Posted on August 18, 2017
Today I drive to the mountains of Idaho to photograph Monday’s total solar eclipse. Having never photographed an eclipse, total or otherwise, I have no eclipse images to share. And I won’t pretend to be an expert, or attempt to tell you how to photograph it. But I do have one piece of experienced-based advice that I want to share with photographers planning to capture the eclipse: Don’t forget to savor the moment.
For most, the eclipse will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a memory of a lifetime. Totality will be over in minutes. I’ve had more than my share of these special opportunities, some as simple as a fortuitous confluence of breathtaking landscape and spectacular light; some as predictable as the moon hovering above a favorite subject; and some as unexpected as a sudden rainbow above an iconic landscape.
One such moment for me was the August morning in 2013 on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, when the weather forecast called for clear (boring) skies, and instead we got a two hour lightning display that started in the dark and climaxed with a rainbow and three simultaneous lightning strikes. For the first ten minutes of this show, my camera was misbehaving and I was unable to photograph anything. Nevertheless, my awe for what I was witnessing transcended my frustration, and today my memories are so much greater than a few favorite images. More important than the pictures I captured that morning are the vivid images etched in my memory, the people I shared the morning with, the emotion that came with each lightning bolt, and our giddy laughter at our good fortune. Truly one of the highlights of my life that would have been reduced to a few favorite captures if I’d have allowed myself to be too caught up in the photography. (And I still got my pictures.)
I honestly don’t know what to expect on Monday, but I expect it to be similarly thrilling, and I plan to drink in every second of it. I’ll do my scouting and planning to be as prepared as possible in advance, but I refused to be so focused on getting “the shot” that I fail to appreciate this experience of a lifetime. I’ll take a great memory over a great photo any day.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on July 30, 2017
Most photographers will tell you that some of the best locations are a bit of a pain to get to. Not necessarily death-defying dangerous, just a pain. Not only is Queen’s Bath on Kauai one of those locations, this year getting there required dealing with the Hawaii equivalent of the troll who lives under the bridge.
For many years I’ve been helping my friend Don Smith with his Kauai workshop (it’s a tough job, but, well, you know…). One of the highlights of the Kauai trip is Queen’s Bath, a surf-pounded lava shelf accessed by a short but steep trail through dense rainforest. When it’s dry the trail isn’t a big deal if you can avoid the deep ruts and protruding roots, but after any rain the route down is more waterslide than trail. We’ve had enough falls (including a broken bone that happened when someone who had been in the group tried to go down on her own after the workshop), that we won’t even attempt the hike if it has rained.
Queen’s Bath is on the wet side of Hawaii’s wettest island. Most years we pull up to the trailhead in the dark (well before sunrise), inspect the conditions, and move on to another location because the QB trail is too slippery. But after last year’s disappointment it occurred to me that maybe the funky tire-chain-like shoe attachments (AKA, YakTrax) that I use in winter to keep from slipping on ice might be worth a try. Don took that suggestion and ran with it; after a little research he found actual crampons on sale on Amazon, sent the upcoming group the link, and told them crampons or YakTrax would be required footwear for Queen’s Bath.
On our scouting mission to Queen’s Bath before the workshop started we negotiated the slick slope like velcroed mountain goats. While congratulating ourselves on our genius down at Queen’s Bath, we were warned by a couple who had arrived a little after us that there was a “crazy lady” (their description, not ours) yelling at everyone parking in the Queen’s Bath parking area for making too much noise. (Mind you, this is Kauai, where the roosters are at full volume well before sunrise.) We shook our heads and chuckled, but didn’t think much about it.
Driving away later that morning, we discovered that our SUV had a flat tire—weird, but stuff happens. We soon learned that there’s only one AAA truck on all of Kauai, so rather than wait, Don and I decided to answer the age-old question, “How many photographers does it take to change a tire.” (FYI, it’s two: one to change the tire, and one to make sure everyone knows he’s doing it all wrong.)
Fast forward to the next morning when, group in tow now, we charged down slope in the rain without a single slip. (Score one for genius.) The rain intensified soon after we arrived on the lava shelf, and for a while it looked like we might need to retreat. But soon we saw brightening clouds in the east, and not much later the rain stopped and out popped a full rainbow. The rainbow lasted at least 15 minutes, and the light stayed nice much longer than that. Thanks in no small part to the crampons, no one fell on the muddy trail or rain-slickened basalt, and everyone ended up with some fantastic photos and the morning seemed a huge success.
