Posted on January 9, 2022
What does it take to make a great landscape image? The answer to that question could fill volumes (so I hope you don’t expect the final word in one blog post), but for starters, it seems pretty obvious that a great landscape image should involve some combination of beautiful scene and compelling composition. Of course it’s possible for one side of that scale to tilt so strongly that it renders the other side all but irrelevant: I’m thinking about the masterful composition that manages to extract beauty from the most ordinary scene, or the scene that’s so spectacular that it would be virtually impossible to not return with a beautiful image.
But as much as photographers should strive for the former, I’m afraid ubiquitous cameras and information have given us too much of the latter—because it’s easier. Not only can today’s photographers learn where to be and when to be there with the tap of an app (or the click of a mouse), even when unexpected beauty suddenly materializes before our eyes, we’re almost certainly armed with a tool to capture it. Add to this the power of today’s computers and software to actually manufacture beauty (don’t get me started…), and I’m concerned that the world is becoming numbed to the appreciation of photography as a craft—the ability to see the less obvious beauty and convey it by deftly controlling the scene’s framing, motion, depth, and light.
This is especially relevant to me because I make my living serving people who dream of getting “the” shot at my workshop locations. Usually they’ve seen some other photographer’s version of their “dream” shot and simply want one of their own to display and share. Whether it’s sunset light on Horsetail Fall, a lightning strike at the Grand Canyon, or fresh snow at Tunnel View, I completely understand their motivation and I do everything in my power to make it happen (I love photographing these things too). But still…
In addition to helping my workshop student get their dream image, I also encourage them to make these shots their starting point, not their goal. Photograph the icons without shame, but don’t stop there, also find your own perspective on the scene’s beauty. That could be identifying a foreground element that complements a glorious background, going vertical when the obvious composition is horizontal, introducing motion or focus blur to part of the scene, or any number of large or small compositional twists.
My own approach when photographing a scene imbued with obvious inherent beauty—such as a spectacular sunset, vivid rainbow, or breathtaking vista—is to remind myself not to settle for something I’ve already done, no matter how beautiful it might be. While that’s a relatively small challenge at new or less familiar scenes, this approach makes familiar places like Tunnel View in Yosemite (arguably the most beautiful vista on Earth, and one that I’ve photographed more times than I can count) a much higher photographic bar to clear. So high, in fact, that I rarely take out my camera at Tunnel View anymore. (Well, at least that’s the mindset when I get there—I’m a sucker for this scene and sometimes can’t resist photographing a beautiful moment here because some scenes are too beautiful to ignore—but you get the point.) Even still, these days I pretty much only photograph Tunnel View when I can include some a scecial, transient element, like the moon or a rainbow. Or fresh snow.
Last month my Yosemite Winter Moon workshop group had the immense good fortune to start just as a cold winter storm finished dropping 8 inches of snow on Yosemite Valley. For a couple of reasons, we started at Tunnel View—first, because it’s the best place to introduce first-timers to Yosemite’s majesty; second, it’s probably the best place in Yosemite to view a clearing storm. The scene that greeted us was as spectacular as you might imagine—and as also you might imagine, it wasn’t something I hadn’t seen before.
My original plan was to keep my camera in the car, but once I got everyone settled into their spots and was confident they were content (and wanted to be left alone), I couldn’t resist the beauty, no matter how familiar. Oh—and before I go any farther, let me make clear that I am not trying to say, nor do I in any way believe, that this image is more special than thousands of other Tunnel View images that preceded it (or even that were captured that day). I just want to use it to illustrate my approach, and the decisions that got me to something that turned out to be a little different for me. But anyway…
The first thing I usually I preach about photographing Tunnel View is to not go too wide. As beautiful as the entire view is, the real (permanent) visual action is between El Capitan on the left, and Leaning Tower (the diagonal, flat granite face angling up from Bridalveil Fall) on the right. Another problem at Tunnel View is that the sky in Yosemite is usually boring (cloudless), and the foreground trees are nothing special. So not only does the real estate left of El Capitan and right of Leaning Tower pale in comparison to the primary scene it bookends, composing wide enough to include that extra granite also means shrinking the best stuff (from left to right: El Capitan, Cloud’s Rest, Half Dome, Cathedral Rocks, Bridalveil Fall, Leaning Tower) while including more bland sky and trees. Therefore, my go-to lens for Tunnel View is my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens. And when I want to isolate one or two of the primary features, I’ll switch to my Sony 100-400 GM lens.
