California Burning

Gary Hart Photography: Oaks and Smoke, Sierra Foothills, California

Oaks and Smoke, Sierra Foothills, California
Sony a7RIV
Sony 100-400 GM
1/30 seconds
F/6
ISO 100

That my hometown topped 110 degrees several days last week isn’t especially newsworthy—100+ degrees happens maybe 20 times in an average Sacramento summer, and we hit 110 for a day or two every two or three years. But adding thunderstorms to the extreme temperatures is indeed unprecedented for California. And with the thunderstorms came the fires that have filled the sky with thick smoke and given the state an end of days vibe.

The fires are still burning, torching our forests and hills to the tune of 1,000,000+ acres burned, with no end in sight. I’m fortunate to live near the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, where we don’t really need to worry about fire (but you might want to check on me if you hear about floods in Sacramento). Even though the closest fire is about 30 miles away, the smoke here is oppressive, at times so thick that it’s not safe to go outside.

To say this year has been a challenge for all of us would be an understatement. We each have our own way of coping, and one thing that has helped me maintain my sanity during the pandemic is getting out and walking the neighborhood several times each day. I’ll start a typical day with a pretty brisk 3 to 5 mile walk, then throughout the day, whenever I start to feel a little cabin fever setting in, I’ll take a more leisurely 1 or 2 mile walk—by the end of most days I’ve logged 8 to 10 miles, then I go to bed, wake up, and do it again.

But with the heat and smoke driving me inside 24×7, by the middle of last week I was beginning to feel a little crazy. So on one particularly smoky day (they all run together), I loaded my camera gear into the car, put the AC on recirculate, and headed to the hills. I had no illusions that I’d escape the smoke, but I just needed to see something different. The plan was to find some oaks against the sky and make some pictures of the orange sun.

I’d hoped to find trees far enough from the road that I could supersize the sun with my Sony 200-600, but after driving around a bit searching for elevated trees that I could align with the sun, I settled for this pair that was maybe 100 yards away. There was no parking here, and the rutted shoulder dipped steeply and only offered about a foot more than a car-width between the pavement and barbed-wire fence, but I squeezed in, thankful for my Outback’s AWD.

The smell of smoke hit me the second I opened my door, but I ignored the burning in my eyes and throat and got to work (I’m blessed to be in good health, with no respiratory problems). I grabbed my tripod from the back of the car, attached my Sony a7RIV, mounted my Sony 100-400, and crossed the road to set up as far from the trees as possible. It was about 45 minutes before sunset, but already the light felt like twilight. I thought I’d have about 30 minutes of shooting before the sun dipped below the hill, but framing up my first shot I realized that the sun was being swallowed by the smoke. Less than three minutes after I took this picture the sun was gone without a trace, not even a bright patch in the smoke, and I was done.

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California feels like ground-zero for climate change, so when I hear people’s indefensible explanations for why it’s not real (or why humans aren’t responsible), I get a little irritated. From many of the comments I’ve heard, it’s pretty clear that some people just don’t understand it well enough to have an opinion, so a couple of years ago I wrote a blog explaining climate change in the simplest terms possible. I updated and re-shared this blog on my Facebook page a few days ago, and while the response was largely positive, I did get some pushback from a couple of people who still don’t realize that the debate is over. So I’ve appended it to the bottom of this post (beneath the Sun and Smoke gallery). If you have doubts about climate change, please take the time to read it. And if you still have doubts, before you push back, please be prepared to answer two questions:

  1. Do you not believe the greenhouse effect is real?
  2. Or do you not believe that humans are adding enough greenhouse gases to our atmosphere to make a difference?

Sun and Smoke

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Gary Hart Photography: Sun and Smoke, Sierra Foothills, California

Sun and Smoke, Sierra Foothills, California
Sony a6300
Sony 100-400 GM
Sony 2x teleconverter
ISO 100
f/16
1/8 second

Humans, we have a problem

Earth’s climate is changing, and the smoking gun belongs to us. Sadly, in the United States policy lags insight and reason, and the world is suffering.

