Posted on April 15, 2018
(With apologies to The Hollies.)
The road is long, with many a winding turn…
But that’s no excuse to cut corners. Probably the question I am most asked on location is some variation of, “What lens should I use?” While I’m always happy to answer questions, this one always makes me cringe because the implicit question is, “Which lenses can I leave behind?”
What many photographers fail to realize is that the “proper” lens is determined by the photographer, not by the scene. While there is often a consensus on the primary composition at a location, that usually only means the first composition everyone sees. But if your goal is to capture something unique, those are just the compositions to avoid. And as every photographer knows, the best way to guarantee you’ll need a lens is to not pack it. I’m not suggesting that you lug Hermione’s purse to every shoot—just try to remember that your images will last far longer than your discomfort.
In my Canon life, my personal rule of thumb was to always carry lenses that cover 16-200mm, regardless of the scene, then add “specialty” lenses as my plans dictated: macro for wildflowers, fast and wide prime for night, and super telephoto for a moon. That meant the 16-35, 24-105, and 70-200 were permanent residents of my Canon bag, and my 100-400, 100 macro, or wide and fast prime came along when I needed them.
Shooting Sony mirrorless, with its more compact bodies and lenses, I now carry a much wider focal in a lighter camera bag. My new baseline (always with me) lens lineup is the Sony 12-24 G, 24-105 G, and 100-400 GM, plus the Sony 2x teleconverter. My macro and night lenses still stay behind (but they’re usually in the car), but in my bag I always have lenses to cover 12-800mm, a significant advantage over my Canon 16-200 configuration.
It’s kind of a cliché in photography to say “It’s the photographer, not the equipment.” And as much as I agree in principle, sometimes the equipment does help. Wherever I am, I regularly find compositions beyond 200mm, compositions I never would have considered before. And the 12-24 lens has enabled me to approach familiar scenes with a completely fresh eye.
A recent example came on a snowy day in Yosemite early last month. Moving fast to keep up with the rapidly changing clouds and light, I stopped at El Capitan Bridge, directly beneath El Capitan. Having shot this scene for years (decades), I was quite familiar with the perspective. So wide is the top-to-bottom, left-to-right view of El Capitan here, even at 16mm I’ve always had to choose between all of El Capitan or all of the reflection, never both. I never dreamed I’d be able to get El Capitan and its reflection in a single frame. But guess what….
Standing above the river near the south side of the bridge, I framed up a vertical composition and saw that at 12mm I could indeed fit El Capitan and the reflection, top to bottom. Whoa. With very little margin for error on any side of the frame, I moved around a bit to get the scene balanced, eventually framing the right side with the snowy trees lining the Merced. My elevated perch above the river allowed me to shoot straight ahead (no up or down tilt of the camera) and avoid the extreme skewing of the trees that’s so common at wide focal lengths.
12mm provides so much depth of field that I could focus anywhere in the scene and get front-to-back sharpness; the flat light made exposure similarly simple. With composition, focus, and exposure set, all I had to do was watch the clouds and click the shutter, my heart filled with gladness….
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Posted on April 11, 2018
Are you insane?
Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results. Hmmm. For some reason this reminds me of the thousands of good landscape photographers with hundreds of beautiful images they can’t sell. These photographers have a good eye for composition, own all the best equipment, know when to be at the great locations, and are virtual gurus with state-of-the-art processing software. Yet they haven’t achieved (their definition of) success.
Conducting photo workshops gives me pretty good insight into the mindset of serious amateur photographers, the photographers serious enough to spend time and money to rise before sunrise and stay out after dark to photograph the world’s most beautiful landscapes in frequently miserable conditions. I’m struck that many of these photographers have serious aspirations for their photography, but are so mesmerized by technology that they turned over control of the most important aspects of their craft to their camera. Their solution to photographic failure is to buy more equipment, visit more locations, and master more software. But the most overlooked tool is the one on top of their shoulders.
Knowledge vs. understanding
Just as a new camera won’t make you a better photographer, simply upgrading your photography knowledge won’t do it either—knowledge is nothing more than ingested and regurgitated information. Understanding, on the other hand, (among other things) gives you the ability to use information to create new knowledge and solve problems.
