Posted on January 13, 2019
Last winter I spent a glorious day by myself in Yosemite Valley, photographing the vestiges of an overnight snowstorm. Inbound to the park the evening before, a continuous strand of outbound headlights reminded me how different a photographer’s priorities are from the general public’s. For a nature photographer, the best time to be outside seems to be everyone else’s worst time to be outside, but we know that before breakfast, at dinnertime, after dark, and wild weather are when all the best pictures seem to happen.
I arrived in Yosemite Valley with just enough light to see El Capitan and Half Dome engulfed in heavy clouds that hinted at what was in store—but so far no snow. With a storm imminent, I had no problem getting a room at a significant discount, virtually unheard of on a typical Yosemite evening. A light mist started after dinner, and I fell asleep to the sound of raindrops tapping leaves outside my window. The next morning I woke before my alarm and lay still, listening in the darkness to the unmistakable silence of falling snow.
Dressing quickly, I opened the door to six inches of untouched snow. In the parking lot I tried to determine which white lump was my Outback, repeatedly punching the lock button on my key fob and following my ears to the lump that chirped back. A little digging confirmed my discovery, and after a few more minutes of excavation I was able to to ease out of my parking space, carving the first tracks into what was probably the road (fingers crossed).
The clouds that had deposited all this powder seemed be trying to squeeze out every possible flake, but they seemed exhausted from their overnight effort and my wipers had no problem keeping up. When the final flake fell a little before 9:00, I was traipsing through drifts near El Capitan Meadow. Patches of blue sky overhead told me it wouldn’t be long before the trees were shedding snow in clumps, so I headed quickly to a favorite spot by the Merced River, hoping for a reflection while the world remained white.
The Merced here was so still and clear that I had to look twice to be sure there really was water in the river. The reflection on the far side was exactly what I had in mind, but the corrugated riverbed on my side was an unexpected complement that wonderfully matched the herringbone clouds above. In the days before my Sony 12-24 lens, I wouldn’t have been able to include all of El Capitan and its reflection in a horizontal frame, but 12mm gave me room to spare (I’m still startled at times by how big the difference is between 16mm and 12mm).
I got lots pictures that make me happy that day, but even more than the pictures, I think I enjoyed the rare opportunity to feel alone in Yosemite for a few hours. The park wasn’t empty, but between the scarcity of people, the reluctance of those who were there to venture onto the roads, and the sound-deadening effect of powdery snow, I had no trouble pretending.
Posted on August 5, 2018
Virtually every scene I approach with a camera is beautiful, but a beautiful scene is rarely enough for a great image. Human experience of the world differs greatly from what the camera captures—the photographer’s job is to understand and use those differences.
I’ve always felt that viewers of an image are more comfortable exploring the frame—and therefore tend to linger longer with the image—when they have a starting and return place. So the first thing I do when trying to turn a beautiful scene into a beautiful picture is create that place by finding something to anchor my frame. Sometimes this anchor is an object that’s beautiful in its own right (such as a reflection, a flower, or the moon), but often it’s just a grounding element that aligns with the scene’s more striking features.
When I approached this scene on the shore of Lake Pukaki in New Zealand, I was struck first by the rich glacial turquoise water (I’ve seen a few lakes with similar color, but none that were nearly as big as Lake Pukaki), and second by the snowcapped peaks lining the distant shore. And in the pre-sunrise gloaming I could see that the sky was very nice too—maybe not spectacular, but with lots of character in the clouds plus the potential for soft, warm light when the sun finally arrived. Given all the scene had going for it, I probably could have raised my camera and composed something decent from any spot with a view of the lake, but a scene like this deserves something more than decent.
So before advancing any further, I performed my standard scan for something to anchor my frame, a visual element to surround with the scene’s inherent beauty. I was instantly drawn to an area of the beach where a few rocks protruded from the lake and quickly made my way down to the water. At the shore, in addition to the rocks that drew me I found a striking mosaic of rocks submerged beneath the clear water. A bonus for sure, but as beautiful as these submerged rocks were, as I tried to get all the visual pieces to fit together I quickly realized that they introduced a layer of complication as well.
