There is only one main thought that goes through my mind during these trips, and that is photography. I’m not very concerned about where the next meal will be (I have meals with me), or where I will stay each night since I’m driving in my hotel/camp site. This frees me from any concerns outside photography and keeps me focused on traveling to or scouting locations and just thinking of things to put in front of the camera. As the trip progresses, it becomes easier to leave the “normal” life you had with each passing day and function as a fully independent entity whose purpose is strictly in search of natural beauty and other things you may encounter that intrigue you enough to break from the original purpose. Since the main focus is the landscape, many times those “other things” I photograph are flowers, and this year was no different. I came across one specific type throughout northern California that I had never previously encountered and found out they were called Naked Ladies, an unusual plant that seems to shed its leaves as the flowers bloom, leaving only a single maroon stem and a beautiful, pink flower. They were in many locations, but they seemed to be in cemeteries especially, and I spent some time in a few with some very old headstones. I suppose clear skies helped pave the way for that as the prospect of a good sunrise was minimal with those conditions, and the west coast is more aligned for sunsets. It was at Point Arena where the flowers originally brought me into a cemetery, but it was this particular gravesite that really struck me, overgrown with grasses, and faded plastic flowers rather than the living Naked Ladies that adorned many of the others. The words our daughter really brought home the grief of parents at the loss of a child.
Another of the “non-negotiable” places on my list to visit was, after some research to find its location, along the south/east shore of Lake Tahoe. Bonsai Rock was in a small cove that was supposedly easily accessed, but not able to be seen from the highway. I found exactly how far it was from a landmark, to the tenth of a mile, and thought it might be easy to find, and gave myself a lot of extra time to get there by sunset. However, single lane construction made it impossible to even attempt to locate it after several tries, so I ended up spending the late afternoon at Sand Harbor State Park, just to the north. After running around the small park searching for a good location, the sun was getting ready to drop behind the Sierras to the west and I had to settle on this tiny cove before it set completely. As seen in the RAW image at the top, it was pretty windy, with choppy waters and another blank sky, and to make matters worse, some smoke from the wildfires north of San Francisco created a haze that dulled the intensity of the sunlight, although it did add a bit of color (see the top right corner). It was, simply put, a very uninspiring afternoon. For the photograph, to stop the movement of the trees from the wind near the top left corner, I needed a high (for me) shutter speed, but that ended up also freezing the motion of the water, and an uninspiring image was the result of that attempt.
I really wanted to have some motion in the water, so I brought out the 10-stop ND filter to necessitate a longer (30-seconds) shutter speed. The RAW image seen here was the result of that attempt; but the trees and bushes were nothing but blurs. Another uninspiring image with additional flaws. By then the sun was drifting behind the mountains and there wasn’t much else to do there. I cursed the construction that blocked my attempts at getting to the bonsai rock, but thought that maybe the two images could be combined when I got home in Photoshop by replacing the blurred trees from the longer exposure with the sharper ones from the shorter exposure. A simple use of layers and “erasing” the blurred trees of the top layer in the inverted (black, Command-I on a Mac) layer mask with the brush tool (using white as foreground color), revealed the sharp trees from the image on the layer below. After some post processing in Lightroom, it was still not a super shot, but the result was much better than either image alone. Something to keep in mind even when the scene is spectacular.
As is the usual case, the first go round of processing is followed by a second round where images that did not seem to hold much promise, ultimately revealed something that at least brought back memories of the day. As mentioned earlier, the main point of this trip was to see the ocean and sea stacks along California’s northern coast, so in going through the files again, I wanted to give each sunset a bit more effort to produce something that gave some idea of that particular evening’s location. Since I bought some boots at Walmart early on, each time I wore them to avoid getting my feet wet was a complete and utter failure. It just seems that the waves along the west coast are a bit different from the Atlantic in that all the waves seem to have the same force, except for an occasional one that carries much greater force than the others, traveling much further up the beach. And at least once each evening, one managed to climb over the top of the boots. It wasn’t that there weren’t any other rogue waves, but for many of those, I grabbed the tripod and managed to out race it. But for the marginally big waves when I stayed in place, I paid the price. But it was a small price to pay since it only involved drying my feet afterward, a dry pair of socks and a change of pants. At least my shoes stayed dry in the car.
Little Corona Beach is part of the larger Corona del Mar, which is where I visited with Denis, the photographer I met on the month-long trip in 2014. This was his home turf, and he knew the area well, well enough that he didn’t even bring his camera because of the lack of clouds and that he had already gotten some unbelievable shots from here. But I clicked away as we dodged all the other folks that were there, either just playing in the water, or the several family and engagement photo shoots going on. The main effort was to keep the shutter speed long enough to blur the surf as it came in and drained to the other side of the big rock. It was interesting there because, depending on the wave action, the water flowed left to right or right to left! Since this was not the usual remote area void of civilization as most other locations on the trip were, I had to clone out a speeding boat that crept into the frame while the shutter was open, and while I was at it, a buoy that I hadn’t noticed in the heat of shooting. Why is it that when taking a slew of photos in order to capture the best wave action, it never fails that something happens to mar, just a little, the image that is judged the “best of the lot”?
