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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Winter in July

Gary Hart Photography: Mt. Eglinton, Mirror Lakes, New Zealand

Mt. Eglinton, Mirror Lakes, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand
iPhone 7 pano

I’ve been home from New Zealand for less than 24 hours, and I already miss it. I miss the mountains, the fiords (AKA, fjords, but when in New Zealand…), the lakes, the rivers, the skies, the people, and the winter—right now (when it’s 105 in Sacramento), especially the winter. FYI, picking a favorite season for photography is kind of like having to pick a favorite child—but asking me now would be like asking right after one of my children brought me breakfast in bed, so today I’m going with winter.

But anyway…. As I mentioned in my previous post, I was in New Zealand with Don Smith; we were scouting for our New Zealand workshop, scheduled to debut next June. When I posted my first New Zealand image a few days ago, I’d only been there a couple of days and had seen lots of clouds but not many mountains. That changed on the day we drove the road to Milford Sound, through Fiordland National Park. For the rest of the trip (with a couple of exceptions), the majority of the clouds we saw were the ephemeral, radiation variety that form when the air cools to the dew point. Sometimes the clouds swirled and hovered near the mountain peaks, other times they hugged the lakes and meadows in the still hours around sunrise and sunset. One day we spent a couple of hours driving in a dense fog that had lifted just enough to reveal trees and hillsides glazed with frost.

I’m afraid a scouting trip emphasizes quantity of locations over the quality of the photography—with so much territory to cover, it’s just impossible to time our visits to each spot for the best possible time to photograph it. The priority is to get our eyes on locations, as many as possible—first to see if they’re photo-worthy, and second to determine the lay of the land so we can bring our groups back when they are most photo-worthy. Which is how I happened to be at Mirror Lakes in Fiordland National Park carrying nothing but my iPhone.

We’d left the little town of Te Anau after a glorious sunrise at a remote location, found thanks to a local tip (thanks, Steve at Trips & Tramps), heading for Milford Sound. We were rushing to get in as much scouting as possible before doubling back and driving all the way up to that night’s hotel in Wanaka. So, at the turnout for the short walk down to Mirror Lakes, Don and I just hopped out of the car armed with nothing but iPhones. Fortunately, the scene was perfect for a pano, and the dynamic range was just within the bounds the iPhone could handle.

I’ve never been shy about snapping a quick shot with my iPhone to share on my personal Facebook page or with my wife, but this is the first time I’ve actually put an iPhone image in a blog. Honestly, I’ve never really scrutinized the iPhone images very closely, but I have to say that I’m pretty pleased with the results. Who knows, maybe this is the start of a whole new career….

Contact me to be notified as soon as we have the details of our New Zealand workshop.


A Winter Gallery

(Most of these aren’t New Zealand images, and only one is an iPhone image)

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Greetings from Tomorrowland

Gary Hart Photography: Heavy Sky, Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand

Heavy Sky, Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1/15 second
F/13
ISO 200

One of my favorite childhood books was “Upside-Down Town,” about a little town where everything was opposite the rest of the world. People walked backward so they could see where they’d been, stores paid people to take their goods, and (my personal favorite at the time) schools were only in session on holidays.

That’s kind of the way it feels visiting New Zealand in July. When I left Sacramento it was 110 degrees. After a week on Kauai (I was working the whole time, I swear), where it was tank tops and flip-flops 24/7, I arrived in the teeth of a Queenstown, New Zealand winter. Every day has been some variation of gray and drizzly, with high temperatures around 40 (that’s Fahrenheit—still haven’t embraced the Celsius thing) and lows in the 20s. Overnight my summer-wear was replaced by fleece, wool, and down full body armor. But I’m not here for comfort, and New Zealand has reminded me why winter is my favorite season for photography.

Of course this Southern Hemisphere winter in July wasn’t a surprise, but it definitely was a shock. Other adjustments (driving on the left; to leave a building, we don’t look for the Exit, we have to find the “Way Out”; and what’s with these power outlets?) have been relatively minor. And I’m still not used to the fact that as far as my wife and family back home are concerned, it’s pretty much always tomorrow here.

But one thing that’s universal is beauty, which is simply off-the-charts here. I was last in New Zealand in 1995, and though I wasn’t here as a photographer (in my previous life I traveled to train programmers), I found New Zealand so beautiful that I carried a camera on my seven-mile sunrise run each morning. Now I’m back with my good friend, frequent partner in crime, and fellow professional photographer, Don Smith. We’re here to scout for a New Zealand photo workshop that will debut in June (winter!) of 2018.

