Extracting the Essence

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

Autumn Light, North Lake, Eastern Sierra
Sony a7R III
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
3/4 second
F/13
ISO 100


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

Autumn Morning, North Lake, Eastern Sierra

Read about the travails leading up to this shoot in my previous post. But enough about that….


I’m afraid that when faced with a beautiful scene, photographers (myself included) sometimes settle for the obvious shot and leave more subtle opportunities on the table. But the most creative photography (though not necessarily the most popular) comes from looking beyond the obvious to find the scene’s essence.

The question photographers should ask themselves is: What about this scene makes it special? That’s really a personal challenge with as many answers as there are photographers seeking them. Once we identify something to emphasize, we need to figure out the best way to guide our viewers’ eyes. The tools at our disposal include our exposure settings to control the scene’s motion, depth, and light, and compositional elements like isolation, juxtaposition, lines, and shapes.

There were many “obvious” shots at North Lake this morning, and my group certainly did its best to exhaust them. But we spent enough time there that I was able to make it around to everyone to encourage them to break free of whatever they were locked onto and try to find something different. A couple dropped low with a wide angle to put foreground rocks close, some extracted a telephoto and isolated the reflection and/or colorful aspen across the lake, while others switched to a vertical composition that emphasized the clouds building above the peaks. Many played with variations of some or all of these approaches. I’ve shot here enough that I pretty content to observe, until…

About an hour into the shoot the clouds behind us parted and a shaft of sunlight snuck through to spotlight the cascade of orange across the lake, and I couldn’t resist. This sweet accent would be lost to wide field of the Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens I’d had on my a7RIII all morning, so I (very) quickly replaced it with my Sony 24-105 f/4 G and went to work isolating the scene’s best elements. Even though I hadn’t shot much, I’d been composing in my head all morning, so I had a pretty good idea what I wanted to do.

In my mind the scene’s best feature was the vivid color and its reflection. But as striking as these features were, to turn it from a scene into a picture, I needed something to move the eye, and a visual landing place. Enter the zig-zag diagonals and fortuitously positioned sunlight.

I wanted to compose as tightly as I could without losing the light and reflection. With the color as my canvas, I simply let the diagonals span the frame (taking care to include the intersection on the left), and the sunlight fall near the top.

Eastern Sierra Fall Color Photo Workshop


Extracting the Essence

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I Just Love Happy Endings

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

Autumn Morning, North Lake, Eastern Sierra
Sony a7R III
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
1/4 second
F/16
ISO 100

By the time I made it to North Lake for sunrise, I’d already had a trying morning. After some frustrations with the cars, my Eastern Sierra workshop group had gotten on the road about five minutes later than I’d planned. Fortunately I always schedule a little wiggle room, so we were on track, but still…. Then, just a couple of miles before the turn-off to the lake, I had to swerve to avoid a grapefruit-sized rock in the road, barely avoiding it. Phew. But the middle car in our mini-caravan wasn’t so lucky: Flat tire. Crap.

This year’s group had 13 people (including Don Smith, who was assisting, and me), but this little mishap suddenly dropped us to two cars (10 seats), with sunrise rapidly approaching. Surveying the damage, I decided that rather than make everyone wait, we could still cram all but three of us into the two remaining cars. I sent them up to the lake in Don’s care while I stayed behind with the unfortunate couple and their wounded car. Once everyone was situated at the lake, Don agreed to return in case we weren’t able to replace the tire.

Don pulled up about 20 minutes later, just as I put the finishing touches on the miniature spare. After a brief discussion we decided it wouldn’t be wise to take that (poor excuse for a) tire on the unpaved North Lake road, so the couple decided to return to Bishop to get their tire replaced. Since that would leave us with 11 people to transport with the two remaining cars, Don volunteered to return with them to Bishop while I drove up to North Lake to meet the group.

So I was pretty much worn out by the time I parked, hefted my camera bag onto my back, and started the short walk down to the lake. Making it to the lakeshore right around “official” sunrise, the scene that greeted me was an instant jolt of energy. In nature photography you do your best to time your visit for the best possible conditions, but ultimately have to deal with whatever you’re dealt. The variables we cross our fingers for at North Lake are good color, a crisp reflection, and nice clouds. We hit the trifecta this morning, with peak color from top to bottom across the lake (and everywhere else), water like glass, and a sublime mix of swirling clouds and blue sky. An unexpected bonus was the relatively small number of photographers competing for space at this always popular autumn sunrise spot.

