Spring has come and gone down here in the lowlands, and now it’s time for it to make it up to the High Sierra! This past week I had to be in Mammoth for research related activities (learning how to set up 3D high speed video systems to track hummingbirds). Conveniently, this lined up with two images I very much wanted to capture. On my way up I spent a night in the Bristlecone National Forest, taking in the sunset and sunrise from 11,300 feet. This place is simply incredible – a vast open and desolate landscape separating Nevada from the Owen’s Valley. To the East you see nothing.. just flatness, to the East, the 12,000+ foot peaks of the snow covered Sierra loom over the desert valley below. On my drive up I got my first flat in my car, but fortunately half an hour later I was back on track, and managed to catch the sunset at a tree I had scouted out two years ago. It was good to be back.
“Guardian Angel” ~ Bristlecone National Forest, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 1/8th sec
Processing: This was deceptively simple – no need for multiple exposures or grad filters, despite shooting into the sunset. Using ACR’s fill light, and some curves layers with selective color masks on the blue sky to darken those areas I was able to control all the light.
It seems that nearly every image I have seen from here always focuses on the Bristlecones themselves, and with good reason – they are really incredible! There’s a personality about them that is truly expressive, and can be down right spooky. Here’s an old favorite from my 2007 trip that I recently reprocessed, I hope you don’t get any nightmares!
Anyways, on that 2007 trip I found a viewpoint that would let me capture the true essence of this desolate place littered with tortured and dying trees: a sort of Pompeii of trees. Fortunately for them, they’ve at least got an incredible view, that of the Sierra Nevada. As the sun rose, the twisted trees turned blood red, further accentuating feeling of tortured death. To be fair, there are still some living trees up here, but I did my best to pick a spot where there’s hardly any (count ’em: 4).
“The Graveyard” ~ Bristlecone National Forest, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 500mm f/4, tripod + sidekick
Exposure: iso 100, f/18, 0.8 sec
Notes: This was shot as a panorama of 6 vertical images, and stitched using PTGui. You’ll want to view this one big! (click on it). The detail in this is stunning, as you can see the individual stones on the ground of that slope, probably about half a mile away! Of course for the complete effect you’ll have to clear out some space over your sofa and order a 20x40in print 🙂
A subtle point regarding this image is that I took it on the sunrise following the summer solstice – that means the sun was at it’s most northerly point in the sky that it will ever reach. This was important because most of the trees on that slope are actually close to the north face, so to catch them with the prime light this was the perfect time. It was also early enough in the year to catch the Sierras with plenty of snow (thanks to a good snow year!). The soft delicate pink light only lasted a few minutes – after that the sun had risen enough that it was already scorching this high desert. Time to head to the hummingbirds! After two days of ‘work’, I headed off for my next adventure, this time with friend and photographer Steve Sieren. I’ve been anticipating this trip for almost a year now – I wanted to catch the most dramatic peaks of the High Sierra, reflected in a still half frozen lake. The destination? Minaret Lake. With a stunning view of Clyde and the other Peaks of the Minarets this place looks like it’s right out of a Lord of the Rings fairytale. I had done my research, and this seemed like the ideal time to go, though when I picked up the permits the ranger said everything up there would be covered in snow still.. fortunately, I did not believe her. After an 8 mile hike Steve and I arrived at the perfectly half frozen Minaret Lake. This is a rare sight for a lake like this, and in its best state only lasts a week or so at most. That evening raging storm clouds formed over Mammoth, while we were still enjoying clear blue skies. There were even some special mammatus clouds that lit up like fire. There weren’t any great compositions looking that way, but you might recall I had a similar experience in Death Valley early this year. Right at sunset, however, the clouds approached our lake, and we were treated to an incredible display of oranges, pinks and reds. Meanwhile the few day old crescent moon was slowly descending in the sky. It wasn’t, however, until about 30 minutes after sunset that for me the real magic happened. Clouds in the Sierra are rare (at least, at sunset/sunrise!); clouds, lake ice, and uncannily positioned crescent moons are a thing of dreams. In this case, my dream was manifested in reality, I hope it speaks to you as it does to me.
“Kiss the Moon” ~ Minaret Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII, tripod, 2-stop hard GND
Exposure: iso 800, f/14, 6 sec
Processing: I took an additional exposure 2 stops longer to bring in better detail to the mountains without an increase in noise.
Notes: View this one big! (click on it, and turn out the lights for maximum experience)
That night the temperatures dropped under freezing, aligning billions of little water molecules into delicate icy structures, eagerly awaiting to be discovered the following morning. The clouds had completely disappeared, and as the sun cast it’s warm orange glow on the Minarets I decided focus on the icy abstracts at my feet. The snow had hardened quite a bit overnight as well; fortunately I had my crampons to let me get to the edge of the ice safely. What you see here is a section of frozen, thawed, and refrozen ice, catching bubbles and forming ice crystals that jutted out of the smooth surface. From just the right angle, these crystals caught the dawn glow of the Minarets, creating a truly surreal abstract.
“Ice Flambé” ~ Minaret Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 70-200mm f/4, tripod
Exposure: iso 200, f/16, 1/8th
Processing: I took 5 exposures at different focus settings, and blended the exposures using Helicon Focus for maximum depth of field.
Notes: Definitely need to see this one big! (click on it)
That day I spent scouting around the lake for possible sunset and sunrise locations, and of course just enjoying the incredible mountain scenery. It was a truly refreshing place to be, frozen lakes, peaks that probably are a home to Dragons, and best of all, nearly completely devoid of people! I climbed up to Cecil Lake, off trail and above Minaret Lake to find it nearly completely frozen. The bowl the lake is in was covered in snow, and the 45 degree slopes were a bit much for me and my ice axe without worrying about going for a chilly swim. I’m sure I’ll be back, probably sooner rather than later! While the lake was still experiencing half winter, in the thawed out meadows around the lake spring has sprung. One of the most photogenic plants in the area are Corn Lilies, which when you catch them before the sun and insects wreak havoc on the fresh green textures, are pure photographic delight. The mosquitoes detracted a bit from the Zen like garden experience, but you probably aren’t being sucked dry of blood right now, so it’ll be a more pleasant experience for you!
That evening faint clouds appeared and turned a soft pink, however, I wasn’t quite satisfied with where they appeared or the quality of light they produced. The following sunrise I returned to a spot I found the previous day, and about 15 minutes before sunrise (~5:15am) there must have been some incredible stuff happening out in the Eastern skies, because the Minarets turned a soft reddish magenta.
I hope you enjoyed this taste of the mountains, and I hope to be able to share some more with you from future trips this summer!