Posted on September 17, 2016
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.
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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Posted on August 7, 2016
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….
Posted on August 10, 2015
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.
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.
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Posted on March 18, 2015
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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Posted on January 26, 2015
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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