Tag Archives: California

12 for ’12: The Year’s Best

It’s that time of year, once again, when we look back at the year that was and weigh our accomplishments. Well, you always hope that there are accomplishments worthy of looking back on. If nothing else, there’s always weighing the regrets.

Anyway, last year I posted my favorite images from 2011 – Eleven for ’11. Naturally, this year it’s 12 for ’12. They are all favorites of mine for a reason, although the reasons may not be so obvious to everyone else. Nonetheless, I’ll try to give some insight. So here they are listed in chronological order, starting this past January.

“Paradise Found”
Harrismith Beach, Barbados
January 21, 2012

Just another brutal day in paradise, I posted earlier in the year. I think what I liked best about this image is that it was completely secluded. I didn’t have to clone out a single human.

 

“Ahwahnee Dream”
Yosemite National Park, California, USA
February 15, 2012

One of my favorite things about this image is that it was taken from a very popular vantage point in Yosemite National Park. Still I was able to come away with something unique and original, thanks to the thickening fog in the valley.

 

“Red Patagonia Dawn”
Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina
April 6, 2012

The location, the light, and the effort to get there (I led three of my clients who opted for the backcountry extension to the Patagonia workshop up this steep, ice-covered trail to be here by sunrise) were all factors in this image making the cut.

 

“Crowning Glory”
Arches National Park, Utah, USA
May 18, 2012

The low-angled light sweeping over the textured sandstone, the dynamic leading lines, the cloud movement during this 30-second exposure make this a clear favorite of mine. I don’t practice many black and white conversions but I was surprised to find two in my favorites for 2012.

 

“Light Room”
Arches National Park, Utah, USA
May 21, 2012

I love night photography and Arches National Park is one of my favorite places to “do it in the dark.” Ok, shameless plug here: Night photography, Arches National Park, November 6-9, 2013. Thanks for listening.

 

“River of Light”
The Seine, Paris, France
June 24, 2012

Amazing sunset. Paris, France. What else is there to say?

 

“Chasing Magic”
Kirkjufellsfoss, Iceland
July 25, 2012

Persistance. I waited four nights in order to get light that I was looking for at this location. I was prepared for a 5th, if necessary.

 

“Blood Sport”
Katmai National Park, Alaska, USA
August 23, 2012

The Decisive Moment, as Henri Cartier-Bresson might describe this image. This is only one image frame in an entire sequence I posted back in September: Life and Death in Katmai.

 

“The Spine of Time”
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, USA
October 23, 2012

If I had a “home” national park, the Smokies would be it. This image captures the essence of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park perhaps better than any other I have taken in the past dozen years or so.

 

“The Lost City”
Machu Picchu, Peru
November 16, 2012

Rain, rain, and more rain with some impenetrable fog and gloomy skies – but for a brief 40-seconds of optimism. And I was ready.

 

“Winter’s Blush”
Horgardalur Valley, Iceland
December 9, 2012

This is as much sun and light as you will get in northern Iceland in December. But oh what lovely light it is…

 

“Midnight’s Children”
Trollaskagi Peninsula, Iceland
December 12, 2012

I had never seen the northern lights before, despite two previous summer trips to Iceland and two summer trips to Alaska. The aurora is what brought me to Iceland in the depths of winter and I was not disappointed.

Thanks for sharing 2012 with me.

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Fade to Black

Lake Tahoe Sunrise, California
Canon EOS 5D Mark2, Canon 24-105mm, 1/8 second @ f11, ISO 100

This is the age of HDR, High Dynamic Range photography. Whether it’s specialized, automated HDR software or various exposure blending techniques in Photoshop, the current photographic trend is to extract every bit of detail from every last pixel from every scene. And although this can lead to some pretty alarming results, such as here and here and here, it’s not necessarily always a bad thing. I admit to rarely using automated HDR software, particularly with landscape and nature images, but I do use Photoshop for exposure blending when the narrow dynamic range of the camera’s sensor is inadequate for the scene I’m trying to capture.

Still, many new photographers don’t realize – or haven’t been told – that black is an acceptable color for digital photography. There’s no need to always pull details from shadows especially when those details don’t add anything to the message of the image. In many cases, such as the image of Lake Tahoe used in this post, those very details can detract from its effectiveness.

When I look at this image, I can’t help but reminisce on my days of Fuji Velvia 50 film transparencies – for better or worse. If I didn’t know any better, in fact, I would assume it was a scan from one of those old slides. It was Velvia’s deep, rich blacks that were missing from many of my first digital captures and crude processing efforts back in the day. Simply increasing the black threshold with a quick Levels adjustment was often the only thing required in transforming flat and muddy to sharp and vibrant. 

The true black in this image also draws greater attention to the simple, geometric shape of the lake and its relationship to the shoreline. Allowing details to creep into the shadows would only take away from that compositional concept. Do we really need to see all the details in the foreground trees? Of course not, which is why I allowed those details to fade to black.

