Expose yourself

Gary Hart Photography: Glisten, Diamond Beach, Iceland

Glisten, Diamond Beach, Iceland
Sony a7R III
Sony 12-24 f/4 G
1/25 second
F/18
ISO 100

With advanced exposure and metering capabilities, cameras seem to be getting “smarter” every year. So smart, in fact, that for most scenes, getting the exposure right is a simple matter of pointing your camera and clicking the shutter button. That’s fine if all you care about is recording a memory, but not only is there more to your exposure decision than getting the amount of light in your picture, there are many reasons to over- or underexpose a pictures. For the creative control that elevates your images above the millions of clicks being cranked out every day, giving control of one of its most important responsibilities to your camera overlooks an undeniable truth…

Your camera is stupid

Sorry—so is mine. And while I can easily cite many examples, right now it’s just important that you understand that your camera thinks the entire world is a middle tone. Regardless of what its meter sees, without intervention your camera will do everything in its power to make your picture a middle tone. Sunlit snowman? Lump of coal at the bottom of your Christmas stocking? It doesn’t matter—if you let your camera decide the exposure, it will turn out gray.

Modern technology offers faux-intelligence to help overcome this limitation. Usually called something like “matrix” or “evaluative” metering, this solution compares a scene to a large but finite internal database of choices, returning a metering decision based on the closest match. It works pretty well for conventional, “tourist” snaps, but often struggles in the warm or dramatic light artistic photographers prefer, and knows nothing of creativity. If you want to capture more than documentary “I was here” pictures, you’re much better off taking full control of your camera’s metering and exposure. Fortunately, this isn’t nearly as difficult as most people fear.

Laying the foundation

The amount of light captured for any given scene varies with the camera’s shutter speed, f-stop, and ISO settings. Photographers measure captured light in “stops,” much as a a cook uses a cup (of sugar or flour or almonds or whatever) to measure ingredients in a recipe. Adding or subtracting “stops” of light by increasing or decreasing the shutter speed, f-stop, or ISO makes a scene brighter or darker.

The beauty of metering is that a stop of light is a stop of light is a stop of light, whether you control it with the:

  • Aperture: The opening light passes through when the shutter opens, measured in f-stops
  • Shutter speed: The time the shutter is open, allowing light to pass through the aperture to reach the sensor—slower shutter speeds mean more light; faster shutter speeds mean less light
  • ISO: The sensitivity of the sensor (or film) to light

But while an aperture stop adds/subtracts the same amount of light as a shutter speed or ISO stop, the resulting picture can vary significantly based on which exposure variable combination you choose. Your shutter speed choice determines whether motion in the frame is blurred or frozen, while the aperture choice determines the picture’s depth of field. And while an ISO stop also adds/subtracts the same amount of light as shutter speed and aperture without affecting motion and depth, image quality decreases as the ISO increases. So getting the light right is only part of the exposure objective—you also need to consider how you want to handle any motion in the scene, and how much depth of field to capture.

For example, let’s say you’re photographing autumn leaves in a light breeze. You got the exposure right, but the leaves are blurred. To freeze that blur, you halve the time the shutter is open (faster shutter speed) to freeze the motion, but also reducing the light reaching the sensor by one stop. To replace that lost light, you could open your aperture by a stop (change the f-stop), double the ISO, or make a combination of fractional f-stop and ISO adjustments that total one stop. That’s a creative choice your camera isn’t capable of.

Metering modes

Today’s cameras have the ability to measure, or “meter” the light in a scene before the shutter clicks. In fact, most cameras have many different ways of evaluating a scene’s light. Your camera’s metering mode determines the amount of the frame the meter “sees.” The larger the area your meter measures, the greater the potential for a wide range of tones. Since most scenes have a range of tones from dark shadows to bright highlights, the meter will take an average of the tones it finds in its metering zone.

Metering mode options range from “spot” metering a very small part of the scene, to “matrix” (also know as “evaluative”), which looks at the entire scene and actually tries to guess at what it sees. Each camera manufacturer offers a variety of modes and there’s no consensus on name and function (different function for the same name, same function for different names) among manufacturers, so it’s best to read your camera’s manual to familiarize yourself with its metering modes.

Since I want as much control as possible, I prefer spot metering because it’s the most precise, covering the smallest area of the frame possible, an imaginary circle in the center three (or so) percent (depending on the camera) of what’s visible in the viewfinder. Spot metering, I can target the part of the frame I deem most important and base my exposure decision on the reading there.

Spot metering isn’t available in all cameras. In some cameras, the most precise (smallest metering area) metering mode available is “partial,” which covers a little more of the scene, somewhere around ten percent.

Exposure modes

Don’t confuse the metering mode with the exposure mode. While the metering mode determines what the meter sees, the exposure mode determines the way the camera handles that information. Most DSLR (digital single lens reflex) and mirrorless cameras offer manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, and a variety of program or automatic exposure modes. Serious landscape photographers usually forego the full automatic/program modes in favor of manual (my preference) or aperture/shutter priority modes that offer more control.

If you select aperture or shutter priority mode, you specify the aperture (f-stop) or shutter speed, and the camera sets the shutter speed or aperture that delivers a middle tone based on what the meter sees. But you’re not done. Unless you really do want the middle tone result the camera desires (possible but far from certain), you then need to adjust the exposure compensation (usually a button with a +/- symbol) to specify the amount you want your subject to be above or below a middle tone.

For example, if you point your spot meter at a bright, sunlit cloud, the camera will only give your picture enough light make the cloud a middle tone—but if you’ve only given your scene enough light to make a white cloud gray, it stands to reason that the rest of your picture will be too dark. To avoid this, you would adjust exposure compensation to instruct your camera to make the cloud brighter than a middle tone by adding two stops of light (or however much light you want to give the cloud to make it whatever tone you think it should be).

Rather than aperture priority, I prefer manual mode because I never want my camera making decisions for me. And once it’s mastered (a simple task), I think manual metering is easier. In manual mode, after setting my aperture (based on the depth of field I want), I point my spot-meter zone (the center 3% of the scene in my viewfinder) at the area I want to meter on and dial in whatever shutter speed gives me the amount of light I think will make that subject (where my meter points) the tone I want. That’s it. (In manual mode you can ignore the exposure compensation button.)

