Posted on August 1, 2014
Previously on Eloquent Nature: Road trip!
Sometimes when Mother Nature puts on a show, the best thing a photographer can do is just get out of the way. I’d driven to Mono Lake the previous afternoon to do some night photography and photograph the waning crescent moon before sunrise. After spending the night in the back of my Pilot, I woke at 4:30 and hiked down to the lake. The crescent moon arrived right on time, about an hour before the sun, but I didn’t get any moon images that thrilled me. I was, however, encouraged by the glassy calm of the lake (a distinct change from the previous night) and the promising spread of clouds and sky connecting the horizons.
Waiting in the morning’s utter stillness, it was easy to forget how sleep deprived I was. After fifteen minutes of slow but steady brightening, the color came quickly and for about 30 minutes I was the sole witness to a vivid display that transitioned seamlessly from deep crimson, to electric pink, and finally soft, pastel peach hues. The entire show was duplicated on the lake surface—I could have pointed my camera in any direction to capture something beautiful.
When I get in a situation like this, one that’s both spectacular and rapidly changing, I risk blowing the entire shoot by thinking to much. Thinking in dynamic conditions usually results in things like including foreground elements just because that’s what you’re supposed to do, or spending too much time searching for just the right composition. This problem is particularly vexing at a place like Mono Lake, which is chock full of great visual elements.
I’ve seen many Mono Lake images featuring spectacular color and sparkling reflections, only to be ruined by the inclusion of disorganized or incongruous tufa formations (limestone formations that are the prime compositional element of most Mono Lake images). If you can include the tufa in a way that serves the scene, by all means go for it. But in rapidly changing conditions like I had this morning at Mono Lake, unless I already have my compositions ready, I’m usually more productive when I simplify through subtraction.
This morning I had just enough time before the color arrived to find a spot that didn’t have too much happening in the foreground. Rather than a confusion of tufa formations, I was working with a glassy canvas of lake surface that stretched with little interference to the distant lakeshore. The visual interruptions were few enough, and distant enough, that assembling them into a cohesive foreground was a simple matter of shifting slightly left and right. Handling my shoot this way allowed me to emphasize the scene’s best feature—the vivid color painting the sky and reflecting on the lake. The small tufa mounds dotting the lake surface were relegated to visual resting places that add depth and create virtual lines leading into the scene.
If you look at the images in the Mono Lake Gallery below, you’ll see a variety of foreground treatments that range from simple to complex. The more complex foregrounds are generally the result of enough familiarity and time to anticipate the conditions and assemble a composition. But when I couldn’t find something that worked, I simply stopped trying and allowed the moment to speak for itself.
Posted on May 1, 2014
One of the questions I’m most frequently asked is, how do you find these locations? Sometimes I feel like the questioner is convinced that there’s a secret pro photographer society where we share prime photo locations (and scoff at outsiders), or perhaps I’ve inherited a comprehensive tome containing the coordinates of every photo-worthy scene on Earth. Uh…, not so much.
The reality is far less interesting. First, it doesn’t hurt to have been born and raised in California—being within relatively easy driving distance of places Yosemite, the Eastern Sierra, and Death Valley gives me a lifetime of experience from which to draw. But as my workshop offerings expand, I find myself venturing into areas I don’t know nearly so well. Of course the people who spend good money to attend a workshop, not to mention their vacation time and travel expense, expect no less than expert location knowledge from their workshop leaders. Not only do they want to be taken to the “iconic” spots, they want to be shown special, less known, scenes. And they want to know they’re going to be at these locations at the best time.
So here it is—the pro photographer’s secret to finding the best photo locations is…
… wait for it…
… lots of homework and very long days.
Sorry—no secret society or comprehensive resource, I swear. Just a lot of research and hard work. The long days part of the equation is up to you—it’s mostly a matter of sucking it up and setting the alarm for 5:00 or 4:00 or whatever ridiculous AM gets the job done, rain or shine, and covering as many miles as possible until it gets too dark to see. (How bad do you want it?)
