Morning Tarn near Carson Pass, CA

Morning Tarn near Carson Pass, CA

Round Top (10,381′). I enjoy this peak above Carson Pass. Good summit trail. Captured this image after sunrise on my hike out. 1/50 sec, f/9, ISO 100; Canon 6D, 100-400mm (118mm, cropped).

Up at 4AM and out the door by 4:30, headed for Carson Pass and a short pre-dawn hike to the tarn at Carson Gap. Again, the access to the pass and its surroundings is so easy and relatively quick — still pretty quiet in the early hours of the last day of the Labor Day weekend. The trailhead has more overnight cars than I saw as I started my trail run over Carson Pass to Meiss Meadows on Saturday morning, but there are still plenty of spaces just before 5:30. I sign in, grab the pack and headlamp, and start up the trail.

Always mildly spooky at the get-go, but soon I settle in to the quiet and slowly growing light. It’s only about a half-hour hike to the pass. I make a couple video recordings to get some sounds and check the light (the video results are ok, but the audio is, as expected, mostly terrible). Ok, if I’m talking right into the camera but otherwise useless. I am probably not cut out for vlogging.

It was on Saturday’s run over the pass that I first encountered the small tarn and its reflecting views of Round Top beyond the pass to the south. The setting is perfect of some compositions of Round Top, a peak I have climbed several times, and I am sure astrophotography from the tarn would be special.


Carson Gap tarn. I waited for sunrise under a practically cloudless sky. Enjoyable for recon along the PCT south of Carson Pass. 1.8 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 6D, 17-40mm (40mm).

This morning, the Monday of Labor Day, I was half-afraid I would find someone camped at the pond, but, as I crest the pass, coming immediately upon the tarn, I see I easily have it all to myself. Perfect, but for a rather uninteresting sky. Seems to be some low clouds to the east, out of sight but muting the sunrise so not much hitting Round Top. Nonetheless, there is a brief moment of goodness and I bracket some shots (2 stops around center). I position myself on on the north side of the pond to get some rushes in foreground and a slight mirror of the distant and striking Round Top. As the sun continues to rise, though still not in view, I get several more bracketed exposures, but the last image of Round Top appears to be the best, at least from the jpeg on the back of the camera.  I try another position further west to capture a few more clouds and reflections of Elephant Back.

Tarn and Elephant Back. It was worth a try. 1/8 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 6D, 17-40mm (40mm, cropped).

I notice, as I am packing up to leave, a trail leading up the long ridge west of the tarn of Little Round Top, a minor but prominent highpoint northwest of Carson Pass. The unmarked trail diverges from the PCT in the brush along the south side of the tarn and heads upward to the northwest. It is worthy of a run soon, and I find a few good bivy spots. I will be sure to get back up here for a night of astrophotography.

I head back down to the trailhead carrying the camera with the 70-200mm telephoto, hoping for some wildlife. I left the tripod attached thinking that might be useful — really just a hindrance.  Although there are some cute birds twittering around, I am way too close to the trailhead for anything of interest. On the other hand, it is a very nice walk out.  I am back to the trailhead by 8AM and home by 9. Nice.

Rowan’s Night

Rowan’s Night

Up early to process a few photos and then a good morning of shop creativity working on shelving in the studio. It feels good, and splintery, to work in the sawdust again – it has been a long while. I used up my wood supply, but I am satisfied with the first corner-piece of built-in shelves; time to get stuff off the floor.

Nice storms in the afternoon, so we planned an evening excursion to Big Meadow, a short, up-hill hike from the trailhead where the Tahoe Rim Trail intersects Highway 89. I have run the trail through the meadow often. Tonight, we are hoping for some astrophotography in the meadow, and we pack our gear and a few snacks. There will be a chill in the air after the rain, so we pull some dormant down jackets from the closet. We left a bit late, after enjoying a rainstorm at StoneHeart, our first little adventure in the new Crosstrek. It is a relatively short walk in on a nice section of trail, a really easy access.  The trail was moist from the afternoon rain and humidity hung in the air. We hiked to the meadow and wandered a bit looking for compositions that would bring some leading lines or foreground interest into the Milky Way. Some small drainages create boggy ground in places but it is pretty easy to walk around the meadow. I wanted a few boulders for foreground interest but the west side of the meadow lacked a view of the sky due to fingers of forest extending along any bouldery ground. We retreated to a small bridge where the TRT crosses Big Meadow Creek. Here the trail curves nicely to where I knew the Milky Way would soon appear. Small trout jumping at a flourish of mosquitos in the little runs and riffles of Big Meadow Creek. Very fun watching the little fingerlings doing dolphin-like leaps. Bats in-coming. These guys should eat good. A very nice spot, but a little cloud-cover remains, and I am rather skeptical we’ll have much luck with the sky tonight.