We were still basking in the glow of our beautiful morning as we returned to the cars—until someone noticed that the license plates were missing from our three vehicles. Huh? Suddenly yesterday’s ranting neighbor and our flat tire took on an entirely new meaning: Crazy Lady had vandalized our cars. I understand that photographers can be a little insensitive to their impact on their surroundings, but in our defense, Don and I always lecture the group about being quiet in the Queen’s Bath parking area, then monitor closely to ensure that no one forgets. We don’t allow any conversation or laughter in or near the parking area, so the only sounds we make are doors closing and feet shuffling—not completely silent, but certainly quieter than Kauai’s ubiquitous chicken population.
It’s possible that our nemesis was interrupted in her vile act, because we soon found the license plates and screws, as if they’d been haphazardly stashed as she made a hasty retreat. We recovered our property and with the help of someone’s screwdriver reinstalled the plates and departed without further incident. I have no idea how regularly this neighbor’s crazy manifests, but since it happened to Don and me on consecutive days (and we had exchanged our rental car with the flat tire, so there’s no way she knew it was the same people), I suspect she’s a serial vandal. But the bottom line is, no real harm was done, and we ended up with a great story and some fantastic images. So I guess all’s well that ends well.
A few words about this image
Rainbows feel like random gifts from heaven, but there’s really nothing random about them. Monitoring the conditions, you can usually anticipate the rainbow and get yourself in the best position to photograph it. What’s the best position? Successful photography is all about juxtaposition of visual elements, and (as much as we wish it were so) very rarely is the perfect relationship between the various elements in a scene exactly where you happen to be standing right now.
When a rainbow is one of your elements, it helps to understand that the rainbow’s center will always be at the anti-solar point (where your shadow points) and the rainbow will move with you. If you want your rainbow over that tree, or mountain, or lake, just move until they align.
In Hawaii, or any location where rain showers are possible, the first thing I do is figure out where the rainbow will appear, and identify compositions to put with it. On this morning at Queen’s Bath, when I arrived I made a mental note of where the rainbow would appear, and when the sky near the eastern horizon started to brighten while the rain continued falling in the west, I moved closer to the ocean to get as much ocean and rainbow as possible in my frame. I also shifted toward an area with a collection of small reflective pools that I thought would make a great foreground, rainbow or not.
When the rainbow appeared, I was ready. After photographing it with a variety of foregrounds for a few minutes, I thought it would be pretty cool to get a reflection of the rainbow. I didn’t have to move far to align myself with the little pool you see in my image; from there it was about micro-positioning, moving closer/farther and up/down to maximize the rainbow’s reflection without cutting off the pools with the edge of my frame. For this image, I ended up about three feet from the pools and just a couple of feet above the rocks.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on May 19, 2017
For about three weeks I’ve had to bite my tongue about two new Sony lenses I got to try out a few weeks ago. But yesterday Sony announced their brand new 16-35 f2.8 GM and 12-24 f4 G lenses and I’m free to share.
I spent most of this week just outside of Santa Barbara, California with a hundred or so Sony Artisan and Creative Collective photographers at Sony’s Kando Summit. This event was revelatory in many ways: Not only did I get to commune with fellow Sony Artisan’s who had previously been just names on e-mails and pictures on Facebook, I also learned that the future of photography is in the very capable hands of the Collective members—such an impressive group of creative, intelligent young adults.
For most of the Summit the hardware show-stealer was the brand new Sony a9—each of us got our own a9 to play with (but not to keep) for the duration of the event, along with many great photo opportunities (models, sets, and demonstrations) provided to us by Sony. Without going into a lot of detail, I predict that time will prove that the Sony a9 is an actual photography game changer and not just another “next great camera” cliché.
But the availability of the a9 wasn’t a surprise; the surprise (to almost everyone else) was the announcement of the new 16-35 and 12-24 lenses, and their instant availability (again only to borrow). Since I’d already had nearly a week of quality time with them, I passed on this opportunity, but had to jump aside to avoid being trampled by a stampede of photographers intent on getting their hands on these two new lenses.
