Posted on June 6, 2021
Cool as they can be, sunstars (AKA, diffraction spikes, sunbursts, or starbursts) border on gimmicky and cliché. So why do I shoot them? Because sometimes it’s the best solution when the sun intrudes on the scene you came to photograph. In other words, as much as I like dramatic clouds, vivid color, of soft light, I’d rather have a sunstar than a blank blue sky—kind of a lemonade-from-lemons approach.
Sunstars do look kind of cool, but maybe another reason they work is the universal resonance that comes with witnessing the sun kiss the horizon—I mean, who doesn’t have a comforting memory of watching from a special location as the sun begins or ends its daily journey?
Unfortunately, doing justice to these moments in a photograph is difficult: Including the sun in your frame introduces lens flare and extreme (often unmanageable) contrast, and creates an unattractive eye magnet that can overpower the rest of the scene. But while a sunstar doesn’t capture the literal experience of watching the sun’s arrival or departure, it can do a pretty good job of conveying the power of the moment.
A sunstar is created when sunlight diffracts (spreads) as it passes the intersection points of a lens diaphragm’s overlapping aperture blades. The smaller the opening, the steeper the angle between the blades, the more the light bends, and the more pronounced the sunstar spikes. The more diaphragm blades, the more spikes in the sunstar (this is a simplification of what actually happens, but you get the idea).
The good news is, despite the physical drawbacks mentioned earlier, creating a sunstar is relatively straightforward. Here’s a quick recipe:
About this image
This scene from last month’s Grand Canyon raft trip is a perfect example of why I sometimes resort to creating a sunstar—and I nearly missed it because I wasn’t ready. On a raft trip like this, no matter how much we try to time our stops with the best light, other factors often dictate the schedule.
We were fortunate to score a campsite directly across the Colorado River from the confluence with the Little Colorado River. We set up camp in the early afternoon and motored across the river as soon as we saw the other trips clear out. So we had the Little Colorado to ourselves, but with the sun still high in the cloudless sky, I resigned myself to having to wait for the sun to disappear behind the canyon walls before breaking out the camera gear. In the meantime we had a blast navigating a natural waterslide and cooling off in pools just warm enough to be refreshing.
When the non-photographers shuttled back to camp, the photographers remained at the Little Colorado to wait for the shade. While waiting I pulled out my Sony a7RIV put a 6-stop neutral density filter on my Sony 24-105 G, and wandered up and down the river looking for whitewater to play with. This was mostly just an exercise to kill time and familiarize myself with compositions for later, but was having fun I kind of lost track of time.
Not having really thought about the path the sun would take, and whether a sunstar would be an option, I looked up and saw that the sun was about to disappear behind a peak directly downstream and suddenly recognized a perfect sunstar opportunity. But my camera bag, with the Sony 12-24 GM lens I needed to get everything in (and also with the best sunstar), was about 200 yards downstream.
Not sure I had enough time, I sprinted as fast as my flip-flops would carry me, grabbed my bag (which was already in full shade), and sprinted back upstream toward the retreating sunlight. The sunstar happens right at the intersection of sunlight and shadow, but when raced into the sunlight I continued a little farther to give myself enough time before the sun set.
I really couldn’t afford to be picky about a composition but was lucky to find something with a foreground (rock) and middle ground (the blue of the Little Colorado) to go with my background (red-rock peak and sunstar). With the sunstar already in full swing in my viewfinder, I quickly (frantically) framed up a composition (no time for my customary obsessive tweaks, reviews, and refinements), dialed to f/16, metered (have I mentioned lately how much I love having a histogram in my viewfinder?), and clicked.
I only got four decent sunstar frames before the sun was gone. I had no idea if I had anything usable because I don’t usually perform too well when I rush, but was pretty happy to find something that works.
Posted on May 23, 2021
Before rafting the Grand Canyon my relationship with the Little Colorado River was limited to the view from the Cameron Suspension Bridge on US 89, a route I’d traveled at least twice a year for many years. Rarely more than puddles connected by a muddy trickle, to me the Little Colorado seemed better suited to be an indicator of recent precipitation than an actual photo destination. So on my first Grand Canyon raft trip way back in 2014, when Wiley (the lead guide for all but one of my now seven(!) trips) said we’d be stopping at the Colorado River’s confluence with the Little Colorado River, I shrugged.
That day had been a mix of clouds and sun, great for photography—all we needed was to pull over and tie up at a worthy subject. When we reached the confluence in early afternoon, Wiley suggested that we be back on the raft in 45 minutes, and I remember thinking, Really? Surely we can find a better spot to take advantage of this great light. I wasn’t even sure whether to grab my camera bag, but since I was the photography leader, I decided I better set a good example. Still skeptical, I followed one of the along a short trail through the shrubs, the rest of the group trailing. Rounding a corner I emerged from the brush and stopped like I’d slammed into a brick wall. Unable at first to process what I was seeing, I finally turned and managed to call back to Wiley, “Uh, we’re going to need more time here.”
There is nothing subtle about color in nature. In fact, the vivid natural hues that surround us may just be my favorite thing to photograph. But we live our lives taking for granted a certain range of natural color constants: the sky will feature a reliable blue throughout the day, bracketed by certain shades of red or orange at sunrise and sunset, and darken to something close to black at night. Water we expect to be particular shades of green or blue depending on light and clarity. Even when nature’s color intensifies to a hue and intensity that moves us to pause and take note (or photograph), it’s reliably within our range of expectations—a vivid sunset, or the rich blues of Lake Tahoe and Crater Lake.
But sometimes nature throws us a curve. Death Valley’s aptly named Artist’s Palette features and array purple, green, and pink rocks; last summer’s fires turned California’s midday sky an otherworldly orange; it’s impossible not to be gobsmacked the greens and reds of an aurora. And I’ll never forget the first time I laid eyes on the green and blue glacial lakes of the Canadian Rockies and New Zealand. But for me, none of these sights were as disorienting as my first view of the Little Colorado River’s azure hues.
