Fall into winter

First Snow, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
.4 seconds
ISO 100
24 mm

Probably the number one question I’m asked about Yosemite is, “What’s the best season for photography?” My response always sounds like it was crafted by a waffling politician, but I swear I just don’t have the absolute answer everyone wants: Yosemite in spring is all about the water, a time when the vertical granite can’t seem to shed the winter snowpack fast enough; summer offers High Sierra splendor (Glacier Point, Tuolumne Meadows, the backcountry), with wildflowers, exposed granite, and gem-like lakes inaccessible most of the year; autumn is when trees of yellow and red mingle in mirror-reflections and carpet the forest floor with color; and winter is the sunset fire of Horsetail Fall and the possibility (fingers crossed) of a glistening winter cathedral of white.

But surpassing all of this is the rare opportunity to combine the best of two seasons. For example, a few years ago, while in Yosemite Valley to photograph the fall color, I survived twenty-four hours of nonstop downpour, six inches of rain that sent Yosemite Valley into spring flood mode, giving me an opportunity photograph the fall color with the waterfalls at their spring peak. And last year, extreme drought conditions kept the high country open into January, providing access to High Sierra terrain in ice and snow conditions usually the exclusive domain of hardy wildlife.

And then there was last Saturday, when I was in Yosemite Valley to photograph this year’s fall color “peak” (always a moving target), only to encounter an early winter storm that deposited six inches of fresh snow in Yosemite Valley. Seriously folks, there are simply no words to describe Yosemite Valley with fresh snow, and adding an explosion of yellow and red is just off the charts. But rather than sink further into hyperbole, I’ll just submit this image, one of many from this trip that will surely require many hours to wade through.

(In addition to the snow and color, I also witnessed classic Yosemite clearing storm conditions, but that’s a story for another day.)

A few words about this image

I’ve been doing this photography thing long enough to have learned how to separate my experience from my camera’s, to appreciate what I’m seeing without forgetting that my camera “sees” it differently. On this autumn morning I wanted capture the best of everything going on—fresh snow (duh), fall color, and reflection—easy for stereoscopic eyes embedded in a swiveling head, but not so easy to capture in a single, two-dimensional frame. With some ideas of how I might accomplish this, I beelined to this hidden spot along the Merced River, a little downstream from Bridalveil Meadow.

Once there I had to move around until all the elements—snow-covered rocks, floating leaves, reflection, and El Capitan—fell into a coherent relationship: Too far to the right and I’d lose El Capitan’s reflection behind the rocks; too far to the left and I’d be in the frigid river (not that there’s anything wrong with that). As it was, I was balanced on an icy rock with my tripod in two feet of water (and thanking the photography gods for live-view).

All of the “action” in the scene was along a line starting at my feet and terminating at El Capitan, so the decision to go vertical was easy—including everything on my line in a horizontal composition would have introduced all kinds of superfluous real estate on the left and right, and required me to compose so wide that El Capitan would have shrunk to virtual insignificance. I really liked the large, submerged  leaf right in front of me and used it to anchor the bottom of my frame. And since the sky above El Capitan was mostly gray clouds, I composed as tightly as possible above El Capitan.

Top and bottom decided, I moved back as far as I could to increase my focal length and maximize El Capitan’s size as much as possible. Wanting sharpness throughout my frame, I stopped down to f16 and focused on the leaf frozen to the rock in the lower center, about five feet away. (An experience-based guess—my iPhone, with its hyperfocal app, was buried in a pocket several layers deep, and I was reluctant to disturb my precarious balance on the slippery rocks.) I was extremely careful orienting my polarizer, turning it slowly, multiple times, until I was confident I’d found the ideal balance between removing sheen on the leaves without erasing the reflection in the river. A three-stop soft graduated neutral density filter held down the brightness in the sky. Click.

In Lightroom I warmed the image a little to remove a blue cast in the snow, and applied standard exposure adjustments to subdue highlights and open shadows. In Photoshop I dodged and burned to hide (minimal) unwanted shading introduced by my GND, to further darken the clouds, and to bring out the reflection somewhat. And I gave all but the scene’s brightest and darkest areas a slight wiggle in curves for contrast.

