Posted on September 18, 2022
On Friday morning I said goodbye to Hawaii until next year. Leaving Hawaii, I always make sure to reserve a seat on the left side of the plane so I can plaster my eyes to the glass on takeoff for a farewell look as we parallel the shoreline. There’s Onomea Bay and the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Akaka Fall, Umauma Falls, Laupahoehoe Point….
It’s pretty cool, the special connection I feel to these places I only visit once a year. In Hilo, every time I pull my rental car out of the airport and point it toward the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel that will be my home for the next week, it feels like I’m coming home to a place I left just yesterday.
From the Milky Way, to magma, to macro, the Big Island may have the widest variety of quality photography of any place I visit. Throw in rugged black sand beaches, exploding surf, frequent rainbows, and temperatures warm enough to photograph sunrise in flip-flops and shorts, and it’s easy to fantasize about selling my house and moving here fulltime.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of this year’s images. In fact, I was so busy with the workshop that I didn’t even have time to load them onto my computer until my flight home. But I didn’t need to check my captures to know that this year’s trip was pretty special. On my group’s first shoot, we enjoyed a rainbow segment (not a full arc) beautifully positioned above our beach scene, then got another partial rainbow at the next morning’s sunrise shoot. By the time the workshop ended, we’d hit all the other Hawaii highlights I cross my fingers for: Kilauea’s eruption (for the first time since 2017), the Milky Way, rainbows, and perfect light for creative focus photography at each of our rainforest stops.
It’s hard to know where to begin, but since it’s the only image I’ve processed so far, I’ve chosen this little scene from the incomparable Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. This year I used every lens in my bag there, but with soft, overcast light (that turned to a warm downpour just as we were leaving), I spent most of my time photographing flowers and leaves with my Sony 100-400.
One of the points I try to impress on my workshop students is that, whether near or far, a landscape image isn’t just a click, it’s an iterative process that starts with an idea—a plan for the best way to organize and emphasize the scene’s significant elements, then improves with each subsequent click. The first click is like a writer’s rough draft, and subsequent clicks are revisions on the way to perfection. After each click, the photographer should stand back and evaluate the image on the LCD (I love the large, bright viewfinders and LCDs on today’s mirrorless cameras), refine (exposure, composition, depth of field, focus point), then click again. Repeat as necessary.
This approach is particularly valuable in macro and close-focus images of intimate scenes where even the slightest adjustment to composition, depth of field, and focus point can dramatically alter the result. It’s a prime reason I’m such a strong tripod advocate (evangelist)—when I’m done evaluating, the shot I just evaluated is sitting right there on my tripod, waiting for me to apply whatever adjustments I deem necessary.
Whether it’s fall color or colorful flowers, I try to find a subject to isolate from the rest of the scene. This afternoon at the botanical garden I was drawn to floating lilies and their reflection, and ended up working this one little scene for at least 30 minutes.
Starting with my Sony 100-400 GM lens on my Sony a7RIV, I added a 25mm extension tube so I could focus closer. A neutral polarizer reduced the floating leaves’ waxy sheen, which helped emphasize their deep green. Of course this also reduced the flowers’ reflection, but I found that they were bright enough to still stand out against the darkened water. Exposure was pretty straightforward in the shadowless light. Though the air was fairly still, I used ISO 400 to ensure a shutter speed fast enough to control for slight undulations on the pond’s surface.
At 250mm and f/5.6 (wide open for the 100-400 GM), I shot through foliage lining the shore between me and the flowers. The extremely narrow depth of field allowed me to use this nearby foliage to frame my subjects with soft shades of green. After two or three click/evaluate/refine cycles, I had the framework of my composition in place.
Following a few minutes of shooting that saw me try a variety of f-stops, horizontal/vertical framing variations, and a range of polarizer orientations (minimum to maximum reflection, as well as points in between), I shifted about four feet to my right, to a spot that I thought provided even better foliage framing.
I played with this new composition even longer, running all the variations I’d tried at the previous spot, and adding some focal length changes as well. One thing that became especially obvious the longer I worked the scene was how much the polarizer helped me achieve the effect I was going for. Eliminating the reflection darkened the water to the point that the lilies appear to be floating on air. When I dialed up the reflection with my polarizer to brighten the flower reflection, I lost the contrast between the water and reflection, which made the flowers less prominent—the exact opposite of my objective.
With all my composition variations, I ended up with enough choices that I’ll probably find one or two more versions to process, but this version of the simple composition that first drew me seemed like a good place to start. And while I know these intimate images don’t generate the attention that the more in-your-face images do, photographing and viewing them makes me really happy, and that’s all that matters.
Posted on September 4, 2022
One of my favorite summer treats is the smoothie I whip up for lunch on hot days. I grab whatever fruit is available, toss it in my Vitamix with a little macadamia milk and ice, and let it rip. Each smoothie tastes different, but it’s always delicious.
Why am I sharing food prep tips in a photo blog? Because I can think of no better analogy for the Sony Kando event I experienced this week in Sun Valley, Idaho. Though Kando is truly indescribable, I’ll attempt the impossible and explain that it’s Sony’s gift to the creative photographers and videographers who share their love for Sony products with the world (that’s my definition, not Sony’s). Each year Sony takes a couple hundred of these Creatives, tosses them together at Kando, mixes in a variety of creative, social, and educational opportunities (and food!), and presses Blend. The result is a concoction that’s distinctly different from anything that preceded it, but always delicious. Just like my smoothies.
Kando is a Japanese word without a perfect English equivalent, but as near as I can tell it is the feeling of intense pleasure and excitement that happens when we encounter something truly exceptional. I’ve attended each of the four in-person Kando gatherings—Kando 1.0, just north of Santa Barbara; 2.0 at Asilomar near Carmel; 3.0 in Bend, Oregon; and this year’s 4.0 in Sun Valley, Idaho—enough to know that the event is aptly named. There are fundamental similarities between each one: the multi-day structure, the positive energy, and it is populated by many of the same people (blended each year with a liberal sprinkling of new faces)—yet somehow each event feels different in its own stimulating way.
