Posted on June 13, 2021
It’s a Saturday afternoon (Sunday evening by the time you read this) and I’m working on less than 4 hours sleep. I’m not complaining, but before I pass out, I want to share the story of my latest shoot, and the reason I’m so sleep deprived.
If you follow my blog, you might know that in April Don Smith and I got an unexpected opportunity to preview Sony’s brand new 14mm f/1.8 GM lens in Oregon, before its announcement a week or so later. (Read more here.) But that experience was just a tease, because just as I started to fully appreciate the new lens’s potential for night photography (and other stuff, but I’m especially excited by night photography), we had to send it back.
When I finally got my own copy of the lens early this month, I couldn’t wait to try it out on the Milky Way (which wasn’t possible in Oregon because of the direction the Bandon views faced, and a waning moon). June is primetime for Milky Way photography because the brilliant galactic core is up all night—all you need is a dark sky far from city lights, and without the moon.
With a waxing moon invading the sky starting this week, the June dark sky window was quickly closing when I accepted an invitation to join a couple of photographer friends on their night photography trip to Joshua Tree NP this weekend. Then, just two days before we were supposed to leave, my friends decided to go to Denmark instead (a likely story—who else remembers the “Friends” episode where Chandler ditched Janice by telling her he was going to Yemen? Oh. My. God.), leaving me to fend for myself.
I could have stuck with the Joshua Tree plan, but a solo, 16+ hour roundtrip to spend a couple of nights photographing a spot I don’t really know didn’t sound like the best use of my time. Instead, I decided to recruit my brother Jay for a quick trip to more familiar environs.
Yosemite Valley’s towering walls and east/west orientation make it less than ideal for Milky Way photography. And while Yosemite’s high country has potential, accessibility (no roads, backcountry permit requirements) make it next to impossible for a last-minute trip. But…, at 8000 feet, Olmsted Point certainly qualifies as Yosemite high country. And because it’s right on Tioga Road (Highway 120), no backcountry permit is required. There’s still the problem of this summer’s COVID-induced Yosemite reservation system, but photo workshop permit gives me an exemption from (I do still have to get approval first).
Another nice thing about Olmsted Point is that it offers a view of Half Dome that’s quite a bit different than what we’re used to seeing from Yosemite Valley. While the Yosemite Valley views of Half Dome face east, from Olmsted Point Half Dome rises in the southwest, at the end of Tenaya Canyon.
Jay and I pulled into the Olmsted Point parking area at about 8:30 Friday night. The sun had just set, but we still had at least an hour until the sky darkened enough for the Milky Way to appear. With time to kill, after bundling into my cold weather clothes and organizing my gear, I twisted my Sony 100-400 onto my Sony a7RIV and scaled a nearby granite ridge to photograph the thin sliver of new moon disappearing in the west. An impromptu bonus that set the tone for the night.
We made the 5-minute walk out to Olmsted Point’s granite dome at around 9 p.m. I’ve been up here more times than I can count, so even in the dwindling light I was able to quickly identify the scene I wanted to start with, set up my camera (Sony a7SIII and Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM), and frame up a composition. Then I just kicked back on the granite and watched the stars pop out.
Viewed from the Northern Hemisphere, in June the Milky Way’s core rises nearly horizontal in the southeast sky shortly after sunset. As our planetary viewing platform rotates, the glowing core appears to pivot on an unseen point below the south-southwest horizon, moving up and southward (to the right) until it stands vertical in the southwest. The northern hemisphere nights are so short in June that the Milky Way fades from view before setting.
By 9:30 we could see the Milky Way peeking just above the granite ridge that leads to Clouds Rest. It was well east of Half Dome, so for these early frames I was very thankful to have a 14mm lens that allowed me to include the Milky Way in the same frame as Half Dome. I spent those early moments tweaking my exposure, refining my composition, and verifying that my focus was good.
Once I’d gotten everything just as I wanted it, I told myself that there was no reason to rush because with each passing minute, the Milky Way was a little higher in the sky and closer to Half Dome—that meant every click I took would be just a little better than the one preceding it. So after the initial exhilaration passed, I just sat on a nearby rock and appreciated the view. Few things are more humbling than reclining beneath a dark sky on a still night (especially when you’re sufficiently bundled against the high elevation chill).
We stayed until nearly 1:00 a.m. As I photographed (and gazed), I kept mentally pushing back our planned departure time, mentally subtracting hours of sleep by rationalizing that sometimes sleep is overrated. This was definitely one of those times.
A few words about my night photography
All of the night scenes you see on my website, in my blog, or anywhere else my images appear, were captured with one click. I don’t blend, composite, or in any other way combine multiple captures to create a single image. I’m not saying I think there’s anything wrong with blending images (there isn’t)—I just don’t get any pleasure from that kind of photography. So, while my night images may not look as dazzling as some of the other (truly beautiful) night composites being created today, you can at least be confident that you’re looking only at the photons that struck my sensor in one contiguous span of time.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on April 4, 2021
“Chance favors only the prepared mind.” ~ Louis Pasteur
Successful nature photography requires the convergence of physical objects, position (relative to those objects), light, weather conditions, the right equipment, and mastery of craft (did I miss anything?). Though we can control many of these factors, the overriding element that trumps everything else is plain old luck. But despite the undeniable luck factor in photography, most photographers bristle at the suggestion that a particular capture was “lucky.” For good reason.
No one denies that photography involves a great deal of luck, but each of us chooses our relationship with the fickle whims of chance, and we have more control than you might imagine. Which is why, like Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell, and a host of other photographers, I embrace Louis Pasteur’s belief that chance does indeed favor the prepared mind. In other words, the more prepared we are, the less luck will effect our outcomes.
As photographers, job-1 is subtracting as much luck as possible from the image capture equation: we hone our craft, get the best gear our budget allows (including backups), painstakingly research our locations, study the science behind the conditions we want to photograph, then sacrifice comfort and convenience (and sleep!) to be in the right place at the right time. Though we definitely appreciate our good fortune when the magic does happen, much of photography’s joy comes from the special effort it took to be there. Yes, it was fortunate that a lightning bolt struck right there, or the clouds parted just as the moon appeared, but it was no accident that we were there when it happened, fully prepared to capture the moment.
All photographers, in one way or another, work to manufacture their own luck. Because I’m particularly drawn to capturing nature’s ephemeral phenomena above its terrestrial wonders, that’s where my efforts are spent. Whether it’s lightning at the Grand Canyon, the Milky Way over Tasman Lake in New Zealand, or a moonrise above Half Dome in Yosemite, I schedule most of my photo trips (both personal and workshops) to maximize my chances for something special. While there’s never a guarantee that it will actually happen, and I’ve been disappointed more times than I can count, that doesn’t stop me from planning and getting out there just in case.
Which is how I happened to be in Yosemite in December 2019 for this moonrise. I’d plotted this alignment more than a year in advance. When I scheduled a workshop to capture it (fingers crossed), I knew full well that December is the wet season in Yosemite, making it entirely possible, maybe even likely, that my much anticipated moonrise could happen entirely behind a curtain of clouds.
