This year’s trip into the Eastern Sierra was a little different. I planned well, had many ideas, and in the end had to scrap most of them and improvise. Winter and summer seems to provide just the right conditions for all the gold and yellow I could imagine. The reality is that it was, in what I would call using my extensive knowledge of the English language, weird.
The areas that I expected to be past prime were right on schedule. Sagehen Summit was mostly brown by the time I got over Hwy 120. What surprised me was how much of a mix of past prime and utterly green it was in the valley from Ellery Lake to Lee Vining. Usually when I’m rolling through here it’s popping with yellows, although it’s in the early afternoon and poor quality light for me. Debbie and I usually promise that we’ll stop here on the way home. This time it was obviously unusable.
This year I took my Subaru Forester with the plan that we could get into more remote locations. There are a few dirt roads near Conway Summit and this was the day to explore.
Typically I avoid elements like power lines. They’re not natural and they’re kind of an eyesore. This time I included them as part of the landscape helping lead the viewer into the scene. I didn’t want to get much closer to this grove because the dirt road had a section of deep mud that somebody obviously got stuck in the day before. Judging by the tire tracks he had much more clearance than I did and got stuck anyway. No thanks. I chose to photograph this scene with my Sigma 150-500 to both isolate my subject and bring it closer.
I can seem very busy when photographing a scene like this, especially when it took some effort to get there. This is a continuation of photographs made at Elizabeth Lake just outside of Tuolumne Meadows. I had just a few minutes to scout and get ideas for compositions. This photograph was towards the end of the good light just as the sun was dipping behind the ridge to the west, lighting the granite in the photograph with a warm glow.
This is another photograph made using a telephoto lens rather than my typical wide angle. The lens of choice today was my Canon L-series 70-200 f/4. I like that lens for landscapes because it does a fantastic job without being nearly as heavy as my 70-200 f/2.8.
A few days ago I went with a group of friends to meet up with Tara Magpusao in Tuolumne Meadows. She had just completed hiking a big portion of the John Muir Trail on a solo adventure. Debbie and I had hopes of photographing Elizabeth Lake since it was fairly close by and the conditions were absolutely perfect. It was a wonderful surprise that Tara and some of our other friends were willing to keep hiking with us for the next few miles.
The original plan was to get to Elizabeth Lake much earlier, scout around, and wait for the light to be right. A car mishap thwarted that idea hours earlier near Pleasanton, California. I probably knocked this loose somewhere in the Hollister back country on a related trip a couple of days earlier.
The idea was to get there with enough time to spare so that we could cook some dinner while waiting. It’s only a 4.6 mile hike but with all of the photography gear, dinner, cook kits, etc that meant lugging around something over 25 pounds of gear uphill to about 9500 feet. That’s just 900 feet in elevation from our starting point but I really start feeling the change in altitude once I’m over 9000 feet. (Side note to my friends everywhere else in the world: yes I know “feet”, “miles”, and “pounds” are stupid. I wish we could adequately use the metric system. Funny thing is that when I go running I think in terms of meters for shorter distances.)
I’ve been doing more landscape photography using telephoto lenses recently. They’re very good not only for bringing the subject closer, but also for isolating the subject. In this case the sky above wan’t very interesting, so I planned to crop it out in camera to include more granite and less bland sky above the subject. This was photographed using a Canon 5d Mk III and a Canon 70-200 f/4; f/16 at 200mm. I wanted the trees in the foreground while the granite in the background would have enough detail to be visually interesting. I probably could have done this at f/8 but at the moment I wanted a bit more detail in the background than f/8 would have given me at 200mm.
This photograph is available in different sizes and print methods on my sales site. Contact me if you’d like something customized.
Debbie and I visited June Lake at sunrise in October, 2015. This trip was so full of wonder and surprises. California was in the midst of a long drought and the water in the lake was low. We got here just before sunrise and it was cool but not freezing.