So what’s going on?
What happened to the familiar greenish-brown puddles upstream? Clearly, somewhere in the 55 or so river miles between Cameron and Grand Canyon, the Little Colorado has gotten an upgrade. Not only is there a lot more water, the blue water that’s been added is not a color I’ve seen in nature.
It turns out that, after leaving Cameron the Little Colorado twists along a scenic canyon of its own creation, a canyon deep enough to cut into a travertine-laced aquifer that recharges and colors its flow. The travertine (limestone formed by mineral springs) is infused with magnesium and calcium that adds the blue hue to the water, and leaves deposits that paint the rocks and river’s bed a reflective white, further enhancing the azure hue. Adding to all this magnificence is the rich red of the surrounding Grand Canyon walls.
Of course like most things in nature, the Little Colorado’s color is not guaranteed. When the summer monsoon rains arrive, the Little Colorado’s blue is overpowered by reddish brown sediment washed downstream by frequent torrential downpours. But by scheduling my raft trips for May, I’m usually able to beat this change (in May we also get to enjoy the Colorado River at its translucent green best). Only once have we found the Little Colorado River running brown, and we just kept right on floating downstream.
About this image
My Grand Canyon raft trip has many photographic highlights, but the most memorable (in no particular order) are the Milky Way (in the darkest sky you can imagine), Havasu Canyon, Elves Chasm, Deer Creek Fall, and the Little Colorado River. For the Milky Way we want a campsite that has a good view of the southern horizon, with the river in the foreground (and of course no clouds); for the others we like clouds or shade, and even tougher, few to no other people.
Over the years Wiley and I have gotten pretty good at strategizing our schedule to maximize the photo opportunities at the trip’s photo highlights. We came into this year’s trip knowing we were facing nothing but clear skies—great for the Milky Way, but not so much for the key locations. So before putting in on our first morning, we made our plan.
The first highlight location is the Little Colorado River, about 60 miles downstream from the starting point at Lee’s Ferry. By scoring the campsite directly across the Colorado River from the Little Colorado confluence, we could monitor the comings and goings at the confluence and shuttle the group across when when other rafters cleared out.
The afternoon was hot, with a couple of hours of harsh sunlight remaining—lousy for photography, but spectacular for swimming in the cool, but not cold, Little Colorado. Our guides led us about a half mile upstream to a perfect little swimming hole fed by a natural water slide where we splashed and lounged for a couple of hours.
When the sun started to dip behind the surrounding canyon walls, the non-photographers shuttled back to camp, while the photographers stayed and spread out to enjoy the softly shaded river beneath towering red sandstone kissed by late light. When we returned to camp that evening, everyone seemed quite satisfied with their results, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what the scene might be like in the morning. While I loved the way the sun lit the sandstone across the Colorado River, I realized that the most prominent peak above the confluence, in full shade for all of our afternoon shoot, should get really nice morning light.
At camp that night I talked to Wiley about giving anyone interested another shot at the Little Colorado in the morning, and we came up with a plan that would permit that without jeopardizing our schedule for what would be the trip’s longest, most intense day of rafting.
The guides had coffee ready at 5:15 the next morning, and by 5:30 five of us were motoring back across the river to the confluence. (This may sound early, but with nothing but natural light, we’re usually in bed by 8:30 each evening, and stirring shortly after 5:00 in the morning.
While we had less than an hour to photograph, that turned out to be enough. I only had to walk a short distance upstream before I was stopped by the view I’d visualized the night before. I tried it a little tighter to eliminate the boring sky, but discovered that I couldn’t get much sunlit sandstone into my frame without including sky. And as soon as I did that, I realized that including some regular old blue sky would actually provide context (and credibility) for the river’s otherworldly blue.
Pulling out my Sony a7RIV and Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens, I was able to include the entire sunlit peak (does anyone know what it’s called?). With a general idea of my composition, I moved around a bit until I found a foreground that worked. To get all of the foreground limestone island in my frame, I scaled a small ledge behind me and framed up this scene.
I used ISO 50 and f/16 to stretch my shutter speed a little (but probably not enough to make much difference). Extreme dynamic range made the exposure a little tricky, but I simply monitored the histogram in my viewfinder (have I mentioned lately how much I love shooting mirrorless?) and dialed my shutter speed until the histogram looked right. Click.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on May 26, 2019
Do I have a favorite place to in the Grand Canyon? Difficult to say, but I definitely have a shortlist, and Deer Creek Fall is on it. Of course this beautiful waterfall is right on the river and far from a secret, so it’s often overrun by other rafting trips (in general the bottom of the Grand Canyon is wonderfully not crowded, but people do tend to congregate at certain spots). Having done this trip six times now, I (with the help of my guides) have learned the timing to minimize or eliminate the people at these popular spots.
This year we found one other group enjoying Deer Creek Fall, but it wasn’t long before they pushed off and we had it to ourselves. In addition to many nice views at river level, there are some great scenes above the fall. The trail to the slot canyon that feeds the fall is steep, with a few spots that require a little non-technical climbing to get to the next level, but the payoff makes the effort worth it. The view of the river and Grand Canyon is (cliché alert) breathtaking, and from there a short trek through a beautiful slot canyon opens to an emerald oasis called “The Patio.” I’ve made the hike to the Patio once, but was kind of unnerved by a 20-foot stretch of 2-foot wide trail carved into a vertical wall and vowed not to do it again (give me something to hold onto and I could stand on top of Mt. Everest, but Alex Honnold I’m not).
