Posted on May 15, 2017
I spent most of the last week in Yosemite and can confirm that spring has definitely sprung there. The Merced River, swollen by snowmelt, is overspilling its banks, flooding meadows and submerging riverside trails. Reflections are everywhere, and viewing the waterfalls without getting wet? Forget about it.
Another spring highlight is the moonbow that colors the mist beneath Yosemite Falls. A fortunate convergence of Yosemite Falls’ southeast exposure and the angle of the rising full moon when the snowmelt is at its peak make Yosemite one of the best locations in the world to witness a lunar rainbow. I was able to photograph it three times last week, twice with my workshop group and once with a private tour customer. Easily visible to the naked eye as a silvery arc in the billowing mist, a long exposure reveals the moonbow’s true colors.
But of all the spring treats Yosemite offers, for creative photography I think the dogwood might be my favorite. For just a few short weeks in April and May, these graceful blooms shower Yosemite Valley with splashes of white that remind me of the Fourth of July sparklers of my childhood. But unlike the ephemeral sparks of a sparkler, the dogwood progress in slow motion so I can appreciate them at a much more relaxing pace.
I found this branch at the Bridalveil Fall vista on Northside Drive, about a mile east of Valley View. The river was gold with late light, and the air was still as I went to work on the scene. Careful positioning allowed me to juxtapose three layers in my frame: in the foreground is the dogwood branch with varying degrees of detail; the middle-ground is a blend of heavily blurred redbud and more dogwood; all this spring beauty stands out against a backdrop of the sunlit Merced River. I experimented with different depths of field by varying my f-stop, focal length, and focus distance until I was satisfied.
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Posted on April 21, 2017
People ask all the time for my favorite season in Yosemite, and I really can’t give them an answer that doesn’t sound like a press conference by a waffling politician—there are things I love about each season in Yosemite, so asking me to choose is like asking me to pick a favorite child. But I can tell you what I like about each season, and I’ve always felt that spring in Yosemite is the most consistently photographable—it doesn’t really matter what the conditions are, I can always find something to photograph.
Spring is when Yosemite’s waterfalls peak, and Yosemite Valley starts to green up. Many of the meadows are home to ephemeral pools that reflect Yosemite’s iconic monoliths, soaring cliffs, and plunging waterfalls. And with all the water in the falls, spring sunshine means rainbow opportunities from many spots if you know when to be there.
Maybe my favorite Yosemite spring treat is dogwood, which usually peaks around May 1, give or take a week or two. I enjoy photographing dogwood in any kind of light, from sunshine, to overcast, to full shade. In sunshine, I put backlit blooms against a dark background, expose for the flower, and go to town. The translucence of these backlit flowers gives them a luminosity that appears to originate from within. In overcast and shade, I opt for soft focus that emphasizes my primary subject and reduces the background to colors, lines, and shapes.
Regardless of the light, I start with a bloom, group of blooms, or entire branch, that I can isolate from surrounding distractions. Once I identify a likely candidate, I maneuver myself until I can get the subject against a complementary background, such as shade, shape, and color.
I worked this scene for about a half hour before I was satisfied. I started with the flower-laden branch and moved around a bit until the background was right. Then I tried a variety of focal lengths to simplify, balance, and soften the composition. Once I was satisfied with my composition, I used live-view to focus toward the front of the center cluster. Finally, I ran the entire range of f-stops from f4 to f16, in one-stop increments, to ensure a variety of bokeh effects to choose from.
Posted on July 15, 2016
While I’m a huge advocate of manual metering (it’s all I’ve ever used), I stop short of saying everyone shoot shoot in manual mode. But I do believe that anyone who is serious about their photography should at least be comfortable shooting in manual mode. That means understanding how a light meter “sees” a scene, the information the meter returns, and how each of the camera’s three exposure variables affect an image. (I won’t get into the rudiments of metering now, but you can brush up here: Exposure basics.)
We have three ways to control the amount of light our sensor records:
Every image you capture uses a combination of these three variables to establish the exposure (amount of light) for every image. And because the variable you choose to adjust affects more than just the exposure of your image, if you can’t justify your choice for each of the three exposure settings for every shot (if it’s not a conscious decision), you have a wonderful opportunity to improve.
