(Sometimes) I’d Rather Be Lucky Than Good

Gary Hart Photography: Big Dipper Reflection, Colorado River, Grand Canyon

Big Dipper Reflection, Colorado River, Grand Canyon
Sony a7S II
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
20 seconds
F/2.8
ISO 12800

a7SIIGCRTMay2018_DSC0357Camp118GCMilkyWay_screenaver

Grand Night, Milky Way Above the Colorado River, Grand Canyon Sony a7S II Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 20 seconds F/1.4 ISO 6400

It was 4:00 a.m. and I’d spent the last two hours photographing the Milky Way’s brilliant core above the Colorado River. In about 75 minutes the guides would be ringing the “coffee’s ready” gong, signaling the start of another day at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Collapsing my tripod, I performed a little mental math and found slight relief in the knowledge that I might be able to squeeze in one more hour of sleep. That relief vanished in the time it took to turn and glance toward the northern sky and see the Big Dipper, suspended like a celestial mobile in the notch separating the canyon walls.

My Milky Way position had been chosen for its unobstructed view of the southern sky; the best view of the Big Dipper was clear across the campsite, at a sheltered pool just beyond our rafts. The moonless night sky at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is so dark that the Milky Way casts a slight shadow, but once your eyes adjust, it’s surprisingly easy to navigate without adding light. Trudging across through the sand, I passed a handful of other solitary photographers, anonymous shapes enjoying the darkness as much as I was. I stopped few times to answer questions and point out the Big Dipper, then moved on.

Setting up on the steep, sandy slope above the river, I gazed at the Big Dipper and privately chuckled at my good fortune—this prime photo opportunity hadn’t manifest because I proactively made myself seek a scene away from my original subject (as I encourage my students to do), it was a chance glance after I’d mentally put myself to bed. When we landed at that spot the prior afternoon, I’d been so focused on the southern exposure and the Milky Way opportunity in that direction that I hadn’t even considered that there might be something facing north too. Shame on me, but sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

Checking my first Big Dipper frame, a couple of things became instantly obvious: though sunrise was still an hour away, and my eyes could detect no sign of its approach, with the same exposure I’d been using for most of the night, the sky was noticeably brighter on my LCD; more significantly, the Big Dipper was reflecting in the river. I realized that pool below me, while not flowing, was sloshing enough that the reflection didn’t stand out to my eyes, but it was smoothed enough by a multi-second exposure that the water mirrored a blurred but clearly visible reflection of the bright Dipper stars.

From my elevated vantage point, part of the handle’s reflection was lost to the sandy beach—I needed to move closer to the river to include the entire reflection. Remember when I said it’s surprisingly easy to navigate in the moonless darkness? On my first step toward the river I learned that functional night vision applies to avoiding objects, not to depth perception. So, as that first step dropped earthward and I waited for it to touch down, where I expected sand I found only air. The rest of me followed quickly and I was in free-fall. Fortunately the fall was not far, just a couple of feet, but it’s amazing how the disorientation of a blind fall slowed time enough for me to curse the darkness before my graceless splat onto the damp beach.

The beach was damp because the place I landed had been river when I went to bed. I popped up almost as quickly as I landed, the unwitting beneficiary of artificial tides induced by upstream releases from the Glen Canyon Dam, timed to meet the power needs of Las Vegas and the rest of the Southwest sprawl. Had I fallen a few hours earlier, I’d have splashed in chilly river water—not enough river to sweep me to my death, but definitely enough to soak me and my camera. So I found myself sandy but otherwise unscathed—glancing about to see if anyone had seen my fall, I instantly forgave the darkness that had made me more or less invisible. The Rokinon lens I’d had on my camera was caked with sand; since it was too dark to clean it, I switched to my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM.

The rest of the shoot was fairly uneventful, at least until my final frame. Over the next few minutes I inched even closer to the river, which I discovered had receded enough to add about six feet of soggy shore. With each frame I verified my focus, tweaked my composition, and experimented with different exposures.

On my final few frames I was comfortable enough with all of the photography variables that I wasn’t even thinking about the next shot, and instead simply stood and took in the night sky. As I waited for my last frame of the night to complete, a brilliant meteor sprung from the darkness and split the Dipper’s handle. It came and went in a heartbeat, and I held my breath until the image popped up on my LCD and I confirmed that I’d captured it. The perfect cap to a spectacular night.


Celestial Wonders

 

He Ain’t Heavy,…

… He’s My Sony 12-24 f/4 G

Gary Hart Photography: Storm Clouds, El Capitan, Yosemite

Snowstorm Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7R III
Sony 12-24 f/4 G
1/50 second
F/10
ISO 100

(With apologies to The Hollies.)

