In the Moment:
Michael Frye's Landscape Photography Blog

Developing a Solid Field Routine

Sunbeams from Tunnel View, spring, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Sunbeams from Tunnel View, spring, Yosemite. Having a solid, well-practiced field routine helps me to calmly capture fleeting moments of light like this. 40mm, three auto-bracketed bracketed exposures at f/11, ISO 100.

Do you have a consistent field routine? Do you go through the same steps, in the same order, every time you take photograph?

If you said no, you’re in good company. Most photographers I work with don’t have a solid, consistent field routine.

But I think having this routine is vital. Without one, you’re likely to forget important steps, like setting the right f-stop, or checking sharpness (and then kick yourself later when you realize your mistake). And when a rainbow suddenly appears over Yosemite Valley, or sunbeams break through the fog in a redwood forest, having a solid, consistent routine that you’ve practiced over and over will help you avoid panicking. You can just go through your normal routine and concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other, knowing that you won’t forget an important step.


Storm Over the San Joaquin Valley

Late-afternoon light in the Sierra Nevada foothills, CA, USA

Late-afternoon light in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Most of the photographs I made this afternoon didn’t include a foreground. But I saw this rock outcrop, and kept it in mind for the right opportunity. That opportunity came when the sun slid underneath the clouds and highlighted the jagged forms of the outcrop. 16mm, 1/20th sec. at f/16, ISO 400.

Our winter got off to a wet start in late November and early December, but then fizzled. We hardly got any precipitation during most of December, January, and February – traditionally the wettest months of the year in California, when we get the bulk of our annual rainfall.

That pattern changed a bit in March, with a few good storms to help replenish the previously-anemic Sierra snowpack. And one of our largest storms since last spring is moving into California right now, with forecasters predicting three to four feet of snow above 7,000 feet. Our precipitation for the water year (October 1st through September 30th) will still be below average, but these early-spring storms should, at least, leave us with a decent snowpack for this time of year, with closer-to-normal runoff in our rivers and creeks over the next couple of months, and a more typical summer in the high country.


Soft Images in a Harsh Landscape

Sand dunes at dusk, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Sand dunes at dusk, Death Valley

Sand dunes present an incredible array of shapes, forms, and textures, which makes them highly photogenic. When I first started photographing dunes I was fascinated by those abstract patterns, especially with low-angle light raking across them. And I still am.

But on our last visits to Death Valley, at the end of February and beginning of March, I realized that my tastes have evolved, and I actually prefer photographing the dunes in soft light, before the sun reaches them in the morning, or after the sun leaves them in the evening. At dawn and dusk the dunes can reflect beautiful colors from the sky, turning gold, blue, pink, or even purple. But also, and perhaps more importantly, they look softer. Under that light the dunes look like big, fluffy pillows of sand. They’re less harsh, and more inviting.


How to Keep Your Photography Eye Sharp While Stuck at Home

Huntington Gardens

Huntington Gardens – an irresistible pattern! Captured with my iPhone, like all the photos in this post.

I had planned to write this post before the whole coronavirus lockdown. After all, even in “normal” times, many photographers only pick up their cameras when they’re traveling, or taking a workshop. Then when they go on that special trip they’re rusty, and it takes several days just to get back in the groove and start seeing better.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are two simple tips for keeping your photography eye sharp while you’re stuck at home – and even once you go back to your normal routine.


A Storm Brewing

Rainbow over badlands, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Rainbow over badlands, Death Valley

Claudia and I just got back from two trips to Death Valley. That journey started with a workshop I taught for Visionary Wild, with co-leader Jerry Dodrill. Although Jerry and I didn’t know each other well beforehand, it turns out that we have similar approaches to photography and teaching, plus Jerry is super nice – along with being a wonderful photographer and teacher. We got along really well, and had a great group of participants, so it turned into a really fun workshop.

Claudia actually had to return home early to deal with a minor pet crisis. When I got home after the workshop we saw that Death Valley might be getting some interesting weather: rain and higher-elevation snow, with a flash flood watch. We’d never been in Death Valley during weather like that, so we re-packed the car and drove right back. Camping in the rain with possible flooding – sign me up!


