Posted on January 19, 2018
I just returned from a trip to Oregon with Don Smith. The prime purpose of our trip was to check out the fire damage in the Columbia River Gorge in advance of our annual spring workshop there. Because the damage in the areas where we take our groups wasn’t as severe as we’d feared, we didn’t need to spend a lot of time scouting alternate locations, leaving us with some extra time on our hands. And what do photographers do when they have extra time? That’s right—they take pictures.
In our case, we drove down the Oregon Coast as far as Bandon. Though Bandon was a complete washout photographically—wind, rain, minimal visibility, and an incoming storm that chased us inland on our final night—we saw enough of the coast that we decided to add a workshop there. (More on that later.) The photographic highlight of the coast trip was Cannon Beach, where we found the conditions much more favorable for photography.
If it looks like I got wet capturing these images, it’s because I did. Really, really wet. I started just trying to keep the water out of my shoes; by the time I finished, the surf was coming up to my waist and it no longer mattered because I knew I wasn’t going to get any wetter (as long as I stayed upright).
I did this entire shoot with a body and two lenses I didn’t have a year ago, which make me realize how new gear I added in 2017. Since I get asked so frequently about my gear, it occurs to me that I should just add my inventory to a blog post. So here goes…
I photograph nothing but landscapes, but the content of my bag varies with the location, whether I’m driving or flying, the amount of hiking/scrambling the trip will entail, and my overall objective for the shoot (conventional landscape, moon, stars, lightning, macro, or whatever). I have a core set of equipment that’s always with me, and an assortment of specialty gear that I add or subtract as the situation dictates.
Core gear (almost) always with me
My Sony mirrorless system is the lightest, most compact core gear I’ve ever carried. The a7RIII is my primary body. A always carry a backup body; that used to be the a6300, but I like the a7rII so much that I couldn’t part with it when I got the a7RIII. But I do like having a backup body with a crop sensor, so the a6300 is rarely far away. It’s very compact, and I’m so happy with the image quality that I don’t hesitate to use it as my primary body when I want the extra reach its 1.5-crop sensor provides.
As a 100 percent landscape shooter (nothing that moves), I’m always on a tripod. That means f/4 glass is usually all I need, and Sony’s f/4 glass provides a great combination of compactness and image quality. In a moment of weakness I replaced my Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f/4 with the Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM and like it so much that I can’t go back. It’s quite compact for an f/2.8 lens, and fast enough for most of my night photography. And the sharpness is off the charts.
My primary tripod/ball-head choice is the RRS TVC-24L and BH-40 for its combination sturdiness and height in a relatively light configuration. When weight is a concern, such as when I’ll be flying or plan some serious hiking, I opt for the RRS TQC-14 with the BH-30. While not quite as tall as I’d like, this combo is much lighter and plenty sturdy enough for all my body/lens combinations.
Specialty gear (with me as needs dictate)
My specialty gear comes with me when I have a specific objective outside the typical landscape scenes I encounter (and that are well handled by my core gear). Whether I’ve planned a moon rising above Half Dome, the Milky Way above the bristlecone pines, lightning on the rim of Grand Canyon, or wildflower or fall color creative selective focus, I have the body, lens, and accessory combination to handle it.
To capture a huge moon in my moon rise/set shoots, I use the 100-400 with the 1.4x or 2x teleconverter. Even with a teleconverter, this combination is sharper than any long lens I’ve ever used. Adding it to my a6300 gives me 1200mm full-frame-equivalent.
For my creative selective focus photography, I add extension tubes to this my telephoto lenses or Sony 90mm macro. Though extension tubes cut light, I don’t hesitate pushing the ISO of any of my Sony bodies as far as I need to.
Night photography is another personal joy. While the a7RIII gives me all the high ISO performance I need for most of my night photography, the a7SII’s ability to virtually see in the dark is ideal for the darkest nights photographing the Milky Way. Paired with the Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens, this combination finds usable detail in impossible darkness. Equally important, using focus peaking with the a7SII/Rokinon combination, I can focus effortlessly on the stars, in seconds.
