Dawn’s Early Light

Gary Hart Photography: Dawn's Early Light, Mt. Whitney, Alabama Hills, California

Dawn’s Early Light, Mt. Whitney, Alabama Hills, California
Sony a7RIV
Sony 100-400 GM
30 seconds
F/8
ISO 100

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

The magic begins long before the human eye can register detail and color, when a few stars still burn overhead and nearby objects loom as vague shapes. Lacking enough light for the eyes to do their thing, the human experience an hour before sunrise is biased toward the non-visual senses as the sounds of gentle breezes, flowing water, and stirring creatures mingle with the smells of dew and plants. For the next 30 minutes, the horizon seems to brighten faster than the rest of the scene, but as the sun approaches the horizon, the earth’s shadow appears, swallowing stars with its steely blue. Behind the earth’s shadow is the twilight wedge (or belt of Venus), as the sun’s longest wavelengths battle through the atmosphere to color the sky pink.

Photographing this pre-sunrise show can start earlier than your eyes might tell you. Experienced photographers understand that what we perceive as darkness is just our eyes’ relatively limited ability to gather light, combined with the brain’s insistence on processing this limited input instantaneously. But a camera’s sensor accumulates all the light that strikes it for whatever duration we prescribe, thereby stretching the “instant” of perception indefinitely and allowing us to use every possible photon.

Another advantage a digital sensor has over the human eye is its ability to extract color from this apparent darkness. The human eye uses rods and cones to collect light, with the rods doing the heavy lifting in low light, pulling enough monochrome information to discern shapes, but providing little help with color and depth. The cones that complete the scene with color and depth information don’t kick in until there’s much more light. But a digital sensor, though blind to depth, captures photons without discrimination, allowing it to “see” color in very low light.

The ability to capture aspects of the natural world that differ from the human perspective might just be my favorite thing about photography, and these sunrise moments provide a great opportunity to engage the camera’s strength. When the scene is in the same direction as the rising sun, I look for shapes to isolate against the sky, then underexpose enough to turn the shapes into silhouettes, and to prevent the color from being washed out by the sun’s brilliance. When the sun is rising at my back, I take the opposite approach, giving the scene extra light to extract invisible detail from the virtually shadowless light and reveal hidden color in the sky and landscape.

About this image

On the penultimate day of each Death Valley Winter Moon workshop, my group makes the scenic, 90 minute drive from Death Valley to Lone Pine for the workshop’s final sunset and sunrise. The view in the Alabama Hills faces west, so at sunset we’re photographing shaded mountains beneath the brightest part of the sky—not ideal conditions for photography. If we’re lucky enough to get clouds, these Alabama Hills sunsets can still be special, but really it’s the sunrise that we’re here for. At sunrise in the Alabama Hills, we face the Sierra as the sun rises at our back, first coloring the sky with the blue hues of Earth’s shadow, followed by the magenta and pinks of twilight wedge.

Another special aspect of an Alabama Hills sunrise is the Sierra Crest. Towering 10,000 feet above the surrounding terrain, Mt. Whitney and its neighbors jut into the twilight wedge, and for a few sweet seconds take on its pink pastels that photographers call alpenglow.

This year’s sunset was nothing spectacular, but we walked out to the famous Mobius Arch, checked out a couple of other less noteworthy arches nearby, and I pointed out some of the area’s many movie-shoot spots. I was also able to show everyone where the morning sun would rise, and where the moon would set, and introduce them to the most prominent peaks on display: Lone Pine Peak on the left, Mt. Whitney in the middle, and Mt. Williamson on the right.

The forecast for the next morning was clear skies—maybe not dramatic, but good for the planned moonset and ideal for alpenglow on the crest. My general rule for any location is to arrive at least 30 minutes before the “official” (flat horizon) sunrise time, but in the Alabama Hills in winter, I like to get out there even earlier because the warm light from the eastern horizon light reflects off the snow and granite makes the peaks appear to glow in the dark.

The next morning, loading up in the dark at the hotel I glance toward Mt. Whitney and saw a bank of clouds fringing the crest. At first I was concerned that these clouds would obliterate Mt. Whitney, but arriving at our spot in the Alabama Hills, I realized the peak was indeed out, its tip just barely poking into the clouds. We’d arrived about 45 minutes before sunrise, but I barked (gently) at everyone not to delay, that the light (that still required headlamps to navigate) was great photography, despite what their eyes told them. Most beelined to the arch, but I saw a telephoto opportunity and quickly set up right next to the car.

White with snow, Mt. Whitney stood in dramatic contrast to the dark sky and foreground. Using the thin strip of clouds to frame the crest, I started by including some of the sky above the clouds, but quickly tightened my composition to simplify the composition. My 30-second exposure to brightened the image far beyond what my eyes saw, and smoothed all detail from the shifting clouds.

The eastern horizon was already gold from the approaching sun, and while I couldn’t really tell that by looking at Whitney, it was apparent with my very first frame. The light you see on the clouds and Whitney in this image is reflected from the horizon, even though the sun was more than a half-hour from rising. All of the darker terrain below Whitney was too low for a direct view of the horizon light.

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Before the Sun

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Horsetail Fall: Let the Mayhem Begin

Gary Hart Photography: Horsetail Fall, El Capitan, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall, El Capitan, Yosemite (from the Merced River south bank)
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1/4 second
F/8.0
ISO 100
220 mm

Later this week I hope to have a new blog post featuring something from the fantastic Death Valley Winter Moon workshop that just wrapped up yesterday. In the meantime, with Horsetail Fall season just a month away, I’ve dusted off and polished my Horsetail Fall photo tips article. 

