Saturday, December 20, 2008

Circling the Sierra Nevada: Yosemite Valley


Valley View

Friday, December 19, 2008

Circling the Sierra: Fossil Falls

A few miles south of Owens Lake, the BLM site of Fossil Falls is worth the short hike.

The historic but now-dry riverbed of the Owens River, Fossil Falls is where the river cut through a lava bed in a series of cascades. All that remains now is a shot slot canyon featuring a series of intricate shapes cut in the lava.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Circling the Sierra Nevada: Alabama Hills

Circling the Sierra Nevada: Death Valley's Mahogany Flat

The charcoal kilns up near Mahogany Flat are interesting at night... another great candidate for star trails and/or light painting, but COLD at nearly 8000 feet, probably snowed in by January. It's a looonnng drive from the valley on small, tight roads. On the way there, the road to the ghost town of Skidoo has some interesting mine ruins, haven't explored them yet or been all the way out to the town site yet though. By early December in this late Winter the gravel road to the cmpground at Mahogany Flat at 8200' had snow and ice and was dicey in an AWD minivan, particularly on the descent.

Circling the Sierra Nevada: 280 Feet Below Sea Level

Camping nearby at the Furnace Creek campground in Death Valley National Park, dawn on this day would be at the Badwater salt flats. These polygons of salt are found in this usually dry lakebed at an elevation of 280 feet below sea level.

The salt flats at Death Valley's badwater have been worn smooth by thousands of feet. These are actually small patterns, no more than a few inches across each. I had the camera low and used a wide angle lense to emphasize the foreground. The two tiny dots you see further down this path are people, and they're not really all that far away, they just don't show up much on the wide angle.

I shot this monolith of lava from at least four other positions before it became clear to me that placing the sun directly behind it would help it achieve the appropriate degree of drama.

Circling the Sierra Nevada: The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park

The Racetrack is one of the most amazing places in Death Valley. Both dawn and dusk can be good, and I still want to return to get star trails. It gets very cold quickly at nightfall this time of year, no doubt even colder at dawn. It's high enough to easily get below freezing (that's apparently how the rocks move, embedded in thick floating ice). The drive out can be completed at a fast pace in about an hour on heavy washboard gravel from Ubehebe Crater (where the paved road ends), about 90 minutes from Scotty's Castle, but it may be wise to take up to 2 hours for that last 29 miles. The paved road from Scotty's Castle to Stovepipe Wells is another hour.

You can't camp near The Racetrack, but you may be able to find a turnout up near Teakettle Junction. With the sun setting behind nearby mountains by 4pm or so, arrive by 2 so you can walk a mile or so to the moving rocks (far Southwest corner of the playa) and find the rocks and shooting angles you'll want to catch as the light gets good.

If you have a GPS unit and may be out until sunset, mark your car position so you can find your way back after dark. There may be some water to get around near the parking lot as well. The playa is closed if it's wet and muddy; the visitor center (or a site like DesertUSA) may have details on recent conditions to spare you a long, fruitless drive.

I've punctured a tire on 50% of my visits to The Racetrack (and I've had off-road SUV tires disintegrate on other washboard roads), and the Park Service recommends 4WD, high clearance, two spares and plenty of survival supplies. I've lost 5 or 6 tires to gravel roads over the past 3 years. I've simply been lucky not to get two at once. I carry two cans of Fix-a-Flat in case a puncture is small enough, but it the failure is rarely that small or simple on those roads, and sometimes those cans have gone bad and don't work (carry 2 different brands), perhaps due to the occasional heat of desert travel conditions (particularly in your locked car at a trailhead, even when the outside conditions aren't that hot).

The road to the Racetrack was in relatively good shape when I visited at the beginning of December... still crappy with very deep washboad that rattles your vehicle at any speed, but the additional baseball-sized rocks that pummelled my SUV last year had been graded to the side. The road from Ubehebe Crater to Eureka Dunes was also in better shape than on past trips, though still an hour or more of punishing rattling, and still rated by the Park Service as poorly as the road out to the Racetrack. Road conditions can change dramatically with one storm, so who knows what they're like now.

I don't yet have dates nailed down to offer a Death Valley workshop this year, but if you're interested in going, contact me and we can probably work something out. At a minimum, I'd like to visit again in March when wildflowers will add color to the park's incredible landscapes. Most photography tours to Death Valley don't visit the Eureka Dunes or The Racetrack, arguably the two best sites in the park. I can't imagine visiting the park without them!

Circling the Sierra Nevada: Death Valley's Eureka Dunes

Our dawn shot on this day would be on the Eureka Dunes, onbe of my favorite places to shoot in Death Valley National Park. The shots are far more compelling if you hike up in the dunes, preferably to the top. Even better if you hike with someone and have a subject to shoot, and they can shoot you as well. The surface is actually quite hard, not like beach dunes at all, so wear solid hiking boots that you can occasionally use to kick a foothold into a steep, firm surface. We took 4-5 hours to do the hike including plenty of time for photography. We started hiking with headlamps before the theoretical (level horizon) sunrise time of 6:45 or so, and got to the top of the dunes just after the sun cleared the mountains (about 9?). Ideally I'd want to have 2 mornings here. This time of year the occasional rains and wind can keep the dunes pretty well clean of hiker tracks, enhancing the photographic opportunities.

