December 14th, 2014

Cloud Sculptures

Cloud formations, approaching storm, Mariposa, CA, USA

Cloud formations, approaching storm, Mariposa, Thursday

It was windy last Thursday as the big storm was approaching. Walking from my office toward the house I noticed some unusual clouds to the southwest. I didn’t make it to the house; I grabbed my camera bag and tripod, climbed the small hill behind my office, and spent the next half hour photographing clouds.

The clouds overhead were dark, but I could see clear skies to the southwest. The light from that clear patch created a beautiful golden glow on the underside of the clouds, as if it were sunset, even though it was just past noon. The wind probably helped create the sculptured patterns. There was no compelling foreground to put under the clouds, and besides, the most interesting patterns were rather small and distant, so I used my 70-200 zoom to pick out sections of clouds with interesting designs. The photograph below looks a bit HDR, but it was actually the opposite – I increased the contrast, rather than decreasing it.

The storm stalled over the Bay Area that afternoon, and didn’t reach Mariposa until midnight. So while areas near the coast dealt with flooding and power outages, we got a bit less rain and snow than expected. Yosemite Valley received just under two inches of rain, which was a good soaking, but not a deluge. As this precipitation map shows, while many areas around California have received above-average precipitation for the last six months, the Sierra Nevada is still below average. And that’s just the last six months, which doesn’t include the three preceding dry winters. So this storm helped, but we have a long way to go.

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December 11th, 2014

Finding Rhythm

Curious deer, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Curious deer, Yosemite

We all know that music has rhythm. Speech has rhythm too: the cadence of words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs gives language its order and structure, and makes it easier to understand.

We don’t usually think of photographs as having rhythm, but they do – or, at least, good ones do. Most effective photographs have some kind of repetition, a pattern that helps give the image cohesion and rhythm.

The tenth issue of Photograph digital magazine just came out, and it includes an article of mine called “Finding Rhythm.” I’ve been thinking a lot about visual rhythm lately, so I was happy to have this opportunity to write about it for the magazine.

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December 10th, 2014

Another Storm on the Way

Clearing storm from Tunnel View, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Clearing storm from Tunnel View, January 2012

A powerful storm is forecast to reach California soon. It could be the strongest storm here since 2008, with lots of rain, high-elevation snow, and potentially damaging winds. Yosemite could get two to three inches of rain, with a couple feet of snow above 8,000 feet. Areas further north could get even more. Meteorologists are talking about potential flooding in some places, and mudslides in burned areas.

Is this the start of a wet winter? It’s too early to tell, but we’re certainly due for one. There are two more storms forecast for next week, and although they’re not expected to be as strong, it seems like we’re in a wet pattern right now – and when was the last time we could say that? Although no one wants to see serious flooding, we really, really need the rain.

Of course interesting weather can create interesting photo opportunities. Snow levels with this oncoming storm are expected to start at around 8,000 feet, lower quickly to 6,000 feet, and possibly get down to 4,500 feet at the tail end of the storm. That’s a little too high to reach Yosemite Valley (at 4,000 feet), but if the snow-level prediction is a little bit off the valley could get a dusting of snow just before skies clear.

But even without snow, any clearing storm can be photogenic. It looks the storm will clear either late Friday or early Saturday in Yosemite. The valley might look a little like the photograph above, with bare trees on the valley floor, but lots of new snow on the rim. And if we’re really lucky the storm will clear just before sunset, or just before sunrise, with low-angle sunlight and lots of mist.

Let’s hope we get many more opportunities to photograph clearing storms this winter in California – and, more importantly, get lots of rain and snow to fill up the creeks, rivers, and reservoirs.

— Michael Frye

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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

December 7th, 2014

Moon Above Half Dome

Moon rising above Yosemite Valley, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Moon rising above Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View, Thursday evening

Last Thursday evening the moon was due to rise in an interesting spot. I checked PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris, and it looked like you’d see the nearly-full moon rise right over Half Dome if you were standing at Tunnel View. But I wasn’t sure the moon would be visible, as there were a lot of clouds.

On Tuesday and Wednesday most of California had received a good soaking – the biggest storm the state has seen in two years. Yosemite Valley got about 1.4 inches of rain, and a foot or two of snow above 8,000 feet; a decent amount, and enough to get the waterfalls flowing again, but some areas to the north and south got much more precipitation. The drought is far from over, as we need many more storms like this just to reach average rainfall levels for the winter. But it was a good start.

The storm started to clear early Thursday morning, so I drove up to Tunnel View for sunrise. It was too cloudy at first, but then the sun broke through and hit El Cap, and some beautiful sunbeams appeared to the right of Cathedral Rocks (see the image below).