Join me in a Yosemite photo workshop

Yosemite seasons

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Twilight Mist, Yosemite Valley
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
Canon 24-70L
1.6 seconds
ISO 200

Yesterday I spent an incredible day in Yosemite, guiding a group of photographers from the Sacramento area. When I schedule these trips, I do my best to time them for nice conditions, but of course there’s no guarantee things will work out. Yesterday they worked out. Big time. Not only did we catch Yosemite Valley at its fall color peak (it’s late this year), we found everything blanketed with fresh snow that continued to fall lightly, and intermittently, throughout the day. I have lots of images I can’t wait to get to, but until then I offer this one from a few years ago, chosen because it’s quite similar to the scene with which we wrapped up the day yesterday.

Much like last night, the view on this spring evening was a classic Yosemite clearing storm. I arrived at Tunnel View to find El Capitan and Half Dome, partially obscured by swirling clouds, teasing the audience like exotic fan dancers; a carpet of plush fog twisted along the valley floor. With sunlit clouds and granite above a shaded valley, the light was tricky, but as the sun dropped, so did the contrast and photography became simpler. Eventually the direct sunlight left Half Dome entirely, but patches spotlighted El Capitan right up until sunset. While the clouds never achieved brilliant sunset pinks and reds, they radiated an ethereal gold that intensified over several minutes before fading.

When the sunlight left entirely, as if on cue, the fog hugging the valley floor expanded, slowly obscuring the scene like a curtain signaling the show’s end. With the view gone, the crowd packed up and headed to wherever they needed to be; suddenly I was alone. But I’ve photographed Yosemite enough to know that it’s a mistake to try to predict the conditions in five minutes based on the conditions now, so I stayed, hoping for an encore. As quickly as it had closed, the foggy curtain pulled back, unveiling Yosemite Valley once more, this time illuminated by the magnificent pink and blue pastels of a twilight wedge. By now the sky was quite dark, but all the faint, shadowless light that remained needed was a bit of extra exposure to reveal more of the most beautiful view on Earth. (This is a 1.6 second exposure at f7.1 and ISO 200, with my usually present polarizer removed.)

Even though this image adds to the seemingly infinite number of Yosemite Tunnel View pictures in my own portfolio and others, it remains one of my personal favorites. It’s one of the images I think about every time I consider leaving a scene, and it’s what I showed the group last night when some suggested leaving. So we stayed and were among the very few rewarded with memories of Yosemite Valley’s sweet encore for the drive home.

Yosemite photo workshops

A Gallery of Yosemite Weather

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Photographic Reality: See the light


Crescent and Oaks at Dusk, Sierra Foothills, California

Crescent and Oaks at Dusk, Sierra Foothills, California

“Photography’s gift isn’t the ability to reproduce your reality, it’s the ability to expand it.”

(The third installment of my series on photographic reality.)

Dynamic range

One of photographers’ most frequent complaints is their camera’s limited “dynamic range,” it’s inability to capture the full range of light visible to the human eye. To understand photographic dynamic range, imagine light as water you’re trying to capture from a tap–if the human eye can handle a bucket-full of light, a camera will only capture a coffee cup. Any additional light reaching your sensor simply overflows, registering as pure white.

Limited dynamic range isn’t a problem when a scene is lit by omnidirectional, shadowless light. But while I can’t speak for other planets, here on Earth we’re illuminated by only one sun. Since most Earthlings prefer blue skies and brilliant, (unidirectional) sunshine that buries everything that’s not directly lit in dark shadows. Fortunately, human vision has evolved to the point where we  can see detail in shadows and sunlight simultaneously.

Cameras haven’t evolved quite so far–on sunny days, photographers must choose between photographing what’s in the shade or what’s in direct sunlight. Exposing to capture detail in the shadows brings in so much light that everything in sunlight is overexposed; exposing to avoid overexposure of sunlit subjects doesn’t permit enough light to see what’s in the shadows.

Managing the light

Experienced photographers understand their camera’s limited dynamic range and take steps to mitigate it. For example, artificial light (such as a flash) can be used to fill shadows, or multiple exposures (covering a scene’s range of light) can be digitally blended into one image. But as a natural-light landscape photographer, I don’t even own a flash (really), and given that I only photograph scenes I can capture with a single exposure, I also never blend exposures.

The simplest solution for me is to avoid harsh, midday light. Full shade (absolutely no direct light) works, and a layer of clouds that spreads sunlight over the entire sky illuminates the landscape with even (low contrast), shadowless light that’s a joy to photograph. And the low, very early or very late light that occurs just after sunrise or before sunset has been subdued enough by its long journey through the thick atmosphere that the contrast falls into a camera’s manageable range. I’m also a huge advocate of graduated good old fashioned neutral density filters to reduce the difference between a bright sky and darker foreground.

