Back in the Saddle Again

Gary Hart Photography: White Gold, Three Brothers Reflection, Yosemite

White Gold, Three Brothers Reflection, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM
1/80 second
F/11
ISO 100

After losing 12 workshops to COVID since last February, today I returned to Yosemite for my Horsetail Fall workshop. To say I’m excited would be an understatement. I’m also a little apprehensive. One thing I’m not too worried about is COVID, because I’ve put in place protocol that will keep everyone in the group safely distanced: things like suspended carpooling (everyone can drive their own car), and Zoom for meetings and image review sessions, among other things. And this won’t be my first pandemic workshop because last October I was able to get one in, so I know my protocols work without significantly impacting everyone’s experience.

My anxiety is always a little elevated going into my Horsetail Fall workshop because Horsetail Fall is very important to most of the people who sign up, but many natural unknowns make it impossible to guarantee. Usually it’s the light that thwarts us, some unseen cloud on the horizon that snuffs the sunlight at the last minute. Last year the light was great, but the fall was dry. But I’m hopeful because this year there is lots of water in the fall, and the weather forecast is promising (fingers crossed).

Compounding my standard Horsetail Fall apprehension this year is some new rules put in place due to COVID, and the crowds Horsetail Fall always attracts—the most stringent Horsetail Fall viewing restrictions ever—and it’s entirely up to me to make sure these restrictions don’t affect my group.

Of course this is Yosemite, a place where things always seem to work out for photographers. But even though I have a Horsetail Fall plan that I’m pretty confident will work, and the things I worry about never happen anyway (to quote Tom Petty), I won’t breathe easily until I’ve seen exactly what form “work out” takes in this workshop.

About this image

But anyway… Rather than recycle an old Horsetail Fall image (which you can see below anyway), I’m sharing another image from my December snow day in Yosemite. This is the Three Brothers, probably Yosemite Valley’s most anonymous rock formation. Anonymous not because it’s less worthy than other Yosemite landmarks, but because there are just not that many places to view it.

To align the Three Brothers with the ribbon of autumn leaves, I had to alternately scale and boot-ski a few snow drifts to make my way to the river’s edge. To eliminate a couple of other photographers from my frame (not to mention more than a few footprints in the snow, I moved forward and extended one tripod leg into about a foot of river water. This put my viewfinder out of reach, but by bracing myself on the tripod to keep from joining it in the frigid river, I was able to get a clear enough view of my camera’s LCD to compose this frame. (It’s awkward angles like this that really help me appreciate live-view on the LCD.)

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I like to include some kind of knowledge or insight in each blog post, but this week workshop prep has left me without a lot of time. Instead, I’m sharing my Horsetail Fall article, just updated with all the 2021 Yosemite NPS changes. You can also find this article in my Photo Tips section.



Gary Hart Photography: Horsetail Fall, El Capitan, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall, El Capitan, Yosemite (from the Merced River south bank)
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1/4 second
F/8.0
ISO 100
220 mm

2021 Horsetail Fall update

While much of the Horsetail Fall article below is still valid, crowds and COVID have led the NPS to make some fairly impactful changes.

  • Access to Yosemite is by reservation only. In other words, if you don’t have a reservation, you will be turned away at the gate. The reservation system will be in effect through February at least, which means for the entire duration of the 2021 Horsetail Fall season. You can make a reservation here: https://www.recreation.gov/timed-entry/10086745. If you have lodging in Yosemite Valley, your reservation is included.
  • From noon until 7 p.m., all parking on Southside Drive between the El Capitan crossover and Swinging Bridge is prohibited.
  • Also between El Capitan crossover and Swinging Bridge, the entire area between the Merced River and Southside Drive side is closed. In other words, you can’t photograph Horsetail Fall from the south bank of the Merced River. This will be strictly enforced.
  • All parking on Northside Drive between Yosemite Valley Lodge and the El Capitan crossover is closed. You also won’t be permitted to unload or stop on this stretch of road. To view Horsetail Fall, the NPS wants you to park in the Yosemite Falls parking area just west of Yosemite Valley Lodge, and walk to the viewing area at or near the El Capitan Picnic Area. This is about 1.5 miles each way, but it’s flat, and one lane of Northside Drive will be blocked for pedestrians.
  • Here’s the NPS Yosemite Horsetail Fall page: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/horsetailfall.htm

Please respect these restrictions. The minority of photographers who ignore rules, or try to cut corners, reflect poorly on all photographers, which only leads to even tighter restrictions and risk complete loss of access to Horsetail Fall.