To illustrate, I’ll explain my exposure choices in the dogwood image above (a new image, captured during my 2016 Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers workshop in April). Though I used f/8, 1/125 second, and ISO 1600 to achieve my desired exposure, keep in mind that I could have achieved exactly the same exposure by choosing f16, 1/4 second, and ISO 100. Or f5.6, 1/500, and ISO 6400. Or a virtually unlimited variety of other combinations that all would have captured the same amount of light. But since whatever exposure combination I decide on will potentially yield a completely different image (different depth, different motion, different noise), I had to be very careful with my decisions.
So here goes:
This was my process and rationale for this image. Depending on the factors I’m dealing with, my process might follow a completely different path for another image.
In general I tell people just learning to master manual metering to approach every scene with a tripod (non-negotiable—with no tripod, my suggestions below aren’t valid) and this mindset:
These guidelines certainly don’t apply to all situations, but they’re a good starting point that will simplify the decision making process until you get more comfortable juggling your exposure variables. And keep in mind that you’ll need to deviate from f/11 and ISO 100 whenever your creative needs and the scene conditions (such as wind or moving water) dictate. Practice makes perfect.
(Images that required a very specific combination of exposure variables)
Posted on May 6, 2015
Regular readers of my blog know of my recent switch from Canon DSLR to Sony mirrorless. I started the transition with the Sony a7R, fully expecting to prefer it over my Canon 5D Mark III enough to justify the switch, but not so much that I’d completely jettison my Canon gear. In addition to 60 percent more resolution than my 5D III, the a7R gave me dynamic range that I never dreamed possible, and significantly better high ISO performance. So, despite a less than trivial adjustment to mirrorless shooting, it didn’t take long to realize that I wasn’t going to miss Canon at all—I haven’t picked up a Canon camera since October.
When it became clear that I was with Sony for the long haul, and because I can’t afford to travel without a backup camera, I started thinking about a backup body. My usual backup body strategy is to complement my full-frame primary body with a crop sensor backup body in case I ever want extra reach with any of my lenses. The Sony a6000 seemed the perfect choice—extremely compact (without a lens, the a6000 fits in the hip pocket of my Levis), more than enough resolution (24 megapixels), compatible with all of my Sony lenses, and inexpensive (easily found for under $600).
Usually my backup bodies gather dust and only come out in an emergency, or perhaps for the occasional long-distance moonrise (when my foreground subject is far enough away that I want as much telephoto reach as possible). What I wasn’t expecting from the a6000 was primary-body image quality in an extremely compact package—not only does the a6000 have (slightly) more resolution than my 5DIII, its high ISO performance and dynamic range is better than the 5DIII (though not as good as the full-frame Sonys). Given all this, I don’t hesitate using the a6000 when I think I might want a little more reach, often juggling it with the a7R for extra flexibility.
Routinely carrying two bodies is certainly not groundbreaking, but it’s new for me. But I wasn’t finished with the a7R and a6000. Given my passion for night photography, it wasn’t long before I added the 12 megapixel Sony a7S to my bag. It took just a couple of night shoots to confirm the raves I’d heard about the a7S’s “magic” ability to see in the dark, but as with the two previous Sony bodies, the a7S proved its value in unexpected ways. More than just a night camera, the high ISO capability of the a7S allows me to freeze daylight motion at twilight and in full shade.
I knew I’d appreciate the size and weight savings of a significantly smaller body and (slightly) smaller lenses, but I thought the primary benefit would simply be a smaller bag. And while I do appreciate the option to travel and hike with a more compact, lighter bag without sacrificing the 20-200mm focal range I consider essential, my primary bag has actually gotten a little heavier since I switched to mirrorless. But with that slight increase in weight comes a significant increase in shooting power and flexibility.
For my entire photography life I switched lenses as my needs dictated (like pretty much every other SLR photographer). Now, with bodies this small, my bag easily holds three, and rather than switching lenses on one primary body, I first decide which body to use based on the composition (wide or long) and conditions (light and motion).
