Posted on March 14, 2023
In the Alabama Hills to photograph sunrise in neck-craning proximity to the Sierra Crest, I knew precisely what time, on this date, the sun’s first rays would color the towering granite, and exactly when a 98% moon would would disappear behind the left flank of Mt. Williamson, California’s second highest peak.
Clocks and calendars enable us to time some aspects of our lives, like sunrises and moonsets, to within microseconds. But when I scheduled this sunrise moonset more than a year ago, I had no idea whether the sky would be clear, perhaps feature a few clouds that would catch the sunrise hues, or be completely filled with overcast that would block sunlight and hide the moon. I didn’t know how much snow would drape the peaks, or whether the peaks even would be visible at all.
Clocks and calendars are essential, but as a self-employed landscape photographer, I’m beholden to far more fundamental constructs than the bustling majority is. I work when there’s work to be worked, and play when (fingers crossed) there’s play to be played. The business side of my life sometimes requires a clock and calendar, but the actual photography part is governed by fundamental laws of nature that transcend the rest of the world’s clocks and calendars.
The irrelevance of conventional time measurement is never more clear than immediately following a time change. On the second Sunday of each March, when “normal” people moan about lost sleep and having to rise an hour earlier, the sun thumbs its nose at Daylight Saving Time and rises a mere minute (or so) earlier than it did the day before. So do I. And on the first Sunday of November, as others bask in their extra hour of sleep, I’ll get to sleep an entire minute longer. Yippee.
The immutable natural laws that are the foundation of our clocks and calendars, that keep the world on schedule and enable us to precisely predict events like sunrise/sunset, the moon’s phase and position, as well as countless other celestial phenomena, are also solely responsible for the uncertainty that torments the lives of landscape photographers. While I can’t tell you what thrills me more, the impeccably punctual appearance (or disappearance) of a full moon, or the unpredictable explosion of a lightning bolt, I find it ironic that the precision of a moonset and the (apparent) randomness of a lightning strike are ultimately the product of the same celestial choreography.
Earth’s rotation on its inclined axis and revolution about the Sun, the Moon’s monthly journey around Earth, are are timed to microseconds. But this celestial dance also drives the atmospheric and tidal machinations that generate weather, stir oceans, and make every day unique and unpredictable.
This year the mercurial photography gods smiled on me and my Death Valley workshop group. For our 3 days in Death Valley, instead of the blank blue sky that often greets me here, we had a wonderful mix of clouds and sky—enough clouds to make the sky interesting, but enough sky to allow the sun to color the clouds at sunrise and sunset.
On the workshop’s penultimate day we drove to Lone Pine to wrap up with a sunset and sunrise shoot in the Alabama Hills. The highlight of this trip is always the Alabama Hills sunrise that I try to accent with the moon, just a day past full, setting behind the Sierra Crest. But this is winter, and these are the Sierra Mountains, so success is far from guaranteed.
A few years ago I drove to Yosemite on New Year’s Eve (because what else is there to do on New Year’s Eve?) to photograph a full moon rising between El Capitan and Half Dome. After a successful shoot (nearly thwarted by clouds), I hopped in my car and made the 6 1/2 hour drive to Lone Pine to photograph the moon setting behind Mt. Whitney.
I’d picked out a location along Highway 136 where I could align the moon and Mt. Whitney, and far enough back to allow an extreme telephoto big moon while still including all of Whitney. I went to bed really looking forward to this opportunity to get an image I’d thought about for years, and woke to clouds that completely obscured the moon and Sierra Crest. With nothing better to do, I still drove out to my spot, and even caught a very brief glimpse of the moon about 1/2 hour before zero-hour, but ended up not clicking a single frame. Such are the travails of anyone who pins their hopes on Nature’s fickle whims.
My plan this morning was far less grand. Since I was leading a workshop group, the goal was to get everyone in place for the best possible photography, not to assuage my own failed moonset wounds. And the good fortune that blessed us in Death Valley followed us to Lone Pine. (You can read more about this morning here.) In addition to a clear view of the moon and mountains, I was especially grateful to find the entire Sierra Crest frosted top-to-bottom with snow.
My photography day began in near darkness with my Sony a7R V and Sony 100-400 GM lens, photographing the descending moon throughout the morning’s many stages of advancing light. My starting focal length was 100mm, wide enough to include some of the Alabama Hills, then went progressively tighter as the moon dropped.
My favorite big moon images don’t usually happen until the moon is within a moon-width of the horizon, but I like to give myself a little wiggle room to get the composition balanced and focus just right. So when the moon got about 3 diameters from Mt. Williamson, I turned to my Sony α1, which was standing by with my Sony 200-600 G lens and Sony 2X Teleconverter already attached. And while 3 moon diameters might sound like a reasonable cushion, if you want to appreciate the speed at which the moon transits the sky, try pointing 1200mm at it and keeping it in your frame.
I love my Really Right Stuff Ascend tripod, but because the camera-shake margin of error is microscopic at 1200mm, I had the α1 pre-mounted on my (much more robust) RRS 24L Tripod with the RRS BH-55 ball head (carrying 2 tripods is a luxury I allow myself when I don’t have to fly to my location). I bumped to ISO 800 for a 1/500 second shutter speed, and switched from my standard 2-second timer (beep, beep, beep, BEEEEEEP—the Sony mating call) to a 5-second timer (I’m not crazy about any of Sony’s remote options, wired or wireless), to give the whole setup plenty of time to settle down—probably overkill, but I was taking no chances.
With my composition ready and focused, I just let the moon slide through my frame and started clicking. The alpenglow on Mt. Williamson was just about peaking when to moon first touched it. Perfect timing.
