Jason Daniel Shaw
The Best Time to Photograph Mono Lake
Mono Lake – Lee Vining, CA
Mono Lake is this otherworldly place – a massive 70 square mile lake sitting at over 6,000 feet in elevation in the high desert of central California. The colors and reflections are something that every photographer dreams of capturing. While it may be a pretty place to visit, it certainly isn’t a beach vacation paradise. Follow along as I explore the best times to photograph Mono Lake.
The iconic Tufa Towers of Mono Lake are a result of limestone deposits that form in and around this highly alkaline body of water. The high levels of salt in the lake also make it a harsh habitat for many animals, except for the brine shrimp and blackflies that call it home – and the millions of migratory birds that visit to feed on them. We did stay in a local motel in the nearby town of Lee Vining to catch both the sunset and sunrise, two of the most beautiful times to visit Mono Lake.
PHOTOGRAPHING SUNSET AT MONO LAKE
We arrived at Mono Lake from the last leg of our road trip about an hour and a half before sunset. After checking into our hotel, we made our way down to the South Tufa viewing area to get ready for sunset. I recommend arriving early for two reasons – the first, to make sure that you get a parking spot as the area can be very crowded depending on the time of year and the second, to scout out the area so that you can plan the locations of your shots and determine your compositions.
You have two options at sunset, shooting to the west put you shooting into the setting sun but captures the beautiful eastern side of the Sierras that run just along the lake. The other option is to shoot to the north or east and capture all of the beautiful light that happens in the sky and in the reflections. Some considerations are the gear that you have with you. You will probably want a tripod and possibly an ND filter and maybe even a polarizer. I shot with a tripod and a variable ND filter for most of my shots. The lake can get rough in the afternoon/evening due to the winds so the ND filter allows you to slow your shutter down and get the longer exposure shots. I love the way that it makes the water look ethereal.
Pros to Photographing Mono Lake at Sunset
- Beautiful light around sunset
- Don’t have to wake up super early to shoot
Cons to Photographing Mono Lake at Sunset
- Can be a very crowded time and the spot/composition that you want may not be available
- The lake is more rough later in the day
If you plan your trip right, there are several small motels in Lee Vining that provide a perfect stopover, allowing you to capture the sunset on the first day and the sunrise on the next before continuing on with your road trip. We stayed at Murphey’s Motel and it is a great choice. The price was reasonable and the manager is a fellow Jeep owner. There aren’t many choices for food later in the night so plan accordingly.
PHOTOGRAPHING SUNrise AT MONO LAKE
Sunrise photography means waking up super early to get out to your destination before first light. First light can provide some amazing lighting opportunities to capture so when planning your sunrise shoot, don’t just look at the time that the sun breaks the horizon, look at what time first light is and plan around that time. Arriving early also lets you beat the other photographers to the lake so that you can experience the quiet of the morning.
Some of my favorite shots of Mono Lake were captured in the morning light. While I captured some wider shots in the morning, a lot of my focus was on the details and closeup shots of the tufas. I added the circular polarizer to capture some of the details under the water as well. Since the water is so calm in the morning, you don’t need as long of shutter speeds to flatten out the water. The circular polarizer is enough to stop down the shutter.
Pros to Photographing Mono Lake at Sunrise
- Beautiful light around sunrise
- Lake is calm and still so shutter times don’t need to be as long
Cons to Photographing Mono Lake at Sunrise
- A lot of people like to sleep in so you don’t have to deal with as many people as at sunset
- You have to wake up super early to get out there before first light
I have also photographed Mono Lake in the middle of the day on a previous trip and it is still a great place to capture. During the day, I focus on the clouds that may build up over the lake and their reflections on the surface of the lake. While I have never made it out during the night, I would imagine that there are some amazing astrophotography to capture. Lee Vining is the closest town and it has very little light pollution so there should be dark skies and the lake can serve as a giant mirror, reflecting the sky above in the foreground. The Tufas look like they are from another world already, add to it, the stars and milky way, I am kind of kicking myself as I write this that I didn’t go out during the night. No matter what time you make it to Mono Lake, you won’t be disappointed. Just go.