Stop the Car!

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Surprise, Upper Yosemite Fall, Yosemite

Autumn Surprise, Upper Yosemite Fall, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/5 second
ISO 100

Nature photography is all about identifying and creating relationships—between subjects, or between subjects and their environment. The relationships in some of my images require meticulous planning to align a predetermined foreground subject with a celestial feature like the Milky Way or a rising/setting moon. Other relationships happen when I travel to combine a beloved location like Yosemite with natural phenomena like fresh snow or fall color. And then there are those fortuitous “stop the car!” moments, convergences of time and place that are the product of alert scrutiny and quick reaction.

This image falls into the third, “stop the car!”, category, with maybe a little of the second, location/natural-phenomena thing—because I did definitely schedule my Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections photo workshop to coincide with the moving target of Yosemite’s fall color peak, and this year it worked out perfectly. But what I couldn’t have anticipated was a historic storm dowsing Yosemite with over six inches of rain one week before the workshop, creating spring flow in the falls that just begged to be photographed with the ubiquitous autumn foliage.

My group found this scene on the workshop’s first evening. Driving toward our sunset destination, we popped out of the forest and were treated with our first views of Yosemite Falls. I’d timed our departure from our prior shoot at Tunnel View to allow sufficient time at our sunset destination, but when I saw this towering oak covered crown-to-base with golden leaves, I slowed instantly, driving slowly with one eye on the tree until it aligned with Upper Yosemite Fall. I told everyone this was a bonus stop, and every minute we spent here would be a minute we couldn’t spend at the sunset spot, but got no complaints. And a quick look at the thick clouds told me sunset color was unlikely this evening anyway.

There was also a stand of yellow cottonwoods just left of this tree, providing even more compositional possibilities. Feeling a little less rushed, I encouraged everyone to move around, reminding them that they had complete control of the trees relationship with the fall. A couple of people wandered up the boardwalk over the meadow to the river, but most of the group stayed right on the sidewalk and worked on some version of what you see here.

I grabbed my tripod and Sony a7RIV with the Sony 24-105 (I have two a7RIVs and keep each loaded with one of my two most frequently used lenses, the aforementioned 24-105 and the Sony 16-35 GM) and started with a wider composition that framed Upper Yosemite Fall with the colorful cottonwoods and oak. But going that wide meant more sky and meadow than I wanted, so I soon whittled my composition down to just the oak and waterfall. My first frames had the fall to the left of the tree, but later I moved a little bit up the road for some frames with their positions reversed. This is one of the earlier ones.

For this shot I was careful to position myself so the fall dropped into a notch in the tree’s crown, moving back enough to ensure separation between the two. I also made sure the tree didn’t jut into the sky—I find it jarring when a foreground subject is cut by the horizon and try to avoid it when possible. Other compositional considerations were how much sky and meadow to include. While I liked the brooding clouds, I decided that they didn’t offer enough character to merit a lot of frame real estate. Similarly, I thought the texture in the meadow was fine (it wasn’t a negative), but didn’t think it deserved any more of my frame than the sky. So I composed to minimize the sky and meadow, using them as more of a frame for the top and bottom of the scene. And finally, I took care to keep the brilliant yellow tree on the distant right away from the edge of my frame. With low contrast and an entire scene at infinity for my focal length and f-stop, exposure and focus were easy.


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Yosemite Spring

Moonbow, Lower Yosemite Fall, Yosemite
Sony a7RIII
Sony 12-24 f/4 G
10 seconds
ISO 1600

There are many (many!) beautiful sights in Yosemite, but when most people think about Yosemite, they think about waterfalls and granite. The granite is forever (virtually), but Yosemite’s waterfalls come and go with the season: exploding from the granite walls in spring, most of Yosemite’s waterfalls are bone dry by summer’s end. And some years are better than others—three springs ago, Bridalveil and Yosemite Falls were barely a trickle, too dry to photograph (unprecedented in my lifetime). The next spring the deafening roar of waterfalls was back, echoing throughout Yosemite Valley.

Moonbow, April 18, 2019

I just returned from my annual Yosemite Moonbow and Dogwood photo workshop on Friday night (technically, it was early Saturday morning). The dogwood are just starting to pop, but the waterfalls are going strong, with enough snow in the high Sierra bank to keep them roaring through summer.

My group photographed more waterfall rainbows than I could count, on both Bridalveil and Yosemite Falls, but the highlight was Thursday night’s lunar rainbow (moonbow) shoot on the bridge beneath Lower Yosemite Fall. Nothing compares to the first time seeing a moonbow. A shimmering silver arc, a moonbow is clearly visible to the naked eye—proper exposure in a camera reveals the moonbow’s vivid color.

