Posted on March 14, 2021
Last week marked the one year anniversary of the COVID shutdown. WOW. One year.
In hindsight I realize that I might have been a little naive when this thing started because of the way I’d spent the two weeks prior to the shutdown: first in Scottsdale, Arizona for my annual MLB Spring Training trip (go Giants!), followed immediately by a week in Anchorage, Alaska to visit my daughter. In Arizona at the beginning of March I noticed very little difference in people’s behavior (though I did have to search long and hard for hand sanitizer), but winging my way to Alaska, I was struck by how empty the airports and flights were. Hmmm….
Alaska is where I was when it started to dawn on me that a couple of my upcoming workshops might be threatened. When that realization hit, I remember thinking I’ll be fine as long as I don’t lose the New Zealand trip at the end of June. Ha! I ended up losing 12 workshops, including New Zealand in both 2020 and 2021. And the workshops I have managed to pull off (three so far since last March) have been impacted as well, both in terms of group size and COVID protocol.
But this isn’t a woe is me post, I promise. I have so much to be grateful for, starting with the flexibility of being self-employed and working from home. And of course continued good health of my family and me. Oh, and the fact that I’m still in business.
And just like that, here’s 2021, I’m fully vaccinated, with two workshops in the mirror and six queued up over the next eight weeks (maybe I should be careful what I wish for). Life’s good.
I started this blog with the idea of a sentence or two reflecting on the COVID anniversary before diving into some thoughts on this just-processed image from last November. But here I am, nearly 500 words later….
I don’t need to gush any more about this day, a highlight of my pandemic year—you can just go back through the many blogs I’ve already posted about it (7—I counted). What I wanted to say about this image is how it underscores the importance of not merely settling for a beautiful scene, no matter how beautiful it is (something this one irrefutably was). Creating an image that stands out from all the other pictures of inherently beautiful scenes requires understanding the difference between the way your camera sees a scene and the way you see it. Unlike your experience of the world, a still image is devoid of motion and depth, has limited dynamic range and depth of field, and is constrained by a rectangular box. Managing these differences requires the ability to control your camera’s exposure variables (f-stop, shutter speed, ISO, focal length) to create the illusion of depth and motion.
The clouds had just started to part when I arrived at this reflective bend in the Merced River. It’s easy to get walloped by the beauty of a scene like this, frame up something nice, and click. But after indulging the creative side of my brain (camera or not, this scene really was gorgeous), I forced myself to set my awe aside for a few beats to work out the best way to convey the beauty.
My first step in most scenes is to identify the most important thing—what I want the scene to be “about.” If that important thing is in the foreground, I look for a complementary background; if my subject is in the background, I try to identify a complementary foreground.
In this case my “most important thing” was the entire scene across the river, anchored of course by Half Dome, but supported by the snow-covered trees and the reflection. I wandered the riverbank and found a few things to put in my foreground. I started with a mini cove rimmed with leaves that I used to frame a horizontal composition. Then, looking for something that would be better for a vertical composition, I moved on to these floating leaves and partially submerged log just a few feet upstream. Framing everything up at eye-level, I didn’t like the empty gap between the leaves/log and Half Dome’s reflection, so I dropped my tripod as low as it would go and went to work.
While there was a fair amount of dynamic range, I knew it was well within the capabilities of my Sony a7RIV—if I exposed carefully. But exposing carefully means more than just getting the light right—it means getting the light right with a shutter speed that handles the motion, and with an f-stop that handles the depth.
With a few ripples disturbing the reflection, I wanted shutter speed long enough to smooth the water and twisted my Breakthrough 6-stop Dark Circular Polarizer onto my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens. And since sharpness from the closest leaf to Half Dome’s summit was important, I selected f/16 and focused on the log. (My hyperfocal app assured me that this would give me more than enough depth-of-field for front-to-back sharpness.) Next, with my eye on the viewfinder, I slowly turned my polarizer far enough to remove the reflection from the leaves, but not so much that I erased the primary reflection.
Finally, I was ready to meter and select the shutter speed the gave me a good histogram. At my a7RIV’s native ISO (100), the shutter speed I needed was 1-second. To double that and ensure better smoothing of the ripples, I dialed down to ISO 50. Click.
(Images from the last 12 months)
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Posted on February 14, 2021
After losing 12 workshops to COVID since last February, today I returned to Yosemite for my Horsetail Fall workshop. To say I’m excited would be an understatement. I’m also a little apprehensive. One thing I’m not too worried about is COVID, because I’ve put in place protocol that will keep everyone in the group safely distanced: things like suspended carpooling (everyone can drive their own car), and Zoom for meetings and image review sessions, among other things. And this won’t be my first pandemic workshop because last October I was able to get one in, so I know my protocols work without significantly impacting everyone’s experience.
My anxiety is always a little elevated going into my Horsetail Fall workshop because Horsetail Fall is very important to most of the people who sign up, but many natural unknowns make it impossible to guarantee. Usually it’s the light that thwarts us, some unseen cloud on the horizon that snuffs the sunlight at the last minute. Last year the light was great, but the fall was dry. But I’m hopeful because this year there is lots of water in the fall, and the weather forecast is promising (fingers crossed).
Compounding my standard Horsetail Fall apprehension this year is some new rules put in place due to COVID, and the crowds Horsetail Fall always attracts—the most stringent Horsetail Fall viewing restrictions ever—and it’s entirely up to me to make sure these restrictions don’t affect my group.
Of course this is Yosemite, a place where things always seem to work out for photographers. But even though I have a Horsetail Fall plan that I’m pretty confident will work, and the things I worry about never happen anyway (to quote Tom Petty), I won’t breathe easily until I’ve seen exactly what form “work out” takes in this workshop.
About this image
But anyway… Rather than recycle an old Horsetail Fall image (which you can see below anyway), I’m sharing another image from my December snow day in Yosemite. This is the Three Brothers, probably Yosemite Valley’s most anonymous rock formation. Anonymous not because it’s less worthy than other Yosemite landmarks, but because there are just not that many places to view it.
To align the Three Brothers with the ribbon of autumn leaves, I had to alternately scale and boot-ski a few snow drifts to make my way to the river’s edge. To eliminate a couple of other photographers from my frame (not to mention more than a few footprints in the snow, I moved forward and extended one tripod leg into about a foot of river water. This put my viewfinder out of reach, but by bracing myself on the tripod to keep from joining it in the frigid river, I was able to get a clear enough view of my camera’s LCD to compose this frame. (It’s awkward angles like this that really help me appreciate live-view on the LCD.)
I like to include some kind of knowledge or insight in each blog post, but this week workshop prep has left me without a lot of time. Instead, I’m sharing my Horsetail Fall article, just updated with all the 2021 Yosemite NPS changes. You can also find this article in my Photo Tips section.
While much of the Horsetail Fall article below is still valid, crowds and COVID have led the NPS to make some fairly impactful changes.
Please respect these restrictions. The minority of photographers who ignore rules, or try to cut corners, reflect poorly on all photographers, which only leads to even tighter restrictions and risk complete loss of access to Horsetail Fall.
For eleven-plus months each year, Horsetail Fall may just be Yosemite’s most anonymous waterfall. Usually dry or (at best) a wet stain, even when flowing strong this ephemeral cataract is barely visible as a thin white thread descending El Capitan’s east flank. When it’s flowing, my workshop groups can be standing directly beneath Horsetail and I still have to guide their eyes to it: “See that tall tree there? Follow it all the way to the top of El Capitan; now run your eye to the left until you get to the first tree…”. But for a couple of weeks in February, the possibility that a fortuitous confluence of snowmelt, shadow, and sunset light might, for a few minutes, turn this unassuming trickle into a molten stripe draws photographers like cats to a can-opener.
