Variations on a scene

Gary Hart Photography: Snowfall, Tunnel View, Yosemite

Snowfall, Tunnel View, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f/4
1/250 second
ISO 100

A week or so ago I had the good fortune to be in Yosemite for the most recent snowfall there. All week the National Weather Service had been waffling a bit on the snow—based on the forecast, I probably wouldn’t have made the trip. But I was there anyway, guiding a fun couple from England for the weekend. Following a nice but unspectacular Saturday, we woke Sunday morning to find the world dipped in white.

The snow fell all day, at times so hard that that it was difficult to see more than a couple hundred yards, other times dwindling to a few flakes per minute. During one of the lulls we made our way to Tunnel View for the obligatory shot there. Despite hundreds (thousands?) of pictures of this view, after surveying the scene for a few minutes I couldn’t resist pulling out my camera and tripod.

My general feeling is that people tend to go too wide with their Tunnel View images, shrinking the main features (El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall) to include less exciting granite left of El Capitan and right right of Cathedral Rocks/Bridalveil Fall. That’s why I opt to tighten my horizontal Tunnel View compositions on the left and right, or isolate one or two of the three primary subjects with a telephoto. And when something exciting is happening in the sky (moon, clouds, or color) or foreground (fog, snow, rainbow), I’ll often compose vertically and bias my composition to favor the most compelling part of the scene.

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With so many Tunnel View images in my portfolio, that afternoon I consciously set aside my long-held composition biases in favor of something I don’t already have. Of course the feature that most set the scene apart was the snow, so I set out to find the best way to emphasize it. Because the snow level that day was right around 4000 feet, also the elevation of Yosemite Valley, even the three hundred or so feet of elevation gain at Tunnel View resulted in much more snow virtually at my feet than on the distant valley floor. My Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f/4 lens, a great lens that I usually find too wide for Tunnel View, was perfect for highlighting the foreground snow.

Dialing my focal length to about 20mm allowed me to maximize the foreground snow while including minimal less-than-interesting gray sky. Of course going this wide meant shrinking the scene’s “big three” and adding lots of extraneous middle-ground on the left and right. To mitigate that problem I used the snowy pine on the left, often an obtrusive distraction to be dealt with, as a frame for that side of the scene. Not only did the tree block less interesting features, it actually enhanced the snowy effect I sought. On the right the diagonal ridge added a touch of visual motion (diagonal lines are so much stronger visually than horizontal and vertical lines), and it didn’t hurt that much of the bland granite there was covered with snow.

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A Tunnel View Gallery

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The best lens for the job

Gary Hart Photography: Dawn, Tunnel View, Yosemite

Dawn, Tunnel View, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony 70-200 f/4
25 seconds
ISO 200

Probably the workshop question I am asked most is some variation on, “What lens should I use?” While I’m happy to answer any question, this one always makes me cringe because the implicit question is, “Which lenses can I leave behind?”

What many photographers fail to realize is that the “proper” lens isn’t some absolute determined by the scene, a secret known only by the best photographers, it’s a creative choice made by each photographer who visits. While prior captures often imply a general consensus on a scene’s primary composition, that pretty much turns out to be the first composition everyone sees—just the compositions creative photographers should avoid. When I tell you the lens to use, I’m imposing my creative instincts rather than cultivating yours. “Okay, right, I get it. But seriously—what lens should I use?” Sigh.

Suck it up

The best landscape images usually require some sacrifice, so if you’re making lens choices based on what’s most convenient, maybe landscape photography isn’t for you. I’m not talking about risking your life to get the shot, or exceeding your physical limitations, but I am talking about a willingness to experience a little discomfort for your craft. That means venturing out in miserable weather, rising well before the sun, or (gulp) skipping dinner. And yes, it even means lugging a little heavier camera bag than you might prefer.

My general rule is to, at the very least, carry lenses that cover the full-frame focal range from 20mm-200mm. There are some trade-offs in the number of lenses you choose to achieve this. Some carry just one or two zoom lenses, sacrificing speed and image quality for comfort, convenience, and mobility; others go hardcore, lugging an assortment of fast, ultra-sharp primes. I’m in the middle, extremely happy with the combination of quality and compactness I get with my three Sony f/4 zoom lenses: the 16-35, 24-70, and 70-200.

