My camera can beat up your camera (and other photography myths)

Redbud, Merced River Canyon

Redbud, Merced River Canyon
Canon EOS 10D
2/3 second
F/32 (the only way I could get the shutter speed I wanted)
ISO 100
80 mm

The difference between a pro and an amateur photographer
Want to know how to tell a pro landscape photographer from an amateur? Here are a few telltale indicators:
  • The pro photographer has no emotional attachment to her camera and refuses to invest any energy in the “My camera can beat up your camera” debate
  • The pro photographer is the one with duct tape on his tripod and camera bag
  • The pro photographer is the one pointing her camera in the opposite direction from all the other photographers
  • The pro photographer is the one using the garbage bag to protect her camera from the rain
  • When you ask the pro photographer for his business card, he takes longer than .5 nanoseconds to produce it, and when (if) he finds it, it resembles a used napkin
  • The pro photographer never asks, “How many megapixels is that camera?”
The megapixel myth

For me the last point, this megapixel thing, is a particular irritation, because until we all get wise to the reality that megapixels are not a measure of image quality (they’re merely a measure of image size), the camera manufacturers will continue shoving megapixels down our throats rather than giving us something of real value, like wider dynamic range or clean high ISO performance. And consider this: All things equal (identical technology), the more megapixels on a sensor, the lower the image quality. That’s because increasing the megapixel count requires smaller and/or more densely packed photosites, both of which reduce image quality.

How much resolution do you need? While there’s no absolute answer, consider that many of my most successful images are jpegs captured many years ago with my six megapixel Canon 10D. The riverside redbud image at the top of this post is one of my top sellers, an image that I still sell at 24×36 without apology.

Here are few more of my 6mp 10D jpeg favorites (all images I have no problem enlarging to 24×36 or larger):

Bridalveil Dogwood, Yosemite

Champagne Glass Poppies, Merced River Canyon

Poppy and Surf, Point Reyes National Seashore

Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

What does all this mean?
It’s hard to deny that digital cameras have improved. A lot. But the new technology is greatly underutilized by most photographers, the majority of whom display primarily online and rarely print larger than 12×18. Granted, more megapixels increase the margin for error (ability to crop a usable image from the original image) of any frame. And improved technology give newer cameras better dynamic range and high ISO performance than their predecessors. But most of these improvements are of limited value to the vast majority of photographers.

Of course photography needs to be a source of pleasure. So if it makes you happy to have the newest, fanciest, and most expensive equipment, by all means go for it. But understand that the latest camera is not a shortcut to professional success. If better photography is your goal, and you have a less than unlimited budget for camera gear, increased resolution should be toward the bottom of the dollar priority list, far below essential equipment that will make a tangible difference in your images and serve you for many years, additions like the highest quality lenses possible and a sturdy tripod that’s easy to carry and use.

Added 3/2/12: I’ve been shooting with the same camera since 2008. In that time I’ve purchased lenses, tripods, four new computers (two desktops, two laptops), a new printer, and lots of processing software upgrades. Each of these purchases has made a tangible difference in my results. And while I’ll probably be replacing my four-plus year-old camera this year, it won’t be to add resolution. It will be because the new technology finally gives me significantly better dynamic range and high ISO performance.

Added 3/8/14: I’ve now been using my 5DIII for two years. Is it better than my 10D? Absolutely, not even close. But I’d say that for at least 80 percent of my images, the differences between my 10D and 5DIII images make virtually no practical difference. So three years after this post, I still say that unless you have an unlimited photography budget, if you already have a DSLR of any vintage, you’re much better off spending your money on the best lenses and tripods (and maybe even a workshop or two).

Bracketing in the digital age

Poppy With a View, Point Reyes National Seashore, California
Canon EOS 10D
1/90 second
ISO 100
24 mm

Remember the uneasy days of film, when we never knew whether we had exposed a scene properly until the film was processed? As insurance we’d bracket our exposures, starting with the exposure we believed to be right, then hedge our bets by capturing the same composition at lighter and darker exposure values. Today digital capture gives us instant exposure confirmation, yet the practice of exposure bracketing persists among inexperienced photographers.

