Posted on December 5, 2022
I’m in Yosemite for a workshop so my blogging time is significantly curtailed, but let’s see what happens…
Photography is the futile attempt to render a three dimensional world in a two dimensional medium. It’s “futile” because including actual depth in a photograph is literally impossible. But impossible doesn’t mean hopeless. One of the simplest things photographers can do to elevate their images is think about their scene in three dimensions, specifically how to create the illusion of depth by composing elements at multiple distances from the camera.
Many photographers miss opportunities by simply settling for the beautiful scene before them instead of looking for ways to make it even better. A more productive approach is to start with the beautiful aspect of the scene you want to emphasize (brilliant sunset, backlit flower, towering peak, vivid rainbow, plunging waterfall, whatever), then aggressively seek an object or objects nearer or farther to complement it. Of course that’s sometimes easier said than done, but this near/middle/far mindset should be present for every capture.
Thinking foreground and background is a great start, but merely having objects at varying distances isn’t always enough—you also need to be aware of how those objects guide your viewer’s eye through the frame. We hear a lot of photographers talk about using “leading lines” to move the eye, but a line doesn’t need to be a literal (visible) line to move the eye, because viewers will subconsciously connect objects to create virtual lines.
To help me achieve virtual lines that move the eye, I think in terms of “visual weight”: a quality of an object that tugs the eye like gravity, subconsciously pulling the viewer’s gaze in its direction. These qualities include, among other things: mass, shape, brightness, contrast, color, texture, and sometimes just position in the frame. A single one of these qualities can give an object visual weight, but combining then can be even more effective.
Additionally, an object’s emotional power can boost its visual weight. For example, a small moon can pull the eye more than a larger bright cloud, and Half Dome has more visual weight than a random rock occupying the same amount of frame real estate.
With my primary subject and complementary (eye moving) objects identified, I still need to consider the linear connection between these visual components. I like diagonal relationships because of the visual tension created by moving the eye along multiple planes. While creating these virtual diagonals requires careful positioning, it’s surprising how many photographers just remain planted with their tripod as if it has grown roots—either they don’t see the benefit of repositioning, or don’t think moving is worth the effort.
Whatever the reason, it’s important for photographers to understand the power of shifting position to control foreground and background relationships: move left and your foreground shifts right relative to the background; move right and the foreground shifts left relative to the background. Either way, the closer the foreground is relative to the background, the more dramatic the shift. And contrary to what you might believe, it’s impossible to change foreground/background perspective with focal length—to change perspective, you must change position: forward/backward, left/right, up/down.
An often overlooked shift that can be quite powerful is up/down. Often I’m able to un-merge objects at different distances by simply raising my tripod or climbing atop a nearby rock. Dropping low will emphasize the closest elements, and when my frame has a large and boring empty space (such as a field of weeds or dirt) between the foreground and background, I drop lower to shrink that gap.
It’s taken me a while to figure out the best way to convey these concepts to my photo workshop students. In most workshops, I find that many of the students haven’t picked up their cameras in weeks or months (or years!), so I’ve learned give them time to get back in their creative zone before laying all this stuff on them.
For example, in my Yosemite workshops I usually start with the classic shots that probably drew them to the park in the first place, places like Tunnel View and Valley View, where there are obvious compositions that lead to easy success. At the first image review I give a little talk on composition and moving the eye (among other things), then everyone shares images and I offer my feedback.
By the second day, armed with that foundation and a little Day 1 success, they’re usually ready to challenge their creativity and attack the less heralded spots whose beauty is more subtle. This growth is obvious as soon as the Day 2 image review. I’m frequently blown away by how quickly they’ve refined their inherent creative vision well enough to see beyond the obvious and find compositions that are both beautiful and unique.
One autumn favorite creative spot is the section of the Merced River from the Pohono Bridge upstream to Fern Spring, and even a little beyond. Fern Spring alone, with its stair-step cascades and a small reflecting pool that’s covered with color each fall, has enough to occupy a creative photographer for hours. And just across the road is a trail that skirts the river and traverses a forest filled with colorful maple and dogwood trees. The entire area is chock-full of creative opportunities that include whitewater, still water reflections, and of course (lots of) fall color.
In last month’s Fall Color and Reflections workshop, once I was satisfied that everyone was comfortable with their cameras and starting to trust their creative instincts, I took them to Fern Spring. Once there, I gave them the lay of the land and encouraged them to explore. Early in the workshop my groups tend to stick close to me, but this afternoon I was encouraged to see everyone instantly scatter. That’s always a good sign that they’re starting to get in the zone—even though it means I need to chase each one down to make sure they’re doing okay.
By the time I’d finished my rounds and confirmed that each person had things under control (and fearing that my presence might actually be a distraction), I was left with about 20 minutes to do a little shooting of my own. I quickly grabbed my camera and beelined upstream to a spot that I can’t take a group to because there’s no room for more than one person, no trail to get there, and it’s frighteningly easy to fall in the river. (I’ve had a couple of minor mishaps here that required changing shoes and socks, and maybe spending a couple of hours in pants wet to my calf, but was always grateful it wasn’t worse).
Rather than a standard fall color location, this is a fallen color spot that accumulates leaves that have drifted downstream from elsewhere to float among the rocks. Each year, the quality of the floating color varies from none to lots—not enough water and the leaves don’t make it into the rocks; too much water and the leaves just wash right by to locations downstream.
I was happy to confirm that this was indeed a good year for the floating color. Being in a hurry, I could have very easily snapped off a couple of frames from where I stood and called it good. But often the difference between an image that’s merely a decently executed rendering of a beautiful scene, and an image that stands out for the (often missed) aspects of the natural world it reveals, is the time it takes to identify and connect the scene’s visual relationships. So I took just a little more time to align the elements.
In this case that meant positioning myself so the foreground rocks and leaves aligned with the middle-ground rocks and reflection, which aligned with cloud-shrouded El Capitan in the background. Words cannot express how awkward this position was, requiring a grand total of 5 splayed legs—3 tripod and 2 human. But still it wasn’t quite right—until I dropped my tripod down to about a foot above the water to make the leaves more prominent.
