Rules are a crutch

Gary Hart Photography: Looking Up, Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Hawaii

Looking Up, Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Hawaii
Sony a7R II
Sony 12-24 f4 G
12mm
1/8 second
F/8
ISO 800

Aloha from Hawaii!

Let’s have a show of hands: Who feels like their photography has stagnated? Let me suggest to all with your hands up that what’s holding you back may be the very rules that helped elevate you to your current level of proficiency. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that rules are important, the glue of civilization. Bedtimes, homework, and curfews got us through childhood and taught us to self-police as adults. Now we get enough sleep (right?), meet deadlines at work, and toe the line well enough to have become productive members of society with very little supervision (give yourself a gold star). But let me suggest that many of us have become so conditioned to follow rules that we honor them simply because they’ve been labeled “rule.”

As important as this conditioning is to the preservation of society, our reluctance to question rules sometimes impacts areas of our lives that might not be so cut-and-dried. One example would be photographers’ blind adherence to the (usually) well-intended “experts” proliferating online, in print, and at the local camera club. These self-proclaimed authorities spew absolutes for their disciples to embrace: Expose to the right!; Never center your subject!; Tack-sharp front-to-back!; Blurred water is cliché! Blah, blah, blah…. (My standard advice to anyone seeking photographic guidance is to beware of absolutes, and when you hear one, beeline to the nearest exit because the truth is, there are very, very few absolutes in photography.)

Rules serve a beginning photographer the way training wheels serve a five-year-old on a bike: They’re great for getting started, but soon get in the way. At first, following expert guidance, beginners’ photography improves noticeably and it’s easy to attribute all this success to rules. But by the time the improvement slows or even ceases altogether, those rules have become so deeply ingrained that it’s difficult to realize they now hold us back. You wouldn’t do Tour de France with training wheels, or run the Boston Marathon on crutches.

If photography were entirely rule-bound, engineers could write algorithms and design robots that did our photography for us. But the very definition of creativity is venturing beyond the comfortable confines of our preconceptions to create something new. In other words, if you’re not breaking the rules, you’re not being creative.

For example

For the last eight years I’ve spent one or two weeks on Hawaii’s Big Island. And on each trip I make multiple visits to the (fabulous) Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden just north of Hilo. There’s so much to love here, but I’m always drawn to the bottom of the garden overlooking Onomea Bay, where the luxuriant jungle unfolds beneath an interlaced canopy of towering monkeypod trees (albizia saman). Every time I’m down here I try to find a composition that captures the lushness I feel in the saturated air, and the way the monkeypod’s branches seem etched against the sky. And each time I come away a little disappointed.

This year, armed with my new Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens, I decided to give the scene another shot beneath the late afternoon overcast. With a decent breeze stirring the leaves, I pushed my ISO to 800 to be safe. Widening my view to 12mm and pointing up, it soon became clear that the palm tree I needed to anchor my frame belonged in the middle. And even without metering I knew that the crazy dynamic range (the shaded side of every leaf juxtaposed against a bright sky) would force me to sacrifice the texture in the clouds in favor of the essential detail and color in the jungle’s dense shadows.

Both of these important considerations flew in the face of rules that have constrained photographers for years. For as long as we’ve held a camera, our inclination to bullseye every subject has been stifled by voices whispering the “rule” of thirds (horizon 1/3 up from the bottom or down from the top; primary subjects at the intersections of an imaginary tic-tac-toe grid on our frame) in our ear. And of course digital photographers everywhere know to never blow the highlights.

In this case, even though it would get me booted from many camera club photo competitions, I’ve been scoffing at the rule of thirds long enough that centering the palm tree wasn’t hard. But seeing nearly half my frame flashing highlight warnings was a little more difficult. Nevertheless, I held my breath and went ahead with the shot you see here. And it turns out, instead of creating a problem, the white (overexposed) sky becomes a feature that only enhances the rich green and etched branches.

Homework

Sit down and write out your strongest, longest held photography rules (trust me, they’re there). Challenge yourself to break at least one of these rules each time you go out with your camera. Don’t expect miracles—at first your resulting images might not thrill you, but I promise that you’ll grow as a photographer, and you just might learn something in the process. (Oh, and you can put your hands down now.)

Mahalo!


Breaking the rules

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Eclipse 2017: Savor the Moment

Gary Hart Photography: Three Strikes, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon

Three Strikes, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon (2013)
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/3 second
24-105L
ISO 100
F11

Today I drive to the mountains of Idaho to photograph Monday’s total solar eclipse. Having never photographed an eclipse, total or otherwise, I have no eclipse images to share. And I won’t pretend to be an expert, or attempt to tell you how to photograph it. But I do have one piece of experienced-based advice that I want to share with photographers planning to capture the eclipse: Don’t forget to savor the moment.