Film shooters carefully budget their shutter clicks because they pay for film and processing by the exposure; digital photographers paid for their exposures when they purchased their camera. In other words, while every film click costs you money, every digital click increases the return on your investment. This means that using a digital camera, you can shoot to your heart’s content with little to no added cost, a great opportunity get the most out of your significant hardware investment and grow as a photographer. These “free” captures may also explain the persistence of exposure bracketing by so many digital photographers who think nothing of tripling the number of shutter clicks. But unless you plan to blend images later, exposure bracketing is a waste of time, shutter-cycles (the shutter is often the first thing to wear out on digital SLRs), and storage. Instead, trust your histogram and spend your extra shutter clicks on a more productive approach: composition bracketing.

Composition bracketing is “working” a scene by capturing composition and camera-setting variations to be decided upon later, when you review your images on a large screen. If you shoot your scenes both horizontally and vertically, you already composition bracket. But don’t stop there: Before looking for something else to shoot, shoot the current scene wider and tighter, move around to change the foreground or background, experiment with depth of field and motion blur, and so on.

For example, a few years ago I spent a couple of days photographing wildflowers in Point Reyes. Visualizing a solitary poppy with the coastline soft in the background, I was pleased to find this fearless subject clinging to Chimney Rock’s precipitous west slope. From my vantage point above the poppy, the background was a mix of dirt and weeds, but dropping down to poppy-level instantly juxtaposed it against the ocean. A blue ocean was better than dirt and weeds, but I wanted coastline so I rotated (with one eye on the cliff) until the poppy was framed by the curving shore. To fill the frame with the poppy and achieve the narrow depth of field I sought, I added an extension tube to my wide (24-70) lens.

Here I am refining my composition for this poppy. I ended up dropping lower and closer before bringing in my tripod. (The slope was as steep as it looks here.)

Dropping low enough to place the entire poppy against the surf put me too low for the tripod I was carrying. But since nailing the focus point is particularly essential these shallow depth of field images, I don’t even consider hand-holding close focus shots. In this case I placed my tripod on its side and carefully rested the lens on one of the legs, using my bunched jacket to cushion against vibration and my remote release to click without disturbing the precarious equilibrium. As you might imagine, because this was in the days before live-view, composing was an exercise in contortion and patience.

Exposure was easy, a fact confirmed by my histogram. But after going to all this trouble to set up my shot, I wasn’t about to fire off a single frame and move on. So I bracketed my compositions, timing several exposures for different background wave action, a surprisingly significant frame-to-frame change. And even though I believed minimal DOF was best, I knew that my postage stamp sized LCD wouldn’t tell me if I’d achieved the best DOF. So I followed my initial wide-open shot with several frames at a variety of smaller f-stops (and a correspondingly slower shutter speeds). Good thing, because the background in the original f4 exposure was far too soft–the frame I ended up choosing was at f8. While the exposure was identical for each frame, I attribute my satisfaction with this image to the choices due to my calculated composition bracketing.

Photographing the Grand Canyon: It’s not as easy as it looks

Sunset, Hopi Point, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1 second
ISO 100
28 mm

As a photographer weaned on the no less breathtaking but far more finite confines of Yosemite, transitioning to photographing the Grand Canyon shattered a long-established template for success. In Yosemite Valley I’m surrounded by looming walls as familiar as they are spectacular. Attempts to capture Yosemite’s grandeur generally involve isolating or combining specific subjects: El Capitan, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and so on.

But when photographing from the rim of the Grand Canyon, no single subject stands out. Rather, I’m instantly overwhelmed by both the vast expanse of the vista and the enormity of its scale. The problem is, as far as the camera is concerned, breadth and size are mutually exclusive: The wider I compose to include the vista, the more everything in the frame shrinks; the tighter I compose to convey the size of the canyon’s features, the more the vista shrinks. But perhaps the greatest hurdle is the Grand Canyon’s great distance, with dramatic red ridge after red dramatic ridge seeming to continue into infinity. This visual depth is completely lost in the camera’s two-dimensional vision.

While I’m not sure I’ve completely mastered the Grand Canyon, I feel like I’m finally getting the hang of it. The above sunset photographed from Hopi Point demonstrates the approach that seems to work best for me, which is to find something for the foreground that complements the background I’m trying to highlight. The Grand Canyon’s rim is rife with interesting trees and shrubs, but in this case I wanted to photograph the sun on the horizon, using the river to lead the eye through the frame. But I couldn’t find an appealing foreground subject. Since experience has shown me that something in the foreground anchors the viewer and is essential to the depth I want to convey, rather than forego any foreground subject at all, I settled for two pretty ordinary shrubs on the canyon’s rim. Because they’re not particularly compelling, I positioned the shrubs at the edge of the frame, allowing ample room for the eye to move easily along the more interesting rim and through the rest of the frame.