It’s All About the Light

Sunset in a San Joaquin Valley marsh, CA, USA

Sunset in a San Joaquin Valley marsh. We’ve had some beautiful sunsets this winter in that other valley – the Central Valley of California – where the wide horizons can showcase the colorful skies. I made this exposure about 45 minutes after sunset. By then it was so dark that my eyes could barely see the color, but the camera could capture it easily.

Which is more important, the light or the subject?

I would say it’s the light – hands down. After all, we don’t really photograph objects; we photograph the light reflected off of objects. Light has everything to do with how a subject looks, and whether it will make an interesting photograph or not. A great subject with ordinary light will make an ordinary photograph. An ordinary subject with great light could make a great photograph.


Out of Yosemite Conference

Moon rising next to Half Dome, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Moon rising next to Half Dome, Yosemite

The Out of Yosemite conference was so much fun. Exhausting, but well worth it.

It was an honor to teach alongside John Sexton, Alan Ross, Charlie Cramer, Bill Neill, Charlotte Gibb, Franka Gabler, Alex Noriega, Colleen Miniuk, Matt Payne, Jack Curran, Jennifer King, Harold Davis, Tim Cooper, and Michael Shainblum. All these people are talented photographers and educators, but what made this group extra special to me was the nice mix of older and younger generations, plus the connection with Ansel Adams and Yosemite’s photographic history.


Interview with Ian Plant

Stars, Orion, and zodiacal light over an eroded gully, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Stars, Orion, and zodiacal light over an eroded gully, Death Valley

I’ve had a full plate for the last month or so, with several workshops, followed by the Out of Yosemite conference. The conference was really fun, and I’ll have more to say about it soon. But first I wanted to let you know that Ian Plant just posted an interview with me on his YouTube channel. I thought Ian had some great questions. We discussed how I began my career as a wildlife photographer, my night photography, whether I have a personal style, and the balancing act between photographing the things you like while finding an audience for those images. And we talked about how I made some of my photographs, like the Death Valley image above. I hope you’ll enjoy the interview; here’s a link.


Half Dome by Moonlight

Half Dome and the Merced River by moonlight, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Half Dome and the Merced River by moonlight, Yosemite

We had a long stretch of rather dry weather here in central California, with just a few light showers here and there. But last week we finally got a decent storm. A cold front created a brief – but intense – period of precipitation on Thursday afternoon. At our house in Mariposa we saw strong winds prior to the cold front’s arrival, then the sky started dumping ice pellets, which quickly changed to heavy snow. None of the forecasts predicted snow at our elevation, but we got about four inches. After an hour or two the front passed, and the snowfall eased off into scattered snow showers.

Of course I watched the weather closely to see when this brief storm might clear. All the forecasts and models predicted showers lingering through the evening, and skies clearing sometime after midnight – but well before sunrise. That meant it was unlikely there would still be any mist at sunrise, so my best bet to photograph a snowy clearing storm was to go up to Yosemite Valley during the night. A half-full moon was due to rise just after midnight, so that could provide some interesting light during those wee hours.


Crystal Patterns

Ice and reflections, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Ice and reflections, Yosemite. The gold color comes from reflections of sunlit cliffs, while I used a polarizing filter to bring out the prism effects in the ice. 168mm, 3 seconds at f/16, ISO 320; focus-stacked and blended with Helicon Focus.

I love photographing ice. It’s highly photogenic stuff, with lots of interesting patterns, and crystal facets that catch and reflect the light in beautiful ways.

During our recent workshop in Yosemite Valley temperatures were cold enough to create some wonderful ice formations along the Merced River, next to Bridalveil Fall, and in some of the creeks, so of course we had to make time to photograph the ice. We were often looking for places and angles where ice in the shade would catch golden reflections from sunlit cliffs across the valley, adding a splash of color to the patterns. And in some spots, with the right kind of ice, in the right light, we could see prism effects in the ice through a polarizing filter.