The high beams of my truck headlights illuminate the moonlike setting of the Alabama Hills as we bounce our way down a rough dirt road on our way to our sunrise photograph location.
It is a little after 6 a.m. on this early January morning and cold. The thermometer in my truck registers a pleasant 14 degrees. The Alabama Hills are just outside Lone Pine, on the east side of the Sierra, and are the ultimate landscape photographer's playground.
The Hills are a jumbled pile of weird bronze rock formations that jut out of the high desert just below Mount Whitney and the highest part of the Sierra. In the winter, the high, dry desert set against the snowy Sierra crest make for a beautiful photographic location, especially at sunrise.
My son Jared and I took advantage of my winter break from Merced College and spent several days in Lone Pine exploring the area, looking for great photographs and scouting for a location for a workshop I will be teaching April 5 to 7.
Lone Pine has everything a landscape photographer needs. Several good motels, a great RV park and a few reasonably priced restaurants, including a very good pizza place.
The biggest draw that the area has, however, is the photography.
The Alabama Hills are an amazing place to photograph; as a matter of fact, hundreds of movies have been filmed here. The most recent is "Django Unchained."
If you want to take a break from photography, there is a great film museum in town with memorabilia from the many movies filmed here.
The texture and shape of this ancient subrange of the mighty Sierra can make for some very interesting images, especially at sunrise and sunset.
I also like photographing here on star-filled nights as the high, clear desert air and lack of light pollution make for some great long exposures to capture star trails set against the towering spires of the rock formations.
To do star trail images you will need a tripod, cable release for your camera, stopwatch, warm jacket and a lawn chair. Your camera should be set to B, which stands for bulb. The B setting lets you make exposures longer than 30 seconds, the normal upper end of most cameras set in manual exposure mode.
Try starting with a three-minute exposure (your aperture should be wide open) and work your way up to 30 minutes -- hence the lawn chair. The longer the exposure, the longer the star trails will be.
There are several arches and windows throughout the Alabama Hills, and some are very popular photo spots. Most can be easily reached from the main road through the area, Movie Road.
The most popular, with good reason, is Mobious Arch. This arch is reached via an easy quarter-mile hike. This spot makes for a great shot of Mount Whitney, framing the mountain through the arch at sunrise as the first rays of sunlight strike the face of the highest point in the lower 48.
The visitor center in town has free maps with detailed directions to the various arches.
Of course, the Alabama Hills are not the only great place to photograph in the area. A short drive east on Highway 136 from downtown Lone Pine will take you to the now dry Owens Lake. This once-large saline lake is now mostly a flat sand dune with sagebrush.
This is a great place to photograph at sunset. The low angle of the evening light creates beautiful textures in the sculptured sand.
Travel a bit further on Highway 136 and you will arrive at the remote, bizarre town of Keeler. The best way to describe Keeler is a ghost town that a few hardy and eccentric folks have reclaimed.
My favorite spot to photograph in Keeler is the abandoned town swimming pool. This old pool is now drained, but is half-filled with dirt. I know it does not sound too exciting, but the colors and textures are amazing to shoot, especially late in the day.
You can check out some of my images from this trip on my website, www.jaysousaphotography.com.
Jay Sousa, a former Sun-Star photographer, has his own photography business in Merced, conducts group workshops and teaches photography at Merced College.