After setting my exposure, I focused on the third small foreground rock, then dialed my polarizer to reduce the reflection on the leaves while retaining the upstream reflection. Click.
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Posted on November 28, 2022
It’s easy to be overwhelmed at the first sight of a location you’ve longed to visit for years. And since by the time you make it there you’ve likely seen so many others’ images of the scene, it’s understandable that your perception of how the scene should be photographed might be fixed. But is that really the best way to photograph it?
Valley View in Yosemite is one of those hyper-familiar scenes. El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, and Cathedral Rocks pretty much slap you in the face the instant you land at Valley View, making it easy to miss all the other great stuff here. This month’s workshop group visited Valley View twice, with each visit in completely different conditions, which got me thinking about about the number of ways there are to photograph most scenes, and how it’s easy to miss opportunities if you simply concentrate on the obvious. Most scenes, familiar or not, require scrutiny to determine where the best images are—on every visit.
On our first visit, Bridalveil Fall was just a trickle lost in deep shadow, so I focused my attention on El Capitan, opting for a vertical frame to emphasize El Cap, the beautiful clouds overhead, and the reflection. When we returned a couple of days later, Bridalveil had been recharged by a recent rain, the soft light was more even throughout the scene, and patches of fallen leaves and pine needles now floated atop the reflection. All this called for a completely different approach.
On this return visit, since I thought there was (just barely) enough water in Bridalveil to justify its inclusion, I went with a horizontal composition. It would have been easy to frame up El Capitan, Bridalveil, and Cathedral Rocks, throw in a little reflection and call it good. But (as my workshop students will confirm) I obsess about clean borders because I think they’re the easiest place for distractions to hide.
So before every click, I do a little “border patrol,” a simple reminder to deal with small distractions on my frame’s perimeter that can have a disproportionately large impact on the entire image. (I’d love to say that I coined the term in this context, but I think I got it from fellow photographer and friend Brenda Tharp—not sure where Brenda picked it up.)
To understand the importance of securing your borders, it’s important to understand that our goal as photographers is to create an image that not only invites viewers to enter, but also persuades them to stay. And the surest way to keep viewers in your image is to help them forget the world outside the frame. Lots of factors go into crafting an inviting, persuasive image—things like compositional balance, visual motion, and relationships are all essential (and topics for another day), but nothing reminds a viewer of the world outside the frame more than an object jutting in or cut off at the edge.
When an object juts in on the edge of a frame, it often feels like part of a different scene is photobombing the image. Likewise, when an object is cut off on the edge of the frame, it can feel like part of the scene is missing. Either way, it’s a subconscious and often jarring reminder of the world beyond the frame. Not only does this “rule” apply to obvious terrestrial objects like rocks and branches, it applies equally to clouds.
And there are other potential problems on the edge of an image. Simply having something with lots of visual weight—an object with enough bulk, brightness, contrast, or anything else that pulls the eye—on the edge of the frame can throw off the balance and compete with the primary subject for the viewer’s attention.
Of course it’s often (usually?) impossible to avoid cutting something off on the edge of the frame, so the next best thing is to cut it boldly rather than to simply trim it. I find that when I do this, it feels intentional and less like a mistake that I simply missed. And often, these strongly cut border objects serve as framing elements that hold the eye in the frame.
To avoid these distractions, I remind myself of “border patrol” and slowly run my eyes around the perimeter of the frame. Sometimes border patrol is easy—a simple scene with just a small handful of objects to organize, all conveniently grouped toward the center, usually requires minimal border management. But more often than not we’re dealing with complex scenes containing multiple objects scattered throughout and beyond the frame. Even when you can’t avoid cutting things off, border patrol makes those choices conscious instead of random, which is almost aways better.
As nice as the Valley View reflection was on this visit, it was sharing space with a disorganized mess of rocks, driftwood, and leaves. Organizing it all into something coherent was impossible, but I at least wanted to have prominent color in my foreground and take care to avoid objects on the edge of my frame that would pull viewers’ eyes away from the scene.
Unfortunately, as I used to tell my kids all the time (they’re grown and no longer listen to me), you can’t always have what you want. In this case, including the best foreground color also meant including an unsightly jumble of wood, rock, and pine needles in the lower right corner. But after trying a lot of different things, I decided this was the best solution—especially since I managed to find a position and focal length that gave me completely clean borders everywhere else in my frame.
I very consciously included enough of the mass in the lower right that it became something of a boundary for that corner of the image (not great, but the best solution possible). I also was very careful to keep an eye on the ever-changing clouds. The light on El Capitan that broke through just as I had my composition worked out felt like a small gift.
Posted on November 21, 2022
It feels trite to wait until Thanksgiving week to detail blessings I feel year-round, but there’s nothing like a global pandemic and all its disruptions to refocus priorities. Pre-Covid Thanksgivings were an opportunity to remind myself to appreciate my life by concentrating on the big stuff like good health, a loving family, and a career that lets me travel and (almost) never feels like work. Since Covid, I’m simply grateful for the resumption of family gatherings (large and small), unrestricted travel, and (not insignificantly) the return of the bottom half of everyone’s face—things I swear I’ll never again take for granted.
Another thing I’ve grown to appreciate about my current life, also underscored by the pandemic, is the autonomy of self-employment. While losing workshops was incredibly stressful, once I convinced myself that the lost workshops were simply postponed and not cancelled, I was able to use the downtime productively—without flapping in the ever-changing breeze of government and employer workplace rules.
I do have to admit that sometimes the idea of a 9-to-5 job with weekends and paid vacations sounds mighty good (I’m speaking in very general terms and don’t mean to offend anyone pinned to a cubicle 10 hours per day just to pay the bills—I’ve been there), but the bottom line is that I do love the flexibility of having complete control of my schedule.
When I left the 9-to-5 world to pursue this crazy passion more than 15 years ago, the vanished safety net was a great motivator—I was only as successful as the next art show (which I no longer do) or photo workshop. Weekends? Holidays? Irrelevant. Back then, the closest I got to a vacation was when my wife and I traveled to scout for a new workshop. And alarm clocks? They’re for workshop sunrises only.
