In the Moment:
Michael Frye's Landscape Photography Blog

A Spring Sunrise

Clearing storm, spring, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Clearing storm, spring, Yosemite, 7:27 a.m. Friday. Five auto-bracketed frames, two stops apart, blended with Lightroom’s HDR Merge.

We’re having some unusual weather for May. Higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada received over a foot of snow on Thursday. A second storm brought more rain and upper-elevation snow last night. A third storm is forecast to arrive on Tuesday, with another storm possibly coming on Friday.

This kind of weather pattern is fairly common during California’s winter rainy season. In May, as the summer dry season approaches, it’s not unusual to see a small system come through and deliver some light rain. But a series of strong, wet, cold storms like this is practically unheard of.


Happy Mother’s Day

Northern elephant seals near San Simeon, CA, USA

Northern elephant seals near San Simeon, CA, USA

I hope all you moms are having a nice, relaxing day!

Claudia and I found ourselves near San Simeon a few weeks ago, and decided to stop and check out the elephant seals. I became captivated by the patterns made by seals on the beach, so I got out my camera and we ended up staying for over an hour. A thin overcast created soft sidelight and backlight on the seals, which was perfect for highlighting their forms and textures – patterns of seal blubber.


The Importance of Camera Position

Dogwood and late-afternoon light along the Merced River, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Dogwood and late-afternoon light along the Merced River, Yosemite

While the big wildflower blooms in southern California are now well past peak, spring keeps progressing into cooler regions, like the mountains. It’s been a good year for dogwoods, and Claudia and I have had a few opportunities to photograph them over the last couple of weeks.

Most of my dogwood photographs have been made with telephoto lenses in soft light. The scene above didn’t fit that description at all, with a close foreground that seemed to demand a wide-angle lens, and late-afternoon sunlight streaming down the river, creating lots of contrast. But the backlight looked beautiful – and besides, I’ve photographed dogwoods many times, so I was in the mood to push myself and do something different.


Flowers in the Fog

Wildflowers and oaks in the fog, Table Mountain, CA, USA

Wildflowers and oaks in the fog, Table Mountain. I loved the s-curve created by the foreground flowers. But a strong leading line won’t work unless it draws your eye to something interesting in the background. In this case the two distant oaks provided that background focal point – a period at the end of the sentence. (And those oaks wouldn’t have stood out so clearly without the fog.) 50mm, 1/3 of a second at f/16, ISO 100, focus-stacked.

After our trip to Antelope Valley Claudia and I hoped to photograph wildflowers again, so I kept my eye on the forecasts, looking for calm winds, and – if we got lucky – some clouds.

There was one day that looked promising, with showers in the forecast for much of California. Clouds and rain could be a great complement to wildflowers. But it looked like those showers would be accompanied by wind in all of the southern California wildflower spots. So I thought about other locations that might have less wind, and decided to go to Table Mountain, in northern California.


Patterns, Focal Points, and Flowers

Poppies, goldfileds, owl's clover, and spring gold, southern Sierra Nevada, CA, USA

Poppies, goldfileds, owl’s clover, and spring gold, southern Sierra Nevada, California. There were two compositional challenges here: the physical distance between the foreground and background flowers, plus the lack of any distinguishing features in the foreground that could serve as a focal point. I found this slightly-elevated vantage point where I could show the sweep of owl’s clover leading up to the hills, allowing me to fill most of the frame with flowers, so that solved the first problem. And then I spotted this small clump of yellow flowers (spring gold), which added a foreground focal point, and tied in visually with the yellow colors in the background. 27mm, 1/10th of a second at f/16, ISO 800.

It’s been a good year for wildflowers in California – above average in some places, and exceptional in a few spots.

One of those places that seemed to be having an exceptionally-good year was Antelope Valley, so after our Death Valley workshop Claudia and I made a quick trip down there. We had seen poppies in Antelope Valley back in the late ’80s, but hadn’t been back since, so this seemed like a good time for a return visit. And the flowers were amazing. In the sun the combination of bright, red-orange poppies and yellow goldfields was downright blinding. It actually hurt my eyes to look directly at the flowers.


