The Milky Way Saves the Day

Gary Hart Photography: Yosemite Night, Half Dome and Milky Way from Olmsted Point

Yosemite Night, Half Dome and Milky Way from Olmsted Point
Sony a7SII
Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM
20 seconds
F/1.6
ISO 3200

I’m a one-click photographer, so all of my Milky Way images are a single frame.

I stress a lot before and during a photo workshop. A lot more than people know, and a lot more than I probably should. Some of that stress probably helps me ensure things go smoothly, but some things are just plain irrational because people know I don’t have any control over things like the weather, dogwood bloom, the northern lights, to name just a few of Nature’s fickle whims. But I stress nevertheless.

For example, I schedule my Yosemite Fall Color photo workshop for the best chance to catch peak color. But when you schedule an autumn trip, there’s no guarantee of nailing the color’s peak (I also learned that there’s no guarantee that your hotel will have power, but that’s another story). My ace-in-the-hole for dealing with Yosemite unknowns like this is that even on a “bad” day, it’s still Yosemite. I also remind myself that Yosemite is blessed with a wide variety of deciduous trees to stretch the fall color season, and the low and slow Merced River means ubiquitous mirror reflections. But still, I stress.

I’ve found that the key to minimizing my stress is having options to fall back on when Plan A doesn’t materialize, something that will make the workshop memorable even when things aren’t exactly what we’d hoped for. Which is why, when possible, I try to schedule my workshops around astrophotography options. That way, when I don’t get clouds (which are always preferred over blank blue skies), the conditions are good for astrophotography. But I can’t schedule my fall workshops around the night sky because peak color trumps everything—I just have to take the moon and Milky Way in whatever state I find it. More stress.

This year’s Yosemite autumn workshop got the color and reflections I’d hoped for, but not one cloud in four days. Not only that, a power outage meant no lights, heat, hot water, or WiFi in our hotel for the first two days. The group knew the power outage wasn’t my fault, but that’s not really my idea of how to make a workshop memorable. So I started to look for options.

While I hadn’t planned this workshop around astrophotography, when it started to become clear that no clouds were in our future, I started looking for night sky options. And as luck would have it and through no planning on my part, this workshop straddled the new moon, which meant a possible crescent at sunrise or sunset. Unfortunately, neither the sunrise or sunset crescent aligns with any of Yosemite’s nice views in autumn. Of course another nice thing about a new moon is dark skies, ideal for night and (especially) Milky Way photography. Hmmm….

But trying to photograph the Milky Way posed another problem. In autumn, the Milky Way’s brilliant core glows above the southwest horizon after sunset, then disappears for the night before midnight. And unfortunately, nearly all of Yosemite’s best views face east. The one exception is Olmsted Point, a southwest-facing view of Half Dome on the Tioga road near Tenaya Lake and Tuolumne Meadows. (This was no great discovery—people have been photographing the Milky Way from Olmsted Point for awhile.) Though I’d never done it, the Milky Way from Olmsted Point has been on my to-do list for a long time, but I’ve always resisted taking a group up there because it’s about a 2 1/2 hour roundtrip from our hotel. And at 8000 feet, at the end of October, Olmsted Point is quite chilly after dark.

When I pitched the Milky Way idea to the group, everyone was all for it (the option was to return to a hotel without lights, heat, hot water, or WiFi). Before leaving I gave the group some Milky Way photography training, made sure they had equipment that would work (sturdy tripod, fast and wide lens), and (especially) reminded them to bring their warmest clothing (including a hat and gloves). As a bonus, to break up the drive we made a 30-minute stop at Siesta Lake for some nice color and reflections. Even with that stop, we made it up to Olmsted Point about an hour before sunset.

Olmsted Point is a granite dome with great views of Half Dome’s face from the opposite side viewed from Yosemite Valley. In addition to having some of my favorite foreground options for Half Dome, it’s a great spot to get up close and personal with evidence of Yosemite’s glacial past. Most obvious are the glacial erratics, large (some car-size and larger) boulders carried by glaciers and deposited in place as the glaciers retreated. But you don’t have to look hard to spot other signs of glaciation, like glacial polish (granite with glassy smooth and reflective finish), and glacial striations (grooves scoured in the granite by rocks embedded in the moving ice sheets).

For the sunset shoot we made the five minute walk out to the point itself, but I brought everyone back to the vista at the parking lot for the Milky Way shoot because I didn’t want anyone to get hurt scrambling down in the dark. After dark the temperatures dropped and the wind picked up, so some of the group opted for the warmth of the cars, but the rest of us set up our tripods and cameras, picked our compositions, and focused before it got too dark. Then we waited.

The only restaurant option closed at 9 p.m., which gave us only about 45 minutes of quality Milky Way time before we had to head back down the mountain to avoid missing dinner, but that turned out to be just about right—everyone who stayed out to shoot got nice stuff, and no one froze. I hadn’t been sure that adding this unplanned Milky Way shoot was the right thing to do, but on the drive back I breathed a private sign of relief because the trip had gone even better than I’d hoped. My stress lifted completely when we pulled into the hotel parking lot to find the lights on.


To help you understand and photograph the Milky Way, here’s my Photo Tips section Milky Way article

Photograph the Milky Way

Gary Hart Photography: Bristlecone Night, Milky Way from the White Mountains, California

Bristlecone Night, Milky Way from the White Mountains, California

Look heavenward on a moonless summer night (in the Northern Hemisphere) far from city light. The first thing to strike you is the shear volume of stars, but as your eyes adjust, your gaze is drawn to a luminous band spanning the sky. Ranging from magnificently brilliant to faintly visible, this is the Milky Way, home to our sun and nearly a half trillion other stars of varying age, size, and temperature.

Size and shape

Though every star you’ve ever seen is part of our Milky Way galaxy, stargazers use the Milky Way label more specifically to identify this river of starlight, gas, and dust spanning the night sky. As you feast your eyes, appreciate that some of the Milky Way’s starlight has traveled 25,000 years to reach your eyes, and light from a star on one edge of the Milky Way would take 100,000 years to reach the other side.

Spiral Galaxy (Milky look-alike): This is what our galaxy would look like from above.

Milky Way look-alike spiral galaxy: This is what our galaxy would look like from the outside, looking in. (The individual stars visible here are “local” and not part of the spiral galaxy depicted here.) Earth would be between two of the spiral arms, about halfway out from the center.

The rest of the sky appears to be filled with far more discrete stars than the region containing the Milky Way, but don’t let this deceive you. Imagine that you’re out in the countryside where the lights of a distant city blend into a homogeneous glow—similarly, the stars in the Milky Way’s luminous band are simply too numerous and distant to resolve individually. On the other hand, the individual pinpoints of starlight that we name and mentally assemble into constellations are just closer, much like the lights of nearby farmhouses. And the dark patches in the Milky Way aren’t empty space—like the trees and mountains that block our view of the city, they’re starlight-blocking interstellar dust and gas, remnants of exploded stars and the stuff of future stars.

Just as it’s impossible to know what your house looks like by peering out a window, it’s impossible to know what the Milky Way looks like by simply looking up on a dark night. Fortunate for us, really smart people have been able to infer from painstaking observation, measurement, reconstruction, and comparison with other galaxies that our Milky Way is flat (much wider than it is tall) and spiral shaped, like a glowing pinwheel, with two major arms and several minor arms spiraling out from its center. Our solar system is in one of the Milky Way’s minor arms, a little past midway between the center and outer edge.

Blinded by the light

Sadly, artificial light and atmospheric pollution have erased the view of the Milky Way for nearly a third of the world’s population, and eighty percent of Americans. Worse still, even though some part of the Milky Way is overhead on every clear night, many people have never seen it.

Advances in digital technology have spurred a night photography renaissance that has enabled the Milky Way challenged to enjoy images of its splendor from the comfort of their recliner, but there’s nothing quite like viewing it in person. With just a little knowledge and effort, you too can enjoy the Milky Way firsthand; add the right equipment and a little more knowledge, and you’ll be able to photograph it as well.

Horizon to Horizon

Understanding that our Solar System is inside the Milky Way’s disk makes it easier to understand why we can see some portion of the Milky Way on any night (assuming the sky is dark enough). In fact, from our perspective, the plane of the Milky Way forms a complete ring around Earth (but of course we can only see half the sky at any given time), with its brightness varying depending on whether we’re looking toward our galaxy’s dense center or sparse outer region.

Where the action is

Milky Way and Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, Kilauea, Hawaii

The Milky Way’s brilliant center, its “galactic core,” radiates above Kilauea on Hawaii’s Big Island

Though the plane of the Milky Way stretches all the way across our sky, when photographers talk about photographing the Milky Way, they usually mean the galactic core—the Milky Way’s center and most densely packed, brightest region. Unfortunately, our night sky doesn’t always face the galactic core, and there are many months when this bright region is not visible at all.

