Posted on April 11, 2022
I’ve said it before: Capturing our three-dimensional world in photography’s two-dimensional medium is impossible. But take heart, all is not lost—it is possible to give your images the illusion of depth.
It’s pretty easy to put a camera to your eye and frame up the flat, left/right and up/down aspect of a scene. But translating your own three-dimensional experience into your camera’s two-dimensional reality requires bit more insight and effort. I grew up in a family where my parents, and pretty much every significant relative it seemed, had at least one large and glossy David Muench book on the coffee table (remember coffee table books?). Starting as far back as I can remember, I used to love paging through Muench’s beautiful images of the Southwest, California, America’s national parks, and more, just marveling at the grand majesty. Though I wasn’t gazing with a critical eye, I can’t help but believe that some of Muench’s front-to-back framing approach must have rubbed off on me. It wasn’t until I started leading photo workshops that I realized that not everyone understands the importance of front-to-back relationships, and how to make them happen.
Achieving the illusion of depth starts with looking beyond your primary subject to find a complementary foreground or background: If your primary subject is nearby, find a background object, shape, or color that frames, balances, and/or helps the subject stand out. Conversely, if your primary subject is in the distance, look for foreground elements that can lead your viewers’ eyes through the frame without distracting or competing for attention.
Once you have your foreground/background elements worked out, your composition isn’t complete. In your three-dimensional view, size and distance are easily interpreted, something we stereographic humans take for granted. But your scene’s depth is lost to your camera. In its two-dimensional world, aligned objects at varying distances loose the separation that makes them stand out. To overcome this, you need to visually separate merged objects by putting them on different lines of sight, setting them apart from the scene’s other elements, allowing your image’s viewer to infer the depth that you see naturally. I can’t emphasize how important this is.
In my many years of observing and assisting other photographers working to improve their images, I’ve decided that a lack of depth management could be single most significant factor holding them back. And there seems to be an invisible force that binds tripods to their first landing place. Overcoming this force (to which I’m not immune) requires vigilant attention to each visual element in your frame, then taking whatever steps (figuratively and literally) necessary to ensure that each element stands alone. If you can’t achieve separation from your current position, move! In other words, in a static image, you’re the one who to be dynamic.
Arriving at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon in Iceland in February, it was instantly clear that the scene had everything necessary for a special image: Low-hanging clouds that softened the light, turquoise ice that colored Iceland’s typically monochrome winter landscape, and crystal clear water that reflected the ice’s color and revealed submerged pastel pebbles. I could have set up my tripod anywhere and captured something beautiful, but I walked the lagoon’s shore, searching for a foreground to go with the gorgeous background, until I was finally stopped by these ice disks that seemed to have been placed like stepping stones.
I like elements that move diagonally across my frame, so I started by positioning my tripod accordingly. Turns out I loved the ice disks and colorful submerged pebbles so much that I decided to make them the feature of my frame. Attaching my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 lens to my Sony a7RIV, I dropped my tripod as low as it would go and scooted it into the water, getting as close as I could to the ice. I used my Breakthrough 6-stop Dark Polarizer to smooth the water, taking care I to turn the polarizer to the point where the submerged pebbles appeared, but not so far that I lost the color reflecting in the background. Shooting this at 16mm allowed me to get extremely close to the foreground ice and pebbles and fill most of the frame with the nearby ice disks, while demoting the much larger turquoise icebergs to lovely background observers.
One more thing
The first time I saw Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, I was blown away by this lake that had large turquoise ice cubes bobbing in water so clear that it can look like the ice is floating on air. So, as I try (need) to do with all of my subjects, I researched.
I learned that Jökulsárlón is a relatively new lake that formed in the mid twentieth century when its upstream glacier, Breiðamerkurjökull, started receding (glaciers don’t actually defy gravity and back up, they simply start melting faster than their ice is replenished). The weight and friction of an advancing glacier carves deep gouges in the Earth as it inches forward and pushes some of the carved out rock and sediment ahead of it—when the glacier retreats (as most of the world’s glaciers seem to now be doing), this debris remains in place, forming a terminal moraine that can act like a dam for glacial meltwater.
Jökulsárlón is the lake that formed in the scar exposed by Breiðamerkurjökull’s retreat, filled by glacial meltwater. While it’s relatively new, at nearly 1,000 feet deep, Jökulsárlón is Iceland’s deepest lake. Its icebergs have calved from the still receding Breiðamerkurjökull. So now you know.
Posted on March 13, 2022
Photography should, first and foremost, make you happy. But every once in a while, for some reason (I have to be really bored) I’ll surf over to an online photography forum or Facebook photography group, only to be instantly reminded why it’s been so long since I visited. The litany of online insults, one-upmanship, and destructive criticism makes me wonder whether there are any happy photographers out there.
Of course I know there are, because I meet them all the time: in my workshops, on location, or simply sharing their images online. I don’t know whether the same photographers who seem so happy when they’re taking pictures do a Jekyll to Hyde transformation as soon as their butts hit the computer chair, or whether there are two types of photographers: those who actually take pictures, and those who simply prefer their computer to Mother Nature (no wonder they’re so unhappy).
Of course getting out to take pictures does require more effort than sitting at a computer. And nature photography usually requires some level of sacrifice because the best time for photography is usually the worst time to be outside: sunrise, when we’d rather be in bed; sunset, when we’d rather be at dinner; crazy weather, when we’d rather be warm; and after dark, when we’d rather be in front of the TV. But I’ve decided that there’s something about witnessing Nature’s majesty that transcends any transient discomfort and inconvenience. And doing it with people who appreciate it as much as you do makes it even better.
Don Smith and I got another reminder in last month’s Iceland photo workshop. On this trip we dealt with all the wind, snow, and frigid temperatures you’d expect in Iceland in February. And then there were the long days and bumpy miles—not to mention a fair share of unexpected hardship. For example, less than 36 hours after clicking this image, several members of our group were nearly swept into the North Atlantic by a rogue wave. Then there were the hotel room snow drifts (note to self: Don’t sleep with the window open in Iceland in February), the lost and found camera bag, the stolen airport shuttle….
