After a long time preparation, our trip to Eastern Sierra was finally executed and successfully completed. In this blog, I will describe my personal experience for this winter backpacking activity and provide some information and summary that people may find useful for undertaking winter backpacking in a similar environment.


Our Goal and Original Plan


Our goal is to go to Minaret Lake (elevation 9800 feet, elevation gain 2200 feet from Devils Postpile trailhead ), camp there for a few nights, and make photographs in that area. Minaret Lake is a lake in the Ritter Range, a subrange of the Sierra Nevada, in California. It is located in extreme northeastern Madera County, within the Ansel Adams Wilderness of the Inyo National Forest. It has a unique photographic feature, especially in winter.


Our original plan was as follows:
(1) On 30 October 2013, after picking me up by my team members from San Francisco International Airport at 12pm, we directly drive to the trailhead at Devils Postpile Ranger Station, Devils Postpile National Monument, Mammoth, CA, and camp one night there;
(2) Then next day, starting from the trailhead at Devils Postpile, alone Minaret Lake trail, we hike 8 miles to reach Minaret Lake, which has elevation 9800 feet;
(3) Camping three nights (31 October, 1 – 2 November) at Minaret Lake, then explore and make photographs around that area;
(4) On 3 November, we come back to the trailhead of Devils Postpile first, and then drive back to Santa Cruz.


The Actual Trip


30 October 2013


At 10:45am, my flight UA870 arrived in San Francisco International Airport on time. About 12:00pm, my team members picked up me from the airport. After simply re-arranging my luggage, we started our journey to Eastern Sierra.


Due to a two-day snowfall just prior to 30 October, as well as an early winter arrival, the access roads – the Tioga Road and Minaret Summit Road, towards the Devils Postpile Trailhead, were all closed. Our original plan had to be changed.


Following Jon (our team member and guide)’s suggestion, we arrived at Mono Lake at 8:00pm and had camped there on the fist night.


31 October 2013


Our new plan was to get to Horseshoe Lake park area, starting from there, hiking 8 miles (12.8 km) along the Mammoth Pass to reach the Devils Postpile trailhead first. See below Map 1.

Map 1: Red line indicates the trail via Mammoth Pass from Horseshoe Lake park area to Devils Postpile, 8 miles.

Map 1: Red line indicates the trail via Mammoth Pass from Horseshoe Lake park area to Devils Postpile, 8 miles (12.8 km).


Starting at 11:00am at Horseshoe park area, we hiked along the Mammoth Pass towards Devils Postpile. Most parts of the trail had been covered by more than one-foot thick snow, which made our progress quite slow. Around 5:00pm, we reached Devils Postpile. We continued hiking further 40 minutes, stopped at the Boundary of Devils Postpile National Monument and INYO National Forest (see below picture), and set up our camps there.

Reaching the Boundary.

Reaching the Boundary.


1 November 2013


Next day, after finishing morning shooting at Devils Postpile, around 10:00am we continued our journey, along the Minaret Lake trail which was about 8 miles (12.8 km) long (see below Map 2).

Map 2: The red line indicates the trail from Devils Postpile to Minaret Lake, 8 miles (12.8 km).

Map 2: The red line indicates the trail from Devils Postpile to Minaret Lake, 8 miles (12.8 km).


Like the previous day, most parts of the trail were covered by snow, some parts the snow was over one-foot thick. Hiking was all the way up-hill, sometimes the trail was quite steep and slippery. With the elevation increased, our progress was slower. We arrived at the Minaret Lake around 6:00pm. We made some evening and night photographs at the Minaret Lake area.

Under the Minaret Mountain Summit.

Under the Minaret Mountain Summit, carrying a 40 lbs (18 kg) backpack.


2 – 3 November 2013


After finishing morning shooting at 10:45am, we started to head back from the Minaret Lake. On the way downhill, the many parts of the trail were visible, but the path was still very icy and slippery. We hiked about 7 hours on 2 November, passed Devils Postpile, and camped one night somewhere on the Mammoth Pass.

On the Mammoth Pass, the Minaret Mountain Summit was clearly visible far behind.

On the Mammoth Pass, the Minaret Mountain Summit was clearly visible far behind.


We continued our journey home at 8:00am on 3 November. The hike was then getting easier, part of the reasons was that most snows were melted and the trail became visible, though some part of the trail was still slippery. We only spent 4 and half hours to reach the Horseshoe Lake car park.