For eleven-plus months each year, Horsetail Fall may just be Yosemite’s most anonymous waterfall. Usually dry or (at best) a wet stain, even when flowing strong this ephemeral cataract is barely visible as a thin white thread descending El Capitan’s east flank. When it’s flowing, my workshop groups can be standing directly beneath Horsetail and I still have to guide their eyes to it: “See that tall tree there? Follow it all the way to the top of El Capitan; now run your eye to the left until you get to the first tree…”. But for a couple of weeks in February, the possibility that a fortuitous confluence of snowmelt, shadow, and sunset light might, for a few minutes, turn this unassuming trickle into a molten stripe draws photographers like cats to a can-opener.

The curtain rises in the second week of February, a couple of hours before sunset, when a vertical shadow begins its eastward march across El Capitan’s south face. As the shadow advances, the sunlight warms; when the unseen sun (direct sunlight is gone from the valley floor long before it leaves towering El Capitan) reaches the horizon, the only part of El Capitan not in shadow is a narrow strip of granite that includes Horsetail Fall, and for a few minutes, when all the photography stars align, the fall is bathed in a red glow resembling flowing lava framed by dark shadow. (Some people mistakenly call the Horsetail spectacle the “Firefall,” but that altogether different, but no less breathtaking, manmade Yosemite phenomenon was terminated by the National Park Service in 1968.)

Some years Horsetail delivers sunset after sunset in February, while other years administer daily doses of February frustration. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to predict when all the tumblers will click into place: I know photographers who nailed Horsetail on their first attempt, and others who have been chasing it for years.

Don’t call it Firefall

One important thing before I continue. To avoid outing yourself as a Yosemite rookie, don’t make the mistake of calling Horsetail Fall “Firefall.” Yosemite’s Firefall was a very real fall of burning embers pushed each summer night from Glacier Point—it was as spectacular as it sounds. The phenomenon started in 1872 and continued until the National Park Service, concerned about the crowds it drew, terminated the Firefall in 1968.

Anyone who has witnessed or seen pictures of Horsetail Fall would agree that “Firefall” would be a great name for it, but those of us fortunate (and old) enough to have witnessed the actual Firefall know the difference between Horsetail Fall and the Firefall, and will never confuse one for the other.

When to photograph Horsetail Fall

The “when” of Horsetail Fall depends on the convergence of three independent conditions:

  • The sun’s angle is refreshingly predictable, lining up perfectly only in February (and October, when the fall is almost always dry). Common wisdom says the shadow on El Capitan most precisely targets Horsetail Fall at sunset during the third week of February, from around the 15th through the 22nd (or a little later). While I won’t dispute this, I’ve had some of my best success a week earlier, and my favorite Horsetail shot (at the top of the page) was captured February 9. I’ve also had success photographing it right up until the end of February. But the stripe of sunset light on El Capitan is thinnest (and therefore most tightly focused and photogenic) in the third week of February—the benefit of doing it a week earlier is fewer people.
  • Water in the fall varies greatly from year to year, depending on how much show has fallen on the fall’s extremely small watershed, and how much of that snow is currently melting. A large snowpack and warm daytime temperatures are ideal. Sometimes Horsetail can be frozen solid in the morning, but afternoon warmth can be enough to get it flowing in time for the show. And a heavy rain can get it going strong for a few hours or even a day or so.
  • Direct sunlight at sunset is the most fickle aspect of the Horsetail experience—for every tale of a seemingly perfect evening when the sunset light was doused by an unseen cloud on the western horizon mere seconds before showtime, there’s another story about a cloudy evening when the setting sun somehow threaded a gap in the clouds just as tripods were being collapsed.

The problem with targeting February’s third week is that it isn’t a secret: I generally prefer sacrificing Horsetail perfection in favor of Horsetail near perfection and far fewer photographers. But I’ll leave that decision up to you.

Where to photograph Horsetail Fall

It’s fun to circle Yosemite Valley on pretty much any mid- to late-February afternoon just to watch the hoards of single-minded photographers setting up camp like iPhone users on Release Day. In fact, one non-scientific way to find a spot to photograph Horsetail is to simply park where everyone else parks and follow the crowd. Unfortunately, as Horsetail’s popularity grows, so does the distance you’ll need to walk.

If Horsetail Fall is on the top of your bucket list, it’s best to pick your spot and show up early. Really early. Really, really early. The downside of this approach is that, because the best locations for Horsetail aren’t especially good for anything else, you’ll sacrifice a lot of quality Yosemite photography time waiting for something that might not happen.

And no one has commanded that you worship with the rest of the Horsetail congregation: Experienced Yosemite photographers know that any west-facing location with a view of the fall will do. If you find yourself in Yosemite with time to kill, try walking the Merced River between Cathedral and Sentinel Beaches—any place with a view to Horsetail will work. But because of their open space and relative ease of access, two spots have become the go-to Horsetail spots for most photographers.

