Monsoon Madness

Gary Hart Photography: Serpentine Lightning, Mather Point, Grand Canyon South Rim

Serpentine Lightning, Mather Point, Grand Canyon South Rim
Sony a7RIII
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
1/6 second
F/10
ISO 100

Every August for the last seven years, good friend and fellow pro photographer Don Smith and I have done a Grand Canyon Monsoon photo workshop where we attempt to, among many other things, photograph lightning. I say “many other things” because Grand Canyon doesn’t need lightning to be spectacular. And even without lightning, the monsoon storms that build above the canyon most afternoons add beautiful clouds, rainbows, and sunsets to the magnificent vistas. (We also try to include a Milky Way shoot.) But as nice as all that other stuff is, most people come for the lightning. Don and I do our best to establish realistic expectations, because as reliable as the summer monsoon is in the American Southwest, nothing weather related is a sure thing.

This year I got a reminder of that fact by watching the weather forecasts leading up to our workshops. Each year in the weeks before first workshop’s start date, I regularly (obsessively) monitor the Grand Canyon weather forecast. This is a futile exercise that does nothing but add stress because no matter what the forecast is, I get anxious. No lightning? Oh no! This year’s monsoon is a dud (a “nonsoon”). Lots of lightning? Oh no! All the good stuff will be over before we get there. Sigh.

Coming into this year’s workshops, Don and I had done 12 (two per year for six years). For the first few years, I’d estimate that in about half, everyone in the group captured multiple lightning strikes (in some groups the number of successes approached or exceeded 100). In many of the less successful workshop, a few people got lighting and a few didn’t. And a few were a complete shutout. But the last two years had been great, with everyone in both groups getting multiple strikes.

Part of this recent success I attribute to just plain good luck, and part I attribute to experience—Don and I have gotten better at preparing the groups, teaching lightning photography, troubleshooting Lightning Trigger and camera problems, reading and responding to the conditions, and simply knowing where to be and when to be there.

This year’s first workshop would start on July 31, but as July wound down, each day’s forecast called for blue sky. Blank. Blue. Sky. Maybe our run of good luck was about to end. Fire up the anxiety engines. Compounding my stress was the realization that this would be our 13th monsoon workshop. And we had 13 participants—I’m not a particularly superstitious person, but still…. (We normally cap our groups at 12, but a small administrative hiccup resulted in an extra enrollee.)

But, to make a long story just a little shorter, we needn’t have worried. On the day our first workshop started, Mother Nature flipped the lightning switch and by the end of the third day (of five), everyone in Group 1 had their lightning. Phew. As it turned out, that group ended up with multiple lightning opportunities. Halfway there….

Gary Hart Photography: Lightning Explosion, Oza Butte, Grand Canyon North Rim

Lightning Explosion, Oza Butte, Grand Canyon North Rim

The second group had to wait until the fourth day, and only got one good shot at it, but theirs was one of the most spectacular lightning storms I’ve ever witnessed (Lightning Explosion, Oza Butte)—both for its intensity and its proximity.

Don and I usually use the day between workshops to “recharge” (pun unavoidable), but at dinner that evening we’d been monitoring our (fantastic) lightning app, My Lightning Tracker Pro, we saw that lightning was firing nearby and just couldn’t resist going out on our own.

Picking the lowest hanging fruit, we ended up at easily accessible Mather Point. The show was well underway when we arrived, but didn’t need to wait long before our Lightning Triggers started firing. I captured a dozen or so frames with lightning that evening, some with multiple bolts, but the unique, circuitous path followed by one I share above was my favorite.

I recently rewrote the lightning explanation portion of my Lightning Photo Tips article. As you’ll read below, lightning always follows the easiest path to resolve its polarity discrepancy, so I wonder what atmospheric machinations caused this serpentine bolt.

Lightning Explained

A lightning bolt is the atmospheric manifestation of the truism that opposites attract. In nature, we get a spark when two oppositely charged objects come in close proximity. For example, when you get shocked touching a doorknob, on a very small scale, you’ve been struck by lightning.

The primary process at work in an electrical storm is convection, the circular, up/down flow that happens when heat is applied to a fluid. As air warms, it becomes less dense and rises. The rising air cools with altitude and becomes more dense, causing it to sink. But the sinking air warms as it loses altitude, eventually rising again, and the cycle continues…. (Convection is also the process behind the bubbling of boiling water.)

