Recon at Carson Pass, CA

Recon at Carson Pass, CA

Reflections and fractures. A focus-stacked image looking north across Frog Lake, Carson Pass, CA. 1/80 sec, f/9, ISO 100, 24mm.

The smoke had cleared a bit at StoneHeart, so it was time to see how things were at the altitude of Carson Pass. I did not expect a compelling golden-hour sky this morning, but I have been wanting a spot that would provide some scenic backdrops, with relatively quick access from home. A place I could get to know and then hike into quickly when conditions present themselves. Frog Lake, less than a half-mile south of the Pacific Crest Trail trailhead at Carson Lake, is a good candidate. I was out the door at 4:30 AM for the hour drive and even shorter hike.

Access to the Winnemucca Lake trail, traversing below Round Top Mountain, is very easy. The trail was quiet and the light was growing. A few clouds beyond the smoke made for a pretty sunrise, but the lake was my focus. I circumnavigated the small, mirror-like pool. Frog Lake is perfect. I now have a location for any dramatic storm days or seductive sunsets. There are expansive scenes to the north — Hope Valley to Freel Peak, and south — Round Top and its eastern ridge. Frog Lake could be a prominent mirror or frothy foreground. I can’t wait to give it a chance.

But I can’t walk away without a couple images. I focused on developing some foreground interest with the lake reflecting some of the sparse pines and snags at the lake margin and found a textured boulder with some prominent contrasting fractures. This provided some subtle leading lines and patterns against the stillness of the lake and loneliness of the haggard trees. Today’s images are focus-stacked and blended in Photoshop to emphasize the foreground texture.

Fractured snag. The tree is not only reflected in the water, the foreground boulder mirrors the pine. I used the same boulder as foreground in both images, but I found the change in perspective produced a very different foreground weight. This image is focus-stacked and I have removed some distracting, bright-white bird-stains from the rock. 1/100 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 5DmIV, 17-40 mm f/4L.

I look forward to returning to the possibilities and easy-access of Frog Lake. The access this morning was so simple that I was soon fly-fishing along the West Fork of the Carson River in Hope Valley below the pass. A nice combo for the morning.

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Sunrise and Smoke: An Early Morning Decision

Sunrise and Smoke: An Early Morning Decision

Sometimes spontaneous works. This is pretty much the image I imagined waking up an hour earlier. 1/25 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 5DmIV, 70-200 f/4L.

Landscape photography typically involves planning, at least for me. I usually get some idea of place, story, mood, or composition, and begin by flying around in Google Earth, searching a few maps, checking the weather, and logging into PhotoPills or The Photographer’s Ephemeris. It’s part of the fun, but this morning wasn’t all that…

It has been miserably smokey in Carson Valley, with air quality commonly in the unhealthy range due to the disastrous and all too common fires in California and Nevada. We are in the smoke-plume of the Ferguson Fire at Yosemite. My trail running has ground to a halt, and there isn’t much motivation to get out for some landscapes. And yet, for some reason, I woke up at 4 AM — spontaneously, for otherwise no good reason — with the thought of catching the orb of the rising sun filtered through the smoke-plume haze. My pack sits ready and the tripod is in the car, so why not?  Let’s go.

I brewed some tea, toasted a bagel, and started out for Kingsbury Grade in the moonlit pre-dawn. I’d climb to a roadcut about half-way up the Carson Range and scramble over the edge to gaze down on the shadows of the Pine Nut Mountains. I knew I would keep it simple — my 70-200 to the horizon, and that’s it. The sun and smoke would do the rest.

I waited about 20 minutes and for much of that time I thought the thick curtain of smoke on the eastern horizon, with haze settling into the foothills, would block the sunrise completely. But soon a sliver of red appears, as if the ferocious fire had itself jumped from the High Sierra to the lowly Pine Nuts. The orb was here, pretty much as my dreams must have known. 

The Portal Arch. After capturing my earlier image, I watched the sun disappear and expected it to soon be too bright in the cloudless sky. As I reached to take the camera down, the orb crested the densest plume and seduced a second shot. This may earn a large print, to be viewed at a distance.  1/15 sec, f/20, ISO 100; Canon 5DmIV, 70-200 f/4L. 

My smoke-themed photos tend to be rather dark, a reflection of the foreboding plumes of the destructive fires in our midst. Please be careful out there and I hope those affected — the people and our wild lands — can soon recover. Please feel free to comment below.  Too dark?  Is the watermark a distraction? Fire and smoke affecting you? 

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Related Post: Tufa and Smoke at Mono Lake, CA.

