No Camera, No Regrets (and No Problem)

Gary Hart Photography: Sheltered Bliss, Japanese Maple, Portland Japanese Garden

Sheltered Bliss, Japanese Maple, Portland Japanese Garden
Apple iPhone 14 Pro
14mm full frame focal length equivalent
ISO 40
1/180 second

I’m not going to pretend that my version of this beautiful Japanese maple tree is unique. Just Google Portland Japanese Garden and you’ll see dozens of similar images of this very tree. And a search for “most photographed tree in the world” will surely include this tree somewhere on the list. But the story of its capture—which includes elements of discovery, insight, surprise, awe, and even a little resourcefulness—is different than the story of any of my other images, making it one of my favorite images of the year despite its lack of uniqueness.

As anyone who has tried to combine a family vacation with a photography trip can tell you, the best time for photography is pretty much the worst time to be outside: sunrise happens when most people would rather be asleep; sunset almost always interferes with dinner; night photography is cold and keeps you up too late; and wild weather (snow, rain, fog) can make pretty much everyone cranky. Conversely, a warm and sunny afternoon, when everyone (without a camera) is awake, fed, and longing to enjoy the outdoors, is just about the worst time to take (good) pictures.

I’ve learned (and observed) that trying to mix serious photography with a family/friend vacation leaves everyone dissatisfied. That’s why, before departing on any trip, I decide whether I’m going to be a photographer or a tourist—one or the other, never both. On trips when I’m a tourist, with the prime goal to relax and and enjoy the sights with the people I love, I just leave my camera home and simply bask in Nature’s splendor. My lights-out and rise times are determined by comfort and enjoyment—my own and those with me—while my forays into Nature consider only convenience, and are timed for the most pleasant conditions to be outside. Following this approach keeps my body and mind fresh, my loved ones happy, and gives me a relaxed perspective that ultimately benefits my photography.

Last week my wife and I drove to Portland to visit friends, taking the long way to enjoy a three-day scenic drive up the California and Oregon coasts. Despite the undeniable beauty I knew we’d find on our route, my camera bag stayed home, and we enjoyed a truly great trip—relaxing, rejuvenating, absolutely gorgeous, and lots of fun. I think I can add enlightening as well, because whatever I lost in images was more than made up for in insight and perspective that’s only possible with no camera between me and Nature. (Photographers: try this sometime.)

One of the many highlights of our trip was Friday’s visit to the Portland Japanese Garden, a location I’ve long known of but never visited. The entire garden is beautiful and worthy of photographing, but its Japanese maple is probably the most recognizable specimen there. This beautiful tree has been featured in National Geographic magazine, and, as a classic “trophy shot” in every sense of the word, graces the portfolios, walls, books, and galleries of many (many) nature photographers.

Like most landscape icons, this maple’s beauty completely justifies the attention it receives, so even without my camera I was anxious to put my own eyes on it. Fully embracing vacation mode, before our visit I did zero research on the tree, and knew only that it was in the Portland Japanese Garden. Strolling the garden late Friday morning, I scanned for what I imagined, from the many photos I’d seen, what the tree must look like: maybe 20 feet tall with a symmetrical 25-foot spread, alone and dominating a grassy hill, and likely surrounded by gawking, selfie-seeking tourists.

When I found nothing of the sort, I was mildly disappointed, but simply shrugged and prepared to exit the garden for lunch and the rest of the day’s activities elsewhere in this beautiful city. But when my wife detoured into the garden’s gift shop before our departure, I opted to take one more shot at finding the tree. And for the first time all week, I set aside my tourist perspective and allowed myself to start thinking like a photographer, trying to see each tree the way a camera might see it. That’s when it occurred to me (duh) that a wide angle lens positioned low could create an illusion of size that doesn’t exist, and the object of my quest may in fact not look anything like I’d imagined it. Armed with that mental reset, I retraced my steps through the garden, reevaluating the trees I’d previously walked right past.

I’d only made it a couple hundred yards (on a trail I’d already traveled a couple of times) when I came across a smallish red maple on a grassy slope, protected by a (very) short wood fence, sharing its space with a few nondescript shrubs, and sporting a dense canopy that dropped to just a couple of feet above the ground. At first glance there was nothing to distinguish this tree from any other maple in the garden, a fact underscored by the scores of tourists walking right past it without so much as a glance.

