Stormy sunrise at North Lake, Bishop Creek Canyon, Inyo NF, CA, USA

Stormy sunrise at North Lake, Bishop Creek Canyon, Sunday morning

After photographing lightning near Bishop on Saturday night (see my previous post), I thought there might be some interesting clouds still hanging around on Sunday morning, so I woke early and drove up to North Lake, near the upper end of Bishop Creek Canyon.

And there were clouds – almost too many. Another small rain squall was moving up from the south along the Sierra crest, approaching Bishop Creek Canyon just as the sun was due to rise. There were enough clouds to the east that I thought they might block the light. And I think some clouds lingering over the White Mountains did block the very first sunlight, but just after sunrise some clouds started to turn color overhead, and soon the peaks began to light up as well.

It evolved quickly into a dramatic scene. It was a little breezy, rippling the water surface, but there were still nice reflections at first. Then the wind increased, so I climbed up the ridge along the eastern shore of the lake to get a different perspective, one that didn’t depend as much on reflections.

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September 22nd, 2014

A Stormy Night

Lightning over Bishop and the Owens Valley, CA, USA

Lightning over Bishop and the Owens Valley, CA, USA

Over the weekend Claudia and I made our annual pilgrimage to the Millpond Music Festival in Bishop, over on the eastern side of the Sierra. This is the 15th consecutive year we’ve attended this festival. Hanging out with friends, listening to music underneath the high peaks of the Sierra, made for a wonderful, relaxing, fun weekend. And as a bonus, I got to photograph some interesting weather.

The land around Bishop is semi-desert, so it doesn’t get much rain. We’ve been sprinkled on a couple of times at Millpond, but had never experienced any serious rain – until Saturday.

A weak low-pressure system pulled some remnants of Hurricane Odile up from the south. Clouds and thunderstorms developed over the mountains, but missed Bishop and the Owens Valley until Saturday evening. As the second-to-last act of the day was performing, a few raindrops fell. I looked at radar images on my phone, and saw some serious-looking storm cells moving right up the valley from the south. I estimated that we had an hour or two before we got dumped on. Figuring that the last performance would be cancelled anyway, I decided to try and get some lightning photographs.

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September 9th, 2014

Fire and Half Dome

Meadow Fire burning in Little Yosemite Valley at night, with Half Dome on the left, Yosemite; 9-7-14, 8:44 p.m.

Meadow Fire burning in Little Yosemite Valley at night, with Half Dome on the left, Yosemite; 9-7-14, 8:44 p.m.

Sunday afternoon Claudia and I saw dramatic images on the Yosemite webcams of a fire in Little Yosemite Valley. We’ve had many fires around here the last two summers, and I’ve made plenty of fire photographs. But how often can you photograph a fire next to Half Dome? We decided to head up to Washburn Point (near Glacier Point) to take a look.

The origin of this fire is officially under investigation. The park service has been letting the lightning-caused Meadow Fire burn for awhile, and it’s likely that embers from the Meadow Fire were picked up and blown into an area with heavy fuels, then were fanned by the wind. But it’s also possible that this is a new fire with an unknown cause.

In either case, the winds caused this fire to blow up suddenly Sunday at about 12:30 p.m., closing all the trails in and around Little Yosemite Valley, and forcing the park service to evacuate 50 hikers from the top of Half Dome by helicopter! A big news story, as you can imagine. As of yesterday, the fire was estimated at 2,600 acres. They’re using helicopters, air tankers, and ground crews to contain it. All the park roads and facilities are open, and fortunately no one has been injured by the fire.

There were quite a few photographers at Washburn Point Sunday night, and no wonder – the fire was a spectacular sight. Moonlit clouds kept streaming in from the south, and several times we saw lightning in the distance. Two separate rain showers just missed us, but passed directly over the fire. The first shower seemed to noticeably dim the flames. After the second, heavier shower, a large bank of fog rose up, obscuring the fire and Half Dome. The fog may actually have been steam, created by water hitting the fire. These brief showers didn’t put the fire out, but they probably slowed it down.

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September 7th, 2014

In the Heat of the Night

Moonlit sand dunes and the Milky Way, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Moonlit sand dunes and the Milky Way, Death Valley. This is the photograph I originally envisioned from Death Valley, with dunes lit by the setting moon and the Milky Way above. (20 sec. at f/2.8, 6400 ISO)

Where do you go to escape the crowds on Labor Day weekend? How about Death Valley, where the temperature was forecast to be 112 degrees! That should keep the tourists away.

