Know Your Subjects

Gary Hart Photography: Alpenglow, Kirkjufell, Iceland

Alpenglow, Kirkjufell, Iceland
Sony a7RIV
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
3 seconds
ISO 100

One of my personal rules for photography is knowledge of my subjects—I simply get more pleasure from an image when I know something about what I’ve captured. Of the many potential subjects available to a landscape photographer, mountains have always been a particular draw for me. Living my entire life in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada has certainly influenced that connection, as have fond memories of family camping trips in the mountains throughout my childhood, and Sierra backpack trips with friends in my teens and beyond. In college I even majored in geology for several semesters (after astronomy, but before eventually earning my bachelor’s degree in, yawn, economics), and was most interested in the processes responsible for mountain building: tectonics and volcanism.

Kirkjufell, Iceland

Given all this, I guess it makes sense that after returning from last month’s Iceland trip I found myself digging a little deeper into the origins of Kirkjufell, the prominent peak that is arguably Iceland’s most recognizable landmark. Game of Thrones fans who recognize Kirkjufell (Arrowhead Mountain) will be relieved to know that, after several visits over the last few years, I can confirm that the White Walkers appear to have moved on. (But come to think of it, maybe that shouldn’t be much of a relief….)

Kirkjufell rises slightly more than 1500 feet above Breiðafjörður Bay on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Given Iceland’s volcanic origins, it would be reasonable to assume that this cone-shaped peak is just one of of the island’s many volcanos. But that assumption would be incorrect. Skeptical? The mountain’s clearly visible parallel strata layers are a giveaway that Kirkjufell is not a volcano. (And viewing from other angles would reveal that Kirkjufell isn’t really cone-shaped either.)

Though many of Kirkjufell’s layers were indeed laid down by lava or explosive debris from nearby volcanos, these igneous layers are interspersed with layers of submarine sediment deposits, each layer a product of the environment at the time of its deposition. Kirkjufell’s base layer was a large lava flow that happened sometime in the last 5 to 10 million years (relatively recently in Earth’s grand geological picture). After that came millions of years of alternating sediment and volcanic deposits, separated by thousands or millions of years for which there’s no record.

This assortment of parallel layers created a horizontal layer cake of strata bearing no resemblance to the mountain we know today (or any mountain for that matter). Because all sedimentary layers are deposited horizontally, and Kirkjufell has a slight SE-NW tilt, it would also be reasonable to assume that at some point since the last layer went down, the entire area to the southeast rose relative to the area northwest.

Once all Kirkjufell’s layers were deposited and tilted, the area was squeezed between two glaciers that carved away most of the surrounding rock, leaving the remaining peak jutting above the glaciers like an island. When the glaciers retreated, the peak we see today remained.

Twilight colors

The other striking feature in this image is the pink that spreads in the shadowless pre-sunrise/post-sunset sky of civil twilight, when the sun is around six degrees or closer to the horizon. Sometimes called the “Belt of Venus,” we get this color because the only the longest, red wavelengths are able to traverse the atmosphere once the sun drops below the horizon.

The interface between the Belt of Venus and the blue-gray Earth’s shadow directly is called the “twilight wedge,” a designation earned because you can sometimes see the earth’s curve in the shadow, with its apex at the anti-solar point (directly opposite the sun). At sunset, the gradual upward motion of the shadow gives the appearance of a wedge being driven into the darkening sky.

About this image

I won’t pretend that there’s anything especially unique about my composition here (and I have the pictures to prove it)—it’s one of those scenes that improves more with conditions than composition, especially if you haven’t been here enough to get really familiar with it.

Because this was the first evening of photography for Don Smith’s and my 2022 Iceland photo workshop, Don and I stayed especially close to the group. From past visits I knew that to align Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss (the waterfall), you’re pretty limited for places to set up, but we managed to find prime tripod real estate for everyone. I encourage my groups to move around as much as possible, but the thick snow and steep drop to the river further limited our mobility, so we just lined up along the cable barrier between the trail and the drop. And  because there were other people besides our group out there, once you landed a vantage point, you were pretty much stuck there until someone moved.

Given the mobility limitations and my desire to align the mountain and waterfall, my composition options were mostly focal length choices. Another, self imposed, compositional limitation was my desire to exclude the footbridge just out of my frame on the left. I like to believe that if I’d have been here by myself, with lots of time to explore, I’d have come up with something a little more creative. But I’m certainly not complaining—between the fresh snow and beautiful sky, the conditions for photography were off the charts and everyone was thrilled.

This image came late in the shoot, just as the twilight wedge reached peak color. By then I was pretty familiar with all my composition options and opted to go with my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens at 17mm (an my Sony a7RIV body). Turns out my resulting composition is remarkably similar to my northern lights image from later that night, and a sunrise image I captured here 3 years ago. Since I clearly have this composition nailed, I’ll need to challenge myself to find something different next year.

