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

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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