For most, the eclipse will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a memory of a lifetime. Totality will be over in minutes. I’ve had more than my share of these special opportunities, some as simple as a fortuitous confluence of breathtaking landscape and spectacular light; some as predictable as the moon hovering above a favorite subject; and some as unexpected as a sudden rainbow above an iconic landscape.

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One such moment for me was the August morning in 2013 on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, when the weather forecast called for clear (boring) skies, and instead we got a two hour lightning display that started in the dark and climaxed with a rainbow and three simultaneous lightning strikes. For the first ten minutes of this show, my camera was misbehaving and I was unable to photograph anything. Nevertheless, my awe for what I was witnessing transcended my frustration, and today my memories are so much greater than a few favorite images. More important than the pictures I captured that morning are the vivid images etched in my memory, the people I shared the morning with, the emotion that came with each lightning bolt, and our giddy laughter at our good fortune. Truly one of the highlights of my life that would have been reduced to a few favorite captures if I’d have allowed myself to be too caught up in the photography. (And I still got my pictures.)

I honestly don’t know what to expect on Monday, but I expect it to be similarly thrilling, and I plan to drink in every second of it. I’ll do my scouting and planning to be as prepared as possible in advance, but I refused to be so focused on getting “the shot” that I fail to appreciate this experience of a lifetime. I’ll take a great memory over a great photo any day.

Read more about this unforgettable morning

A Few of My Own “Moments of a Lifetime”

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A National Park Secret

Gary Hart Photography: New Day, Grandview Point Sunstar, Grand Canyon

New Day, Grandview Point Sunstar, Grand Canyon
Sony a7R II
Sony 12-24 f4 G
12mm
1/8 second
F/18
ISO 100

America’s National Parks have always been busy in the summer, but in recent years the summer crowds have virtually overwhelmed many of our parks. Between gridlock on the roads, more cars than parking places, and hip-to-hip tourists at the vista rails, what was once an opportunity to commune with nature has become a survival of the fittest endurance test.

My solution has been to avoid the national parks in summer, but for many summer is the only time to visit the special locations they’ve longed to see for their entire lives. And the only thing worse than visiting Yosemite or Grand Canyon in summer, is never visiting them at all.

Though I can’t make the crowds go away, let me offer an experience-based suggestion that is guaranteed to enhance your national park experience: Sunrise. Or more accurately, the morning hours from about thirty minutes before sunrise until around two hours after sunrise.

For most people the idea of rising before the sun on a vacation is laughable, but therein lies the genius. If you can overcome the urge to be most people, you can enjoy America’s most crowded national parks, at the height of the summer rush, in glorious peace. You won’t be alone, but you’ll be savoring the day’s first rays with a microscopic subset of the park’s total visitors, kindred spirits who relish nature and solitude as much as you do, who speak softly, stroll slowly, and respect personal space.

About this image

As much as I try to leave the national parks to the tourists in summer, my desire to photograph the lightning and rainbows of the Grand Canyon’s summer monsoon leaves me no choice. A couple of days ago, Don Smith and I guided our photo workshop group out to photograph sunrise at Grandview Point on the always crowded South Rim. Grandview is one of Grand Canyon’s most popular spots, but leaving our hotel about 45 minutes before sunrise got us out there about a half hour before the sun, and long before the tourists had even hit their snooze button the first time.

There were just a couple of other cars in the parking lot, the same lot that in just a few hours people will be circling in vain for five, ten, even fifteen minutes. Having Grandview virtually to ourselves, the group was able to spread out and find their own view of the canyon without competing with the teaming midday hordes that most people experience there.

Along with a few other people in the group, I set up in front a concave sandstone rock with a view across the canyon to where the sun would soon appear. Because this is my first trip with my new Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens, I’ve been making a point to familiarize myself with it, so I twisted it on and went wide. With a clear horizon and relative dearth of clouds, I dialed my f-stop to f/18 to ensure a good sunstar when the sun crested the horizon, and composed a frame.

When photographing a sunrise, the advancing light makes it impossible to set the exposure very far in advance. In these rapidly changing conditions, I love my mirrorless Sony a7RII’s pre-capture histogram in my viewfinder—I just kept my eye on the histogram, dropped the shutter speed in 1/3-stop increments as the horizon brightened, and was ready to hit the ground clicking the second the sun appeared.

