Posted on May 4, 2020
Some of the best things that have happened in my life would not have happened had something bad not happened first. Not only does this apply to life’s important things, like relationships and careers, I can also say the same thing about my photography.
In 2013, the politicians we Americans elected to serve us got in a pissing match about the budget and the public suffered. When they shut down the government, the workers who could least afford it lost their income, and people who had been planning vacations to our national parks had to cancel or find alternatives. I make my living conducting photo workshops in the national parks, so to say I was anxious about the government shutdown would be an understatement.
Because of the timing, the shutdown affected my friend Don Smith’s workshops even more that it affected mine—I lost one sunset shoot in my Eastern Sierra workshop (and simply replaced it with an alternate location), but Don lost the Grand Tetons the day before the start of his workshop there (and still managed to make it work with alternate locations just outside the park), and it looked he was going to lose his Arches/Canyonlands workshop too.
As many of you may know, Don and I sometimes trade off assisting each other’s workshops, and I was scheduled to help him in Arches/Canyonlands. Don wanted to find alternate locations for his Arches/Canyonlands group as he’d done in the Tetons, but a schedule conflict prevented him from traveling to Moab early to scout. With an opening in my schedule, I volunteered to do the advance scouting instead. I flew out a few days early and spent that extra time identifying options in areas surrounding the parks’ boundaries.
It turned out that while I was out there, the state of Utah paid the federal government to reopen their parks, so by the time the workshop started everything was back to business as usual. But because of that advance scouting trip, that only happened because of the government shutdown, Don was able to give his participants several really nice spots that would never have happened without the shutdown.
The highlight of the entire workshop was a trip to Monument Valley to photograph the full moon rising above The Mittens that would never had happened without the shutdown. I knew we’d have a full moon during this workshop and was looking for places to photograph it outside Arches and Canyonlands NPs. My first evening in Moab, on a whim I checked the sunset moonrise above The Mittens and realized it would align perfectly. Even though the drive from Moab to Monument Valley was 2 1/2 hours, Don and I thought this opportunity was too good to pass up. When we shared the opportunity with the rest of the group at the orientation, even though we now had access to Arches and Canyonlands and didn’t need to drive to Monument Valley, everyone was excited to do it.
We left early enough to allow the group to explore some of the beauty along the route, enjoy the loop drive through Monument Valley, and even have dinner at the spectacular (and aptly named) The View restaurant. And as you can see, the moonrise itself was a rousing success. All because our original plans were blown up by the national parks closure.
The moral of the story
I’m not saying that a global pandemic is a good thing, and certainly am not trivializing the true tragedies COVID-19 has brought. But I do believe that those of us not affected by extreme COVID loss can find comfort in the positives that come from an experience we can all agree feels quite negative. Here’s my list of things that have happened thanks to COVID that would not have happened with business as usual (in no particular order):
I can’t wait to return to “normal” (whatever that may be), to get out and photograph the nature I love so much and reconnect in person with my workshop students. But in the meantime I find comfort in the knowledge that in many ways I’ll be better for this experience. I hope you can say the same thing.
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Posted on April 29, 2020
True story: I once saw a guy taking 10-second exposures of the moonbow at the base of Yosemite Falls, hand-held. When I gently suggested that his image might be a little soft, he assured me that he would just sharpen it in Photoshop.
I won’t deny that digital capture and processing has given photographers more flexibility and control than ever, and processing can indeed correct a number of problems, but processing is not a panacea—if the image was garbage going in, it’ll be garbage going out. Processing software and skills are an essential part of good photography, but the best images are still created in the camera.
Just as Ansel Adams visualized the finished print before clicking the shutter, success in digital photography still starts with understanding how the camera’s vision differs from your own, and taking the steps necessary to leverage those differences at capture. While Adams was indeed a master in the darkroom, that skill would have been wasted without his intimate knowledge of his camera and film, combined with his understanding of exposure, that ensured the best possible negative and print once he got into the darkroom.
Of course (spoiler alert) photography has come a long way since Ansel Adams’ roamed the earth. Digital photographers now have more control than ever, and incredible capture tools that allow us to correct problems instantly. But I fear all this power has intimidated some photographers, and made others lazy. Fortunately, like many things that seem scary-complex going in, just scratching the surface a little starts to reveal a foundation of very simple principles.