Here’s what I carried in my F-Stop Tilopa during my Canon days:
And here’s what my F-Stop Tilopa carries now:
My primary body is the a7R, but when I want extra reach, I don’t hesitate going to the a6000. Sometimes I carry my a7R with a wide lens and my a6000 with a telephoto. And when I need to freeze motion in low light, the a7S is my body of choice. The addition of the a7S to my bag has made the biggest difference, allowing me to shoot in conditions I’d never have considered before.
Moonrise above a ridge five miles away? No problem—out comes the a6000 and Tamron 150-600 for 900mm of telephoto reach. Breeze-blown dogwood in a shady forest? No problem—here’s my a7S at 6400 ISO.
In Yosemite last week I broke out the a6000 and Tamron 150-600 (225-900 full-frame millimeters) for the dogwood, and for a rising full moon. The a7S was my moonlight camera, and just what the doctor ordered when I wanted to photograph wind swaying dogwood in full shade.
On our final morning I guided my workshop group to Valley View to photograph the first light on El Capitan. Beautiful as that scene is, it wasn’t long before a few drifted across the road to an evergreen forest sprinkled with blooming dogwood. A breeze, further augmented by speeding vehicles, limited everyone else to distant views and brightly backlit flowers. I, on the other hand, simply switched to the a7S and bumped my ISO to 6400 to enable a fast enough shutter speed for extreme close photography.
With my 16-35 lens at 16mm, I put the front element about three inches from a bloom in full shade, dialing to f8 to ensure enough depth of field to keep my flower sharp throughout. Even in the dense shade, I was able to achieve a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the breeze. Noise at 6400 ISO? What do you think?
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Posted on April 11, 2015
Ever notice how the best photography happens at nature’s boundaries, the interface separating disparate elements? Sometimes it’s visual elements, like the collision of surf and shore or the intersection of shadow and light. But often we’re moved by images that capture the transition of our experience of the world, such as the color and light that happens when we shift between night and day, or distinctive elements of two seasons together in one frame.
Sunrises and sunsets are a daily occurrence, but the opportunity to capture snow and autumn leaves, or snow and spring flowers, comes just once a year. And until last week, with Yosemite’s waterfalls approaching a summer trickle, and the spring dogwood bloom at least a month early, prospects for the elusive snow with dogwood opportunity didn’t look good.
Despite Yosemite Valley’s snowless winter, the optimist in me steadfastly monitored an incoming storm, openly defying my internal pessimist that knew the promise of snow would surely fade as the designated day neared. In recent years the pessimist has prevailed in these internal conflicts, thanks to a stream of promising storm after promising storm detoured into the Pacific Northwest by a persistent ridge of high pressure.
But for some reason this storm was different, and while the forecast details changed daily, the one constant was that it seemed determined to defy the ridge. Not only that, this new storm originated in the arctic—what it lacked in tropical (drought busting) moisture, it made up for with air cold enough to deposit snow all the way down to Yosemite Valley.
Obi-Wan Kanobe, you’re my only hope
So, despite the fact that I’d just returned Saturday night from four days in Yosemite (for my spring photo workshop), I found myself on the road back Tuesday morning. With my (4-wheel-drive) Pilot in the shop for some minor body work, I congratulated myself for having the good sense to rent a Jeep when I scheduled the work, even though at the time snow was the last thing on any Californian’s mind.
The queue at the Yosemite entrance station was backed up about a 1/4 mile, and as I idled in a steady rain (the outside temperature was 38F, and with 1500 more feet to climb, I had no doubt it was snowing in Yosemite Valley), it occurred to me that I didn’t actually see anything indicating 4WD anywhere in or on the vehicle. Of course surely a Jeep will have 4WD, but for peace of mind I reached for the manual in the glovebox….
The manual provided no encouraging or discouraging words. As I crept toward the entrance, chain requirement signs seemed to be taunting me, I saw several cars ahead of me turned away for not having chains or 4WD. Approaching the booth, I still wasn’t sure whether I had 4WD (I think I knew, but I was in serious denial), but it dawned on me that without it, my trip was in jeopardy. I rolled to the entrance window and the ranger eyeballed my Jeep—I waved my National Park pass in front of him, and without coming to a complete stop uttered, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”, then held my breath as he moved me along. Phew.
