Just a Dash of Rainbow

Gary Hart Photography: Bridalveil Rainbow, Tunnel View, Yosemite

Bridalveil Rainbow, Tunnel View, Yosemite
Sony 𝛂1
Sony 24-105 G
1/60 second
F/10
ISO 100

I’ve spent the last week moving, and with my annual Grand Canyon Raft Trip for Photographers launching Tuesday, I haven’t had a lot of time for blogging (and much else). But I’m still committed to posting a new blog each week, so I’m sharing a new image from one of this spring’s Yosemite workshops, and a brief description of its capture. I also dusted off and polished up the Rainbow article from my Photo Tips tab. I’ll be off the grid until May 31, so next week’s post will likely be a little late.

It’s become a tradition to kick off my Yosemite spring workshops with a rainbow on Bridalveil Fall. Though the timing varies with the date, I’ve done it enough to narrow the rainbow’s start down to about a 2 minute window for whatever date I’m there. Not only is this little dash of rainbow a thrilling spectacle and beautiful introduction to Yosemite, it also creates an (unjustified) illusion of genius for the workshop leader.

With rain and maybe even a little snow, this year’s weather forecast for our first day looked great in many ways, but not so much for rainbows. But rainbow or not, Tunnel View is a great spot to start a workshop because it’s the most complete view of all things Yosemite. It’s also the first place Yosemite’s storms clear, so even without sunlight something special might be in store.

The storm was just starting to clear when we arrived and I almost got trampled as my group raced to set up. Between the swirling clouds and Half Dome’s appearance (not always a sure thing during a Yosemite clearing storm), things were already going pretty well when shafts of light broke through to illuminate random parts of the valley and surrounding granite.

I checked my watch and crossed my fingers when I realized that we’d be able to add a rainbow to Bridalveil if the light were to make it there. A couple of minutes later Leaning Tower (the diagonal just to the right of the fall) lit up, and a few seconds later a small patch of light hit the evergreens in front of the fall.

After telling everyone what was about to happen, I set up my composition and said a little prayer that the light would cooperate. The patches of light quickly expanded and merged and there it was. I often shoot this rainbow with a telephoto because the sky is so often blank blue, but the whole scene was so beautiful this afternoon that I went with my Sony 24-105 G lens on my (brand new!) Sony a1.

This was the very first time I’d used this camera, and while I thought I’d set it up to match my Sony a7RIV, I soon discovered that I’d missed a few things. For example, I usually shoot in single shot mode, but my a1 was in fast continuous mode, an oversight that became apparent when my first shutter press (slow and gentle, as always) fired off 6 identical frames before I released my finger. My goodness is this camera fast.

I have so many images of this rainbow that I only photographed it for a couple of minutes—just long enough to be confident that I’d captured something I didn’t have. When I finished shooting I just stood back to watch the rainbow move up the fall—and to listen to the exclamations of marvel from the group.

Fortunately none of my settings oversights were a major hindrance and were quickly corrected. Since that afternoon I’ve used my a1 enough to know that I’m going to love using it, and can’t wait to try it out in the Grand Canyon this week.

Read on to learn about rainbows, how to anticipate them, and how to photograph them…



All About Rainbows



Let there be light

Most people understand that a rainbow is light spread into various colors by airborne water drops. Though a rainbow can feel like a random, unpredictable phenomenon, the natural laws governing rainbow are actually quite specific and predictable, and understanding these laws can help photographers anticipate a rainbow and enhance its capture.

The sun’s visible wavelengths are captured by our eyes and interpreted by our brain. When our eyes take in light comprised of the full range of visible wavelengths, we perceive it as white (colorless) light. Color registers when some wavelengths are more prevalent than others. For example, when light strikes an opaque (solid) object such as a tree or rock, some of its wavelengths are absorbed; the wavelengths not absorbed are scattered (reflected). Our eyes capture this scattered light, send the information to our brains, which interprets it as a color. When light strikes water, some is absorbed, some passes through to reveal the submerged world, and some light is reflected by the surface as a reflection.

Light traveling from one medium to another (e.g., from air into water) refracts (bends). Different wavelengths refract different amounts, causing the light to split into its component colors.

To understand the interaction of water and light that creates a rainbow, it’s simplest to visualize what happens when sunlight strikes a single drop. Light entering a water drop slows and bends, with the shorter wavelengths bending more than the longer wavelengths: refraction.  Refraction separates the originally homogeneous white light into the myriad colors of the spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet (in that order).

But simply separating the light into its component colors isn’t enough to create a rainbow. Actually seeing the rainbow spectrum caused by refracted light requires that the refracted light be reflected back to our eyes somehow.

A raindrop isn’t flat like a sheet of paper, it’s spherical, like a ball. Light that was refracted when it entered the front of the raindrop, continues through to the back of the raindrop, where some is reflected. To view a rainbow, our eyes must be in the correct position to catch this reflected spectrum of color—fortunately, this angle is very consistent and predictable.

Red light reflects at 42 degrees, violet light reflects at 40 degrees, while the other spectral colors reflect back between 42 and 40 degrees. That’s why the top color of the primary rainbow is always red, the longest visible wavelength; the bottom color is always violet, the shortest visible wavelength.

Follow your shadow

Every raindrop struck by sunlight creates a rainbow somewhere. But just as the reflection of a mountain peak on the surface of a lake is visible only when viewed from the angle the reflection bounces off the lake’s surface, a rainbow is visible only when you’re aligned with the 42 – 40 degree angle at which the raindrop reflects light’s refracted spectrum of rainbow colors.

Lucky for most of us, viewing a rainbow requires no knowledge of advanced geometry. To locate or anticipate a rainbow, put your back to the sun and picture an imaginary line originating at the sun, entering the back of your head, exiting between your eyes, and continuing into the landscape in front of you—this line points to the “anti-solar point,” an imaginary point exactly opposite the sun from your viewing position.

It helps to remember that your shadow always points toward the anti-solar point—and toward the center of the rainbow, which forms a 42 degree circle around the line connecting the sun and the anti-solar point. Unless we’re in an airplane or atop a mountain peak, we don’t usually see the entire circle because the horizon gets in the way. So when you find yourself in a mixture sunlight and rain, locating a rainbow is as simple as following your shadow and looking skyward—if there’s no rainbow, the sun’s probably too high.

High or low

Sometimes a rainbow appears as a majestic half-circle, arcing high above the distant terrain; other times it’s merely a small arc hugging the horizon. As with the direction of the rainbow, there’s nothing mysterious about its varying height. Remember, every rainbow would form a full circle if the horizon didn’t get in the way, so the amount of the rainbow’s circle you see (and therefore its height) depends on where the rainbow’s arc intersects the horizon.

