Vive la Différence

Gary Hart Photography: Summer Storm, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon

Summer Storm, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/8 second
ISO 50

I’m often awed by the powerful differences between the two locations I photograph most, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. In Yosemite Valley you’re in the midst of the scenery, surrounded on all sides by the view. But for visitors to the rim of the Grand Canyon, the view is both distant and vast. Each location offers its own one-of-kind experience, and I honestly can’t pick a favorite. In Yosemite the eye is first drawn to commanding features like Half Dome, El Capitan, and Yosemite Falls. At the Grand Canyon, instead of specific features, the visual draw is the overwhelming expansiveness and depth.

Distinct Perspectives

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The feel at the Grand Canyon is expansive, while standing amidst Yosemite’s towering monoliths, the feel is more intimate

I love photographing weather, and because Yosemite’s and the Grand Canyon’s distinctions affect the way their weather is experienced, their weather very much factors into the way I photograph them. In Yosemite Valley I feel like I’m actually in the weather, which is why, for better or worse, when a storm rages in Yosemite, I like to venture out into it. From swirling clouds to fresh snow, these adventures are the source of many of my favorite Yosemite images

At the Grand Canyon, on the other hand, the best photography happens when I feel like I’m photographing someone else’s weather, so when a storm approaches, I try to retreat to a place where I can observe it from a distance. Even when lightning doesn’t make this a safety choice, I like to stand back and observe the weather. Standing on the rim, I can be high and dry beneath bland skies while photographing some of the most exquisite beauty I’ve ever seen. Often that’s lightning, rainbows, or a vivid sunrise/sunset, but sometimes it’s just the play of clouds and light in and around the layered red rocks and tributary canyons.

Gary Hart Photography: Summer Storm, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon

Summer Storm, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon

Last month my brother and I traveled to the Grand Canyon, primarily to photograph lightning and Comet NEOWISE. NEOWISE came through wonderfully, but the lightning not so much. I lost track of the number of times I trained my camera on a promising cell that didn’t deliver, but thankfully lightning is not a prerequisite for great Grand Canyon photography.

This image is the product of one such disappointing lightning shoot. I’d watched the cell move toward the rim from the south and would have bet money that it was bringing lightning with it. I set up my tripod, mounted my Sony a7RIV and Lightning Trigger, and waited with my eyes locked on the rain curtain, willing with all the effort I could muster the lightning to manifest. But alas, as happened far too frequently on this trip, the lightning fizzled. But lightning or not, I couldn’t help appreciate the drama unfolding when a band of heavy rain sped across the canyon. It only took about four minutes for this rain band to span the width of my frame and fizzle as it approached Wotan’s Throne on the North Rim (just out of the frame on the right).

I’d be lying if I said I rushed back to my room and instantly downloaded and processed this image, but working on the images from this trip, this moment stuck in the back of my mind. After I’d gone through the lightning images (exactly one worthy of processing), and the NEOWISE shoots (far more productive), I did another pass looking for some of the beautiful clouds and light that had blessed us, including this wet cell’s brief sprint across the canyon. When I found it I was pleased to see that the moment was indeed as dramatic as my memory.

Workshop Schedule || Purchase Prints || Instagram

Vive la différence

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

Seven reasons photographers love rain

Gary Hart Photography, Mt. Hood Autumn Leaf

Hidden Leaf, Mt. Hood, Oregon
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
168 mm (plus 48mm of extension)
1/100 second
ISO 400

The difference between a photographer and a tourist is easily distinguished by his or her response to rain: When the rain starts, the photographer grabs a camera and bolts outside, while the tourist packs up and races for shelter.

