Finding Focus in the Grand Canyon

Gary Hart Photography: Sky Reflection, Blacktail Canyon, Grand Canyon

Sky Reflection, Blacktail Canyon, Grand Canyon

I returned Friday from my annual Grand Canyon Raft Trip for Photographers and am playing catch-up on all aspects of my photography life. I’ve barely looked at the my raft trip images, but chose this one for a couple of reasons: first, because I think it perfectly conveys the intimate serenity that always catches me by surprise in this landscape known mostly for it’s broad vistas; and second, because it’s the only image I’ve processed so far.

This is Blacktail Canyon, one of hundreds (thousands?) of narrow slot canyons cutting into the Grand Canyon’s towering walls. Most of them we just float past, sometimes because of the physical challenges required to explore their depths, but usually because there just isn’t time to stop at every slot canyon. On my trips we pick our slots for their photo opportunities, and this year Blacktail Canyon was a particular highlight.

With tall, tightly spaced walls, Blacktail Canyon spends most of its daylight hours in full shade, ideal for photography on sunny days. It doesn’t always have water, but this year’s wet winter meant water in lots of places that don’t always get it. We found the little creek that splits the canyon carrying just enough water to create a series of reflective pools before disappearing into the stream bed, only to reappear farther downstream.

What first drew my eye to this scene was a tiny sapling sprouting from an overhanging ledge, but I soon realized that the tree would best serve me as a visuall element to hold the top of my frame rather than the primary subject. The most interesting thing, I decided, was the blue sky reflection like a jewel embedded in the creek bed.

To create this composition, I dropped my tripod to about a foot above the canyon floor and positioned myself so the lines connecting my primary focal points (the sky reflection, the pair of boulders, and the green tree) created a triangle. Fitting all this into the frame required a vertical orientation of my Sony a7RIII, using virtually the entire width of my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 G lens. Even at this wide focal length, the smooth pebbles at my feet were only about a foot away; getting both the nearby pebbles and glowing (from bounced sunlight) sandstone above the tree sharp, meant choosing my exposure settings and focus point very carefully. My hyperfocal app told me that at f/16, by focusing two feet away, I could achieve my sharpness goal. Watching the rapidly changing sky, I timed my click for the best blend of clouds and sky filling the reflection.


To better understand focus technique, below is an updated version of my Depth of Field article from my Photo Tips section


Finding Focus

What’s the point?

It seems like one of photography’s great mysteries is achieving proper focus: the camera settings, where to place the focus point, even the definition of sharpness are all sources of confusion. If you’re a tourist just grabbing snapshots, everything in your frame is likely at infinity and you can just put your camera in full auto mode and click away. But if you’re a photographic artist trying to capture something unique with your mirrorless or DSLR camera and doing your best to have important visual elements objects at different distances throughout your frame, you need to stop letting your camera decide your focus point and exposure settings.

Of course the first creative focus decision is whether you even want the entire frame sharp. While some of my favorite images use selective focus to emphasize one element and blur the rest of the scene, most (but not all) of what I’ll say here is about using hyperfocal techniques to maximize depth of field (DOF). I cover creative selective focus in much greater detail in another Photo Tip article: Creative Selective Focus.

Beware the “expert”

I’m afraid that there’s some bad, albeit well-intended, advice out there that yields just enough success to deceive people into thinking they’ve got focus nailed, a misperception that often doesn’t manifest until an important shot is lost. I’m referring to the myth that you should focus 1/3 of the way into the scene, or 1/3 of the way into the frame (two very different things, each with its own set of problems).

For beginners, or photographers whose scene doesn’t include subjects from near to far, the 1/3 technique may be a useful rule of thumb. But taking the 1/3 approach to focus requires that you understand DOF and the art of focusing well enough to know when 1/3 won’t work, and how to adjust your focus point and settings. And once you achieve that level of understanding, you may as well do it the right way from the start. Focus control becomes especially important in those scenes where missing the focus point by just a few feet or even inches can make or break and image.

Where to focus this? Of course 1/3 of the way into a scene that stretches for miles won’t work. And 1/3 of the way into a frame with a diagonal foreground won’t work either.

Back to the basics

Understanding a few basic focus truths will help you make focus decisions:

  • A lens’s aperture is the opening that allows light to reach your sensor—the bigger this opening, the more light gets in, but also the smaller your DOF.
  • Aperture is measured in f-stops, which is the lens’s focal length divided by the aperture’s diameter; the higher the f-number, the smaller the aperture and the greater the DOF. So f/8 is actually a bigger aperture (with less DOF) than f/11. This understanding becomes second nature, but if you’re just learning it’s helpful to think of f/stops this way: The higher the f-number, the greater the depth of field. Though they’re not exactly the same thing, photographers usually use f-stop and aperture interchangeably.
  • Regardless of its current f-stop setting, a DSLR camera maximizes the light in its viewfinder by always showing you the scene at the lens’s widest aperture. All this extra light makes it easier to compose and focus, but unless your exposure is set for the widest aperture (which it shouldn’t be unless you have a very specific reason to limit your depth of field or maximize light), the image you capture will have more DOF than you see in the viewfinder. The consequence is that you usually can’t see how much of your scene is in focus when you compose. Most cameras have a DOF preview button that temporarily closes the lens down to the f-stop you have set—this shows the scene at its actual DOF, but also darkens the viewfinder considerably (depending on how small your aperture is), making it far more difficult to see the scene.
  • For any focus point, there’s only one (infinitely thin) plane of perfect sharpness, regardless of the focal length and f-stop—everything in front of and behind the plane containing your focus point (and parallel to the sensor) will be some degree of less than maximum sharpness. As long as the zone of less than perfect sharpness isn’t perceptible, it’s considered “acceptably sharp.” When that zone becomes visible, that portion of the image is officially “soft.” Acceptable sharpness varies with the display size and viewing distance.
  • The zone of acceptable sharpness extends a greater distance beyond the focus point than it does in front of the focus point. If you focus on that rock ten feet in front of you, rocks three feet in front of you may be out of focus, but a tree fifty feet away could be sharp. I’ll explain more about this later.
  • While shorter focal lengths may appear to provide more depth of field, believe it or not, DOF doesn’t actually change with focal length. What does change is the size of everything in the image, so as your focal length increases, your apparent DOF decreases. So you really aren’t gaining more absolute DOF with a shorter focal length, the softness just won’t be as visible. When photographers talk about DOF, they’re virtually always talking about apparent DOF—the way the image looks. (That’s the DOF definition I use here too.)
  • The closer your focus point, the narrower your DOF (range of front-to-back sharpness). If you focus your 24mm lens on a butterfly sunning on a poppy six inches from your lens, your DOF is so narrow that it’s possible parts of the poppy will be out of focus; if you focus the same lens on a tree 100 feet away, the mountains behind the tree are sharp too.
Whitney Arch Moonset, Alabama Hills, California

