Photograph the Eastern Sierra

Gary Hart Photography: First Light, Lone Pine Peak and Mt. Whitney, Alabama Hills, Eastern Sierra

First Light, Lone Pine Peak and Mt. Whitney, Alabama Hills, Eastern Sierra (2006)
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
Canon 70-200 f/4L
1/20 second
F/8
ISO 200

This is an edited and updated version of my Eastern Sierra article that appeared in the September 2016 edition of “Outdoor Photographer” magazine

Eastern Sierra

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.

Bishop area

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.

There’s far too much to photograph in the Eastern Sierra to describe here. Join me in an Eastern Sierra photo workshop to explore all these locations, plus many more less known spots: Eastern Sierra Photo Workshops

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An Eastern Sierra Gallery

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How a polarizer works

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Reflection, North Lake, Eastern Sierra

Autumn Reflection, North Lake, Eastern Sierra (2010)
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
Canon 17-40L
1/5 second
F/16
ISO 200

Some people couldn’t care less how a polarizer works—they’re satisfied knowing what a polarizer does, and how to make it happen. But if you’re like me, you also need to understand why things behave the way they do.

Put simply…

A polarizer eliminates reflections. On the surface that not might seem so desirable for someone who likes photographing reflections as much as I do, but reflections are a much bigger part of our visual experience than most people know. Virtually every object reflects at least a little, and many things reflect a lot more than we’re aware. Worse still, these reflections often hide the very surface features and color we most love to photograph.

When reflections hide an object’s underlying beauty, a polarizer can restore some of that beauty. I use a polarizer when I want to capture the submerged rocks or sand hidden by the reflection atop a river or lake, the rich color overwhelmed by glare reflecting from foliage, or the sky’s deep blue washed out by light scattered by atmospheric molecules.

Put a little less simply…

In reality, reflections are merely collateral damage to your polarizer. What a polarizer really does is eliminate light that’s already been polarized. To understand what’s really going on with a polarizer, read on….

Essential terminology

  • Oscillation is motion relative to a fixed point. For example, when you snap a whip, the whip “oscillates” along its length. Without external interference (e.g., friction from the atmosphere or other objects), motion in one direction along the whip will have an identical motion in the opposite direction (e.g., up=down, left right, and so on), and that motion will move forward along the whip.
  • wave is oscillation along or through a medium (such as air, water, or space). The bulge that moves up and down (oscillates) along a cracked whip is a wave. For the liberal arts folks, (in this context) wave is a noun, oscillate is a verb. A wave is measured by its wavelength and frequency—the higher the “frequency,” the shorter the “wavelength.”
  • Frequency is the number of times a wave peak passes a discrete point in a given unit of time (usually one second: “per second”).
  • Wavelength is the distance from one wave peak to the next at any instant frozen in time.
  • A transverse wave oscillates perpendicular (90°) to its direction of motion. To imagine the motion of a transverse wave, picture an ocean wave, which oscillates up and down as it advances through the water. Now think about a bottle floating in the open ocean—bobbing up and down with each wave, it’s up/down motion is perpendicular to the wave’s forward motion, but when that wave has passed, the bottle is in the same place it was before the wave arrived. (Waves don’t move bobbing bottles across the ocean, currents do.)
  • Visible light is electromagnetic radiation that reaches our eyes as a transverse wave somewhere in the wavelength range the human eye can register, about 380 to 740 nanometers (really small).
  • Sunlight (or more accurately, solar energy) reaches earth as a transverse wave with a very broad and continuous spectrum of wavelengths that include, among others, the visible spectrum (lucky for photographers), infrared (lucky for everyone), and ultraviolet (lucky for sunscreen vendors). The oscillation of solar energy’s transverse wave is infinitely more complicated than an ocean wave because light oscillates in an infinite number of directions perpendicular to its direction of motion. Huh? Think about the blades of a propeller—each is perpendicular to the shaft upon which the propeller rotates, so in theory you can have an infinite number of propeller blades pointing in an infinite number of directions, each perpendicular to the shaft. So a light wave oscillates not just up/down, but also left/right, and every other (perpendicular) angle in between.

Polarization

While an unpolarized light wave oscillates on every plane perpendicular to the wave’s motion, polarized light only oscillates on one perpendicular plane (up/down or left/right or 45°/225° and so on).

