Posted on March 2, 2018
I recently spent some time going through and processing a bunch of Columbia River Gorge images, from many years of visits, I haven’t had time to get to until now. This is the first of several I’ll be posting over the coming weeks.
The first time I visited the Columbia River Gorge, I couldn’t believe I’d lived my entire life without visiting here. For a landscape photographer, the Columbia River Gorge area has everything: lush forests, thundering waterfalls, majestic volcanoes, sparkling streams, and glassy lakes. It’s almost unfair that this year-round beauty is enhanced by the vivid colors of spring wildflowers and autumn foliage.
The Columbia River cuts a wide channel through lava flows that ended around 10 million years ago, leaving a layer of basalt that’s more than a mile thick. Basalt’s hardness is responsible for the gorge’s proliferation of waterfalls. Rather than eroding into gently sloping terrain as softer rock does, the basalt cliffs carved by the Columbia River maintain their verticality, creating resilient platforms that launch the numerous rivers and creeks that drain this saturated region. The result is waterfalls, lots and lots of waterfalls: Tall waterfalls, short waterfalls, wide waterfalls, skinny waterfalls, single waterfalls, multiple waterfalls, plummeting waterfalls, cascading waterfalls….
But it would be a mistake to assume that the Columbia River Gorge experience is all about waterfalls. Bookended by majestic volcanoes, the area surrounding the Gorge is a pastiche of rivers, streams, and lakes that are beautiful subjects by themselves, and as wonderful foreground material for whatever mountain happens to be in view.
On the Oregon (south) side of the Columbia River, Mount Hood towers over the picturesque orchards of the Hood River Valley. Across the river is Washington and its seemingly endless evergreen forests that unfold in the shadows of Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens.
Trout Lake is about a half hour north of the river on the Washington side. Technically not part of the Columbia River Gorge, Trout Lake is nevertheless part of the broader Columbia River Gorge experience. And while I wouldn’t call Trout Lake hidden, or particularly unknown, it’s far enough off the beaten path to avoid trampling by ogling tourists.
Filling with sediments that started their journey on or near Mount Adams, Trout Lake is on its way to becoming a meadow. Its relative shallowness makes it less likely to be disturbed by waves that spoil reflections reflections. While a reflection like the one in this image is far from a sure thing, neither is it a rare occurrence. They’re more common here in the calm air around sunrise, but as this picture illustrates, I’ve found reflections on Trout Lake at sunset too.
Filtered by thin clouds, the light this afternoon had been rather subdued—nice, but unspectacular. Sunset was similarly forgettable. But as I started to pack up, a whisper of pink in the previously bland clouds above Mount Adams gave me pause. Hmmm. Often this kind of color is just there to mess with me (you know what I’m talking about), but I paused to watch the color intensify, until finally I could no longer resist.
Without a lot of foreground options, and not much time to go hunting, I simply centered Mount Adams in the top third of the frame and used a solitary protruding rock to create a diagonal with a cinder cone to Mount Adams’ right. While perhaps not my most creative composition, the mountain, color, and reflection make this one of those moments in nature when it’s best for the photographer to get out of the way and just let the scene speak for itself.
Posted on December 10, 2017
Missing snow so far this winter, I’m going through some of my old snow images and came across this one from a few years ago. I’d traveled to Yosemite with the promise of snow in the forecast, but the night before the trip’s final day I went to sleep to the steady hum of rain. The next morning dawned damp and gray—and gloriously silent. Outside a thin veneer of fresh snow dusted the trees, and without even considering breakfast I headed to Tunnel View to survey the valley and plan my morning. By the time I arrived a patch of sunlight had burned a hole in the clouds above Cathedral Rocks and hints blue sky mingled with the clouds behind me. I knew the show there would soon be spectacular, but I’ve photographed many clearing storms from Tunnel View and wanted something different.
Without leaving my car I headed back down into the valley, stopping first at El Capitan Bridge, arriving just before the clouds atop El Capitan started lifting. I photographed there for about 15 minutes, long enough to see El Capitan’s nose go from obscure shadow to distinct outline to fully exposed granite. Before the clouds parted completely, I packed up and made a beeline for nearby Cathedral Beach. In the short time it took to drive a half mile most of El Capitan had emerged from the clouds and I rushed to grab my gear. The road to the beach was closed so I set out on foot, running most of the quarter mile to the river.