But despite all this difficultly, this trip was an absolute blast. This night is a great example. It must have been freezing, but I have no memory of that now. But I do remember standing on the beach beneath Vestrahorn with the rest of the group that night, the waves washing over (and sometimes into) our boots, waiting for the northern lights. Approaching from behind was a storm that, according to the forecast, threatened to close the roads. This scene is beautiful in any conditions, and to be able to photo Vestrahorn under the stars, with even a little bit of aurora, was truly special. Doing it with a group of like-minded, fun loving friends is something I’ll never forget.
What you see here is about as good as the aurora got—nice, but nothing spectacular. Nevertheless, we were having such a great time, we stayed out in the cold dark until the clouds swallowed the stars. Back at the bus, with a storm threatening and an hour’s drive back to the hotel, we were anxious to get on the road. So imagine our chagrin when Óli (or Icelandic guide) turned the key and got nothing but a click. If you’ve every photographed Vestrahorn from here, you know this isn’t one of those places where you can just walk out onto the road and flag down a car. Uh-oh. It would have been easy, understandable even, for people to be upset—or frightened, or angry. Instead, while Óli worked his phone trying find help (the cellular coverage in Iceland is fantastic, FYI), we just continued enjoying each other’s company.
As it turned out, we only had to wait an hour or so for a friend of Óli’s to come out and give us a jumpstart (one more reason why it pays to have a local guide). He also arranged for another friend to drive our direction with van large enough for the entire group, in case the battery charge didn’t hold. Rather than wait for the backup vehicle to arrive, we just started driving in toward the hotel—the other vehicle met us halfway and followed us from there, but we made it without need for more help.
The next morning the battery was dead again, and we were stuck at the hotel all morning while the bus was being repaired (turned out to be an alternator problem). As luck would have it, the storm was so bad that we’d have had to stay in anyway. That afternoon we were picked up for our visit to the ice cave, and the bus was good as new when we returned. So all’s well that ends well.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on March 7, 2022
One of my personal rules for photography is knowledge of my subjects—I simply get more pleasure from an image when I know something about what I’ve captured. Of the many potential subjects available to a landscape photographer, mountains have always been a particular draw for me. Living my entire life in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada has certainly influenced that connection, as have fond memories of family camping trips in the mountains throughout my childhood, and Sierra backpack trips with friends in my teens and beyond. In college I even majored in geology for several semesters (after astronomy, but before eventually earning my bachelor’s degree in, yawn, economics), and was most interested in the processes responsible for mountain building: tectonics and volcanism.
Given all this, I guess it makes sense that after returning from last month’s Iceland trip I found myself digging a little deeper into the origins of Kirkjufell, the prominent peak that is arguably Iceland’s most recognizable landmark. Game of Thrones fans who recognize Kirkjufell (Arrowhead Mountain) will be relieved to know that, after several visits over the last few years, I can confirm that the White Walkers appear to have moved on. (But come to think of it, maybe that shouldn’t be much of a relief….)
Kirkjufell rises slightly more than 1500 feet above Breiðafjörður Bay on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Given Iceland’s volcanic origins, it would be reasonable to assume that this cone-shaped peak is just one of of the island’s many volcanos. But that assumption would be incorrect. Skeptical? The mountain’s clearly visible parallel strata layers are a giveaway that Kirkjufell is not a volcano. (And viewing from other angles would reveal that Kirkjufell isn’t really cone-shaped either.)
Though many of Kirkjufell’s layers were indeed laid down by lava or explosive debris from nearby volcanos, these igneous layers are interspersed with layers of submarine sediment deposits, each layer a product of the environment at the time of its deposition. Kirkjufell’s base layer was a large lava flow that happened sometime in the last 5 to 10 million years (relatively recently in Earth’s grand geological picture). After that came millions of years of alternating sediment and volcanic deposits, separated by thousands or millions of years for which there’s no record.
This assortment of parallel layers created a horizontal layer cake of strata bearing no resemblance to the mountain we know today (or any mountain for that matter). Because all sedimentary layers are deposited horizontally, and Kirkjufell has a slight SE-NW tilt, it would also be reasonable to assume that at some point since the last layer went down, the entire area to the southeast rose relative to the area northwest.
Once all Kirkjufell’s layers were deposited and tilted, the area was squeezed between two glaciers that carved away most of the surrounding rock, leaving the remaining peak jutting above the glaciers like an island. When the glaciers retreated, the peak we see today remained.
The other striking feature in this image is the pink that spreads in the shadowless pre-sunrise/post-sunset sky of civil twilight, when the sun is around six degrees or closer to the horizon. Sometimes called the “Belt of Venus,” we get this color because the only the longest, red wavelengths are able to traverse the atmosphere once the sun drops below the horizon.
The interface between the Belt of Venus and the blue-gray Earth’s shadow directly is called the “twilight wedge,” a designation earned because you can sometimes see the earth’s curve in the shadow, with its apex at the anti-solar point (directly opposite the sun). At sunset, the gradual upward motion of the shadow gives the appearance of a wedge being driven into the darkening sky.
About this image
I won’t pretend that there’s anything especially unique about my composition here (and I have the pictures to prove it)—it’s one of those scenes that improves more with conditions than composition, especially if you haven’t been here enough to get really familiar with it.
Because this was the first evening of photography for Don Smith’s and my 2022 Iceland photo workshop, Don and I stayed especially close to the group. From past visits I knew that to align Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss (the waterfall), you’re pretty limited for places to set up, but we managed to find prime tripod real estate for everyone. I encourage my groups to move around as much as possible, but the thick snow and steep drop to the river further limited our mobility, so we just lined up along the cable barrier between the trail and the drop. And because there were other people besides our group out there, once you landed a vantage point, you were pretty much stuck there until someone moved.
