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I love photographing bizarre locations, the more strange and unearthly the better. Mono Lake is right up my alley with its strange towering tufa formations that look like strange petrified alien sponges dotting the lakeside. The actual lake is made up of high alkali content water that is home only to a special breed of fly. The fly, which numbers in the millions, is food for hundreds of birds that make this lake a migration destination or permanent dwelling. Birds aren't the only things that migrate to this lake. Every year millions of photographers descend on Mono Lake with the hopes of capturing the beauty of this foreign looking landscape.
A group of thirteen photographers met Scott Donschikowski and myself in Lee Vining for a weekend of photographing Mono Lake and some of the other wonderful sites in the area.
Our first morning, we set out bright and early to visit the South Tufa area of the lake. A few streaking clouds lingered in the early twilight sky. I was hopeful that once the sun rose more clouds would join the party and we would be treated to a wonderful sunrise. We parked the van and set out as a group on the boardwalk towards the lake edge, and some great vantage points of these wonderful natural sculptures. As we walked Scott and I began to talk a little about the settings and approach to the mornings shoot.
The tufa is very fragile, and we really stress to our class the importance of staying where we've been told was safe to walk. Everyone is careful not to climb on the tufa and risk breaking one of these structures. We find a spot along the shoreline that has some very nice fallen chunks of tufa we can use as a foreground. In the distance we can see a nice ship shaped island of tufa that helps to fill the frame. There is very little wind this morning, and the reflections are stunning. We mention that polarizers and graduated neutral density filters are going to be helpful throughout the shoot to help bring out the best of the color and reflections.
Sunrise was very nice, and everyone got some great shots of the tufa and the wonderful gold and orange tones that filled the sky and shimmered off the lake. Watching the sunrise here is so peaceful…it's part of why Scott and I love landscape photography. Being able to capture a slice of that with a camera is so rewarding.
Once we finished sunrise we made the call to head back to the hotel for a break before we spent the afternoon in one of America's best-preserved ghost towns…Bodie! This old west town has over 30 structures in a state of arrested development. Walking up and down the main street of this town transports you to a time of saloons, mining, gunfights, and honkytonk pianos. Well it does for me anyway. I love wandering the streets here. Even though I've been coming here for over 15 years, I always find something new here I've never seen before.
Scott and I give some basic layout of the area, and then turn the class loose to explore for four solid hours. During that time we walk the streets and find them then check to see how they are progressing with making their creative visions align with what they see on the camera. The clouds are amazing, and I really love all the work I see on the cameras. I personally love to process these images in monochrome because I think it adds depth and personality to the image.
When our time ends everyone is exhausted and ready to head back to the hotel for a little break before we set out to shoot Mono Lake again for sunset.
Having a second crack at Mono Lake is always good. Sometimes in landscape photography a scene can be so bizarre and awe-inspiring that it can overwhelm you and cause you to have trouble visualizing compositions, and remember all those vital settings.
Our second visit had great clouds in the sky, and strikes of lightings from distant thunderstorms rippled on the horizon. Everyone was more set their second visit on the composition they wanted and improving upon things they missed their first visit. Scott and I helped to refine the compositions and point out some of the different angles and vantages we saw.
Once the color finally faded from the sky it was time to head back to the hotel for a much-deserved nights rest.
Our second day began earlier than the previous. We met in the parking lot at 4:45am, and drove in silence to Convict Lake, a wonderful granite lined jewel. I love this lake because it resembles some of the higher alpine lake the Sierra has to offer, but requires none of the high altitude hiking! We arrived early enough to beat most of the fisherman. This place is funny in that you don't normally have to worry about losing a great spot to another photographer, but rather an eager fisherman.
The lake was glassy and the reflections were really nice. Scott and I helped everyone get set for a nice composition and reminded him or her to use his or her graduated filters to help hold back some light on the brighter sky.
Even without direct light the granite peaks really glow, but when that sun does rise and hit those peaks the golden light is simply stunning. It's called the range of light for a reason.
With sunrise in the bag it was time for a coffee stop and trip back to the hotel for a nap…getting up early after a long day isn't easy! The sky from the previous night had blown away completely and left us with flat blue sky…not great photography. The forecast for the afternoon looked to be much more promising with more thunderstorms on the horizon so we opted to break earlier rather than later, and meet up when conditions improved.
Just after noon we met the group outside to enjoy the nice weather and help them process some of their images from earlier in the course. Really nice work on those laptops! 25% of every image comes down to taking that data and processing it to look its best. A raw file is like a super model without make-up on until you process it to bring out the best it has to offer. It was fun for us to make up a few of the students super model images.
That evening after a brief stop at Lundy Lake, another roadside alpine lake we set off to see Olmsted Point in Yosemite National Park. The forecast for Yosemite called for rain earlier in the afternoon, with clearing storms around sunset. This kind of weather transition has the potential for great sunsets…Scott and I were hoping for a little bit of luck, and something epic…and we were not disappointed.
We hiked the class out to the granite shelf overlooking Yosemite Valley and across to the iconic Half-Dome. This is a great spot for some close up shots of Half Dome, as it gets a healthy dose of evening sunlight, and makes for some really nice photos.
Though the sun was obscured when we first arrived by some lingering thunderclouds, it soon found a gap and began what was to be one of the single best sunsets I've ever seen in Yosemite. There was 360 degree of amazing light. We helped the class find compositions, and watched as they all ran around like kids in a candy store looking for the best angle to shoot next. It was the kind of magical light you dream of as a photographer, and hope to get at every major stop…we were so happy we had come to this place. Color and texture blasted through the sky for a good hour…and the class shot it every way possible…and everyone was talking about how amazing the light was, and how excited they were to get home to process these images…I have to say even Scott and I were able to grab a couple shots of this EPIC light show…truly one for the memories!
The drive back seemed to flash by as everyone recounted the shoot, and how great the conditions were. I have to say the farewells seemed to go by much quicker than normal as I think everyone was trying to get back to their rooms to get started processing those images…I can't say I blame them!
Until next time,
Brian, Scott, and the rest of the Aperture Academy team
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