Posted on September 27, 2020
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.
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.
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.
Posted on January 19, 2020
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.
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.
Posted on October 27, 2019
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.
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.
Posted on October 13, 2019
Like a teenager with his first car, I was itching to take my brand new Sony 200-600 for a spin. But since I don’t photograph wildlife, my ultra-telephoto lenses are used mostly for the moon, and occasionally close-focus stuff like fall color and wildflowers. And as much as I wanted to try it on the moon, I thought the fall color in my Eastern Sierra workshop would be my first opportunity.
Because I schedule the Eastern Sierra workshop to thread the needle between the best chance for peak fall color at North Lake, while avoiding the Lone Pine Film Festival and the Bishop Classic Car Rally, it’s one of the few workshops I do that isn’t timed for something happening in the sky (like the moon, the Milky Way, the northern lights, or lightning). So imagine my excitement when, before this year’s Eastern Sierra workshop, I checked the moon and realized a 6% crescent would be setting behind the Sierra Crest between Lone Pine Peak and Mt. Whitney on the workshop’s first night. Oh boy!
I got the group in position that evening and we all had a blast photographing the new moon slipping toward the serrated Sierra peaks. It started near Lone Pine Peak, and moved closer to Mt. Whitney as it dropped through the darkening sky. My first frames, while the moon was still pretty high, were fairly wide, but as it dropped closer to the mountains, my composition tightened.
When the crescent was just a few degrees above the crest, I grabbed my 200-600 and went to work. But, also like a teenager with his first car, I soon got the urge to soup it up and reached for my Sony 2X teleconverter. This gave me 1200mm at 61 megapixels. Wow.
I always joke that I don’t photograph anything that moves because I want to know my subject will still be there when I’m ready, so for someone as deliberate as I am, it really is startling to see how fast the moon moves through a 1200mm frame. Okay, maybe not as fast as a lion chasing dinner, or a leaping salmon becoming dinner, but instead of trying to track it, I still found it easier to anticipate the spot where the moon would disappear and let it slip into my frame.
It was 35 minutes after sunset when the moon finally reached the crest, making the trickiest part about this scene the exposure. This is the kind of exposure that begs to be handled in Manual mode because a meter would have no clue that I wanted to capture enough contrast between the sky and peaks to create a silhouette, as well as definition in the moonshadow, without completely blowing out the crescent. I also knew that the properly exposed image would look like crap on my LCD (it would require processing to moderate the extreme dynamic range between the dark mountains and bright moon).
To get the exposure right, I slowly pushed the scene brighter until the small blob of highlights in my histogram (the moon) hit the right side, then gave it one more stop of light (so the moon looked completely blown in the preview), knowing (fingers crossed) I could recover them later. I was slightly apprehensive because I still hadn’t processed any images from my new Sony a7RIV, but I was confident that it would have at least as much dynamic range as as my a7RIII, and just approached the exposure the same. All’s well that ends well—phew.
In a workshop my own photography isn’t a priority, so I didn’t get a lot of opportunity to play with my new toys on that trip. But my sense is that I’m going to love this new lens. Though its size means the 200-600 probably won’t replace my Sony 100-400 GM lens (which I love, BTW) as a full-time passenger in my camera bag, it will almost certainly be my default “big moon” lens. And my preliminary feelings are that the dynamic range of the a7RIV is indeed at least as good as the a7RIII (which is pretty incredible too).
Helping my workshop group with this crescent moon shoot got me thinking about metering, and how important it is to have it down cold. I’ve written a document on metering that I provide to all my groups to help them get up to speed before each workshop, but I’ve actually changed the way I meter in the few years since I wrote it. The old approach isn’t invalid (in fact, I think any serious photographer should be able to meter the old fashioned way), but I do think live-view histograms have made it a lot easier. So this week I rewrote my document and am sharing it below. (Please forgive any typos—it’s a work in progress.)
Cameras seem to be getting “smarter” every year. So smart, in fact, that for most scenes, duplicating a two-dimensional version of what your eyes see is a simple matter of pointing your camera and clicking the shutter button. That’s fine if all you care about is recording a memory, but not only is there more to photography than approximating “reality,” there are many creative reasons to override the camera’s choices.
For the creative control that elevates your images above the billions of clicks being cranked out every day, giving your camera the control of photography’s most important decisions ignores an undeniable truth…
Sorry—mine is too. And while I can easily cite many examples, right now it’s just important to understand that your camera thinks the entire world is a middle tone. Regardless of what its meter “sees,” without intervention your camera will do everything in its power to make your picture a middle tone. Sunlit snowman? Lump of coal at the bottom of your Christmas stocking? It doesn’t matter—if you let your camera decide the exposure, your subject will turn out gray.
Modern technology offers faux-intelligence to help overcome this limitation. Usually called something like “matrix” or “evaluative” metering, this solution compares your scene to a large but finite internal database of choices, returning a metering decision based on the closest match. This works pretty well for conventional “tourist” snaps, but often struggles in the warm or dramatic light artistic photographers prefer—and it knows nothing of creativity. If you want to capture more than documentary “I was here” pictures, you really do need to take full control of your camera’s metering and exposure. Fortunately, this isn’t nearly as difficult as most people fear (or as it once was).
The amount of light captured for any given scene varies with the camera’s shutter speed, f-stop, and ISO settings. Photographers measure captured light in “stops,” much as a cook uses a cup (of sugar or flour or chocolate chips or whatever) to measure ingredients in a recipe. Adding or subtracting “stops” of light by increasing or decreasing the shutter speed, f-stop, or ISO makes an image brighter or darker.
The simple beauty of metering is that a stop of light is a stop of light is a stop of light—it’s always the same amount of light, whether you change it with the:
But while an aperture stop adds/subtracts the same amount of light as a shutter speed or ISO stop, the resulting picture can still vary significantly.
Your aperture choice determines the picture’s depth of field (DOF), while your shutter speed choice determines whether motion in the frame is stopped or blurred. And while an ISO stop also adds/subtracts the same amount of light as shutter speed and aperture without affecting motion and depth, image quality decreases as the ISO increases. So getting the light right is only part of the exposure objective—you also need to consider how you want to handle any motion in the scene, how much DOF to capture, and the ISO that generates the least noise.
Let’s say you’re photographing autumn leaves in a light breeze. You get the exposure right, but the leaves are slightly blurred at 1/15 second. To freeze that blur, you change your shutter speed to 1/30 second, which also reduces the light reaching the sensor by one stop. To replace that lost light (keep the exposure the same), you could open your aperture by a stop (change the f-stop), double the ISO, or make a combination of fractional f-stop and ISO adjustments that total one stop. Each choice will render a different result, but that’s a creative decision your camera isn’t capable of.
