Moving through the dusty, gravel-strewn road, we soon arrived at our destination, the saline aquifer, Mono Lake. It’s one of our favorite stops on our photography workshop in the Eastern Sierra. After years of photographing its otherworldly calcified towers, I was looking for something new and unique that would give a fresh perspective to the place. I’ve been looking for something new to shoot other than its expanse of tufa towers, grasses, and bird life.
I think I’ve photographed this lake from every conceivable angle you could imagine after numerous photography workshops in the Eastern Sierra. If you’re a neophyte to this place, it can be quite stunning, especially as you move closer to the water’s edge. The buzz of the swarming mud flies, migratory birds and the towers of calcium are beautiful and out of the ordinary. But once you have photographed them a few times, you’ll most likely be looking for an interesting sky to set off the scenery, perhaps maybe something more.
A great sky is a happenstance of luck almost anytime you are out photographing landscapes. Mono Lake is no exception. It always becomes a great equalizer to all photographers queued up at the same location and you must be able to react to it when one presents itself, and a good dose of luck in your camera bag doesn’t hurt either. But colorful dramatic skies are not always key factors during our photography workshop in the Eastern Sierra.
That said, a few seasons back, it was late in the afternoon when we arrived at Mono Lake. I had made my plans to be as close to the water as possible at first light. It’s that magic hour, the five to ten minutes of good light needed for an amazing capture. I really hate the mad dash and stumble in the predawn darkness. We were lucky to be able to position our four-wheel drive camper close to the water’s edge as possible near this delicate ecosystem. It was in an area that was open to dispersed camping. So much of the area is now restricted and managed by the Forest Service. They do a fine job of allowing the public to view this natural wonderland but limit access to other parts of the lake unless you’re willing to explore the more remote parts on your own.
We spent the afternoon relaxing in our base location after a long drive to this place. I had my sites set for early morning and I wasn’t too concerned about the dusky evening skies. We would be there for a few days for an afternoon attempt another time. Normally, I prefer the crisp mornings as a rule with my imagery. After a good afternoon snooze, I set about scouting a location.
I spent a good hour or so walking along the shore, trying not to repeat any “classic” Mono Lake compositions. As I walked east along the shoreline, the ground turned into a black acrid mud. My boots sunk deep into it. It smelled of rotting eggs.
At about that time I noticed a small swarm of very little birds. One was perching itself on a nearshore tower of calcified stone. He Landed briefly, and then flew off, only to repeat the same behavior over and over. This gave me ample time to set my tripod. I really wasn’t thinking of doing much shooting but I couldn’t pass this one up. In this early afternoon display, the bird fell into position. I was able to find good footing in the muck for my tripod and I got the shot, “Mono Lake Rest”.
I had been out for quite some time and was a great distance from our camped location. This part of the shore was covered with a mix of gravel, and a large amount of dead, sun-bleached exposed roots of plants that died from the extreme salt content of the lake.
Not finding anything unique, I began my hike back to camp. Soon the late afternoon sky fell to an unexpected warm red hue. While I walked along a gravely part of the beach, I noticed a single towering tufa formation in the distance to the right. A little further to the left, the snow-capped Sierra Crest was looming. The light was fading quickly as the colors deepened. I frantically searched for a composition. I looked down the saline beach a few yards and noticed a small tidal pool with a clump of rock resting as an island. The red, pinkish sky was reflecting in the stillness of its waters. “One Reflection” was the result.
Morning came with a dark cloudless sky. It was 4:30 am as I fumbled for my headlamp in the darkness trying not to disturb Holly’s sleep. I headed into the darkness. The small waves of Mono Lake, lapping at the shore were reminiscent of a tropical Caribbean beach.
I remembered the roots from the evening before and positioned myself in front of a prominent one that had a strange life to it. The day before I noticed it and cataloged it in my mind as a potential. Its arching branches reminded me of a spider moving across an alien landscape. I positioned my tripod for an extremely low angle shot. I attempted to bring its lifelike features strongly into the foreground and positioned some unique tufa towers in the distance into focus, acting as alien centurions guarding the way to the snow-capped Sierra Crest in the background. Just as the rising sun warmed a golden glow cast, I clicked the image known as the “Mono lake Spider”. Water levels are always changing at Mono Lake and often reveal the unexpected.
Always seek the less than obvious features. Don’t discount anything you see by blinding your vision by what you see everyone else photographing and trying to repeat it. What’s the point of that in my eyes? Adding “something more” anytime you visit a frequently photographed place, aside from a lucky sky, will help your images pop and stand out from the rest.
All the Best,
Jansen Photo Expeditions
If you would like to experience this type of landscape photography and learn how to create images like this, join us for our next Photography workshop in the Eastern Sierra. We will be exploring Mono Lake, the Alabama Hills and the Ancient Bristle Cone Pine Forest on our 3-day workshop.