But as the years go by (is it me, or is time moving faster?), I’ve come to truly value my freedom—in no small part because I’ve learned how to manage it. Today I can look at my calendar and, if nothing’s there, do whatever I want. And while that might mean cramming the things that must be done into times when others might be in their recliner watching HBO, or sunbathing at the beach, it’s 100 percent my choice and I love it.
The pandemic restrictions also helped me realize that I may have even started to take for granted my home that’s close enough to Yosemite that I can drive there and back in a day. To prevent this in the past, each time I enter the park I’ve always tried to imagine I’m viewing it for the first time, but since the pandemic I’ve been doing this with renewed focus and appreciation and it feels good.
An under-the-radar revelation when my workshops resumed was how much I missed the people. I knew I missed my workshop students, but it surprised me how much I enjoyed their return. This month’s Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections group, a wonderful blend of humor and enthusiasm that made my job easy, did nothing to dispel my enthusiasm.
Since there was a little bit of weather during most of the workshop (nice clouds, a little rain and snow), I deviated from my typical schedule, one day delaying my normal midday break when the conditions were too good to stop, and throughout the workshop adjusting my visits to other locations to account for the special conditions.
The fall color and reflections were in fact spectacular as advertised, but with the waterfalls pretty much their normal autumn dry (Bridalveil Fall was a trickle, Yosemite Falls was just a wet stain with no visible water flowing), we turned to Yosemite’s monoliths for background and reflection subjects.
Perhaps Yosemite’s most underrated granite feature is the Three Brothers. While technically not a monolith (a triolith?), the Three Brothers—Lower Brother, Middle Brother, and… (go ahead, guess)…, wrong(!), it’s Eagle Peak—is to my eye one of Yosemite’s most striking features. Nevertheless, despite its towering presence above the heart of Yosemite Valley, many Yosemite visitors never see the Three Brothers. That’s because when viewed from the east, Three Brothers looks an ordinary granite wall that just kind of blends into the scenery, and from most west-side vantage points, it’s blocked by El Capitan. And nowhere in the valley is Three Brothers clearly visible without a small effort (you can’t just pull into a vista and hop out of the car to view it.)
So it’s always fun to walk my groups out to this spot on the Merced River for their first look at Three Brothers. Even here, with the view dominated by El Capitan, I sometimes need to point upstream to the Three Brothers and let them know this will be their only opportunity to photograph it.
On this chilly morning earlier this month we started at the spot with the best El Capitan view (least obstructed by trees) and a decent Three Brothers view. I told the group that about 100 yards downstream they’d get a better Three Brothers view and reflection, as well as a decent (partially tree-obstructed) El Capitan view. I gave them plenty of time for both spots and encouraged them to take advantage of it.
On the morning of our visit, golden cottonwoods colored the reflection that stretched from riverbank to riverbank and was fringed by a sprinkling of leaves. The sky was mostly cloudy, but every once in a while a shaft of sunlight would break through and spotlight part of El Capitan or the Three Brothers for a few seconds. Even though I come here a lot, I found these conditions were too nice to resist taking a few clicks of my own.
I was looking for leaves to put in my foreground when I found this view at the downstream vantage point. Getting out here required some serious mud sloshing (thank you waterproof boots!), but thanks to an encroaching shoreline and photobombing patch of grass, still struggled to get the entire reflection. I finally decided that by elevating my tripod to the max and planting it as far into the river as my arms could reach, I could separate Lower Brother’s reflection from the shoreline and get 2/3 of the brothers—the best I could do. My polarizer I oriented to remove the reflection from the leaves, but was still able to spare enough of the Three Brothers and trees reflection to recover it in Photoshop.
Have a great Thanksgiving! (I realize this is an America-only holiday, but I strongly encourage everyone, holiday or not, to pause from time to time to appreciate their good fortune, whatever it might be.)
I’m also thankful for heated seats and noise cancelling headphones.
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Posted on November 14, 2022
One million words
January 2023 will mark the start of my (more or less weekly) Eloquent Nature blog’s 13th year. Not counting the 30 or so sporadically created Photo Tips articles, today’s post will be number 710. Doing the math, that actually turns out to be more than 1 blog post per week; at 1500 words per post (a conservative estimate), I’ve written more than 1 million words. Yikes.
According to WordPress, I have nearly 40,000 followers, but so far have resisted the urge to monetize my creation. I have nothing against money (I in fact kind of like it), but haven’t yet found a way to generate dollars from my blogging effort without detracting from the page or cheapening the visitors’ experience. (So, you’re welcome.)
But my motives aren’t entirely altruistic. Writing about creativity and inspiration each week encourages introspection that has given me a clearer understanding of myself and the creative process. And my (obsessive) desire to understand my subjects has cause me to research and ponder countless topics that might otherwise have been off my radar.
My drive to write just seemed to happen organically. I remember in first or second grade, each Monday we’d be assigned a list of spelling words (am I dating myself, or do they still do that?) to learn for the spelling test that always came on Friday. To help us learn that week’s words, the week’s homework assignment was to a create “spelling sentences,” one for each word. Instead of spelling sentences, I would write spelling stories that used every one of a the week’s words—I can’t explain why, except that I thought it was fun.
And ever since, whether it was in school or at work, I somehow became the designated writer—not necessarily because I was better at it, more because I was the most willing to do it. From there it wasn’t much of a leap for that willingness to write to become part of my job description. Eventually I became a tech writer for a large Silicon Valley tech company.
I’ve somehow managed to avoid the trap that befalls many creatives, where merely attempting to monetize their passion robs them of its joy. And I feel extremely lucky to have two creative pursuits, photography and writing, that give me great pleasure and synergistically combine to support me financially.
I’m thinking about this because I’ve decided to (slightly) change my blogging schedule, and I’ve found that a surprising number of people seem to notice when my weekly post is late, even by just a day. (Nothing abusive, more like occasional mild disappointment.) Of course it very much pleases (and surprises) me to hear that people actually look forward to my posts and actually read them.