Given the mobility limitations and my desire to align the mountain and waterfall, my composition options were mostly focal length choices. Another, self imposed, compositional limitation was my desire to exclude the footbridge just out of my frame on the left. I like to believe that if I’d have been here by myself, with lots of time to explore, I’d have come up with something a little more creative. But I’m certainly not complaining—between the fresh snow and beautiful sky, the conditions for photography were off the charts and everyone was thrilled.
This image came late in the shoot, just as the twilight wedge reached peak color. By then I was pretty familiar with all my composition options and opted to go with my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens at 17mm (an my Sony a7RIV body). Turns out my resulting composition is remarkably similar to my northern lights image from later that night, and a sunrise image I captured here 3 years ago. Since I clearly have this composition nailed, I’ll need to challenge myself to find something different next year.
Posted on February 20, 2022
I returned from Iceland with a lot of memories, but none will stay with me longer than the events of this stormy February morning on Diamond Beach. I guess given how much of my life is spent chasing Nature’s most dramatic moments, every once in a while it’s good to be reminded of the suddenness with which Nature can surprise you to impose its uncompromising will. But still…
The wind was howling and sunrise was still nearly an hour away when Don Smith and I guided our workshop group out to Diamond Beach. In fact, it had been so cold and dark when we arrived that we’d hung out in the bus for about 10 minutes.
Our group had actually photographed Diamond Beach a couple of days earlier, on a sunny but chilly morning. The surf that day had been relatively benign, washing up a more-or-less predictable distance up the beach at regular intervals. On that visit we could wander among the ice chunks, advancing close enough to use a wide lens for close-ups of the waves washing around individual ice blocks.
The blocks of ice here, some as large as a small car, have calved from nearby Fjallsárlón Glacier, have drifted across Glacier Lagoon and eventually into the ocean, before being swept back onto this black sand beach to pose for our photographs. On that first visit the biggest concern was a slightly larger than average wave washing up over the top of our (nearly knee-high) waterproof boots if we somehow hadn’t paid enough attention to its approach. Wet feet might ruin your day, but they won’t kill you.
This morning, however, given the storm that had raged all night and the cold wind still blowing hard, we weren’t a bit surprised to find the surf frighteningly agitated. Each wave attacked the beach with an explosive vengeance, and no one needed to be told to give the ocean space. Making beach access even more difficult was the a very high tide that had crested less than an hour before our arrival.
The section of Diamond Beach we were trying to photograph slopes steeply, 30 diagonal feet or so down to the ocean. (Given the size and violence of the waves, it’s really impossible to say where the beach ends and the ocean begins.) Above this inclined beach stretches a broad and relatively flat plain of sand, elevated far enough above the water to provide the illusion of safety. On this morning we watched individual waves charge up the beach before petering out 10 feet or so feet from the top of the slope—some a few feet closer, some a few feet farther back, but none seemed to threaten the high ground we surveyed the scene from.
Bobbing in the surf and dotting the sand were the ice blocks we’d come to photograph. All of the best ice was down in the area under constant attack from the surf, but instead of walking down among the ice as we had on our previous visit, the group seemed content to put on longer lenses and stay in the safety of the elevated plain.
Given the day I’d spent with saturated socks following our previous Diamond Beach visit, on this visit I was very motivated to keep my feet dry. Planting my tripod several feet back from the edge, I attached my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens to my Sony a7RIV and turned my attention to a pair of ice chunks a safe distance away. My first click came about 40 minutes before sunrise, when the sky was dark enough to stretch my exposures into the 15 to 30 second range, making it very challenging to avoid blurring the ice that shifted with almost every wave.
At one point I saw someone in our group venture down, close enough to the water to take a wave almost to his waist. Braced, with camera held high, he remained standing and came out laughing, but stayed further back after that. I went back to shooting, trying to time my exposures for the seconds between waves when my subjects were less likely to be shuffled mid-exposure. The image I share here was one of my earliest successes.
Waiting for an exposure to complete, I looked up and saw a human shape emerging from the darkness and heading my direction. It wasn’t until I heard the shape utter, “I went in,” that I squinted and realized I was looking at Don. And not until he got right up to me and repeated, “I went in,” did I register exactly what he meant.
He was dripping, head-to-toe, camera and tripod, with frigid North Atlantic seawater. Holy crap! With chattering teeth he gave me a quick summary of events. He’d seen a piece of ice he wanted to photograph, so after monitoring the waves enough to feel confident that he was safe (-ish), he’d moved down onto the sloping part of the beach to get closer. Once down there, he’d been so focused on making his shot that he hadn’t seen the large wave until it was on him. The wave came up to his waist, and just as he thought he might ride it out without going down, he was sucker-punched by a block of ice that sent him sprawling into the surf (turns out it left him a nasty bruise too, but I managed to refrain from suggesting that he ice it). Fortunately, this was our last morning there, so our suitcases were packed and loaded the bus, so it didn’t take any convincing to get him to return the bus to change into dry clothes.
My ice subjects had drifted away, so I wandered over to where a few members of the group were shooting comfortably in the “safe” zone, well back from the beach. Rather than feeling concerned about our safety, I considered Don’s mishap a one-off accident—a dedicated photographer a little too anxious to get the shot. I’ve been there, and I suspect most landscape photographers have as well at one time or another. So far, I rationalized, no wave had come close to our elevated sand platform.
About the time these thoughts were cementing in my brain, I glanced seaward and saw a massive, roiling wall of water charging my position. Usually when a wave approaches the first inclination is to backpedal, but this wave was on a completely different scale from any I’d ever encountered. Without conscious thought I turned and sprinted inland so quickly (picture George Costanza in a fire) that if my camera bag hadn’t been on my back, and my tripod in my hand, I’d have lost everything.
The wave caught up with me at least 50 feet back from the top of the sloping beach that just seconds earlier I’d believed was completely safe. By then it had lost significant momentum but still rose halfway up my calf (and just below the top of my very high boots). After retreating another 50 feet or so to dry ground, I turned and looked back toward the others and saw three people in the group down.
