Steaming earth, Yellowstone National Park
Last spring I did a presentation for Out of Chicago Live called The Dynamic Landscape. It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about for awhile, because I realized that I view the landscape not as something fixed and immutable, but as as a living, breathing, constantly changing organism.
And that view heavily influences my photography. I respond to the changes around me with my feet, my eyes, and my camera as I adapt to light, weather, and other conditions.
Sun setting over Mono Lake, California. Anticipating that sunbeams might appear to the west, I moved to line up the sun with some tufa formations, and captured this scene as the sun broke through a bank of clouds. Five frames, two stops apart, each at 50mm, f/11, and ISO 100, blended with Lightroom’s HDR Merge.
If you’re used to lakes in other parts of the world, Mono Lake might seem like a strange place. The water is salty – two to three times saltier than the ocean. It’s surrounded by sagebrush desert, and instead of trees along the shore you find those otherworldly tufa formations.
You won’t see many people swimming in Mono Lake. You won’t find lifeguards and buoys, windsurfers, or kids splashing in the water playing Marco Polo. Although the very-salty water allows people to float easily, it also leaves a salty and somewhat-soapy alkaline residue on the skin, with no convenient beachside showers available to rinse off in.
Rainbow and sunset clouds, Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite NP, California. 35mm, 1/2 sec. at f/16, ISO 100.
If I were to make a list of my favorite places on earth, the Yosemite high country would have to be near the top. There’s something about the thin, pine-scented air, intense light, vast expanses of polished granite, and lakes sparkling in the sun…
I’ve spent a lot of time in this area over the last 40 years. I feel like this land is part of me, and me part of it. Some spots are as familiar to me as Yosemite Valley, and yet I’m still finding new places to explore.
Clouds, tufa, and Negit Island at sunset, Mono Lake, California. This rain cloud lingered for awhile in the same location, allowing me to capture variations of this scene as the sun lowered, and the wind altered the reflections. 70mm, 1/15 sec. at f/11, ISO 100.
Mono Lake is a unique and beautiful place. It’s known for its tufa formations, but there’s so much more to it. It’s a giant pool surrounded by desert sage, and bounded by the peaks of the Sierra Nevada to the west. In summer, monsoonal moisture often arrives from the southeast and runs into that mountain wall, where the moisture gets pushed upward, forming clouds, showers, and thunderstorms. The lake becomes a vector for those storms.
While staying in Lee Vining a couple of weeks ago, we saw clouds and showers each afternoon, and had several opportunities to photograph beautiful evening light at the lake (along with a colorful sunrise). Under those conditions the lake can reflect clouds in wonderful ways, creating swaths of color and light across the sky and water.
Waves, fog, and sea stacks, northern California coast. High coastal stratus is common along the California coast, but low fog like this is more unusual. I used those conditions to create a soft-on-soft look to this photo, with a six-second shutter speed smoothing out the waves, and the fog obscuring the background. 168mm, 6 seconds at f/16, ISO 100, 7-stop ND filter.
As much as I love the redwood forests, the rugged, rocky coastline of northern California is just as beautiful, and just as essential to the character of this region. You can go from the windy, noisy, wide-open expanses of the coast to the calm, quiet, dense forests in minutes, and the transition is breathtaking. Along many trails through the redwoods you can hear the surf in the distance – while watching the fog roll in off the ocean and into the woods. To me, it’s the close proximity and interaction between the ocean and forests that creates the wonderful, wild mood of this place.
This coastline features innumerable rocks and sea stacks, as the ocean gradually erodes softer rocks, leaving harder rocks stranded offshore. Part of the challenge in photographing these scenes is figuring out where to stand in order to arrange those rocks in a compelling way within the frame.
Young and old redwoods, Northern California. Soft sunlight filtering through the fog added a beautiful and unusual mood to this scene, and I loved the juxtaposition of young and old trees. 25mm, 1/6 sec. at f/16, ISO 800.
Until last year, Claudia and I had visited the redwood forests of northern California nine years in a row. The pandemic interrupted that streak, but in late May this year we were able to return once again, and spent almost two weeks in the area.
It was great to be back, as I love this part of the world. While Yosemite has been my home, both physically and spiritually, for over 35 years, returning to the redwoods also feels like coming home. It’s a much different environment – damp, cool, foggy, lush, and overgrown – and that’s what I love about it. Many places look like they could be sets from a Jurassic Park movie (which, of course, they were). It’s not hard to imagine dinosaurs roaming this terrain.