To understand the Milky Way’s visibility in our night sky, it helps to remember that Earth both rotates on its axis (a day), and revolves around the sun (a year). When the side of the planet we’re on rotates away from the sun each day, the night sky we see is determined by our position on our annual trip around the sun—when Earth is between the sun and the galactic core, we’re in position to see the most brilliant part of the Milky Way; in the months when the sun is between earth and the galactic core, the bright part of the Milky Way can’t be seen.

Put in terrestrial terms, imagine you’re at the neighborhood playground, riding a merry-go-round beneath a towering oak tree. You face outward, with your back to the merry-go-round’s center post. As the merry-go-round spins, your view changes—about half of the time you’d rotate to face the oak’s trunk, and about half the time your back is to the tree. Our solar system is like that merry-go-round: the center post is the sun, the Milky Way is the tree, and in the year it takes our celestial merry-go-round to make a complete circle, we’ll face the Milky Way about half the time.

Finding the Milky Way

Just like every other celestial object outside our solar system, the Milky Way’s position in our sky changes with the season and time of night you view it, but it remains constant relative to the other stars and constellations. This means you can find the Milky Way by simply locating any of the constellations in the galactic plane. Here’s an alphabetical list of the constellations* through which the Milky Way passes (with brief notes by a few of the more notable constellations):

  • Aquila
  • Ara
  • Auriga—faintest
  • Canis Major—faint
  • Carina
  • Cassiopeia—faint; its easily recognized “w” (or “m”) shape makes Cassiopeia a good landmark for locating the Milky Way in the northern sky
  • Cepheus
  • Circinus
  • Crux
  • Cygnus—bright
  • Gemini
  • Lacerta
  • Lupus
  • Monoceros
  • Musca
  • Norma
  • Ophiuchus
  • Orion—faint; another easy to recognize constellation that’s good for finding the galactic plane
  • Perseus—faint
  • Puppis
  • Pyxis
  • Sagitta
  • Sagittarius—brightest, galactic core
  • Scorpius—bright
  • Scutum
  • Serpens
  • Taurus—faint
  • Triangulum
  • Vela
  • Vulpecula
* Constellations are comprised of stars that only appear connected by virtue of our Earth-bound perspective—a constellation is a direction in the sky, not a location in space.

If you can find any of these constellations, you’re looking in the direction of some part of the Milky Way (if you can’t see it, your sky isn’t dark enough). But most of us want to see the center of the Milky Way, where it’s brightest, most expansive, and most photogenic. The two most important things to understand about finding the Milky Way’s brilliant center are:

  • From our perspective here on Earth, the galactic core is in Sagittarius (and a couple of other constellations near Sagittarius)—when Sagittarius is visible, so is the brightest part of the Milky Way (assuming you can find a dark enough sky)
  • Earth’s night side most directly faces Sagittarius in the Northern Hemisphere’s summer months (plus part of spring and autumn)

Armed with this knowledge, locating the Milky Way’s core is as simple as opening one of my (too many) star apps to find out where Sagittarius is. Problem solved. Of course it helps to know that the months when the galactic core rises highest and is visible longest are June, July, and August, and to not even consider looking before mid-March, or after mid-October. If you can’t wait until summer and don’t mind missing a little sleep, starting in April, Northern Hemisphere residents with a dark enough sky can catch Sagittarius and the galactic core rising in the southeast shortly before sunrise. After its annual premier in April, the Milky Way’s core rises slightly earlier each night and is eventually well above the horizon by nightfall.

People who enjoy sleep prefer doing their Milky Way hunting in late summer and early autumn, when the galactic core has been above the horizon for most of the daylight hours, but remains high in the southwest sky as soon as the post-sunset sky darkens enough for the stars to appear. The farther into summer and autumn you get, the closer to setting beneath the western horizon the Milky Way will be at sunset, and the less time you’ll have before it disappears.

Into the darkness

The Milky Way is dim enough to be easily washed out by light pollution and moonlight, so the darker your sky, the more visible the Milky Way will be. To ensure sufficient darkness, I target moonless hours, from an hour or so after sunset to an hour before sunrise. New moon nights are easiest because the new moon rises and sets (more or less) with the sun and there’s no moon all night. But on any night, if you pick a time before the moon rises, or after it sets, you should be fine. Be aware that the closer the moon is to full, the greater the potential for its glow to leak into the scene from below the horizon.

Getting away from city lights can be surprisingly difficult (and frustrating). Taking a drive out into the countryside near home is better than nothing, and while it may seem dark enough to your eyes, a night exposure in an area that you expect to be dark enough reveals just how insidious light pollution is as soon as you realize all of your images are washed out by an unnatural glow on the horizon. Since the galactic core is in the southern sky in the Northern Hemisphere, you can mitigate urban glow in your Milky Way images by heading south of any nearby population area, putting the glow behind you as you face the Milky Way.

Better than a night drive out to the country, plan a trip to a location with a truly dark sky. For this, those in the less densely populated western US have an advantage. The best resource for finding world-class dark skies anywhere on Earth is the International Dark-Sky Association. More than just a resource, the IDA actively advocates for dark skies, so if the quality of our night skies matters to you, spend some time on their site, get involved, and share their website with others.

Photograph the Milky Way

 

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Viewing the Milky Way requires nothing more than a clear, dark sky. (Assuming clean, clear skies) the Milky Way’s luminosity is fixed, so our ability to see it is largely a function of the darkness of the surrounding sky—the darker the sky, the better the Milky Way stands out. But because our eyes can only take in a fixed amount of light, there’s a ceiling on our ability to view the Milky Way with the unaided eye.

A camera, on the other hand, can accumulate light for a virtually unlimited duration. This, combined with technological advances that continue increasing the light sensitivity of digital sensors, means that when it comes to photographing the Milky Way, well…, the sky’s the limit. As glorious as it is to view the Milky Way with the unaided eye, a camera will show you detail and color your eyes can’t see.

Knowing when and where to view the Milky Way is a great start, but photographing the Milky Way requires a combination of equipment, skill, and experience that doesn’t just happen overnight (so to speak). But Milky Way photography doesn’t need to break the bank, and it’s not rocket science.

Equipment

Bottom line, photographing the Milky Way is all about maximizing your ability to collect light: long exposures, fast lenses, high ISO.

Camera

In general, the larger your camera’s sensor and photosites (the “pixels” that capture the light), the more efficiently it collects light. Because other technology is involved, there’s not an absolute correlation between sensor and pixel size and light gathering capability, but a small, densely packed sensor almost certainly rules out your smartphone and point-and-shoot cameras for anything more than a fuzzy snap of the Milky Way. At the very least you’ll want a mirrorless or DSLR camera with an APS-C (1.5/1.6 crop) size sensor. Better still is a full frame mirrorless or DSLR camera. (A 4/3 Olympus or Panasonic sensor might work, but as great as these cameras are for some things, high ISO photography isn’t their strength.

Another general rule is that the newer the technology, the better it will perform in low light. Even with their smaller, more densely packed sensors, many of today’s top APS-C bodies outperform in low light full frame bodies that have been out for a few years, so full frame or APS-C, if your camera is relatively new, it will probably do the job.

If you’re shopping for a new camera and think night photography might be in your future, compare your potential cameras’ high ISO capabilities—not their maximum ISO. Read reviews by credible sources like DP Review, Imaging Resource, or DxOMark (among many others) to see how your camera candidates fare in objective tests.

An often overlooked consideration is the camera’s ability to focus in extreme low light. Autofocusing on the stars or landscape will be difficult to impossible, and you’ll not be able to see well enough through a DSLR’s viewfinder to manually focus. Some bodies with a fast lens might autofocus on a bright star or planet, but it’s not something I’d count on (though I expect within a few years before this capability will become more common).

Having photographed for years with Sony and Canon, and working extensively with most other mirrorless and DSLR bodies in my workshops, I have lots of experience with cameras from many manufacturers. In my book, focus peaking makes mirrorless the clear winner for night focusing. Sony’s current mirrorless bodies (a7RII/RIII, a7S/SII) are by far the easiest I’ve ever used for focusing in the dark—what took a minute or more with my Canon, I can do in seconds using focus peaking with my Sony bodies (especially the S bodies). I use the Sony a7SII, but when I don’t want to travel with a body I only use for night photography, the Sony a7RIII does the job too. Of the major DSLR brands, I’ve found Canon’s superior LCD screen (as of 2019) makes it much easier to focus in extreme low light than Nikon. (More on focus later.)

