Set Fire to the Sky

Admit it: To a large extend, luck plays an important role in landscape photography.  You can have great artistic vision and superb techniques, and you are in the right place with right equipment. However, if you are not there at the right moment, you will not get your dream images.

The question is:  when opportunity knocks, are you ready? Can you foresee what will come and be prepared?

Mono Lake is an iconic location among North American landscape photographers. It is so popular, in fact, that images from there can be visual clichés, and I’ve heard many people saying that they don’t want to visit there.

Anyway, on one hot, dry summer afternoon last month, I finally was at the shore of the lake, fascinated by those interesting formations of tufas.  This was my first visit to Mono Lake. On a not-to-distant hill, there was a huge bush fire burning, causing by lighting. A thick column of smoke rose up, and there were some extremely dramatic smoke clouds in the sky. It was near sunset time, and people were alarmed or excited to witness such an event. Tripods were up everywhere. Shutters were pressed. The fire was a bad news for the US Forest Service, but it provided a once-in-a-life time opportunity for landscape photographers to record an extremely unusual perspective of this iconic location.

However, although the sun was setting, I knew I had to wait. The best show had not started yet.  I anticipated that if I waited (see Waiting for the Light), the sky might be even more dramatic and the ground would bath in some very rich and saturated light, especially there were so much smoke and dust in the air. I also wanted to capture the warm glowing light from the fire itself, for which I had to wait until dark.

When the sun went down, people started packing their cameras and leaving. Time to work! I went to the parking lot and got my tripod from my car, and went back to the shore and started shooting. What a show!  To say I was not disappointed is an understatement.  I will post some images with dramatic sky next week. Today I am sharing with you the last image I took on that unforgettable evening.

It was getting dark, and I could hardly see anything around me. Maybe it was time to leave, and indeed everyone was gone except for only one photographer.  However, it was actually the best time to shoot such a rare event.  The bush fire was virtually the only light source now. Without the pollution of the cool blue colors of the evening ambient light, the fire projected some very intensive red and orange colors on the sky. To capture the very dime but strong glowing colors, I set the ISO of my Canon 5D Mark II to 320 and started a two-minute long exposure. To better record the details on the foreground tufas, I took out a Canon 580EX flash, mounted a ½ CTO gel on it to warm up the light, and I manually fired the flash multiple times toward different parts of the foreground during the long exposure.

And here is the result, a dramatic and very unusual rendition of the famous Mono Lake tufas, mysterious and hauntingly beautiful. It will probably become one of my favorite images.

Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 16-35mm F2.8 L II,  Gitzo 3541 Tripod, Markins M20 Ballhead, RRS PCL-1Panning Clamp, RRS L-Plate, Canon 580EX flash

My biggest challenge on that evening? Finding my way back to the parking lot in almost total darkness without getting hurt by the rocks and tufas  — I left my headlight and flashlight in the car in a hurry. And I thank my young daughter for her patiently waiting Daddy doing some boring long exposure stuff in the darkness.

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One thought on “Set Fire to the Sky

  1. Pingback: Drama in the Sky | The Majestic Nature Blog - A Member of the 4-Aperture Blog Team

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