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Bristlecone Under the Heavens

Posted by
Don Smith (California, United States) on 7 October 2010 in Landscape & Rural.

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I've returned from helping Gary Hart with his eastern Sierra workshop (the first of two). We ended the workshop in Lee Vining and we soon departed back to Bishop and ended up at the Schulman Grove in the White Mountains (that run parallel to the Sierra Range separated to the east by the Owens Valley). Two years prior I had captured star trails over these marvelous trees (estimated to be over 4,000 years old) but this time I returned with the intent of capturing pinpoint stars.

Prior to the trip I added a Canon 24 mm f1.4 Series II lens to my arsenal to be used primarily as my night lens. Used in conjunction with my Canon MKIV, I was able to capture stars on a moonless night at ISO 400 providing extremely low noise images.

I have photographed this particular bristlecone numerous times in sweet light and sunset/dusk light but never at night. I decided on this location/tree because my low angle places the tree prominently against the northeastern sky. The weather forecast had called for a 50% chance of thunderstorms in nearby Bishop and suffice it to say I was not overly optimistic that I would even see stars let alone have an opportunity to photograph. Yet one thing I have learned in all my years photographing in nature is that if you don't show up, your chances for success will be zero.

As the sun set and temperatures lowered, many of the clouds began to dissipate and a window of opportunity presented itself. I had to wait 50 minutes before the sky was dark enough to the east before making this image. It was somewhat of an erie feeling as lightning was flashing in the distance but we could not hear thunder so we felt we were far enough away to continue shooting.

To light paint the tree, I simply used my headlamp and painted for about 8 seconds. It was strictly a guess but I could immediately see my results on the back of my LCD and adjusted accordingly. Focusing on the tree was a bit trickier as the bristlecone pine was not at infinity, but with the help of headlamps and Live View (enlarged to 5x), I was able to set my focus point with my shallow f/1.4 depth-of-field.

Two frames later the clouds once again enveloped us and a cold rain began to fall and the thought of the lightning moving closer was enough to make us call it a night and retreat down the mountain. If you follow my blog you have undoubtedly read how the experience at times trumps the photo. A night amongst these ancient trees at 10,000 feet qualifies as one of those special times. I'm just happy the image met my expectations!

Canon EOS-1D Mark IV 30 seconds F/1.4 ISO 400 24 mm

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This image has been featured in 1 Remix collection.

Starlight by Jason Kravitz