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.