But this afternoon, with the entire landscape glazed white, those scruffy foreground trees were suddenly a feature worthy of inclusion. So, rather than starting with the 24-105 on my Sony a7RIV, I reached for my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens. Going wider created another problem: that large tree on the left is a usually an obstacle, a potential distraction always that must be dealt with. My standard approach is to move to the right to completely eliminate the tree from my composition, but this afternoon the vista was so packed with gawkers and photographers that moving around without encroaching on someone else’s space was difficult-to-impossible. Because I got my group setup before grabbing a spot for myself, I’d found myself stuck farther to the left than I like, making my plan to shoot the scene extra-wide while eliminating the tree even more problematic. So, grateful once again for the snowy glaze, I decided to use my arboreal nemesis to frame the left side of my composition (if you can’t beat ’em…). For the right side of my frame, I chose to go wide enough to include a couple of more prominent trees in the middle distance, as well as the interesting clouds swirling near the rim behind them.
In any composition, the decision between sky and foreground always comes down to which is more interesting—in this case, despite some fairly interesting clouds overhead, those clouds couldn’t compete with the snowy foreground. To maximize the snowy foreground, I put the bottom of my frame in the homogeneous white snowbank at the base of the shrub line just a few feet below me—just low enough to allow me to include only the most interesting clouds.
And finally, because I know someone will ask, even with so much detail from near-to-far, at 20mm and f/9, my focus point was pretty much irrelevant (hyperfocal distance was 5 feet). As something of a control freak in my photography life (understatement), I’ve always been a manual focus evangelist, but I’m getting lazy in my old age and in this case I just hit my back-button focus button to autofocus somewhere in the scene (wherever the focus point happened to be), then clicked with the knowledge I’d be sharp throughout.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on December 19, 2021
Camera or not, two of my very favorite things in nature are a rising moon, and the rich pink and blue twilight sky opposite the sun after sunset*. Once a month, in the days around the full moon, these phenomena converge, and I get an opportunity to photograph the moon actually in the best part of the sky. I spend a lot of time trying to identify the scenes above which to photograph these celestial displays, and the best time to be there.
As a one-click photographer, for years the primary obstacle to photographing these scenes has been capturing (in a single frame) detail in the daylight-bright moon and a rapidly darkening landscape. In my early digital years, I found that the window of exposure opportunity—the time from sunset until the foreground became too dark to capture with one click—ended about 5-10 minutes after sunset (this can vary somewhat with several factors, such as longitude and terrain), just as the best color was ramping up. I could extend that window by 5 minutes or so by using a graduated neutral density filter to subdue the moon’s brightness by 2 or 3 stops, but GNDs come with their own set of problems—especially when the scene doesn’t have a homogenous, horizontal space near the horizon to disguise the GND boundary.
Technology to the rescue
One of the main reasons I switched to Sony in 2014 was the dynamic range of the Sony Alpha sensors, and few situations underscore that advantage better than these twilight moonrises. With my new cameras, suddenly my post-sunset threshold jumped by at least 50%—an advantage that continued progressing with each Sony sensor iteration.
Along with improved sensor technology, advances in processing software enabled me to get even more out of each image. Probably biggest processing improvement is in the noise reduction software that reduces blotchy, image softening, detail robbing noise that’s the prime limiting factor when you pull up the shadows of a twilight moonrise. Noise reduction software doesn’t restore lost image data, but it can bring out the best of what you did capture, allowing you to push back the twilight moonrise window just a little more. (I use and recommend Topaz DeNoise AI.)
Time for an Ansel Adams quote
Ansel Adams famously said, “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” Put in today’s terms (and far more prosaically), all the technology in the world doesn’t do much good if you don’t know how to use it. For example, me: I know now that I probably packed up too early, mistakenly thinking the twilight moonrise photography window had closed—simply because I didn’t know how to get the most from my camera.
In fact, proper exposure is probably the single biggest struggle most photographers have when photographing a twilight moon. The most frequent mistake is trying to make the picture look good on their LCD, which invariably results in a preview image with gorgeous foreground beneath a brilliant white lunar disk—a disk that, on closer scrutiny, is hopelessly stripped of detail.
Photographing both a full moon and the landscape, with detail, starts by understanding that, in a high dynamic range scene, an ideal exposure rarely looks good on the LCD. I repeat: In a high dynamic range scene, an ideal exposure rarely looks good on the LCD. The key is making the image as bright as possible without blowing the highlights, providing the best opportunity to restore the highlights and shadows in post-processing.
While it’s usually best to trust the image’s histogram in extreme dynamic range situations, since the moon is such a small part of most images, it rarely registers on the histogram. This small but important detail makes it possible to capture a histogram that looks great, while ending up with a moon that’s hopelessly blown (detail-less white).