Despite the threat of rain, I joined a handful of hikers in my group who followed a couple of our guides through the creek and up the trail. My plan was to stick with them to the view right before the slot canyon entrance, but after stopping briefly to photograph this scene, I climbed up nearby rocks to chase the group and immediately found more photo-worthy scenes overlooking the fall. The cloud cover created such wonderful light, I decided to forego the hike in favor of new photo opportunities.
After 30-minutes photographing Deer Creek Fall from a series of elevated ledges, I scrambled back down to my original river level scene. I’d rushed it earlier and wanted more quality time here. I worked it for another half hour before moving to other views of the fall. Here I used a 5-second exposure that blurred the water in the fall and nearby cascade, and which also captured a small swirl of foam near the rocks.
Full disclosure: My shutter speed options were limited by the fact that I’d departed for this trip thinking that my 82mm polarizer was in its normal place, affixed to my Sony 16-35 GM lens, but it turned out that what I thought was a polarizer was actually my Breakthrough 6-stop neutral density polarizing filter—the polarizer was in a pocket back home. Oops. So to get the polarization I wanted, I had no choice but to use the ND filter, which prevented me from capturing anything but extreme motion blur.
I once had a photographer tell me that he didn’t like blurred water images because they’re “not natural.” The conversation continued something like this:
Me: “So how would you photograph that waterfall?”
Misguided Photographer: “I’d use a fast shutter speed to freeze the water.”
Me: “And you think that’s more natural than blurred water?”
Misguided Photographer: “Of course.”
Me: “And how many times have you seen water droplets frozen in midair?”
Misguided Photographer: “Uhhh….”
The truth is, “natural” is a target that shifts with perspective. Humans experience the world as a 360 degree, three-dimentional, multi-sensory reel that unfolds in an infinite series of connected instants that our brain seamlessly processes as quickly as it comes in. But the camera discards 80 percent of the sensory input, limits the view to a rectangular box, and compresses those connected instants into a single, static frame. In other words, it’s impossible for a camera to duplicate human reality—the sooner photographers get that, the sooner they can get to work on expressing the world using their camera’s very different but quite compelling reality.
Despite the creative opportunities in their hands (or on their tripod), many photographers expend a great deal of effort trying to force their cameras closer to human reality (HDR, focus blending, and so on)—not inherently wrong, but in so doing they miss opportunities to reveal overlooked aspects of our complex natural world. Subtracting the distractions from the non-visual senses, controlling depth of focus, and banishing unwanted elements to the world outside the frame, a camera can distill a scene to its overlooked essentials, offering perspectives that are impossible in person.
A still image can’t display actual motion, but it can convey the illusion of motion that, among other things, frees the viewer’s imagination and establishes the scene’s mood. While nothing like our experience of the world, a camera can freeze the extreme chaos of a single instant, or combine a series of instants into a blur that conveys a pattern of motion.
Combining creative vision and technical skill, a photographer chooses where on the continuum that connects these extremes of motion will fall: The sudden drama of a crashing wave, or the soothing calm of soft surf; the explosive power of a plunging river, or the silky curves of tumbling cascades. Or perhaps someplace in the midrange of the motion continuum, stopping the action enough that discrete elements stand out, but not so much that a sense of flow is lost.
One question I’m quite frequently asked is, “How do I blur water?” And while there’s no magic formula, no shutter speed threshold beyond which all water blurs, blurring water isn’t that hard (as long as you use a tripod). In fact, when you photograph in the full shade or cloudy sky conditions I prefer, it’s usually more difficult to freeze moving water than it is to blur it (which is why I have very few images of water drops suspended in midair).
In addition to freezing motion or revealing a pattern of motion, an often overlooked opportunity is the smoothing effect a long exposure has on choppy water. I photograph at a lot of locations known for their reflections, but sometimes I arrive to find a wind has stirred the water into a disorganized, reflection-thwarting frenzy. In these situations a long exposure can smooth the chop, allowing the reflection to come through. Rather than the mirror reflection I came for, I get an ethereal, gauzy effect that still captures the reflection’s color and shape.
The amount of water motion blur you get depends on several variables:
Of these variables, it’s shutter speed that gets the most attention. That’s because focal length and subject distance are compositional considerations, and we usually don’t start thinking about blurring the water until after we have our composition. (This is as it should be—when composition doesn’t trump motion, the result is often a gimmicky image without much soul.)
You have several tools at your disposal for reducing the light reaching your sensor (and thereby lengthening your shutter speed), each with its advantages and disadvantages:
Because blurring water depends so much on the amount of light reaching your sensor, I can’t emphasize too much the importance of actually understanding metering and exposure, and how to manage the zero-sum relationship between shutter speed, aperture (f-stop), and ISO.
Read my Exposure basics Photo Tips article
Bracketing for motion
Back in the film days, we used to bracket (multiple clicks of the same scene with minor adjustments) for exposure. But in today’s world of improved dynamic range and pre- and post-capture histograms, exposure bracketing is (or at least should be) limited to photographers who blend multiple exposures. Today I only bracket for scene changes that will give me a variety of images to choose between later.
Often my scene bracketing is for depth of field, as I run a series of clicks with a range of f-stops, then decide later whether I want a little or a lot of DOF. But my most frequent use of scene bracketing is to capture a variety of water motion effects. I start by finding a composition I like, then adjust my shutter speed (compensating for the exposure change with ISO and/or f-stop changes) to get different motion blur.
River and stream whitewater is usually (but not always) fairly constant, so my adjustments are usually just to vary the amount of motion blur. But when I’m photographing waves, the timing of the waves is as important as the motion blur. It helps to stand back and observe the waves for a while to get a sense for any patterns. Watching the direction of the waves and the size of the approaching swells not only allows me to time my exposures more efficiently, it also keeps me safe (and dry).
Few images validate the power of the camera’s unique vision better than a scene etched with the parallel arcs of rotating stars (yes, I know it’s not actually the stars that are rotating). Nothing like human reality, the camera’s view of the night sky is equal parts beautiful and revealing. (Can you think of a faster, more effective way to demonstrate Earth’s rotation than a star trail image?)