On the other hand, the homework part I might be able to help with. It pretty much comes down to four things: Research, Inquire, Explore, Experience. But rather than elaborate in general terms, I’ll give you an example. I just returned last night from four days in Oregon and Washington, scouting the area in and around the Columbia River Gorge with Don Smith for a workshop we plan to add next spring. Don and I had both been there before, spending enough time to know that it’s ripe with possibility, but not so much that we we’re comfortable asking others to pay us money to show it to them. So we flew into Portland Sunday afternoon, rented a car and drove to Hood River, which would be our base of operations for the next few days.
For many the research part of the scouting equation begins and ends with one or two sites the Internet. While the Internet is great, it’s not everything (and not always accurate). I usually start by scrutinizing topo maps to get a feel for the terrain, and road maps to better understand access and relative location (what’s near what). In this case, Don and I had done our map research before our earlier trips, but we definitely revisited the maps before returning this time. REI is a good place to start for topo maps, but sometimes you can find what you’re looking for online or in the vast selection of topo map apps available for tablets and smartphones. As much as I love my GPS for getting from here to there, for road research I prefer the old fashion, fold-out maps that I can spread out on a table. AAA is my go-to roadmap resource.
Once I get a general idea of the lay of the land, I’m ready to drill down to specifics. Not only are books are more reliable and complete than the Internet, they’re also more portable. I try to find one or two books on my location—because most books include information that’s not pertinent to my objectives, I may not read them from cover-to-cover, but I do at least scan each page for info on the areas that might interest me. They also come with me, keep me company on the plane, and are rarely more than an arm’s length away for the duration of my visit. For my first Gorge trip I used “Day Hiking Columbia River Gorge,” by Craig Romano, which gave me lots of insights that carried over to this trip.
By the time I’m done with the maps and books, I’m ready to start Googling. Sometimes a search like “Columbia River Gorge photo locations” turns up everything I need, but I usually end up finding spots that require more info, or sometimes I see possible spots on the maps or in the books that don’t show up in the more general Google search. In that case I’ll Google for something like “Images of Mt. Hood” (or whatever) and try to determine where they were captured. (For Columbia River Gorge waterfalls, and West Coast waterfalls in general, there’s no better online resource than Leon Turnbull’s waterfallswest.com. )
Following this approach, Don and I had a real good idea of what to check out on this trip. We felt pretty good about our knowledge of the Gorge’s waterfalls (which we’d already explored—thanks, Leon), so this time we concentrated on non-waterfall opportunities, particularly views that would be good for sunrise and sunset. We came up with a framework itinerary that would allow us to cover all of the general areas and specific locations we’d identified.
As beneficial as the research is, there’s no substitute for pestering locals. Don and I started at check-in didn’t let up until we got on our planes home: hostesses, servers, baristas, sales clerks, joggers, hikers, park rangers—no local was safe. If the person had a tripod, we’d ask something like, “Where did you shoot sunrise?” or “What’s a good sunset spot?” But most locals don’t have a photographer’s mindset—they usually respond better to questions like, “What are your favorite views?” or even better, “What’s a good view of Mt. Hood?”
Some of the best spots (including Trout Lake, pictured above) we found as the direct result these, uh, inquiries (interrogations). In scenic areas like the Columbia River Gorge, most people are very proud of their home and enjoy sharing their knowledge. Not only were the local experts good resources for finding the best photo spots, they were able to steer us away from less exciting places we’d planned to visit, in one case saving us what would have been an afternoon-long wild goose chase.