The road is long, with many a winding turn…

But that’s no excuse to cut corners. Probably the question I am most asked on location is some variation of, “What lens should I use?” While I’m always happy to answer questions, this one always makes me cringe because the implicit question is, “Which lenses can I leave behind?”

What many photographers fail to realize is that the “proper” lens is determined by the photographer, not by the scene. While there is often a consensus on the primary composition at a location, that usually only means the first composition everyone sees. But if your goal is to capture something unique, those are just the compositions to avoid. And as every photographer knows, the best way to guarantee you’ll need a lens is to not pack it. I’m not suggesting that you lug Hermione’s purse to every shoot—just try to remember that your images will last far longer than your discomfort.

In my Canon life, my personal rule of thumb was to always carry lenses that cover 16-200mm, regardless of the scene, then add “specialty” lenses as my plans dictated: macro for wildflowers, fast and wide prime for night, and super telephoto for a moon. That meant the 16-35, 24-105, and 70-200 were permanent residents of my Canon bag, and my 100-400, 100 macro, or wide and fast prime came along when I needed them.

Shooting Sony mirrorless, with its more compact bodies and lenses, I now carry a much wider focal in a lighter camera bag. My new baseline (always with me) lens lineup is the Sony 12-24 G, 24-105  G, and 100-400 GM, plus the Sony 2x teleconverter. My macro and night lenses still stay behind (but they’re usually in the car), but in my bag I always have lenses to cover 12-800mm, a significant advantage over my Canon 16-200 configuration.

It’s kind of a cliché in photography to say “It’s the photographer, not the equipment.” And as much as I agree in principle, sometimes the equipment does help. Wherever I am, I regularly find compositions beyond 200mm, compositions I never would have considered before. And the 12-24 lens has enabled me to approach familiar scenes with a completely fresh eye.

A recent example came on a snowy day in Yosemite early last month. Moving fast to keep up with the rapidly changing clouds and light, I stopped at El Capitan Bridge, directly beneath El Capitan. Having shot this scene for years (decades), I was quite familiar with the perspective. So wide is the top-to-bottom, left-to-right view of El Capitan here, even at 16mm I’ve always had to choose between all of El Capitan or all of the reflection, never both. I never dreamed I’d be able to get El Capitan and its reflection in a single frame. But guess what….

Standing above the river near the south side of the bridge, I framed up a vertical composition and saw that at 12mm I could indeed fit El Capitan and the reflection, top to bottom. Whoa. With very little margin for error on any side of the frame, I moved around a bit to get the scene balanced, eventually framing the right side with the snowy trees lining the Merced. My elevated perch above the river allowed me to shoot straight ahead (no up or down tilt of the camera) and avoid the extreme skewing of the trees that’s so common at wide focal lengths.

12mm provides so much depth of field that I could focus anywhere in the scene and get front-to-back sharpness; the flat light made exposure similarly simple. With composition, focus, and exposure set, all I had to do was watch the clouds and click the shutter, my heart filled with gladness….


A Sony 12-24 Gallery

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Are you insane?

Last Light, Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7R III
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
2 seconds
F/16
ISO 50

Are you insane?

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results. Hmmm. For some reason this reminds me of the thousands of good landscape photographers with hundreds of beautiful images they can’t sell. These photographers have a good eye for composition, own all the best equipment, know when to be at the great locations, and are virtual gurus with state-of-the-art processing software. Yet they haven’t achieved (their definition of) success.

Conducting photo workshops gives me pretty good insight into the mindset of serious amateur photographers, the photographers serious enough to spend time and money to rise before sunrise and stay out after dark to photograph the world’s most beautiful landscapes in frequently miserable conditions. I’m struck that many of these photographers have serious aspirations for their photography, but are so mesmerized by technology that they turned over control of the most important aspects of their craft to their camera. Their solution to photographic failure is to buy more equipment, visit more locations, and master more software. But the most overlooked tool is the one on top of their shoulders.

Knowledge vs. understanding

Just as a new camera won’t make you a better photographer, simply upgrading your photography knowledge won’t do it either—knowledge is nothing more than ingested and regurgitated information. Understanding, on the other hand, (among other things) gives you the ability to use information to create new knowledge and solve problems.

Many photographers invest far too much energy acquiring knowledge, and far too little energy understanding what they just learned. For example, it’s not enough to know that a longer shutter speed or bigger aperture means a brighter image if that knowledge doesn’t translate into an understanding of how to manage motion, depth, and light with your camera. It’s one thing to know you need more light on your sensor, but something altogether different to know whether to add it with a longer shutter speed, larger aperture, or higher ISO—a choice that makes a huge difference in the finished product.

