Every Picture Tells a Story

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Evening, El Capitan, Yosemite

Autumn Evening, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/15 seconds
F/10
ISO 100

Let’s have a show of hands: How many of you have been advised at some point in the course of your photographic journey to “tell a story with your images”? Okay, now how many of you actually know what that means? That’s what I thought. As good as the “tell a story” advice is (it is indeed), many photographers, with the best of intentions, parrot the advice simply because it sounded good when they heard it. But when pressed for details, are unable to elaborate.

Telling a story with a photo is probably easier when photographers can physically stage subjects and light to suit their objective (an art in itself), or in journalistic photography intended to distill the the essence of an instant by connecting it to an easily inferred chronology: a homeless man feeding his dog, dead fish floating in the shadow of belching smokestacks, or a wide-receiver spiking a football in the end zone.

This isn’t to say that we landscape photographers can’t tell stories with our images, or that we shouldn’t try. Nor does it mean that any one photographic form is inherently more or less creative than another. It just means that the rules, objectives, advantages, and limitations differ from form to form. Nevertheless, simply advising a landscape photographer to tell a story with her images is kind of like a baseball coach telling a pitcher to throw strikes, or a teacher instructing a student to spell better. Okay, fine—now what?

Finding the narrative

First, let’s agree on a definition of “story.” A quick dictionary check reveals that a story is “a narrative, either true or fictitious … designed to interest, amuse, or instruct….” Okay, that works.

The narrative part is motion. Your pictures need it. Narrative motion starts with a connection that grabs a viewers, pulling them into the frame, then compelling them to stay with visual motion that moves their eyes through the frame, providing a path to follow and/or a place to land. Put simply, the viewer needs to know what they’re supposed to do in the image.

While narrative motion happens organically in media consumed over time, such as a novel (in the mind’s eye), movie, or video, it can only be implied in a still photograph. And unlike the staged or journalistic photography mentioned above, landscape photographers are tasked with reproducing the world as we find it, in a static mediumanother straitjacket on our narrative options. But without some form of narrative motion, we’re at a dead end story-wise. What’s a photographer to do?

Photography as art

Every art form succeeds more for what happens in its consumer’s mind than for what it delivers to the consumer’s senses. Again: Every art form succeeds more for what happens in its consumer’s mind than for what it delivers to the consumer’s senses. A song that doesn’t evoke emotion, or a novel that doesn’t paint mental pictures, may entertain but is soon forgotten.

Just as readers of fiction unconsciously fill-in the visual blanks with a mental visualization of a scene on the page, viewers of a landscape image will fill-in the narrative blanks with the personal stories the image inspires. In other words, an image should offer a place for the viewer’s own story to unfold.

Of course the story we’re creating isn’t a literal, “Once upon a time” or (with all due respect to Snoopy) “It was a dark and stormy night” story. Instead, the image we make must connect with our viewers’ stories to touch an aspect of their world: revive a fond memory, provide fresh insight into a familiar subject, inspire vicarious travel, to name just a few possible connections. If we offer images that tap these connections, we’ve given our image’s viewers a reason to enter, a reason to stay, and a reason to return. And most important, we’ve given them a catalyst for their internal narrative. Bingo.

Shoot what you love (not what you think your audience will love)

Think about your favorite novels. While they might be quite different, I suspect one common denominator is a protagonist with whom you relate. I’m not suggesting that immediately upon finishing that book you hopped on a raft down the Mississippi River, or ran downtown to have a dragon tattooed on your back, but in some way you likely found some personal connection to Huck Finn or Lisbeth Salander that kept you engaged. And the better that connection, the faster the pages turned.

And so it is with photography: Our viewers are looking for a connection, a sense that there’s a piece of the photographer in the frame. Because we can’t possibly know what personal strings our images might tug in others, and because those strings will vary from viewer to viewer, our best opportunity for igniting their story comes when we share our own relationship with a scene and let viewers find their own connection.

