Watching the sunrise from the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park, CA.
It is almost the middle of January in Lake Tahoe and by now I should have a ton of new ski and snowboard images under my belt. Unfortunately this season Mother Nature has other plans. We are currently experiencing one of the driest winter seasons on record and it looks like it is going to last at least another week. It feels more like May than January. There is no snow on the mountains and to sum it up in a word is “depressing.”
To curb my overwhelming desire to bundle up and cram myself into my refrigerator with a few cold ones and pray for winter, I grabbed my fiancée and we headed down to the Eastern Sierra and Death Valley National Park to brighten our mood.
My first goal of the trip was to photograph the Bristlecone Pine trees high in the White Mountains near Bishop, CA. I have photographed the Bristlecone Pines in Great Basin National Park quite extensively, but have never had the opportunity to visit the groves in the White Mountains of California. I wasn’t sure if the road would be open (it usually closes in October after the first snow) but I figured I would give it a shot. Luckily, and completely abnormal for January, the road was good to go.
We got a later start than I wanted to leaving Lake Tahoe and didn’t arrive to the Bristlecone Pine Forest until just after sunset. At first I was upset that I hadn’t given myself time to find some proper compositions but there was still some ambient light left. I did some quick exploring and came up with a few ideas. I knew I would have some moonlight to work with once it got dark and I was counting on using that to make some compelling imagery.
Once the sky was dark enough I began shooting. I shot a few exposures using the available moonlight but after previewing a few, something was missing. I decided to try something new, at least for me. I have shot under moonlight and played around with light-painting quite a bit with great success. I hadn’t however, combined the two. This was the perfect opportunity to give it a try!
An ancient Bristlecone Pine tree in the White Mountains, CA
I put together a composition of an impressive gnarled Bristlecone that I really liked. I set the camera to Bulb mode and opened the shutter for 160 seconds. While the shutter was open I used my headlamp to paint the tree from the side for about 45 seconds. I painted the tree from the side to give it some added depth. If I had lit the tree head on it would have given it a flat effect. After the first exposure I checked my preview and was thrilled with the results! I was really pleased with the combination of ambient moonlight and artificial light from my headlamp. The Bristlecone pines are such an oddity in nature to begin with (they are the oldest single living organisms on earth) and I have always wanted to make an image that really conveyed that. I finally felt like I succeeded.
With a winner in the bag, we made our way back down to the valley floor and headed for the Alabama Hills outside of Independence, CA. There, we set up camp.
I awoke early the next morning below the shadow of Mount Whitney and hiked over to Mobius and Lathe Arch to photograph sunrise. Both provide an excellent feature to photograph at sunrise. In the case of both arches it is possible to frame Mount Whitney (the highest peak in the contiguous US) and Lone Pine Peak perfectly in the negative space of both arches. As the first rays of light spill over the horizon lighting up the entire Eastern Sierra, it is truly a site to behold.
The Mobius Arch frames Mount Whitney and the Eastern Sierra Nevada at sunrise in the Alabama Hills, CA.
After shooting for about an hour I had everything I needed. We drove down to town, grabbed some breakfast and continued on to Death Valley National Park.
Having photographed in Death Valley before, I had a good idea of what I was looking for. On my previous trip most of my time was concentrated on photographing the famous Racetrack and the Zabriskie Point area. My goal with the limited time I had on this trip was to put my efforts towards creating some fresh imagery of Badwater Basin (the lowest point in the North America) and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.
Regina (my fiancée) was really excited to do some yoga in a spectacular location and I thought a late afternoon photo shoot in Badwater Basin would be perfect. I could photograph her in a variety of poses in a surreal setting and could then switch gears and photograph some dynamic landscapes once the sun set. We styled her out in some clothing that I liked and off we went.
Regina performing Lord of the Dance Pose (Natarajasana) in the Badwater Basin area of Death Valley National Park
The shoot went better than expected. The white salt surface of Badwater Basin provided the perfect natural reflector (similar to snow) to soften the harsh shadows of the late afternoon light. It balanced the scene out perfectly. The combination of the surreal landscape and yoga made for some great imagery that will surely sell in the commercial stock photography market.
Regina performs the One-Legged Inverted Staff Pose (Eka Pada Viparita Dandasana) in the Badwater Basin area of Death Valley National Park
After the sun set I stayed out on Badwater Basin for another hour composing a variety of landscape images. What a dreamlike place! Absolutely spectacular!
Badwater Basin at sunset
The next morning Regina and I awoke early and made our way over to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. We arrived early enough to give ourselves time to hike out a good distance on the dunes and scout a location to shoot before the actual sunrise.
We found a few spots we were happy with and began shooting. Early morning and late afternoon are the ideal times to shoot on the sand dunes. When the sun is high overhead it illuminates all sides of the dunes and it doesn’t translate very well photographically. The drama of the shadows at the beginning and end of the day provide the best chance to create dramatic imagery. We shot for over an hour until I was happy with a variety of different scenarios. It was a really fun morning.
