Silver Lake, CA on a moon-less night to photograph the night stars and reflections in the lake
Whenever I am not photographing people I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE to get out into the California landscape and photograph the mountains, water, sky and, lately, stars. I have really fallen in love with following the moon phases so I can photograph the night sky during a New Moon. That was the case here. My wife and I love driving up the less-traveled Highway 395 on California's eastern side and seeing all the sights along 395 like Lone Pine, Big Pine, Bishop, Mammoth, Mono Lake, Bodie (Ghost Town) and Bridgeport. There's something romantically haunting about the area. I can't quite put my finger on why I love the area so much but I just do... it speaks to me and resonates with me. I think one of the reasons I admire this area so much is that it reminds me how small I really am in this world and in this life and that I am just here for a very short time (compared to the amazing landscapes and history of the area).
We planned a trip around the December holidays to get away from LA for awhile and to just take in the beauty and awesomeness of the area. We went to Mammoth and did a little tubing and wanted do ride some snowmobiles but the weather hadn't provided enough snow at the time. But, we'll be back and will have that chance to get on the snowmobiles in January or February. That being said, I love to photograph the landscapes of this area and to take a break from a year of photographing people. Don't get me wrong, I love what I do for a living but it's nice to just set up the camera, admire my surroundings and try to capture the amazing beauty in a photograph.
We drove up to and stayed in June Lake, CA (about 9 miles north of Mammoth). I had never stayed in June Lake before but was blown away by this quaint little village at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It's gorgeous (or as the kids say... GORGE!!!). 🙂 Upon arriving I immediately noticed "Oh! Ridge" (see below) and there's a reason it's called Oh! Ridge; when you come over the ridge and see the lake and mountain you cannot stop yourself from uttering "OH!". It really is that awesomely beautiful.
Oh! Ridge - Photo credit by The Haven June Lake and IshCreatives.
So I waited until the perfect night where I could see stars and the Milky Way and the wife and I started driving around June Lake, Mono Lake and Silver Lake looking for the right opportunity. Unfortunately the wind was not cooperating at June and Mono Lakes. The slight breeze was not allowing me to get the reflection on the water and I really wanted that to be a part of the shot. On a whim, I said that we should check out Silver Lake to see what was going on there and if there was any opportunity to get the shot. When we arrived I noticed that this lake is protect on all sides by rolling hills and mountains. The water was so still and clear that I stepped in the water thinking I was still walking on rocks. At that point I knew I had the right location. The moral to this story is to move your butt and explore your options. A 10 minute drive allowed me to make this image when I was on the verge of walking away and not getting the shot I wanted of this beautiful, inspiring landscape.
Getting a great shot of the Milky Way around June Lake, California
It's important to use a tripod, use Mirror Lock UP if your camera has the setting and a shutter release cable. Also, I am including the incredibly useful 500 Rule PDF in this post for use when and if you want to photograph the night sky.
Nikon D3s Camera
Nikon 14-24mm 2.8 Lens
Really Right Stuff Tripod and Ballhead
Nikon Shutter Release Cable
Flashlights (only for adjusting settings on the camera)
My "500 Rule" Guideline for Night Photography Available for download 500 Rule*
*The 500 Rule for Night Photography is a set of calculations for use with specific focal lengths in order to get the best exposure without getting blur from moving objects (like stars) during the earth's rotation.
A couple of months ago I went with my friend, Crafty, to the Salton Sea. I took my trusty Mamiya RZ67 film camera as I think there are certain locations that are just better shot on film than with a digital camera. I loaded up the camera with 2 rolls of Ilford Delta Pro 100 B&W film to capture the gritty, earthy and solemn feel of the Salton Sea. Again, if you don't know the tragic story of the Salton Sea then please check out this page HERE.
My Mamiya RZ67 film camera
Don't get me wrong, I think I could have made some great images with my Nikon DSLR but I truly believe that, no matter how hard you try, you cannot replicate the look of B&W film from a digital shot. Yes, Nik Software's SILVER EFEX PRO 2 is an amazing piece of software that comes pretty damn close to emulating a true B&W film look. Also, Vincent Versace has some great tips for converting digital images through the ACME Educational website. But, if you were to ask most photographers I think you will find the vast majority will tell you that nothing you can do in Photoshop can compare to the final image you get from using your favorite B&W film.
Crafty and I spent several hours driving around and looking for the best locations for shooting. One of the first places I wanted to see was Salvation Mountain. A devoutly religious, Christian man created this "mountain" over 25 years ago as an art project. He was only going to stay one week but has since made it his home. Unfortunately, the creator, Leonard Knight, suffers from dementia and has been placed in a long term care facility and is no longer on site. I was hoping to meet the man who dedicated his life to this project but took solace in knowing we could see the project at least. There are plans to keep this project alive and hopefully there will be enough paint, sweat and volunteers who can keep his vision alive long after he is gone. While I am not a deeply religious person, I do respect any artist who has dedicated his/her life to their passion. Knowing Mr. Knight wasn't around I wanted to create an image that signified his passion and desire. I asked Crafty to pose for me here, put the Red 25A filter on the lens to completely darken the sky and made the image below (Yes, the starlight/God's light was added in Photoshop as that was what I was thinking about when I made this image).
Redeemed by Salvation Mountain.
Another place I wanted to visit is the old Red Hill Marina. This used to be a thriving marina but now there is nothing left but busted up concrete, rocks, hills and dead Tilapia. While walking around here I noticed these lone trees sitting in the dried up area that used to be part of the Salton Sea (the sea levels are diminishing year after year). I found this sad and wanted to make an image of this tree. This tree and marina reminded me of everything that used to be thriving and vibrant with the sea. But if you look closely you can still see some large bird nests in the limbs and that actually gave me hope that this beautiful area can, once again, be alive with tourists, homes, people and life (Editorial note: But I am sure if a lot of people start coming back to this area again then I am sure they will figure out a way to screw it up. - Now I am stepping down off soapbox). 🙂
A lone tree at the Salton Sea.
When we wrapped up walking around the Red Hill Marina we found this little driving trail leading us to another side of the area. Being the explorers that we are, we wanted to see what was on the other side. After following the path we came to (what appeared to be) an abandoned trailer park/RV area. There was a posted sign stating that no cars were able to drive past this marked area without permission. So I got out of the car and started walking around yelling for someone or anyone to come out. After about 15 minutes of walking around and asking if anyone was around we decided to drive past the marked area, park the car and get out and walk toward the Salton Sea to explore possible shoots. Around 20 minutes into our walk we notice a car coming from the area we had just left. The vehicle was coming toward us and I knew we were in trouble. As the old Chevy Blazer approached and stopped, this diminutive man of 70+ years steps out of the vehicle and starts to inquire as to why we were there, what we were doing, didn't we read the signs, etc. It felt like an interrogation. However, after about 10 minutes of talking and letting the caretaker of the property (if you saw this area you would scratch your head wondering why there was a "caretaker" of the area) introduced himself as J.J. and started telling us stories about the area, his life as a Marine and his passion for living at the Salton Sea! He showed us the arsenal he had in the back of his vehicle in case he needed to use it on us. One of the items he pulled out was a Samurai sword and I knew I had to get a shot. Here's the image I made of J.J.
The Salton Sea Samurai
This man is so proud of this area and where he lives he took Crafty and me around the Sea to show us some of the best locations that only locals know about. I also promised J.J. that I would print the image I made of him and get it to him. As a side note, I did return to the area about 10 days later with my lovely wife, Lisa, and handed J.J. a 16x20 print of this shot. J.J. also pulled out part of his arsenal of firearms and let Crafty take target practice. You can see that below.
Lastly, if you are wondering why there are only three images from my shoot, I have to admit that I discovered a massive light leak with the camera. The bad part of shooting film is that you don't know about the dreaded "Light Leak" until you develop your negatives. Now while some people like the light leak effect I don't particularly care for it. I had to trash many of the images because the leak directly affected the area I wanted to have the viewer focus on. But the leak has since been repaired and I am looking forward to going back to the Salton Sea for more images. In case you don't know what a light leak is then here is an example.