Nature is only as random as our ability to understand it

Yosemite Rainbow, Tunnel View

Double Rainbow, Tunnel View, Yosemite Valley
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1/5 second
F/16.0
ISO 100
17 mm

Louis Pasteur said that chance favors the prepared mind. It was one of Ansel Adams’ favorite quotes. But, as appropriate as the quote is, I’m sure Adams cited Pasteur only after enduring countless “Wow, you were so lucky to be there for that” reactions.

To the casual observer, nature’s wonders do indeed feel random. Who doesn’t feel lucky when a full moon pops over the mountains just as the  monotonous highway bends east, or when dirty snow and bare trees are suddenly glazed in white by an unexpected snowstorm? (Or when Yosemite Valley is suddenly framed by an arcing double rainbow?) But there’s nothing random about any of these phenomena. Some natural phenomena can be predicted with absolute precision—for example, it’s easy to pinpoint the position and phase of the moon for any location and time, past or future. And while weather can sometimes (usually?) appear random, every weather condition, from temperature to the most violent storms and purest blue skies, is a precise function of  atmospheric conditions, ocean currents, and terrain; we perceive weather as random only because its complexity overwhelms our current capabilities.

Nature photographers should feel blessed by these natural wonders over which we have no control, but our good fortune is not random. By taking the time to understand our subjects and study our environment, we do our best to anticipate image-worthy events. While we can never guarantee that the sky will be clear enough to reveal the rising moon we counted on, or that the predicted convergence of moisture, temperature, and barometric pressure will manifest to transform our world from crusty brown to pristine white (or that the setting sun will find the perfect path to the falling rain), we can put ourselves in position to be there when it happens.

None of this stuff makes me unique—though we all approach our photography in our own way, most successful nature photographers do everything they can to minimize the randomness in our efforts, to maximize the chance for “special.” My own path was fairly organic. My entire life, beginning long before my first camera, I’ve been drawn to science, to the how and why of nature. As a child I devoured books by Herbert S. Zim and Isaac Azimov (he wasn’t just a science fiction writer). In school I took every possible astronomy, geology, meteorology class. I even started college as an astronomy major, then geology, before the (necessary) quantification of the concepts I loved so much threatened to sap my passion (that is, I couldn’t handle the math beyond calculus). Fortunately my passion survived and I’ve been able to find a career that rewards me for understanding and anticipating natural phenomena. (It hardly seems like work.)

About this image

Which brings me to today’s Yosemite Valley rainbow image, an incredible stroke of good fortune that I (proudly) take credit for anticipating. This was a May evening a few years ago. May is usually the beginning of California’s interminable blue sky summer, but this year a persistent low pressure system that had set up camp off the coast pumped daily impulses of moisture into Northern California. I was in Yosemite to meet a private workshop customer and his girlfriend for dinner so we could plan the following day’s photo tour of the park. That afternoon’s drive from home had been a mixture of sun and showers; I entered Yosemite Valley in the midst of a steady rain that had been splashing my windshield for at least thirty minutes. But despite  clinging rainclouds that obscured the surrounding granite walls, I knew the broken sky I’d recently driven through was headed this way and would probably arrive before sunset, about two hours away—and with that clearing would come the potential for openings that could allow sunlight to reach the still falling rain. With the sun already low and dropping, and its angle pointing any Tunnel View shadow in the direction of Yosemite Valley, I had the potential for all the rainbow recipe ingredients.

But of course I had dinner plans, and no phone number to reach my customers. So I beelined to Yosemite Lodge to meet them as planned, plotting my sales pitch the entire way. I was pleased to find them waiting when I arrived—while in my mind I was jumping up and down, pointing and shouting (“Rainbow! Soon! Hurry!”), I maintained the illusion of calmness through our introductions, then explained as cooly as possible that there was a chance for a rainbow, if they were interested. Fortunately they were open to the change of plans and I wasn’t forced to resort to begging.

