Leveraging Light

Gary Hart Photography: Glow, California Golden Poppy, Merced River Canyon

Glow, California Golden Poppy, Merced River Canyon
Sony a7R V
Sony 100-400 GM
2 extension tubes (26mm total)
ISO 100
1/400 second

In last week’s post I wrote about the importance of distilling a scene to its essence. I suggested that the best way to achieve this is to eliminate all but the scene’s most essential elements, and emphasized using precise cropping to banish unwanted objects to the world outside the frame. And while it could be argued that this careful cropping might be the most essential part of the scene-distilling process (or at least the foundation upon which to build), it’s often not enough.

Many (most?) scenes, even after the most surgical cropping, can remain filled with distractions that dilute the image’s impact. Areas of brightness, distinctive but irrelevant features, and objects cut off or intruding at the sides of the frame are just a few examples of visual elements that can distract the eye and confuse viewers looking for clues about the image’s purpose.

But take heart, all is not lost for photographers able to jettison the urge to “reproduce the world just the way I saw it.” The truth is, reproducing the world as we see it is literally impossible, and the sooner you come to terms with that truth, the better off you’ll be.

Setting aside our own reality to leverage our camera’s reality starts with understanding that “reality” is in fact a moving target defined by the medium interpreting it. Humans’ definition of “real” is founded on the three-dimensional, 360 degree, continuous-motion, multi-sense input delivered to our eye/brain collaboration. A camera, on the other hand, captures a two-dimensional, static, mono-sensory version of our very dynamic world.

But before lamenting your camera’s limitations, pause to consider that, in the grand scheme of perpetual electromagnetic energy that surrounds us, what you and I see is an tiny fraction of the infinite continuum of electromagnetic wavelengths continuously (and ubiquitously) careening about the Universe.

For example, X-ray machines peer into the world of electromagnetic waves in the one nanometer (one billionth of a meter); TVs and radios “see” waves that are measured in centimeters; humans, on the other hand, see only the waves in a very narrow band between (about) 400 and 750  nanometers. Understanding all allows doctors to expose subcutaneous secrets, astronomers to explore our galaxy and beyond, and the military and law enforcement to view “invisible” (to us) infrared signatures that reveal people and objects in complete darkness. In other words, there’s no single absolute visual standard—it’s all relative to the frame of reference.

The photographer’s job is to embrace his or her camera’s unique frame of reference, and to understand the power they possess to convey aspects of the world missed by the human experience. That “instant” a still photo is limited to can actually be stretched with a long exposure that compresses a potentially infinite number of instants to reveal, in a single frame, patterns of motion and flow. And the information a camera can’t see gives photographers incredible power to hide or minimize distractions, to control the world inside their frame, and to emphasize select elements over other elements.

All this might explain why I’ve always considered myself a film photographer with a digital camera. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate and use the incredible processing power digital photography brings, but it does mean that the images I process are limited to the photons captured in a single click. I just find no joy in adding information through focus or exposure blending of multiple images. Rather, I prefer leaning into my camera’s visual shortcomings by subtracting the aspects of the scene that don’t serve the image. (There’s nothing wrong with honest image blending, it just doesn’t give me joy.)

The image I share today, a brand new one from last week’s Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers photo workshop, got me thinking about the importance of subtracting distractions, and the power of my camera’s relatively narrow (compared to human vision) dynamic range to emphasize the most important qualities my subject. I’ve always loved the way sunlit poppies seem to radiate from within, as if illuminated by their own internal light source, and am always looking for ways to highlight it.

Based on my observations last month (normally a reliable start to the poppy season in Northern California), and the persistence of California’s incredibly chilly spring (by our standards), I wasn’t even sure I’d have a chance do any poppy photography this year. But scouting my poppy spots near Yosemite for last week’s workshop, I was thrilled to see that the poppies were just starting to erupt. They were still quite small, and rather thinly distributed, but were already plentiful enough to photograph. I reasoned (hoped) that a few days of sun might really kick them into gear, so I planned the workshop wildflower shoot for our final afternoon. It turns out I’d reasoned right, and a few days of sunlight was indeed exactly what the doctor ordered.

I found this solitary poppy jutting from a rocky wall in the Merced River Canyon, about 10 miles west of Yosemite Valley. I was especially drawn to the flower’s warm glow, but no matter how I framed it, the rest of the scene was ugly rock, brown dirt, and scraggly weeds.

I’d armed myself this afternoon with my Sony a7R V camera and Sony 100-400 GM lens; to focus closer, I’d also added two extension tubes totaling 26mm. Though it was only mid-afternoon, with the sun well into its daily descent, the shadows were already stretching deep into nearby nooks and crannies.

