Posted on July 26, 2016
(This is not a composite)
A few days ago I saw a picture of an oversize moon above the Golden Gate Bridge; beneath the picture someone had commented that the image was obviously was faked because the moon isn’t that big. Though I didn’t scrutinize the picture, I suspect that the commenter’s accusation was right, but for the wrong reason.
While some photographers take the easy (and deceptive) approach and just plop a huge moon into their beautiful scene, the mere presence of a large moon doesn’t mean that the image is a fake. In fact with the right equipment and a little preparation, any photographer can photograph the moon large in their images (without cheating).
Most people understand that the longer the focal length, the larger the moon will appear in an image. But focal length is only half the equation, a fact that becomes clear when you take the extreme telephoto approach to the limit and attach a camera to a telescope. True, with a telescope you’ll achieve the maximum enlargement possible, but you’ll also end up with the moon and nothing else—you could capture the very same image whether you’re standing on a tropical beach, atop a towering peak, or in the comfort of your own backyard.
Size isn’t everything
Rather than simply photographing a large moon, what we landscape photographers really want is a moon that appears large relative to the rest of the image. And while the size of the moon in your frame is determined by the focal length, its size relative to the landscape has nothing to do with the focal length.
The moon’s extreme distance means that it will appear the same size to our eye (or lens) regardless of our location on earth. We can enlarge the moon with optics (a lens or telescope), but not by moving closer (without a rocket). On the other hand, the perceived size of earthbound objects changes dramatically with distance—move closer and things get bigger, move back and they get smaller.
So, if the perceived size of the moon from earth is constant, but earthbound subjects shrink with distance, you can make the moon look larger compared to earthbound subjects foreground by moving back and shrinking the foreground—then, once you’re farther back, you can use a telephoto to enlarge everything.
Understanding this makes it easier to see why the moon looks so small in most images because the photographer was too close to the subject: The closer we are to the scene we’re photographing, the shorter (wider) the focal length required to include all of the scene in the frame, and the wider our field of view, the smaller the moon will appear in the scene.
The two images above were taken from the same location (at different times). The size of the moon relative to Half Dome is the same, but in one image I shrank the scene and enlarged the moon with a telephoto; in the other, I widened the scene and shrank the moon with a wide angle lens. To get the wide scene and the large moon, I’d need a vantage point with the same angle of view, only much farther back (sadly, that vantage point doesn’t exist).
The story of this image
Armed with this knowledge, I’m on constant lookout for distant subjects that stand out against the east or west horizon. This oak tree in the foothills west of Sacramento has been on my radar for awhile—for years I’ve noted it from the road, but was always on my way somewhere else and never had time to hunt for a vantage point that would work for the moon.
One evening I found myself with a little extra time when conditions changed and a planned foothills shoot didn’t materialize as hoped. Instead of heading straight home, I spent the hour or so of remaining daylight searching west of this tree for a vantage point that would align it with the upcoming moonrise. (Not only do I need a distant enough view that puts the tree against the sky, that view needs to align with the rising moon.)
Back home I did a little more plotting with my topographic software and came up with a tentative plan, and on the evening of the full moon I made my way back up to the foothills. I knew about where the moon would rise, but because I don’t know the exact altitude (in degrees) of the hillside from my planned location, I couldn’t be sure exactly when the moon would appear. (That’s not a problem once I’ve photographed a moonrise from a location, like Yosemite.)
Unfortunately, I got hung up by traffic that sapped all the extra time I’d factored into my plan, and ended up arriving at my location right at the beginning of the window when I thought the moon might appear. I started extracting and assembling my camera, lens, and tripod with one eye on the east horizon and did a double-take when I realized that the moon was indeed coming up. It was just slightly downhill from (west of) the tree, so I grabbed my gear and sprinted east a couple of hundred yards until they were aligned.
I used my Sony a6000 with my Tamron 150-600 lens (Canon-mount with a Metabones adapter). I maxed the focal length to 600mm, but since the a6000 is a 1.5 crop sensor, my effective focal length was 900mm. I quickly focused on the moon, metered, and started clicking. I used ISO 400 to speed my shutter and mitigate micro-vibrations that can be easily magnified at such a long focal length.
