The Sea Was Angry That Day, My Friends

Gary Hart Photography: Ocean and Ice, Diamond Beach, Iceland

Ocean and Ice, Diamond Beach, Iceland
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
15 seconds
ISO 100

I returned from Iceland with a lot of memories, but none will stay with me longer than the events of this stormy February morning on Diamond Beach. I guess given how much of my life is spent chasing Nature’s most dramatic moments, every once in a while it’s good to be reminded of the suddenness with which Nature can surprise you to impose its uncompromising will. But still…

The wind was howling and sunrise was still nearly an hour away when Don Smith and I guided our workshop group out to Diamond Beach. In fact, it had been so cold and dark when we arrived that we’d hung out in the bus for about 10 minutes.

Our group had actually photographed Diamond Beach a couple of days earlier, on a sunny but chilly morning. The surf that day had been relatively benign, washing up a more-or-less predictable distance up the beach at regular intervals. On that visit we could wander among the ice chunks, advancing close enough to use a wide lens for close-ups of the waves washing around individual ice blocks.

The blocks of ice here, some as large as a small car, have calved from nearby Fjallsárlón Glacier, have drifted across Glacier Lagoon and eventually into the ocean, before being swept back onto this black sand beach to pose for our photographs. On that first visit the biggest concern was a slightly larger than average wave washing up over the top of our (nearly knee-high) waterproof boots if we somehow hadn’t paid enough attention to its approach. Wet feet might ruin your day, but they won’t kill you.

This morning, however, given the storm that had raged all night and the cold wind still blowing hard, we weren’t a bit surprised to find the surf frighteningly agitated. Each wave attacked the beach with an explosive vengeance, and no one needed to be told to give the ocean space. Making beach access even more difficult was the a very high tide that had crested less than an hour before our arrival.

The section of Diamond Beach we were trying to photograph slopes steeply, 30 diagonal feet or so down to the ocean. (Given the size and violence of the waves, it’s really impossible to say where the beach ends and the ocean begins.) Above this inclined beach stretches a broad and relatively flat plain of sand, elevated far enough above the water to provide the illusion of safety. On this morning we watched individual waves charge up the beach before petering out 10 feet or so feet from the top of the slope—some a few feet closer, some a few feet farther back, but none seemed to threaten the high ground we surveyed the scene from.

Bobbing in the surf and dotting the sand were the ice blocks we’d come to photograph. All of the best ice was down in the area under constant attack from the surf, but instead of walking down among the ice as we had on our previous visit, the group seemed content to put on longer lenses and stay in the safety of the elevated plain.

Given the day I’d spent with saturated socks following our previous Diamond Beach visit, on this visit I was very motivated to keep my feet dry. Planting my tripod several feet back from the edge, I attached my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens to my Sony a7RIV and turned my attention to a pair of ice chunks a safe distance away. My first click came about 40 minutes before sunrise, when the sky was dark enough to stretch my exposures into the 15 to 30 second range, making it very challenging to avoid blurring the ice that shifted with almost every wave.

At one point I saw someone in our group venture down, close enough to the water to take a wave almost to his waist. Braced, with camera held high, he remained standing and came out laughing, but stayed further back after that. I went back to shooting, trying to time my exposures for the seconds between waves when my subjects were less likely to be shuffled mid-exposure. The image I share here was one of my earliest successes.

Waiting for an exposure to complete, I looked up and saw a human shape emerging from the darkness and heading my direction. It wasn’t until I heard the shape utter, “I went in,” that I squinted and realized I was looking at Don. And not until he got right up to me and repeated, “I went in,” did I register exactly what he meant.

He was dripping, head-to-toe, camera and tripod, with frigid North Atlantic seawater. Holy crap! With chattering teeth he gave me a quick summary of events. He’d seen a piece of ice he wanted to photograph, so after monitoring the waves enough to feel confident that he was safe (-ish), he’d moved down onto the sloping part of the beach to get closer. Once down there, he’d been so focused on making his shot that he hadn’t seen the large wave until it was on him. The wave came up to his waist, and just as he thought he might ride it out without going down, he was sucker-punched by a block of ice that sent him sprawling into the surf (turns out it left him a nasty bruise too, but I managed to refrain from suggesting that he ice it). Fortunately, this was our last morning there, so our suitcases were packed and loaded the bus, so it didn’t take any convincing to get him to return the bus to change into dry clothes.