Lens

Put simply, to photograph the Milky Way you want fast, wide glass—the faster the better. Fast to capture as much light as possible; wide to take in lots of sky. A faster lens also makes focus and composition easier because the larger aperture gathers more light. How fast? F/2.8 or faster—preferably faster. How wide? At least 28mm, and wider is better still. I do enough night photography that I have a dedicated, night-only lens—my original night lens was a Canon-mount Zeiss 28mm f/2; my current night lens is the Sony 24mm f/1.4.

Tripod

It goes without saying that at exposure times up to 30 seconds, you’ll need a sturdy tripod and head for Milky Way photography. You don’t need to spend a fortune, but the more you spend, the happier you’ll be in the long run (trust me). Carbon fiber provides the best combination of strength, vibration reduction, and light weight, but a sturdy (albeit heavy) aluminum tripod will do the job.

An extended centerpost is not terribly stable, and a non-extended centerpost limits your ability to spread the tripod’s legs and get low, so I avoid tripods with a centerpost. But if you have a sturdy tripod with a centerpost, don’t run out and purchase a new one—just don’t extend the centerpost when photographing at night.

Read my tips for purchasing a tripod here.

Other stuff

To eliminate the possibility of camera vibration I recommend a remote release; without a remote you’ll risk annoying all within earshot with your camera’s 2-second timer beep. You’ll want a flashlight or headlamp for the walk to and from the car, and your cell phone for light while shooting. And it’s never a bad idea to toss an extra battery in your pocket. And speaking of lights, never, never, NEVER use a red light for night photography (more on this later).

Getting the shot

Keep it simple

There are just so many things that can go wrong on a moonless night when there’s not enough light to see camera controls, the contents of your bag, and the tripod leg you’re about to trip over. After doing this for many years, both on my own and helping others in workshops, I’ve decided that simplicity is essential.

Simplicity starts with paring down to the absolute minimum camera gear: a sturdy tripod, one body, one lens, and a remote release (plus an extra battery in my pocket). Everything else stays at home, in the car, or if I’m staying out after a sunset shoot, in my bag.

Upon arrival at my night photography destination, I extract my tripod, camera, lens (don’t forget to remove the polarizer), and remote release. I connect the remote and mount my lens—if it’s a zoom I set the focal length at the lens’s widest—then set my exposure and focus (more on exposure and focus below). If I’m walking to my photo site, I carry the pre-exposed and focused camera on the tripod (I know this makes some people uncomfortable, but if you don’t trust your tripod head enough to hold onto your camera while you’re walking, it’s time for a new head), trying to keep the tripod as upright and stable as possible as I walk.

Flashlights/headlamps are essential for the walk/hike out to to and from my shooting location, but while I’m there and in shoot mode, it’s no flashlights, no exceptions. This is particularly important when I’m with a group. Not only does a flashlight inhibit your night vision, its light leaks into the frame of everyone who’s there. And while red lights may be better for your night vision and are great for telescope view, red light is especially insidious about leaking into everyone’s frame, so if you plan to take pictures, no red light! If you follow my no flashlight rule once the photography begins, you’ll be amazed at how well your eyes adjust. I can operate my camera’s controls in the dark—it’s not hard with a little practice, and well worth the effort to learn. If I ever do need to see my camera to adjust something, or if I need to see to move around, my cell phone screen (not the phone’s flashlight, just its illuminated screen) gives me all the light I need.

Composition

A good Milky Way image is distinguished from an ordinary Milky Way image by its foreground. Simply finding a location that’s dark enough to see the Milky Way is difficult enough; finding a dark location that also has a foreground worthy of pairing with the Milky Way usually takes a little planning.

Since the Milky Way’s center is in the southern sky (for Northern Hemisphere observers), I look for remote (away from light pollution) subjects that I can photograph while facing south (or southeast or southwest, depending on the month and time of night). Keep in mind that unless you have a ridiculous light gathering camera (like the Sony a7S or a7S II) and an extremely fast lens (f/2 or faster), your foreground will probably be more dark shape than detail. Water’s inherent reflectivity makes it a good foreground subject as well, especially if the water includes rocks or whitewater.

When I encounter a scene I deem photo worthy, not only do I try to determine its best light and moon rise/set possibilities, I also consider its potential as a Milky Way subject. Can I align it with the southern sky? Are there strong subjects that stand out against the sky? Is there water I can include in my frame?

I’ve found views of the Grand Canyon from the North Rim, the Kilauea Caldera, and the bristlecone pines in California’s White Mountains that work spectacularly. And its hard to beat the dark skies and breathtaking foreground possibilities at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. On the other hand, while Yosemite Valley has lots to love, you don’t see a lot of Milky Way images from Yosemite Valley because not only is there a lot of light pollution, and Yosemite’s towering, east/west trending granite walls give its south views an extremely high horizon that blocks much of the galactic core from the valley floor.

The last few years I’ve started photographing the Milky Way above the spectacular winter scenery of New Zealand’s South Island, where the skies are dark and the Milky Way is higher in the sky than it is in most of North America.

To maximize the amount of Milky Way in my frame, I generally (but not always) start with a vertical orientation that’s at least 2/3 sky. On the other hand, I do make sure to give myself more options with a few horizontal compositions as well. Given the near total darkness required of a Milky Way shoot, it’s often too dark to see well enough to compose that scene. If I can’t see well enough to compose I guess at a composition, take a short test exposure at an extreme (unusable) ISO to enable a relatively fast shutter speed (a few seconds), adjust the composition based on the image in the LCD, and repeat until I’m satisfied.

Focus

Needless to say, when it’s dark enough to view the Milky Way, there’s not enough light to autofocus (unless you have a rare camera/lens combo that can autofocus on a bright star and planet), or even to manually focus with confidence. And of all the things that can ruin a Milky Way image (not to mention an entire night), poor focus is number one. Not only is achieving focus difficult, it’s very easy to think you’re focused only to discover later that you just missed.

Because the Milky Way’s focus point is infinity, and you almost certainly won’t have enough light to stop down for more depth of field, your closest foreground subjects should be far enough away to be sharp when you’re wide open and focused at infinity. Before going out to shoot, find a hyperfocal app and plug in the values for your camera and lens at its widest aperture. Even though it’s technically possible to be sharp from half the hyperfocal distance to infinity, the kind of precise focus focusing on the hyperfocal point requires is difficult to impossible in the dark, so my rule of thumb is to make sure my closest subject is no closer than the hyperfocal distance.

For example, I know with my Sony 24mm f/1.4 wide open on my full frame Sony a7SII, the hyperfocal distance is about 50 feet. If I have a subject that’s closer (such as a bristlecone pine), I’ll pre-focus (before dark) on the hyperfocal distance, or shine a bright light on an object at the hyperfocal distance and focus there, but generally I make sure everything is at least 50 feet away. Read more about hyperfocal focus in my Depth of Field article.

By far the number one cause of night focus misses is the idea that you can just dial any lens to infinity; followed closely by the idea that focused at one focal length means focused at all focal lengths. Because when it comes to sharpness, almost isn’t good enough, if you have a zoom lens, don’t even think of trying to dial the focus ring to the end for infinity. And even for most prime lenses, the infinity point is a little short of all the way to the end, and can vary slightly with the temperature and f-stop. Of course if you know your lens well enough to be certain of its infinity point by feel (and are a risk taker), go for it. And that zoom lens that claims to be parfocal? While it’s possible that your zoom will hold focus throughout its entire focal range, regardless of what the manufacturer claims, I wouldn’t bet an entire shoot on it without testing first.

All this means that the only way to ensure night photography sharpness is to focus carefully on something before shooting, refocus every time your focal length changes, and check focus frequently by displaying and magnifying an image on your LCD. To simplify (there’s that word again), when using a zoom lens, I usually set the lens at its widest focal length, focus, verify sharpness, and (once I know I’m focused) never change the focal length again.

While the best way to ensure focus is to set your focal length and focus before it gets dark, sometimes pre-focusing isn’t possible, or for some reason you need to refocus after darkness falls. If I arrive at my destination in the dark, I autofocus on my headlights, a bright flashlight, or a laser 50 feet or more away. And again, never assume you’re sharp by looking at the image that pops up on the LCD when the exposure completes—always magnify your image and check it after you focus.

For more on focusing in the dark, including how to use stars to focus, read my Starlight Photo Tips article.

Exposure

Exposing a Milky Way image is wonderfully simple once you realize that you don’t have to meter—because you can’t (not enough light). Your goal is simply to capture as many photons as you can without damaging the image with noise, star motion, and lens flaws.

Basically, with today’s technology you can’t give a Milky Way image too much light—you’ll run into image quality problems before you overexpose a Milky Way image. In other words, capturing the amount of light required to overexpose a Milky Way image is only possible if you’ve chosen an ISO and/or shutter speed that significantly compromises the quality of the image with excessive noise and/or star motion.