What? Didn’t I just say that it’s the viewer’s story we’re after? Well, yes—but really what needs to happen is the viewers’ sense of  connection between our story and theirs. If you focus on photographing the scenes that most move you, those scenes (large or small) that might prompt you to nudge a loved-one and say, “Oooh, look at that!,” the more you’ll see and the greater your chance of establishing each viewer’s feeling of connection. Whether you’re moved by towering mountains, crashing surf, delicate wildflowers, or prickly cactus, that’s where you’ll find your best images.

Where did you get those shoes?

The cool thing is that your viewer doesn’t need to understand your story; she just needs to be confident that there is indeed a story. That’s usually accomplished by avoiding cliché and offering something fresh (I know, easier said than done).

For some reason this makes me think of Steely Dan lyrics, which rarely make sense to me, but were always fresh and I never for a second doubted that they did indeed (somehow) make sense to Donald Fagen. In other words, rather than becoming a distraction, Steely Dan’s lyrics were a source of intrigue that pulled me in and held me. So when I hear:

I stepped up on the platform 
The man gave me the news
He said, You must be joking son 
Where did you get those shoes?

I’m not bewildered, I’m intrigued.

These lyrics aren’t trying to tap my truth, they simply reflect Donald Fagen’s and Walter Becker’s truth (whatever that might be).

Even though I usually have no idea what Steely Dan is talking about, the vivid mental picture their lyrics conjure (which may be entirely different, though no more or less valid, than your or their mental picture) allows me to feel a connection. You, on the other hand, may feel absolutely nothing listening to “Pretzel Logic,” while “I Want To Put On My My My My My Boogie Shoes” gives you goosebumps for KC and the Sunshine Band. Different strokes….

Returning from the abstract to put all this into photographic terms, the more your images are true to the world as it resonates with you, and the less you pander to what you think others want to see, the greater the chance your viewer’s story will connect with yours.

About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Evening, El Capitan, Yosemite

Autumn Evening, El Capitan, Yosemite

One of the things I’ve tried to do during the pandemic is make my workshop groups a little smaller, dropping down from 12 participants plus me and the photographer assisting me, to more like 8-10 participants plus me and my second photographer. Not great for my bottom line, but safer and easier to manage in this time of social distancing.

In my Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections photo workshop that wrapped up a little more than a week ago, not only did I enroll fewer students, I also had a couple of last minute cancellations that I chose not to fill after my assistant photographer had to bail too. The result was a group of 6 photographers plus me, exactly half my normal group size.

One big advantage of this downsized group was that I was able to take them to some views that I think are too small for a normal-size group—I show them where these spots are so they can go on their own, but that means I don’t get to visit.

One of these locations is the view of El Capitan in today’s image. I’ve always liked this spot for the way the Merced River guides the eye right to El Capitan, and for the trees that frame the scene. The result is a clear path for the viewer’s eye to follow, and an obvious destination for they eye to land.

This scene is nice in any season, but I find it especially nice in autumn, when the nearby dogwood flashes its extreme red, and splashes of yellow accent the towering evergreens upstream. We hit the jackpot on this visit, with the dogwood at its crimson best, and the late afternoon light warming the granite and reflecting gold in the river.

The view here is elevated about 15 (very) vertical feet above the river. Armed with my Sony a7RIV and 24-105 G lens, I planted my tripod right on the edge to eliminate a few foreground distractions, and used the dogwood to frame the right side of my scene, moving as far to the right as I could with merging the red leaves with El Capitan. Though the rich blue sky nicely complemented the sunlit granite, and I was grateful for a few wisps of clouds, I wasn’t particularly excited about the sky and decided to put the top of my frame just a little above El Capitan.

With my composition set up, I shot several frames, some with my polarizer oriented for maximum reflection, some for minimum reflections. When it was time to review and process my images from this shoot, I chose this one with the reflection dialed down because the fall color is more vivid (less affected by glare), and the subdued El Capitan reflection was bright enough, and stood out better against the polarizer-blackened water.

