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Morning fog drifts above a Sierra Nevada lake surrounded by the colors of autumn
This is perhaps an example of a photograph that required me to point my camera the “wrong” direction. I was at a very popular aspen photography destination in the eastern Sierra Nevada, where early color was developing quite nicely even in late September, perhaps a week earlier than usual. There are a couple of standard photographs that almost everyone makes at this location, but since I did those some years ago I’m usually not interested in re-doing them now. (With truly exceptional conditions I would relax that notion a bit and rush right back to the standard place and make photographs!) So when I go back here I now tend to poke around a bit and see what else might be possible there.
So I started this morning by climbing to a location from which I had not photographed before. From that vantage point I saw a few other possible angles on the subject, including some from the far side of the lake. I soon headed over there and as I looked back toward my original location I saw that a low haze was back-lit along the edges of the lake. I’m a complete sucker for both mist and backlight, so I pointed my camera almost straight back into this light and made a few photographs of the grassy area along the lake’s shoreline and the trees, both aspens and conifers, rising beyond.
A row of autumn aspens in front of receding conifer forest and rising slopes near Sonora Pass on a Sierra Nevada fall evening
Although I’ve driven across Sonora Pass for years, I feel that I have perhaps neglected its photographic potential, perhaps because it is somewhat out of the way for me on many of my Sierra trips — the major Tahoe area routes are farther north, and my favorite trans-Sierra route further south is Tioga Pass through Yosemite. I have photographs from the base of the pass on the east side, but my collection of photographs from the highest reaches of the pass is very small. With this in mind, I decided to return from this trip to the eastern Sierra by way of this pass, and I timed the traverse for the late afternoon when I thought the light might be idea.
Although this pass is not quite as high as Tioga Pass, it has a much more alpine feeling. The road is very steep in places and frequently quite narrow as it twists and turns up and down and around trees and boulders. I recall once thinking many years ago that driving this pass is about as close to the feeling of hiking the high country as one can get on a road. There are a lot of aspens along this route, but in many places they are mixed in with the conifer forest, making them a bit more difficult of a photographic subject. Finally, perhaps a couple miles east of the pass, the terrain opened up to high forests and meadows and I found a few beautiful aspen groves standing apart.
In a typical year the peak of the Sierra Nevada aspen color generally occurs around the first two to three weeks of October, so I would not usually head up there to photograph the fall color in September. But this is not a typical year. After four years of historic drought conditions in the Sierra, the normal seasonal cycles seem to have been disrupted. With that in mind I felt it might be worthwhile to go a bit early this year, and my visit was rewarded with some excellent early color.
Every season brings reports that “the color is coming early this year!” Eventually I figured out that this is quite often a matter of folks becoming overly exuberant when they see the first early signs of the color change, and that things tend to play out on roughly the same schedule almost every year. There are variations, but they are most often rather small.
This year I’m prepared to go (a little ways) out on a limb and say that things do seem to be different this time, though I’m a bit cautious about overdoing the extent of the difference. The photograph at the beginning of this article embodies features of the pattern that I believe I am seeing. Notice some trees without any leaves at all, some trees that already have intense color, and some trees that are still quite green.
Here is my sense of what is going on. Note that this is essentially personal speculation and guesswork based on what I see, and that I can’t guarantee that I’m right or that things will play out as I imagine they might. That said, I’m planning my own eastern Sierra aspen hunting around these assumptions until I see evidence to the contrary. Continue reading Sierra Fall Color — Late September 2015→
Tourists on a late-night walk pass closed Chinatown shops in San Francisco
This is (yet another!) night street photography image made on one of my summer night walks in The City, in this case between roughly Union Square and almost to North Beach. A group of us meets up to photograph these subjects every so often. We begin before sunset and then continue walking, watching, and photographing right on into the night.
I recently read a nice description of part of what is appealing about photographing the street at night. In the daytime everything is more or less evenly lit, but at night small groups move into and out of the light, becoming “spotlighted” against the backdrop of the night. In places where we might see undifferentiated subjects in the daytime, subjects that pass though localized pools for light acquire more importance, and other elements of the scene recede. Here a small group of slightly uncomfortable-looking tourists shuffles past the closed up storefronts of Chinatown. Something about the group does not look entirely comfortable with their surroundings.
Night photograph of a closed Chinatown shop, San Francisco
In early September I again joined a group of folks who like to photograph San Francisco urban and street subjects after dark. Most of the group met before sunset, did a bit of street photography, joined for dinner at a place along the edge of Chinatown, and then headed out for a couple of hours of photographing in the urban nightscape. Once again we passed through Chinatown — hard to resist when we were already there! — and on down into areas closer to Market Street.
Late in the evening it was time for me to head back to my car, so I said good-bye to the rest of the group and headed back the way I had come, walking alone this time. It was now much later, and this area pretty much shuts down — surprisingly so for a Saturday night in The City. But this meant that the earlier crowds were gone and the scene was a lot quieter and slower. When I passed this corner earlier the shop was open and there were quite a few people around, but now the shutters were closed and the green light washed over the urban landscape of sidewalks and steps leading up toward a dark alley. After years of doing night photography the “old way” — tripod and long exposures — I’m still amazed that I can wander out and shoot stuff like this using a small handheld camera these days.
The John Muir Trail crosses Cathedral Pass near Cathedral Peak on a late-summer morning
Late in the season in the Sierra backcountry the population begins to change. During the high season of July through Labor Day, when passes are usually clear of snow and when people are in the middle of their summer vacations, the backcountry is filled with backpackers of all sorts, though quite a few are weekend visitors out of a few days. The through-hikers are there, but they are outnumbered by the other folks. After Labor Day things begin to change, and I have a sense that a greater percentage of the backpackers are of the “serious” sort — the people who are out for longer trips, who are covering greater mileage, and who may visit some of the more out-of-the-way locations. Our photography trip into the Yosemite backcountry was during this period, and out camp was on a section of the John Muir Trail, so quite a few of these “hard-core” hikers passed through. (I enjoy talking to them, since I’ve been across almost all of the trails they were traversing.)
One morning I got up, as we always do on these trips, before dawn. I gradually worked my way up through a rocky forest/meadow behind our camp, climbing toward a saddle not far above our location and photographing along the way. Shortly before the saddle I caught sight of an actual trail heading up there, and I quickly figured out that it was the portion of the JMT that ran past our lake. I arrived at the saddle before the sun had risen far enough to light the beautiful meadow that extended beyond it, but knowing that the light would soon slant across the pass I set up and picked some possible compositions. Here I made a conscious choice to “document” this bit of the JMT as it crossed the pass and headed off toward the distant peak, and right as the first light bit the trail I made a series of photographs.