Conquering My Fear Of Heights
I have always wanted to go see the Ancient Bristlecone Pines. Seeing other photographer’s images from there only heighten my desire to do so. Only one little item held me back; it’s the fear of heights. As a young boy, I would always close my eyes and pray, as my parents would drive across the Golden Gate Bridge. Mountain roads with steep drop-offs would especially terrify me.
One time in the middle of the night my two amigos and I, in separate cars, were heading for Mono Lake on the dreaded Tioga Pass road. I was behind them as we started down the steep backside toward Lee Vining. Soon they were out of sight as we headed down. I, on the other hand, was slowly hugging the inside part of the road, the part that normally automobiles use for going up the pass to Yosemite National Park. At 1:30 am, I didn’t think anyone would mind me using the wrong side of the road. Well, I let a big breath out, as I got down to the Mobil Gas Station parking lot near the bottom. As I got out of the car, my two friends mercilessly teased me about making them wait for me. “Where have you been”, they demanded!
I feared the road to the Ancient Bristlecone Forest would be just like the Tioga Pass road down to Highway 395. In my mind, I imagined it to be so. This always held me back. Finally, last week, with a little trepidation, I push these fears aside. Every time I would feel the urge to turnaround and go back, I would tell myself to relax and say to myself that it can be all that bad.
When I got to the Schulman Grove Visitor’s Center in midday. I bought a nice green sweatshirt with an ancient Bristlecone Pine emblazoned on the front as to always remind me I can indeed conquer my fear of heights and steep mountain roads with big drop-offs.
I climbed up the Discovery Trail looking for a particular pictorial Bristlecone Pine. As it happened, I found the one stitched on to my sweatshirt just like the park service employee at the visitor center said I would. However, I had a problem; it was four o’clock in the afternoon. I had over three hours to kill before the stars would come out and show themselves in the sky.
To idle the time away, I sat down and watched a few cars down below me, coming back and going to the other Bristlecone Pine Grove—the Patriarch Grove. I also spend some time examining the intriguing small little “purple” pine cones. Mostly, I would walk back and forth along a small stretch of the trail underneath this giant Bristlecone Pine. Other times, I would take some images of the late sunlight striking its hard-dense branches that reach for the sky.
Finally, it was a night, a few days before the full moon. I was a bit disappointed because there was so much light; I wouldn’t be able to capture a starry sky behind the Bristlecone Pine.
At home many days later, after reviewing my images, I am proud and happy. Proud that I conquered my fears, and happy with the image I created. I realized my dream; I “didn’t let my music die within me”. This beautiful image will always be a testament to my perseverance.
What do you think? Does this image stir your soul like it does mine?
Photography is about seeing, identifying, and capturing a subject out of the chaos of ordinary visual clutter… Here in Yosemite I was trying to be different, and not just take the iconic shot. Not place my tripod in the same spot as thousands of others, and avoid creating a commonplace Yosemite image seen many times before.
I am not the first to try do this for sure, but I think that the dark ice flows of the river on the top of the image, lead into the falls, giving a painterly feeling that the river flows into the falls, when actually the water from the falls flow into the river.
It’s this black shaded river with the chunky ice flows, that lead down into the falls reflected in the river that give this image it’s unique ironic symmetry. The black color is caused by the pine trees along the river; their shadows darkening that specific top image portion of the river. Even the bottom ice flow contributes to the overall success by framing the bottom portion, keeping the viewer’s eye in the photograph.
The pine trees shadowing the river, the ice flows in the perfect places, and the reflected falls in a clear space within the river, all at this one moment in my mind’s eye come together to produce a image with power and beauty.
“Strive to make a photo more like a painting, and a painting more like a photograph!”
Dare to be different!
Separate your image making from the crowds of other photographers, think about a unique viewpoint, a method that’s different, a different lens choice, an atypical composition, and/or an unusual technique–a wide angle lens for wildlife and/or a telephoto lens for landscape, as examples.
Also, think about what you are trying to communicate with your photography. What are you saying with each image you make? How do the various elements within your image contribute and emphasize your visual message? Does your image tell a story? Does it speak a visual language that moves the viewer’s heart?
