There’s A Draft In Here

Gary Hart Photography: Daybreak, Mono Lake

Daybreak, Mono Lake
Sony a7RIII
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
4 seconds
ISO 200

True story: I once had a workshop participant who put her Nikon D4 in continuous mode, metered, then pressed the shutter and sprayed in a 180 degree arc until the buffer filled. When I asked her what she was doing, she shrugged and said, “It’s Yosemite—there’s sure to be something good in there.” While I couldn’t really disagree with her, I’m guessing she wasn’t seeing a lot of growth as a photographer.

I tend to fall on the other end of the photography spectrum. Rather than a high volume of low-effort images (spray-and-pray), much of my photography style carries over from my film days. Back then, a photographer who wasn’t careful might return from Europe to find that, between the film and the processing, the photographs cost more than the trip. With our wallets forcing us to be more discriminating, we took our time, and checked (and double-checked) every composition and exposure variable before clicking.

Times have changed. While every film click cost us money, every digital click increases the return on our investment. And thanks to ridiculous frame rates, seemingly infinite memory cards, and the ease of deleting in the field, I’m afraid it has become so easy to fire at will that many digital shooters are far too casual with each frame.

The best approach is probably a hybrid of the film and digital paradigms: Careful attention to detail, combined with a no-fear freedom to fail frequently. Just as it’s important to have some kind of plan or objective, it’s just as important to be okay with not knowing how you’re going to get there. In other words, sometimes success can only when you aren’t afraid to create crappy images on the way.

I’ll often approach a scene knowing there’s a image there, but start with no idea were it is. One approach that often works in these situations is to just frame something up and click. Other times I’ll play “what-if” games with myself: What if I do this? Or that? If it works, great; if it doesn’t, I’ve learned something.

There’s a draft in here

As someone who has been writing and taking pictures for a long time, I’ve found a real connection between the creation process of each craft. We can probably agree that few writers create a polished piece of writing in a single pass. Whether it’s an important e-mail, a weekly blog, or a magazine article, I start with an idea and just go with it. But before sending, publishing, or submitting (or deleting), I read, revise, then re-read and re-revise more times than I can count—until I’m satisfied that it’s “perfect.”

Similarly, photographers shouldn’t be afraid to create “draft” images that move them forward without necessarily delivering them all the way where they want to be with one click. When I find a scene that might be photo-worthy, I compose and expose my first click more by feel, without a lot of analysis. But I’m not done after that first click, not even close. And I don’t particularly care that it’s not perfect. This is my first draft, a proof of concept that creates a foundation to build on. When that draft pops up on my LCD, I evaluate it, make adjustments, and click again, repeating this cycle until I’m satisfied, or until I decide there’s not an image there.

Sorry, but there really is no substitute for a tripod

I hear a lot of landscape photographers claim that stabilized bodies and lenses, combined with clean high-ISO sensors, have made the tripod obsolete. Since photography must be a source of pleasure, I won’t argue with anyone who says using a tripod saps their joy. But…. If the joy you receive from photography requires getting the best possible images, you really should be using a tripod.

Applying my draft/revise approach without a tripod is like trying to draw with an an Etch A Sketch (is that still a thing?), then erasing the screen after each click. That’s because after every hand-held click, what’s the first thing you do? If you’re like most photographers, to check your image, you drop the camera from your eye and extend it out front. Before you can make the inevitable adjustments to that hand-held capture, you must return the camera to your eye and completely recreate the composition before making your adjustments.

It’s the tripod that makes this shoot/critique/refine process work. Much the way a computer allows writers to save, review, and incrementally improve what they’ve written, a tripod holds your composition while you decide how to make it better. Shooting this way, each frame becomes an incremental improvement of the preceding frame.

About this image

Composition isn’t limited to the arrangement and framing of elements in a scene—it can also be the way the image conveys the scene’s light, depth, and motion. Setting up this sunrise image, I had to coordinate all of those moving parts.

I’d arrived here with my Eastern Sierra workshop group about 45 minutes before sunrise, plenty of time to familiarize myself with the scene and plan my sunrise composition. I started by identifying my foreground elements, then determined the focus point that would deliver foreground-to-infinity depth of field, and finally worked out my strategy for getting the exposure right using a long enough exposure to smooth the rippled water and maximize the foreground reflection (thanks to my Breakthrough 6-stop ND filter). In my pre-Sony days I’d have had to wrestle with a graduated neutral density filter to manage the highlights, but I knew if I was careful with my histogram, my Sony a7RIII would handle it.

One of the nice things about photographing sunrise at Mono Lake is that you anticipate the sun’s arrival on the eastern horizon by monitoring the shadows sliding down the mountains in the west. So after I found my general composition, I had the luxury of ten minutes of just playing with all the variables, firing frames I knew I wouldn’t use, then evaluating each for balance, depth, and motion effect. I don’t have any specific memory of this frame, but if I look at the series of images leading up to it, I can tell what I was doing.