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More Magnificent Mountains

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Border Patrol

Gary Hart Photography: Frozen, Kirkjufellsfoss, Iceland

Frozen, Kirkjufellsfoss, Iceland (2020)
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/2 second
ISO 200

A year ago Don Smith and I, with the aid of our Icelandic guide (the legendary Óli Haukur), had a blast sharing Iceland’s winter beauty with a great group of photographers. But our trip wasn’t without its challenges. One of our earliest locations was Kirkjufell, arguably Iceland’s most recognizable mountain. While proponents of Vestrahorn might debate this, no one will deny that everyone who visits Iceland wants a picture of Kirkjufell, just as everyone visiting Yosemite wants a picture of Half Dome. And even though Kirkjufellsfoss (the nearby waterfall) is gorgeous and the obvious foreground for Kirkjufell images, the mountain really is the main event here.

Gary Hart Photography: Frozen Sunrise, Kirkjufell, Iceland

Frozen Sunrise, Kirkjufell, Iceland (2019)

So imagine our disappointment on the morning our workshop group visited Kirkjufell and found the mountain completely obscured by clouds. Not only that, the temperature was 25 degrees (F), and a 40 MPH wind made it feel like 5 degrees and turned the sleet into rocketing needles. In other words, it was stupid-cold. Nevertheless, our hardy group geared up, braved the short trudge out to the vista, and went to work without complaint.

While waiting for Kirkjufell to emerge (fingers crossed), I turned my attention to the tiered, multi-channel, ice-encrusted Kirkjufellsfoss. In normal conditions, while waiting for the Kirkjufell to appear it would have been natural to fire off a few oooh-that’s-pretty clicks of the waterfall. But without the distraction of Kirkjufell (or anything else more than 1/2 mile away), I set up my tripod and actually worked the scene like an actual photographer (go figure). And as often happens when I spend quality time with a scene, the longer I worked this one, the more I saw.

Border patrol

With so much going on, the trickiest part of making this image was managing all the scene’s visual elements while minding my frame’s borders. As much as we try be vigilant, sometimes the emotion of a scene overwhelms our compositional good sense—we see something that moves us, point our camera at it, and click without a lot of thought. While this approach may indeed capture the scene well enough to save memories and impress friends, it’s far from the best way to capture a scene’s full potential. So before every click, I do a little “border patrol,” a simple mnemonic that reminds me to deal with small distractions on the perimeter that can have a disproportionately large impact on the entire image. (I’d love to say that I coined the term in this context, but I think I got it from Brenda Tharp—not sure where Brenda picked it up.)

To understand the importance of securing your borders, it’s important to understand that our goal as photographers is to create an image that not only invites viewers to enter, but also persuades them to stay. And the surest way to keep viewers in your image is to help them forget the world outside the frame. Lots of factors go into crafting an inviting, persuasive image—things like compositional balance, visual motion, and relationships are all essential (and topics for another day), but nothing reminds a viewer of the world outside the frame more than an object jutting in or cut off at the edge.

When an object juts in on the edge of a frame, it often feels like part of a different scene is photobombing the image. Likewise, when an object is cut off on the edge of the frame, it can feel like part of the scene is missing. Either way, it’s a subconscious and often jarring reminder of the world beyond the frame.

And there are other potential problems on the edge of an image. Simply having something with lots of visual weight—an object with enough bulk, brightness, contrast, or anything else that pulls the eye—on the edge of the frame can throw off the balance and compete with the primary subject for the viewer’s attention.

To avoid these distractions, I remind myself of “border patrol” and slowly run my eyes around the perimeter of the frame. Sometimes border patrol is easy—a simple scene with just a small handful of objects to organize, all conveniently grouped toward the center, usually requires minimal border management. But more often than not we’re dealing with complex scenes containing multiple objects scattered throughout and beyond the frame.

In this Kirkjufellsfoss scene I had to contend with ice, rocks, snow, and flowing water. The biggest problem was an assortment of randomly dispersed rocks jutting from the snow at bottom of the frame, and a railed pathway visible just above the fall. It wasn’t too hard to eliminate the path with careful placement of the top of my frame, but if my entire focus had been on the waterfall the rocks might have been overlooked. Border patrol. Placing the bottom of my frame a little higher would have cut off the large rock near the bottom-center, an important compositional element that combines with the fall to create a virtual diagonal; placing the bottom lower would have introduced more rocks that I’d have had to cut off somewhere. Instead, I was able find a clean line of snow that traversed the entire bottom of my frame: perfect! (And lucky.)

One other important compositional element that would have been easily easy to overlook is the switchback snow-line that enters the frame at the bottom and exits at the top (or vice-versa). Diagonals like this are strong compositional elements that I love including whenever possible, so I chose a horizontal composition to allow room for each switchback to complete. The eye subconsciously follows lines like this, so cutting them off on the edge of the frame is an tacit invitation to exit the scene, something I try to check for when I execute my border patrol.