Less than 30 seconds after I took this picture a jet from China Lake Naval Air Station came screaming around the dunes, on his side in a hard turn, at only a slightly higher elevation than I was standing (about 200-300 feet off the valley floor). I had turned off the camera, so I only caught him departing without much of the dunes in the shot. It would have been great to catch him, close and large, in this image!

Wind moves sand from eroded mountains surrounding the Eureka Valley in Death Valley National Park, piling it up into the Eureka Dunes. Sometimes in the shifting winds the grains sort themselves out by density, creating patterns of dark and light.

Approaching the top of the 700-800 foot tall dunes. Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado may have duens that cover a larger area, but Eureka Dunes rivals Great Sand Dunes in height. Even the National Park Service does not highlight this dune field however, no doubt due to its remote location and the 4WD/high clearance recommendation on its access roads.

On a previous visit I tried driving behind the dunes in my SUV and nearly got stuck, crossing several pits where others had gotten bogged down in the sand and had scattered sticks and rocks in an attempt to get some traction. I turned back as soon as it was practical, stopping along the way to pull out a rear wheel drive pickup that had sunk up to its axle in sand.

I think the dunes make a great backdrop for outdoor portraits. Sometimes fill flash can be helpful if you're close to the subject, but at others you may be able to get some fill light coming off of the sunlit dune faces.

I don't yet have dates nailed down to offer a Death Valley workshop this year, but if you're interested in going, contact me and we can probably work something out. At a minimum, I'd like to visit again in March when wildflowers will add color to the park's incredible landscapes. Most photography tours to Death Valley don't visit the Eureka Dunes or The Racetrack, arguably the two best sites in the park. I can't imagine visiting the park without them!

Circling the Sierra Nevada: Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

From a brisk Mono Lake dawn shoot we went for coffee and lunch in Mammoth Lakes. From there the in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest seemed like the next best sunset spot. When we arrived the going was a bit iffy in unplowed snow with fewer and fewer prior tire tracks in it the further we went, but we reached some of the better trees just as the light from the sun setting over the Sierra Nevada was getting really good.

This is the way to shoot Winter photos... with a heater on your toes!

This is close to where the road got too steep and shady, with deeper snow. I had been dragging the undercarriage of my AWD minivan on the center berm of snow left by a couple of previous pickup trucks already. I had already been through a couple of interesting I have no brakes moments on snow-covered descents when the anti-locck system kicked in, so the prospect of trying to also plow snow uphill though wind-blown snow drifts in low traction conditions didn't seem like a very wise move. I miss my SUV.

It's amazing to me that bristlecone pines not only live over 4500 years, but they do so in harsh conditions at 10,000 to 12,000 feet. After one Winter of wind-driven ice storms I'd be lobbying hard to get transplanted to a nice Bonsai garden someplace warmer!

It's fascinating to see a scrap of living tree, huddled downwind of its own gnarled carcass. It seems like a strange recipe for outliving every other living thing on the planet.

You can join me to visit the bristlecone pines June 3-6, 2009. We'll catch the full moon rise at Mono Lake and pursue other stunning images in exotic Eastern Sierra landscapes, with classroom sessions on photographic technique and digital imaging postprocessing. I'll also be offering an optional extension into Yosemite National Park on Sunday, June 7. For more information:

I'll also offer a Fall Colors tour of the Eastern Sierra in October (dates TBD). Contact me for details or to get on my announcement list for future workshops.

Circling the Sierra Nevada: Mono Lake

After a too-late start from the Sacramento area Mono Lake was a convenient place to camp that would place us very well for sunrise shots. I decided to revisit a grove of limestone tufa formations that gets very few visitors. It's such a pain to access that it's not even marked on most maps!

After the sunrise shots we explored some abandoned buildings, including one that has rolled down a hill and lost its roof, providing some interesting through-the-rafters shots.

Circling the Sierra Nevada: Topaz Lake

A complete loop of the Sierra Nevada Range is most practical only from late June through mid October when there's a reasonable certainty that many of the high apsse will be open. That timeframe also increases the odds that you may visit scenic sites such as the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, much of which lies at 10,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation.

I departed from the Sierra Foothills town of Auburn (near Sacramento) in early afternoon, determined to get as far towards the Mono Lake area as I could by sunset. I made it over Luther Pass, then Monitor Pass, then the light started getting really nice as I descended near Slinkard Valley. The light was complemented by a solid dusting of snow on the surrounding peaks and hillsides. I stopped for a few photos.

The light was even better as I approached the intersection with highway 395 a few minutes later. There was some color starting to come out in the broken clouds. With Topaz Lake only a mile or two North, I turned in that direction.

My 24-105mm lens was more than wide enough for the open landscape and distant details, but the most intense sky color was closer to the skyline so I shot a few images at close to full zoom.

The light was changing quickly so I didn't bother with a tripod. I shot handheld with the camera braced against a highway reflector or fencepost, using Automatic Exposure Bracketing to get 3 different exposures for each image.

To process the 3 exposures I simply read the 3 RAW files into Photomatix (HDR software), adjust a few settings (maybe 10 minutes exploring the various tradeoffs), then save a TIF file that takes a quick trip through Lightroom then Photoshop for minor tweaks (more often than not I like the auto contrast feature in PS), save a high resolution copy, resize smaller, sharpen, save a small version for online use, done!