Posted on January 2, 2023
Sometimes Nature delivers us something that’s so beautiful, it just has to be a gift. When we think of Nature’s gifts, it’s often in terms of locations, like Yosemite or Grand Canyon (gifts indeed!). But today I’m thinking about Nature’s transient beauty: the perfect arc and vivid colors of a rainbow, a brilliant crimson sunrise or sunset, or an aurora dancing among the stars (I could go on)—beauty that can simultaneously surprise and wow us.
Underrated on Nature’s list of gifts are reflections. Doubling the scene, reflections signal tranquility. And like a metaphor that engages the brain in ways different than we’re accustomed, a reflection is an indirect representation that can be more powerful than its literal double. Rather than allowing us to process the scene directly, a reflection challenges us to mentally reassemble its reverse world, and in the process perhaps see the scene a little differently.
Reflections can feel like a fortuitous gift that we just stumbled upon. But given that reflections are entirely beholden to the laws of physics, they’re far more predictable than many of the natural phenomena we photograph. Taking a little time to understand the nature of reflections and how they’re revealed by a camera enables photographers to anticipate their appearance and craft their relationship to the surrounding landscape in an image.
Without getting too far into the physics of light, it’s important to understand that every object we see (and photograph) that doesn’t generate its own light, comes to us courtesy of reflected light. In other words, what we call a reflection is in fact re-reflected light (reflected first from the object itself, then by the water).
For example, when sunlight strikes El Capitan in Yosemite, some of the sun’s photons bounce back into our eyes, and there it is. But other photons head off in different directions—some to be captured by different sets of eyes, while others land on the surface of the Merced River far below. A few of these photons penetrate the water, illuminating leaves and rocks on the submerged riverbed, while others carom off the water at the same angle at which they struck—only in the other direction, much the way a pool ball ricochets off the pool table’s cushion. When our eyes are in the path of these bounced photons, we see a reflection.
The recipe for a mirror reflection
Water reflections come in many forms, from a mirror-sharp inverted mountain peak glistening atop a still pool, to an abstract shuffle of color and texture on an undulating lake. Both have their place in creative photography.
The ideal recipe for a mirror reflection is pretty simple: still water, a sunlit subject that’s much brighter than the water’s surface (the greater the contrast the better), and a view angle that matches the angle at which the sunlight struck the water’s surface. And while a sunlit subject and shaded surface aren’t essential, the more photons striking the reflected subject, and the fewer non-reflected photons (ambient light) striking the reflective surface, the greater the contrast that helps the reflection stand out.
El Capitan Autumn Leaves, Yosemite: With El Capitan getting direct sunlight and the slow moving Merced River still shaded, I had the sharp reflection I hoped for. With just a little bit of searching, I positioned myself to include nearby floating autumn leaves.
Playing the angles
Just because you don’t see a reflection in the still water in front of you, doesn’t mean there’s no reflection—it just means you’re viewing from the wrong angle.
Understanding that reflected photons leave the water’s surface at the same angle at which they arrive—imagine the way a tennis player anticipates the ball’s bounce to get in position—allows us to position ourselves to photograph the reflection we want. For example, if the angle from your subject to the water is 40 degrees, its reflection will bounce off the water at 40 degrees in the other direction.
To locate the reflection, set your camera aside and move up/down, backward/forward, and left/right until you see find it. Then bring your camera back in and position it exactly where your eyes were when you saw the reflection.
Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite: One summer evening I found myself atop Sentinel Dome shortly after an intense rain shower had turned indentations in the granite into small, reflective pools. Seeing the potential for a spectacular sunset above Half Dome, I wanted to include the colorful clouds reflected in the pools. At eye-level the pools reflected nothing but empty sky, so I dropped my tripod almost to granite level until my lens found the angle that intercepted the red clouds just above Half Dome bouncing off the still water.
When the water’s in motion
As spectacular as a crisp, still water mirror reflection is, it’s easy to overlook the visual potential of a reflection that’s not crisp, and to forget your camera’s ability to render a soft or abstract reflection much better than your eyes view it.
While a crisp reflection can dominate an image, a splash of reflected color or shape can beautifully accent a striking primary subject. And a reflection that’s lost to the continuously varying angles of rippled or choppy water, magically appears as a soft outline when a long exposure smooths the water’s surface into a gauzy haze.
South Tufa, Mono Lake: In this sunrise image, all the ingredients were in place for a special reflection. Just as the color arrived, a light breeze stirred the lake’s surface with gentle undulations. I used a 6-stop neutral density filter to enable a multi-second exposure that completely smoothed the lake’s surface. While not a perfect mirror, the resulting reflection has a very pleasing soft, gauzy look.
Where to focus
An often misunderstood aspect of reflection photography is where to focus. Though counterintuitive to some, the focus point of a reflection is the reflection’s subject, not the surface it reflects on. This isn’t a big deal when the focus point of everything of visual significance is infinity, but it’s a very big deal when you want both your distant subject’s reflection and the nearby rocks or leaves on or in the water surface to be sharp.
Photographing a distant subject reflecting in a pool of leaves requires the same hyperfocal depth of field approach you’d use for any other close-to-distant image: small aperture and a focus point slightly beyond the closest thing that needs to be sharp.
El Capitan Reflection, Yosemite: Photographing autumn leaves atop El Capitan’s reflection required impossible depth of field to capture sharpness throughout. Even though the leaves and reflection were just a few feet in front of me, focusing for a sharp reflection would have softened the leaves. To increase my depth of field, I stopped down to f/18 and focused toward the back of the closest group of leaves, then magnified the image on my LCD to verify that all of the leaves were sharp. Though El Capitan’s reflection is slightly soft, a soft reflection is almost always more forgivable than a soft foreground.
Put simply, a polarizer cuts reflections. Most photographers use a polarizer to darken the sky, and while that can be a nice effect, the polarizer’s value is far greater than that. More than to darken the sky, polarizers remove subtle reflective sheen that washes out color on foliage and rocks.
An underappreciated polarizer use is to erase a reflection to reveal submerged rocks, leaves, and texture. After photographing a reflection with no polarizer or polarization minimized (maximum reflection), rotate the polarizer to minimize the reflection (maximum polarization) and capture submerged features hidden by the reflection. You might be surprised by how different the two images are, and how much you like both versions.
Lake Wanaka, New Zealand: But a polarizer isn’t an all or nothing tool. When photographing the solitary willow tree in Lake Wanaka, I carefully watched the reflection in my viewfinder while rotating my polarizer, stopping when I reached a polarization midpoint that included some reflection, while still revealing the mosaic of stones just beneath the lake’s surface.
Rainbows are a very special kind of reflection that happens when light is refracted (separated into its colorful wavelengths) upon entering airborne water droplets. This refracted light reflects off the back of the droplet to create a rainbow.
Because the laws of physics apply to all reflections, we know that a rainbow would actually form a full, 42 degree circle if it didn’t encounter the horizon. The center of this circle is at the anti-solar point—the point exactly opposite the sun (with your back to the sun, imagine a line from the sun through the back of your head and exiting between your eyes). That means that your shadow will always point at the rainbow’s apex. And the lower the sun, the higher the apex will be. Read more about rainbows.