Our first couple of days were in the Queenstown area, where we explored the shores of the spectacular Lake Wakatipu. We could probably do an entire workshop in the Queenstown area, but that would only just scratch the surface down here. Today (tomorrow to you) we’re in Te Anau, having just returned from an all-day cruise on even more spectacular Doubtful Sound. Other locations on this week’s itinerary include Wanaka, Milford Sound, and Fox Glacier.

I’m sharing here my first of what will be many New Zealand images. On the road from Queenstown to Te Anau, we skirted the shore of the south arm of Lake Wakatipu. It had been raining on and off all day, a light rain with no wind, ideal conditions for photography. The snow-capped mountains that flank the entire west side of the lake were shrouded in clouds, but the light was great and we stopped at several locations to photograph.

Rain felt imminent as we pulled off at an unmarked roadside vista, hopped out for a quick reconnaissance, and rushed back to the car for our gear. Taking different routes to the lake, we each found scenes that excited us. Don concentrated on a creek flowing into the lake near the car, while I walked a hundred yards or so up the shore toward a tree topping a dark rock that sloped into the lake, pausing to click a frame or two along the way.

The crescent-shaped beach was naturally sheltered, especially down in my direction. With no wind or waves to disturb the surface, the lake surface here was like turquoise glass that clearly revealed the small, smooth beach rocks continuing beneath the water, and returning crisp reflections of the cloud-shrouded mountains across the lake.

Using the tree and sloping rock to frame the right side of my scene, I played with a variety of compositions. I started with a foreground that included two or three microwave-size rocks lodged in the beach and protruding from the water, gradually moving closer to the tree until my scene was simplified to what you see here. I could have stayed and worked this spot for hours, but soon the wind kicked up and a light rain started and it was time to move on. Later today we’ll drive back by this spot and my fingers will be crossed that the mountains will be out and I’ll get an opportunity to capture it differently.

After four days in New Zealand I’ve completely adjusted to the weather, can now quickly navigate my way out of any building, and am pretty confident I’ll be okay with the left-hand drive thing by the time I fly home. But I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that according to my airline itinerary, I’ll actually arrive home before I left. Tomorrowland indeed.

Workshop Schedule || Purchase Prints


A Cloudy Day Gallery

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Yosemite game-changer

Gary Hart Photography: Evening Reflection, Mirror Lake, Yosemite

Evening Reflection, Mirror Lake, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony 12-24 f4 G
12mm
1/15 second
F/9
ISO 100

“Game changer” is most certainly a cliché, but every once in a while I get to use the term without shame. I used it when I switched from film to digital; again when I discovered that the Sony a7R (and now the a7RII) gave me 2- to 3-stops more dynamic range than my Canon 5DIII; one more time when I first turned the Sony a7S (since replaced with the a7SII) toward the night sky. And I think I’ll trot it out once more for Sony’s new 12-24 f4 G lens.

Of course I can only speak for the 12-24’s change in my game—your results may vary. But as a landscape-only shooter who spends a lot of time in Yosemite, this lens allows me to capture images that were heretofore not possible with anything in my bag: Game changed.

Early last month, with only a few days to play with the new (and at the time, top secret) lens, I beelined to Yosemite. My first stop was Mirror Lake, a wide spot in Tenaya Creek that isn’t technically a lake (it’ll be dry by summer’s end), but each spring is most definitely a mirror. The coveted feature here is Half Dome, which towers more than 4,000 feet above the glassy water, close enough to require some serious neck craning. Many times at Mirror Lake I’ve visualized a composition that includes Half Dome and its reflection, only to be thwarted because even at its widest, a 16-35 lens isn’t wide enough.

Since my days with the lens were limited, I wasn’t able to time my visit for interesting weather or some celestial event. No worries, I rationalized, even on Yosemite’s standard blue-sky days, I can always count on warm, late afternoon light bathing Half Dome—not spectacular, but reliably nice.

I arrived at the lake about an hour before sunset and immediately started seeking out compositions to put the new lens to the test. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to mount the 12-24 on my a7RII, put my eye to the viewfinder, and see all of Half Dome and its reflection with room to spare. It wasn’t long before I zeroed in on the scene you see here (that required me to balance atop a rock about three feet from the shore, tripod 10 inches deep in frigid snowmelt).

As luck would have it, just as the light started to warm, a few clouds drifted down from the north, so I quickly adjusted my composition and waited for them to slip into my composition. They were moving quite fast, leaving a window of just a few seconds when they filled the sky without being seriously truncated by the border. With composition, exposure, and focus set, I clicked a half dozen rapid-fire frames before the clouds started drifting out of the frame.