Trust your histogram

I see many people people base exposure decisions on the brightness of the image on the LCD. The typical approach is some variation of: 1) Guess at the exposure settings 2) Click 3) Look at the picture on the LCD 4) Adjust 5) Repeat. Not only is this approach lazy, it’s a waste of time and woefully inaccurate.

I call it lazy because these photographers (but of course I don’t mean you) don’t care enough about their craft to apply a skill that only takes minutes to learn (see above), a skill that will serve them best in the most difficult exposure situations. But that’s not the real problem—the real problem is the inaccuracy introduced by trusting the image on your LCD.

LCDs vary in brightness because viewing conditions change. With a brightness adjustment in every camera’s menu, many photographers simply turn their brightness to maximum because it’s easier to see, especially in sunlight, and a bright picture usually looks better. Other photographers use an auto-brightness setting that adjusts with ambient light—the more light it detects, the brighter the display.

Regardless of your LCD’s brightness setting, the variation in brightness of the screen and/or the ambient light make the image on the LCD a very unreliable exposure indicator. When people tell me their images are usually too dark on their computer or in prints, the first thing I do is check the brightness of their camera’s LCD—if it’s set to maximum, they’re likely fooled into thinking the exposure was brighter than it actually was.

How do you fix this? Simple: Learn to read a histogram, and never use your camera’s LCD for exposure decisions again. The histogram is as simple as it is useful.

Day's End, Ke'e Beach, Hawaii

Day’s End, Ke’e Beach, Hawaii

Ke'e Beach histogram

A histogram is a plot of the tones in an image. I’ll save a more complex explanation for another day, but all you really need to know is that the graph starts with black on the left and brightens to white on the right. Every pixel in the image is sampled for its brightness—the brighter it is, the farther to the right it falls on the histogram. Anything in the image that’s too dark to display detail (black) is “clipped” (cut off) on the left side; anything in the image that’s too bright too display detail is clipped on the right. Ideally, nothing will be clipped on either side. If your scene contains a greater range of light (dynamic range) than will fit in the histogram, one side or the other will clip and you have exposure decisions too make—HDR (blending multiple exposures), graduated neutral density filters, or deciding that it’s okay to lose one side or the other (shadows or highlights). For example, the Ke’e Beach image above is predominantly middle tones, with just a few extremely bright and extremely dark pixels.

One more time

So let’s review. Start by selecting your metering mode (the way your meters”sees” the scene: spot, partial, matrix, and so on), then take your camera out of auto exposure mode and put it in manual (my recommendation) or aperture priority (if you prefer) mode. (Remember, I’m a landscape photographer so I never use shutter priority; if you’re shooting action, to better control the motion in your frame, you probably want to consider shutter priority if you don’t like manual exposure.)

Before metering, set your camera to whatever aperture you decide your composition calls for. Then meter, remembering that your camera isn’t telling you what the exposure should be, it’s telling you the exposure that will make what it sees a middle tone. Finally, correct the meter’s middle-tone bias by dialing in the shutter speed (in manual mode) or exposure compensation (in aperture priority) that gives the correct exposure.

After you click, check your histogram to be sure you got the exposure right.

What’s the correct exposure? That’s a creative choice that’s entirely up to you—feel free to play until you’re comfortable with your results. And the more you do it, the easier it gets.

For example

Below are some sample images and the thought process I followed to get the exposure.

Winter Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Winter Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite After choosing the aperture that gave me the depth of field I wanted, I spot-metered on the sunlit portion of El Capitan’s reflect (because it was the brightest thing in my frame and dialed my shutter speed until the meter indicated +2. That setting gave me enough light to resolve details in the shadows, but not so much light that the El Capitan highlights were blown out. If I’d have followed my meter’s “suggestion” to make El Capitan’s highlights a middle tone, the entire scene would have been too dark.

Here’s one matrix/evaluative metering would have made a mess of. The dynamic range (range of light between the darkest shadows and brightest highlights) was off the charts. Rather than compromise, I exposed to hold the color in the sky and let the foreground go to silhouette. I metered on the brightest (goldish) part of the sky next to Half Dome and dialed my exposure to +.3 (1/3 stop above middle tone). The sky was brighter than what you see here, but underexposing like this allowed me to emphasize the sky’s rich blue and the very Yosemite outline of Half Dome and Sentinel Dome. The highlights in the thin lunar crescent were clipped, but I didn’t care about the moon’s detail, only it’s shape.

Who says you should never blow your highlights? Here I metered on the brightest part of the poppy (near the top), setting my exposure to .7 (2/3 stop above middle tone). Everything you see that’s white is blown blue sky (except the “star,” which is a sliver of the sun).

Now get to work

Don’t wait to apply all this for the first time until you really, really want the shot. Instead, find a time when the results don’t matter and play with your camera to find out how much control you have over exposure. In fact, you can do this right now in your backyard or even sitting right there in your recliner. Meter something nearby, set an exposure, and click. Look at the result, adjust the exposure, and click again. Watch your histogram, and watch how its shape shifts right as you increase the exposure, or left as you decrease it. Continue doing this until you’re confident in your ability to make a scene brighter or darker, and can consistently achieve the exposure you expect.

About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Glisten, Diamond Beach, Iceland

Glisten, Diamond Beach, Iceland

It not too difficult to figure out how Iceland’s Diamond Beach got its name. A black sand beach on Iceland’s south coast, just down stream from Glacier Lagoon, Diamond Beach is dotted with glistening blocks of ice ranging in size from a refrigerator ice cube, to an entire refrigerator.

As spectacular as Diamond Beach was on my first visit, it was also unlike anything I’d ever seen, so it took me a little while to figure out how I wanted to shoot it. I tried a few frames that used long shutter speeds to blur the motion of the waves around the ice, but when the sun appeared, I saw another opportunity.

With my Sony 12-24 G lens on my Sony a7RIII, I set up just a couple of feet from one of the larger icebergs, went all the way out to 12mm, and waited for the sun to peek above the ice, hoping to capture a sunstar. As I waited, I tweaked my exposure settings, dialing my aperture to f/18 to maximize my depth of field and to enhance the sunstar effect. When the sun appeared I was in business; as it rose, I dropped my camera lower to keep just a small sliver of sun visible above the ice.