Of course nature doesn’t often cooperate and I’m usually forced to chop off parts of visual elements. When I do this, I always want it to be a conscious decision that doesn’t make my viewer think that I’ve cut off something that belongs in the scene, or that something jutting in is part of a different scene. Usually when I have to cut something on the edge (often impossible to avoid), I try to do it boldly, somewhere near the middle of the object, to signal that was my intent and not just an oversight.

I realize because these things are often only noticed on a subconscious level they may seem trivial, but every image is house of cards comprised mostly of small decisions, and you never know which one might send it crashing down.


I did end up photographing Kirkjufell this morning, but didn’t get anything that thrilled me.

Minding the Border

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Out of this World

Gary Hart Photography: Fern Cascade, Russian Gulch Fall, Russian Gulch State Park (Mendocino), California

Fern Cascade, Russian Gulch Fall, Mendocino Coast (2012)
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
Canon 70-200 f/4 L
1 second
ISO 400

On a quiet spring morning you step from the car and are greeted by electric-pink rhododendrons basking in splashes of early sunlight. Your arms prickle at the morning chill, but you wisely decide to leave the sweater behind, closing the door as softly as possible to preserve the peace. At a mostly overgrown gap in the foliage, you part the branches and step onto a dirt track that leads into the forest.

Following the trail a short distance, you realize you’re witnessing a competition for sunlight, each rhododendron spreading and stretching to get its share, but within a few hundred yards your route descends into old-growth redwoods benefiting from a multi-century head-start. These trees tower above everything, intercepting all but a handful of the sun’s rays, and the rhododendrons have surrendered.

As the trail descends further, you feel like you’re moving back in time. Ducking a spider web that spans the trail, you privately celebrate that you’re the first to pass this way today. Down here, the sunlight has to work harder to penetrate the canopy so the chill remains, but now its invigorating tingle propels you forward.

Before rounding a hairpin bend you pause, inhale, and listen. Gradually, what seemed like absolute silence reveals itself to be breeze-induced swish from swaying redwood boughs. Shortly after your steps resume, a bird’s cry warns the forest of your approach. You’re dropping faster now, but the tap-tap of your feet is dampened by the trail’s powdery surface.

Soon there’s a new sound, subtle and difficult to separate from the wind in the branches. As the trail’s decline moderates, the rhythm of your footfall slows and the new sound finally separates from wind’s gentle swish: rushing water. The creek is nearby but not yet visible. You follow the trail around fallen redwood that nature has repurposed as a giant fern garden and there it is, springing from the dense understory. With the creek comes more ferns and few flying insects, and a smell that’s pleasantly, paradoxically musty and fresh.

Your path parallels the creek now, spongy beneath your feet. You know the sun is well up, but the morning light is subdued, dusk-like. The creek’s music builds with each step, a soundtrack preparing you for something significant. One more bend and you’re facing your goal, a glistening cataract tumbling thirty vertical feet over mossy logs and rocks, framed by ferns.

You’ve arrived at Russian Gulch Fall, deep in the perpetually damp, green hills east of Mendocino on California’s north coast. Down here it’s easy to imagine a world untouched by humans, and finding this eden empty is heaven. The staircase down to the fall is carved into the hillside and almost invisible; the weathered redwood bridge crossing the creek, just downstream, blends with the surroundings to form the ideal platform from which to imagine a prehistoric reality. Even if you’re not so inclined, it’s difficult to be down here without lapsing into something akin to meditation.

About this image

I’ve been to Russian Gulch Fall a number of times, alone and with other photographers. I try to make it to the fall before midmorning, before the sun rises high enough to penetrate the dense redwood canopy and create too much contrast for my camera to capture.

Gary Hart Photography: Deep Forest Cascade, Russian Gulch Fall, Mendocino Coast

Deep Forest Cascade, Russian Gulch Fall, Mendocino Coast

On this morning I arrived early enough to work the scene for a full two hours before tiny patches of sunlight blighted the forest floor and sent me packing. And work it I did, starting wide and trending tighter as I became more familiar with the scene.

I started by orienting my polarizer, an often overlooked component in a forest water scene like this. Many people think the polarizer’s purpose is to make the sky more blue, but I think its greatest benefit is removing the sheen from foliage and rocks, especially (but not exclusively) when they’re wet. Between the two stops of light lost to the polarizer, and the dense forest dark, achieving a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the water without severely compromising my ISO and f-stop was impossible, so I just went with extreme blur in the water.

The morning air seemed perfectly still, but to guard against an imperceptible breeze nudging the ferns during my exposure, I bumped my ISO to 400. I selected f/11 to ensure front-to-back sharpness, which gave me a one second exposure that created extreme motion blur that I thought made the delicate strands of plummeting water quite nice.

A handful of people came through while I was down there, pausing briefly to savor the scene before continuing on or turning back, but for the most part I had the fall to myself. I photographed until the sun climbed into the treetops, paused a few minutes to bask in the quiet, then started the trudge back to the present.