I planted my tripod and sloshed back through about 8 inches of water where there had been only dry sand just a few seconds ago. Fortunately, no one had been swept down onto the beach (and beyond) by the receding wave. By the time I reached them, those who were down were scrambling back to their feet. I looked around and saw that the others had managed to retreat far enough to remain upright, though all were some degree of wetter than they wanted to be.
After a few seconds to process what had just happened, pulled everyone from the beach and onto the bus. We stopped at Glacier Lagoon where there were bathrooms for people to change, but I think those who got wettest didn’t fully warm until we reached our hotel that afternoon. Once it was clear that we’d incurred no lasting personal harm, I took stock of the gear that suffered and learned that four cameras and lenses weren’t working. One of the camera/lens pairs returned to life later, but three were permanently demoted to paperweight status.
The images from this morning became an afterthought—I didn’t even think about them again until unloaded my card and saw that I had captured 10 frames before all hell broke loose. Many had too much motion in the ice, but it looks like I did manage to capture two or three worth processing—all variations on the same ice blocks with different wave action.
Born and raised in California, I’ve photographed and recreated at the beach more times than I can count. I’ve heard stories of “rogue” or “sneaker” waves, but this is the first time I’ve ever actually experienced one. Only after experiencing this wave do I realize that all those other large waves that surprised me were not the full extent of the potential risk, not even close.
Without getting too preachy (after all, you are reading advice from a guy who chases lightning), I just want to remind everyone to never take Nature for granted. Just because you feel safe, doesn’t mean you are safe. I tell my monsoon workshop students not to get too comfortable just because there’s been no lightning yet, that every lightning storm needs to strike first somewhere (and it could be here). And after this experience, I’ll certainly tell my ocean photographing students in Iceland and Hawaii that, no mater how many waves you’ve seen, the next wave could be several times bigger than anything you’ve seen so far. I know, because I’ve seen it.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on February 7, 2022
I woke in my hotel room this morning to find a 6-inch snow drift (I measured) on the floor beneath my window, and still more snow frosting the curtains and wall. An expanding glacial lake stretched almost to my bed. Honestly, the risk of turning my room into an ice cave is never a consideration when opening the window at bedtime back home—but this is not home, not even close.
So why would someone choose to leave scenic, mild California for frigid Iceland in early February? Believe it or not, there are many reasons, including snowy volcanic peaks, a mind-boggling assortment of waterfalls, shimmering ice caves, all-day low-angle light (the sun in early February never ascends higher than 10 degrees), and hour-long sunrises and sunsets. (I could go on.)
But the number one motivator, the thing that most inspired Don Smith and me to consider an Iceland photo workshop in the middle of winter, and that drove a dozen people to sign up for it, is the potential to witness nature’s mesmerizing celestial dance, the northern lights.
Our planet is continuously bombarded by solar energy. When this perpetual solar wind encounters Earth’s atmosphere, a narrow range of wavelengths (infrared and visible) passes through to warm us and light our way. But other energy wavelengths in the solar wind interact with the molecules they encounter, stripping electrons and creating an atmospheric charge imbalance.
Instead of penetrating our atmosphere to create havoc on Earth’s surface, most of these ions (charged particles) are intercepted by Earth’s magnetosphere, our protective magnetic shield. Under constant bombardment from the sun, the magnetosphere forms a teardrop-shaped shield around Earth, with the battered side that faces the sun compressed, and the shielded side behind Earth stretching much farther into space.
As Earth rotates, the daylight side at any given moment faces the thinner, compressed region of the magnetosphere, while Earth’s night side looks out toward the extended region of the magnetosphere. Particles ionized by the sun are pushed by the solar wind from the daylight side of the magnetosphere to the upper regions of the polar latitudes on Earth’s leeward (night) side.
The result of these atmospheric machinations is an accumulation of ionized molecules dancing high in the night sky, creating an atmospheric oval of geomagnetic activity that increases with the intensity of the solar wind. The greater the solar activity, the greater the oval’s size and the intensity and range of the aurora display.
The aurora’s color depends on the molecules involved, as well as their altitude. The most plentiful and frequently activated molecules vibrate in the green wavelengths, but reds and blues are possible as well, depending on the intensity and altitude of the activity.
To view the northern lights, you need all of the above: the right location, activity in the magnetosphere, and clear skies. As with terrestrial weather, there’s no such thing as an aurora “sure thing”—the best we can do is put ourselves in position to be as close to the auroral oval on nights with the greatest chance for activity. Planning a winter trip to the high latitudes (the higher the better), like Iceland, is a good start—then just pray for clear skies.
Essential to aurora chasing is access to and comprehension of the Kp- (or K-) index. The Kp-index is a 0-9 scale of atmospheric electromagnetic activity, with 0 being little or no activity (get some sleep), and 9 being the most extreme activity (don’t forget the sunglasses). Many governments and scientific organizations issue regular Kp forecasts that seem about as reliable as a weather forecast—pretty good, but far from perfect. There are many websites and smartphone apps that will provide you with up-to-date Kp forecasts for your current location—some will even issue alerts.
Meanwhile, back in Iceland
This is my third trip to Iceland in winter, all with my friend and fellow pro photographer Don Smith: in 2019 to scout for our planned workshop, then in 2020 and 2022 for our workshops. On all three trips we’ve been guided, chauffeured, and entertained by our Icelandic guide, (the unforgettable) Óli Haukur.
On our previous two winter Iceland visits, it seemed the aurora was toying with us, tantalizing us each evening with clear skies (yay!) and just enough aurora potential to drive us out to wait in the cold dark night (meh), before ultimately disappointing (boo!). But on both trips, after a week of torture, the aurora finally came through with a dazzling display on the trip’s penultimate night (phew).