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California: Winter 2012

Back in February, I traveled out to California to do some winter photography, first in Yosemite National Park with my friend Lance Warley (his impressive photography can be seen here on his website) then solo to Death Valley National Park and the Alabama Hills in the Eastern Sierras.

The prospect for any winter photography in Yosemite was looking rather grim. Like much of the United States in 2012, winter was nearly nonexistent in Yosemite and there had hardly been any snow up to that point. But we were lucky. On the day we arrived, six inches of new snow had fallen and they were calling for more later that week.

We were also completely unaware that we had arrived during the famous Horsetail Falls “firefall” event, the two-week span when the sun backlights the falls at sunset at just the right angle. I guess you could say we were lucky in that regard, except that there was no waterfall to photograph. No snowpack meant no snowmelt which meant no Horsetail Falls. But that didn’t stop the hundreds of photographers, who arrived for the express purpose of photographing the event, from lining up at sunset to photograph the non-waterfall, as if they could collectively will it to materialize before their eyes. Curious indeed: dozens of photographers lined up at sunset to shoot a wet rock. (I must add, however, that after we left, the new snow did begin to melt and there was a small amount of water  falling from the back side of El Capitan, where Horsetail Falls should be.) For more information on Horsetail Falls, including how and when to photograph it, see Michael Frye’s excellent blog post on the subject.

So, here are just a few of the images from the trip. Many others, especially those from Death Valley, still need to be processed but I’ve been way too busy to complete. I’ll post them soon, I hope.

For those interested in visiting and photographing Yosemite National Park, I will be leading an instructional tour in September, in conjunction with the PSA International Conference in San Francisco where I will be a featured speaker. Click here for more information on this event.

Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite National Park

Giant Sequoias in Winter, Yosemite National Park

The Eye of Cyclops, Alabama Hills

Yosemite's Mariposa Grove

Last Light on Half Dome, Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Falls Under the Stars

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Image Anatomy: Eye of Cyclops

Many people have asked me about how to make star trail images in general (it’s ridiculously easy) and how exactly  “Eye of Cyclops” was created in particular. I promised I would do so, so here is that promise kept.

I am going to keep this as short and sweet as possible, straightforward, and direct. I’m not going to dumb it down too much but at the same time, I’ll keep it from becoming too esoteric as well. Some of you will think it’s far too technical and some will think that I didn’t give enough information. That’s a guarantee. I’m just trying to strike a balance here.

First, the location is in the Alabama Hills of California at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and in the shadow of the highest peak in the continental United States, Mount Whitney. The name of this particular arch is not important, yet it should be obvious to those who know the area. There was lots of pre-planning involved in order for this to work, including a visit during daylight to acquaint myself with the location and it’s surroundings as well as devising my strategy and imagining how the final image would look later. I got a bead on the north star, Polaris, using the iPhone application, Star Chart. I wanted the concentric star circles to revolve around a point that was located inside one of the arch windows. The two arches reveal themselves to the sky when oriented toward the north, so this was easy enough. I chose the desired height of the tripod, the lens (16 mm), composition, etc.

Crappy iPhone Photo

My strategy then was as follows: when it became dark enough, I would first make one exposure while “light painting” the inside of the arch. I could do this with a 30-second exposure and a high enough ISO to adequately record light in all areas of exposed rock, even the deeper crevices. My settings for this exposure were: 30 seconds, f4, ISO 640, Manual Exposure mode. To light paint, I used my headlamp wrapped in a red bandanna. The reasons for the bandana were twofold. First, I wanted to soften the light to avoid ghastly hotspots on the rock. Second, I wanted a reddish tone to the interior of the arch and the red bandana did the trick quite nicely. I could precisely adjust the color and balance the  light and dark areas later in Photoshop, but I still wanted it as close as possible. Manual focus is also important so that the camera doesn’t start “hunting” for a focus point in the faint light. Focusing on the lip of the arch at f4 gave me all the depth of field I needed. The result of this first exposure can be seen below.

Exposure Number 1:

Then without moving or refocusing the camera, I changed the ISO from 640 to 100 and the exposure mode to “Bulb.” Ideally, I would have preferred to focus at infinity for this second exposure, but it would have created some problems later when I combined the two exposures and also I knew from experience that it wouldn’t have affected the look of the star trails too much anyway. Every other camera setting remained the same. With the Bulb setting, the shutter would remain open as long as the shutter release is being depressed, so a cable release with a locking mechanism is needed.

I then waited for the waxing crescent moon to dip over the horizon and for darkness to fall completely for the maximum number of stars to be revealed. When the time was right, I locked the shutter and left it exposed for just over an hour. The rotation of the Earth did all the work for me. I simply sat on a nearby rock, ate a sandwich and listened to some music. Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” if I recall. Settings: 64 minutes, f4, ISO 100, Bulb. The result you can see below.

