Blue Hour

Gary Hart Photography: Blue Hour, Vestrahorn, Iceland

Blue Hour, Vestrahorn, Iceland
Sony a7RIV
Sony 12-24 G
8 seconds
F/16
ISO 50

“Many of us would probably be better fishermen if we did not spend so much time watching and waiting for the world to become perfect.” 
― Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

I haven’t fished in years (decades), but of course Norman Maclean’s words really aren’t about fishing anyway. Nevertheless, I’m reminded of this quote every time I find myself frozen by minutia, mired in the moment by small distractions that matter very little, or looking for excuses not to take pictures.

There are a lot of reasons not to take a picture—tell me if any of these sound familiar: “The light was better yesterday”; “The light will be better tomorrow”; “It’s too cold”; “It’s too hot”; “It’s too wet”; “I’m hungry”; “there’s dust on my sensor”; “This lens is soft,” and on, and on….

This Vestrahorn shoot came toward the end of the 10-day Iceland workshop Don Smith and I led in January of this year (was that really only 4 months ago?!). As the sun disappeared on this chilly winter evening, there were a lot of reasons not to stay out photographing: it was cold, I was wet, the clouds, it was getting dark, and there was a 90-minute drive separating us from dinner. It had been a nice shoot, but I was a little disappointed that the sky that had looked quite promising all afternoon, never really delivered the color I’d been waiting for. But before heading back to the van, I wandered up the beach a bit and found this rocky section that was different from the waves, and the reflections left in their wake, I’d been concentrating on all afternoon. As I reconsidered whether to call it a day, I came upon a lone shell embedded in the sand. With the light fading fast, I quickly dropped my tripod as low as it would go and set up with my Sony 12-24 G lens on my Sony a7RIV, and went to work.

Before I knew it, the “blue hour,” that magnificent transition from day to night (and back) that always looks better on an image than it does to the eye, had taken over. If you’ve ever stayed out to photograph after your eyes tell you it’s time to go in (or started shooting a little early while waiting for sunrise), you know what I’m talking about. What we humans perceive as darkness is really just our eyes’ relatively limited ability to gather light at any given instant. But a camera’s sensor (or a rectangle of unexposed film) can patiently accumulate all the light striking it for whatever duration we prescribe, thereby stretching its “instant” of perception indefinitely. Advantage camera.

On a clear night, you can actually watch the Earth’s shadow descend and engulf the landscape in deepening blue light. And unlike daylight (and moonlight) photography, when a discrete light source casts high-contrast shadows that test a camera’s dynamic range, and starlight photography, when the light is so faint that extremely long exposures are required to register any foreground detail at all, in the pre-sunrise/post-sunset gloaming, a camera can still “see” these diminishing vestiges of daylight. Given enough exposure, the image’s world is rendered blue, and because the entire sky is the light source, this blue hour light is spread so evenly that most shadows disappear.

When I can, I’ll stay out at least long enough for the first stars to pop out. On this evening, because I didn’t want the rest of the group to have to wait for me, I wrapped up before the stars appeared, but still stay out long enough to capture this 8-second exposure—my very last image of the evening. The perfection I’d been watching and waiting for never made it to my eyes, but fortunately my camera revealed that it was there all along.

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Blue Hour

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Garbage in, garbage out

Gary Hart Photography: Magenta Moonrise, Half Dome and the Merced River, Yosemite

Magenta Moonrise, Half Dome and the Merced River, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/13 second
F/11
ISO 100

True story: I once saw a guy taking 10-second exposures of the moonbow at the base of Yosemite Falls, hand-held. When I gently suggested that his image might be a little soft, he assured me that he would just sharpen it in Photoshop.

I won’t deny that digital capture and processing has given photographers more flexibility and control than ever, and processing can indeed correct a number of problems, but processing is not a panacea—if the image was garbage going in, it’ll be garbage going out. Processing software and skills are an essential part of good photography, but the best images are still created in the camera.

Just as Ansel Adams visualized the finished print before clicking the shutter, success in digital photography still starts with understanding how the camera’s vision differs from your own, and taking the steps necessary to leverage those differences at capture. While Adams was indeed a master in the darkroom, that skill would have been wasted without his intimate knowledge of his camera and film, combined with his understanding of exposure, that ensured the best possible negative and print once he got into the darkroom.

Of course (spoiler alert) photography has come a long way since Ansel Adams’ roamed the earth. Digital photographers now have more control than ever, and incredible capture tools that allow us to correct problems instantly. But I fear all this power has intimidated some photographers, and made others lazy. Fortunately, like many things that seem scary-complex going in, just scratching the surface a little starts to reveal a foundation of very simple principles.

One of the simplest things you can do is learn how to read a histogram, then train yourself to rely on it. It’s the relying on the histogram part where most photographers fall short. One of the most frequent mistakes I see inexperienced photographers make is basing their exposure decision on the way the picture looks on the back of their camera. The LCD is great for composition, but trusting it for exposure is a huge mistake.

Additionally, and here’s another thing that’s often overlooked: take the time to learn how your camera’s actual capture differs from what its histogram tells you. The histogram is based on a jpeg preview, but if you’re shooting raw, you almost always have more information than the histogram shows you. Each camera model is different, so you need to do a little observing or testing to determine how far you can push your camera’s histogram beyond its boundaries and still get usable data. Shooting this way, the jpeg that comes out of the camera may indeed show blown highlights or unrecoverable shadows, but they’ll come back like magic in Lightroom/Photoshop (or whatever your processing paradigm).

When I photographed this moon rising above Yosemite Valley last February, even though the color and exposure of the finished image you see here is pretty close to what my eyes saw, the image that appeared on my camera’s LCD screen looked nothing like this. The sky was washed out, and the reflection was lost in the shadows. But a quick check of my luminosity histogram told me that I’d captured all the scene’s detail, and verifying with the RGB histogram confirmed that I’d gotten all the color as well.

