Posted on July 18, 2021
Comets were once harbingers of doom, so it’s likely that in times past the appearance of a bright comet coincident with a worldwide pandemic would have stoked great fear. Instead, (thanks to knowledge gained through centuries of scientific discovery) Comet NEOWISE infused a kernel of joy into an otherwise bleak year.
Spurred by the first NEOWISE anniversary earlier this month, over the previous week or two I revisited the images from last July’s four NEOWISE shoots (two in Yosemite, two at Grand Canyon) to see if I’d overlooked anything. It was great to mentally revisit those nights, which were each in their own way among the most memorable night sky experiences of my life:
On my search I found many process-worthy images, but most were fairly similar to what I already had. One exception is the image I share here. Rather than casting the magnificent comet in a costarring role with landscape and/or celestial icons (Half Dome, El Capitan, Grand Canyon, Big Dipper, Venus), NEOWISE is the one and only star of this image. And more than my other NEOWISE images, what sets this one apart is the spectacular ion tail.
Of my four NEOWISE shoots, the comet was probably at its most striking for my two in Yosemite—each for a different reason. My first NEOWISE experience came during a pre-sunrise visit to Glacier Point that coincided with the comet’s peak visibility.
While it had brightened to somewhere between magnitude 0 and 1 (the lower the magnitude, the brighter) shortly after its July 3 perihelion (closest approach to the sun), NEOWISE was too close to the sun to stand out in the against the brightening sky. But by the time of my Yosemite trip on July 10, NEOWISE had climbed out of the sun’s glow, while still shining in the magnitude 1 to 2 range—somewhere between the brightness of Spica and Polaris—making it easily the most prominent object in that part of the sky.
Six days later I returned to Yosemite, this time taking the one mile hike out to Taft Point to photograph NEOWISE above El Capitan after sunset. When the sky darkened, NEOWISE was clearly visible to the naked eye, but noticeably dimmer. But what made this night’s show special was the development of a spectacular ion tail. Faintly visible to the unaided eye, this new addition was a thing of beauty in my viewfinder and images.
I’m going to digress briefly to mention an important aspect of my photography that I’m not sure everyone shares. In the simplest possible terms, I can’t imagine photographing subjects—celestial, terrestrial, atmospheric—that I don’t understand. Rather than a personal “rule,” this need to understand my subjects is so ingrained in my personality that I didn’t fully appreciate its significance until recently.
My proclivity manifests in many ways, from obsessively buying geology books on every new location, to pouring over scientific articles explaining an obscure cloud formation, to mentally running orbital geometry in my head as I go to sleep (really). And sometimes understanding is the catalyst, inspiring me to pursue with my camera subjects that have fascinated me for years: lightning, solar eclipse, the aurora. (Still dreaming about that first tornado.)
My own internal connection between visual beauty and the natural phenomena that beauty represents probably explains why my blog is such an integral part of my photography. While I can capture nature’s visual gifts with my camera, I need my blog to connect it to the underlying processes. Another, no less important, component of blogging about my subjects is that researching and writing it often becomes as much of a learning experience for me as it is for my readers. (So thank you.)
If you follow me at all, you know my love of astronomy in general, and of comets in particular. So when I saw NEOWISE’s ion tail, I knew what it was, but wanted to more completely understand things like why a comet’s ion tail is always separated from its brighter dust tail, and why the ion tail appears blue in my images (is this real, a color temperature thing, or maybe some color artifact introduced in-camera?).
At risk of repeating myself, a comet is a lump of dust and ice in an extreme elliptical (it’ll be back) or parabolic (one-and-done) orbit of the sun. Most of the comet’s journey is pretty ordinary, but as it approaches the sun, things start to happen—its speed increases, and the sun’s heat starts melting the ice, freeing gas and dust molecules to form a fuzzy coma surrounding the frozen nucleus.
As the comet accelerates toward the sun, the temperature continues rising and the rate of liberated molecules increases. The mass and momentum of the comet’s nucleus allows it to continue on its orbital path, but the freed dust molecules, now under the influence of the solar wind, are nudged back, away from the sun: a tail is born.