One of the simplest things you can do is learn how to read a histogram, then train yourself to rely on it. It’s the relying on the histogram part where most photographers fall short. One of the most frequent mistakes I see inexperienced photographers make is basing their exposure decision on the way the picture looks on the back of their camera. The LCD is great for composition, but trusting it for exposure is a huge mistake.
Additionally, and here’s another thing that’s often overlooked: take the time to learn how your camera’s actual capture differs from what its histogram tells you. The histogram is based on a jpeg preview, but if you’re shooting raw, you almost always have more information than the histogram shows you. Each camera model is different, so you need to do a little observing or testing to determine how far you can push your camera’s histogram beyond its boundaries and still get usable data. Shooting this way, the jpeg that comes out of the camera may indeed show blown highlights or unrecoverable shadows, but they’ll come back like magic in Lightroom/Photoshop (or whatever your processing paradigm).
When I photographed this moon rising above Yosemite Valley last February, even though the color and exposure of the finished image you see here is pretty close to what my eyes saw, the image that appeared on my camera’s LCD screen looked nothing like this. The sky was washed out, and the reflection was lost in the shadows. But a quick check of my luminosity histogram told me that I’d captured all the scene’s detail, and verifying with the RGB histogram confirmed that I’d gotten all the color as well.
Usually a perfect histogram is all you need to get the exposure right, but in this case I also had make sure I had detail in the moon, which was by far the brightest thing in the scene. Normally I only use my camera’s highlight alert features (“zebras” pre-capture, blinking highlights post-capture) as a reminder to check my (nearly always more reliable) histogram, but here the moon was too small to register on the histogram. So as I added light, I closely monitored my highlight alert, bumping the exposure in 1/3-stop increments until the flashing appeared. But wait, there’s more! Just seeing the highlight alert wasn’t enough to tell me the moon was blown out. I know my Sony a7RIV well enough to know that I can push my exposure at least a stop beyond where the moon starts blinking and still recover the lunar details in post. This little piece of knowledge enables me to give my moon images the most light possible, ensuring less noise when I pull up the shadows.
In Lightroom I pulled down the highlights, pulled up the shadows, tweaked a few other things (color temperature, vibrance, clarity), then moved the image to Photoshop, where I did some noise reduction (Topaz DeNoise AI), dodging and burning, and (finally) sharpening. Voilà.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on February 13, 2020
About 15 years ago I pitched a moon photography article to a national photography magazine. I was declined because, according to the editor, “No one likes to photograph the moon because it looks too small in a picture.” While I respectfully disagree and in fact love using a small moon as an accent to my landscape scenes, that felt like a challenge to prove that it is possible to capture the moon BIG.
When I started plotting and photographing moonrises (long before The Photographer’s Ephemeris and PhotoPills), my longest lens was 200mm—adding a 100-400 to my bag was just a dream. When I finally got a good deal on a slightly used Canon 100-400 lens, I thought I was set for big-moon photography for life—until my friend Don Smith’s 150-600 lens gave me feelings of inadequacy. Soon I was packing a Tamron 150-600 lens. I liked the extra size my Tamron 150-600 gave my moons, and while found the images sharp enough to continue using the lens with an adapter after switching to Sony, when got my hands on the Sony 100-400 GM lens, I was so excited about that len’s sharpness with the Sony 2X Teleconverter, that I jettisoned the Tamron for good.
For a couple of years my standard big-moon setup was a Sony a7RIII and Sony 100-400 with the 2X Teleconverter, giving me 42 megapixel images and 800mm for the biggest, sharpest moon I’d ever photographed. Better still, putting the Sony 100-400 and 2X Teleconverter on my 1.5-crop Sony a6300, I was able to capture 24 megapixel files at a 1200mm equivalent. Wow, 1200 megapixels: Surely I’d achieved the zenith of my lunar supersizing aspirations. Nope.
… and now
Last year Sony released its 200-600 lens and the 61 megapixel a7RIV body. Since the APS-C (1.5x) crop on the a7RIV is 26 megapixels (2 megapixels more than the a6300), I dropped the a6300 from my moon shooting arsenal. In October I played with my new setup a little using a crescent moon in the Eastern Sierra, but I couldn’t wait to try it out on my favorite moon shoot of all: the Yosemite Tunnel View full moon.
