Posted on June 21, 2020
In virtually all aspects of my life, “think fast” is rarely my default response. Rather, given a choice, I prefer evaluation and analysis to instant reaction. This think-first mindset might also explain why my favorite sport is baseball (which many consider “too slow”), and why I prefer chess and Scrabble to video games (the last video game I played was Pong). So I guess it should be no surprise that, as a landscape photographer, my subjects don’t move. I’m much happier working a scene comfortable in the knowledge that when I’m finally ready, it will still be there.
But nature isn’t truly static, and sometimes I don’t have the luxury of analysis. A few years ago while helping Don Smith with his summer Big Sur workshop, we’d spent most of an afternoon and evening working in the fog (it was billed as a fog workshop). Driving home after a gray sunset, the fog showed no signs of clearing so Don and scrapped the group’s night shoot plans. But climbing toward Hurricane Point, the car suddenly broke through the fog and the world completely changed. We were above the clouds, whose undulating tops seemed to stretch to the horizon where a fading stripe of orange was the only evidence of the retreating day. In the darkening blue sky, the stars had just started to pop into view, with more seeming to appear with every passing second.
Change of plans: Screeching to a halt at the Hurricane Point vista, everyone piled out and raced to set up their gear. As much as I like to take my time when I arrive at a scene, something told me to hurry and once I got to the edge of the overlook and peered over, I saw why. The fog that looked so static and serene from a distance was in fact a roiling soup charging up the steep slope. With a few advance fragments of cloud scooting across my view, I frantically loaded my camera onto my tripod. To save time, I stuck with the lens that was already mounted on my body, pointed in the direction of the Big Dipper, and quickly focused on the stars. This was pre-mirrorless, so without the pre-capture histogram, I just guessed on the exposure. Fortunately my focus and exposure choices were right-on because this was the only shot I got before that foreground fog bank engulfed the world in clouds—score one for instant reaction.
The value of some images can transcend their aesthetic appeal—sometimes they offer lessons as well. For me, this is one of those images. In my workshops I see photographers who are deliberate like me, and others who are constantly in motion. What I’ve come to realize is, wherever we might naturally fall on the deliberate<->reactive continuum, it benefits our photography to sometimes shake things up and come at a scene from a different place than we usually do. I learned from this night’s experience, and others like it, to trust my instincts more. I know I’ll never not be one to take time to pause and consider a scene because that’s how I’m wired. But now when I arrive at a scene, I try to start with the more instinctive shot—even if that turns out not to be exactly the image I end up with, that alternate perspective often sends me down a completely different path than I’d have otherwise taken.
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Posted on December 15, 2019
On Wednesday I wrote about featuring the sky in my images, and how my love for all things astronomical and meteorological reflects in my photography. On the other hand…
As much as I love photographing the moon, stars, rainbows, and lightning to my images, there are many photo-worthy subjects right here on terra firma. And usually the best way to feature them is to minimize or exclude the sky. Which is why many of my favorite images have little or no sky. To sky, or not to sky? That really comes down to playing the hand I’m dealt, and understanding that there’s no law that says you need to include the sky in your image.
One thing I won’t do is include a boring sky, a sky that’s nothing but a homogenous, horizon-to-horizon sheet of blue or gray. While everyone who’s not a vampire loves being outside on a sunny day, given a choice between photographing a sky that’s all blue or all gray, I actually prefer gray because clouds cast diffuse light that cuts contrast, creating a natural softbox that’s ideal for photographing pretty much anything in the landscape.
On the other hand, when there’s sunlight on the landscape, I either search for subjects in full shade, or try to find creative ways to use the sunlight.
One popular sunlight technique (some would argue too popular) is a sunstar. Not only can you create a sunstar when the sun is on the horizon, it can also be achieved by positioning yourself in the shade of any terrestrial object, such as a nearby tree or rock, and letting the sun move into your frame.
The smaller your aperture, the sharper, more clearly defined the sunstar will be. I recommend f/16 or smaller, and usually go with f/18 or f/20. Sunstar quality also varies from lens to lens, with higher quality wide lenses generally delivering the best results.
Another sunlight solution is overexposing a large part of the frame to create a high-key image with darker subjects that standout against washed out or completely white surroundings. For these images, I usually look for something backlit, such as a flower or leaves, and position myself so the leaf or flower is against the bright sky. I then meter on my darker, backlit subject and push the exposure until the sky is severely or completely overexposed, creating a brilliant canvas for my subject.
When I find myself in a forested area with dark shade punctuated with splashes of light, I often look for a primary subject in direct light, and juxtapose it against a darker background. Sometimes some of those splashes of light poke through, creating a jeweled effect in the background.
Searching for shade
As fun as it is to try to find ways to work the sun into my images, probably my favorite boring sky solution is to work on subjects in full shade. Everything is in the same light, making exposure easy, colors saturate, and providing the opportunity to feature any subject that catches my eye. While images that use direct sunlight can be quite dramatic, images in overcast or shade often have a more soothing feel.
I almost always wait until I can find water in shade or overcast before photographing it. Not only does shade subdue contrast, it gives me more flexibility to control the amount of motion blur in the water.
About this image
I returned Wednesday from my Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop. While the moon received top billing in this workshop, there are a lot of reasons to love photographing Yosemite in winter. This week’s group hit most of them: snow (though none fell during the workshop), fog, beautiful clouds, and even enough water in Yosemite Falls to make it worth photographing.
Despite the great conditions, I had to make a few on-the-fly adjustments, as is often the case in Yosemite’s fickle winter. For example, when Tuesday’s forecast called for cloudy skies that threatened to wipe out the evening’s sunset moonrise plan, I decided to take advantage of the clouds to photograph scenes that are normally sunlit scenes (while secretly wishing for clear sky so the moon would come out).
When the clouds failed to materialize as promised, I adjusted my plans again and took the group to Valley View. With its riverside views and reflections of El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall, Valley View is one of the most photographed scenes in Yosemite. Even better, in winter Valley View never gets sunlight, making a good spot for blue sky photography.
With El Capitan in full sun and the Merced River in shade, the El Cap reflection was spectacular, but I was drawn more to the low fog hovering in shady Bridalveil Meadow. While some of the group concentrated on the El Capitan view, I worked with a few just upstream from the parking lot, where the view of Bridalveil Fall was best—and the reflection wasn’t too shabby either.
I moved along the riverbank until I could juxtapose the diagonal tree trunk against Bridalveil Fall, and quickly settled on this composition because it completely excluded the very boring sky. The reflection became an essential element of this composition, especially for the way it forms the bottom half of V with the diagonal trunk.
Once I was satisfied with my composition, I played with a range of shutter speeds for a variety of water blur effects, both in the fall and in the bubbles drifting by atop the river. I also had to monitor the ebb and flow of the fog and time my exposures for when it was high enough to stand out, but not so high that it obscured the row of trees beneath the fall.
Posted on January 17, 2017
A regrettable reality of my life is that the best conditions for photography are usually the absolute worst conditions to be outside. Fortunately, I’ve been hardened by decades of San Francisco Giants games at Candlestick Park, the coldest place on Earth. As a photographer, I continue to embrace my mantra for warmth at the ‘Stick: Too much is always better than not enough.
For me it’s all about layers: silk, wool, down, and Gore-Tex. I start winter mornings with wool socks, waterproof boots, silk long-johns (if it’s extremely cold), flannel lined jeans, wool long-sleeve undershirt, wool Pendleton or lined cotton shirt, vest, down jacket, gloves (I have a variety from thin to thick), neck gaiter, and a hat or band that covers my ears. I add and remove layers as conditions dictate, and don’t always wear everything, but I’m never too far from this stuff in winter. And if it’s raining or snowing, I add waterproof pants, a waterproof parka, waterproof boots, and a wide-brim waterproof hat to keep myself dry, freeing my umbrella to keep my gear dry while shooting.
