Playing the Cards You’re Dealt

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Veil, Half Dome, Yosemite

Winter Veil, Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7R IV
Sony 24-105 G
8 seconds
F/16
ISO 160

In family hearts games when I was a kid, I loved to “shoot the moon” (tremendous reward for success, extreme cost for failure). But simply wanting to shoot the moon wasn’t enough to make it happen, and I didn’t really start winning until I learned to separate my desires from the reality in my hand—I know now to evaluate my cards when they’re dealt, set a strategy, then adjust my strategy as the game unfolds. It’s that way for most card games, and it’s that way with photography.

Given nature’s fickle whims, I try not to lock in on something I want so much that I miss what I can have. I got my latest reminder last month in Yosemite, when I really, really wanted to shoot the moon. It was the workshop’s first sunset, and I knew exactly where I wanted to be to start my workshop group off with a beautiful full (-ish) moon rising above Half Dome at sunset. I’ve written about the weather related moon frustrations in this workshop in other recent posts, but this is where it all began.

This evening’s frustrations were compounded by the fact that not only was the moon a no-show, for most of the our time there it looked as if Half Dome would be joining it. So when we arrived out here, I had to reassure everyone that there really is a view of Half Dome right up there, and it’s really beautiful, I swear.

Because I’d told them before starting the short hike out to this spot that our target would be the moon and Half Dome, when neither appeared, it would have been easy to simply stand around and wait for something to change. So I tried to point out some of the other, more subtle opportunities available.

I suggested using the swirling clouds, bare trees, and pristine snow to convey a frigid wintry atmosphere. And the reflection, while not as dramatic as it can be here, nevertheless nicely complimented the scene, while a long exposure, in addition to smoothing the reflection, could stretch the white dollops of drifting foam into white steaks that reveal the Merced River’s motion.

I visit this spot so much that I often just leave my camera in the bag here, but as I pointed out these subtle features to my group, I started talking myself into the opportunity to photograph something new. So, partly to demonstrate to others and partly to actually capture something of my own, I pulled out my Sony a7RIV and Sony 24-105 and went to work.

While the scene was dark enough to get exposures of a second or so without a neutral density filter, I wanted something a little longer and added a Breakthrough 6-stop Dark Polarizer. I started with horizontal frames that maximized the foreground reflection and middle-ground wintry scene, but when Half Dome’s outline started to materialize through the clouds(a harbinger of good things to come?), I changed my emphasis. And because I’d already been working the scene’s other elements, it was a simple step to start incorporating Half Dome into my compositions.

Half Dome never appeared completely, but for a few minutes it did peek out enough to be recognizable. In fact, the  ethereal feel the clouds create are a big part of this image’s appeal for me. This was an 8-second exposure at ISO 160. I wish I could say I chose ISO 160 because 200 was too fast and 125 was too slow, but I’m guessing that my intent was to use ISO 50 for the longest possible shutter speed, but while fumbling with my camera wearing bulky gloves (it was as cold as it looks), I accidentally turned the ISO dial.

This evening is a good reminder that consistently successful nature photography not only requires the ability to anticipate conditions and establish a plan, but also to maintain enough flexibility to adjust when things don’t play out as expected. No shoot is a guaranteed success, and sometimes nature’s cards just don’t fall right. But the more options you have, and the more you can read and respond to conditions, the more winners you’ll come home with.

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Variations on a Scene: Different Takes on the Same Location

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Nature’s Gifts: Reflections

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn on Ice, El Capitan Reflection, Yosemite

Autumn on Ice, El Capitan Reflection, Yosemite
Sony α1
Sony 16 – 35 f/2.8 GM
1/4 second
F/18
ISO 100

Sometimes Nature delivers us something that’s so beautiful, it just has to be a gift. When we think of Nature’s gifts, it’s often in terms of locations, like Yosemite or Grand Canyon (gifts indeed!). But today I’m thinking about Nature’s transient beauty: the perfect arc and vivid colors of a rainbow, a brilliant crimson sunrise or sunset, or an aurora dancing among the stars (I could go on)—beauty that can simultaneously surprise and wow us.

Underrated on Nature’s list of gifts are reflections. Doubling the scene, reflections signal tranquility. And like a metaphor that engages the brain in ways different than we’re accustomed, a reflection is an indirect representation that can be more powerful than its literal double. Rather than allowing us to process the scene directly, a reflection challenges us to mentally reassemble its reverse world, and in the process perhaps see the scene a little differently.

Reflections can feel like a fortuitous gift that we just stumbled upon. But given that reflections are entirely beholden to the laws of physics, they’re far more predictable than many of the natural phenomena we photograph. Taking a little time to understand the nature of reflections and how they’re revealed by a camera enables photographers to anticipate their appearance and craft their relationship to the surrounding landscape in an image.

Without getting too far into the physics of light, it’s important to understand that every object we see (and photograph) that doesn’t generate its own light, comes to us courtesy of reflected light. In other words, what we call a reflection is in fact re-reflected light (reflected first from the object itself, then by the water).

For example, when sunlight strikes El Capitan in Yosemite, some of the sun’s photons bounce back into our eyes, and there it is. But other photons head off in different directions—some to be captured by different sets of eyes, while others land on the surface of the Merced River far below. A few of these photons penetrate the water, illuminating leaves and rocks on the submerged riverbed, while others carom off the water at the same angle at which they struck—only in the other direction, much the way a pool ball ricochets off the pool table’s cushion. When our eyes are in the path of these bounced photons, we see a reflection.

The recipe for a mirror reflection

Water reflections come in many forms, from a mirror-sharp inverted m­­­­ountain peak glistening atop a still pool, to an abstract shuffle of color and texture on an undulating lake. Both have their place in creative photography.

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Reflection, El Capitan and Three Brothers, Yosemite

Autumn Reflection, El Capitan and Three Brothers, Yosemite

The ideal recipe for a mirror reflection is pretty simple: still water, a sunlit subject that’s much brighter than the water’s surface (the greater the contrast the better), and a view angle that matches the angle at which the sunlight struck the water’s surface. And while a sunlit subject and shaded surface aren’t essential, the more photons striking the reflected subject, and the fewer non-reflected photons (ambient light) striking the reflective surface, the greater the contrast that helps the reflection stand out.

El Capitan Autumn Leaves, Yosemite: With El Capitan getting direct sunlight and the slow moving Merced River still shaded, I had the sharp reflection I hoped for. With just a little bit of searching, I positioned myself to include nearby floating autumn leaves.

Playing the angles

Just because you don’t see a reflection in the still water in front of you, doesn’t mean there’s no reflection—it just means you’re viewing from the wrong angle.

Understanding that reflected photons leave the water’s surface at the same angle at which they arrive—imagine the way a tennis player anticipates the ball’s bounce to get in position—allows us to position ourselves to photograph the reflection we want. For example, if the angle from your subject to the water is 40 degrees, its reflection will bounce off the water at 40 degrees in the other direction.

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Palette, Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite

Sunset Palette, Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite

To locate the reflection, set your camera aside and move up/down, backward/forward, and left/right until you see find it. Then bring your camera back in and position it exactly where your eyes were when you saw the reflection.

Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite: One summer evening I found myself atop Sentinel Dome shortly after an intense rain shower had turned indentations in the granite into small, reflective pools. Seeing the potential for a spectacular sunset above Half Dome, I wanted to include the colorful clouds reflected in the pools. At eye-level the pools reflected nothing but empty sky, so I dropped my tripod almost to granite level until my lens found the angle that intercepted the red clouds just above Half Dome bouncing off the still water.

When the water’s in motion

As spectacular as a crisp, still water mirror reflection is, it’s easy to overlook the visual potential of a reflection that’s not crisp, and to forget your camera’s ability to render a soft or abstract reflection much better than your eyes view it.

Gary Hart Photography: Before the Sun, South Tufa, Mono Lake

Before the Sun, South Tufa, Mono Lake

While a crisp reflection can dominate an image, a splash of reflected color or shape can beautifully accent a striking primary subject. And a reflection that’s lost to the continuously varying angles of rippled or choppy water, magically appears as a soft outline when a long exposure smooths the water’s surface into a gauzy haze.

South Tufa, Mono Lake: In this sunrise image, all the ingredients were in place for a special reflection. Just as the color arrived, a light breeze stirred the lake’s surface with gentle undulations. I used a 6-stop neutral density filter to enable a multi-second exposure that completely smoothed the lake’s surface. While not a perfect mirror, the resulting reflection has a very pleasing soft, gauzy look.

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Autumn Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Where to focus

An often misunderstood aspect of reflection photography is where to focus. Though counterintuitive to some, the focus point of a reflection is the reflection’s subject, not the surface it reflects on. This isn’t a big deal when the focus point of everything of visual significance is infinity, but it’s a very big deal when you want both your distant subject’s reflection and the nearby rocks or leaves on or in the water surface to be sharp.

Photographing a distant subject reflecting in a pool of leaves requires the same hyperfocal depth of field approach you’d use for any other close-to-distant image: small aperture and a focus point slightly beyond the closest thing that needs to be sharp.

El Capitan Reflection, Yosemite: Photographing autumn leaves atop El Capitan’s reflection required impossible depth of field to capture sharpness throughout. Even though the leaves and reflection were just a few feet in front of me, focusing for a sharp reflection would have softened the leaves. To increase my depth of field, I stopped down to f/18 and focused toward the back of the closest group of leaves, then magnified the image on my LCD to verify that all of the leaves were sharp. Though El Capitan’s reflection is slightly soft, a soft reflection is almost always more forgivable than a soft foreground.

Polarizer

Gary Hart Photography: Reflection on the Rocks

Reflection on the Rocks, Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

Put simply, a polarizer cuts reflections. Most photographers use a polarizer to darken the sky, and while that can be a nice effect, the polarizer’s value is far greater than that. More than to darken the sky, polarizers remove subtle reflective sheen that washes out color on foliage and rocks.

An underappreciated polarizer use is to erase a reflection to reveal submerged rocks, leaves, and texture. After photographing a reflection with no polarizer or polarization minimized (maximum reflection), rotate the polarizer to minimize the reflection (maximum polarization) and capture submerged features hidden by the reflection. You might be surprised by how different the two images are, and how much you like both versions.

Lake Wanaka, New Zealand: But a polarizer isn’t an all or nothing tool. When photographing the solitary willow tree in Lake Wanaka, I carefully watched the reflection in my viewfinder while rotating my polarizer, stopping when I reached a polarization midpoint that included some reflection, while still revealing the mosaic of stones just beneath the lake’s surface.

Rainbows

Rainbows are a very special kind of reflection that happens when light is refracted (separated into its colorful wavelengths) upon entering airborne water droplets. This refracted light reflects off the back of the droplet to create a rainbow.

Because the laws of physics apply to all reflections, we know that a rainbow would actually form a full, 42 degree circle if it didn’t encounter the horizon. The center of this circle is at the anti-solar point—the point exactly opposite the sun (with your back to the sun, imagine a line from the sun through the back of your head and exiting between your eyes). That means that your shadow will always point at the rainbow’s apex. And the lower the sun, the higher the apex will be. Read more about rainbows.

Gary Hart Photography: Rainbow Bridge, Colorado River, Grand Canyon

Rainbow Bridge, Colorado River, Grand Canyon

Double Rainbow, Colorado River, Grand Canyon: Understanding rainbow physics allowed me to anticipate a rainbow despite a black cloud blocking the sun and drenching everyone in my raft trip group. When I saw that the sun was about to pop out of the cloud and into a large patch of blue sky, I rallied my group and pointed to where the rainbow would appear. A few minutes later their skepticism turned to ecstasy when we all started capturing images of a double rainbow bridging the Grand Canyon.

Outside the box

Reflections also provide wonderful creative opportunities. An often overlooked opportunity is the potential found in reflections that aren’t mirror-like. And, in addition to the more conventional reflection composition that’s split somewhere near the middle to give more or less equal frame real estate to the subject and its reflection, some of the most creative reflection images concentrate entirely, or almost entirely, on the reflection.

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn on Ice, El Capitan Reflection, Yosemite

Autumn on Ice, El Capitan Reflection, Yosemite

I found this El Capitan reflection at Cathedral Beach on the final afternoon of last month’s Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop. After capturing a crisp, top-to-bottom El Capitan reflection, I repositioned myself to juxtapose much of El Capitan against the faceted veneer of ice topping the river. An added bonus of water still enough for ice to form was that it allowed drifting, recently fallen autumn leaves to settle and accumulate on the river-bottom here.

Finding the best spot combine the reflection, ice, and leaves in a single frame, I dropped low enough to get a sharp reflection El Capitan’s nose in the still, iceless water close to the shore. To ensure sharpness in the ice and the reflection (as well as the distant trees and El Capitan), I stopped down to f/18 and focused midway into the ice.

Almost all of the foreground was shaded, but with bright, direct sunlight brightening the clouds and El Capitan, this scene’s dynamic range was a real factor. But my reflection-centric composition eliminated the clouds brightest granite, making the exposure much easier. Finally, I tried multiple polarizer positions until I found the one with the best combination of reflection and submerged leaves.

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Mirror, Valley View (El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall), Yosemite

Sunset Mirror, Yosemit

I was so focused on the other visual elements in this scene, I didn’t fully appreciate the bare trees across the river. But when I started processing the image and viewed it on my large monitor, I was pleased by how much they add to the wintry feel of this image.

Double your pleasure

Whether it’s a shimmering mirror, a gauzy haze of color and shape, or a colorful rainbow, reflections are a gift from Nature—camera or not. By doubling the beauty surrounding us, reflections have the power to elevate ordinary to beautiful, and beautiful to extraordinary.

For photographers, reflections provide boundless creative opportunities. When exploring outdoors with a camera, some reflections seem to jump out and grab us by the eyeballs, while others require a little more work. Either way, when properly conceived and executed, a reflection image possesses a visual synergy, conveying beauty that more than doubles the scene’s two halves.

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El Capitan Reflections

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Putting It All Together

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Mirror, Valley View (El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall), Yosemite

Sunset Mirror, Valley View (El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall), Yosemite
Sony α1
Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM
1/6 second
F/11
ISO 100

Nature’s most spectacular visual moments come thanks to the glorious confluence of its static and dynamic beauty. Nature’s static beauty is its fixed features, the mountains, oceans, lakes, rivers, trees (and more) that inspire us to travel great distances with our cameras, confident in the knowledge that they’ll be there when we arrive. Nature’s dynamic beauty is its transient elements, like the light, clouds, color, weather, and celestial objects, that we try to anticipate—but that often surprises/disappoints us.

