Paradise Found (Again)

Gary Hart Photography: Lily Reflection, Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Hawaii

Lily Reflection, Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Hawaii
Sony a7RIV
Sony 100-400 GM
ISO 400
f/5.6
1/15 second

On Friday morning I said goodbye to Hawaii until next year. Leaving Hawaii, I always make sure to reserve a seat on the left side of the plane so I can plaster my eyes to the glass on takeoff for a farewell look as we parallel the shoreline. There’s Onomea Bay and the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Akaka Fall, Umauma Falls, Laupahoehoe Point….

It’s pretty cool, the special connection I feel to these places I only visit once a year. In Hilo, every time I pull my rental car out of the airport and point it toward the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel that will be my home for the next week, it feels like I’m coming home to a place I left just yesterday.

From the Milky Way, to magma, to macro, the Big Island may have the widest variety of quality photography of any place I visit. Throw in rugged black sand beaches, exploding surf, frequent rainbows, and temperatures warm enough to photograph sunrise in flip-flops and shorts, and it’s easy to fantasize about selling my house and moving here fulltime.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of this year’s images. In fact, I was so busy with the workshop that I didn’t even have time to load them onto my computer until my flight home. But I didn’t need to check my captures to know that this year’s trip was pretty special. On my group’s first shoot, we enjoyed a rainbow segment (not a full arc) beautifully positioned above our beach scene, then got another partial rainbow at the next morning’s sunrise shoot. By the time the workshop ended, we’d hit all the other Hawaii highlights I cross my fingers for: Kilauea’s eruption (for the first time since 2017), the Milky Way, rainbows, and perfect light for creative focus photography at each of our rainforest stops.

It’s hard to know where to begin, but since it’s the only image I’ve processed so far, I’ve chosen this little scene from the incomparable Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. This year I used every lens in my bag there, but with soft, overcast light (that turned to a warm downpour just as we were leaving), I spent most of my time photographing flowers and leaves with my Sony 100-400.

One of the points I try to impress on my workshop students is that, whether near or far, a landscape image isn’t just a click, it’s an iterative process that starts with an idea—a plan for the best way to organize and emphasize the scene’s significant elements, then improves with each subsequent click. The first click is like a writer’s rough draft, and subsequent clicks are revisions on the way to perfection. After each click, the photographer should stand back and evaluate the image on the LCD (I love the large, bright viewfinders and LCDs on today’s mirrorless cameras), refine (exposure, composition, depth of field, focus point), then click again. Repeat as necessary.

This approach is particularly valuable in macro and close-focus images of intimate scenes where even the slightest adjustment to composition, depth of field, and focus point can dramatically alter the result. It’s a prime reason I’m such a strong tripod advocate (evangelist)—when I’m done  evaluating, the shot I just evaluated is sitting right there on my tripod, waiting for me to apply whatever adjustments I deem necessary.

Whether it’s fall color or colorful flowers, I try to find a subject to isolate from the rest of the scene. This afternoon at the botanical garden I was drawn to floating lilies and their reflection, and ended up working this one little scene for at least 30 minutes.

Starting with my Sony 100-400 GM lens on my Sony a7RIV, I added a 25mm extension tube so I could focus closer. A neutral polarizer reduced the floating leaves’ waxy sheen, which helped emphasize their deep green. Of course this also reduced the flowers’ reflection, but I found that they were bright enough to still stand out against the darkened water. Exposure was pretty straightforward in the shadowless light. Though the air was fairly still, I used ISO 400 to ensure a shutter speed fast enough to control for slight undulations on the pond’s surface.

At 250mm and f/5.6 (wide open for the 100-400 GM), I shot through foliage lining the shore between me and the flowers. The extremely narrow depth of field allowed me to use this nearby foliage to frame my subjects with soft shades of green. After two or three click/evaluate/refine cycles, I had the framework of my composition in place.

Following a few minutes of shooting that saw me try a variety of f-stops, horizontal/vertical framing variations, and a range of polarizer orientations (minimum to maximum reflection, as well as points in between), I shifted about four feet to my right, to a spot that I thought provided even better foliage framing.

I played with this new composition even longer, running all the variations I’d tried at the previous spot, and adding some focal length changes as well. One thing that became especially obvious the longer I worked the scene was how much the polarizer helped me achieve the effect I was going for. Eliminating the reflection darkened the water to the point that the lilies appear to be floating on air. When I dialed up the reflection with my polarizer to brighten the flower reflection, I lost the contrast between the water and reflection, which made the flowers less prominent—the exact opposite of my objective.

