Seeing the Entire Scene

Gary Hart Photography: Breaking Light, El Capitan and Three Brothers Reflection, Yosemite

Breaking Light, El Capitan and Three Brothers Reflection, Yosemite
Sony a7R III
Sony 12-24 f/4 G
1/25 second
F/10
ISO 100

As you might imagine, between my own images, my photo workshop participants’ images, browsing other photographers’ pages, and simply being connected to social media, I see a lot of images. A. Lot. Of. Images. And curse or blessing, I can’t help but have opinions—whether my own images or others’, some work wonderfully, others not so much.

There’s a lot that goes into creating a successful image, but if I could whisper in the ear of every photographer just before they click the shutter, it would be a reminder to, “See the entire scene.” It happens to all of us: We’re so drawn to a pretty scene or striking subject that we become blind to what’s happing in the rest of the frame. And it’s the what’s happening in the rest of the frame that separates a mere pretty snap of a beautiful scene from wall-worthy print that satisfies for years.

Dream world

Writer John Gardner talked about creating a “vivid and continuous dream” that so completely immerses readers in the imaginary world on the page, the physical world surrounding them temporarily disappears. Any distraction that jars the reader from the page and back into the present world is a failure.

The same applies to photography. As nature photographers, we invite the viewers of our images into a virtual world of our creation. To encourage these viewers to stay and explore our virtual world, we might offer them a fresh perspective, enable vicarious travel, or perhaps tap latent memories. Regardless of the reason, the longer they stay in our virtual world, the more successful our image. But when a jutting branch on the frame’s border reminds viewers of the world out the scene, or a bright rock tugs their eye and competes for attention with scene’s prime subject, our spell is broken.

Compromise

Sadly, nature rarely presents itself exactly as photographers want it. So many decisions we make are compromises: we bump the ISO to enable the small aperture and fast shutter speed the scene requires; we cut off a rock on the left because panning right would introduce garbage can; we can’t tighten a composition to eliminate a shrub because doing so would cut the top of a mountain; we don’t polarize the sky because the polarizer erases a rainbow; and on and on…. Given these realities, our goal doesn’t need to be perfection, it’s often just to slow down and see the entire scene to ensure the decisions that bring our image as close to perfection as possible.

For example

This flooded Yosemite meadow is a spring phenomenon caused by extreme runoff following a relatively wet winter. Some years it doesn’t happen at all, but last spring’s Yosemite workshop group was fortunate to be there during the few days the Merced River overflowed its banks here (I returned a couple of days later and found the river had receded). I could have plopped my tripod down (or simply raised my camera to my eye) anywhere in a 100 yard radius and been virtually assured of a beautiful picture.

But as beautiful as it was, and as much as I wanted to start clicking, my first stop to take it all in had some problems. From my original vantage point, the stand of trees on the right obscured the Three Brothers, so I moved left along the water’s edge. But given more trees on the left, it soon became clear that part of El Capitan would be obscured. My compromise was to find a spot that exposed both El Capitan’s nose and the Three Brothers.

I’d left the car with my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM Sony (on my Sony a7RIII) body because that lens had a polarizer for controlling the reflection—dial it up for the maximum reflection, dial it down to reveal the grassy texture just beneath the water, and maybe even a find midpoint with some reflection and some submerged grass. But 16mm wasn’t wide enough, so I sacrificed reflection control and switch to my Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens.

With my position and lens worked out, I was ready to frame my composition. I felt a little sense of urgency because I didn’t want to miss the rapidly moving splashes of light scooting across El Capitan, but I also didn’t want to rush so much that I missed a problem in my frame.

To dislodge my attention from a scene’s primary focus points, I often use a mnemonic device before clicking: “border patrol.” (Though perhaps in light of current events, I should come up with something different.) Border patrol is a gentle reminder to run my eyes around the border of my frame to check for problems. Potential problems here include cutting off part of a tree on the left or right, a distracting bright spot in the sky near the top of the frame, or inadvertently trimming El Capitan’s reflection on the bottom. (Incomplete reflections and distracting sky holes are some of the most frequently missed distractions.)

In this case I took care to ensure that I got all of El Capitan and its reflection while avoiding a few breaks in the clouds just above this view. I also used the evergreen on the left and the arcing trunks on the right to frame those borders. And by making sure my camera was perfectly level, I managed to keep my vertical lines straight.