Another difficulty photographing the Grand Canyon is the extreme contrast between the bright sky and deeply shaded canyon at sunrise and sunset, a contrast the eye handles far more easily than a camera. The best light in Yosemite Valley comes at sunset, when the sun is at your back for most compositions that include El Capitan or Half Dome. But the Grand Canyon offers an unobstructed view of the horizon in all directions–as difficult as it is to photograph, it’s pretty hard to ignore the rising and setting sun. And the canyon’s precipitous sides put much of it in deep shadow when the sun is on the horizon.

For this sunset I’d arrived at Hopi Point about an hour early, allowing time to plan and set up my composition. When the sun reached the horizon I combined two- and three-stop graduated neutral density filters, which enabled a long enough exposure to bring out the canyon’s shadow detail while holding back color-robbing brightness in the sky. (The Grand Canyon is a great place for hard-transition or reverse GNDs because the linear horizon is a great place to hide the dark-to-light transition.) The sunburst was achieved by using a small aperture (f18) and timing my exposure just as a thin sliver of sun peaked beneath a cloud.

While I’m still not as productive at the Grand Canyon as I am in Yosemite (and other more familiar locations), I really do enjoy the challenge and am encouraged by the growing satisfaction I feel following each trip. My fingers are crossed that I was able continue this trend with the images from my latest visit. Stay tuned….

Just another day at the office

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset, McWay Fall, Big Sur, California

Sunset, McWay Fall, Big Sur, California
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
Canon 17-40mm f/4L USM
3 2/3 seconds
ISO 400

As some readers know, fellow pro photographer Don Smith and I partner on many workshops, donating our time as co-leaders for each other’s trips. On a recent trip Don and I stood on a bluff at sunrise gazing at the Big Sur Coast (or was it sunset overlooking Yosemite Valley?) and reminded ourselves of all the people idling in traffic or confined in a cubicle, and how fortunate we are to do what we do for a living.

Not only do photo workshops allow me to see and photograph great stuff, they give me the opportunity to learn from the diverse perspectives of dedicated photographers from every hemisphere on Earth and virtually every state in America. My workshop participants have been, in no particular order, musicians, computer professionals, artists, physicians, writers, lawyers, corporate executives, electricians, accountants, bond traders, active and retired military, other professional photographers, real estate agents, clergy, a classical composer, a Hollywood graphic artist, and a Hooters girl (a very sweet young lady who would completely dash any preconceived impression of what that might mean). One workshop included a rocket scientist and a brain surgeon.

Sometimes the education I gain from this eclectic mix of professions, preferences, and personalities is simply an insight or point-of-view that helps me better understand or inform future workshop participants. And sometimes my education is a bit more, uh, “esoteric.” On the day I captured this image of McWay Fall in Big Sur, I got a little of both.

This was a couple of years ago, on the first day of Don’s spring Big Sur workshop. Driving to the workshop’s first shoot we hadn’t been on the road five minutes when it was discovered my backseat featured a sex therapist and a gynecologist. Uh-oh. While they seemed quite excited by their mutual interest, I was uncertain that the other passengers shared the doctors’ outspoken zeal for the subject and did my best to deflect the conversation into more benign territory. But the doctors were not to be deterred. We spent the duration of the drive listening to these experts compare notes in graphic and excruciatingly uncensored detail. Topics ranged from, uh, well let’s just say we covered everything from oysters to “When Harry Met Sally.” Much to my relief, and after fifty minutes without exhaling, I pulled into the parking area at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park with a car-full of laughing (and, it turns out, just a little better informed) passengers. Phew.

Amazingly, it turned out that the drive wasn’t even the most memorable part of the afternoon. That honor goes to the sunset, which I was fortunate enough to capture in today’s image. When we arrived at the view of McWay Fall, the sun was behind a cloud bank that painted land, sea, and sky matching gray. But successful photography is often not as much about what’s happening now as it is about what’s going to happen later. And few opportunities excite me more than watching the sun slip from the clouds just before it completes its dash for the horizon–exactly what was in store this evening.

Don and I rallied the troops and told them not to be deceived by the flat scene, to prepare for a sudden and dramatic change in the color and light when the sun popped from behind the clouds. We told everyone that the display wouldn’t last long and encouraged them to forego the current moment and search for a composition that would work when “the moment” happened. With about ten minutes to pick a spot, refine our compositions, and ready our cameras, I ended up working with about half the group at this location. Don stationed himself with the rest of the group a couple hundred feet up the trail.

