Long Shot

Gary Hart Photography: Aspen, Lundy Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Aspen, Lundy Canyon, Eastern Sierra
Sony 𝛂1
Sony 100-400 GM
ISO 400
f/5.6
1/30 second

Imagine you have a guitar and want to make music your career. Since Eric Clapton is your favorite artist, and “Let It Rain” is your favorite song, you you work hard until you can play it perfectly. But wait—before you move on to “Layla,” let me suggest that your best path to musical fame and fortune is not to replicate the works others, no matter how great they are. (Also, there’s a reason Duane Allman isn’t answering your calls.)

Using Eric Clapton as a model for your music is fine—the more you listen to Clapton, the more your guitar playing will be influenced by his creativity and craftsmanship. But at some point you need to choose between carving your own musical path, or languishing as a cover artist.

Make the world your own

The same applies to photography. In my photo workshops I encounter many people who have travelled great distances to duplicate a photo they’ve seen online, in a book, or in a print somewhere. I certainly understand the desire to create your own version of something beautiful, and I can’t say that my portfolio doesn’t contain its share of photography clichĂ©s—but, and I can’t emphasize this too strongly, if you must photograph something exactly as it’s been photographed before, make that recreation is your starting point, not your ultimate goal.

Once you’ve captured your “icon” (that word is a clichĂ© itself) shot, take a breath and spend a little more time with your scene. Identify what draws your eye and ways to emphasize it. Look for alternate foreground and background possibilities (move around), seek unique perspectives (move around some more), tweak your exposure variables to experiment with depth and motion. If your first inclination was to shoot horizontal, try vertical, and vice versa.

It also helps to remove your camera from the tripod and pan slowly, zooming in and out as you go until something stops you (don’t forget to return to the tripod before clicking). Even if nothing immediately jumps out, I promise that the simple act of slowing down and spending time with a scene will reveal overlooked secrets that might spur further creativity.

Going long

One of the easiest ways to stretch your style is taking lens choice off autopilot. The expansiveness of most landscape scenes almost begs for a wide angle lens that includes it all, but if your goal is to create something rather than covering what’s already been done, consider a telephoto lens for your landscapes.

I sometimes catch myself automatically reaching for a wide lens, only going to a telephoto when I see a specific composition that requires one. But I’ve learned that those times when I’m struggling to find a shot, the easiest way to reset my creative instincts in the field is often to simply view the scene through a telephoto lens, just to see what my wide-angle bias might be missing.

If telephoto vision doesn’t come naturally to you in the field, you can train your eye in the comfort of your own home by opening any wide angle image in Photoshop (or your photo editor of choice), setting the crop tool to 2/3 aspect ratio (to match what you see in your viewfinder), and see how many new compositions you can find. (I’m not suggesting that you shoot everything wide and crop later—this crop tool suggestion is simply a method to train your eye.) But whether you do it in the field, or later in Photoshop, once your eye gets used to seeing in telephoto, you’ll find virtually every scene you photograph has telephoto possibilities you never imagined were there.

Still not convinced? In addition to providing a fresh perspective, telephoto lenses offer undeniable, tangible advantages in landscape photography:

  • Bigger subject: Bigger isn’t always better, but there’s often no more effective way to emphasize your subject than to magnify it in your frame.
  • Isolate: By zooming closer, you can banish distractions and unwanted objects to the world outside the frame, distilling the scene to its most essential elements.
  • Highlight the less obvious: Sometimes a scene’s compelling, but more subtle, qualities are overwhelmed by the cacophony of dramatic qualities that drew you in the first place. By all means, shoot the grand drama that drew you, but take the time to discover the smaller stuff that’s there.
  • Selective focus: The longer your focal length, the shallower your depth of field. One of my favorite ways to emphasize a subject that might otherwise be overlooked is to render it as the only sharp object surrounded by a sea of soft color and shape.

About this image

I love aspen. Not only are they beautiful trees, they’re fascinating subjects. For example, did you know that a stand of aspen is actually a single organism connected by one common, extensive root system? In other words, each trunk that we identify as an individual tree is in fact part of (and genetically identical to) every tree surrounding it.

A single aspen stand (known, appropriately enough, as a “clone” of aspen), can be tens of thousands of years old. The oldest and largest aspen clone, in Utah’s Fishlake National Forest, is the oldest, largest living organism on Earth (much older and larger than any of the far more heralded bristlecone or sequoia trees).

Gary Hart Photography: Aspen Carpet, Lundy Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Aspen Carpet, Lundy Canyon, Eastern Sierra (2021)

On last year’s visit to Lundy Canyon, I went exploring the aspen clone on the trail to Lake Helen with my Sony 12-24 GM, seeking to capture the sturdy trunks emerging from a gold-carpeted forest floor (image on the right).

This year, looking for something different, I went at this same aspen clone with my Sony 100-400 GM lens (on my Sony α1), trying first to isolate a single leaf against the colorful background. After a few unsatisfying attempts, I turned my attention to the aspen trunks, looking for a way to emphasize their stark whiteness, papery texture, and protruding knots.

It took a while, but I finally found a tree that offered the combination of separation and background I was looking for. There was nothing especially distinctive about the tree I found, but it displayed a healthy white bark, a prominent knot to anchor my frame, and was separated enough from the surrounding trees that I could get it perfectly sharp, while significantly softening its neighbors.

I started with vertical compositions, but as soon as I switched to horizontal I knew that’s how I wanted to handle this scene. With that determined, I spent the rest of my time making micro-adjustments to my position and focal length, looking for the perspective and framing that gave me the absolute minimum merging of trunks. I also experimented with a variety of focal lengths and f-stops before deciding that I liked the absolute softest background best. I shot the image I share today at nearly 400mm and f/5.6 (wide open).

While I started this post writing about creating unique images, I know I’m not the first person to photograph aspen like this. (Nor do I mean to imply that I’m the Eric Clapton of landscape photography.) But I do feel it’s important for all photographers, myself included, to constantly seek fresh takes on old subjects by pursuing the qualities that move them, and experimenting with new ways to reveal them.

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Long Shots

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Natural Light Painting

Gary Hart Photography: Mono Moonlight, South Tufa, Mono Lake

Mono Moonlight, South Tufa, Mono Lake
Sony 𝛂1
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
20 seconds
F/8
ISO 3200

Once upon a time, moonlight was the only kind of night photography I did. As lifelong astronomy enthusiast, I’ve always been mesmerized by all the stars that come out when the moon is down, but film and the earliest digital cameras were just not capable of adequately capturing the world after dark without help from multiple exposures or artificial light (dealbreakers for me).

While waiting for digital technology to catch up with my Milky Way aspirations, I watched other photographers achieve beautiful results using night photography techniques that didn’t appeal to me: Light painting (long exposures with foreground subjects illuminated by artificial light), and blue-hour blends (one image captured with the foreground illuminated by twilight “blue hour” sky, blended with a second image of the stars from later total darkness at the same location).

Longing for something different than moonlight, while staying true to my one-click natural light objective, I added star trails to my night sky toolbox. Start trails allowed me to keep my shutter open long enough to reveal the landscape beneath a moonless, star-fill sky—albeit with star streaks that bore no resemblance to the pinpoint stars I was so fond of gazing at. Another perk star trail photography was the opportunity to kick back beneath a star-filled ceiling while waiting for my exposure to complete.

When digital sensors finally improved enough to enable usable starlight (moonless) images, I was all-in. Armed with my newly acquired Sony a7S  camera (and subsequent versions) and super-fast and wide prime lenses, I aggressively pursued images of the Milky Way’s brilliant core above my favorite landscapes.

So thrilling was this Milky Way revelation, I all but dropped moonlight photography. In fact, moonlight and Milky Way photography are mutually exclusive because when the moon is full, the Milky Way is lost in the moon’s glow. So by 2015, the only moonlight photography I was doing came during my annual spring moonbow workshops in Yosemite, where bright moonlight is required for the lunar rainbow’s appearance.

