Osprey bringing a fish back to its nest at sunrise, Mono Lake, CA, USA

Osprey bringing a fish back to its nest at sunrise, Mono Lake. A thin band of smoke hung on the horizon to the east, turning the sun into a nice orange ball as it crested the horizon. We had watched an osprey bring a fish back to its nest on the tufa towers on a previous morning, so this time I was anticipating it. As the sun rose I heard the adult at the nest calling, so I got ready, setting my shutter speed to 1/350th of a second to freeze motion (at f/8 and ISO 100). The other adult flew in low and fast from the right, then rose up to the nest as I held down the shutter button. The bird is just a small accent at this size, but would be clearly visible in a big print.

Unusual conditions can provide interesting opportunities for photographs. Any unusual conditions – even things we don’t normally think of as photogenic. Photographers typically avoid smoke, for example, but smoke can create some wonderful atmospheric effects.

The Ferguson Fire started on the second day of our recent workshop in the Yosemite high country, but we didn’t see any smoke at first. Then on our fourth afternoon (Sunday the 15th) smoke started pouring over the mountains from the west. Instead of bemoaning our luck, we just went with it, sought out subjects that might work with the conditions, and ended up finding some interesting stuff, especially around sunrise and sunset.

Here’s a small collection of smoky images from the workshop, with extended captions explaining the circumstances. Although the Ferguson Fire is only 6% contained, in some recent community information meetings fire officials seemed optimistic that the fire could be completely contained by the end of the month. Let’s hope so. But in the meantime I’ll go with the flow.

— Michael Frye

Hills and tufa formations at sunrise, Mono Lake, CA, USA

Hills and tufa formations at sunrise, Mono Lake. I made this on the same morning as the photo at the top of this post, as the smoke on the horizon turned red-orange in the predawn light. The shutter speed was 8 seconds to smooth out the water.

Cascade, Tuolumne River, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Cascade, Tuolumne River, Yosemite. Sunlight filtering through smoke gave the water a golden glow. The shutter speed was 1/8 of a second at f/22, ISO 250, with a 4-stop ND filter.

Smoky sunset at Olmsted Point with Jeffrey pine, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Smoky sunset at Olmsted Point with Jeffrey pine, Yosemite. Smoke often turns the sun into an orange ball when it’s high above the horizon, creating interesting juxtapositions that you wouldn’t normally see. I bracketed exposures here in case I needed to blend them together, but ended up using just the middle exposure of the bracketed set, balancing the contrast with Lightroom’s Highlights and Shadows sliders.

Smoky sunset at Olmsted Point, with a Sierra juniper and lodgepole pines, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Smoky sunset at Olmsted Point, with a Sierra juniper and lodgepole pines, Yosemite. The concept and execution here were similar to the previous photo, and I also used just one exposure of a bracketed set.

Related Posts: Fire and Half Dome; Smoky Beauty

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.