Chris Hunt is a fashion and advertising photographer, based in New York, Los Angeles and Mexico City. Originally from California, he has spent the last 15 years living and working in Europe, Asia, Latin America, Moscow and across the United States. Beginning his career as a photojournalist, Chris then moved into fashion photography after working as a model agent for several years in L.A. He has recently broadened his portfolio into film, directing TV commercials for fashion and lifestyle brands.
Chris balances outstanding creative talent with an impressive level of technical expertise, delivering impeccable professionalism and work of the highest quality with a relaxed and friendly attitude.
On the rare moments he is not in his studio, Chris can be found pedaling his road bike through Italy, SCUBA diving in the South Pacific or riding a motocross bike in the mountains of California.
His advertising clients include Google, TELCEL, Mitsubishi Automobiles, Pond's, Samsung, GNC, Chevrolet, Knorr and Garnier. He also works for fashion and beauty clients such as BCBG Max Azria, Herve Leger, Forever 21, bebe, ALDO, Nine West, Macy's, GAP, Banana Republic, Wet Seal, Arden B., Jockey International, Avon, Liverpool, Skechers, Fox Girls, Billabong, Stila Cosmetics and C&A. His work has been published in international magazines including VOGUE, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Interview, Maxim, Surface, Men's Health, Nylon and InStyle. High profile clients include sports stars Maria Sharapova and Wayne Gretzky and rappers Ludacris, Ice Cube and 50 Cent.
It seems like having dual cameras on your phone has become almost the norm nowadays, but many people don’t even know that they are there, let alone why. However, I believe that Portrait Mode is an incredible tool for the modern photographer to promote themselves — particularly on Instagram.
Portrait Mode is what Apple calls its artificial shallow depth of field tool in the camera app, although many other phones also have a similar feature. It uses the dual lenses on the back of the phone to approximate distance information of the subjects in the frame, and calculate how much to blur the background based on that.
I use a third party app called Focos, which uses the Portrait Mode engine but gives you more control over the amount of bokeh, lets you focus after the fact and gives you a few other tools.
With the right conditions, you can create great photos with your phone and continue your photography brand’s high-quality image from your phone.
I use this all the time when I’m in an interesting place or on an interesting job — for example, a food photo shoot. I’ll take a quick photo, then edit it and put it up as an Instagram story. These posts usually grab people’s attention as most other stories are low-quality shaky videos or directionless snapshots.
Here’s the sort of photo I’d use if I was on a food shoot, with a picture of my camera and a caption saying what I’m doing, encouraging engagement:
I’ll leave you with a challenge I did with fellow photographer Will H Cho on the set of a music video we were working on. We took the same photo with his Mamiya Medium format film camera and my iPhone. Here are the two photos, let me know if you can see the difference! (Full disclosure, I edited the iPhone photo to match color-wise.)
(Answer: The first photo was shot with the iPhone and the second was shot with the Mamiya.)
About the author: Ben Stewart is a New Zealand based photographer and videographer specialising in events, music, portraits and commercials. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of his work on his website and Instagram. This article was also published here.
Frozen Living for 34 Days on the Only Private Island in Central Helsinki
Last winter, I got the beautiful chance to spend time living and photographing on a freezing island located right in the central Helsinki. I spent 24 nights there as the cold winter turned to spring.
It all started when I saw an article about an island that was for sale for one million euros. Katajanokanluoto is the only privately owned island in central Helsinki and is located just a few hundred meters from the Helsinki shoreline. I had seen the island many times before from the Suomenlinna ferry. Suomenlinna is one of the most popular locations in Helsinki among the tourists and one of my favorite places.
I emailed the owner and asked if I could live and photograph on the island. He thought the idea was great and encouraged me to carry out the plan. A few days later, I had keys for the cabin. The only thing left to figure was how to get to the island.
It had been a record-breaking cold winter. It dropped as low as almost -20 °C in Helsinki, so the ice was really thick. The central location of the island meant that there were many open ship lanes surrounding the island. Walking there wasn’t an option. Ship lanes were opened only for huge ships, so they didn’t help for getting a small boat to the island.
I asked a ride from archipelago transportation business. Due to the coldness, they had already postponed all their transportations at that moment. I incidentally met them in Kauppatori while they were trying to free their ship from the surrounding ice.