So if you can’t trust the image or the histogram, what can you trust? I thought you’d never ask. While the histogram is helpful for the landscape part of the scene, when I photograph a full moon, I monitor the moon’s exposure with my camera’s highlight alert feature—on my Sony Alpha mirrorless bodies that the “zebras” (pre-capture highlight warning stripes on all mirrorless and some DSLR cameras), but DSLR shooters can use the post-capture blinking highlights.
My twilight moonrise recipe
My process for a post-sunset moon starts with metering in manual mode (because I want complete control of my exposure). I set the ISO to 100 (my Sony a7RIV’s native/best ISO), and the f-stop to whatever I think will give me the sharpest image. The exposure is controlled with the shutter speed.
While the moon’s brightness doesn’t change, with a rising full moon, the landscape will continue to darken, making a foreground exposure that was perfect a minute or two ago not quite so perfect now. As the scene darkens, I add light by deliberately increasing my shutter speed in 1/3 stop increments (that is, one click at a time), with my eye on the moon.
When the zebras appear, I use my knowledge of my a7RIV to squeeze the most possible light from the scene. Raw shooters almost always have more detail than their histogram or highlight alerts indicate (different cameras’ highlight alerts engage at different points). This means you can add still light after the first alerts appear in the moon. When I first detect the zebras on my a7RIV, I know I can push my highlights 2/3 to 1 full stop brighter and still recover detail later.
If you’re shooting with a DSLR that doesn’t offer pre-capture zebras in your viewfinder, you may still be able to get them on the live-view LCD (some DSLRs offer them, some don’t). If not, you’ll need to check the post-capture blinking highlights after you click. Camera familiarity is no less essential when reading the blinking highlights of post-capture DSLR image preview highlight alerts than it is with the pre-capture zebras on a mirrorless camera.
Another thing I’ve started doing to get the most light out of the scene is pushing my highlights beyond the point where I’m certain I haven’t blown them out, then magnifying the moon in the preview image—if I see detail, I know not only am I still good to go, I may even be able to squeeze another 1/ or 2/3 of a stop more light out.
What I’m starting to realize now is how much usable detail I have in the shadows of my a7RIV. This image was captured just Friday night, on the final night of my Yosemite Winter Moon workshop. It was more than 20 minutes after sunset and my foreground looked so black on the LCD that I figured it was unusable. But the scene was so beautiful, I just couldn’t make myself stop shooting. (A friend who happened to be standing next to me for most of the evening had left about 10 minutes earlier, despite my protests that he was leaving too soon.)
So imagine my surprise when I opened it in Lightroom, pulled up the Blacks (to about 30), Shadows (all the way), and Exposure (about two stops) sliders and saw plenty of detail and very fixable noise. A quick treatment from Topaz DeNoise AI confirmed what what I’d just seen—my twilight moon window is now open until at 20 minutes after sunset. Amazing.
(I’ll have more on this fantastic finale to a fantastic workshop in a future post. Spoiler alert: This isn’t the only image from this shoot.)
* When I say sunset, you can infer that I mean sunrise as well, with everything happening in reverse, on the other side of the sky.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on November 7, 2021
As a landscape photographer, I often joke that I don’t photograph anything that moves—no wildlife, no pets, no portraits, no sports. And don’t even think about asking me to do your wedding. I’ve always been a deliberate shooter who likes to anticipate and prepare my frame with the confidence my shot will still be there when I’m ready—landscape photography suits me just fine (thankyouverymuch).
But as much as I appreciate the comfortable pace of a static landscape, the reality is that nature is in constant motion. Earth’s rotation spins the moon and stars across our night sky, and continuously changes the direction, intensity, and color of the sunlight that rules our day. Rivers cascade toward sea level, clouds scoot and transform overhead, ocean waves curl and explode against sand and rock, then vanish and repeat. And even a moderate breeze can send the most firmly rooted plants into a dancing frenzy.
Photographing motion is frustrating because a still image can’t duplicate the human experience (not to mention the technical skill required to subdue it without compromising exposure and depth). But motion also presents a creative opportunity for the photographer who knows how to create a motion-implying illusion that conveys power, flow, pattern, and direction.
While a camera can’t do what the human eye/brain do, it can accumulate seconds, minutes, or hours of light, recording a scene’s complete history in a single image. Or, a camera can freeze an instant, an ephemeral splash of water or bolt of lightning that’s gone so fast it’s merely a memory by the time a viewer’s conscious mind processes it. This is powerful stuff—accumulating motion in a long frame reveals hidden patterns; freezing motion saves an instant for eternal scrutiny.