Creativity is always on display at Kando, but this year I think the creativity was on steroids. The mix of Sony Creatives, as always, included a cadre of established photographers/videographers with a massive body of work (many of whom you’d recognize by name, or if not by name, by their work), infused with a liberal dose of young social media “influencers” with 6- and 7-digit followers. Still-photography, video, and even audio were well represented.
Some of the Creatives taught classes or participated in panels discussing their creative process and insights, and everyone shared by example. We were all encouraged to shoot and share throughout the week, with opportunities ranging from models, action, elaborate sets, and field trips available both day and night. At any given instant, it seemed half the Creatives would be creating, and the other half was watching. And I can’t begin to express how much fun it is to watch creative people do their thing.
For me Kando’s greatest lesson is the reminder that creative opportunities are infinite, and we’re limited only by our ability to see them. To say I was in awe of the creativity surrounding me would be an understatement. But I don’t think there was a single person present who wasn’t in awe of the creativity surrounding all of us.
So, fresh off my Kando week with my creative juices still flowing, I’m reaching into the archives for and image from one of my most memorable shoots in recent years. I chose this image for several reasons: in the context of creativity, there’s my recent post about finding unique takes on this solitary tree; then there’s my recent post about fog; and (especially) because a couple of weeks ago I discovered that, for some reason I’m unable to explain, and despite having shared this image many times since its capture in 2019, I’ve never written about it or the shoot—a blatant violation of my personal rule to never share an image without writing something on its capture and/or inspiration.
And in the spirit of full disclosure, my original Wanaka Tree Fog image had some minor flaws that (though not necessarily visible to anyone else) always bugged me, so I reprocessed it. And when I went back to the original raw file, I found another frame captured just a minute or so later that was compositionally very similar, but just a little cleaner to my eye.
This was the first of two New Zealand winter workshops Don Smith and I did in June 2019. The prior evening our group had enjoyed what was probably the best sunset we’ve ever had in New Zealand. We went to bed basking in the glory of that shoot, and woke to dense fog that obscured everything beyond 100 yards.
Since this was a sunrise, and the tree was easy walking distance from our hotel, we’d instructed the group to meet us out there 40 minutes before sunrise. Walking out in the dark, Don and I ran into one workshop participant who told us it was too foggy and he was going back to bed. We tried to convince him that the fog created a spectacular opportunity for something unique, but his mind was made up. At the tree, a couple of others in the group were already shooting, and a few more joined us soon, but I can’t remember whether anyone else was turned away by the fog.
Despite the darkness, it was obvious that something special was happening and I started shooting as soon as I could get set up. To give you an idea of how dark it was when we started, today’s image is a 30-second exposure at f/8 and ISO 100.
As special as the scene was, given its static nature, my biggest concern was finding a sufficient variety of unique takes. The conditions pretty much wiped out the go-to creative tools I use to vary a composition: the air and water was completely still, removing motion as a tool; the lack of any background and my distance from the tree eliminated any depth-of-field opportunities; though the morning brightened slowly, the light was completely uniform and shadowless; and the fog completely obliterated the visibility beyond 100 yards, so it did little good to move around to juxtapose the tree against different backgrounds.
Looking the images in Lightroom’s grid view, I count 38 frames over a 40 minute span this morning. And while I have very little specific memory of most of them, just looking at this history I can see what my mindset was.
The first two frames I captured in rapid fire (well, as rapid as 30-second exposures can be) the instant I hit the lakeshore. I remember being so excited by what was in front of me, I just shot to make sure I had something in case the fog lifted.
The next set of frames, and the bulk of my images from this morning, started about 3 minutes later. I know after comparing the tree in the two sets, that I realized the angle at the first spot was poor and the tree was noticeably compressed. To fix this, I moved along the lakeshore until I had the best possible angle on the tree’s distinctive low, sweeping branch (now gone).
Once I was here and confident that I’d captured something nice, I slowed down and started really working the scene. Each of the 36 images I captured after moving into the better position was distinct from the rest of the images (no duplicates). Of this 36, 20 were horizontal and 16 were vertical. I also varied my focal length and framing, sometimes going wider, other times tighter.
In nearly every frame, the tree is centered on the horizontal axis, and sometimes on the vertical axis too (smack-dab in the middle of the frame). This was because there wasn’t really anything to balance the frame horizontally if I put the tree off-center. But just to cover myself, toward the end I did take a couple of horizontal frames with the tree left and right of center.
I had the most fun playing with my polarizer, emphasizing the reflection in some frames, and revealing the submerged foreground rocks in others. As you can see, I went with one with the rocks visible, but revisiting the images now, I can see others I’d like to process, including one that’s all reflection and no rocks.
Circling back to Kando and this whole creativity thing, I feel like my creativity pales in comparison to some of what I saw last week. But I also know that my own creative process that I tried to share a small part of here, is very personal, and that it serves my objective to share Nature’s beauty and (I hope) inspire others to appreciate Nature as much as I do. But whatever gets your creative juices flowing, I can tell you absolutely that being around other creative people is good for the soul and a great place to start.
Click an image to scroll through the images LARGE
Posted on July 24, 2022
I’m incredibly blessed to make my living guiding enthusiastic photographers to many of our planet’s most beautiful locations. While this makes my life far too rich for complaint, let me say (without complaining) that a particular challenge imposed by frequent return visits to the same locations is finding unique ways to photograph them.
My usual go-to approach at these familiar locations is to play with the scene’s “creative triad,” using the exposure variables manage my images’ motion, light, and depth. Whether it’s blurring or freezing water, going for silhouettes or high key, or choosing depth-of-field from narrow to extreme, I love love playing with these variables to create something unique. But some scenes don’t even offer a lot of those opportunities.
Never is that more clear than when I visit the solitary willow tree near the south shore of Lake Wanaka in New Zealand. This striking tree just stands by itself in a lake (most of the time), with little motion, silhouette, or depth of field options to play with.