While the center of the rainbow is always in the direction of the anti-solar point, the height of the rainbow is determined by the height of the anti-solar point, which will always be exactly the same number of degrees below the horizon as the sun is above the horizon. It helps to imagine the line connecting the sun and the anti-solar point as a fulcrum, with you as the pivot—picture yourself in the center of a teeter-totter: as one seat rises above you, the other drops below you. That means the lower the sun, the more of the rainbow’s circle you see and the higher it appears above the horizon; conversely, the higher the sun, the less of the rainbow’s circle is above the horizon and the flatter (and lower) the rainbow appears.

Assuming a flat, unobstructed scene (such as the ocean), when the sun is on the horizon, so is the anti-solar point (in the opposite direction), and half of the rainbow’s 360 degree circumference will be visible. But as the sun rises, the anti-solar point drops—when the sun is more than 42 degrees above the horizon, the anti-solar point is more than 42 degrees below the horizon, and the only way you’ll see a rainbow is from a perspective above the surrounding landscape (such as on a mountaintop or on a canyon rim).

Of course landscapes are rarely flat. Viewing a scene from above, such as from atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii or from the rim of the Grand Canyon, can reveal more than half of the rainbow’s circle. From an airplane, with the sun directly above you, all of the rainbow’s circle can be seen, with the plane’s shadow in the middle.

Double Your pleasure

Not all of the light careening about a raindrop goes into forming the primary rainbow. Some of the light slips out the back of the raindrop to illuminate the sky, and some is reflected inside the raindrop a second time. The refracted light that reflects a second time before exiting creates a secondary, fainter rainbow skewed 50 degrees from the anti-solar point. Since this is a reflection of a reflection, the colors of the secondary rainbow are reversed from the primary rainbow.

And if the sky between the primary and secondary rainbows appears darker than the surrounding sky, you’ve found “Alexander’s band.” It’s caused by all the light machinations I just described—instead of all the sunlight simply passing through the raindrops to illuminate the sky, some of the light was intercepted, refracted, and reflected by the raindrops to form our two rainbows, leaving less light for the sky between the rainbows.

Waterfalls are easy

Understanding the optics of a rainbow has practical applications for photographers. Not only does it help you anticipate a rainbow before it happens, it also enables you to find rainbows in waterfalls.

A rainbow caused by sunlight on rain can feel random because it’s difficult to know exactly where the rain will fall, when the sun will break through, and exactly where to position yourself to capture the incongruous convergence of rainfall and sunshine. A waterfall rainbow, on the other hand, can be predicted with clock-like precision because we know exactly where the waterfall and sun are at any give time—as long as clouds don’t get in the way, the waterfall rainbow appears with clock-like precision.

Yosemite is my location of choice for waterfall rainbows, but maybe there’s a waterfall or two near you that might deliver. Just figure out when the waterfall gets direct sunlight early or late in the day, then put yourself somewhere on the line connecting the sun and the waterfall. And if you have an elevated vantage point, you’ll find that the sun doesn’t even need to be that low in the sky.

Spring in Yosemite is waterfall rainbow season, and I know exactly where to be and when to be there for both of Yosemite Valley’s major waterfalls. In fact, given the variety of vantage points for viewing each of these falls, I can usually get two or three rainbows on each fall on any given day.

In addition to clouds, there are other variables to deal with. One is the date, because the path and timing of the sun’s arc across the sky changes with each passing week. Another thing that can throw the timing off slightly is the amount of water in the fall—following a wet winter the spring runoff increases, and with it the amount of mist. Generally, the more mist, the sooner the rainbow will appear and the longer it lasts. And finally there’s wind, which spreads the mist and usually improves the rainbow by increasing its size.

While all these variables make it difficult for me share the exact schedule of Yosemite’s waterfall rainbows from the variety of vantage points, I can give you some general guidance: look for a rainbow on Yosemite Falls in the morning, and Bridalveil Fall in the afternoon. And if you don’t mind a short but steep hike, you can also find a rainbow on Vernal Fall in the afternoon.

Moonbows

Understanding rainbow optics can even help you locate rainbows that aren’t visible to the naked eye. A “moonbow” (lunar rainbow) is a rarely witnessed and breathtaking phenomenon that follows all the natural rules of a daylight rainbow. But instead of resulting from direct sunlight, a moonbow is caused by sunlight reflected by the moon.

Moonlight isn’t bright enough to fully engage the cones in your eyes that reveal color, though in bright moonlight you can see the moonbow as an arcing monochrome band. But a camera on a sturdy tripod can use its virtually unlimited shutter duration to accumulate enough light to bring out a moonbow in full living color. Armed with this knowledge, all you need to do is put yourself in the right location at the right time.

Probably the best known moonbow is the one that appears on Yosemite Falls each spring. Usually viewed from the bridge at the base of Lower Yosemite Fall, the best months are April, May, and June, with May probably being the best combination of moonlight angle and ample water.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon isn’t a secret, and the bridge can be quite crowded on spring full moon nights—in high runoff springs, it can also be extremely wet (pack your rain gear). The base of Upper Yosemite Fall can also have a moonbow when viewed from the south side of Cook’s Meadow, especially in wet springs.

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A Gallery of Rainbows

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

Watch Your Weight

Gary Hart Photography: Half Dome and Tiny Moon, Yosemite

Half Dome and Moon, Mirror Lake, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/10 second
F/10
ISO 100

Dynamic vs. static

Photographic composition is all about managing the tension between dynamic and static: the dynamic component is the way the eye moves through the frame, while the static component is the overall balance of the scene’s elements.

To synergize these two potentially conflicting factors, I think in terms the “visual weight” of my frame’s contained elements. Like gravity for the eye, visual weight is the amount each of the scene’s various elements might pull the viewer’s vision toward it. Unlike the measurable weight caused by actual gravity—a constant determined by an object’s mass (I’m talking the Earth-based, Newtonian physics that govern our daily lives)—visual weight is a more subjective quality that can be a function of many things that include the object’s size, brightness, contrast, shape, and color.

On the dynamic side, I use the way the viewers of an image subconsciously connect visually weighted objects and mentally draw virtual lines along which their eyes move. Composing a scene, I first identify the objects that possess visual weight—a rock, flower, tree, mountain, whatever—and work to position them in my frame in ways that guide my viewer’s eyes. Additionally, I generally avoid putting visually weighted objects near the edges of my frame, where they might pull my viewer out of the scene.

For the scene’s static component, visual balance, an approach that works for me to imagining my frame as a perfectly rigid print, laid flat and balanced atop a centered point (like a pencil). As I compose, I want the position of the scene’s visually weighted objects organized on my imaginary balanced print so it will rest perfectly horizontal (no tilt).

Just a dash of moon

The concept of visual weight helped me reconcile a frequent complaint of photographers (and at least one editor who used it to reject an article on moon photography) that the moon appears too small in a landscape image. At some point I realized that the moon’s visual weight, even accounting for its brightness and contrast, was greater than its size alone might suggest. That led me to an essential component of visual weight that I’d overlooked: emotional connection. There is just something about the emotional pull of the moon hovering over a landscape that draws the human eye far more than might be expected from its more tangible physical qualities.