Horsetail Fall

For eleven-plus months each year, Horsetail Fall may just be Yosemite’s most anonymous waterfall. Usually dry or (at best) a wet stain, even when flowing strong this ephemeral cataract is barely visible as a thin white thread descending El Capitan’s east flank. When it’s flowing, my workshop groups can be standing directly beneath Horsetail and I still have to guide their eyes to it: “See that tall tree there? Follow it all the way to the top of El Capitan; now run your eye to the left until you get to the first tree…”. But for a couple of weeks in February, the possibility that a fortuitous confluence of snowmelt, shadow, and sunset light might, for a few minutes, turn this unassuming trickle into a molten stripe draws photographers like cats to a can-opener.

The curtain rises in the second week of February, a couple of hours before sunset, when a vertical shadow begins its eastward march across El Capitan’s south face. As the shadow advances, the sunlight warms; when the unseen sun (direct sunlight is gone from the valley floor long before it leaves towering El Capitan) reaches the horizon, the only part of El Capitan not in shadow is a narrow strip of granite that includes Horsetail Fall, and for a few minutes, when all the photography stars align, the fall is bathed in a red glow resembling flowing lava framed by dark shadow. (Some people mistakenly call the Horsetail spectacle the “Firefall,” but that altogether different, but no less breathtaking, manmade Yosemite phenomenon was terminated by the National Park Service in 1968.)

Some years Horsetail delivers sunset after sunset in February, while other years administer daily doses of February frustration. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to predict when all the tumblers will click into place: I know photographers who nailed Horsetail on their first attempt, and others who have been chasing it for years.

Don’t call it “Firefall”

One important thing before I continue. To avoid outing yourself as a Yosemite rookie, don’t make the mistake of calling Horsetail Fall the “Firefall.” Yosemite’s Firefall was a very real nightly display of burning embers pushed from Glacier Point every summer night. It was as spectacular as it sounds. The phenomenon started in 1872 and continued until the National Park Service, concerned (among other things) about the crowds it drew, terminated the Firefall in 1968.

Anyone who has witnessed or seen pictures of Horsetail Fall would agree that “Firefall” would be a great name for it, but those of us fortunate (and old) enough to have witnessed the actual Firefall know the difference between Horsetail Fall and the Firefall, and will never confuse one for the other.

(Oh yeah, and it’s Horsetail Fall, not Horsetail Falls.)

When to photograph Horsetail Fall

The “when” of Horsetail Fall depends on the convergence of three independent conditions:

  • The sun’s angle is refreshingly predictable, lining up perfectly only in February (and October, when the fall is almost always dry). Common wisdom says the shadow on El Capitan most precisely targets Horsetail Fall at sunset during the third week of February, from around the 15th through the 22nd (or a little later). While I won’t dispute this, I’ve had some of my best success a week earlier, and my favorite Horsetail shot (at the top of the page) was captured February 9. I’ve also had success photographing it right up until the end of February. But the stripe of sunset light on El Capitan is thinnest (and therefore most tightly focused and photogenic) in the third week of February—the prime benefit of doing it a week earlier is light almost as good, with far fewer people.
  • Water in the fall varies greatly from year to year, depending on how much show has fallen on the fall’s extremely small watershed, and how much of that snow is currently melting. A large snowpack and warm daytime temperatures are ideal. Sometimes Horsetail can be frozen solid in the morning, but afternoon warmth can be enough to get it flowing in time for the show. And a heavy rain can get it going strong for a few hours or even a day or so.
  • Direct sunlight at sunset is the most fickle aspect of the Horsetail experience—for every tale of a seemingly perfect evening when the sunset light was doused by an unseen cloud on the western horizon mere seconds before showtime, there’s another story about a cloudy evening when the setting sun somehow threaded a gap in the clouds just as tripods were being collapsed.