Polarization can be induced many ways, but photographers are most interested in light that has already been polarized by reflection from a nonmetallic surface (such as water or foliage), or light that has been scattered by molecules in our atmosphere. Light scattered by a reflective surface is polarized parallel to the reflective surface; light scattered by molecules in the atmosphere is polarized perpendicular to the direction of the light.

Polarization can also be induced artificially with a polarizing filter (“polarizer”), a filter coated with a material whose molecular structure allows most light to pass, but blocks light waves oscillating in a specific direction. When unpolarized light (most of the light that illuminates our lives) passes through a polarizer, the light that enters the lens to which it’s attached has been stripped of the waves oscillating in a certain direction and we (through the viewfinder) see a uniform darkening of the entire scene (usually one to two stops).

But that uniform darkening is not usually what we use a polarizer for. (I say usually because sometimes we use a polarizer to reduce light and stretch the shutter speed in lieu of a neutral density filter.) Photographers are most interested in their polarizers’ ability to eliminate reflective glare and darken the sky, which occurs when their polarizer’s rotating glass element matches the oscillation direction of light that has already been polarized by reflection or scattering, cancelling that light. By watching the scene as we rotate the polarizing element on the filter, photographers know that we’ve achieved maximum polarization (reflection reduction) when we rotate the polarizer until maximum darkening is achieved—voila!

The exception that proves the rule

Most photographers know that a polarizer has its greatest effect on the sky when it’s at right angles (90°) to the sun, and least effective when pointed directly into or away from the sun (0º or 180°). We also know that a rainbow, which is always centered on the “anti-solar point” (a line drawn from the sun through the back of your head and out between your eyes points to the anti-solar point) exactly 180° from the sun, can be erased by a polarizer. But how can it be that a polarizer is most effective at 90° to the sun, and a rainbow is 180° from the sun? To test your understanding of polarization, try to reason out why a rainbow is eliminated by a polarizer.

Did you figure it out? I won’t keep you in suspense: light entering a raindrop is split into its component colors by refraction; that light is reflected off the back of the raindrop and back to your eyes (there’s a little more bouncing around going on inside the raindrop, but this is the end result). Because a rainbow is reflected light, it’s polarized, which means that it can be eliminated by a properly oriented polarizer.

About this image

Long before achieving international fame as the background scene for Apple OS X High Sierra, North Lake at the top of Bishop Canyon in the Eastern Sierra has been beloved by photographers. Each autumn this little gem of a lake teams with photographers longing for even one of the following conditions: peak gold and red in the aspen, a glassy reflection, or a dusting of snow.

I visit North Lake multiple times each autumn, sometimes with my workshop groups, sometimes by myself. I’ve found pretty much every possible combination of conditions: snow/no-snow; early, peak, or late fall color; and a lake surface ranging from mirror smooth to churning whitecaps.

One sunrise early October of 2010 I hit the North Lake trifecta. Crossing my freezing fingers that the reflection would hold until I was ready, I lowered my tripod on the rocky shore and framed the aspen-draped peak and its vivid reflection. I used a couple of protruding rocks to anchor my foreground, slowly dialed my polarizer until the entire lake surface became a reflection, and clicked. But rather than settle for that shot, I reoriented my polarizer until the reflection virtually disappeared and a world of submerged granite rocks appeared. I clicked another frame and stood back to study the image on my LCD.

As much as I liked the rocky lakebed version, I knew there was no way I could pass on the best reflection I’d ever seen at North Lake. So I returned my eye to my viewfinder and very slowly dialed the polarizer again, watching the reflection reappear across the lake and advance toward me until the entire mountain unfolded in reverse atop the lake. Stopping just at that midway polarization point, I had the best of both worlds: my pristine reflection and an assortment of submerge rocks.

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Dialing In My Polarizer

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Aspen abstract

Gary Hart Photography: Aspen Abstract, Lundy Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Aspen Abstract, Lundy Canyon, Eastern Sierra
Sony a7R II
Sony 70-200 f/4
1/25 second
F/4
ISO 400

I recently started rereading Ansel Adams’ “Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs,” a book I’d recommend to anyone interested in the thinking side of photography. Though much of the book covers equipment and techniques that are irrelevant to today’s digital photographer, Adams’ words reveal a vision and mastery of craft that transcends technology. Like him or not (I do!), you can’t deny that Ansel Adams possessed an artist’s vision and an ability to convey that vision in ways the world had never seen.

