Category Archives: Photographs: Mono Lake

Evening Shadows, Mono Lake

Evening Shadows, Mono Lake
Evening Shadows, Mono Lake

Evening Shadows, Mono Lake. October 11, 2013. © Copyright 2015 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Evening shadows fall across the western shore and islands of Mono Lake

The landscape of Mono Lake, near Lee Vining, California, provides a stark contrast to the Sierra Nevada just to the west. From the alpine ridges of the Sierra along and just north of Yosemite, the eastern slopes of the range drop quickly to Lee Vining and the broad valley beyond. The lake sits in a dry basin that has no outlet, so the water simply (for the most part) evaporates.

The lake is huge, stretching far to the east beyond Lee Vining. The landscape of the lake is simple, partly because the surrounding area was once submerged when the lake was much larger than it is today. Far in the distance is Boundary Peak and the ridge of the White Mountains. The sun sets early here, since the tall peaks of the Sierra raise to the west, and in this photograph deep shadows are already angling across the western shores of the lake.


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

Sagebrush and Aspens

Sagebrush and Aspens
Sagebrush and Aspens

Sagebrush and Aspens. East of the Sierra Nevada, California. October 13, 2013. © Copyright 2013 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Sparse, colorful aspen trees in the high sagebrush country east of the Sierra Nevada.

Back in October I made my annual trek to the east side of the Sierra Nevada to photograph autumn subjects, including but not limited to aspen trees in their fall colors. As often happens at this time of the year, we encountered a wide range of conditions ranging from beautiful sunny days to one day on which it snowed the entire time as we drove over the crest and down highway 395. Overall, this turned out to be a fine year for aspen color, though it was not exactly a typical year. The color came a bit early and seemed to change quickly in a number of areas. Even though many of us were concerned that the past two years of California drought – perhaps combined with the effects of global climate changes – might have reduced the colors, in the end the effect was simply to change the timing a bit. (And long time aspen photographers know that, in a sense, there really is no such thing as a “typical season” for aspen color.)

The final day of our five-day visit was a diverse one, and it took us to a range of quite different locations. It started in Mammoth Lakes, where we were surprised to find that it was snowing lightly when we left our motel in the pre-dawn darkness and headed out into Long Valley. After stopping there to photograph the morning snow flurries along the eastern Sierra, we continued to the east and drove all the way to Benton before turning around and heading back toward Mono Lake, investigating the interesting fall color in this less-visited area. As we reached highway 395 again we found that the snow was continuing to fall along the eastern escarpment here, too. We stopped in Lee Vining for a (very) late breakfast and decided to continue on to the north. After a stop to photograph the vast stands of aspens on the summit north of Lee Vining, it looked like the weather might be photographically interesting out toward Bodie, so we headed that direction. I photographed this little high desert valley with its small stands of autumn aspens momentarily illuminated as cloud shadows raced across the landscape. Mono Lake and the surrounding mountains are visible in the distance.

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

Paoha Island, Mono Lake, Evening

Paoha Island, Mono Lake, Evening
Paoha Island, Mono Lake, Evening

Paoha Island, Mono Lake, Evening. Eastern Sierra Nevada, California. August 6, 2013.© Copyright 2013 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Pastel colors in evening clouds above Paoha Island reflect on the surface of Mono Lake

On this evening I ended up at Mono Lake on more or less a hunch about the clouds – thunder clouds had built to the east out over the basin and range country and even a bit over the Sierra, and I had heard a report of thunder and lightning a bit north of here, so I decided to chance an evening visit to the south shore of the lake. Mono Lake evening light can be very special, but it can also be a bit tricky. Because the tall peaks of the Sierra Nevada crest lie directly to the west, the light leaves the lake itself well before actual sunset, so you often might end up relying on the clouds themselves to provide most of the interest. Smoke from a wildfire to the south near Mammoth Lakes had also been affecting the atmosphere, creating a lot of haze and some unusual colors.

In any case, I drove out to a point along the south shore of the lake – not the well-known South Tufa site, though visible from there – and watched the mostly uninspiring light of this very hazy evening. But there I was, and there wasn’t time before the end of the light to get from Mono Lake to other places that might be interesting, so I stayed and photographed and thought about how I might be able to work with the light and conditions that were available to me. There were beautifully shaped clouds, and they rose high enough above the lower atmosphere to gain some clarity. The haze muted the shapes and colors of the far hills and the darker shape of the island. So I composed the scene to just barely hold the island and a bit of the lake at the bottom, and used that to anchor a scene that was mostly sky.

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

Desert Sky, Negit Island

Desert Sky, Negit Island
Desert Sky, Negit Island

Desert Sky, Negit Island. Mono Lake, California. August 5, 2013. © Copyright 2013 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Mono Lake and dark Negit Island beneath a vast and cloud-filled summer sky

Mono Lake still seems like a somewhat mysterious place to me. Although I’m familiar with parts of it, having gone by and to it for many years on Sierra trips and having photographed there many times, I find it hard to quite get my mind around it in the same way that I can with many other places. There are probably several factors that contribute to this. First, it is obviously an absolutely huge place. While I can see the far side of the lake and the mountains beyond, they are a great distance away, as I’ve realized when traveling just part way around it – so I have looked at much of it but I have not directly experienced that much of it close up. Second, we feel that we know the chief features of this lake very well – they are, I suppose, the lowering water level of this close-off basin lake, its tremendous size, the mineral-filled water, and the famous tufa formations. But a bit more time, even only that time that I’ve spent there that is mostly secondary to “Sierra time,” and it starts to be clear that these things are not the whole story.