As much as possible I time my trips, both personal and workshops, for moonless nights to maximize the Milky Way photography opportunities. One exception is my annual autumn visit to the Eastern Sierra, which is always timed for early October to coincide with the best fall color while letting the moon phase fall where it may.

 

When the moon cooperates, the dark skies east of the Sierra are ideal for Milky Way photography

This year’s Eastern Sierra visit was joined by a waxing gibbous moon that was well on its way to full (the day after my scheduled return home). Yet despite the nearly full moon, I longed for a night shoot. So on my first night in Lee Vining I decided to revisit (non-moonbow) moonlight photography for the first time in seven years and drove out to Mono Lake’s South Tufa after dinner. (Shout-out to the Whoa Nellie Deli.)

With my very first click, memories of how enjoyable moonlight photography is came rushing back: Composition and (especially) focus are orders of magnitude easier than with Milky Way photography; there’s no worry about getting lost or tripping over something (or someone); and even with the sky washed out by moonlight, the camera captures many times more stars than my eyes see. None of these insights were actually new, but they still felt like revelations because I’d been doing nothing but dark sky photography for so long.

This might be a good time to mention that for anyone interested getting into night photography, I strongly encourage starting with moonlight. Unlike Milky Way photography, you don’t need fancy gear—just a decent tripod, any mirrorless or DSLR body, full frame or cropped, made in the last 20 years (pretty much since the first digital cameras) will work, and an f/4 lens is plenty fast enough. Read my Photo Tips article on moonlight photography for more detailed instruction on moonlight photography.

One thing that made this Mono Lake night especially nice was the disappearance of the light breeze that had chopped up the reflection at sunset a couple of hours earlier. The lake wasn’t quite mirror-like, but the surface had settled to gentle undulations that smoothed completely in my multi-second exposures, revealing a gauzy reflection that stood out beautifully in each image. And the 82% moon, while not quite full, was more than bright enough to illuminate the water and limestone tufa towers better than any light painting could have.

I started with images of just water and Mono Lake’s iconic “shipwreck” tufa feature beneath the stars, but soon went exploring for a more interesting foreground. When I found the scene in this image, I oriented my Sony 𝛂1 vertically to maximize the sky, and widened my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens to 16mm to include more foreground than I usually do in a night image.

In almost all of my night images I simply focus on the stars, but this foreground started about 5 feet away and had so much interesting (important) detail, I stopped down to f/8 and focused about 6 feet from my camera to ensure front-to-back sharpness. Using my 𝛂1’s Bright Monitoring feature (I highly recommend to Sony mirrorless shooters who do night photography that they assign it to a custom button), I was able to manually focus through my viewfinder.

To compensate for the light lost to the smaller aperture and less than completely full moon, I bumped my ISO to 3200 and exposed for 20 seconds—less than ideal, but the 𝛂1 handles ISO 3200 easily, and at 16mm there’s not much visible star movement in a 20 second exposure, so I wasn’t worried.

I was only out here for about an hour, but it was such a joyful experience, and I’m so pleased with my results, that I know there’s a lot more moonlight photography in my future.


More Moonlight

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Reach for the Sky

Gary Hart Photography: Sierra Sunrise, Lone Pine Peak and Mt. Whitney, Alabama Hills

Sierra Sunrise, Lone Pine Peak and Mt. Whitney, Alabama Hills
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
2 seconds
F/16
ISO 100

We tend to photograph the things we love most, but I don’t think that necessarily happens consciously. For example, I never appreciated the role the sky plays in my photography until someone pointed it out a few years ago. Browsing my galleries to verify, I was amazed at the percentage of my images that include at least one of the following: the sun, the moon, stars, a rainbow, lightning, or dramatic clouds. (And more recently, the northern lights.)

While I never set out to be a “skyscape” photographer, given my background, I guess it makes sense. (Or more succinctly, “Duh.”) As an astronomy enthusiast since I was a child, and an armchair meteorologist since my late teens, I spent most of my formative years with my eyes and mind on the sky. I continued these childhood interests into adulthood, studying both astronomy and meteorology in college (I even majored in astronomy for a few semesters), and to this day can’t pass up a book or article on either topic. Even without a camera, I can spend hours watching clouds form and dissipate, or gazing at the stars.

A few tips for good sky photography

  • The amount of sky and landscape a frame gets is pretty much a function of the visual appeal of each: the better the sky relative to the landscape, the more frame real-estate it gets. Both nice? No problem splitting the frame in the middle (despite what the “expert” at your camera club says).
  • Clear sky? Use the absolute minimum sky possible—sometimes that’s a thin strip at the top of the frame; other times it’s no sky at all.
  • Great sky? Give it most of your frame, with only something like a tree, rock, or water feature as a visual anchor.
  • Watch the clouds. Clouds can add as much to a scene as the landscape feature you’re there to photograph. While the rules for compositional elements in the sky are no different than they are for elements in the landscape, I’m afraid clouds are frequently overlooked, leading to things like a towering thunderhead with its top cropped, or a rogue patch of blue intruding into a uniformly cloudy ceiling. Sometimes these things can’t be avoided, but you should always make the edges of your frame a conscious choice, even in the sky.
  • As great as clouds are, I especially enjoy including special elements that can be subjects in themselves (like a rainbow, lightning, the Milky Way, the moon, and so on). Rather than showing up and benignly accepting whatever the scene delivers, I aggressively pursue sky subjects by planning my visits to coincide with the best chance for something interesting in the sky. I start with a landscape scene I like, then figure out what sky feature or features I might be able to put with it. How can I get this scene with the Milky Way? What about a full or crescent moon? A rainbow? Lightning? ( (And before you ask, I refuse to add a sky in post—like everything else I photograph, all of my images that include the sky happen with one click.)
  • Weather phenomena require a little knowledge and planning, and a lot of luck. For example, whenever I shoot in rain, or just when there’s the potential for rain, I figure out where a rainbow would appear if the sun were to break through (your shadow will point to the center of the rainbow). And don’t think you can just go out and photograph lightning because you’re in an electrical storm and have a camera. Not only is capturing lightning very difficult without knowledge, experience, and the right equipment, it’s just plain dangerous. Read my tips for photographing lightning.
  • Night photography is about the stars, so make sure you give enough of your frame to the sky to highlight the stars. My rule of thumb is 2/3 sky, but sometimes I’ll do even more. And exceptions are okay (always!): if the foreground is more spectacular than the starry sky, go ahead and split the frame evenly between the sky and landscape, or give it more landscape than sky.
  • While photographing the Milky Way’s isn’t as dangerous as photographing lightning (unless you walk off a cliff in the dark), like lightning photography, including the Milky Way (the right way) also requires a lot of knowledge and experience, as well as the right equipment. Read my tips on photographing the Milky Way.
  • The moon is predictable, requiring only clear skies, a sturdy tripod, and maybe some warm clothes. Before any photo trip, I make a point of knowing the moon’s phase and rise/set times and position. Read my tips for photographing the moon.

About this image

I captured this scene on the final morning of this year’s Death Valley photo workshop. After three glorious days in Death Valley, we made the 90 minute drive to Lone Pine for a chance to photograph the Alabama Hills at sunset and sunrise. While Death Valley and the Alabama Hills are spectacular landscapes, both are plagued by chronic blue skies, so (speaking of planning for the sky) this workshop is always scheduled around the full moon.

We’d had fantastic clouds throughout our Death Valley stay, but the forecast for Lone Pine was clear skies. No problem, I thought, we’ll have the moon. And we did indeed get the moon, but we also got a bonus layer of thin cirrus clouds that turned a brilliant pink shortly before the sun touched the tallest peaks.

I’d been focused on the moon’s slow descent toward Mt. Williamson (the next peak to the north and just out of the frame on the right) when the color started to kick in. Instead of sticking with Plan A (the moon), I quickly reevaluated the scene and decided that the color in the clouds was best above Lone Pine Peak (on the left) and Mt. Whitney. Vivid color like this doesn’t last long, so I just took the foreground before me, grateful to be in the Alabama Hills, where there’s no such thing as a bad foreground.