Click any image to scroll through the gallery LARGE
Category: full moon, Moon, Mt. Williamson, snow, Sony 100-400 GM, Sony 2X teleconverter, Sony a7R V, winter Tagged: Eastern Sierra, full moon, moon, moonset, Mt. Williamson, nature photography, snow, winter
Posted on February 7, 2023
With the digital-fueled photography renaissance, it seems that the number of trophy destinations has grown proportionally. For example, once no more than an anonymous trickle on El Capitan’s southeast flank, Horsetail Fall now draws thousands of photographers to Yosemite at sunset each February. And long gone are the days of a peaceful midday walk in the quiet coolness of Antelope Canyon.
Because I’ve photographed all of these scenes, and no doubt will continue doing so, I completely understand the urge to bag the trophy shot. They’re trophies because they’re beautiful, and (usually) relatively easy to access. But what puzzles me is why so many photographers pursue trophies to the exclusion of opportunities to create something uniquely their own. To me, the greatest joy of photography isn’t duplicating what others have already done, it’s the search for something new—especially at frequently photographed locations.
That said, I can’t deny that the opportunity to capture a trophy draws many photographers to my workshops. But while I do love helping my workshop students land their trophy, my job doesn’t end there—a significant part of my responsibility is challenging them to not make the trophy shot their goal, make it their starting point. Chances are, I tell them, if a shot is special enough to achieve trophy status, there are lots of other special views and subjects nearby.
Transcending the trophy is a mindset. Once you’ve bagged your trophy, see if you can identify a unique foreground or background, or approach the scene from a different angle. And if the standard view is horizontal, look for something vertical; if it’s wide, try a telephoto—and vice-versa.
And don’t forget that there might be great stuff happening behind you—you’ll never know if you don’t turn around. I try to make a point of checking behind me, but sometimes I need a reminder. For example…
Don Smith and I wrapped up the last day of this year’s back-to-back Iceland photo workshops with an afternoon in the Golden Circle. A recent storm had dumped loads of fresh snow everywhere, a great way to wrap up two fantastic workshops. After spending a couple of hours at massive Gullfoss waterfall, we took the group to Strokkur geyser for our final sunset.
Strokkur is a towering geyser in a beautiful setting. Erupting up to 125 feet every 5 to 10 minutes, Strokkur’s frequency allows many do-overs if you don’t get it right the first (or second, or…) time. This year fast-changing clouds and fresh snow added a new visual dimension I was especially excited to take advantage of.
I think the best shot here is getting the geyser backlit by the setting sun, so I positioned myself accordingly and waited, adjusting my position and composition after each eruption. As the sun set and I prepared for the next eruption, I noticed that our guide Albert Dros was on the other side of the geyser, pointing the exact opposite direction my camera pointed. Normally when I see another photographer not taking what I think is the best shot, I don’t think much of it. But since Albert is such a fantastic photographer, I glanced over my shoulder to see what I was missing. Yikes.
I instantly forgot the geyser, grabbed my gear, and “raced” toward the snow-glazed trees that were now framed by electric pink clouds, and garnished with a dollop of moon. Much to my frustration, the trail was completely coated with ice—since I’d decided to forego the crampons, to avoid falling I could only move about as fast as I do in those dreams when I’m trying to run for my life in a normal speed world, but find I can only move in slow motion (I’m not the only one who has those dreams, right?).
Fortunately, Iceland twilight is slower than any slow-motion dream, and I covered the 50 feet over to this scene with plenty of time to work the composition. I already had my Sony 12 – 24 f/2.8 GM lens mounted on my Sony a7R V, which turned out to be perfect for emphasizing the snowy scene in my immediate foreground, while still maximizing the colorful clouds. Of course this shrunk the moon to almost microscopic proportions—some may disagree, but I kind of love the small moon as a delicate accent to this already magic scene.
Category: Iceland, Moon, snow, Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM, Sony a7R V Tagged: Iceland, moon, nature photography, snow, winter
Posted on January 9, 2023
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 in my hand—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.
Given nature’s fickle whims, I try not to lock in on something I want so much that I miss what I can have. I got my latest reminder last month in Yosemite, when I really, really wanted to shoot the moon. It was the workshop’s first sunset, and I knew exactly where I wanted to be to start my workshop group off with a beautiful full (-ish) moon rising above Half Dome at sunset. I’ve written about the weather related moon frustrations in this workshop in other recent posts, but this is where it all began.
This evening’s frustrations were compounded by the fact that not only was the moon a no-show, for most of the our time there it looked as if Half Dome would be joining it. So when we arrived out here, I had to reassure everyone that there really is a view of Half Dome right up there, and it’s really beautiful, I swear.
Because I’d told them before starting the short hike out to this spot that our target would be the moon and Half Dome, when neither appeared, it would have been easy to simply stand around and wait for something to change. So I tried to point out some of the other, more subtle opportunities available.
I suggested using the swirling clouds, bare trees, and pristine snow to convey a frigid wintry atmosphere. And the reflection, while not as dramatic as it can be here, nevertheless nicely complimented the scene, while a long exposure, in addition to smoothing the reflection, could stretch the white dollops of drifting foam into white steaks that reveal the Merced River’s motion.
I visit this spot so much that I often just leave my camera in the bag here, but as I pointed out these subtle features to my group, I started talking myself into the opportunity to photograph something new. So, partly to demonstrate to others and partly to actually capture something of my own, I pulled out my Sony a7RIV and Sony 24-105 and went to work.
While the scene was dark enough to get exposures of a second or so without a neutral density filter, I wanted something a little longer and added a Breakthrough 6-stop Dark Polarizer. I started with horizontal frames that maximized the foreground reflection and middle-ground wintry scene, but when Half Dome’s outline started to materialize through the clouds(a harbinger of good things to come?), I changed my emphasis. And because I’d already been working the scene’s other elements, it was a simple step to start incorporating Half Dome into my compositions.
