Posted on June 6, 2021
Cool as they can be, sunstars (AKA, diffraction spikes, sunbursts, or starbursts) border on gimmicky and cliché. So why do I shoot them? Because sometimes it’s the best solution when the sun intrudes on the scene you came to photograph. In other words, as much as I like dramatic clouds, vivid color, of soft light, I’d rather have a sunstar than a blank blue sky—kind of a lemonade-from-lemons approach.
Sunstars do look kind of cool, but maybe another reason they work is the universal resonance that comes with witnessing the sun kiss the horizon—I mean, who doesn’t have a comforting memory of watching from a special location as the sun begins or ends its daily journey?
Unfortunately, doing justice to these moments in a photograph is difficult: Including the sun in your frame introduces lens flare and extreme (often unmanageable) contrast, and creates an unattractive eye magnet that can overpower the rest of the scene. But while a sunstar doesn’t capture the literal experience of watching the sun’s arrival or departure, it can do a pretty good job of conveying the power of the moment.
A sunstar is created when sunlight diffracts (spreads) as it passes the intersection points of a lens diaphragm’s overlapping aperture blades. The smaller the opening, the steeper the angle between the blades, the more the light bends, and the more pronounced the sunstar spikes. The more diaphragm blades, the more spikes in the sunstar (this is a simplification of what actually happens, but you get the idea).
The good news is, despite the physical drawbacks mentioned earlier, creating a sunstar is relatively straightforward. Here’s a quick recipe:
About this image
This scene from last month’s Grand Canyon raft trip is a perfect example of why I sometimes resort to creating a sunstar—and I nearly missed it because I wasn’t ready. On a raft trip like this, no matter how much we try to time our stops with the best light, other factors often dictate the schedule.
We were fortunate to score a campsite directly across the Colorado River from the confluence with the Little Colorado River. We set up camp in the early afternoon and motored across the river as soon as we saw the other trips clear out. So we had the Little Colorado to ourselves, but with the sun still high in the cloudless sky, I resigned myself to having to wait for the sun to disappear behind the canyon walls before breaking out the camera gear. In the meantime we had a blast navigating a natural waterslide and cooling off in pools just warm enough to be refreshing.
When the non-photographers shuttled back to camp, the photographers remained at the Little Colorado to wait for the shade. While waiting I pulled out my Sony a7RIV put a 6-stop neutral density filter on my Sony 24-105 G, and wandered up and down the river looking for whitewater to play with. This was mostly just an exercise to kill time and familiarize myself with compositions for later, but was having fun I kind of lost track of time.
Not having really thought about the path the sun would take, and whether a sunstar would be an option, I looked up and saw that the sun was about to disappear behind a peak directly downstream and suddenly recognized a perfect sunstar opportunity. But my camera bag, with the Sony 12-24 GM lens I needed to get everything in (and also with the best sunstar), was about 200 yards downstream.
Not sure I had enough time, I sprinted as fast as my flip-flops would carry me, grabbed my bag (which was already in full shade), and sprinted back upstream toward the retreating sunlight. The sunstar happens right at the intersection of sunlight and shadow, but when raced into the sunlight I continued a little farther to give myself enough time before the sun set.
I really couldn’t afford to be picky about a composition but was lucky to find something with a foreground (rock) and middle ground (the blue of the Little Colorado) to go with my background (red-rock peak and sunstar). With the sunstar already in full swing in my viewfinder, I quickly (frantically) framed up a composition (no time for my customary obsessive tweaks, reviews, and refinements), dialed to f/16, metered (have I mentioned lately how much I love having a histogram in my viewfinder?), and clicked.
I only got four decent sunstar frames before the sun was gone. I had no idea if I had anything usable because I don’t usually perform too well when I rush, but was pretty happy to find something that works.
Posted on April 18, 2021
With vaccines taking hold and COVID restrictions easing, I’ve suddenly found myself in “be careful what you wish for mode.” I’m currently in Oregon with Don Smith, where we wrapped up our Oregon Coast workshop yesterday, and start our Columbia River Gorge workshop this afternoon. When this stretch is over, I’ll have done five workshops in five weeks. In addition to that, I had an unexpected (but welcome), time-critical project dumped in my lap that has occupied virtually all of workshop down-time. But rather than skip this week’s blog entirely, I’ve pulled one of my most popular from the archives (March, 2011), updated it slightly, and am sharing it today.
As some readers know, fellow pro photographer Don Smith and I partner on many workshops, donating our time as co-leaders for each other’s trips. On a recent trip Don and I stood on a bluff at sunrise gazing at the Big Sur Coast (or was it sunset overlooking Yosemite Valley?) and reminded ourselves of all the people idling in traffic or confined in a cubicle, and how fortunate we are to do what we do for a living.
Not only do photo workshops allow me to see and photograph great stuff, they give me the opportunity to learn from the diverse perspectives of dedicated photographers from every hemisphere on Earth and virtually every state in America. My workshop participants have been, in no particular order, musicians, computer professionals, artists, physicians, writers, lawyers, corporate executives, electricians, accountants, bond traders, active and retired military, other professional photographers, real estate agents, clergy, a classical composer, a Hollywood graphic artist, and a Hooters girl (a very sweet young lady who would completely dash any preconceived impression of what that might mean). One workshop included a rocket scientist and a brain surgeon.
Sometimes the education I gain from this eclectic mix of professions, preferences, and personalities is simply an insight or point-of-view that helps me better understand or inform future workshop participants. And sometimes my education is a bit more, uh, “esoteric.” On the day I captured this image of McWay Fall in Big Sur, I got a little of both.
This was a couple of years ago, on the first day of Don’s spring Big Sur workshop. Driving to the workshop’s first shoot we hadn’t been on the road five minutes when it was discovered my backseat featured a sex therapist and a gynecologist. Uh-oh. While they seemed quite excited by their mutual interest, I was uncertain that the other passengers shared the doctors’ outspoken zeal for the subject and did my best to deflect the conversation into more benign territory. But the doctors were not to be deterred. We spent the duration of the drive listening to these experts compare notes in graphic and excruciatingly uncensored detail. Topics ranged from, uh, well let’s just say we covered everything from oysters to “When Harry Met Sally.” Much to my relief, and after fifty minutes without exhaling, I pulled into the parking area at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park with a car-full of laughing (and, it turns out, just a little better informed) passengers. Phew.
