my advantage. Realizing that it was the distant dune’s shape that most appealed to me, not its detail, I went instead for a soft background that focused the frame’s primary attention on the exquisite detail in the nearby sand while retaining the background’s soft shapes and shadows.

I opened my lens to f/5.6, its widest aperture at 400mm, and focused near the middle of the nearby slope. This gave me a front-to-back range of sharpness of nearly 60 feet (according to my hyperfocal app)—enough to keep the entire slope sharp, a fact I later confirmed by magnifying my capture in my mirrorless viewfinder and moving the view around. I also confirmed that the softness of background dunes was sufficient to be clearly intentional (rather than a just-missed focus error).

In addition to using a soft background to emphasize detail on the closest dune slope, I slightly underexposed the entire scene to render the shaded mountainside in the extreme distance extremely dark. The nearly black background created contrast contrast that helped the dunes stand out even better, and virtually eliminated unattractive ruts and ravines in the barren brown slope.

A Death Valley Gallery

Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.



Near and Far: Thinking in Three Dimensions

Gary Hart Photography: Prickly Sunset, Hell's Gate, Death Valley

Prickly Sunset, Hell’s Gate, Death Valley
Sony a7RIV
Sony 12-24 G
.4 seconds
ISO 100

Photography is the futile attempt to render a three dimensional world in a two dimensional medium. It’s “futile” because including actual depth in a photograph is literally impossible—but impossible doesn’t mean hopeless. One of the simplest things photographers can do to elevate their images is to think about their scene in three dimensions, specifically how to create the illusion of depth by composing elements at multiple distances from the camera.

Many photographers miss opportunities by simply settling for the beautiful scene before them instead of looking for ways to make it even better. A more productive approach is to start with the beautiful aspect of the scene you want to emphasize (brilliant sunset, backlit flower, towering peak, vivid rainbow, plunging waterfall, whatever), then aggressively seek an object or objects nearer or farther to complement it (this is one reason I love including the moon in my images). Of course it’s sometimes easier said than done, but this near/far mindset should drive every capture.

Thinking foreground and background is a great start, but merely having objects at varying distances usually isn’t enough—you also need to be aware of how those objects guide your viewer’s eye through the frame. We hear a lot of photographers talk about using “leading lines” to move the eye, but a line doesn’t need to be a literal (visible) line to move the eye because viewers will subconsciously connect certain elements to create virtual lines.

To help me achieve virtual leading lines, a term I like to use is “visual weight”: a quality in an object that tugs the eye like gravity, subconsciously pulling the viewer’s gaze in its direction. Qualities in an object that can create visual weight include mass, shape, brightness, contrast, color, texture, and sometimes just position in the frame. A single one of these qualities can give an object visual weight, but usually a combination of more than one is more effective.

Additionally, an object’s emotional power can boost its visual weight. For example, a small moon will pull the eye more than a larger bright cloud, and Half Dome has more visual weight than a random rock occupying the same amount of frame real estate.

With my primary subject and complementary (eye moving) objects identified, I still need to consider the linear connection between these visual components. I usually prefer diagonal relationships because I like the visual tension created by moving the eye along multiple planes. Creating these virtual diagonals requires careful positioning, but it’s surprising how many photographers just remain planted with their tripod as if it has grown roots—either they don’t see the benefit of repositioning, or don’t think moving is worth the effort.

Whatever the reason, it’s important for photographers to understand the power of shifting position to control foreground and background relationships: move left and your foreground shifts right relative to the background; move right and the foreground shifts left relative to the background. Either way, the closer the foreground is relative to the background, the more dramatic the shift. And contrary to what you might believe, it’s impossible to change foreground/background perspective with focal length—to change perspective, you must change position: forward/backward, left/right, up/down.

An often overlooked shift that can be quite powerful is the up/down shift. Often I’m able to un-merge objects at different distances by simply raising my tripod or climbing atop a nearby rock. And when my frame has a large and boring empty space (such as a field of weeds or dirt) between the foreground and background, I drop lower to shrink that gap.

For example

On the first evening of my Death Valley Winter Moon workshop earlier this month, I took my group to Hell’s Gate. At Hell’s Gate the view south is straight down the valley toward Furnace Creek and Badwater; in the east are rutted hills that turn gold with the sun’s last light; the view west takes in nearby Death Valley Buttes, with the Panamint Range in the distance. While I like this spot for these grand vistas, it’s the assortment of cacti, rocks, and shrubs to include with the vistas that especially appeal to me.