Whether it’s lightning at the Grand Canyon, the Milky Way in New Zealand, the northern lights in Iceland, or a moonrise above Yosemite, my photo trips are (selfishly) timed to maximize my chance for those times when the inherently beautiful scenes are blessed with special conditions. And though relying on the fickle whims of Mother Nature means the disappointments are frequent and frustrating, I’ve learned to roll with them because the thrill of success is greater than the frustration of failure.

But for a photographer, just being there isn’t enough, because, as thrilling as the moment might be, doing it justice with a camera usually requires more than just a simple point and click. Often (usually?), adding the best of Nature’s dynamic elements changes the scene enough to actually shift the balance of visual power—what might be the best picture in more typical conditions, suddenly takes backseat to the ephemeral beauty unfolding before us.

Getting the most from Nature’s glorious confluences means quickly identifying the scene’s best features right now, and finding a composition that emphasizes them—even if that means deemphasizing the static element that drew you in the first place. For example, at Valley View in Yosemite, photographers can choose between El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, or both of the above (not to mention Cathedral Rocks, Leaning Tower, and Ribbon Fall). As I recently blogged, I’ll photograph this scene completely differently depending on the conditions—sometimes ignoring El Capitan or Bridalveil Fall in favor of the other, and other times including both.

And beyond subject choice are decisions like the amount of sky versus foreground to include, horizontal or vertical orientation, wide or tight focal length, polarizer orientation, motion blur in the water, and on and on. All of these choices depend on the conditions, and the way they’re handled can make or break an image.

My Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshops are timed to coincide with a full moon rising above Yosemite Valley at sunset, as well as (fingers crossed) fresh snowfall in Yosemite Valley. Yosemite Valley is the workshop’s known, static commodity; snow and the moon are its dynamic variables. While getting fresh snow is a complete a roll of the dice when scheduling a workshop a year or more in advance, the moon’s phase and position can be predicted with surgical accuracy. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch in photography, so even though I know where to be and when to be there for the moon, I still have to sweat the clouds—especially in winter.

Which is exactly what I did in this month’s workshop. Having billed this as a “winter moon” workshop, I took my students out to a view of Half Dome that aligned perfectly with the first of my three planned sunset moonrises, then watched and waited while Half Dome played games with the clouds and never came out completely. The moon? Not even close. If you read last week’s blog, you know that we finally had a moonrise success on our third and final try. But it’s what happened on the evening in between that stands out most in my memory.

In a static world, for our second sunset I’d have been at another location beside the Merced River, waiting for the moon to crest Half Dome. Because watching the moon rise above Half Dome at sunset is something I hate missing, even when there are lots of clouds, my usual approach is to lean into the moonrise despite the low odds—you just never know when the sky might open and surprise you by revealing the moon (see last week’s blog). But as the time to make the call on our sunset location approached, I could see that the east side of the valley, including Half Dome, appeared hopelessly engulfed by clouds, while the sky on the west side looked much more open. So I reluctantly (and uncharacteristically) pulled the plug on the moonrise and detoured to Valley View for sunset, hoping I wouldn’t regret it.

At Valley View, I instantly saw that the cloud swallowing Half Dome was a blooming cumulus monster that showed no hint of retreating. My decision to blow off the moonrise (somewhat) vindicated, I got my group settled in. While fairly confident we’d get something better than my Plan A Half Dome spot, I didn’t have especially high expectations for anything spectacular.

Pulling out my Sony α1 body, I surveyed the scene. Normally I start at Valley View with my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens, but with such a nice sky this evening, I reached straight for my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens.

I see clouds like this one all the time at the Grand Canyon, but rarely in Yosemite—maybe way in the distance, but rarely this close. It only took two frames to realize the 16-35 still wasn’t wide enough, so I returned to my bag for my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens. Maybe I’ve used this lens at Valley View before, but it’s usually reserved for Yosemite’s closer El Capitan views.

When the cloud lit up and started glowing pink, its reflection switched on too, suddenly making that the scene’s most compelling element. There aren’t many situations where I’d photograph here ultra-wide and vertical, but this time I instantly knew that’s what the scene called for, even if that meant shrinking Valley View’s usually unrivaled landscape features. With my 12 – 24 oriented vertically, not only could I include all of Valley View’s primary static features (El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, Cathedral Rocks), I could also fit the towering pink cloud and its reflection, top to bottom. To avoid including any of the sticks and leaves at my feet, I dropped lower and moved most of my tripod into the shallow water.

This evening’s show was as brief as it was spectacular. If there’s one takeaway, it’s the reminder the most successful landscape images start with finding a combination of Nature’s static and dynamic elements—identifying a location you want to photograph (static), and figuring out when to be there for the best light, color, sky, or whatever (dynamic). But your job isn’t done until you’ve identified what’s working at that moment, and put it into a composition that does the moment justice.


Natural Confluences

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Near, Middle, Far

Gary Hart Photography: El Capitan and Floating Autumn Leaves, Yosemite

El Capitan and Floating Autumn Leaves, Yosemite
Sony α1
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
1/2 second
F/11
ISO 100

I’m in Yosemite for a workshop so my blogging time is significantly curtailed, but let’s see what happens…

Photography is the futile attempt to render a three dimensional world in a two dimensional medium. It’s “futile” because including actual depth in a photograph is literally impossible. But impossible doesn’t mean hopeless. One of the simplest things photographers can do to elevate their images is think about their scene in three dimensions, specifically how to create the illusion of depth by composing elements at multiple distances from the camera.

Many photographers miss opportunities by simply settling for the beautiful scene before them instead of looking for ways to make it even better. A more productive approach is to start with the beautiful aspect of the scene you want to emphasize (brilliant sunset, backlit flower, towering peak, vivid rainbow, plunging waterfall, whatever), then aggressively seek an object or objects nearer or farther to complement it. Of course that’s sometimes easier said than done, but this near/middle/far mindset should be present for every capture.

Thinking foreground and background is a great start, but merely having objects at varying distances isn’t always enough—you also need to be aware of how those objects guide your viewer’s eye through the frame. We hear a lot of photographers talk about using “leading lines” to move the eye, but a line doesn’t need to be a literal (visible) line to move the eye, because viewers will subconsciously connect objects to create virtual lines.

To help me achieve virtual lines that move the eye, I think in terms of “visual weight”: a quality of an object that tugs the eye like gravity, subconsciously pulling the viewer’s gaze in its direction. These qualities include, among other things: mass, shape, brightness, contrast, color, texture, and sometimes just position in the frame. A single one of these qualities can give an object visual weight, but combining then can be even more effective.

Additionally, an object’s emotional power can boost its visual weight. For example, a small moon can pull the eye more than a larger bright cloud, and Half Dome has more visual weight than a random rock occupying the same amount of frame real estate.

With my primary subject and complementary (eye moving) objects identified, I still need to consider the linear connection between these visual components. I like diagonal relationships because of the visual tension created by moving the eye along multiple planes. While creating these virtual diagonals requires careful positioning, it’s surprising how many photographers just remain planted with their tripod as if it has grown roots—either they don’t see the benefit of repositioning, or don’t think moving is worth the effort.

