Posted on February 18, 2018
When the weather gets crazy, do you sprint for cover or reach for your camera? Your answer may be a pretty good indicator of your success as a landscape photographer. It’s an unfortunate fact that the light, color, and drama that make the most memorable landscape photos all come when most sane people would rather be inside: at sunrise, when the rest of the world is asleep; at sunset, when everyone else is at dinner; and during wild weather, when anyone with sense is on the sofa in front of the fire.
Not only do clouds keep tourists at bay, they’re usually a prerequisite for the best nature photography. Whether they simply diffuse sunlight to subdue extreme contrast into something much more camera-friendly, or contort themselves into diaphanous curtains and towering pillars that are subjects themselves, clouds are a photographer’s friend.
And with clouds, often comes rain. But the photographer willing to go out in the rain is also the photographer who captures lightning, rainbows, and vivid sunsets and sunrises. The key to photographing in rain is preparation. Regardless of the forecast, I never travel without my rain gear duffel that contains everything necessary to keep me dry and focused on photography: waterproof hat, gloves, parka, rain pants, and boots for me, and an umbrella for my camera. My go-to rain cover is a plastic garbage bag that keeps my camera and lens dry when I’m searching or waiting for a shot. The final essential wet weather accessory is a towel or chamois to dry any gear (especially the front of my lens) that gets wet.
Covered head-to-toe with my waterproof wardrobe, I’m ready to photograph whatever Mother Nature delivers. When I’m ready to shoot, my umbrella always comes out first, then off comes the bag and into a pocket. With one hand managing the umbrella, I have one hand free to compose, expose, focus, and click.
When the wind blows it’s often difficult to manage an umbrella and keep my lens free of water droplets. Since my Sony bodies are sufficiently sealed (as are many other mirrorless and DSLR bodies and lenses), I don’t worry about raindrops (but make sure you have the hot-shoe cap in place). Sometimes, when the wind is too extreme, I even briefly set the umbrella aside (but not too far). Once my composition, exposure, and focus are set, I point the umbrella’s convex side into the wind and lower it until it’s right on top of the camera (for maximum rain protection), pull out my towel and dry the front of the lens (and the rest of the camera and lens too if it’s raining hard), then lift the umbrella and click simultaneously (before more droplets land on my lens).
About this image
Last summer’s Grand Canyon Monsoon workshop group had already had a great day. Following a nice sunrise at the always beautiful Point Imperial, we spent two hours on the Grand Canyon Lodge view deck photographing a spectacular electrical storm that delivered multiple lightning captures to everyone in the group. Here’s a sample of the day’s bounty to this point:
When the storm moved too close and drove us inside to safety (we’re resilient and adventuresome, not stupid), it would have been easy to rest on our laurels and call it a day. I mean, who likes getting rained on?
Photographers, that’s who. Don Smith and I herded the group into the cars and headed to Cape Royal Road, where we could follow the Grand Canyon’s East Rim above Marble Canyon all the way to Cape Royal. Knowing that monsoon showers are fairly localized, the plan was to drive out of the cell that was dumping on us at the lodge and either shoot back at it, or (more likely) find another cell firing out over the canyon. In the back of my mind though was the hope for a rainbow above the canyon—dropping in west, the sun was perfectly positioned for rainbows in the east.
The rainbow appeared just after we passed the Point Imperial Road junction, arcing above the forest. Climbing through the trees toward the rim and its views of Marble Canyon, my urgency intensified with the rainbow’s vivid color, but we were stuck behind a meandering tourist who clearly had different priorities. As tempted as I was to pass him, I knew with three more cars following me, that would be a mistake. So we poked along at a glacial pace. After what seemed like hours, the rainbow was hanging in there as we pulled into the Vista Encantada parking areaz and screeched to a halt—I swear everyone was out of the car and scrambling for their gear before I’d come to a complete stop.
With a full rainbow above an expansive view, I opted for my Sony 12-24 lens on my a7RII, but immediately began to question that choice. While Vista Encantada offers a very pretty view, it’s not my favorite view to photograph because of all the less-than-photogenic shrubbery in the foreground—a telephoto lens would have worked better to eliminate the foreground. But I wanted more rainbow. So after a few failed attempts to find a composition at the conventional vista, I sprinted into the woods in search of something better. This turned out to be a wise choice, as the shrubs here were replaced with (much more appealing) mature evergreens.
