Out of my depth

Gary Hart Photography: Hidden, Akaka Falls State Park, Hawaii

Hidden Waterfall, Akaka Falls State Park, Hawaii
Sony a7R II
Sony 70-200 f4
1/10 second
F/16
ISO 1600

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about appreciating the small stuff. Writing that article opened my eyes to how much I’d gotten away from aspects of photography that give me great pleasure, and that were a big part of my photographic style. Not completely away, but far enough to notice a difference when reviewing my images from the last year or so, a year that coincides with my switch from Canon DSLR to Sony mirrorless. While I can’t attribute this shift to a shortcoming in my Sony gear (far from it), I do believe the timing is more than coincidence.

First, with its radically different interface and shooting workflow, mirrorless is a new trick and I’m an old dog, and I think I underestimated the ramifications of the mirrorless switch. Nevertheless, within a few weeks I felt reasonably comfortable seeing through an electronic viewfinder, had embraced a new focus and metering paradigm, and became sufficiently familiar with my Sony a7R’s features, buttons, dials, and menus. So far, so good.

But simply knowing a camera doesn’t mean I don’t have to think about using it. And it’s the unconscious control of photography’s technical side—the focusing, metering, setting exposure variables, and so on—that frees my brain to create. (I suspect it’s this way for most other photographers too.) So until I can make my camera an unconscious extension that functions more like an extra limb, the interface is a distraction. After ten years, I’d taken for granted my ability to control every aspect of my Canon DSLRs by feel, in the dark if necessary, without conscious thought—simply put, it’s taken nearly a year to achieve that familiarity with my Sonys.

In that gap between familiar and intimate with my Sony bodies, bad (lazy) habits formed. Because while I was getting used to a new way of shooting, I became so enamored of my a7R’s extreme dynamic range that my photography began to skew in that direction. Suddenly sunrises and sunsets that had been especially difficult (or impossible) with my Canons, were easy, a luxury I was all too happy to indulge. Then came the a7S, with its mystical ability to see in the dark, and suddenly night photography was occupying much more of my photography time.

Compounding the problem, these high dynamic range scenes tend to be more dramatic, and drama impresses the masses more than subtle. I’d post a new image to rave reviews (“Stunning!”), and soon found myself lured by the instant validation. I loved what I was shooting, others loved what I was shooting, so what could possibly be wrong?

Or maybe a better way to put it, what’s missing? I’d scroll through my recent images and couldn’t avoid the vague sense that there were fewer images that excited me personally. There were some, but not as many as I’d been accustomed to. And then it hit me—my images lacked depth.

Depth is the final frontier for aspiring photographers. Photography attempts to render a three-dimensional world in a two-dimensional medium, and intuitive disconnect. But while true depth in a photograph is impossible, what is possible is the illusion of depth. I’ve always felt that most people can compose a nice two-dimensional landscape, but what separates the great photographers from the good is their ability to convey depth.

Conveying the illusion of depth starts with not settling for a dramatic background or striking foreground subject, but using that as the starting point for a scene that contains visual points throughout the (missing) front-to-back plane. If the primary scene is in the distance, find nearer objects that balance and complement it. Likewise, if your subject is in the foreground, make every effort to include complementary background elements.

But finding a complementary foreground and background is just the beginning. Once you’ve identified your foreground and background (and mid-ground if possible) elements, you have to manage their relationships while mentally subtracting the camera’s missing third dimension (depth). Things like creating imaginary lines that connect objects at different distances; avoiding merging of discrete objects; perspective management with focal length and subject distance choices; focus (depth of field) control to emphasize/deemphasize foreground/background elements (to name a few). All of these things take a scene from more literal, two-dimentional snaps to interpretive, artistic creations that exist only in your brain until the shutter is clicked.

And that’s what I think has suffered in the year since my Sony switch—I’m still getting captures that excite me (and others), but in settling for the scenes the Sony sensor makes so easy, I lost my way a bit. Now that I recognize what’s been lacking, it’s time to up my game and apply that amazing Sony sensor to our three dimensional world.

About this image

I traveled to Hawaii earlier this month vowing to reinvigorate my quest for depth in my images. With lush rainforests, rugged volcanic beaches, vivid sunsets, and an active volcano, it’s a great spot for filling the frame from front to back.

One place in particular I looked forward to visiting was Akaka Falls State Park. The little scene in this image is extremely familiar to me—it’s near the end of Akaka Falls loop, after the view of the fall, making it easy to think the show is over as you beeline back to the parking lot to escape the humidity. Each time I pass this spot I stop and try to make it work, which starts with finding a way to pull detail from the dense shade without blowing out the fully exposed foreground foliage. And even if I can make the dynamic range work, I still have to figure out how to balance the conflicting need for a small aperture that ensures adequate depth of field, against the need for a shutter speed long enough to pull the waterfall from the extremely dense shade, but fast enough to avoid blurring the leaves in the almost unavoidable breeze.

