Oh, What a Night…

Gary Hart Photography: Dark Sky Dreams, Lake Matheson, New Zealand

Dark Sky, Lake Matheson, New Zealand
Sony a7S II
Rokinon 24mm f/1.4
30 seconds
F/1.4
ISO 12800

(Jump to the bottom for a “how-to” and my starlight photography exposure recipe)

Five photographers followed bouncing headlamps through the chilly dark. Even in midday the trail through the dense rainforest surrounding Lake Matheson has a twilight feel; on a moonless winter night like this, the path becomes downright cave-like. Soon our footsteps were in sync, each tap broken by a beat of eerie silence. For me, the solitary experience at the front of the line was simultaneously serene and disconcerting, a feeling enhanced by occasional rustling and primal cries from the primitive world outside radius of my light.

I was midway through the second of back-to-back New Zealand Winter photo workshops. Just a couple of hours earlier the entire group had completed the nearly 2 1/2 mile loop in daylight. So striking was the sunset reflection of Mt. Tasman and Mt. Cook on that hike, that when we looked up after dinner and saw stars, a few of us hardcore night shooters couldn’t resist returning to the lake to photograph the Milky Way above the peaks.

Rather than hike all the way out there, we reasoned that we could satisfy our objective with a relatively short walk to Jetty Viewpoint, the closest view of the lake and mountains, less than a quarter of the way along the loop. Given the spur-of-the-moment nature of our adventure, I hadn’t done my usual (obsessive) plotting of the Milky Way’s position before bundling up and heading our to the lake. I knew only that it would be more or less vertical, in the general direction of the peaks.

What I hadn’t fully accounted for is how much higher in the sky as the Milky Way is in New Zealand. So unfortunately, by the time the five of us arrived at Jetty Viewpoint, we found the Milky Way was so high that capturing the bright galactic core and its reflection required a vertical composition. And it had rotated so far north that including the Milky Way and the peaks required a horizontal composition. After trying a few versions of those either/or compositions, we decided that since the reflection was the real star of the show, we may as well just continue another 20 minutes to the Lake Matheson’s best view point, Reflection Island.

The shear volume of stars in the pure New Zealand darkness is mesmerizing, but it’s disorienting to look up at night and not see a single familiar constellation, . Once we were settled in at Reflection Island, I spent the time during exposures wandering my gaze about the foreign sky.

A camera can “see” much better in the dark than we can, a capability that only continues to improve. For many years my night photography was limited by technology to moonlight only, but the low-light capability of the newest cameras has opened the door to a world that’s been invisible to the naked eye. Combining a modern camera that captures clean high ISO images with a fast lens not only enables moonless night photography, it pulls unseen wonders from the darkness.

I only use my Sony a7SII and Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens when photographing extreme dark skies, but when I do, I never cease to be blown away by what they “see.” Packing for four weeks in winter without exceeding the airline’s weight limits is difficult. But anticipating the opportunity to photograph the Southern Hemisphere night sky, I bit the bullet and added my dedicated night photography gear to my camera bag.  Every time an exposure completed, I couldn’t take my eyes off the image on my LCD. As saturated with stars as the sky appeared, each image revealed far more stars than were visible to my eyes, and the brightest stars stood out like an approaching locomotive.

A quick check of my astronomy app told me that the bright star burning a hole in the sky above the trees on the right is Achernar, well known Down Under but new to me. Slightly brighter than magnitiude .5 (the lower the number, the brighter the star), it’s the ninth brightest star in the night sky—the Achernar photons that landed on my sensor started their Earthward journey nearly 140 years ago.

The Magellanic Clouds (satellite galaxies gravitationally bound to the Milky Way but not visible in the Northern Hemisphere) that were faint fuzzy blurs to my eyes took on actual shapes. And while I couldn’t fit the mountains and both of the Magellanic Clouds in my frame, I was able to included the Small Magellanic Cloud in this image.

More exciting than the volume of stars revealed by my camera was the spectacular reflection it pulled from the seemingly black void of the lake’s surface. This ability to view beauty hidden from my eyes by darkness is the best part of night photography.

Starlight exposure made simple

Based on many years experience teaching starlight photography (not to be confused with moonlight photography), I’ve come up with what I think is the simplest approach to the most frequently asked night photography question: “What exposure settings should I use?”