The curtain rises in the second week of February, a couple of hours before sunset, when a vertical shadow begins its eastward march across El Capitan’s south face. As the shadow advances, the sunlight warms; when the unseen sun (direct sunlight is gone from the valley floor long before it leaves towering El Capitan) reaches the horizon, the only part of El Capitan not in shadow is a narrow strip of granite that includes Horsetail Fall, and for a few minutes, when all the photography stars align, the fall is bathed in a red glow resembling flowing lava framed by dark shadow. (Some people mistakenly call the Horsetail spectacle the “Firefall,” but that altogether different, but no less breathtaking, manmade Yosemite phenomenon was terminated by the National Park Service in 1968.)
Some years Horsetail delivers sunset after sunset in February, while other years administer daily doses of February frustration. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to predict when all the tumblers will click into place: I know photographers who nailed Horsetail on their first attempt, and others who have been chasing it for years.
One important thing before I continue. To avoid outing yourself as a Yosemite rookie, don’t make the mistake of calling Horsetail Fall the “Firefall.” Yosemite’s Firefall was a very real nightly display of burning embers pushed from Glacier Point every summer night. It was as spectacular as it sounds. The phenomenon started in 1872 and continued until the National Park Service, concerned (among other things) about the crowds it drew, terminated the Firefall in 1968.
Anyone who has witnessed or seen pictures of Horsetail Fall would agree that “Firefall” would be a great name for it, but those of us fortunate (and old) enough to have witnessed the actual Firefall know the difference between Horsetail Fall and the Firefall, and will never confuse one for the other.
(Oh yeah, and it’s Horsetail Fall, not Horsetail Falls.)
The “when” of Horsetail Fall depends on the convergence of three independent conditions:
The problem with targeting February’s third week is that it isn’t a secret: I generally prefer sacrificing Horsetail perfection in favor of Horsetail near perfection and far fewer photographers. But I’ll leave that decision up to you.
It’s fun to circle Yosemite Valley on pretty much any mid- to late-February afternoon just to watch the hoards of single-minded photographers setting up camp like iPhone users on Release Day. In fact, one non-scientific way to find a spot to photograph Horsetail is to simply park where everyone else parks and follow the crowd. Unfortunately, as Horsetail’s popularity grows, so does the distance you’ll need to walk.
If Horsetail Fall is on the top of your bucket list, it’s best to pick your spot and show up early. Really early. Really, really early. The downside of this approach is that, because the best locations for Horsetail aren’t especially good for anything else, you’ll sacrifice a lot of quality Yosemite photography time waiting for something that might not happen.
And no one has commanded that you worship with the rest of the Horsetail congregation: Experienced Yosemite photographers know that any west-facing location with a view of the fall will do. If you find yourself in Yosemite with time to kill, try walking the Merced River between Cathedral and Sentinel Beaches—any place with a view to Horsetail will work. But because of their open space and relative ease of access, two spots have become the go-to Horsetail spots for most photographers.
El Capitan Picnic Area
The El Capitan Picnic Area, highlighted by Galen Rowell, remains the most popular Horsetail Fall vantage point. The picnic area’s advantages are that it is the closest view of Horsetail Fall, has the most parking, has the most room for photographers (by far), and has a bathroom (plug your nose). The downside is there really isn’t a lot of composition variety here, and thousands of others will have already captured something as good as or better than what you’ll get.
If you like people, the El Capitan Picnic Area is the place to be—more than any other Horsetail vantage point, this one has a festive, tailgate atmosphere that can be a lot of fun. I suspect that’s because people arrive so early and there’s little else to do before the show starts. And since everyone is pointing up with a telephoto, it’s pretty much impossible for anyone to be in anyone else’s way, which eases much of the tension that often exists when shooting among large crowds.
You’ll find the parking lot, with room for twenty or so cars, on Northside Drive, about two miles west of Yosemite Lodge. In recent years the NPS has blocked a lane of Northside Drive to allow more parking (but don’t park illegally because you will be cited). You can shoot right from the parking lot, or wander a bit east to find several clearings with views of the fall.
Merced River south bank bend
Photographed from a bend on the Merced River’s south bank, El Capitan’s extreme sloping summit creates the illusion that you’re somewhere above Yosemite Valley, eye-to-eye with the top of Horsetail Fall—it’s a great perspective.
I like this location because the river greatly increases the variety of possible compositions, and also because you can pivot your view upstream to photograph Upper Yosemite Fall, and behind you toward Sentinel Rock (which also gets fantastic late light), almost directly above while you wait for Horsetail to light up. The downside to photographing here is that there’s precious little room, both to park and to photograph. This requires getting there a couple of hours early, and also can lead to a bit more tension as people jockey for position.
Driving east on one-way Southside Drive, you’ll parallel the Merced River for most of 1.2 miles beyond the turn for Cathedral Beach. The Horsetail Fall spot is right where the road and river diverge. Parallel park right there in one of two narrow but paved parking areas on opposite sides of the road, where you’ll find room for about a dozen cars. In recent years, all parking on Southside Drive between El Capitan Crossover and Swinging Bridge has been banned, if you plan to shoot here, prepare to walk a mile or more.
Since there’s so little parking here, and Southside Drive is one-way eastbound, if you find no parking (don’t try to squeeze in where there’s no room—I’ve seen rangers doing traffic control and ticketing cars that don’t fit), it also helps to know that the spot is about a ½ mile from the 4-Mile Trail parking area and ¾ miles west of the Swinging Bridge parking area—an easy, flat walk.
Because of the potential for crowds, the best strategy here is to arrive early and forego what may be a great view from the elevated riverbank (that is sure to be blocked by late-arrivers trying to cram their way in), in favor of getting as close to the river as possible. Standing at river level gives you many more compositional choices, and nobody else can block your wide shots. (But if there are other photographers already set up on the elevated riverbank when you arrive, please don’t be the one who sets up in front of them.)
Regardless of where you set up to photograph Horsetail Fall, it’s pretty difficult to find something that nobody else has done. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. There are definitely other places in Yosemite Valley with view of Horsetail Fall, they just take a little hunting—I suggest walking the south bank of the Merced River, and ascending the 4 Mile Trail. And since you’ll likely be doing lots of waiting, take advantage of the downtime to experiment with compositions.
When the light begins to warm, it’s time to shoot. Because you never know when the light will shut off, don’t wait until the light is perfect—it’s best to start early and photograph often. Until the light goes away completely, my rule of thumb is that the light now is better than the light a minute ago—just keep shooting . I’m not suggesting you hold your shutter down in burst mode until your card fills; I usually tell my workshop groups to fire a frame every minute or two until the fall turns amber, then pick up the pace as it goes (fingers crossed) pink and (if you’re lucky) red. The best light is in the final five minutes before sunset.
Viewed from the picnic area, there’s not a lot of visual interest surrounding Horsetail; your most obvious compositions will be moderate telephotos, up to 300mm or full frame. I use my Sony 24-105 and 70-200 (or more recently, my 100-400) lenses almost exclusively here. Use the trees to frame your shots and let them go black; with a telephoto you can isolate aspects of the fall and eliminate the sky and some or all of the trees.
The Merced River bend near Southside Drive is farther away from the fall, with more foreground possibilities, including the river and reflections, so you’ll be able to use a greater range of focal lengths here. Don’t get so caught up in photographing the fall that you overlook wider possibilities that include the river.
