Posted on October 10, 2017
This is an edited and updated version of my Eastern Sierra article that appeared in the September 2016 edition of “Outdoor Photographer” magazine
Skirting the east side of the Sierra Nevada, US 395 enchants travelers with ever-changing views of California’s granite backbone. Unlike anything on the Sierra’s gently sloped west side, Highway 395 parallels the range’s precipitous east flank in the shadow of jagged peaks that soar up to 2 miles above the blacktop. More than just beautiful, these massive mountains form a natural barrier against incursion from the Golden State’s major metropolitan areas, keeping the Eastern Sierra region cleaner and quieter than its scenery might lead you to expect.
It would be difficult to find any place in the world with a more diverse selection of natural beauty than the 120-mile stretch of 395 between Lone Pine and Lee Vining: Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, the ancient bristlecones of the White Mountains (across the Owens Valley, east of the Sierra), the granite columns of Devil’s Postpile, Mono Lake and its tufa towers, and too many lake-dotted, aspen-lined canyons to count. Long a favored escape for hikers, hunters, and fishermen, in recent years photographers have come to appreciate the rugged, solitary beauty possible only on the Sierra’s sunrise side.
I prefer photographing most Eastern Sierra locations at sunrise, when the day’s first rays paint the mountains with warm light, and the highest peaks are colored rose by alpenglow. (Without clouds, Eastern Sierra sunset light can be tricky, as you’ll be photographing the shady side of the mountains against the brightest part of the sky.) Devoid of large metropolitan areas, low light pollution also makes the Eastern Sierra one California’s finest night photography destinations. But regardless of the time of day, the key to photographing the Eastern Sierra is flexibility—if you don’t like the light in one direction, you usually don’t need to travel far to find something nice in another direction.
Lone Pine area
The southern stretch US 395 bisects the Owens Valley, a flat, arid plane separating the Sierra Nevada to the west from the Inyo ranges to the east. Just west of Lone Pine lies the Alabama Hills. Named for a Confederate Civil War warship, the Alabama Hills’ jumble of weathered granite boulders and proliferation of natural arches would be photogenic in any setting. Putting Mt. Whitney (the highest point in the 48 contiguous states), Lone Pine Peak (the subject of Mac OS X Sierra’s desktop image), and the rest of the serrated southern Sierra crest seems almost unfair.
The Alabama Hills are traversed by a network of unpaved but generally quite navigable roads. To get there, drive west on Whitney Portal Road (the only traffic signal in Lone Pine). After 3 miles, turn right onto Movie Road and start exploring. If you’re struck by a vague sense of familiarity here, it’s probably because for nearly a century the Alabama Hills has attracted thousands of movie, TV show, and commercial film crews.
Mobius Arch (also called Whitney Arch and Alabama Hills Arch) is the most popular photo spot in the Alabama Hills. It’s a good place to start, but settling for this frequently photographed subject risks missing numerous opportunities for truly unique images here. To get to Mobius Arch, drive about a mile-and-half on Movie Road to the dirt parking area at the trailhead. Following the marked trail down and back up the nearby ravine, the arch is an easy ¼ mile walk. There’s not a lot of room here, but if the photographers work together it’s possible to arrange four or five photographers on tripods with Mt. Whitney framed by the arch. And don’t make the mistake many make: the prominent peak on the left is Lone Pine Peak; Mt. Whitney is serrated peak at the back of the canyon.
Sunrise is primetime for Alabama Hills photography, but good stuff can be found here long before the sun arrives. I try to be set up 45 minutes before the sun (earlier if I want to ensure the best position for Whitney Arch) to avoid missing a second of the Sierra’s striking transition from night to day.
The grand finale from anywhere in the Alabama Hills is the rose alpenglow that colors the Sierra crest just before sunrise. Soon after the alpenglow appears, the light will turn amber and slowly slide down the peaks until it reaches your location, warming the nearby boulders and casting dramatic, long shadows. But unless there are clouds to soften the light, you’ll find that the harsh morning light will end your shoot pretty quickly once the sunlight arrives on the Alabama Hills.
Whitney Portal Road (closed in winter) ends about 11 miles beyond Movie Road, at Whitney Portal, the trailhead for the hike to Mt. Whitney and the John Muir Trail. On this paved but steep road, anyone not afraid of heights will enjoy great views looking east over the Alabama Hills and Owens Valley far below, and up-close views of Mt. Whitney looming in the west. At the back of the Whitney Portal parking lot is a nice waterfall that tumbles several hundred feet in multiple steps.
The Alabama Hills are one of my favorite moonlight locations. Because the full moon rises in the east right around sunset, on full moon nights the Alabama Hills and Sierra crest are bathed in moonlight as soon as darkness falls. Lit by the moon, the hills’ rounded boulders mingle with long, eerie shadows, and the snow-capped Sierra granite radiates as if lit from within.
If you find yourself with extra time, drive about 30 miles east of Lone Pine on Highway 136 until you ascend to a plain dotted with photogenic Joshua trees—after you’ve finished photographing the Joshua trees, turn around and retrace the drive back to Lone Pine on 136 to enjoy spectacular panoramic views of the Sierra crest. And just north of Lone Pine on 395 is Manzanar National Historic site, a restored WWII Japanese relocation camp. Camera or not, this historic location is definitely worth taking an hour or two to explore.
Bristlecone pine forest
Continuing north from Lone Pine on 395, on your left the Sierra stretch north as far as the eye can see, while the Inyo mountains on the right transition seamlessly to the White Mountains. Though geologically different from the Sierra, the White Mountains’ proximity and Sierra views make it an essential part of the Eastern Sierra experience.