Double Rainbow, Colorado River, Grand Canyon: Understanding rainbow physics allowed me to anticipate a rainbow despite a black cloud blocking the sun and drenching everyone in my raft trip group. When I saw that the sun was about to pop out of the cloud and into a large patch of blue sky, I rallied my group and pointed to where the rainbow would appear. A few minutes later their skepticism turned to ecstasy when we all started capturing images of a double rainbow bridging the Grand Canyon.
Outside the box
Reflections also provide wonderful creative opportunities. An often overlooked opportunity is the potential found in reflections that aren’t mirror-like. And, in addition to the more conventional reflection composition that’s split somewhere near the middle to give more or less equal frame real estate to the subject and its reflection, some of the most creative reflection images concentrate entirely, or almost entirely, on the reflection.
I found this El Capitan reflection at Cathedral Beach on the final afternoon of last month’s Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop. After capturing a crisp, top-to-bottom El Capitan reflection, I repositioned myself to juxtapose much of El Capitan against the faceted veneer of ice topping the river. An added bonus of water still enough for ice to form was that it allowed drifting, recently fallen autumn leaves to settle and accumulate on the river-bottom here.
Finding the best spot combine the reflection, ice, and leaves in a single frame, I dropped low enough to get a sharp reflection El Capitan’s nose in the still, iceless water close to the shore. To ensure sharpness in the ice and the reflection (as well as the distant trees and El Capitan), I stopped down to f/18 and focused midway into the ice.
Almost all of the foreground was shaded, but with bright, direct sunlight brightening the clouds and El Capitan, this scene’s dynamic range was a real factor. But my reflection-centric composition eliminated the clouds brightest granite, making the exposure much easier. Finally, I tried multiple polarizer positions until I found the one with the best combination of reflection and submerged leaves.
I was so focused on the other visual elements in this scene, I didn’t fully appreciate the bare trees across the river. But when I started processing the image and viewed it on my large monitor, I was pleased by how much they add to the wintry feel of this image.
Double your pleasure
Whether it’s a shimmering mirror, a gauzy haze of color and shape, or a colorful rainbow, reflections are a gift from Nature—camera or not. By doubling the beauty surrounding us, reflections have the power to elevate ordinary to beautiful, and beautiful to extraordinary.
For photographers, reflections provide boundless creative opportunities. When exploring outdoors with a camera, some reflections seem to jump out and grab us by the eyeballs, while others require a little more work. Either way, when properly conceived and executed, a reflection image possesses a visual synergy, conveying beauty that more than doubles the scene’s two halves.
Click any image to scroll through the gallery LARGE
Category: El Capitan, fall color, How-to, Merced River, reflection, Sony 16-35 f2.8 GM, Sony Alpha 1, Yosemite Tagged: autumn, El Capitan, fall color, ice, nature photography, reflection, Yosemite
Posted on December 5, 2022
I’m in Yosemite for a workshop so my blogging time is significantly curtailed, but let’s see what happens…
Photography is the futile attempt to render a three dimensional world in a two dimensional medium. It’s “futile” because including actual depth in a photograph is literally impossible. But impossible doesn’t mean hopeless. One of the simplest things photographers can do to elevate their images is think about their scene in three dimensions, specifically how to create the illusion of depth by composing elements at multiple distances from the camera.
Many photographers miss opportunities by simply settling for the beautiful scene before them instead of looking for ways to make it even better. A more productive approach is to start with the beautiful aspect of the scene you want to emphasize (brilliant sunset, backlit flower, towering peak, vivid rainbow, plunging waterfall, whatever), then aggressively seek an object or objects nearer or farther to complement it. Of course that’s sometimes easier said than done, but this near/middle/far mindset should be present for every capture.
Thinking foreground and background is a great start, but merely having objects at varying distances isn’t always enough—you also need to be aware of how those objects guide your viewer’s eye through the frame. We hear a lot of photographers talk about using “leading lines” to move the eye, but a line doesn’t need to be a literal (visible) line to move the eye, because viewers will subconsciously connect objects to create virtual lines.
To help me achieve virtual lines that move the eye, I think in terms of “visual weight”: a quality of an object that tugs the eye like gravity, subconsciously pulling the viewer’s gaze in its direction. These qualities include, among other things: mass, shape, brightness, contrast, color, texture, and sometimes just position in the frame. A single one of these qualities can give an object visual weight, but combining then can be even more effective.
Additionally, an object’s emotional power can boost its visual weight. For example, a small moon can pull the eye more than a larger bright cloud, and Half Dome has more visual weight than a random rock occupying the same amount of frame real estate.
With my primary subject and complementary (eye moving) objects identified, I still need to consider the linear connection between these visual components. I like diagonal relationships because of the visual tension created by moving the eye along multiple planes. While creating these virtual diagonals requires careful positioning, it’s surprising how many photographers just remain planted with their tripod as if it has grown roots—either they don’t see the benefit of repositioning, or don’t think moving is worth the effort.
Whatever the reason, it’s important for photographers to understand the power of shifting position to control foreground and background relationships: move left and your foreground shifts right relative to the background; move right and the foreground shifts left relative to the background. Either way, the closer the foreground is relative to the background, the more dramatic the shift. And contrary to what you might believe, it’s impossible to change foreground/background perspective with focal length—to change perspective, you must change position: forward/backward, left/right, up/down.
An often overlooked shift that can be quite powerful is up/down. Often I’m able to un-merge objects at different distances by simply raising my tripod or climbing atop a nearby rock. Dropping low will emphasize the closest elements, and when my frame has a large and boring empty space (such as a field of weeds or dirt) between the foreground and background, I drop lower to shrink that gap.
It’s taken me a while to figure out the best way to convey these concepts to my photo workshop students. In most workshops, I find that many of the students haven’t picked up their cameras in weeks or months (or years!), so I’ve learned give them time to get back in their creative zone before laying all this stuff on them.
For example, in my Yosemite workshops I usually start with the classic shots that probably drew them to the park in the first place, places like Tunnel View and Valley View, where there are obvious compositions that lead to easy success. At the first image review I give a little talk on composition and moving the eye (among other things), then everyone shares images and I offer my feedback.
By the second day, armed with that foundation and a little Day 1 success, they’re usually ready to challenge their creativity and attack the less heralded spots whose beauty is more subtle. This growth is obvious as soon as the Day 2 image review. I’m frequently blown away by how quickly they’ve refined their inherent creative vision well enough to see beyond the obvious and find compositions that are both beautiful and unique.
One autumn favorite creative spot is the section of the Merced River from the Pohono Bridge upstream to Fern Spring, and even a little beyond. Fern Spring alone, with its stair-step cascades and a small reflecting pool that’s covered with color each fall, has enough to occupy a creative photographer for hours. And just across the road is a trail that skirts the river and traverses a forest filled with colorful maple and dogwood trees. The entire area is chock-full of creative opportunities that include whitewater, still water reflections, and of course (lots of) fall color.
