Sunset Magic, Mono Lake


The so-called “magic hour” for photographers is generally considered to be about an hour before and an hour after both sunrise and sunset. This is the time colors in the sky, the clouds and just about anything that reflects the color will change minute by minute, even seconds by seconds.


The image above was taken just 11 minutes after sunset in October. I had been attending a workshop that ended in Lee Vining earlier that day. Staying over an extra day, I ventured back out to Mono Lake for sunset. As soon as the sun went down, most folks started back to their cars, leaving the few photographers left with the place to themselves. Without any time constraint, as I was no longer part of a group, I played around with various compositions and exposure settings. The light began to change almost immediately after the sun disappeared below the mountain ridge behind me. Seems like every few seconds the color would deepen and intensify.  As the wind had picked up making the water a little choppy, I set my camera for an exposure of 5 seconds at f/10, ISO 100. This long exposure smoothed out the water to an almost mirror-like reflection. Shortly after clicking the shutter release, the light and color began to disappear and in another couple of minutes the show was over.


Earlier I ran into another photographer who had been in same workshop. We both packed up as soon as the light did and agreed to meet up for dinner at what everyone refers to as the Mobile Station. No, we didn’t eat sitting next to gas pumps.   I knew the place had a real name so I Googled “diner at the Mobile Station, Lee Vining.” ‘Cause I knew you would want to know. Sure enough, there it was, “Whoa Nellie Deli.” Absolutely the finest food around at very reasonable prices. If you’re ever passing through Lee Vining, California on Highway 395, be sure to visit:


  • Mono Lake
  • The Mobile Station for breakfast, lunch or diner (don’t ask for directions to “Whoa Nellie Deli.” No one would probably be able to tell you. Just ask for the Mobile Station.)

You won’t go away disappointed from either.

By the way: if you need gas, get it before you get to or after you leave the Mobile Station. The gas prices are extremely high! Bishop, California is about an hour to the south on Highway 395 where prices are much more reasonable


Peeking Through the Tufas, Mono Lake

The second image illustrates another example of the “magic hour;” this time taken just a few minutes prior to sunrise. I again faced east, this time toward the rising sun. Now, let’s take time out to digress for a short history lesson. Mono Lake has no outlet to the ocean which causes high levels of salts to accumulate in the lake. No fish can live in the lake due to the level of salinity. Although, brine shrimp are not only able to survive there, they thrived.   The tufa towers and the brine shrimp provided both food and a safe haven for migratory birds.

Tufas form when underwater springs rich in calcium mix with the carbonates in the lake water. The resulting reactions form limestone. Over time the buildup of limestone creates towers and when the water level of the lake drops, the towers become exposed. In 1941, the city of Los Angeles began diverting the creeks and streams that fed into Mono Lake to Southern California. By 1982, so much water had been diverted, the lake level had fallen by 45 feet.

In 1978, the Mono Lake Committee was formed and dedicated itself to protecting and restoring the Mono Basin ecosystem and educating the public about the impact on the environment of excessive water diversion. Studies have shown that if it had been left in its 1988 condition, by 1999 the salinity of the lake would increase to a level where even the brine shrimp could not survive and over a million birds would be deprived of their food source.

The lake level has fallen so much that many tufa towers are now located on dry land around the receding shoreline. Tufa towers are very fragile and delicate. They break easily and even though there are signs around telling folks to stay off the tufas and why, many jerks (I use that word because this is a G rated blog) ignore the signs and climb on them anyway. Or, worse yet, deliberately break off a piece for a souvenir. So, if you go, please stay off the tufa towers.


Tufa Battleship Formation, Mono Lake


The last image was taken the evening before our workshop ended after the sun had already set.   This formation is called “Tufa Battleship.” If I try real hard and use all my imagination, I can almost see the outline of a battleship. Look closely, can you see it? Again even after the sun had set, the color remained in the sky making it a magical and special time.

Mono Lake with its unworldly appearance draws many visitors each year. It doesn’t matter what time of year I visit, I always come away feeling awed and privileged to have visited such a truly unique and strangely beautiful place.

Thank you for reading my blog. I hope you enjoyed both the images and stories.

To see more of my images, please visit my website and my Facebook.


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