Over time this dust tail grows and spreads, becoming the signature feature of most comets. Like most of the comet, the dust tail doesn’t create its own light, but rather is illuminated solely reflected sunlight. Varying somewhat with the composition of its molecules, the dust tail will appear yellow-white to our eyes.
But I’ve saved the best for last. Gas molecules shed by the comet’s nucleus, being lighter than dust molecules, are whisked straight back by the solar wind. Instead of fanning out like the dust tail, these gas molecules form a narrow ion tail that points directly away from the sun. Some of these gas molecules are ionized (stripped of an electron). Unlike the dust tail that shines by reflected light, the ion tail shines by fluorescence, taking on a blue color courtesy of the predominant CO (carbon monoxide) ion.
Of course there’s a time for pondering the marvels of nature, and a time for simply basking in its beauty. So as I was photographing this scene, I wasn’t thinking about all the physics and chemistry unfolding before me, I was focused on capturing the product of the underlying processes (the comet) and its relationship with the surrounding landscape. On this night most of my images were variations of NEOWISE with El Capitan and/or the nearby Big Dipper. But I’m glad I took the time to include a few frames that put this magnificent comet itself front-and-center.
Posted on June 20, 2021
With so many natural variables beyond our control, and no matter how creatively we visualize, thoroughly we plan, and precisely we execute, landscape photographers go into every shoot uncertain of success. But making consistently successful images depends not only on our ability to visualize, plan, and execute, but also on our ability to recognize and respond to unexpected opportunities.
The truth is, your creativity’s greatest limitation is probably your own biases. Put in more practical terms, don’t allow yourself to be swayed by preconceived notions of what “the shot” is, what equipment you’ll need, and whether the opportunities are exhausted.
We cover this kind of stuff in my workshops, where one of my most frequently asked questions is, what lens should I bring? I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the underlying essence of this question is, what lens can I leave behind? And since it’s a photography truism that the lens you need is the one you left at home, I’m usually reluctant to give an absolute answer. In fact, I usually encourage people to bring all they can carry.
A couple of weeks ago my brother Jay and I made a quick trip to Olmsted Point in Yosemite to photograph the Milky Way. I’d chosen Olmsted because I think it’s the best easily accessible (with a car) place to photograph Half Dome with the Milky Way; I chose this night because clear skies were forecast, and a brand new moon meant the darkest possible sky. Though I knew a small sliver of one-percent moon would be visible for an hour or so after sunset, as soon as I realized the moon would be nowhere near Half Dome, I didn’t give it another thought—this trip was all about the Milky Way and Half Dome. Period. Nevertheless, I packed all my gear because…. Well, why not?
I’m afraid that for me, “all I can carry” requires at least two camera bags, which of course isn’t usually practical when flying, given the space and weight constraints. But when I drive to a location from home, I forgo the Sophie’s Choice equipment decisions and just pack everything. Everything. Which is why, for a trip on which I’d only planned to use my Sony a7SIII and (brand new!) Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM lens, the back of my Outback contained (among many other things) my Sony a7RIV and Sony 100-400 GM.
The other part of being prepared is to no be so locked onto your objective that you fail to recognize other opportunities. This is a problem I’m frequently reminded of in my workshop image review sessions, when everyone shares one of their images from the workshop for my feedback. We’re all going to the same locations at the same time, but it’s a rare session that at least one person doesn’t share something that causes others, myself included, to exclaim, “Wow, I didn’t see that!” The lesson here is, the instant you think you know “the” shot is the instant your creative door slams shut.
This lesson also applies to the belief that the show is over, or that the show isn’t going to happen. Some of my most unforgettable photography experiences have happened because I stayed just a little longer after it seemed pretty obvious that Mother Nature was done, or decided to go out when there was every indication that nothing was going to happen.
We pulled into Olmsted Point a little after sunset. Job-one was changing out of my Sacramento-summer T-shirt and shorts, and into my High-Sierra-night long-johns, flannel-lined jeans, wool shirt, and down jacket. But while changing, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the wisp of crescent moon setting behind a granite ridge far north of the scene I’d come to photograph. And joining the moon on its journey to the horizon was Venus, a visual bonus I hadn’t anticipated.
