Advanced Techniques

San Joaquin Valley Sunset

White-faced ibises, goldfields, and a vernal pool at sunset, San Joaquin Valley, CA, USA

White-faced ibises, goldfields, and a vernal pool at sunset, San Joaquin Valley, Calfornia

There’s often an element of luck in landscape photography. Of course, as Ansel Adams said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” You have to try to put yourself in the right place at the right time, and then make the most of the opportunities you get. But sometimes luck goes above and beyond.

Yesterday Claudia and I made a day trip to the Bay Area on business, and on our way home we decided to check out some vernal pools in the San Joaquin Valley. Vernal pools fill with water during the winter rainy season, and then slowly evaporate during the spring. As they evaporate, flowers grow along their shores, sometimes forming concentric rings of color. As California’s Central Valley got plowed and paved over, vernal pools became increasingly scarce, so they’re home to several rare species of plants and animals. Most of the remaining vernal pools can be found along the edges of the valley, where the land rises slightly, but the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge complex and Great Valley Grasslands State Park have preserved some vernal pools in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, and that’s where we headed.


A Snowy Day

Snowy oaks, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Snowy oaks, Yosemite. 1/125th of a second at f/11, 800 ISO, 150mm.

On Wednesday Claudia and I were in Yosemite Valley during a snowstorm. At times the snow was heavy, and wet, with big, fat flakes falling. It’s difficult to keep the camera dry and prevent water drops from getting on the lens under those conditions, but if you can manage that stuff you can find some beautiful scenes. The falling snow thickens the atmosphere, creating a fog-like effect, and the falling flakes themselves add to the snowy mood.

When it’s raining or snowing a lens hood is essential to keep water drops off the front glass. You also need to constantly check the front of the lens to make sure it’s clean, because it’s hard to see the drops through the viewfinder, but they become glaringly obvious later when looking at the images on a big screen, and are often impossible to clone out or otherwise fix. Telephoto lenses have longer hoods, which are better for keeping the front glass dry; all the photos here except one were made with my 70-200mm zoom.


Morning Light, Gates of the Valley

Morning light, Gates of the Valley, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Morning light, Gates of the Valley, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

After the big rainstorm last week I drove up to Yosemite Valley early Wednesday morning. I knew there wouldn’t be fresh snow, but I hoped for some mist and interesting light. It turned out that mist was scarce, probably due to below-freezing overnight temperatures, but there was a little bit here and there.

I stopped at a couple of places, and found myself at Gates of the Valley (aka Valley View) as the sun started to hit El Capitan and light up the clouds above. After making a few photographs with fast shutter speeds, I decided it would be more interesting to smooth out the water with a very slow shutter speed. My seven-stop neutral-density filter did the trick, allowing me to lengthen the exposure to 15 seconds. Thinking about the nighttime panorama I made from this spot recently, I decided to try that again, using my 24mm Rokinon lens in a vertical orientation, and making four exposures to capture the broad sweep of this scene. After a few minutes the light actually got more interesting, with a thin beam of sunlight raking across the face of El Cap.


When a Scene Composes Itself

Sun setting over the Pacific Ocean, Samual H. Boardman SP, OR, USA

Sun setting over the Pacific Ocean, southern Oregon

After our redwoods workshop, Claudia and I drove north and spent a couple of days along the Oregon coast. I’d never been to this area before, so on our first afternoon we scouted a number of locations north of the town of Brookings. We made several short hikes down steep trails to the coast, with correspondingly steep climbs back out. Though we found some nice spots, none made me jump up and down. Sunset was approaching, and I had to decide where to go. I could see some interesting sea stacks to the north, and decided to drive in that direction.

But we never made it to those sea stacks, because before we could get there we checked one more viewpoint, and immediately realized we didn’t need to go any further. We’d found a scene that practically composed itself, with all the elements nicely balanced and arranged: two stands of silhouetted trees on a ridgeline, with an offshore rock placed perfectly in the gap between the trees, and another rock spaced neatly out to the left. There was even a scalloped line of waves in the foreground to lead the eye toward that gap and the distant rock.


Photographing Sunbursts

Photographing Sunbursts: Aspens and morning sunlight along Rush Creek, Inyo NF, CA, USA

Aspens and morning sunlight, Inyo NF, CA, USA

I’ve always felt that the best photographs capture a mood or feeling. It’s easier to convey a mood when the weather gets stormy, but how do you capture a mood on a clear, sunny day? The answer, I think, is to go with it—to emphasize the sun, the blue sky, and the brightness of the day. Find the visual elements that say “beautiful, sunny day,” and highlight them.

One way of doing this is to include the sun in the frame. Nothing says “sunny and bright” like the sun itself. But putting the sun in your photograph brings challenges. First, you’re likely to get lens flare. This is not the end of the world—in fact, many photographs use lens flare to great effect—but sometimes the flare can be distracting. The other challenge is getting the exposure right.


Zone System Article in Photograph Magazine

Zone System: Photograph_ZoneSystem

The summer issue of Photograph, Craft & Vision’s quarterly magazine, just came out today, and it includes a new article I wrote called “When Old Meets New: Understanding the Zone System.”

Digital Photography today gives us tremendous control over image contrast, but even with all this control, we’re still missing the answers to some basic questions: What is my camera’s real dynamic range? Will this scene fit within that range? If so, how do I determine the right exposure? When do I need to bracket exposures and use HDR?

Luckily, the Zone System give us a framework for answering these questions. I’ve written about the Zone System before, but in this new article I dive even further into how the Zone System relates to digital photography, and how it can answer those questions about image contrast. I include instructions for how you can test your camera’s true, usable dynamic range, how you can use this knowledge to make better exposures in the field, and how you can apply the Zone System to the digital darkroom.