Making Your Own Luck

Gary Hart Photography: Moonrise Through the Clouds, Half Dome, Yosemite

Moonrise Through the Clouds, Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 100-400 GM
1/30 second
F/10
ISO 200

“Chance favors only the prepared mind.” ~ Louis Pasteur

Successful nature photography requires the convergence of physical objects, position (relative to those objects), light, weather conditions, the right equipment, and mastery of craft (did I miss anything?). Though we can control many of these factors, the overriding element that trumps everything else is plain old luck. But despite the undeniable luck factor in photography, most photographers bristle at the suggestion that a particular capture was “lucky.” For good reason.

No one denies that photography involves a great deal of luck, but each of us chooses our relationship with the fickle whims of chance, and we have more control than you might imagine. Which is why, like Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell, and a host of other photographers, I embrace Louis Pasteur’s belief that chance does indeed favor the prepared mind. In other words, the more prepared we are, the less luck will effect our outcomes.

As photographers, job-1 is subtracting as much luck as possible from the image capture equation: we hone our craft, get the best gear our budget allows (including backups), painstakingly research our locations, study the science behind the conditions we want to photograph, then sacrifice comfort and convenience (and sleep!) to be in the right place at the right time. Though we definitely appreciate our good fortune when the magic does happen, much of photography’s joy comes from the special effort it took to be there. Yes, it was fortunate that a lightning bolt struck right there, or the clouds parted just as the moon appeared, but it was no accident that we were there when it happened, fully prepared to capture the moment.

All photographers, in one way or another, work to manufacture their own luck. Because I’m particularly drawn to capturing nature’s ephemeral phenomena above its terrestrial wonders, that’s where my efforts are spent. Whether it’s lightning at the Grand Canyon, the Milky Way over Tasman Lake in New Zealand, or a moonrise above Half Dome in Yosemite, I schedule most of my photo trips (both personal and workshops) to maximize my chances for something special. While there’s never a guarantee that it will actually happen, and I’ve been disappointed more times than I can count, that doesn’t stop me from planning and getting out there just in case.

Which is how I happened to be in Yosemite in December 2019 for this moonrise. I’d plotted this alignment more than a year in advance. When I scheduled a workshop to capture it (fingers crossed), I knew full well that December is the wet season in Yosemite, making it entirely possible, maybe even likely, that my much anticipated moonrise could happen entirely behind a curtain of clouds.

Since this was a workshop, my first job is to reduce the luck factor for my entire group. That started with letting everyone know what gear they needed (nothing special: camera, lenses covering 24mm to 200mm, and a tripod), and (more important) getting them up to speed on the surprisingly tricky exposure idiosyncrasies of sunset moonrises. Meanwhile, behind the scenes I obsessively refreshed the NWS Yosemite forecast page every five minutes, trying will the forecast into promising something more definitive than the annoyingly ambiguous “partly cloudy.” No such luck.

The day of the event proceeded as advertised, teasing us with skies that alternated between mostly clear to mostly cloudy. Fickle skies notwithstanding, there was no thought of abandoning Plan A—I’ve been surprised enough by Nature (especially in Yosemite) to know that, no matter what the forecast promised, I’d have my group out there. Another thing I try to do to improve my group’s odds of success is get them on location early enough to familiarize themselves with the scene and its variety of composition options. Even though I’ve photographed this spot countless times, experience has taught me that first time need time to get comfortable with a scene.

Even without the moon, this location is very photo-worthy. So by the time moonrise approached, they’d all had plenty of photos under their belt and were pretty comfortable with the possibilities here. Clouds came and went as we waited, but the moon’s appearance coincided with one of the more clear moments. We started clicking wildly when the moon peeked out from behind Half Dome, then held our collective breaths as Half Dome’s cloud-making machine churned into action, completely erasing the moon within minutes of its arrival. But instead of getting discouraged, we just hung tight and hoped the moon would punch through. Punch through it did, delighting us with a moon/cloud dance that lasted until it became too dark to photograph.

We all felt very lucky walking back to the cars that evening, but we felt so much more than that. Exiting Safeway to see a rainbow arcing over the parking lot is lucky. Period. But when you see an image of one of nature’s ephemeral gifts matched with a beautiful landscape, try to appreciate that its creation, as lucky as the moment might have felt to the photographer, was probably much more than simple good luck.

Fortunately, anticipating these special moments in nature doesn’t require any real gifts—just a basic understanding of the natural phenomena you’d like to photograph, and a little effort to match your anticipated natural event (a rainbow, lightning, a moonrise, or whatever) with your location of choice. Mix in the right gear, the resolve to get out there, and the perseverance not to give up when nature appears to have other ideas, and voila: You’re a photographer! And that’s about as lucky as you can be.

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More Self-Made “Luck”

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Hold My Gear

Gary Hart Photography: Sunstar, Horsetail Fall and El Capitan, Yosemite

Sunstar, Horsetail Fall and El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/6 second
F/20
ISO 100

Most people know how much photographers love their toys. Whether it’s the latest ultra-fast lens, that new space-age composite tripod that’s a full 1/4 ounce lighter, or (especially) a “game changing” camera body with even more megapixels than last year’s game changing camera body (and even though we already have more resolution than we’ll ever need), we can’t wait to get our hands on it and start sharing our new and improved images with the world (while somehow figuring out a subtle way to mention our new gear). But let me share a dirty little secret: Probably the single piece of equipment that most photographers have more versions of than anything else is the camera bag. Yawn. Don’t believe me? Ask any serious photographer how many camera bags they own—if the answer is less than five, they’re lying.

I don’t think anyone can deny that an efficient instrument to store, organize, and transport all this gear is essential. But let’s face it—a camera bag, as essential as it is, isn’t sexy. And when it comes right down to it, what’s the point of having the latest, greatest (and most expensive) gear if it doesn’t foster envy? So we’ll purchase a new bag simply because we can’t imagine living without our newest toy, but never for bragging rights.

Full disclosure: I’m as guilty as the next person of harboring an obscene number of camera bags. More than I can count. In fact, a few years ago I stuffed as many camera bags as I could fit into a 100 gallon garbage bag, shoved it into my attic, and haven’t seen them since.

Here’s my theory

Most photographers fantasize about carrying a compact, lightweight kit in the field (we want all the gear, we just hate carrying it). And to justify the purchase of the next great thing, we convince ourselves that (despite all history to the contrary) this will the final piece of equipment we’ll ever need. Of course since that’s what we told ourselves the last time we bought new gear, our current camera bag is suddenly too small. In other words, our camera bag is always just big enough to carry our current inventory of gear because we never imagine wanting more. Which is all well and good—until we start coveting the next toy.

This cycle repeats many time before the photographer gets wise. And some photographers, even those with a large garbage bag full of slightly used camera bags in their attic, never seem to get wise.

By now you might have guessed…

That’s right, I just got a new camera bag. This time it’s a Shimoda Action X50, to replace the Mindshift Backlight 26L I bought in late 2019. Sigh. In my defense, while I may be a slow learner, I did figure out a few camera bags ago to always get a bigger bag than I think I need. Nevertheless, the need for more space was a factor in this decision because, now that I have two Sony a7RIV bodies, I’ve been trying to store each with a lens attached: my Sony 16-35 GM on one, and my Sony 24-105 G on the other. But this new paradigm suddenly made my Mindshift bag cramped and awkward. Not so bad that I couldn’t have lived with had I loved the bag—but I didn’t, so here we are.

The primary reason to get new bag this time was comfort. While I was originally thrilled with the space and the way my gear fit in the 26L, I made the mistake of not fully loading it and walking around before buying. There are many things to like about the Mindshift bag, but fully loaded comfort over extended distances isn’t one of them. For someone who logs a lot of miles with a camera bag on my back, from trudging switchbacks to scrambling rugged terrain to airport sprints, comfort is essential.