Tufa and Smoke at Mono Lake, CA

Tufa and Smoke at Mono Lake, CA

A long exposure as early darkness set the mood at Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve. 2.0 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 5DmIV, 17-40 mm.

It was time to take advantage of a break in the work routine. The summer monsoons had recently encroached on the Pine Nut Mountains above StoneHeart, so maybe there would be some dramatic clouds and lightning to chase. Or, the exhausting California fires would continue to pour smoke onto the eastern Sierra, creating another saturated sunset.

I checked my radar apps all afternoon but the bright red blobs of the past few days were absent, and only a few yellow-level squalls bloomed momentarily and then scurried away in the afternoon heat. Nothing to chase in those. But I saw cumulus remnants in the direction of Mono Lake, so I steered south-bound on Highway 395 – a little later than I planned – with the goal of wandering among the near-shore tufa formations at the Mono Lake Tufa State Preserve. Smoke from the Ferguson Fire, the one that closed down Yosemite National Park for at least this week, should add some character to photographs of the tufa.

It is always a good drive through the Walker River Canyon. The drive was relatively quiet this evening, probably due to the smoke-filled skies keeping tourists away. I notice once again several outcrops and exposures along the canyon that could make splendid compositions in the right light and with the addition of some low-hanging clouds or a back-drop of fog. I will have to plan for that.

The Reserve basically circles the lake, and with the light fading fast, I dropped in to the easy access of the Old Marina parking area just north of Lee Vining. It isn’t the most dramatic tufa on the lake, but there are plenty of outcrops and towers – some with nesting Osprey – where one can find a composition or two. I dropped the three-dollar fee into the bin, grabbed my pack, and hiked out the boardwalk. I could see a group of hunched-back photographers at the distant end of the boardwalk, a workshop almost certainly; only a couple other photographers strayed from the cluster of tripods. With a happy hello – they did seem to be composing their images at the prime and fleeting moment of the smoky sunset – I circled away from the small crowed, eastward, off-trail among the sedges and flat-lying tufa mounds. It was getting dark fast, but I liked the darkening mood as the last light saturated the smoke and blurred the horizon.

Looking back, I noticed the group had departed, but a lone photographer remained, and for some reason he seemed to be composing his shot where I would be in the frame. I did not notice anyone working this direction when I passed by. I hope I’m not ruining his composition, or maybe he wants me for scale. I am, as yet, unaccustomed to wandering among landscapes with other photographers in them.

My feet were soaked and I’d stumbled into some deeper shoreline bogs here and there. But I’d found what I hoped for. Wading into knee-deep water, I picked out a tear-drop shaped rock leading to a set of tufa towers under a fiery, glooming sky. I set up a wide, vertical composition to get the low dynamic range, with hints of saturated color, from sky to foreground.  I took a few images in case I needed to focus stack, but I ultimately liked my first image (below). I waited into the blue-hour and the smoke settled into red-to-pink pall as I zoomed to the middle-ground towers to get them in the mirror of sky and water (banner photo above). As I was packing away my gear, a large coughing or huffing sound echoed from a nearby outcrop. I froze for a moment as the sound repeated itself. Where and what was it? It was strangely loud for being invisible, though it was practically dark. And then two large deer bounced from behind a tufa block, pogo-sticking through the grassy wetland of the nearby shoreline. Cool.

Smoke at sunset over Mono Lake tufa formations. 2.5 sec, f/20, ISO 100; Canon 5DmIV, 17-40 mm. 

I returned to the lone photographer at the boardwalk and apologized for possibly crossing into his image. He had no concerns and was merely waiting for the full moonrise. I set up to wait with him, trying to capture the red, smoke-tinted orb.  I had no luck, having not practiced much on the puzzle of the quick orbiting moon in a long lens with little or no foreground. It was an awesome sight, however. I left for the highway and turned toward home, where it would soon be midnight.

I processed the two images shown here to capture the mood of the smoke-filled basin and subdued lake in the coming night. The images are dark and saturated, captured after the heat of a long day as the destructive fires weigh on our minds and we cannot yet see the season’s end.

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Memorial Day at Skunk Harbor, Lake Tahoe, NV

Memorial Day at Skunk Harbor, Lake Tahoe, NV

The extended cycle of low-pressure storm systems, that seemed to continually rotate across the Great Basin, has ended momentarily. And, of course, after a few weeks of dramatic skies, morning and night, I get a break to get out on a short landscape photography evening. The western sky looked promising all day; some mid-level rotation and even some brief rain squalls at home, and I was sure I would get some golden hour to sunset light over Lake Tahoe. I have been wanting to get down to Skunk Harbor for awhile now, so this would be the afternoon to head out.