In addition to my three primary lenses, I never go out without my full frame Sony a7RII and 1.5 crop Sony a6300 bodies. Because a 1.5 crop body increases the effective focal length of each lens by 50 percent, with these two bodies I can cover the focal range from 16mm-300mm. I also have a few specialty lenses that may or may not stay in the car (but never at home), depending on the scene, the room in my bag, and how much hiking/climbing/scrambling I’ll be doing: a Tamron 150-600 for extra reach; a Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens for starlight; and a Sony 90mm macro.

So seriously, the lens you choose for a scene is part of the creative process that defines you as a photographer, a personal decision that I’m happy to assist, but reluctant to dictate. In fact, it’s a rare scene that’s worthy of capture with one lens that’s not worthy of capture with another. And another. (And I promise that the surest way to need a particular lens is to leave it behind.) I’m not suggesting that you lug Hermione’s purse to every shoot; just try to remember that your images will last far longer than your discomfort.

Case in point

I do a half dozen or so workshops in Yosemite each year, plus a number of private tours. That means I spend a lot of time at Tunnel View. A lot. But I don’t photograph there much anymore unless I think I can get something I don’t already have, which means I do lots of watching other photographers. One thing I notice is how few photographers use a telephoto lens here. Given the breadth of the view, and the volume of existing wide angle Tunnel View images we’ve been conditioned by, reflexively reaching for the wide angle lens at Tunnel View is understandable. But approaching any scene with a preconceived idea of the best lens limits the array of creative opportunities the scene provides.

One chilly morning at Tunnel View earlier this month, my winter workshop group enjoyed the snowy granite, wispy fog, and pristine air only possible after a winter storm.  Of course we had all of the standard wide angle compositions at our disposal, but when the fog and pastel sky moved me to pull out my camera, it was my 70-200 that I chose to pair with it. I tried a few compositions, before settling on this one that was just wide enough to include Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall, most of the fog, and the only clouds remaining from the storm. Not only would a wide angle lens have shrunk what I felt were the scene’s most significant features, my telephoto lens was able to exclude from my image the bright, empty sky above Half Dome, and most of the dead, brown trees scarring Yosemite Valley.

Because this image was captured 20 minutes before sunrise, the scene my eyes saw was much darker than what my camera captured. Photographers able to see with their camera’s vision rather than their own love photographing in the sweet light only possible at twilight. In this case not only did I benefit from a shadowless foreground, the 25-second exposure smoothed the clouds, fog, and waterfall ethereal quality.

I won’t pretend that this is a groundbreaking capture (far from it), but if I’d have walked up to the scene with a wide angle already mounted instead taking it all in before choosing my lens, I don’t think I’d have been nearly as happy with my results.

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A Tunnel View Gallery

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Let’s get vertical

Gary Hart Photography: Yosemite Sky, Tunnel View, Yosemite

Yosemite Sky, Tunnel View, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
.8 seconds
ISO 100

Who had the bright idea to label horizontal images “landscape,” and vertical images “portrait”? To that person let me just say, “Huh?” As a landscape-only photographer, about half of my images use “portrait” orientation. I wonder if this arbitrary naming bias subconsciously encourages photographers to default to a horizontal orientation for their landscape images, even when a vertical orientation might be best.

Every image contains implicit visual motion that’s independent of the eyes’ movement between the image’s elements. Following the frame’s long side, this flow provides photographers a tool not only for guiding viewers’ eyes, but also for conveying a mood.

For example, orienting a waterfall image vertically complements the water’s motion, instilling a feeling of calm. Conversely, a waterfall image that’s oriented horizontally often contains more visual tension. While there’s no absolute best way to orient a waterfall (or any other scene), you need to understand that there is a choice, and that choice matters.

By moving the eye from front to back, vertical images often enhance the illusion of depth so important in a two-dimensional photo. I find that a foreground element that adds depth to  whatever striking background has caught my attention is often lost in a horizontal image.

More than just guiding the eye through the frame, vertical orientation narrows the frame, enabling us to eliminate distractions or less compelling objects left and right of the prime subject(s). Vertical is also my preferred orientation when I want to emphasize a sky full of stars, or dramatic clouds and color.

Want to emphasize a beautiful sky? Go with a vertical image, putting the horizon near the bottom of the frame. When the sky is dull and all the visual action is in the landscape, put the horizon at the top of your frame. When the landscape and sky are equally compelling, go ahead and split the frame across the middle (regardless of what the “experts” at the photo club might say).

