In Defense of the Tripod

Gary Hart Photography: Spring Sunset, Rowena Crest, Columbia River Gorge

Spring Sunrise, Rowena Crest, Columbia River Gorge
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
Canon 70-200 f/4L
1/10 second
F/8
ISO 800

This is another 6-year-old “brand new” image, just excavated from the depths of my 2014 folder

Photography without compromise

If you think the main reason to use a tripod is to avoid camera-shake, you’re mistaken. In this day of phenomenal high ISO performance and stabilized bodies and lenses, acceptable hand-held sharpness is possible in the vast majority of images. But here’s a reality that’s tough to deny: The steadiest hand-held image will never be sharper than it would have been if it had been properly executed using a sturdy tripod. And that’s not even the best reason to use a tripod.

Each camera has an ideal ISO—the quality of any image that doesn’t use it is compromised, sometimes just slightly, other times a lot. So if hand-holding an images forces you out of your camera’s ideal f-stop to reduce camera shake, you’ve made an unnecessary compromise. “Photographer’s light” (such as sunrise, sunset, and stormy or cloudy weather) only compounds the problem. While most of these compromises can be more or less remedied in post-processing, and many may not show up at all on a fifteen-inch laptop screen or in an 8×10 print, most serious photographers like the option to print their images large—and nothing reveals flaws more than a large print.

Let’s imagine you just got a request for a 24×36 print of the pride of your portfolio—a (hand-held) Yosemite Valley moonrise telephoto, captured at ISO 800 (it looks great in your Flickr gallery)—for the reception area of your mother-in-law’s law firm (a real coup after that whole llama-farm investment fiasco). So what do you tell her when you go to hang it and she asks why it looks “so mushy,” and what’s with all that “sludge in the shadows”? Oops—looks like another Thanksgiving at the kids’ table.

Not only does every camera have an ideal ISO, every scene has an ideal f-stop. Anyone with a camera can snap the lateral (left/right, up/down) dimensions of a scene, but artistic photographers understand that the key to rendering our three-dimensional world in photography’s two-dimensional medium is creating the illusion of the missing dimension, depth, by composing elements throughout the frame, from near to far. Since depth of field is controlled by the f-stop, of all the exposure variables at a landscape photographer’s disposal, f-stop is the least negotiable. In a static scene (as most landscape images are), the tripod removes motion (camera shake) from the equation, allowing you to select the ideal f-stop at your camera’s best ISO.

But what about a scene that’s all on the same plane, where depth isn’t a factor? The f-stop still matters because every lens has a single f-stop that renders the sharpest result. For some lenses the sharpness difference between f-stops is small, for others it’s significant. But it’s always there. So even when DOF isn’t a consideration, I choose my lens’s sharpest f-stop, usually f/5.6-f/11. Some photographers put each lens through extensive testing to determine its sweet spot; I usually go with f/8 or f/11 unless I see clear evidence that a lens is sharper at a different f-stop. I also try to avoid f-stops smaller than f/11 unless the scene requires extra depth—not only do lenses tend to be less sharp at their extreme f-stops, at f-stops smaller than f/11, diffraction starts to rear its ugly head.

The bottom line: By removing camera shake from the equation, a tripod frees you to choose the best f-stop for your composition, without compromise.

An image is not a snap, it’s a process

Still not convinced? Consider also the control a tripod gives to your composition process. Managing the relationship of elements in the frame is usually the single most important compositional decision a photographer can make. Relationships are especially important when you’ve included the front-to-back objects so essential to enhancing the illusion of depth. Photographing on a tripod gives you the time to consider each element in your frame and its relationship to other elements and eliminate distractions, and the flexibility to evaluate and refine until everything’s perfect.

When setting up an image, I try to achieve a sense of visual balance throughout my frame. I think about the path for my viewers’ eyes to follow, and where I want them to pause or land. I consider the elements that will move or stop the eye, and potential distractions that might pull the eye away, and merged elements that rob the scene of depth. With these things in mind, I position myself and frame my composition, identifying the focus point and f-stop for the ideal depth of field. Having my composition frozen in place atop my tripod enables me to make these adjustments deliberately and methodically, and helps me ensure that one tweak here didn’t break something else over there.

After each click, I step back and study the image on the LCD, imagine it framed large and hanging on a wall. I scrutinize my composition for possible composition and depth of field improvements, and check the histogram for exposure problems. With a tripod I can do all this at my pace, taking as much time as necessary, knowing that when I’m ready to make adjustments, the image I just reviewed will be waiting right there in my viewfinder atop my tripod, exactly as I captured it, ready for me to enhance.

And finally

Other benefits of a tripod I’ve almost come to take for granted. For example, I sometimes use graduated neutral density filters but find the holders that screw onto the end of my lens awkward. With a tripod, it’s easy to position my GND and hold it with my fingers during exposure (I don’t even own a filter holder). During long exposures I’ll sometimes move the GND up and down slightly to disguise the transition—also easy on a tripod.

A tripod also makes it easy to use a polarizer to reduce color-robbing glare, something I can do on virtually every daylight shot because unless something in my scene is moving, the two stops of light I lose to a polarizer are irrelevant when I’m on a tripod.

And advanced digital techniques such as image stitching (for panoramas or high resolution capture), HDR (high dynamic range blending of multiple images for exposure management), or focus blending to increase depth of field are all easier on a tripod. As is old-fashioned mirror lock-up to reduce mirror-slap induced vibration. And live-view focusing, the best way to ensure precise focus, is a snap on a tripod (and pretty much impossible hand-held).

For example

Gary Hart Photography: Spring Sunset, Rowena Crest, Columbia River Gorge

Spring Sunrise, Rowena Crest, Columbia River Gorge

There was a lot going on in this scene. I had wildflowers everywhere, the Columbia River, clouds, a freeway, railroad tracks, power lines, and lots of other photographers and wildflower peepers. Organizing all this into a coherent image, including the good stuff and eliminating the distractions, required no small measure of planning and execution.

