Posted on March 28, 2021
This has always been one of my favorite images. It’s also one of the oldest images in my digital portfolio. I photographed it 17 years ago (!) with my very first DSLR, a Canon 10D. Despite the 10D’s postage-stamp-size LCD, being able to instantly view and refine my images led to an epiphany that permanently altered the way I photograph: Even though photography is a two-dimensional medium, the ability to visualize and manage its missing dimension—depth—separates artistic photography from snapshots.
I’m sharing this image today because yesterday afternoon I returned to the location of its capture, a hidden hillside in the Merced River Canyon, just west of Yosemite Valley. It was the last day of my Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers workshop, and while there wasn’t enough water to create the explosion of mist a March moonbow requires, the wildflowers were out in force. Rather than pull out my camera and try to reprise this old favorite, I was content to stand by, take in the beauty, and watch my group happily work this now familiar scene. Between occasional iPhone clicks, I mentally returned to that afternoon 17 years ago, and to the lessons I learned that day.
Getting an entire scene, front to back, in sharp focus is important, but fueled by digital photography’s instant feedback, I grew to appreciate the power of shallow depth of field. On shoots like this I’d take a picture, evaluate my result, and notice the way an out-of-focus background smoothes potential distractions into blurs of color and shape. With that realization, I started challenging myself to see how far I could take background blur.
While working on this pair of poppies, my eyes could sharply resolve every background detail, from colorful wildflowers to scraggly weeds, but I found that much detail distracting in an image. Simply blurring the background helped, but I wanted more blur, as well as a background that complemented the closest two poppies that were to be my scene’s focal point.
Circling the poppies, I positioned camera downhill and as close to the ground as possible, which enabled me to shoot uphill, toward the most densely populated part of the poppy covered hillside. To achieve maximum blur, I added an extension tube to my macro lens, set my f-stop to f/2.8 (wide open), and moved my lens to within a few inches of the closest poppy. When the image on my LCD after the first click revealed the hillside blurred into a golden fog, I knew I was on to something.
But I wasn’t done. Nailing the focus point, always important, is even more essential in macro photography. Sometimes the focus point is a difficult choice, but in this case it was pretty clear that the leading edge of the front poppy was where focus needed to be.
With my camera flat on the ground and the lens resting on a beanbag (homemade, from a Ziploc and dried lentils), focus was easier said than done. Had I been doing this today, with my Sony a7RIV, I could have tilted my live-view LCD upward, magnified the front poppy’s leading edge, and focused without getting dirty. But with my ancient Canon I had to do it the “old fashioned” way, sprawling on the ground and contorting to get my eye to the viewfinder. Fortunately, a calm wind gave me the time to get the focus right.
Not only is this one of my personal favorite images, it’s also one of my most popular. And even though the resolution on my 10D was only 6 megapixels, I’ve sold prints of this image up to 24×36. But sprawled in the weeds that afternoon, I had no idea was creating something that would still be important to me 17 years later. Where has the time gone? …
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on April 5, 2019
Last Monday seemed like the perfect day for a poppy shoot in the foothills. I had the afternoon wide open—with the California media buzzing about this year’s “superbloom,” plus a forecast promising ideal conditions (calm wind and thin clouds), I couldn’t help dreaming about my own images of poppy-saturated fields. What could possibly go wrong?
Getting on the road proved a little more problematic than anticipated, but by 2 p.m. I was on my way, encouraged forward by an occasional poppy beside the freeway. Adding to my optimism, the aforementioned clouds were just right: thick enough to diffuse the sunlight, but not so dark that they’d close the sun-loving poppies. I exited the freeway as soon as possible, opting to drive the 2-lane roads that follow the hills’ natural contours. While my preferred my route isn’t the most direct, it is the most scenic, winding me through oak-studded hills deeply greened by this year’s copious winter rain. Though this drive takes a little more than an hour, the time passes quickly with so much pastoral beauty filling my windshield.
I knew the poppies in Northern California were starting late due to our relatively late winter, but was fairly confident I’d allowed enough time for the golden hillsides to kick in. In a good spring, poppies dot the entire route, but by the time I was southbound on scenic Highway 49, I started realizing I hadn’t seen any poppies since leaving Sacramento. Soon I was pretty resigned to the fact that this year’s superbloom was limited Southern California, and wondered if I’d find any poppies at all. Then it started to rain.
As easy as it would have been easy to cut my losses and turn around, I simply changed my expectations. With fresh memories of a brief but rewarding raindrop experience in Yosemite, I realized I didn’t need to find entire hillsides covered with poppies, that even a single poppy could be nice. So, rather than zipping along Highway 49 at 50 MPH (-ish) looking for golden slopes, I started exploring some of the quieter tributary roads and quickly realized that there were a sprinkling of poppies out.