Exposure Number 2

The result you see above has some post editing work done, mostly subjective stuff such as adjusting the white balance to make the sky a dark blue tone, increasing contrast to make the star trails more noticeable, and removing most of the color from the stars as well. As I said, these are all my personal preferences and since it’s my little slice of fantasy, I can make it whatever the hell I want it to be. So there.

Next, I blended the two exposures in Photoshop. Since there was such a clear difference in dominant color tones from one exposure to the next – blue and red – I used the red channel as a mask for the first exposure and it nearly blended itself for me. After a little touching up on the mask, a slight crop, and some noise reduction applied to the sky, the resulting image you can see below.

Eye of Cyclops

I hope you found this hastily-written post to be of some help to you. It was a very fun, rewarding image to make and I hope you like it.

If this sort of photography appeals to you, we will be doing much more of this during my Arches and Canyonlands Photo Workshop in Moab, Utah this May. Be sure to check it out.

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Ten Suggestions For Better Waterfall Photography

Because tips sound cheap, rules have no place in any creative endeavor, and commandments are harsh and compulsory, I’ve decided to call these my ten suggestions.

I receive more questions and emails about how to photograph waterfalls than any others, so here are my suggestions – both for beginners and the more advanced.

1 Seek Soft, Diffused Light. This is the default lighting condition with nearly all waterfall-seeking photographers, and for good reason. Overcast skies, light rain, and fog are what photographers seek and prefer because the soft light prohibits bright highlights and dark shadows from creating too much contrast in an image. Diffused light compresses the scene’s tonal range and extracts the maximum amount of available detail.

2 Don’t Necessarily Avoid Sunny Weather Either. If this seems to contradict the previous tip, you’re right. Waterfalls can be successfully captured on sunny days in bright light, but it helps if the entire scene is evenly illuminated and there are no shadows. The point here is that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to the right light with waterfalls. Try something different and go against the grain.

3 Use a Slow Shutter Speed. To give the water the illusion of motion, try a slowed-down shutter speed. I prefer a range of 1/8 second to 2 seconds, as any duration longer than 2 seconds gives featureless, white areas where the water detail should be. Determining factors on what the right shutter speed might be are the focal length being used, the distance from the water, the distance the water is falling, and the volume of water in the falls. Long shutter speeds give moving water a silky appearance and projects a feeling of grace or fragility. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that a tripod is necessary for this effect.

4 Use a Fast Shutter Speed. As a contrast to the previous suggestion, try a faster shutter speed (1/60 of a second or faster) to project a feeling of raw power or awe. Photography is much more successful when it carries an emotional trigger and the choice of shutter speed can express how you feel about the scene – and what the viewer will ultimately feel.

5 Use a Polarizing Filter. Almost everyone knows how a polarizing filter can remove glare on water or wet rocks. But this effect can be overdone. Next time, don’t turn the filter all the way to full polarization. Instead, rid the wet rocks and vegetation of most glare but leave some detail and texture in the water as well. A polarizing filter may be the most often-used filter for outdoor and nature photography, but it’s also the most overused, in my opinion.

6 Include the Waterfall’s Surroundings. Give the image context and help tell a story about the place by including some nearby landforms and its surroundings. With the image above, the inclusion of the ocean clearly gives this waterfall context and a sense of place that one might not expect with a cropped version.

7 Zoom In. And sometimes the opposite is true. Sometimes grabbing a telephoto lens from the bag and capturing an intimate piece of the falls results in a more compelling image. Which scale represents a more accurate spirit and feel of the place? Often it’s an intimate interpretation.

8 Take the Plunge. Don’t limit your compositional options to places where your tripod can only be erected on terra firma. Getting wet might give you the better angle or perspective. The viewer of your image should almost feel the cold water running over their feet and ankles.

9 Look for Visual Flow. Moving water has implied movement and direction. So why not use this to create visual flow that moves the viewer’s eye through the image frame? The image above is rather simple, but it effectively moves the eye diagonally from the upper left part of the image to the lower right creating balance and flow.

10 Think and See Abstractly. Waterfalls are beautiful, meditative, and captivating natural features.  It’s so easy as a photographer to become seduced by their beauty and hope that beauty alone will carry the image. Instead, appreciate the aesthetics and beauty of the scene but also try to see the abstract qualities of the scene as well. Lines, shapes, space, and their relationships to each other will make a “pretty” picture much more dynamic and alive. For example, look at the image above. This is all about diagonal lines, triangles, and movement. How many triangles do you see in this image after you ignore that there is a waterfall in there too? Let go of the literal for just a moment and look for abstract qualities. There will be plenty of time to sit on a mossy rock afterward to take it all in.

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