Thoughts about the process at the time
There are a lot of choices I made for this photograph, many that I “past me” and “present me” wouldn’t really agree on. For example the aperture I chose was f/20. I don’t think that was necessary and it had an undesirable result with focus. I was using my Canon 7D Mk II. It’s not a bad camera but today I understand how depth of field is different on a crop sensor than with a full frame sensor. The lens used was a Sigma 17-50mm. It’s not a bad lens, but it’s nowhere near the quality of a Sigma Art series or a Canon L series. I had my reasons for using the Sigma, mostly because I was looking for the highest quality I could get on a strict budget. The body/lens combination worked very well for me for a few years until the lens fell apart. No really, that lens fell apart. A screw came loose inside and it would no longer focus.
What would I do differently today?
I’d definitely use my 5d Mk III (a fairly new addition to my toolset and a L-Series lens). I might use an aperture more like f/16 and possibly stack exposures with different focus points. I’d also probably take it less seriously. I’d probably work less hard at it and enjoy the moment more.
Processing the photograph
I’ve been thinking about my next trip into the Sierra for the past couple of days. I went through my Lightroom library for photographs of June Lake that I could process differently. The color version has a slight glow to the mountains. The lake reflects the sky as a deep blue. That was nice but I really wanted a dramatic black and white. I fuss over my black and whites at length and I love doing it like that. No one-click filters, no one-size-fits-all approach. Each one is different. I dialed down the blues to a near black. I brought down the highlights to recover some details in the clouds. A slight s-curve was added to the midtones selectively to bring out some detail in the foreground rocks. A high pass filter and a layer mask helped with selective sharpening (note, different print processes will have very different results. I keep this as a layer so it can be disabled if it utterly doesn’t work in a print. Finally a vignette was added as an organic shape to draw the viewer’s eye around the photograph.
There are a lot more details to this longer story, but I’ll break that up into smaller posts. It’s only been 4 years, why not draw it out a little longer? Spoiler alert: this trip was legendary.
I have a stretch goal in mind depending on the weather and when I finally turn in. Carrizo Plain just about 2 hours from Pismo Beach; it’s possible for me to get there for sunrise if I’m up by 4:30am. Fortunately for me the couple in the tent nearby is chatty and the guy in the RV the opposite direction snores enough to be mistaken for the train that passes by every so often. So I’m up at 4 instead.
Hwy 58 in the dark.
All I can see is the trees and the road in my headlights. As far as I can tell I’m driving through a long, dark valley. A few miles from Carrizo Plain there are hints of sunrise, meaning that parts of the sky aren’t as dark as other parts of the sky.
Up until then it’s very clear to the south and the moon hasn’t risen. It’s possible to get some shots of the Milky Way but I haven’t done any serious research for this part of the trip. A photograph of the Milky Way without an interesting foreground is just another picture of the Milky Way. Yeah, it’s fairly interesting, but that’s not enough for me today. I’m also very aware of two other big details:
I don’t see anywhere obvious that I could setup safely. It’s rare but there is the occasional other car on the road.
stopping puts my arrival time at Carrizo Plain at risk.
I don’t like to write about things I didn’t do… but I think you’ll excuse me for writing about not taking a picture of the Milky Way this time.
Soda Lake Point View
I’ve done a little research on the area but not a whole lot. There’s a headlamp visible on top of a hill — it takes a moment to realize that this is the Soda Lake Point View that I had in mind for sunrise. Park, hike up the hill, introduce myself, set up my tripod and my camp chair, and wait. It’s just me and the one other photographer and it’s pretty darned cold. I was prepared for the temperature so no big deal. Pretty soon we’re joined by a few more people who camped nearby.
The sun is over the horizon now but hasn’t crested the ridge to the east yet. There’s enough light to create soft shadows along the hills suggesting volume. A few clouds make an increasingly interesting sky.
The foreground becomes more interesting as the flowers become more visible. Every direction offers a compelling composition: volume, color, leading lines. The only thing I purposely ignored was the sun bursting over the ridge.
I wanted to use a telephoto lens to isolate some details of the landscape. You’d be surprised how often I use a telephoto in the field. It’s an opportunity to use the characteristics of the lens not only to bring attention to specific elements, but also compress the background.
