North Lake is an alpine gem near the top of Bishop Creek Canyon in California's Eastern Sierra. Early each fall the aspen on the lake's north shore come alive with yellow and red, an event not lost on photographers, who frequently stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the frigid dark waiting for day's first rays. Despite the cold and crowds, it's one of my workshop students' favorite locations. With groups, friends, and on my own, I've photographed here in all kinds of conditions, including wind, rain, snow, and utter calm. One of my favorite shots here was a firey sunset, but warm front-light on the snowy peaks across the way usually makes sunrise the best time to photograph North Lake. In addition to the warm light, sunrise also offers the greatest potential for still air necessary to turn the lake's surface to glass, and I'm a sucker for a nice reflection.
On this morning in early October, all the elements necessary for something special seemed to converge. We arrived to find the aspen grove at its color crescendo and the surrounding mountains dusted with fresh snow from an overnight storm. Overhead the storm's cloudy vestiges played with the light, adding a touch of visual interest to the all-too-frequently blue sky. For most of the morning a whisper of wind stirred slight ripples on the lake, blurring the surface, but when the wind calmed for a couple of minutes, the reflection snapped into place and we all snapped into action.
I'm asked quite a bit about the filters I use. The answer is quite simple: I use a neutral polarizer for virtually every daylight shot, and a graduated density filter when conditions call for it. Because this morning the contrast between the bright sky and foreground shadows was greater than my camera (or any other camera) could handle, I knew I'd be using a GND. I opted for a 3-stop soft because the more gradual dark-to-light transition of a soft GND is less obvious. Burying the transition in the mountainside sloping down to the lake enabled me to save the blue in the sky and still bring out the detail in the still shaded lake (which was entirely in the transparent portion of the filter). The filter actually darkened the sky a little too much, so in post-processing I dodged the top of the frame a bit to brighten the sky to a more natural tone.
The polarizer proved to be an interesting decision. I'm always reluctant to tell people that I use a polarizer for all my daylight images because, despite my warnings to the contrary, it seems some people simply attach a polarizer and then forget about it. Without getting too technical, let me just say that a polarizer consists of two parallel circles of glass. The bottom piece is fixed and the top piece rotates. Rotating the top piece transitions smoothly from reduced to enhanced reflections, an effect that is greatest at 90 degrees to the light source, and almost imperceptible when the angle of view is perfectly aligned with the direction of the light. The benefits of turning the polarizer to minimize reflections include deepening the blue of the sky (in my opinion an overrated benefit), increasing contrast between the sky and clouds (makes clouds stand out better), cutting glare that inhibits the color of foliage, rocks, and so on, and eliminating surface reflections to see beneath water's surface. The prime benefits of turning the polarizer to maximize reflections include slightly more vivid rainbows and reflections.
So with the polarizer basics in place, let me emphasize here that if you're going to use a polarizer, you must turn it with every composition or risk doing your image more harm than good. Look through your viewfinder while turning the polarizer to determine the effect you want.
Most photographers turn their polarizers to one extreme or the other, dialing in either a maximum or minimum reflection. Generally in an image like this North Lake scene, the inclination is to maximize the reflection, which was indeed quite spectacular. I took a few frames with the maximum reflection, but decided to play with my polarizer and found a point midway between maximum and minimum reflection that retained the most dramatic and colorful part of the reflection, while cutting the reflection in the immediate foreground enough to reveal the rocks beneath the water at my feet. It wasn't until I viewed the series of images on my monitor at home that I decided I prefer this one because the foreground lake-bottom detail puts an extra dimension of depth in the frame.
* Website: Eloquent Images
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