A Horsetail of a Different Color

Gary Hart Photography: El Capitan Glow, Yosemite

Winter Glow, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7R III
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
1 second
F/16
ISO 100

Last week’s Yosemite photo workshop was ostensibly about Horsetail Fall, but it turned out to be so much more than that. In fact, after photographing more snow than I’ve seen in Yosemite in many (many) years, Horsetail Fall was a bit anticlimactic. The only evening that Horsetail Fall got the coveted direct light everyone came on our second day. Going all-in on Horsetail Fall that evening, we got a decent (not spectacular) show that satisfied everyone enough that they were content to return our attention to the rest of snow-covered Yosemite Valley.

Ironically, what could arguably be called the best shoot of a workshop filled with spectacular shoots might just have been at the mega-popular, always packed view of Horsetail Fall on Southside Drive—on an evening when fall didn’t quite light up. To get here we had to trudge 50 yards through 3- to 4-foot deep fresh powder, but we were utterly alone (unprecedented in my many years photographing Horsetail Fall) to watch sunset paint a diffuse glow on El Capitan and magenta clouds overhead. And as the first visitors here since six-inches of snow had erased all evidence of prior human presence, we got to photograph the scene framed by virgin white snow glazing every exposed surface.

Yesterday I returned to Yosemite, making the 8-hour roundtrip not to photograph Horsetail Fall, but to photograph the full (“super”) moon rising behind Half Dome at sunset. But before setting up shop at Tunnel View, I couldn’t resist circumnavigating Yosemite Valley to check out the Horsetail Fall mayhem. With new snowfall decorating the trees and blanketing the roads, conditions were equal parts beautiful and treacherous.

Unlike last year, the National Park Service isn’t requiring permits, but they have blocked off many normally open parking areas. Cruising around in my Subaru Outback, I witnessed multiple cars that had foolishly ignored the R2 chain requirement (chains except for 4WD/AWD with snow tires) slipping, sliding, and spinning tires unproductively—some sliding backward downhill and others blocking the road. I also saw many cars parked illegally on the road or in closed parking areas. Given the fact that Horsetail Fall didn’t deliver last night, I doubt they’ll feel that their parking tickets (or towing bill) were worth the indiscretion.

I also talked to people who pulled into Tunnel View 30 minutes before sunset hoping to photograph Horsetail Fall. Some even thought that Bridalveil Fall was Horsetail Fall. If you plan to photograph Horsetail Fall, please do your homework. It truly can a remarkable experience, but it can also be a nightmare for the unprepared.

And speaking of Horsetail Fall preparation…



Here is a just-revised version of the Horsetail Fall article in my Photo Tips section

(Check out the “Breaking News” section if you plan to photograph Horsetail Fall in 2019)

The Horsetail Fall phenomenon

For eleven-plus months each year Horsetail Fall may just be Yosemite’s most anonymous waterfall. Usually dry or (at best) a wet stain, even at its best this ephemeral cataract is barely visible as a thin white thread descending El Capitan’s east flank. When it’s flowing, my workshop groups can be standing directly beneath Horsetail and I still have to guide their eyes to it: “See that tall tree there? Follow it all the way to the top of El Capitan; now run your eye to the left until you get to the first tree…”. But for a couple of weeks in February, the possibility that a fortuitous confluence of snowmelt, shadow, and sunset light might, for a few minutes, turn this unassuming trickle into a molten stripe draws photographers like cats to a can-opener.

The curtain rises in the second week of February, a couple of hours before sunset, when a vertical shadow begins its eastward march across El Capitan’s south face. As the shadow advances, the sunlight warms; when the unseen sun (direct sunlight is gone from the valley floor long before it leaves towering El Capitan) reaches the horizon, the only part of El Capitan not in shadow is a narrow strip of granite that includes Horsetail Fall, and for a few minutes, when all the photography stars align, the fall is bathed in a red glow resembling flowing lava framed by dark shadow. (Some people mistakenly call the Horsetail spectacle the “Firefall,” but that altogether different, but no less breathtaking, manmade Yosemite phenomenon was terminated by the National Park Service in 1968.)

Some years Horsetail delivers sunset after sunset in February, while other years administer daily doses of February frustration. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to predict when all the tumblers will click into place: I know photographers who nailed Horsetail on their first attempt, and others who have been chasing it for years.

When to photograph Horsetail Fall

The “when” of Horsetail Fall depends on the convergence of three independent conditions:

  • The sun’s angle is refreshingly predictable, lining up perfectly only in February (and October, when the fall is almost always dry). Common wisdom says the shadow on El Capitan most precisely targets Horsetail Fall at sunset during the third week of February, from around the 15th through the 22nd (or a little later). While I won’t dispute this, I’ve had some of my best success a week earlier, and my favorite Horsetail shot was captured February 9. I’ve also had success photographing it right up until the end of February. On the other hand, I tried Horsetail once on March 1 and found the shadow no longer cooperating. But the stripe of sunset light on El Capitan is most precisely focused on Horsetail Fall in the third week of February.
  • Water in the fall varies greatly from year to year, depending on how much show has fallen on the fall’s extremely small watershed, and how much of that snow is currently melting. A large snowpack and warm daytime temperatures are ideal. Sometimes Horsetail can be frozen solid in the morning, but afternoon warmth can be enough to get it flowing in time for the show. And a heavy rain can get it going strong for a few hours.
  • Direct sunlight at sunset is the most fickle aspect of the Horsetail experience—for every tale of a seemingly perfect evening when the sunset light was doused by an unseen cloud on the western horizon mere seconds before showtime, there’s another story about a cloudy evening when the setting sun somehow threaded a gap in the clouds just as tripods were being collapsed.