With all my composition variations, I ended up with enough choices that I’ll probably find one or two more versions to process, but this version of the simple composition that first drew me seemed like a good place to start. And while I know these intimate images don’t generate the attention that the more in-your-face images do, photographing and viewing them makes me really happy, and that’s all that matters.

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Rules are a crutch

Gary Hart Photography: Looking Up, Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Hawaii

Looking Up, Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Hawaii
Sony a7R II
Sony 12-24 f4 G
12mm
1/8 second
F/8
ISO 800

Aloha from Hawaii!

Let’s have a show of hands: Who feels like their photography has stagnated? Let me suggest to all with your hands up that what’s holding you back may be the very rules that helped elevate you to your current level of proficiency. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that rules are important, the glue of civilization. Bedtimes, homework, and curfews got us through childhood and taught us to self-police as adults. Now we get enough sleep (right?), meet deadlines at work, and toe the line well enough to have become productive members of society with very little supervision (give yourself a gold star). But let me suggest that many of us have become so conditioned to follow rules that we honor them simply because they’ve been labeled “rule.”

As important as this conditioning is to the preservation of society, our reluctance to question rules sometimes impacts areas of our lives that might not be so cut-and-dried. One example would be photographers’ blind adherence to the (usually) well-intended “experts” proliferating online, in print, and at the local camera club. These self-proclaimed authorities spew absolutes for their disciples to embrace: Expose to the right!; Never center your subject!; Tack-sharp front-to-back!; Blurred water is cliché! Blah, blah, blah…. (My standard advice to anyone seeking photographic guidance is to beware of absolutes, and when you hear one, beeline to the nearest exit because the truth is, there are very, very few absolutes in photography.)

Rules serve a beginning photographer the way training wheels serve a five-year-old on a bike: They’re great for getting started, but soon get in the way. At first, following expert guidance, beginners’ photography improves noticeably and it’s easy to attribute all this success to rules. But by the time the improvement slows or even ceases altogether, those rules have become so deeply ingrained that it’s difficult to realize they now hold us back. You wouldn’t do Tour de France with training wheels, or run the Boston Marathon on crutches.

If photography were entirely rule-bound, engineers could write algorithms and design robots that did our photography for us. But the very definition of creativity is venturing beyond the comfortable confines of our preconceptions to create something new. In other words, if you’re not breaking the rules, you’re not being creative.

For example

For the last eight years I’ve spent one or two weeks on Hawaii’s Big Island. And on each trip I make multiple visits to the (fabulous) Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden just north of Hilo. There’s so much to love here, but I’m always drawn to the bottom of the garden overlooking Onomea Bay, where the luxuriant jungle unfolds beneath an interlaced canopy of towering monkeypod trees (albizia saman). Every time I’m down here I try to find a composition that captures the lushness I feel in the saturated air, and the way the monkeypod’s branches seem etched against the sky. And each time I come away a little disappointed.

This year, armed with my new Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens, I decided to give the scene another shot beneath the late afternoon overcast. With a decent breeze stirring the leaves, I pushed my ISO to 800 to be safe. Widening my view to 12mm and pointing up, it soon became clear that the palm tree I needed to anchor my frame belonged in the middle. And even without metering I knew that the crazy dynamic range (the shaded side of every leaf juxtaposed against a bright sky) would force me to sacrifice the texture in the clouds in favor of the essential detail and color in the jungle’s dense shadows.

Both of these important considerations flew in the face of rules that have constrained photographers for years. For as long as we’ve held a camera, our inclination to bullseye every subject has been stifled by voices whispering the “rule” of thirds (horizon 1/3 up from the bottom or down from the top; primary subjects at the intersections of an imaginary tic-tac-toe grid on our frame) in our ear. And of course digital photographers everywhere know to never blow the highlights.

In this case, even though it would get me booted from many camera club photo competitions, I’ve been scoffing at the rule of thirds long enough that centering the palm tree wasn’t hard. But seeing nearly half my frame flashing highlight warnings was a little more difficult. Nevertheless, I held my breath and went ahead with the shot you see here. And it turns out, instead of creating a problem, the white (overexposed) sky becomes a feature that only enhances the rich green and etched branches.

Homework

Sit down and write out your strongest, longest held photography rules (trust me, they’re there). Challenge yourself to break at least one of these rules each time you go out with your camera. Don’t expect miracles—at first your resulting images might not thrill you, but I promise that you’ll grow as a photographer, and you just might learn something in the process. (Oh, and you can put your hands down now.)

Mahalo!


Breaking the rules

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