Introducing my new camera bag

I really, really hope the Shimoda Action X50 will be my final camera bag. In case you haven’t figured it out, the numbers both names, the Mindshift 26L and the Shimoda X50, represents the displacement in liters. So the Shimoda has almost twice the capacity. While all of that extra room isn’t just for camera gear (there’s other storage galore), the camera gear section is significantly larger. I can’t imagine either needing, or wanting, to carry any more weight than I currently have, so if I ever decide to replace this one (heaven forbid), it won’t be because I need more space.

The most important thing for me is the X50’s comfort. I had the advantage of test driving a couple in my February workshops. And I’ve been trying mine around the house enough to know that it’s night-and-day better than my Mindshift bag. It feels like an actual back pack, not a camera bag with straps.

Gary Hart Photography: Shimoda Action X50 Outside

Shimoda Action X50 Outside: Yes, that’s my logo on the outside (it’s nice to have generous, talented friends).

Gary Hart Photography: Shimoda Action X50 Inside

Shimoda Action X50 Inside: I’m still tweaking the layout, but as you can see, I have space to spare, even with lenses on both bodies. It has a sleeve that will fit my 16-inch MacBook Pro, and I can also fit my Sony 200-600 in the top compartment if I really want to punish myself.

Let’s look inside

The contents of my camera bag has evolved over the years, from the vanilla 16-35, 24-105, 70-200 lens lineup that most landscape photographer carry, to my current setup that allows covers 12mm to 800mm (1200mm if you factor in the APS-C crop option) at all times—plus the option to go up to 1800mm (factoring in the APS-C crop factor) if I go with my Sony 200-600.

Here’s what’s I carry today (spring 2021):

Always in my bag

  • 2 Sony a7R IV camera bodies
  • Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens: Though I don’t use it a lot, 12mm allows me to photograph things I never could before, and I love that it’s compact enough to keep with me at all times. (I also can’t wait for the pandemic to end so I can get out and use it for serious night photography this summer.)
  • Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens (plus a Breakthrough polarizer): This focal range is covered by other lenses in my bag, but I love the lens too much to leave it behind—crazy sharp, and f/2.8 means it’s fast enough for night photography in a pinch. Plus, it’s a whole lot easier to use with polarizing and neutral density filters than the 12-24.
  • Sony 24-105 G lens (plus a Breakthrough polarizer): This is my workhorse—what a fantastic focal range! Really sharp, too.
  • Sony 100-400 GM lens (plus a Breakthrough polarizer): Replacing my 70-200 with this slightly bigger lens doubled my focal range—and it’s a fantastic match with the Sony 2X teleconverter.
  • Sony 2X teleconverter
  • Filters (in a Mindshift filter bag attached to my tripod): 72mm and 77mm Breakthrough 6-stop polarizing ND filters, Breakthrough 2-stop hard graduated neutral density filter (which I don’t use a lot since switching to Sony, but still nice to have)
  • Other stuff: Several lens cloths, headlamp, insulated water bottle, extension tubes, Giotto Rocket Blower, and a couple of RX Bars (because photography always trumps meals).

Specialty Equipment (not pictured—stays behind unless I have a specific plan for it)

  • Sony a7S III camera body: For Milky Way and other moonless night photography—it’s “only” 12 megapixels (remember when 12 megapixels was huge?), but this camera sees in the dark.
  • Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM lens: For Milky Way and other moonless night photography—I can’t believe how compact this lens is.
  • Sony 28mm f/1.8 G lens: For Milky Way and other moonless night photography—this one’s even more compact than the 24mm.
  • Sony 90mm Macro: I use this lens a lot with extension tubes to get super close for my creative selective focus work (wildflowers, fall color).
  • Sony 200-600 G lens: When I want to go big on a moonrise/moonset—sometimes I’ll pare it with the 2X teleconverter and really go crazy. I also use this lens with extension tubes for selective focus fall color.

Support

  • Really Right Stuff 24L Tripod with a RRS BH-55 ball head: Sturdy enough for whatever I put on it, in pretty much whatever conditions I encounter. I also like that, fully extended with the head and camera, even without a centerpost it’s several inches taller than I am.
  • Gitzo 1530 tripod with a RRS BH-40 ball head: My travel/hiking tripod. Without extending the centerpost it’s not quite as tall as I prefer, but it’s tall enough and I like the compactness for suitcases and long hikes.

Final camera bag thoughts

A camera bag is personal choice, based on many individual variables. So I’m not recommending against the Mindshift bag, which I found great in many ways. Because everyone’s body is different, I can only tell that the Shimoda was best for me.

If you’re in the market for a camera bag, make sure you try your candidate with weight before purchasing. And don’t just throw the bag on your back and call it good—actually walk around with it, bounce up and down, twist, bend over, take it off and put it on, and so on until you’re sure.

I know this kind of testing isn’t easy in this day of online shopping. If you don’t have a chance to try out your next camera bag before placing an order, find a nearby camera store do your research there. But if accept even a little of the camera store’s goodwill, don’t even think of ordering it online—support your local camera store.

About this image

For better or worse, February is Horsetail Fall month in Yosemite. For years I’ve thought about photographing the fall from the Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point, but never had the time or motivation to make it happen. Though this is my favorite trail out of Yosemite Valley, I hadn’t been on it in years and figured I’d need to scout it first. But this year a couple of people in my first February workshop shot Horsetail Fall from there on their own, and were able to give me enough info that I figured I could make it work without any advance recon.

I drove to Yosemite the afternoon before my February Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop. With all the people, and Southside Drive closed to all parking, I had to walk nearly a mile to get to the Four Mile Trail trailhead. Even I’d been on level ground, my back and shoulders were already fatigued by the time I started ascending the switchbacks. I only had to walk another half mile or so, but by the time I reached my photo spot, I’d decided it was time for a new bag.

After scrambling up a short but steep hillside, I found a small gap in the trees with a good view of Horsetail Fall. Shedding my gear, it was time forget my aches and pains and to get to work. The first thing I noticed was how clearly visible the top of El Capitan was. It’s not visible at all from Northside Drive; it is visible from some of the vantage points on (now closed) on Southside Drive, but this was even better because I could clearly see the Horsetail Creek drainage.

For this shoot I loaded up both a7RIV bodies, one with my 24-105 and the other with the 100-400. Because I was shooting through a window in the surrounding foliage, I thought I’d be shooting mostly telephoto, but when I saw the setting sun slipping through the trees, I recognized a sunstar opportunity as well. This isn’t possible on the valley floor, so I took full advantage. With only one tripod on hand, I frequently switched between my 24-105 and 100-400 bodies, firing non-stop until the light finally faded about five minutes after sunset.

I was already on the verge admitting camera bag my mistake when the pandemic shut everything down, but by the time I made it back to the car that evening my mind was made up. Fingers crossed that I’m finally done.


February 2021

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COVID Reflections

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Snow and Reflection, Half Dome, Yosemite

Autumn Snow and Reflection, Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
2 seconds
F/16
ISO 50

Last week marked the one year anniversary of the COVID shutdown. WOW. One year.

In hindsight I realize that I might have been a little naive when this thing started because of the way I’d spent the two weeks prior to the shutdown: first in Scottsdale, Arizona for my annual MLB Spring Training trip (go Giants!), followed immediately by a week in Anchorage, Alaska to visit my daughter. In Arizona at the beginning of March I noticed very little difference in people’s behavior (though I did have to search long and hard for hand sanitizer), but winging my way to Alaska, I was struck by how empty the airports and flights were. Hmmm….

Alaska is where I was when it started to dawn on me that a couple of my upcoming workshops might be threatened. When that realization hit, I remember thinking I’ll be fine as long as I don’t lose the New Zealand trip at the end of June. Ha! I ended up losing 12 workshops, including New Zealand in both 2020 and 2021. And the workshops I have managed to pull off (three so far since last March) have been impacted as well, both in terms of group size and COVID protocol.

But this isn’t a woe is me post, I promise. I have so much to be grateful for, starting with the flexibility of being self-employed and working from home. And of course continued good health of my family and me. Oh, and the fact that I’m still in business.

