Posts Tagged ‘Sierra Nevada’

Best of 2012

January 18th, 2014

In 2013 we started a fun project – picking the best of my photographs from 2012.  We approached it area by area, choosing the best from each.  It’s been a lot of fun so far.  And now it’s time to finish what was started and select the best photograph of 2012.

There are photographs from four areas – California Deserts, Eastern Sierra, Big Sur and Zion National Park in Utah.

death_valley_sunrise_2012California has two wonderful desert national parks.  Joshua Tree here in Southern California is a blend of both high and low desert, the fantastic trees that give the park its name, outcrops of granite that attract climbers from all over the world, not to mention the great photography.  Death Valley is the premier desert attraction in the country.

pfeiffer_beach_sunset_2012At the opposite end of California’s diverse spectrum is incomparable Big Sur, one hundred miles of the most incredible coastline in all of North America. Big Sur is famous for its precipitous cliffs that plunge into the pounding surf of the Pacific Ocean but it also boasts redwood groves, waterfalls, classic bridges and more.  One small stretch of the coast captured your imagination and for good reason.  Pfeiffer Beach is blessed with some incredible rocks just off shore pounded by powerful surf.  And when the light is just right the photographs are unbeatable.


The Eastern Sierra boasts the mighty Sierra Nevada mountains to the west and rivers and lakes along the Owens Valley.  One of the prime attractions is the Mammoth Lakes area with it’s superb skiing and a beautiful string of alpine lakes and laughing streams.


Zion National Park in Southwest Utah attracts visitors and photographers from all over the globe.  Its spectacular red sandstone cliffs create a canyon that of unparalleled beauty.  And when autumn storms roll through, the drama of the already impressive cliffs and towers is intensified.

This is a sampling of the photographs that are being considered for the Best of 2012.  The top two images from each of these areas are presented for your evaluation.  Take our survey to view them all and pick the ones you like the best.

Thanks for participating.  Have fun and enjoy.

Please feel free to share this with your friends.  The more input we have the better.

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Best Photograph of 2012 – California Desert

February 2nd, 2013

We are choosing the best Ralph Nordstrom Photography photograph of 2012, or, more precisely, you are.  We’re running a series of surveys, selecting the best photograph from each of five areas where we did workshops – Death Valley and Joshua Tree (collectively the California Deserts), Eastern Sierra, Big Sur, Zion and Bryce Canyon.

The first survey covered the California Deserts.  And the results are in.  But before presenting them I’d like to give you an opportunity to weigh in on the second survey – the incomparable Eastern Sierra.  We were there in early June which is summer in the Owens Valley but still spring up in the mountains.  There are six photographs to choose from and the survey will only take a couple of minutes.  So click the link below and share your opinion.

Select the Best Eastern Sierra Photograph of 2012

OK, now let’s turn to the results of the California Deserts survey.  There were four photographs, two from Death Valley and two from Joshua Tree.

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Ansel Adams – The Making of 40 Photographs: Frozen Lake and Cliffs

July 15th, 2012

It was in the  ‘70s when I was backpacking through the Kaweah Gap areas of the Sierra Nevada mountains.  We were two days out and came upon this lake.  I instantly recognized it from on of Ansel Adams that I particularly liked – Precipice Lake.  It was exciting and we spent the night there.

Frozen Lake and Cliffs (1932)

I’ve always been a fan of this Ansel Adams classic.   For me it has a feeling of immensity and majesty.  So it  has a special meaning to me reading about it in “Examples.”   A few things caught my attention in Adams’ narrative…

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Eastern Sierra Workshop: Leg 3 (Part 2)–Bodie

June 15th, 2011

Well, the third leg was so exciting and so filled with beautiful locations that its account had to be divided into two parts.  So we pick up after sunrise at Mono Lake and continue on with the wonderful ghost town of Bodie, California.

If you missed the first thee posts here they are.

Eastern Sierra Workshop: Leg 1 – Lone Pine

Eastern Sierra Workshop: Leg 2 – Bishop

Eastern Sierra Workshop: Leg 3 – Lee Vining

Bodie is a fascinating place on several levels.  It is one of the best preserved examples of a boom town, supported in grandeur between 1877 and 1880 by the gold that was extracted from its mines.  Many of the buildings are still standing although considering that at its heyday there were around 2000 buildings that housed a rip roaring population of about 5000 to 7000, the several score of buildings that are left is rather small.