Usually a perfect histogram is all you need to get the exposure right, but in this case I also had make sure I had detail in the moon, which was by far the brightest thing in the scene. Normally I only use my camera’s highlight alert features (“zebras” pre-capture, blinking highlights post-capture) as a reminder to check my (nearly always more reliable) histogram, but here the moon was too small to register on the histogram. So as I added light, I closely monitored my highlight alert, bumping the exposure in 1/3-stop increments until the flashing appeared. But wait, there’s more! Just seeing the highlight alert wasn’t enough to tell me the moon was blown out. I know my Sony a7RIV well enough to know that I can push my exposure at least a stop beyond where the moon starts blinking and still recover the lunar details in post. This little piece of knowledge enables me to give my moon images the most light possible, ensuring less noise when I pull up the shadows.

In Lightroom I pulled down the highlights, pulled up the shadows, tweaked a few other things (color temperature, vibrance, clarity), then moved the image to Photoshop, where I did some noise reduction (Topaz DeNoise AI), dodging and burning, and (finally) sharpening. Voilà.


More Twilight Magic

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Groundhog Day

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

Winter Reflection, El Capitan and Three Brothers, Yosemite
Sony a7RIII
Sony 12-24 G
1/20 second
F/11
ISO 100

Sitting down to write this blog, I looked at my watch and realized that if the world were normal, I’d be about an hour from starting my Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers photo workshop. In that alternate reality, I’d probably be just wrapping up my pre-workshop reconnaissance, circumnavigating Yosemite Valley to check the status of variables such as the amount of water in the falls and access to roads and vistas that sometimes (and seemingly randomly) close. And I know I’d be excited by the Yosemite weather forecast, which calls for rain and maybe even snow, a rare treat for Yosemite in April.

Instead, I’m reclined by the fire at home, laptop right where its name suggests it should be, watching the rain, listening to latin jazz (Azymuth, if you must know), and trying to figure out what to blog about. I don’t know about you, but this whole shelter-in-place thing is getting old. I have no quarrels with the SIP mandate, but days have started to blend seamlessly from one to the next with so little variation that I’m starting to wonder if we’re all immersed in a real-life “Groundhog Day,” where we’re doomed to repeat each day until we learn to treat each other better.

So far I’ve lost five workshops to Coronavirus, and have a sixth on life-support, but really, when I stop to consider the big picture, I have nothing to complain about. I’m healthy, as are all the people who matter most to me. I have a roof over my head and food in the fridge (and toilet paper on the shelf!), and I’m doing things I’d never have done had I not been forced to break the routine of my former, “normal” life.

I’ve written recently about returning to unprocessed images from past shoots, like this one, but there’s been other cool stuff happening in my life as a direct result of imposed solitude. For example, much as Phil (Bill Murray) (eventually) used his recycled Groundhog Day to to learn the piano, I’ve taken it upon myself to do something that I always said I was going to do but never seemed to find the time: learn video.

For years I’ve felt like I’m the only person on Earth with a digital camera who doesn’t do video, and for just about as long have vowed to fix that, but now it’s actually happening. Yay me. I doubt you’ll ever see me accepting an Oscar, but an unexpected benefit of this whole I-have-no-idea-what-I’m-doing experience has been the opportunity to walk a mile (or two) in the shoes of the people who pay me to teach them photography in my photo workshops.

Learning new stuff can be intimidating, frustrating, and humbling. But like anything worth doing, I know the reward will far outweigh the pain, and I can’t help but feel that my world will be just a little better on the other side of this mess.

Next, maybe a little ice sculpting….

About this image

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This image of El Capitan is another new one from that great Yosemite snow day with my brother last February. You can read about the day here: Escape From Yosemite. To get out to this spot, I had to trudge through so much hip-deep fresh snow, that I was sweating profusely, despite the cold. I love being the first person at a spot after a snow, but it also makes me feel a little guilty to spoil the pristine powder (but not so guilty that I won’t do it).

To get all of the reflection I needed to get a little closer to the edge of the (4-foot or so) snowbank than made me comfortable. If it had collapsed I’d have gone into the river for sure—I wouldn’t have been swept to my death, but I’d have had a pretty miserable drive home. (Plus my brother would have laughed at me.) But I managed to stay upright long enough to capture this frame.

One more thought: This is another one of those shots that I couldn’t have gotten without my Sony 12-24mm G lens. Before getting this lens I’d have used my Sony 16-35 GM lens, but I wouldn’t have been able to get El Capitan, the Three Brothers, and the reflection. As I mentioned in my It’s In the Bag post, I don’t use this lens a lot, but I sure love having it for times just like this.

A Reflection Collection

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

 

Lenses: The Long and Short of it

Gary Hart Photography: Howling Dog at Sunset, Bandon Beach, Oregon

Howling Dog at Sunset, Bandon Beach, Oregon
Sony a7RIII
Sony 24-105 G
1/50 seconds
F/11
ISO 100

I hope everyone is doing well. I’ve been sequestered at home since returning from Anchorage two weeks ago (visiting my daughter, a trip that seemed okay when I left, but really stressed me when it came time to fly home). Social distancing, shelter in place, quarantine, or whatever you want to call it, we’re all coming to terms with our new reality in different ways. With my wife stuck in Southern California and no kids at home to entertain or educate, I’ve been left to my own devices as I try to fill my days productively: processing images, learning new skills, cleaning up my website and social media pages, and rescheduling workshops. I hope you’re staying safe and happy.


My previous blog post detailed my current equipment lineup and got thinking about me lens choices, specifically about how much I use each lens. Much as a golfers try to identify the ideal club for the unique location and lie of their ball, photographers have to identify the lens that creates the shot they’re going for. Every scene has many variables requiring a seemingly endless number of decisions, from the exposure settings that manage the scene’s motion, depth, and light, to the focus point, to framing.

Prime lenses are undeniably sharper and more compact than zooms, but sharpness gap has narrowed so much in the best lenses that, for me at least, the convenience of being able to refine my framing in my viewfinder justifies whatever small (and often imperceptible) quality they sacrifice. (But zoom versus prime is a personal choice, and a debate I refuse to have with anyone.)