This year, the aurora gods played a different game. On our first night we were based near Kirkjufell (English translation: Church Mountain), arguably Iceland’s most iconic landmark—not to mention the north-facing vantage point that makes Kirkjufell a perfect foreground for photographing the northern lights. But, in a stunning plot twist, instead of the clear skies and KP-1 or 2 we’d been accustomed to, this year’s opening night’s aurora forecast was KP-6—the highest KP rating I’d had for any of my Iceland visits (even the big display nights). However…
Remember the aurora big 3: location, activity, and sky? We had location and activity, but even two out of three isn’t enough. So my ecstasy was quenched the instant I checked the Kirkjufell weather forecast: cloudy, with a chance of snow. But, because photographers will endure all kinds of abuse when a good shot is even remotely possible, our group bundled up and went out anyway. One small benefit: Though we certainly weren’t the only ones out there, the weather forecast and overall COVID-reduced tourist numbers made Kirkjufell’s crowd much more manageable than it would have been.
But crowds aren’t the only limiting factor at Kirkjufell. Night photographers there also need to deal with light leaks from the nearby village of Grundarfjörður (just as easy to pronounce at it is to spell), a couple of lights on the mountain, random headlights from the parking area, and a highway that runs along the base of the mountain and right through any composition that includes it. (Fortunately there weren’t a lot of cars, because each one lights the mountain for at least two minutes before its arrival.)
When we arrived at the Kirkjufell parking lot, there was no visible sign of the northern lights, but there were a few stars visible above the mountain, giving me a slight surge of hope. A couple of us tried test frames and our cameras picked up a slight green glow, nothing to write home about, but enough to justify making the short hike out to the prime viewing area. Though there was space for everyone in our group to set up with a good composition, it was crowded enough to make it difficult to move around a lot.
For the first hour or so we stood around waiting for the aurora to improve, clicking occasional frames to check its status. Most of this time the aurora was a benign glow, just bright enough to make out with the naked eye as a faint, colorless glow on the horizon. Our cameras, on the other hand, with their ability to accumulate light and brighten the darkness, easily pulled out some color. Nothing spectacular, but at least everyone was getting nice, albeit unspectacular, images.
Eventually a few in our group reached their chill threshold and began packing up. When I saw more clouds moving in from the west, I texted our guide that we were heading back to the bus (to call this beast a mere “bus” doesn’t really do it justice)—then joked that if that doesn’t start the light show, nothing will. (All photographers know that the best stuff doesn’t happen until at least one person packs up his or her gear.)
And sure enough, just as I collapsed my tripod and started zipping my bag, I took one last northward glance and saw actual, naked eye green. By the time I had my tripod re-extended and camera mounted, the color was really starting to kick in and stretch skyward. Soon we saw curtains of green waving in the solar wind, first a little right of the mountain, and soon directly behind it.
I can’t say that the composition I got here is much different from the composition everyone else got, but there were a few framing decisions that I was very particular about. I used my Sony a7RIV with my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens wide open, starting at ISO 1600 and 10 seconds before quickly bumping to ISO 3200.
As you may know, my goal is to photograph the world in a way that allows viewers to imagine it untouched by humans. So I took care to avoid including the footbridge that mars the left side of the scene. (I did have to clone out a small piece of bridge that snuck in under the cover of darkness to photo-bomb me.) Down the hill on the right side of the scene I had to contend with a pair of photographers (and their lights), plus the lights from Grundarfjörður, but I hid them behind the right side of the frame.
The top of the frame I set at the base of the thick clouds covering most of the sky. On the bottom, I took care to include enough of the riverbank to create a continuous white frame.
Given the clouds, it’s impossible to know the extent of the aurora’s spread, but I don’t think while we were there it ever reached the KP-6 we’d been promised. Nevertheless, it was a real treat for all of us—especially those who had never seen the northern lights. We finally left when the clouds closed in, but on the trip back we drove into clearer skies and actually stopped to photograph a little more along the side of the road. We didn’t get back to our hotel until midnight, but no one minded.
The last thing I want to mention here is my processing decisions. While everyone there that night got more or less the same version of this scene, I’ve seen several different processing approaches (from others in the group), resulting in noticeable differences in the finished products.
Because night images usually take in a lot more light than the human eye sees, there’s not really any way to say how it “really looked.” But I’m happy to share my own processing choices and why I made them, and try not to argue with anyone else’s night photography choices (within reason).
The unprocessed raw preview of this image looked very similar to this finished version, but there were a few important adjustments I wanted to add. I started in Lightroom by cooling the temperature of the entire scene to shift the yellow-ish daylight cast my camera’s auto white balance imposed, to a blue-ish, more night-like cast.
And very important to me during processing was minimizing signs of human influence on this naturally beautiful scene. In addition to cropping out that tiny section of bridge and a few rogue house lights, I cooled and subdued the town’s warm, artificial glow brightening Kirkjufell’s east (right) slope (many people liked this glow). And to bring out Kirkjufellsfoss (the waterfall), the turquoise water, and snow-cover shoreline, I brightened the foreground a little.
Several days have elapsed since I started this post. Since then we’ve had a couple more northern lights shoots—nothing spectacular, but very nice. We’ve also had lots of fun and a few adventures that I’ll share in future posts. Oh, and the snow drift in my hotel room was dealt with swiftly by the hotel staff—with no harm, financial or otherwise, on the perpetrator. (The hotel staff was very nice about the stupid American’s open window in a blizzard, and I got the distinct impression that this wasn’t their guest-room-snow-removal rodeo. And in my defense, it wasn’t snowing when I went to bed.)
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Posted on January 31, 2021
If you’re fortunate enough to be outside after the sunset color has subsided, but before the world is enveloped in total darkness, you may find yourself basking in the rarified hues of the “blue hour*.” It’s called the blue hour because, wait for it…, the landscape is indeed bathed in blue. (And also because it just rolls off the tongue better than “the blue 20-minutes,” which would actually be more accurate.)
