The 5 Things I Learned Photographing Mono Lake

This past weekend I traveled from my LA home to Mono Lake in Lee Vining, CA.  The drive to Lee Vining is a wonderfully beautiful 5.5 hours and it takes me through Lone Pine, Mount Whitney, Bishop and Mammoth Lakes.  There are so many great colors and landscapes that it's hard to keep my eyes on the road at times.  I knew it was going to be cold, cold, cold there since I had been tracking the weather and moon so I could make some images with snow, ice, stars and of course the star of the images the Tufa of Mono Lake.  I packed my Nikon D3s, the holy triumvirate of Nikkor lenses (14-24mm 2.8, 24-70mm 2.8 and 70-200mm 2.8) and my tripod.  I also packed some serious winter gear as the temperatures were dropping into negative degrees during that weekend.  All that considered, here are the 5 things I learned photographing Mono Lake in the winter.

This was shot in the parking lot at the South Tufa entrance. I wanted some of the buildings in the foreground of this shot.

1.   I really only needed 2 lenses Although I packed three lenses (well 4 but I never really use my 60mm Macro lens in situations like this) I found myself only using the 14-24mm and 24-70mm lenses on a regular basis.  Along with my 14-24mm lens, I purchased the Lee Filter set (which comes with a hard-edged gradient ND filter - don't ask me why they ship the filter set with this truly useless filter.  If I were only shooting oceans and flat horizons then the hard-edged ND filter would make sense but the majority of this world doesn't have a flat horizon - I also bought the 3 stop ND filter and used this filter on every shot I made) so that filter set was always on my lens when I used it and for some shots when I needed to zoom in a little closer I would switch to the 24-70mm lens fitted with a Circular Polarizing Filter AND a Variable 8-Stop ND Filter.  I looked around for things to photograph with a longer lens but since I was focused on the Tufa around the lake the closer, wider lenses really worked best. 2.   Hotels and dining in Lee Vining are extremely limited This time of year is the slow time of year so my choices lodging and eating options were very limited.  I stayed at the Lake View Lodge and there was no "Lake View" nor was it a "Lodge."  It was a motel at best.  The door to the room would latch but not close all the way so the negative temperatures were constantly creeping into the room all hours of the day.  So, to combat this I would turn up the in-room heater that would make it either super hot or super cold.  The bed was as hard as concrete and their in-room television selection was limited.  They didn't even have ESPN as one of their channels but they did have 2 History Channels (the same channel on two different stations) and a couple of shopping channels.  I mean, REALLY, who doesn't have ESPN?  And, I had to run the hot water for 20 minutes before any hot water would ever emerge.  At one point I called the front desk to ask if I had to pay extra for hot water so I could shower.  Also, the one restaurant open (Nicely's) during this time of year was actually really good.  They had homemade soups that were very tasty but they close at 8pm so if you don't get some food you may have to survive for the night on whatever you brought with you (or you can kill a rabbit or two, make a fire and have your own meal). 3.   Weather: Expect the unexpected... always! This time of year the weather is brutally cold and can change in an instant.  I had been tracking the weather for 2 weeks prior to departing for Mono Lake.  I knew it would be bitterly cold but January 11th was the "New Moon" and perfect for photographing the night skies and stars.  Once I passed Mammoth Lakes (24 miles south of Lee Vining) I experienced a horrific snow storm while driving over Dead Man's Summit.  I couldn't see 20 feet in front of me and was white-knuckle driving my wife's Nissan Maxima (my four wheel drive Jeep was getting repaired at the time of the trip) the last 24 miles to Lee Vining.   Once I finally arrived at the hotel the snow had completely stopped but the clouds were still blocking the stars from being photographed that night.  According to all news and weather reports, there was not supposed to be any snow or clouds in the forecast until Sunday.  So I settled into my hotel room and went to Nicely's for dinner where I spoke with the locals about the weather.  I learned quickly that neither they nor I should ever rely upon news and weather forecasts for the area since it can change at any moment.  The day I shot all these images had some great clouds and as soon as the sun settled behind the mountains surrounding the area the clouds disappeared showing me the most stars I have ever seen in my life and allowed for the Milky Way to come out and play. 🙂

This was shot in the parking lot at the South Tufa entrance. I wanted some of the buildings in the foreground of this shot.

4.   Pack smart, warm and be able to move quickly I had three bags with me when I walked from the parking lot to the tufa area.  I had two ThinkTank Camera Bags and a Camelbak backpack.  The next time I go back I will only have two bags and one WILL NOT be my ThinkTank Airport International bag.  This bag is great for traveling since it's on rollers but horrible for snow and can get heavy when I am not rolling it and carrying it.  Fortunately there weren't a lot of people here this weekend so I could leave my bags in one location without having to worry about whether or not anyone was rifling through them to taking things.  But the number of bags made it difficult to move quickly and get the right lens/filter combination for the photograph I wanted to make.  When I wrapping things up and leaving well into the night I had to carry the bags back to the car and my right hand started to get numb and tingling from the brutal cold (I did have very warm mittens but they prevented me comfortably carrying things so I had carry the bags without these) and I had to stop three times to warm my hands and prevent frostbite.   I am buying a pair of glove liners so I can have a small amount of protection next time. 5.   I can't wait to get back I have visited this area once before but during the summer.  There were tourists with cameras everywhere!  People were jockeying around the lake and the tufa to get that wonderful sunset shot so tripod space was a premium.  On this trip there were only three people trying to photograph the sunset and it was a welcome relief.  We all had our own spaces and areas and "vision" of what we wanted to capture.  It was nice to have that much space and freedom to move from one location to another and not have to worry about missing a shot because I couldn't get to the exact position I wanted.  Furthermore, there was something really peaceful and serene I experienced on this trip that wasn't experienced in the previous trip.  It was quiet, calm and I could sit and listen to the water and wind for hours.   If you travel here and are curious as to what else you may need then here's another list of items I would highly recommend:
  1. Flashlight/headlamp
  2. Extra batteries for your camera and flashlights
  3. Bear Pepper Spray (unlikely but just in case you need it)
  4. Knife (again, just in case you need it)
  5. Winter Boots (not just hiking boots)
  6. Ski Pants (I was on my knees a lot and never got cold from kneeling in the snow)
  7. A really warm, down-filled coat
  8. An intervalometer or other cable release
  9. Water/Food
  10. Patience - The right shot will come but you have to wait and expect the weather to change for the better (at times).
I look forward to going again and hopefully can get to the Ghost Town of Bodie and photograph it in winter but I need to find someone with a snowmobile who can give me a ride there since the road to Bodie is closed in winter (anybody have a contact?). Until next time, SH

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  1. Rina Shapira says:

    Seth,

    I know some locals in Mammoth Lakes (we own a condo there – if you don’t mind driving from ML to Mono, and if it is not rented out, we can arrange something, and the doors close, and we have ESPN). You can try calling Bob Stilwell 310.901.1025, and mention my name. He and his wife are our rental agents, and live in town, and might know someone with a snow mobil.

    Good luck,

    Rina

    Reply
    • Seth Hancock says:

      I will DEFINITELY check into that. I am hoping to go back in February if we don’t go to Death Valley instead. I have wanted to photograph Bodie in the winter for sometime now and hopefully this can be my chance. Again, THANK YOU!

      SH

      Reply
  2. Hi Seth! So glad I ran across your blog on Mono Lake. I live in Los Angeles and do mostly birds and wildlife photography, but I wanted to get out of my box and try something new. I thought Mono Lake would be a great get-a-way and I could combine some landscape with the resident birds at Mono Lake. Your blog was very informative as to what equipment would be useful as well as clothing for the changing elements! Thanks for the post and I look forward to seeing more of your work here and in Facebook!

    Regards,
    Fraida Gutovich

    Reply