The mighty Eastern Sierra has long been a source of inspiration for artists in any medium. It seems the farther one walks into the magnificent granite backcountry, the more there is that moves one to want to create.
A first for us at the Aperture Academy, Phil Nicholas and I joined with four eager photographers to set into the backcountry of the Eastern Sierra to see the blue lakes, and granite spires. This wasn't your ordinary photography workshop, this was a backpacking workshop. That means all provisions for the week needed to be carried in a pack on the back of the photographer!
Friday night in Mammoth Lakes we met our group in a hotel conference room to splay out the bags, and see if everyone had all they'd need for the adventure ahead. Everyone had adhered to the packing lists we sent out and had more than ample supplies for any weather or conditions that lay ahead.
The next morning, we woke early and set off for the trailhead. No long day of hiking is begun or ended without a stop at a local restaurant for some real food before a few days of living off of nuts and dehydrated meals, so we made a stop at a Sierra outpost, the Whoa Nellie Deli...home to some of the best food in the 395 corridor.
With our Whoa Nelly bellies full, it was time to drive to the trailhead and begin the hike in. The Twin Lakes trailhead is a lesser visited, but beautiful, trail that rivals any in the Sierra. Our plan for the day was a modest 4-mile hike to Barney Lake, where we would establish a base camp for the day and set out to photograph sunset and night skies over the lake.
Camping spots can be hard to come by in the Sierra, and we had to walk a bit past the lake to find a secluded staging point nestled in the aspen trees. From there, we set up our tents, and had a lunch of dehydrated food. Everyone's culinary experience differs on these kinds of adventures, but one thing is for sure...it doesn't take long before everyone can collectively long for a real meal at a restaurant!
That afternoon we made the hike out to a granite outcropping so we could watch the sun fall behind the mountains, and get some of the wonderful evening glow reflected in Barney Lake. Phil and I helped point people to the best lines and spots in the area to get some great shots of the evening light. Polarizing filters and grad filters came in handy, as we wanted to get the best balanced exposure possible. Everyone loved the spot, so we opted to make the return later in the night to photograph the Milky Way as it rose over the mountains. There were several juniper trees in the area, too, that we could light paint.
When we came back from sunset, the group was tired and ready for a meal. We sat around a pretend campfire while Phil played us some tunes on his mini guitar. Everyone enjoyed a little wine (or a lot of wine in my case) and set off for some night shooting with happy faces.
That night, we got the group set up to do stars on location. I light-painted trees and different foregrounds while Phil helped to get everyone's cameras set up. It was an epic night sky for sure, one we hoped would follow us the next few nights. Day one was long and exhausting; everyone had put in about 14 miles of hiking...most with heavy bags on our backs. We all opted to stay in for sunrise.
A few of the gang was still tired and opted to hold steady at our base camp for night 2 while the rest of us made a hike up to Robinson Lakes, a 3-mile, 1400 ft. elevation's change away. The hike was long and steep, but the payoff was a set of great blue lakes that welcomed us and provided a wonderful high granite sleeping area that would be wonderful for night shooting.
During the day we relaxed, swam, ate, and tried to stay out of the blazing sun. In the evening, we showed the group a few nice spots on all three of the Robinson Lakes where they could get some nice reflections, and also pull some of the great light off the granite mountains that surrounded us.
Our idea for night shooting was to set up at blue hour, and take a shot we could use as foreground. We could shoot at a lower ISO and get a lot of shadow details we wouldn't be able to get with the sun down, and with no moon. Once we took a good shot, we left our cameras set up while we ate, and snacked...then when the light was gone, and the Milky Way had risen, we moved up to our waiting cameras and captured the star shots we could use later to make a composite image with plenty of details and night sky.
We were having fun, so we also opted to do some shots of me and my headlamp pointed into the sky. Lots of fun! Around 11pm it was time to get some sleep...it'd been a long day and everyone was going to get up for sunrise the following morning.
Alarms woke us early, and we scurried about getting our headlamps and gear together so we could make the round of all three lakes in the area. The morning light was beautiful. We shot high from our previous nights' vantage and moved low as the light hit the peaks, and reflected into the calm waters of the Robinson Lakes.
What a gorgeous morning! With the sun up, it was time for a breakfast. Phil set off to meet up with our original camp while I went up to Crown Lake with one of the backpack warriors to see what that lake was all about. Our 4th participant opted to shoot wildflowers and cascading creeks...and who could blame her! It was beautiful! Crown Lake was amazing, and I quickly spotted a small tarn that we could set up and shoot perfect reflections of the massive granite structure that sat before us. Blue sky, green grass, and white granite...who could ask for more?!
The rest of the afternoon was spent getting us and all our gear back down to Barney Lake for our last night together. We opted this time to take a camping spot we had seen on our initial hike in. It was closer to the lake, and gave us a great place for sunrise and night shooting.
The stars were awesome again on night three. The group was really bonding, and we had so much fun just sitting around talking...Phil and I helped point out a few of the nicer spots for setting up to photograph...and though the bugs were awful, we handled them as best we could with plenty of DEET and a sense of humor. The backpacking meals were getting old and we all joked about how we couldn't wait to get to lunch the next day...some wanted the shower more than lunch, but we were all ready to be out of the woods...that was for sure!
Another fun night of shooting the Milky Way lead to a really nice sunrise the following morning. We finally got a few clouds in the sky, and the wind that had been blasting the lake the previous days had let off a little bit and gave us some nice reflections to boot. What a glorious Sierra send off for our little hiking party!
The hike out was easy. We were all trail hardened and determined and driven by the promise of food and showers that lay ahead. What seemed like hours hiking in was over within two hours on our return. Everyone was all smiles as we loaded up our bags, and had the satisfaction of knowing that we'd not be putting THEM on us again any time soon.
Over our glorious lunches, we went over a few little processing tricks and tips, and got our first chance to see some of the images the class had gotten during their mountain time...WOW! Such cool work! It was a pleasure for Phil and I to hike into the backcountry with you all, and we had a great time.
Thanks for everyone's amazing attitude and patience with our adventure,
Brian, Phil, and the rest of the Aperture Academy team
If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.