Climate change science is complex, with many moving parts that make it difficult to communicate to the general public. Climate change also represents a significant reset for some of the world’s most profitable corporations. Those colliding realities created a perfect storm for fostering the doubt and confusion that persists among people who don’t understand climate science and the principles that underpin it.

I’m not a scientist, but I do have enough science background (majors in astronomy and geology before ultimately earning my degree in economics) to trust the experts and respect the scientific method. I also spent 20 years doing technical communication in the tech industry (tech writing, training, and support) for companies large and small. So I know that the fundamentals of climate change don’t need to intimidate, and the more accessible they can be to the general public, the better off we’ll all be.

It’s personal

Recently it feels like I’ve been living on the climate change front lines. On each visit to Yosemite, more dead and dying trees stain forests that were green as recently as five years ago. And throughout the Sierra (among other places), thirsty evergreens, weakened by drought, are under siege by insects that now thrive in mountain winters that once froze them into submission. More dead trees means more fuel, making wildfires not just more frequent, but bigger and hotter.

Speaking of wildfires, for a week last month I couldn’t go outside without a mask thanks to smoke from the Camp Fire that annihilated Paradise (70 miles away). I have friends who evacuated from each of this November’s three major California wildfires (Camp, Hill, and Woolsey), and last December the Thomas Fire forced a two-week evacuation of Ojai, where my wife and I rent a small place (to be near the grandkids). Our cleanup from the Thomas fire took months, and we still find ash in the most unexpected places (and we were among the lucky who had a home to clean).

The debate is dead

Despite its inevitable (and long overdue) death, the climate change debate continues to stagger on like a mindless zombie. We used to have to listen to the skeptics claim that our climate wasn’t changing at all, so I guess hearing them acknowledge that okay-well-maybe-the-climate-is-changing-but-humans-aren’t-responsible can be considered progress.

Despite what you might read on social media or fringe websites, climate change alternative “explanations” like “natural variability” and “solar energy fluctuations” have been irrefutably debunked by rigorously gathered, thoroughly analyzed, and closely scrutinized data. (And don’t get me started on the whole “scientists motivated by grant money” conspiracy theory.)

Science we all can agree on

One thing that everyone does agree on is the existence of the greenhouse effect, which has been used for centuries to grow plants in otherwise hostile environments.

As you may already know, a greenhouse’s transparent exterior allows sunlight to penetrate and warm its interior. The heated interior radiates at longer wavelengths (infrared) that don’t escape as easily through the greenhouse’s ceiling and walls. That means more heat is added to a greenhouse than exits it, so the interior is warmer than the environment outside.

There’s something in the air

Perhaps the most common misperception about human induced climate change is that it’s driven by all the heat we create when we burn stuff. But that’s not what’s going on, not even close.

Our atmosphere behaves like a greenhouse, albeit with far more complexity. The sun bathes Earth with continuous electromagnetic radiation that includes infrared, visible light, and ultraviolet. Solar radiation not reflected back to space reaches Earth’s surface to heat water, land, and air. Some of this heat makes it back to space, but much is absorbed by molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, forming a virtual blanket that makes Earth warmer than it would be without an atmosphere. In a word, inhabitable.

Because a molecule’s ability to absorb heat depends on its structure, some molecules absorb heat better than others. The two most common molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, nitrogen (N2: two nitrogen atoms) and oxygen (O2: two oxygen atoms), are bound so tightly that they don’t absorb heat. Our atmospheric blanket relies on other molecules to absorb heat: the greenhouse gases.

Also not open for debate is that Earth warms when greenhouse gases in the atmosphere rise, and cools when they fall. The rise and fall of greenhouse gases has been happening for as long as Earth has had an atmosphere. So our climate problem isn’t that our atmosphere contains greenhouse gases, it’s that human activity changes our atmosphere’s natural balance of greenhouse gases.