Keeping the world out

Even when I’m surrounded by people, or signs of human influence, I try to photograph the world as if I’m the only one who has ever been here. It’s not that I don’t like people (I love and need people, as this pandemic has confirmed for me), it’s that I recharge in their absence, and my photography is an extension of that part of me. Whether I’m photographing at a location where I am indeed completely alone, as I was that morning at Russian Gulch Fall, or in the midst of a workshop group, or rubbing elbows with hundreds of gawking tourists (I’m looking at you, Antelope Canyon), I frame my scenes to convey a feeling of solitude.

Many of the images in the gallery below were captured in the presence of others, but the feeling I get from viewing them now is no different than it would be had I been completely alone. While many of my images feature the sky, for this gallery I selected smaller, more intimate scenes that soothe.

Alone in the World

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Paradise Found

Waterfall and Pool, Road to Hana, Maui

Waterfall and Pool, Road to Hana, Maui

Each time I visit a location, no matter how many times I’ve been there, I make a point of finding something new. On Maui several days in advance of my workshop (which starts Monday), I took the drive to Hana with the express purpose of exploring some of the unmarked, intriguing, jungle canyons that I’d “rushed” (a relative term on the serpentine Hana Highway) by on previous visits.

The Hana Highway, also known (less ironically) as The Road to Hana, clings to the intersection of Haleakala’s windward slopes and the relentless Pacific surf. Navigating this harrowing track makes me marvel that it was ever built in the first place—it’s easy to understand why the engineers who carved the route opted whenever possible for hacking into the lush jungle over chiseling into the volcano’s precipitous basalt cliffs. The result is long stretches of road tunneling through a dense green canopy, suddenly interrupted by a vertigo inducing explosion of blue sky and sea.

Along the way each bridge encountered marks that stretch of road’s deepest plunge into the jungle before climbing back toward the ocean. These bridges are also where the waterfalls are. Many can be viewed without exiting the car—lower the windows and hear the roar; others are up or down the canyon, accessible with varying degrees of effort.

Somewhere on the midpoint of the trip I squeezed my car into a wide spot next to a bridge crossing a quiet stream. The lack of parking combined with the rush of oblivious cars indicated that this was not a location of note—exactly the kind of thing I was looking for, so I figured I’d at least check it out. Without my camera I scrambled over some rocks and dropped down to the stream bed. The stream flowed past water-rounded rocks that ranged all the way up to refrigerator-size. From my initial vantage point I saw the canyon had promise but it soon bent left and disappeared. I hopped to the far side and scrambled upstream—as soon as I rounded the bend the canyon’s vertical walls squeezed tighter and several times I wasn’t sure I could go on. But each time I encountered barrier it seemed the solution was to cross to the other side and keep moving forward (there’s metaphor there).

As I advanced I started seeing pictures everywhere: little cascades spilling over rocks, graceful ferns arcing from the mossy walls. What had started as quick feasibility study had somehow evolved into an actual exploration and I was starting to regret leaving my camera in the car. But the canyon seemed to be pulling me forward and I continued, hoping for a more open view that would give me more insight into what lay ahead. Fortunately that came soon enough, when I rounded and came face to face with the end of the road: a vertical cliff, at least 100 feet tall, trimmed by a diaphanous veil of water tumbling into a translucent turquoise pool. Paradise found.

It took me exactly ten minutes to hop back to the car (I timed it), and (distracted by the opportunities along way) maybe thirty minutes to make my way back up with my camera. But despite the distractions there was never any doubt about where I was going to spend the bulk of my time—finding a scene like this is more thrilling to me than the most colorful sunrise or vivid rainbow. The persistent overcast was ideal for the intimate photography I love so much, so most of my efforts concentrated on aspects of the scene, balancing the exposed and submerged rocks with the waterfall’s white strand.

I can’t even tell you that this is my favorite image from that shoot—I just grabbed an image that pleased me and processed it quickly because wanted to share something. I have no illusions that I’m the first person at this spot, not even close. But for the two hours I spent, in the middle of primetime on the Hana Highway, I was completely alone in Paradise and that was enough for me.

Uncharted territory

Fall Color, Elowah Fall, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
28 mm
1/3 second
ISO 400

A few months ago I accepted an invitation to speak to the Cascade Camera Club in Bend, Oregon. With my fall workshops behind me, I decided to take the opportunity to spend a few days exploring the Columbia River Gorge, a place long on my “must see” list. I wasn’t disappointed.

Undeterred by steady rain throughout most of my visit, I found more photo opportunities than I had time to photograph. I’d only been there a couple of hours before it become clear that I’d be coming back, which caused me to change my strategy a bit. Rather than try to squeeze as many photographs as possible into my three days there, I decided to make my priority reconnaissance that would help me be more efficient on future trips.

My emphasis was on waterfalls, something the Gorge has an ample selection of. I was also pleased to find vestiges of fall color, well past prime, but quite nice nevertheless. Though I spent most of my time familiarizing myself with the area, identifying locations and the best conditions for photographing them, I still managed to find plenty of photographs.