From either location I think vertical compositions work best (there’s a reason you don’t see lots of horizontal Horsetail Fall images), but that doesn’t mean there aren’t horizontal opportunities too. I like to identify a go-to composition based on the conditions, then vary between wide/tight and horizontal/vertical. If the sky is boring (cloudless), minimize or eliminate it from your composition. If there are clouds that make the sky interesting, by all means include them.
A frequent rookie mistake is cutting the waterfall off at the bottom. I’m not saying there’s never a reason to do that, but unless you consciously decide to truncate the fall because you think it’s the way to compose your frame, make sure you include the diagonal ridge that Horsetail disappears behind.
If your camera struggles with dynamic range, a graduated neutral density filter will help any shot that includes the sky—a two-stop hard GND angled across El Capitan parallel to the tree line should do the trick. This usually requires some Photoshop dodging and burning to hide the transition, but it’s the only way to darken the brightest part of the sky, which is usually in front of (not above) El Capitan. Since switching from Canon to Sony, I have no problem with the dynamic range and no longer use a GND for Horsetail Fall.
A polarizer will alter your results, so if you have one on, make sure you orient it properly. I often have a difficult time deciding between maximizing and minimizing the reflections with my polarizer, so I hedge my bets and shoot both ways. I’ve found that when Horsetail is flowing strongly, minimizing the reflection is best; when Horsetail is more of a wet or icy stain, maximizing the reflection works better. Either way, it’s best to just shoot it both ways and decide later.
Automatic metering can be problematic in extreme dynamic range scenes when color is paramount, so I always recommend manual exposure, spot metering on Horsetail Fall or the adjacent sunlit granite. To maximize the color on the fall and El Capitan, I usually underexpose slightly. Because the trees rarely add value beyond framing, they usually work better when very dark green to black, a fact that’s completely lost on your meter (which thinks everything should be a middle tone). And monitor your RGB histogram to ensure that you haven’t washed out the red (Horsetail and El Capitan) or blue (sky) channels.
Highlight Alert (blinking highlights) is your friend. While you should never make your final exposure decision based on the highlight alert, when you see the highlights flashing, check your histogram and adjust if necessary.
And perhaps most important of all, don’t get so caught up in the photography that you forget to appreciate what you’re viewing. Just take a couple of seconds to stand back and allow yourself to appreciate the amazing spectacle unfolding before your eyes.
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Posted on January 10, 2021
A year ago Don Smith and I, with the aid of our Icelandic guide (the legendary Óli Haukur), had a blast sharing Iceland’s winter beauty with a great group of photographers. But our trip wasn’t without its challenges. One of our earliest locations was Kirkjufell, arguably Iceland’s most recognizable mountain. While proponents of Vestrahorn might debate this, no one will deny that everyone who visits Iceland wants a picture of Kirkjufell, just as everyone visiting Yosemite wants a picture of Half Dome. And even though Kirkjufellsfoss (the nearby waterfall) is gorgeous and the obvious foreground for Kirkjufell images, the mountain really is the main event here.
So imagine our disappointment on the morning our workshop group visited Kirkjufell and found the mountain completely obscured by clouds. Not only that, the temperature was 25 degrees (F), and a 40 MPH wind made it feel like 5 degrees and turned the sleet into rocketing needles. In other words, it was stupid-cold. Nevertheless, our hardy group geared up, braved the short trudge out to the vista, and went to work without complaint.
While waiting for Kirkjufell to emerge (fingers crossed), I turned my attention to the tiered, multi-channel, ice-encrusted Kirkjufellsfoss. In normal conditions, while waiting for the Kirkjufell to appear it would have been natural to fire off a few oooh-that’s-pretty clicks of the waterfall. But without the distraction of Kirkjufell (or anything else more than 1/2 mile away), I set up my tripod and actually worked the scene like an actual photographer (go figure). And as often happens when I spend quality time with a scene, the longer I worked this one, the more I saw.
With so much going on, the trickiest part of making this image was managing all the scene’s visual elements while minding my frame’s borders. As much as we try be vigilant, sometimes the emotion of a scene overwhelms our compositional good sense—we see something that moves us, point our camera at it, and click without a lot of thought. While this approach may indeed capture the scene well enough to save memories and impress friends, it’s far from the best way to capture a scene’s full potential. So before every click, I do a little “border patrol,” a simple mnemonic that reminds me to deal with small distractions on the perimeter that can have a disproportionately large impact on the entire image. (I’d love to say that I coined the term in this context, but I think I got it from Brenda Tharp—not sure where Brenda picked it up.)
To understand the importance of securing your borders, it’s important to understand that our goal as photographers is to create an image that not only invites viewers to enter, but also persuades them to stay. And the surest way to keep viewers in your image is to help them forget the world outside the frame. Lots of factors go into crafting an inviting, persuasive image—things like compositional balance, visual motion, and relationships are all essential (and topics for another day), but nothing reminds a viewer of the world outside the frame more than an object jutting in or cut off at the edge.
When an object juts in on the edge of a frame, it often feels like part of a different scene is photobombing the image. Likewise, when an object is cut off on the edge of the frame, it can feel like part of the scene is missing. Either way, it’s a subconscious and often jarring reminder of the world beyond the frame.
And there are other potential problems on the edge of an image. Simply having something with lots of visual weight—an object with enough bulk, brightness, contrast, or anything else that pulls the eye—on the edge of the frame can throw off the balance and compete with the primary subject for the viewer’s attention.
To avoid these distractions, I remind myself of “border patrol” and slowly run my eyes around the perimeter of the frame. Sometimes border patrol is easy—a simple scene with just a small handful of objects to organize, all conveniently grouped toward the center, usually requires minimal border management. But more often than not we’re dealing with complex scenes containing multiple objects scattered throughout and beyond the frame.
In this Kirkjufellsfoss scene I had to contend with ice, rocks, snow, and flowing water. The biggest problem was an assortment of randomly dispersed rocks jutting from the snow at bottom of the frame, and a railed pathway visible just above the fall. It wasn’t too hard to eliminate the path with careful placement of the top of my frame, but if my entire focus had been on the waterfall the rocks might have been overlooked. Border patrol. Placing the bottom of my frame a little higher would have cut off the large rock near the bottom-center, an important compositional element that combines with the fall to create a virtual diagonal; placing the bottom lower would have introduced more rocks that I’d have had to cut off somewhere. Instead, I was able find a clean line of snow that traversed the entire bottom of my frame: perfect! (And lucky.)
One other important compositional element that would have been easily easy to overlook is the switchback snow-line that enters the frame at the bottom and exits at the top (or vice-versa). Diagonals like this are strong compositional elements that I love including whenever possible, so I chose a horizontal composition to allow room for each switchback to complete. The eye subconsciously follows lines like this, so cutting them off on the edge of the frame is an tacit invitation to exit the scene, something I try to check for when I execute my border patrol.
Of course nature doesn’t often cooperate and I’m usually forced to chop off parts of visual elements. When I do this, I always want it to be a conscious decision that doesn’t make my viewer think that I’ve cut off something that belongs in the scene, or that something jutting in is part of a different scene. Usually when I have to cut something on the edge (often impossible to avoid), I try to do it boldly, somewhere near the middle of the object, to signal that was my intent and not just an oversight.
I realize because these things are often only noticed on a subconscious level they may seem trivial, but every image is house of cards comprised mostly of small decisions, and you never know which one might send it crashing down.