Convection’s up/down flow creates turbulence knocks together airborne molecules, striping their (negatively charged) electrons. Lighter, positively charged molecules are carried upward in the convection’s updrafts, while the heavier negatively charged molecules remain near the bottom of the cloud. Soon the cloud is electrically polarized, more positively charged at the top than it is at the base.

Extreme polarity can also happen when a negatively charged cloud base hovers above the positively charged ground. Either way, nature resist this charge disparity and tries to resolve it as fast as possible: a lightning bolt.

Nature always finds the easiest path. If the easiest path to electrical equilibrium is between the cloud top and bottom, we get intracloud lightning; if it’s between two different clouds, we get intercloud lightning. A cloud-to-ground strike occurs when the easiest path to equilibrium is between the cloud and ground.

With lightning comes thunder, the sound of air expanding explosively when heated by a 50,000 degree jolt of electricity. The visual component of the lightning bolt that caused the thunder travels at the speed of light, over 186,000 miles per second (from the human perspective, that’s virtually instantaneous, regardless of your distance on Earth). But lightning’s aural component, thunder, only travels at the speed of sound, a little more than 750 miles per hour—a million times slower than light.

Knowing that the thunder occurred at the same time as the lightning flash, and the speed both travel, we can estimate distance of the lightning strike. At 750 miles per hour, thunder will travel about a mile in about five seconds: Dividing the number of seconds between the lightning’s flash and the thunder’s crash by five gives you the lightning’s distance in miles; divide the interval by three for the distance in kilometers. If five seconds pass between the lightning and the thunder, the lightning struck about one mile away; fifteen seconds elapsed means it’s about three miles away.

One of the things I love most about photographing lightning at Grand Canyon is the ability to do it in relative safety. With a few notable exceptions (see Lightning Explosion above), most of the lightning we photograph is at least 10 miles away, distant enough that we rarely hear thunder. I won’t pretend that any lightning photography is completely safe because the safest place to be in an electrical storm is always inside. But standing on one Grand Canyon rim while waiting for lightning to fire on the other rim, as we did this evening, feels more like magic than madness.

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Monsoon Madness

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Thanking My Stars (and Moon, and Lightning, and Rainbows, and…)

Gary Hart Photography: Surprise Rainbow, Point Imperial, Grand Canyon

Surprise Rainbow, Point Imperial, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RIII
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
1/4 second
F/8
ISO 100

So lately I’ve been thinking about the things I photograph and why I photograph them. Then the other day, after boarding a plane following my recent Grand Canyon monsoon trip, I squeezed into my seat and rummaged through my computer bag, loading the knee-jamming magazine holder on the seat-back in front of me with the two books I’m currently reading. One was “All About Lightning,” by Martin Uman (published in 1971 and revised in 1986); the other was “The Weather Machine: A Journey Inside the Forecast,” by Andrew Blum. On my AirPods was an astronomy podcast (“Orbital Path”). I have no illusions (anymore) of becoming an astronomer or a meteorologist, and the movie version these books is unlikely to be coming soon to a theater near you—no, I’m filling my mind with this stuff simply because it interests me. A lot.

I think everyone has those things that fascinate them so much that there’s no effort learning them. I have a history of finding something interesting and devouring every possible word on the subject. Some were passing obsessions (handwriting analysis, Lincoln head pennies, and—uhhhhh… The Monkees), and others have stuck with me (baseball, astronomy, geology, meteorology, and certain writers).

Which brings me back to the things I photograph, and the realization that we can probably tell a lot about most photographers’ relationship with the world by viewing their images. Anyone who checks the percentage of my images that have a weather or celestial component wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) be surprised by my in-flight entertainment, or to learn that for a few misspent college semesters I majored in astronomy, then geology (and have since kept them as hobbies, where they belong).

The longer I do this, the more I appreciate how lucky I am to actually make my living photographing only the things I love. Nearly 15 years ago I left a good career in the tech industry, naively planning to turn a photography passion into a profession. I can’t tell you how many people since then have told me that doesn’t work—fortunately, I didn’t hear them until it was too late.