The first waterfall I visited was Elowah Fall (about a one mile hike in a steady rain), where I was rewarded with a plethora of yellow leaves (some of which were still falling as I shot) accenting a tumbling cascade just downstream from the fall. Rather than follow the trail all the way to the bridge at the base of the fall, I scrambled about 75 feet down to McCord Creek for a perspective that would allow me to feature the leaves and cascades up close, with Elowah Fall in the background.

When the hill turned out to be a little steeper than I’d anticipated, and the footing a bit slipperier, I had visions of myself reprising Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner’s wild ride through the Columbian jungle in “Romancing the Stone. But I made it to the bottom unscathed (Galen Rowell I’m not), and proceeded to work this scene to within an inch of its life. I don’t think I moved more than fifteen feet from this spot for the hour or more I was there, starting atop a rock directly above the creek and eventually working myself down closer and closer, until I finally ended up standing in the water.

Composing this was mostly a matter of organizing the leaves, rocks, and water into something coherent. By going wide and vertical, I chose to make the leaves the prime focus point, using the creek to guide your eye to the fall itself. F16 ensured depth throughout the frame, while ISO 400 gave me a 1/3 second shutter speed in the limited light, slow enough to blur the water, but fast enough that the water maintained some character. My polarizer was turned to minimize reflections, allowing the color to come through the significant sheen on the wet leaves, rock, and moss, and on the surface of the dark water.

Land before time

Before Time, Russian Gulch Fall, Mendocino Redwoods, California
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
28 mm
2.5 seconds
ISO 400

Near the top of the canyon, on late-spring mornings electric-pink rhododendrons bask in splashes of early sunlight. Follow the trail a short distance and it seems that you’re witnessing a competition for light, the rhododendrons spreading and stretching to get their share, but within a few hundred yards your route descends into old-growth redwoods benefiting from a multi-century head-start. The redwood here tower over everything, intercepting all but a few of the sun’s rays, and the rhododendrons are gone.

At some point down the trail you stop. You hear nothing but a breeze-induced swishing from the trees and maybe a bird warning the forest of your approach. Further down the trail there’s a new sound, at first subtle and difficult to disconnect from the wind in the branches—you’re dropping fast now; as the breeze abates the new sound separates into rushing water. Soon the trail levels and a creek appears at your feet. With the creek are ferns and few flying insects, and a smell that’s pleasantly, paradoxically musty and fresh.

Your path parallels the creek now, spongy beneath your feet. You know the sun is out, but the light is subdued, dusk-like. The water’s music builds with each step, the way a movie soundtrack prepares you for what’s in store. One more bend and there it is, a glistening cataract tumbling over mossy logs and rocks and framed with ferns.

You’ve found Russian Gulch Fall, deep in the perpetually damp redwoods east of Mendocino. For someone like me, who likes to imagine a world untouched by the hand of man, this is heaven. The staircase down to the fall is carved into the hillside and almost invisible; the weathered redwood bridge crossing the creek just downstream makes a perfect platform from which observe and descend without conscious thought into a prehistoric reality. Even if you’re not so inclined, it’s difficult to be down here without lapsing into something akin to meditation.

About this image

I’ve been to Russian Gulch Fall a number of times now, alone and with other photographers. I try to make it to the fall before midmorning, before the sun rises high enough to penetrate the dense redwood canopy and create too much contrast for my camera to capture.

On my latest visit I stayed until the sun climbed into the treetops. Most of my time there was spent with my telephoto lens, isolating aspects of the scene (like this). But shortly before leaving I put on a wide lens and framed the entire scene. Rather than compose the sun out (as I usually would), I added it to the top of my frame, using the trees to block all but a small sliver of the brilliant disk and dialing in a small aperture (f16) to create a sunburst. A polarizer eliminated subtle but pervasive glare on the rocks, water, and foliage, allowing the rich green to stand out. There was absolutely no wind, so I was comfortable with a 2 1/2 second exposure (but still verified the sharpness by magnifying the image on my LCD).

Photographic reality: Expand time

Cascading Ferns, Russian Gulch Fall, Mendocino
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
81 mm
.6 seconds
ISO 400

“Photography’s gift isn’t the ability to reproduce your reality, it’s the ability to expand it.”

(The fifth installment of my series on photographic reality.)

There’s probably no better example of the difference between a camera’s reality and yours than the way we handle motion. In my previous post I compared the camera’s ability to accumulate light to the serial, real-time processing of seamless instants we humans do. In a static world, given the right exposure a photographic image can be rendered fairly literally (missing dimension notwithstanding). But photograph a world in motion and wonderful things start to happen.

A slow shutter speed allows a sensor to record the position of everything it “sees” during the exposure, expanding one frame into a recreation of every instant of its capture. When the capture includes objects in motion, the result a scene very different from the human experience: Rushing water smoothes to white, wind-whipped flowers blur to color, and Earth’s rotation renders stars as parallel streaks of light.

