My introduction to desert habitats of the Southwest U.S. happened at the ripe old age of thirteen. As a Jr. High School student, the vision of my future was limited to adventures our family had on camping trips to the Sierra Nevada range East of the San Francisco Bay Area. Couple that with catching snakes and lizards along the neighborhood creeks, and you had one “Outdoor Adventurer” in the making.
My older brother had taken off for college and was working on his degree in geology. One year, he asked me if I would like to participate in one of the college field trips to Death Valley and its surrounding areas. That excursion was going to change my life. I spent many hours on that trip with my brother in explorations into desert habitats I had only referenced in books. This was the real thing. I acquired a love and passion for deserts that would eventually take me on travels that circumnavigated the perimeter and into the interior of the Australian continent. Desert geology is the best way to explore geology, as it has no forests to hide its true self. This blog will take you to explore one of the more interesting places I have recently found.
I would venture to say that most outdoor photographers who reside in the U.S. have heard of Mono Lake. The tufas are a geologic phenomenon pursued by many to capture on film. When I first ventured to Mono Lake forty years ago, the tufas were spectacular, and seldom visited. The road was unpaved and unimproved, rendering it inaccessible to many, and it ensured that only the more devoted photo enthusiast would trek to visit.
Things are now different. Improved roads, wooden walkways, and of course a place to pay to view one of nature’s wonders have degraded the area. The tufas continue to erode and are no longer the item they once were. But a little known fact is that there are some very interesting geologic spots still close by. This blog takes you to visit one such location. Lucky for you it is not super difficult to get to, but it requires a bit of energy that few, if any, “happy snap shooters” would be willing to expend.
Mono Lake(above) sits on the Eastern side of Hwy 395. The tufas are located at the Western and Southern end of the lake for the most part. The spot in this article is located on the Northern shore near Black Point. If you enjoy photos of the Southwestern steep-walled sand canyons, then this is your spot. Of course I have to warn you there will not be someone charging a fee or admission to view and photograph to your heart’s content. I had to add that disclaimer right off the bat, because I know many of you enjoy waiting in a line to have the privilege to shoot a couple of shots of Mother Nature's handiwork. Once you exit Hwy 395, the road is an alternating combination of gravel, dirt, and sand. I have a Toyota Rav4 and I was able to get within ¾ miles of the site without any use of 4 wheel drive. Those with a real 4 wheel drive vehicle can drive to within a couple hundred yards. The ¾ mile walk is an easy walk, so access is no problem.
The geology of the area is composed of volcanic rock instead of the sandstone of the Southwest. The surrounding vegetation is primarily sage brush mixed with a variety of grasses and small wildflowers if you go in the right season. I visited there twice this year, and if you go in mid-May through June, you should be able to experience the wildflowers as well as the rock. In any case, the winter is a “no, no” for me as it can be extremely cold and windy.
My suggested photo equipment would be lenses in the 10mm to 50mm range if you have a cropped frame camera and 15mm 70mm for those with a full frame. You will probably not have much use for a telephoto lens longer than 100mm while there shooting scenery, so I would not recommend lugging one unless you are like me and shoot wildlife you might chance to meet.
Wildlife, though not abundant, is there for those with the time to chase desert fauna with a long lens. There were nesting Say’s Phoebe’s, three lizard species, and some invertebrates including spiders and a couple of butterfly species on my last visit. Mammals spotted, but not photographed, included the Blacktail hare, California ground squirrel, coyote, and Antelope ground squirrel.
Be prepared to put your tripod to use. Down in the cracks, depending on the time of day, you almost need a flashlight to get around. Sunrise is stunning at Mono Lake, but I feel the North side is much better to explore during mid-day and hang out until sunset. You might even want to venture over to visit the tufa for your morning - saving the best lighting for the “grooves”.
If you have never explored in tight situations (as most of us have not), you will want to take time to visually absorb the surroundings. Don’t forget to look straight up. Some great shots with sky and small plants hanging on for survival in the desert cracks are awesome to record. The shot of the spider web was only procured because I played around in this one area for 30 minutes. I never saw the spider web until the sun had moved into the correct position to illuminate it for me. There it was against the wall not ten feet from where I was photographing.
There is an anachronism I made up to help me slow down during a shoot, and is goes like this. Remember to L.I.V.E. the experience:
Look for potential shots
Investigate different angles and light placement
Visualize how you want the finished shot to look
Texture is the main theme for your photos taken down in the “Groove”. Emphasize the pocked volcanic texture in the walls. Set you camera and tripod close to a wall with a wide angle lens. This provides for an exciting 3D kind of feeling. Take multiple images focused both near and far. These can be photo stacked later to render an image with amazing depth of focus. Exploring inside the cracks is truly an experience not to be missed. There are one or two spots that are fairly narrow (a bit more than body width), but most of the trail and passages are comfortable for all but the most claustrophobic.
When you are out there, remember you are not on a tour, so don’t push yourself… and be sure to go with someone who won’t mind hanging around without nagging you to get going. Have them bring a book. Let them know you may be there a long while you L.I.V.E. the experience.
Set up close to walls and/or down low to the ground. Include objects near and far from the camera. Use the wide angle to its strengths.
Choose your location wisely. The best photo isn’t necessarily from the same spot in the trail everyone else shoots from. Look up side paths. Watch out for footprints in the dirt paths. You don't want your image to have lots of human tracks you have to remove during post processing.
1. Safety is a big concern here. Have someone else with you. It is much like exploring a cave. You get hurt, no cell phone will transmit through solid rock.
2. Use a tripod. Use your tripod even with higher shutter speeds if possible. Use a cable release. Cable releases are invaluable for eliminating camera movement in long exposures.
Place different lenses on the camera if you have them. View the scene from different angles before attaching them to the tripod. It's faster and allows you quick preview with any number of lenses or angles before setting up the tripod.
Apertures and settings
Use f/11 or f/16 if you want the most depth of field in your scene. ISO Choice - Try using ISO 200, 100, or lower if you have it. This will provide you with the least amount of noise when in post.
Tripod Tripod Tripod You have a tripod, so use this stable fixture to your advantage with low ISO and higher Fstops. If you are traveling with someone else, make sure it is someone who will not be bored five minutes into the exploration. Even if they have to take a book along, let them know you will be inspecific spots for what might be a long time. I use to provide my kids with a lizard stick, and had them try to catch lizards to explore. Whatever it takes, don't be in a hurry.
Take many exposures until you become familiar with how you camera/lens combination will work for a scene. Digital space is inexpensive. Use it to your advantage.