Sometimes I start a blog post with a very clear idea of what I want to say, and other times I have no idea what I want to say and just go where my mind takes me. I’ll let you decide which this one is.
Digital manipulation has become so widespread that it threatens the credibility of honestly earned images. And now we’re starting to see a proliferation of AI-generated images, algorithmically created using just a few words of description and a database filled with the past creativity and effort of others—no photographer (or even trip outdoors) required.
I’m thinking about this because the Sierra moonset I’m sharing today would be an easy scene to fabricate on a computer: just take any old picture of a mountain, drop a moon in, and voila—suddenly you’re racking up the social media Likes and a host of “Stunning!” comments. But what fun is that?
Where do you find your photographic happiness? I think that’s an important question all photographers should ask themselves from time to time, especially in this age of digital manipulation and oneupmanship.
Speaking only for myself, the best part of making images isn’t the praise, it’s the actually being there to witness Nature do its magnificent thing. And the greatest joy I receive from the images I’ve created is the memory of having been there.
Another personal source of photographic happiness is cultivating relationships with my subjects. Every time I visit a location, I feel the deeper connection that comes with knowing my subject a little better than I did on the previous visit. Wandering, gazing, pondering—all of these activities are as essential to my image capture process as framing a scene and clicking the shutter.
Of course the happiness photography brings me isn’t all taking pictures. For example, I wrote recently about how much the people I meet and guide in my workshops have blessed my life.
Another aspect of my photography life is the immense simply learning about my subjects brings. If a subject appeals to me enough to merit a photograph, it also fascinates me enough to learn more about it.
In fact, sometimes it’s hard to know which came first, the photography or the fascination. Long before I was a photographer (probably starting when I was 9 or 10), I devoured all things astronomy. And a few years later I developed similar interests in geology and meteorology. I can’t say those pursuits are the sole reasons I became a photographer, but I can say with certainty that they’re the primary reason so many of my images include geological features, celestial objects, and interesting clouds and weather.
My (fairly decent) knowledge of the Sierra Nevada and its geological history dates back to my high school and college days, but it wasn’t until I started photographing the Alabama Hills that learned the fascinating specifics of its geology.
Anyone who has visited the Alabama Hills, and hiked the Sierra, can’t help but recognize the obvious differences between their predominant rock: the light gray Sierra rock is so hard it can be polished to a shine by a gliding glacier, while the Alabama Hills’ gritty brown rock surfaces will crumble beneath your fingers. Sierra peaks and prominences tend to be sharp and angular, while the Alabama Hills features are much more rounded. But do just a little research, and you’ll learn that it’s actually the same rock, comprised of the same minerals, formed at the same time, by the same processes.
Both the Sierra Nevada and the Alabama Hills are carved from granite. Starting more than 100 million years ago, subterranean magma intruded into overlying rock, then cooled to form the granite that makes up most of the Sierra Nevada range and the Alabama Hills. Their significant differences are largely due to the way each weathered after the granite formed.
As this newly formed granite waited patiently below in the dark, oceans advanced and receded, depositing hundreds or thousands of feet of new sediment with each iteration. About 5 million years ago, a slow-motion collision of tectonic plates started uplifting the granite and its overlying sedimentary layers to form the current Sierra Nevada. As the mountains rose, erosion accelerated the demise of the softer sedimentary layers, eventually exposing the much harder (more resistant to erosion) granite. This exposed granite was primarily shaped by mechanical weathering—wind, rain and snow, extreme temperature variations, and and many rounds of glaciation—to form the Sierra Nevada we know today.
While the Sierra rose nearby, Alabama Hills granite wasn’t lifted nearly as high. Settling more than 10,000 feet below the Sierra Crest, the Alabama Hills didn’t experience the same extremes as its elevated sibling. Not subjected to the same extreme mechanical erosional forces, the Alabama Hills granite remained subterranean far longer than the Sierra granite. It was subjected chemical weathering that happens when mineral-laden water percolates through overlying sediment and slowly changes to rock’s composition. This altered granite eventually emerged much softer and much more easily rounded by mechanical weathering than the Sierra granite.
There are actually three geological features in this image. Since I’ve given all of the attention so far to the Alabama Hills and Sierra Nevada, maybe I’ll finish a little lunar love.
Once upon a time, there were four primary theories about the Moon’s origin:
If you said 4, give yourself a pat on the back, this is the current consensus. But this theory leaves much unanswered and unexplained, so just pencil it in for now.
From Earth, we can see three distinct lunar features:
And because the Moon has no atmosphere, its features experience very little erosion. Occasionally a meteor will shake things up a bit, and the Moon is under constant bombardment from micro-meteorites that gradual take their erosional toll, but in general the erosional pace on the Moon is much slower than it is on far more dynamic Earth.
Maybe you find all this science boring, but whatever your photographic subjects, I hope they make you as happy as mine make me.
A few words about this image
This is the third image I’ve shared from this morning early last month. (You can read about the morning in You Had To Be There and Perfect Timing.) It’s the earliest of the three images, captured in the blue hour, before the sky brightened and alpenglow colored the peaks. This is my favorite time of day to photograph the Sierra Crest, especially in winter, when the snowy peaks seem to glow and stand out in stark contrast to the still-dark sky.
Because the Moon was still a fair distance from Mt. Williamson, this is the widest field of view I used this morning. At 100mm I was able to frame the scene just wide enough to include the Moon, Mt. Williamson, and some of the Alabama Hills, without adding too much sky and (ugly) brown foreground. While I could have used my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens, I went instead with my Sony 100-400 GM lens. I was especially thrilled with how well my new Sony a7R V handled the extreme dynamic range of the daylight-bright moon and fairly dark early twilight foreground.
(And in case you’re wondering, I used no digital shenanigans for this image. Like all of my images, this is a single click, not a composite.)
Gary, Great photo. I can verify that you didn’t manipulate that image. I was there at your workshop when you took that image. I have much the same thing.
Thanks, Mark. Yeah, I imagine everyone in the group has something similar.
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