Posted on August 16, 2020
In a previous life I spent a dozen or so years doing technical support. In this job a key role was convincing people that, despite all failures and error messages to the contrary, they are in fact smarter than their computers. Most errors occur because the computer just didn’t understand: If I misspel a wurd, you still know what I meen (rite?). Not so with a computer. A computer can’t anticipate, reason, or create; assigned a task, it will blithely continue repeating a mistake, no matter how egregious, until it is instructed otherwise, fails, or destroys itself.
All this applies equally to today’s “smart” cameras, which are essentially computers at their core. But no matter how advanced its technology, a camera just can’t compete with your brain. Really.
For example, if I’d allowed my camera to decide the exposure for this crescent moon scene from 2016, I’d have ended up with a useless mess: While this image is all about color and shape, automatic exposure, deciding that the foreground hillside is important, would have brightened the scene enough to expose distracting detail and completely wash out the color in the sky. But I knew better. Wanting to simplify the scene, I manually metered and banished the extraneous foreground detail to the black shadows, capturing only the moon’s delicate shape and a solitary oak silhouetted against the indigo twilight.
Digital cameras become more technologically advanced each year, and their auto-exposure and -focus capabilities are quite good, good enough that nobody should feel they must switch to manual if they fear it will diminish the pleasure they get from photography. But if your photographic pleasure comes from getting the best possible images, it would benefit you to spend a little time mastering manual metering (and hyperfocal focus), then using that knowledge to override your camera’s programmed inclinations. It might help to know that in my photo workshops I teach (but never require) manual metering to all who are interested, and most who try it are surprised by how easy and rewarding it is to take control of their camera.
Trust your histogram
Exposure control starts by learning to use a histogram, a graph of the tones in an image (read more about histograms). Not only does every digital camera show us a histogram of the scene we just photographed, modern cameras (all mirrorless for sure, and all of the latest DSLRs that I know of) display the histogram for the scene we’re currently metering, before the shutter is clicked.
With a histogram, instead of clicking and hoping as we did in the film days, or clicking, checking, and adjusting as we did in the pre-live-view histogram days, the addition of a histogram before we shoot provides advance knowledge of the image’s exposure. For those who know how to read a histogram, manual exposure has never been easier—just monitor the histogram as you prepare your shot and dial the exposure until the histogram looks right. Click.
Setting up your live-view histogram
To ensure a valid pre-capture histogram (on your DSLR’s live-view screen, or your mirrorless camera’s live-view or viewfinder screen), make sure you are in whatever your camera manufacturer calls exposure simulation. When the camera simulates exposure, rather than always showing the ideal exposure on the live-view screen, it attempts to emulate the exposure settings you’re using. Here is a far from comprehensive guide to the exposure simulation designation used by the major camera manufacturers (though I can’t guarantee that all cameras from the same manufacturer do it the same way):
On most camera’s the metering mode (the way the camera’s meter views the scene—not to be confused with exposure mode, which is the way the camera sets the exposure) doesn’t affect the pre-capture histogram, but to be safe, instead of spot or partial metering, I choose a metering mode that uses the entire frame. (With my Sony mirrorless bodies, I set my metering mode to Entire Screen Average.)
Once you’ve turned on exposure simulation, you need to figure out how to display the histogram. Most cameras, mirrorless or DSLR, offer multiple live-view screen options that display a variety of information about the scene you’re photographing. On most cameras, only one or two of these screens displays the histogram—finding it is usually a simple matter of cycling through the various displays until the histogram appears. To minimize the number of screens I need to scroll through to get to the information I need (such as the histogram or level), I always go into my camera’s menu system and disable the live-view screens I don’t use.
Using your live-view histogram
Using my pre-capture histogram, I start the metering process as I always have. In manual exposure mode, I start in my camera’s best ISO (100 for my Sony a7RIV), and the best f-stop for my composition (unless motion, such as wind or star motion, forces me to compromise my ISO and/or f-stop). With ISO and f-stop set, I slowly adjust my shutter speed with my eye on the histogram in my viewfinder (or LCD).
Most mirrorless bodies offer highlight warnings in their pre-capture view (often called “zebras”). While these alerts aren’t nearly as reliable as the histogram and should never be relied on for final exposure decisions, I use their appearance as a reminder to check my histogram. The first time I meter a scene, my current exposure settings (based on my prior scene) can be far from what the current scene requires—in this case, I push my shutter speed fast until the zebras appear (if my prior exposure was too dark) or disappear (if my prior exposure was too bright), then refine the exposure more slowly while watching the histogram.
In a low or moderate contrast scene, I’ll have room on both the shadows and highlights sides of the histogram—a pretty easy scene to expose. But in a high dynamic range scene (dark shadows and bright highlights), the difference between the darkest shadows and brightest highlights might stretch the histogram beyond its boundaries. When the high dynamic range is so great that I have to choose between saving the highlights or the shadows, I almost always bias my exposure choice toward sparing the highlights, carefully dialing the exposure until the histogram bumps against the right side—at that point I stop adding exposure, even if my shadows are cut off (black).
Because the post-capture histogram is more reliable than the pre-capture histogram, when high dynamic range gives me little margin for error, I verify my exposure by checking the post-capture histogram. Here’s where the RGB (red, green, blue) histogram becomes important. While the luminosity (white) histogram gives you the detail you captured, it doesn’t tell you if you lost color. Washed out color is always a risk when you push the histogram all the way to the right, so it’s best to check the post-capture RGB histogram to ensure that none of the image’s color channels are clipped.
An often overlooked aspect of mastering in-camera metering is simply learning how your camera reports exposure. Not only does every camera interpret and display its exposure information differently, the histogram returned is based on the jpeg, so raw shooters always have more information than their camera reports—it’s important to know how much more. With my Sony a7Rx bodies, I know I’m usually safe pushing my histogram’s exposure graph up to a full stop beyond the left or right (highlights and shadows) boundary—I have no problem using every available photon.
A few more words about this image
In addition to taking control of the exposure for this image, roaming a hilly cow pasture in the foothills east of Sacramento gave me full freedom of movement to control the new moon’s position relative to the tree. As the sky darkened and the moon dropped, I literally ran up and down the hill to capture as many moon/tree/frame relationships as possible before the moon disappeared.