One of the things I like most about North Lake is the variety of fall color here, a rare sight in California. The trees on the slope are a mix of orange and red, while those lining the lake are always vivid yellow. I’ve photographed North Lake a lot over the years, and my own photography during a workshop is never my priority, so I rarely photograph here anymore. But this morning was special and I couldn’t resist, so as I moved around to everyone in the group I found time to fire off a few frames of my own.

The background of the image I share here is a version of the broader, more conventional scene that is usually the starting point for a North Lake fall color composition. (In future posts I’ll share one or two others that I think capture the less obvious essence of the scene.) As always, I worked to find a foreground that complemented the primary scene, finally settling on the tall grass as a frame for the reflection and the the scene beyond—I thought the grass added just enough detail without distracting.) I liked the clouds, but the color was long gone by the time I was able to photograph, so I decided not to include too much sky. Finishing the scene off, I panned left to include a tall, yellow aspen for the left side of my frame. I composed, metered, and focused at eye level, but to get as much reflection as possible, before clicking I elevated my RRS TVC-24L tripod (I love having a tall tripod) to its maximum height, then used the tilting LCD on my Sony a7RIII to restore the composition I’d identified.

Given the way things started out, it would have been very easy to just pack it in and write the morning off as a loss. But despite the difficulties, this turned out to be a wonderful morning of photography for everyone. Just one more reminder that the happiest endings often start with a little hardship.

Eastern Sierra Photo Workshop

Why I Love the Eastern Sierra

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Focus Magic

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Aspen,Grand Tetons National Park

Autumn Aspen, Grand Tetons National Park
Sony a7RIII
Sony 100-400 GM
Sony 2x teleconverter
15mm extension tube
ISO 1600
f/11
1/60 second


As we enter the fall color photography season, I’m revisiting and revising previous articles. This is the third in the series.


In this day of ubiquitous cameras, automatic exposure, and free information, a creative photographer’s surest path to unique images is achieved by managing a scene’s depth. While anyone with a camera can compose the left/right/up/down aspect of a scene, the front/back plane, a scene’s depth (that we human’s take for granted) is missing from a two-dimensional image. Managing depth requires abstract vision and camera control beyond the skill of most casual photographers. But it’s not hard.

While skilled photographers frequently go to great lengths to maximize depth of field (DOF), many forget the ability of limited DOF to:

  • Guide the viewer’s eye to a particular subject
  • Provide the primary subject a complementary background
  • Provide background context for a subject (such as its location or the time of day or season)
  • Smooth a busy, potentially distracting background
  • Create something nobody will ever be able to duplicate

They call it “bokeh”

We call an image’s out of focus area its “bokeh.” While it’s true that bokeh generally improves with the quality of the lens, as with most things in photography, more important than the lens is the photographer behind it. More than anything, achieving compelling bokeh starts with understanding how your camera sees the world, and how to translate that vision. The image’s focus point, its depth of field (a function of the f-stop, sensor size, focal length, and subject distance), and the characteristics of the blurred background (color, shapes, lines) are all under the photographer’s control.

No special equipment required

Compelling bokeh doesn’t require special or expensive equipment—chances are you have everything you need in your bag already. Most macro lenses are fast enough to limit DOF, have excellent optics (that provide pleasing bokeh), and allow for extremely close focus (which shrinks DOF). A telephoto lens near its longest focal length has a very shallow DOF when focused close.

Another great way to limit your DOF without breaking the bank is with an extension tube (or tubes). Extension tubes are hollow (no optics) cylinders that attach between your camera and lens. The best ones communicate with the camera so you can still meter and autofocus. Not only are extension tubes relatively inexpensive, with them I can focus just about as close as I could have with a macro. They can also be stacked—the more extension, the closer you can focus (and the shallower your DOF). And with no optics, there’s nothing compromise the quality of my lens (unlike a teleconverter or diopter). But there’s no such thing as a free lunch in photography—the downside of extension tubes is that they reduce the amount of amount light reaching the sensor—the more extension, the less light. On the other hand, since I’m using them to reduce my DOF, I’m always shooting wide open. And the high ISO capability of today’s cameras more than makes up for the loss of light.