Any frame that includes the sun is frame with lots of dynamic range. To get my exposure right for this image, I relied entirely on the histogram and ignored the image on the LCD, with its nearly black shadows and white sky. Despite the way  histogram told me I’d captured all the tones, and I confirmed that as soon as I started processing in Lightroom.

Workshop Schedule || Purchase Prints


Taking Control in Difficult Light

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Get out of the way (and let the scene speak for itself)

Gary Hart Photography: Nightfall, Full Moon and Yosemite Valley, Yosemite

Nightfall, Full Moon and Yosemite Valley, Yosemite
Sony a7R III
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
1/6 second
F/10
ISO 100

As aggressively as I seek creative ways to express nature with my camera, and as important as I think that is, sometimes a scene is so beautiful that it’s best to just get out of the way and let the scene speak for itself. I had one of those experiences last month at Tunnel View in Yosemite.

There’s a reason Tunnel View is one of the most photographed vistas in the world: El Capitan, Half Dome, Cathedral Rocks, Bridalveil Fall—each would be a landscape icon by itself; put them all together in one view and, well…. But the view this evening was truly transcendent, even by Yosemite standards. In Yosemite Valley below, trees and granite still glazed with the snowy vestiges of a departing storm seemed to throb with their own luminance. And above Half Dome a full moon rose through a sky that had been cleansed of all impurities by the departing storm, an otherworldly canvas of indigo, violet, and magenta.

On these crystal-clear, winter-twilight moonrises, the beauty rises with the moon, reaching a crescendo about 20 minutes after sunset, after which the color quickly fades and the landscape darkens. Unfortunately, a some point before the crescendo, the dynamic range becomes so extreme that no camera (not even the dynamic range monster Sony a7RIII) can simultaneously extract usable detail from a daylight-bright moon and dark landscape.

I’d driven to Yosemite solely to photograph this moonrise, an eight hour roundtrip for 40-minutes of photography. Starting with the moon’s arrival about 20 minutes before sunset, I’d juggled three camera bodies and two tripods, first shooting ultra long, then gradually widening to include more of the snowy landscape. Already my captures had more than justified the time and miles the trip would cost me, but watching the moon traverse the deepening hues of Earth’s shadow, I wasn’t ready to stop.

I’ve learned that with a scene this spectacular, conveying the majesty doesn’t require me to pursue the ideal foreground, or do creative things with motion, light, or depth of field. In fact, I’ve come to realize that sometimes a scene can be so beautiful that creative interpretations can dilute or distract from the very beauty that moves me. On this evening in particular, I didn’t want to inject myself into that breathtaking moment, I just wanted to share it.

To simply my images, I opted for a series of frames that used tried-and-true compositions that I’d accumulated after years (decades) of photographing here, the compositions I suggest as “starters” for people who are new to Yosemite, or use myself to jump-start my inspiration: relatively tight horizontal and vertical frames of El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall; El Capitan and Half Dome; or Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall. In the image I share above I concentrated on Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall, capping my frame with the wispy fringes of a large cloud that hovered above Yosemite Valley.

Simplifying my compositions had the added benefit of freeing all of my (limited) brain cells to concentrate on the very difficult exposure. The margin for error when photographing a moon this far after sunset is minuscule—if you don’t get the exposure just right, there’s no fixing it in Photoshop later: too dark and there’s too much noise in the shadows; too bright and lunar detail is permanently erased. The problem starts with the understandable inclination to expose the scene to make the landscape look good on the LCD, pretty much guaranteeing that the moon will be toast. Compounding this problem is the histogram, which most of us have justifiably come to trust as the final arbiter for all exposures. But when a twilight moon (bright moon, dark sky) is involved, even the histogram will fail you because the moon is such a small part of the scene, it barely (if at all) registers on the histogram.

Rather than the histogram, for these dark sky moon images I monitor my LCD’s highlight alert (“blinking highlights”), which is usually the only way to to tell that the moon has been overexposed. If the moon is flashing, I know I’ve given the scene too much light and need to back off until the flashing stops—no matter how dark the foreground looks. This is where it’s essential to know your camera, and how far you can push its exposure beyond where the histogram and highlight alert warn you that you’ve gone too far.

When I’m photographing a full moon rising into a darkening sky, I push the exposure to the point where my highlight alert just starts blinking (only the brightest parts of the moon, not the entire disk, are flashing), then I give it just a little more exposure. I know my Sony a7RIII well enough to know that I can still give it a full stop of light beyond this initial flash point and still recover the highlights later. The shadows? In a scene like this they’ll look nearly black, a reality my histogram will confirm, but I never cease to be amazed by how much detail I can pull out of my a7RIII’s shadows in Lightroom and Photoshop.

I continued shooting for several minutes after this frame, and discovered later that even my final capture contained usable highlights and shadows. I chose this image, captured nearly five minutes before I quit, because it contained the best combination of color, lunar detail, and clean (relatively noise-free) Yosemite Valley.

Photograph next year’s February full moon in my Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop

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Letting Nature Speak for Itself

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Thinking Inside the Box

Winter Moonrise, Full Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a6300
Sony 100-400 GM
Sony 2x teleconverter
ISO 200
f/11
1/400 second

Roll over, Ansel

Several years ago, while thumbing through an old issue of “Outdoor Photographer” magazine, I came across an article on Lightroom processing. It started with the words:

“Being able to affect one part of the image compared to another, such as balancing the brightness of a photograph so the scene looks more like the way we saw it rather than being restricted by the artificial limitations of the camera and film is the major reason why photographers like Ansel Adams and LIFE photographer W. Eugene Smith spent so much time in the darkroom.”

While it’s true that Ansel Adams and W. Eugene Smith were indeed darkroom masters, statements like this only perpetuate the myth that the photographer’s job is to reproduce the scene “the way we saw it.” And because I imagine that using Ansel Adams himself to peddle this notion must send Ansel rolling in his grave, I’ll start by quoting the Master himself:

  • “When I’m ready to make a photograph, I think I quite obviously see in my mind’s eye something that is not literally there in the true meaning of the word.”
  • “Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative art.”
  • “Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships!”

Do these sound like the thoughts of someone lamenting the camera’s “artificial limitations” and photography’s inability to duplicate the world the “way we saw it”? Take a look at just a few of Ansel Adams’ images and ask yourself how many duplicate the world as we see it: nearly black skies, exaggerated shadows and/or highlights, and skewed perspectives that intentionally emphasize one subject over another, and on and on. And no color! (Not to mention the fact that every image is a two-dimensional rendering of a three-dimensional world.) Ansel Adams wasn’t trying to replicate scenes more like he saw them, he was trying to use his camera’s unique (not “artificial”) vision to show us aspects of the world he wanted us to see, qualities we might otherwise miss or fail to appreciate.