With so much going on visually, this is one of those scenes where it’s easy to unconsciously cut off clouds. Ideally every cloud would be a complete entity, surrounded on all sides by blue sky or other clouds. Of course achieving that is easier said than done, but my goal is to make all of my border choices conscious rather than having to later accept what I got because my attention was elsewhere.

Because in my mind the most important cloud feature was the large, pink blob above and right of Lone Pine Peak, I was very careful to include all of it. And you need to take my word that the clouds that run right up to an edge (or just barely poke in from an edge) were in fact seen and consciously handled. But it was impossible to go wide enough on the right to include all of that cloud; and going wide enough to avoid cutting off the other clouds on the edges would have introduced other, even worse, compositional problems.

My point isn’t to justify my choices, it’s merely to point out that they were conscious. (In fact, you may have evaluated this scene differently and made much better choices.) But this underscores one of the things I love most about photography: the blend of conscious and unconscious. I started this post writing about my love of the sky and how that love unconsciously became a major factor in my personal style. Now I finish by emphasizing my drive to be hyper-conscious. And you know what? Each is equally true.


More Clouds

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The Shots (Almost) Not Taken

Gary Hart Photography: Milky Way Reflection, South Tufa, Mono Lake

Milky Way Reflection, South Tufa, Mono Lake
Sony a7SIII
Sony 14mm f/1.8 G
ISO 6400
f/1.8
20 seconds

Between a lot of travel last week and preparing for a workshop that starts this week, I somehow managed to process an image yesterday. And today I’m going to attempt to squeeze out a quick blog post around a gathering that’s a 5-hour roundtrip away. Let’s see what happens…

This image makes me think about other memorable shoots that might not have happened had I stuck with the original plan, or succumbed to the easy (more comfortable) exit. These experiences are a testament to the Wayne Gretzky (or was it Michael Scott?) wisdom that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

I’m thinking about the rainbow above Yosemite Valley that I wouldn’t have gotten had I stuck with my plan to meet a private workshop student for dinner—instead, I met him and his girlfriend at the restaurant and insisted that we forego dinner to go sit in the rain, because I thought a rainbow might be possible. Or a very cold morning at Lake Wanaka, New Zealand, when I woke to fog so thick that I could barely see 100 yards. Or setting my alarm for 4:30 a.m. to photograph sunrise, even though I had a 12-hour drive home and the forecast promised a zero-percent chance of rain—only to be gifted a 2-hour electrical storm that ended with a rainbow.

Normally I do the Milky Way shoot in the bristlecones on my Eastern Sierra workshop’s second night, but new permit restrictions thwarted that plan (turns out clouds and wildfire smoke would have stopped us anyway). So I resorted to Plan B, promising that we’d give the Milky Way a try after the Olmsted Point sunset shoot on the workshop’s final night.

But ascending Tioga Pass, we encountered smoke from one of the many wildfires scorching California.  The smoke thickened as we headed west, and by the time we arrived at Olmsted Point, we could barely make out the outline of Half Dome in the smoky distance. We stayed long enough to enjoy a red-rubber-ball sunset, then blew off our “wait for the Milky Way” plan and drove back down to Lee Vining for dinner.

Though we were all a little disappointed to be missing the Milky Way shoot, as we queued up at the Whoa Nellie Deli (look it up), I sensed that many in the group looked forward to a warm and restful evening. Still, at one point I snuck out into the cold to check the sky. Seeing that clouds, smoke, or some combination of both had snuffed them, I confirmed to the group that the Milky Way shoot was off.

Walking outside after dinner, I was already mentally back in my room, but nevertheless glanced skyward and was surprised to see stars. Lots and lots of stars. Without the smoke/cloud blanket to hold in what little warmth remained, the temperature felt like it had dropped another 10 degrees. Part of me really, really wanted to pretend I hadn’t seen the stars and just herd everyone to the cars before they noticed them too, but I knew the Milky Way was a priority for many, and this opportunity was too good to pass. When I suggested that we give it a shot, almost the entire group was onboard (I can’t remember whether anyone opted out, but most didn’t). So we drove out to South Tufa, bundled up, and traipsed down to the lake.

I’ve photographed here more times than I can count (it’s possible there aren’t even numbers that go that high anyway), but only once or twice at night, many years ago. I didn’t have a specific spot in mind, but since South Tufa is on the south side of the lake, and the Milky Way is in the southern sky, I figured we’d likely be shooting in a tufa garden, with the lake at our back and the calcium carbonate towers in the foreground.

But walking east along the lake shore in the dark, we came upon a small peninsula jutting into the lake. Despite having walked by this spot countless times, I suddenly realized it might protrude far enough to allow us to shoot southward and back cross the water, toward a few tufa towers, with the Milky Way in the background.

We used flashlights to walk out and set up, but then photographed by the light of nothing but the stars. Working with an entire group out here in the dark, with no more than three very craggy feet of space between the lake at our feet and a wall of tufa behind us, was a real challenge. Each time someone called for help I had to navigate a treacherous route in near total darkness, taking care not to bump anyone, and being very mindful that the slightest misstep could send me sprawling into the frigid, salty lake (not to mention what that would do to the reflection).

Each time I passed my camera, I checked my previous image, made quick adjustments, and clicked a new frame before moving on to the next person who needed help. I only managed a handful of shots, and while they all looked pretty similar to this, that was just fine. We stayed here for 30 minutes or so, then moved on to the tufa garden I’d originally considered. That was nice too, though many of those images were spoiled by someone light painting the tufa nearby.

Looking over the images from that night, I’m reminded not just of the great photography we enjoyed, but also of how much fun we had out there in the dark, doing something we never imagined we’d be able to do. It would have been very easy after dinner to return with our full stomachs to our warm rooms, and turn in early to be rested for our early start the next morning. But I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the best memories often come from the most challenging conditions. If we’d have followed the strong urge to return to the hotel right after dinner, we almost certainly would have been quite comfortable, content, and completely oblivious to what we’d missed. And what a sad thing that would have been.


Almost Not Taken

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Reflecting on the Polarizer

Gary Hart Photography: Aspen Autumn Reflection, Bishop Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Aspen Autumn Reflection, Bishop Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/5 second
F/16
ISO 200

Who else loves reflections? I don’t know about you, but I love photographing them, and even without a camera, I just love staring at them. Part of a reflection’s power is its ability to engage the brain in different ways than we’re accustomed: Rather than processing the scene directly, we first must mentally reassemble the reverse world of a reflection, and in the process perhaps see the scene a little differently. And in a photo, a nice reflection simply introduces a soothing calmness.

So if reflections are so great, why do I spend almost my entire photography life with a filter designed to remove reflections? I’m talking about the polarizer, which I have on nearly all my lenses and rarely remove, except at night (and maybe a small handful of other situations). But truth be told, most reflections in nature aren’t the glassy water we picture when we think of reflections, they’re a distracting sheen that create distracting glare and wash out color on rocks, foliage, and water. And that’s where the polarizers comes in.

Polarizer 101

Put simply, a polarizer removes reflections.

As powerful as today’s image processing software is, one landscape-essential filter that can’t be added after the shot is the polarizer. Valued by inexperienced photographers only for darkening blue skies, more serious photographers value their polarizers more for their ability to remove the sheen that desaturates color, hides submerged objects, and flattens texture.

Even worse than not appreciating their polarizer’s power, some photographers screw on a polarizer without understanding how it works, mistakenly believing that merely having a polarizer on their lens is sufficient. The amount of polarization a composition calls for is a creative decision that can make or break an image. And unfortunately, a mis-oriented polarizer can be worse than no polarizer.

This won’t be on the test

So what does a polarizer do?

If you’re like me, it helps to understand that a wave of light oscillates (vibrates) perpendicular to its direction of motion. A real world example of this kind of motion is the way a wave in the middle of the ocean rises and falls as it advances: while the wave moves forward, the water moves up and down.

A wave of light is much more complex than an ocean wave, oscillating in every possible direction perpendicular to its direction of motion. For example, to represent the direction of motion, imagine a string connecting a light source to the subject it illuminates. To understand the wave’s oscillation, picture the string moving not only up/down, but also left/right and every other angle perpendicular to the direction the wave moves.

