Light and Weather

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Another Yosemite Sunrise

Half Dome and El Capitan during a clearing storm, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Half Dome and El Capitan during a clearing storm, Yosemite



We’ve seen a pretty active weather pattern here in California since late November. There haven’t been any big storms, but rather a series of smaller systems. Each dose of precipitation brings a chance to photograph a clearing storm – if the timing is right. And the timing has been perfect a few times.

My last post featured a sunrise clearing storm on Christmas Eve. The photographs in this post were actually made about a week before that, when another small weather system cleared just before sunrise.

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