Gary Hart Photography: Double Rainbow, Yosemite Valley

Double Rainbow, Yosemite Valley

While a horizontally oriented scene is often the best way to convey the sweeping majesty of a broad landscape, I particularly enjoy guiding and focusing the eye with vertical compositions of traditionally horizontal scenes. Tunnel View in Yosemite, where I think photographers tend to compose too wide, is a great example. The scene left of El Capitan and right of Cathedral Rocks can’t compete with the El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall triumvirate, yet the world is full of Tunnel View images that shrink this trio to include (relatively) nondescript granite.

When the foreground and sky aren’t particularly interesting, I tend to shoot fairly tight horizontal compositions at Tunnel View. But when a spectacular Yosemite sky, snow-laden trees, or cloud-filled valley demand inclusion, vertical is my go-to orientation because it frees me to celebrate the drama without diluting it.

About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Yosemite Sky, Tunnel View, Yosemite

Yosemite Sky, Tunnel View, Yosemite

I captured this image last week, at the end of a one-day private tour. Leaving home at 6 a.m., my plan was to enjoy Yosemite Valley and save my photography for the next two days, when I’d be by myself and a storm was forecast. Indeed, my students and I spent the day beneath a layer of gray clouds that, while great for photography, were decidedly unspectacular. With occasional sprinkles to remind us of the looming storm, I was just happy that the serious rain held off until we finished, and that the ceiling never dropped far enough to obscure Yosemite’s icons.

Since my students had left their car at our Tunnel View meeting place, my plan was to wrap up with a “sunset” there. Of course, given the thickening clouds, we had no illusion that we’d be photographing an actual sunset, and were in no hurry to get there.

So imagine my surprise when, while photographing Bridalveil Fall from the turnout on Northside Drive, I saw hints of warmth on Leaning Tower—not direct sunlight, but indirect light that indicated there was sunlight somewhere nearby. I turned and peered through the trees behind me, and saw small patch of direct sunlight on El Capitan. “We need to go!” I barked this so suddenly that I’m surprised I didn’t frighten them. To their credit, we were packed, loaded, and back on the road in 30 seconds, and at Tunnel View in less than ten minutes.

For the next 30 minutes we enjoyed a lesson in Yosemite weather, one more chapter in my as yet unwritten book, “You Can’t Predict What Yosemite Will Be Like in Five Minutes Based On What It’s Like Right Now.” The sunlight started on El Capitan, pouring through an unseen hole in the clouds somewhere down the Merced River Canyon behind us. Once El Capitan was fully illuminated, the light went to work on Half Dome. Soon a formation of broken clouds moved into view overhead, then continued sliding above Yosemite Valley until the entire scene was more sky than cloud.

This image was captured toward the end of the show, after the clouds had moved well into the scene and just before the fading vestiges of warm light left El Capitan and Half Dome. It’s a real treat when the sky at Tunnel View can compete with the scene below, but in this case the sky deserved all the attention I gave it.

Tip of the day

I can think of no single piece of equipment that will make vertical compositions easier than a Really Right Stuff L-plate (there are less expensive options, but I agree with the consensus that Really Right Stuff plates the best). An L-plate is, as its name implies, and L-shaped piece of metal that attaches to your camera’s tripod mount, replacing the standard quick-release plate. Unlike a flat quick-release plate, an L-plate wraps around one side of the body.

Each side fits the standard Arca-Swiss quick-release mount: for a horizontal image, the camera is mounted to the tripod head by part of the plate attached to the camera’s underside; for a vertical composition, you release the camera, rotate it 90 degrees, and attached the part of the plate that wraps the camera’s side. This detach/rotate/reattach can be done in about one second, even in complete darkness.

In addition to speed and convenience, and L-plate ensures maximum stability by keeping your center of gravity directly above the intersection of the tripod’s legs. It also keeps your eye-piece in nearly the same position regardless of the orientation, eliminating the need for you to dip your head or raise your center-post each time you go vertical.

Due to each camera’s unique dimensions, configuration of memory card and battery bays, and electronics ports, L-plates are camera-specific. That means when you get new camera, you’ll likely be getting a new L-plate—a small price to pay for the benefit you’ll get.