Earth’s most prevalent greenhouse gas is water vapor. But water vapor responds quickly to temperature changes, leaving the atmosphere relatively fast as rain or snow, while other greenhouse gases hold their heat far longer.

The two most problematic greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide (CO2: one carbon atom bonded with two oxygen atoms) and methane (CH4: one carbon atom bonded with four hydrogen atoms). The common denominator in these “problem” gases is carbon. (There are other, non-carbon-based, greenhouse gases, but for simplicity I’m focusing on the most significant ones.)

Carbon exists in many forms: as a solo act like graphite and diamond, and in collaboration with other elements to form more complex molecules, like carbon dioxide and methane. When it’s not floating around the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas, carbon in its many forms is sequestered in a variety of natural reservoirs called a “carbon sink,” where it does nothing to warm the planet.

Oceans are Earth’s largest carbon sink. And since carbon is the fundamental building block of life on Earth, all living organisms, from plants to plankton to people, are carbon sinks as well. The carbon necessary to form greenhouse gases has always fluctuated naturally between the atmosphere and natural sinks like oceans and plants.

For example, a growing tree absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, keeping the carbon and expelling oxygen (another simplification of a very complex process)—a process that stops when the tree dies. As the dead tree decomposes, some of its carbon is returned to the atmosphere as methane, but much of it returns to the land where it is eventually buried beneath sediments. Over tens or hundreds of millions of years, some of that sequestered carbon is transformed by pressure and heat to become coal.

Another important example is oil. For billions of years, Earth’s oceans have been host to simple-but-nevertheless-carbon-based organisms like algae and plankton. When these organisms die they drop to the ocean floor, where they’re eventually buried beneath sediment and other dead organisms. Millions of years of pressure and heat transforms these ancient deposits into…: oil.

Coal and oil (hydrocarbons), as significant long-term carbon sinks, were quite content to lounge in comfortable anonymity as continents drifted, mountains lifted and eroded, and glaciers advanced and retreated. Through all this slow motion activity on its surface, Earth’s temperatures ebbed and flowed and life evolved accordingly.

Enter humans. We have evolved, migrated, and built civilizations based on a relatively stable climate. And since the discovery of fire we humans have burned plants for warmth and food preparation. Burning organic material creates carbon dioxide, thereby releasing sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. Who knew that such a significant advance was the first crack in the climate-change Pandora’s Box?

For thousands of years the demand for fuel was met simply by harvesting dead plants strewn about on the ground and the reintroduction of carbon to the atmosphere was minimal. But as populations expanded and technology advanced, so did humans’ thirst for fuel to burn.

We nearly killed off the whales for their oil before someone figured out that those ancient, subterranean metamorphosed dead plants burn really nicely. With an ample supply of coal and oil and a seemingly boundless opportunity for profit, coal and oil soon became the driving force in the world’s economy. Suddenly, hundreds of millions of years worth of sequestered carbon was being reintroduced to our atmosphere as fast as it could be produced—with a corresponding acceleration in greenhouse gases (remember, when we burn hydrocarbons, we create carbon dioxide).

Compounding the fossil-fuel-as-energy problem is the extreme deforestation taking place throughout the world. Not only does burning millions of forest and jungle acres each year instantly reintroduce sequestered carbon to the atmosphere, it destroys a significant sink for present and future carbon.

Scientists have many ways to confirm humans’ climate change culpability. The most direct is probably the undeniable data showing that for millennia carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere hovered rather steadily around 280 parts per million (ppm). Then, corresponding to the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen steadily and today sits somewhere north of 400 ppm, with a bullet.

Humans don’t get a pass on atmospheric methane either. While not nearly as abundant in Earth’s atmosphere as carbon dioxide, methane is an even more powerful greenhouse gas, trapping about 30 times more heat than its more plentiful cousin. Methane is liberated to the atmosphere by a variety of human activities, from the decomposition of waste (sewage and landfill) to agricultural practices that include rice cultivation and bovine digestive exhaust (yes, that would be cow farts).

