I hate arriving at a photo destination for the first time and having to immediately hit the ground running. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate the value of advance knowledge of landscape and light, and always try to factor in ample scouting time before getting down to serious shooting.
On the other hand, a prime reason people sign up for a photo workshop is to shortcut the scouting process, and for the most part this works pretty well. I (like any other experienced workshop leader) can share my knowledge of a location’s terrain and light to put my groups in the right place at the right time, and to provide insights into what’s in store and how they might want to approach it.
But sometimes there’s no substitute for firsthand exposure to a location before the good stuff happens. This is particularly true for sunrise spots, because the good shooting usually starts before it’s light enough to see the landscape. Unfortunately, a photo workshop’s tight schedule doesn’t always provide the luxury of exposing my groups to a location before it’s time to photograph it, but I do my best.
Mono Lake is a perfect example. The serpentine shoreline of South Tufa, the lake’s most photographed location, is a series of points and coves that offer lake views to the east, north, and west, depending on where you stand. Often nice at sunset, sunrise at South Tufa can be downright world class in any one of these compass directions. The best sunrise photography frequently cycles through (and sometimes overlaps) all three directions as the sunrise progresses. Overlaying South Tufa’s directional light are the vivid sunrise hues that can paint the sky in any direction at any time, and glassy reflections that double the visual overload.
After many years photographing South Tufa, I’ve established a fairly reliable sunrise workflow that helps me deal with these shifting factors. I usually start with tufa tower silhouettes facing east, into the early twilight glow in the east, then do a 180 to capture the magenta alpenglow on the Sierra crest in the west, and finally pivot northward as sidelight warms the tufa towers once the sun’s first rays skim the lake.
But just knowing the direction to point the camera is only part of the Mono Lake equation. In fact, with so many composition possibilities, South Tufa can overwhelm the first time visitor. Not only is there a lot going on here, on most mornings you need to contend with photographers that swarm the shore like the lake’s ubiquitous black flies.
Because of these difficulties, I make a point of getting my Eastern Sierra workshop group out to South Tufa for the sunset preceding the sunrise shoot. In my pre-shoot orientation, I strongly encourage my students to walk around before setting up their cameras, to identify compositions in each direction, and to envision the sunrise light.
It turns out, this year’s South Tufa sunset shoot was beneficial to me as well. With the lake level lower than I’ve ever seen it, the shoreline was virtually unrecognizable—many familiar lake features were now high and dry, and a number of new features had materialized. As alarming as it was to see the lake this low, the photographer in me couldn’t help but feel excited about the fresh compositions the new shoreline offered.
While showing the group around South Tufa’s various nooks and crannies, I spotted a stepping stone set of newly exposed tufa mounds on a north- and west-facing section. I pointed out to those still with me the way tufa could lead the eye through the bottom of the frame to the distant Sierra peaks, and made a mental bookmark of the spot. Sunset that night, with nice color a glassy reflection that’s more typical of sunrise than sunset, that everyone was a little dubious when I told them sunrise could be even better.
The next morning, all the conditions were in place for something special: a mix of clouds and sky, an opening on the eastern horizon to let the light through, calm winds to quiet the lake. Armed with knowledge from the night before, the group quickly dispersed to their pre-planned spots and I found myself mostly alone.
I’ve photographed Mono Lake so many times that I had no plans to shoot that morning, so I wandered around checking on everyone. As often happens when the photography is good (especially late in the workshop, when people have become pretty comfortable handling difficult light and extreme depth of field), I felt like my presence was more distraction than benefit, so I headed over to the spot I’d spied the previous evening (it had the added benefit of being pretty centrally located and well within earshot of my distributed students).
By the time I got there the show was well underway in the east and quickly moving west. It would have been easy to slip into panic-shooting mode and try to find something where things were good right now, but I’ve learned (for me at least) that it’s best to anticipate than react. Instead, because I’d already mentally worked this scene, I knew the composition I wanted and was ready for the color when it arrived.
The extra sixty seconds this bought me was enough to refine my composition, find the f-stop and focus point that would maximize sharpness throughout the scene, meter the scene and set my exposure, and orient my polarizer for the best balance between reflection and lakebed. It turns out that this anticipation was a difference-maker, as the vivid color peaked and faded in about 30 seconds.
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