Moonset, Mt. Whitney and Whitney Arch, Alabama Hills, California
With subjects throughout my frame, from close foreground to distant background, it’s impossible to get everything perfectly sharp. Here in the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California, I stopped down to f/16 and focused at the at the most distant part of the arch. This ensured that all of the arch would be perfectly sharp, while keeping Mt. Whitney and the rest of the background “sharp enough.”

Defining sharpness

Depth of field discussions are complicated by the fact that “sharp” is a moving target that varies with display size and viewing distance. But it’s safe to say that all things equal, the larger your ultimate output and closer the intended viewing distance, the more detail your original capture should contain.

To capture detail a lens focuses light on the sensor’s photosites. Remember using a magnifying glass to focus sunlight and ignite a leaf when you were a kid? The smaller (more concentrated) the point of sunlight, the sooner the smoke appeared. In a camera, the finer (smaller) a lens focuses light on each photosite, the more detail the image will contain at that location. So when we focus we’re trying to make the light striking each photosite as concentrated as possible.

In photography we call that small circle of light your lens makes for each photosite its “circle of confusion.” The larger the CoC, the less concentrated the light and the more blurred the image will appear. Of course if the CoC is too small to be seen as soft, either because the print is too small or the viewer is too far away, it really doesn’t matter. In other words, areas of an image with a large CoC (relatively soft) can still appear sharp if small enough or viewed from far enough away. That’s why sharpness can never be an absolute term, and we talk instead about acceptable sharpness that’s based on print size and viewing distance. It’s actually possible for the same image to be sharp for one use, but too soft for another.

So how much detail do you need? The threshold for acceptable sharpness is pretty low for an image that just ends up on an iPhone or an 8×10 calendar on the kitchen wall, but if you want that image to fill the wall above the sofa, acceptable sharpness requires much more detail. And as your print size increases (and/or viewing distance decreases), the CoC that delivers acceptable sharpness shrinks correspondingly.

Many factors determine the a camera’s ability to record detail. Sensor resolution of course—the more resolution your sensor has, the more important it becomes that to have a lens that can take advantage of that extra resolution. And the more detail you want to capture with that high resolution sensor and tack-sharp lens, the more important your depth of field and focus point decisions become.

Hyperfocal focus

The foundation of a sound approach to maximizing sharpness for a given viewing distance and image size is hyperfocal focusing, an approach that uses viewing distance, f-stop, focal length, and focus point to ensure acceptable sharpness.

The hyperfocal point is the focus point that provides the maximum depth of field for a given combination of sensor size, f/stop, and focal length. Another way to express it is that the hyperfocal point is the closest you can focus and still be acceptably sharp to infinity. When focused at the hyperfocal point, your scene will be acceptably sharp from halfway between your lens and focus point all the way to infinity. For example, if the hyperfocal point for your sensor (full frame, APS-C, 4/3, or whatever), focal length, and f-stop combinition is twelve feet away, focusing there will give you acceptable sharpness from six feet (half of twelve) to infinity—focusing closer will soften the distant scene; focusing farther will keep you sharp to infinity but extend the area of foreground softness.

Because the hyperfocal variable (sensor size, focal length, f-stop) combinations are too numerous to memorize, we usually refer to an external aid. That used to be awkward printed tables with long columns and rows displayed in microscopic print, the more precise the data, the smaller the print. Fortunately, those have been replaced by smartphone apps with more precise information in a much more accessible and readable form. We plug in all the variables and out pops the hyperfocal point distance and other useful information

It usually goes something like this:

  1. Identify the composition
  2. Determine the closest thing that must be sharp (right now I’m assuming you want sharpness to infinity)
  3. Dig the smartphone from one of the 10,000 pockets it could be in
  4. Open the hyperfocal app and plug in the sensor size (usually previously set by you as the default), f-stop, and a focus distance
  5. Up pops the hyperfocal distance (and usually other info of varying value)

You’re not as sharp as you think

Since people’s eyes start to glaze over when CoC comes up, they tend to use the default returned by the smartphone app. But just because the app tells you you’ve nailed focus, don’t assume that your work is done. An often overlooked aspect of hyperfocal focusing is that app makes assumptions that aren’t necessarily right, and in fact are probably wrong.

The CoC your app uses to determine acceptable sharpness is a function of sensor size, display size, and viewing distance. But most app’s hyperfocal tables assume that you’re creating an 8×10 print that will be viewed from a foot away—maybe valid 40 years ago, but not in this day of mega-prints. The result is a CoC three times larger than the eye’s ability to resolve.

That doesn’t invalidate hyperfocal focusing, but if you use published hyperfocal data from an app or table, your images’ DOF might not be as ideal as you think it is for your use. If you can’t specify a smaller CoC in your app, I suggest that you stop-down a stop or so more than the app/table indicates. On the other hand, stopping down to increase sharpness is an effort of diminishing returns, because diffraction increases as the aperture shrinks and eventually will soften the entire image—I try not to go more than a stop smaller than my data suggests.

Keeping it simple

As helpful as a hyperfocal app can be, whipping out a smartphone for instant in-the-field access to data is not really conducive to the creative process. I’m a big advocate of keeping photography as simple as possible, so while I’m a hyperfocal focus advocate in spirit, I don’t usually use hyperfocal data in the field. Instead I apply hyperfocal principles in the field whenever I think the margin of error gives me sufficient wiggle room.

