Heading south on Highway 395 in California's eastern
Sierra, I am embarking on my first truly combined photo
expedition and family vacation. It has been a little
over a year since I have made photography my number
one hobby, buying a D30 and trying to really improve
have been buying books, frequent several web photo sites,
subscribe to the Luminous Landscape's video journal,
and of course shoot as often as I can. I envy those
people that can take the time to visit a location purely
to take photographs. Alas, I have a more than full time
job and a wife and two kids that enjoy my company.
I'm pretty proud of myself for putting together this
trip because I believe we will have both an excellent
family vacation - and I'll have the chance to work on
my skills and hopefully get some good photographs.
are staying in Mammoth Lakes, which is very centrally
located for hiking, boating, seeing Mono Lake and much
Kit gets new toys
After months of waiting, my new D60 arrived a few days
before the trip. I did a little testing in my back yard
and found the additional resolution nothing short of
amazing. I have also just added the 16-35L to my kit,
replacing my 20mm 2.8. I needed the additional wide
angle for some interior home shooting I have been doing,
and felt it would make a good landscape lens as well.
I like to shoot out of my kayak, I also acquired a Pelican
case as seen above. I set this up so that I can have
any of my three lenses mounted and quickly drop into
the case. The 16-35 and the 50mm 1.4 are about the same
length as my 70-200 F4. While I don't anticipate dunking,
it keeps the water floating around the boat or dripping
from the paddle out of my gear.
also have my trusty 1 GB microdrive and my Sony laptop.
Because I just got the D60, I still have my D30, so
I brought it along for my daughter to use who seems
to be getting quite interested in photography. Oh, and
my polarizer, which we will hear more about shortly.
We arrive late in the afternoon on July 3rd.
of July Parade
This is small town America, to be sure. There is a funky
parade and we sit by and watch. I take some pictures
of my kids, then thinking of street photography forums
I have seen on the web, decide to focus in on some of
the participants to see if I can get anything interesting.
shot turns out to be my best - I think it says a lot
about our country - post 9/11. Patriotism, hope, the
promise and innocence of our children. Except for one
detail - her eyes were actually green so I use photoshop
to make them blue. I also like it in a tighter cropped
attend a July 4th party and I ask all the locals for
the most photogenic locations...
first day out - Horseshoe Lake
I choose one of the many local lakes as our first venture
out. We will hike the 2.5 miles or so around the lake.
By the time we get ourselves and our lunches (etc) organized
we don't get there until 10:30 or so. My family (kids
ages 9 and 11) is very patient with me, especially
considering the mosquitos have found us. Not only do
I do the family shots, but I as we hike I try for several
artsy shots. Everything is blazingly bright (the altitude
is about 8,500). I determine I'll need to use my polarizer
a great deal.
review I find the shot at right is the only interesting
picture. I vow to do better tomorrow.
strategy is to have a physical day (hiking/kayaking)
one day, then sightsee the next, as to not get overtired.
Everyone wants to go to Mono Lake, so off we go (40
mins north of Mammoth). Our first stop is the
visitor's center (very nice) including watching
the movie (highly recommended). You will
learn all you need to know about Mono Lake
course I'm thinking about the many shots I have seen
of Mono Lake, and how I can do something interesting
with the tufas. (Tufas are bizarre limestone formations,
for those of you not familiar.) The kids want
to go down to the beach and see the tufas, so we
head to south beach, the greatest concentration.
It is about 11:00 am, 90 degrees F and the wind
is blowing 25-30 mph. I can't even consider changing
lenses in this environment, not to mention the angle
of the sun of course. But I'm thinking this will
be my scouting trip (that's what real photographers
do, right, scout the location?). I even consider coming
back with my kayak, and thus get shots from the
water - a fresh perspective.
we stagger around in the heat, wind and blinding
brightness, it is hard for me to get inspired.
I take more shots of the kids. I take some shots
from close to the ground, with dead plants in the foreground
and tufas behind, but there isn't any interesting sky.
As I consider what it would be like to shoot at dawn,
I am having a hard time visualizing interesting shots.
