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Amateur takes on the Eastern Sierra
written by Bob Towery

The Adventure Begins

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 my skills.

I 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.

So 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.

We are staying in Mammoth Lakes, which is very centrally located for hiking, boating, seeing Mono Lake and much more.

The 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.

Because 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.

I 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.

Fourth 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.

This 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 version.

We attend a July 4th party and I ask all the locals for the most photogenic locations...

Our 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.

Upon review I find the shot at right is the only interesting picture. I vow to do better tomorrow.

Mono Lake

Our 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 here! 

Of 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. 

As 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.

This 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 the clouds.   

It is difficult to tell if this mass is fifteen feet high or fifty, wouldn't you say?


We 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 great deal. 


The 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 guy, eh?

I 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.

Convict Lake

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.

I 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.

This 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.

Upon reviewing later on my laptop I'm very happy with this shot - the best of the day.

Devil's 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.

I 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.

I 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.

With 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?

Walking 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 conditions.

Looking 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:

  1. Thoroughly soil all undergarments.
  2. If the bear charges, cover up the family with my body so he eats me and leaves them alone.
  3. If #2 doesn't occur, mount the 70-200 and discreetly get a fantastic shot (or two).

The 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.

We 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.

My 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.


This 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.

Well, 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.

Tree Encounter

This 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.

This 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.

In any case I thought these rocks made an interesting foundation for the tree and I do like this shot.

Then 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.

The 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.

I think I was somewhat successful with this shot.

I 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.

This 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 over.

However 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.

I 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, pink light.

While 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 image.

At least working with my tripod is easy on this nice hard ground.

Over 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.

Reviewing 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.


We 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.

Lake 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.

As 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 indulgence.

We 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 it before.

When 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.

We 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.

This 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.

Morning Light Again

The 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.

Well, 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?

As 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.

Seems like my best course is to go for nice geometry, with pleasing angles and then capture the angularity of the mountains in the background.

This 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 special.

I 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.

The 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.

We have just one more morning, so I make a note of this spot and think I'll come back for the sunrise.

We 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 too plain.

This 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.

There 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.

Last Day

I 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.