Today’s cameras have the ability to measure, or “meter” the light in a scene before the shutter clicks. In fact, most cameras have many different ways of evaluating a scene’s light. Your camera’s metering mode determines the amount of the frame the meter “sees.” The larger the area your meter measures, the greater the potential for a wide range of tones. Since most scenes have a range of tones from dark shadows to bright highlights, the meter will take an average of the tones it finds in its metering zone.
Metering mode options range from “spot” metering a very small part of the scene, to “matrix” (also known as “evaluative”), which looks at the entire scene and actually tries to guess at what it sees. Each camera manufacturer offers a variety of modes and there’s little consensus on name and function (different function for the same name, same function for different names) among manufacturers, so it’s best to read your camera’s manual to familiarize yourself with its metering modes.
Since I want as much control as possible, I prefer spot metering because it’s the most precise. The spot meter covers the smallest area of the frame possible, an imaginary circle in the center 3% (or so, depending on the camera) of the viewfinder. (Some cameras optionally allow you to spot meter on the current focus point instead of the center of the frame.) When spot metering, I can target the part of the frame I deem most important and base my exposure decision on the light reading there.
Spot metering isn’t available in all cameras (this was more true with older models). In some cameras, the most precise (smallest metering area) metering mode available is “partial,” which covers a little more of the scene, somewhere around 10%.
Regardless of the size of the metering zone, the camera will take an average of what it finds. In some modes that average is evenly extracted from the entire zone, in other modes, the average is biased toward the middle: “center-weighted.”
Don’t confuse the metering mode with the exposure mode. While the metering mode determines what the meter sees, the exposure mode determines the way the camera handles that information. Most mirrorless and DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras offer manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, plus a variety of program or automatic exposure modes. Serious landscape photographers usually forego the full automatic/program modes in favor of the manual (my preference) or aperture/shutter priority modes that offer more control.
If you select aperture or shutter priority mode, you specify the aperture (f-stop) or shutter speed, and the camera sets the shutter speed or f-stop that delivers a middle tone based on what the meter sees. But you’re not done. Unless you really do want the middle-tone result the camera desires (possible but far from certain), you then need to adjust the exposure compensation (usually identified by a +/- symbol) to specify the amount you want your subject to be above or below a middle tone.
For example, if you point your camera’s spot-meter at a bright, sunlit cloud, the camera will only give your picture enough light make the cloud a middle tone—but if you’ve only given your scene enough light to make a white cloud gray, it stands to reason that the rest of your picture will be too dark. To avoid this, you would adjust exposure compensation (the +/- symbol) to instruct your camera to make the cloud brighter than a middle tone by adding two stops of light (or however much light you want to give the cloud to make it whatever tone you think it should be).
Rather than aperture priority, I prefer manual mode because I want control: my camera should not be making decisions for me. And once it’s mastered (it really isn’t hard), I think manual metering is easier. But if you can successfully handle each exposure situation with aperture or shutter priority, you’ll be fine—just stay away from the full automatic modes.
I always try to use my camera’s best ISO, and the aperture that gives me the sharpest frame. Not just the desired DOF, but also the least diffraction (diffraction is a loss of detail caused when light passes through a small opening and spreads slightly—the smaller the opening, the greater the diffraction softening). But sometimes exposure-setting compromise is the only way to achieve the desired results.
For example, when DOF isn’t a consideration, I keep my f-stop in the f/8-f/11 range because it provides a reasonable amount of DOF, and that’s where lenses tend to be sharpest (least distortion), and diffraction is less of a concern (than it is at smaller apertures). But when I need a specific DOF, or want to capture a sunstar (small aperture), I have no problem compromising my f-stop setting to get there.
And I only compromise my ISO when there’s no other way to achieve a certain motion effect. So while ISO 100 is ideal (for my Sony a7RIV and the majority of other cameras), when the wind blows or I want to freeze moving water, I’ll increase my ISO to achieve the motion and DOF combination I need. And if I want a little more motion blur, I have no problem dropping down to ISO 50 to a allow a longer shutter speed.
The simplest way to minimize the need to compromise image quality is to use a tripod. A tripod removes camera shake from the exposure equation, meaning the only time shutter speed matters is when there’s motion in the scene. And when shutter speed doesn’t matter, you can always use the perfect ISO and aperture by going with whatever shutter speed you need, regardless of its length.
Some scenes are all about compromise, even with a tripod. For example, I’d love to photograph the Milky Way at ISO 100, f/8, 1/100 second, but that would give me a black frame. Since star motion increases with shutter speed, I push the ISO as far as I can without getting unfixable noise, open the aperture as wide as I can without obvious distortion—and I still have to live with a shutter speed that gives me a little star motion. All of these exposure choices are compromises that render less than perfect results, but without them, I’d have no Milky Way image at all.
Armed with all this exposure understanding, it’s time to think about the best way to read and capture the light in a scene. For most of my photography life, in manual mode I’d set my camera to its native ISO (or to the ISO/ASA of the film I had loaded), determine my aperture (based on the DOF I want and/or the sharpest f-stop for my lens), point my camera’s spot-meter zone at the area on brightest part of the scene, and dial my shutter speed until it indicated the spot-meter zone is the tone I want. (I chose the brightest part of the scene because I know if I don’t blow it out, nothing in my frame will be lost.)
During my film days, and in my early digital life, that approach served me well. In fact, I think every serious photographer should understand metering well enough to do it this way. But….
In the film days, we didn’t know if the exposure was right until the pictures were processed. To insure against missing the exposure, we’d bracket exposures by (usually) one stop on either side of what we believed to be the correct exposure. Today, thanks to the histogram, bracketing is no longer necessary.
The histogram is a graph of the tones in an image, from absolute black to absolute white. Instead of clicking and hoping as we did in the film days, the addition of a histogram on every digital camera (that’s not a smartphone) provides photographers instant feedback on each image’s exposure. Better still, live-view histograms in mirrorless viewfinders, or on DLSR and mirrorless LCD screens, provide that essential exposure feedback before we click the shutter.
While any graph has the potential to evoke flashbacks of high school science trauma, a histogram is really quite simple—simple enough to be read and interpreted in the blink of an eye. And not only is your histogram easy to read, it really is your most reliable source of exposure feedback.
Simple Histogram: The shadows are on the left and the highlights are on the right; the far left (0) is absolute black, and the far right (255) absolute white.
When an image is captured on a digital sensor, your camera’s “brain” samples each photosite (the sensor’s individual pixels comprising the megapixel number used to measure sensor resolution), determining a brightness value that ranges from 0 (black) to 255 (white). Every brightness value from 1 to 254 is a shade of gray—the higher a photosite’s number, the brighter its tone.