When I photograph the night sky, I have to decide how to handle the motion of the stars (yes, I know it’s not really the stars that are moving). Freezing celestial motion is a balancing act that combines a high ISO and large aperture with a shutter speed long enough to squeeze every possible photon from a dark sky, but that stops before discernible streaks form. Or, I can emphasize celestial motion by holding my shutter open for many minutes, stretching the stars into parallel arcs.
Lightning comes and goes faster than human reflexes can respond. At night, a long exposure can be initiated when and where lighting might strike, recording any bolt that occurs during the exposure. But in daylight I need a lightning sensing device like a Lightning Trigger, that detects the lightning and fires the shutter faster than I can. If I succeed, I can reveal intricate filaments of electricity my eyes missed.
Moving water is probably the most frequently photographed example of motion in nature, with options that range from suspended water droplets to an ethereal gauze. I’m always amused when I hear someone say they don’t like blurred water images because they’re not “natural.”
Ignoring the fact that it’s usually impossible to achieve a shutter speed fast enough to freeze airborne water in the best light for photographing it (shade or overcast), I don’t find blurred water any less natural than a water drop suspended in midair (when was the last time you saw that in the real world). Blurred water isn’t unnatural, it’s different.
Sometimes a long exposure can smooth distracting ripples to enhance a reflection. I often add a neutral density filter and employ this technique when I arrived at a lake or river hoping for a reflection, only to find my plan thwarted by a waves or a wind-whipped surface.
A long exposure can also reveal patterns of motion that are too slow to discern. Which brings me to today’s image from the penultimate night of last week’s Yosemite Fall Color photo workshop
I’d guided my group through the woods to bend in the Merced River that’s usually a glassy reflection in the still autumn flow. But just a week before the workshop, a 6-inch rainfall filled the waterfalls and accelerated the normally languid Merced into a more spring-like flow. Great conditions for most of our photography, but not so much for reflections.
This Half Dome view, known to photographers but just far enough off the beaten path to discourage most tourists, is always a highlight of my Yosemite workshops. I especially like it autumn, for the colorful cottonwood just upstream, and the (usually reliable) glassy surface. This year the cottonwood delivered, but the rapid flow disturbed the mirror reflection I’m accustomed to.
No problem. I suggested to my group that an ND filter would enable an exposure long enough to flatten the water—the result wouldn’t be a mirror reflection, but the gauzy effect would create an ethereal reflection that would be both striking and distinctive.
Working individually with photographers in my group, I soon noticed small patches of foam drifting by in the flow—not just occasionally, but pretty much continuously. I knew from experience that a long exposure would blur them into parallel streaks (like star trails), especially in the darker water, and got a few people started adding this effect to their images.
Then I noticed a collection of foam patches trapped in a small zone of sheltered, (apparently) static water just a few feet upstream. While helping one of the members of the group find a composition here, it soon became obvious that this water was in fact moving, albeit too slow to see.
Once I was confident that everyone was successfully engaged with the scene, I went upstream about 20 feet and looked downstream, searching for something different than the standard view here. I ended up having a blast photographing the slow motion swirl patterns in the foam (and occasional leaf) that clearly wasn’t static, using a few trees and their reflections downstream as my background.
Finally, after shooting that scene to within an inch of its life (each frame was completely different from the previous), I returned to the more conventional upstream composition to see if I could use these swirls to create something a little different.
This was probably 10 minutes after sunset, just possibly my favorite light for photography, and now dark enough to forego the ND filter. The biggest trick here was finding a position with a view of Half Dome, the fall color, the reflection, and with enough swirls to occupy a significant part of the frame.
First, I moved upstream as far as I could move without losing Half Dome and the golden cottonwood behind the nearby trees. Next, to maximize the foreground swirls, I dropped my tripod as near to the ground as I could.
But, from this new perspective, dialing my polarizer to maximize the reflection also enhanced the sky reflection enough to nearly obliterate the foam swirls. So, with my eye on the Half Dome reflection in my viewfinder, I dialed my polarizer just far enough for Half Dome to stand out, but not so much that the water with the swirling foam and leaves lost its blackness.
Setting my Sony a7RIV to ISO 50, and dialing my Sony 24-105 G lens to f/16, enable me to keep my shutter open for 20 seconds—plenty of time to reveal the patterns of motion. A bonus was the leaves and foam flowing much faster in the main river channel, creating linear streaks that I didn’t notice until I processed the image.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
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.