Fourth of July Road Trip Notes

This year’s Fourth of July road trip to the Dismal Side of the Sierras will have a more southerly focus than the previous year. The emphasis, like last year, will be on the Milky Way and sunrise. I plan to work with at least 3 sunrises (maybe 4) and will have 3 sunset to utilize.  Fortunately there are lots of neat things to see in the Eastern Sierra. The trip should be a productive one, without too much stress or sleep deprivation. The mornings will be early to catch sunrise, but the nights need not be too late because the Milky Way and the moon are both at their most useful positions before midnight. However, it will be important take advantage of the sunrises, as this is the most beautiful time of day in the Eastern Sierras.

Approximate Timing Considerations for the weekend

⇑ 05:39, 
⇓ 20:13

          ⇑ C 05:08, N 04:30, A 03:48
          ⇓ C 20:44, N 21:22, A 22:04


Setting in approximately due WEST

⇑ 11:32
⇓ 23:49
Waxing Crescent 38%

⇑ 12:28
⇓ 00:20 (Sat)
First Quarter

⇑ 13:25 
⇓ 00:54 (Sun)
Waxing Gibbous 58%

Photographic Goals:

1 – Milky Way Landscapes
    Near object landscapes with arches, lightpainting
    Panoramics with Sierra range possible in twilight
2 – Evening Twilight by moonlight, tree and mountain range
3 – Petroglyphs and Paiute cultural sites
4 – Star Trails – foreground illuminated by twilight, moon
5 – Summer storms building on Eastern front at sunset
6 – Quarter Moon setting

1-Alabama Hills 

The best sunrise location in all of California.
Exploring the Hills and looking for Arches and granite formations
    Lightpainting the arches.
    The sunset potential here is also nice, but Mt. Whitney and the Sierra cut off the light early due to their height. 
    Twilight is interesting, especially when planning to combine it with astro landscapes.
There is possibility for capturing quarter moon setting in the west with a bit of twilight left.
Should plan to use the moon for milkyway landscapes, as moon shouldn’t interfere much with star visibility.  

Comfort Level

Highest. Tent not car. It is legal and free to camp here. Lone Pine is 15 min away. Cell reception is 10 min away.

2 – Death Valley

Highlights:   sunrise, wildlife, daytime mostly, daytrips
    Heat may limit options here. Although one weekend forecast has highs barely above 90F. But has a high of 120F at Furnace Creek. I don’t know what these weatherman are thinking. Lets see who wins out….it is July in Death Valley. The real deal.
    Wildrose may be downright chilly if Furnace Creek is only 90F.
    Look for Chuckwalla and other wildlife at Wildrose.
    Possibility to see cultural sights, but need to hunt for them (Ghost Towns, petroglyphs).
  Weak Offroad capability of 3er Wagon limits full access to best sights

Comfort Level

Medium. Must sleep in car. Hot night time temps. Food available in few locations with very limited hours.

3 – Volcanic Tablelands 

High cultural value. Harsh light makes area worthless photographically, but must still be in Golden Hour, blue hour is too late, and nothing after dark.
    Interesting for to see for scouting purposes, even during daytime. 
    Go beyond the already visited Fish Slough at Red Mountain. 
    Visit the BLM and Paiute visitor center in Bishop to learn more about the locations. 

Comfort Level

Medium. It is a bit of a grey area in terms of legal camping here.  The city of Bishop, and its food and hotels, is reasonably close.

4 – Bristlecone Pines

Oldest living organisms in the world, fascinating living drift wood. Stunning in twilight, moonlight, and sunrise/sunset.
    May be the best location in the United States for astrophotography. Very dark skies.  Light painting is also possible.
    Time-lapse, and star trails. The quarter moon will provide a gentle light at twilight for interesting images.

Comfort Level

Minimal. Extremely isolated and extremely high elevation (almost 12,000 feet).
Must sleep in car, or doze under the stars. The closest human building is 100+miles, on the very rough, dirt road on White Mountain.
Expect the temperatures to go below freezing.