Framing is the most obvious reason to select one lens over another, but it’s certainly not the only reason. As a general rule, the more I want to emphasize my foreground, the wider I’ll go, sometimes filling my frame with a nearby subject and significantly shrinking the background. Telephoto lenses are great for isolation shots that highlight a single aspect of the distant landscape, and also to compress the apparent distance between near and far subjects.

The lens choices we make say a lot about our vision in the field—what we see and how we chose to express it. So, to get a better idea of my own lens choices and maybe identify potential creativity-limiting biases, I created a 2019 lens-use report in Lightroom. Here’s a screenshot for that report detailing the number of frames I shot with each lens in my bag in 2019:

2019 lens use breakdown

And here’s the breakdown:

  • —  (3 images): This is (was) my 24mm f/1.4 Rokinon (its name is unlisted here because this lens doesn’t communicate any information to the Sony bodies) that used to be my dedicated night lens—until I sold it after getting the…
  • Sigma 20mm f/1.4 (10 images): I bought this lens about a month before Sony announced their 24mm f/1.4 GM lens (I hope this will silence the people who assume my Sony Artisan status provides inside knowledge, and who think I’m holding out when I say I don’t know of any new Sony equipment on the horizon). This is a very good lens, but it’s also massive. I bought it to become my dedicated night lens, a status it held for about a month—until it was replaced by my 24mm Sony f/1.4 (more below). I only used the Sigma once, side-by-side with the new 24mm Sony, and decided the Sony was slightly (but noticeably) sharper (and much, much smaller and lighter).
  • Sony FE 12-24mm (388 images): Not a high volume lens, but the 12-24 has become essential because it allows me to do things I once believed to be impossible (see my previous blog post). Even though I like to have a polarizer on all of my lenses, I don’t mind too much that this lens doesn’t take filters, because it’s so wide that I’d get differential polarization (which I hate) in the sky anyway.
  • Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 GM (1609 images): Since part of this lens’s focal range is covered by the 12-24, and the rest is covered by my 24-105, you could argue that it’s redundant. But this may just be the sharpest non-prime lens I own, (unlike the 12-24) it takes filters, and f/2.8, while not as fast as I’d like for night photography, is in fact fast enough. And sometimes when I’m photographing the Milky Way, I want more sky than my 24mm f/1.4 lens gives me—this is especially true in New Zealand, where the Milky Way is higher in the sky than it is in North America. Plus, as a general rule, the extreme ends of a lens’s focal range are not usually its best, so when find myself shooting the 12-24 or 24-105 at or near 24mm, (and I’m not being lazy) I’ll switch to the 16-35. One other reason I love this lens is that it delivers the sweetest sunstar of all my lenses.
  • Sony 24-105mm f/4 G (3322 images): My most heavily used lens and it’s not even close. I actually took more pictures with this lens than I did with all my other lenses combined. These numbers are skewed slightly by the fact that this is my primary lightning lens, because in an active electrical storm my Lightning Trigger might fire hundreds of times with only a handful of visible strikes (it rarely misses the visible strikes, but also catches many strikes that I or my camera didn’t see). But even accounting for that, my 24-105 is the volume winner by such a wide margin for the simple reason that it has a broad focal range that covers both the moderate wide and telephoto zones. It’s also really sharp, and relatively compact. That said, seeing these numbers makes my think maybe I’ve gotten a little lazy and should think more about the possibilities with the other lenses in my bag.
  • Sony 24mm f1.4 GM (208 images): My latest dedicated night lens, I haven’t a single picture with this lens when the sun was out. Super sharp, and so compact I don’t even know I’m carrying it (it actually squeezes into the front pocket of my Levis. I just got the 20mm f/1.8 G lens, which is even smaller, but haven’t used it—I’ll probably use both at night (only) rather than try to decide between the two.
  • Sony 70-200mm f/4 G (83 images): I love this lens, but it has been replaced by the 100-400 and I rarely carry it anymore. To save weight in my camera bag, I did take the 70-200 to New Zealand last June instead of the 100-400, and really appreciated having a lighter bag (especially since NZ is very tight on carry-on weight).
  • Sony 90mm f/2.8 G (6 images): Wow, only 6 images with this crazy sharp lens. Part of that low number is because I only carry this lens when macro is my primary objective, and part of it is because I’ve really gotten into using my extreme telephotos with extension tubes for my close-focus work. But maybe I need to dust this lens off and use it more in 2020.
  • Sony 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 GM (603 images, including teleconverter): The majority of my 100-400 images are of the moon, but I use it for other stuff too. In spring and fall I add extension tubes and do creative selective focus, and sometimes it’s fun to just put it up to my eye and slowly pan a landscape to identify subjects to isolate. Adding the Sony 2X teleconverter is like putting this lens on steroids, essentially doubling all the things I like about it. The teleconverter costs two stops, but I see no appreciable degradation of image quality—it’s definitely the sharpest telephoto/teleconverter pair I’ve ever used.
  • Sony 200-600 f/5.6-6.3 G (114 images, including teleconverter): Since lens is pretty new, so far I’ve only used it for the moon. But wow, if you want to make your moon big, try this lens with the 2X teleconverter and APS-C (1.5) crop. I’m looking forward to trying it for the selective focus work I use the 100-400 for.

About this image

The sea stacks at Bandon Beach on the Oregon Coast make a great starting point for an image, but because there’s so much else going on here, I try to avoid making the sea stacks my ultimate goal. Since the scene at Bandon varies quite a bit with the tide and sky, when I photograph here I like to wander at the water line and identify features that I can assemble into a composition: sea stacks, reflections, surf, sun, and (fingers crossed) clouds.

The reflections following waves receding on the very gently sloping beach are better at Bandon than most beaches because the water doesn’t recede as quickly, and there’s more surface area for them to form. The best reflections happen when there are clouds and or color in the sky, so I like to arrive early enough to pick my composition, then wait for the magic.

On this April evening I found a little creek, fed by runoff from recent rain, leading right into Howling Dog (often misidentified as Wizard’s Hat, which is a short distance south). The sun was behind the clouds as I worked on my composition, but the clouds were moving so fast, I knew the sun would appear soon. But I’d found my shot early enough that when the clouds parted, I was ready. A film of thin clouds subdued the sun’s brightness, making exposure easier. All I had to do was wait for a wave to wash up and recede, then click.