Many of my selective focus images are accomplished without a macro or even a particularly fast lens. Instead, preferring the compositional flexibility of a zoom, I opt for my 70-200 f4 (especially) and 100-400 lenses. While my 100 macro is an amazingly sharp lens with beautiful bokeh, I often prefer the ability to isolate my subject, in a narrow focus range, without having to get right on top of it. On the other hand, if I have a subject I want to get incredibly close to, there’s no better way than my macro and an extension tube (or two, or three).

Managing depth of field

When using creative soft focus, it’s important that your background be soft enough that it doesn’t simply look like a focus error. In other words, you usually want your background really soft. On the other hand, the amount of softness you choose creates a continuum that starts with an indistinguishable blur of color, includes unrecognizable but complementary shapes, and ends with easily recognizable objects. Where your background falls on this continuum is up to you.

Your DOF will be shallower (and your background softer):

  • The closer your focus point
  • The longer your focal length
  • The larger your aperture (small f-stop number)

A macro lens and/or extension tube is the best way to get extremely close to your subject for the absolute shallowest DOF. But sometimes you don’t want to be that close. Perhaps you can’t get to your subject, or maybe you want just enough DOF to reveal a little (but still soft) background detail. In this case, a telephoto zoom may be your best bet. And even at the closest focus distances, the f-stop you choose will make a difference in the range of sharpness and the quality of your background blur. All of these choices are somewhat interchangeable and overlapping—you’ll often need to try a variety of focus-point/focal-length/f-stop combinations to achieve your desired effect. Experiment!

Foreground/background

Composing a shallow DOF image usually starts with finding a foreground subject on which to focus, then positioning yourself in a way that places your subject against a complementary background. (You can do this in reverse too—if you see a background you think would look great out of focus, find a foreground subject that would look good against that background and go to work.)

Primary subjects are whatever moves you: a single flower, a group of flowers, colorful leaves, textured bark, a clinging water drop—the sky’s the limit. A backlit leaf or flower has a glow that appears to originate from within, creating the illusion it has its own source of illumination—even in shade or overcast, most of a scene’s light comes from the sky and your subject will indeed have a backlit side. And an extremely close focus on a water droplet will reveal a world that’s normally invisible to the unaided eye—both the world within the drop and a reflection of the surrounding world.

My favorite backgrounds include parallel tree trunks, splashes of lit leaves and flowers in a mostly shaded forest, pinpoint jewels of daylight shining through the trees, flowers that blur to color and soft shapes, sunlight sparkling on water. I also like including recognizable landscape features that reveal the location—nothing says Yosemite like a waterfall or Half Dome; nothing says the ocean like crashing surf.

The final piece of the composition puzzle is your focus point. This creative decision can make or break an image because the point of maximum sharpness is where your viewer’s eyes will land. In one case you might want to emphasize a leaf’s serrated edge; or maybe its the leaf’s intricate vein pattern you want to feature. Or maybe you’ll need to decide between the pollen clinging to a poppy’s stamen, or the sensual curve of the poppy’s petals. When I’m not sure, I take multiple frames with different focus points.

Exposure

Exposing selective focus scenes is primarily a matter of spot-metering on the brightest element, almost always your primary subject, and dialing in an exposure that ensures that it won’t be blown out. Often this approach turns shaded areas quite dark, making your primary subject stand out more if you can align the two. Sometimes I’ll underexpose my subject slightly to saturate its color and further darken the background.

Tripod

And let’s not overlook the importance of a good tripod. In general, the thinner the area of sharpness in an image, the more essential it is to nail the focus point.  Even the unavoidable micro-millimeter shifts possible with hand-holding can make the difference between a brilliant success and an absolute failure.

Virtually all of my blurred background images are achieved in incremental steps. They start with a general concept that includes a subject and background, and evolve in repeating click, evaluate, refine, click, … cycles. In this approach, the only way to ensure consistent evolution from original concept to finished product is a tripod, which holds in place the scene I just clicked and am now evaluating—when I decide what my image needs, I have the scene sitting there atop my tripod, just waiting for my adjustments.

September 2018

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Aspen,Grand Tetons National Park

Autumn Aspen, Grand Tetons National Park

Quivering, translucent leaves of yellow, orange, and (sometimes) red make aspen trees the perfect accent for any autumn mountain vista. But it’s the aspen’s knotted white trunks that really draw me, so when I get the opportunity to photograph aspen up close, I usually try to find ways to emphasize the trunks.

