Willows and cottonwoods in late-afternoon light, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Willows and cottonwoods in late-afternoon light, Yosemite. The outstanding resolution of the Sony A7r allowed me to make a 40×60-inch print that captures all the fine detail of this image.

I don’t review or even talk about equipment very often, but I reviewed the 36-megapixel Nikon D800E last summer because I think it’s such an important, game-changing camera for landscape photography, with exceptional resolution and low noise. Like many Canon users, I’ve been waiting for Canon to offer a competitor to the D800 and D800E. Rumors keep circulating about a 40-megapixel Canon camera, but so far nothing more substantial than a rumor has appeared.

Then last fall Sony announced their new full-frame, mirrorless Alpha A7 and A7r cameras – the A7 with 24 megapixels, and the A7r with 36 megapixels. The A7r uses essentially the same sensor as the Nikon D800E (though Sony says they’ve improved it). For a Canon user like me, the A7r was intriguing because some readily-available adapters could be used to mount my Canon lenses on it. The short distance between the sensor and the A7r’s lens mount makes it possible fit an adapter between Canon or Nikon lenses and the camera, and still be able to focus at infinity. So I could potentially get the resolution and noise control of the D800E without having to make a large investment in new glass. And the A7r seemed reasonably priced at around $2300 (though adding an adapter and battery grip brings it close to $3000).

But I had some big questions. The A7r is a mirrorless camera, so would I miss a real, optical viewfinder? How well would my Canon lenses function with the adapters? And what about “shutter-shake,” and other potential problems that I’d read about online?

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Lunar eclipse sequence, April 14th and 15th, Trona Pinnacles, CA, USA

Lunar eclipse sequence, April 14th and 15th, Trona Pinnacles, CA, USA

Monday night’s lunar eclipse didn’t seem to line up well with any of Yosemite’s features, so I started looking for other locations – preferably someplace with clear, dark skies, and an interesting foreground. Death Valley came to mind, but then I thought of the Trona Pinnacles, near Ridgecrest. I’d never been there, but it seemed like an appropriately “lunar” landscape – so much so that the pinnacles have frequently been used to represent alien landscapes in sci-fi movies, including Star Trek V and Planet of the Apes.

Claudia and I drove down there on Monday and arrived about an hour before sunset. And what a great spot! I wondered why it had taken me so long to visit this striking landscape. The pinnacles are actually ancient tufa towers, like those at Mono Lake, left high and dry by the evaporation and shrinking of Searles Lake.

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April 8th, 2014

Snow at Last

Sunrise from Tunnel View after a snowstorm, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Sunrise from Tunnel View after a snowstorm, last Wednesday morning

In this dry winter, snow has been rare in Yosemite Valley, but last Tuesday night the valley got about six inches of new snow. Wednesday the skies cleared, and mist rose around the cliffs – a beautiful morning for photography.

I drove up to the park early and started at Tunnel View, then moved to several other places in the valley, and didn’t stop photographing until the sun had melted most of the snow out of the trees. It was definitely a fun morning, and I’ve included a few of my photographs here.

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Lunar Eclipse Sequence, 1:23 a.m. to 4:49 a.m., August 28, 2007, Yosemite NP, CA

Lunar Eclipse Sequence, 1:23 a.m. to 4:49 a.m., August 28, 2007, Yosemite NP, CA

On the night of April 14th and 15th viewers in North and South America will be able to see a total lunar eclipse. Most people should be able to see the whole eclipse sequence (weather permitting), though viewers in the far northeast will miss the very end of the event.

I’ve photographed several lunar eclipses, and they’re spectacular events to view and photograph. This one is special, however, because it’s the first time I might be able to see the whole eclipse sequence from beginning to end. In California the eclipse will seen almost due south. This is not a great alignment for Yosemite Valley, though it should be possible to see the eclipse over Cathedral Rocks or Sentinel Rock. But California is a diverse state with many other possible locations, so I’ll be thinking about other possible locations between now and the 14th.

If you’re interested in photographing the eclipse, I’ve written a guest post about it for the Borrowlenses.com blog. Although I’ve posted other articles about eclipses before, this new article is the most complete and comprehensive, with details about focusing in the dark, revised exposure times, how to align the eclipse with a foreground object (like a building, mountain, or tree), and more.

This is one night when I hope the clouds will stay away. :)

— Michael Frye

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Poppies in the Merced River Canyon, Sierra NF, CA, USA

Poppies in the Merced River Canyon, yesterday afternoon

The poppies in the Merced River Canyon have defied my expectations. Not only did they survive the series of storms over the last two weeks, but the bloom has expanded further up the hillsides to some of the highest ridge tops, and east towards El Portal. The stretch on the north side of the river, about three miles east of Briceburg (and opposite the Slate Creek Bridge), looks particularly good, as does Grandy’s Hill a couple of miles further east.

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March 31st, 2014

Rainbow Weather

Rainbow over Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Rainbow over Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View, 5:59 p.m. yesterday

Yesterday was a wonderful day for photography in Yosemite Valley. When I arrived before sunrise I found two inches of unpredicted fresh snow, and lots of mist. I met my two workshop students and we spent the next couple of hours photographing beautiful, misty, clearing-storm scenes from several spots: Tunnel View, along the Merced River looking at El Capitan and Three Brothers, and from Swinging Bridge toward Yosemite Falls.