Of the many barrel cacti that dotting the hillside at Hell’s Gate, I’m especially drawn to a large specimen above the trail and about halfway up the steep slope. But because I’m leading a group and this barrel cactus usually taken by someone else, I rarely get to photograph it at prime time. This year, however, the rest of the group was occupied with other foreground subjects, so when the sky started to turn pink with sunset, I scrambled up the talus and went to work.

The color was best in the direction of the pyramid-shaped Death Valley Buttes, so I started working on a composition in that direction. I knew my foreground would be the barrel cactus, and the background subject would be the buttes, but I still needed to turn the scene into a picture. Using my Sony a7R IV, I started with my Sony 12-24 G lens to allow me to get as close as possible to the photogenic barrel cactus. Scanning the scene, I quickly recognized the visual weight potential in the bare shrub—not for its inherent beauty, but for the its contrast (against the dark rock) and flame-like shape. These qualities gave it enough visual weight to balance the right half of the frame and move the viewer’s eye diagonally toward the buttes.

I positioned myself so the cactus was closest to the frame and left of center, and the shrub was right of center, with the Death Valley Buttes right down the middle. With my camera at eye level the empty plain in the middle distance occupied too much of the frame, so I dropped down to near cactus level. Doing this had the added advantage of increasing the prominence of the interesting jumble of rocks in the near-right—they don’t stand out enough to pull the eye from the cactus-shrub-buttes path I’d laid out, but their texture added some secondary visual interest in that part of the frame.

At 12mm I had a ridiculous amount of depth of field to play with, but I still took care with my focus choices. My rule of thumb for these extreme front-to-back scenes is to identify the closest thing that must be sharp (the cactus), and focus a little behind it—if I focus on the cactus, I get near sharpness I don’t need, at the potential risk of essential distant sharpness. I probably could have gotten away with f/8, but since the light was changing fast, I didn’t want to take the time to check my hyperfocal app. I stopped down to f/11, focused on a rock a foot or so behind the cactus, metered, and clicked.

Death Valley Photo Workshops

Near and Far

Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.


Dynamic Juxtaposition

Gary Hart Photography: Eclipsed Moonset, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley

Moonset Eclipse, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley
Sony a7RII
Sony 100-400 GM
ISO 800
1/4 seconds

Much of my photography is about juxtaposition of elements with the landscape. Sometimes that’s simply combining static terrestrial features, but when possible I try to add something more dynamic, such as meteorological subjects like lightning or a rainbow, or celestial objects like the Milky Way or the Moon. The challenge with dynamic juxtapositions is timing—while the meteorological juxtapositions are usually a matter of playing the odds, celestial juxtapositions are gloriously precise.

Lunar choreography

Just as the Earth revolves around the Sun, the Moon revolves around Earth; at any point in this celestial dance, half of Earth is daylight and half is night, while half of the Moon is lit and half is dark. The amount of the Moon we see (its phase) depends on the relative position of the Sun, Moon, and Earth in this dance, and once each month all of the sunlit side of the Moon faces the dark side of Earth, and we Earthlings enjoy a full Moon.

This alignment of three or more orbiting celestial bodies necessary for a full (and new) Moon is called ‘syzygy.’ Due to the Moon’s orbit around Earth, the Sun, Earth, and Moon achieve syzygy twice each lunar month: once when the Moon is between the Sun and Earth (a new Moon), and again when Earth is between the Sun and Moon (a full Moon).

The Moon completes its trip around Earth every 27.3 days, but it takes 29.5 days to cycle through all its phases, from new to full and back to new again. The Moon’s phases need that extra 2+ days because as the Moon circles Earth, Earth also circles the Sun, taking the syzygy point with it—imagine a race with a moving finish line.