The tree was about a mile-and-a-half away. If I hadn’t been so rushed I’d have probably stopped down to f/11 or f/16 to ensure more depth of field (the hyperfocal distance was over 7,000 feet), but fortunately, focusing on the moon at f8 did the job. In Lightroom I cropped the image slightly (less than 15 percent) for framing and to enlarge the tree and moon a little more.
Posted on July 21, 2016
I’m a relationship photographer. By that I mean I’ve never been one of those photographers who expands his portfolio by adding new locations. Rather, I like to get a feel for a place, not just the where and when of its photo opportunities, but its history, geology, flora, and fauna. I much prefer digging deeply into one scenic area to visiting a large variety of scenic areas. This is a personal style thing, and I know my more deliberate approach would drive many photographers crazy, but I’ve learned that I’m rarely very productive on my first visit anywhere, and often not until I’m several visits in.
I’m probably several hundred (thousand?) visits into my Yosemite relationship, with no end in sight. But despite this extensive history, any moonrise above Yosemite Valley, regardless of the phase, still takes my breath away. Orbital geometry aligns Yosemite’s moon with different features as the seasons change, and I try to be there for as many moonrises as possible. Whether it’s the late fall and winter full moon hovering above Yosemite Valley, the summer crescent moon appearing from behind Half Dome, or the spring full moon rising above Bridalveil Fall, I just can’t get enough of it.
As with most of my Yosemite workshops, a planned highlight for this year’s April Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers workshop was a moonrise, this time the Bridalveil Fall full moon. Throughout the workshop we’d enjoyed a Yosemite Valley bursting with more water than I’d seen in several years, a dogwood bloom that was just about at peak, and a sky enhanced by an assortment of beautiful clouds.
When the moonrise day came and the clouds stayed, there were a few concerns for our moonrise. But knowing Yosemite well enough to understand that you can’t predict the conditions five minutes from now based on the conditions right now, I made sure we were in position with cameras ready (and fingers crossed).
Moon or not, the view up the Merced River Canyon that evening was beautiful, but when the moonrise time arrived and the moon didn’t, I scanned the clouds for hints of the moon’s glow. Though there was no sign of it, a little higher, and directly in the moon’s path, the clouds appeared thinner; higher still, actual stripes of blue sky gave me hope.
By the time the moon emerged, nearly ten minutes after sunset, the entire sky had taken on a rich magenta hue. The Merced River Canyon below had become quite dark, but my Singh-Ray two-stop hard-transition graduated neutral density filter held back the (daylight-bright) moon enough for me to give the canyon the light it needed. The final step for this image came in Lightroom and Photoshop, which enabled me to add a little more light to both the canyon and the clouds (which had been darkened along with the moon by the GND), and pull back the highlights in the moon.
One more thing
People ask me if I ever tire of Yosemite, and I can honestly answer, no. Part of keeping it fresh is the infectious excitement when the people I’m with witness something like this moonrise. (I don’t think this makes me unusual—most people get vicarious pleasure from the joy of others’ first experience of something that’s special to us.) This night the moonless pink sky was enough to thrill everyone, but when the moon poozed out, it became one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments for everyone in the group. That just never gets old.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.
Posted on July 15, 2016
While I’m a huge advocate of manual metering (it’s all I’ve ever used), I stop short of saying everyone shoot shoot in manual mode. But I do believe that anyone who is serious about their photography should at least be comfortable shooting in manual mode. That means understanding how a light meter “sees” a scene, the information the meter returns, and how each of the camera’s three exposure variables affect an image. (I won’t get into the rudiments of metering now, but you can brush up here: Exposure basics.)
We have three ways to control the amount of light our sensor records:
Every image you capture uses a combination of these three variables to establish the exposure (amount of light) for every image. And because the variable you choose to adjust affects more than just the exposure of your image, if you can’t justify your choice for each of the three exposure settings for every shot (if it’s not a conscious decision), you have a wonderful opportunity to improve.
