Since telling the story of the picture was well received, with First Snow, Yosemite Valley, here's another – the story of First Light, Mono Lake.
This Picture was taken at exactly 5:00 A.M., in May 2004, with a Canon EOS 1Ds camera and a Canon 24-70 millimeter f/2.8 lens.
I had been traveling along Highway 395 for a week with my friend, Steve, photographing the Eastern Sierras in the late season snow. We arrived at Mono Lake the evening prior to this shot, much later than we had intended. This had been my first visit there since I'd taken up photography, and we only had about 10 minutes to reconnoiter the area before dark, to plan for our dawn shot the following morning. I rushed around the South Tufa area in those last few minutes of light, compass in hand to keep track of precisely where the sun would rise.
I found and chose this spot, then left to return in the early morning. It didn't look like much in the pale post-sunset waning light. The formation was spectacular, but it was not complimented by the flat light which made it blend into its surroundings; and the choppy water obscured all traces of reflection. Nonetheless – compass in hand, I envisioned it darkly backlit and sharply contrasting with the bright surrounding water, reflecting the morning sunlight; and I envisioned better reflections as long exposures in the dim early morning smoothed the water's chop.
I wanted it to stand out in stark isolation. I wanted the picture to convey how fantastic and other-worldly this structure is. I wanted the break of day upon these tufa towers to express a sense of the primordial.
I rarely choose to shoot toward the sun on the horizon. The light is usually more interesting facing the direct opposite direction, or a sidelong direction. Further, silhouetted shapes usually have to be very engaging, indeed, for silhouette photos to work. In this case, however, the shape of the tufa formation was certainly strong enough.
When I showed up at the spot during the beginning of morning twilight, I didn't think the conditions looked very promising. I had hoped for more clouds in the sky, perhaps with a nicely detailed pattern, to reflect the colors of the rising sun's light. Nevertheless, I set up my composition according to my plan from the previous evening, and hoped for the best.
In the last few minutes before the sun's first appearance, the few wisps of cloud on the edge of the horizon thickened and drifted closer, greatly improving the photographic potential. As the light developed while I waited for the peak moment, it became clear that the never-the-same-twice light variables of dawn's light were presenting me with a significant photographic opportunity. The character of this dawn's light had three qualities that I found exceptional, and wanted to incorporate into my picture: First, it separated each element of the scene clearly from the other elements, while showing each element as a simplified and very coherent form. Second, it had numerous distinct bars of color and tone, each on top of the next, extending in horizontal strips across the sky. Third, it had every color of the rainbow visible, but in an unusual, un-rainbow-like pattern.
I made some quick compositional readjustments in order to optimally work with these special lighting characteristics, toward my desired expressive ends, and, in excited anticipation, took the shot.
Thanks for reading this.
First Light, Mono Lake
All pictures and text are © Mike Spinak, unless otherwise noted. All pictures shown are available for purchase as fine art prints, and are available for licensed stock use. Telephone: (831) 325-6917.