Blurred water

Labeled as cliché and unnatural by people who don’t understand photography, blurred water gets a bum rap. The cliché part ignores the fact that most rapidly moving water photographed in the best light (shade or overcast) is virtually impossible to not to blur. The “unnatural” label just cracks me up—when asked, detractors reply that freezing the motion (the only other option) would be more natural, to which I reply (usually to myself only, tongue firmly clamped between teeth), how many times have you seen water drops frozen in midair? The truth is, the camera and human eye handle motion differently, and photographers need to accept and appreciate it. Once you can accept that blurring water is often the best way to imply motion in a static medium, the fun begins.

First you need to understand that you can’t just blur every moving river, stream, or wave. Motion blur requires a slow shutter speed, impossible with water in full sunlight without a neutral density filter to cut the light. So you need to start by finding moving water darkened by overcast or shade (any sunlight in the frame at all will overexpose and likely ruin the image). Whitewater is best; if you find yourself photographing whitewater in shade or overcast, the question isn’t how to blur, it’s how much?

Unfortunately there’s no magic shutter speed for motion blur. The amount of blur you get depends on the speed of the water, how close you are to the water, how much you’re zoomed, and the angle of your capture relative to the direction of motion (and maybe some other things I’ve overlooked). And while there isn’t a ideal amount of blur, I find that there’s sweet spot (that changes with all the variables above) between very slight blur that’s not quite enough and just appears scratchy, and extreme blur that’s pure white. In some tight compositions of extremely fast water you get beautiful slight blur at 1/1o second; with wider compositions and/or slower water, the same amount of blur requires 3/4 second or longer. And achieving noticeable blur in a wide capture of a distant waterfall may require several seconds of exposure. My advice is to bracket your shutter speeds, varying your ISO and/or f-stop (take care that you don’t choose an f-stop that compromises your depth of field)—you’ll find the more you do it, the more you’ll get a sense for what works.

In the image of Russian Gulch Fall near Mendocino (at the top of the post), I arrived early enough to allow a full two hours to work the scene before sunlight blighted the forest floor. And work it I did, starting wide and trending tighter as I became more familiar with the scene. The dense forest dark didn’t allow a fast enough shutter speed for effective slight blur without severely compromising ISO and aperture (depth of field), so I just went with the extreme blur. Even though the air seemed perfectly still, I was a little concerned about slight wind motion in the ferns, so I bumped to ISO 400 and f11 (at 80 mm, f11 gave me about a 15 foot range of front-to-back sharpness–just enough). This resulted in a one second exposure that caused extreme blur (I call it extreme because I didn’t notice much difference between one second and five seconds) that, as it turned out, made the delicate strands of water quite lovely.

One other often overlook component of a forest water scene is a polarizer: I wouldn’t even attempt a scene like this without the glare reducing benefit of a polarizer. (And a polarizer has the added bonus of reducing the light by a couple of stops.)

Bristlecone Star Trails, White Mountains, California

Star trails

Star trails—parallel streaks of light caused by Earth’s rotation during a long exposure–are an extreme example of the same motion effect that blurs water. I find that moonless nights work best for star trails—a moonlit sky is usually too washed out for effective star trail photography, while the limited light of a moonless night maximizes the motion by allowing even the dimmest stars to shine through.

On a moonless night, a large aperture and high ISO can record enough light to allow a relatively fast 30-second shutter speed that records stars as near pinpoints of light, but doesn’t allow enough light to fully eliminate the foreground. On the other hand, a slower shutter speed that accumulates enough light to reveal the foreground also results in streaking stars—star trails. An added advantage of star trail photography is that the exposures are long enough to enable a smaller aperture (more DOF and better image quality) and lower ISO (less noise).

Some people have great success combining a series short-exposure frames to create a single star trail image, but all of my images are single-click capture (that’s just me, I have no problem with those who choose to blend multiple captures) using a trial and error approach I’ve worked out over the years. I start by taking a test (throw-away) exposure at my camera’s highest ISO and lens’s widest aperture, then tweaking the exposure and repeating until I get it right. I’ve also found that in the near total darkness of a moonless night, these test exposures are the best way to ensure my composition and focus are okay. Once I have my exposure, composition, and focus right (it usually takes two or three images), I figure out how many stops of light my desired shutter speed (usually around thirty minutes) adds to my successful test exposure, then subtract an equal amount of light through a combination of aperture and ISO reductions. (I’ll try to post a more thorough tutorial on my approach to star trails soon.)

I photographed the above bristlecone pine against backdrop of streaking stars with three friends who were light painting the tree—sweeping the beam of a bright flashlight across the trunk and branches for the first few seconds of exposure to illuminate the tree’s weathered wood enough for their cameras to capture the exquisite detail. But all my images use only natural light, so I opted for a silhouette, positioning myself as low as I could get to juxtapose as much of the tree against the sky as possible.  I started my exposure as soon as the others’ light painting ended (no more than ten seconds), and for the next twenty-two minutes the four of us reclined there at nearly 11,000 feet, watching the sky and waiting for the exposure to complete. We talked and laughed some, but mostly we just appreciated a sky dense with stars and silence so complete (and foreign) that it almost hurt my ears. We were well down the road toward our hotel in Bishop before my camera finished its processing, and it wasn’t until I was able to view the image on my laptop that I knew I’d had a success.