But something about this tree tweaked my photographic Spidey-sense, so I approached the fence and ducked under the leafy canopy. Instantly I experienced something akin to what Harry Potter must have felt when he slipped into the Weasley’s tent in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”

Quite simply, this was a different world. And even though at first glance it didn’t look at all like the pictures of the tree I’d seen, as soon as I saw it through the wide angle lens in my brain, everything fit into place. At this point, now hopelessly in my photographer-mind, I registered the tiny leaves, illuminated by sunlight gently filtered by thin clouds, and the way they radiated a diaphanous glow that emphasized their rich red. Next my eyes landed on the spiderweb shadow pattern cast on the lawn by the tree’s twisted branches.

Some things are just so beautiful they must be preserved, but instead of being frustrated that I didn’t have my “professional” camera, I whipped out my iPhone (14 Pro), switched its camera to the widest lens, dropped to ground level, and clicked one frame. At that point I had no plan to do anything more with my image than share it with my wife and save it as a keepsake of our trip. But when I showed the picture to my wife, she was especially excited and wanted to see the tree with her own eyes. So back we went.

In the 2 minutes it took us to return to the tree, I mentally critiqued my original capture and identified a few things I’d like to do differently. Then it occurred to me that this might be a great time to try out my iPhone’s raw capture feature for the first time (a raw image is unprocessed image data that requires a little more processing, but offers more flexibility and creates a better quality image). Back at the tree I took 6 more pictures, each in raw mode, each from a slightly different perspective. In the process, I used a variety of canopy/shadows ratios (lots of canopy, lots of shadow, and equal amounts canopy and shadow).

Importing and processing the Apple ProRAW images was no more difficult than with my regular cameras’ raw images—I simply AirDropped the files onto my computer, imported them into Lightroom, then processed them as I would any other image. And I’ve got to say that I was blown away by the image quality—both the detail (some of which is lost in the jpeg and web upload compression of the image I share here), and the dynamic range.

My final thought on this experience goes to something I write about a lot: the differences between human vision and the camera’s vision, and how to leverage those differences to create an image. Often my thoughts emphasize framing, subject relationships, and what I call photography’s “Creative Triad”—motion, light, and depth—that can be controlled with the exposure variables. But one more creative tool that can enable photographers to create something vastly different than the human experience is focal length.

A long focal length can compress the distance separating near and far objects, while a wide focal length can open up a small space to make it look much larger than it is (a feature used without shame by just about every real estate photographer). To illustrate how much the 13mm full-frame equivalent focal length of my iPhone exaggerated the size of this tree, I commissioned a lovely 5′ 3″ model (aka, my wife) to stand in front of the tree and allow me to photograph her using the phone’s 24mm full frame equivalent focal length. Hard to believe they’re the same tree, but I promise they are.

This trip was an excellent reminder that you don’t need a camera to be happy on vacation. I’m not saying I’m ready to throw away my professional cameras, but there’s peace of mind knowing that I can go out sans camera and tripod and still capture something I can share and print without apology.

The World of Trees

Click any image to scroll through the gallery LARGE

Winter in July

Gary Hart Photography: Mt. Eglinton, Mirror Lakes, New Zealand

Mt. Eglinton, Mirror Lakes, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand
iPhone 7 pano

I’ve been home from New Zealand for less than 24 hours, and I already miss it. I miss the mountains, the fiords (AKA, fjords, but when in New Zealand…), the lakes, the rivers, the skies, the people, and the winter—right now (when it’s 105 in Sacramento), especially the winter. FYI, picking a favorite season for photography is kind of like having to pick a favorite child—but asking me now would be like asking right after one of my children brought me breakfast in bed, so today I’m going with winter.

But anyway…. As I mentioned in my previous post, I was in New Zealand with Don Smith; we were scouting for our New Zealand workshop, scheduled to debut next June. When I posted my first New Zealand image a few days ago, I’d only been there a couple of days and had seen lots of clouds but not many mountains. That changed on the day we drove the road to Milford Sound, through Fiordland National Park. For the rest of the trip (with a couple of exceptions), the majority of the clouds we saw were the ephemeral, radiation variety that form when the air cools to the dew point. Sometimes the clouds swirled and hovered near the mountain peaks, other times they hugged the lakes and meadows in the still hours around sunrise and sunset. One day we spent a couple of hours driving in a dense fog that had lifted just enough to reveal trees and hillsides glazed with frost.

I’m afraid a scouting trip emphasizes quantity of locations over the quality of the photography—with so much territory to cover, it’s just impossible to time our visits to each spot for the best possible time to photograph it. The priority is to get our eyes on locations, as many as possible—first to see if they’re photo-worthy, and second to determine the lay of the land so we can bring our groups back when they are most photo-worthy. Which is how I happened to be at Mirror Lakes in Fiordland National Park carrying nothing but my iPhone.