Though I don’t often use the specific hyperfocal data in the field, I find it helps a lot to refer to hyperfocal tables when I’m sitting around with nothing to do. So if I find myself standing in line at the DMV, or sitting in a theater waiting for a movie (I’m a great date), I open my iPhone hyperfocal app and plug in random values just to get a sense of the DOF for a given f-stop and focal length combination. I may not remember the exact numbers later, but enough of the information sinks in that I accumulate a general sense of the hyperfocal DOF/camera-setting relationships.

Finally, something to do

Unless I think I have very little DOF margin for error in my composition, I rarely open my hyperfocal app in the field. Instead, once my composition is worked out and have determined the closest object I want sharp—the closest object with visual interest (shape, color, texture), regardless of whether it’s a primary subject.

  • If I want to be sharp to infinity and my closest foreground object (that needs to be sharp) is close enough to hit by tossing my hat, I need a fair amount of DOF. If my focal length is pretty wide, I might skip the hyperfocal app, stop down to f/16, and focus a little behind my foreground object. But if I’m at a fairly long focal length, or my closest object is within arm’s reach, I have very little margin for error and will almost certainly refer to my hyperfocal app.
  • If I could hit my foreground object with a baseball and my focal length is 50mm (or so) or less, I’ll probably go with f/11 and just focus on my foreground object. But as my focal length increases, so does the likelihood that I’ll need to refer to my hyperfocal app.
  • If it would take a gun to reach my closest object (picture a distant peak), I choose an f-stop between f/8 and f/11 and focus anywhere in the distance.

Of course these distances are very subjective and will vary with your focal length and composition (not to mention the strength of your pitching arm), but you get the idea. If you find yourself in a small margin for error focus situation without a hyperfocal app (or you just don’t want to take the time to use one), the single most important thing to remember is to focus behind your closest subject. Because you always have sharpness in front of your focus point, focusing on the closest subject gives you unnecessary near sharpness at the expense of distant sharpness. By focusing a little behind your closest subject, you’re increasing the depth of your distant sharpness while (if you’re careful) keeping your foreground subject within the zone of sharpness in front of the focus point.

And finally, foreground softness, no matter how slight, is almost always a greater distraction than slight background softness. So, if it’s impossible to get all of your frame sharp, it’s usually best to ensure that the foreground is sharp.

Some examples

Sunset Palette, Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite

A hat’s toss away: The closest pool was about 6 feet from my lens. I stopped down to f/20 (smaller than I generally like to go) and focused on the back of the pool on the left, about 10 feet away.

A baseball throw away: The little clump of wildflowers (lower right) was about 35 feet away and the trees started another 35 feet beyond that. With a focal length of 55mm, I dialed to f/11 and focused on the most distant foreground tree, getting everything from the flowers to Half Dome sharp.

Gary Hart Photography: Tree and Crescent, Sierra Foothills, California

Honey, fetch my rifle: With everything here at infinity I knew could focus on the trees or moon confident that the entire frame would be sharp. In this case I opted for f/8 to minimize diffraction but still in my lens’s sharpest f-stop range, and focused on the tree.

Why not just automatically set the aperture to f/22 and be done with it? I thought you’d never ask. Without delving too far into the physics of light and optics, let’s just say that there’s a not so little light-bending problem called “diffraction” that robs your images of sharpness as your aperture shrinks—the smaller the aperture, the greater the diffraction. Then why not choose f/2.8 when everything’s at infinity? Because lenses tend to lose sharpness at their aperture extremes, and are generally sharper in their mid-range f-stops. So while diffraction and lens softness don’t sway me from choosing the f-stop that gives the DOF I want, I try to never choose an aperture bigger or smaller than I need.

Now that we’ve let the composition determine our f-stop, it’s (finally) time to actually choose the focus point. Believe it or not, with this foundation of understanding we just established, focus becomes pretty simple. Whenever possible, I try to have elements throughout my frame, often starting near my feet and extending far into the distance. When that’s the case I stop down focus on an object slightly behind my closest subject (the more distant my closest subject, the farther behind it I can focus).

When I’m not sure, or if I don’t think I can get the entire scene sharp, I err on the side of closer focus to ensure that the foreground is sharp. Sometimes before shooting I check my DOF with the DOF preview button, allowing time for my eye to adjust to the limited light. And when maximum DOF is essential and I know my margin for error is small, I don’t hesitate to refer to the DOF app on my iPhone.

A great thing about digital capture is the instant validation of the LCD—when I’m not sure, or when getting it perfect is absolutely essential, after capture I pop my image up on the LCD, magnify it to maximum, check the point or points that must be sharp, and adjust if necessary. Using this immediate feedback to make instant corrections really speeds the learning process.

Sometimes less is more

The depth of field you choose is your creative choice, and no law says you must maximize it. Use your camera’s limited depth of field to minimize or eliminate distractions, create a blur of background color, or simply to guide your viewer’s eye. Focusing on a near subject while letting the background go soft clearly communicates the primary subject while retaining enough background detail to establish context. And an extremely narrow depth of field can turn distant flowers or sky into a colorful canvas for your subject.

In this image of a dogwood blossom in the rain, I positioned my camera to align Bridalveil Fall with the dogwood and used an extension tube to focus extremely close. The narrow depth of field caused by focusing so close turned Bridalveil Fall into a background blur (I used f/18 to the fall a little more recognizable), allowing viewers to feast their eyes on the dogwood’s and raindrop’s exquisite detail.
An extension tube on a macro lens at f/2.8 gave me depth of field measured in fractions of an inch. The gold color in the background is more poppies, but they’re far enough away that they blur into nothing but color. The extremely narrow depth of field also eliminated weeds and rocks that would have otherwise been a distraction.

There’s no substitute for experience

No two photographers do everything exactly alike. Determining the DOF a composition requires, the f-stop and focal length that achieves the desired DOF, and where to place the point of maximum focus, are all part of the creative process that should never be left up to the camera. The sooner you grasp the underlying principles of DOF and focus, the sooner you’ll feel comfortable taking control and conveying your own unique vision.

About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Floating Leaves, Valley View, Yosemite

Floating Autumn Leaves, Valley View, Yosemite

Yosemite may not be New England, but it can still put on a pretty good fall color display. A few years ago I arrived  at Valley View on the west side of Yosemite Valley just about the time the fall color was peaking. I found the Merced River filled with reflections of El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks, framed by an accumulation of recently fallen leaves still rich with vivid fall color.