From the National Park Service, February 2019

– Stopping or parking on Southside Dr between El Cap Cross and Swinging Bridge is prohibited.
– All pullouts along Southside Dr between El Cap Cross and Swinging Bridge are closed.
– Roadside parking along Southside Dr between El Cap Cross and Swinging Bridge is prohibited.
– Southside Dr between El Cap Cross and Swinging Bridge is closed to pedestrians.
– The Cathedral Beach Picnic Area is closed.
– The Sentinel Beach Picnic Area is closed.
– Stopping or parking on El Cap Cross is prohibited.
– Roadside parking along El Cap Cross is prohibited.
– The number 2 lane (right, northern lane) of Northside Dr between Camp 4 and El Cap Cross is closed to all vehicles.
– Stopping or parking on Northside Dr between Camp 4 and El Cap Cross is prohibited.
– All pullouts along Northside Dr between Camp 4 and El Cap Cross are closed.
– Roadside parking along Northside Dr between Camp 4 and El Cap Cross is prohibited.
– El Cap Picnic Area is closed to all vehicles except vehicles displaying an ADA placard.
– The speed limit along Northside Dr between Camp 4 to El Cap Cross is 25 MPH unless posted otherwise.

2020 Update

– My NPS contact at Yosemite has confirmed that the 2019 rules will continue in 2020

El Capitan Picnic Area

HorsetailPicnicAreaMap

El Capitan Picnic Area, GPS: 37.72782N 119.61844W

The El Capitan Picnic Area, highlighted by Galen Rowell, remains the most popular Horsetail Fall vantage point. The picnic area’s advantages are that it is the closest view of Horsetail Fall, has the most parking, has the most room for photographers (by far), and has a bathroom (plug your nose). The downside is there really isn’t a lot of composition variety here, and thousands of others will have already captured something as good as or better than what you’ll get.

Horsetail Fall and Clouds, El Capitan, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall from the picnic area

If you like people, the El Capitan Picnic Area is the place to be—more than any other Horsetail vantage point, this one has a festive, tailgate atmosphere that can be a lot of fun. I suspect that’s because people arrive so early and there’s little else to do before the show starts. And since everyone is pointing up with a telephoto, it’s pretty much impossible for anyone to be in anyone else’s way, which eases much of the tension that often exists when shooting among large crowds.

You’ll find the parking lot, with room for twenty or so cars, on Northside Drive, about two miles west of Yosemite Lodge. In recent years the NPS has blocked a lane of Northside Drive to allow more parking (but don’t park illegally because you will be cited). You can shoot right from the parking lot, or wander a bit east to find several clearings with views of the fall.

Merced River south bank bend

HorsetailFallMercedRiver

Merced River south bank bend, GPS: 37.72885N 119.60743W

Photographed from a bend on the Merced River’s south bank, El Capitan’s extreme sloping summit creates the illusion that you’re somewhere above Yosemite Valley, eye-to-eye with the top of Horsetail Fall—it’s a great perspective.

I like this location because the river greatly increases the variety of possible compositions, and also because you can pivot your view upstream to photograph Upper Yosemite Fall, and behind you toward Sentinel Rock (which also gets fantastic late light), almost directly above while you wait for Horsetail to light up. The downside to photographing here is that there’s precious little room, both to park and to photograph. This requires getting there a couple of hours early, and also can lead to a bit more tension as people jockey for position.

Horsetail Fall Reflection, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall reflection from the Southside Drive Merced River view

Driving east on one-way Southside Drive, you’ll parallel the Merced River for most of 1.2 miles beyond the turn for Cathedral Beach. The Horsetail Fall spot is right where the road and river diverge. Parallel park right there in one of two narrow but paved parking areas on opposite sides of the road, where you’ll find room for about a dozen cars. In recent years, all parking on Southside Drive between El Capitan Crossover and Swinging Bridge has been banned, if you plan to shoot here, prepare to walk a mile or more.

Since there’s so little parking here, and Southside Drive is one-way eastbound, if you find no parking (don’t try to squeeze in where there’s no room—I’ve seen rangers doing traffic control and ticketing cars that don’t fit), it also helps to know that the spot is about a ½ mile from the 4-Mile Trail parking area and ¾ miles west of the Swinging Bridge parking area—an easy, flat walk.

Because of the potential for crowds, the best strategy here is to arrive early and forego what may be a great view from the elevated riverbank (that is sure to be blocked by late-arrivers trying to cram their way in), in favor of getting as close to the river as possible. Standing at river level gives you many more compositional choices, and nobody else can block your wide shots. (But if there are other photographers already set up on the elevated riverbank when you arrive, please don’t be the one who sets up in front of them.)

How to photograph Horsetail Fall

Regardless of where you set up to photograph Horsetail Fall, it’s pretty difficult to find something that nobody else has done. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. There are definitely other places in Yosemite Valley with view of Horsetail Fall, they just take a little hunting—I suggest walking the south bank of the Merced River, and ascending the 4 Mile Trail. And since you’ll likely be doing lots of waiting, take advantage of the downtime to experiment with compositions.

Strategy

When the light begins to warm, it’s time to shoot. Because you never know when the light will shut off, don’t wait until the light is perfect—it’s best to start early and photograph often. Until the light goes away completely, my rule of thumb is that the light now is better than the light a minute ago—just keep shooting . I’m not suggesting you hold your shutter down in burst mode until your card fills; I usually tell my workshop groups to fire a frame every minute or two until the fall turns amber, then pick up the pace as it goes (fingers crossed) pink and (if you’re lucky) red. The best light is in the final five minutes before sunset.

Composition

Viewed from the picnic area, there’s not a lot of visual interest surrounding Horsetail; your most obvious compositions will be moderate telephotos, up to 300mm or full frame. I use my Sony 24-105 and 70-200 (or more recently, my 100-400) lenses almost exclusively here. Use the trees to frame your shots and let them go black; with a telephoto you can isolate aspects of the fall and eliminate the sky and some or all of the trees.