Oh, and full disclosure: Even though I don’t really remember this specific click, I can tell I was thinking about a sunstar because I shot it at f/18, an f/stop I virtually never use unless I want a sunstar (at 16mm, I certainly didn’t need f/18 for DOF). I could defend myself by saying I stopped down to f/18 to get my exposure to the four seconds I used here (to smooth the water), but that doesn’t fly either because I was at ISO 200. I know if I’d have been paying attention, I’d have used ISO 100 and f/13, allowing the same shutter speed at a cleaner ISO and sharper f-stop. So I guess the moral of this small digression is, don’t let the desire to be perfect hinder your creativity—mistakes happen, they’re usually not the end of the world, and the results will almost certainly be better than spray-and-pray.

Join me for an Eastern Sierra photo workshop

An Eastern Sierra Gallery

Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.


Playing with my new toy

Gary Hart Photography: Big Picture, South Tufa, Mono Lake

Tufa Pastel, South Tufa, Mono Lake
Sony a7R II
Sony 12-24 f4 G
1/20 second
ISO 160

Leading 15-20 photo workshops per year means coming to terms with photographing the same locations year in, year out. This is not a complaint—I only guide people to locations I love photographing—but it sometimes makes me long for the opportunity to capture something new. Which is why I’m loving visiting my familiar haunts with my newest lenses, the Sony 12-24 G and Sony 100-400 GM. (I’ve had the Tamron 150-600 for a couple of years, but find it too big to lug routinely.)

Back-to-back Eastern Sierra workshops earlier this month meant multiple visits to Mono Lake. My first group hit the jackpot on our South Tufa sunset shoot, finding a glassy reflection (usually reserved for sunrises here) beneath a striking formation of cirrocumulus clouds. Because I was with my group, and I’d guided them all to the spot where the majority wanted to be (justifiable so for first-time visitors), I couldn’t go out in search of something a little different. Instead I just whipped out my 12-24 lens, dropped my tripod to lake-level with one leg in the water, and started composing.

I’m still getting used to shooting at 12mm, which is not only considerably different from what my eyes see, it’s considerably different from what I’ve become used to seeing in my viewfinder (the difference between 16mm and 12mm is huge). The lesson here is the importance of a strong foreground in a wide composition—the wider the focal length, the more important the foreground becomes. Here the entire lakebed was so alive with color and shape, and the water was so still and clear, finding a foreground wasn’t really a problem. I just needed to make sure I organized all the scene’s visual elements into something coherent.

Anchoring my frame with a nearby quartet of small rocks (just a couple of feet away) and a larger protruding lump of tufa a little behind it (everything else in my foreground was submerged), I peered into my viewfinder and quickly decided to go for symmetry with the larger background elements. The clouds couldn’t have been more perfectly positioned—combined with their reflection, they seemed to point directly my composition’s centerpiece, the “Shipwreck” tufa formation (not really an official name, but widely used) that is probably Mono Lake’s most recognizable feature. At 12mm depth of field wasn’t a huge concern—I focused about three feet into the scene and was able to achieve sharpness throughout my frame.

Anyone who has ever been to Mono Lake’s South Tufa can appreciate, looking at this image, how 12mm on a full frame body shrinks distant subjects—the Shipwreck is a very prominent feature here, but the wide lens shrinks it to almost secondary status. On the other hand, dropping down and getting as close as possible to the shore at 12mm really emphasizes the beautiful submerged patterns.

A Mono Lake Gallery

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

Getting ahead of the shot

Gary Hart Photography: Dawn, Mono Lake and the Sierra Crest

Dawn, Mono Lake and the Sierra Crest 
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
8 seconds
ISO 100

I hate arriving at a photo destination for the first time and having to immediately hit the ground running. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate the value of advance knowledge of landscape and light, and always try to factor in ample scouting time before getting down to serious shooting.

On the other hand, a prime reason people sign up for a photo workshop is to shortcut the scouting process, and for the most part this works pretty well. I (like any other experienced workshop leader) can share my knowledge of a location’s terrain and light to put my groups in the right place at the right time, and to provide insights into what’s in store and how they might want to approach it.

But sometimes there’s no substitute for firsthand exposure to a location before the good stuff happens. This is particularly true for sunrise spots, because the good shooting usually starts before it’s light enough to see the landscape. Unfortunately, a photo workshop’s tight schedule doesn’t always provide the luxury of exposing my groups to a location before it’s time to photograph it, but I do my best.

Mono Lake is a perfect example. The serpentine shoreline of South Tufa, the lake’s most photographed location, is a series of points and coves that offer lake views to the east, north, and west, depending on where you stand. Often nice at sunset, sunrise at South Tufa can be downright world class in any one of these compass directions. The best sunrise photography frequently cycles through (and sometimes overlaps) all three directions as the sunrise progresses. Overlaying South Tufa’s directional light are the vivid sunrise hues that can paint the sky in any direction at any time, and glassy reflections that double the visual overload.

