First light at Pt. Reyes

Last weekend I left the city pre-dawn with a mission. I’ve been visiting the Estero trail area of Pt. Reyes for the past 7 years or so, and constantly delight in it’s beauty, accessibility, and the satisfaction of hiking the area. Today I was going to experience it as the sun rose, for the first time. Not only that, but this was the first hiking test of my new camera backpack. In the pack today: A7Riii, 16–35mm f2/8, 100–400mm.

I’m hunting for landscapes both wide and intimate, and hoping to capture some of the rich wildlife I’ve seen in the area in years past.

This blagoblag is both a chronicle of the adventure, as well as review of photography techniques I’m working to develop.

First light

The approach to Pt. Reyes of course first runs alongside Tomales bay. The sight of pre-dawn light coming over the bay was so gorgeous and distracting that I just had to stop to take this shot, even if it meant pushing back my schedule. An immediate lesson here is that next time, I should leave an extra hour earlier… or perhaps try to camp nearby instead of embarking on a 2 hour drive from San Francisco.

Arriving at the trailhead, I was delighted to find a herd of about 20 Tule elk just across from the parking lot. I immediately swapped lenses from ultra-wide to telephoto, ran as close as I could (up to a barbed wire fence), and took shot after shot until this buck went over the ridge.

There were some immediate lessons that would replay throughout the day

  1. Swapping lenses is fine at home, or even out of a car. Doing so while hiking is surprisingly exhausting, paranoia inducing (dirt and dust!), and distracting from the moment.
  2. Although 400mm is mighty powerful, it’s pretty obvious why teleconverters (+40% — +100%) are so popular. For the above shot, I was a few hundred feet away, and still the Elk were disturbed by my rather mundane presence.
  3. Sighting wildlife is not the same as finding a good composition. Although I’m happy with the above image, the rest of the herd was in the dark lee of the hill, with a noisy background. There were no good shots to be had there, showing the full size and interesting nature of the herd. There were young bucks play-fighting. Cows resting and bellowing. None of it would come out very well, at least not in my spur-of-the-moment approach.

With my preferred schedule now set-back due to unplanned but lovely spontaneous events, the sun rose while I was still on the early legs of the trail. I had a location and composition in mind for sunrise (with hopes of stars just visible in the sky), but that was no longer in the cards for today.

However, the sun broke just as I walked through the one short, wooded section of the trail. Truly this was a lovely sight: rays hitting the lichen and moss, still fresh with dew, and mist rising from the canopies.

The above spiderweb was another happy accident. Getting this shot was actually quite tricky. It was significantly uphill from me, required manual focus at 400mm (which is annoying to accomplish with the Sony’s electronic focus ring), and found me carefully squatting in a slick mud pit regularly traversed by the local cow herds. Still, I’m incredibly happy with how this came out. This isn’t exactly my style, per se, but I think it’s good to dabble in recognizable tropes, try them on for fit, and expand one’s repertoire.

All of that said, morning light isn’t a universal panacea for amazing photographs. The below bridge is one of the hallmarks of this hike. It had been my planned destination to watch the sunrise, before being happily delayed. However, in the early dawn light, I was completely unable to find a satisfactory composition. I don’t think the below image is particularly interesting or good. I have taken photos here in years past at high noon, and been much happier with those outcomes.

Camera/hiking setup

For some reason, I find it really compelling to take photos (with my phone) of my camera and kit in use. This is probably the same compulsion that drives others to take selfies.

Here you can see the total kit for the hike. Manfrotto “Advanced Tri Backpack M”, a cheap but compact tripod, and camera with massive telephoto lens attached. The 16–35mm was tucked into the backpack. In total the full pack weighs around 10 pounds. The pack distributes weight very nicely, though after a few miles it gets annoying. In particular, the constant on/off and maneuvering to swap lenses adds to fatigue.

Wildlife — in the wild!

I recently wrote a review of the 100–400mm telephoto lens at the Zoo. Actually practicing wildlife photography in the wild is another matter. Thankfully many of these birds stood still while I puttered about, searching for a composition. I clearly have much to learn (note: do backgrounds exist that are not blue?), but overall I’m quite happy with these initial real-world experiences.