The trip finished at Horseshoe Lake park area.

The trip finished at Horseshoe Lake car park area.


What Important Things I Brought for This Trip


Tent: To prepare for this winter backpacking trip, I bought a Black Diamond 2-person 4-season HiLight Tent:

Black Diamond Tent


The tent is not cheap, but this trip proved that it was definitely a must for camping on the snow/wet ground under a cold and windy weather condition. The tent is also super light, only 2 lbs. Note that sealing all surface connections of the tent is necessary before use each time.


Sleeping bag: During my preparation, I received all sorts of different opinions about sleeping bags for winter backpacking. Eventually I bought one North Face Inferno Sleeping Bag: -20F Degree (850-fill goose down), 3 lb 6 oz. While this sleeping bag is a bit bulky and quite expensive, it was evident that this sleeping bag did excellent job for keeping me warm in those cold nights below the frozen degree. Unlike some people said, this sleeping bag was not an over kill but just right for this trip. I believe that I will take this sleeping bag with me to all my future mountainous backpacking trips to New Zealand and other places.

NF-sleepingbag


Down pant: While most people will bring down jackets for winter backpacking, we have found that down pant was equally important. During the period of making night photographs, without much movement and waiting for a long time, a warm and light down pant really helped me to concentrate on my subject.


What I Missed or Overloaded for This Trip


Hiking poles: The biggest mistake I made for this trip was that I only brought one (yet low quality) hiking pole, which, quite often, made me hard to balance when walking on an icy surface. Hiking downhill was also difficult towards my knees while a pair of hiking poles would be very useful to reduce the pressure for both knees.


Waterproof hiking boots: My leather waterproof hiking boots were supposed to be tough enough for walking on the snow surface (together with wearing waterproof gaiters) while keeping my feet dry. However, it was not the case, for two days, my boots got wet inside. Afterward, Jon told me that I should seal all boot surface connections before use, just like the tent.


Camera lenses: In this trip, I brought two lenses Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 and 24-70mm f/2.8. It turned out that this was another big mistake – adding unnecessary weight to my backpack. I believe that one camera body plus one lens should be a rule for any backpacking photography. This time, I only used 14-24mm f/2.8 lens, and left 24-70mm f/2.8 completely untouched.


There are other essential issues associating to winter backpacking activities, such as foods, drinking water, clothes, etc., which are equally important but relatively standard, so I don’t provide detailed descriptions on these in this blog.


Finally, my photographs made from this trip are being processed, please check my website http://yanzhangphotography.com for latest update.

(1) Introduction


With a group of photographers, I undertook a photography expedition to Canadian Rockies in September 2012. During this trip, I have experienced couple of very impressive photography situations that I had not faced before. I also made couple of unique images of Canadian Rockies. In this article, I will talk about how I made one particular image:

Starry Night at Mt Assiniboine

Starry Night at Mt Assiniboine


This image has become my first image published on 1X that received over 100,000 unique views. Making this image was not only of certain technical challenging, but also a good example of making modern landscape photographs with creative ideas.


(2) Planning


When I planned my recent trip to the Canadian Rockies, Mount Assiniboine was the first priority on my photography wish list. It is probably one of the most beautiful mountains I have ever seen. However, making a distinguished image of this location is challenging, not only because there have been so many stunning images of this place made by other landscape photographers, but also due to limited composition options around this area. Hence, it was my primary goal of this trip to make a photo that is significantly different from others.


Generally, it is believed that the Nub Peak is the best location to view Mount Assiniboine and its surroundings. However, many people only reach the Nublet; a platform just below the Nub Peak, as climbing to the Peak is more physically demanding. During my four days stay in Mount Assiniboine, I climbed to the Nub Peak twice, and just once stopped at the Nublet.


It is a 5 km hike one way from Mount Assiniboine Lodge to the Nub Peak. I have found that under different weather conditions, both the Nub Peak and Nublet could be good locations to make nice photographs of Mount Assiniboine; the Nub Peak gives you a higher and wider viewpoint, while the Nublet is a better location to capture some subtle details of mountain reflections in the lakes under good lighting conditions.


This image was taken from the Nublet on 21st September 2012.


It was a clear yet featureless afternoon, but we still decided to go to the Nublet to try our luck, as we had very limited time in the Mount Assiniboine area. After arriving at the Nublet before sunset, I carefully composed the frame and specifically considered to include Lake Magog and Sunburst Lake into the frame to ensure some reflections. Sunburst Lake would be used to show some clouds and stars reflecting from the dark sky. After sunset, the sky started to dance and the moonrise added a unique feature to the sky. I knew my chance would finally arrive.