Death Valley after Dark

Stars, Orion, and zodiacal light over an eroded gully, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Stars, Orion, and zodiacal light over an eroded gully, Death Valley. Robert Eckhardt, Claudia, and I found this twisting gully while scouting for the workshop, and I thought it might line up well with Orion and the zodiacal light just after dark. It was actually Robert’s idea to light-paint the gully, though he didn’t join me on the night I photographed it. The focal length had to be very wide (16mm) in order to fit everything in the frame. I made eight exposures for the sky, each at 15 seconds, f/4, ISO 12,800, and blended those together with Starry Landscape Stacker. I made another longer exposure to record more detail in the landscape (4 minutes at f/4, ISO 6400). Then I captured four light-painting frames, adding a little light from the right and left, and tracing the gully with a flashlight as I walked beside it. All these images were blended together in Photoshop.

Death Valley has been used as the setting for many Hollywood movies. Not surprisingly, some of these films use the austere, other-worldly landscapes of Death Valley as a stand in for another planet. (This includes two titles from the original Star Wars series – Episode IV: A New Hope, and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.)

This same other-worldly feeling works beautifully for night photography. I’ve made many nighttime images in Death Valley, and had a chance to capture a few more both before and during our recent workshop there. We had some challenging conditions at times, with wind, and plenty of clouds. But we also had one clear, calm night out in the dunes.


Earth Textures

Sandstorm, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Sandstorm, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

We tend to think of deserts as barren and desolate, but most deserts are actually full of vegetation. The plants may be widely spaced, but they’re abundant. Some desert areas, like Saguaro National Park, and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (both in Arizona), seem almost lush.

In Death Valley, however, there are miles and miles of bare, naked earth, without a scrap of vegetation. It’s austere, yet beautiful in its simplicity. The earth is laid out in plain sight, without any plants to obscure its colors, folds, and textures.


Desert Gardens

Desert in bloom at sunset, Joshua Tree NP, CA, USA

Desert in bloom at sunset, Joshua Tree NP, California. I bracketed three exposures, two stops apart, and blended them with Lightroom’s HDR Merge. 33mm, f/16, ISO 100.

Last week Claudia and I visited family in Southern California, and, while we were in the neighborhood, detoured to some early-season wildflower spots: Walker Canyon, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and Joshua Tree National Park.

In past years I’ve photographed beautiful wildflower displays in semi-desert areas like Antelope Valley and the Carrizo Plain, but never in true, low-desert habitats like Anza-Borrego and Joshua Tree. It was amazing to see these normally-dry places blooming. The hills in Anza-Borrego were so green that in the right light, if you squinted (and used your imagination), it looked a bit like Ireland. The birds were in a springtime mood as well; we walked up a wash one afternoon accompanied by a symphony of bird song.


Misty Yosemite Valley

Sunrise from Tunnel View, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Sunrise from Tunnel View, Yosemite. On this morning the satellite images showed lots of high clouds, but I hoped there might be a gap to the east, allowing the sun to shine through and light the underside of the clouds. And I hoped for mist on the valley floor. That was asking for a lot, but sometimes things work out. The color lasted about three minutes. 50mm, three bracketed exposures, two stops apart, blended with Lightroom’s HDR Merge.

While early February brought lots of snow to Yosemite Valley, over the last three weeks we’ve seen a series of warmer storms, with rain rather than snow. I’d rather have snow, of course, but any weather is more interesting than blue skies. And rain on top of snow is a great mist producer.

Fog or clouds form when the temperature and dew point converge. That means either cooling the air to meet the dew point (like when air rises, and cools, and the water vapor in the air condenses into clouds), or raising the dew point to meet the air temperature (by increasing the amount of moisture in the air).


Snow in Yosemite Valley: Part 2

Snow-covered oaks reflected in the Merced River, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Snow-covered oaks reflected in the Merced River, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

On that snowy day I wrote about in my previous post the sun came out quickly, so our first stop was a spot near El Capitan that was still in the shade. I was looking for reflections, but then the sun hit the oaks across the river, while a cloud threw shade over El Cap, creating a beautiful contrast between the bright white trees and the dark cliff behind them.

The snowbank below the oaks, however, was really bright and distracting. All I need, I thought, is for a cloud to shade that snowbank while the sun was still hitting the trees. And a minute later it happened, setting up a dark-light-dark-light pattern. (That’s the image at the top of this post.)