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.

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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

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

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

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

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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