Half Dome never appeared completely, but for a few minutes it did peek out enough to be recognizable. In fact, the ethereal feel the clouds create are a big part of this image’s appeal for me. This was an 8-second exposure at ISO 160. I wish I could say I chose ISO 160 because 200 was too fast and 125 was too slow, but I’m guessing that my intent was to use ISO 50 for the longest possible shutter speed, but while fumbling with my camera wearing bulky gloves (it was as cold as it looks), I accidentally turned the ISO dial.
This evening is a good reminder that consistently successful nature photography not only requires the ability to anticipate conditions and establish a plan, but also to maintain enough flexibility to adjust when things don’t play out as expected. No shoot is a guaranteed success, and sometimes nature’s cards just don’t fall right. But the more options you have, and the more you can read and respond to conditions, the more winners you’ll come home with.
Click any image to scroll through the gallery LARGE
Category: Half Dome, Merced River, reflection, Sony 24-105 f/4 G, Sony a7RIV, Yosemite Tagged: Half Dome, nature photography, reflection, winter, Yosemite
Posted on December 12, 2022
Large or small, crescent or full, I love photographing the moon rising above Yosemite. I truly believe it’s one of the most beautiful sights on Earth. The moon’s alignment with Yosemite Valley changes from month-to-month, with my favorite full moon alignment coming in the short-day months near the winter solstice when it rises between El Capitan and Half Dome (from Tunnel View), but I have a plan for each season. Some years the position and timing are better than others, but when everything clicks, I do my best to be there. And if I’m going to be there anyway, why not schedule a workshop? (He asked rhetorically.)
Strike one, strike two
For last week’s Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop, I’d planned three moonrises, from three increasingly distant vantage points. On our first night, despite the cloudy vestiges of a departing storm, I got the group in position for a moonrise at a favorite Merced River sunset spot, hoping the promised clearing would arrive before the moon. The main feature here is Half Dome, but the clouds had other ideas. Though they eventually relented just enough to reveal Half Dome’s ethereal outline and prevent the shoot from being a complete loss, the moon never appeared. Strike one.
With a better forecast for the second evening, we headed into the park that afternoon with high hopes. But as the sun dropped, the clouds thickened to the point where not only did I fear we’d miss the moon again, I was pretty sure Half Dome would be a no-show as well. So I completely aborted the moonrise shoot and opted for sunset at Valley View, where El Capitan and freshly recharged Bridalveil Fall were on their best behavior. The result was a spectacular sunset that made me look like a genius (phew), but still no moon. Strike two.
Revisiting nature photography’s 3 P’s
Because the right mindset is such an important part of successful photography, many years ago I identified three essential qualities that I call the 3 P’s of Nature Photography:
Most successful images require one or more of these three essential elements. Chasing the moon last week in frigid, sometimes wet, Yosemite got me thinking about the 3 P’s again, and how their application led to a (spoiler alert) success on our third and final moonrise opportunity.
As we drove into the Tunnel View parking lot, about 45 minutes before sunset, our chances for the moon looked excellent. There were a few clouds overhead, with more hanging low on the eastern horizon behind Half Dome, but nothing too ominous. My preparation (there’s one) had told me that the moon this evening would appear from behind El Capitan’s diagonal shoulder, about halfway up the face, and that area of the sky was perfectly clear. So far so good.
Organizing my group along the Tunnel View wall, I pointed out where the moon would appear, and reminded them of the previously covered exposure technique for capturing a daylight-bright moon above a darkening landscape. Eventually I set up my own tripod and Sony a7R IV, with my Sony 200 – 600 G lens with the 2X Teleconverter pointed at ground 0. In my pocket was my Sony 24 – 105 G lens, which I planned to switch to as soon as the moon separated from El Capitan. Then we all just bundled up against the elements and enjoyed the view, waiting for the real show…
But, as if summoned by some sinister force determined to frustrate me, the seemingly benign clouds hailed reinforcements that expanded and thickened right before our eyes. Their first victim was Half Dome, and it looked like they’d set their sights on El Capitan next. By the time sunset rolled around, my optimism had dropped from a solid 9 to a wavering 2. I knew the moon was up somewhere behind the curtain and tried to stay positive, but let everyone know that our chances for actually seeing it were no longer very good. I reminded them not to get so locked in on waiting for the moon that they miss out on the beauty happening right now. Ever the optimist, I switched to my 24-105, privately rationalizing that even without the moon, we’d had so much spectacular non-moon photography already, nobody could be unhappy. But still…
At that point it would have been easy to cut our losses, come in out of the cold (pain), and head to dinner. But I have enough experience with Yosemite to know that it’s full of surprises, and never to go all-in on it’s next move. So we stayed. And our persistence (we’ve checked all three now) was rewarded when, seemingly out of nowhere, a hole opened in the clouds and there was the moon. The next 10 minutes were a blur of frantic clicking and excited exclamation as my group enjoyed this gift we’d all just about given up on.
A few full moon photography tips
Category: Bridalveil Fall, Cathedral Rocks, El Capitan, full moon, Moon, Sony 24-105 f/4 G, Sony a7RIV, Tunnel View, winter, Yosemite Tagged: Bridalveil Fall, Cathedral Rocks, El Capitan, full moon, Half Dome, moon, moonrise, nature photography, Tunnel View, winter, Yosemite
Posted on January 19, 2022
Woe is me
I just returned from nearly a week in Death Valley, where I had virtually no connectivity (wifi at my hotel made the Grand Canyon North Rim feel like a Silicon Valley Starbucks). Workshop or not, I try to post something on social media every day, and a new blog article each Sunday, but with no wifi and spotty 3G cellular that struggled just to send or load a text-only e-mail, I felt virtually cut off from civilization (there was a tsunami?!). I know in the grand scheme of things these are small problems, and that I probably missed the world more than it missed me, but still….