After many years photographing South Tufa, I’ve established a fairly reliable sunrise workflow that helps me deal with these shifting factors. I usually start with tufa tower silhouettes facing east, into the early twilight glow in the east, then do a 180 to capture the magenta alpenglow on the Sierra crest in the west, and finally pivot northward as sidelight warms the tufa towers once the sun’s first rays skim the lake.

But just knowing the direction to point the camera is only part of the Mono Lake equation. In fact, with so many composition possibilities, South Tufa can overwhelm the first time visitor. Not only is there a lot going on here, on most mornings you need to contend with photographers that swarm the shore like the lake’s ubiquitous black flies.

Because of these difficulties, I make a point of getting my Eastern Sierra workshop group out to South Tufa for the sunset preceding the sunrise shoot. In my pre-shoot orientation, I strongly encourage my students to walk around before setting up their cameras, to identify compositions in each direction, and to envision the sunrise light.

It turns out, this year’s South Tufa sunset shoot was beneficial to me as well. With the lake level lower than I’ve ever seen it, the shoreline was virtually unrecognizable—many familiar lake features were now high and dry, and a number of new features had materialized. As alarming as it was to see the lake this low, the photographer in me couldn’t help but feel excited about the fresh compositions the new shoreline offered.

While showing the group around South Tufa’s various nooks and crannies, I spotted a stepping stone set of newly exposed tufa mounds on a north- and west-facing section. I pointed out to those still with me the way tufa could lead the eye through the bottom of the frame to the distant Sierra peaks, and made a mental bookmark of the spot. Sunset that night, with nice color a glassy reflection that’s more typical of sunrise than sunset, that everyone was a little dubious when I told them sunrise could be even better.

The next morning, all the conditions were in place for something special: a mix of clouds and sky, an opening on the eastern horizon to let the light through, calm winds to quiet the lake. Armed with knowledge from the night before, the group quickly dispersed to their pre-planned spots and I found myself mostly alone.

I’ve photographed Mono Lake so many times that I had no plans to shoot that morning, so I wandered around checking on everyone. As often happens when the photography is good (especially late in the workshop, when people have become pretty comfortable handling difficult light and extreme depth of field), I felt like my presence was more distraction than benefit, so I headed over to the spot I’d spied the previous evening (it had the added benefit of being pretty centrally located and well within earshot of my distributed students).

By the time I got there the show was well underway in the east and quickly moving west. It would have been easy to slip into panic-shooting mode and try to find something where things were good right now, but I’ve learned (for me at least) that it’s best to anticipate than react. Instead, because I’d already mentally worked this scene, I knew the composition I wanted and was ready for the color when it arrived.

The extra sixty seconds this bought me was enough to refine my composition, find the f-stop and focus point that would maximize sharpness throughout the scene, meter the scene and set my exposure, and orient my polarizer for the best balance between reflection and lakebed. It turns out that this anticipation was a difference-maker, as the vivid color peaked and faded in about 30 seconds.

Join my next Eastern Sierra Fall Color photo workshop

A Mono Lake Gallery

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

The best time of day

Sunrise Starburst, Mono Lake

Sunrise Starburst, Mono Lake
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
1/4 second
ISO 125

Imagine a world that’s so quiet you can hear nature’s every stirring, a place where each breath holds a pristine bouquet of subtle fragrances, and the sky is a continuously shifting kaleidoscope of indigo, blue, yellow, orange, and red. In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m describing the very world we live in, before the sun’s light and warmth draw out the dirty, noisy, oblivious masses.

As a nature photographer, I’m quite familiar with this world. And while I can’t say that I relish a 4:30 a.m. alarm, I’ve come to terms with its darkness, frigid temps, and sleep depravity. I also understand why most people despise early wake-ups, because that used to describe me. We’ve been conditioned by a lifetime of rising for school and work and completely bypassing early morning’s benefits as we rush to obligations, appointments, and responsibilities that are almost invariably less pleasant than staying in bed.

But if you haven’t learned to appreciate the joy of the pre-sunrise world, let me help you reset your bias with a few tips for making early mornings happen:

  • For the full experience, plan to be at your spot at least 45 minutes before the “official” (flat horizon at that latitude and longitude) sunrise for that location. The eastern horizon will already be brightening noticeably by then, but the stars will be visible. (This is for mid-latitude locations—twilight starts earlier in the high latitudes, later in the low latitudes.)
  • Get organized before you go to bed. Lay your clothes out, assemble your gear, make sure everything’s charged, and prime the coffee maker. You do all this so you can…
  • Set your alarm for the absolute minimum time necessary to get ready. Your resolve will be much stronger at bedtime than when it goes off—the less time you have to delay, less the chance that you’ll lose your resolve to the cozy warmth of your bed. This also gives you the maximum amount of sleep possible. And don’t forget, one of the best things about being up when no one else is up and it’s dark is that it really doesn’t matter how you look (so you don’t really need to spend a lot of time on personal hygiene).
  • Under no circumstances use the snooze button on your alarm. Rising early is like ripping off a Band-Aid—the sooner you get it over with, the happier you’ll be; the longer you drag it out, the harder it is. Trust me.