Clinging to rocky slopes in the thin air above 10,000 feet, the bristlecone pines of the White Mountains are among the oldest living things on earth—many show no signs of giving up after 4,000 years; at least one bristlecone is estimated to be 5,000 years old.
Abused by centuries of frigid temperatures, relentless wind, oxygen deprivation, and persistent drought, the bristlecones display every year of their age. Their stunted, twisted, gnarled, polished wood makes the bristlecones suited for intimate macros and mid-range portraits, or as a striking foreground for a distant panorama.
The two primary destinations in the bristlecone pine forest are the Schulman and Patriarch Groves. Get to the bristlecone pine forest by driving east from Big Pine on Highway 168 and climbing about 13 car-sickness inducing miles. Turn left on White Mountain Road and continue climbing another 10 twisting miles to reach the Schulman Grove. Despite the incline and curves, the road is paved all the way to this point. Stop at the Sierra panorama after about 8 miles for a spectacular view that also makes a great excuse to pause and collect yourself.
Stop at the small visitor center in the Schulman Grove to pay the modest use fee, then choose between the 1-mile Discovery loop trail, and the 4 1/2 mile Methuselah loop trail. Both trails are in good shape, but the extreme up and down in very thin air will test your fitness. Most of the trees on the Methuselah Trail get more morning light, while the majority of the Discovery Trail trees get their light in the afternoon.
If you’re unsure of your fitness, or have limited time, the Discovery Trail is definitely the choice for you. Because the photogenic trees start with the very first steps, on this trail you can turn around at any point without feeling cheated of opportunities to photograph nice bristlecones. And along the way you’ll appreciate the handful of benches for enjoying the view and catching your breath. Hikers who can make it to the top of the switchbacks are rewarded great views of the snow-capped Sierra across the Owens Valley.
The Discovery Trail climbs for a couple hundred more yards beyond the switchbacks, but just as you’re beginning to wonder whether all the effort is worth it, the trail levels, turns, and drops. Soon you’ll round a 90-degree bend and be rewarded for your hard work with two of the most spectacular bristlecones in the entire forest. Spend as much time here as you have, because the rest of the loop back to the parking lot has nothing to compete with these two trees.
The pavement ends at the Schulman Grove, but the unpaved 12-mile drive to the Patriarch Grove is navigable by all vehicles in dry conditions. Home to the Patriarch Tree, the world’s largest bristlecone pine, the Patriarch Grove is more primitive and much less visited than the Schulman Grove. Unlike the Schulman Grove, where I rarely stray far from the trail, I often find the most photogenic bristlecones here by venturing cross-country, over several small ridges east of the Patriarch Tree. Even without a trail, the sparse vegetation and hilly terrain provides enough vantage points that make getting lost difficult.
Clean air, few clouds, and very little light pollution make the bristlecone groves a premier night photography location. On moonless summer and early autumn nights, the bright center of the Milky Way is clearly visible from the slopes of the bristlecone forest. For the best Milky Way images, look for trees that can be photographed against the southern sky. And no matter how warm it is on 395 below, pack a jacket.
The bristlecone forest closes in winter.
An hour north of Lone Pine on 395 is Bishop. Its central location, combined with ample lodging, restaurant, and shopping options make Bishop an excellent hub for an Eastern Sierra trip—if you want to anchor in one spot and venture out to the other Eastern Sierra locations, Bishop is probably your best bet.
West of Bishop are many small but scenic lakes nestled in steep, creek-carved canyons that are lined with aspen (and some cottonwood) that turn brilliant yellow each fall. Many of these canyons can be accessed on paved roads, others via unpaved roads of varying navigability, and a few solely by foot.
Of these canyons, Bishop Creek Canyon is the best combination of accessible and scenic. To get there, drive west on Highway 168 (Line Street in Bishop). After about 15 miles you can decide whether to turn left on the road to South Lake, or continue straight to reach North Lake and Lake Sabrina (pronounced with a long “i”).
One of the area’s most popular sunrise spots, North Lake is a 1-mile signed detour on a narrow, steep, unpaved road—easily navigated in good conditions by all vehicles, but the un-railed, near vertical drop is not for the faint of heart. A mile or so beyond the turn to North Lake the road ends at Lake Sabrina, a fairly large reservoir in the shadow of rugged peaks and surrounded by beautiful aspen (but its bathtub ring when less than full is not for me).
South Lake is another aspen-lined reservoir that shrinks in late summer and autumn. Highlights on South Lake Road are a manmade but photogenic waterfall leaping from the mountainside, clearly visible on the left as you ascend, and Weir Lake, just before South Lake.
Both Bishop Canyon roads are worth exploring, especially in autumn, when the fall color can be spectacular. Each features scenic tarns and dense aspen stands accented by views of nearby Sierra peaks. Rather than beeline to a fall color spot, in autumn I drive the Sabrina and South Lake roads and pick the best color.
Highway 395 north of Bishop features a few of my favorite fall color destinations, including Rock Creek Canyon and McGee Creek. About a half hour north of Bishop, detour west off the highway to postcard-perfect Convict Lake. And just beyond the road to Convict Lake is the upscale resort town of Mammoth Lakes, just a few miles west of 395. The drive on 203 through Mammoth Lakes takes you past the Mammoth Mountain Ski slopes to Minaret Vista. This panoramic view of the sawtooth Minaret Range, Mt. Ritter, and Mt. Banner captures the essence of high Sierra beauty. From here, follow the road down the other side to see the basalt columns of Devil’s Postpile, and to take the short hike to Rainbow Fall.