The rest of the OP article contained solid, practical information for anyone wanting to come closer to replicating Ansel Adams’ traditional darkroom techniques in the contemporary digital darkroom. But the assertion that photographers are obligated to photograph the world as they saw it baffles me.

You’ve heard me say this before

The camera’s vision isn’t artificial, it’s different. Dynamic range, focus, motion, and depth are all rendered differently in a camera than they are to the human eye. And while the human experience of any scene is 360 degrees, a still images is constrained by a rectangular box. Forcing images to be more human-like doesn’t just deny the camera’s unique ability to expand viewers’ perception of the world, it’s literally impossible. Which is why I’ve always felt that the best photographers are the ones who embrace their camera’s vision rather than trying to “fix” it.

For example, limiting dynamic range allows us to emphasize color and shapes that get lost in the clutter of human vision; a narrow range of focus can guide the eye and draw attention to particular elements of interest and away from distractions; and the ability to accumulate light over a photographer-controlled interval exposes color and detail hidden by darkness, and conveys motion in an otherwise static medium.

The box

But what about that rectangular box that constrains the world of a still image? I can think of no better way to excise distractions and laser-focus viewers’ attention on the target subject than taking advantage of the camera’s finite world. While many nature photographers default to their wide angle lenses to expand the visual box surrounding their landscape images and save their long lenses for wildlife, a telephoto lens is an essential landscape tool. The world can be a busy place—in even the most spectacular of vistas, so much is happening visually that going wide in a still photo to include as much beauty as possible introduces many extraneous features, and risks shrinking the scene’s most compelling elements to virtual insignificance.

The best way to overcome wide angle scene dilution is to forego the conventional view (the first thing everyone sees), identify the aspects of the scene that make it special, and isolate them with a telephoto lens. Whether it’s a striking mountain or tree, backlit poppy, or rising moon, isolation enlarges the target subject and removes any ambiguity about what the image is about. And an intimate, up-close perspective of a subject more commonly seen from a distance can be truly mesmerizing.

About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Moonrise, Half Dome, Yosemite

Winter Moonrise, Half Dome, Yosemite

I stood atop two feet of packed snow at Tunnel View, more than eight miles from Half Dome, and ten miles from the ridge that would be ground zero for the moonrise that had drawn me in the first place. Along with two other photographers who also seemed aware of the moon’s plans, I had the best (least obstructed) Tunnel View vantage point to myself. Rising full moon or not, before me the table was set for a spectacular Yosemite feast: Brand new snow glazed every exposed surface, and in the pristine winter air, Tunnel View’s veritable who’s who of Yosemite landmarks—El Capitan, Cloud’s Rest, Half Dome, Sentinel Rock, Sentinel Dome, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall—seemed etched into the scene. Above, dark clouds boiled atop El Capitan, while wispy fog radiated from the valley floor.

Occasionally a tourist would wander up and request help identifying Horsetail’s microscopic filament on El Capitan’s vast granite; one or two even pointed at Bridalveil Fall and asked if that was Horsetail Fall. A couple of people, blissfully oblivious to the Horsetail Fall phenomenon, simply wanted their picture taken with this iconic Yosemite backdrop.

About 150 feet down the wall to my right, at least two-dozen photographers on tripods were inexplicably crammed into a significantly less desirable view. While that vantage point gave them an acceptable sightline to Horsetail Fall (as did my own), the rest of the magnificent Tunnel View vista was partially obscured by trees. The only explanation I could muster for their odd choice was that the first to arrive for some reason set up there, and each subsequent photographer assumed that since others have set up here, this must be the spot.

While Horsetail Fall was irrelevant to my objective this evening, the overnight snow still clinging to the trees was undeniable bonus. Getting to Tunnel View had been an adventure, worse even than I’d expected, and I was glad that I’d allowed ample time. The difficulty started with a 30-minute (Horsetail Fall gawker infused) queue at the Arch Rock entrance station. My suspicion that these were mostly inexperienced photographers and tourists (who’d just read an article or seen a news segment and decided to check it out) was confirmed when I was forced to navigate a slalom course of slipping, sliding, spinning cars that had ignored the very clearly communicated chain controls. The serious photographers, those who had photographed Horsetail Fall before, or who had the sense to research the phenomenon well in advance, had been in position for the five-minute show for hours.

With the moon’s imminent arrival upon a scene that already bordered on visual overload, my plan to ensure that the main purpose of my visit didn’t get swallowed by Tunnel View’s conventional post-storm majesty was to start, while the moon was still right on the horizon, with extremely tight compositions. As the moon rose, I planned to widen my focal length, gradually including more scene and turning the moon into more of an accent.

To achieve this, I was flanked by two tripods, and had three camera bodies fired up and ready for action: my Sony a7RIII, a7RII, and a6300. Atop my Really Right Stuff TVC-24L tripod was my a6300 loaded with my Sony 100-400 GM and Sony 2X teleconverter. This combination gave me a 600-1200mm full-frame equivalent focal range (because the a6300 is a 1.5-crop APS-C sensor). When including the rising moon required reducing my focal length below 800mm, I’d switch to my higher resolution, full frame Sony a7RII. And because the moon would rise just about 20 minutes before sunset, I also had to be aware of the possibility that Horsetail Fall would fire up. To handle that possibility, and to cover all my general wide composition needs, mounted on my RRS TQC-14 tripod was my Sony a7RIII and Sony 24-105 f/4 lens.

I pointed my a6300/100-400 at the point where I expected the moon to appear about 20 minutes before sunset, zoomed all the way out to 800mm (1200mm full-frame equivalent), metered, focused, and waited. I started clicking almost immediately after seeing the moon’s leading edge nudge through the trees, refining my composition slightly after each click until I had the right balance of moon and Half Dome. It always surprises me how quickly the moon moves, speed that’s magnified tremendously at such an extreme focal length. Spending the next 40 minutes frantically changing focal lengths, switching lenses and camera bodies, re-metering and re-focusing, and bouncing between tripods, I felt like the percussionist in a jazz band.