    Three Strikes, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon National Park

    The weather report called for clear skies and no chance of rain this morning. But the lightning was already firing when we walked out to Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Point in the dark, and it was still going when we finally ran out of compositions over two hours later.

  • Don’t be discouraged by the conditions at bedtime or wake-up. Some of my most memorable sunrises have happened on mornings I’d have skipped if I’d relied solely on weather reports, or on the way things look when I peek out the window after the alarm. Photography is just one of the benefits of being out before the sun. Even when the photography conditions don’t materialize as hoped, I rarely regret those mornings when I dragged myself out of bed to sit in the cold and dark. And for some reason, the most special stuff seems happen when I go out with the lowest expectations, driven solely by the attitude that I’m just going to enjoy this special time of day.

For example (the above image)

Getting to this remote location on Mono Lake’s north shore is always an adventure; getting there early enough before the sun can feel downright crazy. We depart an hour-and-a-half before sunrise, navigate a bone-jarring maze of unpaved roads that worsen with each mile, and drive until we can drive no further. From there the lake is still a half mile walk. Most of the hike is in volcanic sand, but the last couple hundred yards are through shoe-sucking mud; with no trail or light, it’s no wonder I never end up at the same spot from one year to the next.

Earlier this month my Eastern Sierra workshop group made the annual pilgrimage out here for our final sunrise. We’d been incredibly blessed with great conditions throughout the workshop—great sunrise and sunset color, nice clouds, and glassy reflections at Mono Lake’s South Tufa the day before (always a highlight when it happens). Our luck held as we got all three—color, clouds, and reflection—for this final sunrise.

Sunrise Starburst, Mono Lake

I started shooting in near darkness, with wide, east-facing compositions that included a thin slice of moon flanked by Venus, Jupiter, and Mars. My focus turned more south and west as the sun started to rise and paint the clouds with color. Soon the mountains in the west were bathed with warm light and I turned my attention there. The wind stayed calm, so every direction I shot, I was able to double the beauty with a reflection.

Watching the shadow slide down the mountains, I was able to anticipate the sun’s arrival at my position and turn back to the east just in time to make my sunstar composition. I used a trio of nearby rocks to anchor my foreground, removed my polarizer (I wanted a maximum reflection and didn’t want to worry about differential polarization at my wide focal length), extracted my 3-stop reverse graduated neutral density filter (Singh-Ray), and stopped down to f-20 to enhance the sunstar effect.

When the sun appeared I clicked a half-dozen or so images, each with a little bit brighter sunstar. I chose this one because it was a good balance between brilliant sunstar without washing out too much of the sky around it. Thanks to my GND and the ridiculous dynamic range of my a7R II, I got this scene with a single click. In Photoshop I dodged the top 2/3 of the sky and burned the water to disguise the GND effect, but did very little else.

Join me in the Eastern Sierra next year

The joys of sunrise

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

Staying out of the way

Sunrise Fire, Mono Lake

Sunrise Fire, Mono Lake
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
32 mm
1/4 second
ISO 200

Previously on Eloquent Nature: Road trip!

Sometimes when Mother Nature puts on a show, the best thing a photographer can do is just get out of the way. I’d driven to Mono Lake the previous afternoon to do some night photography and photograph the waning crescent moon before sunrise. After spending the night in the back of my Pilot, I woke at 4:30 and hiked down to the lake. The crescent moon arrived right on time, about an hour before the sun, but I didn’t get any moon images that thrilled me. I was, however, encouraged by the glassy calm of the lake (a distinct change from the previous night) and the promising spread of clouds and sky connecting the horizons.

Waiting in the morning’s utter stillness, it was easy to forget how sleep deprived I was. After fifteen minutes of slow but steady brightening, the color came quickly and for about 30 minutes I was the sole witness to a vivid display that transitioned seamlessly from deep crimson, to electric pink, and finally soft, pastel peach hues. The entire show was duplicated on the lake surface—I could have pointed my camera in any direction to capture something beautiful.

When I get in a situation like this, one that’s both spectacular and rapidly changing, I risk blowing the entire shoot by thinking to much. Thinking in dynamic conditions usually results in things like including foreground elements just because that’s what you’re supposed to do, or spending too much time searching for just the right composition. This problem is particularly vexing at a place like Mono Lake, which is chock full of great visual elements.

I’ve seen many Mono Lake images featuring spectacular color and sparkling reflections, only to be ruined by the inclusion of disorganized or incongruous tufa formations (limestone formations that are the prime compositional element of most Mono Lake images). If you can include the tufa in a way that serves the scene, by all means go for it. But in rapidly changing conditions like I had this morning at Mono Lake, unless I already have my compositions ready, I’m usually more productive when I simplify through subtraction.