The problem with targeting February’s third week is that it isn’t a secret: I generally prefer sacrificing Horsetail perfection in favor of Horsetail near perfection and far fewer photographers. But I’ll leave that decision up to you.

Where to photograph Horsetail Fall

It’s fun to circle Yosemite Valley on pretty much any mid- to late-February afternoon just to watch the hoards of single-minded photographers setting up camp like iPhone users on Release Day. In fact, one non-scientific way to find a spot to photograph Horsetail is to simply park where everyone else parks and follow the crowd. Unfortunately, as Horsetail’s popularity grows, so does the distance you’ll need to walk.

If Horsetail Fall is on the top of your bucket list, it’s best to pick your spot and show up early. Really early. Really, really early. The downside of this approach is that, because the best locations for Horsetail aren’t especially good for anything else, you’ll sacrifice a lot of quality Yosemite photography time waiting for something that might not happen.

And no one has commanded that you worship with the rest of the Horsetail congregation: Experienced Yosemite photographers know that any west-facing location with a view of the fall will do. If you find yourself in Yosemite with time to kill, try walking the Merced River between Cathedral and Sentinel Beaches—any place with a view to Horsetail will work. But because of their open space and relative ease of access, two spots have become the go-to Horsetail spots for most photographers.

El Capitan Picnic Area

HorsetailPicnicAreaMap El Capitan Picnic Area, GPS: 37.72782N 119.61844W

The El Capitan Picnic Area, highlighted by Galen Rowell, remains the most popular Horsetail Fall vantage point. The picnic area’s advantages are that it is the closest view of Horsetail Fall, has the most parking, has the most room for photographers (by far), and has a bathroom (plug your nose). The downside is there really isn’t a lot of composition variety here, and thousands of others will have already captured something as good as or better than what you’ll get.

Horsetail Fall and Clouds, El Capitan, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall from the picnic area

If you like people, the El Capitan Picnic Area is the place to be—more than any other Horsetail vantage point, this one has a festive, tailgate atmosphere that can be a lot of fun. I suspect that’s because people arrive so early and there’s little else to do before the show starts. And since everyone is pointing up with a telephoto, it’s pretty much impossible for anyone to be in anyone else’s way, which eases much of the tension that often exists when shooting among large crowds.

You’ll find the parking lot, with room for twenty or so cars, on Northside Drive, about two miles west of Yosemite Lodge. In recent years the NPS has blocked a lane of Northside Drive to allow more parking (but don’t park illegally because you will be cited). You can shoot right from the parking lot, or wander a bit east to find several clearings with views of the fall.

Merced River south bank bend 

HorsetailFallMercedRiver Merced River south bank bend, GPS: 37.72885N 119.60743W

Photographed from a bend on the Merced River’s south bank, El Capitan’s extreme sloping summit creates the illusion that you’re somewhere above Yosemite Valley, eye-to-eye with the top of Horsetail Fall—it’s a great perspective.

I like this location because the river greatly increases the variety of possible compositions, and also because you can pivot your view upstream to photograph Upper Yosemite Fall, and behind you toward Sentinel Rock (which also gets fantastic late light), almost directly above while you wait for Horsetail to light up. The downside to photographing here is that there’s precious little room, both to park and to photograph. This requires getting there a couple of hours early, and also can lead to a bit more tension as people jockey for position.

Horsetail Fall Reflection, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall reflection from the Southside Drive Merced River view

Driving east on one-way Southside Drive, you’ll parallel the Merced River for most of 1.2 miles beyond the turn for Cathedral Beach. The Horsetail Fall spot is right where the road and river diverge. Parallel park right there in one of two narrow but paved parking areas on opposite sides of the road, where you’ll find room for about a dozen cars. In recent years, all parking on Southside Drive between El Capitan Crossover and Swinging Bridge has been banned, if you plan to shoot here, prepare to walk a mile or more.