For photographers, there’s a fine line between self-employed and unemployed, a line I didn’t fully appreciate when I made my decision to jump into it with both feet. Like millions of other photographers, all I wanted to make a living photographing the beautiful natural world I love so much—how hard could that be? But as many have learned (some sooner than others), not only is there very little market for landscape images, there seems to be pretty much infinite competition—competition that causes landscape photographers to sell digital images for pennies, and prints for little more than their cost. But somehow, for reasons I like to attribute to foresight but must acknowledge dash of shovel full of good luck as well, I’ve managed to make my living photographing only what I love.

Before leaving my tech job, I was doing art shows and making pretty decent money for a weekend’s work. But a weekend art show is so much more than just a weekend of effort, and after doing the math I realized that I’d need to be on the road at least 40 weeks per year to even have a chance to make ends meet through art shows. Gallery sales were a non-starter because the galleries just want too much of the small number of sales they generate, and the stock photography market was already on life support. Open my own gallery? That just sounded like an anchor that would prevent me from taking pictures.

So I started leading photo workshops, which were just starting to catch on and seemed ideally suited to my skillset. Not only was I intimately familiar with Yosemite and other California destinations that pretty much sell themselves, my background was in technical communications (tech writing, training, support), and I genuinely like people.

When I started offering workshop, I still did the art shows, but then came 2008 and the economic downturn. Despite a lot of hand wringing, my workshops continued filling, helped a lot by repeat customers who kept me afloat through the recession. And after one particularly unsuccessful weekend in San Francisco, I decided to drop the art shows altogether and focus on the workshops. I haven’t looked back.

Since making my mid-life career change, I’ve also managed to create a small niche as a writer, both through this blog (which pays nothing but has developed a pretty loyal following), and as a regular contributor to “Outdoor Photographer” and other photography publications (and which earns just slightly more than nothing). Not enough to live on, but at least enough to scratch my life-long writing itch.

So here I am, nearly 15 years into this ride and still going strong. I’m not getting rich, and least financially, but there are better measures of success than dollars. Whether alone or sharing with others, I still get as excited as anyone when the moon rises behind Half Dome, the Milky Way brightens above a New Zealand lake, or the setting sun paints a rainbow against a Grand Canyon sky.

About this image

After a day with a lot more rain than lightning, Don Smith and I took our Grand Canyon Monsoon photo workshop group up to Point Imperial for sunset. The vestiges of the storm still lingered as we set up, but there was no sign of the lightning that had been in the forecast, or even the rain that had drenched us for most of the day. Though lightning was on everyone’s mind, soft light in the canyon and the play of sunlight and clouds overhead kept everyone happy as we waited for sunset.

We’d been photographing for about a half hour when I noticed a tiny fragment of rainbow balanced atop the rim in the south. Not nearly prominent enough to be a prime subject, I nevertheless pointed it out to others and composed a few frames of my own before moving on to other opportunities in a view filled with them. Since there was no sign of rain, I only occasionally checked on the tiny rainbow, each time fully expecting it to have vanished, but each time noticed that it was hanging in there—not really any bigger, but still somewhere on the continuum from vivid to nearly-faded-to-oblivion.

Just a few minutes before sunset and with no rain visible, that little spot of color intensified and stretched skyward. Those of us with eyes on it alerted the rest of the group, sending everyone into a shooting frenzy that lasted until the light faded with the setting sun. I’ve photographed bigger rainbows, and (slightly) brighter rainbows, but only a few that have thrilled me as much as this one that seemed to come out of nowhere.

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Personal Favorites: Moon, Stars, and Weather

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One Fine Morning

Gary Hart Photography: One Fine Morning, Grandview Point, Grand Canyon South Rim

One Fine Morning, Grandview Point, Grand Canyon South Rim
Sony a7RIII
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
1 second
F/18
ISO 100

Confession: 4:30 wake-ups aren’t my favorite part of being a landscape photographer. But honestly, the worst part of an early wake-up starts the instant the alarm goes off and lasts until I get out of bed, so I’ve trained myself to set my alarm with zero time to spare, which forces me to rip off the wake-up bandaid.