Sufficiently fortified against the elements and unable to take my mind off the moon and Venus, I discarded my plan to make the 1/4 mile hike up to Olmsted Point before the darkness was complete (rationalizing that I could probably do this hike blindfolded anyway). Standing at the car I mentally framed a shot, then extracted my tripod, a7RIV, and 100-400. While setting up in the parking lot would have worked, I decided to scramble up the adjacent granite slope for an elevated vantage point that reduced some of the foreground clutter.
It was pretty dark by the time I was in position and had everything assembled, but since I was only interested in creating silhouetted shapes to go with the moon, the darkness wasn’t a big problem. I shot until the moon dropped out of sight. Because I had to move around a bit to adjust the relationships between the trees and the descending moon and Venus, I only managed nine frames before the moon was gone
The Milky Way delivered as expected, but I found extra pleasure thinking about this moon shoot that kicked off the night and delivered something as satisfying as it was unexpected.
Posted on June 13, 2021
It’s a Saturday afternoon (Sunday evening by the time you read this) and I’m working on less than 4 hours sleep. I’m not complaining, but before I pass out, I want to share the story of my latest shoot, and the reason I’m so sleep deprived.
If you follow my blog, you might know that in April Don Smith and I got an unexpected opportunity to preview Sony’s brand new 14mm f/1.8 GM lens in Oregon, before its announcement a week or so later. (Read more here.) But that experience was just a tease, because just as I started to fully appreciate the new lens’s potential for night photography (and other stuff, but I’m especially excited by night photography), we had to send it back.
When I finally got my own copy of the lens early this month, I couldn’t wait to try it out on the Milky Way (which wasn’t possible in Oregon because of the direction the Bandon views faced, and a waning moon). June is primetime for Milky Way photography because the brilliant galactic core is up all night—all you need is a dark sky far from city lights, and without the moon.
With a waxing moon invading the sky starting this week, the June dark sky window was quickly closing when I accepted an invitation to join a couple of photographer friends on their night photography trip to Joshua Tree NP this weekend. Then, just two days before we were supposed to leave, my friends decided to go to Denmark instead (a likely story—who else remembers the “Friends” episode where Chandler ditched Janice by telling her he was going to Yemen? Oh. My. God.), leaving me to fend for myself.
I could have stuck with the Joshua Tree plan, but a solo, 16+ hour roundtrip to spend a couple of nights photographing a spot I don’t really know didn’t sound like the best use of my time. Instead, I decided to recruit my brother Jay for a quick trip to more familiar environs.
Yosemite Valley’s towering walls and east/west orientation make it less than ideal for Milky Way photography. And while Yosemite’s high country has potential, accessibility (no roads, backcountry permit requirements) make it next to impossible for a last-minute trip. But…, at 8000 feet, Olmsted Point certainly qualifies as Yosemite high country. And because it’s right on Tioga Road (Highway 120), no backcountry permit is required. There’s still the problem of this summer’s COVID-induced Yosemite reservation system, but photo workshop permit gives me an exemption from (I do still have to get approval first).
Another nice thing about Olmsted Point is that it offers a view of Half Dome that’s quite a bit different than what we’re used to seeing from Yosemite Valley. While the Yosemite Valley views of Half Dome face east, from Olmsted Point Half Dome rises in the southwest, at the end of Tenaya Canyon.
Jay and I pulled into the Olmsted Point parking area at about 8:30 Friday night. The sun had just set, but we still had at least an hour until the sky darkened enough for the Milky Way to appear. With time to kill, after bundling into my cold weather clothes and organizing my gear, I twisted my Sony 100-400 onto my Sony a7RIV and scaled a nearby granite ridge to photograph the thin sliver of new moon disappearing in the west. An impromptu bonus that set the tone for the night.
We made the 5-minute walk out to Olmsted Point’s granite dome at around 9 p.m. I’ve been up here more times than I can count, so even in the dwindling light I was able to quickly identify the scene I wanted to start with, set up my camera (Sony a7SIII and Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM), and frame up a composition. Then I just kicked back on the granite and watched the stars pop out.