Some lenticular clouds moved into the scene as I was shooting. This looked like a good opportunity to switch to a portrait orientation.
Time to get adventurous
Now I wanted to explore. Soda Lake Road eventually turns to dirt after a few miles. The flowers are opening up more as the sun gets higher so I look for more photo opportunities.
The sea of flowers is almost impossible to convey in words. It’s even difficult in photographs. There’s a spot that I liked at the edge of Soda Lake while the light is still good. Flowers, more flowers, pops of white, yellow, purple and it just kept going.
I got back on the road looking for interesting subjects. The light was starting to get bright so there wasn’t much time left for quality photographs. I spotted a shack with a couple of water tanks in the field of grass and flowers against a hilly backdrop.
The pavement ended a few miles ago (yes I’m aware that I switch tense a few times in this story. My favorite grammar experts are probably melting down while reading this. Sorry.) And now there are cows. They’re bewildered by my presence. They’re cows, they’re bewildered by their own shadows.
By about 9:30 am the light is getting too harsh. I’m also super hungry. I know there are a couple of BLM campgrounds along this route and the plan is now to plop down in one, make breakfast, and let whatever happens next happen. That turned out to be that I’d make the best blueberry pancakes ever, make a new friend, and go for a wild flower hike. Note for future reference: the KCL Campground is pretty darned awesome and you can’t beat the price.
My part of the hike was fairly brief. I only had enough time for a couple of miles and then I needed to get back to Pismo Beach. The view from up the hill was pretty spectacular.
For 45 seconds I watched the sun’s light move across Half Dome like a flashlight sweeping across the north face. I wasn’t remotely prepared for this. I was all setup with a telephoto when what I really wanted was my wide angle. I made do with what I had ready to go. Then I saw that storm coming with 4+ miles to hike back in the dark. This was one long, incredible day that I will never forget.
This is a photograph reimagined from a hike out to North Dome with my bud Gary Crabbe in Oct 2016. I had my Canon 70-200 f/4 ready to go with the plan of getting a nice shot of Gary against Half Dome. Then the sun poked between the clouds, lighting up the granite face in a way that I can only hope comes across in this series of photographs. I knew I didn’t have the camera/lens combination that I really wanted for this moment since it was unexpected. So, I filled the frame and ran with it.
I want to do more of this kind of thing. Much, much more.
I spent a fair amount of time with Lightroom and Photoshop to bring the colors about the way that I want to get across. There are competing color temperatures in this so it needed a lot of tweaking. Admittedly there’s still a touch of green that I’m not crazy about in the sky. The funny thing is that there are a lot of reflective surfaces here: the granite, snow, clouds etc. All of these reflect more blues from the sky than you’d really imagine. Bringing that back down to something believable takes some effort (and masking in Photoshop). The foreground is this blazing warm tone: oranges, purples, reds as the sun shone across it. Meanwhile the snow in the background is under cloud cover and is reflecting a lot of blue.
This was shot in a couple of years ago now, and my memory of how it looked isn’t nearly as accurate as how it felt. So here I am trying to bring across how it felt.
A few minutes ago a friend of mine asked about the hike back. That was a great question, so I’ll post my response to Anita here:
We got about a mile before it got genuinely dark. That was a good thing because honestly that first mile it’s kind of hard to pick the trail back up since we were on exposed granite. We made a lot of noise (talking etc) to keep the critters uninterested. By the time we got to the cars it was pretty obvious that we were in for a really good storm. We made it to a little camp site in El Portal where we rode out one hell of a lightning storm. I don’t think I ever slept so soundly. That’s the truth.
I thought it would be worth writing about the creative process and workflow behind this photograph. For a few miles I walked along the trail looking for compositions that I liked. Up high, down low, close to the water, high above. Many things spoke to me here. The whole area was still damp from recent rains and the colors were saturated. There were yellows, oranges, and of course lots of green.