On the twenty minute drive back to Tunnel View I’d calmed enough to remind myself that we could very well be chasing wild geese and did my best to moderate their expectations, explaining that a rainbow is far from a sure thing, and that what we’re doing is merely putting ourselves in position in the event that does happen.

At Tunnel View the rain was still falling, but I could see signs of clearing to the west. So far, so good. I guided my customers to my favorite Tunnel View vantage point, above the parking lot and away from the crowds, where we sat on the granite in the rain and waited. Despite their positive attitude, as the cold and wet began to seep in, it dawned on me that convincing new customers to skip dinner to sit in the rain isn’t the most sound business strategy.

The view of had opened considerably from what it had been when I first pulled into the valley, so I encouraged them to go ahead and shoot, rainbow or not. I really can’t remember how long we waited—long enough to get pretty soaked—before a shaft of sunlight broke through to illuminate the rain falling along the north rim of the valley, for about five minutes painting a vivid partial double rainbow in front of El Capitan and disappearing into the clouds above Half Dome. Yay! While this wasn’t a complete rainbow (only one pot of gold), it was definitely the nicest rainbow I’d ever seen at Tunnel View and we clicked without a break until the rain stopped and the rainbow faded.

When the show was over we just sat and marveled at the view, giddy about our good fortune, completely oblivious to the dark cloud approaching from behind. As quickly as the rain had stopped a few minutes earlier, it returned, this time with a vengeance, coming down in diagonal sheets (visible across the top of the frame above). Behind us and out of sight the sun had almost completed its journey to the horizon and, rather than being blocked by clouds as it had been earlier, was able to slide its final rays beneath them to completely illuminate the rain falling across the valley’s breadth. The rainbow appeared almost immediately, intensifying to quickly become a double bow connecting Yosemite Valley’s north and south walls. It lasted so long that I actually started running out of compositions.

We had a great day the next day, but nice as it was, the photography was a bit anticlimactic. Much like starting the Fourth of July fireworks show with the “grand finale” extravaganza, I realized that it would have been nice to have arranged for the rainbow to appear at the end of our session. Back to the drawing board.

Learn a more about rainbows and how to photograph them.

The Road to the Racetrack, Part Deux

Last Light, The Racetrack, Death Valley

Last Light, The Racetrack, Death Valley

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Previously on “The Road to the Racetrack”

Racetrack Road approaches from the north and skirts the west side of Racetrack Playa in the shadow of Ubehebe (yuba-he’-be) Peak. We crested the saddle above the playa’s north perimeter and dropped out of the gray soup that had confined our world for about two hours. Before us spread the entire Racetrack Playa, its surrounding mountains draped in clouds that cascaded down their slopes like slow motion waterfalls. The light rain that had barely required windshield wipers stopped completely. Descending the saddle’s south side into the basin, our view was monopolized by the Grandstand—a cruise ship size chunk of adamellite (a dark, igneous intrusive rock similar to granite) jutting from the paper-flat playa. This is what the submerged portion of an island looks like. As we rolled past I couldn’t help thinking that the Grandstand would be a far more sought-after subject were it not for the moving rocks that take top bill here.

As much as I’d loved to have stopped to photograph the Grandstand, it was late afternoon and I was anxious to locate the main attraction before the good light came and went. The drive to the south side of the Racetrack is just one mile, but the road’s extreme washboard surface is a natural speed inhibitor; every time my speedometer nudged toward fifteen miles per hour our SUV started bouncing like an off-balance washing machine and I had to back off. Doug, Jay, and I had chuckled when the Stovepipe Wells grocery clerk told us that the rocks had mysteriously disappeared from the Racetrack, but I’ll admit to taking advantage of our slow speed to (anxiously) scrutinize the playa as we skirted its perimeter—what if it was true? Vibrating along, I saw a couple of grapefruit-size rocks trailing short tracks just west of the Grandstand, but nothing like the rocks we’d come for.