The greatest joy I get from photography is the connection it gives me to the natural world. Whether it’s lightning, a celestial event, a geological feature, some technical aspect of photography, the qualities of light, or whatever, whenever possible, in my blog posts I try to share something of the science behind my subject or its capture. The goal of this sharing isn’t entirely altruistic—it’s also a great excuse to dig deep into things that absolutely fascinate me. And as it turns out, the science behind the blue hour is especially fascinating.
The blue hour actually last less than one hour, with its duration decreasing with latitude because come and go faster the lower the latitude because the sun ascends and descends at a steeper angle. A lower latitude also speeds sunrise, sunset, and the other stages of twilight for the same reason. This means that in Hawaii, if I’m on location 30-minutes before sunrise, I can probably catch the entire show, whereas in Iceland, even if I’m there 90-minutes before sunrise (brrrr), I might miss something. In the mid-latitudes, 20-minutes is a reasonable rule-of-thumb blue hour duration to rely on.
The cool thing about blue hour color is that, unlike daylight blue sky and sunrise/sunset color, it’s not a function of scattered sunlight. (Read my Sunset Color Photo Tips article for more on this.) Instead, until the sun drops about 8 degrees below the horizon, its blue wavelengths are absorbed by ozone in the upper atmosphere. Though this absorption (Chappuis absorption, if you must know) happens when the sun is above the horizon too, its effects are completely overpowered by direct sunlight. But as direct and scattered sunlight fades with the sinking sun, about the time the sun is about 4 degrees below the horizon, the blue ozone sky enjoys its 20-minutes of fame. (In other words, the blue hour reigns when the sun is between 4 and 8 degrees below the horizon.) Because the cones in our eyes require a certain amount of light to register color, this twilight blue is fairly subtle, but still noticeable, to human vision. A camera, on the other hand, with its ability to increase its light sensitivity (ISO) and accumulate light over time (shutter speed), has no problem capturing the dominant blue cast.
Nature photographers love the blue hour, both for the otherworldly hues that aren’t possible any other time of day, and for the exquisitely soft, shadowless light that’s a joy to photograph. The key for getting the most out of blue hour photography is understanding that the camera sees the world differently than you. Some of the best blue hour photography happens after the color is nearly gone from our eyes, making it easy to pack up and go home. But as I said earlier, the camera can see color too faint for our eyes to register. The color camera might pick up can range from a purplish mix of the longest waves of sunlight and the beginning of the blue hour light, to the absolute deep-blue that soon fades to night.
The blue hour is also absolutely the best time to photograph the moon, which is why you see so many moon images in the Blue Hour gallery below. While fitting the dynamic range of a daylight-bright moon above virtually dark landscape is tricky, it’s definitely worth trying because the darker the sky, the more dramatic the moon will appear in your image. (Check out my articles on moon photography in the Photo Tips menu above.)
One of my favorite blue hour subjects is the ocean, because the low light means long exposures that turn the surf into a gauzy haze. In Iceland last January for a workshop, I was photographing the surf washing up onto Diamond Beach in the fading twilight. As the blue hour descended, I was drawn the way the distant snow-covered peaks (that’s Vestrahorn on the right) seemed to glow in the bluish twilight. Looking for something to put in the foreground, my eyes landed on a pair of (relatively) large icebergs just offshore and I positioned myself to align them with mountains.
Though I’d spent most of the evening shooting with my widest lenses, for this shot I switched to my Sony 100-400 GM to compress the distance between the mountains and nearby ice. Before dialing in my exposure settings, I studied the icebergs to make sure they were stationary enough to not blur in a long exposure, and decided it would be work if I could expose between waves. It took a few tries, but I finally managed this 15-second exposure.
* The blue hour of course happens in reverse before sunrise (from dark to light); for simplicity sake, I’ll just describe the evening half of the phenomenon.
Posted on January 24, 2021
Vestrahorn, on Iceland’s southeast coast, is one impressive chunk of rock. Turns out it only reaches 1500 feet above sea level, but the way it juts so abruptly from the volcanic sand of Stokksnes Peninsula, Vestrahorn creates an imposing presence that rivals El Capitan in Yosemite.
This Vestrahorn shoot came toward the end of the 10-day Iceland workshop Don Smith and I led in January of 2020. Arriving late afternoon (which comes pretty early in Iceland in January), the group instantly scattered across the vast, flat plain offered with a variety of foreground options that included black-sand dunes, iced-over puddles, and a vast black sand beach. I made my way down to the beach and, being a sucker for reflections, was quickly drawn to glassy sand behind each retreating wave.
The beach here is so flat that the surf isn’t dangerous (at least it wasn’t on this day), but this was January in Iceland, so I didn’t really want to get wet. On the other hand, getting the reflection I wanted required being well into the wet part of the sand behind a retreating wave, and each reflection only lasted a few seconds before the water soaked into the sand. Emboldened by waterproof boots that reached about a foot up my calf, I wandered out to where it appeared the waves only reached a depth of 2 or 3 inches, not quite far enough to ensure a full reflection with each receding wave, but not too bad.
I really had a blast working this scene, playing with different compositions as the clouds and light above the mountain changed, and varying my timing to capture each wave in different stages of motion, from the frothy white churn at the wave’s front, followed by the floating foam shapes trailing it, and finally the reflective sheen punctuating each retreat. I also tried a variety of shutter speeds, freezing or applying a variety of blur effects to the moving water. When I get into this zone, I lose all sense of time a surroundings…
So imagine my surprise to feel freezing water soaking my feet. I looked down to see that my legs from the knees down had disappeared, and the beach I’d been standing on now more closely resembled a lake. With the tide clearly coming in (hmmm, perhaps that’s why the reflections seemed to be getting better…), my first inclination was to retreat. But the photography was definitely better in the deeper water, safety wasn’t a concern, and I suddenly remembered my running mantra: You can only get so wet, and once you get that wet, you’re not going to get any wetter. If this mindset could get me through several extremely miserable marathons, it could certainly get me through this. I hadn’t planned to soak my feet in the chilly surf, but now that the damage was done, I couldn’t really make it any worse. So I ended up staying out there, joyfully surrounded by reflections, for another 30 minutes.