I really didn’t want to wait until spring so I had to figure out another option. The only vehicle that can easily move on both ice and water is hovercraft. Luckily I found a guy that imports them and does some transportation as well. He said that he needs to make sure there weren’t any huge ice chunks on the way. When icebreakers operate, the edge of the open lane is sometimes piled with ice, making it dangerous to pass with hovercraft. Few days went by and I got the good news. Ice is flat enough so the adventure could begin.
The trip from the nearby dock to the island was a small adventure by itself. It was really fascinating to watch how effortlessly this versatile vehicle could move over the water and ice when driven by a skilled driver. The ride was over in just a few minutes.
Being on the island for the very first time, and realizing there is no going back before the scheduled pick-up after 7 days, felt oddly relaxing. The sights were amazingly beautiful, the air was fresh, and the cabin was really comfy looking.
Katajanokanluoto island is about the size of a half soccer field, 5000 square meters (~1.24 acres). It looked much bigger on the spot than from the distances I had seen it before.
After circling the island a few times, I went to check out the cabin. Outside very traditional, warm and comfy looking cabin surprised from the inside. White painted walls, stunning board floor, minimalistic interior design with some beautiful art pieces took me far from the traditional cabin views.
Just a few hours after arriving I knew that I would enjoy my stay. The versatile presence of nature felt wholesomely good. It is really empowering to watch the madness of the city from just a few hundred meters distance and feeling mentally really far away from it. Time and events of the world lose their significance. Observing nature and surroundings felt much more important.
Crows of the island were shocked about my arrival. At the beginning even opening the cabin door got them bolting to another side of the island. Day after day they approved me better. When watching swans I experienced a beautiful moment of trust. The crow flew and landed between me and the swans just under 10 meters from me. It groomed its feathers like it even didn’t notice me.
Besides the crows, blackbirds, common goldeneyes and swans inhabited the island in the winter time. Later came mallards, white wagtails, and geese. Lots of geese.
Ice circumstances and weather conditions varied rapidly throughout the day. Nighttime coldness halts the sea entirely while the warmth of the morning sun revived it back alive bringing chunks of ice from the distance.
As the day progressed, ice gathered on the shore. Changing ice formations, clouds and the tones from the setting sun made sure that all the nights looked different. Snow blizzards arrived in just minutes. Often making it literally snow from left to right. The wind was very piercing and combined with coldness, it effectively revealed the weak spots on clothing. Weather conditions were generally favorable and I had the chance to enjoy sunny moments almost every day.
I spent most of the time exploring and photographing the island. Quilted trousers were needed even in temperatures around zero. Especially when observing birds. I never felt outstandingly cold. The first night I heated up the fireplace. After that, I slept without heating.
I got used to the coldness really quickly. Only the first moments after waking up and getting out from the sleeping bag felt harrowing. “Washing” myself with the snow and bathing in the sea filled with ice cubes were the most shivering experiences. The coldest temperature was 12 degrees Celsius below zero.
My morning routine was to get up without hesitating, get the clothes on and go outside to take photos for 2-3 hours until the sunrise. Then I ate breakfast and took a nap. After that, I continued enjoying the fresh air outside and taking photos for the moments after sunset having just a few eating, warming, and resting breaks in between the shoots.
During the first six days, preparing food took a huge amount of time. I prepared a warm meal with the stove using wet wood three times a day. Every time it was a great challenge and I got well-needed practice of patience and fire starting skills. After the first trip, I took my portable stove with me so the meal preparation was much easier and less time-consuming.
Living on the island was really relaxing, healthy and full of well being. Keeping the mobile phone silent and living without grid electricity and computer ensured uninterrupted living. Days went by on a flow state taking photos and doing small tasks. Sleeping difficulties were gone and I slept better than ever. Usually starting around 10 pm.
The cruisers passed the island from just a few hundred meters of distance. Bigger ships could be felt as a low-frequency rumbling but overall they made quite little noise and operated just a few times a day. The motor of Suomenlinna ferry kept oscillating noise which could be heard every time in advance. Cabin fever hit me so I felt the urge to go to the shore watching, wondering and photographing the ships passing the island. I can imagine ending up on many photos and videos taken by tourists. Katajanokanluoto island is a pretty popular subject of photography for the people going to Suomenlinna and back.
