A few autumn leaves linger on a grove of bare aspen trees, eastern Sierra Nevada
No, I’m still not done with my photographs from autumn 2015 in the Sierra Nevada! This year I first photographed this grove in late September, much earlier than would normally be the case. Even then many of the trees had already lost their leaves, seemingly in response to the fourth serious drought year in the Sierra. The drought affected trees in a variety of ways, ranging from early color change to simply dropping leaves without a color change to seemingly going dormant. (Other trees that were less stressed seemed to change later than usual, perhaps in response to later warm temperatures resulting from climate change.) I was less than satisfied with those first late-September photographs of these trees, so I thought more about them after returning home and made a plan to return the following week and refine my ideas.
And that’s just what I did. I made this photograph one week after those first images. This time I spent less time at the grove since I already had a fairly clear idea of what I was trying to produce. Given how few leaves there had been the week before, I was somewhat surprised to find any color still left here — but I was also happy that there was some! Bare and near bare late-season aspen trees seem compelling to me, for reasons I cannot quite put my finger on. Is it that they signal the fine, incontrovertible end of the warm season? Or is it that they signal the certain arrival of the beauties of winter? Perhaps there is something about these bare trees standing in groups and their promise of new life the following spring? When there are still just a few colorful leaves remaining, as in this scene, somehow the effect seems even stronger.
Autumn aspen color along Bishop Creek in the eastern Sierra Nevada
By the time this photograph appears at my website, the transitory seasonal aspen color show will be mostly a memory. (Or, for many of us who think way in advance, a promise for next year!) With this fall’s release of my book on Sierra fall color (“California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide of Autumn in the Sierra” — Heyday Books, 2015) I made a point of spending as much time in the Eastern Sierra as possible. I started looking for easy signs of developing autumn color all the way back in early September — and in this unusual, drought-influenced year, I found it. The first notable aspen color appeared in late September, and by the end of the month I saw very good color in some high elevation locations, and I spent a good portion of the next few weeks returning to photograph as it continued to develop.
I made this photograph in early October, typically the beginning of the period of best color — though this year some areas had already lost leaves by then. Aspens grow in a range of different surroundings — these grow in a drier area of sage brush rather than begin interspersed with pines. This group of aspens had achieved more or less peak color, and some nearby trees were losing leaves rapidly. In this photograph the colors are intensified by the quality of the light — I like to photograph these trees in the very early and very late times when they have fallen into shadow, softening the otherwise harsh contrasts of brighter light.
Among the trees of an Eastern Sierra aspen grove, autumn
Late in the afternoon on this day of Eastern Sierra fall aspen color photography I found myself in a familiar place, where a small lateral road, narrow and gravel, roughly parallels are larger paved road. I like to pull off the main road here and slowly drive the short distance up canyon on the gravel road, stopping along the way to view and photograph the variety of aspen trees that grow here. It is especially nice late in the day when the sun drops behind high peaks, leaving soft, shadowed light.
I pulled into a familiar pull-out along this road, at a spot where I have photographed in the past and where there is a little grove of small trees. None of the trees seems to be as tall as twenty feet, but they grow very closely together — so closely that it is actually difficult to walk among them. The spot is often quiet — personal rather than iconic — especially late on an autumn day, and I sometimes simply pause quietly here for a while. On other occasions, like this one, I make photographs. I decided that I would put on a very wide-angle lens and then walk in among the trees, photographing them very close up and trying to capture some of the feeling of being inside such a dense little grove.
A few yellow leaves remain in a grove of small, tightly packed Eastern Sierra aspens
With this year’s unusual Eastern Sierra fall color transition, I had plenty of opportunities to photograph aspen groves with few or no leaves. Most likely as a result of the four-year California drought, some aspen trees seemed to be under a lot of stress. Some of these trees were bare very early in the season, others changed colors a week or more early, and other simply lost their leaves without a real color transition. (Fortunately, some trees were not as stressed, and these prolonged the color season to and beyond the usual time in mid to late October.)
I enjoy photographing dense groves of small trees, with their complex and packed patterns of trunks and leaves. I spotted this grove a day earlier while in the area, so late in the day when the light started to fade and I found myself nearby, I headed back this way to photograph the grove in fading light. I like photographing aspens in this light, as it fills in the shadows, avoids the stark shadows of midday light, and tends to saturate the colors naturally. I searched this grove for the right spot and finally found it here — a place with almost uniformly dense small trees and a band of strongly colored leaves running horizontally.
I’ve written before that this has been a very strange fall color season in the Eastern Sierra, and this photograph might be an example. Although the photograph was made very near the beginning of October, typically the time that the peak colors are arriving, this grove was one of many that were already completely devoid of autumn leaves. After spending some time in a very colorful area much further south along the eastern slopes of the Sierra, I decided to head back to the San Francisco Bay Area over a couple of passes that cross the range much further north. Near the top of one of these passes there is a vast open area that holds many large aspen groves, and I had hopes of photographing some color here late in the day.
I arrived to find a beautiful scene — high, open sagebrush country with clouds moving quickly across the landscape and creating changeable light. But the aspens were pretty much spent. I pulled off the main road at a place I know well, and took a short detour down a little gravel road toward the edge of groves where there are some very large trees. Here I found the trees, alright, but the leaves were gone. Fortunately, I like aspen groves in almost any condition — with bare branches, with new spring growth, with colorful autumn leaves, in snow — so I went to work photographing the dense patterns of closely spaced aspen trunks in the soft late-day light, muted even further by clouds.
A momentary break in a September storm lights ridgetop trees against a cloudy sky
In a way, I sneaked up on this stand of trees over a period of several days. A small group of us camped at a backcountry Sierra lake for about a week back in September. The experience of photographing in one limited area for this long is quite different from photographing while actively backpacking or while moving around by vehicle. Each morning one wakes up in the same place, and each morning one heads out into the same landscape, looking for new views of it or for subjects and locations that were not immediately apparent. We also have the opportunity to return to subjects more than once as the conditions change — different times of day, different atmospheric conditions, and so forth.
These trees stand atop a glacially carved ridge above “out” lake and between it and another similar lake below. The rocky terrain limits the growth of trees and they tend to stand apart from one another, often revealing more clearly the shapes of individual trees. I first saw this area and it trees very early on during our visit, and I climbed the low ridge a number of times. Near the end of our stay a storm swept in and we had on and off rain for a couple of day. I went out on this somewhat soggy day, alternately walking around the landscape and using that very landscape to hide from the intermittent showers that passed through. I hiked up the hill in the rain, using a thicker bit of forest for cover, and I emerged into the open as the clouds thinned a bit and the rain momentarily diminished, and the landscape lightened as weak sunlight shone. This clump of trees stands resolutely near the very top of the ridge.
A small group of aspens against a rocky slope are in full autumn color
Having visited this area a week earlier I was expecting a certain level of fall color in specific places along the shoreline of this eastern Sierra Nevada lake when I arrived here again early on October. I was also expecting to see quite a few other photographers, given that this is an accessible and well-known location. I was not disappointed on either count. As I arrived I found brilliant colors along the small dirt roadway, and I also found photographers everywhere — in the parking lots, along the shoreline of the lake, stopped in the middle of the road, wandering in grassy areas. There were even a few workshop groups collected together in promising spots.
I kept going, passing through the area of the most intense color. My idea was to find a location from which I could get a line back across the valley towards the trees, placing them against a backdrop of the gray texture of granite hillsides and cliffs, and contrasting that with the brilliant color of the leaves, made even more saturated by the cloudy, wet conditions. I found my spot, wandered up onto a slight rise with a clear view of the trees, and used a long lens to isolate them.