And still one more way to view this motion would be to visualize a beam of light (or our string) passing through the center of a spoked wheel, where the axle would be. Each of the spoke pairs (one on each side of the light beam) would represent a direction the wave would oscillate, and there could be an infinite number of spoke pairs.

In very simple terms, polarized light is light that has all but one of its planes of oscillation removed. So returning to our spoked wheel, we’d be left only with the light that oscillates in the direction of one of the spoke pairs.

Without getting too deep (or at least any deeper) into the weeds, a polarizing filter eliminates reflections by removing the light that carries reflections back to our eyes. Polarization (reflection reduction) is most effective when your lens points 90 degrees (perpendicular) to the direction of the sun or other light source; it is least effective when the lens points directly toward or away from the sun.

Polarizers come in two flavors, linear and circular (the designation has to do with the way the polarizer achieves its effect, not the shape of the filter). For today’s digital cameras, you want to use a circular polarizer (which is almost certainly what you’ll be sold if you ask for a polarizer). Most polarizers are comprised of two connected pieces: a circular threaded frame that screws onto your lens’s threads, and an attached piece of polarizing glass (in its own circular frame) that rotates independently of threaded frame. Rotating the polarizer’s glass element relative to the fixed lens varies the orientation, and therefore the amount of polarization. You can see the polarization effect (sometimes large, sometimes small) through your viewfinder or on your live-view LCD.

What a polarizer does for you

With reflections minimized by a polarizer, pale blue sky is transformed to a deeper blue, glare is removed from rocks and foliage to reveal underlying color and texture, reflections are removed from water to expose submerged features, and clouds that were barely visible suddenly snap into prominence. Or imagine mountains reflected in a still alpine lake: As you rotate your polarizer, the reflection is replaced by rocks and leaves dotting the lakebed; keep turning and the reflection returns.

So what’s the catch?

Lost light

A polarizer costs you one to two stops of exposure, depending on the polarizer and the amount of polarization you dial in. Since aperture manages depth and is often non-negotiable, landscape photographers usually compensate for the lost light with a longer shutter speed—one more reason to use a tripod. If motion is a concern, the next best way to compensate for lost light is to increase the ISO.

Differential polarization

Because a polarizer’s effect varies with the direction of the light, and wide lenses cover a broad field of view, light arrives at different parts of a wide scene from different angles. The result is “differential polarization”: parts of the scene that are more polarized than others.

Differential polarization is particularly troublesome in the sky, appearing as an unnatural transition from light to dark blue across a single frame. This effect can often be reduced, but rarely eliminated, with careful dodging and burning in Photoshop. Better yet, avoid images with lots of (boring) blue sky.

Vignetting

A standard polarizer is comprised of a circle of polarized glass mounted in a frame that screws into, and rotates relative to, the fixed lens beneath. Most also include an outer ring with threads for attaching other filters. The field of view of ultra-wide lenses can be so great that, at their wider focal lengths, they include the polarizer’s frame: vignetting. Polarizer vignetting manifests as dark edges on your images, particularly at the corners.

Most of the best polarizer manufacturers offer a low-profile version that mitigates vignetting. Low profile polarizers are more money (oh well), usually require a special lens cap (a minor annoyance), and don’t have external threads (not an issue for me).

Me and my polarizer(s)

Always on

Since I’m all about simplicity in the field, and determining whether or not I need a polarizer and then adding or removing it as needed is more trouble than it’s worth, each lens in my bag has its own polarizer that rarely comes off during daylight hours. I remove my polarizer only when I need more light, want to use a neutral density filter (I don’t like stacking filters), or if I’m concerned about differential polarization.

But. Shooting with no polarizer is better than using an incorrectly oriented polarizer. If you’re going to follow my “always on” polarizer approach, you must be diligent about rotating the polarizer and checking its effect on each composition, or risk doing more harm than good to your image. This is especially important if you change a composition’s orientation between horizontal and vertical.

Protection

Like many photographers, I always use a filter as protection for my front lens element; unlike many photographers, I don’t use UV or skylight filters. While it’s possible to stack a polarizer atop a UV or skylight filter, I don’t. Instead, because it never comes off, my polarizer doubles as protection for the front lens element.

Given that my polarizers are in the $200 range, this gets a little expensive when a filter “takes one for the team,” but it’s cheaper than replacing an entire lens, and more desirable than stacking superfluous glass between my subject and my sensor, not to mention the vignetting stacking causes. On the other hand, I will use a graduated neutral density filter with a polarizer, because GNDs serve a specific (not superfluous) need that doesn’t disappear when a polarizer is added.

The polarizer and lens hoods

To those photographers who complain that it’s a real pain to rotate a polarizer with a lens hood in the way, I have a simple solution: remove the lens hood. I never use a lens hood. Ever. This is blasphemy to many photographers, but I hate lens hoods, which always seem to be in the way (see my “simplicity in the field” comment above). But (there’s that word again), jettisoning the lens hood must come with the understanding that lens flare is real and usually impossible to entirely correct after the fact.

When there’s a chance direct sunlight will strike my front lens element, I check to see if shielding the lens helps. With my composition ready (on my tripod!), I peer through my viewfinder and shade my lens with my hand or hat (or whatever handheld shade is handy). If shading my lens makes the scene darker and more contrasty, and/or eliminates lens flare (random fragments of light), I know I must shield my lens while exposing. Of course if the sun is in my composition, no shading in the world (or lens hood) will eliminate the lens flare.

Polarizer techniques

Polarizer on a budget

All scenes don’t benefit equally from a polarizer, and photographers on a budget can’t always afford one for every lens. If you’re only going to go with one polarizer, buy one for your largest lens, and step-up rings for each lens thread size. Or you could simply hand-hold the larger polarizer in front of the smaller lens (as long as you’re on a tripod).

Does this scene call for a polarizer?

To determine the polarizer’s effect, rotate the outer element 360 degrees as you peer through your viewfinder (or view the LCD in live-view). Often just holding the polarizer to your eye while you look in the direction of your composition and rotating it slowly is enough to determine its benefit.

Unless I’m trying to maximize a reflection, I rotate the polarizer until the scene appears darkest. If there’s no apparent change, I watch specific objects that might have a slight sheen (water, a leaf, or a rock) as I rotate the polarizer—I can almost always find some change. Shooting with a mirrorless camera, I have the benefit of a histogram in my viewfinder. Sometimes when I can’t detect a difference with my eye, I slowly turn my polarizer as I watch the histogram, looking for the histogram to shift slightly to the left (or my highlight alert “zebras” shrink). If you can’t see any change as you rotate your polarizer, you probably don’t need to worry about orienting the polarizer.

It’s not just for the sky

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Reflection, North Lake, Eastern Sierra

Autumn Reflection, North Lake, Eastern Sierra

As nice as the the effect on the sky is, it’s the polarizer’s more subtle ability to reduce glare in overcast or shade that I find irreplaceable. Peering through your viewfinder, lock your eyes on a reflective surface and rotate the polarizer. The effect is most obvious on water, or wet rocks and leaves, but even when completely dry, most rocks and leaves have a discernible sheen. As you rotate the polarizer, harsh glare is replaced by natural color and texture; continue rotating and the glare reappears.

Usually my goal is to dial in maximum polarization, but if I’m photographing a reflection, I turn the polarizer until the reflection peaks. And there’s no rule that requires you to turn the polarizer to one extreme or anther (maximum or minimum reflection). Sometimes I want a little reflection plus a little submerged lake or river detail. In these situations I rotate the outer element slowly and watch the scene change, stopping when I achieve the desired effect. In my North Lake autumn reflection scene, I was able to find a midpoint in the polarization that kept the best part of the reflection (the mountains and trees), while still revealing the submerged granite rocks at my feet.

Floating Leaves, Merced River, Yosemite

In the image of autumn leaves floating in the Merced River, I used my polarizer to completely dial down the reflection, creating the illusion of leaves suspended in empty space. Polarizing away the reflection also helped the leaves’ color stand out by eliminating distracting glare.