Here are the factors that determine the amount of stellar motion:
As with water motion, you can choose between a long exposure that exaggerates stellar motion, or a shorter exposure that freezes the stars in place to display a more conventional night sky (albeit with more stars than our eyes can discern).
Read more in my Starlight photography Photo Tips article
The other end of the motion continuum is stopping it in its tracks with an exposure of extremely short duration. Sometimes simply to avoid blurring something that should be stationary, like flowers or leaves. But just as a long exposure can blur water to reveal patterns in its motion that aren’t visible to the unaided eye, using a short exposure to freeze a fast moving or ephemeral subject freezing can reveal detail that happens too fast for the unaided eye to register.
Stopping motion in an image often requires exposure compromises, such as a larger than ideal aperture or ISO, or removing a polarizer. In my landscape world, f-stop rules all, so I won’t compromise my f-stop unless it’s truly irrelevant—for example, when everything in the scene is at infinity at all f-stops. And I’m reluctant to remove a polarizer because its effect, even when small, can’t be duplicated in Photoshop. Fortunately, compromising ISO is relatively painless given today’s digital cameras stellar high ISO capabilities.
Wind-blown leaves, breaking surf, and plummeting waterfalls examples of detail that can be frozen in the act, but my favorite example of an instant frozen in time is a lightning strike. Lightning comes and goes so fast that the human experience of it is always just a memory—it’s gone before we register its existence. Read how to photograph lighting in my Lightning article in the Photo Tips section of my blog.
In the static world of a photograph, it’s up to the photographer to to create a sense of motion. Sometimes we achieve this with lines that lead the eyes through the scene, but even more powerful is an image that uses motion to tap its viewers imagination. Whether it’s freezing an instant, or connecting a series of instants in a single frame, the way you handle motion in your scene is a creative choice that’s enabled by your creative vision and technical skill.
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.
Posted on May 12, 2019
I returned Friday from my annual Grand Canyon Raft Trip for Photographers and am playing catch-up on all aspects of my photography life. I’ve barely looked at the my raft trip images, but chose this one for a couple of reasons: first, because I think it perfectly conveys the intimate serenity that always catches me by surprise in this landscape known mostly for it’s broad vistas; and second, because it’s the only image I’ve processed so far.
This is Blacktail Canyon, one of hundreds (thousands?) of narrow slot canyons cutting into the Grand Canyon’s towering walls. Most of them we just float past, sometimes because of the physical challenges required to explore their depths, but usually because there just isn’t time to stop at every slot canyon. On my trips we pick our slots for their photo opportunities, and this year Blacktail Canyon was a particular highlight.
With tall, tightly spaced walls, Blacktail Canyon spends most of its daylight hours in full shade, ideal for photography on sunny days. It doesn’t always have water, but this year’s wet winter meant water in lots of places that don’t always get it. We found the little creek that splits the canyon carrying just enough water to create a series of reflective pools before disappearing into the stream bed, only to reappear farther downstream.
What first drew my eye to this scene was a tiny sapling sprouting from an overhanging ledge, but I soon realized that the tree would best serve me as a visuall element to hold the top of my frame rather than the primary subject. The most interesting thing, I decided, was the blue sky reflection like a jewel embedded in the creek bed.
To create this composition, I dropped my tripod to about a foot above the canyon floor and positioned myself so the lines connecting my primary focal points (the sky reflection, the pair of boulders, and the green tree) created a triangle. Fitting all this into the frame required a vertical orientation of my Sony a7RIII, using virtually the entire width of my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 G lens. Even at this wide focal length, the smooth pebbles at my feet were only about a foot away; getting both the nearby pebbles and glowing (from bounced sunlight) sandstone above the tree sharp, meant choosing my exposure settings and focus point very carefully. My hyperfocal app told me that at f/16, by focusing two feet away, I could achieve my sharpness goal. Watching the rapidly changing sky, I timed my click for the best blend of clouds and sky filling the reflection.
What’s the point?
It seems like one of photography’s great mysteries is achieving proper focus: the camera settings, where to place the focus point, even the definition of sharpness are all sources of confusion. If you’re a tourist just grabbing snapshots, everything in your frame is likely at infinity and you can just put your camera in full auto mode and click away. But if you’re a photographic artist trying to capture something unique with your mirrorless or DSLR camera and doing your best to have important visual elements objects at different distances throughout your frame, you need to stop letting your camera decide your focus point and exposure settings.
Of course the first creative focus decision is whether you even want the entire frame sharp. While some of my favorite images use selective focus to emphasize one element and blur the rest of the scene, most (but not all) of what I’ll say here is about using hyperfocal techniques to maximize depth of field (DOF). I cover creative selective focus in much greater detail in another Photo Tip article: Creative Selective Focus.
Beware the “expert”
I’m afraid that there’s some bad, albeit well-intended, advice out there that yields just enough success to deceive people into thinking they’ve got focus nailed, a misperception that often doesn’t manifest until an important shot is lost. I’m referring to the myth that you should focus 1/3 of the way into the scene, or 1/3 of the way into the frame (two very different things, each with its own set of problems).
For beginners, or photographers whose scene doesn’t include subjects from near to far, the 1/3 technique may be a useful rule of thumb. But taking the 1/3 approach to focus requires that you understand DOF and the art of focusing well enough to know when 1/3 won’t work, and how to adjust your focus point and settings. And once you achieve that level of understanding, you may as well do it the right way from the start. Focus control becomes especially important in those scenes where missing the focus point by just a few feet or even inches can make or break and image.