Lee Vining area
Leaving Bishop, Highway 395 climbs steeply, crests near Crowley Lake, skirts the communities of Mammoth Lakes and June Lake, finally dropping down into the Mono Basin and Lee Vining. Though this is an easy, one-hour drive, you’ll feel like you’ve landed on a different planet. In October, detour onto the June Lake Loop, another popular fall color drive.
By far the most popular Mono Lake location is South Tufa, a garden of limestone tufa towers that line the shore and rise from the lake. Tufa are calcium carbonate protrusions formed by submerged springs and revealed when the lake drops. In addition to the striking tufa towers, South Tufa is on a point that protrudes into the lake, allowing photographers to compose with both tufa and lake in the frame while facing west, north, or east.
To visit South Tufa, turn east on Highway 120 about 5 miles south of Lee Vining. Follow this road for another 5 miles and turn left at the sign for South Tufa. Drive about a mile on an unpaved, dusty but easily navigated road to the large dirt parking lot. From here it’s an easy ¼ mile walk to the lake, but wear your mud shoes if you want to get close to the water. And don’t climb on the tufa.
While South Tufa can be really nice at sunset, mirror reflections on the frequently calm lake surface, and warm light skimming over the low eastern horizon, make this one of California’s premier sunrise locations. To get the most out of a sunrise shoot here, it’s a good idea to photograph South Tufa at sunset to familiarize yourself with the many possibilities here (and who knows, maybe you’ll get lucky and catch one of the Eastern Sierra’s spectacular sunsets).
In the morning, arrive at the lake at least 45 minutes before sunrise to ensure a good spot at this popular location—you can start shooting as soon as you arriving, using long exposures to brighten the scene and smooth the water. I usually start with scenes to the east, capturing tufa silhouettes against indigo sky and water. As the dawn brightens, keep your head on a swivel and be prepared to shift positions with the changing light.
As the sun approaches and the dynamic range increases in the east, I often turn to face west. Soon the highest Sierra peaks are colored with pink alpenglow, followed quickly by the day’s first direct sunlight. With the sun rising beneath the horizon behind me, its light slowly descends the Sierra peaks stretching before me. When the sunlight finally reaches lake level, for a few minutes the tufa towers are awash with warm sidelight, creating wonderful opportunities facing north. As with the Alabama Hills, without clouds to soften the sunlight and make the sky more interesting, the sunrise show is terminated quickly by contrasty light.
Other options in and near Lee Vining are the excellent Mono Lake visitor center on the north side of town, the small but very informative Mono Committee headquarters in the middle of town, any meal at the Whoa Nellie Deli in the Mobil Station (trust me on this), and Bodie, an extremely photogenic ghost town maintained in a state of arrested decay, less than an hour’s drive north. And a sinuous 20-minute drive west, up 120 (closed in winter) lands you at Tioga Pass, Yosemite’s east entrance and the gateway to Tuolumne Meadows.
Fall color in the Eastern Sierra
Each fall the Eastern Sierra becomes a Mecca for photographers chasing the vivid gold coloring the area’s ubiquitous aspen groves. The show starts in late September at the highest elevations, and continues well into October in some of the lower elevations. Fall color timing and locations vary from year-to-year, but the general fall color rule to follow here is: If the trees are still green, just keep climbing.
The best way to photograph the Eastern Sierra’s fall color is to explore: Pick a road that heads west and start climbing until something stops you. To give you a head start, here are a few of my favorite spots, from south to north. (Rather than beeline to specific locations in these ever-changing canyons, I’ve found it’s best to drive slowly and stay alert for opportunities along the way.)
Bishop Creek Canyon: Nice any season it’s open, Bishop Creek Canyon (detailed earlier) comes alive with gold each autumn. Aspen surrounding the canyon’s many lakes make for spectacular reflections. Of these, North Lake is probably the most popular, but autumn mornings can be extremely crowded here. The color in Bishop Creek Canyon usually peaks in late September at the highest elevations (near North Lake, Lake Sabrina, and South Lake), but lasts until mid-October farther down the canyon.
Rock Creek Canyon: Near the crest of the climb out of Bishop on 395, turn left at the sign for Rock Creek Lake. Climb this road along Rock Creek all the way up to its terminus at Mosquito Flat trailhead. Over 10,000 feet, this is the highest paved road in the Sierra. As with Bishop Creek Canyon, the best photography in Rock Creek Canyon is usually found at random points along the road—drive slowly and keep your eyes peeled.
McGee Creek: When you see Crowley Lake on the right, look for the road to McGee Creek on the left. This 2-mile unpaved road is navigable by all vehicles, but take it slow. It ends at a paved parking lot that’s the launching point for a hike up McGee Creek, into the canyon, and the mountains beyond. Unlike most other Eastern Sierra canyons, the dominant tree here is cottonwood. While I’ve had good success photographing along the creek right beside the parking lot, you can find nice color as far up the canyon as your schedule (and fitness) permits.
Convict Lake: The road to Convict Lake is just south of Mammoth Lakes. It’s a 2-mile paved drive to a beautiful lake nestled at the base of towering mountains—definitely worth the short detour off of 395.
June Lake Loop: Between Mammoth Lakes and Lee Vining is a 15 mile loop that exits 395 near the small town of June Lake (look for a gas station on the left) and returns to 395 a few miles down. Along the route you’ll find several lakes, and a waterfall at the very back of the loop (visible from the road).