Nevertheless, each time I visit Wanaka, I challenge myself to find a version of the scene that’s different from anything I’ve captured. And just because I don’t have my full arsenal of creativity weapons doesn’t mean I’ve arrived completely disarmed.
Without the creative triad, my creativity relies largely on some combination of conditions, juxtaposition, and focal length. As you can see in the gallery below, the conditions at the time of my visit play a huge role in my creative choices. Weather conditions for sure, but also things like the quality of the reflection, the light, and whether it’s day or night.
Because a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ll spare you long explanations and share some examples with just a few words of explanation
New Zealand’s winter clouds are a frequent source of delight. This image was captured late-morning (not usually great light), but the clouds and reflection were so nice that I couldn’t resist shooting. I chose a horizontal composition because it allowed me to include more clouds reflection, while filling the frame top-to-bottom with the tree and its reflection, than a vertical would.
Juxtaposition is almost always a prime consideration. I especially love the snow-capped Southern Alps, so all things equal, I’ll usually position myself so they’re in the background. In this scene the reflection was slightly disturbed by gentle undulations on the lake’s surface, so I added a 6-stop neutral density filter to smooth the water. The resulting 30-second exposure also softened the fast moving clouds—a bonus.
But it’s not always about background juxtaposition. For example, one morning the fog was so thick, the background was completely irrelevant, so I chose a spot that best emphasized the tree’s shape and allowed me to fill my foreground with a mosaic of barely submerged stones.
One of the conditions I have at least partial control over is stars. By going out after dark on a clear night, I can include stars. And depending on the timing, I can juxtapose the tree with the Milky Way. Because these images were captured at different times of the night, including the Milky Way resulted in completely different backgrounds. The first image came a few hours after sunset, when the Milky Way hung above the amber lights of Wanaka; the second image came on a different night, a couple of hours before sunrise, when the Milky Way had rotated above the Southern Alps.
I wasn’t really crazy about the sky when I captured this image, but I liked the background peaks and low-hanging clouds. So I retreated down the lakeshore, away from the tree, and then climbed a gentle slope to distance myself even further, then used a telephoto to enlarge the tree and shrink the distance between it and the mountains and clouds.
This image is the product of a last minute change to the sunset plan in this year’s New Zealand workshop that I do with Don Smith. We had a feeling something special might happen at Lake Wanaka, and wanted make sure we had the group in the best possible spot in case it did. Read more about this evening in my June 28 blog post.The beautiful clouds that had started the evening over the Southern Alps were quickly moving southeast and out of my frame. My options were to hold my position and photograph the tree with the mountains and no clouds, or reposition myself to feature the best of the clouds against the town of Wanaka. I went with the clouds.
Because I saw the potential for a beautiful sky, I went went wide to maximize the sky, choosing my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens on my Sony a7RIV body. I positioned myself so the reflection mirrored the arc of retreating clouds, creating a frame for the tree. I was aware that I was picking up the homes and buildings lining the opposite lakeshore, but felt that was justifiable compromise to ensure the best clouds and sunset color potential.
The light was beautiful when I started, but it just kept improving as the color ramped up. Every few minutes I repositioned myself to keep the tree framed by the shifting clouds. Wanting to feature the flat, multi-toned rocks visible beneath a thin veneer of still water, I dropped my tripod and moved it a foot or so into the water. And finally, I shifted just enough for the trunk to split the gap between two distant peaks. Going vertical allowed me to get the full arc of clouds and their reflection above the rocks, with less far lakeshore than a horizontal composition would have.
This image required very little processing, but I did burn the far lakeshore a little to deemphasize the buildings there.
Posted on June 28, 2022
I’m sitting in the Queenstown, New Zealand airport waiting to board the first of four flights that will total 26 hours and land me a mere 2-hour drive from home. While I’m still coherent, I’ll attempt to whip out this week’s (slightly late) blog post, using low hanging fruit from the just-completed New Zealand workshop: The always beautiful Wanaka Willow Tree.
Each year (that we’re not thwarted by a global pandemic) Don Smith and I guide one or two groups of photographers to our favorite locations on New Zealand’s indescribable South Island. In a land brimming with highlights, right near the top of this workshop’s highlights is our visit to the lone willow tree in Lake Wanaka.
The Wanaka Willow is arguably the most photographed tree in the world. Rising in solitary splendor from the glassy surface of Lake Wanaka, further enhanced by a backdrop of snow-capped peaks, the graceful outline of this arboreal icon has pleased visitors for decades. With free public parking just 100 yards away (or a five minute stroll from the workshop hotel), the tree’s effortless access makes it easy for all to enjoy.
I first photographed the tree in 2017, and have returned maybe a dozen times since—sunrise and sunset, day and night. In addition to the wonderful photography, on each visit I’m struck by the pleasure viewing it brings to everyone present. Whether they came to photograph, meditate, or simply gaze, each visitor is soothed by its presence, and seems infused with an infectious, positive spirit.
So, right at the start of the pandemic, to say I was mortified to learn that someone had vandalized this glorious tree would be an understatement. Visitors that morning in March 2020 were shocked to discover that overnight someone had taken a saw to several of the branches, including the graceful bottom branch that dipped toward the water before arcing skyward. I won’t even try to comprehend what would motivate someone to damage this source of so much joy for so many people, but it’s disturbing to know that we share the same planet.
Given all this, I was somewhat apprehensive about my first post-pandemic visit to the Wanaka Willow. Had it been ruined? Will we be forced to strike Wanaka from our New Zealand workshop destinations?
After photographing it twice on this month’s trip, I’m happy to declare that, while the Wanaka Willow may be (metaphorically) down, it’s far from out. Despite its scars, this solitary survivor has maintained its essence, and the joy remains. This year’s experience showed me that the Wanaka Willow’s appeal is so much more than its distinctive outline, and given its sublime setting, the new version has a chance to establish a new distinctive (albeit somewhat less graceful) outline.
