Posted on August 27, 2013
Nature photographers plan, and plan, and plan some more, but no amount of planning can overcome the fickle whims of Mother Nature. So when all of nature’s variables click into place, euphoria ensues. On the other hand, few things are more disappointing than a long anticipated and perfectly executed shoot washed out by conditions beyond my control. (For a photo workshop leader, with the happiness of other photographers in the balance, the emotions of these planning successes and failures are magnified many times.) But just as Mother Nature can thwart our best laid plans, sometimes she takes us by complete surprise and more than compensate for the myriad disappointment.
As many of you know, Don Smith and I just returned from two weeks photographing the Grand Canyon. We did a little of our own photography on the trip, but the prime focus was our two four-plus day photo workshops split evenly between the Grand Canyon’s North and South Rims. These workshops were “designed” to give everyone the opportunity to photograph the Grand Canyon, day and night, under the influence of its annual Monsoon season: billowing clouds, vivid rainbows, and lightning. Especially lightning. But any workshop requiring specific weather conditions is fraught with uncertainty and anxiety—we were fairly certain the photography would be great (after all, it is the Grand Canyon), but few natural phenomena are more fickle than lightning.
But back to that planning thing. When organizing a workshop schedule (or, for that matter, any landscape photo shoot), the best a photographer can do is maximize the odds: We try to schedule all the non-photography requirements (meals, sleep, travel, training) for the times least likely to conflict with the best photography. For example, we know that because Southwest Monsoon thunderstorms usually don’t develop before midday, Grand Canyon summer sunrises usually lack the clouds and pristine air necessary for the vivid color photographer’s covet. Therefore our photography emphasis for this trip was always on getting our groups out from mid-morning through (and sometimes after) sunset. That doesn’t mean we blew off sunrise, it just means that the sunrises are generally better for exhausted, sleep-deprived photographers to skip than the sunsets are.
Nevertheless, Don and I rallied the troops at 5 a.m. Friday for the final workshop’s final shoot at Bright Angel Point, a five minute walk from our rim-side cabins. We’d already had so many wonderful shoots that we knew everyone would be going home with great images—this final shoot was just a little bonus, the cherry atop an already delicious sundae. In fact, as Don and I exited our cabin in the pre-dawn darkness, I predicted that I wouldn’t even take my camera out of my bag that morning—my words as I turned the doorknob were, “But if I leave my bag here, we’ll probably get lightning and a rainbow.” Little did I know….
What followed was what Don and I later agreed was probably the single most memorable workshop shoot either of us had ever experienced. The lightning was already exploding the darkness across the canyon as we set up at the Bright Angel Point rail. Not just the single, infrequent strikes we’d been photographing all week, but numerous, violent strikes in multiple directions illuminating the black canyon several times per minute. The pyrotechnics continued for over two hours, awing us first in the dark, then through twilight, and finally into and beyond a magenta sunrise. And as if that wasn’t enough, as the sun crested the horizon behind us, a small but vivid rainbow fragment materialized on the canyon’s rim and hung there like a target for the lightning to take potshots at it. This was more than just good photography, this once-in-a-lifetime convergence of weather, location, and light would for everyone present likely become the standard against which all future natural phenomena would be compared.
Rather than bore you with more words, I’m just going to let the morning’s images speak for me:
The energy of each person in the group that morning was like that of a five-year-old at Disneyland. And even Don and I, the seasoned pros who get to witness nature’s magic all the time, remained giddy for the entire 800 mile drive home. These unexpected gifts of nature are important reminders that photography is so much more than a job to us.
Posted on August 22, 2013
After wrapping up our first Grand Canyon Monsoon workshop, Don Smith and I stayed a couple of extra nights on the North Rim to check-out potential locations for the second workshop. Saturday morning Don and I left our cabin with every intention of scouting (I swear) some remote, west-facing vista points, but black clouds and rolling thunder in the east (which we already knew quite well) gave us pause. The farther we drove, the blacker the clouds became, and the weaker our resolve. A jagged bolt on the ridge north and east of the highway (a sign?) was more than enough to convince us to scuttle the scouting plan and beeline to Point Imperial.