Though sunrise doesn’t always work out photographically, it rarely lets me down emotionally. There’s no better time of the day to be outside, when all nature’s sensory inputs are coming alive and the din of humankind is still asleep. Even in a crowded national park like Grand Canyon, it’s the best time of the day to hear the birds conversing and savor the whisper of water and wind. And with the atmosphere unfiltered by human pollutants, the spectacular sights never feel closer.

I just wrapped up two workshops at Grand Canyon. These workshops were built to maximize our lightning capture opportunities, and in that regard each workshop was a major success. But we had other memorable moments that had nothing to do with lightning, with probably most memorable being the second group’s first sunrise. (Or the first group’s first sunset, but that’s a story for a different day.)

On that morning’s eastward drive to Grandview Point, we’d passed through a couple of rain showers, but through the trees I caught a glimpse of an opening on the eastern horizon. Clouds overhead with a gap low in the east is the recipe for a colorful sunrise, but not wanting to jinx us, I kept my mouth shut until the pre-shoot orientation (a quick summary of the site—where to go and what to look for). I also suggested the possibility of a rainbow and where it would be, and gave everyone a quick refresher on how to capture a sunstar before setting them free to explore and create.

Our morning started with a deep red glow on the eastern horizon that slowly brightened and spread across the sky. With the brightening horizon behind Desert View signaling the sun’s approach, the clouds took on a shimmering pink hue. Anticipating a sunstar opportunity, I composed my scene and stopped my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 lens (my favorite sunstar lens) down to f/18. I had several minutes to spare and spent them taking in my surroundings, then snapped to action with the first brilliant rays of direct sunlight. Unlike many mornings, the color hung in there for a couple of minutes after the sun’s arrival, all the time I needed to capture this frame.

Right in the midst of my sunstar shoot someone in the group shouted “Rainbow!” and I whipped around to confirm. I’d already decided this was a pretty special sunrise, but thought the rainbow, though not complete or ideally positioned, would be the cherry on top. But the show wasn’t over—when the sun rose into the clouds and the light flattened, people started to pack up. But I noticed a few holes that would almost certainly soon send crepuscular rays (god rays) into the canyon, so we hung around long enough to add that to the morning’s checklist. Color, sunstar, rainbow, god-rays—not a bad way to start the day. (I haven’t processed the rainbow and crepuscular rays images yet—stay tuned.)

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Memorable Sunrises

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I Just Have To Share This

Gary Hart Photography: Lightning Explosion, Oza Butte, Grand Canyon North Rim

Lightning Explosion, Oza Butte, Grand Canyon North Rim
Sony a7RIII
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
Breakthrough neutral polarizer
Lightning Trigger LT-IV
.4 seconds
F/11
ISO 100

I don’t usually write a brand new blog in the middle of a workshop, but I have to share last night’s experience

August 7, 2019

Scanning the southern horizon from the view deck of Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim, I saw no sign of lightning. Far to the south was a somewhat promising curtain of rain, maybe 30 miles beyond the South Rim. With nothing to do until I met the group for our sunset departure, I found a composition I liked and pointed my camera (with Lightning Trigger engaged) in that direction.

Soon others joined me—with my lightning app showing activity 50 miles distant in the general direction my camera pointed, I made the call to bag the sunset shoot and put all our eggs in the lightning basket. (A decision I might not have made had this second workshop group already had the lightning success the first had). Turns out that was a good call.

About an hour later, when lightning started firing to the west, I stubbornly stuck with my composition, but instructed the rest of the group to point their cameras toward the more sure thing. My reasoning was that since I had over 100 lightning strikes from the first workshop, I could afford to be selective and take a chance on the composition I preferred, but everyone who hadn’t had a success should play the odds.

My storm completely fizzled, but the storm cell to the west was very active and appeared to be moving closer. I finally admitted defeat and gave up on my cell, turning my attention to the active cell just about the time we started hearing thunder. Within minutes the storm was on top of us and suddenly we couldn’t tell which thunder went with which bolt.

Huddled in relative safety beneath the lodge’s lightning rods, the next 20 minutes provided the most jaw-dropping electrical this California boy has ever seen—maybe all lightning storms are this spectacular, but I’ve never been that close. We gave everyone the option of retreating to the lodge’s enclosed viewing deck, but everyone steadfastly stuck to their tripods. The lightning was firing two or three times per minute, each strike so close that we couldn’t couldn’t fit the entire bolt in our frame. Then the wind kicked up and soon thereafter the sky opened, so we grabbed our cameras and headed inside.