Workshop schedule

A vertical gallery

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Yosemite and me

Double Rainbow, Yosemite Valley

Double Rainbow, Yosemite Valley
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1/5 second
ISO 100
38 mm

My relationship with Yosemite doesn’t have a beginning or end. Rather, it’s a collection of asynchronous memories that are still forming. In fact, some of my Yosemite experience actually predates my memory. The earliest memories, like following bobbing flashlights to Camp Curry to watch the Firefall spring from Glacier Point, or warm evenings in lawn chairs at the garbage dump, waiting for the bears to come to dinner, are part of the glue that bonds my family.

My father was a serious amateur photographer who shared his own relationship with Yosemite. One of my most vivid Yosemite memories is (foolishly) standing atop Sentinel Dome in an electrical storm, extending an umbrella to shield his camera while he tried to photograph lightning.

Gary Hart Photography: My first workshop

Lecturing my first workshop group on the virtues of tripod use

As I grew older, I started creating my own memories. While exploring Yosemite’s backcountry I reclined beside gem-like lakes cradled in granite basins, sipped from streams that started the day as snow, and slept beneath an infinite canopy of stars—all to a continuous soundtrack of wind and water.

Given this history, it’s no surprise that I became a nature photographer, using my camera to try to convey the essence of this magic world. In the last 35 years my camera and I have returned more times than I can count, sometimes leaving home in the morning and returning that night, eight hours of driving for a six hour fix. Other trips span multiple days, each one starting before sunrise and lasting through sunset, and sometimes well into the night. But despite the fact this is my livelihood, it’s never work.

About ten years ago I started guiding photographers through Yosemite. Now I get to live vicariously through others’ excitement as they experience firsthand the beauty they’ve previously seen only in pictures. Many of these people return many times themselves, sometimes in other workshops, sometimes on their own. Either way, I’m proud to be a catalyst for their nascent relationship with this special place, and know that they’ll spread the love to others in their lives.

Of course I’ve seen lots of change while accumulating my Yosemite memories. Gridlock is a summer staple, the bears have been separated (with moderate success), the Firefall has been extinguished, and backpacking requires permits, water purifiers, and bear canisters. And now there are rumblings that some of the park’s cherished names—The Ahwahnee, Curry Village, the Wawona Hotel, Yosemite Lodge—will be lost to corporate greed. But despite human interference, Yosemite’s soaring granite and plummeting waterfalls are magnificent constants, a vertical canvas for Nature’s infinite cycle of season, weather, and light.

(An earlier version of this essay appears on my website)

Join me in Yosemite

My Yosemite

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Anticipating the exceptional

Gary Hart Photography: Morning Glory, Sunrise Clearing Storm, Yosemite Valley

Morning Glory, Sunrise Clearing Storm, Yosemite Valley
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 24-70
1/50 second
ISO 100

No one denies that an image records a single, unrepeatable instant. But just as each instant is the culmination of a series of connected preceding events, most images have their own history that can be traced backward, often months or years before the shutter clicked. The moon didn’t just materialize above Half Dome that evening, and a moonbow isn’t just some random event at the base of Lower Yosemite Fall—their appearance can be directly connected to celestial dance that was set in motion with the birth of our Solar System, and can be predicted with surgical precision (minus a few wild card variables like weather and water flow to keep photographers from getting too cocky).

Photographers spend a great deal of time trying to anticipate instants like these. We start with the common-knowledge stuff, things like the February sunset light on Horsetail Fall, a shaft of summer light slanting in Upper Antelope Canyon, or a moonbow in the spring mist billowing beneath Lower Yosemite Fall. But the precision of the celestial choreography that delivers light shafts to slot canyons and moonbows to waterfalls is just as predictable for anonymous hidden trees, lakes, and peaks. Iconic or undiscovered, each of these spectacles are the convergence of location and predictable natural processes just waiting to be appreciated (and photographed!).

Image planning isn’t limited to the sun, moon, and stars. Understanding and monitoring a favorite location’s weather can put you in the right place, with the best chance to add a rainbow, lightning bolt, or fresh snow. And simply finding a complementary foreground/background alignment that connects two or more terrestrial subjects can elevate an image to the next level.

Rather than a fortuitous right-place, right-time convergence, the creative aspect of many images starts long before capture. When I find a new location, or identify a potential subject, my brain immediately starts spinning on the ways I can make it better. Can I align it with another foreground or background subject? What natural phenomena will take the scene to the next level, and how I can be there when it happens?