So what’s this big change? For years my personal commitment was to post a new blog each Sunday. I’ve actually become pretty good at meeting this goal, but as my wife recently pointed out, this commitment pretty much blows up our weekend. Since we both work from home, on schedules entirely of our own making, weekends are really just a state of mind for both of us (there’s a reason we’ve each set our watches to display the day of the week)—I never considered our lost weekends a big deal. But I do have to admit that it would be nice to be a little more in sync with the rest of the world’s weekend state of mind, and have therefore made the radical decision to move my weekly blog day to, wait for it… Monday. Whoa.
(Only a writer would come up with 500 words explaining something that could have been said in 10 words: Effective this week, new blog posts will appear on Mondays.)
If you’re still with me (thank you), you’ve probably already forgotten about the image at the top of this post. It’s another product of last week’s incredibly rewarding Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections photo workshop. Rewarding because it was a great group that very much deserved the wonderful photography we enjoyed: nice clouds throughout, a couple of clearing storms, a colorful sunrise (not as common in Yosemite as you’d think), (only) one morning of bright sunlight that came just as we were in the perfect spot for it (Cook’s Meadow elm tree, if you must know), and even a little snow.
And what’s a “fall color and reflections” workshop without actual fall color and reflections? This year’s Merced River was its usual low and slow reflective self, and the fall color was just starting to peak. So yeah, a pretty good week.
The workshop’s final shoot was at one of my favorite Yosemite Valley Half Dome views, just upriver from Sentinel Bridge. I photograph here a lot. A. Lot. So much that I rarely get out my camera when I’m with a group. But I made an exception this time because I liked the clouds hovering around Half Dome, the light was just so darn nice, and I found a foreground I could work with.
Finding unique images at frequently photographed locations is usually some combination of special conditions and/or a new foreground. The conditions this evening, while not spectacular, were definitely good, and I was able to combine that with a static pool in the Merced that had accumulated a colorful assortment of leaves and pine needles. Dropping my tripod/camera to about 2 feet above the ground, I eliminated a large empty gap between the leaves and Half Dome’s reflection to make my foreground about nothing but the best stuff.
Because the group was my priority, after finding my composition, I just left the tripod/camera in place while I worked with them, returning every 5 or 10 minutes to fire off a handful of frames. The clouds around Half Dome were changing rapidly, so even though my composition didn’t change (at all), each session gave me something a little different.
The only other thing that changed with each click was my polarizer orientation. This was one of those catch-22 conundrums where dialing up the reflection with my polarizer also dialed up the reflective (color robbing) sheen on the floating leaves, and brightened the water on which the leaves floated (reducing the contrast between the leaves and their background). Dialing the reflection down to maximize the color of the leaves and blacken the water also nearly erased the Half Dome and clouds reflection.
So with each visit to my camera, I fired at least one frame with the reflection maximized, another with it minimized, and a couple somewhere in between. I found that I could in fact hit a midway point with the polarizer that spared most of the reflection beyond the leaves (Half Dome and the clouds), and reduced most of the reflection on and around the leaves.
I won’t pretend that I’ve created a brand new take on this frequently photographed view, but I am pretty pleased to have found a new variation on one of my favorite scenes.
See you next Monday…
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Posted on November 6, 2022
It amuses (and frustrates) me when photographers guard their information like state secrets. Photography isn’t a competition, and I’ve always felt that the more photographers can foster a sense of community, the more everyone benefits. (I will, however, protect locations at risk of being damaged by too much attention.) With that in mind, I’m sharing below some of the photography insights I’ve learned from a lifetime of Yosemite visits, and encourage you to share your own insights, wherever and whatever they may be, when the opportunity arises.
I get asked all the time, what’s the best season to be in Yosemite? For many reasons, including the fact that everyone defines “best” differently, that’s an impossible question to answer. So instead I try to identify the pros and cons of each season in Yosemite and let the questioners decide for themselves what sounds best to them.
Another question I get asked a lot is some version of, “Where in Yosemite should I photograph sunrise/sunset.” Again there’s no absolute answer, so I just try to provide enough information for the questioners to make their own decisions.
Send in the clouds
Regardless of the season, clouds change everything, especially when storm clouds that swirl about Yosemite’s monoliths. Even high or thin clouds can be difference makers that paint the usually boring sky with color and (if you’re lucky) reflect in foreground water.
Unfortunately, storm clouds often drop all the way to the valley floor, obscuring all the features you traveled to photograph. Rather than giving up, my approach to stormy weather in Yosemite is to wait it out. A clearing storm is the Holy Grail of Yosemite photography, an experience that never gets old, no matter how many times it’s witnessed. And when I say wait it out, I don’t mean just returning to your room and looking outside every once in a while, I mean circling the valley in your car, or parking somewhere with an eye on the sky. Tunnel View is a great spot for this.
My other tip for photographing a clearing storm in Yosemite is not staying in one place too long. If you wait until it’s not beautiful anymore before moving on, you won’t leave until the show’s over everywhere—instead, remind yourself that it’s just as beautiful everywhere else, and move on when you find yourself repeating compositions.
Reflecting on reflections
Regardless of the location or conditions, a reflection can turn an ordinary pretty picture into something special. That’s especially true in Yosemite. Yosemite’s reflection spots change with the season: in spring, they’re best in the vernal pools that form in the meadows, and a small handful of Merced River spots, where it widens (like Swinging Bridge) or pools near the river’s edge; in autumn (and late summer), pretty much the entire Merced River is a mirror. Winter Merced River reflections can be nice too, depending on the weather and amount of runoff.
A lifetime of Yosemite visits helps me pursue its reflections. But even if you don’t know the spots for Yosemite reflections, they’re not hard to find if you keep your eyes open.
The most frequent reflection mistake I see is photographers walking past a reflection because it doesn’t contain an interesting subject. Maximizing reflection opportunities starts with understanding that, just like a billiard ball striking a cushion, a reflection always bounces off the reflective surface at exactly the same angle at which it arrived.