The Road to Hana

Serenity, Waterfall and Pool, Hana Highway, Maui
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
45 mm
.6 seconds
ISO 200

In my parents’ day, Maui’s “Road to Hana” was something to be achieved. Negotiating the narrow, undulating, muddy, potholed, serpentine, lonely jungle track was a badge of honor, something akin to scaling Everest or walking on the moon.

Today’s Hana road has been graded, paved, and widened just enough to accommodate a double yellow line that creates the illusion of space for one car in each direction. This sanitized road, now dubbed the “Hana Highway,” hosts a daily bi-directional swarm of tourists whose priorities range from not missing a single leaf, all the way to being the first to cross the finish line in Hana or back in Kapalua. Unfortunately, priorities (among other things) collide at each of the 56 bridges that, due to budget constraints, remain at their original one-lane width. Add to this mix laboring bicyclists, a sky that pinballs between blinding sunshine and windshield-obliterating downpour, an assortment of impatient and sometimes hostile locals (they’re the ones whose music you hear before their pickup rounds the turn), an occasional ten-wheel dump truck large enough to scrape roadside foliage with both mirrors, and  random mongooses that pop from the jungle with Wac-A-Mole predictability, and navigating the Road to Hana feels more like a Hope/Crosby movie than a tropical vacation.

But one thing hasn’t changed: The Road to Hana experience remains a living embodiment of the tired axiom, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” Hana itself is a pleasant, Hawaiian town with nice beaches and a small but eclectic assortment of restaurants and lodging. But with every hairpin turn or precipitous drop on the way there, you can’t help feeling that you’ve plopped into Heaven on Earth. The Hana road’s 50-plus miles alternate between dark, jungle tunnels and cliff-hugging ocean panoramas, punctuated by waterfalls (some of which start above you and complete beneath you, on the other side of the car), colorful foliage, and the constant potential for a rainbow. And oh yeah—banana bread. The best banana bread you’ve ever tasted. Still warm.

Sonya and I set out for Hana early Thursday morning—not quite as early as we’d planned, but we hoped early enough. Finding the first few miles beautiful and relatively easy going, we naively congratulated ourselves for our early start. But somewhere around mile-ten, as the curves tightened, the road shrank, and the photography improved, our pace slowed considerably and we found ourselves swept up in the tourist wave. Parking at every scenic turnout was a battle that often resulted in extremely, uh, “creative” solutions. Nevertheless, after a day packed with a year’s worth of scenery, we rolled into Hana at about 5 pm, equal parts exhausted and hungry.

Approaching Hana we’d glanced a sign for a restaurant called “Café Romantica,” offering “Gourmet, organic vegetarian food.” Since Sonya’s a vegetarian, and I don’t eat red meat, meals on the road are sometimes problematic and we were excited about the possibility of rewarding ourselves with a good meal. But the sign offered no specifics and despite our vigilance we found no hint of its existence anywhere.

Once we were comfortably ensconced in our (amazing) room, I pulled out my iPhone and looked up Café Romantica. I found it on Yelp, but no address, website, or phone number anywhere. The Yelp reviews were both amazing (nearly unanimous 5 stars) and intriguing (references to a truck beside the road and bizarre hours) enough that I knew we had to find it. Clicking the “Directions” link on Yelp returned a Google map with a dot on the road about ten miles south of town (in the opposite direction from which we’d arrived)–still no address, but at least solid clue.

In a perfect world we’d have taken an hour or so to clean up, enjoy the setting, and recharge after the drive, but one of the Yelp reviews warned the restaurant closes at 7:00, so we sucked it up and headed right back out. (This might be a good time to mention that the day prior Sonya and I had driven to the top of Haleakala. This is a harrowing drive in its own right, spiraling from sea level to over 10,000 feet in less than thirty miles. On the way down the mountain the brake warning light in our rental blinked on and off intermittently. And on the drive to Hana that morning, our tire pressure warning light had come on a couple of times.)

Twilight was fast approaching, but we felt confident in the Google map on my iPhone, with its bold red dot representing Café Romantica and a blue dot that perfectly pinpointed our location. I mean, even without an address, how hard could it be? Since there’s only one road in and out of town, I figured we’d just drive into the jungle until we found the restaurant where the dots meet.

I watched the road and the dashboard warning lights (so far so good), while Sonya monitored the dots, watching the blue dot inch closer to the red one far slower than we’d expected. It became immediately clear that the road out of Hana is even more challenging than the road into Hana. It’s narrower, shrinking to one lane for long stretches, and much rougher. And while the road into Hana seemed to be about 80-percent fellow gawking (but harmless) tourists, the only vehicles we encountered south of town were clearly locals who seemed to be enforcing their own secret roadway protocol, the prime principle being that, no matter what the hazard or consequence, we are to get out of their way.