Many photographers invest far too much energy acquiring knowledge, and far too little energy understanding what they just learned. For example, it’s not enough to know that a longer shutter speed or bigger aperture means a brighter image if that knowledge doesn’t translate into an understanding of how to manage motion, depth, and light with your camera. It’s one thing to know you need more light on your sensor, but something altogether different to know whether to add it with a longer shutter speed, larger aperture, or higher ISO—a choice that makes a huge difference in the finished product.
Automatic modes in most cameras handle static, midday light beautifully, yet struggle in the limited light, extreme dynamic range, and harsh conditions that artistic photographers seek. The auto modes have become so good that they have created the illusion of control in the minds of many photographers. I see many excellent photographers whose profound faith in their technology has caused critical deficiency of two fundamental photographic principles:
Books and internet resources are a great place to start learning these principles (here’s my Photo Tip article), but the knowledge you gain there won’t turn to understanding until you get out with your camera and learn to manage a scene’s motion, depth, and light in creative ways that set your photography apart.
My metering philosophy is to approach every scene at ISO 100 (my Sony a7RIII’s best ISO) and f/11 (the best combination of lens sharpness and depth of field with minimal diffraction)—I control the light with my shutter speed and only deviate my baseline ISO and f-stop when the scene variables dictate. For example, when I want more or less depth of field, I’ll choose a different f-stop, or when I can’t get a proper exposure at the shutter speed that gives me the motion effect I want (blurred or sharp), I’ll adjust the ISO.
This Yosemite sunset from last February was about Half Dome, the clouds, the light, and the reflection in the Merced River. After finding my composition, the scene variables to consider when determining my exposure settings were:
The blur effect I wanted would require at least a one second exposure time, so I dropped my ISO down to 50 (as low as it goes). Keeping my aperture at f/11, I dialed my shutter speed with an eye on the histogram—when the histogram indicated I’d pushed my highlights as far as I could without clipping, my shutter speed was 1 second. This gave me a the proper exposure with sufficient motion blur, but I decided a little more motion blur would be even better. To double the shutter speed to 2 seconds, I stopped down one stop to f-16 and tried one more frame. In this case the benefit of the extra motion blur far outweighed any diffraction and lost sharpness (which experience has shown e would have been minimal with my Sony 16-35 GM lens), so that’s the frame I selected.
Insanity is in the mind of the beholder
If landscape photography gives you what you want, then by all means, continue doing what you’re doing. But if you’re having a hard time achieving a photographic goal, the solution is likely not doing more of what you’re already doing. Instead, try reevaluating your comprehension of fundamental photographic principles that you might not have thought about for years (or ever). Get out of your camera’s auto exposure modes and take control of your scene’s variables. You’ll know you’re there when you know how to get the result you want, or know why it’s simply not possible.
Do I really think you’re insane for doing otherwise? Of course not. But I do think you’ll feel a little more sane if you learn to take more control of your camera.
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Posted on April 6, 2018
Even though your spellcheck says it doesn’t exist, I promise you that a moonbow is a very real thing indeed (and I have the pictures to prove it). Some argue that “lunar rainbow” is more the technically correct designation, but since that moniker just doesn’t convey the visual magic, I’m sticking with moonbow.
This won’t be on the test
Because a moonbow is a rainbow, all the natural laws governing a rainbow apply. But all the moonbow’s physics can be summarized to:
1) Your shadow always points toward the center of the moonbow (put your back to the moon and note the direction your shadow points)
2) The higher the moon, the lower the moonbow and the less of it you’ll see
3) When the moon is above 42 degrees (assuming flat terrain), the moonbow disappears below the horizon
Each spring, Sierra snowmelt surges into Yosemite Creek, racing downhill and plunging 2,500 feet in three mist-churning steps as Yosemite Falls. Shortly after sunset on spring full moon nights, light from the rising moon catches the mist, which separates and bends it into a shimmering arc. John Muir called this phenomenon a “mist bow,” but it’s more commonly known today as a moonbow.
While a bright moonbow is visible to the naked eye as a shimmering silver band, it isn’t bright enough for the human eye to register color. But thanks to camera’s ability to accumulate light, the moonbow’s vivid color shines in a photograph.
I just returned from the first of two moonbow workshops scheduled for this spring, but haven’t had time to process this year’s moonbow images. The above image was captured a few years ago near the bridge at the base of Lower Yosemite Fall. Not only was it crowded (the moonbow is no longer much of a secret), wind and mist made the necessary 20- to 30-second exposures an exercise in persistence. Not only was I able to capture the moonbow, as you can see, I now have photographic proof that the Big Dipper is the true source of Yosemite Falls.