To emphasize the colorful foreground, I dropped my tripod low and framed up a vertical composition. I knew my hyperfocal distance at 24mm and f/11 would be 5 or 6 feet, but with the scene ranging from the closest leaves at about 3 feet away out to El Capitan at infinity, I also knew I’d need to be careful with my focus choices. For a little more margin for error I stopped down to f/16, then focused on the nearest rocks which were a little less than 6 feet away. As I usually do when I don’t have a lot of focus wiggle room, I magnified the resulting image on my LCD and moved the view from the foreground to the background to verify front-to-back sharpness.

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Playing with Depth: A Gallery of Focus

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Yosemite in a Raindrop

Gary Hart Photography: Yosemite in a Raindrop, Valley View, Yosemite

Yosemite in a Raindrop, Valley View, Yosemite
Sony a7RIII
Sony 100-400 GM
15mm extension tube
ISO 3200
f/20
1/200 second

I’ve been to Valley View in Yosemite about a million times. For those not familiar with Yosemite Valley, Valley View (sometimes called Gates of the Valley) is the classic view of El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall, with the Merced River in the foreground, that represents Yosemite in countless calendars, postcards, and advertisements. Though all this attention is justified, after a million visits and counting (okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating just a little), you’d think it would be easy to take Valley View’s beauty for granted. But I don’t get tired of visiting here, not ever.

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite

Valley View, Yosemite

Like most spots in Yosemite, the scene at Valley View varies greatly with the season and weather. In spring, Bridalveil Fall explodes from beneath Cathedral Rocks, and the surrounding forest is dotted with blooming dogwood. In autumn, rocks dot the Merced River, and colorful leaves mingle with glassy reflections. And on still winter mornings, a low mist hugs Bridalveil Meadow just across the river, while churning clouds surrounding El Capitan after a storm are a sight to behold. Nevertheless, I’m often content to keep my camera in the bag and just privately appreciate Valley View’s majesty.

But I’m a photographer, and sometimes it’s hard to experience this beauty passively. On those visits when I’m moved to photograph Valley View, I challenge myself to find something that hasn’t been done a million times. The final morning of last week’s Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers photo workshop was gray and damp, with occasional sprinkles lingering from a heavier overnight rain. We’d been here earlier in the workshop (in different conditions), and I hadn’t planned to photograph this time, but spotting raindrops clinging to the branches of the shrubs that line the river, I recognized a unique opportunity.

If you know optics, you know that a convex shape bends outward (so water striking its surface would run off; water striking a concave surface would pool inside). Due to this curvature, photons passing through a convex lens are diverted toward the center, where they converge and cross to create an inverted image at the point of convergence (focal point).

In fact, the human eye is a convex lens, projecting its inverted image onto the back its sphere, an image your brain promptly reverses. And photographic lenses are a complex arrangement of convex lens elements that ultimately project onto your camera’s sensor an upside-down image that’s flipped for display by the camera’s firmware.

Compared to these two examples, a dangling raindrop is elegant simplicity. Bound by surface tension, water molecules naturally form a spherical shape that is flattened or stretched slightly by gravity. Because water molecules form an electrostatic bond with foreign surfaces as well, they also adhere to things like leaves and branches, sometimes appearing to defy gravity. This small gift from nature turns a raindrop into a natural convex lens. Courtesy of this natural lens, those who peer closely into a water drop will see an inverted microcosm of the surrounding world, a view that changes with the viewing angle.

There’s potential beauty inside every water drop, but on this morning at Valley View I was in the fortuitous position to photograph raindrops holding one of the most beautiful scenes on Earth. I found a quintet of raindrops lining a branch that had nothing behind it but river. Tiptoeing close, I aligned myself and the raindrops with the Valley View scene and extended my tripod to branch level. I started with my Sony 90mm on my Sony a7RIII, adding extension tubes to get even closer. After working with this combination for a few minutes, I switched to my Sony 100-400 GM (still with extension tubes).

The image you see here is from the 100-400. Depth of field with such a close focus point is paper thin, so I stopped down to f/20 and bumped I my ISO to 3200 to ensure a shutter speed fast enough to minimize the risk of motion blur. To focus, I magnified the raindrop scene in my mirrorless viewfinder. Exposing to avoid blowing out the bright highlights in the (inverted) sky also darkened the river, creating the ideal background.

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The Many Views of Valley View

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Love What You Shoot

Gary Hart Photography: Snow and Reflection, El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite

Snow and Reflection, El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite
Sony a7RIII
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
1/25 second
F/11
ISO 100

Feel the love

One frequently uttered piece of photographic advice is to “shoot what you love.” And while photographing the locations and subjects we love most is indeed pretty essential to consistently successful images, unless we treat our favorite subjects with the love they deserve, we risk losing them.

My relationship with Yosemite predates my memories, so it’s no wonder that Yosemite Valley plays such a significant role in my photography. Of course my love for Yosemite doesn’t make me unique, and like all Yosemite photographers, I’ve learned to share. While it’s nice to have a location to myself (I can still usually find a few of those spots in Yosemite Valley), I’m happy to enjoy Yosemite’s prime photographic real estate with other tourists and photographers. In fact, I get vicarious pleasure watching others view the Yosemite scenes I’ve been visiting my entire life.

But

In recent years I’ve noticed more tourists and photographers abusing nature in ways that at best betrays their ignorance, and at worst reveals their indifference to the fragility of the very subjects that inspire them to click their shutters in the first place. Of course it’s impossible to have zero impact on the natural world—starting from the time we leave home, we consume energy that pollutes the atmosphere and contributes greenhouse gases. Once we arrive at our  destination, every footfall alters the world in ways ranging from subtle to dramatic—not only do our shoes crush rocks, plants, and small creatures, our noise clashes with the natural sounds that comfort humans and communicate to animals, and our vehicles and clothing scatter microscopic, non-indigenous flora and fauna.