We’d left the little town of Te Anau after a glorious sunrise at a remote location, found thanks to a local tip (thanks, Steve at Trips & Tramps), heading for Milford Sound. We were rushing to get in as much scouting as possible before doubling back and driving all the way up to that night’s hotel in Wanaka. So, at the turnout for the short walk down to Mirror Lakes, Don and I just hopped out of the car armed with nothing but iPhones. Fortunately, the scene was perfect for a pano, and the dynamic range was just within the bounds the iPhone could handle.

I’ve never been shy about snapping a quick shot with my iPhone to share on my personal Facebook page or with my wife, but this is the first time I’ve actually put an iPhone image in a blog. Honestly, I’ve never really scrutinized the iPhone images very closely, but I have to say that I’m pretty pleased with the results. Who knows, maybe this is the start of a whole new career….

Contact me to be notified as soon as we have the details of our New Zealand workshop.

A Winter Gallery

(Most of these aren’t New Zealand images, and only one is an iPhone image)

Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.


My essential smartphone apps for photography

Moonset, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley

I have a few iPhone apps that I use all the time, and am always on the lookout for more (so feel free to share). There are many great apps out there, but given the amount of photography time I spend off the grid, a prime consideration for me is the ability to use an app without cell or wifi coverage, taking many out of the running. For example, I think The Photographer’s Ephemeris is a great piece of software for getting sun and moon information, but never use the app because I rarely photograph in locations with adequate cell or wifi service. (A recent update may now enable PE to pre-download maps, but my sun/moon workflow is already in place so I haven’t tried it yet.)

On the other hand, at the top of my own list of essential apps is Focalware, which gives me sun and moon rise/set time, altitude, and azimuth for any location on Earth, regardless of connectivity. For example, until recently Death Valley had no cell coverage whatsoever; even now most of Death Valley is a cell dead zone, and wifi is limited to the (extremely unphotogenic) hotels in Furnace Creek Ranch and Stovepipe Wells. But using my iPhone’s GPS to pinpoint my location, Focalware gave me the sunrise and moonset information I needed to capture this full moon setting behind Manly Beacon (I won’t even touch the Freudian ramifications of that name) at Zabriskie Point. It’s also handy to be able to input the GPS coordinates of any location, which allows me to get the astronomical data I need for remote locations as well.

Another app that works great regardless of connectivity is Depth of Field Calculator by Essence Computing. With it I’m able to quickly compute hyperfocal focus info for any camera or lens. I don’t need it all the time, but having this information instantly available when I’m trying to focus near and far objects in a single frame makes my life considerably easier. It’s also a fun app to play what-if games when I find myself waiting on hold or in line somewhere. I just plug in arbitrary values and try to guess the hyperfocal distance—a great exercise for improving hyperfocal focus skills.

Dropbox is a bigger part of my home and mobile computing, but I do use my Dropbox app to access essential files when I’m on the road and away from a computer and the Cloud. While the Dropbox app requires connectivity to access files in the main Dropbox folder in the Cloud, I can specify files as “Favorites” to be kept downloaded and current on my iPhone at all times. My most important files are always flagged as favorites, and before leaving home I add other files I’m pretty sure I’ll need on that trip.

The state of the tides makes a huge difference when photographing coastal scenes. Tide pools will materialize or vanish with the tide, and the look of the coast can change drastically when the tide swallows or reveals rocks. And some areas I’m accustomed to shooting may be completely inaccessible when the tide’s in. For all these reasons, before photographing on the coast I check the state of the tide with Ayetides. Ayetides stores its information on my iPhone, so I don’t need to worry about connectivity. On the other hand, I’m not crazy about Ayetides’ interface, which I find less than intuitive.

Another app that I recently started using and have high hopes for is Trail Maps by National Geographic. In theory it’s exactly what I need—-an app that allows me to download specific topographic maps onto my iPhone for anytime, any connectivity access. It also allows me to plot point-to-point azimuth and distance for any location, great for computing moon and sun rise/set position. While I’ve been able to use it some, I’m afraid the current version of this app has far too many bugs, large and small, for me to recommend it.

Since I don’t have vast experience with other similar apps, I can’t guarantee that the apps I mention here are the best. But I can say that they work great for me, and they make my photography life much easier. How about you? Do you have any apps on your iOS or Android phones that you find indispensable?

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