I did end up photographing Kirkjufell this morning, but didn’t get anything that thrilled me.
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Posted on January 3, 2021
Since the start of the pandemic, many (most?) of us have have found lots of time to catch up on books and movies (among other things). Of course that also includes me, and as a photographer I find it hard not to find parallels between my chosen creative medium and these others. The tension in books and movies, whether dramatic, comedic, or some combination of both, originates from the interaction of characters with each other and/or their surroundings, and the change that interaction spawns over time. Which of course got me thinking about whether it’s possible to create tension in a still photograph, and if so, how?
Though we might not be conscious of it, the best photographic images do indeed convey a form of tension. It’s human nature to seek relationships, not just in our lives, but in our art as well. Every relationship has inherent tension, an invisible connecting thread that pulls tighter as the relationship strengthens.
Lacking the passing of time and the change it brings, still-photographers must create tension by setting up relationships between disparate elements in our frame. We signal these relationships, thereby dialing up the tension, through careful positioning of compositional elements (Google “rule of thirds” and “golden ratio”).
The most obvious relationships available to landscape photographers is the juxtaposing independent physical elements in the scene. For example, pairing a foreground tree or flower with a distant peak permanently creates a relationship between two formerly unrelated subjects. Reflections are an easy way to connect a nearby water feature to a distant subject. And then there are the dynamic celestial elements like the moon and stars, and ephemeral weather phenomena such as lightning and rainbows, that make powerful connections with terrestrial subjects.
But wait, there’s more…
Even though no time passes in a still frame, landscape photographers can and do signal time’s advance. Whether conscious of it or not, when we photograph the color and light of the natural boundaries separating day and night, the broken clouds and rainbows of a clearing a storm, or the juxtaposition of elements distinctive to two seasons, we signal the passage of time and the tension inherent in its inexorable march.
Lacking other features to set them apart, the cliched nature of sunrises and sunset images diminishes their power to generate tension—in other words, sunrises and sunsets are a dime a dozen, so if you’re going to photograph one, you’d better make an effort to put it with a strong scene. On the other hand, though it’s always important to seek a strong composition regardless of the conditions, the more rare the change, the better it can overcome an otherwise ordinary scene.
A clearing storm can feel like catching lightning in a bottle (a nice rainbow can elevate nearly any scene), but an even rarer opportunity to capture change is a scene with clear signs of two seasons. That’s especially true in my home state of California, where seasons tend to be more of an afterthought. But that doesn’t mean opportunities to photograph seasonal change here are nonexistent. California does get spectacular spring wildflower blooms, and our autumn color display (though maybe not as spectacular as some other places), can be very nice.
Bracketing spring and autumn on one side is summer, hands-down California’s least photographically compelling season. But on the other side of spring and autumn is winter. While most of the state doesn’t get snow, our mountains do (and lots of it)—capturing late snow on wildflowers and dogwood (an extremely rare event), and early snow on fall color, are real treats.
So maybe I should have warned you that there’d be math…
Which brings me to this image from my visit to Yosemite during an early November snowstorm. I really don’t need to go on any more about this day—if you’ve been reading my blog for the last couple of months, you’re probably well beyond sick of hearing about it. But it does illustrate the synergy of combining two seasons in one image. No one can deny that fall color is beautiful, and fresh snow is beautiful too (which of these is more beautiful is in the eye of the beholder, and a debate for another day). But if we were somehow able to quantify beauty, I suspect that we’d find the total amount of beauty (“beauty-units,” “beauty-bucks”?) in a fresh snow on fall color image would exceed the sum of the beauty derived from an image with fall color plus the beauty of an image with fresh snow.
You could attribute this synergy to the relative rarity of snow on fall color, but I think the power goes deeper than that. There’s just something about change the ups the stakes, so even though this is nothing more than a (totally unprovable) mental exercise (maybe I’ve been locked up too long), I’m sticking with the theory that the synergistic power of an image that combines the distinctive best of two seasons is the tension of change it conveys.
Posted on December 20, 2020
When you stop to consider all the components that have to fit into place to make a successful landscape image, it’s a wonder we don’t all just stay inside and watch TV. First there’s mastery of photography’s creative side, which requires the ability to distill our dynamic, multi-sensory, three-dimensional world into a coherent two-dimensional image. Then there’s the technical side, where we juggle our camera’s aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings to control the scene’s depth, light, and motion. And as if meshing all these moving parts into something visually appealing weren’t daunting enough, don’t forget to factor in photography’s mental component: knowing where to be and when to be there; the foresight to recognize what might happen next and the patience to wait for for it; and finally, the fortitude to endure hunger, sleep depravation, and whatever elements Mother Nature throws our way.
Yet somehow photography happens. And like most things in life, I’ve always thought photography’s greatest joy comes from doing the hard work and overcoming difficulty. Sometimes spectacular just falls in our lap, but most of my favorite images simply those images I feel like I earned.
Nature photography’s 3 P’s
To remind myself (and others) of the photography’s mental side, many years ago I identified what I call, “The 3 P’s of nature photography.” These sacrifices, large and small, a nature photographer must make to consistently create successful images.
The truth is, you almost certainly already do it. Pick some of your favorite captures, pop them onto the screen, and try to put yourself back at that time and place. Ask yourself which of the 3 P’s you employed, and be generous with yourself and not too quick to write an image off to blind luck.
Practicing what I preach, here’s my stab at the assignment for this image:
A few words about this image
Sentinel Bridge is such an iconic view of Half Dome that it would be photographic malpractice not to share it with a workshop group, but when I’m in Yosemite by myself I rarely stop here because it lacks compositional variety (it’s hard to find something I don’t already have). But because the conditions on this day were spectacularly unique, I actually stopped here twice. This image was from my first stop, when a light snow still fell and storm clouds ruled the scene.
Half Dome had been swallowed by clouds for a while, but crossing the bridge I saw that it had just emerged so I whipped into the adjacent parking lot. Rather than mess with my entire kit, I just grabbed my tripod, Sony a7RIV, and Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens and jogged up to the rail (maybe 100 feet from the car).
I always do my best to position myself so the trees frame Half Dome without obscuring any of its face, not always easy at this extremely popular spot. I was lucky this time that there were only a couple of other photographers set up so I didn’t have any trouble finding a spot that worked. With the scene so perfect, I didn’t want to get too fancy and risk losing Half Dome to the clouds. I quickly identified the elements I wanted to feature—Half Dome, the upstream trees, and of course the gorgeous reflection—and went to work.
I often start with a vertical composition on Sentinel Bridge, but surveying the scene, when my eyes were drawn to the serpentine ribbon of autumn leaves clinging to the south riverbank I opted to start with a horizontal frame. That left me with a decision about what to about the trees on both sides of the river—how many to include, and whether to cut them off at the top. I finally decided that not cutting them off would give me more sky than I wanted.
With the frame’s top/bottom established, I panned left and right until I was satisfied: enough of the floating leaves—check; Half Dome properly centered (Half Dome has so much visual weight, putting it too far left or right can throw off the balance)—check; the diagonal trunk and snow-capped rock far enough from the left edge that they create compositional balancing elements for that side of the frame—check.
With a few gentle ripples ruffling the reflection, I added my Breakthrough 6-stop dark polarizer, stopped down to f/16, and dialed my ISO to 50. This gave me a 4-second exposure that smoothed the water just enough to allow the reflection to stand out nicely. Once I was satisfied that this composition was a success, I went on to shoot the scene in a variety of other ways as well: wider, tighter, and vertical. (You can see the vertical version in the gallery below.)
