Putting the Gorge in Gorgeous

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Calm, Trout Lake and Mt. Adams, Washington

Sunset Calm, Trout Lake and Mount Adams, Washington
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1.3 seconds
F/11
ISO 100

I recently spent some time going through and processing a bunch of Columbia River Gorge images, from many years of visits, I haven’t had time to get to until now. This is the first of several I’ll be posting over the coming weeks.

The first time I visited the Columbia River Gorge, I couldn’t believe I’d lived my entire life without visiting here. For a landscape photographer, the Columbia River Gorge area has everything: lush forests, thundering waterfalls, majestic volcanoes, sparkling streams, and glassy lakes. It’s almost unfair that this year-round beauty is enhanced by the vivid colors of spring wildflowers and autumn foliage.

The Columbia River cuts a wide channel through lava flows that ended around 10 million years ago, leaving a layer of basalt that’s more than a mile thick. Basalt’s hardness is responsible for the gorge’s proliferation of waterfalls. Rather than eroding into gently sloping terrain as softer rock does, the basalt cliffs carved by the Columbia River maintain their verticality, creating resilient platforms that launch the numerous rivers and creeks that drain this saturated region. The result is waterfalls, lots and lots of waterfalls: Tall waterfalls, short waterfalls, wide waterfalls, skinny waterfalls, single waterfalls, multiple waterfalls, plummeting waterfalls, cascading waterfalls….

But it would be a mistake to assume that the Columbia River Gorge experience is all about waterfalls. Bookended by majestic volcanoes, the area surrounding the Gorge is a pastiche of rivers, streams, and lakes that are beautiful subjects by themselves, and as wonderful foreground material for whatever mountain happens to be in view.

On the Oregon (south) side of the Columbia River, Mount Hood towers over the picturesque orchards of the Hood River Valley. Across the river is Washington and its seemingly endless evergreen forests that unfold in the shadows of Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens.

Trout Lake is about a half hour north of the river on the Washington side. Technically not part of the Columbia River Gorge, Trout Lake is nevertheless part of the broader Columbia River Gorge experience. And while I wouldn’t call Trout Lake hidden, or particularly unknown, it’s far enough off the beaten path to avoid trampling by ogling tourists.

Filling with sediments that started their journey on or near Mount Adams, Trout Lake is on its way to becoming a meadow. Its relative shallowness makes it less likely to be disturbed by waves that spoil reflections reflections. While a reflection like the one in this image is far from a sure thing, neither is it a rare occurrence. They’re more common here in the calm air around sunrise, but as this picture illustrates, I’ve found reflections on Trout Lake at sunset too.

Filtered by thin clouds, the light this afternoon had been rather subdued—nice, but unspectacular. Sunset was similarly forgettable. But as I started to pack up, a whisper of pink in the previously bland clouds above Mount Adams gave me pause. Hmmm. Often this kind of color is just there to mess with me (you know what I’m talking about), but I paused to watch the color intensify, until finally I could no longer resist.

Without a lot of foreground options, and not much time to go hunting, I simply centered Mount Adams in the top third of the frame and used a solitary protruding rock to create a diagonal with a cinder cone to Mount Adams’ right. While perhaps not my most creative composition, the mountain, color, and reflection make this one of those moments in nature when it’s best for the photographer to get out of the way and just let the scene speak for itself.

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Celebrating the Columbia River Gorge

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The limitations of human vision

Gary Hart Photography: Wildflowers and Sunstar, Mt. Adams, Columbia River Gorge

Wildflowers and Sunstar, Mt. Adams, Columbia River Gorge
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
1/125 second
F/20
ISO 800

Visual “Truth” is more relative than real

“Is that the way it really looked?” What photographer hasn’t heard that question by skeptical viewers? For years I used to feel slightly defensive when answering, as if my honesty was in question. Now I simply try to educate the skeptic.

Without getting too philosophical, it’s important to understand that, like the camera’s, the human view of the universe is both limited and interpreted. In other words, there’s no such thing as absolute visual truth. Instead, we (you, me, and our cameras) each have our own view of the world that’s based on many factors, some we can control, others we can’t. When you look through a viewfinder, the more you turn off your visual biases and understand your camera’s, the more successful your photography will be.

Limited vision

Complaining about the camera’s limitations—its dynamic range, low-light sensitivity, distorted perspectives—is a popular pastime among photographers who feel obligated to reproduce the world as “it really looks.” But before wasting too much time lamenting your camera’s limitations, pause to consider that what you and I see is incredibly limited as well. And while the camera can’t do some things our eyes can, it can do other things our eyes can’t.

