Are You an Image Taker or an Image Maker?

Moonset Over Big Sur Coast, Garrapata State Beach, California.
Sony a7RII, Sony 70-200mm, f/16, 2 seconds, ISO 200, Singh-Ray LB Neutral Polarizer, Singh-Ray 3 Stop GND.

People often point out to me that when I talk about photography and capturing images, I will use the term, making an image, as opposed to taking an image. This is because as a visual artist, I do believe in I creating images as opposed to just recording what I see. In my opinion, the term taking images refers to a literal capture of the scene. Literal captures makes us nothing more than a robotic button pusher with no emotional connection to the scene – a snapshooter if you will – click – here’s an image of Big Sur!

I strongly believe that the art of landscape photography is really a three-step process: Step 1 – Finding the scene and the light; Step 2 – capturing the scene creatively; and Step 3 – processing the image – crafting the image. Let’s take a closer look at all three steps as I’ll discuss my thought-process on creating images.

Finding the Scene and the Light

Galen Rowell once wrote, my first thought is always of light. I was a big fan of Rowell’s work and it has influenced immensely my style of photography. So yes, my first thought is about light – quality light – the type of light one finds around the fringes of the day or the soft light that fog, clouds, or indirect light can provide. Rarely do I think about the subject first, but if I do, then I anticipate when the best light might arrive for my scene. If I have dawn, sunrise, sunset or dusk light to play with, then that will provide my color for the scene. If I am shooting under dawn light (as I was with the image above), then I have to wait until the light on the moon (lit by sunlight) matches the light on the landscape. I leave the harsh sunlight to the tourists – the snapshooters.

But finding the light is really just the starting point. I had calculated this moonset a full year back from the actual date using software. The next step was to find my composition. I took my workshop group to Garrapata State Beach for this shoot because I knew at this time of year, there would be these beautiful exposed black rocks that we c0uld use for foreground elements. These same rocks would be buried under tons of sand during the summer months!

Capturing the Scene

We have so many choices once we find a scene and a potential composition. What is the best lens? What perspective do I want to take? Does the contrast range of the light match the dynamic range of my sensor? Do I need grads? Do I need a polarizer? Are there wind issues to deal with? What about depth-of-field?

If you are really locked-in to making your image, at this point of the creative process your mind is racing – addressing all if not more of the questions that I list above. This is where the craft-side of photography takes over. There is really no substitute here for experience. Let me tell you the answers I arrived at during this Q&A session that I had with myself before setting up to capture this image:

What is the best lens: for this scene, my 70-200mm worked best as it compressed the moon with the foreground rocks. The scene itself created plenty of depth from foreground to background. I think a lot about depth – adding layers of interest to my scene. Remember, we are dealing with a two-dimensional medium; thus, the more depth (layers of interest) we can add to our image, the better.

What perspective do I want to take: I often think we (myself included) don’t pay enough attention to this question. I challenge myself to get the camera off the tripod if I am not sure. Tripods can lock us up if we simply extend the legs fully. Don’t fall into this trap; it’s easy to get too lazy here. Find your perspective by moving around then bring the tripod in to support what you have found.

Does the contrast range of the light match the dynamic range of my sensor: Tough question to answer if you don’t know the dynamic range of you camera’s sensor. How can you tell? Here is a blog I wrote about this topic: Determining Your Camera’s Real Dynamic Capture Range.

Do I need grads: That is going to be based on your camera’s dynamic capture range vs. the scene’s contrast range. For example, if you determine that your camera sensor’s dynamic capture range is 7 stops of light, and you meter your scene from the darkest shadows that you wish to retain detail to the brightest highlights that you wish to retain detail and it is 8 or more stops of light, then you have three options: expose for the highlights and let the shadows turn opaque, grad the scene, or bracket exposures and blend in post using layers and masks or Merge to HDR in Lightroom or a dedicated HDR program. Knowledge is power – I strongly advise that you determine your camera sensor’s dynamic range with your tests (using the method provided in the link above), not some test you read on the internet!

Do I need a polarizer: Simple answer for this one – yes. For most landscape scenes (except shooting straight at the sun or night scenes) a polarizer is invaluable – You cannot replicate the affects of a polarizer in post-production.

Are there any wind issues to deal with: Crucial question because we are generally using long shutters at the ends of the day. For this image, wind was not a concern and there was none – it was very calm.

What about depth-of-field: Another critical question and one that works together with shutter and ISO. It’s imperative to know how high an ISO you can get away with for your camera (again, tests will give you the correct answer). Then it is playing the exposure game. You need two more stops of depth, then you have to either raise the ISO or lower the shutter or a combination of the two. Again, knowledge is power! I advise having a Hyperfocal App on your smartphone.