Returning to Sentinel Bridge a few hours later, the sun had broken through to light up Half Dome and the tops of the trees, creating a completely different, but no less beautiful, scene (that I haven’t had a chance to process yet).
Many of you no doubt recognize the reference in this post’s title; for those who don’t (inconceivable!), treat yourself to this scene from the best movie ever.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on December 13, 2020
Years of leading photo workshops and reviewing the work of others has convinced me that to capture great images and maintain domestic bliss, you need to decide before a trip whether you’ll be a photographer or tourist—it’s pretty hard to have it both ways. (I say this completely without judgement—there are times when I opt for tourist mode myself, packing only the camera in my iPhone.) I see many well-executed images taken at the wrong times—harsh shadows, blue sky, and poorly located light are all signs that the photographer was sightseeing with his or her camera. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—if your priority was simply to record the scene and you’re happy with the result, the image was a success.
But getting the pictures coveted by serious photographers usually requires being outside at the most inconvenient times. That’s sacrifice a serious photographer will make without hesitation, but the rest of the family? Not so much. Countless intimate getaways and family vacations have been ruined by the photographer who thinks it’ll be no problem tiptoeing out for sunrise (“I’ll be so quiet, you won’t even know I left”), or waiting “just a few minutes longer” after sunset for the Milky Way (“The drive-thru will still be open when we get back”).
When I’m wearing my photographer hat, my decisions put me outside when the conditions are most conducive to finding the images I want, without considering comfort or convenience. Sunrise, sunset, overcast skies, wild weather, darkness are all great for photography, but face it—few people without a camera are thrilled to be outdoors when they’re sleepy, hungry, cold, wet, or ignored.
Many of us, myself included, are blessed with wives/husbands/partners who say quite genuinely, “No problem, take as long as you want—I’ll just read (or wait in the room, or go shopping, or whatever).” And though we know they mean it, based on my own experience and reports from others, even blessed by a sincere sanction from our significant other, we’re still distracted by the knowledge that he or she is waiting, biding time, (and possibly suffering) while we pursue our solitary passion. When someone is waiting for me, I just can’t help rushing my compositions, making decisions designed to get me back fast instead of satisfied, and just generally shortcutting everything I do. Invariably, disappointment ensues.
And when the goal is a pleasant trip with family, if I try to squeeze in photography, I can’t relax and my photography suffers. That’s why, when I’m a tourist, my goal is to simply chill and and enjoy the sights with the people I love. When I leave my camera home, my lights-out and rise times are based on everyone’s comfort and enjoyment, the pace is never rushed, and my forays into nature are timed for convenience and the most pleasant weather for being outside. And guess what: I return with my body and mind fresh and my loved ones happy.
Of course doing nature photography for a living makes it easier for me separate photography and family trips. I get lots of me-time to dedicate to photography, but some people are so busy that their only opportunity to take pictures is when they’re on vacation. In this case, perhaps a compromise can be negotiated. After researching your route and destinations, pick a (reasonable) handful of must-photograph spots. Then, before the trip, get buy-ins on your photography objectives from all concerned, and be as specific as possible: “I’d like to shoot sunrise on our second morning at the Grand Canyon,” “I’d really like to do a moonrise shoot in Yosemite on Wednesday evening,” and so on. The rest of the trip? Bring no more than a point-and-shoot or your cell phone, stash your serious camera gear out of sight, and don’t let anyone catch so much as a longing glimpse in its direction for the rest of the trip. Then relax and enjoy.
About this image
On this November morning, I didn’t have to drive too far into Yosemite Valley to know that the snow falling on fall color was the stuff of my photographic dreams. My first stop was El Capitan Bridge, a don’t-miss spot for El Capitan reflections in the Merced River. As the closest easily accessible top-to-bottom view of the massive granite monolith, El Capitan Bridge was made to order for my new Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens, and I couldn’t wait to try it out. But the storm that had already dropped a couple of inches of snow was still active, wrapping El Capitan in clouds.
After little success photographing El Capitan’s barely discernable outline from the upstream side of the bridge, I crossed the road and set up on the bridge facing downstream. The tops of Cathedral Rocks were smothered by clouds, but the granite base was clearly visible above the river, framed by golden oaks. In the foreground, rafts of pine needles and autumn leaves floated by so slowly that their motion was barely perceptible.
I composed the scene the scene in the viewfinder of my Sony a7RIV, starting at 12mm and slowly tightening the composition to 16mm. As I worked the scene, the snowfall intensified and I methodically increased my ISO, from 100 to 1600, in one-stop increments, with a corresponding shutter speed increase to capture a range of motion-blur in the falling flakes, from long streaks to short dashes.
This is a perfect example weather only a photographer would be crazy enough to be outside in. Not only was it cold and wet, you couldn’t even see the tops most of Yosemite’s most photographed icons. But I’ve learned that there’s no better time to photograph in Yosemite than during and just after a snowfall, a truth I verified many times this day.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on November 29, 2020
I warned you that you’ll be seeing images from this month’s Yosemite snow day a while. …
As I may have mentioned, the conditions this day were so off-the-charts-spectacular that I probably could have closed my eyes and still had a good chance for a useable image with any click. But I knew I had an opportunity capture something truly special, so I forced myself to slow down and work with purpose at every stop.
Lots of variables go into creating a successful landscape image. Many people struggle with the scene variables—light, depth, and motion—that are managed by their camera’s exposure settings: shutter speed, f-stop, ISO. Others struggle more with the composition variables: recognizing, isolating, and framing a subject. And then there’s the overlap between these two sides of image creation that requires simultaneous, synergistic mastery. So I thought I’d use this image to demonstrate my image creation process.
Glassy reflections and the ability to include the Three Brothers makes this location beside the Merced River one of my favorite El Capitan views. But, as much as I love this spot, for years it also frustrated me because my widest lens was only 16mm, forcing me to choose between El Capitan and Three Brothers, or their reflection, but never both. My frustration vanished a few years ago when I added the Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens to my arsenal.
But now I was armed with the brand new Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens. Though I’d used it some in my Yosemite Fall Color photo workshop a week earlier, my own photography isn’t a priority during a workshop, so this would be my first chance to give my new lens the undivided attention it deserved. And what better spot to do that?
I approach every scene starting with my camera at its best ISO (100) and the lens’s “ideal” f-stop (generally f/8 – f/11, where lenses tend to be sharpest, the depth of field is good, with minimal diffraction). Given that motion wasn’t a factor in this scene (I was on a tripod, the wind was calm, and the river’s slow motion didn’t concern me), I stuck with ISO 100. And while the snow and floating leaves were an essential part of my immediate foreground, the 12mm focal length this scene required provided more than enough depth of field at f/10, no matter where in my frame I focused. (At 12mm and f/10, the hyperfocal distance is less than two feet.) In this case I just focused on the leaves and didn’t think about DOF again.
With my ISO and f/stop established, I simply put my eye to the viewfinder of my Sony a7RIV and dialed my shutter speed until the histogram looked right. Since this was a fairly high dynamic range scene (big difference between the darkest shadows and brightest highlights), I knew the exposure wouldn’t look great on my LCD image preview—my highlights would be a little too bright, my shadows a little too dark, but since the histogram looked good, I knew I’d be able to fix the highlights and shadows with a couple of easy Lightroom adjustments.