Every square inch of the Universe is continuously bathed in an infinite range of electromagnetic frequencies. We humans, and our cameras, are completely oblivious to the vast majority of this radiation. For example, X-ray machines “see” waves in the one nanometer (one billionth of a meter) range, far too small for our eyes to register; TVs and radios “see” waves that are measured in centimeters—much too long for our eyes; we humans (and our cameras) can only see electromagnetic waves that fall between (about) 400 and 750  nanometers.

Knowledge of these “missing” wavelengths enables astronomers to peer into space using tools designed to see objects at wave lengths invisible to us, doctors to harness X-rays to view bones hidden beneath opaque skin, and military and law enforcement to see in the dark by detecting infrared radiation (heat). In other words, in the grand scheme of things, there’s no single absolute visual standard—it’s all relative to your frame of reference.

Recording more or less the same visible spectrum our eyes do, the camera is sometimes mistakenly assumed to duplicate human vision. But the camera has its own view of the world. For starters, it’s missing an entire dimension. And not only does it not record depth, a still camera only returns a frozen snap of a single instant. And we all know about our camera’s limited dynamic range and depth of field. Yet despite these differences, photographers often go to great lengths to force their camera to record what their eyes see. Not only is this impossible, it ignores camera’s potential to see things in ways we don’t.

About this image

Several things about this Columbia River Gorge wildflower image are different from what my eyes saw. First, this scene was a little brighter to my eyes than what I captured—I chose to slightly underexpose the majority of the scene to avoid completely overexposing the extremely bright sun and sky, and to keep the color from washing out. Another benefit of underexposure in this case is the way the nearly black shadows enhance the scene’s rich color.

I couldn’t see the sunstar, which (in the simplest possible terms) is caused when light passing through a small opening is bent and separated. Of course the scene’s extreme depth of field required a small aperture anyway, wanting to give the left side of my frame visual weight to balance Mt. Adams on the right, in this case I’d have opted for a small aperture anyway.

And finally, going with an extremely wide focal length exaggerated the size of the flowers that were just inches away, and significantly diminished the size of the distant Mt. Adams.

What is real?

Is this image real? While it’s not what I saw, it is a very accurate rendering of my camera’s reality. Understanding how my camera’s vision differs from mine, and how to leverage that difference by controlling the available focal length, exposure, and compositional options enables me to create a perspective that expands my limited vision and transcends human reality. Pretty cool.

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Not what my eyes saw

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Secret locations (and why they should stay that way)

Gary Hart Photography: Wildflowers and Mt. Adams, Washington

Wildflowers and Mt. Adams, Columbia River Gorge
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
1/25 second
F/18
ISO 3200

As a professional photographer with a pretty large social media following, I get a lot of questions from complete strangers. What camera (or lens, or tripod, or whatever) should I buy? What were your settings for this picture? Did you use a filter? What’s the best time to photograph such-and-such a location? Because I don’t believe there should be secrets in photography, I do my best to answer these questions as quickly and completely as my time permits (though it seems that the time I have to answer questions decreases at about the rate the volume of questions increases).

Among the most frequently asked questions is, “Where did you take this picture, and how do I get there?” But, despite my “no secrets” policy, I’m no longer as free with location information as I once was. I can cite (at least) three reasons, none of which is a desire to prevent others from duplicating my shot (the best photography requires far more than location knowledge anyway).

First

I’m disappointed by the laziness of many photographers who simply want to duplicate an image they’ve admired. (No, I don’t think that simply asking for a location automatically makes you lazy, and in fact have been known to ask for location details when something about a spot interests me—but identifying a location should be the photographer’s starting point, not the goal.) I’ve seen enough duplicate images to know that I don’t want to perpetuate the epidemic.

Second

Sadly, the quickest way to ruin a location is to invite photographers. It seems that as soon as the word is out about a new spot, it becomes impossible to visit in peace, and even worse, to enjoy it without having to face the damage done by photographers who preceded you. You’d think that people who photograph nature would take better care of it, but that doesn’t appear to be the case, at least not for everyone.

It’s unfortunate that the actions of a few can ruin things for everyone, but these disrespectful few are far more visible than the respectful majority. The more photographers try to squeeze into spaces too small to accommodate them, spilling into fragile areas, crowding out tourists with just as much right to be there (“Hey, you’re in my shot!”), the more fences and rules are installed to keep us out.

And finally

I’d love to be wealthy enough to make myself available as a fount of photography information to all who ask. But because photography is my livelihood, I have to balance the time I spend against the income it generates.

When people pay me for a photo workshop, not only do I like to guide them to all the locations they’ve seen in the pictures, I also like to be able to give them perspectives a little off the beaten path and less heavily photographed. For that reason (and the fact that I just plain enjoy doing it), I spend a lot of time researching: Scouring maps, studying books, and googling before I visit for sure, but more importantly, polling locals and exploring independently (Hmmm, this road looks interesting…) once I arrive. This takes time, sometimes a lot of time.

