What’s the Story?

 

Moonrise Through the Trees, Yosemite
Sony a6300
Sony 100-400 GM
Sony 2x teleconverter
Breakthrough neutral polarizer
ISO 400
f/16
1/200 second

Let’s have a show of hands: How many of you have been advised at some point in the course of your photographic journey to “tell a story with your images”? Okay, now how many of you actually have a clue as to what that actually means? That’s what I thought. Many photographers, with the best of intentions, parrot the “tell a story” advice simply because it sounded good when they heard it, but when pressed further, are unable tell you what they mean.

Telling a story with a photo is easier when photographers can physically stage subjects and light to suit their objective (an art in itself), or in journalistic photography intended to distill the the essence of an instant with a connection to an easily inferred chronology: a homeless man feeding his dog, dead fish floating in the shadow of belching smokestacks, or a wide-receiver spiking a football in the end zone.

This isn’t to say that we landscape photographers can’t tell stories with our images, or that we shouldn’t try. Nor does it mean that one photographic form is inherently more or less creative than another. It just means that the rules, objectives, advantages, and limitations differ from form to form. Nevertheless, simply advising a landscape photographer to tell a story with her images is kind of like a coach telling a pitcher to throw strikes, or a teacher instructing a student to spell better. Okay, fine—now what?

Finding the narrative

First, let’s agree on a definition of “story.” A quick dictionary check reveals that a story is “a narrative, either true or fictitious … designed to interest, amuse, or instruct….” Okay, that works.

The narrative part is motion. Your pictures need it. Narrative motion isn’t simply the motion of the eyes through the frame (also important), it’s a connection that pulls a viewer into and through a frame, and compels him to stay. While narrative motion happens organically in media consumed over time, such as a song, novel, movie, or even a YouTube video, it can only be implied in a still photograph. And unlike the arranged or journalistic photography mentioned above, landscape photographers are tasked with reproducing a static world as we find it—another straightjacket on our narrative options. But without some form of narrative motion, we’re at a dead end story-wise. What’s a photographer to do?

Photography as art

Every art form succeeds more for what happens in the mind of its consumer’s (the viewer or listener) than for the literal experience it delivers to the consumer’s five senses. Again: Every art form succeeds more for what happens in the mind of its consumer’s (the viewer or listener) than for the literal experience it delivers to the consumer’s five senses. A song that doesn’t evoke emotion, or a novel that doesn’t paint mental pictures, it’s soon forgotten. And just as readers of fiction unconsciously fill-in the visual blanks with their own interpretation of a scene, viewers of a landscape image will fill-in the narrative blanks with the personal stories the image inspires. In other words, an image should offer a place for the viewer’s own story to unfold.

Of course the story we’re creating isn’t a literal, “Once upon a time” or “It was a dark and stormy night” (much more appealing in photography than literature, I might add) story. Instead, the image we make must connect with our viewers’ stories to touch an aspect of their world (real or imagined): revive a fond memory; generate fresh insight into a familiar subject; vicarious living—to name just a few possible connections. If we offer images that complete these connections, we’ve given our image’s viewers a reason to enter, a reason to stay, and a reason to return. And most important, we’ve given them a catalyst for their internal narrative.

Shoot what you love (not what you think your audience will love)

Think about your favorite novels. While they might be quite different, I suspect one common denominator is a protagonist with whom you relate. I’m not suggesting that immediately upon finishing that book you hopped on a raft down the Mississippi River, or ran downtown to have a dragon tattooed on your back, but in some way you likely found some personal connection to Huck Finn or Lisbeth Salander that kept you engaged. And the better that connection, the faster the pages turned.

And so it is with photography: Our viewers are looking for a connection, a sense that there’s a piece of the photographer in the frame. Because we can’t possibly know what personal strings our images might tug in others, and because those strings will vary from viewer to viewer, our best opportunity for igniting their story comes when we share our own relationship with a scene and let viewers find their own connection.

What? Didn’t I just say that it’s the viewer’s story we’re after? Well, yes—but really what needs to happen is the viewers’ sense of  connection between our story and theirs. If you focus on photographing the scenes that most move you, those scenes (large or small) that might prompt you to nudge a loved-one and say, “Oooh, look at that!,” the more you’ll see and the greater your chance of establishing each viewer’s feeling of connection. Whether you’re drawn to towering mountains, crashing surf, delicate wildflowers, or prickly cactus, that’s where you’ll find your best images.

Where did you get those shoes?

The cool thing is that your viewer doesn’t need to understand your story; she just needs to be confident that there is indeed a story. That’s usually accomplished by avoiding cliché and offering something fresh (I know, easier said than done). For some reason this makes me think of Steely Dan lyrics, which rarely made sense to me, but always felt fresh and I never for a second doubted that they did indeed (somehow) make sense to Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. In other words, rather than becoming a distraction, Steely Dan’s lyrics were a source of intrigue that pulled me in and held me. So when I hear:

I stepped up on the platform 

The man gave me the news

He said, You must be joking son 

Where did you get those shoes?

