Memorial Day: California Bears, Sequoia National Park

Memorial Day weekend 2015

As I am apt to do before a big trip, I try to get into the right mindset and hone my skills as much as possible.

With an Alaska trip centered around brown bear photography at McNeil River State Park set for early June (less than two weeks away), it is important to ensure you are in top condition for bear photography.   Additionally, it was Jenna’s first time seeing a bear in the wild AND doing bear photography.   The single day trip to Sequoia National Park was wildly successful. Not only did we see bears, but we were able to get close to bears, and photograph them doing what bears do.  It was wonderful practice for McNeil River.

And while the american black bear is a different species from what we will see in McNeil, and has different behaviors and environments, it is still a bear, and within the genus ursus. 

When considering all 50 US states, California probably jumps out to the casual observer as the most “bear proud” state of them all. Their flag brandishes a grizzly, the top state universities’ have grizzly bear mascots, and California’s extremely short-lived independent nation was named the “Bear Republic”.  Given all the love there seems to be for the California grizzly bear, it is somewhat astounding that this subspecies was extirpated by humans.  Hunted completely to extinction, the California Grizzly lives only on the flags and mascots.

But I am not writing about California grizzlies here. I am writing because California still has plenty of bears; albeit the less ferocious and smaller type: the American Black Bear.

When comparing brown vs black bears, many people may shrug off a black bear sighting in a location where both inhabit (such as Yellowstone or Glacier NP), some even consider it as being the less interesting species, unworthy of their attention. The black bear is more common, has wider distribution, and can be a nuisance (especially in the Sierras). The grizzly is rarer, requires a larger range, and is more dangerous.  Given all of my past trips to Alaska devoted to brown bear photography, I am also guilty of this too…but it isn’t for my lack of love for the black bear.  Yes a black bear is more common and more accessible than a brown(grizzly) or polar bear, but the bottom line is that Black Bears are difficult to photograph.

A black bear is not typically a bold animal.  Among all the large north american predators, the black bear is probably only behind the mountain lion in terms of “shyness”.  This species does not like to be seen by humans. This characteristic makes it especially difficult to achieve top quality photos.

The behavior of some of the bears we observed this past past weekend in Sequoia National Park was mixed in terms of typical “flight initiation distance”, but the relative abundance of bears present, and gave good odds of making quality images…

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. 

April Snow Storm in Yosemite

Yosemite National Park, April 26, 2014

After a dreadfully warm and dry winter in Yosemite, that offered almost zero possibility of a winter snowscape image.  A mid-Spring visit proved to be the perfect opportunity for such a shot.  On Friday April 25, 2014, Yosemite’s weekend weather forecast was foreboding.  100% chance of rain mixed with snow, mostly cloudy, and temperatures in the low 30s.  But as is always been the case with the jewel of the Sierra Nevada, the terrible weather forecast didn’t ruin the weekend.  In fact, these weather conditions enhanced it.  I would rather visit Yosemite on a bad day, than a bluebird one.

Yosemite is frequently beautiful and sunny. And over the past year the beautiful and sunny days have greatly outweighed the cloudy ones.  And no, this is not a proclamation about the California drought and how we desperately need rain here. This post is purely about the aesthetics associated with changing weather.  The fact is (and yes, it is fact) Yosemite, like almost everywhere, is more interesting in a transition.  

Drive to Yosemite. Transitioning weather on CA-140 as the sunset. Note the rain drops on this image. Behind me was a dramatic full rainbow. 
Drive to Yosemite. Transitioning weather on CA-140 as the sunset. Note the rain drops on this image. Behind me was a dramatic full rainbow. 

And in case you were wondering, more “interesting” typically translates to more “beautiful”. 

Colors of Three Seasons in One
Colors of Three Seasons in One

A transition can be anything that is in flux, . Off the top of my head a few examples are changing meteorological conditions, such as weather (a clearing storm), changing seasonal/climate conditions (summer to fall), or changing astronomical conditions (sunrise/sunset, night/day).  The astronomical transitions occur daily and will continue to do so until we cease to revolve around the sun. This can be precisely tracked and mapped.  Sunrise and sunset is the baseline for all nature loving people.  A seasonal transition is something that can also be tracked, albeit with less precision.  But the seasons generally adhere to the defining characteristics of that location, governed by the position of the Earth. From the spring blossoms to autumn foliage, seasonal transitions are celebrated worldwide. 