My ice subjects had drifted away, so I wandered over to where a few members of the group were shooting comfortably in the “safe” zone, well back from the beach. Rather than feeling concerned about our safety, I considered Don’s mishap a one-off accident—a dedicated photographer a little too anxious to get the shot. I’ve been there, and I suspect most landscape photographers have as well at one time or another. So far, I rationalized, no wave had come close to our elevated sand platform.

About the time these thoughts were cementing in my brain, I glanced seaward and saw a massive, roiling wall of water charging my position. Usually when a wave approaches the first inclination is to backpedal, but this wave was on a completely different scale from any I’d ever encountered. Without conscious thought I turned and sprinted inland so quickly (picture George Costanza in a fire) that if my camera bag hadn’t been on my back, and my tripod in my hand, I’d have lost everything.

The wave caught up with me at least 50 feet back from the top of the sloping beach that just seconds earlier I’d believed was completely safe. By then it had lost significant momentum but still rose halfway up my calf (and just below the top of my very high boots). After retreating another 50 feet or so to dry ground, I turned and looked back toward the others and saw three people in the group down.

I planted my tripod and sloshed back through about 8 inches of water where there had been only dry sand just a few seconds ago. Fortunately, no one had been swept down onto the beach (and beyond) by the receding wave. By the time I reached them, those who were down were scrambling back to their feet. I looked around and saw that the others had managed to retreat far enough to remain upright, though all were some degree of wetter than they wanted to be.

After a few seconds to process what had just happened, pulled everyone from the beach and onto the bus. We stopped at Glacier Lagoon where there were bathrooms for people to change, but I think those who got wettest didn’t fully warm until we reached our hotel that afternoon. Once it was clear that we’d incurred no lasting personal harm, I took stock of the gear that suffered and learned that four cameras and lenses weren’t working. One of the camera/lens pairs returned to life later, but three were permanently demoted to paperweight status.

The images from this morning became an afterthought—I didn’t even think about them again until unloaded my card and saw that I had captured 10 frames before all hell broke loose. Many had too much motion in the ice, but it looks like I did manage to capture two or three worth processing—all variations on the same ice blocks with different wave action.

Born and raised in California, I’ve photographed and recreated at the beach more times than I can count. I’ve heard stories of “rogue” or “sneaker” waves, but this is the first time I’ve ever actually experienced one. Only after experiencing this wave do I realize that all those other large waves that surprised me were not the full extent of the potential risk, not even close.

Without getting too preachy (after all, you are reading advice from a guy who chases lightning), I just want to remind everyone to never take Nature for granted. Just because you feel safe, doesn’t mean you are safe. I tell my monsoon workshop students not to get too comfortable just because there’s been no lightning yet, that every lightning storm needs to strike first somewhere (and it could be here). And after this experience, I’ll certainly tell my ocean photographing students in Iceland and Hawaii that, no mater how many waves you’ve seen, the next wave could be several times bigger than anything you’ve seen so far. I know, because I’ve seen it.

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Surf’s Up

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Blue Hour Photography

Gary Hart Photography: Blue Hour, Diamond Beach, Iceland

Blue Hour, Diamond Beach, Iceland
Sony a7RIV
Sony 100-400 GM
15 seconds
ISO 50

If you’re fortunate enough to be outside after the sunset color has subsided, but before the world is enveloped in total darkness, you may find yourself basking in the rarified hues of the “blue hour*.” It’s called the blue hour because, wait for it…, the landscape is indeed bathed in blue. (And also because it just rolls off the tongue better than “the blue 20-minutes,” which would actually be more accurate.)

The greatest joy I get from photography is the connection it gives me to the natural world. Whether it’s lightning, some celestial event or geological feature, a technical aspect of photography, the qualities of light, or whatever, whenever possible I try to share something of the science behind my blog image subject or its capture. The goal of this sharing isn’t entirely altruistic—it’s also a great excuse to dig deep into things that absolutely fascinate me. And as it turns out, the science behind the blue hour is especially fascinating.