Less is more

The best photography often results from subtraction. Photographers who merely take steps to make their camera’s world more like their own miss a great opportunity to show aspects of the world easily missed by the human experience. In the right hands, a camera’s limited light capturing ability can be used to emphasize special aspects of nature and eliminate distractions.

Exposing to hold the color in bright sky or water can eliminate unlit distractions and render shaded subjects in shape-emphasizing silhouette. And compositions that feature brightly backlit, translucent flowers and leaves explode with natural color that stands out against a shaded, black background.

Whether the image is a silhouetted mountain or translucent dogwood, the camera’s rendering is nothing like your experience of the scene. But it is a true rendering from the camera’s perspective, achieved without digital manipulation.

For example

Daybreak, El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite

Daybreak, El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite

Last week I rose at 4:00 a.m. to photograph a thin crescent moon rising above Half Dome almost an hour before sunrise. It was one of those, “I’m witnessing the most beautiful thing on Earth” moments, and I couldn’t believe no one else was there to enjoy it. I arrived about fifteen minutes before I expected the moon to rise, more than enough time to set up one tripod with my 1DS III 100-400 lens bulls-eyed on Half Dome at 400 mm. Another tripod had my 5D III and 24-105 composed to include El Capitan and Half Dome (above).

When the moon arrived I gave the scene just enough light to reveal the rich blue in the twilight sky. At that exposure the thin sliver of moon was completely overexposed (no lunar detail), a crescent of pure white that stands out boldly against the dark blue sky. A few stars pop through the darkness as well.

My eyes had adjusted to the predawn light enough for me to barely discern the trees and granite in Yosemite Valley below, and the rising sun had already started to wash out some of the sky’s color. But at the exposure I chose, my camera saw only Yosemite’s iconic skyline, El Capitan on the left and Half Dome on the right, as distinct black shapes against the cool blue sky. Rendering the image this way reduces erases the rocks and trees that add nothing to the scene, reducing this special Yosemite moment to its most compelling elements, color and shape.

Autumn Light, Yosemite:  Here I metered on the brightest part of the backlit leaves, slightly underexposing to capture the leaves’  exquisite gold and turn the shaded background to complementary shades that range from dark green to nearly black. A small aperture softened dots of sky to small jewels of light.

Up next: Accumulate light

Reflecting on reflections

Winter Reflection, El Capitan in the Merced River, Yosemite
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1.3 seconds
ISO 100
19 mm

What is it about reflections? I don’t know about you, but I absolutely love them–I love photographing them, and I love just watching them. Like a good metaphor in writing, a reflection is an indirect representation that can be more powerful than its literal counterpart. In that regard, part of a reflection’s tug is its ability to engage the brain in different ways than we’re accustomed: Rather than processing the scene directly, we first must mentally reassemble the reverse world of a reflection, and in the process perhaps see the scene a little differently.

Because a camera renders our dynamic world in a static medium, water’s universal familiarity makes it a powerful tool for photographers. We blur or freeze in space a plummeting waterfall to convey a sense of motion that conjures auditory memories of moving water. Conversely, the mere image of a mountain reflecting in a lake can convey stillness and engender the peace and tranquility of standing on the lakeshore.

This El Capitan winter reflection is another from last month’s Yosemite winter workshop. Arriving at Tunnel View before sunrise, we found a world covered in snow and smothered by clouds. But as daylight rose, the clouds parted and we were treated to a classic Yosemite Valley clearing storm scene. The photography was still great when I herded everyone away from Tunnel View so we’d have time to capture as much ephemeral grandeur as possible in the limited time before the snow disappeared. I tell my groups that, while the photography is still great where we are, it’s great elsewhere too. This approach ensure that not only does everyone get beautiful images, they get a variety of beautiful images.

El Capitan Bridge was our second stop after Tunnel View. El Capitan is so large and close here that capturing it and its reflection in a single frame is impossible without a fisheye lens, or stitching multiple images. But sometimes the desire to capture everything the eye sees introduces distractions. Feeling a bit rushed, I inhaled and forced myself to slow down and simply absorbed moment, soon realizing that it was the reflection that moved me most.