Lundy Canyon: About 5 miles north of Lee Vining, turn left onto the Lundy Canyon road to enjoy one of my favorite Eastern Sierra fall color spots. The lower half of this road, below Lundy Lake, is often a good place to find late season color, but my favorite photo spots aren’t until road turns bad, just beyond the lake.
Driving slowly and with great care, most vehicles can make the 2 unpaved miles along Mill Creek to the end of the road. In addition to beautiful creek scenes, you’ll find several small, reflective beaver ponds along the way. If you make it to the end of the road, park and follow the trail up the canyon, through an aspen grove, for about ¼ mile to reach a small, waterfall-fed lake. The overgrown lakeshore makes photography here difficult, but a short walk along the shoreline to the left, toward the lake outlet, will take you to a massive beaver dam. Roll up your pants and get your feet (and more) wet for the best views of the lake.
Dunderberg Peak and Virginia Lakes: Shortly after the turn to Lundy Canyon, 395 climbs steeply to Conway Summit, at 8143 feet, the highest point on the entire route. On the left, just past a spectacular view of the entire Mono basin (worth the stop), is the road to Virginia Lakes. Here you’ll find some of the area’s earliest aspen to turn. Just beyond the Virginia Lakes road are colorful views of Dunderberg Peak and its aspen-blanketed slopes.
Posted on March 4, 2016
Rules are important. The glue of civilization. And after a childhood constrained by bedtimes, homework, and curfews, it’s no wonder that as adults we honor rules simply because, well, simply because. (I mean, who doesn’t wait for however long it takes and with no car or cop in sight, for a light to change?)
As much as civil society relies on universal obedience, not all “rules” are created equal. And our reluctance to question authority inhibits growth. One example would be blind adherence to the (usually) well-intended photography “experts” proliferating in print, online, and (especially) in your local camera club. These self-proclaimed authorities have figured out that people who are just learning are less confident, and tend to respond more to authority than substance.
The camera club paradox
I think camera clubs are great for many reasons: they connect people with a common interest, facilitate the exchange of information and ideas, and provide a forum for sharing our photographic creations. Camera clubs spur us to get out and shoot when we otherwise might stay home, and offer the beginner rules that provide a stable foundation upon which to build her craft.
But camera clubs can also be a breeding ground for self-proclaimed experts, a status often not conferred to the person most qualified, but to the person who spews photographic dogma with the most authority. The result is well-intended but misinformed knowledge that infects a camera club like a mutated virus.
I’m especially troubled when I hear of images shared in a camera club photo competition that were dismissed without consideration because they violated the local “expert’s” idea of an unbreakable photographic rule. Some camera club capital “violations” I’ve seen firsthand or heard about (by no means a comprehensive list):
Each of these things can be a problem, but they can be a refreshing expression of creativity as well. And even if they are a problem, refusing to consider an image because it violates someone’s definition of “perfect” discounts all that’s potentially good about it.
If you’re an aspiring photographer and someone dismisses an image for a technical violation, take a step back, inhale, and remind yourself that there are very, very few absolutes in photography. In general, it’s helpful to remember that no matter how strongly it’s stated, advice that doesn’t feel right (even if you can’t articulate why) doesn’t need to be heeded. In fact, the next time someone starts feeding you photography advice in absolutes, run (don’t walk) to the nearest exit.
About this image
I jumped on my anti-expert soapbox after observing several recent workshop participants who were clearly constrained by “rules” enforced by their local camera club. And looking at this image, I realized that there are camera clubs that probably wouldn’t even consider it because I centered the horizon and the teddy-bear shaped rock in the foreground. I also captured a little more star motion than is ideal. But deal breakers? Not to me.
I’d taken my January Death Valley workshop group out to the Alabama Hills for a moonlight shoot on the workshop’s last night. A few in the group walked out to the arch, but most gravitated to this group of boulders a little south of the parking area. As I worked to get the group up to speed with moonlight photography, I tried a few frames of my own.
Most of my moonlight images are fairly wide, and even the closest focus point is far enough away to be at infinity, even wide open. But the rocks here were close enough, and my focal length was long enough (57mm), that I stopped down from f4 to f5.6 to increase my margin for error. And rather than autofocusing on the moon as I normally do, I focused toward the back of the foreground rocks. As I hope you can see in this low-res web version, I made the right focus choices.
The other problem I had to contend with was motion blur in the stars. At the 16mm to 24mm I typically use for night photography (to maximize the number of stars), motion blur isn’t much of a problem, even at 30 seconds. But at nearly 60mm, I didn’t think I could get away with 30 seconds. This is the first time I’d tried my Sony a7RII at night—I usually use my a7S, but I’d heard such good things about the a7RII’s high ISO capability that I thought I’d try it.
Bumping the ISO to 3200 (from my moonlight standard of 800), I was able to drop my shutter speed to 15 seconds. This image is so clean at 3200, and the star motion is visible enough, that I regret now that I didn’t go to ISO 6400 and cut my shutter speed to 8 seconds. Next time….
(Images that might not make the cut at a camera club competition)
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Posted on February 14, 2016
Trophy shot: A beautifully executed capture of a frequently photographed scene.
In Monday’s post I wrote about relationships in nature. They really are everywhere, these juxtapositions of landscape, light, and sky that we photograph by virtue of our timing, position, and creative vision. In their pursuit, photographers label photo spots a “sunrise location” or “sunset location,” research the best time to photograph pretty much every popular landmark, plot the when and where of the moonrise, and…, well, you get the idea.