In a perfect world I’d have had an unobstructed view into the Grand Canyon, but the world is rarely perfect. I decided to use the nearby trees as my foreground, composing wide enough to include the trees top-to-bottom also allowed me to include all of the rainbow. Suddenly my 12-24 lens choice was genius!
After finishing at Vista Encantada we continued down the road and photographed another rainbow from Roosevelt Point, before wrapping up the day with a sunset for the ages at Cape Royal. A great day indeed, all thanks to weather that would have kept most tourists indoors.
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Posted on February 9, 2018
My previous post was about dynamic juxtaposition in landscape photography—combining static landscape subjects with transient meteorological and celestial elements. The other side of the juxtaposition coin I call static juxtaposition: combining stationary landscape objects. I am a little reluctant to use the word “static” because there is one element that absolutely can’t be static in these compositions: You.
Since I don’t photograph people or wildlife, I often joke that I don’t photograph anything that moves. And because of this, I need to create motion by encouraging my viewers’ eyes to move through my frame, either providing a path for their eyes to follow and/or a place for them to land. Accomplishing this with static subjects isn’t necessarily difficult, but it does require some physical effort.
Most photographers don’t have a problem getting themselves to the general locations that align foreground and background subjects, but many get a little lazy once they’re there, planting their tripods clinging to the spot like a ship an anchor.
Once I’ve arrived at a location and identified my primary subject, I challenge myself to find at least one other element on a different plane. Sometimes that’s easy, other times…, not so much. Nevertheless, when my subject is in the distance, I look for something closer that has visual weight; likewise, if my subject is nearby, I want something with visual weight in my background. Visual weight is something that pulls the eye: a flower, tree, shrub, leaf, reflection, rock—I could go on, but you get the point. Sometimes it’s not even a distinct entity, but rather a pattern, texture, color, or splash of light.
My secondary subject can have strong aesthetic value or not—sometimes it’s there simply to balance the frame, while other times it has almost as much visual appeal as my primary subject. Regardless of its visual strength, my secondary subject’s placement, both in the frame and relative to the scene’s other visual elements, can make or break an image. And lacking a forklift, pretty much the only way to change the relative position of two static objects in a photographic frame is carefull positioning of the camera (and the photographer behind it!).
As a general rule I avoid merging my essential visual elements—to do conflates those elements and sacrifices the illusion of depth that’s so essential in a two-dimentional image. Another thing I try to avoid is objects with visual weight at the edge of my frame because anything that pulls my viewers’ eyes toward the image’s boundary dilutes its impact.
Viewers’ eyes move most effectively through a scene by following lines. Sometimes those lines are tangible, like a horizontal horizon, vertical waterfall, or diagonal river. But often it’s up to me to create virtual lines—an implicit, connect-the-dots path between visual elements, or textures and shapes that frame my primary subject and constrain my viewers’ eyes. For example:
Last week I was at Mobius Arch beneath Mt. Whitney, the final stop of my annual Death Valley photo workshop. After three days of spectacular Death Valley sunrises and sunsets that seem to be trying to outdo the one before it, I didn’t dare to hope that the string would continue when we moved to the Alabama Hills.
The real show here is sunrise, when day’s first rays of sun color the Sierra Crest with alpenglow’s pink hues, even on clear sky mornings. Sunsets here require a little help. The view here faces west, so at sunset you usually find yourself photographing the shaded side of your subjects against the brightest part of the sky—not really a recipe for success. But a few clouds on the western horizon not only add color and texture, they soften the light. And that’s what happened last week.
Before sunset the thin, translucent cirrus layer was lost in the late afternoon glare, but as the sun dropped below the horizon, the clouds picked up its refracted long wavelengths and colored the sky deepening shades of red. Soon the color was so intense that it shaded weathered granite boulders.