The problem is, there isn’t a single set of ISO, f-stop, and shutter speed settings you can plug in for great results because the setting you use (and the results you get) depend on your equipment. Starlight photography is all about capturing light, the more the better. But as good as today’s camera technology is, successful night photography is still about making compromises. As you try to maximize the light reaching your sensor, you’ll need to manage these exposure compromises:

  • Shutter speed: Star motion is a function of the time the shutter is open, the focal length, and the direction your lens points—the faster the shutter speed, wider the lens, and closer to the poles (due north or south) you’re composed, the less star motion you’ll record. As much as we like pinpoint stars, I’ve always felt that getting enough light is more important than perfect pinpoints. Your compromise comes as you try to decide how much motion you can live with. My drop-dead shutter speed that I won’t exceed is 30 seconds.
  • F-stop: Sharpness and distortion, especially on the edges, becomes a concern when any lens is wide open. With some lenses it’s a livable problem, with others you’ll probably want to stop-down a stop or two. A starlight f-stop rule of thumb I follow is that (assuming a current camera with good high ISO capability) at f/4, the best you’ll be able to hope for is silhouettes; at f/2.8, you can probably get decent but dark landscape detail; making the scene significantly brighter than your eyes see (like this image) usually requires f/2 or faster. Given that, I like to shoot starlight at f/1.4 (hence my dedicated night lenses), and just live with slightly less than perfect quality in the corners.
  • ISO: Noise is the threshold that most limits our night efforts. If we didn’t have to deal with noise, we could push our ISO as far as necessary to eliminate star motion and lens flaws. High ISO noise varies a lot with the camera—some cameras struggle mightily beyond ISO 1600, others deliver very usable results at ISO 12800 or even higher. As a general rule, the larger the sensor, and the fewer the megapixels, the better the high ISO performance (larger, farther apart photosites mean more light gathering and less heat). So an APS-C sensor will usually yield cleaner high ISO images than a 4/3 sensor (Olympus and Panasonic), and a full frame sensor will yield cleaner high ISO images than an APS-C sensor. This is by no means an absolute—today’s 40+ megapixel sensors are much better at high ISOs than yesterday’s 12 megapixel sensors, and some of today’s high resolution sensors (for example, the Sony a7RIII) are far superior to contemporary sensors with lower resolution. My night camera is the 12 megapixel Sony a7SII. Regardless of the camera, and I can’t emphasize this too much, is to know your camera and how far you can push your ISO and still yield usable results. One more thing: because high ISO performance decreases significantly with shutter speed, base your high ISO evaluations on long shutter speeds, 15-30 seconds.

Understanding these compromises, you’re ready for my starlight-exposure-made-simple axiom: Give the scene as much light as you can without ruining the image. In other words, for the most light possible, use the longest shutter speed, widest aperture, and highest ISO that gives you results you can live with.

Taking this approach doesn’t mean that I don’t vary my exposure settings. Once I’ve settled on a composition, I use a variety exposure-setting combinations. Not only does this give me as many options as possible at processing time, it’s also an opportunity better understand my cameras’ and lenses’ limitations to learn how far I can push the exposure threshold next time.

New Zealand 2019

Workshop Schedule || Purchase Prints


A Starlight Gallery

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Off to a great start

Gary Hart Photography: Last Light, Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand

Last Light, Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand
Sony a7R III
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
.8 seconds
F/18
ISO 50

It’s a little ironic that on my first day back from New Zealand, I’m (finally) starting a blog post about the start of my winter workshops there. When I departed for New Zealand about a month ago, I had the best intentions to post several times per week, but soon realized there was going to be precious little time for that. I’ve processed a few images from the trip, but have only just scratched the surface of what I’m certain will turn out to be the most photographically rewarding four weeks of my life. But the rewards of this trip turned out to be so much more than photographic, and I have some great stories to share.

First, a little background

I’ve been leading photo workshops for a dozen years. From the outset my friend and fellow pro photographer Don Smith and I have had a reciprocal workshop relationship: he assists a few of my workshops, and I assist a like number of his workshops. In 2013 Don and I added a collaborative workshop at the Grand Canyon during the monsoon season (lightning photography)—instead of the workshop being owned by one and assisted by the other, we share the planning, marketing, and leading responsibilities 50/50. The Grand Canyon workshop became so successful (and enjoyable for both of us) that we’ve since added collaborative workshops at the Columbia River Gorge and on the Oregon Coast.