When the moon climbed far above Yosemite Valley and the dynamic range between the daylight-bright moon and nighttime landscape made photography impossible, I paused before packing up my gear and just marveled at the beauty. Horsetail Fall had caught a few late rays of sunlight but never did completely light up. I thought about the disappointment of frigid photographers who had waited patiently in the valley below for a show that didn’t happen, and counted my blessings.

Photograph next year’s February full moon in my Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop


Isolation Sensation

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A Horsetail of a Different Color

Gary Hart Photography: El Capitan Glow, Yosemite

Winter Glow, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7R III
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
1 second
F/1
ISO 100

Last week’s Yosemite photo workshop was ostensibly about Horsetail Fall, but it turned out to be so much more than that. In fact, after photographing more snow than I’ve seen in Yosemite in many (many) years, Horsetail Fall was a bit anticlimactic. The only evening that Horsetail Fall got the coveted direct light everyone came on our second day. Going all-in on Horsetail Fall that evening, we got a decent (not spectacular) show that satisfied everyone enough that they were content to return our attention to the rest of snow-covered Yosemite Valley.

Ironically, what could arguably be called the best shoot of a workshop filled with spectacular shoots might just have been at the mega-popular, always packed view of Horsetail Fall on Southside Drive—on an evening when fall didn’t quite light up. To get here we had to trudge 50 yards through 3- to 4-foot deep fresh powder, but we were utterly alone (unprecedented in my many years photographing Horsetail Fall) to watch sunset paint a diffuse glow on El Capitan and magenta clouds overhead. And as the first visitors here since six-inches of snow had erased all evidence of prior human presence, we got to photograph the scene framed by virgin white snow glazing every exposed surface.

Yesterday I returned to Yosemite, making the 8-hour roundtrip not to photograph Horsetail Fall, but to photograph the full (“super”) moon rising behind Half Dome at sunset. But before setting up shop at Tunnel View, I couldn’t resist circumnavigating Yosemite Valley to check out the Horsetail Fall mayhem. With new snowfall decorating the trees and blanketing the roads, conditions were equal parts beautiful and treacherous.

Unlike last year, the National Park Service isn’t requiring permits, but they have blocked off many normally open parking areas. Cruising around in my Subaru Outback, I witnessed multiple cars that had foolishly ignored the R2 chain requirement (chains except for 4WD/AWD with snow tires) slipping, sliding, and spinning tires unproductively—some sliding backward downhill and others blocking the road. I also saw many cars parked illegally on the road or in closed parking areas. Given the fact that Horsetail Fall didn’t deliver last night, I doubt they’ll feel that their parking tickets (or towing bill) were worth the indiscretion.

I also talked to people who pulled into Tunnel View 30 minutes before sunset hoping to photograph Horsetail Fall. Some even thought that Bridalveil Fall was Horsetail Fall. If you plan to photograph Horsetail Fall, please do your homework. It truly can a remarkable experience, but it can also be a nightmare for the unprepared.

And speaking of Horsetail Fall preparation…



Here is a just-revised version of the Horsetail Fall article in my Photo Tips section

(Check out the “Breaking News” section if you plan to photograph Horsetail Fall in 2019)

The Horsetail Fall phenomenon

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 at its best 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.

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 was captured February 9. I’ve also had success photographing it right up until the end of February. On the other hand, I tried Horsetail once on March 1 and found the shadow no longer cooperating. But the stripe of sunset light on El Capitan is most precisely focused on Horsetail Fall in the third week of February.
  • 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.
  • 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, relative ease access and two spots have become the go-to Horsetail spots for most photographers.

* Breaking News *

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.

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. And 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 where you’ll 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 the 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 Sentinel Rock almost directly above you (which also gets fantastic late light) 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 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.

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. 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, 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. Since you have no idea when the light will disappear for good, just keep shooting, especially in the final fifteen minutes before sunset (trust me on this). 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 eventually red. The best light is in the final ten minutes before sunset; that’s when you might have a hard time resisting burst mode.

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 200mm or full frame. I use my 24-105 and 70-200 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.

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 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.

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, this is a decision you should make long before the best light arrives.

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. To get the color in the fall and Horsetail, I usually underexpose slightly. The trees have little value beyond framing and usually work better when very dark green to black, a fact that’s completely lost on your meter. And monitor your RGB histogram to ensure that you haven’t clipped the red (Horsetail and El Capitan) or blue (sky) channels. Highlight Alert (blinking highlights) is your friend.

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 take in the amazing spectacle of Horsetail Fall.

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A Horsetail Fall Gallery

Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.

Love What You Shoot

Gary Hart Photography: Snow and Reflection, El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite

Snow and Reflection, El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite
Sony a7RIII
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
1/25 second
F/11
ISO 100

Feel the love

One frequently uttered piece of photographic advice is to “shoot what you love.” And while photographing the locations and subjects we love most is indeed pretty essential to consistently successful images, unless we treat our favorite subjects with the love they deserve, we risk losing them.

My relationship with Yosemite predates my memories, so it’s no wonder that Yosemite Valley plays such a significant role in my photography. Of course my love for Yosemite doesn’t make me unique, and like all Yosemite photographers, I’ve learned to share. While it’s nice to have a location to myself (I can still usually find a few of those spots in Yosemite Valley), I’m happy to enjoy Yosemite’s prime photographic real estate with other tourists and photographers. In fact, I get vicarious pleasure watching others view the Yosemite scenes I’ve been visiting my entire life.

But

In recent years I’ve noticed more tourists and photographers abusing nature in ways that at best betrays their ignorance, and at worst reveals their indifference to the fragility of the very subjects that inspire them to click their shutters in the first place. Of course it’s impossible to have zero impact on the natural world—starting from the time we leave home, we consume energy that pollutes the atmosphere and contributes greenhouse gases. Once we arrive at our  destination, every footfall alters the world in ways ranging from subtle to dramatic—not only do our shoes crush rocks, plants, and small creatures, our noise clashes with the natural sounds that comfort humans and communicate to animals, and our vehicles and clothing scatter microscopic, non-indigenous flora and fauna.

A certain amount of damage is an unavoidable consequence of keeping the natural world accessible to all who would like to appreciate it, a tightrope our National Park Service does an excellent job navigating. It’s even easy to believe that we’re not the problem—I mean, who’d have thought merely walking on “dirt” could impact the ecosystem for tens or hundreds of years? But, for example, before straying off the trail for that unique perspective of Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, check out this admonition from the park.

