Nature’s transcendent moments

Gary Hart Photography: Kilauea Fountain, Hawaii

Kilauea Fountain, Hawaii
Sony a7RII
Tamron 150-600 (Canon-mount with Metabones IV adapter)
1/100 second
ISO 400

It’s a rare photo trip that doesn’t include a moment to savor, a special confluence of location and light that seems to virtually assure great images. But every year or two I get to witness something that transcends photography, a moment that will be forever etched in my brain, camera or not. These moments are special not simply for their visual gifts, but also for the emotional connection to nature they foster.

I’ve written about some of these experiences here:

Last month I added a new transcendent moment to my list, this time on the summit of Kilauea on Hawaii’s Big Island. While spending the prior week  dodging raindrops on Maui, I started hearing rumblings of extreme activity in Kilauea’s Halemaumau Crater. Though this eruption has been going since 1983, it’s usually not directly visible from the caldera’s rim (which is as close the public is allowed)—from here the only sign of crater’s churning lava lake is the rising plume of gas and steam, and the red glow that colors the sky after the sun goes down. But according to reports, the lake had risen high enough to be viewed directly from the rim, and there were even rumors of lava fountains.

On the evening before the workshop I visited Kilauea’s Jaggar Museum vista to see what all the excitement was about (though it’s about a mile from the crater, this is the closest and best view). The lake was indeed high enough to see from the rim (a personal first!), but all I could see was a mostly static black crust of cooling basalt lava. Several times a submerged wave opened a crack in the crust, creating a thin, barely visible window to the orange liquid below. It was cool to witness, but not anything particularly dramatic.

Two days later I guided my workshop group to Kilauea. Everyone was most excited about the chance to photograph the caldera beneath the Milky Way, but before the Milky Way the plan was to kill time with a trip the Visitor Center, a walk through the Thurston Lava Tube, sunset at the Jaggar vista, and a nice dinner. Everything went as planned until we reached Jaggar.

We pulled into the parking lot without high expectations, and as the group gathered their equipment, I jogged over to the caldera. To my complete shock (and awe), since my last visit, subterranean forces had whipped the previously placid lava lake into a roiling frenzy. Even from a mile away the volcano’s power was on plain display. Undulating jigsaw cracks zigzagged across the entire lake surface, but the main activity was focused on one region that every few seconds sent a new fountain of lava exploding skyward, splattering the lake surface and nearby wall with molten droplets. I turned and raced back to hurry the group.

Everyone quickly spread out along the wall and started shooting. After making checking on everyone I could find, I went to work with my Sony a6300 and Tamron 150-600. It was still daylight when we started, but dark by the time we had to leave for dinner. At some point during the festivities I remember uttering (and probably multiple times) to all within earshot that this was one of the highlights of my life. That night’s Milky Way shoot was lost to clouds, but no one felt cheated (and we finally got it a couple of nights later).

We returned to the caldera the next night, ostensibly to try again for the Milky Way, not daring to hope for a volcanic reprise. Again the clouds obscured the stars, but to our amazement, we found the lake as at least as agitated as the first night and everyone got a chance to correct whatever mistakes they’d made the previous night. For example, I decided I didn’t need the extra reach of the a6300’s 1.5 crop sensor and switch to my Sony a7RII. I also made a point of taking time to savor the experience a little more. The image I share here is from that second shoot.

The third night the caldera’s activity had calmed, but we finally got the Milky Way. I’ve loved the night sky since I was a kid, and will never tire of photographing the Milky Way above Kilauea. But I’m equally fascinated by the tectonic forces that mold our planet (enough to major in geology for several semesters), and will be forever grateful for (and humbled by) this experience on Kilauea and the opportunity to witness the process firsthand.

Join me in Hawaii

A Gallery of my Transcendent Moments

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Practicing what I preach

Gary Hart Photography: Raindrops on Orchid, Lava Tree State Park, Hawaii

Raindrops on Orchid, Lava Tree State Park, Hawaii
Sony a7R II
Sony FE 90mm f2.8 Macro
1/30 second
ISO 800

The morning (last week) I started this post I was photographing South Tufa at Mono Lake in 26 degree temperatures. It’s hard to believe that less than three weeks earlier I was wearing a tank top, shorts, and flip-flops while photographing orchids in Hawaii. And later today I’m off to Moab, Utah.

