Aspens in full autumn color against a granite cliff in the eastern Sierra Nevada
On this morning I woke up at my 8000′ eastern Sierra camp to temperatures in the mid-thirty degree range and light graupel, or snow pellets. But the clouds looked thin, and the combination of aspens and snow is appealing, so I headed up the canyon to a higher location where I thought that there might be colorful aspens and snow. When I got there, I wasn’t disappointed — the temperature was still down in the thirties, and the light snow continued to fall… and the trees at this location were probably at their peak color of the season.
The color of the trees was intense, but the soft light of the snowy, cloudy weather intensified colors even more. I went to the far side of the lake where I know of an accessible area that is a bit higher than the lake, with my plan being to photograph these trees against the backdrop of broken granite walls, using a long focal length to narrow the boundaries of the compositions and exclude distracting objects. For intense color everything was working in my favor: the peak color of the trees, the muted tones of the background rock, and the effect of the soft light from the overcast skies.
Steep coastal ridges run down to the edge of the Pacific Ocean, Northern California
Having lived not far from the Pacific Ocean for more than a couple of decades, I am lucky to have regular access to the California coastline and its often dramatic meeting of land and sea. Due to proximity, my home territory is the section between just north of San Francisco and down through the upper portions of the Big Sur coast. The shouldn’t be any surprise, given the number of photographs of that area that I have made.
Oddly, for a near-native Californian, I had little experience with the coastline farther north. I had made it up as far as Fort Ross a few times, but every time I went north in the state I headed inland. Some years back we began to rectify this omission with some visits to the Mendocino area. I still haven’t gotten my mind completely around photographing this particular coast, but I’m learning. While we think of the coast as being somewhat civilized, with roads traversing it and passing from town to town, the actual meeting of land and water remains mostly a rugged wilderness. I made this photograph from a spot that it at the edge of one of these wilderness sections, where the roads cut inland and leave the coast to the birds and the sea life.
Two trees, one very old and one very young, grow high on a granite face in Yosemite National Park
This tree grows high on the apparently barren face of a tall granite dome in Yosemite National Park’s high country. Of all of the improbably places to spot a tree, and one that seems reasonably healthy and strong at that, this has to be one of the most unlikely. Given its location, it must be putting its roots down in little more than a large crack in the rock and it has to be fully exposed to strong winter winds and snow.
I have photographed it more than once in the past, and it continues to intrigue me. For thinking that I know the tree well, I was surprised to find that I had not previously noticed the smaller tree growing just beyond and to the right of the main tree — perhaps the offspring of the larger tree? For a short time in the morning, low angle light streaming across the tops of more granite formations to the east glances across the surface of the dome and beautifully lights the two trees.
Autumn plants growing at the base of a sandstone cliff
It seems that we have arrived at that time when each year my thoughts begin to turn again to autumn photography. That is probably my favorite season as it includes those final warm days of Indian summer, the first inkling of the coming winter, the annual color transition as trees lose their leaves, and the first real winter weather — all of which are favorite photographic subjects of mine. (I’ll be paying special attention to Sierra Nevada fall color this coming season, for a number of reasons, but especially since this is the first autumn following the publication of my book on the subject: “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” from Heyday Press.)
So, an autumn photograph! This one comes from last October, when I had the opportunity to make a photography trip through some of may favorite areas of southern Utah. Partway through the trip I met up with my friend and fellow photographer, David Hoffman. We spent several days poking around in and photographing Capitol Reef National Park. On this evening we passed through a narrow gorge not far from our camp, quickly stopped, and ended up photographing the red rock canyon walls and the autumn colors until the light faded at the end of the day.
Early evening light on the face of a rugged and weathered sandstone cliff, Capitol Reef National Park
Recently I have been thinking about where we find subjects for photographs and about the fact that they are everywhere — I could say that you don’t always have to seek out particularly “special” places, or I might instead say that if you look closely enough almost any place can be special in some way. I do understand the interest in creating photographs of recognizable subjects and perhaps even the challenge of trying to make such photographs stand out in some way. But for me it is far more interesting to use the camera as a means of focusing more closely on what I can find wherever I am, and then trying to clear away obstacles to seeing these subjects in my own way.
Late in the day we had stopped along a section of roadway in Capitol Reef National Park. We knew, of course, that red rock sandstone cliffs and autumn trees were there, but most of all we stopped because the light was so fascinating. We simply walked along the road and looked, and almost everywhere we looked we found something that seemed like it might be worthy of a photograph. There was so much to see in this small area that as fast and furiously as we photographed, we felt like the light was passing too quickly. The subject of this photograph is a rough and weathered by of sandstone cliff that I happened to notice as I looked up from another subject I had been photographing.
Cliffs and eroded towers near Fruita, Capitol Reef National Park
I’m a sucker for juxtapositions of mountains and cliffs, and sunlit and shadowed surfaces. (In fact, “juxtaposition” is a word I think about a lot when making photographs.) This part of the world provides these juxtapositions with a vengeance. Everywhere in the red rock country of the Southwest there are sandstone walls, lined up, building one on top of the other, standing in front of and behind each other, layered with eroded rock and soil, standing above valleys and beyond lower ridges.
We had only a brief time to photograph on this first afternoon in Capitol Reef National Park. I had arrived in the middle of the afternoon and then busied myself with setting up a tent and a few other camp chores, plus catching up on the news with my friend Dave. By the time all of these important things had been taken care of the sun was rapidly dropping toward the horizon, so we quickly headed to a nearby area to see what sort of late-day light we could find. Literally within minutes of leaving our campground (which is just to the right of the shadowed trees visible in the lower part of the photograph) we came upon this intense and saturated late-day light, with shadows starting to stretch across the valley and the low foreground ridges.
I have been down this canyon a couple of times now. The walk begins in what might seem like an inauspicious place in rather plain terrain. Soon the route drops below the level of the plateau and enters the upper portion of a shallow canyon. Continuing to walk into this canyon, the walls soon rise higher and the canyon narrows and twists. Before long the expected sandstone walls appear.
As is usually the case, we followed the course of the creek along the bottom of the canyon, alternately walking in it, walking next to it, or cutting over higher ground between bends in its course. Places like this are full of distractions, and stops are frequently to photograph water seeping over rocks, trees with fall colors, arrangements of rocks and pebbles, reflections and always the sandstone canyon walls. Eventually we reached a familiar personal landmark along the route where we stopped to photograph, eat, and talk. A short distance beyond and the around another bend, and a path led up to a high point, from which there was a view through this arch back into the canyon.