A “practice” moonlight shoot the previous night helped prepare everyone for the difficulties of photographing in the dark. And while my group came prepared for moonlight photography, the crowds and mist make things difficult even for the seasoned veteran. The crowds weren’t too bad this year, but while lots of water in the fall means a better moonbow, it also means a wetter photographer.

I feared that the thin cloud cover that had delivered a spectacular sunset just as the full moon rose just an hour or so earlier, would douse the moonlight necessary for a moonbow, but that turned out to be a non-factor. One problem was contrails, more than I’ve ever seen. Some chose to leave the sky (or most of the sky) out of their frame; I opted to include the sky, then carefully execute a contrailecotmy in Photoshop.

Because most of my time on the bridge is spent assisting the group, I only got to click a handful of frames. I started on the (drier) paved open area before the bridge, but after working with a workshop participant on the bridge, I decided the view there was worth getting wet.

I went wider with this year’s images than previous years, using my Sony 12-24 G lens on my Sony a7RIII camera. I focused on the moon, then turned around and set up my composition. Concerned about too much water on my front lens element, I bumped my ISO to 1600 to keep my shutter speed at 10 seconds or faster.  When I was ready to click, I wiped down the front of my lens with a towel that I lifted just as my shutter clicked.

Yosemite April 2019 Images

(processed so far)

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Shameless plug

I just scheduled my 2020 Yosemite Spring photo workshops, April 5-8 and May 4-7. Both are timed for the full moon to maximize our moonbow chances. And of course it’s not all about waterfalls and rainbows—this year’s spring workshops included some spectacular clearing storms, beautiful moonrises, and brilliant poppies. In addition to great photography, you’ll improve your photo skills with daily training and image reviews. You’ll also have lots of fun.

Yosemite Spring

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Yosemite Moonbow

Gary Hart Photography: Moonbow and Big Dipper, Lower Yosemite Fall, Yosemite

Moonbow and Big Dipper, Lower Yosemite Fall, Yosemite
Canon EOS 1DS Mark III
Canon 17-40 f/4L
30 seconds
ISO 800

Even though your spellcheck says it doesn’t exist, I promise you that a moonbow is a very real thing indeed (and I have the pictures to prove it). Some argue that “lunar rainbow” is more the technically correct designation, but since that moniker just doesn’t convey the visual magic, I’m sticking with moonbow.

This won’t be on the test

Because a moonbow is a rainbow, all the natural laws governing a rainbow apply. But all the moonbow’s physics can be summarized to:

1) Your shadow always points toward the center of the moonbow (put your back to the moon and note the direction your shadow points)

2) The higher the moon, the lower the moonbow and the less of it you’ll see

3) When the moon is above 42 degrees (assuming flat terrain), the moonbow disappears below the horizon

Yosemite’s moonbow

Each spring, Sierra snowmelt surges into Yosemite Creek, racing downhill and plunging 2,500 feet in three mist-churning steps as Yosemite Falls. Shortly after sunset on spring full moon nights, light from the rising moon catches the mist, which separates and bends it into a shimmering arc. John Muir called this phenomenon a “mist bow,” but it’s more commonly known today as a moonbow.

While a bright moonbow is visible to the naked eye as a shimmering silver band, it isn’t bright enough for the human eye to register color. But thanks to camera’s ability to accumulate light, the moonbow’s vivid color shines in a photograph.

I just returned from the first of two moonbow workshops scheduled for this spring, but haven’t had time to process this year’s moonbow images. The above image was captured a few years ago near the bridge at the base of Lower Yosemite Fall. Not only was it crowded (the moonbow is no longer much of a secret), wind and mist made the necessary 20- to 30-second exposures an exercise in persistence. Not only was I able to capture the moonbow, as you can see, I now have photographic proof that the Big Dipper is the true source of Yosemite Falls.

My 2019 Moonbow workshops are now open

A Moonlight Gallery

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A star in the east

Gary Hart Photography: Yosemite Falls Sunstar, Yosemite

Yosemite Falls Sunstar, Yosemite (Sony 12-24 f/4)
Sony a7R II
Sony 12-24 f4 G
1/30 second
ISO 100

When Sony asked Don Smith and me to try out their new lenses, I immediately knew where I wanted to be in Yosemite with the 12-24 f4 G lens. After great success photographing El Capitan and Half Dome as I’ve never been able to before (okay, well there was that one time last year when I borrowed a friend’s ultra-wide lens), I was ready to go home. But before leaving, I decided to walk up to the bridge beneath Lower Yosemite Fall.