I am not really motivated to come back here at sunrise.
one tufa is quite a bit larger than the others, and
I walk back and forth looking for a good perspective. I
rotate the polarizer so that I can see through
the water. I took only about two shots, and
this shot has some interest to me, with the water and
is difficult to tell if this mass is fifteen feet high
or fifty, wouldn't you say?
head down to Bishop (about 60 miles south) to visit Galen
Rowell's Mountain Light gallery. Visiting this
gallery will be something of a pilgrammage for me as
his book (Mountain Light) was the first one I bought
and read as I began to try to improve my skills. The
whole family is actually quite taken with the photos
- they are spectacular. Galen has a very impressive
range of photos. I find several that I like a
best looking prints here are created by the Crystal Lightjet
process. My wife asks me if I know about this, but
all I know is having seen it mentioned on the Internet.
She says rather than buy one of his, why don't I get one
of my best prints printed with this process. "I'd
rather have your prints on the wall." I'm a lucky
do end up buying an 8x10 crystal AP, a one of a kind.
Seemed like a bargain at $65. Typical Galen Rowell picture
that I would kill to have taken myself. I also
buy an instructional video made by Galen and another
guy, Frans Lanting.
Several people have told us Convict Lake is one of most
scenic, so off we go with our kayaks. It is quite pretty,
with a massive wall of granite at one end. The elevation
is about 8,000 feet. I find that nearly everywhere we
go is very bright, highly contrasty.
many pictures of us in the kayaks, with the mountains
behind us, but am searching for a real photo subject
when I spy this dead tree. We paddle over and I try
many variations to get an interesting perspective on
the tree. This shot was done closeby, with the 16-35.
I liked the way the top of the tree poked over the peak
of the mountain, as well as the rocks in the foreground.
shot doesn't knock me out, but I did my best.
We park the boats close to the base of that big mountain,
and I shoot maybe 100 shots, but nothing that really
captures my imagination. We push off and head to the
other side of the lake, where I see a nice spot for
lunch. We land and begin eating. I take a few family
shots, then kick back. That's when I notice THE cloud.
Peeking over this mountain. Looks like an opportunity.
I mount the 70-200 and take some shots with just the
top of the mountain and the cloud. I'm thinking "what
else can I do with this?" That's when I notice the rowboat
and relaxed passenger. Seems too perfect. I mount the
wide angle and try to frame it so I get the boat, the
mountains, lake and the cloud.
reviewing later on my laptop I'm very happy with this
shot - the best of the day.
Postpile and Rainbow Falls
Devil's Postpile is a national monument, a true geological
oddity. Tall, hexagonal shaped rocks bending and twisting
into a big pile. I had been here 23 years ago, and I'm
looking forward to returning. We will ride a shuttle
bus down to the area from the ski lodge, and then we
will walk about 5 miles to visit the Postpile and a
very scenic waterfall.
decide now is the time to have the family help me with
my photography goals. We will arrive there as early
as possible to shoot the morning light at the postpile.
Some grumbling ensues, but the next morning we are on
the bus at 7:00 am. We arrive with all our gear and
begin the walk. When we arrive on scene - ARGH! - the
rocks face west! The morning light is behind them, and
basically they look dull gray/black.
had used the technique of looking at postcards. I suppose
you have to not only look at them, but the ones in good
light must be judged to be morning or evening. Well,
I'll make the best of it, of course. I try a variety
of shots and ultimately decide this wide angle view
is at least different from those I have already seen.
I like how the size of the close rocks is emphasized.
I didn't carry a full size tripod, so I utilize a mini
"Ultrapod." I chose this shot because the sky is reasonably
exposed - I lighten the foreground in Photoshop.
the rest of the family in full retreat from the mosquitos,
we take to the trail. Our first stop is the top of the
postpile, which is also fascinating. The tops of the
rocks have literally been sheared off, and it is like
a patio of hexagonal tiles. But it isn't flat - it undulates.
I take a few shots of the kids laying on this interesting
surface, but can't think of any way to shoot this otherwise.
Later I realize I should have just set my camera right
on the rock, set it at F/19 and see what would happen.
I believe the shapes of the rocks and them heading away
from the camera in all directions wouuld have made an
interesting shot. Next time?
perhaps 1/2 mile south from the Postpile, we encounter
this lovely scene. It turns out a fire here in 92 has
devastated the area. Probably not the way Ansel saw
it. Oh well, push on. As we walk I see a few areas of
wildflowers, and think it could be interesting to have
wildflowers in the foreground and some burned trees
in the background - new life sprouting from death...
