Taking Yosemite for Granite (sorry)

Gary Hart Photography: Face to Face, Half Dome from Glacier Point, Yosemite

Face to Face, Half Dome from Glacier Point, Yosemite
Sony a7RIII
Sony 100-400 GM
ISO 100
1/6 second

Yosemite, like most of the Sierra Nevada, was carved from an intrusive igneous rock (subterranean magma that cooled without reaching the surface). This subterranean magma cooled slowly enough for its primary constituents, quartz and feldspar, plus mica and other minerals, to form crystals that fuse into an extremely hard matrix: granite. The granite waited patiently in the dark while overhead oceans advanced and receded, leaving thousands of feet of new sediment behind.

Beginning tens of millions of years ago, a slow-motion collision of tectonic plates uplifted the granite and its overlying sedimentary layers. As the ancient mountain range rose, erosion accelerated the demise of the sedimentary layers, eventually exposing the much harder granite. As the uplift continued, rivers moved faster, carving V-shaped river valleys that included the predecessor of what we now know as Yosemite Valley.

Then came the glaciers, an irresistible force meeting granite’s immovable object. Instead of breaking apart and collapsing as a lesser rock might, Yosemite’s granite stood tall as the glaciers cleared out the ancient Yosemite Valley, carving it into the U-shaped feature we know today—a flat floor bounded by vertical cliffs.

Granite’s hardness also affects the way it breaks up when exposed to the elements of weathering. Instead of crumbling under wind and rain like softer rock, or cleaving along aligned planes of weakness, granite retains its shape until fracturing along microscopic cracks caused by external stress such as pressure or weathering. These cracks allow water to seep into the rock. Of course you remember from high school science (right?) that unlike most substances, water expands when it freezes. This expansion pushes open the cracks, allowing even more water to seep in after the ice melts. This crack/seep/freeze/expand cycle continues until the rock fails, splitting along the expanded crack. In this process large chunks of granite are shed, often quite suddenly, while the remaining granite stands tall.

Granite’s unique qualities are on exquisite display in Yosemite Valley, where streams bursting with snowmelt tumble over shear granite walls, and granite monoliths tower 3,000 feet above the Merced River. Yosemite and Bridalveil Falls are Yosemite’s most recognized waterfalls, but look up on a spring day and you might count a dozen or more. The waterfalls dominate in spring, but Yosemite’s monoliths endure year-round, drawing visitors from around the world in every season. El Capitan, the largest chunk of granite in the world, is a climbers’ mecca, and few mountains have a more recognizable profile than Half Dome.

Half Dome is a bit of a misnomer, but one look at it the name is easy to visualize a rounded dome that lost a full half of its mass to a passing glacier. The reality is that Half Dome’s current shape is fairly close to the rock that was exposed by millions of years of erosion. While Yosemite’s glaciers filled most of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome was tall enough to protrude from the ice sheet and avoid direct contact. Half Dome’s shear face resulted from a single fracture that separated a large slice of granite to expose the flat granite face we all recognize.

After a nice day photographing fall color and reflections El Capitan’s shadow, we finished our day at Glacier Point for a face-to-face view Half Dome. The gray stratus blanket that had permitted a full day of sweet photography in diffuse the sunlight was about to become a liability for anyone longing for a colorful sunset.

Half Dome gets light all the way up to, and in fact even a couple of minutes beyond, the “official” (flat horizon) sunset. But because the view of Half Dome faces east, and the view to the west is obscured by terrain, there’s no way to know whether the horizon is clear in the direction of the setting sun. Even on cloudy days like this, my rule in Yosemite is to never give up on sunset until at least five minutes the after the official sunset time has passed. When a couple of people in the group started rumbling about heading back to the cars, I issued one of my favorite Yosemite proclamations to all within earshot: Never try to predict the conditions in five minutes based on the conditions now. I knew the odds were long for capturing anything more than darkening shades of gray fading to black, but without cameras they’d be zero.

