Posted on June 6, 2023
Once upon a time, whenever I heard a photographer say, “That’s exactly what I saw when I was there,” I’d cringe (because that’s impossible). Today, given the proliferation of AI generated and enhanced images, maybe I should rethink my perspective and just be glad that the photographer was there at all.
There’s a lot of buzz in the photography world about AI and its ability to manufacture images. I can’t deny AI’s benefits for many legitimate uses, but creating an image from the comfort of your office chair with just a few words of description? Count me out.
Of course we’ve all seen images that were clearly faked, either through Photoshop manipulation or more recently with the help of AI. Somehow these images manage to fool enough people to generate a host of social media Likes and comments (“stunning!”), which tells me there’s a subset of photographers whose prime motivation is acclaim. Photography needs to make you happy, so if this is what makes them happy, I can’t begrudge these photographers the attention they need—my concern is the damage willingness to solicit attention at any cost does to the credibility of the real photographers.
I’m not railing against image processing. In fact, in today’s world of digital capture, effective processing is an essential part of the creative process (as it has always been for B&W photography). But while the computer is important to digital capture, it’s there to serve the image, not generate it. Because I always want my creativity to happen in my camera, not my computer, I have to start thinking about processing long before I click the shutter. (The digital-capture equivalent of Ansel Adams’ “visualization” approach.)
Photography appeals to different people for different reasons. As much as I appreciate the processing power digital capture has brought to photography (especially to color photography—processing not a practical option for color film/transparency shooters), processing is probably my least favorite part of photography. And I know many excellent photographers who love processing and are far more masterful than I am.
Speaking only for myself as a creator and consumer, my photography is motivated by connection. When I create an image, I need to feel a personal connection with my subject before moving on the seeking to convey that connection in an image.
When I view the photography of others, I want to feel like they’re conveying their own connection with the scene, not just trying to show me something pretty—and in so doing, they’re offering me a connection to their world. While every image is processed (either by the photographer, the camera, or both), the best processing enables me to forget it happened at all so I can simply connect with the scene.
I realize that “connection” in this context is rather nebulous, but I do think it helps explain why different images resonate more or less with different people. If you’re a photographer who hasn’t identified your own connections to the world, a good place to start would be to consider the things in your world that ignite that unsuppressible (reflexive?) urge to nudge a friend or loved one, point, and excitedly exclaim, “Look at that!”
“That” could be a dazzling city skyline, a happy dog stretching its head out the window of a passing car, a small child devouring an ice cream cone, a crisp mountain reflection, or an infinite number of other scenes you might encounter in your daily life. My own nudge-and-point (and raise my camera) triggers are almost always something in Nature—anyone spending time with my images (I hope) has a pretty good idea what they are. (Spoiler alert: rainbows, reflections, poppies, dogwood, anything celestial, and much more.)
Even more important to me than the image I create is the in-Nature creation process where the connection actually starts. I’m not saying that I wander the woods with a camera consciously thinking about connections—it’s more a state I naturally fall into while in Nature that compels me to stop and make an image, or to patiently wait for the image to happen.
I know the subjects that resonate with me, and being as active on social media (as I have to be) gives me pretty good insight into the images that do and don’t resonate with others. So before posting a new image, I have a pretty good idea how many Likes, shares, and comments it will generate, but that’s never my prime motivator.
Just as I don’t share many images that don’t thrill me, even when I know they’d be received enthusiastically, I also don’t hesitate to share personal favorites that will most likely generate crickets from the masses. But that’s okay—even though those favorites don’t generate the volume of enthusiasm I’d like, the intensity of the enthusiasm I do receive from these images tells me connections were indeed made.
Today’s dogwood image is one of my potential “cricket” shares. It likely won’t thrill as many people as some of my more colorful, in-your-face-beauty landscapes do, but I also suspect there will be a few people with whom it connects intensely. It’s one of several I captured and processed on last month’s quick Yosemite overnighter with my brother (click the link for the full story).
Speaking of connection, few things in photography make me happier than exploring a forest like this, searching for intimate scenes that can only be revealed by a camera. When I get into a scene like this, with no one else requiring my attention and knowing I can be there as long as I need to be, time loses all meaning.
What I enjoy most about working these scenes is how different the world looks through my viewfinder than it looks to my eye. For example, the backgrounds in all of these forest dogwood images are almost always busier than what the image conveys. Through careful positioning, framing, depth management, and exposure, I’ve learned how to eliminate, simplify, complement, and disguise busy backgrounds.
My process starts with identifying a dogwood (or whatever the scene’s subject is) that I can isolate from its nearby surroundings, then moving around until I find a complementary background to be rendered as detail-less color and shape. This is almost always achieved by focusing close on a carefully chosen spot, usually using a telephoto zoomed to near the maximum focal length (or occasionally with my 90 macro), often with extension tubes to focus even closer (further limiting depth of field). I usually shoot these wide open (widest aperture for minimal DOF), but in this case I stopped down slightly to get a little more definition in the background dogwood.
Could I have stayed home and done something like this on my computer? Perhaps, but why rob myself of all that joy?
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Category: Sony 100-400 GM, Sony a7R V Tagged: dogwood, nature photography, spring, Yosemite
Posted on May 8, 2023
In my first 14 years leading photo workshops, I never had to cancel a workshop. I have had to scramble a bit thanks to government shutdowns, hurricanes (really), closed roads, and power outages, but no cancellations. That record changed abruptly in spring 2020 when COVID-19 shut down the world, eventually costing me 14 workshops. Then, just as things started to reopen during the pandemic, extreme fire danger in the Eastern Sierra forced me to shut down another workshop.
By doubling up on workshops, and thanks to the patience and understanding of my affected customers, over the subsequent couple of years I was ultimately able to weather the cancellation storm with minimal (manageable) long term damage. In fact, this year’s second Iceland workshop in January was the final COVID make-up workshop—with clear sailing ahead, what could possibly go wrong?
Well…. First, a historically wet and cold winter delivered a historically deep Sierra snowpack. Then, after a cool spring, unseasonably warm temperatures last week goosed the dormant Sierra snowmelt, much of which had nowhere to go but Yosemite Valley, which forced closure of Yosemite Valley, flushing my May Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers photo workshop along with it. Not only was this bad news for my customers (not to mention my business), spring happens to be a personal favorite time to be in Yosemite. And this year I was particularly looking forward to all the water in Yosemite’s waterfalls and vernal pools.
For those keeping score at home, that’s 16 workshops lost in 3 years: 1 to fire, 1 to flood, and 14 to pestilence—clearly (as my wife pointed out), famine can’t be far behind. (Anyone who has endured a dinner at the Yosemite Valley Lodge cafeteria knows that’s not as much of a stretch as it sounds.) But seriously, unpredictability is a prime risk of pursuing profession so dependent on the fickle whims of Mother Nature. Still...
This month’s lost workshop was especially frustrating because the National Park Service, looking at the record Sierra snowpack and forecast hot temperatures, preemptively announced the closure of most of Yosemite Valley on the Wednesday before my workshop, which was scheduled to start the following Monday. The closure, they said, would begin at 10 p.m. Friday and continue until Wednesday at the earliest (their words), and possibly longer. Since my spring workshop is set entirely in Yosemite Valley (this year the high country will closed by snow until at least June), and was scheduled to span Monday through Thursday, I had no choice but to cancel. Immediately upon receiving the news, I scrambled to notify the workshop participants, cancel my lodging, and start the process of rescheduling everyone.