Redbud, Merced River

An emergency neutral density filter

A polarizer can also be used as a two-stop neutral density filter by dialing it to maximum polarization (minimum light). In this image of a redbud above the surging Merced River, even at ISO 100 and f32, I couldn’t reach the 3/4 second shutter speed that would give me the motion blur I wanted. But the two stops of light I lost to my polarizer was just enough to snow my shutter speed enough to blur the water.

If you’re serious about your photography

Use only quality polarizers; you don’t need to spend a fortune, but neither should you skimp. Not only does the quality of the optics affect the quality of your results, I’ve also seen more than one poorly made polarizer simply fall apart for no apparent reason.

I advise buying polarizers that are commensurate with your lens quality—in other words, if you have top-of-the-line lenses, it makes no sense to use anything but top-of-the-line polarizers. I use Breakthrough filters because for their quality and emphasis on customer service.

My personal recipe for using a polarizer

  1. (Almost) always on
  2. No other filters except a graduated neutral density filter, when needed
  3. Compose my shot and lock it in place on my tripod
  4. Turn the polarizer to get the effect I want
  5. Check for lens flare and shield if necessary
  6. Meter the scene
  7. Click

About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Aspen Autumn Reflection, Bishop Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Aspen Autumn Reflection, Bishop Creek Canyon

This image is from the second of my two Eastern Sierra workshops earlier this month. Processing it reminded me of the struggle I had deciding how orient my polarizer, because in addition to the glassy water mirroring the colorful aspen across the pond, this scene also contained a lot of reflective sheen that I try to polarize away. What’s a photographer to do?

After a nice sunrise at North Lake, followed by another fall color stop a little down down the road, I set my workshop group free near this small retaining pond just downstream from Lake Sabrina (pronounced “sa-BRI-na,” BTW). There was so much happening here we could have spent hours, but a scene like this needs to be in full shade and the sun was slowly encroaching.

I spent most of my time with a few others in the group, drawn to this mirror reflection of gold aspen with parallel white trunks. After playing with a few different compositions, I ended up concentrating on a pair of leaves clinging to protruding rock as a foreground anchor. I chose a vertical composition largely to eliminate an unsightly stump jutting into the middle of the pond. Sometimes features like that can be the anchor I look for, but everyone working the scene agreed that it was more of a bulky blob than a viable visual element. The top of the frame was limited by the encroaching sunlight—any higher and I’d have had an unwieldy mix of shade and sunlight. And I put the bottom of the frame just above the muddy shore.

As soon as I identified my composition, it became apparent that my biggest problem was going to be what to do with my polarizer. This scene was all about the spectacular reflection, but the rock, leaves, and (especially) blue sky were all washed out by reflections from the bright sky overhead. If I turned my polarizer to maximize the reflection, I also maximize the sheen; turning the polarizer to minimize the sheen also significantly dulled the tree reflection.

My solution was to turn the polarizer slowly, with my eye on my view finder, watching the reflection increase, and stopping just as it reached the rock. The result was a workable compromise—not quite as flat in the close foreground as it would have been had I gone all-in with the polarization, and not quite as vivid as the reflection would have been if I’d have dialed it all the way up (minimal polarization). But my compromise gave me enough to work with in post, dodging (brightening) the “good” reflection, and burning (darkening) the “bad” reflection.

Breakthrough Filters


More Reflections

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

The Colors of Autumn

Gary Hart Photography: Aspen Carpet, Lundy Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Aspen Carpet, Lundy Canyon, Eastern Sierra
Sony a7RIV
Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM
1/8 second
F/11
ISO 800

Few things get my heart racing more than the vivid yellows, oranges, and reds of autumn. And after missing most of last year’s fall color thanks to the double whammy of COVID and California’s extreme fire season, I was especially excited as I motored over the mountains for this year’s Eastern Sierra workshops.

Of course as much as I love it, this trip doesn’t come without its anxiety (that’s just how it is when people pay you to deliver a workshop featuring something as unpredictable as fall color). On the other hand (I reassured myself), there’s a whole lot more to the Eastern Sierra than colorful trees (waterfalls, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, the ancient bristlecone pines, Mono Lake, and Half Dome from Olmsted Point in Yosemite). Plus, with Eastern Sierra elevations ranging from 4,000 to 10,000 feet (even higher if you don’t mind hiking), finding yellow (and occasionally orange and red) aspen from late-September through October is usually just a matter of changing elevation. Nevertheless, I have a few favorite autumn locations I love sharing with my groups, and it’s impossible to know in advance whether the color there will be early, peaking, or past peak.

The truth is, timing of the fall color peak is fraught with mystery and misconception. Show up at the lake where someone in your camera club said the color was peaking at this time last year, and you might find the trees displaying lime green, mixed with faint hints of yellow and orange. When you check in to the lakeside inn and ask the old guy behind the counter inn what happened to the color, he shakes his head and says matter-of-factly, “The color’s late this year—it hasn’t gotten cold enough yet.” Arriving at the same inn on the same weekend the following year, you find just a handful of tattered leaves clinging to mostly bare branches—this time the old guy hands you your keynd proclaims, “That freeze a couple of weeks ago got the color started early this year—you should have been here last week.”

While these explanations may sound reasonable, they’re not entirely accurate. The truth is, the why and when of fall color is complicated, and armchair experts resort to memory, anecdote, and lore to fill knowledge voids with partial truth and downright myth. But while we still can’t predict fall color the way we do the weather, science does provide pretty good insights of the fall color process upon which to base our plans.

A tree’s color

The leaves of deciduous trees contain a mix of green, yellow, and orange pigments. During the spring and summer growing season, the volume and intensity of the green chlorophyl pigment overpowers the orange and yellow pigments, and the tree stays green. Even though chlorophyl is quickly broken down by sunlight, the process of photosynthesis that turns sunlight into nutrients during the long days of summer continuously replaces the spent chlorophyl.

As the days shrink toward autumn, things begin to change. Cells at the abscission layer at the base of the leaves’ stem (the knot where the leaf connects to the branch) begin the process that will eventually lead to the leaf dropping from the tree: Thickening of cells in the abscission layer blocks the transfer of carbohydrates from the leaves to the branches, and the movement of minerals to the leaves. Without these minerals, the leaves’ production of chlorophyl dwindles and finally stops, leaving just the yellow and orange pigments. Voilà—fall color!

The role of sunlight and weather

Contrary to popular belief, the timing of the onset of this fall color chain reaction depends much more on daylight than it does on temperature and weather.  Triggered by a genetically programmed day/night-duration threshold (and contrary to innkeeper-logic), the trees in any given region will commence their transition from green to fall color at about the same time each year, when the day length drops to a certain point.

Nevertheless, though it doesn’t trigger the process, weather does play a significant part in the intensity, duration, and demise of the color season. Because sunlight breaks down the green chlorophyl, cloudy days after the suspension of chlorophyl creation will slow the chlorophyl’s demise and the coloring process that follows. And while the yellow and orange pigments are present and pretty much just hanging out, waiting all summer for the chlorophyl to relinquish control of the tree’s color, that tree’s red and purple pigments are manufactured from sugar stored in the leaves—the more sugar, the more vivid a tree’s red. Ample moisture, warm days, and cool (but not freezing) nights after the chlorophyl replacement has stopped are most conducive to the creation and retention of the sugars that form the red and purple pigments.

On the other hand, freezing temperatures destroy the color pigments, bringing a premature end to the color display. Drought can stress trees so much that they drop their leaves before the color has a chance to manifest. And wind and rain can wreak havoc with the fall display—go to bed one night beneath a canopy of red and gold, and wake the next morning to find the trees bare and the ground blanketed with color.

Since the fall color factors come in a virtually infinite number of possible variations and combinations, the color timing and intensity can vary a lot from year to year. Despite expert advice that seems promise precise timing for the fall color, when planning a fall color trip, your best bet is to try to get there as close as possible to the middle of the color window, then cross your fingers.