The first six days on the island was over in an instant and completely without the present of homesickness or getting bored of the scenery or daily routines. I was surprised how quickly the ordinary haste and stress were gone. Small challenges on the island life: trying to keep the drinking water in a liquid state, using a pit in the snow as a fridge and maintaining warmness by clothing, were just the right kind to keep the mind stimulated and to give continuous rewards from the small successes in the day.
My next trip happened a few weeks later. I got a lift from the same hovercraft business but this time the vehicle was a self-made hovercraft. This sportier looking vehicle turned out to be as stable as the one before and again the trip to the island was successfully over in just a few minutes.
This time the sea was partly open. The weather shifted between snowy cold and warm. First signs of spring were there. Plants sprouted, the smell of the sea was present and the bird count increased day by day. In morning and night, It was fascinating to observe the creation and the melting of the ice on the sea.
I enjoyed my stay on the island more every day. While I was there, my only concern was returning to city life. In an apartment building and in the city, concerns of humanity are present all the time. Schedules, noise pollution, and conflicts. On the island, these worries seem distant. Lack of disturbances and other people created a stronger sense of being in charge of one’s well being.
I did a quick maintenance break on the mainland. Washing clothes, copying data from the memory cards, charging batteries and preparing food. I returned to the island with a small motor boat. The remnants of winter were gone and replaced by the spring livelihood and lightness. Few times I could bathe in the sun shirtless. Birds were also on a spring mood. Moments after arriving, I witnessed the weird mating rituals of mallards and observed how the Canada geese and the barnacle geese were fighting for their territories.
In the beginning, the bigger Canada geese didn’t tolerate their smaller cousins at all. They did numerous random attacks towards them. With the tiring tactics and the bigger count, barnacle geese invaded numerous spots from the island gaining majority.
In a late evening moment, the cliff on the island was a war ground. As usual one of the defiant male Canada goose shooed away the barnacle goose couple that had come too near. This time barnacle goose had some reinforcements. Other barnacle goose couple joined the fight and the four smaller geese scolded the bully with their aggressive pecking. The Canada goose escaped dragging its neck to the pushes just to bluster and peck its mate. That night the victorious barnacle geese cackle more confident than ever before.
There was a greylag goose nesting on the island too but for some reason, other geese didn’t seem to notice it at all.
In the morning of the returning day, I saw something in the corner of my eye. It was an American mink with a fish on its mouth. The mink leaped under the tarps of the dock. I got a little bit closer to wait and after a few minutes, its curiosity won. The mink came back to stare me a while. This time without its fish.
After returning from the next maintenance break the atmosphere was quite different. Geese had formed their territory and maintained it with aggression. Barnacle geese had eggs on their nests and they were really defiant towards me. At first, I had to gain back my routes by walking them with a broom. Numerous of mean stares, hissings, and fake attacks later I took over their respect and could walk on the island again. It was a game of patience.
In that week the weather conditions varied from stunningly clear and warm sunny days to cold and misty. There were gorgeous sunrises and sunsets. A few times in the middle of the day, a low flying mist cloud arrived from the horizon covering everything. The visibility was limited to just twenty or so meters. It is a surrealistic experience being on the island in the Heart of Helsinki and not seeing or hearing anything besides the foghorns echoing in the distance.
From the start to finish of the trip, the same basic routines and thoughts repeated themselves. Nevertheless, the adventure changed its shape and developed by time. In the beginning, the snow and ice dominated the landscape. The wintery peacefulness was something truly spectacular and unique. Observing the form shifting ice and getting by on the cold, felt an adequate thing just by itself. Later when animal and human contacts got more frequent, it brought hecticness to living. Advancing spring, enjoying the sun and watching birds gave lots of joy. I really felt that I was at the mercy of nature.
One of the most unique features in photographing on the island were its limitations. Many times there is a bit restlessness about whether you are on the most photographic place or not. On the island the subjects and the spots were limited. To get versatile photos I really had to challenge myself and think the photo expression again and again.
All in all, the adventure was one of the greatest I’ve experienced. Well-being, peacefulness, and the absence of stress and restlessness felt really good. I returned the island for October and Christmas week. Spending 34 days on the island in 2018.
About the author: Pasi Markkanen is a photographer, artist, and entrepreneur who lives in Porvoo, Finland. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Markkanen’s work on his website and Instagram. A longer version of this article was published here.