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Every Picture Tells a Story

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I Love Trees

Gary Hart Photography: Redwood in Autumn, Tuolumne Grove, Yosemite

Redwood in Autumn, Tuolumne Grove, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/5 second
F/16
ISO 400

I love trees, and try to feature them in my images as much as possible. When I say “feature,” I don’t mean simply including trees in an image (pretty hard to avoid as a landscape photographer with an affinity for California’s foothills and mountains), I mean actually using a tree or trees as the basis for my composition.

Given my love for trees, I’m blessed to live in California, where we have many beautiful arboreal specimens, in all shapes and sizes. Sadly, when most people think about California trees, their mind usually jumps to palm trees (one of my least favorite trees and not nearly as ubiquitous in most of the state as most people believe). But when I think about California trees, I go to our foothill oaks, gnarled bristlecones, and regal redwoods.

In fact, in a state with more than its share of unique natural features, California’s giant sequoia trees stand out—both figuratively and literally. It’s no exaggeration to say that the first sight of these massive giants will drop even the most immutable jaw.

Many outside the state don’t that we have two very distinct versions of redwood in California: there’s the coastal redwood, which is also quite massive and sometimes even slightly taller than its Sierra cousin. A coastal redwood can grow up 370 feet, while the giant redwoods top out at around 300 feet. And though a mature coastal redwood’s trunk might grow to more than 20 feet wide, that’s dwarfed by the 36-foot diameter of the General Sherman giant sequoia tree in Sequoia National Park. The giant redwoods also win the longevity battle, with some living more than 3000 years, while the coastal redwoods top out at around 2500 years.

Unfortunately, many people visit California with redwoods on their must-see check list, drive up or down the coast to the nearest redwood grove, check the been-there box, and return home without even realizing they missed the even larger trees farther east. (I won’t get into the debate of which redwood experience is “better,” except to say that in my mind, the coast redwood experience is more about the mystical stillness of the grove, while the giant redwood experience is more about the mind boggling mass of individual trees.)

In my previous blog post, I wrote about my recent visit to Tuolumne Grove in Yosemite. With clouds and occasional sprinkles, conditions for photography were ideal. But on my hike down, I was so struck by the electric fall color of the dogwood (also on my list of favorite trees) and other deciduous trees, I almost didn’t make it down to the redwoods.

Thankfully, I did make it. But getting there was only half the battle because redwoods’ size makes them really hard to photograph—capturing a redwood from top to bottom requires a combination of distance and wide angle that diminishes its unprecedented mass in a photo. And to me the most impressive part of a giant redwood is that massive girth.

On this visit I concentrated on finding large trees surrounded by fall color, meandering along the half-mile loop through the grove, enjoying the peaceful ambiance while keeping my eyes peeled for a suitable composition. Every once in a while I’d set up my tripod and click a frame, but whether it was a distracting trail or fence (nothing manmade in my images), or just a less than ideal vantage point (you can’t just wander haphazardly among these shallow-rooted giants), I started heading out of the grove without feeling like I had any real keepers.

Trudging back up the hill and about to exit the grove, I came across a striking redwood, one of the largest I’d seen that day. I realized that by standing in just the right spot and pressing tightly against the low wood fence, I could frame the broad trunk with an assortment of red and yellow dogwood, ferns, and other fall foliage. I stayed here for at least 20 minutes, trying a variety of perspectives and focal lengths before finally landing on this one. (This is also about the time I discovered an especially stupid and embarrassing mistake that I promise to share in a future “Photographers are Stupid” post.)

This shoot was gratifying for many reasons, but especially because, despite my love for trees and the relatively close proximity of the giant sequoias, I have none in my portfolio. Now I do.

Bonus tip

If you love trees (especially redwoods), or just think your world might be made a little better by improving your relationship with trees (spoiler alert: it will be), drop everything you’re reading and pick up The Overstory, by Richard Powers. You’re welcome.

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Trees (including a palm tree!)

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Yosemite’s Intimate (and Underrated) Beauty

Gary Hart Photography: Dogwood in Autumn, Tuolumne Grove, Yosemite

Dogwood in Autumn, Tuolumne Grove, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/6 second
F/16
ISO 400

Yesterday I got to spend a day in Yosemite. On my drive to Yosemite, In the back of my mind I was thinking that the day’s forecast of clouds with a chance of rain would be perfect for the intimate scenes I love so much. One of my go-to spots for this kind of photography is Bridalveil Creek, but it’s closed while NPS overhauls parking and access (how much longer will this take?!). As I started considering other options, it occurred to me that a long overdue visit to Tuolumne Grove might be in order.

