Everything’s up from here

Sunrise, Telescope Peak & Badwater, Death Valley

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At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater in Death Valley is the lowest point in North America. While that’s impressive by itself, consider that Telescope Peak, the sunlit mountain in center of this picture, is over 11,000 feet above sea level. But wait, there’s more…. Just 85 miles from where I stand here, Mt. Whitney towers 14,500 feet above sea level, the highest point in the lower 48 United States. And 5,400 feet vertical feet above me is Dante’s View; from there you can see both Badwater and Mt. Whitney. Pretty cool.

The Badwater playa is actually an ephemeral lake, filled only by unusually heavy rainfall and its runoff. With no outlet, and averaging less than two inches of replenishing rain each year, evaporation quickly empties Badwater Lake. Each evaporation cycle leaves behind a layer of salt. As the mud beneath the salt layer dries, polygonal cracks form openings that accumulate extra salt. Heat causes this salt to expand into corresponding polygonal shapes on the otherwise flat surface. Some winters I’ve found these shapes filled with water, like faceted jewels. And on my 2005 visit I watched a kayaker glide across the completely submerged basin.

Winter visitors have the best chance of catching the top salt layer before Death Valley’s ample airborne dust has had a chance to turn the playa from pure white to dirty brown. The north/south orientation of Death Valley means that the Panamint Range on the valley’s west side is bathed in the warm light of the rising sun. As with Mt. Whitney, the Panamint Range’s extreme elevation above the playa makes Badwater an ideal spot for early risers to photograph sunrise alpenglow. On this morning from early last February, the playa was pristine and a layer of thin cirrus clouds arrived at the same time as the sun, brushing the blue sky pink.

Photographic reality: Framing infinity

Snow and Autumn Leaves, Yosemite


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

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

If you’ve ever tried to point out to someone a small detail in nature that pleases you, perhaps you’ve experienced a conversation like this:

You: “Look at that!”

Friend: “What?”

You: “Those leaves—look at the frost on those leaves.”

Friend: “What leaves?”

You: “There on the log—with the snow.”

Friend: “Those dead ones? Yeah, cool. Man, I can’t believe I ate all those fries at lunch.”

You: “Whatever.” Sigh.

It’s really great to enjoy nature, to take in all of its infinite, three dimensional, multi-sensory splendor: its smells, sounds, depth, and motion. But all this input is a lot to process, and because everybody interacts with the world a little differently, each person is drawn to different things—what moves you might be overlooked by others. If only there were some way to show others what you see. Hmmm….

Unlike us humans, a still camera experiences the world in single-sensory, discrete frames. Rather than being a disadvantage, a camera’s “limitations” provide an opportunity to isolate whatever aspects of a scene that moves you, and to remove extraneous elements that distract. In other words, the camera’s field of vision, determined by you, has finite boundaries that make a frame in which you can organize relationships and eliminate distractions through careful selection of your lens’s distance (or focal length) and direction.

The golden leaves in the above image were three among thousands dotting the forest floor on this November morning near Cathedral Beach in Yosemite. I wanted to juxtapose fall and winter, and reveal the leaves’ frosty fringe. A wide frame would have more closely represented the entirety of the scene as I experienced it, but without something to anchor the frame, I knew viewers’ eyes would wander and they’d be unsure of my intent.

So I put on my 100mm macro lens and moved closer, finding this trio of leaves on a log, surrounded by patches of snow. I started by positioning myself so none of the leaves merged—that each stood by itself, balanced in the frame. Framing the leaves tightly eliminated the rest of the world, giving you no choice but to only look at what I wanted you to see. F14 and careful focusing gave me enough depth of field to make the leaves and log sharp with the background distractions blurred to insignificance.

Up next: See the light

Autumn Leaves (and winter arrives)

Leaves and Snow, Yosemite

I’ve been in Maui since Monday (scouting for a new workshop), and despite the fact that there’s more to photograph here than there is time to photograph (seriously), I still find time to check the Yosemite webcams every day. In fact, even surrounded by all this tropical splendor, I’ll admit to a few pangs of homesickness when today’s webcams showed fresh snow, with more falling, in Yosemite Valley.

(I’ll get to my Maui pictures when I’m home, but until then here’s one from November.) At only 4,000 feet above sea level, Yosemite Valley is warm compared to most of the Sierra. It’s often raining here when it’s snowing just a little up the road. When it does snow in Yosemite Valley, for an hour or two scenes like this are quite common. But as soon as the sun comes out, the snow starts disappearing.

To see Yosemite Valley covered in white requires being there while it’s snowing–if you wait to leave until you hear it snowed in Yosemite, you’re too late. Photographing Yosemite while the snow is falling can be difficult, but the payoff is huge. Often the ceiling drops to the valley floor, obscuring everything that’s recognizable as Yosemite, but with the disappearing icons also vanishes the swarms of visitors and suddenly you feel like you’re alone in the world. Is there any silence more pure than the silence of falling snow?