Of course, fall color doesn’t need to be on the trees to be photogenic…

Up the creek in Lundy Canyon

Catching up from 2020, this year I did two Eastern Sierra workshops. On the second workshop’s next to the last day, I learned that an incoming storm that threatened to dump a few inches of snow on the highest elevations of the Sierra had forced the National Park Service preemptively close Tioga Pass. That meant I’d lose my Olmsted Point (Yosemite) sunset location, which forced me to improvise.

One option would be to return to Mono Lake South Tufa, but we’d just done sunset there the night before. Another option was the spectacular Minaret Vista above Mammoth, but between smoke (which had dogged us intermittently throughout the second workshop) and the incoming storm, there was no guarantee we’d even see the mountains. So I decided to move the Lundy Canyon shoot from the next morning (when it was supposed to be raining), to that night.

The road up Lundy Canyon starts at around 6500 feet and climbs to more than 8000 feet, with the last mile-and-a-half a pretty gnarly dirt road that can be navigated without high clearance if you take it slow. Lined with aspen, the road follows Mill Creek past a few small waterfalls and reflective beaver ponds. The color along most of the road normally peaks in mid/late October, but near the end of the road it can happen earlier.

We parked at the trailhead at the end of the road, about two hours before sunset. With so many options here, the group immediately scattered, some hiked 1/3 mile up the trail to the small lake behind a massive beaver dam and filled by a nice waterfall; a couple walked the short distance back down the road to another beaver pond; a few headed off into the nearby aspen.

The approaching storm provided the cloud cover we hope for when photographing fall color, but it also brought wind—not so great for fall color. I started with the group behind the beaver dam, then found my way into the aspen, where I spent a little time demonstrating my creative selective focus technique to a couple of participants.

I eventually moved deeper into the aspen, first searching for leaves or trunks to isolate against a soft background, but I hadn’t gone to far before I noticed that the entire forest floor here was blanketed with fresh aspen leaves. Hmmmm…

I added my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens to my Sony a7RIV to try something a little different. My thought was by dropping low, setting up close to the aspen, then going ultra-wide and angling slightly down, I could emphasize the white trunks and yellow leaves, and eliminate the (less attractive bare) mountainside in the background.

One thing I try to be careful about is avoiding any view of the world beyond the scene I want to photograph. By eliminating any hint of the world beyond, someone looking at this image could infer that this grove of aspen might just extend all the way to infinity. Of course that won’t be a conscious thought, but that simple exclusion makes the scene more inviting to anyone who loves the quiet and solitude of a deep forest.

Read more about photographing fall color


A Fall Color Gallery

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Mono Magic

Gary Hart Photography: Red Dawn, Mono Lake

Red Dawn, Mono Lake
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
Breakthrough 6-Stop Dark polarizer
30 seconds
F/16
ISO 50

Yesterday morning I wrapped up the first of two Eastern Sierra photo workshops with a truly glorious, and unique, sunrise at Mono Lake. The prior morning the group enjoyed a nice sunrise at Mono Lake’s far more heralded South Tufa, but for the final sunrise I like to take my groups to this isolated stretch of shoreline on the north side of the lake.

How isolated? Isolated enough that we never end up at the same spot because there’s no trail or landmark to guide me—we just drive around in the dark on the lake’s network of rutted dirt roads, park the cars, and start walking until we get to the lake (the last hundred yards or so are often in shoe-sucking mud). So far, this shoot has always been a highlight of the workshop. (I do realize I could get the GPS coordinates and follow them back to the same spot if I wanted to, but varying water levels in Mono Lake changes the shoreline so much from year-to-year, it really wouldn’t make much difference anyway.)

Before this workshop started, I was very concerned about how we’d be affected by smoke from the KNP Fire, burning just over the Sierra Crest from the workshop’s starting point in Lone Pine. On Monday those fears appeared to be close to reality when, on the drive down to Lone Pine, I found most of the Sierra smothered by a smoky blanket that only seemed to thicken as I drove south.

Tuesday morning began a little clearer, and while the smoke had increased by the workshop’s start that afternoon, it wasn’t really a problem for our initial sunset shoot. Nevertheless, I had contingency plans in place if smoke threatened any of our upcoming shoots.

It turns out the weather gods were smiling upon us because the skies for Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, the bristlecone piness, fall color in Bishop Canyon, and South Tufa were completely smoke-free. But hints of smoke were in the air as we departed  for the workshop’s final sunset shoot in Yosemite, and become more dense as we ascended Tioga Pass. Our first stop was supposed to include mountains and a reflection, but all we could see was a reflection (of nearby trees). At Olmsted Point, Half Dome was just a hazy outline. Photographers are nothing if not resilient, and we made the best of the conditions by photographing the orange sun above nearby trees and glacial erratics (large granite boulders carried by glaciers and deposited in place when the glaciers retreated).

After a delicious dinner at the Mobil station in Lee Vining (I kid you not—check it out: Whoa Nellie Deli), we actually found the sky clear enough for a Milky Way shoot at Mono Lake. (More on that in a future post.) At this point the workshop had been such a success that I shouldn’t have stressed about the possibility of smoke ruining our final sunrise, but I have to admit the smoke’s return was on my mind as I fell asleep that night.

On the (extremely) bumpy drive out to Mono Lake the next morning, I could see stars overhead, with a mix of clouds and sky near the horizon—ideal conditions for a nice sunrise (fingers crossed). The world was still dark when we finished our trudge out to the lakeshore and spread out, each person searching for their own special composition (I love seeing everyone’s vision and confidence grow as a workshop progresses).

There was no wind, so the lake was nearly flat, with only a few lazy undulations disturbing the color already reflecting on its surface. Despite the darkness, I encouraged the group to start shooting immediately to take advantage of the deep red saturating the clouds on the eastern horizon. But as the light increased, I started to realize something was odd about this color, which didn’t seem to be following the standard sunrise intensity/hue curve.

Looking more closely, I realized these weren’t clouds we were photographing, it was smoke. But unlike the homogenous, view-swallowing smoke that had thwarted the previous evening’s sunset, this smoke hovered in thin bands and wisps. And rather than dull the color as smoke usually does, it seemed to intensify it. I’m sure there’s a scientific explanation for this, but I imagine it has something to do about the size and density of these particular smoke particles. In the meantime, I’ll simply appreciate the gift.

A few words about this image

The shore out here unfolds in a series of mini bays and peninsulas, most no more than 20 or 30 feet in width and/or length. The view is photographable across an arc that’s greater than 180 degrees, with the best direction depending on the light. This morning the real show was in the east, toward Paoha Island, a cinder cone formed by an eruption less than 400 years ago.

I set up with a couple other participants on a flat and dry mini-peninsula that jutted into the lake. The rest of the group was working their own little scene within easy conversational earshot (it’s spectacularly quiet out there), allowing me to call out suggestions (“Try a neutral density filter to smooth the water”) and reminders (“Don’t forget to reset your ISO from last night’s Milky Way shoot!”; “Keep an eye on the red channel of your RGB histogram”), but for the most part everyone seemed pretty focused and content.

The calm lake surface was interrupted by nearby tufa mounds and platforms that created potential visual stepping stones that could move the eye, or completely confuse it, depending on their relative position in the frame. Un-randomizing these elements into something more coherent can feel daunting, and sometimes virtually impossible. I’d worked out my own composition at my initial location, but when a couple of women in the group told me they were struggling to organize the scene into a composition that worked for them, I packed up and headed to their little cove to help.

They were probably no more than 40 straight-line feet from my previous location, but with so many nearby visual elements, their foreground was completely different than mine. First I suggested that they were too wide for their chosen location—even though the view here is expansive, there was so much going on in the foreground at this spot that I thought it would be easier to simplify with a slightly longer focal length. Rather than a 16-35, I suggested switching to a 24-70 or 24-105 lens (I chose my Sony 24-105 for my Sony a7RIV), which would allow them to eliminate all of the distractions up and down the lakeshore and concentrate on the lake itself.