The next frontier

The New Zealand workshops take our collaborative workshop model to a new level. Not only are they our first international workshops, they’re much longer and more immersive. We’ve always provided lodging, but for New Zealand we added transportation (including a driver) and many meals.

Organizing a 10-day, 5 town workshop half-way around the world adds unprecedented layers of complications. Not just finding the best photo locations with good backups for weather closures, but also arranging lodging, meals, and permits. Though we’d scouted our locations thoroughly, had the permits, lodging, meals, and transportation arranged, we had no idea what it would be like photographing, eating, and traveling with a group for many consecutive hours, every day for 10 days. It turns out that our anxiety was completely unfounded.

It’s a sign

After the workshop orientation we hit Glenorchy Road on the shores of Lake Wakatipu for our first sunset shoot. Following a preliminary stop at Wilson Bay, where we were treated to beautiful light on the peaks across the lake, we headed farther down the road to our sunset destination—a spectacular view of the Humboldt Mountains (among others) above the lake. The sky looked especially promising for something special, so as we drove I gave everyone a quick primer on photographing a sunstar.

We pulled up to the vista just before the sun dropped out of the clouds. With just a few minutes until it disappeared behind the mountains, everyone scrambled out of the Sprinter (the 16-passenger Mercedes van that would be our chariot for the next 10 days) and set up. The sunstar window opened and closed quickly, but it was followed by a show of color and light that turned out to be a harbinger of upcoming good fortune.

I haven’t processed those images yet, so I’m sharing this one from the previous sunset, when I photographed a sunstar from the same location. (Honestly, the group got a much better sunset than this one.)

Why winter?

Ever since Don and I scheduled this workshop, I’ve had to answer the “Why winter?” question. Most photographers get it—not only does the lower sun angle make the light better, the mountains are covered with snow, and I’ve always felt that winter weather makes great skies. And a New Zealand South Island winter isn’t much different from the kinds of winters we get in Northern California and Oregon. During the four weeks we were in New Zealand, we dealt with lows in the 20s and 30s, and highs in the 40s and 50s—cold, but unlike the summer heat most of you endured while I was in New Zealand, nothing that couldn’t be easily handled with the right clothing.

Over the next few weeks I hope to share enough New Zealand winter images that I hope will further prove my point. Until then, below you’ll find a collection of winter images, from a variety of locations, for a little vicarious cooling on a hot summer day.

New Zealand 2019

A Winter Gallery

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Escaping Summer

Gary Hart Photography: Dawn on the Rocks, Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand

Dawn on the Rocks, Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand
Sony a7R III
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
Breakthrough 6-stop ND filter
15 seconds
F/16
ISO 50

(If you subscribe to my Image of the Month e-mail and this post seems familiar, it’s because I borrowed the text from my June message.)

I just checked the date of my last post, I couldn’t believe how long it’s been. But I have a good excuse, I swear: I’ve been busy. Busy taking pictures, busy leading workshops, busy checking in and out of hotels, busy staying warm (really)….

But I’m not complaining—not even close. For the last three weeks I’ve been in New Zealand. The day I left home, the high temperature in Sacramento was 100 degrees. Less than twenty-four hours later I deplaned in Queenstown, New Zealand to a refreshing 40 degrees (or, as we say Down Under, 5 degrees). While this winter chill is a nice bonus, I’m here on New Zealand’s South Island mostly because winter is hands-down the best time to photograph this spectacular country. Last Thursday (or, as you say Up Over, Wednesday) Don Smith and I wrapped up our first ever New Zealand Winter workshop, but after two weeks of down jackets and wool hats, I’m not ready to return to summer, not even close.

It’s impossible to pick my favorite thing about this trip. I could cite the all-day cruises on Doubtful Sound (though we learned it should really be named Doubtful Fjord), plowing through glassy water framed by towering cliffs and plunging waterfalls, and shadowed by leaping dolphins. Or the breathtaking helicopter ride onto Fox Glacier, where we explored blue ice-caves, climbed through gaping crevices, and observed firsthand that a glacier is so much more than a featureless sheet of ice.