Since this was a workshop, my first job is to reduce the luck factor for my entire group. That started with letting everyone know what gear they needed (nothing special: camera, lenses covering 24mm to 200mm, and a tripod), and (more important) getting them up to speed on the surprisingly tricky exposure idiosyncrasies of sunset moonrises. Meanwhile, behind the scenes I obsessively refreshed the NWS Yosemite forecast page every five minutes, trying will the forecast into promising something more definitive than the annoyingly ambiguous “partly cloudy.” No such luck.
The day of the event proceeded as advertised, teasing us with skies that alternated between mostly clear to mostly cloudy. Fickle skies notwithstanding, there was no thought of abandoning Plan A—I’ve been surprised enough by Nature (especially in Yosemite) to know that, no matter what the forecast promised, I’d have my group out there. Another thing I try to do to improve my group’s odds of success is get them on location early enough to familiarize themselves with the scene and its variety of composition options. Even though I’ve photographed this spot countless times, experience has taught me that first time need time to get comfortable with a scene.
Even without the moon, this location is very photo-worthy. So by the time moonrise approached, they’d all had plenty of photos under their belt and were pretty comfortable with the possibilities here. Clouds came and went as we waited, but the moon’s appearance coincided with one of the more clear moments. We started clicking wildly when the moon peeked out from behind Half Dome, then held our collective breaths as Half Dome’s cloud-making machine churned into action, completely erasing the moon within minutes of its arrival. But instead of getting discouraged, we just hung tight and hoped the moon would punch through. Punch through it did, delighting us with a moon/cloud dance that lasted until it became too dark to photograph.
We all felt very lucky walking back to the cars that evening, but we felt so much more than that. Exiting Safeway to see a rainbow arcing over the parking lot is lucky. Period. But when you see an image of one of nature’s ephemeral gifts matched with a beautiful landscape, try to appreciate that its creation, as lucky as the moment might have felt to the photographer, was probably much more than simple good luck.
Fortunately, anticipating these special moments in nature doesn’t require any real gifts—just a basic understanding of the natural phenomena you’d like to photograph, and a little effort to match your anticipated natural event (a rainbow, lightning, a moonrise, or whatever) with your location of choice. Mix in the right gear, the resolve to get out there, and the perseverance not to give up when nature appears to have other ideas, and voila: You’re a photographer! And that’s about as lucky as you can be.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on March 14, 2021
Last week marked the one year anniversary of the COVID shutdown. WOW. One year.
In hindsight I realize that I might have been a little naive when this thing started because of the way I’d spent the two weeks prior to the shutdown: first in Scottsdale, Arizona for my annual MLB Spring Training trip (go Giants!), followed immediately by a week in Anchorage, Alaska to visit my daughter. In Arizona at the beginning of March I noticed very little difference in people’s behavior (though I did have to search long and hard for hand sanitizer), but winging my way to Alaska, I was struck by how empty the airports and flights were. Hmmm….
Alaska is where I was when it started to dawn on me that a couple of my upcoming workshops might be threatened. When that realization hit, I remember thinking I’ll be fine as long as I don’t lose the New Zealand trip at the end of June. Ha! I ended up losing 12 workshops, including New Zealand in both 2020 and 2021. And the workshops I have managed to pull off (three so far since last March) have been impacted as well, both in terms of group size and COVID protocol.
But this isn’t a woe is me post, I promise. I have so much to be grateful for, starting with the flexibility of being self-employed and working from home. And of course continued good health of my family and me. Oh, and the fact that I’m still in business.
And just like that, here’s 2021, I’m fully vaccinated, with two workshops in the mirror and six queued up over the next eight weeks (maybe I should be careful what I wish for). Life’s good.
I started this blog with the idea of a sentence or two reflecting on the COVID anniversary before diving into some thoughts on this just-processed image from last November. But here I am, nearly 500 words later….
I don’t need to gush any more about this day, a highlight of my pandemic year—you can just go back through the many blogs I’ve already posted about it (7—I counted). What I wanted to say about this image is how it underscores the importance of not merely settling for a beautiful scene, no matter how beautiful it is (something this one irrefutably was). Creating an image that stands out from all the other pictures of inherently beautiful scenes requires understanding the difference between the way your camera sees a scene and the way you see it. Unlike your experience of the world, a still image is devoid of motion and depth, has limited dynamic range and depth of field, and is constrained by a rectangular box. Managing these differences requires the ability to control your camera’s exposure variables (f-stop, shutter speed, ISO, focal length) to create the illusion of depth and motion.
The clouds had just started to part when I arrived at this reflective bend in the Merced River. It’s easy to get walloped by the beauty of a scene like this, frame up something nice, and click. But after indulging the creative side of my brain (camera or not, this scene really was gorgeous), I forced myself to set my awe aside for a few beats to work out the best way to convey the beauty.
My first step in most scenes is to identify the most important thing—what I want the scene to be “about.” If that important thing is in the foreground, I look for a complementary background; if my subject is in the background, I try to identify a complementary foreground.
In this case my “most important thing” was the entire scene across the river, anchored of course by Half Dome, but supported by the snow-covered trees and the reflection. I wandered the riverbank and found a few things to put in my foreground. I started with a mini cove rimmed with leaves that I used to frame a horizontal composition. Then, looking for something that would be better for a vertical composition, I moved on to these floating leaves and partially submerged log just a few feet upstream. Framing everything up at eye-level, I didn’t like the empty gap between the leaves/log and Half Dome’s reflection, so I dropped my tripod as low as it would go and went to work.
While there was a fair amount of dynamic range, I knew it was well within the capabilities of my Sony a7RIV—if I exposed carefully. But exposing carefully means more than just getting the light right—it means getting the light right with a shutter speed that handles the motion, and with an f-stop that handles the depth.
With a few ripples disturbing the reflection, I wanted shutter speed long enough to smooth the water and twisted my Breakthrough 6-stop Dark Circular Polarizer onto my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens. And since sharpness from the closest leaf to Half Dome’s summit was important, I selected f/16 and focused on the log. (My hyperfocal app assured me that this would give me more than enough depth-of-field for front-to-back sharpness.) Next, with my eye on the viewfinder, I slowly turned my polarizer far enough to remove the reflection from the leaves, but not so much that I erased the primary reflection.
Finally, I was ready to meter and select the shutter speed the gave me a good histogram. At my a7RIV’s native ISO (100), the shutter speed I needed was 1-second. To double that and ensure better smoothing of the ripples, I dialed down to ISO 50. Click.