One of the things I’ve learned over many years of photographing in extreme conditions is the value of backups. Not just backup photo gear, though I do think it’s foolish to take any photo trip with just one body (I’d already had to spend two days on this trip using my backup body, waiting for my primary body to dry after a unplanned dip in the surf), but also backup clothes.
So loading into the van (not sure what to call our vehicle: it was either a huge van or a little bus) at the beginning of each day, I always made sure to leave out a change of shoes and socks. Though my marinating feet were okay while I was shooting, as soon as I finished and started heading back to the van/bus (ban? vus?), they suddenly became wet, frozen stumps. I never imagined something as simple as a dry pair of socks could bring so much joy.
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Posted on January 10, 2021
A year ago Don Smith and I, with the aid of our Icelandic guide (the legendary Óli Haukur), had a blast sharing Iceland’s winter beauty with a great group of photographers. But our trip wasn’t without its challenges. One of our earliest locations was Kirkjufell, arguably Iceland’s most recognizable mountain. While proponents of Vestrahorn might debate this, no one will deny that everyone who visits Iceland wants a picture of Kirkjufell, just as everyone visiting Yosemite wants a picture of Half Dome. And even though Kirkjufellsfoss (the nearby waterfall) is gorgeous and the obvious foreground for Kirkjufell images, the mountain really is the main event here.
So imagine our disappointment on the morning our workshop group visited Kirkjufell and found the mountain completely obscured by clouds. Not only that, the temperature was 25 degrees (F), and a 40 MPH wind made it feel like 5 degrees and turned the sleet into rocketing needles. In other words, it was stupid-cold. Nevertheless, our hardy group geared up, braved the short trudge out to the vista, and went to work without complaint.
While waiting for Kirkjufell to emerge (fingers crossed), I turned my attention to the tiered, multi-channel, ice-encrusted Kirkjufellsfoss. In normal conditions, while waiting for the Kirkjufell to appear it would have been natural to fire off a few oooh-that’s-pretty clicks of the waterfall. But without the distraction of Kirkjufell (or anything else more than 1/2 mile away), I set up my tripod and actually worked the scene like an actual photographer (go figure). And as often happens when I spend quality time with a scene, the longer I worked this one, the more I saw.
With so much going on, the trickiest part of making this image was managing all the scene’s visual elements while minding my frame’s borders. As much as we try be vigilant, sometimes the emotion of a scene overwhelms our compositional good sense—we see something that moves us, point our camera at it, and click without a lot of thought. While this approach may indeed capture the scene well enough to save memories and impress friends, it’s far from the best way to capture a scene’s full potential. So before every click, I do a little “border patrol,” a simple mnemonic that reminds me to deal with small distractions on the perimeter that can have a disproportionately large impact on the entire image. (I’d love to say that I coined the term in this context, but I think I got it from Brenda Tharp—not sure where Brenda picked it up.)
To understand the importance of securing your borders, it’s important to understand that our goal as photographers is to create an image that not only invites viewers to enter, but also persuades them to stay. And the surest way to keep viewers in your image is to help them forget the world outside the frame. Lots of factors go into crafting an inviting, persuasive image—things like compositional balance, visual motion, and relationships are all essential (and topics for another day), but nothing reminds a viewer of the world outside the frame more than an object jutting in or cut off at the edge.
When an object juts in on the edge of a frame, it often feels like part of a different scene is photobombing the image. Likewise, when an object is cut off on the edge of the frame, it can feel like part of the scene is missing. Either way, it’s a subconscious and often jarring reminder of the world beyond the frame.
And there are other potential problems on the edge of an image. Simply having something with lots of visual weight—an object with enough bulk, brightness, contrast, or anything else that pulls the eye—on the edge of the frame can throw off the balance and compete with the primary subject for the viewer’s attention.
To avoid these distractions, I remind myself of “border patrol” and slowly run my eyes around the perimeter of the frame. Sometimes border patrol is easy—a simple scene with just a small handful of objects to organize, all conveniently grouped toward the center, usually requires minimal border management. But more often than not we’re dealing with complex scenes containing multiple objects scattered throughout and beyond the frame.
In this Kirkjufellsfoss scene I had to contend with ice, rocks, snow, and flowing water. The biggest problem was an assortment of randomly dispersed rocks jutting from the snow at bottom of the frame, and a railed pathway visible just above the fall. It wasn’t too hard to eliminate the path with careful placement of the top of my frame, but if my entire focus had been on the waterfall the rocks might have been overlooked. Border patrol. Placing the bottom of my frame a little higher would have cut off the large rock near the bottom-center, an important compositional element that combines with the fall to create a virtual diagonal; placing the bottom lower would have introduced more rocks that I’d have had to cut off somewhere. Instead, I was able find a clean line of snow that traversed the entire bottom of my frame: perfect! (And lucky.)
One other important compositional element that would have been easily easy to overlook is the switchback snow-line that enters the frame at the bottom and exits at the top (or vice-versa). Diagonals like this are strong compositional elements that I love including whenever possible, so I chose a horizontal composition to allow room for each switchback to complete. The eye subconsciously follows lines like this, so cutting them off on the edge of the frame is an tacit invitation to exit the scene, something I try to check for when I execute my border patrol.
Of course nature doesn’t often cooperate and I’m usually forced to chop off parts of visual elements. When I do this, I always want it to be a conscious decision that doesn’t make my viewer think that I’ve cut off something that belongs in the scene, or that something jutting in is part of a different scene. Usually when I have to cut something on the edge (often impossible to avoid), I try to do it boldly, somewhere near the middle of the object, to signal that was my intent and not just an oversight.
I realize because these things are often only noticed on a subconscious level they may seem trivial, but every image is house of cards comprised mostly of small decisions, and you never know which one might send it crashing down.
I did end up photographing Kirkjufell this morning, but didn’t get anything that thrilled me.
