Mormon Row (When It All Comes Together)

A Classic Location within the Grand Tetons NP

Mormon Row Panorama

Mormon barn set against the Grand Tetons – © John. R. Birch 2011 – (click for larger view)

You know the problem, as I’m sure I’m not the only one. You set out out on a photo-shoot to a great location, arrive in good time, get a great spot, set up you gear, and carefully compose your frame. Then by some magic of nature, that fantastic light you’d dreamed of suddenly appears and the scene before you is transformed. You snap away with merry abandon, filling up the memory card with an abundance of frames, not wanting to miss every subtle change in the light, thinking you’ve definitely bagged a winner since it looks great on the LCD. But then you get home and

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Never Trust the Devil

The Devils’ Golf Course, Death Valley

Devils Golf Course (Jul 2009) 0005

This is a place I won’t forget too easily as it was ‘nearly’ the site of one of my photographic disasters. I’d been up since before 4:00 am that day and had driven down from our hotel at Furnace Creek for a dawn shoot at Badwater. Unfortunately the dawn sky colour failed to really materialise and the desired reflections in the sparse salt pools were a bit meek to say the least. Never-the-less

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Shooting the Antelope

Photographing a Classic Arizona Location

Despite the title this article has nothing to do with wildlife; quite the contrary in fact for this is about my visit to Upper Antelope Canyon, the beautiful, atmospheric and most famous slot canyon, situated near Page in Northern Arizona.

Spirit of the Navajo

Spirit of the Navajo – Ghostly light beans in Upper Antelope Canyon

Antelope Canyon (Upper Antelope Canyon especially) is one of those classic photographic locations that has become extremely popular over the last 15 to 20 years or so, and to some almost a bit of a photo cliché, but there’s no denying that it produces some wonderful photographic opportunities.

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False Kiva, Canyonlands

A Classic Photographic Location – False Kiva

I first became aware of False Kiva location from the excellent Canyonlands and Arches DVD by photographer Steve Kossack from his series Photographing The Great American Landscape. My purchase at the time was more out of curiosity and to gain further insight to landscape photographic technique rather than a specific interest in the locations covered. At that time I only had dreams of visiting locations like those and False Kiva.
False Kiva

False Kiva, a hidden gem in Canyonlands – © John R. Birch 2009

However that changed in the summer of 2009 when I took my family on a fly-drive holiday in the USA. Whilst researching possible photographic locations for our trip I came across a picture of False Kiva by the photographer Stephen Oachs. His is entitled “The Tribunal” and to be quite honest I was simply blown away,
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The Magic of Mono

Photographic Location

You’d be forgiven if you thought I was going to discuss the benefits of black & white photography or something to that effect. I’m referring of course, to Mono lake in California, one of the oldest lakes in North America. Mono Lake is located in the Mono basin, flanked to the north by the Bodie Hills, to the west by Sierra Nevada Mountain range, and to the east by Crowtack Mountain of Nevada, and adjacent to the town of Lee Vining almost 6,800 ft above sea level. The scenery is a stark contrast from the pine forests and alpine meadows of nearby Yosemite Valley 75 miles over the Tioga mountain pass, comprising a semi-arid, desert-like landscape, dominated by distinctive igneous geology with many volcanic craters.

It is a lake that is not without controversy either. Back in 1941 the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began water extraction which was to eventually exceeded inflow and as a result the lake level began to drop. By 1982 the lake surface area had been reduced by over 30 percent. This also began to expose submerged tufa towers; large limestone spires formed by calcium waters transported to lake bed by geothermal springs, reacting with the salt-rich lake waters and depositing layer-upon-layer of calcium carbonate over time. It also drastically effected the salinity of the lake, exposing salt rich deposits to erosion and now the lake is 2½ times more salty than the ocean. Not much can survive in that, and not much does (there are no fish), however the lake is home to Artemia monica, a tiny species of brine shrimp, no bigger than a thumbnail, that are entirely unique to Mono Lake.
Local inhabitants formed the Mono Lake Committee in 1978 and many years of legal proceedings and representations followed which have eventually resulted in a directive to reduce water extraction and (hopefully) eventually return the lake to it’s former levels. However the battle still continues on.