For the next 10 or 15 minutes I wandered the lakeshore experimenting with compositions that used a variety of foreground rock combinations, but couldn’t really find anything that thrilled me. I’d click a frame or two, evaluate the result, but just couldn’t seem to organize all the foreground rocks with the mountains and sky to form something coherent.
But this wasn’t the time to become discouraged. I knew something was here and continued experimenting, hoping to find it before the light changed. As the sky brightened, I settled on the trio of rocks you see in this image. They aligned nicely with the mountains, better than anything else I’d found so far. But they were also orbited by a disorganized arrangement of satellite rocks that competed with the simple foreground I sought. I moved closer, extending my tripod as far into the water as I could, then dropped low and composed a fairly tight frame.
Eliminating the superfluous rocks made my foreground all about the rock trio, and with a few tweaks (preliminary frames followed by adjustments) arrived at the composition you see here. At this point the rocks were just a few feet from my camera, making depth of field a concern. Assisted by my hyperfocal app, I stopped down to f/18 and focused at the back of the farthest rock, taking only a couple of frames before I was confident my hyperfocal distance was dialed in.
The final piece of the puzzle was dealing with the chop in the water. Sometimes water motion can be a feature and I try to find a middle ground that softens it while retaining a bit of shape or texture. In this case I wanted simplicity, and felt that anything that wasn’t mountains, rocks, or color would be a distraction. The solution was to smooth the water as much as possible with a 15-second shutter speed.
There’s nothing inherently special about the rocks I used to anchor this image. The scene’s true beauty lies in the water and mountains, but if I’d have settled for an image that was just water and mountains, there would have been nowhere for your eye to land. Adding a simple foreground element to anchor my frame serves as a visual launching pad from which you’re free to explore the rest of this beautiful scene.
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Posted on July 2, 2018
(If you subscribe to my Image of the Month e-mail and this post seems familiar, it’s because I borrowed the text from my June message.)
I just checked the date of my last post, I couldn’t believe how long it’s been. But I have a good excuse, I swear: I’ve been busy. Busy taking pictures, busy leading workshops, busy checking in and out of hotels, busy staying warm (really)….
But I’m not complaining—not even close. For the last three weeks I’ve been in New Zealand. The day I left home, the high temperature in Sacramento was 100 degrees. Less than twenty-four hours later I deplaned in Queenstown, New Zealand to a refreshing 40 degrees (or, as we say Down Under, 5 degrees). While this winter chill is a nice bonus, I’m here on New Zealand’s South Island mostly because winter is hands-down the best time to photograph this spectacular country. Last Thursday (or, as you say Up Over, Wednesday) Don Smith and I wrapped up our first ever New Zealand Winter workshop, but after two weeks of down jackets and wool hats, I’m not ready to return to summer, not even close.
It’s impossible to pick my favorite thing about this trip. I could cite the all-day cruises on Doubtful Sound (though we learned it should really be named Doubtful Fjord), plowing through glassy water framed by towering cliffs and plunging waterfalls, and shadowed by leaping dolphins. Or the breathtaking helicopter ride onto Fox Glacier, where we explored blue ice-caves, climbed through gaping crevices, and observed firsthand that a glacier is so much more than a featureless sheet of ice.
But it’s not just about the big stuff here in “Lord of the Rings” land. Something else that’s starting to sink in about New Zealand is the routine beauty that’s pretty much everywhere I look. Snow-capped peaks in all directions, daily sunrises and sunsets that become almost monotonous in their beauty, and pristine glacial lakes and streams with blues and greens that rival anything in the Canadian Rockies.
This image is from last Thursday’s sunrise, our first workshop’s final shoot. Carved thousands of years ago by massive glaciers, Lake Wakatipu is one of New Zealand’s largest lakes. Arriving just as the first hints of dawn touched the clouds, we watched the scene slowly materialize out of the darkness like a developing Polaroid. The snowy peaks appeared first, followed soon by textured clouds above the turquoise lake. As the sky brightened further, the opaque lakebed transformed into an intricate mosaic of colorful stones.