The blue hour actually lasts less than one hour, with its duration decreasing with latitude because the sun ascends and descends at a steeper angle (faster) as the latitude (distance from the equator) decreases. This means that in Hawaii, if I’m on location 30-minutes before sunrise, I can probably catch the entire show, whereas in Iceland, even if I’m there an hour before sunrise (brrrr), I still might miss something. In the mid-latitudes, 20-minutes is a reasonable rule-of-thumb blue hour duration to rely on.

The cool thing about blue hour color is that, unlike daylight blue sky and sunrise/sunset color, it’s not a function of scattered sunlight. (Read my Sunset Color Photo Tips article for more on this.) Instead, until the sun drops about 8 degrees below the horizon, its blue wavelengths are absorbed by ozone in the upper atmosphere. Though this absorption (Chappuis absorption, if you must know) happens when the sun is above the horizon too, its effects are completely overpowered by direct sunlight. But as direct and scattered sunlight fades with the sinking sun, about the time the sun is about 4 degrees below the horizon, the blue ozone in the sky enjoys its 20-minutes of fame. (In other words, the blue hour reigns when the sun is between 4 and 8 degrees below the horizon.) Because the cones in our eyes require a certain amount of light to register color, this twilight blue is fairly subtle, but still noticeable, to human vision. A camera, on the other hand, with its ability to increase its light sensitivity (ISO) and accumulate light over time (shutter speed), has no problem capturing the dominant blue cast.

Nature photographers love the blue hour, both for the otherworldly hues that aren’t possible any other time of day, and for the exquisitely soft, shadowless light that’s a joy to photograph. The key for getting the most out of blue hour photography is understanding that the camera sees the world differently than you. Some of the best blue hour photography happens after the color is nearly gone from our eyes, tricking us into to packing up and going home too soon. But as I said earlier, the camera can see color too faint for our eyes to register. The color your camera might pick up can range from a purplish mix of the longest waves of sunlight and the beginning of the blue hour light, to the absolute deep-blue that soon fades to night.

The blue hour is also absolutely the best time to photograph the moon, which is why you see so many moon images in the Blue Hour gallery below. While fitting the dynamic range of a daylight-bright moon above virtually dark landscape is tricky, it’s definitely worth trying because the darker the sky, the greater the contrast between the daylight-bright moon and surrounding sky. (Check out my articles on moon photography in the Photo Tips menu above.)

One of my favorite blue hour subjects is the ocean, because the low light means long exposures that turn the surf into a gauzy haze. In Iceland for a workshop last January, I was photographing the surf washing up onto Diamond Beach in the fading twilight. As the blue hour descended, I was drawn the way the distant snow-covered peaks (that’s Vestrahorn on the right) seemed to glow in the bluish twilight. Looking for something to put in the foreground, my eyes landed on a pair of (relatively) large icebergs just offshore and I positioned myself to align them with mountains.

Though I’d spent most of the evening shooting with my widest lenses, for this shot I switched to my Sony 100-400 GM to compress the distance between the mountains and nearby ice. Before dialing in my exposure settings, I studied the icebergs to make sure they were stationary enough to not blur in a long exposure, and decided it would be work if I could expose between waves. It took a few tries, but I finally managed this 15-second exposure without motion blur in the ice.

* The blue hour of course happens in reverse before sunrise (from dark to light); for simplicity sake, I’ll just describe the evening half of the phenomenon.

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Blue Hour

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Expose yourself

Gary Hart Photography: Glisten, Diamond Beach, Iceland

Glisten, Diamond Beach, Iceland
Sony a7R III
Sony 12-24 f/4 G
1/25 second
ISO 100

With advanced exposure and metering capabilities, cameras seem to be getting “smarter” every year. So smart, in fact, that for most scenes, getting the exposure right is a simple matter of pointing your camera and clicking the shutter button. That’s fine if all you care about is recording a memory, but not only is there more to your exposure decision than getting the amount of light in your picture, there are many reasons to over- or underexpose a pictures. For the creative control that elevates your images above the millions of clicks being cranked out every day, giving control of one of its most important responsibilities to your camera overlooks an undeniable truth…

Your camera is stupid

Sorry—so is mine. And while I can easily cite many examples, right now it’s just important that you understand that your camera thinks the entire world is a middle tone. Regardless of what its meter sees, without intervention your camera will do everything in its power to make your picture a middle tone. Sunlit snowman? Lump of coal at the bottom of your Christmas stocking? It doesn’t matter—if you let your camera decide the exposure, it will turn out gray.