Detailed Astronomical Timetable

Thursday (7/3)

 05:39, C 05:08, N 04:30, A 03:48
⇓ 20:14, C 20:45, N 21:22, A 22:04

⇑ 11:32 
⇓ 23:49
Waxing Crescent 38%

Friday (7/4) – Happy Fourth!

 05:39, C 05:08, N 04:30, A 03:48
⇓ 20:13, C 20:44, N 21:22, A 22:04

⇑ 12:28
⇓ 00:20 (Sat)
First Quarter


 05:40, C 05:09, N 04:31, A 03:49
⇓ 20:13, C 20:44, N 21:22, A 22:04


⇑ 13:25
⇓ 00:54 (Sun)
Waxing Gibbous 58%

Memorial Day Road Trip: Alabama Hills

2014 Memorial Day Road Trip: Alabama Hills
May 26, 2014

As far as the meteor shower went, it was a bit of a bust.  Not as great as some astronomers predicted. But also there were some clouds in Death Valley on the days the shower was scheduled to peak. The presence of these clouds, however, improved the sunrise lighting conditions. Hence, the reason I switched my focus. I did  have an opportunity to do some astro landscape photography in the Alabama Hills on Monday morning. And while waiting for the first glimpse of morning twilight over Mount Whitney, I did happen to capture some fairly bright Camelopardalis meteors. This was also my first time using my new 24mm F/1.4, boy is it light sucking monster of a lens. That lens is so fast it turns night into day. I had to adjust my entire approach to night photography with that thing…eager to use it again on the night sky.

Despite this new ‘astro’ lens, the sunrise was king at the Alabama Hills.  I spent almost all of my energy preparing for my sunrise spot.  And it didn’t come easy. For sunrise, I had the objectives I hoped to accomplish in mind. A higher vantage point facing Mount Whitney and Lone Pine Peak with two or three “layers” of Alabama Hills in the foreground. I wanted to shoot across the morning light from a vantage point contrasty with canyons and ridgelines on the Sierra eastern front. I access the geodetic situation at the day before at sunset, knowing that the position of the sun would be mirrored in the morning.  In the dark, I hiked up to the top of the hill and began shooting at 04:00 (halfway through Astronomical twilight) with a two camera setup using a 24mm and 70-200mm as the glass. By around 05:15 the light went from blue to red, as it inched its way down the eastern face. By 05:35, the best part of the sunrise was finished and I sat there, quietly taking in the landscape before me.  

The important message here is that the best part of the sunrise, happens before the sun actually rises. You need to hike in the dark.

Final note: the pano shot of the Sierra Nevadas from Alabama Hills was taken with my phone after the morning light was finished.  I took it so I could study how the shadows lay on the mountains relative to the sun. I will use this information for the next trip, so I am able to better position myself for more dramatic contrasts.  But I ended up really liking the shot…especially the two cameras up there. 

By 06:30 I was back to my car, gear an all, and heading out of the Alabama Hills by 06:45. On my way back home to Mountain View, via a little park called Yosemite National Park. 

Memorial Day Roadtrip Death Valley

2014 Memorial Day Road Trip: Death Valley
May 23-26, 2014

Memorial Day weekend: Desert Road trips was a nice way to kick off the summer shooting season, despite being a bit hotter than anticipated. This trip originally began as an astro centric one, with high speculative hopes that that Camelopardalis Meteor shower was going to produce.  After a hazy first night, and reports that the shower was a dud, I quickly changed gears to focus on rich quality of morning light in this part of the country.  It also had the secondary role to serve as a scouting trip for future visits.  This road trip took me from Mountain View all the way back to Death Valley National Park for the first time since visiting in 2002 with my family.