About five miles (twenty minutes) into the jungle we rounded a particularly narrow corner to find ourselves headlights-to-headlights with a careening pickup who instantly opted for his horn instead of his brakes. After deftly braking and swerving, I glanced in the mirror and saw that pickup driver had finally discovered his brakes, and in fact had also stumbled upon his reverse gear and gas pedal and as accelerating back in our direction. I boldly applied the gas and disappeared around the next bend, then spent the next two miles with an eye on the mirror. (I’ll probably never understand that little encounter, but fortunately we never saw the guy again.) The road grew more remote with each turn, and we started imagining engine and tire noises–at one point I rolled down the window to see if I could figure out where that tire noise was coming from, but the road noise was drowned out by jungle sounds. My attention alternated between the road in front of us, the rearview mirror, and the dash, while Sonya kept a vigilant eye on the dots and we traded to “Deliverance” jokes to ease the tension.

By the time our dots merged, darkness was almost complete and we were pretty much resigned to the reality that our dinner plan had descended to wild goose chase status. According to Yelp, Café Romantica clings to a remote, vine-covered cliff about two hundred vertical feet above the Pacific—there’s not enough room there for a toaster, let alone an entire restaurant. But at that point we were just happy to find a place wide enough to turn around.

The drive back in the dark was less eventful (and no doubt due to my vigilant scrutiny, the previous day’s warning lights never did return), though at one point we were tailgated by a group of partying teenagers who pushed us along until I found a place wide enough to pull over safely. Needless to say, we were quite hungry by the time we rolled into town at around 7:30. Given Hana’s limited selection of restaurants, its reputation for shutting down early, and our specific culinary needs, we inventoried the food we had in the car and decided rice cakes, graham crackers, and fruit could get us to breakfast without starving.

About two blocks from our hotel a string of lights on the left caught my attention and I slammed on my brakes while my brain struggled to comprehend what I saw. Suspended above a small motorhome on an otherwise vacant lot was an awning with the words, “Café Romantica.” It was so close to our room that the walk there would have been shorter than the walk to our car had been. Besides a man putting away chairs and tables at the back of the property and a woman puttering inside the motorhome, we couldn’t see much activity. Nevertheless, I executed a quick u-turn and parked out front.

The motorhome had an attached awning covering a short counter with three or four stools. Behind a sliding window above the counter puttered the woman. I approached the window, crossed my fingers, and asked if they were still open. She shook her and apologized politely, explaining that she was almost out food. But as I started to summarize our futile hunt of the last hour she must have heard the desperation in my voice, because immediately her face warmed and she reassured us in a most maternal tone that she’d take care of us. She introduced herself as Lori Lee and asked where we were from.

About then another couple walked up, and rather than turn them away, Lori Lee rattled off to the four of us a handful of the most mouth watering, eclectic vegetarian entrées imaginable: rellenos, quiche, curry, …. She qualified each offering with the proviso that she only had one or two servings of each, but since they all sounded so good, the four of us had no problem negotiating who’d get what.

Lori Lee entertained us with friendly conversation as we sipped a wonderful soup (that also gave us great hope for what was to follow) she’d offered to hold us over until dinner was ready. Rather than make you watch me chew, I’ll just say that dinner was so good that we ordered dessert (something we never do), and even added one of her remaining entrees to-go for lunch the next day.

One of my tenets is that things always work out. I have to confess that our drive that evening severely tested my conviction, but without our little misdirection adventure, Sonya and I would have been deprived of probably the most memorable experience of our trip, and a restaurant experience I’ll never forget.

A few words about this picture

This little waterfall is just one of dozens visible along the entire length of the Hana Highway. Many are quite dramatic and stimulating; others, like this one, are more subdued and soothing. I must admit that by the time we pulled up to this fall I was verging waterfall overload. I’d found that my 70-200 lens worked best for most falls because it allowed me to isolate aspects of the scene and also to surgically remove tourists at some of the more popular falls, and I’d started exiting the car without the rest of my gear.

But cresting the small hill that provided a vantage point, I realized I’d left the car with only my 24-105 lens. Rather than walking back to the car (a hike all of maybe 150 feet), I decided to pick my way down to the pool’s edge. And had I not done that, I would have completely missed the beautiful rocks just beneath the water’s surface.

To ensure sharpness throughout the frame, I stopped down to f16, dropped to my knees, and focused on the large rock visible just beneath the surface (behind the protruding rocks). I carefully oriented my polarizer to remove glare on the nearby water and rocks, but not so much that I lost all of the fall’s reflection in the quiet water. I clicked several frames, all vertical. Some included the entire fall, but I like the mystery of this composition, the way it lets you imagine the rest of the fall and the scene surrounding it.

About thirty seconds after I snapped this a teenage girl jumped into the water right in front of me and the shot was gone. Fortunately I had all that I needed and I returned to the car a happy photographer.

Join me in my

2013 Maui photo workshop, March 11-15

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