This realization freed me to stop stressing about the size of the moon in my frame. Though I have no problem photographing the moon large when the opportunity presents itself, I also won’t hesitate to leverage a small moon’s emotional weight to elevate a relatively ordinary scene, or enhance an already beautiful scene.

For example

The short hike along Tenaya Lake to Mirror Lake is one of the most popular in Yosemite Valley. Though technically not a lake, each spring (and often in winter and early summer as well) Tenaya Creek brims with snowmelt. Rushing from the high country, Tenaya Creek pauses directly beneath Half Dome, flattening and spreading enough to deliver spectacular reflections.

Even more than the reflections, for me the best part of the Mirror Lake experience is its the neck-craning close-up of Half Dome’s face. When I started thinking about the best way to convey Half Dome’s imposing presence, it occurred to me that letting its looming face dwarf a small moon might be exactly what I need.

I write a lot about my love for photographing the moon large, the bigger the better. But sometimes the moon needs to be small. While the moon here is far from the primary subject it would be in a telephoto image, this image is all about Half Dome. Adding little dash of moon creates a balancing counterweight, helps spice up an otherwise boring sky, and creates a size contrast that emphasizes Half Dome’s massive presence.

Take a look at the images in the gallery below, paying extra attention to the moon’s relationship to Half Dome. In some images the moon is the focal point of the frame, in others it’s a balancing element, and sometimes it’s simply an accent that adds interest to a boring sky.


The Moon and Half Dome

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Making a Scene

Gary Hart Photography: Spring Evening, Cathedral Beach, Yosemite

Spring Evening, Cathedral Beach, Yosemite
Sony 𝛂1
Sony 24-105 G
1/3 second
F/16
ISO 50

Think about what goes into making a landscape image. If the scenes and conditions are our raw materials, then it would be logical to say that our camera gear is our tools. But in addition to cameras, lenses, and other physical photography hardware, I’d say that our photography toolkit also includes the techniques we employ to deal with nature’s fickle whims.

And speaking of fickle whims, it’s impossible to deny that conditions make some scenes easier than others. But as much as I long for crimson sunsets, vivid rainbows, mirror reflections, and a host of other natural phenomena that can make virtually any shot feel like a slam dunk, these things are not always available when I want to make an image. For me, one of the greatest challenges is overcoming the boring (cloudless) skies that my California home is known (and loved) for. Not only do blank skies add rarely anything to a scene, they’re responsible for harsh light and the extreme dynamic range that even the best cameras struggle to handle. What’s a photographer to do?

For starters, we need to open our mind (and eyes). One of photography’s less heralded gifts is its ability, over time, to teach us to tune-in to nature’s subtleties, and how to leverage conditions that we once viewed as too difficult, into beautiful images. Fortunately, difficult doesn’t mean impossible—in fact, difficult can be downright fun. And the truth is, there are a lot of ways to overcome boring skies. Here are some suggestions:

  • Shade: One of my favorite approaches to blank skies is photographing moving water, spring flowers, and fall color in full shade. While not spectacular, shade light is shadowless and easy to work with. It also makes it easy to blur water without a filter.
  • Reflection: For the best reflections, look for sunlit subjects (the brighter the better) reflecting in still, shaded water.
  • Sunstar: Any time the sun’s up, a sunstar is a readily available addition option for spicing up your scene. Position yourself so all but a small sliver of sun is blocked by an opaque object (such as a tree, rock, or the horizon), dial your f-stop to f/16 or smaller. Note that some lenses deliver sharper, more defined sunstars than others, and in general, wide lenses work best, especially primes and high quality zooms.
  • Silhouette: Blank skies at sunrise and sunset are a great opportunity to create silhouettes that emphasize color and shape by eliminating everything in the scene except color and shape. Better still, incorporating a crescent moon (which always rises just before the sun, and sets just after the sun), can take silhouette scenes to the next level.
  • Stars: Don’t forget the night sky. Often when I’m disappointed by a lack of clouds at a nice location, I just wait until dark and photograph the scene by moon- or starlight.
  • Black and white and infrared: While I don’t photograph B&W and infrared, they are wonderful techniques for dealing with harsh midday light.

For example

Given their frequency, I’ve become pretty good at making the best of blue sky days in Yosemite. While last month’s Yosemite Waterfalls and Dogwood photo workshop did enjoy a few clouds, we also dealt with a fair amount of blank skies. For our first sunrise we photographed silhouettes and a rising crescent moon. And later in the workshop we spent a couple of hours photographing dogwood in the shade (mixed with a little sunlight) in the Fern Springs / Pohono Bridge area. But I think my favorite blue sky shoot came at Cathedral Beach on the workshop’s penultimate afternoon.

Cathedral Beach is an up-close view of El Capitan right on the Merced River. The low and slow flow of autumn makes a glassy reflection here, and in the months closer to the winter solstice, when the sun is farther south, all of El Capitan gets spectacular late afternoon light. But by mid-spring the river rushes and swirls with snowmelt, and the sun has moved so far north that only El Capitan’s west-facing wall gets late sunlight. But as you can see, all is not lost.

Viewing El Capitan from Cathedral Beach that afternoon, the first thing to catch my eye was the gorgeous light etching the otherwise shaded granite’s vertical plunge. No less spectacular was the brilliant backlight illuminating the cottonwood and grass across the river and reflecting color in the river.

I pulled out my (brand new!) Sony A1 and pondered my lens choice. Since capturing all of El Capitan from this location requires something wider than 24mm, I’d normally go with my Sony 16-35 GM or 12-24 GM lens here. But with no clouds and most of El Capitan in shade, I really wanted to eliminate the sky, most of the granite, and the less interesting surrounding foliage, so I reached for my Sony 24-105G lens.

This scene worked as a horizontal or vertical, but I finally zeroed in on the vertical composition because it was the best way to distill the scene down to its essentials: El Capitan’s edge light, the backlit foliage, the reflection, and the gold-flecked riverbed beneath parallel ripples. I moved along the riverbank until all this good stuff aligned with the set of grassy mounds catching light in the near foreground. I wanted front-to-back sharpness, so I stopped down to f/16 and focused on the most distant of the foreground mounds. And even though I didn’t have a mirror surface, I dialed the reflection up with my polarizer to add a little color to the river.

In Yosemite it’s hard to take a bad picture, but some are more rewarding than others. While I doubt it will be one of those images that goes viral, this image makes me especially happy because finding it and assembling all the components took a little creative effort.