Depth of field at 12mm wasn’t a concern; I chose f/10 and focused on the far bank knowing everything would be sharp. Motion wasn’t a concern, so I could just use ISO 100 and go with the shutter speed that gave me the best histogram in the viewfinder (I love mirrorless).


Careful Framing

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Going wide

Gary Hart Photography: El Capitan and Three Brothers Reflection, Merced River, Yosemite

El Capitan and Three Brothers Reflection, Merced River, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony 12-24 f4 G
12mm
1/25 second
F/8
ISO 100

After years of drought, in spring of 2016 I had the good fortune to photograph Yosemite Valley with actual flooding—nothing devastating, just enough for the Merced River to overspill its banks and create reflections where meadows normally exist. One such location was a spot beneath El Capitan, where I found myself faced with the challenge of capturing more scene than my 16-35 lens could handle.

Stitching multiple frames was an option, but because I have a thing about not doing things I couldn’t do with film, my goal is to always capture a scene with one click (this is my problem, and in no way do I mean to discourage others from entering the 21st century). One benefit of my self-imposed one-click rule is that I often find creative compositions I might have overlooked had I settled for the easy solution, but in this case I really, really wanted to photograph the entire scene. The photography gods were smiling upon me that day, as I was leading a workshop and the photographer assisting me generously offered to loan me his Canon 11-24 f/4 lens (thanks, Curt). Since I had in my possession a Metabones adapter that allowed me to pair Canon glass to my Sony body, I leapt at the opportunity.

Gary Hart Photography: Spring Reflection, El Capitan and Three Brothers, Yosemite

Spring Reflection, El Capitan and Three Brothers, Yosemite

That was an epiphany moment for me, because even though I knew that the difference between 11mm and 16mm is more significant than it sounds, I’d never really compared the two focal lengths side-by-side. Replacing my 16-35 with Curt’s 11-24, suddenly I had the entire scene in my viewfinder, with room to spare. Not only that, I learned as soon as I put the images up on my monitor that the Canon lens was really sharp—I was in love. Sony shooter or not, I came home fully intending to purchase the Canon lens, and came very close to making a big mistake.

My decision not to pull the trigger on a Canon 11-24 purchase was three-fold: 1) it was $3000 2) it’s so massive that it could never be a full time resident of my camera bag 3) I knew Sony was committed to expanding their lens lineup, and that I’d be wracked with regret if Sony released a similar lens soon after I’d sunk $3,000 into a lens that could double as a boat anchor. But still….

Imagine my relief when my Sony doused my Canon fantasies with an ultra-wide lens of their own this spring. Given the opportunity to test the Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens before it was announced, I immediately took it to Yosemite where the flooding on the Merced was even more extreme than last year. Finding “my” spot underwater, I probed the riverbank for nearby vantage points and found the view I’ve shared at the top of this post.

It wasn’t difficult to see that the Sony 12-24 is every bit as sharp as the Canon 11-24. And not only does it not require an adapter to use on my Sony bodies, it weighs less than half of what the Canon ultra-wide weighs. I ordered the 12-24 immediately and this week packed for my first trip with it.

When I drive to a photo destination I bring virtually every piece of camera gear I own, but when I fly, I need to be a little more selective. As I chewed on what to bring and what to leave out, not only did I quickly confirm that the 12-24 would make the cut, I discovered that the new lens is small and compact enough to occupy a permanent space my camera bag.

Which brings me to another thought. I shoot Sony mirrorless for several reasons—foremost is the image quality: Sony’s unmatched combination of resolution, dynamic range, and low-light capability is exactly what I need for landscape photography. And after a few growing pains, I’ve come to love the electronic viewfinder and can’t imagine ever going back. Sony’s lenses are as sharp or sharper than anything I had from Canon, but I don’t think the compactness of Sony’s f/4 glass gets the credit it deserves for their ability to provide so much quality in such a compact package. How compact? They’re small enough to slide into a slot in my bag oriented up/down (resting on an end rather than along a side), which gives me so much more room for more gear (and what photographer doesn’t love more gear).

Here’s what’s in my camera bag (F-stop Tilopa) for this week’s trip to the Grand Canyon:

  • Sony a7RII
  • Sony a7SII
  • Sony a6300
  • Sony 12-24 f/4 G
  • Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f/4
  • Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f/4
  • Sony/Zeiss 70-200 f/4 G
  • Rokinon 24 f/1.4
  • Two Lightning Triggers

That’s three (!) bodies and five (!) lenses, with room for even more stuff. Photographer heaven.