Back to the basics
Understanding a few basic focus truths will help you make focus decisions:
Depth of field discussions are complicated by the fact that “sharp” is a moving target that varies with display size and viewing distance. But it’s safe to say that all things equal, the larger your ultimate output and closer the intended viewing distance, the more detail your original capture should contain.
To capture detail a lens focuses light on the sensor’s photosites. Remember using a magnifying glass to focus sunlight and ignite a leaf when you were a kid? The smaller (more concentrated) the point of sunlight, the sooner the smoke appeared. In a camera, the finer (smaller) a lens focuses light on each photosite, the more detail the image will contain at that location. So when we focus we’re trying to make the light striking each photosite as concentrated as possible.
In photography we call that small circle of light your lens makes for each photosite its “circle of confusion.” The larger the CoC, the less concentrated the light and the more blurred the image will appear. Of course if the CoC is too small to be seen as soft, either because the print is too small or the viewer is too far away, it really doesn’t matter. In other words, areas of an image with a large CoC (relatively soft) can still appear sharp if small enough or viewed from far enough away. That’s why sharpness can never be an absolute term, and we talk instead about acceptable sharpness that’s based on print size and viewing distance. It’s actually possible for the same image to be sharp for one use, but too soft for another.
So how much detail do you need? The threshold for acceptable sharpness is pretty low for an image that just ends up on an iPhone or an 8×10 calendar on the kitchen wall, but if you want that image to fill the wall above the sofa, acceptable sharpness requires much more detail. And as your print size increases (and/or viewing distance decreases), the CoC that delivers acceptable sharpness shrinks correspondingly.
Many factors determine the a camera’s ability to record detail. Sensor resolution of course—the more resolution your sensor has, the more important it becomes that to have a lens that can take advantage of that extra resolution. And the more detail you want to capture with that high resolution sensor and tack-sharp lens, the more important your depth of field and focus point decisions become.
The foundation of a sound approach to maximizing sharpness for a given viewing distance and image size is hyperfocal focusing, an approach that uses viewing distance, f-stop, focal length, and focus point to ensure acceptable sharpness.
The hyperfocal point is the focus point that provides the maximum depth of field for a given combination of sensor size, f/stop, and focal length. Another way to express it is that the hyperfocal point is the closest you can focus and still be acceptably sharp to infinity. When focused at the hyperfocal point, your scene will be acceptably sharp from halfway between your lens and focus point all the way to infinity. For example, if the hyperfocal point for your sensor (full frame, APS-C, 4/3, or whatever), focal length, and f-stop combinition is twelve feet away, focusing there will give you acceptable sharpness from six feet (half of twelve) to infinity—focusing closer will soften the distant scene; focusing farther will keep you sharp to infinity but extend the area of foreground softness.
Because the hyperfocal variable (sensor size, focal length, f-stop) combinations are too numerous to memorize, we usually refer to an external aid. That used to be awkward printed tables with long columns and rows displayed in microscopic print, the more precise the data, the smaller the print. Fortunately, those have been replaced by smartphone apps with more precise information in a much more accessible and readable form. We plug in all the variables and out pops the hyperfocal point distance and other useful information
It usually goes something like this:
You’re not as sharp as you think
Since people’s eyes start to glaze over when CoC comes up, they tend to use the default returned by the smartphone app. But just because the app tells you you’ve nailed focus, don’t assume that your work is done. An often overlooked aspect of hyperfocal focusing is that app makes assumptions that aren’t necessarily right, and in fact are probably wrong.
The CoC your app uses to determine acceptable sharpness is a function of sensor size, display size, and viewing distance. But most app’s hyperfocal tables assume that you’re creating an 8×10 print that will be viewed from a foot away—maybe valid 40 years ago, but not in this day of mega-prints. The result is a CoC three times larger than the eye’s ability to resolve.
That doesn’t invalidate hyperfocal focusing, but if you use published hyperfocal data from an app or table, your images’ DOF might not be as ideal as you think it is for your use. If you can’t specify a smaller CoC in your app, I suggest that you stop-down a stop or so more than the app/table indicates. On the other hand, stopping down to increase sharpness is an effort of diminishing returns, because diffraction increases as the aperture shrinks and eventually will soften the entire image—I try not to go more than a stop smaller than my data suggests.
Keeping it simple
As helpful as a hyperfocal app can be, whipping out a smartphone for instant in-the-field access to data is not really conducive to the creative process. I’m a big advocate of keeping photography as simple as possible, so while I’m a hyperfocal focus advocate in spirit, I don’t usually use hyperfocal data in the field. Instead I apply hyperfocal principles in the field whenever I think the margin of error gives me sufficient wiggle room.
Though I don’t often use the specific hyperfocal data in the field, I find it helps a lot to refer to hyperfocal tables when I’m sitting around with nothing to do. So if I find myself standing in line at the DMV, or sitting in a theater waiting for a movie (I’m a great date), I open my iPhone hyperfocal app and plug in random values just to get a sense of the DOF for a given f-stop and focal length combination. I may not remember the exact numbers later, but enough of the information sinks in that I accumulate a general sense of the hyperfocal DOF/camera-setting relationships.
Finally, something to do
Unless I think I have very little DOF margin for error in my composition, I rarely open my hyperfocal app in the field. Instead, once my composition is worked out and have determined the closest object I want sharp—the closest object with visual interest (shape, color, texture), regardless of whether it’s a primary subject.
Of course these distances are very subjective and will vary with your focal length and composition (not to mention the strength of your pitching arm), but you get the idea. If you find yourself in a small margin for error focus situation without a hyperfocal app (or you just don’t want to take the time to use one), the single most important thing to remember is to focus behind your closest subject. Because you always have sharpness in front of your focus point, focusing on the closest subject gives you unnecessary near sharpness at the expense of distant sharpness. By focusing a little behind your closest subject, you’re increasing the depth of your distant sharpness while (if you’re careful) keeping your foreground subject within the zone of sharpness in front of the focus point.