As a long-time daylight lightning shooter, both on my own and leading photo workshops, I have accumulated many years of lightning photography trial and error (not necessarily in that order) experience. More than enough experience, in fact, to know that shutter lag is death to lightning photography. Though I was fully committed to Sony before I had a chance to try it for lightning, I was thrilled to discover that the electronic front curtain shutter on Sony mirrorless bodies has the fastest (best) shutter lag of any camera available. Any of my Sony bodies paired with the Stepping Stone Lightning Trigger (the only lightning sensor I trust) provide the best chance for lightning success.
I like the F-Stop bags because they’re the perfect combination of roomy comfortable (for long hikes), and durable, yet compact enough for an airline overhead bin. In the field, I can fit virtually all of my core and most of my specialty gear in my Tilopa, plus a down jacket, gloves, and hat. When I fly, my tripod goes in my suitcase, but the rest of my camera gear never leaves me because I can fit a fully packed Tilopa into any overhead bin I’ve ever encountered (including the puddle-jumpers). When I want to travel light (my Grand Canyon raft trip, for example), I opt for the Guru, which handles all of my core gear and some of my specialty gear.
Since I always want my bodies and lenses with me (not in my checked luggage), sometimes I fly with the Tilopa stuffed with gear and the empty Guru packed in my large suitcase; at my destination I load the Guru with whatever gear I need for the next shoot. And if limited overhead space ever forces me to check my bag at the gate (which has never happened, fingers crossed), I can remove the bag’s ICU (Internal Camera Unit) and store it at my feet, leaving the mostly empty bag for the flight attendants to store.
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Posted on December 26, 2017
One of my favorite things to do at year’s end is to look back at the things that made the year memorable. And my favorite part of this exercise is the realization that, even though I can’t say how, I know I will indeed be similarly rewarded in the coming year.
I’ll remember 2017 for several significant personal milestones, the many unexpected gifts from nature that I call “the most beautiful thing happening on Earth at this moment” moments, and (somewhat more prosaically) a lot of great new equipment that has made photography even more enjoyable for me.
In August of 1995 I visited the South Island of New Zealand for the first time. This was in my previous life, back when I trained programmers how to use the programming language of the company I worked for. And though I didn’t make my living as a photographer, I was very much a photographer at heart. My lodging for that trip was in rural countryside outside Christchurch, and I was so taken by the beauty that I carried a camera (this was before cameras were tiny and ubiquitous) on my 7-mile run each morning.
In late June of this year I finally fulfilled my dream to return to New Zealand. For ten days my good friend and fellow photographer Don Smith and I explored the mountains, fjords, lakes, and rainforests near Queenstown, New Zealand. We were scouting locations for a possible workshop, and were not disappointed. Though my previous visit had set my expectations bar quite high, this trip exceeded that bar with ease—Don and I came away with enough locations within a 150 kilometer radius of Queenstown to fill a 10-day workshop. By the time we returned, I was ready to proclaim New Zealand the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.
Total Solar Eclipse
What can I say? There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that can prepare a person for the experience of a total solar eclipse. So. After hearing many words of advice to that effect, I prepared like crazy, then almost blew my chance to photograph it because…, wait for it…, I wasn’t prepared. Honestly, the photographer in me felt like a college freshman trying to chat up a supermodel: pretty cocky going in, and instantly aware I was hopelessly out of my league.
This isn’t something I’m embarrassed about because, if asked to choose between experiencing the moment and photographing it, I’d choose the experience any day. I had no idea that I ended up with a couple of pretty nice images until I reviewed them on my computer later. And I still have no memory of how I did it.
Anyone who reads my blog knows how much I love astronomy. It’s an interest that goes back to childhood, and is so much more than identifying constellations (which I’m not especially strong at). Put simply, I love having my mind boggled, and nothing boggles my mind more than the immensity of the universe.