With a 200 degree-plus east-facing panorama that includes the Vermillion Cliffs, the sheer west wall of the Grand Canyon, and many named and unnamed red ridges and monuments, Point Imperial is one of my favorite North Rim vistas. By the time we arrived, the lightning was firing every thirty seconds north of us, well beyond the closest ridge. Gear in hand, I scrambled quickly down onto the rocks beneath the designated vista point for a better view—nobody moves faster than a photographer who feels like he’s missing the show (or so I thought). Don, a month out from knee replacement surgery, stayed up above, near the railed vista area.
Soon my Lightning Trigger had my camera firing away, usually at unseen bolts (it detects flashes obscured by clouds, or too distant for the eye), but occasionally at photogenic strikes too distant for the thunder to reach me. For the first thirty minutes the sky overhead was mostly blue and I watched with very little anxiety as the rain curtain with the most activity drifted slowly eastward. But when a thunder clap rolled across my exposed vantage point I glanced upward and saw nothing but angry clouds. So caught up in the awe of the moment, I’d failed to realize that the lightning frequency had intensified, and now some of the ridges I’d been photographing had disappeared behind an advancing downpour that looked that someone had opened a drain in the sky and released all the water in Heaven. Somewhat uncertain of my safety, I found comfort in the knowledge that the vista point above me still teamed with gaping tourists who surely knew better than this life-long California resident.
My comfort turned to concern when a rapid series of pulses drilled all the way down to the canyon floor just off to my right: One-thousand-one, one-thou… Boom! Hmmm. Maybe just a couple more frames…. Then I got the idea that, since it wasn’t raining on the point, I would leave my camera out to capture the action while waited in the car for the lightning to pass. About two steps into my controlled retreat the sky exploded. While I was pretty sure I’d broken land speed records descending the rocks when I arrived, that feat didn’t come close to the speed with which I flew back up to the car. Phew. Then the rain arrived, and suddenly my idea of leaving the camera out didn’t seem quite so brilliant. So, with rain (mixed with marble-size hail) falling, for the second year in a row, I performed a heroic rescue. Once again, with no regard for my personal safety, I dodged raindrops, hailstones, and lightning bolts (well, two out of three) to liberate my camera from the jaws of death.
Shortly thereafter the advancing column of water marched over us and set up camp. We eventually decided to move on to other locations, and while we saw lots of lightning, some of it too close to even start counting the seconds, we weren’t able to find a vantage point far enough removed from the action for photography. But for nearly an hour on Point Imperial, we had it as good as I could have imagined.
Posted on August 16, 2013
It occurred to me while processing this image that, just like the lightning strike image in my previous post, this was my next-to-last image of the day. Which got me thinking about why I like these late-light images, and also about the similarities and differences between the two images.
Both images were captured in conditions much darker than the final image indicates. In this scene from Desert View on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, the sunset’s fading vestiges clung to the northeast horizon, while a rain squall swept across the opposite rim. The workshop group had just wrapped up a glorious sunset shoot that included a double rainbow in the east, and fully illuminated, golden curtains of rain in the west. While I have many far more spectacular images from that evening (that I’ll no doubt get to eventually), there was something about the quiet of the rim after most of the photographers and sunset gawkers had vacated, that caused me to keep shooting in the gathering darkness.
As with Saturday night’s lightning image, the canyon’s color this evening was no longer visible, but it was still light enough to make out definition in the walls all the way down to the twisting Colorado River. And unlike the lightning shoot, when I was tense with anticipation of the next strike, my feeling this evening at Desert View was one of utter calm. I’d found my scene, the light was fading gradually, and all I had to do was wait for the advancing rain squall to move into my frame. Sublime.