To illustrate, I’ll explain my exposure choices in the dogwood image above (a new image, captured during my 2016 Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers workshop in April). Though I used f/8, 1/125 second, and ISO 1600 to achieve my desired exposure, keep in mind that I could have achieved exactly the same exposure by choosing f16, 1/4 second, and ISO 100. Or f5.6, 1/500, and ISO 6400. Or a virtually unlimited variety of other combinations that all would have captured the same amount of light. But since whatever exposure combination I decide on will potentially yield a completely different image (different depth, different motion, different noise), I had to be very careful with my decisions.
So here goes:
This was my process and rationale for this image. Depending on the factors I’m dealing with, my process might follow a completely different path for another image.
In general I tell people just learning to master manual metering to approach every scene with a tripod (non-negotiable—with no tripod, my suggestions below aren’t valid) and this mindset:
These guidelines certainly don’t apply to all situations, but they’re a good starting point that will simplify the decision making process until you get more comfortable juggling your exposure variables. And keep in mind that you’ll need to deviate from f/11 and ISO 100 whenever your creative needs and the scene conditions (such as wind or moving water) dictate. Practice makes perfect.
(Images that required a very specific combination of exposure variables)
Posted on July 10, 2016
I don’t know about you, but my earliest memories of photography are of Dad pulling the family wagon up to an iconic vista, beelining to the railed viewpoint, and snapping a few frames (that would be quickly forgotten, until the slides came back from the lab and Dad sequestered the family in our darkened living room until each Kodak Carousel had completed its cycle). Though Dad’s photo stops were never timed for light or conditions (you can’t plan a family vacation around the best time for photography), he loved recording nature’s beauty, and I think we all felt comfort in the knowledge that the next time we went to Yosemite, the beach, or wherever, everything would still look pretty much as it did in Dad’s pictures.
I suspect many photographers had a similar start, snapping pictures simply content to record the experience of being there. But those of us who grew frustrated with the similarity of our captures to all the other images of the same locations longed for more. Looking for ways to make our efforts unique, we took advantage of the predictability of nature’s permanent features, and tried to pair them with nature’s more dynamic elements, like a sunrise or sunset, the moon, fresh snow, a rainbow, the Milky Way, and so on.
Melding these static scenes with nature’s changing conditions is a great start, but sometimes we get so caught up in the thrill of seeing Half Dome with fresh snow, or the first rays of a Hawaiian sunrise, that we overlook our scene’s most dynamic features, its scooting clouds and flowing water that literally change by the second.
Nowhere do I need to be more vigilant about my scene’s transient features than Hawaii, where the ubiquitous clouds form, transform, and scoot through a scene with startling speed, and where even a fraction of a second can mean the difference between lapping surf and an exploding wave.
The image at the top of the screen was captured at Kauai’s Lydgate Beach, less than 20 minutes after the image in my July 4 post. As you can see, the compositions are quite similar, but the overall feel is very different. Not only has the color changed significantly, the surf is completely different, and the clouds have very little in common.
Though my position on the beach was more or less the same, I did make adjustments to accommodate the changing conditions. I started with the rapidly shifting clouds, with each frame recomposed slightly from the previous to account for the clouds’ movement as I sought the best place for the frame’s border, trying not to cut the clouds awkwardly (or at all).
The other consideration was the wave motion. In the earlier image, wave timing was less important because my 5-second exposure smoothed the activity. Though I didn’t freeze the motion in this image, my 1/5 second exposure stopped the water enough to make timing important.
I liked the sunlight’s gold reflection on the wet sand, but that required a receding wave to capture the most reflective water (an advancing wave was just non-reflective white foam; between waves, the sand wasn’t wet enough). I also wanted a wave that moved diagonally across the bottom of my frame. While most waves arrived more straight-on, I’d been living with these waves for at least a half hour and knew that every once in a while one would sweep the beach at an angle. And of course while waiting for the ideal wave to arrive, I had to continue monitoring the clouds to ensure that they didn’t shift enough to alter my composition. After about a half dozen or so clicks, I finally got all the elements to align.