(Images from the last 12 months)
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on February 28, 2021
So much to do after two workshops in the last two weeks (and all the planning and recovery that goes with them). I had ambitious plans to return home late Friday night and hit the ground running first thing Saturday morning, so imagine my frustration to walk into my chilly house (I’d turned off the heat before I left), equal parts hungry and tired, at about 11 p.m. to find my internet down. When I discovered no dial tone on my landline (yes, I still have a landline), I realized this was a Comcast problem. Uh-oh. Having dealt with Comcast problems in the past (don’t get me started on their automated phone support system), I set aside food, warmth, and sleep to immediately call Comcast tech support. (Cold, hungry, tired, and no internet—suddenly I knew how the Donner Party must have felt.)
After about two hours on the phone (no, I do not want to reset my modem for the eighth time!), the best I could do was arrange for a Sunday house call—not bad for Comcast, but certainly not great for someone with a business to run, especially given all I had to do. I went to bed strategizing my Saturday, figuring I could at least load and process my images, and handle my basic internet needs by turning my phone into a wifi hot spot. But Saturday morning when I tried to connect my computer to my phone and load a page, my computer just stared back dumbly. I checked my reception and saw it bouncing between one and zero bars. I found a corner by the window that at least seemed to stay at one bar and called T-Mobile. Turns out a tower was down, but at least they were sorry. (I actually think T-Mobile’s tech support is very good, especially after dealing with Comcast.) And for some reason my Adobe Creative Suite wouldn’t load either (usually it works fine without connectivity, but I didn’t have the bandwidth to debug the problem without internet).
The additional technical frustration between then and now included multiple support calls with Comcast and T-Mobile and a trip to the Comcast store to swap out my modem, all culminating with a visit from a very nice Comcast technician who fixed the problem and told me the support rep I talked to yesterday could have fixed it over the phone. Sigh.
So here I am, it’s Sunday night and have a blog to write. I loaded my images, grabbed one from Friday night, processed it, and here you go. Now for something to say….
I’d scheduled my Yosemite Winter Moon workshop around this grand finale, a full moon rising from directly behind Half Dome right at sunset on Friday evening. The rest of the workshop had already been really nice—multiple rainbows on Yosemite Falls (Upper and Lower), a warmup moonrise on Thursday night, and even a bonus Horsetail Fall shoot (I’d made it clear that the moon, not Horsetail Fall, was the priority for this workshop) when it became clear the conditions would be perfect, and I had cracked this year’s NPS Horsetail Fall restrictions code—but this moonrise is what we’d all been looking forward to.
Because of the crowds in the park and the fact that the moonrise was apparently not a secret (how I long for the good old days), we got to our moonrise spot above the Tunnel View vista about two hours early. After not seeing a single cloud for the entire workshop, the first thing we saw as we unpacked and set up our gear was a bank of thin clouds that had set up camp low on the horizon, directly behind Half Dome. At first they appeared to be moving on and I was pretty optimistic about our moonrise, but as the appointed hour approached I grew increasingly pessimistic—not only were clouds thickening, they were expanding.
Sure enough, zero hour arrived with no sign of the moon, but we did get some nice color in the clouds and the group, while disappointed, seemed happy enough with what did get. The scene was so nice in fact that we were in no rush to leave despite the darkening landscape. Which is why we were still primed and ready for action when I noticed a faint glow in the clouds above Sentinel Rock. Could it be?
Yes it could. What started as a glow quickly revealed itself to be the lunar disk we’d been waiting for. And though it wasn’t apparent to our eyes, it was clear that the moon had edged into a patch of thinner clouds, because as we frantically clicked, actual lunar detail started to emerge. In fact, the clouds that originally thwarted our moonrise turned out to be a benefit when they moderated the moon’s brightness enough to allow us to photograph long after it have been too bright.
In my prior blog post I wrote about the joy of unexpected gifts from nature, events that seem to come out of nowhere, just when you’ve about given up hope. Now it had happened in consecutive workshops. I realize that moments like this are the exception, but they really do more than make up for all the disappointment nature likes to deal.
Posted on January 3, 2021
Since the start of the pandemic, many (most?) of us have have found lots of time to catch up on books and movies (among other things). Of course that also includes me, and as a photographer I find it hard not to find parallels between my chosen creative medium and these others. The tension in books and movies, whether dramatic, comedic, or some combination of both, originates from the interaction of characters with each other and/or their surroundings, and the change that interaction spawns over time. Which of course got me thinking about whether it’s possible to create tension in a still photograph, and if so, how?
Though we might not be conscious of it, the best photographic images do indeed convey a form of tension. It’s human nature to seek relationships, not just in our lives, but in our art as well. Every relationship has inherent tension, an invisible connecting thread that pulls tighter as the relationship strengthens.
Lacking the passing of time and the change it brings, still-photographers must create tension by setting up relationships between disparate elements in our frame. We signal these relationships, thereby dialing up the tension, through careful positioning of compositional elements (Google “rule of thirds” and “golden ratio”).
The most obvious relationships available to landscape photographers is the juxtaposing independent physical elements in the scene. For example, pairing a foreground tree or flower with a distant peak permanently creates a relationship between two formerly unrelated subjects. Reflections are an easy way to connect a nearby water feature to a distant subject. And then there are the dynamic celestial elements like the moon and stars, and ephemeral weather phenomena such as lightning and rainbows, that make powerful connections with terrestrial subjects.
But wait, there’s more…
Even though no time passes in a still frame, landscape photographers can and do signal time’s advance. Whether conscious of it or not, when we photograph the color and light of the natural boundaries separating day and night, the broken clouds and rainbows of a clearing a storm, or the juxtaposition of elements distinctive to two seasons, we signal the passage of time and the tension inherent in its inexorable march.
Lacking other features to set them apart, the cliched nature of sunrises and sunset images diminishes their power to generate tension—in other words, sunrises and sunsets are a dime a dozen, so if you’re going to photograph one, you’d better make an effort to put it with a strong scene. On the other hand, though it’s always important to seek a strong composition regardless of the conditions, the more rare the change, the better it can overcome an otherwise ordinary scene.
A clearing storm can feel like catching lightning in a bottle (a nice rainbow can elevate nearly any scene), but an even rarer opportunity to capture change is a scene with clear signs of two seasons. That’s especially true in my home state of California, where seasons tend to be more of an afterthought. But that doesn’t mean opportunities to photograph seasonal change here are nonexistent. California does get spectacular spring wildflower blooms, and our autumn color display (though maybe not as spectacular as some other places), can be very nice.
Bracketing spring and autumn on one side is summer, hands-down California’s least photographically compelling season. But on the other side of spring and autumn is winter. While most of the state doesn’t get snow, our mountains do (and lots of it)—capturing late snow on wildflowers and dogwood (an extremely rare event), and early snow on fall color, are real treats.
So maybe I should have warned you that there’d be math…
Which brings me to this image from my visit to Yosemite during an early November snowstorm. I really don’t need to go on any more about this day—if you’ve been reading my blog for the last couple of months, you’re probably well beyond sick of hearing about it. But it does illustrate the synergy of combining two seasons in one image. No one can deny that fall color is beautiful, and fresh snow is beautiful too (which of these is more beautiful is in the eye of the beholder, and a debate for another day). But if we were somehow able to quantify beauty, I suspect that we’d find the total amount of beauty (“beauty-units,” “beauty-bucks”?) in a fresh snow on fall color image would exceed the sum of the beauty derived from an image with fall color plus the beauty of an image with fresh snow.