A Collection of Images, from Long to Short

Select an image for a closer look, exposure info, and a slide show

 

It’s in the Bag

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Storm, El Capitan in the Snow, Yosemite

Winter Storm, El Capitan in the Snow, Yosemite
Sony a7RIII
Sony 12-24 G
1/20 seconds
F/16
ISO 50

Ready for some irony? One reason I switched from a Canon DSLR system to Sony Alpha mirrorless (about 5 1/2 years ago) was that Sony’s bodies and lenses are smaller and lighter, yet today I’m probably carrying the heaviest bag I’ve ever carried. What I hadn’t counted on when I made the switch was that smaller gear meant more room in my camera bag, which gave me two options: a smaller camera bag, or more gear. Guess which option I chose. Since people ask all the time about my gear, and it’s been a couple of years since I actually shared it all in one place…

Let’s peek in my camera bag

The contents of my camera bag has evolved over the years, from the vanilla 16-35, 24-105, 70-200 lens lineup that most landscape photographer carry, to my current setup that allows covers 12mm to 800mm (1200mm if you factor in the APS-C crop option) at all times—plus the option to go up to 1800mm (factoring in the APS-C crop factor) if I need it.

Here’s what’s I carry today:

Always in my bag

  • Sony a7R IV camera body: My primary body—61 amazing megapixels.
  • Sony a7R III camera body: My backup/second body—peace of mind in case I break/lose my primary body; or if I want to have two cameras going at the same time (because you’ll never hear me say 42 megapixels isn’t enough).
  • Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens: Though I don’t use it a lot, this lens has allowed me to photograph things I never could, and I love that it’s compact enough to keep with me at all times.
  • Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens*: This focal range is covered by other lenses in my bag, but I love the lens too much to leave it behind—crazy sharp, and f/2.8 means it’s fast enough for night photography in a pinch. Plus, it’s a whole lot easier to use with polarizing and neutral density filters than the 12-24.
  • Sony 24-105 G lens*: This is my workhorse—what a fantastic focal range! Really sharp, too.
  • Sony 100-400 GM lens*: Replacing my 70-200 with this slightly bigger lens doubled my focal range—and it’s a fantastic match with the Sony 2X teleconverter.
  • Sony 2X teleconverter
  • Filters (in a Mindshift filter bag attached to my tripod): 72mm and 77mm Breakthrough 6-stop polarizing ND filters, Breakthrough 2-stop hard graduated neutral density filter
  • Other stuff: Several lens cloths, headlamp, insulated water bottle, extension tubes, Giotto Rocket Blower, and a couple of RX Bars (because photography always trumps meals).

* Plus a Breakthrough polarizer

Mindshift Backlight 26L bag fully loaded
Notice how the compactness of the Sony bodies and lenses allows me to pack almost everything on its end? This is the primary reason I’m able to get so much gear in my bag.

Specialty Equipment (not in the picture—stays behind until I need it)

  • Sony a7S II camera body: For Milky Way and other moonless night photography—it’s “only” 12 megapixels (remember when 12 megapixels was huge?), but this camera sees in the dark.
  • Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM lens: For Milky Way and other moonless night photography—I can’t believe how compact this lens is.
  • Sony 28mm f/1.8 G lens: For Milky Way and other moonless night photography—this one’s even more compact than the 24mm.
  • Sony 90mm Macro: I use this lens a lot with extension tubes to get super close for my creative selective focus work (wildflowers, fall color).
  • Sony 200-600 G lens: When I want to go big on a moonrise/moonset—sometimes I’ll pare it with the 2X teleconverter and really go crazy. I also use this lens with extension tubes for selective focus fall color.

Support

  • Really Right Stuff 24L Tripod with a RRS BH-55 ball head: Sturdy enough for whatever I put on it, in pretty much any conditions. I also like that, fully extended with the head and camera, it’s several inches taller than I am—without a centerpost.
  • Colorado Tripod Company Centennial 2-Series (Breakthrough Filters affiliate) with a RRS BH-40 ballhead: This recent addition is my new travel/hiking tripod. Without extending the centerpost it’s not quite as tall as I like, but it’s a couple of inches taller than the RRS TQC-14 I’d been using before, and just as sturdy.

About this image

In my Canon days, and my first couple of years with Sony, the focal-length range I carried at all times was 16mm – 200mm. With Canon it was mostly a size thing—I just didn’t have enough room for much more than my DSLR body and 16-35, 24-105, and 70-200 lenses. When I switched to Sony, even though Yosemite has some scenes that are too wide for a 16mm lens, I figured Sony lenses covering the same focal range would be sufficient.

Then one spring morning in Yosemite, I was photographing a flooded meadow when a friend loaned me his Canon 11-24 f/4 lens (which I adapted to my Sony a7RII body with a Metabones adapter), and I was in love (with the lens, not my friend). Wow! Even though I knew I wouldn’t use an ultra-wide lens very much, the ability to go wide when the situation calls for it suddenly opened up a whole new world. But as much as I’d have loved a Canon 11-24 of my own, it was just too big and heavy (not to mention expensive) to live full-time in my bag.

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

Spring Reflection, El Capitan and Three Brothers, Yosemite
This 11mm image with a Canon 11-24 lens, adapted to my Sony a7RII, is my first ultra-wide image.

Just a year after that ultra-wide epiphany, Sony released its very own ultra-wide lens. Not only is the Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens just as sharp as its Canon counterpart (at about half the price), the Sony 12-24 is less than half the Canon’s size and weight. I was so excited when I realized how compact it is that I instantly reconfigured a few partitions in my camera bag and voila, it fit —without having to jettison anything.

That’s a long-winded way of explaining how I happened to be able to capture this image at a spot in Yosemite that for most of my photography life was too close to photograph El Capitan and its reflection, top to bottom, in a single frame. My brother and I had arrived in the park the previous afternoon, got a room at the lodge, and hunkered down against the incoming storm. What had been forecast to be 3-5 inches of overnight snow had just been upgraded to 12-16 inches, so we knew we’d wake Tuesday morning to something exceptional. A peek through the curtains in the predawn darkness confirmed a world of white with the snow still falling hard. Checking the Yosemite road conditions hotline, I learned that not only were all park entrances closed, all roads in Yosemite Valley were closed.