Armed with the brightness values for each photosite in the image, the camera starts building the image’s histogram. The horizontal axis of the histogram has 256 discrete columns (0-255), one for each possible brightness value, with the 0/black column on the far left, and the 255/white column on the far right (they don’t display as individual columns because they’re crammed so close together).
Despite millions of photosites to sample, your camera builds a new histogram for each image virtually instantaneously, adding each photosite’s brightness value to its corresponding column on the histogram, like stacking poker chips—the more photosites of a particular brightness value, the higher its corresponding column will spike.
The black-and-white histogram most of us are familiar with is the luminosity histogram. But each photosite on a conventional sensor actually measures the tone of one of three colors: red, green, and blue (RGB). The RGB histogram uses the same pixel sampling process to separate the luminosity histogram into three separate, more granular, graphs, one for each color.
The luminosity histogram shows the detail you captured, but it doesn’t tell you whether you lost color. In fact, the luminosity histogram could look fine even when two of the three RGB channels are clipped (cut off, indicating color is lost). So in high dynamic range scene (extreme highlights and shadows), or scenes with an extreme amount of one color (such a brilliant sunset or a backlit poppy), checking the RGB histogram to ensure that none of the image’s color channels is clipped is especially important. The solution for a clipped RGB channel (or two) is to reduce the exposure.
There’s no such thing as a “perfect” histogram shape. Rather, the histogram’s shape is determined by the distribution of light in the scene, while its left/right distribution (whether the graph is skewed to the left or right) is a function of the amount of exposure you’ve chosen to give your image. The histogram graph’s height is irrelevant—information that appears cut off at the top of the histogram just means the graph isn’t tall enough to display all the photosites possessing that tone (or range of tones).
When checking an image’s histogram for exposure, your primary concern should be to ensure that the none of the tone data is cut off on the left (lost shadows) or right (lost highlights). If your histogram appears cut-off on the left side, shadow detail is so dark that it registers as black. Conversely, if your histogram appears cut off on the right side, highlight detail is so bright that it registers as white.
Basing the image’s exposure on the way the picture looks on the LCD is the single biggest exposure mistake I see photographers make. The post-capture review image that displays on your camera’s LCD is great for checking composition, but the range of tones you can see in your review image varies with many factors, such as the review screen’s brightness setting and the amount of ambient light striking the LCD. Even more important, because there’s more information captured than the LCD preview can show, even in the best conditions, you’ll never know how much recoverable data exists in the extreme shadows and highlights by relying on the LCD preview.
It’s human nature to try to expose a scene so the picture on the LCD looks good, but an extreme dynamic range image that looks good on the LCD will likely have unusable highlights or shadows. As counterintuitive as it feels, exposing a high dynamic range scene enough to reveal detail in the darkest shadows brightens the entire scene (not just the shadows), likely pushing the image’s highlights to unrecoverable levels. And making an image dark enough on the LCD to salvage bright highlights darkens the entire scene, all but ensuring that the darkest shadows will be too black.
In fact, a properly exposed, a scene with both bright highlights and dark shadows, such as a sunrise or sunset, will look awful on the LCD (dark shadows and bright highlights) because there’s information there you can’t see (yet). The histogram provides the only reliable representation of the tones you captured (or, in your live-view LCD display or mirrorless electronic viewfinder, of the tones you’re about to capture).
Starting with the live-view screen, and now in mirrorless viewfinders, we can view our histogram before clicking the shutter. So instead of guessing the exposure settings that return the tones we want, we have an actual pre-capture picture of the tones to monitor and adjust.
Using the pre-capture histogram—almost always in my Sony mirrorless viewfinder, but the histogram on a mirrorless or DSLR LCD screen will work too—I start the exposure process as I always have. In manual exposure mode, I default to my camera’s best ISO (100 for most cameras, but definitely not all, so check your camera’s native ISO), and the best f-stop for my composition. I don’t touch these settings unless motion in my scene, such as wind or star movement, forces an ISO and/or f-stop compromise. With ISO and f-stop set, I slowly adjust my shutter speed with my eye on the histogram until it looks right. Click.
In a low or moderate contrast scene, I’ll have a little room on both sides of the histogram (the graph doesn’t bump up against either side)—a very easy scene to expose. But in a high dynamic range scene, the difference between the darkest shadows and brightest highlights might stretch beyond one or both sides of the histogram. When a high dynamic range scene forces me to choose between saving the highlights or the shadows, I almost always bias my exposure choice toward sparing the highlights, carefully dialing the shutter speed until the histogram bumps against the right side.
When forced to decide between the highlights or shadows, I almost always try to spare the highlights, for a couple of reasons: First, shadows are usually easy to recover than highlights; second, highlights are almost always more important than shadows. In fact, because the human eye is reflexively drawn to the brightest areas of the frame, I rarely have anything important in the shadows of a high dynamic range scene.
The post-capture histogram is usually more reliable than the pre-capture histogram. Sometimes this doesn’t matter, but in a high dynamic range scene, or any time I push my histogram close to the right side, I verify my exposure by checking the post-capture histogram. Another situation that can sometimes fool the pre-capture histogram is blurred (long exposure) whitewater.
Most mirrorless cameras, and many newer DSLRs, offer “zebra” highlight warnings in their pre-capture view. The first time I meter a scene, my camera’s current exposure settings (based on my previous scene) might be far from what the new scene requires. When that’s the case, I push my shutter speed fast until the zebras appear (if my prior exposure was too dark) or disappear (if my prior exposure was too bright), then refine the exposure more slowly while watching the histogram. While these alerts aren’t nearly as reliable as the histogram and should never be relied on for final exposure decisions, I use their appearance as a signal that it’s time to monitor my histogram.
Photographers who shoot raw make exposure decisions with the understanding that the capture exposure is simply the start, and the final exposure is determined by the processing. But the more photons you capture, the greater your latitude for adjustment later.
Trusting the histogram is a great start, but every camera model interprets and displays its exposure information differently. Added to that, the histogram is based on the jpeg the camera displays, so raw shooters always have more image information than their histogram shows—it’s important to know how much more.
With my Sony a7R bodies, I know I’m pretty safe pushing my histogram at least a full stop beyond the left or right (shadows and highlights) histogram boundary. This knowledge enables me to get the most out of even the most challenging high dynamic range scenes.
Like most things in photography, the more you do it, the easier it becomes. For many people reading this, my approach is nothing revolutionary. But if it’s all new to you, or if you feel a little rusty, I suggest that you go out and try it in a low stress situation. Keep working on it whenever you find yourself in a situation where getting the shot doesn’t feel life or death.