The snow melted quickly, and in the afternoon some small (also unpredicted) showers moved through the valley. Driving through rain I noticed the sun starting to break through, and realized that a rainbow might become visible from Tunnel View. Sure enough, when we arrived at Tunnel View we found a rainbow arching over the valley. We grabbed a couple of quick, handheld photos, but the rainbow faded quickly.

It was frustrating, especially since this was the second time I’d arrived at Tunnel View just a little too late to catch a rainbow. But I reasoned that the conditions were right, and the same thing could happen again, so we waited. Eventually another shower moved through, and a patch of blue sky teased us into thinking that a rainbow might appear, but that hole in the clouds closed up and it started sprinkling again. We finally decided to give up and go elsewhere. As we were packing our gear, I noticed that the sky looked a little lighter to the west, so we drove through the tunnel to see what things looked like on the other side. Promising, as the sun was breaking through and hitting the canyon near Cascade Fall.

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March 30th, 2014

Divided No More

Half Dome and Yosemite Valley with fog, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Half Dome and Yosemite Valley with fog, Thursday morning

Not long ago, photographers were divided into two camps: color photographers, and black-and-white photographers. Sure, there were some people who did both, and even some who did both well, but they were rare. Most photographers specialized in one medium or the other – and I use that word deliberately, because it almost seemed like they were different mediums, not just different palettes.

Part of this was the materials. You had to decide, before you put in a roll of film, whether you wanted to photograph in color or black and white, and then you were committed to that choice for the next 36 frames. This encouraged you to stick with what you liked and knew best.

Also, color and black and white required different skill sets. Apart from the ability to “see” in color or black and white, processing and printing color film was (and is) difficult, and most color photographers, even serious ones, avoided it by using transparency film and outsourcing the processing and printing to labs. You could do that with black and white too, but getting the most out of black-and-white film required (and still requires) doing it yourself, with access to a darkroom, and possession of considerable printing skills.

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March 24th, 2014

Wildflower Update

Poppies and canyon oak, Sierra foothills, Sierra NF, CA, USA

Poppies and canyon oak, Sierra foothills

I made this photograph yesterday in the Merced River Canyon, west of Yosemite. It’s hard to tell here, but I was actually looking straight down a steep hillside toward the oak, using the curving lines of the little gully to lead the viewer’s eye to the tree.

As you can tell from the photo, there are still lots of poppies in this area. Since my last visit, patches of orange have spread up the hillsides further, and while I don’t think this year’s display will approach the vibrance of 2009 or 2012, there are plenty of poppies, and plenty of poppy photographs to be made. The redbuds are also progressing nicely. They’ll probably reach their peak in about five to ten days, but there are many photogenic specimens now.

The poppies may not last long, however. A fairly substantial storm is forecast to reach us on Tuesday night and Wednesday, with half and inch to an inch of rain expected in Yosemite Valley, and up to ten inches of snow above 7,000 feet. Poppies like sun, so the rain is likely to make some of the already-blooming poppies pack it in for the season. There may be some areas where poppies are just starting to emerge that may not be affected, or may even benefit from the rain, but we might not see extensive blooms after this storm. The redbuds, on the other hand, probably won’t be affected by the rain, and should still be great photo subjects for another couple of weeks.

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March 20th, 2014

Hite’s Cove Poppies

Poppies along the Hite's Cove Trail, Merced River Canyon, Sierra NF, CA, USA

Poppies along the Hite’s Cove Trail, Merced River Canyon, Sierra NF, CA, USA

Claudia and I drove up the Merced River Canyon yesterday and found that the poppy bloom has continued to expand since I last checked on Sunday. The flowers near the beginning of the Hite’s Cove Trail are near their peak, as are the other poppy patches down near the bottom of the canyon, especially across the river about three miles east of Briceburg. The bloom is spreading higher on some of the hillsides, and I’m hoping that trend will continue and we’ll see whole hillsides covered in orange like we did two years ago.

Yesterday afternoon Claudia and I walked along the beginning of the Hite’s Cove Trail, where I made the accompanying photograph. I’m always looking for patterns, and found this zigzag design on the steep hillside above the trail. This is one of the few situations where I’ve used straight-on frontlight. I usually prefer soft light (shade or overcast) for colorful subjects like this, but direct frontlight is the next-best thing, since the light is even and nearly shadowless. And since poppies only open when they’re in the sun, frontlight is sometimes the best option.

The redbuds have also made progress. About 60 percent have started to bloom, though most of those are not fully out yet. I’d guess that they’ll peak in a week or two, but you can find some photogenic specimens now.

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March 17th, 2014

A Good Year for Poppies?

Wildflowers above the South Fork of the Merced River, Sierra NF, CA, USA

Wildflowers above the South Fork of the Merced River, March 25th, 2009

We’ve had an exceptionally dry winter, but a few well-timed storms in late February provided sufficient moisture for the poppies to start blooming in the Merced River Canyon, along Highway 140 west of Yosemite. I drove up the canyon on Wednesday and saw scattered patches of poppies. By yesterday afternoon the bloom had progressed considerably, with larger, denser swaths of orange on the hillsides.

The best poppy blooms in this area often follow dry winters. Wet winters create a thick, tall carpet of foothill grasses that crowd out the poppies, while drier conditions lead to sparser grasses and more room for poppies. The two best blooms I’ve seen, in 2009 and 2012, both occurred after below-average winter precipitation. It’s too early to tell whether this year will be that good, but the rapid spread of flowers within the last four days is a good sign. If things keep progressing the bloom could be spectacular by next weekend. Or not. I’ll keep you posted!

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