I’m not bewildered, I’m intrigued. Steely Dan’s lyrics aren’t trying to tap my truth, they simply reflect their truth (whatever it might be). And even though I have no idea what he’s talking about, the vivid mental picture those lyrics conjure (which may be entirely different, though no more or less valid, than your or his mental picture) allows me to feel a connection. You, on the other hand, may feel absolutely nothing listening to “Pretzel Logic,” while “I Want To Put On My My My My My Boogie Shoes” gives you goosebumps for KC and the Sunshine Band. Different strokes….

Returning from the abstract to put all this into photographic terms, the more your images are true to the world as it resonates with you, and the less you pander to what you think others want to see, the greater the chance your viewer’s story will connect with yours.

For example

Moonrise Through the Trees, Yosemite

Few things in Nature get my heart racing more than the first sliver of silver light heralding the moon’s arrival. With the moon’s appearance comes a sudden release of building anticipation and the frantic

On this evening last March I knew about where the moon would appear, and about when that would be, but with the time approaching and my eyes locked on the anticipated spot, the doubts started to rise. Did I get the angle right? Is that ridgeline higher than I figured? Where did those clouds come from? (It goes like this every time.)

And then there it was. I’d pointed my Sony a6300 (1.5 crop sensor for extra magnification), mounted my Sony 100-400 GM lens and Sony 2x teleconverter, at the spot on the ridge I thought most likely for the moon to appear. I was pretty close, but this was not time for self congratulation. To juxtapose the moon with the two trees I’d picked for my foreground I had to shift about 20. My favorite big moon shots are when some part of the moon still touches some part of the horizon, so my window of opportunity was shrinking fast. And you ever want to appreciate how fast the moon moves across the sky, try photographing it with an extreme telephoto lens. By the time I was moved and recomposed, the moon was already half exposed and rising fast. I managed just a handful of frames before it crested the trees and I switched to a wider lens for a completely different shot.

About 15 minutes later, after the clouds had moved in



Tree at Sunset, McGee Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Tree at Sunset, McGee Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra

My own story of this solitary, ridge-top tree involved a frantic rush to capture a beautiful but rapidly fading sunset. I was with my brother on a dirt road in the Eastern Sierra. I’d been on this road many times and knew this tree well. Despite its rather ordinary appearance, the tree’s solitary perch atop a barren, rocky ridge had always intrigued me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of a home with a sweeping view, and envied this tree’s perpetual 360 view of the Sierra crest to the west, the White Mountains to the east, and Crowley Lake below.

As the sunset started to materialize that evening, I realized that we were close enough that I might be able to include the tree in the sunset shoot. We hustled my truck back down the road, pulling into to a wide spot beneath the ridge several minutes after the best color had faded. Jay, who had no personal connection to “my” tree, stayed in the truck while I sprinted along the road with my camera and tripod until my position aligned  the tree with the final, rippled vestiges of sunset. I only clicked a couple of frames, slightly underexposed to hold the color. (The slight blue cast is the color of the twilight light.)



Sunset, McWay Fall, Big Sur

Sunset, McWay Fall, Big Sur

The humorous events leading up to this sunset at McWay Fall in Big Sur are nowhere to be found in the frame. Nevertheless, even after visiting this spot more times than I can count, I have a very personal connection to this moment in particular. There’s power in a plunging waterfall and crashing surf, and promise in the sun’s appearance above an infinite horizon.

An early arrival allowed lots of time to connect with the scene, enabling me to anticipate the moment the sun burst from the clouds and balance it in the frame with McWay Fall. The position of the leading wave is no accident either—had I allowed it to reach the bottom of the frame before I clicked my shutter, it would have created a white line exiting the frame, taking your eyes right with it. That small strip of sand at the bottom of the image becomes a virtual frame that holds you in the scene. The rest is up to you.

*   *   *   *

Those are my stories, and while they’re personally satisfying, I have no illusions that all of that comes across to the viewer. I’ve displayed these prints in many shows and watched people walk right by without breaking stride. But I’ve also been delighted each time someone stops, peers closer, lingers, and ersometimes returns lat. While I have no idea what “story” my images tap in those people, I don’t believe it really matters.

Workshop Schedule || Purchase Prints



A gallery of personal favorites (each with its own story)

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

 

Get out of the way (and let the scene speak for itself)

Gary Hart Photography: Nightfall, Full Moon and Yosemite Valley, Yosemite

Nightfall, Full Moon Above Yosemite Valley, Yosemite
Sony a7R III
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
1/6 second
F/10
ISO 100

As aggressively as I seek creative ways to express nature with my camera, and as important as I think that is, sometimes a scene is so beautiful that it’s best to just get out of the way and let the scene speak for itself. I had one of those experiences last month at Tunnel View in Yosemite.