After getting everyone situated, I opted for this wide shot that used the fall and sun to balance the frame. To reduce the contrast between the sky and foreground I stacked two graduated neutral density filters (totaling five stops); to get the starburst effect I stopped down to f18. Because everyone in my group was ready and comfortable enough with their camera, we were all able to capture our own version of this special moment.

I’m afraid Don wasn’t so fortunate. Most of his group was successful, but with little warning one of his people decided that this very moment was the absolute best time to learn the manual metering techniques Don and I had covered in our orientation. Despite suggestions from Don (and stronger “urgings” from her husband) to shoot the way she’s most comfortable now and defer the learning to later, she insisted that now is the time to crack the manual metering puzzle.

To Don’s credit, he passed his opportunity at this magic moment to work with her. So while Don didn’t get his shot (kind of the photographer’s equivalent of taking one for the team), we did come away with a great cautionary tale we now spin to all of our workshop participants: Practice, practice, practice, when everything’s static, but when the magic happens, always, always, always revert to what’s most comfortable.

All in all, a very educational (and productive!) day. I don’t remember the drive back up the coast that night, but given the sunset we’d witnessed I’m pretty sure the primary topic was photography. Over the course of the workshop our woman did in fact learn manual metering (as she has demonstrated in subsequent workshops), and Don will forever be able to tell people about “the one that got away.” I, on the other hand, learned how long I can hold my breath.

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A Seaside Gallery

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


Champagne Glass Poppies, Merced River Canyon
Canon EOS 10D
1/1000 second
ISO 100
100 mm

Yesterday NPR and released their Jazz 100, “the 100 quintessential jazz songs of all time.” Topping the list was one of my jazz favorites, the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Take Five.” Listening to “Take Five” this morning I was particularly struck by the simplicity of its sound, and it occurred to me that simplicity is an essential and often overlooked element in photography.

Spend a little time on photography websites and it’s easy to come away feeling visually assaulted. Saturated sunsets, crashing waterfalls, and swirling clouds can make wonderful photographs, but some of nature’s most divine beauty is best revealed by subtracting elements we’ve been brainwashed into thinking are necessary. Just as many of the pieces on the Jazz 100 are quite complex, simplicity is certainly not necessary for a successful image. But it seems many photographers have forgotten how effective a simple image can be. As my parents used to advise (shout), louder is not necessarily better. And neither is a lot of activity in a frame. To be effective, a scene’s elements (shape, color, lines, texture) need to work together; if they can’t, it’s better to isolate the most compelling aspect and remove distractions, no matter how beautiful they are.

Case in point: A poppy-covered hillside is a beautiful thing, but so are the graceful curves and translucent gold of a single poppy. The poppy in the foreground of this image was just one of thousands blanketing a hidden hillside in the Merced River Canyon just west of Yosemite Valley. After photographing the entire scene I gradually moved closer until I found myself sprawled on my stomach beneath this one poppy. Conveying its simple elegance was all about removing distractions: rocks, weeds, and yes, even the thousands of other beautiful poppies in the background. In this case I used selective focus, attaching an extension tube and dialing up a wide aperture to limit the depth of field. Focusing on the poppy’s leading edge turned everything else in the frame to a smear of color.

Did I achieve Brubeck’s mastery of my world? I think not—but it’s nice to have something to aspire to.

Make the world your own

El Capitan Reflection

El Capitan Reflection, Valley View, Yosemite
Canon EOS 10D
1/4 second
ISO 100
27 mm

Pretend you’re a musician who wants to make music your career. Let’s say Eric Clapton is your favorite artist, and “Layla” is your favorite song. Do you think your quickest path to fame and fortune would be to record a song that perfectly replicates “Layla”? (Especially given the difficulty you’d have resurrecting Duane Allman.)

So why is it that so many nature photographers with grand aspirations spend so much time trying to duplicate the shots of others, rather than trying to find and refine their own artistic vision? Using Eric Clapton as a model for your music is great—the more you listen to Clapton, the more your guitar playing will be influenced by his craftmanship. But at some point you need to choose between carving your own musical path or languishing in anonymity.