Unfortunately, in this age of ubiquitous cameras and limitless information, these easy relationship images have become cliché, a “trophy” to display in what seems to be a never-ending “top-this” cycle. While putting a beautiful scene with good light or a vivid sky makes a great foundation for a nice image, elevating an image above trophy status requires a serious infusion of creativity. In other words, rather than settle for an image that’s merely a flawlessly executed version of the same scene we’ve all seen hundreds of times, photographers should be seeking unique relationships between the scene’s varied elements, relationships that look deeper than the conventional treatment.
(Like many other photographers) I’ve photographed California’s Alabama Hills a lot. Here stacked, weathered granite boulders provide a dramatic foreground for Mt. Whitney and the precipitous eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada range.
Despite an almost infinite variety of potential foreground subjects, the Alabama Hills trophy shot is Mobius Arch (aka, Whitney Arch), which makes a striking frame for Mt. Whitney. Some version of this composition has been a prime goal for many photographers, but like most easy captures these days, there’s rarely anything special about Mobius Arch images.
As with any location, it helps to start with a nice sky and good light. The natural relationships I try to add to the Alabama Hills’ beauty include sunrise alpenglow on Mt. Whitney, warm light on the granite boulders, and the moon’s disappearance behind the serrated, snow-capped peaks. But as beautiful as these phenomena are, they’re still not enough to set one Mobius Arch image apart from the other.
As a workshop leader I have to take my groups to the arch because if they’ve never been here before, it’s probably what they came to see. But my job doesn’t end there—it’s also incumbent on me to help my students find alternate compositions that use the arch in a unique way, or don’t use the arch at all.
I encourage Alabama Hills first-timers to seek relationships that combine the foreground rocks, distant peaks, and whatever is happening in the sky in ways they haven’t seen before. It can take a while, but the longer they work on a scene, the more the hidden relationships start to appear. Eventually most tire of the arch and start wandering off to explore the countless other opportunities nearby.
Arch or not, a particular Alabama Hills favorite of mine is moonlight, especially in winter, when the snowy crest glows with reflected moonlight. Last month, after three wonderfully cloudy days in Death Valley, my Death Valley workshop group traveled to Lone Pine to wrap up the workshop with a sunset and sunrise in the Alabama Hills. Since our Death Valley moonlight shoot had been preempted, after dinner in Lone Pine I took everyone up to the Mobius Arch area to give moonlight one more try.
The sky that night cooperated wonderfully. I started by bouncing between photographers making sure they’d mastered the exposure and focus challenges of moonlight photography. It wasn’t long before everyone was up to speed (it’s not hard) and scattering in search of their own moonlight boulder, mountain, and sky relationships.
Leading a group doesn’t allow me to do creative photography and natural relationship hunting, but that night I did find a couple of minutes to photograph some favorite compositions in the moonlight. It’s amazing how easily the eyes adjust to moonlight, and soon found myself composing as if we were shooting in daylight. It was also quite cold on this January night, but it’s amazing how easily the cold is ignored when the photography’s good.
When the cold started to trump the photography, I walked out to the arch to round up the people who had ended up there. As I said, I don’t get to hunt for the creative relationships when I’m with a group, but as I was exiting the arch I glanced skyward and saw Cassiopeia hanging in the northern sky. What stopped me was the way the arch’s angled profile seemed to lead directly to the constellation. Since I’ve always found this side of the arch interesting without ever finding something to put with it, I quickly extended my tripod and attached my camera and 24-70 lens.
Lowering the camera to about three feet above the ground emphasized the steep slope and compressed a large chunk of mostly empty sky separating Cassiopeia and the arch’s top. In most of my moonlight compositions, even wide open the focus point for the entire scene is infinity, so I simply autofocus on the moon. But with the arch’s textured granite starting just a couple of feet from my lens, I knew I needed to be careful with my depth of field and focus point.
To increase my depth of field I stopped down to f8, compensating for the lost light by cranking my ISO to 3200 (love the high ISO of the a7RII). I tried a couple frames using nothing but moonlight to manually focus, but after magnifying the images in my LCD, it was clear that I’d need focus help. I asked one of the guys in my group to shine his flashlight about a third of the way up the arch, focused, and clicked. After a quick check of the LCD confirmed that I’d nailed the focus, I packed up my gear and headed back to the cars. This was my only sharp frame.
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Posted on February 7, 2015
Like most people, my original expectation for my nascent mirrorless world was a significantly lighter backpack, and indeed, I haven’t been disappointed. In my Canon days my primary pack was an F-Stop Tilopa with a medium ICU (F-Stop’s interchangeable internal module for storing and organizing gear), which held my 5D Mark III, Canon 16-35 f/2.8, 24-105 f/4, and 70-200 L lenses, plus a Zeiss 28 f/2 (for night photography). Unless I specifically planned a shoot that required it, my Canon 100-400L and 100 macro lenses traveled with my backup Canon body in a separate bag—not a big deal when I’m driving to a destination, but pretty much a non-starter when I have to fly (which I’m doing more and more).
After moving to the mirrorless Sony a7R, I immediately started using my smaller F-Stop Guru backpack, which easily handled the new body and the Sony equivalent of my primary Canon glass: Sony/Zeiss 16-35 F/4 and 24-70 f/4, Sony 70-200 f/4 G, plus the (Canon mount) Zeiss 28 f/2 and a Metabones adapter that allows me to use my Canon glass on a Sony EF mount body. This configuration gave me essentially the same focal range I had with Canon, in a significantly smaller, lighter package. Not only that, I can use a lighter tripod and head. Score.