Whatever the reason, it’s important for photographers to understand the power of shifting position to control foreground and background relationships: move left and your foreground shifts right relative to the background; move right and the foreground shifts left relative to the background. Either way, the closer the foreground is relative to the background, the more dramatic the shift. And contrary to what you might believe, it’s impossible to change foreground/background perspective with focal length—to change perspective, you must change position: forward/backward, left/right, up/down.

An often overlooked shift that can be quite powerful is up/down. Often I’m able to un-merge objects at different distances by simply raising my tripod or climbing atop a nearby rock. Dropping low will emphasize the closest elements, and when my frame has a large and boring empty space (such as a field of weeds or dirt) between the foreground and background, I drop lower to shrink that gap.

It’s taken me a while to figure out the best way to convey these concepts to my photo workshop students. In most workshops, I find that many of the students haven’t picked up their cameras in weeks or months (or years!), so I’ve learned give them time to get back in their creative zone before laying all this stuff on them.

For example, in my Yosemite workshops I usually start with the classic shots that probably drew them to the park in the first place, places like Tunnel View and Valley View, where there are obvious compositions that lead to easy success. At the first image review I give a little talk on composition and moving the eye (among other things), then everyone shares images and I offer my feedback.

By the second day, armed with that foundation and a little Day 1 success, they’re usually ready to challenge their creativity and attack the less heralded spots whose beauty is more subtle. This growth is obvious as soon as the Day 2 image review. I’m frequently blown away by how quickly they’ve refined their inherent creative vision well enough to see beyond the obvious and find compositions that are both beautiful and unique.

One autumn favorite creative spot is the section of the Merced River from the Pohono Bridge upstream to Fern Spring, and even a little beyond. Fern Spring alone, with its stair-step cascades and a small reflecting pool that’s covered with color each fall, has enough to occupy a creative photographer for hours. And just across the road is a trail that skirts the river and traverses a forest filled with colorful maple and dogwood trees. The entire area is chock-full of creative opportunities that include whitewater, still water reflections, and of course (lots of) fall color.

In last month’s Fall Color and Reflections workshop, once I was satisfied that everyone was comfortable with their cameras and starting to trust their creative instincts, I took them to Fern Spring. Once there, I gave them the lay of the land and encouraged them to explore. Early in the workshop my groups tend to stick close to me, but this afternoon I was encouraged to see everyone instantly scatter. That’s always a good sign that they’re starting to get in the zone—even though it means I need to chase each one down to make sure they’re doing okay.

By the time I’d finished my rounds and confirmed that each person had things under control (and fearing that my presence might actually be a distraction), I was left with about 20 minutes to do a little shooting of my own. I quickly grabbed my camera and beelined upstream to a spot that I can’t take a group to because there’s no room for more than one person, no trail to get there, and it’s frighteningly easy to fall in the river. (I’ve had a couple of minor mishaps here that required changing shoes and socks, and maybe spending a couple of hours in pants wet to my calf, but was always grateful it wasn’t worse).

Rather than a standard fall color location, this is a fallen color spot that accumulates leaves that have drifted downstream from elsewhere to float among the rocks. Each year, the quality of the floating color varies from none to lots—not enough water and the leaves don’t make it into the rocks; too much water and the leaves just wash right by to locations downstream.

I was happy to confirm that this was indeed a good year for the floating color. Being in a hurry, I could have very easily snapped off a couple of frames from where I stood and called it good. But often the difference between an image that’s merely a decently executed rendering of a beautiful scene, and an image that stands out for the (often missed) aspects of the natural world it reveals, is the time it takes to identify and connect the scene’s visual relationships. So I took just a little more time to align the elements.

In this case that meant positioning myself so the foreground rocks and leaves aligned with the middle-ground rocks and reflection, which aligned with cloud-shrouded El Capitan in the background. Words cannot express how awkward this position was, requiring a grand total of 5 splayed legs—3 tripod and 2 human. But still it wasn’t quite right—until I dropped my tripod down to about a foot above the water to make the leaves more prominent.

After setting my exposure, I focused on the third small foreground rock, then dialed my polarizer to reduce the reflection on the leaves while retaining the upstream reflection. Click.

Near, Middle, Far

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Secure Your Borders

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Leaves on the Rocks, El Capitan Reflection, Valley View, Yosemite

Autumn Leaves on the Rocks, Valley View Reflection, Yosemite
Sony a7R IV
Sony 24-105 G
1/40 second
F/16
ISO 100

It’s easy to be overwhelmed at the first sight of a location you’ve longed to visit for years. And since by the time you make it there you’ve likely seen so many others’ images of the scene, it’s understandable that your perception of how the scene should be photographed might be fixed. But is that really the best way to photograph it?

Valley View in Yosemite is one of those hyper-familiar scenes. El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, and Cathedral Rocks pretty much slap you in the face the instant you land at Valley View, making it easy to miss all the other great stuff here. This month’s workshop group visited Valley View twice, with each visit in completely different conditions, which got me thinking about about the number of ways there are to photograph most scenes, and how it’s easy to miss opportunities if you simply concentrate on the obvious. Most scenes, familiar or not, require scrutiny to determine where the best images are—on every visit.

Gary Hart Photography: Sunrise Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Sunrise Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

On our first visit, Bridalveil Fall was just a trickle lost in deep shadow, so I focused my attention on El Capitan, opting for a vertical frame to emphasize El Cap, the beautiful clouds overhead, and the reflection. When we returned a couple of days later, Bridalveil had been recharged by a recent rain, the soft light was more even throughout the scene, and patches of fallen leaves and pine needles now floated atop the reflection. All this called for a completely different approach.

On this return visit, since I thought there was (just barely) enough water in Bridalveil to justify its inclusion, I went with a horizontal composition. It would have been easy to frame up El Capitan, Bridalveil, and Cathedral Rocks, throw in a little reflection and call it good. But (as my workshop students will confirm) I obsess about clean borders because I think they’re the easiest place for distractions to hide.

So before every click, I do a little “border patrol,” a simple reminder to deal with small distractions on my frame’s perimeter that can have a disproportionately large impact on the entire image. (I’d love to say that I coined the term in this context, but I think I got it from fellow photographer and friend Brenda Tharp—not sure where Brenda picked it up.)

To understand the importance of securing your borders, it’s important to understand that our goal as photographers is to create an image that not only invites viewers to enter, but also persuades them to stay. And the surest way to keep viewers in your image is to help them forget the world outside the frame. Lots of factors go into crafting an inviting, persuasive image—things like compositional balance, visual motion, and relationships are all essential (and topics for another day), but nothing reminds a viewer of the world outside the frame more than an object jutting in or cut off at the edge.

When an object juts in on the edge of a frame, it often feels like part of a different scene is photobombing the image. Likewise, when an object is cut off on the edge of the frame, it can feel like part of the scene is missing. Either way, it’s a subconscious and often jarring reminder of the world beyond the frame. Not only does this “rule” apply to obvious terrestrial objects like rocks and branches, it applies equally to clouds.

And there are other potential problems on the edge of an image. Simply having something with lots of visual weight—an object with enough bulk, brightness, contrast, or anything else that pulls the eye—on the edge of the frame can throw off the balance and compete with the primary subject for the viewer’s attention.