Since I had some business in the valley that afternoon, I hung around, napping in my car and working on my laptop. During my meeting later I kept checking the satellite images and webcams on my iPhone, but it looked like there were a lot of clouds. We took a break at 3:45 p.m., so I stepped outside, and the weather actually looked more promising. The clouds were broken, with shafts of light reaching the cliffs. Even if the moon didn’t appear, it could be an interesting sunset. Gotta go!

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December 2nd, 2014

Moonbeams Over Yosemite Valley

Moon setting on a misty night, El Capitan Meadow, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Moon setting on a misty night, El Capitan Meadow, Yosemite

Sunday night at around 11 o’clock I was, naturally, thinking about going to bed. But I decided to check the satellite images online to see if it might be worth getting up early. The skies had been overcast in the afternoon, with some light showers. Now the satellite images showed skies clearing.

It occurred to me to check the moon. I knew the moon was waxing (getting closer to full every day), but wasn’t sure exactly what stage it was in. Looking at PhotoPills told me the moon was at 71% (about three-quarters full), and due to set at 1:42 a.m. The angle of the moonset – 273 degrees – was interesting, as it was similar to the angle of the setting sun in late March, which is a good time of year for late-afternoon photographs from Tunnel View.

Hmm… A quick look outside revealed some interesting, low-hanging clouds. If I moved quickly I could reach the valley before the moon went down. And if there were clouds, and some mist from the rain, I could perhaps make a nighttime version of this late-March photograph, using the setting moon, instead of the setting sun, to illuminate Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Fall. There wouldn’t be much water in the fall, but still, it might be interesting, and worth a try.

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November 27th, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sun, mist, and oaks in El Capitan Meadow, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Sun, mist, and oaks in El Capitan Meadow, Yosemite

I have many things to be thankful for today. I have a wonderful wife and son, and great friends. We live in a warm, comfortable house, in a beautiful area, where I can see stars at night and drive to Yosemite Valley in an hour. And I get to make my living doing something I love.

And on this day, and every day, I’m particularly thankful for all of you, the wonderful community of photographers I’ve met through this blog, for reading, listening, and commenting. It’s great to discuss photography with people who share the same passion, and your participation makes writing this blog fun.

I hope you have a wonderful day, with many things to be thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving!

— Michael Frye

November 25th, 2014

Too Much Fun

Half Dome, North Dome, and the Merced River at night, with illumination by car headlights, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Half Dome, North Dome, and the Merced River at night, with illumination by car headlights, Yosemite

It rained here on Friday night and Saturday morning. The storm cleared Saturday afternoon, so once again I drove up to Yosemite Valley. Unfortunately clouds closed in and muted the light at sunset, but I decided to wait. I remembered a dusk photograph I made from Tunnel View a couple of years ago (the top image in this post), and thought the same light might occur again.

Well lightning didn’t strike twice, and the dusk light wasn’t that interesting. But again I decided to wait. I knew there wouldn’t be any moonlight, but interesting mist was floating around the valley, and I thought starlight might be enough to illuminate some scenes, with perhaps some additional help from car headlights.

I ended up photographing around Yosemite Valley until 9:30, almost five hours after sunset. It was just too much fun. I would think about heading home, then think, “Well maybe I’ll just check out this one spot,” and end up staying there for an hour or two.

Sometimes I looked for locations where car lights might illuminate the fog, like the scene with Half Dome above. A steady stream of traffic on Northside Drive made the mist on the left side of the frame glow. Then during one exposure a car pulled into the parking lot behind me, lighting the riverbank and trees on the right side of the frame. I can’t explain why the light beams seem to radiate upward off the sandbar. Something about the way the light reflected off the water? I don’t know, but it was cool.

The photograph of Three Brothers below also benefits from car lights. It’s subtle, but the mist underneath Three Brothers is faintly illuminated by headlights, which I think adds to this image. The photograph of El Capitan, on the other hand, was lit exclusively by the sky – stars, and perhaps a little light pollution or airglow.

As I said, this was a really fun night. I’ve been to all these spots many times, and occasionally have been fortunate enough to photograph them with great light and weather conditions, but I’d never photographed these scenes during a clearing storm lit only by stars and headlights. It was a reminder of why I love photography so much. What other activity would encourage you to go out and witness a clearing storm by starlight – and also engage your imagination and make you push yourself creatively?