In addition the standard photographic imperatives (composition, exposure, focus), I had to hopscotch around abundant piles of fresh “fertilizer” and stay alert to the potential for an encounter with the fertilizer’s source. And then there were the gopher holes, and the nagging fear that I might surprise a rattlesnake…. When all was said and done, I’m happy to report that no photographers were harmed in the making of this image.
This is the week (August 16-21, 2020) to photograph a crescent moon. My recommendation is Monday morning on the eastern horizon before sunrise, and Wednesday or Thursday low in the west after sunset.
Posted on June 14, 2020
Here’s a brand new image that’s nearly six years old. Brand new because I processed it for the first time just yesterday; six years old because I found it after loading my pre-Lightroom raw files from 2014 into Lightroom, something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time and I finally ran out of reasons not to do it. Before 2015 I did all my raw processing in Adobe Camera Raw, which worked fine as far as individual image processing was concerned, but also made it pretty easy for things to get out of control on my hard-disk because there was no underlying organization to my import process. Want proof? I’m actually missing about a month’s worth of images from 2013—I know because I have several processed jpegs from that span for which I have no originals. Sigh.
This is also just my 282nd image after switching to Sony mirrorless in the fall of 2014. While I have no specific memories of this evening (there have been many, many like this, as you’ll see in the gallery), I imagine that I was still struggling with the Sony interface—partly because mirrorless was a new trick for this old dog, and partly because the original a7R’s interface pretty much sucked (a problem that has been incrementally, and now completely, addressed in succeeding models). But it was fun processing this “old” image and recalling why I was able to forgive the lousy interface and abysmal battery life (also addressed) of the a7R: man, even right out of the gate that Sony dynamic range just doesn’t quit.
Skeptics might might look at this image and think I added the moon because it appears to be in front of the clouds. Anyone who has been in one of my workshops, or who knows me even just a little, knows I don’t do that. But for the skeptics in the audience, let me assure you that it is indeed possible for clouds to catch sunset color while still being translucent enough for the moon to shine through (you can actually see other examples below).
It saddens me that photography has reached a point where every beautiful, or interesting, or revealing image is (often justifiably, I’m afraid) scrutinized with a cynical eye. Photographers have brought this on themselves with their never-ending quest for more social media Likes, or to make a case for something for which they have no evidence (as we’ve seen in some of the recent news reporting).
After spending a good chunk of my photography life as a color transparency (slides) shooter who was pretty much stuck with whatever came back from the lab, I appreciate the ability to process my images as much as the next photographer. But there’s a continuum with basic processing on one end (there’s no such thing as an unprocessed image, whether you do it yourself or leave the processing to your camera) and Frankenstein hybrids on the other. To me the decision about where to draw the line on the processing continuum is similar to the decision between wearing nice clothes and putting on makeup and resorting to cosmetic surgery (yes, I understand that there are in fact many valid reasons for cosmetic surgery, and that this is not a flawless analogy).
So it really comes down to honesty—a commitment not to deceive. I love nature and want to share my love by portraying my subjects at their absolute best, but I want people’s first thought when they see one of my images to be, “Wow, I need to get out in nature more,” and not, “Wow, what a great photographer, or, “Wow, that’s impossible.” The scene you see in this image really happened, and there’s a photo of it because I put myself in position for the (very predictable) confluence of a new moon hanging above rolling hills dotted with statuesque oaks, plus the fortuitous addition of thin clouds that lingered just long enough to catch sunset color. It helped that I had a camera that could easily handle the difference between the brilliant sky and darkening hills, and enough photographic skill to properly frame and expose the scene. The image itself was remarkably easy to process and required very little digital help. This image is a success if it first helps you realize how beautiful even the simplest foothill scenes are, without being distracted by my skill as a photographer (good or bad), or the processing decisions I made.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on April 5, 2019
Last Monday seemed like the perfect day for a poppy shoot in the foothills. I had the afternoon wide open—with the California media buzzing about this year’s “superbloom,” plus a forecast promising ideal conditions (calm wind and thin clouds), I couldn’t help dreaming about my own images of poppy-saturated fields. What could possibly go wrong?
Getting on the road proved a little more problematic than anticipated, but by 2 p.m. I was on my way, encouraged forward by an occasional poppy beside the freeway. Adding to my optimism, the aforementioned clouds were just right: thick enough to diffuse the sunlight, but not so dark that they’d close the sun-loving poppies. I exited the freeway as soon as possible, opting to drive the 2-lane roads that follow the hills’ natural contours. While my preferred my route isn’t the most direct, it is the most scenic, winding me through oak-studded hills deeply greened by this year’s copious winter rain. Though this drive takes a little more than an hour, the time passes quickly with so much pastoral beauty filling my windshield.
I knew the poppies in Northern California were starting late due to our relatively late winter, but was fairly confident I’d allowed enough time for the golden hillsides to kick in. In a good spring, poppies dot the entire route, but by the time I was southbound on scenic Highway 49, I started realizing I hadn’t seen any poppies since leaving Sacramento. Soon I was pretty resigned to the fact that this year’s superbloom was limited Southern California, and wondered if I’d find any poppies at all. Then it started to rain.
As easy as it would have been easy to cut my losses and turn around, I simply changed my expectations. With fresh memories of a brief but rewarding raindrop experience in Yosemite, I realized I didn’t need to find entire hillsides covered with poppies, that even a single poppy could be nice. So, rather than zipping along Highway 49 at 50 MPH (-ish) looking for golden slopes, I started exploring some of the quieter tributary roads and quickly realized that there were a sprinkling of poppies out.
I ended up spending two hours photographing a small patch of poppies I found on a dead-end road near Jackson. It rained the entire time, but with rain gear in my car for just these situations, I stayed warm and dry. My camera? Not so much. I tried working with an umbrella, but after a few minutes realized I was one arm short and just decided to test the water resistance of my Sony a7RIII. I’m happy to say that it passed with flying colors, as did the Sony 100-400 GM.