Last Saturday night I assembled my Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop group on the granite above Tunnel View to wait for the moonrise I’d timed the workshop for. Sunset was 5:30, and I expected the moon to appear directly behind Cloud’s Rest between a little before 5:35, which meant the sky and landscape would already be starting to darken. The exposure for a post-sunset full moon is trickier than many people realize because capturing detail in both the daylight-bright moon and the rapidly fading landscape requires vigilant scrutiny of the camera’s histogram and highlight alert (blinking highlights). To get everyone up to speed, I used nearly full rising moons on the workshop’s first two nights to teach them to trust their camera’s exposure aids and ignore the image on the LCD (kind of like flying a plane on instruments). With two moonrises under their belts, by Saturday evening I was confident everyone was ready.
I was ready too. In my never-ending quest to photograph the moon as large as possible, I went nuclear—none of that wimpy-ass 200mm glass for me, for this moonrise I used every resource in my bag. I set up two tripods: mounted on one was my Sony a7RIII and 100-400 GM lens; on the other tripod was my Sony a7RIV and 200-600, doubled by the 2X teleconverter: 1200mm. But I wasn’t done. Normally I shoot full frame and crop later (for more compositional flexibility), but just for fun, on this night I decided to put my camera in APS-C mode so I could compose the scene at a truly ridiculous 1800mm—I just couldn’t resist seeing what 1800mm looked like in my viewfinder.
While waiting for the moon the group enjoyed experimenting with different compositions using the warm sunset light illuminating Half Dome and El Capitan. I used the time to test the focus at this unprecedented focal length. Waiting for an event like this with a group is one of my favorite things about photo workshops, and this evening was no exception. Between questions and clicks, we traded stories, laughed, and just enjoyed the spectacular view.
The brilliant sliver of the moon’s leading edge peaked above Cloud’s Rest at 5:33. It is truly startling to realize how quickly the moon moves through the frame at 1800mm, so everything after that was kind of a blur. Adjusting compositions and tweaking exposure and focus on two bodies, I felt like the percussionist in a jazz band, but I somehow managed to track the moon well enough to keep it framed in both cameras.
By the time the moon was about to clear Cloud’s Rest, the darkening sky had started to pink-up nicely—underexposing slightly to avoid blowing out the moon’s highlights enriched the color further. The image you see here is exactly what I saw in my viewfinder (not cropped in post-processing), a full 1800mm equivalent that nearly fills the frame top-to-bottom. After years of thinking I’ll never need a bigger lens, I know enough now not make that claim again, but I’m definitely satisfied (for now).
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Posted on September 8, 2019
This picture from last February features two beautiful photographic phenomena, one with (literally) thousands of cameras trained on it, the other virtually ignored. You might be surprised to learn that for most, the “main event” about to take place in this scene wasn’t the moonrise, it was the light on the thin stripe of waterfall trickling down the diagonal shoulder of El Capitan (the top is in shadow). But while (it seemed) virtually the entire photographic world was elbow-to-elbow in Yosemite Valley hoping for their shot at the day’s last light on Horsetail Fall, I was one of a half dozen or so photographers chilling at Tunnel View, waiting for the moon to rise.
When I’d arrived at Tunnel View and saw a herd of several dozen photographers already set up, I was initially heartened to think that so many photographers had foregone the Horsetail mayhem in favor of the moonrise. But why had they set up so far down the wall, behind trees that obstructed their view of Half Dome? It wasn’t hard to conclude that they weren’t there for the moon at all, they were there for Horsetail Fall. And as I waited for the moon, still more photographers showed up, and though there was plenty of room at spots with a far better view of the entire scene (including Horsetail Fall), every single new arrival crammed in to the scrum pointed at Horsetail Fall.
Photographing Horsetail Fall is kind of like dropping a quarter in a slot machine and hoping all the cherries line up: 1. Sun angle—the light’s right only at sunset for a couple of weeks in February (and October, when the fall is dry); 2. Snowmelt—no snowmelt, no waterfall; 3: Sunlight—all it takes is one cloud to block the sun and send everyone home disappointed. The jackpot? Some version of a picture that’s not much different from thousands (millions?) of other pictures.