Images where timing was essential
Posted on July 4, 2016
One question that comes up in just about every workshop is, where do I put the horizon (or in more general terms, where do I break my frame)? Behind these questions seems to be a feeling (fear?) that there’s one “best” way to treat a scene. And I’ve noticed that many beginning photographers are constrained by two “rules” they’ve heard at their camera club or online:
In general, when someone tells you that you should “always” do this, or “never” do that, run (don’t walk) to the nearest exit: If you’re not breaking rules, you’re not being creative. While well-intended advice like this might benefit the person who automatically puts everything in the center, most people who have owned a camera for more than a day are way beyond that point. And this 1/3 from the top or bottom of the frame thing? Forget about it. I have no problem giving 80 percent, 90 percent, or even more of my frame to my sky or foreground, and neither should you.
Here’s my (comprehensive) list of guidelines for how to split your frame:
That’s it. If your scene is all about the clouds, put the horizon in the bottom half and celebrate the clouds—the better the sky (or the less interesting the foreground), the lower the horizon can go. Conversely, if the sky is boring, by all means, minimize it. And if you’re lucky enough to have a sky and foreground of equal beauty, feel free to split the frame.
It’s important not to overthink these creative choices. Freeing yourself from rules creates more room for your instincts to take over. (And by all means, feel free to deviate from my frame splitting guideline to.) We all the see the world a little differently, and where I choose to put my horizon may be completely different from where you put yours. Just trust your instincts (and if you’re not sure, shoot it different ways and decide later).
About this image
I just returned from Kauai, where I helped my friend Don Smith with his workshop there. For our penultimate sunrise we were at Lydgate Beach, between Lihue and Kapaa. I like to find relationships between the elements in my frame and often struggle at Lydgate because there’s just so much going on here: rocks in the surf, driftwood on the beach, and a point of land that juts in on the left (I have a thing about stuff sticking into my frame). But the sky this morning was so beautiful that I forced myself to find something that worked.
Avoiding the driftwood because it was just a pile of logs to my eye (though others in the group found nice images there), I set up in front of a group of rocks protruding from the surf just up the beach. Orienting my camera vertically, I was able to avoid the intruding point on the left, and the heap of logs on the right.
The clouds that morning wouldn’t stay still, but just as the color started to kick in a large cumulus cloud aligned perfectly with my foreground. Wanting to smooth the surf, I dialed my ISO to 50 and stopped down to f/16, then used my Singh-Ray 2-stop hard graduated neutral density filter to subdue the bright sky and brighten the surf with a 5-second shutter speed. I oriented my polarizer to maximize the color reflecting on the water.
Just as I avoid having objects intrude from outside my frame, I avoid (as much as possible) cutting objects off at the borders as well. To include all of my cumulus cloud and as much colorful sky and surf as possible, I went as wide as possible (16mm) and put the horizon in the middle. Over the next minute or so I clicked about a half dozen frames before recomposing, monitoring the waves and timing my clicks to capture a variety of wave action. I chose this frame for the way the diagonal line of spreading surf (more or less) mirrors the clouds.
(Note how many of these scenes break the “rule” of thirds)
Posted on July 1, 2016
Okay, so that’s pretty basic. How about this one?
Wikipedia: The change in direction of a wavefront at an interface between two different media so that the wavefront returns into the medium from which it originated
Whoa, I hope that’s not on the test.
Who doesn’t love the soothing tranquility of a good reflection? And like a metaphor in writing, a reflection is an indirect representation that can be more powerful than its literal double by virtue of its ability to engage the brain in different ways than we’re accustomed. Rather than processing the scene directly, we first must mentally reassemble the reflection’s reverse world, and in the process perhaps see the scene a little differently.
Reflections are a powerful photographic tool as well. Water’s universal familiarity makes it an ideal subject for photographers frustrated by their camera’s static representation of our dynamic world. Just as we freeze in space or blur a waterfall to express turbulent motion, we can include a reflection to convey serene peace.
Water reflections come in many forms, from a mirror-sharp reverse of a mountain atop a still pool, to an abstract shuffle of color and texture on a choppy lake. Without getting too far into the physics of light, it’s important to understand that every object we see (and photograph) comes to us courtesy of reflected light. For example, when sunlight strikes El Capitan, some of the sun’s photons bounce straight back into our eyes, and there it is: El Capitan!