The real wild card here are the short-term meteorological variations, or the weather.  Special weather conditions can create interesting (beautiful) conditions at anytime of day.  It can also washout the day (with rain or too much direct sunlight), leading to images that may be tepid and uninspired.   The weather is  The seasonal variations do have their 

Like a hand in poker, the weather remains unknown until the last moment. 

Each variety of transition mentioned above, is, in someway, related to one another, generally stemming back to the power of the sun. The astronomical aspects influences the length of day, which in turn influences the seasons, which in turn influences the weather, but it is simpler to break it down into three distinct transition categories. Astro. Seasonal. Weather.

If it is possible for all three transitions to simultaneously come together, you will be rewarded with something special. And this was the situation at sunrise Saturday morning, April 26, 2014, at Yosemite National Park. Here are some photos from that day in the park.

2013 Perseid Meteor Shower

August 9 – 11, 2013

*Gallery at bottom*

Another August, another Perseid Meteor Shower….the 2013 edition.  Not including the weeks of research and my previous scouting trips, I began my search for the Perseids late Friday evening for what was an astonishingly grueling three night photo epic to the dark skies of the Eastern Sierras…

Golden red morning light Golden red morning light

Leaving my house in Mountain View at 21:00 on Friday evening Aug 9, I began my drive East.  As Friday blended into Saturday, I reached the Big Oak Flat entrance of Yosemite National Park. According to the weather board at the entrance gate, the daytime temperature for the high country of Tuolumne Meadows that day was 90F.  I continued on Rt. 120 through the park towards Tioga Pass.  At 01:00, made a brief stop at Olmsted Point, where there was access to a vast and clear sky.  I snapped a few photos in the direction of Tenaya Lake, and caught glimpses of my first Perseids of the season.  High up in the Sierras, the temperature had plummeted from its daytime high of 90F, and hoovered at the 28F mark (according to my car thermometer).  After making my way over Tioga Pass and through the East Entrance of YNP, I began my descent towards Mono Lake.  The temperature warmed gradually as I lost elevation. Arriving at the South Tufa Area at 02:30 Saturday morning.

There was only one other car in the parking lot.  The car belonged to another photographer who happened to be wrapping up his session for night.  While I thought him nuts to be leaving as the meteor activity began to peak,  I had the entire Lake to myself. I was feeling relaxed and excited.  Bats whizzed around my head, owls hooted, coyotes howled. I was even able to see an Owl silently flying 10-20 ft above my head.  I was startled by its “shadow” and pointed my Surefire light at the shape, and watched it as it passed by.  I’m sure the Surefire did wonders on the owl’s night vision too.  Using only a casual, single camera set-up, I shot until approximately 05:30 before calling it a night.  As I was getting myself situated for sleep in back of my wagon,  Three cars arrived carrying a group of photographers looking to shoot the sunrise. They were in luck because the sunrise that morning turned out to be spectacular.  I yearned to capture it, but refrained from doing so.  This trip was about the meteors, so I soaked it in without the burden of camera apparati.

Minarets Minarets

By 07:30 I was up and eating breakfast at Nicely’s in Lee Vining.  I continued south down Rt. 395 towards Bishop, stopping at Mammoth Lakes and the Minarets.  Once in Bishop, I stopped in Galen Rowell’s Mountain Light studio and perused his work, seeking inspiration from a master.  While there I bought two books, one a collection of technical essays he’d written and the other his best of Sierra Nevada images.  I arrived in Lone Pine by early afternoon, bought some food, water, and beer, and set forth into the Alabama Hills….

I explored the Alabama Hills by driving along Movie Road and some its derivative “roads”, doing short over-land hikes to the various arches and interesting granite formations.  Treating my extremely low clearance vehicle like it was a Jeep, I was fortunate that I didn’t become stuck or break an axle.  While I was exploring new areas of the Alabama Hills, I was also scouting suitable locations to set up camp and shoot the Perseids.  While hiking I came across a 5 foot long Gopher Snake, which, upon noticing me, curled into a mock Rattlesnake position, imitating its venomous cousin by vibrating its rattle-less tail in a fascinating sign of defense.  Naturally, I got as close as possible and took photos of it.