When you do get into one of those “Oh my God, look at that!” moments, go back to whatever feels most comfortable to you. I think you’ll find that it won’t take too much practice before the right way is also the most comfortable way.
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Posted on October 21, 2018
Read about the travails leading up to this shoot in my previous post. But enough about that….
I’m afraid that when faced with a beautiful scene, photographers (myself included) sometimes settle for the obvious shot and leave more subtle opportunities on the table. But the most creative photography (though not necessarily the most popular) comes from looking beyond the obvious to find the scene’s essence.
The question photographers should ask themselves is: What about this scene makes it special? That’s really a personal challenge with as many answers as there are photographers seeking them. Once we identify something to emphasize, we need to figure out the best way to guide our viewers’ eyes. The tools at our disposal include our exposure settings to control the scene’s motion, depth, and light, and compositional elements like isolation, juxtaposition, lines, and shapes.
There were many “obvious” shots at North Lake this morning, and my group certainly did its best to exhaust them. But we spent enough time there that I was able to make it around to everyone to encourage them to break free of whatever they were locked onto and try to find something different. A couple dropped low with a wide angle to put foreground rocks close, some extracted a telephoto and isolated the reflection and/or colorful aspen across the lake, while others switched to a vertical composition that emphasized the clouds building above the peaks. Many played with variations of some or all of these approaches. I’ve shot here enough that I pretty content to observe, until…
About an hour into the shoot the clouds behind us parted and a shaft of sunlight snuck through to spotlight the cascade of orange across the lake, and I couldn’t resist. This sweet accent would be lost to wide field of the Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens I’d had on my a7RIII all morning, so I (very) quickly replaced it with my Sony 24-105 f/4 G and went to work isolating the scene’s best elements. Even though I hadn’t shot much, I’d been composing in my head all morning, so I had a pretty good idea what I wanted to do.
In my mind the scene’s best feature was the vivid color and its reflection. But as striking as these features were, to turn it from a scene into a picture, I needed something to move the eye, and a visual landing place. Enter the zig-zag diagonals and fortuitously positioned sunlight.
I wanted to compose as tightly as I could without losing the light and reflection. With the color as my canvas, I simply let the diagonals span the frame (taking care to include the intersection on the left), and the sunlight fall near the top.
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Posted on October 19, 2018
By the time I made it to North Lake for sunrise, I’d already had a trying morning. After some frustrations with the cars, my Eastern Sierra workshop group had gotten on the road about five minutes later than I’d planned. Fortunately I always schedule a little wiggle room, so we were on track, but still…. Then, just a couple of miles before the turn-off to the lake, I had to swerve to avoid a grapefruit-sized rock in the road, barely avoiding it. Phew. But the middle car in our mini-caravan wasn’t so lucky: Flat tire. Crap.
This year’s group had 13 people (including Don Smith, who was assisting, and me), but this little mishap suddenly dropped us to two cars (10 seats), with sunrise rapidly approaching. Surveying the damage, I decided that rather than make everyone wait, we could still cram all but three of us into the two remaining cars. I sent them up to the lake in Don’s care while I stayed behind with the unfortunate couple and their wounded car. Once everyone was situated at the lake, Don agreed to return in case we weren’t able to replace the tire.
Don pulled up about 20 minutes later, just as I put the finishing touches on the miniature spare. After a brief discussion we decided it wouldn’t be wise to take that (poor excuse for a) tire on the unpaved North Lake road, so the couple decided to return to Bishop to get their tire replaced. Since that would leave us with 11 people to transport with the two remaining cars, Don volunteered to return with them to Bishop while I drove up to North Lake to meet the group.
So I was pretty much worn out by the time I parked, hefted my camera bag onto my back, and started the short walk down to the lake. Making it to the lakeshore right around “official” sunrise, the scene that greeted me was an instant jolt of energy. In nature photography you do your best to time your visit for the best possible conditions, but ultimately have to deal with whatever you’re dealt. The variables we cross our fingers for at North Lake are good color, a crisp reflection, and nice clouds. We hit the trifecta this morning, with peak color from top to bottom across the lake (and everywhere else), water like glass, and a sublime mix of swirling clouds and blue sky. An unexpected bonus was the relatively small number of photographers competing for space at this always popular autumn sunrise spot.
One of the things I like most about North Lake is the variety of fall color here, a rare sight in California. The trees on the slope are a mix of orange and red, while those lining the lake are always vivid yellow. I’ve photographed North Lake a lot over the years, and my own photography during a workshop is never my priority, so I rarely photograph here anymore. But this morning was special and I couldn’t resist, so as I moved around to everyone in the group I found time to fire off a few frames of my own.
The background of the image I share here is a version of the broader, more conventional scene that is usually the starting point for a North Lake fall color composition. (In future posts I’ll share one or two others that I think capture the less obvious essence of the scene.) As always, I worked to find a foreground that complemented the primary scene, finally settling on the tall grass as a frame for the reflection and the the scene beyond—I thought the grass added just enough detail without distracting.) I liked the clouds, but the color was long gone by the time I was able to photograph, so I decided not to include too much sky. Finishing the scene off, I panned left to include a tall, yellow aspen for the left side of my frame. I composed, metered, and focused at eye level, but to get as much reflection as possible, before clicking I elevated my RRS TVC-24L tripod (I love having a tall tripod) to its maximum height, then used the tilting LCD on my Sony a7RIII to restore the composition I’d identified.
Given the way things started out, it would have been very easy to just pack it in and write the morning off as a loss. But despite the difficulties, this turned out to be a wonderful morning of photography for everyone. Just one more reminder that the happiest endings often start with a little hardship.
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Posted on September 23, 2018
Autumn has arrived, my favorite season for creative photography. To kick off the festivities, I’m sharing an updated version of a post I wrote a few years ago explaining the often misunderstood process responsible for it all.
Few things get a photographer’s heart racing more than the vivid yellows, oranges, and reds of autumn. And the excitement isn’t limited to photographers—to appreciate that reality, just try navigating the Smoky Mountains backroads on a Sunday afternoon in October.
But despite all the attention, the annual autumn extravaganza is fraught with mystery and misconception. Showing up at the spot that guy in your camera club told you was peaking at this time last year, you might find the very same trees displaying lime green mixed with just hints of yellow and orange, and hear the old guy behind the counter at the inn shake his head and tell you, “It hasn’t gotten cold enough yet—the color’s late this year.” Then, the next year, when you check into the same inn on the same weekend, you find just a handful of leaves clinging to exposed branches—this time as the old guy hands you the key he utters, “That freeze a few 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 quite accurate. Because the why and when of fall color is complicated, observers resort to memory, anecdote, and lore to fill knowledge voids with partial truth and downright myth. Fortunately, science has given us a pretty good understanding of the fall color process.