I moved along the lakeshore until I found a group of protruding rocks to anchor my frame. To emphasize the foreground, I dropped low and framed the scene with a wide lens. I used a neutral density filter to enable an exposure long enough to smooth the gentle waves rippling the lake surface. The long exposure also gave me the opportunity to savor the sublime scene and say a small prayer of gratitude that my trip is not over yet…
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Posted on April 15, 2018
(With apologies to The Hollies.)
The road is long, with many a winding turn…
But that’s no excuse to cut corners. Probably the question I am most asked on location is some variation of, “What lens should I use?” While I’m always happy to answer questions, this one always makes me cringe because the implicit question is, “Which lenses can I leave behind?”
What many photographers fail to realize is that the “proper” lens is determined by the photographer, not by the scene. While there is often a consensus on the primary composition at a location, that usually only means the first composition everyone sees. But if your goal is to capture something unique, those are just the compositions to avoid. And as every photographer knows, the best way to guarantee you’ll need a lens is to not pack it. I’m not suggesting that you lug Hermione’s purse to every shoot—just try to remember that your images will last far longer than your discomfort.
In my Canon life, my personal rule of thumb was to always carry lenses that cover 16-200mm, regardless of the scene, then add “specialty” lenses as my plans dictated: macro for wildflowers, fast and wide prime for night, and super telephoto for a moon. That meant the 16-35, 24-105, and 70-200 were permanent residents of my Canon bag, and my 100-400, 100 macro, or wide and fast prime came along when I needed them.
Shooting Sony mirrorless, with its more compact bodies and lenses, I now carry a much wider focal in a lighter camera bag. My new baseline (always with me) lens lineup is the Sony 12-24 G, 24-105 G, and 100-400 GM, plus the Sony 2x teleconverter. My macro and night lenses still stay behind (but they’re usually in the car), but in my bag I always have lenses to cover 12-800mm, a significant advantage over my Canon 16-200 configuration.
It’s kind of a cliché in photography to say “It’s the photographer, not the equipment.” And as much as I agree in principle, sometimes the equipment does help. Wherever I am, I regularly find compositions beyond 200mm, compositions I never would have considered before. And the 12-24 lens has enabled me to approach familiar scenes with a completely fresh eye.
A recent example came on a snowy day in Yosemite early last month. Moving fast to keep up with the rapidly changing clouds and light, I stopped at El Capitan Bridge, directly beneath El Capitan. Having shot this scene for years (decades), I was quite familiar with the perspective. So wide is the top-to-bottom, left-to-right view of El Capitan here, even at 16mm I’ve always had to choose between all of El Capitan or all of the reflection, never both. I never dreamed I’d be able to get El Capitan and its reflection in a single frame. But guess what….
Standing above the river near the south side of the bridge, I framed up a vertical composition and saw that at 12mm I could indeed fit El Capitan and the reflection, top to bottom. Whoa. With very little margin for error on any side of the frame, I moved around a bit to get the scene balanced, eventually framing the right side with the snowy trees lining the Merced. My elevated perch above the river allowed me to shoot straight ahead (no up or down tilt of the camera) and avoid the extreme skewing of the trees that’s so common at wide focal lengths.
12mm provides so much depth of field that I could focus anywhere in the scene and get front-to-back sharpness; the flat light made exposure similarly simple. With composition, focus, and exposure set, all I had to do was watch the clouds and click the shutter, my heart filled with gladness….
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Posted on April 11, 2018
Are you insane?
Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results. Hmmm. For some reason this reminds me of the thousands of good landscape photographers with hundreds of beautiful images they can’t sell. These photographers have a good eye for composition, own all the best equipment, know when to be at the great locations, and are virtual gurus with state-of-the-art processing software. Yet they haven’t achieved (their definition of) success.