So imagine my excitement when I got the opportunity to peer into a telescope for my first in-person view of the Andromeda Galaxy (at least the first view that wasn’t just a faint smudge in the dark sky). And what could be better than that? How about actually attaching my camera to the telescope and letting it accumulate and record far more light than my eyes saw.
Like pretty much every other serious photographer, I always do my best to photograph my subjects in the best conditions. But for landscape photographers, great conditions are never guaranteed. And when they do happen, expected or not, they’re often so spectacular that it feels like I’m witnessing the most beautiful thing happening on Earth at that moment. Here’s a slideshow of my 2017 TMBTHOEATM candidates (in no particular order):
When I started this post, I didn’t imagine I’d be writing about equipment. But I realized that probably more than any other year in my career as a photographer, in 2017 I added equipment that actually made a difference.
Here’s a list of my equipment difference makers, and why they made a difference:
Sony 12-24 f/4 G: I’ve never had a lens that allowed me to go this wide. From the first time I took it to Yosemite, I knew it would allow me to photograph things I couldn’t have photographed before.
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM: I didn’t think this lens would make much of a difference in my photography, but its combination of speed and incredible sharpness made it my go-to night lens for most situations. I’m not throwing away my Rokinon 24mm f/1.4, but I’ll probably have to dust it off each time I use it.
Sony 100-400 f/2.8 GM: I’ve had lenses this sharp, and lenses this long, but I’ve never had a lens this long that’s this sharp. Not only that, whereas my other earlier long lenses were specialty lenses that I only packed when I planned to use them, this one is compact enough to have become a permanent resident in my camera bag.
Sony a7R III: Despite my love for my Sony a7RII, it had a few significant shortcomings (battery life and a single card slot to name two) that I longed to be fixed. Not only does the a7RIII fix these shortcomings, it actually gives me more dynamic range and better high ISO and I’m in photography heaven.
Here’s a random slideshow if images captured with my new toys:
I have no idea what’s in store for next year, but I’m ready. Bring it on!
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Posted on July 3, 2017
One of my favorite childhood books was “Upside-Down Town,” about a little town where everything was opposite the rest of the world. People walked backward so they could see where they’d been, stores paid people to take their goods, and (my personal favorite at the time) schools were only in session on holidays.
That’s kind of the way it feels visiting New Zealand in July. When I left Sacramento it was 110 degrees. After a week on Kauai (I was working the whole time, I swear), where it was tank tops and flip-flops 24/7, I arrived in the teeth of a Queenstown, New Zealand winter. Every day has been some variation of gray and drizzly, with high temperatures around 40 (that’s Fahrenheit—still haven’t embraced the Celsius thing) and lows in the 20s. Overnight my summer-wear was replaced by fleece, wool, and down full body armor. But I’m not here for comfort, and New Zealand has reminded me why winter is my favorite season for photography.
Of course this Southern Hemisphere winter in July wasn’t a surprise, but it definitely was a shock. Other adjustments (driving on the left; to leave a building, we don’t look for the Exit, we have to find the “Way Out”; and what’s with these power outlets?) have been relatively minor. And I’m still not used to the fact that as far as my wife and family back home are concerned, it’s pretty much always tomorrow here.
But one thing that’s universal is beauty, which is simply off-the-charts here. I was last in New Zealand in 1995, and though I wasn’t here as a photographer (in my previous life I traveled to train programmers), I found New Zealand so beautiful that I carried a camera on my seven-mile sunrise run each morning. Now I’m back with my good friend, frequent partner in crime, and fellow professional photographer, Don Smith. We’re here to scout for a New Zealand photo workshop that will debut in June (winter!) of 2018.
Our first couple of days were in the Queenstown area, where we explored the shores of the spectacular Lake Wakatipu. We could probably do an entire workshop in the Queenstown area, but that would only just scratch the surface down here. Today (tomorrow to you) we’re in Te Anau, having just returned from an all-day cruise on even more spectacular Doubtful Sound. Other locations on this week’s itinerary include Wanaka, Milford Sound, and Fox Glacier.
