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.

First Astrophotography – Pine Nut Mountains, NV

First Astrophotography – Pine Nut Mountains, NV

I have long wanted to try photographing the Milky Way. I wasn’t too sure how it would turn out, but I liked the idea of getting out in the dark of the early morning and giving it a try. I’d messed around as a geeky teenager trying to photograph galaxies and nebulae by attaching my SLR to a Meade telescope. I still keep the 30-year-old mount adaptor, but I don’t remember any of the images turning out as we anxiously reviewed negative strips we got back from our local photo developer. I can still locate most of the common dark-sky objects, but this morning I just wanted a picture of the Milky Way; and, I’d heard that DSLRs made it pretty easy to capture one.

I decided I’d get up at 3 AM and head over to the Pinyon Trailhead. I could see the Milky Way easily enough. The moon had set long ago and the sun was a couple hours away. I’d prepared by investing in a  20mm, f/1.4 lens, having reviewed several tutorials about astrophotography. I wanted wide-angle and a fast, light-grabbing lens. At the trailhead, I set up my tripod, pointed my 80D at the Milky Way, cranked up the ISO, and hit shutter for a 10-second exposure. Wow, that’s cool. A bright, well-defined Milky Way and its receding core appeared on the LCD screen. It was beautiful, and nothing like what I could see with my unaided eye. I experimented with various exposure times and ISOs until settling on 15 seconds and an ISO of 3200.

The first astro image. The Milky Way over the Pine Nut Mountains. I’d yet to learn about the helpful creativity of foreground interest. 15 sec, f/1.4, ISO 3200

Working the RAW files in Lightroom, I tried to create the relatively clear images of the stars and dust of our galaxy. Although I was amazed at the outcome, I will need plenty of practice to get images that capture the feeling of a dark night and the deep sky. It takes imagination and creativity because you can’t see and experience the image like you can when you capture a landscape, even when you process nature scenes to communicate the feeling and experience of a place and its light.

Learning the astro cliché, a headlamp selfie. 15 sec, f/1.4, ISO 3200

A Photo and Geo Recon, Grass Valley, NV

A Photo and Geo Recon, Grass Valley, NV

Sunset on weak lenticulars rolling over the northern Toiyabe, cold night ahead at Bob Scott Campground. 1/100, f9, ISO 200

It seems months since I managed to sync into my calendar and set out on a Basins recon. I’m rather compulsive about keeping a calendar, hoping to establish and maintain discipline across work, exploration, and arts I pursue and enjoy. I’m not typically successful, however, at keeping to my calendar. We all know how things creep or crash in to capture our attention. Local photography excursions have been limited to about once a month, and my goal of incorporating practiced photography into my geographical research needs similar attention. I have an on-going project in Grass Valley, Nevada, so I’m feeling good that I could get on the road today, on schedule, and into the Basin. Of course, a potent spring storm arrived overnight and the rain was steady as I left for the office, camp trailer in tow. The storm cleared during the day, but a gusty wind remained, not letting up as forecast. I was able to leave the office a little after 2PM and pushed by a tailwind, I jumped on Highway 50 eastbound for central Nevada.

It was something of a challenging drive as what started as a helping wind shifted to crosswinds and the occasional stiff headwind. The truck powered onward without difficulty, but I watched the gauge shrink quickly as gas mileage dropped into single digits between Fallon and Austin. But it’s not really the driving with the trailer that is difficult. It’s the stopping. As the remaining storm squalls played the sky along the mountains, I find it difficult to be spontaneous. I can’t simply pull off the highway or drop onto a backroad; it’s the primary drawback of towing the trailer. It’s a problem whether I’m gouging around on a landform recon or trying to capture images of a developing scenes when the highway just isn’t the foreground I’m looking for! I’ve ignored this problem, however, by focusing on the benefit of having the trailer as basecamp. Planning camps as hubs from which I can traverse a region with relative freedom—carrying my camp in a camper shell or roof-type tent seems like a greater burden, though I certainly don’t mind an outback tent camp when an excursion calls for it. With the trailer, the drive will sometimes force me to miss the occasional stop, but I try to note things I’m passing in hopes of planning a future, focused trip.

Light plays in the clouds of a fading storm over Bob Scott Summit. 1/1000, f5, ISO 200

The temperature is forecast to drop to 18°F (-8°C) tonight and that means the storm has passed and the sky is clearing. I’m out to continue reconnaissance and investigations in Grass Valley. I’m a member of a multi-disciplinary team studying the archaeology and human ecology of early people in the central Great Basin. My task is to identify landforms where early archaeology might be preserved and document changes in the landscape and environmental conditions that may have influenced patterning in the archaeological record. I work closely with archaeologists interested in behavioral ecology and culture history and collaborate with them as we design research strategies, field surveys, and archaeological excavations. This work allows me to get deep into the Great Basin, where I can get a feel for the landforms and processes that relate to the discovery and study of the past environments, paleo-landscapes, and the archaeological record. Becoming a better documentary and landscape photography is part of this geographic journey. It’s all the same, really.

 Here are a few images from the three-day field reconnaissance to Grass Valley.

Standing stone, weathered plutonic rocks of Grass Valley, NV. 1/200, f8, ISO 100

Rooted stone. This reminded me of the power of trees, rooted in a forest. I wandered among this odd outcrop of plutonic, granitic rocks, shooting hand-held. 1/400, f8, ISO 100

Climbing a small hill for an overlook of the former lake basin, I came across a small outcrop. At its summit I captured images of ancient limestone seabed with my point-and-shoot. The Canon Powershot 110 remains my primary photo-documentation camera. It works relatively well compared to many of the point-and-shoot cameras I’ve used in the past. I’m often surprised I can’t tell much difference when reviewing the images on screen, but I’m starting to re-think my field process. I do see the benefits of the 80D for controlling depth-of-field and taking advantage of the clarity across wider and longer focal lengths. Does the portability of the 110 outweigh (inverse pun intended) the advantages of the DSLR? In the near future I’ll be re-thinking my approach to differentiating my field research documentation from my landscape photography. Or maybe I should consider it one in the same. 1/60, f8, ISO 125 (Powershot 110s capturing RAW)

I simply like the texture and contrast in the intimate, almost abstract, outcrop images. 1/80, f8, ISO 80 (Powershot 110s)

OK, now this is fun. My hike attracted the attention of a small group of pronghorn antelope. I approached them slowly as the walked toward a vantage point where they could keep an eye on the lone figure (me) in the sage. I haven’t had a long lens all that long but I knew this is the use-case that I had in mind. I made a mistake with the wide-open f-stop (f4), realizing that at full 200mm images are going to be soft (a bit out-of-focus). But this is still one of my favorite images. The pronghorn peer in all directions, with the big buck marking me closely. The scudding clouds, compressed as a background, make the photo work. I’ll hopefully remain a bit calmer next time, so I can get the settings correct. 1/2500, f4, ISO 100

Yesterday’s snow drapes the Simpson Park Mountains above Grass Valley. The leading line of the two-track trail, leading over grassy beach berms of pluvial Lake Gilbert, drew my attention to this composition. The compression evident in the 70-200mm lens emphasizes the snow-covered mountain slopes rising above the valley. 1/2500, f4, ISO 100

Something completely different, for good luck. 1/50, f8, ISO 100

Mt. Callaghan, northern Toiyabe Range. The haze of a dusty sky made the foreground slopes glow in the late afternoon sun and I enjoyed the pattern of snow in the gullies and alcoves off the summit. 1/50, f14, ISO 100