Since there’s so little parking here, and Southside Drive is one-way eastbound, if you find no parking (don’t try to squeeze in where there’s no room—I’ve seen rangers doing traffic control and ticketing cars that don’t fit), it also helps to know that the spot is about a ½ mile from the 4-Mile Trail parking area and ¾ miles west of the Swinging Bridge parking area—an easy, flat walk.

Because of the potential for crowds, the best strategy here is to arrive early and forego what may be a great view from the elevated riverbank (that is sure to be blocked by late-arrivers trying to cram their way in), in favor of getting as close to the river as possible. Standing at river level gives you many more compositional choices, and nobody else can block your wide shots. (But if there are other photographers already set up on the elevated riverbank when you arrive, please don’t be the one who sets up in front of them.)

How to photograph Horsetail Fall

Regardless of where you set up to photograph Horsetail Fall, it’s pretty difficult to find something that nobody else has done. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. There are definitely other places in Yosemite Valley with view of Horsetail Fall, they just take a little hunting—I suggest walking the south bank of the Merced River, and ascending the 4 Mile Trail. And since you’ll likely be doing lots of waiting, take advantage of the downtime to experiment with compositions.

Strategy

When the light begins to warm, it’s time to shoot. Because you never know when the light will shut off, don’t wait until the light is perfect—it’s best to start early and photograph often. Until the light goes away completely, my rule of thumb is that the light now is better than the light a minute ago—just keep shooting . I’m not suggesting you hold your shutter down in burst mode until your card fills; I usually tell my workshop groups to fire a frame every minute or two until the fall turns amber, then pick up the pace as it goes (fingers crossed) pink and (if you’re lucky) red. The best light is in the final five minutes before sunset.

Composition

Viewed from the picnic area, there’s not a lot of visual interest surrounding Horsetail; your most obvious compositions will be moderate telephotos, up to 300mm or full frame. I use my Sony 24-105 and 70-200 (or more recently, my 100-400) lenses almost exclusively here. Use the trees to frame your shots and let them go black; with a telephoto you can isolate aspects of the fall and eliminate the sky and some or all of the trees.

The Merced River bend near Southside Drive is farther away from the fall, with more foreground possibilities, including the river and reflections, so you’ll be able to use a greater range of focal lengths here. Don’t get so caught up in photographing the fall that you overlook wider possibilities that include the river.

From either location I think vertical compositions work best (there’s a reason you don’t see lots of horizontal Horsetail Fall images), but that doesn’t mean there aren’t horizontal opportunities too. I like to identify a go-to composition based on the conditions, then vary between wide/tight and horizontal/vertical. If the sky is boring (cloudless), minimize or eliminate it from your composition. If there are clouds that make the sky interesting, by all means include them.

A frequent rookie mistake is cutting the waterfall off at the bottom. I’m not saying there’s never a reason to do that, but unless you consciously decide to truncate the fall because you think it’s the way to compose your frame, make sure you include the diagonal ridge that Horsetail disappears behind.

Filters

If your camera struggles with dynamic range, a graduated neutral density filter will help any shot that includes the sky—a two-stop hard GND angled across El Capitan parallel to the tree line should do the trick. This usually requires some Photoshop dodging and burning to hide the transition, but it’s the only way to darken the brightest part of the sky, which is usually in front of (not above) El Capitan. Since switching from Canon to Sony, I have no problem with the dynamic range and no longer use a GND for Horsetail Fall.

A polarizer will alter your results, so if you have one on, make sure you orient it properly. I often have a difficult time deciding between maximizing and minimizing the reflections with my polarizer, so I hedge my bets and shoot both ways. I’ve found that when Horsetail is flowing strongly, minimizing the reflection is best; when Horsetail is more of a wet or icy stain, maximizing the reflection works better. Either way, it’s best to just shoot it both ways and decide later.

Exposure

Automatic metering can be problematic in extreme dynamic range scenes when color is paramount, so I always recommend manual exposure, spot metering on Horsetail Fall or the adjacent sunlit granite. To maximize the color on the fall and El Capitan, I usually underexpose slightly. Because the trees rarely add value beyond framing, they usually work better when very dark green to black, a fact that’s completely lost on your meter (which thinks everything should be a middle tone). And monitor your RGB histogram to ensure that you haven’t washed out the red (Horsetail and El Capitan) or blue (sky) channels.