So imagine my surprise when, on Saturday, the NPS announced that Yosemite Valley would reopen Sunday, 3 days sooner than their promised “earliest.” Sigh. I instantly contacted my workshop hotel to see if it was too late to reinstate my group’s lodging (it wasn’t), then reached out to the cancelled group to find out who was still able to attend. I told them that even if only half were still available, I’d go ahead with the workshop as originally planned (but also that I’d still honor my cancellation policy for those who could no longer make it). Turns out all but 3 had already cancelled flights or made other plans, sadly confirming that my cancelled workshop count would officially hit 16.
As frustrating as this experience has been, I can’t really fault the NPS. The current Yosemite snowpack is truly unprecedented, and with no upstream dams on the Merced River or its tributaries, there’s absolutely no control over the runoff—the snowpack will send as much water as it wants to, whenever it wants to, and we downstream humans just need to deal with it. Which is exactly what the NPS did: In an abundance of (justifiable) caution, they decided to act proactively by clearing Yosemite Valley before the forecast extreme heat put them in react and evacuate mode. So while I appreciated the advance warning, since the snowmelt wasn’t as extreme as predicted, they soon reversed course—unfortunately too late to save my workshop.
All this got me thinking about how difficult it must be to manage Yosemite. With around 4 million visitors per year, Yosemite is one of the most visited national parks in the United States (the world?). Keeping all these people both safe and happy, while simultaneously protecting the wellbeing and beauty of this most special resource seems like an impossible task.
Yosemite’s total footprint is nearly 1200 square miles (slightly smaller than Rhode Island), but most of this area is remote backcountry that’s accessible only on foot. And instead delighting in the joys of High Sierra hiking and backpacking, virtually every one of Yosemite’s annual visitors tries to cram into the (slightly less than) 6 square miles of Yosemite Valley.
The result is, on a typical summer day, literally more cars in Yosemite Valley than parking places. Those lucky enough to score a parking spot are wise to leave their car there for the duration of their stay and navigate the park on foot, bicycle, or shuttle. In such a compact area teeming with pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles, each with their own agenda—picture the occupants of Car 1 (including the driver) craning to admire the waterfalls and monoliths overhead, as the driver of Car 2 in front of them spies a pedestrian (or or cyclist, or deer) and slams on the brakes (SMASH!)—it’s a miracle there isn’t even more mayhem than there is.
Another problem the NPS constantly fights is the people who believe the rules only apply to everyone else and decide it’s okay to traipse through a clearly off-limits meadow, or climb over a protective guardrail: “I’m just one person and I’ll be quick”(photographers are especially frequent offenders). And then there are the people who treat Yosemite’s wildlife like personal pets who they need to feed and pose with for selfies.
Witnessing all this bedlam has caused me to realize that, despite my love for Yosemite and the care I take to follow the rules (and to ensure that my workshop students do as well), my mere presence in Yosemite risks making me part of the problem. As a result, I no longer schedule workshops for weekends, or during Yosemite’s most crowded months. In fact, I now refuse to visit Yosemite for any reason from mid-May through mid-October—even when someone offers to pay me for a private tour.
Though I generally resist doing anything in Yosemite in May, this month’s just-cancelled workshop was right on the cusp my self-imposed workshop curfew. But because the May full moon (necessary for a moonbow) fell in the first week the month, the dogwood bloom usually peaks the first week of May, and by starting May 1 I could completely avoid a weekend, I went ahead and scheduled it. I worried a little about the crowds, but never dreamed flooding would be my downfall.
On the other hand, the Yosemite Valley shutdown wasn’t without a small personal upside. Because I schedule my Yosemite workshops only for the times I’d most want to be there myself, I don’t get a lot of opportunity to photograph Yosemite on my own, during my favorite times to be there. But thanks to the cancellation, I was able to make two (!) personal trips to Yosemite—the first, when I’d normally have been doing last-minute workshop prep, was nice but turned out to be a complete photographic dud; the second, on what would have been the workshop’s final two days, was much more photographically successful.
Anxious to see Yosemite at peak water before Yosemite Valley closed, my brother Jay and I departed early on the Friday morning of the 10 p.m. closure day. Though the forecast called for nothing but blue skies, I hoped flooded meadows, blooming dogwood, and relatively few people would compensate. We struck out on all three fronts: while there was definitely a lot of water in the falls and meadows, the Merced wasn’t nearly as high as I’d seen it in prior wet springs; the dogwood were just starting, still quite tiny and mostly green; and the place was absolutely packed with people, to the point where parking was a real challenge. So we circled the valley a couple of times and drove home.
By the following week (the week my workshop had been scheduled for), the weather had cooled significantly and rain and snow had returned to the Sierra. Not only were these cloudy/stormy conditions better for photography, I figured (hoped) by then the dogwood would be really starting to pop. So on Wednesday afternoon Jay and I drove back to Yosemite, checked-in to our hotel, then made it into the park with about an hour to photograph before sunset.
With the dogwood blooming as hoped, we stopped for about 30 minutes to photograph the flowers (yes, I know they’re technically bracts, not flowers) in a light rain near the Pohono Bridge, then made it to the east side of the valley in time to catch a couple of reflections of Yosemite Falls before dark. We waited in the car for complete darkness, hoping the moon would pop out and give us a moonbow at the base of Upper Yosemite Fall, but the clouds seemed pretty committed, so we retreated to the hotel.
The next day was all about the dogwood, one of my absolute favorite things in the world to photograph. We stopped at most of my favorite dogwood spots, photographing a lot of close selective focus scenes like this one, but also some scenes with dogwood in the foreground and Bridalveil Fall or El Capitan in the background. A persistent light rain only made things better. In short, photography heaven.
This beautiful specimen I found across the road from Valley View, where we ended up photographing for almost an hour-and-a-half. Jay started up the road, while I settled in across from the parking lot and slowly made my way up the road, working both sides as I went. Using my 100-400 exclusively, mostly with extension tubes as well, I started with dogwood that allowed me to include Bridalveil Fall in the background, then the Merced River, and finally simply concentrated on individual flowers, or groups of flowers.
As always, my objective in these close focus scenes is to find a flower or flowers with a complementary background: other flowers, parallel trunks, dark shade, water, and so on. After an hour or so I came across a large tree bursting with large, fresh dogwood blooms and went to work.
It wasn’t long before I found this flower with everything I wanted: it was in perfect shape, with a fully intact central flower cluster and none of the spots or taters that mar older blooms; it glistened with rain; in the background was a similarly flawless specimen; and everything was surrounded by splashes of bright green embedded in dark shade.
I composed as tightly as I could while still including all of both flowers and the arcing branch supporting the nearest one. Even though the breeze was minimal, given limited light I set my ISO to 800 to guard against subtle motion blur. I knew I couldn’t get the entire bloom sharp, so I took special care to focus on the center, then magnified my capture to doublecheck focus after each click.
It’s never a good thing to cancel a workshop, for many reasons, but sometimes good things can come from bad situations if you simply maintain an open mind and keep moving forward.
Category: Dogwood, Photography, Sony 100-400 GM, Sony a7R V, wildflowers, Yosemite Tagged: dogwood, nature photography, spring, Yosemite
Posted on April 24, 2023
For everyone who woke up today thinking, “Gee, I sure wish there were more Yosemite pictures from Tunnel View,” you’ve come to the right place. Okay, seriously, the world probably doesn’t actually need any more Tunnel View pictures, but that’s not going to stop me.