In a perfect world, I’d take every image at ISO 100 and f/8—the best ISO and f-stop for my camera and lens. But that’s not possible when photographing in near total darkness—a usable Milky Way image requires exposure compromises. What kind of compromises? The key to getting a properly exposed Milky Way image is knowing how far you push your camera’s exposure settings before the light gained isn’t worth the diminished quality. Each exposure variable causes a different problem when pushed too far:

  • ISO: Raising ISO to increase light sensitivity comes with a corresponding increase in noise that muddies detail. The noise at any particular ISO varies greatly with the camera, so it’s essential to know your camera’s low-light capability(!). Some of the noise can be cleaned up with noise reduction software (I use Topaz DeNoise 6)—the amount that cleans up will depend on the noise reduction software you use, your skill using that software, and where the noise is (is it marring empty voids or spoiling essential detail?).
  • Shutter speed: The longer the shutter stays open, the more motion blur spreads the stars’ distinct pinpoints into streaks. I’m not a big fan of formulas that dictate star photography shutter speeds because I find them arbitrary and inflexible, and they fail to account for the fact that the amount of apparent stellar motion varies with the direction you’re composing (you’ll get less motion the closer to the north or south poles you’re aimed). My general shutter-speed rule of thumb is 30-seconds or less, preferably less—I won’t exceed 30 seconds, and do everything I can to get enough light with a faster shutter speed.
  • F-stop: At their widest apertures, lenses tend to lose sharpness (especially on the edges) and display optical flaws like comatic aberration (also called coma) that distorts points of light (like stars) into comet shaped blurs. For many lenses, stopping down even one stop from wide open significantly improves image quality.

Again: My approach to metering for the Milky Way is to give my scene as much light as I can without pushing the exposure compromises to a point I can’t live with. Where exactly is that point? Not only does that question require a subjective answer that varies with each camera body, lens, and scene, as technology improves, I’m less forgiving of exposure compromises than I once was. For example, when I started photographing the Milky Way with my Canon 1DS Mark III, the Milky Way scenes I could shoot were limited because my fastest wide lens was f/4 and I got too much noise when I pushed my ISO beyond 1600. This forced me compromise by shooting wide open with a 30-second shutter speed to achieve even marginal results. In fact, given these limitations, despite trying to photograph the Milky Way from many locations, when I started the only Milky Way foreground that worked well enough was Kilauea Caldera, because it was its own light source (an erupting volcano).

Today (mid-2019) I photograph the Milky Way with a Sony a7S II and a Sony 24mm f/1.4 lens. I get much cleaner images from my Sony at ISO 6400 than got a ISO 1600 on my Canon 1DSIII, and the night light gathering capability of an f/1.4 lens revelatory. At ISO 6400 (or higher) I can stop down slightly to eliminate lens aberrations (though I don’t seem to need to with the Sony lens), drop my shutter speed to 20 or 15 seconds to reduce star motion 33-50 percent, and still get usable foreground detail by starlight.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to know your camera’s and lens’s capabilities in low light, and how for you’re comfortable pushing the ISO and f-stop. For each of the night photography equipment combos I’ve used, I’ve established a general exposure upper threshold, rule-of-thumb compromise points for each exposure setting that I won’t exceed until I’ve reached the compromise threshold of the other exposure settings. For example, with my Sony a7SII/24mm f/1.4 combo, I usually start at ISO 6400, f/1.4, and 20 seconds. Those settings will usually get me enough light for Milky Way color and pretty good foreground detail. But if I want more light (for example, if I’m shooting into the black pit of the Grand Canyon from the canyon rim), my first exposure compromise might be to increase to ISO 12800; if I decide I need even more light, my next compromise is to bump my shutter speed to 30 seconds. Or if I want a wider field of view than 24mm, I’ll put on my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 G lens and increase to ISO 12800 and 30 seconds.

These thresholds are guidelines rather than hard-and-fast rules, and they apply to my preferences only—your results may vary. And though I’m pretty secure with this workflow, for each Milky Way composition I try a variety of exposure combinations before moving to another composition. Not only does this give me a range of options to choose between when I’m at home and reviewing my images on a big monitor, it also gives me more insight into my camera/lens capabilities, allowing me to refine my exposure compromise threshold points.

One other option that I’ve started applying automatically is long exposure noise reduction, which delivers a noticeable reduction in noise for exposures that are several seconds and longer.

* In normal situations the Sony a7SII can handle ISO 12,800 without even breathing hard, but the long exposure time required of night photography generates a lot of heat on the sensor with a corresponding increase in noise.

It’s time to click that shutter

You’re in position with the right gear, composed, focused, and exposure values set. Before you actually click the shutter, let me remind you of a couple of things you can do to ensure the best results: First, lower that center post. A tripod center post’s inherent instability is magnified during long exposures, not just by wind, but even by nearby footsteps, the press of the shutter button, and slap of the mirror (and sometimes it seems, by ghosts). And speaking of shutter clicks, you should be using a remote cable or two-second timer to eliminate the vibration imparted when your finger presses the shutter button.

When that first Milky Way image pops up on the LCD, it’s pretty exciting. So exciting in fact that sometimes you risk being lulled into a “Wow, this isn’t as hard as I expected” complacency. Even though you think everything’s perfect, don’t forget to review your image sharpness every few frames by displaying and magnifying and image on your LCD. In theory nothing should change unless you changed it, but in practice I’ve noticed an occasional inclination for focus to shift mysteriously between shots. Whether it’s slight temperature changes or an inadvertent nudge of the focus ring as you fumble with controls in the dark, you can file periodically checking your sharpness falls under “an ounce of prevention….” Believe me, this will save a lot of angst later.

And finally, don’t forget to play with different exposure settings for each composition. Not only does this give you more options, it also gives you more insight into your camera/lens combo’s low light capabilities.

The bottom line

Though having top-of-the-line, low-light equipment helps a lot, it’s not essential. If you have a full frame mirrorless or DSLR camera that’s less than five years old, and a lens that’s f/2.8 or faster, you probably have all the equipment you need to get great the Milky Way images. Even with a cropped sensor, or an f/4 lens, you have a good chance of getting usable Milky Way images in the right circumstances. If you’ve never photographed the Milky Way before, don’t expect perfection the first time out. What you can expect is improvement each time you go out as you learn the limitations of your equipment and identify your own exposure compromise thresholds. And success or failure, at the very least you’ll have spent a magnificent night under the stars.

Workshop Schedule || Purchase Prints


A Milky Way Gallery

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

 

Turning a Negative Into a Positive in Yosemite

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Autumn Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1.6 seconds
F/16
ISO 200

Update, November 4

Since posting this image yesterday, I’ve gotten a few comments ranging from “Magnificent!” to “What is it?”. If you think it’s magnificent, thanks. For those scratching their head (I understand), it’s a reflection of El Capitan in the Merced River. This sheltered pool was covered with pine needles, with a collection of colorful leaves resting atop the floating pine needles. One problem with sharing this online is that it’s a 61 megapixel capture using my Sony a7RIV; with so much detail, it really needs to be seen on a screen bigger than your cell phone’s, the bigger the better. But of course I can only post so big online (in this case, 1200×800 pixels), and even that relatively low resolution is compromised by website (WordPress, Facebook, Instagram, and so on) compression, so I doubt that even on a computer screen you’ll see the detail as clearly as I can. And I realize in this day of eye-grabbing computer art, images like this don’t go viral, but this kind of photography makes me happy.

Original post

When I was a kid, I loved power outages. As an adult…, uh, not so much. And if you’ve been living under a rock, you may not have heard about the wildfires charring California’s hillsides and soiling our skies, and PG&E’s dubious strategy to mitigate decades of mismanagement by simply shutting off the power to millions of customers on days the fire risk is deemed extreme. I’m fortunate to live Sacramento, which doesn’t get its electricity from PG&E, which means these outages haven’t really been my problem. Until last week.

When I schedule a photo workshop, I do my best to time it for ideal photography conditions, but sadly, some things are beyond my control. In the 15 or so years I’ve been doing this, I’ve had workshops impacted by rain, snow, wind, fog, wildfires, rock slides, and a tropical storm. I can now add power outage to that list.

Last week’s Yosemite Fall Color workshop coincided with the latest round of wind-induced PG&E power outages. We started Monday, and I learned on Sunday that the power had been shut down in Yosemite and the surrounding area, with no estimate for its reactivation. I e-mailed the group an update Sunday evening, reassuring them that our hotel was open even without power, and that the workshop would go on, power or not. There was still no power in Yosemite when I left home early Monday morning, so all I could do was drive and hope for the best.

With no power at workshop start time, I jettisoned my normal orientation presentation and just winged the group introductions and preparation info in the semi-darkness of the hotel’s lounge area. With only one exception, the group’s attitude was wonderfully positive and up for a we’re-all-in-this-together experience (the exception bailed for home in the first ten minutes, which was probably for the best).

