Posted on December 5, 2021
Blue sky may be great for picnics and outdoor weddings, but it makes for lousy photography. To avoid boring blue skies, flat midday light, and extreme highlight/shadow contrast, landscape photographers usually go for the color of sunrise and sunset, and low-angle sunlight of early morning and late afternoon.
Of course the great light equalizer is clouds, which can soften harsh light and add enough texture and character to the sky, making almost any subject photographable—any time of day. Sadly, clouds are never guaranteed, especially here in California. Fortunately, all is not lost when the great clouds and light we hope for don’t manifest.
Spending a large part of my photography time in Yosemite, over the years I’ve created a mental list for when to find the “best” cloudless-sky light on Yosemite’s icons: for Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall, and Cathedral Rocks it’s late afternoon through sunset; El Capitan is good early morning, while Yosemite Falls is best a little later in the morning. And then there are seasonal considerations: Half Dome at the end of the day is good year-round, but Bridalveil Fall and Cathedral Rocks are much better from April through September; while El Capitan gets nice morning light year-round, it also gets good late light from October through February; and while the best light on Yosemite Falls happens in winter, that doesn’t usually coincide with the best water, which comes in spring (unless you’re lucky enough to get a lot of early rain, like we got this autumn).
But even when the sun’s up and the sky is blank, all is not lost. In those situations I head to locations I can photograph in full shade. Yosemite Valley’s steep walls help a lot, especially from November through February, when much of the valley never gets direct sun.
Following our sunrise shoot on the first morning of last month’s Yosemite Fall Color photo workshop, I took my group to El Capitan Bridge to photograph the first light on El Capitan. But as nice as that El Capitan first light was, on this morning I couldn’t help notice the downstream view of Cathedral Rocks across the bridge. With everything on that side in full shade, this downstream scene wasn’t as dramatic as the sun-warmed El Capitan, but the soft, shadowless light was ideal for the colorful trees reflecting in the Merced River.
After encouraging everyone in the group not to check out this downstream view, I went to work on the scene. If the sky had been more interesting, I’d have opted for my Sony 16-35 GM lens to include all of Cathedral Rocks, more trees, lots of reflection, and an ample slice of sky. But the sky this morning was both bright and blue (yuck), so I chose the Sony 24-105G lens for my Sony a7RIV to tighten the composition.
Before shooting, I actually walked up and down at the railing quite a bit, framing up both horizontal and vertical sample compositions, until I found the right balance of granite, trees, and reflection. Because the air was perfectly still, I didn’t need to worry about movement in the leaves, which enabled me to add my Breakthrough 6-stop Dark Circular Polarizer for a shutter speed long enough the smooth some of the ripples in the water.
I guess the lesson here is the importance of understanding and leveraging light. And all this talk about light inspired me to dust off my Light Photo Tips article—I’ve added the updated and clarified version below (with a gallery of images beneath it).
Photograph: “Photo” comes from phos, the Greek word for light; “graph” is from graphos, the Greek word for write. And that’s pretty much what photographers do: Write with light.
Because we have no control over the sun, nature photographers spend a lot of time hoping for “good” light and cursing “bad” light—despite the fact that there is no universal definition of “good” and “bad” light. Before embracing someone else’s good/bad light labels, let me offer that I (and most other serious photographers) could probably show you images that defy any good/bad label you’ve heard. The best definition of good light is light that allows us to do what we want to do; bad light is light that prevents us from doing what we want to do.
Studio photographers’ complete control of the light that illuminates their subjects, a true art, allows them to define and create their own “good” light. On the other hand, nature photographers, rely on sunlight and don’t have that kind of control. But knowledge is power: The better we understand light—what it is, what it does, and why/how it does it—the better we can anticipate and be present for the light we seek, and deal with the light we encounter.
Energy generated by the sun bathes Earth in continuous electromagnetic radiation, its wavelengths ranging from extremely short to extremely long (how’s that for specific?). Among the broad spectrum of electromagnetic solar wavelengths we receive are ultraviolet rays that burn our skin (10-400 nanometers), infrared waves that warm our atmosphere (700 nanometers to 1 millimeter), and the visible spectrum that we (and our cameras) use to view the world—a narrow range of wavelengths between ultraviolet and infrared with wavelengths that range between 400 and 700 nanometers.
