Yesterday morning I wrapped up the first of two Eastern Sierra photo workshops with a truly glorious, and unique, sunrise at Mono Lake. The prior morning the group enjoyed a nice sunrise at Mono Lake’s far more heralded South Tufa, but for the final sunrise I like to take my groups to this isolated stretch of shoreline on the north side of the lake.
How isolated? Isolated enough that we never end up at the same spot because there’s no trail or landmark to guide me—we just drive around in the dark on the lake’s network of rutted dirt roads, park the cars, and start walking until we get to the lake (the last hundred yards or so are often in shoe-sucking mud). So far, this shoot has always been a highlight of the workshop. (I do realize I could get the GPS coordinates and follow them back to the same spot if I wanted to, but varying water levels in Mono Lake changes the shoreline so much from year-to-year, it really wouldn’t make much difference anyway.)
Before this workshop started, I was very concerned about how we’d be affected by smoke from the KNP Fire, burning just over the Sierra Crest from the workshop’s starting point in Lone Pine. On Monday those fears appeared to be close to reality when, on the drive down to Lone Pine, I found most of the Sierra smothered by a smoky blanket that only seemed to thicken as I drove south.
Tuesday morning began a little clearer, and while the smoke had increased by the workshop’s start that afternoon, it wasn’t really a problem for our initial sunset shoot. Nevertheless, I had contingency plans in place if smoke threatened any of our upcoming shoots.
It turns out the weather gods were smiling upon us because the skies for Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, the bristlecone piness, fall color in Bishop Canyon, and South Tufa were completely smoke-free. But hints of smoke were in the air as we departed for the workshop’s final sunset shoot in Yosemite, and become more dense as we ascended Tioga Pass. Our first stop was supposed to include mountains and a reflection, but all we could see was a reflection (of nearby trees). At Olmsted Point, Half Dome was just a hazy outline. Photographers are nothing if not resilient, and we made the best of the conditions by photographing the orange sun above nearby trees and glacial erratics (large granite boulders carried by glaciers and deposited in place when the glaciers retreated).
After a delicious dinner at the Mobil station in Lee Vining (I kid you not—check it out: Whoa Nellie Deli), we actually found the sky clear enough for a Milky Way shoot at Mono Lake. (More on that in a future post.) At this point the workshop had been such a success that I shouldn’t have stressed about the possibility of smoke ruining our final sunrise, but I have to admit the smoke’s return was on my mind as I fell asleep that night.
On the (extremely) bumpy drive out to Mono Lake the next morning, I could see stars overhead, with a mix of clouds and sky near the horizon—ideal conditions for a nice sunrise (fingers crossed). The world was still dark when we finished our trudge out to the lakeshore and spread out, each person searching for their own special composition (I love seeing everyone’s vision and confidence grow as a workshop progresses).
There was no wind, so the lake was nearly flat, with only a few lazy undulations disturbing the color already reflecting on its surface. Despite the darkness, I encouraged the group to start shooting immediately to take advantage of the deep red saturating the clouds on the eastern horizon. But as the light increased, I started to realize something was odd about this color, which didn’t seem to be following the standard sunrise intensity/hue curve.
Looking more closely, I realized these weren’t clouds we were photographing, it was smoke. But unlike the homogenous, view-swallowing smoke that had thwarted the previous evening’s sunset, this smoke hovered in thin bands and wisps. And rather than dull the color as smoke usually does, it seemed to intensify it. I’m sure there’s a scientific explanation for this, but I imagine it has something to do about the size and density of these particular smoke particles. In the meantime, I’ll simply appreciate the gift.
A few words about this image
The shore out here unfolds in a series of mini bays and peninsulas, most no more than 20 or 30 feet in width and/or length. The view is photographable across an arc that’s greater than 180 degrees, with the best direction depending on the light. This morning the real show was in the east, toward Paoha Island, a cinder cone formed by an eruption less than 400 years ago.
I set up with a couple other participants on a flat and dry mini-peninsula that jutted into the lake. The rest of the group was working their own little scene within easy conversational earshot (it’s spectacularly quiet out there), allowing me to call out suggestions (“Try a neutral density filter to smooth the water”) and reminders (“Don’t forget to reset your ISO from last night’s Milky Way shoot!”; “Keep an eye on the red channel of your RGB histogram”), but for the most part everyone seemed pretty focused and content.
The calm lake surface was interrupted by nearby tufa mounds and platforms that created potential visual stepping stones that could move the eye, or completely confuse it, depending on their relative position in the frame. Un-randomizing these elements into something more coherent can feel daunting, and sometimes virtually impossible. I’d worked out my own composition at my initial location, but when a couple of women in the group told me they were struggling to organize the scene into a composition that worked for them, I packed up and headed to their little cove to help.
They were probably no more than 40 straight-line feet from my previous location, but with so many nearby visual elements, their foreground was completely different than mine. First I suggested that they were too wide for their chosen location—even though the view here is expansive, there was so much going on in the foreground at this spot that I thought it would be easier to simplify with a slightly longer focal length. Rather than a 16-35, I suggested switching to a 24-70 or 24-105 lens (I chose my Sony 24-105 for my Sony a7RIV), which would allow them to eliminate all of the distractions up and down the lakeshore and concentrate on the lake itself.
Then I simply narrated my own thoughts as I evaluated the scene, starting by pointing out a nearby trio of tufa mounds that could anchor the frame. This group was just 40 feet or so into the lake, but out of the scene they’d been composing, so we moved about 10 feet to include it. I explained that this foreground anchor didn’t need to be anything special, it was just there to provide a visual starting point for the eye’s path through the frame. With the visual starting point identified, I moved around until the mid-ground tufa mounds cut diagonally across the middle of the frame, taking care that they held enough visual weight on the left to balance the distant cinder cone on the right. Finally, I zoomed to around 70mm to keep the sides of my frame free of rogue tufa mounds trying to photobomb the scene. (Live-view LCD screens, mirrorless or DSLR, are great for demonstrating composition suggestions in real time.)
My next decision was the amount of sky to include. I shared my calculus for positioning the horizon, which is largely a function of where the most visual interest lies—foreground or sky. Here, I explained that while the red smoke was spectacular, it didn’t spread across the sky, so I put the top of my frame right about where the color intensity started to fade, for a 2/1 foreground/sky ratio.
I went nuclear on the shutter speed, adding my Breakthrough 6-stop Dark Polarizer to render a 30-second shutter speed that completely smoothed all detail in the water. Then I dialed the polarizer to maximize the reflection and eliminate submerged distractions on the lakebed, just a few inches beneath the water near my feet. At 70mm I need to be careful about my focus point to keep everything from the closest tufa to the cinder cone sharp, so I stopped down to f/16 and focused on the linear mound barely sticking up behind the foreground group.
The three of us stood side-by-side, tripod legs overlapping, photographing this gorgeous sunrise. We clicked until the color faded, then repositioned slightly shortly before the sun peaked up from behind the left diagonal of the cinder cone, allowing us to finish with a series of beautiful sunstars. Such a great way to finish a workshop.
I just scheduled my 2022 Eastern Sierra workshop a month ago, and it’s already half full
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.