Light Painting at Mono Lake

Mono Lake, California | Astrophotography
MONO LAKE – BENEATH THE LIGHT OF THE MOON | MONO LAKE, CALIFORNIA

In the beginning

When I quit my job in engineering to become a photographer full time I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Not only was I giving up the security of a regular paycheck, but I was also moving across the country to follow my girlfriend to the next stop in her career. That was a time of change, to say the least.

Mono Lake

Tufa formations of Mono Lake beneath the glow of the Milky Way.
MONO LAKE MILKY WAY | MONO LAKE, CALIFORNIA

My new career involves a fair amount of travel. One of my first trips was a visit to parts of the Eastern Sierra in California. On a spring night in 2018 I watched the sun set across the waters of Mono Lake. As the sun’s last rays disappeared in the distance, so too did the few other people scattered along the shoreline. Before I knew it, I had the area all to myself.

This was one of the first times I had planned to seriously practice astrophotography. I had spent a few days reading and watching a series of how-to videos on the subject. Now it was time to try my hand at the challenge of photographing at night.

Mono Lake turned out to be a pretty perfect spot for this first exercise. During the day the Tufa formations already make you feel like you are on another planet. When the sun goes down the effect is magnified.

Mono Lake, California | Astrophotography
MONO LAKE – BENEATH THE LIGHT OF THE MOON | MONO LAKE, CALIFORNIA

I set up my equipment in a few different locations before finding this composition. In my not-so-extensive studying did I learn just how much light the moon could provide. At just over half full, I couldn’t believe how bright the snow on the distant mountains became.

That was a problem. My Photoshop skills were non-existent so I was challenged to create my photograph in a single exposure. But how in the world was that possible? The mountains were so much brighter than the Tufas in the foreground. If I exposed for the mountains I couldn’t see the formations. If I exposed for the formations, the mountains were overexposed.

Light Painting

Light painting was the solution to the challenge. Setting an exposure that allowed me to expose the mountains meant I needed to add light to the foreground. Using my flashlight I painted light on the tufas from different angles. This was an iterative process that took several hours of work to achieve the desired look.

For a rough idea of the set up see the following diagram.

This image shows the camera and lighting location relative to my subject. The subject is a cluster of tufas at Mono Lake, California.
MONO LAKE LIGHT PAINTING DIAGRAM | MONO LAKE, CALIFORNIA

LESSONS LEARNED

There were a few lessons I learned that night under the stars.

1 – Remote triggers are my friend

Running back and forth from the camera to the spot I wanted to light paint was a good workout. However, it is not the most efficient method. Being able to stay in place and active the phone would have made things easier.

2 – Take care around the tripod

I must have accidentally kicked a leg on the tripod half a dozen times that night. Each time that happened I said a few choice words because it meant my composition was changed ever so slightly. There is an extra level of care that you must exercise when working at night.

3 – More research is good

As I said earlier I had read and watched videos for a few days prior to this experiment. I wasn’t as prepared as I thought, but getting out to work was a good lesson. After this trip I sat down to study more in order to better capture images beneath the night sky.

Stars spiral in the sky above a section of tufa formations at Mono Lake, California.
MONO LAKE STAR TRAIL | MONO LAKE, CALIFORNIA

THANK YOU

I hope you enjoyed learning from my mistakes. Have you tried your hand at astrophotography, and/or light painting? Let me know in the comments below. Until next time. See you on the trail.

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