©Ansel Adams Aspen, New Mexico, 1958 "The majority of the viewers... think it was a sunlit scene. When I explain that it was diffused lighting from the sky and also reflected light from distant clouds, some rejoin, 'Then why does it look the way it does?' Such questions remind me that many viewers expect a photograph to be a literal simulation of reality."

©Ansel Adams
Aspen, New Mexico, 1958
“The majority of the viewers (of this image) think it was a sunlit scene. When I explain that it was diffused lighting from the sky and also reflected light from distant clouds, some rejoin, ‘Then why does it look the way it does?’ Such questions remind me that many viewers expect a photograph to be a literal simulation of reality.”
Ansel Adams in “Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs”

Another takeaway from the book is Adams’ clear disdain for pictorialism, a more abstract approach to photography that (among other things) uses the camera’s unique vision to interpret the world in ways that are vastly and intentionally different from the human experience. Preferring instead the more literal front-to-back sharpness of the f/64 group that became his hallmark, Adams had little room for pictorialists’ soft focus and abstract images.

I, on the other hand, love using limited depth of field to emphasize my primary subject and disguise potential distractions. When we explore the world in person, our ability to pivot our head, move closer or farther, and change perspective allows us to enables us to lock in on a compelling subject and experience the scene in the way we find most meaningful. But an image is a constrained, two-dimensional approximation of the real world as seen by someone else. The photographer shares his or her experience of the scene by guiding our eyes with visual clues about what’s important and how to find it.

This reality wasn’t lost on Ansel Adams. Despite his distaste for soft focus techniques, Adams guided viewers of his images with in other ways, particularly his use of light. He knew that the camera and human eye handle light differently, and used every trick at his disposal, both at capture and in the darkroom, to leverage that difference.

At the risk of initiating a debate about the relative merits of the two techniques, I’ll just say that I’m a fan of both and am not afraid to apply whichever approach best suits my objective. And I suspect that if Ansel Adams were photographing today, he would be taking full advantage of the creative possibilities created by today’s technology.

Last October I was exploring the aspen grove at the end of the Lundy Canyon road near Mono Lake. With fall color peaking I put extension tubes on my Sony 70-200 f/4 looking for subjects that I could get close to, but with a distant enough background to maximize focus contrast (sharp/soft). I’ve always felt that soft focus aspen make a great background, but they need to be soft enough that individual leaves and trunk detail don’t distract.

I started looking for dangling leaves, either individual or bunches, but soon turned my attention to stark white aspen trunks that stood out in striking contrast against the distant wall of yellow leaves. I soon zeroed in on this trunk for its well-spaced knots, gentle curve, and clean, textured bark, plus the nice assortment of parallel trunks at varying distances in the background.

This frame I shot wide open at the closest possible focus distance to get the softest background focus. To emphasize the white trunks, I exposed the scene as bright as I could without clipping the highlights in the primary trunk. On my camera’s LCD at capture this image looked pretty much as you see it here, and required minimal processing.

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A Selective Focus Gallery

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Happy Nature Photography Day!

Aspen, Bishop Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Aspen, Bishop Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1/13 second
F/7.1
ISO 400
36 mm

Today is Nature Photography Day. Of course every day is Nature Photography Day in my world, but if designating a day to remind everyone the joys of photographing nature helps drive people outdoors with their cameras, I’m all for it.

Nature photography can be enjoyed in many forms. For some it’s simply the passive act of viewing images that inspire vicarious travel or that rekindle happy memories; for others nature photography takes a more active as an excuse to get outside or an opportunity to explore.

The stakes are higher for those of us who make our living with our images. Our ability to get outside and explore is tied to our ability to create images that touch others. For me that starts with finding scenes that touch me, then trying to find ways to convey them that will resonate with others.

My process is rarely a simple click. Once I’ve identified a scene, I devise a plan for the best way to organize and emphasize the  significant elements, then get to work with a series of clicks that continue until I’m satisfied (or decide there’s no image to be had). The first click is like a writer’s draft, and subsequent clicks are revisions. After each click, I stand back and evaluate the image on my LCD, refine the variables (exposure, relationships, focal length, depth of field, focus point), click again, then repeat as necessary.