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Posted on April 2, 2018
Surrounded by towering granite walls that seem so permanent, Yosemite Valley is America’s poster-park for enduring beauty. But in the grand geological scheme, there’s nothing permanent about Yosemite. In my lifetime Yosemite has been visibly altered by drought, flood, and rockslides (not to mention human interference). Predating my arrival, Yosemite’s Anglo conquerors had a profound affect on the flora and fauna that prevailed in its prior centuries under Native care. And predating all human contact, glaciers performed their carve-and-polish magic on Yosemite’s granite.
But Yosemite’s history of change goes back much farther than that. Though it’s just a drop in the 4 1/2 billion-year bucket of Earth’s existence, let’s flip the calendar back to 100 million years before the glaciers scoured the area we call Yosemite, when layers of sediment deposited beneath a vast sea had been injected with magma that cooled to become granite. This subterranean granite was gradually uplifted by a slow-motion collision of tectonic plates that formed the mountains we call the Sierra Nevada. (Yes, I know this is a gross simplification of a very complex process.)
That’s a time-lapse I’d pay money to see, but lacking an actual 100-million-year time-lapse, I think Yosemite’s clouds make a wonderful metaphor for the park’s constant change. In fact, Yosemite storms are subject to the same the laws of nature that build and erode mountains. Each is the environment’s response to heat, moisture, pressure, and gravity—albeit on a different clock. Different in many ways, there’s also an interconnectedness to these natural processes: Just as the mountains have a profound affect on weather patterns, the weather is the prime force in the mountains’ erosion.
A month ago I got to watch the special choreography of Yosemite’s clouds and granite. Drawn by the promise of snow, I arrived as the storm built during daylight’s last couple of hours. Continuing to build under the cover of darkness, the storm was in full force by the morning’s first light. I woke to find snow covering every exposed surface, while overhead the mesmerizing dance of form and flow played out atop unseen air currents.
My first stop that morning was El Capitan Meadow. In summer, gawkers tailgate here to watch climbers monkey their way to the top of El Capitan. On this frigid morning El Capitan’s summit was a memory beneath a gray shroud, so I turned my camera to earthbound subjects within the small radius of my vision. In intense storms like this, ephemeral glimpses of Yosemite’s icons are a coveted reward that keeps experienced Yosemite photographers glancing skyward. Ever the optimist, despite a seemingly impenetrable low ceiling, I directed frequent glances in El Capitan’s direction as I worked.
The first suggestion of El Cap’s outline above the trees looked more like the faintest hint of a shadow in the clouds. I recognized what could be about to happen and quickly made my way to a better vantage point, watching until the shadow darkened and vague granitic detail appeared. Anticipating further clearing, I worked fast to beat the monolith’s inevitable reabsorption, switching lenses and framing a wide shot. To minimize tree-tilting perspective distortion, I raced across the road to increase my distance from the forest, raising my vantage point by scaling a snow mound piled atop a low fence by snowplows. With a breeze blowing the trees, I’d been shooting all morning at ISO 800, and the morning’s flat and constant light meant was no need to adjust my exposure. When the clouds parted just enough to frame El Capitan’s nose, I focused on the nearby trees and clicked several frames before the hole snapped shut.
An image like this is as much an opportunity to capture Yosemite’s snowy splendor as it is a revelation of something special about El Capitan. And that morning, my only thoughts about the clouds were wishes they’d disappear to show more granite. But as I started working on this image at home, I couldn’t help think about how clouds often provide the change Yosemite photographers seek in this (seemingly) unchanging place. That got me thinking about the nearby scar from last August’s tragic rockslide. On a clear day from the right vantage point, the scar is clearly visible on El Capitan’s east flank. another reminder that the only thing in Yosemite that’s permanent is change.
Posted on March 24, 2018
I’m afraid that making a living as a photographer sometimes means exchanging time to take pictures for time to make money. On the other hand, my schedule is mine alone, which means when there’s something I really, really want to photograph, such as a moonrise or fresh snow in Yosemite, I can usually arrange my schedule to make it happen. The moon shoots I can plan a year or more in advance, but snow requires a little more vigilance and flexibility.