In Yosemite, Mariposa Grove gets most of the attention from those who want to marvel at massive redwood, and with good reason—it’s by far the largest of Yosemite’s three sequoia groves, and has the largest trees. Mariposa Grove also has the most tourist-friendly infrastructure (a “feature” partially mitigated by a recent NPS overhaul designed to reduce human impact on the sequoias and their surroundings).

Of Yosemite’s two smaller sequoia groves, Merced and Tuolumne, I’ve always been partial to Tuolumne Grove—partly because of familiarity (it’s the grove I grew up visiting because it was closer to home), but also for its intimacy, and the abundance of photogenic dogwood lining the trail to-and-from and mingling among the big trees. In fact, I’ve had  better luck photographing the grove’s dogwoods than its redwoods because, well, redwoods are hard (a topic for another day).

One “problem” with photographing Tuolumne Grove (and any other redwood grove) is that it requires clouds to prevent a distracting hodgepodge of highlights and shadows that test any camera’s comfort zone, and clouds in California are relatively rare. And the difficulty of doing justice to the size of a redwood tree in a still photo probably makes me guilty of not prioritizing Tuolumne Grove. With limited time and a surplus of more heralded subjects, most of my time in Yosemite is spent elsewhere.

With the clouds really starting to settle in, after lunch I decided to make the drive up to Tuolumne Grove. While I had no illusions of great success with the redwoods themselves (but who knows?), I looked forward to exploring the forest lit by nature’s softbox and dressed in fall color.

I knew the dogwood in Tuolumne Grove would be turning its autumn red, but I had no idea that I’d find entire hillsides saturated with a kaleidoscope of peak reds, oranges, and yellows, mixed with a few shades leftover green. In fact, the trail to the grove was so beautiful, it took me more than an hour to make the one mile hike down to the redwoods.

As much I love the grand views and dramatic skies that seem to attract a lot of attention, photographing intimate views of nature is probably my favorite kind of photography. Even in Yosemite, with its collection of iconic waterfalls and granite monoliths, I’m never happier than when I’m photographing the smaller scenes that aren’t recognizable as Yosemite.

But as beautiful as the surroundings on the were trail this afternoon, I really struggled to find a composition that did it justice. Instead of insisting on a composition with the elements I consider essential to a good image (a path for the eye to follow, strong visual anchor, no distracting elements), I just pointed in the direction of anything pretty (pretty much everywhere I looked) and started clicking.

Eventually this approach led me to a large dead tree in an area scarred by a recent fire. Scrutinizing my frame, I instantly realized I’d found my visual anchor. After that, my task became mostly a matter of moving around to eliminate all signs of the nearby trail, maximize the color behind the tree, juxtapose the foreground logs into something that wasn’t a disorganized (distracting) jumble, and eliminate the bright sky visible through the trees up the hill. (Even though it was cloudy, including sky that was much brighter than the forest would have pulled my viewers’ eye away from the colorful scene that was the whole point of the image, and reminded them of the world outside my frame.)

One more thing

In my previous post I sung praises of my (Breakthrough) polarizer, but I can’t emphasize too much what a difference removing the wet sheen from the leaves in this scene did for the color. If you think a polarizer is just to darken blue sky, please do yourself a favor and try it for your next fall color shoot.


Intimate Yosemite

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Photography and the Art of Compromise

Gary Hart Photography: Dogwood Trio, Merced River, Yosemite

Dogwood Trio, Merced River, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 100-400 GM
1/80 second
F/9
ISO 800

The dilemma

Photography is all about compromise. For example, while everyone wants a lens that’s sharp, fast, compact, and cheap, the most we can usually get is two of these things. And photographers’ compromises aren’t limited to our equipment. Simply adding light to a scene can lead to frustrating, make-or-break compromises. Freezing a flower bobbing in an afternoon breeze requires a fast shutter speed. But increasing shutter speed means less light, forcing me to choose between opening my aperture at the cost of depth of field, or increasing my ISO and living with more noise. What’s a photographer to do?