Last week I wrote about creating unique perspectives of familiar scenes, and offered some ideas for achieving this. As admirable as it is to make unique images, sometimes Mother Nature delivers something so magnificent that best thing to do is just get out of the way and let the scene stand on its own.
Though last month’s Yosemite Winter Moon workshop wasn’t scheduled to start until the afternoon I took this picture, I drove to Yosemite the evening before the workshop to get a few hours of morning one-on-one time with the multiple inches of snow forecast to fall overnight. And as hoped, I arrived that morning to find every square inch of exposed surface glazed white—and the snow was still falling.
The paradox of photographing Yosemite during a storm is that all of the features you came to photograph are most likely obliterated by clouds. Sometimes visibility is so poor, it’s difficult to imagine the obscured features ever existed—and quite easy to imagine the comfort and warmth of your hotel room. The key Yosemite storm success is to be there when the storm clears—but job-one for catching the clearing part of a Yosemite clearing storm, is first enduring the storm part.
So, rather than succumb to the temptation of comfort and warmth, I armored up and went to work in near zero visibility. After an hour or so of driving around, interrupted by a stop or two (or three) to photograph some of the more intimate nearby beauty, I pulled up to El Capitan Bridge and noticed the clouds starting to lift (fingers crossed). In the still-falling snow, I quickly set up my tripod, grabbed my Sony a7RIV, attached my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens, and hoped.
Without getting too preachy, let me just say that if you ever want to piss off a photographer, look at one of their images and say, “Ooooh, you must have a great camera.” While that may very well be true, the photographer’s unavoidable inference will be that the questioner means the beautiful image is a product of the photographer’s equipment, not his or her photographic vision and skill.
But…. As much as I’d like to say my equipment is irrelevant and I could achieve the same results with a pinhole camera, I’ll admit that I have images I couldn’t have created without the right camera or lens. And this is one of them.
Back on point
I’ve written before about Sony’s 12-24 lenses, and how they feel specifically designed for Yosemite’s ultra-close views of massive monoliths. El Capitan Bridge is one of those views, so close that I’ve always felt that even a 16-35 wasn’t wide enough to do the scene justice. So when Sony released its 12-24 f/4 G lens, this was one of my very first stops. My excitement was validated when I discovered that at 12mm I could indeed get all of El Capitan, plus its entire reflection, in a single vertical frame. I became so enamored of my new top-to-bottom-reflection power that pretty much every subsequent 12-24 El Capitan composition here (both with the original Sony 12-24 f/4 G, and the newer Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM) had been vertical. My goal this morning was to change that.
While the clouds didn’t completely part for several more hours, during this stop at El Capitan Bridge they did lift just enough to reveal all of El Capitan for about 15 minutes. During that time, their swirling vestiges careened across the granite face so rapidly that the scene seemed to change by the second.
Photographically, there wasn’t really a lot I could do for this scene besides not mess it up. Mounting my camera horizontally, I widened my lens all the way out to 12mm, put the top of the frame slightly above El Capitan (to maximize the amount of reflection below it—more sky would have meant less reflection), and used the snow-covered trees on both sides to frame the scene.
Depth of field wasn’t a factor, and very little contrast made metering easy. Wanting a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the falling snowflakes, I dialed to ISO 800 and f/9, which I quickly determined centered my (pre-capture) histogram at a more than adequate 1/250 second. Then I clicked a dozen or so images to ensure a wide variety of cloud formations and falling snowflake patterns, pausing occasionally to appreciate the moment.
This scene felt like a gift that I really didn’t want to overthink. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to photograph it (and the equipment that allowed me to do it justice).
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Category: El Capitan, Photography, reflection, snow, Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM, Sony a7RIV, Yosemite Tagged: El Capitan, nature photography, reflection, snow, winter, Yosemite
Posted on January 9, 2022
What does it take to make a great landscape image? The answer to that question could fill volumes (so I hope you don’t expect the final word in one blog post), but for starters, it seems pretty obvious that a great landscape image should involve some combination of beautiful scene and compelling composition. Of course it’s possible for one side of that scale to tilt so strongly that it renders the other side all but irrelevant: I’m thinking about the masterful composition that manages to extract beauty from the most ordinary scene, or the scene that’s so spectacular that it would be virtually impossible to not return with a beautiful image.
But as much as photographers should strive for the former, I’m afraid ubiquitous cameras and information have given us too much of the latter—because it’s easier. Not only can today’s photographers learn where to be and when to be there with the tap of an app (or the click of a mouse), even when unexpected beauty suddenly materializes before our eyes, we’re almost certainly armed with a tool to capture it. Add to this the power of today’s computers and software to actually manufacture beauty (don’t get me started…), and I’m concerned that the world is becoming numbed to the appreciation of photography as a craft—the ability to see the less obvious beauty and convey it by deftly controlling the scene’s framing, motion, depth, and light.
This is especially relevant to me because I make my living serving people who dream of getting “the” shot at my workshop locations. Usually they’ve seen some other photographer’s version of their “dream” shot and simply want one of their own to display and share. Whether it’s sunset light on Horsetail Fall, a lightning strike at the Grand Canyon, or fresh snow at Tunnel View, I completely understand their motivation and I do everything in my power to make it happen (I love photographing these things too). But still…
In addition to helping my workshop student get their dream image, I also encourage them to make these shots their starting point, not their goal. Photograph the icons without shame, but don’t stop there, also find your own perspective on the scene’s beauty. That could be identifying a foreground element that complements a glorious background, going vertical when the obvious composition is horizontal, introducing motion or focus blur to part of the scene, or any number of large or small compositional twists.