The problem with targeting February’s third week is that it isn’t a secret: I generally prefer sacrificing Horsetail perfection in favor of Horsetail near perfection and far fewer photographers. But I’ll leave that decision up to you.

Where to photograph Horsetail Fall

It’s fun to circle Yosemite Valley on pretty much any mid- to late-February afternoon just to watch the hoards of single-minded photographers setting up camp like iPhone users on Release Day. In fact, one non-scientific way to find a spot to photograph Horsetail is to simply park where everyone else parks and follow the crowd. Unfortunately, as Horsetail’s popularity grows, so does the distance you’ll need to walk.

If Horsetail Fall is on the top of your bucket list, it’s best to pick your spot and show up early. Really early. Really, really early. The downside of this approach is that, because the best locations for Horsetail aren’t especially good for anything else, you’ll sacrifice a lot of quality Yosemite photography time waiting for something that might not happen.

And no one has commanded that you worship with the rest of the Horsetail congregation: Experienced Yosemite photographers know that any west-facing location with a view of the fall will do. If you find yourself in Yosemite with time to kill, try walking the Merced River between Cathedral and Sentinel Beaches—any place with a view to Horsetail will work. But because of their open space, relative ease access and two spots have become the go-to Horsetail spots for most photographers.

* Breaking News *

From the National Park Service, February 2019:

– Stopping or parking on Southside Dr between El Cap Cross and Swinging Bridge is prohibited.
– All pullouts along Southside Dr between El Cap Cross and Swinging Bridge are closed.
– Roadside parking along Southside Dr between El Cap Cross and Swinging Bridge is prohibited.
– Southside Dr between El Cap Cross and Swinging Bridge is closed to pedestrians.
– The Cathedral Beach Picnic Area is closed.
– The Sentinel Beach Picnic Area is closed.
– Stopping or parking on El Cap Cross is prohibited.
– Roadside parking along El Cap Cross is prohibited.
– The number 2 lane (right, northern lane) of Northside Dr between Camp 4 and El Cap Cross is closed to all vehicles.
– Stopping or parking on Northside Dr between Camp 4 and El Cap Cross is prohibited.
– All pullouts along Northside Dr between Camp 4 and El Cap Cross are closed.
– Roadside parking along Northside Dr between Camp 4 and El Cap Cross is prohibited.
– El Cap Picnic Area is closed to all vehicles except vehicles displaying an ADA placard.
– The speed limit along Northside Dr between Camp 4 to El Cap Cross is 25 MPH unless posted otherwise.

El Capitan Picnic Area

HorsetailPicnicAreaMap

El Capitan Picnic Area, GPS: 37.72782N 119.61844W

The El Capitan Picnic Area, highlighted by Galen Rowell, remains the most popular Horsetail Fall vantage point. The picnic area’s advantages are

that it is the closest view of Horsetail Fall, has the most parking, has the most room for photographers (by far), and has a bathroom (plug your nose). The downside is there really isn’t a lot of composition variety here, and thousands of others will have already captured something as good as or better than what you’ll get.

Horsetail Fall and Clouds, El Capitan, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall from the picnic area

If you like people, the El Capitan Picnic Area is the place to be—more than any other Horsetail vantage point, this one has a festive, tailgate atmosphere that can be a lot of fun. I suspect that’s because people arrive so early and there’s little else to do before the show starts. And since everyone is pointing up with a telephoto, it’s pretty much impossible for anyone to be in anyone else’s way, which eases much of the tension that often exists when shooting among large crowds.

You’ll find the parking lot, with room for twenty or so cars, on Northside Drive, about two miles west of Yosemite Lodge. And in recent years the NPS has blocked a lane of Northside Drive to allow more parking (but don’t park illegally because you will be cited). You can shoot right from the parking lot, or wander a bit east where you’ll find several clearings with views of the fall.

Merced River south bank bend

HorsetailFallMercedRiver

Merced River south bank bend, GPS: 37.72885N 119.60743W

Photographed from the bend on the Merced River’s south bank, El Capitan’s extreme sloping summit creates the illusion that you’re somewhere above Yosemite Valley, eye-to-eye with the top of Horsetail Fall—it’s a great perspective.

I like this location because the river greatly increases the variety of possible compositions, and also because you can pivot your view upstream to photograph Upper Yosemite Fall, and Sentinel Rock almost directly above you (which also gets fantastic late light) while you wait for Horsetail to light up. The downside to photographing here is that there’s precious little room, both to park and to photograph. This requires getting there a couple of hours early, and also can lead to a bit more tension as people jockey for position.

Horsetail Fall Reflection, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall reflection from the Southside Drive Merced River view

Driving east on Southside Drive, you’ll parallel the Merced River for most of 1.2 miles beyond the turn for Cathedral Beach. The Horsetail Fall spot is right where the road and river diverge. Parallel park right there in one of two narrow but paved parking areas on opposite sides of the road, where you’ll find room for about a dozen cars.

Since there’s so little parking here, and Southside Drive is one-way eastbound, if you find no parking (don’t try to squeeze in where there’s no room—I’ve seen rangers doing traffic control and ticketing cars that don’t fit), it also helps to know that the spot is about a ½ mile from the 4-Mile Trail parking area and ¾ miles west of the Swinging Bridge parking area—an easy, flat walk.