You could attribute this synergy to the relative rarity of snow on fall color, but I think the power goes deeper than that. There’s just something about change the ups the stakes, so even though this is nothing more than a (totally unprovable) mental exercise (maybe I’ve been locked up too long), I’m sticking with the theory that the synergistic power of an image that combines the distinctive best of two seasons is the tension of change it conveys.
Posted on December 20, 2020
When you stop to consider all the components that have to fit into place to make a successful landscape image, it’s a wonder we don’t all just stay inside and watch TV. First there’s mastery of photography’s creative side, which requires the ability to distill our dynamic, multi-sensory, three-dimensional world into a coherent two-dimensional image. Then there’s the technical side, where we juggle our camera’s aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings to control the scene’s depth, light, and motion. And as if meshing all these moving parts into something visually appealing weren’t daunting enough, don’t forget to factor in photography’s mental component: knowing where to be and when to be there; the foresight to recognize what might happen next and the patience to wait for for it; and finally, the fortitude to endure hunger, sleep depravation, and whatever elements Mother Nature throws our way.
Yet somehow photography happens. And like most things in life, I’ve always thought photography’s greatest joy comes from doing the hard work and overcoming difficulty. Sometimes spectacular just falls in our lap, but most of my favorite images simply those images I feel like I earned.
Nature photography’s 3 P’s
To remind myself (and others) of the photography’s mental side, many years ago I identified what I call, “The 3 P’s of nature photography.” These sacrifices, large and small, a nature photographer must make to consistently create successful images.
The truth is, you almost certainly already do it. Pick some of your favorite captures, pop them onto the screen, and try to put yourself back at that time and place. Ask yourself which of the 3 P’s you employed, and be generous with yourself and not too quick to write an image off to blind luck.
Practicing what I preach, here’s my stab at the assignment for this image:
A few words about this image
Sentinel Bridge is such an iconic view of Half Dome that it would be photographic malpractice not to share it with a workshop group, but when I’m in Yosemite by myself I rarely stop here because it lacks compositional variety (it’s hard to find something I don’t already have). But because the conditions on this day were spectacularly unique, I actually stopped here twice. This image was from my first stop, when a light snow still fell and storm clouds ruled the scene.
Half Dome had been swallowed by clouds for a while, but crossing the bridge I saw that it had just emerged so I whipped into the adjacent parking lot. Rather than mess with my entire kit, I just grabbed my tripod, Sony a7RIV, and Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens and jogged up to the rail (maybe 100 feet from the car).
I always do my best to position myself so the trees frame Half Dome without obscuring any of its face, not always easy at this extremely popular spot. I was lucky this time that there were only a couple of other photographers set up so I didn’t have any trouble finding a spot that worked. With the scene so perfect, I didn’t want to get too fancy and risk losing Half Dome to the clouds. I quickly identified the elements I wanted to feature—Half Dome, the upstream trees, and of course the gorgeous reflection—and went to work.
I often start with a vertical composition on Sentinel Bridge, but surveying the scene, when my eyes were drawn to the serpentine ribbon of autumn leaves clinging to the south riverbank I opted to start with a horizontal frame. That left me with a decision about what to about the trees on both sides of the river—how many to include, and whether to cut them off at the top. I finally decided that not cutting them off would give me more sky than I wanted.
With the frame’s top/bottom established, I panned left and right until I was satisfied: enough of the floating leaves—check; Half Dome properly centered (Half Dome has so much visual weight, putting it too far left or right can throw off the balance)—check; the diagonal trunk and snow-capped rock far enough from the left edge that they create compositional balancing elements for that side of the frame—check.
With a few gentle ripples ruffling the reflection, I added my Breakthrough 6-stop dark polarizer, stopped down to f/16, and dialed my ISO to 50. This gave me a 4-second exposure that smoothed the water just enough to allow the reflection to stand out nicely. Once I was satisfied that this composition was a success, I went on to shoot the scene in a variety of other ways as well: wider, tighter, and vertical. (You can see the vertical version in the gallery below.)
Returning to Sentinel Bridge a few hours later, the sun had broken through to light up Half Dome and the tops of the trees, creating a completely different, but no less beautiful, scene (that I haven’t had a chance to process yet).
Many of you no doubt recognize the reference in this post’s title; for those who don’t (inconceivable!), treat yourself to this scene from the best movie ever.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on December 6, 2020
One of my favorite things about landscape photography is the opportunity to experience nature in complete solitude. But since COVID has forced us all to socially distance, I’ve realized that another one of my favorite things about landscape photography is the opportunity to experience nature in the company of others.
There’s a lot of waiting in landscape photography: for the light to be right, the lightning to fire, the sky to darken, the clouds to part, or the moon moon to arrive. But it wasn’t until I started leading photo workshops that I fully appreciated how much I miss sharing that waiting with people who appreciate nature’s beauty as much as I do. Whether it’s actively engaging in conversation, or just watching my workshop students enjoy the company of friends new and old. And then there are the many lasting friendships that formed in workshops.
So about a week before the late November full moon (that I’d circled on my calendar over a year ago), I got the bright idea to invite a half-dozen or so of my favorite photography friends to join me for one of my favorite things in nature: a full moon rising above Yosemite Valley. I sent an e-mail invitation detailing what was going to happen, where I was going to photograph it, and when I’d be there.
My brother Jay and I left for Yosemite late that morning, arriving at Tunnel View about four hours later. After about ten minutes circling and waiting for a place to park (I’ve never seen Yosemite more crowded in November), we made it up to the designated spot right around 4 p.m. I was thrilled to see nearly everyone I’d invited, some who had driven as long as six hours to get there. A couple of them had brought their wives, and one brought a friend.
The standard Tunnel View vista was crowded enough to qualify as a super-spreader event, but since I’d chosen a broad, unmarked slab of granite above the parking lot, we were able to socialize while remaining safely socially distant. The moon would arrive at 4:25, so after enthusiastic greetings and a few elbow-bumps, I opened my bag and went to work.
For this event I set up two tripods: one with a Sony a7RIV and Sony 200-600 with a Sony 2X Teleconverter; one with my other a7RIV and Sony 70-200 f/4. (Normally I’d have used my Sony 24-105 f/4 G, but I’ve shot this moonrise wide so many times that I decided before leaving that I was going to go all telephoto.)
Equipment ready and compositions set, I checked my watch and saw that we still had 15 minutes until the moon arrived. Perfect. Because this shoot was as much about reconnecting with friends as it was about photography, before leaving I’d filled two large thermoses with boiling water, and brought enough cocoa mix for each of us to warm our insides with two steaming cups of chocolate goodness. Sipping cocoa, we enjoyed the view and waited for the moon, chatting, laughing, and simply catching up—just like the good old days.