With my Yosemite Moonbow and Dogwood workshop starting in just five days, my goal this morning was more to see exactly how wet it is on the bridge than it was to take any more pictures, but I decided to take my camera anyway. On the way back I played with ultra-wide (12mm) vertical compositions of this scene. Still getting used to how much I can actually fit in my frame at 12mm, I flipped the camera to horizontal and was startled to find the sun in the right corner of my viewfinder. Startled because from my location, the top of Yosemite Falls is due north (0 degrees), and the sun at that time was at 125 degrees azimuth (35 degrees south of due east).

I quickly came to terms with this revelation and repositioned myself until the sun was behind a tree, dialed to f/20, composed, metered and focused, then clicked as the sun peaked out. For the next ten minutes or so I moved as the sun moved, keeping my lens right on the edge of the shadow.

I knew the sunstar’s highlights would certainly be clipped, but I wanted to give the shadows as much light as possible without losing the highlights in the waterfall. And as important as the histogram is in these scenes with brilliant highlights and dark shadows, I knew that it wouldn’t tell me the entire story. As I increased the light by lengthening my shutter speed, in my viewfinder (I love mirrorless!) I monitored both the shadow side of the histogram and the highlight alert in the fall. I know that shooting raw, I can increase the exposure a stop beyond where the highlight alert appears, but in this case I found that I only needed to add 2/3 stop before the histogram showed me that I had all the recoverable data in the shadows I needed.

A few words about sunstars

Sunstars can be overdone, but they’re often the best way to make something interesting in difficult light. When I find myself wanting to photograph a clear sky scene facing the sun, I often use the sunstar to add visual interest to a sky that is otherwise pretty boring. Often the sunstar makes an excellent counterbalance to another strong visual object. And while a sunstar isn’t exactly what our eyes see when we look toward the sun, I think it makes a pretty good substitute for the blinding experience of looking into the sun. Take a look at the gallery of images below and ask yourself how many of these images would have been as visually appealing without a sunstar spicing up the sky.

To capture a sunstar, use a small aperture (I usually use f/16 or smaller), remove any filters (to minimize flare), and place the sun on a hard edge with most of the sun obscured: the horizon, a cloud, a tree, a flower, and so on. The more sun visible, the bigger (and more blown out) the sunstar will be. As a general rule, I try to avoid too much sun. And since each lens creates a slightly different sunstar, it helps to experiment with different lenses to determine which ones work best.

I’ll be on my annual Grand Canyon raft trip, off the grid and unable to respond, until May 30

Workshop Schedule || Purchase Prints

A Sunstar Gallery

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My photography essentials, part 1

Morning Light, Yosemite Falls from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
1/50 second
ISO 400
105 mm

A couple of weeks ago the editors at “Outdoor Photographer” magazine asked me (and a few other pros) to contribute to an upcoming article on photography essentials, and it occurs to me that my blog readers might be interested to read my answers. Here’s my answer to the first of their three questions:

1. What are the top three most important pieces of photo gear for you to create your particular style of landscape photography and why is each important?

(Since we all need cameras and lenses, I stuck to optional items.)

  • At the top of my list, and it’s not even close, is a tripod/ball-head combo that’s easy to use: sturdy, light, and tall enough to use without a (destabilizing) center post. More than just a platform to reduce vibration, my tripod is a compositional aid that allows me to click a frame, evaluate my image, refine my composition and exposure settings, and click again. I often repeat this process several times until I’m satisfied. Using a tripod, the composition I’m evaluating is sitting right there, waiting for my adjustments; without a tripod, I need to recreate my composition each time. Another unsung benefit of the tripod is the ability to make exposure decisions without compromising f-stop or ISO to minimize hand-held camera shake. I’m a huge fan of Really Right Stuff tripods and heads.
  • Adding an L-plate to my bodies was a game-changer—not only does it make vertical compositions more stable, they’re closer to eye level and just plain easier. In my workshops I often observe photographers without an L-plate resist vertical oriented shots, either consciously or unconsciously, simply because it’s a hassle to crank their head sideways, and when they do they need to stoop more. And some heads are not strong enough to hold a heavy, vertically oriented camera/lens combo. But since switching to the L-plate, my decision between a horizontal or vertical composition is based entirely on the composition that works best.
  • Given the amount of travel I do, not to mention the hiking once I get there, I need a camera bag that handles all my gear (including my tripod and 15” laptop), has room for extra stuff like a jacket, water, and food, is comfortable for long hikes, durable, easy to access, and (this is huge) fits all airline overhead bins. I’ve tried many, and the F-stop Tilopa is the only one I’ve found that meets all my criteria.

