Light and Weather

Clearing Tropical Storm

Sunbeams, Half Dome, and Nevada Fall from Glacier Point, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Sunbeams, Half Dome, and Nevada Fall from Glacier Point, Yosemite NP, California

As the remnants of Tropical Storm Hilary moved through California, I looked for opportunities to photograph interesting weather. I thought we might get thunderstorms, which we did, especially as the first bands of moisture reached our area. But I wasn’t able to find a thunderstorm in the right position to photograph it. We did, however, get three-quarters of an inch of rain at our house from one thunderstorm.

Then, as this large weather system moved off to the north, I realized there might be a chance to photograph a clearing storm Monday morning (August 21st). It looked like the rain would end around sunrise in Yosemite; it was less clear whether the clouds would dissipate enough for the sun to break through that early.


Death Valley

Mud tiles in late-afternoon light, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Mud tiles in late-afternoon light, Death Valley NP, California

I’m thinking about Death Valley, and other desert areas in California currently affected by the rain from Tropical Storm Hilary. These are places that receive very little precipitation, where the ground is mostly rock and dirt, and even a half-inch of rain can fill normally-dry washes and create flooding and debris flows. There are few bridges along the roads in the desert; they just run right through the washes, because it’s so rare for those washes to have any water in them. That means even minor flooding or debris flows can cause lots of damage.

This storm could bring several inches of rain to many desert areas today and tomorrow. Some places could get a year’s worth of precipitation, or several year’s worth, in just a couple of days, or even a few hours. It’s a scenario that could cause major rock and mudslides, wipe out roadways, and create catastrophic flash floods. I hope everyone in those areas has found a safe place to ride out the storm.


Mono Lake

Tufa formations and osprey at sunrise, Mono Lake, CA, USA

Tufa formations and osprey at sunrise, Mono Lake, California

I love the diversity of our area. We live in the foothills on the western side of the Sierra Nevada, a region that includes rolling grasslands, oak savannah, chaparral, oak woodlands, and steep-sided river canyons. Just to the west of that is California’s Central Valley, an agricultural hub that also contains marshes and wetlands, hosting vast flocks of waterfowl in winter.

To our east lies the higher terrain of the Sierra, including the wondrous Yosemite Valley, plus magnificent conifer forests, meadows, canyons, rivers, lakes, and peaks. And when Tioga Pass is open we can reach the eastern side of the mountains in about two-and-a-half hours, where the trees give way to high desert, with sagebrush, junipers, pinyon pines, pronghorn antelope, wild horses, stunning views of the Sierra – and the uniquely beautiful shores of Mono Lake.


Melting Ice

Melting Ice #1

Melting Ice #1. 400mm, 1/15 sec. at f/16, ISO 100, two-frame focus stack blended in Photoshop.

Claudia and I love going up to the Yosemite high country in summer. But we hadn’t been able to get up there because the Tioga Road opened so late. We’d been over to the eastern side of the Sierra a couple of times (via Sonora Pass), and we were even able to get up to the top of Tioga Pass from the east side on the last day of our Range of Light workshop. But we hadn’t seen Olmsted Point, Tenaya Lake, or Tuolumne Meadows since last summer, which felt strange.

Tioga Road finally opened on July 22nd, by far the latest opening date ever. And two days later Claudia and I headed up and over the pass. It was great to see our familiar high-country haunts again, with lots of water in the meadows and creeks, and flowers beginning to bloom. We kept remarking on how everything is happening so late this year – at least a month later than usual.


Eastside Flowers

Fields of arrowleaf balsamroot below Sierra peaks, Inyo NF, CA, USA

Fields of arrowleaf balsamroot below Sierra peaks, Inyo NF, California. It was a bit of a grunt to climb up this hill through the sagebrush, but I thought this higher vantage point would allow me to see a succession of layers from foreground to middle ground to background, which could add more depth to the image. The dappled light and clouds were perfect complements to the scene. This is a stitched panorama (three shots), made quickly to capture fleeting light. 50mm, 1/125 sec. at f/16, ISO 100.

Tioga Pass through Yosemite finally opened yesterday, July 22nd. That’s the latest opening date ever – by far. The previous record was July 8th, way back in 1933, before the road was even paved. In 1938, the year after it was paved, Tioga Road opened on July 5th. But since 1938 it’s always opened by the end of June, except for 1998, when it opened July 1st. Even in the prodigious snow year of 1983 it opened on June 30th.

An exceptional set of circumstances conspired to make this year’s opening so late. First, there was a lot of snow. There’s some debate about whether this was a record year for snowfall in the Sierra; it’s actually a hard thing to measure, as there are a lot of variables. But it was certainly one of the snowiest years on record.


Wind Clouds

Lenticular clouds at sunset, eastern Sierra Nevada, CA, USA

Lenticular clouds at sunset, eastern Sierra Nevada, California

I don’t know many landscape photographers who like wind. Wind gyrates flowers and trees, making it hard to get sharp photos. It ruffles lakes, killing reflections. Wind can even shake a tripod-mounted camera, blurring images (especially with telephoto lenses). And it’s generally unpleasant to be out in the wind – especially when it’s cold.

But sometimes wind creates interesting opportunities. On the leeward side of a mountain range (usually the eastern side), or on isolated mountain peaks, wind often creates lenticular clouds, which can be incredibly beautiful and photogenic.