There’s a reason Tunnel View is one of the most photographed vistas in the world: El Capitan, Half Dome, Cathedral Rocks, Bridalveil Fall—each would be a landscape icon by itself; put them all together in one view and, well…. But the view this evening was truly transcendent, even by Yosemite standards. In Yosemite Valley below, trees and granite still glazed with the snowy vestiges of a departing storm seemed to throb with their own luminance. And above Half Dome a full moon rose through a sky that had been cleansed of all impurities by the departing storm, an otherworldly canvas of indigo, violet, and magenta.

On these crystal-clear, winter-twilight moonrises, the beauty rises with the moon, reaching a crescendo about 20 minutes after sunset, after which the color quickly fades and the landscape darkens. Unfortunately, a some point before the crescendo, the dynamic range becomes so extreme that no camera (not even the dynamic range monster Sony a7RIII) can simultaneously extract usable detail from a daylight-bright moon and dark landscape.

I’d driven to Yosemite solely to photograph this moonrise, an eight hour roundtrip for 40-minutes of photography. Starting with the moon’s arrival about 20 minutes before sunset, I’d juggled three camera bodies and two tripods, first shooting ultra long, then gradually widening to include more of the snowy landscape. Already my captures had more than justified the time and miles the trip would cost me, but watching the moon traverse the deepening hues of Earth’s shadow, I wasn’t ready to stop.

I’ve learned that with a scene this spectacular, conveying the majesty doesn’t require me to pursue the ideal foreground, or do creative things with motion, light, or depth of field. In fact, I’ve come to realize that sometimes a scene can be so beautiful that creative interpretations can dilute or distract from the very beauty that moves me. On this evening in particular, I didn’t want to inject myself into that breathtaking moment, I just wanted to share it.

To simply my images, I opted for a series of frames that used tried-and-true compositions that I’d accumulated after years (decades) of photographing here, the compositions I suggest as “starters” for people who are new to Yosemite, or use myself to jump-start my inspiration: relatively tight horizontal and vertical frames of El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall; El Capitan and Half Dome; or Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall. In the image I share above I concentrated on Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall, capping my frame with the wispy fringes of a large cloud that hovered above Yosemite Valley.

Simplifying my compositions had the added benefit of freeing all of my (limited) brain cells to concentrate on the very difficult exposure. The margin for error when photographing a moon this far after sunset is minuscule—if you don’t get the exposure just right, there’s no fixing it in Photoshop later: too dark and there’s too much noise in the shadows; too bright and lunar detail is permanently erased. The problem starts with the understandable inclination to expose the scene to make the landscape look good on the LCD, pretty much guaranteeing that the moon will be toast. Compounding this problem is the histogram, which most of us have justifiably come to trust as the final arbiter for all exposures. But when a twilight moon (bright moon, dark sky) is involved, even the histogram will fail you because the moon is such a small part of the scene, it barely (if at all) registers on the histogram.

Rather than the histogram, for these dark sky moon images I monitor my LCD’s highlight alert (“blinking highlights”), which is usually the only way to to tell that the moon has been overexposed. If the moon is flashing, I know I’ve given the scene too much light and need to back off until the flashing stops—no matter how dark the foreground looks. This is where it’s essential to know your camera, and how far you can push its exposure beyond where the histogram and highlight alert warn you that you’ve gone too far.

When I’m photographing a full moon rising into a darkening sky, I push the exposure to the point where my highlight alert just starts blinking (only the brightest parts of the moon, not the entire disk, are flashing), then I give it just a little more exposure. I know my Sony a7RIII well enough to know that I can still give it a full stop of light beyond this initial flash point and still recover the highlights later. The shadows? In a scene like this they’ll look nearly black, a reality my histogram will confirm, but I never cease to be amazed by how much detail I can pull out of my a7RIII’s shadows in Lightroom and Photoshop.

I continued shooting for several minutes after this frame, and discovered later that even my final capture contained usable highlights and shadows. I chose this image, captured nearly five minutes before I quit, because it contained the best combination of color, lunar detail, and clean (relatively noise-free) Yosemite Valley.

Photograph next year’s February full moon in my Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop

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Letting Nature Speak for Itself

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show

 

 

 

Thinking Inside the Box

Winter Moonrise, Full Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a6300
Sony 100-400 GM
Sony 2x teleconverter
ISO 200
f/11
1/400 second

Roll over, Ansel

Several years ago, while thumbing through an old issue of “Outdoor Photographer” magazine, I came across an article on Lightroom processing. It started with the words:

“Being able to affect one part of the image compared to another, such as balancing the brightness of a photograph so the scene looks more like the way we saw it rather than being restricted by the artificial limitations of the camera and film is the major reason why photographers like Ansel Adams and LIFE photographer W. Eugene Smith spent so much time in the darkroom.”

While it’s true that Ansel Adams and W. Eugene Smith were indeed darkroom masters, statements like this only perpetuate the myth that the photographer’s job is to reproduce the scene “the way we saw it.” And because I imagine that using Ansel Adams himself to peddle this notion must send Ansel rolling in his grave, I’ll start by quoting the Master himself:

  • “When I’m ready to make a photograph, I think I quite obviously see in my mind’s eye something that is not literally there in the true meaning of the word.”
  • “Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative art.”
  • “Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships!”