Okay, escaping the crowds wasn’t really the motivation for going to Death Valley in August. I had an idea for making a photograph with low-angle moonlight illuminating the sand dunes, and the Milky Way above. The moon had to be in the right phase: too much moonlight and the sky would become washed out, obscuring the Milky Way and most of the stars; too little and you wouldn’t see the effect of the moonlight on the dunes.

The moon also had to be far enough from the Milky Way to keep the moon itself out of the photograph, as it would be impossible to properly expose both the moon and the landscape in the same frame. The moon also needed to be close to the horizon, and off to the side (with the camera pointed at the Milky Way), as that low-angle sidelight would emphasize the form and texture of the dunes.

Not long ago I wrote about two apps for forecasting the position of the Milky Way and moon, PhotoPills and Star Walk. Consulting both of these apps I had figured out that the moon and Milky Way would be in the right position for the photograph I had in mind on the Friday and Saturday before Labor Day. And the next time the moon and Milky Way would be in a good position for this would be… next April, or even May. I decided to brave the heat rather than wait.

I had initially planned to go to Death Valley on Friday, but a thick bank of high clouds moved in – the remnants of Tropical Storm Marie. Since the skies looked clearer further south, Claudia and I kept driving and headed for the Trona Pinnacles.

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Yosemite Meditations Tenth Anniversary EditionIn the early 2000s, my wife Claudia – then manager of The Ansel Adams Gallery – saw the need for small, inspirational books for the Yosemite visitor. She worked with Steve Medley, the president, publisher, and editor for the Yosemite Association (now Yosemite Conservancy), to find meaningful quotes about nature, conservation, and Yosemite, and pair those quotes with my photographs to create the original Yosemite Meditations book. Since then, Yosemite Meditations has gone through several reprints, and spawned two companion volumes: Yosemite Meditations for Women, and Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers.

Now the Yosemite Conservancy has released the Tenth Anniversary Edition of Yosemite Meditations. Again, Claudia did a great job of finding and pairing new quotes and photographs, mixing them with favorites from the first edition, and keeping the spirit and flavor of the original book.

If you order the Tenth Anniversary Edition of Yosemite Meditations directly from us through the “Add to Cart” button below, Claudia and I will both sign the book. You can also order directly from the publisher, the non-profit Yosemite Conservancy. In addition, the Conservancy has a 10% discount on Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers as their Retail Item of the Month (enter the code ADVENTURE on checkout).

There’s a nice review of the new edition of Yosemite Meditations on VividLife. Also, if you’re on Goodreads, we’re giving away (through the generosity of the Yosemite Conservancy) ten copies of this tenth anniversary edition.

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September 2nd, 2014

Photographing Bodie

"Swayback" building at night, Bodie SHP, CA, USA

“Swayback” building at night with the Milky Way, Bodie. While helping some members of our group photograph this building I set up my own camera as well. I put tissue paper over a flashlight to act as a diffuser, then stuck my hand through a gap in one of the walls to light the interior of the building during the 20-second exposure for the stars.

As promised, here are some of my recent photographs from Bodie. Bodie, if you’re not familiar with it, is just north of Mono Lake, and is billed as the best-preserved ghost town in the United States. Bodie is now a state park, and a very interesting place to photograph, but it’s usually only open from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., which means you can’t photograph it during the best light of the day, much less at night.

A few years ago I was able to photograph Bodie on a moonlit night with Lance Keimig and Scott Martin during one of their workshops. Then, earlier this summer, Claudia and I went to Bodie on one of occasional evenings when the park stays open until 10:00 p.m. This was a moonless night, but since it didn’t get completely dark until about 9:00 p.m. that left only an hour for true night photography. It was still fun, but much too short.

Luckily I would have another chance soon. We had managed to secure a hard-to-get permit to take a workshop group there at night, and added that evening to my Starry Skies Adventure workshop. We had so much fun there with the group. This time we were able to stay until 1:00 a.m., but it wasn’t long enough!

Here’s a selection of both daytime and nighttime images from those recent trips to Bodie. I tried many different ideas, but had to leave other ideas still percolating in the back of my mind, as I just didn’t have time to execute them all. I think there’s so much potential there for creative lighting of both interiors and exteriors, and working with reflections in the old windows. I certainly look forward to going back. If you haven’t been to Bodie, I highly recommend it, even during the middle of the day. And if you get a chance to go in the late afternoon or at night, take it!