Posted on August 12, 2013
After a marathon drive (that included four states and one unscheduled visit with a Utah Highway Patrol officer) from Northern California to St. George, Utah, Don Smith and I arrived at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon on Saturday afternoon. Our goal was advance scouting for our back-to-back Grand Canyon Monsoon workshops, which start this afternoon (Monday). Though we’re both pretty familiar with the North Rim, we wanted to check the conditions there (the wildflowers are gorgeous right now), and since these would be our first workshops at the North Rim, we also wanted to get a better handle on the drive times to our various locations.
Another motive was to scrape the rust on our lightning triggers, which hadn’t been used since last summer. Unfortunately, the Grand Canyon weather reports were less than promising, so when we headed out to shoot sunset Saturday night, lightning wasn’t on our mind. But shortly after arriving at our sunset destination, Walhalla Point, we saw a bolt strike across the canyon, above the Painted Desert. So out came the lightning triggers, and we spent the entire shoot bouncing between the (occasional) lightning in the east and truly gorgeous sunset color and sidelight along the rim to the south.
Don and I had much better luck with the sunset than we did with the lightning triggers (it turns out the rust was more on the photographers than the triggers). Our lightning attempts targeted one area in particular, but as the light faded, so did the lightning our target zone, and we became resigned to chalking this first night up to experience. But about the time we were ready to wrap up (ever notice how many stories of successful images start with those words?), we started seeing more lightning strikes farther north. Though it was getting cold up there at 9,000 feet, we thought we’d give it one more shot and move a few miles north to Roosevelt Point.
Twilight was in full bloom by the time we arrived at Roosevelt Point; fortunately, so was the lightning. I started with my lightning trigger, but soon switched it off in favor of long exposures. It seemed that one out of every two or three 30-second exposures seemed to capture a bolt, but with the light fading quickly, I needed to adjust my exposure after each frame. Soon I found myself in bulb mode, with exposures measured in minutes. The image here is my penultimate frame, a nearly nine-minute exposure captured forty-five minutes after sunset. The long exposure was able to wring out just enough light to reveal detail in the canyon. (The final frame, though exposed 2 1/3 stops brighter, was even darker than this one.)
This image perfectly illustrates the difference between the camera’s reality and ours. The scene my eyes saw was dark: not only was the Grand Canyon’s rich red completely lost to my eyes, its ridges and chasms were reduced to barely perceptible dark shapes. And the bolts you see here were not simultaneous—the one on the right fired early in the exposure, the two on the left came together toward the end. But through my camera’s unique vision, I was able to reveal the Grand Canyon in a way we human’s can only imagine.
Posted on April 2, 2013
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Scheduling most workshops at least a year in advance, it’s easy to forget that distant dates will eventually become current dates. And so as 2013 approached I started looking somewhat askance at my spring schedule. Hmmm…, only four days at home from March 7 to March 29—what in the world had I been thinking? Ten days circling Maui and ten days bouncing between Phoenix, the Grand Canyon, Page, and Sedona seemed like such a good idea at the time, but now that I was actually going to have to pack my suitcase and hit the road (as much as I looked forward to each destination), I seriously wondered if I’d made a mistake. Well, with March 2013 now in my rearview mirror, I’m happy to not only did I survive, I thrived. A little worn around the edges perhaps, but nevertheless quite happy with an unforgettable month of photography and friendship.
Helping me survive March was my good friend and fellow pro photographer Don Smith—Don assisted my Maui workshop, I assisted his Northern Arizona workshop, and we shared the Spring Training experience with Don’s son Aaron. Truth be told, Don and I have far more fun on the road than two grown men should have—we returned from these adventures with a fresh trove of stories that included a beer glass accident resulting in a free dinner for our entire table (thanks, Don), and a car stuck in the mud on a remote dirt road we (I) had no business attempting.
