Trees, Granite, and Alpenglow at Elizabeth Lake

Trees, Granite, and Alpenglow at Elizabeth Lake, September 2019

This photograph is available from my sales site at:
https://studiocomradz.smugmug.com/SeanMcLean/i-gWvNp5j/A

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.

Fun snapshot courtesy Tara Magpusao. There are almost never pictures of me so this is pretty cool 🙂

Elizabeth Lake, Yosemite National Park

Elizabeth Lake, trees, and granite. Available on my sales site

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 mud plate came loose near Pleasanton, CA. We made a quick trip to a nearby Walmart for tools, some bolts, and yup; zip ties (and some freeze dried ice cream sandwiches). My hands are way too big for some of the work here, so Debbie would take one end of the bolt while I’d thread the other side. As always we made a really great team. The zip ties on the front of my Subaru have resulted in a name change from “Penelope The Little Burro” to “Mr. Whiskers”.

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.

45 Seconds on North Dome

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.

Three Brothers From Taft Point

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.

The Three Brothers as seen from Taft Point. Photographed with a 70-200mm telephoto lens

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.

Thanks again for reading. The photograph in this post is available on my sales site. I love your comments and sharing the posts with your friends is always appreciated.

Landscape Photography Basics: Part Two – Depth Of Field

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.

Bodega Head, northern California. Canon 5d Mk III, 17mm, f/16

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

Wide open at f/2.8

A tiny aperture at f/22

Example wide aperture around f/4

Example middle aperture around f/8

Example small aperture around f/13

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

f/1.8. The candle is in focus but everything in front and behind is blurry. Exposure time was 1/40th second

f/2.5: the candle is in focus and the Frankenstein head is a little less blurry.

f/3.5. A little bit more of Frank is coming into focus

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)

f/5.0: the candle and Frank are in focus. The clock in background is taking shape.

f/7.1: the candle and Frank are in tight focus. The clock is still blurry.

f/10: Everything is in focus now. The exposure time was .8 seconds.

f/16: Everything is in focus, but there’s not a lot of value added beyond the clock. The exposure time was 1.6 seconds.

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.

An example of chromatic aberration. Look for the green fringe in the high contrast areas.

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.

A barely edited photo from around Mirror Lake. f/20 at 17mm. Just about every problem described earlier is here and then some.

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.

Detail of focus and chromatic aberration problems

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.

Landscape Photography Basics: Part One – wide angle lenses

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.

A fairly typical landscape photograph. Soft light, wide angles, drama and adventure. Taft Point, Yosemite, November 2018.

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
  • Lower ISO
  • Softer light
  • Level horizon
  • Composition
  • 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

18-55 Canon EF-S kit lens
Sigma 17-50 f/2.8
Samyang 14mm f/2.8
17-40mm Canon L Series

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.

Canon 7d Mark II with a Sigma 17-50 wide angle lens

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.

Canon Rebel XT with a kit 18-55mm lens

Valley View, Yosemite shot with a 14mm lens on a crop frame DSLR. There’s some distortion noticeable in the trees. Look closely at the trees towards the right edge of the frame.

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.

Detail of some distortion with the 14mm lens on a crop frame camera. It’s not bad but it’s there.

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.

A photo in progress. Climbers on El Capitan as a bus passes. 17mm with a full frame Canon 5d Mk III

Take a closer look at the bottom edge of the photo. You can get a better idea of the image distortion

Detail of the two cars at the bottom edge of the photo. This is where the distortion is most apparent

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.
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Yosemite Spring Hike, Chilnualna Falls

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.

Wawona Hotel (Big Trees Lodge)
Starting at Wawona Hotel was a great idea. Charming and historic. We met some wonderful people here.

Wawona Hotel hallway (Big Trees Lodge)
Wawona Hotel Detail: Honestly, if you get the opportunity then stay here. The place is amazing.

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.

Debbie crossing a seasonal creek
Debbie crossing one of the seasonal creeks that made the trail interesting.

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.

That water is freezing cold. I had my heart set on wading out there. I think I remember letting out a shriek. It was worth it. I think Debbie has a picture of me doing this which I’ll share some other time.

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.

The primary goal: Chilnualna Falls.
This photograph is available on my sales site:
https://www.coastalimagesbysean.com/Landscapes/Yosemite/i-FDmzjMM/A

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.

Portrait orientation shot of the middle cascade with the telephoto.

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.

The sun dips low between trees along the Chilnualna Falls trail, Wawona, Yosemite

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.

The sun sets on Wawona Dome with trees in the foreground.

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

Tree snag and distant hills bathed in warm sunlight.