When all visible wavelengths are present, we perceive the light as white (colorless). But when light interacts with an object, the object absorbs or scatters some of the light’s wavelengths. The amount of scattering and absorption is determined by the interfering object’s properties. For example, when light strikes a tree, characteristics of the tree determine which of its wavelengths are absorbed, and the wavelengths not absorbed are scattered. Our eyes capture these scattered wavelengths and send that information to our brains, which translates it into a color.
When light strikes a mountain lake, some is absorbed by the water, allowing us to see the water. Some light bounces back to the atmosphere to create a reflection. The light that isn’t absorbed or reflected by the water light passes through to the lakebed and we see whatever is on the lake’s bottom.
For evidence of light’s colors, look no farther than the rainbow. Because light slows when it passes through water, but shorter wavelengths slow more than longer wavelengths, water refracts (bends) light. A single beam of white light (light with an evenly distributed array of the entire visible spectrum) entering a raindrop separates and spreads into a full range of visible wavelengths that we perceive a range of colors. When this separated light strikes the back of the raindrop, some of it reflects: A rainbow!
When sunlight reaches Earth, the relatively small nitrogen and oxygen molecules that are most prevalent in our atmosphere scatter its shorter wavelengths (violet and blue) first, turning the sky overhead (the most direct path to our eyes) blue. The longer wavelengths (orange and red) don’t scatter as easily continue traveling through more atmosphere—while our midday sky is blue, these long wavelengths are coloring the sunset sky of someone to the east.
In the mountains, sunlight has passed through even less atmosphere and the sky appears even more blue than it does at sea level. On the other hand, when relatively large pollution and dust molecules are present, all the wavelengths (colors) scatter, resulting in a murky, less colorful sky (picture what happens when your toddler mixes all the paints in her watercolor set).
Most photographers (myself included) don’t like blank blue sky. Clouds are interesting, and their absence is boring. Additionally, when the sun is overhead, bright highlights and deep shadows create contrast that cameras struggle to handle. That means even a sky completely obscured by a homogeneous gray stratus layer, while nearly as boring as blue sky, is generally preferred because it reduces contrast and softens the light (more below).
Remember the blue light that scattered to color our midday sky? The longer orange and red wavelengths that didn’t scatter overhead, continued on. As the Earth rotates, eventually our location reaches the point where the sun is low and the sunlight that reaches us has had to fight its way through so much atmosphere that it’s been stripped of all blueness, leaving only its longest wavelengths to paint our sunrise/sunset sky shades of orange and red.
When I evaluate a scene for vivid sunrise/sunset color potential, I look for an opening on the horizon for the sunlight to pass through, pristine air (such as the clean air immediately after a rain) that won’t muddy the color, and clouds overhead and opposite the sun, to catch the color.
Overcast and shade
Sunny days are generally no fun for nature photographers. In full sunlight, direct light mixed with dark shadows often forces nature photographers to choose between exposing for the highlights or the shadows (or to resort to multi-image blending). So when the sun is high, I generally hope for clouds or look for shade.
Clouds diffuse the omni-directional sunlight—instead of originating from a single point, overcast light is spread evenly across the sky, filling shadows and painting the entire landscape in diffuse light. Similarly, whether caused by a single tree or a towering mountain, all shadow light is indirect. While the entire scene may be darker, the range of tones in shade very easily handled by a camera.
Flat gray sky or deep shade may appear dull and boring, but it’s usually the best light for midday photography. When skies are overcast, I can photograph all day—rather than seeking sweeping landscapes, in this light I tend to look for more intimate scenes that minimize or completely exclude the sky. And when the midday sun shines bright, I look for subjects in full shade. Overcast and shade is also the best light for blurring water because it requires longer shutter speeds.
Another option for midday light is high-key photography that uses the overexposed sky as a brilliant background. Putting a backlit subject against the bright sky, I simply meter on my subject and blow out the sky.