The Merced River bend near Southside Drive is farther away from the fall, with more foreground possibilities, including the river and reflections, so you’ll be able to use a greater range of focal lengths here. Don’t get so caught up in photographing the fall that you overlook wider possibilities that include the river.

From either location I think vertical compositions work best (there’s a reason you don’t see lots of horizontal Horsetail Fall images), but that doesn’t mean there aren’t horizontal opportunities too. I like to identify a go-to composition based on the conditions, then vary between wide/tight and horizontal/vertical. If the sky is boring (cloudless), minimize or eliminate it from your composition. If there are clouds that make the sky interesting, by all means include them.

A frequent rookie mistake is cutting the waterfall off at the bottom. I’m not saying there’s never a reason to do that, but unless you consciously decide to truncate the fall because you think it’s the way to compose your frame, make sure you include the diagonal ridge that Horsetail disappears behind.

Filters

If your camera struggles with dynamic range, a graduated neutral density filter will help any shot that includes the sky—a two-stop hard GND angled across El Capitan parallel to the tree line should do the trick. This usually requires some Photoshop dodging and burning to hide the transition, but it’s the only way to darken the brightest part of the sky, which is usually in front of (not above) El Capitan. Since switching from Canon to Sony, I have no problem with the dynamic range and no longer use a GND for Horsetail Fall.

A polarizer will alter your results, so if you have one on, make sure you orient it properly. I often have a difficult time deciding between maximizing and minimizing the reflections with my polarizer, so I hedge my bets and shoot both ways. I’ve found that when Horsetail is flowing strongly, minimizing the reflection is best; when Horsetail is more of a wet or icy stain, maximizing the reflection works better. Either way, it’s best to just shoot it both ways and decide later.

Exposure

Automatic metering can be problematic in extreme dynamic range scenes when color is paramount, so I always recommend manual exposure, spot metering on Horsetail Fall or the adjacent sunlit granite. To maximize the color on the fall and El Capitan, I usually underexpose slightly. Because the trees rarely add value beyond framing, they usually work better when very dark green to black, a fact that’s completely lost on your meter (which thinks everything should be a middle tone). And monitor your RGB histogram to ensure that you haven’t washed out the red (Horsetail and El Capitan) or blue (sky) channels.

Highlight Alert (blinking highlights) is your friend. While you should never make your final exposure decision based on the highlight alert, when you see the highlights flashing, check your histogram and adjust if necessary.

And finally

And perhaps most important of all, don’t get so caught up in the photography that you forget to appreciate what you’re viewing. Just take a couple of seconds to stand back and allow yourself to appreciate the amazing spectacle unfolding before your eyes.

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A Horsetail Fall Gallery

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Another Decade in the Mirror

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The change of a decade is the perfect time to reflect and marvel at the changes. So here goes…

Y2K

Who remembers Y2K, when computers were going to meltdown and airliners were doomed to fall from the sky? At the time I was an enthusiastic amateur photographer with a solid career in technical communications (tech writing, training, and support) for tech companies small and large. On New Year’s Eve 1999 my wife and I each went to bed with a pager on the bedside table, ready to spring into action when a customer reported a problem. At some point in the night a pager buzzed, I don’t remember who’s, and we each bolted up in the dark and collided like Keystone Cops at the foot of the bed. Just 20 years later pagers are virtually forgotten, replaced by ubiquitous smartphones that also happen to take pictures that are arguably better than my first DSLR could capture.

It’s 2000 and my camera is the same Olympus OM-2 (remember film?) I’d been clicking since the mid-70s. My photo locations are usually dictated by family priorities, almost always within easy driving distance of my home in Sacramento—infrequently augmented by a family vacation to points more distant. On one of those vacations in 2000, I acquire a 1 megapixel, fixed focal-length, hand-me-down digital camera from my brother-in-law and I am somewhat baffled and very much intrigued by digital photography. Little did I know….

2010

Where did the years go? It’s 2010 and I’m seven years into a complete transition to digital photography; five years into a new career as a professional landscape photographer. I make my living providing photo workshops in locations I’ve spent my life visiting and photographing: Yosemite, Death Valley, and the Eastern Sierra. Each year I augment that workshop income with a half dozen or so weekend art shows that are equal parts lucrative and exhausting.

After three decades of service, my trusty Olympus retired in 2003—by 2010 I am already on my fifth DSLR, a 21-megapixel Canon 1DS Mark III.  I find 21 megapixels both ridiculous and thrilling. The only other option available to pro photographers is Nikon, but I’m satisfied with Canon. As a digital photographer I have the control over my color images that I used to dream about in my film days. Digital capture has also enabled me to pursue night photography, but extreme noise at any ISO beyond 800 limit me to moonlight on full moon nights. The ISOs necessary to even consider Milky Way photography remain a distant dream.

With the kids out of the house and no more 9-5 commitments (and blessed with a supportive wife), I am free to explore far and wide with my camera. 2010 marks my first ever visit to Hawaii and I start considering workshops outside my California wheelhouse.

2020

Here on the eve of another new decade, my bread-and-butter remains photo workshops, but I’ve replaced the art show income with writing for “Outdoor Photographer” magazine and other publications. My blog has taken off (thanks for reading!), and for better or worse, several hours each day are dedicated to social media (a relationship that ranges from mild entertainment to a necessary evil). I’ve become a Sony Artisan of Imagery, and have had many magazine covers. Life is good.