And yet, walking along its streets it’s easy to let your imagination run wild and guess what it might have been like to live there.

This was a wonderful day to visit Bodie.  The parking lot was surprisingly empty except for two big yellow school busses up from Mammoth.  The 4th graders were having a field trip as part of their studies of California history.  And boy, what a field trip that must have been.

I’ve never had so much fun photographing Bodie as on this day.  So I think I’ll just let the  photographs speak from themselves and present them without further comment.


eastern_sierra_110609__A1P6255 eastern_sierra_110609__A1P6254 eastern_sierra_110609__A1P6257 eastern_sierra_110609__A1P6263 eastern_sierra_110609__A1P6269 eastern_sierra_110609__A1P6278 eastern_sierra_110609__A1P6282 eastern_sierra_110609__A1P6284 eastern_sierra_110609__A1P6287 eastern_sierra_110609__A1P6288 eastern_sierra_110609__A1P6292

And finally as we retraced our steps back down Cottonwood Canyon a farewell party met us to send us safely on our way.


So that’s it.  Not long after this last photograph was captured I found myself unwinding the week that had just passed as I returned down highway 395 towards home.  As I left Lee Vining and passed through Mammoth, Bishop, Big Pine, Independence and finally Lone Pine wonderful memories came over me like passing through a dreamy fog.  I felt a sense of both gratitude sadness, gratitude that we had been so fortunate to have such wonderful light and sad that it must come to an end.

But my family was waiting for me 300 miles away and I was ready and eager to see them again, share my experiences with them and catch up on what I had missed while I was away.

If you know of someone who might enjoy this account please feel free to pass this post along.  There is a Share button at the top of the post for that purpose.

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Eastern Sierra Workshop: Leg 3–Lee Vining

June 15th, 2011

With two wonderful and highly successful legs already completed we left Bishop and headed further north.  Our travel day was a big day for photography with a lot of very exciting stops planned.

But before heading out, here are the links to the first two legs in case you missed them.

Eastern Sierra Workshop: Leg 1 – Lone Pine

Eastern Sierra Workshop: Leg 2 – Bishop

For our sunrise shoot I had planned to photograph the snow clad mountains from the Alkali Ponds just north of Lake Crowley.  It was going to be a 45 minute drive and we wanted to arrive at 5:00 so you can do the math.

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Eastern Sierra Workshop: Leg 2–Bishop

June 11th, 2011

After a great few days in Lone Pine (click here to read about them) we headed north to Bishop.

We were following the weather north. “What is he talking about?” For the three days we spent in Lone Pine the great weather – magical clouds, wind and rain – was on top of us and extended north from there. This made for some exhilarating photography. But when the weather petered out in Lone Pine and moved farther north, that was when we were planning on heading north anyway. So we couldn’t have asked for more perfect conditions.

Now Bishop is the “big city” in the Owens Valley with a population of nearly 4000.  One of the main attractions for landscape photographers is the Mountain Light Gallery.  This is Galen and Barbara Rowell’s gallery and a kind of Mecca for nature photographers.

There are a number of really interesting places to photograph around Bishop.

For example, once we got settled in to our hotel rooms we headed north of town to photograph the Owens River.  It still runs free in the Bishop area; that is, LA hasn’t diverted most of the water into the California Aqueduct.  We drove out the Five Bridges Road off of US 6 to where it crosses the river.  We got out and walked to the west along the river bank.  The river runs through an open pasture with grazing cattle so you need to be careful where you step.  But between the fishermen that frequent the river and the cattle, there are plenty of good trails.


The sunset was happing to the north so we found a location to shoot from that had a bit of a reflection of the clouds in the water.  The river comes around a sharp bend here, almost 180 degrees, so there is a lot of upwelling of the water that creates a constantly changing texture on the surface.  This was where I knelt down on the muddy bank to get the camera low to the water and maximize the reflection.  It was only after shooting for a while that I noticed the smell – cow pee.  Well, you do what you have to do to get the shot – right?

Above Bishop in the Sierra are three lakes you can drive to – North Lake, Lake Sabrina and South Lake.  The plan for the following morning was to drive up to North Lake for sunrise.  We got up at 3:00 AM to make the drive up.  But when we got there the road was still closed.  Spring is coming really late to the Sierra this year and the snow melt hasn’t really gotten underway yet.  That was a disappointment because North Lake is exquisite and they drain Lake Sabrina and South Lake during the winter so that when the spring melt does come the lakes have enough capacity to hold the runoff.  Otherwise there would be uncontrolled flooding downstream.  But that means there are no photographic opportunities at either of those lakes.

But there is a really excellent plan B in the area – the South Fork of Bishop Creek.  You could tell from the aspens that grow in groves along the creek where spring was.  At the high elevations of South Lake the aspens hadn’t started to bud yet.  But as we traveled down the creek to increasingly lower elevations we first noticed buds, then sprouts and then full blown leaves.


The place along the road where we stopped to photograph was where the aspens and willows both were just in the sprouting stage.  We photographed the mountain side in open shade which combined with the fresh green and red colors of the emerging aspen and willow leaves to produce a very soft, delicate effect.  This is what keeps pulling be back to the Sierra at this time of year.

From Bishop we’re about an hour and a half drive from the ancient bristlecone pines.  These are the oldest living trees on the planet.  It is a humbling experience to even be in their presence.  You realize that not only have countless generations of humans come and gone in their 4500+ years of existence but entire civilizations and empires have done the same.

But this year we couldn’t get to the bristlecones, again because of the late spring.  The road was not open to my favorite tree.  But along the part of the road that was open is a magnificent viewpoint that looks across the Owens Valley to one of the most rugged sections of the Sierra Crest – the Palisades.  So with thunder storms all around we drove up there to experience this view under some truly remarkable conditions.


While the weather conditions were really exciting, this is still a difficult shot because of the great distances involved.  So I rendered the photographs in black and white to fully emphasize the incredible excitement and power we felt as we watched the weather unfold.


The folks fortunate enough to live in the Eastern Sierra talk about God Beams or God Light.  Well, as you can see they were streaming down all around Mount Tom and the town of Bishop.  You know, you’re up there and see this kind of light go on for literally hours and you get kinda giddy.  It’s difficult to put the excitement and joy you feel into words.

Shortly after the 8:15 sunset we headed back to the hotel in Bishop.  It was close to 10:00 when we got back to our rooms – a very long day.  And the following morning was going to be another 3:00 AM wake up call.  But you really don’t mind.  The energy you get from being in these beautiful places keeps you going.  You can always sleep when you get home.

There’s one more leg to our workshop, the Lee Vining, Mono Lake leg that I’ll share with you in the next post.

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Eastern Sierra Workshop: Leg 1–Lone Pine

June 7th, 2011

No matter how many times you repeat to yourself, “Bad weather makes for great photography,” it’s always a bit disconcerting to be checking out the skies the day before the workshop is scheduled to begin and see solid high clouds with nary a speck of blue in sight.  And the wind’s picking up.  And checking the Weather Underground website shows more clouds moving in from the west!

So, yes, the prospect of striking out seemed very real.

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Photographing the Eastern Sierra

May 13th, 2011
I don’t know where you’ll find a more spectacular range of mountains than the eastern edge of the mighty Sierra Nevada Mountains.    This is where the gargantuan slab of granite from which the mountain range is formed plunges precipitously from the peaks along the crest into the Owens Valley below.  Driving up the Valley on legendary highway US 395 is likely to give you a crick in your neck.  Because you can’t take your eyes off the endless procession of towering summits.
I’ve camped and backpacked in these mountains since I was a young boy and I always love returning to them.  And now that I come back with camera in hand I have an opportunity to capture and share with you the inspiration I receive here.
Mt Whitney
Mt Williamson
Mt Whitney is the tallest peak in the lower 48 and from your vantage point in the valley below it towers more than two vertical miles above your head.  It’s nothing short of breathtaking in the morning sun.
But there’s more to the Eastern Sierra than the grandeur of these mighty peaks.  Come with me on a journey as I show you the superlative and the sublime.


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Photographic Challenges – A Solution

September 6th, 2010

A few weeks ago I posed a photographic challenge.  What decisions would you make to capture the Bristlecone Moon image?  Here’s the photograph again.

bristlecone_moon_2008Bristlecone Moon (2008)

This shot poses some interesting challenges and here’s a link to the first post that spells out the situation in case you missed it.

Photographic Challenge – the Situation

The planning for this photograph actually began several months before. I had the idea of photographing a bristlecone pine with the full moon as it rose behind it through the earth shadow.  The earth shadow is that ribbon of color that is projected in the sky above the horizon directly opposite the rising or, in this case, setting sun.  So the first step was to select a full moon weekend, contact my buddy, Eric Winter and head up to Grand View campground in the White Mountains.  We arrived three days before the full moon to scout the area and find a tree that had everything I was looking for – an open view to the east that looked down on the Great Basin below.  I also new I needed to have enough room to back away from the tree so I could use a telephoto and thus increase the relative size of the moon.

There are only two named bristlecone groves in the Whites – Schulman Grove where the oldest tree is found (4,700 years old) and the remote Patriarch Grove.  The Schulman Grove is at the end of the paved road and just a few miles from Grand View campground.  The Patriarch Grove is another 8 miles down a dirt road and when the rangers say it’s a 45 minute drive you’d better believe them cause it is.

The first day we scouted the Patriarch Grove but unfortunately, it is in a broad   depression that has a large hill to the east.  There weren’t any trees that had what I was looking for.  The next day we killed some time in Bishop and dropped into Vern Clevenger’s gallery.  Vern and I chatted and I told him what I  had in mind.  He advised me to get the shot one or two nights before the full moon, not the night of the full moon.  It turned out to be a critical piece of advice that I needed.

So back up to the Whites and back out the dirt road in a search for THE tree.  We scouted a couple of places but none worked out.  We climbed back into the truck and continued down the road.  “What about that tree?” Eric asked as we drove by.  It was perfect.  Throwing the truck into reverse, we backed up and parked off to the side of the road.

The tree had a clear view of the eastern horizon.  There was a large hill to the west but all that meant was that the tree would be dropping into a shadow long before the sun dipped  below the horizon.  There was enough space to use my 70-200 lens and back up far enough to fill the frame with the tree. 

I had printed the moon charts from the internet so I new the precise time and azimuth of the moonrise and was able to figure out where I wanted to position myself.

I started working with compositions well before the moon was due and decided to crop off the ends of the branches because I liked the proportion better.  Then I sat on Mother Earth and quietly waited.  The shadow from the hill to the west crept across the road toward the tree and finally swallowed it.  I sat, looking to the east, waiting for the moon to rotate into view.  Sitting up high on the side of the White Mountains I got a strong sense of the earth turning on its axis, rotating until the moon appeared above the horizon.  One moment it wasn’t there and the next it was.  It was time to go to work.

The moonrise was playing out just like I had hoped.  This is when I get nervous.  “Slow down, don’t make a mistake,” I kept telling myself.  Depth of field: f/16.  Shutter speed: 1.2 sec at ISO 100.  Too slow.  Bump the ISO to 200.  I heard Ansel Adams speak years ago at Pasadena City College.  He told the story of taking “Moonrise over Hernandez.”  He didn’t have time to take out his spot meter and do his usual zone thing.  So he exposed for the moon.  He knew it was in full sunlight and he knew what its luminance was without having to measure it.  So he put the moon in Zone VII and fired away.  I was thinking of him when I realized that I needed to shoot HDR if I wanted the moon to be more than a blank white disk, if I wanted to catch the man in the moon.

So I turned on the camera’s Highlight Tone Priority function to gain a little extra dynamic range, kept the ISO at 200 and bracketed the exposure by one stop.    The focal length was 185 mm and the total elapsed time for the three exposures was about 2 1/2 seconds.  At 185 mm you have 3.2 seconds to get your shot off without the moon (or stars) moving perceptibly.  (There’s a formula for calculating that.  It’s 600/focal length in mm.  It’s a handy formula to know.  See Ten Tips for Exciting Nighttime Photography.)

So that’s pretty much the whole story.  There are other ways go solve this challenge.  Carefully exposing the moon to fall at the right end of the histogram without highlight clipping would result in a capture in which both shadows and highlights could be recovered in Lightroom or Photoshop.  A graduated neutral density filter is problematic because it would cover part of the tree.  So HDR works well in this situation because you get a good exposure on both the moon and the tree.

I’ve returned to this tree several times since September of 2008 when this photograph was taken.  It’s one of the stops on our Eastern Sierra workshop.  Each time I return it has a different feel to it, a different mood.  Here’s what it said to me this year.

bristlecone_dusk_2010 Bristlecone Dusk (2010)

It’s a remarkable tree and I plan to keep on coming back.

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Composition – Rule of Thirds

November 13th, 2009

There’s a simple compositional technique you can apply to quickly improve the quality of your pictures.  It’s fun and easy and works in so many situations.  It’s called the “Rule of Thirds,” and it goes a little something like this.

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