I’m sharing here my first of what will be many New Zealand images. On the road from Queenstown to Te Anau, we skirted the shore of the south arm of Lake Wakatipu. It had been raining on and off all day, a light rain with no wind, ideal conditions for photography. The snow-capped mountains that flank the entire west side of the lake were shrouded in clouds, but the light was great and we stopped at several locations to photograph.
Rain felt imminent as we pulled off at an unmarked roadside vista, hopped out for a quick reconnaissance, and rushed back to the car for our gear. Taking different routes to the lake, we each found scenes that excited us. Don concentrated on a creek flowing into the lake near the car, while I walked a hundred yards or so up the shore toward a tree topping a dark rock that sloped into the lake, pausing to click a frame or two along the way.
The crescent-shaped beach was naturally sheltered, especially down in my direction. With no wind or waves to disturb the surface, the lake surface here was like turquoise glass that clearly revealed the small, smooth beach rocks continuing beneath the water, and returning crisp reflections of the cloud-shrouded mountains across the lake.
Using the tree and sloping rock to frame the right side of my scene, I played with a variety of compositions. I started with a foreground that included two or three microwave-size rocks lodged in the beach and protruding from the water, gradually moving closer to the tree until my scene was simplified to what you see here. I could have stayed and worked this spot for hours, but soon the wind kicked up and a light rain started and it was time to move on. Later today we’ll drive back by this spot and my fingers will be crossed that the mountains will be out and I’ll get an opportunity to capture it differently.
After four days in New Zealand I’ve completely adjusted to the weather, can now quickly navigate my way out of any building, and am pretty confident I’ll be okay with the left-hand drive thing by the time I fly home. But I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that according to my airline itinerary, I’ll actually arrive home before I left. Tomorrowland indeed.
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Posted on June 26, 2017
“Game changer” is most certainly a cliché, but every once in a while I get to use the term without shame. I used it when I switched from film to digital; again when I discovered that the Sony a7R (and now the a7RII) gave me 2- to 3-stops more dynamic range than my Canon 5DIII; one more time when I first turned the Sony a7S (since replaced with the a7SII) toward the night sky. And I think I’ll trot it out once more for Sony’s new 12-24 f4 G lens.
Of course I can only speak for the 12-24’s change in my game—your results may vary. But as a landscape-only shooter who spends a lot of time in Yosemite, this lens allows me to capture images that were heretofore not possible with anything in my bag: Game changed.
Early last month, with only a few days to play with the new (and at the time, top secret) lens, I beelined to Yosemite. My first stop was Mirror Lake, a wide spot in Tenaya Creek that isn’t technically a lake (it’ll be dry by summer’s end), but each spring is most definitely a mirror. The coveted feature here is Half Dome, which towers more than 4,000 feet above the glassy water, close enough to require some serious neck craning. Many times at Mirror Lake I’ve visualized a composition that includes Half Dome and its reflection, only to be thwarted because even at its widest, a 16-35 lens isn’t wide enough.
Since my days with the lens were limited, I wasn’t able to time my visit for interesting weather or some celestial event. No worries, I rationalized, even on Yosemite’s standard blue-sky days, I can always count on warm, late afternoon light bathing Half Dome—not spectacular, but reliably nice.
I arrived at the lake about an hour before sunset and immediately started seeking out compositions to put the new lens to the test. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to mount the 12-24 on my a7RII, put my eye to the viewfinder, and see all of Half Dome and its reflection with room to spare. It wasn’t long before I zeroed in on the scene you see here (that required me to balance atop a rock about three feet from the shore, tripod 10 inches deep in frigid snowmelt).
As luck would have it, just as the light started to warm, a few clouds drifted down from the north, so I quickly adjusted my composition and waited for them to slip into my composition. They were moving quite fast, leaving a window of just a few seconds when they filled the sky without being seriously truncated by the border. With composition, exposure, and focus set, I clicked a half dozen rapid-fire frames before the clouds started drifting out of the frame.