Mono Lake and the surrounding area provide a truly unique and interesting landscape but it is the tufa towers that provide great interest to photographers. I’d past through Lee Vining briefly back in 1984, but never visited the tufa areas, now designated as a California State Reserve Park. The Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Centre, just off Highway 395 to the north of Lee Vining, includes a variety of exhibits about the natural and human history of the Mono Basin and is a good place to research your photographic location if you have time beforehand. The best area for photographers is South Tufa, on the southern shoreline, where are tufa spires up to 30-ft high and ranging in age from 200-700 years old are exposed, providing a surreal landscape. I didn’t have the luxury of a reconnaissance trip before my dawn shoot, so it was up at 4:30 am and a drive out in the dark for me during my summer 2009 visit.

As I drove out from Lee Vining and turned onto highway-120, there was a beautiful pre-dawn red glow reflected in the lake that made it seem like it was on fire and I began to wonder if my 4:30am alarm call had been early enough. There were other cars in the car park too, so I set off briskly down the wooded walkway in the dim, pre-dawn light with my head torch lighting the way. It’s quite strange visiting a location for the first time in the dark (not the best thing to do), but I didn’t have the opportunity to explore the day before and I could just about make out the shadows of the eerie tufa spires all around. I found three other photographers with tripods already set-up at the beach at the end of the boardwalk, so I set up beside them and began to chat. Luckily for me one turned out to be Ralph Nortstom, a delightful chap, and professional photographer conducting a small workshop. Ralph was kind enough to give me some pointers and shortly I was snapping away with the rest of them. You can smell the salt at Mono lake and as it got lighter I became aware of the millions of lake flies floating on the water and along the shore line which ripple away in vast waves as you walk towards them. Thankfully they don’t bother or bite. As the light gradually increased I became aware of many other photographers arriving and others scattered amongst the tufas. I must have counted over 30, so this is definitely a very popular spot. I went for a walk eastwards through the large shore bound accumulation of tufas and tried several other spots, but soon the good light had gone, but I found exactly the right location for my shot for the following day.

The next morning I was first to arrive, but the pre-dawn glow didn’t seem anywhere near as intense as the day before. The sky was cloudless again too. It was so much easier to find my location this time; it certainly pays to investigate your location beforehand if you can. I had envisaged catching silhouettes and shadowy reflections of a tufa island just offshore looking eastward into a red dawn glow. Despite the lack of brilliance, stopping down increases the saturation and as the light increased I used graduated ND filters to hold back the sky and balance it with the reflections within the lake. I also tried additional ND filters to lengthen my exposure time to smooth out the surface of the lake, an effect I quite like. Soon the golden light had faded and I tried other shots. There are so many unusual shapes within the tufa you can spend ages here. It’s a wonderful spot and I was really pleased with my shot. I hope you agree.

 

How to Get There

Head south from Lee Vining on US-395 for approximately 5½ miles. Get into the left hand lane and take a sharp left onto Hwy-120, which is signposted Benton 46 and Mono Lake South Tufa 5 miles. After a further 4.7 miles you’ll see a sign to Mono Lake South Tufa. Make a left onto Test Station Road, just where Hwy-120 turns begins to turn sharply to the right. The road is paved but not for long. Take the left hand road where the road forks; the right goes to Navy Beach. This is the end of the paved section but the gravel track down to the car park is fine for most vehicles. From the car park it’s a 5 minute walk down a boardwalk to the beach. The end of this path is a good location, but better locations can be had by heading off to the right (eastwards) and following one of the several paths through the large tufas to the beach beyond where your will be able to photographs tufas offshore silhouetted into the dawn or rising sun.  

Recommended Links

Photographic Locations nearby

Bodie State Park – quite probably the best ghost town of all.
Sand Tufas near Navy Beach

Mesa Arch – The Photographers Holy Grail

An Iconic Location of the American Southwest

Mesa Arch Sunrise

We’ve all seen hundreds of pictures of Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. It’s an iconic image and a location that is hugely popular with photographers from all over the world. You may well think it’s been over-photographed, but the temptation to add this to your portfolio if you get the chance is just too good to an oportunity to miss. It’s almost the holy grail for photographers and besides, for amatuers like myself it’s a chance to compair your own results with the big boys and see

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