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Posted on December 27, 2020
Being a photographer is more than just capturing images, it’s also very much the experiences that go with their capture. So looking back on a year most notable for its lowlights, and browsing a portfolio that’s by far the smallest of any year since I’ve called myself a photographer, I’m surprised by the number of 2020 experiences that give me shear joy to relive.
So far so good
January 2020 kicked off what appeared to be shaping up to be a banner year, with wonderful conditions in Death Valley and the Alabama Hills: reflections at Badwater, a Zabriskie Point moonset, and a series of beautiful sunrises and sunsets. The year’s first month wrapped up in Iceland with too many highlights to mention, but none more memorable than back-to-back northern lights shoots on the workshop’s final two nights. February followed with some fantastic moonrises in Yosemite—so far so good.
Hit the brakes
Then came March, and the world shut down. Since the end of February, I’ve had to cancel 11 workshops. Lost to COVID and (in one case) wildfires were the Oregon and New Zealand workshops I share with Don Smith, two Yosemite spring workshops, my Grand Canyon raft trip, two Grand Canyon monsoon workshops, and the Eastern Sierra workshop. I was finally able to squeeze in the Yosemite fall color workshop in October, but have since had to cancel the upcoming Iceland workshop (also a collaboration with Don Smith) in January 2021.
After wallowing in the isolation of a severely socially distanced spring, early summer arrived and out of nowhere came Comet NEOWISE. I’ve been comet-obsessed since I was 10 years old, so the opportunity to photograph what is arguably the most breathtaking phenomenon to grace the heavens (rivaled only by the northern/southern lights and a total solar eclipse) above Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, was just the elixir I needed. While my two Yosemite trips were comet-specific (8 hours of driving for about an hour of photography each time), my Grand Canyon trip was a (socially distanced) multi-day affair that also featured lightning and beautiful monsoon skies.
After the Grand Canyon in late July, I didn’t really get to do much photography until my Yosemite fall color workshop in late October—a real treat that enabled me to share with a group Yosemite at its autumn, reflective best. Not only was the photography nice, it was a joy to be back with a group of enthusiastic, fun photographers.
Then, just a week later, I hit the jackpot, spending a day in Yosemite photographing snow falling on peak fall color—not just a highlight of my year, but a highlight of my photography life. And finally, in early December I arranged a last-minute gathering with a few of my favorite photography friends to photograph a Yosemite Half Dome moonrise.
Quality (of experience) over quantity (of images)
Compiling the 2020 Highlights gallery at the bottom of this post, I’ve chosen not to focus on the opportunities lost in 2020, but instead to count the blessings I was granted. From sharing the northern lights with an ecstatic group of photographers/friends, to watching the miracle of Comet NEOWISE suspended above two of the most beautiful locations on Earth, to a magical day photographing Yosemite Valley with fresh snow on fall color, 2020 brought me memories that will stand as some of the most outstanding of my life. I can’t say that I’m not looking forward to 2021 more than I look forward to most new years, but I’m going to let 2020’s losses fade in favor of its indelible highlights.
Click the image for the rest of the story (and check out the entire gallery at the bottom)
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on May 20, 2020
I haven’t fished in years (decades), but of course Norman Maclean’s words really aren’t about fishing anyway. Nevertheless, I’m reminded of this quote every time I find myself frozen by minutia, mired in the moment by small distractions that matter very little, or looking for excuses not to take pictures.
There are a lot of reasons not to take a picture—tell me if any of these sound familiar: “The light was better yesterday”; “The light will be better tomorrow”; “It’s too cold”; “It’s too hot”; “It’s too wet”; “I’m hungry”; “there’s dust on my sensor”; “This lens is soft,” and on, and on….
This Vestrahorn shoot came toward the end of the 10-day Iceland workshop Don Smith and I led in January of this year (was that really only 4 months ago?!). As the sun disappeared on this chilly winter evening, there were a lot of reasons not to stay out photographing: it was cold, I was wet, the clouds, it was getting dark, and there was a 90-minute drive separating us from dinner. It had been a nice shoot, but I was a little disappointed that the sky that had looked quite promising all afternoon, never really delivered the color I’d been waiting for. But before heading back to the van, I wandered up the beach a bit and found this rocky section that was different from the waves, and the reflections left in their wake, I’d been concentrating on all afternoon. As I reconsidered whether to call it a day, I came upon a lone shell embedded in the sand. With the light fading fast, I quickly dropped my tripod as low as it would go and set up with my Sony 12-24 G lens on my Sony a7RIV, and went to work.
Before I knew it, the “blue hour,” that magnificent transition from day to night (and back) that always looks better on an image than it does to the eye, had taken over. If you’ve ever stayed out to photograph after your eyes tell you it’s time to go in (or started shooting a little early while waiting for sunrise), you know what I’m talking about. What we humans perceive as darkness is really just our eyes’ relatively limited ability to gather light at any given instant. But a camera’s sensor (or a rectangle of unexposed film) can patiently accumulate all the light striking it for whatever duration we prescribe, thereby stretching its “instant” of perception indefinitely. Advantage camera.
On a clear night, you can actually watch the Earth’s shadow descend and engulf the landscape in deepening blue light. And unlike daylight (and moonlight) photography, when a discrete light source casts high-contrast shadows that test a camera’s dynamic range, and starlight photography, when the light is so faint that extremely long exposures are required to register any foreground detail at all, in the pre-sunrise/post-sunset gloaming, a camera can still “see” these diminishing vestiges of daylight. Given enough exposure, the image’s world is rendered blue, and because the entire sky is the light source, this blue hour light is spread so evenly that most shadows disappear.
When I can, I’ll stay out at least long enough for the first stars to pop out. On this evening, because I didn’t want the rest of the group to have to wait for me, I wrapped up before the stars appeared, but still stay out long enough to capture this 8-second exposure—my very last image of the evening. The perfection I’d been watching and waiting for never made it to my eyes, but fortunately my camera revealed that it was there all along.