I found two other photographers at the west end of the beach and rather than compete with them for real estate, I trudged through the brush and fresh snow to an open space just downstream. There I was able to set up in solitude and move around at will. I was quite pleased to find a snow covered snag protruding from the river, adding a little depth to the foreground.
The beauty of photographing a Yosemite clearing storm is that no matter where you are, something spectacular is happening. Often in these situations I move between locations much more quickly than normal, but this morning I took my time and just enjoyed the show.
Wringing out as many compositions as possible, I started wide with both vertical and horizontal compositions that included El Capitan and the reflection. Next I went a little tighter, capturing just El Capitan, or just the reflection, or some of both. Finally I switched to a telephoto and started picking out individual elements: the swirling clouds and brilliant highlights on El Capitan’s vertical edge, the snow covered snag in the river, and so on.
A couple of related technical issues raised by this image: First, the focus point of a reflection; and second, where to focus when elements are spread from near to far throughout the frame. It’s counterintuitive to many that a reflection’s focus point is the focus point of the reflective subject, not the reflective surface. In other words, since El Capitan is at infinity, its reflection is in focus at infinity, and not when focused on the snag. If you don’t believe me, try it yourself.
Given that knowledge, and the fact that I generally want whatever’s in my foreground to be in focus (even if it means the background is slightly soft), I had to find a compromise focus point to ensure that both the reflection and the snag were in focus. With an extremely wide focal length and small aperture I was confident I could get the entire scene acceptably sharp if I focused carefully.
There are different approaches to maximizing focus range, such as relatively accurate but awkward hyperfocal charts, and rule-of-thumb guidelines like focusing a third of the way into the frame. Both have merit, and many excellent photographers employ them, but I prefer a more seat-of-the-pants approach that relies on my own experience and understanding of focus range. I generally find the closest subject I want in focus—in this case the snag—and then focus on something a little behind it.
Here I estimated the distance of the snag, found something behind me that I thought was a little farther away, and focused there. At f/16 that gave me a pretty large margin for error and I was confident the image was sharp throughout. Is this an approach I’d recommend for others? Perhaps, though it takes trial and error to perfect. I encourage you to familiarize yourself with hyperfocal distances–you don’t need to memorize them, but a basic understanding of the relationship between f-stops, focal lengths, and focus distance is invaluable for decisions like this.
Here’s an article from my Photo Tips section that might help: Depth of Field.
Posted on November 18, 2017
Rather than attempting to reproduce a scene exactly as we see it, enduring photographs reveal unseen aspects of our world. Capturing this hidden world requires understanding and mastery of photography’s “creativity triad,” the three aspects of a scene that distinguish the camera’s vision from human vision: motion, light, and depth.
Photography is the futile attempt to squeeze a three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional medium. But just because it’s impossible to truly capture depth in a photograph, don’t think you shouldn’t consider the missing dimension when crafting an image. For the photographer with total control over his or her camera’s exposure variables (what exposure variable to change and when to change it), this missing dimension provides an opportunity to reveal the world in unique ways, or to create an illusion of depth that recreates much of the thrill of being there.
Creative Selective Focus
A personal favorite solution to the missing depth conundrum I call creative selective focus: An intentionally narrow depth of field with a carefully chosen focus point to flatten a scene’s myriad out-of-focus planes onto the same thin plane as the sharp subject. This technique softens distractions into a blur of color and shape, complementing and emphasizing the subject.
I especially enjoy using creative selective focus for isolation shots of colorful leaves each autumn, and for dogwood and poppy close-ups in spring. Looking for a striking subject that stands out from the surroundings, I position myself to create foreground and/or background relationships that complement my primary subject.
When composing the poppy scene depicted here, I tried to frame the foreground trio of poppies with distant poppies and other wildflowers that I knew would become soft splashes of color. Using a macro lens with extension tubes, a large aperture, and a very close focus point, I achieved a paper-thin range of sharpness that softened the busy background and helped my primary subjects stand out.
A couple of years ago I wrote an article on this very topic for “Outdoor Photographer” magazine. You can read a slightly updated version of this article in my Photo Tips section: Selective Focus.