Seven reasons photographers love rain

  1. Smooth, (virtually) shadowless light that eliminates the extreme contrast cameras struggle to handle, and enhances color saturation
  2. Clouds are vastly more interesting than blue skies
  3. The best stuff happens in the rain: rainbows, lightning, clinging water droplets
  4. Clean air means more vivid sunrises and sunsets
  5. Replenished lakes, rivers, streams, and waterfalls for days, weeks, or months of great photography (rain or not)
  6. Low light makes easier the long shutter speeds necessary for soft water effects
  7. (Last, but not least,) we have the landscape to ourselves

Case in point

This week Don Smith and I traveled to Hood River, Oregon for some autumn photography, and to do more prep and reconnaissance for next spring’s Columbia River Gorge photo workshops. It’s rained every day we’ve been here, and you won’t find two happier (albeit wetter) photographers. Not just because our California bones miss rain (they do), but because there is no better time to take pictures than a rainy day.

Monday morning Don and I drove to Lost Lake to scout it as a potential workshop location. Climbing from near sea level to over 3,000 feet in a steady rain, we passed through deciduous forests in varying stages of green, yellow, orange, and red. The fall color peaked at around 2,000 feet, dwindled as we climbed further, until by the time we reached the lake, most of the colorful leaves were on the ground or whisked away by mountain breezes. While Mt. Hood was completely obscured by rainclouds, we spent a couple of hours exploring near the lake before heading back down the mountain with no specific plan other than to stop somewhere and photograph the color we’d enjoyed on the drive up.

Partway down the mountain we pulled over beside an evergreen forest liberally mixed with yellow and red maples, donned our rain gear, and went to work. With dense, low clouds shrinking the view to just the immediate vicinity, grand panorama were out of the question and my 70-200 became my weapon of choice for its ability to isolate nearby leaves and limit depth of field.

An essential but frequently overlooked component of successful rainy day photograph is a (properly oriented!) polarizer to mitigate the ubiquitous, color-sapping sheen reflecting back from every exposed surface. This is a no-exception thing for me—I don’t care if it’s already dark and the polarizer robs me of two more stops of light, without it, images from wet scenes like this would be a complete failure. In this case I bumped my ISO to 400 (and would have as high as necessary if there had been more wind) before composing a single frame.

Beautiful as it was, a scene like this starts as a hodgepodge of disorganized color. Fortunately, it’s never long before individual elements start manifesting—the longer I stay, the more (and smaller) detail I see, until even the littlest thing stands out and I can’t believe it had been there all along. Knowing all this, I usually start at my lens’s wider range and gradually work tighter as the surroundings become more familiar.

And so it was with this little leaf, tucked into the forest behind several layers of dense and dripping branches, hiding from my gaze until nearly an hour into my visit. From the forest’s outskirts I zoomed to 200mm and composed a few frames through the tangle of branches, but it wasn’t long before I needed to be closer.

When I spy something interesting, it’s easy to crash through the forest like an angry grizzly (or frightened bison), but because I was extremely concerned about dislodging the fragile raindrops, I found myself deliberately stalking my prey, more like a stealthy cougar. (I could have just as easily compared my advance to a slithering snake, but for some reason this cougar analog resonated with me. Go figure.) When I made it so close that I was inside my lens’s focus range, I added an extension tube, and finally a second tube.

By this time I was just a few inches from the leaf, and while this ultra-close view was pretty cool, I felt my frame needed more that just a pretty leaf. Until this point I’d been pushing the nearby branches and leaves aside, out my view. But realizing that I was so close (the leaf closest brushed my lens), and my range of focus was so thin, that they would blur to a smear of red that cradled my subject.

With a paper-thin depth of field, finding the right focus point is essential. I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to get the entire leaf sharp, so I used live-view to focus on the center water drop (because that’s where I want my viewer’s eye to start).