At a turn in the trail I seriously thought about a small cascade. There wasn’t anything especially unique about that cascade and I decided to keep looking. It just didn’t do anything for me at that time. About half a mile later there was a concrete diversion dam. This was a beautiful spot which I wrote about in an earlier post.
Side note:A funny thing about the paragraph above; as I’m developing my blogging style I try to keep in mind how I want this to be read. I want to write it as if I’m talking with a friend over a beer. I started this with “But there were visual elements that compelled me to…” . That may be what I was thinking, but that’s definitely now how I’d say it. So, hang with me please while I get the hang of this.
A lower, rudimentary dam – just concrete and rebar really created a nice vantage point. Some visual elements that had me think about it for a while. I wanted to create a photograph that leads the eye around the frame. As I looked at the scene in the first “A starting point” picture above, I saw the curve of the San Lorenzo River taking up the lower 2/3 of the frame. The river curves, leading the eye to the colorful trees. The reeds half way up the photo do a nice job of framing the river. The rock at the bottom left 1/3 does a nice job of anchoring the scene. The river itself was moving and I thought it would be good to slow down my shutter speed.
Seeing the problems
As I looked at the scene I realized there there were problems. Potentially this would also be a really good topic for a workshop and a blog topic. I’ll try to break this down into bullet points to keep it brief. (note: yeah I kind of failed at the “brief” idea)
The scene was really busy.
The plants (I really want to use a word more interesting than “plants” but does “vegetation” seem like something you’d really hear me say? Probably not) in the center were colorful but they were also total chaos.
The river was nice but it had a lot of distracting reflections
The amount of green was overwhelming. Green on green, with pops of yellow.
I knew that the river would turn this weird unnatural blue in post processing
A gap is in the upper right where the tree line ends and the sky begins. The sky was definitely going to be an uninteresting blown out blob so I composed the shot to omit as much of it as possible.
But here’s the thing — I recognized all of this in the field. I also started thinking about how to approach this in post processing while I was there.
Setting up the shot
I got up on the lower concrete & rebar eyesore dam (it’s really ugly, I’m not mincing words here) and setup my tripod. I stood up and squatted down a few times to decide what height I want to shoot from. I chose a height that was nearly fully extended. I wanted the colorful trees in the background to be in the upper 1/3 of the frame so I setup the lens at 40mm. The composition of photo is very “rule of thirds.” You can see how I placed certain elements in the frame so that the object would be where grid lines would intersect. That’s not an accident.
A lot of reflected light was in the water so I put a circular polarizer on the lens to cut that back some. I wanted a longer exposure and thought that about one second would be nice for the water. This created a problem though; (ooh a semicolon! Fancy schmancy!) stacking circular filters on the lens creates unwanted vignetting. Ditching the circular polarizer wasn’t an option so I decided to use f/16 to reduce the amount of light. I sure didn’t need f/16 for the depth of field. I’m pretty sure this would have been good around f/8. For longer exposures (really anything under 1/40th sec) I like to use a simple remote trigger.
Knowing that I had a lot of depth of field to work with I set my focus manually about 1/3 of the way into the field. That was a pretty good estimate to gauge hyperfocal distance. The result is the elements close to the camera are in sharp focus while my main subject (the colorful trees in the distance) are also in reasonably sharp focus. I use my Canon 5d Mk III’s live view to select where I want to focus, then I zoom in using the zoom buttons on the camera body to tighten it more.
I’m paying attention to the histogram displayed in the live view while I’m working. I set mine up to display values in red, green, and blue rather than the default luminosity. This way I can be sure no individual value is overexposing
Post Processing – Adobe Lightroom
Work in Lightroom was kept very basic with a little exploration into color grading. Most of the work was going to be done in Photoshop. Lightroom was used to bring up the shadows, bring down the highlights. Color temperature was changed to something warmer. The scene was shot in an “open shade” kind of situation which the camera would usually decide is around 6000k.