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The Cure for Blank Skies

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

 

Big Moon Rising

Gary Hart Photography: Big Moon Rising, Tunnel View, Yosemite

Big Moon Rising, Tunnel View, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 200-600 G
Sony 2x teleconverter
ISO 100
f/13
1/10 second

It doesn’t take much time with my images to figure out that I love photographing the moon. Large or small, full or crescent, it doesn’t really matter. Almost every one of my moon images is the product of plotting the time of its arrival (or departure), then making sure I’m there to photograph it. Using astronomical tables and topo map software, I’ve been doing this for more than 15 years—long before the availability of the astronomy apps that tremendously simplify the process with pretty decent accuracy. And while I recommend these (new fangled) apps to everyone who wants to photograph anything celestial above a particular terrestrial scene, I still do it the old fashioned way for no other reason than it’s more fun. But, as much as I’d love to tell you that I plotted this moonrise from last Wednesday morning in Yosemite, I have to admit that this one was largely a matter of just happening to be in the right place at the right time (aided by just a dash of advance knowledge).

Yosemite Valley is not a great sunrise location because nearly all of its vistas face east, which means photographing towering monoliths in full shade (the sun’s behind them), against the brightest part of the sky. We always hope for clouds to add color to the sky and subdue some of the sun’s brightness, but too frequently end up with blank skies.

Nevertheless, in most of my Yosemite photo workshops I take my group to Tunnel View for our first sunrise. I choose Tunnel View for that first sunrise because when clouds aren’t present, we can still turn the distinctive outlines of El Capitan, Half Dome, and Cathedral Rocks into silhouettes. Not only does this give my students the opportunity to create something a little different than the standard Yosemite image, it’s also a good way to get them thinking about photographing the way their camera sees rather than the way their eyes see (a real point of emphasis in my workshops).

My Yosemite Waterfalls and Dogwood workshop was scheduled to (fingers crossed) coincide with the park’s peak spring runoff and dogwood bloom, which usually happens around May 1 (+/- a week or two). This year I chose the last week of April because I’d rather be a little early for the dogwood than a little late, and to avoid the weekend crowds. Though I hadn’t considered the crescent moon when I scheduled it, as the workshop approached I checked and saw that on our first morning an 11% crescent would rise nearly 90 minutes before sunrise. Unfortunately, this moon aligned poorly with all of Yosemite’s icons, and to be visible at all would need to climb above the much higher walls southeast of Tunnel View. On the other hand, I saw that the crescent would be trailing a nice planetary alignment that included Mars, Venus, and Jupiter—maybe not great to photograph, but pretty nice to see.

When we arrived the sky was dark enough to enjoy the planets, but there was no sign of the moon. As feared, there were no clouds, so after getting my group going with their silhouettes, I started thinking about the moon again. Knowing that it was almost directly beneath Jupiter, about 1 1/2 times the distance separating Venus and Jupiter, I was able to pretty closely approximate where the moon would rise. And I realized that when it did rise, the sky would still be plenty dark enough.

I let my group know what would be happening and quickly ran to my car to grab my tripod, Sony a7RIV, Sony 200-600 G lens, and Sony 2X Teleconverter. Zooming my lens all the way out to 1200mm (go big or go home), I trained  it on the small tree on the far left of this image and waited. The moon actually appeared just slightly left of the target tree, close enough that I didn’t need to recompose. The ridge here was so steep that it took more than 10 minutes for the moon to completely separate, creating the illusion that it was sliding uphill. merge

The most exciting part of this otherwise serene morning came when a commercial jet zipped into the scene, contrail trailing, and someone realized it was on a collision course with the moon. What ensued was a brief scramble to photograph the collision. Thwarted by my 2-second timer (a further reminder why I don’t photograph anything that moves), I got nothing but contrail, but at least two in the group got the moon/jet convergence.

Here’s a link to my Crescent Moon article in the Photo Tips section of my blog

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A Crescent Moon Gallery

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

 

I Can Relate (You Can Too)

Gary Hart Photography: Peek-a-Boo Moon, Merced River Canyon and Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite

Peek-a-Boo Moon, Merced River Canyon and Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/4 second
F/10
ISO 100

Our lives revolve around relationships: romance, family, friends, work, pets…. Even that clown who cut you off on the freeway, for a few brief (I hope) seconds, might just be the most powerful influence in your life.

Like most words in the English language, “relationship” can mean more than one thing. On the macro scale are the specific personal connections that matter to us—not just people, but also places, things (I actually love my new dishwasher), music, sports teams, and so on. On a micro scale, we have spacial juxtapositions that can be either planned or random, and the realization that it’s possible to draw a straight line relating any two objects on Earth (or in the Universe, for that matter).

I know this isn’t first time I’ve written about relationships (it won’t be the last), but they’re very important to photography because they play a significant role in literally every image we capture. My image choices are very much determined my relationship with my subjects, while my images’ ability to connect with others is a function of the relationships, both conscious and unconscious, they tap in the minds of my viewers.

In addition to finding those personal connections, as I wrote in last week’s post, spacial relationships that connect visual elements and guide the eye have the power to move viewers’ through the frame (good), pull them out of the frame (bad), and to signal viewers what it is they’re supposed to see and do in the image (good).

Laying the foundation

In this image from the final shoot of last week’s Yosemite workshop, it’s easy to see how all those relationship factors combine to create an image. It all starts with a life-long relationship with Yosemite that predates my oldest memories. Campfires, hiking, the Firefall, bear watching, transient friendships with kids in nearby campsites, fishing with my dad, are all among the many vivid contributors to my Yosemite memory mosaic.

My love of the night sky is related (there’s that word again) to this Yosemite connection, and started just a few years later. Its seeds, sown on summer nights falling asleep beneath a sky full of stars on family camping trips, germinated with my first telescope when I was 9 or 10, and flourished under the dark skies of the High Sierra backcountry.

Putting it all together

When I started getting serious about photography, my love for (and proximity to) Yosemite made it the ideal place to start. It’s hard to take a bad picture in Yosemite, so at first I was content with my own version of the more conventional scenes seen in postcards, calendars, and travel brochures.

Soon I grew to appreciate the importance of light, and started timing my Yosemite visits around the best opportunities for sunrise/sunset color, warm light, and waterfall rainbows—my first conscious attempts to create relationships between fixed terrestrial subjects and ephemeral natural conditions. This epiphany led to the realization that instead of being satisfied with great light on Half Dome, a tumbling cascade, or mirror reflection, why not accent the scene with fall color or elegant dogwood? Whether not I was conscious of it at the time, I’d gone all-in on creating my own visual relationships: disparate elements connected in a shared moment.

Incorporating the night sky came later, but at some point I realized that, while a Yosemite sunset is nice, a Yosemite sunset that includes the moon might be especially nice. Suddenly I found myself obsessively calculating and logging the horizontal and vertical angles at every conceivable Yosemite vista, and plotting the moon’s altitude and azimuth to determine when and where it would appear above Yosemite Valley. (This was long before the days of the Photographer’s Ephemeris, Photo Pills, and other tools of that ilk.)

Back to the present

Somehow, that long and continuous thread lead me and my workshop group to the Bridalveil Fall vista on Big Oak Flat Road in Yosemite last Friday evening. More than a year earlier, I’d plotted this moonrise and scheduled a workshop to photograph it—among other things, like the moonbow beneath Lower Yosemite Fall and the poppy bloom in the Merced River Canyon.