Armed with this knowledge, when I encounter any reflective surface, I scan the area for a reflection-worthy subject and position myself to intercept my target subject’s reflected rays, moving left/right, forward/backward, up/down until my reflection appears. Another important aspect of reflection management is juxtaposing the reflection with submerged or exposed objects in the water.
Putting it all together
These cloud and reflection factors aligned for me in last week’s Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections workshop. Based on the weather forecast when we wrapped up the previous night, I gathered the group early enough for our sunrise departure to swing into Tunnel View for quick survey of Yosemite Valley. If there had been no clouds, clearing storm clouds, or zero-visibility clouds, we’d have stayed there. But when I saw a nice mix of high to mid-clouds, I went with Plan-B and beelined to Valley View.
We arrived more than 30 minutes before sunrise and I was pleased to see only one other car in the parking lot. I’d already brought my group here once, so everyone already had an idea of what they wanted to do—a few went just upstream from the cars to the nice reflection of Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Fall; the rest made their way out to the new-ish (last couple of years) and quite conveniently placed logjam that provides a perspective of El Capitan that previously would have required walking on water to achieve.
I left my gear in the car, moving back and forth between the two cohorts and and monitoring the sky. I’ve photographed here so much, I had no plan to this morning, but when the clouds overhead started to pink up, I couldn’t resist. Rather than grabbing my entire camera bag, I just pulled out my tripod and Sony a7R IV with the Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens already attached and trotted down to the natural platform formed by the log jam.
I knew I didn’t have much time, so I quickly found a spot where, by dropping my tripod a little, I could frame El Capitan’s reflection with several of the many protruding rocks. Since Bridalveil Fall wasn’t flowing very strongly, and the light on El Capitan was better, I went with a vertical composition that featured El Capitan only.
The pink was so intense that for a minute or so, it slightly colored the rocks. Before the color faded, I managed to capture several frames with this composition, each with a slightly different polarizer orientation, but I ended up choosing the one that maximized the reflection.
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Posted on October 30, 2022
Consistently finding great photo opportunities isn’t just luck, but neither is it a divine gift. With that in mind, I sometimes refer to “The 3 P’s of nature photography,” describing the effort and sacrifice necessary to consistently create successful landscape images: Preparation, Persistence, and Pain.
Of course every once in a while you might come across an image that simply fell into your lap and all you had to do was whip out your smartphone and click. But those images are few and far between, and I daresay are rarely as rewarding as the images you worked for.
Picking a favorite image and trying to assign one or more of the 3 P’s to it is a fun little exercise I sometimes use to remind myself to keep doing the extra work. Take a few minutes to scan your portfolio; ask yourself how many didn’t require at least one of the 3 P’s. (I’ll wait.) …….. See what I mean?
Ready or not, here it comes
For this image, I will thank preparation. But, if you know how obsessively I plan my moonrises, not the kind of preparation you might think. Since I started photographing the moon long before The Photographer’s Ephemeris and other moon-plotting apps were available (long before smartphones, in fact), my moonrise/set workflow has always been to just plot everything manually using location-specific moon altitude and azimuth data, combined with topo map software (pretty much the same thing TPE does behind the curtain). But I didn’t do that for this moonrise because the moon wasn’t on my radar this evening.
Guiding my Eastern Sierra workshop group to Olmsted point for the workshop’s final sunset, I hadn’t plotted the moon because this workshop didn’t coincide with the full moon (I’d scheduled it for peak fall color, not the moon), and because the moonrise doesn’t align with any feature of particular interest at Olmsted Point.
But even when the moon isn’t part of my plan, it’s never far from my mind. (This is where the preparation part kicks in.) I always make it a point to know what the moon is doing, both its phase and general rise/set time and direction, whenever I’m out with my camera. Once I got my group situated on the granite at Olmsted Point, I mentally checked on the moon. Knowing that a 90% waxing gibbous moon would be rising in the southeast a couple of hours before sunset, I wondered how long it would take it to crest the ridge above us.
On my iPhone is an app called Theodolite that I can point at any feature to learn its altitude and azimuth in degrees of whatever I point it at. I wouldn’t trust this data enough to engineer a bridge, but since it works without connectivity, it’s perfect for exactly what I wanted to do—get a general idea of when and where the moon would appear. I pointed Theodolite at the ridge (using my phone’s camera, it computes and transposes the various angles on the display), and learned that the ridge rose 8 degrees above my location.
Next I switched to my Focalware app (which also doesn’t require connectivity) and learned that the moon should appear (rise to 8 degrees) a little less than 30 minutes before sunset. Focalware also gives me the moon’s azimuth at any given time, an angle I was able to find on the ridge using Theodolite (by pointing it at the ridge and shifting the view until the crosshairs aligned with the desired azimuth), giving me a general idea of the location on the ridge where the moon would rise.
Not only was I able to alert my group to this bonus moonrise, I was able to tell them when and where to look. The light on Half Dome was so good that some decided to pass on the moon, but those who wanted to photograph it had plenty of time to set up with their desired lens and composition.
For the moon’s appearance, especially when there isn’t an iconic landscape feature to pair it with, I like going long, the longer the better. Even though I had no expectation of using it, I’d still carried my Sony 100-400 GM lens on the short hike out to Olmsted—because, well, you never know. That, combined with my Sony 2X Teleconverter (which I also always carry), gave me 800mm.
There was nothing special about the ridge, so I tried to find a tree (or trees) to juxtapose with the rising moon. Though I knew about where the moon would appear, I wouldn’t know exactly where to point until I actually saw it. So I identified a few potential target trees, then pasted my eyes on the ridge.
By the time the moon rose, the warm light from the setting sun was just about to leave the granite. I raced to the spot that aligned with the first tree I’d identified and went to work. As soon as the moon separated from the ridge, I sprinted along the granite until I could frame it with a pair of trees, shifting slightly after every two or three clicks.
The preparation I credit for this image starts with my general sense of the moon’s phase at rise time. I was also there with all the tools I needed, from my long lens and teleconverter, to a couple of apps that allowed me to get the information I needed on the fly. And finally, because the moon ascends surprisingly fast, it helped a lot to have pre-identified my foreground targets.