A certain amount of damage is an unavoidable consequence of keeping the natural world accessible to all who would like to appreciate it, a tightrope our National Park Service does an excellent job navigating. It’s even easy to believe that we’re not the problem—I mean, who’d have thought merely walking on “dirt” could impact the ecosystem for tens or hundreds of years? But, for example, before straying off the trail for that unique perspective of Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, check out this admonition from the park.

Hawaii’s black sand beaches may appear unique and enduring, but the next time you consider scooping a sample to share with friends back on the mainland, know that Hawaii’s black sand is a finite, ephemeral phenomenon that will be replaced with “conventional” white sand as soon as its volcanic source is exhausted, as evidenced by the direct correlation between the Hawaiian islands age (and the cessation of volcanic activity) and their proliferation of black-sand beaches.

While Yosemite’s durable granite may lull photographers into environmental complacency, its meadows and wetlands are quite fragile, hosting many plants and insects that are an integral part of the natural balance that makes Yosemite unique. Not only that, they’re also home to native mammals, birds, and reptiles that so many enjoy photographing. Despite all this, I can’t tell you how often I see people in Yosemite (photographers in particular) unnecessarily cutting trails and trampling fragile meadows and shorelines, either to get in position for a shot or simply as a shortcut.

Don’t be this photographer

Still not convinced? If I can’t appeal to your environmental conscience, consider that simply wandering about with a camera and/or tripod labels you, “Photographer.” In that role you represent the entire photography community: when you do harm as Photographer, most observers (the general public and decision makers) go no farther than applying the Photographer label and lumping all of us into the same offending group.

Like it or not, one photographer’s indiscretion affects the way every photographer is perceived, and potentially brings about restrictions that directly or indirectly impact all of us. If you like barricades, permits, restrictions, and rules, just keep going wherever you want to go, whenever you want to go there.

It’s not that difficult

Environmental responsibility doesn’t require joining Greenpeace or dropping off the grid (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Simply taking a few minutes to understand natural concerns specific to whatever area you visit is a good place to start. Most public lands have websites with information they’d love you to read before visiting. And most park officials are more than happy to share literature on the topic (you might in fact find useful information right there in that stack of papers you jammed into your center console as you drove away from the park entrance station).

When you’re in the field, think before advancing. Train yourself to anticipate each future step with the understanding of its impact—believe it or not, this isn’t a particularly difficult habit to establish. Whenever you see trash, please pick it up, even if it isn’t yours. And don’t be shy about gently reminding other photographers whose actions risk soiling the reputation for all of us.

A few years ago, as a condition of my Death Valley workshop permit, I was guided to The Center for Outdoor Ethics and their “Leave No Trace” initiative. There’s great information here–much of it is just plain common sense, but I guarantee you’ll learn things too.

Now go out and enjoy nature–and please save it for the rest of us.

A few words about this image

This year’s Yosemite Horsetail Fall photo workshop started with bang. Normally I start a workshop with a two-hour orientation, but with six inches of fresh snow on the ground and more falling, I did a lightning orientation (15 minutes) and we sprinted into Yosemite Valley in time to catch the storm’s clearing. We found a world dipped in pristine white powder, a Yosemite photographer’s dream. Normally I like to give my groups lots of time at every location, but in the rapidly changing conditions of a clearing snowstorm (shifting clouds and light, trees shedding snow, and footprints increasing by the minute), I try to hit as many spots as possible while the shooting is ideal.

Our third stop that afternoon was Valley View, one of the top two or three photo spots in Yosemite, for obvious reasons. Having visited here so often, I don’t stop here on every visit anymore, but I’d be sued for malpractice if I didn’t take my workshop groups here—especially when it’s glazed with fresh snow. I hadn’t taken my camera out yet, and wasn’t going to get it out here either, but while working with a couple of people in the group just upriver from the parking lot, I saw this view and couldn’t resist the opportunity for something new.

When Yosemite is covered with new snow, I look for compositions that emphasize the snow and use the icons as background. Not only did this view give me lots of fresh snow for my foreground, the recent removal of several trees (evergreens in Yosemite are dying from drought and insect infestation) that blocked El Capitan gave me a perspective I’ve never been able to photograph.

I set up on the line that gave me the best window between the trees to El Capitan and started with vertical compositions that emphasized the Yosemite icon, but soon switched to horizontal to include Bridalveil Fall and Cathedral Rocks and better feature the reflection. With my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens on my Sony a7RIII camera, I set up close to the nearby snow-covered trees, then kept moving closer, widening my focal length as I went to include as much snow as possible. After framing the scene to include the least possible blue sky, the most snow, and to avoid crowding Bridalveil Fall too close to the right border, I dialed my polarizer to minimize polarization on the water (maximum reflection), metered with an eye on my histogram, focused on branches about four feet from my lens, and clicked.

We made a couple of more stops that afternoon before wrapping up with a truly beautiful sunset at an unexpected (and fortuitous) location. But that’s a story for another day.

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The Many Faces of El Capitan

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Iceland Light Show

Gary Hart Photography: Northern Lights, Glacier Lagoon, Iceland

Green Twist, Aurora Borealis, Glacier Lagoon, Iceland
Sony a7SII
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
8 seconds
F/2.8
ISO 3200

I’ve seen comets, a meteor storm, fireballs, a total solar eclipse, lots of lunar eclipses, the Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy, the Magellanic Clouds, Jupiter’s moons, Saturn’s rings, and many other manifestations of celestial splendor, but I’ve never seen the aurora. So when I scheduled a trip to Iceland this January (the heart of aurora borealis season), ostensibly to scout for the new Iceland photo workshop I’ll be doing with Don Smith next winter, my personal goal was to see the northern lights.

We’d only be in Iceland for one week, long enough for our guide (the expert, energetic, and always entertaining Óli Haukur) to give us a quick view of all the locations we’d visit in next year’s 10-day Iceland workshop (which will also include a local photography guide). With 10:30 a.m. sunrises and 5:00 p.m. sunsets, I didn’t expect the schedule to be too grueling, but I hadn’t accounted for Iceland’s two-hour winter sunrises and sunsets. With many miles to cover beneath a sun that never rises higher than (an extremely photogenic) 8 degrees above the horizon, every minute between our early starts and late dinners was spent spent either driving or photographing (fortunately, the schedule will be a little less compressed during the workshop). But wait, there’s more…. Given our aurora aspirations, each night immediately after dinner, we bundled up and ventured into the frigid dark seeking an electric light show.