Visitors who burst from the darkness of the Wawona Tunnel like Dorothy stepping from her monochrome farmhouse into the color of Oz, are greeted by a veritable who’s who of Yosemite icons: El Capitan, Cloud’s Rest, Half Dome, Sentinel Rock, Sentinel Dome, Cathedral Rocks, Bridalveil Fall, and Leaning Tower.
Camera or not, that’s a lot to take in. First-time visitors might just just snap a picture of the whole thing and call it good. For more seasoned visitors like me, the challenge at Tunnel View is creating unique (or at least less common) images. But that’s not enough to keep me from returning, over and over.
Many people’s mental image of Yosemite was formed by the numerous Ansel Adams prints of this view. And while it’s quite possible those images were indeed captured at Tunnel View, many Adams prints assumed to be Tunnel View were actually captured from nearby Inspiration Point, 1,000 feet higher.
Before Wawona Tunnel’s opening in 1933 completed the current Wawona Road into Yosemite Valley, the vista we now know as Tunnel View was just an anonymous granite slope on the side of a mountain. Before 1933, visitors entering Yosemite from the south navigated Old Wawona Road, a steep, winding track more suited to horses and wagons than motorized vehicles. Inspiration Point was the Tunnel View equivalent on this old road.
To complicate matters further, there are actually three Inspiration Points in Yosemite. The original Inspiration Point is the location where the first non-Native eyes feasted on Yosemite Valley in the mid-19th century. Decades later, Old Wawona Road was carved into the forest and granite to provide an “easier” (relatively speaking) route between Wawona and Yosemite Valley. The valley vista that was established on this route and labeled Inspiration Point is the one popularized by Ansel Adams. But today that version of Inspiration Point has become so overgrown that hikers hardy enough to complete the steep climb up to the Ansel Adams Inspiration Point, must make their way a short distance down the slope to a spot where the view opens up, forming the New Inspiration Point. But I digress…
My total visits to Tunnel View, which predate my oldest memories, by now have to exceed 1,000. At first I had no say in the matter, having simply been a passenger on family trips since infancy. But when I became old enough to drive myself, my Tunnel View visits increased—most Yosemite trips included multiple visits.
The Tunnel View counter started clicking even faster as my interest in photography grew. More than just a one-of-a-kind scene to photograph, Tunnel View is also the best place in Yosemite to survey Yosemite Valley for a read on the current conditions elsewhere in the valley.
And as I’ve mentioned (ad nauseam), the view at Tunnel View is beautiful by any standard. And as it turns out, beauty is a pretty essential quality for a landscape image. Unfortunately, another essential landscape image criterion, especially for landscape photographers who pay the bills with their photography, is a unique image—ideally (aspirationally), but not necessarily, a one-of-a-kind image. So Tunnel View’s combination of unparalleled beauty and easy access means million of visitors each year, which makes finding something literally unique (one-of-a-kind) here virtually impossible.
But there are a few things I do to increase my chances of capturing something special enough to at least stand out—things you can do at any popular photo spot. Here are three:
The image I’m sharing today combines a couple of these approaches: a tighter than typical focal length, and special conditions. Though the Bridalveil Fall rainbow isn’t exactly unique, its combination of beauty and relative rarity keeps me coming back. And because the sun’s angle at any given moment, as well as the angle of view to Bridalveil Fall, are precisely known, I can predict the rainbow’s appearance each spring afternoon to within a few minutes (it varies slightly with the amount of water in the fall).
This rainbow makes a fantastic first shoot for my spring workshops. Usually I’m content to just stand and watch—and listen to the exclamations from my workshop students—but sometimes it’s to beautiful to resist. This year, with beautiful clouds overhead, dappled sunlight below, and a strong breeze to spread the rainbow’s palette, was one of those times.
Posted on April 17, 2023
It’s all about relationships
I write a lot about relationships in photography. Often I’m referring relationships with my subjects, which could mean gaining better understanding of a location—not just the where and when of its photo opportunities, but its weather and geology (especially), as well as its flora, fauna, and history. (Of course I love visiting new places too, but I’ve never felt particularly driven to expand my portfolio through relentless pursuit of new locations.)
As important as location relationships are my relationships with the natural phenomena that inspire me understand the science behind the ephemeral phenomena that fascinate me enough to photograph them. Things like lightning, rainbows, reflections, sunrise/sunset color, fall color, and anything celestial simply fascinate me and it never feels like work to study them.
But there’s another side to photography’s relationship coin that takes place within the frame of an image. I’m talking about the visual relationships between disparate subjects—juxtaposing one subject with another physical subject (nearby or distant), or elevating a favorite location by photographing it under the spell of a favorite natural phenomenon.
However these relationships happen, it’s only logical that the best photography takes place when intimate knowledge of location and natural phenomena are combined to create the intra-image relationships that make an image sing.
Sometimes this seems so obvious the we make these connections without realizing we’re doing it. when we visit a vista that includes multiple features, or travel to a favorite location to photograph it with sunset light or fall color. Other times we’re beneficiaries of happy accidents, when something unexpected just happens to manifest while we’re there. And while I love happy accidents as much as anyone, we should never count on them.
In general, the more deliberate we can be about consciously combining the things we love in our photography, the better our images will be. Of course some of my favorite images are happy accidents—something unexpected that just happened to take place while I was there to witness it—but the vast majority were more strategic.
So I guess in a way that would make me a photographic matchmaker, aggressively seeking to create relationships, not just with, but for the things I love most. Whether it’s fresh snow in Yosemite, lightning at Grand Canyon, the northern lights in Iceland, or the Milky Way in New Zealand, it’s usually not an accident that I was there. Of course there are no guarantee any of these things will happen as planned, but I always do my best to maximize my odds.
As much as I’d love to claim that creating these matches makes me some kind of photographic savant, I’m afraid it’s far simpler than that. (Like most people) I can read a weather report and get a few days advance notice of snow in Yosemite Valley; I know that the ingredients for a rainbow are sunlight and airborne water droplets (like rain and waterfall mist), and that my shadow always points in the direction of the rainbow’s center; the time window for any location’s fall color peak is generally common knowledge; and the moon and Milky Way follow precise schedules, and there are plenty of resources that reveal their position in the sky at any time, from any location. All I need to do is act on this information.
Tying it all together
Usually all you need to do to understand the relationships I’m seeking in a workshop is to look at the workshop’s name. The image I’m sharing in this blog post was captured during my Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers photo workshop earlier this month—but, as you can see, there is in fact (and fortunately) more to Yosemite in spring than moonbows and wildflowers.
When I scheduled this workshop more than a year ago, I knew for a fact that it would take place during the full moon that’s necessary for the Lower Yosemite Fall moonbow, and that the angle of the rising moon relative to the fall would be just right. And I knew from experience that the odds of wildflowers in April were extremely high. What I didn’t know was whether we’d have clear or cloudy skies, nor could I have anticipated California’s unprecedented wet and cold winter and how it might threaten to throw a wrench in my plans.
This is where the location familiarity part of relationship building comes in handy, as I was able to adjust enough that we ended up with some wonderful photography, albeit something that was much closer to a winter workshop than a spring workshop. This group had chilly temperatures, clouds, a little rain, and lots of snow (mostly on the ground, but a few flakes as well). Nevertheless, as you no doubt know if you read my previous blog post, we were able to catch the very beginning of what has turned out to be a very late (but potentially spectacular) wildflower bloom, so I was able to deliver something as advertised.