I have no idea whether they truly believed me, or simply stayed put to humor me, but either way, I started to look pretty smart about five minutes before sunset when we spotted a faint glow on Half Dome. I held my breath as the sun slipped into a clear slot of unknown size on the horizon behind us to paint Half Dome with warm light. I hadn’t planned to shoot that evening, but as the light intensified I was glad I’d dragged my bag around anyway. As I quickly set up my tripod and extracted my camera, I urged everyone to keep shooting because there was no guarantee that this would last—just as I’ve witnessed many of these last minute miracles in Yosemite, I’ve also seen euphoria dashed in a heartbeat when the sun was suddenly snuffed right at the climactic moment (Horsetail Fall is notorious for this). But this evening the light held strong, warming to a golden crescendo, then fading to pink that intensified to a rich red that colored the sky from horizon to horizon.

The light tones of quartz and feldspar, plus its crystalline nature, make granite especially reflective. So while Yosemite isn’t especially known for its sunsets, when they do get red like this, granite’s inherent reflectivity causes the entire landscape to throb with a crimson glow. It’s one of my favorite phenomena in nature.

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I ended up photographing the entire sunset with my Sony 100-400 GM lens on my Sony a7RIII. Not because I didn’t have a wealth of wide angle shots to choose from (I did!), but because I was working with my group and the telephoto compositions were simpler. Simpler in the sense that (for me at least) a wide shot requires a bit more strategic planning to first identify the frame’s foreground, middle-ground, and background elements, then position myself to give them a coherent relationship. A telephoto composition, on the other hand, has always felt more intuitive than strategic (though each generally requires elements of strategy and intuition), so I’m usually able to put my camera and telephoto to my eye, then move and zoom until something feels right.

With so many views at Glacier Point, the group had scattered a little before sunset, so I was only with about half of them for the good stuff at the end. Back at the cars I checked in with those who had gone elsewhere and found that while most had photographed it, a couple had watched the show from the parking lot. Sigh.

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Half Dome Near and Far

Click an image for a closer look and slide show.

It’s All a Blur: Photographing Moving Water

Gary Hart Photography: Downstream, Upper Horsetail Fall, Columbia River Gorge

Downstream, Upper Horsetail Fall, Columbia River Gorge
Sony a7RII
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1 second
ISO 50

One of the questions I’m asked most is how to blur water. It’s really not that hard when you know how to control your exposure variables, and in fact if you’re photographing moving water in the right light, it’s easier to blur the water than it is to freeze it.

Here are the essential elements for blurred water:

  • Sturdy tripod: The longer the shutter is open, the greater the blur effect; even with a stabilized lens and/or body, it’s pretty hard to hand-hold at a water-blurring shutter duration and avoid camera shake that blurs the rest of the scene.
  • Camera with exposure control: Since motion blur is partially a function of shutter speed, you’ll need to be able to control your camera’s shutter speed. A mirrorless or DSLR camera will do the job for sure, but many of the more sophisticated point-and-shoot cameras will work as well.
  • Whitewater: While it’s possible to smooth any moving water, the silky water effect most people want requires whitewater.
  • Shade or overcast: Water in direct sunlight is so bright that, without a neutral density filter, a shutter duration long enough to blur it will completely and irrevocably overexpose it.

With these basic ingredients, and a little knowledge of exposure management, you’re ready to go. While motion blur requires the shutter remain open long enough for the water’s motion to blur, there’s no magic shutter speed that achieves this. The amount of blur will vary from a lot to none at all, depending on the following factors:

  • Shutter speed: A digital sensor (or piece of film) records the position of everything in the scene throughout the duration of the exposure. If something moves while the shutter is open, it will blur—the more it moves, the more it blurs.
  • The water’s speed: The faster the water moves while the shutter is open, the more of the frame it will span and the greater the blur. But it’s not just the water’s speed that determines the blur—other factors are…
  • The water’s distance: It’s not actually the water’s speed that matters, it’s the distance across the frame that the water moves while the shutter is open. So the farther away the water is, for any given focal length, the less of the frame it will span (and the less blur you’ll see).
  • Focal length: Increasing the focal length is the equivalent of moving closer. A longer focal length magnifies everything in the frame, including the distance across the frame the water travels while the shutter is open.
  • The water’s direction of motion: Water moving across the frame will blur more than water moving away from or toward the camera.