And just like that, here’s 2021, I’m fully vaccinated, with two workshops in the mirror and six queued up over the next eight weeks (maybe I should be careful what I wish for). Life’s good.

But anyway…

I started this blog with the idea of a sentence or two reflecting on the COVID anniversary before diving into some thoughts on this just-processed image from last November. But here I am, nearly 500 words later….

I don’t need to gush any more about this day, a highlight of my pandemic year—you can just go back through the many blogs I’ve already posted about it (7—I counted). What I wanted to say about this image is how it underscores the importance of not merely settling for a beautiful scene, no matter how beautiful it is (something this one irrefutably was). Creating an image that stands out from all the other pictures of inherently beautiful scenes requires understanding the difference between the way your camera sees a scene and the way you see it. Unlike your experience of the world, a still image is devoid of motion and depth, has limited dynamic range and depth of field, and is constrained by a rectangular box. Managing these differences requires the ability to control your camera’s exposure variables (f-stop, shutter speed, ISO, focal length) to create the illusion of depth and motion.

The clouds had just started to part when I arrived at this reflective bend in the Merced River. It’s easy to get walloped by the beauty of a scene like this, frame up something nice, and click. But after indulging the creative side of my brain (camera or not, this scene really was gorgeous), I forced myself to set my awe aside for a few beats to work out the best way to convey the beauty.

My first step in most scenes is to identify the most important thing—what I want the scene to be “about.” If that important thing is in the foreground, I look for a complementary background; if my subject is in the background, I try to identify a complementary foreground.

In this case my “most important thing” was the entire scene across the river, anchored of course by Half Dome, but supported by the snow-covered trees and the reflection. I wandered the riverbank and found a few things to put in my foreground. I started with a mini cove rimmed with leaves that I used to frame a horizontal composition. Then, looking for something that would be better for a vertical composition, I moved on to these floating leaves and partially submerged log just a few feet upstream. Framing everything up at eye-level, I didn’t like the empty gap between the leaves/log and Half Dome’s reflection, so I dropped my tripod as low as it would go and went to work.

While there was a fair amount of dynamic range, I knew it was well within the capabilities of my Sony a7RIV—if I exposed carefully. But exposing carefully means more than just getting the light right—it means getting the light right with a shutter speed that handles the motion, and with an f-stop that handles the depth.

With a few ripples disturbing the reflection, I wanted shutter speed long enough to smooth the water and twisted my Breakthrough 6-stop Dark Circular Polarizer onto my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens. And since sharpness from the closest leaf to Half Dome’s summit was important, I selected f/16 and focused on the log. (My hyperfocal app assured me that this would give me more than enough depth-of-field for front-to-back sharpness.) Next, with my eye on the viewfinder, I slowly turned my polarizer far enough to remove the reflection from the leaves, but not so much that I erased the primary reflection.

Finally, I was ready to meter and select the shutter speed the gave me a good histogram. At my a7RIV’s native ISO (100), the shutter speed I needed was 1-second. To double that and ensure better smoothing of the ripples, I dialed down to ISO 50. Click.


A COVID Compilation

(Images from the last 12 months)

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My Horsetail Fall Epiphany

Gary Hart Photography: Windswept, Horsetail Fall, Yosemite

Windswept, Horsetail Fall, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 100-400 GM
1/15 second
F/9
ISO 100

I’ve written quite a bit about Horsetail Fall over the last few weeks, but believe it or not, I have a few words to add.

In recent years it has become fashionable for photographers, myself included, to criticize the whole trophy shot phenomenon that creates a rugby scrum of photographers jostling to get their own version of something that’s been photographed a million times before. I’m thinking about, to name just a few, events like sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, the Maroon Bells fall color reflection, the light shaft in Upper Antelope Canyon, and of course the February sunset light on Horsetail Fall.

Each experience has its own set of undesirable challenges that make it easy for many to wonder why others go through so much hassle to capture something that’s virtually guaranteed not to be anything close to unique. But this year’s Horsetail Fall event was kind of an epiphany for me because on the fourth attempt in two weeks (twice with my first workshop group, once with my second group, and once by myself), it suddenly occurred to me how much I was enjoying myself.

More than anything else, photography should make us happy. For me that happiness comes from witnessing nature at its most special, and Horsetail Fall at its best is truly special. Indescribably special.

But that wasn’t my epiphany. Last month’s epiphany was realizing how much being surrounded by thousands of awestruck others adds to the experience, which is where I think the Horsetail Fall experience is unique compared to most other trophy shots.

That’s because most of these trophy scenes are overrun by far more photographers than can comfortably (or even uncomfortably) fit, creating a Darwinian competition that usually spells disappointment for the defeated majority. At these spots I’ve witnessed failure, tears, and actual fistfights as too many photographers jockey for not enough positions.

16Feb21 Horsetail Fall Crowd, Northside Drive, Yosemite

2021 Horsetail Fall Crowd, Northside Drive, Yosemite: This scene repeats itself all along a nearly one mile stretch of Northside Drive as sunset approaches in the last two weeks of February

I won’t argue that the Horsetail Fall scene is ridiculously crowded. But to photograph Horsetail Fall from Northside Drive (the more challenging, and competitive, Southside Drive perspective is now off-limits during Horsetail Fall season), you’re pointing up, and most likely using a telephoto lens (or at least not using a wide angle lens). This means that no matter how many people are trying to view the fall, no one is in anyone else’s shot. The result is a tailgate party atmosphere as the entire crowd unifies around a single goal: that special light on Horsetail Fall.

About this image

My second February workshop was scheduled for the full moon, so I made clear to everyone who signed up that even though we’d be there right in the heart of “Horsetail Fall season,” Horsetail Fall wouldn’t be a priority. But when the crowds pretty much wiped out one of my planned sunset locations, and with the Horsetail Fall conditions so ideal (water in the fall, no clouds), I decided we’d give Horsetail one shot.

By this (my fourth) attempt I had the traffic and parking strategy down to a science, so we were easily in position and set-up with about 90 minutes to spare. I actually like getting there so early because it’s cool, especially for those who haven’t witnessed Horsetail Fall before, to see the light warm as the vertical shadow advances across El Capitan’s face.

While watching the light change, we all chatted and laughed amongst ourselves and with the other nearby gawkers. Some of our neighbors had cameras too, and some were just there to watch.

With so much time to kill, a few of us even spent some time walking up and down Northside Drive, taking in the party atmosphere. Unlike most of the trophy scenes I’ve photographed, I saw lots of kids and even a few (leashed) dogs. Many people had brought chairs and ice chests, some were barbecuing, and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.

About 15 minutes before sunset the light had acquired an amber hue and the photographers stopped chatting and went to work. The light this evening warmed steadily, from amber to the deep orange in this image. I tried to time each click for when the wind near El Capitan’s summit caught the falling water just right, spreading it into a glowing veil.

After such a great Horsetail Fall experience with the previous week’s group, it’s impossible not to compare the two. On this evening we had less concern about the light because there was no sign of clouds. And though the prior week’s clouds had created a unique opportunity to have some character in the sky, I was pretty sure that there was a little more water this week. I also noticed that the last light was thinner, more tightly focused on the fall, but also didn’t stretch as far down the fall. And while the color wasn’t quite as red as it had been the prior week, I heard no complaints.

Read about the entire Horsetail Fall experience and how to photograph it


A Few Trophies of My Own

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Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

Gary Hart Photography: Nightfall, Yosemite Valley Moonrise

Nightfall, Yosemite Valley Moonrise
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
.8 second
F/10
ISO 400

So much to do after two workshops in the last two weeks (and all the planning and recovery that goes with them). I had ambitious plans to return home late Friday night and hit the ground running first thing Saturday morning, so imagine my frustration to walk into my chilly house (I’d turned off the heat before I left), equal parts hungry and tired, at about 11 p.m. to find my internet down. When I discovered no dial tone on my landline (yes, I still have a landline), I realized this was a Comcast problem. Uh-oh. Having dealt with Comcast problems in the past (don’t get me started on their automated phone support system), I set aside food, warmth, and sleep to immediately call Comcast tech support. (Cold, hungry, tired, and no internet—suddenly I knew how the Donner Party must have felt.)