Because of the potential for crowds, the best strategy here is to arrive early and forego what may be a great view from the elevated riverbank (that is sure to be blocked by late-arrivers trying to cram their way in), in favor of getting as close to the river as possible. Standing at river level gives you many more compositional choices, and nobody else can block your wide shots. (But if there are other photographers already set up on the elevated riverbank when you arrive, please don’t be the one who sets up in front of them.)

How to photograph Horsetail Fall

Regardless of where you set up to photograph Horsetail Fall, it’s pretty difficult to find something that nobody else has done. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Since you’ll likely be doing lots of waiting, take advantage of the downtime to experiment with compositions.

Strategy

When the light begins to warm, it’s time to shoot—because you never know when the light will shut off, it’s best to start early and photograph often. Until the light goes away completely, my rule of thumb is that the light now is better than the light a minute ago. Since you have no idea when the light will disappear for good, just keep shooting, especially in the final fifteen minutes before sunset (trust me on this). I’m not suggesting you hold your shutter down in burst mode until your card fills; I usually tell my workshop groups to fire a frame every minute or two until the fall turns amber, then pick up the pace as it goes (fingers crossed) pink and eventually red. The best light is in the final ten minutes before sunset; that’s when you might have a hard time resisting burst mode.

Composition

Viewed from the picnic area, there’s not a lot of visual interest surrounding Horsetail; your most obvious compositions will be moderate telephotos, up to 200mm or full frame. I use my 24-105 and 70-200 lenses almost exclusively here. Use the trees to frame your shots and let them go black; with a telephoto you can isolate aspects of the fall and eliminate the sky and some or all of the trees.

The Merced River bend near Southside Drive is farther away from the fall, with more foreground possibilities, including the river and reflections, so you’ll be able to use a greater range of focal lengths here. Don’t get so caught up in photographing the fall that you overlook wider possibilities that include the river.

From either location I think vertical compositions work best (there’s a reason you don’t see lots of horizontal Horsetail Fall images), but that doesn’t mean there aren’t horizontal opportunities too. I like to identify a go-to composition based on the conditions, then vary between wide/tight and horizontal/vertical. If the sky is boring (cloudless), minimize or eliminate it from your composition. If there are clouds that make the sky interesting, by all means include them.

Filters

If your camera struggles with dynamic range, a graduated neutral density filter will help any shot that includes the sky—a two-stop hard angled across El Capitan parallel to the tree line should do the trick. This usually requires some Photoshop dodging and burning to hide the transition, but it’s the only way to darken the brightest part of the sky, which is usually in front of (not above) El Capitan.

A polarizer will alter your results, so if you have one on, make sure you orient it properly. I often have a difficult time deciding between maximizing and minimizing the reflections with my polarizer, so I hedge my bets and shoot both ways. I’ve found that when Horsetail is flowing strongly, minimizing the reflection is best; when Horsetail is more of a wet or icy stain, maximizing the reflection works better. Either way, this is a decision you should make long before the best light arrives.

Exposure

Automatic metering can be problematic in extreme dynamic range scenes when color is paramount, so I always recommend manual exposure, spot metering on Horsetail Fall. To get the color in the fall and Horsetail, I usually underexpose slightly. The trees have little value beyond framing and usually work better when very dark green to black, a fact that’s completely lost on your meter. And monitor your RGB histogram to ensure that you haven’t clipped the red (Horsetail and El Capitan) or blue (sky) channels. Highlight Alert (blinking highlights) is your friend.

And perhaps most important of all, don’t get so caught up in the photography that you forget to appreciate what you’re viewing. Just take a couple of seconds to stand back and allow yourself to take in the amazing spectacle of Horsetail Fall.

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A Horsetail Fall Gallery

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Love What You Shoot

Gary Hart Photography: Snow and Reflection, El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite

Snow and Reflection, El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite
Sony a7RIII
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
1/25 second
F/11
ISO 100

Feel the love

One frequently uttered piece of photographic advice is to “shoot what you love.” And while photographing the locations and subjects we love most is indeed pretty essential to consistently successful images, unless we treat our favorite subjects with the love they deserve, we risk losing them.

My relationship with Yosemite predates my memories, so it’s no wonder that Yosemite Valley plays such a significant role in my photography. Of course my love for Yosemite doesn’t make me unique, and like all Yosemite photographers, I’ve learned to share. While it’s nice to have a location to myself (I can still usually find a few of those spots in Yosemite Valley), I’m happy to enjoy Yosemite’s prime photographic real estate with other tourists and photographers. In fact, I get vicarious pleasure watching others view the Yosemite scenes I’ve been visiting my entire life.

But

In recent years I’ve noticed more tourists and photographers abusing nature in ways that at best betrays their ignorance, and at worst reveals their indifference to the fragility of the very subjects that inspire them to click their shutters in the first place. Of course it’s impossible to have zero impact on the natural world—starting from the time we leave home, we consume energy that pollutes the atmosphere and contributes greenhouse gases. Once we arrive at our  destination, every footfall alters the world in ways ranging from subtle to dramatic—not only do our shoes crush rocks, plants, and small creatures, our noise clashes with the natural sounds that comfort humans and communicate to animals, and our vehicles and clothing scatter microscopic, non-indigenous flora and fauna.

A certain amount of damage is an unavoidable consequence of keeping the natural world accessible to all who would like to appreciate it, a tightrope our National Park Service does an excellent job navigating. It’s even easy to believe that we’re not the problem—I mean, who’d have thought merely walking on “dirt” could impact the ecosystem for tens or hundreds of years? But, for example, before straying off the trail for that unique perspective of Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, check out this admonition from the park.