Highlight Alert (blinking highlights) is your friend. While you should never make your final exposure decision based on the highlight alert, when you see the highlights flashing, check your histogram and adjust if necessary.

And finally

And perhaps most important of all, don’t get so caught up in the photography that you forget to appreciate what you’re viewing. Just take a couple of seconds to stand back and allow yourself to appreciate the amazing spectacle unfolding before your eyes.

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A Horsetail Fall Gallery

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Image Building

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

Autumn Snow, El Capitan and Three Brothers Reflection, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM
1/100 second
F/10
ISO 100

I warned you that you’ll be seeing images from this month’s Yosemite snow day a while. …

As I may have mentioned, the conditions this day were so off-the-charts-spectacular that I probably could have closed my eyes and still had a good chance for a useable image with any click. But I knew I had an opportunity capture something truly special, so I forced myself to slow down and work with purpose at every stop.

Lots of variables go into creating a successful landscape image. Many people struggle with the scene variables—light, depth, and motion—that are managed by their camera’s exposure settings: shutter speed, f-stop, ISO. Others struggle more with the composition variables: recognizing, isolating, and framing a subject. And then there’s the overlap between these two sides of image creation that requires simultaneous, synergistic mastery. So I thought I’d use this image to demonstrate my image creation process.

What was I thinking?

Glassy reflections and the ability to include the Three Brothers makes this location beside the Merced River one of my favorite El Capitan views. But, as much as I love this spot, for years it also frustrated me because my widest lens was only 16mm, forcing me to choose between El Capitan and Three Brothers, or their reflection, but never both. My frustration vanished a few years ago when I added the Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens to my arsenal.

But now I was armed with the brand new Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens. Though I’d used it some in my Yosemite Fall Color photo workshop a week earlier, my own photography isn’t a priority during a workshop, so this would be my first chance to give my new lens the undivided attention it deserved. And what better spot to do that?

Exposure

I approach every scene starting with my camera at its best ISO (100) and the lens’s “ideal” f-stop (generally f/8 – f/11, where lenses tend to be sharpest, the depth of field is good, with minimal diffraction). Given that motion wasn’t a factor in this scene (I was on a tripod, the wind was calm, and the river’s slow motion didn’t concern me), I stuck with ISO 100. And while the snow and floating leaves were an essential part of my immediate foreground, the 12mm focal length this scene required provided more than enough depth of field at f/10, no matter where in my frame I focused. (At 12mm and f/10, the hyperfocal distance is less than two feet.) In this case I just focused on the leaves and didn’t think about DOF again.

With my ISO and f/stop established, I simply put my eye to the viewfinder of my Sony a7RIV and dialed my shutter speed until the histogram looked right. Since this was a fairly high dynamic range scene (big difference between the darkest shadows and brightest highlights), I knew the exposure wouldn’t look great on my LCD image preview—my highlights would be a little too bright, my shadows a little too dark, but since the histogram looked good, I knew I’d be able to fix the highlights and shadows with a couple of easy Lightroom adjustments.

Composition

Some scenes you can walk up to and plant your tripod pretty much anywhere without much thought. But the variety of foreground and middle-ground elements here made the simple decision of where to set up my tripod very important. Normally I use the tall trees cut off near the center of this image as framing elements, and to block empty sky just left of El Capitan. But with clouds in what is all too often blank blue sky, and unable to find a foreground that worked from that position, I moved downstream and found a ribbon of autumn leaves hugging the riverbank that would make a great foreground.

I was pretty pleased so far, but I still had be careful to position myself so the floating leaves framed the reflection rather than blocked it. Try as I might, I wasn’t able to avoid blocking some of the Three Brothers reflection, but overall I was satisfied to include the leaves and all of the El Capitan reflection without blocking the nose of El Capitan.

