The Big Dipper and Comet NEOWISE over an alpine lake, Yosemite. 9 frames blended with Starry Landscape Stacker to reduce noise, each at 15 seconds, f/1.8, ISO 6400. I also made a lighter exposure for the landscape at 2 minutes and f/1.8, ISO 6400, and blended that with the other frames in Photoshop. All that was done just to reduce noise. The camera was locked on a tripod throughout that process, and nothing was stretched, distorted, or added. In other words, the comet and stars really were there, in that exact position over the lake and peak, at 11:06 p.m. on July 18th.
Before my journey to Death Valley, Claudia and I made a couple of trips to the Yosemite high country to try to photograph Comet NEOWISE.
On our first attempt we hiked to a high, alpine lake where I thought we could get a good view of the comet. It was one of those summer days in the Sierra with lots of clouds building up and forming scattered thunderstorms. I knew the clouds might interfere with comet viewing, but with that weather pattern the clouds usually dissipate quickly after sunset, so it seemed worth a try. And maybe the clouds would give us an interesting sunset.
Lightning at sunset, Mono Lake, California
As most of you know, an unusually-strong series of thunderstorms reached California the weekend before last (August 15th and 16th), and dry lightning sparked numerous wildfires. Two of those fires (the LNU Complex and the SCU Complex) have become among the largest in state history. Our hearts go out to those who have lost homes and loved ones in the fires.
The lightning reached the San Francisco Bay Area in the early-morning hours on Sunday, August 16th. Claudia and I were in Lee Vining (near Mono Lake) that day, and things were quiet that morning, but thunderstorms moved into the area from the south that afternoon.
Peak and clouds, Yosemite. 32mm, 1/15th sec. at f/11, ISO 100.
Summer is the dry season in California. Typically, in most of the state, one sunny day follows another, for months on end.
But there are a couple of exceptions. Along the coast, summer is the foggiest time of year. Fog can be so persistent that some spots may barely see the sun for days, or even weeks.
Dogwood and giant sequoia in the fog, Sierra Nevada, California. Fog is a wonderful complement to forest scenes; here, some ephemeral fog lasted just long enough for me to capture this image. 70mm, polarizer, 0.7 seconds at f/16, ISO 100.
People seem to love trees and forests. I know I do.
But forests can be difficult to photograph. Natural forests are usually a study in chaos, with haphazard arrangements of branches, trunks, logs, and leaves. There’s an organic order to all that, with trees and understory plants growing to take advantage of small patches of sunlight, and a cycle of birth, growth, death, and decay.
But visual order can be hard to find amid all that clutter. The chief challenge in photographing forests is usually finding a way to simplify things, and make order out of chaos.
Redbud reflection in the Merced River, California
I made this photograph in March of 2004, with a 6-megapixel Canon 10D. That was my first digital camera, purchased only about nine months earlier, in the summer of 2003. The low resolution made this camera unsuitable for “serious” work, so for about two years I carried around both the Canon 10D and my Mamiya 645 film camera. I used the Canon for snapshots, and, when time allowed, to capture digital versions of my film images, so that I only had to scan the film captures when I really needed the extra resolution (like when making prints, or sending files to publishers).
I quickly learned to love digital capture. It was just so much easier: I could see the results right away, use the histogram to check the exposure, and magnify the image to see if everything was in focus. When photographing moving water I didn’t need to guess about the right shutter speed because I could try several, see the effects immediately, and dial in the shutter speed that best suited the situation. I found that the digital camera invited experimentation and creativity, because I didn’t have to pay for film and processing, and could see and refine the results of an experiment in the field. And, as if all that wasn’t enough, the dynamic range far exceeded transparency film, so the resulting images looked less harsh and more luminous. Resolution aside, when I compared images from my Mamiya and my Canon, I almost always preferred the ones from the Canon.
Late-afternoon light in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Most of the photographs I made this afternoon didn’t include a foreground. But I saw this rock outcrop, and kept it in mind for the right opportunity. That opportunity came when the sun slid underneath the clouds and highlighted the jagged forms of the outcrop. 16mm, 1/20th sec. at f/16, ISO 400.
Our winter got off to a wet start in late November and early December, but then fizzled. We hardly got any precipitation during most of December, January, and February – traditionally the wettest months of the year in California, when we get the bulk of our annual rainfall.
That pattern changed a bit in March, with a few good storms to help replenish the previously-anemic Sierra snowpack. And one of our largest storms since last spring is moving into California right now, with forecasters predicting three to four feet of snow above 7,000 feet. Our precipitation for the water year (October 1st through September 30th) will still be below average, but these early-spring storms should, at least, leave us with a decent snowpack for this time of year, with closer-to-normal runoff in our rivers and creeks over the next couple of months, and a more typical summer in the high country.