In the two weeks since I shot those raindrops in Yosemite, I’ve been plotting how to get even closer. On the Yosemite shoot I added extension tubes to my 100-400; this afternoon I returned to the extension tubes, but added my 2X teleconverter (which, I might add, handled the rain perfectly as well). I thought I’d try a few lens/extension-tube/teleconverter configurations, but I was having so much fun that I ended up shooting this way the entire time.
On a rainy day, light is already limited. But adding a teleconverter and extension tubes compounds the light problem. Because f/stop is a ratio with focal length as the numerator and lens opening as the denominator, adding a teleconverter and extension increases the focal length, resulting in less light reaching the sensor. A 2x teleconverter cuts two stops of light, which means my 100-400 that’s normally wide upon f/5.6 at 400mm becomes f/11 at (the teleconverted) 800mm (400mm x 2). And adding extension tubes also extends the lens’s effective focal length, further reducing the light reaching the sensor. To compensate for all this missing light, I shot everything this afternoon at either ISO 1600 or ISO 3200.
One of the cool things about this kind of photography is how different the world looks through the viewfinder. I love putting my eye to the viewfinder, moving the lens around, and changing focus slowly to see what snaps into view. In this case I was looking for a poppy to isolate from its nearby surroundings, but that also has something nearby (usually another flower) that I could soften enough to complement without competing. Sometimes I had a general idea of a subject before looking through my camera, other times I’d just explore with my lens until something stopped me.
Because depth of field shrinks not only with focal length, but also with focus distance, every frame I clicked this afternoon had a paper-thin range of sharpness. With such a shallow depth of field, none of these images would have been possible without a tripod. With my composition set, I’d pick a focus point (usually, but not always, a prominent raindrop), focus in my viewfinder until I was “certain” it was sharp, then instantly debunk my that “certainty” by magnifying the image in my viewfinder. This little exercise quickly taught me that with such a small margin for error, the best I could reliably achieve without magnifying the view was almost sharp enough, making pre-click magnification an essential part of my focus workflow (instead of just a cursory focus-check).
Each time I do this kind of photography I learn something. In this case it was how far away I could be and still fill my frame with a poppy. All of the images I captured this afternoon were from four to six feet away.
I wrapped up when the sky darkened further and the rain started coming down pretty hard. I couldn’t believe I’d been out there two hours, and spent most of the drive strategizing new ideas for the next time.
Click an image for a closer look and to view slide show.
Posted on December 9, 2018
Earth’s climate is changing, and the smoking gun belongs to us. Sadly, in the United States policy lags insight and reason, and the world is suffering.
Climate change science is complex, with many moving parts that make it difficult to communicate to the general public. Climate change also represents a significant reset for some of the world’s most profitable corporations. Those colliding realities created a perfect storm for fostering the doubt and confusion that persists among people who don’t understand climate science and the principles that underpin it.
I’m not a scientist, but I do have enough science background (majors in astronomy and geology before ultimately earning my degree in economics) to trust the experts and respect the scientific method. I also spent 20 years doing technical communication in the tech industry (tech writing, training, and support) for companies large and small. So I know that the fundamentals of climate change don’t need to intimidate, and the more accessible they can be to the general public, the better off we’ll all be.
Recently it feels like I’ve been living on the climate change front lines. On each visit to Yosemite, more dead and dying trees stain forests that were green as recently as five years ago. And throughout the Sierra (among other places), thirsty evergreens, weakened by drought, are under siege by insects that now thrive in mountain winters that once froze them into submission. More dead trees means more fuel, making wildfires not just more frequent, but bigger and hotter.
Speaking of wildfires, for a week last month I couldn’t go outside without a mask thanks to smoke from the Camp Fire that annihilated Paradise (70 miles away). I have friends who evacuated from each of this November’s three major California wildfires (Camp, Hill, and Woolsey), and last December the Thomas Fire forced a two-week evacuation of Ojai, where my wife and I rent a small place (to be near the grandkids). Our cleanup from the Thomas fire took months, and we still find ash in the most unexpected places (and we were among the lucky who had a home to clean).
Despite its inevitable (and long overdue) death, the climate change debate continues to stagger on like a mindless zombie. We used to have to listen to the skeptics claim that our climate wasn’t changing at all, so I guess hearing them acknowledge that okay-well-maybe-the-climate-is-changing-but-humans-aren’t-responsible can be considered progress.
Despite what you might read on social media or fringe websites, climate change alternative “explanations” like “natural variability” and “solar energy fluctuations” have been irrefutably debunked by rigorously gathered, thoroughly analyzed, and closely scrutinized data. (And don’t get me started on the whole “scientists motivated by grant money” conspiracy theory.)
One thing that everyone does agree on is the existence of the greenhouse effect, which has been used for centuries to grow plants in otherwise hostile environments.
As you may already know, a greenhouse’s transparent exterior allows sunlight to penetrate and warm its interior. The heated interior radiates at longer wavelengths (infrared) that don’t escape as easily through the greenhouse’s ceiling and walls. That means more heat is added to a greenhouse than exits it, so the interior is warmer than the environment outside.
Perhaps the most common misperception about human induced climate change is that it’s driven by all the heat we create when we burn stuff. But that’s not what’s going on, not even close.
Our atmosphere behaves like a greenhouse, albeit with far more complexity. The sun bathes Earth with continuous electromagnetic radiation that includes infrared, visible light, and ultraviolet. Solar radiation not reflected back to space reaches Earth’s surface to heat water, land, and air. Some of this heat makes it back to space, but much is absorbed by molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, forming a virtual blanket that makes Earth warmer than it would be without an atmosphere. In a word, inhabitable.
Because a molecule’s ability to absorb heat depends on its structure, some molecules absorb heat better than others. The two most common molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, nitrogen (N2: two nitrogen atoms) and oxygen (O2: two oxygen atoms), are bound so tightly that they don’t absorb heat. Our atmospheric blanket relies on other molecules to absorb heat: the greenhouse gases.