I dressed and trudged through the snow in the twilight to survey the photography potential near the lodge and found the view of Yosemite Falls completely obscured by clouds. The cafeteria was open, but serving nothing because the employees couldn’t make it to work. At the adjacent Starbucks I found only two people had been able to negotiate the snowy darkness to get to work—it turned out to be the Starbucks manager and his wife, a non-employee drafted into action and put on the front line.

On my way back to my room, I swung by the parking lot and checked my car. About the time I identified the white lump that was mine, Yosemite Falls made an appearance and I hustled back to the room for my gear, but within a couple of minutes it had been re-swallowed. My brother and I spent most of the rest of the morning watching the skies, waiting for the views of Yosemite Falls or Half Dome to clear enough to photograph, or simply for the snow to slow enough to allow us to photograph some of the closer views. We the snowfall finally abated, we ventured out into the elements and forged a trail through the snow to the bridge beneath Lower Yosemite Fall, because any photography is better than no photography.

Shortly after returning to the room we got a call from the front desk telling us outbound Highway 140 had reopened. We had no plans to evacuate, but I took this as a signal that the valley roads would be open too (otherwise, what use would there be to open 140). So we dug out my Outback (no small feat) and hit the road. With snow still falling, we spent the next few hours circling Yosemite Valley, stopping occasionally when a view appeared, waiting for the storm to clear.

We were at El Capitan Bridge when blue sky appeared. Being here in the snow reminded me of an image I’d captured here a year earlier using my 12-24. I’d been blown away that I could get that entire scene in a single vertical frame, but wished there had be more blue sky. But here was a second chance, this time with blue sky, and I set up real fast to reprise that composition.

As I had the first time, I was able to keep my camera level (my lens exactly parallel to the ground) to avoid distorting the trees on edge of the frame. Focus was easy because at 12mm, depth of field feels nearly infinite. Metering was a little trickier than the first time because El Capitan was brighter, but I knew my Sony a7RIII could handle it. Not sure of the best way to handle the falling snow, I tried a few ISO and f-stop combinations, and ended up going with the one that gave me a shutter speed that turned the snow into small streaks of white (the snow showed up better this way).

It’s pretty amazing (and a little disconcerting) how close I came to duplicating that earlier composition. The biggest difference is the trees that have been removed in the last year, victims of the drought and pine bark beetle.


An Ultra-Wide Gallery

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

Hunkered Down

Gary Hart Photography: Sand Like Glass, Bandon Beach Sunset, Oregon

Sand Like Glass, Bandon Beach Sunset, Oregon
Sony a7RIII
Sony 16-35 GM
1/30 second
F/18
ISO 100

So how has your world been upended by the coronavirus? Fortunate for me, mine so far has been firmly pegged on the inconvenience side of the coronavirus inconvenience-tragedy continuum. I’ve had to reschedule a couple of workshops, answer lots of concerned e-mails, and abandon some firmly established routines, but (as far as I know) no one in my circle has even gotten sick. So you won’t hear me complaining.

One thing this shelter-in-place time has provided is the opportunity to mine my image folders for forgotten gems that my (formerly) busy schedule never allowed me to process. And you know what? It’s actually kind of fun. I have some shoots that I’ve mentally bookmarked as “sure things,” but the coolest thing is that I’m finding stuff I’d completely forgotten about. I started with this image from January 2019 at Bandon Beach (for no other reason than it was in the oldest folder on the hard drive that happened to be in closest reach), and it turns out this is the first image I’ve processed from this scouting trip Don Smith and I took fourteen months ago—one of the shoots I’d completely forgotten.

In addition to going through old images, and to prevent myself from going completely stir crazy, I plan to take this opportunity to spend more quality time with my camera. One of the nice things about landscape photography is that it can be both a group or a solitary endeavor, and both are pretty great The group aspect I’ve covered pretty thoroughly with my workshops, but the solitary part has suffered in recent years. Spring is one of the best times to photograph the foothills near my Sacramento home, and with everyone’s travel so restricted, I plan to take full advantage of the reduced crowds during what’s normally one of Yosemite’s busiest seasons.

I also think I’ll try to do some of that education and skill refreshing that I always say I need to get to, but never do. And who knows—maybe I’ll even find more time for my blog….

About this image 

Don and I were in Bandon scouting locations for our shared Oregon Coast photo workshops that were scheduled to kick off a couple of months later. We’d been to Bandon a number of times before, so the goal this evening wasn’t so much to identify photo spots as it was to become more familiar with the light, tide, and surf here.

I started this evening way up at the north end of the beach and slowly made my way south. The tide was out, exposing lots of sand and rocks that had been submerged on previous visits, and the thing that most drew my eye was the reflections on the sand left by receding waves. In most places the reflections faded as the water percolated downward into the sand, but in the spots where extra water was funneled by rocks embedded in the beach, deeper indentations created pools. At first I was just content to look and mentally compose, but when the sun approached the horizon I got my camera out and went to work. I started with a few sunstars as the sun dropped into the clouds, but the best stuff didn’t come until after the sun disappeared.

I don’t have any specific memories of composing this shot, but I can tell by looking at it that my mindset was to pair the foreground rocks and reflection with the background sea stacks. To emphasize the rocks and reflection, I went wide and got very close, allowing them to nearly fill my frame. Then I waited for a wave to flood the scene, and recede to reveal a reflection.

Hang in there everybody (and wash your hands!).

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Life’s a Beach

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On the other hand…

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Chill, Bridalveil Fall Reflection, Yosemite

Winter Chill, Bridalveil Fall Reflection, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/8 seconds
F/10
ISO 100

On Wednesday I wrote about featuring the sky in my images, and how my love for all things astronomical and meteorological reflects in my photography. On the other hand…

As much as I love photographing the moon, stars, rainbows, and lightning to my images, there are many photo-worthy subjects right here on terra firma. And usually the best way to feature them is to minimize or exclude the sky. Which is why many of my favorite images have little or no sky. To sky, or not to sky? That really comes down to playing the hand I’m dealt, and understanding that there’s no law that says you need to include the sky in your image.