For example…

Bridalveil Dogwood, Yosemite

Bridalveil Dogwood, Valley View, Yosemite

Before capturing my image of a raindrop-festooned dogwood flower with Bridalveil Fall in the background, I had long visualized a scene somewhere in Yosemite that featured a dogwood bloom aligned with a soft-focus but recognizable Yosemite landmark. I knew I’d need overcast skies that would illuminate the entire scene with diffuse, soft light, then filed my vision away until the next time the forecast predicted clouds during the short window the dogwood bloom in Yosemite.

On my drive to the park, I started mentally working on locations where I might be able to align a dogwood with a recognizable Yosemite subject, the lens I’d use, the amount of background sharpness I wanted, and so on. Once I was in the valley, I was able to conduct a pretty orderly search that eventually led me to this flower near Valley View.

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Sometimes bringing my ideas to fruition requires a lot more research, planning, and patience. I’ll start with a scene that appeals to me, then mentally add something that I think will take it to the next level. A moon? Stars? A rainbow? Lightning? Fresh snow? Maybe all of the above (so far not at the same time, sadly).

The moon and stars are a relatively straightforward matter of plotting angles and timing (and hoping the weather cooperates). On the other hand, weather phenomena, such as rainbows, lightning, and snow, require an understanding of the processes behind them, careful and persistent monitoring of long- and short-term weather forecasts (only the National Weather Service for me), and a lot patience while waiting for the moment to arrive. Then, when the moment does arrive, I need to move quickly and not allow myself to be swayed by fear of failure (always a distinct possibility).

For example…

Double Rainbow, Yosemite Valley

Double Rainbow, Tunnel View, Yosemite

I’d long fantasized about adding a rainbow arcing over Yosemite Valley to the already breathtaking Tunnel View scene. And being a lover of rainbows and a photographer, I’d long ago taken the time to become extremely aware of the why, where, and when of rainbows. Which is how, on a spring afternoon a few years ago, I was in perfect position when my rainbow fantasy came true.

I was in Yosemite to meet customers for dinner, and to plan the next day’s guided tour of the park. But when my mostly sunny drive up the Merced River Canyon turned to rain as I entered Yosemite Valley, my mental wheels started turning—Yosemite weather almost always moves west-to-east, which meant soon Yosemite Valley would have rain on the east side and sunlight low on the western horizon. It wasn’t hard to rearrange my customers’ priorities, and this was our reward.

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Celestial phenomena are wonderfully predictable, so much so that I make very few non-spontaneous photo trips without factoring in the moon and/or Milky Way. (My spontaneous trips are usually spurred by the weather forecast.) And there are few locations I photograph that I can’t tell you the altitude and azimuth necessary to align a the sun, moon, or Milky Way with the location’s most prominent feature.

Hawaii, Death Valley, Mono Lake, Alabama Hills (Mt. Whitney), plus many personal favorite subjects near home—I know exactly where I want to be and when I want to be there, and do my best to make it happen, sometimes planning several years in advance. In Yosemite my terrestrial subject is usually Half Dome, and and my celestial subject is usually a rising moon. And depending the direction of the moon’s arrival, I have an array of locations that I know will align with the moon’s appearance.

For example…

Crescent Moon, El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite

Rising Crescent, El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite

Tunnel View is my favorite location for photographing a Yosemite moonrise, but it’s not my only location. Across the Merced River Canyon on Big Oak Flat Road is Half Dome View, a turnout vista with a slightly different, less popular view of Half Dome and El Capitan.

From Half Dome View, the visual distance separating the two monoliths is quite narrow, meaning an extremely small margin of error for a photographer hoping to catch the moon splitting the gap. But the idea had always intrigued me, so I went to work with my plotting method (I do it manually using topo maps, moonrise tables, and an HP-11C scientific calculator that does trig functions).

When I discovered that a crescent moon would indeed split this gap before sunrise on a certain May morning in about a year, I started a plan of attack. Despite the fact that I’d never photographed a moonrise from this location, and even the slightest error in computation would foil the attempt, I went ahead and scheduled a workshop for this date. Try to imagine my anxiety as the day approached and the realization that failure wouldn’t just impact me, it would impact my entire group, really started to sink in. And imagine my euphoria (not to mention everyone with me) that morning when the moon slid into the gap, right on schedule.