*    *    *

Because people always seem interested in the equipment I use

For what it’s worth, I have relationships with a few photo equipment vendors that allows them to use my name, and in return I get a price break on their equipment. But I’ve never been one to play the endorsement card to great benefit, or too allow the whole freebie/discount thing affect my recommendations. For example, I’d never heard of F-Stop Gear when they asked if I’d like to be one of their staff pros. When they offered to send me a bag to try, I made it very clear that I’d only use or endorse it if I liked it better than anything else I’ve tried, but they sent it anyway, no strings attached. I’m happy to say that I absolutely fell in love with my F-Stop Tilopa, and haven’t used another bag in over three years  (before that I used different bags for different needs).

Likewise, I used (and sung the praises of) Really Right Stuff heads and L-plates long before RRS had ever heard of me. I own four Gitzo tripods, and while I think they’re great, I have to say that my new Really Right Stuff tripod (TVC-24L) is demonstrably better—lighter, sturdier, and easier to use—than my Gitzo 3530LS. And I’ve always found RRS customer service second to none.

Now if I could only get Apple to notice me….

About this image

Follow the light. Here atop Sentinel Dome it would have been easy to concentrate on one or more of a variety of dramatic subjects, including El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and Cathedral Rocks. But the best light this morning was the warm sunrise glow on an anonymous tree and a clump of wildflowers.

I’d spent the night in the back of my truck a few miles down the road from the Sentinel Dome trailhead. The hike is only about a mile—it’s relatively easy in daylight, but I wanted to be atop the dome about 45 minutes before sunrise, so I did the whole thing in the dark (not something I’d recommend unless you’re extremely familiar with the trail, as I was). Since this was late June, sunrise was around 5:30, which meant an extremely early morning. As it turned out, the sunrise, while magnificent to experience, wasn’t terribly noteworthy photographically.

As I started my walk back to my truck, the light on this tree stopped me. I positioned myself to align the wildflowers, tree, and Yosemite Fall, moving as far back as I could to allow a telephoto that would compress these three primary elements. I dropped low and focused to emphasize the wildflowers and weathered tree in the warm light, relegating unlit Yosemite Falls to background status by allowing it to go slightly soft.

All I want for Christmas….

Lunar Rainbow, Lower Yosemite Fall, Yosemite

Lunar Rainbow, Lower Yosemite Fall, Yosemite
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
15 seconds
ISO 800
26 mm

I returned late last night (well, early this morning) from my 2013 Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers photo workshop will lots of great new images and two fewer teeth. True story. The images I can verify; the teeth you’ll need to take my word for. Read on.

Chapter One: In the big inning

Twenty years ago I lost my two front teeth in a freak umpiring accident. Snapped off at the gum line, if you must know. (Nobody ever fouls a pitch straight back in slow pitch softball. Or so I believed.)

The visiting team was rallying in the last inning, with the tying run on second and their portly first baseman waving his bat in the box. The pitcher arced the ball homeward and with an awkward swing that somehow defied reality as defined by Newton, the batter sent the ball spinning toward my face like a yo-yo returning on a string—the picture of that stitched globe obscuring my view the instant before impacting my mouth is permanently etched in my memory. And with impact, Newton returned, imposing his second law with painful suddenness: Force equals mass times acceleration. I never did find out how the game ended.

Two emergency root canals the next morning were followed by a summer filled with trips to the dentist (I should have demanded my own parking space). By September I sported two gleaming crowns, affixed to the surviving tooth stubs (a process that involved embedded metal posts and “permanent” glue), a near perfect match that returned my smile to its original splendor.

Chapter Two: Be true to your teeth (or they’ll be false to you)

Apparently “permanent” means something different in the world of dental adhesives, because over the years (and despite my obsessive commitment to not testing them) my crowns have spontaneously detached several times: Once in the middle of a ten mile run, another time on Christmas day while snowed-in at my brother-in-law’s house in Colorado and fifteen hundred miles from my dentist. Each time I managed to avoid swallowing them, then had to endure much abuse (at the hands of the people who are supposed to love me most) until I could get back to the dentist for an application of the latest space-age cement guaranteed not to fail. Sigh.

Given the history, my biggest fear has always been that my crowns would lose purchase during a workshop (try saying ISO and shutter speed without your two front teeth), but since it only seems to happen once every three-to-five years, I felt fairly safe. I mean, what are the odds?

Chapter Three: Murphy is alive and well and living in Yosemite

After three-and-a-half days photographing waterfall rainbows, a rising full moon, a moonbow (lunar rainbow), and lots of dogwood with a group really nice (and fun!) photographers, my Yosemite spring workshop wrapped up Thursday night with a sunset shoot at one of my favorite Merced River spots. Half Dome, glowing with the warmth of the setting sun, reflected in the river as photographers contentedly crafted their own Yosemite masterpieces. What could go wrong?