But, since I hate shooting without a backup body and had heard fantastic things about the camera, I soon purchased a Sony a6000. This amazing little mirrorless camera’s 1.5 crop sensor makes it an ideal complement to my full-frame a7R, has (slightly) more resolution than the 5DIII, and (so far) appears to offer (at least) comparable image quality, with better dynamic range than the Canon. And with a little bit of rearranging, I found I could fit the a6000 into my Guru bag without jettisoning anything else.
The result of this downsizing is a camera pack that’s light enough for hiking without feeling like a backpacker, and and for cycling without feeling like I’m about to tip over.
For my ultra-telephoto needs, my plan all along had been to to use the Canon 100-400 with the Metabones adapter. But since the 100-400 had always been my least favorite lens—awkward to use, and not particularly sharp—I had no real plans to add it to my regular lens rotation. But my ears perked up when I started hearing my friend and similarly recent Sony convert (and fellow pro photographer) Don Smith raving about the Tamron 150-600 lens. Hmmmm….
The Tamron 150-600 arrived shortly before I departed for last week’s Death Valley / Mt. Whitney Winter Moon photo workshop. Because the Tamron lens isn’t available with a Sony FE mount, it would require an adapter as well. Don had been shooting the Sony A-mount version of the Tamron paired with Sony’s converter; I opted for the Canon mount version, reasoning that I could use it on my remaining Canon bodies should the need ever arise, and I already have the Metabones adapter. (Word on the street is that the Sony A-mount Tamron with the Sony adapter has much better autofocus than the Canon/Metabones combination, but I don’t need autofocus.)
First reaction? This is not a small or light lens. But as soon as I started using it, two things became clear: it’s much easier to use than my Canon 100-400, and it’s noticeably sharper. Suddenly, size notwithstanding, I had a lens that I could see myself using regularly.
If I’d still been lugging my Canon gear, I’d have had to sacrifice essential lenses each time I planned to use the 150-600. But with the mirrorless system and a little reconfiguring of the compartments in the Tilopa ICU (moving around the padded, Velcro-attached partitions), I can now carry in a single camera backpack (that fits in every overhead bin I’ve ever encountered, including the puddle-jumpers): three Sony bodies (a7R, my brand new a7S, and the a6000), plus lenses that give me a focal length range from 16 to 900 mm (the 150-600 lens is a full-frame equivalent of 225-900 mm on the 1.5-crop a6000). Life’s good.
In the field
So, what does a photographer do with all this new imaging power? Use it, of course. Visiting familiar locations as much as I do, I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to find a completely new way to see these landscapes.
The image at the top of this post was from my first time using the Sony a6000 and Tamron 150-600. To get a better handle on the conditions, I left home two days before the workshop, spending the first night in Lone Pine, near the Alabama Hills just beneath Mt. Whitney. After a moonlight shoot in the Alabama Hills, the next morning I rose before sunrise, strolled from my hotel room across the highway, and set up my tripod with the Tamron 150-600 mounted and a6000 attached.
The first time I aimed this combination at Mt. Whitney (the highest peak in the 48 contiguous United States), zoomed all the way out to 900mm (600mm x 1.5), and dialed in the focus, was an epiphany. Previously unseen rocks and trees snapped into view, and vortices of wind-swept snow spun on the summit. Amazing to my eye, but at 900 mm actually too close to find a composition I liked. So I pulled all the way back to a little less than 400 mm (256 x 1.5), framed up the mountain, and waited for the pink that always kicks off a Mt. Whitney clear-sky sunrise.
I captured this frame about ten minutes before sunrise. Being a little concerned about such a long focal length in low light, I hedged my bets slightly by using ISO 200 to halve my shutter speed. Since I notice little difference between ISO 100 and 200 on the a6000, I think 200 will be my standard ISO when I use the 150-600 on this body. But we’ll see.
The rest of the week was a rediscovery of ultra-telephoto photography. When I first switched to digital about twelve years ago, I started with a 1.6 crop Canon 10D, and my only telephoto lens was a 70-300, making images up to 480 mm a routine part of my capture paradigm. Isolating distant subjects, magnifying closer subjects, compressing foreground and background subjects—it was all a simple matter of reaching into my camera bag. But since switching to full-frame, and replacing the 70-300 with the (faster, optically better) 70-200, ultra-telephoto photography took backseat to more conventional landscapes, and I eventually forgot how much I enjoyed it when it was more convenient. Ultra-telephoto became something I had to plan, rather than a creative option available whenever the inspiration struck.
Don was assisting my Death Valley workshop (Don and I trade off assisting many of each other’s workshops), and I’m sure by the end of the week the group had grown weary of hearing Don and I gush about the fun we were having with our new toys. Sand dunes, moonrise, moonset, distant peaks—no natural feature was safe from our magnifying eye. A particular highlight came dark and early one morning at Dante’s View, when I turned the a6000 and 150-600 to Jupiter, low on the horizon near Telescope Peak, gathered the group around my LCD, zoomed to 600mm, and shared the glowing disk of our solar system’s largest planet surrounded by the four Galilean moons.
The bottom line
Mirrorless has definitely meant a significantly smaller, lighter bag to handle my “meat and potatoes” 16-200 mm focal length range (that I never leave home without) when mobility is paramount—hiking or biking, I hardly know there’s anything on my back.