One thing I won’t do is include a boring sky, a sky that’s nothing but a homogenous, horizon-to-horizon sheet of blue or gray. While everyone who’s not a vampire loves being outside on a sunny day, given a choice between photographing a sky that’s all blue or all gray, I actually prefer gray because clouds cast diffuse light that cuts contrast, creating a natural softbox that’s ideal for photographing pretty much anything in the landscape.

On the other hand, when there’s sunlight on the landscape, I either search for subjects in full shade, or try to find creative ways to use the sunlight.

Sunlight solutions

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One popular sunlight technique (some would argue too popular) is a sunstar. Not only can you create a sunstar when the sun is on the horizon, it can also be achieved by positioning yourself in the shade of any terrestrial object, such as a nearby tree or rock, and letting the sun move into your frame.

The smaller your aperture, the sharper, more clearly defined the sunstar will be. I recommend f/16 or smaller, and usually go with f/18 or f/20. Sunstar quality also varies from lens to lens, with higher quality wide lenses generally delivering the best results.

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Another sunlight solution is overexposing a large part of the frame to create a high-key image with darker subjects that standout against washed out or completely white surroundings. For these images, I usually look for something backlit, such as a flower or leaves, and position myself so the leaf or flower is against the bright sky. I then meter on my darker, backlit subject and push the exposure until the sky is severely or completely overexposed, creating a brilliant canvas for my subject.

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When I find myself in a forested area with dark shade punctuated with splashes of light, I often look for a primary subject in direct light, and juxtapose it against a darker background. Sometimes some of those splashes of light poke through, creating a jeweled effect in the background.

Searching for shade

As fun as it is to try to find ways to work the sun into my images, probably my favorite boring sky solution is to work on subjects in full shade. Everything is in the same light, making exposure easy, colors saturate, and providing the opportunity to feature any subject that catches my eye. While images that use direct sunlight can be quite dramatic, images in overcast or shade often have a more soothing feel.

I almost always wait until I can find water in shade or overcast before photographing it. Not only does shade subdue contrast, it gives me more flexibility to control the amount of motion blur in the water.

About this image

I returned Wednesday from my Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop. While the moon received top billing in this workshop, there are a lot of reasons to love photographing Yosemite in winter. This week’s group hit most of them: snow (though none fell during the workshop), fog, beautiful clouds, and even enough water in Yosemite Falls to make it worth photographing.

Despite the great conditions, I had to make a few on-the-fly adjustments, as is often the case in Yosemite’s fickle winter. For example, when Tuesday’s forecast called for cloudy skies that threatened to wipe out the evening’s sunset moonrise plan, I decided to take advantage of the clouds to photograph scenes that are normally sunlit scenes (while secretly wishing for clear sky so the moon would come out).

When the clouds failed to materialize as promised, I adjusted my plans again and took the group to Valley View. With its riverside views and reflections of El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall, Valley View is one of the most photographed scenes in Yosemite. Even better, in winter Valley View never gets sunlight, making a good spot for blue sky photography.

With El Capitan in full sun and the Merced River in shade, the El Cap reflection was spectacular, but I was drawn more to the low fog hovering in shady Bridalveil Meadow. While some of the group concentrated on the El Capitan view, I worked with a few just upstream from the parking lot, where the view of Bridalveil Fall was best—and the reflection wasn’t too shabby either.

I moved along the riverbank until I could juxtapose the diagonal tree trunk against Bridalveil Fall, and quickly settled on this composition because it completely excluded the very boring sky. The reflection became an essential element of this composition, especially for the way it forms the bottom half of V with the diagonal trunk.

Once I was satisfied with my composition, I played with a range of shutter speeds for a variety of water blur effects, both in the fall and in the bubbles drifting by atop the river. I also had to monitor the ebb and flow of the fog and time my exposures for when it was high enough to stand out, but not so high that it obscured the row of trees beneath the fall.

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Without Sky

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It’s About Time

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Glaze, Valley View, Yosemite

Winter Glaze, Valley View, Yosemite
Sony a7RIII
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
.6 seconds
F/16
ISO 50

Among the many things I’m giving thanks for this Thanksgiving weekend is the return of rain and snow to California. Normally I’d have rearranged my schedule to be in Yosemite for the season’s first snow, but because family trumps photography, I had more important things to do. So Yosemite will just have to be beautiful without me.

As much as I love photographing Yosemite with fresh snow, spending quality time family this weekend was a no-brainer for me. I can’t say that foregoing a photo opportunity has always been so easy (and I’ve been blessed with a family that would have understood had I abandoned them for a day or two to chase the snow), but never let it be said that I’ve learned nothing from my photography career.

In general, being self-employed has time challenges that I’m still learning to manage, but I’m getting better. I do have to admit that sometimes the idea of a 9-5 job with weekends and paid vacations sounds mighty good (I realize I’m speaking in very general terms and don’t mean to offend anyone pinned a cubicle 12 hours per day just to pay the bills), but the bottom line is that I love the flexibility of having complete control of my schedule.

When I left the 9-5 world 15 years ago to pursue this crazy passion, the missing 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. And the closest thing I got to a vacation was when my wife and I would travel to a new location to scout for a new workshop.

But as the years go by (is it me, or is time moving faster?), I’ve come to appreciate the autonomy of self employment. I can look at my calendar, whether the day be tomorrow or two years from now, and if nothing’s there, I can do whatever I want. Of course that might mean cramming the things that need to be done into times when others might be watching Netflix from their recliner or body-surfing at the beach, but it’s 100 percent my choice and I love it.

I often tell people that photography must be a source of pleasure, but there’s a difference between happiness and pleasure, and I know now that what I really mean is that photography must make you happy. I probably would have gotten great pleasure from my images had I gone to Yosemite this Thanksgiving weekend, but I know in the long run I’m much happier for my choice to stay home.