We finally stopped at the playa’s extreme south end where a couple of photographers were photographing a handful small rocks just a couple of hundred feet from the road. These rocks just didn’t seem natural to me—partly because of the nearby tire tracks marring the playa’s surface (the selfish ignorance of humans in nature never fails to disappoint me) and partly because they were so far from any rock source (these things don’t just drop from the sky). Standing there on the playa’s southwest edge, it was clear that the rocks we sought could only originate from the base of the steep mountain abutting the southeast corner. And indeed, looking more closely in that direction, we could just make out a large accumulation of black dots that could only be rocks. The playa’s utter flatness can be disorienting, but given that the Racetrack stretches one mile on its long, north-south axis, I estimated that the east side was about a half mile away. So off we set.

The playa’s color and chalky dust reminded me of a flour tortilla; its surface is a jigsaw of round polygons about three inches in diameter, separated by shallow cracks that have been filled in by the fine dust. When dry like this (there was no noticeable accumulation of the nearby rain) it’s an easy surface to walk. After ten minutes we arrived at the first rocks, toaster- to microwave-size, each with its own straight, curved, or zig-zag track. Eureka! We immediately spread out, claimed a specimen of our own, and went to work. Initially the best light was on the southwest horizon, where a hole in the clouds, obscured by Ubehebe Peak, passed enough sun to illuminate the low overcast (see the image in my previous post).

Soon our attention was drawn to the playa’s north end, toward the Grandstand, where a shaft of golden light had started skimming the dark hills and firing up the clouds there. I quickly circled the rock I was working on to swing my camera in that direction. As the shaft warmed it stretched further, eventually extending from edge to edge. As the light seemed to reach a crescendo Doug, who was set up about a hundred feet away, called out, “That almost looks like a rainbow.” I looked closer and sure enough, there was indeed a (quite faint) prism of color splashed above the sunlit hills bounding the playa’s northeast edge.

The one frame with my polarizer properly oriented for the rainbow that I managed to get off is at the top of the post. You have to look closely to see the rainbow (it’s there, I swear); careful examination reveals that the rainbow moves from green on the outside (left) to red on the inside (the shorter wavelength colors that would be left of green aren’t visible), meaning that our angle of view only gave us the fainter, outer band of a double rainbow. By the time I’d set up my next composition the light faded and with it the rainbow. Visions of a full rainbow arcing above the Racetrack dashed, we nevertheless couldn’t help feel that we’d been granted a very rare treat in this land of interminable blue sky.

The rest of our trip, though not without its moments, was anticlimax. After sunset we walked back to the car and ate dinner (soggy sandwiches for Jay and me, ramen noodles for Doug-the-chef), then went back out in the dark for a moonlight shoot without stars. By then the clouds had thickened and dropped, making it difficult to get anything that really looked like night. After a very restless night (one hour awake for every hour asleep for me), we rose for “sunrise” (or more accurately, “fogdrop”). While not quite spectacular, the low clouds swirling above the playa, spilling down the mountains in the thin light no doubt gave us unique images (that I haven’t had time to get to). And on the drive back we were able to see the terrain that had been completely obscured by clouds on our inbound trip, the highlight of which was several miles of joshua tree forest we’d been completely oblivious to earlier. In fact, despite my extreme need to be back in Furnace Creek in time for my workshop (that started at 1:00 that afternoon), at one point we encountered a scene with nearby joshua trees juxtaposed against distant, fog-wrapped mountains that we couldn’t help stopping to shoot for fifteen minutes or so.

After depositing Jay at his car in Stovepipe Wells, Doug and I made it back to Furnace Creek by 11:45 and managed to clean up, have lunch, and set up for orientation with time to spare. Piece of cake.