About this image

I bring all this up because the image today was captured at a location that Don Smith and I “discovered” (it’s not as if we’re Lewis and Clark, but you get the point) while scouting before this year’s Columbia River Gorge workshops (back-to-back, collaborative workshops organized by Don and me). Despite our familiarity with any location, Don and I always allow time to explore for more spots on every visit. Which is how we found ourselves bouncing along dirt roads and traipsing up and down remote hillsides on both sides of the gorge earlier this spring.

When we found this spot, Don and I immediately agreed on two points: 1) We have to take the workshop groups here 2) Too many photographers would destroy this place. And since the surest way to invite a trampling hoard of photographers is to share directions to a location, I won’t do that. But here’s a tip: some of my favorite photo spots have been found while searching for other spots.

So, after cautioning our groups to treat each destination with care, we did take them to this new spot. The first group had to contend with 30 MPH winds—we made those shots work by bumping our ISOs and concentrating more on views wide and distant enough to minimize motion blur. The second group landed here in a gentle breeze that ranged from slight to nonexistent, allowing us to get up close and personal with the flowers.

The image I’m sharing today came right at the end of the second group’s visit. The sun had been down for about ten minutes, but because the light was so nice, and the color seemed to linger in the sky above Mt. Adams, I just couldn’t bring myself to leave. With my lens just inches from the flowers, even at 16mm and f18, complete front-to-back sharpness was impossible. Forced to choose between foreground or background sharpness, I opted to make the trio of yellow balsam root in my foreground sharp, and let the background go a little soft. By this time it was dark enough that I bumped my ISO to 3200 to ensure a shutter speed fast enough to avoid motion blur.

Off the beaten path (20 feet to 20 miles from the crowd)

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Do your homework

Sunrise Reflection, Mt. Adams, Washington

Sunrise Reflection, Mt. Adams and Trout Lake, Washington
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/2 second
22 mm
ISO 100
F13

One of the questions I’m most frequently asked is, how do you find these locations? Sometimes I feel like the questioner is convinced that there’s a secret pro photographer society where we share prime photo locations (and scoff at outsiders), or perhaps I’ve inherited a comprehensive tome containing the coordinates of every photo-worthy scene on Earth. Uh…, not so much.

The reality is far less interesting. First, it doesn’t hurt to have been born and raised in California—being within relatively easy driving distance of places Yosemite, the Eastern Sierra, and Death Valley gives me a lifetime of experience from which to draw. But as my workshop offerings expand, I find myself venturing into areas I don’t know nearly so well. Of course the people who spend good money to attend a workshop, not to mention their vacation time and travel expense, expect no less than expert location knowledge from their workshop leaders. Not only do they want to be taken to the “iconic” spots, they want to be shown special, less known, scenes. And they want to know they’re going to be at these locations at the best time.

So here it is—the pro photographer’s secret to finding the best photo locations is…

… wait for it…

lots of homework and very long days.

Sorry—no secret society or comprehensive resource, I swear. Just a lot of research and hard work. The long days part of the equation is up to you—it’s mostly a matter of sucking it up and setting the alarm for 5:00 or 4:00 or whatever ridiculous AM gets the job done, rain or shine, and covering as many miles as possible until it gets too dark to see. (How bad do you want it?)

On the other hand, the homework part I might be able to help with. It pretty much comes down to four things: Research, Inquire, Explore, Experience. But rather than elaborate in general terms, I’ll give you an example. I just returned last night from four days in Oregon and Washington, scouting the area in and around the Columbia River Gorge with Don Smith for a workshop we plan to add next spring. Don and I had both been there before, spending enough time to know that it’s ripe with possibility, but not so much that we we’re comfortable asking others to pay us money to show it to them. So we flew into Portland Sunday afternoon, rented a car and drove to Hood River, which would be our base of operations for the next few days.

Research

For many the research part of the scouting equation begins and ends with one or two sites the Internet. While the Internet is great, it’s not everything (and not always accurate). I usually start by scrutinizing topo maps to get a feel for the terrain, and road maps to better understand access and relative location (what’s near what). In this case, Don and I had done our map research before our earlier trips, but we definitely revisited the maps before returning this time. REI is a good place to start for topo maps, but sometimes you can find what you’re looking for online or in the vast selection of topo map apps available for tablets and smartphones. As much as I love my GPS for getting from here to there, for road research I prefer the old fashion, fold-out maps that I can spread out on a table. AAA is my go-to roadmap resource.

Once I get a general idea of the lay of the land, I’m ready to drill down to specifics. Not only are books are more reliable and complete than the Internet, they’re also more portable. I try to find one or two books on my location—because most books include information that’s not pertinent to my objectives, I may not read them from cover-to-cover, but I do at least scan each page for info on the areas that might interest me. They also come with me, keep me company on the plane, and are rarely more than an arm’s length away for the duration of my visit. For my first Gorge trip I used “Day Hiking Columbia River Gorge,” by Craig Romano, which gave me lots of insights that carried over to this trip.