Running down the sand dunes at sunrise in Death Valley National Park
After photographing on the sand dunes it was time to drive home. For two days of shooting I was extremely happy with the results. I was the most pleased with my frame from the Bristlecone Pine Forest. I am excited to use the technique of combining moonlight and artificial light in more photo shoots down the road. There is a lot of possibility for unique imagery using that technique and I’m excited to explore it further.
Once again I sit back in my office in Lake Tahoe getting all of these images out into the market. As much as I enjoyed this trip I would really like to start seeing some snow fall in Lake Tahoe. If any of you readers out there have some free time be sure and wash your car, do a snow dance and PRAY FOR SNOW! Until next time…
Usually at this time of year I am already extremely busy shooting all of my winter photography projects in Lake Tahoe. However, Mother Nature hasn’t delivered the goods yet. Lake Tahoe is about to have one of the driest Decembers on record and the forecast looks dismal. Everyone in town (including myself) is going stir crazy.
With everything on hold, I decided to get out of town and create some new work for my fine art and stock portfolio. I hadn’t shot any city scenes in awhile and decided that I would point my lens towards Reno, Sacramento and San Francisco.
My first shoot was in Reno. I didn’t have any images of Reno in my portfolio so I thought shooting an overview of the skyline was a good place to start. I drove down in the early afternoon to scout a good location to frame the city. Within a few hours I found a great vantage point on the top of a hill. The sun wasn’t going to set for another couple hours so I used the rest of the time to scout several locations in the city that I would photograph after I had captured the skyline shot. Everything was shaping up great.
The Reno skyline at dusk
After finding several other good shooting locations in the city I drove back out to the hillside location I scouted earlier. The sun was just setting and the buildings were starting to light up.
Dusk is one of my favorite times to photograph city scenes. There is still enough ambient light to give the sky a nice tone and maintain some detail throughout the scene. Additionally, the vantage point I picked was great but it was also a good distance away from the city itself. The longest lens I carry is a Nikon 70-200 2.8mm. The workaround I use a lot when I want to get a little closer to something is simply shoot with my Nikon D7000 instead of my Nikon D3s. The cropped sensor on the D7000 immediately turns my 70-200mm lens into a 105-300mm giving me the extra reach I need.
A detail of the Reno skyline
After about a half an hour of shooting I knew I had what I needed. I quickly packed up my gear and drove back to the downtown area to capture a few more scenes. My main goal was to get a good shot of the famous Reno Arch. I knew that a good shot of the arch would have a lot of salability, especially in stock. I worked the scene down at the arch for awhile and got what I was looking for. I drove back up to Lake Tahoe confident my time was well spent and that I had some great shots in the bag.
The famous Reno Arch
The next day my fiancée and I drove down to wine country where she had some business to take care of. Over the next several days I used my time to scout and shoot different versions of the San Francisco skyline and bridges.
So much of photography, especially landscape and travel photography, is all about scouting. I definitely spend a lot more time scouting locations than I do shooting them. I usually scout everything during the middle of the day when the scenes are less interesting and the light isn’t as dramatic. Then when all of the elements line up I know exactly where I need to be to make a great image. A lot of my creative process is all about pre-visualization and scouting is a huge part of that.
The first shot I was after was a panorama of the San Francisco skyline with the Bay Bridge. The easiest place to shoot that scene is from Treasure Island, which sits just across from the city and is easily accessible by car. The only downside to shooting from Treasure Island is that I have never felt like the scene is very dynamic. In my mind, the best place to shoot the scene was from the top of a hill on adjoining Yerba Buena Island.
The only problem with shooting from Yerba Buena is that all of the good locations are technically off limits to the public. Luckily things like that don’t usually stop me from doing what I need to do. I spent some time on the island prior to sunset finding a good place to set up my shot. After coming up with some good options I went back over to Treasure Island to wait for the light to get good. I didn’t want to hang out at the locations I scouted on Yerba Buena and draw attention to myself possibly getting me kicked out before I could get my shots.
The sun set and I quickly drove back over to Yerba Buena and began shooting. The scene was spectacular! I shot well into the darkness using a variety of lenses and shutter speeds to get different effects. I shot some of the scenes using a low ISO and slow shutter speed to get the cars streaking across the Bay Bridge. I also shot some of the scenes using a very high ISO (up to 4000) to freeze the cars on the bridge giving the shots a different feel. The capability of the Nikon D3s to produce unbelievable files at such high ISOs has never ceased to amaze me. In fact, I don’t even consider 4000 to be that high of an ISO any more. In the last year I have had several photos published that were shot at a whopping 12,800 ISO!
The San Francisco skyline and Bay Bridge at night from Yerba Buena Island
With all of the shots in the bag from Yerba Buena I went back over to Treasure Island and captured a few more scenes. There is a new sculpture on the island that is lit up at night that makes for an excellent subject.