Returning to Wanaka a couple of days later, the original plan called for a sunset shoot elsewhere on the lake, followed by a sunrise shoot at the tree. But with a forecast that included a chance of rain the next morning, we decided the tree shoot in particular is too important to risk and offered to split the group so anyone who wanted to go to the other spot could. Fortunately, the vote was unanimous to stay at the tree.
I love it when things work out and I look a lot smarter than I am. That evening’s sunset delivered beautiful pink clouds reflecting on a mirror surface. I captured this image toward the end of the sunset, after most of the clouds had moved on. As I was about to pack up, I spied one remaining cloud fragment reflecting in the lake and ran down to a spot where I could juxtapose it with the tree. While the earlier brilliant pink had softened to muted pastels, I thought the subdued tones enhanced the moment and perfectly reflected the quiet peace I felt.
Posted on May 9, 2022
Think about what goes into making a landscape image. If the scenes and conditions are our raw materials, then it would be logical to say that our camera gear is our tools. But in addition to cameras, lenses, and other physical photography hardware, I’d say that our photography toolkit also includes the techniques we employ to deal with nature’s fickle whims.
And speaking of fickle whims, it’s impossible to deny that conditions make some scenes easier than others. But as much as I long for crimson sunsets, vivid rainbows, mirror reflections, and a host of other natural phenomena that can make virtually any shot feel like a slam dunk, these things are not always available when I want to make an image. For me, one of the greatest challenges is overcoming the boring (cloudless) skies that my California home is known (and loved) for. Not only do blank skies add rarely anything to a scene, they’re responsible for harsh light and the extreme dynamic range that even the best cameras struggle to handle. What’s a photographer to do?
For starters, we need to open our mind (and eyes). One of photography’s less heralded gifts is its ability, over time, to teach us to tune-in to nature’s subtleties, and how to leverage conditions that we once viewed as too difficult, into beautiful images. Fortunately, difficult doesn’t mean impossible—in fact, difficult can be downright fun. And the truth is, there are a lot of ways to overcome boring skies. Here are some suggestions:
Given their frequency, I’ve become pretty good at making the best of blue sky days in Yosemite. While last month’s Yosemite Waterfalls and Dogwood photo workshop did enjoy a few clouds, we also dealt with a fair amount of blank skies. For our first sunrise we photographed silhouettes and a rising crescent moon. And later in the workshop we spent a couple of hours photographing dogwood in the shade (mixed with a little sunlight) in the Fern Springs / Pohono Bridge area. But I think my favorite blue sky shoot came at Cathedral Beach on the workshop’s penultimate afternoon.
Cathedral Beach is an up-close view of El Capitan right on the Merced River. The low and slow flow of autumn makes a glassy reflection here, and in the months closer to the winter solstice, when the sun is farther south, all of El Capitan gets spectacular late afternoon light. But by mid-spring the river rushes and swirls with snowmelt, and the sun has moved so far north that only El Capitan’s west-facing wall gets late sunlight. But as you can see, all is not lost.
Viewing El Capitan from Cathedral Beach that afternoon, the first thing to catch my eye was the gorgeous light etching the otherwise shaded granite’s vertical plunge. No less spectacular was the brilliant backlight illuminating the cottonwood and grass across the river and reflecting color in the river.
I pulled out my (brand new!) Sony A1 and pondered my lens choice. Since capturing all of El Capitan from this location requires something wider than 24mm, I’d normally go with my Sony 16-35 GM or 12-24 GM lens here. But with no clouds and most of El Capitan in shade, I really wanted to eliminate the sky, most of the granite, and the less interesting surrounding foliage, so I reached for my Sony 24-105G lens.
This scene worked as a horizontal or vertical, but I finally zeroed in on the vertical composition because it was the best way to distill the scene down to its essentials: El Capitan’s edge light, the backlit foliage, the reflection, and the gold-flecked riverbed beneath parallel ripples. I moved along the riverbank until all this good stuff aligned with the set of grassy mounds catching light in the near foreground. I wanted front-to-back sharpness, so I stopped down to f/16 and focused on the most distant of the foreground mounds. And even though I didn’t have a mirror surface, I dialed the reflection up with my polarizer to add a little color to the river.
In Yosemite it’s hard to take a bad picture, but some are more rewarding than others. While I doubt it will be one of those images that goes viral, this image makes me especially happy because finding it and assembling all the components took a little creative effort.
Posted on April 5, 2022
More than 15 years ago I left a good job at an excellent (and very well known) tech company to pursue a career in nature photography. After all, I had a good camera and years of amateur photography experience—what could possibly go wrong? Turns out I had no interest in any of the kinds of photography that actually make money, so (in hindsight) my decision was somewhat riskier than I had imagined. But, while photography hasn’t brought me great financial fortune, I do indeed feel rich beyond all measure.
Since first picking up a serious camera in my early 20s (an Olympus OM-2, if you must know), I’d been a very content amateur photographer, able to choose my photo destinations and the images I clicked for the sheer joy they brought. Period. But, being stuck in a job that stifles your creativity tends to make you rethink life choices.
At the time I’d found myself swept up in the earliest waves of the photography renaissance spurred by digital capture. I loved the instant feedback and control it brought, and started fantasizing about a transitioning my livelihood to photography. But as I started plotting my transition, I sensed that a significant risk of turning one’s passion into a profession is making choices based on the income they generate rather than the pleasure they bring. Hoping to keep the joy in my photography, I made a personal vow to only photograph what I want to photograph, and to never take a picture just because I thought it would earn money.
To honor this commitment while still paying the bills, I blended my 20+ year career in technical communications (tech writing, training, and support) with my years of photography experience and subject knowledge, to create a photography business based on photo workshops rather than image sales. (Of course I do sell images too, but because I’ve always viewed image sales as a bonus rather than something to something I rely on, I’ve been able to honor my commitment to only take pictures that make me happy.) And here I am.