And finally, foreground softness, no matter how slight, is almost always a greater distraction than slight background softness. So, if it’s impossible to get all of your frame sharp, it’s usually best to ensure that the foreground is sharp.
Why not just automatically set the aperture to f/22 and be done with it? I thought you’d never ask. Without delving too far into the physics of light and optics, let’s just say that there’s a not so little light-bending problem called “diffraction” that robs your images of sharpness as your aperture shrinks—the smaller the aperture, the greater the diffraction. Then why not choose f/2.8 when everything’s at infinity? Because lenses tend to lose sharpness at their aperture extremes, and are generally sharper in their mid-range f-stops. So while diffraction and lens softness don’t sway me from choosing the f-stop that gives the DOF I want, I try to never choose an aperture bigger or smaller than I need.
Now that we’ve let the composition determine our f-stop, it’s (finally) time to actually choose the focus point. Believe it or not, with this foundation of understanding we just established, focus becomes pretty simple. Whenever possible, I try to have elements throughout my frame, often starting near my feet and extending far into the distance. When that’s the case I stop down focus on an object slightly behind my closest subject (the more distant my closest subject, the farther behind it I can focus).
When I’m not sure, or if I don’t think I can get the entire scene sharp, I err on the side of closer focus to ensure that the foreground is sharp. Sometimes before shooting I check my DOF with the DOF preview button, allowing time for my eye to adjust to the limited light. And when maximum DOF is essential and I know my margin for error is small, I don’t hesitate to refer to the DOF app on my iPhone.
A great thing about digital capture is the instant validation of the LCD—when I’m not sure, or when getting it perfect is absolutely essential, after capture I pop my image up on the LCD, magnify it to maximum, check the point or points that must be sharp, and adjust if necessary. Using this immediate feedback to make instant corrections really speeds the learning process.
Sometimes less is more
The depth of field you choose is your creative choice, and no law says you must maximize it. Use your camera’s limited depth of field to minimize or eliminate distractions, create a blur of background color, or simply to guide your viewer’s eye. Focusing on a near subject while letting the background go soft clearly communicates the primary subject while retaining enough background detail to establish context. And an extremely narrow depth of field can turn distant flowers or sky into a colorful canvas for your subject.
There’s no substitute for experience
No two photographers do everything exactly alike. Determining the DOF a composition requires, the f-stop and focal length that achieves the desired DOF, and where to place the point of maximum focus, are all part of the creative process that should never be left up to the camera. The sooner you grasp the underlying principles of DOF and focus, the sooner you’ll feel comfortable taking control and conveying your own unique vision.
About this image
Yosemite may not be New England, but it can still put on a pretty good fall color display. A few years ago I arrived at Valley View on the west side of Yosemite Valley just about the time the fall color was peaking. I found the Merced River filled with reflections of El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks, framed by an accumulation of recently fallen leaves still rich with vivid fall color.
To emphasize the colorful foreground, I dropped my tripod low and framed up a vertical composition. I knew my hyperfocal distance at 24mm and f/11 would be 5 or 6 feet, but with the scene ranging from the closest leaves at about 3 feet away out to El Capitan at infinity, I also knew I’d need to be careful with my focus choices. For a little more margin for error I stopped down to f/16, then focused on the nearest rocks which were a little less than 6 feet away. As I usually do when I don’t have a lot of focus wiggle room, I magnified the resulting image on my LCD and moved the view from the foreground to the background to verify front-to-back sharpness.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.
Posted on December 30, 2018
I’ve always struggled with the “top-whatever” end-of-year countdown of my favorite images because the choices are so subjective and mood dependent, and so many images are favorites as much for their memories as they are for their aesthetic value. And coming up with a predetermined number is arbitrary, and inevitably requires choices I don’t want to make and will almost certainly regret later. One year I may have only seven or eight images that thrill me; the next year I might have two dozen. This year I chose 27, and I still have some left to process.
So rather than attempt to rate and rank my images at year’s end, I prefer using them as a catalyst for reflection. Each December I go through everything I’ve processed from the waning year (this year I know of several that would certainly qualify as a highlight but they’re as yet unprocessed) think about the circumstances of their capture.
I remember the New Year’s Eve solo drive to Yosemite to photograph the full moon rising behind, followed by a night drive to the other side of the Sierra (a six hour drive in winter) where I hoped to capture the full moon setting behind Mt. Whitney. The Yosemite part of that trip was spectacular, the Mt. Whitney half was a photography flop, but I enjoyed the entire journey.
I remember nearly a month in New Zealand, photographing the South Island’s unmatched beauty in its most beautiful season (hint: brrrrrrr). In New Zealand I hiked on a glacier, photographed the (far superior) Southern Hemisphere version of Milky Way, was chased through a fjord by leaping dolphins, witnessed one of the most vivid crimson sunrises I’ve ever seen, and logged hundreds of quality kilometers with a group of wonderful people.
I remember a solo drive to Yosemite to photograph fresh snow, never a sure thing regardless of the forecast. I approached Yosemite on the evening prior, I felt like a lone spawning salmon fighting up current against the continuous stream of headlights evacuating Yosemite in advance of the storm. I settled into my room in dark and dry Yosemite Valley, and woke to so much snow that I couldn’t find my car. I’m convinced there is nothing, nothing on Earth more beautiful than Yosemite Valley with fresh snow, and with the park mostly vacant and the noise-damping quality of powdery snow, for a few hours I felt like I had heaven all to myself.
I remember chasing lightning on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, the thrill (and relief) when everyone in both workshop groups captured lightning, and an especially spectacular lightning storm that started in the telephoto distances and chased us to the cars. This year’s Grand Canyon workshops were altered by fires burning in and near the park and I feared that they’d spoil the photography—instead, in addition to all the lightning, we ended up with spectacular red-rubber-ball sunrises and sunsets that allowed genuinely unique images in this heavily photographed destination.