One thing you’re quickly reminded of in a hotel without power is that it’s not just darkness you’re dealing with—we also had no heat, no hot water, and no juice to recharge cameras, computers, and cell phones (and no WiFi!). Between flashlights, headlamps, and battery-powered lanterns, most everyone came armed with enough light to navigate their room in the dark. For emergency battery charging, I brought a couple of fully charged power bricks, and Curt, the photographer assisting me with this workshop, came with an industrial strength portable charger that could have illuminated Vegas for a week. The rooms didn’t seem to get too cold until close to bedtime, but extra blankets in every room fixed that. The biggest problem was the no hot water thing—on the first morning I managed to make myself sufficiently presentable with a sponge bath (applied with prayer for power and hot water by the time the next morning rolled around).

Meeting the group before sunrise Tuesday morning I braced for a mutiny, but everyone remained spectacularly upbeat. And because there was little reason to hang in the rooms without light or heat, I ended up replacing some of my standard mid-day break and training time with extra shooting. Even without power, Curt was able to do his sensor cleaning talk, and clean everyone’s sensor, which was a big hit. And with extra time for shooting, I decided to make the 75-minute one-way drive to Olmsted Point (where I haven’t taken a Yosemite group in years), for a sunset and Milky Way shoot.

Much to our delight, we returned from Olmsted Point on Tuesday night to find the hotel lit up like Christmas—lights, heat, and hot water, but alas, no internet for the rest of the week. We had survived about 30 hours without power (from the time the workshop started until our return from the Milky Way shoot) in remarkably good spirits, and in fact I think the whole experience drew the group even closer. The workshop’s final two days went off without a hitch, and by the end, people who were complete strangers at the start were making plans for post-workshop meals and more photography.

The lesson here, one that we already know but sometimes need to be reminded, is that our experience of the world is shaped more by our attitude than the world. We were in Yosemite for heaven’s sake, in one of the most beautiful times to be there, sharing the experience with a group of like-minded individuals. Doing 12-18 workshops a year for nearly 15 years, memories of the individual workshops tend to run together, but this is one I’ll definitely never forget!

About this image

Landscape photographers love clouds, both for the drama they add to the sky and for the way they soften harsh light. So besides the power thing, the other difficulty this workshop faced was no clouds. For four days: Not. One. Cloud. Fortunately, I’ve been photographing Yosemite long enough to know how to make it work without clouds, and the fall color was pretty great—not just on the trees, but also on the ground and in the water.

It also didn’t hurt that the reflections in the Merced River were off the charts (as they pretty much always are in autumn). Virtually every stop offered some reflection of Half Dome or El Capitan in the Merced. And we didn’t have to look to hard to find color to add to the reflections. Frequently it was in the trees lining the far riverbank, but I set my own sights on the yellow and red leaves floating on the near riverbank. With a little careful positioning, I was usually able to juxtapose the floating leaves with the reflection du jour.

On Tuesday morning we found our first nice El Capitan reflection near El Capitan Bridge. I walked along the riverbank until I found this bed of floating pine needles punctuated with an assortment of colorful leaves. I set up my tripod and positioned it so my camera framed the reflection with the most colorful leaves, placing El Capitan in an area with fewer pine needles (and more reflection). I used a polarizer darken the water, but not so much that I lost the reflection of El Capitan (which I dodged slightly in Photoshop to help it stand out).

Read more about photographing reflections


A Gallery of Reflections

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

 

Low Hanging Fruit

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Reflection, Valley View, Yosemite

Winter Reflection, Valley View, Yosemite
Sony a7RII
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
10 seconds
F/7.1
ISO 1600

Gary Hart Photography: Snowcap, El Capitan, Yosemite

Snowcap, El Capitan, Yosemite

A few days ago I posted an El Capitan in winter image on Instagram. Since it had been nearly three years since that trip, a lot of the specifics of that day had slipped my mind, but when I pulled up the Instagram image’s raw file in Lightroom to check the capture info, a few more of that day’s (so far unprocessed) images caught my eye. The next thing I knew, I was processing this one, and gradually, some of the day’s details returned to me.

Yosemite Valley had been brown and dry beneath an overcast sky when I checked into the lodge the evening prior, but I woke the next morning to a world of white. (This was no surprise—I’d made the trip because snow was forecast.) The snow was still falling after breakfast, and as usually happens in a Yosemite storm, the clouds completely obscured all of Yosemite’s icons. But knowing that the key to photographing snow in Yosemite is to be out in it when the storm breaks, I was quite content to drive into its midst and wait it out. And break it did, turning to flurries with a mix of clouds and blue sky by late morning. The conditions stayed like that the rest of the day and I was in photographer heaven.

I circled Yosemite Valley all day, sometimes targeting specific spots, other times just pulling over when something moved me. By the time the sun set I was pretty certain that I had lots of good stuff on my card, but most important, I was happy. (If just spending time with your subject, regardless of the photographic results, doesn’t make you happy, you probably should be photographing something else.)

On my way out of the park after sunset I made one last stop to photograph this Valley View scene. With its easy access and riverside views of El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall, Valley View is low-hanging photography fruit. And it’s especially nice with fresh snow. I’d already stopped here at least once before on that day, capturing last week’s Instagram image late that morning, but I couldn’t resit taking one more peek before heading down the canyon and home.

After the trip I processed a couple of images right away, but like so many of my photo trips, most of the images from this day have languished on a hard drive, victims of the priorities of running a business. This whole experience has been a good reminder of how many unprocessed images I have “in the bank,” waiting to be processed. It has inspired me to make a concentrated effort to go back through my archives to see what might be lurking there. I’ve already excavated a couple besides this one, with more on the way.

And speaking of low hanging fruit, I’ve started by going through my Yosemite snow images, because, well…, how can you go wrong with Yosemite and snow?

Winter is coming

Because winter is right around the corner, and we’ve already entered (just barely) the window when snow is possible in Yosemite, here’s my recipe for photographing Yosemite with snow.

The Early Bird Gets the Snow

If you delay your trip until you hear that it snowed in Yosemite, you’re too late. That’s because Yosemite is only 4,000 feet above sea level and actually warmer in winter than most of the United States. When it does snow there, as soon the snow stops, Yosemite’s relatively mild temperatures collude with sunshine, wind, and gravity to clear the trees in a matter of hours. Not only that, park visitors, driven to shelter by the storm, swarm outside to gape as soon as the snow stops, quickly marring the pristine beauty with footprints, not to mention the mud spread by their boots and tires. In other words, the key to photographing Yosemite with snow is being in the park during the storm (and working fast).

Monitor the weather

All winter I monitor the Yosemite weather forecast for hints of a cold storm. But even this isn’t as simple as you might expect—the single biggest mistake people make when planning a Yosemite snow trip is opening whatever weather site or app is convenient and simply typing in Yosemite. Yosemite Valley is only 4,000 feet above sea level, and virtually the entire rest of the park is higher—up to 13,000 feet elevation. And for some reason, even though Yosemite Valley is where you want to be for snow (and pretty much the only place in Yosemite you can be in winter), most weather resources don’t give the forecast for Yosemite Valley. Instead, they pick some other (random?) elevation that is almost always more likely to get snow than Yosemite Valley. You’d be amazed at how much more frequently snow falls just 500 feet above Yosemite Valley than falls in Yosemite Valley, which means a lot of people end up driving to Yosemite to photograph the snow their weather app promised, then end up marinating all day in a cold rain.

I know there are lots of weather forecast options out there, but most lack the resources of the National Weather Service (or they just use the NWS data). The NWS may not always nail the forecast, but they seem to be more consistent and reliable than any of the other options. But even selecting a generic NWS Yosemite forecast can lead you astray. I recently typed “Yosemite” into the NWS’s forecast input field and was given an assortment of similar options, each of which returned a different location in Yosemite (most not Yosemite Valley). So rather than leave it to chance, to ensure a forecast for the correct elevation, I’ve bookmarked the NWS point forecast for Yosemite Valley.

Chains

When it snows in Yosemite, they do sometimes require chains. Usually 4WD or AWD cars with snow tires are exempt, but not necessarily. Regardless of the conditions, park rules say if you plan to drive in the Yosemite in winter, you must carry chains—even if you have 4WD/AWD. My Subaru Outback is AWD, but when the weather is threatening, I have been asked if I have chains. So they’ve never asked me to prove it, or had to put chains on, but I always carry chains because if they do find that you don’t have chains when they’re required, you’ll need to just park until it chain requirement is lifted.