I’d taken my Hawaii workshop group to Lava Tree State Park, long a personal favorite spot for its quiet beauty and intimate scenes. A recent heavy downpour had soaked the ground and left virtually every square inch of foliage glistening with raindrops. Recognizing an opportunity for some extreme close-focus photography, I immediately loaded my macro and extension tubes into my bag and herded my group onto the loop trail that circumnavigates the park.

In the shade just off the trail at the back of the park, a solitary, raindrop-laden orchid caught my eye—exactly what I look for when close-focus photography is my goal. Unfortunately, even with my tripod extended to its maximum height (6 inches above my head), the flower was a few inches too high to photograph at what I considered a good angle. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t find a position that allowed me to emphasize the orchid and its raindrops without blowing out the brilliant sky in the background. Tugging at the back of my brain as I stalked my subject was that frequently uttered photographic mantra, “Never blow the highlights.” But rather than give up, I stood back and considered my options.

Photographic rules are usually based on sound, proven reasoning that guides the neophyte to competent, appealing images. And while I’ll acknowledge that a broken photographic rule can indeed ruin an image, I’ve also spent my entire photographic career espousing the creative merits of breaking rules. If true artistic achievement means doing something new, and there’s already a rule for something, doesn’t that mean it’s been done? In other words, genuine creativity requires breaking the very rules that are supposed to lead to good images.

So what was my problem? Among the most ubiquitous and absolute pieces of photograph dogma is, “Never blow your highlights!” And for the most part I agree that blown highlights ruin an image—in fact I’ve spent a lot of time writing about how to deal with difficult light, and it’s all been based on the premise that we need to save the highlights at all costs. Over the years I’ve written and spoken about exposure techniques, graduated neutral density filters, HDR blending, and silhouettes to save the highlights.

In this case, after exhausting my conventional solutions, it would have been far easier to move on to a different orchid. But I liked this orchid, with its rich color and shimmering raindrops, and the more time I spent with it, the more I liked it. So what if I make it okay to blow the highlights? What if instead of trying to subdue them, I made the highlights a feature of my scene?

Suddenly unshackled, an entirely new world of possibilities opened for me. I eyed the background and realized that turning the bright sky white, I’d have a striking contrast for the properly exposed orchid. Furthermore, the sky breaking through the canopy overhead would be softened by a paper-thin depth of field—if I could find the right aperture, the effect could be quite appealing.

To focus as close as possible, I added a 15mm extension tube to my macro and worked on identifying the angle of view and front/back relationships, eventually refining my the composition in small increments until all felt right. To mitigate a very slight breeze, I set my ISO to 800 and metered on the flower, ignoring the violently flashing highlights. The final piece of the puzzle was determining the f/stop that would give me the best effect. Rather than trust the result on my LCD, I ran the range of f/stops from f/2.8 to f/16, increasing my shutter speed to keep the exposure uniform. Regardless of the f/stop, with my lens more or less parallel to the orchid’s stem, I had a fairly large area of sharpness that included all of the raindrops, most the flower, and much of the stem.

I know this scene won’t garner as much attention as a vivid sunrise or dramatic lightning strike, but really like this image. So I guess the moral here is if you find yourself bound by rules, aggressively seek the unconventional. If a “rule” applies, go ahead and follow the rule for a shot or two, then challenge yourself to break it. You may end up with more failures than successes (but of course nobody needs to know that), but I’ll bet your successes will turn out to be among your favorite images.

Photo Workshop Schedule

Playing with light

(Creative use of the camera’s “limited” dynamic range)

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From One Second to the Next

Gary Hart Photography: Here Comes the Sun, Lydgate Beach, Kauai, Hawaii

Here Comes the Sun, Lydgate Beach, Kauai, Hawaii
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
1/5 second
ISO 50

I don’t know about you, but my earliest memories of photography are of Dad pulling the family wagon up to an iconic vista, beelining to the railed viewpoint, and snapping a few frames (that would be quickly forgotten, until the slides came back from the lab and Dad sequestered the family in our darkened living room until each Kodak Carousel had completed its cycle). Though Dad’s photo stops were never timed for light or conditions (you can’t plan a family vacation around the best time for photography), he loved recording nature’s beauty, and I think we all felt comfort in the knowledge that the next time we went to Yosemite, the beach, or wherever, everything would still look pretty much as it did in Dad’s pictures.