Don Smith and I were just wrapping up our back-to-back Columbia River Gorge workshops when Sony asked us if we could stay a couple of extra days to try out their two new (super-secret) lenses. They overnighted them to us, and since we had them for a week, Don and I decided we had time to try them for a couple of extra days at our favorite locations closer to home. For me that was Yosemite (Don went to Big Sur). Since I knew I wanted the 12-24 in Yosemite, I took the 16-35 for our two extra days in the CRG.
First Impressions: 16-35 f2.8 GM
The first thing that struck me about this lens was its compactness. As a landscape shooter always on a tripod, I value compactness over speed in a lens, but this one gives me both. Of course it’s not as compact as my Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4, but it’s noticeably more compact than my Canon 16-35 f2.8 was. I was also pleased with its smoothness of operation and speed of focus—this lens is definitely a joy to use.
Of course compactness and ease of use mean nothing if a lens isn’t sharp, and I can tell you with certainty that this lens is as sharp as we’ve come to expect Sony’s GM lenses to be—that is, ridiculously sharp from corner to corner and throughout the aperture range. I haven’t really taken the time to do a/b tests against any other lenses (I leave the pixel-peeping to others), but I did magnify many images to 100% (on my 27-inch iMac Retina 5K monitor) and can’t imagine that I have any lenses sharper than this one (including primes).
First Impressions: 12-24 f4 G
Even more than with the 16-35, the 12-24 blew me away with its compactness. I’ve handled the Nikon 14-24 f2.8 many times, and actually used Canon’s 11-24 f4, and as sharp as those lenses are, the first thing I remember about those lenses is their heft—they’re beasts, and just too heavy to carry in my bag for regular use. Not so with the Sony 12-24: This lens is 1/3 the weight of Canon’s 11-24—in fact it’s noticeably lighter than the Canon 24-105, and not much heavier than the Canon 17-40. Wow.
Like the 16-35, this lens just felt good on my camera and in my hand. The operation was smooth, and focus was fast and easy. Having rarely shot with a lens this wide, I found myself frequently surprised by how much more I could get in my frame at 12mm than I can at 16mm—suddenly things not possible with a single click before were very doable. With so many views of very large and close subjects (such as El Capitan and Half Dome), this lens was made for Yosemite. And I did an actual double-take at the top of the trail to lower Yosemite Fall when I realized I could get the entire fall and a sunstar (with the sun behind my right shoulder) in one frame (see the gallery below).
Sharpness? Again, I didn’t do any pixel peeping beyond magnifying my images to 100%, but they looked every bit as sharp as the Canon 11-24 images that blew me away when I used it a year ago. I will own this lens the first day it’s available.
About this image
On the first evening with our new toys, Don and I went to Catherine Creek on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge. At the trailhead Don headed off in one direction and I went in the other, eventually ending up at this tree that I remembered from previous visits.
With the wind blowing like crazy, probably 25-35 MPH, this lens was perfect for the wide scenes that deemphasize motion. To further ensure against any motion blur I bumped my ISO to 400 and went to work. I started by balancing the tree with a small waterfall that was down the hillside to my left, but when a surprise rainbow fragment popped out above the Columbia River I quickly shifted position. My exposure variables were already set, so all I had to do was compose, focus, and shoot. Good thing, because the rainbow faded quickly and I only had time for a handful of images before it was gone completely.
Posted on June 3, 2016
“Chance favors only the prepared mind.” ~ Louis Pasteur
A few days ago someone on Facebook commented on my previous Grand Canyon rainbow image that getting “the” shot is more about luck than anything else. I had a good chuckle, but once I fully comprehended that this person was in fact serious, I actually felt a little sad for him. Since we tend to make choices that validate our version of reality, imagine going through life with that philosophy.
No one can deny that photography involves a great deal of luck, but each of us chooses our relationship with the fickle whims of chance, and I choose to embrace Louis Pasteur’s belief that chance favors the prepared mind. Ansel Adams was quite fond of repeating Pasteur’s quote; later Galen Rowell, and I’m sure many other photographers, embraced it to great success.
