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San Diego — This past weekend was the Photo 245 “Nature & Landscape Photography” field trip to Owens Valley and Alabama Hills. This is the first trip for the class and next month we will do our second field trip to Yosemite.
I love the Alabama Hills since it is endlessly fascinating with the nearly alien rock forms strewn around the valley as if mountains that once looked like those in the background had been blasted into rubble by some incomprehensible cosmic force. They are, so the rangers say, the result of volcanic activity. but all around are the clear signs of the local volcanoes including car sized chunks of lava shot out of the various calderas. That would be exciting to see…
The actual bed rock floor is a long way down as the valley is filled with eons of silt and decomposing granite. Similar to Death Valley it escapes the heat by being at a much higher elevation (around 4,000+ feet). The only obvious indication (to a non-geologist like me) that a volcanic eruption was involved in the formative process are the scab-like crusts of burned rock found in various places. Whatever the cause or processes involved, the result is a place that is difficult to describe in words, but here is an overview from a high ridge overlooking the valley (looking west) toward Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain (by a few inches) in the lower states excluding Alaska.
Since I have been here often, both with school fieldtrips, private workshops, and by myself or with other photographers, I had decided this time I would make it a learning experience for myself and concentrate on using the Wista tech camera mounting a DSLR on the back for 10-shot internal mosaics. I had tested it and liked it as readers may recall, but now it was time to really learn how to use it properly. It does have some idiosynchracies I’ve not fully mastered. And since I was into BIG, high resolution work, I also planned on using a Nodal Ninja Spherical Panoramic Head, since I had not done that for a while and was feeling a little rusty. (I actually planned on using my Gigpan Epic Pro but walked off leaving it in the house.)
This was a good and enthusiastic group of students and they seemed to enjoy the bizarre scenery. I’m really anxious to see their work. As for me, since this was a “technical” weekend learning to use my “Digi-View” rig I intended to concentrate on larger views that leant themselves to a shot trying to maximize resolution for larger prints. Most of the shots from the Wista rig are assembled into roughly 300-500 megabyte files (depending on crop). The full mosaics run over a gigabyte in size.
But the wind was really blowing hard so there were times, like the lead shot above shot from a ridge overlooking the valley, when trying to hold the tech camera rig or even the spherical pano head steady was simply not a reasonable plan.
At any rate, we arrived Friday afternoon, rendezvoused in the hotel parking lot and then did the obligatory introductory tour. I did a shot at the Tuttle Rd Corral. Every year it is a little more run down and a little more overgrown with tumbleweed. Now, the posts have almost disappeared into the weeds. This also shows the clouds moving in which, as noted below, scuttled some night shooting plans on Friday night.
Saturday, however, we were out early for a dawn shot. The color that can sometimes be a vivid salmon/coral pink did not appear, just the more typical golden dawn light as it first hits Mt. Whitney then creeps down the slopes, slowly bringing light to the whole valley. This was taken with a 400 mm lens on the Wista.
But while the rocks were refusing to light up and glow, in the washes, some of the bushes came alive when lit by the golden light. Here is another shot with a 400mm lens on the Wista concentrating on the detail in the bushes and trees.
After breakfast I came back and found a spot to do a 30 frame (10×3) mosaic of Mt Lone Pine and Mt. Whitey towering over the rock piles of Alabama Hills.
Although there was very little snow on the mountains, the Whitney Portal road was still closed where it starts to lift up out of the valley. But before the turn-around spot, there is a view up the canyon formed by Lone Pine Creek and ending in the craggy spires of Mt. Whitney. This is a mosaic done with the Spherical Pan Head and consists of 24 frames.
On the right of the scene above is the flanks of Mt. Lone Pine. It looks like the tallest of the mountains but that is because it is much closer than Whitney. Nevertheless it is an impressive peak in its own right.
I kept thinking I wish my friends Jeff and Betsy from Colorado could come out to see this amazing place since both are into geology and earth sciences. They would love seeing this.
We had also wanted to do some night shooting but, as I mentioned above, it clouded up Friday night so that plan was postponed. Saturday was our last night. It was really windy and I was afraid the rapidly forming clouds to the north would ruin it for us again. Nevertheless I did some location scouting and found a good spot for night shooting where the rocks were close enough to paint along with the stars and hoped for the best. It turned out some of the students had zeroed in on the same spot so if the weather cooperated we were ready to go.
I did a late afternoon shot at the intersection of Movie Road and Whitney Portal Road and expected that to finish off the day so I went in for dinner. You can see the haze in the air and by then clouds were forming to the south (the lefthand side of the image). It did not look good for a night shoot.
Despite the clouds, we formulated a tentative plan to meet in the parking lot at 10:00 pm and, if we could see any stars, we would go for it. Well, from the parking lot about all we could see was a hole or two in the clouds through which we could see Orion and occasionally the moon. But we were up and had come this far so several of us decided to go to the chosen spot and see what was there. The worse that could happen was… nothing… and we would come back and go to bed.
So off we went. The chosen spot was on a ridge where some large rocks formed a nice backdrop for painting with light. But on that ridgeline, the wind was so strong it was sometimes hard to stand up, and that created a problem for long exposures on spindly tripods. but the view of the night sky? Wow… it was simply magical. Overhead, one large cloudbank refused to be obliterated by the wind and created a surreal frame for the stars to the west and south. It was like a pillowy, whitish Aurora display.
Here are two shots from the ones I took. Both were taken with the Canon 5D Mk II at ISO 6400 for 30 seconds. The two f4 lenses I used were set wide open and manually focused on “infinity.”
This first one is with the 17-40mm lens at 17 mm. Can you spot Orion’s belt?
Orion is directly over the notch in the rocks. The second shot is with the 8-15mm lens set to its 15mm “full frame” fisheye setting for a greater sweep of the sky and edge of the cloudbank.
When I had some shots I thought would work (though some turned out to be blurry because of the wind shaking even my heavy duty tripod) I looked at the students’ efforts. Some of them were getting some really good images and were ecstatic about the shoot.
Sunday morning I went to see if the dawn light would give us some color but it was pretty plain like Saturday so after breakfast at the Alabama Hills Cafe and Bakery I checked out of the Dow Villa (my favorite place to stay in town) and headed home.
By the way, to see some more of my photographs of Alabama Hills, go to the Alabama Hills page of my web site. Here is the URL to the intro to those shots.