I find this approach particularly valuable in macro and close-focus images, intimate scenes where even the slightest adjustment in composition, depth of field, and focus point can dramatically alter the result. It’s the primary reason I’m such a strong tripod advocate (evangelist)—when I’m done  evaluating, the shot I just evaluated is sitting right there on my tripod, waiting for me to apply the adjustments I deem necessary.

I often look for a leaf, a flower, a rock, a place for my viewer’s eye to land, and try to isolate it from the rest of the scene. In the above image, captured several years ago in an aspen stand in the Eastern Sierra west of Bishop, I had a pretty good idea what I wanted to do and was quite content just exploring in the peace of a solitary autumn morning. When I found this collection of four vertically stacked leaves knew immediately I’d found what I was looking for. Starting with my 70-200 lens and a 25 mm extension tube, I set up my tripod with the leaves suspended in front of a receding line of bleached aspen (they’d have been lost against the background foliage) and played with the framing until I was satisfied—vertical orientation, fairly tightly composed.

Exposure was straightforward in the soft overcast, and a neutral polarizer helped the color come through the leaves’ waxy sheen. Though I settled on the general framing pretty quickly, an intermittent breeze meant I still had some decisions to make. The breeze ranged from light to apparently nonexistent, but I increased my ISO to 400 to enable a faster shutter speed and prevent my camera from picking up micro-movement I couldn’t see. I timed my clicks for pauses in the breeze.

Though I don’t always catch compositional balance, relationship, and border problems immediately, after several click/evaluate/refine cycles I felt I had the composition nailed. But that was only the first step. I wanted the leaves sharp, with the receding trunks soft but recognizable. I don’t trust critical depth of field decisions made in camera, so when an important composition (one I really like) relies heavily on DOF and focus point, I always take a series of frames, bracketing my f-stop around the DOF I think is best. Sometimes I’ll range all the way from f2.8 to f22. In this case I tried frames ranging from f4 (my 70-200’s fastest aperture) to f16 (at f16 I increased my ISO to 800), in one-stop increments. Since I thought f8 would give me about the right combination of sharp foreground and soft background, I even took a couple of extra frames in 1/3 stop increments around f8. Back home on my large monitor I scrutinized each frame closely and ended up choosing this one at f7.1.

In Lightroom I warmed the image slightly to remove a blue cast on the white trunks. Because I intentionally underexposed the scene a little at capture (to ensure that I didn’t clip any of the red channel, where most of the yellow is), in Photoshop I dodged the trunks to remove the dinginess introduced by my underexposure. Otherwise my processing was pretty much standard stuff—a subtle wiggle in Curves to add contrast, Topaz noise reduction, and selective sharpening of everything in focus with Unsharp Mask.

I’m pretty happy with this image, probably happier with it than the attention it generates. But that’s okay because every time I look at it I remember how much fun I had out there in the woods that chilly autumn morning.

Photo Workshop Schedule

A gallery of my favorite nature images

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

Beware the “expert”

Gary Hart Photography: Mountain Moonlight, Mt. Whitney and Lone Pine Peak, Alabama Hills, California

Sierra Moonlight, Mt. Whitney and Lone Pine Peak, Alabama Hills, California
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
15 seconds
F/5.6
ISO 3200

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):

  • Centered subject
  • Centered horizon
  • Blown highlights
  • No detail in the shadows
  • Not sharp from front to back (this one really bothers me)

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….

Workshop schedule


A gallery of potential rejects

(Images that might not make the cut at a camera club competition)

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

Getting ahead of the shot

Gary Hart Photography: Dawn, Mono Lake and the Sierra Crest

Dawn, Mono Lake and the Sierra Crest 
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
8 seconds
F/10
ISO 100

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.

Join my next Eastern Sierra Fall Color photo workshop

A Mono Lake Gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

The best time of day

Sunrise Starburst, Mono Lake

Sunrise Starburst, Mono Lake
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
1/4 second
F/20
ISO 125

Imagine a world that’s so quiet you can hear nature’s every stirring, a place where each breath holds a pristine bouquet of subtle fragrances, and the sky is a continuously shifting kaleidoscope of indigo, blue, yellow, orange, and red. In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m describing the very world we live in, before the sun’s light and warmth draw out the dirty, noisy, oblivious masses.