Amazingly, it turned out that the drive wasn’t even the most memorable part of the afternoon. That honor goes to the sunset, which I was fortunate enough to capture in today’s image. When we arrived at the view of McWay Fall, the sun was behind a cloud bank that painted land, sea, and sky matching gray. But successful photography is often not as much about what’s happening now as it is about what’s going to happen later. And few opportunities excite me more than watching the sun slip from the clouds just before it completes its dash for the horizon–exactly what was in store this evening.
Don and I rallied the troops and told them not to be deceived by the flat scene, to prepare for a sudden and dramatic change in the color and light when the sun popped from behind the clouds. We told everyone that the display wouldn’t last long and encouraged them to forego the current moment and search for a composition that would work when “the moment” happened. With about ten minutes to pick a spot, refine our compositions, and ready our cameras, I ended up working with about half the group at this location. Don stationed himself with the rest of the group a couple hundred feet up the trail.
After getting everyone situated, I opted for this wide shot that used the fall and sun to balance the frame. To reduce the contrast between the sky and foreground I stacked two graduated neutral density filters (totaling five stops); to get the starburst effect I stopped down to f18. Because everyone in my group was ready and comfortable enough with their camera, we were all able to capture our own version of this special moment.
I’m afraid Don wasn’t so fortunate. Most of his group was successful, but with little warning one of his people decided that this very moment was the absolute best time to learn the manual metering techniques Don and I had covered in our orientation. Despite suggestions from Don (and stronger “urgings” from her husband) to shoot the way she’s most comfortable now and defer the learning to later, she insisted that now is the time to crack the manual metering puzzle.
To Don’s credit, he passed his opportunity at this magic moment to work with her. So while Don didn’t get his shot (kind of the photographer’s equivalent of taking one for the team), we did come away with a great cautionary tale we now spin to all of our workshop participants: Practice, practice, practice, when everything’s static, but when the magic happens, always, always, always revert to what’s most comfortable.
All in all, a very educational (and productive!) day. I don’t remember the drive back up the coast that night, but given the sunset we’d witnessed I’m pretty sure the primary topic was photography. Over the course of the workshop our woman did in fact learn manual metering (as she has demonstrated in subsequent workshops), and Don will forever be able to tell people about “the one that got away.” I, on the other hand, learned how long I can hold my breath.
Posted on March 21, 2021
Most people know how much photographers love their toys. Whether it’s the latest ultra-fast lens, that new space-age composite tripod that’s a full 1/4 ounce lighter, or (especially) a “game changing” camera body with even more megapixels than last year’s game changing camera body (and even though we already have more resolution than we’ll ever need), we can’t wait to get our hands on it and start sharing our new and improved images with the world (while somehow figuring out a subtle way to mention our new gear). But let me share a dirty little secret: Probably the single piece of equipment that most photographers have more versions of than anything else is the camera bag. Yawn. Don’t believe me? Ask any serious photographer how many camera bags they own—if the answer is less than five, they’re lying.
I don’t think anyone can deny that an efficient instrument to store, organize, and transport all this gear is essential. But let’s face it—a camera bag, as essential as it is, isn’t sexy. And when it comes right down to it, what’s the point of having the latest, greatest (and most expensive) gear if it doesn’t foster envy? So we’ll purchase a new bag simply because we can’t imagine living without our newest toy, but never for bragging rights.
Full disclosure: I’m as guilty as the next person of harboring an obscene number of camera bags. More than I can count. In fact, a few years ago I stuffed as many camera bags as I could fit into a 100 gallon garbage bag, shoved it into my attic, and haven’t seen them since.
Here’s my theory
Most photographers fantasize about carrying a compact, lightweight kit in the field (we want all the gear, we just hate carrying it). And to justify the purchase of the next great thing, we convince ourselves that (despite all history to the contrary) this will the final piece of equipment we’ll ever need. Of course since that’s what we told ourselves the last time we bought new gear, our current camera bag is suddenly too small. In other words, our camera bag is always just big enough to carry our current inventory of gear because we never imagine wanting more. Which is all well and good—until we start coveting the next toy.
This cycle repeats many time before the photographer gets wise. And some photographers, even those with a large garbage bag full of slightly used camera bags in their attic, never seem to get wise.
By now you might have guessed…
That’s right, I just got a new camera bag. This time it’s a Shimoda Action X50, to replace the Mindshift Backlight 26L I bought in late 2019. Sigh. In my defense, while I may be a slow learner, I did figure out a few camera bags ago to always get a bigger bag than I think I need. Nevertheless, the need for more space was a factor in this decision because, now that I have two Sony a7RIV bodies, I’ve been trying to store each with a lens attached: my Sony 16-35 GM on one, and my Sony 24-105 G on the other. But this new paradigm suddenly made my Mindshift bag cramped and awkward. Not so bad that I couldn’t have lived with had I loved the bag—but I didn’t, so here we are.
The primary reason to get new bag this time was comfort. While I was originally thrilled with the space and the way my gear fit in the 26L, I made the mistake of not fully loading it and walking around before buying. There are many things to like about the Mindshift bag, but fully loaded comfort over extended distances isn’t one of them. For someone who logs a lot of miles with a camera bag on my back, from trudging switchbacks to scrambling rugged terrain to airport sprints, comfort is essential.
Introducing my new camera bag
I really, really hope the Shimoda Action X50 will be my final camera bag. In case you haven’t figured it out, the numbers both names, the Mindshift 26L and the Shimoda X50, represents the displacement in liters. So the Shimoda has almost twice the capacity. While all of that extra room isn’t just for camera gear (there’s other storage galore), the camera gear section is significantly larger. I can’t imagine either needing, or wanting, to carry any more weight than I currently have, so if I ever decide to replace this one (heaven forbid), it won’t be because I need more space.
The most important thing for me is the X50’s comfort. I had the advantage of test driving a couple in my February workshops. And I’ve been trying mine around the house enough to know that it’s night-and-day better than my Mindshift bag. It feels like an actual back pack, not a camera bag with straps.
Let’s look inside
The contents of my camera bag has evolved over the years, from the vanilla 16-35, 24-105, 70-200 lens lineup that most landscape photographer carry, to my current setup that allows covers 12mm to 800mm (1200mm if you factor in the APS-C crop option) at all times—plus the option to go up to 1800mm (factoring in the APS-C crop factor) if I go with my Sony 200-600.