The moonbow part of my plan was a little more problematic. While Yosemite Falls is fed entirely by snowmelt, and the Sierra received record snowfall this winter boded well for our chances, the temperatures hadn’t warmed enough yet for the fall to deliver the explosion of mist at its base necessary for the moonbow. (There was nice flow in the fall, just not enough for the moonbow.) We tried, but ended up with a moonlight shoot sans moonbow.
On to Plan B
From the moon to the Milky Way, regular readers of my blog know of my fascination with all things celestial. Orbital geometry aligns Yosemite’s moon with different features as the seasons change, and I try to be there for as many moonrises as possible. Since the full moon happens during this workshop, photographing it is always part of my plan. On the other hand, because the moon doesn’t align as perfectly with Half Dome or El Capitan as it does in winter, it’s more of a bonus than it is something I advertise.
The first night clouds that threatened my moonrise made for great photography, and we kicked off with a nice Tunnel View shoot. Since the wet winter also meant reflective vernal pools in Yosemite Valley’s meadows, to create a sunset match for my workshop students on that cloudy first evening, I opted for the vernal pool in Cook’s Meadow. (For good reason, Cook’s Meadow itself is closed to visitors to allow the meadow to recover from years of pedestrian abuse—we approached the pool from behind, via the trail from the Sentinel Bridge parking lot, and never actually entered the meadow.)
I was actually thinking about multiple matches this evening: not only does this location have a great view of Half Dome, the vernal pool is ideally positioned for a Half Dome reflection. And I knew (but kept to myself for fear of jinxing us) that in the off-chance that the clouds parted, this would be the best location to add the moon to our Half Dome reflection scene.
Between Half Dome, the reflection, and clouds kissed by warm light, I almost forgot about the moon. But about 20 minutes before sunset the clouds opened and there it was. I’d already been strategically moving about to manage the reflection’s relationship to the various features dotting the water’s surface, taking care to frame Half Dome rather than obscure it. So the biggest obstacle I had to overcome was making sure that everyone else had their shot before I got mine.
Since most of us were set up within a few feet of each other, I was able to provide impromptu coaching on how to expose bright enough to capture the shadows without blowing out the moon (read more here). Another (counterintuitive) learning point was to point out that the focus point for a reflection is the same as the focus point for the reflective subject, not the reflective surface (read more here).
One more thing
People ask me if I ever tire of Yosemite, and I can honestly answer, no. Part of keeping Yosemite fresh for me is the infectious excitement that happens when the people I’m with witness something like what we saw this evening. Even without the moon, this Half Dome scene provided a great Yosemite introduction for everyone. But when the clouds lit up and the moon popped out, it elevated to one of those truly special Yosemite moments that I’ll never tire of sharing.
Click any image to scroll through the gallery LARGE
Category: Sony 24-105 f/4 G, Sony a7R V Tagged: Cook's Meadow, Half Dome, moon, moonrise, nature photography, reflection, Yosemite
Posted on January 16, 2023
Greetings from Iceland. Perhaps you noticed that this picture is in fact not Iceland, but that’s only because I simply haven’t had a chance to process my images from the past week. There are many reasons to visit Iceland in winter, and I will very enthusiastically share examples in future posts (northern lights, anyone?), but today I’m sharing one more image from last month’s Yosemite workshop. And because I’m fully immersed in a workshop that occupies me day and night (chasing the low light by day, and the aurora by night), I’m dusting off (and polishing up) a post on a topic that is as important to me today as it was when I wrote it 12 years ago.
Let’s Get Vertical
Who had the bright idea to label horizontal images “landscape,” and vertical images “portrait”? To that person let me just say, “Huh?” As a landscape-only photographer, about half of my images use “portrait” orientation. I wonder if this naming bias subconsciously encourages photographers to default to a horizontal orientation for their landscape images, even when a vertical orientation might be best.
Every image possesses an implicit visual flow that’s independent of the eyes’ movement between the scene’s elements. Understanding that the long side of an image subtly encourages the visual motion through the frame—left/right in a horizontal image, up/down in a vertical image—photographers can choose visual symmetry or tension with the visual movement between the scene’s visible elements.
For example, because a waterfall flows down, orienting a waterfall image vertically complements the water’s motion, instilling a feeling of calm. Conversely, a waterfall image that’s oriented horizontally can possess more visual tension because of the natural inclination for the eye to move laterally in a horizontally oriented image. While there’s no absolute best way to orient a waterfall image (or any other scene), you need to understand that there is a choice, and that choice matters.
By moving the eye from front to back, vertical images can enhance the illusion of depth so important in a two-dimensional photo. Even though a still image lacks the depth dimension, there’s a sense that distance increases from the bottom up in its 2-dimensional world. The viewer’s eye is drawn first to a strong visual element in the foreground, then naturally flows up, and away, from there. The left/right tug of a horizontal image conflicts with this. (Many factors go into creating the illusion of depth, so I’m not saying that horizontal images inherently lack depth.)
More than just guiding the eye through the frame, vertical orientation narrows the frame, enabling us to eliminate distractions or less compelling objects left and right of the prime subject(s). Vertical is also my preferred orientation when I want to emphasize a sky full of stars, dramatic clouds and color, or (as I was reminded earlier this week) an aurora that rockets skyward.
In these scenes with especially dramatic skies, not only do I orient them vertically, I put the horizon near the bottom of the frame to further underscore the drama. When the sky is dull and all the visual action is in the landscape, I’ll put the horizon at the top of my frame. And when the landscape and sky are equally compelling, I have no problem splitting the frame in the middle (regardless of what the photo club rule “experts” might proclaim).
While a horizontally oriented scene is often the best way to convey the sweeping majesty of a broad landscape, I particularly enjoy guiding and focusing the eye with vertical compositions of traditionally horizontal scenes. Tunnel View in Yosemite, where I think photographers tend to compose too wide, is a great example. The scene left of El Capitan and right of Cathedral Rocks can’t compete with the El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall triumvirate, yet the world is full of too-wide Tunnel View images that shrink this trio to include (relatively) nondescript granite that can’t hold a candle to the main scene.
When the foreground and sky aren’t particularly interesting, I tend to shoot fairly tight horizontal compositions at Tunnel View. But when a spectacular Yosemite sky, snow-laden trees, or cloud-filled valley below demand attention, vertical is my go-to orientation because it frees me to celebrate the scene’s drama without diluting it.
When I composed the scene in this image, the moon had just popped out of the clouds. Knowing when and where it was supposed to arrive, I’d been set up with my Sony a7R IV mounted with my Sony 200-600 lens and 2X Teleconverter, hoping to capture the moon BIG as it edged up from behind El Capitan. When the clouds threatened to completely wipe out the moonrise, I’d have been thrilled with any lunar appearance. By the time this wish was fulfilled, I’d long since abandoned my big moon plan and switched to my Sony 24-105 lens.
Because the clouds and color stretched across the sky, and Bridalveil Fall was flowing nicely, I naturally did a horizontal composition of this scene wide enough to include all the good stuff. But that composition shrunk the moon to more of a strong accent, and I wanted something with the moon more front-and-center.
Flipping my camera to vertical, I increased my focal length to limit my terrestrial subjects the business end of El Capitan, with an incognito Half Dome lurking in the background. The longer focal length enlarged the moon enough that, while not the BIG moon I’d once imagined, it stands out far more prominently than it does in my horizontal version.