I suspect many photographers had a similar start, snapping pictures simply content to record the experience of being there. But those of us who grew frustrated with the similarity of our captures to all the other images of the same locations longed for more. Looking for ways to make our efforts unique, we took advantage of the predictability of nature’s permanent features, and tried to pair them with nature’s more dynamic elements, like a sunrise or sunset, the moon, fresh snow, a rainbow, the Milky Way, and so on.

Melding these static scenes with nature’s changing conditions is a great start, but sometimes we get so caught up in the thrill of seeing Half Dome with fresh snow, or the first rays of a Hawaiian sunrise, that we overlook our scene’s most dynamic features, its scooting clouds and flowing water that literally change by the second.

Nowhere do I need to be more vigilant about my scene’s transient features than Hawaii, where the ubiquitous clouds form, transform, and scoot through a scene with startling speed, and where even a fraction of a second can mean the difference between lapping surf and an exploding wave.

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The image at the top of the screen was captured at Kauai’s Lydgate Beach, less than 20 minutes after the image in my July 4 post. As you can see, the compositions are quite similar, but the overall feel is very different. Not only has the color changed significantly, the surf is completely different, and the clouds have very little in common.

Though my position on the beach was more or less the same, I did make adjustments to accommodate the changing conditions. I started with the rapidly shifting clouds, with each frame recomposed slightly from the previous to account for the clouds’ movement as I sought the best place for the frame’s border, trying not to cut the clouds awkwardly (or at all).

The other consideration was the wave motion. In the earlier image, wave timing was less important because my 5-second exposure smoothed the activity. Though I didn’t freeze the motion in this image, my 1/5 second exposure stopped the water enough to make timing important.

I liked the sunlight’s gold reflection on the wet sand, but that required a receding wave to capture the most reflective water (an advancing wave was just non-reflective white foam; between waves, the sand wasn’t wet enough). I also wanted a wave that moved diagonally across the bottom of my frame. While most waves arrived more straight-on, I’d been living with these waves for at least a half hour and knew that every once in a while one would sweep the beach at an angle. And of course while waiting for the ideal wave to arrive, I had to continue monitoring the clouds to ensure that they didn’t shift enough to alter my composition. After about a half dozen or so clicks, I finally got all the elements to align.

From One Second to the Next

Images where timing was essential

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There’s no “never” in photography

Gary Hart Photography: Hawaii Daybreak, Lydgate Park, Kauai, Hawaii

Hawaiian Daybreak, Lydgate Beach, Kauai, Hawaii
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
5 seconds
ISO 50

One question that comes up in just about every workshop is, where do I put the horizon (or in more general terms, where do I break my frame)? Behind these questions seems to be a feeling (fear?) that there’s one “best” way to treat a scene. And I’ve noticed that many beginning photographers are constrained by two “rules” they’ve heard at their camera club or online:

  1. Never put the horizon in the middle
  2. Always put the horizon 1/3 of the way down from the top of the frame, or 1/3 of the way up from the bottom

In general, when someone tells you that you should “always” do this, or “never” do that, run (don’t walk) to the nearest exit: If you’re not breaking rules, you’re not being creative. While well-intended advice like this might benefit the person who automatically puts everything in the center, most people who have owned a camera for more than a day are way beyond that point. And this 1/3 from the top or bottom of the frame thing? Forget about it. I have no problem giving 80 percent, 90 percent, or even more of my frame to my sky or foreground, and neither should you.

Here’s my (comprehensive) list of guidelines for how to split your frame:

  1. Give the area with the most visual interest the most room.

That’s it. If your scene is all about the clouds, put the horizon in the bottom half and celebrate the clouds—the better the sky (or the less interesting the foreground), the lower the horizon can go. Conversely, if the sky is boring, by all means, minimize it. And if you’re lucky enough to have a sky and foreground of equal beauty, feel free to split the frame.

It’s important not to overthink these creative choices. Freeing yourself from rules creates more room for your instincts to take over. (And by all means, feel free to deviate from my frame splitting guideline to.) We all the see the world a little differently, and where I choose to put my horizon may be completely different from where you put yours. Just trust your instincts (and if you’re not sure, shoot it different ways and decide later).

About this image

I just returned from Kauai, where I helped my friend Don Smith with his workshop there. For our penultimate sunrise we were at Lydgate Beach, between Lihue and Kapaa. I like to find relationships between the elements in my frame and often struggle at Lydgate because there’s just so much going on here: rocks in the surf, driftwood on the beach, and a point of land that juts in on the left (I have a thing about stuff sticking into my frame). But the sky this morning was so beautiful that I forced myself to find something that worked.