Here’s what’s I carry today (spring 2021):
Always in my bag
Specialty Equipment (not pictured—stays behind unless I have a specific plan for it)
Final camera bag thoughts
A camera bag is personal choice, based on many individual variables. So I’m not recommending against the Mindshift bag, which I found great in many ways. Because everyone’s body is different, I can only tell that the Shimoda was best for me.
If you’re in the market for a camera bag, make sure you try your candidate with weight before purchasing. And don’t just throw the bag on your back and call it good—actually walk around with it, bounce up and down, twist, bend over, take it off and put it on, and so on until you’re sure.
I know this kind of testing isn’t easy in this day of online shopping. If you don’t have a chance to try out your next camera bag before placing an order, find a nearby camera store do your research there. But if accept even a little of the camera store’s goodwill, don’t even think of ordering it online—support your local camera store.
About this image
For better or worse, February is Horsetail Fall month in Yosemite. For years I’ve thought about photographing the fall from the Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point, but never had the time or motivation to make it happen. Though this is my favorite trail out of Yosemite Valley, I hadn’t been on it in years and figured I’d need to scout it first. But this year a couple of people in my first February workshop shot Horsetail Fall from there on their own, and were able to give me enough info that I figured I could make it work without any advance recon.
I drove to Yosemite the afternoon before my February Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop. With all the people, and Southside Drive closed to all parking, I had to walk nearly a mile to get to the Four Mile Trail trailhead. Even I’d been on level ground, my back and shoulders were already fatigued by the time I started ascending the switchbacks. I only had to walk another half mile or so, but by the time I reached my photo spot, I’d decided it was time for a new bag.
After scrambling up a short but steep hillside, I found a small gap in the trees with a good view of Horsetail Fall. Shedding my gear, it was time forget my aches and pains and to get to work. The first thing I noticed was how clearly visible the top of El Capitan was. It’s not visible at all from Northside Drive; it is visible from some of the vantage points on (now closed) on Southside Drive, but this was even better because I could clearly see the Horsetail Creek drainage.
For this shoot I loaded up both a7RIV bodies, one with my 24-105 and the other with the 100-400. Because I was shooting through a window in the surrounding foliage, I thought I’d be shooting mostly telephoto, but when I saw the setting sun slipping through the trees, I recognized a sunstar opportunity as well. This isn’t possible on the valley floor, so I took full advantage. With only one tripod on hand, I frequently switched between my 24-105 and 100-400 bodies, firing non-stop until the light finally faded about five minutes after sunset.
I was already on the verge admitting camera bag my mistake when the pandemic shut everything down, but by the time I made it back to the car that evening my mind was made up. Fingers crossed that I’m finally done.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on November 1, 2020
I just wrapped up my Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections photo workshop, my first workshop since February. And as you can see from this image taken on our final morning, this year’s workshop absolutely lived up to its name. We enjoyed lots of fall color, and reflections at virtually every twist and turn of the Merced River. We also got to photograph a nearly full moon rising above Yosemite Valley at sunset, and saw more bears than I’ve seen in years (maybe even since my childhood).
All the great photography more than compensated for COVID-related and other difficulties that tried to mess with our mojo. We started with the threat of a fire-danger-induced PG&E power outage and a missing (essential) computer cable. The power shutoff never manifested (phew), but I have no one to blame but myself for the missing HDMI cable that allows me to connect my computer to a TV or projector, and that always lives in my computer bag, I swear (I’ll use the 8-month hiatus as an excuse). Apparently HDMI technology hasn’t made it to Yosemite yet, but a 90-minute round-trip drive to a hardware store Mariposa set things right and we were off and running. Everyone was onboard with the COVID protocol that included masks for group gatherings, outdoor meetings (which worked surprisingly well once I ditched my not-quite-bright-enough projector and moved the TV outside), and suspension of ride-sharing. The no ride-sharing thing is what concerned me most, but a few people volunteered to partner up (completely optional—anyone who wanted to drive alone, could), and we ended up with “only” six cars in our caravan. By pulling over regularly to reassemble, and proactively coordinating our parking strategy, not a single car got separated or missed a shoot.
One of the workshop’s highlights came on our final morning, when we photographed Half Dome from Sentinel Bridge. Because Half Dome’s face stays shaded until late in the day, Sentinel Bridge is normally a late afternoon to sunset location, but in autumn the first sunlight to reach the valley floor pours down the river to illuminate cottonwoods lining the far riverbank. I’d taken very few pictures during this workshop (I’ve been to Yosemite once or twice before), but when I saw the opportunity to add a sunstar to this already beautiful scene, I raced back to my car and grabbed my tripod, Sony a7RIV, and Sony 24-105.
Sunstars have become ubiquitous to the point of cliché, but they can be cool when done right. And sometimes they create a lemonade-from-lemons opportunity to add visual interest to a blank sky, high-contrast scene that has little else going for it. In this case the backlit trees made the Half Dome reflection scene pretty nice anyway, but I thought the sunstar gave it a little punch that took it to the next level. And getting a second sunstar from the reflection was a bonus.
Sunstars happen when light spreads out as it passes through the intersection of the lens’s aperture blades, with the number of blades determining the number of points in the star effect. The lens opening (a.k.a., the aperture, which we measure in f-stops), that is made larger or smaller to allow more or less light to reach the sensor, is not a perfect circle that expands and shrinks uniformly. Rather, it’s a circular(-ish), symetrical polygon of overlapping blades that expands or contracts depending on the f-stop setting. While never a perfect circle, the larger the aperture is, the closer to round the opening becomes, and the less the light is spread out by the blades and the less pronounced the sunstar will be. Conversely, the smaller the aperture, the more the blades are closed down, and the more extreme the angles at the intersection of each overlapping blade. Therefore, the general rule for photographing a sunstar is to stop down to a small aperture (high f-stop number). I resist closing all the way down because that can create other problems, like diffraction and soft edges, and find f/16-f/20 to be absolutely fine.