As I’m framing some views of the trail leading toward “Red Mountain” where the Milky Way will rise, Des and I notice, at the same time, that the sunset is in full bloom above the western forest line. Easy enough to re-compose to capture the fiery sky beyond the trees, speeding up the shutter speed and dropping the ISO to capture the contrast and avoid noise in the glowing and shadowed sky. This one might be nice. I bracketed 1-stop either way and then captured some longer exposures for a foreground blend. Not sure if I have the chops to develop this as I hope, but we’ll see.

Big Meadow Sundown.   1/30 sec, f/9, ISO 100 (bracketed 1-stop, HDR blend); Canon 6D, 20mm.

 It is not long before I turn back to the southern sky above Red Mountain. Clouds are starting to thin and some glow coming. This post-storm sky might work out after all. Then Des gets the text that Kristen and Robert are on their way to the Monroe Hospital, their baby has chosen this night, with the Milky Way rising through rainswept clouds, to come into the world. A good night for such a thing.

A patient wait. Desna on the Big Meadow Creek bridge.  6 sec, f/1.4, ISO 800; Canon 6D, 20mm (cropped).

The unfolding news brings a new emotion to our time in Big Meadow. It is, of course, a beautifully disconcerting and brand new thing for us to think of ourselves as grandparents, and now we will associate a night at Big Meadow with Kristen, Robert, and, now, Rowan. Rowan’s Night at Big Meadow.

Experience of a place or emotion in a place changes a photograph significantly. I have a captured several nice images where I stepped to the side of the road or stood at an overlook, no real connection or emotion that lingers or re-surfaces at each view, and there is little incentive to revisit the image ever. On the other hand, I have taken bad pictures on a mountain climb, jungle expedition, or family gathering that I just love seeing. The memories return instantly. Thankfully, I have piles of bad pictures with good memories.

I work on exposures until the clouds return, Des waiting patiently on the bridge, cuddled tightly against the chill. I like a few of the starry exposures, even though the bluelight of the evening is prominent and the Milky Way is barely present. Still, the clouds give the stars a nice glow and the constellations of Sagittarius and Scorpio look fantastic. And a child is being born many miles away, but at arm’s-reach when compared to the beautiful light pouring from the sky of Rowan’s Night.

Rowan’s Night. A portfolio keeper on many levels. 15 sec, f/1.4, ISO 1600; Canon 6D, 20mm.

This one checked both boxes, I think. The night was redolent with emotion and experience. As a bonus, the images capture the magic and, as the family grows, bring us back to the simplicity and beauty of that night.

Our promise.  20 sec, f/1.2, ISO 3200; Canon 6D, 20mm (cropped).

Bighorn and Dragons

Bighorn and Dragons

I left StoneHeart about 9AM, a little later than I hoped to. Packed and ready for another opportunity to work on the Old River Bed Delta in the Bonneville Basin, Utah. Leaving Carson City, I worked my way eastward on Highway 50, fueling at the usual spots–basically the only spots. Traversing the heart of Nevada, Highway 50 has the moniker of The Loneliest Road in America. I will tell you straight up, it’s no longer that and I certainly know lonelier roads, but it remains one of my favorite drives. I choose it over Interstate 80, to the north, every time.