I try a few of these, but my usually very steady hands
fail me because I have been walking up and down through
these mountains - at altitude. To get the DOF needed
I need a slower shutter than I can handlhold under the
down though, there are some very interesting signs!
Bear tracks, specifically. Lots of them. Like, fresh
ones. There are so many that I consider the possibility
we could see a bear. I quickly determine a course of
action if Mr. Bear actually makes an appearance:
soil all undergarments.
the bear charges, cover up the family with my body
so he eats me and leaves them alone.
#2 doesn't occur, mount the 70-200 and discreetly
get a fantastic shot (or two).
possibilities put spring in my step and I begin scanning
all around as I walk rather than looking down where
my next boot plant will be. My efforts are somewhat
rewarded when I capture this furry beast, albeit
somewhat smaller than the bear I had in mind.
arrive at Rainbow Falls, somewhat concerned because
it seems like we have only been going downhill for about
a mile and a half (won't going back be fun?). We eat
our lunch, the kids play in the water. I scout around
for something really interesting. I take a lot of pictures
of a huge tree laying at the base of the falls. It seems
interesting with the mist and all, but reviewing later
it isn't too special.
daughter and I had watched the Rowell/Lanting video
by now. I hear Frans Lanting's voice: "find
what is special to you in a scene, take things away
until you focus on that special thing." So I sit down,
looking around and pondering. I find this one rock that
sort of talks to me. It has an interesting shape, and
is perched precariously. Looking through the viewfinder,
I like the waterfall in the background.
is my favorite of the shots I took of the rock, a crop.
I left a little of the supporting rocks so the viewer
can see what is happening. I think it is quite simple,
yet an unusual site. I am not entranced with it, however,
and have no idea if others will find this shot appealing.
Early Morning Minarets
As we returned from Devils Postpile a few days ago,
the bus driver pointed out a dirt road, and mentioned
that down that road was a vista point for the area's
most notable mountain range - the Minarets. I told the
family that I would get up early one morning and head
out there for a sunrise shooting session. Daughter Angela
wanted to come along and shoot with my D30.
we tried. We got there about 20 minutes after sunrise
(Say 5:40 am or so). We took a few pics, but turned
it into a scouting session. This time I got more serious
about it. As we walked and talked, it was interesting
that only a small movement, like 20 feet, could make
a big difference in perspective of a subject that was
miles away. We located two locations - one to shoot
the sunrise over the mountains, and another to shoot
the minarets with morning light. And then vowed to make
it up here while still dark.
day seemed like a good rest day as son Nick wasn't feeling
that great and Mom could use a rest from all the hiking
/ kayaking and so on. So Angela and I went out scouting
and shooting! Once again I realized the midday light
wasn't ideal, but what to do? We took some new roads
and tried to find something interesting. Our find was
this tree, which almost looked like the Bristlecone
Pines found in the nearby White Mountains.
time I would attempt the full tripod treatment. I set
up at the base of the rocks. I found working with the
tripod difficult. Once again it was hot and bright.
The ground was basically very fine gravel, and the tripod
legs just sunk in. I didn't enjoy getting into the positions
necessary to see through the viewfinder with the gravel,
heat and so on.
any case I thought these rocks made an interesting foundation
for the tree and I do like this shot.
I heard the voice of Frans again "what is it about this
scene that speaks to you?" I realized I have a tendency
to just start shooting. So after we climbed up the rocks
to the base of the tree I really tried to think about
it. I didn't have to worry about losing good light.
first thing that really grabbed me was the bark. In
many places it was shredded, almost hairlike. I looked
for a way to record this feeling, but also have the
"up the tree" look I find very appealing, but haven't
been successful shooting.
think I was somewhat successful with this shot.
next focused on the other aspect of the tree that I
found interesting - the roots. This tree's roots are
just brawny and, well, studly. They literally grasp
pure granite, holding up the majestic tree.
shot does not convey for me the power I felt sitting
next to the tree. Touching the root was sort of like
feeling the bicep of a body builder (I suppose, since
I haven't actually done that). I think the shot has
some degree of being dynamic, but it doesn't bowl me
it is at this moment, watching my daughter laying on
her back shooting pictures of the tree, that I realize
photography can be a family experience. This is a revelation
for sure. I can enjoy my hobby, teach my kids something
and spend time with them. Thanks, big old tree.