While the methane cycle is less completely understood than the carbon dioxide cycle, the increase of atmospheric methane also correlates to fossil fuel consumption. Of particular concern (and debate) is the cause of the steeper methane increase since the mid-2000s. Stay tuned while scientists work on that….

Balancing act

For humans, the most essential component of Earth’s habitability is the precarious balance between water’s three primary states: gas (water vapor),  ice, and liquid. Since the dawn of time, water’s varied states have engaged in a complex, self-correcting choreography of land, sea, and air inputs—tweak one climate variable here, and another one over there compensates.

Earth’s climate remains relatively stable until the equilibrium is upset by external input like solar energy change, volcanic eruption, or (heaven forbid) a visit from a rogue asteroid. Unfortunately, humans incremented the list of climate catalysts by one with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, and our thirst for fossil fuels.

As we’re learning firsthand in realtime, even the smallest geospheric tweak can initiate a self-reinforcing chain reaction with potentially catastrophic consequences for humanity’s long-term wellbeing. For example, a warmer planet means a warmer ocean and less ice, which means more liquid water and water vapor. Adding carbon dioxide to water vapor kicks off a feedback loop that magnifies atmospheric heat: More carbon dioxide raises the temperature of the air—>warmer air holds more water vapor—>more water vapor warms the air more—>and so on.

But that’s just the beginning. More liquid water swallows coastlines; increased water vapor means more clouds, precipitation, and warmer temperatures (remember, water vapor is a greenhouse gas). Wind patterns and ocean currents shift, changing global weather patterns. Oh yeah, and ice’s extreme albedo (reflectivity) bounces solar energy back to space, so shrinking our icecaps and glaciers means less solar energy returned to space even more solar energy to warm our atmosphere, which only compounds the problems.

Comparing direct measurements of current conditions to data inferred from tree rings, ice and sediment cores, and many other proven methods, makes it clear that human activity has indeed upset the climate balance: our planet is warming. What we’re still working on is how much we’ve upset it (so far), what’s coming, and where the tipping point is (or whether the tipping point is already in our rearview mirror).

We do know that we’re already experiencing the effects of these changes, though it’s impossible to pinpoint a single hurricane, fire, or flood and say this one wouldn’t have happened without climate change. And contrary to the belief of many, everyone will not be warmer. Some places are getting warmer, others are getting cooler; some are wetter, others are drier. The frequency and intensity of storms is changing, growing seasons are changing, animal habitats are shifting or shrinking, and the list goes on….

We won’t fix the problem by simply adjusting the thermostat, building dikes and levees, and raking forests. Until we actually reduce greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, things will get worse faster than we can adjust. But the first step to fixing a problem is acknowledging we have one.

About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Sun and Smoke, Sierra Foothills, California

Sun and Smoke, Sierra Foothills, California

The Camp Fire had been burning for ten days, devouring Paradise and filling the air in Sacramento with brown smoke so thick that at times not only could we not see the sun, we couldn’t see the end of the block. But on this afternoon, when an orange ball of sun burned through the smoke I donned a mask, grabbed my camera bag, and headed for the hills.

I have a collection of go-to foothill oak trees for sun and moonsets, but most of these trees are too close to my shooting position for the extreme telephoto image I had in mind. Too close because at this kind of focal length, the hyperfocal distance is over a mile. So I made my way to a quiet country road near Plymouth where I thought the trees might just be distant enough to work. But I’m less familiar with this location than many of my others, so I didn’t know exactly how the trees and sun would align. Turning onto the road, I drove slowly, glancing at the sun and trees until they lined up. Because there wasn’t a lot of room to park on either side, I was pleased that the shoulder at the location that worked best was just wide enough for my car.

Envisioning a maximum telephoto shot, I added my Sony 2X teleconverter to my Sony 100-400 GM lens. While my plan was to use my 1.5-crop Sony a6300, when I arrived the sun was high enough that that combination provided too much magnification, so I started with my full frame Sony a7RIII. But soon as the sun dropped to tree level I switched to the a6300 and zoomed as tight as possible.