I’m thinking about this right now because sometimes I’ll come across an image that reminds me how lucky I was to have been at these places when I would have otherwise been fighting traffic or imprisoned in a cubicle. I found today’s image while engaged in one of my favorite idle time exercises: Start with a favorite image, return to the folder for that trip, and look for unprocessed images captured in the conditions of that day. This time, overdue for a blog post, I didn’t go too far back, ending up revisiting my images from the snowy opening day of last year’s December Yosemite Winter Moon workshop.
Given how happy the previously shared images from this day make me, this choice was low hanging fruit, but I’m actually a little surprised to have found something I like as much as, or more than, what I already had.
When I’m in the park by myself I tend to avoid from the popular spots. But these spots are popular for a reason, and since this was the workshop’s first day, I wanted to give my group a chance to photograph the iconic scenes in the best conditions. Granted (speaking of low hanging fruit), Valley View is one of those spots that really doesn’t need help to be beautiful, so adding fresh snow almost seems unfair. But after a lifetime of visiting Yosemite, I can honestly say that it doesn’t get much better than this, and it was a treat to be able to share that beauty with an appreciative group. The fact that this was the first view of Yosemite for some (but I didn’t have the heart to tell them it’s not always like this) made it even more memorable for me.
For this composition I used the snow-capped rocks to add a little foreground interest. They’d have been pretty hard to avoid anyway, but I was very conscious of where I set up my tripod to control where the rocks landed in my scene—not too close to the borders, and not merged with the important parts of the reflection.
In addition to the snow, the clouds this afternoon were truly special—not only the swirling fragments between El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks, but also the column that appears to be tumbling down El Capitan like a waterfall. Just another day at the office….
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on March 13, 2022
Photography should, first and foremost, make you happy. But every once in a while, for some reason (I have to be really bored) I’ll surf over to an online photography forum or Facebook photography group, only to be instantly reminded why it’s been so long since I visited. The litany of online insults, one-upmanship, and destructive criticism makes me wonder whether there are any happy photographers out there.
Of course I know there are, because I meet them all the time: in my workshops, on location, or simply sharing their images online. I don’t know whether the same photographers who seem so happy when they’re taking pictures do a Jekyll to Hyde transformation as soon as their butts hit the computer chair, or whether there are two types of photographers: those who actually take pictures, and those who simply prefer their computer to Mother Nature (no wonder they’re so unhappy).
Of course getting out to take pictures does require more effort than sitting at a computer. And nature photography usually requires some level of sacrifice because the best time for photography is usually the worst time to be outside: sunrise, when we’d rather be in bed; sunset, when we’d rather be at dinner; crazy weather, when we’d rather be warm; and after dark, when we’d rather be in front of the TV. But I’ve decided that there’s something about witnessing Nature’s majesty that transcends any transient discomfort and inconvenience. And doing it with people who appreciate it as much as you do makes it even better.
Don Smith and I got another reminder in last month’s Iceland photo workshop. On this trip we dealt with all the wind, snow, and frigid temperatures you’d expect in Iceland in February. And then there were the long days and bumpy miles—not to mention a fair share of unexpected hardship. For example, less than 36 hours after clicking this image, several members of our group were nearly swept into the North Atlantic by a rogue wave. Then there were the hotel room snow drifts (note to self: Don’t sleep with the window open in Iceland in February), the lost and found camera bag, the stolen airport shuttle….
But despite all this difficultly, this trip was an absolute blast. This night is a great example. It must have been freezing, but I have no memory of that now. But I do remember standing on the beach beneath Vestrahorn with the rest of the group that night, the waves washing over (and sometimes into) our boots, waiting for the northern lights. Approaching from behind was a storm that, according to the forecast, threatened to close the roads. This scene is beautiful in any conditions, and to be able to photo Vestrahorn under the stars, with even a little bit of aurora, was truly special. Doing it with a group of like-minded, fun loving friends is something I’ll never forget.
What you see here is about as good as the aurora got—nice, but nothing spectacular. Nevertheless, we were having such a great time, we stayed out in the cold dark until the clouds swallowed the stars. Back at the bus, with a storm threatening and an hour’s drive back to the hotel, we were anxious to get on the road. So imagine our chagrin when Óli (or Icelandic guide) turned the key and got nothing but a click. If you’ve every photographed Vestrahorn from here, you know this isn’t one of those places where you can just walk out onto the road and flag down a car. Uh-oh. It would have been easy, understandable even, for people to be upset—or frightened, or angry. Instead, while Óli worked his phone trying find help (the cellular coverage in Iceland is fantastic, FYI), we just continued enjoying each other’s company.
As it turned out, we only had to wait an hour or so for a friend of Óli’s to come out and give us a jumpstart (one more reason why it pays to have a local guide). He also arranged for another friend to drive our direction with van large enough for the entire group, in case the battery charge didn’t hold. Rather than wait for the backup vehicle to arrive, we just started driving in toward the hotel—the other vehicle met us halfway and followed us from there, but we made it without need for more help.
The next morning the battery was dead again, and we were stuck at the hotel all morning while the bus was being repaired (turned out to be an alternator problem). As luck would have it, the storm was so bad that we’d have had to stay in anyway. That afternoon we were picked up for our visit to the ice cave, and the bus was good as new when we returned. So all’s well that ends well.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on January 19, 2022
Woe is me
I just returned from nearly a week in Death Valley, where I had virtually no connectivity (wifi at my hotel made the Grand Canyon North Rim feel like a Silicon Valley Starbucks). Workshop or not, I try to post something on social media every day, and a new blog article each Sunday, but with no wifi and spotty 3G cellular that struggled just to send or load a text-only e-mail, I felt virtually cut off from civilization (there was a tsunami?!). I know in the grand scheme of things these are small problems, and that I probably missed the world more than it missed me, but still….
Last week I wrote about creating unique perspectives of familiar scenes, and offered some ideas for achieving this. As admirable as it is to make unique images, sometimes Mother Nature delivers something so magnificent that best thing to do is just get out of the way and let the scene stand on its own.