Hawaii’s black sand beaches may appear unique and enduring, but the next time you consider scooping a sample to share with friends back on the mainland, know that Hawaii’s black sand is a finite, ephemeral phenomenon that will be replaced with “conventional” white sand as soon as its volcanic source is exhausted, as evidenced by the direct correlation between the Hawaiian islands age (and the cessation of volcanic activity) and their proliferation of black-sand beaches.

While Yosemite’s durable granite may lull photographers into environmental complacency, its meadows and wetlands are quite fragile, hosting many plants and insects that are an integral part of the natural balance that makes Yosemite unique. Not only that, they’re also home to native mammals, birds, and reptiles that so many enjoy photographing. Despite all this, I can’t tell you how often I see people in Yosemite (photographers in particular) unnecessarily cutting trails and trampling fragile meadows and shorelines, either to get in position for a shot or simply as a shortcut.

Don’t be this photographer

Still not convinced? If I can’t appeal to your environmental conscience, consider that simply wandering about with a camera and/or tripod labels you, “Photographer.” In that role you represent the entire photography community: when you do harm as Photographer, most observers (the general public and decision makers) go no farther than applying the Photographer label and lumping all of us into the same offending group.

Like it or not, one photographer’s indiscretion affects the way every photographer is perceived, and potentially brings about restrictions that directly or indirectly impact all of us. If you like barricades, permits, restrictions, and rules, just keep going wherever you want to go, whenever you want to go there.

It’s not that difficult

Environmental responsibility doesn’t require joining Greenpeace or dropping off the grid (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Simply taking a few minutes to understand natural concerns specific to whatever area you visit is a good place to start. Most public lands have websites with information they’d love you to read before visiting. And most park officials are more than happy to share literature on the topic (you might in fact find useful information right there in that stack of papers you jammed into your center console as you drove away from the park entrance station).

When you’re in the field, think before advancing. Train yourself to anticipate each future step with the understanding of its impact—believe it or not, this isn’t a particularly difficult habit to establish. Whenever you see trash, please pick it up, even if it isn’t yours. And don’t be shy about gently reminding other photographers whose actions risk soiling the reputation for all of us.

A few years ago, as a condition of my Death Valley workshop permit, I was guided to The Center for Outdoor Ethics and their “Leave No Trace” initiative. There’s great information here–much of it is just plain common sense, but I guarantee you’ll learn things too.

Now go out and enjoy nature–and please save it for the rest of us.

A few words about this image

This year’s Yosemite Horsetail Fall photo workshop started with bang. Normally I start a workshop with a two-hour orientation, but with six inches of fresh snow on the ground and more falling, I did a lightning orientation (15 minutes) and we sprinted into Yosemite Valley in time to catch the storm’s clearing. We found a world dipped in pristine white powder, a Yosemite photographer’s dream. Normally I like to give my groups lots of time at every location, but in the rapidly changing conditions of a clearing snowstorm (shifting clouds and light, trees shedding snow, and footprints increasing by the minute), I try to hit as many spots as possible while the shooting is ideal.

Our third stop that afternoon was Valley View, one of the top two or three photo spots in Yosemite, for obvious reasons. Having visited here so often, I don’t stop here on every visit anymore, but I’d be sued for malpractice if I didn’t take my workshop groups here—especially when it’s glazed with fresh snow. I hadn’t taken my camera out yet, and wasn’t going to get it out here either, but while working with a couple of people in the group just upriver from the parking lot, I saw this view and couldn’t resist the opportunity for something new.

When Yosemite is covered with new snow, I look for compositions that emphasize the snow and use the icons as background. Not only did this view give me lots of fresh snow for my foreground, the recent removal of several trees (evergreens in Yosemite are dying from drought and insect infestation) that blocked El Capitan gave me a perspective I’ve never been able to photograph.

I set up on the line that gave me the best window between the trees to El Capitan and started with vertical compositions that emphasized the Yosemite icon, but soon switched to horizontal to include Bridalveil Fall and Cathedral Rocks and better feature the reflection. With my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens on my Sony a7RIII camera, I set up close to the nearby snow-covered trees, then kept moving closer, widening my focal length as I went to include as much snow as possible. After framing the scene to include the least possible blue sky, the most snow, and to avoid crowding Bridalveil Fall too close to the right border, I dialed my polarizer to minimize polarization on the water (maximum reflection), metered with an eye on my histogram, focused on branches about four feet from my lens, and clicked.

We made a couple of more stops that afternoon before wrapping up with a truly beautiful sunset at an unexpected (and fortuitous) location. But that’s a story for another day.

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The Many Faces of El Capitan

Click an image for a closer look and slide show. 

Iceland Light Show

Gary Hart Photography: Northern Lights, Glacier Lagoon, Iceland

Green Twist, Aurora Borealis, Glacier Lagoon, Iceland
Sony a7SII
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
8 seconds
F/2.8
ISO 3200

I’ve seen comets, a meteor storm, fireballs, a total solar eclipse, lots of lunar eclipses, the Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy, the Magellanic Clouds, Jupiter’s moons, Saturn’s rings, and many other manifestations of celestial splendor, but I’ve never seen the aurora. So when I scheduled a trip to Iceland this January (the heart of aurora borealis season), ostensibly to scout for the new Iceland photo workshop I’ll be doing with Don Smith next winter, my personal goal was to see the northern lights.

We’d only be in Iceland for one week, long enough for our guide (the expert, energetic, and always entertaining Óli Haukur) to give us a quick view of all the locations we’d visit in next year’s 10-day Iceland workshop (which will also include a local photography guide). With 10:30 a.m. sunrises and 5:00 p.m. sunsets, I didn’t expect the schedule to be too grueling, but I hadn’t accounted for Iceland’s two-hour winter sunrises and sunsets. With many miles to cover beneath a sun that never rises higher than (an extremely photogenic) 8 degrees above the horizon, every minute between our early starts and late dinners was spent spent either driving or photographing (fortunately, the schedule will be a little less compressed during the workshop). But wait, there’s more…. Given our aurora aspirations, each night immediately after dinner, we bundled up and ventured into the frigid dark seeking an electric light show.