A few words about this image

I’d love to give you a detailed description of the entire process that went into photographing this beautiful scene, but I have no specific memory of its capture. I took it at the beginning of a March visit to Yosemite, one of those semi-spontaneous up and back trips I do when the Yosemite forecast calls for snow. I can infer from my exposure settings (specifically, because I was at ISO 50 and f/16) that I was going for a little motion blur to smooth the ripples in the Merced River. But since my shutter speed was .6 seconds, I must have decided that adding a neutral density filter would have robbed the river of some of its texture. (Or maybe I was just too lazy to fish my ND from my bag.) I can also tell by looking at the clouds and the snow on the trees that the snow had just stopped, but not necessarily for good (this is confirmed by the images preceding this one on the card).

The real lesson in this image is the reminder that we all have a lot of unmined gems on our hard drives. I found this one a few weeks ago by employing an approach I often use when I have extra time between trips: picking a previously processed image taken in particularly nice conditions, and revisiting other images from that shoot.

Here are a few other images from that March snow trip

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When you make your living from photography, often (usually) the business part of it has to take priority over the photography part, and there just aren’t enough hours in the day for everything. In a perfect world I’d identify and process every single keeper the day after returning from a trip, but that’s simply not possible because of that whole time thing. So possible keepers slip through the cracks and languish on my hard drive(s). But that’s okay, because I never delete anything, and I get comfort from the knowledge that whenever I need a new image, I don’t need to run out with my camera and make one right now.

Not only is this retro photography exercise productive, it’s far more fun than it should be—kind of like finding money on the sidewalk (with none of the guilt about benefiting from someone else’s misfortune).

I still have a couple of spaces in next week’s Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop

Winter in Yosemite

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You Can’t Always Get What You Want…

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Accent, Half Dome, Yosemite

Autumn Accent, Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1 second
F/16
ISO 100

(Offered with apologies to the Rolling Stones)

I looked that night at the reflection
My focus app in my hand
I pondered my focus selection
About six feet from where I stand

You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes, you just might find
You get what you need

What we wanted was clouds; what we got was, well, the opposite of clouds.

Photographers love clouds for the soft light they spread across the landscape, and their potential to add color and drama to the sky. And if you’ve been following my recent blogs, you no doubt know about the wall-to-wall blue skies in last month’s Yosemite Fall Color workshop. But as much as we love them, perfect light and spectacular skies can make photographers lazy. On the other hand, dealing with conditions that are less than ideal can create opportunities that otherwise would have been missed.

Throughout last month’s workshop I strongly encouraged everyone to minimize or eliminate the sky and instead emphasize the reflection (rather than the reflected subject). This approach is especially effective on sunny days because the best reflections usually happen with the subject is fully lit, the brighter the better.

Besides a sunlit subject, the other half of the reflection equation is a shaded reflective surface. Long removed from the fury of the spring snow melt, but not yet bolstered by the winter storm reinforcements, the Merced River’s low and slow autumn flow means reflections at most riverside vantage points. And while Yosemite’s towering granite walls create nice shade in any season if you know where to look, the low sun of autumn and winter spreads the shade farther and longer—by late autumn, some sections of the Merced get little or no sun all day.

Since this was the first Yosemite visit for many in the group, at each photo location I’d suggest starting with the more conventional mirror reflection composition (the primary subject above its inverted counterpart), but then move on to compositions that concentrate on the reflection itself.

One important aspect of reflection-only compositions is (upright) foreground elements to orient the viewer—a solid object between the reflection and the reflective subject to signal that the world is in fact not upside down. Sometimes a small section of the opposite shore works (taking care to avoid direct sunlight that can pull the eye away from the reflection), but I especially like adding foreground elements that mingle with the reflection.

A side benefit of a reflection-only approach is exposure management, because photographing a fully lit primary subject above its shaded reflection creates dynamic range challenges. Even if you can capture the scene’s entire range of light, the sunlit subject and blue sky are often washed out, while the reflection and its surroundings remain relatively dark. Since the human eye is drawn to a scene’s brightest elements, the shaded reflection is easily overshadowed (pun unavoidable). Not only does eliminating the sunlit portion of the scene simplify exposure, it makes the reflection the brightest part of the frame.

I found this little scene beside the Merced River on the workshop’s final shoot. Arriving just as the face of Half Dome started to warm with late light, I scanned the riverbank until I found a pool lined with yellow cottonwood leaves jettisoned by trees just upstream. I started with my Sony 100-400 GM lens on my Sony a7RIV, targeting a tight composition that featured a pair of leaves (faintly visible here floating atop the dark trees reflected near the base of Half Dome) embedded in Half Dome’s face. But I wanted to include more of the colorful leaves and soon switched to my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens.

This might be a good time to mention the significant difference an even slight position shift can make in a reflection image. From my original vantage point, Half Dome’s reflection was surrounded by a large void of bland, empty water. That was no problem in a tight composition, but from my original upright position, going wide enough to include all the leaves shrunk Half Dome and added a lot of extraneous scene. So I moved back slightly and dropped my camera to near river level, moving the yellow leaves closer to Half Dome, framing the reflection with color and eliminating most of the empty water.

Another essential and often overlooked consideration when photographing reflections is the counterintuitive truth that the focus point for a reflection is the reflective subject, not the reflective surface. That means that in this scene, even though its reflection was bobbing on water no more than ten feet away, because Half Dome was about three miles distant, the reflection’s focus point is infinity (the same as Half Dome). When you stop to consider that I’m also including leaves that are no more than five feet away, it becomes pretty clear that I have depth of field to consider.

My focal length here was around 35mm, and while I wanted Half Dome’s reflection sharp, the leaves had to be sharp. A quick check of my hyperfocal app told me the hyperfocal distance at 35mm and f/16 (the smallest aperture I use unless I have no choice) was around 8 feet (on my full frame Sony body). In extreme depth of field scenes, not only do I want to bias my sharpness to the closer object(s), when the more distant object is a reflection, a little softness is usually tolerable. Given all this, and since most hyperfocal tables are based on a fairly liberal definition of “acceptable sharpness,” to ensure foreground sharpness I focused about six feet into the frame. And as you can see, Half Dome turned out pretty darn sharp too.