As a nature photographer, I’m quite familiar with this world. And while I can’t say that I relish a 4:30 a.m. alarm, I’ve come to terms with its darkness, frigid temps, and sleep depravity. I also understand why most people despise early wake-ups, because that used to describe me. We’ve been conditioned by a lifetime of rising for school and work and completely bypassing early morning’s benefits as we rush to obligations, appointments, and responsibilities that are almost invariably less pleasant than staying in bed.

But if you haven’t learned to appreciate the joy of the pre-sunrise world, let me help you reset your bias with a few tips for making early mornings happen:

  • For the full experience, plan to be at your spot at least 45 minutes before the “official” (flat horizon at that latitude and longitude) sunrise for that location. The eastern horizon will already be brightening noticeably by then, but the stars will be visible. (This is for mid-latitude locations—twilight starts earlier in the high latitudes, later in the low latitudes.)
  • Get organized before you go to bed. Lay your clothes out, assemble your gear, make sure everything’s charged, and prime the coffee maker. You do all this so you can…
  • Set your alarm for the absolute minimum time necessary to get ready. Your resolve will be much stronger at bedtime than when it goes off—the less time you have to delay, less the chance that you’ll lose your resolve to the cozy warmth of your bed. This also gives you the maximum amount of sleep possible. And don’t forget, one of the best things about being up when no one else is up and it’s dark is that it really doesn’t matter how you look (so you don’t really need to spend a lot of time on personal hygiene).
  • Under no circumstances use the snooze button on your alarm. Rising early is like ripping off a Band-Aid—the sooner you get it over with, the happier you’ll be; the longer you drag it out, the harder it is. Trust me.

    Three Strikes, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon National Park

    The weather report called for clear skies and no chance of rain this morning. But the lightning was already firing when we walked out to Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Point in the dark, and it was still going when we finally ran out of compositions over two hours later.

  • Don’t be discouraged by the conditions at bedtime or wake-up. Some of my most memorable sunrises have happened on mornings I’d have skipped if I’d relied solely on weather reports, or on the way things look when I peek out the window after the alarm. Photography is just one of the benefits of being out before the sun. Even when the photography conditions don’t materialize as hoped, I rarely regret those mornings when I dragged myself out of bed to sit in the cold and dark. And for some reason, the most special stuff seems happen when I go out with the lowest expectations, driven solely by the attitude that I’m just going to enjoy this special time of day.

For example (the above image)

Getting to this remote location on Mono Lake’s north shore is always an adventure; getting there early enough before the sun can feel downright crazy. We depart an hour-and-a-half before sunrise, navigate a bone-jarring maze of unpaved roads that worsen with each mile, and drive until we can drive no further. From there the lake is still a half mile walk. Most of the hike is in volcanic sand, but the last couple hundred yards are through shoe-sucking mud; with no trail or light, it’s no wonder I never end up at the same spot from one year to the next.

Earlier this month my Eastern Sierra workshop group made the annual pilgrimage out here for our final sunrise. We’d been incredibly blessed with great conditions throughout the workshop—great sunrise and sunset color, nice clouds, and glassy reflections at Mono Lake’s South Tufa the day before (always a highlight when it happens). Our luck held as we got all three—color, clouds, and reflection—for this final sunrise.

Sunrise Starburst, Mono Lake

I started shooting in near darkness, with wide, east-facing compositions that included a thin slice of moon flanked by Venus, Jupiter, and Mars. My focus turned more south and west as the sun started to rise and paint the clouds with color. Soon the mountains in the west were bathed with warm light and I turned my attention there. The wind stayed calm, so every direction I shot, I was able to double the beauty with a reflection.

Watching the shadow slide down the mountains, I was able to anticipate the sun’s arrival at my position and turn back to the east just in time to make my sunstar composition. I used a trio of nearby rocks to anchor my foreground, removed my polarizer (I wanted a maximum reflection and didn’t want to worry about differential polarization at my wide focal length), extracted my 3-stop reverse graduated neutral density filter (Singh-Ray), and stopped down to f-20 to enhance the sunstar effect.

When the sun appeared I clicked a half-dozen or so images, each with a little bit brighter sunstar. I chose this one because it was a good balance between brilliant sunstar without washing out too much of the sky around it. Thanks to my GND and the ridiculous dynamic range of my a7R II, I got this scene with a single click. In Photoshop I dodged the top 2/3 of the sky and burned the water to disguise the GND effect, but did very little else.

Join me in the Eastern Sierra next year

The joys of sunrise

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

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