2012 Grand Canyon Monsoon Mayhem tour

Rainbow, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon

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The drive from Northern California to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim is about twelve hours. When Don Smith and I scheduled our (first annual) 2012 Grand Canyon Monsoon Mayhem tour, the plan was to leave dark-and-early Monday morning, which experience told us would get us to the canyon just in time to photograph sunset Monday night. But with the National Weather Service forecasting waning monsoon conditions as the week progressed, it looked like Monday afternoon might be the best time to capture our prime goal, lightning. So on Sunday morning we decided to leave that evening, drive as far as we could, then drive the rest of the way Monday. Doing it this way would allow us to arrive by mid-afternoon with a full night’s sleep. Fueled by Starbucks and a steady diet of classic rock, Don and I made it all the way  to the acclaimed Route 66 hot-spot, Barstow, California (the gateway to the Mohave Desert).

Monday morning we escaped the desert before the heat kicked in, and by 2 p.m. were rolling up to the Grand Canyon South Rim. After surveying the skies, we pointed the car east, along the rim, toward Lipan Point, a favorite photo spot about forty minutes away. Somewhere near Grandview we encountered a cell that delivered lightning and sheets of rain, a harbinger of what was in store. Though the Grandview cell was behind us, Lipan Point greeted us with looming black clouds that spit occasional raindrops that sounded like ripe grapes striking the roof, a car-rocking wind, and thunder separated from its flash by mere seconds. Hell hadn’t broken loose yet, but it was sure rattling the cage.

We’d counted on a little time to recover from the drive, but there’s nothing like urgency to reveal how unprepared you are. As a Californian (at the sound of thunder, bewildered Californians rush outside), I’d never had an opportunity to use my lightning trigger (an electronic device that detects lightning and fires the shutter in milliseconds); Don had forgotten to pack most of his rain gear. And neither of us had given adequate thought to the impracticality of our plan to avoid electrocution by setting up our expensive tripods and cameras at a popular Grand Canyon vista (in the height of tourist season) while waiting out the danger and discomfort of a thunderstorm in the security of the car. With the storm bearing down on us, what followed was a Keystone Cops swirl of activity—out of driving clothes and into wet-weather gear; extract and attach (and figure out) lightning triggers; find a suitable view comfortably removed from teaming tourists; meter and compose a scene—that culminated in a frantic retreat, sans cameras, when a much-too-close lighting bolt ripped a Niagara-size hole in the sky.

For the next five minutes our cameras couldn’t have gotten more wet if we’d have put them in a shower. Warm and dry in the car, I was suddenly gripped by visions of my wind-tossed camera and tripod plummeting into the Colorado River (5,000 feet below), so when the lightning paused, I mustered the courage rush to the rescue. (I think Don did the same thing, but at that point it was every man for himself.)

As I toweled down my gear back in the car, the wind and rain slowed to a more manageable pace. Unsure of how long our window of lightning opportunity would last, Don and I headed back out, this time in different directions and (somewhat) more prepared. I opted for the best composition that offered the possibility of distant lightning, turning my lens toward a gray curtain of rain a fair distance up the canyon, toward Desert View; Don, who was having technical problems with his lightning trigger, headed a little west and pointed his camera toward a nearby cell that was already flashing behind us.

For the next hour or so I heard my shutter respond to a half-dozen or so bolts in the direction of my composition, a good sign, but since the lightning trigger disables the LCD replay, all I could do was cross my fingers for success. When the electrical activity quieted, Don and I reconnected and traded notes. Though he’d resolved his technical issue (I’ll let him elaborate), he was similarly unsure of his success.

Lightning or not, we agreed that the sky was far better than anything we see in California. As we chatted, the sun appeared and a vivid double rainbow arced above Desert View—back to work. Lightning trigger off, I was happy to be back more familiar territory—trying to work a rainbow into an already magnificent scene without dodging raindrops or lightning bolts.

Because the rainbow touched down south of the rim, finding a composition that featured both the canyon and the rainbow required a wide shot that included close foreground elements. I wasn’t crazy about the shrubs and rocks immediately beneath the rock outcrop I was on, so I stood back from the rim a bit and hid them behind the more interesting texture of my grooved and weathered limestone platform.