As the lightning flashed in the pictures windows, we reviewed our captures on our LCDs and shared our bounty with each other. Everyone had multiple lightning captures, and it seemed like virtually all in the group had some version of this bolt striking Oza Butte, about one mile away. It was interesting to compare the differences between each person’s capture—not only did they vary with the composition, they also varied with the exposure time (more or fewer strokes and filaments) and camera type (some cameras trigger their shutters faster than others).

This image is a perfect example of what I love about still photography: It freezes an instant in time that is already memory by the time my brain registers it, allowing me to spend as much time as I want scrutinizing detail I’d never see otherwise. I can’t tell you how long I’ve studied this image already, and I’m still find new things.

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2019 Grand Canyon Monsoon Highlights (processed so far)

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Alone on the Rim

Gary Hart Photography: Bolt from the Pink, Grandview Point Lightning, Grand Canyon

Bolt from the Pink, Grandview Point Lightning, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RII
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
Breakthrough neutral polarizer
.4 seconds
F/10
ISO 400

In a day of surprises, I think the most surprising thing was finding myself completely alone on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon—in the middle of a workshop. The sun had set, the tourists had gone to dinner, and the rest of my group, thanks to an unexpected turn of events (stay tuned), was with my workshop partner Don Smith at Desert View, about ten miles east. I love leading workshops, but the opportunity to enjoy a summer sunset alone at the Grand Canyon was too rare to not to appreciate. And as if that wasn’t enough, I was being treated to one of the most spectacular lightning displays I’d seen in all my years of photographing the Grand Canyon monsoon.

The weather gods had been messing with us since the workshop’s start two days earlier. The forecast for our first two days was so good, Don and I had virtually guaranteed everyone a lightning bolt (or ten, or 20, or…) on their memory cards by the time we headed to the South Rim on Day 3. But on Day 1 we got too much rain and not enough lightning (not unprecedented), a loss largely assuaged by a gorgeous rainbow at sunset (phew). No worries, the Day 2 lightning forecast was even more promising.

While we did see a bolt or two on the second day, we got nothing close to the classic lightning displays the North Rim frequently serves up during the Grand Canyon Monsoon. Even without any lightning photos, the day was salvaged by the night’s fantastic Milky Way shoot at Cape Royal—an evening so warm that most of us kept the jackets packed and did the whole thing in T-shirts.

But lighting is this workshop’s Holy Grail, and the pressure was building for Don and me. For a few reasons, the North Rim is usually generates about 80 percent of our lightning success. But after being shut out for our two North Rim days, now it was time to motor to the much more crowded South Rim, where the crowds are oppressive and weather forecast called for a measly 10 percent chance of thunderstorms. Suddenly my optimism was waning.

Mother Nature is fickle, and I’m pretty sure she was punishing me for being a little too cocky at the beginning of the workshop. Because on the road to the South Rim (about the time I started to admit serious doubts about our lightning chances), she started filling my windshield with billowing cumulus clouds—not friendly cotton-ball puffs, these clouds were dark, angry towers. By the time we checked into our hotel, our lightning app was showing signs of sneaking activity sneaking up from the south (behind us).

Though nothing was happening near the canyon yet, experience has taught us to be proactive when the storms are building. So rather than wait until the planned sunset departure time, Don and I herded the group to the cars and we bolted for the rim as soon as we could get everyone assembled. Turning east on Desert View Road toward our sunset destination, Desert View, we pulled over at the very first vista. We hopped out to take a look and as Don and I surveyed the view,  someone spotted lightning directly across the canyon. Showtime.

This was indeed a great show, with at least one or two bolts per minute for nearly an hour. Within 15 minutes it was pretty clear that everyone had captured multiple strikes and Don and I could relax—everyone would go home with the lightning photos they came for. The storm was still active when increasing wind and threatening clouds led us to decide it would be prudent to move on.

The next stop on the way to our way to Desert View was Grandview Point, and that’s where things took an unexpected turn. First, when I went to change the precariously low battery on my Sony a7RIII, I realized my backup battery was at home on the charger (gone are my Sony a7RII days when I carried six batteries). But that crisis was soon set aside when one of the members of the group had an emergency that required her to return to the hotel. After a bit of discussion and a little math (Do we have enough seats for the rest of the group to continue to Desert View for sunset? Answer: Yes, with none to spare), I drove her back while everyone else continued on to photograph sunset.

