Sunrise Tufa, Shaded Tioga Pass Mountains

Mono Lake South Tufa

Sunrise Tufa, Shaded Tioga Pass Area. Mono Lake South Tufa, Lee Vining, California. September 11, 2011. © Copyright Steven Tze – all rights reserved.

Sometimes we head to a photo shoot with ideas of the compositions we’d like to take.  Perhaps even more so when we’re revisting locations.  For me, Mono Lake’s South Tufa is that location. I’ve been there 3 times in the last 11 months.

The original plan was to arrive before sunrise to setup my compositions to include the sunrise light reflected off the clouds and onto the tufa towers.  A couple of problems with that plan.  While the weather report was correct in forecasting partial cloudy skies in the morning and thunderstorms in the afternoon, there were thunderstorms in the area buts just to the north, south, and west of Mono Lake and none towards the east.  Secondly, I was running about 10 minutes late and would have missed the absolute best light even if everything was perfectly in place.

It was fortunate that some light showers did hit the South Tufa area and a beautiful rainbow developed looking slightly southwest allowed for some nice photographs but the hope for beautiful light on the tufa and reflected off the water just didn’t materialize for the dozen or so photographers assembled that morning.

The photograph in this blog entry is an example of what taking a few steps off the beaten path and a little luck can produce.  While nearly every photog there that morning was focused on capturing as many shots of the tufas at the western edge of the South Tufa area, I ended up a mere 25 yards away in a perfectly legal spot snapping away at the rainbow, colorful birds, and incidentally this particular photo that is now my favorite from the first 90 minutes of the shoot.

With a normal sunrise, not only do the tufas get lit up, but the mountain range surrounding Tioga Pass in the background gets lit up as well.  This is one of those rare sights we hope will occur again but may not happen even with another 20 visits.

Almost 3 weeks after I took this photograph, I found myself browsing through Mountain Light Gallery in Bishop and gazed upon Galen Rowell’s Buttermilk Road, Eastern Sierra.  It wasn’t just that the his image was striking, it was the artist statement that was next to it.  Galen mentioned how he had slept in the car on Buttermilk Road and woken up hoping to catch the sunrise hit the mountains.  It didn’t happen.  Clouds surrounded the mountain peaks, shade covering both the background mountains and foreground dirt road.  All that was lit up through a hole in the clouds was a small ridge of rocks he carefully framed in the middle of his photo.  He goes on to say that he had on numerous times after slept in his car on Buttermilk Road hoping to catch this same sight, but to no avail.

So sometimes it doesn’t matter how prepared for a shoot you are, an incredible photo may be waiting for you if you just happen to be in the right place at the right time and you’re lucky enough to be around to trip the shutter.

EXIF data: Nikon D7000, spot metering mode, 28mm, ISO 200, 1/20 sec, f/16


3 thoughts on “Sunrise Tufa, Shaded Tioga Pass Mountains

  1. Thanks Steve. It’s amazing isn’t it, the South Tufa area is not very big and pretty soon you almost memorize the tufa shapes and locations, yet the photo possibilities are endless.


  2. I love the contrast of light and dark, and I enjoy reading your description leading up to how the photo was taken. I’m just starting to get into photography and am grateful I can learn from others. I enjoyed your self critique post as well. Thanks!


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