Phantogram Curated Your Fav New Playlist
Phantogram is generously giving us a taste of what they’ve been listening to lately with a compilation of fourteen of their favorite songs. V can promise this playlist will have you on a trip down memory lane and feeling futuristic feels, simultaneously. The group, made up of musicians Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter, was the recent headliner at CRSSD Fest in San Diego last weekend. They’re killing the game right now and we can’t wait to hear what else they’ve got in store for us.
Can We Please Stop Using Workshop Photos and Styled Shoots in Our Wedding Portfolios?
Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a growing trend of photographers in the UK using workshops and styled shoots to boost their wedding portfolio. It wasn’t as prevalent when I started shooting weddings 6 years ago (following many years of documenting my own life with a camera), and I’m glad because if I’d not been as savvy as I was today, I might have been fooled into thinking those images were from real weddings. And from someone who’s only had a camera 6 months? Wow!
Only now when I look at them, I can spot a styled shoot a mile off. Or a workshop day, especially when I see the same bride and groom on several different wedding photographers websites. Wow! They must have spent a fortune to hire that many photographers… Maybe not.
Now, I’m not hating on workshops or styled shoots per se, I think they’re fantastic! I just don’t think we should be pretending they’re part of our actual wedding portfolio.
What is a Styled Shoot?
For anyone not aware, a styled shoot is a collaboration between several vendors – putting together a photo shoot that shows off each element as well as the photographer. You’d typically see a wedding venue, hair stylist, make up artist, dress shop or maker, florist and photographer come together with a couple of models to showcase exactly what they can all do given the freedom and time to do what they want.
They’re really popular with wedding blogs as they include a huge amount of inspiration for people planning their weddings.
And I have nothing against them at all! I just think they should be presented as styled shoots and not real weddings.
Why I Like Styled Shoots and Workshops
Before I go on to say why I don’t think we should be using styled shoots and workshop images in our wedding portfolios, I’m going to say what I do like about them.
They’re brilliant for networking, getting to know other vendors, other photographers, and venues you might already work with, or want to work with. They’re fantastic for trying out new things, taking risks, and taking your time to really hone some of your skills. Be it posing, off-camera flash or anything else you might want to refine.
You can get some beautiful images, and learn what works and what doesn’t work. Want to get better at lighting a couple with off camera flash? Try out your new gels, prisms or something really different? Brilliant! Go for it! Post them on your website big yourself up. Show what you can do given the time to do it.
So What Don’t I Like About Them?
They’re not real weddings and therefore, they don’t have the same real constraints.
Your couple are models, who know how to pose and require zero direction. Perfectly styled by your stylist minutes before the shoot. There’s no time limit, no guests waiting for the couple, no food getting cold, no first dance to get the couple back to. No distractions and you have hours to refine things and get things “just so”.
Pulling off a perfect shot when you’re in control of everything is so much easier than pulling the same shot off on the big day when you are working to a timeline.
And you know this. So why pretend any different?
It Shows What I Can Do
Is the usual defense.
And I agree, it does. It shows what you can do when there aren’t the constraints of a wedding day. Otherwise, you wouldn’t need them, because you’d be pulling those shots off at every wedding, right?
But here’s the thing, this could get you into trouble too. If you’re not honest with your couple and they assume you can pull a meticulously planned shot off at a real wedding when you have 10 minutes to get it right, rather than 3 hours.
What if you can’t?
A Little Bit of Honesty Goes a Long Way
The thing is, if your couples do think that the images can easily be replicated at a live wedding, they’re going to expect it. And if you can’t do it, you’re going to get into trouble.
But, if you present them on your site as a styled shoot, and your couples ask you about it. It’s much easier to say “oh yes, we can definitely do something like that, but I’d need at least of minutes with you to get that shot”. That expectation is much easier to manage. And then guess what, you have done it a live wedding. Stick that one in your portfolio and you’re golden.
Images from styled shoots and workshop days are usually incredibly simple to spot. Beautifully styled wedding, gorgeous couple, zero guests. If you suspect a wedding isn’t real, simply ask to see more images from it, a photographer should always be happy to share more.
Does it mean you shouldn’t book someone? Probably not. But I’d want to see a good selection of images from a real wedding covering the whole day, to ensure there’s consistency throughout. And I’d ask about those images if you want them, and what it would take to be able to reproduce them on a wedding day.