Another March treat that can’t be overstated is the opportunity leading workshops provides to make new photographer friends and reconnect with old ones. Spending hours driving to and from locations, sharing meals, and waiting in the dark for the sun or stars is a great way to get to know people—I never fail to marvel at photography’s ability to bond people with such diverse professions, cultures, interests, and values.
For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, here’s a review of some of the great sights I was blessed with in March (in no particular order):
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Regular readers know that I’m a lifelong comet enthusiast, so a major March highlight for me was the opportunity to photograph Comet PanSTARRS from atop Haleakala, the location of the PanSTARRS telescope that discovered the comet. I’m always surprised when people don’t realize how incredibly beautiful (and photogenic!) a comet is, but I’m pretty sure I made a few comet converts this year.
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The Grand Canyon delivered colorful sunrises and sunsets each day, and the extreme cold (remember, I’d just returned from Maui) was a reasonable price for avoiding the flat blue skies that frequently make the Grand Canyon so difficult to photograph.
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As someone who loves seeing things I’ve never seen, the exotic beauty of Maui’s bamboo forest was a particular thrill.
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At Upper Antelope Canyon, not only did our workshop group get the much coveted beams of light, the timing of our tour somehow managed to avoid the crowds at the beam locations. (I’ve photographed there enough to know that this was a total fluke that couldn’t have been planned.)
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I’ll never tire of the Road to Hana, with a surprise at every turn and a seemingly infinite supply of waterfalls. My goal with each visit is to find something new—this time I scrambled and rock-hopped up a narrow canyon to find a 100 foot waterfall plunging into a translucent turquoise pool.
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After nearly marooning on a muddy, remote dirt road on West Maui, on our final night Don and I returned to find out whether the spot was worth the trouble—it was.
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Somehow in the midst of all this photography Don and I managed to indulge my baseball passion by tacking a four day Arizona Spring Training visit to the Northern Arizona photo trip. The weather couldn’t have been better (unless you don’t like 80 degrees and blue skies) and we got a healthy dose of our (World Champion!) San Francisco Giants. I’ve made this pilgrimage about fifteen times (I’ve lost the exact count) in the last twenty-five years and it never fails to disappoint.
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And that was my March, a month that could have battered me but instead reminded me how fortunate I am to do what I do. Bring on April!
Posted on March 30, 2013
Photographing the Grand Canyon isn’t easy (I’ve said this before)
The Grand Canyon is a very difficult place to photograph. Or more accurately, 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, and you instantly forget that the Grand Canyon’s depth and breadth, the very things that make it so breathtaking in person, are completely lost to the camera’s two-dimensional, confined perspective.
Overcoming these losses starts with understanding your camera’s vision and refining your ability to recognize and organize your scene’s compositional elements (subject, color, depth, light, visual flow), and how to manage them with your camera’s variables (f-stop, shutter speed, ISO, focal length). With that in place, you’re ready to formulate an actual plan for approaching the scene you plan to photograph. But keep in mind that plans can be a creative straightjacket (especially in a dynamic, unpredictable location like the Grand Canyon)—you also need the flexibility to overcome disappointment and quickly shift to Plan B when Plan A doesn’t materialize. For me, implementing all this means arriving early and spending every non-shooting moment familiarizing myself with my surroundings, the light, and the conditions in the sky.
Once my plan is in place, I put my left brain to bed and wake my right brain. Ultimately, despite all the analysis and planning that goes into setting up a shot, I try to click the shutter with my heart—does it feel right?
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. When clouds hugging the eastern horizon thickened I could have stubbornly stuck to my guns and hoped the moon would somehow find its way through. On the other hand, 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. Always conscious to avoid reactive photography, I jettisoned the east-facing moonrise plan and headed over to re-familiarize myself with Hopi Point’s west side (but that didn’t keep me from sneaking back around for an occasional peek to the east).
The Grand Canyon is great for this kind of anticipatory photography because the unobstructed view of the horizon from the rim allows provides good insight into what’s in store. Once I switched views, I spent the rest of my pre-shooting 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.