When I started the sun was still bright enough that capturing its color made the trees complete silhouettes, with no detail or color in the foreground. But as the setting sun sank into increasingly thick smoke, it became redder and redder and my exposure became easier. It always surprises me how fast the sun and moon move relative to the nearby horizon, so found myself running around to different positions to get the right sun and tree juxtaposition as the sun fell. The smoke near the horizon was so thick that it swallowed the sun before it actually set.

Later I plotted my location and the sun’s position on a map and realized that I was pointing right at San Francisco, about 100 miles away, with a large swath of the Bay Area in between. Then I thought about this air that was thick enough to completely obscure the sun, and the millions of people who had been breathing that air for weeks.

I’d be lying if I said I don’t like this image—it’s exactly what I was going for. But I’d be very happy if I never got another opportunity to photograph something like this.

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Solar Energy

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My camera is a time machine

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Pastoral, Sierra Foothills

Sunset Pastoral, Sierra Foothills (2015)
Sony a7R
Tamron 150-600 (Canon-mount with Metabones IV adapter)
.6 seconds
F/9
ISO 100

Photographers frequently complain about what their camera can’t do, and take for granted the things it does well. A lot of this is a frustration with the inability to duplicate the world the way we see it. But honestly, what fun is that? My favorite photographs are those that show me something I might have overlooked or were not visible to my eye to my eye at all. As someone who tries to photograph a world untouched by the hand of Man, I particularly love the camera’s ability to return me to simpler times, reducing a scene to its essence by subtracting reminders of human incursion.

Gary Hart Photography: Tequila Sunset, Sierra Foothills, California

Tequila Sunset, Sierra Foothills, California (2005)

I recently returned to this small stand of oak trees huddled atop a hill in the low foothills east of Sacramento. Since I first photographed this scene over ten years ago, the peaceful country road “my” hill overlooks has evolved into a bustling artery for oblivious commuters. More recently, fencing has sprung up and an arcing dirt road has been carved into the hillside, a harbinger I fear of an impending subdivision. They’re everywhere up here now, these cookie-cutter developments with meaningless, corporate-crafted street names (Aspen Meadows Drive, Teakwood Court), devouring this once bucolic setting like a stage-4 cancer.

Despite the distractions, my camera’s “limited” vision instantly returns me to more peaceful times. Gone in a shutter-click are the highway’s roar and choking exhaust, while the encroaching suburbs are banished by the narrow view of a telephoto lens. And that scar of a road? It disappears in the shadows of the camera’s narrow dynamic range.

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Celebrating the camera’s “limited” vision

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Just messing around

Gary Hart Photography: Big Sun, Sierra Foothills, California

Big Sun, Sierra Foothills, California
Sony a6300
Tamron 150-600 (Canon-mount with Metabones IV adapter)
1/4000 second
F/11
ISO 100

A few days ago my brother and I made a trip up into the foothills to photograph the new moon hanging on the horizon shortly after sunset. With several fires burning in Northern California, I realized that if the wind cooperated, we’d also have a chance to photograph an orange ball of setting sun before the moon appeared. Not only is this a beautiful sight, the dulled sun compresses the dynamic range to a much more manageable level—definitely worth giving it a shot.

Because the horizon for my planned moonset location was too high for the sunset shoot, I picked a starting spot that would allow me to shoot the sun against distant oaks when it was much lower in the sky. The plan was to shoot the sunset, then make the ten-minute drive to my moon location. Unfortunately, the conditions didn’t cooperate as the smoke was gone and the sun the shined bright all the way down to the horizon. But since we were there, we decided to make the best of the situation.

Since my goal was a big sun, I went all-in with my 1.5 crop Sony a6300 and Tamron 150-600 lens. Shooting directly into the brilliant sun, while not something I’d recommend, is decidedly easier with a mirrorless camera because I don’t need to worry about frying my corneas with my telephoto lens. I still had to be careful to only look at the sun through my camera, but found that I could see well enough to compose if I darkened enough.

