Monthly Archives: July 2006

Remembrance of Color

The snow starts falling in the Yosemite winter, first gently and then with insistence. Hours—or days—into the blizzard everything is white. Maybe there are a few shades of gray. But the world is essentially monchromatic. Color is a merely a memory evoked by a few details in this photograph: the rock behind the waterfall, the brown tint of the trunks of the trees on the lower left, and the green of fir trees showing through the whiteness.

Posted in Landscape, Photography, Yosemite

Water Drop Photograph Techniques

I get asked all the time how I make my water drop photos. For example:

I’ve seen many of your photographs and am really impressed with all the water drops. I’d like to know how you do it, and specifically what lens you use.

There really is no one answer to this question. Water drop photography is macro photography with some subject-matter specific difficulties. Macro photography in and of itself is one of the most technically difficult kinds of photography because once you get really close to a small object inherently shallow depth-of-field, precise focus, and motion—even the slightest motion—are all issues that can defeat a photograph, no matter how beautiful it would be otherwise.

What makes water drop photography a bit more difficult than run-of-the-mill photography of very small subjects is the extreme reflectivity of a water drop and the fact that a water drop is in almost constant motion (read more about these issues here).

In this story, I’ll address the equipment I use—and tackle some of the other technical issues related to water drop photography in future stories.

I use Nikon digital SLR equipment, right now a Nikon D200 body. As far as I am concerned, there’s no saying this is any better than any other brand, it is just what I happen to use. (For example, Canon is probably just as good.)

It’s also worth saying upfront that one can take perfectly good macro photographs with relatively primitive equipment provided the camera has a macro mode. For example, check out this photo of wedding rings that I took with a Canon Powershot G3. To get good results, you do need to be sure you are using a tripod, and know how to get the maximum depth-of-field from the camera.

My macro lens are a Nikon 200mm f/4 (used with the photograph above), a Nikon 105mm f/2.8 (the older, non-VR model), and a Sigma 50mm f/2.8. I often use Kenko extension tubes (I have two sets) with these lenses. I prefer these to the Nikon extension tubes because they retain automatic exposure in Aperture-preferred mode. Besides the extension tubes, I have close-up filters for these lenses, a lens reversal mount for the 105mm lens, and a Nikon PK-6 bellows.

I always focus macro lenses manually, and I use a magnifying eye piece for added precision.

I sometimes handhold macro shots with extension tubes and/or close-up lens and a VR (vibration reduction, also called image stabilization) zoom lens, like my 18-200mm Nikon zoom. (Here’s a photo taken with this technique.)

But most of the time I use one of my macro lenses, and these are invariably tripod shots, most often at the maximum possible depth-of-field, using mirror lock-up and the Nikon MC-36 remote to trigger the shutter.

I think my tripod is probably my most important piece of equipment. It is likely to outlast my D200, and probably most of the lenses I currently use as well. My tripod is a carbon-fiber Gitzo MK-2, which combines light weight with strength and agility.

To strobe or not to strobe, that is the question. Using flash as a light source with water drops replaces the natural light source with that created by the strobe (read more about this). When I do use flash with water drops, I use the Nikon wireless R1 close-up kit, which includes two Nikon wireless remote SB-R200 units. I also sometimes use a SU-800 unit connected via wireless to supply additional ambient light.

Leaving the hardware of photography aside for a second, my title for the photograph that started this story is “The force that through the green fuse,” after the Dylan Thomas poem. Here’s the first stanza of the poem:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

My point being: that at its best, photography of water drops, like all good art, is about the creative life force, the urges that make us live, breath, yearn and die. A powerful force runs through each water drop, but all too soon (from the photographer’s viewpoint) each drop ends in falling or evaporation, with new worlds to live or die wherever one’s lens is pointed next. Water drop photography is about capturing the brief life of an ephemeral and tiny world.

Posted in Photography, Water Drops

Sounds of Serenity

If silence has sounds, then so I suppose does serenity. Like the sound of the wind brushing softly through snow-clad trees in the photograph (above) of the floor of Yosemite Valley in the winter, the soft noise of snow flakes falling on newly formed ice on Mirror Lake (below), or the crackling of ice contracting in the Merced River in the spring (far below).

Skim Ice

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Morning Merced Ice

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Posted in Landscape, Photography, Yosemite

Falling Water

I’ve been trying for a long time to capture a water drop just as it, well, drops—and finally succeeded in this photo thanks to the magic of the Nikon wireless macro strobe kit, patience and fortitude, and good luck.