The foundation

The bottom line for me is any compromise, no matter how small, is not acceptable unless it’s necessary.

I approach each scene knowing that my Sony Alpha camera’s (currently an a7RIV) “ideal” ISO is 100—this is the ISO that render’s the cleanest (least noise) image. I’m going to shoot everything at ISO 100 unless I have a specific reason not to. (Or I forgot to reset it from the prior image, always a possibility.)

I also approach my scenes with the understanding that my lens has an ideal f-stop range that I want to stay in unless circumstances dictate otherwise. Because I rarely take the time to test every lens at every possible focal length and f-stop combination, I usually make the mostly safe assumption that my lenses are sharpest between f/8 and f/11. Wide open or stopped all the way down, most lenses tend to be a little less sharp, especially in the corners. And stopping down to a small aperture also increases image softening diffraction (the spreading if light that happens when it passes through a small opening).

Shutter speed manages motion, but using a tripod takes camera motion out of the equation, which means I never need to compromise my ISO or f-stop to avoid camera shake. And as a landscape photographer, most of my subjects are stationary, so whenever possible, I use my camera’s native ISO (100), an f-stop between f/8 and f/11, and control my exposure with the shutter speed: If nothing is moving, what difference does it make if my shutter speed is 1/10 second or 10 seconds? (Hint: None.)

But… 

Nature is not static, and sometimes I need to deal with motion in my scene. Whether it’s a tumbling cascade, wind-blown flower, or the celestial sphere circling above, I have to decide the shutter speed that achieves my desired motion effect. Or perhaps getting a frame sharp from foreground flowers to distant peaks forces me to stop my lens all way down to f/22, or capturing foreground detail on a moonless Milky Way night requires me to open up all the way to f/1.4. Either way, compromise has entered the equation.

When compromising my exposure settings it helps to know the limits of my equipment, how far I can push my exposure choices into the compromise zone without significant, unrecoverable quality loss. For example, while my camera’s native ISO is 100, I know I can push it much higher and still get a very usable image. And my Sony lenses are still sharp enough outside their ideal f-stop range that I don’t hesitate to use whatever f-stop the situation calls for. (This quality isn’t exclusive to Sony—other quality cameras and lenses do quite well when pushed to extremes.)

Compromise my image quality to achieve a desired result reduces my margin for error, making it extremely important that I make the right choices. Probably the most extreme compromise situation I encounter is the moonless-night darkness necessary for photographing the Milky Way. Even with my fastest lens, the Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM, wide open, to get a shutter speed that avoids stretching the pinpoint stars to little dashes, I have to push my camera’s ISO beyond thresholds I never imagined would be possible just a few years ago. This forces choices like, do I go with ISO 6400 and less noise but more star motion (longer shutter speed), or ISO 12800 and more noise but less star motion?

It would be nice if there were absolute answers to these compromise questions, but that’s rarely the case. Usually it’s matter of experience-based reckoning shaded by multiple choice processing options. In other words, I make the best guess I can, and often hedge by trying my second-, third-, and (sometimes) fourth-best guess. With several images to choose between, I scrutinize each closely and decide which will give me the best result.

About this image

I’m thinking about all this compromise stuff because I just processed this image from last week’s Yosemite spring workshop. The dogwood were exploding throughout Yosemite Valley, so my group spent several sessions dedicated mostly or entirely to dogwood. With my favorite Yosemite Valley dogwood zone closed due to roadwork, most of our dogwood time was spent on Northside Drive near Valley View.

I look for dogwood flowers or branches I can isolate against a strong background, and quickly landed on this one above the Merced River. It was late afternoon and the granite wall beneath Cathedral Rocks was catching the warm sunlight, spreading its gold reflection on the Merced River. With my Sony 100-400 GM lens (on my Sony a7RIV) to isolate the branch, I shifted position and focal length until I arrived at a composition that set the dogwood blooms against the gold background, framed by soft (out of focus) dogwood festooned branches in the background. I experimented with several f-stops before deciding f/9 gave me the best combination of sharp dogwood and soft background.