The moon arrived just as the last sunlight bathed Half Dome in warm hues that started amber and transitioned to soft pink before finally fading. As the moon rose through the darkening sky, the conversation was replaced by clicking shutters.
The image below is one of my first clicks; at the top of the post is one of my final images, captured shortly before the foreground became too dark to capture (with one click) without overexposing the moon.
Down in the parking lot we chatted more in the darkness, reluctant to acknowledge that our gathering was over so fast. I’ve always thought that there are few experiences in nature better than watching the moon rise above Yosemite Valley, but as far as I’m concerned, the highlight of this evening was reconnecting with friends.
Posted on November 22, 2020
Between peak fall color dancing on reflections everywhere, and a sky that oscillated all day between heavy snowfall and dramatic clearing, this November day was just one of those days when it was best to keep moving. In these conditions that’s easier said than done because whatever I’m photographing is so beautiful, it’s hard to leave. The result is a memory card full of spectacular, but similar, images. So, after a lifetime of photographing Yosemite in spectacular conditions, I’ve learned not to forget that it’s just as beautiful somewhere else.
By the time I made it out to this Half Dome view just a couple of Merced River bends upstream from Sentinel Bridge, I’d circled the valley so many times I was almost dizzy. My usual lens here is my Sony 24-105 f/4 G because I don’t usually think the surrounding scenery justifies shrinking Half Dome and its reflection with a wide lens. But with snow draping towering evergreens and golden cottonwoods, and a mosaic of autumn leaves lining the riverbank, this was no ordinary day.
Though I’d just gotten the Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM in August, this was only the second time I’d gotten to use it (thank-you-very-much coronavirus), so I figured what the heck and twisted it onto my Sony a7RIV. Then I moved up and down the riverbank looking for the best foreground to put with the rest of this glorious scene. I eventually settled on this spot, drawn by the way the colorful leaves arced and seemed to frame Half Dome’s reflection.
To shrink the empty area between the leaves and reflection, I splayed my tripod legs and dropped it as low as possible, then plopped down in the snow to compose (grateful for my camera’s articulating LCD). The closest leaves were just a couple of feet away, but I really, really wanted the scene to be completely sharp throughout my frame. I was pretty sure that at 12mm and f/11 I had enough depth of field to safely focus anywhere, but why take a chance? I opened my hyperfocal app and confirmed that my hyperfocal distance was just one foot. Nevertheless, since the databases these apps use don’t take into account the extreme resolving power of a GM lens on 61 megapixel sensor, I bumped to f/16 (diffraction be damned) and went to work.
At first I was annoyed by the constant drips from overhead branches that kept disturbing my reflection, but quickly discovered that by timing my clicks, I could use the concentric waves as an accent, without losing the reflection. The single leaf that floated in just below (above?) Half Dome’s reflection was a bonus.
I just updated the Reflections article in my Photo Tips section, but am sharing it below as well
(and check out the Reflections Around the World gallery at the bottom)
Okay, so that’s pretty basic. How about this one?
Wikipedia: The change in direction of a wavefront at an interface between two different media so that the wavefront returns into the medium from which it originated
Whoa, I hope that’s not on the test.
Who doesn’t love the soothing tranquility of a crisp reflection? And like a metaphor in writing, a reflection is an indirect representation that can be more powerful than its literal double thanks to its ability to engage the brain in different ways than we’re accustomed. Rather than processing the scene directly, we first must mentally reassemble the reflection’s reverse world, and in the process perhaps see the scene a little differently.
Reflections are a powerful photographic tool as well. Water’s universal familiarity makes it an ideal subject for photographers frustrated by their camera’s static representation of our dynamic world. Just as we freeze or blur a waterfall to express turbulent motion, we can include a reflection to convey serenity.
Water reflections come in many forms, from a mirror-sharp inverted mountain shimmering atop a still pool, to an abstract shuffle of color and texture on an undulating lake. Without getting too far into the physics of light, it’s important to understand that every object we see and photograph (that doesn’t generate its own light) comes to us courtesy of reflected light. For example, when sunlight strikes Half Dome in Yosemite, some of the sun’s photons bounce straight back into our eyes, and there it is.
But other photons head off in different directions—some are captured by other sets of eyes, while others land on the surface of the Merced River. Some of these photons penetrate the water to reveal the submerged riverbed, while others carom off at the same angle at which they struck the water, like a pool ball striking the cushion, or a hockey puck off the boards. The ricocheting photons that travel from Half Dome and bounce off the river, reach our eyes as a reflection. In other words, what we call a reflection is in fact re-reflected light (reflected first from El Capitan, then by the river).
Mirror reflection recipe
The ingredients for a crisp, mirror reflection is pretty simple: still water, a sunlit subject that’s much brighter than the water’s surface (the greater the contrast the better), and a view angle that matches the angle from the water’s surface to the reflection subject. (The best reflections are usually found on shaded water because there are fewer photons to compete with the photons bouncing from the reflected subject.)
In the image on the left, with El Capitan in direct sunlight but the slow moving Merced River still shaded, my biggest challenge was finding floating fall leaves to include with my reflection. Once I found this spot, my only option was to use my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens (on my Sony a7RIV body), which gave me a field of view just wide enough to fit El Capitan, Three Brothers, the reflection, and the floating leaves into my frame.
Playing the angles
Understanding that reflected photons leave the water’s surface at the same angle at which they arrive—imagine the way a tennis ball bounces (if it weren’t affected by spin, wind resistance, or gravity)—helps us get in position for the reflection we want.
A few years ago I found myself atop Sentinel Dome right after an intense rain shower had turned indentations in the granite into small, glistening pools. Rather than simply settle for the vivid sunset coloring the clouds above, I decided to include the sunset reflected in the pools as well. At eye-level the pools reflected blue sky, so I dropped my tripod as low as it would go, almost to granite level, positioning my lens at the same angle to the pools that the red light leaving the clouds struck the water.
When the water’s in motion
As spectacular as a crisp, mirror reflection in still water is, it’s easy to overlook the visual potential of a reflection that’s not crisp, or to forget your camera’s ability to render a soft or abstract reflection much better than your eyes view it. While a crisp reflection often dominates the primary subject in an image, a splash of reflected color or shape can provide a striking accent to a dominant primary subject. And a reflection that’s lost to the continuously varying angles of rippled or choppy water, magically appears when a long exposure smoothes the water’s surface.
In this image from Lake Wanaka on the South Island of New Zealand, all the ingredients were in place for a special sunset reflection until a light breeze disturbed the lake’s surface with gentle undulations. By attaching a Breakthrough 6-stop neutral density filter to my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens (Sony a7RIII camera), I was able to achieve a 30-second exposure that complete smoothed the lake’s surface. While not a perfect mirror, the resulting reflection has a very pleasing soft, gauzy look. The long exposure smoothed the distant clouds as well.
