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Bristlecone Pine, White Mountains, California

Posted by
Gary Hart (California, United States) on 26 July 2009 in Plant & Nature and Portfolio.

Continuing my recent Eastern Sierra theme, today I share this image of an ancient bristlecone pine in the Schulman Grove of California's White Mountains, east of Bishop. Though technically not part of the Eastern Sierra, the bristlecones get an honorary admission due to their location, on the west side of the White Mountains, that provides a panoramic view across the Owens Valley to the Sierra crest and the Sierra's dramatic east face. A fortuitous byproduct of this proximity is that the bristlecone pine forest is now a much anticipated part of my Eastern Sierra fall workshops. I captured today's image in one of last fall's workshops.

The bristlecone pines, the oldest living organisms on earth, are one of a kind creations. This tree was 2,000 years old at the time of Christ. Interestingly (to me at least), the bristlecones that live in the harshest, most exposed areas live the longest. (There's metaphor there.)

Photographing these marvels is simultaneously a challenge and tons of fun. The challenge is doing them justice--while not particularly large, the bristlecones have a physical presence that's difficult to convey in two dimensions. Like the giant redwoods, it is humbling to be among them. On the other hand, their corkscrew branches, gnarled trunks, and intricate texture makes them complex and fascinating subjects from any angle or distance, great for every lens in your bag from wide to macro.

Thinking about photographing the bristlecones got me thinking about the many factors that go into making a successful image. If you frequently find yourself unsure when you click your shutter, or surprised when something works out, you probably should brush up on your craft a bit. (A workshop is a great way to do this, but you can do it yourself with a little research and discipline.) When you deem something worthy of photographing, having a plan and knowing how to execute it is your most reliable path to consistently successful photography. Having a plan doesn't mean following a formula, it means exposing your frame with a purpose, an intent to convey something. The exposure and composition decisions you make for each shot aren't trivial, but the more you hone your craft, the less these decisions interfere with your creative process.

I intentionally avoid talking a lot about craft in my blog because I think the Internet is overloaded with this kind of guidance, some good, some lousy, and (unfortunately) most pretty convincing. And the person needing guidance the most is the person least equipped to filter it. This problem is compounded by the fact that the information flow is one-way, which often leaves the recipient confused, or worse, heading off in the wrong direction. Inexperienced photographers' tendency to get bogged down (or inhibited or intimidated or confused) by all this input only impedes their creativity in the field.

But I also think it's important to share some of my thought process from time to time. My objective here isn't to give you a recipe to follow to the letter; rather, it's to show you my process so you can form your own, and to underscore the importance of having a plan for every click of the shutter. My approach goes something like this:

The mix of vivid blue and puffy white on this fall afternoon made the sky something I wanted to emphasize, so I positioned myself low, on the downslope beneath the tree, allowing me to shoot up at the tree and sky. To fill the frame I moved very close to the tree and lowered my tripod to near ground level. I selected my 17-40 lens, dialing it as wide as it would go. To increase depth of field I stopped down to f14, a bit more than my default f8-11 range (but I didn't go smaller than that because I know lenses aren't as sharp at their extreme apertures, and also diffraction robs resolution at small apertures). Because the tree was clearly the most important part of the frame, I focused on the trunk--I wasn't too worried about softness behind the tree, and I knew 17mm at f14 would give me lots of depth of field anyway.

Once I had the composition I wanted, I monitored the conditions. The sun was approaching the horizon, and as it did, the light warmed beautifully. When the light was right, I watched the clouds and snapped when the tree stood out against the blue sky visible through a brief opening in the quickly moving clouds. Confident I'd gotten what I wanted, I flipped my camera (which reminds me, I love my L-bracket) and made a vertical version of the same scene.

Next post: July 29 (please view my previous posts by clicking the arrow in the upper left of today's image)

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Thanks for visiting. Even if I don't respond, your comments are always read and appreciated.

Sadaf Agah from tehran, Iran


26 Jul 2009 6:08am

Marie from FRESNES, France

magnifique, cet arbre !

26 Jul 2009 10:00am

Ana Lúcia from Leiria, Portugal

Majestic! Love the colours.

26 Jul 2009 11:24am

Vitor Martins from Lisboa, Portugal

Fabolous shot. I like everithing on it, but tthe golden tones and tha main subject sharpeness are amaising

26 Jul 2009 12:17pm

Judy from Brooksville, Florida, United States

Thank you, Gary, for your beautiful Bristlecone pine image, and also for your 'lesson'.
I don't spend enough time - I'm often rushing, in a physically uncomfortable position and that old 'grab the shot and go' takes over. I will attempt to make some changes!