Viewed from the Northern Hemisphere, in June the Milky Way’s core rises nearly horizontal in the southeast sky shortly after sunset. As our planetary viewing platform rotates, the glowing core appears to pivot on an unseen point below the south-southwest horizon, moving up and southward (to the right) until it stands vertical in the southwest. The northern hemisphere nights are so short in June that the Milky Way fades from view before setting.
By 9:30 we could see the Milky Way peeking just above the granite ridge that leads to Clouds Rest. It was well east of Half Dome, so for these early frames I was very thankful to have a 14mm lens that allowed me to include the Milky Way in the same frame as Half Dome. I spent those early moments tweaking my exposure, refining my composition, and verifying that my focus was good.
Once I’d gotten everything just as I wanted it, I told myself that there was no reason to rush because with each passing minute, the Milky Way was a little higher in the sky and closer to Half Dome—that meant every click I took would be just a little better than the one preceding it. So after the initial exhilaration passed, I just sat on a nearby rock and appreciated the view. Few things are more humbling than reclining beneath a dark sky on a still night (especially when you’re sufficiently bundled against the high elevation chill).
We stayed until nearly 1:00 a.m. As I photographed (and gazed), I kept mentally pushing back our planned departure time, mentally subtracting hours of sleep by rationalizing that sometimes sleep is overrated. This was definitely one of those times.
A few words about my night photography
All of the night scenes you see on my website, in my blog, or anywhere else my images appear, were captured with one click. I don’t blend, composite, or in any other way combine multiple captures to create a single image. I’m not saying I think there’s anything wrong with blending images (there isn’t)—I just don’t get any pleasure from that kind of photography. So, while my night images may not look as dazzling as some of the other (truly beautiful) night composites being created today, you can at least be confident that you’re looking only at the photons that struck my sensor in one contiguous span of time.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on May 9, 2021
My relationship with Yosemite doesn’t have a beginning or end. Rather, it’s a collection of asynchronous memories that I’m still forming. In fact, some of my Yosemite experience actually predates my memory (and I have the pictures to prove it—see below). The earliest memories, like following bobbing flashlights to Camp Curry to watch the Firefall spring from Glacier Point, or warm evenings in lawn chairs at the garbage dump, waiting for the bears to come to dinner, are part of the glue that bonds my family.
While my relationship with Yosemite may not have a beginning or end, it does have a few hiccoughs. The most recent, and by far most significant, was the abrupt halt to my regular, and often unscheduled, visits to Yosemite. BC (before COVID) I’d make 20 or 30 trips per year to my home-away-from-home, some planned far in advance (both workshops and personal trips), but many only after dropping everything with just a few hours notice, when it looked like something special might taje place. But COVID closures, and further restrictions that required me to apply for approval to visit, saw my 2020 visits plummet. Let’s see, from March 2020 through January 2021 there were only three: two last July for Comet NEOWISE (8 hours of driving for 1 hour of photography each time), and one for my late October fall color workshop (my only 2020 workshop since February, anywhere).
Glacier Point plays a role in many of my Yosemite memories, but none are more permanently embedded than a visit when I was probably 8 or 9. My father was a serious amateur photographer whose his own relationship with Yosemite influenced me. One of my most vivid Yosemite memories is (foolishly) standing atop Sentinel Dome in an electrical storm, extending an umbrella to shield his camera while he tried to photograph lightning firing across the valley.
Being Californians with little lightning experience, we had no idea how foolish this was—the lightning was a couple of miles away, which seemed a safe distance. But later that afternoon we attended a ranger talk at Glacier Point, we learned that lightning can travel more than 10 miles and that elevated and fully exposed Sentinel Dome is probably the last place you’d want to be in an electrical storm. He said this with a chuckle, as if to imply that he knew no one present would be foolish enough to attempt this. The kicker to this story came at Glacier Point later that afternoon, when seemingly out of nowhere a rainbow arced across the face of Half Dome. I’ll never forget my father’s excitement—the resulting image was the source of his greatest photographic pride, and the print he made still graces my mom’s wall.