No matter how much research and inquiry I do, I never turn up everything. Some of my favorite spots have resulted from just checking out a road that looks interesting, or wandering down a trail to see whether the view opens up around the corner. This trip was no exception. For our first sunrise Don and I got up at 5:00 a.m. and just started driving up Highway 35 toward Mt. Hood and ended up finding a beautiful view of Mount Hood above the cascading Hood River. And on our drive back, rather than stay on the main highway, we detoured into the countryside and found some spectacular views of Mt. Hood above rolling farmland and blooming apple and pear orchards.
It’s great to have knowledge of an area’s photo locations, but until you actually get out there and photograph your spots at the time you think they’ll be best, you’ll never know for sure (it’s one thing to make a wrong call on a spot when it’s just you, and something altogether different when you’re guiding a workshop group out to a spot at a time you’ve never photographed there). So after a long day of exploration, Don and I would decide what location would be best for the upcoming sunset and sunrise, then return.
One of our inquiries at the hotel turned up Trout Lake as a nice view of Mt. Adams (Mt. Adams wasn’t even on our radar when we arrived because on our previous visits it was engulfed in clouds). We drove up there one afternoon, and even though Mt. Adams was again cloud-shrouded and completely invisible, we thought this would be a great sunrise spot if the mountain did come out. So the next morning, with clearing skies in the forecast, Don and I rose at 5:00 and drove up there in the dark.
The color was just starting as we arrived (another reason we run locations ourselves first—now we know we need to leave earlier when we’re guiding our workshop group), but because we’d been there the day before, we were able to set up and start shooting just in time for the good stuff. The mountain was about 2/3 visible, its top third hidden by clouds that started pink soon became crimson, with the entire scene reflected in the exquisitely calm lake.
The image here came a little before the sun crested the ridge to the south, when the sun was high enough to illuminate the herringbone clouds overhead without washing out the reflection in Trout Lake (which hung in there for the duration of our shoot, a real bonus). To bring out the reflection of the bright sky on the shaded lake surface, I used a 2-stop hard-transition Singh-Ray graduated neutral density filter. This made my reflection slightly brighter than my sky (defying the laws of physics), a problem I was able to fix pretty easily in Lightroom/Photoshop.
But wait, there’s more
We’re still not done exploring the Columbia River Gorge. Before next year’s workshop we’ll be making at least one more trip up there. Even though we feel extremely confident that we have more than enough to keep a workshop group busy and happy, it’s important to have options and backup locations. For example, on this trip the wildflowers were exploding (more on that later), and we spent a lot of our time checking out and photographing the prime wildflower spots. But wildflower blooms are notoriously unreliable—if next year’s trip misses the bloom, we’ll need to find other spots. And we’ll need to be able to handle whatever weather weather Mother Nature throws at us: rain, snow, sunshine—in spring it’s all possible.
Will I mind doing more homework? What do you think?
Posted on April 26, 2014
I can’t believe this image is over ten years old. It represents a significant milestone for me, because I captured it about the time I made the decision to turn a 25+ year serious hobby into my profession. With that decision came the realization that simply taking pretty pictures, or being a very good photographer, wouldn’t be enough—there are plenty of those out there. I made a very conscious decision to start seeing the world differently, to stop repeating the images that I, and other photographers, had been doing for years—no matter how successful they were. I won’t pretend to be the first person to photograph a reflection and ignore the primary subject, but seeing my scene this way represented a breakthrough moment for me.
I’d arrived in Yosemite mid-morning on a chilly November day. A few showers had fallen the night before, scouring all impurities from the air. The air was perfectly still, and the Merced River was about as low (and slow) as it can get. This set of conditions—clean, still air and water—is ideal for for reflections. The final piece of the reflection puzzle, the thing that causes people to doubt at first glance that this is indeed a reflection, was simply lucky timing. I arrived at Valley View that morning in the small window of time when El Capitan was fully lit while the Merced remained in shade, creating a dark surface to reflect my brightly lit subject.