After studying the scene, I lowered my tripod and positioned my camera beneath the flower for the best view of its backlit, glowing petals. Instead of trying to make the scene look the way I saw it, I took advantage of my camera’s “limited” dynamic range and underexposed enough to blacken the superfluous background detail. The result is this simple image (which required very little processing, BTW) that, while nothing like what my eyes saw, contains only the elements of the scene I was interested in: the glowing poppy and its softly lit stem on a canvas of black shadow.

Workshop Schedule || Purchase Prints || Instagram

Leveraging Light

Click any image to scroll through the gallery LARGE


Macro in Spirit

Gary Hart Photography: New Poppy, Merced River Canyon, California

New Poppy, Merced River Canyon, California

It’s poppy season in California, and this is turning out to be a banner year. I’ve already enjoyed one nice poppy shoot, but things are just getting started in Northern California so I hope there are more to come.

When I photograph poppies, I don’t always use my macro lens. Even though my objective is similar to what I’d accomplish with a macro lens—a close view that excludes or blurs surrounding distractions—I often like to experiment with the creative flexibility other lenses provide. This also means that many of my so-called macro images technically aren’t macro at all.

What is macro photography?

The generally accepted definition of a macro image is an image in which the subject is at least as large on the sensor as it is in reality. When we photograph an expansive landscape with a full frame camera, we’re cramming the entire scene onto a 24mm x 36mm (864 mm2) rectangle (“cropped” sensors have even less real estate to work with, while medium format sensors have more). But imagine your landscape includes a single flower, and you want to get a closer look. As you zoom your lens tighter on the flower, or position yourself closer, the amount of the scene you capture shrinks, while everything remaining in the frame expands. Pretty soon the flower occupies most of the frame. Your image doesn’t achieve macro status until the still visible area of the flower spans 864 mmor larger.

It’s important to note that many camera manufactures will label a lens’s (or a point-and-shoot camera’s) closest focus point “macro” when all they really mean is just plain “close focus.” Getting closer will make the flower bigger, but unless you can focus close enough to reach that 1:1 threshold, it’s not a true macro.

So, by the generally accepted definition, this close image of a recently sprouted poppy doesn’t qualify as “macro.” But in my mind it’s macro in spirit because I use an intimate perspective with a single point of focus, in this case to emphasize the poppy’s translucent petals and graceful curves. My goal in these pseudo-macro images is make viewers look closer than they normally would, and (I hope) to help viewers see the poppy as more than a pretty gold flower.

To achieve that for this image, I tried something a little different. Shooting this afternoon with my Sony a7RIII, I started with my Sony 100-400 lens to allow a little working distance from the various poppies I targeted, then switched to my Sony 90mm macro to move closer to my subjects. When I wanted to get closer still, I brought out my extension tubes and switched back and forth between these two lenses. But the more time I spent out there, the closer I wanted to get.

Sprawling on the ground to work on this tiny new poppy, for something different I decided to try my 24-105 lens. At 24mm I was able to focus very close, but even wide open I had too much depth of field to properly blur the background, so I did what many say you’re not supposed to do: use extension tubes with a wide angle lens. With this arrangement the focus tolerance was microscopic, but when the poppy finally did snap into focus, my lens was so close they nearly touched.

I’m a tripod evangelist because in my approach to every scene, from macro to landscape, an image is not simply a click, it’s an incremental process: compose, expose, click, evaluate, refine, repeat until satisfied. Refining and repeating a standard landscape without a tripod is difficult enough; with macro and its minuscule tolerances, working without a tripod becomes nearly impossible.

For an image like this one, the tripod provides and another, less heralded advantage. This tiny flower was just a few inches above the ground, forcing me to sprawl in the weeds and awkwardly contort my body to avoid smashing the surrounding poppies. Holding this position as I refined my composition and waited for the breeze to pause was just plain uncomfortable, so every minute or two I had to stand to stretch and rest my cramped and fatigued muscles and joints. But each time I was ready to return to my subject, the composition I’d left was waiting patiently, right there in my viewfinder.

Because of the breeze, I bumped my ISO to 1600, which my a7RIII handles without even breathing hard. Freezing the poppy’s motion at 1/1000 of a second wasn’t hard, but because every time the wind moved the poppy, the focus point changed, I had to wait for the wind to die long enough for the poppy to return to the equilibrium position I’d focused on. The orange blobs you see in the background are more poppies, less than 8 inches away.

Read more about my approach to photographing wildflowers

Workshop Schedule || Purchase Prints

My Favorite Flower

Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show


%d bloggers like this: