My camera is a time machine

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Pastoral, Sierra Foothills

Sunset Pastoral, Sierra Foothills (2015)
Sony a7R
Tamron 150-600 (Canon-mount with Metabones IV adapter)
.6 seconds
ISO 100

Photographers frequently complain about what their camera can’t do, and take for granted the things it does well. A lot of this is a frustration with the inability to duplicate the world the way we see it. But honestly, what fun is that? My favorite photographs are those that show me something I might have overlooked or were not visible to my eye to my eye at all. As someone who tries to photograph a world untouched by the hand of Man, I particularly love the camera’s ability to return me to simpler times, reducing a scene to its essence by subtracting reminders of human incursion.

Gary Hart Photography: Tequila Sunset, Sierra Foothills, California

Tequila Sunset, Sierra Foothills, California (2005)

I recently returned to this small stand of oak trees huddled atop a hill in the low foothills east of Sacramento. Since I first photographed this scene over ten years ago, the peaceful country road “my” hill overlooks has evolved into a bustling artery for oblivious commuters. More recently, fencing has sprung up and an arcing dirt road has been carved into the hillside, a harbinger I fear of an impending subdivision. They’re everywhere up here now, these cookie-cutter developments with meaningless, corporate-crafted street names (Aspen Meadows Drive, Teakwood Court), devouring this once bucolic setting like a stage-4 cancer.

Despite the distractions, my camera’s “limited” vision instantly returns me to more peaceful times. Gone in a shutter-click are the highway’s roar and choking exhaust, while the encroaching suburbs are banished by the narrow view of a telephoto lens. And that scar of a road? It disappears in the shadows of the camera’s narrow dynamic range.

Photo workshop schedule

Celebrating the camera’s “limited” vision

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Just messing around

Gary Hart Photography: Big Sun, Sierra Foothills, California

Big Sun, Sierra Foothills, California
Sony a6300
Tamron 150-600 (Canon-mount with Metabones IV adapter)
1/4000 second
ISO 100

A few days ago my brother and I made a trip up into the foothills to photograph the new moon hanging on the horizon shortly after sunset. With several fires burning in Northern California, I realized that if the wind cooperated, we’d also have a chance to photograph an orange ball of setting sun before the moon appeared. Not only is this a beautiful sight, the dulled sun compresses the dynamic range to a much more manageable level—definitely worth giving it a shot.

Because the horizon for my planned moonset location was too high for the sunset shoot, I picked a starting spot that would allow me to shoot the sun against distant oaks when it was much lower in the sky. The plan was to shoot the sunset, then make the ten-minute drive to my moon location. Unfortunately, the conditions didn’t cooperate as the smoke was gone and the sun the shined bright all the way down to the horizon. But since we were there, we decided to make the best of the situation.

Since my goal was a big sun, I went all-in with my 1.5 crop Sony a6300 and Tamron 150-600 lens. Shooting directly into the brilliant sun, while not something I’d recommend, is decidedly easier with a mirrorless camera because I don’t need to worry about frying my corneas with my telephoto lens. I still had to be careful to only look at the sun through my camera, but found that I could see well enough to compose if I darkened enough.

I had no illusions about turning the sun yellow while still being able to see anything else in the scene, but I at least wanted to darken the sky enough for the bright sun to stand out. That would give me, I hoped, a round sun with trees silhouetted against the sky.

Zooming my lens all the way out to 600mm (900mm full-frame equivalent), I started playing with compositions as the sun approached the horizon. Focus was a piece of cake with the a6300’s focus peaking—I just dialed my focus ring to maximized the peaking highlights, and clicked.

In-camera my images were extremely dark except for the hopelessly blown sun, but I could see that I’d captured enough detail to give me hope for recovering it later. Opening the images in Lightroom later, I was thrilled at how much I could pull out of the darkness—not just the detail in the trees, but the color in the sky. Why all the orange? That’s simply a product of the significant underexposure I needed to keep the sun round. In fact, sticking with the white balance my camera’s auto white-balance chose, I actually ended up desaturating the scene a little. Noise reduction and a slight crop for framing was about all the processing I did for this image.

When the sun disappeared we packed up and hightailed it to our moonset destination. That shoot worked out wonderfully, but that’s a story for another day….

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A Sierra Foothills Gallery

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Just a dash of moon…

Gary Hart Photography: Tree and Crescent, Sierra Foothills, California

Tree and Crescent, Sierra Foothills, California

A new moon debuts this week, and with it some nice opportunities for photographers to accent favorite scenes with a delicate crescent. This morning the diminishing vestiges of the waning moon rose in the east, a couple of hours before sunrise (did you see it?); tomorrow morning, what remains of the “old” moon will be too thin and close to the sun to be seen at all. Thursday night’s sky will be moonless, as the Earth/Moon/Sun alignment puts the moon’s dark side facing us. On Friday the (rejuvenated) moon reappears, this time in the evening twilight, a three percent crescent trailing the sun to the western horizon.

Because it frustrates me no end to see a graceful slice of moon suspended above the landscape when I’m on my way to somewhere else, I now put these lunar milestones in my calendar. When my schedule permits, I’ll schedule a trip around the sunrise or sunset crescent moon, but often I’ll just head up to the foothills east of town.

It helps to know that the more of the moon that’s illuminated, the farther in the sky from the sun it appears (a full moon is exactly opposite the sun, rising at sunset and setting at sunrise). A crescent moon is always in close proximity to the sun, hanging in the brightest part of the post-sunset/pre-sunrise sky, above a (relatively) dark landscape. A camera’s limited dynamic range makes it impossible to photograph a crescent moon against twilight color and landscape detail in a single frame. In these scenes, subtle subjects and fine detail are lost in the dark foreground. Instead, look for strong shapes to silhouette against the colorful twilight sky, or bodies of water that reflect the sky.

For my foothill forays I’ve identified a number of hilltop oaks that stand out against the sky. The best ones for a moon are those that are far enough from my vantage point to allow me to magnify the moon with a telephoto. But even without a telephoto, the moon holds so much “emotional weight” (I’ll need to write about that sometime) that even the tiniest sliver can carry a large portion of the frame.

The tree in the image at the top of this post stands on a ridge south of El Dorado Hills. I come here often, and have a variety of images from this spot that please me (one appeared on the cover of Sierra Heritage magazine a few years ago). When I arrived that evening I feared that the clouds would shut me out, but they turned out to be thin enough to let the moon shine through as the sky darkened. Just a couple of minutes later the thicker clouds rose to obscure the moon, but as they did the pink deepened to a rich crimson and I just kept shooting.

Learn more on my Crescent moon page.

Red Sky, Oak at sunset, Sierra Foothills

Red Sky, Oak at Sunset, Sierra Foothills  ::  This is one of my last captures that evening, about eight minutes later than the  crescent at the top of the post. To emphasize the fiery red, I slightly underexposed this frame.

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