A couple of other things to note, not because I remember my thought process, but because I know how I shoot and like to think that they were conscious choices: First is the way the rock in the foreground is framed by El Capitan’s curved outline—merging the two would have sacrificed depth. That rock, along with the thin strip of misty meadow along the top of the frame, serve as subtle clues that this is a reflection. And second is my f22 choice—believe it or not, even though the entire foreground is just a few feet from my lens, the depth of field is huge. That’s because the focus point of a reflection is the focus point of the reflective subject, not the reflective surface. So, while the El Capitan reflection is at infinity, the closest rock is no more than four feet away. In other words, to be sharp from about four feet all the way out to infinity required a very small aperture and very careful focus point selection. I’m guessing that I focused on the second foreground rock, which was about 7 feet away, to ensure sharpness from about 3 1/2 feet to infinity.
Since this image, reflections have been a personal favorite of mine. I blogged about their power in my “Reflecting on reflections” blog post, and included a sampling of my favorites below.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on January 28, 2014
What do you think would happen if I submitted this image a camera club photo competition? It might elicit a few oohs and ahhs at first, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be long before somebody dismisses it because the primary subject is centered. And while “never center your subject” is standard camera-club advice for a beginner who automatically bullseyes every subject, reflexively reciting “Rules*” is a cop-out for faux critics who lack genuine insight. (Of course I’m not talking about you, I’m talking about that guy over there by the cookies.) Worse still, photographers who blindly follow Rules are leaning on a crutch that will only atrophy their creative muscles.
This is important
Rules are not inherently bad, but it should be the photographer controlling the Rules, not the other way around. In fact, if you’re following the Rules, you’re not being creative. One more time: If you’re following the Rules, you’re not being creative.
A couple of examples
One of the most oft-repeated Rules is the Rule of Thirds, which dictates that the primary subject be placed at the intersection points in an imaginary grid dividing the frame into horizontal and vertical thirds (think tic-tac-toe). Another RoT mandate is to never center the horizon, but to instead place it one third of the way up from the bottom or down from the top. Reasonable advice for people who like their images to look like everyone else’s, but it completely ignores the myriad reasons for doing otherwise.
For example, visual artists are often told to give their subjects more space in the frame in the direction they’re looking. In other words, if the subject is gazing rightward, place them on the left side of the frame so they’re looking across the frame and not directly into a virtual wall. But watching “12 Years a Slave” last weekend (one curse of being a photographer is the inability to turn off my internal critic) I noticed Solomon Northup longingly gazing directly into the left border of the frame, with a vast open sky behind him. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this framing symbolized Northup’s physical and emotional confinement (but who doesn’t know someone who’d ding this framing at the photo club competition?).
And centering a subject is an effective creative tool. Photographing the Mono Lake South Tufa sunset above, I was thrilled to find the kind of mirror reflection usually reserved for sunrise at this often windy location. Enjoying softer light than I’d get shooting toward the sun at sunrise, I tried many compositions before settling on this absolutely symmetrical version to create an equilibrium that conveys the utter stillness I experienced that evening.
Shed the crutch and go forth
Rules serve a beginning photographer in much the way training wheels serve a five-year-old learning to ride a bike: They’re great for getting you started, but soon get in the way. As valuable as these support mechanisms are, you wouldn’t do Tour de France with training wheels, or the Boston Marathon on crutches.
In my workshops I’m frequently exposed to creative damage done to people rendered gun-shy by well-intended but misguided Rule enforcers. Camera clubs and photo competitions are great for many reasons, but I’d love to see them declared no-Rule zones. And if your group can’t no nuclear on Rules, how about at least adding a no-Rule (“best image that breaks a Rule”) competition or category to acknowledge that the Rules are not the final word?
My suggestion to everyone trying to improve their photography is to learn the Rules, but rather than simply memorizing them, do your best to understand their purpose, and how that purpose might conflict with your objective. Then, armed with that wisdom, each time you peer through your viewfinder, set the Rules aside and simply trust your creative instincts.
*Capitalized throughout to mock the deference they’re given
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.