While I won’t argue with the photography cliché that says, “It’s the photographer, not the camera,” in 2014 I jettisoned Canon in favor of Sony mirrorless. Of course there’s no universal “best” camera, but Sony’s dynamic range and low light capabilities make it the best camera for me. The Sony sensor allows me to capture scenes that would not have been possible with Canon or any other camera for that matter after a longer than expected adjustment period, I’ve grown to love mirrorless shooting and can’t imagine returning to a DSLR. My Sony a7RIV has a truly ridiculous 61 megapixels and more dynamic range than I’d dreamed possible ten years ago.

Another big change in the last 10 years is my workshop locations. As my existing California workshops continued to thrive through the decade, so did my experience and confidence. Both on my own and with my good friend Don Smith, I started adding workshops in many locations I’d been exploring: Hawaii (the Big Island and Maui), Grand Canyon (an annual raft trip and a summer monsoon workshop), the Columbia River Gorge, and the spectacular Oregon Coast. And in 2018 Don and I added New Zealand, with Iceland to follow in 2020.

I have no plans to stop and can’t wait to see what the coming decade brings.

The decade in pictures

I’m sharing a series of galleries with a few highlights of the last decade, broken down by year. I can’t begin to express how much fun I had compiling these images, reliving moments, and never ceasing to be stunned by how long it’s been since this memory or that.

2010

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2011

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2012

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2013

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2014

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2015

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2016

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2017

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2018

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2019

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2019 Highlights

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We’ve reached that time of year where everyone is compiling their Top 10 lists. I like retrospectives as much as the next person, but I’ve always resisted assembling these “top-whatever” end-of-year countdowns of my own images. Then last week Sony asked me to provide my favorite image of 2019 and I struggled mightily because it felt like they were asking me to pick a favorite child—which, as we all know, can vary on a daily basis. (Just kidding—I love you girls!) But seriously, I did hesitate because I wasn’t sure Sony and I aren’t defining “favorite” the same, and in fact favorite for me can mean many things that are easily skewed by mood and memory.

So instead of attempting to rate and rank my images at year’s end, I prefer using them as a catalyst for reflection. Each December I go through the images I’ve processed from the waning year and reflect on the circumstances of their capture. Rather than focus on individual images, I’ll start by reflecting more on the experience surrounding three memorable shoots that stand out from in a year filled with too many individual highlights to detail here (but feel free to go through my 2019 blog posts). And if you’re just here for the pictures, jump to the bottom to see a gallery of 2019 images that make me happy (including some new images that I’ve never shared).

Iceland northern lights

I can think of no better way to start a year than the opportunity to photograph something I’ve fantasized about seeing for my entire life. When Don Smith and I traveled to Iceland last January, I had two goals in mind: scout for our upcoming photo workshop, and see the northern lights. The scouting trip was a great success, but with just a couple of days to go, and not for lack of trying, we still hadn’t seen the northern lights.

On our penultimate night we finally witnessed a nice aurora display that spread ebbing and flowing veils of green, coloring the sky above Glacier Lagoon from the horizon to about 45 degrees—I was thrilled and felt like my aurora dreams had been fulfilled. Then came our final night, when I learned what a real northern lights display is.

There really are no words to describe this experience, so I’ll just let my images speak for me. I will say that two-dimensional, still images don’t fully convey the experience of witnessing the aurora in person, but they do at least least give you an idea of the drama and magnitude: for one thing, the foreground was darker than what I captured (though it was bright enough that I walked around without a flashlight); the aurora moves, maybe at about the speed of the minute hand on a clock. And while the previous night’s display was only in the northwest and covered no more than a quarter of the sky, the display this night at times spread across the entire sky and needed to constantly spin around to make sure I wasn’t missing something.

Read more about this night of a lifetime: Chasing the Northern Lights

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New Zealand winter night

Don and I did two winter photo workshops on New Zealand’s South Island in 2019. The first was our regularly scheduled New Zealand winter workshop, the second was a workshop we put together to guide a group from the Sony Alpha Imaging Collective. Though night photography was a priority for both groups, the moon and clouds hindered the first group’s efforts (until our final night, but that’s another story).

The second group fared better in the night photography department in general, one day in particular stood out. We started with a 3 a.m. starlight shoot at Lake Wanaka, then made the 3-hour drive to Aoraki National Park, where we spent a day photographing spectacular fog and hoarfrost along the way, and glaciers, lakes, and mountains once we arrived. Following our beautiful sunset on the shore of Tasman Lake, we bundled up to wait for dark and were rewarded with one of the most breathtaking Milky Way shoots in my life (which has been filled with many Milky Way shoots).

All I could think about on the foggy 3-hour drive back from Aoraki was curling up in my warm bed and getting some much needed sleep. But when we pulled into our hotel a little before midnight and I looked up and saw stars, it felt like someone had flipped the switch on my reserve generator and I just had to go back out and shoot some more. So while everyone else headed to their rooms to process images or sleep, I grabbed my camera gear and raced to the lake. For the entire 10-minute walk to Wanaka’s iconic willow tree, I kept an eye on a bank of fog massing on the far shore and willed it to hold off long to allow me a few frames.

Finding the view of the tree completely devoid of people (a personal first), I photographed for nearly an hour in glorious solitude. While waiting for each exposure to complete, and with nothing in my world but me, my camera, and a sky full of stars, I reflected on the last 21 hours realize this was the perfect cap to what was no doubt one of the most memorable photography days of my life.