Whether I’m traveling to a photo shoot, or looking for something near home, my decisions are always based on getting myself to my locations when the conditions are best. For example, in Yosemite I generally prefer sunset because that’s when Yosemite Valley’s most photogenic features get late, warm light. Mt. Whitney, on the other side of the Sierra, gets its best light at sunrise, and I prefer photographing the lush redwood forests along the California coast in rain or fog. Though I plan obsessively to get myself in the right place, in the best light, sometimes Nature throws a curve, just to remind me (it seems) not to get so locked in on my subject and the general tendencies of its light that I fail to recognize the best light at that moment.
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show.
Posted on November 22, 2020
Between peak fall color dancing on reflections everywhere, and a sky that oscillated all day between heavy snowfall and dramatic clearing, this November day was just one of those days when it was best to keep moving. In these conditions that’s easier said than done because whatever I’m photographing is so beautiful, it’s hard to leave. The result is a memory card full of spectacular, but similar, images. So, after a lifetime of photographing Yosemite in spectacular conditions, I’ve learned not to forget that it’s just as beautiful somewhere else.
By the time I made it out to this Half Dome view just a couple of Merced River bends upstream from Sentinel Bridge, I’d circled the valley so many times I was almost dizzy. My usual lens here is my Sony 24-105 f/4 G because I don’t usually think the surrounding scenery justifies shrinking Half Dome and its reflection with a wide lens. But with snow draping towering evergreens and golden cottonwoods, and a mosaic of autumn leaves lining the riverbank, this was no ordinary day.
Though I’d just gotten the Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM in August, this was only the second time I’d gotten to use it (thank-you-very-much coronavirus), so I figured what the heck and twisted it onto my Sony a7RIV. Then I moved up and down the riverbank looking for the best foreground to put with the rest of this glorious scene. I eventually settled on this spot, drawn by the way the colorful leaves arced and seemed to frame Half Dome’s reflection.
To shrink the empty area between the leaves and reflection, I splayed my tripod legs and dropped it as low as possible, then plopped down in the snow to compose (grateful for my camera’s articulating LCD). The closest leaves were just a couple of feet away, but I really, really wanted the scene to be completely sharp throughout my frame. I was pretty sure that at 12mm and f/11 I had enough depth of field to safely focus anywhere, but why take a chance? I opened my hyperfocal app and confirmed that my hyperfocal distance was just one foot. Nevertheless, since the databases these apps use don’t take into account the extreme resolving power of a GM lens on 61 megapixel sensor, I bumped to f/16 (diffraction be damned) and went to work.
At first I was annoyed by the constant drips from overhead branches that kept disturbing my reflection, but quickly discovered that by timing my clicks, I could use the concentric waves as an accent, without losing the reflection. The single leaf that floated in just below (above?) Half Dome’s reflection was a bonus.
I just updated the Reflections article in my Photo Tips section, but am sharing it below as well
(and check out the Reflections Around the World gallery at the bottom)
Okay, so that’s pretty basic. How about this one?
Wikipedia: The change in direction of a wavefront at an interface between two different media so that the wavefront returns into the medium from which it originated
Whoa, I hope that’s not on the test.
Who doesn’t love the soothing tranquility of a crisp reflection? And like a metaphor in writing, a reflection is an indirect representation that can be more powerful than its literal double thanks to its ability to engage the brain in different ways than we’re accustomed. Rather than processing the scene directly, we first must mentally reassemble the reflection’s reverse world, and in the process perhaps see the scene a little differently.
Reflections are a powerful photographic tool as well. Water’s universal familiarity makes it an ideal subject for photographers frustrated by their camera’s static representation of our dynamic world. Just as we freeze or blur a waterfall to express turbulent motion, we can include a reflection to convey serenity.
Water reflections come in many forms, from a mirror-sharp inverted mountain shimmering atop a still pool, to an abstract shuffle of color and texture on an undulating lake. Without getting too far into the physics of light, it’s important to understand that every object we see and photograph (that doesn’t generate its own light) comes to us courtesy of reflected light. For example, when sunlight strikes Half Dome in Yosemite, some of the sun’s photons bounce straight back into our eyes, and there it is.