Last week I was in the Tetons helping my friend Don Smith with his workshop there. While Grand Tetons have some of the most spectacular grand vistas in America, I think I my favorite part of the week was the time we spent among the aspen.

One afternoon mid-workshop we stopped along Moose-Wilson Road. Moose-Wilson Road is a narrow, mostly paved track that winds through aspen groves broken by soggy meadows. Unfortunately, the preponderance of wildlife here makes Moose-Wilson a mecca for wildlife shooters hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the park’s numerous bear, elk, and moose. The mere act of exiting the care here draws wildlife shooters like mosquitos to bare skin, and I spent half of my time with this scene swatting them away.

For this shoot I’d taken the “go big or go home” approach, carrying only my tripod (RRS 24L and RRS BH-40 ball head) and Sony a7RIII with the Sony 100-400 GM attached. The longer the focal length, the shallower the depth of field, but I wasn’t satisfied with just 400mm, so I added my Sony 2X teleconverter to get out to 800mm. But I wasn’t finished—to focus even closer and further shrink my depth of field, I also added a 15mm extension tube. Because both the teleconverter and extension tube reduces the light reaching my sensor, I shot this scene at ISO 1600.

Between interruptions (“What do you see?”; “Is there a bear?”) I made my way to an isolated aspen, then circumnavigated the trunk until I could juxtapose it against a distant grouping of orange-red leaves. For the next 20 minutes I played with variations of the composition you see here, making small refinements after each click to get the right separation between the three aspen in the scene, the best arrangement of knots, and a depth of field that emphasized my foreground aspen with sufficient background blur. And because my depth of field was so shallow, after each adjustment I very carefully chose my focus point on the tree by magnifying it in my viewfinder, then focused manually.


More Examples

Bridalveil Dogwood, Yosemite

Bridalveil Dogwood, Yosemite
This raindrop-laden dogwood image uses Yosemite’s Bridalveil Fall as a soft background to establish the location. An extension tube allowed me to focus so close that the nearest petal brushed my lens.

 

Poppy With a View

Poppy With a View, Point Reyes National Seashore
My goal this gray spring afternoon was to juxtapose a poppy against the distant surf, a relationship made possible by Point Reyes’ Chimney Rock precipitous edge. Once I found the right poppy, I dropped to the ground to frame the flower with the arcing coastline, experimenting with several apertures before finding the ideal balance of foreground sharpness and background softness.

 

Champagne Glass Poppies, Merced River Canyon, California

Champagne Glass Poppies, Merced River Canyon, California
The background color you see here is simply a hillside covered with poppies. To achieve this extremely limited DOF, I used an extension tube on my 100mm macro, lying flat on the ground as close as my lens would allow me to focus. Since my tripod (at the time) wouldn’t go that low, I detached my camera, rested the tripod on the ground in front of the poppy, propped my lens on a leg, composed, focused on the leading edge, and clicked my remote release.

 

Autumn Light, Yosemite

Autumn Light, Yosemite
I had a lot of fun playing with the sunlight sneaking through the dense evergreen canopy here, experimenting with different f-stops to get the effect I liked best.

 

Sparkling Poppies, Merced River Canyon

Sparkling Poppies, Merced River Canyon
The background jewels of light are sunlight reflecting on the rippling surface of a creek. I had a blast controlling their size by varying my f-stop.

 

Dogwood, Merced River, Yosemite

Dogwood, Merced River, Yosemite
Looking down from the Pohono Bridge, finding the composition was the simple part. But as soon as I started clicking I realized that the sparkling surface of the rapidly Merced River was completely different with each frame. So I just clicked and clicked and clicked until I had over 30 frames to choose between.

 

Forest Dogwood, Tenaya Creek, Yosemite

Forest Dogwood, Tenaya Creek, Yosemite
Here, rather than background bokeh, I framed my dogwood flower with leaves in front of my focus point.


Bokeh Gallery

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Improve Your Fall Color Photography

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite

Autumn Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
24-105L
1/15 second
F/16
ISO 100


As we enter the fall color photography season, I’m revisiting and revising previous articles. This is the second in the series.


Improve Your Fall Color Photography

Vivid color and crisp reflections make autumn my favorite season for creative photography. While most landscape scenes require showing up at the right time and hoping for the sun and clouds to cooperate, photographing fall color is often a simple matter of circling the scene until the light’s right. For the photographers who understand this, and know how to control exposure, depth, and motion with their cameras, great fall color images are possible any time of day, in any light.