I was helping one of the photographers add motion blur to his Half Dome reflection when my two front teeth (they’re connected) dropped without warning from the ceiling of my mouth. To avoid all the complications from the teeth slipping out the backdoor and down my throat, I reflexively dipped my head forward and opened my mouth, snatching them from the air before they could fall into the river. My workshop student was more than a little confused by my sudden theatrics until I flashed my toothless smile and explained that I’d just “Lotht my crownth.” I tried to deflect the inevitable (good natured) derision by telling the rest of the group that their workshop-mate slugged me for not answering his questions quickly enough, but they knew better.

Fortunately the teeth’s failure coincided with the end of the workshop, and I comforted myself with the knowledge that in the bottom of my suitcase was a tube of Polident I’d been carrying for years to mitigate (the very unlikely event of) just this calamity. After saying toothless goodbyes to the group I decided that, with nothing more than a four hour drive, requiring no more human interaction than one or two drive-thru passes, I’d wait until I was home with a mirror and clean, fully lit bathroom to temporarily reinsert my teeth. Then first thing in the morning I’d  call the dentist to schedule the few minutes it would take him to “permanently” reattach my crowns. With that plan, I tenderly folded the teeth into a clean napkin from my glovebox, where they’d stay until I made it to the dentist the next morning. And that’s exactly how it would have happened….

Chapter Four: It gets worse

I pulled into the garage a little after midnight, grateful that the teeth hadn’t failed until the end of the workshop and pleased with myself for somehow not frightening the friendly barista who delivered my mocha through her sliding window. I grabbed my phone and wallet from the center console and reached for the napkin containing my teeth, which should have been right there in the cup holder. Hmmm.

A frantic search ensued, starting with all the logical places (beneath the seat) and becoming progressively more desperate (glove box, ash tray, back seat). Before dismantling the spare tire compartment I mentally reconstructed my trip home and flashed to the gas stop in Livingston (one of many generic, brightly lit exits with an assortment of gas stations and fast food selections dotting Highway 99 in the Central Valley). Slowly memories of a quick housecleaning while waiting for my gas to pump materialized—into the convenient garbage can went my Starbucks cup, fast food wrappers, a few stray napki…. Oh. Oops.

So what should have been a fifteen minute ride in the dentist’s chair turned into a two hour marathon involving Novocain, drills, goopy molds, and six hundred of my dollars while the dentist fashioned temporary crowns that will keep me from looking like I ended up on the wrong end of a pool cue until he can craft the “final solution.” In the meantime I’m instructed not to use my front teeth for anything but smiling—”Not even to tear bread,” he warned as I walked out the door. (Which I’m pretty sure means that while they’re in there, I can charge all ice cream purchases to my HSA card.)

Oh, and my dentist a$$ure$ me that ver$ion-two of my crown$ really will be permanent.

*   *   *   *

About this image

About the only thing this image has to do with my teeth is I still had them when I took it. That and the fact that it was captured during the workshop that terminated in their demise. It’s a “moonbow,” a lunar rainbow caused by the light of a full moon. Witnesses see a shimmering silver band, but moonlight isn’t strong enough to reveal color to the naked eye. A camera, on the other hand, can accumulate light, making the scene in the image much brighter than being there.

While beautiful to photograph, the Yosemite Falls moonbow is no secret. The exposure is a piece of cake compared to the rest of the experience, which includes hundreds of photographers and point-and-shoot gawkers jostling in the dark, blowing mist. But despite the difficulties, the tailgate atmosphere at the bridge beneath lower Yosemite Fall is generally festive. Some photographers get a bit testy when a gawker (ignorantly) fires a flash, but generally a good time is had by all and those who want a picture (and are properly equipped and have some idea of what they’re doing) succeed.

The night before this I took my group out for a moonlight shoot without the moonbow (and the crowds) to get everyone comfortable with moonlight photography before braving the mayhem at the lower fall. Unfortunately, on our moonbow night unexpected clouds obscured the moon for most of window when the moon would be low enough for the moonbow. Nevertheless, the moonbow made several brief appearances (each time eliciting cheers) and most of the group got something, many that included a few moonlit clouds to enhance the sky. I spent most of my time working with the group (not the easiest thing to distinguish a dozen specific individuals from a couple of hundred strangers bundled in the dark against the elements) so this was the only moonbow I got that night.

Join me as I try to reprise this shot in my upcoming Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers photo workshop.

Yosemite After Dark

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