Imitation Rattler Imitation Rattler Alabama Hills + Sierras Alabama Hills + Sierras

After searching long and hard for 6 hours, I finally settled on a location that satisfied my requirements.  I wanted maximal Northeastern sky exposure and a rock formation that reached into the sky to create an interesting foreground. By the time I found a qualifying location, it was two hours away from sunset.  Using the remaining daylight, I set up camp and composed my shots for the night. Tonight would be a 3-rig set-up. During this time before sunset, the temperature was warm, mid-80s, and very windy. Which made it difficult to set-up my tent and change lenses without dust.  Fortunately the wind died down as the sun dipped behind the Sierras to the west.  I climbed high up on several boulders and literally “bouldered” to get in position.  From this vantage point I positioned my 6D+14mm F/2.8 (rental) and 1D Mk.iv+17-40mm F/2.8 angled up towards the Northern sky.  These cameras, with granite spires in the foreground would use high ISO and shorter shutter speeds to permit the sharp capture of the celestial bodies.  The FF 6D + 14mm prime would allow for longer exposures, while the 1.3x APS-H 1D Mark IV + 17mm zoom would have to be shorter.  On the 6D I used a 38s exposure time and on the 1D I used 23s.

At a lower spot and on a smaller boulder, closer to my tent, I positioned my 60D+10-22mm F/3.5 with a minimal horizon and a vast north eastern sky exposure in frame.  This camera covered the path that Perseus would race across the sky that night.  The 1.6 crop body APS-C 60D + 10mm zoom is wide enough to allow longer exposures, but I used this one to do 10 minute exposures for star trails.  My hope was by leaving the shutter open 10 minutes, there  would less down time and capture more meteors, at the expense of not being sensitive enough to catch the fainter ones.

How to prepare for a photo shoot How to prepare for a photo shoot

I configured each cameras’ intervalometer, and hit go, hoping I’d be able to sit back and enjoy the show with a beer. As I should of expected, that was not the case and I barely finished the beer I drank with my Boudin bread and beef jerky dinner.  I stayed alert and was constantly shifting the entire night.  Spending the next 10 hours tending each camera and finding different positions to light paint the foreground granite. Wary of rattlesnakes and falling off (or in-between) house sized boulders, I put on a pair of jeans and resolved to never take a step without putting a light there first, and to always follow the same route used to climb up, on my way down.  There would be no trail blazing in the darkness.  By 05:00, I was exhausted, but satisfied with the meteor activity, I went to my tent and took a nap until the sun rose above the Inyo Mountains and shone into my face at about 07:00. 

The highlight of the night: capturing the single brightest meteor.  A massive green fireball that seemed to burn itself through separate stages, like a Saturn V rocket, as it skipped across the atmosphere.  Not only was I able to capture it with one camera – I had the good fortune to record this event on all 3 cameras. Each one showing a slightly different perspective of the same meteor.

(For less confusing examination of the multiple perspectives, see the gallery below)

The long and winding road.. The long and winding road..

After breaking camp, I drove back to Lone Pine and had breakfast at the Alabama Hills Cafe. Moving at a relaxed pace this Sunday morning, I stalled in the cafe to recharge my batteries for as long as I could.  After spending some more time exploring Lone Pine and its surroundings, I gradually began to make my way up 395 to Big Pine, California (elevation 3,900 ft). I topped off my gas tank, turned right at the edge of town on to California Rt.168 (10 miles), then a left onto the very steep White Mountain Road.  After 13 miles of steady ascent, I was in the windswept lands of the ancient Bristlecone forests.  To be exact, I was at the more accessible Schullman Grove (elevation 10,100 ft). This is where the paved road ended, and the halfway point to my destination. Ascending even higher for 12 additional miles on very rough dirt road (it took 90 minutes), I finally reach my destination: The Patriarch Grove.  Nestled high in the White Mountains at an elevation well over 11,000 feet, the harsh landscape here looks more suited to be the moon than any place on green, hospitable earth.  Yet, the dusty mountain sides are teeming with life, in the form of the magnificent Bristlecone pine. Gnarled, beaten down, and broken, these trees thrive here in these conditions. Some have held on to life for more than 4000 years.  With so many unworldly features, this is the perfect place to connect the life on Earth to the rest of the nonliving universe.  It was exhilarating to have the privilege to photograph the starlit heavens raining with meteors here.