Do these sound like the thoughts of someone lamenting the camera’s “artificial limitations” and photography’s inability to duplicate the world the “way we saw it”? Take a look at just a few of Ansel Adams’ images and ask yourself how many duplicate the world as we see it: nearly black skies, exaggerated shadows and/or highlights, and skewed perspectives that intentionally emphasize one subject over another, and on and on. And no color! (Not to mention the fact that every image is a two-dimensional rendering of a three-dimensional world.) Ansel Adams wasn’t trying to replicate scenes more like he saw them, he was trying to use his camera’s unique (not “artificial”) vision to show us aspects of the world he wanted us to see, qualities we might otherwise miss or fail to appreciate.

The rest of the OP article contained solid, practical information for anyone wanting to come closer to replicating Ansel Adams’ traditional darkroom techniques in the contemporary digital darkroom. But the assertion that photographers are obligated to photograph the world as they saw it baffles me.

You’ve heard me say this before

The camera’s vision isn’t artificial, it’s different. Dynamic range, focus, motion, and depth are all rendered differently in a camera than they are to the human eye. And while the human experience of any scene is 360 degrees, a still images is constrained by a rectangular box. Forcing images to be more human-like doesn’t just deny the camera’s unique ability to expand viewers’ perception of the world, it’s literally impossible. Which is why I’ve always felt that the best photographers are the ones who embrace their camera’s vision rather than trying to “fix” it.

For example, limiting dynamic range allows us to emphasize color and shapes that get lost in the clutter of human vision; a narrow range of focus can guide the eye and draw attention to particular elements of interest and away from distractions; and the ability to accumulate light over a photographer-controlled interval exposes color and detail hidden by darkness, and conveys motion in an otherwise static medium.

The box

But what about that rectangular box that constrains the world of a still image? I can think of no better way to excise distractions and laser-focus viewers’ attention on the target subject than taking advantage of the camera’s finite world. While many nature photographers default to their wide angle lenses to expand the visual box surrounding their landscape images and save their long lenses for wildlife, a telephoto lens is an essential landscape tool. The world can be a busy place—in even the most spectacular of vistas, so much is happening visually that going wide in a still photo to include as much beauty as possible introduces many extraneous features, and risks shrinking the scene’s most compelling elements to virtual insignificance.

The best way to overcome wide angle scene dilution is to forego the conventional view (the first thing everyone sees), identify the aspects of the scene that make it special, and isolate them with a telephoto lens. Whether it’s a striking mountain or tree, backlit poppy, or rising moon, isolation enlarges the target subject and removes any ambiguity about what the image is about. And an intimate, up-close perspective of a subject more commonly seen from a distance can be truly mesmerizing.

About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Moonrise, Half Dome, Yosemite

Winter Moonrise, Half Dome, Yosemite

I stood atop two feet of packed snow at Tunnel View, more than eight miles from Half Dome, and ten miles from the ridge that would be ground zero for the moonrise that had drawn me in the first place. Along with two other photographers who also seemed aware of the moon’s plans, I had the best (least obstructed) Tunnel View vantage point to myself. Rising full moon or not, before me the table was set for a spectacular Yosemite feast: Brand new snow glazed every exposed surface, and in the pristine winter air, Tunnel View’s veritable who’s who of Yosemite landmarks—El Capitan, Cloud’s Rest, Half Dome, Sentinel Rock, Sentinel Dome, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall—seemed etched into the scene. Above, dark clouds boiled atop El Capitan, while wispy fog radiated from the valley floor.

Occasionally a tourist would wander up and request help identifying Horsetail’s microscopic filament on El Capitan’s vast granite; one or two even pointed at Bridalveil Fall and asked if that was Horsetail Fall. A couple of people, blissfully oblivious to the Horsetail Fall phenomenon, simply wanted their picture taken with this iconic Yosemite backdrop.

About 150 feet down the wall to my right, at least two-dozen photographers on tripods were inexplicably crammed into a significantly less desirable view. While that vantage point gave them an acceptable sightline to Horsetail Fall (as did my own), the rest of the magnificent Tunnel View vista was partially obscured by trees. The only explanation I could muster for their odd choice was that the first to arrive for some reason set up there, and each subsequent photographer assumed that since others have set up here, this must be the spot.

While Horsetail Fall was irrelevant to my objective this evening, the overnight snow still clinging to the trees was undeniable bonus. Getting to Tunnel View had been an adventure, worse even than I’d expected, and I was glad that I’d allowed ample time. The difficulty started with a 30-minute (Horsetail Fall gawker infused) queue at the Arch Rock entrance station. My suspicion that these were mostly inexperienced photographers and tourists (who’d just read an article or seen a news segment and decided to check it out) was confirmed when I was forced to navigate a slalom course of slipping, sliding, spinning cars that had ignored the very clearly communicated chain controls. The serious photographers, those who had photographed Horsetail Fall before, or who had the sense to research the phenomenon well in advance, had been in position for the five-minute show for hours.