I had no illusions about turning the sun yellow while still being able to see anything else in the scene, but I at least wanted to darken the sky enough for the bright sun to stand out. That would give me, I hoped, a round sun with trees silhouetted against the sky.

Zooming my lens all the way out to 600mm (900mm full-frame equivalent), I started playing with compositions as the sun approached the horizon. Focus was a piece of cake with the a6300’s focus peaking—I just dialed my focus ring to maximized the peaking highlights, and clicked.

In-camera my images were extremely dark except for the hopelessly blown sun, but I could see that I’d captured enough detail to give me hope for recovering it later. Opening the images in Lightroom later, I was thrilled at how much I could pull out of the darkness—not just the detail in the trees, but the color in the sky. Why all the orange? That’s simply a product of the significant underexposure I needed to keep the sun round. In fact, sticking with the white balance my camera’s auto white-balance chose, I actually ended up desaturating the scene a little. Noise reduction and a slight crop for framing was about all the processing I did for this image.

When the sun disappeared we packed up and hightailed it to our moonset destination. That shoot worked out wonderfully, but that’s a story for another day….

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A Sierra Foothills Gallery

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Our first date: First impressions of my Sony a7R II

Flaming Oaks, Sierra Foothills, California

Flaming Oaks, Sierra Foothills, California
Sony a7R II
Tamron 150-600 (Canon-mount with Metabones IV adapter)
1 second
F/8
ISO 100

Just a quick note to share my excitement about my new Sony a7R II. I’ve only used it once, and didn’t really ask a lot of it, but what I’ve seen so far I like a lot.

Love at first sight

My Sony a7R II arrived Wednesday, but my schedule limited my use to staying home and familiarizing myself with menus and overall handling. If you’re familiar with Sony’s e-mount mirrorless bodies, you’ll be able to hit the ground running with the a7R II. The menu system is the same, though of course there are few new features.

The buttons and controls have moved a bit from their placement on the original a7 bodies (a7, a7R, a7S), but it’s essentially the same body as the a7 II (released late last year). Blindfolded, it would be difficult  to distinguish the a7R II from the a7 II, and in fact, my Really Right Stuff L-plate (which I ordered several weeks ago), is the a7 II L-plate. I didn’t order the battery grip, but I know the a7 II battery grip fits the a7R II as well.

On the other hand, the a7R II has more heft than the a7R—the body, while still far more compact than my Canon bodies, is definitely larger and heavier than the original a7R body. The grip noticeably larger too. The result is a camera that feels more solid without sacrificing its mirrorless compactness—a definite upgrade.

I find mirrorless so perfectly suited to manual focus (for stationary landscape subjects), and the a7R autofocus so sluggish, that I just stopped using autofocus. I think that will change with the a7R II, as just a few test frames made it clear that the autofocus is vastly improved, both in speed and accuracy—not just for my Sony glass, but for my Canon lenses paired with a Metabones IV adapter (just make sure you’re using the latest Metabones firmware). Manual will remain my primary focus paradigm, but it’s nice to know that autofocus is now a viable option.

Shutter lag

One prime consideration for me is shutter-lag (the time it takes the shutter to engage once the button it pressed). Measure in milliseconds, it’s not a big factor for virtually all uses, but when photographing lightning, every millisecond matters. My Canon 5D Mark III’s shutter lag was decent but not great; the a7R is too slow to even consider for lightning; the a6000 is quite fast; and the a7S is (dare I say) lightning fast. So on the eve of my annual Grand Canyon monsoon trip (for the workshop Don Smith and I do each year), I was quite anxious to know how the a7R II would perform in the shutter lag department.

I don’t have the means to measure the actual shutter lag of a camera, but since I have the shutter lag numbers for the a7S, and have had great success photographing lightning with it already, I just wanted to know know how the a7R II compares the a7S. And I was able to devise a way to test their relative speed. Without going into too much detail, my test involved both cameras set up on a tripod with a Lightning Trigger (the only lightning sensor I’d even consider using—I own two) attached.