Most of the above motion blur factors affect the composition too, so achieving motion blur without compromising the composition usually comes down to managing the shutter speed. Choosing a shady scene or overcast day is a good start, but here are a few other ways to keep the shutter open longer:

  • Neutral density filter: An ND filter will darken the scene without changing anything else (such as the color cast)—typically by at least 3 stops, and usually more. I don’t often use an ND filter for whitewater because I only shoot water in shade or overcast and find I can achieve enough blur without it.
  • Polarizer: A polarizer cuts light by 1 to 2 stops, but that’s secondary to the polarizer’s primary function, which is to reduce reflections. Whether it’s sheen on rocks and leaves, or light bouncing off darker water, reflections are everywhere, even in a shady or overcast scene. I never photograph moving water without a polarizer, and gladly accept its longer shutter speed side benefit.
  • Low ISO: The lower the ISO, the less sensitive to light the sensor is, and the longer the shutter duration necessary to make up for that decreased sensitivity. Your camera probably has a native ISO of 100 (most likely) or 200—that’s the ISO that achieves the best image quality, and the ISO you should start at for your motion blur shots. Some digital cameras offer a lower, emulated ISO that, while not increasing the image quality (unlike film, where the lower the ISO or ASA, the better the image quality). Usually the ability to access this emulated ISO needs to be enabled in your camera’s menu system.
  • Small aperture: Because I prefer basing my aperture choice on the depth of field I want, and by what will give me the sharpest results (less diffraction and most corner-to-corner sharpness), I usually go to my minimum ISO before choosing an aperture smaller than f/11 (remember, the bigger the f/ number, the smaller the aperture, so f/16 is smaller than f/11).

Armed with this knowledge, you’re ready to go. One important thing to keep in mind is that motion blur is never just blurred or not blurred. Rather, there are degrees of blur. That’s why, when possible, for any given scene I try different ISOs and f-stops, adjusting the shutter speed to compensate and vary the blur effect.

For example

In a region packed with waterfalls, Upper Horsetail Fall (sometimes called Ponytail Fall), is one of my favorites. After a short but steep hike from the road and (lower) Horsetail Fall, hikers round a bend for the first view of the source of the roar heard from several hundred yards down the trail. Most waterfall trails either cross the source river or creek upstream, above the fall, or down stream, below the fall. The Upper Horsetail Fall trail goes behind the fall.

Gary Hart Photography: Looking Out, Upper Horsetail Fall, Columbia River Gorge

Looking Out, Upper Horsetail Fall, Columbia River Gorge: The view from the trail under the ledge, behind Upper Horsetail Fall. 

On this visit, before venturing behind the fall, I scrambled down the slope on the right and set up near creek level, in front of the whitewater and just downstream from the pool. After a little bit of visual exploration, I settled on the essence of my composition: the rushing water in the foreground, with the waterfall prominent in the background, balanced by the brilliant green of a freshly leafed-out tree. The compositional variations mostly centered around how much of the fern-infused rock on the left, and the angled tree trunk on the right, to include.

Another compositional choice to weigh was whether to allow the foreground rock to merge with the rock just behind it, in the center of the creek. Normally I try to avoid merging elements at different distances, but in this case the solution would have been to move  a couple steps to the right, which would have put the fall more behind the tree. Since the waterfall is the scene’s most prominent element, I decided to maximize its presence.

The darkness of the surrounding forest was enhanced by a thick overcast, making motion blur virtually inevitable, so I just embraced it. Often the greatest difficultly with photographing motion blur surrounded by dense foliage is that a shutter open long enough to blur water is also open long enough to pick up wind motion in the leaves. On this morning I was fortunate to have virtually no breeze, and my 1-second exposure blurred the water and froze the leaves. Mission accomplished.

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Water in Motion

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