Hawaii’s black sand beaches may appear unique and enduring, but the next time you consider scooping a sample to share with friends back on the mainland, know that Hawaii’s black sand is a finite, ephemeral phenomenon that will be replaced with “conventional” white sand as soon as its volcanic source is exhausted, as evidenced by the direct correlation between the Hawaiian islands age (and the cessation of volcanic activity) and their proliferation of black-sand beaches.

While Yosemite’s durable granite may lull photographers into environmental complacency, its meadows and wetlands are quite fragile, hosting many plants and insects that are an integral part of the natural balance that makes Yosemite unique. Not only that, they’re also home to native mammals, birds, and reptiles that so many enjoy photographing. Despite all this, I can’t tell you how often I see people in Yosemite (photographers in particular) unnecessarily cutting trails and trampling fragile meadows and shorelines, either to get in position for a shot or simply as a shortcut.

Don’t be this photographer

Still not convinced? If I can’t appeal to your environmental conscience, consider that simply wandering about with a camera and/or tripod labels you, “Photographer.” In that role you represent the entire photography community: when you do harm as Photographer, most observers (the general public and decision makers) go no farther than applying the Photographer label and lumping all of us into the same offending group.

Like it or not, one photographer’s indiscretion affects the way every photographer is perceived, and potentially brings about restrictions that directly or indirectly impact all of us. If you like barricades, permits, restrictions, and rules, just keep going wherever you want to go, whenever you want to go there.

It’s not that difficult

Environmental responsibility doesn’t require joining Greenpeace or dropping off the grid (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Simply taking a few minutes to understand natural concerns specific to whatever area you visit is a good place to start. Most public lands have websites with information they’d love you to read before visiting. And most park officials are more than happy to share literature on the topic (you might in fact find useful information right there in that stack of papers you jammed into your center console as you drove away from the park entrance station).

When you’re in the field, think before advancing. Train yourself to anticipate each future step with the understanding of its impact—believe it or not, this isn’t a particularly difficult habit to establish. Whenever you see trash, please pick it up, even if it isn’t yours. And don’t be shy about gently reminding other photographers whose actions risk soiling the reputation for all of us.

A few years ago, as a condition of my Death Valley workshop permit, I was guided to The Center for Outdoor Ethics and their “Leave No Trace” initiative. There’s great information here–much of it is just plain common sense, but I guarantee you’ll learn things too.

Now go out and enjoy nature–and please save it for the rest of us.

A few words about this image

This year’s Yosemite Horsetail Fall photo workshop started with bang. Normally I start a workshop with a two-hour orientation, but with six inches of fresh snow on the ground and more falling, I did a lightning orientation (15 minutes) and we sprinted into Yosemite Valley in time to catch the storm’s clearing. We found a world dipped in pristine white powder, a Yosemite photographer’s dream. Normally I like to give my groups lots of time at every location, but in the rapidly changing conditions of a clearing snowstorm (shifting clouds and light, trees shedding snow, and footprints increasing by the minute), I try to hit as many spots as possible while the shooting is ideal.

Our third stop that afternoon was Valley View, one of the top two or three photo spots in Yosemite, for obvious reasons. Having visited here so often, I don’t stop here on every visit anymore, but I’d be sued for malpractice if I didn’t take my workshop groups here—especially when it’s glazed with fresh snow. I hadn’t taken my camera out yet, and wasn’t going to get it out here either, but while working with a couple of people in the group just upriver from the parking lot, I saw this view and couldn’t resist the opportunity for something new.

When Yosemite is covered with new snow, I look for compositions that emphasize the snow and use the icons as background. Not only did this view give me lots of fresh snow for my foreground, the recent removal of several trees (evergreens in Yosemite are dying from drought and insect infestation) that blocked El Capitan gave me a perspective I’ve never been able to photograph.

I set up on the line that gave me the best window between the trees to El Capitan and started with vertical compositions that emphasized the Yosemite icon, but soon switched to horizontal to include Bridalveil Fall and Cathedral Rocks and better feature the reflection. With my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens on my Sony a7RIII camera, I set up close to the nearby snow-covered trees, then kept moving closer, widening my focal length as I went to include as much snow as possible. After framing the scene to include the least possible blue sky, the most snow, and to avoid crowding Bridalveil Fall too close to the right border, I dialed my polarizer to minimize polarization on the water (maximum reflection), metered with an eye on my histogram, focused on branches about four feet from my lens, and clicked.

We made a couple of more stops that afternoon before wrapping up with a truly beautiful sunset at an unexpected (and fortuitous) location. But that’s a story for another day.

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The Many Faces of El Capitan

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Escape from Yosemite

Gary Hart Photography: Fresh Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite

Fresh Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7R III
Sony 12-24 f/4 G
1/10 second
F/11
ISO 100

Cold, wet, exhausted, and ecstatic after a day-and-half of photographing Yosemite Valley glazed with new snow, my brother and I were ready to go home and count our treasures. Gingerly following my headlights down icy Highway 140, I rounded a bend a couple of miles downhill from the Arch Rock entrance station and found my path blocked by an iron gate spanning the road and securely padlocked in place. I knew the park had been closed earlier, but we had been told by the front desk at Yosemite Valley Lodge that 140 had opened hours ago. I glanced at the steep hillside abutting the road and wondered if my Outback could somehow make it around the gate, and quickly discarded the thought. That I even considered it at all was an indication of how desperate I was to go home.