But simply planning for a relationship doesn’t make it so. This year’s poppy bloom was a complete swing-and-miss, and clouds dogged our entire workshop, wiping out our moonbow.

But all was not lost. The clouds made for spectacular skies, while the sun came out enough for the group to capture a variety of waterfall rainbows on Bridalveil and Yosemite Falls. And there was enough water in Tenaya Creek to justify the 1 1/2 mile hike up to Mirror Lake for the Half Dome Reflection. We even got to photograph the earliest dogwood that had just started to pop out near Valley View, an unexpected treat.

And I still had one relationship ace up my sleeve: the moonrise on our final night. As often happens in Yosemite, the Friday forecast was frustratingly noncommittal: partly sunny. So it’s no wonder my moonrise optimism waxed and waned all day as the sky wavered between blue (yay!) and gray (boo!).

I’d figured that the moon would appear above Leaning Tower (above and just right of Bridalveil Fall) at around 7:15 p.m., so I got the group in place about 7:00. Even though we had more clouds than sky, a small gap on the western horizon let just enough sun through to spotlight Bridalveil Fall. There was even enough of an opening above the fall to give me hope that we’d see the moonrise right on schedule, and I set up my (brand new!) Sony a1 with the Sony 200-600 lens and 2X Teleconverter in anticipation. But by the time 7:15 arrived, that window had slammed shut.

The next opportunity was another opening in the clouds about 2 degrees higher, and I kept my eyes on it knowing the moon would probably rise into it around 7:25—about 10 minutes before sunset. With the moon higher, I set aside the a1 and 200-600 in favor of (one of) my Sony a7RIVs and my Sony 24-105. As I watched the small patch of blue sky, I realized it was shrinking, further delaying (and threatening to completely wipe out) the moon’s appearance.

We experienced brief euphoria when the moon finally peeked above the clouds at around 7:30, just long enough to capture 2 frames that had it more than 1/2 visible. Then it was gone.

I still faced a 4-hour drive home, but since the clouds were changing so fast and we were already there, I decided not to call the workshop quite yet. About 20 minutes later, right at the tail end of the window when there’s still enough light to capture detail in the moon and foreground (with one click), I was starting to consider pulling the plug for good when a small bright patch got my attention. Suddenly the clouds parted just long enough for me to grab 2 more frames that included most of the moon, before snapping shut for good.


Yosemite Relationships

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Still Motion

Gary Hart Photography: Half Dome and Tenaya Creek, Yosemite

Half Dome and Tenaya Creek, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 12-24 GM
1/10 second
F/16
ISO 50

Put me firmly in the camp of those who prefer reading the book to watching the movie. Watching a movie, my gaze is fixed as the scene unfurls before my eyes at a predetermined pace—if something requires scrutiny or triggers my imagination, I have to pause or rewind (often not an option—or at the very least, a source of irritation to others in the room). Reading a book, I’m free to pause, ponder, revisit, and imagine to my heart’s content.

This ability to control the pace of my relationship with the world may explain why I prefer still photography to video capture. Acknowledging that video provides expressive opportunities that still photography can’t, I can’t help but think the power of still photography is under-appreciated.

One important distinction is that the motion in a video is applied by the medium; in a still image, the source of the motion is my own eyes. And while a video dictates the pace of my relationship with the scene, entering the world of a photograph gives my eyes the freedom to linger and explore the scene’s nooks and crannies, to savor its nuances at my own pace.

This still photography bias could be explained by the fact that in virtually all aspects of my life, “think fast” is rarely my default response. Rather, given a choice, I prefer analysis and comprehension to instant reaction. This evaluate-first mindset might also explain why my favorite sport is baseball (which many consider “too slow”), and why I prefer chess and Scrabble to video games (the last video game I played was Pong).

So I guess it should be no surprise that, as a landscape photographer, my subjects don’t move. I love having the time to craft a scene—to position myself, frame my subjects, and manage the exposure variables (that control motion, light, and depth)—confident that when I’m finally ready, my subject will still be there.

But, as we all know (and as Spider-Man reminded us), with great power comes great responsibility. To succeed, we photographers must be sensitive to our viewer’s experience. Is it clear what the picture is a about? Is there a place for the eye to land, and/or a path for the eye to follow?

Just plopping the viewer of an image into the scene without any clues about what to do there is an invitation to a quick exit. Which is why I try in every image to include visual signals to guide my viewer’s eye and make it as clear as possible what they’re supposed to be doing in the world I’m offering. And once they’re there and have examined whatever it is I’m trying to show them, they’re much more inclined to explore further and discover more of the scene’s subtleties.

Visual signals can take many forms. One popular device that I very consciously try not to think about is “leading lines.” Not because I think they’re inherently bad or wrong, but because we’ve heard about them to the point of eye-glazing clichĂ©, and I fear that many photographers (and photography contest judges) have given them too much power—at the expense of other similarly, or even more, important factors. I’m not saying that my images don’t use leading lines, I’m just saying that I only use them when they work organically, without conscious thought.

That said, I am drawn to diagonals—a rock, shoreline, leaning tree trunk, fallen log, and so on. While these diagonals can indeed connect objects and lead viewers’ eyes, I’m more interested in the diagonal’s power to simultaneously move the viewers’ eyes across two planes of my scene: up/down and left/right.

And any line, whether horizontal, vertical, or diagonal doesn’t need to be an actual visible line—virtual lines work too. To understand the concept of a virtual line, I think in terms of visual “visual weight”: any object in my frame that, by virtue of its mass, brightness, position, or some other quality that creates enough visual gravity to pull a viewer’s eye in its direction. I try to avoid visually heavy objects that pull the eye away from the important parts of my frame, and to pair visually heavy objects that the viewer can subconsciously connect into a virtual line.

Another visual aid that I sometimes employ is a virtual frame—some object within the boundaries of my actual frame that holds my viewer’s eye in the scene, or nudges it it back into the scene the way the cushion on a pool table bumps the ball back into the action.

About this image

In last week’s Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers workshop (in which we got neither moonbows or wildflowers, but nevertheless enjoyed absolutely spectacular photography conditions), we made the 1 1/2 mile walk up to Mirror Lake. This is one of those hikes that’s as much about the journey as it is about the destination. Along the way I kept my eyes peeled for opportunities to pair Half Dome with churning Tenaya Creek. With Half Dome virtually straight up, of the way I was thwarted by the dense forest canopy, but as the trail steepened for its final ascent to the lake, I found a small gap I thought might work.

After climbing down among the jumbled boulders separating the trail from the creek, I pulled out my Sony a7RIV and attached my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens. While my Sony 16-35 GM would probably have worked here, I loved the extra room the 12-24 gave me to compose this scene that was beautiful from top to bottom.