Conducting photo workshops gives me pretty good insight into the mindset of serious amateur photographers, the photographers serious enough to spend time and money to rise before sunrise and stay out after dark to photograph the world’s most beautiful landscapes in frequently miserable conditions. I’m struck that many of these photographers have serious aspirations for their photography, but are so mesmerized by technology that they turned over control of the most important aspects of their craft to their camera. Their solution to photographic failure is to buy more equipment, visit more locations, and master more software. But the most overlooked tool is the one on top of their shoulders.
Knowledge vs. understanding
Just as a new camera won’t make you a better photographer, simply upgrading your photography knowledge won’t do it either—knowledge is nothing more than ingested and regurgitated information. Understanding, on the other hand, (among other things) gives you the ability to use information to create new knowledge and solve problems.
Many photographers invest far too much energy acquiring knowledge, and far too little energy understanding what they just learned. For example, it’s not enough to know that a longer shutter speed or bigger aperture means a brighter image if that knowledge doesn’t translate into an understanding of how to manage motion, depth, and light with your camera. It’s one thing to know you need more light on your sensor, but something altogether different to know whether to add it with a longer shutter speed, larger aperture, or higher ISO—a choice that makes a huge difference in the finished product.
Automatic modes in most cameras handle static, midday light beautifully, yet struggle in the limited light, extreme dynamic range, and harsh conditions that artistic photographers seek. The auto modes have become so good that they have created the illusion of control in the minds of many photographers. I see many excellent photographers whose profound faith in their technology has caused critical deficiency of two fundamental photographic principles:
Books and internet resources are a great place to start learning these principles (here’s my Photo Tip article), but the knowledge you gain there won’t turn to understanding until you get out with your camera and learn to manage a scene’s motion, depth, and light in creative ways that set your photography apart.
My metering philosophy is to approach every scene at ISO 100 (my Sony a7RIII’s best ISO) and f/11 (the best combination of lens sharpness and depth of field with minimal diffraction)—I control the light with my shutter speed and only deviate my baseline ISO and f-stop when the scene variables dictate. For example, when I want more or less depth of field, I’ll choose a different f-stop, or when I can’t get a proper exposure at the shutter speed that gives me the motion effect I want (blurred or sharp), I’ll adjust the ISO.
This Yosemite sunset from last February was about Half Dome, the clouds, the light, and the reflection in the Merced River. After finding my composition, the scene variables to consider when determining my exposure settings were:
The blur effect I wanted would require at least a one second exposure time, so I dropped my ISO down to 50 (as low as it goes). Keeping my aperture at f/11, I dialed my shutter speed with an eye on the histogram—when the histogram indicated I’d pushed my highlights as far as I could without clipping, my shutter speed was 1 second. This gave me a the proper exposure with sufficient motion blur, but I decided a little more motion blur would be even better. To double the shutter speed to 2 seconds, I stopped down one stop to f-16 and tried one more frame. In this case the benefit of the extra motion blur far outweighed any diffraction and lost sharpness (which experience has shown e would have been minimal with my Sony 16-35 GM lens), so that’s the frame I selected.
Insanity is in the mind of the beholder
If landscape photography gives you what you want, then by all means, continue doing what you’re doing. But if you’re having a hard time achieving a photographic goal, the solution is likely not doing more of what you’re already doing. Instead, try reevaluating your comprehension of fundamental photographic principles that you might not have thought about for years (or ever). Get out of your camera’s auto exposure modes and take control of your scene’s variables. You’ll know you’re there when you know how to get the result you want, or know why it’s simply not possible.
Do I really think you’re insane for doing otherwise? Of course not. But I do think you’ll feel a little more sane if you learn to take more control of your camera.
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Posted on April 2, 2018
Surrounded by towering granite walls that seem so permanent, Yosemite Valley is America’s poster-park for enduring beauty. But in the grand geological scheme, there’s nothing permanent about Yosemite. In my lifetime Yosemite has been visibly altered by drought, flood, and rockslides (not to mention human interference). Predating my arrival, Yosemite’s Anglo conquerors had a profound affect on the flora and fauna that prevailed in its prior centuries under Native care. And predating all human contact, glaciers performed their carve-and-polish magic on Yosemite’s granite.