I ended up spending two hours photographing a small patch of poppies I found on a dead-end road near Jackson. It rained the entire time, but with rain gear in my car for just these situations, I stayed warm and dry. My camera? Not so much. I tried working with an umbrella, but after a few minutes realized I was one arm short and just decided to test the water resistance of my Sony a7RIII. I’m happy to say that it passed with flying colors, as did the Sony 100-400 GM.
In the two weeks since I shot those raindrops in Yosemite, I’ve been plotting how to get even closer. On the Yosemite shoot I added extension tubes to my 100-400; this afternoon I returned to the extension tubes, but added my 2X teleconverter (which, I might add, handled the rain perfectly as well). I thought I’d try a few lens/extension-tube/teleconverter configurations, but I was having so much fun that I ended up shooting this way the entire time.
On a rainy day, light is already limited. But adding a teleconverter and extension tubes compounds the light problem. Because f/stop is a ratio with focal length as the numerator and lens opening as the denominator, adding a teleconverter and extension increases the focal length, resulting in less light reaching the sensor. A 2x teleconverter cuts two stops of light, which means my 100-400 that’s normally wide upon f/5.6 at 400mm becomes f/11 at (the teleconverted) 800mm (400mm x 2). And adding extension tubes also extends the lens’s effective focal length, further reducing the light reaching the sensor. To compensate for all this missing light, I shot everything this afternoon at either ISO 1600 or ISO 3200.
One of the cool things about this kind of photography is how different the world looks through the viewfinder. I love putting my eye to the viewfinder, moving the lens around, and changing focus slowly to see what snaps into view. In this case I was looking for a poppy to isolate from its nearby surroundings, but that also has something nearby (usually another flower) that I could soften enough to complement without competing. Sometimes I had a general idea of a subject before looking through my camera, other times I’d just explore with my lens until something stopped me.
Because depth of field shrinks not only with focal length, but also with focus distance, every frame I clicked this afternoon had a paper-thin range of sharpness. With such a shallow depth of field, none of these images would have been possible without a tripod. With my composition set, I’d pick a focus point (usually, but not always, a prominent raindrop), focus in my viewfinder until I was “certain” it was sharp, then instantly debunk my that “certainty” by magnifying the image in my viewfinder. This little exercise quickly taught me that with such a small margin for error, the best I could reliably achieve without magnifying the view was almost sharp enough, making pre-click magnification an essential part of my focus workflow (instead of just a cursory focus-check).
Each time I do this kind of photography I learn something. In this case it was how far away I could be and still fill my frame with a poppy. All of the images I captured this afternoon were from four to six feet away.
I wrapped up when the sky darkened further and the rain started coming down pretty hard. I couldn’t believe I’d been out there two hours, and spent most of the drive strategizing new ideas for the next time.
Click an image for a closer look and to view slide show.
Posted on October 10, 2016
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.
(Creative use of the camera’s “limited” dynamic range)
Posted on March 16, 2016
Photography is an art of subtraction—presented with a complex world, we identify and organize objects of visual interest and (ideally) do our best to eliminate everything else. It’s this last point that’s often overlooked. The best pictures often work as much for what’s not in them as for what’s in them. Most photographers have no problem seeing what to put in their images, but many struggle with what to leave out. Or how to do it.
Anything in your frame that doesn’t enhance it is a potential distraction. Removing distractions is often as simple as tightening the composition, or repositioning the camera.
For example, admiring a dramatic waterfall in the distance, you might walk around until you find a colorful bouquet of wildflowers for your foreground—so far so good. With your camera at eye level, you frame the scene with the flowers at the bottom and the waterfall at the top. Click.
The problem is that you also included a vast empty region in the middle of the frame, a region that does nothing more for your image than occupy space. The solution is as simple as dropping your camera to ground level, allowing you to subtract the empty space and replace it with larger flowers and waterfall (because with the flowers and waterfall more aligned, you can increase the focal length).
But compositional adjustments are only the beginning. Where most people stumble is when they have an opportunity to further simplify an image by incorporating the areas of their camera’s vision that differs most significantly from their own vision: light, focus depth, and motion.
Photographers frequently lament their camera’s limited dynamic range. And while extra dynamic range in a camera is great, limited dynamic range creates great opportunities to remove distractions and emphasize shape over detail.
Metering and underexposing the highlights in a backlit scene can saturate color and hide distracting details in blackness. I try to find striking subjects that stand out against the sky. Hilltop oak trees work well for this, but I can think of no subject in nature more suitable to silhouette photography than El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite. And since a crescent moon is always in the brightest part of the sky just before sunrise or after sunset, I always look for an opportunity to pair a waning crescent against Yosemite’s striking skyline.