For our nightly aurora hunt we’d drive a pretty scene that had both dark skies (not hard to find in Iceland) and a clear view of the northern sky. There we’d sit for an hour or two, fogging the windows in Óli’s spacious Suburban, trading stories and laughs, and periodically stepping into the cold to scan the sky, before ultimately deciding tonight wasn’t going to be the night.

With just two days in Iceland remaining, I was getting a little anxious, but things were looking up (both figuratively and literally). First, Wednesday’s forecast promised completely clear skies, a first for our visit. And Wednesday’s destination was Glacier Lagoon, a magnificent ocean inlet dotted with floating icebergs and a patchwork of thin ice and reflective water that makes an ideal foreground for the northern lights.

The aurora forecast that night was 2 on the 0-9 KP-index of magnetic activity, where 0 is “Enjoy your sleep” and 9 is “Don’t forget the sunglasses” (or something like that), bu Óli assured us that he’s “seen some great shows on ‘2’ and ‘3’ aurora nights,” though I was skeptical because we’d already struck out more than once with a similar forecast. He also told us that his favorite aurora nights are in the 4 and 5 range because with an index higher than that, the aurora can be so intense that an exposure that doesn’t blow the lights is too dark to capture the foreground.

Pulling into the parking lot Wednesday night and turning off the headlights, I immediately spotted a low fog hovering above the lagoon. Except Óli said that wasn’t fog, it was the beginning of the aurora. Dubious, we followed him down to the lagoon. I was thrilled (understatement) when my camera validated Óli’s assertion: My first view of the northern lights!

We spent a couple of hours photographing a low-hanging, fuzzy green bands, with hints of red, that for a few minutes brightened and took on a little definition. On the drive back to the hotel, Don and I could barely contain our elation, while Óli was pleased but relatively subdued. For an Iceland native, this was just another day at the office; for two photographers from California, it was a personal milestone. And then Thursday happened.

All week Óli had told us our best chance for the northern lights would be Thursday, our tour’s final night. We spent that day photographing spots near Glacier Lagoon: sunrise and sunset at Diamond Beach bookending a visit to a glacier ice cave. But as the day progressed, the wind picked up and clouds formed and thickened. We didn’t stress though, because we had our aurora pictures and it was difficult to imagine anything better than what we’d seen on Wednesday.

Nevertheless, despite a 100 percent cloud cover after sunset, we agreed to meet for dinner with camera gear in tow, ready for an optimistic venture back to Glacier Lagoon. And sure enough, emerging from the restaurant we saw the gray blanket had been replaced by ceiling of stars and we were in business. But still no aurora.

Hoping for a little different perspective, we started by scaling a hill overlooking the lagoon, sinking into thigh-high snow and fighting a 40-MPH headwind to summit. That adventure lasted about five minutes before the wind and less than ideal view (you don’t know until you try) drove us back to the site of last night’s success, in retrospect a wise choice indeed.

Back in the lagoon parking lot, we sat and watched a faint aurora ebb and flow, suddenly aurora snobs (“This is nothing like last night”). What looked promising out my north-facing side window one minute, all but disappeared the next, but then we noticed new activity in the western sky out the windshield. This ramped up so fast that we bolted down to the lagoon like Keystone Cops, and by the time I was set up the had become a green and (occasionally) red psychedelic extravaganza.

The next two hours were a blur as I witnessed what was quite possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life (rivaled only by, and impossible to compare to, the total solar eclipse in August 2017). Starting across the lagoon, in the western sky, the show gradually moved south(defying all my expectations), forcing me to constantly  shift further up the lagoon to keep the ice and water in my foreground.

With my head on a swivel, I watched glowing tendrils stretch skyward, some touching both the east and west horizons, others pulsing, spiraling, and doubling back,. It felt like I was inside a giant lava lamp. At one point I tore my eyes from the show above the lagoon and saw the entire eastern sky ablaze with tangled green ribbons. so intense that I turned my back on the lagoon and quickly scaled the snowy hill behind me for a better view in the other direction. Within ten minutes things picked up again over the lagoon and I raced (and occasionally tumbled) back down the hill.

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Lessons learned

This is the only picture from that night that I’ve processed so far. And while it definitely should give you an idea of what I saw, it’s just a fraction of night’s mesmerizing display. Though the color wasn’t nearly this vivid to the eye, thanks to the camera’s extreme light gathering capability, this is pretty much the way it looked in the viewfinder of my Sony a7SII, and on my LCD preview after capture. About the only significant processing I did was tone down the green reflecting on the snow—not because it wasn’t there, but because I feared that keeping the actual amount of green I captured would strain credibility.

Getting a shot like this requires a significant amount of good fortune for sure, but all the good fortune in the world will do you no good if you don’t bundle up and get yourself into the extreme latitudes in winter. Also helpful is a little experience with night photography, specifically the ability to control your camera, compose, and focus in extremely low light.

While I benefited from an a7SII that can virtually see in the dark (making low light composition and focus a breeze), pretty much any relatively recent DSLR will do the job. Add to that a sturdy tripod and wide (24mm or wider), relatively fast glass (f/2.8 or faster, though I was able to make my Sony 12-24 f/4 lens work when the show was at its peak), and you’ll be fine.

I can’t emphasize too much how important finding a foreground to go with your aurora is. The northern lights are so spectacular, it’s easy to just show and forget to compose the scene. An aurora show like this changes so quickly, intimate local familiarity to know where to be without hunting is a big help. Our guide got us to a location with a wealth of foreground opportunities, but it certainly didn’t hurt that this was my third visit to Glacier Lagoon in two days. And when you get there, make sure you find both horizontal and vertical compositions.

And finally (because I know you’re going to ask), a few words about exposure settings. Keep in my that this was in fact my first rodeo, so you might find better advice elsewhere. But my Thursday shoot did benefit from knowledge gained Wednesday night. Specifically, my moonless night photography had been mostly limited to star trail and Milky Way shoots, where it’s all about maximizing light. But despite the moon’s absence for both of our northern lights shoots (though I’m told the moon isn’t the aurora deal-breaker it is with a Milky Way shoot), the rules are different for an aurora shoot because the sky’s brightness changes by the minute, and it’s often much brighter than a Milky Way sky.