The three elements I wanted to feature in my composition were Mobius Arch, the Sierra Crest (Lone Pine Peak and Mt. Whitney), and the colorful sky. As dramatic as the Sierra Crest is, the star of this scene is the arch. With no real access to a telephoto view, filling my frame with the arch means a wide angle lens that includes too much sky. But the vivid color this evening gave me a rare opportunity to include a sky worthy of the rest of the scene.
My Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens allowed me to within a couple feet of the arch while still fitting it in my frame. With the Sierra Crest framed by the arch, I was careful to position myself so both Lone Pine Peak (on the left) and Mt. Whitney (on the right) were visible. Finally, I needed to decide the camera height. When the sky is less interesting, I raise my camera to fill the arch’s opening with the mountains and minimize the sky. But this evening the colorful sky was an asset, so I dropped as low as I could to maximize it.
At such a wide focal length, depth of field was a piece of cake—I didn’t need to check my hyperfocal app to know that I had lots of margin for error. Focusing toward the back of the arch, I easily achieved the front-to-back sharpness I wanted. Click.
Posted on February 4, 2018
Much of my photography is about juxtaposition of elements with the landscape. Sometimes that’s simply combining static terrestrial features, but when possible I try to add something more dynamic, such as meteorological subjects like lightning or a rainbow, or celestial objects like the Milky Way or the Moon. The challenge with dynamic juxtapositions is timing—while the meteorological juxtapositions are usually a matter of playing the odds, celestial juxtapositions are gloriously precise.
Just as the Earth revolves around the Sun, the Moon revolves around Earth; at any point in this celestial dance, half of Earth is daylight and half is night, while half of the Moon is lit and half is dark. The amount of the Moon we see (its phase) depends on the relative position of the Sun, Moon, and Earth in this dance, and once each month all of the sunlit side of the Moon faces the dark side of Earth, and we Earthlings enjoy a full Moon.
This alignment of three or more orbiting celestial bodies necessary for a full (and new) Moon is called ‘syzygy.’ Due to the Moon’s orbit around Earth, the Sun, Earth, and Moon achieve syzygy twice each lunar month: once when the Moon is between the Sun and Earth (a new Moon), and again when Earth is between the Sun and Moon (a full Moon).
The Moon completes its trip around Earth every 27.3 days, but it takes 29.5 days to cycle through all its phases, from new to full and back to new again. The Moon’s phases need that extra 2+ days because as the Moon circles Earth, Earth also circles the Sun, taking the syzygy point with it—imagine a race with a moving finish line.
Viewed from Earth, the Sun and Moon are on opposite sides of the sky when the Moon is full, so a full Moon rises in the east at sunset and sets in the west at sunrise. We rarely see a full Moon rising exactly as the Sun sets (or setting as the Sun rises) because: 1) the point of maximum fullness (when the Sun, Earth, and Moon align perfectly) only happens at one instant on the full Moon day—at every other instant of each month’s full Moon day, the Moon is merely almost full (but still full enough to appear full); 2) published Sun/Moon rise/set times assume a flat horizon—if you have mountains between you and the horizon, your view of the true Sun/Moon rise/set is blocked; and 3) The more extreme your latitude (angular distance from the equator), the more skewed the Sun/Moon alignment appears.
Knowing this, it should make sense that the closer the Moon is to full, the longer it’s in the night sky, and a full Moon is in the sky all night long. Less intuitive but very important for lunar photographers to know, each day the Moon rises an average of 50 minutes later (between 30-70 minutes) than it rose the previous day—I usually mentally round to an hour for quick figuring.
If the Moon orbited Earth on the same plane Earth orbits the Sun, we’d have an eclipse with each syzygy: every new Moon, Earth would pass through the Moon’s shadow and somewhere on Earth would experience a solar eclipse; every full Moon the night side of Earth would witness a lunar eclipse as the Moon passes into Earth’s shadow. But the Moon’s orbit is tilted about 5 degrees from Earth’s orbit, making the perfect alignment an eclipse requires relatively rare.
It turns out that the alignment of the Sun, Earth, and Moon necessary for a lunar eclipse happens from two to four times each year. Of these, about one-third are total eclipses, when Earth’s shadow completely covers the Moon. At totality, most of the sunlight illuminating the Moon is blocked by Earth, and the only light to reach the Moon has passed through Earth’s atmosphere, which filters out all but the long, red wavelengths. For the same reason sunsets are red, during a total lunar eclipse we see a red or “blood” Moon.