I attached my 17-40 and tried fairly wide vertical and horizontal compositions that highlighted the best parts of the scene, twisting my polarizer in search of an orientation that captured the the reflection while still revealing the interesting world beneath the surface. Of the dozen or so frames that resulted, this may be my favorite for the way it conveys everything in those few sunlit, snowy minutes when the world seemed silent and pure.

*   *   *   *

A note to you skeptics: I’m asked from time-to-time why the trees are white, while their reflection is green. This actually makes perfect sense once you realize that you’re looking at the top of the snow-covered branches, while the reflection is of the underside of the branches, which are not covered with snow.

A gallery of reflections

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The other ninety-nine percent

Cradled Crescent, El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite
Canon EOS 1DS Mark III
4 seconds
400 mm
ISO 400

Thomas Edison said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” (Without claiming genius) I think this applies to photography as well: Many successful images are more the product of being in the right place at the right time than divine inspiration. Of course anyone can stumble upon a lucky convergence of location and conditions and come home with a great photo, but the “genius” behind creating great photos consistently is preparation and sacrifice–a.k.a., perspiration.

The moonrise on the final sunrise shoot of last week’s Yosemite workshop spurred these thoughts about inspiration and effort. We were all in more or less the same place, photographing the same thing. And while everyone probably captured very similar images (in this case of a crescent moon squeezing between El Capitan and Half Dome), the true magic was simply being there.

But why were we the only ones there to witness this special moment that probably won’t repeat for decades? Determining the moon’s altitude and azimuth from any location on Earth is as easy as visiting one of many websites, or using one of many astronomical software applications such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris or (my preference) the Focalware iPhone app. Armed with this data, aligning the moon’s rise with any landmark isn’t rocket science.

Based on my calculations and plotting, I scheduled my “Yosemite Dogwood and Rising Crescent” workshop to coincide with a sunrise crescent moon. The dogwood bloom isn’t as reliable, but I know interesting weather is still possible in Yosemite in late April and early May. What we ended up with was mostly clear skies (great for tourists, but definitely not for photographers) and a very late dogwood bloom in Yosemite (probably two weeks behind “schedule”), forcing me to shift the daytime emphasis of my spring workshop to rainbows. I’m happy to report Bridalveil and  Yosemite Falls delivered more photogenic rainbows than I can count, from a number of different locations.

As spectacular as they were, overshadowing the rainbows was the moonrise on our penultimate morning. I promised the group that departing at 4:50a.m. would get us to Tunnel View in time to photograph a 7% crescent moon rise above Yosemite Valley, between Sentinel Dome and Cathedral Rocks, in the pre-dawn twilight. (I knew this because I’ve been calculating moonrise and moonsets in Yosemite and elsewhere for many years, and have photographed more of these from Tunnel View than any other location.) That moonrise came off exactly as advertised–so far so good.

But the Tunnel View success, as beautiful as our images were, was merely a warm-up that gave everyone an opportunity to hone their silhouette exposure and composition skills in advance of the rare moonrise opportunity I’d planned for the next morning. When scheduling this workshop I’d determined that about 45 minutes before sunrise on May 1 of this year (2011), a delicate 3% crescent moon would slip into the narrow gap between El Capitan and Half Dome for anyone watching from Half Dome View on Big Oak Flat Road.

Lunar tables assume a flat horizon, so unless I’m at the ocean, the primary uncertainty is when the moon will appear above (or disappear below) the not-flat horizon. Once I’ve photographed a moonrise (or set) from a location, I simply check the precise time of its appearance (or disappearance) against the altitude/azimuth data for that day to get the exact angle of the horizon from there. Until I have this horizon information, I only have the moon’s direction and elevation above the unobstructed horizon and can only make an educated guess as to the time and location of its appearance.

The other big wildcard in moon and moonlight photography is the weather, but a last minute check with the National Weather Service confirmed that all systems were go there. Nevertheless, despite all my obsessive plotting, checking, and double-checking, having never photographed a moonrise from this location, and the fact that an error would affect not just me but my entire group, I couldn’t help feel more than a little anxious.

