The Eastern Sierra, quite possibly the most impressive mountain ranges in the United States (next to the Rockies), is a granite spine that runs a couple hundred miles down the middle of California. Called the range of light for the way the morning light warms the light-colored granite, it was made popular by photographers such as Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell. This area draws in thousands of photographers each year. The Sierra range can be beautiful any time of year, but during the fall, when the colors are popping, the chance for magic is that much greater.
In addition to the mountains, this area has much more to offer... crazy alien landscapes like the Mono Lake tufa, Bodie ghost town, and the ancient bristlecone pine forest.
Philip Nicholas and I met a group of 13 eager photographers in Lee Vining, California, for four days of photography and fun. We completed orientation, got to know everyone a little, and find out what it was that they wanted to work on over the course of the next four days together. Most of the faces were familiar, and we knew that this was an outstanding group of hearty photographers. It was going to be a fun week filled with fall foliage, mountains, lakes, and early mornings!
We met at 5:15am, loaded into the ApCab, and set off for Mono Lake, South Tufa.
This other worldly landscape is unlike any place most people have ever seen. Underground springs, and unique chemical make-up have created strange, giant structures that have built up over the years. These structures make for very interesting subjects to photograph, as they line the crazy alkali waters of the lake.
Phil and I helped the class find the way to the lakeside in the dark, and then helped them to get their cameras set so they could capture the rising sun over the otherworldly landscape.
Grad filters, polarizers, and even a solid ND (neutral density), were all filters we helped the class to use so they could get the best possible exposures. As the sun rose we helped the class to fine tune their compositions, and work towards mastering their manual settings.
Once the sun was above the horizon, we had the class move about into the tufa towers, careful not to touch these fragile relics, and work on using them in the compositions as more dominant subject matter.
We had a great time at South Tufa, and I think everyone got some really nice images. It was time to head back to the hotel for a short break before we drove off to Bodie ghost town for a few hours.
Bodie is a mostly in tact ghost town. When the gold and silver rush of the early 1900s dried up, the folks in this town up and left. In many cases, they left behind all of their possessions, as well. These days, what is left in, and of, the ghost town, is protected and watched over by the Friends of Bodie and State Park Rangers.
The best way to explore a ghost town is to wander, so Phil and I gave the group a few instructions and set them loose to explore this treasure trove of details and relics. Throughout the time we spent in Bodie, we walked around, answered questions, and pointed out a few different ideas for compositions. Bodie is such an awesome spot. In a place time forgot, it's easy to spend an eternity here making photos.
That night we set up shots along the shores of Lake Tenaya in Yosemite National Park. The water and reflections were awesome. Phil and I helped the group get set up and then we waited and watched the sunlight change from shades of gold to hues of pink on the granite walls. While we waited for the final rays of sunlight to dance across the granite, a deer crossed the lake right in front of our cameras--what an added bonus!
It was a really busy first day, and the next day was packed as well.
We woke early again and set off for Convict Lake. This granite-lined beauty was once the hideout for some escaped criminals, and it ended in a shootout…these days the only shoot outs are done with a Nikon, Canon, and Sony.
Knowing your location well is part of what we do. When we arrived, though, it was still over an hour away from sunrise. There was already a group set up along the bridge overlooking the lake. Sadly, this group didn't know that the better spot is located a few yards to the left of where they stood, where a short trail leads to the lake edge and plenty of rocks and other interesting foreground subjects, and when making creative compositions, foregrounds make or break it. Once the other group realized we had the better spot, they offered to switch us spots...nice try.
Phil and I helped the group get ready for the light show, and though there was plenty of wind blowing away any chance of a reflection, there was still great light on the peaks that really made for a nice image with the golden light of the mountains and the blue of the water.
Our next stop was searching for fall color on the June Lakes Loop. This lake-lined road passes through some of the best pockets of color in the region.