For our nightly aurora hunt we’d drive a pretty scene that had both dark skies (not hard to find in Iceland) and a clear view of the northern sky. There we’d sit for an hour or two, fogging the windows in Óli’s spacious Suburban, trading stories and laughs, and periodically stepping into the cold to scan the sky, before ultimately deciding tonight wasn’t going to be the night.

With just two days in Iceland remaining, I was getting a little anxious, but things were looking up (both figuratively and literally). First, Wednesday’s forecast promised completely clear skies, a first for our visit. And Wednesday’s destination was Glacier Lagoon, a magnificent ocean inlet dotted with floating icebergs and a patchwork of thin ice and reflective water that makes an ideal foreground for the northern lights.

The aurora forecast that night was 2 on the 0-9 KP-index of magnetic activity, where 0 is “Enjoy your sleep” and 9 is “Don’t forget the sunglasses” (or something like that), bu Óli assured us that he’s “seen some great shows on ‘2’ and ‘3’ aurora nights,” though I was skeptical because we’d already struck out more than once with a similar forecast. He also told us that his favorite aurora nights are in the 4 and 5 range because with an index higher than that, the aurora can be so intense that an exposure that doesn’t blow the lights is too dark to capture the foreground.

Pulling into the parking lot Wednesday night and turning off the headlights, I immediately spotted a low fog hovering above the lagoon. Except Óli said that wasn’t fog, it was the beginning of the aurora. Dubious, we followed him down to the lagoon. I was thrilled (understatement) when my camera validated Óli’s assertion: My first view of the northern lights!

We spent a couple of hours photographing a low-hanging, fuzzy green bands, with hints of red, that for a few minutes brightened and took on a little definition. On the drive back to the hotel, Don and I could barely contain our elation, while Óli was pleased but relatively subdued. For an Iceland native, this was just another day at the office; for two photographers from California, it was a personal milestone. And then Thursday happened.

All week Óli had told us our best chance for the northern lights would be Thursday, our tour’s final night. We spent that day photographing spots near Glacier Lagoon: sunrise and sunset at Diamond Beach bookending a visit to a glacier ice cave. But as the day progressed, the wind picked up and clouds formed and thickened. We didn’t stress though, because we had our aurora pictures and it was difficult to imagine anything better than what we’d seen on Wednesday.

Nevertheless, despite a 100 percent cloud cover after sunset, we agreed to meet for dinner with camera gear in tow, ready for an optimistic venture back to Glacier Lagoon. And sure enough, emerging from the restaurant we saw the gray blanket had been replaced by ceiling of stars and we were in business. But still no aurora.

Hoping for a little different perspective, we started by scaling a hill overlooking the lagoon, sinking into thigh-high snow and fighting a 40-MPH headwind to summit. That adventure lasted about five minutes before the wind and less than ideal view (you don’t know until you try) drove us back to the site of last night’s success, in retrospect a wise choice indeed.

Back in the lagoon parking lot, we sat and watched a faint aurora ebb and flow, suddenly aurora snobs (“This is nothing like last night”). What looked promising out my north-facing side window one minute, all but disappeared the next, but then we noticed new activity in the western sky out the windshield. This ramped up so fast that we bolted down to the lagoon like Keystone Cops, and by the time I was set up the had become a green and (occasionally) red psychedelic extravaganza.

The next two hours were a blur as I witnessed what was quite possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life (rivaled only by, and impossible to compare to, the total solar eclipse in August 2017). Starting across the lagoon, in the western sky, the show gradually moved south(defying all my expectations), forcing me to constantly  shift further up the lagoon to keep the ice and water in my foreground.

With my head on a swivel, I watched glowing tendrils stretch skyward, some touching both the east and west horizons, others pulsing, spiraling, and doubling back,. It felt like I was inside a giant lava lamp. At one point I tore my eyes from the show above the lagoon and saw the entire eastern sky ablaze with tangled green ribbons. so intense that I turned my back on the lagoon and quickly scaled the snowy hill behind me for a better view in the other direction. Within ten minutes things picked up again over the lagoon and I raced (and occasionally tumbled) back down the hill.

Lessons learned

This is the only picture from that night that I’ve processed so far. And while it definitely should give you an idea of what I saw, it’s just a fraction of night’s mesmerizing display. Though the color wasn’t nearly this vivid to the eye, thanks to the camera’s extreme light gathering capability, this is pretty much the way it looked in the viewfinder of my Sony a7SII, and on my LCD preview after capture. About the only significant processing I did was tone down the green reflecting on the snow—not because it wasn’t there, but because I feared that keeping the actual amount of green I captured would strain credibility.

Getting a shot like this requires a significant amount of good fortune for sure, but all the good fortune in the world will do you no good if you don’t bundle up and get yourself into the extreme latitudes in winter. Also helpful is a little experience with night photography, specifically the ability to control your camera, compose, and focus in extremely low light.

While I benefited from an a7SII that can virtually see in the dark (making low light composition and focus a breeze), pretty much any relatively recent DSLR will do the job. Add to that a sturdy tripod and wide (24mm or wider), relatively fast glass (f/2.8 or faster, though I was able to make my Sony 12-24 f/4 lens work when the show was at its peak), and you’ll be fine.

I can’t emphasize too much how important finding a foreground to go with your aurora is. The northern lights are so spectacular, it’s easy to just show and forget to compose the scene. An aurora show like this changes so quickly, intimate local familiarity to know where to be without hunting is a big help. Our guide got us to a location with a wealth of foreground opportunities, but it certainly didn’t hurt that this was my third visit to Glacier Lagoon in two days. And when you get there, make sure you find both horizontal and vertical compositions.

And finally (because I know you’re going to ask), a few words about exposure settings. Keep in my that this was in fact my first rodeo, so you might find better advice elsewhere. But my Thursday shoot did benefit from knowledge gained Wednesday night. Specifically, my moonless night photography had been mostly limited to star trail and Milky Way shoots, where it’s all about maximizing light. But despite the moon’s absence for both of our northern lights shoots (though I’m told the moon isn’t the aurora deal-breaker it is with a Milky Way shoot), the rules are different for an aurora shoot because the sky’s brightness changes by the minute, and it’s often much brighter than a Milky Way sky.

On Wednesday I started with exposure settings closer to my Milky Way settings, using exposure times in the 15-30 second range because it’s virtually impossible to give a Milky Way scene too much light (with 2019 or earlier camera technology). But with an aurora, there is definitely such a thing as too much light.