Driving to Yosemite

Sometimes the chain requirements aren’t for Yosemite Valley, but they do apply to two of the three routes into Yosemite Valley. When a storm is possible, the best way to avoid snow, ice, and chain requirements is to ignore the guidance of your GPS and Google Maps and enter via Mariposa on Highway 140, which comes up the Merced River Canyon and doesn’t ever get as high as 4,000 feet until Yosemite Valley. (Trust me on this.)

That said, any route into Yosemite is subject to closure or restrictions due to slides, flooding, or downed trees. Always check the Yosemite and Caltrans road conditions pages before you leave (I sometimes check them on the way too).

Go-time

Weather in Yosemite is very changeable, and a storm forecast that looked promising one day can completely fizzle the next—or vice versa. Some trips I’ve had a week to prepare for, others I didn’t consider going until I woke up and checked the Yosemite forecast that morning. Because I want to be ready at the drop of a hat, all winter long in the back of my Outback are my chains and a duffle bag with all my cold weather gear: waterproof pants, parka, and shoes, wool hat and gloves, and an umbrella.

When possible, I like to be in Yosemite the day before the snow starts. That said, it isn’t usually difficult to get a room in Yosemite at the last minute when a winter storm threatens, and there have been times when I’ve actually waited until I arrived in the park before booking my room (not necessarily a strategy I’d recommend). Nevertheless, the later I wait to leave, the more likely I’ll be delayed or turned back by a road closure.

Once the snow arrives, rather than hole up in my room, I’m out shooting. Even though Yosemite’s storms often erase all signs of its most recognizable features, stormy weather is a great time to photograph swirling clouds and accumulating snow in glorious (and rare!) solitude. Nice soft light too.

As much as I love photographing Yosemite when snows, the poor visibility and near white-out snowfall can reach a point of diminishing photographic returns. But even then, I don’t go in (or home). Instead, I park at Tunnel View and wait for the weather to clear. Tunnel View is the perfect place to wait out a Yosemite storm because it’s on the west side of Yosemite Valley (where the clearing usually starts), provides an elevated vantage point with a view all the way up the valley to Half Dome, and is spectacular to photograph when the storm clears. It even has decent cell service. And if I’m looking for an excuse to turn on the engine and warm things up, I drive through the tunnel for the view westward, a preview of coming weather.

My final advice for anyone is, when the storm clears, move fast and don’t spend too much time at any one spot, no matter how beautiful it is. It’s a pretty safe bet that if the conditions are beautiful right here, you’re probably missing opportunities elsewhere. The peak conditions, with snow draping every exposed surface, don’t last long, so get your shots and move on—or risk missing out. (This is the voice of experience talking.)

Yosemite Winter Photo Workshop

Yosemite Snow

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

 

 

Endless Possibilities

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Moonrise, Horsetail Fall and Half Dome, Yosemite

Winter Moonrise, Horsetail Fall and Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7RII
Sony 100-400 GM
ISO 200
f/10
1/160 seconds

This picture from last February features two beautiful photographic phenomena, one with (literally) thousands of cameras trained on it, the other virtually ignored. You might be surprised to learn that for most, the “main event” about to take place in this scene wasn’t the moonrise, it was the light on the thin stripe of waterfall trickling down the diagonal shoulder of El Capitan (the top is in shadow). But while (it seemed) virtually the entire photographic world was elbow-to-elbow in Yosemite Valley hoping for their shot at the day’s last light on Horsetail Fall, I was one of a half dozen or so photographers chilling at Tunnel View, waiting for the moon to rise.

When I’d arrived at Tunnel View and saw a herd of several dozen photographers already set up, I was initially heartened to think that so many photographers had foregone the Horsetail mayhem in favor of the moonrise. But why had they set up so far down the wall, behind trees that obstructed their view of Half Dome? It wasn’t hard to conclude that they weren’t there for the moon at all, they were there for Horsetail Fall. And as I waited for the moon, still more photographers showed up, and though there was plenty of room at spots with a far better view of the entire scene (including Horsetail Fall), every single new arrival crammed in to the scrum pointed at Horsetail Fall.

Photographing Horsetail Fall is kind of like dropping a quarter in a slot machine and hoping all the cherries line up: 1. Sun angle—the light’s right only at sunset for a couple of weeks in February (and October, when the fall is dry); 2. Snowmelt—no snowmelt, no waterfall; 3: Sunlight—all it takes is one cloud to block the sun and send everyone home disappointed. The jackpot? Some version of a picture that’s not much different from thousands (millions?) of other pictures.

Don’t get me wrong—the Horsetail Fall phenomenon is breathtaking, unique, and absolutely photo-worthy. But I do think that photographers, myself included, can be somewhat myopic when it comes to subject choice, deciding far too soon what “the” shot is and missing something even better as a consequence. And when they’re not sure what the shot is, instead of trusting their own vision, they just do what everyone else is doing.

We all could be a little better about considering photo opportunities beyond the obvious. Never is this more clear than in the image reviews in my photo workshops. In my image reviews everyone shares an image taken during the workshop (I project the image for all to see), and I offer constructive feedback. When I started doing workshops, I assumed that the prime benefit from the image reviews would be my “expert” critique, and while I like to think my suggestions do help, I didn’t anticipate how effective this image sharing is at conveying to everyone the unlimited possibilities each scene offers. We’re all photographing the same locations, but the variety of images always catches me off guard. In fact, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at a workshop student’s image and thought, wow, how did I miss that?

It turns out the photographers who locked in on Horsetail this evening were disappointed. A rogue cloud, low in the west and unseen from Yosemite Valley, blocked the sun at just the wrong time. But that’s not the point—even if Horsetail Fall had lit up like red magma, there were other things to photograph in Yosemite that evening. And I wonder how many photographers would have opted to photograph the moonrise had they known about it.

I don’t share this image to pat myself on the back—I came to Yosemite specifically for this shot and didn’t really look for anything else. Therefore, it’s entirely possible that something even more special was happening behind me. (One reason I write these blogs is to remind myself of stuff like this.)

In life, we stop learning the instant we believe we have the answer. It’s equally true that photographers stop being creative the instant they “know” what the shot is. Our ability to grow as photographers is determined by our ability to open our eyes (and mind!) to the endless possibilities not yet visible.

An Evening’s Rewards

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Alternate Perspectives

(Views Away from the Conventional Scene)

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

 

It’s All About Relationships

Gary Hart Photography: Moon and Mist,Tunnel View, Yosemite

Moon and Mist,Tunnel View, Yosemite
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1 second
F/11
ISO 100

Think about how much our lives revolve around relationships: romance, family, friends, work, pets, and so on. They’re such a big part of human existence that it’s no wonder most of the significant compositional choices photographers make involve relationships between elements in our scenes, either to one another or to their environment.

A pretty sunset is nice, but a pretty sunset over the Grand Canyon especially nice. Likewise, why be satisfied with an image of mountain cascade when we can accent the scene with an autumn leaf? And wouldn’t that tree up there on the hill look great beneath a setting crescent moon? Conscious choice or not, these are all relationships—distinct elements connected in a shared moment.

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Some photographers are better than others at creating relationships; some do it instinctively, seemingly pulling relationship from thin air no matter where they are to find a nearby tree that perfectly complements a distant peak; others are more calculating, identifying the potential for a future relationship and taking the steps to be there when it happens—a moonrise, the Milky Way, or a rainbow. Most photographers fall somewhere on the continuum connecting these two extremes. And contrary to what you might read online or hear in your camera club, there is no single “best” approach to creating photographic relationships.

The more we can think in terms of finding relationships in nature, adding that extra element to our primary subject, or finding multiple elements and organizing them, through positioning and framing, in a way that guides the eye through the frame, the more our images will connect on a subconscious level that draws people closer and holds them longer.

Relationship heaven

Yosemite visitors burst from the darkness of the Wawona Tunnel like Dorothy stepping from her monochrome farmhouse into the color of Oz. This is Tunnel View, a veritable who’s-who of Yosemite icons chock full of ready-made relationships for photographers to feast on: El Capitan, Cloud’s Rest, Half Dome, Sentinel Rock, Sentinel Dome, Cathedral Rocks, Leaning Tower, and Bridalveil Fall. That’s a lot of stuff to take in without a camera, so it’s easy, especially for first-time or infrequent visitors, to just snap a picture of the whole thing and call it good.

If you keep the camera out a little longer, or visit Tunnel View a few times, relationships within the relationships start to pop out: El Capitan and Half Dome, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall, Bridalveil Fall and Cathedral Rocks, and so on. But as nice as these combinations are, Yosemite’s truly special stuff doesn’t happen until the conditions cooperate by serving up a clearing storm, rainbow, fresh snow, or rising moon.

I’m fortunate to live close enough to Yosemite to time visits with the idea of adding these little extras to my images. Some of these trips come up at the last minute, spurred by a weather forecast that promises snow or lightning. Other trips I can plan months or years in advance, based on where the sun, moon, or stars will be, or maybe to catch a seasonal feature like fall color. These are the visits that I usually time my Yosemite workshops for: light on Horsetail Fall in February, a moonbow or the dogwood bloom in spring, fall color each autumn, or a rising full moon in winter.