Viewed from Earth, the Sun and Moon are on opposite sides of the sky when the Moon is full, so a full Moon rises in the east at sunset and sets in the west at sunrise. We rarely see a full Moon rising exactly as the Sun sets (or setting as the Sun rises) because: 1) the point of maximum fullness (when the Sun, Earth, and Moon align perfectly) only happens at one instant on the full Moon day—at every other instant of each month’s full Moon day, the Moon is merely almost full (but still full enough to appear full); 2) published Sun/Moon rise/set times assume a flat horizon—if you have mountains between you and the horizon, your view of the true Sun/Moon rise/set is blocked; and 3) The more extreme your latitude (angular distance from the equator), the more skewed the Sun/Moon alignment appears.

Knowing this, it should make sense that the closer the Moon is to full, the longer it’s in the night sky, and a full Moon is in the sky all night long. Less intuitive but very important for lunar photographers to know, each day the Moon rises an average of 50 minutes later (between 30-70 minutes) than it rose the previous day—I usually mentally round to an hour for quick figuring.

Lunar Eclipse

If the Moon orbited Earth on the same plane Earth orbits the Sun, we’d have an eclipse with each syzygy: every new Moon, Earth would pass through the Moon’s shadow and somewhere on Earth would experience a solar eclipse; every full Moon the night side of Earth would witness a lunar eclipse as the Moon passes into Earth’s shadow. But the Moon’s orbit is tilted about 5 degrees from Earth’s orbit, making the perfect alignment an eclipse requires relatively rare.

It turns out that the alignment of the Sun, Earth, and Moon necessary for a lunar eclipse happens from two to four times each year. Of these, about one-third are total eclipses, when Earth’s shadow completely covers the Moon. At totality, most of the sunlight illuminating the Moon is blocked by Earth, and the only light to reach the Moon has passed through Earth’s atmosphere, which filters out all but the long, red wavelengths. For the same reason sunsets are red, during a total lunar eclipse we see a red or “blood” Moon.

Putting it all together

As frequent and familiar as the rise and set of the Moon is, the opportunity to witness the beauty of an eclipse is rare. But in the last six months, after being shut out by schedule or weather for many years, I’ve managed to photograph my first total solar and lunar eclipses. I wasn’t able to juxtapose the August solar eclipse with a favorite landscape, but I wasn’t going to let that happen again for last week’s lunar eclipse.

Viewed from Death Valley’s Zabriskie Point in winter, the setting full Moon’s azimuth aligns nicely with Manly Beacon, one of the park’s most recognizable features. Though this year’s alignment was particularly good, the morning of the eclipse was a day earlier than I’d normally photograph the Zabriskie Point moonset—the next day the Moon would be setting about 45 minutes later, providing ample time to photograph the landscape in the warm early light before the Moon descended behind the Panamints. Nevertheless, I decided that a total lunar eclipse trumps everything, and since Zabriskie was the best place for the eclipse, that’s where we were.

We started with telephoto compositions of the beautiful “blood Moon” phase because there wasn’t enough light to include the eclipsed Moon with the landscape without compositing two exposures. Composites are fine, but I prefer capturing scenes with one click. For wider images that included the landscape I waited until totality had passed, shortly before the Moon set, and switched to the Sony/Zeiss 24-70 with my Sony a7RIII, moving my Sony 100-400 GM to my Sony a7RII.

I captured this image about 25 minutes before sunrise, normally too early to capture landscape detail without over exposing the Moon. But this morning, following the total eclipse, the lit portion of the moon was still darkened by Earth’s penumbral shadow, which reduced the dynamic range to something my cameras could handle.

To enlarge the Moon and emphasize its juxtaposition with Manly Beacon, I went with the 100-400. With my composition and focus set, I slowly dialed up the shutter speed until I saw my a7RII’s pre-capture “zebra” highlight alert. After clicking I magnified my image preview and examined the moon to confirm that I did indeed still have detail. The foreground was quite dark on my LCD, but my histogram indicated the shadows were recoverable, something I later confirmed in Lightroom.

A Gallery of Dynamic Juxtapositions

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

Watch your back

Gary Hart Photography: Painted Dunes, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley

Painted Dunes, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
.4 seconds
ISO 100

Every once in a while we find ourselves at just the right place when Mother Nature delivers something special. When that happens, the best thing to do is stay calm and keep your head on a swivel.

In January my Death Valley workshop group had one of those moments. We’d walked almost a mile to get out to dunes that hadn’t been trampled, then waited while a sky that was solid overcast broke up just as the sun dipped below the horizon. The result was about ten minutes of horizon-to-horizon red that at its peak painted the dunes as well.

