August 23rd, 2015

Dodging the Walker Fire

Helicopter over the Walker Fire, Inyo NF, near Lee Vining, CA, USA, 8/16/15

Helicopter over the Walker Fire from Highway 395, last Sunday evening

Our Starry Skies Adventure workshop turned out to be a little more adventurous than we thought. Just before we left our home in Mariposa last Saturday to head for the workshop I checked the satellite photos online. The Rough Fire near King’s Canyon National Park had been sending smoke north, so I was keeping an eye on it. But my last-minute check revealed a new smoke plume just to the southwest of Mono Lake. Uh oh. Our workshop was based in Lee Vining, on the west shore of Mono Lake, only a few miles from that smoke plume.

I could see the smoke from this new fire on one of the Yosemite webcams. I found that it was called the Walker Fire, and that it had started the night before near Walker Lake, but I couldn’t find any up-to-date information about the fire’s size and location. When Claudia and I left home about 3:00 p.m. the Tioga Road (Highway 120) through the park was still open. But when we got to Tuolumne Meadows we found that the fire had closed the road between the eastern entrance of the park and Highway 395. What do we do now? We decided we had to drive around over Sonora Pass and check out the fire in person. That meant five extra hours of driving, and a long night ahead of us.

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Lightning over the San Joaquin Valley from the Sierra Nevada foothills, California, USA

Lightning over the San Joaquin Valley from the Sierra Nevada foothills, California, USA

This summer I’ve often heard my fellow Californians making comments like, “Weird weather we’re having,” or “Interesting weather, isn’t it?” Yes indeed. Typically most of the state receives no precipitation from May through September, but this summer we’ve had lots of subtropical moisture drifting northward into the state, triggering showers and thunderstorms. The rains have mostly been light and scattered, so haven’t made any real dent in the drought, but have created interesting conditions for photography.

Last Thursday forecasters predicted another subtropical surge approaching, but we didn’t see much sign of it at our house. Then Claudia and I got into our hot tub around 10:30 p.m. (our nightly ritual before going to bed) and immediately noticed distant flashes of lightning. We couldn’t figure out where they were coming from at first; maybe the west? So I got out of the tub to check radar images, and saw that the nearest storms that could possibly be creating lightning were near the coast! That seemed impossibly far, but then last summer at Mono Lake, during our Starry Skies workshop, we saw distant flashes of lightning, and they turned out to be in eastern Nevada, 200 miles away. So yes, it was indeed possible to see flashes from lightning in the coast ranges, only 80 miles from our house.

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Sunbeams in a redwood forest, northern California coast, USA

Sunbeams in a redwood forest, northern California coast, USA

When doing critiques I often encounter otherwise-wonderful images, with simple, strong compositions, great light, and nice color, but lacking an essential ingredient: a focal point. Viewers need something to latch onto, and if they don’t find it right away they feel lost. You have to take them by the hand and say, “Here, look at this.”

The photograph above has an obvious focal point — the sun. From there your eyes can travel along the radiating light beams out to the rest of the frame.

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July 26th, 2015

Mirrors and Ripples

Clouds and Mammoth Peak reflected in an alpine tarn, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Clouds and Mammoth Peak reflected in an alpine tarn, Yosemite (1/90th of a second)

I love mirror reflections. The symmetry they create, with the bottom of the photograph mimicking the top, almost automatically adds repetition and creates patterns, helping to unify the image and give it rhythm.

The photograph above is a good example. I made this about two weeks ago near Tioga Pass, with some fantastic clouds passing by late in the afternoon. It’s not a perfect mirror, as the water is slightly rippled, but it’s close enough. The clouds and their reflections form a big X through the picture, a pattern that echoes some of the diagonals in the mountains. This design draws your eye from the middle of the frame out to the corners, giving the image a sense of dynamic energy. None of that would happen without the mirror reflections.

On the other hand, I love rippled water too. Read the rest of this entry »

July 23rd, 2015

Back From the High Country

Sunset clouds reflected in an alpine tarn, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Sunset clouds reflected in an alpine tarn, Saturday evening. This was a spectacular sunset that seemed to last forever. Believe it or not I actually toned down the pink color – it was pretty intense.

My Hidden Yosemite workshop with The Ansel Adams Gallery ended Sunday evening, and since then I’ve been catching up on work – and sleep! The days are long this time of year, which meant early starts and late evenings during the workshop, but it was all worth it, and we had a wonderful time.

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July 12th, 2015

High Mountain Sanctuary

Sunset at Tenaya Lake, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Sunset at Tenaya Lake, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

On Wednesday I’ll be starting my 10th Hidden Yosemite workshop. I always enjoy this class because we can do some hiking, get away from the crowds, and go to some of my favorite locations in the high country. It’s such a pleasure to feel the crisp, cool air, and see the intense light. And, of course, the area is wonderfully photogenic.