It’s all about the sunlight
The leaves of deciduous trees contain a mix of green, yellow, and orange pigments. During the spring and summer growing season, the green chlorophyl pigment overpowers the orange and yellow pigments and the tree stays green. Even though this chlorophyl is quickly broken down by sunlight, it is continuously replaced in the process of photosynthesis that sustains the tree during the long days of summer.
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) start to thicken, blocking the transfer of carbohydrates from the leaves to the branches, and the movement of minerals to the leaves, that had kept the tree thriving all summer. Without these minerals, the leaves’ production of chlorophyl dwindles and finally stops, leaving just the yellow and orange pigments. Voila—color!
Sunlight and weather
Contrary to popular belief, the timing of the onset of this fall color chain reaction is much more daylight-dependent than temperature- and weather-dependent—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 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 coloring process. 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, the red and purple pigments are manufactured from sugar stored in the leaves—the more sugar, the more vivid the 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, wake the next morning to find the trees bare and the ground blanketed with color. And of course all these weather factors come in an infinite number of variations, which makes each year’s color timing and intensity a little different from the last.
Despite our understanding of the fall color process, Mother Nature still holds some secrets pretty close to her vest—just when we think we’ve got it all figured out, she’ll surprise us. For example, last year’s Eastern Sierra fall color featured lots of black leaves that I attributed to California’s extreme drought conditions. With the drought persisting, and in fact intensifying, this year, I feared this fall would be even worse. So I was quite pleased to find everything going along right on schedule, with lots of yellow, more red than usual, and hardly a black leaf to be seen. Go figure.
About this image
Driving Rock Creek Canyon north and east of Bishop, I pulled my car over at a random spot and wandered over to the creek. I found trees beyond peak and the creek bank blanketed with yellow aspen leaves, by far the predominant color in the Eastern Sierra. As I turned to return to my car my eyes caught a rare flash of orange. Moving in that direction, I found matching red-orange leaf less than a foot away.
I’m sometimes accused of placing or arranging leaves in my scenes, something I never do, but I understand why people might think that. I very consciously look for leaves that stand out from their surroundings that I can isolate in my frame.
Circling this scene, I didn’t have to work to hard to decide that a symmetrical diagonal arrangement was the way to go. A thin overcast made exposure easy.
Posted on February 9, 2018
My previous post was about dynamic juxtaposition in landscape photography—combining static landscape subjects with transient meteorological and celestial elements. The other side of the juxtaposition coin I call static juxtaposition: combining stationary landscape objects. I am a little reluctant to use the word “static” because there is one element that absolutely can’t be static in these compositions: You.
Since I don’t photograph people or wildlife, I often joke that I don’t photograph anything that moves. And because of this, I need to create motion by encouraging my viewers’ eyes to move through my frame, either providing a path for their eyes to follow and/or a place for them to land. Accomplishing this with static subjects isn’t necessarily difficult, but it does require some physical effort.
Most photographers don’t have a problem getting themselves to the general locations that align foreground and background subjects, but many get a little lazy once they’re there, planting their tripods clinging to the spot like a ship an anchor.
Once I’ve arrived at a location and identified my primary subject, I challenge myself to find at least one other element on a different plane. Sometimes that’s easy, other times…, not so much. Nevertheless, when my subject is in the distance, I look for something closer that has visual weight; likewise, if my subject is nearby, I want something with visual weight in my background. Visual weight is something that pulls the eye: a flower, tree, shrub, leaf, reflection, rock—I could go on, but you get the point. Sometimes it’s not even a distinct entity, but rather a pattern, texture, color, or splash of light.
My secondary subject can have strong aesthetic value or not—sometimes it’s there simply to balance the frame, while other times it has almost as much visual appeal as my primary subject. Regardless of its visual strength, my secondary subject’s placement, both in the frame and relative to the scene’s other visual elements, can make or break an image. And lacking a forklift, pretty much the only way to change the relative position of two static objects in a photographic frame is carefull positioning of the camera (and the photographer behind it!).
As a general rule I avoid merging my essential visual elements—to do conflates those elements and sacrifices the illusion of depth that’s so essential in a two-dimentional image. Another thing I try to avoid is objects with visual weight at the edge of my frame because anything that pulls my viewers’ eyes toward the image’s boundary dilutes its impact.
Viewers’ eyes move most effectively through a scene by following lines. Sometimes those lines are tangible, like a horizontal horizon, vertical waterfall, or diagonal river. But often it’s up to me to create virtual lines—an implicit, connect-the-dots path between visual elements, or textures and shapes that frame my primary subject and constrain my viewers’ eyes. For example:
Last week I was at Mobius Arch beneath Mt. Whitney, the final stop of my annual Death Valley photo workshop. After three days of spectacular Death Valley sunrises and sunsets that seem to be trying to outdo the one before it, I didn’t dare to hope that the string would continue when we moved to the Alabama Hills.
The real show here is sunrise, when day’s first rays of sun color the Sierra Crest with alpenglow’s pink hues, even on clear sky mornings. Sunsets here require a little help. The view here faces west, so at sunset you usually find yourself photographing the shaded side of your subjects against the brightest part of the sky—not really a recipe for success. But a few clouds on the western horizon not only add color and texture, they soften the light. And that’s what happened last week.
Before sunset the thin, translucent cirrus layer was lost in the late afternoon glare, but as the sun dropped below the horizon, the clouds picked up its refracted long wavelengths and colored the sky deepening shades of red. Soon the color was so intense that it shaded weathered granite boulders.
The three elements I wanted to feature in my composition were Mobius Arch, the Sierra Crest (Lone Pine Peak and Mt. Whitney), and the colorful sky. As dramatic as the Sierra Crest is, the star of this scene is the arch. With no real access to a telephoto view, filling my frame with the arch means a wide angle lens that includes too much sky. But the vivid color this evening gave me a rare opportunity to include a sky worthy of the rest of the scene.
My Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens allowed me to within a couple feet of the arch while still fitting it in my frame. With the Sierra Crest framed by the arch, I was careful to position myself so both Lone Pine Peak (on the left) and Mt. Whitney (on the right) were visible. Finally, I needed to decide the camera height. When the sky is less interesting, I raise my camera to fill the arch’s opening with the mountains and minimize the sky. But this evening the colorful sky was an asset, so I dropped as low as I could to maximize it.
At such a wide focal length, depth of field was a piece of cake—I didn’t need to check my hyperfocal app to know that I had lots of margin for error. Focusing toward the back of the arch, I easily achieved the front-to-back sharpness I wanted. Click.