Following these ideas and thoughts will improve your photography, stretch your photographic eye, and most importantly stimulated your right brain to new visual heights.
“An Abstract that captures the essence of Yosemite”, commented a fellow camera club member upon seeing this image that dared to be different.
Here is another Yosemite image where I dare to be different: Yosemite’s snow covered cliffs through the black oak limbs, contrasting the solid white cold granite walls, with the dark living tree trunks and branches.
(Creating a Grand Scenic)
Landscape photography is harder than you think. To create beautiful, sweeping, stunning grand scenic imagery is one of the most difficult types of photography. Most beginners include too much into the picture, leaving an image without focus and without a main subject—a subject that stands out and grips and tugs at your heart and emotions. Another common complaint for beginners is the term “record shot”. It used to describe an image without power and a strong subject where a photographer is literally is just recording the scene in front of his or her camera.
In addition, a “record shot” does not use or encompass some common photographic techniques: like leading lines, the use of a “S” curve, using shadows to add drama, contrasting colors with the use of late or early morning light, dramatic large foreground elements that stand out and contrast with the background, the rule of thirds to position the subject in a more pleasing compositional position, and finally to create a three dimensional image from a two dimensional medium. These aren’t all the ways to make a “record shot” into an image that you would proudly want to frame big and place prominently on your living room wall, but these are some basic techniques you can use to improve your landscape photography.
Diagonal lines add tension and are less static than horizontal or vertical lines, think of a diagonal line as of a fence leading you to the main subject, making the image more three dimensional. Ask where your eye goes! It should go to your main subject…
Another approach is to use a wide angle lens up close to make a foreground element more prominent. This works exceptionally well with wide angle lenses, creating within an image a foreground, middle ground, and background that give depth to the scene.
Graduated neutral density filters are essential tool for shrinking the range of light down to what your digital camera sensor can handle without clipping the highlights. Nowadays you can create graduated neutral density affects in the post processing as well as make many other targeted adjustments to an image. However, it is preferable to get the exposure correct in the first place.
Landscape photography is a big subject and takes lots of time, so study and practice creating images approaching those of the best landscape photographers of today and of years past. Study the master landscape photographers, their techniques, their style, and their compositions, Photography is an art, and has many principles and visual techniques that’s applied in painting and other forms of art. Study color too, the color wheel, and its relationships, complimentary color as well as pastel colors, good use of color can make or break a grand scenic image.
Location and timing, that perfect landscape light, is a crucial ingredient to a great landscape photograph-warm low light from the magic photographer’s hours, early or late in the day. Photography is all about light! Many successful and famous landscape photographers will find a location, but continue to come back to it many times for the right light, pre-visualizing the possibilities from a midday scout trip.
Bad weather can establish mood and drama, clearing or incoming storms offer fleeting but incredible moments to capture special scenic images, so spend more time photographing in spring, fall, and winter, and less time during the all blue skies and harsh light time of summer.
Take these ideas and incorporated them into your landscape photography, get out into nature with your wide angle lens and into the beautiful natural world and make some exciting grand scenic images. Make it more fun too, by taking a friend or friends with you…and smell the wildflowers, feel the earth and let it touch your soul and heart—inspiring your photography!
Upper Yosemite Falls from the Swinging Bridge—sky exposure reduced with a 3 stop graduated neutral density filter.
Graduated Neutral Density Filters
Graduated Neutral Density Filters are an essential and indispensable tool for the Landscape photographer.
These filters come in rectangle sheets with gray color on the top portion to clear on the bottom portion of the filter, with an area of less dense gray in the middle. Their purpose is to hold back the brighter areas of an image like the sky, reducing the dynamic range of the image. Since the eye can see a considerably greater range of light than can be recorded by a digital sensor, or film, particularly slide film, these filters help reduce the range of light bringing detail to the shadow areas.
Ring type graduated neutral density filers with a half portion gray are not very useful for most situations, since they do not allow placement of the transition. With the rectangle sheet type and a filter holder you can slide the transition to the desired place within the image. Even hand holding the filter you still can place the shaded area precisely where you want; this is not possible with the ring type filter which only has center placement—half and half portions, half grey and half clear.