Then I simply narrated my own thoughts as I evaluated the scene, starting by pointing out a nearby trio of tufa mounds that could anchor the frame. This group was just 40 feet or so into the lake, but out of the scene they’d been composing, so we moved about 10 feet to include it. I explained that this foreground anchor didn’t need to be anything special, it was just there to provide a visual starting point for the eye’s path through the frame. With the visual starting point identified, I moved around until the mid-ground tufa mounds cut diagonally across the middle of the frame, taking care that they held enough visual weight on the left to balance the distant cinder cone on the right. Finally, I zoomed to around 70mm to keep the sides of my frame free of rogue tufa mounds trying to photobomb the scene. (Live-view LCD screens, mirrorless or DSLR, are great for demonstrating composition suggestions in real time.)

My next decision was the amount of sky to include. I shared my calculus for positioning the horizon, which is largely a function of where the most visual interest lies—foreground or sky. Here, I explained that while the red smoke was spectacular, it didn’t spread across the sky, so I put the top of my frame right about where the color intensity started to fade, for a 2/1 foreground/sky ratio.

I went nuclear on the shutter speed, adding my Breakthrough 6-stop Dark Polarizer to render a 30-second shutter speed that completely smoothed all detail in the water. Then I dialed the polarizer to maximize the reflection and eliminate submerged distractions on the lakebed, just a few inches beneath the water near my feet. At 70mm I need to be careful about my focus point to keep everything from the closest tufa to the cinder cone sharp, so I stopped down to f/16 and focused on the linear mound barely sticking up behind the foreground group.

The three of us stood side-by-side, tripod legs overlapping, photographing this gorgeous sunrise. We clicked until the color faded, then repositioned slightly shortly before the sun peaked up from behind the left diagonal of the cinder cone, allowing us to finish with a series of beautiful sunstars. Such a great way to finish a workshop.

I just scheduled my 2022 Eastern Sierra workshop a month ago, and it’s already half full


More Mono Magic

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Playing With Depth

Gary Hart Photography: Creekside Color, Mill Creek, Eastern Sierra

Creekside Color, Mill Creek, Eastern Sierra
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
Canon 70-200 f/4 L
4 seconds
F/32
ISO 200

Photography is the futile attempt to squeeze a three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional medium. But just because it’s impossible to truly capture depth in a photograph, don’t think you shouldn’t consider the missing dimension when crafting an image. For the photographer with total control over his or her camera’s exposure variables (which exposure variable to change and when to change it), this missing dimension provides an opportunity to reveal the world in unique ways, or to create an illusion of depth that recreates much of the thrill of being there.

The Illusion of Depth

Sometimes a scene holds so much near-to-far beauty that we want to capture every inch of it. While we can’t actually capture the depth our stereo vision enjoys, we can take steps to create the illusion of depth. Achieving this is largely about mindset—it’s about not simply settling for a primary subject no matter how striking it is. When you find a distant subject to feature in an image, scan the scene and position yourself to include a complementary fore-/middle-ground subjects. Likewise, when you want to feature a nearby object in an image, position yourself to include a complementary back-/middle-ground subjects.

Creative Selective Focus

Most photographers go to great lengths to achieve full front-to-back sharpness, an art in itself. But sometimes I like to solve the missing depth conundrum with what I call creative selective focus: An intentionally narrow depth of field with a carefully chosen focus point to flatten a scene’s myriad out-of-focus planes onto the same thin plane as the sharp subject. This technique can soften distractions into a blur of color and shape, or simply guide the viewer’s eye to the primary subject and soften the background to complementary context.

When I use creative selective focus to autumn leaves or spring flowers, I usually take the extreme background blur color and shape approach. In the images below, the soft background serves as a canvas for the primary subject.

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But sometimes I like my soft background to have enough resolution to be more recognizable. When I take this approach, my goal is to signal the part of the scene I want to emphasize by making it sharp, and to use the soft but still recognizable background for context that tells the view something about the location.

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A few years ago I wrote an article on this very topic for “Outdoor Photographer” magazine. You can read a slightly updated version of this article in my Photo Tips section: Selective Focus.

About this image: Creekside Color, Mill Creek, Eastern Sierra

With dense aspen groves, reflective beaver ponds, towering peaks, and even a waterfall, Lundy Canyon just north and west of Mono Lake, has long been one of my favorite fall color locations.

I spent this overcast autumn morning wandering the banks of Mills Creek. The thick growth here often makes this easier said than done, but the rewards of battling my way through trees and shrubs usually makes it worth the scrapes and scratches I always seem to go home with.

Even though it was less than 30 feet from the road, I heard this cascade long before I saw it. Once I got my eyes on it, I had to battle further to get a clear view. I especially liked the red leaves, a relative rarity in California, and wanted to feature them. Here I positioned myself so the leaves framed the creek, and turned my polarizer to reduce the leaves’ glossy sheen.

I used a range of f-stops for a variety of background sharpness options. This one used f/32 (maybe my all-time record for smallest aperture), which gave me enough DOF for to make the creek easily recognizable, but also resulted in a 4-second exposure. (Clearly wind was not a factor this morning.)

Here’s my Photo Tips article on using hyperfocal focus techniques to enhance your images’ illusion of depth: Depth of Field.


Playing With Depth

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

Dawn’s Early Light

Gary Hart Photography: Dawn's Early Light, Mt. Whitney, Alabama Hills, California

Dawn’s Early Light, Mt. Whitney, Alabama Hills, California
Sony a7RIV
Sony 100-400 GM
30 seconds
F/8
ISO 100

Imagine a world that’s so quiet you can hear nature’s every stirring, a place where each breath holds a pristine bouquet of subtle fragrances and the sky is a continuously shifting kaleidoscope of indigo, blue, yellow, orange, and pink. Maybe you’ve already figured out that I’m describing the very world we live in, before the sun’s light and warmth entice the dirty, noisy, oblivious masses.

The morning magic begins long before the human eye can register detail and color, while a few stars still burn overhead and nearby objects loom as vague shapes. Lacking enough light for the eyes to do their thing, the human experience pre-sunrise is biased toward the non-visual senses, as the sounds of a gentle breeze, flowing water, and stirring creatures mingle with the smells of dew and plants.

For the next 30 minutes, the eastern horizon seems to brighten faster than the rest of the scene. Pushed by the approaching sun, the earth’s shadow hovers in the west, swallowing stars with its steely blue. Following the earth’s shadow is the belt of Venus, as the sun’s longest wavelengths battle through the atmosphere to color the sky pink.

Photographing this pre-sunrise show can begin earlier than your eyes might tell you. Experienced photographers understand that what we perceive as darkness is just our eyes’ relatively limited ability to gather light, combined with the brain’s insistence on processing this limited input instantaneously. But a camera’s sensor accumulates all the light that strikes it for whatever duration we prescribe, thereby stretching the “instant” of perception indefinitely and allowing us to use every possible photon.

Another advantage a digital sensor has over the human eye is its ability to extract color from this apparent darkness. The human eye uses rods and cones to collect light, with the rods doing the heavy lifting in low light, pulling enough monochrome information to discern shapes, but providing little help with color and depth. The cones that complete the scene with color and depth information don’t kick in until there’s much more light. But a digital sensor, though blind to depth, captures photons without discrimination, allowing it to “see” color in very low light.

The ability to capture aspects of the natural world that differ from the human perspective might just be my favorite thing about photography, and these sunrise moments provide a great opportunity to engage the camera’s strength. When the scene is in the same direction as the rising sun, I look for shapes to isolate against the sky, then underexpose enough to turn the shapes into silhouettes, and to prevent the color from being washed out by the sun’s brilliance. When the sun is rising at my back, I take the opposite approach, giving the scene extra light to extract invisible detail from the virtually shadowless light and reveal hidden color in the sky and landscape.

About this image

On the penultimate day of each Death Valley Winter Moon workshop, my group makes the scenic, 90 minute drive from Death Valley to Lone Pine for the workshop’s final sunset and sunrise. The view in the Alabama Hills faces west, so at sunset we’re photographing shaded mountains beneath the brightest part of the sky—not ideal conditions for photography. If we’re lucky enough to get clouds, these Alabama Hills sunsets can still be special, but really it’s the sunrise that we’re here for. At sunrise in the Alabama Hills, we face the Sierra as the sun rises at our back, first coloring the sky with the blue hues of Earth’s shadow, followed by the magenta and pinks of twilight wedge.

