Shooting in the Alabama Hills

I have never had the pleasure of shooting in a desert before and certainly not one like the recreation area of the Alabama Hills. Being from the UK, this type of landscape is completely alien to me.

I was staying in the small town of Lone Pine, which was a stop off en-route to Yosemite. I knew the town had the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains as a backdrop, but I knew little more as I was focused on Death Valley, which was primarily closed due to flash floods. Having arrived at Lone Pine, a fellow photographer, Heath Barbier, had been kind enough to email me a few locations nearby. One of the locations was the Alabama Hills and looking at a map I could see it was a mere 5 minute drive from my motel. Perfect!


I was not comfortable scouting out the area in the darkness of pre-dawn, so I thought it wise to check it out the evening before. The place is a maze of enormous granite boulders littering the desert. It was phenomenal, however finding a composition was difficult because there was a lot going on. The boulders lie at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains and you can clearly view Mount Whitney, which is stunning, so once a composition was found within the boulders, the rest was easy.

Whilst exploring, I started to get a familiar feeling. But how? I had never been here before. Then, it dawned on me; I had watched a photography video a couple of years ago, shot by a fantastic large format photographer Nick Carver. The funny thing is, when I watched his video, I remember thinking how much I’d love to visit Alabama. Ha, my knowledge of America is poor. As the light started to fade that evening, I realised that I was in the desert, at night, with no major towns or light pollution nearby and what a great opportunity I had to try and capture the Milky Way over this wonderful location. A lovely little bonus.

Zeiss 21mm | f2.8 | ISO 1250 | 20 Sec
Zeiss 21mm | f2.8 | ISO 1250 | 20 Sec

Because of the geography and the amazing backdrop of the mountains, a panoramic is the only way to go. It’s like finding a pond at the foothills of the Himalaya and not shooting the reflection… impossible. So, that was it, that was the shot I wanted and the beauty of the shot would be the light. As I was in the desert and at relatively high altitude, I was sure that I would see the very first rays of light hitting the top of those mountains and this was more that enough to get me out of bed at 5am.

Red sky in the morning, Photographers Warning.
Red sky in the morning, Photographers Warning.

My heart sank a little as dawn began to break and I could see the red sky, usually an exciting moment, but for me it was “Red sky in the morning, photographers warning”. There was to be no first, direct light kissing the peaks, smothering them in ruby red light way before we get to enjoy the suns warmth.

I decided to stick with my composition and shoot in the ambient dawn light, which actually turned out to be rather beautiful as you can see the red sky to the east is casting a delightful pink glow on the mountains.

Canon 70-200L | f8 | 3.2 Sec | ISO 160 | Circular Polariser
Canon 70-200L | f8 | 3.2 Sec | ISO 160 | Circular Polariser
Canon 70-200L | f9 | 1/8 Sec | ISO 100 | Circular Polariser
Canon 70-200L | f9 | 1/8 Sec | ISO 100 | Circular Polariser

I continued to shoot a couple more exposures, (Above is a great example of how light completely changes an image) however I did not think these shots were better than my first dawn image. So it was time to move on, explore and experiment.

I still had a problem finding compositions, however I was only searching in a small area. Whist setting up for my panoramic, I did spot a couple of boulders, which I thought would work well as a vertical image and this would be my first port of call whilst the sunlight was still soft and golden.

Zeiss 21mm | f9 | 1/6 Sec | Circular Polariser | Nisi ND Grad 0.6
Zeiss 21mm | f9 | 1/6 Sec | Circular Polariser | Nisi ND Grad 0.6

Following on from this, the sun began to climb, casting a very harsh light and I decided that black and white would do very well here.

3 Bracketed Images - Main Exposure Canon 24-70L | f9 | 1/20 Sec | ISO 100 | Circular Polariser
3 Bracketed Images – Main Exposure Canon 24-70L | f9 | 1/20 Sec | ISO 100 | Circular Polariser

My biggest regret is that I did not have more time here. I would have loved 3 nights camping. This would allow me so much more time to scout out and thoroughly enjoy the whole area. I had to be back at the motel for 9am and it was with a heavy heart that I left Lone Pine… To be continued.

For more info check out my Kit Blog, but here is a summery of kit used:
Canon 5D MK III
Zeiss Distagon 21mm Lens
Canon 24-70L f2.8
Canon 70-200L f4 (None-IS)
Manfrotto 055CXPRO3
Garmin Fenix 3 (For navigation)
LowePro Filter Pouch
Lee Foundation Filter Holder
A Range of Nisi Filters
A Heliopan 105mm Polariser
A 105mm Attachment Ring for it to fit on to my Holder
HotShoe Bubble Level (Love this)
A Waterproof Camera Cover always comes in handy
As Does my Leatherman Skeletool
I Always Take a Head Torch

I Make my Videos Using the Kit Below:
Canon G7X
GoPro Hero 4 Silver
TimeLapse Head
GoPro 3 Way Mount
GoPro Jaws Clamp