— Michael Frye

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Venus, Jupiter, and the Moon rising at dawn, Mono Lake, CA, USA

Venus, Jupiter, and the Moon rising at dawn, Mono Lake, Saturday morning

We had a wonderful time during our Starry Skies Adventure workshop last week. We managed to dodge the fires and had four clear, smoke-free nights. It was a really nice group, and photographing under a sky full of stars is always such a great experience.

One of the highlights of the workshop was viewing and photographing a dawn alignment of Venus, Jupiter, and the Moon over Mono Lake last Saturday. It’s hard to convey how gorgeous this was in a photograph, but you’ll find my best attempt above.

We also photographed star trails and the Milky Way, and went to Bodie on our last night. I’ll save the Bodie images for a later post, but you’ll find a selection of other images from the workshop below.

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August 14th, 2014

Stars Over Three Brothers

Stars and clouds over Three Brothers, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Stars and clouds over Three Brothers, Tuesday evening; 20 seconds, f/2.8, 6400 ISO

Tuesday evening Claudia and I drove to Yosemite Valley. The moon was due to rise about 90 minutes after sunset, so I hoped to photograph the northern end of the Milky Way over Three Brothers, with the rising moon adding a bit of light to the peaks.

We got to the Valley well before sunset, but there were some interesting clouds, so we decided to head to Tunnel View, where we found the usual August assortment of tour buses and people taking selfies in front of the panorama. I photographed some interesting patterns of dappled sunlight and clouds, then, just at sunset, after the crowds had thinned, the sky turned pink and a beautiful array of tufted clouds drifted overhead (below).

We had a little picnic along the Merced River as we waited for the sky to get dark, then I started taking photos of Three Brothers. At first the clouds blocked most of the stars. But the sky gradually cleared, revealing more stars, and then, looking at the photos on my camera’s LCD screen, I could see the clouds taking on a pink hue, and a hint of light on Yosemite Point in the distance. This was the lunar equivalent of a predawn glow, with the moon still below the horizon, but already adding some light and color to the scene. My eyes couldn’t see the color, but the camera could (right).

Later, as the moon rose for real, the clouds and peaks turned gold, just as they would at sunrise. Again, it was too dark for the cones in my retinas to pick up the color, but the camera recorded it perfectly. And some of the cloud formations were spectacular, fanning out in big V shapes above Three Brothers (below).

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Wildflowers island and cascade, eastern Sierra, CA, USA

Wildflower island and cascade, eastern Sierra; 100mm, 1/2 sec. at f/16, 100 ISO

It’s been an interesting summer in the Sierra. Last winter was one of the driest on record, but over the last month or so we’ve seen a steady flow of monsoonal moisture flowing up from the southeast, leading to frequent afternoon showers and thunderstorms over the higher elevations. We even heard about an epic deluge two or three weeks ago that flooded the parking lot and some of the tent cabins at the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge.

That extra moisture has kept the streams flowing and flowers blooming in the high country longer than I would have expected. On Saturday Claudia and I hiked up one of the eastern Sierra canyons and found a pretty series of cascades, with an island of late-summer flowers in the middle.

Although I make my share of black-and-white photographs, I’ve always been attracted to color. I often look for color, then try to build a composition around it. As I tell my workshop students, color isn’t enough – you need to find a design to go with that color.

In this case, that design proved to be elusive. The most obvious composition was a wide-angle view with a patch of flowers at the bottom, and the upper cascade above. But there was a distracting pile of logs at the base of the cascade that cluttered the image, with no obvious way to eliminate or minimize the logs. I have nothing against logs, but in this case I was interested in the flowers and water, and the logs broke up the visual flow between the flowers and water, diluting the photograph’s message:

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July 30th, 2014

Smoky Beauty

Sun rising through smoke from the El Portal Fire, 7/28/14, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Sun rising through smoke from Tunnel View, 7/28/14, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Early Monday morning I drove up to Yosemite Valley, hoping that smoke from the El Portal and Dark Hole fires might create some interesting atmospheric effects. Yes, I went looking for smoke, something that photographers usually avoid. But smoke can impart a wonderful, ethereal quality to photographs – like fog, but with more color.

At Tunnel View the smoke was thick enough to give the scene a misty, painterly look, but not so thick that you couldn’t see anything. Eventually the orange ball of the sun appeared through the smoke, accompanied by a patterned cloud formation (above). Later, along the Merced River, the smoke lent a similar painterly mood to scenes of El Capitan and Three Brothers (below). And much later, near sunset, the sun turned into an orange ball again as it sunk into the smoke to the west (below).

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