We’d arrived in the park Monday afternoon, got a room at the lodge, and hunkered down against the incoming storm. What had been forecast to be 3-5 inches of overnight snow had just been upgraded to 12-16 inches, so we knew we’d wake Tuesday morning to something exceptional. A peek through the curtains in the predawn darkness confirmed a world of white, with the snow still falling hard. A check of the Yosemite road conditions hotline confirmed it: not only were all park entrances closed, all roads in Yosemite Valley were closed.

I trudged through the snow in the twilight to survey the photography potential near the lodge and found the view of Yosemite Falls completely obscured by clouds. The cafeteria was open, but serving nothing because the employees couldn’t make it to work. At the adjacent Starbucks I found only two people had been able to negotiate the snowy darkness to get to work—it turned out to be the Starbucks manager and his wife, a non-employee drafted into action and put on the front line.

On my way back to my room I swung by the parking lot and checked my car. About the time I identified the correct white lump, Yosemite Falls made an appearance and I hustled back to the room for my gear. But by the time I got there it had been swallowed by clouds.

My brother and I spent most of the rest of the morning watching the skies, waiting for the views of Yosemite Falls or Half Dome to clear enough to photograph, or simply for the snow to slow enough to allow us to photograph some of the closer views. We the snowfall abated late morning, we ventured out into the elements and forged a trail through the snow to the bridge beneath Yosemite Falls, because any photography is better than no photography.\

Shortly after returning to the room we got a call from the front desk telling us outbound Highway 140 had reopened. We had no plans to evacuate, but I took this as a signal that the valley roads would be open too (otherwise, what use would there be to open 140). So we dug out my Outback and hit the road. With snow still falling, the next few hours were spent circling Yosemite Valley, stopping occasionally when a view appeared, waiting for the clearing that had been promised for late afternoon.

When the storm broke, it broke fast. Blue sky appeared and spread quickly and we move around with much more urgency, hitting as many locations as possible while the snow remained on the trees and before the clouds disappeared completely. Most of the views I chose required battling our way through several feet of fresh, wet snow, an exhausting exercise almost always rewarded with a spectacular view. Pristine snow signaled that we were the first people at every spot we visited. In hindsight that should have been a clue that the park was more shut-down than we realized, but we were too excited by the sights for rational thought.

By the time we got to the day’s final location, the clouds had all but vacated the sky. A thin skin of ice obscured the reflection I’d hoped for, so I went exploring and found this view of El Capitan framed by snow-dipped shrubs. A small cloud hovered on El Capitan’s summit, reflecting a faint pink courtesy of the sun’s last rays. Framing the scene with my Sony 12-24 (on my Sony a7RIII), I widened all the way out to 12mm and moved to within a couple of feet of the shrubs to include as much snowy foreground as possible. A perfect cap to a memorable day.

But now I found myself standing in the middle of Highway 140, jiggling the padlock on the gate to make sure it was really locked, scanning the shoulder for escape routes, and wondering if I was going to make it not only home, but to the Bay Area for a talk I was scheduled to give the following day. I had no phone number that would connect to a human at that hour, and no cell signal with which to do it anyway.

Just about the time I was about to return to my car and admit defeat, a pair of headlights rounded the curve. But instead of pulling up behind us, the truck drove around my car and pulled right up to the gate. This wasn’t a tourist who had missed the same memo I had missed, it was a large work truck filled with maintenance workers returning to the yard after a long day in the park. Soon the driver’s door opened out popped the driver, fumbling with a lump of keys. I couldn’t believe my luck when the gate swung open, but I darted through before he could change his mind (or tell me that he didn’t have the authority to let anyone exit). Without slowing I waved my thanks and motored past him, heading home.


Yosemite Winter Scenes

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Seeing the Entire Scene

Gary Hart Photography: Breaking Light, El Capitan and Three Brothers Reflection, Yosemite

Breaking Light, El Capitan and Three Brothers Reflection, Yosemite
Sony a7R III
Sony 12-24 f/4 G
1/25 second
F/10
ISO 100

As you might imagine, between my own images, my photo workshop participants’ images, browsing other photographers’ pages, and simply being connected to social media, I see a lot of images. A. Lot. Of. Images. And curse or blessing, I can’t help but have opinions—whether my own images or others’, some work wonderfully, others not so much.

There’s a lot that goes into creating a successful image, but if I could whisper in the ear of every photographer just before they click the shutter, it would be a reminder to, “See the entire scene.” It happens to all of us: We’re so drawn to a pretty scene or striking subject that we become blind to what’s happing in the rest of the frame. And it’s the what’s happening in the rest of the frame that separates a mere pretty snap of a beautiful scene from wall-worthy print that satisfies for years.

Dream world

Writer John Gardner talked about creating a “vivid and continuous dream” that so completely immerses readers in the imaginary world on the page, the physical world surrounding them temporarily disappears. Any distraction that jars the reader from the page and back into the present world is a failure.

The same applies to photography. As nature photographers, we invite the viewers of our images into a virtual world of our creation. To encourage these viewers to stay and explore our virtual world, we might offer them a fresh perspective, enable vicarious travel, or perhaps tap latent memories. Regardless of the reason, the longer they stay in our virtual world, the more successful our image. But when a jutting branch on the frame’s border reminds viewers of the world out the scene, or a bright rock tugs their eye and competes for attention with scene’s prime subject, our spell is broken.