Modern technology offers faux-intelligence to help overcome this limitation. Usually called something like “matrix” or “evaluative” metering, this solution compares a scene to a large but finite internal database of choices, returning a metering decision based on the closest match. It works pretty well for conventional, “tourist” snaps, but often struggles in the warm or dramatic light artistic photographers prefer, and knows nothing of creativity. If you want to capture more than documentary “I was here” pictures, you’re much better off taking full control of your camera’s metering and exposure. Fortunately, this isn’t nearly as difficult as most people fear.

Laying the foundation

The amount of light captured for any given scene varies with the camera’s shutter speed, f-stop, and ISO settings. Photographers measure captured light in “stops,” much as a a cook uses a cup (of sugar or flour or almonds or whatever) to measure ingredients in a recipe. Adding or subtracting “stops” of light by increasing or decreasing the shutter speed, f-stop, or ISO makes a scene brighter or darker.

The beauty of metering is that a stop of light is a stop of light is a stop of light, whether you control it with the:

  • Aperture: The opening light passes through when the shutter opens, measured in f-stops
  • Shutter speed: The time the shutter is open, allowing light to pass through the aperture to reach the sensor—slower shutter speeds mean more light; faster shutter speeds mean less light
  • ISO: The sensitivity of the sensor (or film) to light

But while an aperture stop adds/subtracts the same amount of light as a shutter speed or ISO stop, the resulting picture can vary significantly based on which exposure variable combination you choose. Your shutter speed choice determines whether motion in the frame is blurred or frozen, while the aperture choice determines the picture’s depth of field. And while an ISO stop also adds/subtracts the same amount of light as shutter speed and aperture without affecting motion and depth, image quality decreases as the ISO increases. So getting the light right is only part of the exposure objective—you also need to consider how you want to handle any motion in the scene, and how much depth of field to capture.

For example, let’s say you’re photographing autumn leaves in a light breeze. You got the exposure right, but the leaves are blurred. To freeze that blur, you halve the time the shutter is open (faster shutter speed) to freeze the motion, but also reducing the light reaching the sensor by one stop. To replace that lost light, you could open your aperture by a stop (change the f-stop), double the ISO, or make a combination of fractional f-stop and ISO adjustments that total one stop. That’s a creative choice your camera isn’t capable of.

Metering modes

Today’s cameras have the ability to measure, or “meter” the light in a scene before the shutter clicks. In fact, most cameras have many different ways of evaluating a scene’s light. Your camera’s metering mode determines the amount of the frame the meter “sees.” The larger the area your meter measures, the greater the potential for a wide range of tones. Since most scenes have a range of tones from dark shadows to bright highlights, the meter will take an average of the tones it finds in its metering zone.

Metering mode options range from “spot” metering a very small part of the scene, to “matrix” (also know as “evaluative”), which looks at the entire scene and actually tries to guess at what it sees. Each camera manufacturer offers a variety of modes and there’s no consensus on name and function (different function for the same name, same function for different names) among manufacturers, so it’s best to read your camera’s manual to familiarize yourself with its metering modes.

Since I want as much control as possible, I prefer spot metering because it’s the most precise, covering the smallest area of the frame possible, an imaginary circle in the center three (or so) percent (depending on the camera) of what’s visible in the viewfinder. Spot metering, I can target the part of the frame I deem most important and base my exposure decision on the reading there.

Spot metering isn’t available in all cameras. In some cameras, the most precise (smallest metering area) metering mode available is “partial,” which covers a little more of the scene, somewhere around ten percent.