Avoiding the driftwood because it was just a pile of logs to my eye (though others in the group found nice images there), I set up in front of a group of rocks protruding from the surf just up the beach. Orienting my camera vertically, I was able to avoid the intruding point on the left, and the heap of logs on the right.

The clouds that morning wouldn’t stay still, but just as the color started to kick in a large cumulus cloud aligned perfectly with my foreground. Wanting to smooth the surf, I dialed my ISO to 50 and stopped down to f/16, then used my Singh-Ray 2-stop hard graduated neutral density filter to subdue the bright sky and brighten the surf with a 5-second shutter speed. I oriented my polarizer to maximize the color reflecting on the water.

Just as I avoid having objects intrude from outside my frame, I avoid (as much as possible) cutting objects off at the borders as well. To include all of my cumulus cloud and as much colorful sky and surf as possible, I went as wide as possible (16mm) and put the horizon in the middle. Over the next minute or so I clicked about a half dozen frames before recomposing, monitoring the waves and timing my clicks to capture a variety of wave action. I chose this frame for the way the diagonal line of spreading surf (more or less) mirrors the clouds.

I offer workshops on Hawaii’s Big Island and Maui

Eye on the Horizon

(Note how many of these scenes break the “rule” of thirds)

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I love you, goodbye…

Gary Hart Photography: Fire and Mist, Halemaumau Crater, Kilauea, Hawaii

Fire and Mist, Halemaumau Crater, Kilauea, Hawaii
Sony a7S
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
10 seconds
ISO 3200

Last week I said goodbye to my Sony a7S. More than any camera I’ve owned, this is the camera that overcame photography’s physical boundaries that most frustrated me.

I’ve been interested in astronomy since I was ten, ten years longer than I’ve a been photographer. But until recently I’ve been thwarted in my attempts to fully convey the majesty of the night sky above a grand landscape.

What was missing was light. Or more accurately, the camera’s ability to capture light. Light is what enables cameras to “see,” and while there’s still a little light after the sun goes down, cameras struggle mightily to find a usable amount.

When faced with limited light, photographers’ solutions are limited, and each solution is a compromise. In no particular order, we can increase:

  1. Shutter speed: We can increase the time the light strikes the sensor. While we can usually keep our shutter open for as long as the battery lasts, the longer it’s open, the more motion we capture.
  2. Aperture (a ratio measure in f-stops): Larger apertures (the f-stop number shrinks as the aperture opens) allow more light, with a loss of depth of field. While the DOF loss is usually insignificant in most night photography scenes (because all subjects are usually at infinity), the laws of optics limit the size of of a lens’s aperture.
  3. ISO: We can increase the sensor’s sensitivity to light by increasing the ISO, but not without significant image quality degradation (noise).

Most night photography attempts bump into the limits of each solution before complete success is achieved. For me, the first barrier is usually the f-stop, which is soon maxed. With my f-stop maxed, I’m left with a dance between ISO and shutter speed as I attempt to balance acceptable amounts of motion and noise.

So why not just add more light? Duh. But, while adding light solves some problems, it introduces others. Anything bright enough to illuminate a large landscape (sunlight or moonlight) washes out the stars, and artificial local light (such as light painting or a flash) violates my own natural-light-only objective. Another option some resort to is image blending (one frame for the foreground, one for the sky), but that too violates my personal single-frame-only goal.

My first shot at the night photography conundrum came about ten years ago, when I started doing moonlight photography. I immediately found that the reflected sunlight cast by a full moon beautifully illuminated my landscapes, while preserving enough celestial darkness that the brighter, most recognizable constellations still shined through. But walking outside on a clear, moonless night far from city lights was all the reminder I needed that my favorite qualities of the night sky—the Milky Way and the the seemingly infinite quantity of stars—remained beyond my photographic reach.

To photograph a moonless sky brimming with stars, my next step was star trail photography—long exposures that accumulated enough light to reveal my terrestrial subjects at manageable ISO (not too much noise). Star trails have the added benefit of stretching stellar pinpoints into concentric arcs of light that beautifully depict Earth’s rotation.

While both enjoyable and beautiful, moonlight and star trail photography were not completely satisfying. But the laws of physics dictated that lenses weren’t going to get any faster, and Earth wasn’t going to rotate any slower, so the solution would need to be in sensor efficiency.