I’d been wandering the hillsides of the Tom McCall Preserve on the Rowena Crest in the Columbia River Gorge for about an hour, playing with compositions and identifying potential subjects. I could see the potential for a colorful sunrise and wanted to be ready when (if) it happened. I wanted a foreground subject to anchor my frame, and needed to eliminate the freeway, tracks, wires, and people, and finally landed on this spot about 15 minutes before sunrise.

Rather than wait for the color to arrive, I started working on my composition immediately, choosing a height about two feet above the ground—any higher and the power lines would come into view; any lower and the flowers and near cliff (on the left) would merge with the opposite bank. To compress the foreground/background distance, I moved back a little and chose my 70-200 lens, putting the bottom of the frame a few inches below the yellow balsam root to frame the flowers with a little green, and taking care not to cut off any of the large, ear-shaped leaves.

The clouds weren’t very interesting, but I knew that if they colored up they’d add an important layer to my frame, so I made sure to include a strong stripe of clouds across the top of my frame. I liked the nearby sprinkling of lupine and other wildflowers, so I went wide enough to include a few without diluting my primary clump of wildflowers.

The final step was to determine depth of field and focus. To make the flowers’ sharpness stand out even more, I slightly softened the background by dialing to f/8 and choosing a focus point closer than the hyperfocal distance.

Each of these framing decisions were part of an iterative process that took more than a dozen clicks before everything was just as I wanted it. Because I was working on a tripod, I was able to click a frame, evaluate all of the variables, and make small refinements. The tripod also gave me the luxury of straightening to unkink my back between clicks. When I was sure everything was right, I stood and waited (fingers crossed) for the color. When the sky did finally color-up, an intermittent breeze came with it, forcing me to compromise my ISO (ISO 800) to freeze the flowers’ movement. But because I was on a tripod, I was able to stand and watch the scene confident in the knowledge that my composition was fixed, and click my remote release whenever there was a lull.


Workshop Schedule || Purchase Prints

Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.

Natural Order

Gary Hart Photography: Raindrops on Poppy, Sierra Foothills, California

Raindrops on Poppy, Sierra Foothills, California

I’m often asked if I placed a leaf, moved a rock, or “Photoshopped” a moon into an image. Usually the tone is friendly curiosity, but sometimes it’s tinged with hints of suspicion that can border on accusation. While these questions are an inevitable part of being a photographer today, I suspect that I get more than my share because I aggressively seek out naturally occurring subjects to isolate and emphasize in my frame. But regardless of the questioner’s tone, my answer is always a cheerful and unapologetic, “No.”

We all know photographers who have no qualms about staging their scenes to suit their personal aesthetics. The rights and wrongs of that are an ongoing debate I won’t get into, other than to say that I have no problem when photographers arrange their scenes openly, with no intent to deceive. But photography must be a source of pleasure, and my own photographic pleasure derives from discovering and revealing nature, not manufacturing it. I don’t like arranging scenes because I have no illusions that I can improve nature’s order, and am confident that there’s enough naturally occurring beauty to keep me occupied for the rest of my life.

Order vs. chaos

As far as I’m concerned, nature is inherently ordered. In fact, in the grand scheme, “nature” and “order” are synonyms. But humans go to such lengths to control, contain, and manage the natural world that we’ve created a label for our failure to control nature: Chaos. Despite its negative connotation, what humans perceive as “chaos” is actually just a manifestation of the universe’s inexorable push toward natural order.

Let’s take a trip

Imagine all humans leave Earth for a scenic tour of the Milky Way. While we’re gone, no lawns are mowed, no buildings maintained, no fires extinguished, no floods controlled, no Starbucks built. Let’s say we return in 100 Earth years*. While the state of things would no doubt be perceived as chaotic, the reality is that our planet would in fact be closer to its natural state. And the longer we’re away, the more human-imposed “order” would be replaced by natural order.

* Since this is my fantasy, I’ve chartered a spaceship that accommodates all of humankind and travels at 90 percent of the speed of light. While Earth has indeed aged 100 years during our holiday, we travelers return only a year older. (Dubious? Don’t take my word for it, ask Albert Einstein.)

What does all this have to do with raindrops on a poppy?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Read the story of this saturated shoot in my All Wet blog post

Venturing outdoors with a camera and the mindset that nature is inherently ordered makes me feel like a treasure hunter—I know the treasure is there, I just have to find it. Patterns and relationships hidden by human interference and the din of 360 degree multi-sensory input, further obscured by human bias, snap into coherence when I find the right perspective.

Finding water droplets to photograph can be as simple as picking a subject and squirting it with a spray bottle of water or (better still) glycerin. But what fun is that? If I’d have been staging this, I probably would have insisted on an open poppy, maybe with more and bigger drops. But that’s not what Nature gave me this soggy afternoon. So I photographed this raindrop festooned poppy (and many others) the old fashioned way—within minutes I was as wet as the poppy, and (to quote the immortal Cosmo Kramer) lovin’ every minute of it.


Finding Natural Order

Click an image for a closer look and to view slide show.

 

All Wet

Gary Hart Photography: Raindrops on Poppy, Sierra Foothills

Raindrops on Poppy, Sierra Foothills

Last Monday seemed like the perfect day for a poppy shoot in the foothills. I had the afternoon wide open—with the California media buzzing about this year’s “superbloom,” plus a forecast promising ideal conditions (calm wind and thin clouds), I couldn’t help dreaming about my own images of poppy-saturated fields. What could possibly go wrong?

Getting on the road proved a little more problematic than anticipated, but by 2 p.m. I was on my way, encouraged forward by an occasional poppy beside the freeway. Adding to my optimism, the aforementioned clouds were just right: thick enough to diffuse the sunlight, but not so dark that they’d close the sun-loving poppies. I exited the freeway as soon as possible, opting to drive the 2-lane roads that follow the hills’ natural contours. While my preferred my route isn’t the most direct, it is the most scenic, winding me through oak-studded hills deeply greened by this year’s copious winter rain. Though this drive takes a little more than an hour, the time passes quickly with so much pastoral beauty filling my windshield.