The problem was, at ISO 100 and f/9, getting the exposure I wanted meant a shutter speed of 1/10 second, not workable in the afternoon’s gentle but steady breeze. So I increased my ISO to 800, which gave me a 1/80 second shutter speed. A quick magnification of the image in my LCD told me I’d nailed the sharpness, but just in case, I increased the ISO to ISO 1600, for a 1/160 second shutter speed. (Turns out I didn’t need the faster shutter speed, but better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.)


The Art of Compromise

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The evolution of a landscape photographer

Gary Hart Photography: Dogwood Trio, Yosemite

Dogwood Trio, Yosemite
Sony a7RIII
Sony 100-400 GM
ISO 400
f/14
1/50 second

One of my earliest photographic lessons was that clicking a picture of a beautiful subject, no matter how beautiful, does not ensure a beautiful result. A vivid sunset can indeed be quite pleasing to the eye, but picture of that sunset riddled with rooftops and telephone poles—well…, not so much. This got me thinking more about the individual components of a beautiful scene, and how I might best emphasize them and eliminate distractions.

Like most landscape photographers, I started with the low hanging fruit, concentrating on sunrises and sunsets in beautiful locations, but it wasn’t long before I realized that I wasn’t the only person doing this. Of course I haven’t stopped targeting this obvious beauty, but I also started looking for ways to capture nature’s more subtle beauty.

A Yosemite sunset, where everything in the scene is at infinity and stationary, can be captured on today’s cameras in full automatic mode. But framing, focusing, and freezing/blurring more intimate subjects requires complete mastery of motion, depth, and light. This mastery requires a clear understanding of the exposure variables: shutter speed, f-stop, and ISO. Fortunately, I had the advantage of cutting my photographic teeth back before cameras could control every aspect of exposure and focus, and with no ability to check my decision until the pictures returned from the lab, the wrong exposure choices wasted precious dollars—a great motivator.

One of the first intimate subjects I turned my camera toward was the dogwood that decorate Yosemite Valley each spring. Even though I was pretty comfortable with my camera’s exposure variables, it still took a little effort to figure out how to blend these technical skills with the composition side of the craft. The key for me was consciously identifying the qualities of my subject that draws my eye. For example, with dogwood, it’s the symmetrical flowers, the flowers’ candelabra-like spacing, the tree’s translucent petals and leaves, and (especially) the illusion of weightlessness of a suspended dogwood bloom.

Armed with that understanding and my exposure skills, I developed a toolbox of techniques for highlighting these features. Whether it was a close composition with a narrow depth of field against a soft forest background, a swaying dogwood branch suspended above flowing water, or a single bloom with a blurred Yosemite icon in the background, I was having a blast. And it was easy to these techniques to many subjects, from colorful leaves in autumn, to brilliant poppies each spring.

About this image

The dogwood in Yosemite Valley were at peak bloom, but I was dealing with the dynamic range problems inherent to a sunny spring afternoon. Photographers are frequently admonished to “Never blow the highlights,” but I saw an opportunity to use the bright sky to my advantage. Finding a shaded branch with three perfect dogwood flowers high overhead, I moved around until the branch was directly above and against the blue sky. Spot-metering on one of the flowers, I knew that everything my eye saw as blue, my camera would turn a hopelessly overexposed white that becomes a perfect background for these beautiful flowers.


A Dogwood Gallery

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Spring has sprung

Gary Hart Photography: Dogwood and Redbud, Merced River, Yosemite

Dogwood and Redbud, Merced River, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony 70-200 f/4
1/40 second
F/4
ISO 200

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.


Yosemite Spring

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Dogwood days

Gary Hart Photography: Forest Dogwood, Yosemite Valley

Forest Dogwood, Yosemite Valley
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/80 second
159 mm
ISO 800
F4

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.

