Light and Weather

Morning Mist in Yellowstone: Part 1

Sun rising through fog and steam, Yellowstone NP, WY, USA

Sun rising through fog and steam, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming. Standing on a low hill, I moved to position the sun behind the column of steam, in order to avoid lens flare and prevent the sun itself from being completely blown out. With this extreme constrast I bracketed five frames, two stops apart, and blended the exposures with Lightroom’s HDR Merge. 100mm, bracketed shutter speeds, f/11, ISO 100.

If you read this blog regularly you know that I love fog and mist. And few places generate fog and mist as consistently as the thermal areas of Yellowstone during cold weather. Warm, moist air rising from the geysers and hot springs into the colder surrounding atmosphere creates a perfect recipe for mist formation.

During the first part of our stay in Yellowstone the daytime highs were in the low to mid 80s. But the daily temperature fluctuations were tremendous, so the next morning the thermal areas would be near freezing – a difference of around 50 degrees Fahrenheit (or about 28 degrees Celsius). So despite unusually warm days for early September, we still found plenty of steam and fog in the mornings. And toward the end of our stay a cold front came through, temps dropped, and we saw even more mist.

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Into the High Sierra: A Memorable Morning

Morning rainbow over a high-country lake, Sierra Nevada, CA, USA

Morning rainbow over a high-country lake, Sierra Nevada, California. A stitched panorama captured the brief rainstorm and rainbow that appeared at this spectacular lake. (Unfortunately panoramas look rather small here on the blog, but you can click on the image to see it larger.)

A few days after the big deluge on our trip into the Sierra high country, the creek near our camp settled down enough to allow us to cross it, which opened up some new terrain to explore.

Claudia, Franka Gabler and I decided to get up early one morning and hike to a nearby lake for sunrise. The distance wasn’t far, but involved two creek crossings, plus a steep ascent. Sunrise would be just after 6:00 a.m., but we left at 4:30 to give ourselves plenty of time.

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Thunderstorm

Thunderstorm over the Central Valley, CA, USA

Thunderstorm over the Central Valley, California. I blended a series of frames, taken over the course of about 40 minutes, to create this image. Each frame was 20 seconds at f/5.6, ISO 400, and the focal length was 50mm.

Last Wednesday subtropical moisture pushed up from Mexico into California, triggering thunderstorms in parts of the state that rarely see them.

I kept my eye on these storms, but more out of curiosity than with any particular photographic ambitions. That night, as Claudia and I got into the hot tub on our deck (a nightly ritual), we could see an almost continuous series of distant lightning flashes to the southwest. This got me thinking about where I could find a view of this thunderstorm. We got out of the tub, and I took a close look at radar images. One thunderstorm south of Merced looked to be dissipating. But another cluster of cells over Fresno and Madera seemed to be strengthening and moving north, towards us.

I hemmed and hawed a bit. Did I really want to go out in the middle of the night chasing thunderstorms? What if they dissipated before I could photograph them?

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There’s Fog, and Then There’s Fog

Redwoods and rhododendrons in fog, northern California, USA

Redwoods and rhododendrons in fog, northern California. Some dense coastal fog helped simplify this forest scene and add a soft, ethereal mood. 35mm, 1.5 seconds at f/16, ISO 200.

I half-jokingly refer to our redwoods workshop as the “Chasing Fog” workshop. The northern coast of California is definitely fog-prone (though there are never any guarantees). And fog can add so much to photographs of the redwood forests, or scenes of the meadows, rivers, or coast, so I try to take advantage of fog whenever and wherever I find it.

But fog is also fickle stuff. We’ve been going up to this corner of California every year since 2011 (except 2020), and every year I see the fog behave in new ways. Sometimes the fog will get into a pattern for a few days in a row, but inevitably that pattern gets disrupted by something – high pressure, low pressure, a cold front, a wind shift – and the pattern changes, or the fog disappears completely.

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Simplifying Forest Scenes

Lichen-covered rhododendron, northern California, USA

Lichen-covered rhododendron, Northern California. This was an overcast day, and the soft, even light helped simplify this complex scene, and emphasize the color contrasts between the pink rhododendrons and various shades of green. I used a long lens to isolate the rhododendron against a dark, leafy background. Moving closer with a shorter lens would have required looking up at the top of the tree, forcing me to include bright, distracting patches of sky. 159mm, 1/4 sec. at f/16, ISO 800, polarizing filter to cut reflections on the leaves.

Forests can be challenging to photograph. They’re beautiful, but cluttered, and often visually chaotic.

Creating order out of that chaos requires finding ways to simplify things. That’s one of the reasons fog is so helpful for these scenes: it obscures the background, reducing the clutter. (It also lends a wonderful atmosphere to the photographs.)

During our recent workshop in the redwoods we did get some fog, and even sunbeams. I’m sure I’ll post some of those photos down the road.

But there were also many occasions before, during, and after the workshop when we didn’t have fog, and I was photographing forests in soft light, or with sunlight filtering through the trees. What then?

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River Light

Winding river, Grand Canyon NP, AZ, USA

Winding river, Grand Canyon NP, Arizona. 78mm, 20 seconds at f/11, ISO 100, 10-stop ND filter.

In 1540 Spanish Conquistadors became the first Europeans to ever see the Grand Canyon. They greatly underestimated the scale of what they were seeing. Looking down from the rim they thought the river was six feet wide (the average width is actually 300 feet). Rocks that they thought were as tall as a man turned out to be 300 feet high.

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