I knew the poppies in Northern California were starting late due to our relatively late winter, but was fairly confident I’d allowed enough time for the golden hillsides to kick in. In a good spring, poppies dot the entire route, but by the time I was southbound on scenic Highway 49, I started realizing I hadn’t seen any poppies since leaving Sacramento. Soon I was pretty resigned to the fact that this year’s superbloom was limited Southern California, and wondered if I’d find any poppies at all. Then it started to rain.

Gary Hart Photography: Yosemite in a Raindrop, Valley View, Yosemite

Yosemite in a Raindrop, Valley View, Yosemite

As easy as it would have been easy to cut my losses and turn around, I simply changed my expectations. With fresh memories of a brief but rewarding raindrop experience in Yosemite, I realized I didn’t need to find entire hillsides covered with poppies, that even a single poppy could be nice. So, rather than zipping along Highway 49 at 50 MPH (-ish) looking for golden slopes, I started exploring some of the quieter tributary roads and quickly realized that there were a sprinkling of poppies out.

I ended up spending two hours photographing a small patch of poppies I found on a dead-end road near Jackson. It rained the entire time, but with rain gear in my car for just these situations, I stayed warm and dry. My camera? Not so much. I tried working with an umbrella, but after a few minutes realized I was one arm short and just decided to test the water resistance of my Sony a7RIII. I’m happy to say that it passed with flying colors, as did the Sony 100-400 GM.

In the two weeks since I shot those raindrops in Yosemite, I’ve been plotting how to get even closer. On the Yosemite shoot I added extension tubes to my 100-400; this afternoon I returned to the extension tubes, but added my 2X teleconverter (which, I might add, handled the rain perfectly as well). I thought I’d try a few lens/extension-tube/teleconverter configurations, but I was having so much fun that I ended up shooting this way the entire time.

On a rainy day, light is already limited. But adding a teleconverter and extension tubes compounds the light problem. Because f/stop is a ratio with focal length as the numerator and lens opening as the denominator, adding a teleconverter and extension increases the focal length, resulting in less light reaching the sensor. A 2x teleconverter cuts two stops of light, which means my 100-400 that’s normally wide upon f/5.6 at 400mm becomes f/11 at (the teleconverted) 800mm (400mm x 2). And adding extension tubes also extends the lens’s effective focal length, further reducing the light reaching the sensor. To compensate for all this missing light, I shot everything this afternoon at either ISO 1600 or ISO 3200.

One of the cool things about this kind of photography is how different the world looks through the viewfinder. I love putting my eye to the viewfinder, moving the lens around, and changing focus slowly to see what snaps into view. In this case I was looking for a poppy to isolate from its nearby surroundings, but that also has something nearby (usually another flower) that I could soften enough to complement without competing. Sometimes I had a general idea of a subject before looking through my camera, other times I’d just explore with my lens until something stopped me.

Because depth of field shrinks not only with focal length, but also with focus distance, every frame I clicked this afternoon had a paper-thin range of sharpness. With such a shallow depth of field, none of these images would have been possible without a tripod. With my composition set, I’d pick a focus point (usually, but not always, a prominent raindrop), focus in my viewfinder until I was “certain” it was sharp, then instantly debunk my that “certainty” by magnifying the image in my viewfinder. This little exercise quickly taught me that with such a small margin for error, the best I could reliably achieve without magnifying the view was almost sharp enough, making pre-click magnification an essential part of my focus workflow (instead of just a cursory focus-check).

Each time I do this kind of photography I learn something. In this case it was how far away I could be and still fill my frame with a poppy. All of the images I captured this afternoon were from four to six feet away.

I wrapped up when the sky darkened further and the rain started coming down pretty hard. I couldn’t believe I’d been out there two hours, and spent most of the drive strategizing new ideas for the next time.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Getting the Drop on Nature

Click an image for a closer look and to view slide show.

Macro in Spirit

Gary Hart Photography: New Poppy, Merced River Canyon, California

New Poppy, Merced River Canyon, California

It’s poppy season in California, and this is turning out to be a banner year. I’ve already enjoyed one nice poppy shoot, but things are just getting started in Northern California so I hope there are more to come.

When I photograph poppies, I don’t always use my macro lens. Even though my objective is similar to what I’d accomplish with a macro lens—a close view that excludes or blurs surrounding distractions—I often like to experiment with the creative flexibility other lenses provide. This also means that many of my so-called macro images technically aren’t macro at all.

What is macro photography?

The generally accepted definition of a macro image is an image in which the subject is at least as large on the sensor as it is in reality. When we photograph an expansive landscape with a full frame camera, we’re cramming the entire scene onto a 24mm x 36mm (864 mm2) rectangle (“cropped” sensors have even less real estate to work with, while medium format sensors have more). But imagine your landscape includes a single flower, and you want to get a closer look. As you zoom your lens tighter on the flower, or position yourself closer, the amount of the scene you capture shrinks, while everything remaining in the frame expands. Pretty soon the flower occupies most of the frame. Your image doesn’t achieve macro status until the still visible area of the flower spans 864 mmor larger.

It’s important to note that many camera manufactures will label a lens’s (or a point-and-shoot camera’s) closest focus point “macro” when all they really mean is just plain “close focus.” Getting closer will make the flower bigger, but unless you can focus close enough to reach that 1:1 threshold, it’s not a true macro.

So, by the generally accepted definition, this close image of a recently sprouted poppy doesn’t qualify as “macro.” But in my mind it’s macro in spirit because I use an intimate perspective with a single point of focus, in this case to emphasize the poppy’s translucent petals and graceful curves. My goal in these pseudo-macro images is make viewers look closer than they normally would, and (I hope) to help viewers see the poppy as more than a pretty gold flower.

To achieve that for this image, I tried something a little different. Shooting this afternoon with my Sony a7RIII, I started with my Sony 100-400 lens to allow a little working distance from the various poppies I targeted, then switched to my Sony 90mm macro to move closer to my subjects. When I wanted to get closer still, I brought out my extension tubes and switched back and forth between these two lenses. But the more time I spent out there, the closer I wanted to get.