About this image

My goal this December evening a few years ago was a nearly full (96%) moon rising through the twilight hues above Half Dome. It had been on my calendar for over a year, but thanks to a winter storm, the main event was in doubt when I arrived. Fortunately, the clouds soon relented, parting just as the sky started to pink up. As a bonus, the departing storm left the valley floor glazed with a treetop hugging mist. (Talk about an embarrassment of riches.)

When I photograph a scene with so much going on, I first decide the feature or features to highlight—which brings me back to the relationship thing. The entire scene this evening, from El Capitan on the left to Leaning Tower on the right, was beautiful, but I knew the more of it I included, the smaller the moon became—and to me the moon was the star of this show.

When assembling elements in any composition, I start by identifying the objects with visual weight—the objects that will draw viewers’s eyes. Contrast, mass, color, position all play a role in determining visual weight. In this case I identified the moon, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall (in that order). Sometimes I can adjust these obects’ relationships to each other by strategic positioning—moving left/right, forward/backward, up/down—but here I was perched on a cliff behind the conventional Tunnel View vista, which limited my mobility.

Evaluating the scene, pretty much everything I wanted in this image was between Half Dome and Cathedral Rocks. I quickly decided that a vertical composition would be best to feature the color in the sky and fog on the valley floor without going wider than necessary. And while I’d normally try to avoid having the two “heaviest” objects on the same side of my frame (the moon and Half Dome), in this scene the right side of the frame had enough extra stuff to balance things. In addition to Bridalveil Fall, I also had bulky Cathedral Rocks and a solitary evergreen standing boldly against the fog.

My final decision was how to handle the nearby evergreen lurking on the right. To gain some separation between the tree and Bridalveil, I moved as far left as my surroundings allowed, enabling me to use the tree as a natural frame on the right border. Click.


Yosemite Relationships

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Small Steps and Giant Leaps

Gary Hart Photography: Big Moon, Yosemite

Big Moon, Valley View, Yosemite
Sony a6000
Tamron 150-600 (Canon-mount with Metabones IV adapter)
1/25 second
F/8
ISO 400

The memory of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon has personal significance to me. To honor the 50th anniversary of that achievement, I’m sharing an updated version of my story, first posted five years ago.

July, 1969

I had just turned 14. I was into baseball, chess, AM radio, astronomy, and girls—not necessarily in that order. Of particular interest to me in 1969 was the impending moon landing, a milestone I’d been anticipating since tales of American aerospace engineering ingenuity and our heroic astronauts started headlining  the “Weekly Reader,” and my elementary school teachers began gathering the class around a portable TV to watch the latest Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo launch.

If you remember the 60s, you understand that the buzz surrounding each of these missions provided a unifying distraction from the divisive tension spurred by headlines of Vietnam casualties, anti-war demonstrations, Civil Rights clashes, and Communist paranoia. When President Kennedy promised to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade, so far in the future was that goal that in my mind he may just as well have said infinity. But as the decade drew to a close and the promise approached reality, I couldn’t devour enough information on the impending mission.

Unfortunately, without checking NASA’s schedule or asking for my input, my parents and three other couples they knew from graduate school decided mid-July 1969 would be the ideal time for our four families to join forces on a camping trip in the remote, television-free redwoods of Northern California. (“What could we possibly need a television for?”)

Apollo 11 was halfway to the moon when the Locher and Hinshaw families pulled up to our home in Berkeley (the Hardings, coming down from Eastern Washington, would meet us at the campground a couple of days later). The warm greetings exchanged by the adults were balanced by the cool introductions forced on the unfamiliar children.

We departed the next morning, caravan style, our cars connected by woefully inadequate walkie-talkies that we’d almost certainly have been better off without (I’m sure it had seemed like such a good idea at the time). I remember my dad keeping a safe distance behind the Hinshaws, as he was convinced that their borrowed trailer that seemed to veer randomly and completely independently of their car, would surely break free and careen into the woods on the next curve.

Somehow our three-car parade pulled safely into Richardson’s Grove State Park late that afternoon. In true sixties style, the three dads went immediately to work setting up campsites, and the moms donned aprons and combined forces on a community spaghetti dinner. Meanwhile, while the younger kids scattered to explore, the four teens, having only recently met and being far too cool for exploration or anything remotely resembling play, disappeared into the woods, ostensibly on a firewood hunt. Instead, we ended up wandering pretty much aimlessly, kicking pinecones and occasionally stooping for a small branch or twig, lingering just far enough from camp to avoid being drafted into more productive (and closely supervised) labor by the adults.

But just about the time we teens ran out of things not to do, we were relieved to be distracted by my little brother Jim rushing back into camp, breathless, sheet-white, and alone. We couldn’t quite decipher his animated message to the adults, but when we saw our dads drop their tarps and tent poles and rush off in Jim’s tracks toward the nearby Eel River, we were (mildly) curious (to be interested in anything involving parents was also very not cool). So, with feigned indifference, the four of us started wandering in the general direction of the river. Our path was blocked by a 50 foot, nearly vertical cliff that provided a clear view into the vortex of all the excitement. It was the instant of that shared view when I think we all ceased being strangers.

The scene before us could have been from a bad slasher movie: Flat on the ground and unmoving was 11 year-old Paul Locher; sitting on a rock, stunned, with a stream of blood cascading from his forehead, was Paul’s 10 year-old brother John. As disturbing as this sight was, nothing could compare to seeing father Don Locher orbiting his injured sons, dazed and covered in blood. The rest of this memory is a blur of hysterics, sirens, rangers, and paramedics.

It wasn’t until the father and sons were whisked away by ambulance to the small hospital in Garberville, about 10 miles away, that we were able to piece together what had happened. Apparently Paul and John, trying to blaze a shortcut to the river, miscalculated risk and had tumbled down the cliff. My brother at first thought they were messing with him, but when John showed him a rock covered with blood, he sprinted back to fetch the parents.

Conferring at the point where the kids had gone over, the fathers made a quick plan: My dad and Larry Hinshaw would rush back to to summon help, and to see if they could find a safer path down to the accident scene. Don would stay put and keep an eye on his sons. But shortly after my dad and Larry left, John had looked down at his brother cried, “Daddy, I can see his brains!” Hearing those words, Don panicked and did what any father would do—attempt to reach his boys. Thinking that a small shrub a short distance down would make a viable handhold, Don took a small step in its direction, reached for and briefly grasped a branch, lost his grip, and tumbled head-over-heals down to the river.

After what seemed like days but was probably only an hour or two, we were relieved to learn that John needed no more than a few stitches; he was back in camp with us that night. Paul had faired slightly worse, with a concussion and a nasty cut behind his ear—the “brains” his brother had seen was ear cartilage. Paul spent the night in the hospital and was back with us by the time the Harding clan arrived the following afternoon. Don, however, wasn’t quite so fortunate. In addition to a severe concussion, he had opened up his head so completely that over 150 stitches were required to zip things back together. Though Don spent several days in the hospital, we were all consoled by the understanding that it could have been much worse.

By Sunday, Don was feeling much better but was still a day or two from release to the dirt and fish guts of our four family campsite. Most of us had visited the hospital at one time or another in small, brief waves that honored the hospital’s visiting rules. I can’t say who first recognized the opportunity, but I’m guessing that Larry Hinshaw had something to do with convincing the nursing staff to look the other way when Don was suddenly host to 20 simultaneous visitors that night. Whatever magic was worked, I’ll forever remember Sunday evening, July 20, 1969, when our entire group shoehorned into a tiny hospital room to witness history on a tiny, black-and-white television screen.

Besides my parents and two brothers, the rest of the crew that night I’d only met just a few days earlier, but I can still name every single one of them. The relationships formed that week continue to this day. And so do the stories, which, like this story, are filled with some of the greatest joy I’ve ever experienced, and also with some of the greatest tragedy. But it’s this story in particular, the catalyst for all the stories that follow, that explains why the words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” have a very personal significance for me. Today it’s hard to look at the moon without remembering that hospital room and the emotional events that enabled me to witness Neil Armstrong’s historic first steps with those very special friends.

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Gary Hart Photography: Big Moon, Yosemite

Big Moon, Valley View, Yosemite

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A lunar gallery

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What’s the Story?

Moonrise Through the Trees, Yosemite
Sony a6300
Sony 100-400 GM
Sony 2x teleconverter
Breakthrough neutral polarizer
ISO 400
f/16
1/200 second

Let’s have a show of hands: How many of you have been advised at some point in the course of your photographic journey to “tell a story with your images”? Okay, now how many of you actually have a clue as to what that actually means? That’s what I thought. Many photographers, with the best of intentions, parrot the “tell a story” advice simply because it sounded good when they heard it, but when pressed further, are unable tell you what they mean.