Putting it all together
As frequent and familiar as the rise and set of the Moon is, the opportunity to witness the beauty of an eclipse is rare. But in the last six months, after being shut out by schedule or weather for many years, I’ve managed to photograph my first total solar and lunar eclipses. I wasn’t able to juxtapose the August solar eclipse with a favorite landscape, but I wasn’t going to let that happen again for last week’s lunar eclipse.
Viewed from Death Valley’s Zabriskie Point in winter, the setting full Moon’s azimuth aligns nicely with Manly Beacon, one of the park’s most recognizable features. Though this year’s alignment was particularly good, the morning of the eclipse was a day earlier than I’d normally photograph the Zabriskie Point moonset—the next day the Moon would be setting about 45 minutes later, providing ample time to photograph the landscape in the warm early light before the Moon descended behind the Panamints. Nevertheless, I decided that a total lunar eclipse trumps everything, and since Zabriskie was the best place for the eclipse, that’s where we were.
We started with telephoto compositions of the beautiful “blood Moon” phase because there wasn’t enough light to include the eclipsed Moon with the landscape without compositing two exposures. Composites are fine, but I prefer capturing scenes with one click. For wider images that included the landscape I waited until totality had passed, shortly before the Moon set, and switched to the Sony/Zeiss 24-70 with my Sony a7RIII, moving my Sony 100-400 GM to my Sony a7RII.
I captured this image about 25 minutes before sunrise, normally too early to capture landscape detail without over exposing the Moon. But this morning, following the total eclipse, the lit portion of the moon was still darkened by Earth’s penumbral shadow, which reduced the dynamic range to something my cameras could handle.
To enlarge the Moon and emphasize its juxtaposition with Manly Beacon, I went with the 100-400. With my composition and focus set, I slowly dialed up the shutter speed until I saw my a7RII’s pre-capture “zebra” highlight alert. After clicking I magnified my image preview and examined the moon to confirm that I did indeed still have detail. The foreground was quite dark on my LCD, but my histogram indicated the shadows were recoverable, something I later confirmed in Lightroom.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on January 7, 2018
I used to resist using the supermoon label because it’s more of a media event than an astronomical event, and it creates unrealistic expectations. But since the phenomenon appears to be with us to stay, I’ve changed my approach and decided to take advantage of the opportunity to educate and encourage.
What’s the big deal?
So just what is so “super” about a “supermoon?” Maybe another way of asking the question would be, if I hadn’t told you that the moon in this image is in fact a supermoon, would you be able to tell? Probably not. So what’s the big deal? And why do we see so many huge moon images every time there’s a supermoon? So many questions….
Celestial choreography: Supermoon explained
To understand what a supermoon is, you first have to understand that all orbiting celestial bodies travel in an ellipse, not a circle. That’s because, for two (or more) objects to have the gravitational relationship an orbit requires, each must have mass. And if they have mass, each has a gravitational influence on the other. Without getting too deep into the gravitational weeds, let’s just say that the mutual influence the earth and moon have on each other causes the moon’s orbit to deviate ever so slightly from the circle it seems to be (without precise measurement): an ellipse. And because an ellipse isn’t perfectly round, as it orbits earth, the moon’s distance from us depends its position in its orbit.
An orbiting object’s closest approach to the center of its ellipse (and the object it orbits) is at “perigee”; its greatest distance from the ellipse’s center is “apogee.” And the time it takes an object to complete one revolution of its orbit is its “period.” For example, earth’s period is one year (365.25-ish days), while the moon’s period is a little more than 27 days.
But if the moon reaches perigee every 27 days, why don’t we have a supermoon every month? That’s because we’ve also added “syzygy” to the supermoon definition. In addition to being a great Scrabble word, syzygy is the alignment of celestial bodies—in this case it’s the alignment of the sun, moon, and earth (not necessarily in that order). Not only does a supermoon need to be at perigee, it must also be syzygy.