Sprawling on the ground to work on this tiny new poppy, for something different I decided to try my 24-105 lens. At 24mm I was able to focus very close, but even wide open I had too much depth of field to properly blur the background, so I did what many say you’re not supposed to do: use extension tubes with a wide angle lens. With this arrangement the focus tolerance was microscopic, but when the poppy finally did snap into focus, my lens was so close they nearly touched.

I’m a tripod evangelist because in my approach to every scene, from macro to landscape, an image is not simply a click, it’s an incremental process: compose, expose, click, evaluate, refine, repeat until satisfied. Refining and repeating a standard landscape without a tripod is difficult enough; with macro and its minuscule tolerances, working without a tripod becomes nearly impossible.

For an image like this one, the tripod provides and another, less heralded advantage. This tiny flower was just a few inches above the ground, forcing me to sprawl in the weeds and awkwardly contort my body to avoid smashing the surrounding poppies. Holding this position as I refined my composition and waited for the breeze to pause was just plain uncomfortable, so every minute or two I had to stand to stretch and rest my cramped and fatigued muscles and joints. But each time I was ready to return to my subject, the composition I’d left was waiting patiently, right there in my viewfinder.

Because of the breeze, I bumped my ISO to 1600, which my a7RIII handles without even breathing hard. Freezing the poppy’s motion at 1/1000 of a second wasn’t hard, but because every time the wind moved the poppy, the focus point changed, I had to wait for the wind to die long enough for the poppy to return to the equilibrium position I’d focused on. The orange blobs you see in the background are more poppies, less than 8 inches away.

Read more about my approach to photographing wildflowers

Workshop Schedule || Purchase Prints


My Favorite Flower

Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show

 

The limitations of human vision

Gary Hart Photography: Wildflowers and Sunstar, Mt. Adams, Columbia River Gorge

Wildflowers and Sunstar, Mt. Adams, Columbia River Gorge
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
1/125 second
F/20
ISO 800

Visual “Truth” is more relative than real

“Is that the way it really looked?” What photographer hasn’t heard that question by skeptical viewers? For years I used to feel slightly defensive when answering, as if my honesty was in question. Now I simply try to educate the skeptic.

Without getting too philosophical, it’s important to understand that, like the camera’s, the human view of the universe is both limited and interpreted. In other words, there’s no such thing as absolute visual truth. Instead, we (you, me, and our cameras) each have our own view of the world that’s based on many factors, some we can control, others we can’t. When you look through a viewfinder, the more you turn off your visual biases and understand your camera’s, the more successful your photography will be.

Limited vision

Complaining about the camera’s limitations—its dynamic range, low-light sensitivity, distorted perspectives—is a popular pastime among photographers who feel obligated to reproduce the world as “it really looks.” But before wasting too much time lamenting your camera’s limitations, pause to consider that what you and I see is incredibly limited as well. And while the camera can’t do some things our eyes can, it can do other things our eyes can’t.

Every square inch of the Universe is continuously bathed in an infinite range of electromagnetic frequencies. We humans, and our cameras, are completely oblivious to the vast majority of this radiation. For example, X-ray machines “see” waves in the one nanometer (one billionth of a meter) range, far too small for our eyes to register; TVs and radios “see” waves that are measured in centimeters—much too long for our eyes; we humans (and our cameras) can only see electromagnetic waves that fall between (about) 400 and 750  nanometers.

Knowledge of these “missing” wavelengths enables astronomers to peer into space using tools designed to see objects at wave lengths invisible to us, doctors to harness X-rays to view bones hidden beneath opaque skin, and military and law enforcement to see in the dark by detecting infrared radiation (heat). In other words, in the grand scheme of things, there’s no single absolute visual standard—it’s all relative to your frame of reference.

Recording more or less the same visible spectrum our eyes do, the camera is sometimes mistakenly assumed to duplicate human vision. But the camera has its own view of the world. For starters, it’s missing an entire dimension. And not only does it not record depth, a still camera only returns a frozen snap of a single instant. And we all know about our camera’s limited dynamic range and depth of field. Yet despite these differences, photographers often go to great lengths to force their camera to record what their eyes see. Not only is this impossible, it ignores camera’s potential to see things in ways we don’t.

About this image

Several things about this Columbia River Gorge wildflower image are different from what my eyes saw. First, this scene was a little brighter to my eyes than what I captured—I chose to slightly underexpose the majority of the scene to avoid completely overexposing the extremely bright sun and sky, and to keep the color from washing out. Another benefit of underexposure in this case is the way the nearly black shadows enhance the scene’s rich color.

I couldn’t see the sunstar, which (in the simplest possible terms) is caused when light passing through a small opening is bent and separated. Of course the scene’s extreme depth of field required a small aperture anyway, wanting to give the left side of my frame visual weight to balance Mt. Adams on the right, in this case I’d have opted for a small aperture anyway.

And finally, going with an extremely wide focal length exaggerated the size of the flowers that were just inches away, and significantly diminished the size of the distant Mt. Adams.

What is real?

Is this image real? While it’s not what I saw, it is a very accurate rendering of my camera’s reality. Understanding how my camera’s vision differs from mine, and how to leverage that difference by controlling the available focal length, exposure, and compositional options enables me to create a perspective that expands my limited vision and transcends human reality. Pretty cool.

Photo Workshop Schedule


Not what my eyes saw

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

Secret locations (and why they should stay that way)

Gary Hart Photography: Wildflowers and Mt. Adams, Washington

Wildflowers and Mt. Adams, Columbia River Gorge
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
1/25 second
F/18
ISO 3200

As a professional photographer with a pretty large social media following, I get a lot of questions from complete strangers. What camera (or lens, or tripod, or whatever) should I buy? What were your settings for this picture? Did you use a filter? What’s the best time to photograph such-and-such a location? Because I don’t believe there should be secrets in photography, I do my best to answer these questions as quickly and completely as my time permits (though it seems that the time I have to answer questions decreases at about the rate the volume of questions increases).