I remember arriving on the Big Island shortly after Kilauea had shut down after 35 years of continuous eruption, and discovering that between the just-concluded Kilauea eruption and the recently depart remnants of Hurricane Lane, I’d lost nearly half of my locations. Instead I ended up finding alternate photo spots that I like even better than the ones I lost. The high point (literally and figuratively) of that trip turned out to be a chilly, first-ever sunset and Milky Way shoot from atop 13,800 foot Mauna Kea.
I remember my Yosemite Fall Color workshop group finding Yosemite Valley at peak fall color, and three beautiful moonrises in my just concluded winter moon workshop. And while thousand of photographers jockeyed for position beneath bone dry Horsetail Fall in February, my workshop group set up elsewhere and photographed one of the most beautiful sunsets of the year.
I remember way back in January, along with my Death Valley workshop group, photographing my first-ever lunar eclipse (on the heals of my first-ever solar eclipse in August of 2017).
And I remember trudging through Grand Canyon sand by starlight to a spot that I’d decided before nightfall was probably not a good Milky Way candidate, and discovering that I was wrong. It turned out the level of the Colorado River level had changed in the night, replacing mushy sand with a swirling pool that rendered the Milky Way’s reflection as a luminous abstract.
I could go on and on about my memories of 2018, but all these great memories also remind me of the unknown highlights in store for 2019. Certainly the planned trips, which include my first-ever Iceland visit (with Don Smith in preparation for our 2020 workshop), my first-ever Oregon Coast workshop (with Don Smith), another raft trip through the Grand Canyon, a return visit to New Zealand, and on and on. But what excites me more than anything is the inevitable surprises, those special moments that dazzle when dazzling is the last thing you expect. Bring it on!
(Click an image for a bigger view, and to see a slide show)
Posted on May 25, 2016
A couple of weeks ago I blogged about shooting sans tripod on my recent Grand Canyon raft trip. My rationale for this sacrilege was that any shot without a tripod is better than no shot at all. I have no regrets, partly because I ended up with Grand Canyon perspectives I’d have never captured otherwise, but also because shooting hand-held reinforced for me all the reasons I’m so committed to tripod shooting.
Much of my tripod-centric approach is simply a product of the way I’m wired—I’m pretty deliberate in my approach to most things, relying on anticipation and careful consideration rather than cat-like reflexes as my path to action. That would probably explain why my sport of choice is baseball, I actually enjoy golf on TV, and would take chess or Scrabble over any video game (I’m pretty sure the last video game I played was Pong). It also explains, despite being an avid sports fan, my preference for photographing stationary landscapes.
Despite this preference, for the last three years my camera and I have embarked on a one week raft trip through Grand Canyon, where the scenery is almost always in motion (relatively speaking, of course). And after three years, I’ve grown to appreciate how much floating Grand Canyon is like reading a great novel, with every bend a new page that offers potential for sublime reflection or heart pounding action. And just as I prefer savoring a novel, lingering on or returning to passages that resonate with me, I’d love to navigate Grand Canyon at my own pace. But alas….
The rock in this image was a random obstacle separated from the surrounding cliffs at some time in the distant past, falling victim to millennia of dogged assault by rain, wind, heat, cold, and ultimately, gravity. Understanding that the river is about 50 feet deep here makes it easier to appreciate the size of this rock, and the magnitude of the explosion its demise must have set off.
Unfortunately, viewing my subject at eight miles per hour precludes the realtime analysis and consideration its story merits, and I was forced to act now and think later. In this case I barely had time to rise, wobble toward the front of the raft, balance, brace, meter, compose, focus, and click. One click. Then the rock was behind me and it was time to turn the page.
Posted on May 23, 2016
Who knew there could be so much intimate beauty in a location known for its horizon stretching panoramas? In fact, there are so many of these little gems that I run out of unique adjectives to describe them. Springing from a narrow slot in the red sandstone to plummet 180 feet to river level, Deer Creek Fall is probably the most dramatic of the many waterfalls we see on the raft trip.
Last year we stayed at Deer Creek Fall long enough to photograph it, but not long enough to explore. The prior year, on my first trip, we spent a couple of hours here; with temperatures in the 90s, most of the group photographed from the bottom, then cooled off in the emerald pool at its base. But a few of us took the relatively short, fairly grueling, completely unnerving trail to the top. Grueling because the route is carved into the sun-exposed sheer wall just downstream from the fall; unnerving because just as you’re catching your breath atop the slot canyon feeding the fall, you realize that continuing requires navigating about 20 feet of 18 inch wide ledge in the otherwise vertical sandstone. With no handhold and a 75 foot drop to the creek that may as well be 750 or 7500 feet (the outcome would be the same), I studied it for about five minutes. Watching the guides stride boldly across without hesitation, in flip-flops, did little to quell my anxiety. I finally sucked it up and made it to the other side, but once was enough.
This year, thanks to some deft planning by our lead guide, we scored the campsite directly across the river from the fall. He deposited the group at the fall, then motored across the river with another guide to get the camp started. The two other guides led a hearty group up the trail to the top, while the rest of us explored with our cameras at river level.
Already familiar with scenes down there, I scaled a boulder-strewn notch in the rocks just upstream to an elevated platform with great top-to-bottom view of the fall. Up here I found enough foreground options to keep me happy for the duration of our stay, and was so engrossed that I was completely unfazed by the verticality of my surroundings.
As I worked the scene, I eventually honed in on a vivid green shrub that stood out against the red sandstone, ultimately landing on variations of the composition you see here. Working this scene I dealt with intermittent showers, a fickle wind that ranged from nearly calm to frustratingly persistent, and a real desire for depth of field throughout my frame. After a number of frames at f16, I magnified an image on my LCD enough to see that the shrub was sharp, but the background was just nearly sharp. As much as I try to avoid anything smaller than f16, I stopped down to f20 and refocused a little farther back, about three feet behind my shrub. Another check of my LCD confirmed that everything from the nearby rocks to the background plants was sharp.