Read more about this day seemed to last forever: The Longest Day

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Grand Canyon electrical storm

Each year starting in 2013, Don and I have guided two photo workshop groups around both rims of the Grand Canyon, chasing the lightning, towering clouds, and dramatic light of the Southwest’s summer monsoon. This year’s Grand Canyon monsoon trip was filled with lots of great memories and photography that included rainbows and more lightning strikes than I can count, but one experience in particular stands out above the rest.

The best vantage point for an electrical storm on the Grand Canyon North Rim is probably the twin view decks at Grand Canyon Lodge. Not only do these open-air decks provide a beautiful, sweeping view of the canyon, they’re shielded from lightning by a network of lightning rods, and anchored by an enclosed viewing area for retreat when the action gets too close.

We’d been watching a storm build in the distant west, but unlike most storms here, this one moved toward us and didn’t veer or fade as it approached. The storm arrived so quickly, and so mesmerized were we by its power, that it was almost on top of us before we could react. The rain was just starting to pelt us when Oza Butte, about a mile away, was stabbed with multiple strokes that made everyone jump and gasp. That was our signal to grab our gear and race for cover.

Safe inside as the storm raged around us, everyone in the group buzzed about “the big one.” I moved around the room and confirmed that nearly everyone had some version of this spectacular strike, then scrolled through my own frames holding my breath until I came across this one. Many in the group only had the bolt on the right because that’s the direction the lighting had been firing. I was silently patted myself on the back for having the foresight (good luck) to have widened and shifted my composition to the left shortly before this bolt hit. First, because it seemed like the storm was moving in that direction, and also because I wanted my composition to include more canyon.

Read more about this hair raising experience: I Just Have to Share This

Gary Hart Photography: Lightning Explosion, Oza Butte, Grand Canyon North Rim

Lightning Explosion, Oza Butte, Grand Canyon North Rim



2019 Highlights

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On the other hand…

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Chill, Bridalveil Fall Reflection, Yosemite

Winter Chill, Bridalveil Fall Reflection, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/8 seconds
F/10
ISO 100

On Wednesday I wrote about featuring the sky in my images, and how my love for all things astronomical and meteorological reflects in my photography. On the other hand…

As much as I love photographing the moon, stars, rainbows, and lightning to my images, there are many photo-worthy subjects right here on terra firma. And usually the best way to feature them is to minimize or exclude the sky. Which is why many of my favorite images have little or no sky. To sky, or not to sky? That really comes down to playing the hand I’m dealt, and understanding that there’s no law that says you need to include the sky in your image.

One thing I won’t do is include a boring sky, a sky that’s nothing but a homogenous, horizon-to-horizon sheet of blue or gray. While everyone who’s not a vampire loves being outside on a sunny day, given a choice between photographing a sky that’s all blue or all gray, I actually prefer gray because clouds cast diffuse light that cuts contrast, creating a natural softbox that’s ideal for photographing pretty much anything in the landscape.

On the other hand, when there’s sunlight on the landscape, I either search for subjects in full shade, or try to find creative ways to use the sunlight.

Sunlight solutions

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One popular sunlight technique (some would argue too popular) is a sunstar. Not only can you create a sunstar when the sun is on the horizon, it can also be achieved by positioning yourself in the shade of any terrestrial object, such as a nearby tree or rock, and letting the sun move into your frame.

The smaller your aperture, the sharper, more clearly defined the sunstar will be. I recommend f/16 or smaller, and usually go with f/18 or f/20. Sunstar quality also varies from lens to lens, with higher quality wide lenses generally delivering the best results.

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Another sunlight solution is overexposing a large part of the frame to create a high-key image with darker subjects that standout against washed out or completely white surroundings. For these images, I usually look for something backlit, such as a flower or leaves, and position myself so the leaf or flower is against the bright sky. I then meter on my darker, backlit subject and push the exposure until the sky is severely or completely overexposed, creating a brilliant canvas for my subject.

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When I find myself in a forested area with dark shade punctuated with splashes of light, I often look for a primary subject in direct light, and juxtapose it against a darker background. Sometimes some of those splashes of light poke through, creating a jeweled effect in the background.

Searching for shade

As fun as it is to try to find ways to work the sun into my images, probably my favorite boring sky solution is to work on subjects in full shade. Everything is in the same light, making exposure easy, colors saturate, and providing the opportunity to feature any subject that catches my eye. While images that use direct sunlight can be quite dramatic, images in overcast or shade often have a more soothing feel.

I almost always wait until I can find water in shade or overcast before photographing it. Not only does shade subdue contrast, it gives me more flexibility to control the amount of motion blur in the water.

About this image

I returned Wednesday from my Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop. While the moon received top billing in this workshop, there are a lot of reasons to love photographing Yosemite in winter. This week’s group hit most of them: snow (though none fell during the workshop), fog, beautiful clouds, and even enough water in Yosemite Falls to make it worth photographing.

Despite the great conditions, I had to make a few on-the-fly adjustments, as is often the case in Yosemite’s fickle winter. For example, when Tuesday’s forecast called for cloudy skies that threatened to wipe out the evening’s sunset moonrise plan, I decided to take advantage of the clouds to photograph scenes that are normally sunlit scenes (while secretly wishing for clear sky so the moon would come out).

When the clouds failed to materialize as promised, I adjusted my plans again and took the group to Valley View. With its riverside views and reflections of El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall, Valley View is one of the most photographed scenes in Yosemite. Even better, in winter Valley View never gets sunlight, making a good spot for blue sky photography.