Unfortunately, camera manufactures remained resolute in their belief that megapixels sold cameras. So as sensor technology evolved, and photographers saw slow but steady high ISO improvement, we were force-fed a mind-boggling increase in megapixel count.

But cramming more megapixels onto a 35mm sensor requires: 1) smaller photosites that are less efficient at capturing light, and 2) more tightly packed photosites that increase (noise inducing) heat.

The megapixel race changed overnight when Sony, in a risky, game-changing move, decided to offer a high-end, full-frame camera with “only” a 12 megapixel sensor. What were they thinking!?

Acknowledging what serious photographers have known for years, that 12 megapixels is enough for most uses (just 12 years ago, pros paid $8,000 for a Canon 1Ds with only 11 megapixels), Sony bucked the megapixel trend to embrace the benefits of fewer, larger, less densely packed photosites. The result was a light-sucking monster that can see in the dark: the Sony a7S.

Since purchasing my a7S less than a year ago, I’m able to photograph the dark night sky above the landscapes I love. Additionally, I found that its fast shutter lag (since matched by the a7R II) made the a7S ideal for lightning photography. It was love at first click.

And now it’s gone. Last month Sony released the a7S II, and given my satisfaction with the upgrade from the a7R to the a7R II, it was only a matter of time before I upgraded to the a7S II. I’m happy to say that I found a good home for my a7S and in fact may even get to visit it in future workshops.

I haven’t had a chance to use the a7S II, but I assure you it won’t be long, and you’ll be the first to know.

About this image

The image at the top of this post was captured in September (2015) during my Hawaii Big Island Volcanos and Waterfalls photo workshop. Each time I visit here I hold my breath until I see what the sky is doing. I’ve encountered everything from completely cloudless to pea soup fog. I’ve come to hope for a mix of clouds and sky—enough sky for the Milky Way to shine through clearly, but enough clouds to reflect the orange light of the churning volcano.

On this evening we got a combination I hadn’t seen before—clear sky overhead, a few low clouds, and a heavy mist hanging in the caldera. Not only did the mist frame the scene with a translucent orange glow, it subdued the volcano’s fire enough for me to use a long exposure to bring out the Milky Way without blowing my highlights.

We’ll do it again in my next Hawaii Volcanos and Waterfalls workshop

An a7S homage

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Out of my depth

Gary Hart Photography: Hidden, Akaka Falls State Park, Hawaii

Hidden Waterfall, Akaka Falls State Park, Hawaii
Sony a7R II
Sony 70-200 f4
1/10 second
ISO 1600

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about appreciating the small stuff. Writing that article opened my eyes to how much I’d gotten away from aspects of photography that give me great pleasure, and that were a big part of my photographic style. Not completely away, but far enough to notice a difference when reviewing my images from the last year or so, a year that coincides with my switch from Canon DSLR to Sony mirrorless. While I can’t attribute this shift to a shortcoming in my Sony gear (far from it), I do believe the timing is more than coincidence.

First, with its radically different interface and shooting workflow, mirrorless is a new trick and I’m an old dog, and I think I underestimated the ramifications of the mirrorless switch. Nevertheless, within a few weeks I felt reasonably comfortable seeing through an electronic viewfinder, had embraced a new focus and metering paradigm, and became sufficiently familiar with my Sony a7R’s features, buttons, dials, and menus. So far, so good.

But simply knowing a camera doesn’t mean I don’t have to think about using it. And it’s the unconscious control of photography’s technical side—the focusing, metering, setting exposure variables, and so on—that frees my brain to create. (I suspect it’s this way for most other photographers too.) So until I can make my camera an unconscious extension that functions more like an extra limb, the interface is a distraction. After ten years, I’d taken for granted my ability to control every aspect of my Canon DSLRs by feel, in the dark if necessary, without conscious thought—simply put, it’s taken nearly a year to achieve that familiarity with my Sonys.

In that gap between familiar and intimate with my Sony bodies, bad (lazy) habits formed. Because while I was getting used to a new way of shooting, I became so enamored of my a7R’s extreme dynamic range that my photography began to skew in that direction. Suddenly sunrises and sunsets that had been especially difficult (or impossible) with my Canons, were easy, a luxury I was all too happy to indulge. Then came the a7S, with its mystical ability to see in the dark, and suddenly night photography was occupying much more of my photography time.