Posted on December 9, 2013
If there’s anything on Earth more magical than Yosemite with fresh snow, I haven’t seen it. The problem is, Yosemite Valley doesn’t get tons of snow—its relatively low elevation (about 4,000 feet) means the valley often gets rain when most of the Sierra gets snow. And when snow does fall here, it doesn’t stay on the trees for more than a few hours (if you’re lucky). Which is why I’ve always said the secret to photographing snow in Yosemite is to monitor the weather reports and time your visit to arrive before the storm. This strategy gives photographers within relatively easy driving distance, especially those of us without day job, a distinct advantage—from my home in Sacramento I can be in Yosemite Valley in less than four hours (that’s factoring a Starbucks stop in Merced and a fill-up in Mariposa), and I have no problem using darkness to make the roundtrip on the same day.
So last week, when the National Weather Service promised lots of snow in Yosemite for the weekend, I quickly freed up my Saturday. I usually stay just outside the park in El Portal, but because I didn’t want to risk being turned away by a (rare but not unprecedented) weather related park closure, I booked Friday and Saturday nights at Yosemite Lodge, right in the heart of Yosemite Valley—even if the roads shut down, from there I’d be able to walk to enough views to keep me happy all day.
I arrived in the dark to find lots of ice and patches of crusty old snow; I woke dark-and-early Saturday morning to about ten inches of fresh snow. Yippie! The snow fell intermittently throughout the day, with conditions ranging from nearly opaque to classic Yosemite clearing storm drama. Since I was by myself, I was able to deemphasize many of the most frequently photographed spots my workshop expect to photograph and explore random scenes along the Merced. In the morning I concentrated on El Capitan scenes; the afternoon was more about Half Dome.
Of course the classic views are that way for a reason, so, as you can see in this image, I gave them some attention to. Despite not being much of a tourist location, many photographers know about this scene just upstream from Sentinel Bridge. It’s a little hard to find, but usually fairly accessible. But this time getting there forced me to employ a creative parking strategy and to soil about one hundred yards of virgin powder. At this spot a couple of weeks ago I used a telephoto to isolate a single tree clinging to its fall color and reflecting in the river; this visit was my widest lens that got all the work.
The January issue of Outdoor Photographer will include my Yosemite El Capitan Winter Reflection image and a paragraph explaining how to photograph snow in Yosemite Valley. Here’s pretty much what I say there, with a little elaboration:
Posted on November 18, 2013
The highlight of my just completed Yosemite Autumn Moon photo workshop was a full moon rising above Half Dome at sunset. But rather than settle for just one Half Dome sunset moonrise, I’d “arranged for” three. Clouds shut us out on sunset-moonrise number two, but sunset-moonrise number one was a huge success. (And sunset-moonrise number three, from Tunnel View, was so special that I’ll dedicate a whole blog post to it.)
Any location’s “official” sun and moon rise/set times assume a flat horizon—if you read that today’s moonrise is at 5:00 p.m., you need to account for the time it takes for the moon to rise above whatever obstacles (mountains, hills, trees) are between you and the flat horizon. And due to the same motion around Earth that causes the moon’s phases, anyone planted in the same location night after night would see the moon rise about fifty minutes later each day (this is an average—the nightly lag varies with many factors). For example, a moon that hovered right on the horizon at sunset last night will rise too late to photograph tonight.
While you can’t do anything about the moon’s absolute position in the sky, you can control the elevation of your horizon simply by changing your location. In other words, careful positioning makes it possible to photograph a moonrise at sunset on multiple nights—move lower and/or closer to the horizon to delay the moon’s appearance, higher and/or farther to view the moon sooner.
The earlier the moon will rise, the closer to your subject (for example, Half Dome) you should be to increase the angle of view; the later the moonrise, the farther back and higher you should be. So, positioning ourselves on the valley floor, close to Half Dome, provided a steep angle of view that delayed the moon’s appearance on Thursday night, when it rose (above a flat horizon) several hours before sunset. Conversely, standing at elevated Tunnel View a couple of nights later decreased our angle of view, enabling us to see the moon sooner when official moonrise is closer to sunset.