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When photography’s less than ideal, I might leave the camera in my bag, but I don’t stop being a photographer. I spend a lot of non-camera time scouting locations, looking for complementary subjects that I can align with the grand scene. If my primary subject is in the foreground, I add move around until I can align it with a complementary background. And when my subject is in the distance (like Mt. Whitney from the Alabama Hills, or Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View), I spend a lot of time exploring the nearby terrain in search of subjects I can align with the grand primary scene.

When I find a subject that merits something exceptional, I try to wait until I can enhance it with similarly exceptional natural phenomenon.

For example…

Gary Hart Photography: Morning Glory, Sunrise Clearing Storm, Yosemite Valley

Morning Glory, Sunrise Clearing Storm, Yosemite Valley

When I “discovered” this tree, it was love at first sight. But rather than photograph it in the more conventional quality light conditions that are fairly easy to anticipate, or wait for one of Yosemite’s inevitable exceptional but fairly regular moments, I saved my discovery for something truly extraordinary. And, after about ten years of waiting for location, light, conditions, and circumstances (this spot is too small and dangerous for a group), extraordinary finally happened this April.

Anticipating snow, I’d traveled to Yosemite the previous afternoon. A little snow had fallen earlier that day, and while the storm had passed, its cloudy vestiges lingered overhead and in the valley below. While not the winter wonderland I’d hoped for, there was enough snow still hugging the trees that I found some very nice images. Nice enough, in fact, that I’d have been completely satisfied with my captures if my trip had ended right then. But I wasn’t done.

Because more snow was promised overnight, I got a room nearby and returned the next morning. I wasn’t too far into my drive back into the park before it became clear that I was in for something special. The snow had just stopped, and while there wasn’t a lot of snow, the air was cold enough that I knew until the morning sunlight made it all the way down into Yosemite Valley, everything would remain in a state of suspended animation. And the clouds that had deposited the snow were doing their typical slow-clear dance on the valley floor.

I first stopped at a spot along the Merced River and photographed dogwood and El Capitan. I got so caught up in that scene that I lost track of the time and didn’t give myself a lot of time for my next stop, up the hill at “my” tree (that I often check but rarely photograph). I also realized that given the light snowfall on the valley floor, I’d severely underestimated the amount of snow that had fallen just a few hundred feet up the hill from Yosemite Valley.

I found an entire world covered with white, and the sun about ready to pop up over Sentinel Dome—once the sun arrived, I’d only have about 60 seconds of quality photography before the sun overpowered the scene. I quickly grabbed my gear and scrambled up to the tree. Fortunately, I’d photographed here the previous afternoon, so I didn’t really have to hunt for a composition (generally a fairly painstaking, trial-and-error process). With the sun about to appear, I knew I’d need to do a sunstar and set my aperture accordingly. Without a lot of time to play with the exposure, I made the snap judgement to spare the highlights and hope I could recover the shadows laters, and click.

This image was literally the first click I made of the scene this morning—subsequent captures showed increasingly blown highlights as the sun rose into the scene. On my LCD this image looked severely underexposed, but I trusted the histogram on my a7R, which indicated there was indeed detail in the shadows. (Yes, I know I could have accomplished it by bracketing and blending multiple exposures, but I’m a one-click guy.) And when I finally found the courage to process the image, I held my breath as I grabbed the Lightroom Shadows slider and watched my scene appear.

A gallery of “planned” images

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Looking back, looking forward

Gary Hart Photography: Moon and Mist, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite

For the final shoot of my final 2014 workshop, I guided my group up the rain-slick granite behind Yosemite’s Tunnel View for a slightly different perspective than they’d seen earlier in the workshop. I warned everyone that slippery rock and the steepness of the slope could make the footing treacherous (and offered a safer alternative), but promised the view would be worth it. Then I crossed my fingers.

While sunset at Tunnel View is often special, the rare sunset event I’d been pointing to for over a year, a nearly full (96%) moon rising into the twilight hues above Half Dome, is a particular highlight, one of my favorite things in the world to witness. But after an autumn dominated by clear skies that would have been perfect for our moonrise, a much needed storm landed just as our workshop started, engulfing Yosemite Valley in dense clouds, recharging the waterfalls, and painting the surrounding peaks white. Rain clouds make great photography, but they’re not so great for viewing the moon.