My own approach when photographing a scene imbued with obvious inherent beauty—such as a spectacular sunset, vivid rainbow, or breathtaking vista—is to remind myself not to settle for something I’ve already done, no matter how beautiful it might be. While that’s a relatively small challenge at new or less familiar scenes, this approach makes familiar places like Tunnel View in Yosemite (arguably the most beautiful vista on Earth, and one that I’ve photographed more times than I can count) a much higher photographic bar to clear. So high, in fact, that I rarely take out my camera at Tunnel View anymore. (Well, at least that’s the mindset when I get there—I’m a sucker for this scene and sometimes can’t resist photographing a beautiful moment here because some scenes are too beautiful to ignore—but you get the point.) Even still, these days I pretty much only photograph Tunnel View when I can include some a scecial, transient element, like the moon or a rainbow. Or fresh snow.
Last month my Yosemite Winter Moon workshop group had the immense good fortune to start just as a cold winter storm finished dropping 8 inches of snow on Yosemite Valley. For a couple of reasons, we started at Tunnel View—first, because it’s the best place to introduce first-timers to Yosemite’s majesty; second, it’s probably the best place in Yosemite to view a clearing storm. The scene that greeted us was as spectacular as you might imagine—and as also you might imagine, it wasn’t something I hadn’t seen before.
My original plan was to keep my camera in the car, but once I got everyone settled into their spots and was confident they were content (and wanted to be left alone), I couldn’t resist the beauty, no matter how familiar. Oh—and before I go any farther, let me make clear that I am not trying to say, nor do I in any way believe, that this image is more special than thousands of other Tunnel View images that preceded it (or even that were captured that day). I just want to use it to illustrate my approach, and the decisions that got me to something that turned out to be a little different for me. But anyway…
The first thing I usually I preach about photographing Tunnel View is to not go too wide. As beautiful as the entire view is, the real (permanent) visual action is between El Capitan on the left, and Leaning Tower (the diagonal, flat granite face angling up from Bridalveil Fall) on the right. Another problem at Tunnel View is that the sky in Yosemite is usually boring (cloudless), and the foreground trees are nothing special. So not only does the real estate left of El Capitan and right of Leaning Tower pale in comparison to the primary scene it bookends, composing wide enough to include that extra granite also means shrinking the best stuff (from left to right: El Capitan, Cloud’s Rest, Half Dome, Cathedral Rocks, Bridalveil Fall, Leaning Tower) while including more bland sky and trees. Therefore, my go-to lens for Tunnel View is my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens. And when I want to isolate one or two of the primary features, I’ll switch to my Sony 100-400 GM lens.
But this afternoon, with the entire landscape glazed white, those scruffy foreground trees were suddenly a feature worthy of inclusion. So, rather than starting with the 24-105 on my Sony a7RIV, I reached for my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens. Going wider created another problem: that large tree on the left is a usually an obstacle, a potential distraction always that must be dealt with. My standard approach is to move to the right to completely eliminate the tree from my composition, but this afternoon the vista was so packed with gawkers and photographers that moving around without encroaching on someone else’s space was difficult-to-impossible. Because I got my group setup before grabbing a spot for myself, I’d found myself stuck farther to the left than I like, making my plan to shoot the scene extra-wide while eliminating the tree even more problematic. So, grateful once again for the snowy glaze, I decided to use my arboreal nemesis to frame the left side of my composition (if you can’t beat ’em…). For the right side of my frame, I chose to go wide enough to include a couple of more prominent trees in the middle distance, as well as the interesting clouds swirling near the rim behind them.
In any composition, the decision between sky and foreground always comes down to which is more interesting—in this case, despite some fairly interesting clouds overhead, those clouds couldn’t compete with the snowy foreground. To maximize the snowy foreground, I put the bottom of my frame in the homogeneous white snowbank at the base of the shrub line just a few feet below me—just low enough to allow me to include only the most interesting clouds.
And finally, because I know someone will ask, even with so much detail from near-to-far, at 20mm and f/9, my focus point was pretty much irrelevant (hyperfocal distance was 5 feet). As something of a control freak in my photography life (understatement), I’ve always been a manual focus evangelist, but I’m getting lazy in my old age and in this case I just hit my back-button focus button to autofocus somewhere in the scene (wherever the focus point happened to be), then clicked with the knowledge I’d be sharp throughout.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Category: Bridalveil Fall, El Capitan, Half Dome, How-to, snow, Sony 16-35 f2.8 GM, Sony a7RIV, Tunnel View, winter, Yosemite Tagged: Bridalveil Fall, El Capitan, Half Dome, nature photography, snow, Tunnel View, winter, Yosemite
Posted on December 19, 2021
Camera or not, two of my very favorite things in nature are a rising moon, and the rich pink and blue twilight sky opposite the sun after sunset*. Once a month, in the days around the full moon, these phenomena converge, and I get an opportunity to photograph the moon actually in the best part of the sky. I spend a lot of time trying to identify the scenes above which to photograph these celestial displays, and the best time to be there.
As a one-click photographer, for years the primary obstacle to photographing these scenes has been capturing (in a single frame) detail in the daylight-bright moon and a rapidly darkening landscape. In my early digital years, I found that the window of exposure opportunity—the time from sunset until the foreground became too dark to capture with one click—ended about 5-10 minutes after sunset (this can vary somewhat with several factors, such as longitude and terrain), just as the best color was ramping up. I could extend that window by 5 minutes or so by using a graduated neutral density filter to subdue the moon’s brightness by 2 or 3 stops, but GNDs come with their own set of problems—especially when the scene doesn’t have a homogenous, horizontal space near the horizon to disguise the GND boundary.
Technology to the rescue
One of the main reasons I switched to Sony in 2014 was the dynamic range of the Sony Alpha sensors, and few situations underscore that advantage better than these twilight moonrises. With my new cameras, suddenly my post-sunset threshold jumped by at least 50%—an advantage that continued progressing with each Sony sensor iteration.