With both cameras focused on a timer that recorded milliseconds, I simultaneously triggered each using its Lightning Trigger, then compared the times captured in the images of each camera. They were identical. Just to be sure I ran a second test and again they were identical.

As I write this I’m one day into my Grand Canyon trip and can tell you that I now have empirical data confirming that the a7R II is a great lightning camera, maybe even the best lightning camera. But that’s a story for another day….

Kiss and tell

Thursday night I took my new camera out to one of my favorite sunset spots in the foothills. Sporting her brand new L-plate and 128 GB media card, she was clearly primed for action. This being our first date, I didn’t want to push her too hard, but I could tell she was definitely ready for whatever I asked.

As luck would have it, this turned out to be more than a dry run shoot to test a new camera. The sunset that night was off the charts, so much so that I ended up breaking out a second camera (she didn’t seem to mind that either). I haven’t had a lot of time to play with the images from that night, but am sharing this one here from the very end of the shoot. Despite its appearance, and the rash of fires burning throughout California, no trees were injured in the making of this image. This is just silhouette of a trio of oaks against the sunset, underexposed to enhance the trees’ shape and hold the color in the sky.

My first impressions of the a7R II? I think it’s a relationship that’s going to last (at least until the next version comes out). In addition to the improved focus and increased resolution, in the very brief time we’ve been together, it’s clear that the dynamic range is even better than the phenomenal dynamic range I get from my a7R.

All this, and a great body.

My Sony Gallery (a history of my ten months as a Sony shooter)

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The grass is greener

Gary Hart Photography: Under the Weather, Sierra Foothills, California

Under the Weather, Sierra Foothills, California
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1/8 second
F/11
ISO 100

“You’re so lucky to live so close to <fill in the blank>”: Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Big Sur, San Francisco, Muir Woods (and countless other coastal redwood sites), Point Reyes, the Napa Valley wine country, Mt. Shasta, Mono Lake. I hear it all the time. Okay, I’ll concede that—I’m lucky.

But…

Their implicit message is, “If only I lived closer to such-and-such, my photography would be so much better.” But you know what? We all have our grass-is-greener longings. When someone tells me how lucky I am to live where I live (I am), I can usually counter with, “Yeah, but I’d love to have the skies that you get.” Because the sad truth is, for someone who loves dramatic weather and interesting skies as much as I do, California is definitely not the place to be.

My advice to anyone who lives in Nebraska, or Texas, or Illinois, or pretty much anywhere else that lacks California’s dramatic scenery, is to emphasize your skies (which are almost certainly more interesting than mine). Keep a mental database of interesting foregrounds (they don’t even need to be particularly photo-worthy by themselves)—a single tree, reflective lake, cascading stream, whatever—that you can get to fairly quickly when the sky shows potential.

When photographing your subject beneath an interesting sky, place it at the bottom of your frame, compose wide, and give 2/3 or more of the frame to the sky (the better the sky, the more real estate it deserves). Vertical compositions often work great when you want to emphasize the sky. Is it Yosemite or the Grand Canyon? No, but I could be a very happy photographer shooting nothing but great skies for the rest of my life.

I digress

So. As you might guess, on the rare occasion when it looks like something special might happen overhead, I’m all over it. Unfortunately, and despite my proximity to so many world-class locations, there’s not a lot I like to photograph within a few minutes of my home.

I got a frustrating reminder of that a few years ago when, during a heavy (for California), persistent rain, I looked out the west-facing window of my home on Sacramento’s west side and saw nothing but clear sky on the horizon. Hmmm. Knowing three things: 1) the sun sets in the west 2) weather in Northern California moves from west to east 3) a rainbow needs low sunlight and airborne water, inferring an imminent rainbow wasn’t rocket science. All I needed was an east-facing scene.