The Illusion of Depth
Sometimes a scene holds so much near-to-far beauty that we want to capture every inch of it. While we can’t actually capture the depth our stereo vision enjoys, we can take steps to create the illusion of depth. Achieving this is largely about mindset—it’s about not simply settling for a primary subject no matter how striking it is. When you find a distant subject to feature in an image, scan the scene and position yourself to include a complementary fore-/middle-ground subjects. Likewise, when you want to feature a nearby object in an image, position yourself to include a complementary back-/middle-ground subjects.
Autumn Reflection, Half Dome, Yosemite
Guiding my workshop group to a placid bend in the Merced River on this year’s Yosemite Autumn Moon photo workshop, I was instantly drawn to the reflection of Half Dome. The cottonwoods lining the distant shoreline were at their peak autumn gold, and a collection of clouds above Half Dome caught the late afternoon sun, promising good odds for a colorful sunset. These features alone would have made a great image, but I looked around for something to add to the close foreground.
I didn’t need to look long, as just about fifty feet downstream I found a collection of colorful leaves jutting into the river, perpendicular to the shore. I shifted my position until the leaves appeared to point directly at Half Dome and dropped my tripod until my camera was about a foot above the water. With a half hour or so until sunset, I had plenty of time to play with the scene, familiarize myself with all the compositional variables, and refine my composition and focus point. Despite the relative closeness of the floating leaves, at 16mm I knew I had plenty depth of field to carry the entire scene if I was careful. Stopping my lens down to f/16, I focused on a leaf near the middle of the group, about two feet away. This gave me good sharpness from about a foot to infinity and I was in business.
Here’s my Photo Tips article on using hyperfocal focus techniques to enhance your images’ illusion of depth: Depth of Field.
Posted on October 28, 2017
Rather than attempt the impossible task of choosing a favorite season in Yosemite, I find it easier to identify the things I like most about each season. From colorful fall to white winter to saturated spring, Yosemite becomes a completely different place with each season. (FYI, summer is for tourists.) But regardless of the season, I think it’s Yosemite’s reflections that make me happiest.
Yosemite’s reflection locations vary with the season. After a storm, small reflective pools form in Yosemite’s ubiquitous granite, then disappear almost as quickly as they appeared. The Merced River, is a continuous ribbon of reflection in the late summer and autumn low-water months, and a churning torrent in spring. But even in those high snowmelt months, reliable pockets of calm can be found along the riverbank, and there are a handful of spots where the river widens and smooths enough to reflect color and shape.
I think my favorite Yosemite reflections may be the ones I find in the flooded meadows during a wet spring, not necessarily because they’re any more beautiful than the other reflections, but mostly because they’re much more rare. Many years we don’t get these vernal pools at all, and even when they do form, their lifetime is measured in days or weeks.
Following years of drought, a record winter snowfall earlier this year translated to a record spring snowmelt, sending the Merced River well over its banks and into many of Yosemite’s normally high-and-dry meadows. This wasn’t “run for your life!” flooding, it was a gradual rise that seeped into and eventually submerged meadows, trails, and even some Yosemite Valley roads.
Leidig Meadow west of Yosemite Lodge is one of those spots that doesn’t usually flood, but flooding here is far from unprecedented. This year when I parked in my usual spot west of the meadow and attempted the normally relaxing 1/4 mile stroll along the river, I had to wade through eight inches of water to make it to the meadow. When I returned a few days later with my workshop group, even after choosing another somewhat less treacherous parking spot, we still had to pick our steps carefully or risk a shoe-full of water.
Meadows are always fragile, but never more-so than when they’re wet, so rather than venture further into the meadow, we set our sights on the numerous reflections among the trees near the (mostly submerged) trail. Even still, we ended up with a number of wet shoes and pant legs, some accidental and some by design (to get the shot, of course).
When it appeared the sunset show was over, the group started to pack up and head back to the cars. About the time I was ready to call it myself, I noticed a little bounce-back pink in the thin clouds overhead and warned everyone that they might be packing it in a little too soon. Many were anxious to get dry and escape the mosquito feast, but those of us who stayed were rewarded with about ten minutes of post-sunset color that went from pale pink to electric magenta, one of those moments in nature that you think just can’t get any better until somehow it does.
