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Trip to Sierras – Part 1

Mono Lake Tufas

As some of you may know, I took a trip to the Sierra Nevada mountains over the weekend for some photos (Lee Vining, CA to be exact). My girlfriend and I spent 3 days, 2 nights there and explored all around the area from Mono Lake into Yosemite National Park. The trip was so much fun and both of us are horribly "homesick" for the gorgeous scenery up there. We can't wait to go back.

I took so many pictures over the course of our trip that I decided to break them up into several different blog posts to share with you. This post covers our first afternoon there (View Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4).

Leaving So Cal at 7:00am paid off nicely as we were able to roll into town around 2:45. That left plenty of daylight to explore Lee Vining Creek just below our motel and then hit Mono Lake for sunset. Let me break up each one of these spots separately.

Lee Vining Creek is a gorgeous little creek that leads from the mountains down into Mono Lake. It's lined with birch trees (one of my favorites) that were just starting to turn color for the fall. I played with detail shots mostly on my first encounter with this creek - close shots of the leaves and white birch bark, the motion of the water, a nice swath of reflections off the water's surface. Really fun stuff.

Birch Trees

Birch Tree Leaves

Lee Vining Creek

Reflections in Lee Vining Creek

Reflections in Lee Vining Creek

After Lee Vining Creek, we headed out to Mono Lake for sunset.

Alright, let me be brutally honest about my experience at Mono Lake: I didn't really enjoy it. I visited the world-famous South Tufas where the landscape is unlike anything else on earth and it is really just begging to be photographed. And that's the problem - the place was filthy with photographers. Really, you couldn't move 10 feet without getting in someone's shot or someone else getting in yours. There was no semblance of quiet, definitely no sense of solitude and it just felt like there was a faint air of competition and defensiveness floating around over claiming a spot. It was the Disneyland on Memorial Day of landscape photography.

And on top of all that, I couldn't help but overhearing a conversation one photographer was having with a couple of visitors wherein he assured them that pretty much everything's done in the computer nowadays. It's all bracketing, HDR and Photoshop. I wanted to scream out "WRONG! Not ALL of us are incompetent with our cameras." Harsh, I know, but when I started hearing almost every other photographer around me firing off clicks of 3-5 shots, not using filters and with each shutter speed getting progressively longer (clearly doing the HDR technique), I wanted to round them all up and have a serious conversation about the dangers of HDR and to "just say no."

I need to go on a quick rant about that...Let me just say this: Your favorite pictures, the timeless ones from Galen Rowell, David Muench, Peter Lik and guys like that (not the flavor of the week on Flickr), WERE NOT DONE WITH HDR. They took the time to learn PHOTOGRAPHY, not Photoshop, learn how to use filters, learn proper field technique, learn manual exposure and actually take the time in the field, not at the computer, to get the shot right. If it worked for them, why are you trying to fix something that isn't broken? If you just enjoy the process of HDR and that's why you do it, fine. But don't say that's just how it's done nowadays and it results in a better shot (because it doesn't). Also, be accurate and start referring to yourself as a Photoshopper, not a photographer.

I know I probably sound like a horribly bitter, angry man, but I'm on a mission, dammit! I want to make a world of photographers, not Photoshoppers!

And don't get me wrong, I'm sure most everyone there was very nice and considerate. Also, I'm not anti-social. I like people and really like talking to other photographers. I just don't think of landscape photography as a team sport. I do this partly because of the experiences I get with the landscape - the solitude, the peacefulness, the feeling that you're doing something no one else is doing right at that moment. But here, it felt like work, it felt like competition.

Anyway, now that I've said my peace (for now) and painted a picture of what it was like, here are the shots. Despite the experience, I'm still pretty pleased with them - I just wish the sunset had been a little more colorful.

Mono Lake Tufas

Mono Lake Sunset

Mono Lake Sunset

Mono Lake Tufas

I ended up going back to Mono Lake at sunrise on our last day there to try and redeem this experience. I bushwhacked to a much more secluded spot in order to avoid the crowds and the experience went much, much better. More on that in a later post.

Until next time...