But this approach isn’t limited to silhouettes. In the image at the top of this post, I didn’t want anything to distract from the poppy’s graceful curves, so I positioned the poppy against deep shade and underexposed the scene. This saturated the rich color and blackened everything that wasn’t poppy.
And using dynamic range to subtract distractions isn’t just about turning shadows black. Don’t like a blank blue sky? Metering on a shaded subject against a blue sky can completely blow out the highlights, creating a striking white background for your primary subject.
One of my favorite techniques for photographing colorful wildflowers and fall foliage is to narrow the range of focus until just a select part of my subject is sharp, softening the rest of the scene to an appealing blur of color and shape. This blur effect improves as depth of focus shrinks, and depth of focus shrinks with:
While I’ve used pretty much every lens in my bag to blur my backgrounds (and foregrounds), I most frequently use telephoto and macro lenses, often with extension tubes.
Not only does this approach help the primary subject—or specific aspects of the primary subject—stand out, when executed properly it can eliminate virtually any background distraction. The most important thing to remember is that even when it will be blurred beyond recognition, the background matters.
Blurred water often gets labeled as “unnatural” or “cliché.” The unnatural part I’ll dismiss as misinformed—it’s no less natural than water droplets suspended in midair. While I’ll acknowledge that reflexively reaching for a neutral density filter at the slightest hint
of whitewater might be overdoing it a bit, the cliché label ignores the fact that blurred is often the only way to render moving water (ever try freezing a waterfall or churning cascade in shade or overcast?).
Regardless of your position on blurred water, detail in moving water can create a distraction that competes with your primary subject for attention. Smoothing moving water to one degree or another subtracts this distracting busyness.
Motion blur isn’t just about water—pretty much anything that moves can be softened or eliminated with motion: clouds, blowing leaves and flowers, stars, and so on. While it’s not landscape photography, a device employed by architectural (and other) photographers is adding many stops of neutral density to slow the shutter speed so much that people and vehicles moving in the scene completely disappear.
Regardless of the object that’s moving, as with narrow focus depth, softening the secondary areas of a scene also helps the primary subject stand out by allowing your viewers to focus all their attention where it belongs.
It’s all about control
Because of the zero-sum relationship between photography’s exposure variables—changing one variable requires a complementary change in another—controlling light, depth, and motion is difficult-to-impossible unless you get out of the full auto exposure modes and start making your own exposure decisions. While it can be done in Aperture or Shutter Priority modes, I find Manual metering works best for this level of control. So, if you don’t have enough understanding of metering to shoot in Manual mode, that’s the place to start.
Here are some links from my Photo Tips tab that will help:
Posted on March 9, 2016
Last year, a busy spring schedule and mediocre wildflower bloom conspired to thwart the wildflower photography I love so much. Vowing not to let that happen again this year, a few days ago I packed my gear and headed for the hills with fingers crossed. My goal was a familiar canyon off of Highway 49 in the foothill Gold Country south and east of Sacramento.
This would be the maiden voyage for my brand new Sony 90mm f2.8 macro, and I was really looking forward to seeing if it’s as good as everyone says it is. Not only that, this would be my first wildflower shoot since switch from Canon DSLR to Sony mirrorless nearly a year and a half ago (!).
It’s a sign
On the drive I’d been streaming a Giants Spring Training game, but turning up the canyon I lost my signal, so I opened the Music app on my iPhone, put it in Random mode, and was immediately distracted by an entire hillside of poppies unfolding before me. Each bend in the road seemed to be trying to outdo the one before it, and I was several curves up the road before my ears caught up with my eyes. Of the 5000 or so possibilities on my phone, what I heard was Tom Petty telling me, “You belong among the wildflowers….” (true story). A sign, definitely a sign.
I followed the road to the end to identify the places I wanted to return to. On the drive back I stopped at my first choice and stayed until darkness and rain (not necessarily in that order) drove me out. I started with the macro, but before I was done I’d used every other lens in my bag too: 16-35, 24-70, and 70-200 (and would have used the 150-600 if I hadn’t loaned it to my brother a couple of days earlier)—with and without extension tubes.
With the sun already behind the hills and rain on the way, light was limited, and fading. There wasn’t much wind, but there was just enough flower-swaying breeze to concern me. My f-stop choice was completely tied to the creative side of my composition (selective depth of field), leaving ISO as the only exposure variable for controlling my shutter speed. Rather than guessing before each shot exactly how fast the shutter needed to be and dial in just enough ISO to get there (and remember to adjust each time my f-stop changed or I added extension), I just cranked the ISO to 4000 and went to work. Problem solved.