With El Capitan in full sun and the Merced River in shade, the El Cap reflection was spectacular, but I was drawn more to the low fog hovering in shady Bridalveil Meadow. While some of the group concentrated on the El Capitan view, I worked with a few just upstream from the parking lot, where the view of Bridalveil Fall was best—and the reflection wasn’t too shabby either.

I moved along the riverbank until I could juxtapose the diagonal tree trunk against Bridalveil Fall, and quickly settled on this composition because it completely excluded the very boring sky. The reflection became an essential element of this composition, especially for the way it forms the bottom half of V with the diagonal trunk.

Once I was satisfied with my composition, I played with a range of shutter speeds for a variety of water blur effects, both in the fall and in the bubbles drifting by atop the river. I also had to monitor the ebb and flow of the fog and time my exposures for when it was high enough to stand out, but not so high that it obscured the row of trees beneath the fall.

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Without Sky

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Eyes on the Sky

Gary Hart Photography: Goodnight Moon, Olmsted Point, Yosemite

Goodnight Moon, Olmsted Point, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 200-600 G
ISO 800
f/13
1/25 second

We tend to photograph the things we love most, but I don’t think that necessarily happens consciously. For example, I never appreciated the role the sky plays in my photography until someone pointed it out a few years ago. Browsing my galleries to verify, I was amazed at the percentage of my images that include at least one of the following: the sun, the moon, stars, a rainbow, lightning, or dramatic clouds. (And, as of last January, the northern lights.)

While I never set out to be a “skyscape” photographer, given my background, I guess it makes sense. (Or more succinctly, “Duh.”) As an astronomy enthusiast since I was a child, and an armchair meteorologist since my late teens, I spent most of my formative years with my eyes and mind on the sky. I continued these childhood interests into adulthood, studying both astronomy and meteorology in college (I even majored in astronomy for a few semesters), and to this day can’t pass up a book or article on either topic. Even without a camera, I can spend hours watching clouds form and dissipate, or gazing at the stars.

Despite a parallel interest in photography, as a film shooter I was frustrated by limitations that prevented me from photographing many of my favorite sky phenomena. While daylight sights like clouds and rainbows were doable, but daylight lightning was out of reach. Narrow dynamic range, a lack of exposure feedback, and inability to process a color image made photographing simultaneous detail in the landscape and the moon frustrating. But switching to digital photography finally provided the control over my color captures, control that had previously only been available to monochrome film shooters with access to a darkroom.

With my first DSLR, purchased more than 15 years ago (!), I suddenly had the exposure feedback and processing control I lacked. That camera struggled with ISOs above 400, but that was enough to handle moonlight and I was hooked on night photography. Nevertheless, for many years photographing the Milky Way and landscape detail with a single click (my own personal rule) seemed like a pipe dream. But unlike the film days, advancement in digital sensors seemed happen with each passing year, and for the last few years I’ve been able to add Milky Way photography to my night repertoire.

The same goes for daylight lightning—with my Lightning Trigger, I’m able to freeze bolts that come and go so fast they’re memories before my brain registers them. Not only that, we now have computers in our pockets that can tell us where lightning is firing almost in realtime.

My evolution to skyscape photography was gradual, paced mostly by the evolution of technology, but in hindsight, I feel a little foolish for taking so long to recognize the personal synergy created by combining these three lifelong interests. Now if I could only figure out a way to add baseball to the mix…

A few tips for good sky photography

  • The amount of sky and landscape a frame gets is pretty much a function of the visual appeal of each: the better the sky relative to the landscape, the more frame real-estate it gets. Both nice? I have no problem splitting the frame in the middle.
  • Clear sky? Use the absolute minimum sky possible—sometimes that’s a thin strip at the top of the frame, other times it’s no sky at all.
  • Rules for compositional elements in the sky are no different than they are for elements in the landscape. And I’m afraid clouds are frequently overlooked, leading to things like a towering thunderhead with its top cropped, or a cloudy ceiling with a small patch of blue that juts up and out of the top of the frame (and pulling the eye with it). Sometimes these things can’t be avoided, but you should always make the edges of your frame a conscious choice, even in the sky.
  • Clouds are great, and for photography almost always better than a blank blue sky, but I especially enjoy including special elements that can be subjects in themselves (like a rainbow, lightning, the Milky Way, the moon, and so on). Rather than showing up and benignly accepting whatever the scene delivers, I aggressively pursue sky subjects by planning my visits to coincide with the best chance for something interesting in the sky. I  start with a landscape scene I like, then figure out what sky feature or features I might be able to put with it. How can I get this scene with the Milky Way? What about a full or crescent moon? A rainbow? Lightning? ( (And before you ask, I refuse to add a sky in post—like everything else I photograph, all of my images that include the sky need to happen with one click.)
  • Weather phenomena require a little knowledge and planning, and a lot of luck. For example, whenever I shoot in rain, or with the potential for rain, I figure out where a rainbow would appear if the sun were to break through. And don’t think you can just go out and photograph lightning because you’re in an electrical storm and have a camera. Not only is capturing lightning very difficult without knowledge, experience, and the right equipment, it’s just plain dangerous. Read my tips for photographing lightning.
  • Night photography is about the stars, so make sure you give enough of your frame to the sky to highlight the stars. My rule of thumb is 2/3 sky, but sometimes I’ll do even more, and if the foreground is spectacular (like the Grand Canyon), I might split the frame evenly between the sky and landscape.
  • The moon is predictable, requiring only clear skies, a sturdy tripod, and maybe some warm clothes. Before any photo trip, I make a point of knowing the moon’s phase and rise/set times and position. Read my tips for photographing the moon.
  • While photographing the Milky Way’s isn’t as dangerous as photographing lightning (unless you walk off a cliff in the dark), like lightning photography, including the Milky Way (the right way) also requires a lot of knowledge and experience, as well as the right equipment. Read my tips on photographing the Milky Way.