Syzygy happens twice each month, once when the moon is new (sun-moon-earth), and again when it’s full (sun-earth-moon). (While technically a supermoon can also be a new moon, the full moon that gets all the press because a new moon isn’t visible.) Since the earth revolves around the sun as the moon revolves around earth, the moon has to travel a couple extra days each month to achieve syzygy. That’s why the moon reaches perigee ever 27 days, but syzygy comes every 29.5 days, and the moon’s distance from earth is different each time syzygy is achieved.
The view from earth: Supermoon observed
While perigee, apogee, and period are precise terms that can be measured to the microsecond, a supermoon is a non-scientific, media-fueled phenomenon loosely defined a moon that happens to be at or near perigee when it’s full. To you, the viewer, a full moon at perigee (the largest possible supermoon) will appear about 14% larger and 30% brighter than a full moon at the average distance. The rather arbitrary consensus definition of the distance that qualifies a moon as a supermoon is a full moon that is within 90 percent of its closest approach to earth.
I really doubt that the average viewer could look up at even the largest possible supermoon and be certain that it’s different from an average moon. And all those mega-moon photos that confuse people into expecting a spectacular sight when there’s a supermoon? They’re either composites—a picture of a large moon inserted into a different scene—or long telephoto images. I don’t do composites, but they’re a creative choice that I’m fine with others doing as long as they’re clearly identified as composites.
For an image that’s not a composite, the moon’s size in the frame is almost entirely a function of the focal length used. I have no idea whether most of the moons the full moon gallery below were super, average, or small. The images in this and my previous blog post were indeed super, taken within minutes of each other last Sunday evening, at completely different focal lengths.
Every full moon is super
A rising or setting full moon is one of the most beautiful things in nature. But because a full moon rises around sunset and sets around sunrise, most people are eating dinner or sleeping, and seeing it is usually an accident. So maybe the best thing to come of the recent supermoon hype is that it’s gotten people out, cameras or not, to appreciate the beauty of a full moon. If you like what you saw (or photographed), mark your calendar for every full moon and make it a regular part of your life—you won’t be sorry.
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Posted on December 26, 2017
One of my favorite things to do at year’s end is to look back at the things that made the year memorable. And my favorite part of this exercise is the realization that, even though I can’t say how, I know I will indeed be similarly rewarded in the coming year.
I’ll remember 2017 for several significant personal milestones, the many unexpected gifts from nature that I call “the most beautiful thing happening on Earth at this moment” moments, and (somewhat more prosaically) a lot of great new equipment that has made photography even more enjoyable for me.
In August of 1995 I visited the South Island of New Zealand for the first time. This was in my previous life, back when I trained programmers how to use the programming language of the company I worked for. And though I didn’t make my living as a photographer, I was very much a photographer at heart. My lodging for that trip was in rural countryside outside Christchurch, and I was so taken by the beauty that I carried a camera (this was before cameras were tiny and ubiquitous) on my 7-mile run each morning.
In late June of this year I finally fulfilled my dream to return to New Zealand. For ten days my good friend and fellow photographer Don Smith and I explored the mountains, fjords, lakes, and rainforests near Queenstown, New Zealand. We were scouting locations for a possible workshop, and were not disappointed. Though my previous visit had set my expectations bar quite high, this trip exceeded that bar with ease—Don and I came away with enough locations within a 150 kilometer radius of Queenstown to fill a 10-day workshop. By the time we returned, I was ready to proclaim New Zealand the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.
Total Solar Eclipse
What can I say? There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that can prepare a person for the experience of a total solar eclipse. So. After hearing many words of advice to that effect, I prepared like crazy, then almost blew my chance to photograph it because…, wait for it…, I wasn’t prepared. Honestly, the photographer in me felt like a college freshman trying to chat up a supermodel: pretty cocky going in, and instantly aware I was hopelessly out of my league.
This isn’t something I’m embarrassed about because, if asked to choose between experiencing the moment and photographing it, I’d choose the experience any day. I had no idea that I ended up with a couple of pretty nice images until I reviewed them on my computer later. And I still have no memory of how I did it.