About the author: Andy Dane is an award-winning wedding photographer, lifestyle blogger, husband, and father based in Norwich, UK. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Dane’s work on his website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This article was also published here.
NASA Shot the First Pics of Supersonic Jet Shockwaves Interacting
NASA has captured the first-ever photos showing the shockwaves of supersonic jets interacting in flight. The beautiful images were captured in an extremely difficult air-to-air photo shoot.
To create the groundbreaking photos, NASA outfitted a B-200 twin-turboprop research aircraft with a new imaging system (capable of 1,400 frames per second for up to 3 seconds) and flew it at around 30,000 feet. A pair of Northrop T-38 Talon supersonic jets were then flown at supersonic speeds at a lower altitude.
“[T]he pair of T-38s were required to not only remain in formation, but to fly at supersonic speeds at the precise moment they were directly beneath the B-200,” NASA says. “The images were captured as a result of all three aircraft being in the exact right place at the exact right time designated by NASA’s operations team.”
The T-38s seen in the photos were only about 30 feet away from each other.
The technique behind these photos is known as Background Oriented Schlieren (BOS), which allows relatively inexpensive photography equipment to be used to visualize air, heat, and sound. NASA’s Air-to-Air Background Oriented Schlieren (AirBOS) is something that has been in development for over a decade.
The shockwaves seen in the photos are “rapid pressure changes which are produced when an aircraft flies faster than the speed of sound, or supersonic,” NASA says. “Shockwaves produced by aircraft merge together as they travel through the atmosphere and are responsible for what is heard on the ground as a sonic boom.”
NASA will be using this same system to test a new supersonic airplane that will be capable of flying without producing loud sonic booms — it’s an aircraft that could pave the way for government restrictions to be lifted on supersonic flights over land.
Jaguar Attacks Woman Who Climbed Zoo Barrier for Selfie
A woman was attacked by a jaguar at a zoo in Arizona on Saturday after crossing a barrier to get closer to the animal for a selfie. The cat reached out and gashed the woman’s arm, and she was rushed to a nearby hospital.
The Arizona Republic reports that the unidentified woman in her 30s was at the jaguar exhibit at Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium and Safari Park when she put safety aside for a selfie. While standing right next to the jaguar enclosure, the cat reached through the cage and pinned the woman, piercing her arm with its claw.
Other zoo visitors managed to distract the jaguar with a water bottle enough to allow the woman to be pulled away from the cage.
The Arizona Republic published this graphic video showing the aftermath of the incident (warning: very deep and disturbing gashes can be seen on the woman’s arm):
The woman arm wounds caused excruciating pain, but all of her injuries were non-life-threatening.
Back in 2016, the 17-year-old gorilla Harambe was shot and killed by zoo officials after a 3-year-old boy climbed into its enclosure. After this latest jaguar incident, people immediately began raising concerns about the fate of the jaguar, but the zoo responded quickly to quell those fears.
We can promise you nothing will happen to our jaguar. She’s a wild animal and there were proper barriers in place to keep our guests safe- not a wild animals fault when barriers are crossed. Still sending prayers to her and her family.
— Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium & Safari Park (@ZooWildlife) March 10, 2019
“We can promise you nothing will happen to our jaguar,” the zoo writes. “She’s a wild animal and there were proper barriers in place to keep our guests safe — not a wild animals fault when barriers are crossed.”
This ,200 Sony Camera Got Fried by a Tattoo Removal Laser
You probably know that the lasers in concerts and even on self-driving cars can damage your camera’s sensor in a direct hit, but did you know that light reflected off skin during laser tattoo removal can also destroy your sensor? Watch this 37-second video to see for yourself.
The video was recorded by Andy Boyd, who had his $2,200 Sony a7S II permanently damaged by pulses from the tattoo removal laser.
“Don’t record laser tattoo removal on… anything,” Boyd writes. “You can see with each pulse the sensor shows new damage. The repair cost was about as much as a new camera so try to avoid this.
“Club lasers can do this too but we’d never seen the reflection of a laser beam do damage, only when the beam itself hits the sensor.”
So if you’re ever around any kind of powerful laser being used for any kind of purpose, you may want to think twice before pulling out your digital camera.
