Big sensors, big fun

A red-tailed hawk constantly scans the surrounding area for prey

Okay, so I like to cheat every once in a while. There are “purists” out there who would shake their head with shame at the image above, and I have to admit, I used to side with them more often then not. But I couldn’t help myself the other day playing around with some of my photos to see how I could create other successful photos just by cropping heavily.

The photo above is a head and shoulder crop of the photo below. My distance to this red-tailed hawk was limited by the height of the pole on which he was perched. I was already in pretty close, with an 800mm lens on a 1.6x crop sensor, giving me a 35mm equivalent focal length of 1280mm. If I’d walked any closer to pole, the angle of inclination would have been too severe, which was not the kind of shot I was going after. The photo was okay, but that pole really bothered me. I much prefer natural scenes without visible “hand-of-man” elements.

A red-tailed hawk perches on a tall pole, looking for prey
A red-tailed hawk perches on a tall pole, looking for prey

So, once I got the photo onto my computer, I decided to start playing with the crop, if only to see what my photo might have looked like if I’d had more lens reach. I was fully expecting a pixelated mess, but to my astonishment, the cropped image wasn’t that bad. I won’t be making a 30×40 inch print of it any time soon, but for small prints and web use, it works. Here, the win definitely goes to the massive 18 megapixel sensor and the amazing amount of detail it can capture. Of course, some credit should go to me for the technique required for the razor sharpness of the image!

There are many new opportunities for photographers to express their creativity as a direct result of improvements in technology. Five years ago, I could not have done what I did above. The image quality of the cropped photo would have been too poor to stand up on its own. It is truly amazing how far the world of digital photography has advanced in recent years. Who knows what the next ten years will bring?

Alpenglow – what is it?

Recently several people have asked me what alpenglow is, and what causes it. This term was probably popularized among photographers by Galen Rowell, who wrote about it and demonstrated it wonderfully through many of his fantastic landscapes. The term refers to the reddish pre-dawn and post-sunset lighting effects sometimes seen on mountain peaks. There is some debate as to whether it also refers to the light cast directly by the sun at the moment of sunrise or sunset, or if it only refers to an indirect red cast on the mountain top while the mountain is still in the earth’s shadow. Either way, it is a beautiful sight to behold.

Mt. Whitney glows red in pre-dawn light, Alabama Hills, CA
Mt. Whitney glows red in pre-dawn light, Alabama Hills, CA

I got a chance to see intense alpenglow recently when I visited the Alabama Hills on the eastern side of the Sierra. In the photo above, you can see the intense red of alpenglow touching the peak of Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the continental US.

Why is alpenglow red? The longest and slowest moving light waves in the visible spectrum are red. As light travels through our atmosphere, the faster wave lengths (blue) are absorbed – only the red penetrates. Alpenglow is an extreme version of this light absorption because of the increased amount of atmosphere light has to travel through at this time of day. Here we have the sun rising on one horizon (east), striking an object on the opposite horizon (west). The red wave length is the only end of the spectrum that makes it through all that atmosphere. The fact that there are no features obstructing the sun as it rises across the Nevada desert, combined with the fact that the peaks of the eastern Sierra rise over 10,000 feet straight up, make the Alabama Hills one of the best places on earth to view alpenglow.

Light from the rising sun creeps down the face of Mt. Whitney at dawn, Alabama Hills, CA
Light from the rising sun creeps down the face of Mt. Whitney at dawn, Alabama Hills, CA

Here we have another shot of Whitney taken less than four minutes after the first photo. Here the darker purple of the earth shadow moved down the face, and the red color was more orange as the sun rose above the eastern horizon. Even though it was only four minutes later, there was less atmosphere for the sun light to traverse, shifting the color away from red and toward the shorter wavelengths.

Food poisoning, ten hours of driving, and all I got were these lousy photographs!

A forest of pine covers the floor of Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park
A forest of pine covers the floor of Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park

It all started out well enough. My friend Steve and I headed out of town last Thursday night for what looked like a wonderfully scenic three-day backpacking trip. We were going to start in Sierra National Forest, loop into southern Yosemite, and then into Ansel Adams Wilderness. The drive went well, the 30 miles of dirt road were easier than we were expecting, and we found a nice spot to disperse camp at the trail head.

Then, sitting around the campfire before bed, my stomach started feeling pretty bad. I thought maybe it was the altitude, as we were camped above 8000 feet. I went to bed expecting to acclimatize over night and feel better in the morning. Wrong – I felt worse. I’ll spare you the details, but it soon became apparent that I couldn’t hold anything down, including water. My head was pounding with dehydration. Definitely no way to start a rigorous 15+ mile day!