Some years ago, when photographing the tufas around dawn, mostly when almost no one else was around, I began to catch on to the fact that things like the sounds of flocks of birds, the immense distances on land and – especially – in the huge sky, the wind, and the deep quiet of the place have more to do with its character than the tufas. Often when I stop there now I do not go to the tufas at all, instead perhaps expanding my knowledge of other areas of the lake and surrounding country. This photograph was made from above the lake, in a location where I could look slightly down on the water, which better shows its expanse, and on the dark shape of volcanic Negit Island. But I chose to include them primarily not for their own value but rather to anchor that vast sky with its building afternoon clouds.

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

Mono Lake Sky

Mono Lake Sky
Mono Lake Sky

Mono Lake Sky. Mono Lake, California. August 5, 2013. © Copyright 2013 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Afternoon thunderstorms develop over the eastern Sierra Nevada and Mono Lake

I think that many people are initially drawn to Mono Lake by the famous and often photographed tufa tower formations, and I have certainly sought out and photographed that subject quite a few times. But the more I go there the less I’m interested primarily in the tufas, and the more I find myself drawn to and thinking about other things. These include the immense space and deep quite surrounding the lake, broken by the cries of birds, especially when you visit at the quietest time around dawn. I also am drawn to the sky above this lake – which is often, frankly, rather barren, but when filled with the right kind of clouds can almost be the subject itself.

But only almost, so in this photograph I decided to include a thin strip of the reflecting water of the lake along with the darker formation of Black Point and the hills rising beyond in order to anchor that sky to something solid. This was one of those afternoons when thunder storms were trying to develop, but couldn’t quite build sufficiently before sundown. But this still left some very spectacular clouds, especially where updrafts pushed their tops high into the light. I suppose that there are several reasons that I chose to make this a black and white photograph, but one very practical reason was that the lower reaches of the atmosphere were a bit brown from a nearby wildfire, and I could better adapt to that in monochrome.

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

Sand Tufa, Mono Lake

Sand Tufa, Mono Lake - Early morning light on details of sand tufa formations, Mono Lake
Early morning light on details of sand tufa formations.

Sand Tufa. Mono County, California. July 14, 2012. © Copyright 2012 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Early morning light on details of sand tufa formations, Mono County.

I have wanted to photograph this subject for some time. The sand tufas are not found in the same location as the better-known “tufa towers” that are so often photographed, and they are smaller and somewhat subtler (if that is the right word) subjects. If you weren’t aware of what you were looking for, it would be very easy to pass right by them and barely notice their presence at all. They also appear to be very fragile, so great care should be taken if you ever happen to come across them. Walk around, not over or through them, and minimize your impact on them to the greatest extent possible. If you come across examples, it is probably best to not blast a lot of specific information to the world. I don’t know all of the details of their formation, but judging by their locations and by the recent history of lower lake levels, I suspect that they may have been underwater before the historically recent extraction of water from the eastern Sierra by Los Angeles.

If you are thinking of looking for an interesting and easy to shoot photographic subject, don’t bother with the sand tufa. You’ll probably have much better luck and more fun shooting the impressive and better known and larger “tower” features at other areas. These small structures do not tower above anything. Some are only inches tall, and the largest are just a few feet tall. Their natural color is a muted and, let’s be honest, boring gray color. Their location does not particularly allow them to be paired with more impressive and distant large-scale landscape features such as the expanse of the lake’s surface or the surrounding mountains and hills, with the possible exception of certain kinds of cloud formations. When I went there I had some pre-conceived ideas about I might photograph them, perhaps including the Sierra’s eastern escarpment in the images, but these ideas did not pan out. However, by shooting in the first few minutes of light and working with a long focal length to crop tightly I found some interesting fluted patterns to work with.

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

Mono Lake, Thunderstorm

Mono Lake, Thunderstorm
Mono Lake, Thunderstorm

Mono Lake, Thunderstorm. Mono Lake, California. July 23, 2007.© Copyright 2007 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Eastern Sierra Nevada thunderstorms build over Mono Lake, Mono Craters, and Lee Vining, California.

Mono Lake can be an unforgiving place in which to try to make photographs during the day, but sometimes one gets lucky! It is a wonderful place, but if you only know it from photographs – which, of course, tend to be made at the most appealing times – you might not know that it is often hot and hazy and dry during the day. These are among the reasons that it is a place often photographed at dawn or at sunset on days when the clouds are interesting. (The latter poses its own set of problems, since the Sierra Nevada range begins to block the light well before actual sunset.)

But I did get lucky on this late July afternoon. It was thunderstorm weather, so there were some very impressive clouds floating around. However, the clouds did not completely fill the sky, so patches of light were moving across the landscape – in this photograph one illuminates the green area at far right along the shore and, more importantly, the Mono Craters beyond the far shore of the lake. And the vegetation around the lake was still green, or at least green enough to look alive in this light.

G Dan Mitchell Photography
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