With the moon’s imminent arrival upon a scene that already bordered on visual overload, my plan to ensure that the main purpose of my visit didn’t get swallowed by Tunnel View’s conventional post-storm majesty was to start, while the moon was still right on the horizon, with extremely tight compositions. As the moon rose, I planned to widen my focal length, gradually including more scene and turning the moon into more of an accent.

To achieve this, I was flanked by two tripods, and had three camera bodies fired up and ready for action: my Sony a7RIII, a7RII, and a6300. Atop my Really Right Stuff TVC-24L tripod was my a6300 loaded with my Sony 100-400 GM and Sony 2X teleconverter. This combination gave me a 600-1200mm full-frame equivalent focal range (because the a6300 is a 1.5-crop APS-C sensor). When including the rising moon required reducing my focal length below 800mm, I’d switch to my higher resolution, full frame Sony a7RII. And because the moon would rise just about 20 minutes before sunset, I also had to be aware of the possibility that Horsetail Fall would fire up. To handle that possibility, and to cover all my general wide composition needs, mounted on my RRS TQC-14 tripod was my Sony a7RIII and Sony 24-105 f/4 lens.

I pointed my a6300/100-400 at the point where I expected the moon to appear about 20 minutes before sunset, zoomed all the way out to 800mm (1200mm full-frame equivalent), metered, focused, and waited. I started clicking almost immediately after seeing the moon’s leading edge nudge through the trees, refining my composition slightly after each click until I had the right balance of moon and Half Dome. It always surprises me how quickly the moon moves, speed that’s magnified tremendously at such an extreme focal length. Spending the next 40 minutes frantically changing focal lengths, switching lenses and camera bodies, re-metering and re-focusing, and bouncing between tripods, I felt like the percussionist in a jazz band.

When the moon climbed far above Yosemite Valley and the dynamic range between the daylight-bright moon and nighttime landscape made photography impossible, I paused before packing up my gear and just marveled at the beauty. Horsetail Fall had caught a few late rays of sunlight but never did completely light up. I thought about the disappointment of frigid photographers who had waited patiently in the valley below for a show that didn’t happen, and counted my blessings.

Photograph next year’s February full moon in my Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop


Isolation Sensation

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

Just a Pinch of Moon

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Moonrise Reflection, Bridalveil Fall, Valley View, Yosemite

Sunset Moonrise Reflection, Bridalveil Fall, Valley View, Yosemite
Sony a7RIII
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
1/13 second
F/11
ISO 100

A couple of  weeks ago I wrote about how to photograph the moon big, the bigger the better, to overcome its tendency to (appear to) shrink in a wide angle image. But the moon doesn’t need to be big to be a striking addition to a landscape photo.

To balance a landscape frame, I think in terms of “visual gravity” (or “visual weight”): how much the scene’s various elements might pull the viewer’s eye. Unlike conventional gravity, which is a constant determined by an object’s mass (period, end of story), visual gravity is a more subjective quality that is a function of the characteristics of an object, such as its size, brightness, contrast, or color. Thinking in terms of the visual gravity of the various elements in my scene, I (usually) try to avoid any hemisphere of the frame feeling significantly heavier than its corresponding hemisphere (top/bottom, left/right).

Certainly any object as bright (and contrasty) as the moon will pull the eye. But after noticing that many objects at least as bright or contrasty as the moon somehow lack the moon’s ability to pull the eye, I realized I’d been missing an essential component of visual gravity: emotional connection. There is just something about the emotional pull of the moon that draws the human eye far more than its more tangible physical qualities might suggest.

For years I’ve tried to leverage the moon’s emotional weight, using it to elevate a relatively ordinary scene, or to add a simple accent that takes an already beautiful scene to the next level. Last month I got just such an opportunity at Valley View in Yosemite. This was the first night of my annual Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop. I’d planned moonrises for the other three nights of the workshop, but hadn’t really plotted the first night because the moon would be so high at sunset, and during the moon’s twilight “sweet spot” (when the sky is dark enough for good contrast, but the landscape still has enough light to photograph) the moon wouldn’t align with Half Dome from any of Yosemite Valley’s Half Dome vantage points.

Nevertheless, I chose Valley View for sunset knowing that the moon might make a nice accent above Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Fall. As soon as we arrived it was clear the conditions had aligned for us on this chilly December evening. In the distance Bridalveil Fall disappeared into a blanket of dense fog hovering above Bridalveil Meadow, while the moon mingled with wispy clouds in the twilight pastels overhead. And at our feet, the Merced River made a perfect mirror.

I knew that capturing all this beauty required a fairly wide composition that would certainly shrink the moon. Because a horizontal composition that included the moon and its reflection would have to be so wide that would shrink everything (and include a lot of less interesting foreground trees), I opted for a vertical composition that emphasized the scene’s primary elements: the moon, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall.