One of the amazing sights that the clear skies afforded, was the first rays of sunlight hitting the peaks of the Eastern Sierra. The color was amazing, and it was first witnessed from Schwabcher’s Landing on last year’s trip to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. To see that post, Click Here. I had hoped to see the same light at Crater Lake or Lassen, but it didn’t happen because of the storm at Crater Lake and smoke from the wildfires near San Francisco being the reason for Lassen. But along the eastern Sierra, the smoke had cleared and I had two opportunities to see that magical light again. The first was outside Bishop where I found a solitary rabbitbrush in bloom against a boulder with the light beginning to hit the peaks. The other was in the Alabama Hills just west of Lone Pine where the light hit Mount Owens and Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States. To get a large swath of the range into the frame, I shot a panorama with a 70-200mm zoom set at 70mm to capture the scene with the proper perspective, while also increasing the resolution that several frames stitched together provide. I’m sorry I didn’t have more time to spend there to explore the various canyons that lead into this beautiful mountain range, but I certainly had plenty of time to explore the whole state, if even in a way that only scratched the surface and season.
I have always been attracted to the designs in nature and many times those designs are in the form of abstracts that can test the viewer’s imagination and ability to determine the actual subject. One particular abstract during the trip stands out in my mind as being memorable in the design, color and unique location and how much my knees ached afterward from crouching within the interior of a redwood tree in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. I had seen many charred trees in Sequoia and other parks in the north, but since this one was almost completely enclosed with only a small opening through which to crawl, it was a very different experience in photographing it. There were many spots within the vast interior that were interesting, so I spent a long time inside this tree changing compositions. But it was the directional light from above that really made the images three-dimensional, and the long exposures (30-seconds) really allowed the color to burn into the sensor. It reminded me of some of the very long exposures I took that seemed to be etched onto film back when film was the only option.
But there was one particular abstract that I wanted to revisit after having photographed it over 30 years ago. It was the roots of a fallen sequoia that had such a wild design it intrigued me even then and was probably one of the very first abstracts I’d ever taken that was dubbed an “art photo” by one of the first to view it. I had no problem finding it on the park map and made sure I photographed it before moving on to Yosemite, but it seemed that while the design still remained, much of the color had been bleached out during the intervening years by the weather, so it was a bit of a disappointment.
Many times, especially when faced with an empty sky that was the recurring theme on this trip, the tendency is to minimize that area and emphasize the land within the image. But it is the simple, graphic nature of a scene when a large portion of the frame includes the sky, that can make it striking, and losing a sense of scale, can increase the awareness of the vast expanse contained within the scene. I opted for a different view of Mono Lake far from the famous tufa columns that I’ve visited on previous occasions, but never with such a flat, reflecting water surface. There were many similar images taken of Mono Lake (above) that evening, as the ripples from gentle breezes continually changed shape and location; this arrangement of them seemed to form a path which the viewer’s eye can pass through. And the same holds true for the image below. The winding stretch of water is the path to travel to reach further into the scene. But if a small element can be included that defines the scale, as with the swimming duck and flying bird below, then that sense of scale can be brought back into the image.
I saw this scene while driving along the highway, I jammed on the brakes, sending a lot of things sliding through the car, and when I backed up along the shoulder, I was again watched over by just missing a steady wire for one of the power line poles that ran parallel to the road. It would have caused considerable damage to the car and could have been a disaster. But as I set up for this shot and clicked off a few shots for proper exposure, I noticed this duck swimming toward my location way off to the left, outside the frame. I quickly shifted to a higher ISO in order to freeze the motion a bit, but never saw the flying bird until the file was on the computer screen in a much larger size than the back of the camera. I’m still conflicted as to whether it should remain in or cloned out since it may compete with the swimmer. Incidentally, the haze was the result of the horrific wildfires north of the San Francisco area, over 200 miles away! Something that hung around for several days, even obscuring the opposite side of Lake Tahoe.
Although there have been continued complaints on my part about the clear, cloudless skies for most of the trip, those same skies allowed for star or moon lit night photography that, of course wreaked havoc on sleep patterns, and at times, perpetuated picture-taking almost around the clock. In fact, during one night, I took Milky Way shots at Yosemite’s Olmsted Point before the moon rose, and then returned a few hours later to do some moonlight photos before it began to get light out…which, of course was followed by sunrise photos and then travel to another destination. While most times when I photograph, I prefer to be alone, nighttime in remote areas can be a bit disconcerting and the preference would be to have others, or at least one other along. But I’ve found that once you are immersed in the photography, you do lose that sense of being alone, a little. Though occasionally, there are times when the hair raises up on your neck and you think, hopefully wrongly, that you are not alone.