A few words about wide angle photography

Despite the fact that wide angle is the reflex response to most landscapes by virtually every tourist who picks up a camera, good wide angle photography is not easy. From diminished backgrounds to tilting verticals, wide angle lenses pose problems that can be turned to opportunities if they’re fully understood. I’ll save a full discussion of wide angle photography for another day, but here are a couple of tips that might help:

  • Put something in your foreground: Many of my wide angle images put the primary subject front and center, but even when the background scene is my main subject, I try to have something of visual interest in my foreground. Browse the gallery below and note how many images have an empty foreground (Hint: Not very many). Sometimes I’m able to include something as striking as a mirror reflection or colorful flowers, but often my wide angle foregrounds are as simple as nearby rocks or leaves. If there’s nothing at my feet and I’m required to use something distant, at the very least I want the foreground of my wide image to be filled something worthy of the space it occupies.
  • The tilting of vertical lines caused when you’re close to your subject is minimized when the sensor is on the same plane as the subject (not tilted up or down): Mount on your camera a wide angle lenses at its widest focal length, point it at a row of nearby trees (or some other vertical lines that spans the edges of your frame), and tilt up and down while looking through your viewfinder. At what point do the trees appear straightest? Most slanted? I rest my case.

Going Wide

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The night sky and me

a7RIIYNP16AprSpringDSC5629ElCapitanSpringMoonlight_screensaver

Moonlight Reflection, El Capitan and the Three Brothers, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Canon 11-24 f/4L with Metabones IV adapter @11mm
20 seconds
F/4
ISO 3200

My relationship with the night sky started when I was ten. Astronauts were my generation’s cowboys, so when I was given a castoff, six-inch reflector telescope by an amateur astronomer friend of my dad, I jumped at the opportunity to explore the celestial frontier on my terms. On clear nights my best friend Rob and I dragged that old black tube onto the front lawn and pointed it, randomly and full of wonder, at the brilliant points of light overhead. With guidance from our dads and the books of Herbert S. Zim, we learned the difference between stars, which despite their great size and temperature, are at such great distance that even the strongest telescope only sees discrete points of light, and planets, nearby worlds reflecting sunlight, which my telescope revealed as glowing disks.

With that telescope Rob and I searched in vain for comets and galaxies, watched Venus and Mercury cycle through phases just like the moon’s, tracked the nightly dance of Jupiter’s Galilean moons, and monitored the changing tilt of Saturn’s rings. Suddenly and hopelessly infected with the astronomy bug, on camping trips I declined the luxury of the family tent in favor of a sleeping bag beneath more stars than I imagined possible. There, nestled to my neck in the bag’s warmth, I’d stretch beneath the boundless ceiling, counting “shooting stars” and scouring the sky for satellites, fighting sleep for as long as my eyelids could hold out. In my later teen years I discovered backpacking and with it skies that inspired ponderings of infinity. My first college major was astronomy, a most impractical aspiration that I managed to correct before quantification of the universe spoiled my appreciation of its elegance.

In my early twenties I discovered photography, but, frustrated by my film camera’s inability to capture the night sky’s beauty, quickly moved on to more terrestrial subjects. Fast forward to the twenty-first century, when the advent of digital photography offered light capturing and processing capabilities impossible with film. My first night subject was the Big Dipper; since then I’ve tried to include some form of night photography in most of my workshops and as many personal shoots as possible, seeking to use my camera’s unique perspective to convey the emotion the night experience brings me, rather than attempt the impossible task of recreating the sky literally.

Among other subjects, I’ve developed a particular fondness for photographing the gold/blue transition-zone separating day and night. Arriving on location well before sunrise gives me a front-row view of the indigo night’s slow retreat in favor of the golden promise of a new day; lingering long after the sun sets, I watch the day’s vestiges linger on the horizon, as if waiting with me for the stars to materialize.

About this image

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This year’s Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers workshop group had the good fortune to photograph Yosemite brimming with more water than I’ve seen in years. A particular highlight was this location beside the Merced River, one of my favorite early morning spots. The morning we arrived we found my normal vantage points flooded beyond recognition, but rather than let the flooding turn us around, I explored the new shoreline and found view through the trees onto a crystal clear reflection. We stayed and photographed here until bad light and empty stomachs finally drove us to breakfast.