After about two hours on the phone (no, I do not want to reset my modem for the eighth time!), the best I could do was arrange for a Sunday house call—not bad for Comcast, but certainly not great for someone with a business to run, especially given all I had to do. I went to bed strategizing my Saturday, figuring I could at least load and process my images, and handle my basic internet needs by turning my phone into a wifi hot spot. But Saturday morning when I tried to connect  my computer to my phone and load a page, my computer just stared back dumbly. I checked my reception and saw it bouncing between one and zero bars. I found a corner by the window that at least seemed to stay at one bar and called T-Mobile. Turns out a tower was down, but at least they were sorry. (I actually think T-Mobile’s tech support is very good, especially after dealing with Comcast.) And for some reason my Adobe Creative Suite wouldn’t load either (usually it works fine without connectivity, but I didn’t have the bandwidth to debug the problem without internet).

The additional technical frustration between then and now included multiple support calls with Comcast and T-Mobile and a trip to the Comcast store to swap out my modem, all culminating with a visit from a very nice Comcast technician who fixed the problem and told me the support rep I talked to yesterday could have fixed it over the phone. Sigh.

So here I am, it’s Sunday night and have a blog to write. I loaded my images, grabbed one from Friday night, processed it, and here you go. Now for something to say….

I’d scheduled my Yosemite Winter Moon workshop around this grand finale, a full moon rising from directly behind Half Dome right at sunset on Friday evening. The rest of the workshop had already been really nice—multiple rainbows on Yosemite Falls (Upper and Lower), a warmup moonrise on Thursday night, and even a bonus Horsetail Fall shoot (I’d made it clear that the moon, not Horsetail Fall, was the priority for this workshop) when it became clear the conditions would be perfect, and I had cracked this year’s NPS Horsetail Fall restrictions code—but this moonrise is what we’d all been looking forward to.

Because of the crowds in the park and the fact that the moonrise was apparently not a secret (how I long for the good old days), we got to our moonrise spot above the Tunnel View vista about two hours early. After not seeing a single cloud for the entire workshop, the first thing we saw as we unpacked and set up our gear was a bank of thin clouds that had set up camp low on the horizon, directly behind Half Dome. At first they appeared to be moving on and I was pretty optimistic about our moonrise, but as the appointed hour approached I grew increasingly pessimistic—not only were clouds thickening, they were expanding.

Sure enough, zero hour arrived with no sign of the moon, but we did get some nice color in the clouds and the group, while disappointed, seemed happy enough with what did get. The scene was so nice in fact that we were in no rush to leave despite the darkening landscape. Which is why we were still primed and ready for action when I noticed a faint glow in the clouds above Sentinel Rock. Could it be?

Yes it could. What started as a glow quickly revealed itself to be the lunar disk we’d been waiting for. And though it wasn’t apparent to our eyes, it was clear that the moon had edged into a patch of thinner clouds, because as we frantically clicked, actual lunar detail started to emerge. In fact, the clouds that originally thwarted our moonrise turned out to be a benefit when they moderated the moon’s brightness enough to allow us to photograph long after it have been too bright.

In my prior blog post I wrote about the joy of unexpected gifts from nature, events that seem to come out of nowhere, just when you’ve about given up hope. Now it had happened in consecutive workshops. I realize that moments like this are the exception, but they really do more than make up for all the disappointment nature likes to deal.

Workshop Schedule || Purchase Prints || Instagram


Worth Waiting For

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Shared Magic

Gary Hart Photography: Last Light, Horsetail Fall, Yosemite

Last Light, Horsetail Fall, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 100-400 GM
1/2 second
F/9
ISO 100

Everything was progressing perfectly. With a little strategic planning and vehicle shuffling, I’d successfully navigated my workshop group through the teeming throng to the El Capitan Picnic Area. When we’d arrived, more than two hours earlier, there was hardly a cloud in the sky and everyone was pretty confident that the Horsetail Fall gods would smile upon us this evening. Spirits were sky-high, but I just held my breath and crossed my fingers…

For those who have been living under a rock and have never heard of Horsetail Fall, for most of the year it’s probably Yosemite’s most anonymous waterfall. But for a couple weeks in February, it seems like all the photographers on the planet (and their cameras) assemble to pray for the confluence of conditions that renders this El Capitan trickle an otherworldly shade of red: the position of the setting sun (a mid- to late-February thing), water in the fall (depends on rainfall and/or snowmelt), and a clear path for sunset light to travel from the horizon to El Capitan (cross your fingers).

I’d made last week’s workshop group very much aware of the uncertainties, warning them in advance not to get too high or low about anything they see leading up to the 5-minute Horsetail Fall sunset window. But despite my admonishment, and the arrival of a seemingly endless swarm of puffy clouds above and near El Capitan’s nose, as the magic moment approached and the sunlight on the fall held steady, they couldn’t contain their excitement.

About an hour before sunset a countdown started—every few minutes someone would check the time and announce how many minutes were left until showtime. My job was to be the wet blanket, trying to temper their enthusiasm with stories of times (So. Many. Times.) when everything looked perfect until just a couple of minutes before the main event, when some unseen cloud on the horizon snuffed the sunlight and crushed the spirit of every person who had already mentally printed and framed their Horsetail Fall image above the sofa. One hour; 50 minutes; 45 minutes; 30 minutes; 20 minutes… And then it happened—less than 20 minutes before sunset, the clouds dancing around El Capitan’s nose thickened suddenly the light was gone.

In my many years leading photo workshops I’ve had more special moments than I can count—the warm light, vivid color, spectacular clouds, breathtaking celestial event, or whatever else makes a group giddy with excitement. These moments are the most rewarding part of leading photo workshops and may be the number one reason it never gets old for me.

But every once in a while a group and I share something that’s so off the charts magical that I can count it, and recall every little detail and who I was with. There was the 2-hour Grand Canyon lightning storm punctuated by a sunrise rainbow; the Lake Wanaka sunset that turn the sky red from horizon to horizon; the unexpected northern lights display at Glacier Lagoon in Iceland; the rainbow at the bottom of the Grand Canyon that spanned from rim to rim—and few more magic moments that I’ll never forget.

You never know when these events are going to happen, and they’re infrequent enough that you never really expect them. Nevertheless, when the light on El Capitan shut off, I switched from wet-blanket mode to cheerleader mode. I explained that experience has taught me that you really can’t anticipate what the Horsetail Fall light will be in five minutes based on its light right now. What really matters when the sun gets that low is what’s happening on the horizon, which isn’t visible down there amidst the granite and trees of Yosemite Valley. But I don’t think I convinced anyone.

About five minutes before sunset, many people around us started packing up their gear and shuffling off in defeat. I told my group we were staying put until five minutes after sunset, and shared stories of two previous February evenings when Horsetail Fall’s light had disappeared shortly before sunset, only to return after all had seemed lost. They still weren’t convinced, and I’d be lying if I said I believed that’s what was in store for us this evening—until I glanced up and saw a shaft of light moving up from the bottom of the fall. Before I could get the words, “There it is!” out of my mouth the entire fall was glowing red. Not orange-red, or pink, or reddish—it was red, actual RED.

I’ve only seen Horsetail Fall this red once before. People who have never seen Horsetail Fall at its best can’t believe that it really can as red as it can get in the pictures (and having seen the actual thing, I can tell when a picture’s red has been juice), but it’s very real—thanks to the same phenomenon that turns clouds red at sunset.

We got about three minutes of unforgettable magic this evening, but I’m pretty sure everyone who saw it left with a memory that will last for the rest of their life. I know I did.