But equally significant is the way compact mirrorless gear also allows me expand my creative options without hiring a Sherpa. Now, in the same backpack that once maxed out with a single Canon body (most recently a 5D Mark III) and Canon lenses covering 16-200 mm, I can travel with three mirrorless bodies, plus lenses covering an effective focal range from 16-900 mm (including my 28 mm f/2 Canon-mount Zeiss for night photography). Life’s good.
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Posted on January 20, 2014
A good landscape image usually involves, well…, a good landscape. But that’s only half the equation—photographers also need photogenic conditions—soft light, interesting skies, dramatic weather, or anything else that elevates the scene to something special. While we have absolute control over the time and location of our photo outings, the conditions have a significant random (luck) component.
Despite being less than a day’s drive from many of the most treasured photo destinations in the world, most of my photo trips are planned months in advance. Workshops in particular require at least a year of advance planning on my part, and many months of schedule adjustment and travel arrangements for the participants. I think I’ve pretty much established that positive thinking, finger crossing, divine pleas, and ritual incantation (no virgin sacrifice yet) are of zero value where photography is concerned—sometimes conditions work out wonderfully, sometimes not so much. And while I’ve photographed my workshop locations many times, I know most of my workshop participants haven’t, which is why I do my best to schedule my workshops when the odds are best for interesting skies.
My annual Death Valley / Mt. Whitney photo workshop is a perfect example: Among the driest places on Earth, Death Valley gets only about an inch of rain each year and suffers from chronic blue skies. Ever the optimist, I schedule my DV/Whitney workshop from mid-January through early February, when the odds, though still low, are at least best for clouds. And while I’ve actually been pretty lucky with the clouds in past workshops, to hedge my bets further, I always schedule this workshop to coincide with a full moon—if we don’t get clouds, the moon always seems to save the day (and night).
This year’s DV/Whitney workshop wrapped up Saturday morning. Unfortunately, it landed in the midst of what is on its way to becoming an unprecedented drought in California. After two dry winters, this winter is worse—a persistent high pressure system has set up camp above California, creating an impenetrable force field that deflects clouds and and bathes the state weather that is absolutely beautiful for everything but photography. In this year’s DV/Whitney workshop’s four+ days, we enjoyed highs in the glorious 80s, and I don’t recall seeing a single cloud (though there were unconfirmed rumors of a cloud sighting on the distant horizon late in the workshop).
But cloudless skies don’t need to mean lousy photography—they just shrink the window of opportunity. Places like Mosaic Canyon and Artist’s Palette are nice in the early morning or late afternoon shade. And in general, when clouds aren’t in the picture, the best photography skies are on the horizon opposite the sun before sunrise and after sunset. Last week I made a point of getting my group on location at least 45 minutes before sunrise, and kept them out well past sunset to photograph Death Valley’s one-of-a-kind topography beneath twilight’s shadowless pink and blue pastels. Among other things, in this light the dunes were fantastic (I was able to find a relatively footprint free area) all the way from shadowless twilight through high contrast early morning light, and the first light on Telescope Peak from Badwater was wonderful.
But the workshop’s real highlight, the element that elevated our week into something special, was the moon. The real moon show didn’t begin until it showed up above the primary views on our final two sunrises, but we got a nice preview on our first sunset when the waxing gibbous disk rose into the twilight wedge above the mountains east of Hell’s Gate. The next evening I took the group to panoramic Dante’s View; while the prime objective was photographing Death Valley’s last light and the sun setting from 5,000 vertical feet above Badwater, I instructed everyone to walk across the parking lot after sunset to catch the nearly full moon rising above the equally expansive (though significantly less spectacular) panorama of distant peaks to the east. The moon arrived early enough to allow at least ten minutes of quality photography, then we just kind of hung out to watch it for a little while longer. Very nice.
Friday morning’s sunrise we found the moon glowing as promised in the predawn indigo above Zabriskie Point. As the morning brightened, we watched the nearly round disk slide through twilight’s throbbing pink before disappearing directly behind Manly Beacon just a few minutes after sunrise.
But as nice as the Zabriskie shoot was, I think my personal favorite was the workshop’s final sunrise from the Alabama Hills. The group, now expert at managing the difficult contrast between foreground shadows and brilliant moon, immediately spread out to find their own foreground. One or two headed straight for the Whitney Arch (aka, Mobius Arch), while the rest of us were quite content with the variety of boulders west and south of our the arch.
The thing that makes the Alabama Hills such a special location for sunrise is its position between towering peaks to the west, and relatively flat horizon to the east. At sunrise here, the Sierra crest juts into the blue and rose of the Earth’s receding shadow, then transitions to amber when the first rays of sunlight kiss its serrated peaks. You anticipate watch the sun’s arrival by watch the shadow descent the vertical granite until it bathes the weathered boulders with warm, ephemeral sunlight. Then, just like that, the show’s over.
I’ve shot this scene at sunrise so many times that I usually remain a spectator unless something special moves me to pull out my camera. Last Saturday, despite the absence of clouds, I just couldn’t resist the pull of the moon, which hovered like a mylar balloon in the night/day transition. At first there wasn’t enough light to photograph detail in the rocks and moon in a single frame, but eventually, with the help of a two-stop graduated neutral density filter, I was able to capture the image at the top of the blog.
Posted on August 6, 2013
I’ve decided to turn my new Favorites gallery into an irregular series on each of the images there.