By the time I’m done with the maps and books, I’m ready to start Googling. Sometimes a search like “Columbia River Gorge photo locations” turns up everything I need, but I usually end up finding spots that require more info, or sometimes I see possible spots on the maps or in the books that don’t show up in the more general Google search. In that case I’ll Google for something like “Images of Mt. Hood” (or whatever) and try to determine where they were captured. (For Columbia River Gorge waterfalls, and West Coast waterfalls in general, there’s no better online resource than Leon Turnbull’s waterfallswest.com. )

Following this approach, Don and I had a real good idea of what to check out on this trip. We felt pretty good about our knowledge of the Gorge’s waterfalls (which we’d already explored—thanks, Leon), so this time we concentrated on non-waterfall opportunities, particularly views that would be good for sunrise and sunset. We came up with a framework itinerary that would allow us to cover all of the general areas and specific locations we’d identified.

Inquire

As beneficial as the research is, there’s no substitute for pestering locals. Don and I started at check-in didn’t let up until we got on our planes home: hostesses, servers, baristas, sales clerks, joggers, hikers, park rangers—no local was safe. If the person had a tripod, we’d ask something like, “Where did you shoot sunrise?” or “What’s a good sunset spot?” But most locals don’t have a photographer’s mindset—they usually respond better to questions like, “What are your favorite views?” or even better, “What’s a good view of Mt. Hood?”

Some of the best spots (including Trout Lake, pictured above) we found as the direct result these, uh, inquiries (interrogations). In scenic areas like the Columbia River Gorge, most people are very proud of their home and enjoy sharing their knowledge. Not only were the local experts good resources for finding the best photo spots, they were able to steer us away from less exciting places we’d planned to visit, in one case saving us what would have been an afternoon-long wild goose chase.

Explore

No matter how much research and inquiry I do, I never turn up everything. Some of my favorite spots have resulted from just checking out a road that looks interesting, or wandering down a trail to see whether the view opens up around the corner. This trip was no exception. For our first sunrise Don and I got up at 5:00 a.m. and just started driving up Highway 35 toward Mt. Hood and ended up finding a beautiful view of Mount Hood above the cascading Hood River. And on our drive back, rather than stay on the main highway, we detoured into the countryside and found some spectacular views of Mt. Hood above rolling farmland and blooming apple and pear orchards.

Experience

It’s great to have knowledge of an area’s photo locations, but until you actually get out there and photograph your spots at the time you think they’ll be best, you’ll never know for sure (it’s one thing to make a wrong call on a spot when it’s just you, and something altogether different when you’re guiding a workshop group out to a spot at a time you’ve never photographed there). So after a long day of exploration, Don and I would decide what location would be best for the upcoming sunset and sunrise, then return.

One of our inquiries at the hotel turned up Trout Lake as a nice view of Mt. Adams (Mt. Adams wasn’t even on our radar when we arrived because on our previous visits it was engulfed in clouds). We drove up there one afternoon, and even though Mt. Adams was again cloud-shrouded and completely invisible, we thought this would be a great sunrise spot if the mountain did come out. So the next morning, with clearing skies in the forecast, Don and I rose at 5:00 and drove up there in the dark.

The color was just starting as we arrived (another reason we run locations ourselves first—now we know we need to leave earlier when we’re guiding our workshop group), but because we’d been there the day before, we were able to set up and start shooting just in time for the good stuff. The mountain was about 2/3 visible, its top third hidden by clouds that started pink soon became crimson, with the entire scene reflected in the exquisitely calm lake.

The image here came a little before the sun crested the ridge to the south, when the sun was high enough to illuminate the herringbone clouds overhead without washing out the reflection in Trout Lake (which hung in there for the duration of our shoot, a real bonus). To bring out the reflection of the bright sky on the shaded lake surface, I used a 2-stop hard-transition Singh-Ray graduated neutral density filter. This made my reflection slightly brighter than my sky (defying the laws of physics), a problem I was able to fix pretty easily in Lightroom/Photoshop.

But wait, there’s more

We’re still not done exploring the Columbia River Gorge. Before next year’s workshop we’ll be making at least one more trip up there. Even though we feel extremely confident that we have more than enough to keep a workshop group busy and happy, it’s important to have options and backup locations. For example, on this trip the wildflowers were exploding (more on that later), and we spent a lot of our time checking out and photographing the prime wildflower spots. But wildflower blooms are notoriously unreliable—if next year’s trip misses the bloom, we’ll need to find other spots. And we’ll need to be able to handle whatever weather weather Mother Nature throws at us: rain, snow, sunshine—in spring it’s all possible.

Will I mind doing more homework? What do you think?

 

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