Along with improved sensor technology, advances in processing software enabled me to get even more out of each image. Probably biggest processing improvement is in the noise reduction software that reduces blotchy, image softening, detail robbing noise that’s the prime limiting factor when you pull up the shadows of a twilight moonrise. Noise reduction software doesn’t restore lost image data, but it can bring out the best of what you did capture, allowing you to push back the twilight moonrise window just a little more. (I use and recommend Topaz DeNoise AI.)
Time for an Ansel Adams quote
Ansel Adams famously said, “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” Put in today’s terms (and far more prosaically), all the technology in the world doesn’t do much good if you don’t know how to use it. For example, me: I know now that I probably packed up too early, mistakenly thinking the twilight moonrise photography window had closed—simply because I didn’t know how to get the most from my camera.
In fact, proper exposure is probably the single biggest struggle most photographers have when photographing a twilight moon. The most frequent mistake is trying to make the picture look good on their LCD, which invariably results in a preview image with gorgeous foreground beneath a brilliant white lunar disk—a disk that, on closer scrutiny, is hopelessly stripped of detail.
Photographing both a full moon and the landscape, with detail, starts by understanding that, in a high dynamic range scene, an ideal exposure rarely looks good on the LCD. I repeat: In a high dynamic range scene, an ideal exposure rarely looks good on the LCD. The key is making the image as bright as possible without blowing the highlights, providing the best opportunity to restore the highlights and shadows in post-processing.
While it’s usually best to trust the image’s histogram in extreme dynamic range situations, since the moon is such a small part of most images, it rarely registers on the histogram. This small but important detail makes it possible to capture a histogram that looks great, while ending up with a moon that’s hopelessly blown (detail-less white).
So if you can’t trust the image or the histogram, what can you trust? I thought you’d never ask. While the histogram is helpful for the landscape part of the scene, when I photograph a full moon, I monitor the moon’s exposure with my camera’s highlight alert feature—on my Sony Alpha mirrorless bodies that the “zebras” (pre-capture highlight warning stripes on all mirrorless and some DSLR cameras), but DSLR shooters can use the post-capture blinking highlights.
My twilight moonrise recipe
My process for a post-sunset moon starts with metering in manual mode (because I want complete control of my exposure). I set the ISO to 100 (my Sony a7RIV’s native/best ISO), and the f-stop to whatever I think will give me the sharpest image. The exposure is controlled with the shutter speed.
While the moon’s brightness doesn’t change, with a rising full moon, the landscape will continue to darken, making a foreground exposure that was perfect a minute or two ago not quite so perfect now. As the scene darkens, I add light by deliberately increasing my shutter speed in 1/3 stop increments (that is, one click at a time), with my eye on the moon.
When the zebras appear, I use my knowledge of my a7RIV to squeeze the most possible light from the scene. Raw shooters almost always have more detail than their histogram or highlight alerts indicate (different cameras’ highlight alerts engage at different points). This means you can add still light after the first alerts appear in the moon. When I first detect the zebras on my a7RIV, I know I can push my highlights 2/3 to 1 full stop brighter and still recover detail later.
If you’re shooting with a DSLR that doesn’t offer pre-capture zebras in your viewfinder, you may still be able to get them on the live-view LCD (some DSLRs offer them, some don’t). If not, you’ll need to check the post-capture blinking highlights after you click. Camera familiarity is no less essential when reading the blinking highlights of post-capture DSLR image preview highlight alerts than it is with the pre-capture zebras on a mirrorless camera.
Another thing I’ve started doing to get the most light out of the scene is pushing my highlights beyond the point where I’m certain I haven’t blown them out, then magnifying the moon in the preview image—if I see detail, I know not only am I still good to go, I may even be able to squeeze another 1/ or 2/3 of a stop more light out.
What I’m starting to realize now is how much usable detail I have in the shadows of my a7RIV. This image was captured just Friday night, on the final night of my Yosemite Winter Moon workshop. It was more than 20 minutes after sunset and my foreground looked so black on the LCD that I figured it was unusable. But the scene was so beautiful, I just couldn’t make myself stop shooting. (A friend who happened to be standing next to me for most of the evening had left about 10 minutes earlier, despite my protests that he was leaving too soon.)
So imagine my surprise when I opened it in Lightroom, pulled up the Blacks (to about 30), Shadows (all the way), and Exposure (about two stops) sliders and saw plenty of detail and very fixable noise. A quick treatment from Topaz DeNoise AI confirmed what what I’d just seen—my twilight moon window is now open until at 20 minutes after sunset. Amazing.
(I’ll have more on this fantastic finale to a fantastic workshop in a future post. Spoiler alert: This isn’t the only image from this shoot.)
* When I say sunset, you can infer that I mean sunrise as well, with everything happening in reverse, on the other side of the sky.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Category: Cloud's Rest, El Capitan, full moon, Half Dome, Moon, snow, Sony 24-105 f/4 G, Sony a7RIV, Yosemite Tagged: El Capitan, full moon, Half Dome, moon, moonrise, nature photography, winter, Yosemite
Posted on April 4, 2021
“Chance favors only the prepared mind.” ~ Louis Pasteur
Successful nature photography requires the convergence of physical objects, position (relative to those objects), light, weather conditions, the right equipment, and mastery of craft (did I miss anything?). Though we can control many of these factors, the overriding element that trumps everything else is plain old luck. But despite the undeniable luck factor in photography, most photographers bristle at the suggestion that a particular capture was “lucky.” For good reason.
No one denies that photography involves a great deal of luck, but each of us chooses our relationship with the fickle whims of chance, and we have more control than you might imagine. Which is why, like Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell, and a host of other photographers, I embrace Louis Pasteur’s belief that chance does indeed favor the prepared mind. In other words, the more prepared we are, the less luck will effect our outcomes.