We’d been watching a hole in the clouds to our north shift in our direction, and I started to get an inkling that the ingredients were there for a vivid sunset about fifteen minutes earlier, when peaks in the northeast, then the clouds overhead, started to glow with warm, late light. I’d been using my 70-200 telephoto lens to isolate areas of the dunes, but realized that if the sky did indeed light up, I’d almost certainly want something wider and switched to my 16-35. I also encouraged everyone to do the same, and to anticipate the color and identify sunset compositions now, before it happened. Shortly thereafter we got our first hints of pink and the show was on.

That evening was a great example of something I preach in my workshops: No matter how great the scene you’re photographing, every once in a while take a few seconds to look around. On this evening I was excitedly photographing in one direction when I realized everyone in the group was photographing in the opposite direction. Turning to admonish them, I saw what they were photographing and shut up, quickly aiming my camera in that direction instead.

Read more about that evening, and see a picture of the other direction, here: Finding  a new sandbox.

Sunset color

As I’ve written before, the ingredients for sunset (or sunrise) color are clouds, direct sunlight, and clean air (the cleaner the better). The idea that polluted or dusty air is good for sunset is a myth. (If that were true, Los Angeles and Beijing would be know for their sunsets, not Hawaii or the Caribbean.)

The red you see at sunset is the only color remaining after the white sunlight we see at midday has been stripped of all other wavelengths. It’s actually a rather interesting process (to me at least) that you can read more about here: Sunset Color.

Schedule of upcoming photo workshops

A gallery of sunset magic

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

Tips to improve your full moon photography

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Moon, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley

Winter Moon, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1/6 second
ISO 100

Have you ever seen a glowing full moon suspended above a beautiful landscape and been moved enough to grab your camera? And how many times have those pictures actually matched your memory of the moment? Not too many, I’d guess. Either your landscape was completely black, or (more likely) the moon was an ugly white blob. You’ve just experienced an example of the human eye’s vastly superior dynamic range—while you could see detail in the landscape and the moon, your camera could only see one or the other.

Lot’s of scouting and plotting goes into aligning a full moon with a terrestrial subject, as close to the horizon as possible, when the light’s just right. For me, just right means a sky dark enough for the moon to stand out (the darker the better), but not so dark that I lose foreground detail in the twilight shadow. Since I don’t blend images, I need to get the landscape and lunar detail with a single click.

I’ve found that the “right-time” sweet spot for single-click full moon photography is a window about 10 minutes on either side of sunrise/sunset. Since the published sun/moon rise/set times assume a flat-horizon—unless you’re on a boat at sea, the sun and moon will probably be below the horizon when they’re advertised to be rising and setting.

It helps to know that as the moon goes through its 29-day cycle from new to full and back, it rises a little less than an hour later each day (that’s an average that varies with several factors, but it’s a good rule-of-thumb). This generally makes the moon visible in my 20-minute exposure sweet spot the day before it’s full for a sunset moonrise, and the day after it’s full for a sunrise moonset, because there’s more foreground light to work with. But even then the landscape will be bathed in shadow, while the moon remains daylight bright, so getting myself on location in this 20 minute window is only half the battle.

In general, digital cameras have made exposure easier. Shooting film, difficult exposures meant a lot of guessing, bracketing, and (especially) hoping. Shooting digitally, not only can we instantly eyeball each image, the histogram shows us exactly how our exposure worked. Unfortunately, the histogram isn’t much help when the moon’s involved, because the moon doesn’t usually occupy enough image real estate to register on the histogram. If you’re not careful, you might find yourself reveiwing an evening’s worth of images with beautiful histograms and a hopelessly blown moon. What’s a photographer to do?

The key to exposing any high dynamic range scene is pushing the highlights as far as you can without blowning them out. For most scenes the histogram is sufficient, but exposing for the moon requires help from your camera’s Highlight Alert (blinking highlights) feature. And since most cameras allow you to view images in multiple modes (e.g., with the luminosity histogram, RGB histogram, no histogram, full capture information, no capture information, and so on), it’s also important to determine which view or views actually show the blinking highlights (not all do)—if you’re not sure, I suggest intentionally overexposing a scene and reviewing the image in the camera’s various display modes.