As appealing as a sunstar can be, adding one also creates problems that include lens flare and extreme dynamic range, not to mention a brilliant sunstar can be a distracting eye magnet that risks overpowering the rest of the scene. The good news is, despite the difficulties, creating a sunstar is relatively straightforward, and most of the potential problems can be minimized if you’re careful. Here’s a quick recipe:
Armed with this knowledge, I planted myself in an opening along the Sentinel Bridge rail, dialed my lens to f/20, framed up my composition, and waited for the sun to peek from behind a tree. Sunstars with a mirrorless camera are easy because you can see exactly what you’ll get before clicking—with my eye shifting between the sunstar and my histogram, I started clicking, adjusting my shutter speed by 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop with each click to maximize my options later (more/less light, larger/smaller sunstar). When the sun disappeared behind another tree I stopped shooting, pretty pleased with my initial results. But standing there, waiting for the sun, I realized that when it rose enough for its reflection to bounce off the river, we’d have a chance for a double sunstar—one through the trees, the other off of the reflection. (Technically this isn’t a sunstar reflection because the sunstar happens in the lens, not on the water.)
Since we were all standing in a slightly different spot, the sun appeared and disappeared at a different time for each of us, but I alerted everyone of the double sunstar opportunity so they wouldn’t stop as soon as the sun disappeared behind a tree. While waiting for the sun to return to my position, I enjoyed the reactions as others in the group started having success. I gotta say, as much as I missed my workshop locations during the pandemic “break” (I did!), it’s this group experience that I missed the most. It’s great to be back.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on August 11, 2019
Confession: 4:30 wake-ups aren’t my favorite part of being a landscape photographer. But honestly, the worst part of an early wake-up starts the instant the alarm goes off and lasts until I get out of bed, so I’ve trained myself to set my alarm with zero time to spare, which forces me to rip off the wake-up bandaid.
Though sunrise doesn’t always work out photographically, it rarely lets me down emotionally. There’s no better time of the day to be outside, when all nature’s sensory inputs are coming alive and the din of humankind is still asleep. Even in a crowded national park like Grand Canyon, it’s the best time of the day to hear the birds conversing and savor the whisper of water and wind. And with the atmosphere unfiltered by human pollutants, the spectacular sights never feel closer.
I just wrapped up two workshops at Grand Canyon. These workshops were built to maximize our lightning capture opportunities, and in that regard each workshop was a major success. But we had other memorable moments that had nothing to do with lightning, with probably most memorable being the second group’s first sunrise. (Or the first group’s first sunset, but that’s a story for a different day.)
On that morning’s eastward drive to Grandview Point, we’d passed through a couple of rain showers, but through the trees I caught a glimpse of an opening on the eastern horizon. Clouds overhead with a gap low in the east is the recipe for a colorful sunrise, but not wanting to jinx us, I kept my mouth shut until the pre-shoot orientation (a quick summary of the site—where to go and what to look for). I also suggested the possibility of a rainbow and where it would be, and gave everyone a quick refresher on how to capture a sunstar before setting them free to explore and create.
Our morning started with a deep red glow on the eastern horizon that slowly brightened and spread across the sky. With the brightening horizon behind Desert View signaling the sun’s approach, the clouds took on a shimmering pink hue. Anticipating a sunstar opportunity, I composed my scene and stopped my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 lens (my favorite sunstar lens) down to f/18. I had several minutes to spare and spent them taking in my surroundings, then snapped to action with the first brilliant rays of direct sunlight. Unlike many mornings, the color hung in there for a couple of minutes after the sun’s arrival, all the time I needed to capture this frame.
Right in the midst of my sunstar shoot someone in the group shouted “Rainbow!” and I whipped around to confirm. I’d already decided this was a pretty special sunrise, but thought the rainbow, though not complete or ideally positioned, would be the cherry on top. But the show wasn’t over—when the sun rose into the clouds and the light flattened, people started to pack up. But I noticed a few holes that would almost certainly soon send crepuscular rays (god rays) into the canyon, so we hung around long enough to add that to the morning’s checklist. Color, sunstar, rainbow, god-rays—not a bad way to start the day. (I haven’t processed the rainbow and crepuscular rays images yet—stay tuned.)
Posted on March 10, 2019
With advanced exposure and metering capabilities, cameras seem to be getting “smarter” every year. So smart, in fact, that for most scenes, getting the exposure right is a simple matter of pointing your camera and clicking the shutter button. That’s fine if all you care about is recording a memory, but not only is there more to your exposure decision than getting the amount of light in your picture, there are many reasons to over- or underexpose a pictures. For the creative control that elevates your images above the millions of clicks being cranked out every day, giving control of one of its most important responsibilities to your camera overlooks an undeniable truth…
Your camera is stupid
Sorry—so is mine. And while I can easily cite many examples, right now it’s just important that you understand that your camera thinks the entire world is a middle tone. Regardless of what its meter sees, without intervention your camera will do everything in its power to make your picture a middle tone. Sunlit snowman? Lump of coal at the bottom of your Christmas stocking? It doesn’t matter—if you let your camera decide the exposure, it will turn out gray.
Modern technology offers faux-intelligence to help overcome this limitation. Usually called something like “matrix” or “evaluative” metering, this solution compares a scene to a large but finite internal database of choices, returning a metering decision based on the closest match. It works pretty well for conventional, “tourist” snaps, but often struggles in the warm or dramatic light artistic photographers prefer, and knows nothing of creativity. If you want to capture more than documentary “I was here” pictures, you’re much better off taking full control of your camera’s metering and exposure. Fortunately, this isn’t nearly as difficult as most people fear.
Laying the foundation
The amount of light captured for any given scene varies with the camera’s shutter speed, f-stop, and ISO settings. Photographers measure captured light in “stops,” much as a a cook uses a cup (of sugar or flour or almonds or whatever) to measure ingredients in a recipe. Adding or subtracting “stops” of light by increasing or decreasing the shutter speed, f-stop, or ISO makes a scene brighter or darker.
The beauty of metering is that a stop of light is a stop of light is a stop of light, whether you control it with the:
But while an aperture stop adds/subtracts the same amount of light as a shutter speed or ISO stop, the resulting picture can vary significantly based on which exposure variable combination you choose. Your shutter speed choice determines whether motion in the frame is blurred or frozen, while the aperture choice determines the picture’s depth of field. And while an ISO stop also adds/subtracts the same amount of light as shutter speed and aperture without affecting motion and depth, image quality decreases as the ISO increases. So getting the light right is only part of the exposure objective—you also need to consider how you want to handle any motion in the scene, and how much depth of field to capture.