Last Saturday night, from Tunnel View on Yosemite Valley’s west side (farthest from Half Dome) the moon was “scheduled” to appear about five minutes after sunset—that would put it in the magenta, post-sunset band with just enough light for about ten minutes of shooting before the dynamic range (the brightness difference between the sunlit moon and darkening foreground) shut us down. While that was the shoot we were most looking forward to, for Friday night I’d picked a mid-valley spot by the Merced River that would put the moon above Half Dome just about sunset. And for our initial sunset on Thursday evening, I took the group to a riverside spot on Yosemite Valley’s east side, much closer to Half Dome.
Clouds obscured the moon Friday night, but Thursday night was a real treat. Not only did we find the fall color in the cottonwood trees upriver still hanging in there (despite a fairly early autumn in most of Yosemite Valley), the clouds parted just in time for the moon’s arrival. In addition to Half Dome, the trees, and the moon in the distance, we were able to get a mirror image of the scene reflected on the glassy surface of the Merced River at our feet.
While the downside of moving closer to Half Dome (or whatever your subject is) is that the wider focal length necessary to include the entire scene also shrinks the moon, I’ve always believed a small moon adds a powerful accent that makes an already beautiful scene even more special. But what if you prefer your moon big? Simple: just wait a day or two, and move back as far as possible. Stay tuned….
* * *
One final point: Notice the cool (blue) color cast of this scene. This is an indication of not just the rapidly advancing twilight, but also the depth of the shade there in the shadow of the steep valley walls and dense evergreens. An image’s color temperature is a creative choice made during processing by photographers capturing in raw (unprocessed) mode. While warming the light would have made the trees more yellow, I decided that the coolness adds a soothing calmness that is lost in the warmth of a daylight scene.
Posted on October 29, 2013
It’s actually even a cliché just to say it, but some things really are “cliché for a reason.” And as much as I try to avoid the cliché shots in Yosemite, sometimes they just can’t be helped.
My Yosemite Fall Color workshop began yesterday, and even though I’d spent all day Saturday in the park, yesterday morning a storm filled Saturday’s blue skies with rain and I felt like I should go check on the conditions before we started. The wet weather had slowed me enough that I didn’t really have time to take pictures, but when I found not only the red and yellow leaves I’d seen on Saturday, and the swirling clouds I’d hoped for, but also Yosemite Valley’s colorful trees and meadows etched with snow, I was tempted at every turn to reach for my camera. Nevertheless, with the exception of a brief breakdown at Cook’s Meadow, I managed to resist temptation.
Unfortunately, the Cook’s Meadow stop had put me even more behind schedule, so I told myself while approaching Valley View that any stop here would be just reconnaissance. And anyway, Valley View images are a dime a dozen, clichés that I’d done more than my share to perpetuate over the years. Then I got there….
I mean seriously, cliché or not (deadline or not), how does a photographer pass up a scene like this? With my group meeting me in just an hour, I really, really didn’t have time for pictures, which is exactly what I kept reminding myself as I leaped from my car, snatched my camera and tripod, and sprinted down to the river. I only snapped four frames, two vertical and two horizontal, before racing back to the car and toward my impending rendezvous.
It’s images like this that remind me that nature’s beauty transcends any human judgement of “cliché.” Pro photographers, myself included, can get a little snobbish about frequently photographed scenes. And while I think it’s important to take the time to find a unique perspective, sometimes it’s best to let Mother Nature speak for herself.
I made it to my workshop with minutes to spare, conducted a lightning-fast orientation, and hustled everyone back outside as quickly as possible. We ended up circling Yosemite Valley several times, photographing without a break until dark. I heard no complaints.