Beneath the stars

Star Trails and Bristlecone Pine, Schulman Grove, White Mountains, California
Canon 1Ds Mark II
36mm
22 minutes
F/4
ISO 200

October 2012

I lead photo workshops in lots of beautiful, exotic places, but I particularly look forward to the Eastern Sierra workshop for the variety we get to photograph. Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, Mono Lake and Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows, lots of fall color in the mountains west of Bishop and Lone Pine, and the ancient bristlecones in the White Mountains, east of Bishop.

It’s the opportunities to photograph the mountains surrounding Bishop that most stimulate my creative juices. Each fall the small lakes, sparkling streams, and steep canyons west of Bishop are lined with aspen decked out in their vivid autumn yellow. Contrast that with the arid White Mountains east of Bishop, where virtually nothing thrives except the amazing bristlecone pines. The bristlecones are among the oldest living things on Earth, and they look it. The character they’ve earned by enduring up to 5,000 years of cold, wind, thin air, and water deprivation makes them ideal photographic subjects. There’s wonderful texture in the bristlecone’s twisting trunk and branches, but sometimes I like to turn off the texture with a silhouette that emphasizes the gnarled shape.

The bristlecone here clung to a steep hillside in the Schulman Grove of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. I was there with three friends on a moonless, late September night several years ago. They wanted to light-paint the tree, but I wanted something that just emphasized the tree’s shape against the stars. With our shots set up, I delayed my exposure for a few seconds while they hit the tree with a bright flashlight, clicking as soon the world went dark. Then we just sat and waited in the chilly air, enjoying the sky, laughing quite a bit, but sometimes just appreciating a silence that’s impossible to duplicate anywhere in our “normal” (flatland) lives.

As we waited we scanned the sky, thick with stars, for a rogue airplane that might threaten to soil our frames. Only one appeared, and when it did I held my hat in front of my lens, holding it there for about fifteen seconds, until the plane moved on. (If you look closely you can actually see a small gap in the same place on the otherwise continuous star trails.)

We had long exposure noise reduction turned on, so we couldn’t see our results until our cameras finished their processing. The pictures didn’t pop up on to our LCDs until we were halfway back to Bishop, but I was driving and had to wait until we got back to town. We pulled into Bishop, tired and hungry, so late that we had a hard time finding anything open, but everyone was so pleased with their images that even Denny’s tasted good.

An Eastern Sierra Gallery

(Click an image for a closer look, and to enjoy the slide show)

2 Comments on “Beneath the stars

  1. Fantastic image and just getting away from the light pollution is priceless. Have great fun in the Sierras. They are something special.

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