But other photons head off in different directions—some are captured by other sets of eyes, while others land on the surface of the Merced River. Some of these photons penetrate the water to reveal the submerged riverbed, while others carom off at the same angle at which they struck the water, like a pool ball striking the cushion, or a hockey puck off the boards. The ricocheting photons that travel from Half Dome and bounce off the river, reach our eyes as a reflection. In other words, what we call a reflection is in fact re-reflected light (reflected first from El Capitan, then by the river).
Mirror reflection recipe
The ingredients for a crisp, mirror reflection is pretty simple: still water, a sunlit subject that’s much brighter than the water’s surface (the greater the contrast the better), and a view angle that matches the angle from the water’s surface to the reflection subject. (The best reflections are usually found on shaded water because there are fewer photons to compete with the photons bouncing from the reflected subject.)
In the image on the left, with El Capitan in direct sunlight but the slow moving Merced River still shaded, my biggest challenge was finding floating fall leaves to include with my reflection. Once I found this spot, my only option was to use my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens (on my Sony a7RIV body), which gave me a field of view just wide enough to fit El Capitan, Three Brothers, the reflection, and the floating leaves into my frame.
Playing the angles
Understanding that reflected photons leave the water’s surface at the same angle at which they arrive—imagine the way a tennis ball bounces (if it weren’t affected by spin, wind resistance, or gravity)—helps us get in position for the reflection we want.
A few years ago I found myself atop Sentinel Dome right after an intense rain shower had turned indentations in the granite into small, glistening pools. Rather than simply settle for the vivid sunset coloring the clouds above, I decided to include the sunset reflected in the pools as well. At eye-level the pools reflected blue sky, so I dropped my tripod as low as it would go, almost to granite level, positioning my lens at the same angle to the pools that the red light leaving the clouds struck the water.
When the water’s in motion
As spectacular as a crisp, mirror reflection in still water is, it’s easy to overlook the visual potential of a reflection that’s not crisp, or to forget your camera’s ability to render a soft or abstract reflection much better than your eyes view it. While a crisp reflection often dominates the primary subject in an image, a splash of reflected color or shape can provide a striking accent to a dominant primary subject. And a reflection that’s lost to the continuously varying angles of rippled or choppy water, magically appears when a long exposure smoothes the water’s surface.
In this image from Lake Wanaka on the South Island of New Zealand, all the ingredients were in place for a special sunset reflection until a light breeze disturbed the lake’s surface with gentle undulations. By attaching a Breakthrough 6-stop neutral density filter to my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens (Sony a7RIII camera), I was able to achieve a 30-second exposure that complete smoothed the lake’s surface. While not a perfect mirror, the resulting reflection has a very pleasing soft, gauzy look. The long exposure smoothed the distant clouds as well.
Where to focus
An often misunderstood aspect of reflection photography is where to focus. Though it seems counterintuitive, the focus point of a reflection is the reflection subject, not the reflection surface. This isn’t such a big deal in a scene like the Half Dome reflection at the top of the post, where the focus point of everything of visual significance is infinity, but it’s a very big deal when you want both your reflection and rocks or leaves on the nearby water surface sharp.
The El Capitan reflection on the right is very different from the Half Dome reflection above, where the extreme depth of field ensured sharpness whether I’d focused on anything in the scene or on the reflection. But here the leaves that were my scene’s primary emphasis were just a couple of feet from my camera, while El Capitan was several thousand feet distant. Even though the leaves floated atop the El Capitan reflection, focusing on El Capitan would have softened the leaves. To increase my depth of field, I stopped down to f/18 and focused several feet into the foreground leaves, then magnified the image on my LCD to verify that all of the leaves were sharp. Though El Capitan is slightly soft, a soft reflection is far more forgivable than a soft foreground.