Another special aspect of an Alabama Hills sunrise is the Sierra Crest. Towering 10,000 feet above the surrounding terrain, Mt. Whitney and its neighbors jut into the twilight wedge, and for a few sweet seconds take on its pink pastels that photographers call alpenglow.

This year’s sunset was nothing spectacular, but we walked out to the famous Mobius Arch, checked out a couple of other less noteworthy arches nearby, and I pointed out some of the area’s many movie-shoot spots. I was also able to show everyone where the morning sun would rise, and where the moon would set, and introduce them to the most prominent peaks on display: Lone Pine Peak on the left, Mt. Whitney in the middle, and Mt. Williamson on the right.

The forecast for the next morning was clear skies—maybe not dramatic, but good for the planned moonset and ideal for alpenglow on the crest. My general rule for any location is to arrive at least 30 minutes before the “official” (flat horizon) sunrise time, but in the Alabama Hills in winter, I like to get out there even earlier because the warm light from the eastern horizon light reflects off the snow and granite makes the peaks appear to glow in the dark.

The next morning, loading up in the dark at the hotel I glance toward Mt. Whitney and saw a bank of clouds fringing the crest. At first I was concerned that these clouds would obliterate Mt. Whitney, but arriving at our spot in the Alabama Hills, I realized the peak was indeed out, its tip just barely poking into the clouds. We’d arrived about 45 minutes before sunrise, but I barked (gently) at everyone not to delay, that despite what their eyes told them, this light (that still required headlamps to navigate) makes for great photography. Most beelined to the arch, but I saw a telephoto opportunity and quickly set up right next to the car.

White with snow, Mt. Whitney stood in dramatic contrast to the dark sky and foreground. Using the thin strip of clouds to frame the crest, I started by including some of the sky above the clouds, but quickly tightened my composition to simplify the composition. My 30-second exposure to brightened the image far beyond what my eyes saw, and smoothed all detail from the shifting clouds.

The eastern horizon was already gold from the approaching sun, and while I couldn’t really tell that by looking at Whitney, it was apparent with my very first frame. The sun was more than a half-hour from rising, so the light you see on the clouds and Whitney is reflected from the horizon glow, while the darker terrain below Whitney was too low for a direct view of the horizon light.

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Before the Sun

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There’s A Draft In Here

Gary Hart Photography: Daybreak, Mono Lake

Daybreak, Mono Lake
Sony a7RIII
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
4 seconds
F/18
ISO 200

True story: I once had a workshop participant who put her Nikon D4 in continuous mode, metered, then pressed the shutter and sprayed in a 180 degree arc until the buffer filled. When I asked her what she was doing, she shrugged and said, “It’s Yosemite—there’s sure to be something good in there.” While I couldn’t really disagree with her, I’m guessing she wasn’t seeing a lot of growth as a photographer.

I tend to fall on the other end of the photography spectrum. Rather than a high volume of low-effort images (spray-and-pray), much of my photography style carries over from my film days. Back then, a photographer who wasn’t careful might return from Europe to find that, between the film and the processing, the photographs cost more than the trip. With our wallets forcing us to be more discriminating, we took our time, and checked (and double-checked) every composition and exposure variable before clicking.

Times have changed. While every film click cost us money, every digital click increases the return on our investment. And thanks to ridiculous frame rates, seemingly infinite memory cards, and the ease of deleting in the field, I’m afraid it has become so easy to fire at will that many digital shooters are far too casual with each frame.

The best approach is probably a hybrid of the film and digital paradigms: Careful attention to detail, combined with a no-fear freedom to fail frequently. Just as it’s important to have some kind of plan or objective, it’s just as important to be okay with not knowing how you’re going to get there. In other words, sometimes success can only when you aren’t afraid to create crappy images on the way.

I’ll often approach a scene knowing there’s a image there, but start with no idea were it is. One approach that often works in these situations is to just frame something up and click. Other times I’ll play “what-if” games with myself: What if I do this? Or that? If it works, great; if it doesn’t, I’ve learned something.

There’s a draft in here

As someone who has been writing and taking pictures for a long time, I’ve found a real connection between the creation process of each craft. We can probably agree that few writers create a polished piece of writing in a single pass. Whether it’s an important e-mail, a weekly blog, or a magazine article, I start with an idea and just go with it. But before sending, publishing, or submitting (or deleting), I read, revise, then re-read and re-revise more times than I can count—until I’m satisfied that it’s “perfect.”

Similarly, photographers shouldn’t be afraid to create “draft” images that move them forward without necessarily delivering them all the way where they want to be with one click. When I find a scene that might be photo-worthy, I compose and expose my first click more by feel, without a lot of analysis. But I’m not done after that first click, not even close. And I don’t particularly care that it’s not perfect. This is my first draft, a proof of concept that creates a foundation to build on. When that draft pops up on my LCD, I evaluate it, make adjustments, and click again, repeating this cycle until I’m satisfied, or until I decide there’s not an image there.

Sorry, but there really is no substitute for a tripod

I hear a lot of landscape photographers claim that stabilized bodies and lenses, combined with clean high-ISO sensors, have made the tripod obsolete. Since photography must be a source of pleasure, I won’t argue with anyone who says using a tripod saps their joy. But…. If the joy you receive from photography requires getting the best possible images, you really should be using a tripod.

Applying my draft/revise approach without a tripod is like trying to draw with an an Etch A Sketch (is that still a thing?), then erasing the screen after each click. That’s because after every hand-held click, what’s the first thing you do? If you’re like most photographers, to check your image, you drop the camera from your eye and extend it out front. Before you can make the inevitable adjustments to that hand-held capture, you must return the camera to your eye and completely recreate the composition before making your adjustments.

It’s the tripod that makes this shoot/critique/refine process work. Much the way a computer allows writers to save, review, and incrementally improve what they’ve written, a tripod holds your composition while you decide how to make it better. Shooting this way, each frame becomes an incremental improvement of the preceding frame.

About this image

Composition isn’t limited to the arrangement and framing of elements in a scene—it can also be the way the image conveys the scene’s light, depth, and motion. Setting up this sunrise image, I had to coordinate all of those moving parts.

I’d arrived here with my Eastern Sierra workshop group about 45 minutes before sunrise, plenty of time to familiarize myself with the scene and plan my sunrise composition. I started by identifying my foreground elements, then determined the focus point that would deliver foreground-to-infinity depth of field, and finally worked out my strategy for getting the exposure right using a long enough exposure to smooth the rippled water and maximize the foreground reflection (thanks to my Breakthrough 6-stop ND filter). In my pre-Sony days I’d have had to wrestle with a graduated neutral density filter to manage the highlights, but I knew if I was careful with my histogram, my Sony a7RIII would handle it.

One of the nice things about photographing sunrise at Mono Lake is that you anticipate the sun’s arrival on the eastern horizon by monitoring the shadows sliding down the mountains in the west. So after I found my general composition, I had the luxury of ten minutes of just playing with all the variables, firing frames I knew I wouldn’t use, then evaluating each for balance, depth, and motion effect. I don’t have any specific memory of this frame, but if I look at the series of images leading up to it, I can tell what I was doing.

Oh, and full disclosure: Even though I don’t really remember this specific click, I can tell I was thinking about a sunstar because I shot it at f/18, an f/stop I virtually never use unless I want a sunstar (at 16mm, I certainly didn’t need f/18 for DOF). I could defend myself by saying I stopped down to f/18 to get my exposure to the four seconds I used here (to smooth the water), but that doesn’t fly either because I was at ISO 200. I know if I’d have been paying attention, I’d have used ISO 100 and f/13, allowing the same shutter speed at a cleaner ISO and sharper f-stop. So I guess the moral of this small digression is, don’t let the desire to be perfect hinder your creativity—mistakes happen, they’re usually not the end of the world, and the results will almost certainly be better than spray-and-pray.

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An Eastern Sierra Gallery

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