(3) Taking Shots


This image was made with my Canon 5D Mark II camera and 16-35mm f/2.8L II lens. I used my light Benro C2980T tripod and B2 ball-head to support the camera and lens with an RC-1 canon remote release to trigger the shutter.


In order to make a fine night image with this composition, I made a number of master shots before the sky got completely dark, so that the mountains, golden trees and foreground rocks could be clearly revealed in full of detail. Then I selected one of these shots as a Master Copy for processing later.


First shot (master copy):
16mm, ISO 100, f/7.1, 30 seconds, 2-stop soft GND filter.


After 30 minutes, the sky became very dark, while the moon had moved right behind the peak of Mount Assiniboine. I started to shoot again, mainly focused on the sky and its reflection in Sunburst Lake. The following second shot was then used from one of many shots during that time.


Second shot:
16mm, ISO 1600, f/2.8, 8 seconds, no filter.


The second shot remained the same composition as the mater copy (first shot), but with a higher ISO (1600) and the biggest aperture, which revealed more stars in the sky but still retained the digital noise under control.


After about 30 minutes many more stars appeared in the dramatic sky, so I decided to make one more final shot. But this time, I carefully tilted up my camera so that 2/3 of the fame filled with the beautiful starry sky.


The final shot:
16mm, ISO 3200, f/4, 20 seconds, no filter.


(4) Processing


The process was undertaken in two stages. The first stage was to blend the Master Copy with the second shot together (note that these two shots had exactly the same composition).


I opened the raw files of these two shots via Camera Raw 6.7, made a correct White Balance adjustment so that the colour for these two images became consistent. I also made a small adjustment for both files by increasing both Clarity and Vibrancy to 12. I then loaded them into Photoshop CS5.


In Photoshop CS5, I carefully blended the two images together to form an intermediate image that remained the Master Copy every detail except the parts of the sky (including moonlight) and Sunburst Lake which were from the second shot. After this stage, the intermediate image was a beautiful picture in its own right.


Then the second stage was to integrate the third shot (starry sky) with the intermediate image. After doing a small adjustment on the raw file in Camera Raw 6.7 for the third shot by just increasing Clarity and Vibrancy to 12, I loaded the raw file to Photoshop CS5, where the intermediate image was already opened. I first extended a sufficient large Canvas for the intermediate image, and then added the third shot on the top of it. By matching the two images with respect to the mountain ridges, I then carefully painted the upper part of the sky from the third shot into the intermediate image. Finally I cropped the image to produce a square-framed picture and saved it as a PSD file.


After producing this square-framed PSD file, the following process is quite standard. But one specific technique I used was so called TK mask luminosity. By applying this technique, I was able to adjust pixel brightness at different levels to achieve certain balance that I wanted.


(5) The Outcome


I was quite satisfied with the final effect after such tedious processing. Specifically, the square framed image represents a vast view of Mount Assiniboine, while the dramatic starry sky illustrated beautiful and mysterious mountain scenery that I have never experienced before. � This is also the first image I published on 1x attracting more than 100,000 unique views within three months.


It was a memorable day and was lucky to witness such an amazing night over Mount Assiniboine. This image was also the most unique work I made from my entire trip in the Canadian Rockies.


(6) Three Hints


As a landscape photographer, I believe the following three things are important to produce a high quality landscape image:


– Exploring the location thoroughly before setting up your tripod. As Mount Assiniboine was a new place for me to photograph, getting familiar with the location was very important to identify a good viewpoint. In that afternoon, we arrived at the Nublet around 4.00pm, so we had plenty of time to explore the surrounding area before starting to shoot.


– Composing in square frame sometimes is a key to make a successful picture, especially for capturing full details of foreground, middle ground and background. Making a square composition is also more challenging, that needs more careful planning for the overall procedure for shooting and post processing.


– For sunset shooting, waiting a bit longer is useful even if the best light has passed. Very often, we could not get great sunset light, but the night sky could be magnificent, just like this image. In this case, we waited longer until darkness fell.


Aoraki/Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand and Australia combined, reaching 3,754 metres. Probably it is also the most famous landmark of New Zealand, a place for so many photographers and artists to produce great works.