Horseshoe Bend

Well, I just got back from a vacation/photo trip to Lake Powell and Page, AZ with my beautiful girlfriend. It was a blast and, I'm not going to lie, I wish we were still there. But life and business must go on - as much as I'd like to go on vacation for a living.

On the day we arrived, there was a gorgeous double rainbow over the lake. It was so intense, all the way. I snapped some casual shots of it from the balcony of our hotel room. What a great way to start the trip...

Most of the trip was relaxation, jet skis, swimming and food, but I did manage to get out at sunset to Horseshoe Bend for some pictures. Fortunately, I picked the best sunset of the whole trip to get out there, so the clouds and light were fantastic. Lightning was flashing off in the distance on 3 sides of us, the clouds were dramatic, the hike was gorgeous and the company was even better. The only thing from the shoot that was a little weird was the European tourist who asked me to put his memory card in my camera, take a picture and give it back to him so he could have a copy. I hesitated at first, but then I thought, "Eh, what's he going to do? If he finds out some way to sell it, I'll just ask him for tips." His gasp upon reviewing the shot was reward enough.

I was a little worried about shooting Horseshoe Bend because the absolute best shot (right down the center to highlight the curve and symmetry) has been done a thousand times before. I thought it'd be difficult to get a unique shot. I did my best to switch it up a bit, but the classic shot is still the best I think. Here are my results. This first one is my favorite - I just can't get enough of those clouds and their reflections in the Colorado River!

I wish I could say I planned this, but I was lucky to find out this time of year places the sun exactly down the center of frame when it sets. That nice little starburst at the perfect spot made the shot, in my opinion:

After shooting the hell out of Horseshoe Bend, I turned my camera the other way for a different landscape. I used a slow shutter speed to blur the the clouds just a bit in order to highlight their motion:

And lastly, I tried my best to capture the lightning, but man is that hard! I think I'm getting a little better at it, but I really only get one chance a year to attempt it. That makes the learning curve quite slow. Here's all I got (click for a larger version):

There you have it! I hope you enjoyed the shots!

Joshua Tree National Park

Back on the 29th of March, I met a student out in Joshua Tree National Park for some 1-on-1 tutoring (Hey, Kim!). The hope was to capture some wildflower photographs but the bloom wasn't quite out just yet. There were some Desert Dandelions blooming along the side of the road, but nothing amazing. So instead, I led us out to Arch Rock and then the Cholla Cactus Gardens for some shots.

I wasn't jiving too well at Arch Rock, so I didn't bring anything home from it. The light was no good and I felt like I already got the best angles of it in a previous trip (you can see one of those shots here). But the Cholla Cactus Gardens turned out to be much more fun. I started out trying to capture the sheer denseness and expansiveness of this amazing wild garden by using my Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS to zoom into the landscape and get some pictures that highlighted the texture, shape, form and patterns of these cacti. I positioned myself so the sun would act as backlighting, giving the cacti a nice halo.

Then I put on my Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens to capture some more intimate, abstract views of these "Teddy Bear" cacti.

Then, when sunset rolled around, I switched to my wide-angle Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L and started working some more classic landscapes.


Click for a larger version of this panoramic

As I was doing some of these shots with my camera pointing southwest, I happened to glance over my shoulder towards the east to see the most stunning view of the full moon rising over the Colorado Desert. So, in a mad dash to beat the moon before it rose too high above the horizon, I called out to Kim to point her camera towards the moonrise, I switched out my lenses, framed up a quick composition and started firing away. The lesson here is never forget to look around when you're out in the field - sometimes the best shot is behind your back.

On our way out of the park, the full moon was shining so much light on the landscape that I just didn't feel right not stopping to get some nighttime shots. The following were taken at night under moonlight. You can see the constellation Orion if you look closely. The following shot was illuminated by nothing more than moonlight.

In this last shot, the rock formation in the background was illuminated solely by moonlight, but I "painted" the Joshua Tree in the foreground with a few sweeps of my LED headlamp throughout the 20-second exposure. I think it turned out quite well if I may say so myself!

Well there you have it. I hope you enjoy the pictures - I know it's a lot this time, but I just couldn't leave any more out! All in all, the trip was a blast and it was great taking my very talented student, Kim, out there to teach her a thing or two about shooting in this great park! Until next time...