For this shot I went wide with my Sony 24-105 G lens on my Sony a7RIII body. Once I had the general arrangement of my frame worked out, I moved along the riverbank until everything felt balanced. I used the trees on the left to block the empty sky, and the trees on the right to balance them. And I’ve always liked the small diagonal tree a little left of center, and think in this composition it makes a good counterbalance for the visual weight of Bridalveil Fall.

Is the moon the primary subject the way it would likely be in a telephoto image? Certainly not. I know some people might think the moon is too small in this composition, but for someone like me, with a lifelong relationship with the night sky, the moon makes a perfect accent. And in this image I think just that little pinch of moon is enough to balance a frame that would otherwise be a little heavy on the left.


Lunar Accents

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Winter Moonrise

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Moon, Half Dome, Yosemite

Winter Moonrise, Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7RIII
Sony 100-400 GM
Sony 2x teleconverter
ISO 100
f/11
1/25 second

With a wide variety of spectacular and diverse east-facing views, I can think of no better place to photograph a moonrise than Yosemite. I especially like the December full moon because it aligns so well with Half Dome, not just on the night it’s full, but on the nights leading up to the full moon.

When I realized that this year’s December full moon was so close to Christmas, I almost didn’t schedule my annual Yosemite Winter Moon workshop, but then I figured that since I’ll be there anyway, I may as well. I’m so glad I did—the workshop filled, and the skies were clear enough (never a sure thing in December) that we photographed the moon on three of the workshop’s four nights, culminating in a very special moonrise to wrap up the workshop (a topic for a future blog post).

The closer it is to full, the closer to sunset the moon rises, arriving several hours before sunset a few days before it’s full, then a little later each evening before rising right around sunset on the full moon day. Since a waxing (increasing in fullness) moon is always higher at sunset than it will be the next day, with a little planning, it’s possible to time several consecutive days’ shoots to coincide with the moon rising right around sunset. For this year’s workshop I’d planned three sunset moonrises for my group, each (more or less) aligning the moon and Half Dome, getting farther from Half Dome each day.

About this image

While the first of my planned moonrise shoots was Wednesday, when the moon rose above the flat horizon about two hours before sunset, the horizon in Yosemite is anything but flat. I took my group to a favorite location beside the Merced River on Yosemite Valley’s east side, less than three miles from Half Dome, where the relatively steep view angle to the top of Half Dome means that it takes the moon a couple of hours to climb into view here.

Though not labeled on the map, this spot isn’t a secret to photographers, so I arrived about 45 minutes early, partly to allow everyone time to prepare, but also to ensure that we wouldn’t need to battle anyone else for position. I told everyone that the moon would appear at around 4:30 from directly above the top of Half Dome, and suggested that they be ready with their compositions beforehand.

My own composition had been planned long in advance—having photographed more than my share of moonrises from this wide angle location, I decided on an extreme telephoto approach this time. I added my Sony 2X teleconverter to my Sony 100-400 GM lens, mounted the pair on my tripod, and attached my (full frame) Sony a7RIII. I pointed my 800mm of focal length at Half Dome’s summit and waited. <Continues below>

Prior Moonrises From This Location

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I never tire of seeing the glow of the moon’s leading edge peak above the horizon, and this evening was no exception. When the moon nudged into view, the sounds of chatter and laughter were instantly replaced by clicking shutters. Watching the moon grow in my viewfinder, I adjusted my composition slightly before each click. When the moon gained separation from the granite to become fully visible, I panned slowly to the right and saw that with the right framing it would appear nestled into a subtle bowl-shaped curve atop Half Dome and locked in a composition that would last for a few minutes as the moon continued its ascent. A thin wisp of cloud scooted through the scene as I clicked this frame, lit by the day’s final rays.

One more thing

Looking at the distant world at 800mm reveals previous invisible detail. So once I’d settled on a composition that I could stick with for a few clicks, I allowed my eye wander the frame and noticed dangling icicles lining Half Dome’s rim. I continue to be blown away by the sharpness of the Sony 100-400; not only is this lens unbelievably sharp, I literally cannot tell a difference when I pair it with the Sony 2X teleconverter.

Next Year’s Yosemite Winter Moon Photo Workshop

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Yosemite Moons

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Shoot the Moon

Gary Hart Photography: Yosemite Silhouette, Crescent Moon w/El Capitan and Half Dome

Yosemite Silhouette, Crescent Moon With El Capitan and Half Dome
Canon EOS 1DS Mark III
4 seconds
400 mm
ISO 400
F8

Nothing draws the eye quite like a large moon, bright and bold, with a striking foreground. But something happens when you try to photograph the moon—somehow a moon that looks to the eye like you could reach out and pluck it from the sky, shrinks to a small white speck in a photo.

While a delicate accent of moon is great when properly framed above a nice landscape, most people like their moons BIG. The trick isn’t photographing a large moon, it’s photographing a large moon with a nice landscape.

Bigger is better

Crescent or full, the moon will be as big as the focal length you choose—photograph it at 16mm and the moon registers as a tiny dot; photograph it at 600mm and your moon dominates the frame.