But it’s not just about the big stuff here in “Lord of the Rings” land. Something else that’s starting to sink in about New Zealand is the routine beauty that’s pretty much everywhere I look. Snow-capped peaks in all directions, daily sunrises and sunsets that become almost monotonous in their beauty, and pristine glacial lakes and streams with blues and greens that rival anything in the Canadian Rockies.

This image is from last Thursday’s sunrise, our first workshop’s final shoot. Carved thousands of years ago by massive glaciers, Lake Wakatipu is one of New Zealand’s largest lakes. Arriving just as the first hints of dawn touched the clouds, we watched the scene slowly materialize out of the darkness like a developing Polaroid. The snowy peaks appeared first, followed soon by textured clouds above the turquoise lake. As the sky brightened further, the opaque lakebed transformed into an intricate mosaic of colorful stones.

I moved along the lakeshore until I found a group of protruding rocks to anchor my frame. To emphasize the foreground, I dropped low and framed the scene with a wide lens. I used a neutral density filter to enable an exposure long enough to smooth the gentle waves rippling the lake surface. The long exposure also gave me the opportunity to savor the sublime scene and say a small prayer of gratitude that my trip is not over yet…

Join Don Smith and Me in New Zealand in 2019


New Zealand  So Far (believe me, I’m just scratching the surface)

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Search and Rescue

 

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Sun, Lake Tasman, New Zealand

Winter Sun, Lake Tasman, New Zealand
Sony a7R III
Sony 12-24 f/4 G
1/250 second
F/20
ISO 100

I’m five days into the first of two New Zealand winter photo workshops with my friend Don Smith. With such full days down under, it’s hard to find time to post, but I’m doing my best to keep up (and to keep warm). Today I’m in Fox Glacier watching a spectacular electrical storm from the fireside confines of our hotel’s lounge. Yesterday we enjoyed sunrise at the Wanaka Tree, the waterfalls and Blue Pools of Haast Pass, and a short hike through the Lake Matheson rain forest; tomorrow we’ll helicopter onto Fox Glacier….

Don and I arrived in New Zealand last Friday, and spent several days pre-workshop scouting in the Mt. Cook National Park area. Before going on, I should probably clarify what I mean by “pre-workshop scouting”—or more specifically, what I don’t mean. I don’t mean that I show up for a workshop a few days early and hope to find enough shooting locations to keep the group busy. All that work starts years in advance—I never schedule a new workshop until I’m completely comfortable with the destination. For me, comfortable means backup photo spots and backup-backup photo spots. I’m kind of obsessive that way. My worst workshop fear is losing a location to weather or road closures or erupting volcanoes (hmmm, I wonder what made me think of that…), I sleep easier knowing that if a spot were to go down, I have a quality replacement.

But plugging in a viable backup spot also requires a little last-minute knowledge that can often be gained with feet on the ground just a day or two before the workshop. So I always arrive early and run as many (all, if possible) of my workshop locations in advance.

For New Zealand, hitting every one of ten days worth of locations isn’t practical, but in this case Don and I have an advantage because we’ve hired a local driver whose business it is to know every nook and cranny of the South Island. Nevertheless, we came over early to see what the current winter has done (specifically, how much snow and water there is), to add to our bank of potential photo locations, and to get our eyes on a few spots in the Twizel area that were inaccessible on previous visits due to conditions. (Plus, it was a great excuse to spend quality photo time with spectacular scenery.)

But anyway…

Last Saturday Don and I were in Mt. Cook National Park. One photo spot that was inaccessible last year was Lake Tasman, a pristine glacial lake often dotted with floating icebergs. We found the trail to Lake Tasman short but steep, immaculately maintained in typical New Zealand fashion. The hike ends at a vista above the lake, with a visual payoff that’s more than worth any oxygen depravation. As I sized up the scene at trail’s end, a park ranger (or whatever they’re called in New Zealand) trudged up behind me and asked if I could help him out. He explained that he was searching for a missing young woman, but had just been notified via walkie-talkie that the woman’s boyfriend was having a severe panic attack back at the trailhead.

Since David (the ranger) was a search party of one at this point, he had to continue the search. He told me the man’s name was Julian, gave me a brief description, and asked me to check on him and reassure him that an ambulance is on the way. So before clicking a single frame, I found myself hoisting my camera bag back onto my shoulders and beelining back to the trailhead, about a half mile down the hill.

About 100 yards from the bottom, a young woman on her way up stopped me and asked if I’d seen the ranger. When I asked if this had anything to do with the missing person, she told me she was in fact the missing person, and that she’d just reunited with Julian and was trying to catch the ranger to let him know she was no longer lost. I told her what I knew, including where I’d seen David last, and that I would continue down the trail to check on her friend and let him know help was on the way if he still needed it.

I found Julian resting in a shelter at the trailhead and confirmed that he was doing better now that he’d reunited with Sophie. Soon another search and rescue person showed up—when I relayed the status to him, he was able to contact David and tell him to stand down, all is well.

But now Sophie was wandering around who-knows-where trying to locate David. So back up the trail I went to catch her. I briefly considered leaving my camera bag but decided if I was going to go all the way back up there, I at least wanted the option to reward myself with pictures.

On the trail’s final switchback I ran into Sophie and David descending the trail, all smiles. We chatted briefly and I got a quick summary of how Julian and Sophie became separated, Sophie’s wanderings, and how she had taken a minor fall but was uninjured (though she would need a new pair of pants). They learned that Julian was fine and the ambulance had arrived and been turned around. I’m not sure the outcome would have been much different without my contribution, both were nevertheless very appreciative (and I have a story to tell).

Time for a little photography

Crisis resolved, I soon found myself back at the Tasman Lake vista. Unfortunately, the sun had come out and chased away the great light that had greeted my initial arrival, but I decided I wasn’t going to let that stop me. Since it was impossible to create a shot that included as much of the scene as I thought was necessary without also including the sun, I decided to make the sun part of my composition by turning it into a sunstar.

I started with my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM on my Sony a7RIII, but soon switched to the 12-24 f/4 G so I could include more of the lake and nearby foreground rocks. I stopped down to f/20 to enhance the sunstar, and since I rarely shoot with the sun smack in the middle of my frame, I bracketed a few exposures to give me options at processing time. Like all my images, this is a single click—no HDR or other blending of multiple images.

Typical of most extreme dynamic range images, this one looked pretty awful on my LCD (nearly black shadows, nearly white sky). The bipolar histogram reflected these extremes, but based on what I saw I was pretty sure I’d be able to recover enough usable detail to save the image. Nevertheless, just to be safe (since I don’t usually feature a the midday sun prominently in my frame), I bracketed a few exposures and chose the one that worked best.

I suppose the lesson here is that rather passing on difficult conditions, sometimes it pays to make the best of the hand you’re dealt. My standard response to a scene like this is to enjoy the view and vow to shoot it again another day. But being (literally) halfway around the world with no other day guaranteed, I decided to search for something I could use. Armed with my great Sony a7RIII sensor, a reliable histogram, and the knowledge to read it, I was able to rescue my image in post and come up with something that works.

Stay tuned for an announcement of the 2019 New Zealand Winter photo workshop….

Workshop Schedule || Purchase Prints


A Sunstar Gallery

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Workshop prep: It’s more than just showing up

Gary Hart Photography: Twilight Reflection, Mount Tasman and Mount Cook, Lake Matheson, New Zealand

Twilight Reflection, Mount Tasman and Mount Cook, Lake Matheson, New Zealand
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
2 seconds
F/10
ISO 100

A couple of years ago a friend joined a New Zealand photo workshop and found that his leaders had never been to New Zealand. In lieu of scouting, these leaders had done a lot of googling, studied some maps, and read a few guides. During the workshop, they were still trying to put things together without firsthand knowledge of drive-times, the length (or difficulty) of the hikes, where to find the best views (not just the popular ones), the best photography conditions for each location, and how early to arrive or long to stay. Yikes.

Though I can only speak for myself, I can’t image that this is common practice—I believe most workshop leaders are both responsible and prepared. But this story did get me thinking as Don Smith and I started planning our own New Zealand photo workshop. Even the most thorough armchair research can’t prepare a leader for how to respond to the unexpected: extreme weather, a sudden closure or detour, or even a simple cloud that obscures a planned moonrise.