I found lots of things to photograph, from entire hillsides to individual poppies like this one. Regardless of my depth of field, I took extreme care to ensure that my background complemented my subject. In this case I maneuvered my tripod until my subject was framed by background poppies. It took several frames to get the composition just right; once I was satisfied, I tried it with a variety of f-stops and focus points. (I can’t imagine even attempting this without a tripod.)
More love for Sony
The Sony 90mm macro was as good as advertised. And I can’t tell you how pleased I am with the high ISO capability of the Sony a7RII. Putting my wildflower images up on my large monitor at home confirmed that everything that was supposed to be sharp was indeed sharp, and the noise at 4000 ISO was minimal and easily managed without detail loss—even the images I shot toward the end, in a light rain and fading light, at 6400 ISO were just ridiculously clean.
This ability to push my ISO threshold allows me to shoot scenes I’d never have considered before. Along with the dynamic range and night photography capability, it’s another Sony game changer for me. The a7RII is exceptional, but regardless of the camera you use, I encourage you to test its high ISO capabilities before you find yourself in a situation where ISO matters—you may be surprised by its capabilities.
Another thing I enjoyed about shooting macro with the a7RII was the ease of achieving precise focus. With depths of field measured in millimeters, sometimes fractions of millimeters, identifying the focus point and getting it perfectly sharp is imperative. With my recent Canon DSLRs (1Ds Mark III and 5D Mark III) I’d become a real convert to live-view focus, but glare on the LCD can sometimes make seeing well enough to get precise focus difficult. That problem disappears completely with the ability to view the scene in the viewfinder.
I’m not done
I had so much fun last week, I’ll be going back as often as possible, until the hills brown and the wildflowers fade. With all the rain promised for the next couple of weeks, that might be quite a while—maybe all the way until dogwood season in Yosemite. Life’s good.
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.
Posted on May 25, 2014
When I started photographing nature, I couldn’t really identify (nor did I think about) what exactly it was that I wanted to show people—I just knew that I wanted to enjoy and record beautiful scenes. This was good enough for me, and the fact that thousands (millions?) of other photographers were capturing similar images, of similarly beautiful scenes, was no concern to me.
But when I decided to make nature photography my livelihood, I realized that merely capturing beautiful scenes, no matter how beautiful, wouldn’t be enough—to truly succeed as a nature photographer meant distinguishing myself from the countless other photographers also capturing beautiful images. Uniqueness.
Striving for uniqueness doesn’t mean I don’t photograph the clichés (I mean, if it’s beautiful sometimes I just can’t help myself), it just means that I never set out to photograph something that’s already been photographed, in a way that it’s already been photographed. And I’m not satisfied if I’m merely duplicating something that’s been done before.
Of course uniqueness is in the eye of the beholder. But this isn’t really about whether or not I’ve succeeded in creating uniqueness—it’s about the realization that simply striving for uniqueness has helped me see nature better, and has made me a better photographer.
Another insight that has influenced my photography is the understanding that my favorite moments with nature are the private ones. This insight has led me to photograph only scenes that allow me to imagine a world untouched by the hand of Man. Browse my galleries and you’ll get a pretty good idea of the places and things that make me happiest: the moon and stars, water, weather pull me with or without a camera. My connection to Yosemite predates my memories. And Hawaii is simply heaven on Earth. I could go on.
And eliminating the hand of Man is why some of my previously best-selling images, scenes that include skylines, bridges, roads, and people are no longer in my portfolio. While I enjoy viewing others’ images of these scenes, they’re just not what I do.
Something else I’ve come to recognize is the desire to use my camera to reveal aspects of nature that exist beyond human vision, to help people see (and to remind myself) that “reality” is not limited to human experience.
In my May 20 post I shared a colorful moonbow—quite “real” despite being invisible to the human eye—that is a great reminder of the universe beyond our narrow human senses. And the dewdrop in today’s image—smaller than a match head, clinging to a blade of grass no larger than a matchstick—is a reminder that not only is our universe infinitely large, it’s also infinitely small.
This little scene was just one blade of grass, one dewdrop, among millions in a meadow beside Yosemite’s Merced River. I was helping a workshop student who was struggling for inspiration in a much larger Yosemite scene that included Cathedral Rocks, El Capitan, the Three Brothers, and a reflection. We’d been talking about ideas when I turned to answer a quick question from another student; when I turned back around she was on the ground about ten feet away, examining the tiny dewdrops everyone in the group (myself included) had ignored all morning.
I dropped down to the ground beside her to see what she had found and immediately forgot the larger scene. Because I’d photographed that large scene so many times, I’d arrived already knowing that I’d wrung all the uniqueness potential from this spot years ago. But getting eye-level with a blade of grass exposed a world that may as well have been invisible for the amount of attention it had received, a world that had been there all along, with this and every previous visit, in one form or another. I suddenly saw that each blade of grass, each dewdrop, had its own personality—relationships and idiosyncrasies that distinguished it from every other blade of grass and dewdrop.