A scene with great contrast and dynamic range, the dilemma is what do you expose for, the highlights or the shadows. A typical scene at sunset or sunrise, where the sky is very bright, expose for the sky, the shadows are typically very dark and hold very little detail. The graduated neutral density filter can equalize or reduce the range of exposure, so highlight areas are not blow out when exposing for the shadows, conversely shadows aren’t black and devote of detail when exposing for the highlight areas.
These filters come in various degrees of strength, referring to how dark is the gray section of the filter, and how much light is blocked. This measurement is called stops, i.e. two stops or three stops, with three stops being darker or holding back more light than a two stop filter. Neutral Density filters also have another measurement term referring to how gradual the gray area of the filter fades to clear. For hard stop filter, the area of demarcation is sharp with little or no faded area. Soft stop filters have a much greater area of fade from gray to clear; a much greater transition area for a softer blending effect.
Overall, graduated neutral density filters greatly help in reducing the range of light, allowing detail, color, and texture in both the highlights and shadow area within an image.
Many manufacturers make these types of filters including Cokin, Tiffin, and Singh Ray. With many variations and intensities, hard and soft stops, reverse type where the gray density is in the middle section of the filter.
The larger “P” size filter can also be used as a complete neutral density filter to reduce harsh light areas as well as darkening light colors, increasing color intensity and saturation.
Remember; when that grand scenic with a wide range of light is in front of your lens do not forget this indispensable filter.
Of course, in today’s digital world, you can create the same graduated neutral density effect digitally, that’s worth a whole another post.
Yosemite in Winter
(Iconic or Non-Iconic Image?)
How do you create photographs in Yosemite without copying someone else’ photographic style? How do you avoid the iconic Yosemite image? The view points and vistas are all around you—Tunnel view, Valley view, Sentinel Bridge, Ahwahnee Meadow, and many more special roadside turnouts and locations. Every serious photographer who has visited Yosemite has placed their tripod at these locations. How do you not copy legendary photographers like Ansel Adams, and many other well know photographers who have made many famous iconic images of Yosemite Valley’s special landmarks.
In mid February the valley is flooded with photographers all trying to capture that sometimes elusive image of Horsetail Falls. They come from all over the country, and many make it a ritual to come back year after year at this time. The El Capitan picnic area is jammed packed with photographers’ hours before the magical sunset time. All these photographers will create a very similar image—images with just a slightly different crop, created using a different zoom settings or with a somewhat different lens choice.
In reality actually, if you’re in Yosemite Valley, as a photographer, you just have to take iconic pictures. The beauty and the awesome grandeur of the place calls to the landscape photographer inside of you–demands that you capture the great earth gesture of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the geological forces that created Yosemite Valley. Why go there and not try your hand at taking iconic images.
What I am saying though is also to try to create an image that’s your own, non-iconic, that represents your style and vision. Experiment, try to step out of your comfort zone, if you’re always using a wide angle lens then try a mid zoom for a different landscape composition. Make your photographic weakness, your new strength, by learning some photo technique beforehand, like star trails or painting at night. Or try a composition that does show the valley’s recognizable landmarks; see if you can create a memorable image without them.
Take all your photographic knowledge about light and composition and blend that with solid technique practiced beforehand, freeing your spirit and moving into a special Zen like relationship with your subject. This shouldn’t be hard in Yosemite!
I believe all great photographic images are created when you are in this Taoist state, in complete harmony with the world and your connection and relationship to it. In this state your vision is expanded: you see more, feel more, and are more alive than before. Enabling you in the moment to create great images!
If your successful, then, your non-iconic image of Yosemite will become the next iconic image…and along the way, you’ll develop a style and vision that’s recognizable and your own.
“When I am experimenting with a new idea, I’ll determine technical aspects well beforehand, so when I am shooting, I don’t need to think. This let’s me be as receptive to the moment as possible.” – Chris McDonough
“I am not interested in shooting new things—I am interested to see things new.” – Ernest Haas
“To photograph is to hold one’s breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting beauty. It’s at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.”— Henri Cartier-Bresson
Quotes from The Tao of Photograph, Seeing Beyond Seeing, Philippe L. Gross and S.I. Shapiro: by Chris McDonough, pg. 110, Ernest Haas, pg. 126, Henri Cartier-Bresson, pg. 106.