Telling a story with a photo is easier when photographers can physically stage subjects and light to suit their objective (an art in itself), or in journalistic photography intended to distill the the essence of an instant with a connection to an easily inferred chronology: a homeless man feeding his dog, dead fish floating in the shadow of belching smokestacks, or a wide-receiver spiking a football in the end zone.

This isn’t to say that we landscape photographers can’t tell stories with our images, or that we shouldn’t try. Nor does it mean that one photographic form is inherently more or less creative than another. It just means that the rules, objectives, advantages, and limitations differ from form to form. Nevertheless, simply advising a landscape photographer to tell a story with her images is kind of like a coach telling a pitcher to throw strikes, or a teacher instructing a student to spell better. Okay, fine—now what?

Finding the narrative

First, let’s agree on a definition of “story.” A quick dictionary check reveals that a story is “a narrative, either true or fictitious … designed to interest, amuse, or instruct….” Okay, that works.

The narrative part is motion. Your pictures need it. Narrative motion isn’t simply the motion of the eyes through the frame (also important), it’s a connection that pulls a viewer into and through a frame, and compels him to stay. While narrative motion happens organically in media consumed over time, such as a song, novel, movie, or even a YouTube video, it can only be implied in a still photograph. And unlike the arranged or journalistic photography mentioned above, landscape photographers are tasked with reproducing a static world as we find it—another straightjacket on our narrative options. But without some form of narrative motion, we’re at a dead end story-wise. What’s a photographer to do?

Photography as art

Every art form succeeds more for what happens in the mind of its consumer’s (the viewer or listener) than for the literal experience it delivers to the consumer’s five senses. Again: Every art form succeeds more for what happens in the mind of its consumer’s (the viewer or listener) than for the literal experience it delivers to the consumer’s five senses. A song that doesn’t evoke emotion, or a novel that doesn’t paint mental pictures, it’s soon forgotten. And just as readers of fiction unconsciously fill-in the visual blanks with their own interpretation of a scene, viewers of a landscape image will fill-in the narrative blanks with the personal stories the image inspires. In other words, an image should offer a place for the viewer’s own story to unfold.

Of course the story we’re creating isn’t a literal, “Once upon a time” or “It was a dark and stormy night” (much more appealing in photography than literature, I might add) story. Instead, the image we make must connect with our viewers’ stories to touch an aspect of their world (real or imagined): revive a fond memory; generate fresh insight into a familiar subject; vicarious living—to name just a few possible connections. If we offer images that complete these connections, we’ve given our image’s viewers a reason to enter, a reason to stay, and a reason to return. And most important, we’ve given them a catalyst for their internal narrative.

Shoot what you love (not what you think your audience will love)

Think about your favorite novels. While they might be quite different, I suspect one common denominator is a protagonist with whom you relate. I’m not suggesting that immediately upon finishing that book you hopped on a raft down the Mississippi River, or ran downtown to have a dragon tattooed on your back, but in some way you likely found some personal connection to Huck Finn or Lisbeth Salander that kept you engaged. And the better that connection, the faster the pages turned.

And so it is with photography: Our viewers are looking for a connection, a sense that there’s a piece of the photographer in the frame. Because we can’t possibly know what personal strings our images might tug in others, and because those strings will vary from viewer to viewer, our best opportunity for igniting their story comes when we share our own relationship with a scene and let viewers find their own connection.

What? Didn’t I just say that it’s the viewer’s story we’re after? Well, yes—but really what needs to happen is the viewers’ sense of  connection between our story and theirs. If you focus on photographing the scenes that most move you, those scenes (large or small) that might prompt you to nudge a loved-one and say, “Oooh, look at that!,” the more you’ll see and the greater your chance of establishing each viewer’s feeling of connection. Whether you’re drawn to towering mountains, crashing surf, delicate wildflowers, or prickly cactus, that’s where you’ll find your best images.

Where did you get those shoes?

The cool thing is that your viewer doesn’t need to understand your story; she just needs to be confident that there is indeed a story. That’s usually accomplished by avoiding cliché and offering something fresh (I know, easier said than done). For some reason this makes me think of Steely Dan lyrics, which rarely made sense to me, but always felt fresh and I never for a second doubted that they did indeed (somehow) make sense to Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. In other words, rather than becoming a distraction, Steely Dan’s lyrics were a source of intrigue that pulled me in and held me. So when I hear:

I stepped up on the platform 

The man gave me the news

He said, You must be joking son 

Where did you get those shoes?

I’m not bewildered, I’m intrigued. Steely Dan’s lyrics aren’t trying to tap my truth, they simply reflect their truth (whatever it might be). And even though I have no idea what he’s talking about, the vivid mental picture those lyrics conjure (which may be entirely different, though no more or less valid, than your or his mental picture) allows me to feel a connection. You, on the other hand, may feel absolutely nothing listening to “Pretzel Logic,” while “I Want To Put On My My My My My Boogie Shoes” gives you goosebumps for KC and the Sunshine Band. Different strokes….

Returning from the abstract to put all this into photographic terms, the more your images are true to the world as it resonates with you, and the less you pander to what you think others want to see, the greater the chance your viewer’s story will connect with yours.

For example

Moonrise Through the Trees, Yosemite

Few things in Nature get my heart racing more than the first sliver of silver light heralding the moon’s arrival. With the moon’s appearance comes a sudden release of building anticipation and the frantic

On this evening last March I knew about where the moon would appear, and about when that would be, but with the time approaching and my eyes locked on the anticipated spot, the doubts started to rise. Did I get the angle right? Is that ridgeline higher than I figured? Where did those clouds come from? (It goes like this every time.)

And then there it was. I’d pointed my Sony a6300 (1.5 crop sensor for extra magnification), mounted my Sony 100-400 GM lens and Sony 2x teleconverter, at the spot on the ridge I thought most likely for the moon to appear. I was pretty close, but this was not time for self congratulation. To juxtapose the moon with the two trees I’d picked for my foreground I had to shift about 20. My favorite big moon shots are when some part of the moon still touches some part of the horizon, so my window of opportunity was shrinking fast. And you ever want to appreciate how fast the moon moves across the sky, try photographing it with an extreme telephoto lens. By the time I was moved and recomposed, the moon was already half exposed and rising fast. I managed just a handful of frames before it crested the trees and I switched to a wider lens for a completely different shot.

About 15 minutes later, after the clouds had moved in



Tree at Sunset, McGee Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Tree at Sunset, McGee Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra

My own story of this solitary, ridge-top tree involved a frantic rush to capture a beautiful but rapidly fading sunset. I was with my brother on a dirt road in the Eastern Sierra. I’d been on this road many times and knew this tree well. Despite its rather ordinary appearance, the tree’s solitary perch atop a barren, rocky ridge had always intrigued me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of a home with a sweeping view, and envied this tree’s perpetual 360 view of the Sierra crest to the west, the White Mountains to the east, and Crowley Lake below.

As the sunset started to materialize that evening, I realized that we were close enough that I might be able to include the tree in the sunset shoot. We hustled my truck back down the road, pulling into to a wide spot beneath the ridge several minutes after the best color had faded. Jay, who had no personal connection to “my” tree, stayed in the truck while I sprinted along the road with my camera and tripod until my position aligned  the tree with the final, rippled vestiges of sunset. I only clicked a couple of frames, slightly underexposed to hold the color. (The slight blue cast is the color of the twilight light.)



Sunset, McWay Fall, Big Sur

Sunset, McWay Fall, Big Sur

The humorous events leading up to this sunset at McWay Fall in Big Sur are nowhere to be found in the frame. Nevertheless, even after visiting this spot more times than I can count, I have a very personal connection to this moment in particular. There’s power in a plunging waterfall and crashing surf, and promise in the sun’s appearance above an infinite horizon.

An early arrival allowed lots of time to connect with the scene, enabling me to anticipate the moment the sun burst from the clouds and balance it in the frame with McWay Fall. The position of the leading wave is no accident either—had I allowed it to reach the bottom of the frame before I clicked my shutter, it would have created a white line exiting the frame, taking your eyes right with it. That small strip of sand at the bottom of the image becomes a virtual frame that holds you in the scene. The rest is up to you.

*   *   *   *

Those are my stories, and while they’re personally satisfying, I have no illusions that all of that comes across to the viewer. I’ve displayed these prints in many shows and watched people walk right by without breaking stride. But I’ve also been delighted each time someone stops, peers closer, lingers, and ersometimes returns lat. While I have no idea what “story” my images tap in those people, I don’t believe it really matters.

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A gallery of personal favorites (each with its own story)

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