Death Valley is spectacular in more ways than most people realize. Especially surprising was the abundance of interesting wildlife within the park’s border to go along with the landscapes and night photography.  I had packed my 600mm for the trip, but didn’t really expect I would have much opportunity to use it.  I saw coyote, hummingbirds, kangaroo rats, and lizards. I also found a herd of feral burros wandering around. Which was cool to see. They are wild donkeys that escaped the miner’s camps from the Gold Rush era in the 1849-1900s.  I tried my best to find Sidewinders moving across the sand dunes at dusk/dawn, but they seem to be mostly nocturnal at this point in the year, as the temperatures begin to rise. At one point, my car thermometer read 121F (49.5 C).  It wasn’t the official temperature because I was driving out in the sun, but it was  definitely hot. There is something about the extremes of this planet that I, and many others, are drawn too. However, what is fascinating about Death Valley is that while floor is the hottest place in the world, it is possible to escape the heat (and photographically useless mid-day light) by driving up some of the canyons to higher elevations.  The high canyon walls on the road to Wildrose would hold their shadows long into the days and higher elevation had cooler temperatures that animals didn’t mind. These conditions gave interesting glowing backlights to the flowers and whatever animal subjects came out. So I was able to keep shooting all night, all morning and all day. I am already planning to go back there around the Fourth of July for my next “big weekend” trip. 


Part 6 Dismal Side: July 6 Red Mountain Petroglyphs

In the heart of the Volcanic Tablelands near Bishop, California are the Red Mountain Fish Slough Petroglyphs, and it is probably one of the more fascinating places I have ever been.

The Owens Valley was part of a trade route for the Paiute Indians, connecting what is now Northern California and the American Southwest.  This area has been inhabited by the ancestors of modern Paiute for almost 9,000 years and the Fish Slough area rock carvings date back 5000 years.  In my effort to understand the significance of this site, I thought it best to relate it to my European influenced perspective.  I likened the Red Mountain rock formation having a role similar for the Paiutes as a temple or cathedral did for early Europeans.  I can’t help but be amazed at the setting of such a place like Red Mountain.  And it was this that made me draw parallels between it and the famous religious sites and cathedrals in Europe.  This place is different on one level though. It seems that many of the ancient locations of the Abrahamic religions have been lost, developed over, or redeveloped. Disrupting the string of time.  Diminishing its unadulterated age.  Red Mountain is unchanged. It is fascinating to think about how long people have worshiped at this single location, and that the landscape appears today much like it did when the first humans walked past this outcropping of stone 9,000 years ago. Aside for the occasional farm truck stirring up dust or airplane overhead, there is hardly any evidence of the modern world here.  This place has remained largely unchanged for thousands of years, with new petroglyphs being the only perceivable variation over the centuries.  Thousands of years before any European cathedral was built, and even before the pyramids….the inhabitants of pre-historic America began carving art into this outcropping of granite and Bishop Tuff.  As is often the case, the experience here transcends what is captured in the photos. But to give a rough idea of how spectacular the setting of this place was, the following photo is the view I had during my visit.  At my back is what was likely considered the main “altar”, and looking straight ahead were the dramatically lit White Mountains draped in a rainbow. 

View from
View from “Altar”

When I arrived at Red Mountain, I was completely alone.  After about an hour to myself, a family of four drove up (husband, wife and son and daughter).  The father was native American/Indian descent (Arizona), and he was very passionate about his opportunity to visit this site.  During our conversation, he explained the cultural significance of the site, interpretations of many of the carvings, and also how this stone can be sold for a lot of money on the blackmarket in Europe.  Really disgusting that people cut 5000 year old artifacts for this own selfish motivations.  If you look closely at some of the photos attached, it is possible to see where people have vandalized the petroglyphs, by trying to “cut” them out for blackmarket purposes.   