A Dogwood Gallery

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Can you defend your exposure settings?

Gary Hart Photography: Floating Dogwood, Merced River, Yosemite

Dogwood Above the Merced River, Near Fern Spring, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Tamron 150-600, Canon-mount with Metabones IV adapter
1/125 second
F/8
ISO 1600

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:

  • Aperture, measured in f-stops, is the size of the opening that allows the light in. Controlling exposure by changing the aperture affects your depth of field—larger aperture (smaller f-stop), means less depth of field.
  • Shutter speed is how long the light strikes the sensor. Controlling exposure by changing the shutter speed affects the way the camera captures motion—a faster shutter speed freezes motion, a longer shutter speed blurs motion.
  • ISO is the sensor’s sensitivity to light. Controlling your exposure by adjusting the ISO affect the digital noise in the image—increasing the ISO to make the sensor more sensitive to light increase’s the resulting image’s noise.

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:

  • f/8: Because the f-stop determines the depth of field for my chosen focal length and focus point, and I try to compose with front-to-back relationships in every frame, f-stop is usually my primary, non-negotiable exposure variable. In this case I wanted my background soft to force my viewers’ eyes to the dogwood only, but not so soft that the background whitewater was unrecognizable. I decided that f/8 gave me the right balance of foreground sharpness and background softness.
  • 1/125 second: When photographing a stationary landscape on a tripod, I can go with whatever shutter speed I need, but when there’s motion in the scene, my shutter speed becomes as important as my f-stop. On this afternoon, in addition to the water moving in the background, I was dealing with a slight breeze. If the breeze hadn’t been a consideration I could have chosen whatever shutter speed gave me the best motion effect, but I needed to freeze the swaying dogwood and was confident I could do that at 1/125 second.
  • ISO 1600: Because it gives me the cleanest images, I always go with ISO 100 when possible, but that wasn’t an option here. Given that I needed f/8 for my desired depth of field, and I wasn’t comfortable keeping my shutter open longer than 1/125 second, ISO was the only remaining variable to control the light in my scene. I spot-metered on the brightest dogwood and increased the ISO until my meter indicated the flower was as bright as I could make it without overexposing. The dynamic range in this scene was great enough that even though the dogwood bloom was fully exposed, the shadows remained quite dark, but fortunately that helps the dogwood stand out.

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:

  • F-stop: f/11, because this provides the most depth of field possible at an f/stop that is in most lens’s sharpest range, and without significant diffraction.
  • ISO: 100 (or whatever your camera’s native ISO is), because this is where you’ll get your cleanest (least noise) images.
  • Shutter speed: Adjust until you’ve achieved the proper exposure.

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.

I cover all this stuff in much greater detail in my photo workshops.


Walking the Exposure Tightrope

(Images that required a very specific combination of exposure variables)

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A new way of shooting

Gary Hart Photography: Forest Dogwood, Valley View, Yosemite

Forest Spring, Valley View, Yosemite
Sony a7S
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1/125 second
F/8
ISO 6400

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:

  • 5D Mark III
  • Canon 16-35 f2.8L
  • Canon 24-105 f4L
  • Canon 24-70 f4L
  • Zeiss 28 f2

And here’s what my F-Stop Tilopa carries now:

  • Sony a7R
  • Sony a7S
  • Sony a6000
  • Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
  • Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
  • Sony/Zeiss 70-200 f4
  • Zeiss 28 f2 (Canon mount)
  • Tamron 150-600 f5-f6.3 (Canon mount)
  • Metabones Mark IV Canon to Sony adapter

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.

Gary Hart Photography: Ridgetop Moon, Yosemite

Ridgetop Moon, Yosemite
Sony a6000
Tamron 150-600 (Canon-mount with Metabones IV adapter)
600mm (900mm full frame equivalent)
1/100 second
F/11
ISO 400

For example

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?

Six months of Sony captures

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

When seasons collide

Gary Hart Photography: Spring Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite

Spring Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 24-70
1/8 second
F/11
ISO 100

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.

Storm brewing

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.

Join me in Yosemite next spring

An El Capitan Gallery

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

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