Read about the Horsetail Fall phenomenon and how to photograph it

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Shared Magic

(Particularly memorable moments I’ve shared with a workshop group)

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

Back in the Saddle Again

Gary Hart Photography: White Gold, Three Brothers Reflection, Yosemite

White Gold, Three Brothers Reflection, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM
1/80 second
F/11
ISO 100

After losing 12 workshops to COVID since last February, today I returned to Yosemite for my Horsetail Fall workshop. To say I’m excited would be an understatement. I’m also a little apprehensive. One thing I’m not too worried about is COVID, because I’ve put in place protocol that will keep everyone in the group safely distanced: things like suspended carpooling (everyone can drive their own car), and Zoom for meetings and image review sessions, among other things. And this won’t be my first pandemic workshop because last October I was able to get one in, so I know my protocols work without significantly impacting everyone’s experience.

My anxiety is always a little elevated going into my Horsetail Fall workshop because Horsetail Fall is very important to most of the people who sign up, but many natural unknowns make it impossible to guarantee. Usually it’s the light that thwarts us, some unseen cloud on the horizon that snuffs the sunlight at the last minute. Last year the light was great, but the fall was dry. But I’m hopeful because this year there is lots of water in the fall, and the weather forecast is promising (fingers crossed).

Compounding my standard Horsetail Fall apprehension this year is some new rules put in place due to COVID, and the crowds Horsetail Fall always attracts—the most stringent Horsetail Fall viewing restrictions ever—and it’s entirely up to me to make sure these restrictions don’t affect my group.

Of course this is Yosemite, a place where things always seem to work out for photographers. But even though I have a Horsetail Fall plan that I’m pretty confident will work, and the things I worry about never happen anyway (to quote Tom Petty), I won’t breathe easily until I’ve seen exactly what form “work out” takes in this workshop.

About this image

But anyway… Rather than recycle an old Horsetail Fall image (which you can see below anyway), I’m sharing another image from my December snow day in Yosemite. This is the Three Brothers, probably Yosemite Valley’s most anonymous rock formation. Anonymous not because it’s less worthy than other Yosemite landmarks, but because there are just not that many places to view it.

To align the Three Brothers with the ribbon of autumn leaves, I had to alternately scale and boot-ski a few snow drifts to make my way to the river’s edge. To eliminate a couple of other photographers from my frame (not to mention more than a few footprints in the snow, I moved forward and extended one tripod leg into about a foot of river water. This put my viewfinder out of reach, but by bracing myself on the tripod to keep from joining it in the frigid river, I was able to get a clear enough view of my camera’s LCD to compose this frame. (It’s awkward angles like this that really help me appreciate live-view on the LCD.)

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I like to include some kind of knowledge or insight in each blog post, but this week workshop prep has left me without a lot of time. Instead, I’m sharing my Horsetail Fall article, just updated with all the 2021 Yosemite NPS changes. You can also find this article in my Photo Tips section.



Gary Hart Photography: Horsetail Fall, El Capitan, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall, El Capitan, Yosemite (from the Merced River south bank)
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1/4 second
F/8.0
ISO 100
220 mm

2021 Horsetail Fall update

While much of the Horsetail Fall article below is still valid, crowds and COVID have led the NPS to make some fairly impactful changes.

  • Access to Yosemite is by reservation only. In other words, if you don’t have a reservation, you will be turned away at the gate. The reservation system will be in effect through February at least, which means for the entire duration of the 2021 Horsetail Fall season. You can make a reservation here: https://www.recreation.gov/timed-entry/10086745. If you have lodging in Yosemite Valley, your reservation is included.
  • From noon until 7 p.m., all parking on Southside Drive between the El Capitan crossover and Swinging Bridge is prohibited.
  • Also between El Capitan crossover and Swinging Bridge, the entire area between the Merced River and Southside Drive side is closed. In other words, you can’t photograph Horsetail Fall from the south bank of the Merced River. This will be strictly enforced.
  • All parking on Northside Drive between Yosemite Valley Lodge and the El Capitan crossover is closed. You also won’t be permitted to unload or stop on this stretch of road. To view Horsetail Fall, the NPS wants you to park in the Yosemite Falls parking area just west of Yosemite Valley Lodge, and walk to the viewing area at or near the El Capitan Picnic Area. This is about 1.5 miles each way, but it’s flat, and one lane of Northside Drive will be blocked for pedestrians.
  • Here’s the NPS Yosemite Horsetail Fall page: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/horsetailfall.htm

Please respect these restrictions. The minority of photographers who ignore rules, or try to cut corners, reflect poorly on all photographers, which only leads to even tighter restrictions and risk complete loss of access to Horsetail Fall.



Horsetail Fall

For eleven-plus months each year, Horsetail Fall may just be Yosemite’s most anonymous waterfall. Usually dry or (at best) a wet stain, even when flowing strong this ephemeral cataract is barely visible as a thin white thread descending El Capitan’s east flank. When it’s flowing, my workshop groups can be standing directly beneath Horsetail and I still have to guide their eyes to it: “See that tall tree there? Follow it all the way to the top of El Capitan; now run your eye to the left until you get to the first tree…”. But for a couple of weeks in February, the possibility that a fortuitous confluence of snowmelt, shadow, and sunset light might, for a few minutes, turn this unassuming trickle into a molten stripe draws photographers like cats to a can-opener.

The curtain rises in the second week of February, a couple of hours before sunset, when a vertical shadow begins its eastward march across El Capitan’s south face. As the shadow advances, the sunlight warms; when the unseen sun (direct sunlight is gone from the valley floor long before it leaves towering El Capitan) reaches the horizon, the only part of El Capitan not in shadow is a narrow strip of granite that includes Horsetail Fall, and for a few minutes, when all the photography stars align, the fall is bathed in a red glow resembling flowing lava framed by dark shadow. (Some people mistakenly call the Horsetail spectacle the “Firefall,” but that altogether different, but no less breathtaking, manmade Yosemite phenomenon was terminated by the National Park Service in 1968.)

Some years Horsetail delivers sunset after sunset in February, while other years administer daily doses of February frustration. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to predict when all the tumblers will click into place: I know photographers who nailed Horsetail on their first attempt, and others who have been chasing it for years.

Don’t call it “Firefall”

One important thing before I continue. To avoid outing yourself as a Yosemite rookie, don’t make the mistake of calling Horsetail Fall the “Firefall.” Yosemite’s Firefall was a very real nightly display of burning embers pushed from Glacier Point every summer night. It was as spectacular as it sounds. The phenomenon started in 1872 and continued until the National Park Service, concerned (among other things) about the crowds it drew, terminated the Firefall in 1968.

Anyone who has witnessed or seen pictures of Horsetail Fall would agree that “Firefall” would be a great name for it, but those of us fortunate (and old) enough to have witnessed the actual Firefall know the difference between Horsetail Fall and the Firefall, and will never confuse one for the other.

(Oh yeah, and it’s Horsetail Fall, not Horsetail Falls.)

When to photograph Horsetail Fall

The “when” of Horsetail Fall depends on the convergence of three independent conditions:

  • The sun’s angle is refreshingly predictable, lining up perfectly only in February (and October, when the fall is almost always dry). Common wisdom says the shadow on El Capitan most precisely targets Horsetail Fall at sunset during the third week of February, from around the 15th through the 22nd (or a little later). While I won’t dispute this, I’ve had some of my best success a week earlier, and my favorite Horsetail shot (at the top of the page) was captured February 9. I’ve also had success photographing it right up until the end of February. But the stripe of sunset light on El Capitan is thinnest (and therefore most tightly focused and photogenic) in the third week of February—the prime benefit of doing it a week earlier is light almost as good, with far fewer people.
  • Water in the fall varies greatly from year to year, depending on how much show has fallen on the fall’s extremely small watershed, and how much of that snow is currently melting. A large snowpack and warm daytime temperatures are ideal. Sometimes Horsetail can be frozen solid in the morning, but afternoon warmth can be enough to get it flowing in time for the show. And a heavy rain can get it going strong for a few hours or even a day or so.
  • Direct sunlight at sunset is the most fickle aspect of the Horsetail experience—for every tale of a seemingly perfect evening when the sunset light was doused by an unseen cloud on the western horizon mere seconds before showtime, there’s another story about a cloudy evening when the setting sun somehow threaded a gap in the clouds just as tripods were being collapsed.