Reflecting a bit on reflections
A reflection can turn an ordinary pretty picture into something special. Of course they aren’t always possible, but when the opportunity exists I pursue reflections aggressively, scanning the scene for potentially reflective water and positioning myself accordingly. Too often I see people walk up to a reflection, plop down their tripod, and make a picture of whatever happens to be bouncing off the water at their feet. But maximizing reflection opportunities starts with understanding that, just like a billiard ball striking a cushion, a reflection always bounces off the reflective surface at exactly the same angle at which it arrived.
Armed with this knowledge, when I encounter a reflective surface, I scan the area for something worthy of reflecting. Sometimes that’s easy (Half Dome, for example), sometimes it’s a little tougher (like a rapidly moving sunlit cloud). Knowing that all I need to do is position myself in the path of the reflection of my target subject, I move left/right, forward/backward, up/down until my object appears. I’ve observed that many people are pretty good about the left/right thing, not quite so good with the forward/backward part, and downright miserable at the up/down. But I’ve found that once I get the left/right position nailed, it’s the up/down that makes the most difference.
For example, in the spring reflection of Half Dome at the top of this post, it’s not an accident that the Half Dome and North Dome reflections are centered and uncluttered by all the grass and leaves scattered throughout the water. The centering part was pretty easy, but finding a large enough clean surface to reflect the two domes required a lot of forward/backward maneuvering, combined with frequent up/down dipping—I’m sure to the uninformed observer it appeared that I was trying out a new dance routine.
Posted on October 21, 2017
Leading 15-20 photo workshops per year means coming to terms with photographing the same locations year in, year out. This is not a complaint—I only guide people to locations I love photographing—but it sometimes makes me long for the opportunity to capture something new. Which is why I’m loving visiting my familiar haunts with my newest lenses, the Sony 12-24 G and Sony 100-400 GM. (I’ve had the Tamron 150-600 for a couple of years, but find it too big to lug routinely.)
Back-to-back Eastern Sierra workshops earlier this month meant multiple visits to Mono Lake. My first group hit the jackpot on our South Tufa sunset shoot, finding a glassy reflection (usually reserved for sunrises here) beneath a striking formation of cirrocumulus clouds. Because I was with my group, and I’d guided them all to the spot where the majority wanted to be (justifiable so for first-time visitors), I couldn’t go out in search of something a little different. Instead I just whipped out my 12-24 lens, dropped my tripod to lake-level with one leg in the water, and started composing.
I’m still getting used to shooting at 12mm, which is not only considerably different from what my eyes see, it’s considerably different from what I’ve become used to seeing in my viewfinder (the difference between 16mm and 12mm is huge). The lesson here is the importance of a strong foreground in a wide composition—the wider the focal length, the more important the foreground becomes. Here the entire lakebed was so alive with color and shape, and the water was so still and clear, finding a foreground wasn’t really a problem. I just needed to make sure I organized all the scene’s visual elements into something coherent.
Anchoring my frame with a nearby quartet of small rocks (just a couple of feet away) and a larger protruding lump of tufa a little behind it (everything else in my foreground was submerged), I peered into my viewfinder and quickly decided to go for symmetry with the larger background elements. The clouds couldn’t have been more perfectly positioned—combined with their reflection, they seemed to point directly my composition’s centerpiece, the “Shipwreck” tufa formation (not really an official name, but widely used) that is probably Mono Lake’s most recognizable feature. At 12mm depth of field wasn’t a huge concern—I focused about three feet into the scene and was able to achieve sharpness throughout my frame.
Anyone who has ever been to Mono Lake’s South Tufa can appreciate, looking at this image, how 12mm on a full frame body shrinks distant subjects—the Shipwreck is a very prominent feature here, but the wide lens shrinks it to almost secondary status. On the other hand, dropping down and getting as close as possible to the shore at 12mm really emphasizes the beautiful submerged patterns.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on October 5, 2017
Some people couldn’t care less how a polarizer works—they’re satisfied knowing what a polarizer does, and how to make it happen. But if you’re like me, you also need to understand why things behave the way they do.
A polarizer eliminates reflections. On the surface that not might seem so desirable for someone who likes photographing reflections as much as I do, but reflections are a much bigger part of our visual experience than most people know. Virtually every object reflects at least a little, and many things reflect a lot more than we’re aware. Worse still, these reflections often hide the very surface features and color we most love to photograph.