When photographing a rising full moon at sunset, simply metering for the landscape works at the outset because there’s still plenty of light to capture foreground detail without overexposing the moon. At this point the histogram tells me everything I need to know. But as the sky darkens, so does the foreground, while the moon remains unchanged.

To keep my histogram in the ideal range as twilight deepens, I add light to my image by bumping the shutter speed in 1/3 stop increments. Each time I increase the shutter speed, I check the image to ensure that the moon’s not blinking. As soon as my exposure causes the moon to blink, I know I’ve reached my highlight threshold and I’m pretty much done adding light.

Once I’ve pushed the moon to my camera’s highlight threshold, I continue shooting until the shadows are so dark that no useable data can be recovered. Because highlight and shadow recovery varies with the camera, I strongly encourage you to familiarize yourself with your camera’s shadow and highlight threshold (how far to the left and right can push the histogram and still get usable detail).

If you’re shooting raw, you can probably push your exposure until part of the moon is blinking, but if the entire lunar disk blinks, you almost certainly will need to back down your exposure. Adding a graduated neutral density filter will hold back the moon enough to buy you five or ten minutes of shooting before the moon blows out.

Moonset (an example)

Photographing a setting full moon at sunrise is the sunset process in reverse—we start with the moon glowing above a landscape much too dark to get detail without hopelessly blowing out the moon, and finish when the moon sets, or when the sky brightens to the point that the moon starts to wash out.

In January, I got my Death Valley Winter Moon workshop group out to Zabriskie Point about 45 minutes before sunrise. The moon was indeed beautiful, but far too bright to photograph with the dark foreground. But it was high enough that I was able to do long exposures without the moon while I waited for the scene to brighten.

About 20 minutes before sunrise I pulled out a 3-stop hard-transition graduated neutral density filter and started including the moon, dialing my exposure down until the moon stopped blinking—the most light I could give the scene without losing the moon. At first the foreground was still far too dark to contain usable detail, but within 5 minutes I started to feel like the scene had brightened enough to allow usable detail (albeit with a fair amount of Lightroom Shadow/Highlight work later).

From that point on, I just worked on a variety of compositions that included the moon. Monitoring my histogram, I shortened my shutter speed to reduce the exposure as the foreground brightened. Eventually the foreground brightened enough that I didn’t need the GND filter.

In a perfect world the moon reaches the horizon while it’s in the sunrise/sunset 20(-ish) minute exposure sweet-spot (sky dark enough that the moon stands out, but not so dark that I can’t get landscape and lunar detail), but this morning the moon was high enough that the contrast flattened before it set.

The above image I captured early in the sweet spot—the foreground looked quite dark on my LCD, while the moon was mostly intact, with a couple of blinking specks. But I knew my Sony a7R II well enough to be confident that simple highlight and shadow adjustments in Lightroom would recover all the necessary detail.

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Improve your relationships

Gary Hart Photography: Sand and Sky, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley

Sand and Sky, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
.4 seconds
ISO 100

Following a nice sunrise on the dunes, my workshop group had started the undulating trek back to the cars. While we hadn’t gotten a lot of color that morning, we’d been blessed with virgin sand beneath a translucent layer of clouds. Quite content with the soft, low contrast light for most of the morning, right toward the end the sun snuck through to deliver high contrast, light-skimming drama that provided about five minutes of completely different photo opportunities. But the sun had left and it was time to go.

Camera gear secured and backpack hefted onto my shoulders, I pivoted with my mind already on our next stop. But my plan to beeline back to the cars was interrupted when I turned and saw that fingers of cirrus clouds had snuck up behind us. It wasn’t just the clouds, it was the way their shape was mirrored by the pristine, ribbed sand that started at my feet and climbed the dune in front of me.

I quickly dropped my bag and pulled out my a7RII and 16-35. Despite my rush, before extending my tripod, I paused to study the scene. As nice as it was, I realized there were a couple of things I could do to improve it. First I circled the dune until the clouds and ripples were more closely aligned. A good start, but at eye level, the barren slope of Tucki Mountain was too prominent in the frame. I found that by dropping my tripod to about a foot above the sand, I could perfectly frame the dune with the mountain.