As I grew older, I started creating my own Yosemite memories. On countless trips into its vast backcountry, I relished reclining beside gem-like lakes cradled in granite basins, sipping from streams that started the day as snow, and nights beneath an infinite canopy of stars—all to a continuous soundtrack of wind and water.
Given this history, it’s no surprise that I became a nature photographer, using my camera to try to convey the essence of this magic world. A big part of my “new” (it’s now more than 15 years) career is the opportunity to share Yosemite with other photographers. But despite the fact photography is now my livelihood, visiting Yosemite is never work. Now I get to live vicariously through their excitement, watching them experience firsthand the beauty they’ve previously seen only in pictures, or opening their eyes to new perspectives of familiar Yosemite scenes. I’m humbled that I might be a catalyst for others’ nascent or expanded relationships with this special place, and that they might spread their love to others.
Of course I’ve seen lots of change while accumulating my Yosemite memories. Gridlock is a summer staple, the bears have been separated (with moderate success), the Firefall has been extinguished (no, Horsetail Fall is not the Firefall), and backpacking requires difficult-to-obtain permits, water purifiers, and bear canisters. In recent years, the new park vendor has spoiled many of Yosemite’s institutions with what I can only label as corporate greed that places their bottom line above the visitor’s experience.
But I’m thrilled to return to something resembling the old normal. Each time I return I’m reminded that despite human interference, Yosemite’s soaring granite and plummeting waterfalls are magnificent constants, a vertical canvas for Nature’s infinite cycle of season, weather, and light.
About this image
An extremely dry winter allowed for the early opening of Glacier Point, just three days before the start of my Yosemite Waterfalls and Dogwood photo workshop. It’s a always nice to share this spectacular view with others, and this year’s group had a large number of Yosemite first-timers, a particular treat.
When we arrived I was pleased to see that it wasn’t too crowded, but I still had to spend a little time negotiating space along the rail facing Half Dome and Tenaya Canyon for a few people in my group. One potential spot, where the railing protruded from a steeply sloping granite boulder, was especially precarious (not dangerous, though you definitely didn’t want to drop anything), with tricky footing that required grippy shoes, creative tripod arrangement, and a firm grasp of the bar to stay upright. A couple of people tried it and decided it wouldn’t work for them, so after finding no more takers, I ended up settling there.
Though we did have some nice clouds behind Half Dome and distant Mt. Conness, there was no sign of clouds further south. I focused most of my attention on Half Dome and the clouds, but once the sun set I pointed my camera toward the lovely alpenglow deepening on the eastern horizon above Nevada and Vernal Falls. I thought the nearby trees and vertical granite face made a nice foreground, but couldn’t quite get them all in without also including the wall and railing I was braced against. After even more tripod machinations, I managed to elevate my tripod to the maximum height possible—high enough. Using the trees and cliff face on the right of my frame to balance the visual weight of the waterfalls on left, I focused on the dead tree and clicked.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on May 2, 2021
Photography is all about compromise. For example, while everyone wants a lens that’s sharp, fast, compact, and cheap, the most we can usually get is two of these things. And photographers’ compromises aren’t limited to our equipment. Simply adding light to a scene can lead to frustrating, make-or-break compromises. Freezing a flower bobbing in an afternoon breeze requires a fast shutter speed. But increasing shutter speed means less light, forcing me to choose between opening my aperture at the cost of depth of field, or increasing my ISO and living with more noise. What’s a photographer to do?
The bottom line for me is any compromise, no matter how small, is not acceptable unless it’s necessary.
I approach each scene knowing that my Sony Alpha camera’s (currently an a7RIV) “ideal” ISO is 100—this is the ISO that render’s the cleanest (least noise) image. I’m going to shoot everything at ISO 100 unless I have a specific reason not to. (Or I forgot to reset it from the prior image, always a possibility.)
I also approach my scenes with the understanding that my lens has an ideal f-stop range that I want to stay in unless circumstances dictate otherwise. Because I rarely take the time to test every lens at every possible focal length and f-stop combination, I usually make the mostly safe assumption that my lenses are sharpest between f/8 and f/11. Wide open or stopped all the way down, most lenses tend to be a little less sharp, especially in the corners. And stopping down to a small aperture also increases image softening diffraction (the spreading if light that happens when it passes through a small opening).