The basic clothes I pack in my suitcase before each trip, but the gloves/hats/umbrella etc. are in a gym bag that is always in my car. In the car I also keep an extra pair of shoes and socks, towel, and garbage bag (to cover my camera when it’s on the tripod). With all this paraphernalia, I’m nice and toasty in whatever extremes the winter throws at me, and I can never use weather as an excuse for missing a shot.
About this image
On a very chilly morning in late October, my workshop group had wrapped up the sunrise shoot and was heading to breakfast when we passed Leidig Meadow beneath a thin veneer of fog. Knowing that the group was cold and hungry, I kept going, but in the cafeteria parking I polled everyone and found that while about half were ready for warmth and a hot breakfast, the other half wanted to return to photograph the meadow. They got no argument from me. In normal conditions this wouldn’t have been possible because Yosemite’s primarily one-way traffic flow would have required a 20-minute loop to return to this spot, and the fog would likely have been long gone. But this year, extensive roadwork had caused the National Park Service to make every open road two-way, and we were back at Leidig Meadow in two minutes.
Yosemite’s radiation fog can come and go in seconds (I crossed my fingers that it hadn’t dissipated in the five minutes since our original drive-by), so as soon as we parked the group grabbed their gear and scattered. Wanting a foreground that was more than just meadow grass, I ran for this downed tree that I’d seen on an earlier visit.
We only got about five minutes of quality shooting in before the fog was gone. All of my shots were some variation on this composition using the log anchoring the bottom of scene, and Half Dome framed by the nearby trees on the left and distant yellow cottonwoods on the right. To maximize my focal length and make Half Dome larger, I moved back as far as I could without losing my framing. The horizontal trunk was far enough away that I was able to achieve depth of field all the way to infinity when I focused there.
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Posted on January 7, 2017
Are you insane?
Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Hmmm. For some reason this makes me think of the thousands of aspiring landscape photographers with portfolios brimming with beautiful images that they can’t sell.
Despite a great eye for composition, all the latest gear, insider knowledge of the best locations, and virtual guru status with Photoshop, somehow they haven’t managed to separate themselves from the large pack of other really good photographers. Their solution to anonymity is more: more locations, more equipment, more software. (Perhaps you even know such a photographer.) Compounding the problem, many photographers have become so mesmerized by technology that they turn over control of the most important aspects of their craft to their camera, completely discounting the most powerful tool at their disposal, the one on top of their shoulders.
Knowledge vs. understanding
Just as a new camera won’t make you a better photographer, neither will simply upgrading your knowledge of the latest gear, or accumulating . Knowledge is nothing more than information ingested and regurgitated. On the other hand, understanding is fundamental insight into the workings of a process. While knowledge might enable you to impress table-mates at a dinner party, understanding gives you the ability to use information to create new knowledge—solve problems.
Many photographers invest far too much energy accumulating knowledge, and far too little energy understanding what they just learned. For example, I see many photographers relying on a formula for determining the shutter speed that freezes star motion at a given focal length, oblivious to the fact that this formula doesn’t consider other equally important variables such as display size and the direction the camera is pointing (yes, that’s important). Similarly, simply knowing that a longer shutter speed, bigger aperture, or higher ISO means more light is of limited value if that knowledge doesn’t translate into an understanding of how to manage light, motion, and depth with your camera.
Pretty much anyone can pick up a camera, put it in auto exposure mode, and compose a nice image. While the automatic modes in most cameras “properly” (conventionally) expose most scenes, they struggle in the limited light, extreme dynamic range, and harsh conditions that artistic nature photographers seek. Worse than that, relying on the automatic exposure modes eliminates a photographer’s best opportunity for creativity—the ability to control a an image’s depth, motion, and light.
Too many aspiring photographers are stuck creatively because their unwavering faith in technology leaves them with a critical deficiency in two fundamental, related photographic principles:
Books and internet resources are a great place to start acquiring these principles, but the knowledge you gain there won’t turn to understanding until you get out with your camera and apply them. When these principles become second nature, you’ll be amazed at what you’ll be able to accomplish with your photography.