Early Morning Minarets, Revisited
This time we leave the condo at 4:55 am. Although I
have set everything out ahead of time, I am wondering
if we have everything we need. It seems like nothing
has really worked perfectly yet, and I'm hoping this
is the moment. We arrive in darkness and head off to
our first selected location.
realize we have forgotten something important - mosquito
repellant. They are everywhere. Fortunately we are mainly
covered up, but it is very annoying nonetheless. We
persevere as the sky begins to lighten and I get the
shots I had planned, which include a pine tree that
towers over the horizon. I keep looking over my shoulder
to the Minarets, wanting to capture that dramatic, first,
I get this shot, I find it totally uninspiring. I had
searched around for some interesting foreground, wildflowers
or something, but I just cannot find anything. Goes
to show that you can be in a beautiful location, at
the right time, and just create a ho-hum picture. That's
really what I want to improve on - how to always find
something interesting, a way to create a compelling
least working with my tripod is easy on this nice hard
my should the sky continues to lighten and become more
interesting. I head back that way, which is over a small
hill. As I begin to descend, I have a beautiful vision
in front of me. Looking through the viewfinder, I find
this perspective more pleasing that with the same tree
rising above the horizon.
this on my computer, I believe it has more ranges of
layers/colors than any image I have seen. I love the
pine trees in silhouette. I have made no adjustments
other than sharpening. I lapse into a moment of accomplishment.
return to the condo, triumphant, having finally shot
a sunrise at last. My wife and son have gotten all ready
for our trip to Yosemite, a first for the kids. The
Tioga Pass entrance (the Eastern side) is only 45 minutes
from the condo. As we make our way there, I again hear
the voice of Frans (the guy really made an impression
on me, wouldn't you say?). He said that it is important
to have a strategy, a plan in mind when going out shooting.
Thinking this over, I plan to only shoot pictures where
I have an interesting foreground. Something close to
my lens, with something beautiful beyond. We pass through
the entrance (all 9,500 vertical feet of it) and are
treated to a visual wonderland.
Tenaya is just a gorgeous alpine lake. My new wide angle
again proves itself as I'm able to capture the father/son
fishing moment and the reflection of the mountains.
Well, so much for my plan.
we drive into the park, we spy a beautiful creek/river,
and clamber out. I know I'm going to get some of my
wildflower shots, with the stream behind, I'm very excited.
As soon as I get setup, I realize I am being attacked
by bloodthirsty critters. My legs are covered with mosquitos,
and I DO have repellant on. This is the worst of the
trip so far. Back to the car we go. Three miles later
we experience the same thing. My spirits sink because
this high mountain area (Crane Flat) is so pretty, but
I realize we aren't going to be able to fight off the
flying bloodsuckers. There is a limit to the family's
head toward the valley floor, and I'm hoping for fewer
mosquitos at the lower elevation, and some opportunities
for photos. This turns into a long, mainly boring drive.
The road does not have endless vistas as you would expect.
It is just a twisty mountain road. And the valley is
an hour and a half away. Nonetheless, we persist, I
mean we are in YOSEMITE and our kids have never seen
we arrive at the valley, it is like the parking lot
at Disneyland. People are directing you everwhere, there
is dust flying, cars going every which way. We are hungry
and need to get out of the car. After touring several
parking lots and finding roped off areas, we locate
a suitable spot and have our lunch. It is very hot,
in the mid 90's, unusual for the valley. Our whole state
is experiencing a heat wave. With all of these people
and the heat, I have no motivation to find any suitable
way to get some of those great shots like other people
have. Fred's Yosemite shots have inspired me, but I
don't think this is the trip for me to create magic
of my own.
take the 10 minute trek up to Yosemite Falls (paved
road of course), with all the tourists staring at us
because we wear full hiking regalia - water bottles,
hats with sun shields, shorts with multiple pockets
and all of that. Most everyone else looks like they
just got out of a mall. I take some pics of the kids
having fun at the base of the falls.