Where to focus
An often misunderstood aspect of reflection photography is where to focus. Though it seems counterintuitive, the focus point of a reflection is the reflection subject, not the reflection surface. This isn’t such a big deal in a scene like the Half Dome reflection at the top of the post, where the focus point of everything of visual significance is infinity, but it’s a very big deal when you want both your reflection and rocks or leaves on the nearby water surface sharp.
The El Capitan reflection on the right is very different from the Half Dome reflection above, where the extreme depth of field ensured sharpness whether I’d focused on anything in the scene or on the reflection. But here the leaves that were my scene’s primary emphasis were just a couple of feet from my camera, while El Capitan was several thousand feet distant. Even though the leaves floated atop the El Capitan reflection, focusing on El Capitan would have softened the leaves. To increase my depth of field, I stopped down to f/18 and focused several feet into the foreground leaves, then magnified the image on my LCD to verify that all of the leaves were sharp. Though El Capitan is slightly soft, a soft reflection is far more forgivable than a soft foreground.
It seems that reflections often feel like a fortuitous gift that we just stumbled upon. But given that reflections are entirely beholden to the laws of physics, they’re far more predictable than many of the natural elements we photograph. Taking a little time to understand the nature of reflections, and how they’re revealed by a camera, enables photographers to anticipate their appearance.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on November 1, 2020
I just wrapped up my Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections photo workshop, my first workshop since February. And as you can see from this image taken on our final morning, this year’s workshop absolutely lived up to its name. We enjoyed lots of fall color, and reflections at virtually every twist and turn of the Merced River. We also got to photograph a nearly full moon rising above Yosemite Valley at sunset, and saw more bears than I’ve seen in years (maybe even since my childhood).
All the great photography more than compensated for COVID-related and other difficulties that tried to mess with our mojo. We started with the threat of a fire-danger-induced PG&E power outage and a missing (essential) computer cable. The power shutoff never manifested (phew), but I have no one to blame but myself for the missing HDMI cable that allows me to connect my computer to a TV or projector, and that always lives in my computer bag, I swear (I’ll use the 8-month hiatus as an excuse). Apparently HDMI technology hasn’t made it to Yosemite yet, but a 90-minute round-trip drive to a hardware store Mariposa set things right and we were off and running. Everyone was onboard with the COVID protocol that included masks for group gatherings, outdoor meetings (which worked surprisingly well once I ditched my not-quite-bright-enough projector and moved the TV outside), and suspension of ride-sharing. The no ride-sharing thing is what concerned me most, but a few people volunteered to partner up (completely optional—anyone who wanted to drive alone, could), and we ended up with “only” six cars in our caravan. By pulling over regularly to reassemble, and proactively coordinating our parking strategy, not a single car got separated or missed a shoot.
One of the workshop’s highlights came on our final morning, when we photographed Half Dome from Sentinel Bridge. Because Half Dome’s face stays shaded until late in the day, Sentinel Bridge is normally a late afternoon to sunset location, but in autumn the first sunlight to reach the valley floor pours down the river to illuminate cottonwoods lining the far riverbank. I’d taken very few pictures during this workshop (I’ve been to Yosemite once or twice before), but when I saw the opportunity to add a sunstar to this already beautiful scene, I raced back to my car and grabbed my tripod, Sony a7RIV, and Sony 24-105.
Sunstars have become ubiquitous to the point of cliché, but they can be cool when done right. And sometimes they create a lemonade-from-lemons opportunity to add visual interest to a blank sky, high-contrast scene that has little else going for it. In this case the backlit trees made the Half Dome reflection scene pretty nice anyway, but I thought the sunstar gave it a little punch that took it to the next level. And getting a second sunstar from the reflection was a bonus.
Sunstars happen when light spreads out as it passes through the intersection of the lens’s aperture blades, with the number of blades determining the number of points in the star effect. The lens opening (a.k.a., the aperture, which we measure in f-stops), that is made larger or smaller to allow more or less light to reach the sensor, is not a perfect circle that expands and shrinks uniformly. Rather, it’s a circular(-ish), symetrical polygon of overlapping blades that expands or contracts depending on the f-stop setting. While never a perfect circle, the larger the aperture is, the closer to round the opening becomes, and the less the light is spread out by the blades and the less pronounced the sunstar will be. Conversely, the smaller the aperture, the more the blades are closed down, and the more extreme the angles at the intersection of each overlapping blade. Therefore, the general rule for photographing a sunstar is to stop down to a small aperture (high f-stop number). I resist closing all the way down because that can create other problems, like diffraction and soft edges, and find f/16-f/20 to be absolutely fine.
As appealing as a sunstar can be, adding one also creates problems that include lens flare and extreme dynamic range, not to mention a brilliant sunstar can be a distracting eye magnet that risks overpowering the rest of the scene. The good news is, despite the difficulties, creating a sunstar is relatively straightforward, and most of the potential problems can be minimized if you’re careful. Here’s a quick recipe:
Armed with this knowledge, I planted myself in an opening along the Sentinel Bridge rail, dialed my lens to f/20, framed up my composition, and waited for the sun to peek from behind a tree. Sunstars with a mirrorless camera are easy because you can see exactly what you’ll get before clicking—with my eye shifting between the sunstar and my histogram, I started clicking, adjusting my shutter speed by 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop with each click to maximize my options later (more/less light, larger/smaller sunstar). When the sun disappeared behind another tree I stopped shooting, pretty pleased with my initial results. But standing there, waiting for the sun, I realized that when it rose enough for its reflection to bounce off the river, we’d have a chance for a double sunstar—one through the trees, the other off of the reflection. (Technically this isn’t a sunstar reflection because the sunstar happens in the lens, not on the water.)
Since we were all standing in a slightly different spot, the sun appeared and disappeared at a different time for each of us, but I alerted everyone of the double sunstar opportunity so they wouldn’t stop as soon as the sun disappeared behind a tree. While waiting for the sun to return to my position, I enjoyed the reactions as others in the group started having success. I gotta say, as much as I missed my workshop locations during the pandemic “break” (I did!), it’s this group experience that I missed the most. It’s great to be back.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on July 12, 2020
When I was ten, my best friend Rob and I spent most of our daylight hours preparing for our spy careers—crafting and exchanging coded messages, surreptitiously monitoring classmates, and identifying “secret passages” that would allow us to navigate our neighborhood without being observed. But after dark our attention turned skyward. That’s when we’d set up my telescope (a castoff generously gifted by an astronomer friend of my dad) on Rob’s front lawn to scan the heavens in the hope that we might discover something: a supernova, comet, black hole, UFO—it didn’t really matter.
Our celestial discoveries, while not Earth-changing, were personally significant. Through that telescope we saw Jupiter’s moons, Saturn’s rings, and the changing phases of Venus. We also learned to appreciate the vastness of the universe with the insight that, despite their immense size, stars never appeared larger than a pinpoint, no matter how much magnification we threw at them.