On Wednesday I started with exposure settings closer to my Milky Way settings, using exposure times in the 15-30 second range because it’s virtually impossible to give a Milky Way scene too much light (with 2019 or earlier camera technology). But with an aurora, there is definitely such a thing as too much light.

When my exposure blew out the aurora during the Wednesday shoot, I took the opportunity to drop my ISO and f-stop, thinking that would improve my image quality. But the fingers of color shift so quickly in an active aurora like Thursday’s, a long a shutter duration blurs the display’s definition. On Thursday I tried to keep my shutter speed at 10-seconds or faster (faster is better), which was no problem given the aurora’s brightness.

By now you’ve probably figured out that you need to check your highlight alert and histogram with every frame, and adjust accordingly. And unlike most scenes, the RGB histogram is essential—many times my luminosity histogram (the white one) looked fine, but the RGB histogram’s green channel was seriously clipped.

Oh yeah, and don’t make the rookie mistake I made. Extreme cold like this (it was probably around 20F) will suck the life from a lithium ion battery. But because I’ve grown so accustomed to the great battery life of my Sony a7RIII, I forgot to make sure I’d packed my backup battery. I had one back in the room, which made it about as useful as chocolate frying pan. My battery started at 100%, dropped to 70% in about thirty minutes, and completely died 5 five minutes later. Fortunately Don took mercy on me and loaned me one of his four batteries. On Thursday I was much smarter: not only did I bring my backup battery, I brought an Anker portable charging cube and a charger.

I’m writing this on the plane home from Iceland, about to lose the charge on my laptop, so you’ll need to wait until a future post to learn more about the fascinating science of auroras (because I think it’s important to understand what you photograph). And let me just apologize in advance for the number of aurora images I’ll be sharing over the coming months (I’ll do my best to spread them out some, and I certainly have many other Iceland delights to share).


Celestial Wonders

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Seeing the Entire Scene

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

Breaking Light, El Capitan and Three Brothers Reflection, Yosemite
Sony a7R III
Sony 12-24 f/4 G
1/25 second
F/10
ISO 100

As you might imagine, between my own images, my photo workshop participants’ images, browsing other photographers’ pages, and simply being connected to social media, I see a lot of images. A. Lot. Of. Images. And curse or blessing, I can’t help but have opinions—whether my own images or others’, some work wonderfully, others not so much.

There’s a lot that goes into creating a successful image, but if I could whisper in the ear of every photographer just before they click the shutter, it would be a reminder to, “See the entire scene.” It happens to all of us: We’re so drawn to a pretty scene or striking subject that we become blind to what’s happing in the rest of the frame. And it’s the what’s happening in the rest of the frame that separates a mere pretty snap of a beautiful scene from wall-worthy print that satisfies for years.

Dream world

Writer John Gardner talked about creating a “vivid and continuous dream” that so completely immerses readers in the imaginary world on the page, the physical world surrounding them temporarily disappears. Any distraction that jars the reader from the page and back into the present world is a failure.

The same applies to photography. As nature photographers, we invite the viewers of our images into a virtual world of our creation. To encourage these viewers to stay and explore our virtual world, we might offer them a fresh perspective, enable vicarious travel, or perhaps tap latent memories. Regardless of the reason, the longer they stay in our virtual world, the more successful our image. But when a jutting branch on the frame’s border reminds viewers of the world out the scene, or a bright rock tugs their eye and competes for attention with scene’s prime subject, our spell is broken.

Compromise

Sadly, nature rarely presents itself exactly as photographers want it. So many decisions we make are compromises: we bump the ISO to enable the small aperture and fast shutter speed the scene requires; we cut off a rock on the left because panning right would introduce garbage can; we can’t tighten a composition to eliminate a shrub because doing so would cut the top of a mountain; we don’t polarize the sky because the polarizer erases a rainbow; and on and on…. Given these realities, our goal doesn’t need to be perfection, it’s often just to slow down and see the entire scene to ensure the decisions that bring our image as close to perfection as possible.

For example

This flooded Yosemite meadow is a spring phenomenon caused by extreme runoff following a relatively wet winter. Some years it doesn’t happen at all, but last spring’s Yosemite workshop group was fortunate to be there during the few days the Merced River overflowed its banks here (I returned a couple of days later and found the river had receded). I could have plopped my tripod down (or simply raised my camera to my eye) anywhere in a 100 yard radius and been virtually assured of a beautiful picture.

But as beautiful as it was, and as much as I wanted to start clicking, my first stop to take it all in had some problems. From my original vantage point, the stand of trees on the right obscured the Three Brothers, so I moved left along the water’s edge. But given more trees on the left, it soon became clear that part of El Capitan would be obscured. My compromise was to find a spot that exposed both El Capitan’s nose and the Three Brothers.

I’d left the car with my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM Sony (on my Sony a7RIII) body because that lens had a polarizer for controlling the reflection—dial it up for the maximum reflection, dial it down to reveal the grassy texture just beneath the water, and maybe even a find midpoint with some reflection and some submerged grass. But 16mm wasn’t wide enough, so I sacrificed reflection control and switch to my Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens.

With my position and lens worked out, I was ready to frame my composition. I felt a little sense of urgency because I didn’t want to miss the rapidly moving splashes of light scooting across El Capitan, but I also didn’t want to rush so much that I missed a problem in my frame.

To dislodge my attention from a scene’s primary focus points, I often use a mnemonic device before clicking: “border patrol.” (Though perhaps in light of current events, I should come up with something different.) Border patrol is a gentle reminder to run my eyes around the border of my frame to check for problems. Potential problems here include cutting off part of a tree on the left or right, a distracting bright spot in the sky near the top of the frame, or inadvertently trimming El Capitan’s reflection on the bottom. (Incomplete reflections and distracting sky holes are some of the most frequently missed distractions.)

In this case I took care to ensure that I got all of El Capitan and its reflection while avoiding a few breaks in the clouds just above this view. I also used the evergreen on the left and the arcing trunks on the right to frame those borders. And by making sure my camera was perfectly level, I managed to keep my vertical lines straight.