But Yosemite’s history of change goes back much farther than that. Though it’s just a drop in the 4 1/2 billion-year bucket of Earth’s existence, let’s flip the calendar back to 100 million years before the glaciers scoured the area we call Yosemite, when layers of sediment deposited beneath a vast sea had been injected with magma that cooled to become granite. This subterranean granite was gradually uplifted by a slow-motion collision of tectonic plates that formed the mountains we call the Sierra Nevada. (Yes, I know this is a gross simplification of a very complex process.)
That’s a time-lapse I’d pay money to see, but lacking an actual 100-million-year time-lapse, I think Yosemite’s clouds make a wonderful metaphor for the park’s constant change. In fact, Yosemite storms are subject to the same the laws of nature that build and erode mountains. Each is the environment’s response to heat, moisture, pressure, and gravity—albeit on a different clock. Different in many ways, there’s also an interconnectedness to these natural processes: Just as the mountains have a profound affect on weather patterns, the weather is the prime force in the mountains’ erosion.
A month ago I got to watch the special choreography of Yosemite’s clouds and granite. Drawn by the promise of snow, I arrived as the storm built during daylight’s last couple of hours. Continuing to build under the cover of darkness, the storm was in full force by the morning’s first light. I woke to find snow covering every exposed surface, while overhead the mesmerizing dance of form and flow played out atop unseen air currents.
My first stop that morning was El Capitan Meadow. In summer, gawkers tailgate here to watch climbers monkey their way to the top of El Capitan. On this frigid morning El Capitan’s summit was a memory beneath a gray shroud, so I turned my camera to earthbound subjects within the small radius of my vision. In intense storms like this, ephemeral glimpses of Yosemite’s icons are a coveted reward that keeps experienced Yosemite photographers glancing skyward. Ever the optimist, despite a seemingly impenetrable low ceiling, I directed frequent glances in El Capitan’s direction as I worked.
The first suggestion of El Cap’s outline above the trees looked more like the faintest hint of a shadow in the clouds. I recognized what could be about to happen and quickly made my way to a better vantage point, watching until the shadow darkened and vague granitic detail appeared. Anticipating further clearing, I worked fast to beat the monolith’s inevitable reabsorption, switching lenses and framing a wide shot. To minimize tree-tilting perspective distortion, I raced across the road to increase my distance from the forest, raising my vantage point by scaling a snow mound piled atop a low fence by snowplows. With a breeze blowing the trees, I’d been shooting all morning at ISO 800, and the morning’s flat and constant light meant was no need to adjust my exposure. When the clouds parted just enough to frame El Capitan’s nose, I focused on the nearby trees and clicked several frames before the hole snapped shut.
An image like this is as much an opportunity to capture Yosemite’s snowy splendor as it is a revelation of something special about El Capitan. And that morning, my only thoughts about the clouds were wishes they’d disappear to show more granite. But as I started working on this image at home, I couldn’t help think about how clouds often provide the change Yosemite photographers seek in this (seemingly) unchanging place. That got me thinking about the nearby scar from last August’s tragic rockslide. On a clear day from the right vantage point, the scar is clearly visible on El Capitan’s east flank. another reminder that the only thing in Yosemite that’s permanent is change.
Posted on March 24, 2018
I’m afraid that making a living as a photographer sometimes means exchanging time to take pictures for time to make money. On the other hand, my schedule is mine alone, which means when there’s something I really, really want to photograph, such as a moonrise or fresh snow in Yosemite, I can usually arrange my schedule to make it happen. The moon shoots I can plan a year or more in advance, but snow requires a little more vigilance and flexibility.
Early this month, with hints of snow coming to Yosemite Valley, I started clearing space in my schedule. At 4000 feet, Yosemite Valley is often right on the snow-line, so a swing of just a couple hundred feet in either direction can mean the difference between snow and soggy. After watching the weather reports vacillate between snow and rain all week (and adjusting plans more than once), my buddy Mark and I took a chance and made the drive to Yosemite, visions of snowflakes dancing in our heads.