Flickr Will Save All Creative Commons Photos, Deceased Members’ Accounts
Flickr will begin deleting photos of accounts over the 1,000 file limit starting on March 12th, but the photo-sharing service has just announced two changes to its policy: spared from deletion will be all Creative Commons photos and the accounts of deceased members.
Creative Commons Photos
When Flickr announced its Free account changes back in late 2018, it stated that freely licensed public photos (e.g. Creative Commons, public domain, U.S. government works) uploaded on or before November 1st, 2018, would be spared from the mass deletion.
But Flickr is now going a step further by promising that future Creative Commons photos will be protected as well.
“Creative Commons licenses have been an important part of Flickr since we introduced them on our platform in 2004,” Flickr says. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t disrupt the hundreds of millions of stories across the global internet that link to freely licensed Flickr images. We know the cost of storing and serving these images is vastly outweighed by the value they represent to the world.
“In this spirit, today we’re going further and now protecting all public, freely licensed images on Flickr, regardless of the date they were uploaded. We want to make sure we preserve these works and further the value of the licenses for our community and for anyone who might benefit from them.”
Flickr says it now hosts over 500 million public CC-licensed photos.
At the same time as making this CC-photo change, Flickr is also disabling bulk license changing across the site to prevent members.
“We’ve done this to prevent community members from flipping all their images to a new license without first understanding the significant implications of the various free licenses we support,” Flickr says. “Any member (Free or Pro) can still change the license of any of their photos on the photo page.”
Flickr is also announcing that it will preserve the accounts of members who pass away.
“Since we announced changes to Flickr’s Free and Pro accounts on November 1, we’ve heard from members who are concerned about what will happen to accounts owned by deceased members, and what will happen to their own accounts when they die,” Flickr says. “We’re photography lovers here at Flickr, too, and we love the idea of photographers’ legacies living on in memoriam—that’s why we’re pleased to announce today that we’re offering ‘in memoriam’ accounts to existing Flickr members who have passed away.”
All public content of “in memoriam” accounts will be preserved indefinitely even if the account’s Pro subscription expires. The account will also be locked (i.e. no one can sign in) and the username will be updated with the “in memoriam” status.
You can help Flickr identify accounts that qualify for “in memoriam” designation by nominating it on this Flickr Help Center page. Once Flickr staff verify the required details, the account will be preserved.
My Experience Shooting the Yosemite Horsetail Firefall
My name is Aaron Chen, and I’m a photographer in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was in Yosemite for the 2019 Firefall and would love to share my experience so that others can do it themselves!
To start with, if you want to know why the Firefalls are so special, I would strongly suggest Aaron Meyers’s website. In fact, I think his site is the best planning and photographic resource for this event and I even used his knowledge as a starting off point.
Based off of the descriptions and pictures, I decided to go to his spot #3, Southside Drive on the east side, right at a bend in the Merced River
I scheduled 3 nights to be there (Wednesday the 20th to Friday the 22nd), hoping that if I wanted to try a fourth time, I’d be able to find a spot to sleep Friday night. Luckily, the Yosemite Lodge somehow had availability for my preferred dates, and the distance from the hotel to the viewing spot was a seemingly doable 1.5 miles, one way.
I picked this area since I didn’t want to be too close to the falls (as in the El Capitan picnic area), and hoped that this spot would be the least packed. Looking at the map, I figured the picnic area would be busiest since it would be easiest to access (walk the paved Northside Drive for 2 miles to get to the viewing area). Since the park said they’d be closing the pull outs and parking spots on Southside, it looked like you’d have to hike over snow or snowshoe over to the viewing spot I picked and I thought that would deter most visitors.
Wednesday the 20th
Storms rolled in through most of California and I decided to take it easy and not try to race in to catch the sunset. I arrived in Yosemite at about 9pm. Clouds were so thick that the entire valley was dark instead of being moonlit. One chance down.
Thursday the 21st
I wanted to do a dry run and just see how long it would take me to hike over those 1.5 miles. Plus, I could then plan out my shot once I arrived. Google Maps suggested walking on Southside Drive, but the Park said they were going to be giving $280 tickets for being in the road, and I can’t afford that. The hotel had drained my account!
Instead, I thought I would be safer and smarter and follow the riverbank. A good portion of the walk over was over hardpack snow and it was pretty easy to cross over Swinging Bridge. I saw that a few people had the same idea that I did since there were prints and snowshoe compressions along the river and I gladly followed their path. This was a bad idea.