Exposure modes

Don’t confuse the metering mode with the exposure mode. While the metering mode determines what the meter sees, the exposure mode determines the way the camera handles that information. Most DSLR (digital single lens reflex) and mirrorless cameras offer manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, and a variety of program or automatic exposure modes. Serious landscape photographers usually forego the full automatic/program modes in favor of manual (my preference) or aperture/shutter priority modes that offer more control.

If you select aperture or shutter priority mode, you specify the aperture (f-stop) or shutter speed, and the camera sets the shutter speed or aperture that delivers a middle tone based on what the meter sees. But you’re not done. Unless you really do want the middle tone result the camera desires (possible but far from certain), you then need to adjust the exposure compensation (usually a button with a +/- symbol) to specify the amount you want your subject to be above or below a middle tone.

For example, if you point your spot meter at a bright, sunlit cloud, the camera will only give your picture enough light make the cloud a middle tone—but if you’ve only given your scene enough light to make a white cloud gray, it stands to reason that the rest of your picture will be too dark. To avoid this, you would adjust exposure compensation to instruct your camera to make the cloud brighter than a middle tone by adding two stops of light (or however much light you want to give the cloud to make it whatever tone you think it should be).

Rather than aperture priority, I prefer manual mode because I never want my camera making decisions for me. And once it’s mastered (a simple task), I think manual metering is easier. In manual mode, after setting my aperture (based on the depth of field I want), I point my spot-meter zone (the center 3% of the scene in my viewfinder) at the area I want to meter on and dial in whatever shutter speed gives me the amount of light I think will make that subject (where my meter points) the tone I want. That’s it. (In manual mode you can ignore the exposure compensation button.)

Trust your histogram

I see many people people base exposure decisions on the brightness of the image on the LCD. The typical approach is some variation of: 1) Guess at the exposure settings 2) Click 3) Look at the picture on the LCD 4) Adjust 5) Repeat. Not only is this approach lazy, it’s a waste of time and woefully inaccurate.

I call it lazy because these photographers (but of course I don’t mean you) don’t care enough about their craft to apply a skill that only takes minutes to learn (see above), a skill that will serve them best in the most difficult exposure situations. But that’s not the real problem—the real problem is the inaccuracy introduced by trusting the image on your LCD.

LCDs vary in brightness because viewing conditions change. With a brightness adjustment in every camera’s menu, many photographers simply turn their brightness to maximum because it’s easier to see, especially in sunlight, and a bright picture usually looks better. Other photographers use an auto-brightness setting that adjusts with ambient light—the more light it detects, the brighter the display.

Regardless of your LCD’s brightness setting, the variation in brightness of the screen and/or the ambient light make the image on the LCD a very unreliable exposure indicator. When people tell me their images are usually too dark on their computer or in prints, the first thing I do is check the brightness of their camera’s LCD—if it’s set to maximum, they’re likely fooled into thinking the exposure was brighter than it actually was.

How do you fix this? Simple: Learn to read a histogram, and never use your camera’s LCD for exposure decisions again. The histogram is as simple as it is useful.

Day's End, Ke'e Beach, Hawaii

Day’s End, Ke’e Beach, Hawaii

Ke'e Beach histogram

A histogram is a plot of the tones in an image. I’ll save a more complex explanation for another day, but all you really need to know is that the graph starts with black on the left and brightens to white on the right. Every pixel in the image is sampled for its brightness—the brighter it is, the farther to the right it falls on the histogram. Anything in the image that’s too dark to display detail (black) is “clipped” (cut off) on the left side; anything in the image that’s too bright too display detail is clipped on the right. Ideally, nothing will be clipped on either side. If your scene contains a greater range of light (dynamic range) than will fit in the histogram, one side or the other will clip and you have exposure decisions too make—HDR (blending multiple exposures), graduated neutral density filters, or deciding that it’s okay to lose one side or the other (shadows or highlights). For example, the Ke’e Beach image above is predominantly middle tones, with just a few extremely bright and extremely dark pixels.