Backlight, backlight, backlight

The difference between the front-lit and backlit sides of fall foliage is the difference between dull and vivid color. When illuminated by direct sunlight, the side of a leaf opposite the sun throbs with color, as if it has its own source of illumination, while the same leaf’s lit side appears flat—if you ever find yourself thinking that the fall color seems washed out, check the other side of the tree.

While the backlight glow isn’t as pronounced in shade/overcast, when the leaves are illuminated by light that’s spread evenly across the sky, even diffuse sunlight is far more pronounced one side of the leaves than the other, giving the side of a leaf that’s opposite the sky (the side getting less light) a subtle but distinct glow when compared to its skyward side.

Forest Autumn, Yosemite

Forest Autumn, Yosemite

Isolate elements with a telephoto for a more intimate fall color image

Big fall color scenes are great, but a telephoto or macro enables you to highlight and emphasize elements and relationships. Train your eye to find leaves, groups of leaves, or branches that stand out from the rest of the scene. Zoom close, using the edges of the frame to eliminate distractions and frame subjects. And don’t concentrate so much on your primary subject that you miss complementary background or foreground elements to balance the frame and provide an appealing canvas for your subject.

Solitary Leaf, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

Selective depth of field is a great way to emphasize/deemphasize elements in a scene

Limiting depth of field with a large aperture on a telephoto lens can soften a potentially distracting background into a complementary canvas of color and shape. Parallel tree trunks, other colorful leaves, and reflective water make particularly effective soft background subjects. For an extremely soft background, reduce your depth of field further by adding an extension tube to focus closer.

Autumn Bouquet, Zion National Park

Autumn Bouquet, Zion National Park

Underexpose sunlit leaves to maximize color

Contrary to what many believe, fall foliage in bright sunlight is still photographable if you isolate backlit leaves against a darker background and slightly underexpose them. The key here is making sure the foliage is the brightest thing in the frame, and to avoid including any sky in the frame. Photographing sunlit leaves, especially with a large aperture to limit DOF, has the added advantage of an extremely fast shutter speed that will freeze wind-blown foliage.

Leaves and Reflection, Convict Lake, Eastern Sierra

Slightly underexposing brightly lit leaves not only emphasizes their color, it turns everything that’s in shade to a dark background. And if your depth of field is narrow enough, points of light sneaking between the leaves and branches to reach your camera will blur to glowing jewels.

Gary Hart Photography, Autumn Light, Yosemite

Autumn Light, Yosemite

A sunstar is a great way to liven up an image in extreme light

If you’re going to be shooting backlit leaves, you’ll often find yourself fighting the sun. Rather than trying to overcome it, turn the sun into an ally by hiding it behind a tree. A small aperture (f16 or smaller is my general rule) with a small sliver of the sun’s disk visible creates a brilliant sunstar that becomes the focal-point of your scene. Unlike photographing a sunstar on the horizon, hiding the sun behind a terrestrial object like a tree or rock enables you to move with the sun.

When you get a composition you like, try several frames, varying the amount of sun visible in each. The smaller the sliver of sun, the more delicate the sunstar; the more sun you include, the more bold the sunstar. You’ll also find that different lenses render sunstars differently, so experiment to see which lenses and apertures work best for you.

Autumn Light, North Rim, Grand Canyon

Autumn Light, North Rim, Grand Canyon

Gary Hart Photography, Autumn Glow, Yosemite

Autumn Glow, Cook’s Meadow, Yosemite

Polarize away the foliage’s natural sheen

Fall foliage has a reflective sheen that dulls its natural color. A properly oriented polarizer can erase that sheen and bring the underlying natural color into prominence. To minimize the scene’s reflection, slowly turn the polarizer until the scene is darkest (the more you try this, the easier it will be to see). If you have a hard time seeing the difference, concentrate your gaze on a single leaf, rock, or wet surface.

Fallen Color, Rock Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra

A polarizer isn’t an all-on or all-off proposition. Slowly dial the polarizer’s ring and watch the reflection change until you achieve the effect you desire. This is particularly effective when you want your reflection to share the frame with submerged feature such as rocks, leaves, and grass.