— Michael Frye

P.S. I’m sure some of you would like to know the technical details for these images, so here goes:

With my 24mm lens I usually expose starry skies for 20 seconds at f/2.8, 6400 ISO. These settings are compromises. I’d like to use a longer exposure to add more light and show more stars, but then the stars would move and become streaks. I’d like to use a lower ISO, and could do that if I opened up the aperture to f/1.4 or f/2, but my Rokinon 24mm lens is sharper in the corners at f/2.8. (And this is a great lens; most lenses are even worse at wide-open apertures.)

But with these photographs I knew the water reflections would be too dark at my standard exposure, and lightening the water in software would bring out a lot of noise. So for every scene I made two exposures, each for 20 seconds at 6400 ISO, but one at f/2.8, and one at f/1.4. I then blended the two exposures together in Photoshop, using layer masks. In each of these photographs, most of the final image is from the f/2.8 exposure, so it’s nice and sharp, but I blended in the water from the f/1.4 exposure. Since it’s only water, sharpness is less important, and since I didn’t need to lighten it there’s less noise.

This might all sound really complicated, but I’d done things like this before, and didn’t have to think about it too much. It was actually easy to relax and enjoy the beautiful evening during each 20-second exposure.

Three Brothers and the Merced River at night, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Three Brothers and the Merced River at night, Yosemite


El Capitan and the Merced River at night, with Vega (bright star) and the Lyra constellation, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

El Capitan and the Merced River at night, with Vega (bright star) and the Lyra constellation, Yosemite


Related Posts: Storms at Last! Six Images From Tunnel View; Stars Over Three Brothers

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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

November 21st, 2014

The Power of Diagonals

Half Dome at sunset from Tunnel View, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Half Dome at sunset from Tunnel View, Yosemite. The dramatic light might grab your attention here, but the interlocking diagonal lines create a cohesive design and a sense of energy.


 

One of the keys to learning composition is to think abstractly. As Ian Plant says in his excellent ebook about composition, Visual Flow, “Learning to think abstractly about visual elements is the single most important thing you can do to improve your compositional skills.” The less you think about the subject, and the more you think about the underlying abstract design – the lines, shapes, and patterns – the better you compositions will be.

It’s often easier to think abstractly when photographing a small subject, like a pattern of leaves, or a series of cracks in ice. But it’s just as important to look for repeating lines and shapes in big, sweeping landscapes. One of the most common – and powerful – designs in these big scenes is a series of interlocking diagonal lines. Most hilly or mountainous areas have an abundance of diagonals, and diagonal lines give a photograph a sense of dynamic energy and motion – a perfect fit for dramatic landscape images.

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November 15th, 2014

Exposure eBook on Sale!

Exposure for Outdoor Photography

I know many of you have already purchased my ebook Exposure for Outdoor Photography, which I greatly appreciate – thank you so much!

If you don’t own this ebook yet, now is your chance to get a copy at a great price, because Craft & Vision has just put it on sale. Until midnight on Tuesday, November 18th, the book is half price – only $2.50! No discount code is required.

In this ebook I start with a comprehensive discussion of exposure fundamentals like shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and reading histograms, then go deeper by taking you through ten practical, real-life examples where I’ve used these basic principles to control the exposure, the sharpness, and the photograph’s message.

The examples go from easy to complex, and include using a histogram to find the right exposure, controlling depth of field, freezing and blurring motion, when to push the ISO, spot metering and the Zone System, and HDR and exposure blending. I also include several exercises to help improve your technique. It’s a concise, easy to understand, yet comprehensive course in mastering the most important skill in photography.

Again, no discount code is required – you just have to place your order before midnight on Tuesday. Click here to order your copy!

— Michael Frye

Related Posts: New eBook: Exposure for Outdoor Photography; My New eBook is Now Available!; Digital Photography Basics: Reading Histograms

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

November 13th, 2014

Knowing What to Look For

Aspens in fog near Ridgway, CO, USA

Aspens in fog near Ridgway, CO

 
Claudia and I have been busy since our trip to Colorado in early October, so I haven’t had a chance to post more images from our travels until now. But maybe that’s a good thing, as that time has given me a chance to reflect on the journey.

It had been a dream of mine to photograph the autumn aspen display in Colorado, and it more than lived up to my expectations. Colorado veterans said it was the best fall there in many years, and it certainly looked good to us. The sheer number of aspens covering the hillsides was astonishing.

The problem was that I didn’t know the area. At all. I’m usually writing about photographing Yosemite, or maybe the aspens on the eastern side of the Sierra, places that I know intimately. That knowledge is a big advantage, giving me a greater chance of being in the right place at the right time to take advantage of the light, weather, and conditions.

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