Don’t get me wrong—the Horsetail Fall phenomenon is breathtaking, unique, and absolutely photo-worthy. But I do think that photographers, myself included, can be somewhat myopic when it comes to subject choice, deciding far too soon what “the” shot is and missing something even better as a consequence. And when they’re not sure what the shot is, instead of trusting their own vision, they just do what everyone else is doing.
We all could be a little better about considering photo opportunities beyond the obvious. Never is this more clear than in the image reviews in my photo workshops. In my image reviews everyone shares an image taken during the workshop (I project the image for all to see), and I offer constructive feedback. When I started doing workshops, I assumed that the prime benefit from the image reviews would be my “expert” critique, and while I like to think my suggestions do help, I didn’t anticipate how effective this image sharing is at conveying to everyone the unlimited possibilities each scene offers. We’re all photographing the same locations, but the variety of images always catches me off guard. In fact, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at a workshop student’s image and thought, wow, how did I miss that?
It turns out the photographers who locked in on Horsetail this evening were disappointed. A rogue cloud, low in the west and unseen from Yosemite Valley, blocked the sun at just the wrong time. But that’s not the point—even if Horsetail Fall had lit up like red magma, there were other things to photograph in Yosemite that evening. And I wonder how many photographers would have opted to photograph the moonrise had they known about it.
I don’t share this image to pat myself on the back—I came to Yosemite specifically for this shot and didn’t really look for anything else. Therefore, it’s entirely possible that something even more special was happening behind me. (One reason I write these blogs is to remind myself of stuff like this.)
In life, we stop learning the instant we believe we have the answer. It’s equally true that photographers stop being creative the instant they “know” what the shot is. Our ability to grow as photographers is determined by our ability to open our eyes (and mind!) to the endless possibilities not yet visible.
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Posted on August 25, 2019
Think about how much our lives revolve around relationships: romance, family, friends, work, pets, and so on. They’re such a big part of human existence that it’s no wonder most of the significant compositional choices photographers make involve relationships between elements in our scenes, either to one another or to their environment.
A pretty sunset is nice, but a pretty sunset over the Grand Canyon especially nice. Likewise, why be satisfied with an image of mountain cascade when we can accent the scene with an autumn leaf? And wouldn’t that tree up there on the hill look great beneath a setting crescent moon? Conscious choice or not, these are all relationships—distinct elements connected in a shared moment.
Some photographers are better than others at creating relationships; some do it instinctively, seemingly pulling relationship from thin air no matter where they are to find a nearby tree that perfectly complements a distant peak; others are more calculating, identifying the potential for a future relationship and taking the steps to be there when it happens—a moonrise, the Milky Way, or a rainbow. Most photographers fall somewhere on the continuum connecting these two extremes. And contrary to what you might read online or hear in your camera club, there is no single “best” approach to creating photographic relationships.
The more we can think in terms of finding relationships in nature, adding that extra element to our primary subject, or finding multiple elements and organizing them, through positioning and framing, in a way that guides the eye through the frame, the more our images will connect on a subconscious level that draws people closer and holds them longer.
Yosemite visitors burst from the darkness of the Wawona Tunnel like Dorothy stepping from her monochrome farmhouse into the color of Oz. This is Tunnel View, a veritable who’s-who of Yosemite icons chock full of ready-made relationships for photographers to feast on: El Capitan, Cloud’s Rest, Half Dome, Sentinel Rock, Sentinel Dome, Cathedral Rocks, Leaning Tower, and Bridalveil Fall. That’s a lot of stuff to take in without a camera, so it’s easy, especially for first-time or infrequent visitors, to just snap a picture of the whole thing and call it good.
If you keep the camera out a little longer, or visit Tunnel View a few times, relationships within the relationships start to pop out: El Capitan and Half Dome, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall, Bridalveil Fall and Cathedral Rocks, and so on. But as nice as these combinations are, Yosemite’s truly special stuff doesn’t happen until the conditions cooperate by serving up a clearing storm, rainbow, fresh snow, or rising moon.