This morning I had just enough time before the color arrived to find a spot that didn’t have too much happening in the foreground. Rather than a confusion of tufa formations, I was working with a glassy canvas of lake surface that stretched with little interference to the distant lakeshore. The visual interruptions were few enough, and distant enough, that assembling them into a cohesive foreground was a simple matter of shifting slightly left and right. Handling my shoot this way allowed me to emphasize the scene’s best feature—the vivid color painting the sky and reflecting on the lake. The small tufa mounds dotting the lake surface were relegated to visual resting places that add depth and create virtual lines leading into the scene.

If you look at the images in the Mono Lake Gallery below, you’ll see a variety of foreground treatments that range from simple to complex. The more complex foregrounds are generally the result of enough familiarity and time to anticipate the conditions and assemble a composition. But when I couldn’t find something that worked, I simply stopped trying and allowed the moment to speak for itself.


A Mono Lake Gallery


Road trip!

Summer Night, Milky Way and Mono Lake

Summer Night, Mono Lake Beneath the Milky Way
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
28 mm
15 seconds
ISO 6400

Sacramento isn’t exactly known for its scenery, but as someone who makes his living photographing nature’s beauty, I haven’t found any place I’d rather live (okay, so maybe Hawaii is close). Just listen to this list of scenic locations I can drive to from home in four hours or less (clockwise from southwest to southeast): Pinnacles National Park, Big Sur, Monterey/Carmel, San Francisco, Point Reyes, Muir Woods (and countless other redwood groves), the Napa and Sonoma Valley Wine Country, the Mendocino Coast, Mt. Shasta, Mt. Lassen National Park, Lake Tahoe, Calaveras Big Trees (giant sequoias), Yosemite, and Mono Lake. Not only is each a destination that draws people from all over the world on its own merits, just check out the visual variety on that list.

With a crescent moon due to grace last Friday’s pre-sunrise twilight, Thursday morning I checked my schedule and saw nothing requiring my immediate attention. I clicked through my mental location checklist for sunrise spots that offer view of the eastern horizon—Lake Tahoe and Yosemite would work, but they’re both crowded (and I have enough Yosemite crescent moon images anyway). Mono Lake? Hmmmm…. Not only would Mono Lake work for the moon, it should be dark enough there to photograph the Milky Way above the lake. Road trip!

Within a couple of hours my Pilot was packed, and by early afternoon I was motoring up Highway 50. Aside from my photographic ambitions, another highlight of a Mono Lake trip is the drive itself, which takes me near Lake Tahoe, over Monitor Pass, into the Antelope Valley, and finally onto US 395 beneath the sheer  east face of the Sierra crest all the way down to Mono Lake and Lee Vining. I pulled into town at about 6 p.m. and after a quick dinner at the Whoa Nellie Deli (not to be missed—look it up), I was off to the lake. Let the adventure begin.

By far Mono Lake’s most photographed location is South Tufa—with great views of the eastern horizon, it certainly would have qualified for my sunrise shoot, but the best views of the Milky Way would require a view toward the southern horizon. Another problem with South Tufa is the crowds, even at night. Not only have I had to contend with light-painters there (sorry, not my thing), one evening I went down there and found the Japanese Britney Spears shooting a video. (That label is my inference—one of the crew confirmed that she was Japanese, the music sounded just like American Top-40 pop of which Britney was the current queen, and judging by the motorhome, full-size bus, two big-rig trucks, and 1/4 mile long cables snaking all the way from the parking lot to the lake, it was pretty clear this girl was a huge star.) So anyway, Thursday evening I simply opted for the view, peace, and quiet of Mono Lake’s north shore.

Traversed only by a disorganized network of narrow, poorly maintained dirt roads, navigating here is difficult even with a high clearance vehicle. While my Pilot is all-wheel-drive, it’s not designed for off road and I need to take these roads with extra care. My strategy at each junction is to take the spur that trends in the direction of the lake, but over the years I’ve become fairly familiar with this side of the lake and had a general idea of where I wanted to be that night. So far I’ve not found a road that will get me much closer than a half mile from the lake, nor have I ever found an actual trail to the lake—when I think I’m close enough to something nice, I just park and walk toward the lake.

It was about a half hour before sunset when I parked my Pilot in a wide spot near the end of a long dirt road. On most visits I’m out there navigating in the dark before sunrise, so it was nice to actually be able see beyond my headlights while hunting for a spot to shoot. Exiting the car I was blasted by the less-than-pleasant but tolerable smell that is distinctly Mono Lake. It’s there year-round, but seems to be worse in summer.