Of course it’s often (usually?) impossible to avoid cutting something off on the edge of the frame, so the next best thing is to cut it boldly rather than to simply trim it. I find that when I do this, it feels intentional and less like a mistake that I simply missed. And often, these strongly cut border objects serve as framing elements that hold the eye in the frame.

To avoid these distractions, I remind myself of “border patrol” and slowly run my eyes around the perimeter of the frame. Sometimes border patrol is easy—a simple scene with just a small handful of objects to organize, all conveniently grouped toward the center, usually requires minimal border management. But more often than not we’re dealing with complex scenes containing multiple objects scattered throughout and beyond the frame. Even when you can’t avoid cutting things off, border patrol makes those choices conscious instead of random, which is almost aways better.

As nice as the Valley View reflection was on this visit, it was sharing space with a disorganized mess of rocks, driftwood, and leaves. Organizing it all into something coherent was impossible, but I at least wanted to have prominent color in my foreground and take care  to avoid objects on the edge of my frame that would pull viewers’ eyes away from the scene.

Unfortunately, as I used to tell my kids all the time (they’re grown and no longer listen to me), you can’t always have what you want. In this case, including the best foreground color also meant including an unsightly jumble of wood, rock, and pine needles in the lower right corner. But after trying a lot of different things, I decided this was the best solution—especially since I managed to find a position and focal length that gave me completely clean borders everywhere else in my frame.

I very consciously included enough of the mass in the lower right that it became something of a boundary for that corner of the image (not great, but the best solution possible). I also was very careful to keep an eye on the ever-changing clouds. The light on El Capitan that broke through just as I had my composition worked out felt like a small gift.

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Valley View Variety

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Pandemic Lessons

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Reflection, Three Brothers, Yosemite

Autumn Reflection, Three Brothers, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/13 second
F/11
ISO 100

It feels trite to wait until Thanksgiving week to detail blessings I feel year-round, but there’s nothing like a global pandemic and all its disruptions to refocus priorities. Pre-Covid Thanksgivings were an opportunity to remind myself to appreciate my life by concentrating on the big stuff like good health, a loving family, and a career that lets me travel and (almost) never feels like work. Since Covid, I’m simply grateful for the resumption of family gatherings (large and small), unrestricted travel, and (not insignificantly) the return of the bottom half of everyone’s face—things I swear I’ll never again take for granted.

Another thing I’ve grown to appreciate about my current life, also underscored by the pandemic, is the autonomy of self-employment. While losing workshops was incredibly stressful, once I convinced myself that the lost workshops were simply postponed and not cancelled, I was able to use the downtime productively—without flapping in the ever-changing breeze of government and employer workplace rules.

I do have to admit that sometimes the idea of a 9-to-5 job with weekends and paid vacations sounds mighty good (I’m speaking in very general terms and don’t mean to offend anyone pinned to a cubicle 10 hours per day just to pay the bills—I’ve been there), but the bottom line is that I do love the flexibility of having complete control of my schedule.

When I left the 9-to-5 world to pursue this crazy passion more than 15 years ago, the vanished safety net was a great motivator—I was only as successful as the next art show (which I no longer do) or photo workshop. Weekends? Holidays? Irrelevant. Back then, the closest I got to a vacation was when my wife and I traveled to scout for a new workshop. And alarm clocks? They’re for workshop sunrises only.

But as the years go by (is it me, or is time moving faster?), I’ve come to truly value my freedom—in no small part because I’ve learned how to manage it. Today I can look at my calendar and, if nothing’s there, do whatever I want. And while that might mean cramming the things that must be done into times when others might be in their recliner watching HBO, or sunbathing at the beach, it’s 100 percent my choice and I love it.

The pandemic restrictions also helped me realize that I may have even started to take for granted my home that’s close enough to Yosemite that I can drive there and back in a day. To prevent this in the past, each time I enter the park I’ve always tried to imagine I’m viewing it for the first time, but since the pandemic I’ve been doing this with renewed focus and appreciation and it feels good.

An under-the-radar revelation when my workshops resumed was how much I missed the people. I knew I missed my workshop students, but it surprised me how much I enjoyed their return. This month’s Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections group, a wonderful blend of humor and enthusiasm that made my job easy, did nothing to dispel my enthusiasm.

Since there was a little bit of weather during most of the workshop (nice clouds, a little rain and snow), I deviated from my typical schedule, one day delaying my normal midday break when the conditions were too good to stop, and throughout the workshop adjusting my visits to other locations to account for the special conditions.

The fall color and reflections were in fact spectacular as advertised, but with the waterfalls pretty much their normal autumn dry (Bridalveil Fall was a trickle, Yosemite Falls was just a wet stain with no visible water flowing), we turned to Yosemite’s monoliths for background and reflection subjects.

Perhaps Yosemite’s most underrated granite feature is the Three Brothers. While technically not a monolith (a triolith?), the Three Brothers—Lower Brother, Middle Brother, and… (go ahead, guess)…, wrong(!), it’s Eagle Peak—is to my eye one of Yosemite’s most striking features. Nevertheless, despite its towering presence above the heart of Yosemite Valley, many Yosemite visitors never see the Three Brothers. That’s because when viewed from the east, Three Brothers looks an ordinary granite wall that just kind of blends into the scenery, and from most west-side vantage points, it’s blocked by El Capitan. And nowhere in the valley is Three Brothers clearly visible without a small effort (you can’t just pull into a vista and hop out of the car to view it.)

So it’s always fun to walk my groups out to this spot on the Merced River for their first look at Three Brothers. Even here, with the view dominated by El Capitan, I sometimes need to point upstream to the Three Brothers and let them know this will be their only opportunity to photograph it.

On this chilly morning earlier this month we started at the spot with the best El Capitan view (least obstructed by trees) and a decent Three Brothers view. I told the group that about 100 yards downstream they’d get a better Three Brothers view and reflection, as well as a decent (partially tree-obstructed) El Capitan view. I gave them plenty of time for both spots and encouraged them to take advantage of it.

On the morning of our visit, golden cottonwoods colored the reflection that stretched from riverbank to riverbank and was fringed by a sprinkling of leaves. The sky was mostly cloudy, but every once in a while a shaft of sunlight would break through and spotlight part of El Capitan or the Three Brothers for a few seconds. Even though I come here a lot, I found these conditions were too nice to resist taking a few clicks of my own.

I was looking for leaves to put in my foreground when I found this view at the downstream vantage point. Getting out here required some serious mud sloshing (thank you waterproof boots!), but thanks to an encroaching shoreline and photobombing patch of grass, still struggled to get the entire reflection. I finally decided that by elevating my tripod to the max and planting it as far into the river as my arms could reach, I could separate Lower Brother’s reflection from the shoreline and get 2/3 of the brothers—the best I could do. My polarizer I oriented to remove the reflection from the leaves, but was still able to spare enough of the Three Brothers and trees reflection to recover it in Photoshop.

Have a great Thanksgiving! (I realize this is an America-only holiday, but I strongly encourage everyone, holiday or not, to pause from time to time to appreciate their good fortune, whatever it might be.)

Epilogue

I’m also thankful for heated seats and noise cancelling headphones.


