No Clouds, No Problem
The forecast for our recent trip to the Eastern Sierra Mountains of California was all sun and few clouds. This might seem like a dire forecast for the landscape photographer seeking beautiful sunrises and sunsets against dramatic skies. Not being able to control the weather, I just decided to work with it. It was literally an enlightening experience that I will take with me when running my photography workshops in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
The idea of photographing the Eastern Sierra mountains landscape without the possibility of dramatic clouds presented a challenge. It was a problem that required a creative solution. Below are the solutions I used on our trip to the Eastern Sierra Mountains.
Working the Light
You can depend on the twilight and golden hours at the beginning and end of the day. When the sky lacks something interesting like clouds, just lower your camera angle and find the beauty in the landscape.
Here are some tips for working the the light.
- Start very early. Include twilight and even a few stars. The light at that time can be provide a soft and subtle beauty that rivals the most colorful sunrise or sunset.
- Point your camera in the opposite direction of the sun and watch the beauty as the early light changes the landscape.
Sometimes it’s not necessary to include any sky.
Photographing by Moonlight
By following my work you know that I’m not an astrophotographer. I prefer to photograph the night landscape by moonlight. This trip to the Eastern Sierra mountains was timed around the full moon cycle so I could take advantage of its rising and setting. Timing a moonrise or moonset is different in the mountains. Photographing the moon in the flat landscape of the New Jersey Pine Barrens means the moon will be visible around the time it rises and sets along the horizon. The height of the mountains will change that timing.
Find the Unusual
There are landscapes that are so unusual that the sky doesn’t matter. In fact, a dramatic sky might just compete with the landscape.
One of the most unusual landscapes of the Eastern Sierra mountains, maybe even the world is Mono Lake. This large lake has oddly shaped natural towers along the shore called Tufas. Their odd, almost alien shapes look like like something out of a science fiction movie.
Crowley Lake Columns
The extremely weird and bizarre columns on the edge of Crowley Lake look like an ancient ruin, but they are natural and not built. It is theorized that they are the result of a volcanic process. The challenge here is the location, light and people. The way to the columns requires either a boat, a 4 wheel drive vehicle, or a 4+ mile hike. Lacking any of the first two, we did the latter arriving at the Crowley Lake columns in the early afternoon. Maybe hiking out early or late would solve some of these issues, but we didn’t have that option. So, we worked with what we had. That meant photographing deeper in the columns to avoid the harsh afternoon light and working with more intimate scenes to avoid our fellow explorers.
Challenge Yourself to Photograph Challenging Light
One morning, after the sunrise, I decided to drive around and scout out some locations. The sun was well above the horizon, but the landscape was glowing. On a small rise was an interesting rock outcropping that I’m calling Californiahenge because of the way the sun passed through a notch in the rocks.
Landscape Painters can find the beauty of the light throughout the day. We photographers should take inspiration in that. This scene reminded me of something that a Hudson River School artist like Asher Durand would have painted.
Eastern Sierra Morning by Richard Lewis 2023
When I first drove to the Mono Lake area it was very dark and I couldn’t see the landscape around the lake. When driving out, it was shocking to see a barren landscape that looked like it was scorched by a wildfire. Still little clumps of white flowers were blooming, creating a real contrast. Here the harsh light casting shadows enhances the mood of this scene.
Bodie is a large, abandoned mining town in a California state park. It is quite fascinating, but also only open during the worst time of day for photographers. Still, these old buildings are interesting to photograph in this harsh light. See more Bodie photographs here.
A Different Point of View
The Owens River area seems almost featureless from the ground, but from a drone it is something completely different. The first photograph from a low altitude show a colorful, but flat landscape with the Owens River and its tributaries winding their way through it.
From a higher altitude, with the drone’s camera pointing straight down, the landscape becomes very interesting. Foliage and alkali mix with the waterways to create abstract designs and a wide mix of colors. One could easily think that this was an artist designed landscape.
Nature photographer Sara Marino once correctly cautioned to avoid becoming a “Cloud Snob.” The landscape is beautiful and that is why we photograph it. That beauty changes with the light and understanding where to find it will broaden one’s creativity. I’ll leave you with this. The first rule of landscape photography is that there are no real rules. The light is what it is, the scene is what it is, and the beauty is there to discover for the “enlightened” photographer.