Depth of field at 12mm wasn’t a concern; I chose f/10 and focused on the far bank knowing everything would be sharp. Motion wasn’t a concern, so I could just use ISO 100 and go with the shutter speed that gave me the best histogram in the viewfinder (I love mirrorless).


Careful Framing

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Alone in Yosemite

Gary Hart Photography: Clearing Storm Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Clearing Storm Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7R III
Sony 12-24 f/4 G
1/125 second
F/10
ISO 100

Last winter I spent a glorious day by myself in Yosemite Valley, photographing the vestiges of an overnight snowstorm. Inbound to the park the evening before, a continuous strand of outbound headlights reminded me how different a photographer’s priorities are from the general public’s. For a nature photographer, the best time to be outside seems to be everyone else’s worst time to be outside, but we know that before breakfast, at dinnertime, after dark, and wild weather are when all the best pictures seem to happen.

I arrived in Yosemite Valley with just enough light to see El Capitan and Half Dome engulfed in heavy clouds that hinted at what was in store—but so far no snow. With a storm imminent, I had no problem getting a room at a significant discount, virtually unheard of on a typical Yosemite evening. A light mist started after dinner, and I fell asleep to the sound of raindrops tapping leaves outside my window. The next morning I woke before my alarm and lay still, listening in the darkness to the unmistakable silence of falling snow.

Dressing quickly, I opened the door to six inches of untouched snow. In the parking lot I tried to determine which white lump was my Outback, repeatedly punching the lock button on my key fob and following my ears to the lump that chirped back. A little digging confirmed my discovery, and after a few more minutes of excavation I was able to to ease out of my parking space, carving the first tracks into what was probably the road (fingers crossed).

The clouds that had deposited all this powder seemed be trying to squeeze out every possible flake, but they seemed exhausted from their overnight effort and my wipers had no problem keeping up. When the final flake fell a little before 9:00, I was traipsing through drifts near El Capitan Meadow. Patches of blue sky overhead told me it wouldn’t be long before the trees were shedding snow in clumps, so I headed quickly to a favorite spot by the Merced River, hoping for a reflection while the world remained white.

The Merced here was so still and clear that I had to look twice to be sure there really was water in the river. The reflection on the far side was exactly what I had in mind, but the corrugated riverbed on my side was an unexpected complement that wonderfully matched the herringbone clouds above. In the days before my Sony 12-24 lens, I wouldn’t have been able to include all of El Capitan and its reflection in a horizontal frame, but 12mm gave me room to spare (I’m still startled at times by how big the difference is between 16mm and 12mm).

I got lots pictures that make me happy that day, but even more than the pictures, I think I enjoyed the rare opportunity to feel alone in Yosemite for a few hours. The park wasn’t empty, but between the scarcity of people, the reluctance of those who were there to venture onto the roads, and the sound-deadening effect of powdery snow, I had no trouble pretending.

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Yosemite Winter Reflections

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Just a Pinch of Moon

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Moonrise Reflection, Bridalveil Fall, Valley View, Yosemite

Sunset Moonrise Reflection, Bridalveil Fall, Valley View, Yosemite
Sony a7RIII
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
1/13 second
F/11
ISO 100

A couple of  weeks ago I wrote about how to photograph the moon big, the bigger the better, to overcome its tendency to (appear to) shrink in a wide angle image. But the moon doesn’t need to be big to be a striking addition to a landscape photo.

To balance a landscape frame, I think in terms of “visual gravity” (or “visual weight”): how much the scene’s various elements might pull the viewer’s eye. Unlike conventional gravity, which is a constant determined by an object’s mass (period, end of story), visual gravity is a more subjective quality that is a function of the characteristics of an object, such as its size, brightness, contrast, or color. Thinking in terms of the visual gravity of the various elements in my scene, I (usually) try to avoid any hemisphere of the frame feeling significantly heavier than its corresponding hemisphere (top/bottom, left/right).

Certainly any object as bright (and contrasty) as the moon will pull the eye. But after noticing that many objects at least as bright or contrasty as the moon somehow lack the moon’s ability to pull the eye, I realized I’d been missing an essential component of visual gravity: emotional connection. There is just something about the emotional pull of the moon that draws the human eye far more than its more tangible physical qualities might suggest.

For years I’ve tried to leverage the moon’s emotional weight, using it to elevate a relatively ordinary scene, or to add a simple accent that takes an already beautiful scene to the next level. Last month I got just such an opportunity at Valley View in Yosemite. This was the first night of my annual Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop. I’d planned moonrises for the other three nights of the workshop, but hadn’t really plotted the first night because the moon would be so high at sunset, and during the moon’s twilight “sweet spot” (when the sky is dark enough for good contrast, but the landscape still has enough light to photograph) the moon wouldn’t align with Half Dome from any of Yosemite Valley’s Half Dome vantage points.

Nevertheless, I chose Valley View for sunset knowing that the moon might make a nice accent above Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Fall. As soon as we arrived it was clear the conditions had aligned for us on this chilly December evening. In the distance Bridalveil Fall disappeared into a blanket of dense fog hovering above Bridalveil Meadow, while the moon mingled with wispy clouds in the twilight pastels overhead. And at our feet, the Merced River made a perfect mirror.

I knew that capturing all this beauty required a fairly wide composition that would certainly shrink the moon. Because a horizontal composition that included the moon and its reflection would have to be so wide that would shrink everything (and include a lot of less interesting foreground trees), I opted for a vertical composition that emphasized the scene’s primary elements: the moon, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall.

For this shot I went wide with my Sony 24-105 G lens on my Sony a7RIII body. Once I had the general arrangement of my frame worked out, I moved along the riverbank until everything felt balanced. I used the trees on the left to block the empty sky, and the trees on the right to balance them. And I’ve always liked the small diagonal tree a little left of center, and think in this composition it makes a good counterbalance for the visual weight of Bridalveil Fall.

Is the moon the primary subject the way it would likely be in a telephoto image? Certainly not. I know some people might think the moon is too small in this composition, but for someone like me, with a lifelong relationship with the night sky, the moon makes a perfect accent. And in this image I think just that little pinch of moon is enough to balance a frame that would otherwise be a little heavy on the left.


Lunar Accents

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