The best nature photography often highlights the drama of change: the passing from day to night and back, the collision of ocean and land, an approaching or retreating storm. And, because it happens so gradually and only once each year, the movement from one season to the next is a rare photographic opportunity.

So that November morning my attention turned to shocked autumn leaves, lulled by weeks of benign fall weather, forced to cling to their colorful glory against winter’s sudden assault. After nearly a month as the main event, these leaves were lone survivors along a quiet bend in the Merced River. Within a couple days they no doubt fell to the forest floor, or were swept into the river, as inevitable winter prevailed.

Watch your step

Reflection, El Capitan winter morning, Yosemite

Trouble brewing

I have many “favorite” photo locations in Yosemite Valley–some, like Tunnel View, are known to all; others, like this location along the Merced River, aren’t exactly secrets, but they’re far enough off the beaten path to be overlooked by the vacationing masses. While I used to count on being alone here, as often as not lately I share this shoreline with other photographers. While it’s nice to have a location to myself (so far I can still find a few of those spots in Yosemite Valley), I’m usually happy to share prime photographic real estate with a kindred spirit.

But. In recent years I’ve noticed more photographers abusing nature in ways that at best betrays their ignorance, and at worst reveals their indifference to the fragility of the very subjects that inspire them to click their shutters in the first place. Of course it’s impossible to have zero impact on the natural world: Starting from the time we leave home we consume energy that directly or indirectly pollutes the atmosphere and contributes greenhouse gases. Once we arrive at our  destination, every footfall alters the world in ways ranging from subtle to dramatic–not only do our shoes crush rocks, plants, and small creatures, our noise clashes with the natural sounds that comfort humans and communicate to animals, and our vehicles and clothing scatter microscopic, non-indiginous flora and fauna.

For example

A certain amount of damage is an unavoidable consequence of keeping the natural world accessible to all who would like to appreciate it, a tightrope our National Park Service does an excellent job navigating. It’s even easy to believe that we’re not the problem–I mean, who’d have thought merely walking on “dirt” could impact the ecosystem for tens or hundreds of years? But before straying off the trail for that unique perspective of Delicate Arch, check out this admonition from Arches National Park.

Hawaii’s black sand beaches may appear unique and enduring, but the next time you consider scooping a sample to share with friends back on the mainland, know that Hawaii’s black sand is a finite, ephemeral phenomenon that will be replaced with “conventional” white sand as soon as its volcanic source is tapped–as evidenced by the direct correlation between the islands with the most black sands beaches and the islands with the most recent volcanic activity.

While Yosemite’s durable granite may lull photographers into environmental complacency, its meadows and wetlands are quite fragile, hosting many plants and insects that are an integral part of the natural balance that makes Yosemite unique. Not only that, they’re also home to, and nesting places of, native mammals, birds, and reptiles that so many enjoy photographing. Despite all this, I can’t tell you how often I see people in Yosemite (photographers in particular) unnecessarily trampling meadows, either to get in position for a shot or as a shortcut.

Don’t be this person

Still not convinced? If I can’t appeal to your environmental conscience, consider that simply wandering about with a camera and/or tripod labels you, “Photographer.” In that role you represent the entire photography community: when you do harm as Photographer, most observers (the general public and decision makers) go no farther than applying the Photographer label and lumping all of us into the same offending group.

Like it or not, one photographer’s indiscretion affects the way every photographer is perceived, and potentially brings about restrictions that directly or indirectly impact all of us. If you like fences, permits, and rules, just keep going wherever you want to go, whenever you want to go there.

It’s not that difficult

Environmental responsibility doesn’t require joining Greenpeace or dropping off the grid (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Simply taking a few minutes to understand natural concerns specific to whatever area you visit is a good place to start. Most public lands have websites with information they’d love you to read before visiting. And most park officials are more than happy to share literature on the topic (you might in fact find useful information right there in that stack of papers you jammed into the center console as you drove away from the entrance station).

When you’re in the field, think before advancing. Train yourself to anticipate each future step with the understanding of its impact–believe it or not, this isn’t a particularly difficult habit to form. Whenever you see trash, please pick it up even if it isn’t yours. And don’t be shy about reminding other photographers whose actions risk soiling the reputation for all of us.


A few years ago, as a condition of my Death Valley workshop permit, I was guided to The Center for Outdoor Ethics and their “Leave No Trace” initiative. There’s great information here–much of it is just plain common sense, but I guarantee you’ll learn things too.

Now go out and enjoy nature–and please save it for the rest of us.