The night before last, my Iceland workshop group was treated to what may have been the most spectacular northern lights display I’ve ever witnessed. Until last night, when we topped it. Stay tuned to this channel for images (as soon as I get a chance to process them and write some—by my next blog, I hope).
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Category: El Capitan, full moon, Half Dome, Moon, Sony 24-105 f/4 G, Sony a7RIV, Tunnel View, Yosemite Tagged: El Capitan, Half Dome, moon, moonrise, nature photography, Yosemite
Posted on January 9, 2023
In family hearts games when I was a kid, I loved to “shoot the moon” (tremendous reward for success, extreme cost for failure). But simply wanting to shoot the moon wasn’t enough to make it happen, and I didn’t really start winning until I learned to separate my desires from the reality in my hand—I know now to evaluate my cards when they’re dealt, set a strategy, then adjust my strategy as the game unfolds. It’s that way for most card games, and it’s that way with photography.
Given nature’s fickle whims, I try not to lock in on something I want so much that I miss what I can have. I got my latest reminder last month in Yosemite, when I really, really wanted to shoot the moon. It was the workshop’s first sunset, and I knew exactly where I wanted to be to start my workshop group off with a beautiful full (-ish) moon rising above Half Dome at sunset. I’ve written about the weather related moon frustrations in this workshop in other recent posts, but this is where it all began.
This evening’s frustrations were compounded by the fact that not only was the moon a no-show, for most of the our time there it looked as if Half Dome would be joining it. So when we arrived out here, I had to reassure everyone that there really is a view of Half Dome right up there, and it’s really beautiful, I swear.
Because I’d told them before starting the short hike out to this spot that our target would be the moon and Half Dome, when neither appeared, it would have been easy to simply stand around and wait for something to change. So I tried to point out some of the other, more subtle opportunities available.
I suggested using the swirling clouds, bare trees, and pristine snow to convey a frigid wintry atmosphere. And the reflection, while not as dramatic as it can be here, nevertheless nicely complimented the scene, while a long exposure, in addition to smoothing the reflection, could stretch the white dollops of drifting foam into white steaks that reveal the Merced River’s motion.
I visit this spot so much that I often just leave my camera in the bag here, but as I pointed out these subtle features to my group, I started talking myself into the opportunity to photograph something new. So, partly to demonstrate to others and partly to actually capture something of my own, I pulled out my Sony a7RIV and Sony 24-105 and went to work.
While the scene was dark enough to get exposures of a second or so without a neutral density filter, I wanted something a little longer and added a Breakthrough 6-stop Dark Polarizer. I started with horizontal frames that maximized the foreground reflection and middle-ground wintry scene, but when Half Dome’s outline started to materialize through the clouds(a harbinger of good things to come?), I changed my emphasis. And because I’d already been working the scene’s other elements, it was a simple step to start incorporating Half Dome into my compositions.
Half Dome never appeared completely, but for a few minutes it did peek out enough to be recognizable. In fact, the ethereal feel the clouds create are a big part of this image’s appeal for me. This was an 8-second exposure at ISO 160. I wish I could say I chose ISO 160 because 200 was too fast and 125 was too slow, but I’m guessing that my intent was to use ISO 50 for the longest possible shutter speed, but while fumbling with my camera wearing bulky gloves (it was as cold as it looks), I accidentally turned the ISO dial.
This evening is a good reminder that consistently successful nature photography not only requires the ability to anticipate conditions and establish a plan, but also to maintain enough flexibility to adjust when things don’t play out as expected. No shoot is a guaranteed success, and sometimes nature’s cards just don’t fall right. But the more options you have, and the more you can read and respond to conditions, the more winners you’ll come home with.
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Category: Half Dome, Merced River, reflection, Sony 24-105 f/4 G, Sony a7RIV, Yosemite Tagged: Half Dome, nature photography, reflection, winter, Yosemite
Posted on January 2, 2023
Sometimes Nature delivers us something that’s so beautiful, it just has to be a gift. When we think of Nature’s gifts, it’s often in terms of locations, like Yosemite or Grand Canyon (gifts indeed!). But today I’m thinking about Nature’s transient beauty: the perfect arc and vivid colors of a rainbow, a brilliant crimson sunrise or sunset, or an aurora dancing among the stars (I could go on)—beauty that can simultaneously surprise and wow us.
Underrated on Nature’s list of gifts are reflections. Doubling the scene, reflections signal tranquility. And like a metaphor that engages the brain in ways different than we’re accustomed, a reflection is an indirect representation that can be more powerful than its literal double. Rather than allowing us to process the scene directly, a reflection challenges us to mentally reassemble its reverse world, and in the process perhaps see the scene a little differently.
Reflections can feel like a fortuitous gift that we just stumbled upon. But given that reflections are entirely beholden to the laws of physics, they’re far more predictable than many of the natural phenomena we photograph. Taking a little time to understand the nature of reflections and how they’re revealed by a camera enables photographers to anticipate their appearance and craft their relationship to the surrounding landscape in an image.
Without getting too far into the physics of light, it’s important to understand that every object we see (and photograph) that doesn’t generate its own light, comes to us courtesy of reflected light. In other words, what we call a reflection is in fact re-reflected light (reflected first from the object itself, then by the water).
For example, when sunlight strikes El Capitan in Yosemite, some of the sun’s photons bounce back into our eyes, and there it is. But other photons head off in different directions—some to be captured by different sets of eyes, while others land on the surface of the Merced River far below. A few of these photons penetrate the water, illuminating leaves and rocks on the submerged riverbed, while others carom off the water at the same angle at which they struck—only in the other direction, much the way a pool ball ricochets off the pool table’s cushion. When our eyes are in the path of these bounced photons, we see a reflection.
The recipe for a mirror reflection
Water reflections come in many forms, from a mirror-sharp inverted mountain peak glistening atop a still pool, to an abstract shuffle of color and texture on an undulating lake. Both have their place in creative photography.
The ideal recipe for a mirror reflection is pretty simple: still water, a sunlit subject that’s much brighter than the water’s surface (the greater the contrast the better), and a view angle that matches the angle at which the sunlight struck the water’s surface. And while a sunlit subject and shaded surface aren’t essential, the more photons striking the reflected subject, and the fewer non-reflected photons (ambient light) striking the reflective surface, the greater the contrast that helps the reflection stand out.
El Capitan Autumn Leaves, Yosemite: With El Capitan getting direct sunlight and the slow moving Merced River still shaded, I had the sharp reflection I hoped for. With just a little bit of searching, I positioned myself to include nearby floating autumn leaves.
Playing the angles
Just because you don’t see a reflection in the still water in front of you, doesn’t mean there’s no reflection—it just means you’re viewing from the wrong angle.
Understanding that reflected photons leave the water’s surface at the same angle at which they arrive—imagine the way a tennis player anticipates the ball’s bounce to get in position—allows us to position ourselves to photograph the reflection we want. For example, if the angle from your subject to the water is 40 degrees, its reflection will bounce off the water at 40 degrees in the other direction.
To locate the reflection, set your camera aside and move up/down, backward/forward, and left/right until you see find it. Then bring your camera back in and position it exactly where your eyes were when you saw the reflection.
Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite: One summer evening I found myself atop Sentinel Dome shortly after an intense rain shower had turned indentations in the granite into small, reflective pools. Seeing the potential for a spectacular sunset above Half Dome, I wanted to include the colorful clouds reflected in the pools. At eye-level the pools reflected nothing but empty sky, so I dropped my tripod almost to granite level until my lens found the angle that intercepted the red clouds just above Half Dome bouncing off the still water.