As photographers, job-1 is subtracting as much luck as possible from the image capture equation: we hone our craft, get the best gear our budget allows (including backups), painstakingly research our locations, study the science behind the conditions we want to photograph, then sacrifice comfort and convenience (and sleep!) to be in the right place at the right time. Though we definitely appreciate our good fortune when the magic does happen, much of photography’s joy comes from the special effort it took to be there. Yes, it was fortunate that a lightning bolt struck right there, or the clouds parted just as the moon appeared, but it was no accident that we were there when it happened, fully prepared to capture the moment.
All photographers, in one way or another, work to manufacture their own luck. Because I’m particularly drawn to capturing nature’s ephemeral phenomena above its terrestrial wonders, that’s where my efforts are spent. Whether it’s lightning at the Grand Canyon, the Milky Way over Tasman Lake in New Zealand, or a moonrise above Half Dome in Yosemite, I schedule most of my photo trips (both personal and workshops) to maximize my chances for something special. While there’s never a guarantee that it will actually happen, and I’ve been disappointed more times than I can count, that doesn’t stop me from planning and getting out there just in case.
Which is how I happened to be in Yosemite in December 2019 for this moonrise. I’d plotted this alignment more than a year in advance. When I scheduled a workshop to capture it (fingers crossed), I knew full well that December is the wet season in Yosemite, making it entirely possible, maybe even likely, that my much anticipated moonrise could happen entirely behind a curtain of clouds.
Since this was a workshop, my first job is to reduce the luck factor for my entire group. That started with letting everyone know what gear they needed (nothing special: camera, lenses covering 24mm to 200mm, and a tripod), and (more important) getting them up to speed on the surprisingly tricky exposure idiosyncrasies of sunset moonrises. Meanwhile, behind the scenes I obsessively refreshed the NWS Yosemite forecast page every five minutes, trying will the forecast into promising something more definitive than the annoyingly ambiguous “partly cloudy.” No such luck.
The day of the event proceeded as advertised, teasing us with skies that alternated between mostly clear to mostly cloudy. Fickle skies notwithstanding, there was no thought of abandoning Plan A—I’ve been surprised enough by Nature (especially in Yosemite) to know that, no matter what the forecast promised, I’d have my group out there. Another thing I try to do to improve my group’s odds of success is get them on location early enough to familiarize themselves with the scene and its variety of composition options. Even though I’ve photographed this spot countless times, experience has taught me that first time need time to get comfortable with a scene.
Even without the moon, this location is very photo-worthy. So by the time moonrise approached, they’d all had plenty of photos under their belt and were pretty comfortable with the possibilities here. Clouds came and went as we waited, but the moon’s appearance coincided with one of the more clear moments. We started clicking wildly when the moon peeked out from behind Half Dome, then held our collective breaths as Half Dome’s cloud-making machine churned into action, completely erasing the moon within minutes of its arrival. But instead of getting discouraged, we just hung tight and hoped the moon would punch through. Punch through it did, delighting us with a moon/cloud dance that lasted until it became too dark to photograph.
We all felt very lucky walking back to the cars that evening, but we felt so much more than that. Exiting Safeway to see a rainbow arcing over the parking lot is lucky. Period. But when you see an image of one of nature’s ephemeral gifts matched with a beautiful landscape, try to appreciate that its creation, as lucky as the moment might have felt to the photographer, was probably much more than simple good luck.
Fortunately, anticipating these special moments in nature doesn’t require any real gifts—just a basic understanding of the natural phenomena you’d like to photograph, and a little effort to match your anticipated natural event (a rainbow, lightning, a moonrise, or whatever) with your location of choice. Mix in the right gear, the resolve to get out there, and the perseverance not to give up when nature appears to have other ideas, and voila: You’re a photographer! And that’s about as lucky as you can be.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Category: Half Dome, Moon, Sony 100-400 GM, Sony a7RIV, Yosemite Tagged: Half Dome, moonrise, nature photography, winter, Yosemite
Posted on March 14, 2021
Last week marked the one year anniversary of the COVID shutdown. WOW. One year.
In hindsight I realize that I might have been a little naive when this thing started because of the way I’d spent the two weeks prior to the shutdown: first in Scottsdale, Arizona for my annual MLB Spring Training trip (go Giants!), followed immediately by a week in Anchorage, Alaska to visit my daughter. In Arizona at the beginning of March I noticed very little difference in people’s behavior (though I did have to search long and hard for hand sanitizer), but winging my way to Alaska, I was struck by how empty the airports and flights were. Hmmm….
Alaska is where I was when it started to dawn on me that a couple of my upcoming workshops might be threatened. When that realization hit, I remember thinking I’ll be fine as long as I don’t lose the New Zealand trip at the end of June. Ha! I ended up losing 12 workshops, including New Zealand in both 2020 and 2021. And the workshops I have managed to pull off (three so far since last March) have been impacted as well, both in terms of group size and COVID protocol.
But this isn’t a woe is me post, I promise. I have so much to be grateful for, starting with the flexibility of being self-employed and working from home. And of course continued good health of my family and me. Oh, and the fact that I’m still in business.
And just like that, here’s 2021, I’m fully vaccinated, with two workshops in the mirror and six queued up over the next eight weeks (maybe I should be careful what I wish for). Life’s good.
I started this blog with the idea of a sentence or two reflecting on the COVID anniversary before diving into some thoughts on this just-processed image from last November. But here I am, nearly 500 words later….
I don’t need to gush any more about this day, a highlight of my pandemic year—you can just go back through the many blogs I’ve already posted about it (7—I counted). What I wanted to say about this image is how it underscores the importance of not merely settling for a beautiful scene, no matter how beautiful it is (something this one irrefutably was). Creating an image that stands out from all the other pictures of inherently beautiful scenes requires understanding the difference between the way your camera sees a scene and the way you see it. Unlike your experience of the world, a still image is devoid of motion and depth, has limited dynamic range and depth of field, and is constrained by a rectangular box. Managing these differences requires the ability to control your camera’s exposure variables (f-stop, shutter speed, ISO, focal length) to create the illusion of depth and motion.