And therein lay the rub: It’s at least a 30 minute drive to any scene that would do the rainbow justice. Of course with more than an hour until sunset, I figured there was time if I hurried, so I tossed my gear in the car and headed east, toward a small tree that stands by itself atop a hill east of town. And sure enough, within ten minutes of my departure, the rainbow did indeed manifest as expected. What also manifested was rush hour traffic.

For the next hour, I (along with what seemed like ten million commuters) were treated to a vivid double rainbow framing all six lanes of US 50. Poking along at less than 10 miles per hour, we were also beneficiaries of ample opportunity to appreciate the spectral splendor. On the positive side, this rainbow was so beautiful that I couldn’t even muster much impatience—I just sat there in traffic and marveled. And as if its beauty weren’t enough, this rainbow persisted longer than any rainbow I’ve ever seen, lasting at least an hour—all the way up until I pulled my car to a stop in front of the tree. True story.

Deja vu

Fast-forward four years. A couple of months ago I looked out the very same window during on a rainy afternoon and saw the same clear horizon I’d seen four years earlier. Within minutes I was in my car and heading toward the same tree. This time the traffic cooperated and I made good time, arriving at “my” tree about 30 minutes before sunset.

Sadly, despite all the signs pointing in the right direction, the rainbow never happened. Waiting for the sun to appear, I photographed saturated clouds in a steady rain, at no point not believing its appearance was imminent. Just about the time the sun appeared, the rain stopped. And then, about the time the rain returned, the sun set. Oh well.

Am I complaining? Of course not. I didn’t get my rainbow, but I did get a rare opportunity to photograph Midwest skies right here in Northern California. And I hope this image illustrates my point—wasting energy longing for what’s over there obscures the beauty at your feet. Good photography doesn’t need a towering monolith or double rainbow, it just needs a creative eye and a little persistence.

 A Gallery of Skies

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The real California

Gary Hart Photography: California Sunset, Sierra Foothills

California Sunset, Sierra Foothills
Sony a7R
Sony 70-200 f4 G
1/200 seconds
F/8
ISO 100

I love driving the Sierra foothills east of my home in Sacramento, one eye on the road, the other scanning for gnarled oaks I can photograph against the sky. To my very California eyes, these are the scenes of home—not the palm trees and surf boards most people picture when they think of my home state.

California’s oak trees’ inherent beauty stands out when they’re silhouetted against a sunset horizon. I’ve accumulated many go-to locations for just this kind of scene, but because much of the joy of photography is the seeking, one afternoon last week I left home with no agenda but to explore some of the many untried foothill roads south of Highway 50.

My first detour took me into one of many new subdivisions that threaten the very foothills I love so much. Soon these wide open spaces will be smothered by homes, but right now they’re simply etched with a varicose pattern of fresh pavement. As sad as this “progress” makes me, on this afternoon the new roads gave me access to some views I’ve never had.

I wound as far back into the hills as the asphalt allowed, eventually ending up at the end of a cul-de-sac with a straight-shot view of three hilltop oaks. Because the afternoon was still young, I continued exploring, but as sunset approached, I knew this view was the one that would give me what I wanted—not just a sunset, but a sunset with a two-percent crescent moon flanked by Venus.

I arrived about fifteen minutes before sunset, surveyed the scene to find the best place align the moon with the trees, then watched the sun drop to the horizon. My original thought was to simply wait for the moon to appear, but when a the sun dropped into a translucent film of thin clouds gave that gave it yellow-orange cast, it occurred to me this would be a good opportunity to further test the dynamic range of my new Sony a7R. So out came my 3-stop Singh-Ray reverse graduated neutral density filter and my Sony 70-200 lens (sadly, the Canon 100-400 and Metabones adapter were at home), and I went to work.

Not only was I able to get a usable silhouette that still retained the color in the sun, the 36 megapixel resolution of the a7R allowed me to crop my result to more closely match the 400mm focal length I wished I had. Life’s good.

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A Sierra Foothills Gallery

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