Sprawled on the ground, as close as I was to my subjects, I was still in the realm of my own limited human vision. But I had my camera, with its very own reality. I replaced the ultra-wide lens (that pretty much automatically goes on each time I visit this spot) with my 100mm macro and got even closer—but why stop there? Stacking all three of my extension tubes (68 mm of extension) between my camera and macro, I had essentially shrunk myself enough to be granted insight to the previously unseen world within the dewdrop. Here we go, I thought as the inverted scene within my dewdrop snapped into focus, this is is what my camera is really for.
Just like the moonbow, this was an opportunity to reveal an aspect of nature to which most of us are completely oblivious. And I hope the next time I walk across a lawn and lament the wetness that has seeped through though my shoes and into my socks, maybe my irritation will be eased by the memory of the beauty of those dewdrops and the world they contained.
Posted on May 5, 2014
I probably worked harder capturing this image than any other image I’ve ever photographed. Worked hard not in terms of physical exertion, but rather in patient pursuit over several years and painstaking execution in difficult conditions. Photographed late last month in Yosemite, this image is something I’ve visualized and actively sought for years. While I have no illusion that this image will be as popular as some of my more conventional images, it makes me so happy that I just have to share everything that went into its capture.
Visualize: The world in a raindrop
I can trace this image back to a spring afternoon a few years ago, when I was doing macro photography in a light rain. My subject was poppies, and peering through my viewfinder I particularly loved the clarity of the raindrops when they snapped into focus. At home on my monitor I magnified one of the images to something like 400% and saw the entire scene surrounding me was inverted in that tiny droplet. The fact of this wasn’t new to me, but actually seeing it up close planted a small seed that bloomed into an obsession I’ve been chasing ever since. I realized that getting even closer to a raindrop might allow me to enlarge its internal scene enough to make it visible without magnification. From that thought it was a short jump to the idea of finding a raindrop that contained a scene others would recognize.
Pursue: If at first you don’t succeed…
Unfortunately, the onset of my raindrop quest coincided with a drought that severely limited my access to raindrops (and if you know anything about me, you know it has to be an actual raindrop—no spray bottles for me). And then there are the daily distractions of running a business, and the fact that many of my trips to prime locations are for workshops, when the time and attention a shot like this requires precludes me from trying it.
Nevertheless, over the last several years I’ve played with my idea when opportunities presented themselves. These experiences allowed me to determine that 100mm macro wouldn’t get me close enough, that I’d need to add multiple extension tubes. And the extremely narrow depth of field that comes with focusing this close would require a very small aperture to get enough of the frame sharp.
These early attempts also enabled me to identify and practice overcoming a few physical challenges: low light, caused not only by the overcast skies, but also by the extension tubes (extension reduces the amount of light reaching the sensor); wind, almost always present in a rain; and a tissue-thin focus plane (even at a small aperture) that severely shrinks my margin for error. I knew going in that it would be difficult, but with each attempt I had to admit that this shot might be even harder than I’d decided it would be the last time I tried it. Of course that’s half the fun.
A couple of weeks ago the (always reliable) weatherman called for an all-day rain in Yosemite. Perfect. Knowing the dogwood were blooming, I freed my schedule and made the 7+ hour roundtrip to Yosemite, leaving early in the morning and returning that night. The raindrop shot wasn’t my sole objective, but it was up there on my list. Unfortunately, while I ended up having a pretty good day, my “all-day” rain stopped about an hour into my visit and I was left to pursue other opportunities.
Undeterred, when the (almost always reliable) weatherman promised more rain a couple of days later, back I went, this time meeting friends Don Smith and Mike Hall. Did I mention that I wanted rain? Well, rain it did. Hard. All day. Donning head-to-toe rain gear, I managed to stay dry, but my equipment wasn’t quite so lucky—without a third arm my umbrella wasn’t much use during the compose/meter/focus phase and the small towel I’d brought to dry things off was completely saturated by the end of our first stop (I should have known better). After that I pretty much contented myself with drying my my lens element just before shooting, trusting (hoping) that my reasonably water-resistant gear would survive—if I wanted to keep shooting, I had no other choice.
As good as the shooting was, by mid-afternoon the three of us were ready to submit to the weather and head for home. But, with my raindrop shot gnawing at the back of my mind, on the way out I suggested a quick stop at the view of Bridalveil Fall on Northside Drive. I’d stopped here on Tuesday and knew the dogwood that hadn’t been quite ready for primetime then would be just about right now. So stop we did (it didn’t take lots of arm twisting).