It is Memorial Day weekend, so I expect some traffic and maybe even a crowd. The cove of Skunk Harbor can get a few boats at anchor, social platforms of a kind, and I anticipate folks out for a day-hike. The cove isn’t too far from the highway, and the dirt road is an easy hike–the return can be warm and seem very steep in the heat of summer.

We’d worked around StoneHeart much of the day, trying to get a viable tree and garden irrigation system going, and planned an early dinner before I left for the Skunk. It’s about thirty minutes from StoneHeart to the Spooner turn-off on Highway 50. The gated road to Skunk Harbor is only a couple miles north of the Spooner State Park. Traffic was a bit heavy, but it is Sunday afternoon at the “official” start of summer and all Sundays will be busy around Tahoe now. The turn-out and overflow parking on the south-bound side of Highway 28 were full, not summer-time full, but I was let-down by how crowded it felt. Snuck my Subaru into the last of a long line of parked cars in the main pull-out just above the gate.

I packed up and headed down, it’s a nice easy walk. I was unsurprised when I began to pass an exodus of out-bound day-trippers; counted thirty-one as I approached the waterline. Am I alone now? No, a few folks hanging around in the last light, but I bet the pull-out parking is pretty lonely.

There are some nice rock buildings here, and some comprehensive interpretive signs telling the story. Come see and it all makes some sense. Otherwise, it is a classic and lovely east-side Tahoe cove with a small beach and the cliché-rounded granite boulders. There are some jetty pilings that sometimes provide leading fore-ground elements (ones that John Peltier has used to perfection) but with the return of high lake levels these are now inundated and only a single wooden support breaks the water’s surface, and just barely-it looks like flotsam.  Although the parallel series of abandoned, now-submerged pilings would be a nice addition to any composition, it’s the current lake-level that helps their preservation so we should be thankful when the lake overtakes them; I had hoped to catch an image of the parallel dock remnants, but happy to see the lake high and the beaches practically gone–we need some water in the bank.

I wandered back-and-forth a bit, hoping to catch a composition. I’m not always patient enough to do this, but tonight I focused on simply taking my time and seeing what presented itself. I thought about the sunset–for once, I had a couple hours to consider it–and wandered to some bouldery outcrops on the north side of the cove. From here I could look back toward the rock building, let the setting sun help me out, and maybe get some backlit clouds in a wide angle view. It was about now, although the thought had occurred to me at the car, that I realized how heavy my pack was. Why do I carry all this stuff?  I should be able to trim this kit once my experimenting and learning catches up with my gear syndrome.  Still, it’s fun to set up my main composition and then wander around practicing with other gear. Right now, I’m typically shooting “target” images with my Canon 5D mIV, while wandering with a Canon 80D. The lens choice varies with my composition, but I’m usually carrying a 17-40mm, a 24-70mm, a 70-200mm, and a prime 20mm. That’s simply too much and too many, but I’ll make better choices eventually, I hope.

I set up looking back toward the building and waited an hour for the light to grab the clouds. Wait, what? Where are those clouds that have been here for weeks, teasing me each evening as I stare longingly toward the Carson Range? They are basically gone. A few filaments hang here and there but I can tell the storms are spent and I’ve timed my excursion for a cloudless golden hour. Good light nonetheless, and a good time to practice patience to see what unfolds.  The cove lights up for a few minutes at sunset and the clear skies feel like summer. It must be Memorial Day.

Night landscape photography in Dry Lake Valley, NV

Night landscape photography in Dry Lake Valley, NV

A long reconnaissance beyond Tonopah, NV, traversing south of the Reveille Range and into the playa of southern Railroad Valley. I located good access to the playa of Sand Springs Valley near Rachel and then moved on to Alamo, NV, to check in at a small motel. It’s a small strip motel, family-owned, old and a little sad, but really pretty nice. Right on the noisy highway but room is set back and perfectly quiet. Vern the owner/manager said I might be able to park my trailer if we are working nearby, he has one hook-up that sometimes works.

It’s close to the new moon so I headed out to Dry Lake Valley late in the evening. I left the hotel about 9:45PM, fueled up, and pointed the truck down the dark highway. I’m in the area mapping and investigating desert loess (fine-grained dust) deposits and had scouted out a cool spot for astrophotography earlier. I liked the spot because of the prominent outcrops that extend toward the valley floor. These would provide the foreground subjects as I experimented with low-level lighting to illuminate the outcrops, alcoves, and even some ancient rock art panels.

The drive was longer than I remembered, and I overshot my turn with a big-rig bearing down on me. After a quick turn-around, I was there. A perfect, calm evening, finally a warm one. Bats circled around me as I set up some lights. From the rocks above me, in an alcove beyond the rock art, a haunting songbird called in a steady repeat—once every twenty seconds. It’s probably a whippoorwill or something similar.