Next I started working on the left/right aspect of the scene. The things that get left out of an image can be as important as what’s included. This is especially true on an image’s perimeter frequently, where distractions are easy overlooked by photographers too focused on their primary subject. This framing can managed by some combination of position, focal length, and aim (where my camera is pointed). In this scene I’d already worked out my position, focal length was non-negotiable because I had to be at 12mm (my lens couldn’t go any wider than 12mm, and composing longer than 12mm would have cut off the top and/or bottom of El Capitan). That left only framing option the direction my camera is aimed. Not wanting to cut of any of the riverbank, I shifted my view right until the bank formed a continuous line from the bottom of my frame until it disappeared into the mass of autumn tinted shrubbery on the middle-right.

When I thought I had things just right, I clicked a frame, stood back, and reviewed my composition on my LCD, made a small tweak to add a little more on the right and subtract a little from the left, then waited with my eyes on the rapidly shifting clouds and light. Each time I liked what I saw, I’d click another frame until I was satisfied I had something worth keeping.

The Many Faces of El Capitan

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Yosemite Autumn Reflection

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

Autumn Reflection, El Capitan and Three Brothers, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM
1/60 seconds
F/10
ISO 100

There’s something to love about each season in Yosemite. In winter it’s snow—never a sure thing, but when it happens, it feels like hitting the jackpot. Come spring the waterfalls have filled, the valley is green, and the dogwood are popping. And while the crowds keep me away from Yosemite Valley in summer, this is the season to explore the exposed granite and pristine water of Yosemite’s high country.

And then comes autumn, when Vernal and Nevada Falls are a shadow of their spring selves, and Bridalveil Fall is a mere trickle. Even booming Yosemite Falls, the valley’s spring centerpiece and instrument of it’s continuous soundtrack, has vanished by September, its existence reduced to a dark outline on the light granite, like the negative of a crime scene chalkline.

Enter autumn (which in California doesn’t really start until the end of October). The vacation crowds have returned to work and school, Yosemite mornings are infused with a biting chill, and the perpetual blue skies of summer are brushed with clouds that hint of the coming winter. Almost overnight the oak, cottonwood, maple, and dogwood trees have fired up, warming Yosemite Valley with vivid yellows and reds.

Perhaps my favorite part of autumn in Yosemite is the now relaxed Merced River. Starved of the same snowmelt the feeds its iconic waterfalls, the Merced River forms a glassy ribbon that twists through the center of Yosemite Valley like the center line on a mountain highway. Framing the river, yellow cottonwoods and their deciduous cousin reflect their hues, creating spectacular complements to Yosemite’s icons.

Last week’s Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections workshop group got to enjoy the Merced River at its reflective best. Following a particularly dry winter and summer without a drop of rain, the river was so low that in places it would have been possible to walk across without getting your knees wet. On our penultimate morning I guided the group to one of my favorite riverside views to photograph the first light on El Capitan and the Three Brothers.

This is one of those spots that’s so close to El Capitan that there’s no such thing as a lens that’s too wide here. After years of trying to fit in using the 16-35 glass, a few years ago I got the Sony 12-24 f/4 G and a whole new world opened. But a couple a months ago I got I’ve the Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens, but haven’t been able to use it (thank-you-very-much COVID). That was about to change. I twisted on to my Sony a7RIV, attached the combo to my tripod, and started moving up and down the riverbank, working with my well-scattered workshop group and sneaking in a frame or two between students.

I was looking for scenes that would allow me to juxtapose floating leaves, El Capitan and the Three Brothers, and of course the magnificent reflection. After about an hour of finding stuff that was close but not quite right, I found this scene just a few minutes before it was time to head to our next location (because the light waits for no one). Including everything wouldn’t have been possible with my 16-35 lens, but the 12-24 was exactly what the doctor ordered. I quickly framed it up at 12mm, making sure to include colorful leaves floating at my feet, and to avoid cutting off El Capitan and its reflection. At 12mm depth of field wasn’t a concern, so I just set my aperture to f/10 and focused on one of the foreground leaves (with so much DOF, I would have been fine focusing on anything in my frame).