One more time

So let’s review. Start by selecting your metering mode (the way your meters”sees” the scene: spot, partial, matrix, and so on), then take your camera out of auto exposure mode and put it in manual (my recommendation) or aperture priority (if you prefer) mode. (Remember, I’m a landscape photographer so I never use shutter priority; if you’re shooting action, to better control the motion in your frame, you probably want to consider shutter priority if you don’t like manual exposure.)

Before metering, set your camera to whatever aperture you decide your composition calls for. Then meter, remembering that your camera isn’t telling you what the exposure should be, it’s telling you the exposure that will make what it sees a middle tone. Finally, correct the meter’s middle-tone bias by dialing in the shutter speed (in manual mode) or exposure compensation (in aperture priority) that gives the correct exposure.

After you click, check your histogram to be sure you got the exposure right.

What’s the correct exposure? That’s a creative choice that’s entirely up to you—feel free to play until you’re comfortable with your results. And the more you do it, the easier it gets.

For example

Below are some sample images and the thought process I followed to get the exposure.

Winter Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Winter Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite After choosing the aperture that gave me the depth of field I wanted, I spot-metered on the sunlit portion of El Capitan’s reflect (because it was the brightest thing in my frame and dialed my shutter speed until the meter indicated +2. That setting gave me enough light to resolve details in the shadows, but not so much light that the El Capitan highlights were blown out. If I’d have followed my meter’s “suggestion” to make El Capitan’s highlights a middle tone, the entire scene would have been too dark.

Here’s one matrix/evaluative metering would have made a mess of. The dynamic range (range of light between the darkest shadows and brightest highlights) was off the charts. Rather than compromise, I exposed to hold the color in the sky and let the foreground go to silhouette. I metered on the brightest (goldish) part of the sky next to Half Dome and dialed my exposure to +.3 (1/3 stop above middle tone). The sky was brighter than what you see here, but underexposing like this allowed me to emphasize the sky’s rich blue and the very Yosemite outline of Half Dome and Sentinel Dome. The highlights in the thin lunar crescent were clipped, but I didn’t care about the moon’s detail, only it’s shape.

Who says you should never blow your highlights? Here I metered on the brightest part of the poppy (near the top), setting my exposure to .7 (2/3 stop above middle tone). Everything you see that’s white is blown blue sky (except the “star,” which is a sliver of the sun).

Now get to work

Don’t wait to apply all this for the first time until you really, really want the shot. Instead, find a time when the results don’t matter and play with your camera to find out how much control you have over exposure. In fact, you can do this right now in your backyard or even sitting right there in your recliner. Meter something nearby, set an exposure, and click. Look at the result, adjust the exposure, and click again. Watch your histogram, and watch how its shape shifts right as you increase the exposure, or left as you decrease it. Continue doing this until you’re confident in your ability to make a scene brighter or darker, and can consistently achieve the exposure you expect.

About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Glisten, Diamond Beach, Iceland

Glisten, Diamond Beach, Iceland

It not too difficult to figure out how Iceland’s Diamond Beach got its name. A black sand beach on Iceland’s south coast, just down stream from Glacier Lagoon, Diamond Beach is dotted with glistening blocks of ice ranging in size from a refrigerator ice cube, to an entire refrigerator.

As spectacular as Diamond Beach was on my first visit, it was also unlike anything I’d ever seen, so it took me a little while to figure out how I wanted to shoot it. I tried a few frames that used long shutter speeds to blur the motion of the waves around the ice, but when the sun appeared, I saw another opportunity.

With my Sony 12-24 G lens on my Sony a7RIII, I set up just a couple of feet from one of the larger icebergs, went all the way out to 12mm, and waited for the sun to peek above the ice, hoping to capture a sunstar. As I waited, I tweaked my exposure settings, dialing my aperture to f/18 to maximize my depth of field and to enhance the sunstar effect. When the sun appeared I was in business; as it rose, I dropped my camera lower to keep just a small sliver of sun visible above the ice.

Any frame that includes the sun is frame with lots of dynamic range. To get my exposure right for this image, I relied entirely on the histogram and ignored the image on the LCD, with its nearly black shadows and white sky. Despite the way  histogram told me I’d captured all the tones, and I confirmed that as soon as I started processing in Lightroom.

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Taking Control in Difficult Light

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