Though last month’s Yosemite Winter Moon workshop wasn’t scheduled to start until the afternoon I took this picture, I drove to Yosemite the evening before the workshop to get a few hours of morning one-on-one time with the multiple inches of snow forecast to fall overnight. And as hoped, I arrived that morning to find every square inch of exposed surface glazed white—and the snow was still falling.
The paradox of photographing Yosemite during a storm is that all of the features you came to photograph are most likely obliterated by clouds. Sometimes visibility is so poor, it’s difficult to imagine the obscured features ever existed—and quite easy to imagine the comfort and warmth of your hotel room. The key Yosemite storm success is to be there when the storm clears—but job-one for catching the clearing part of a Yosemite clearing storm, is first enduring the storm part.
So, rather than succumb to the temptation of comfort and warmth, I armored up and went to work in near zero visibility. After an hour or so of driving around, interrupted by a stop or two (or three) to photograph some of the more intimate nearby beauty, I pulled up to El Capitan Bridge and noticed the clouds starting to lift (fingers crossed). In the still-falling snow, I quickly set up my tripod, grabbed my Sony a7RIV, attached my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens, and hoped.
Without getting too preachy, let me just say that if you ever want to piss off a photographer, look at one of their images and say, “Ooooh, you must have a great camera.” While that may very well be true, the photographer’s unavoidable inference will be that the questioner means the beautiful image is a product of the photographer’s equipment, not his or her photographic vision and skill.
But…. As much as I’d like to say my equipment is irrelevant and I could achieve the same results with a pinhole camera, I’ll admit that I have images I couldn’t have created without the right camera or lens. And this is one of them.
Back on point
I’ve written before about Sony’s 12-24 lenses, and how they feel specifically designed for Yosemite’s ultra-close views of massive monoliths. El Capitan Bridge is one of those views, so close that I’ve always felt that even a 16-35 wasn’t wide enough to do the scene justice. So when Sony released its 12-24 f/4 G lens, this was one of my very first stops. My excitement was validated when I discovered that at 12mm I could indeed get all of El Capitan, plus its entire reflection, in a single vertical frame. I became so enamored of my new top-to-bottom-reflection power that pretty much every subsequent 12-24 El Capitan composition here (both with the original Sony 12-24 f/4 G, and the newer Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM) had been vertical. My goal this morning was to change that.
While the clouds didn’t completely part for several more hours, during this stop at El Capitan Bridge they did lift just enough to reveal all of El Capitan for about 15 minutes. During that time, their swirling vestiges careened across the granite face so rapidly that the scene seemed to change by the second.
Photographically, there wasn’t really a lot I could do for this scene besides not mess it up. Mounting my camera horizontally, I widened my lens all the way out to 12mm, put the top of the frame slightly above El Capitan (to maximize the amount of reflection below it—more sky would have meant less reflection), and used the snow-covered trees on both sides to frame the scene.
Depth of field wasn’t a factor, and very little contrast made metering easy. Wanting a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the falling snowflakes, I dialed to ISO 800 and f/9, which I quickly determined centered my (pre-capture) histogram at a more than adequate 1/250 second. Then I clicked a dozen or so images to ensure a wide variety of cloud formations and falling snowflake patterns, pausing occasionally to appreciate the moment.
This scene felt like a gift that I really didn’t want to overthink. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to photograph it (and the equipment that allowed me to do it justice).
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Posted on December 5, 2021
Blue sky may be great for picnics and outdoor weddings, but it makes for lousy photography. To avoid boring blue skies, flat midday light, and extreme highlight/shadow contrast, landscape photographers usually go for the color of sunrise and sunset, and low-angle sunlight of early morning and late afternoon.
Of course the great light equalizer is clouds, which can soften harsh light and add enough texture and character to the sky, making almost any subject photographable—any time of day. Sadly, clouds are never guaranteed, especially here in California. Fortunately, all is not lost when the great clouds and light we hope for don’t manifest.
Spending a large part of my photography time in Yosemite, over the years I’ve created a mental list for when to find the “best” cloudless-sky light on Yosemite’s icons: for Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall, and Cathedral Rocks it’s late afternoon through sunset; El Capitan is good early morning, while Yosemite Falls is best a little later in the morning. And then there are seasonal considerations: Half Dome at the end of the day is good year-round, but Bridalveil Fall and Cathedral Rocks are much better from April through September; while El Capitan gets nice morning light year-round, it also gets good late light from October through February; and while the best light on Yosemite Falls happens in winter, that doesn’t usually coincide with the best water, which comes in spring (unless you’re lucky enough to get a lot of early rain, like we got this autumn).
But even when the sun’s up and the sky is blank, all is not lost. In those situations I head to locations I can photograph in full shade. Yosemite Valley’s steep walls help a lot, especially from November through February, when much of the valley never gets direct sun.
Following our sunrise shoot on the first morning of last month’s Yosemite Fall Color photo workshop, I took my group to El Capitan Bridge to photograph the first light on El Capitan. But as nice as that El Capitan first light was, on this morning I couldn’t help notice the downstream view of Cathedral Rocks across the bridge. With everything on that side in full shade, this downstream scene wasn’t as dramatic as the sun-warmed El Capitan, but the soft, shadowless light was ideal for the colorful trees reflecting in the Merced River.
After encouraging everyone in the group not to check out this downstream view, I went to work on the scene. If the sky had been more interesting, I’d have opted for my Sony 16-35 GM lens to include all of Cathedral Rocks, more trees, lots of reflection, and an ample slice of sky. But the sky this morning was both bright and blue (yuck), so I chose the Sony 24-105G lens for my Sony a7RIV to tighten the composition.
Before shooting, I actually walked up and down at the railing quite a bit, framing up both horizontal and vertical sample compositions, until I found the right balance of granite, trees, and reflection. Because the air was perfectly still, I didn’t need to worry about movement in the leaves, which enabled me to add my Breakthrough 6-stop Dark Circular Polarizer for a shutter speed long enough the smooth some of the ripples in the water.