Yosemite’s Monoliths

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Variations on a Scene

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Leaves and Reflection, Half Dome, Yosemite

Autumn Leaves and Reflection, Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony α1
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
1.3 seconds
F/11
ISO 100

One million words

January 2023 will mark the start of my (more or less weekly) Eloquent Nature blog’s 13th year. Not counting the 30 or so sporadically created Photo Tips articles, today’s post will be number 710. Doing the math, that actually turns out to be more than 1 blog post per week; at 1500 words per post (a conservative estimate), I’ve written more than 1 million words. Yikes.

According to WordPress, I have nearly 40,000 followers, but so far have resisted the urge to monetize my creation. I have nothing against money (I in fact kind of like it), but haven’t yet found a way to generate dollars from my blogging effort without detracting from the page or cheapening the visitors’ experience. (So, you’re welcome.)

But my motives aren’t entirely altruistic. Writing about creativity and inspiration each week encourages introspection that has given me a clearer understanding of myself and the creative process. And my (obsessive) desire to understand my subjects has cause me to research and ponder countless topics that might otherwise have been off my radar.

My drive to write just seemed to happen organically. I remember in first or second grade, each Monday we’d be assigned a list of spelling words (am I dating myself, or do they still do that?) to learn for the spelling test that always came on Friday. To help us learn that week’s words, the week’s homework assignment was to a create “spelling sentences,” one for each word. Instead of spelling sentences, I would write spelling stories that used every one of a the week’s words—I can’t explain why, except that I thought it was fun.

And ever since, whether it was in school or at work, I somehow became the designated writer—not necessarily because I was better at it, more because I was the most willing to do it. From there it wasn’t much of a leap for that willingness to write to become part of my job description. Eventually I became a tech writer for a large Silicon Valley tech company.

I’ve somehow managed to avoid the trap that befalls many creatives, where merely attempting to monetize their passion robs them of its joy. And I feel extremely lucky to have two creative pursuits, photography and writing, that give me great pleasure and synergistically combine to support me financially.

I’m thinking about this because I’ve decided to (slightly) change my blogging schedule, and I’ve found that a surprising number of people seem to notice when my weekly post is late, even by just a day. (Nothing abusive, more like occasional mild disappointment.) Of course it very much pleases (and surprises) me to hear that people actually look forward to my posts and actually read them.

So what’s this big change? For years my personal commitment was to post a new blog each Sunday. I’ve actually become pretty good at meeting this goal, but as my wife recently pointed out, this commitment pretty much blows up our weekend. Since we both work from home, on schedules entirely of our own making, weekends are really just a state of mind for both of us (there’s a reason we’ve each set our watches to display the day of the week)—I never considered our lost weekends a big deal. But I do have to admit that it would be nice to be a little more in sync with the rest of the world’s weekend state of mind, and have therefore made the radical decision to move my weekly blog day to, wait for it… Monday. Whoa.

(Only a writer would come up with 500 words explaining something that could have been said in 10 words: Effective this week, new blog posts will appear on Mondays.)

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Leaves and Reflection, Half Dome, Yosemite

Autumn Leaves and Reflection, Half Dome, Yosemite

So anyway

If you’re still with me (thank you), you’ve probably already forgotten about the image at the top of this post. It’s another product of last week’s incredibly rewarding Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections photo workshop. Rewarding because it was a great group that very much deserved the wonderful photography we enjoyed: nice clouds throughout, a couple of clearing storms, a colorful sunrise (not as common in Yosemite as you’d think), (only) one morning of bright sunlight that came just as we were in the perfect spot for it (Cook’s Meadow elm tree, if you must know), and even a little snow.

And what’s a “fall color and reflections” workshop without actual fall color and reflections? This year’s Merced River was its usual low and slow reflective self, and the fall color was just starting to peak. So yeah, a pretty good week.

The workshop’s final shoot was at one of my favorite Yosemite Valley Half Dome views, just upriver from Sentinel Bridge. I photograph here a lot. A. Lot. So much that I rarely get out my camera when I’m with a group. But I made an exception this time because I liked the clouds hovering around Half Dome, the light was just so darn nice, and I found a foreground I could work with.

Finding unique images at frequently photographed locations is usually some combination of special conditions and/or a new foreground. The conditions this evening, while not spectacular, were definitely good, and I was able to combine that with a static pool in the Merced that had accumulated a colorful assortment of leaves and pine needles. Dropping my tripod/camera to about 2 feet above the ground, I eliminated a large empty gap between the leaves and Half Dome’s reflection to make my foreground about nothing but the best stuff.

Because the group was my priority, after finding my composition, I just left the tripod/camera in place while I worked with them, returning every 5 or 10 minutes to fire off a handful of frames. The clouds around Half Dome were changing rapidly, so even though my composition didn’t change (at all), each session gave me something a little different.

The only other thing that changed with each click was my polarizer orientation. This was one of those catch-22 conundrums where dialing up the reflection with my polarizer also dialed up the reflective (color robbing) sheen on the floating leaves, and brightened the water on which the leaves floated (reducing the contrast between the leaves and their background). Dialing the reflection down to maximize the color of the leaves and blacken the water also nearly erased the Half Dome and clouds reflection.

So with each visit to my camera, I fired at least one frame with the reflection maximized, another with it minimized, and a couple somewhere in between. I found that I could in fact hit a midway point with the polarizer that spared most of the reflection beyond the leaves (Half Dome and the clouds), and reduced most of the reflection on and around the leaves.

I won’t pretend that I’ve created a brand new take on this frequently photographed view, but I am pretty pleased to have found a new variation on one of my favorite scenes.

See you next Monday…


Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections

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No Secrets

Gary Hart Photography: Sunrise Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Sunrise Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
.6 seconds
F/11
ISO 50

It amuses (and frustrates) me when photographers guard their information like state secrets. Photography isn’t a competition, and I’ve always felt that the more photographers can foster a sense of community, the more everyone benefits. (I will, however, protect locations at risk of being damaged by too much attention.) With that in mind, I’m sharing below some of the photography insights I’ve learned from a lifetime of Yosemite visits, and encourage you to share your own insights, wherever and whatever they may be, when the opportunity arises.

Yosemite FAQs

I get asked all the time, what’s the best season to be in Yosemite? For many reasons, including the fact that everyone defines “best” differently, that’s an impossible question to answer. So instead I try to identify the pros and cons of each season in Yosemite and let the questioners decide for themselves what sounds best to them.

  • Winter: Because the crowds have vacated, Yosemite is at its most peaceful in winter. And it’s never more beautiful than when  smothered with fresh snow, but in the relatively warm temperatures of Yosemite Valley, snowstorms only happen a few times each winter so I try to time my visits so I can be there during a storm.
  • Spring: With its booming waterfalls, vivid greens, mirror-like vernal pools, and ubiquitous dogwood blooms (okay, so technically they’re bracts), spring is classic postcard Yosemite. Spring is also when the crowds return.
  • Summer: For tourists only—but if you find yourself in Yosemite on a crowded (understatement) summer day, rising at the first sign of pre-sunrise light will give you at least a couple of hours of glorious peace.
  • Autumn: By autumn the crowds have left, and while Yosemite’s waterfalls have fallen silent, the low and slow water turns the Merced River into a reflecting ribbon that splits Yosemite Valley. The resulting mirror reflections of granite monoliths mingling with the season’s red and gold are one of my favorite things to photograph in Yosemite.