Staying dry

The rain came and went for the duration of our stay, but never reached an intensity that made shooting difficult. In this case there wasn’t much wind, making my umbrella particularly useful for keeping raindrops off my lens. Nevertheless, without a little simple preparation, this image wouldn’t have been possible. I’ve learned never to take a photo trip without basic rain gear. For me that’s:

  • A thin, waterproof shell that fits over whatever else I’m wearing (shirt, jacket, or whatever the temperature calls for)
  • Waterproof pants that fit over my regular pants—I have an unlined pair for moderate temperatures, and a lined pair what I think it could get cold, and decide between when I pack
  • Waterproof hiking boots
  • Waterproof hat
  • Wool or synthetic shirts, pants, and socks that will keep me comfortable when my rain gear causes me to perspire (no cotton!)
  • Umbrella for my camera—because I’m dry (see above), I can dedicate the umbrella 100 percent to keeping raindrops off my lens
  • Towel to dry things (especially my lens!) when they get wet—I often borrow one from my hotel, which isn’t a problem as long as I remember to return it
  • Plastic garbage bag to drape over my camera when it’s on the tripod waiting for me to do something productive—if I forget a garbage bag, the hotel’s laundry or trash liner bags work fine

A rainy day gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and to enjoy the slide show

Photograph Yosemite’s weather

Valley Mist, Yosemite

Valley Mist, Yosemite
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/10 second
ISO 100
80 mm

If you’re not prepared to miss a little sleep, get a little wet, or feel a little cold, you probably won’t make it as a Yosemite photographer. Last week Yosemite received daily doses of unusual (for May), but most welcome, rain. But those hardy few who endured the slippery rocks, soggy clothes, and wet gear, were rewarded with a variety visual treats that the comfortable masses never got to see.

When I’m shooting for myself (no scheduled workshop or personal guided tour), I only visit Yosemite when I expect something interesting in the sky. Sometimes that simply means a special moonrise, but usually it’s the promise of a storm that draws me.

Fresh snow

Yosemite is never more spectacular than it is with a coat of fresh snow draping rocks and branches. But if it’s fresh snow you’re after, you pretty have to be in Yosemite during the storm—even those who live in the Bay Area or Southern California are too late if they leave for Yosemite the second they hear Yosemite got snow. That’s because temperatures in Yosemite Valley during a snow storm are usually in the mid-30s—the melting starts as soon as the snow stops, and within hour or so of the sunlight hitting the snow, the trees have shed their white veneer. And while Yosemite Valley’s snow often remains on the ground for days, rapidly accumulating footprints and dirt quickly rob it of its pristine appeal.

Winter Reflection, El Capitan reflected in the Merced River, Yosemite

Winter Reflection, El Capitan reflected in the Merced River, Yosemite

During the storm

Storms in Yosemite often submerge the entire valley in a dense, gray soup, sometimes obscuring all but the closest trees and rocks. The narrow contrast range makes this kind of photography perfect for intimate, moody scenes, more than enough to keep me occupied while I wait for the storm to clear.

Bridalveil Dogwood, Valley View, Yosemite

Bridalveil Dogwood, Valley View, Yosemite

Elm in Blizzard, Cook's Meadow, Yosemite

Elm in Blizzard, Cook’s Meadow, Yosemite

Clearing storm

A clearing storm is Yosemite’s main event. Photographers have been capturing them for as long as cameras have been in the park, long before Ansel Adams. Tunnel View’s elevated vantage point offers the best combination of easy access and photogenic scene, making it by far the most popular location to photograph Yosemite’s clearing storms. Because Yosemite’s weather clears from west to east, Tunnel View is where Yosemite Valley clears first; it’s where I usually wait out a storm. Tunnel View is also the best place to find a rainbow if you’re lucky enough to be there when the afternoon sun breaks through before the storm is done with the rest of the valley.

Double Rainbow, Tunnel View, Yosemite

Double Rainbow, Tunnel View, Yosemite

The problem with starting your Yosemite clearing storm shoot at Tunnel View is that it’s so spectacular, with conditions changing by the minute, that you may never leave. And that costs you a lot of opportunities to get some equally spectacular images at other, less photographed locations. When I’m by myself, leaving Tunnel View during a clearing storm is like ripping off a bandaid—it really hurts, but I’m always glad I did it. When I’m leading a group it’s an invitation to mutiny, but they usually come around when they see what they’d have missed had I not cracked the whip.