Compromise

Sadly, nature rarely presents itself exactly as photographers want it. So many decisions we make are compromises: we bump the ISO to enable the small aperture and fast shutter speed the scene requires; we cut off a rock on the left because panning right would introduce garbage can; we can’t tighten a composition to eliminate a shrub because doing so would cut the top of a mountain; we don’t polarize the sky because the polarizer erases a rainbow; and on and on…. Given these realities, our goal doesn’t need to be perfection, it’s often just to slow down and see the entire scene to ensure the decisions that bring our image as close to perfection as possible.

For example

This flooded Yosemite meadow is a spring phenomenon caused by extreme runoff following a relatively wet winter. Some years it doesn’t happen at all, but last spring’s Yosemite workshop group was fortunate to be there during the few days the Merced River overflowed its banks here (I returned a couple of days later and found the river had receded). I could have plopped my tripod down (or simply raised my camera to my eye) anywhere in a 100 yard radius and been virtually assured of a beautiful picture.

But as beautiful as it was, and as much as I wanted to start clicking, my first stop to take it all in had some problems. From my original vantage point, the stand of trees on the right obscured the Three Brothers, so I moved left along the water’s edge. But given more trees on the left, it soon became clear that part of El Capitan would be obscured. My compromise was to find a spot that exposed both El Capitan’s nose and the Three Brothers.

I’d left the car with my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM Sony (on my Sony a7RIII) body because that lens had a polarizer for controlling the reflection—dial it up for the maximum reflection, dial it down to reveal the grassy texture just beneath the water, and maybe even a find midpoint with some reflection and some submerged grass. But 16mm wasn’t wide enough, so I sacrificed reflection control and switch to my Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens.

With my position and lens worked out, I was ready to frame my composition. I felt a little sense of urgency because I didn’t want to miss the rapidly moving splashes of light scooting across El Capitan, but I also didn’t want to rush so much that I missed a problem in my frame.

To dislodge my attention from a scene’s primary focus points, I often use a mnemonic device before clicking: “border patrol.” (Though perhaps in light of current events, I should come up with something different.) Border patrol is a gentle reminder to run my eyes around the border of my frame to check for problems. Potential problems here include cutting off part of a tree on the left or right, a distracting bright spot in the sky near the top of the frame, or inadvertently trimming El Capitan’s reflection on the bottom. (Incomplete reflections and distracting sky holes are some of the most frequently missed distractions.)

In this case I took care to ensure that I got all of El Capitan and its reflection while avoiding a few breaks in the clouds just above this view. I also used the evergreen on the left and the arcing trunks on the right to frame those borders. And by making sure my camera was perfectly level, I managed to keep my vertical lines straight.

Depth of field at 12mm wasn’t a concern; I chose f/10 and focused on the far bank knowing everything would be sharp. Motion wasn’t a concern, so I could just use ISO 100 and go with the shutter speed that gave me the best histogram in the viewfinder (I love mirrorless).


Careful Framing

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Alone in Yosemite

Gary Hart Photography: Clearing Storm Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Clearing Storm Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7R III
Sony 12-24 f/4 G
1/125 second
F/10
ISO 100

Last winter I spent a glorious day by myself in Yosemite Valley, photographing the vestiges of an overnight snowstorm. Inbound to the park the evening before, a continuous strand of outbound headlights reminded me how different a photographer’s priorities are from the general public’s. For a nature photographer, the best time to be outside seems to be everyone else’s worst time to be outside, but we know that before breakfast, at dinnertime, after dark, and wild weather are when all the best pictures seem to happen.

I arrived in Yosemite Valley with just enough light to see El Capitan and Half Dome engulfed in heavy clouds that hinted at what was in store—but so far no snow. With a storm imminent, I had no problem getting a room at a significant discount, virtually unheard of on a typical Yosemite evening. A light mist started after dinner, and I fell asleep to the sound of raindrops tapping leaves outside my window. The next morning I woke before my alarm and lay still, listening in the darkness to the unmistakable silence of falling snow.

Dressing quickly, I opened the door to six inches of untouched snow. In the parking lot I tried to determine which white lump was my Outback, repeatedly punching the lock button on my key fob and following my ears to the lump that chirped back. A little digging confirmed my discovery, and after a few more minutes of excavation I was able to to ease out of my parking space, carving the first tracks into what was probably the road (fingers crossed).

The clouds that had deposited all this powder seemed be trying to squeeze out every possible flake, but they seemed exhausted from their overnight effort and my wipers had no problem keeping up. When the final flake fell a little before 9:00, I was traipsing through drifts near El Capitan Meadow. Patches of blue sky overhead told me it wouldn’t be long before the trees were shedding snow in clumps, so I headed quickly to a favorite spot by the Merced River, hoping for a reflection while the world remained white.

The Merced here was so still and clear that I had to look twice to be sure there really was water in the river. The reflection on the far side was exactly what I had in mind, but the corrugated riverbed on my side was an unexpected complement that wonderfully matched the herringbone clouds above. In the days before my Sony 12-24 lens, I wouldn’t have been able to include all of El Capitan and its reflection in a horizontal frame, but 12mm gave me room to spare (I’m still startled at times by how big the difference is between 16mm and 12mm).

I got lots pictures that make me happy that day, but even more than the pictures, I think I enjoyed the rare opportunity to feel alone in Yosemite for a few hours. The park wasn’t empty, but between the scarcity of people, the reluctance of those who were there to venture onto the roads, and the sound-deadening effect of powdery snow, I had no trouble pretending.