From Glacier Point, the visitor is granted views of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and the Yosemite high country
From Glacier Point, the visitor is granted views of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and the Yosemite high country.

After much deliberation, we decided to skip the trip and pack it in. Thankfully, Steve is one of those easy-going guys who can be very flexible when plans need to change. We were both disappointed, but agreed to tackle the trip another time. Since we were close to Yosemite, we decided to pop into the park for some quick vistas before heading back to the Bay Area.

Trees grow out of rounded granite overlooking Nevada Falls from Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park
Trees grow out of rounded granite overlooking Nevada Falls from Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park

So, okay, the photographs I took weren’t “lousy”, but not really what I was expecting from a trip into the backcountry. I much prefer photographing areas with few or no people – preferably that are hard to get to. As it was, we were stuck with what is the hustle and bustle of a Yosemite vista point in mid-summer. In general, I tend to stay away from these spots for two reasons. First, they are frequently crowded to the point that it breaks my ability to connect with the nature that surrounds me. Getting out into the Sierra only to see people pushing and shoving to get a view (Glacier Point, anyone?) is not my idea of solitude! Second, from a photographic standpoint, I don’t like taking photos that have literally been taken millions of times before.

Although this landscape has been captured by cameras millions of times, it is still beautiful to behold
Although this landscape has been captured by cameras millions of times, it is still beautiful to behold

Needless to say, I was in a bad mood heading back last Friday. However, after getting home and processing the photos I took, I was reminded why all those people were there. Everyone can get to these spots, and they are among the most beautiful in the world. I remember the first time I saw Yosemite and how awe-struck I was. I would never want to deny anyone else that same experience, no matter how grumpy I get from a missed backpacking trip. After all, there is a reason they call these scenic vista points.

Competition breeds creativity

Before the digital storm swept through the world of photography, shooting film was an error-prone process for the uninitiated. It took patience and overcoming a steep learning curve to succeed as a professional photographer. If you didn’t learn lessons from past mistakes and quickly correct them, you were soon out of a job. As a result, only those who could consistently produce salable images succeeded, and the number of top-tier professionals was small.

Thanks to the digital photography revolution, the number of photographers that can produce fantastic images has exploded. There are two reasons for this. First, the ability to adjust camera settings on the fly while reviewing the results on the camera’s LCD, coupled with the fact that so many more images are salvageable in post processing has created a more forgiving environment in which to achieve great images. The photographer no longer has to pre-visualize in the same way, and pre-calculate the perfect exposure. Simply reviewing the LCD in the field can help correct and shape the next photograph. Second, the instant feedback of digital makes the learning curve of photography easier to overcome. The learning process becomes more interactive and immediate than when the photographer had to take notes in the field about his camera settings, and then wait until the film was developed before conducting a comprehensive review of his work. This instant feedback has helped to catapult more part time and hobbyists into the professional photography scene.

When I first started dabbling in digital photography, the community was small. Digital photographers were either gadget or photography fanatics (most of us were both). However, as digital photo technology developed quickly, picture quality started to improve, and the results began to be taken more seriously. More photographers converted from film to digital, and even more new photographers entered the fray. So what does mean for professional photographers trying to eke a living in this brave new world?

With advances in hardware and software within cameras themselves, the overall quality of photographs is improving. Cameras are “smarter”, and even snapshots have never looked so good. For photographers, it means that in order to differentiate ourselves, we have to push our creativity to the limit, and execute with technical perfection. No more “almost got it” shots will be acceptable – current camera technology is just too good. Also, the ability to make a living solely on selling stock is now in the past. With the advent of micro-stock (royalty free), and the ease at which digital files can be sent around the world, stock photography consumers are more likely to settle for a lesser photo at MUCH cheaper prices than a well-polished rights-managed image.

However, it is not all bad news for professionals trying to make a living from photography – there is a silver lining. Photography has never been more popular. With prices coming down and product quality going up, people are snatching up the latest cameras in record numbers. The good news is that because of increased demand, camera manufacturers will continue to invest in research and development of even better technology. That means being able to achieve shots we only dreamed of a decade ago. This provides us more time for creativity, and less emphasis on the technical precision required to operate the camera. Don’t get me wrong – we still need to know our camera gear backwards and forwards. But since many camera operations are now automated, we can spend more time on the creative and artistic aspects of photography to produce the shots that separate us from the pack.

A man raises his arms to the setting sun, Mission Peak, SF Bay Area, CA.
A man raises his arms to the setting sun, Mission Peak, SF Bay Area, CA.

I took the photo above in 1999 with one of my first digital cameras – the Olympus 500L. With a resolution of 1024×768 pixels (ALMOST a 1 megapixel camera), and the fact it could take external media cards (maximum card size was 8 MB), it was revolutionary at the time.