I likely had been hiking at maybe just under 3 miles per hour on the hardpack with my snow boots. About the last half mile, the snow became significantly less packed and I started having to dig myself out of the snow every other step. My pace went down to about 0.3 miles per hour, if that. One leg pistol squats with 40 pounds of photo gear on your back? Very tiring.
I put on some snow and ice trekkers over my boots, but those didn’t help in the loose pack or when the snow kept collapsing under me. This path did let me see how many people were walking on Northside Drive to the picnic area, and I was glad I didn’t go there. I ended up arriving at around 4 pm, sweaty and tired, and there were easily 100 people in 3 spots along the southern riverbank. My estimate was that they were all in 200 total square feet of area as trees obstructed the view along most of the river. I politely asked if I could squeeze in among the tripods, and a few people graciously let me in.
What did I bring along, gear wise? Well, I knew from Aaron Meyers’s site, that I would need telephotos to go for the composition I wanted, so I brought my Pentax 645Z with 120mm and 200mm primes along with a 2x teleconverter. I do have a 400mm prime for the 645Z, but I didn’t bring it along because of its huge size and the vibration issues I’ve been seeing when using that lens. I also brought my Gitzo tripod with Really Right Stuff BH-55 ball head.
For my composition, I had originally envisioned a few shots. I really wanted a slightly wider view that showed off the face of El Capitan. However, once I got there and started shooting, I noticed a few things. I liked how the granite mirrored/paralleled the color of the Firefall but I didn’t like the totally empty sky in the background causing quite a hot area around El Capitan. Plus, that composition made Horsetail Falls look very small. I ended up going for the classic tight crop using my 200mm and 2x teleconverter in a vertical orientation. We lucked out and the wind blew the mist from the falls into a strikingly vibrant plume!
I had a great time being there on Thursday! It was nice to socialize with other photographers and just take in the moment of being there (“Moment” being a bit of a euphemism, as I was there for over 2 hours). I then went with a group of photographers back to Swinging Bridge and saw that there was a packed down trail in the snow. Even though this path was longer than the one I took, it was significantly easier and faster to walk.
With these time estimates in mind, I decided that I would aim to arrive at the spot on Friday at around 1 or 1:30 pm, at the latest. I figured this would get me there before Aaron Meyers’s recommendation of 2:30 pm.
Friday the 22nd
Friday the 22nd was estimated to be the peak for Firefall and was supposed to be “the day” for me. I really liked my photo from Thursday, but I wanted to see if it would look better without the tree silhouette I had. I went to get breakfast in the Lodge and quickly realized how many people were coming in for the weekend just to see Firefall.
I overheard the staff telling guests that all accommodations in the Valley were sold out, so I now knew that I’d either have to sleep in my car or leave the park and come back if I wanted to try again on Saturday. People who were chatting with me on Thursday saying that they wanted to head down started messaging back with “there’s too many people going and the weather looks bad for the rest of the weekend”. A quick search of the weather forecast during breakfast made me decide to pack up and head home after Firefall, meaning today was my last chance this year.
I had originally thought to move my car someplace closer, but that wasn’t going to work. Most of the parking spots were closed and the only closer lot was Camp 4…a whopping maybe fifth of a mile closer. By the time I checked out, I figured it was also too late to move to Camp 4 parking because there were massive crowds walking around.
I wolfed down lunch and began my walk over. I took the longer, packed down way along the road and was alarmed when I saw two photographers leaving about a fifth of a mile from the spot. “There’s already a lot of people,” they said.
I arrived at 1:10 and there were already 20-30 people in the spot I wanted to use. Some were actually there waiting, some had left tripods and chairs and walked away to do something else. Again, I politely asked to squeeze in amongst the people already set up and was very graciously let in. Some even fed me a little and offered to change their setups so I could fit in. After setting up my gear, there was a lot of second guessing going wide or going tight, gear talk, and just general hanging out with other photographers. We had about 5 hours to go.
I got cabin fever and went for some walks in the snow at 4 pm. I wanted to see the other groupings of photographers and count how many there were. I ended up chatting with two volunteer rangers who were doing site impact surveys and they told me there were 100 people in a smaller area in front of where I was. Likely over 200 people total on the southside. The trips people made to see this were crazy. Some told me they decided to go on a whim and left at 2am to get a spot at 9am. Some said they weren’t planning on sleeping after Firefall and driving back home directly. Plenty mentioned leaving the park and sleeping in their cars.