The problem with targeting February’s third week is that it isn’t a secret: I generally prefer sacrificing Horsetail perfection in favor of Horsetail near perfection and far fewer photographers. But I’ll leave that decision up to you.

Where to photograph Horsetail Fall

It’s fun to circle Yosemite Valley on pretty much any mid- to late-February afternoon just to watch the hoards of single-minded photographers setting up camp like iPhone users on Release Day. In fact, one non-scientific way to find a spot to photograph Horsetail is to simply park where everyone else parks and follow the crowd. Unfortunately, as Horsetail’s popularity grows, so does the distance you’ll need to walk.

If Horsetail Fall is on the top of your bucket list, it’s best to pick your spot and show up early. Really early. Really, really early. The downside of this approach is that, because the best locations for Horsetail aren’t especially good for anything else, you’ll sacrifice a lot of quality Yosemite photography time waiting for something that might not happen.

And no one has commanded that you worship with the rest of the Horsetail congregation: Experienced Yosemite photographers know that any west-facing location with a view of the fall will do. If you find yourself in Yosemite with time to kill, try walking the Merced River between Cathedral and Sentinel Beaches—any place with a view to Horsetail will work. But because of their open space and relative ease of access, two spots have become the go-to Horsetail spots for most photographers.

El Capitan Picnic Area

HorsetailPicnicAreaMap El Capitan Picnic Area, GPS: 37.72782N 119.61844W

The El Capitan Picnic Area, highlighted by Galen Rowell, remains the most popular Horsetail Fall vantage point. The picnic area’s advantages are that it is the closest view of Horsetail Fall, has the most parking, has the most room for photographers (by far), and has a bathroom (plug your nose). The downside is there really isn’t a lot of composition variety here, and thousands of others will have already captured something as good as or better than what you’ll get.

Horsetail Fall and Clouds, El Capitan, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall from the picnic area

If you like people, the El Capitan Picnic Area is the place to be—more than any other Horsetail vantage point, this one has a festive, tailgate atmosphere that can be a lot of fun. I suspect that’s because people arrive so early and there’s little else to do before the show starts. And since everyone is pointing up with a telephoto, it’s pretty much impossible for anyone to be in anyone else’s way, which eases much of the tension that often exists when shooting among large crowds.

You’ll find the parking lot, with room for twenty or so cars, on Northside Drive, about two miles west of Yosemite Lodge. In recent years the NPS has blocked a lane of Northside Drive to allow more parking (but don’t park illegally because you will be cited). You can shoot right from the parking lot, or wander a bit east to find several clearings with views of the fall.

Merced River south bank bend 

HorsetailFallMercedRiver Merced River south bank bend, GPS: 37.72885N 119.60743W

Photographed from a bend on the Merced River’s south bank, El Capitan’s extreme sloping summit creates the illusion that you’re somewhere above Yosemite Valley, eye-to-eye with the top of Horsetail Fall—it’s a great perspective.

I like this location because the river greatly increases the variety of possible compositions, and also because you can pivot your view upstream to photograph Upper Yosemite Fall, and behind you toward Sentinel Rock (which also gets fantastic late light), almost directly above while you wait for Horsetail to light up. The downside to photographing here is that there’s precious little room, both to park and to photograph. This requires getting there a couple of hours early, and also can lead to a bit more tension as people jockey for position.

Horsetail Fall Reflection, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall reflection from the Southside Drive Merced River view

Driving east on one-way Southside Drive, you’ll parallel the Merced River for most of 1.2 miles beyond the turn for Cathedral Beach. The Horsetail Fall spot is right where the road and river diverge. Parallel park right there in one of two narrow but paved parking areas on opposite sides of the road, where you’ll find room for about a dozen cars. In recent years, all parking on Southside Drive between El Capitan Crossover and Swinging Bridge has been banned, if you plan to shoot here, prepare to walk a mile or more.

Since there’s so little parking here, and Southside Drive is one-way eastbound, if you find no parking (don’t try to squeeze in where there’s no room—I’ve seen rangers doing traffic control and ticketing cars that don’t fit), it also helps to know that the spot is about a ½ mile from the 4-Mile Trail parking area and ¾ miles west of the Swinging Bridge parking area—an easy, flat walk.

Because of the potential for crowds, the best strategy here is to arrive early and forego what may be a great view from the elevated riverbank (that is sure to be blocked by late-arrivers trying to cram their way in), in favor of getting as close to the river as possible. Standing at river level gives you many more compositional choices, and nobody else can block your wide shots. (But if there are other photographers already set up on the elevated riverbank when you arrive, please don’t be the one who sets up in front of them.)

How to photograph Horsetail Fall

Regardless of where you set up to photograph Horsetail Fall, it’s pretty difficult to find something that nobody else has done. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. There are definitely other places in Yosemite Valley with view of Horsetail Fall, they just take a little hunting—I suggest walking the south bank of the Merced River, and ascending the 4 Mile Trail. And since you’ll likely be doing lots of waiting, take advantage of the downtime to experiment with compositions.

Strategy

When the light begins to warm, it’s time to shoot. Because you never know when the light will shut off, don’t wait until the light is perfect—it’s best to start early and photograph often. Until the light goes away completely, my rule of thumb is that the light now is better than the light a minute ago—just keep shooting . I’m not suggesting you hold your shutter down in burst mode until your card fills; I usually tell my workshop groups to fire a frame every minute or two until the fall turns amber, then pick up the pace as it goes (fingers crossed) pink and (if you’re lucky) red. The best light is in the final five minutes before sunset.

Composition

Viewed from the picnic area, there’s not a lot of visual interest surrounding Horsetail; your most obvious compositions will be moderate telephotos, up to 300mm or full frame. I use my Sony 24-105 and 70-200 (or more recently, my 100-400) lenses almost exclusively here. Use the trees to frame your shots and let them go black; with a telephoto you can isolate aspects of the fall and eliminate the sky and some or all of the trees.

The Merced River bend near Southside Drive is farther away from the fall, with more foreground possibilities, including the river and reflections, so you’ll be able to use a greater range of focal lengths here. Don’t get so caught up in photographing the fall that you overlook wider possibilities that include the river.

From either location I think vertical compositions work best (there’s a reason you don’t see lots of horizontal Horsetail Fall images), but that doesn’t mean there aren’t horizontal opportunities too. I like to identify a go-to composition based on the conditions, then vary between wide/tight and horizontal/vertical. If the sky is boring (cloudless), minimize or eliminate it from your composition. If there are clouds that make the sky interesting, by all means include them.

A frequent rookie mistake is cutting the waterfall off at the bottom. I’m not saying there’s never a reason to do that, but unless you consciously decide to truncate the fall because you think it’s the way to compose your frame, make sure you include the diagonal ridge that Horsetail disappears behind.

Filters

If your camera struggles with dynamic range, a graduated neutral density filter will help any shot that includes the sky—a two-stop hard GND angled across El Capitan parallel to the tree line should do the trick. This usually requires some Photoshop dodging and burning to hide the transition, but it’s the only way to darken the brightest part of the sky, which is usually in front of (not above) El Capitan. Since switching from Canon to Sony, I have no problem with the dynamic range and no longer use a GND for Horsetail Fall.

A polarizer will alter your results, so if you have one on, make sure you orient it properly. I often have a difficult time deciding between maximizing and minimizing the reflections with my polarizer, so I hedge my bets and shoot both ways. I’ve found that when Horsetail is flowing strongly, minimizing the reflection is best; when Horsetail is more of a wet or icy stain, maximizing the reflection works better. Either way, it’s best to just shoot it both ways and decide later.