I’m fortunate to live close enough to Yosemite to time visits with the idea of adding these little extras to my images. Some of these trips come up at the last minute, spurred by a weather forecast that promises snow or lightning. Other trips I can plan months or years in advance, based on where the sun, moon, or stars will be, or maybe to catch a seasonal feature like fall color. These are the visits that I usually time my Yosemite workshops for: light on Horsetail Fall in February, a moonbow or the dogwood bloom in spring, fall color each autumn, or a rising full moon in winter.
About this image
My goal this December evening a few years ago was a nearly full (96%) moon rising through the twilight hues above Half Dome. It had been on my calendar for over a year, but thanks to a winter storm, the main event was in doubt when I arrived. Fortunately, the clouds soon relented, parting just as the sky started to pink up. As a bonus, the departing storm left the valley floor glazed with a treetop hugging mist. (Talk about an embarrassment of riches.)
When I photograph a scene with so much going on, I first decide the feature or features to highlight—which brings me back to the relationship thing. The entire scene this evening, from El Capitan on the left to Leaning Tower on the right, was beautiful, but I knew the more of it I included, the smaller the moon became—and to me the moon was the star of this show.
When assembling elements in any composition, I start by identifying the objects with visual weight—the objects that will draw viewers’s eyes. Contrast, mass, color, position all play a role in determining visual weight. In this case I identified the moon, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall (in that order). Sometimes I can adjust these obects’ relationships to each other by strategic positioning—moving left/right, forward/backward, up/down—but here I was perched on a cliff behind the conventional Tunnel View vista, which limited my mobility.
Evaluating the scene, pretty much everything I wanted in this image was between Half Dome and Cathedral Rocks. I quickly decided that a vertical composition would be best to feature the color in the sky and fog on the valley floor without going wider than necessary. And while I’d normally try to avoid having the two “heaviest” objects on the same side of my frame (the moon and Half Dome), in this scene the right side of the frame had enough extra stuff to balance things. In addition to Bridalveil Fall, I also had bulky Cathedral Rocks and a solitary evergreen standing boldly against the fog.
My final decision was how to handle the nearby evergreen lurking on the right. To gain some separation between the tree and Bridalveil, I moved as far left as my surroundings allowed, enabling me to use the tree as a natural frame on the right border. Click.
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Posted on July 20, 2019
The memory of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon has personal significance to me. To honor the 50th anniversary of that achievement, I’m sharing an updated version of my story, first posted five years ago.
I had just turned 14. I was into baseball, chess, AM radio, astronomy, and girls—not necessarily in that order. Of particular interest to me in 1969 was the impending moon landing, a milestone I’d been anticipating since tales of American aerospace engineering ingenuity and our heroic astronauts started headlining the “Weekly Reader,” and my elementary school teachers began gathering the class around a portable TV to watch the latest Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo launch.
If you remember the 60s, you understand that the buzz surrounding each of these missions provided a unifying distraction from the divisive tension spurred by headlines of Vietnam casualties, anti-war demonstrations, Civil Rights clashes, and Communist paranoia. When President Kennedy promised to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade, so far in the future was that goal that in my mind he may just as well have said infinity. But as the decade drew to a close and the promise approached reality, I couldn’t devour enough information on the impending mission.
Unfortunately, without checking NASA’s schedule or asking for my input, my parents and three other couples they knew from graduate school decided mid-July 1969 would be the ideal time for our four families to join forces on a camping trip in the remote, television-free redwoods of Northern California. (“What could we possibly need a television for?”)
Apollo 11 was halfway to the moon when the Locher and Hinshaw families pulled up to our home in Berkeley (the Hardings, coming down from Eastern Washington, would meet us at the campground a couple of days later). The warm greetings exchanged by the adults were balanced by the cool introductions forced on the unfamiliar children.
We departed the next morning, caravan style, our cars connected by woefully inadequate walkie-talkies that we’d almost certainly have been better off without (I’m sure it had seemed like such a good idea at the time). I remember my dad keeping a safe distance behind the Hinshaws, as he was convinced that their borrowed trailer that seemed to veer randomly and completely independently of their car, would surely break free and careen into the woods on the next curve.