With nothing to block my view, the lake was in clear sight. Lacking a trail, the route is pretty much a matter of picking a point on the shore making a beeline there. My first few steps dropped me down a short but fairly steep slope into the basin of the ancient Mono Lake. From there it flattens to a gentle slope, first through coarse volcanic sand, and then into a band of tall, soggy grass that eventually peters out into a soup of gray muck. Depending on the location I’ve chosen and the lake level at the time of my visit, the consistency of this muck ranges from damp sponge to shoe-sucking wet cement—this year’s muck fell closer to the wet cement side of the continuum, but my high-top Keens were up to the task. And thankfully, I found large areas where the mud had been baked solid enough to walk on without sinking.

The other feature of note out here is the calcium carbonate (limestone) rocks embedded in the lakeshore (they’re the same makeup as tufa, but a different shape than the more striking South Tufa formations). While these make a great platform for sitting and keeping a camera bag out of the mud, in summer they are literally covered with little black alkali flies. Yes, I said literally covered—the flies are so thick that some rocks are black and any shot that includes a rock starts with shoeing the flies if you want to capture it in its natural gray state. (These flies would be a much worse than a mere annoyance if they were capable of flying higher than one foot above the ground.)

My plan for this trip was to photograph sunset, hang out lakeside waiting for dark, do an hour or so of night photography, return to my Pilot and sleep in the back (air mattress and sleeping bag, thank-you-very-much), then rise at 4:30 and return to the lake in time for the moonrise and and sunrise. I made it down to the lake in time to photograph a sunset that was nice but nothing special by Mono Lake standards. As I waited for dark a warm wind whipped the lake surface into a froth, and I soon became concerned about the thin clouds converging overhead—rain was not a concern, but it started to look like my Milky Way aspirations might be thwarted. Nevertheless I hung out (where else was I to go?) and was eventually rewarded when most of the clouds moved on to mess with some other photographer’s plans.

While not nearly as spectacular as my recent Grand Canyon dark sky nights, there were far more stars than any city-dweller can ever hope to see. An occasional meteor darted into view (see the small one at the top of this picture?), and a few satellites drifted overhead, but the main event was the Milky Way, which poured a river of white that spanned the sky from Scorpio in the south to Cassiopeia in the north. While Lee Vining has not quite achieved sky-washing megalopolis status, it nevertheless created an annoying array of  discrete light of varying intensity and color that were more than I wanted to try to deal with in Photoshop. But I found that the farther east along the lakeshore I moved, the less these lights aligned with my scene.

I was having so much fun that I stayed out there until the Earth’s rotation had spun the Milky Way into closer alignment with the Lee Vining “skyline,” sometime after 11:00. By then I really had no idea how far east I’d wandered, so as I trudged back to the car in the pitch black I was extremely thankful (and self congratulatory) for the foresight to have mentally registered my bearings in daylight. While my headlamp guided each next step and illuminated the ten-foot radius of my dark world, navigation was solely by the North Star, which I kept off my right shoulder. I had no illusions that this method would allow me to pinpoint the car in the dark, but my hope was to get close enough that clicking my key fob would activate my horn and lights. For quite a while the key was answered by nothing but crickets, and about the time I started worrying that I’d miscalculated my position and would be spending the night in the mud with the flies, my car flashed and beeped about 100 yards to my right. Hallelujah. Not exactly a bullseye, but close enough.

The next morning came much too early, and while I didn’t get any moon pictures that made me particularly happy, the sunrise was off-the-charts and (along with the Milky Way) more than enough justification for an eight hour roundtrip and less than four hours of sleep. But that’s a story for another day.


Photo Tip: Read more about starlight photography


A starlight gallery

If you’re following the rules, you’re not being creative

Stillness, South Tufa, Mono Lake

Stillness, South Tufa, Mono Lake
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1 second
ISO 100
32 mm

What do you think would happen if I submitted this image a camera club photo competition? It might elicit a few oohs and ahhs at first, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be long before somebody dismisses it because the primary subject is centered. And while “never center your subject” is standard camera-club advice for a beginner who automatically bullseyes every subject, reflexively reciting “Rules*” is a cop-out for faux critics who lack genuine insight. (Of course I’m not talking about you, I’m talking about that guy over there by the cookies.) Worse still, photographers who blindly follow Rules are leaning on a crutch that will only atrophy their creative muscles.

This is important

Rules are not inherently bad, but it should be the photographer controlling the Rules, not the other way around. In fact, if you’re following the Rules, you’re not being creative. One more time: If you’re following the Rules, you’re not being creative. 

A couple of examples

One of the most oft-repeated Rules is the Rule of Thirds, which dictates that the primary subject be placed at the intersection points in an imaginary grid dividing the frame into horizontal and vertical thirds (think tic-tac-toe). Another RoT mandate is to never center the horizon, but to instead place it one third of the way up from the bottom or down from the top. Reasonable advice for people who like their images to look like everyone else’s, but it completely ignores the myriad reasons for doing otherwise.

