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.
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.
I’m asked about photography topics fairly often. The questions are usually pretty similar so I thought it was time to start writing. This was going to be one short post. Of course that became a very long post which I thought nobody was going to seriously read, so breaking it up into smaller chunks seemed like a better idea.
Photography can be a complicated subject. Something I’d like to get across early is there is no universal “right” or “wrong”; you either achieved what you set out to do or you didn’t. When people ask me “did I do this right?” I can only ask “what were you trying to do?” Then we can work backwards from there. Having said that, here are some aspects of landscape photography that are common. Let’s start by talking about wide angle lenses.
Many landscape photos share these characteristics:
Wide angle lenses
Greater depth of field
Longer exposure times
A sense of drama
Let’s start Part One with Wide Angles lenses
I see most landscape photos shot using wide angle lenses.
18-24mm is a typical “wide angle”
14-17mm is a very wide angle
10mm is a ludicrously wide (OK it’s usually called “ultra-wide”) angle
I have used a handful of wide angle lenses of varying quality. My favorites have been the Sigma 17-50 and the Canon 17-40
There are of course plenty of perfectly good reasons to use a telephoto for landscapes. Let’s talk about that another time.
Wide angles will behave differently depending on the type of camera involved.
A full frame camera (Nikon 7xx/8xx-series, Canon 6d/5d series for a couple of examples) using a 17mm lens will result in a lot of distortion on the image. This probably isn’t something you’d want to use for a portrait.
A crop frame camera (most consumer and enthusiast cameras like the Nikon 3xxx/5xxx/7xxx, Canon Rebels, 20d-80d, etc) have a sensor that’s quite a bit smaller than their full frame counterparts (side note: the Canon 7d series is an interesting beast: a crop frame, pro camera). 18mm-20mm is still pretty wide and nice for landscapes. A wide angle lens on a crop frame camera will result in a little less distortion, but it will still be there.
Take a closer look at this detail of the trees at the right side of the frame. There’s some distortion but it’s not awful A fair amount of editing went into this photograph.
Is wider better? That’s up to you.
There’s some misunderstanding that wider angles necessarily let you capture more. Yes and no. When you edit the photo to compensate for the distortion then some of that width gets cropped out.
Take a closer look at the bottom edge of the photo. You can get a better idea of the image distortion
To me landscape photography is more about art than necessarily a journalistic/accurate representation of a scene. Everything is up to the vision of the artist using the camera in my opinion. You either got what you meant to achieve or you didn’t. There is no “wrong”. I say this a lot.
Check back for Part Two where we discuss depth of field and aperture. Did you like what you read? Leave a comment or share with your friends. Thank you for reading!
This is one of those stories that feels like it deserves a much longer post. For the past few years my cousin Debbie and I have ventured into Yosemite looking for wildflowers in the spring. This year was a little different. We had a little extra time, we were excited about exploring parts of Yosemite that we’ve never really spent much time in, and we were both in really good physical condition.
I found a good deal on a stay at the Wawona Hotel (now known as the “Big Trees Lodge”) so we could hike up to Chilnualna Falls. We did our research, and had some pretty good ideas. We both also felt up to the challenge of carrying our favorite gear.
The stretch goal
We had a stretch goal depending on how long it took us to get to the main fall. Above the waterfall are the streams that flow into the falls themselves. I wanted to visit here mostly because it seemed like it would be remote and uncrowded. That was an understatement. We encountered very few people the whole trip and none at all after passing the main waterfall. We had this place to ourselves and it was glorious.
Actually getting to our stretch goal destination was something of a comedy of errors. Note, that’s absolutely normal for us. The trail was washed out and we had to do a little bushwhacking. That meant getting creative crossing yet another stream then essentially losing the trail once we got to the other side. Thankfully some hikers before us stacked up some stone ducks pointing the way.
The primary goal
The primary goal was of course Chilnualna Falls. We backtracked our way here with a minimum of mishaps. I envisioned a long exposure of the water rushing over the middle cascade and flowing to the lower cascade behind me. I had a very wide angle in mind. 17mm on a full frame Canon is really wide and distortion was expected. I liked it and ran with it.
I switched lenses to my Canon 70-200. For some reason I chose to bring my obnoxiously heavy 70-200 f/2.8. In retrospect my 70-200 f/4 would have been a better choice for any of a dozen reasons, but hey this is what I brought and fitness-knucklehead me, I was up for carrying it.
Time to go.
We stayed for a while and enjoyed the place until it was obviously time to go. We needed to hussle back downhill before we ran out of daylight entirely. Along the way I couldn’t help but stop and photograph the beautiful scenes unfolding in front of me.
My tripod was strapped to my pack and I just didn’t have time to dawdle much. The remaining shots where hand held at higher ISO. These were moments that I just wanted to capture. It was something of an attempt to take this home with me and remember the experience.
While passing these last scenes I could here the voice of Gary Crabbe reminding me these words of wisdom:
If it looks good, shoot it. If it looks better shoot it again