With a little scrambling I was able to frame Half Dome with a pair of leaning tree trunks, dropping low to avoid blocking any of its face with a rogue branch. Not only did the leaning trunks provide a nice diagonal to move the eye, they also created a virtual frame to hold the eye in the scene. From my position I was also able to use the rushing creak to create a second diagonal. At 12mm, I was able to include many of the nearby rocks, the closest of which were no more than 2 feet away. These rocks made a great virtual frame across the bottom of the scene.

At 12mm and f/16, I knew I had plenty of focus wiggle room to achieve full front-to-back sharpness, and focused on a rock just a couple of feet into my scene. I wanted to put a slight blur in the water, but the 12-24 isn’t really filter-friendly (it can be done, but requires an expensive and awkward filter system that I haven’t found enough need for), so I couldn’t use a neutral density filter. Fortunately, the water here is so fast that the amount of blur I wanted wouldn’t be a problem. Turns ISO 50 and f/16 gave me enough blur to smooth the motion without losing its definition, exactly what I wanted.

It’s always interesting when I discover that I’d photographed a seemingly random scene before and used a similar composition. On the one hand, it’s a reminder to be careful not to get in a compositional rut, but on the other hand, it’s a confirmation that my compositional process is not random and likely reflective of my personal style.

One more thing

It’s interesting to compare these two images, capture almost exactly 5 years apart. The first one used 13mm, while last week’s was 12mm. The angle of view was similar but not identical, and I was closer to the creek in the first shot. The biggest difference between the two is the amount of sky and the amount of motion blur. Though I have no specific memory of my thoughts when I approach the earlier image, I know my process well enough to know exactly why they’re different. In the early image the sky was lousy (blank blue), and I composed to minimize it; in last week’s image I had clouds that were nice enough to justify including them. And the early image came after sunset (as I was walking back from Mirror Lake), so it was dark enough that it would have been very difficult to get anything but completely blurred water in the extremely fast (and much higher) creek.

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Moving the Eye

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This is My Office

Gary Hart Photography: Fresh Snow, Valley View, Yosemite

Fresh Snow, Valley View, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
1/15 second
F/9
ISO 100

More than 15 years ago I left a good job at an excellent (and very well known) tech company to pursue a career in nature photography. After all, I had a good camera and years of amateur photography experience—what could possibly go wrong? Turns out I had no interest in any of the kinds of photography that actually make money, so (in hindsight) my decision was somewhat riskier than I had imagined. But, while photography hasn’t brought me great financial fortune, I do indeed feel rich beyond all measure.

Since first picking up a serious camera in my early 20s (an Olympus OM-2, if you must know), I’d been a very content amateur photographer, able to choose my photo destinations and the images I clicked for the sheer joy they brought. Period. But, being stuck in a job that stifles your creativity tends to make you rethink life choices.

At the time I’d found myself swept up in the earliest waves of the photography renaissance spurred by digital capture. I loved the instant feedback and control it brought, and started fantasizing about a transitioning my livelihood to photography. But as I started plotting my transition, I sensed that a significant risk of turning one’s passion into a profession is making choices based on the income they generate rather than the pleasure they bring. Hoping to keep the joy in my photography, I made a personal vow to only photograph what I want to photograph, and to never take a picture just because I thought it would earn money.

To honor this commitment while still paying the bills, I blended my 20+ year career in technical communications (tech writing, training, and support) with my years of photography experience and subject knowledge, to create a photography business based on photo workshops rather than image sales. (Of course I do sell images too, but because I’ve always viewed image sales as a bonus rather than something to something I rely on, I’ve been able to honor my commitment to only take pictures that make me happy.) And here I am.

I’m thinking about this right now because sometimes I’ll come across an image that reminds me how lucky I was to have been at these places when I would have otherwise been fighting traffic or imprisoned in a cubicle. I found today’s image while engaged in one of my favorite idle time exercises: Start with a favorite image, return to the folder for that trip, and look for unprocessed images captured in the conditions of that day. This time, overdue for a blog post, I didn’t go too far back, ending up revisiting my images from the snowy opening day of last year’s December Yosemite Winter Moon workshop.

Given how happy the previously shared images from this day make me, this choice was low hanging fruit, but I’m actually a little surprised to have found something I like as much as, or more than, what I already had.

When I’m in the park by myself I tend to avoid from the popular spots. But these spots are popular for a reason, and since this was the workshop’s first day, I wanted to give my group a chance to photograph the iconic scenes in the best conditions. Granted (speaking of low hanging fruit), Valley View is one of those spots that really doesn’t need help to be beautiful, so adding fresh snow almost seems unfair. But after a lifetime of visiting Yosemite, I can honestly say that it doesn’t get much better than this, and it was a treat to be able to share that beauty with an appreciative group. The fact that this was the first view of Yosemite for some (but I didn’t have the heart to tell them it’s not always like this) made it even more memorable for me.

For this composition I used the snow-capped rocks to add a little foreground interest. They’d have been pretty hard to avoid anyway, but I was very conscious of where I set up my tripod to control where the rocks landed in my scene—not too close to the borders, and not merged with the important parts of the reflection.

In addition to the snow, the clouds this afternoon were truly special—not only the swirling fragments between El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks, but also the column that appears to be tumbling down El Capitan like a waterfall. Just another day at the office….

The View From My Office

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Yosemite Moonrise

Gary Hart Photography: Twilight Moon, Tunnel View, Yosemite

Twilight Moon, Tunnel View, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
1/3 second
F/11
ISO 100

Though last week’s harrowing story of a sneaker wave that drenched members of the Iceland photo workshop group had a (relatively) happy ending (R.I.P., 3 cameras and lenses), it generated more responses than any blog post in recent memory. Exactly one week later, that sobering reminder of Nature’s power and ability to surprise was still on my mind when I was gifted a reminder of Nature’s ability to also soothe and inspire.

This epiphany struck me as I reclined on a granite slab above Tunnel View, waiting for the full moon to grace the most beautiful view on Earth. Just as in Iceland, I was with a workshop group. Unseen in Yosemite Valley below us, I knew thousands of photographers were assembled with eyes glued to a section of granite stained by Horsetail Fall’s trickle, praying to avoid a reminder of Nature’s ability to disappoint. If all went as hoped, the moon would appear at about the same time light from the setting sun colored the waterfall some shade of orange or (fingers crossed) red.

While clouds were a factor for both events, I wasn’t concerned about the moonrise because I could see there was only one cloud that might delay the moon’s appearance, but certainly wouldn’t wipe it out. On the other hand, I knew from experience that the people on the ground beneath Horsetail Fall would have no idea of the clouds poised to block the sun, and ultimate fate that evening’s light, until it actually happened (or didn’t). For me and my group, the light on Horsetail Fall would be tomorrow night’s anxiety; tonight was our opportunity to bask and marvel.

My general moonrise approach is to start with max telephoto until the moon gets some separation from the landscape, then go wider as the moon climbs. This evening my tripod was mounted with my Sony a7RIV and Sony 200-600 composed at full magnification on Cloud’s Rest, the peak between El Capitan and Half Dome, behind which the moon should appear about 25 minutes before sunset. Within arm’s reach was my other a7RIV with my Sony 24-105.