For example, let’s say you’re photographing autumn leaves in a light breeze. You got the exposure right, but the leaves are blurred. To freeze that blur, you halve the time the shutter is open (faster shutter speed) to freeze the motion, but also reducing the light reaching the sensor by one stop. To replace that lost light, you could open your aperture by a stop (change the f-stop), double the ISO, or make a combination of fractional f-stop and ISO adjustments that total one stop. That’s a creative choice your camera isn’t capable of.
Today’s cameras have the ability to measure, or “meter” the light in a scene before the shutter clicks. In fact, most cameras have many different ways of evaluating a scene’s light. Your camera’s metering mode determines the amount of the frame the meter “sees.” The larger the area your meter measures, the greater the potential for a wide range of tones. Since most scenes have a range of tones from dark shadows to bright highlights, the meter will take an average of the tones it finds in its metering zone.
Metering mode options range from “spot” metering a very small part of the scene, to “matrix” (also know as “evaluative”), which looks at the entire scene and actually tries to guess at what it sees. Each camera manufacturer offers a variety of modes and there’s no consensus on name and function (different function for the same name, same function for different names) among manufacturers, so it’s best to read your camera’s manual to familiarize yourself with its metering modes.
Since I want as much control as possible, I prefer spot metering because it’s the most precise, covering the smallest area of the frame possible, an imaginary circle in the center three (or so) percent (depending on the camera) of what’s visible in the viewfinder. Spot metering, I can target the part of the frame I deem most important and base my exposure decision on the reading there.
Spot metering isn’t available in all cameras. In some cameras, the most precise (smallest metering area) metering mode available is “partial,” which covers a little more of the scene, somewhere around ten percent.
Don’t confuse the metering mode with the exposure mode. While the metering mode determines what the meter sees, the exposure mode determines the way the camera handles that information. Most DSLR (digital single lens reflex) and mirrorless cameras offer manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, and a variety of program or automatic exposure modes. Serious landscape photographers usually forego the full automatic/program modes in favor of manual (my preference) or aperture/shutter priority modes that offer more control.
If you select aperture or shutter priority mode, you specify the aperture (f-stop) or shutter speed, and the camera sets the shutter speed or aperture that delivers a middle tone based on what the meter sees. But you’re not done. Unless you really do want the middle tone result the camera desires (possible but far from certain), you then need to adjust the exposure compensation (usually a button with a +/- symbol) to specify the amount you want your subject to be above or below a middle tone.
For example, if you point your spot meter at a bright, sunlit cloud, the camera will only give your picture enough light make the cloud a middle tone—but if you’ve only given your scene enough light to make a white cloud gray, it stands to reason that the rest of your picture will be too dark. To avoid this, you would adjust exposure compensation to instruct your camera to make the cloud brighter than a middle tone by adding two stops of light (or however much light you want to give the cloud to make it whatever tone you think it should be).
Rather than aperture priority, I prefer manual mode because I never want my camera making decisions for me. And once it’s mastered (a simple task), I think manual metering is easier. In manual mode, after setting my aperture (based on the depth of field I want), I point my spot-meter zone (the center 3% of the scene in my viewfinder) at the area I want to meter on and dial in whatever shutter speed gives me the amount of light I think will make that subject (where my meter points) the tone I want. That’s it. (In manual mode you can ignore the exposure compensation button.)
Trust your histogram
I see many people people base exposure decisions on the brightness of the image on the LCD. The typical approach is some variation of: 1) Guess at the exposure settings 2) Click 3) Look at the picture on the LCD 4) Adjust 5) Repeat. Not only is this approach lazy, it’s a waste of time and woefully inaccurate.
I call it lazy because these photographers (but of course I don’t mean you) don’t care enough about their craft to apply a skill that only takes minutes to learn (see above), a skill that will serve them best in the most difficult exposure situations. But that’s not the real problem—the real problem is the inaccuracy introduced by trusting the image on your LCD.
LCDs vary in brightness because viewing conditions change. With a brightness adjustment in every camera’s menu, many photographers simply turn their brightness to maximum because it’s easier to see, especially in sunlight, and a bright picture usually looks better. Other photographers use an auto-brightness setting that adjusts with ambient light—the more light it detects, the brighter the display.
Regardless of your LCD’s brightness setting, the variation in brightness of the screen and/or the ambient light make the image on the LCD a very unreliable exposure indicator. When people tell me their images are usually too dark on their computer or in prints, the first thing I do is check the brightness of their camera’s LCD—if it’s set to maximum, they’re likely fooled into thinking the exposure was brighter than it actually was.
How do you fix this? Simple: Learn to read a histogram, and never use your camera’s LCD for exposure decisions again. The histogram is as simple as it is useful.
One more time
So let’s review. Start by selecting your metering mode (the way your meters”sees” the scene: spot, partial, matrix, and so on), then take your camera out of auto exposure mode and put it in manual (my recommendation) or aperture priority (if you prefer) mode. (Remember, I’m a landscape photographer so I never use shutter priority; if you’re shooting action, to better control the motion in your frame, you probably want to consider shutter priority if you don’t like manual exposure.)
Before metering, set your camera to whatever aperture you decide your composition calls for. Then meter, remembering that your camera isn’t telling you what the exposure should be, it’s telling you the exposure that will make what it sees a middle tone. Finally, correct the meter’s middle-tone bias by dialing in the shutter speed (in manual mode) or exposure compensation (in aperture priority) that gives the correct exposure.
After you click, check your histogram to be sure you got the exposure right.
What’s the correct exposure? That’s a creative choice that’s entirely up to you—feel free to play until you’re comfortable with your results. And the more you do it, the easier it gets.
Below are some sample images and the thought process I followed to get the exposure.
Now get to work
Don’t wait to apply all this for the first time until you really, really want the shot. Instead, find a time when the results don’t matter and play with your camera to find out how much control you have over exposure. In fact, you can do this right now in your backyard or even sitting right there in your recliner. Meter something nearby, set an exposure, and click. Look at the result, adjust the exposure, and click again. Watch your histogram, and watch how its shape shifts right as you increase the exposure, or left as you decrease it. Continue doing this until you’re confident in your ability to make a scene brighter or darker, and can consistently achieve the exposure you expect.