Execute: Cruel and unusual
While Don and Mike (why does this sound like a drive-time radio program?) went off in search of their own vision, I bee-lined to the “perfect” dogwood I’d identified on Tuesday. But getting a shot like this isn’t just a matter of going out in the rain at a beautiful location. (Full disclosure: there was a time when I believed it might just be.) And in my zealous pursuit, I’d conveniently discounted the difficulties I’d need to deal with:
Okay, so maybe this won’t be such a quick stop.
After taking stock of the physical difficulties, I attached all three of my extension tubes (72 mm total) to my 100 mm macro lens and scanned the flowers, branches, and leaves for a raindrop that was both large enough to hold the scene (without extreme distortion) and whose long axis (the wide side) was perpendicular to my line of view to Bridalveil Fall. No small feat.
The frustration started immediately: When I did indeed find the “perfect” drop, I realized getting to it without touching the tree (thereby rearranging all its drops) would require powers far beyond my superhero grade. And so it happened that once I navigated “inside” the tree’s canopy to my raindrop, the raindrop was long gone and I had to start over.
Okay, at least I was inside the tree—progress. I ran my eyes along the nearby branches until suddenly, there it was—another perfect (there’s that word again) raindrop dangling from a diagonal branch about 18 inches in front of me. I very carefully maneuvered in its direction, using contortions that might best be described as a hybrid of moves from the party games Twister and Limbo, moves I hadn’t broken out since my (far more limber) college days. (Picture a heist movie where the cat-burglar has to avoid a matrix of electric eye beams to get to the jewels.)
This particular raindrop was about eight inches above my head. Fortunately my new (and wonderfully tall) tripod was up to the task—I extended its legs until my lens was just an inch or two from the drop and began the painstaking process of composing and focusing. With my viewfinder higher than my eye could reach, this part would have been impossible without live-view; with live-view it was a pain but doable.
I found my basic composition fairly quickly, but my ridiculously thin focus plane shifted every time the breeze or nearby raindrop-strike jostled “my” raindrop. Focusing not on the raindrop, but the scene within the raindrop, I waited for a brief lull in the breeze and nudged my focus ring until the equilibrium point around which the drop vibrates was sharp. Then I magnified the drop and waited for the next lull to confirm sharpness. After several attempts I was reasonably confident I was ready to proceed.
Stopping down to f22 with three extension tubes forced me to bump my ISO to 1600 to reach the 1/30 second shutter speed I thought I could get away with. Even this would require timing my shutter for another lull in the breeze, but the alternatives—a larger aperture which would reduce my DOF, or higher ISO that would increase the noise—I wasn’t crazy about.
You’d think after all this I’d be ready to shoot. You’d think. But by now (in case you forgot, it’s still raining) my front lens element was festooned with raindrops. And wiping the lens dry did little good because the slightly upward angle of view oriented my lens ideally for capturing more raindrops. So I extracted the collapsed umbrella I’d proactively jammed in a jacket pocket and carefully threaded it skyward, carefully negotiating the network of overhanging branches without disturbing my raindrop, until the umbrella was in a open space wide enough to unfurl. Open umbrella in my right hand, with my left hand I was able to dry with a small, dry lens cloth I’d also had the foresight stuff in a pocket.
One of the downsides of the “perfect” raindrop is its large size, which gives it a rather inconvenient relationship with gravity. So. After all this preparation and just as I raised my remote release for my first click, my raindrop grew tired of waiting and plunged groundward. True story. Fortunately, an advantage of getting intimate with raindrops is the insight that they tend to reform in the same place. I took a deep breath—with my composition, focus, and exposure already set, I decided to wait (still contorted between branches beneath my umbrella) for the next drop to form. And sure enough, within a couple of minutes I was back in business.
I clicked a dozen or so frames, checking the focus after each, refining the composition slightly, and occasionally varying my exposure settings until I was confident that I had enough frames to give me a pretty good chance of at least one successful image. I probably would have worked on it even longer, but my muscles really were starting to cramp and I figured Don and Mike were ready to move on anyway. Back at the car a cursory run through my images on my LCD was enough to give me hope that I’d achieved my goal, but it wasn’t until I got them home on my large monitor that I was ready to proclaim success.
Enjoy: All’s well that ends well
Most of the images had very slight but nevertheless fatal focus problems—slight motion blur or barely missed focus point—all I needed was one. And this is it.
So what did I end up with? The white stripe on the left is Bridalveil Fall in full spring flow. The branch belongs to my young dogwood tree; behind it are dogwood leaves and new (still greenish) flowers. And inside the raindrop is Bridalveil Fall, Cathedral Rocks, and Leaning Tower. But wait, there’s more: I’d actually had been working on the image a little while before looking closely at the black shape above Bridalveil Fall and realizing that a raven had flashed into my scene at the instant I clicked (it’s in no other frame). Pretty cool.