I guess the lesson here is the importance of understanding and leveraging light. And all this talk about light inspired me to dust off my Light Photo Tips article—I’ve added the updated and clarified version below (with a gallery of images beneath it).
Photograph: “Photo” comes from phos, the Greek word for light; “graph” is from graphos, the Greek word for write. And that’s pretty much what photographers do: Write with light.
Because we have no control over the sun, nature photographers spend a lot of time hoping for “good” light and cursing “bad” light—despite the fact that there is no universal definition of “good” and “bad” light. Before embracing someone else’s good/bad light labels, let me offer that I (and most other serious photographers) could probably show you images that defy any good/bad label you’ve heard. The best definition of good light is light that allows us to do what we want to do; bad light is light that prevents us from doing what we want to do.
Studio photographers’ complete control of the light that illuminates their subjects, a true art, allows them to define and create their own “good” light. On the other hand, nature photographers, rely on sunlight and don’t have that kind of control. But knowledge is power: The better we understand light—what it is, what it does, and why/how it does it—the better we can anticipate and be present for the light we seek, and deal with the light we encounter.
Energy generated by the sun bathes Earth in continuous electromagnetic radiation, its wavelengths ranging from extremely short to extremely long (how’s that for specific?). Among the broad spectrum of electromagnetic solar wavelengths we receive are ultraviolet rays that burn our skin (10-400 nanometers), infrared waves that warm our atmosphere (700 nanometers to 1 millimeter), and the visible spectrum that we (and our cameras) use to view the world—a narrow range of wavelengths between ultraviolet and infrared with wavelengths that range between 400 and 700 nanometers.
When all visible wavelengths are present, we perceive the light as white (colorless). But when light interacts with an object, the object absorbs or scatters some of the light’s wavelengths. The amount of scattering and absorption is determined by the interfering object’s properties. For example, when light strikes a tree, characteristics of the tree determine which of its wavelengths are absorbed, and the wavelengths not absorbed are scattered. Our eyes capture these scattered wavelengths and send that information to our brains, which translates it into a color.
When light strikes a mountain lake, some is absorbed by the water, allowing us to see the water. Some light bounces back to the atmosphere to create a reflection. The light that isn’t absorbed or reflected by the water light passes through to the lakebed and we see whatever is on the lake’s bottom.
For evidence of light’s colors, look no farther than the rainbow. Because light slows when it passes through water, but shorter wavelengths slow more than longer wavelengths, water refracts (bends) light. A single beam of white light (light with an evenly distributed array of the entire visible spectrum) entering a raindrop separates and spreads into a full range of visible wavelengths that we perceive a range of colors. When this separated light strikes the back of the raindrop, some of it reflects: A rainbow!
When sunlight reaches Earth, the relatively small nitrogen and oxygen molecules that are most prevalent in our atmosphere scatter its shorter wavelengths (violet and blue) first, turning the sky overhead (the most direct path to our eyes) blue. The longer wavelengths (orange and red) don’t scatter as easily continue traveling through more atmosphere—while our midday sky is blue, these long wavelengths are coloring the sunset sky of someone to the east.
In the mountains, sunlight has passed through even less atmosphere and the sky appears even more blue than it does at sea level. On the other hand, when relatively large pollution and dust molecules are present, all the wavelengths (colors) scatter, resulting in a murky, less colorful sky (picture what happens when your toddler mixes all the paints in her watercolor set).
Most photographers (myself included) don’t like blank blue sky. Clouds are interesting, and their absence is boring. Additionally, when the sun is overhead, bright highlights and deep shadows create contrast that cameras struggle to handle. That means even a sky completely obscured by a homogeneous gray stratus layer, while nearly as boring as blue sky, is generally preferred because it reduces contrast and softens the light (more below).
Remember the blue light that scattered to color our midday sky? The longer orange and red wavelengths that didn’t scatter overhead, continued on. As the Earth rotates, eventually our location reaches the point where the sun is low and the sunlight that reaches us has had to fight its way through so much atmosphere that it’s been stripped of all blueness, leaving only its longest wavelengths to paint our sunrise/sunset sky shades of orange and red.
When I evaluate a scene for vivid sunrise/sunset color potential, I look for an opening on the horizon for the sunlight to pass through, pristine air (such as the clean air immediately after a rain) that won’t muddy the color, and clouds overhead and opposite the sun, to catch the color.
Overcast and shade
Sunny days are generally no fun for nature photographers. In full sunlight, direct light mixed with dark shadows often forces nature photographers to choose between exposing for the highlights or the shadows (or to resort to multi-image blending). So when the sun is high, I generally hope for clouds or look for shade.
Clouds diffuse the omni-directional sunlight—instead of originating from a single point, overcast light is spread evenly across the sky, filling shadows and painting the entire landscape in diffuse light. Similarly, whether caused by a single tree or a towering mountain, all shadow light is indirect. While the entire scene may be darker, the range of tones in shade very easily handled by a camera.
Flat gray sky or deep shade may appear dull and boring, but it’s usually the best light for midday photography. When skies are overcast, I can photograph all day—rather than seeking sweeping landscapes, in this light I tend to look for more intimate scenes that minimize or completely exclude the sky. And when the midday sun shines bright, I look for subjects in full shade. Overcast and shade is also the best light for blurring water because it requires longer shutter speeds.
Another option for midday light is high-key photography that uses the overexposed sky as a brilliant background. Putting a backlit subject against the bright sky, I simply meter on my subject and blow out the sky.
Whether I’m traveling to a photo shoot, or looking for something near home, my decisions are always based on getting myself to my locations when the conditions are best. For example, in Yosemite I generally prefer sunset because that’s when Yosemite Valley’s most photogenic features get late, warm light. Mt. Whitney, on the other side of the Sierra, gets its best light at sunrise, and I prefer photographing the lush redwood forests along the California coast in rain or fog. Though I plan obsessively to get myself in the right place, in the best light, sometimes Nature throws a curve, just to remind me (it seems) not to get so locked in on my subject and the general tendencies of its light that I fail to recognize the best light at that moment.