The moon that evening was in fact a no-show (until it was far too late to photograph), 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 to and below the horizon. The highlight came couple of minutes after sunset, when a fan of thin clouds spewing from the sun’s exit point started throbbing with crimson, creating a flame-like effect.
But I wasn’t satisfied with a nice sky above the beautiful canyon (nor should you be)—I needed relationships between my foreground and background. After spending most of my shooting time emphasizing the canyon’s vast lateral expanse with wide, horizontal compositions anchored by a distinctive tree, I wanted a vertical composition that would turn the emphasis to the canyon’s depth beneath the flaming sky. Continuing with my horizontal frame would have been too wide to capture the sky’s impact. But because I’d spent so much time exploring earlier, I went right to 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, live-view 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. My 3-stop reverse graduated neutral density filter reduced the significant dynamic range to a very manageable level that allowed me to capture the entire range of light in a single frame (my personal rule). (Later I smoothed the barely visible GND transition with a few dodge/burn brush strokes in Photoshop.)
Photographing in my right mind
Once I’ve identified a scene’s compositional elements and exposure variables, I turn off my left (logical) brain and engage my right (creative) brain. (This is no longer conscious, nor is it genius—it’s pretty much just the product of years of repetition.) I composed the scene in my viewfinder (still haven’t embraced the live-view composition thing), moving up/down, forward/backward, left/right, and zooming in and out until everything felt balanced. 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.
It’s interesting to compare this image with one I created from within a few feet of this location a few years ago. While each contains many of the same elements, the conditions were vastly different, and so were my objectives, and ultimately, my compositional choices.
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.
Posted on March 25, 2013
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A couple of weeks ago I wrote about fulfilling my Comet PanSTARRS dreams from atop Haleakala (the location of PanSTARRS’ discovery) on Maui. After nearly a year of anticipation, being able to photograph this beautiful comet paired with a new moon had left me sated. And anyway, with the comet fading fast, I had no illusions that I’d be able to top what I already had. But less than two weeks removed from Maui, finding myself in Arizona to assist Don Smith’s Northern Arizona workshop (Don assisted me in Maui) and still seeing nice PanSTARRS images online, I decided to check PanSTARRS’ location relative to the Grand Canyon (where the workshop kicks off). And guess what…. Not only did it look like we could align PanSTARRS with the Grand Canyon, the 93% waxing gibbous moon would be perfectly positioned to illuminate the canyon, normally a bottomless black pit at night.
I should mention that Don and I preceded our Northern Arizona trip with a few days watching Spring Training baseball (go Giants!) in Phoenix, a much needed respite separating a grueling week on Maui from an equally grueling trip to the Grand Canyon, Page (Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend), and Sedona. (I know, I know, if our life gets any tougher U2 will probably be doing a benefit concert for us, but Don and I are just givers.)
Our original plan had been to catch the Giants and Angels in Tempe on Sunday afternoon, then take a leisurely drive to our hotel near the South Rim that night. But when I told Don about the opportunity to reprise our Maui PanSTARRS shoot, he was all for it. We bolted the Giants’ game in the seventh inning and rolled into the parking lot at Yavapai Point (by my calculation the only easily accessible, ideally aligned location) about 30 minutes after sunset.
We found the rim gloriously empty (and shockingly cold after Maui and Phoenix). The western horizon still held traces of warmth from the just finished day, but moonlight had already started spilling into the canyon. By the time we were set up and ready to shoot the sky had darkened enough that it was about dark enough to shoot. After a couple of test shots to get the exposure right and locate PanSTARRS (it’s too faint now to be seen with the naked eye), we got down to business. The comet was clearly visible as a white smudge on my LCD screen, even more visible than I expected it to be, making framing it in the composition easy. I just kept clicking, trying many horizontal and vertical variations as I could, until the comet finally faded into the orange haze.
Tonight we’ll take the group out and try again….