Excited by our good fortune that morning (read The Power of Reflections), I offered to return that night with anyone who wanted to photograph the scene by moonlight. Though I already had a moonbow shoot scheduled for later in the workshop, the moonlight potential here was so great that I wanted to at least give everyone the option of photographing it (on the other hand, with such early mornings, I knew from experience that I needed to give everyone the option to return to the hotel for an early bedtime).

Despite a long drive back from our sunset at Glacier Point, about half the group still joined me for what turned out to be a very memorable moonlight shoot. The already somewhat limited space was made even more difficult by the darkness (we were shaded from the moonlight by trees and the valley wall behind us), but we made it work with great cooperation and no shortage of laughter.

Among other things, this image highlights one of the great joys of photography with today’s advanced technology: the camera’s improving ability to reveal a world previously obscured by night’s dark curtain. (It will only get better.)

Photo Workshop Schedule


A moonlight gallery

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The Power of Reflections

Gary Hart Photography: Spring Reflection, El Capitan and Three Brothers, Yosemite

Spring Reflection, El Capitan and Three Brothers, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Canon 11-24 f/4L with Metabones IV adapter @11mm
1/60 second
F/8
ISO 100

Reflection

Dictionary.com: The return of light, heat, sound, etc., after striking a surface.

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 good reflection? And like a metaphor in writing, a reflection is an indirect representation that can be more powerful than its literal double by virtue of 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 in space or blur a waterfall to express turbulent motion, we can include a reflection to convey serene peace.

Water reflections come in many forms, from a mirror-sharp reverse of a mountain atop a still pool, to an abstract shuffle of color and texture on a choppy lake. Without getting too far into the physics of light, it’s important to understand that every object we see (and photograph) comes to us courtesy of reflected light. For example, when sunlight strikes El Capitan, some of the sun’s photons bounce straight back into our eyes, and there it is: El Capitan!

But other photons striking El Capitan head off in different directions—some are captured by other sets of eyes, and others land on the surface of the Merced River. Some of these photons pass beneath the river’s surface to reveal the submerged riverbed, while others bounce off. The ricocheting photons that travel from El Capitan 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 like the El Capitan image at the top of the page is pretty simple: still water, a reflection 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.)

The El Capitan reflection above was a perfect confluence of reflection conditions. Clean, still air, dense shade on the river, and El Capitan’s fully exposed, reflective granite, make early morning the best time for El Capitan reflections. On this April morning I made my way down to the Merced River hoping to photograph the first light on El Capitan reflected in the Merced River. Finding my route down to the river blocked by spring flooding, I was forced to improvise. The morning air was clean and calm, and the ephemeral lake was mirror-still.

Circling the flooded meadow, I found a gap in the trees that opened onto the most complete view and reflection of El Capitan and the Three Brothers I’ve ever seen. So complete in fact, that I couldn’t include it all with my 16-35mm lens at its widest focal length. Fortunately, I was able to borrow a Canon 11-24 lens and Metabones IV adapter from a friend (thanks, Curt!), just wide enough to fit the entire scene at the lens’s shortest focal length.

Sunset Palette, Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite

Sunset Palette, Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite

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

Gary Hart Photography: On the Rocks, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite

On the Rocks, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite

As spectacular as a crisp, mirror reflection in still water is, it’s easy to overlook the visual potential in 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 disturbed by the continuously varying angles of rippled or choppy water magically appears when a long exposure smoothes the water’s surface.

In the image on the right, the El Capitan reflection undulating atop the Merced River was barely perceptible to my eyes. But the reflection came to in a 25 second exposure achieved with the help of 2-stop hard graduated neutral density filter that subdued the day’s last rays on the clouds and El Capitan, and a neutral polarizer (with the reflection dialed up) that cut the light on the entire scene by a couple of stops. And since a reflection is never as bright as the actual scene, using a GND meant I need to do a little dodging and burning in Photoshop.

Where to focus

Another 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 El Capitan 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.

Autumn Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Autumn Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

The El Capitan reflection on the right is very different from the El Capitan reflection above, where the extreme depth of field ensured sharpness had I focused on anything in the scene or 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.

Think ahead

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.

For example, in Yosemite I know that low flow makes autumn the best time for reflections in the Merced River. On the other hand, when the Merced is rushing with spring runoff, Yosemite’s meadows often shimmer beneath tranquil vernal pools. I plan many trips (and workshops) to take advantage of these opportunities.

Photo Workshop Schedule


A Reflection Gallery

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