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July 6th, 2015

Cloud Patterns

Half Dome from Glacier Point, late afternoon, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Half Dome from Glacier Point, late afternoon, Yosemite; for a brief moment the clouds formed a zigzag pattern above Half Dome.

Last week I mentioned that the weather forecast called for monsoonal moisture to move up into the Sierra Nevada from the south, with possible showers and thunderstorms. And sure enough, things unfolded pretty much as predicted. Rain was very localized; we got sprinkled on a couple of times at our house in Mariposa, but other nearby areas got dumped on when they received a direct hit from a thunderstorm.

Wednesday night brought thunder to the foothills near our house – that’s when I made the lightning photograph from my last post. But we saw interesting clouds all week. Claudia and I made two trips to Glacier Point, and I also photographed some beautiful moonlit clouds from our driveway, and made a trip into the lower foothills, where I found some striking, colorful sunbeams.

What do all these photographs have in common – aside from clouds? Patterns. All of these images have some kind of repeating pattern or design in the clouds.

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July 3rd, 2015


Lightning over the Sierra Nevada foothills, Mariposa County, CA, USA

Lightning over the Sierra Nevada foothills, Mariposa County, CA, USA

We had some pre-Fourth-of-July fireworks here Wednesday night. At about 11:00 p.m. I let our dog Rider out before going to bed, and noticed flashes in the sky to the south. Sleep could wait! Claudia and I headed to a nearby viewpoint on Triangle Road, and saw lightning in three separate storm cells to the southeast, south, and southwest.

When watching thunderstorms you often only see cloud-to-cloud lightning, but on this night we could see some distinct bolts hitting the ground. I watched closely to try to determine where the most lightning activity was taking place. My first try didn’t work, but then another spot further to the right seemed to become more active, so I pointed my camera there, locked the tripod, and captured a series of 30-second exposures (each at f/9.5, 800 ISO). This photograph is a blend of five separate frames capturing seven or eight lightning bolts.

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July 1st, 2015

A Cure for Soft Lenses?

First light on peaks above North Lake, Bishop Creek Canyon, Inyo NF, CA, USA

First light on peaks above North Lake, Bishop Creek Canyon, Inyo NF, CA, USA

In my recent post about high-resolution cameras, I stressed the importance of sharp lenses to get the most out of these 36+ megapixel sensors. But lens sharpness is an issue with any camera – at least when you start making larger prints. Even with a 16- or 20-megapixel sensor, lenses make a significant difference in large prints (16×20 inches and up). This is especially true in the corners; most professional-quality lenses are sharp enough in the center (at least with middle apertures like f/8 or f/11) for even a 36-megapixel camera. It’s the corners and edges that separate the decent lenses from the great ones. Those great ones are hard to find, and tend to be expensive.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could fix imperfect lenses with software? Well yes, of course. But my experience with such fixes hasn’t been good. I’ve seen some great before-and-after examples online showing a blurry photo fixed with software, but when I’ve tried those programs myself I’ve invariably been disappointed. These cures tend to be just more-sophisticated sharpening methods, which may help a little, but if you apply more than a small amount things get really crunchy, or you see other weird artifacts. I can usually do just as well by selectively adding more sharpening to the corners in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw.


A few months ago I stumbled across another program that promised to help with fuzzy images, called Piccure+. I decided to download the free trial, and found that it worked surprisingly well. It’s not a magic bullet; there’s really no substitute for sharp lenses. But it can help with those soft corners, or overall softness caused by diffraction. Like any of these tools, it will definitely make the image look too crunchy if you overdo it, but I’ve been able to push the sharpening effect further in Piccure+ than with other software I’ve used, with good results and minimal artifacts.

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June 28th, 2015

Photography Weather

Sunset over an alpine lake, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Sunset over an alpine lake, Yosemite

After a long stretch of blue skies, subtropical moisture is moving into the Sierra Nevada this week. That means clouds, thunderstorms, maybe a rainbow or two, and possibly even a chance to photograph lightning – in other words, photography weather! Here are the forecasts for Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows.

This is a typical weather pattern for the Sierra in summer. We’ll get stretches of clear blue skies, then subtropical moisture will move in for a few days, a week, or sometimes even longer, triggering afternoon showers and thunderstorms. Although some clouds and showers are likely this week, it’s hard to predict exactly what will happen on any given day, as the individual storm cells are usually small and localized, and can form and dissipate quickly. It helps to watch which direction the clouds are moving, and, if you can get an internet connection, keep an eye on weather radar. Of course you need to stay away from lightning, and avoid high, exposed ridges when thunderstorms are around.

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