Among the most frequently asked questions is, “Where did you take this picture, and how do I get there?” But, despite my “no secrets” policy, I’m no longer as free with location information as I once was. I can cite (at least) three reasons, none of which is a desire to prevent others from duplicating my shot (the best photography requires far more than location knowledge anyway).

First

I’m disappointed by the laziness of many photographers who simply want to duplicate an image they’ve admired. (No, I don’t think that simply asking for a location automatically makes you lazy, and in fact have been known to ask for location details when something about a spot interests me—but identifying a location should be the photographer’s starting point, not the goal.) I’ve seen enough duplicate images to know that I don’t want to perpetuate the epidemic.

Second

Sadly, the quickest way to ruin a location is to invite photographers. It seems that as soon as the word is out about a new spot, it becomes impossible to visit in peace, and even worse, to enjoy it without having to face the damage done by photographers who preceded you. You’d think that people who photograph nature would take better care of it, but that doesn’t appear to be the case, at least not for everyone.

It’s unfortunate that the actions of a few can ruin things for everyone, but these disrespectful few are far more visible than the respectful majority. The more photographers try to squeeze into spaces too small to accommodate them, spilling into fragile areas, crowding out tourists with just as much right to be there (“Hey, you’re in my shot!”), the more fences and rules are installed to keep us out.

And finally

I’d love to be wealthy enough to make myself available as a fount of photography information to all who ask. But because photography is my livelihood, I have to balance the time I spend against the income it generates.

When people pay me for a photo workshop, not only do I like to guide them to all the locations they’ve seen in the pictures, I also like to be able to give them perspectives a little off the beaten path and less heavily photographed. For that reason (and the fact that I just plain enjoy doing it), I spend a lot of time researching: Scouring maps, studying books, and googling before I visit for sure, but more importantly, polling locals and exploring independently (Hmmm, this road looks interesting…) once I arrive. This takes time, sometimes a lot of time.

About this image

I bring all this up because the image today was captured at a location that Don Smith and I “discovered” (it’s not as if we’re Lewis and Clark, but you get the point) while scouting before this year’s Columbia River Gorge workshops (back-to-back, collaborative workshops organized by Don and me). Despite our familiarity with any location, Don and I always allow time to explore for more spots on every visit. Which is how we found ourselves bouncing along dirt roads and traipsing up and down remote hillsides on both sides of the gorge earlier this spring.

When we found this spot, Don and I immediately agreed on two points: 1) We have to take the workshop groups here 2) Too many photographers would destroy this place. And since the surest way to invite a trampling hoard of photographers is to share directions to a location, I won’t do that. But here’s a tip: some of my favorite photo spots have been found while searching for other spots.

So, after cautioning our groups to treat each destination with care, we did take them to this new spot. The first group had to contend with 30 MPH winds—we made those shots work by bumping our ISOs and concentrating more on views wide and distant enough to minimize motion blur. The second group landed here in a gentle breeze that ranged from slight to nonexistent, allowing us to get up close and personal with the flowers.

The image I’m sharing today came right at the end of the second group’s visit. The sun had been down for about ten minutes, but because the light was so nice, and the color seemed to linger in the sky above Mt. Adams, I just couldn’t bring myself to leave. With my lens just inches from the flowers, even at 16mm and f18, complete front-to-back sharpness was impossible. Forced to choose between foreground or background sharpness, I opted to make the trio of yellow balsam root in my foreground sharp, and let the background go a little soft. By this time it was dark enough that I bumped my ISO to 3200 to ensure a shutter speed fast enough to avoid motion blur.

Off the beaten path (20 feet to 20 miles from the crowd)

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

Among the wildflowers

Gary Hart Photography: Foothill Gold, Mokelumne River, California

Foothill Gold, Mokelumne River, California
Sony a7R II
Sony FE 90mm f2.8 Macro
1/125 seconds
F/4
ISO 4000

Last year, a busy spring schedule and mediocre wildflower bloom conspired to thwart the wildflower photography I love so much. Vowing not to let that happen again this year, a few days ago I packed my gear and headed for the hills with fingers crossed. My goal was a familiar canyon off of Highway 49 in the foothill Gold Country south and east of Sacramento.

This would be the maiden voyage for my brand new Sony 90mm f2.8 macro, and I was really looking forward to seeing if it’s as good as everyone says it is. Not only that, this would be my first wildflower shoot since switch from Canon DSLR to Sony mirrorless nearly a year and a half ago (!).

It’s a sign

On the drive I’d been streaming a Giants Spring Training game, but turning up the canyon I lost my signal, so I opened the Music app on my iPhone, put it in Random mode, and was immediately distracted by an entire hillside of poppies unfolding before me. Each bend in the road seemed to be trying to outdo the one before it, and I was several curves up the road before my ears caught up with my eyes. Of the 5000 or so possibilities on my phone, what I heard was Tom Petty telling me, “You belong among the wildflowers….” (true story). A sign, definitely a sign.

But anyway…

I followed the road to the end to identify the places I wanted to return to. On the drive back I stopped at my first choice and stayed until darkness and rain (not necessarily in that order) drove me out. I started with the macro, but before I was done I’d used every other lens in my bag too: 16-35, 24-70, and 70-200 (and would have used the 150-600 if I hadn’t loaned it to my brother a couple of days earlier)—with and without extension tubes.

With the sun already behind the hills and rain on the way, light was limited, and fading. There wasn’t much wind, but there was just enough flower-swaying breeze to concern me. My f-stop choice was completely tied to the creative side of my composition (selective depth of field), leaving ISO as the only exposure variable for controlling my shutter speed. Rather than guessing before each shot exactly how fast the shutter needed to be and dial in just enough ISO to get there (and remember to adjust each time my f-stop changed or I added extension), I just cranked the ISO to 4000 and went to work. Problem solved.

I found lots of things to photograph, from entire hillsides to individual poppies like this one. Regardless of my depth of field, I took extreme care to ensure that my background complemented my subject. In this case I maneuvered my tripod until my subject was framed by background poppies. It took several frames to get the composition just right; once I was satisfied, I tried it with a variety of f-stops and focus points. (I can’t imagine even attempting this without a tripod.)