About this image
It not too difficult to figure out how Iceland’s Diamond Beach got its name. A black sand beach on Iceland’s south coast, just down stream from Glacier Lagoon, Diamond Beach is dotted with glistening blocks of ice ranging in size from a refrigerator ice cube, to an entire refrigerator.
As spectacular as Diamond Beach was on my first visit, it was also unlike anything I’d ever seen, so it took me a little while to figure out how I wanted to shoot it. I tried a few frames that used long shutter speeds to blur the motion of the waves around the ice, but when the sun appeared, I saw another opportunity.
With my Sony 12-24 G lens on my Sony a7RIII, I set up just a couple of feet from one of the larger icebergs, went all the way out to 12mm, and waited for the sun to peek above the ice, hoping to capture a sunstar. As I waited, I tweaked my exposure settings, dialing my aperture to f/18 to maximize my depth of field and to enhance the sunstar effect. When the sun appeared I was in business; as it rose, I dropped my camera lower to keep just a small sliver of sun visible above the ice.
Any frame that includes the sun is frame with lots of dynamic range. To get my exposure right for this image, I relied entirely on the histogram and ignored the image on the LCD, with its nearly black shadows and white sky. Despite the way histogram told me I’d captured all the tones, and I confirmed that as soon as I started processing in Lightroom.
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show.
Posted on July 10, 2018
It’s a little ironic that on my first day back from New Zealand, I’m (finally) starting a blog post about the start of my winter workshops there. When I departed for New Zealand about a month ago, I had the best intentions to post several times per week, but soon realized there was going to be precious little time for that. I’ve processed a few images from the trip, but have only just scratched the surface of what I’m certain will turn out to be the most photographically rewarding four weeks of my life. But the rewards of this trip turned out to be so much more than photographic, and I have some great stories to share.
First, a little background
I’ve been leading photo workshops for a dozen years. From the outset my friend and fellow pro photographer Don Smith and I have had a reciprocal workshop relationship: he assists a few of my workshops, and I assist a like number of his workshops. In 2013 Don and I added a collaborative workshop at the Grand Canyon during the monsoon season (lightning photography)—instead of the workshop being owned by one and assisted by the other, we share the planning, marketing, and leading responsibilities 50/50. The Grand Canyon workshop became so successful (and enjoyable for both of us) that we’ve since added collaborative workshops at the Columbia River Gorge and on the Oregon Coast.
The next frontier
The New Zealand workshops take our collaborative workshop model to a new level. Not only are they our first international workshops, they’re much longer and more immersive. We’ve always provided lodging, but for New Zealand we added transportation (including a driver) and many meals.
Organizing a 10-day, 5 town workshop half-way around the world adds unprecedented layers of complications. Not just finding the best photo locations with good backups for weather closures, but also arranging lodging, meals, and permits. Though we’d scouted our locations thoroughly, had the permits, lodging, meals, and transportation arranged, we had no idea what it would be like photographing, eating, and traveling with a group for many consecutive hours, every day for 10 days. It turns out that our anxiety was completely unfounded.
It’s a sign
After the workshop orientation we hit Glenorchy Road on the shores of Lake Wakatipu for our first sunset shoot. Following a preliminary stop at Wilson Bay, where we were treated to beautiful light on the peaks across the lake, we headed farther down the road to our sunset destination—a spectacular view of the Humboldt Mountains (among others) above the lake. The sky looked especially promising for something special, so as we drove I gave everyone a quick primer on photographing a sunstar.
We pulled up to the vista just before the sun dropped out of the clouds. With just a few minutes until it disappeared behind the mountains, everyone scrambled out of the Sprinter (the 16-passenger Mercedes van that would be our chariot for the next 10 days) and set up. The sunstar window opened and closed quickly, but it was followed by a show of color and light that turned out to be a harbinger of upcoming good fortune.
I haven’t processed those images yet, so I’m sharing this one from the previous sunset, when I photographed a sunstar from the same location. (Honestly, the group got a much better sunset than this one.)
Ever since Don and I scheduled this workshop, I’ve had to answer the “Why winter?” question. Most photographers get it—not only does the lower sun angle make the light better, the mountains are covered with snow, and I’ve always felt that winter weather makes great skies. And a New Zealand South Island winter isn’t much different from the kinds of winters we get in Northern California and Oregon. During the four weeks we were in New Zealand, we dealt with lows in the 20s and 30s, and highs in the 40s and 50s—cold, but unlike the summer heat most of you endured while I was in New Zealand, nothing that couldn’t be easily handled with the right clothing.
Over the next few weeks I hope to share enough New Zealand winter images that I hope will further prove my point. Until then, below you’ll find a collection of winter images, from a variety of locations, for a little vicarious cooling on a hot summer day.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on June 23, 2018
I’m five days into the first of two New Zealand winter photo workshops with my friend Don Smith. With such full days down under, it’s hard to find time to post, but I’m doing my best to keep up (and to keep warm). Today I’m in Fox Glacier watching a spectacular electrical storm from the fireside confines of our hotel’s lounge. Yesterday we enjoyed sunrise at the Wanaka Tree, the waterfalls and Blue Pools of Haast Pass, and a short hike through the Lake Matheson rain forest; tomorrow we’ll helicopter onto Fox Glacier….
Don and I arrived in New Zealand last Friday, and spent several days pre-workshop scouting in the Mt. Cook National Park area. Before going on, I should probably clarify what I mean by “pre-workshop scouting”—or more specifically, what I don’t mean. I don’t mean that I show up for a workshop a few days early and hope to find enough shooting locations to keep the group busy. All that work starts years in advance—I never schedule a new workshop until I’m completely comfortable with the destination. For me, comfortable means backup photo spots and backup-backup photo spots. I’m kind of obsessive that way. My worst workshop fear is losing a location to weather or road closures or erupting volcanoes (hmmm, I wonder what made me think of that…), I sleep easier knowing that if a spot were to go down, I have a quality replacement.
But plugging in a viable backup spot also requires a little last-minute knowledge that can often be gained with feet on the ground just a day or two before the workshop. So I always arrive early and run as many (all, if possible) of my workshop locations in advance.