Winter Sunset, El Capitan, Yosemite

Winter Sunset, El Capitan, Yosemite

Be prepared

In the back of my car is a gym bag with all my wet weather clothing: wool gloves (wool will keep you warm even when it’s wet), a hat that covers my ears, at wide-brim waterproof hat for rain, a light rain parka (it goes over whatever jacket I’m wearing), waterproof over-pants, an umbrella, extra socks. It’s always there. With this gear and my waterproof boots, I can stay dry and cozy warm in the wettest weather.

The biggest problem photographing in weather isn’t keeping myself comfortable, it’s keeping my camera dry. While I do my best to keep my camera dry, I don’t really worry about a little rain on my camera or lens—the weather seal seems to be good enough for a light to moderate rain. And if I’m going to be standing in the rain for any period of time, I’ll put a plastic garbage bag over my camera and tripod. I usually keep a box of garbage bags in my car, but the trash liner or dry cleaning bag from the hotel room works just as well. The final piece of my wet weather ensemble is a towel, usually borrowed from my hotel room (just don’t forget to return it).

When it’s time to shoot, all of my effort goes to keeping water off the front of my lens. A lens hood helps in light, vertical rain, but I find them more trouble than they’re worth (I know this is blasphemy to some photographers, but the steps I take to eliminate lens flare are a topic for another day). Because I don’t own any kind of waterproof lens or camera cover, the umbrella I pack isn’t for me, it’s for keeping my lens dry when I’m shooting. The umbrella is usually sufficient, but when the rain is really coming down, and/or blowing in my face, I don’t even worry about water while I compose, meter, and focus. When I’m ready to shoot I dry the  lens with my towel and click.

Getting to Yosemite during a storm

My favorite route into Yosemite is Highway 140, through the Arch Rock entrance. While that’s no more than personal preference most of the time, it’s downright essential when weather threatens. All the other three routes into Yosemite—41 from Fresno, 120 west from Manteca, and 120 east from Lee Vining (closed in winter)—climb over 6,500 feet and are frequently subject to ice, snow, chain requirements, and even closure. But the highest point on Highway 140 is Yosemite Valley. At only 4,000 feet, it’s much less likely to have weather problems.

Regardless of your route into the park, in winter you’re required to carry chains in Yosemite, even if you have four-wheel drive. You may be asked to show your chains when you enter the park, especially if weather threatens, and will be turned away without them. And if you’re in Yosemite Valley without chains and a chain requirement goes up, you can count on encountering a checkpoint—if that happens you’re pretty much stuck there until the requirement is lifted.

Today’s image

The image at the top of this post was captured last week, during a light rain at Tunnel View. My original sunrise plan was for a different location, but it was soon clear that we’d get no sunrise color that morning so I detoured my workshop group to Tunnel View. This was our first morning, and therefore our first opportunity to photograph a clearing storm—it turned out that we had many more opportunities during the workshop, but we were all pretty excited by what we saw as the light came up and the clouds lifted that morning.

I only clicked a handful of shots, mostly to demonstrate the composition variety Tunnel View offers. (Yosemite neophytes tend to spend too many clicks on the wide frames, and I want to show them that there are lots of tighter compositions possible too.) I don’t shoot black and white, but several people in the group had great success converting images from that shoot to black and white.

Every picture has a story

Bridalveil Dogwood

Bridalveil Dogwood, Yosemite National Park
Canon EOS 10D
1/15 second
ISO 100
48 mm

Every picture has a story. (And as Rod Stewart reminded us, every picture tells a story as well, but it’s not necessarily the same story and that isn’t really what I want to talk about anyway.) The story of a compelling nature photograph can include every bit of the good stuff that makes for gripping narrative in a book or movie: adventure, peril, suffering, and yes, sometimes even romance, humor, and foolish mishaps.