Anyone who reads my blog knows how much I love astronomy. It’s an interest that goes back to childhood, and is so much more than identifying constellations (which I’m not especially strong at). Put simply, I love having my mind boggled, and nothing boggles my mind more than the immensity of the universe.
So imagine my excitement when I got the opportunity to peer into a telescope for my first in-person view of the Andromeda Galaxy (at least the first view that wasn’t just a faint smudge in the dark sky). And what could be better than that? How about actually attaching my camera to the telescope and letting it accumulate and record far more light than my eyes saw.
Like pretty much every other serious photographer, I always do my best to photograph my subjects in the best conditions. But for landscape photographers, great conditions are never guaranteed. And when they do happen, expected or not, they’re often so spectacular that it feels like I’m witnessing the most beautiful thing happening on Earth at that moment. Here’s a slideshow of my 2017 TMBTHOEATM candidates (in no particular order):
When I started this post, I didn’t imagine I’d be writing about equipment. But I realized that probably more than any other year in my career as a photographer, in 2017 I added equipment that actually made a difference.
Here’s a list of my equipment difference makers, and why they made a difference:
Sony 12-24 f/4 G: I’ve never had a lens that allowed me to go this wide. From the first time I took it to Yosemite, I knew it would allow me to photograph things I couldn’t have photographed before.
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM: I didn’t think this lens would make much of a difference in my photography, but its combination of speed and incredible sharpness made it my go-to night lens for most situations. I’m not throwing away my Rokinon 24mm f/1.4, but I’ll probably have to dust it off each time I use it.
Sony 100-400 f/2.8 GM: I’ve had lenses this sharp, and lenses this long, but I’ve never had a lens this long that’s this sharp. Not only that, whereas my other earlier long lenses were specialty lenses that I only packed when I planned to use them, this one is compact enough to have become a permanent resident in my camera bag.
Sony a7R III: Despite my love for my Sony a7RII, it had a few significant shortcomings (battery life and a single card slot to name two) that I longed to be fixed. Not only does the a7RIII fix these shortcomings, it actually gives me more dynamic range and better high ISO and I’m in photography heaven.
Here’s a random slideshow if images captured with my new toys:
I have no idea what’s in store for next year, but I’m ready. Bring it on!
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Posted on December 19, 2017
This month’s Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop group got the rare opportunity to photograph a full (or nearly full) moon rising above Half Dome at sunset on three consecutive nights. One reason it’s rare is that, as viewed from Yosemite Valley, the full moon and Half Dome only align in winter. But the real tricky part is making it happen three times when sunset happens at pretty much the same time each evening, but the moon rises about 45 minutes later.
My goal for photographing a rising full moon is to get the moon on the horizon in the window from 15 minutes before to 15 minutes after the “official” (flat horizon) sunset. Earlier and there’s not enough contrast and the moon looks bland; later and there’s too much dynamic range to capture detail in the dark landscape and daylight-bright moon.
The key to making this work starts with understanding that when you see a sunset or moonrise time published for a location, that time is always based on a flat horizon. So unless you’re atop a mountain or on a ship at sea, you’ll probably see the sun disappear behind the terrain in the west before sunset, and you’ll probably need to wait for the moon to rise above the terrain in the east.
Since the sun is at my back when a full moon rises, I’m not too concerned about the precise timing of the sun’s disappearance. But I need to be pretty dead-on for the moon’s arrival. Knowing the moon will rise an 40-60 minutes (or so) later each day, it’s easy to infer that the more days until the full moon, the higher the moon will be at sunset. Sadly, I have no control over the timing of the absolute sunset/moonrise, but I can control the elevation of the horizon, and therefore the moon’s appearance on a given day, by choosing my position relative to the horizon above which the moon will rise.
To make this workshop’s consecutive moonrises work, each evening I picked a view that was farther from Half Dome than the previous evening. On our first evening I chose a spot on the east side of Yosemite Valley; the next evening we were closer to the middle of the valley; on our the third evening our vantage point was near Tunnel View, at the opposite side of Yosemite Valley from Half Dome. The moon rose later above the flat horizon each evening, but by moving farther away, we reduced the distance the moon had to travel before it appeared.
Big moon, small moon
The other thing this little exercise illustrates is how to make the moon big in your frame. Notice that in each image, Half Dome is more or less the same size, but the moon gets progressively bigger. That’s because on any given day, no matter where I am on Earth, the moon is so far away that its apparent size doesn’t change. But the size of earthbound features, like Half Dome, changes a lot with proximity. When I was on Yosemite Valley’s east side for the first moonrise, filling my frame with Half Dome required just a little more than 100mm; the next night I was far enough back to require about 250mm to fill the frame; and on the final night, from eight miles away I needed more than 500mm. And as my focal length increased, so did the moon’s size in my frame.
Posted on December 10, 2017
Missing snow so far this winter, I’m going through some of my old snow images and came across this one from a few years ago. I’d traveled to Yosemite with the promise of snow in the forecast, but the night before the trip’s final day I went to sleep to the steady hum of rain. The next morning dawned damp and gray—and gloriously silent. Outside a thin veneer of fresh snow dusted the trees, and without even considering breakfast I headed to Tunnel View to survey the valley and plan my morning. By the time I arrived a patch of sunlight had burned a hole in the clouds above Cathedral Rocks and hints blue sky mingled with the clouds behind me. I knew the show there would soon be spectacular, but I’ve photographed many clearing storms from Tunnel View and wanted something different.
Without leaving my car I headed back down into the valley, stopping first at El Capitan Bridge, arriving just before the clouds atop El Capitan started lifting. I photographed there for about 15 minutes, long enough to see El Capitan’s nose go from obscure shadow to distinct outline to fully exposed granite. Before the clouds parted completely, I packed up and made a beeline for nearby Cathedral Beach. In the short time it took to drive a half mile most of El Capitan had emerged from the clouds and I rushed to grab my gear. The road to the beach was closed so I set out on foot, running most of the quarter mile to the river.
I found two other photographers at the west end of the beach and rather than compete with them for real estate, I trudged through the brush and fresh snow to an open space just downstream. There I was able to set up in solitude and move around at will. I was quite pleased to find a snow covered snag protruding from the river, adding a little depth to the foreground.
The beauty of photographing a Yosemite clearing storm is that no matter where you are, something spectacular is happening. Often in these situations I move between locations much more quickly than normal, but this morning I took my time and just enjoyed the show.
Wringing out as many compositions as possible, I started wide with both vertical and horizontal compositions that included El Capitan and the reflection. Next I went a little tighter, capturing just El Capitan, or just the reflection, or some of both. Finally I switched to a telephoto and started picking out individual elements: the swirling clouds and brilliant highlights on El Capitan’s vertical edge, the snow covered snag in the river, and so on.
A couple of related technical issues raised by this image: First, the focus point of a reflection; and second, where to focus when elements are spread from near to far throughout the frame. It’s counterintuitive to many that a reflection’s focus point is the focus point of the reflective subject, not the reflective surface. In other words, since El Capitan is at infinity, its reflection is in focus at infinity, and not when focused on the snag. If you don’t believe me, try it yourself.
Given that knowledge, and the fact that I generally want whatever’s in my foreground to be in focus (even if it means the background is slightly soft), I had to find a compromise focus point to ensure that both the reflection and the snag were in focus. With an extremely wide focal length and small aperture I was confident I could get the entire scene acceptably sharp if I focused carefully.
There are different approaches to maximizing focus range, such as relatively accurate but awkward hyperfocal charts, and rule-of-thumb guidelines like focusing a third of the way into the frame. Both have merit, and many excellent photographers employ them, but I prefer a more seat-of-the-pants approach that relies on my own experience and understanding of focus range. I generally find the closest subject I want in focus—in this case the snag—and then focus on something a little behind it.
Here I estimated the distance of the snag, found something behind me that I thought was a little farther away, and focused there. At f/16 that gave me a pretty large margin for error and I was confident the image was sharp throughout. Is this an approach I’d recommend for others? Perhaps, though it takes trial and error to perfect. I encourage you to familiarize yourself with hyperfocal distances–you don’t need to memorize them, but a basic understanding of the relationship between f-stops, focal lengths, and focus distance is invaluable for decisions like this.
Here’s an article from my Photo Tips section that might help: Depth of Field.