Posted on October 21, 2017
Leading 15-20 photo workshops per year means coming to terms with photographing the same locations year in, year out. This is not a complaint—I only guide people to locations I love photographing—but it sometimes makes me long for the opportunity to capture something new. Which is why I’m loving visiting my familiar haunts with my newest lenses, the Sony 12-24 G and Sony 100-400 GM. (I’ve had the Tamron 150-600 for a couple of years, but find it too big to lug routinely.)
Back-to-back Eastern Sierra workshops earlier this month meant multiple visits to Mono Lake. My first group hit the jackpot on our South Tufa sunset shoot, finding a glassy reflection (usually reserved for sunrises here) beneath a striking formation of cirrocumulus clouds. Because I was with my group, and I’d guided them all to the spot where the majority wanted to be (justifiable so for first-time visitors), I couldn’t go out in search of something a little different. Instead I just whipped out my 12-24 lens, dropped my tripod to lake-level with one leg in the water, and started composing.
I’m still getting used to shooting at 12mm, which is not only considerably different from what my eyes see, it’s considerably different from what I’ve become used to seeing in my viewfinder (the difference between 16mm and 12mm is huge). The lesson here is the importance of a strong foreground in a wide composition—the wider the focal length, the more important the foreground becomes. Here the entire lakebed was so alive with color and shape, and the water was so still and clear, finding a foreground wasn’t really a problem. I just needed to make sure I organized all the scene’s visual elements into something coherent.
Anchoring my frame with a nearby quartet of small rocks (just a couple of feet away) and a larger protruding lump of tufa a little behind it (everything else in my foreground was submerged), I peered into my viewfinder and quickly decided to go for symmetry with the larger background elements. The clouds couldn’t have been more perfectly positioned—combined with their reflection, they seemed to point directly my composition’s centerpiece, the “Shipwreck” tufa formation (not really an official name, but widely used) that is probably Mono Lake’s most recognizable feature. At 12mm depth of field wasn’t a huge concern—I focused about three feet into the scene and was able to achieve sharpness throughout my frame.
Anyone who has ever been to Mono Lake’s South Tufa can appreciate, looking at this image, how 12mm on a full frame body shrinks distant subjects—the Shipwreck is a very prominent feature here, but the wide lens shrinks it to almost secondary status. On the other hand, dropping down and getting as close as possible to the shore at 12mm really emphasizes the beautiful submerged patterns.
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Posted on October 10, 2017
This is an edited and updated version of my Eastern Sierra article that appeared in the September 2016 edition of “Outdoor Photographer” magazine
Skirting the east side of the Sierra Nevada, US 395 enchants travelers with ever-changing views of California’s granite backbone. Unlike anything on the Sierra’s gently sloped west side, Highway 395 parallels the range’s precipitous east flank in the shadow of jagged peaks that soar up to 2 miles above the blacktop. More than just beautiful, these massive mountains form a natural barrier against incursion from the Golden State’s major metropolitan areas, keeping the Eastern Sierra region cleaner and quieter than its scenery might lead you to expect.
It would be difficult to find any place in the world with a more diverse selection of natural beauty than the 120-mile stretch of 395 between Lone Pine and Lee Vining: Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, the ancient bristlecones of the White Mountains (across the Owens Valley, east of the Sierra), the granite columns of Devil’s Postpile, Mono Lake and its tufa towers, and too many lake-dotted, aspen-lined canyons to count. Long a favored escape for hikers, hunters, and fishermen, in recent years photographers have come to appreciate the rugged, solitary beauty possible only on the Sierra’s sunrise side.
I prefer photographing most Eastern Sierra locations at sunrise, when the day’s first rays paint the mountains with warm light, and the highest peaks are colored rose by alpenglow. (Without clouds, Eastern Sierra sunset light can be tricky, as you’ll be photographing the shady side of the mountains against the brightest part of the sky.) Devoid of large metropolitan areas, low light pollution also makes the Eastern Sierra one California’s finest night photography destinations. But regardless of the time of day, the key to photographing the Eastern Sierra is flexibility—if you don’t like the light in one direction, you usually don’t need to travel far to find something nice in another direction.
Lone Pine area
The southern stretch US 395 bisects the Owens Valley, a flat, arid plane separating the Sierra Nevada to the west from the Inyo ranges to the east. Just west of Lone Pine lies the Alabama Hills. Named for a Confederate Civil War warship, the Alabama Hills’ jumble of weathered granite boulders and proliferation of natural arches would be photogenic in any setting. Putting Mt. Whitney (the highest point in the 48 contiguous states), Lone Pine Peak (the subject of Mac OS X Sierra’s desktop image), and the rest of the serrated southern Sierra crest seems almost unfair.
The Alabama Hills are traversed by a network of unpaved but generally quite navigable roads. To get there, drive west on Whitney Portal Road (the only traffic signal in Lone Pine). After 3 miles, turn right onto Movie Road and start exploring. If you’re struck by a vague sense of familiarity here, it’s probably because for nearly a century the Alabama Hills has attracted thousands of movie, TV show, and commercial film crews.
Mobius Arch (also called Whitney Arch and Alabama Hills Arch) is the most popular photo spot in the Alabama Hills. It’s a good place to start, but settling for this frequently photographed subject risks missing numerous opportunities for truly unique images here. To get to Mobius Arch, drive about a mile-and-half on Movie Road to the dirt parking area at the trailhead. Following the marked trail down and back up the nearby ravine, the arch is an easy ¼ mile walk. There’s not a lot of room here, but if the photographers work together it’s possible to arrange four or five photographers on tripods with Mt. Whitney framed by the arch. And don’t make the mistake many make: the prominent peak on the left is Lone Pine Peak; Mt. Whitney is serrated peak at the back of the canyon.
Sunrise is primetime for Alabama Hills photography, but good stuff can be found here long before the sun arrives. I try to be set up 45 minutes before the sun (earlier if I want to ensure the best position for Whitney Arch) to avoid missing a second of the Sierra’s striking transition from night to day.
The grand finale from anywhere in the Alabama Hills is the rose alpenglow that colors the Sierra crest just before sunrise. Soon after the alpenglow appears, the light will turn amber and slowly slide down the peaks until it reaches your location, warming the nearby boulders and casting dramatic, long shadows. But unless there are clouds to soften the light, you’ll find that the harsh morning light will end your shoot pretty quickly once the sunlight arrives on the Alabama Hills.
Whitney Portal Road (closed in winter) ends about 11 miles beyond Movie Road, at Whitney Portal, the trailhead for the hike to Mt. Whitney and the John Muir Trail. On this paved but steep road, anyone not afraid of heights will enjoy great views looking east over the Alabama Hills and Owens Valley far below, and up-close views of Mt. Whitney looming in the west. At the back of the Whitney Portal parking lot is a nice waterfall that tumbles several hundred feet in multiple steps.