Everyone wants spectacular conditions, and while this group may not have gotten what it wanted, after seeing the results of the workshop (both my own and the group’s), it appears that we got just we need.

2020 Yosemite Fall Color Photo Workshop


A Lot of Reflections

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Turning a Negative Into a Positive in Yosemite

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Autumn Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1.6 seconds
F/16
ISO 200

Update, November 4

Since posting this image yesterday, I’ve gotten a few comments ranging from “Magnificent!” to “What is it?”. If you think it’s magnificent, thanks. For those scratching their head (I understand), it’s a reflection of El Capitan in the Merced River. This sheltered pool was covered with pine needles, with a collection of colorful leaves resting atop the floating pine needles. One problem with sharing this online is that it’s a 61 megapixel capture using my Sony a7RIV; with so much detail, it really needs to be seen on a screen bigger than your cell phone’s, the bigger the better. But of course I can only post so big online (in this case, 1200×800 pixels), and even that relatively low resolution is compromised by website (WordPress, Facebook, Instagram, and so on) compression, so I doubt that even on a computer screen you’ll see the detail as clearly as I can. And I realize in this day of eye-grabbing computer art, images like this don’t go viral, but this kind of photography makes me happy.

Original post

When I was a kid, I loved power outages. As an adult…, uh, not so much. And if you’ve been living under a rock, you may not have heard about the wildfires charring California’s hillsides and soiling our skies, and PG&E’s dubious strategy to mitigate decades of mismanagement by simply shutting off the power to millions of customers on days the fire risk is deemed extreme. I’m fortunate to live Sacramento, which doesn’t get its electricity from PG&E, which means these outages haven’t really been my problem. Until last week.

When I schedule a photo workshop, I do my best to time it for ideal photography conditions, but sadly, some things are beyond my control. In the 15 or so years I’ve been doing this, I’ve had workshops impacted by rain, snow, wind, fog, wildfires, rock slides, and a tropical storm. I can now add power outage to that list.

Last week’s Yosemite Fall Color workshop coincided with the latest round of wind-induced PG&E power outages. We started Monday, and I learned on Sunday that the power had been shut down in Yosemite and the surrounding area, with no estimate for its reactivation. I e-mailed the group an update Sunday evening, reassuring them that our hotel was open even without power, and that the workshop would go on, power or not. There was still no power in Yosemite when I left home early Monday morning, so all I could do was drive and hope for the best.

With no power at workshop start time, I jettisoned my normal orientation presentation and just winged the group introductions and preparation info in the semi-darkness of the hotel’s lounge area. With only one exception, the group’s attitude was wonderfully positive and up for a we’re-all-in-this-together experience (the exception bailed for home in the first ten minutes, which was probably for the best).

One thing you’re quickly reminded of in a hotel without power is that it’s not just darkness you’re dealing with—we also had no heat, no hot water, and no juice to recharge cameras, computers, and cell phones (and no WiFi!). Between flashlights, headlamps, and battery-powered lanterns, most everyone came armed with enough light to navigate their room in the dark. For emergency battery charging, I brought a couple of fully charged power bricks, and Curt, the photographer assisting me with this workshop, came with an industrial strength portable charger that could have illuminated Vegas for a week. The rooms didn’t seem to get too cold until close to bedtime, but extra blankets in every room fixed that. The biggest problem was the no hot water thing—on the first morning I managed to make myself sufficiently presentable with a sponge bath (applied with prayer for power and hot water by the time the next morning rolled around).

Meeting the group before sunrise Tuesday morning I braced for a mutiny, but everyone remained spectacularly upbeat. And because there was little reason to hang in the rooms without light or heat, I ended up replacing some of my standard mid-day break and training time with extra shooting. Even without power, Curt was able to do his sensor cleaning talk, and clean everyone’s sensor, which was a big hit. And with extra time for shooting, I decided to make the 75-minute one-way drive to Olmsted Point (where I haven’t taken a Yosemite group in years), for a sunset and Milky Way shoot.

Much to our delight, we returned from Olmsted Point on Tuesday night to find the hotel lit up like Christmas—lights, heat, and hot water, but alas, no internet for the rest of the week. We had survived about 30 hours without power (from the time the workshop started until our return from the Milky Way shoot) in remarkably good spirits, and in fact I think the whole experience drew the group even closer. The workshop’s final two days went off without a hitch, and by the end, people who were complete strangers at the start were making plans for post-workshop meals and more photography.

The lesson here, one that we already know but sometimes need to be reminded, is that our experience of the world is shaped more by our attitude than the world. We were in Yosemite for heaven’s sake, in one of the most beautiful times to be there, sharing the experience with a group of like-minded individuals. Doing 12-18 workshops a year for nearly 15 years, memories of the individual workshops tend to run together, but this is one I’ll definitely never forget!

About this image

Landscape photographers love clouds, both for the drama they add to the sky and for the way they soften harsh light. So besides the power thing, the other difficulty this workshop faced was no clouds. For four days: Not. One. Cloud. Fortunately, I’ve been photographing Yosemite long enough to know how to make it work without clouds, and the fall color was pretty great—not just on the trees, but also on the ground and in the water.

It also didn’t hurt that the reflections in the Merced River were off the charts (as they pretty much always are in autumn). Virtually every stop offered some reflection of Half Dome or El Capitan in the Merced. And we didn’t have to look to hard to find color to add to the reflections. Frequently it was in the trees lining the far riverbank, but I set my own sights on the yellow and red leaves floating on the near riverbank. With a little careful positioning, I was usually able to juxtapose the floating leaves with the reflection du jour.

On Tuesday morning we found our first nice El Capitan reflection near El Capitan Bridge. I walked along the riverbank until I found this bed of floating pine needles punctuated with an assortment of colorful leaves. I set up my tripod and positioned it so my camera framed the reflection with the most colorful leaves, placing El Capitan in an area with fewer pine needles (and more reflection). I used a polarizer darken the water, but not so much that I lost the reflection of El Capitan (which I dodged slightly in Photoshop to help it stand out).

Read more about photographing reflections


A Gallery of Reflections

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