Back at the hotel I did a bit more math and realized there was no way I could make it all the way out to Desert View in the 50 minutes remaining until sunset. But seized by FOMO*, I grabbed my a7RII, checked the battery (fully charged—yay!), and headed back to the rim with no particular plan—even if I couldn’t make it back to the group, I just wanted to be somewhere for sunset. At the junction with Desert View Road I headed east again, away from the Grand Canyon Village congestion and toward some of the less crowded vistas.

The entire sky was gray and at first I thought sunset might be a dud, but then I caught a thin layer of brightness in my rearview mirror and realized there was a hole on the horizon—when the sun drops into it, everything might just light up for a few minutes. I checked my watch and goosed the accelerator hoping to make it as far as Grandview Point. Unfortunately, in the national parks you can only go as fast as the next Winnebago, and sunset was less than 10 minutes away when I dove into my Grandview parking space. I grabbed my camera bag and dashed down the trail to my favorite view atop an exposed rock outcrop, not realizing until headed off-trail that I was still in my flip-flops. But with no time to go back for more sane footwear, I continued slip-sliding my way down to my destination and (barely) made it with all limbs intact.

The color was starting but as soon as my camera was set up, but I took a few seconds to get my adrenalin under control. The first thing that struck me was the quiet, most unusual for a Grand Canyon summer sunset. I attributed it to the storm, which had just moved on from here, and the fact that Grandview isn’t heralded as a sunset location (because most non-photographers like their sunset views to face west, and there are better spots at Grand Canyon for that).

As expected, there was indeed great color that evening, but even more exciting was all the lightning in the east: Cloud to ground, cloud to cloud, cloud flashes, multiple bolts, extreme zig-zags—pretty much a who’s who of lightning, several times per minute. Most of the lightning was firing somewhere in the empty desert beyond Desert View, but it looked far enough away that the group was safe. From my perspective there was no canyon or anything else interesting in the direction of extreme activity, so I pointed my camera at a somewhat promising curtain of rain that aligned better with my view of the canyon—and hoped.

Photographing lightning is more thrilling than I can describe, and I can think of no better place for it than Grand Canyon. The distance of the views here relieves (most of) the anxiety that comes with viewing lightning—so far on this trip I’ve captured 116 frames with lightning (yes, I count them) and still haven’t been close enough to any of them to have heard their thunder. And Grand Canyon puts the actual lightning experience on steroids because during the long peaceful periods between strikes you’re gazing upon one of the most breathtaking views on Earth. When a bolt explodes from the clouds, its metaphorical jolt to my psyche seems to match it’s actual 50,000 (ish) volt electrostatic jolt.

I only captured a half-dozen or so strikes over the canyon that evening, but all I need is one. This one touched down several minutes after sunset, about 30 miles away. It came right at the peak of the color and couldn’t have been more perfectly timed or placed. And as I waited for the next bolt to trigger my camera, I got to enjoy this view the same, infinitely more spectacular, light show the rest of the group was enjoying—in glorious, absolute quiet.

* FOMO: fear of missing out

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Highlights of (nearly) a Decade Chasing Lightning

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I’m Not Always In My Right Mind

Gary Hart Photography: Sky on Fire, Hopi Point, Grand Canyon

Sky on Fire, Hopi Point, Grand Canyon (click image for purchase options)
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
1 second
F/16.0
ISO 400
20 mm

In a couple of days I’m off to the Grand Canyon for my annual trip with good friend and fellow pro photographer Don Smith. We’ll be leading two workshops where we’ll chase lightning, rainbows, and whatever else the monsoon throws at us. But wild weather or not, I’ll be at the Grand Canyon. But anyway…

Left, left, left, right, left

The Grand Canyon is a very difficult place to photograph. Or maybe I should say, the Grand Canyon is a very difficult place to photograph well. More than any place I photograph, the Grand Canyon incites right/left (creative/logical) battles that can kill an image. Despite (and likely because of) the Grand Canyon’s sweeping grandeur, you can’t expect to simply walk up to the rim and find a shot that does the scene justice. The view at the rim puts your emotional, creative brain on overload—the very things that make the Grand Canyon so breathtaking in person, its depth and breadth, are completely lost to the camera’s two-dimensional, confined perspective.