Compounding the problem, these high dynamic range scenes tend to be more dramatic, and drama impresses the masses more than subtle. I’d post a new image to rave reviews (“Stunning!”), and soon found myself lured by the instant validation. I loved what I was shooting, others loved what I was shooting, so what could possibly be wrong?

Or maybe a better way to put it, what’s missing? I’d scroll through my recent images and couldn’t avoid the vague sense that there were fewer images that excited me personally. There were some, but not as many as I’d been accustomed to. And then it hit me—my images lacked depth.

Depth is the final frontier for aspiring photographers. Photography attempts to render a three-dimensional world in a two-dimensional medium, and intuitive disconnect. But while true depth in a photograph is impossible, what is possible is the illusion of depth. I’ve always felt that most people can compose a nice two-dimensional landscape, but what separates the great photographers from the good is their ability to convey depth.

Conveying the illusion of depth starts with not settling for a dramatic background or striking foreground subject, but using that as the starting point for a scene that contains visual points throughout the (missing) front-to-back plane. If the primary scene is in the distance, find nearer objects that balance and complement it. Likewise, if your subject is in the foreground, make every effort to include complementary background elements.

But finding a complementary foreground and background is just the beginning. Once you’ve identified your foreground and background (and mid-ground if possible) elements, you have to manage their relationships while mentally subtracting the camera’s missing third dimension (depth). Things like creating imaginary lines that connect objects at different distances; avoiding merging of discrete objects; perspective management with focal length and subject distance choices; focus (depth of field) control to emphasize/deemphasize foreground/background elements (to name a few). All of these things take a scene from more literal, two-dimentional snaps to interpretive, artistic creations that exist only in your brain until the shutter is clicked.

And that’s what I think has suffered in the year since my Sony switch—I’m still getting captures that excite me (and others), but in settling for the scenes the Sony sensor makes so easy, I lost my way a bit. Now that I recognize what’s been lacking, it’s time to up my game and apply that amazing Sony sensor to our three dimensional world.

About this image

I traveled to Hawaii earlier this month vowing to reinvigorate my quest for depth in my images. With lush rainforests, rugged volcanic beaches, vivid sunsets, and an active volcano, it’s a great spot for filling the frame from front to back.

One place in particular I looked forward to visiting was Akaka Falls State Park. The little scene in this image is extremely familiar to me—it’s near the end of Akaka Falls loop, after the view of the fall, making it easy to think the show is over as you beeline back to the parking lot to escape the humidity. Each time I pass this spot I stop and try to make it work, which starts with finding a way to pull detail from the dense shade without blowing out the fully exposed foreground foliage. And even if I can make the dynamic range work, I still have to figure out how to balance the conflicting need for a small aperture that ensures adequate depth of field, against the need for a shutter speed long enough to pull the waterfall from the extremely dense shade, but fast enough to avoid blurring the leaves in the almost unavoidable breeze.

But several things worked in my favor on this visit. A heavy cloud cover reduced the foreground brightness to a more manageable level, and my new Sony a7R II has at least two stops more dynamic range than the Canon 5D III I’d used on prior visits—suddenly, dynamic range wasn’t a deal-breaker. Also, someone had flipped the switch on Hawaii’s usually reliable trade winds—the still, humid air was extremely uncomfortable, but far better for this kind of close photography. Last but not least, the high ISO capability of my a7R II made me quite comfortable shooting at ISO 1600, high enough to permit f16 while maintaining a fast enough shutter speed.

My focal length was 154mm, so even at f16 I needed to be careful about focus. In scenes where I’m not sure whether I’ll have enough depth of field to ensure front-to-back sharpness, I almost always find a point that keeps my closer elements sharp. To maximize depth of field, I’ll focus as far behind the closest visual anchor (in this case the closest flowers) as I can without sacrificing any foreground sharpness. In this case I was pretty sure I could focus on the back flower and still keep the closer flowers sharp. In a perfect world I’d have liked just a little more motion blur in the water, but even with the air relatively still, I wasn’t comfortable going beyond 1/10 second.

Read more about controlling depth of field

The illusion of depth

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The camera’s vision: Light

Gary Hart Photography: Tropical Sunrise, Hawaii Big Island

Tropical Sunrise, Hawaii Big Island
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
32 mm
1 second
ISO 200

Something I teach, write, and lecture on frequently (ad naseum?) is the photographer’s obligation to understand, not fight, the camera’s vision. Some people get this; others, not so much.