Of course my problem was more than simply getting into the park—if conditions truly did merit chains, I knew of no Jedi tricks that would spare me. The snow appeared just a couple of miles up the road, but by the time I got there it was no longer falling and the road turned out to be clear all the way up to the valley. The rest of the afternoon I photographed Yosemite Valley sporting a light but nice dusting of snow. Parking the car for dinner at Yosemite Lodge, I crossed my fingers that the predicted overnight snow would hold off until I retreated to my hotel below the snow line.
No such luck. Stomach full, I exited the cafeteria to at least an inch of new snow, now falling fast enough that my visibility was severely limited and traction was dubious—beautiful indeed, but extremely stressful for this driver. With no other cars on the road, I split the gap in the trees (all actual signs of a road had been obliterated) all the way down the mountain, poking along at about 10 miles per hour but still occasionally unable to resist flipping on my high-beams to recreate a slow-motion Millennium Falcon shift into hyperspace effect.
All’s well that ends well
I made it down the hill without incident, then immediately started stressing about the next morning. If the snow fell this hard all night, Yosemite would surely be spectacular, but lacking chains or 4WD, I’d not be able to get there to enjoy it.
I rose at 5:30 and headed back into the park in the dark. Much to my relief, the snow had stopped in the night, and at each “Chains required” sign I rationalized that the warning was left over from the night before and decided to continue until I actually encountered snow and ice on the road. In Yosemite Valley I found every tree and rock fringed with snow, but the roads were fine.
Freed to concentrate on photography, I knew I had about two hours of quality shooting before the clouds departed, the light hardened, and snow dropped from the trees. My first stop was a personal favorite spot beside the Merced River, too small for a group, where I hoped to find blooms on the dogwood tree that aligns with El Capitan and the Merced River.
I arrived just in time to catch the morning’s first light on El Capitan, the moment made even more dramatic by the diaphanous vestiges of the departing storm. I worked the rapidly changing scene hard, shooting entirely with my 24-70 lens, but using pretty much every millimeter of the lens’s focal range before heading up the hill to Tunnel View.
I drove home thankful for enough snow to photograph, but not so much that I couldn’t navigate, and for the rare opportunity to leverage the late snow and early spring into images capturing the best of both seasons.
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Posted on February 28, 2015
I don’t fish. But then, Norman Maclean’s words really aren’t about fishing anyway. I’m reminded of his quote every time I see photographers frozen by minutia, mired in the moment by small distractions that matter very little on the path to their grand objectives (better pictures): There’s dust on my sensor, this lens is soft, the light was better yesterday, it’s too cold, it’s too hot, it’s too wet, and so on.
Near the top of photographers’ list of self-imposed obstacles seems to be an insecurity about their gear. Instead of doing what photographers do (photograph), many spend far too much time reading reviews, scouring specifications, checking prices, and abusing photography forums. Whether their goal is to rationalize the merit of their current equipment, or to justify the expense of a new one, all this makes me wonder how much they enjoy the actual act of photography.
There’s nothing wrong with your camera (or mine)
A related behavior I’ve observed since my switch from a Canon SLR system to a Sony mirrorless system is an irrational obsession with the photo equipment of other photographers (for example, mine). I’m always happy to answer questions about my photo gear (okay, almost always), but I’ve detected an underlying tone of insecurity in some (not all) of the queries, as if my camera choice somehow invalidates theirs. Some have wanted reassurance that their camera is still okay (it is), and others have actually tried to “suggest” that I’ve made a mistake (I haven’t).
I know I haven’t made a mistake because my needs are my own, I’m quite happy with my new gear, and I’m getting pictures I couldn’t have gotten before. End of debate. And for those who fear that my choice means their camera may be less than perfect, let me just say that there are many good reasons to get a new camera, to replace an entire system even, but seeing another photographer do it is not one of them.
A blast from the past
If you have a working DSLR of pretty much any vintage, you can get usable captures. To illustrate this point in my workshops and training, I sometimes go all the way back to 2003 and my Canon 10D, my first DSLR.