It seems that reflections often feel like a fortuitous gift that we just stumbled upon. But given that reflections are entirely beholden to the laws of physics, they’re far more predictable than many of the natural elements we photograph. Taking a little time to understand the nature of reflections, and how they’re revealed by a camera, enables photographers to anticipate their appearance.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on June 5, 2017
On Saturday, with little fanfare, Alex Honnold stunned the climbing world when he free-soloed El Capitan in Yosemite, the world’s largest granite monolith. (What’s the big deal? From this image, you can clearly see that it’s downhill all the way….)
Speaking for all non-climbers, Alex Honnold didn’t just stun the entire climbing world, he stunned the entire rational world. Soaring three-thousand feet above Yosemite Valley, El Capitan is the Holy Grail of climbing. Among climbers, if you’ve summited El Cap, you’ve made the Major Leagues.
First conquered by Warren Harding in 1958, today dozens of climbers dot El Capitan’s vertical surface on any non-winter day with reasonable weather in the forecast. But until Saturday, all who scale El Capitan do it with ropes and a virtual hardware store worth of climbing aids. Most require multiple days to summit.
Alex Honnold chose to ascend El Capitan unencumbered by ropes or safety hardware of any sort (free climbing uses ropes for safety only; free-soloing is completely sans rope), scampering up the shear granite the old fashioned way, using only his hands and feet like a kid climbing a tree in his backyard. Even more astonishing, he accomplished his feat in less than four hours.
I’m not a climber, and in fact have a difficult time getting within three feet of any un-railed vertical drop greater than thirty feet. But I’ve always lived vicariously through climbers, devouring climbing books, videos, and documentaries just to marvel at their accomplishments. And for years Alex Honnold has been the climber I’ve followed most closely, not just because he’s the best (he is), but also because of our common affinity for Yosemite, and the fact that my daughters when to high school with him (they weren’t close friends, and I was a Honnold fan even before I knew this connection).
I also admire Alex Honnold not only for his skill and accomplishments, but for his humble demeanor (I suspect that he’d prefer climbing in complete anonymity) and quiet wisdom. And though we’ve never met, I can’t help worrying a little about him when I think of the number of mistakes I make with my camera—”Oops, I’m still at ISO 3200 from last night’s Milky Way shoot”; “Crap, I forgot to orient my polarizer”; “Did I remember to focus?” (I could go on)—and realize that for Alex Honnold, even one small mistake likely means death. I mean, even if I knew with absolute certainty that missing my exposure by just 1/3 stop would cause my camera to explode, I’m pretty sure I’d still be dead long ago.
So hats off to you, Alex Honnold, here’s wishing you many happy years as the world’s greatest living climber.
Posted on May 15, 2017
I spent most of the last week in Yosemite and can confirm that spring has definitely sprung there. The Merced River, swollen by snowmelt, is overspilling its banks, flooding meadows and submerging riverside trails. Reflections are everywhere, and viewing the waterfalls without getting wet? Forget about it.
Another spring highlight is the moonbow that colors the mist beneath Yosemite Falls. A fortunate convergence of Yosemite Falls’ southeast exposure and the angle of the rising full moon when the snowmelt is at its peak make Yosemite one of the best locations in the world to witness a lunar rainbow. I was able to photograph it three times last week, twice with my workshop group and once with a private tour customer. Easily visible to the naked eye as a silvery arc in the billowing mist, a long exposure reveals the moonbow’s true colors.
But of all the spring treats Yosemite offers, for creative photography I think the dogwood might be my favorite. For just a few short weeks in April and May, these graceful blooms shower Yosemite Valley with splashes of white that remind me of the Fourth of July sparklers of my childhood. But unlike the ephemeral sparks of a sparkler, the dogwood progress in slow motion so I can appreciate them at a much more relaxing pace.
I found this branch at the Bridalveil Fall vista on Northside Drive, about a mile east of Valley View. The river was gold with late light, and the air was still as I went to work on the scene. Careful positioning allowed me to juxtapose three layers in my frame: in the foreground is the dogwood branch with varying degrees of detail; the middle-ground is a blend of heavily blurred redbud and more dogwood; all this spring beauty stands out against a backdrop of the sunlit Merced River. I experimented with different depths of field by varying my f-stop, focal length, and focus distance until I was satisfied.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on January 26, 2017
(How many photography blogs out there quote Yogi Berra? Just sayin’….) During the 1973 baseball season, Yogi Berra was asked about his last place Mets’ chances in the pennant race. His reply, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” was greeted with chuckles, but Yogi got the last laugh when the Mets rallied to make it all the way to the World Series. I couldn’t help thinking of Yogi’s quote on my drive home Monday night with this image, my final click of the day, still fresh in my mind.