About this image

I found this scene in October’s Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections workshop, on our last-minute (not part of the original plan) trip to Olmsted Point to photograph sunset and the Milky Way. The crescent moon wasn’t the prime prime goal of this shoot, but I knew it would be here when we arrived and had every intention of photographing it as big as possible. (Had I not known there’d be a chance to photograph the moon, I’d likely have left my Sony 200-600 lens behind.)

The challenges I dealt with composing this scene were extreme dynamic range and a (freezing) wind. Since a waxing crescent moon always sets shortly after the sun, which puts it in the brightest part of the sky above a fairly dark landscape, capturing the moon, sky color, and landscape detail is difficult to impossible. I solved this problem by positioning myself so the moon set behind a ridge lined with distinctive trees against the sky. With my Sony 200-600 G lens on my Sony a7RIV, I zoomed tight to enlarge the moon and exposed to make the trees a silhouette.

To mitigate vibration imposed by the breeze  and magnified by my 600mm focal length, I bumped my ISO to 800, which allowed me to use a 1/25 second shutter speed. And just to be sure, I magnified the image in my viewfinder and checked its sharpness.


Skyscapes

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It’s About Time

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Glaze, Valley View, Yosemite

Winter Glaze, Valley View, Yosemite
Sony a7RIII
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
.6 seconds
F/16
ISO 50

Among the many things I’m giving thanks for this Thanksgiving weekend is the return of rain and snow to California. Normally I’d have rearranged my schedule to be in Yosemite for the season’s first snow, but because family trumps photography, I had more important things to do. So Yosemite will just have to be beautiful without me.

As much as I love photographing Yosemite with fresh snow, spending quality time family this weekend was a no-brainer for me. I can’t say that foregoing a photo opportunity has always been so easy (and I’ve been blessed with a family that would have understood had I abandoned them for a day or two to chase the snow), but never let it be said that I’ve learned nothing from my photography career.

In general, being self-employed has time challenges that I’m still learning to manage, but I’m getting better. I do have to admit that sometimes the idea of a 9-5 job with weekends and paid vacations sounds mighty good (I realize I’m speaking in very general terms and don’t mean to offend anyone pinned a cubicle 12 hours per day just to pay the bills), but the bottom line is that I love the flexibility of having complete control of my schedule.

When I left the 9-5 world 15 years ago to pursue this crazy passion, the missing safety net was a great motivator—I was only as successful as the next art show (which I no longer do) or photo workshop. Weekends? Holidays? Irrelevant. And the closest thing I got to a vacation was when my wife and I would travel to a new location to scout for a new workshop.

But as the years go by (is it me, or is time moving faster?), I’ve come to appreciate the autonomy of self employment. I can look at my calendar, whether the day be tomorrow or two years from now, and if nothing’s there, I can do whatever I want. Of course that might mean cramming the things that need to be done into times when others might be watching Netflix from their recliner or body-surfing at the beach, but it’s 100 percent my choice and I love it.

I often tell people that photography must be a source of pleasure, but there’s a difference between happiness and pleasure, and I know now that what I really mean is that photography must make you happy. I probably would have gotten great pleasure from my images had I gone to Yosemite this Thanksgiving weekend, but I know in the long run I’m much happier for my choice to stay home.

A few words about this image

I’d love to give you a detailed description of the entire process that went into photographing this beautiful scene, but I have no specific memory of its capture. I took it at the beginning of a March visit to Yosemite, one of those semi-spontaneous up and back trips I do when the Yosemite forecast calls for snow. I can infer from my exposure settings (specifically, because I was at ISO 50 and f/16) that I was going for a little motion blur to smooth the ripples in the Merced River. But since my shutter speed was .6 seconds, I must have decided that adding a neutral density filter would have robbed the river of some of its texture. (Or maybe I was just too lazy to fish my ND from my bag.) I can also tell by looking at the clouds and the snow on the trees that the snow had just stopped, but not necessarily for good (this is confirmed by the images preceding this one on the card).

The real lesson in this image is the reminder that we all have a lot of unmined gems on our hard drives. I found this one a few weeks ago by employing an approach I often use when I have extra time between trips: picking a previously processed image taken in particularly nice conditions, and revisiting other images from that shoot.

Here are a few other images from that March snow trip

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When you make your living from photography, often (usually) the business part of it has to take priority over the photography part, and there just aren’t enough hours in the day for everything. In a perfect world I’d identify and process every single keeper the day after returning from a trip, but that’s simply not possible because of that whole time thing. So possible keepers slip through the cracks and languish on my hard drive(s). But that’s okay, because I never delete anything, and I get comfort from the knowledge that whenever I need a new image, I don’t need to run out with my camera and make one right now.

Not only is this retro photography exercise productive, it’s far more fun than it should be—kind of like finding money on the sidewalk (with none of the guilt about benefiting from someone else’s misfortune).

I still have a couple of spaces in next week’s Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop

Winter in Yosemite

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