But a landscape image with a large moon requires more than just a long focal length. If big was all that mattered, you could attach your camera to a telescope, point skyward, and get a huge moon. But without a landscape to go with your huge moon, no one would know whether you took the picture standing on a beach in Hawaii, atop a glacier in New Zealand, or beside the garbage cans in your driveway.

“Big moon” is a subjective label, but I usually won’t use it unless I can photograph the moon at 200mm or longer. And while a 200mm lens is okay, the moon doesn’t really start to jump out of the frame for me until I approach 400mm.

My go-to big moon lens is my Sony 100-400 GM because it provides good magnification along with focal length wiggle-room for pulling back when I need to fit a foreground subject that’s a little too close. A telephoto zoom also provides focal length flexibility that allows you to balance your composition, or add variety with a series of different compositions. Of course you can always switch lenses mid-shoot, but you don’t fully appreciate how fast the moon is moving in the sky until you try to align it with a terrestrial subject in a telephoto composition.

When I want a moon even bigger than 400mm gives me, I add a 2X teleconverter and voilà, I’m at 800mm. Bigger still? Out comes my 1.5-crop body and I’m zoomed all the way to a 1200mm equivalent.

Distance yourself

Often the most difficult part of including a large moon with a specific landscape subject is finding a vantage point far enough back to fit the subject and the moon. But the farther back from your foreground subject you can position yourself, the longer the focal length you can use, and the bigger the moon will be.

For example, I love photographing a big moon rising behind Half Dome in Yosemite. But at Yosemite’s popular east-side locations, even 200mm is too close to get the moon and all of Half Dome in my frame. And while Yosemite’s most distant east-facing Half Dome vistas are up to 10 miles away, Half Dome is large so that even at that distance the longest focal length that will include the moon and all of Half Dome isn’t much more than 400mm.

A little easier for me is including a big moon with smaller foreground objects like a prominent tree. Near my home in Northern California are rolling hills topped by solitary oaks that make perfect moon foregrounds when I can shoot up so they’re against the sky. And since these trees are much smaller than Half Dome, even vantage points that are less than a mile away lets me zoom all the way up to 1200mm.

Depth of field

With subjects so far away, it’s easy to forget about depth of field. But extreme focal lengths mean extremely limited depth of field. Depth of field isn’t a concern when Half Dome is your closest subject and it’s ten miles distant, but when your foreground is an oak tree on a hill that’s a mile away, you absolutely need to consider the hyperfocal distance.

For example, at 800mm and f/11 (with a full frame sensor), the hyperfocal distance is about a mile-and-a-quarter (look it up)—focus on the tree and the moon will be soft; focus on the moon and the tree is soft. But if you can focus on something that’s a little beyond the tree, at maybe one-and-a-half miles away, the image will be sharp from front to back.

When I’m not sure of my subject distance, I estimate as best I can, focus on a point beyond my foreground subject, then review my image magnified to check sharpness. If my focus point is in my frame, great, but I won’t hesitate to remove my camera from the tripod to focus on something behind me that’s the right distance (if you do this, to prevent refocusing, be sure you use back-button focus or are in manual focus mode when you click your shutter). It’s always best to get the focus sorted out before the moon arrives, a good reason to arrive at a new location well in advance of the moon’s arrival.

Location, location, location

As your focal length increases, your compositional margin for error shrinks. You can’t expect to go out on the evening of a full or crescent moon, look to the horizon, and automatically put the moon in the frame with your planned foreground subject.

Even when the moon and your foreground do align, once the moon appears, you’ll only have a few minutes before it rises out of your telephoto frame. This means extreme telephoto images that include both the moon and a foreground subject are only possible when the moon is right on the horizon, making proper timing essential.

Like the sun, the moon traces a different path across the sky each day. This path changes with each lunar cycle (from full, to new, back to full); whether the moon is full or crescent, a location that perfectly aligns the moon and foreground one month will probably be nowhere close the next.

Coordinating all the moving parts (moon phase and position, foreground subject alignment, subject distance, and rise/set timing) requires some planning and plotting. When I started photographing the moon, in the days before smart phones and apps that do the heavy lifting, I had to refer to tables to get the moon’s phase and position in the sky, manually plot the alignment, then apply the Pythagorean theorem to figure the timing of the moon’s arrival above (or disappearance behind) the terrain.

Today there are countless apps that will do this for you. Apps like The Photographer’s Ephemeris and Photo Pills (to name just two of many) are fantastic tools that give photographers access to moonrise/set data for any location on Earth. There is a bit of a learning curve (so don’t wait until the last minute to plan your shoot), but they’re infinitely easier than the old fashioned way.

Plan ahead

When the moon is a small accent to a wide scene, it’s often enough to just show up on its full or crescent day and shoot it somewhere above your subject. But because the margin of error is so small, planning for a big moon image is best done months in advance.

I identify big-moon candidate locations near home and on the road, and am always on the lookout for more. My criteria are a prominent subject that stands out against the sky, with a distant east or west facing vantage point. Over the years I’ve assembled a mental database ranging from hilltop trees near home, to landscape icons like Half Dome, Mt. Whitney, and Zabriskie Point (Death Valley).