Processing the Image

The old Ansel Adams line that the capture is the score and the processing is the performance still rings true today in the digital era. Again, our we trying to produce a literal scene or an artistic scene? Pros can argue this one to death. My line of thinking is that it is my image and I control the complete process. I do draw the line personally at adding elements to the scene that were not there. I also won’t move elements within a scene. I will clone out an annoying branch or clone a line that will lead my viewer’s eye out of a scene but other than that, I leave the scene alone as captured. I will also dodge and burn within the scene to help guide the viewer’s eye. Yet, if I paid careful attention to the capture process, my post-processing should not require much work beyond basic luminosity and color adjustments (and sharpening).

I know pros who will drop in a completely different sky or add a moon (I did it once and will never do it again). At this point, are we photographers or digital specialists? My pleasure comes from finding an interesting scene with quality light and capturing that. If it moves me enough to put a camera to my eye, chance are it will move someone else. My processing is limited to getting the most out of my RAW file.

So as you can tell, I really do see myself as more of an image maker rather than an image taker. How about you?

If you would like to learn more about becoming an image maker, please consider taking one of my workshops listed below, or contact me about taking a private lesson.

“Define the Moment, or the Moment Will Define You!”

Whitney Portal Fall, Eastern Sierra, California.
Sony a7RII, Sony 70-200mm, f/16, 1.6 sec., ISO 200, Singh-Ray LB Neutral Polarizer.

I’m a huge movie buff. Perhaps it has to do with my affinity towards visual excitement; regardless, I just love watching movies. Every once in a while, there will be a line from a movie that gets stuck in my head, similar to how a song gets stuck at times. I always try to reason why the line resonates with me and oftentimes I find it relates more to my career as a photographer. I wish I could say that only cerebral movies do the trick, but every once in a while a line comes from a less-than-stellar flick.

Last night I awoke with that maverick movie philosopher, Tin Cup (a.k.a. Roy McAvoy – played by Kevin Costner) voice in my head as he utters the line trying to explain why he hit a nearly impossible shot to his caddie (Romeo – played by Cheech Marin). Costner, I mean McAvoy quips, “It was a defining moment, and when a defining moment comes along, you either define the moment or the moment will define you.”

I got thinking back on many of my successful shoots and images. What made them successful? Why do they resonate? Well part of that answer lies in recognizing that you are facing a defining moment. Perhaps it is a moment when the light is just right, perhaps it is a lucky circumstance like a rainbow materializing. Many events can lead to a defining moment. The key is in taking advantage of that moment. Can you work quickly enough to take advantage of what is in front of you? Can you find an awesome composition? Can you find a way for all your elements in your scene to work in a cohesive manner? Can you find a pleasing perspective? Do you know what lens you need? Can you make the correct exposure? The list goes on and on, usually at warped speed.

I find at this moment a real rush of excitement. I know it is adrenaline, but responding in a calm manner is essential. In fact, learning to calm one’s mind at a moment like this takes practice. Miss a step in the process and the image could be ruined. Remember, great light waits for no one!

Costner, I mean McAvoy quips, “It was a defining moment, and when a defining moment comes along, you either define the moment or the moment will define you.”

These defining moments don’t come along all that often. We can up the ante for possibly witnessing these moments based on the time of day we choose to work and the weather we choose to work in. Early and late in the day is when I choose to be out, and if the weather turns bad – that ups my chances of something unique. Lastly, one must be fully comfortable with one’s camera. It must come as second-nature as to where to access all your controls. This is why I choose to shoot in manual mode. I really long for the days when cameras were as simple as offering: ISO, aperture (I realize this is on lens), and shutter. Today’s computerized multi-functional devices can only add to our confusion unless we work with them on a regular basis. Also, as landscape photographers, we are out at crazy hours. Sleep is a luxury and is usually in short supply. So we generally are not at our sharpest mentally, but still we must think clearly and make proper choices.

The image of Whitney Portal Falls was captured back in October while co-teaching Gary Hart’s Eastern Sierra Workshop. We had taken the group out for their first location shoot of the workshop and started here. I’ve been to the falls numerous times but decided to join Gary and some other participants as they had climbed higher up the fall for a new position.

I find at this moment a real rush of excitement. I know it is adrenaline, but responding in a calm manner is essential.

What I found was a defining moment. The entire fall was lit with soft indirect light and the spray had turned to ice, which in turn, covered the dark rocks. To bring this scene to life, I positioned myself so I could add an Aspen branch with with brightly-colored fall leaves. Then I noticed some leaves that had fallen off another Aspen branch in the far right corner of the frame. I knew I had all the elements for a great image if I composed carefully and paid attention to my depth-of-field. I lastly played with various shutter speeds to get the look of the water just the way I wanted. I dialed my ISO up and down until I got the shutter speed that recorded the water just the way I wanted.

I have unfortunately witnessed many amateurs over the years missing their defining moment for a plethora of reasons: they were too slow, unprepared, fumbling with equipment, not double-checking their settings, becoming too wrapped-up in the technical and forgetting the visual, getting too wrapped up in the visual and forgetting the technical. The list goes on. Every once in a while I see pros missing the moment, but it is rare. If one makes his/her living with a camera it is not by lucky chance. Generally it is because they have spent years honing their craft and are ready when their defining moment comes.

My advice for those of you who do miss your defining moment: Don’t beat yourself up. Learn from what went wrong and work hard to fix it so it doesn’t happen again. Beating yourself up only leads to negative thoughts and we don’t want those seeping into our minds when faced with our next defining moment. So be as prepared as possible. Use your camera on a regular basis to familiarize yourself with all the settings. Shoot regularly. Work on improving your vision skills. Lastly, and I have actually seen this happen, don’t try to work on a new technique when a defining moment is happening – stick with what you know best. Do this and I guarantee you will define your next great photographic moment!

When is Your Favorite Time to Photograph?

Dawn and Reflection Pond, South Santa Clara Valley, San Benito County, California.
Sony a7RII, Sony/Zeiss 16-35mm, f/16, 1 sec., ISO 100, Singh-Ray LB Neutral Polarizer.

Following on the heels of my blog titled Find the Light and You’ll Find Your Image, I’d like to pose a simple question, “What end of the day is your favorite time to photograph?”

As you have seen me write many times, I love working on the fringes of the day. Personally, morning is my favorite, though I will preface this with the fact that I hate dragging myself out of bed in the dark – especially on cold mornings!

Early morning is more pristine in terms of less pollutants in the atmosphere. During the colder months, there is more of a chance for mist – especially around water.

The image that accompanies this blog (above) was captured at dawn, just prior to the sun rising. I had scouted this area after heavy California rains flooded many areas that normally do not have water.

I had made this image below during a late afternoon scout.

Clearing Storm and Pond, South Santa Clara Valley, San Benito County, California.
Sony RX100 III, 24mm, f/16, 1/6th, 100 ISO, Singh-Ray LB Neutral Polarizer

I like both images and both have a different feel; however, when I made this image (above), I knew I’d want to come back for morning light as the sun would rise camera-left.

The problem was the storm had left the area and I faced three consecutive blank-blue sky mornings. Finally, after keeping a careful watch on the incoming weather, I spotted a report that called for 30% chance of showers.

With fingers crossed, I set the alarm for a 5am wakeup. Upon arising, I walked out my front door only to see that that the 30% forecast had materialized into a 100% light rain.

The question in my mind was, “do I blow off the shoot and go back to bed or do I get dressed and drive to the location?” Remembering a quote from the legendary hockey player Wayne Gretzky, “You’ll miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” I opted to go.

Arriving just as darkness (nautical twilight) was transitioning to civil twilight, I setup and noticed some gaps in the clouds. I began shooting without the color as some mist started forming near the back end of this flooded pasture.

Remembering a quote from the legendary hockey player Wayne Gretzky, “You’ll miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” I opted to go.

About 5 minutes prior to posted sunrise time, this warm light started to light the underside of the clouds. When it reflected into the calm water, I made exposures knowing the dynamic range would be captured easily by my Sony a7RII and it’s incredible sensor.

What is illustrated by this story is the fact that the location you wish to photograph will be dictated largely by its positioning to the sun. That is why scouting is important. There was an outside chance that this image could be made with some colorful clouds at sunset, but a lot of elements would have to come together perfectly for that to happen.

When I am shooting locations in Big Sur and/or Yosemite, I have my best luck at sunset because of the way the areas lay out.

It would be fun to hear your favorite time of the day to shoot. Let us know and tell us why.

Field Test: Sony 70-200mm G Master and a6500!

Elm and Half Dome in Clearing Storm, Cooks Meadow, Yosemite National Park, California.
Sony a7RII, Sony 70-200mm G Master, f/11, 1/3rd, ISO 100, Singh-Ray LB Polarizer.

Over the past month I have had the opportunity to field test the Sony 70-200mm G Master lens along with the Sony a6500 camera.

My tests with the Sony 70-200mm G Master were for both landscape and sports – the only caveat is that I used the Sony a7RII as my sole landscape body; whereas for sports, I used the Sony a6500.

Let’s start with my review of the Sony 70-200mm G Master.

I always felt the the Canon 70-200mm Series II lens was the sharpest in its class. That was until I got this lens in my hands.

Sony’s G Master glass is designee to be used with high MP cameras like the Sony a7RII. As the resolution of the files increase, so to must the resolving power of the lenses and that is where the G Master series comes in.

Until using this lens, I used exclusively the Sony 70-200mm f/4 G OSS lens. That is also a wonderfully sharp piece of glass. I regularly shoot it at f/11 and f/16.

The 70-200mm G Master has a maximum aperture of f/2.8 and is 27 ounces heavier, but the sharpness across all apertures is off-the-charts awesome! I am not going to run images at every aperture so you’ll just have to trust me on that one.

Upper Yosemite Fall and Black Oaks, Yosemite National Park, California.
Sony a7RII, Sony 70-200mm G Master f/11, 1/5th, ISO 100, Singh-Ray LB Polarizer

According to the Imaging-Resource website: The new flagship telephoto zoom model delivers extraordinary sharpness and clarity throughout the entirety of its zoom range thanks to its three advanced lens elements including XA, Super ED and ED glass components, as well as its Nano AR coating.

The new FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS lens features a floating focusing system — implemented in an a zoom lens for the first time — that contributes to an impressive minimum focusing distance of merely 0.96m and ensures AF performance is optimized during both still and video shooting. The lens includes a SSM (Super Sonic Motor) plus dual linear motors that work together to move large lens elements quickly – a task that requires a high level of drive control and ensures focus accuracy. The new model also has built in Optical SteadyShot image stabilization for capturing sharp, blur-free subjects at all focal lengths and a rotating tripod mount that allows the camera to be quickly removed from a connected tripod as needed.

The new 70-200mm telephoto zoom lens is dust and moisture resistant with an additional fluorine coating added to the front lens. It also has a focus hold button as well as a focal range limiter.

All of this tech talk is a way of saying that Sony has figured out how to go get immediate AF grab with smaller batteries, something Canon could not do with the 5DMKIII series cameras.

Bridalveil Fall and Mist, Yosemite National Park, California.
Sony a7RII, Sony 70-200mm G Master f/11, 1/3rd, ISO 100, Singh-Ray LB Polarizer

Unfortunately, I was unable to get my hands on the new dedicated 1.4x and 2x converters, but having talked to a number of colleagues, their conclusion is unanimous – the converters match the lens and the image sharpness is unaffected.

I will eventually add this lens to my permanent arsenal of Sony glass.

After my trip to Yosemite, it was time to take the lens indoors and and pair it with the new Sony a6500 for some NHL action.

The Sony a6500 is Sony’s best sports camera to date. Though its sensor can capture 24.2 MP, it seems tiny in my hands when paired with the 70-200mm G Master but you shouldn’t let the small size fool you – it sports a AF that performs every bit as well as my Canon 1DX, which costs five times the amount!

Arizona Coyotes goalie Mike Smith watches the puck at SAP Arena in San Jose, California.
Sony a6500, Sony 70-200mm G Master, f/6.3, 1/200th sec., ISO 200, (8) Speedotron 2400WS packs and Speedotron 105 CC quad heads, (5) PocketWizard Plus III

My one drawback with being on strobes was that the maximum sync speed of the a6500 was only 1/200th – this allowed for a bit of ambient movement, expecially on slap shots, and I would like to see Sony max this out near 1/500th in future cameras.

There are so many upsides to this camera that it is crazy-good. As mentioned, the AF smokes, which is a must for any sports camera.

Moreover, Sony finally re-aligned its Menu system making the camera much easier to setup. Hopefully we will see this news menu setup go across-the-board with all new Sony cameras.

San Jose Sharks defenseman Brendon Dillon pokes the puck through the legs of Arizona Coyotes goalie Mike Smith for a goal at SAP Arena in San Jose, California.
Sony a6500, Sony 70-200mm G Master, f/6.3, 1/200th sec., ISO 200, (8) Speedotron 2400WS packs and quad heads, (5) PocketWizard Plus III

I opted for back button focus, which takes the focus off the shutter button and assigns it to a back button. It’s easy to do and I explain it in an earlier blog I wrote on the Sony a6300.

I also assigned another button as a focus-hold button, which allows me to stop the AF at any time while still tripping the shutter.

San Jose Sharks Thomas Hertl battles for the puck at SAP Arena in San Jose, California.
Sony a6500, Sony 70-200mm G Master, f/6.3, 1/200th sec., ISO 200, (8) Speedotron 2400WS packs and quad heads, (5) PocketWizard Plus III

There are times on penalty shots where a referee may skate into my frame while I am pre-focused on the goalie and the shooter.

I did struggle a bit when flipping the camera orientation from horizontal to vertical. The eye-piece for the a6500 is located on the left side of the body as opposed the traditional center positioning making it a bit tricky as I’d have to elevate the camera to align my eye.

Let’s get back to the awesome focus-tracking ability of this camera. I break a top-notch AF system into two parts: a.) the ability of the AF to acquire a subject instantly, and b.) the ability of the focus-tracking to stay with the subject. I give the Sony a6500 A+’s in both categories.

All of this tech talk is a way of saying that Sony has figured out how to go get immediate AF grab with smaller batteries, something Canon could not do with the 5DMKIII series cameras.

Eventually I would like to see Sony come out with a full frame sports camera. The a6500 is APS-C which means there is a conversion factor of 1.5x for all lenses. This made my 70-200mm G Master act as a 105-300mm. Not always bad for sports but I would have needed a second body with a shorter zoom range for when the action moved closer to me.

The Sony a6500 has an expanded buffer (which for me was not an issue as I could only shoot one frame every 3 seconds with the strobes) and has an internal 5-axis image stabilization built into the camera.

I never really got the opportunity to play with the touch-screen display as I kept the viewfinder to my eye. I also had to set the camera up to display the exposure for my eye while keeping my setting differently for the strobes – a nice touch and something studio photographers have to pay attention to with any mirrorless camera.

As for the video, I simply did not test as I do not use video in my current work.

The expanded grip did make the camera more ergonomic in my hand, but I would like the ability to add a battery grip.

Overall, for the $1400 price, this is one beast of a camera in a small package.

Find the Light and You’ll Find Your Image!

Crepuscular Rays on California Live Oak, Diablo Mountain Range, Santa Clara Valley, San Benito County, California.
Sony RX10III, 164mm, f/11, 1/40th, ISO 100, Singh-Ray LB Neutral Polarizer

“My first thought is always of light.” – Galen Rowell

Anyone who has ever made a living in the arts will tell you, one must have mentors. Whether these are people that you are fortunate enough to study with or follow through books or internet presence, you need those who can influence and teach you as you are trying to learn your craft.

One such mentor of mine, especially in the realm of landscape photography, was the great Galen Rowell. Though I did have the opportunity to meet Galen once at his Bishop, California Mountain Light Gallery, I never had the opportunity to take a workshop from him as he passed away the year I was planning on attending one of his workshops.

“My first thought is always of light.” – Galen Rowell

I have however read every book Galen ever wrote. What came clear to me through his writings and amazing images was how he always sought-out light – quality light. He was not a middle of the day shooter. If it was a raging storm or fog, then time didn’t matter – again, light mattered. Subject seemed to come second to him.

This is a lesson I apply every day in my landscape photography. The middle of the day for me is saved for scouting. The edges of the day are for serious photography.

I captured the image above about 30 minutes prior to sunset while just driving around southern Santa Clara Valley looking for potential images and potential areas to return to when the light would be better.

Sometimes you just get lucky and such was the case with this image. I didn’t start out thinking, “I need to make an image of this lone Live Oak.” I was just driving and spotted this light and got to a position where I could feature this tree.

The sky parted and this shaft of warm light bathed the Oak. In any other light, this would just be a picture of a tree – it was the light that made it special.

Steam Off Rain-Soaked Pines, Yosemite National Park, California.
Sony a7RII, Sony 70-200mm G Master, f/22, 1/200th, ISO 100

The image above was captured in Yosemite National Park a few weeks back while co-teaching Gary Hart’s Horsetail Fall Workshop. The Valley had been saturated with 30+ hours of rain. When we finally caught a clear morning to shoot, we pulled our participants up to the Sentinel Bridge parking area. While everyone was looking towards Yosemite Falls, I happened to turn around and saw the morning sun warming the rain-soaked trees and captured this back-lit image of the evaporating mist coming off the branches and trunks of these Pines..

Again, all about the light. In any other situation these Pine trees would not have caught my attention, but the conditions warranted an image over the iconic Falls, which I have photographed numerous times.

Once I saw the steam, I asked myself, “what can I do to make this image even more dramatic?” Then I thought about creating a sunstar with the rising morning sun. I quickly changed my position and pinched the sun against a pine at f/22 – no filter; I just let the lens do its thing!

If you are ever struggling with making a meaningful image, stop and find where the most attention-grabbing light is coming from. Work towards the light and I guarantee, you will find your image!