Finish the job in Photoshop
Basic RAW edits from Lightroom are exported to Photoshop for more work. I usually break this down into a few groups of edits. I use adjustment layers (I keep looking for a phrase that’s more interesting than “a lot…” but hell…) a lot. The great thing about adjustment layers is that it’s as close to “non destructive editing” as you’re going to get in a raster editor like Photoshop.
So many adjustment layers…
A Levels adjustment layer is added where I am working with red, green, and blue channels. I bring the darkest values of each channel to the edge of the meaningful data in the histogram.
Bring some things up, some things down
My goal is to lead the viewer’s eye around the frame. I added an adjustment layer that darkens most of the image. I painted black into the layer mask with a large brush to bring some brightness back up selectively
Color Grading In the Mid Tones
Raya Pro was used to get the mid tones luminosity mask. If right about now you’re cross eyed and saying “wha???” that’s cool. I wanted to be very selective about how I got creative with color. Admittedly I didn’t go wild but this did have a nice effect. No, this isn’t how I actually saw the scene in front of me, but it is how I wanted to present it. That’s the difference between a photograph and a snapshot. I’ll keep this brief, mostly because this post has gotten to be very long and I’m into beer number two while writing it. The YOST SEO plugin is telling me I’m wording poorly.
Below you can see that I was editing the curves for each color channel. The neat thing is that I’m doing this only in the midtones to keep it selective. No, the screenshot below isn’t really an accurate depiction of the whole thing but it gives you the general idea.
Selective color correction
There was probably a better way to do this. I wanted to add a little more contrast. I also thought at the image was too blue. The levels adjustment layer at bottom brings the middle slider for the blues up, reducing the blues in the midtones. The curves layer darkens the darks values a bit, and really just a little bit. The levels adjustment later up top is where I make a custom mask to keep the edits to a portion of the image.
Essentially the river is reflecting a lot of blue from the sky and I found it distracting. That last levels adjustment layer is to bring those blue tones down to something I liked better.
Selective sharpening and a vignette are added last. Sharpening will be different depending the camera used and the final output. My Canon 5d Mk III needs a little more sharpening in post processing than newer Sony mirrorless cameras. I’ve found that the sharpening can also cause problems when the job goes to print. My favorite high end shop, LightSource SF, adds some custom sharpening. I compensate for this by doing my sharpening in an adjustment layer that can be disabled for printing if needed.
Take a closer look at my sharpening layer. It’s a high-pass filter with a layer mask painted black. I paint white with a big, soft brush on that layer mask so the sharpening is applied only to the parts of the image that I really want. The high-pass filter layer is set to an “overlay” or “soft light” mode. Honestly I can’t tell the difference between the modes by looking at them. No, really.
A vignette is used to further draw the eye around. How do you something brighter? One way is to make everything else darker. I make an organic shape using a Wacom Intuos drawing tablet. That vignette is applied to a curve layer and the white parts of the layer mask make darker areas in the final image.
There’s a fairly well known spot in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park referred to as the Garden Of Eden. Rather than my usual workout at the gym I went for a weighted trail run. Granted the “weight” was my camera pack and tripod.
Colorful Diversion Dam
A dam is in place to keep the river diverted in a more controllable manner. Folks have been using this as a canvas for years and the current “selection” is pretty colorful. My goal here was more than going for a run; I was also scouting the area for an upcoming private photography lesson.
Why yes, I do the occasional private workshop.
Contact me about a workshop some time! The workshops are fun, inexpensive, and run 2-3 hours. We get out and explore locations like the Garden Of Eden not only because are they beautiful, they are also very good object lessons. Shutter speed, depth of field, wide angles, and on top of that you had to hike a little so you had to earn it.
Last weekend my daughter and I made a quick run for Taft Point. We were expecting a rain storm soon and I took that to mean that this was going to be the last weekend Glacier Point Road was going to be open for a few months. The Three Brothers were across the valley bathed in a glowing sunset. There was a lot more haze from the ongoing Camp Fire that I dialed down for the sake of this photograph.
In an earlier post I wrote about how wide angle lenses were commonly used in landscape photography. I also hinted that occasionally you might use a telephoto. This is one of those times. Telephotos are excellent for isolating your subject and creative composition. Here I used my Canon 70-200 f/4 L which I prefer for hikes because it is so much lighter than my 70-200 f/2.8.
Haze from lens compression
I was expecting the haze from the smoke to be even more prominent because of lens compression from the telephoto. Honestly it wasn’t much different from when I shot the broader scene with my wide angle. This article on F-Stoppers gives a pretty good explanation for that. Interestingly that article says that lens compression doesn’t exist. I’m not so sure about that, but their writers are paid to research these topics while I’m not. I’ll keep their article in mind.
The last post about landscape photography basics explored a little about something frequently used: wide angle lenses. Another aspect of landscapes is that they often have a greater depth of field compared to portraits, macro, or wild life photographs.
Greater Depth of Field
What the heck does that mean? Usually you are trying to capture a larger scene; a beach, a canyon, a valley, a forest, etc. You are probably trying to capture the experience of being there. Consider what the human eye does in these experiences. You scan the scene. Your eyes will focus on a subject, move, focus on another subject, move, refocus, and so on. Not only that but your pupils dilate and contract to accommodate the different light in the same scene.
To achieve this with your camera you select an aperture that will result in as much of the scene (front to back) in focus as you want. Usually this means an aperture ranging from f/8 to something less than the maximum (that’s usually around f/22).
Right about now you may be wrinkling up your nose thinking…
f slash a number? What the heck does that mean?
That’s a perfectly natural response. For a good beginner-level discussion on the topic read this article on The Exposure Triangle . I’ll summarize it like this:
A lower number is a wider opening in the lens
A higher number is a smaller opening
A larger aperture (wider opening: f/1.8 to 4.0):
Allows in more light
Allows for shorter exposure times
The depth of field is shallow (less in front of and beyond your subject will be in focus). This can be great for isolating your subject by making the background blurry while the subject is in sharp focus. Here is a series of examples shot with a Canon 50mm prime f/1.8 using a Canon 7d Mk II. Each image uses an increasingly small aperture. Notice that each takes a little longer to expose, starting at 1/40 of a second at f/1.8 and ending at 1.6 seconds at f/16
A smaller aperture (smaller opening: f/5.6 to f/22 or more):
Allows in less light
Needs longer exposure times
The depth of field is greater (more stuff in front of and behind your subject will be in focus)
Practical limitations – Chromatic aberration
There are practical limitations that vary depending on lens quality.
Most consumer/hobbyist lenses are optimized for around f/8. Wide open apertures (f/1.4, 2.8, 3.2..) will result in green and purple fringing around edges especially in high contrast areas. This is “chromatic aberration” and drives me kind of bananas personally. Some software is great at compensating for this.
Practical limitations -lens diffraction
Very small apertures (f/18, f/20, f/22…) often have the counterintuitive effect of photos that are less sharp. This is called lens diffraction. A complete discussion is outside the scope of my article … and honestly I struggle to describe it particularly well. Dan Mitchell does a great job of explaining what’s going on while debunking a common digital photography myth. I refer to photographer friends often especially when they’re right.
Below is an example of a photo where I made several mistakes. The focus is softer than I wanted for a couple of reasons. The first is probably because I left the image stabilization engaged on my lens. I’ll explain that later, but don’t do that when you’re using a tripod. The other is that I shot this at f/20 when it wasn’t remotely necessary. f/13 would have done fine and focus suffered because of it.
Is this an example of a photograph that’s “wrong?” Yes and here’s why; I didn’t achieve what I set out to do and the final image needed extensive editing. I liked the result at the time but years later not so much.
Take a closer look here too: chromatic aberration. You don’t need to be using a wide open aperture to find this in your photograph. It’ll be there in high contrast areas at just about any aperture, but it’ll be most obvious when wide open.
Thanks again for reading. I hope it was helpful. Come back for more when I discuss ISO and qualities of light. If you liked what you read then please share with your friends. I love comments and try to respond.