Composition-wise, I did end up finally deciding to go for the tight crop. There were some clouds in the sky that made for better backgrounds than on Thursday, but my viewing spot had too many branches for me to like the results. I aimed the camera hoping to get the same wind gusts we got on Thursday, but no such luck. Check the photos below to see how the lighting conditions change from the same exact spot.
Despite the lack of wind making for a dramatic photo, Friday was also a great experience! Chatting with more people and everyone just being kind all around definitely helped as we all sat or stood in the cold. As far as I know, there was only one jerk on Friday. He showed up at around 3:45 pm, walked directly in front of all the photographers and complained that everyone was in his spot since he “needed to shoot ultrawide”. He was asked to leave and show up earlier next year.
I lingered at the spot after sunset for a little bit to just look at El Capitan. There’s nothing quite like how it looks when clouds are visible, in my opinion. I didn’t get a photo of it because I just wanted to really appreciate the view for myself instead of unpacking everything and setting up again for a completely different shot in the quickly fading light.
After that, I went back home. I should’ve planned better or slept better as I almost fell asleep in the car and promptly fell asleep once I hit the bed at 11.
I’m glad I didn’t stay for Firefall on Saturday, as the weather did not cooperate at all. I’m sure people got some glorious sunset photos, but the clouds prevented Firefall from showing and instead made the rest of the valley very pretty.
James Mead, whom I met Thursday evening, gave me a breakdown as to what happened Saturday. He didn’t actually go for Firefall because of the forecast and instead spent the day getting creative with ice falls before settling in for sunset shots. He hung around until about an hour after sunset and, on the six-mile drive down into the valley, passed 100 + cars going up 120. “Absolutely insane in the valley, with more traffic than even at the high point of summer or the Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends,” he said.
For 2019, there were projections for Firefall conditions lasting about two weeks. However, in chatting with people who visited earlier than I did and keeping tabs on the weather conditions, I found out that the real viewing conditions were much smaller. People told me the Falls first lit up on February 18th, with decent viewing on the 19th. Weather blocked the light from the 15th to 17th, and likewise again from the 23rd to the 27th. I had actually thought of making a day trip to try to reshoot the falls sometime between the 25th and 27th, but it began snowing in the valley. That left only four viewing days out of the whole year!
Honestly, I think the experience being there was worth it. However, one can’t have an attitude going there about getting the best photo of the Firefall. You will be packed in with hundreds of other people who will get almost the exact same photo as you, so if there’s ever a time to be welcoming and get along with others, it is during Firefall.
I think I prefer the random photos I got while walking around and just paying attention to my surroundings over my Firefall photo just because they are more unique.
I obviously remember getting the picture and seeing the results, but I remember the people around me more as they helped make the experience. The whooping and yelling from excited photographers as the wind blew the mist into clouds sounded like a sports event. The adoring “wows” in multiple languages as people watched the falls change color seemed to amplify my own goosebumps. The chats I had with people were great. Some were about their trips in or favorite destinations, others about what they were looking to do with their visit; some wanted to get a killer shot, some were relatively new to photography and just wanted a reason to use their gear, and some were all about the experience of being there. One of the coolest groups I chatted with didn’t even have any cameras. They made it all the way to Yosemite to see the Firefall since they heard so much about it and wanted to see it for themselves. During “the show”, the dad even started asking what to delete from his phone so he could get more photos and video and commented, “I should probably get a real camera. I’ve been thinking about it for so long.”
I think this experience reminded me to live in the moment with others, but also not to be a jerk to people. When I chatted with Rangers and staff at Yosemite, they all discussed that they’re pretty ambivalent on Firefall. On the one hand, it brings a lot of tourism to the already famous park. On the other hand, very few of these tourists want to do anything other than grab some photos and leave. Plus, the reduced winter staffing seemed to make things more difficult for the employees. Lastly, what made things harder for them this year was getting back up to speed after the government shutdown and the huge amounts of rain and snow causing landslides that closed or damaged portions of the park.
About the author: Aaron Chen is a photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Chen’s work on his website, Twitter, and Instagram. This article was also published here.
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