Another question I get asked a lot is some version of, “Where in Yosemite should I photograph sunrise/sunset.” Again there’s no absolute answer, so I just try to provide enough information for the questioners to make their own decisions.

  • Sunrise: Yosemite is not an inherently good sunrise location. In fact, on a typical California clear sky morning, it’s pretty lousy. That’s because most of Yosemite Valley’s best views face east, toward shaded subjects against the brightest part of the sky. Clouds flip the equation, subduing the bright sky and (fingers crossed) filling it with color. But even the cloudless days aren’t an excuse to stay in bed. On these days try to be in position for the first light on El Capitan, about 15/20 minutes after the “official” (flat horizon) sunrise. And in winter Yosemite Falls also gets beautiful morning light.
  • Sunset: Even without clouds, Half Dome gets nice sunset light year-round. In the long-night months (from the autumnal equinox to the vernal equinox) so does El Capitan. In the long-day months (from the vernal equinox to the autumnal equinox), the late light goes to Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Fall.

Send in the clouds

Regardless of the season, clouds change everything, especially when storm clouds that swirl about Yosemite’s monoliths. Even high or thin clouds can be difference makers that paint the usually boring sky with color and (if you’re lucky) reflect in foreground water.

Unfortunately, storm clouds often drop all the way to the valley floor, obscuring all the features you traveled to photograph. Rather than giving up, my approach to stormy weather in Yosemite is to wait it out. A clearing storm is the Holy Grail of Yosemite photography, an experience that never gets old, no matter how many times it’s witnessed. And when I say wait it out, I don’t mean just returning to your room and looking outside every once in a while, I mean circling the valley in your car, or parking somewhere with an eye on the sky. Tunnel View is a great spot for this.

My other tip for photographing a clearing storm in Yosemite is not staying in one place too long. If you wait until it’s not beautiful anymore before moving on, you won’t leave until the show’s over everywhere—instead, remind yourself that it’s just as beautiful everywhere else, and move on when you find yourself repeating compositions.

Reflecting on reflections

Regardless of the location or conditions, a reflection can turn an ordinary pretty picture into something special. That’s especially true in Yosemite. Yosemite’s reflection spots change with the season: in spring, they’re best in the vernal pools that form in the meadows, and a small handful of Merced River spots, where it widens (like Swinging Bridge) or pools near the river’s edge; in autumn (and late summer), pretty much the entire Merced River is a mirror. Winter Merced River reflections can be nice too, depending on the weather and amount of runoff.

A lifetime of Yosemite visits helps me pursue its reflections. But even if you don’t know the spots for Yosemite reflections, they’re not hard to find if you keep your eyes open.

The most frequent reflection mistake I see is photographers walking past a reflection because it doesn’t contain an interesting subject. Maximizing reflection opportunities starts with understanding that, just like a billiard ball striking a cushion, a reflection always bounces off the reflective surface at exactly the same angle at which it arrived.

Armed with this knowledge, when I encounter any reflective surface, I scan the area for a reflection-worthy subject and position myself to intercept my target subject’s reflected rays, moving left/right, forward/backward, up/down until my reflection appears. Another important aspect of reflection management is juxtaposing the reflection with submerged or exposed objects in the water.

Putting it all together

These cloud and reflection factors aligned for me in last week’s Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections workshop. Based on the weather forecast when we wrapped up the previous night, I gathered the group early enough for our sunrise departure to swing into Tunnel View for quick survey of Yosemite Valley. If there had been no clouds, clearing storm clouds, or zero-visibility clouds, we’d have stayed there. But when I saw a nice mix of high to mid-clouds, I went with Plan-B and beelined to Valley View.

We arrived more than 30 minutes before sunrise and I was pleased to see only one other car in the parking lot. I’d already brought my group here once, so everyone already had an idea of what they wanted to do—a few went just upstream from the cars to the nice reflection of Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Fall; the rest made their way out to the new-ish (last couple of years) and quite conveniently placed logjam that provides a perspective of El Capitan that previously would have required walking on water to achieve.

I left my gear in the car, moving back and forth between the two cohorts and and monitoring the sky. I’ve photographed here so much, I had no plan to this morning, but when the clouds overhead started to pink up, I couldn’t resist. Rather than grabbing my entire camera bag, I just pulled out my tripod and Sony a7R IV with the Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens already attached and trotted down to the natural platform formed by the log jam.

I knew I didn’t have much time, so I quickly found a spot where, by dropping my tripod a little, I could frame El Capitan’s reflection with several of the many protruding rocks. Since Bridalveil Fall wasn’t flowing very strongly, and the light on El Capitan was better, I went with a vertical composition that featured El Capitan only.

The pink was so intense that for a minute or so, it slightly colored the rocks. Before the color faded, I managed to capture several frames with this composition, each with a slightly different polarizer orientation, but I ended up choosing the one that maximized the reflection.

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Yosemite Autumn Reflections

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Natural Light Painting

Gary Hart Photography: Mono Moonlight, South Tufa, Mono Lake

Mono Moonlight, South Tufa, Mono Lake
Sony 𝛂1
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
20 seconds
F/8
ISO 3200

Once upon a time, moonlight was the only kind of night photography I did. As lifelong astronomy enthusiast, I’ve always been mesmerized by all the stars that come out when the moon is down, but film and the earliest digital cameras were just not capable of adequately capturing the world after dark without help from multiple exposures or artificial light (dealbreakers for me).

While waiting for digital technology to catch up with my Milky Way aspirations, I watched other photographers achieve beautiful results using night photography techniques that didn’t appeal to me: Light painting (long exposures with foreground subjects illuminated by artificial light), and blue-hour blends (one image captured with the foreground illuminated by twilight “blue hour” sky, blended with a second image of the stars from later total darkness at the same location).

Longing for something different than moonlight, while staying true to my one-click natural light objective, I added star trails to my night sky toolbox. Start trails allowed me to keep my shutter open long enough to reveal the landscape beneath a moonless, star-fill sky—albeit with star streaks that bore no resemblance to the pinpoint stars I was so fond of gazing at. Another perk star trail photography was the opportunity to kick back beneath a star-filled ceiling while waiting for my exposure to complete.

When digital sensors finally improved enough to enable usable starlight (moonless) images, I was all-in. Armed with my newly acquired Sony a7S  camera (and subsequent versions) and super-fast and wide prime lenses, I aggressively pursued images of the Milky Way’s brilliant core above my favorite landscapes.

So thrilling was this Milky Way revelation, I all but dropped moonlight photography. In fact, moonlight and Milky Way photography are mutually exclusive because when the moon is full, the Milky Way is lost in the moon’s glow. So by 2015, the only moonlight photography I was doing came during my annual spring moonbow workshops in Yosemite, where bright moonlight is required for the lunar rainbow’s appearance.

As much as possible I time my trips, both personal and workshops, for moonless nights to maximize the Milky Way photography opportunities. One exception is my annual autumn visit to the Eastern Sierra, which is always timed for early October to coincide with the best fall color while letting the moon phase fall where it may.

 

When the moon cooperates, the dark skies east of the Sierra are ideal for Milky Way photography

This year’s Eastern Sierra visit was joined by a waxing gibbous moon that was well on its way to full (the day after my scheduled return home). Yet despite the nearly full moon, I longed for a night shoot. So on my first night in Lee Vining I decided to revisit (non-moonbow) moonlight photography for the first time in seven years and drove out to Mono Lake’s South Tufa after dinner. (Shout-out to the Whoa Nellie Deli.)