Specifically, in the image titled “Altar“, you can see some of the defaced stone. This “Altar”, mentioned above in the context of the rainbow view, was the centerpiece of the rock formation, and appeared to be positioned like an altar in the Christian church sense.  This was where the shaman or priest would lead ceremonies. The carvings at the Altar is also one of the older carvings at this site and its design was particularly meaningful. The entire carving was completely connected.  Let me explain: Most of the other figures at Red Mountain were discrete, individual carvings.  These altar carvings were completely connected, top to bottom, left to right. This continuity was symbolic for the Indians who wanted to connect the ground to the heavens.  Thereby, providing a channel for their spirits to flow, connecting them with their ancestors. This is also why the top and bottom of these carvings have points, or arrows, directed at the ground or up to the sky. 

I learned all of this while talking to this guy.  It was really nice that he was there to explain it to me. His son, probably a 5 year old, was finding rabbit bones and looking for rattlesnakes.  His daughter, probably 8 years old, kept asking her dad if they could leave because the hotel swimming pool closed at 8PM.  So if they left now, they could get an hour and half of swimming time. 

Due to the high Sierras due west, the sun sets very fast at this location.  There were a few minutes of quality, evening light able to bring out the brilliant red granite color, but before long the sun was behind the mountains.  However, due East are the White Mountains, also 14,000 footers, and due to their height, they are able to hold on much longer to the sunlight.  Once the Red Mountain was shroud in shadow of the Sierra Nevadas, I pointed my lenses in the eastern direction as the canyons between the White Mountains’ peaks transformed into vibrant red colors.  The light here is only useful in photographic terms at sunrise and near sunset, and the lack of shade would let it get quite hot and miserable mid day in summer. This place is best visited when the light is gentle, and temperature pleasant enough to let you comfortably contemplate the rich human history of the site. 

For more information: Visit the Bureau of Land Management Field Office in Bishop

Part 4 Dismal Side: July 4/5, night/sunrise- Milky Way+Mono Lake

July Fourth Weekend Photo Road Trip to the Eastern Sierra Nevada: The Dismal Side of the Sierras, Part 4

Mono Lake, Milky Way, Sunrise 

After finishing up at Bodie, I made my way back towards Lee Vining and Mono Lake for the evening astrophotography session.  As I ate dinner at “Bodie Mike’s” in Lee Vining, I received several imminent flash flood warnings for Mono Lake.  I decided to scrap my original plan: an all night time lapse while sleeping under the stars next to my camera, and go for something a bit less ambitious.  Fortunately, the storms cleared in time for sunset.  I was rewarded with a great sequence of sunset images and stayed out til about 01:00 capturing the Milky Way with tufa in the foreground.  Throughout the night I heard coyotes howling and yipping, owls hooting, and bats echo-locating. 

Dark skies abound.  

Milky Way captured using wide aperture (f/4.0, f/4.5) , high ISO, and the shutter speed defined, at the maximum, by the “rule of 600”.  Before sunset I set up the 6D at 24mm on tripod facing north west for time lapse footage.  The cloud formations were dynamic and interesting.  You could tell that while the sun was up, the storms were still being fueled, but as the sun dropped, the fluffy, anvil shaped Cumulonimbus clouds collapsed in on itself in a pink display.

Once the color was drained from the western sky, I recomposed the 6D for the Milky Way.  I did this during civil twilight because I wanted there to be enough ambient light left to maintain the auto-focus capability for the entire scene (fore and back).  This helped me to avoid wasting valuable minutes incrementally tweaking the focus manually in the dark.  Facing SSE (direction of Milky Way’s rise) and including some Tufa in the foreground, I focused camera on my scene, switched lens to manual focus, and began the time lapse of Milky Way.  At first I was in Aperture Priority, but when the shutter speeds began to increase to over 15s in the darker conditions, I switched from Aperture Priority to Bulb Mode.  I set my intervalometer to hold the shutter open for 20s each exposure, and upped the ISO mode.  Now in steady-state, I left the camera do its thing, checking it from time using the 6D’s Wifi image viewer features on my phone. 

My second camera , the 1D, had a telephoto lens on it.  I used this for isolation shots of specific tufa outcroppings and compression of the lake with mountains and scenery across the lake.