And yet, the lonely is still here if one seeks it out. The old highway over Carroll Summit, now Highway 722, toward Austin has the feel of the Loneliest Road. So 722 it is; longer in distance and time, but it is almost always my choice. At Buffalo Canyon, just beyond Eastgate on the slopes above one of my favorite arroyos in the Great Basin, four Desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni), ewes and juveniles, cross the highway and climb away from the flowing stream. I pull off around the next bend in the pavement and grabbed my 80D and the 70-200mm. I keep the 80D and telephoto ready in the cab for sightings such as this. The camera’s APS-C sensor has a crop-factor of 1.6, so I gain some telephoto reach over my full-frame camera body—I think the 80D and 70-200mm lens is a wonderful combination for these situations. Leaving the truck, I slowly but deliberately walk down the road. The sheep are skittish but they only walk further uphill; a ewe and a yearling lamb hang back. The temperature is climbing quickly, and it seems they really want to get to the water in Buffalo Creek. I do not want to impede them, so I walk back to the base of a road cut and colluvial apron nearer my truck, noticing many tracks and trails along with another group of sheep just above me. I shoot few images but feel shaky trying to get a good shot with the long lens. Looking back at my images, I forgot to increase my ISO so that I could go with a faster shutter to minimize camera movement.

The curious pair. 1/320 sec, f/8, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 70-200mm.

As I return to my truck, I notice the lower pair following me. I drop to an old two-track road along the creek, take a seated position behind a greasewood, and wait. Now I really notice how hot it is. And wait. The pair eventually appear at the edge of the pavement above me, cautiously peering over the edge toward the stream. They must know I am here somewhere, but they have lost track of me as I hoped. Finally, the youngster, a ram to-be, trots across the dirt in front of me and I get a nice image. But my camera movement alerts the ewe to my location and she bolts toward the creek. I miss that shot.

A young bighorn heads to the creek. 1/320 sec, f/8, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 70-200mm.

Nice to have been patient and get a small reward with the image of the juvenile ram. I quietly return to the truck and let them be. I decide to keep the camera ready. And good fortune because a good-sized ram crosses in front of me.  Because this route is not travelled heavily, I can simply stop in the road and shoot few images of the ram on the hillside. He walks slowly upward and I get a couple good exposures, though the hand-held sharpness is probably lacking. (Definitely lacking, again, needed higher ISO to get to faster shutter speed.)

A Desert Bighorn ram tracking his group. 1/400 sec, f/7.1, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 70-200mm.

I spent the remainder of the day traversing the state—Austin, Eureka, to Ely. Turned north at Ely to head to Wendover, our lodging for the project on the Old River Bed Delta. But there is no need to get to Wendover too soon. On Alt 93 just beyond White Horse Pass, I turn east on Ibapa Road and cross into Utah. I stopped in a small playette to check out the arch or window in Elephant Rock. I took a few hand-held photos of Elephant Rock and a low set of hills to the southeast, before moving into the big arroyo below Deep Creek Reservoir. It looks like a historic-era irrigation canal pirated Deep Creek to cut a deep arroyo in lacustrine sediment of the once expansive, pluvial Lake Bonneville. The light and sky are fine for documentary images, but I’m not feeling inspired. Noting the Elephant Rock and its arch have some potential, especially for astrophotography, I drop into the drainage and enjoy a walk along the silt walls of the arroyo.

I eventually pound my way through deep dust along Blue Lake Road, at the western margin of the West Desert, arriving at Blue Lakes at sunset. As I climb out of the truck the mosquitos (Culicidae) welcome me with biting fervor. It is warm but I quickly dig out my rain jacket for protection. The ponds and its surrounding vegetation look nicely vivid against the playa. The sky is not cooperating, but the scene is still good. The mosquitos are livid that I have covered up, so they redouble their efforts on my face and hands. I get an overview I like and look for some closer images nearer the spring pool.

The wetlands of Blue Lake Springs. 1/250 sec, f/11, ISO 400; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

Evening Dragon. A first keeper, close-in with the dragonfly. 1/320 sec, f/5.6, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

I learned a good lesson here at Blue Lakes. While I like the image of the spring, its moist green against the expansive desert, the Evening Dragon composition may be my best image this year (this means it could be my best image ever, given I began a somewhat serious photographic approach only recently). The big light was not inspiring me, but by focusing in on smaller scenes, I found a gem. These predatory dragons need to get to hunting; I can’t stand out here any longer. Darkness setting in and it is time to head into Wendover.

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.

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