We found a perfect spot along the road near Silver Lake with plenty of golden aspen trees for everyone to photograph. Here it was about experiments with exposure and creative compositions.
We played around with panning during shots, and zooming in and out, as well to create new and interesting images.
The color was absolutely awesome here.
The morning was busy, and we still had a fun-filled afternoon and evening left! Lee Vining was home base for the first couple nights, but it was time to pack up and head south to Bishop. Here we were in the heart of the fall color. Aspen-lined lakes, and close proximity to the bristlecone pine forest. These trees are some of the oldest living things on the planet. Our goal for the evening is to spend sunset and the first half of the night here shooting these old trees and also working on some star photography.
Hiking at elevation is tough and I think everyone was feeling the 10,000ft. elevation at least a little. Once we arrived on the hillside with the trees, the wind, elevation, and temperatures were all keeping everyone from being their most comfortable…but we made the best of it, and everyone was able to get some great shots of the pin-point stars, as well as enough shots to use to make some star trails on our processing day. We had a lot of fun using different colored lights to light paint the tree as well.
The group was great and we were home by 11:30pm that night, which was a little earlier than either Phil or I thought we would finish…that was the good news. The bad news was that we had to leave at 4:30am to get to our sunrise stop in the Alabama Hills the following morning.
The Alabama Hills are rounded rock piles at the base of the Sierra, popular with rock climbers, moviemakers, and photographers alike--this place can get crowded. Though we woke early, we were not the first people in the area for photography. A group was already at the trailhead for Mobius Arch over an hour and a half from sunrise.
The arch is great, but it's not my favorite spot to shoot the area. I like to drive up the road a little, where the elevation allows one to look out over the whole valley and there is plenty of barrel cactus and grooves in the rocks to use as foreground. Phil and I helped the group find foregrounds and move about to get the best angle. We reminded them to use filters, check settings, and the rest was up to them…and they all got some awesome stuff.
With the early morning and late night, everyone was tired, so we gave the group the afternoon off to rest, and get ready for the evening adventure.
That night we visited the fall foliage around North Lake, and Lake Sabrina working on capturing more intimate details of the trees and foliage.
The weather was changing, and a cold wind ripped through the valley letting us all know that winter was just around the corner. The aspen began to lose their leaves in crazy amounts with the gusts of wind…everyone was really glad when we finally finished shooting and made it back down to the warmth of Bishop again.
Another early morning before 4:30am, we assembled and made the drive up to North Lake. This is one of the best spots for fall foliage in the area. The wind and cold that had greeted us the previous night was waiting for us when we arrived back on scene.
We stayed in the warmth of the van as long as we could, but this is a popular area, and when other vehicles started to arrive, it was time for us to cross the creek (in the dark) and set up shop…still over an hour from sunrise. A lot of our group found rocks to use along the lake's edge for a foreground. A lot of the group went high to get a shot of the whole area, and the aspens and color that ringed the lake.
The sunrise, though cold and windy, was awesome…clouds, color in the sky, and fall foliage…what an awesome morning. We braved the cold as long as we could, but by a half hour past the sunrise, we were all headed back across the creek to the warmth of the van.
Everyone was ready to get back to the hotel and process the images from the previous four days worth of outings. The star trails are where most people get a little confused so Phil and I made sure we sat down and helped everyone process those images a couple different ways. The first is the traditional trails, and the second is so that they look like comets shooting around the sky….both look awesome and everyone was thrilled with the images they had braved the cold and elevations for.
Of course, we saw a lot of other great photos as well, and helped throw in a few different tricks and tips to help with cloning out wires, or making the colors look their best. Overall it was an intensive three hours of processing fun. It's one of my favorite parts as well…just seeing how many different visions and images the group can come away with.
It was a lot of early mornings and long nights, but it was all fun…and we enjoyed every freezing minute of it!
Until next time,
Brian, Phil, and the rest of team Aperture Academy
P.S. If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.