Some scenes you can walk up to and plant your tripod pretty much anywhere without much thought. But the variety of foreground and middle-ground elements here made the simple decision of where to set up my tripod very important. Normally I use the tall trees cut off near the center of this image as framing elements, and to block empty sky just left of El Capitan. But with clouds in what is all too often blank blue sky, and unable to find a foreground that worked from that position, I moved downstream and found a ribbon of autumn leaves hugging the riverbank that would make a great foreground.
I was pretty pleased so far, but I still had be careful to position myself so the floating leaves framed the reflection rather than blocked it. Try as I might, I wasn’t able to avoid blocking some of the Three Brothers reflection, but overall I was satisfied to include the leaves and all of the El Capitan reflection without blocking the nose of El Capitan.
Next I started working on the left/right aspect of the scene. The things that get left out of an image can be as important as what’s included. This is especially true on an image’s perimeter frequently, where distractions are easy overlooked by photographers too focused on their primary subject. This framing can managed by some combination of position, focal length, and aim (where my camera is pointed). In this scene I’d already worked out my position, focal length was non-negotiable because I had to be at 12mm (my lens couldn’t go any wider than 12mm, and composing longer than 12mm would have cut off the top and/or bottom of El Capitan). That left only framing option the direction my camera is aimed. Not wanting to cut of any of the riverbank, I shifted my view right until the bank formed a continuous line from the bottom of my frame until it disappeared into the mass of autumn tinted shrubbery on the middle-right.
When I thought I had things just right, I clicked a frame, stood back, and reviewed my composition on my LCD, made a small tweak to add a little more on the right and subtract a little from the left, then waited with my eyes on the rapidly shifting clouds and light. Each time I liked what I saw, I’d click another frame until I was satisfied I had something worth keeping.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on November 22, 2020
Between peak fall color dancing on reflections everywhere, and a sky that oscillated all day between heavy snowfall and dramatic clearing, this November day was just one of those days when it was best to keep moving. In these conditions that’s easier said than done because whatever I’m photographing is so beautiful, it’s hard to leave. The result is a memory card full of spectacular, but similar, images. So, after a lifetime of photographing Yosemite in spectacular conditions, I’ve learned not to forget that it’s just as beautiful somewhere else.
By the time I made it out to this Half Dome view just a couple of Merced River bends upstream from Sentinel Bridge, I’d circled the valley so many times I was almost dizzy. My usual lens here is my Sony 24-105 f/4 G because I don’t usually think the surrounding scenery justifies shrinking Half Dome and its reflection with a wide lens. But with snow draping towering evergreens and golden cottonwoods, and a mosaic of autumn leaves lining the riverbank, this was no ordinary day.
Though I’d just gotten the Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM in August, this was only the second time I’d gotten to use it (thank-you-very-much coronavirus), so I figured what the heck and twisted it onto my Sony a7RIV. Then I moved up and down the riverbank looking for the best foreground to put with the rest of this glorious scene. I eventually settled on this spot, drawn by the way the colorful leaves arced and seemed to frame Half Dome’s reflection.
To shrink the empty area between the leaves and reflection, I splayed my tripod legs and dropped it as low as possible, then plopped down in the snow to compose (grateful for my camera’s articulating LCD). The closest leaves were just a couple of feet away, but I really, really wanted the scene to be completely sharp throughout my frame. I was pretty sure that at 12mm and f/11 I had enough depth of field to safely focus anywhere, but why take a chance? I opened my hyperfocal app and confirmed that my hyperfocal distance was just one foot. Nevertheless, since the databases these apps use don’t take into account the extreme resolving power of a GM lens on 61 megapixel sensor, I bumped to f/16 (diffraction be damned) and went to work.
At first I was annoyed by the constant drips from overhead branches that kept disturbing my reflection, but quickly discovered that by timing my clicks, I could use the concentric waves as an accent, without losing the reflection. The single leaf that floated in just below (above?) Half Dome’s reflection was a bonus.
I just updated the Reflections article in my Photo Tips section, but am sharing it below as well
(and check out the Reflections Around the World gallery at the bottom)
Okay, so that’s pretty basic. How about this one?
Wikipedia: The change in direction of a wavefront at an interface between two different media so that the wavefront returns into the medium from which it originated
Whoa, I hope that’s not on the test.
Who doesn’t love the soothing tranquility of a crisp reflection? And like a metaphor in writing, a reflection is an indirect representation that can be more powerful than its literal double thanks to its ability to engage the brain in different ways than we’re accustomed. Rather than processing the scene directly, we first must mentally reassemble the reflection’s reverse world, and in the process perhaps see the scene a little differently.
Reflections are a powerful photographic tool as well. Water’s universal familiarity makes it an ideal subject for photographers frustrated by their camera’s static representation of our dynamic world. Just as we freeze or blur a waterfall to express turbulent motion, we can include a reflection to convey serenity.
Water reflections come in many forms, from a mirror-sharp inverted mountain shimmering atop a still pool, to an abstract shuffle of color and texture on an undulating lake. Without getting too far into the physics of light, it’s important to understand that every object we see and photograph (that doesn’t generate its own light) comes to us courtesy of reflected light. For example, when sunlight strikes Half Dome in Yosemite, some of the sun’s photons bounce straight back into our eyes, and there it is.
But other photons head off in different directions—some are captured by other sets of eyes, while others land on the surface of the Merced River. Some of these photons penetrate the water to reveal the submerged riverbed, while others carom off at the same angle at which they struck the water, like a pool ball striking the cushion, or a hockey puck off the boards. The ricocheting photons that travel from Half Dome and bounce off the river, reach our eyes as a reflection. In other words, what we call a reflection is in fact re-reflected light (reflected first from El Capitan, then by the river).
Mirror reflection recipe
The ingredients for a crisp, mirror reflection is pretty simple: still water, a sunlit subject that’s much brighter than the water’s surface (the greater the contrast the better), and a view angle that matches the angle from the water’s surface to the reflection subject. (The best reflections are usually found on shaded water because there are fewer photons to compete with the photons bouncing from the reflected subject.)
In the image on the left, with El Capitan in direct sunlight but the slow moving Merced River still shaded, my biggest challenge was finding floating fall leaves to include with my reflection. Once I found this spot, my only option was to use my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens (on my Sony a7RIV body), which gave me a field of view just wide enough to fit El Capitan, Three Brothers, the reflection, and the floating leaves into my frame.
Playing the angles
Understanding that reflected photons leave the water’s surface at the same angle at which they arrive—imagine the way a tennis ball bounces (if it weren’t affected by spin, wind resistance, or gravity)—helps us get in position for the reflection we want.
A few years ago I found myself atop Sentinel Dome right after an intense rain shower had turned indentations in the granite into small, glistening pools. Rather than simply settle for the vivid sunset coloring the clouds above, I decided to include the sunset reflected in the pools as well. At eye-level the pools reflected blue sky, so I dropped my tripod as low as it would go, almost to granite level, positioning my lens at the same angle to the pools that the red light leaving the clouds struck the water.
When the water’s in motion
As spectacular as a crisp, mirror reflection in still water is, it’s easy to overlook the visual potential of a reflection that’s not crisp, or to forget your camera’s ability to render a soft or abstract reflection much better than your eyes view it. While a crisp reflection often dominates the primary subject in an image, a splash of reflected color or shape can provide a striking accent to a dominant primary subject. And a reflection that’s lost to the continuously varying angles of rippled or choppy water, magically appears when a long exposure smoothes the water’s surface.