Our campsite that night was less than spacious (think compact condo living as opposed to sprawling suburban subdivisions), but definitely worth the close confines for the view alone. This stay across from Deer Creek Fall turned out to be memorable for one other event that happened later that evening, but that’s a story for another day….
Posted on May 19, 2016
Every once in a while an image so perfectly captures my emotions at the moment of capture that I just can’t stop looking at it. This is one of those images.
After two relatively benign days of peaceful floating punctuated with occasional mild riffles and only a small handful of moderate-at-best rapids, the group was feeling pretty comfortable on the river. But our guides had made it pretty clear that we hadn’t really encountered anything serious yet, and most in the group were a little anxious about what was in store for day-three—”rapid day.”
Our second night’s camp was a few miles downstream from the Little Colorado River, just ten minutes upstream from Unkar, our first major rapid. I could tell people were getting a little anxious because, as the only person on the trip to have done it before (this was my third trip in three years), I spent much of the evening reassuring people that while the rapids were indeed an E Ticket ride (on that scale, we’d so far navigated no more than two C Tickets), they were more thrilling than threatening. Of course I had to qualify my reassurance with the disclaimer that last year Unkar, tomorrow’s very first rapid, had tossed me from the raft and into the Colorado.
With 28 rafters and 4 guides, my group filled two J-Rig rafts— massive, motorize floating beasts with room for 15+ people and more than a week’s worth of supplies and equipment. When we’re just floating with the current, J-rig rafters can stand and stretch, and even wander around the rafts with relative ease. But when a rapid approaches, we have to hunker down and lock onto the designated hand-holds in one of the raft’s three three riding zones:
The next morning we pushed off a little before 8:00. I’d decided before the trip that, given our history, I wanted to be up front for Unkar. I was joined on the tubes by only one other rafter, while everyone else, uncertain about what was in store, crammed into the two back areas. (We called our other raft the “party raft”—their tubes were packed with rafters throughout the trip.)
Approaching Unkar, the guides’ moods changed: Wiley cut the engine, and we drifted toward the downstream roar while Lindsay delivered a serious lecture about rapid survival. Adding to the tension, on her way back to her seat, for the first time Lindsay checked everyone’s lifejacket and hand holds. Then, before we had a chance panic, the engine fired, the river quickened, and the raft shot forward and plunged into the whitewater.
A major rapid assaults many senses at once. The larger rapids pummel you with a series of waves that toss you in multiple directions at once and barely give a chance to recover before the next rapid tosses you in directions you didn’t know existed. The largest rapids, like Unkar, have multiple stomach-swallowing drops and ascents; you soon learn that the largest are nearly vertical, horizon-swallowing, down/up cavities that run green and smooth with a garnish of churning whitewater dancing on top. Depending on how the raft hits a wave, we could ride over with barely a splash, or crash through in a full emersion baptismal experience.
The soundtrack to the rapid’s visual, tactile, and equilibrium experience is a locomotive roar mixed with screams. You know the ride’s over and you’ve survived when the screams turn to shouts, and finally laughter as everyone dares to take their eyes from the river to make eye contact with the other survivors.
Unkar turned out to be one of the bigger—but definitely not the biggest—rides of this year’s trip. When it spit our boat out the other end, I uncurled my fingers from the ropes and shook the water free, checked all my parts to ensure they were as they were when we entered, then scanned my fellow rafters for their reaction to their first major rapid. The euphoria was clear, and I think if it had been possible, the vote to do it all over would have been unanimous.
As I suspected might happen, surviving Unkar emboldened the group; by the end of the day and for the rest of the trip, we had far more people riding on the tubes, with the limiting factor not so much fear as it was the 47 degree river water with an uncanny ability to penetrate even the most robust “waterproof” rainwear.
That evening, thirty-plus major rapids (and at least as many lesser rapids) farther downstream, we pulled into camp soggy and sore, but far from beaten. The afternoon had turned showery, and the showers persisted as we set up camp, slowing our drying more than adding to our wetness. While the guides prepared dinner in a light drizzle, I wandered down to the river to survey the photo opportunities. I found pictures everywhere—upstream, downstream, across the river—but rather than dive right into my camera bag, I first took the time to savor my surroundings.
The canyon’s pulse, the river’s ubiquitous thrum echoing from rocks that predate the dinosaurs, is simultaneously exhilarating and meditative. Unable to bottle this exquisite balance to take back with me, I turned to my camera, hoping for the next best thing—an image that will bring me back.
Shortly before sunset the rain stopped and sunlight fringed openings in the thinning clouds. By this time several others in the group had joined me at the river’s edge, each camera pointing at a different scene. I’d found mine, I soon tired of the limited foreground options and set out across a field of river-rounded boulders, hopping in my flip-flops toward a promising formation of rocks protruding from the river about a hundred yards away.
It wasn’t until I was all the way there that I realized that the solitary plant I could see protruding from the river wasn’t going to be a distraction to deal with, it was going to be my subject. As the sky colored and darkened, I kept working on this one little plant, positioning and repositioning until the plant, surrounding rocks, and looming peak felt balanced. The final touch that tied the scene up came when I moved a little closer and raised my tripod to its apex so my plant was isolated entirely against the river.
After spending a little more time with this image, I better appreciate why the scene resonated with me then, and why I feel so drawn to it now. The river is rushing here, flaunting the power that tossed and drenched me and my fellow rafters all day, yet this small plant stands motionless for the duration of an exposure that exceeds one second. I admire its calm, the way it towers unfazed above the force that carved this magnificent chasm.