Also not open for debate is that Earth warms when greenhouse gases in the atmosphere rise, and cools when they fall. The rise and fall of greenhouse gases has been happening for as long as Earth has had an atmosphere. So our climate problem isn’t that our atmosphere contains greenhouse gases, it’s that human activity changes our atmosphere’s natural balance of greenhouse gases.
Earth’s most prevalent greenhouse gas is water vapor. But water vapor responds quickly to temperature changes, leaving the atmosphere relatively fast as rain or snow, while other greenhouse gases hold their heat far longer.
The two most problematic greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide (CO2: one carbon atom bonded with two oxygen atoms) and methane (CH4: one carbon atom bonded with four hydrogen atoms). The common denominator in these “problem” gases is carbon. (There are other, non-carbon-based, greenhouse gases, but for simplicity I’m focusing on the most significant ones.)
Carbon exists in many forms: as a solo act like graphite and diamond, and in collaboration with other elements to form more complex molecules, like carbon dioxide and methane. When it’s not floating around the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas, carbon in its many forms is sequestered in a variety of natural reservoirs called a “carbon sink,” where it does nothing to warm the planet.
Oceans are Earth’s largest carbon sink. And since carbon is the fundamental building block of life on Earth, all living organisms, from plants to plankton to people, are carbon sinks as well. The carbon necessary to form greenhouse gases has always fluctuated naturally between the atmosphere and natural sinks like oceans and plants.
For example, a growing tree absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, keeping the carbon and expelling oxygen (another simplification of a very complex process)—a process that stops when the tree dies. As the dead tree decomposes, some of its carbon is returned to the atmosphere as methane, but much of it returns to the land where it is eventually buried beneath sediments. Over tens or hundreds of millions of years, some of that sequestered carbon is transformed by pressure and heat to become coal.
Another important example is oil. For billions of years, Earth’s oceans have been host to simple-but-nevertheless-carbon-based organisms like algae and plankton. When these organisms die they drop to the ocean floor, where they’re eventually buried beneath sediment and other dead organisms. Millions of years of pressure and heat transforms these ancient deposits into…: oil.
Coal and oil (hydrocarbons), as significant long-term carbon sinks, were quite content to lounge in comfortable anonymity as continents drifted, mountains lifted and eroded, and glaciers advanced and retreated. Through all this slow motion activity on its surface, Earth’s temperatures ebbed and flowed and life evolved accordingly.
Enter humans. We have evolved, migrated, and built civilizations based on a relatively stable climate. And since the discovery of fire we humans have burned plants for warmth and food preparation. Burning organic material creates carbon dioxide, thereby releasing sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. Who knew that such a significant advance was the first crack in the climate-change Pandora’s Box?
For thousands of years the demand for fuel was met simply by harvesting dead plants strewn about on the ground and the reintroduction of carbon to the atmosphere was minimal. But as populations expanded and technology advanced, so did humans’ thirst for fuel to burn.
We nearly killed off the whales for their oil before someone figured out that those ancient, subterranean metamorphosed dead plants burn really nicely. With an ample supply of coal and oil and a seemingly boundless opportunity for profit, coal and oil soon became the driving force in the world’s economy. Suddenly, hundreds of millions of years worth of sequestered carbon was being reintroduced to our atmosphere as fast as it could be produced—with a corresponding acceleration in greenhouse gases (remember, when we burn hydrocarbons, we create carbon dioxide).
Compounding the fossil-fuel-as-energy problem is the extreme deforestation taking place throughout the world. Not only does burning millions of forest and jungle acres each year instantly reintroduce sequestered carbon to the atmosphere, it destroys a significant sink for present and future carbon.
Scientists have many ways to confirm humans’ climate change culpability. The most direct is probably the undeniable data showing that for millennia carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere hovered rather steadily around 280 parts per million (ppm). Then, corresponding to the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen steadily and today sits somewhere north of 400 ppm, with a bullet.
Humans don’t get a pass on atmospheric methane either. While not nearly as abundant in Earth’s atmosphere as carbon dioxide, methane is an even more powerful greenhouse gas, trapping about 30 times more heat than its more plentiful cousin. Methane is liberated to the atmosphere by a variety of human activities, from the decomposition of waste (sewage and landfill) to agricultural practices that include rice cultivation and bovine digestive exhaust (yes, that would be cow farts).
While the methane cycle is less completely understood than the carbon dioxide cycle, the increase of atmospheric methane also correlates to fossil fuel consumption. Of particular concern (and debate) is the cause of the steeper methane increase since the mid-2000s. Stay tuned while scientists work on that….
For humans, the most essential component of Earth’s habitability is the precarious balance between water’s three primary states: gas (water vapor), ice, and liquid. Since the dawn of time, water’s varied states have engaged in a complex, self-correcting choreography of land, sea, and air inputs—tweak one climate variable here, and another one over there compensates.
Earth’s climate remains relatively stable until the equilibrium is upset by external input like solar energy change, volcanic eruption, or (heaven forbid) a visit from a rogue asteroid. Unfortunately, humans incremented the list of climate catalysts by one with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, and our thirst for fossil fuels.
As we’re learning firsthand in realtime, even the smallest geospheric tweak can initiate a self-reinforcing chain reaction with potentially catastrophic consequences for humanity’s long-term wellbeing. For example, a warmer planet means a warmer ocean and less ice, which means more liquid water and water vapor. Adding carbon dioxide to water vapor kicks off a feedback loop that magnifies atmospheric heat: More carbon dioxide raises the temperature of the air—>warmer air holds more water vapor—>more water vapor warms the air more—>and so on.
But that’s just the beginning. More liquid water swallows coastlines; increased water vapor means more clouds, precipitation, and warmer temperatures (remember, water vapor is a greenhouse gas). Wind patterns and ocean currents shift, changing global weather patterns. Oh yeah, and ice’s extreme albedo (reflectivity) bounces solar energy back to space, so shrinking our icecaps and glaciers means less solar energy returned to space even more solar energy to warm our atmosphere, which only compounds the problems.
Comparing direct measurements of current conditions to data inferred from tree rings, ice and sediment cores, and many other proven methods, makes it clear that human activity has indeed upset the climate balance: our planet is warming. What we’re still working on is how much we’ve upset it (so far), what’s coming, and where the tipping point is (or whether the tipping point is already in our rearview mirror).