This applies equally in photography. In my photo workshops I encounter many people who have travelled a great distance to duplicate a photo they’ve seen online, in a book, or in a print. I certainly understand the impulse, and I can’t say that my portfolio doesn’t contain its share of these clichés. But, as I frequently urge my workshop students, if you must photograph something exactly as it’s been photographed before, make that version your starting point and not your ultimate goal.

Once you get your “iconic” (that word is a cliché itself) shot, slow down and work the scene. Look for foreground and background possibilities, find unique perspectives. Play with depth and motion. If your original frame was horizontal, try something vertical, and vice versa. Take your camera off the tripod and pan slowly, zooming in and out as you go until something stops you (don’t forget to bring the tripod back before clicking). Still feel uninspired? Try a longer lens—often the truly unique images are tighter shots that isolate elements of the conventional composition.

It’s true that the longer spend time with a scene, the more you’ll find to photograph. Make a mental checklist of the above steps (feel free to add your own) and go through them without rushing: Often the mere mechanical (uninspired) process of seeking something unique gives you deeper insight that leads to a creative capture if you stick with it long enough.

This image of El Capitan reflected in the Merced River resulted from just such an approach. I’d rolled into Yosemite at around 10:00 a.m. on a mid-November morning. The air was crisp and still, scoured clean by an overnight shower. At Valley View I found this perfect reflection, only possible in the quiet-water days of autumn. Working on a tripod, I started my compositions wide and captured many of the beautiful but conventional shots that have been done a million times here. But wanting something different, I removed my camera from my tripod continued probing the scene through my viewfinder. I eventually isolated the reflection, realizing it was so sharp the morning that it was the thing that really set this moment apart. Despite the advancing sunlight that would soon reach the river and wash out the reflection, I didn’t rush.

On my computer at home, it was fun to view my process through the series of captures that morning. I finally zeroed in on this frame that has become one of my most successful images. Did I create the photographic equivalent of “Layla” that morning? Doubtful. But I did come up with an image that pleases me, and something that’s a pretty unique take on this heavily photographed location.

Are you a photographer or a tourist?

Rainbow and Bridalveil Fall

Storm’s End, Yosemite Valley

When the weather gets crazy, do you sprint for cover or reach for your camera? Your answer may be a pretty good predictor of your success as a photographer. It’s an unfortunate fact that the light, color, and drama that make memorable landscape photos all come when most sane people would rather be inside: at sunrise, when the rest of the world is asleep; at sunset, when everyone else is at dinner; and during wild weather, when anyone with sense is on the sofa in front of the fire.

Last spring I guided a photo workshop group through Yosemite. On the final day we circled Yosemite Valley in a steady rain, stopping to photograph many of my favorite cloudy-sky spots. Through it all my hardy group persevered, wet but happy, but by mid-afternoon their energy had started to wane a bit. Rather than risk mutiny, I detoured to Tunnel View to give everyone a breather.

With El Capitan, Half Dome, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall all on prominent display, it’s no secret why Tunnel View is the most photographed location in Yosemite. After a storm, Yosemite’s dramatic landmarks emerge from swirling clouds as if appearing on earth for the first time. Storms in Yosemite clear from west to east, making Tunnel View the first place to capture this unforgettable experience and my go-to place to wait out Yosemite weather.

The rain fell in sheets as we pulled into the Tunnel View parking area. Throughout the workshop I’d tried to impress on everyone how quickly conditions change in Yosemite, but it’s pretty hard to appreciate exactly how quickly until you actually experience a change yourself. So, despite my prodding to the contrary, when I donned my rain gear and invited the group to join me in the rain, they all opted for the warmth of the cars. And there I stood, five soggy minutes later, accompanied only by my tripod and camera (me beneath an umbrella, my camera beneath a plastic garbage bag), when without warning a ray of sunlight broke through, briefly painting a rainbow above Yosemite Valley, from El Capitan to Bridalveil Fall. After rousing the group I had time for three frames before the rainbow faded into the clouds. Everyone else was still wrestling with their gear.

Did I know a rainbow was going to happen? Of course not. In fact, if I were a betting man, I’d have wagered I wasn’t going to get anything but wet. But no matter how slim the odds were, a special image was infinitely more likely in the rain than in the car.

So. Are you a photographer or a tourist? There’s nothing wrong with the tourist mentality that only takes you outdoors with the masses, well rested and appetite sated in midday warmth. On the other hand, if one spectacular success is compensation enough for the other hundred tired, hungry, cold, and wet failures, you may just be a photographer.

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