26 Jul 2009 12:45pm

@Judy: Thanks, Judy. For this one it was a matter of anticipating the light, setting up my composition, and waiting. I try to do that as much as possible, but of course there are times when I have to react and act quickly.

Joe from Folsom, United States

Another beautiful capture Gary. Thanks for sharing, and for explaining your process.

26 Jul 2009 12:52pm

Tim from Fort Worth, United States

Thanks for sharing a bit of the craft. Your photo proves that you have a discerning eye. This was fun; kudos again for taking the time with your text!

26 Jul 2009 2:01pm

Claudia from Illinois, United States

Unbelievable! I can't even imagine that this tree was standing here more than 4,000 years ago! Again, thanks for sharing your process. Reading this today made me realize that often times I limit myself to apertures from 5.6 on down. I don't really limit myself on purpose.I just realized that I seemd to have gotten stuck in that "mode" lately and need to remember that there is an entire world avaialbel to me beyond the f5.6. Such a stunning image!

26 Jul 2009 3:17pm

@Claudia: Thanks, Claudia. My workshop participants are forced to endure my "tripod lecture," where I make a pretty strong case for use of the tripod on every shot. Your tripod frees you to use whatever aperture you deem best for the scene you're photographing, and when I explain why I think there's an ideal aperture for every shot, I can see the light go on in their head.

Jen from Alpharetta, United States

Excellent and the perspective is perfect

26 Jul 2009 3:22pm

Tracy from La Selva Beach, United States

Just Awesome! This tree has such a great presence in this photograph. I love the striking silhouette it makes against the sky! I continue to be fascinated by the environments under which things can grow and thrive!
Thanks too, for the timely "lesson" you always have great wisdom and experience to impart....

26 Jul 2009 4:07pm

@Tracy: Thanks, Tracy. If you haven't seen the bristlecones, you should make a point of getting over there.

greg from Denver, United States

great great shot

26 Jul 2009 4:07pm

Amr Tahtawi from Cairo, Egypt have an eye for beauty.
well done and thanks for sharing.

26 Jul 2009 4:30pm

@Amr Tahtawi: Thank you, Amr.

Vachel from Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia


26 Jul 2009 6:08pm

Shahryar from Isfahan, Iran

superb :)

26 Jul 2009 8:34pm

pernilla from Andonno, Italy

Majestic tree! Your composition and POV is excellent and the golden tone is wonderful. Fantastic capture.

26 Jul 2009 9:04pm

john4jack from Corvallis, Oregon, United States

Terrific capture. Dynamite processing.

26 Jul 2009 9:35pm

Stefan from Thiersee, Austria

5 Stars...GREAT!

26 Jul 2009 10:26pm

Earnest from Oklahoma, United States

Your process paid of in spades.... lighting and composition... and I see the ancient one as a supplicant to the heavens... excellent.

26 Jul 2009 11:45pm

Anina from Auckland, New Zealand

GREAT shot!
The detail is superb!
Thumbs up!

27 Jul 2009 4:20am

LM from France

I cannot comment each time yours photo but all would deserve 5 stars. thanks

27 Jul 2009 10:22am

@LM: Thanks, LM.

Elora from Genoa, Italy

I for one never find myself intimidated by your advice and experiences. Again, another wonderful shot!

27 Jul 2009 3:13pm

@Elora: Thanks, Elora, I'm happy to hear that. Photography should be fun and never bogged down with "should" and "have-to."

Vanilla Wine from United States

very nice shot, superb

27 Jul 2009 7:57pm

Didier DE ZAN from somewhere, France

Very beautiful

28 Jul 2009 5:05am

Mags from Paris, France

I love this tree, it's so beautiful!

28 Jul 2009 1:18pm

Armand from Mexico

Hermosa y Bellisima Foto!!!!!!

28 Jul 2009 9:41pm

Michael from TX, United States

I have always wanted to see one of these up close. Great shot.

29 Jul 2009 5:18am

@Michael: Thanks, Michael. I'd be happy to introduce you. :)

Alexander Belokurov, ImageNature from Gland, Switzerland

beautiful tree! great lighting and composition!

30 Jul 2009 7:51am

Magda from Vancouver, Canada

Wow! The light and texture are superb. Stunning

8 Aug 2009 4:53am