Which is why, before adding a workshop, I do a lot of scouting. A lot of scouting. Not just for my customers’ benefit, but for my own mental health. This might have something to do with being backup obsessive (compulsive?)—whether it’s data, batteries, keys, or photo locations, I just can’t sleep without knowing I can handle an unexpected loss without a hiccup.

At first this was easy because I started with workshops in locations that I’ve been visiting my entire life: Yosemite, Death Valley, the Eastern Sierra. These spots are all just a few hours from my home, so scouting was mostly a matter of double-checking to confirm what I already knew, maybe revisiting under certain conditions.

But when I started adding workshops a little farther afield, at locations where I didn’t have a lifetime’s knowledge, I had to do cram courses to get up to speed. I started with the standard internet searches, map scouring, and guide reading, but any photo-related activity that anyone can do without getting out of the recliner is hardly photography. Armed with this background knowledge, I was ready to put my money where my browser was, and follow-up with multiple, lengthy visits to my new location.

I started doing these scouting trips thinking that I’d just be confirming the knowledge I’d gleaned from my recliner. How wrong I was. As important as this research is, recliner-knowledge pales in comparison to the insight gained by interviewing (pestering?) locals, and simply driving/hiking around constantly asking myself, “What’s over there?”

Another thing I’ve learned is that the priorities for a scouting trip are different than the priorities for a photo trip. I certainly take my camera, and do my best to get as much quality photography time as possible, but a necessary frustration of a scouting trip is the inability to land at every spot at just the right time. Sometimes it’s because I don’t know the right time until I’ve actually put my eyes on a spot, but usually it’s just that there isn’t time to put my eyes on every location at just the right time.

On this month’s New Zealand scouting trip with Don Smith, one spot we’d targeted was Lake Matheson, just outside the little town of Fox Glacier. After seeing the pictures and reading the reports, we knew Lake Matheson offered striking reflections of Mount Tasman and Mount Cook that made it a possible sunrise or sunset spot for our groups. But our long day had started several hours away at Lake Wanaka, detoured east (away from Fox Glacier and Lake Matheson) on an unpaved road through a mountain valley, before finally meandering up and over Haast Pass to New Zealand’s west coast. Further distracted by an unexpected abundance of photo opportunities on Haast Pass, Don and I didn’t pull into Fox Glacier until 90 minutes before sunset.

Checking into our hotel, we learned that that the best views at Lake Matheson were at the back of the lake, about a one-mile walk from the parking lot. Since this was a sunset candidate for the workshop, as tempting as it was to go straight to our room and then to dinner, we bolted for the lake. We arrived with just enough time to hike out to the views, but hadn’t anticipated the rainforest and how beautiful the hike itself would be. With little time to spare, we were forced to race by many lush, intimate scenes that would have justified the hike even without the views, but that’s why we scout—next year, when we return with our groups, now we know to arrive early enough for everyone to enjoy the rainforest as much as we longed to.

We ended up setting up shop for sunset at what we’d learned was the final, and consensus “best,” mountain view on the two-mile lake loop. For a first visit this was probably the best choice, though I think in future visits I’ll make an effort to find something a little less conventional. Though we didn’t get much in the way of clouds, we enjoyed beautiful light on the peaks right up until sunset. As the air chilled, a thin layer of radiation fog formed above a meadow just beyond the lake, and a few wisps of clouds formed beneath the crest.

As nice as the warm light is opposite the sun just before sunset and after sunrise, I’ve always preferred the soft pink and blue pastels and shadowless landscape of the pre-sunrise and post-sunset alpenglow. Some locations are great for this, and others aren’t so much. Mt. Whitney, with its serrated peaks that jut high enough to make it into the pink part of the pre-sunrise sky above the Alabama Hills, is the alpenglow poster child that I judge all other locations against.

As revealed by this image, this evening’s visit was enough to demonstrate that Lake Matheson offers sunset alpenglow potential to rival Mt. Whitney at sunrise. That means we’ll need to make sure the group comes armed with flashlights so we can keep out a little longer than we would if we wanted to get them back to the van before dark.

Join Don Smith and me in New Zealand

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


Alpenglow: The Twilight Sky Opposite the Sun

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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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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)

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

 

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