Posted on October 24, 2022
Imagine you have a guitar and want to make music your career. Since Eric Clapton is your favorite artist, and “Let It Rain” is your favorite song, you you work hard until you can play it perfectly. But wait—before you move on to “Layla,” let me suggest that your best path to musical fame and fortune is not to replicate the works others, no matter how great they are. (Also, there’s a reason Duane Allman isn’t answering your calls.)
Using Eric Clapton as a model for your music is fine—the more you listen to Clapton, the more your guitar playing will be influenced by his creativity and craftsmanship. But at some point you need to choose between carving your own musical path, or languishing as a cover artist.
Make the world your own
The same applies to photography. In my photo workshops I encounter many people who have travelled great distances to duplicate a photo they’ve seen online, in a book, or in a print somewhere. I certainly understand the desire to create your own version of something beautiful, and I can’t say that my portfolio doesn’t contain its share of photography clichés—but, and I can’t emphasize this too strongly, if you must photograph something exactly as it’s been photographed before, make that recreation is your starting point, not your ultimate goal.
Once you’ve captured your “icon” (that word is a cliché itself) shot, take a breath and spend a little more time with your scene. Identify what draws your eye and ways to emphasize it. Look for alternate foreground and background possibilities (move around), seek unique perspectives (move around some more), tweak your exposure variables to experiment with depth and motion. If your first inclination was to shoot horizontal, try vertical, and vice versa.
It also helps to remove your camera from the tripod and pan slowly, zooming in and out as you go until something stops you (don’t forget to return to the tripod before clicking). Even if nothing immediately jumps out, I promise that the simple act of slowing down and spending time with a scene will reveal overlooked secrets that might spur further creativity.
One of the easiest ways to stretch your style is taking lens choice off autopilot. The expansiveness of most landscape scenes almost begs for a wide angle lens that includes it all, but if your goal is to create something rather than covering what’s already been done, consider a telephoto lens for your landscapes.
I sometimes catch myself automatically reaching for a wide lens, only going to a telephoto when I see a specific composition that requires one. But I’ve learned that those times when I’m struggling to find a shot, the easiest way to reset my creative instincts in the field is often to simply view the scene through a telephoto lens, just to see what my wide-angle bias might be missing.
If telephoto vision doesn’t come naturally to you in the field, you can train your eye in the comfort of your own home by opening any wide angle image in Photoshop (or your photo editor of choice), setting the crop tool to 2/3 aspect ratio (to match what you see in your viewfinder), and see how many new compositions you can find. (I’m not suggesting that you shoot everything wide and crop later—this crop tool suggestion is simply a method to train your eye.) But whether you do it in the field, or later in Photoshop, once your eye gets used to seeing in telephoto, you’ll find virtually every scene you photograph has telephoto possibilities you never imagined were there.
Still not convinced? In addition to providing a fresh perspective, telephoto lenses offer undeniable, tangible advantages in landscape photography:
About this image
I love aspen. Not only are they beautiful trees, they’re fascinating subjects. For example, did you know that a stand of aspen is actually a single organism connected by one common, extensive root system? In other words, each trunk that we identify as an individual tree is in fact part of (and genetically identical to) every tree surrounding it.
A single aspen stand (known, appropriately enough, as a “clone” of aspen), can be tens of thousands of years old. The oldest and largest aspen clone, in Utah’s Fishlake National Forest, is the oldest, largest living organism on Earth (much older and larger than any of the far more heralded bristlecone or sequoia trees).
On last year’s visit to Lundy Canyon, I went exploring the aspen clone on the trail to Lake Helen with my Sony 12-24 GM, seeking to capture the sturdy trunks emerging from a gold-carpeted forest floor (image on the right).
This year, looking for something different, I went at this same aspen clone with my Sony 100-400 GM lens (on my Sony α1), trying first to isolate a single leaf against the colorful background. After a few unsatisfying attempts, I turned my attention to the aspen trunks, looking for a way to emphasize their stark whiteness, papery texture, and protruding knots.
It took a while, but I finally found a tree that offered the combination of separation and background I was looking for. There was nothing especially distinctive about the tree I found, but it displayed a healthy white bark, a prominent knot to anchor my frame, and was separated enough from the surrounding trees that I could get it perfectly sharp, while significantly softening its neighbors.
I started with vertical compositions, but as soon as I switched to horizontal I knew that’s how I wanted to handle this scene. With that determined, I spent the rest of my time making micro-adjustments to my position and focal length, looking for the perspective and framing that gave me the absolute minimum merging of trunks. I also experimented with a variety of focal lengths and f-stops before deciding that I liked the absolute softest background best. I shot the image I share today at nearly 400mm and f/5.6 (wide open).
While I started this post writing about creating unique images, I know I’m not the first person to photograph aspen like this. (Nor do I mean to imply that I’m the Eric Clapton of landscape photography.) But I do feel it’s important for all photographers, myself included, to constantly seek fresh takes on old subjects by pursuing the qualities that move them, and experimenting with new ways to reveal them.
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Posted on October 16, 2022
Once upon a time, moonlight was the only kind of night photography I did. As lifelong astronomy enthusiast, I’ve always been mesmerized by all the stars that come out when the moon is down, but film and the earliest digital cameras were just not capable of adequately capturing the world after dark without help from multiple exposures or artificial light (dealbreakers for me).
While waiting for digital technology to catch up with my Milky Way aspirations, I watched other photographers achieve beautiful results using night photography techniques that didn’t appeal to me: Light painting (long exposures with foreground subjects illuminated by artificial light), and blue-hour blends (one image captured with the foreground illuminated by twilight “blue hour” sky, blended with a second image of the stars from later total darkness at the same location).
Longing for something different than moonlight, while staying true to my one-click natural light objective, I added star trails to my night sky toolbox. Start trails allowed me to keep my shutter open long enough to reveal the landscape beneath a moonless, star-fill sky—albeit with star streaks that bore no resemblance to the pinpoint stars I was so fond of gazing at. Another perk star trail photography was the opportunity to kick back beneath a star-filled ceiling while waiting for my exposure to complete.