For example, visual artists are often told to give their subjects more space in the frame in the direction they’re looking. In other words, if the subject is gazing rightward, place them on the left side of the frame so they’re looking across the frame and not directly into a virtual wall. But watching “12 Years a Slave”  last weekend (one curse of being a photographer is the inability to turn off my internal critic) I noticed Solomon Northup longingly gazing directly into the left border of the frame, with a vast open sky behind him. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this framing symbolized Northup’s physical and emotional confinement (but who doesn’t know someone who’d ding this framing at the photo club competition?).

And centering a subject is an effective creative tool. Photographing the Mono Lake South Tufa sunset above, I was thrilled to find the kind of mirror reflection usually reserved for sunrise at this often windy location. Enjoying softer light than I’d get shooting toward the sun at sunrise, I tried many compositions before settling on this absolutely symmetrical version to create an equilibrium that conveys the utter stillness I experienced that evening.

Shed the crutch and go forth

Rules serve a beginning photographer in much the way training wheels serve a five-year-old learning to ride a bike: They’re great for getting you started, but soon get in the way. As valuable as these support mechanisms are, you wouldn’t do Tour de France with training wheels, or the Boston Marathon on crutches.

In my workshops I’m frequently exposed to creative damage done to people rendered gun-shy by well-intended but misguided Rule enforcers. Camera clubs and photo competitions are great for many reasons, but I’d love to see them declared no-Rule zones. And if your group can’t no nuclear on Rules, how about at least adding a no-Rule (“best image that breaks a Rule”) competition or category to acknowledge that the Rules are not the final word?

My suggestion to everyone trying to improve their photography is to learn the Rules, but rather than simply memorizing them, do your best to understand their purpose, and how that purpose might conflict with your objective. Then, armed with that wisdom, each time you peer through your viewfinder, set the Rules aside and simply trust your creative instincts.

*Capitalized throughout to mock the deference they’re given

Come break the rules with me in a photo workshop

Eastern Sierra Photo Workshops

Asking for trouble at the camera club

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Night and Day

Night and Day, Crescent Moon and Mono Lake

Night and Day, Crescent Moon Rising Above Mono Lake
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
3.2 seconds
ISO 800
40 mm

October 2013

It’s dark. It’s cold. It’s early—so early that some would still consider it late. But you drag yourself out of bed anyway, for the promise of something most people never experience. And experience is the operative word here, because it’s much more than just the view. Or the photography. It’s the opportunity to witness the transition from night to day, to bask in a quiet that’s impossible in our metropolitan mayhem, to inhale clean, chilled air, and to watch the rising sun’s warm hues push back Earth’s indigo shadow to devour the twinkling vestiges of night. Of course you can watch this happen in reverse after sunset, but it’s just not the same in a world has been lived in for a dozen or so hours.

I’d scheduled this year’s Eastern Sierra workshop to conclude on the one day each month when a sliver of moon floats in the transition between night and day. To photograph the moon this small and close to the sun, I try to be in place an hour before “official” sunrise (the posted sunrise time, when the sun would crest a flat horizon), when darkness still predominates. With a five mile drive on a rugged, unpaved road, and a half mile (or so) trail-less walk through sand and mud, I got the group on the road at 5:15 for our 7:00 a.m. sunrise. Despite some blurry eyes, there was no grumbling; and by the time we were ready to trek to the lake, everyone was in great spirits.

On this morning Mother Nature rewarded us by chasing away the clouds that had dogged the horizon the last couple of days. These clouds had given us brilliant color, but had also preempted our night photography shoot just ten hours earlier; I was concerned that they’d obscure the moon I’d been so looking forward to. No problem—in the clouds’ place we found this two-percent slice of old moon, one day removed from new, just as I’d ordered. Phew.

Because this was the last day of the workshop, everyone had pretty much mastered the difficulty of exposing for a dark foreground beneath a bright horizon—some blended multiple exposures, others reached for their graduated neutral density filters—allowing them to concentrate on creativity. I tried a variety of compositions, horizontal and vertical orientations from wide to tight, and encouraged the rest of the group to do the same (though I suspect that by now they’d all learned to tune me out).

This is one of the first images I captured that morning. It was still dark enough that the amount of light required to bring out any detail in the foreground also revealed lots of lunar detail in the earth-shadow, and stars still pierced much of the sky. Nice. To ensure that I didn’t get motion blur in the moon, I made some compromises: I dropped to f5.6 (depth of field wasn’t a concern, but lenses are slightly slightly less sharp as the approach their extreme apertures) and bumped to ISO 800 (with my 5D Mark III and today’s noise reduction software, noise at ISO 800 is no longer much of a concern). For most of my images that morning I used a two-stop hard-transition graduated neutral density filter to subdue the bright horizon, but this was one of my earliest images, captured before that was necessary.

The group was pretty quiet for most of this sunrise, usually a sign that they’re pretty happy with what they see and the images they’re capturing. Every once in a while I’d answer a question, or offer suggestions, but it seemed like people were pretty much “in the zone.” Nevertheless, I did pause couple of times to remind everyone not to get so caught up in their photography that they forget to appreciate what we’re witnessing.