In this image from Lake Wanaka on the South Island of New Zealand, all the ingredients were in place for a special sunset reflection until a light breeze disturbed the lake’s surface with gentle undulations. By attaching a Breakthrough 6-stop neutral density filter to my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens (Sony a7RIII camera), I was able to achieve a 30-second exposure that complete smoothed the lake’s surface. While not a perfect mirror, the resulting reflection has a very pleasing soft, gauzy look. The long exposure smoothed the distant clouds as well.
Where to focus
An often misunderstood aspect of reflection photography is where to focus. Though it seems counterintuitive, the focus point of a reflection is the reflection subject, not the reflection surface. This isn’t such a big deal in a scene like the Half Dome reflection at the top of the post, where the focus point of everything of visual significance is infinity, but it’s a very big deal when you want both your reflection and rocks or leaves on the nearby water surface sharp.
The El Capitan reflection on the right is very different from the Half Dome reflection above, where the extreme depth of field ensured sharpness whether I’d focused on anything in the scene or on the reflection. But here the leaves that were my scene’s primary emphasis were just a couple of feet from my camera, while El Capitan was several thousand feet distant. Even though the leaves floated atop the El Capitan reflection, focusing on El Capitan would have softened the leaves. To increase my depth of field, I stopped down to f/18 and focused several feet into the foreground leaves, then magnified the image on my LCD to verify that all of the leaves were sharp. Though El Capitan is slightly soft, a soft reflection is far more forgivable than a soft foreground.
It seems that reflections often feel like a fortuitous gift that we just stumbled upon. But given that reflections are entirely beholden to the laws of physics, they’re far more predictable than many of the natural elements we photograph. Taking a little time to understand the nature of reflections, and how they’re revealed by a camera, enables photographers to anticipate their appearance.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on November 15, 2020
A lot of factors go into creating a nice image. Much of the emphasis is on composition, and the craft of metering and focusing a scene, but this week I’ve been thinking about an often overlooked (or taken for granted) component: Opportunity.
This has been on my mind because a week ago I got the rare opportunity to be in Yosemite for the convergence of my two favorite conditions for photography there: peak fall color and fresh snow. Toss in multiple clearing storms and ubiquitous reflections, I have a hard time imagining anything topping that day (okay, maybe if there’d been a full moon…).
Every photographer who has shared a beautiful image has probably had to endure some version of, “Wow, you were sure lucky that happened.” And indeed, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve received a gift from nature—most recently, last Sunday in Yosemite. But as I think about the blessings of this day, I’m reminded of Louis Pasteur’s oft repeated observation that chance favors the prepared mind. In other words, opportunity is great, but it’s not completely random, and you have to be ready for it.
A favorite quote of Ansel Adams and the generation of photographers who succeeded him, Pasteur’s (translated) words have been repeated and paraphrased to the point that they verge on cliché. But like most clichés, Pasteur’s words achieved this status for a reason. (In this case I can substitute “opportunity” for “chance” without really changing the meaning.)
Granted, I did indeed feel extremely lucky that the weather gods decided to drop snow on Yosemite Valley, a location that doesn’t get tons of snow anyway, just as the valley’s fall color peaked. But to simplify that opportunity down to a lucky convergence that I just happened to be present for, completely discounts the fact that my being in Yosemite that particular day was no accident. I’d been monitoring the Yosemite Valley forecast all week, cleared my schedule when it looked like snow might fall, then made the nearly 4-hour drive with no guarantees.
This does not make me a genius—I wasn’t the only photographer there, far from it. And I wasn’t granted inside information, or motivated by divine intervention—I just checked the weather forecast and acted. And while it was chilly (around 30 degrees), and wet, I didn’t really endure what I’d call extreme hardship (unless you consider spending 24 hours with my brother extreme hardship). 😬
So the first part of the preparation->opportunity equation is simply the ability to recognize the potential for good photography, combined with the willingness to act (and maybe to endure a little inconvenience and discomfort). The second part of the equation is the ability to take maximize the opportunities that manifest, whether they be the product of your proactive initiative (like monitoring the forecast and getting yourself on location), or simply a fortuitous (unexpected) happenstance (right place, right time).
At the very least, taking full advantage of photographic good fortune requires the basic ability to manage exposure and focus variables to control photography’s creative triad: motion, depth, and light. (Seriously, you cannot tap a scene’s potential without these skills, I promise.) But bolstered by this foundation, the next step is a little more subtle because it’s so easy to be overwhelmed by the beauty before you, and to just start clicking because the conditions pretty much guarantee a nice image, regardless of the effort.
True story: A few years ago I was guiding a workshop group at a location with a beautiful view of El Capitan. When the beauty is off the charts like this, rather than insert myself, I often just stand back and observe. And while doing this, I watched one member of the group approach the riverbank and survey the scene—so far, so good. But… Suddenly she popped the camera off her tripod, switched it into continuous mode, pointed downstream, and pressed the shutter and slowly swept the camera in a 180 degree arc—in 5 seconds she’d probably captured at least 50 images. Stunned, it was over before I could intervene. When I regained my composure, I asked her what in the world she was doing. She just smiled and said, “It’s Yosemite, there’s bound to be something good in there.” I couldn’t argue. (This was actually a lighthearted moment that we all had fun with for the rest of the workshop.)
Which brings me to this image from last Sunday. When I pulled up to Valley View, the snow had just stopped (temporarily), glazing every exposed surface pristine white. If any scene qualified for my workshop student’s machine gun, spray and pray, approach, this was it.
The main event at Valley View is El Capitan, but my eye was drawn to the amber trees across the Merced River, their glassy reflection, and the endless assortment of yellow leaves drifting through the scene. I also liked the way Bridalveil Fall, though definitely not gushing, etched a white stripe on the granite beneath Cathedral Rocks. Rather than settle for the easy scene, I made my way about 50 feet upstream from the parking lot to a spot where El Capitan is mostly blocked by trees, but Bridalveil Fall, Cathedral Rocks, the colorful trees, and the reflection, are front and center.
Framing this scene, I dropped as low as possible to emphasize the reflection and eliminate some spindly branches dangling overhead (and said a prayer of thanks for the articulating LCD on my Sony a7RIV). After one frame, I decided the bright gray clouds reflecting on the nearest water to be distracting, so with my eye on my LCD, I dialed my polarizer until the the reflection was off the immediate foreground without erasing the reflection of the scene across the river. This darkened the bland part of the river and helped the rest of the reflection stand out.
I also realized the darker foreground could use some sprucing up. While I could say that I was lucky that a pair of leaves drifted by just beneath the Cathedral Rocks reflection, their inclusion (and position) in this image was no accident. The river was dotted with fairly continuous stream of drifting leaves, so with my composition in place, I simply waited for them to drift into my scening. I took several frames with different leaves in different positions, but liked this one because this pair so nicely framed Bridalveil Fall.
The moral of this story
I think too many photographers are limited by their own mindset. Make your own opportunities and prepare to take full advantage of them when they happen. Learn the basics of exposure and focus technique (it’s not hard). You have enough access to weather forecasts, celestial (sun, moon, stars) data, and nearby beauty (no matter where you live) to anticipate a special event and plot a trip. And once you’re there, take in your surroundings (ideally, before the action starts), avoid the obvious, and challenge yourself to not settle for the first beautiful scene to grace your viewfinder. And no matter how beautiful that image looks on your LCD, ask yourself how it could be better.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on October 11, 2020
With virtually every still camera now equipped with video capability, the last few years have brought an explosion of nature videos. When done well, videos can be extremely powerful, conveying motion and engaging both eyes and ears to reveal the world in a manner that’s closer to the human experience than a still image is. But like other sensory media whose demise has been anticipated following the arrival of something “better,” (with apologies to Mark Twain) let me say that the rumors of still photography’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
Just as I enjoy reading the book more than watching the movie, I prefer the unique perspective of a still image. Though motion in a video may feel more like being there, a still image gives me the freedom to linger and explore a scene’s nooks and crannies, to savor its nuances at my own pace.