But several things worked in my favor on this visit. A heavy cloud cover reduced the foreground brightness to a more manageable level, and my new Sony a7R II has at least two stops more dynamic range than the Canon 5D III I’d used on prior visits—suddenly, dynamic range wasn’t a deal-breaker. Also, someone had flipped the switch on Hawaii’s usually reliable trade winds—the still, humid air was extremely uncomfortable, but far better for this kind of close photography. Last but not least, the high ISO capability of my a7R II made me quite comfortable shooting at ISO 1600, high enough to permit f16 while maintaining a fast enough shutter speed.

My focal length was 154mm, so even at f16 I needed to be careful about focus. In scenes where I’m not sure whether I’ll have enough depth of field to ensure front-to-back sharpness, I almost always find a point that keeps my closer elements sharp. To maximize depth of field, I’ll focus as far behind the closest visual anchor (in this case the closest flowers) as I can without sacrificing any foreground sharpness. In this case I was pretty sure I could focus on the back flower and still keep the closer flowers sharp. In a perfect world I’d have liked just a little more motion blur in the water, but even with the air relatively still, I wasn’t comfortable going beyond 1/10 second.

Read more about controlling depth of field

The illusion of depth

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Exploring the familiar

Gary Hart Photography: Old Tree, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite

Snow on Old Tree, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 24-70
1/30 second
F/16
ISO 100

I spend a lot of time guiding and teaching photographers who have traveled a great distance to capture a particular shot: Horsetail Fall in February, the spring moonbow on Yosemite Fall, the Milky Way above the Kilauea Caldera, to name a few. They’ve seen an image on my website, or someone else’s, and have decided want to add their version to their portfolio. Many have saved money and vacation time for years for the opportunity; others have been chasing the shot without success more times than they can count. Either way, it’s a vicarious rush watching it happen for them.

The captures that make me happiest are the one’s I’ve never seen before. But given that my “job” is guiding people to the scenes I (and others) have photographed many times, I don’t get a lot of opportunity to explore new territory. Instead, I challenge myself to find something new in these heavily photographed areas. And “new” to me is more than just capturing an extraordinary sunset or glorious moonrise, it’s looking beyond the obvious to find a new perspective or fresh interpretation.

Finding new scenes can happen by accident, but there’s no substitute for conscious, calculated exploration. For example, a typical day in Yosemite has lots of blue sky and flat light hours that aren’t conducive to the type of photography I enjoy. Rather than waste that lousy light time simply waiting for the good stuff, I spend it collecting new scenes for later use. In Yosemite that usually means deciding on a subject (Half Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Fall, and so on) and poking around looking for foregrounds to put with it.

Despite its apparent permanence, Yosemite is a dynamic environment. Rocks cleave and fall, trees grow and die, water ebbs and flows. Whether it’s walking the bank of the Merced River searching for a reflection of Half Dome, or scrambling granite slopes for a fresh view of Yosemite Valley, there are new perspectives and subjects to be mined everywhere.

When I find something I like, I try to figure out the conditions that would make the best photography. Sometimes this is simply a matter of plotting a moonrise or moonset; other times the best photography requires very specific weather or light. Whatever the condition might be, I do my best to get myself there to photograph it.

Though I photographed this scene just a couple of weeks ago, the view I found on one of these reconnaissance missions several years ago. The first time I saw the twisted remains of this old tree, I imagined it etched with snow. Unfortunately the tree’s location—perched on a ledge above a vertical drop of several hundred feet, is not for the faint of heart, even in the most benign conditions. And getting out here in snow can be downright dangerous.

On my most recent Yosemite trip earlier this month (sandwiched between my Yosemite moonbow workshop and a week-and-half in the Columbia River Gorge), my desire for something new trumped my “respect” for heights. I took a long way around to avoid the cliff as much as possible, then did my best not to look down once I arrived. As I worked, every shift of foot or tripod was planned and tested before execution.

I tried a variety of compositions, wide and tight, vertical and horizontal, that included some or all of the Tunnel View trio: El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall. Exposure was pretty straightforward, but depth of field was a concern. I stopped down to f16, but chose not to go any smaller due to diffraction (light bending around small apertures to fill the entire sensor can inhibit resolution) concerns. As always in these scenes where I might not be able to achieve complete front-to-back sharpness, I biased my sharpness to my foreground—rather than focusing on Half Dome, I focused on a branch toward the back of the tree.