We do know that we’re already experiencing the effects of these changes, though it’s impossible to pinpoint a single hurricane, fire, or flood and say this one wouldn’t have happened without climate change. And contrary to the belief of many, everyone will not be warmer. Some places are getting warmer, others are getting cooler; some are wetter, others are drier. The frequency and intensity of storms is changing, growing seasons are changing, animal habitats are shifting or shrinking, and the list goes on….
We won’t fix the problem by simply adjusting the thermostat, building dikes and levees, and raking forests. Until we actually reduce greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, things will get worse faster than we can adjust. But the first step to fixing a problem is acknowledging we have one.
The Camp Fire had been burning for ten days, devouring Paradise and filling the air in Sacramento with brown smoke so thick that at times not only could we not see the sun, we couldn’t see the end of the block. But on this afternoon, when an orange ball of sun burned through the smoke I donned a mask, grabbed my camera bag, and headed for the hills.
I have a collection of go-to foothill oak trees for sun and moonsets, but most of these trees are too close to my shooting position for the extreme telephoto image I had in mind. Too close because at this kind of focal length, the hyperfocal distance is over a mile. So I made my way to a quiet country road near Plymouth where I thought the trees might just be distant enough to work. But I’m less familiar with this location than many of my others, so I didn’t know exactly how the trees and sun would align. Turning onto the road, I drove slowly, glancing at the sun and trees until they lined up. Because there wasn’t a lot of room to park on either side, I was pleased that the shoulder at the location that worked best was just wide enough for my car.
Envisioning a maximum telephoto shot, I added my Sony 2X teleconverter to my Sony 100-400 GM lens. While my plan was to use my 1.5-crop Sony a6300, when I arrived the sun was high enough that that combination provided too much magnification, so I started with my full frame Sony a7RIII. But soon as the sun dropped to tree level I switched to the a6300 and zoomed as tight as possible.
When I started the sun was still bright enough that capturing its color made the trees complete silhouettes, with no detail or color in the foreground. But as the setting sun sank into increasingly thick smoke, it became redder and redder and my exposure became easier. It always surprises me how fast the sun and moon move relative to the nearby horizon, so found myself running around to different positions to get the right sun and tree juxtaposition as the sun fell. The smoke near the horizon was so thick that it swallowed the sun before it actually set.
Later I plotted my location and the sun’s position on a map and realized that I was pointing right at San Francisco, about 100 miles away, with a large swath of the Bay Area in between. Then I thought about this air that was thick enough to completely obscure the sun, and the millions of people who had been breathing that air for weeks.
I’d be lying if I said I don’t like this image—it’s exactly what I was going for. But I’d be very happy if I never got another opportunity to photograph something like this.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on September 20, 2018
Today Sony announced the lens I’ve been waiting for: the Sony 24, f/1.4 GM. I got a sneak preview of this lens on Maui last week, and again once I got home home. Hurricane Olivia, my workshop (no one was supposed to see me using the lens), and food poisoning significantly limited my use of it, but I did get to play with it enough to share a few thoughts.
Night photography is all about capturing light, the more the better. We bump our ISO as high as the image quality permits, dial in our lens’s widest aperture, and open our shutter as long as we can without obvious star streaks, pushing each exposure variable as far as possible squeeze out every last photon. The shortcomings of each of these compromises is mitigated by an improvement in the others, which is why night photography with the fastest possible lens means I can get the same exposure with a little less star motion and/or noise. So f/1.4 is great, currently pretty much as good as it gets for a lens wide enough for night photography.
Of course fast and wide isn’t much good if the lens is lousy, or difficult to use. I haven’t used the 24 GM a lot, but I’ve used it enough to know that lousy and difficult won’t be a concern.
My very first impression, and I suspect this will be everyone’s first impression, is how small this lens is. When I knew it was coming my way I started strategizing how I’d rearrange my bag to accommodate it, but it turns out all I needed to do was empty the slot with a couple of extension tubes and my 2X teleconverter. Contrast that with the Sigma 20mm f/1.4, which is an absolute beast of a lens, both in weight and volume, that could never just live in my bag. But I flew home with the Sony in my bag and was completely unaware of the extra weight. Well done, Sony!
I only got one night to use the on Maui before I had to return to the real world, and my location options had been severely limited by the recent passage Tropical Storm Olivia (downgraded from a hurricane shortly before landfall), so I drove about half-hour from my condo in Napili to the ultra-dark skies on the northern-most tip of West Maui, where I stumbled in the dark down to the edge of a cliff above the Nakalele Blowhole and shot into a 30-MPH headwind. Not the most ideal conditions, but I made it work for my purposes.
The benefit of a fast lens like this is not just the amount of light it allows into an image, it starts with the simple ability to see enough to simply compose and focus. And as I expected, both composition and manual focus were a piece of cake with Sony 24 1.4. For the Maui night shoot I composed, then magnified the viewfinder of my Sony a7SII and twisted the focus ring until the stars were the finest possible points of light—it took all of about 3 seconds. After my first exposure I magnified the image to verify that it was indeed sharp, then didn’t worry about focus again.
The image on the right features the dimmest part of the Milky Way, opposite the brilliant galactic core we all love to photograph. As a bonus, I also captured M-31, the Andromeda Galaxy—its fuzzy glow in the upper right has traveled over 2 million lightyears and is the farthest we can see with the unaided eye.
About this image
I’d have liked to have done more starlight photography after getting home from Maui, but by the time I recovered enough from a most unwelcome bout of food poisoning that showed up the day I returned, the moon was too prominent in the night sky. Nevertheless, a couple of days ago I sucked it up and drove out to the foothills about an hour from my home and put the lens through its paces beneath a 70 percent gibbous moon.
With the moon high over my right shoulder I looked for scenes facing northeast, where the skies were the least polluted by city glow. I eventually settled on a nearby hillside dotted with oaks fortuitously punctuated by an organized formation of the only clouds in the sky. With so much moonlight present I went with the Sony a7RIII instead of the Sony a7SII. Shooting moonlight at f/1.4 enabled me to get away with a 10-second exposure at ISO 1600.