So here I go again…

Visual “Truth” is relative

Without getting too philosophical, it’s important to understand that, like your camera, your view of the universe is both limited and interpreted. In other words, there is no absolute visual truth. Instead, we (you, me, our cameras) each have a unique vision of the world that’s based on the way we receive it. Our definition of “real” is biased toward the three-dimensional, 360 degree, continuous-motion way our eye/brain system processes our universe, but it’s wrong to contend that the camera’s perspective is any less real than yours or mine.

The visible spectrum

Before lamenting your camera’s limitations, pause to consider that, in the grand scheme of perpetual electromagnetic energy surrounding us, what you and I see is incredibly limited as well. The visible (to the human eye) portion of the electromagnetic spectrum is an insignificant fraction of the infinite continuum of electromagnetic wavelengths permeating the Universe. For example, X-ray machines peer into the world of electromagnetic waves in the one nanometer (one billionth of a meter); TVs and radios “see” waves that are measured in centimeters; humans, on the other hand, see only waves in the very narrow band between (about) 400 and 750  nanometers.

With tools that target specific wavelengths, doctors reveal subcutaneous secrets, astronomers explore our galaxy and beyond, law enforcement and the military use “invisible” (to us) infrared radiation (heat) to see people and objects in complete darkness. In other words, in the grand scheme of things, there’s no single absolute visual standard—it’s all relative to your frame of reference.

The camera has its own frame of reference. While it’s sensitive to more or less the same visible spectrum our eyes see, the camera is oblivious to an entire dimension (depth). Not only that (since we’re not talking about movies here), a camera only returns a snap of a single instant. But a camera has advantages—its narrow perspective (compared to the human experience) allows photographers to hide distractions outside the frame, and that “instant” reflected in a photo can actually be an accumulation of infinite number of instants.

Despite these differences, photographers often go to great lengths attempting to force their cameras to record the world the way their eyes see it—not necessarily bad, but extremely limiting. Not only is duplicating human vision with a camera impossible, doing so sacrifices the camera’s ability to reveal things the eye/brain misses.

Interpreted vision

Every photograph must be processed (interpreted) in some way before it can be viewed. The processing can happen in a lab (remember those days?), the camera, and/or in a computer. But human visual input is also interpreted before we perceive it. Visual processing happens in the brain, which adjusts for things like color temperature, perspective, motion, and so on.

Of course human vision is a lot more complex than that, and while the eye/brain relationship might not be a perfect analog for the camera/computer paradigm, suffice to say, whether you’re looking at Yosemite in a digital print, on a computer screen, or through your own two eyes, the scene has been interpreted. And with interpretation comes bias.

Leveraging limitations

In many ways, the eye’s ability to capture light exceeds that of even the best cameras, effortlessly pulling detail out of deep shadows and bright highlights. But savvy photographers know how to use their cameras’ limited dynamic range to hide distractions, emphasize the scene’s most important elements, and reveal washed out color.

In the image above, captured on the Big Island of Hawaii last September, I used my camera’s (relatively) narrow dynamic range to simplify a sunrise to its essential color and shape. I could have blended multiple exposures to bring the detail in this scene closer to what my eyes saw, but it wasn’t the scene’s detail that moved me. Instead, underexposing the shadows minimized detail in the trees and rocks and allowed me to reveal color that had been washed out by the rising sun. I was able to simplify an originally complex scene to the elements that I found most compelling: the very tropical outline of swaying palms, the

Brilliant Poppy, American River Parkway, Sacramento

Brilliant Poppy, American River Parkway, Sacramento

tenacious strength of rugged sea stacks, and the vivid color of a Hawaii sunrise, all mirrored in an abstract foreground reflection.

Instead, using my camera’s “limited” dynamic range, I blackened the superfluous detail that would have distracted from the qualities of the scene that I most wanted to convey.

In the poppy image on the right, the scene’s dynamic range was again impossible to capture with a camera—everything you see as white was blue sky or brilliant sunlight to my eyes. I chose to properly expose the poppy and let the sky blow out. The result was this beautifully backlit poppy isolated against a white background that was nothing like my view of the scene—but it was exactly what my camera saw.

Open your mind

So the next time you feel like labeling “real” or “not real,” or insisting that your camera do things it’s not very good at (just to satisfy your own perception of reality), remember that real is relative and far broader than your narrow perspective.

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Stuff my camera saw that I didn’t

(Or saw far differently)

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Haleakala Sunrise, Maui

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