The Alabama Hills are one of my favorite moonlight locations. Because the full moon rises in the east right around sunset, on full moon nights the Alabama Hills and Sierra crest are bathed in moonlight as soon as darkness falls. Lit by the moon, the hills’ rounded boulders mingle with long, eerie shadows, and the snow-capped Sierra granite radiates as if lit from within.
If you find yourself with extra time, drive about 30 miles east of Lone Pine on Highway 136 until you ascend to a plain dotted with photogenic Joshua trees—after you’ve finished photographing the Joshua trees, turn around and retrace the drive back to Lone Pine on 136 to enjoy spectacular panoramic views of the Sierra crest. And just north of Lone Pine on 395 is Manzanar National Historic site, a restored WWII Japanese relocation camp. Camera or not, this historic location is definitely worth taking an hour or two to explore.
Bristlecone pine forest
Continuing north from Lone Pine on 395, on your left the Sierra stretch north as far as the eye can see, while the Inyo mountains on the right transition seamlessly to the White Mountains. Though geologically different from the Sierra, the White Mountains’ proximity and Sierra views make it an essential part of the Eastern Sierra experience.
Clinging to rocky slopes in the thin air above 10,000 feet, the bristlecone pines of the White Mountains are among the oldest living things on earth—many show no signs of giving up after 4,000 years; at least one bristlecone is estimated to be 5,000 years old.
Abused by centuries of frigid temperatures, relentless wind, oxygen deprivation, and persistent drought, the bristlecones display every year of their age. Their stunted, twisted, gnarled, polished wood makes the bristlecones suited for intimate macros and mid-range portraits, or as a striking foreground for a distant panorama.
The two primary destinations in the bristlecone pine forest are the Schulman and Patriarch Groves. Get to the bristlecone pine forest by driving east from Big Pine on Highway 168 and climbing about 13 car-sickness inducing miles. Turn left on White Mountain Road and continue climbing another 10 twisting miles to reach the Schulman Grove. Despite the incline and curves, the road is paved all the way to this point. Stop at the Sierra panorama after about 8 miles for a spectacular view that also makes a great excuse to pause and collect yourself.
Stop at the small visitor center in the Schulman Grove to pay the modest use fee, then choose between the 1-mile Discovery loop trail, and the 4 1/2 mile Methuselah loop trail. Both trails are in good shape, but the extreme up and down in very thin air will test your fitness. Most of the trees on the Methuselah Trail get more morning light, while the majority of the Discovery Trail trees get their light in the afternoon.
If you’re unsure of your fitness, or have limited time, the Discovery Trail is definitely the choice for you. Because the photogenic trees start with the very first steps, on this trail you can turn around at any point without feeling cheated of opportunities to photograph nice bristlecones. And along the way you’ll appreciate the handful of benches for enjoying the view and catching your breath. Hikers who can make it to the top of the switchbacks are rewarded great views of the snow-capped Sierra across the Owens Valley.
The Discovery Trail climbs for a couple hundred more yards beyond the switchbacks, but just as you’re beginning to wonder whether all the effort is worth it, the trail levels, turns, and drops. Soon you’ll round a 90-degree bend and be rewarded for your hard work with two of the most spectacular bristlecones in the entire forest. Spend as much time here as you have, because the rest of the loop back to the parking lot has nothing to compete with these two trees.
The pavement ends at the Schulman Grove, but the unpaved 12-mile drive to the Patriarch Grove is navigable by all vehicles in dry conditions. Home to the Patriarch Tree, the world’s largest bristlecone pine, the Patriarch Grove is more primitive and much less visited than the Schulman Grove. Unlike the Schulman Grove, where I rarely stray far from the trail, I often find the most photogenic bristlecones here by venturing cross-country, over several small ridges east of the Patriarch Tree. Even without a trail, the sparse vegetation and hilly terrain provides enough vantage points that make getting lost difficult.
Clean air, few clouds, and very little light pollution make the bristlecone groves a premier night photography location. On moonless summer and early autumn nights, the bright center of the Milky Way is clearly visible from the slopes of the bristlecone forest. For the best Milky Way images, look for trees that can be photographed against the southern sky. And no matter how warm it is on 395 below, pack a jacket.
The bristlecone forest closes in winter.
An hour north of Lone Pine on 395 is Bishop. Its central location, combined with ample lodging, restaurant, and shopping options make Bishop an excellent hub for an Eastern Sierra trip—if you want to anchor in one spot and venture out to the other Eastern Sierra locations, Bishop is probably your best bet.
West of Bishop are many small but scenic lakes nestled in steep, creek-carved canyons that are lined with aspen (and some cottonwood) that turn brilliant yellow each fall. Many of these canyons can be accessed on paved roads, others via unpaved roads of varying navigability, and a few solely by foot.
Of these canyons, Bishop Creek Canyon is the best combination of accessible and scenic. To get there, drive west on Highway 168 (Line Street in Bishop). After about 15 miles you can decide whether to turn left on the road to South Lake, or continue straight to reach North Lake and Lake Sabrina (pronounced with a long “i”).
One of the area’s most popular sunrise spots, North Lake is a 1-mile signed detour on a narrow, steep, unpaved road—easily navigated in good conditions by all vehicles, but the un-railed, near vertical drop is not for the faint of heart. A mile or so beyond the turn to North Lake the road ends at Lake Sabrina, a fairly large reservoir in the shadow of rugged peaks and surrounded by beautiful aspen (but its bathtub ring when less than full is not for me).
South Lake is another aspen-lined reservoir that shrinks in late summer and autumn. Highlights on South Lake Road are a manmade but photogenic waterfall leaping from the mountainside, clearly visible on the left as you ascend, and Weir Lake, just before South Lake.
Both Bishop Canyon roads are worth exploring, especially in autumn, when the fall color can be spectacular. Each features scenic tarns and dense aspen stands accented by views of nearby Sierra peaks. Rather than beeline to a fall color spot, in autumn I drive the Sabrina and South Lake roads and pick the best color.
Highway 395 north of Bishop features a few of my favorite fall color destinations, including Rock Creek Canyon and McGee Creek. About a half hour north of Bishop, detour west off the highway to postcard-perfect Convict Lake. And just beyond the road to Convict Lake is the upscale resort town of Mammoth Lakes, just a few miles west of 395. The drive on 203 through Mammoth Lakes takes you past the Mammoth Mountain Ski slopes to Minaret Vista. This panoramic view of the sawtooth Minaret Range, Mt. Ritter, and Mt. Banner captures the essence of high Sierra beauty. From here, follow the road down the other side to see the basalt columns of Devil’s Postpile, and to take the short hike to Rainbow Fall.