I actually returned to this scene the next morning, when the snow was much thicker and the light much more difficult. I haven’t had a chance to work with those images, so stay tuned….

A Gallery of the Shot Less Taken

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Photographic reality: The missing dimension

Nature’s Palette, Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite

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

(The sixth and final installment of my series on photographic reality.)

So far I’ve written about focus, dynamic range, confining borders, motion, and time, but I think most obvious (and also I’m afraid most overlooked) difference separating the camera’s vision from our own is the missing dimension: depth.

Photography attempts to render a three dimensional world in a two dimensional medium—the most photographers can hope for is the illusion of depth. While anyone can put a camera to their eye and compose the lateral, left-to-right aspect of a scene, translating their own three-dimensional experience to their camera’s two-dimensional reality is a leap that many miss. This may explain why a sense of depth is often the most significant quality separating a merely good image from an outstanding image.

Achieving the illusion of depth starts with looking beyond your primary subject and finding a complementary foreground or background: If your primary subject is nearby, find a background object, shape, or color that frames, balances, and/or helps your subject stand out; conversely, if your primary subject is in the distance, look for foreground elements that can lead your viewers’ eyes through the frame without distracting or competing for attention.

Once you have your foreground/background elements worked out, your composition isn’t complete. In your three-dimensional view, size and distance are easily interpreted, something we stereographic humans take for granted. But your scene’s depth is lost to your camera. In a two-dimensional world aligned objects at varying distances loose the separation that makes them stand out—you need to visually separate these merged objects—put them on different lines of sight—to allow your viewer to imagine the depth you see at capture. I can’t emphasize how important this is.

In my many years of observing and assisting other photographers working to improve their images, I’ve decided that the single most significant factor holding them back is their ignorance of, or unwillingness to wield, their control over their images’ depth relationships. There seems to be an invisible force that binds tripods to their first landing place. Overcoming this force (to which I’m not immune) requires vigilant attention to each visual element in your frame and taking whatever steps necessary to ensure that each stands alone. If you can’t achieve separation from your current position, move! Simply repositioning a little left/right, up/down, forward/backward really can make a huge difference. In other words, in a static landscape, it’s your job to be dynamic.

For example

With the benefit of a 360 degree view, it was clear that all the elements were in place for a spectacular sunset atop Yosemite’s Sentinel Dome. An afternoon rain had scoured the air of color-robbing particles, and an opening on the west western horizon left a clear path for the setting sun to illuminate the clouds above Half Dome to the east. But as spectacular as I expected the color above Half Dome to be, I wasn’t going to be satisfied with just another pretty picture of Half Dome at sunset.

One of the things I like most about photographing from Sentinel Dome is the variety of foreground subjects: rocks, cracks, and of course the solitary jeffrey pine made famous by Ansel Adams and others, now dead and on its side. On this evening, guessing (hoping) that the earlier downpour had filled indentations I remembered on Sentinel’s southeast flank, I headed over there.

One thing I pride myself in is arriving at a location early, well before the best conditions, to allow time to anticipate the light and assemble the elements of my composition. Being such a deliberate shooter, this is really a necessity for me. So when I found these pools right where I’d hoped, I was able to take the time to figure out how to use them. I started by moving around quite a bit, first to find the angle that would best frame Half Dome with the pools, then forward and backward to get an idea of the best distance and focal length that would give Half Dome enough size while giving the pools enough room. A factor in these distance/focal-length considerations was finding the angle that would allow me to include a reflection of the clouds, which meant moving up and down as well. In this case I dropped quite low, probably no more than a foot off the ground, taking care not to get so low that the bottom of Half Dome merged with the edge of Sentinel Dome. With the composition worked out, I did some depth of field figuring and decided that I’d better stop all the way down to f20 to ensure a perfectly sharp foreground and acceptably sharp Half Dome.I focused on the granite about eight feet away and think I did a pretty good job achieving front-to-back sharpness. (Today I’d use the DOF app on my iPhone, but checking it now confirms that I did okay.)

Being on a tripod with no motion in the scene meant I was able to go with whatever shutter speed gave me the exposure I wanted, at my camera’s native ISO 100. I metered on the foreground and used a graduated neutral density filter to darken the bright sky, starting my exposures before the best color started (you never know when the color will peak—it’s best to have a few too many images than to realize after the fact that the color you’re waiting for isn’t coming), monitoring my histogram and adjusting down in 1/3 stop increments as the light dropped.

On this evening the color just kept getting better and better, until the air seemed to buzz with color and the entire landscape glowed red. Believe it or not, the red was even more vivid than what you see here, but I decided to tone down the saturation a bit because there comes a point where Mother Nature seems to defy credibility. This remains one of my favorite images.

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