An Alien World

I gravitate towards weird places. Mono lake is one of those places. So on my trip to the Eastern Sierra, I made sure to stop by there. In fact, I was incredibly lucky with the conditions I encountered. The story starts on christmas morning, when I awoke in my car (probably illegally parked) off the side of the road near the Owen’s river to find an inch or so of snow on the desert vegetation. I tried to find an interesting scene with these unique conditions, but it eluded me. Then I started my trek up north along highway 395 through the driving snow and winds towards mammoth to pick up my skis for an Avalanche Course through Sierra Mountain Guides (more on that later). After getting the skis I holed up in a cafe (fortunately it was open, most things were closed since it was christmas, and blizzarding! Even the ski lifts at mammoth were closed because of the winds!). Well, ‘noah’ said the storm was supposed to be clearing by Mono lake, so I decided to make a play for it, assuming it would make for a nice sunrise. Well, upon arriving about two hours before sunset I found myself making the first tracks through 4 inches of fresh powder under a clearing and dynamic sky, life couldn’t be better!

Photographing Mono lake is a lot like shooting a forest. It is a complex scene with lots of chaotic vertical components, and somehow you have to make sense of it all. I spent the whole evening in a small section of Tufas – the most pointy and vertical ones along the lake. As the sun slid behind the bank of clouds still hovering over the Sierras, I captured this bizarre scene.

“Alien Forest” ~ Tufas at Mono Lake, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm f/4 L @ 17mm, tripod, 2x 3-stop ND filters
Exposure: iso 50, f/16, 4 seconds
Notes: The ND filters were needed to create a long enough exposure to smooth out the lake’s surface to eliminate distracting and competing textures. This also created a nasty magenta cast, which prompted me to try a B&W conversion (I’m glad I did!).
Processing: This was an incredibly difficult conversion. The original didn’t have nearly this much contrast, but I felt it really brought out the strangeness of the place. I use a B&W conversions in photoshop, and about 12 contrast adjustment layers to selectively tweak the contrasts in various parts to pull apart the tones.

The entire area is volcanic, and there are a number of interesting cinder cone type volcanoes nearby (which I’ll explore further some other day). The lake is incredibly salty, and provides a unique and very productive ecosystem home to lots of birds and other creatures. If you ever pass by here in the summer I recommend going for a swim – it’s surprisingly difficult since you float so well that it’s hard to keep your arms and legs under the water to propel you forward! You’re better off just lying on your back and reading a book. You’ll be in dire need for a shower after though!

This fragile place was put in serious peril when L.A. started to divert water from the lake to quench the growing populations’ thirst. (Also of note is that L.A. county actually owns a large portion of the Owen’s River, notably the area where I photographed those birds from my last post). As Mono’s water level dropped, strange formations called Tufas emerged from the lake, and important bird nesting areas were made accessible to predation. Since the 1970’s significant efforts have been made to restore the water level, and it now rests about 10 meters below the recorded level from 1941 (likely where it will stay). In all honesty, however, I can’t complain too much, as it’s those Tufa’s that make the lake so interesting to me. They are formed exclusively under water, as springs rich in calcium bubble up into the carbonate rich lake water, forming a precipitate also known as limestone. Then as the water levels dropped, these alien towers were revealed.

Continuing from the previous image, I watched the skies as the clouds moved further east, leaving the frame of my original composition. After much searching, I found another composition I liked that included the incredible colors.

“Alien Skyscrapers” ~ Tufas at Mono Lake, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm f/4 L @ 21mm, tripod, 2-stop hard GND, 3-stop ND
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 3.2 seconds
Processing: I exposed twice, actually, once with the 2-stop GND and once without (same exposure). Then through an excruciatingly painful post processing session I corrected the GND line created by the filter. This involved going in at pixel level to fix the edges of the tufas.

The color lasted for quite some time, and I managed to shoot another composition (I rarely get more than one per sunrise/sunset).

“Snowy Seas” ~ Mono Lake, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm f/4 L @ 24mm, tripod, 2-stop hard GND, 3-stop ND
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 6 seconds
Processing: much less painful than the other two.

Satisfied with my captures from Mono, I headed to June Lake for dinner and to find a place to park my car for the night. Clear skies made for a cold night, and I needed my comforter, sleeping bag, and quilt to keep warm. All my water froze solid, and I even christened a spare container as my pee bottle (not only was it too cold to get out of the car, but I couldn’t exactly pee in the parking lot!). The next morning, with a lot of effort, I managed to break the frost holding the door shut, and made my way to the avalanche course meeting room. Unfortunately the heater was broken, so I didn’t get to warm up (they fixed it the next day). The course was 3 days, and we learned about avalanche terrain, unstable snow, and how to avoid such places (and how to recognize the human elements that are 95% or more of the cause of avalanches involving people), and how to rescue people using beacons, probes, and shovels. The short story is that any slope you would want to ski is avalanche terrain. Whether or not an avalanche is likely depends on the snow pack and weather history, as well as the presence of triggers – something to set off the avalanche. The reason I took the course is because I really want to get out into the Sierras in the winter to do some backcountry winter mountain photography, and would rather not be buried by snow. If you’re at all interested in learning about avalanches, snow, etc., I highly recommend the course I took.