The small tripod-mounted lights adjust to emit a very low amount of light. While composing the image the light is almost impossible to see, but in a long exposure to capture the night sky, the light works nicely to create foreground interest. I have to take several practice shots to make sure the levels and direction of lighting works. It’s more controlled than light painting and works over relatively long distance. I learned about it on the PhotogAdventures Podcast and thought I’d give it a try. I’m not an expert at this (it’s my first time), but it has definite potential.

Ancient sky. Experimenting with lighting and capturing the starry backdrop above Dry Lake Valley rock art panels. 6.8 sec, f/5.6, ISO 6400; Canon 6D, Sigma Art 20mm.

Point of Rocks. The Milky Way above the boulder outcrops was fun, but I have to seek out some foreground interest to work with these lights (and why did I shoot these at 5.6?!). 19 sec, f/5.6, ISO 6400; Canon 6D, Sigman Art 20mm.

My images don’t really pop, but I like the rock art against the starry sky. A long perfect night in the darkness of Dry Lake Valley. Tomorrow will be a long day.

Smoke and Sunset: Grass Valley, NV

Smoke and Sunset: Grass Valley, NV

I’m back in Grass Valley, NV, working with a team of archaeologists and mapping the landforms along the valley margins. I left home this morning and I always enjoy traveling Highway 50, cutting across the middle of Nevada. The highways moniker as “The Loneliest Road” has lost its romance as daily traffic increases. I do remember driving east of Fallon and not seeing other travelers until approaching Austin or Eureka. But that was over a decade ago. It isn’t a busy highway, but it isn’t lonely.

I’m pulling the camp trailer and that unfortunately cuts into the gas mileage. I can’t make it from Gardnerville to Austin – probably could just manage it, but it would be tight – so I fuel in Fallon and top-off in Austin. I also have 40-gallon reserve tank. This will allow me plenty of fuel for several days of backcountry travel in Grass Valley.

As I work my way north into the valley, I find the archaeologists surveying along Callaghan Creek. After checking in with the team, I set camp near the corrals at the Gund Ranch. I talk to the ranch manager to make sure my camp is out of the way. Out to work for the afternoon, ground-truthing my landform maps and age relationships I’d worked on over the past few months.

In the evening I visited with the crew for a while and then headed into the evening light for some photography. I had often driven by a set of corrals a few miles south of the ranch and I thought it would be interesting in the developing sky. I wanted to experiment with foreground elements, here that included clusters of Great Basin Wild Rye and a piece of sprinkler equipment. Right off, I was greeted by a cloud of happy mosquitos.

Rye returns. I like the sense of scale in this image, but the foreground composition suffered from a lack of attention on my part. Neither the wild rye nor the sprinkler tell the story I’d hoped.  1/6 sec, f/14, ISO 100; Canon 6D, 17-40mm (17mm).

I’m not real happy with the image. I waited for the light but my patience, and the mosquitos, limited my attention span. I think the pasture, grass, and sprinklers would work if I took more time. Lesson learned.

Although I may have left the pasture too early, it gave me the opportunity to watch the sunset develop right in front of me. A cluster of wildfires in western Nevada provided the scene for a wonderful sunset over the playa of pluvial Lake Gilbert. The sky highlighted a shallow playa pool far across the valley, detailing the shadows of the northern Toiyabe Range. This remains one of my personal favorites, a significant image in my portfolio from early in my practice. Sometimes the space just gives it to you.

Playa fade. One of my favorite images. It is easy to have patience sitting on the tailgate at camp. 1/500 sec, f/4, ISO 100; Canon 6D, 17-40mm (40mm).

I stayed up too late with the crew last night, and my alarm at 4AM surprised me. The sky looked promising, however, and I knew I needed to get to the southern playa to hopefully capture some dune pedestals in the morning light.

I need to remember to prep gear in the evening, or otherwise keep it prepped for mobility rather than simply tossing the pack back into the truck after finishing the night before. I walked the playa where the late spring pool curves between a few dune pedestals. The scene is nice in the full moon and the dawn glow is pretty good, but the clouds aren’t doing much this morning.

I worked on some video and timelapse, with some intent on vlogging about the playa and its interest to Paleoindian archaeologists, but this needs practice.  For another day.

Receding dawn.  The playa pool is almost as ephemeral as the colors of sunrise. 1/15 sec, f/8, ISO 100; Canon 6D, Sigma Art 20mm.

Trying to be tall. This small greasewood casting a grand shadow caught my attention. 1/125 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.