I composed my frame at 16mm, as wide as my lens would go, to emphasize the nearby sand, make the dune appear much larger than it really was, and give the clouds enough room to spread. To ensure sufficient depth of field, I stopped down to f16 and manually focused about two feet into the frame. While I thought a vertical orientation would be the best way to move my viewers’ eyes from front to back and to emphasize the linear nature of the parallel clouds and sand, before packing up I captured a couple of horizontal frames too.

I think the lesson here is how easy it is to miss opportunities to control the foreground/background relationships in our scenes. With my group already on its way back to the cars, I was in a hurry and could have very easily snapped off a couple of frames from where I stood when I saw the scene. Instead, I took just a little more time to align my visual elements. Despite my delay, I made it back to the cars with the rest of the group (no chance of anyone getting lost, since the cars were visible from the dunes)—I was a little more out of breath than I otherwise would have been, but that was a sacrifice I was happy to make.

Often the difference between an image that’s merely a well executed rendering of a beautiful scene, and an image that stands out for the (often missed) aspects of the natural world it reveals, are the relationships that connect the scene’s disparate elements.

In this case I only had to move a few feet to align the ridges in the sand with the clouds. But more than an alignment of sand and sky, dropping to the ground enabled me to reduce a less appealing middle-ground and replace it with much more interesting foreground and background. If I’d have dropped even lower, I could have hidden the mountain entirely, but I liked the way its outline mimicked the dune’s outline, and decided to leave in just enough mountain to frame the dune.

The next time you work on a composition, ask yourself what will change if  you were to reposition yourself. And don’t forget all the different ways that can happen—not just by moving left or right and between horizontal and vertical, but also by moving up and down, and forward and backward. Not to mention all the possible combinations of those shifts.

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A gallery of relationships in nature

(Images with a not-so-accidental positioning of elements)

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Sand Storm, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley

Sandstorm, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley

*    *    *    *

Read my February 9 blog for more about this amazing evening on the dunes.


For nearly an hour my workshop group played in relative peace on the dunes, but about fifteen minutes before sunset the clouds dropped and our window of calm slammed shut. Just like that sand was everywhere, invading every camera, clothing, and exposed body orifice. After a few minutes of extreme photography packed up and started traipsing in the diminishing light in the general direction of the highway. Not only was the visibility limited, the tracks we’d just left and that might have guided us back to the cars had already been all but erased. But despite the difficulty it was impossible to ignore the photo opportunities brought by these new conditions and most in the group continued shooting until we were off the sand.

Looking east I saw the crest of Red Top, the tallest of the Death Valley Buttes, poking through the blowing sand, hovering like a spaceship above the dunes.  I moved around a bit until I found a complementary foreground of aligned ripples and curved ridges. Wanting to ensure that the exquisite sand at my feet was sharp I closed down to f16; to capture the steady stream of sand blowing parallel to the dunes I experimented with ISO/shutter combinations before finding the effect that worked. (And said a prayer of thanks to Gitzo and Really Right Stuff for keeping everything stable.)

Contrast the color of the sand between this image and the image in my February 9 blog. The earlier image was partially warmed by rays of unfiltered sunlight breaking through gaps in the clouds; today’s image is entirely illuminated by cool, diffused light spread by the thick clouds overhead. It’s a good reminder that color isn’t simply an inherent quality of an object, but rather is a function of the object and the light illuminating it. While white balancing a scene to ensure a fixed color cast might be great for a wedding (God forbid you get Aunt Mabel’s dress wrong), it can rob landscapes of the very qualities that make them special.

Incoming Storm, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley

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Pure as the driven sand

Incoming Storm, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley

Storm Brewing, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
21 mm
1/6 second
ISO 400

February 2013

Sand dunes’ graceful curves and intricate textures move and intrigue the eye, and few things better convey nature’s purity than a windswept dune. Ironically, it’s the dunes’ aesthetic magnetism that hastens their demise as photographic subjects—their fragile sand, so easily sculpted by Mother Nature’s fickle winds, is hopelessly marred by any contact with the humans drawn by their beauty.

While Death Valley has several sets of dunes, by virtue of their ease of access, the most popular by far are the Mesquite Flat Dunes near Stovepipe Wells. Every day hundreds (thousands?) of gawkers seeking a closer look trudge up and down the undulating sand—with each footstep a small amount of purity is lost. Fortunately, it’s rarely long before Mother Natures has had enough and sends in scouring winds that erase the scars like a shaken Etch-A-Sketch.