When reflections hide an object’s underlying beauty, a polarizer can restore some of that beauty. I use a polarizer when I want to capture the submerged rocks or sand hidden by the reflection atop a river or lake, the rich color overwhelmed by glare reflecting from foliage, or the sky’s deep blue washed out by light scattered by atmospheric molecules.
Put a little less simply…
In reality, reflections are merely collateral damage to your polarizer. What a polarizer really does is eliminate light that’s already been polarized. To understand what’s really going on with a polarizer, read on….
While an unpolarized light wave oscillates on every plane perpendicular to the wave’s motion, polarized light only oscillates on one perpendicular plane (up/down or left/right or 45°/225° and so on).
Polarization can be induced many ways, but photographers are most interested in light that has already been polarized by reflection from a nonmetallic surface (such as water or foliage), or light that has been scattered by molecules in our atmosphere. Light scattered by a reflective surface is polarized parallel to the reflective surface; light scattered by molecules in the atmosphere is polarized perpendicular to the direction of the light.
Polarization can also be induced artificially with a polarizing filter (“polarizer”), a filter coated with a material whose molecular structure allows most light to pass, but blocks light waves oscillating in a specific direction. When unpolarized light (most of the light that illuminates our lives) passes through a polarizer, the light that enters the lens to which it’s attached has been stripped of the waves oscillating in a certain direction and we (through the viewfinder) see a uniform darkening of the entire scene (usually one to two stops).
But that uniform darkening is not usually what we use a polarizer for. (I say usually because sometimes we use a polarizer to reduce light and stretch the shutter speed in lieu of a neutral density filter.) Photographers are most interested in their polarizers’ ability to eliminate reflective glare and darken the sky, which occurs when their polarizer’s rotating glass element matches the oscillation direction of light that has already been polarized by reflection or scattering, cancelling that light. By watching the scene as we rotate the polarizing element on the filter, photographers know that we’ve achieved maximum polarization (reflection reduction) when we rotate the polarizer until maximum darkening is achieved—voila!
The exception that proves the rule
Most photographers know that a polarizer has its greatest effect on the sky when it’s at right angles (90°) to the sun, and least effective when pointed directly into or away from the sun (0º or 180°). We also know that a rainbow, which is always centered on the “anti-solar point” (a line drawn from the sun through the back of your head and out between your eyes points to the anti-solar point) exactly 180° from the sun, can be erased by a polarizer. But how can it be that a polarizer is most effective at 90° to the sun, and a rainbow is 180° from the sun? To test your understanding of polarization, try to reason out why a rainbow is eliminated by a polarizer.
Did you figure it out? I won’t keep you in suspense: light entering a raindrop is split into its component colors by refraction; that light is reflected off the back of the raindrop and back to your eyes (there’s a little more bouncing around going on inside the raindrop, but this is the end result). Because a rainbow is reflected light, it’s polarized, which means that it can be eliminated by a properly oriented polarizer.
About this image
Long before achieving international fame as the background scene for Apple OS X High Sierra, North Lake at the top of Bishop Canyon in the Eastern Sierra has been beloved by photographers. Each autumn this little gem of a lake teams with photographers longing for even one of the following conditions: peak gold and red in the aspen, a glassy reflection, or a dusting of snow.
I visit North Lake multiple times each autumn, sometimes with my workshop groups, sometimes by myself. I’ve found pretty much every possible combination of conditions: snow/no-snow; early, peak, or late fall color; and a lake surface ranging from mirror smooth to churning whitecaps.
One sunrise early October of 2010 I hit the North Lake trifecta. Crossing my freezing fingers that the reflection would hold until I was ready, I lowered my tripod on the rocky shore and framed the aspen-draped peak and its vivid reflection. I used a couple of protruding rocks to anchor my foreground, slowly dialed my polarizer until the entire lake surface became a reflection, and clicked. But rather than settle for that shot, I reoriented my polarizer until the reflection virtually disappeared and a world of submerged granite rocks appeared. I clicked another frame and stood back to study the image on my LCD.