More love for Sony

The Sony 90mm macro was as good as advertised. And I can’t tell you how pleased I am with the high ISO capability of the Sony a7RII. Putting my wildflower images up on my large monitor at home confirmed that everything that was supposed to be sharp was indeed sharp, and the noise at 4000 ISO was minimal and easily managed without detail loss—even the images I shot toward the end, in a light rain and fading light, at 6400 ISO were just ridiculously clean.

This ability to push my ISO threshold allows me to shoot scenes I’d never have considered before. Along with the dynamic range and night photography capability, it’s another Sony game changer for me. The a7RII is exceptional, but regardless of the camera you use, I encourage you to test its high ISO capabilities before you find yourself in a situation where ISO matters—you may be surprised by its capabilities.

Another thing I enjoyed about shooting macro with the a7RII was the ease of achieving precise focus. With depths of field measured in millimeters, sometimes fractions of millimeters, identifying the focus point and getting it perfectly sharp is imperative. With my recent Canon DSLRs (1Ds Mark III and 5D Mark III) I’d become a real convert to live-view focus, but glare on the LCD can sometimes make seeing well enough to get precise focus difficult. That problem disappears completely with the ability to view the scene in the viewfinder.

I’m not done

I had so much fun last week, I’ll be going back as often as possible, until the hills brown and the wildflowers fade. With all the rain promised for the next couple of weeks, that might be quite a while—maybe all the way until dogwood season in Yosemite. Life’s good.

Blooming hillsides

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

Playing the hand you’re dealt

Gary Hart Photography: Spring Sunrise, Memaloose Overlook, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

Spring Sunrise, Memaloose Overlook, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 24-70
1/13 second
F/11
ISO 400

In family Hearts games when I was a kid, I loved to “shoot the moon” (tremendous reward for success, extreme cost for failure). But simply wanting to shoot the moon wasn’t enough to make it happen, and I didn’t really start winning until I learned to separate my desires from the reality of the moment—I know now to evaluate my cards when they’re dealt, set a strategy, then adjust my strategy as the game unfolds. It’s that way for most card games, and it’s that way with photography.

So much of successful nature photography is about flexibility, an ability to anticipate conditions, establish a plan, then adjust that plan when things don’t play out as expected. That’s why, given nature’s fickle tendencies, I’m never comfortable photographing any location without backup options. I was reminded of this during my recent 10-day, two photo workshop trip to the Columbia River Gorge with Don Smith, where rapidly changing Pacific Northwest weather makes flexibility the name of the game.

The Columbia River Gorge offers a full deck of photo opportunities that include numerous waterfalls in the gorge’s steep tributary canyons, mirror reflections of Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams in small lakes south and north of the gorge, and spring wildflowers blanketing the eastern gorge’s more exposed slopes. Of course merely showing up at a spot and expecting great captures isn’t sufficient: Waterfalls are dramatic subjects the camera struggles to capture in brilliant, midday sunlight; towering volcanos are the first subjects disappear when it rains; and I can photograph wildflowers all day—as long as there’s no wind.

During our workshops, Don and I had to shuffle our groups’ photo locations and timing around snow, rain, and clear skies, temperatures that reached the 80s and dropped into the 20s, and winds that ranged from calm to 40 MPH. Our plan for clear skies was to head to the volcanos; if we were dealt clouds and rain, we would use the diffuse light (subdued dynamic range) to concentrate on the gorge’s waterfalls. And rain or shine, the wildflowers were ideally positioned for sunrise and sunset if the wind cooperated.

Somehow we managed to pull it all off, our trip culminating with a sunrise jackpot on the final morning of the second workshop. The plan that morning was a vast, exposed, wildflower-smothered hillside on the southwest end of the gorge. I’d been monitoring the weather obsessively throughout the trip, and with the morning’s forecast calling for clear skies and calm wind, Don and I were looking forward showing the group these wildflowers backlit by the rising sun’s warm rays.

Despite our optimism for the morning’s shoot, as the group gathered in the dark, a chilly breeze gave me pause. The breeze stiffened on the drive to our planned location, and rather than cling to our original vision and attempt to photograph dancing wildflowers in low light, I started considering options.

Don and I had done extensive scouting in the area on multiple prior visits, and had arrived two days before these workshops for more scouting and to get a handle on conditions. My mind immediately jumped to a sheltered location just a short distance from our planned spot. This location had wildflowers too, but instead of being all about the wildflowers, we’d have lots scenes with rocks and trees above the Columbia River, allowing the clumps of balsam root, lupine, and paintbrush to serve as accents. This location’s advantages were that its primary subjects (rocks, trees, river) would be less affected by wind, and its wildflowers would be a little more sheltered.

The group ended up with an absolutely wonderful shoot that made Don and I look like geniuses. The morning started with a pink sky that reflected beautifully in the river, and ended with an orange ball of sun floating low above the horizon. There were more than enough wildflowers go around, and wind was much less of a problem than it would have been on a more exposed hillside.

Honestly, there was nothing genius about what Don and I did that morning. It should be standard operating procedure for any photographer to base location and timing plans on the expected conditions, but to be familiar enough with the area to have options if the conditions don’t materialize as expected. Additionally, no photographer should get so locked in to a plan, regardless of its potential, that he or she fails to see that it might not work out. (Because what good are options if you don’t use them?)

No shoot is a guaranteed success—sometimes nature’s cards just don’t fall right. But the more options you have, the more you read and respond to conditions, the more winners you’ll come home with.

A spring gallery

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

A sunny day solution

Gary Hart Photography: Wildflowers and Mt. Hood, Columbia Hills State Park, Washington

Wildflowers and Mt. Hood, Columbia Hills State Park, Washington
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1/50 second
F/20
ISO 400

For wildflower photography I prefer the diffuse light and soft shadows of a cloudy day, but when Mother Nature delivers clear skies and harsh sunlight, I look for backlight opportunities. Backlit flowers and leaves glow like they’ve been plugged in, and their brilliance allows faster shutter speeds that will compensate for a small aperture and quell a flower-waving breeze.

