Mono Lake is a reminder at the diversity of California and it's photography opportunities. I took a weekend to head out through Lake Tahoe and drop down into the Mammoth area to fully explore Mono Lake and the mysterious tufas. I have visited Mono Lake and Mammoth on several occasions but never during the middle of winter. This winter is unusual, even for California - without any significant rain or snow in months the roads were clear and waiting for a 3 day travel photography trip.
Getting to Mono Lake
On a normal spring or summer weekend I would take a drive through Yosemite National Park and drop down into Mammoth. If you are heading to Mammoth from the San Francisco area I would recommend spending an extra day and taking that drive through Yosemite on HIghway 120 to explore and enjoy the landscape. Stop along the way and browse Kennedy Meadows before heading over the pass. For photographers near Lake Tahoe it is a relatively straight drive south on 395, and the opposite is true for those in the LA area who can head north of Barstow to Mammoth. Other visitors can opt to fly directly into Mammoth - the airport is extremely small but does offer several rental car services for a quick weekend trip.
What to Photograph
The prime photography location for Mono Lake is to head out during both sunrise and sunset and photograph the tufas and their reflections in the water. I prefer sunrise - you can work several different viewpoints - start at the visitors center and walk the trail down to the lake. You will find multiple sets of tufas - find the formations you like most and snap away!
The recommended time of year to photography Mammoth is during the fall. You can spend your mornings photographing Mono Lake and your daytime photographing the changing colors around Yosemite National Park. Other photography locations include Devil's Postpile, Bodie State Park ghost town (also a great night photography site) and the many small lakes in the Mammoth region.
The best gear you need for a weekend trip will be a landscape lens - I prefer to use my Nikon wide angle 14-24 mm lens but you won't need to rush out and buy a new lens for this trip. I have wrote several articles about the importance of quality glass so I won't spend too much on it again, but one key to sharp landscape pictures is the use of a good landscape lens. Email me and I will be happy to recommend some.
You will also need to bring along a tripod for this trip - during the blue hour you can slow your shutter speed down and smooth out the water on Mono Lake. I always recommend shooting landscape photography with a tripod - never handheld! I personally always travel with my Gitzo tripod which works perfect for a trip like this.
If you are going for night photography - be sure to throw in a shutter release cable and a flashlight for some light painting.
Here are 5 photography tips for improving your pictures and making the most of your DSLR while traveling to Mono Lake.
1. Location: the best pictures from the Mammoth area start with Mono Lake and focusing on reflections of the tufas.
2. Perspective: if your tripod allows it, flip your camera upside down to get an extremely low angle - that is how I captured my picture in the morning. (Mono Lake Sunrise example)
3. Composition: work different scenes and different compositions of tufas, there is one main set everyone starts with - but walk around and find multiple scenes.
4. Timing: get out to the lake early - at least 30 minutes before sunrise and catch the perfect light. Your pictures will dramatically improve with the proper lighting.
5. Aperture: shoot your landscape pictures between f/stops 5.6 and 11. This will give your photos enough depth of field to bring out optimum sharpness while maximizing your landscape lens.