This was just my first stop with this lens. On the walk back to my car I stopped for a shot that I shared a few weeks ago; that night, and again the next morning, I tried it at a favorite El Capitan View with great success (to be shared in a future blog). And before returning home, I discovered a completely unexpected use at Yosemite Falls. Needless to say, I’ve already ordered this lens—I expect to see it next month.
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Posted on December 7, 2016
While everyone loves a pretty scene, I’m afraid our aesthetic sense has been numbed by the continuous assault of “stunning” images online. A picture grabs our eyes on Instagram or Facebook and we reflexively click Like and move on to the next (similarly) stunning image. The photography equivalent of pop music, formula fiction, or (most) network television, these images exit our conscious about as fast as they entered because they fail to make a personal connection.
But every once in awhile an image surprises us and we pause, float our eyes around the scene, examine detail, bask in its mood. Who knows the trigger for such a response? Maybe is as simple as aspect of the scene that spurs a memory or taps a longing. Or maybe the connection reaches deeper than that.
Pictures succeed not just by virtue of their visual elements, but also by how those elements are connected. I used to believe that the sole purpose of including visual elements throughout my frame was to create the illusion of depth in photography’s two-dimensional medium. While I still strongly agree, I think the value of multiple points of visual interest goes deeper than that. Just as humans seek interpersonal connections in our daily lives, I think we’re programmed to favor images with relationships between heterogeneous elements in the nature. Not just Grand Canyon, but Grand Canyon speared by lightning; not just Half Dome, but Half Dome beneath a rising full moon; not just glowing Kilauea Caldera, but glowing Kilauea Caldera beneath the Milky Way.
Creating relationships between elements work on a smaller scale as well (albeit, usually without the opportunity for planning that celestial or meteorological phenomena provide)—small forest scenes and intimate macros benefit from inclusion of multiple elements as well. Of course an image with a disorganized arrangement of elements, no matter how beautiful each is individually, probably won’t get a second look. But find a way to organize a scene’s elements in a way that allows the eye to flow effortlessly through the frame and you have the potential for visual synergy—an image that’s greater than the sum of its visual parts.
The opportunity to connect disparate elements is everywhere if you look, from the broadest panorama to the most intimate macro. Whatever the scale, the key is not locking onto your subject until you find something to pair it with. In other words, finding a photo-worthy subject should never be your goal, it should be your starting point.
Without diving too deeply into the concept of visual weight (a subject in and of itself), I try to create a frame with balance between visual elements (not loaded too much in on of the scene’s quadrants: upper left, upper right, lower left, lower right). I also try to keep objects with a strong visual tug away from the edges of my frame. And finally, I look to position my elements so they’re connected by virtual diagonal lines.
About this image
On the final morning of last month’s Yosemite Autumn Moon photo workshop, I set the group loose in the forest beneath Bridalveil Fall to scour the possibilities in and around Bridalveil Creek. Always a workshop favorite, I usually save the Bridalveil Creek until the workshop’s final day, when my students have found their creative zone after three days of shooting and training. This approach seems to pay off, because no matter how much time I give them in there, it never seems to be enough.
When I found this accumulation of just-fallen autumn leaves floating in a glassy pool, I knew I had the start of a nice scene. Scanning my surroundings, I didn’t have to look hard to find a small cascade to connect with my colorful leaves. But with the pool tucked beneath a fallen log, accessing the best angle was tricky. Sprawling nearly flat on my back beneath the overhanging log, with one tripod leg in the water, turned out to be the best way to maximize the virtual diagonal connecting the leaves and cascade.
The other consideration here was depth of field—the leaves started no more than three feet from my lens, while the cascade was about 12 feet away. To ensure maximum sharpness throughout with getting too far into the diffraction zone, I stopped down to f/16 and focused on the back of the leaves. I wasn’t too concerned about shutter speed and the cascade’s blur because the difference between one and six seconds was insignificant, and freezing the water would have required a ridiculously high ISO, while the pool was so still that I could discern no motion at all.
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.
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