This year’s Death Valley workshops landed in the middle of an extended static without significant wind, so I knew pristine sand would be hard to find. To minimize the footprints I take my groups to a spot that’s away from the tourist foot traffic, but this time I knew that wouldn’t be enough. Nevertheless we gave it a shot and managed to find enough patches of untouched sand to isolate with a telephoto and everyone was satisfied. Except me.

So when a stiff wind kicked up the afternoon of our final full day in Death Valley I took them back out to the dunes with fingers crossed. On our drive from Furnace Creek the cars were buffeted by gusts and the entire northern horizon was obscured by dark clouds that I soon realized were in part blowing sand—a very good sign indeed. I pulled up to a spot I’d scouted a few days earlier, far removed from the paved parking area and tall dunes that draw people, and surveyed the conditions. The wind whipped anything not buttoned down and pewter clouds were rapidly overtaking the late afternoon light skimming the Cottonwood Mountains.

The group prepared for strong wind and blowing sand similar to the way we’d prepare to photograph in the rain, but in the five minutes it took to get onto the dunes the wind had mysteriously diminished to an eery calm. Before us spread pure, rippled sand for as far as the eye could see. And except for one distant photographer who quickly passed out of sight, we were the only people out there.

Fearing a shotgun approach to setting the group free would result in inadvertent footprints marring the scenes of others, I gathered everyone and suggested that we move together and agree to stay behind a predetermined imaginary line. The problem, I explained, wasn’t just staying out of everyone’s frame, it was that each step in the sand would ruin all shots in that direction. So they all followed me until I found a nice scene with a good amount variety, which we all photographed for a few minutes before I guided them to another scene. After two or three of these cycles, it seemed everyone had become comfortable enough with the environment and the ground rules that we could scatter without interfering.

I have to say that there is no kind of photography that makes me happier than what we did that evening. With virgin, textured sand and a dramatic, rapidly changing sky, the creative possibilities were off the charts. Surveying the group, it was clear that everyone was as thrilled as I was, each fully engaged in their own photographic zone. I kept telling them that they had no idea how lucky they were to be photographing these dunes without a single footprint, but I’m not sure anyone was listening at that point.

About this image

Most successful images provide a clear path for the eye to follow, or an obvious place for the eye to rest—often both. With sand dunes, so much visual motion (curves and lines) and activity (texture) makes a visual resting point particularly important. The first place I stopped the group was in front of this solitary shrub atop a low, curving ridge of sand. The scene had all the compositional elements you could ask for: elegantly arcing sand, rich texture, a dramatic sky, and a potential focal point. After pointing all this out and encouraging the group to assemble the key elements into a composition that resonates with them, I was pleased to see lenses of all focal lengths, horizontal and vertical compositions, and lots of repositioning to arrange foreground and background relationships.

Surveying the scene for myself, I noticed clouds moving in from the north painted a texture overhead that complemented the ridged sand at my feet. The filtered sunlight on the western horizon, while waning, was still sufficient to warm the scene. Finding the sand and sky equally appealing, and the shrub more interesting for its lofty perch than its inherent beauty, I tried to identify a composition that incorporated these elements.

To emphasize the foreground and sky, and to shrink the shrub, I twisted on my widest lens and dropped to about a foot above the sand. A vertical composition allied the dune’s parallel ridges with the frame’s long side to move the eye from front to back and created the impression that the entire world is converging on my little shrub. The vertical composition also narrowed the frame enough to eliminate incongruous clouds lowering on my left and right. I stopped-down to f22 and focused about three feet in front of my lens, ensuring perfect close sharpness and acceptable distant sharpness. A soft breeze swayed the shrub intermittently so I bumped to ISO 400 to allow a faster shutter speed.

In typical Death Valley fashion, it never did rain that evening. As the storm approached, all menace and bluster, our cocoon of calmness soon gave way to sand-whipping, tripod-tipping winds that lowered a cloudy shroud onto the Death Valley Buttes and Funeral Mountains to the east, cooling the light and creating an altogether different mood (that I’ll share in a future post).

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