Take control

Automatic modes in most cameras handle static, midday light beautifully, yet struggle in the limited light, extreme dynamic range, and harsh conditions that artistic photographers seek. The auto modes have become so good that they have created the illusion of control in the minds of many photographers. I see many excellent photographers whose profound faith in their technology has caused critical deficiency of two fundamental photographic principles:

  • How a light meter determines the exposure information it gives you. This seems so basic, but auto-exposure success has fooled many into thinking they understand metering and exposure.
  • How to use the zero-sum relationship between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to manage photography’s three variables: depth, motion, and light. Proper metering and exposure is the universal tool that enables photographers to handle the limiting factors of every scene.

Books and internet resources are a great place to start learning these principles (here’s my Photo Tip article), but the knowledge you gain there won’t turn to understanding until you get out with your camera and learn to manage a scene’s motion, depth, and light in creative ways that set your photography apart.

For example

My metering philosophy is to approach every scene at ISO 100 (my Sony a7RIII’s best ISO) and f/11 (the best combination of lens sharpness and depth of field with minimal diffraction)—I control the light with my shutter speed and only deviate my baseline ISO and f-stop when the scene variables dictate. For example, when I want more or less depth of field, I’ll choose a different f-stop, or when I can’t get a proper exposure at the shutter speed that gives me the motion effect I want (blurred or sharp), I’ll adjust the ISO.

This Yosemite sunset from last February was about Half Dome, the clouds, the light, and the reflection in the Merced River. After finding my composition, the scene variables to consider when determining my exposure settings were:

  • Motion in the river: I wanted to blur the flowing water enough to smooth some of the chop and ripples, and to turn the floating foam fragments into white blurs
  • Depth of field: At 34mm, the closest foreground objects were far enough away that depth of field wasn’t a concern
  • Light: The dynamic range separating the brilliant highlights in the sunlit clouds from the deep shade in the trees and river was extreme, with a very narrow margin for error

The blur effect I wanted would require at least a one second exposure time, so I dropped my ISO down to 50 (as low as it goes). Keeping my aperture at f/11, I dialed my shutter speed with an eye on the histogram—when the histogram indicated I’d pushed my highlights as far as I could without clipping, my shutter speed was 1 second. This gave me a the proper exposure with sufficient motion blur, but I decided a little more motion blur would be even better. To double the shutter speed to 2 seconds, I stopped down one stop to f-16 and tried one more frame. In this case the benefit of the extra motion blur far outweighed any diffraction and lost sharpness (which experience has shown e would have been minimal with my Sony 16-35 GM lens), so that’s the frame I selected.

Insanity is in the mind of the beholder

If landscape photography gives you what you want, then by all means, continue doing what you’re doing. But if you’re having a hard time achieving a photographic goal, the solution is likely not doing more of what you’re already doing. Instead, try reevaluating your comprehension of fundamental photographic principles that you might not have thought about for years (or ever). Get out of your camera’s auto exposure modes and take control of your scene’s variables. You’ll know you’re there when you know how to get the result you want, or know why it’s simply not possible.

Do I really think you’re insane for doing otherwise? Of course not. But I do think you’ll feel a little more sane if you learn to take more control of your camera.

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A World in Motion

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Snow Job

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Reflection, Bridalveil Fall and the Merced River, Yosemite

Winter Reflection, Bridalveil Fall and the Merced River, Yosemite
Sony a7R III
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
1/4 second
F/14
ISO 50

I’m afraid that making a living as a photographer sometimes means exchanging time to take pictures for time to make money. On the other hand, my schedule is mine alone, which means when there’s something I really, really want to photograph, such as a moonrise or fresh snow in Yosemite, I can usually arrange my schedule to make it happen. The moon shoots I can plan a year or more in advance, but snow requires a little more vigilance and flexibility.

Early this month, with hints of snow coming to Yosemite Valley, I started clearing space in my schedule. At 4000 feet, Yosemite Valley is often right on the snow-line, so a swing of just a couple hundred feet in either direction can mean the difference between snow and soggy. After watching the weather reports vacillate between snow and rain all week (and adjusting plans more than once), my buddy Mark and I took a chance and made the drive to Yosemite, visions of snowflakes dancing in our heads.