A frustrating downside of backlight is that the sun is more or less in the direction of your backlit subject, risking lens flare (scattered light that manifests as a contrast-robbing haze or distracting artifacts). If the sun isn’t in your frame, shading your lens will eliminate the lens flare. A lens hood helps, but I find lens hoods more trouble than they’re worth. Instead, when I encounter lens flare, I shade my lenses with my hand, a hat, or an umbrella (no camera bag should be without one). Or better yet, I do my best to position my lens in the shadow of a nearby tree.

But when the sun is in the frame, no amount of shading will work. In these situations I make the best of a bad thing by looking for sunstar opportunities. On last week’s visit to Columbia Hills State Park in southern Washington, I found a hillside awash with wildflowers—mostly yellow balsam root and violet lupine—in brilliant sunlight.

While waiting for the shade to arrive, I decided to take advantage of the backlight and look for a sunstar opportunity. The lupine were in better shape than most of the balsam root, and soon my eyes landed on a colorful group I could balance with Mt. Hood and the setting sun. I stopped down to f20, pulled out my Singh-Ray 2-stop graduated neutral density filter, and waited for the sun to drop to the horizon.

To salvage as much of my highlights as possible, I gave the scene as little exposure as I thought I could get away with. The foreground was pretty dark on my LCD, but the histogram looked okay (not perfect, but manageable)—in Lightroom I was able to pull up the shadows and subdue the highlights enough to work with. Photoshop’s Content Aware Fill tool helped me clean up the worst lens flare, but I still ended up with a little more than I like. (Oh well.)

Here’s my sunstar recipe (excerpted from a previous post):

  1. Start with a brilliant, fine point of light: The sun is the most logical candidate, but you can do it with the moon, stars, and pretty much any bright artificial light (lighthouse, headlights, and so on). The finer the light source, the more precise the star effect will be, and the less lens flare and blown highlights you’ll have. If it’s the sun you’re using, virtually all of it needs to be hidden to get the delicate, symmetrical distribution of beams that generally work best. In this image the horizon hides most of the sun, but you can use a cloud, tree, rock, or whatever.
  2. The smaller your aperture, the finer your sunstar will appear: I generally use f16 or smaller (larger f-number).
  3. Do something to control the highlights: When the sun is entering your frame, you’re invariably dealing with a sky that’s much brighter than your foreground and will need to take steps to avoid the foreground of murky shadows. If you have a foreground shape or shapes against the sky, you could turn the foreground into a silhouette. But when I want to capture foreground detail, I use graduated neutral density filters to hold back the brilliant sky. My 3-stop reverse is my go-to GND in these situations; in particularly difficult light I’ll stack it with a 2-stop hard GND. Whenever I use a GND, I find Lightroom or Photoshop dodging/burning is a great way to disguise the telltale GND transition. HDR blending of multiple images is another way to mitigate extreme sky/foreground contrast (but I don’t do HDR, so you’ll need to Google this). And Photoshop’s Content Aware Tool will help clean up lens flare.
  4. Different lenses will yield different results: Experiment with your lenses to see which one gives the most pleasing sunstar effect.
  5. Practice: You can practice sunstars any time the sun’s out. Just go outside with your camera, dial in a small aperture, and hide the sun behind whatever object is convenient (a tree, your house, etc.).

A sunstar gallery

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

Going for bokeh

 

Forest Dogwood, Yosemite Valley

Forest Dogwood, Yosemite Valley
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/80 second
159 mm
ISO 800
F4

In this day of ubiquitous cameras, automatic exposure, and free information, a creative photographer’s surest path to unique images is achieved by managing a scene’s depth. Anyone with a camera can compose the left/right/up/down aspect of a scene. But the front/back plane, a scene’s depth, that we human’s take for granted, is missing from a two-dimensional image. Managing depth requires abstract vision and camera control beyond the skill of most casual photographers.

While skilled photographers frequently go to great lengths to maximize depth of field (DOF), many forget the ability of limited DOF to:

  • Guide the viewer’s eye to a particular subject
  • Provide the primary subject a complementary background
  • Provide background context for a subject (such as its location or the time of day or season)
  • Smooth a busy, potentially distracting background
  • Create something nobody will ever be able to duplicate

They call it “bokeh”

We call an image’s out of focus area its “bokeh.” While it’s true that bokeh generally improves with the quality of the lens, as with most things in photography, more important than the lens is the photographer behind it. More than anything, achieving compelling bokeh starts with understanding how your camera sees the world, and how to translate that vision. The image’s focus point, its depth of field (a function of the f-stop, sensor size, focal length, and subject distance), and the characteristics of the blurred background (color, shapes, lines) are all under the photographer’s control.

No special equipment required

Compelling bokeh doesn’t require special or expensive equipment—chances are you have everything you need in your bag already. Most macro lenses are fast enough to limit DOF, have excellent optics (that provide pleasing bokeh), and allow for extremely close focus (which shrinks DOF). A telephoto lens near its longest focal length has a very shallow DOF when focused close.

Another great way to limit your DOF without breaking the bank is with an extension tube (or tubes). Extension tubes are hollow (no optics) cylinders that attach between your camera and lens. The best ones communicate with the camera so you can still meter and autofocus. Not only are extension tubes relatively inexpensive, with them I can focus just about as close as I could have with a macro. They can also be stacked—the more extension, the closer you can focus (and the shallower your DOF). And with no optics, there’s nothing compromise the quality of my lens (unlike a teleconverter or diopter). But there’s no such thing as a free lunch in photography—the downside of extension tubes is that they reduce the amount of amount light reaching the sensor—the more extension, the less light. On the other hand, since I’m using them to reduce my DOF, I’m always shooting wide open. And the high ISO capability of today’s cameras more than makes up for the loss of light.

Many of my selective focus images are accomplished without a macro or even a particularly fast lens. Instead, preferring the compositional flexibility of a zoom, I opt for my 70-200 f4 (especially) and 100-400 lenses. While my 100 macro is an amazingly sharp lens with beautiful bokeh, I often prefer the ability to isolate my subject, in a narrow focus range, without having to get right on top of it. On the other hand, if I have a subject I want to get incredibly close to, there’s no better way than my macro and an extension tube (or two, or three).