In the past I’ve usually auto-focused on the moon for my moonlight scenes, but for laughs this night I tried autofocusing on the trees and was shocked to hear my focus indicator beep. Wow, I’ve never been able to autofocus on anything by moonlight, even when the moon was completely full. Next I tried autofocusing on a random star and again heard the confirmation beep—another first. And finally I magnified the view and manually focused on the tree: 3-for-3. Admittedly, with the recent ability to do starlight photography (moonless nights), I don’t do as much moonlight photography as I once did, and I’ve never done it with an f/1.4 lens (because it really isn’t necessary). Nevertheless, I think night focus struggles will be a thing of the past with this lens.
Processing my night images, the first thing I checked was the stars in the corners. In many years of night photography I used three dedicated “night” lenses (lenses that I only use for night photography): Zeiss 28mm f/2, Rokinon 24mm f/1.4, and Sigma 20mm f/1.4. In quest of more light I’ve shot all of them wide open, but I’ve had to live with a fair amount of coma (comatic aberration). My first reaction is that is that this lens is cleaner wide open than any of them.
The bottom line
I haven’t had tons of time to spend with my images, but my first impression is that I’m blown away by this lens. I’ve grown to accept that if I want quality in a lens I need to accept bulk along with it. Apparently that’s not the case, because this lens gave me crazy sharp images wide open, yet felt not much larger than a baseball in my hand.
Posted on June 12, 2018
Spend enough time on Facebook and Instagram and you get a pretty good idea of what it takes to make a picture that generates attention. The unfortunate consequence is a photographic feedback loop, where one ostentatious image inspires more similarly ostentatious images, which inspire more…, well, you get the point. This uninspired feedback loop reminds me of top-40 music, where one groundbreaking success generates a flood of uninspired clones. Catchy tunes are fine for a few listens, but few possess staying power. Contrast that to the Beatles, who aggressively resisted repetition and pursued new sounds that the world has been listing to pretty much nonstop for more than 50 years.
Admittedly, few artists are blessed with the Beatles’ creative genius, but that’s no excuse to shortcut creativity. The same holds for photography: images that elicit a reflexive Like and Share from digital passersby, and maybe (if you’re lucky) a “Stunning!” in the comments section, are forgotten with the next click. But images that resonate on a personal level by revealing something unseen, or by touching a hidden place inside the viewer, not only stop people in their tracks, they grab them and don’t let go.
Of course this sounds great in theory, but how is it accomplished? If the answer were easy, we’d all be doing it. But like Dorothy and the Ruby Slippers, perhaps we’ve had the power all along.
Because most people long for a connection with the world around them—not simply a connection with nature, but more importantly a connection with kindred souls—a good place to start would be to give viewers of your images something of yourself to latch on to by concentrating on subjects that resonate with you.
My own photography took a huge leap forward when I started photographing simply to please myself. The more I pursue moments in nature that touch me personally, (as if by magic) the more unique, gratifying, and successful my images became. While my most personal images don’t please everyone, the people they do reach seem to feel a deeper connection than they do to my images intended to impress.
Familiarity is the first step toward intimacy. With many picturesque trees and hills to work with, on this evening (as with many shoots) my compositions started wider, but didn’t seem to be about anything. But as the moon fell and the light faded, the scene’s essence began to materialize.
So what moved me to this composition? At the time it was enough that the scene finally felt right. But given the benefit of time and introspection, even though the moon and tree share the same frame, each is isolated: the tree is grounded in its terrestrial world, while the moon soars in its celestial world.
I’m writing this at Starbucks, very much by myself, but in the company of a dozen or so other people similarly isolated at the center of their world. It occurs to me that the shared isolation of the tree and moon makes a great metaphor for the human experience.
On the other hand, maybe it’s just a pretty picture….
Posted on July 26, 2016
(This is not a composite)
A few days ago I saw a picture of an oversize moon above the Golden Gate Bridge; beneath the picture someone had commented that the image was obviously was faked because the moon isn’t that big. Though I didn’t scrutinize the picture, I suspect that the commenter’s accusation was right, but for the wrong reason.
While some photographers take the easy (and deceptive) approach and just plop a huge moon into their beautiful scene, the mere presence of a large moon doesn’t mean that the image is a fake. In fact with the right equipment and a little preparation, any photographer can photograph the moon large in their images (without cheating).
Most people understand that the longer the focal length, the larger the moon will appear in an image. But focal length is only half the equation, a fact that becomes clear when you take the extreme telephoto approach to the limit and attach a camera to a telescope. True, with a telescope you’ll achieve the maximum enlargement possible, but you’ll also end up with the moon and nothing else—you could capture the very same image whether you’re standing on a tropical beach, atop a towering peak, or in the comfort of your own backyard.
Size isn’t everything
Rather than simply photographing a large moon, what we landscape photographers really want is a moon that appears large relative to the rest of the image. And while the size of the moon in your frame is determined by the focal length, its size relative to the landscape has nothing to do with the focal length.
The moon’s extreme distance means that it will appear the same size to our eye (or lens) regardless of our location on earth. We can enlarge the moon with optics (a lens or telescope), but not by moving closer (without a rocket). On the other hand, the perceived size of earthbound objects changes dramatically with distance—move closer and things get bigger, move back and they get smaller.
So, if the perceived size of the moon from earth is constant, but earthbound subjects shrink with distance, you can make the moon look larger compared to earthbound subjects foreground by moving back and shrinking the foreground—then, once you’re farther back, you can use a telephoto to enlarge everything.
Understanding this makes it easier to see why the moon looks so small in most images because the photographer was too close to the subject: The closer we are to the scene we’re photographing, the shorter (wider) the focal length required to include all of the scene in the frame, and the wider our field of view, the smaller the moon will appear in the scene.
The two images above were taken from the same location (at different times). The size of the moon relative to Half Dome is the same, but in one image I shrank the scene and enlarged the moon with a telephoto; in the other, I widened the scene and shrank the moon with a wide angle lens. To get the wide scene and the large moon, I’d need a vantage point with the same angle of view, only much farther back (sadly, that vantage point doesn’t exist).