As you can see from this image, the clouds this evening cooperated, glazing the valley floor, but parting above Half Dome enough to reveal the moon. The moon was already high above Half Dome when it peeked out, and shortly thereafter the retreating storm’s vestiges were fringed with sunset pink. As I often do at these moments, I encouraged everyone to forget their cameras for a minute and just appreciate that they may be viewing the most beautiful thing happening on Earth at this moment. Together we enjoyed what was a once-in-a-lifetime moment for them, and a fitting conclusion to another wonderful year of photography for me.

Like any other photographer who makes an effort to get out in difficult, unpredictable conditions, I had many of these “most beautiful thing on Earth” moments in 2014—they’re what keep me going. The last couple of weeks I’ve been browsing my 2014 captures and re-appreciating my blessings. Among other things, in 2014 I rafted the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, was humbled by the Milky Way’s glow above the Kilauea Caldera, shivered beneath starlit bristlecone pines, and was electrified by the Grand Canyon monsoon’s pyrotechnics.

Most of my trips start with a plan, and while a lot of my 2o14 experiences followed the script, many deviated from my expectations, often in wonderful ways. My original vision of the moonrise on this December evening was clear skies that would allow the moon to shine; an alternate vision was a sky-obscuring storm that provided photogenic clouds. We ended up with the best of both, a hybrid of clouds and sky that I dared not hope for.

While I have a general plan in place for 2015, some places I’ll be returning to, others I’ll photograph for the first time, I know from experience that my plans won’t always go as planned. Clouds will hide the moon and stars, clear skies will cast harsh light, rivers will flood, waterfalls will wither, rivers will flood. But I also know that many of those thwarted plans will lead to unexpected rewards like this.

Here’s to a great 2015!

2014 in Review

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh your screen to reorder the display.

Classic Yosemite

Clearing Storm, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite

Clearing Storm, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite
Sony a7R
33 mm
1.6 seconds
ISO 125

December 3, 2014: A brief post to share my workshop group’s good fortune this morning

I’m in Yosemite this week for my Winter Moon photo workshop. Scheduling a December workshop in Yosemite is one of those high risk/reward propositions—I know full well we could get some serious weather that could make things quite uncomfortable for photography, but winter (okay, so technically it won’t be winter for another two-a-half weeks, but it’s December for heaven’s sake, so don’t quibble) is also the best time to get the kind of conditions that make Yosemite special. In the days leading up to the workshop I’d warned everyone about the impending weather, but I’d also promised them that they were in store for something special at some point during their visit. Then I crossed my fingers….

We started Monday afternoon to blue skies and dry waterfalls, but by Tuesday morning the first major storm of California’s  (usually) wet season rolled in and everything changed (literally overnight). A warm system of tropical origin, what this storm lacked in snow, it more than made up for in rain, copious rain. Starting before sunrise, we got a little shooting in before the serious stuff started, but the rest of the day was wet, wet, wet. When weather settles in like this, the ceiling drops and Yosemite’s granite features disappear behind a dense, gray curtain. Nevertheless, we found some nice photography and everyone finished the day saturated but satisfied.

This morning (Wednesday) I got the group up to Tunnel View for sunrise, where were met with more of the same—opaque clouds and lots of rain, but little else. Since Tunnel View is usually the best place to wait out a Yosemite storm (thanks to the panoramic view, and the fact that the weather almost aways clears on Yosemite Valley’s west side first), I told everyone we’d just sit tight and see what happens. A few huddled in the cars, but most of the group donned our head-to-toe rain gear and stood out in the rain,  waiting (hoping) for the show to begin.

As if on cue, at just about the advertised sunrise time (there was no actual sunrise to witness), the sky brightened and the curtain parted: El Capitan was first on stage, followed closely by a rejuvenated Bridalveil Fall, and soon thereafter the star of the show, Half Dome, appeared center-stage. Radiating from the valley floor, a thick fog rolled across the scene like a viscous liquid, changing the view by the minute—for nearly an hour everyone got to experience a classic Yosemite clearing storm.

As many times as I’ve witnessed a clearing storm from Tunnel View, the experience never fails to thrill me. Overlaying one of the most beautiful scenes on Earth, infinite combinations of cloud, sky, color, and light make each one unique. And as if that’s not enough, sometimes fresh snow, a rainbow, or rising moon are added to the mix. On this morning the clearing was only temporary, with no direct light or hint of blue sky, and the rain soon returned. Not that this was a problem—with more weather in store, this morning just turned out to be the opening act.