Yosemite trip is basically a write-off. Too bad. Well,
almost. Hours later we are again heading south on 395
in the late afternoon. I spy a couple of deserted and
weather-worn shacks on the west side of the road. The
morning light would light them up nicely. I clock the
distance from there to our home base - only 23 miles.
next morning I awake early and reckon that I can
make it up to the shacks, snap a few prizewinners, and
return in time to head out kayaking at Rock Creek Lake.
I gather my gear and head out, realizing that I am late.
The sun is already coming up. I begin to think about the
shacks. Surely I'll be able to execute my plan here: there
will be beautiful wild flowers, nicely lit, then the warm
light on the shacks and finally the mountains behind them.
As I turn onto 395 going north I realize I am witnessing
the best sunrise I have seen in some time. Like, a long
time. Fantastic clouds. The kind that would look spectacular
behind some tufas at Mono. Or, ARGH, behind my beloved
shacks! I could shoot them in with the sunrise behind
them, not facing west with the morning light on them.
anyway, I'm going to miss it and that is too bad. I'll
make the best of it. Oops, I'll have to. They are working
on the highway, and in fact the southbound lanes are
closed off. Well, it is early and no one is around.
I cross over the divider and onto the fresh blacktop.
Jeez, no shoulder on this new road. That's why I have
4WD isn't it?
I come to a halt, I realize the light is quite nice.
Oh no. Instead of the wild flowers gracing the area
in front of the shacks as I had imagined, I find a barbed
wire fence. Not a picturesque old one either, and shiny
new one. I give some thought to hopping over but abandon
that thought. I set up my tripod, but before shooting
do some thinking. What is it I want to do here? (Actually
I'm thinking, what would a REAL photographer do if he
was standing here?) I cannot get close to them for a
wide angle, or a close up of weathered barn wood.
like my best course is to go for nice geometry, with
pleasing angles and then capture the angularity of the
mountains in the background.
turns out to be my best attempt, which I think is a
good technical execution, but lacks enthusiasm. It's
just a nice old barn in a nice location, nothing really
realize that if I set up on the road, and use my telephoto,
I'll be able to see over the barbed wire and maybe I
can compress the landscape. I mount the lens and
am walking that direction when Mr. Unhappy arrives.
"You'll have to move that vehicle, you aren't supposed
to be here." I smile and say, "just trying to
get a few shots before anyone starts working. How about
10 more minutes?" "How about right now, Bud?"
he snarls. Obviously not a photographer I think
to myself. "Okay, one more shot" I say.
He drives off. I don't fancy a road grader pushing a
load of dirt over my car, so I get the one shot
and slink away.
trip isn't a total loss however as on my way back I
sight this huge meadow of wild flowers. I pull over
and shoot both toward the sun and away. The sun is too
high for the eastern shots to work, which is too bad
because over there is where the mosquitos AREN'T. On
the other side I take the shot at right, while being
subjected to a full body assault the local air force.
have just one more morning, so I make a note of this
spot and think I'll come back for the sunrise.
take off for our last kayaking trip, and it is a great
one. I get some good family shots of all of us in the
boats. My plan is to stick to my plan of focusing on
interesting foreground shots. Unfortunately I don't
find much of interest. I do take a couple of shots with
a rock in the foreground, and another with grass, both
with the lake stretching out into the distance. But
upon later review I find the foreground subject is just
shot however does hold my interest. Turned over trees
always fascinate me, with their wonderful roots. This
time I have a nice background, and pretty decent light.
is a lot of interest, perhaps it is too busy? I wish
I would have worked to have the root off center? I'm
not sure, but it does work for me and I'm happy that
I got this shot this day.
awake just as the light begins to melt the darkness. I
get up and have a glass of water. My gear awaits, and
I know just the spot. I think the trip has met my goals
- I did everything with the family that we could have,
and I also spent serious time attempting to improve my
skills. We have been on the go for the entire nine days,
and today we drive home. The pine trees out the window
stir slightly, no doubt awakened by the light as well.
I decide to be happy with what I have. The bed is warm
and I'll catch another hour or two of sleep. After all,
I am on vacation.