This was just my first stop with this lens. On the walk back to my car I stopped for a shot that I shared a few weeks ago; that night, and again the next morning, I tried it at a favorite El Capitan View with great success (to be shared in a future blog). And before returning home, I discovered a completely unexpected use at Yosemite Falls. Needless to say, I’ve already ordered this lens—I expect to see it next month.

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Workshop Schedule || Purchase Prints


A Half Dome Gallery

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Happy Father’s Day, Dad

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Palette, Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite

Sunset Palette, Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
Canon 24-105L
2 seconds
F/20
ISO 100

This summer it will be 13 years since I lost my dad to Alzheimer’s disease. He would have turned 87 next month, and I have no doubt that his body would still be going strong if the Alzheimer’s hadn’t taken over. Sadly, it’s difficult to fully appreciate a parent’s influence until they’re gone. We’re certainly aware of the love, wisdom, advice, discipline, tears, and laughs while we’re in the midst of growing up, but it takes being a parent to fully appreciate our parents’ influence on the adults we become.

Dad was a United Methodist minister who literally practiced what he preached. In 1965, when Martin Luther King issued a plea to clergy to join him, Dad borrowed money and flew across the country to march with Dr. King in Selma, Alabama (he was on national TV getting arrested). His was an inclusive theology that respected all religions: I can remember Dad preaching at the local synagogue on a Saturday, and reciprocating in our Sunday service by opening his pulpit to the rabbi. And I’ve lost track of the number of homeless people, including families with young children, we housed while they tried to get back on their feet.

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More than the values he instilled, so many of the things that define me today are directly attributable to my dad’s influence. My love of sports and sense of humor for sure. And when asked how I became a photographer, I have to cite Dad. My standard answer has always been that Dad was a serious amateur photographer whose 80-hour work week offered too little time to pursue his passion, so he made up for lost time on our summer family vacations—I grew up believing that a camera was just a standard outdoor accessory. But I think his influence goes deeper than that. More than simply modeling camera use, Dad instilled his appreciation of nature’s beauty, and his longing for its soothing qualities.

Our vacations were, without exception, camping trips—always tent-camping, though in the later years we splurged on a used, very basic tent trailer (no kitchen, bathroom, or any of the other luxuries available in today’s tent trailers). A few times we (Dad, Mom, my two brothers, and I) hit the road for a longer camping trip, one summer taking a month to camp all the way across the country, another summer venturing into the Canadian Rockies. But usually we took advantage of the mountain scenery (always the mountains) closer to our California home.

Me, on an early (but probably not my first) Yosemite trip

Of these locations, Yosemite was the clear favorite. Marveling at the Firefall from Camp Curry and Glacier Point, waiting in lawn chairs at the Yosemite dump for the bears to arrive for their evening meal (really), rising in the dark for a fishing expedition to Tuolumne Meadows, family hikes up the Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls, are just a few of the memories that I only realize in hindsight formed my Yosemite connection.

My father’s rainbow

My favorite Dad photography story happened when I was about ten. It involves an electrical storm atop Sentinel Dome, and his desire to get the shot that was so great that it trumped common sense. As his ignorant assistant, I stretched to hold an umbrella high above Dad’s head to keep his camera dry. (In his defense, as Californians, lightning was a true novelty that trumped full appreciation of its dangers.) We didn’t get the lightning, and more importantly, it didn’t get us. But what I remember more than anything about that day was Dad’s excitement when later that afternoon he was able to photograph a rainbow arcing across the face of Half Dome.

This story has achieved family legend status, and we’ve felt a special connection to Sentinel Dome as a result. When it came time to scatter Dad’s ashes, Sentinel Dome was the obvious choice.

One more thing

I have the reputation for being very lucky where photography conditions are concerned: The clouds that part just as the moon rises, the snowstorm that blankets Yosemite Valley just as the workshop begins, the rainbow arcing across the Grand Canyon. In our family we like to believe that Dad is somehow up there pulling some strings. It’s just the kind of thing he’d do.

I love you, Dad.

Sharing the Love: A Yosemite Gallery

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Merry Nature Photography Day!

For everyone who lay awake all night wondering what they were getting for Nature Photography Day, wait no longer (okay, seriously, as far as I’m concerned every day is Nature Photography Day, but I’ll play along). Here is a collection of my favorite images of nature. 