But other photons striking El Capitan head off in different directions—some are captured by other sets of eyes, and others land on the surface of the Merced River. Some of these photons pass beneath the river’s surface to reveal the submerged riverbed, while others bounce off. The ricocheting photons that travel from El Capitan and bounce off the river, reach our eyes as a reflection. In other words, what we call a reflection is in fact re-reflected light (reflected first from El Capitan, then by the river).
Mirror reflection recipe
The ingredients for a crisp, mirror reflection like the El Capitan image at the top of the page is pretty simple: still water, a reflection subject that’s much brighter than the water’s surface (the greater the contrast the better), and a view angle that matches the angle from the water’s surface to the reflection subject. (The best reflections are usually found on shaded water because there are fewer photons to compete with the photons bouncing from the reflected subject.)
The El Capitan reflection above was a perfect confluence of reflection conditions. Clean, still air, dense shade on the river, and El Capitan’s fully exposed, reflective granite, make early morning the best time for El Capitan reflections. On this April morning I made my way down to the Merced River hoping to photograph the first light on El Capitan reflected in the Merced River. Finding my route down to the river blocked by spring flooding, I was forced to improvise. The morning air was clean and calm, and the ephemeral lake was mirror-still.
Circling the flooded meadow, I found a gap in the trees that opened onto the most complete view and reflection of El Capitan and the Three Brothers I’ve ever seen. So complete in fact, that I couldn’t include it all with my 16-35mm lens at its widest focal length. Fortunately, I was able to borrow a Canon 11-24 lens and Metabones IV adapter from a friend (thanks, Curt!), just wide enough to fit the entire scene at the lens’s shortest focal length.
Playing the angles
Understanding that reflected photons leave the water’s surface at the same angle at which they arrive—imagine the way a tennis ball bounces (if it weren’t affected by spin, wind resistance, or gravity)—helps us get in position for the reflection we want.
A few years ago I found myself atop Sentinel Dome right after an intense rain shower had turned indentations in the granite into small, glistening pools. Rather than simply settle for the vivid sunset coloring the clouds above, I decided to include the sunset reflected in the pools as well. At eye-level the pools reflected blue sky, so I dropped my tripod as low as it would go, almost to granite level, positioning my lens at the same angle to the pools that the red light leaving the clouds struck the water.
When the water’s in motion
As spectacular as a crisp, mirror reflection in still water is, it’s easy to overlook the visual potential in a reflection that’s not crisp, or to forget your camera’s ability to render a soft or abstract reflection much better than your eyes view it. While a crisp reflection often dominates the primary subject in an image, a splash of reflected color or shape can provide a striking accent to a dominant primary subject. And a reflection disturbed by the continuously varying angles of rippled or choppy water magically appears when a long exposure smoothes the water’s surface.
In the image on the right, the El Capitan reflection undulating atop the Merced River was barely perceptible to my eyes. But the reflection came to in a 25 second exposure achieved with the help of 2-stop hard graduated neutral density filter that subdued the day’s last rays on the clouds and El Capitan, and a neutral polarizer (with the reflection dialed up) that cut the light on the entire scene by a couple of stops. And since a reflection is never as bright as the actual scene, using a GND meant I need to do a little dodging and burning in Photoshop.
Where to focus
Another often misunderstood aspect of reflection photography is where to focus. Though it seems counterintuitive, the focus point of a reflection is the reflection subject, not the reflection surface. This isn’t such a big deal in a scene like the El Capitan reflection at the top of the post, where the focus point of everything of visual significance is infinity, but it’s a very big deal when you want both your reflection and rocks or leaves on the nearby water surface sharp.
The El Capitan reflection on the right is very different from the El Capitan reflection above, where the extreme depth of field ensured sharpness had I focused on anything in the scene or the reflection. But here the leaves that were my scene’s primary emphasis were just a couple of feet from my camera, while El Capitan was several thousand feet distant. Even though the leaves floated atop the El Capitan reflection, focusing on El Capitan would have softened the leaves. To increase my depth of field, I stopped down to f/18 and focused several feet into the foreground leaves, then magnified the image on my LCD to verify that all of the leaves were sharp. Though El Capitan is slightly soft, a soft reflection is far more forgivable than a soft foreground.