With my subjects identified, I do my plotting (I still do it the old fashioned way) and mark my calendar for the day I want to be there. That often means waiting close to a year for the alignment I want. And if the weather or schedule doesn’t cooperate, my wait can be longer than that.

About this image

<Some may recognize this from the horizontal version of this moonrise I’ve shared for years; I just processed this vertical version.>

A few years ago I scheduled a spring Yosemite workshop to coincide with a 3% crescent moon that I’d computed would slip into the narrow gap between El Capitan and Half Dome about 45 minutes before sunrise on our final morning. Though we were all at the same place, photographing the same thing, the true magic was simply being there to witness a special moment that probably won’t repeat for decades.

The afternoon before this moonrise, I brought the group to this spot on Big Oak Flat Road so they could familiarize themselves with the location and plan their compositions. During this preview someone asked exactly where the moon would rise, and I confidently blurted that it will appear in the small notch separating El Capitan and Half Dome, between 5:15 and 5:20 a.m. I’d never actually photographed a moonrise from this spot, and as I spoke to the group I became painfully aware of how small the opening is—even the slightest error in my plotting could find the moon blocked by El Capitan or Half Dome.

Sunday morning we departed dark and early (4:45 a.m.), full of anticipation. We arrived at Half Dome View a little after 5:00, early enough to enable everyone to set up their tripods, frame their compositions, and prepare their exposure settings. Then we waited, all eyes locked on the notch.

And then there it was, the slightest point of moonlight edging into that small gap between Yosemite’s iconic monoliths. Phew. The rest of the morning was a blur of shutter clicks and exclamations of delight.

Before the shared euphoria abated, I suggested to everyone that they take a short break from photography and simply appreciate that they’re probably witnessing the most beautiful thing happening on Earth at this moment (a feeling every nature photographer should experience from time to time). It’s always exciting to witness a moment like this, a breathtaking convergence of Earth and sky that may not occur again exactly like this in my lifetime. It’s even more rewarding when the event isn’t an accident, that I’m experiencing it because of my own effort, and that I get to share the fruit of my perspiration with others who appreciate the magic just as much as I do.

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Big Moon

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Tapping your inner Dorothy

Gary Hart Photography: Alone Together, Oak and Crescent Moon, Sierra Foothills, California

Alone Together, Oak and Crescent Moon, Sierra Foothills, California
Canon 1Ds Mark III
8/5 seconds
F/8.0
ISO 400
Canon 70-200 f/4 L

Spend enough time on Facebook and Instagram and you get a pretty good idea of what it takes to make a picture that generates attention. The unfortunate consequence is a photographic feedback loop, where one ostentatious image inspires more similarly ostentatious images, which inspire more…, well, you get the point. This uninspired feedback loop reminds me of top-40 music, where one groundbreaking success generates a flood of uninspired clones. Catchy tunes are fine for a few listens, but few possess staying power. Contrast that to the Beatles, who aggressively resisted repetition and pursued new sounds that the world has been listing to pretty much nonstop for more than 50 years.

Admittedly, few artists are blessed with the Beatles’ creative genius, but that’s no excuse to shortcut creativity. The same holds for photography: images that elicit a reflexive Like and Share from digital passersby, and maybe (if you’re lucky) a “Stunning!” in the comments section, are forgotten with the next click. But images that resonate on a personal level by revealing something unseen, or by touching a hidden place inside the viewer, not only stop people in their tracks, they grab them and don’t let go.

Of course this sounds great in theory, but how is it accomplished? If the answer were easy, we’d all be doing it. But like Dorothy and the Ruby Slippers, perhaps we’ve had the power all along.

Because most people long for a connection with the world around them—not simply a connection with nature, but more importantly a connection with kindred souls—a good place to start would be to give viewers of your images something of yourself to latch on to by concentrating on subjects that resonate with you.

My own photography took a huge leap forward when I started photographing simply to please myself. The more I pursue moments in nature that touch me personally, (as if by magic) the more unique, gratifying, and successful my images became. While my most personal images don’t please everyone, the people they do reach seem to feel a deeper connection than they do to my images intended to impress.

Familiarity is the first step toward intimacy. With many picturesque trees and hills to work with, on this evening (as with many shoots) my compositions started wider, but didn’t seem to be about anything. But as the moon fell and the light faded, the scene’s essence began to materialize.

So what moved me to this composition? At the time it was enough that the scene finally felt right. But given the benefit of time and introspection, even though the moon and tree share the same frame, each is isolated: the tree is grounded in its terrestrial world, while the moon soars in its celestial world.

I’m writing this at Starbucks, very much by myself, but in the company of a dozen or so other people similarly isolated at the center of their world. It occurs to me that the shared isolation of the tree and moon makes a great metaphor for the human experience.

On the other hand, maybe it’s just a pretty picture….

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A Gallery of Personal Connection

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