This may seem like an obvious thing to state, but the primary determinant of the appearance of a water drop photo is the light source used in the capture because the way the water drop looks depends on reflections within the drop. So using a flash on a water drop does stop the motion of the water drop, both its falling motion (as in this photo) and other movement like that caused by the wind and surface disturbances.

But the bad news is that you won’t get what you see (which is unlike natural light water drop reflections, where pretty much you know what the drop looks like). Sometimes if you are very lucky the resulting photo will be an interesting or beautiful image (like the strobe-generated reflection in the water drop below), but it will always be an artificial construct created with the magic of a flash of light.

Orchid Water Drop

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Posted in Photography, Water Drops

Sunlight on Alcatraz

Looking out from Indian Rock near sunset, I saw crepuscular rays lining up around Alcatraz Island. Here are some related optical phenomena caused by sun and clouds around the Golden Gate Bridge, and in the sky in Colorado. Here are some of my favorite photographs of the San Francisco Bay over the last year.

Posted in Landscape, Photography, San Francisco Area

Magical Portals

The kids are very big on magical portals, gateways that lead to a cognitive shift in time and space. And that’s how I think of Yosemite in winter. Storms, clouds, shifting translucent light, and the sheer fragile beauty of the landscape in snow transform even views that have become commonplace to portals, mysterious islands, and sanctuaries.


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Entering the Sanctuary

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Posted in Landscape, Photography, Yosemite


How amazing to point my lens at a day lily and find a critter like this one lurking!

Posted in Bemusements, Photography

What is the question?

I may not know the question, but here’s the anther! Ha, ha, just kidding! (Here’s a flower anatomy lesson showing how the anther relates to the other sexual organs of the flower.) Normally, we don’t look at the parts of a flower as close as they are shown in these photos.

I photographed the anther above on an asiatic lily using my Nikon wireless macro strobe kit. The two anther photographs below were long daylight exposures of a day lily.

Anthers 1

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Anthers 2

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Posted in Bemusements, Flowers, Photography

Winter in Yosemite

It’s grand to visit Yosemite any time of year. But my favorite seasons as a photographer are spring and winter.

In the winter, the crowds thin, and it feels like you have the wonderful, mysterious sanctuary that is Yosemite to yourself. The light takes on a luminous quality. Sudden storms surround you in wet, gusty snow clouds and then disappear in rays of brilliant sunshine. Familiar vistas look new and exciting.

True, winter-time logistics take a bit of thought. You want to be sure to bring warm clothing, tire chains for your car, and a way to get around in the snow (like snow shoes) outside of your car. It is somewhat harder to get to Yosemite (and around Yosemite) in the winter time, but really not that difficult.

The photograph above was taken from a short distance up the Inspiration Point trail. This one below is from the Tunnel View parking lot, just after a storm had passed over the valley.

Winter Storm, Yosemite

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Posted in Landscape, Photography, Yosemite

A Weakness for Mallows

I have a weakness for mallows. Not because the plant supplies the mucilage in marshmallows—or, it least, did before the dawn of this synthetic age—and marshmallows are so sweet. Although marshmallows toasted on an open fire on a fragrant Pacific beach on a windy night would be a good reason, come to think of it.

No, I’ve come to love the variety of the mallow flower, its wonderful colors, translucency, and complex center a/k/a the flower’s sexual organs.

The photo above is handheld using a Vibration Reduction zoom lens with an extension tube. The closer-in macro below I took roughly a month ago with a conventional tripod and macro setup.


View this photograph larger. Here’s the original story about this photo.

Posted in Flowers, Photography

Mirror Lake

It’s a gentle one-mile stroll on a paved path to Mirror Lake, at the head of the valley made by Tenaya Creek behind Half Dome (which stands to the right of this photo, you are looking east and north).

The Park Service is gradually letting Mirror Lake return to its natural state, which means that it is at best a seasonal lake. In the summer time you can walk across the sandy lake bottom. Essentially, Mirror Lake was artificially constructed as part of the start of the tourist trade in Yosemite—replete with elegant Edwardian structures now gone, and ice skating in winter months. Left to its own devices, the “lake” silts up over time.

Here are some more photographs of Mirror Lake.

This photo was double-processed from the RAW original, once for the sky and once for the reflections in the water. The two versions were then put together using a layer mask and a gradient. This is a subject worthy of longer comment, but I’ll say it now briefly: the resulting image partially created in Photoshop is closer to what I saw when I was there than it would have been if I had left the photo as a single exposure.

Posted in Photography, Yosemite