Overcoming this requires:

  • Understanding your camera’s vision and how it differs from yours: 2-dimensional, limited dynamic range and depth of field, constrained by a rectangular box
  • Recognizing each scene’s compositional elements: subject(s), color, depth, light, visual flow, relationships, distractions, and so on
  • Control of your camera’s exposure variables: f-stop, shutter speed, ISO, focal length
  • An ability (and willingness) to seamlessly transition between your left (logical) and right (creative) brain: The carefully crafted plan and essential exposure decisions can also distract from the creative process

With all that mastered (easier said than done: practice, practice, practice), you’re ready to formulate and execute an actual plan for approaching the scene you plan to photograph. For me, implementing all this means arriving early and spending every non-shooting moment familiarizing myself with my surroundings, the light, and whatever is going on in the sky. Not only does arriving early give me time to formulate my plan, it gives me a feel for the scene that becomes increasingly important as the time to shoot approaches.

Once I’ve analyzed my scene, identifying its compositional elements and how I want to handle them, I turn off my left (logical) brain and engage my right (creative) brain. This isn’t conscious, nor is it genius—it’s pretty much just the product of years of repetition. Putting my camera to my eye, I compose the scene by moving the view up/down, forward/backward, left/right, and zooming in and out until feels “right” (whatever that means).

Then I have to jump back to my left brain to determine how to apply my exposure variables: How much depth of field do I need? Is there motion to freeze or blur—and if so, how much? Do I have extreme dynamic range to contend with? And so on.

Despite all the analysis and planning that goes into setting up a shot, I ultimately have to switch back to my right brain and try to click the shutter with my heart.

Putting it all together

My “plan” for this evening at the Grand Canyon’s Hopi Point was to photograph a full moon rising in the east, above the canyon, an image I’ve long sought. But when clouds hugging the eastern horizon thickened, I started having second thoughts. I could have stubbornly stuck to my guns and hoped the moon would somehow find its way through the muck, but I knew if the moon didn’t show and something nice started in the west (where the sky looked more promising), I’d have to scramble to the other side and hope to quickly find a composition that did the moment justice. That’s not easy even in ideal circumstances, but Hopi Point at sunset is like a Tokyo subway at rush hour. Anxious to avoid reactive photography, I jettisoned the east-facing moonrise plan and headed over to re-familiarize myself with Hopi Point’s west side and stake out a spot before the crowd assembled.

The Grand Canyon is great for this kind of anticipatory photography because the unobstructed view of the horizon from the rim provides good insight into what’s in store. Once I switched views, I spent quality time walking Hopi Point’s western rim, identifying trees, shrubs, and rocks that could anchor my frame and balance the distant ridges, river, sun, and clouds. I also had to be aware of the sun’s path, because its brightness was certain to be a significant photographic element. And not wanting to settle for a nice sky above the canyon, I sought foreground subjects to create near/far relationships. I finally chose this spot where a small (albeit unassuming) shrub jutted from the textured rim rock.

Given the extreme depth of field my composition required, I opted for f16, focusing on the rock just behind the shrub. A gusty breeze forced me to bump my ISO to 400 and time my shutter click to coincide with the wind’s intermittent lulls. This was before I switched to Sony, so I had to use a 3-stop reverse graduated neutral density filter to reduce the significant dynamic range to a manageable level (then later smooth the GND transition in Photoshop).

The moon that evening was in fact a no-show, but the view to the west rewarded me with about forty-five minutes of productive, continuously improving photography as the sun slipped in and out of gaps in the clouds before finally dropping below the horizon. The highlight came couple of minutes after sunset, when a fan of thin clouds spewing from the sun’s exit point throbbed crimson, creating a flame-like effect. After spending most of my shooting time emphasizing the canyon’s vast lateral expanse with wide, horizontal compositions, when the color kicked in I wanted a vertical composition that would turn the emphasis to flaming sky and the canyon’s depth.