These ephemeral moments in nature change subtly but quickly—soon the stars disappeared and moon faded into the advancing daylight. By the time the sun crested the horizon, our attention had turned to the warmly lit peaks behind us. And then it was over.

Favorite: Sunrise Mirror

Sunrise Mirror, Mono Lake

Sunrise Mirror, Mono Lake
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
1/60 second
ISO 200
32 mm

This is the second installment in my semi-regular “Favorites” series

*   *   *

Some things you just can’t plan. But if you have experienced the disappointment that comes when preparation, sacrifice, and extreme discomfort end in complete failure, yet have still gone back out the next time and the next time and the next time, Mother Nature will sometimes reward you with gifts of exquisite beauty. More than the successful shot that was planned and executed to perfection, it’s these gifts that keep me going back out with my camera when I’d so much rather be at the dinner table, curled in bed, or reading by the fire.

I’ve had a few of these unexpected blessings in my photographic career: Half Dome emerging from a churning caldron of clouds, barely visible in the very last light of day; a persistent double rainbow arcing above the full breadth of Yosemite Valley; the Milky Way, framed by glowing clouds, pouring into Kilauea Caldera; and most recently, a magic morning at the Grand Canyon, when the lightning wouldn’t stop and the first rays of sunrise balanced a vivid rainbow on the canyon’s rim. Another of those moments was this sunrise at Mono Lake. It was the final day of a trip with my brother to photograph fall color in the Eastern Sierra. Facing a long drive home, and despite a weather report promising clear skies, we rose in the dark and went out in the October chill anyway.

That I’ve been able photograph these moments with my camera is my great fortune. But with or without my camera, every detail of being there is permanently etched in my memory—not just the visual, but who I was with, where I might have been instead, and the joy of feeling like I’m witnessing the most beautiful thing happening on Earth at this moment. It’s these permanent, visceral memories that drive me from bed, warm my flesh, and calm my angry stomach when thoughts of comfort try to keep me home.

Roads less traveled

Gary Hart Photography: Sunrise Mirror, Mono Lake

Sunrise Mirror, Mono Lake
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
1/60 second
ISO 200
32 mm

Sometimes our best opportunities arise when circumstances nudge us off our charted course.

One day earlier…

The morning before capturing this sunrise I’d been one of hundreds of photographers shoulder-to-shoulder on the beach at Mono Lake’s South Tufa. Competing with the thousands of photographers who flock to the Eastern Sierra to photograph the golden aspen each October, my brother and I were the first persons out there that morning, claiming our spots and waiting in the cold and dark for the sun. As expected, other photographers soon started accumulating—rather than finding their own scene, many simply assumed that my tripod meant I knew what I was doing and set up next to me. (Some didn’t even bother to pretend to study the surroundings first.)

By the time the sunrise started in ernest, I must have accrued thirty photographers, packed so tightly on both sides that if one had tipped over the rest would had collapsed in sequence like a row of dominos. The morning culminated with two of my newfound “companions” nearly coming to blows over a couple of square feet of lakeside real estate. Ahhh, the joys of communing with nature.

Channeling Lewis and Clark

The original plan was to return to South Tufa the following morning, our last at Mono Lake. But hoping to avoid that morning’s train wreck, Jay and I spent the afternoon exploring the tangled network of overgrown, rutted dirt roads encircling the lake, searching for other possibilities. For sunset we ended up somewhere on the north shore, traipsing about a half mile through (first) volcanic sand and (ultimately) shoe-sucking mud to an absolutely empty beach. In the days before ubiquitous GPS capability, we knew finding that very spot again, in the dark, would be nearly impossible, but it was pretty clear that the potential out there was off the charts regardless of where we landed.

So, despite a weather forecast that called for cloudless (boring) skies and temperatures in the 20s, on our final morning we rose dark and early and bounced behind my headlights through the sagebrush, in the general direction of yesterday’s discovery. When we found a spot wide enough to park we grabbed our gear and set out in the general direction of the lake, with no idea where we were or whether we’d made a mistake attempting this new location.

The eastern horizon was just starting to brighten as we slogged up to the lakeshore. Absolute calm had smoothed the lake to glass; from the Sierra crest behind us a formation of clouds had started to advance overhead. As the light came up the clouds continued their forward march, eventually spreading a herringbone pattern from horizon to horizon. Somehow we’d inadvertently stumbled upon the convergence of location and conditions photographers dream about.

The image you see here came fairly late in the shoot, after the sun crested the horizon. I used a 3-stop graduated neutral density filter to hold the brightness back to a manageable level, underexposing the sky even further to prevent the exquisite color from being washed out. This image has become one of my most popular, even gracing the cover of my book of images, “The Undiscovered Country.” But every time I look at it, I think first of that morning that never would have happened had we simply settled for the conventional choice.

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