Ten Years, Ten Photos – 2012: Returning to Mountains

Looking back at 2012 and the photos that I made that year, I can honestly say that it was amazing: I’ve explored and hiked the many beautiful places in San Diego’s back country, got fascinated with the riparian woodlands in the canyons, fell in love with photographing in the fog, and so much more… looking at it now, my “top 10” selection from back then doesn’t really do the photographic output of that year justice – I would probably make a different selection today.

The year’s highlight though was a week-long stay in Mammoth Lakes, and returning to mountainsmountains! …where some of my strongest photographic “origins” lie, as I explained in the very first post of the series.

This was actually the first time we left Southern California to travel – which may seem odd, and anyone else would probably have taken every opportunity to travel but from my perspective, moving to an entirely different continent was pretty overwhelming already (some days, it still is, to this day) and I’m glad I took my time and explored San Diego County thoroughly to make it my new home.

It was clear to me that I wasn’t just a visitor and tourist to California and San Diego, and a constant change of scenery is not how I “work” best as a photographer (and person). I need a home base, a roaming ground, a territory. But inside this territory, the diversity of San Diego County alone (that I’ve mentioned plenty of times in my blog posts) provides an incredible change of scenery already, within just a two-hour drive: after a late winter storm in spring, we’re blessed enough to be able to take a morning walk at the beach, drive through green back country hills into mountain snow, and then drop into the desert for a hike in t-shirt and shorts. It’s incredible. Despite summer drought and constantly praying for rain during the cooler months of the year – San Diego is a wonderful place to life.

Having been an avid mountain hiker for many years in Germany though, the gently rising landscape in eastern San Diego County that “they” call mountains (before it drops into the desert) is no replacement for “real” mountains – and when fate puts you in (relatively) close vicinity to the iconic Sierra Nevada, it is, forgive me for mangling the famous John Muir quote, like this: the mountains were calling – and we did go. :-)

We stayed and hiked in and around Mammoth Lakes, instead of the most famous Sierra Nevada location, Yosemite. The reason was our canine companion Toni of course, who also loves to hike. Yosemite is a National Park, and dogs are only allowed on roads and in campgrounds there, but not on the trails. Fortunately, there are plenty of hiking trails outside of Yosemite, on National Forest land and in designated wilderness areas, where dogs may be off leash even, as long as they’re under voice control.

We visited in August and unbeknownst to us, that meant some serious weather in the Sierra Nevada! Much to Toni’s displeasure, there was a thunderstorm almost every afternoon, and thunder rolling from the mountains is scary – and not just for a 20-pound dog, of course…

While this weather meant that more than just once we had to cut a hike short, and rush to safer ground to escape lightning and rain, it of course also meant dramatic clouds, skies, and beautiful light. I organized the blog posts from our trip into an archive and you can see them all, here: Eastern Sierra Trip 2012.

Yosemite!

One day we took a break from hiking and drove into Yosemite National Park. Now the scenery along Tioga Road is somewhat limited, and Yosemite’s high country will truly open up only to those who are willing to hike, but one of the best scenic stops along the road is undoubtedly Olmsted Point. We walked from the turnout to the scenic vista point, and that was when I fell in love with Yosemite’s high country, and knew that I needed to come back: the bare, glacier polished granite, still smooth in places; the unique shapes of the granite domes; the sheer drop of walls of rock from Clouds Rest; the vegetation that somehow managed to find a hold on it… it is hard to not be in awe again and again, every time I see this landscape.

The picture that I chose for this blog post as my “photo of the year 2012”, with the view towards Half Dome from Olmsted Point, is from a time when I was experimenting with different “looks” for photographs – something that I don’t do anymore. Back then I found digital photography devoid of any “character” and worked with different presets and filters that would introduce false colors, washed out blacks or lights, color casts, that sort of thing.

It was a phase, and it came and went, like so many other things in life. I grew tired of it because presets and filters quite often produce a “look” that is recognizable not as one’s own style – but as the look of that preset package, or a certain suite of digital filters (like Nik’s “Color Efex”, for example). I didn’t find it appealing to produce fully “developed” photographs that would scream “Color Efex Sunlight filter!” as soon as you saw them. I went through this phase six years ago already and a friend pointed out the irony that Adobe only now added some of these “vintage” looks to Lightroom. ;-)

For this post, I re-worked the original photo from 2012, but the original “off” look remains, and I still like it. I think it was a combination of presets that mimicked some Instagram filter, actually, and then one or the other treatment in Nik’s Color Efex! :)

Geek Talk

I was using a D700 in 2012, when Nikon introduced the D800 — and everyone thought it was nuts, because the D800 had 36 megapixels. It had an even higher resolution than the D3x, in a compact body similar to that of the D700. The high resolution was the least attractive feature to me actually. I still wanted that camera though… :)

It’s common wisdom among photographers that one should invest in good lenses and hold on to them, rather than always moving to the newest camera body, but I can honestly say that, at the time when I got into photography, it was absolutely justified to switch to newer camera bodies — the technology just wasn’t there yet to really satisfy. Yes, I know the saying that the camera doesn’t really matter, and I have plenty of cellphone photos that I really like to prove it (example, example, example). However…

By today’s standards, the D70 (my first digital SLR) had a pretty low resolution of just 6 megapixels, rather poor low light performance, and laughable dynamic range. The lack of dynamic range led me to switch to the Fuji S5pro, which was terrific in that regard, but only marginally better in terms of resolution and low-light performance. The D700 (my third camera body) had fantastic low-light performance and once more slightly improved resolution, but was a step back from the S5pro with regards to dynamic range.

The D800 finally delivered everything in a single camera: a (relatively) compact and weather-proof body, a high image resolution (again, more than I found desirable at the time), and high dynamic range. It was a must have for landscape photography the way I do it. We retired Shuwen’s (crop sensor) D90 and she made the move to full-frame with my D700. This also allowed us to streamline the lenses we had, since she no longer needed DX lenses for the smaller sensor. The D800 became my primary camera, and it still is. Shuwen updated to the D750 later, so that we’d have a similar color rendition and dynamic range from both cameras if we’d work together on an event (the D700’s sensor was a different generation). I’ve grown quite fond of the high resolution of the D800 soon, because it allows for heavy cropping if necessary, and still have a usable image that can be printed relatively large.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the D800 for the Mammoth/Sierra trip yet – but that only meant I had a reason to return… :)

Ten Years, Ten Photos is a series of articles in which I look back at the years from 2007 through 2016, picking one single photo from each year to best represent the most impactful photographic moment from that year. You can browse all existing entries in this archive: Ten Years, Ten Photos. Thanks for reading!


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