Morning Reflection, North Lake, Eastern Sierra

Blur water with a long exposure

When photographing in overcast or shade, it’s virtually impossible to freeze the motion of rapid water at any kind of reasonable ISO. Rather than fight it, use this opportunity to add silky water to your fall color scenes. There’s no magic shutter speed for blurring water—in addition to the shutter speed, the amount of blur will depend on the speed of the water, your distance from the water, your focal length, and your angle of view relative to the water’s motion. When you find a composition you like, don’t stop with one click. Experiment with different shutter speeds by varying the ISO (or aperture as long as you don’t compromise the desired depth of field).

Leaf, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

Autumn Leaf, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

Reflections make fantastic complements to any fall color scene

By autumn, rivers and streams that rushed over rocks in spring and summer, meander at a leisurely, reflective pace. Adding a reflection to your autumn scene can double the color, and also add a sense of tranquility. The recipe for a reflection is still water, sunlit reflection subjects, and shaded reflective surface.

When photographing leaves floating atop a reflection, it’s important to know that the focus point for the reflection is the focus point of the reflective subject, not the reflective surface. This is seems counterintuitive, but try it yourself—focus on the leaves with a wide aperture and watch the reflection go soft. Achieving sharpness in your floating leaves and the reflection requires an extremely small aperture and careful focus point selection. Often the necessary depth of field exceeds the lens’s ability to capture it—in this case, I almost always bias my focus toward the leaves and let the reflection go soft.

Autumn Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Fallen Leaves, Valley View, Yosemite

Nothing communicates impending winter like fall color with snow

Don’t think the first snow means your fall photography is finished for the year. Hardy autumn leaves often cling to branches, and even retain their color on the ground through the first few storms of winter. An early snowfall is an opportunity to catch fall leaves etched in white, an opportunity not to be missed. And even after the snow has been falling for a while, it’s possible to find a colorful rogue leaf to accent an otherwise stark winter scene.

Fall into Winter, Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite

First Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite

First Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite

Workshop Schedule || Purchase Prints



To better understand the science and timing of fall color, read

A simple how and when of fall color



A Gallery of Fall Color

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:: More photography tips ::

A Fall Color Primer

Gary Hart Photography: Fallen Color, Rock Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Fallen Color, Rock Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra
Canon EOS-1D Mark II
1/3 second
F/9.0
ISO 100
85 mm

Autumn has arrived, my favorite season for creative photography. To kick off the festivities, I’m sharing an updated version of a post I wrote a few years ago explaining the often misunderstood process responsible for it all.


Few things get a photographer’s heart racing more than the vivid yellows, oranges, and reds of autumn. And the excitement isn’t limited to photographers—to appreciate that reality, just try navigating the Smoky Mountains backroads on a Sunday afternoon in October.

Innkeeper logic

But despite all the attention, the annual autumn extravaganza is fraught with mystery and misconception. Showing up at the spot that guy in your camera club told you was peaking at this time last year, you might find the very same trees displaying lime green mixed with just hints of yellow and orange, and hear the old guy behind the counter at the inn shake his head and tell you, “It hasn’t gotten cold enough yet—the color’s late this year.” Then, the next year, when you check into the same inn on the same weekend, you find just a handful of leaves clinging to exposed branches—this time as the old guy hands you the key he utters, “That freeze a few weeks ago got the color started early this year—you should have been here last week.”

While these explanations may sound reasonable, they’re not quite accurate. Because the why and when of fall color is complicated, observers resort to memory, anecdote, and lore to fill knowledge voids with partial truth and downright myth. Fortunately, science has given us a pretty good understanding of the fall color process.

It’s all about the sunlight

The leaves of deciduous trees contain a mix of green, yellow, and orange pigments. During the spring and summer growing season, the green chlorophyl pigment overpowers the orange and yellow pigments and the tree stays green. Even though this chlorophyl is quickly broken down by sunlight, it is continuously replaced in the process of photosynthesis that sustains the tree during the long days of summer.

As the days shrink toward autumn, things begin to change. Cells at the abscission layer at the base of the leaves’ stem (the knot where the leaf connects to the branch) start to thicken, blocking the transfer of carbohydrates from the leaves to the branches, and the movement of minerals to the leaves, that had kept the tree thriving all summer. Without these minerals, the leaves’ production of chlorophyl dwindles and finally stops, leaving just the yellow and orange pigments. Voila—color!