Waiting at the traffic-light-controlled, one-lane detour around the Ferguson Slide on Highway 140, I watched dozens of westbound headlights file past the four or five eastbound taillights idling at the light in front of us. With a storm imminent, it occurred to me that we were participating in a kind of changing of the guard, where the evacuating tourists are replaced by a much smaller contingent of what could only be photographers.
We arrived in Yosemite Valley at about the same time as the rain, circled the valley, secured a cheap room at Yosemite Valley Lodge (in Yosemite, any night with plumbing and solid walls for $150 is in fact a steal), and went to dinner. When the rain continued through dinner and all the way until bedtime, I began to fear the weather report had vacillated once more in the wrong direction.
Peeking out the window at around 4:00 a.m. and seeing more rain, I grudgingly turned off the alarm I’d optimistically set for 6:00 a.m. and went back to sleep. The next thing I knew, Mark was waking me at 6:10 to report six inches of fresh snow, and it was still falling. By 6:15 we were bundled and searching for my car in a parking lot filled with identical white lumps.
The rest of the morning was a blur as Mark and I darted from pristine location to pristine location, marveling at how a few hours of snow can completely transform months of accumulated grime and a thirsty forest dotted with dead and dying trees. For those few hours, Yosemite was new again.
At our first stop, El Capitan Meadow, we photographed El Capitan and Cathedral rocks battling the clouds for dominance. Down the road at Valley View, the snow continued falling but the granite was winning and I soon found myself admiring the reflection of Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Fall just upriver from the parking area.
Normally the thin branches overhanging this vantage point are a distraction to avoid, but glazed with snow, they had the potential to make a perfect frame. The reflection was the easy part, but somehow I had to figure out how to feature it and the branches without the branches obliterating the rest of the scene.
To separate Bridalveil Fall and Cathedral Rocks from the glazed branches, I splayed my tripod’s legs and dropped it to the ground, then scooted up to the river’s edge. That still left a few branches dangling too low, so I pushed my camera out even farther by extending one tripod leg into the river. I was aided immensely by the articulating screen of my Sony a7RIII—while I still needed to sit in the snow to get low enough to compose and control my camera, I very much appreciated the ability to sit and look down at my LCD rather than sprawl on my stomach in the snow to get my eye to the viewfinder.
When photographing a scene that includes a reflection and nearby objects, it’s important to remember that the focus point of a reflection is the focus point of the reflective subject, not the reflective surface. (I’ll pause here for a few seconds to let you process this because it’s important.) In this case I was at 16mm; at f/11 that gave me a hyperfocal distance of less than four feet; with the branches about five feet away, front-to-back sharpness wouldn’t be a problem, even focused at infinity. Nevertheless, I chose f/14 for this shot, not for more depth of field, but to (along with ISO 50) stretch my shutter speed enough to smooth a few small ripples in the reflection.
Excitement about a scene can overwhelm good sense—we see something that moves us, and quickly point the camera and click with more enthusiasm than thought. While this approach may indeed record memories and impress friends, it almost certainly denies the scene the attention it deserves. I was indeed very excited about this scene, but between the depth of field, reflection, overhanging branches, moving water, dominant background subjects, not to mention the awkwardness of my position, I had many moving parts to consider.
Rather than attempt perfection on the first click, I addressed the obvious stuff (covered above) with a “rough draft” click. Draft image in hand, I popped my camera off the tripod, stood (ahhhhh), and evaluated my result. I immediately saw two things to address: first, I wanted Cathedral Rocks better framed by the branches; second, I wanted the mid-river, snow-capped rocks away from the right edge of my frame.
I returned my camera to live-view, dropped to ground-level, and replaced the camera on my tripod. Because I hadn’t touched the tripod, the scene on my live-view LCD was the very scene I’d just reviewed—making my prescribed adjustments was a simple matter of panning right a couple of inches and pushing the tripod a little farther into the river. Click.
I love my job.