Waiting at the traffic-light-controlled, one-lane detour around the Ferguson Slide on Highway 140, I watched dozens of westbound headlights file past the four or five eastbound taillights idling at the light in front of us. With a storm imminent, it occurred to me that we were participating in a kind of changing of the guard, where the evacuating tourists are replaced by a much smaller contingent of what could only be photographers.

We arrived in Yosemite Valley at about the same time as the rain, circled the valley, secured a cheap room at Yosemite Valley Lodge (in Yosemite, any night with plumbing and solid walls for $150 is in fact a steal), and went to dinner. When the rain continued through dinner and all the way until bedtime, I began to fear the weather report had vacillated once more in the wrong direction.

Peeking out the window at around 4:00 a.m. and seeing more rain, I grudgingly turned off the alarm I’d optimistically set for 6:00 a.m. and went back to sleep. The next thing I knew, Mark was waking me at 6:10 to report six inches of fresh snow, and it was still falling. By 6:15 we were bundled and searching for my car in a parking lot filled with identical white lumps.

The rest of the morning was a blur as Mark and I darted from pristine location to pristine location, marveling at how a few hours of snow can completely transform  months of accumulated grime and a thirsty forest dotted with dead and dying trees. For those few hours, Yosemite was new again.

At our first stop, El Capitan Meadow, we photographed El Capitan and Cathedral rocks battling the clouds for dominance. Down the road at Valley View, the snow continued falling but the granite was winning and I soon found myself admiring the reflection of Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Fall just upriver from the parking area.

Normally the thin branches overhanging this vantage point are a distraction to avoid, but glazed with snow, they had the potential to make a perfect frame. The reflection was the easy part, but somehow I had to figure out how to feature it and the branches without the branches obliterating the rest of the scene.

To separate Bridalveil Fall and Cathedral Rocks from the glazed branches, I splayed my tripod’s legs and dropped it to the ground, then scooted up to the river’s edge. That still left a few branches dangling too low, so I pushed my camera out even farther by extending one tripod leg into the river. I was aided immensely by the articulating screen of my Sony a7RIII—while I still needed to sit in the snow to get low enough to compose and control my camera, I very much appreciated the ability to sit and look down at my LCD rather than sprawl on my stomach in the snow to get my eye to the viewfinder.

When photographing a scene that includes a reflection and nearby objects, it’s important to remember that the focus point of a reflection is the focus point of the reflective subject, not the reflective surface. (I’ll pause here for a few seconds to let you process this because it’s important.) In this case I was at 16mm; at f/11 that gave me a hyperfocal distance of less than four feet; with the branches about five feet away, front-to-back sharpness wouldn’t be a problem, even focused at infinity. Nevertheless, I chose f/14 for this shot, not for more depth of field, but to (along with ISO 50) stretch my shutter speed enough to smooth a few small ripples in the reflection.

Excitement about a scene can overwhelm good sense—we see something that moves us, and quickly point the camera and click with more enthusiasm than thought. While this approach may indeed record memories and impress friends, it almost certainly denies the scene the attention it deserves. I was indeed very excited about this scene, but between the depth of field, reflection, overhanging branches, moving water, dominant background subjects, not to mention the awkwardness of my position, I had many moving parts to consider.

Rather than attempt perfection on the first click, I addressed the obvious stuff (covered above) with a “rough draft” click. Draft image in hand, I popped my camera off the tripod, stood (ahhhhh), and evaluated my result. I immediately saw two things to address: first, I wanted Cathedral Rocks better framed by the branches; second, I wanted the mid-river, snow-capped rocks away from the right edge of my frame.

I returned my camera to live-view, dropped to ground-level, and replaced the camera on my tripod. Because I hadn’t touched the tripod, the scene on my live-view LCD was the very scene I’d just reviewed—making my prescribed adjustments was a simple matter of panning right a couple of inches and pushing the tripod a little farther into the river. Click.

I love my job.

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Yosemite Winter

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Putting the Gorge in Gorgeous

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Calm, Trout Lake and Mt. Adams, Washington

Sunset Calm, Trout Lake and Mount Adams, Washington
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1.3 seconds
F/11
ISO 100

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.

Columbia River Gorge Photo Workshops

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Celebrating the Columbia River Gorge

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A Winter Morning in Yosemite

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Winter Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
Canon 17-40
1/4 second
F/16
ISO 200

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.

Technical stuff

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.

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Winter in Yosemite

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Photography’s Creativity Triad: Depth

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Reflection, Half Dome, Yosemite

Autumn Reflection, Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
.8 second
F/16
ISO 200

Photography’s Creativity Triad

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

Poppy Pastel, Sierra Foothills, California (1oomm, f4, ISO 400, 1/125)

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.


Managing Depth

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

 

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