I do aspire to one day stake out a bear den, wolf pack, or some other big game, carefully plan my shots and conditions, and wait for just the right moment. Nat Geo, here I come. A hike is the antithesis to the Nat Geo approach — take whatever images you’re lucky to find as you trundle along, and be thankful for them, mister.

This crow perched in my favorite tree (see below) for half an hour, claiming the land with each caw.
The early robin gets the worm, and the early photographer gets the robin.
Is this artistic? I’m not sure. Maybe? I like it though.

Photography techniques

Focus stacking

The below image is a composition of two photos. Both taken at 16mm and f8. The first was focused tight on the foreground stick. The second on the far tree. Combining these correctly can take patience, but in this circumstance — a mostly even horizon, and lack of noise in the background — it was quite easy.

I’ve tried in many previous sessions to achieve this effect, but most have failed. In part, I had not been using a tripod (whereas I was here). To edit these together, one must use photoshop. You can have photoshop do it for you with magic, or manually cut and paste sections from multiple images as layers, to taste.

Widescapes

This was shot standing on the bridge mentioned above up. Taking a zoomed-in panorama doesn’t require too much skill or technique, just keep the shutter speed high enough to minimize blur. However, these do challenge one’s sense of composition. For this shot, I wanted to capture the rolling hills, the atmospheric perspective, and how the estuary came to an end at this line of trees, all with wispy bits of morning mist. Unlike normal landscapes, it was critical to remove the sky as an element of the composition.

I think there’s a lot of promise in this style. I have a number of compositions lined up in my head for the high sierras, once the passes open for the summer.

Shot at 200mm. Calling these “widescapes”

Getting really close

A benefit of the 16–35mm f2.8 is the ability to focus close, blur the background, and give prominence to the miniscule. The below shots were all taken just inches from the relatively small subjects.

PixelShift comparison

One of the selling points of the new A7Riii is a shooting mode called “PixelShift”. Multiple manufacturers now have similar offerings. The idea is to take multiple exposures of a given image. In-between exposures, the sensor will be shifted via the same motors that power the IBIS (in body image stabilization). Each shift exposes a different RGB part of the sensor. The shooting process can take up to a minute (tripod required). The end result from the Sony is 4 images, each indistinguishable to the naked eye. Load them into Sony’s proprietary software, click some buttons, and bam, the 4 images will be blended into a single “PixelShift” composition, offering far more detail than previous (but at the same file size).

Ok, so with that mouthful out of the way, is this any good? I’ve tried PixelShift a number of times before this hike, and without any appreciable success. In one of the previous attempts was there a light wind — enough to cause grass blades and tree leaves to get all ghosty. Another attempt was ruined by a passing car (after which a rapid fog obscured my composition). Some just didn’t turn out well, for nothing I could quite understand — maybe my tripod was too tall/unstable?. At any rate, I finally got a good PixelShift image out of this hike, featuring one of my favorite trees.

I think the key factors in finally achieving this feat were the very low to the ground mini-tripod I was using (lower=more stability), and the completely dead air.

All of that said, I cannot help but come to the conclusion that most scenarios involving landscape photography simply will not benefit effectively from PixelShift. I only plan to use it in ideal conditions going forward.

My favorite tree, captured with excellent detail via PixelShift. This was shot with the camera hugging the ground, as seen previously in this writing.

The below images are identical zooms of the above. On the left is the final PixelShift product, and the right is an otherwise normal exposure.

This one tree

One of my favorite parts of the Estero trail hike is this one gnarled, windswept tree you come to after a few miles. I’ve been taking photos of this tree for the past 7 years, and for the first time, I’ve assembled them all in one place!

I daresay this tree has lost some foliage over time. It has been losing the battle against wind and gravity, bending lower to the earth. But still it stands, strong and alone.

Until next time…

Look forward to more adventures, perhaps some in-depth articles on editing in Lightroom and Photoshop, and drone videography!

Also, towards the end of March I’ll be motorcycling with friends around Morocco. I can’t wait to see what amazing footage comes from that adventure!