Shutter speed manages motion, but using a tripod takes camera motion out of the equation, which means I never need to compromise my ISO or f-stop to avoid camera shake. And as a landscape photographer, most of my subjects are stationary, so whenever possible, I use my camera’s native ISO (100), an f-stop between f/8 and f/11, and control my exposure with the shutter speed: If nothing is moving, what difference does it make if my shutter speed is 1/10 second or 10 seconds? (Hint: None.)
Nature is not static, and sometimes I need to deal with motion in my scene. Whether it’s a tumbling cascade, wind-blown flower, or the celestial sphere circling above, I have to decide the shutter speed that achieves my desired motion effect. Or perhaps getting a frame sharp from foreground flowers to distant peaks forces me to stop my lens all way down to f/22, or capturing foreground detail on a moonless Milky Way night requires me to open up all the way to f/1.4. Either way, compromise has entered the equation.
When compromising my exposure settings it helps to know the limits of my equipment, how far I can push my exposure choices into the compromise zone without significant, unrecoverable quality loss. For example, while my camera’s native ISO is 100, I know I can push it much higher and still get a very usable image. And my Sony lenses are still sharp enough outside their ideal f-stop range that I don’t hesitate to use whatever f-stop the situation calls for. (This quality isn’t exclusive to Sony—other quality cameras and lenses do quite well when pushed to extremes.)
Compromise my image quality to achieve a desired result reduces my margin for error, making it extremely important that I make the right choices. Probably the most extreme compromise situation I encounter is the moonless-night darkness necessary for photographing the Milky Way. Even with my fastest lens, the Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM, wide open, to get a shutter speed that avoids stretching the pinpoint stars to little dashes, I have to push my camera’s ISO beyond thresholds I never imagined would be possible just a few years ago. This forces choices like, do I go with ISO 6400 and less noise but more star motion (longer shutter speed), or ISO 12800 and more noise but less star motion?
It would be nice if there were absolute answers to these compromise questions, but that’s rarely the case. Usually it’s matter of experience-based reckoning shaded by multiple choice processing options. In other words, I make the best guess I can, and often hedge by trying my second-, third-, and (sometimes) fourth-best guess. With several images to choose between, I scrutinize each closely and decide which will give me the best result.
About this image
I’m thinking about all this compromise stuff because I just processed this image from last week’s Yosemite spring workshop. The dogwood were exploding throughout Yosemite Valley, so my group spent several sessions dedicated mostly or entirely to dogwood. With my favorite Yosemite Valley dogwood zone closed due to roadwork, most of our dogwood time was spent on Northside Drive near Valley View.
I look for dogwood flowers or branches I can isolate against a strong background, and quickly landed on this one above the Merced River. It was late afternoon and the granite wall beneath Cathedral Rocks was catching the warm sunlight, spreading its gold reflection on the Merced River. With my Sony 100-400 GM lens (on my Sony a7RIV) to isolate the branch, I shifted position and focal length until I arrived at a composition that set the dogwood blooms against the gold background, framed by soft (out of focus) dogwood festooned branches in the background. I experimented with several f-stops before deciding f/9 gave me the best combination of sharp dogwood and soft background.
The problem was, at ISO 100 and f/9, getting the exposure I wanted meant a shutter speed of 1/10 second, not workable in the afternoon’s gentle but steady breeze. So I increased my ISO to 800, which gave me a 1/80 second shutter speed. A quick magnification of the image in my LCD told me I’d nailed the sharpness, but just in case, I increased the ISO to ISO 1600, for a 1/160 second shutter speed. (Turns out I didn’t need the faster shutter speed, but better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.)
Posted on April 4, 2021
“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.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on March 21, 2021
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.
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
Specialty Equipment (not pictured—stays behind unless I have a specific plan for it)
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.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on March 14, 2021
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.
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.
(Images from the last 12 months)
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on March 7, 2021
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.
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.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on February 28, 2021
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.