Shooting with my 10D today, I’d probably be crazy-frustrated with the 6 megapixel, 1.6 crop sensor, it’s postage-stamp LCD, poor low-light performance, and limited dynamic range—but that doesn’t change the fact that I got great images from that now ancient beast, images that I’ve enlarged and sold (in person, to people who could walk right up and scrutinize each pixel) prints up to 24×36. Images that people still buy. In other words, if the images I got from that camera are still usable, there’s no reason 10D images, or whatever ancient camera that might serve as your flagship capture device, clicked today wouldn’t be usable.
Time is on your side
So how long should you wait before replacing your camera? That’s an individual decision based on many personal factors. My general recommendation is to hold off on a new camera until you’ve upgraded all your primary glass (the lenses you might use on any shoot) and your support system (tripod and head) to the best possible.
These things will serve you far longer than whatever the latest and greatest camera might be, and really, the longer you can put off that new camera purchase, the better the technology will be when you’re finally ready to do it.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be temptations. For example, like an ex-girlfriend trying to lure me back with triple-D implants, Canon has announced a 50 megapixel sensor. Yikes. But if she really understood me, was in tune with my deepest desires, she’d have known I wouldn’t be impressed, not even a little.
It’ll be interesting to see how the other manufacturers respond to Canon’s move. I’m okay standing on the sidelines of a megapixel war as long as manufacturers understand that most serious photographers prefer sensors that emphasize pixel quality over quantity.
Once you have all your lens and support ducks in a row, maybe it’s time to think about upgrading your body. Maybe. Start by asking yourself what’s important to you.
The Canon 5D Mark III filled most of the basic camera criteria for me: full frame, 100 percent viewfinder, (decent) weather sealing, functional live-view (much better than the 1DS Mark III it replaced in my bag), and multiple card slots (miss that in my Sony a7R). I ignore many oft-touted features that are important to others but mean little to me, such as: resolution, autofocus, video, in-body image stabilization, and touch-screen LCD.
Landing the metaphor
I guess the point is that buying a new camera is never an emergency (unless you don’t have a camera). Take your time, set your budget, and be honest with yourself about what you need (and don’t need). In the meantime, get off the computer, grab whatever camera you have, and get out there and shoot—you can’t land fish without putting a line in the water, and you can’t take pictures without putting the world in your viewfinder.
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Posted on April 24, 2014
I knew the dogwood bloom in Yosemite had really kicked in this week (quite early), so when the forecast called for rain in Yosemite on Tuesday, I cleared my schedule and headed up there for the day. It turns out I only got an hour or so of rain and solid cloud cover before the sun came out and started making things difficult, but it was still worth the drive.
On my way out of the park that afternoon I stopped at the Bridalveil Fall view turnout on Northside Drive, spending about an hour lying in the dirt with my 100-400 lens, trying to align dogwood blossoms with Bridalveil Fall (about 1/3 mile away). I found the more impressive aggregation of blooms were about ten feet too far downstream to align perfectly, but as I headed back to my car I took a closer look at a single, precocious little flower in a much more favorable position. I’d overlooked it earlier because, in my haste to get to the more impressive flowers, I wasn’t seeing like my camera. To my human eye, this flower was imprisoned by a jumble of disorganized, distracting stems. But this time I decided to give it a try, knowing that the narrow depth of field of my 100-400 lens would render the scene entirely differently from what my eyes saw.
While the flower is clearly the only point of focus, the way the out-of-focus branches and buds blurred to shapes and accents that actually enhance the image was a pleasant surprise. While Bridalveil softens beyond recognition, I was pretty sure most viewers would still recognize it as a waterfall; even if they don’t, I didn’t think it was a distraction.
Words can’t express how much fun I had playing with this little scene. I’ve been photographing things like this for a long time, but I still find myself caught off guard sometimes by the difference between my vision and my camera’s vision. I love these reminders. I guess if there’s a lesson here, it’s to emphasize how important it is to comprehend and master your camera’s very unique view of the world. Images that achieve that, while nothing like the human experience, are no less “true.” Rather than confirming what we already know, they expand our world by providing a fresh perspective of the familiar.
More rain in the forecast tomorrow—guess where I’ll be….