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Posted on November 7, 2021
As a landscape photographer, I often joke that I don’t photograph anything that moves—no wildlife, no pets, no portraits, no sports. And don’t even think about asking me to do your wedding. I’ve always been a deliberate shooter who likes to anticipate and prepare my frame with the confidence my shot will still be there when I’m ready—landscape photography suits me just fine (thankyouverymuch).
But as much as I appreciate the comfortable pace of a static landscape, the reality is that nature is in constant motion. Earth’s rotation spins the moon and stars across our night sky, and continuously changes the direction, intensity, and color of the sunlight that rules our day. Rivers cascade toward sea level, clouds scoot and transform overhead, ocean waves curl and explode against sand and rock, then vanish and repeat. And even a moderate breeze can send the most firmly rooted plants into a dancing frenzy.
Photographing motion is frustrating because a still image can’t duplicate the human experience (not to mention the technical skill required to subdue it without compromising exposure and depth). But motion also presents a creative opportunity for the photographer who knows how to create a motion-implying illusion that conveys power, flow, pattern, and direction.
While a camera can’t do what the human eye/brain do, it can accumulate seconds, minutes, or hours of light, recording a scene’s complete history in a single image. Or, a camera can freeze an instant, an ephemeral splash of water or bolt of lightning that’s gone so fast it’s merely a memory by the time a viewer’s conscious mind processes it. This is powerful stuff—accumulating motion in a long frame reveals hidden patterns; freezing motion saves an instant for eternal scrutiny.
When I photograph the night sky, I have to decide how to handle the motion of the stars (yes, I know it’s not really the stars that are moving). Freezing celestial motion is a balancing act that combines a high ISO and large aperture with a shutter speed long enough to squeeze every possible photon from a dark sky, but that stops before discernible streaks form. Or, I can emphasize celestial motion by holding my shutter open for many minutes, stretching the stars into parallel arcs.
Lightning comes and goes faster than human reflexes can respond. At night, a long exposure can be initiated when and where lighting might strike, recording any bolt that occurs during the exposure. But in daylight I need a lightning sensing device like a Lightning Trigger, that detects the lightning and fires the shutter faster than I can. If I succeed, I can reveal intricate filaments of electricity my eyes missed.
Moving water is probably the most frequently photographed example of motion in nature, with options that range from suspended water droplets to an ethereal gauze. I’m always amused when I hear someone say they don’t like blurred water images because they’re not “natural.”
Ignoring the fact that it’s usually impossible to achieve a shutter speed fast enough to freeze airborne water in the best light for photographing it (shade or overcast), I don’t find blurred water any less natural than a water drop suspended in midair (when was the last time you saw that in the real world). Blurred water isn’t unnatural, it’s different.
Sometimes a long exposure can smooth distracting ripples to enhance a reflection. I often add a neutral density filter and employ this technique when I arrived at a lake or river hoping for a reflection, only to find my plan thwarted by a waves or a wind-whipped surface.
A long exposure can also reveal patterns of motion that are too slow to discern. Which brings me to today’s image from the penultimate night of last week’s Yosemite Fall Color photo workshop
I’d guided my group through the woods to bend in the Merced River that’s usually a glassy reflection in the still autumn flow. But just a week before the workshop, a 6-inch rainfall filled the waterfalls and accelerated the normally languid Merced into a more spring-like flow. Great conditions for most of our photography, but not so much for reflections.
This Half Dome view, known to photographers but just far enough off the beaten path to discourage most tourists, is always a highlight of my Yosemite workshops. I especially like it autumn, for the colorful cottonwood just upstream, and the (usually reliable) glassy surface. This year the cottonwood delivered, but the rapid flow disturbed the mirror reflection I’m accustomed to.
No problem. I suggested to my group that an ND filter would enable an exposure long enough to flatten the water—the result wouldn’t be a mirror reflection, but the gauzy effect would create an ethereal reflection that would be both striking and distinctive.
Working individually with photographers in my group, I soon noticed small patches of foam drifting by in the flow—not just occasionally, but pretty much continuously. I knew from experience that a long exposure would blur them into parallel streaks (like star trails), especially in the darker water, and got a few people started adding this effect to their images.
Then I noticed a collection of foam patches trapped in a small zone of sheltered, (apparently) static water just a few feet upstream. While helping one of the members of the group find a composition here, it soon became obvious that this water was in fact moving, albeit too slow to see.
Once I was confident that everyone was successfully engaged with the scene, I went upstream about 20 feet and looked downstream, searching for something different than the standard view here. I ended up having a blast photographing the slow motion swirl patterns in the foam (and occasional leaf) that clearly wasn’t static, using a few trees and their reflections downstream as my background.
Finally, after shooting that scene to within an inch of its life (each frame was completely different from the previous), I returned to the more conventional upstream composition to see if I could use these swirls to create something a little different.
This was probably 10 minutes after sunset, just possibly my favorite light for photography, and now dark enough to forego the ND filter. The biggest trick here was finding a position with a view of Half Dome, the fall color, the reflection, and with enough swirls to occupy a significant part of the frame.
First, I moved upstream as far as I could move without losing Half Dome and the golden cottonwood behind the nearby trees. Next, to maximize the foreground swirls, I dropped my tripod as near to the ground as I could.
But, from this new perspective, dialing my polarizer to maximize the reflection also enhanced the sky reflection enough to nearly obliterate the foam swirls. So, with my eye on the Half Dome reflection in my viewfinder, I dialed my polarizer just far enough for Half Dome to stand out, but not so much that the water with the swirling foam and leaves lost its blackness.
Setting my Sony a7RIV to ISO 50, and dialing my Sony 24-105 G lens to f/16, enable me to keep my shutter open for 20 seconds—plenty of time to reveal the patterns of motion. A bonus was the leaves and foam flowing much faster in the main river channel, creating linear streaks that I didn’t notice until I processed the image.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.