With my very first click, memories of how enjoyable moonlight photography is came rushing back: Composition and (especially) focus are orders of magnitude easier than with Milky Way photography; there’s no worry about getting lost or tripping over something (or someone); and even with the sky washed out by moonlight, the camera captures many times more stars than my eyes see. None of these insights were actually new, but they still felt like revelations because I’d been doing nothing but dark sky photography for so long.

This might be a good time to mention that for anyone interested getting into night photography, I strongly encourage starting with moonlight. Unlike Milky Way photography, you don’t need fancy gear—just a decent tripod, any mirrorless or DSLR body, full frame or cropped, made in the last 20 years (pretty much since the first digital cameras) will work, and an f/4 lens is plenty fast enough. Read my Photo Tips article on moonlight photography for more detailed instruction on moonlight photography.

One thing that made this Mono Lake night especially nice was the disappearance of the light breeze that had chopped up the reflection at sunset a couple of hours earlier. The lake wasn’t quite mirror-like, but the surface had settled to gentle undulations that smoothed completely in my multi-second exposures, revealing a gauzy reflection that stood out beautifully in each image. And the 82% moon, while not quite full, was more than bright enough to illuminate the water and limestone tufa towers better than any light painting could have.

I started with images of just water and Mono Lake’s iconic “shipwreck” tufa feature beneath the stars, but soon went exploring for a more interesting foreground. When I found the scene in this image, I oriented my Sony 𝛂1 vertically to maximize the sky, and widened my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens to 16mm to include more foreground than I usually do in a night image.

In almost all of my night images I simply focus on the stars, but this foreground started about 5 feet away and had so much interesting (important) detail, I stopped down to f/8 and focused about 6 feet from my camera to ensure front-to-back sharpness. Using my 𝛂1’s Bright Monitoring feature (I highly recommend to Sony mirrorless shooters who do night photography that they assign it to a custom button), I was able to manually focus through my viewfinder.

To compensate for the light lost to the smaller aperture and less than completely full moon, I bumped my ISO to 3200 and exposed for 20 seconds—less than ideal, but the 𝛂1 handles ISO 3200 easily, and at 16mm there’s not much visible star movement in a 20 second exposure, so I wasn’t worried.

I was only out here for about an hour, but it was such a joyful experience, and I’m so pleased with my results, that I know there’s a lot more moonlight photography in my future.


More Moonlight

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Paradise Found (Again)

Gary Hart Photography: Lily Reflection, Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Hawaii

Lily Reflection, Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Hawaii
Sony a7RIV
Sony 100-400 GM
ISO 400
f/5.6
1/15 second

On Friday morning I said goodbye to Hawaii until next year. Leaving Hawaii, I always make sure to reserve a seat on the left side of the plane so I can plaster my eyes to the glass on takeoff for a farewell look as we parallel the shoreline. There’s Onomea Bay and the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Akaka Fall, Umauma Falls, Laupahoehoe Point….

It’s pretty cool, the special connection I feel to these places I only visit once a year. In Hilo, every time I pull my rental car out of the airport and point it toward the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel that will be my home for the next week, it feels like I’m coming home to a place I left just yesterday.

From the Milky Way, to magma, to macro, the Big Island may have the widest variety of quality photography of any place I visit. Throw in rugged black sand beaches, exploding surf, frequent rainbows, and temperatures warm enough to photograph sunrise in flip-flops and shorts, and it’s easy to fantasize about selling my house and moving here fulltime.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of this year’s images. In fact, I was so busy with the workshop that I didn’t even have time to load them onto my computer until my flight home. But I didn’t need to check my captures to know that this year’s trip was pretty special. On my group’s first shoot, we enjoyed a rainbow segment (not a full arc) beautifully positioned above our beach scene, then got another partial rainbow at the next morning’s sunrise shoot. By the time the workshop ended, we’d hit all the other Hawaii highlights I cross my fingers for: Kilauea’s eruption (for the first time since 2017), the Milky Way, rainbows, and perfect light for creative focus photography at each of our rainforest stops.

It’s hard to know where to begin, but since it’s the only image I’ve processed so far, I’ve chosen this little scene from the incomparable Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. This year I used every lens in my bag there, but with soft, overcast light (that turned to a warm downpour just as we were leaving), I spent most of my time photographing flowers and leaves with my Sony 100-400.

One of the points I try to impress on my workshop students is that, whether near or far, a landscape image isn’t just a click, it’s an iterative process that starts with an idea—a plan for the best way to organize and emphasize the scene’s significant elements, then improves with each subsequent click. The first click is like a writer’s rough draft, and subsequent clicks are revisions on the way to perfection. After each click, the photographer should stand back and evaluate the image on the LCD (I love the large, bright viewfinders and LCDs on today’s mirrorless cameras), refine (exposure, composition, depth of field, focus point), then click again. Repeat as necessary.

This approach is particularly valuable in macro and close-focus images of intimate scenes where even the slightest adjustment to composition, depth of field, and focus point can dramatically alter the result. It’s a prime reason I’m such a strong tripod advocate (evangelist)—when I’m done  evaluating, the shot I just evaluated is sitting right there on my tripod, waiting for me to apply whatever adjustments I deem necessary.

Whether it’s fall color or colorful flowers, I try to find a subject to isolate from the rest of the scene. This afternoon at the botanical garden I was drawn to floating lilies and their reflection, and ended up working this one little scene for at least 30 minutes.

Starting with my Sony 100-400 GM lens on my Sony a7RIV, I added a 25mm extension tube so I could focus closer. A neutral polarizer reduced the floating leaves’ waxy sheen, which helped emphasize their deep green. Of course this also reduced the flowers’ reflection, but I found that they were bright enough to still stand out against the darkened water. Exposure was pretty straightforward in the shadowless light. Though the air was fairly still, I used ISO 400 to ensure a shutter speed fast enough to control for slight undulations on the pond’s surface.

At 250mm and f/5.6 (wide open for the 100-400 GM), I shot through foliage lining the shore between me and the flowers. The extremely narrow depth of field allowed me to use this nearby foliage to frame my subjects with soft shades of green. After two or three click/evaluate/refine cycles, I had the framework of my composition in place.

Following a few minutes of shooting that saw me try a variety of f-stops, horizontal/vertical framing variations, and a range of polarizer orientations (minimum to maximum reflection, as well as points in between), I shifted about four feet to my right, to a spot that I thought provided even better foliage framing.

I played with this new composition even longer, running all the variations I’d tried at the previous spot, and adding some focal length changes as well. One thing that became especially obvious the longer I worked the scene was how much the polarizer helped me achieve the effect I was going for. Eliminating the reflection darkened the water to the point that the lilies appear to be floating on air. When I dialed up the reflection with my polarizer to brighten the flower reflection, I lost the contrast between the water and reflection, which made the flowers less prominent—the exact opposite of my objective.

With all my composition variations, I ended up with enough choices that I’ll probably find one or two more versions to process, but this version of the simple composition that first drew me seemed like a good place to start. And while I know these intimate images don’t generate the attention that the more in-your-face images do, photographing and viewing them makes me really happy, and that’s all that matters.

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A Creative Selective Focus Gallery

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