Exposure

Automatic metering can be problematic in extreme dynamic range scenes when color is paramount, so I always recommend manual exposure, spot metering on Horsetail Fall or the adjacent sunlit granite. To maximize the color on the fall and El Capitan, I usually underexpose slightly. Because the trees rarely add value beyond framing, they usually work better when very dark green to black, a fact that’s completely lost on your meter (which thinks everything should be a middle tone). And monitor your RGB histogram to ensure that you haven’t washed out the red (Horsetail and El Capitan) or blue (sky) channels.

Highlight Alert (blinking highlights) is your friend. While you should never make your final exposure decision based on the highlight alert, when you see the highlights flashing, check your histogram and adjust if necessary.

And finally

And perhaps most important of all, don’t get so caught up in the photography that you forget to appreciate what you’re viewing. Just take a couple of seconds to stand back and allow yourself to appreciate the amazing spectacle unfolding before your eyes.

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A Horsetail Fall Gallery

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

Natural Tension

Gary Hart Photography: Clearing Storm, Half Dome Reflection from Sentinel Bridge, Yosemite

Clearing Storm, Half Dome Reflection from Sentinel Bridge, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
Breakthrough 6-stop dark polarizer
2.5 seconds
F/16
ISO 50

Since the start of the pandemic, many (most?) of us have have found lots of time to catch up on books and movies (among other things). Of course that also includes me, and as a photographer I find it hard not to find parallels between my chosen creative medium and these others. The tension in books and movies, whether dramatic, comedic, or some combination of both, originates from the interaction of characters with each other and/or their surroundings, and the change that interaction spawns over time. Which of course got me thinking about whether it’s possible to create tension in a still photograph, and if so, how?

Relationships

Though we might not be conscious of it, the best photographic images do indeed convey a form of tension. It’s human nature to seek relationships, not just in our lives, but in our art as well. Every relationship has inherent tension, an invisible connecting thread that pulls tighter as the relationship strengthens.

Lacking the passing of time and the change it brings, still-photographers must create tension by setting up relationships between disparate elements in our frame. We signal these relationships, thereby dialing up the tension, through careful positioning of compositional elements (Google “rule of thirds” and “golden ratio”).

The most obvious relationships available to landscape photographers is the juxtaposing independent physical elements in the scene. For example, pairing a foreground tree or flower with a distant peak permanently creates a relationship between two formerly unrelated subjects. Reflections are an easy way to connect a nearby water feature to a distant subject. And then there are the dynamic celestial elements like the moon and stars, and ephemeral weather phenomena such as lightning and rainbows, that make powerful connections with terrestrial subjects.

But wait, there’s more…

Even though no time passes in a still frame, landscape photographers can and do signal time’s advance. Whether conscious of it or not, when we photograph the color and light of the natural boundaries separating day and night, the broken clouds and rainbows of a clearing a storm, or the juxtaposition of elements distinctive to two seasons, we signal the passage of time and the tension inherent in its inexorable march.

Lacking other features to set them apart, the cliched nature of sunrises and sunset images diminishes their power to generate tension—in other words, sunrises and sunsets are a dime a dozen, so if you’re going to photograph one, you’d better make an effort to put it with a strong scene. On the other hand, though it’s always important to seek a strong composition regardless of the conditions, the more rare the change, the better it can overcome an otherwise ordinary scene.

A clearing storm can feel like catching lightning in a bottle (a nice rainbow can elevate nearly any scene), but an even rarer opportunity to capture change is a scene with clear signs of two seasons. That’s especially true in my home state of California, where seasons tend to be more of an afterthought. But that doesn’t mean opportunities to photograph seasonal change here are nonexistent. California does get spectacular spring wildflower blooms, and our autumn color display (though maybe not as spectacular as some other places), can be very nice.

Bracketing spring and autumn on one side is summer, hands-down California’s least photographically compelling season. But on the other side of spring and autumn is winter. While most of the state doesn’t get snow, our mountains do (and lots of it)—capturing late snow on wildflowers and dogwood (an extremely rare event), and early snow on fall color, are real treats.

So maybe I should have warned you that there’d be math…

Which brings me to this image from my visit to Yosemite during an early November snowstorm. I really don’t need to go on any more about this day—if you’ve been reading my blog for the last couple of months, you’re probably well beyond sick of hearing about it. But it does illustrate the synergy of combining two seasons in one image. No one can deny that fall color is beautiful, and fresh snow is beautiful too (which of these is more beautiful is in the eye of the beholder, and a debate for another day). But if we were somehow able to quantify beauty, I suspect that we’d find the total amount of beauty (“beauty-units,” “beauty-bucks”?) in a fresh snow on fall color image would exceed the sum of the beauty derived from an image with fall color plus the beauty of an image with fresh snow.

You could attribute this synergy to the relative rarity of snow on fall color, but I think the power goes deeper than that. There’s just something about change the ups the stakes, so even though this is nothing more than a (totally unprovable) mental exercise (maybe I’ve been locked up too long), I’m sticking with the theory that the synergistic power of an image that combines the distinctive best of two seasons is the tension of change it conveys.


The Tension of Change

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

 

2020 Highlights: Quality Over Quantity

Being a photographer is more than just capturing images, it’s also very much the experiences that go with their capture. So looking back on a year most notable for its lowlights, and browsing a portfolio that’s by far the smallest of any year since I’ve called myself a photographer, I’m surprised by the number of 2020 experiences that give me shear joy to relive.

So far so good

January 2020 kicked off what appeared to be shaping up to be a banner year, with wonderful conditions in Death Valley and the Alabama Hills: reflections at Badwater, a Zabriskie Point moonset, and a series of beautiful sunrises and sunsets. The year’s first month wrapped up in Iceland with too many highlights to mention, but none more memorable than  back-to-back northern lights shoots on the workshop’s final two nights. February followed with some fantastic moonrises in Yosemite—so far so good.

Hit the brakes

Then came March, and the world shut down. Since the end of February, I’ve had to cancel 11 workshops. Lost to COVID and (in one case) wildfires were the Oregon and New Zealand workshops I share with Don Smith, two Yosemite spring workshops, my Grand Canyon raft trip, two Grand Canyon monsoon workshops, and the Eastern Sierra workshop. I was finally able to squeeze in the Yosemite fall color workshop in October, but have since had to cancel the upcoming Iceland workshop (also a collaboration with Don Smith) in January 2021.

But wait…

After wallowing in the isolation of a severely socially distanced spring, early summer arrived and out of nowhere came Comet NEOWISE. I’ve been comet-obsessed since I was 10 years old, so the opportunity to photograph what is arguably the most breathtaking phenomenon to grace the heavens (rivaled only by the northern/southern lights and a total solar eclipse) above Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, was just the elixir I needed. While my two Yosemite trips were comet-specific (8 hours of driving for about an hour of photography each time), my Grand Canyon trip was a (socially distanced) multi-day affair that also featured lightning and beautiful monsoon skies.

After the Grand Canyon in late July, I didn’t really get to do much photography until my Yosemite fall color workshop in late October—a real treat that enabled me to share with a group Yosemite at its autumn, reflective best. Not only was the photography nice, it was a joy to be back with a group of enthusiastic, fun photographers.

Then, just a week later, I hit the jackpot, spending a day in Yosemite photographing snow falling on peak fall color—not just a highlight of my year, but a highlight of my photography life. And finally, in early December I arranged a last-minute gathering with a few of my favorite photography friends to photograph a Yosemite Half Dome moonrise.

Quality (of experience) over quantity (of images)

Compiling the 2020 Highlights gallery at the bottom of this post, I’ve chosen not to focus on the opportunities lost in 2020, but instead to count the blessings I was granted. From sharing the northern lights with an ecstatic group of photographers/friends, to watching the miracle of Comet NEOWISE suspended above two of the most beautiful locations on Earth, to a magical day photographing Yosemite Valley with fresh snow on fall color, 2020 brought me memories that will stand as some of the most outstanding of my life. I can’t say that I’m not looking forward to 2021 more than I look forward to most new years, but I’m going to let 2020’s losses fade in favor of its indelible highlights.