Somehow our three-car parade pulled safely into Richardson’s Grove State Park late that afternoon. In true sixties style, the three dads went immediately to work setting up campsites, and the moms donned aprons and combined forces on a community spaghetti dinner. Meanwhile, while the younger kids scattered to explore, the four teens, having only recently met and being far too cool for exploration or anything remotely resembling play, disappeared into the woods, ostensibly on a firewood hunt. Instead, we ended up wandering pretty much aimlessly, kicking pinecones and occasionally stooping for a small branch or twig, lingering just far enough from camp to avoid being drafted into more productive (and closely supervised) labor by the adults.
But just about the time we teens ran out of things not to do, we were relieved to be distracted by my little brother Jim rushing back into camp, breathless, sheet-white, and alone. We couldn’t quite decipher his animated message to the adults, but when we saw our dads drop their tarps and tent poles and rush off in Jim’s tracks toward the nearby Eel River, we were (mildly) curious (to be interested in anything involving parents was also very not cool). So, with feigned indifference, the four of us started wandering in the general direction of the river. Our path was blocked by a 50 foot, nearly vertical cliff that provided a clear view into the vortex of all the excitement. It was the instant of that shared view when I think we all ceased being strangers.
The scene before us could have been from a bad slasher movie: Flat on the ground and unmoving was 11 year-old Paul Locher; sitting on a rock, stunned, with a stream of blood cascading from his forehead, was Paul’s 10 year-old brother John. As disturbing as this sight was, nothing could compare to seeing father Don Locher orbiting his injured sons, dazed and covered in blood. The rest of this memory is a blur of hysterics, sirens, rangers, and paramedics.
It wasn’t until the father and sons were whisked away by ambulance to the small hospital in Garberville, about 10 miles away, that we were able to piece together what had happened. Apparently Paul and John, trying to blaze a shortcut to the river, miscalculated risk and had tumbled down the cliff. My brother at first thought they were messing with him, but when John showed him a rock covered with blood, he sprinted back to fetch the parents.
Conferring at the point where the kids had gone over, the fathers made a quick plan: My dad and Larry Hinshaw would rush back to to summon help, and to see if they could find a safer path down to the accident scene. Don would stay put and keep an eye on his sons. But shortly after my dad and Larry left, John had looked down at his brother cried, “Daddy, I can see his brains!” Hearing those words, Don panicked and did what any father would do—attempt to reach his boys. Thinking that a small shrub a short distance down would make a viable handhold, Don took a small step in its direction, reached for and briefly grasped a branch, lost his grip, and tumbled head-over-heals down to the river.
After what seemed like days but was probably only an hour or two, we were relieved to learn that John needed no more than a few stitches; he was back in camp with us that night. Paul had faired slightly worse, with a concussion and a nasty cut behind his ear—the “brains” his brother had seen was ear cartilage. Paul spent the night in the hospital and was back with us by the time the Harding clan arrived the following afternoon. Don, however, wasn’t quite so fortunate. In addition to a severe concussion, he had opened up his head so completely that over 150 stitches were required to zip things back together. Though Don spent several days in the hospital, we were all consoled by the understanding that it could have been much worse.
By Sunday, Don was feeling much better but was still a day or two from release to the dirt and fish guts of our four family campsite. Most of us had visited the hospital at one time or another in small, brief waves that honored the hospital’s visiting rules. I can’t say who first recognized the opportunity, but I’m guessing that Larry Hinshaw had something to do with convincing the nursing staff to look the other way when Don was suddenly host to 20 simultaneous visitors that night. Whatever magic was worked, I’ll forever remember Sunday evening, July 20, 1969, when our entire group shoehorned into a tiny hospital room to witness history on a tiny, black-and-white television screen.
Besides my parents and two brothers, the rest of the crew that night I’d only met just a few days earlier, but I can still name every single one of them. The relationships formed that week continue to this day. And so do the stories, which, like this story, are filled with some of the greatest joy I’ve ever experienced, and also with some of the greatest tragedy. But it’s this story in particular, the catalyst for all the stories that follow, that explains why the words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” have a very personal significance for me. Today it’s hard to look at the moon without remembering that hospital room and the emotional events that enabled me to witness Neil Armstrong’s historic first steps with those very special friends.
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show
Posted on June 9, 2019
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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Posted on March 3, 2019
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.
Posted on February 24, 2019
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:
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.
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
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.
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Posted on December 23, 2018
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>
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.