When my exposure blew out the aurora during the Wednesday shoot, I took the opportunity to drop my ISO and f-stop, thinking that would improve my image quality. But the fingers of color shift so quickly in an active aurora like Thursday’s, a long a shutter duration blurs the display’s definition. On Thursday I tried to keep my shutter speed at 10-seconds or faster (faster is better), which was no problem given the aurora’s brightness.

By now you’ve probably figured out that you need to check your highlight alert and histogram with every frame, and adjust accordingly. And unlike most scenes, the RGB histogram is essential—many times my luminosity histogram (the white one) looked fine, but the RGB histogram’s green channel was seriously clipped.

Oh yeah, and don’t make the rookie mistake I made. Extreme cold like this (it was probably around 20F) will suck the life from a lithium ion battery. But because I’ve grown so accustomed to the great battery life of my Sony a7RIII, I forgot to make sure I’d packed my backup battery. I had one back in the room, which made it about as useful as chocolate frying pan. My battery started at 100%, dropped to 70% in about thirty minutes, and completely died 5 five minutes later. Fortunately Don took mercy on me and loaned me one of his four batteries. On Thursday I was much smarter: not only did I bring my backup battery, I brought an Anker portable charging cube and a charger.

I’m writing this on the plane home from Iceland, about to lose the charge on my laptop, so you’ll need to wait until a future post to learn more about the fascinating science of auroras (because I think it’s important to understand what you photograph). And let me just apologize in advance for the number of aurora images I’ll be sharing over the coming months (I’ll do my best to spread them out some, and I certainly have many other Iceland delights to share).


Celestial Wonders

Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.

 

Seeing the Entire Scene

Gary Hart Photography: Breaking Light, El Capitan and Three Brothers Reflection, Yosemite

Breaking Light, El Capitan and Three Brothers Reflection, Yosemite
Sony a7R III
Sony 12-24 f/4 G
1/25 second
F/10
ISO 100

As you might imagine, between my own images, my photo workshop participants’ images, browsing other photographers’ pages, and simply being connected to social media, I see a lot of images. A. Lot. Of. Images. And curse or blessing, I can’t help but have opinions—whether my own images or others’, some work wonderfully, others not so much.

There’s a lot that goes into creating a successful image, but if I could whisper in the ear of every photographer just before they click the shutter, it would be a reminder to, “See the entire scene.” It happens to all of us: We’re so drawn to a pretty scene or striking subject that we become blind to what’s happing in the rest of the frame. And it’s the what’s happening in the rest of the frame that separates a mere pretty snap of a beautiful scene from wall-worthy print that satisfies for years.

Dream world

Writer John Gardner talked about creating a “vivid and continuous dream” that so completely immerses readers in the imaginary world on the page, the physical world surrounding them temporarily disappears. Any distraction that jars the reader from the page and back into the present world is a failure.

The same applies to photography. As nature photographers, we invite the viewers of our images into a virtual world of our creation. To encourage these viewers to stay and explore our virtual world, we might offer them a fresh perspective, enable vicarious travel, or perhaps tap latent memories. Regardless of the reason, the longer they stay in our virtual world, the more successful our image. But when a jutting branch on the frame’s border reminds viewers of the world out the scene, or a bright rock tugs their eye and competes for attention with scene’s prime subject, our spell is broken.

Compromise

Sadly, nature rarely presents itself exactly as photographers want it. So many decisions we make are compromises: we bump the ISO to enable the small aperture and fast shutter speed the scene requires; we cut off a rock on the left because panning right would introduce garbage can; we can’t tighten a composition to eliminate a shrub because doing so would cut the top of a mountain; we don’t polarize the sky because the polarizer erases a rainbow; and on and on…. Given these realities, our goal doesn’t need to be perfection, it’s often just to slow down and see the entire scene to ensure the decisions that bring our image as close to perfection as possible.

For example

This flooded Yosemite meadow is a spring phenomenon caused by extreme runoff following a relatively wet winter. Some years it doesn’t happen at all, but last spring’s Yosemite workshop group was fortunate to be there during the few days the Merced River overflowed its banks here (I returned a couple of days later and found the river had receded). I could have plopped my tripod down (or simply raised my camera to my eye) anywhere in a 100 yard radius and been virtually assured of a beautiful picture.

But as beautiful as it was, and as much as I wanted to start clicking, my first stop to take it all in had some problems. From my original vantage point, the stand of trees on the right obscured the Three Brothers, so I moved left along the water’s edge. But given more trees on the left, it soon became clear that part of El Capitan would be obscured. My compromise was to find a spot that exposed both El Capitan’s nose and the Three Brothers.

I’d left the car with my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM Sony (on my Sony a7RIII) body because that lens had a polarizer for controlling the reflection—dial it up for the maximum reflection, dial it down to reveal the grassy texture just beneath the water, and maybe even a find midpoint with some reflection and some submerged grass. But 16mm wasn’t wide enough, so I sacrificed reflection control and switch to my Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens.

With my position and lens worked out, I was ready to frame my composition. I felt a little sense of urgency because I didn’t want to miss the rapidly moving splashes of light scooting across El Capitan, but I also didn’t want to rush so much that I missed a problem in my frame.

To dislodge my attention from a scene’s primary focus points, I often use a mnemonic device before clicking: “border patrol.” (Though perhaps in light of current events, I should come up with something different.) Border patrol is a gentle reminder to run my eyes around the border of my frame to check for problems. Potential problems here include cutting off part of a tree on the left or right, a distracting bright spot in the sky near the top of the frame, or inadvertently trimming El Capitan’s reflection on the bottom. (Incomplete reflections and distracting sky holes are some of the most frequently missed distractions.)

In this case I took care to ensure that I got all of El Capitan and its reflection while avoiding a few breaks in the clouds just above this view. I also used the evergreen on the left and the arcing trunks on the right to frame those borders. And by making sure my camera was perfectly level, I managed to keep my vertical lines straight.

Depth of field at 12mm wasn’t a concern; I chose f/10 and focused on the far bank knowing everything would be sharp. Motion wasn’t a concern, so I could just use ISO 100 and go with the shutter speed that gave me the best histogram in the viewfinder (I love mirrorless).


Careful Framing

Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.

 

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