Lee Vining area
Leaving Bishop, Highway 395 climbs steeply, crests near Crowley Lake, skirts the communities of Mammoth Lakes and June Lake, finally dropping down into the Mono Basin and Lee Vining. Though this is an easy, one-hour drive, you’ll feel like you’ve landed on a different planet. In October, detour onto the June Lake Loop, another popular fall color drive.
By far the most popular Mono Lake location is South Tufa, a garden of limestone tufa towers that line the shore and rise from the lake. Tufa are calcium carbonate protrusions formed by submerged springs and revealed when the lake drops. In addition to the striking tufa towers, South Tufa is on a point that protrudes into the lake, allowing photographers to compose with both tufa and lake in the frame while facing west, north, or east.
To visit South Tufa, turn east on Highway 120 about 5 miles south of Lee Vining. Follow this road for another 5 miles and turn left at the sign for South Tufa. Drive about a mile on an unpaved, dusty but easily navigated road to the large dirt parking lot. From here it’s an easy ¼ mile walk to the lake, but wear your mud shoes if you want to get close to the water. And don’t climb on the tufa.
While South Tufa can be really nice at sunset, mirror reflections on the frequently calm lake surface, and warm light skimming over the low eastern horizon, make this one of California’s premier sunrise locations. To get the most out of a sunrise shoot here, it’s a good idea to photograph South Tufa at sunset to familiarize yourself with the many possibilities here (and who knows, maybe you’ll get lucky and catch one of the Eastern Sierra’s spectacular sunsets).
In the morning, arrive at the lake at least 45 minutes before sunrise to ensure a good spot at this popular location—you can start shooting as soon as you arriving, using long exposures to brighten the scene and smooth the water. I usually start with scenes to the east, capturing tufa silhouettes against indigo sky and water. As the dawn brightens, keep your head on a swivel and be prepared to shift positions with the changing light.
As the sun approaches and the dynamic range increases in the east, I often turn to face west. Soon the highest Sierra peaks are colored with pink alpenglow, followed quickly by the day’s first direct sunlight. With the sun rising beneath the horizon behind me, its light slowly descends the Sierra peaks stretching before me. When the sunlight finally reaches lake level, for a few minutes the tufa towers are awash with warm sidelight, creating wonderful opportunities facing north. As with the Alabama Hills, without clouds to soften the sunlight and make the sky more interesting, the sunrise show is terminated quickly by contrasty light.
Other options in and near Lee Vining are the excellent Mono Lake visitor center on the north side of town, the small but very informative Mono Committee headquarters in the middle of town, any meal at the Whoa Nellie Deli in the Mobil Station (trust me on this), and Bodie, an extremely photogenic ghost town maintained in a state of arrested decay, less than an hour’s drive north. And a sinuous 20-minute drive west, up 120 (closed in winter) lands you at Tioga Pass, Yosemite’s east entrance and the gateway to Tuolumne Meadows.
Fall color in the Eastern Sierra
Each fall the Eastern Sierra becomes a Mecca for photographers chasing the vivid gold coloring the area’s ubiquitous aspen groves. The show starts in late September at the highest elevations, and continues well into October in some of the lower elevations. Fall color timing and locations vary from year-to-year, but the general fall color rule to follow here is: If the trees are still green, just keep climbing.
The best way to photograph the Eastern Sierra’s fall color is to explore: Pick a road that heads west and start climbing until something stops you. To give you a head start, here are a few of my favorite spots, from south to north. (Rather than beeline to specific locations in these ever-changing canyons, I’ve found it’s best to drive slowly and stay alert for opportunities along the way.)
Bishop Creek Canyon: Nice any season it’s open, Bishop Creek Canyon (detailed earlier) comes alive with gold each autumn. Aspen surrounding the canyon’s many lakes make for spectacular reflections. Of these, North Lake is probably the most popular, but autumn mornings can be extremely crowded here. The color in Bishop Creek Canyon usually peaks in late September at the highest elevations (near North Lake, Lake Sabrina, and South Lake), but lasts until mid-October farther down the canyon.
Rock Creek Canyon: Near the crest of the climb out of Bishop on 395, turn left at the sign for Rock Creek Lake. Climb this road along Rock Creek all the way up to its terminus at Mosquito Flat trailhead. Over 10,000 feet, this is the highest paved road in the Sierra. As with Bishop Creek Canyon, the best photography in Rock Creek Canyon is usually found at random points along the road—drive slowly and keep your eyes peeled.
McGee Creek: When you see Crowley Lake on the right, look for the road to McGee Creek on the left. This 2-mile unpaved road is navigable by all vehicles, but take it slow. It ends at a paved parking lot that’s the launching point for a hike up McGee Creek, into the canyon, and the mountains beyond. Unlike most other Eastern Sierra canyons, the dominant tree here is cottonwood. While I’ve had good success photographing along the creek right beside the parking lot, you can find nice color as far up the canyon as your schedule (and fitness) permits.
Convict Lake: The road to Convict Lake is just south of Mammoth Lakes. It’s a 2-mile paved drive to a beautiful lake nestled at the base of towering mountains—definitely worth the short detour off of 395.
June Lake Loop: Between Mammoth Lakes and Lee Vining is a 15 mile loop that exits 395 near the small town of June Lake (look for a gas station on the left) and returns to 395 a few miles down. Along the route you’ll find several lakes, and a waterfall at the very back of the loop (visible from the road).
Lundy Canyon: About 5 miles north of Lee Vining, turn left onto the Lundy Canyon road to enjoy one of my favorite Eastern Sierra fall color spots. The lower half of this road, below Lundy Lake, is often a good place to find late season color, but my favorite photo spots aren’t until road turns bad, just beyond the lake.
Driving slowly and with great care, most vehicles can make the 2 unpaved miles along Mill Creek to the end of the road. In addition to beautiful creek scenes, you’ll find several small, reflective beaver ponds along the way. If you make it to the end of the road, park and follow the trail up the canyon, through an aspen grove, for about ¼ mile to reach a small, waterfall-fed lake. The overgrown lakeshore makes photography here difficult, but a short walk along the shoreline to the left, toward the lake outlet, will take you to a massive beaver dam. Roll up your pants and get your feet (and more) wet for the best views of the lake.
Dunderberg Peak and Virginia Lakes: Shortly after the turn to Lundy Canyon, 395 climbs steeply to Conway Summit, at 8143 feet, the highest point on the entire route. On the left, just past a spectacular view of the entire Mono basin (worth the stop), is the road to Virginia Lakes. Here you’ll find some of the area’s earliest aspen to turn. Just beyond the Virginia Lakes road are colorful views of Dunderberg Peak and its aspen-blanketed slopes.