Once everyone was set up with lenses trained, we had time to sit and appreciate the view. From our perch not only could we see the spot behind which the moon would appear, we also could see the part of El Capitan where Horsetail flowed (though there wasn’t enough water to actually see the fall from this distance). As we waited for the moon, we watched the shadow cast by the setting sun move across the face of El Capitan, gradually warming the granite as it advanced.

My eyes were trained more on the cloud taking a breather atop Cloud’s Rest—more specifically, trying to figure out if the cloud was dense enough to completely block the moon. I got my answer when the time for moonrise came and passed, and adjusted my composition by widening my composition somewhat.

The moon came out from behind the cloud about 10 minutes before sunset, still close enough to Horsetail Fall to include both at 400mm. Meanwhile, the light on Horsetail Fall faded as the sun dropped into thin clouds near the horizon—faded just enough to subdue the color and disappoint the massed throngs below.

From our vantage point the light on El Capitan was good, but I could tell that the color wasn’t what people came for. As pretty as our scene was was, my favorite time to photograph a full moon isn’t until after the sun has set and the blue and pink pastels of Earth’s shadow starts to paint the sky. By this time the daylight-bright moon stands out strikingly against the darkening sky. Waiting for this to happen, I switched to my 24-105 and started playing with a variety of compositions that included some combination of El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall.

Since I need to capture detail in both the moon and the foreground, and I never blend images (combine exposures to make a single image), the exposure margin for error shrinks significantly as the sky darkens around the moon. I captured this image more than 15 minutes after sunset, when the scene looked much better to my eyes than it did on my LCD. This is where I especially appreciate the dynamic range of my Sony sensors—I just monitor the moon, making it as bright possible without blowing it out, then rely on Lightroom and Photoshop to reveal the unbelievable amount of usable detail hidden in the shadows and highlights.

Large or small, crescent or full, I love photographing the moon rising above Yosemite as much as ever. I’m fully aware that I have far more than my share of these images, but it just makes me so happy, I have no plans to stop.

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Yosemite Moonrise

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Back in the Saddle

Gary Hart Photography: Sun Kissed, Horsetail Fall, Yosemite

Sun Kissed, Horsetail Fall, Yosemite (2021)
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
1/15 second
F/9
ISO 100

Horsetail Fall’s February sunset show is an indescribable delight that thrills all who view it. After photographing Horsetail Fall in relative solitude for many years, when all the people started showing up, I actually started dreading the experience a little—especially the prospect of negotiating tripod space for a dozen workshop participants. But last year, despite record crowds, after adjusting my attitude and actually leaning in to the mayhem, I had more fun at Horsetail Fall than I’ve had in years. And following last year’s experience, I’m actually looking forward to tomorrow’s return for this year’s festivities.

Because arriving early to ensure a good vantage point is important, photographing Horsetail Fall requires a lot of standing around. Of course my priority is always my group, but once everyone was settled in and all the questions were answered, I had time to chat with neighbors, and even wander up and down the road to take in the infectious tailgate party atmosphere, dodging flying frisbees and inhaling mouth-watering barbecue smoke as I went.

But for Horsetail Fall, as sunset approaches, group anxiety starts to take over. That’s because part of the thrill is the possibility that on any given evening, it won’t happen. Not only does there need to be water in the fall (never a sure thing), the setting sun needs an unobstructed path to El Capitan. But those in position to view Horsetail are standing on the valley floor with no view of the sun in the minutes leading up to the main event.

In some years, due I suspect to some nefarious conspiracy between water and light, the sunset fire never happens, not even once. Other years, it seems like every day our social media pages burst with pictures of the previous night’s display.

Horsetail failure comes in many forms, ranging from the fall simply being dry (2020, I’m looking at you), or the sunlight being blocked, for days or weeks at a time, by a string of winter storms. The worst kind of failure happens when the fall is flowing and the light strong as the clock ticks toward sunset—until some unseen cloud on the horizon snuffs the sun and breaks hearts.

I’ve also seen the reverse happen, when there’s no sign of sunlight on El Capitan and people have begun packing their gear when, without warning, the sun sneaks out to spotlight El Capitan for just a minute or two as it is swallowed by the horizon.

Maybe that’s why it seems that everyone who has tried it has their own Horsetail Fall story. And for every Horsetail aspirant who has been trying and failing for years, there’s another one who got it on the first attempt. For the fortunate, success is a badge of honor; for the unlucky, the quest can rise to obsession status.

Last year was a great year for Horsetail Fall, with good flow and light throughout the February viewing window. Trying to recover from 2020 COVID losses, in 2021 I had the good fortune to have scheduled two Yosemite workshops in February. The first one emphasized Horsetail Fall, while the second focused on photographing the full moon rising at sunset.

My Horsetail group enjoyed the first attempt so much that, despite our success, we went back for another shot the next night. And after the first workshop’s success, I gave my moon group the option to try Horsetail on a non-moonrise evening—they jumped at the chance, and weren’t disappointed. In between the two workshops, I hiked by myself up the Four Mile Trail (that goes to Glacier Point) far enough to photograph it from a perspective I’ve never tried. (If you’re keeping score, that’s 4 for 4.)

Today’s image is from my first group’s first attempt. In the minutes leading up to sunset, we’d been teased by light that seemed to come and go, before ultimately staying just long enough to thrill everyone. When the show was over, applause broke out, strangers hugged, and no one seemed to mind the 1 1/2 mile walk back to the car, and the ensuing gridlock.

Look below the gallery for my updated guide to photographing Horsetail Fall


Horsetail Fall 2021

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Horsetail Fall Do-It-Yourself Guide

(from my Photo Tips section)


Horsetail Fall, El Capitan, Yosemite

2022 Horsetail Fall Update 1 (01Feb2022)

  • No reservations are required to view Horsetail Fall in 2022
  • 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 to parking and pedestrians. 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. If this lot is full, you can park at the Yosemite Village parking lot and walk, or take the free shuttle to the Yosemite Falls parking area (and walk from there).
  • It’s impossible know what Horsetail Fall will deliver in 2022—that will depend on the weather (it needs sunlight at sunset), and the runoff. One small bit of hopeful news is the early and heavy snow Yosemite received this season. Though California is in a drought, several significant storms in October and December gave the snowpack a significant boost, increasing the chances that there will at least be a little water flowing (you don’t need a lot). But no promises, so keep your fingers crossed.
  • Here’s the NPS Yosemite Horsetail Fall page: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/horsetailfall.htm
  • And finally, if you think you’ll be able to skirt the rules and slip under the radar, think again. I saw a very active ranger presence monitoring the activity on both sides of the river. The rangers were very friendly and helpful, but they were also clearly serious about making sure everyone abided by the rules. So be patient, stay mellow, and enjoy the show…

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 risks complete loss of access to Horsetail Fall.