Grand Canyon Monsoon Photo Workshops

Workshop Schedule || Purchase Prints


A Grand Canyon Gallery

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Going wide

Gary Hart Photography: El Capitan and Three Brothers Reflection, Merced River, Yosemite

El Capitan and Three Brothers Reflection, Merced River, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony 12-24 f4 G
12mm
1/25 second
F/8
ISO 100

After years of drought, in spring of 2016 I had the good fortune to photograph Yosemite Valley with actual flooding—nothing devastating, just enough for the Merced River to overspill its banks and create reflections where meadows normally exist. One such location was a spot beneath El Capitan, where I found myself faced with the challenge of capturing more scene than my 16-35 lens could handle.

Stitching multiple frames was an option, but because I have a thing about not doing things I couldn’t do with film, my goal is to always capture a scene with one click (this is my problem, and in no way do I mean to discourage others from entering the 21st century). One benefit of my self-imposed one-click rule is that I often find creative compositions I might have overlooked had I settled for the easy solution, but in this case I really, really wanted to photograph the entire scene. The photography gods were smiling upon me that day, as I was leading a workshop and the photographer assisting me generously offered to loan me his Canon 11-24 f/4 lens (thanks, Curt). Since I had in my possession a Metabones adapter that allowed me to pair Canon glass to my Sony body, I leapt at the opportunity.

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

Spring Reflection, El Capitan and Three Brothers, Yosemite

That was an epiphany moment for me, because even though I knew that the difference between 11mm and 16mm is more significant than it sounds, I’d never really compared the two focal lengths side-by-side. Replacing my 16-35 with Curt’s 11-24, suddenly I had the entire scene in my viewfinder, with room to spare. Not only that, I learned as soon as I put the images up on my monitor that the Canon lens was really sharp—I was in love. Sony shooter or not, I came home fully intending to purchase the Canon lens, and came very close to making a big mistake.

My decision not to pull the trigger on a Canon 11-24 purchase was three-fold: 1) it was $3000 2) it’s so massive that it could never be a full time resident of my camera bag 3) I knew Sony was committed to expanding their lens lineup, and that I’d be wracked with regret if Sony released a similar lens soon after I’d sunk $3,000 into a lens that could double as a boat anchor. But still….

Imagine my relief when my Sony doused my Canon fantasies with an ultra-wide lens of their own this spring. Given the opportunity to test the Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens before it was announced, I immediately took it to Yosemite where the flooding on the Merced was even more extreme than last year. Finding “my” spot underwater, I probed the riverbank for nearby vantage points and found the view I’ve shared at the top of this post.

It wasn’t difficult to see that the Sony 12-24 is every bit as sharp as the Canon 11-24. And not only does it not require an adapter to use on my Sony bodies, it weighs less than half of what the Canon ultra-wide weighs. I ordered the 12-24 immediately and this week packed for my first trip with it.

When I drive to a photo destination I bring virtually every piece of camera gear I own, but when I fly, I need to be a little more selective. As I chewed on what to bring and what to leave out, not only did I quickly confirm that the 12-24 would make the cut, I discovered that the new lens is small and compact enough to occupy a permanent space my camera bag.

Which brings me to another thought. I shoot Sony mirrorless for several reasons—foremost is the image quality: Sony’s unmatched combination of resolution, dynamic range, and low-light capability is exactly what I need for landscape photography. And after a few growing pains, I’ve come to love the electronic viewfinder and can’t imagine ever going back. Sony’s lenses are as sharp or sharper than anything I had from Canon, but I don’t think the compactness of Sony’s f/4 glass gets the credit it deserves for their ability to provide so much quality in such a compact package. How compact? They’re small enough to slide into a slot in my bag oriented up/down (resting on an end rather than along a side), which gives me so much more room for more gear (and what photographer doesn’t love more gear).

Here’s what’s in my camera bag (F-stop Tilopa) for this week’s trip to the Grand Canyon:

  • Sony a7RII
  • Sony a7SII
  • Sony a6300
  • Sony 12-24 f/4 G
  • Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f/4
  • Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f/4
  • Sony/Zeiss 70-200 f/4 G
  • Rokinon 24 f/1.4
  • Two Lightning Triggers

That’s three (!) bodies and five (!) lenses, with room for even more stuff. Photographer heaven.