The image above is actually a moonlit three-panel, vertical panorama in order to include the long line of the intrusion in the granite without using a vertical orientation which would have required a much smaller aperture to keep everything in focus because the camera position would have had to be close to the ground. But because of the bright moonlight, I was able to keep the camera at eye level using a 17mm at f/3.5 to keep most of the foreground in focus, and using a lower ISO (1600 rather than 6400), reduce any noise in the sky produced by the 25-second exposure. The panels had to be manually stitched together though, because for some reason, the software was unable to do so. But it turned out not to be very difficult.
Although there was quite an extensive list of things to photograph during the trip, there were a few particular places that were “non-negotiable,” meaning that whatever it took, I would make every effort to see and photograph that particular item on the list. One of those was the Painted Dunes, part of Lassen Volcanic National Park. But it took quite a bit of research to find their location, how to get there, when to be there (morning or afternoon), and what it would take to view them. As is usually the case, I work backward from when I want to be at a particular place to photograph it, and found that these dunes skirt a cinder cone far removed from the main part of the park. About 11 miles from the north entrance and another 6-7 miles down a dirt road to Butte Lake where the trailhead began for the 1.3 mile hike to the base of the cinder cone. It was my belief that walking on the actual dunes themselves was pretty much frowned upon since there were many signs around telling hikers to remain on the trails in the area, and of course, hiker prints would certainly ruin the beauty of the place for everyone who followed. So, in order to really view these beautiful dunes, climbing up the cinder cone was necessary. If you have ever tried to walk up a sand dune by the ocean, it is rather difficult to get anywhere as it is always 1 step forward and 2/3 step back. But this “sand dune” was 900-feet tall with a relentless incline of what seemed like at least 45º. Needless to say I was exhausted before I was less than 1/4 of the way up to the top. But I started early enough that there was no pressure in missing the late day sunlight as long as I slowly continued to make my way up to the top carrying all my camera gear, tripod, water, snacks and a few items of clothing to stay warm after reaching the top soaked in sweat and after the sun went down later. After arriving at the top, I had to hike to the other side of the rim to view them and finally take some time to relax and recoup from the trek up the side of this thing.
One of the biggest pushes in taking this trip was to see the northern coast of California and photograph the sea stacks and ocean at sunset along that beautiful stretch of our country. I planned for almost half the trip to be there and it was unfortunate that through most of that time, there were at most, wispy clouds as they were at Portuguese Beach one afternoon, and almost always at higher tides which either submerged some of the rocks or made getting close to them a bit dangerous considering the rough surf, much of which was caused by the very strong winds. Since the weather was clear, I made attempts every afternoon and even some mornings to try to record something but had to rethink what was possible outside my preconceived visions and probably stretched my envelope in the process.
At Point Arena, with the lighthouse area gated for the day, the sun going down in the wrong location, and another evening of no clouds, I grabbed my 10-stop neutral density filter to attempt a few very long (4-minutes) exposures, to completely blur the strong surf along the rocky coastline there. Since the exposures were so long, there would only be time for just a few attempts to get the desired image knowing that it may still yield nothing because of the bald sky. Luckily, the beautiful colors of dusk were burned into the image with the long exposure and produced something a bit different, although probably too much blur in the surf. I ended up staying there afterward, boiling some water for another Ramen meal and a quiet night’s sleep.
At Blue Beach, or Chadbourne Gulch, I was looking for a sea stack with an arch and found it about 1/2-mile north of the parking area, but the sky was completely blank again, and the arch faced away from where the sun was setting. It may have been much better toward the end of the year when the sun set much further south. Luckily, there were some other rocks that were nearby to frame the glowing streaks as the sun dropped below the horizon; again, different from the preconceived image.
El Matador Beach, just north of LA on the last shooting day of the trip, offered the opportunity for a possible sunrise over the Pacific, but was still just too far north for a “looking into the sunrise” shot. But it did offer an opportunity to look in the opposite direction and climbing above the sea stacks to see their shadows. There were a few extraneous people (after all, this is LA) that needed to be eliminated from the scene, but their footprints were too plentiful to do so and still appear natural, and so remained in the final image. But you try to take what is given at any given moment.
Sometimes we have to put what we have in mind aside in order to see what is possible rather than what we want, and in doing so, we may try a bit harder to make the elements in front of us work for us instead of interfering with what we originally had in mind to take away from that location.
During the course of the trip, there were many times that HDR was utilized because of the wide range of light values residing within the frame. Often that wide range could be handled with either one or two split neutral density filters, generally when there was a definitive separation between two light values. But when those varied light values are spread throughout the frame, HDR becomes necessary. In the image at the top, the bright sky and even brighter sunlit peaks and their reflections conflicted with the dark light values deep down by the Merced River flowing through Yosemite Valley. A soft edged split ND filter was used at the top to bring the bright and dark light values closer together, but HDR was still used to get more information in the grasses and trees in the shade. It seemed to help quite a bit in this instance, but when I took a similar shot looking in the opposite direction with the same type of scene, it did not come out as well.