Roads less traveled

Gary Hart Photography: Sunrise Mirror, Mono Lake

Sunrise Mirror, Mono Lake
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
1/60 second
ISO 200
32 mm

Sometimes our best opportunities arise when circumstances nudge us off our charted course.

One day earlier…

The morning before capturing this sunrise I’d been one of hundreds of photographers shoulder-to-shoulder on the beach at Mono Lake’s South Tufa. Competing with the thousands of photographers who flock to the Eastern Sierra to photograph the golden aspen each October, my brother and I were the first persons out there that morning, claiming our spots and waiting in the cold and dark for the sun. As expected, other photographers soon started accumulating—rather than finding their own scene, many simply assumed that my tripod meant I knew what I was doing and set up next to me. (Some didn’t even bother to pretend to study the surroundings first.)

By the time the sunrise started in ernest, I must have accrued thirty photographers, packed so tightly on both sides that if one had tipped over the rest would had collapsed in sequence like a row of dominos. The morning culminated with two of my newfound “companions” nearly coming to blows over a couple of square feet of lakeside real estate. Ahhh, the joys of communing with nature.

Channeling Lewis and Clark

The original plan was to return to South Tufa the following morning, our last at Mono Lake. But hoping to avoid that morning’s train wreck, Jay and I spent the afternoon exploring the tangled network of overgrown, rutted dirt roads encircling the lake, searching for other possibilities. For sunset we ended up somewhere on the north shore, traipsing about a half mile through (first) volcanic sand and (ultimately) shoe-sucking mud to an absolutely empty beach. In the days before ubiquitous GPS capability, we knew finding that very spot again, in the dark, would be nearly impossible, but it was pretty clear that the potential out there was off the charts regardless of where we landed.

So, despite a weather forecast that called for cloudless (boring) skies and temperatures in the 20s, on our final morning we rose dark and early and bounced behind my headlights through the sagebrush, in the general direction of yesterday’s discovery. When we found a spot wide enough to park we grabbed our gear and set out in the general direction of the lake, with no idea where we were or whether we’d made a mistake attempting this new location.

The eastern horizon was just starting to brighten as we slogged up to the lakeshore. Absolute calm had smoothed the lake to glass; from the Sierra crest behind us a formation of clouds had started to advance overhead. As the light came up the clouds continued their forward march, eventually spreading a herringbone pattern from horizon to horizon. Somehow we’d inadvertently stumbled upon the convergence of location and conditions photographers dream about.

The image you see here came fairly late in the shoot, after the sun crested the horizon. I used a 3-stop graduated neutral density filter to hold the brightness back to a manageable level, underexposing the sky even further to prevent the exquisite color from being washed out. This image has become one of my most popular, even gracing the cover of my book of images, “The Undiscovered Country.” But every time I look at it, I think first of that morning that never would have happened had we simply settled for the conventional choice.

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7 Comments on “Roads less traveled

  1. I seem to have a natural aversion to being part of the herd. Sadly it’s kept me from what once were favorite spots as they’ve become far too popular… the quest now is to discover the spots like yours away from the madding crowds. May we never run out of those yet to be discovered gems.

  2. Always love your posts and always learn something from them. Please, keep them coming. Thank you.


    “Pax, Amor et Lepos in Iocando”…the Whangdoodle (J.A. Edwards)

    Julianna E. Szilagyi, PhD Associate Professor College of Pharmacy, University of Houston Houston, Texas 77204-5000 E-mail Office (713)743-1216 : FAX (713)743-1884

    From: Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart <> Reply-To: Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart <> Date: Tue, 28 May 2013 16:02:47 -0500 To: JULIANNA SZILAGYI <> Subject: [New post] Roads less traveled

    Eloquent Nature posted: ” Has it really be 6 1/2 years? Wow. But I digress…. One day earlier… The morning before capturing this sunrise I’d been one of hundreds of photographers shoulder-to-shoulder on the beach at Mono Lake’s South Tufa. Competing with the thousands”

  3. This photo is unbelievably beautiful, Gary! Did you use any HDR?

    • Thanks, Peggy. No HDR or blending if any kind. Everything’s single image capture. Most of my blogs explain how I captured the image; this one required a graduated neutral density filter.

      • Gary, thank you so much for answering my question! This is a TRULY unbelievable work of art! I had read your description and the reference to using a neutral density filter, but the intensity of the colors is so magnificent, it almost looks unreal! What a thrill it must have been to be able to capture this in real time and real color!

  4. The key to capturing the color intensity is slightly underexposing the sky. The GND allows me to do this without making the foreground too dark.

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