The afternoon before our second and final pre-dawn moonrise, I brought the group to Half Dome View so they could familiarize themselves with the location and plan their compositions. Due to the horizon uncertainties I just described, the first time I photograph a moonrise/set from a location, I generally give my group only an approximate time and position for the moon’s rise/set. But 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. (about 25 minutes after the official, flat-horizon moonrise). Standing there that afternoon, however, I realized how small the notch really is, meaning that even the slightest error in my plotting could find the moon rising much later, from behind El Capitan or Half Dome. So I quickly qualified my prediction, explaining that I’ve never photographed a moonrise here and the uncertainty of knowing the horizon. But given all of my perfectly timed waterfall rainbow hits so far, not to mention our Tunnel View moonrise success earlier that morning, I had the sense that my group had unconditional (blind) confidence in me. (Yikes.)

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 set their exposures. Then we waited, all eyes locked on the gap separating El Capitan and Half Dome. Well, almost all eyes–mine made frequent detours to my watch and the Focalware iPhone app responsible for my bold (rash?) prediction. (What was I thinking, promising a moonrise into a paper-thin space in a five minute span from a spot where I’d never photographed a moonrise?) My watch crawled toward the 5:15-5:20 window: 5:15 (Is the notch shrinking?); 5:16 (It’s shrinking–I swear I just saw Half Dome inch closer to El Capitan); 5:17 (I entered the coordinates wrong, I know I did–what if it comes up behind us?). Surely this wasn’t the kind of perspiration Edison was thinking about.

As I frantically re-checked my iPhone for the umpteenth time, somebody exclaimed, “There it is!” I looked up and sure enough, there was the leading sliver of nearly new moon perfectly threading that small space between El Capitan and Half Dome. Phew. The rest of the morning was a blur of shutter clicks and exclamations of delight (plus one barely audible sigh of relief). (How could I have even dreamed of doubting the tried and true methods that had never failed me before?)

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.

A Crescent Moon Gallery

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Make the world your own

El Capitan Reflection

El Capitan Reflection, Valley View, Yosemite
Canon EOS 10D
1/4 second
ISO 100
27 mm

Pretend you’re a musician who wants to make music your career. Let’s say Eric Clapton is your favorite artist, and “Layla” is your favorite song. Do you think your quickest path to fame and fortune would be to record a song that perfectly replicates “Layla”? (Especially given the difficulty you’d have resurrecting Duane Allman.)

So why is it that so many nature photographers with grand aspirations spend so much time trying to duplicate the shots of others, rather than trying to find and refine their own artistic vision? Using Eric Clapton as a model for your music is great—the more you listen to Clapton, the more your guitar playing will be influenced by his craftmanship. But at some point you need to choose between carving your own musical path or languishing in anonymity.

This applies equally in photography. In my photo workshops I encounter many people who have travelled a great distance to duplicate a photo they’ve seen online, in a book, or in a print. I certainly understand the impulse, and I can’t say that my portfolio doesn’t contain its share of these clichés. But, as I frequently urge my workshop students, if you must photograph something exactly as it’s been photographed before, make that version your starting point and not your ultimate goal.

Once you get your “iconic” (that word is a cliché itself) shot, slow down and work the scene. Look for foreground and background possibilities, find unique perspectives. Play with depth and motion. If your original frame was horizontal, try something vertical, and vice versa. Take your camera off the tripod and pan slowly, zooming in and out as you go until something stops you (don’t forget to bring the tripod back before clicking). Still feel uninspired? Try a longer lens—often the truly unique images are tighter shots that isolate elements of the conventional composition.

It’s true that the longer spend time with a scene, the more you’ll find to photograph. Make a mental checklist of the above steps (feel free to add your own) and go through them without rushing: Often the mere mechanical (uninspired) process of seeking something unique gives you deeper insight that leads to a creative capture if you stick with it long enough.

This image of El Capitan reflected in the Merced River resulted from just such an approach. I’d rolled into Yosemite at around 10:00 a.m. on a mid-November morning. The air was crisp and still, scoured clean by an overnight shower. At Valley View I found this perfect reflection, only possible in the quiet-water days of autumn. Working on a tripod, I started my compositions wide and captured many of the beautiful but conventional shots that have been done a million times here. But wanting something different, I removed my camera from my tripod continued probing the scene through my viewfinder. I eventually isolated the reflection, realizing it was so sharp the morning that it was the thing that really set this moment apart. Despite the advancing sunlight that would soon reach the river and wash out the reflection, I didn’t rush.

On my computer at home, it was fun to view my process through the series of captures that morning. I finally zeroed in on this frame that has become one of my most successful images. Did I create the photographic equivalent of “Layla” that morning? Doubtful. But I did come up with an image that pleases me, and something that’s a pretty unique take on this heavily photographed location.

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