Bristlecones, with their bristles Bristlecones, with their bristles

After parking, I took a short hike through the grove in the warm afternoon sun, scouting my nighttime locations.  As I did so, a few people showed up and began to assemble telescopes and scout their positions.  By sundown, the people in the grove filtered down to those of us staying through the night, about 5 or 6 people in total. After spending the last two nights completely alone and isolated, it was nice to be able to talk with some other people, and hear their experiences.  Like the previous, this night was to be a 3-camera show too.  I decided to take a slightly different approach this evening.  The two ultra wide set-ups would sit stationary for hours, while the other camera would be my “roamer”.

I positioned the 6D+14mm in a northeasterly direction and the 60D+10mm in a westerly direction.  The 60D was positioned west because I particularly liked the composition, and no other reason. Besides, I felt like on the previous night there more hot fireballs in that piece of sky.  So I knew the Perseids would be everywhere.  The 1D+17mm was my roaming unit.  I would find a position for this camera, compose the shot, and let it sit for 15-90 minutes, depending on the conditions. At one point, this camera was on top of a peak over a half mile away from my two other cameras, which were in the same general area and only 200m apart.  For this night, I decided to use slightly shorter shutter speeds, while pushing the ISO with the goal of capturing even the most faint meteoric activity.  There was no time to rest for the next 7 or 8 hours, and when I did take a break to watch the sky, I realized the temperature had dropped well below freezing.  My Nalgene had even begun to freeze!  By 04:30, I was getting quite chilled, I decided to warm up in my car and to take a brief nap, knowing that I would need to wake by 05:30 to reconfigure my cameras and avoid overexposing the frames in the morning twilight.

Despite having a 30 degree bag, being fully dressed, and inside my car, I never was exactly comfortably warm.  It must have been colder than I realized, but I shouldn’t be surprised of this considering I was at elevation over 11,000 feet. Bleary eyed and mouth parched, I roused myself at 05:30.  It was still quite cold and dark and conditions like that always demand some additional effort to overcome, but I can proudly say I was up and out in less than a minute! I even have to photographs to prove it. One of my cameras looked the direction of the car.  To the naked eye, it was still very much dark out, but to a camera’s ISO 6400 sensor, it was rapidly beginning to overexpose.  As the sun approached the horizon, I needed to adjust each camera 4 additional times to accommodate the varying conditions.

  1. The first adjustment was to decrease the ISO setting, but maintain the shutter speed. The intervalometers were still in full control.
  2. As twilight gained hold on the sky, the second adjustment was to decrease the shutter speed and aperture.  I did this by changing from “BULB” to “Av”, and resetting the intervalometer to snap a photo every 60s.
  3. The third adjustment was to enable Auto-focus on the lens.  The ambient light was sufficient enough, that I need not depend on my manual focused composition.
  4. The fourth adjustment consisted of enabling the AEB (Auto Exposure Bracketing).  This was done to accommodate the high contast and widening dynamic range of a scene that contains the rising sun.

Self Self “portrait”, morning light

The quality of light at sunrise here in the White Mountains was superior.  It was a rich, golden red light that rapidly raced along the mountain side, reflecting off the white dolomite, but it didn’t last long.  As the sun crept higher above the horizon, this golden red light became orange, then yellow, and then a flat white…

Thus signalling the end of my Perseid weekend…and the start of my 8 hour drive back to Silicon Valley for work.

New gear utilized:

  • SureFire G2 Nitrolon flashlight incandescent – Top quality, warm light. The beam of light is very narrow and has incredible throw. Therefore it can easily over expose if the earthly objects are to near the camera.  To prevent this, I used the white plastic top of a water jug as a diffuser. I used this light for all my light painting purposes.
  • Streamlight 88031 Protac Tactical Flashlight 2L – Great as a flashlight..  Beam is not as narrow as the SureFire but still throws light very far. The LED light was to cool/blue for the purposes of lightpainting.
  • Canon 14mm F/2.8L (from LensRentals) – Will be looking to make this purchase soon…
  • Canon 17-40mm F/4L
  • BH-40 Ballhead

Part 1 The Dismal Side of the Sierras: Milky Way + more

July Fourth Weekend Photo Road Trip to the Eastern Sierra Nevada: The Dismal Side of the Sierras, Part 1 

Bridgeport, Mono Lake; Bodie Ghost Town; Inyo Mountains; Lone Pine; Alabama Hills; Mt. Whitney; Bishop; White Mountains; Bristlecones; Death Valley (glimpse); Volcanic Tablelands; Red Mountain Petroglyphs; Yosemite(brief)
In total: 1022.5 driving miles.

see maps below for details


July 3 @20:30 – July 7 @12:30.