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Yosemite Winter Reflections

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Shoot the Moon

Gary Hart Photography: Yosemite Silhouette, Crescent Moon w/El Capitan and Half Dome

Yosemite Silhouette, Crescent Moon With El Capitan and Half Dome
Canon EOS 1DS Mark III
4 seconds
400 mm
ISO 400
F8

Nothing draws the eye quite like a large moon, bright and bold, with a striking foreground. But something happens when you try to photograph the moon—somehow a moon that looks to the eye like you could reach out and pluck it from the sky, shrinks to a small white speck in a photo.

While a delicate accent of moon is great when properly framed above a nice landscape, most people like their moons BIG. The trick isn’t photographing a large moon, it’s photographing a large moon with a nice landscape.

Bigger is better

Crescent or full, the moon will be as big as the focal length you choose—photograph it at 16mm and the moon registers as a tiny dot; photograph it at 600mm and your moon dominates the frame.

But a landscape image with a large moon requires more than just a long focal length. If big was all that mattered, you could attach your camera to a telescope, point skyward, and get a huge moon. But without a landscape to go with your huge moon, no one would know whether you took the picture standing on a beach in Hawaii, atop a glacier in New Zealand, or beside the garbage cans in your driveway.

“Big moon” is a subjective label, but I usually won’t use it unless I can photograph the moon at 200mm or longer. And while a 200mm lens is okay, the moon doesn’t really start to jump out of the frame for me until I approach 400mm.

My go-to big moon lens is my Sony 100-400 GM because it provides good magnification along with focal length wiggle-room for pulling back when I need to fit a foreground subject that’s a little too close. A telephoto zoom also provides focal length flexibility that allows you to balance your composition, or add variety with a series of different compositions. Of course you can always switch lenses mid-shoot, but you don’t fully appreciate how fast the moon is moving in the sky until you try to align it with a terrestrial subject in a telephoto composition.

When I want a moon even bigger than 400mm gives me, I add a 2X teleconverter and voilà, I’m at 800mm. Bigger still? Out comes my 1.5-crop body and I’m zoomed all the way to a 1200mm equivalent.

Distance yourself

Often the most difficult part of including a large moon with a specific landscape subject is finding a vantage point far enough back to fit the subject and the moon. But the farther back from your foreground subject you can position yourself, the longer the focal length you can use, and the bigger the moon will be.

For example, I love photographing a big moon rising behind Half Dome in Yosemite. But at Yosemite’s popular east-side locations, even 200mm is too close to get the moon and all of Half Dome in my frame. And while Yosemite’s most distant east-facing Half Dome vistas are up to 10 miles away, Half Dome is large so that even at that distance the longest focal length that will include the moon and all of Half Dome isn’t much more than 400mm.

A little easier for me is including a big moon with smaller foreground objects like a prominent tree. Near my home in Northern California are rolling hills topped by solitary oaks that make perfect moon foregrounds when I can shoot up so they’re against the sky. And since these trees are much smaller than Half Dome, even vantage points that are less than a mile away lets me zoom all the way up to 1200mm.

Depth of field

With subjects so far away, it’s easy to forget about depth of field. But extreme focal lengths mean extremely limited depth of field. Depth of field isn’t a concern when Half Dome is your closest subject and it’s ten miles distant, but when your foreground is an oak tree on a hill that’s a mile away, you absolutely need to consider the hyperfocal distance.

For example, at 800mm and f/11 (with a full frame sensor), the hyperfocal distance is about a mile-and-a-quarter (look it up)—focus on the tree and the moon will be soft; focus on the moon and the tree is soft. But if you can focus on something that’s a little beyond the tree, at maybe one-and-a-half miles away, the image will be sharp from front to back.

When I’m not sure of my subject distance, I estimate as best I can, focus on a point beyond my foreground subject, then review my image magnified to check sharpness. If my focus point is in my frame, great, but I won’t hesitate to remove my camera from the tripod to focus on something behind me that’s the right distance (if you do this, to prevent refocusing, be sure you use back-button focus or are in manual focus mode when you click your shutter). It’s always best to get the focus sorted out before the moon arrives, a good reason to arrive at a new location well in advance of the moon’s arrival.

Location, location, location

As your focal length increases, your compositional margin for error shrinks. You can’t expect to go out on the evening of a full or crescent moon, look to the horizon, and automatically put the moon in the frame with your planned foreground subject.

Even when the moon and your foreground do align, once the moon appears, you’ll only have a few minutes before it rises out of your telephoto frame. This means extreme telephoto images that include both the moon and a foreground subject are only possible when the moon is right on the horizon, making proper timing essential.

Like the sun, the moon traces a different path across the sky each day. This path changes with each lunar cycle (from full, to new, back to full); whether the moon is full or crescent, a location that perfectly aligns the moon and foreground one month will probably be nowhere close the next.

Coordinating all the moving parts (moon phase and position, foreground subject alignment, subject distance, and rise/set timing) requires some planning and plotting. When I started photographing the moon, in the days before smart phones and apps that do the heavy lifting, I had to refer to tables to get the moon’s phase and position in the sky, manually plot the alignment, then apply the Pythagorean theorem to figure the timing of the moon’s arrival above (or disappearance behind) the terrain.

Today there are countless apps that will do this for you. Apps like The Photographer’s Ephemeris and Photo Pills (to name just two of many) are fantastic tools that give photographers access to moonrise/set data for any location on Earth. There is a bit of a learning curve (so don’t wait until the last minute to plan your shoot), but they’re infinitely easier than the old fashioned way.