Sunlight and weather

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

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

On the other hand, freezing temperatures destroy the color pigments, bringing a premature end to the color display. Drought can stress trees so much that they drop their leaves before the color has a chance to manifest. And wind and rain can wreak havoc with the fall display—go to bed one night beneath a canopy of red and gold, wake the next morning to find the trees bare and the ground blanketed with color. And of course all these weather factors come in an infinite number of variations, which makes each year’s color timing and intensity a little different from the last.

Despite our understanding of the fall color process, Mother Nature still holds some secrets pretty close to her vest—just when we think we’ve got it all figured out, she’ll surprise us. For example, last year’s Eastern Sierra fall color featured lots of black leaves that I attributed to California’s extreme drought conditions. With the drought persisting, and in fact intensifying, this year, I feared this fall would be even worse. So I was quite pleased to find everything going along right on schedule, with lots of yellow, more red than usual, and hardly a black leaf to be seen. Go figure.

About this image

Driving Rock Creek Canyon north and east of Bishop, I pulled my car over at a random spot and wandered over to the creek. I found trees beyond peak and the creek bank blanketed with yellow aspen leaves, by far the predominant color in the Eastern Sierra. As I turned to return to my car my eyes caught a rare flash of orange. Moving in that direction, I found matching red-orange leaf less than a foot away.

I’m sometimes accused of placing or arranging leaves in my scenes, something I never do, but I understand why people might think that. I very consciously look for leaves that stand out from their surroundings that I can isolate in my frame.

Circling this scene, I didn’t have to work to hard to decide that a symmetrical diagonal arrangement was the way to go. A thin overcast made exposure easy.

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A Fall Color Gallery

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Photography’s Creativity Triad: Light

Gary Hart Photography: Red Maple Twins, Zion National Park

Red Maple Twins, Zion National Park
Sony a7RII
Sony 100-400 GM
ISO 1600
f/16
1/10 second

Photography’s Creativity Triad

Rather than attempting to reproduce a scene exactly as we see it, enduring photographs reveal unseen aspects of our world. Capturing this hidden world requires understanding and mastery of photography’s “creativity triad,” the three aspects of a scene that distinguish the camera’s vision from human vision: motion, light, and depth.


Light is arguably the single most important element in an image. And the way a camera handles light may very well be photographers’ single biggest frustration—while our eyes can pluck detail from the deepest shadows to the brightest highlights, with a camera we can have shadows, or we can have highlights, but we can’t have both. Photographers go to great lengths to mitigate the shortcomings of their camera’s dynamic range (range of light a camera can pull detail from in a single frame, from shadows to highlights): Artificial light, blending of multiple exposures, and graduated neutral density filters absolutely have their place, but we often overlook the opportunity limited dynamic range provides.

In my previous post I wrote about how the camera’s ability to accumulate light over the duration of a single frame can reveal motion that’s invisible to the naked eye. Where light is concerned, while many see it as a limitation, I see my camera’s “limited” dynamic range as an opportunity to hide distractions and emphasize features. Whether it’s a Yosemite silhouette that emphasizes shape, or a high-key autumn image that highlights color, narrow dynamic range doesn’t need to be a handicap.

Red Maple Twins, Zion National Park

Last week I was in Zion National Park, co-teaching Don Smith’s workshop there. Zion’s yellows were peaking while we were there, but most of its red maples were about a week past prime. Nevertheless, I was able to find enough crimson leaves to keep me happy.

One morning I found a group of leaves dangling away from most of the tree. Seeking the best way to isolate the leaves from their surroundings, I experimented with different positions and focal lengths, starting with a half dozen or so leaves against a background of soft-focus branches and leaves. I love my new Sony 100-400 GM lens for isolation shots like this and had fun composing these leaves with a variety of focal lengths. The longer I worked on the scene, the more my eye was drawn to the shape, crimson translucence, and vein pattern of one pair of leaves in particular.

Suddenly, simplicity was the operative word. Strategizing the best way to separate these two leaves from their surroundings, I quickly realized a background of more leaves and branches, no matter how soft, was too distracting. But most angles that eliminated background foliage blended my my leaves into Zion’s towering red sandstone walls. Eventually I found a position far enough beneath the tree to put the backlit leaves against the cloudy sky.

Though my Sony a7RII has enough dynamic range to capture the entire range of light from shadows to highlights (with a little help from Lightroom/Photoshop, pulling up the shadows and down the highlights), I found the texture in the clouds almost as distracting as the branches. Instead, I metered on the leaves, which, though nicely backlit, were nowhere near as bright as the sky. My histogram showed that I’d clipped the sky, which I knew would put my leaves against a white background.