For New Zealand, hitting every one of ten days worth of locations isn’t practical, but in this case Don and I have an advantage because we’ve hired a local driver whose business it is to know every nook and cranny of the South Island. Nevertheless, we came over early to see what the current winter has done (specifically, how much snow and water there is), to add to our bank of potential photo locations, and to get our eyes on a few spots in the Twizel area that were inaccessible on previous visits due to conditions. (Plus, it was a great excuse to spend quality photo time with spectacular scenery.)
Last Saturday Don and I were in Mt. Cook National Park. One photo spot that was inaccessible last year was Lake Tasman, a pristine glacial lake often dotted with floating icebergs. We found the trail to Lake Tasman short but steep, immaculately maintained in typical New Zealand fashion. The hike ends at a vista above the lake, with a visual payoff that’s more than worth any oxygen depravation. As I sized up the scene at trail’s end, a park ranger (or whatever they’re called in New Zealand) trudged up behind me and asked if I could help him out. He explained that he was searching for a missing young woman, but had just been notified via walkie-talkie that the woman’s boyfriend was having a severe panic attack back at the trailhead.
Since David (the ranger) was a search party of one at this point, he had to continue the search. He told me the man’s name was Julian, gave me a brief description, and asked me to check on him and reassure him that an ambulance is on the way. So before clicking a single frame, I found myself hoisting my camera bag back onto my shoulders and beelining back to the trailhead, about a half mile down the hill.
About 100 yards from the bottom, a young woman on her way up stopped me and asked if I’d seen the ranger. When I asked if this had anything to do with the missing person, she told me she was in fact the missing person, and that she’d just reunited with Julian and was trying to catch the ranger to let him know she was no longer lost. I told her what I knew, including where I’d seen David last, and that I would continue down the trail to check on her friend and let him know help was on the way if he still needed it.
I found Julian resting in a shelter at the trailhead and confirmed that he was doing better now that he’d reunited with Sophie. Soon another search and rescue person showed up—when I relayed the status to him, he was able to contact David and tell him to stand down, all is well.
But now Sophie was wandering around who-knows-where trying to locate David. So back up the trail I went to catch her. I briefly considered leaving my camera bag but decided if I was going to go all the way back up there, I at least wanted the option to reward myself with pictures.
On the trail’s final switchback I ran into Sophie and David descending the trail, all smiles. We chatted briefly and I got a quick summary of how Julian and Sophie became separated, Sophie’s wanderings, and how she had taken a minor fall but was uninjured (though she would need a new pair of pants). They learned that Julian was fine and the ambulance had arrived and been turned around. I’m not sure the outcome would have been much different without my contribution, both were nevertheless very appreciative (and I have a story to tell).
Time for a little photography
Crisis resolved, I soon found myself back at the Tasman Lake vista. Unfortunately, the sun had come out and chased away the great light that had greeted my initial arrival, but I decided I wasn’t going to let that stop me. Since it was impossible to create a shot that included as much of the scene as I thought was necessary without also including the sun, I decided to make the sun part of my composition by turning it into a sunstar.
I started with my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM on my Sony a7RIII, but soon switched to the 12-24 f/4 G so I could include more of the lake and nearby foreground rocks. I stopped down to f/20 to enhance the sunstar, and since I rarely shoot with the sun smack in the middle of my frame, I bracketed a few exposures to give me options at processing time. Like all my images, this is a single click—no HDR or other blending of multiple images.
Typical of most extreme dynamic range images, this one looked pretty awful on my LCD (nearly black shadows, nearly white sky). The bipolar histogram reflected these extremes, but based on what I saw I was pretty sure I’d be able to recover enough usable detail to save the image. Nevertheless, just to be safe (since I don’t usually feature a the midday sun prominently in my frame), I bracketed a few exposures and chose the one that worked best.
I suppose the lesson here is that rather passing on difficult conditions, sometimes it pays to make the best of the hand you’re dealt. My standard response to a scene like this is to enjoy the view and vow to shoot it again another day. But being (literally) halfway around the world with no other day guaranteed, I decided to search for something I could use. Armed with my great Sony a7RIII sensor, a reliable histogram, and the knowledge to read it, I was able to rescue my image in post and come up with something that works.
Stay tuned for an announcement of the 2019 New Zealand Winter photo workshop….
Posted on October 17, 2017
One of the greatest benefits digital photography has over film is the ability it provides to check an image’s exposure at capture (when you can do something about it). But as photographers, we rely so much on our eyes that it’s sometimes difficult to accept that they’re not always right. We take a picture, look at it on the LCD, and decide whether or not it’s perfect without even considering that there might be a better way. But where exposure is concerned, there is indeed a better way.
That’s because every picture you click, whether raw or jpeg (but especially raw), contains more shadow and highlight information than the jpeg that appears on your camera’s LCD preview screen can reveal. Fortunately, our digital cameras give us a tool that tells us about that missing exposure info: the histogram.
A histogram is a graph of the tones in an image. While I imagine that any graph has the potential to evoke high school science trauma flashbacks, a histogram is really quite simple, simple enough to be read and interpreted in the blink of an eye. And not only is your histogram easy to read, it’s really the most reliable source of exposure feedback.
When an image is captured on a digital sensor, your camera’s “brain” samples each photosite (the individual pixels in the megapixel number used to measure sensor resolution), determining a brightness value that ranges from 0 (black) to 255 (white). Every brightness value from 1 to 254 is a shade of gray—the higher a photosite’s number, the brighter its tone.
Armed with the brightness values for each photosite in the image, the camera is ready to build the image’s histogram. The horizontal axis of the histogram has 256 discrete columns (0-255), one for each possible brightness value, with the 0/black column on the far left, and the 255/white column on the far right (they don’t display as individual columns because they’re crammed so close together).
Despite millions of photosites to sample, your camera builds a new histogram for each image instantly, quickly adding each photosite’s brightness value to its corresponding column on the histogram, like stacking poker chips—the more photosites of a particular brightness value, the higher its corresponding column will spike.
Reading a histogram
The version of a picture that displays on your camera’s LCD is great for checking the composition, but the range of tones you can see in your LCD preview image varies with many factors, such as the camera’s LCD brightness setting and the amount of ambient light striking the LCD. Most important, because there’s more information in captured than the LCD preview can show even in the best conditions, you’ll never know how much recoverable data exists in the extreme shadows and highlights by relying on the LCD preview.