Plan ahead

When the moon is a small accent to a wide scene, it’s often enough to just show up on its full or crescent day and shoot it somewhere above your subject. But because the margin of error is so small, planning for a big moon image is best done months in advance.

I identify big-moon candidate locations near home and on the road, and am always on the lookout for more. My criteria are a prominent subject that stands out against the sky, with a distant east or west facing vantage point. Over the years I’ve assembled a mental database ranging from hilltop trees near home, to landscape icons like Half Dome, Mt. Whitney, and Zabriskie Point (Death Valley).

With my subjects identified, I do my plotting (I still do it the old fashioned way) and mark my calendar for the day I want to be there. That often means waiting close to a year for the alignment I want. And if the weather or schedule doesn’t cooperate, my wait can be longer than that.

About this image

<Some may recognize this from the horizontal version of this moonrise I’ve shared for years; I just processed this vertical version.>

A few years ago I scheduled a spring Yosemite workshop to coincide with a 3% crescent moon that I’d computed would slip into the narrow gap between El Capitan and Half Dome about 45 minutes before sunrise on our final morning. Though we were all at the same place, photographing the same thing, the true magic was simply being there to witness a special moment that probably won’t repeat for decades.

The afternoon before this moonrise, I brought the group to this spot on Big Oak Flat Road so they could familiarize themselves with the location and plan their compositions. During this preview someone asked exactly where the moon would rise, and I confidently blurted that it will appear in the small notch separating El Capitan and Half Dome, between 5:15 and 5:20 a.m. I’d never actually photographed a moonrise from this spot, and as I spoke to the group I became painfully aware of how small the opening is—even the slightest error in my plotting could find the moon blocked by El Capitan or Half Dome.

Sunday morning we departed dark and early (4:45 a.m.), full of anticipation. We arrived at Half Dome View a little after 5:00, early enough to enable everyone to set up their tripods, frame their compositions, and prepare their exposure settings. Then we waited, all eyes locked on the notch.

And then there it was, the slightest point of moonlight edging into that small gap between Yosemite’s iconic monoliths. Phew. The rest of the morning was a blur of shutter clicks and exclamations of delight.

Before the shared euphoria abated, I suggested to everyone that they take a short break from photography and simply appreciate that they’re probably witnessing the most beautiful thing happening on Earth at this moment (a feeling every nature photographer should experience from time to time). It’s always exciting to witness a moment like this, a breathtaking convergence of Earth and sky that may not occur again exactly like this in my lifetime. It’s even more rewarding when the event isn’t an accident, that I’m experiencing it because of my own effort, and that I get to share the fruit of my perspiration with others who appreciate the magic just as much as I do.

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Big Moon

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It’s the People

Gary Hart Photography: Floating Color, El Capitan, Yosemite

Floating Color, El Capitan, Yosemite

The ability to earn my living visiting the most beautiful places in the world is plenty of reason for gratitude, but that’s not what I’m thinking about today. Today I’m thinking about all of the people my workshops have connected me with, and all the laughter and learning they have added to my life.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to the people part of photo workshops when I started, but I had no idea how much of the joy I get from leading photo workshops comes from the people. Over the last dozen or so years, my workshop students have taught me about their countries, professions, hobbies, religions,… I could go on. I’ve watched workshop participants from virtually every continent on Earth (no penguins yet), with wildly diverse values and world views, blend seamlessly and enthusiastically. Observing this, I’ve learned that despite the exterior tensions that seem to divide our world today, humans have far more in common than we imagine.

Like most people, I have my share of strong opinions about the way things in the world should be. But the people I’ve met in my workshops have shown me that a person’s “goodness” is not determined by his or her political views or any other category that we so conveniently like to slot people into. I’ve seen firsthand that no political affiliation, religious preference, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity has a monopoly on warmth, passion, generosity, empathy, patience, or humor. Even more encouraging, I don’t think these workshop epiphanies are mine alone. Workshop after workshop, I get to observe a dozen of the most diverse people imaginable not just set aside differences and work side-by-side, but actually form friendships that transcend conventional boundaries, deep friendships that often continue long after the workshop ends.

I went into the photo workshop business fully prepared to teach others, but completely unprepared for the learning others would offer me.

About this image

With the fall color for this year’s Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections workshop peaking, I had to work overtime to balance the need for quality photo time at each stop with my desire to get my group to all the photo spots. On the workshop’s final day we finally made it to Cathedral Beach, a great up-close view of El Capitan that’s always good for reflections in the fall.

With El Capitan in full sunlight, the river in shade, and nothing stirring the water, all the ingredients were in place for a nice reflection. We’d been photographing reflections all week, but I didn’t get the sense that anyone was tiring of them. Drifting cottonwood leaves added to the beauty and the group quickly spread along a hundred yards or so in search of a composition to make their own.

Often shooting a scene like this I start wide, but this afternoon I started with my Sony 100-400 GM lens, playing with close-ups of the leaves and reflection. After wringing every possibility from this approach, I went to the other extreme and switched to my Sony 12-24 G lens. A wide composition needs a strong foreground, usually the closer the better, so I dropped down to river level and started working on variations of this scene.

While the water was calm, I was close enough to the leaves that even the slightest ripples risked motion blur, so to increase my shutter speed I dialed my Sony a7RIII to ISO 400. At 12mm I have a tremendous amount of depth of field, but the leaves were so close that I decided to play it safe and use f/16. After a check check of my hyperfocal app, I focused on a leaf about 18 inches from my camera knowing that would give me sharpness from the closest leave all the way out to El Capitan.

Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections Photo Workshop

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An El Capitan Gallery

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