I went to Mount Cook in 2011 and made one of my best images there. Personally I will never be tied of going to this wonderful place and taking photographs. Mount Cook was identified as one major focus and also the second location in our this journey. Our plan was to stay three nights in Mount Cook, so that we would have sufficient opportunities to explore the area and take both sunrise and sunset photographs.

We left Queenstown in the morning of 28 August 2012, and would expect to arrive Mount Cook around lunch time. Nevertheless, this day turned to be the longest day for our entire trip. We made a careless mistake and drove all the way down to West Coast. By the time we found out, we had to drove another six hours to get back to Mount Cook. Fortunately, things were not too bad, in fact with some extra time, we enjoyed the wonderful scenery along the road so much. We arrived in Mount Cook after 6pm, and directly headed to Tasman River for night photography.

Crystal Giants

This photo was taken on the first night we spent in Mount Cook, it showed a special night in Tasman River, Mount Cook: these icebergs floated on the river surface while the moonlight shedding on them illuminated such beautiful color.

Hooker Lake

To make photographs in Mount Cook, it is hardly not to go to Hooker Lake, which probably is the closest ground location to view the peak of Mount Cook without doing a serious mountain climbing, though hiking three hours for this trip may not be an easy task for everyone. The lake looks not very big, but its one side ends with giant glaciers directly connecting to Mount Cook. On a clear and calm day, the reflection of Mount Cook in the lake provides an interesting highlight of this scenery.

We three photographers went to Hooker Lake on 29 August 2012. The sunset light was pretty flat with a cloudless sky. We were a bit disappointment for such a result after spending more than five hours on this trip. The next day, without knowing what the weather would be in late afternoon, I and another photographer decided to try our luck one more time. On 30 August 2012, after lunch time we hiked 90 minutes to arrive in Hooker Lake again, and patiently waited for our last chance. Finally, we witnessed that the peak of Mount Cook was lighten by the setting sun while beautiful clouds were moving across the sky. This photo recorded what we got on that day.

New Zealand has been my dream land for many years. Since I had my first photography experience in New Zealand in 2011 (see my blog “Making the Image “Moonlight”), I have planned to return to New Zealand at least once a year to fulfill my photography dreams. In August 2012, after a long time preparation, I finally returned to this beautiful land with several other photographers.


Our first stop was Queenstown – a town in Otago in the South Island of New Zealand. Although this was my second time to this small town and we mainly traveled along the previous paths that I had in 2011, there were still plenty of new and exciting photography experiences during our four days stay in Queenstown, and one such experience was shooting at Kawarau River.


Kawarau River is well known as the site of the world’s first commercial bungy jump. The river starts from Lake Wakatipu, and flows generally eastwards for about 60 km until it reaches Lake Dunstan near Cromwell. We stayed in a hotel just at the west end of Kawarau River connecting to Lake Wakatipu. One our team member found a position on a cliff above the river that provided a nice viewpoint of the river with the snowing mountains background. The scene was just magnificent!

I had two chances to make photographs at this location, both in early morning. For the first time, the sunrise light was wonderful, but its direction was not quite right and I did not want to comprise the composition. On the day we were leaving Queenstown, I decided to take the last chance. I went up before 5am, and came to this place in the darkness. It was surprising that the Milky Way was still clearly hung on the sky and the twilight was about to illuminate the surroundings, while two strips of red clouds were just across in the sky. This was my first to witness such a wonderful Milky Way when the sky started to change its colors.


Karawau River


I took a number of shots with ISO 1600 to focus on the sky that captured such beautiful Milky Way and clouds. But the foreground river and the right side mountains were completely under exposed. As I did want to have the river as the foreground in my final image, I had to wait until the sky was bright enough so that I could make proper shoots to capture the river and mountain details. Furthermore, the composition had to also be changed by lowering my camera body down slightly so that the frame contained all interesting elements around the river.

The post process was not too difficult. The final image was from combining three shots together – each with different exposure times: one focusing on the Milky Way (ISO 1600), one focusing on the right side mountains details, and one focusing on the river. The last two shots had the same composition containing a small portion of the sky. The blend was made in two steps. Firstly, the last two shots were blended together to reveal sufficient details of the mountains as well as river. Then this blended image was stitched with the first shot so that a square frame was finally produced to contain both sufficient sky and foreground.

As a final note, this image probably not only shows a very unique viewpoint of Kawarau River, but also presents a very special moment at this place.