Posted on April 24, 2014
I knew the dogwood bloom in Yosemite had really kicked in this week (quite early), so when the forecast called for rain in Yosemite on Tuesday, I cleared my schedule and headed up there for the day. It turns out I only got an hour or so of rain and solid cloud cover before the sun came out and started making things difficult, but it was still worth the drive.
On my way out of the park that afternoon I stopped at the Bridalveil Fall view turnout on Northside Drive, spending about an hour lying in the dirt with my 100-400 lens, trying to align dogwood blossoms with Bridalveil Fall (about 1/3 mile away). I found the more impressive aggregation of blooms were about ten feet too far downstream to align perfectly, but as I headed back to my car I took a closer look at a single, precocious little flower in a much more favorable position. I’d overlooked it earlier because, in my haste to get to the more impressive flowers, I wasn’t seeing like my camera. To my human eye, this flower was imprisoned by a jumble of disorganized, distracting stems. But this time I decided to give it a try, knowing that the narrow depth of field of my 100-400 lens would render the scene entirely differently from what my eyes saw.
While the flower is clearly the only point of focus, the way the out-of-focus branches and buds blurred to shapes and accents that actually enhance the image was a pleasant surprise. While Bridalveil softens beyond recognition, I was pretty sure most viewers would still recognize it as a waterfall; even if they don’t, I didn’t think it was a distraction.
Words can’t express how much fun I had playing with this little scene. I’ve been photographing things like this for a long time, but I still find myself caught off guard sometimes by the difference between my vision and my camera’s vision. I love these reminders. I guess if there’s a lesson here, it’s to emphasize how important it is to comprehend and master your camera’s very unique view of the world. Images that achieve that, while nothing like the human experience, are no less “true.” Rather than confirming what we already know, they expand our world by providing a fresh perspective of the familiar.
More rain in the forecast tomorrow—guess where I’ll be….
Posted on April 17, 2014
In this day of ubiquitous cameras, automatic exposure, and free information, a creative photographer’s surest path to unique images is achieved by managing a scene’s depth. Anyone with a camera can compose the left/right/up/down aspect of a scene. But the front/back plane, a scene’s depth, that we human’s take for granted, is missing from a two-dimensional image. Managing depth requires abstract vision and camera control beyond the skill of most casual photographers.
While skilled photographers frequently go to great lengths to maximize depth of field (DOF), many forget the ability of limited DOF to:
They call it “bokeh”
We call an image’s out of focus area its “bokeh.” While it’s true that bokeh generally improves with the quality of the lens, as with most things in photography, more important than the lens is the photographer behind it. More than anything, achieving compelling bokeh starts with understanding how your camera sees the world, and how to translate that vision. The image’s focus point, its depth of field (a function of the f-stop, sensor size, focal length, and subject distance), and the characteristics of the blurred background (color, shapes, lines) are all under the photographer’s control.
No special equipment required
Compelling bokeh doesn’t require special or expensive equipment—chances are you have everything you need in your bag already. Most macro lenses are fast enough to limit DOF, have excellent optics (that provide pleasing bokeh), and allow for extremely close focus (which shrinks DOF). A telephoto lens near its longest focal length has a very shallow DOF when focused close.
Another great way to limit your DOF without breaking the bank is with an extension tube (or tubes). Extension tubes are hollow (no optics) cylinders that attach between your camera and lens. The best ones communicate with the camera so you can still meter and autofocus. Not only are extension tubes relatively inexpensive, with them I can focus just about as close as I could have with a macro. They can also be stacked—the more extension, the closer you can focus (and the shallower your DOF). And with no optics, there’s nothing compromise the quality of my lens (unlike a teleconverter or diopter). But there’s no such thing as a free lunch in photography—the downside of extension tubes is that they reduce the amount of amount light reaching the sensor—the more extension, the less light. On the other hand, since I’m using them to reduce my DOF, I’m always shooting wide open. And the high ISO capability of today’s cameras more than makes up for the loss of light.
Many of my selective focus images are accomplished without a macro or even a particularly fast lens. Instead, preferring the compositional flexibility of a zoom, I opt for my 70-200 f4 (especially) and 100-400 lenses. While my 100 macro is an amazingly sharp lens with beautiful bokeh, I often prefer the ability to isolate my subject, in a narrow focus range, without having to get right on top of it. On the other hand, if I have a subject I want to get incredibly close to, there’s no better way than my macro and an extension tube (or two, or three).