When the water’s in motion
As spectacular as a crisp, still water mirror reflection is, it’s easy to overlook the visual potential of a reflection that’s not crisp, and to forget your camera’s ability to render a soft or abstract reflection much better than your eyes view it.
While a crisp reflection can dominate an image, a splash of reflected color or shape can beautifully accent a striking primary subject. And a reflection that’s lost to the continuously varying angles of rippled or choppy water, magically appears as a soft outline when a long exposure smooths the water’s surface into a gauzy haze.
South Tufa, Mono Lake: In this sunrise image, all the ingredients were in place for a special reflection. Just as the color arrived, a light breeze stirred the lake’s surface with gentle undulations. I used a 6-stop neutral density filter to enable a multi-second exposure that completely smoothed the lake’s surface. While not a perfect mirror, the resulting reflection has a very pleasing soft, gauzy look.
Where to focus
An often misunderstood aspect of reflection photography is where to focus. Though counterintuitive to some, the focus point of a reflection is the reflection’s subject, not the surface it reflects on. This isn’t a big deal when the focus point of everything of visual significance is infinity, but it’s a very big deal when you want both your distant subject’s reflection and the nearby rocks or leaves on or in the water surface to be sharp.
Photographing a distant subject reflecting in a pool of leaves requires the same hyperfocal depth of field approach you’d use for any other close-to-distant image: small aperture and a focus point slightly beyond the closest thing that needs to be sharp.
El Capitan Reflection, Yosemite: Photographing autumn leaves atop El Capitan’s reflection required impossible depth of field to capture sharpness throughout. Even though the leaves and reflection were just a few feet in front of me, focusing for a sharp reflection would have softened the leaves. To increase my depth of field, I stopped down to f/18 and focused toward the back of the closest group of leaves, then magnified the image on my LCD to verify that all of the leaves were sharp. Though El Capitan’s reflection is slightly soft, a soft reflection is almost always more forgivable than a soft foreground.
Put simply, a polarizer cuts reflections. Most photographers use a polarizer to darken the sky, and while that can be a nice effect, the polarizer’s value is far greater than that. More than to darken the sky, polarizers remove subtle reflective sheen that washes out color on foliage and rocks.
An underappreciated polarizer use is to erase a reflection to reveal submerged rocks, leaves, and texture. After photographing a reflection with no polarizer or polarization minimized (maximum reflection), rotate the polarizer to minimize the reflection (maximum polarization) and capture submerged features hidden by the reflection. You might be surprised by how different the two images are, and how much you like both versions.
Lake Wanaka, New Zealand: But a polarizer isn’t an all or nothing tool. When photographing the solitary willow tree in Lake Wanaka, I carefully watched the reflection in my viewfinder while rotating my polarizer, stopping when I reached a polarization midpoint that included some reflection, while still revealing the mosaic of stones just beneath the lake’s surface.
Rainbows are a very special kind of reflection that happens when light is refracted (separated into its colorful wavelengths) upon entering airborne water droplets. This refracted light reflects off the back of the droplet to create a rainbow.
Because the laws of physics apply to all reflections, we know that a rainbow would actually form a full, 42 degree circle if it didn’t encounter the horizon. The center of this circle is at the anti-solar point—the point exactly opposite the sun (with your back to the sun, imagine a line from the sun through the back of your head and exiting between your eyes). That means that your shadow will always point at the rainbow’s apex. And the lower the sun, the higher the apex will be. Read more about rainbows.
Double Rainbow, Colorado River, Grand Canyon: Understanding rainbow physics allowed me to anticipate a rainbow despite a black cloud blocking the sun and drenching everyone in my raft trip group. When I saw that the sun was about to pop out of the cloud and into a large patch of blue sky, I rallied my group and pointed to where the rainbow would appear. A few minutes later their skepticism turned to ecstasy when we all started capturing images of a double rainbow bridging the Grand Canyon.
Outside the box
Reflections also provide wonderful creative opportunities. An often overlooked opportunity is the potential found in reflections that aren’t mirror-like. And, in addition to the more conventional reflection composition that’s split somewhere near the middle to give more or less equal frame real estate to the subject and its reflection, some of the most creative reflection images concentrate entirely, or almost entirely, on the reflection.
I found this El Capitan reflection at Cathedral Beach on the final afternoon of last month’s Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop. After capturing a crisp, top-to-bottom El Capitan reflection, I repositioned myself to juxtapose much of El Capitan against the faceted veneer of ice topping the river. An added bonus of water still enough for ice to form was that it allowed drifting, recently fallen autumn leaves to settle and accumulate on the river-bottom here.
Finding the best spot combine the reflection, ice, and leaves in a single frame, I dropped low enough to get a sharp reflection El Capitan’s nose in the still, iceless water close to the shore. To ensure sharpness in the ice and the reflection (as well as the distant trees and El Capitan), I stopped down to f/18 and focused midway into the ice.
Almost all of the foreground was shaded, but with bright, direct sunlight brightening the clouds and El Capitan, this scene’s dynamic range was a real factor. But my reflection-centric composition eliminated the clouds brightest granite, making the exposure much easier. Finally, I tried multiple polarizer positions until I found the one with the best combination of reflection and submerged leaves.
I was so focused on the other visual elements in this scene, I didn’t fully appreciate the bare trees across the river. But when I started processing the image and viewed it on my large monitor, I was pleased by how much they add to the wintry feel of this image.
Double your pleasure
Whether it’s a shimmering mirror, a gauzy haze of color and shape, or a colorful rainbow, reflections are a gift from Nature—camera or not. By doubling the beauty surrounding us, reflections have the power to elevate ordinary to beautiful, and beautiful to extraordinary.
For photographers, reflections provide boundless creative opportunities. When exploring outdoors with a camera, some reflections seem to jump out and grab us by the eyeballs, while others require a little more work. Either way, when properly conceived and executed, a reflection image possesses a visual synergy, conveying beauty that more than doubles the scene’s two halves.
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Category: El Capitan, fall color, How-to, Merced River, reflection, Sony 16-35 f2.8 GM, Sony Alpha 1, Yosemite Tagged: autumn, El Capitan, fall color, ice, nature photography, reflection, Yosemite
Posted on December 19, 2022
Nature’s most spectacular visual moments come thanks to the glorious confluence of its static and dynamic beauty. Nature’s static beauty is its fixed features, the mountains, oceans, lakes, rivers, trees (and more) that inspire us to travel great distances with our cameras, confident in the knowledge that they’ll be there when we arrive. Nature’s dynamic beauty is its transient elements, like the light, clouds, color, weather, and celestial objects, that we try to anticipate—but that often surprises/disappoints us.
Whether it’s lightning at the Grand Canyon, the Milky Way in New Zealand, the northern lights in Iceland, or a moonrise above Yosemite, my photo trips are (selfishly) timed to maximize my chance for those times when the inherently beautiful scenes are blessed with special conditions. And though relying on the fickle whims of Mother Nature means the disappointments are frequent and frustrating, I’ve learned to roll with them because the thrill of success is greater than the frustration of failure.
But for a photographer, just being there isn’t enough, because, as thrilling as the moment might be, doing it justice with a camera usually requires more than just a simple point and click. Often (usually?), adding the best of Nature’s dynamic elements changes the scene enough to actually shift the balance of visual power—what might be the best picture in more typical conditions, suddenly takes backseat to the ephemeral beauty unfolding before us.