A few words about this image

I captured this image while guiding a customer on a private workshop the day before last week’s Yosemite winter workshop. After months of clear skies, the sun rose on two inches of fresh snow in Yosemite Valley. As I did two days later when my workshop group was greeted with another dose of overnight snow, I shifted into hurry-up mode to get to as many spots as possible in the couple of hours we had before the snow would be gone–once the sun hits the trees, the snow disappears like magic.

After watching the storm clear from Tunnel View, we arrived here just in time to watch the day’s first light descend the surrounding granite walls. Our timing was ideal, as reflections are never better than when the reflective subject is in sun and the reflective surface in shade.

Shooting on a tripod (always!) enabled me to be at my camera’s ideal ISO 100 and select the f-stop the scene called for, without worrying about the resulting shutter speed. In this case I opted for a wide composition to include all of El Capitan and its reflection, which gave me lots of depth of field. Since the focus point for a reflection is the focus point of the reflective subject, not the reflective surface (that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t focus on the reflection, it just means you should take care not to focus on something floating on or resting beneath the reflection), at 20mm everything in my frame was at infinity. With depth of field not a concern, I dialed in f11, my lens’s sharpest f-stop (lenses tend to be sharper in their middle f-stops). F11 brought the added benefit of reducing image-softening diffraction that happens at smaller f-stops–I’ll go smaller than f11 only when the composition calls for it (or if I forget to change it from a previous shot).

The dynamic range (the range of light from darkest shadow to brightest highlight) was too much for my camera to handle, but a two-stop hard-transition graduated neutral density filter subdued the brilliant sunlight, enabling enough exposure to reveal detail in the foreground shadows. Hiding the GND transition in the linear band of shoreline trees was easy, and simple dodging and burning in Photoshop brought out shadow detail and ensured that the sunlit El Capitan was brighter than its reflection (as it should be). Also in Photoshop I applied a light touch with Topaz noise reduction, desaturated the sky slightly to prevent it from overpowering the scene, and did selective sharpening (selecting only the areas containing detail).

(While I do take my groups to this quiet spot beside the Merced River, the fragile riverside setting that requires crossing a small meadow makes me reluctant to share it with the general public.)

Familiarity breeds content

Gary Hart Photography: Goodbye Moon, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, California

Goodbye Moon, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, California
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
145 mm
1/40 second
ISO 200

Content (con-tent‘): A state of peaceful happiness….

I’ve photographed Mt. Whitney from the Alabama Hills in sunlight and moonlight, in scorching heat and drifting snow. Sharing favorite spots here with a workshop group is as rewarding as a solitary night under the stars. I’ve never photographed in the Alabama Hills without feeling better afterward than I did when I started.

These feelings aren’t unique to the Alabama Hills; rather, they’re a benefit I’ve come to associate with all the locations I regularly photograph. While new locations are always a treat, visiting familiar terrain like the Alabama Hills, Yosemite, Mono Lake, Death Valley, the California coast, and the central Sierra foothills recharges me in a way not possible at a location that I’m trying to absorb for the first time. It’s like the difference between a quiet reunion with old friends and a raucous party with strangers: both have their place, but the reunion always elevates my spirits.

Content (con‘-tent): Substantive information or creative material….

With familiarity comes the knowledge that I’ll always be able to find something to photograph, regardless of the conditions. I can take my time, let my eyes search the terrain, probe every nook and cranny until something stops me. Everything at a familiar location settles comfortably into place, while at a new location my brain spins at it tries to process a seemingly infinite supply of unfamiliar elements while biased by a lifetime of viewing interpretations from other photographers. As stimulating as it might be, new input is a distraction to the creative process.

My goal, always, is to photograph a scene in a way that it’s never been photographed. That’s usually difficult (especially at many of the locations I photograph), but it seems impossible until I can process a scene and get comfortable with it, something that rarely happens in my first or second (or even third) visit. But each visit to familiar locations like the Alabama Hills seems to peel away additional layers of distraction, allowing me to see just a little deeper into whatever it is that makes that place special.

*            *            *

Sunrise light on Mt. Whitney, and a few minutes later on the Alabama Hills themselves, is a singular treat. The abrupt face of the Sierra towering over the terrain to its east creates rare opportunities witness the unfolding of a new day, as the sun’s first rays kiss the Sierra crest long before they reach observers below. The angle and quality of Mt. Whitney’s first light varies with season and conditions; as I’ve become more tuned to it, I’ve attempted to use this light to highlight the foreground for the larger scene.

Of course the prime show on this frigid morning last January was a full moon setting behind the snowcapped Sierra crest (Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the 48 contiguous United States, is the shark-tooth peak on the left). But rather than “settle” for that exquisite scene, I tried to complement the serrated peaks with the craggy and complementary contours of the nearby boulders. The warm sunrise light on the granite became my friend, creating extreme contrast that further emphasized rocks’ rugged character.

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