Managing depth of field

When using creative soft focus, it’s important that your background be soft enough that it doesn’t simply look like a focus error. In other words, you usually want your background really soft. On the other hand, the amount of softness you choose creates a continuum that starts with an indistinguishable blur of color, includes unrecognizable but complementary shapes, and ends with easily recognizable objects. Where your background falls on this continuum is up to you.

Your DOF will be shallower (and your background softer):

  • The closer your focus point
  • The longer your focal length
  • The larger your aperture (small f-stop number)

A macro lens and/or extension tube is the best way to get extremely close to your subject for the absolute shallowest DOF. But sometimes you don’t want to be that close. Perhaps you can’t get to your subject, or maybe you want just enough DOF to reveal a little (but still soft) background detail. In this case, a telephoto zoom may be your best bet. And even at the closest focus distances, the f-stop you choose will make a difference in the range of sharpness and the quality of your background blur. All of these choices are somewhat interchangeable and overlapping—you’ll often need to try a variety of focus-point/focal-length/f-stop combinations to achieve your desired effect. Experiment!

Foreground/background

Composing a shallow DOF image usually starts with finding a foreground subject on which to focus, then positioning yourself in a way that places your subject against a complementary background. (You can do this in reverse too—if you see a background you think would look great out of focus, find a foreground subject that would look good against that background and go to work.)

Primary subjects are whatever moves you: a single flower, a group of flowers, colorful leaves, textured bark, a clinging water drop—the sky’s the limit. A backlit leaf or flower has a glow that appears to originate from within, creating the illusion it has its own source of illumination—even in shade or overcast, most of a scene’s light comes from the sky and your subject will indeed have a backlit side. And an extremely close focus on a water droplet will reveal a world that’s normally invisible to the unaided eye—both the world within the drop and a reflection of the surrounding world.

My favorite backgrounds include parallel tree trunks, splashes of lit leaves and flowers in a mostly shaded forest, pinpoint jewels of daylight shining through the trees, flowers that blur to color and soft shapes, sunlight sparkling on water. I also like including recognizable landscape features that reveal the location—nothing says Yosemite like a waterfall or Half Dome; nothing says the ocean like crashing surf.

The final piece of the composition puzzle is your focus point. This creative decision can make or break an image because the point of maximum sharpness is where your viewer’s eyes will land. In one case you might want to emphasize a leaf’s serrated edge; or maybe its the leaf’s intricate vein pattern you want to feature. Or maybe you’ll need to decide between the pollen clinging to a poppy’s stamen, or the sensual curve of the poppy’s petals. When I’m not sure, I take multiple frames with different focus points.

Exposure

Exposing selective focus scenes is primarily a matter of spot-metering on the brightest element, almost always your primary subject, and dialing in an exposure that ensures that it won’t be blown out. Often this approach turns shaded areas quite dark, making your primary subject stand out more if you can align the two. Sometimes I’ll underexpose my subject slightly to saturate its color and further darken the background.

Tripod

And let’s not overlook the importance of a good tripod. In general, the thinner the area of sharpness in an image, the more essential it is to nail the focus point.  Even the unavoidable micro-millimeter shifts possible with hand-holding can make the difference between a brilliant success and an absolute failure.

Virtually all of my blurred background images are achieved in incremental steps. They start with a general concept that includes a subject and background, and evolve in repeating click, evaluate, refine, click, … cycles. In this approach, the only way to ensure consistent evolution from original concept to finished product is a tripod, which holds in place the scene I just clicked and am now evaluating—when I decide what my image needs, I have the scene sitting there atop my tripod, just waiting for my adjustments.

Forest Dogwood, Yosemite Valley

Forest Dogwood, Yosemite Valley
I worked this scene for about a half hour before I was satisfied. I started with this dogwood branch and moved around a bit until the background was right. Then I tried a variety of focal lengths to simplify and balance the composition. Once I was satisfied with my composition, I used live-view to focus toward the front of the center cluster. Finally, I ran the entire range of f-stops from f4 to f16, in one-stop increments, to ensure a variety of bokeh effects to choose from.

 

Bridalveil Dogwood, Yosemite

Bridalveil Dogwood, Yosemite
This raindrop-laden dogwood image uses Yosemite’s Bridalveil Fall as a soft background to establish the location. An extension tube allowed me to focus so close that the nearest petal brushed my lens.

Champagne Glass Poppies, Merced River Canyon, California

Champagne Glass Poppies, Merced River Canyon, California
The background color you see here is simply a hillside covered with poppies. To achieve this extremely limited DOF, I used an extension tube on my 100mm macro, lying flat on the ground as close as my lens would allow me to focus. Since my tripod (at the time) wouldn’t go that low, I detached my camera, rested the tripod on the ground in front of the poppy, propped my lens on a leg, composed, focused on the leading edge, and clicked my remote release.

Autumn Light, Yosemite

Autumn Light, Yosemite
I had a lot of fun playing with the sunlight sneaking through the dense evergreen canopy here, experimenting with different f-stops to get the effect I liked best.

Sparkling Poppies, Merced River Canyon

Sparkling Poppies, Merced River Canyon
The background jewels of light are sunlight reflecting on the rippling surface of a creek. I had a blast controlling their size by varying my f-stop.

Dogwood, Merced River, Yosemite

Dogwood, Merced River, Yosemite
Looking down from the Pohono Bridge, finding the composition was the simple part. But as soon as I started clicking I realized that the sparkling surface of the rapidly Merced River was completely different with each frame. So I just clicked and clicked and clicked until I had over 30 frames to choose between.

Forest Dogwood, Tenaya Creek, Yosemite

Forest Dogwood, Tenaya Creek, Yosemite
Here, rather than background bokeh, I framed my dogwood flower with leaves in front of my focus point.

 

Bokeh Gallery

 

%d bloggers like this: