Photographing Among the Ancient Bristlecone Pines


First a little history lesson.  Located in east central California just north of Death Valley, the White Mountains rise to an oxygen-deprived altitude of 14,246 feet.  Yet they remain in a rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada located a few miles west across the Owens Valley.  As Pacific storms move eastward, the Sierra simply sucks out the majority of moisture, leaving the White Mountains with, for the most part, strong dry winds.   Annual precipitation is less than 12 inches, most of which arrives as snow in winter.  These harsh conditions contribute to these mountains bringing forth incredibly beautiful trees so ancient they surpass the majestic Giant Sequoia by more than a millennium!


Bristlecone Pine and Star Trails

Image 1
Bristlecone Pine and Star Trails in Patriarch Grove

In early August, I traveled to the White Mountains to meet up with a group of photographers to photograph the gnarly, ancient, and stunning Bristlecone Pines.  Several of the photographers I knew and had worked with previously.  Others I would meet for the first time.  Our “base of operations” was the Crooked Creek Research Station located in the Bristlecone Pine Forest at an elevation of 10,200 feet.  While our accommodations were somewhat primitive and dormitory style, the grub the cook, Tim, prepared for us was truly out of this world.

In the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest there are two well-known groves of Bristlecone Pines, Schulman Grove at about 9,000 feet and Patriarch Grove at 11,000 feet. Its splendid remoteness and moonscape appearance gives the Patriarch Grove a surreal atmosphere. Bristlecone pines are sprinkled over the landscape with a background view of the Owens Valley. Thus making it a favorite location for photographers.  The ground is covered with dolomite.  Dolomite is a white, gravelly type rock.   With minimal light pollution from Bishop, CA and starlight reflecting off the white dolomite, one can easily maneuver around the grove after dark without any external light, i.e. flashlights or headlamps.  It is here we had come to photograph.

In a majority of landscape and nature photography, the ideal time to shoot is early morning around sunrise or late in the day as the sun sets when the sun illuminates trees and the hillsides with warm, soft sidelight.  Our group had another goal in mind.  Not to shoot the trees in the daylight, but during the dark of moon.  Without the moonlight, one can see and photograph a gazillion stars AND the Milky Way.   My goal:  to come home with images that show off these incredible trees with both star trails and star circles in the sky above.   Capturing the Milky Way ranked at the very top of my list.

Image 1 was  taken on a moonless night.  Arriving just before dark, I set up my camera and tripod while still able to see enough to ensure I had the composition I wanted.  I purposely pointed my camera to the south, knowing I would be able to capture both star trails and then later in the night the Milky Way.  In this image the tree that I christened Gail’s Tree was inadvertently lit by headlights from a car.   One photographer had decided to head back to our base early and didn’t realize his car lights would travel so far as to “ruin” several photographers’ images.  I decided to go ahead and process this image thinking the “lighted” tree might add to the image instead of taking away from it.  The image is a composite of 30 images each taken with four-minute exposures thus keeping unwanted noise out.  Later I combined them as layers in Photoshop to produce one single image showing the movement of the stars over a couple of hours.  If you look closely at the image you can see the shadow of the Milky Way not yet fully showing itself.

Image 2 Milky Way Among the Bristlecone Pines

Image 2
Milky Way Among the Bristlecone Pines

This second image is the same tree; the same night – I took only one exposure totaling 30 seconds instead of 120 minutes.  With such a short exposure and a much higher ISO, the stars didn’t have the chance to streak across the sky allowing the Milky Way to stand out.

One night I climbed up the “hill” behind Crooked Creek Research Station packing two cameras, two tripods, an external battery pack, my camera backpack, a flashlight, a walkie-talkie and two bottles of water.  This hill is approximately 1,000 feet higher than the compound and the path extremely rocky and difficult to follow in the daylight.  At night it can be both perilous and treacherous.  When venturing off from the main group, which that night was about 7 miles away in the opposite direction, we were strongly advised to 1) use the buddy system 2) carry a walkie-talkie and 3) to sign out and back in.  I followed all of this suggestion and talked another photographer into going with me.   I had been up this trail once before in 2012 and remembered a group of rocks pointing up toward the northern sky.  My plan was to set up my camera to again take four-minute exposures, but this time to let it run all night.  I would hook up the battery pack, which would probably last about eight hours after which my camera battery would take over.  With my camera pointed due north, the star trails would rotate around Polaris forming star circles.  My friend, Mike, who had taken this shot the night before had agreed to accompany me back up the hill so I wouldn’t have to go alone.   Once we arrived at the top, I set up my shot with wonderful input and assistance from Mike.  Thank you, Mike.  After turning the camera on, I left my camera, tripod and battery pack around 9:15 that evening.

We headed back down the hill to a spot we had spotted on the way up.  Both Mike and I wanted to shoot the Milky Way hence the reason for the second camera and tripod.  We waited an additional hour and a half for the Milky Way to completely show itself.  And show itself it did!  On this hill there is no light pollution as in Patriarch Grove.  It was so dark that you literally could not see the hand in front of your face.  Perfect for capturing the Milky Way.  The third image is my reward for making the effort to climb the hill with an extra camera and tripod.  While waiting for the Milky Way to come out, I lay on the ground using my now almost empty backpack as a pillow and stared up into the most incredible sky I had ever seen.  This image does not do justice to the enormity of the sky and the thousands, if not, millions of stars that spread above me.  I have no words that could relay how peaceful and at ease with myself that I felt.

Milky Way Above the White Mountains

Image 3
Milky Way Above the White Mountains

After we captured the Milky Way shots we wanted we headed very carefully and slowly down the hill arriving back at the base camp well after midnight.  The group from Patriarch Grove had yet to return.  You see, this was our last night and everyone wanted to get that one shot that had so far eluded him or her.  Happy, content and exhausted, I fell asleep that evening as soon as my head hit the pillow and didn’t even hear the others when they arrived sometime between 1 and 2 in the morning.  What I did hear though, was my cell phone at 5:30 waking me up so I could climb back up the hill and retrieve my camera and the images it had captured during the night. This time I hiked alone – you see it was MY camera up there taking pictures and friendship goes just so far.  Mike was fast asleep in the men’s dorm.  I dutifully carried a walkie-talkie and signed out with where I was headed and when I expected to be back.  Fortunately, Tim already had hot coffee downstairs.  Off I went with my travel mug full.  Daylight was just breaking and I could see without my headlamp.  The hike back up turned out to be both beautiful and serene allowing me the time to reflect on the past several days and to take in the astonishing beauty around me.  I realized I had been so intent on getting the images I wanted, keeping my equipment cleaned, charged and at the ready, I had forgotten until last night to truly step back, look around and appreciate the wonderful opportunity I had been given.  This fourth and finally image is the result of my camera working all night while I slept.  It was still taking pictures when I arrived at the top of the hill at 6:15.  One hundred and forty eight images in all!  I used approximately 120 of them in creating the finished image.  The rock has become known among our group of photographers as Mount Watson in honor of Mike Watson who so graciously accompanied me up the hill.

There are so many stories from my trip; I will have to share them over time.  For now this blog is long enough.   If you enjoyed my blog, please share it with others, on your Facebook or through email.  I encourage you to check out my website,Gail Berreman Photography and my Facebook.

Mount Watson in the White Mountains

Image 4
Mount Watson in the White Mountains

7 thoughts on “Photographing Among the Ancient Bristlecone Pines

  1. Gail: Your night images of the Bristlecones are stunning. As you know, I was there a few weeks earlier and know how challenging it can be to capture these images. Well done.

    • Thanks, Keith. Comments like this coming from you are special. We should talk about next year if you’re interested. It is always the weekend closest to the dark of moon in August.

  2. Great shots, Gail. Really glad to have you in our classes – including the pre-and-post Bristlecone Pine events. And, yes, we sure do hope to repeat the workshop again for a FOURTH season.

    We used to have an early notification form on our website ( but we’re now using a more targeted “pick what you want to know about” free subscription instead (

    I’m looking forward to seeing your other photos, from the rest of your travels.

    • Thanks, Steven. You and Eric were terrific. I’ll be watching for the sign up for next year. I keep thinking about missed opportunities and possibilities for next year.

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