For example

Click the image for the rest of the story (and check out the entire gallery at the bottom)

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Reflection, Badwater, Death Valley

Sunset Reflection, Badwater, Death Valley (January)

Gary Hart Photography: Heaven Sent, Aurora Above Glacier Lagoon, Iceland

Heaven Sent, Aurora Above Glacier Lagoon, Iceland (January)

Gary Hart Photography: Magenta Moonrise, Half Dome and the Merced River, Yosemite

Magenta Moonrise, Half Dome and the Merced River, Yosemite (February)

Gary Hart Photography: Moon's Rest, Cloud's Rest, Yosemite

Moon’s Rest, Cloud’s Rest, Yosemite (February)

Gary Hart Photography: Comet Neowise and Venus, Half Dome from Glacier Point, Yosemite

Comet Neowise and Venus, Half Dome from Glacier Point, Yosemite (July)

Gary Hart Photography: Comet NEOWISE and the Big Dipper, Grandview Point, Grand Canyon

Comet NEOWISE and the Big Dipper, Grandview Point, Grand Canyon (July)

Gary Hart Photography: Fall Into Winter, Bridalveil Fall Reflection, Yosemite

Fall Into Winter, Bridalveil Fall Reflection, Yosemite (November)


A Gallery of My 2020 Highlights

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

To the Pain

Gary Hart Photography: White Gold, Half Dome Reflection, Yosemite

White Gold, Half Dome Reflection, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
Breakthrough 6-stop dark polarizer
4 seconds
F/16
ISO 50

When you stop to consider all the components that have to fit into place to make a successful landscape image, it’s a wonder we don’t all just stay inside and watch TV. First there’s mastery of photography’s creative side, which requires the ability to distill our dynamic, multi-sensory, three-dimensional world into a coherent two-dimensional image. Then there’s the technical side, where we juggle our camera’s aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings to control the scene’s depth, light, and motion. And as if meshing all these moving parts into something visually appealing weren’t daunting enough, don’t forget to factor in photography’s mental component: knowing where to be and when to be there; the foresight to recognize what might happen next and the patience to wait for for it; and finally, the fortitude to endure hunger, sleep depravation, and whatever elements Mother Nature throws our way.

Yet somehow photography happens. And like most things in life, I’ve always thought photography’s greatest joy comes from doing the hard work and overcoming difficulty. Sometimes spectacular just falls in our lap, but most of my favorite images simply those images I feel like I earned.

Nature photography’s 3 P’s

To remind myself (and others) of the photography’s mental side, many years ago I identified what I call, “The 3 P’s of nature photography.” These sacrifices, large and small, a nature photographer must make to consistently create successful images.

  1. Preparation is your foundation, the research that gets you in the right place at the right time, plus the vision and mastery of your camera that allows you to wring the most from the moment. It’s controlling exposure and focus, knowing your equipment, and understanding the subject. Preparation is also just having the right equipment for the moment, from the lenses in your bad to weather-appropriate clothing.
  2. Persistence is patience with a dash of stubbornness. It’s what keeps you going back when the first, second, or hundredth attempt has been thwarted by unexpected light, weather, or a host of other frustrations, and keeps you out there long after any sane person would have given up. And just as important, persistence is a willingness to wait as long as necessary for the moment to be right, and not just settling for “good enough.”
  3. Pain is suffering for your craft. I’m not suggesting that you risk your life for the sake of a coveted capture, but you do need to be able to ignore the tug of a warm fire, full stomach, sound sleep, and dry clothes, because the unfortunate truth is that the best photographs almost always seem to happen when most of the world would rather be inside.

An assignment

The truth is, you almost certainly already do it. Pick some of your favorite captures, pop them onto the screen, and try to put yourself back at that time and place. Ask yourself which of the 3 P’s you employed, and be generous with yourself and not too quick to write an image off to blind luck.

Practicing what I preach, here’s my stab at the assignment for this image:

  • Preparation: Some would argue that I was lucky to be in Yosemite last month just as several inches of snow fell on peak fall color. And while my good fortune that day isn’t lost on me, the fact that I was there was no accident. I monitored the weather forecast for snow in Yosemite Valley, adjusted my schedule, and packed the right clothes for the conditions. Of course I also had an intimate familiarity of my subject, from the locations themselves to the best time to be there for the current conditions.
  • Persistence: I can’t tell you the number trips I’ve taken to Yosemite and elsewhere that didn’t amount to anything. In 2013 I scheduled an entire workshop around the arrival of Comet ISON, only to have the comet disintegrate just a couple of days before the workshop. Many times I’ve made the long drive to Yosemite to photograph snow that turned out to be rain. But no matter how many times Mother Nature throws me a curve, I keep coming back and sometimes it pays off. Like this time.
  • Pain: It’s not like I trekked solo across the arctic, or summited Everest without oxygen, for this image. Though this day was cold and wet, and getting to Yosemite required an 8-hour roundtrip drive in less than ideal conditions, I didn’t do anything most other people couldn’t do—I just pried myself from the recliner and hit the road. The drive was sometimes boring (I’ve done it hundreds of times), sometimes stressful (turns out my Outback needed new tires—uhhh, reference Preparation section above), and standing in the snowy cold was less comfortable than lounging inside by a fire. It’s insidious the way these small inconveniences and discomforts try to lure us into staying home, but the payoff happens enough to justify the sacrifice.

A few words about this image

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Snowfall, Half Dome Reflection, Yosemite

Autumn Snowfall, Half Dome Reflection, Yosemite

Sentinel Bridge is such an iconic view of Half Dome that it would be photographic malpractice not to share it with a workshop group, but when I’m in Yosemite by myself I rarely stop here because it lacks compositional variety (it’s hard to find something I don’t already have). But because the conditions on this day were spectacularly unique, I actually stopped here twice. This image was from my first stop, when a light snow still fell and storm clouds ruled the scene.

Half Dome had been swallowed by clouds for a while, but crossing the bridge I saw that it had just emerged so I whipped into the adjacent parking lot. Rather than mess with my entire kit, I just grabbed my tripod, Sony a7RIV, and Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens and jogged up to the rail (maybe 100 feet from the car).

I always do my best to position myself so the trees frame Half Dome without obscuring any of its face, not always easy at this extremely popular spot. I was lucky this time that there were only a couple of other photographers set up so I didn’t have any trouble finding a spot that worked. With the scene so perfect, I didn’t want to get too fancy and risk losing Half Dome to the clouds. I quickly identified the elements I wanted to feature—Half Dome, the upstream trees, and of course the gorgeous reflection—and went to work.

I often start with a vertical composition on Sentinel Bridge, but surveying the scene, when my eyes were drawn to the serpentine ribbon of autumn leaves clinging to the south riverbank I opted to start with a horizontal frame. That left me with a decision about what to about the trees on both sides of the river—how many to include, and whether to cut them off at the top. I finally decided that not cutting them off would give me more sky than I wanted.

With the frame’s top/bottom established, I panned left and right until I was satisfied: enough of the floating leaves—check; Half Dome properly centered (Half Dome has so much visual weight, putting it too far left or right can throw off the balance)—check; the diagonal trunk and snow-capped rock far enough from the left edge that they create compositional balancing elements for that side of the frame—check.

With a few gentle ripples ruffling the reflection, I added my Breakthrough 6-stop dark polarizer, stopped down to f/16, and dialed my ISO to 50. This gave me a 4-second exposure that smoothed the water just enough to allow the reflection to stand out nicely. Once I was satisfied that this composition was a success, I went on to shoot the scene in a variety of other ways as well: wider, tighter, and vertical. (You can see the vertical version in the gallery below.)

Returning to Sentinel Bridge a few hours later, the sun had broken through to light up Half Dome and the tops of the trees, creating a completely different, but no less beautiful, scene (that I haven’t had a chance to process yet).

Many of you no doubt recognize the reference in this post’s title; for those who don’t (inconceivable!), treat yourself to this scene from the best movie ever.


Preparation, Persistence, and Pain

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

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