The story of this image goes back to the beginning of the story of my path as a nature photographer, all the way back to an afternoon when the ten-year-old me joined my father, a serious amateur photographer, on a hike to the top of Sentinel Dome in Yosemite. For those unfamiliar with the most beautiful place on Earth, Yosemite’s Sentinel Dome is a towering, rounded knob of granite that does indeed appear to stand sentinel above the surrounding terrain. At 8,000 feet, its summit provides a 360-degree highlight reel of Yosemite’s most dramatic features: Cathedral Rocks, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, and Half Dome, among others, are all on prominent display here. With the exception of a single gnarled jeffrey pine, exquisitely captured by Ansel Adams and many other photographers (and now dead and lying on its side), Sentinel Dome’s summit is also as bald as a bowling ball.

On the day of our hike thunderstorms had been firing all afternoon, stabbing the granite near El Capitan and Yosemite Falls just across the valley. Dad’s goal was to photograph lightning, and what vantage point better than Sentinel Dome with its panoramic view, not to mention a photogenic tree for the foreground. My dad wasn’t a stupid man, but personal experience has since helped me understand how his desire to “get the shot” can temporarily overwhelm good sense. So, when the storm crept closer and rain started to fall on our location, rather than descend to safety, Dad handed me an umbrella and asked me to extend it high above his treasured Leica.

So there I stood, proudly and without question, perched atop an elevated and completely exposed peak, extending heavenward a metal rod. I have no memory of fear or even of being aware of the foolishness of our efforts—I just remember sensing Dad’s intense desire to get his shot, and wishing with all my heart for the lightning bolt that would make it happen.

We didn’t get our lightning that day, and more importantly, the lightning didn’t get us. But later that afternoon, as the whole family enjoyed the view in a light rain just down the road at Glacier Point, the storm broke and delivered without warning a brilliant rainbow that arced magnificently across the face of Half Dome. My father, despite being transformed by family priorities from photographer to tourist, still dangled his Leica from his neck—he simply had to lift the camera, meter the scene, and click to get the shot of his lifetime.

Here’s my dad’s Half Dome Rainbow, captured on a summer afternoon in the mid-sixties.

I’ll never forget the contrast of Dad’s emotions that afternoon, which ranged from frustration and disappointment atop Sentinel Dome, to shear euphoria at Glacier Point. I experienced them as strongly as if they were my own, and while photography dropped from my radar as I spent the remainder of my youth occupied with the typical distractions of adolescence, few childhood memories are more permanent than that one. In hindsight it’s clear that Dad’s emotions were a microcosm of the reasons I became a nature photographer. For every success there are ten disappointments, but every once in a while you’re gifted with a surprise that makes all the frustration worthwhile.

Fast-forward to 2004. A gentle spring rain falls as I wander the banks of the Merced River in Yosemite Valley. I have image in mind. Like that afternoon on Sentinel Dome, I have no guarantee of getting the shot I want: a dogwood bloom with one of Yosemite’s landmarks in the background. I make several stops, and as I search I’m only vaguely aware of the steady but light rain (fortunately, there’s no lightning).

I can’t remember how much my thoughts this wet morning drifted to the afternoon on Sentinel Dome with my dad all those years ago, but I have no doubt that it was prime catalyst in my path from enthusiastic assistant, to serious amateur, and ultimately to full-time professional photographer. I now completely understand that need to get the shot with little concern for the consequences, and how easy it can be to mentally eliminate distractions, discomfort, and physical obstacles (and sometimes good sense).

I got my shot that day, a raindrop-festooned dogwood blossom, large and sharp in the foreground, with a roaring Bridalveil Fall soft in the distance. On my drive home I was cold, wet, and happy. Photography’s funny that way. Thanks, Dad.

A sampling of personal favorites

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

%d bloggers like this: