A cold winter morning in the Santa Cruz Mountains

The news has been abuzz (I like the word “abuzz”) with a dramatic drop in temperatures around the Bay Area. We were expecting a little snow in the Santa Cruz Mountains. This is unusual because our highest peaks aren’t much over 2000ft. My friend Dave Anderson confirmed that it was snowing a little near Castle Rock State Parks o I did what any sane person would do on his day off. I got up for sunrise at Castle Rock.

While I didn’t find much snow I did find what I was really looking for. Dramatic skies made for exactly the landscape photograph I wanted to make.

What? That’s not what any sane person would do on his day off?

Smartphone snapshot
One of the great things about Castle Rock State Park is all the great rock climbing. Somehow this manzanita tree grew on top of this large rock formation.
Tiny hints of spring
Smart phone shadow selfie
Yup, there was a little snow accumulated on some cars parked overnight at the park entrance.

 

The Absolute Basics Of Exposure

I have the privilege of knowing a growing number of beginning photographers. It’s always casual but sometimes folks are a little shy about asking questions. I remember being new to photography, and in a lot of ways I still am. No, really. For example at San Jose State Univeristy I nearly flunked out of Photo 101 (yes I did much better later). I loved it, but I utterly didn’t have any sense for composition, basic lighting, and oh my goodness I had a crush on the pretty girl I shared the darkroom with. Stop it, I was a complete gentleman in college. That may mean that I missed out on some of the typical college guy things, but I digress. (Note to self, maybe edit that out) (Note to self, no leave it in, it’s kind of funny) (Note to other self, stop it) (Note to other other self, OK) (All the other voices in my head: GET ON WITH IT).

So here I am writing about the absolute basics essentially for a group of friends but also for anybody else who cares to read it. I mean, OK, folks are asking me. Maybe I can help.

Photography is all about light. It’s in the word. Photo (light) graphy (writing). Light writing.

Let’s start with the basics of exposure.

Most cameras since the 1980’s have built in light meters. That means that there is a sensor that measures light reflected off of a subject and back into the lens. The earliest camera that I have that did that is my old Canon A-1. This technology is not terribly new.

My trusty old Canon A-1

How brightly an image is exposed depends on how much light is allowed through the lens, striking the camera’s sensor or film. This is intended to be all about digital photography so I won’t talk a lot about film here, but there are analogies that help occasionally.

There are 3 things that will effect how your image is exposed, and they are all related in what’s usually referred to as the “exposure triangle”. When one of those three aspects changes then the other 2 change too. It breaks down like this:

  • Shutter Speed (the amount of time the shutter is open)
  • Aperture (how wide the opening in the lens is)
  • ISO (how sensitive the sensor is to light)

Update:

A couple of friends of mine read this and correctly noted that I’ve assumed your camera is in manual mode. JC Dill  thought that manual mode deserves a little explanation. She’s right.

Below are three cameras that I use fairly often. All three have a manual mode that allows for complete control over aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Each one has a control with “M” for manual. The other modes worth noting are (on the Canons anyway) Av (aperture priority), Tv (shutter priority), and P (program mode — aka “automatic”). The Panasonic is similar: M, A (aperture priority), S (shutter priority), and P (program mode).  For this discussion we’re not letting the camera make any decisions for us. When the camera calls the shots, you get what the camera decides what you want. It’s almost never what you really wanted.

My trusty Canon 7d Mk II
My very, very well used Canon Rebel XT
The reliable Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ47

The rear panels of these cameras show some helpful details. Each shows a basic light meter (-3…-2…-1… | …1…2…3 ). The middle is what the camera is calling well exposed. -3 is 3 stops under exposed, 3 is 3 stops over exposed. There is also a graph displayed with red, green, and blue. This is an optional display that I rely on. This histogram tells me about the dark values (on the left side of the graph), the bright tones (at the right side), and the mid tones (in the… ok you get it). The default is one single graph for overall luminance. I have it set to display red, green, and blue so I can see if any one part is over exposed. There’s a lot of bright reds here, so I would call it a little over exposed.

The live view on the 7d Mk II. Note the meter at the bottom of the camera’s LCD: 3…2…1…|…1…2…3 .

The back of the Canon Rebel shows similar information, just in a much more basic way. This is telling me that the image is a little under exposed the way I have it setup.

The rear display of my older Canon Rebel XL has something similar: -2..1..|..1..2
Another image of the back panel of the Canon Rebel XT. The meter is centered. The camera’s light meter is calling this well exposed. This is a little more subjective than you’d think, but it’s a good starting point for discussion. Don’t look too closely, this camera is really filthy. It’s seen a lot of adventures.

This Panasonic Lumix is a nice example because it’s essentially a low end consumer camera with full manual control. The light meter at the bottom should seem familiar now. Note the graph towards the right of the LCD. It’s another histogram similar to what’s on the 7d Mk II. This histogram is displaying overall luminance instead of breaking it down in to red, green, and blue (RGB). This graph is telling me that there’s a lot of dark values and midtones, and not much that’s excessively bright. While this isn’t a terribly exciting photograph (really it just shows you how very messy my desk is), it does say that this is a reasonably well exposed image.

The rear of the Panasonic is a little different. It has a meter in the LCD much like the Rebel and the 7d Mk II : -2..-1..|..1..2 .

That’s a lot of information and I encourage you to comment and ask questions. OK.. back to our regularly scheduled program picking up with… (drumroll please…) shutter speed.

Shutter Speed:

Put simply, the longer you leave the shutter open then more light passes through the lens to the sensor. A short amount of time results in a dark image (under exposed). A long amount of time results in a bright image. A very long amount of time results in white or nearly white (over exposed). What’s “correct?” That’s really up to you and what you were looking for. Unless you’re working under some very strict guidelines this is art. You either achieved what you wanted or you didn’t. I’ll go into shutter speed in greater detail later, but I touch on it in this earlier post that you might like. : MY VIEWS ON SHOOTING BETTER SURF PHOTOGRAPHY

We’ll use one of my favorite wide angle lenses. This is great for this demo because it’s entirely manual.

Aperture (aka “f-stop”):

The typical camera lens has a roughly circular opening that can be adjusted to be larger or smaller. A larger opening allows more light in while a smaller opening allows less light in during the same amount of time. A smaller number means a more open aperture. f/4.0 is a fairly wide aperture and lets in quite a lot of light. A higher number means a smaller aperture and lets in less light for the same exposure time. For example f/8.0 is a smaller aperture than f/4.0.

Aperture: f/2.8. Wide open for this lens.

If I were to point my camera at exactly the same subject in exactly the same lighting and let it expose for exactly the same amount of time for two shots, one at f/4.0 and the second at f/8.0, you would see that the photograph shot at f/8.0 is much darker than the one shot at f/4.0. For the same image shot at f/8.0 to be the same luminance as the one shot at f/4.0 you could let it expose for more time. Exactly how much time is a little beyond the scope of this introduction to the exposure triangle but you can probably start seeing how these two sides of the triangle are related now.

The aperture is smaller now. f/5.6

Right about now you’re wondering what the heck the “f/” part is in f/4.0 and f/8.0. The aperture is measured as fractions of the length of the lens. f = focal length.

Aperture is smaller still: f/8

This is very much like the pupil in your eye. When it’s dark you see a little better when the pupil opens wider. When it’s bright your pupil becomes much smaller and allows in less light. Something that’s super cool is that your pupil will change diameter as you scan across a scene. Your typical camera doesn’t do that. Not yet anyway.

The smallest aperture for this lens: f/22

A closer look at aperture and shutter speed together:

Let’s walk through an example demonstrating how changing your aperture will change the amount of time (shutter speed) needed to keep the same exposure while the same amount of light remains constant. Notice that each picture takes twice as long to expose as the one before it.

Aperture: f/1.8, ISO: 200, Shutter speed: 1/40 second
Aperture: f/2.5m ISO: 200, Shutter speed: 1/20 second — twice as much time to expose
Aperture: f/3.5, ISO: 200, Shutter speed: 1/10 second

I’d like you to notice something else that should be apparent by now. More of the items in the photo are coming into focus. In the first  example the item in the foreground was in focus. Then bits of the item behind it. From here the clock in the background will come more into focus. I didn’t change my focus point at all. I set the focus to be on the candle and never changed it.  What has changed is the aperture. By using a smaller aperture we get a greater “depth of field” (or in English “there’s more stuff in focus”).

Aperture: f/5, ISO: 200, Shutter speed: 1/5 second

Aperture: f/7.1, ISO: 200, Shutter speed: .4 seconds
Aperture: f/10, ISO: 200, Shutter speed: .8 seconds

Now here’s something interesting. There’s not much difference between these two last pictures is there? The candle, the clock, and everything in between is in pretty much the same focus. At some point you reach a practical infinity. Different camera models will behave a bit differently. At a point beyond that your photo will actually become less sharp. That’s an effect called “lens diffraction” which is outside the scope of this quick intro.

Aperture: f/14, ISO: 200, Shutter speed: 1.6 seconds

ISO (sensor sensitivity):

Finally there’s the topic of ISO, the third side of the exposure triangle. By increasing the ISO you shorten the amount of time needed to expose the image. It becomes possible to freeze action in lower light situations. A higher ISO number means greater sensitivity to light. There is a tradeoff which you may or may not mind. A low ISO number is less sensitive to light but will usually result in a higher quality image. A higher ISO value is more sensitive but will reduce image quality by introducing a grainy look, aka “noise.”

f/1.8, 1/15 sec, ISO 800. At 1/15 second I can’t hold the camera still without a tripod.

My good friend Dave Anderson suggested that I explain the captions in the snapshots above and below. I took these snapshots hand held. You are moving no matter how hard you try not to. When you have a slow shutter speed there’s very little chance of having a sharp photo because you moved a little while the shutter was open. A good rule of thumb for a reasonably sharp picture when hand held is to keep your shutter speed at the inverse of your focal length.

f/1.8, 1/25 sec, ISO 1600. That’s still a long time for hand held so it’s not very sharp.

I can here you from here: “Whaaat??”  Let’s say I have a typical kit lens that zooms from 18mm to 55mm. If I’m shooting at the wide angle, 18mm, then I would need to keep the exposure time 1/18th second or faster. If I’m shooting at the tighter end, 55mm, then I need to keep it at 1/55th second or faster. This is oversimplified because different cameras will behave differently. For example a crop sensor camera like the Canon Rebel series, the Nikon 3000 series, should still be a little faster. Explaining why is a little outside the scope of this one post. It’s also pretty unlikely that you’re going to keep completely still for 1/18th of a second.

f/1.8, 1/80 sec, ISO 3200. This is closer to what I can shoot hand held. It’s starting to get a little noisy. Your camera may vary.
f/1.8, 1/160 sec, ISO 6400. A much faster shutter speed and easily hand held. Kitteh’s action freezes mid-yawn (I bore her). It’s very noisy now.
f/1.8, 1/320 sec, ISO 128000. Easily handheld, very noisy, and Kitteh is tired of me. Click on the the picture to see the noise details.
Are you done yet?? Yes Kitteh. Thank you. Please don’t poop in my shoe.

Hwy 9 Photography Group

A couple of years ago I tossed around an idea to get photographers of all skill levels in the Santa Cruz Mountains together. This started as a simple workshop in photography basics at our local recreation center in Boulder Creek, CA. I don’t consider myself an expert on much but I figured that I could offer something to the absolute beginner. The invitation went out on a popular local Facebook group, Boulder Creek Neighbors. The turnout was far more than I ever expected. I talked and answered questions for hours – I don’t think I demonstrated a single photography technique although we did talk a lot about post processing.

This turned into a very friendly and collaborative bunch that eventually formed into the locals-only, Hwy 9 Photography Group on Facebook. We’ve got a de facto motto today: “We like to do stuff”

Since then we’ve gathered for more small workshops, a couple of photography shows, hikes, intimate photo tours of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and photo walks. We’ve helped each other with equipment, knowledge, and help. We’ve shared gigs and even the rise to the call for help. One day we even got news of a photographer who no-showed for an engagement photo session, so we scrambled to help. This is the kind of community that I’m so proud to have helped gather.

I wanted to take the opportunity to share some of our members’ favorite photographs. This is probably Batch #1, in no particular order.

Cody Mattson
Dave Anderson
Erik Elfring
Gary Steed – a grey fox that visited my yard over the summer.
Gary Steed – firework pictures from the 4th of July.
Gary Steed – firework pictures from the 4th of July.
Joan Fuhry
Julie CB
Kaelin WMarsh – Definitely not my most technically perfect photo, however it is by far my favorite from the year. Its a baby big horned sheep. eating a dandelion. in Yellowstone.
Kate Klein – Sometimes I like the complexity of black and white. One of my favorites.
Lisa Gonzales
Lisa Gonzales – The day my father in law passed away. Beautiful just like he was
Liz Celeste – Tenaya Lake, Yosemite National Park
Liz Celeste – a favorite from a client session
Mike Bartol – By far my favorite from 2017 was this picture my brother took together at Smiths Ferry Idaho Aug 21. It was our first ever eclipse. One for the ages.
Sarah Williams – I watched this bird collect bugs each morning while camping in The Pinnacles.
Malakoff Diggins SP, September, Infrared. Sherwood Harrington
Rose on our deck, May. Sherwood Harrington
Dave Anderson – giant band saw, undisclosed location

2017 Favorites

There’s a tradition of going over favorite photographs at the end of the year. Somehow people narrow it down to 10. I’m still choosing from a set of 14. Here my favorites from 2017, 1-5 are pretty much in order. After that they’re something of a tie.

Photo #1 is from the first day of the big storms that battered us here in the Santa Cruz Mountains last winter. There was a break in the rain and wind. I’m able to see across the valley from a vantage point steps from my home. I rushed for my camera and tripod as this low rain cloud passed through the trees.

The storm resumed moments later.

Photo #2, Wispy Clouds Over El Capitan. It really shouldn’t be any surprise that most of my favorites are from Yosemite. This was from a trip in April. Part of the trip was scouting for spring flowers (I mostly struck out). But then there was this moment of opportunity along the Merced River.

Photo #3, Sunrise at Walton Lighthouse, Santa Cruz, California. I don’t know if there’s a lot of story behind this one. The clouds looked like they were going to provide interesting color, the sun was going to line up at an interesting angle, and some gunk got in my lens providing some interesting lens flares. OK the gunk has been there for a while.

Today I saw how things were lining up and decided that this could be exceptional.

Photo #4Trees, moon, and Half Dome at sunset from Olmsted Point, Yosemite. Two of my favorites from this year were shot from within a few yards of this spot.

Trees, moon, and Half Dome at sunset from Olmsted Point. It was the beginning of an epic evening in Yosemite.

Photo #5, The Milky Way Sets Over Olmsted Point and Half Dome as the International Space Station Passes Overhead. Ok, I think that’s the International Space Station. It could have been any satellite really. At first I thought it was a passing meteor but then I realized it appeared in several frames. That’s too long for a meteor. The resulting image is a composite of several frames shot to provide more moments with the ISS. Yes, this is shot just a few yards away from Photo #4 above.

Photo #6, Super Moon over Santa Cruz. I gathered some friends for the moonrise. It’s amazing how several people will get different compositions from essentially the same scene! A big lesson was learned with this photo — watermark everything. This photo went viral and it showed up on every California tourism site with thousands of reshares etc. Dopey me, the way I published it on Instagram didn’t include my watermark. Thankfully the nice folks at @vististantacruz cited me by name.

Super Moon over Santa Cruz

Photo #7, Valley View, Yosemite. A lot of my photos involve being cold and maybe wet. This was one of those times and 100% worth it.

The rest of the photos are in there but the order is less important…

Photo #8, Undisclosed Abandoned Mill. Occasionally I’m authorized to photograph some incredible places that are best left without a name. This part of the mill rose and lowered an enormous saw blade.

Photo #9, That 395 Shack and Alpenglow.  This is an often photographed scene along Hwy 395 south of Mono Lake. Debbie and I waited for sunrise in some pretty intense cold (I mentioned that a lot of my stories involve being really cold right?). As the sun rose the Sierras lit up.

Photo #10, Redwoods and Pescadero Creek, Portola Redwoods State Park, California. I’m surrounded by redwoods daily. This scene was special to me because it was at the end of a backpacking trip through the Santa Cruz Mountains. We went from Castle Rock State Park to Portola Redwoods SP and passed through Saratoga Gap. I brought minimal photography gear, but I did bring a tiny tripod.

Photo #11, Milky Way Over Tanaya Lake, Yosemite. For just a moment the lake was still and the stars reflected like a mirror.

Photo #12, Tree, Snow and Mist. Yosemite. This could easily fall into the “brave little tree” variety of photos, but I like it. Shot from Tunnel View on a cold and snowy day.

Photo #13, Merced River, Half Dome, Sunset. Yosemite. This was a pleasant surprise. Debbie and I were trying to make it to Mirror Lake and our plans went sideways — as they often do. When it was obvious that we weren’t going to make it we setup along the Merced and hoped. The rest played out beautifully.

Photo #14, Jack O’Neill Paddle Out, Santa Cruz, California. This is more an emotional attachment and a moment than anything else. This was the guy who invented the surfing wetsuit and changed everything in the process. I’ve been to a few paddle outs but I have never seen one this big. The Coast Guard flew low over the surfers. It was a combination of memorial and party.

Inspiration at Santa Cruz Harbor

Today’s forecast called for mostly cloudy, high tide, rotten surf, and a rain storm.

Perfect.

Whaaaaaaa? 

The clouds have been creating the conditions for bright red sunrises and sunsets. Sunrise has been moving at a southerly angle that lends itself to nice compositions. I decided to try some new ideas with a subject that I consider “done to death” — The Walton Lighthouse at Santa Cruz Harbor.

I’ve been struggling for inspiration recently, so I thought it might be a good idea to revisit some subjects that I’ve done before. I had two ideas in particular. The first idea was a long exposure of the harbor at high tide with the rocks of the jetty partially submerged. And another with the sunrise more or less lining up with the lighthouse and the path as leading lines.

The long exposure here was a new idea for me here. This is a blend of 2 images for sky and foreground. The foreground exposure is around 6 seconds and I used a 3 stop neutral density filter. The water gets more calm here anyway, it’s a harbor after all right? I combined what I knew about the lighting conditions, the weather, and the tide report to pre-visualize this scene. I’m very happy with the results.

Long exposure at Santa Cruz Harbor — composition idea #1 http://www.coastalimagesbysean.com/Landscapes/Coastal-Images/i-S4FKR5x/buy

A lot of effort went into the image in post production. It’s shot at 17mm so there was some lens distortion to be expected. This needed a little more work since the lighthouse is at the right side and was prone to more distortion. Blending exposures can be easy with some tools but this time my typical workflow wasn’t quite doing it. I needed to get creative with masks, then luminosity masks for selective editing and sharpening. The “lighthouse” (it’s really a nice looking cover for a light on a tall pole) is painted white. That thing reflects whatever dominant color is in the ambient light — and in my initial work that guy was a bright pink. Toning that down took more work than I imagined.

Leading Lines and sunburst  at Santa Cruz Harbor — composition idea #2 Available at http://www.coastalimagesbysean.com/Landscapes/Coastal-Images/i-kKS68HV/buy

The second composition is something similar to what you’re likely to see occasionally from other local and visiting photographers. The path along the jetty creates perfect leading lines to the main subject. I chose to setup very low and shoot while the sun poked up over the hills in the distance. Usually I don’t want to shoot directly into the sun because of the lens flares but this time I went with it. After all, I’m looking to try new ideas so why not incorporate the lens flare? OK, that lens flare includes some dust that’s managed to stick inside my lens. Some day I’ll look into updating it with something new, but not yet.

Both photographs are available on my sales site — which might help me pay for that fancy schmancy new Canon 16-35mm. You want to help me acquire this don’t you? Sure you do.

Backpacking, Low-end gear, and a Mountain Lion

I had a backpacking trip into the Yosemite back country scheduled for early October. A wildfire helped cancel that plan. I had everything ready so I decided to do something closer to home. There’s a drop-in camp site at Castle Rock State Park. This would be a nice opportunity to experiment with some ideas. I wanted to write a brief travel blog about fun local backpacking, to demonstrate that you could do simple astro photography with a low end camera and a kit lens, and to play around with going light with camera gear for future trips. Things went perfectly to plan until they really didn’t.

Spoiler alert: it involves a mountain lion.

Before we go any further I want to clarify something. Do not panic about the mountain lions. Sharks live in the water, mountain lions live in the mountains. I’ve still never seen a shark near our surfers. Similarly just because I came across a mountain lion doesn’t mean that they’re getting more aggressive or numerous in general. I believe that the experience from this trip was very unusual and even then nobody got hurt. Now back to my story…

DLSR selfie. This was supposed to be kind of a travel blog so these are the kinds of images that are fun.

This is an easy hike even if you’re not in especially good shape, so getting to the camp was just good fun even with a full pack. I brought just about everything I was taking on the Yosemite trip mostly because I had it packed already anyway. Everything went without a single hiccup. OK there was a minor thing with the Peak Design Capture that I was using. I may have twiddled a knob and the camera jammed in there and I was unable to get it back out about 1/2 into the hike. This had happened once before and I was only a little annoyed. FYI the nice folks at Peak Design helped me understand what I probably did: there’s a nob off to the side that’s intended to keep a mount in place specifically for a front-facing GoPro. I had likely tightened that when I should have left it alone. But in the grand scheme of things, this really wasn’t a big problem.

Snapshot of an unusually located redwood grove. This area is mostly oaks and there’s not a lot of sunlight. This group of redwoods is small and a bit undernourished, yet here they are doing what they do.

I brought my Canon Rebel XT, the 18-55mm kit lens, and a 24-200 Tamron lens that my wife bought for me forever ago for my old Canon film SLR (note: that lens is pushing 20 years old. They’re way better now). I wanted to see if this old lens would be utilitarian and high enough quality such that it could still be useful. It wasn’t, but I enjoyed the experiment. The kit lens was for wide angles and for the night shots. And hell, it’s so lightweight that there’s no penalty for bringing it. The tripod was my Joby Gorillapod; again very lightweight and versatile. I even brought a simple tripod head, a Vanguard SBH-100  . Everything was basic and nothing special.

I’m just a mile into the hike when I started taking snapshots of climbers using my old Tamron 24-200mm. This old lens was harder to use than I remembered and the quality was low. I often make a lot of noise about “it’s not the gear”. OK, at some point yeah, there’s a baseline for gear. This lens is under it.

The hike was fun. I took snapshots of rock climbers and even helped a couple of lost hikers. I was feeling really good about this and having a great time.

There’s a tiny seasonal waterfall here. Climbers will often scale the rock face next to it.

There are a couple of tricky parts to the hike. My pack is the older external frame type so it’s a little wide. Getting across narrow passages meant getting creative.

An unusually narrow footbridge. I just lift my pack up a little higher and it’s no big deal.
This short section is a little bit more of an attention getter. It’s narrow, steep, and you need to hold on to the cable on the right. No big deal but it’s a little reminiscent of the steps along the Mist Trail in Yosemite.

Once I got close to camp I actually felt a little down since it almost over. I setup camp, laid everything out, and took a couple of “happy campsite” pictures.

Yeah, just never mind that the shirt I was hiking in is drying on top of the tent. Otherwise I really did plan to hang out, read my book, enjoy dinner, take night photos, and call it a day.

You know, tent up, dinner cooking, camp chair, a good book; outdoorsy fun. I made a good dinner, enjoyed desert, then setup for a “glowing night time tent” picture.

Happy campsite. Happy dinner.

Right about then a deer went running through my campsite. Not like it was just in a hurry to get somewhere — it was running from something in a panic. I noted this and even considered the possibility that maybe it had seen a puma. I discounted the idea that the puma could be especially close since hey, noisy, smelly, weird people. Hell I was fairly close to the Los Altos Rod & Gun Club and there was all kinds of noise coming from there. No reason to be concerned about a mountain lion. Now was an OK time to clean up from dinner.

A turkey buzzard cruises along over the valley.

The sun was setting soon and I wanted to go do my demo of low-end DLSR astrophotography. I knew an overlook nearby that would allow for a decent shot of the Milky Way setting behind the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Emphasizing the warm light between the trees as the sun was getting low in the sky.

I gathered my things and hustled up to the overlook before it got dark. The landscape photography and attempts at photographing the soaring buzzards didn’t go especially well with the old 24-200mm. The focus just wasn’t very sharp and autofocus was far too slow. It reminded me of way back when I thought this was the greatest lens ever though.

A long way from great, but again, for some folks maybe this is plenty good. I expect better though.
That old Tamron lens wasn’t perfect, but it was ok for some things. For creative recreational photos it did just fine.

 

The sun set over the ridge across the way and dipped under the marine layer. The coast was just a few miles away.

Before the sun set I made a short video to explain what I was doing, what I was using, and how anybody could do it. Once the sun set what I really discovered was that yeah, there’s a minimum requirement for shooting the Milky Way: live view. If you don’t have live view then you’re not going to get the stars in focus with this lens. You just can’t zoom in on a star with the eyepiece. Before you ask, sorry the Micro-SD card got corrupted and that video is lost to the digital dumpster. Let’s look at this from another point of view though: it can be done. Somebody might even be absolutely stoked that they took this photo himself and that would be perfect.

Yes, it turns out there is some minimum gear needed to take quality photos of the night sky. Again this setup was below that bar.

I walked back to camp about an hour after sunset. I’m no dummy so I’m making plenty of noise to let the potential animals know I’m coming and that I should be uninteresting or at least not worth the risk to them. Once I got to the campground I looked up and saw a pair of large glowing eyes up in a tree reflected in my headlamp. I wasn’t concerned because this was probably a possum or raccoon. I didn’t think much more about this. I got back to my tent, rummaged around to setup the lamp for the “glowing happy tent photo”, and looked up. There was a small pair of eyes in the bush about 10 feet away. I thought very little about this; raccoon or possum again. I went back to the table to setup for my picture, arranged things the way I liked them, and made a couple of exposures as the battery died. Right about then my phone beeped to let me know that it’s battery was going too. No problem, just great timing.

The “happy glowing tent” photo that I planned on.

Then I looked up again. The little eyes were replaced with two big ones.

The closest thing I have to a picture of the puma. Above the tent and to the left you’ll see a glowing dot. I’d usually attribute that to ISO noise. That’s one of the mountain lion’s eyes. Things got tense moments later.

I was 20 meters away from that bush and the eyes were much larger. Whatever it was, it was low to the ground so potentially a raccoon, but I kept my light in that direction. I couldn’t see into the bush, just the eyes. Then those eyes got up. They rose a good 2 feet. That’s no raccoon. Then it got down low again. It knew I saw it and things had just changed from a simple wildlife moment to something else. Something potentially dangerous. I remembered that deer that ran through here earlier and it hits me; it was running from this. This is a puma. The other pair of eyes may have been a cub. I am in deep trouble. I’ve been a little too close to a mountain lion once before, but I never saw her. What you do is get large, stand up, make noise, and they lose interest: you’re big, weird, smell funny, and you’re not worth the risk. So I went with Plan A again. I got on top of the table, raised my arms and started talking to the eyes:

I see you.

I see you.

You should go now.

GO!

The eyes got low again. Then rose up again. Then something unexpected; it flanked to my left. I could still see the eyes bobbing a little over a foot above the ground (I think) but damn, I could NOT see the animal’s body at all. Then she came back to her original spot, got low, rose up, and got low again. Then an unmistakable “rrrrrrrrrr” from the bush. Shit. She knew I saw her and that I was looking right at her. She couldn’t back down because I was a challenge. I couldn’t back down because I needed to know where she was. I had a large metal water bottle and my knife so I started banging them together to make more noise. It was around 10:00 pm and this went on for another 30 minutes before I decided I needed help. I managed to get a phone call to 911.. a choppy miserable attempt but I did manage to get the key words out. A ranger was on his way but there was a real problem. He was coming from Twin Lakes Beach. He was simply the nearest armed ranger and he was about 45 minutes away if he was in a giant rush. The roads here didn’t fare well last winter and the 2 important ones he needed were closed so he had to take a much longer route. Typically a ranger would come from Big Basin Redwoods State Park or maybe even Portola Redwoods State Park (I think). But there wasn’t anybody available at either location. I was on my own for a while.

After another 20 minutes I got lucky and a campsite not far away woke up and yelled asking what was going on.

Me: Mountain Lion!

The two girls asked if there was anything they could do.

Me: OK, here’s the plan. I’m going to keep facing the puma and start slowly backing towards your site. As soon as I get over this little rise I’m going to lose sight of her. That’s a problem. She’ll probably leave, but we’re all better off together. Get on top of your picnic table, have lights, and get ready to make some noise with me. Do you understand?

Them: Yesss???

Me: OK, here I come.

Now here’s where things get to be a real pain. We couldn’t see her. The eyes were just lost to me now. There was a pause for a minute, then noises in the bushes near the other campsite. She had potentially come closer, but we just couldn’t be sure. Then “rrrrrrrrrrr” from the bushes. There’s some confusion because I can’t be absolutely sure anymore if it’s her or a distant motorcycle. The differences should be pretty clear. I could hear the occasional Harley miles away: bwrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr brrrr bwwwrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr bwrrrrrrrrrrrr . But then softly I could still here much shorter “rrrrrrr” with no followup bwrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. I couldn’t be sure so we kept making noise. There were some intervening events that I’ll summarize as other campers coming by and asking what was going on. They were mostly annoyed that we were keeping them up. They went back to their camps the other direction. Maybe she really had gone? I had no real way to know.

The park ranger arrived about 11:45. The puma was definitely gone now, no question about it. He offered to evacuate out anybody who wanted to go — considering that he could only fit so many people in his truck. The young ladies decided to stay since they had travelled a bit and waited so long for their trip. I live reasonably nearby and can come back any time — so I took him up on it. I gathered up my stuff, packed up the tent, and we were out of there. It’s not like I was going to get any sleep that night.

Here’s what I want to be clear about. What happened was very unusual. Mountain lions don’t stick around like that. They usually bug out immediately. Occasionally they crouch and stalk when they’re showing some aggression. Usually it’s all over in 20 minutes or so. You hear about mountain lions popping up in odd places. It makes the news and people freak out for a while. Remember that when you see something in the news it’s there for a reason; it’s unusual. I joke that you never see “GRAVITY: STILL DOING ITS THING” in the news.

Kevin Foster helped organize the meeting. He’s become something of a local hero by organizing people into CERT and generally being as helpful as possible. It makes an enormous difference.

We had a community meeting recently in Boulder Creek on the topic of pumas. A rep from the Dept of Fish and Game was giving a great presentation and reassured everybody that there was nothing unusual to be worried about. Keep your pets indoors. Don’t give the animals a reason to visit your home. Keep pet food inside, etc. Pick up the acorns that the deer love to eat so they don’t attract pumas themselves, etc. Most of the meeting participants agreed. A few didn’t. I was there photographing the event and didn’t say anything until after.

I asked the rep what she thought about my particular situation. She honestly didn’t have a lot to say. She gets a lot of panic phone calls that turn out to be house cats. It’s OK, she wasn’t there and nobody got hurt. My point is don’t take my story to mean that there’s some unusual increase in mountain lion activity or aggression. I truly believe this was unusual. I wouldn’t even be insulted if the rep told me that it wasn’t a puma.

Move forward in time a month. I’ll be honest, this experience has brought on a change in me. I really noticed how people tend to steer clear of each other. Watch two people walking towards each other on a sidewalk. They swerve a little to make more space. They don’t look each other in the eye. This is even more noticeable in an elevator. Hell, most don’t look up from their shoes or they use their phones as an excuse to not engage in the people inches away. I tried an experiment. I walked around Santa Clara. I walked right towards people, looking right at them the whole time. Then I’d smile and say something friendly like “Hello” or “Hi, how are you today?” Almost always the response was one of pleasant surprise. People were glad to see that I wasn’t a threat but they weren’t too sure at first. I’ve started more casually talking with absolute strangers. I’m not remotely threatened by somebody in public or, and this seems utterly ridiculous now, on social media. That guy’s not going to hurt me. He probably couldn’t anyway. Hell, I look far more threatening in person anyway what in the world do I have to fear of this guy? Nothing.

If anything this has been empowering. But oh yeah, I still see those eyes. I still hear “rrrrrrr”.

Milky Way Over Olmsted Point

The first big objective of this year’s eastern Sierras trip was capturing the Milky Way over Half Dome from Olmsted Point. Debbie and I got out there while the moon was about 40% full and around 2 hours from setting. Obviously we were going to have to wait for the moon to set so in the meantime we made use of the time.

Half Dome at sunset from Olmsted Point, Yosemite

This is one of those hundreds (thousands?) of locations within Yosemite that practically composes itself. Boulders provide leading lines while trees frame the image. Passing jets provided contrails (not my favorite thing) and a fire in the distance provided extra warm tones to the image. Framing the scene to avoid the contrails worked fine for the most part.

Trees, moon, and Half Dome at sunset from Olmsted Point. It was the beginning of an epic evening in Yosemite.

The photograph of the Milky Way setting over Olmsted Point was both easy and challenging. Easy because once you know how you never really forget, especially with a camera body/lens combination that you know very well. It gets more difficult when processing the image and the waiting.

The Milky Way sets over a tree and Half Dome as a meteor streaks overhead

No, really! The waiting is tricky because it’s cold. And not just any cold, it’s “your rump is on a freezing granite rock” cold. We both brought camping chairs, so that took care of that problem (yay planning!). Post processing the image isn’t really all that difficult in general, but this one took more time; and I think it’s fair to say that I’m not done with it. When I shot the scene I was aware that a meteor went overhead from about the center of the frame to the upper right corner. (Update: my friends Mike Spinak and Cris Ballinger suggested that it was probably a satellite or maybe even the International Space Station )I was very excited to find that I caught four frames with the meteor. The trick now was aligning the images, bringing out relevant details, reducing noise (oh reducing noise at ISO 4000 probably isn’t going to happen). I won’t go into the details of processing the photo because I think it’s something worth exploring yourself. There are a lot of different styles that come from the discovery. I found a look that I like so my approach will probably be different from yours. Then I find things I don’t like much later and I do it again. To tell you the truth I edited the photo twice while I was writing this. Told you so!

Stargazing at Olmsted Point

I have a lot of photographs from this last trip. I also have what feels like a daunting amount of things to do now that I’m back. I’m going to write, copyright, and oh yes, unpack.

Stargazing at Olmsted Point, Yosemite, September, 2017

I had a set of ideas for this trip and one of the first was capturing the Milky Way from Olmsted Point. This isn’t that post. This is more of a fun opportunistic photo before achieving that first objective. I had a couple of hours before the moon set and a couple of spare batteries so I had some fun. Honestly some of these “play time” photos are more fun than the primary one! I had a couple of ideas with this image. The original idea was to blend 2 photos, 1 at higher ISO for the foreground and another at ISO 3200 for the stars overhead. Then I found the meteors in the ISO 6400 image and none in the 3200 image. Well darn, those are too cool to pass up so I went with the single ISO 6400 image and ran with that.

There was a small private photography workshop happening near us. I was so busy doing my own thing that I didn’t pay much attention to them; I should have at least gotten the instructor’s name since he was generous enough to let Debbie and I know that they’d turn on their lights occasionally.