The San Francisco skyline at night from Treasure Island
An amazing sculpture on Treasure Island illuminated at night
The next day my efforts were concentrated on the Golden Gate Bridge. I had shot the Golden Gate once before from the Marin Headlands with great results. I wanted to mix things up a bit though. I really wanted to create an image of the Golden Gate that was colorful and moody. I also didn’t want to shoot the bridge from any of the “classic” locations over on the Marin Headlands. It is easy to get great shots of the bridge and the city from the Marin Headlands but all of the locations are overshot and you would be hard pressed to come away with anything original.
After driving around for awhile I found a great location with a different perspective at the Presidio Yacht Club. Not only did the location have a great view but I also noticed that the tide was starting to go out.
Low tide was going to coincide perfectly with dusk which gave me a great tool at my disposal for creating the kind of image I was looking for. I knew the exposed rocks at low tide would make great foreground subjects with excellent texture. The moving water around the rocks during a long exposure would add to the mystic feel that I was going for.
The Golden Gate Bridge
As it began to get dark and the bridge began to light up, I crept down on the slippery rocks and set up my shot. I took some quick tests and after a few adjustments I was happy with the composition. The only thing I didn’t like was how dark the foreground was compared to the bridge and the sky. To correct this problem I used a 2 stop Hard Graduated Neutral Density filter. I adjusted my exposure accordingly and was extremely happy with the result. I stayed down on the rocks and took shot after shot to ensure I had what I was looking for. The motion of the waves hitting the rocks created a slightly different effect with each exposure and I wanted to make sure that I had the best possible version of the image. After about 30 or so shots I knew I had what I was looking for. Ironically, when I processed all of the images the first shot in the batch was my favorite.
The next day I joined back up with my fiancée and we began our drive back to Lake Tahoe. We didn’t leave until later in the afternoon so we could stop in Sacramento and photograph the famous Tower Bridge on our way home. It worked out perfectly. We hit the bridge at just the right time and I had the chance to take some general overview shots of the bridge as well as get a little more creative. It was a wonderful end to a great couple days of shooting.
Cars pass over the famous Tower Bridge in Sacramento at dusk
Now, back in my office in Lake Tahoe, everything is processed and submitted to the agency I shot for, Aurora Photos. Ultimately I was able to put about forty new images into the market. On top of that I have several new shots that will be sold as limited edition fine art prints. I would call that a productive week!
Unfortunately there still isn’t any snow in the forecast. I haven’t figured out what my next short term project will be to get me through this lull in the weather but trust me, the wheels are turning! Stay tuned.
Posted By: Rachid
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Categories: Photography • Travel
Last week I headed down to Southern California to relax, surf and photograph for a week. The weather was all over the place. I had a hard time catching a window of really good light until, finally, I was rewarded with a 5 minute window one evening in La Jolla.
"Sunset at the Cove"
A few hours before sunset I was wandering around on the coast scouting a possible location for a good shot. The skies were completely overcast and I wasn't holding my breath for any sort of dramatic lighting. About 30 minutes before sunset the clouds started to break up with the sun popping out in small increments. I scrambled to get my gear out and headed for a location I looked at earlier. When I arrived I knew my opportunity for a good photograph was very limited — the sun was almost about to dip below the horizon.
The lighting was very dramatic and it required me use a 3 stop and a 1 stop Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filter to account for the full dynamic range of the scene. I also switched to my wide angle lens and used a vertical format so I could capture the beautiful purple flowers in the foreground. Lastly I stopped my lens down to f 22 to create the star burst effect on the sun. After taking 10 photographs the light was gone and that was it.
With patience and a little luck I was able to come away with an image that I am very happy with.
Posted By: Rachid
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What an EPIC day! Great weather and even better snow prompted my friend Sean Cronin and I to go ski and snowboard a line we both had been looking at for sometime, Emerald Chute above Emerald Bay. Because of the south facing aspect of the chute it was important we descend it in the early morning before the avalanche danger became too high. It took us about an hour and a half to gain the ridge from the road and about another 45 minutes to negotiate the top of the ridge to the entrance of the chute. The views from the top of the chute are absolutely unreal. It feels like you could just dive right into Emerald Bay. After we were back at the car, all Sean and I could talk about was how privileged we are to call such an amazing place home.
"Sean Cronin skis Emerald Chute with Emerald Bay and Lake Tahoe in the background"
Posted By: Rachid
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Categories: Photography • Travel
Yesterday my girlfriend Regina and I took a drive down Highway 395 along the Eastern Sierra Nevada to check out a place I've been wanting to photograph for sometime, Bodie, CA. Bodie is a ghost town located just south of Bridgeport, CA. It was a great way to spend the day. I will definitely have to go back to photograph this location again. All the old buildings, vehicles and equipment just letting time have its way with them in an unbelievable setting was a joy to photograph! Every photographer should visit this place.
"Cruising Through Time"