Check out my schedule of upcoming photo workshops

A Tunnel View Clearing Storm Gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and to enjoy the slide show

It’s Greek to me

Double Rainbow, Yosemite Valley

Double Rainbow, Yosemite Valley
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1/5 second
ISO 100
38 mm

Photograph: “Photo” comes from phos, the Greek word for light; “graph” is from graphos, the Greek word for write. And that’s pretty much what we photographers do: Write with light.

Because we have no control over the sun, nature photographers spend a lot of time hoping for “good” light and cursing “bad” light. There’s no universal definition of good and bad light; it’s usually more a function of whatever it is we want to do at the moment. Just as portrait photographers have complete understanding of the artificial light they use to illuminate their subjects, nature photographers should understand the sunlight they photograph: what it is, what it does, and why it does it.

It’s this understanding of light that allows me to be in the right place for vivid sunrises and sunset, to know the best time and location for blurring water, and that helped me anticipate this amazing rainbow. To learn more about light, read the Light article in my Photo Tips section.

About this image

May 26, 2009

On my drive to Yosemite the sky above the San Joaquin Valley was clear, but I was encouraged to see dark cumulus clouds billowing above the Sierra to my east. Sierra thunderstorms in May are rare, but not unprecedented. At the very least I knew the clouds would make for interesting photography. As I entered the park via Big Oak Flat Road, a few large drops dotted my windshield. The afternoon sun was now obscured by clouds, but the sky to the west remained virtually cloudless, a good sign, but nothing I hadn’t seen before.

By the time I reached Yosemite Valley the rain had increased enough to require me to engage my wipers and get my mental wheels turning. I was in the park for a one day, private photo tour with a couple from Dallas. The arrangement was to meet at Yosemite Lodge for dinner to plan the next day’s activities, then to go shoot sunset. As I continued toward my appointment I allowed myself to consider the possibility of a rainbow. Going for it would require rushing to meet my customers, delaying dinner, and possibly sitting in the rain with no guarantee of success.

Still undecided but with about 20 minutes to spare, I dashed up to Tunnel View to survey Yosemite Valley. I liked the way things were shaping up; if I’d have been by myself I’d have skipped dinner. Leaving Tunnel View I continued surveying the sky—by the time I reached the lodge I knew I could be sued for malpractice if I didn’t at least suggest the possibility of a rainbow.

We completed our introductions in front of the cafeteria, but before entering I suggested that maybe we should forget dinner for now. Robert and Kristy were as excited about the conditions as I was (phew) but had just completed a long hike and were famished, so we rushed in and grabbed pre-made pizzas to eat on the road.

Twenty minutes later we were sitting on my favorite granite slope above Tunnel View. We were immediately greeted by a flash of lightning, followed not too many seconds later by a blast of thunder. As a lifelong Californian, I’m not particularly experienced with lightning, so I deferred to the Texans and found comfort in their lack of concern (knowing what I know now, I probably should have been more concerned).

Rainbow photography is equal parts preparation and providence. The preparation comes from understanding the optics of a rainbow, knowing the conditions necessary, where to look, then putting yourself in the best position to capture it; the providence is a gift from the heavens, when all the conditions align exactly as you envisioned. Robert, Kristy, and I had been admiring the view and photographing intermittently in a light, warm rain for about thirty minutes when a rainbow appeared. It started slowly, as a faint band in front of El Capitan, and quickly developed into a vivid stripe of color. For the next seven minutes we shot like crazy people—I varied my compositions with almost every shot and called to them to do the same. When it ended we were giddy with excitement—never let it be said that a professional nature photographer can’t get excited about his subjects—and even though the rainbow never quite achieved a complete arc across the valley, it had been everything I dared hope for.

Little did we know that this first rainbow was just a prelude—less than ten minutes later a second rainbow appeared, becoming more vivid than the first, growing into a full double rainbow that arced all the way across Yosemite Valley, from the Merced River to Silver Strand Fall. It lasted over twenty minutes, long enough for me to set up a second camera and do multiple lens changes on each. We actually reached the point where we simply ran out of compositions and could only laugh as we continued clicking anyway.

One more thing: This is the third time I’ve processed this image. I’ve never been completely happy with some of the color tones and overly bright highlights, so I decided to give it one more shot. Using Lightroom 5 and Photoshop CS 6, I was finally able to come up with something that more accurately represents the experience of this unforgettable moment.

Workshop Schedule

A Gallery of Rainbows

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