To better understand what we saw, Rob and I turned to astronomy books. Pictures of planets, galaxies, and nebula amazed us, but we were particularly drawn to the comets: Arend-Roland, Ikeya–Seki, and of course the patriarch of comets, Halley’s Comet (which wouldn’t return until 1986, an impossible wait that might as well have been infinity). With their brilliant comas and sweeping tails, it was difficult to imagine that anything that beautiful could be real. When the opportunity came to do a project to enter in our school’s Science Fair, comets were an easy choice. And while we didn’t set the world on fire with our project presentation, Rob and I were awarded a yellow ribbon, good enough to land us a spot in the San Joaquin County Fair.
The next milestone in my comet obsession occurred a few years later, after my family had moved to Berkeley and baseball had taken over my life. One chilly winter morning my dad woke me and urged me outside to view what I now know was Comet Bennett. Mesmerized, my smoldering comet fascination flamed instantly, expanding to include all things celestial, and stayed with me through high school (when I wasn’t playing baseball).
I can trace my decision to enter college with an astronomy major all the way back to my early interest in the night sky in general, and comets in particular. I stuck with the astronomy major for several semesters, until the (unavoidable) quantification of magnificent concepts sapped the joy from me.
Though I went on to pursue other interests, my affinity for astronomy hadn’t been dashed, and comets in particular remained special. Of course with affection comes disappointment: In 1973 Comet Kohoutek broke my heart, a failure that somewhat prepared me for Halley’s anticlimax in 1986. By the time Halley’s arrived, word had come down that it was poorly positioned for its typical display (“the worst viewing conditions in 2,000 years”), that it would be barely visible this time around (but just wait until 2061!). Nevertheless, venturing far from the city lights one moonless January night, I found great pleasure locating (with much effort) Halley’s faint smudge in Aquarius.
After many years with no naked-eye comets of note, 1996 arrived with the promise of two great comets. While cautiously optimistic, Kohoutek’s scars prevented me from getting sucked in by the media frenzy. So imagine my excitement when, in early 1996, Comet Hyakutake briefly approached the brightness of Saturn, with a tail stretching more than twenty degrees (forty times the apparent width of a full moon). But as beautiful as it was, Hyakutake proved to be a mere warm-up for Comet Hale-Bopp, which became visible to the naked eye in mid-1996 and remained visible until December 1997—an unprecedented eighteen months. By spring of 1997 Hale-Bopp had become brighter than Sirius (the brightest star in the sky), its tail approaching 50 degrees. I was in comet heaven.
Things quieted considerably comet-wise after Hale-Bopp. Then, in 2007, Comet McNaught caught everyone off-guard, intensifying unexpectedly to briefly outshine Sirius, trailing a thirty-five degree, fan-shaped tail. But because of its proximity to the sun, Comet McNaught had a very small window of visibility in the Northern Hemisphere and was easily lost in the bright twilight—it didn’t become anywhere near the media event Hale-Bopp did. I only learned about it on the last day it would be easily visible in the Northern Hemisphere. With little time to prepare, I grabbed my camera and headed to the foothills east of Sacramento, where I managed to capture a few faint images and barely pick the comet out of the twilight with my unaided eyes. McNaught saved its best show for the Southern Hemisphere, where it became one of the most beautiful comets ever to grace our skies (google Comet McNaught and you’ll see what I mean).
After several years of comet crickets, in 2013 we were promised two spectacular comets, PanSTARRS and ISON. A fortuitous convergence of circumstances allowed me to photograph PanSTARRS from the summit of Haleakala on Maui—just 3 degrees from a setting crescent moon, it was invisible to my eye, but beautiful to my camera. Comet ISON on the other hand, heralded as the most promising comet since Hale-Bopp, pulled an Icarus and and disintegrated after flying too close to the sun.
Since 2013 Earth has been in a naked-eye comet slump. Every once in a while one will tease us, then fizzle. In fact, 2020 has already seen two promising comets flop: Comets Atlas and Swan. So when Comet NEOWISE was discovered in March of this year, no one got too excited. But by June I started hearing rumblings that NEOWISE might just sneak into the the naked-eye realm. Then we all held our breath while it passed behind the sun on July 2.
Shortly after NEOWISE’s perihelion, astronomers confirmed that it had survived, and images started popping up online. The first reports were that NEOWISE was around magnitude 2 (about as bright as Polaris, the North Star) and showing up nicely in binoculars and photos. Unfortunately, NEOWISE was so close to the horizon that it was washed-out to the naked eye by the pre-sunrise twilight glow.
Based on my experience with PanSTARRS, a comet I’d captured wonderfully when I couldn’t see it in the twilight glow, I started making plans to photograph Comet NEOWISE. But I needed to find a vantage point with a good view of the northeast horizon, not real easy in Sacramento, where we’re in the shadow of the Sierra just east of town. After doing a little plotting, I decided my best bet would be to break my stay-away-from-Yosemite-in-summer vow and try it from Glacier Point. Glacier Point is elevated enough to offer a pretty clear view of the northeast horizon, and from there Half Dome and the comet would align well enough to easily include both in my frame.
While Yosemite is currently under COVID restrictions that require reservations (sold out weeks in advance) to enter, I have a CUA (Commercial Use Authorization that allows me to guide photo workshops) that gives me access to the park if I follow certain guidelines. So, after checking with my NPS Yosemite CUA contact to make sure all my permit boxes were checked, my brother Jay and I drove to the park on Thursday afternoon, got a room just outside the park, and went to bed early.
The alarm went off at 2:45 the next morning, and by 2:55 we were on the road to Glacier Point. After narrowly averting one self-inflicted catastrophe (in the absolute darkness, I missed a turn I’ve been taking for more than 40 years), by 4:00 we were less than a mile from Glacier Point and approaching Washburn Point, the first view of Half Dome on Glacier Point Road. Unable to resist the urge to peek (but with no expectation of success), I quickly glanced in that direction and instantly saw through my windshield Comet NEOWISE hanging above Mt. Watkins, directly opposite Tenaya Canyon from Half Dome. I knew there’d be a chance NEOWISE would be naked-eye visible, but I never dreamed it would be this bright.
Everything after that is a blur (except my images, thankfully). Jay and I rushed out to the railed vista at the far end of Glacier Point and were thrilled to find it completely empty. We found Half Dome beautifully bookended by Comet NEOWISE on the left, and brilliant Venus on the right. I set up two tripods, one for my Sony a7RIV and 24-105 G lens, and one for my Sony a7RIII and Sony 100-400 GM lens. Shut out of all the locations I love to photograph by COVID-19, I hadn’t taken a serious picture since March, so I composed and focused carefully to avoid screwing something up. The image I share here is one of the first of the morning, taken with my a7RIV and 24-105.
By 4:30 or so (about 80 minutes before sunrise) the horizon was starting to brighten, but the comet stayed very prominent and photogenic until at about 4:50 (about an hour before sunrise). When we wrapped up at around 5:00, NEOWISE was nearly washed out to the unaided eye; while our cameras were still picking it up, we knew that the best part of the show was over.