16Feb21 Horsetail Fall Crowd, Northside Drive, Yosemite

2021 Horsetail Fall Crowd, Northside Drive, Yosemite :: For nearly a mile, scenes like this one from a small section of Northside Drive, repeated themselves every couple hundred yards.



Photographing 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 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.)

Where does the red come from?

Horsetail Fall turns red for the same reason clouds turn red at sunset. When the sun drops below the horizon, the last rays to make it through the atmosphere are long, red wavelengths. El Capitan, towering more than 3,000 feet above Yosemite Valley, is high enough above the surrounding terrain to receive extended exposure to these red rays.

Horsetail Fall’s sunset color varies between orange and red. The color’s hue and intensity is a function of atmospheric clarity—the cleaner the air, the more vivid the red will be. You can read more about sunrise/sunset color in my Sunset Color article.

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 benefit of doing it a week earlier is 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 / Northside Drive

HorsetailPicnicAreaMap

El Capitan Picnic Area, GPS: 37.72782N 119.61844W

The El Capitan Picnic Area (highlighted by Galen Rowell) on Northside Drive for years was the epicenter of the Horsetail Fall experience. 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 (now only open to people with handicap parking permits). You can shoot right from the parking lot, or wander a bit east to find several clearings with views of the fall.

There are variations of the picnic area view all along Northside Drive that in recent years have surpassed the picnic area in popularity (crowds). My suggestion is to scout El Capitan views in any month that’s not February; if your only Yosemite visit is the day you’re there to photograph Horsetail Fall, scout early in the morning. Or, as you set out to photograph Horsetail Fall, simply walk Northside Drive (one lane is blocked for pedestrians walking from Yosemite Valley Lodge) until you find a view that you like (but don’t expect to have it to yourself).

The farther east you set up, the better your view of the top of El Capitan. But some of the east-most views are too aligned with El Capitan’s face, giving you a more side view of Horsetail that makes it very hard to see. You can also try venturing off into the woods to get a better angle, but doing that also means trying to avoid trees that obstruct your view.

Merced River south bank bend 

HorsetailFallMercedRiver

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

Due to extreme crowds and the damage they’ve caused, in 2021 the National Park Service closed Southside Drive to any Horsetail Fall viewing. While there’s no indication that this closure is permanent, it won’t surprise me if it is (in fact, it would surprise me if it doesn’t become permanent). So, until further notice, the information below is strictly historical (as I write this in February 2022).

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.

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 Âľ 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

Years ago I used to use a graduated neutral density filter to keep from washing out the color in the bright sky, but today’s cameras all have enough dynamic range to handle the exposure if you monitor your histogram. A polarizer cuts reflections 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.


A Horsetail Fall Gallery

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

 

Doing the Scene Justice

Gary Hart Photography: Falling Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite

Falling Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM
1/250 second
F/9
ISO 800

Woe is me

I just returned from nearly a week in Death Valley, where I had virtually no connectivity (wifi at my hotel made the Grand Canyon North Rim feel like a Silicon Valley Starbucks). Workshop or not, I try to post something on social media every day, and a new blog article each Sunday, but with no wifi and spotty 3G cellular that struggled just to send or load a text-only e-mail, I felt virtually cut off from civilization (there was a tsunami?!). I know in the grand scheme of things these are small problems, and that I probably missed the world more than it missed me, but still….

So anyway…

Last week I wrote about creating unique perspectives of familiar scenes, and offered some ideas for achieving this. As admirable as it is to make unique images, sometimes Mother Nature delivers something so magnificent that best thing to do is just get out of the way and let the scene stand on its own.

For example

Though last month’s Yosemite Winter Moon workshop wasn’t scheduled to start until the afternoon I took this picture, I drove to Yosemite the evening before the workshop to get a few hours of morning one-on-one time with the multiple inches of snow forecast to fall overnight. And as hoped, I arrived that morning to find every square inch of exposed surface glazed white—and the snow was still falling.

The paradox of photographing Yosemite during a storm is that all of the features you came to photograph are most likely obliterated by clouds. Sometimes visibility is so poor, it’s difficult to imagine the obscured features ever existed—and quite easy to imagine the comfort and warmth of your hotel room. The key Yosemite storm success is to be there when the storm clears—but job-one for catching the clearing part of a Yosemite clearing storm, is first enduring the storm part.

So, rather than succumb to the temptation of comfort and warmth, I armored up and went to work in near zero visibility. After an hour or so of driving around, interrupted by a stop or two (or three) to photograph some of the more intimate nearby beauty, I pulled up to El Capitan Bridge and noticed the clouds starting to lift (fingers crossed). In the still-falling snow, I quickly set up my tripod, grabbed my Sony a7RIV, attached my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens, and hoped.

I digress

Without getting too preachy, let me just say that if you ever want to piss off a photographer, look at one of their images and say, “Ooooh, you must have some great equipment.” While that may very well be true, the unavoidable inference is that the beautiful image is a product of the photographer’s equipment, not their photographic vision and skill.

But…. As much as I’d like to say my equipment is irrelevant and I could achieve the same results with a pinhole camera, I’ll admit that I have images I couldn’t have created without the right camera or lens. And this is one of them.

Back on point

I’ve written before about Sony’s 12-24 lenses, and how they feel specifically designed for Yosemite’s ultra-close views of massive monoliths. El Capitan Bridge is one of those views, so close that I’ve always felt that even a 16-35 wasn’t wide enough to do the scene justice. So when Sony released its 12-24 f/4 G lens, this was one of my very first stops. My excitement was validated when I discovered that at 12mm I could indeed get all of El Capitan, plus its entire reflection, in a single vertical frame. I became so enamored of my new top-to-bottom-reflection power that pretty much every subsequent 12-24 El Capitan composition here (both with the original Sony 12-24 f/4 G, and the newer Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM) had been vertical. My goal this morning was to change that.

While the clouds didn’t completely part for several more hours, during this stop at El Capitan Bridge they did lift just enough to reveal all of El Capitan for about 15 minutes. During that time, their swirling vestiges careened across the granite face so rapidly that the scene seemed to change by the second.

Photographically, there wasn’t really a lot I could do for this scene besides not mess it up. Mounting my camera horizontally, I widened my lens all the way out to 12mm, put the top of the frame slightly above El Capitan (to maximize the amount of reflection below it—more sky would have meant less reflection), and used the snow-covered trees on both sides to frame the scene.

Depth of field wasn’t a factor, and very little contrast made metering easy. Wanting a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the falling snowflakes, I dialed to ISO 800 and f/9, which I quickly determined centered my (pre-capture) histogram at a more than adequate 1/250 second. Then I clicked a dozen or so images to ensure a wide variety of cloud formations and falling snowflake patterns, pausing occasionally to appreciate the moment.

This scene felt like a gift that I really didn’t want to overthink. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to photograph it (and the equipment that allowed me to do it justice).


An El Capitan Gallery

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

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