Getting the most from Nature’s glorious confluences means quickly identifying the scene’s best features right now, and finding a composition that emphasizes them—even if that means deemphasizing the static element that drew you in the first place. For example, at Valley View in Yosemite, photographers can choose between El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, or both of the above (not to mention Cathedral Rocks, Leaning Tower, and Ribbon Fall). As I recently blogged, I’ll photograph this scene completely differently depending on the conditions—sometimes ignoring El Capitan or Bridalveil Fall in favor of the other, and other times including both.
And beyond subject choice are decisions like the amount of sky versus foreground to include, horizontal or vertical orientation, wide or tight focal length, polarizer orientation, motion blur in the water, and on and on. All of these choices depend on the conditions, and the way they’re handled can make or break an image.
My Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshops are timed to coincide with a full moon rising above Yosemite Valley at sunset, as well as (fingers crossed) fresh snowfall in Yosemite Valley. Yosemite Valley is the workshop’s known, static commodity; snow and the moon are its dynamic variables. While getting fresh snow is a complete a roll of the dice when scheduling a workshop a year or more in advance, the moon’s phase and position can be predicted with surgical accuracy. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch in photography, so even though I know where to be and when to be there for the moon, I still have to sweat the clouds—especially in winter.
Which is exactly what I did in this month’s workshop. Having billed this as a “winter moon” workshop, I took my students out to a view of Half Dome that aligned perfectly with the first of my three planned sunset moonrises, then watched and waited while Half Dome played games with the clouds and never came out completely. The moon? Not even close. If you read last week’s blog, you know that we finally had a moonrise success on our third and final try. But it’s what happened on the evening in between that stands out most in my memory.
In a static world, for our second sunset I’d have been at another location beside the Merced River, waiting for the moon to crest Half Dome. Because watching the moon rise above Half Dome at sunset is something I hate missing, even when there are lots of clouds, my usual approach is to lean into the moonrise despite the low odds—you just never know when the sky might open and surprise you by revealing the moon (see last week’s blog). But as the time to make the call on our sunset location approached, I could see that the east side of the valley, including Half Dome, appeared hopelessly engulfed by clouds, while the sky on the west side looked much more open. So I reluctantly (and uncharacteristically) pulled the plug on the moonrise and detoured to Valley View for sunset, hoping I wouldn’t regret it.
At Valley View, I instantly saw that the cloud swallowing Half Dome was a blooming cumulus monster that showed no hint of retreating. My decision to blow off the moonrise (somewhat) vindicated, I got my group settled in. While fairly confident we’d get something better than my Plan A Half Dome spot, I didn’t have especially high expectations for anything spectacular.
Pulling out my Sony α1 body, I surveyed the scene. Normally I start at Valley View with my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens, but with such a nice sky this evening, I reached straight for my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens.
I see clouds like this one all the time at the Grand Canyon, but rarely in Yosemite—maybe way in the distance, but rarely this close. It only took two frames to realize the 16-35 still wasn’t wide enough, so I returned to my bag for my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens. Maybe I’ve used this lens at Valley View before, but it’s usually reserved for Yosemite’s closer El Capitan views.
When the cloud lit up and started glowing pink, its reflection switched on too, suddenly making that the scene’s most compelling element. There aren’t many situations where I’d photograph here ultra-wide and vertical, but this time I instantly knew that’s what the scene called for, even if that meant shrinking Valley View’s usually unrivaled landscape features. With my 12 – 24 oriented vertically, not only could I include all of Valley View’s primary static features (El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, Cathedral Rocks), I could also fit the towering pink cloud and its reflection, top to bottom. To avoid including any of the sticks and leaves at my feet, I dropped lower and moved most of my tripod into the shallow water.
This evening’s show was as brief as it was spectacular. If there’s one takeaway, it’s the reminder the most successful landscape images start with finding a combination of Nature’s static and dynamic elements—identifying a location you want to photograph (static), and figuring out when to be there for the best light, color, sky, or whatever (dynamic). But your job isn’t done until you’ve identified what’s working at that moment, and put it into a composition that does the moment justice.
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Posted on December 12, 2022
Large or small, crescent or full, I love photographing the moon rising above Yosemite. I truly believe it’s one of the most beautiful sights on Earth. The moon’s alignment with Yosemite Valley changes from month-to-month, with my favorite full moon alignment coming in the short-day months near the winter solstice when it rises between El Capitan and Half Dome (from Tunnel View), but I have a plan for each season. Some years the position and timing are better than others, but when everything clicks, I do my best to be there. And if I’m going to be there anyway, why not schedule a workshop? (He asked rhetorically.)
Strike one, strike two
For last week’s Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop, I’d planned three moonrises, from three increasingly distant vantage points. On our first night, despite the cloudy vestiges of a departing storm, I got the group in position for a moonrise at a favorite Merced River sunset spot, hoping the promised clearing would arrive before the moon. The main feature here is Half Dome, but the clouds had other ideas. Though they eventually relented just enough to reveal Half Dome’s ethereal outline and prevent the shoot from being a complete loss, the moon never appeared. Strike one.
With a better forecast for the second evening, we headed into the park that afternoon with high hopes. But as the sun dropped, the clouds thickened to the point where not only did I fear we’d miss the moon again, I was pretty sure Half Dome would be a no-show as well. So I completely aborted the moonrise shoot and opted for sunset at Valley View, where El Capitan and freshly recharged Bridalveil Fall were on their best behavior. The result was a spectacular sunset that made me look like a genius (phew), but still no moon. Strike two.
Revisiting nature photography’s 3 P’s
Because the right mindset is such an important part of successful photography, many years ago I identified three essential qualities that I call the 3 P’s of Nature Photography:
Most successful images require one or more of these three essential elements. Chasing the moon last week in frigid, sometimes wet, Yosemite got me thinking about the 3 P’s again, and how their application led to a (spoiler alert) success on our third and final moonrise opportunity.
As we drove into the Tunnel View parking lot, about 45 minutes before sunset, our chances for the moon looked excellent. There were a few clouds overhead, with more hanging low on the eastern horizon behind Half Dome, but nothing too ominous. My preparation (there’s one) had told me that the moon this evening would appear from behind El Capitan’s diagonal shoulder, about halfway up the face, and that area of the sky was perfectly clear. So far so good.
Organizing my group along the Tunnel View wall, I pointed out where the moon would appear, and reminded them of the previously covered exposure technique for capturing a daylight-bright moon above a darkening landscape. Eventually I set up my own tripod and Sony a7R IV, with my Sony 200 – 600 G lens with the 2X Teleconverter pointed at ground 0. In my pocket was my Sony 24 – 105 G lens, which I planned to switch to as soon as the moon separated from El Capitan. Then we all just bundled up against the elements and enjoyed the view, waiting for the real show…
But, as if summoned by some sinister force determined to frustrate me, the seemingly benign clouds hailed reinforcements that expanded and thickened right before our eyes. Their first victim was Half Dome, and it looked like they’d set their sights on El Capitan next. By the time sunset rolled around, my optimism had dropped from a solid 9 to a wavering 2. I knew the moon was up somewhere behind the curtain and tried to stay positive, but let everyone know that our chances for actually seeing it were no longer very good. I reminded them not to get so locked in on waiting for the moon that they miss out on the beauty happening right now. Ever the optimist, I switched to my 24-105, privately rationalizing that even without the moon, we’d had so much spectacular non-moon photography already, nobody could be unhappy. But still…
At that point it would have been easy to cut our losses, come in out of the cold (pain), and head to dinner. But I have enough experience with Yosemite to know that it’s full of surprises, and never to go all-in on it’s next move. So we stayed. And our persistence (we’ve checked all three now) was rewarded when, seemingly out of nowhere, a hole opened in the clouds and there was the moon. The next 10 minutes were a blur of frantic clicking and excited exclamation as my group enjoyed this gift we’d all just about given up on.