When the weatherman promised snow down to 2500 feet on Monday, I drove to Yosemite late Sunday night so I could beat sunrise and have an entire day to play. And snow I found, lots and lots of it, and still falling. The snowfall continued throughout morning, so heavy that my first few hours were limited to photographing close scenes, interspersed with lots of waiting for conditions to improve. But a little before noon the clouds started to thin and the snow became more showery and I was in business.
When the clearing started in earnest I was at Valley View (but it didn’t look anything like this). The rest of the day I spent dashing around Yosemite Valley, chasing the clouds’ parting and the light that came with it. It’s so much fun watching a storm clear in Yosemite, poised beneath Yosemite Falls or Half Dome or El Capitan, and wait for the big reveal when the clouds to pull back.
For sunset I ended up trudging through about 18 inches of virgin snow to a favorite Half Dome reflection spot by the Merced River, recently rendered much less accessible by major roadwork underway in the valley. Throughout the day I’d crossed paths several times with good friend Don Smith who had driven up for the day with our mutual friends Scott and Mike, and they eventually joined me at sunset. As we shot we shared stories of the day—for example, how they had just missed getting crushed by a falling tree (true story). After a half hour of really nice photography, a large cloud set up shop atop Half Dome right around sunset, completely obscuring the scene’s main attraction. Satisfied with a tremendous day of photography, we declared the day, “Over.”
It wasn’t until I was back at my car that fully appreciated how wet everything was—my gear, my car, and even me (a day of plunging through snowdrifts had been enough for the snow to find its way over the top my waterproof boots and underneath my waterproof outer pants). I decided I’d swing into Valley View on my way out of the valley to use the bathroom and change into drier clothes. In the back of my mind was possibility of a parting shot of El Capitan in the late, blue twilight.
The west end of Yosemite Valley gets much less winter sunlight, so while trees had already started shedding the snow on the east side (where I’d photographed sunset), I pulled in at Valley View to find virtually every exposed surface still glistening white. Bridalveil Fall and Cathedral Rocks clearly visible in the fading light, but El Capitan was cloud-shrouded from top to bottom. Still quite cold, tired, and more than a little hungry, this would have been a perfect excuse to beeline home. But the scene was so beautiful, and the light so perfect, that after changing my clothes I just sat in my car, peeled an orange, and waited for El Capitan to show itself.
I didn’t have to wait long. At the first sign of clearing I hopped out and was completely set up by the river before El Capitan appeared. Bumping my ISO to 800, I composed the standard horizontal frame with El Capitan on the left, Leaning Tower on the right, and the Merced River in the foreground. Often the most difficult thing about shooting in low light like this is finding focus, but despite the fact that it was more 30 minutes after sunset, my Sony a7RII was able to autofocus on Cathedral Rocks. I spent a several clicks refining that original composition and was about to call the day “Over” one more time when something moved me to shift my view to the right. As soon as the image popped up on my LCD I knew I was onto something. I refined for about a half dozen more frames, culminating with the one you see here, until I was satisfied that a great day truly was over.
The lesson here, one I learned many years ago but I see many photographers struggle to grasp, is that the camera can still do fantastic things long after your eyes tell you the show is over. Another satisfying reminder from this day is that it’s still possible to enjoy Yosemite in glorious peace. As someone who has seen Yosemite at its congested worst, I relish the solitude possible when I choose times that the average person (tourists, fair weather photographers) won’t venture out: miserable weather, late at night, before sunrise. The entire time I was out there at Valley View that evening I was alone, and only two cars drove by. As Yogi would say, “Nobody goes there anymore—it’s too crowded.”
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.