It’s human nature to try to expose a scene so the camera’s LCD image looks good, but an extreme dynamic range image that looks good on the LCD will likely have unusable highlights or shadows. As counterintuitive as that feels, exposing an image enough to reveal detail in the darkest shadows brightens the entire scene (not just the shadows), likely pushing the image’s highlights to unrecoverable levels. And making an image dark enough on the LCD to salvage bright highlights darkens the entire scene, all but ensuring that the darkest shadows to be too black. In fact, a properly exposed extreme dynamic range scene (a scene with both bright highlights and dark shadows, such as a sunrise or sunset) will look awful on the LCD (dark shadows and bright highlights). The histogram provides the only reliable representation of the tones you captured (or, in your live-view LCD display or mirrorless electronic viewfinder, of the tones you’re about to capture).
There’s no such thing as a “perfect” histogram shape. Rather, the histogram’s shape is determined by the distribution of light in the scene, while the left/right distribution (whether the graph is skewed to the left or right) is a function of the amount of exposure you’ve chosen to give your image. The histogram graph’s height is irrelevant—information that appears cut off at the top of the histogram just means the graph isn’t tall enough to display all the photosites possessing that tone (or range of tones).
When checking an image’s histogram for exposure, your primary concern should be to ensure that the none of the tone data is cut off on the left (lost shadows) or right (lost highlights). If your histogram appears cut-off on the left side, shadow detail is so dark that it registers as black. Conversely, if your histogram appears cut off on the right side, highlight detail is so bright that it registers as white.
Managing a histogram
In a perfect world, when you see your histogram cut off on the left (everything cut off on the left is detail-less black), you simply increase the exposure until the histogram shifts right (brighter) far enough that no shadow data is cut off. And if you see your histogram is cut off on the right, you decrease the exposure until the histogram shifts left (darker) enough that no highlight detail is cut off. Problem solved.
But many scenes contain a broader range of light, from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights, than the camera can handle. In these scenes you can blend multiple exposures that cover the entire range of tones, apply a graduated neutral density filter (to moderate the sky). When those options aren’t available or practical, I usually save the highlights and sacrifice the shadows.
While the general goal is to ensure that none of the tone data is cut off on the left or right side of the histogram, the exposure you choose for a scene is ultimately a creative choice that isn’t bound to the way the scene looks to your eye. Though I often expose my scenes to match the amount of light my eyes see, sometimes I decide to make the scene darker or brighter than what I see.
A picture is worth a thousand words
Trusting a histogram over a picture you can actually see requires a leap of faith. I can explain the concept until I’m blue in the face, but in my workshops the point doesn’t usually hit home without a demonstration. For example, the two Horseshoe Bend sunstar images below are from the same file—on the left is the way the picture looked when I captured it, along with its histogram; on the right is the same picture with just a few minutes of very basic processing in Lightroom and Photoshop (no plugins, blending, or any other elaborate processing).
If I’d have exposed this scene bright enough for the shadows to look good on my LCD (more like my eyes saw them), the highlights would have been hopelessly overexposed (white); if I’d have darkened my highlights enough to look good on my LCD, the shadows would have darkened to an unrecoverable black. I knew my best chance for capturing this high dynamic range scene with a single click was to ignore the LCD and trust the histogram.
Despite an image that didn’t look good at all on my LCD, the histogram on my Sony a7R II showed me that I’d captured virtually all of the scene’s shadows and most of its highlights. And because I captured this image in raw mode, I was confident that I had even more shadow and highlight information than my histogram indicated, a fact instantly confirmed with a rightward tug of Lightroom’s Shadows slider. With minimal processing effort, I was able to achieve final result you see here. (This is why landscape photographers are always begging for cameras with more dynamic range, and also why I use the Sony a7RII.)
Posted on August 10, 2017
America’s National Parks have always been busy in the summer, but in recent years the summer crowds have virtually overwhelmed many of our parks. Between gridlock on the roads, more cars than parking places, and hip-to-hip tourists at the vista rails, what was once an opportunity to commune with nature has become a survival of the fittest endurance test.
My solution has been to avoid the national parks in summer, but for many summer is the only time to visit the special locations they’ve longed to see for their entire lives. And the only thing worse than visiting Yosemite or Grand Canyon in summer, is never visiting them at all.
Though I can’t make the crowds go away, let me offer an experience-based suggestion that is guaranteed to enhance your national park experience: Sunrise. Or more accurately, the morning hours from about thirty minutes before sunrise until around two hours after sunrise.
For most people the idea of rising before the sun on a vacation is laughable, but therein lies the genius. If you can overcome the urge to be most people, you can enjoy America’s most crowded national parks, at the height of the summer rush, in glorious peace. You won’t be alone, but you’ll be savoring the day’s first rays with a microscopic subset of the park’s total visitors, kindred spirits who relish nature and solitude as much as you do, who speak softly, stroll slowly, and respect personal space.
About this image
As much as I try to leave the national parks to the tourists in summer, my desire to photograph the lightning and rainbows of the Grand Canyon’s summer monsoon leaves me no choice. A couple of days ago, Don Smith and I guided our photo workshop group out to photograph sunrise at Grandview Point on the always crowded South Rim. Grandview is one of Grand Canyon’s most popular spots, but leaving our hotel about 45 minutes before sunrise got us out there about a half hour before the sun, and long before the tourists had even hit their snooze button the first time.
There were just a couple of other cars in the parking lot, the same lot that in just a few hours people will be circling in vain for five, ten, even fifteen minutes. Having Grandview virtually to ourselves, the group was able to spread out and find their own view of the canyon without competing with the teaming midday hordes that most people experience there.
Along with a few other people in the group, I set up in front a concave sandstone rock with a view across the canyon to where the sun would soon appear. Because this is my first trip with my new Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens, I’ve been making a point to familiarize myself with it, so I twisted it on and went wide. With a clear horizon and relative dearth of clouds, I dialed my f-stop to f/18 to ensure a good sunstar when the sun crested the horizon, and composed a frame.
When photographing a sunrise, the advancing light makes it impossible to set the exposure very far in advance. In these rapidly changing conditions, I love my mirrorless Sony a7RII’s pre-capture histogram in my viewfinder—I just kept my eye on the histogram, dropped the shutter speed in 1/3-stop increments as the horizon brightened, and was ready to hit the ground clicking the second the sun appeared.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.