A few full moon photography tips
Category: Bridalveil Fall, Cathedral Rocks, El Capitan, full moon, Moon, Sony 24-105 f/4 G, Sony a7RIV, Tunnel View, winter, Yosemite Tagged: Bridalveil Fall, Cathedral Rocks, El Capitan, full moon, Half Dome, moon, moonrise, nature photography, Tunnel View, winter, Yosemite
Posted on December 5, 2022
I’m in Yosemite for a workshop so my blogging time is significantly curtailed, but let’s see what happens…
Photography is the futile attempt to render a three dimensional world in a two dimensional medium. It’s “futile” because including actual depth in a photograph is literally impossible. But impossible doesn’t mean hopeless. One of the simplest things photographers can do to elevate their images is think about their scene in three dimensions, specifically how to create the illusion of depth by composing elements at multiple distances from the camera.
Many photographers miss opportunities by simply settling for the beautiful scene before them instead of looking for ways to make it even better. A more productive approach is to start with the beautiful aspect of the scene you want to emphasize (brilliant sunset, backlit flower, towering peak, vivid rainbow, plunging waterfall, whatever), then aggressively seek an object or objects nearer or farther to complement it. Of course that’s sometimes easier said than done, but this near/middle/far mindset should be present for every capture.
Thinking foreground and background is a great start, but merely having objects at varying distances isn’t always enough—you also need to be aware of how those objects guide your viewer’s eye through the frame. We hear a lot of photographers talk about using “leading lines” to move the eye, but a line doesn’t need to be a literal (visible) line to move the eye, because viewers will subconsciously connect objects to create virtual lines.
To help me achieve virtual lines that move the eye, I think in terms of “visual weight”: a quality of an object that tugs the eye like gravity, subconsciously pulling the viewer’s gaze in its direction. These qualities include, among other things: mass, shape, brightness, contrast, color, texture, and sometimes just position in the frame. A single one of these qualities can give an object visual weight, but combining then can be even more effective.
Additionally, an object’s emotional power can boost its visual weight. For example, a small moon can pull the eye more than a larger bright cloud, and Half Dome has more visual weight than a random rock occupying the same amount of frame real estate.
With my primary subject and complementary (eye moving) objects identified, I still need to consider the linear connection between these visual components. I like diagonal relationships because of the visual tension created by moving the eye along multiple planes. While creating these virtual diagonals requires careful positioning, it’s surprising how many photographers just remain planted with their tripod as if it has grown roots—either they don’t see the benefit of repositioning, or don’t think moving is worth the effort.
Whatever the reason, it’s important for photographers to understand the power of shifting position to control foreground and background relationships: move left and your foreground shifts right relative to the background; move right and the foreground shifts left relative to the background. Either way, the closer the foreground is relative to the background, the more dramatic the shift. And contrary to what you might believe, it’s impossible to change foreground/background perspective with focal length—to change perspective, you must change position: forward/backward, left/right, up/down.
An often overlooked shift that can be quite powerful is up/down. Often I’m able to un-merge objects at different distances by simply raising my tripod or climbing atop a nearby rock. Dropping low will emphasize the closest elements, and when my frame has a large and boring empty space (such as a field of weeds or dirt) between the foreground and background, I drop lower to shrink that gap.
It’s taken me a while to figure out the best way to convey these concepts to my photo workshop students. In most workshops, I find that many of the students haven’t picked up their cameras in weeks or months (or years!), so I’ve learned give them time to get back in their creative zone before laying all this stuff on them.
For example, in my Yosemite workshops I usually start with the classic shots that probably drew them to the park in the first place, places like Tunnel View and Valley View, where there are obvious compositions that lead to easy success. At the first image review I give a little talk on composition and moving the eye (among other things), then everyone shares images and I offer my feedback.
By the second day, armed with that foundation and a little Day 1 success, they’re usually ready to challenge their creativity and attack the less heralded spots whose beauty is more subtle. This growth is obvious as soon as the Day 2 image review. I’m frequently blown away by how quickly they’ve refined their inherent creative vision well enough to see beyond the obvious and find compositions that are both beautiful and unique.
One autumn favorite creative spot is the section of the Merced River from the Pohono Bridge upstream to Fern Spring, and even a little beyond. Fern Spring alone, with its stair-step cascades and a small reflecting pool that’s covered with color each fall, has enough to occupy a creative photographer for hours. And just across the road is a trail that skirts the river and traverses a forest filled with colorful maple and dogwood trees. The entire area is chock-full of creative opportunities that include whitewater, still water reflections, and of course (lots of) fall color.
In last month’s Fall Color and Reflections workshop, once I was satisfied that everyone was comfortable with their cameras and starting to trust their creative instincts, I took them to Fern Spring. Once there, I gave them the lay of the land and encouraged them to explore. Early in the workshop my groups tend to stick close to me, but this afternoon I was encouraged to see everyone instantly scatter. That’s always a good sign that they’re starting to get in the zone—even though it means I need to chase each one down to make sure they’re doing okay.
By the time I’d finished my rounds and confirmed that each person had things under control (and fearing that my presence might actually be a distraction), I was left with about 20 minutes to do a little shooting of my own. I quickly grabbed my camera and beelined upstream to a spot that I can’t take a group to because there’s no room for more than one person, no trail to get there, and it’s frighteningly easy to fall in the river. (I’ve had a couple of minor mishaps here that required changing shoes and socks, and maybe spending a couple of hours in pants wet to my calf, but was always grateful it wasn’t worse).
Rather than a standard fall color location, this is a fallen color spot that accumulates leaves that have drifted downstream from elsewhere to float among the rocks. Each year, the quality of the floating color varies from none to lots—not enough water and the leaves don’t make it into the rocks; too much water and the leaves just wash right by to locations downstream.
I was happy to confirm that this was indeed a good year for the floating color. Being in a hurry, I could have very easily snapped off a couple of frames from where I stood and called it good. But often the difference between an image that’s merely a decently executed rendering of a beautiful scene, and an image that stands out for the (often missed) aspects of the natural world it reveals, is the time it takes to identify and connect the scene’s visual relationships. So I took just a little more time to align the elements.
In this case that meant positioning myself so the foreground rocks and leaves aligned with the middle-ground rocks and reflection, which aligned with cloud-shrouded El Capitan in the background. Words cannot express how awkward this position was, requiring a grand total of 5 splayed legs—3 tripod and 2 human. But still it wasn’t quite right—until I dropped my tripod down to about a foot above the water to make the leaves more prominent.
After setting my exposure, I focused on the third small foreground rock, then dialed my polarizer to reduce the reflection on the leaves while retaining the upstream reflection. Click.
Click any image to scroll through the gallery LARGE
Category: El Capitan, fall color, How-to, Photography, reflection, Sony 16-35 f2.8 GM, Sony Alpha 1, Yosemite Tagged: autumn, El Capitan, fall color, nature photography, reflection, Yosemite