As much as I liked the rocky lakebed version, I knew there was no way I could pass on the best reflection I’d ever seen at North Lake. So I returned my eye to my viewfinder and very slowly dialed the polarizer again, watching the reflection reappear across the lake and advance toward me until the entire mountain unfolded in reverse atop the lake. Stopping just at that midway polarization point, I had the best of both worlds: my pristine reflection and an assortment of submerge rocks.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on August 6, 2017
After years of drought, in spring of 2016 I had the good fortune to photograph Yosemite Valley with actual flooding—nothing devastating, just enough for the Merced River to overspill its banks and create reflections where meadows normally exist. One such location was a spot beneath El Capitan, where I found myself faced with the challenge of capturing more scene than my 16-35 lens could handle.
Stitching multiple frames was an option, but because I have a thing about not doing things I couldn’t do with film, my goal is to always capture a scene with one click (this is my problem, and in no way do I mean to discourage others from entering the 21st century). One benefit of my self-imposed one-click rule is that I often find creative compositions I might have overlooked had I settled for the easy solution, but in this case I really, really wanted to photograph the entire scene. The photography gods were smiling upon me that day, as I was leading a workshop and the photographer assisting me generously offered to loan me his Canon 11-24 f/4 lens (thanks, Curt). Since I had in my possession a Metabones adapter that allowed me to pair Canon glass to my Sony body, I leapt at the opportunity.
That was an epiphany moment for me, because even though I knew that the difference between 11mm and 16mm is more significant than it sounds, I’d never really compared the two focal lengths side-by-side. Replacing my 16-35 with Curt’s 11-24, suddenly I had the entire scene in my viewfinder, with room to spare. Not only that, I learned as soon as I put the images up on my monitor that the Canon lens was really sharp—I was in love. Sony shooter or not, I came home fully intending to purchase the Canon lens, and came very close to making a big mistake.
My decision not to pull the trigger on a Canon 11-24 purchase was three-fold: 1) it was $3000 2) it’s so massive that it could never be a full time resident of my camera bag 3) I knew Sony was committed to expanding their lens lineup, and that I’d be wracked with regret if Sony released a similar lens soon after I’d sunk $3,000 into a lens that could double as a boat anchor. But still….
Imagine my relief when my Sony doused my Canon fantasies with an ultra-wide lens of their own this spring. Given the opportunity to test the Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens before it was announced, I immediately took it to Yosemite where the flooding on the Merced was even more extreme than last year. Finding “my” spot underwater, I probed the riverbank for nearby vantage points and found the view I’ve shared at the top of this post.
It wasn’t difficult to see that the Sony 12-24 is every bit as sharp as the Canon 11-24. And not only does it not require an adapter to use on my Sony bodies, it weighs less than half of what the Canon ultra-wide weighs. I ordered the 12-24 immediately and this week packed for my first trip with it.
When I drive to a photo destination I bring virtually every piece of camera gear I own, but when I fly, I need to be a little more selective. As I chewed on what to bring and what to leave out, not only did I quickly confirm that the 12-24 would make the cut, I discovered that the new lens is small and compact enough to occupy a permanent space my camera bag.
Which brings me to another thought. I shoot Sony mirrorless for several reasons—foremost is the image quality: Sony’s unmatched combination of resolution, dynamic range, and low-light capability is exactly what I need for landscape photography. And after a few growing pains, I’ve come to love the electronic viewfinder and can’t imagine ever going back. Sony’s lenses are as sharp or sharper than anything I had from Canon, but I don’t think the compactness of Sony’s f/4 glass gets the credit it deserves for their ability to provide so much quality in such a compact package. How compact? They’re small enough to slide into a slot in my bag oriented up/down (resting on an end rather than along a side), which gives me so much more room for more gear (and what photographer doesn’t love more gear).
Here’s what’s in my camera bag (F-stop Tilopa) for this week’s trip to the Grand Canyon:
That’s three (!) bodies and five (!) lenses, with room for even more stuff. Photographer heaven.
A few words about wide angle photography
Despite the fact that wide angle is the reflex response to most landscapes by virtually every tourist who picks up a camera, good wide angle photography is not easy. From diminished backgrounds to tilting verticals, wide angle lenses pose problems that can be turned to opportunities if they’re fully understood. I’ll save a full discussion of wide angle photography for another day, but here are a couple of tips that might help:
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.