It seems that reflections often feel like a fortuitous gift that we just stumbled upon. But given that reflections are entirely beholden to the laws of physics, they’re far more predictable than many of the natural elements we photograph. Taking a little time to understand the nature of reflections, and how they’re revealed by a camera, enables photographers to anticipate their appearance.
For example, in Yosemite I know that low flow makes autumn the best time for reflections in the Merced River. On the other hand, when the Merced is rushing with spring runoff, Yosemite’s meadows often shimmer beneath tranquil vernal pools. I plan many trips (and workshops) to take advantage of these opportunities.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.
Posted on June 21, 2016
Visual “Truth” is more relative than real
“Is that the way it really looked?” What photographer hasn’t heard that question by skeptical viewers? For years I used to feel slightly defensive when answering, as if my honesty was in question. Now I simply try to educate the skeptic.
Without getting too philosophical, it’s important to understand that, like the camera’s, the human view of the universe is both limited and interpreted. In other words, there’s no such thing as absolute visual truth. Instead, we (you, me, and our cameras) each have our own view of the world that’s based on many factors, some we can control, others we can’t. When you look through a viewfinder, the more you turn off your visual biases and understand your camera’s, the more successful your photography will be.
Complaining about the camera’s limitations—its dynamic range, low-light sensitivity, distorted perspectives—is a popular pastime among photographers who feel obligated to reproduce the world as “it really looks.” But before wasting too much time lamenting your camera’s limitations, pause to consider that what you and I see is incredibly limited as well. And while the camera can’t do some things our eyes can, it can do other things our eyes can’t.
Every square inch of the Universe is continuously bathed in an infinite range of electromagnetic frequencies. We humans, and our cameras, are completely oblivious to the vast majority of this radiation. For example, X-ray machines “see” waves in the one nanometer (one billionth of a meter) range, far too small for our eyes to register; TVs and radios “see” waves that are measured in centimeters—much too long for our eyes; we humans (and our cameras) can only see electromagnetic waves that fall between (about) 400 and 750 nanometers.
Knowledge of these “missing” wavelengths enables astronomers to peer into space using tools designed to see objects at wave lengths invisible to us, doctors to harness X-rays to view bones hidden beneath opaque skin, and military and law enforcement to see in the dark by detecting infrared radiation (heat). In other words, in the grand scheme of things, there’s no single absolute visual standard—it’s all relative to your frame of reference.
Recording more or less the same visible spectrum our eyes do, the camera is sometimes mistakenly assumed to duplicate human vision. But the camera has its own view of the world. For starters, it’s missing an entire dimension. And not only does it not record depth, a still camera only returns a frozen snap of a single instant. And we all know about our camera’s limited dynamic range and depth of field. Yet despite these differences, photographers often go to great lengths to force their camera to record what their eyes see. Not only is this impossible, it ignores camera’s potential to see things in ways we don’t.
About this image
Several things about this Columbia River Gorge wildflower image are different from what my eyes saw. First, this scene was a little brighter to my eyes than what I captured—I chose to slightly underexpose the majority of the scene to avoid completely overexposing the extremely bright sun and sky, and to keep the color from washing out. Another benefit of underexposure in this case is the way the nearly black shadows enhance the scene’s rich color.
I couldn’t see the sunstar, which (in the simplest possible terms) is caused when light passing through a small opening is bent and separated. Of course the scene’s extreme depth of field required a small aperture anyway, wanting to give the left side of my frame visual weight to balance Mt. Adams on the right, in this case I’d have opted for a small aperture anyway.
And finally, going with an extremely wide focal length exaggerated the size of the flowers that were just inches away, and significantly diminished the size of the distant Mt. Adams.
What is real?
Is this image real? While it’s not what I saw, it is a very accurate rendering of my camera’s reality. Understanding how my camera’s vision differs from mine, and how to leverage that difference by controlling the available focal length, exposure, and compositional options enables me to create a perspective that expands my limited vision and transcends human reality. Pretty cool.