When digital sensors finally improved enough to enable usable starlight (moonless) images, I was all-in. Armed with my newly acquired Sony a7S camera (and subsequent versions) and super-fast and wide prime lenses, I aggressively pursued images of the Milky Way’s brilliant core above my favorite landscapes.
So thrilling was this Milky Way revelation, I all but dropped moonlight photography. In fact, moonlight and Milky Way photography are mutually exclusive because when the moon is full, the Milky Way is lost in the moon’s glow. So by 2015, the only moonlight photography I was doing came during my annual spring moonbow workshops in Yosemite, where bright moonlight is required for the lunar rainbow’s appearance.
As much as possible I time my trips, both personal and workshops, for moonless nights to maximize the Milky Way photography opportunities. One exception is my annual autumn visit to the Eastern Sierra, which is always timed for early October to coincide with the best fall color while letting the moon phase fall where it may.
When the moon cooperates, the dark skies east of the Sierra are ideal for Milky Way photography
This year’s Eastern Sierra visit was joined by a waxing gibbous moon that was well on its way to full (the day after my scheduled return home). Yet despite the nearly full moon, I longed for a night shoot. So on my first night in Lee Vining I decided to revisit (non-moonbow) moonlight photography for the first time in seven years and drove out to Mono Lake’s South Tufa after dinner. (Shout-out to the Whoa Nellie Deli.)
With my very first click, memories of how enjoyable moonlight photography is came rushing back: Composition and (especially) focus are orders of magnitude easier than with Milky Way photography; there’s no worry about getting lost or tripping over something (or someone); and even with the sky washed out by moonlight, the camera captures many times more stars than my eyes see. None of these insights were actually new, but they still felt like revelations because I’d been doing nothing but dark sky photography for so long.
This might be a good time to mention that for anyone interested getting into night photography, I strongly encourage starting with moonlight. Unlike Milky Way photography, you don’t need fancy gear—just a decent tripod, any mirrorless or DSLR body, full frame or cropped, made in the last 20 years (pretty much since the first digital cameras) will work, and an f/4 lens is plenty fast enough. Read my Photo Tips article on moonlight photography for more detailed instruction on moonlight photography.
One thing that made this Mono Lake night especially nice was the disappearance of the light breeze that had chopped up the reflection at sunset a couple of hours earlier. The lake wasn’t quite mirror-like, but the surface had settled to gentle undulations that smoothed completely in my multi-second exposures, revealing a gauzy reflection that stood out beautifully in each image. And the 82% moon, while not quite full, was more than bright enough to illuminate the water and limestone tufa towers better than any light painting could have.
I started with images of just water and Mono Lake’s iconic “shipwreck” tufa feature beneath the stars, but soon went exploring for a more interesting foreground. When I found the scene in this image, I oriented my Sony 𝛂1 vertically to maximize the sky, and widened my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens to 16mm to include more foreground than I usually do in a night image.
In almost all of my night images I simply focus on the stars, but this foreground started about 5 feet away and had so much interesting (important) detail, I stopped down to f/8 and focused about 6 feet from my camera to ensure front-to-back sharpness. Using my 𝛂1’s Bright Monitoring feature (I highly recommend to Sony mirrorless shooters who do night photography that they assign it to a custom button), I was able to manually focus through my viewfinder.
To compensate for the light lost to the smaller aperture and less than completely full moon, I bumped my ISO to 3200 and exposed for 20 seconds—less than ideal, but the 𝛂1 handles ISO 3200 easily, and at 16mm there’s not much visible star movement in a 20 second exposure, so I wasn’t worried.
I was only out here for about an hour, but it was such a joyful experience, and I’m so pleased with my results, that I know there’s a lot more moonlight photography in my future.
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Posted on October 9, 2022
To prove that Hawaii Big Island photography isn’t all just magma, Milky Way, and macro, I’m sharing this image from last month’s workshop on my favorite Hawaiian island. With all due respect to Big Sur, the combination of shimmering tide pools and rugged black basalt hammered by violent surf makes Hawaii’s Puna Coast the most beautiful coastline I’ve ever seen. What especially thrills me here is the creative opportunities provided by the ocean’s motion on and around the rocks.
Of the many differences between our world and our camera’s world, few are more obvious than motion. Image stabilization or (better yet) a tripod will reduce or eliminate photographer-induced motion (camera shake), but photographers often make unnecessary compromises to stop motion in their scenes, sacrificing depth of field with a too large aperture, or introducing noise with a high ISO that shortens the shutter speed enough to freeze motion in the scene.
Understanding that it’s impossible in a static photo to duplicate the human experience of motion actually opens creative opportunities. Because a camera records every instant throughout the duration of an image’s capture, photographers who can control their exposure variables have the power to reveal motion in ways that are both visually appealing and completely different from the human experience. Whether it’s a lightning bolt frozen in place, stars streaked into parallel arcs by Earth’s rotation, a vortex of spinning autumn leaves, or violent surf blurred to silky white, your ability to convey the world’s motion with your images is an important skill that’s limited only by your imagination and ability to manage your exposures.
I’ve had a blast freezing lightning bolts with fast shutter speeds, not just for the undeniable thrill of the chase, but also for the opportunity to scrutinize the intricate detail of these explosive, ephemeral phenomena. But on the other end of the motion continuum are long exposures that reveal nature’s movement patterns—movement that’s either too slow for our eyes to register (such as stars or clouds), or too complex to mentally organize into something coherent (like surf).
Silky water images take a lot of flak for being overused and unnatural, but there really are only two ways to capture moving water in a still photo: frozen in place, or blurred. Each has its place, but because the world unfolds to humans like a seamless movie of continuous instants, while a camera accumulates light throughout its exposure to conflate those instants into a single frame, neither is “natural” from the human perspective.
Fortunately, your options for expressing water motion in a still frame aren’t truly binary (frozen or blurred)—they’re a continuum of choices ranging from discrete airborne droplets to blur completely devoid of detail. And there’s a big difference between slight blur that expresses a wave’s movement while retaining its overall size and shape, and extreme blur that purees every detail into a homogenized soup.
For this image from last month’s Hawaii Big Island photo workshop, I wanted to convey both the intensity and the extent of the pounding surf. Not only were the waves exploding on the young basalt, many were surging far onshore.
It was it still quite dark when I pulled my group up to this sunrise spot. Dark isn’t a problem, but the pounding rain was. So we waited in the cars until the rain slowed to something more manageable and the sky had brightened to a dull gray. I gave my group a brief orientation on the location and set them free. Since this was toward the end of the workshop, everyone scattered pretty quickly in search of their own inspiration, and I was left to my own devices.
Along with a couple of others in the group, I made my way down the shoreline a bit, carefully picking my way over the slick volcanic rocks. Stopping occasionally to survey the options, I ended up playing with several compositions before landing on this one. I especially liked the way the large waves climbed the rocks here, then followed a curved channel to a large pool at my feet. The biggest waves replenished the pool, leaving swirling patches of foam in their wake and creating motion that was ideal for a long exposure.
Using my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens on my Sony 𝛂1 camera, I set up my composition so the channel moved across the scene’s left foreground—at 16mm, I found I could fill the rest of my frame with the wave action lining the receding coastline. I minimized the homogenous gray sky to maximize the far more interesting rocks and wave action below. The final compositional consideration was finding the left/right position that avoided any white surf or spray from leaking out of the frame.
After a little trial and error, I found the composition that worked. But where surf is involved, framing is only half of the composition equation, because each wave completely alters the scene. With help from my Breakthrough 6-stop Dark Polarizer, I tried shutter speeds up to 15 seconds, timing the start of each exposure for different points in the wave. I ended up with 16 versions of this composition that ranged from a completely still foreground pool, to the pool overflowing with frothing white. I chose this image because the motion was in the middle of that range, with foam covering most of the pool, but not so much that it lost all definition.
Though I was set up on a rock ledge a couple of feet above the pool, the largest wave actually reached my elevated perch. After this year’s experience in Iceland, I was extremely careful not to take my eye off the ocean, so I saw this big wave coming all the way. I was actually in the middle of an exposure, but seeing that the wave would lose its power by the time it reached me (fingers crossed), and since I was wearing shorts and sandals, I just held my ground and let it sweep over the rocks and wash up around my ankles. Quite refreshing, actually.
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Posted on October 2, 2022
One of my favorite things about Hawaii’s Big Island is the diversity of the photo opportunities—not just its variety of beautiful subjects, but also the opportunities to apply many different types of nature photography. Between Kilauea, the Milky Way, black sand beaches, rugged coastline, numerous waterfalls, and an entire nursery-worth of exotic flowers, I have no problem employing every lens in my bag on subjects near and far.
For example, while I can’t be much farther from my subject than I was for the Milky Way image in my last post, I can’t be much closer to my subject than I was to this raindrop laden flower in Lava Tree State Park near the Puna Coast. Ironically, to photograph the distant Milky Way, I used an extreme wide lens (Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM) that shrinks everything even more, while this pink Indian rhododendron, though only a few feet away, I photographed using my Sony 100-400 GM lens at 400mm, to get even closer.
Lava Tree State Park is a lush, peaceful 1/2 mile loop liberally decorated with a variety of exotic subjects. Though not necessarily spectacular, the trail’s colorful flowers, dense foliage, and ghostlike lava-encrusted trees, make it a workshop favorite. Better still, my groups are often the only people there.
Lava Tree’s abundant greenery sprinkled with vivid blooms create intimate scenes that I especially love photographing in Hawaii’s (frequent) overcast and rain. This year’s visit came on a very wet morning that had already caused my workshop group to sit in the cars for 30 minutes at our sunrise location, waiting for a downpour to ease (it did).
Lava Tree was the morning’s second stop, and it was obvious the rain that had delayed our sunrise shoot had only recently ended here. Rather than guide the group to a specific spot, I gave an orientation summarizing what to expect and offering suggestions for how to approach it, then set them free to wander (the best way to photograph here). Giving everyone a head-start, I slowly made my way along the trail, checking on each person as I encountered them. At each stop I found every exposed surface festooned with sparkling jewels of rain, creating a seemingly infinite number of compositions.
The pink flower (that I now believe to be a malabar melastome, also known as Indian rhododendron—correct me if I’m wrong) in this image caught my attention for the the way it stood out from its verdant surroundings. When I paused to look closer, I found that positioning myself just right let me frame the flower with a V of delicate fern fronds.
Working with my Sony α1, I went strait to my 100-400 GM and added a 15mm extension tube. Being able to zoom tight and focus close allowed me to eliminate nearby distractions, either banishing them to the world outside my frame, or blurring them until they softened into the background.
For me the world looks a lot different in a telephoto close-up, particularly using when extension tubes shrink my focus distance even more. Unlike larger landscapes, I often don’t have a clear idea of what my composition will look like until I actually see these close scenes in my viewfinder. Every image becomes a process of capture, refine, capture, repeat until I’m satisfied (or give up)—an approach that’s especially important in close-focus photography, when even the slightest shift of composition, focal length, or focus can completely change an image.
It took a handful of frames to land on this composition, but when I did, I knew I’d found something worth working on. Needing to keep track of my group, I didn’t spend as much time at this spot as I ordinarily would have, but I moved on pretty happy with what I had.
One thing I did try before leaving was a horizontal composition, but I didn’t like the way making the composition tight enough to eliminate background distractions (bright spots and dead ferns), also cut off the top of the framing ferns’ graceful arc—a dealbreaker.
Fortunately, just one pink flower in the background saved the day for my vertical composition. Without it, the top half of my frame would have been too empty. By simply including that little splash of color, even though the flower is very soft, was enough balance the frame.
The lesson of this image (and the gallery below, I should add), is that beauty is everywhere if we slow down and take the time to see it. As much as I like this little scene (I do), on this short walk I no doubt walked right past thousands of others that were just as beautiful. Next time…
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