As nature photographers, we must acknowledge the tremendous role chance plays in the conditions that rule the scenes we photograph, then do our best to maximize our odds for witnessing, in the best possible circumstances, whatever special something Mother Nature might toss in our direction. A rainbow over Safeway or the sewage treatment plant is still beautiful, but a rainbow above Yosemite Valley or the Grand Canyon is a lifetime memory (not to mention a beautiful photograph).
A few years ago, on a drive to Yosemite to meet clients for dinner (and to plan the next day’s tour), I saw conditions that told me a rainbow was possible. When I met the clients at the cafeteria, I suggested that we forget dinner and take a shot at a rainbow instead. With no guarantee, we raced our empty stomachs across Yosemite Valley, scaled some rocks behind Tunnel View, and sat in a downpour for about twenty minutes. Our reward? A double rainbow arcing across Yosemite Valley. Were we lucky? Absolutely. But it was no fluke that my clients and I were the only “lucky” ones out there that evening.
Before sunrise on a chilly May morning in 2011, my workshop group and I had the good fortune photograph a crescent moon splitting El Capitan and Half Dome from an often overlooked vista on the north side of the Merced River. Luck? What do you think? Well, I guess you could say that we were lucky that our alarms went off, and that the clouds stayed away that morning. But I knew at least a year in advance that a crescent moon would be rising in this part of the sky on this very morning, scheduled my spring workshop to include this date, then spent hours plotting all the location and timing options to determine where we should be for the moonrise.
I’d love to say that I sensed the potential for a rainbow over the Grand Canyon when I scheduled last month’s raft trip over a year ago, then hustled my group down the river for three days to be in this very position for the event. But I’m not quite that prescient. On the other hand, I did anticipate the potential for a rainbow a few hours earlier, scouted and planned my composition as soon as we arrived at camp, then called the rainbow’s arrival far enough in advance to allow people to get their gear, find a scene of their own, and set up before it arrived.
As I tried to make it clear in my previous post, anticipating these special moments in nature doesn’t require any real gifts—just a basic understanding of the natural phenomena you’d like to photograph, and a little effort to match your anticipated natural event (a rainbow, a moonrise, the Milky Way, or whatever) with your location of choice.
But to decide that photographing nature’s most special moments is mostly about luck is to pretty much limit your rainbows to the Safeways and sewage treatment plants of your everyday world. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve prepared for a special moment in nature, changed plans, lost sleep, driven many miles, skipped meals, and suffered in miserable conditions, all with nothing to show for my sacrifice. But just one success like a rainbow above the Grand Canyon is more than enough compensation for a thousand miserable failures. And here’s another secret: no matter how miserable I am getting to and waiting for my goal event, whether it happens or not, I absolutely love the anticipation, the just sitting out there fueled by the thought that it just might happen.
Posted on May 30, 2016
Perhaps you’ve noticed that many popular nature photographers have a “hook,” a persona they’ve created to distinguish themselves from the competition (it saddens me to think that photography can be viewed as a competition, but that’s a thought for another day). This hook can be as simple (and annoying) as flamboyant self-promotion, or an inherent gift that enables the photographer to get the shot no one else would have gotten, something like superhuman courage or endurance. Some photographers actually credit a divine connection or disembodied voices that guide them to the shot.
Clearly I’m going to need to come up with a hook of my own if I’m to succeed. Flamboyant self-promotion just isn’t my style, and my marathon days are in the distant past. Courage? I think my poor relationship with heights would rule that out. And the only disembodied voice I hear is my GPS telling me she’s “recalculating.”
Just when I thought I’d reached an impasse that threatened to keep me mired in photographic anonymity, a little word percolated up from my memory, a word that I’d heard uttered behind my back a few times after I’d successfully called a rainbow or moonrise: “Genius.” That’s it! I could position myself as the Sherlock of shutter speed, the Franklin of f-stop, the Einstein of ISO. That’s…, well, genius!
And just as the fact that none of these other photographers are quite as special as their press clippings imply, the fact that I’m not actually a genius would not be a limiting factor.
Okay, the truth is that photography is not rocket science, and nature photographers are rarely called to pave the road to scientific or spiritual truth. Not only is genius not a requirement for great photography, for the photographer who thinks too much, genius can be a hindrance. On the other hand, a little bit of thought doesn’t hurt.