Between the sunlit granite and densely shaded trees, dynamic range was extreme, but I monitored the histogram in my viewfinder as I increased my shutter speed, stopping just as the it nudged the graph’s right edge. This resulted in a scene that looked quite dark in the shadows, but a glance at the left side of this histogram told me what I later confirmed in Lightroom—I had all the shadow detail I needed.

BTW, I love my Sony 12-24 f/4 G, but the Sony 12-24 GM is ridiculously good—incredible detail (at 61 MP!) without distortion. I’m a convert. (Can’t wait to try it for astro.)

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Yosemite in Autumn

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Groundhog Day

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

Winter Reflection, El Capitan and Three Brothers, Yosemite
Sony a7RIII
Sony 12-24 G
1/20 second
F/11
ISO 100

Sitting down to write this blog, I looked at my watch and realized that if the world were normal, I’d be about an hour from starting my Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers photo workshop. In that alternate reality, I’d probably be just wrapping up my pre-workshop reconnaissance, circumnavigating Yosemite Valley to check the status of variables such as the amount of water in the falls and access to roads and vistas that sometimes (and seemingly randomly) close. And I know I’d be excited by the Yosemite weather forecast, which calls for rain and maybe even snow, a rare treat for Yosemite in April.

Instead, I’m reclined by the fire at home, laptop right where its name suggests it should be, watching the rain, listening to latin jazz (Azymuth, if you must know), and trying to figure out what to blog about. I don’t know about you, but this whole shelter-in-place thing is getting old. I have no quarrels with the SIP mandate, but days have started to blend seamlessly from one to the next with so little variation that I’m starting to wonder if we’re all immersed in a real-life “Groundhog Day,” where we’re doomed to repeat each day until we learn to treat each other better.

So far I’ve lost five workshops to Coronavirus, and have a sixth on life-support, but really, when I stop to consider the big picture, I have nothing to complain about. I’m healthy, as are all the people who matter most to me. I have a roof over my head and food in the fridge (and toilet paper on the shelf!), and I’m doing things I’d never have done had I not been forced to break the routine of my former, “normal” life.

I’ve written recently about returning to unprocessed images from past shoots, like this one, but there’s been other cool stuff happening in my life as a direct result of imposed solitude. For example, much as Phil (Bill Murray) (eventually) used his recycled Groundhog Day to to learn the piano, I’ve taken it upon myself to do something that I always said I was going to do but never seemed to find the time: learn video.

For years I’ve felt like I’m the only person on Earth with a digital camera who doesn’t do video, and for just about as long have vowed to fix that, but now it’s actually happening. Yay me. I doubt you’ll ever see me accepting an Oscar, but an unexpected benefit of this whole I-have-no-idea-what-I’m-doing experience has been the opportunity to walk a mile (or two) in the shoes of the people who pay me to teach them photography in my photo workshops.

Learning new stuff can be intimidating, frustrating, and humbling. But like anything worth doing, I know the reward will far outweigh the pain, and I can’t help but feel that my world will be just a little better on the other side of this mess.

Next, maybe a little ice sculpting….

About this image

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This image of El Capitan is another new one from that great Yosemite snow day with my brother last February. You can read about the day here: Escape From Yosemite. To get out to this spot, I had to trudge through so much hip-deep fresh snow, that I was sweating profusely, despite the cold. I love being the first person at a spot after a snow, but it also makes me feel a little guilty to spoil the pristine powder (but not so guilty that I won’t do it).

To get all of the reflection I needed to get a little closer to the edge of the (4-foot or so) snowbank than made me comfortable. If it had collapsed I’d have gone into the river for sure—I wouldn’t have been swept to my death, but I’d have had a pretty miserable drive home. (Plus my brother would have laughed at me.) But I managed to stay upright long enough to capture this frame.

One more thought: This is another one of those shots that I couldn’t have gotten without my Sony 12-24mm G lens. Before getting this lens I’d have used my Sony 16-35 GM lens, but I wouldn’t have been able to get El Capitan, the Three Brothers, and the reflection. As I mentioned in my It’s In the Bag post, I don’t use this lens a lot, but I sure love having it for times just like this.

A Reflection Collection

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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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