In a video my eyes are essentially fixed as the scene moves before them. In a still image, my eyes do the moving, drawn instantly to a dominant subject, or perhaps following lines, real or implied, in the scene the way a hiker follows a trail. But also like a hiker, I can choose to venture cross-country through a still image and more closely scrutinize whatever looks interesting.
The photographer needs to be aware of a still image’s inherent lack of motion, and more importantly, how to overcome that missing component by moving the viewer’s eyes with compositional choices. With this in mind, I usually like my images to have an anchor point, a place for the viewer’s eye to start and/or finish. To do this, I identify the scene’s anchor and other potential elements that might draw the eye, then position myself and frame the scene so those secondary elements guide the eye to (or frame) the primary subject.
But sometimes a scene stands by itself, as if every square inch fits together like a like a masterful tapestry. When nature gifts a scene like this, rather than imposing myself by offering visual clues to move my viewer’s eye, I like to step back and channel the Wizard of Oz. Specifically, what Dorothy must have felt when she first opened the door of her ramshackle, monochrome world onto the color and wonder of Oz. That’s how these scenes make me feel, and that’s the feeling I want my images to convey.
In a scene filled edge to edge with the awe and wonder of discovery, the last thing the viewer wants is to be told where to go and what to do. (And just look at all the trouble Dorothy got into when she started following the Yellow Brick Road.)
By getting out of the way and letting the scene speak for itself, my viewer has the freedom to explore the entire frame. Of course that’s easier said than done, but in the simplest terms possible, my sole job is to find balance and avoid distractions.
As much as aspiring photographers would love a composition formula that dictates where to locate each element in their frame, moving the eye, finding balance, and avoiding distractions ultimately comes down to feel. Please bear with me as I try to put into words how this inherently intuitive process manifest for me.
To explain the concept of balance and motion in a still image, I use what I call “visual weight (I’ll just shorten it to VW),” which I define as any object’s ability to pull the viewer’s eye—think of it as gravity for the eye.
An object’s VW is subjective, based on a variety of moving targets that include (to a greater or lesser degree) an object’s size, brightness, color, shape, and position in the frame. VW can also be affected by each viewer’s personal connection to the elements in the scene.
Take a wide angle moon for example. The moon is small and colorless (not much VW), but also bright with lots of contrast (high VW). Then factor in the viewer’s personal connection to the moon. If I’m more drawn to the moon than someone else, the moon’s visual weight would be greater to me. Since I can’t worry about what others think when I compose a shot, what you see in my images reflects the VW that a scene’s elements hold for me, and probably explains why I have so many moon images.
After many years (decades) of doing this, visual balance usually happens intuitively, without conscious thought. But until you reach this point, I have a mental exercise you can apply to your own images, preferably as they appear in your camera’s viewfinder or on its LCD.
Imagine a flat board perfectly balanced horizontally on a fulcrum (like the tip of a pen)—to maintain its equilibrium, any added weight must be counterbalanced by a corresponding weight elsewhere on the board. Visual weight is the virtual equivalent: think of your frame as a print (a stiff, metal print rather than a floppy, paper print) balanced on a fulcrum. Any visible element that pulls the eye tips the frame from horizontal (makes it out of balance) and must be counterbalanced by an element with corresponding visual weight.
Because of the subjective nature of visual weight, your choices might differ from mine. That’s okay—it’s important to be true to your own instincts, which will in fact improve with practice.
The VW concept applies to eliminating distractions too. Without getting too deep into the weeds (there are lots of potential distractions in a scene, and ways to deal with them, but that’s a blog for a different day), the idea is to avoid objects that pull the eye away from the essence of the scene (as you see it), or that simply overpower the scene. In the image at the top of this post, flying monkeys emerging from the Merced River might be pretty cool (and could even gain me some notoriety), but they would not serve my goal to convey a sense of wonder and awe and would in fact be a distraction.
Other potential distractions besides flying monkeys are things like branches and rocks that jut into the scene, creating the sense that they’re part of a different scene, just outside the frame. Another common distraction is objects that are mostly in the scene, but trimmed by the edge of the frame. Since it’s virtually impossible to avoid cutting something off on the edge of most frames in nature, I just try to minimize the damage by being very conscious of what’s cut off and how it’s cut, usually trying to cut boldly, down the middle, when possible. I’ve always felt that objects jutting into a scene, or slightly trimmed by the edge, feel like mistakes, while something cut strongly down the middle feels more intentional.
Yosemite seems to be filled with more than its share of scenes that that don’t need my help assembling a composition. At most scenes I start with the simplest composition and work my way to something more complex. I can usually tell when a scene stands by itself when I end up deciding my early compositions are the way to go.
I’d driven to Yosemite on this November morning chasing a fortuitously timed storm that was forecast to drop snow on peak fall color. The day started gray and cold, the valley floor white with wet snow beneath dark clouds that blanketed all of Yosemite’s distinctive features. But by late morning the clouds brightened and started to lift, slowly unpeeling Yosemite Valley’s soaring granite walls and monoliths.
I happened to be at Valley View when the show started in earnest. Because the scene contained everything I was there to photograph—Yosemite icons (El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks, Bridalveil Fall) decorated with snow, fall color, reflection—I started with this composition that took it all in in a pretty straightforward manner. Standing right at river’s edge, I chose horizontal framing because it was the best way to include the icons without diluting them with too much sky and water. Though I didn’t want to go too wide, because there was so much happening top-to-bottom, from clouds to reflection, I went a little wider than I usually do.
The lower half the scene had lots of rocks that I worked to avoid cutting off, finally finding framing that kept my edges completely clean (not always possible). The small rock in the lower left was a little closer to the edge than I’d have liked, but if I’d have gone any wider I’d have introduced spindly branches along the left edge—I chose the lesser of two evils. Likewise, the small rock on the bottom right was also closer to the edge than I preferred, but an entire herd of disorganized rocks massed just beneath my frame prevented me from composing lower. The top of my frame I set just below a distracting (bright) hole in the clouds. I’d have cut the rock on the middle right if I’d have had to, but was fortunate that there was a small break between it and another gang of rocks just off the frame on the right.
The visual balance was more by feel (as it often is). Looking at the image now, I see that offsetting the gap separating El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks, placing it a little left of center, makes the frame feel more balance than if I’d have centered it, but I don’t remember consciously deciding this. To my eye, the balance works for me because El Capitan, the brilliant color, and striking reflection hold more visual weight than the granite, waterfall, and reflection on the other side, so having more of this on the right compensates for this (slightly) lacking VW.
I wish I could defend my decision to use f/20, but I can’t. I only use f/20 when I absolutely have to—or when I was using it for an earlier scene and forgot to set it back to my default f/8 to f/11 range (which is no doubt what happened here).
One more thing
Even though this image is from 2012, it’s brand new, discovered yesterday while mining my raw file archives. The amazing thing to me is that the scene is quite similar, and the composition virtually identical, to an image taken the following year. When I see similar compositions in scenes from entirely different shoots, it tells me that my instincts are guiding me. In both situations these images were my starting point, and I went on to play with more creative compositions later in the shoot. But it just goes to show that sometimes it’s best to let the scene speak for itself.
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