A few words about wide angle photography

Despite the fact that wide angle is the reflex response to most landscapes by virtually every tourist who picks up a camera, good wide angle photography is not easy. From diminished backgrounds to tilting verticals, wide angle lenses pose problems that can be turned to opportunities if they’re fully understood. I’ll save a full discussion of wide angle photography for another day, but here are a couple of tips that might help:

  • Put something in your foreground: Many of my wide angle images put the primary subject front and center, but even when the background scene is my main subject, I try to have something of visual interest in my foreground. Browse the gallery below and note how many images have an empty foreground (Hint: Not very many). Sometimes I’m able to include something as striking as a mirror reflection or colorful flowers, but often my wide angle foregrounds are as simple as nearby rocks or leaves. If there’s nothing at my feet and I’m required to use something distant, at the very least I want the foreground of my wide image to be filled something worthy of the space it occupies.
  • The tilting of vertical lines caused when you’re close to your subject is minimized when the sensor is on the same plane as the subject (not tilted up or down): Mount on your camera a wide angle lenses at its widest focal length, point it at a row of nearby trees (or some other vertical lines that spans the edges of your frame), and tilt up and down while looking through your viewfinder. At what point do the trees appear straightest? Most slanted? I rest my case.

Going Wide

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All’s well that ends well

Gary Hart Photography: Rainbow Reflection, Queen's Bath, Kauai, Hawaii

Rainbow Reflection, Queen’s Bath, Kauai, Hawaii
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1/15 second
F/11
ISO 100

Most photographers will tell you that some of the best locations are a bit of a pain to get to. Not necessarily death-defying dangerous, just a pain. Not only is Queen’s Bath on Kauai one of those locations, this year getting there required dealing with the Hawaii equivalent of the troll who lives under the bridge.

For many years I’ve been helping my friend Don Smith with his Kauai workshop (it’s a tough job, but, well, you know…). One of the highlights of the Kauai trip is Queen’s Bath, a surf-pounded lava shelf accessed by a short but steep trail through dense rainforest. When it’s dry the trail isn’t a big deal if you can avoid the deep ruts and protruding roots, but after any rain the route down is more waterslide than trail. We’ve had enough falls (including a broken bone that happened when someone who had been in the group tried to go down on her own after the workshop), that we won’t even attempt the hike if it has rained.

Queen’s Bath is on the wet side of Hawaii’s wettest island. Most years we pull up to the trailhead in the dark (well before sunrise), inspect the conditions, and move on to another location because the QB trail is too slippery. But after last year’s disappointment it occurred to me that maybe the funky tire-chain-like shoe attachments (AKA, YakTrax) that I use in winter to keep from slipping on ice might be worth a try. Don took that suggestion and ran with it; after a little research he found actual crampons on sale on Amazon, sent the upcoming group the link, and told them crampons or YakTrax would be required footwear for Queen’s Bath.

On our scouting mission to Queen’s Bath before the workshop started we negotiated the slick slope like velcroed mountain goats. While congratulating ourselves on our genius down at Queen’s Bath, we were warned by a couple who had arrived a little after us that there was a “crazy lady” (their description, not ours) yelling at everyone parking in the Queen’s Bath parking area for making too much noise. (Mind you, this is Kauai, where the roosters are at full volume well before sunrise.) We shook our heads and chuckled, but didn’t think much about it.

Driving away later that morning, we discovered that our SUV had a flat tire—weird, but stuff happens. We soon learned that there’s only one AAA truck on all of Kauai, so rather than wait, Don and I decided to answer the age-old question, “How many photographers does it take to change a tire.” (FYI, it’s two: one to change the tire, and one to make sure everyone knows he’s doing it all wrong.)

Fast forward to the next morning when, group in tow now, we charged down slope in the rain without a single slip. (Score one for genius.) The rain intensified soon after we arrived on the lava shelf, and for a while it looked like we might need to retreat. But soon we saw brightening clouds in the east, and not much later the rain stopped and out popped a full rainbow. The rainbow lasted at least 15 minutes, and the light stayed nice much longer than that. Thanks in no small part to the crampons, no one fell on the muddy trail or rain-slickened basalt, and everyone ended up with some fantastic photos and the morning seemed a huge success.

We were still basking in the glow of our beautiful morning as we returned to the cars—until someone noticed that the license plates were missing from our three vehicles. Huh? Suddenly yesterday’s ranting neighbor and our flat tire took on an entirely new meaning: Crazy Lady had vandalized our cars. I understand that photographers can be a little insensitive to their impact on their surroundings, but in our defense, Don and I always lecture the group about being quiet in the Queen’s Bath parking area, then monitor closely to ensure that no one forgets. We don’t allow any conversation or laughter in or near the parking area, so the only sounds we make are doors closing and feet shuffling—not completely silent, but certainly quieter than Kauai’s ubiquitous chicken population.

It’s possible that our nemesis was interrupted in her vile act, because we soon found the license plates and screws, as if they’d been haphazardly stashed as she made a hasty retreat. We recovered our property and with the help of someone’s screwdriver reinstalled the plates and departed without further incident. I have no idea how regularly this neighbor’s crazy manifests, but since it happened to Don and me on consecutive days (and we had exchanged our rental car with the flat tire, so there’s no way she knew it was the same people), I suspect she’s a serial vandal. But the bottom line is, no real harm was done, and we ended up with a great story and some fantastic images. So I guess all’s well that ends well.

A few words about this image

Rainbows feel like random gifts from heaven, but there’s really nothing random about them. Monitoring the conditions, you can usually anticipate the rainbow and get yourself in the best position to photograph it. What’s the best position? Successful photography is all about juxtaposition of visual elements, and (as much as we wish it were so) very rarely is the perfect relationship between the various elements in a scene exactly where you happen to be standing right now.

When a rainbow is one of your elements, it helps to understand that the rainbow’s center will always be at the anti-solar point (where your shadow points) and the rainbow will move with you.  If you want your rainbow over that tree, or mountain, or lake, just move until they align.

In Hawaii, or any location where rain showers are possible, the first thing I do is figure out where the rainbow will appear, and identify compositions to put with it. On this morning at Queen’s Bath, when I arrived I made a mental note of where the rainbow would appear, and when the sky near the eastern horizon started to brighten while the rain continued falling in the west, I moved closer to the ocean to get as much ocean and rainbow as possible in my frame. I also shifted toward an area with a collection of small reflective pools that I thought would make a great foreground, rainbow or not.

When the rainbow appeared, I was ready. After photographing it with a variety of foregrounds for a few minutes, I thought it would be pretty cool to get a reflection of the rainbow. I didn’t have to move far to align myself with the little pool you see in my image; from there it was about micro-positioning, moving closer/farther and up/down to maximize the rainbow’s reflection without cutting off the pools with the edge of my frame. For this image, I ended up about three feet from the pools and just a couple of feet above the rocks.

Read more about rainbows


A Rainbow Gallery

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What’s the deal with Yosemite’s dead trees?

One of the most frequently asked questions in my Yosemite workshops is some variation of, “Why are there so many dead trees?” My standard answer has always been a summary of what I’ve learned from talking to Yosemite rangers: The drought has stressed the trees and made them more susceptible to the bark beetle. This morning I read an excellent summary of the problem on the NPS Yosemite site explaining the problem, and adding to what I already knew, and I thought I’d share what I learned.

The problem

As someone who has been visiting Yosemite for (pretty much literally) my entire life, the tree death in Yosemite Valley in the last five years has been staggering. Yosemite Valley, once a carpet of green, is now stained with large patches of rust-brown dead or dying trees. Scenes I’ve photographed for over 40 years are suddenly marred by these trees.

Going through my portfolio of Tunnel View images, I chose two with very similar compositions that illustrate the tree death. The first, my rainbow image from 2009, shows the green valley floor I remember. The second is a winter scene from 2016, and the tree death is obvious. And sadly, in the year-and-a-half since I took the 2016 image, I guess that at least twice as many trees have died.

Double whammy

The drought has clearly taken its toll on Yosemite’s trees, both by killing the thirstiest outright, and by weakening many others until they become easy targets for a very opportunistic bark beetle. But the problem is not just about weak trees—it’s also about healthy beetles, a lot of them. Consider that while the 2016 image was taken in late January, there is absolutely no snow in Yosemite Valley. Of course the drought has something to do with that, but the lack of valley snow in recent years can also be attributed to warming temperatures. As Yosemite’s climate warms, much of the precipitation that once fell as snow now falls as rain.

Snow doesn’t kill the bark beetle (it’s still not cold enough), but an extreme freeze does. But as the number of sub-freezing days in Yosemite decline, the mechanism that kept the bark beetle in check gets out of whack. While Yosemite’s evergreens have no problem handling an extreme freeze, each freeze kills many bark beetles. But fewer freezing days each winter means more bark beetles, and more bark beetles makes even healthy trees more prone to attack.

Triple whammy

And finally, America’s long-time knee-jerk fire suppression policy has taken its toll. By thinning growth, consuming dead wood, and enabling regeneration, fire is a natural part of maintaining forest health. But for over a century, fires in Yosemite (and pretty much every other national park and forest) were doused as soon as they ignited because they were inconvenient, and they (temporarily) scarred the scenery.

Thankfully that misguided policy is largely behind us, but its legacy remains. We’re left with too many trees competing for the available water. Some die of thirst, while many survivors lack the resources to stave off a beetle infestation.

What’s being done

The National Park Service has undertaken the monumental task of removing dead and dying trees. Because it’s impractical to remove all of them, the emphasis is on those trees that pose a hazard to people and property. Also, in developed areas the NPS has started prophylactic application of a (naturally occurring) pheromone that discourages the beetles from attacking susceptible trees.

No one knows for sure, but it’s possible that the tree death will stabilize, or even start to decline over the next few years. While the current mitigation efforts might help stem the tide, the primary hope is that an equilibrium will be reached as the most susceptible trees die and forest health is restored through better management. Fingers crossed.

From the horse’s mouth

Here’s the link to the NPS tree mortality article.

The Trees of Yosemite

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Meeting a celebrity

Gary Hart Photography: Lone Tree, Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

Lone Tree, Lake Wanaka, New Zealand
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
20 seconds
F/16
ISO 200

For those who don’t recognize it, this is the much-photographed willow tree that inhabits Lake Wanaka on New Zealand’s South Island. I’ve seen it described “the most photographed tree in the world,” and while I doubt that’s true, it is at least among the world’s more photographed trees.

Seeing a popular subject like this for the first time is a lot like meeting a celebrity. While I’ve never been one to be terribly star-struck by famous subjects, I could certainly understand the tree’s appeal—a graceful trunk and spreading branches beside a shimmering lake beneath snow-capped peaks. Adding to the tree’s appeal is the fact that it usually juts from the lake and is surrounded by reflections.

Though we’d heard stories of mornings with close to 100 photographers crowding around the tree, the morning Don and I visited, the crowds had no doubt been kept at bay by a recent drought that has exposed the tree’s base, and by temperatures in the 20s. We were fortunate to share the scene with a half-dozen or so other good natured photographers who were more than happy to work together to ensure that no one was in anyone else’s way.

I was well aware of the popularity of this tree, and the difficulty of finding a fresh interpretation on my one-and-only visit. But that didn’t keep me from doing my best, and for such a simple image, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes to make it happen: foreground/background relationships, framing, depth of field, motion, and light all factored into my creation of this image.

Don and I had walked down to the tree the night before, so I’d had 12 hours or so to chew on my approach. Evaluating the scene in the pre-dawn gloaming, I started by determining the background I wanted. Since the snowy peaks were easily the most striking background feature, I found a position that I thought best aligned the peaks with the tree, eliminating most of the less appealing brown peaks on the right and all of a grove of evergreens on the left. But this just established the line I needed to be on—I still had to find the right distance and framing.

Since I didn’t find the exposed lakebed terribly appealing, and the pre-sunrise sky was pretty boring, I wanted a tight composition that minimized both. Most of the other photographers seemed to be shooting the scene fairly wide, but I found that by moving about 40 back from the tree, at around 70mm I could both compress the distance to the mountains and fill my frame with the tree. But 70mm created depth of field considerations that required careful selection of my f-stop and focus point. My DOF app told me that stopping down to f/16 and focusing about 40 feet behind the tree gave me sharpness from the tree back to the mountains, a fact I confirmed on my LCD after clicking this frame.

There was no wind to move the branches, but the lake surface was slightly disturbed by small waves. Because this was about 20 minutes before sunrise, the scene was still fairly dark and I had no problem using a long exposure to flatten the water.

But how much light? Often when presented with a striking tree, I try to put the tree entirely against the sky and underexpose slightly, so the tree stands out in silhouette. But the only way to position this tree against enough sky for an effective silhouette would have been to lay beneath it and shoot up. Not only would this have required an extremely wide focal length that would have shrunk the mountains and introduced far too many other less interesting elements, it would have also put me smack in the middle of everyone else’s frame.

Instead of a silhouette, I went the other direction, giving the scene extra light to allow the dark tree stand out in contrast to the bright lake, mountains, and sky. I’m not sure I would have tried this high-key solution had a silhouette been feasible, but in hindsight this was clearly the way to go. It’s a good reminder to not get so stuck in my conventional approach that I lose sight of other possibilities.

Join Don Smith and me in New Zealand next year


A Gallery of Outstanding Trees

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