While I’d love to claim that I was conscious of the virtual diagonals connecting the flaming sky and flame-shaped shrub, and the shimmering sliver of the Colorado River and nearby vein of light colored rock, I really wasn’t. But neither do I believe relationships like this are accidental—I’ve done this long enough to know that compositional relationships happen organically when I free my mind from distractions that force me to think when I should be creating. This is what I mean when I say I want to click the shutter with my heart.

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A Grand Canyon Gallery

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It’s All a Blur: Deer Creek Fall

Gary Hart Photography: On the Rocks, Deer Creek Fall, Grand Canyon

On the Rocks, Deer Creek Fall, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RIII
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
Breakthrough 6-stop ND
5 seconds
F/11
ISO 100

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.

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Here’s my just-updated Photo Tips article on photographing motion


Motion

Fern Cascade, Russian Gulch Fall, Russian Gulch State Park (Mendocino), California

Fern Cascade, Russian Gulch Fall, Russian Gulch State Park (Mendocino), California

True story

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….”

Photographic reality

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.

Motion

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.

Blurred water

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:

  • The water’s speed—the faster the water, and (especially) the more whitewater (green water, no matter how fast it’s moving, doesn’t usually display a lot of motion blur), the greater the blur
  • Your focal length—the longer the focal length, the greater the blur
  • Your distance from the water—the closer the water, the greater the blur
  • And of course, the shutter speed—the longer your shutter is open, the greater the blur

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:

  • Don’t even think about any kind of subject blur without a sturdy tripod. For help selecting the right tripod, read the Tripod Selection article in my Photo Tips section.
  • Reducing ISO: Since you’re probably already at your camera’s native ISO (usually 100), this option often isn’t available. Some cameras allow you to expand the ISO below the native value, usually down to ISO 50. That extra stop of shutter duration you gain comes with a (very) slight decrease in image quality—most obvious to me as about 1/3 stop of dynamic range lost.
  • Shrinking your aperture (larger f-stop value): A smaller aperture also buys you more depth of field, but it also increases diffraction. Also, lenses tend to be less sharp at their most extreme apertures, so as a general rule, I resist going with an aperture smaller than f11 unless it’s necessary. That said, I often find myself shooting at f16 (and only very rarely smaller), but it’s always a conscious choice after eliminating all other options  for reducing light (or it’s a mistake, something I’m not immune to).
  • Adding a polarizing filter: In addition to reducing reflections, a polarizer will subtract 1 to 2 stops of light (depending on its orientation). When using a polarizer you need to be vigilant about orienting it each time you recompose (especially if you change your camera’s horizontal/vertical orientation), and monitoring its effect on the rest of your scene.
  • Adding a neutral density filter: A neutral density filter is, as its name implies, both neutral and dense. Neutral in that it doesn’t alter the color of your image; dense in that it cuts the amount of light reaching your sensor. While a dark enough ND filter might allow you to blur water on even the brightest of days, it does nothing for the other problems inherent to midday, full sunlight shooting. ND filters come in variable and fixed-stop versions—the flexibility of variable NDs (the ability to dial the amount of light up and down) means living with the vignetting they add to my wide angle images.
Gary Hart Photography: Before the Sun, South Tufa, Mono Lake

Before Sunrise, South Tufa, Mono Lake
Here a 3-second exposure smoothed a wind-induced chop and restored the reflection.

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).

Star motion

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:

  • Exposure duration: The longer your shutter is open, the more motion your sensor captures.
  • Focal length: Just as it is with terrestrial subjects, a longer focal length shrinks the range of view and magnifies the stars that remain.
  • Direction of composition: Compositions aimed toward the North or South Poles will display less star motion than compositions aimed toward the celestial equator. That’s because, due to Earth’s rotation on its axis (an imaginary, infinite line skewering our North and South Poles), everything in the sky rotates 360 degrees in, around the poles, in 24 hours. But even though every star rotates the same number of degrees in any given period (seconds, minutes, hours, or whatever), the stars travel different distances in that same period: The farther a star is from the axis of rotation (the North or South Pole), the more visual distance covers to complete its circuit (it appears to move faster). This is clear to see when you realize that the farther a star is from one of the poles, the longer its arc is in a star trail image.
Star Trails, Desert View, Grand Canyon

Star Trails, Desert View, Grand Canyon National Park

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

Freezing motion

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.

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So what’s the point?

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.

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A gallery of motion

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