With no background detail to blur, I was able to stop down to f/16 and expand my depth of field to get more of both leaves in focus. The downside of this stop-down decision was significantly less light on my sensor, necessitating a longer shutter speed to achieve my desired exposure. For a shutter speed that overcame a breeze wiggling the leaves, I bumped to 1600 ISO. While my plan at capture was to put the backlit leaves against an entirely white background, when I started processing the image, I realized I’d captured a patch of blue sky (revealed by pulling the Lightroom Highlights slider to the left). I decided to keep blue sky while still hiding the texture in the clouds in the “blown” highlights.


Playing with Light

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Photography’s Creativity Triad: Motion

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Spiral, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

Autumn Spiral, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite
Sony a7RII
Sony 100-400 GM
ISO 50
f/16
20 seconds


Photography’s Creativity Triad

Rather than attempting to reproduce a scene exactly as we see it, enduring photographs reveal unseen aspects of our world. Capturing this hidden world requires understanding and mastery of photography’s “creativity triad,” the three aspects of a scene that distinguish the camera’s vision from human vision: motion, light, and depth.


Motion: Autumn Spiral

The human experience of the world unfolds like a seamless movie of continuous instants, while a camera accumulates light throughout its exposure to conflates those instants into a single frame.

Last week in Yosemite I got an opportunity to play with motion while photographing autumn leaves blanketing nearly every exposed surface below Bridalveil Fall. Beneath the fall Bridalveil Creek splits into three branches I love to explore—up- or down-stream, it doesn’t matter—searching for more intimate scenes. Last week I stayed close to the trail—not by design, but because I found enough to occupy every available minute.

Most of the fallen leaves had come to rest on granite, but those that had landed on the creek had been instantly swept downstream until they came to rest in sheltered pools, pushing up against and accumulating the rocks that bounded the pool. I found some pools that were entirely covered with leaves of varying shades of yellow and (just a little) green.

This little scene was downstream from the third bridge. The leaves here had been accumulating in this pool for a few days, leaving it more than half covered on this my final day in Yosemite. More than the golden pool, what really drew my attention from the bridge was a small collection of leaves, soon to become part of the pool’s autumn mosaic, swirling in a slowly spiraling current.

I set up my tripod right on the bridge, pulled out my new Sony 100-400 GM lens, dialed my polarizer to minimize reflections, and went to work. Because so much was happening in the scene, I started toward the lens’s wide end, but quickly found myself tightening each composition until I got down to a version of what you see here.

Once I had my composition, it became all about the motion in the leaves. When photographing landscape subjects in motion, each click can render a completely different image, so I’ve learned to never stop at one (or two, or three…). Whether it’s ocean waves, churning whitewater, or spinning leaves, I always make sure I have a variety of motion effects from which to choose. In this case, while the leaves were spiraling in a fairly consistent current, it seemed that with each rotation at least one leaf would go rogue, either slowing, accelerating, or making a break for the perimeter. The result was a distinctly different spiral with each capture.

I experimented with shutter speeds between ten and thirty seconds. Sometimes I’ll use a neutral density filter to stretch my shutter speed, but for this scene I was using a polarizer (minus two stops), it was quite early (shortly after sunrise) in an always densely shaded location, and darkened even further by the dense clouds of an approaching storm. In other words, the scene was dark enough that I could get the shutter speed all the way out to thirty seconds with my f-stop and ISO settings. When I was done, I had about 20 frames to choose from (one more argument for the tripod), identical except for a little different swirl.

While a still camera can’t capture motion as humans view it, in the right hands the camera absolutely does capture motion in ways that I’d argue can be even more appealing than being there. In this case, the spiral nature of this pool’s motion is much more apparent in this image than it was witnessing it firsthand.

Because there always has to be a moral…

The moral of this story is the importance of being able to manage your exposure variables: You can’t control motion, depth, and light without knowing how to achieve the shutter speed, f-stop, and ISO that serves your creative objective with minimal image quality compromise. That means retaining full control of your exposure settings by shooting in manual, aperture priority, or shutter priority modes. (And if you choose aperture or shutter priority, you must be able to manage your camera’s exposure compensation dial.)

Learn About Photographing Motion


World in Motion

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