It’s true that I’ve photographed more than my share of vivid rainbows and breathtaking celestial phenomena—moonrises and moonsets, moonbows, the Milky Way, and even a comet—from many iconic locations, but that’s mostly due to just a little research and planning combined with a basic understanding of the natural world. An understanding basic enough for most people who apply themselves.
For example, this rainbow. It was clearly the highlight of this year’s Grand Canyon raft trip, and while I did call it about fifteen minutes in advance, I can’t claim genius. Like most aspects of nature photography, photographing a rainbow is mostly a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Of course there are thing you can do to increase your chances of being in the right place at the right time. Whether it’s an understanding of rainbows that enables me to position myself and wait, or simply knowing when and where to look, when I do get it right, I can appear more prescient than I really am.
The essentials for a rainbow are simple: sunlight (or moonlight, or any other source of bright, white light) at 42 degrees or lower, and airborne water droplets. Combine these two elements with the correct angle of view and you’ll get a rainbow. The lower the sun, the higher (and more full) the rainbow. And the center of the rainbow will always be exactly opposite the sun—in other words, your shadow will always point toward the rainbow’s center. There are a few other complicating factors, but this is really all you need to know to be a rainbow “genius.”
In this case it had been raining on and off all day, and while rain is indeed half of the ingredients in our rainbow recipe, as is often the case, this afternoon the sunlight half was blocked by the clouds delivering the rain. Not only do rain clouds block sunlight, so do towering canyon walls. Complicating things further, the window when the sun is low enough to create a rainbow is much smaller in the longer daylight months near the summer solstice (because the sun spends much of its day above 42 degrees). So, there at the bottom of the Grand Canyon on this May afternoon, the rainbow odds weren’t in our favor.
But despite the poor odds, because this afternoon’s rain fell from clouds ventilated by lots of blue gaps, I gave my group a brief rainbow alert, telling them when (according to my Focalware iPhone app, the sun would drop below 42 degrees at 3:45) and where to look (follow your shadow), and encouraging them to be ready. Being ready means figuring out where the rainbow will appear and finding a composition in that direction, then regularly checking the heavens—not just for what’s happening now, but especially for what might happen soon.
We arrived at our campsite with a light rain falling. The sun was completely obscured by clouds, but knowing that the sun would eventually drop into a large patch of blue on the western horizon, I went scouting for possible rainbow views as soon as my camp was set up. When the rain intensified an hour or so later, I reflexively looked skyward and realized that the sun was about to pop out. I quickly sounded the alarm (“The rainbow is coming! The rainbow is coming!”), grabbed my gear, and beelined to the spot I’d found earlier.
A few followed my lead and set up with me, but the skeptics (who couldn’t see beyond the heavy rain and no sunlight at that moment) continued with whatever they were doing. After about fifteen minutes standing in the rain, a few splashes of sunlight lit the ridge above us on our side of the river; less than a minute later, a small fragment of rainbow appeared upstream above the right bank, then before our eyes spread across the river to connect with the other side. Soon we had a double rainbow, as vivid as any I’ve ever seen.
Fortunate for the skeptics, this rainbow lasted so long, everyone had a chance to photograph it. Our four guides (with an average of 15 years Grand Canyon guiding experience), said it was the most vivid and longest (duration) rainbow they’d ever seen. (I actually toned it down a little in Photoshop.)
Genius? Hardly. Just a little knowledge and preparation mixed with a large dose of good fortune.
One more thing (May 31, 2016)
The vast majority of photographers whose work I enjoy viewing achieved their success the old fashioned way, by simply taking pictures and sharing them (rather than blatant self-promotion or exaggerated stories of personal sacrifice). In no particular order, here’s a short, incomplete list of photographers I admire for doing things the right way: Charles Cramer, Galen Rowell, David Muench, William Neill, and Michael Frye. In addition to great images, one thing these photographers have in common is an emphasis on sharing their wisdom and experience instead of hyperbolic tales of their photographic exploits.
Posted on February 22, 2016
I just returned from my 2016 Yosemite Horsetail Fall photo workshop. I’ve the photographed the midday light shafts at Upper Antelope Canyon, Schwabacher Landing at sunrise, Mesa Arch at sunrise, winter sunset at Pfeiffer Arch, and Horsetail fall each February for over ten years. But nothing compares to the mayhem I witnessed this weekend at Horsetail Fall. Not even close. I’ll be writing more about the experience soon, but right now the only words I have are: Oh. My. God.