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Starry, starry night

Gary Hart Photography: Starry Night, Colorado River and Evans Butte, Grand Canyon

Starry Night, Colorado River and Evans Butte, Grand Canyon
Sony a7S II
Rokinon 24mm f1.4
20 seconds
F/2
ISO 12800

Few experiences in nature surpass a dark sky brimming with an impossible number of stars. The darker the sky the better, and the sky doesn’t get much darker, or more impossible, than a moonless night at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I schedule my annual Grand Canyon raft trip for the week of the new moon to ensure the darkest skies and the most stars; I prefer May because canyon temperatures are comfortably warm but not yet hot, and the Colorado River runs clear, unmuddied by sediment stirred by the summer monsoon.

As darkness seeps into the mile-deep gorge, the first pinpoints overhead are the planets, some combination of Venus, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, and Saturn. Soon the darkness is as complete as we ever see it at home, and the planets are joined by the brightest stars in recognizable constellations. But unlike home, the darkening continues, and with every passing minute comes more stars, until it seems the sky can’t possibly hold any more.

Pausing to take it all in, the first thing to catch your eye in the unprecedented dark might be the Big Dipper—in May it’s high overhead as darkness falls, a comforting sight to disoriented observers still not convinced that this sky is real. Perhaps you’ll be temporarily distracted by the blinking lights of a distant jetliner, a silent reminder of the world left behind. A keen eye may discern a faint “star” moving among its neighbors—a satellite, possibly monitoring the weather, or sending GPS coordinates, or maybe even a foreign country secretly observing (smile!). And if you’re patient you might see a streaking meteor (or two, or three…), as if a hidden star has sprinted across the darkness and into a new hiding place.

But this visual feast is only the appetizer, because the main course, the Milky Way’s glowing band, isn’t served until close to midnight (or later, depending on the part of the sky that’s visible from the chosen vantage point). The Milky Way rises in the east, a band of light running north and south, ascending until it eventually spans the sky. Fainter in the north, the Milky Way brightens as your eyes follow it south, toward the glowing galactic core. The photogenic galactic core rises highest in the southern sky, so we hope for campsites with an open view in that direction. Since the Grand Canyon sky is crowded by tight, towering walls, the best views of the sky are usually up- or down-canyon.

Our best south-sky opportunities come on the trip’s first two nights, when we’re in Marble Canyon, the north/south trending section of the Grand Canyon that ends at the Little Colorado River confluence. At the confluence the canyon walls open to offer the trip’s best view of the sky, but just downriver the Colorado turns westward and the walls rise and squeeze closer. Fortunately, rather than beeline to Lake Mead, the Colorado River meanders a bit, bending north here and south there, providing an occasional view of the southern sky throughout the Grand Canyon.

Pulling into camp after a long day on the river, the first thing I do is find a spot for my cot that will ensure the best possible view of the night sky as I fall asleep. With my claim staked, I survey the surroundings for potential night photography scenes. Campsites on the Colorado River are first-come, first-served, and we have to hope we find one that’s oriented properly and has photogenic vantage points. Usually that means down by the river, but sometimes it’s an elevated location with the river in the distance. But if the campsite doesn’t have a photogenic vantage point, I’m not disappointed because nothing can take away my bedtime canopy.

If I find a scene I like, I compose, dial in my night exposure settings, and focus my camera well before dark. Sometimes I’ll compose and leave the camera poised on the tripod, ready for my return in the wee hours of the morning. If I’m afraid someone might stumble on my tripod in the dark, I leave it beside my cot, camera loaded and ready for action when I wake later.

On the trip’s third evening we pulled into camp exhausted but exhilarated after the trip’s most intense day of rapids. I found a view I liked near camp—getting there required a little rock scrambling that was no big deal with the sun out, but would require a bit more care. The Milky Way in May reaches its zenith in the south at around 3 a.m., but since we didn’t have a good view of the southern sky from this site, I decided the best views of the Milky Way would come earlier, when I could photograph it downstream, in the eastern sky. I woke at 1 a.m., grabbed my camera, and stumbled by the screen of my iPhone (the less artificial light my eyes are exposed to, the better they function when I try to photograph in the dark) to the spot I’d chosen. I could tell by a handful of glowing LCDs scattered downstream that I wasn’t the only one shooting. (On the first night I’d given the group instruction and guidance on photographing the Milky Way, but after that everyone was free to pick their spot and time, or stay in bed.)

I shot exclusively with my Sony a7SII and Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens. Once I’d perfected the composition and verified the sharpness, sticking with a 20 second shutter speed, I varied my ISO and aperture for more processing options later: ISO 3200, 6400, and 12,800; f1.4 and f2. At these settings I capture more light than my eyes take in—not only does this reveal more of the canyon than I can see, it also reveals even more stars.

I only photographed for about 20 minutes, but was so wired when I returned to my cot that I lay awake for another hour, mesmerized by my glittering ceiling.

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A Starry, Starry Gallery

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