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This image of the Big Dipper above moonlit granite boulders in the Alabama Hills will always have a special place in my heart because it was my first moonlight “success.” I was still coming to terms with the low light capabilities of digital photography, and figured that a full moon over the Alabama Hills might be a good opportunity to play. I was in Lone Pine with my brother to explore the endless daylight possibilities among the weather granite boulders just west of town.
Jay and I started that night by simply photographing the Sierra crest, anchored by Lone Pine Peak and Mt. Whitney, from the side of the road. It wasn’t long before I was confident that I had the exposure settings right (arriving through trial and error at the moonlight exposure recipe I still use), and we soon set out for less prosaic surroundings, ending up in a box canyon at the end of an obscure spur off (unpaved) Movie Road. All of my attention was on Lone Pine Peak and Mt. Whitney in the west, but while waiting for an exposure to complete, I noticed the Big Dipper suspended above the northern horizon.
I wish I could say this composition was divine inspiration fueled by my innate artistic instincts, but it was more of a casual click using a couple of anonymous boulders whose prime attraction was their convenience. Focus was tricky, and while I don’t specifically remember all my decisions, I know I must have realized that sharp foreground rocks trumped sharp stars (that would be moving slightly anyway). I’ve done enough moonlight photography since to know that while manual focus in the dark is difficult, it’s not impossible. Finding focus involves rapidly twisting the focus ring in decreasing concentric arcs around the point where the target “feels” sharp—subsequent experience has taught me that (for me at least) the results are usually better than I fear they are. And of course it doesn’t hurt that even at f2.8, 25mm gives me quite a bit of depth of field.
I remember thinking when the image popped up on the postage-stamp LCD of my 1D Mark II, “That’s pretty cool.” But I couldn’t have been too impressed because I only took two frames before returning to the (ultimately forgettable) Sierra compositions. The next memory I have is looking at my images on my laptop later that night—it was quite clear that this image was my favorite, by a long-shot, and I wished I’d have tried more. I’ve tried unsuccessfully to find these boulders on subsequent visits, but I haven’t given up. I can’t even say that I’d photograph them again, but I’d at least love to see them once more.
Posted on March 1, 2013
It’s fun to browse the thumbnails from a shoot in chronological order to see the evolution of that day’s process. While can’t always remember specific choices, it’s always clear from the progression of my images that I was indeed quite conscious of what I was doing. I can look at one thumbnail and usually predict what the next will be.
This January morning in the Alabama Hills started for me about forty-five minutes before sunrise. When the sun finally warmed Mt. Whitney, a 95% waning gibbous moon was about to dip below the Sierra crest; comparing images, it’s clear I’d moved no more than twenty feet from the location of that morning’s earliest images. This is pretty typical of my approach—unlike many (but not all) photographers, who actively bounce around a location in search of something different, I tend to seek the scene until I find it, then work it to within an inch of its life. If I’m moving around, it usually means I haven’t found something that completely satisfies me.
Is mine the best approach? Of course not, but it is the best approach for me. There is no all encompassing rule for workflow in the field, except maybe to be true to your instincts. Because I happen to be very deliberate in my approach to many things, and can be incredibly (obsessively?) patient when I sense the potential for something I want, that’s the way I shoot. But, regardless of changing conditions and possible compositional variations, some photographers would go crazy locking into one scene. And just as my deliberate approach continually reveals details I’d have missed had I moved on sooner, it sometimes cheats me of even better opportunities waiting just around the corner. But I learned a long time ago not to stress about what I might be missing (because for me it’s even worse to chase what’s around the corner only to find what I end up with doesn’t match what I left).
Early on this chilly morning I found a relationship between a nearby stack of boulders and the distant Sierra peaks (Mt. Whitney in particular); the more time I spent with the scene, the more I saw and the better all the elements seemed to fit for me, so I just kept working. It didn’t hurt that conditions were changing almost as quickly as I could compose. Clouds ascended from behind Mt. Williamson as if churned out by a cloud making machine, sprinted south past Mt. Whitney, and disappeared behind Lone Pine Peak. On their way they took on whatever hue the rising sun was delivering, from white (before the sun) to vivid pink to amber.
Comparing today’s image to the image in my previous post, I see that my composition shifted to account for the moon. In the earlier image the most prominent boulder and Mt. Whitney serve as a set that anchors the center of the frame. In the later image I keep the set together but offset them to the left to balance the moon’s extreme visual weight. And while at first glance it appears both images were captured from the same spot with just slight focal length and direction adjustments, the height and position of the foreground boulder relative to Mt. Whitney’s summit shows that I’ve moved a little left and about twenty feet closer.
Relationships between elements in a frame are essential to an image’s success—controlling these relationships is a matter of moving up/down, left/right, forward/backward. Without remembering my decision to move that morning, I can still reconstruct my likely thought process: The more I worked the scene, the more clear I became on where the boulders’ left and right boundaries should be. Moving left and closer let me go wide enough to include the moon and clouds, fill the foreground with no more of the foreground boulders than I wanted, and balance the frame with the boulder/Whitney pair on the left and the moon on the right.
So while I do indeed stick with one scene for a long time, I’m far from static. Each frame is slightly different from the previous one. Like most of my favorite images, this Whitney sunrise moonset is an evolution; it started in the dark, evolving with the conditions and my growing familiarity with the scene’s elements.
There are no guarantees in nature, and I’ve had my share of “panic shoots” when something unexpected forced me to run around frantically searching for a scene to go with the moment. But when this morning’s dance of light, clouds, and moon blended into one of those magic moments photographers dream about, I was ready.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.