As a resident of Southern California, I spend most of my days under the brilliantly hot sun, and skies without a cloud in sight. These conditions are the bane of most photographers’ existence, but I’ve learned to take advantage of these times to do some of my most creative work. This past weekend I went out to the Alabama Hills and the surrounding area with another SoCal photographer Ben Glatt. The first morning we spent exploring some bizarre water eroded Basalt formations south of Owen’s Lake in an area called Fossil Falls. The formations reminded me of images I’ve seen from the Tepuis in Venezuela, only much smaller in scale. The ‘falls’ start suddenly – the desert wash gives way to a patio of basalt, which quickly drops off into a deep gorge of black rock – a popular destination for climbers. In the predawn light I discovered this lonely flower, a Sacred Datura (Solanaceae family), which had found a sheltered spot in one of the many potholes of the basalt maze. The Datura flowers at night, as it is pollinated by nocturnal creatures like hawk moths, so be being here in the early morning hours I was fortunate to catch it at full bloom. A perhaps more interesting fact about this flower is it’s strong hallucinogenic properties – make a tea from this plant and you’ll be seeing more visions than you would on peyote or LSD. Unfortunately, those visions can have a lasting impression on your day to day experiences, and it’s quite possible you’ll become permanently psychotic. Unless of course you have some Native American contacts who can tell you at what time of year and moon cycle you should pick the plants, and how to prepare them to minimize the highly toxic effects. If you managed to do that, you could be communicating with the birds, find your totem animal, and awaken supernormal perceptual states that you never knew existed.. but I leave you with words of caution. After all, I certainly didn’t taste it, and still managed to see some pretty weird stuff!
As the sun slowly crept up in the sky, and illuminated the mountains with a warm glow, I started thinking about the next scene. I had already imagined this one before arriving at the falls. I wanted a low key (dark) image, with just subtle tonal and color variations, but I knew there had to be a special touch to make it stand out. That special touch, as many photographers know, is a hint of light. I knew I’d only have a few minutes when that sun hit the basalt. By sheer luck the light first struck the most prominent feature in my favored predawn composition, adding the depth it needed.
While you won’t get a marvelous sunrise or sunset when there’s no clouds out, there are some things that are certain: the sun will rise, it will set, and the stars will come out. Less reliable things (depending on your preparedness) include the moon, and the degree to which the ‘earth shadow’ will be exciting. Occasionally you can get sufficient color in the sky simply from the dust in the air and the physics of light. But if it’s not your lucky day, you can still use the light to your advantage on exciting detail oriented images, using the low angle sun like a giant studio light (well, with less control). What happens after the sun has risen can be trickier. If you’re in a place like Utah, that’s when the fun begins – many of the narrow canyons are at their best at some point during the middle of the day. The best plan of attack is to have a plan set in place for sunny days like this, and know where you can find canyon like features which will come alive with reflected light. Another option is to use an umbrella or other method of creating shade, which will let you work on detail images throughout the heat of the day. Lastly, the middle of a sunny day is a fantastic time to go for hike, and explore to find new and exciting places you can return to when the light is right. For example, during the rest of the day, while exploring the Alabama Hills I found these rather sensual boulders. I returned at sunset to catch a brilliant sun star, adding plenty of drama without a cloud in sight (those insignificant puffs don’t count).
“Lady of the Sun” ~ Alabama Hills, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII, tripod, 3-stop reverse GND, fingers
Exposure 1: iso 100, f/22, 1/60th (with GND)
Exposure 2: iso 100, f/22, 1/20th (without GND)
Exposure 3: iso 100, f/22, 1/20th (with pinky finger)
Exposure 4: iso 100, f/22, 1/20th (with two fingers)
Processing: I used the first two exposures to control the extreme dynamic range, and the second two exposures to eliminate the horrible flare spots created by shooting directly into the sun.
The following day I needed to pass the time until about 3pm, when I wanted to photograph this composition I had stumbled upon the previous day, but this time under better light. To pass the time I continued exploring the area, and now have several more exciting places to photograph next time I come out here. At one point, on my way to check out the light around noon, I heard an owl hoot. In my countless years of camping I’ve heard many owls, found many feathers and pellets, but I’ve only seen a handful of actual owls. I’m not counting the owls that I knew about before hand, which account for my entire owl collection up until now. Well, I figured this was a good time to try my Great Horned Owl hoot – and he responded! And proceeded to fly out of hiding to check me out! I quickly grabbed my big lens (which I thankfully had with me), and scrambled up some (car sized) boulders. There he was, blending in with the stone in the reflected light, checking out what it was I was doing with such an odd contraption.
Great Horned Owl ~ Alabama Hills, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 500mm + 1.4x tc, monopod
Exposure: iso 800, f/8, 1/640th sec
Notes: Due to the extreme heat, and thus heat waves, I needed a fast exposure and smaller aperture to squeeze as much detail as possible out of this shot. Fortunately with the 5D2 using iso 800 is not a compromise in quality.
A few hours later I wriggled my way into the narrow slot I’d been waiting to shoot, and further proceeded to wedge myself 4 feet off the canyon floor. After some careful tuning of my tripod position, everything was just right.. except my foot was in the picture.. at this point I shifted my weight to one hand and some odd combination of wedged feet, and ankle and thigh forces, and got the disorienting image you see here. What treasure lies under those stones? I’m not sure, but I did find a Great Horned Owl feather in here!
“X Marks the Spot” ~ Alabama Hills, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII, tripod
Exposure: iso 200, f/22, 10 sec
Notes: In addition to the single f/22 exposure, I took a stack at f/16, which when I will at some point in the future use to get some better detail out of the image.
Well, I hope this was enough to convince you that even on a sunny day with nothing but blue skies you can not only enjoy nature, but you can even do exciting photography! So don’t let yourself be chained to the air conditioned comfort of your home or car.. this lady sure didn’t, or at least, she didn’t let it stop her!