To be clear, there is nothing “dismal” in the conventional sense about the backside of the Sierra Nevada, its my preferred side.  This region, from Mono Lake through the Owens Valley to Lone Pine, is a special, timeless place, like nowhere else I have ever visited.  I call it “dismal” because this rain shadowed strip of land, flanked on both sides by 14,000 ft. peaks, is a harsh and unforgiving environment, dotted with ghost towns, sage brush, salty alkali lakes, rattlesnakes, and tumbleweed.  Surviving here is not a trivial undertaking, and most humans are not up to the challenge, as evidenced by the ghost towns.  Yet in the midst of such adversity, life exists, sometimes thrives.  The ancient Mono Lake, sometimes called a dead sea, teems with life.  The Earth’s longest lived organisms are found here, the Bristlecone pine.  Some of these spectacular trees took root in the nutrient poor dolomitic soil of the White Mountains hundreds of years before the first pyramids of Egypt went up, and still hold onto life to this day.  Of course, not all Bristlecones last over 5,000 years.  There are special considerations to account for such longevity, but it might not be what you expect. Lower elevation Bristlecones, with the relatively abundant resources, are not nearly as long lived as their resource scarce brethren at 11,000 feet.  The longest lived of the Bristlecones do not survive in spite of their harsh environment, but because of it. The weathered towns and dry landscapes even appear sepia-toned, accentuating this timeless feeling.  All of these factors distort our perception of time, creating a sensation of time-travel when visiting this part of the world. 

A few days before

I scouted locations in the Eastern Sierra Nevada that I felt would be interesting to photograph, with an emphasis on time-lapse, long exposures, and Milky Way/astrophotography.  I loosely developed a route, taking into consideration ways to best optimize the lighting conditions at each location.  The plan was not set in stone, and flexibility was key.  I had no reservations, nor had I researched hotels or campgrounds.  Not that anything would be available last minute Fourth of July weekend.  The plan was to sleep in my car as much as possible.  Hotels and campgrounds offer conveniences that may distract me from my photography mission (photographing the night sky). In my opinion, the 2 or 3 hours spent in a hotel room would be a waste for someone staying out past 01:00 and rising before sunrise.  Plus given my nature, I knew I would be less likely to rouse at 04:00 to catch the sunrise while snug in a hotel room bed.  To combat my inherent laziness, I resolved to “sleep” as close as possible to the sunrise locations.  I call it “sleep” for lack of a better term.  It would more accurately be described as a nap between 01:30 and 04:30.

The month of July is a great time to photograph the Milky Way. There are a couple reasons for this.  The first being it is the height of summer in the Northern hemisphere, and the sun follows a more northerly path, setting in the north west.  Therefore, the darkest sky will be in the South-East, opposite the sun. This piece of sky happens to be roughly where the most concentrated piece of our galaxy is  at sundown.  The Milky Way can be found at the horizon In a South-South-East direction, in-between the constellations Scorpius and Sagittarius.   The sky opposite the sun receives less lingering twilight, darkens quicker, and reveals the Milky Way at the horizon.  The other reason is the waning crescent moon wouldn’t rise until after 03:00 this weekend. The perfect combination for dark skies!

As my reference points for my composition, I used the constellations Scorpius and Sagittarius, plus the position of Saturn, which reveals itself earlier than the stars and was roughly due South.

Additionally, I hoped to visit some cultural sites in the area to complement the nature scenes.

Additional Research

To further my understanding of the Eastern Sierra skies, I studied the position and movement of the stars using the open-source Stellarium software.  I plugged in the latitude and longitude of the locations, adjusted for elevation and let it play, introducing myself ahead of time to what I hoped to witness in person.  This knowledge was key in my scouting exercises. 


Day 1 Map/Route

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Day 2 Map/Route

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Day 3 Map/Route

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Day 4 Map/Route

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