The story of this image
Armed with this knowledge, I’m on constant lookout for distant subjects that stand out against the east or west horizon. This oak tree in the foothills west of Sacramento has been on my radar for awhile—for years I’ve noted it from the road, but was always on my way somewhere else and never had time to hunt for a vantage point that would work for the moon.
One evening I found myself with a little extra time when conditions changed and a planned foothills shoot didn’t materialize as hoped. Instead of heading straight home, I spent the hour or so of remaining daylight searching west of this tree for a vantage point that would align it with the upcoming moonrise. (Not only do I need a distant enough view that puts the tree against the sky, that view needs to align with the rising moon.)
Back home I did a little more plotting with my topographic software and came up with a tentative plan, and on the evening of the full moon I made my way back up to the foothills. I knew about where the moon would rise, but because I don’t know the exact altitude (in degrees) of the hillside from my planned location, I couldn’t be sure exactly when the moon would appear. (That’s not a problem once I’ve photographed a moonrise from a location, like Yosemite.)
Unfortunately, I got hung up by traffic that sapped all the extra time I’d factored into my plan, and ended up arriving at my location right at the beginning of the window when I thought the moon might appear. I started extracting and assembling my camera, lens, and tripod with one eye on the east horizon and did a double-take when I realized that the moon was indeed coming up. It was just slightly downhill from (west of) the tree, so I grabbed my gear and sprinted east a couple of hundred yards until they were aligned.
I used my Sony a6000 with my Tamron 150-600 lens (Canon-mount with a Metabones adapter). I maxed the focal length to 600mm, but since the a6000 is a 1.5 crop sensor, my effective focal length was 900mm. I quickly focused on the moon, metered, and started clicking. I used ISO 400 to speed my shutter and mitigate micro-vibrations that can be easily magnified at such a long focal length.
The tree was about a mile-and-a-half away. If I hadn’t been so rushed I’d have probably stopped down to f/11 or f/16 to ensure more depth of field (the hyperfocal distance was over 7,000 feet), but fortunately, focusing on the moon at f8 did the job. In Lightroom I cropped the image slightly (less than 15 percent) for framing and to enlarge the tree and moon a little more.
Posted on August 10, 2015
Just a quick note to share my excitement about my new Sony a7R II. I’ve only used it once, and didn’t really ask a lot of it, but what I’ve seen so far I like a lot.
Love at first sight
My Sony a7R II arrived Wednesday, but my schedule limited my use to staying home and familiarizing myself with menus and overall handling. If you’re familiar with Sony’s e-mount mirrorless bodies, you’ll be able to hit the ground running with the a7R II. The menu system is the same, though of course there are few new features.
The buttons and controls have moved a bit from their placement on the original a7 bodies (a7, a7R, a7S), but it’s essentially the same body as the a7 II (released late last year). Blindfolded, it would be difficult to distinguish the a7R II from the a7 II, and in fact, my Really Right Stuff L-plate (which I ordered several weeks ago), is the a7 II L-plate. I didn’t order the battery grip, but I know the a7 II battery grip fits the a7R II as well.
On the other hand, the a7R II has more heft than the a7R—the body, while still far more compact than my Canon bodies, is definitely larger and heavier than the original a7R body. The grip noticeably larger too. The result is a camera that feels more solid without sacrificing its mirrorless compactness—a definite upgrade.
I find mirrorless so perfectly suited to manual focus (for stationary landscape subjects), and the a7R autofocus so sluggish, that I just stopped using autofocus. I think that will change with the a7R II, as just a few test frames made it clear that the autofocus is vastly improved, both in speed and accuracy—not just for my Sony glass, but for my Canon lenses paired with a Metabones IV adapter (just make sure you’re using the latest Metabones firmware). Manual will remain my primary focus paradigm, but it’s nice to know that autofocus is now a viable option.
One prime consideration for me is shutter-lag (the time it takes the shutter to engage once the button it pressed). Measure in milliseconds, it’s not a big factor for virtually all uses, but when photographing lightning, every millisecond matters. My Canon 5D Mark III’s shutter lag was decent but not great; the a7R is too slow to even consider for lightning; the a6000 is quite fast; and the a7S is (dare I say) lightning fast. So on the eve of my annual Grand Canyon monsoon trip (for the workshop Don Smith and I do each year), I was quite anxious to know how the a7R II would perform in the shutter lag department.
I don’t have the means to measure the actual shutter lag of a camera, but since I have the shutter lag numbers for the a7S, and have had great success photographing lightning with it already, I just wanted to know know how the a7R II compares the a7S. And I was able to devise a way to test their relative speed. Without going into too much detail, my test involved both cameras set up on a tripod with a Lightning Trigger (the only lightning sensor I’d even consider using—I own two) attached.
With both cameras focused on a timer that recorded milliseconds, I simultaneously triggered each using its Lightning Trigger, then compared the times captured in the images of each camera. They were identical. Just to be sure I ran a second test and again they were identical.
As I write this I’m one day into my Grand Canyon trip and can tell you that I now have empirical data confirming that the a7R II is a great lightning camera, maybe even the best lightning camera. But that’s a story for another day….
Kiss and tell
Thursday night I took my new camera out to one of my favorite sunset spots in the foothills. Sporting her brand new L-plate and 128 GB media card, she was clearly primed for action. This being our first date, I didn’t want to push her too hard, but I could tell she was definitely ready for whatever I asked.
As luck would have it, this turned out to be more than a dry run shoot to test a new camera. The sunset that night was off the charts, so much so that I ended up breaking out a second camera (she didn’t seem to mind that either). I haven’t had a lot of time to play with the images from that night, but am sharing this one here from the very end of the shoot. Despite its appearance, and the rash of fires burning throughout California, no trees were injured in the making of this image. This is just silhouette of a trio of oaks against the sunset, underexposed to enhance the trees’ shape and hold the color in the sky.
My first impressions of the a7R II? I think it’s a relationship that’s going to last (at least until the next version comes out). In addition to the improved focus and increased resolution, in the very brief time we’ve been together, it’s clear that the dynamic range is even better than the phenomenal dynamic range I get from my a7R.