For the rainbow’s thirty-minute duration, I moved along the outcrop, capturing about sixty combinations of foreground and sky, horizontal and vertical, wide and tight. I finished with many, many images that make me happy, but chose this one because (right now) I think it offers the most balanced combination of all that made the scene special: the warm light on the Grand Canyon’s south wall, the rainbow (duh), the rugged character of the limestone supporting me, and the saturated, arcing raincloud responsible for the moment.

Epilogue

That great start to our adventure was made even more memorable when Don and I, at the risk of spurring an international incident, selflessly declined the advances of two young German women seeking a bed for the night (seriously).

Viewing on my laptop back at the hotel, I was thrilled to find four frames that included lightning. Given all that was in store the rest of the week, my excitement at four frames now seems a little overdone, as was Don’s frustration that his technical problems resulted in a day-one lightning shutout. By week’s end we each had more than fifty lightning captures, most coming at the North Rim on an action packed final day that shrunk the beauty of this first day to a distant memory. Stay tuned….

A landscape photographer’s time

Double Rainbow, Yosemite Valley

Double Rainbow, Yosemite Valley
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
38 mm
1/5 seconds
F/16
ISO 100

On my run this morning I listened to an NPR “Talk of the Nation” podcast about time, and the arbitrary ways we Earthlings measure it. The guest’s thesis was that the hours, days, and years we measure and monitor so closely are an invention established (with increasing precision) by  science and technology to serve society’s specific needs; the question posed to listeners was, “What is the most significant measure of time in your life?” Most listeners responded with anecdotes about bus schedules, school years, and work hours that revealed how our conventional time measurement tools, clocks and calendars, rule our existence. Listening on my iPhone, I wanted to stop and call to share my own relationship with time, but quickly remembered I wasn’t listening in realtime to the podcast. So I decided to blog my thoughts here instead.

Landscape photographers are governed by far more primitive constructs than the bustling majority, the fundamental laws of nature that inspire, but ultimately transcend, clocks and calendars: the Earth’s rotation on its axis, the Earth’s revolution about the Sun, and the Moon’s motion relative to the Earth and Sun. In other words, clocks and calendars have little to do with the picture taking aspect of my life; they’re useful only when I need to interact with the rest of the world on its terms (that is, run the business).

While my years are ruled by the changing angle of the Sun’s rays, and my days are inexorably tied to the Sun’s and Moon’s arrival, I can’t help fantasize about the ability to schedule my spring Yosemite moonbow workshops (that require a full moon) for the first weekend of each May, or mark my calendar for the blizzard that blankets Yosemite in white at 3:05 p.m. every February 22. But Nature, despite human attempts to manipulate and measure it, is its own boss. The best I can do is adjust my moonbow workshops to coincide with the May (or April) full moon each year; or monitor the weather forecast and bolt for Yosemite when a snowstorm is promised (then wait with my fingers crossed).

The insignificance of clocks and calendars is never more clear than the first morning following a time change. On the last Sunday of March, when “normal” people moan about rising an hour earlier, and the first Sunday of November, as others luxuriate in their extra hour of sleep, it’s business as usual for me. Each spring, thumbing its nose at Daylight Saving Time, the Sun rises a mere minute (or so) earlier than it did the day before; so do I. And each fall, on the first sunrise of Standard Time, I get to sleep an an entire minute longer. Yippee.

Honestly, I love nature’s mixture of precision and (apparent) randomness. I do my best to maximize my odds for something photographically special, but the understanding that “it” might not (probably won’t) happen only enhances the thrill when it, or maybe something unexpected and even better, does happen. The rainbow in today’s image was certainly not on anybody’s calendar; it was a fortuitous convergence of rain and sunlight (and ecstatic photographer). My human “schedule” that evening was a 6 p.m. get-to-know/plan-tomorrow dinner meeting with a private workshop customer. But seeing the potential for a rainbow, I suggested that we defer to Mother Nature, ignore our stomachs, and go sit in the rain. Fortunately he agreed, and we were amply rewarded for our inconvenience and discomfort.

A gallery of rainbows

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

Weather or not: 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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