In last month’s Fall Color and Reflections workshop, once I was satisfied that everyone was comfortable with their cameras and starting to trust their creative instincts, I took them to Fern Spring. Once there, I gave them the lay of the land and encouraged them to explore. Early in the workshop my groups tend to stick close to me, but this afternoon I was encouraged to see everyone instantly scatter. That’s always a good sign that they’re starting to get in the zone—even though it means I need to chase each one down to make sure they’re doing okay.
By the time I’d finished my rounds and confirmed that each person had things under control (and fearing that my presence might actually be a distraction), I was left with about 20 minutes to do a little shooting of my own. I quickly grabbed my camera and beelined upstream to a spot that I can’t take a group to because there’s no room for more than one person, no trail to get there, and it’s frighteningly easy to fall in the river. (I’ve had a couple of minor mishaps here that required changing shoes and socks, and maybe spending a couple of hours in pants wet to my calf, but was always grateful it wasn’t worse).
Rather than a standard fall color location, this is a fallen color spot that accumulates leaves that have drifted downstream from elsewhere to float among the rocks. Each year, the quality of the floating color varies from none to lots—not enough water and the leaves don’t make it into the rocks; too much water and the leaves just wash right by to locations downstream.
I was happy to confirm that this was indeed a good year for the floating color. Being in a hurry, I could have very easily snapped off a couple of frames from where I stood and called it good. But often the difference between an image that’s merely a decently executed rendering of a beautiful scene, and an image that stands out for the (often missed) aspects of the natural world it reveals, is the time it takes to identify and connect the scene’s visual relationships. So I took just a little more time to align the elements.
In this case that meant positioning myself so the foreground rocks and leaves aligned with the middle-ground rocks and reflection, which aligned with cloud-shrouded El Capitan in the background. Words cannot express how awkward this position was, requiring a grand total of 5 splayed legs—3 tripod and 2 human. But still it wasn’t quite right—until I dropped my tripod down to about a foot above the water to make the leaves more prominent.
After setting my exposure, I focused on the third small foreground rock, then dialed my polarizer to reduce the reflection on the leaves while retaining the upstream reflection. Click.
Click any image to scroll through the gallery LARGE
Category: El Capitan, fall color, How-to, Photography, reflection, Sony 16-35 f2.8 GM, Sony Alpha 1, Yosemite Tagged: autumn, El Capitan, fall color, nature photography, reflection, Yosemite
Posted on November 28, 2022
It’s easy to be overwhelmed at the first sight of a location you’ve longed to visit for years. And since by the time you make it there you’ve likely seen so many others’ images of the scene, it’s understandable that your perception of how the scene should be photographed might be fixed. But is that really the best way to photograph it?
Valley View in Yosemite is one of those hyper-familiar scenes. El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, and Cathedral Rocks pretty much slap you in the face the instant you land at Valley View, making it easy to miss all the other great stuff here. This month’s workshop group visited Valley View twice, with each visit in completely different conditions, which got me thinking about about the number of ways there are to photograph most scenes, and how it’s easy to miss opportunities if you simply concentrate on the obvious. Most scenes, familiar or not, require scrutiny to determine where the best images are—on every visit.
On our first visit, Bridalveil Fall was just a trickle lost in deep shadow, so I focused my attention on El Capitan, opting for a vertical frame to emphasize El Cap, the beautiful clouds overhead, and the reflection. When we returned a couple of days later, Bridalveil had been recharged by a recent rain, the soft light was more even throughout the scene, and patches of fallen leaves and pine needles now floated atop the reflection. All this called for a completely different approach.
On this return visit, since I thought there was (just barely) enough water in Bridalveil to justify its inclusion, I went with a horizontal composition. It would have been easy to frame up El Capitan, Bridalveil, and Cathedral Rocks, throw in a little reflection and call it good. But (as my workshop students will confirm) I obsess about clean borders because I think they’re the easiest place for distractions to hide.
So before every click, I do a little “border patrol,” a simple reminder to deal with small distractions on my frame’s perimeter that can have a disproportionately large impact on the entire image. (I’d love to say that I coined the term in this context, but I think I got it from fellow photographer and friend Brenda Tharp—not sure where Brenda picked it up.)
To understand the importance of securing your borders, it’s important to understand that our goal as photographers is to create an image that not only invites viewers to enter, but also persuades them to stay. And the surest way to keep viewers in your image is to help them forget the world outside the frame. Lots of factors go into crafting an inviting, persuasive image—things like compositional balance, visual motion, and relationships are all essential (and topics for another day), but nothing reminds a viewer of the world outside the frame more than an object jutting in or cut off at the edge.
When an object juts in on the edge of a frame, it often feels like part of a different scene is photobombing the image. Likewise, when an object is cut off on the edge of the frame, it can feel like part of the scene is missing. Either way, it’s a subconscious and often jarring reminder of the world beyond the frame. Not only does this “rule” apply to obvious terrestrial objects like rocks and branches, it applies equally to clouds.
And there are other potential problems on the edge of an image. Simply having something with lots of visual weight—an object with enough bulk, brightness, contrast, or anything else that pulls the eye—on the edge of the frame can throw off the balance and compete with the primary subject for the viewer’s attention.
Of course it’s often (usually?) impossible to avoid cutting something off on the edge of the frame, so the next best thing is to cut it boldly rather than to simply trim it. I find that when I do this, it feels intentional and less like a mistake that I simply missed. And often, these strongly cut border objects serve as framing elements that hold the eye in the frame.
To avoid these distractions, I remind myself of “border patrol” and slowly run my eyes around the perimeter of the frame. Sometimes border patrol is easy—a simple scene with just a small handful of objects to organize, all conveniently grouped toward the center, usually requires minimal border management. But more often than not we’re dealing with complex scenes containing multiple objects scattered throughout and beyond the frame. Even when you can’t avoid cutting things off, border patrol makes those choices conscious instead of random, which is almost aways better.
As nice as the Valley View reflection was on this visit, it was sharing space with a disorganized mess of rocks, driftwood, and leaves. Organizing it all into something coherent was impossible, but I at least wanted to have prominent color in my foreground and take care to avoid objects on the edge of my frame that would pull viewers’ eyes away from the scene.
Unfortunately, as I used to tell my kids all the time (they’re grown and no longer listen to me), you can’t always have what you want. In this case, including the best foreground color also meant including an unsightly jumble of wood, rock, and pine needles in the lower right corner. But after trying a lot of different things, I decided this was the best solution—especially since I managed to find a position and focal length that gave me completely clean borders everywhere else in my frame.
I very consciously included enough of the mass in the lower right that it became something of a boundary for that corner of the image (not great, but the best solution possible). I also was very careful to keep an eye on the ever-changing clouds. The light on El Capitan that broke through just as I had my composition worked out felt like a small gift.
Posted on November 21, 2022
It feels trite to wait until Thanksgiving week to detail blessings I feel year-round, but there’s nothing like a global pandemic and all its disruptions to refocus priorities. Pre-Covid Thanksgivings were an opportunity to remind myself to appreciate my life by concentrating on the big stuff like good health, a loving family, and a career that lets me travel and (almost) never feels like work. Since Covid, I’m simply grateful for the resumption of family gatherings (large and small), unrestricted travel, and (not insignificantly) the return of the bottom half of everyone’s face—things I swear I’ll never again take for granted.
Another thing I’ve grown to appreciate about my current life, also underscored by the pandemic, is the autonomy of self-employment. While losing workshops was incredibly stressful, once I convinced myself that the lost workshops were simply postponed and not cancelled, I was able to use the downtime productively—without flapping in the ever-changing breeze of government and employer workplace rules.
I do have to admit that sometimes the idea of a 9-to-5 job with weekends and paid vacations sounds mighty good (I’m speaking in very general terms and don’t mean to offend anyone pinned to a cubicle 10 hours per day just to pay the bills—I’ve been there), but the bottom line is that I do love the flexibility of having complete control of my schedule.
When I left the 9-to-5 world to pursue this crazy passion more than 15 years ago, the vanished safety net was a great motivator—I was only as successful as the next art show (which I no longer do) or photo workshop. Weekends? Holidays? Irrelevant. Back then, the closest I got to a vacation was when my wife and I traveled to scout for a new workshop. And alarm clocks? They’re for workshop sunrises only.
But as the years go by (is it me, or is time moving faster?), I’ve come to truly value my freedom—in no small part because I’ve learned how to manage it. Today I can look at my calendar and, if nothing’s there, do whatever I want. And while that might mean cramming the things that must be done into times when others might be in their recliner watching HBO, or sunbathing at the beach, it’s 100 percent my choice and I love it.
The pandemic restrictions also helped me realize that I may have even started to take for granted my home that’s close enough to Yosemite that I can drive there and back in a day. To prevent this in the past, each time I enter the park I’ve always tried to imagine I’m viewing it for the first time, but since the pandemic I’ve been doing this with renewed focus and appreciation and it feels good.
An under-the-radar revelation when my workshops resumed was how much I missed the people. I knew I missed my workshop students, but it surprised me how much I enjoyed their return. This month’s Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections group, a wonderful blend of humor and enthusiasm that made my job easy, did nothing to dispel my enthusiasm.
Since there was a little bit of weather during most of the workshop (nice clouds, a little rain and snow), I deviated from my typical schedule, one day delaying my normal midday break when the conditions were too good to stop, and throughout the workshop adjusting my visits to other locations to account for the special conditions.
The fall color and reflections were in fact spectacular as advertised, but with the waterfalls pretty much their normal autumn dry (Bridalveil Fall was a trickle, Yosemite Falls was just a wet stain with no visible water flowing), we turned to Yosemite’s monoliths for background and reflection subjects.
Perhaps Yosemite’s most underrated granite feature is the Three Brothers. While technically not a monolith (a triolith?), the Three Brothers—Lower Brother, Middle Brother, and… (go ahead, guess)…, wrong(!), it’s Eagle Peak—is to my eye one of Yosemite’s most striking features. Nevertheless, despite its towering presence above the heart of Yosemite Valley, many Yosemite visitors never see the Three Brothers. That’s because when viewed from the east, Three Brothers looks an ordinary granite wall that just kind of blends into the scenery, and from most west-side vantage points, it’s blocked by El Capitan. And nowhere in the valley is Three Brothers clearly visible without a small effort (you can’t just pull into a vista and hop out of the car to view it.)
So it’s always fun to walk my groups out to this spot on the Merced River for their first look at Three Brothers. Even here, with the view dominated by El Capitan, I sometimes need to point upstream to the Three Brothers and let them know this will be their only opportunity to photograph it.
On this chilly morning earlier this month we started at the spot with the best El Capitan view (least obstructed by trees) and a decent Three Brothers view. I told the group that about 100 yards downstream they’d get a better Three Brothers view and reflection, as well as a decent (partially tree-obstructed) El Capitan view. I gave them plenty of time for both spots and encouraged them to take advantage of it.
On the morning of our visit, golden cottonwoods colored the reflection that stretched from riverbank to riverbank and was fringed by a sprinkling of leaves. The sky was mostly cloudy, but every once in a while a shaft of sunlight would break through and spotlight part of El Capitan or the Three Brothers for a few seconds. Even though I come here a lot, I found these conditions were too nice to resist taking a few clicks of my own.
I was looking for leaves to put in my foreground when I found this view at the downstream vantage point. Getting out here required some serious mud sloshing (thank you waterproof boots!), but thanks to an encroaching shoreline and photobombing patch of grass, still struggled to get the entire reflection. I finally decided that by elevating my tripod to the max and planting it as far into the river as my arms could reach, I could separate Lower Brother’s reflection from the shoreline and get 2/3 of the brothers—the best I could do. My polarizer I oriented to remove the reflection from the leaves, but was still able to spare enough of the Three Brothers and trees reflection to recover it in Photoshop.
Have a great Thanksgiving! (I realize this is an America-only holiday, but I strongly encourage everyone, holiday or not, to pause from time to time to appreciate their good fortune, whatever it might be.)
I’m also thankful for heated seats and noise cancelling headphones.
Click any image to scroll through the gallery LARGE
Category: fall color, reflection, Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM, Sony a7RIV, Three Brothers, Yosemite Tagged: autumn, fall color, nature photography, reflection, Three Brothers, Yosemite
Posted on November 14, 2022
One million words
January 2023 will mark the start of my (more or less weekly) Eloquent Nature blog’s 13th year. Not counting the 30 or so sporadically created Photo Tips articles, today’s post will be number 710. Doing the math, that actually turns out to be more than 1 blog post per week; at 1500 words per post (a conservative estimate), I’ve written more than 1 million words. Yikes.
According to WordPress, I have nearly 40,000 followers, but so far have resisted the urge to monetize my creation. I have nothing against money (I in fact kind of like it), but haven’t yet found a way to generate dollars from my blogging effort without detracting from the page or cheapening the visitors’ experience. (So, you’re welcome.)
But my motives aren’t entirely altruistic. Writing about creativity and inspiration each week encourages introspection that has given me a clearer understanding of myself and the creative process. And my (obsessive) desire to understand my subjects has cause me to research and ponder countless topics that might otherwise have been off my radar.
My drive to write just seemed to happen organically. I remember in first or second grade, each Monday we’d be assigned a list of spelling words (am I dating myself, or do they still do that?) to learn for the spelling test that always came on Friday. To help us learn that week’s words, the week’s homework assignment was to a create “spelling sentences,” one for each word. Instead of spelling sentences, I would write spelling stories that used every one of a the week’s words—I can’t explain why, except that I thought it was fun.
And ever since, whether it was in school or at work, I somehow became the designated writer—not necessarily because I was better at it, more because I was the most willing to do it. From there it wasn’t much of a leap for that willingness to write to become part of my job description. Eventually I became a tech writer for a large Silicon Valley tech company.
I’ve somehow managed to avoid the trap that befalls many creatives, where merely attempting to monetize their passion robs them of its joy. And I feel extremely lucky to have two creative pursuits, photography and writing, that give me great pleasure and synergistically combine to support me financially.
I’m thinking about this because I’ve decided to (slightly) change my blogging schedule, and I’ve found that a surprising number of people seem to notice when my weekly post is late, even by just a day. (Nothing abusive, more like occasional mild disappointment.) Of course it very much pleases (and surprises) me to hear that people actually look forward to my posts and actually read them.
So what’s this big change? For years my personal commitment was to post a new blog each Sunday. I’ve actually become pretty good at meeting this goal, but as my wife recently pointed out, this commitment pretty much blows up our weekend. Since we both work from home, on schedules entirely of our own making, weekends are really just a state of mind for both of us (there’s a reason we’ve each set our watches to display the day of the week)—I never considered our lost weekends a big deal. But I do have to admit that it would be nice to be a little more in sync with the rest of the world’s weekend state of mind, and have therefore made the radical decision to move my weekly blog day to, wait for it… Monday. Whoa.
(Only a writer would come up with 500 words explaining something that could have been said in 10 words: Effective this week, new blog posts will appear on Mondays.)
If you’re still with me (thank you), you’ve probably already forgotten about the image at the top of this post. It’s another product of last week’s incredibly rewarding Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections photo workshop. Rewarding because it was a great group that very much deserved the wonderful photography we enjoyed: nice clouds throughout, a couple of clearing storms, a colorful sunrise (not as common in Yosemite as you’d think), (only) one morning of bright sunlight that came just as we were in the perfect spot for it (Cook’s Meadow elm tree, if you must know), and even a little snow.
And what’s a “fall color and reflections” workshop without actual fall color and reflections? This year’s Merced River was its usual low and slow reflective self, and the fall color was just starting to peak. So yeah, a pretty good week.
The workshop’s final shoot was at one of my favorite Yosemite Valley Half Dome views, just upriver from Sentinel Bridge. I photograph here a lot. A. Lot. So much that I rarely get out my camera when I’m with a group. But I made an exception this time because I liked the clouds hovering around Half Dome, the light was just so darn nice, and I found a foreground I could work with.
Finding unique images at frequently photographed locations is usually some combination of special conditions and/or a new foreground. The conditions this evening, while not spectacular, were definitely good, and I was able to combine that with a static pool in the Merced that had accumulated a colorful assortment of leaves and pine needles. Dropping my tripod/camera to about 2 feet above the ground, I eliminated a large empty gap between the leaves and Half Dome’s reflection to make my foreground about nothing but the best stuff.
Because the group was my priority, after finding my composition, I just left the tripod/camera in place while I worked with them, returning every 5 or 10 minutes to fire off a handful of frames. The clouds around Half Dome were changing rapidly, so even though my composition didn’t change (at all), each session gave me something a little different.
The only other thing that changed with each click was my polarizer orientation. This was one of those catch-22 conundrums where dialing up the reflection with my polarizer also dialed up the reflective (color robbing) sheen on the floating leaves, and brightened the water on which the leaves floated (reducing the contrast between the leaves and their background). Dialing the reflection down to maximize the color of the leaves and blacken the water also nearly erased the Half Dome and clouds reflection.
So with each visit to my camera, I fired at least one frame with the reflection maximized, another with it minimized, and a couple somewhere in between. I found that I could in fact hit a midway point with the polarizer that spared most of the reflection beyond the leaves (Half Dome and the clouds), and reduced most of the reflection on and around the leaves.
I won’t pretend that I’ve created a brand new take on this frequently photographed view, but I am pretty pleased to have found a new variation on one of my favorite scenes.
See you next Monday…
Click any image to scroll through the gallery LARGE
Category: fall color, Half Dome, Merced River, reflection, Sony 16-35 f2.8 GM, Sony Alpha 1, Yosemite Tagged: autumn, fall color, Half Dome, nature photography, reflection, Yosemite
Posted on October 24, 2022
Imagine you have a guitar and want to make music your career. Since Eric Clapton is your favorite artist, and “Let It Rain” is your favorite song, you you work hard until you can play it perfectly. But wait—before you move on to “Layla,” let me suggest that your best path to musical fame and fortune is not to replicate the works others, no matter how great they are. (Also, there’s a reason Duane Allman isn’t answering your calls.)
Using Eric Clapton as a model for your music is fine—the more you listen to Clapton, the more your guitar playing will be influenced by his creativity and craftsmanship. But at some point you need to choose between carving your own musical path, or languishing as a cover artist.
Make the world your own
The same applies to photography. In my photo workshops I encounter many people who have travelled great distances to duplicate a photo they’ve seen online, in a book, or in a print somewhere. I certainly understand the desire to create your own version of something beautiful, and I can’t say that my portfolio doesn’t contain its share of photography clichés—but, and I can’t emphasize this too strongly, if you must photograph something exactly as it’s been photographed before, make that recreation is your starting point, not your ultimate goal.
Once you’ve captured your “icon” (that word is a cliché itself) shot, take a breath and spend a little more time with your scene. Identify what draws your eye and ways to emphasize it. Look for alternate foreground and background possibilities (move around), seek unique perspectives (move around some more), tweak your exposure variables to experiment with depth and motion. If your first inclination was to shoot horizontal, try vertical, and vice versa.
It also helps to remove your camera from the tripod and pan slowly, zooming in and out as you go until something stops you (don’t forget to return to the tripod before clicking). Even if nothing immediately jumps out, I promise that the simple act of slowing down and spending time with a scene will reveal overlooked secrets that might spur further creativity.
One of the easiest ways to stretch your style is taking lens choice off autopilot. The expansiveness of most landscape scenes almost begs for a wide angle lens that includes it all, but if your goal is to create something rather than covering what’s already been done, consider a telephoto lens for your landscapes.
I sometimes catch myself automatically reaching for a wide lens, only going to a telephoto when I see a specific composition that requires one. But I’ve learned that those times when I’m struggling to find a shot, the easiest way to reset my creative instincts in the field is often to simply view the scene through a telephoto lens, just to see what my wide-angle bias might be missing.
If telephoto vision doesn’t come naturally to you in the field, you can train your eye in the comfort of your own home by opening any wide angle image in Photoshop (or your photo editor of choice), setting the crop tool to 2/3 aspect ratio (to match what you see in your viewfinder), and see how many new compositions you can find. (I’m not suggesting that you shoot everything wide and crop later—this crop tool suggestion is simply a method to train your eye.) But whether you do it in the field, or later in Photoshop, once your eye gets used to seeing in telephoto, you’ll find virtually every scene you photograph has telephoto possibilities you never imagined were there.
Still not convinced? In addition to providing a fresh perspective, telephoto lenses offer undeniable, tangible advantages in landscape photography:
About this image
I love aspen. Not only are they beautiful trees, they’re fascinating subjects. For example, did you know that a stand of aspen is actually a single organism connected by one common, extensive root system? In other words, each trunk that we identify as an individual tree is in fact part of (and genetically identical to) every tree surrounding it.
A single aspen stand (known, appropriately enough, as a “clone” of aspen), can be tens of thousands of years old. The oldest and largest aspen clone, in Utah’s Fishlake National Forest, is the oldest, largest living organism on Earth (much older and larger than any of the far more heralded bristlecone or sequoia trees).
On last year’s visit to Lundy Canyon, I went exploring the aspen clone on the trail to Lake Helen with my Sony 12-24 GM, seeking to capture the sturdy trunks emerging from a gold-carpeted forest floor (image on the right).
This year, looking for something different, I went at this same aspen clone with my Sony 100-400 GM lens (on my Sony α1), trying first to isolate a single leaf against the colorful background. After a few unsatisfying attempts, I turned my attention to the aspen trunks, looking for a way to emphasize their stark whiteness, papery texture, and protruding knots.
It took a while, but I finally found a tree that offered the combination of separation and background I was looking for. There was nothing especially distinctive about the tree I found, but it displayed a healthy white bark, a prominent knot to anchor my frame, and was separated enough from the surrounding trees that I could get it perfectly sharp, while significantly softening its neighbors.
I started with vertical compositions, but as soon as I switched to horizontal I knew that’s how I wanted to handle this scene. With that determined, I spent the rest of my time making micro-adjustments to my position and focal length, looking for the perspective and framing that gave me the absolute minimum merging of trunks. I also experimented with a variety of focal lengths and f-stops before deciding that I liked the absolute softest background best. I shot the image I share today at nearly 400mm and f/5.6 (wide open).
While I started this post writing about creating unique images, I know I’m not the first person to photograph aspen like this. (Nor do I mean to imply that I’m the Eric Clapton of landscape photography.) But I do feel it’s important for all photographers, myself included, to constantly seek fresh takes on old subjects by pursuing the qualities that move them, and experimenting with new ways to reveal them.
Click any image to scroll through the gallery LARGE
Category: aspen, How-to, Sony 100-400 GM, Sony Alpha 1 Tagged: aspen, autumn, Eastern Sierra, fall color, Lundy Canyon, nature photography
Posted on December 5, 2021
Blue sky may be great for picnics and outdoor weddings, but it makes for lousy photography. To avoid boring blue skies, flat midday light, and extreme highlight/shadow contrast, landscape photographers usually go for the color of sunrise and sunset, and low-angle sunlight of early morning and late afternoon.
Of course the great light equalizer is clouds, which can soften harsh light and add enough texture and character to the sky, making almost any subject photographable—any time of day. Sadly, clouds are never guaranteed, especially here in California. Fortunately, all is not lost when the great clouds and light we hope for don’t manifest.
Spending a large part of my photography time in Yosemite, over the years I’ve created a mental list for when to find the “best” cloudless-sky light on Yosemite’s icons: for Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall, and Cathedral Rocks it’s late afternoon through sunset; El Capitan is good early morning, while Yosemite Falls is best a little later in the morning. And then there are seasonal considerations: Half Dome at the end of the day is good year-round, but Bridalveil Fall and Cathedral Rocks are much better from April through September; while El Capitan gets nice morning light year-round, it also gets good late light from October through February; and while the best light on Yosemite Falls happens in winter, that doesn’t usually coincide with the best water, which comes in spring (unless you’re lucky enough to get a lot of early rain, like we got this autumn).
But even when the sun’s up and the sky is blank, all is not lost. In those situations I head to locations I can photograph in full shade. Yosemite Valley’s steep walls help a lot, especially from November through February, when much of the valley never gets direct sun.
Following our sunrise shoot on the first morning of last month’s Yosemite Fall Color photo workshop, I took my group to El Capitan Bridge to photograph the first light on El Capitan. But as nice as that El Capitan first light was, on this morning I couldn’t help notice the downstream view of Cathedral Rocks across the bridge. With everything on that side in full shade, this downstream scene wasn’t as dramatic as the sun-warmed El Capitan, but the soft, shadowless light was ideal for the colorful trees reflecting in the Merced River.
After encouraging everyone in the group not to check out this downstream view, I went to work on the scene. If the sky had been more interesting, I’d have opted for my Sony 16-35 GM lens to include all of Cathedral Rocks, more trees, lots of reflection, and an ample slice of sky. But the sky this morning was both bright and blue (yuck), so I chose the Sony 24-105G lens for my Sony a7RIV to tighten the composition.
Before shooting, I actually walked up and down at the railing quite a bit, framing up both horizontal and vertical sample compositions, until I found the right balance of granite, trees, and reflection. Because the air was perfectly still, I didn’t need to worry about movement in the leaves, which enabled me to add my Breakthrough 6-stop Dark Circular Polarizer for a shutter speed long enough the smooth some of the ripples in the water.
I guess the lesson here is the importance of understanding and leveraging light. And all this talk about light inspired me to dust off my Light Photo Tips article—I’ve added the updated and clarified version below (with a gallery of images beneath it).
Photograph: “Photo” comes from phos, the Greek word for light; “graph” is from graphos, the Greek word for write. And that’s pretty much what photographers do: Write with light.
Because we have no control over the sun, nature photographers spend a lot of time hoping for “good” light and cursing “bad” light—despite the fact that there is no universal definition of “good” and “bad” light. Before embracing someone else’s good/bad light labels, let me offer that I (and most other serious photographers) could probably show you images that defy any good/bad label you’ve heard. The best definition of good light is light that allows us to do what we want to do; bad light is light that prevents us from doing what we want to do.
Studio photographers’ complete control of the light that illuminates their subjects, a true art, allows them to define and create their own “good” light. On the other hand, nature photographers, rely on sunlight and don’t have that kind of control. But knowledge is power: The better we understand light—what it is, what it does, and why/how it does it—the better we can anticipate and be present for the light we seek, and deal with the light we encounter.
Energy generated by the sun bathes Earth in continuous electromagnetic radiation, its wavelengths ranging from extremely short to extremely long (how’s that for specific?). Among the broad spectrum of electromagnetic solar wavelengths we receive are ultraviolet rays that burn our skin (10-400 nanometers), infrared waves that warm our atmosphere (700 nanometers to 1 millimeter), and the visible spectrum that we (and our cameras) use to view the world—a narrow range of wavelengths between ultraviolet and infrared with wavelengths that range between 400 and 700 nanometers.
When all visible wavelengths are present, we perceive the light as white (colorless). But when light interacts with an object, the object absorbs or scatters some of the light’s wavelengths. The amount of scattering and absorption is determined by the interfering object’s properties. For example, when light strikes a tree, characteristics of the tree determine which of its wavelengths are absorbed, and the wavelengths not absorbed are scattered. Our eyes capture these scattered wavelengths and send that information to our brains, which translates it into a color.
When light strikes a mountain lake, some is absorbed by the water, allowing us to see the water. Some light bounces back to the atmosphere to create a reflection. The light that isn’t absorbed or reflected by the water light passes through to the lakebed and we see whatever is on the lake’s bottom.
For evidence of light’s colors, look no farther than the rainbow. Because light slows when it passes through water, but shorter wavelengths slow more than longer wavelengths, water refracts (bends) light. A single beam of white light (light with an evenly distributed array of the entire visible spectrum) entering a raindrop separates and spreads into a full range of visible wavelengths that we perceive a range of colors. When this separated light strikes the back of the raindrop, some of it reflects: A rainbow!
When sunlight reaches Earth, the relatively small nitrogen and oxygen molecules that are most prevalent in our atmosphere scatter its shorter wavelengths (violet and blue) first, turning the sky overhead (the most direct path to our eyes) blue. The longer wavelengths (orange and red) don’t scatter as easily continue traveling through more atmosphere—while our midday sky is blue, these long wavelengths are coloring the sunset sky of someone to the east.
In the mountains, sunlight has passed through even less atmosphere and the sky appears even more blue than it does at sea level. On the other hand, when relatively large pollution and dust molecules are present, all the wavelengths (colors) scatter, resulting in a murky, less colorful sky (picture what happens when your toddler mixes all the paints in her watercolor set).
Most photographers (myself included) don’t like blank blue sky. Clouds are interesting, and their absence is boring. Additionally, when the sun is overhead, bright highlights and deep shadows create contrast that cameras struggle to handle. That means even a sky completely obscured by a homogeneous gray stratus layer, while nearly as boring as blue sky, is generally preferred because it reduces contrast and softens the light (more below).
Remember the blue light that scattered to color our midday sky? The longer orange and red wavelengths that didn’t scatter overhead, continued on. As the Earth rotates, eventually our location reaches the point where the sun is low and the sunlight that reaches us has had to fight its way through so much atmosphere that it’s been stripped of all blueness, leaving only its longest wavelengths to paint our sunrise/sunset sky shades of orange and red.
When I evaluate a scene for vivid sunrise/sunset color potential, I look for an opening on the horizon for the sunlight to pass through, pristine air (such as the clean air immediately after a rain) that won’t muddy the color, and clouds overhead and opposite the sun, to catch the color.
Overcast and shade
Sunny days are generally no fun for nature photographers. In full sunlight, direct light mixed with dark shadows often forces nature photographers to choose between exposing for the highlights or the shadows (or to resort to multi-image blending). So when the sun is high, I generally hope for clouds or look for shade.
Clouds diffuse the omni-directional sunlight—instead of originating from a single point, overcast light is spread evenly across the sky, filling shadows and painting the entire landscape in diffuse light. Similarly, whether caused by a single tree or a towering mountain, all shadow light is indirect. While the entire scene may be darker, the range of tones in shade very easily handled by a camera.
Flat gray sky or deep shade may appear dull and boring, but it’s usually the best light for midday photography. When skies are overcast, I can photograph all day—rather than seeking sweeping landscapes, in this light I tend to look for more intimate scenes that minimize or completely exclude the sky. And when the midday sun shines bright, I look for subjects in full shade. Overcast and shade is also the best light for blurring water because it requires longer shutter speeds.
Another option for midday light is high-key photography that uses the overexposed sky as a brilliant background. Putting a backlit subject against the bright sky, I simply meter on my subject and blow out the sky.
Whether I’m traveling to a photo shoot, or looking for something near home, my decisions are always based on getting myself to my locations when the conditions are best. For example, in Yosemite I generally prefer sunset because that’s when Yosemite Valley’s most photogenic features get late, warm light. Mt. Whitney, on the other side of the Sierra, gets its best light at sunrise, and I prefer photographing the lush redwood forests along the California coast in rain or fog. Though I plan obsessively to get myself in the right place, in the best light, sometimes Nature throws a curve, just to remind me (it seems) not to get so locked in on my subject and the general tendencies of its light that I fail to recognize the best light at that moment.
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show.
Category: Cathedral Rocks, fall color, How-to, reflection, Sony 24-105 f/4 G, Sony a7RIV, Yosemite Tagged: autumn, Cathedral Rocks, fall color, Merced River, nature photography, reflection, Yosemite
Posted on November 21, 2021
Nature photography is all about identifying and creating relationships—between subjects, or between subjects and their environment. The relationships in some of my images require meticulous planning to align a predetermined foreground subject with a celestial feature like the Milky Way or a rising/setting moon. Other relationships happen when I travel to combine a beloved location like Yosemite with natural phenomena like fresh snow or fall color. And then there are those fortuitous “stop the car!” moments, convergences of time and place that are the product of alert scrutiny and quick reaction.
This image falls into the third, “stop the car!”, category, with maybe a little of the second, location/natural-phenomena thing—because I did definitely schedule my Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections photo workshop to coincide with the moving target of Yosemite’s fall color peak, and this year it worked out perfectly. But what I couldn’t have anticipated was a historic storm dowsing Yosemite with over six inches of rain one week before the workshop, creating spring flow in the falls that just begged to be photographed with the ubiquitous autumn foliage.
My group found this scene on the workshop’s first evening. Driving toward our sunset destination, we popped out of the forest and were treated with our first views of Yosemite Falls. I’d timed our departure from our prior shoot at Tunnel View to allow sufficient time at our sunset destination, but when I saw this towering oak covered crown-to-base with golden leaves, I slowed instantly, driving slowly with one eye on the tree until it aligned with Upper Yosemite Fall. I told everyone this was a bonus stop, and every minute we spent here would be a minute we couldn’t spend at the sunset spot, but got no complaints. And a quick look at the thick clouds told me sunset color was unlikely this evening anyway.
There was also a stand of yellow cottonwoods just left of this tree, providing even more compositional possibilities. Feeling a little less rushed, I encouraged everyone to move around, reminding them that they had complete control of the trees relationship with the fall. A couple of people wandered up the boardwalk over the meadow to the river, but most of the group stayed right on the sidewalk and worked on some version of what you see here.
I grabbed my tripod and Sony a7RIV with the Sony 24-105 (I have two a7RIVs and keep each loaded with one of my two most frequently used lenses, the aforementioned 24-105 and the Sony 16-35 GM) and started with a wider composition that framed Upper Yosemite Fall with the colorful cottonwoods and oak. But going that wide meant more sky and meadow than I wanted, so I soon whittled my composition down to just the oak and waterfall. My first frames had the fall to the left of the tree, but later I moved a little bit up the road for some frames with their positions reversed. This is one of the earlier ones.
For this shot I was careful to position myself so the fall dropped into a notch in the tree’s crown, moving back enough to ensure separation between the two. I also made sure the tree didn’t jut into the sky—I find it jarring when a foreground subject is cut by the horizon and try to avoid it when possible. Other compositional considerations were how much sky and meadow to include. While I liked the brooding clouds, I decided that they didn’t offer enough character to merit a lot of frame real estate. Similarly, I thought the texture in the meadow was fine (it wasn’t a negative), but didn’t think it deserved any more of my frame than the sky. So I composed to minimize the sky and meadow, using them as more of a frame for the top and bottom of the scene. And finally, I took care to keep the brilliant yellow tree on the distant right away from the edge of my frame. With low contrast and an entire scene at infinity for my focal length and f-stop, exposure and focus were easy.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Category: Sony 24-105 f/4 G, Sony a7RIV, Yosemite, Yosemite Falls Tagged: autumn, fall color, nature photography, Upper Yosemite Fall, Yosemite, Yosemite Falls
Posted on November 14, 2021
Let’s have a show of hands: How many of you have been advised at some point in the course of your photographic journey to “tell a story with your images”? Okay, now how many of you actually know what that means? That’s what I thought. As good as the “tell a story” advice is (it is indeed), many photographers, with the best of intentions, parrot the advice simply because it sounded good when they heard it. But when pressed for details, are unable to elaborate.
Telling a story with a photo is probably easier when photographers can physically stage subjects and light to suit their objective (an art in itself), or in journalistic photography intended to distill the the essence of an instant by connecting it to an easily inferred chronology: a homeless man feeding his dog, dead fish floating in the shadow of belching smokestacks, or a wide-receiver spiking a football in the end zone.
This isn’t to say that we landscape photographers can’t tell stories with our images, or that we shouldn’t try. Nor does it mean that any one photographic form is inherently more or less creative than another. It just means that the rules, objectives, advantages, and limitations differ from form to form. Nevertheless, simply advising a landscape photographer to tell a story with her images is kind of like a baseball coach telling a pitcher to throw strikes, or a teacher instructing a student to spell better. Okay, fine—now what?
Finding the narrative
First, let’s agree on a definition of “story.” A quick dictionary check reveals that a story is “a narrative, either true or fictitious … designed to interest, amuse, or instruct….” Okay, that works.
The narrative part is motion. Your pictures need it. Narrative motion starts with a connection that grabs a viewers, pulling them into the frame, then compelling them to stay with visual motion that moves their eyes through the frame, providing a path to follow and/or a place to land. Put simply, the viewer needs to know what they’re supposed to do in the image.
While narrative motion happens organically in media consumed over time, such as a novel (in the mind’s eye), movie, or video, it can only be implied in a still photograph. And unlike the staged or journalistic photography mentioned above, landscape photographers are tasked with reproducing the world as we find it, in a static medium—another straitjacket on our narrative options. But without some form of narrative motion, we’re at a dead end story-wise. What’s a photographer to do?
Photography as art
Every art form succeeds more for what happens in its consumer’s mind than for what it delivers to the consumer’s senses. Again: Every art form succeeds more for what happens in its consumer’s mind than for what it delivers to the consumer’s senses. A song that doesn’t evoke emotion, or a novel that doesn’t paint mental pictures, may entertain but is soon forgotten.
Just as readers of fiction unconsciously fill-in the visual blanks with a mental visualization of a scene on the page, viewers of a landscape image will fill-in the narrative blanks with the personal stories the image inspires. In other words, an image should offer a place for the viewer’s own story to unfold.
Of course the story we’re creating isn’t a literal, “Once upon a time” or (with all due respect to Snoopy) “It was a dark and stormy night” story. Instead, the image we make must connect with our viewers’ stories to touch an aspect of their world: revive a fond memory, provide fresh insight into a familiar subject, inspire vicarious travel, to name just a few possible connections. If we offer images that tap these connections, we’ve given our image’s viewers a reason to enter, a reason to stay, and a reason to return. And most important, we’ve given them a catalyst for their internal narrative. Bingo.
Shoot what you love (not what you think your audience will love)
Think about your favorite novels. While they might be quite different, I suspect one common denominator is a protagonist with whom you relate. I’m not suggesting that immediately upon finishing that book you hopped on a raft down the Mississippi River, or ran downtown to have a dragon tattooed on your back, but in some way you likely found some personal connection to Huck Finn or Lisbeth Salander that kept you engaged. And the better that connection, the faster the pages turned.
And so it is with photography: Our viewers are looking for a connection, a sense that there’s a piece of the photographer in the frame. Because we can’t possibly know what personal strings our images might tug in others, and because those strings will vary from viewer to viewer, our best opportunity for igniting their story comes when we share our own relationship with a scene and let viewers find their own connection.
What? Didn’t I just say that it’s the viewer’s story we’re after? Well, yes—but really what needs to happen is the viewers’ sense of connection between our story and theirs. If you focus on photographing the scenes that most move you, those scenes (large or small) that might prompt you to nudge a loved-one and say, “Oooh, look at that!,” the more you’ll see and the greater your chance of establishing each viewer’s feeling of connection. Whether you’re moved by towering mountains, crashing surf, delicate wildflowers, or prickly cactus, that’s where you’ll find your best images.
Where did you get those shoes?
The cool thing is that your viewer doesn’t need to understand your story; she just needs to be confident that there is indeed a story. That’s usually accomplished by avoiding cliché and offering something fresh (I know, easier said than done).
For some reason this makes me think of Steely Dan lyrics, which rarely make sense to me, but were always fresh and I never for a second doubted that they did indeed (somehow) make sense to Donald Fagen. In other words, rather than becoming a distraction, Steely Dan’s lyrics were a source of intrigue that pulled me in and held me. So when I hear:
I stepped up on the platform
The man gave me the news
He said, You must be joking son
Where did you get those shoes?
I’m not bewildered, I’m intrigued.
These lyrics aren’t trying to tap my truth, they simply reflect Donald Fagen’s and Walter Becker’s truth (whatever that might be).
Even though I usually have no idea what Steely Dan is talking about, the vivid mental picture their lyrics conjure (which may be entirely different, though no more or less valid, than your or their mental picture) allows me to feel a connection. You, on the other hand, may feel absolutely nothing listening to “Pretzel Logic,” while “I Want To Put On My My My My My Boogie Shoes” gives you goosebumps for KC and the Sunshine Band. Different strokes….
Returning from the abstract to put all this into photographic terms, the more your images are true to the world as it resonates with you, and the less you pander to what you think others want to see, the greater the chance your viewer’s story will connect with yours.
About this image
One of the things I’ve tried to do during the pandemic is make my workshop groups a little smaller, dropping down from 12 participants plus me and the photographer assisting me, to more like 8-10 participants plus me and my second photographer. Not great for my bottom line, but safer and easier to manage in this time of social distancing.
In my Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections photo workshop that wrapped up a little more than a week ago, not only did I enroll fewer students, I also had a couple of last minute cancellations that I chose not to fill after my assistant photographer had to bail too. The result was a group of 6 photographers plus me, exactly half my normal group size.
One big advantage of this downsized group was that I was able to take them to some views that I think are too small for a normal-size group—I show them where these spots are so they can go on their own, but that means I don’t get to visit.
One of these locations is the view of El Capitan in today’s image. I’ve always liked this spot for the way the Merced River guides the eye right to El Capitan, and for the trees that frame the scene. The result is a clear path for the viewer’s eye to follow, and an obvious destination for they eye to land.
This scene is nice in any season, but I find it especially nice in autumn, when the nearby dogwood flashes its extreme red, and splashes of yellow accent the towering evergreens upstream. We hit the jackpot on this visit, with the dogwood at its crimson best, and the late afternoon light warming the granite and reflecting gold in the river.
The view here is elevated about 15 (very) vertical feet above the river. Armed with my Sony a7RIV and 24-105 G lens, I planted my tripod right on the edge to eliminate a few foreground distractions, and used the dogwood to frame the right side of my scene, moving as far to the right as I could with merging the red leaves with El Capitan. Though the rich blue sky nicely complemented the sunlit granite, and I was grateful for a few wisps of clouds, I wasn’t particularly excited about the sky and decided to put the top of my frame just a little above El Capitan.
With my composition set up, I shot several frames, some with my polarizer oriented for maximum reflection, some for minimum reflections. When it was time to review and process my images from this shoot, I chose this one with the reflection dialed down because the fall color is more vivid (less affected by glare), and the subdued El Capitan reflection was bright enough, and stood out better against the polarizer-blackened water.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.