Insanity is in the mind of the beholder
If landscape photography already gives you everything you want, by all means continue doing what you’re doing. But if you’re having a hard time achieving a creative goal, I suggest that the solution is likely not doing more of what you’re already doing. Instead, start by reevaluating your comprehension of fundamental photographic principles that you might not have thought about for years. You’ll know you’re there when you have complete control of the light, motion, and depth for every scene you encounter, know how to get the result you want, or understand why it’s simply not possible.
Do I really think you’re insane for doing otherwise? Of course not. But I do think you’ll feel a little more sane if you learn to take more control of your camera.
About this image
The image at the top of the post is from a visit to Yosemite this past December. I’d guided my workshop group here for the rise of a nearly full moon, crossing my fingers that clouds wouldn’t obscure our view. The clouds exited just in the nick of time for us to enjoy a beautiful moonrise into the indigo twilight. I started with fairly tight compositions when the moon was close to Half Dome, but in the still, chilled air shortly after sunset, a thin radiation fog formed above Leidig Meadow and I started looking for a wider composition that would add the meadow to the moon and Half Dome.
Before thinking about the scene’s light, depth, and motion variables, I spent a lot of time just assembling the elements of my composition. I decided to frame the scene with Half Dome on the left and Sentinel Fall on the right, positioning myself so a group of tall foreground evergreens, mirrored by towering Sentinel Rock in the background, anchored the center of my frame. I knew that would require a wide composition that would render the moon very small, but I moved back as far as I could to allow the longest possible focal length to avoid shrinking the moon to pinhole size.
By far my biggest exposure concern was dynamic range—the moon is daylight bright, while the rest of my scene was deeply shaded. Normally I trust my histogram in these high dynamic range situations, but in this case the moon was so small that I knew it wouldn’t register. Instead I used my Sony a7RII’s pre-capture “zebra” highlight alert that indicates the parts of my scene that are overexposed.
At just a little wider than 24mm, with no significant detail in my immediate foreground, I stopped down to a fairly diffraction safe f/9. I’m always at ISO 100 unless I can’t achieve the amount of light I want at my ideal aperture and shutter speed, and in this case ISO 100 worked just fine. With my f-stop and ISO set, I increased my shutter speed slowly, checking the moon after each 1/3-stop click for the zebras (if you don’t shoot mirrorless, you can set blinking highlights and check the moon for “blinkies” when you review the image on your LCD). Since I know my camera well enough to know that I could push my exposure at least a full stop beyond the point where the zebras appeared, then recover the highlights in the Lightroom raw processor.
This image looked quite dark on my LCD, and the histogram was way to the left, but after loading it onto my computer and pulling the Lightroom Shadows slider to the right, I recovered an unbelievable amount of clean (low noise) detail, even in the darkest shadows. I just continue to be blown away by the dynamic range of this a7R Mark 2 sensor that enables me to capture scenes I’d never imagined possible in my previous (Canon) life. In this case I probably could have brightened the image further in processing, but I wanted a more moody, twilight feel.
Posted on August 29, 2011
On the first night of Don Smith’s Big Sur workshop last week, Don and I gathered our group at (aptly named) Hurricane Point above Bixby Bridge for a round of night photography. While the stars were already out in force as we set up, the last light of day persevered on the western horizon, softly illuminating the sea of fog blanketing the Pacific. The fog, which in California summers lurks offshore by day, was making its nightly assault on the coast. On this evening, under the cover of darkness, it was in full-out attack mode. Rushing to determine the exposure settings for our group of inexperienced night photographers, I managed to fire off three frames before the charging fog engulfed us and we aborted the mission.
I wasn’t sure I’d captured anything of value in my haste until I returned home and found this. It’s a 25-second, 400 ISO exposure that underscores the camera’s ability to accumulate enough light to reveal color beyond the ability of the human eye/brain. In other words, this is pretty much the way my camera saw it: My processing was limited to a slight cooling of the light temperature in the Lightroom raw processor, fairly mild noise reduction, a small wiggle in Photoshop Curves for contrast, and a little dodging to bring out more detail in the fog. Each time I look at this image it revives some of the emotion of being there.