It’s these experiences that so clearly define for me the reason I’m a photographer. Because I’ve always felt that photography, more than anything else, needs to make the photographer happy (however he or she defines happiness), many years ago I promised myself that I’d only photograph what I want to photograph, that I’d never take a picture just because I thought it would earn me money or acclaim. My own photographic happiness comes from nature because I grew up outdoors (okay, not literally, but outdoors is where my best memories have been made) and have always been drawn to the natural world—not merely its sights, but the natural processes and forces that, completely independent of human intervention and influence, shape our physical world.
I think that explains why, rather than settle for pretty scenes, I try to capture the interaction of dynamic natural processes with those scenes. The moon and stars, the northern lights, sunrise and sunset color, weather events like rainbows and lightning—all of these phenomena absolutely fascinate me, and the images I capture are just a small part of my relationship with them. I can’t imagine photographing something that doesn’t move me enough to understand it as thoroughly as I can, and enjoy learning about my subjects as much as I enjoy photographing them.
The converse of that need to know my subjects is a need to photograph those things that drive me to understand them. Most of the subjects that draw me are relatively easy to capture with basic preparation, some effort, and a little patience. But the relative rarity of a few phenomena make photographing them a challenge. This is especially true of certain astronomical events. I’m thinking specifically about the total solar eclipse that I finally managed to photograph in 2017, and the northern lights, which finally found my sensor last year. But comets have proven even more elusive, and while I’ve seen a few in my life, and even photographed a couple, I’ve never had what I’d label an “epic” comet experience that allowed me to combine a beautiful comet with a worthy foreground. Until this week. And I’m one happy dude.
Comets in General
I want to tell you how to photograph Comet NEOWISE, but first I’m going to impose my personal paradigm and explain comets.
A comet is a ball of ice and dust a few miles across (more or less), typically orbiting the sun in an eccentric elliptical orbit: Imagine a circle stretched way out of shape by grabbing one end and pulling–that’s what a comet’s orbit looks like. Looking down on the entire orbit, you’d see the sun tucked just inside one extreme end of the ellipse. (Actually, some comets’ orbits are parabolic, which means they pass by once and then move on to ultimately exit our solar system.)
The farther a comet is from the sun the slower it moves, so a comet spends the vast majority of its life in the frozen extremities of the solar system. Some periodic comets take thousands or millions of years to complete a single orbit; others complete their trip in just a few years.
As a comet approaches the sun, stuff starts happening. It accelerates in response to the sun’s increased gravitational pull (but just like the planets, the moon, or the hour hand on a clock, a comet will never move so fast that we’re able to visually discern its motion). And more significantly, increasing solar heat starts melting the comet’s frozen nucleus. Initially this just-released material expands to create a mini-atmosphere surrounding the nucleus; at this point the comet looks like a fuzzy ball when viewed from Earth. As the heat increases, some of the shedding material is set free and dragged away by the solar wind (charged particles) to form a tail that glows with reflected sunlight (a comet doesn’t emit its own light) and always points away from the sun. The composition and amount of material freed by the sun, combined with the comet’s proximity to Earth, determines the brilliance of the display we see. While a comet’s tail gives the impression to some that it’s visibly moving across the sky, a comet is actually about as stationary against the stellar background as the moon and planets—it will remain in one place relative to the stars all night, then appear in a slightly different place the next night.
With millions of comets in our Solar System, it would be natural to wonder why they’re not regular visitors to our night sky. Actually, they are, though most comets are so small, and/or have made so many passes by the sun, that their nucleus has been stripped of reflective material and they just don’t have enough material left to put on much of a show. And many comets don’t get close enough to the sun to be profoundly affected by its heat, or close enough to Earth to stand out.
Most of the periodic comets that are already well known to astronomers have lost so much of their material that they’re too faint to be seen without a telescope. One notable exception is Halley’s Comet, perhaps the most famous comet of all. Halley’s Comet returns every 75 years or so and usually puts on a memorable display. Unfortunately, Halley’s last visit, in 1986, was kind of a dud; not because it didn’t perform, but because it passed so far from Earth that we didn’t have a good view of its performance on that pass.
Comet NEOWISE in particular (and some tips for photographing it)
Comet NEOWISE is a periodic comet with an elliptical orbit that will send it back our way in about 6700+ years. On it’s current iteration, NEOWISE zipped by the sun on July 2 and is on its way back out to the nether reaches of our solar system. The good news is that NEOWISE survived the most dangerous part of its visit, its encounter with the sun. The bad news is that NEOWISE’s intrinsic brightness decreases as it moves away from the sun. But if all goes well, we’ll be able to see it without a telescope, camera, or binoculars for at least a few more weeks. And it doesn’t hurt that until perigee on July 22, NEOWISE is still moving closer to Earth.
Because a comet’s tail always points away from the sun, and NEOWISE is now moving away from the sun, it’s actually following its tail. If you track the comet’s position each night, you’ll see that it rises in the northeast sky before sunrise, which makes it a Northern Hemisphere object (the Southern Hemisphere has gotten the best 21st century comets, so it’s definitely our turn). Each morning NEOWISE will rise a little earlier, placing it farther from the advancing daylight than the prior day, so even if its intrinsic brightness is waning, it should stand out better because it’s in a darker part of the sky. And as a bonus, the moon is waning, so until the new moon on July 21, there will be no moonlight to compete with NEOWISE.
Until now, Comet NEOWISE has been an exclusively early morning object, but that’s about to change as it climbs a little higher each day. Starting tonight (July 12), you might be able to see it shortly after sunset near the northwest horizon, and each night thereafter it will be a little higher in the northwest sky. Your best chance to view Comet NEOWISE in the evening is to find an open view of the northwest sky, far from city lights.
Photographing Comet NEOWISE will require some night photography skill. Since the moon is waning, you won’t have the benefit of moonlight that I had when I photographed the comet in Yosemite on the morning of July 10, when the moon was about 75% full. This won’t be a huge problem if you just want to photograph NEOWISE against the stars, but if you want to include some landscape with it, your best bet may be to stick to silhouettes, or stack multiple exposures, one for the comet and one or more for the foreground.
To photograph it against the starry sky, I recommend a long telephoto to fill the frame as much as possible. If you want to include some landscape, go as wide as necessary, but don’t forget that the wider you go, the smaller the comet becomes. Whatever method you use to focus (even if you autofocus on the comet itself), I strongly recommend that you verify your focus each time you change your focal length. If you choose the multi-exposure blend approach, please, please, please, whatever you do, don’t blend a telephoto NEOWISE image with a wide angle image of the landscape (because I’ll know and will judge you for it).
Camera or not, I strongly encourage you to make an effort to see this rare and beautiful object, because you just don’t know when the next opportunity will arise—it could be next month, or it might not happen again in your lifetime.