The clouds had just started to part when I arrived at this reflective bend in the Merced River. It’s easy to get walloped by the beauty of a scene like this, frame up something nice, and click. But after indulging the creative side of my brain (camera or not, this scene really was gorgeous), I forced myself to set my awe aside for a few beats to work out the best way to convey the beauty.
My first step in most scenes is to identify the most important thing—what I want the scene to be “about.” If that important thing is in the foreground, I look for a complementary background; if my subject is in the background, I try to identify a complementary foreground.
In this case my “most important thing” was the entire scene across the river, anchored of course by Half Dome, but supported by the snow-covered trees and the reflection. I wandered the riverbank and found a few things to put in my foreground. I started with a mini cove rimmed with leaves that I used to frame a horizontal composition. Then, looking for something that would be better for a vertical composition, I moved on to these floating leaves and partially submerged log just a few feet upstream. Framing everything up at eye-level, I didn’t like the empty gap between the leaves/log and Half Dome’s reflection, so I dropped my tripod as low as it would go and went to work.
While there was a fair amount of dynamic range, I knew it was well within the capabilities of my Sony a7RIV—if I exposed carefully. But exposing carefully means more than just getting the light right—it means getting the light right with a shutter speed that handles the motion, and with an f-stop that handles the depth.
With a few ripples disturbing the reflection, I wanted shutter speed long enough to smooth the water and twisted my Breakthrough 6-stop Dark Circular Polarizer onto my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens. And since sharpness from the closest leaf to Half Dome’s summit was important, I selected f/16 and focused on the log. (My hyperfocal app assured me that this would give me more than enough depth-of-field for front-to-back sharpness.) Next, with my eye on the viewfinder, I slowly turned my polarizer far enough to remove the reflection from the leaves, but not so much that I erased the primary reflection.
Finally, I was ready to meter and select the shutter speed the gave me a good histogram. At my a7RIV’s native ISO (100), the shutter speed I needed was 1-second. To double that and ensure better smoothing of the ripples, I dialed down to ISO 50. Click.
(Images from the last 12 months)
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Category: fall color, Half Dome, reflection, Sony 16-35 f2.8 GM, Sony a7RIV, Yosemite Tagged: autumn, fall color, Half Dome, nature photography, reflection, snow, winter, Yosemite
Posted on January 24, 2021
Vestrahorn, on Iceland’s southeast coast, is one impressive chunk of rock. Turns out it only reaches 1500 feet above sea level, but the way it juts so abruptly from the volcanic sand of Stokksnes Peninsula, Vestrahorn creates an imposing presence that rivals El Capitan in Yosemite.
This Vestrahorn shoot came toward the end of the 10-day Iceland workshop Don Smith and I led in January of 2020. Arriving late afternoon (which comes pretty early in Iceland in January), the group instantly scattered across the vast, flat plain offered with a variety of foreground options that included black-sand dunes, iced-over puddles, and a vast black sand beach. I made my way down to the beach and, being a sucker for reflections, was quickly drawn to glassy sand behind each retreating wave.
The beach here is so flat that the surf isn’t dangerous (at least it wasn’t on this day), but this was January in Iceland, so I didn’t really want to get wet. On the other hand, getting the reflection I wanted required being well into the wet part of the sand behind a retreating wave, and each reflection only lasted a few seconds before the water soaked into the sand. Emboldened by waterproof boots that reached about a foot up my calf, I wandered out to where it appeared the waves only reached a depth of 2 or 3 inches, not quite far enough to ensure a full reflection with each receding wave, but not too bad.
I really had a blast working this scene, playing with different compositions as the clouds and light above the mountain changed, and varying my timing to capture each wave in different stages of motion, from the frothy white churn at the wave’s front, followed by the floating foam shapes trailing it, and finally the reflective sheen punctuating each retreat. I also tried a variety of shutter speeds, freezing or applying a variety of blur effects to the moving water. When I get into this zone, I lose all sense of time a surroundings…
So imagine my surprise to feel freezing water soaking my feet. I looked down to see that my legs from the knees down had disappeared, and the beach I’d been standing on now more closely resembled a lake. With the tide clearly coming in (hmmm, perhaps that’s why the reflections seemed to be getting better…), my first inclination was to retreat. But the photography was definitely better in the deeper water, safety wasn’t a concern, and I suddenly remembered my running mantra: You can only get so wet, and once you get that wet, you’re not going to get any wetter. If this mindset could get me through several extremely miserable marathons, it could certainly get me through this. I hadn’t planned to soak my feet in the chilly surf, but now that the damage was done, I couldn’t really make it any worse. So I ended up staying out there, joyfully surrounded by reflections, for another 30 minutes.
One of the things I’ve learned over many years of photographing in extreme conditions is the value of backups. Not just backup photo gear, though I do think it’s foolish to take any photo trip with just one body (I’d already had to spend two days on this trip using my backup body, waiting for my primary body to dry after a unplanned dip in the surf), but also backup clothes.
So loading into the van (not sure what to call our vehicle: it was either a huge van or a little bus) at the beginning of each day, I always made sure to leave out a change of shoes and socks. Though my marinating feet were okay while I was shooting, as soon as I finished and started heading back to the van/bus (ban? vus?), they suddenly became wet, frozen stumps. I never imagined something as simple as a dry pair of socks could bring so much joy.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Category: Iceland, Photography, reflection, Sony 16-35 f2.8 GM, Sony a7RIV, Vestrahorn Tagged: Iceland, nature photography, reflection, Vestrahorn, winter