Early this month, with hints of snow coming to Yosemite Valley, I started clearing space in my schedule. At 4000 feet, Yosemite Valley is often right on the snow-line, so a swing of just a couple hundred feet in either direction can mean the difference between snow and soggy. After watching the weather reports vacillate between snow and rain all week (and adjusting plans more than once), my buddy Mark and I took a chance and made the drive to Yosemite, visions of snowflakes dancing in our heads.
Waiting at the traffic-light-controlled, one-lane detour around the Ferguson Slide on Highway 140, I watched dozens of westbound headlights file past the four or five eastbound taillights idling at the light in front of us. With a storm imminent, it occurred to me that we were participating in a kind of changing of the guard, where the evacuating tourists are replaced by a much smaller contingent of what could only be photographers.
We arrived in Yosemite Valley at about the same time as the rain, circled the valley, secured a cheap room at Yosemite Valley Lodge (in Yosemite, any night with plumbing and solid walls for $150 is in fact a steal), and went to dinner. When the rain continued through dinner and all the way until bedtime, I began to fear the weather report had vacillated once more in the wrong direction.
Peeking out the window at around 4:00 a.m. and seeing more rain, I grudgingly turned off the alarm I’d optimistically set for 6:00 a.m. and went back to sleep. The next thing I knew, Mark was waking me at 6:10 to report six inches of fresh snow, and it was still falling. By 6:15 we were bundled and searching for my car in a parking lot filled with identical white lumps.
The rest of the morning was a blur as Mark and I darted from pristine location to pristine location, marveling at how a few hours of snow can completely transform months of accumulated grime and a thirsty forest dotted with dead and dying trees. For those few hours, Yosemite was new again.
At our first stop, El Capitan Meadow, we photographed El Capitan and Cathedral rocks battling the clouds for dominance. Down the road at Valley View, the snow continued falling but the granite was winning and I soon found myself admiring the reflection of Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Fall just upriver from the parking area.
Normally the thin branches overhanging this vantage point are a distraction to avoid, but glazed with snow, they had the potential to make a perfect frame. The reflection was the easy part, but somehow I had to figure out how to feature it and the branches without the branches obliterating the rest of the scene.
To separate Bridalveil Fall and Cathedral Rocks from the glazed branches, I splayed my tripod’s legs and dropped it to the ground, then scooted up to the river’s edge. That still left a few branches dangling too low, so I pushed my camera out even farther by extending one tripod leg into the river. I was aided immensely by the articulating screen of my Sony a7RIII—while I still needed to sit in the snow to get low enough to compose and control my camera, I very much appreciated the ability to sit and look down at my LCD rather than sprawl on my stomach in the snow to get my eye to the viewfinder.
When photographing a scene that includes a reflection and nearby objects, it’s important to remember that the focus point of a reflection is the focus point of the reflective subject, not the reflective surface. (I’ll pause here for a few seconds to let you process this because it’s important.) In this case I was at 16mm; at f/11 that gave me a hyperfocal distance of less than four feet; with the branches about five feet away, front-to-back sharpness wouldn’t be a problem, even focused at infinity. Nevertheless, I chose f/14 for this shot, not for more depth of field, but to (along with ISO 50) stretch my shutter speed enough to smooth a few small ripples in the reflection.
Excitement about a scene can overwhelm good sense—we see something that moves us, and quickly point the camera and click with more enthusiasm than thought. While this approach may indeed record memories and impress friends, it almost certainly denies the scene the attention it deserves. I was indeed very excited about this scene, but between the depth of field, reflection, overhanging branches, moving water, dominant background subjects, not to mention the awkwardness of my position, I had many moving parts to consider.
Rather than attempt perfection on the first click, I addressed the obvious stuff (covered above) with a “rough draft” click. Draft image in hand, I popped my camera off the tripod, stood (ahhhhh), and evaluated my result. I immediately saw two things to address: first, I wanted Cathedral Rocks better framed by the branches; second, I wanted the mid-river, snow-capped rocks away from the right edge of my frame.
I returned my camera to live-view, dropped to ground-level, and replaced the camera on my tripod. Because I hadn’t touched the tripod, the scene on my live-view LCD was the very scene I’d just reviewed—making my prescribed adjustments was a simple matter of panning right a couple of inches and pushing the tripod a little farther into the river. Click.
I love my job.
Posted on February 20, 2018
Happy Birthday, Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams’ influence on photography is impossible to measure. Not only Adams’ influence on photographers, but his influence on the viewers of photography as well. Ask 100 people to name a photographer and 99 will name Ansel Adams; ask them to name a second photographer and you’ll get 99 different names.
Through his use of relationships, perspective, and tones, Adams’ images masterfully emphasized light and shape to guide viewers’ eyes and emphasize aspects of his scenes that he found most compelling. An entire generation’s relationship with nature was unconsciously shaped by the prints of Ansel Adams, not because they showed the world as we already knew it, but because they showed us the world in new and exciting ways.
Now that I’m a photographer, Adams’ influence manifests most in the freedom to render the natural world as my camera sees it, liberating me from the impossible task of duplicating human vision. The camera and the eye experience the world differently; rather than fight that difference, Adams’ photography celebrated it.
Today’s photographers perpetuate Adams’ vision with the help of far more advanced tools, tools so advanced that it’s easy to overlook the foundation he laid for us. On blogs and forums I see some rolling their online eyes at all the Ansel Adams adulation, discounting his influence and labeling his photography pedestrian and prosaic when compared to current efforts: “What’s the big deal?” they say. To those dubious photographers I respond, criticizing Ansel Adams’ by comparing his monochrome masterpieces to the striking, vivid, blended, and stitched images captured today is like criticizing Lewis and Clark for toiling more than two years on a route that can now be traveled in a few days.
About this image
Last week’s Yosemite Horsetail Fall workshop wrapped up at one of my favorite spots in Yosemite Valley, a spot I’ve photographed so many times that it’s an enjoyable challenge to find something unique. The light on Half Dome that evening was beautiful, but nothing I hadn’t seen before. Rather than settle for the beautiful but conventional shots of Half Dome and its reflection, I scanned the scene for quality light elsewhere.
It wasn’t long before my gaze landed on a small stand of deciduous trees, stripped bare by winter cold, basking in the warm rays of the day’s last sunlight. As I pondered the scene, a rogue beam slipped through to illuminate the crown of a single evergreen, punctuating the otherwise monochrome scene with a splash of color.
Though my eyes could see a confusion of textured granite and tangled branches in the dark background shadows, I knew that detail would be nothing but a distraction in an image. But as Ansel Adams so magnificently demonstrated, an image’s full potential isn’t realized unless the finished product, and the processing required to get there, is visualized and executed at capture.
Well aware of late afternoon light’s ephemeral nature, I quickly mounted my Sony 100-400 GM lens to my tripod, attached my camera, and framed my composition. Taking advantage of the camera’s limited dynamic range (when compared to human vision), I gave the scene just enough light to reveal the sunlit trees. Given my a7RIII’s extreme dynamic range, I knew I could pull detail from the shadows in Photoshop if I wanted to, but in this case I went the other way. Processing the image in Lightroom on my computer, I enhanced the contrast, banishing the distracting background to virtually black shadows, leaving only the shape and light that drew my eye in the first place.
Posted on January 28, 2018
The downside of turning your passion into your profession is that so many decisions are no longer based on the pleasure they bring. Since my early 20s, I’d been very happy as an amateur photographer, picking my photo destinations and the images I clicked for the sheer joy of it. But I knew becoming a professional photographer risked preempting that joy with photography decisions designed to pay the bills.
For that reason, part of my decision to become professional a dozen or so years ago included a personal vow to only photograph what I want to photograph, and to never take a picture just because I thought it would make money. I was able to blend my years of photography experience with my prior career in technical communications (tech writing, training, and support) to create a photography business based on photo workshops, not image sales. Of course I do sell images too, but I’ve always viewed image sales as a bonus rather than something to something I rely on.
I’m thinking about this right now because this image reminds me how little time I actually have to work on my images. I’d totally forgotten about this afternoon from last April, when a storm cleared to reveal a dusting of fresh snow on the granite surrounding Yosemite Valley. As we stood marveling at the majesty, a ray of sun burst through the clouds to paint a vivid rainbow in the mist gathered beneath Bridalveil Fall.
It’s finds like this that remind me of the hundreds (thousands?) of images waiting to be processed and shared, some going back more than ten years. This isn’t a complaint—I can’t image a better life than mine. In fact, instead of lamenting the inability to reap the fruits of my labor, I find comfort in the knowledge of these images’ existence. Even if I never process and share them, they’re a reminder of my good fortune. If there’s a lesson here, maybe it’s that, for me at least, the true joy of photography isn’t the images and the acclaim they evoke, it’s simply the act of capturing them.