About an inch of snow fell the night before my workshop’s 1:30 p.m. Thursday start. Because the storm was clearing and the snow was melting fast, I postponed the orientation that always precedes each workshop’s first shoot and, following quick introductions, hustled the group straight out to photograph what would likely be the best conditions of the workshop.
Our first stop was Tunnel View, and it didn’t disappoint. I rarely get my camera out at Tunnel View unless I can get something truly special, and I had no plan to that afternoon. But the storm had rejuvenated Horsetail Fall enough to make it clearly visible, a rare treat from that distance, and I decided to click a couple of frames.
Extracting my a7RII, I attached my Tamron 150-600 lens and targeted the fall, clicking a few images of the fall amidst shifting clouds. When the clouds opened enough to illuminate El Capitan, I did a double-take when splashes of red, yellow, and violet appeared in Horsetail’s wind-whipped mist.
After alerting my group to the rainbow, I zoomed all the way to 600mm and snapped a few vertical images of my own. With the wind tossing the spray, each image was a little different from the one preceding it. As I clicked this frame, an ephemeral spiral of wind spread the mist, making it the most colorful of the group.
As the sun dropped behind us, the rainbow climbed the fall and finally disappeared. Soon another rainbow appeared, this one at the base of Bridalveil Fall across the valley. We stayed long enough to photograph that rainbow, then headed out for what turned out to be a very successful, more classic Horsetail sunset shoot. Our Horsetail success that night allowed us to concentrate on other Yosemite subjects the rest of the week, while thousands of Horsetail Fall aspirants jockeyed for parking and a clear view through the trees.
Stay tuned for more about the Horsetail Fall experience, which has now officially achieved ridiculous status.
~ ~ ~
(Look closely at the horizontal, “Twilight Mist” image to see Horsetail’s location)
Posted on January 19, 2016
My relationship with Yosemite doesn’t have a beginning or end. Rather, it’s a collection of asynchronous memories that are still forming. In fact, some of my Yosemite experience actually predates my memory. The earliest memories, like following bobbing flashlights to Camp Curry to watch the Firefall spring from Glacier Point, or warm evenings in lawn chairs at the garbage dump, waiting for the bears to come to dinner, are part of the glue that bonds my family.
My father was a serious amateur photographer who shared his own relationship with Yosemite. One of my most vivid Yosemite memories is (foolishly) standing atop Sentinel Dome in an electrical storm, extending an umbrella to shield his camera while he tried to photograph lightning.
As I grew older, I started creating my own memories. While exploring Yosemite’s backcountry I reclined beside gem-like lakes cradled in granite basins, sipped from streams that started the day as snow, and slept beneath an infinite canopy of stars—all to a continuous soundtrack of wind and water.
Given this history, it’s no surprise that I became a nature photographer, using my camera to try to convey the essence of this magic world. In the last 35 years my camera and I have returned more times than I can count, sometimes leaving home in the morning and returning that night, eight hours of driving for a six hour fix. Other trips span multiple days, each one starting before sunrise and lasting through sunset, and sometimes well into the night. But despite the fact this is my livelihood, it’s never work.
About ten years ago I started guiding photographers through Yosemite. Now I get to live vicariously through others’ excitement as they experience firsthand the beauty they’ve previously seen only in pictures. Many of these people return many times themselves, sometimes in other workshops, sometimes on their own. Either way, I’m proud to be a catalyst for their nascent relationship with this special place, and know that they’ll spread the love to others in their lives.
Of course I’ve seen lots of change while accumulating my Yosemite memories. Gridlock is a summer staple, the bears have been separated (with moderate success), the Firefall has been extinguished, and backpacking requires permits, water purifiers, and bear canisters. And now there are rumblings that some of the park’s cherished names—The Ahwahnee, Curry Village, the Wawona Hotel, Yosemite Lodge—will be lost to corporate greed. But despite human interference, Yosemite’s soaring granite and plummeting waterfalls are magnificent constants, a vertical canvas for Nature’s infinite cycle of season, weather, and light.
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.