Bluebird Skies – A Landscape Photographers Nemesis

September 21, 2017 Brian Leary

I was recently faced with one such instance. Over the past month I have driven about 10,000mi (16,000km) from Seattle to Los Angeles to New York and back to Los Angeles with quite a few stops in between. The first of these stops was about 10 hours out of my way to visit Mono Lake in California. On previous trips to this location I was rewarded with some of the most amazing cloud formations I have encountered.

The high altitudes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains combined with the strong winds that hit their western faces often create beautiful disc shaped lenticular clouds.  This time as I was approaching the location from the south there were some incredible clouds over the region. As I pulled into the parking lot though, the puffy lumps of photo fodder had moved on their way and left me with an emotionless flat blue sky.

Luckily Mono Lake is known for its tufa formations. Tufas are large stacks of carbonate deposits that form a type of porous limestone. Their otherworldly appearance still left a lot to work with in the foreground during this visit. Rather than fill most of my frame with the absent lenticular clouds like I’d hoped for, a large tufa was used to frame the right boundary of the image while the sunlight passing through the blowing grasses draw the eye to the bottom. To help fill some of the blank sky, I used a high aperture to create the starburst emanating from the sun. Snapping the shutter after some of the sun had partially set behind the mountain helps to accentuate the starburst pattern even more.

© Brian Leary, Sony A7S II, ZEISS Loxia, Loxia 2.8/21, f/20, 1/8 sec., ISO 50

© Brian Leary, Sony A7S II, ZEISS Loxia, Loxia 2.8/21, f/20, 1/8 sec., ISO 50

Normally when you point a camera directly towards the sun, lens flare can become a major issue. The coatings used on the ZEISS Lenses, like the Loxia 2.8/21 used in this image, really help to eliminate this often unwanted effect. When you make a starburst by using a high f-stop, the aperture’s blades are what create this effect. The precision of the aperture is what makes those evenly spaced lines in the starburst. With lesser lenses you will often see asymmetric starburst patterns and that is because of a slight misalignment of the aperture blades. Between the precise build of their lenses and the ability of the coatings to easily handle dynamically difficult scenes, ZEISS is my go to lens for landscape photography.

Even though the lenticular clouds I had hoped for were absent, the clear skies did end up giving way to a perfect view of the Milky Way a couple of hours later. You can see this in the image at the top of the article. With the moonless sky I had to use my headlamp to illuminate the tufas and bushes in the foreground.

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