This was a particularly interesting year to take the course, as the snow was incredibly unstable. Avalanches were happening all over the place – some skiers/snowboarders even died in bounds at various resorts like Squaw Valley, CA, and Snowbird, UT. At Mammoth they set off an avalanche with a 12 ft crown with artificial explosives (no one injured). That’s huge! The reason for all the sliding snow was that in november there was a storm where it rained up to 11,000 feet, creating a nice smooth and hard ice layer. In subsequent days small amounts of snow fell, and formed facets (little ice crystals) that act like ball bearings. Pile a few feet of compressed powder on that and you’ve got bricks of snow rolling on ball bearings on a layer of ice, no wonder everything was moving!

On my way out, I made a few stops before getting back home. The first was a location I picked out for the view of Mt. Tom, next to Bishop. The sunrise proved quite spectacular, but the clouds were everywhere except where I wanted them! Such is life. But they were so spectacular, that despite not liking silhouettes, or simple ‘picture of a cloud’ photos, I couldn’t help myself. These were the most sensual and serene clouds I’ve seen – the Sierra Wave it’s called, long drawn out lenticular clouds which often form over Owen’s valley due to the westerly winds and high peaks of the Sierras.

“Good Morning” ~ Owen’s Valley, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D, 70-200mm f/4 L @ 131mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 400, f/8, 13 seconds

And as the sun rose, it created beautiful soft pink light stretching across the snowy desert.

“Snowed In” ~ Owen’s Valley, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D, 70-200mm f/4 L @ 81mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 1/5th second

With the clear skies predicted throughout the area, I decided to make one more stop on my way home. I had this vision for the Badwater salt flats in Death Valley, and given the moon rise time (ie. no moon) and clear skies, I figured it was worth a try. Also, my parents were hanging out in the wash thereabouts, so it gave me a chance to bring them some oliebollen (yes, that’s an english wikipedia entry on a dutch new years delicacy!) from the dutch baker in Bishop. With compass and camera gear in hand, and warm clothes and some food and water in my pack, I found a nice spot, and started my intricate process of capturing star trails. Almost 3 hours later, I headed back to the wash where my parents had dinner waiting! In addition to snow, the great thing about winter is that even if you stay up for four hours after sunset, it’s still around dinner time). I’m considering submitting an article to various magazines about shooting star trails, as well as static stars (from a landscape photographers perspective), as there’s a lot that goes into one of these. In fact, I even had to invent a new processing and blending method to combine the 30 or so sequential images I took to remove all the gaps that occur if you use methods available on the web. If you’re interested in the details send me an email.

“Geometry of Motion” ~ Badwater Salt Flats, Death Valley NP, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D, 15mm Sigma fisheye lens, tripod, TC-80N3 remote (I use that for everything, but here it was specifically critical)
Exposure: iso 400, f/5.6, 5 minutes… thirty-two of ’em
Processing: complicated. Essentially the idea is to stack all the images in lighten mode in photoshop, which keeps the sky and foreground from the brightest (first) exposure, and the stars from all the subsequent ones come through. But this leaves you with gaps, so there’s some little tricks to fix those (the gaps are a result of the blending method, not the multiple exposures). Also, I corrected for the distortion from the fisheye to some extent.

The title references both the stars, of course, as well as the salt flats themselves. Those weird cracks and lines are the result of continuous change in the salt flats. Occasional rain brings life to the place, sometimes creating a shallow lake (and not long ago one deep enough you could kayak in for a short time!). As the water evaporates, new salt crystals form, and as they expand they create interesting lines and fractures, strangely hexagonal in nature, in the salt plains. After that, I headed back home to study for some exams. But have no fear, I already have a pile of images lined up for the next story!

5 Responses to An Alien World

  1. Mat Malone says:


    “Alien Skyscrapers” and “Geometry of Motion” are both awesome. That’s some wild light at Mono, and really interesting and useful tech info for the latter.

    I didn’t catch either of those on NPN, so I’m glad I added you to my Bloglines account 🙂


  2. jlibra says:


    Your photography is just beautiful. Otherworldly captures the natural beauty I’d love to engulf myself in.

    I definitely will be watching for future posts!

  3. Chrissy says:

    You have some of the most beautiful photos I’ve seen. I’ll be back looking for more photos 🙂

  4. Dave Taylor says:

    Really beautiful star trails image, very nicely done. I’d love to hear about your solution to the gaps in “post”.
    Again, beautiful image, masterfully done!

  5. Hi, I am an avid reader of your blog and love your work. I am interested to hear how you get rid of the gaps between different images of star trails. I love shooting startrails, but shooting one exposure for the whole trail does produce noise, and want to try shoot multiple exposures, but I get those gaps. Any help would be appreciated!

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