Managing depth of field
When using creative soft focus, it’s important that your background be soft enough that it doesn’t simply look like a focus error. In other words, you usually want your background really soft. On the other hand, the amount of softness you choose creates a continuum that starts with an indistinguishable blur of color, includes unrecognizable but complementary shapes, and ends with easily recognizable objects. Where your background falls on this continuum is up to you.
Your DOF will be shallower (and your background softer):
A macro lens and/or extension tube is the best way to get extremely close to your subject for the absolute shallowest DOF. But sometimes you don’t want to be that close. Perhaps you can’t get to your subject, or maybe you want just enough DOF to reveal a little (but still soft) background detail. In this case, a telephoto zoom may be your best bet. And even at the closest focus distances, the f-stop you choose will make a difference in the range of sharpness and the quality of your background blur. All of these choices are somewhat interchangeable and overlapping—you’ll often need to try a variety of focus-point/focal-length/f-stop combinations to achieve your desired effect. Experiment!
Composing a shallow DOF image usually starts with finding a foreground subject on which to focus, then positioning yourself in a way that places your subject against a complementary background. (You can do this in reverse too—if you see a background you think would look great out of focus, find a foreground subject that would look good against that background and go to work.)
Primary subjects are whatever moves you: a single flower, a group of flowers, colorful leaves, textured bark, a clinging water drop—the sky’s the limit. A backlit leaf or flower has a glow that appears to originate from within, creating the illusion it has its own source of illumination—even in shade or overcast, most of a scene’s light comes from the sky and your subject will indeed have a backlit side. And an extremely close focus on a water droplet will reveal a world that’s normally invisible to the unaided eye—both the world within the drop and a reflection of the surrounding world.
My favorite backgrounds include parallel tree trunks, splashes of lit leaves and flowers in a mostly shaded forest, pinpoint jewels of daylight shining through the trees, flowers that blur to color and soft shapes, sunlight sparkling on water. I also like including recognizable landscape features that reveal the location—nothing says Yosemite like a waterfall or Half Dome; nothing says the ocean like crashing surf.
The final piece of the composition puzzle is your focus point. This creative decision can make or break an image because the point of maximum sharpness is where your viewer’s eyes will land. In one case you might want to emphasize a leaf’s serrated edge; or maybe its the leaf’s intricate vein pattern you want to feature. Or maybe you’ll need to decide between the pollen clinging to a poppy’s stamen, or the sensual curve of the poppy’s petals. When I’m not sure, I take multiple frames with different focus points.
Exposing selective focus scenes is primarily a matter of spot-metering on the brightest element, almost always your primary subject, and dialing in an exposure that ensures that it won’t be blown out. Often this approach turns shaded areas quite dark, making your primary subject stand out more if you can align the two. Sometimes I’ll underexpose my subject slightly to saturate its color and further darken the background.
And let’s not overlook the importance of a good tripod. In general, the thinner the area of sharpness in an image, the more essential it is to nail the focus point. Even the unavoidable micro-millimeter shifts possible with hand-holding can make the difference between a brilliant success and an absolute failure.
Virtually all of my blurred background images are achieved in incremental steps. They start with a general concept that includes a subject and background, and evolve in repeating click, evaluate, refine, click, … cycles. In this approach, the only way to ensure consistent evolution from original concept to finished product is a tripod, which holds in place the scene I just clicked and am now evaluating—when I decide what my image needs, I have the scene sitting there atop my tripod, just waiting for my adjustments.
Posted on March 17, 2014
A couple of weeks ago the editors at “Outdoor Photographer” magazine asked me (and a few other pros) to contribute to an upcoming article on photography essentials, and it occurs to me that my blog readers might be interested to read my answers.Here’s my answer to the second of their three questions:
What are your three most important non-photo pieces of gear that you rely on for making your photographs and why do you rely on each of the three?
About this image
My GPS guided me to this remote, wildflower-dotted hillside, discovered the previous spring and now a regular destination on my annual spring foothill forays. The wildflower bloom varies greatly each year, so without the GPS sometimes it’s impossible to know whether I’ve found a spot that thrilled me the year before. In this case I found the bloom everything I dared to hope.
Rather than pull out my macro lens, I twisted an extension tube onto my 100-400 lens and went to work. Since there were virtually no shadows, the dynamic range wasn’t a problem, despite the bright, direct sunlight. Metering on the brightest part of the scene and underexposing by about one stop (about 2/3 stop above a middle tone) prevented the brightest highlights from washing out and saturated the color.
Most of my attention that afternoon went to the poppies, but here I concentrated on a group of small, purple wild onions and let the limited depth of field blur the poppies into the background. Clicking the same composition at a half dozen or so f-stops from f5.6 to f16 allowed me to defer my depth of field selection until I could view my images on my large monitor.