All this, and a great body.
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.
Posted on March 18, 2015
“You’re so lucky to live so close to <fill in the blank>”: Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Big Sur, San Francisco, Muir Woods (and countless other coastal redwood sites), Point Reyes, the Napa Valley wine country, Mt. Shasta, Mono Lake. I hear it all the time. Okay, I’ll concede that—I’m lucky.
Their implicit message is, “If only I lived closer to such-and-such, my photography would be so much better.” But you know what? We all have our grass-is-greener longings. When someone tells me how lucky I am to live where I live (I am), I can usually counter with, “Yeah, but I’d love to have the skies that you get.” Because the sad truth is, for someone who loves dramatic weather and interesting skies as much as I do, California is definitely not the place to be.
My advice to anyone who lives in Nebraska, or Texas, or Illinois, or pretty much anywhere else that lacks California’s dramatic scenery, is to emphasize your skies (which are almost certainly more interesting than mine). Keep a mental database of interesting foregrounds (they don’t even need to be particularly photo-worthy by themselves)—a single tree, reflective lake, cascading stream, whatever—that you can get to fairly quickly when the sky shows potential.
When photographing your subject beneath an interesting sky, place it at the bottom of your frame, compose wide, and give 2/3 or more of the frame to the sky (the better the sky, the more real estate it deserves). Vertical compositions often work great when you want to emphasize the sky. Is it Yosemite or the Grand Canyon? No, but I could be a very happy photographer shooting nothing but great skies for the rest of my life.
So. As you might guess, on the rare occasion when it looks like something special might happen overhead, I’m all over it. Unfortunately, and despite my proximity to so many world-class locations, there’s not a lot I like to photograph within a few minutes of my home.
I got a frustrating reminder of that a few years ago when, during a heavy (for California), persistent rain, I looked out the west-facing window of my home on Sacramento’s west side and saw nothing but clear sky on the horizon. Hmmm. Knowing three things: 1) the sun sets in the west 2) weather in Northern California moves from west to east 3) a rainbow needs low sunlight and airborne water, inferring an imminent rainbow wasn’t rocket science. All I needed was an east-facing scene.
And therein lay the rub: It’s at least a 30 minute drive to any scene that would do the rainbow justice. Of course with more than an hour until sunset, I figured there was time if I hurried, so I tossed my gear in the car and headed east, toward a small tree that stands by itself atop a hill east of town. And sure enough, within ten minutes of my departure, the rainbow did indeed manifest as expected. What also manifested was rush hour traffic.
For the next hour, I (along with what seemed like ten million commuters) were treated to a vivid double rainbow framing all six lanes of US 50. Poking along at less than 10 miles per hour, we were also beneficiaries of ample opportunity to appreciate the spectral splendor. On the positive side, this rainbow was so beautiful that I couldn’t even muster much impatience—I just sat there in traffic and marveled. And as if its beauty weren’t enough, this rainbow persisted longer than any rainbow I’ve ever seen, lasting at least an hour—all the way up until I pulled my car to a stop in front of the tree. True story.
Fast-forward four years. A couple of months ago I looked out the very same window during on a rainy afternoon and saw the same clear horizon I’d seen four years earlier. Within minutes I was in my car and heading toward the same tree. This time the traffic cooperated and I made good time, arriving at “my” tree about 30 minutes before sunset.
Sadly, despite all the signs pointing in the right direction, the rainbow never happened. Waiting for the sun to appear, I photographed saturated clouds in a steady rain, at no point not believing its appearance was imminent. Just about the time the sun appeared, the rain stopped. And then, about the time the rain returned, the sun set. Oh well.
Am I complaining? Of course not. I didn’t get my rainbow, but I did get a rare opportunity to photograph Midwest skies right here in Northern California. And I hope this image illustrates my point—wasting energy longing for what’s over there obscures the beauty at your feet. Good photography doesn’t need a towering monolith or double rainbow, it just needs a creative eye and a little persistence.
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Posted on February 1, 2015
When I decided to make photography my career, I promised myself I’d only photograph what I love. Not because I believed that’s where I’d find my best images (I wasn’t that calculating), but simply because the only good reason I could come up with for leaving an excellent job with a great company was to do something that made me truly happy. And lucky me—today most of my time behind a camera is spent pursuing subjects that touch a special place in my heart, subjects I’m naturally drawn to, camera or not.
There’s Yosemite, for sure. And pretty much anything celestial. Dramatic weather, dogwood, poppies, oak trees, reflections all thrill me. I could go on…. And as much as I enjoy these subjects individually, I love combining more than one to create (what at least feels to me like) a natural synergy. I mean, photographing Yosemite Valley is always great. And who doesn’t like to see a rainbow? But finding a rainbow arcing above Yosemite Valley? Well, you get the point….
While Yosemite Valley is a bit of a drive, and rainbows are unpredictable, ephemeral phenomena, the oak trees I love so much are deeply rooted less than an hour from home. And the moon is nothing if not predictable. So combining these favorites simply requires mixing a small amount of effort with a little cooperation from the weather.
Over the years, I’ve accumulated a number of candidate views in both directions: east for a full moon at sunset, west for a new moon at sunset; the other way around for sunrise. The east views will work for late afternoon rainbows too, but I’ve yet to capture one of those (it’ll happen).
Marking my calendar
Anxious for something to photograph between my Death Valley and Yosemite winter workshops, I made a point of highlighting the evening of this January’s full moon in my calendar. And rather than return to one of my tried-and-true foothill oak views, I left early enough to explore. After a great afternoon and many discoveries, I finally landed at the end of a new, graded but unbuilt cul-de-sac with a clear view of a distant trio of hilltop oaks.
While waiting for the moon to appear, I fired a few frames, silhouetting the trees against the sun descending through the orange sky, an unplanned and special juxtaposition in its own right. When the moon finally emerged above the darkening horizon, it was flanked by Venus. And when Mercury appeared a few minutes later (center-right, beneath the moon), I had a celestial triangle balanced above the terrestrial oaks. Synergy.
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh your screen to reorder the display.