California Winter Wilderness — Landscapes from a Telephoto lens

Burney Mountain, just before sunset. Panorama at 400mm.

(all photos and more from this trip are here:

Winter Roadtrip

It’s the second week of February, 2018. California has been having a horribly warm winter. I’ve been studying weather patterns every weekend for the past two months, wistful. Finally, a proper cold front has come in, alongside precipitation. Northeast CA is forecast to go below freezing the entire weekend, with some snowfall. It’s time to go.

The target: a region that wishes to secede from California and form a new state, to be known as “Jefferson”. This area also holds some of my utmost favorite parts of California. Despite the 5 hour drive, I keep coming back here, multiple times a year, just to take it all in. This is the first time I’m approaching it with a fully armed Sony a7Riii battlestation. I’ve got shots lined up in my head. I’ve got an itenary. Let’s make some magic happen.

200 miles of cold and gorgeous nature!

My favorite places, and why I keep coming back

This lake is at the North East entrance to Lassen. It’s open year road, so even in deep snow, you can drive up, park, and hike around the lake. It’s also overshadowed by the slopes of Mt. Lassen, so even at a paltry 5900', Manzanita Lake will get quite cold, and readily freeze over or snow (while the surrounding landscapes might not).

It also houses one of my favorite campgrounds. Plenty of spots, all semi-secluded in trees, and with good access to facilities. I’ve camped here a half dozen times, in weather warm and below freezing. I’d highly encourage veteran and first-time campers tom come here.

A number of years ago, when I had recently added the BMW F700GS to my motorcycle stable, I came up here to camp in November. The day I arrived was fair and lovely, but I woke up on the next to a frozen landscape. Some hours into morning, when I finally managed to crawl out of my sleeping bag and into my riding gear, the thermostat on the bike read 28* F. At that temp, all sorts of red warning indicators light up on the dashboard advising “do you really want to ride in this weather?”. I didn’t. It was miserable. But, this was an indelible memory, and only adds to my love of the place. The campground closed for winter the next day. I was the only one there that night. I count myself incredibly lucky.

Another loving memory of the lake: arriving in the wane hours of summer, setting up my tent, and walking the lake perimeter just as dusk approached. All at once, swarms of bats emerged, dipping and diving over the lake surface. They moved so fast, and the light was so dim, that it was just a blur and a shadow, never a distinct shape. I’ll have to come back this summer to try and capture the moment into photos (though I haven’t the foggiest as to how).

Manzanita Lake panorama at 16mm

Burney Falls

I discovered Burney Falls only a few years ago, which is a shame. It’s about an hour’s drive away from Manzanita Lake — an hour of lovely mountain scenery, roads arched by forest, and fascinating geologic landmarks. Make sure to check out Subway Lava tube, as well as the random hot springs that support lush aquatic foliage year round.

Burney Falls!

The falls itself is a thing of splendor. Due to being fed by a nearby reservoir, the falls flow at a constant rate year round. Due to the falls being in a canyon depression and the surrounding tall forest, the face of the falls is nearly always in shade. This has allowed lush and gorgeous mosses to sprout. Swifts nest around the falls. The can be seen in the spring and summer, darting seemingly through the cascading water. There are ready views of the falls from both high and low angles. There’s a family friendly hike one can pursue around the perimeter. I’ve never seen it horribly crowded. In sum: it’s a perfect spot to visit, and even better to take photos at year round.

I visited last winter with Artem. That had been a proper winter, with healthy snow falls and cold temps for weeks on end. The trees were covered in snow and ice. The falls, though never frozen, had caused the entire surrounding area to be coated in inches of mist turned to ice. It was magical. I knew I those conditions wouldn’t be recreated on this trip (California was starved for snow), but I was still excited to venture out.

Indeed, this trip proved lovely in it’s own way. Instead of dense coatings of snow and ice, the mere hints of winter around casted a strong contrast to the vibrance and life that always surrounds year-round water sources.

I sure hope you get the chance to visit Burney Falls during a cold winter too.


Not my photo — thanks Pinterest!

Well before the Russians set to sowing discord, there was Jefferson. For nearly 80 years, Californians up here have longed to form their own more perfect union. As you enter Jefferson, so long as you pay attention, the signs are there. Literally. There are signs everywhere supporting succession, and declaring Jefferson to be its own state. And I can easily understand why. This is truly a different California, unvisited by most Californians, with vastly different interests from San Franciscans and Los Angelos. This is Trump country. This is rural to the extreme.

But of course, Jefferson is home to Lassen, Burney, Fall River Mills, and countless other gorgeous settings. It has fantastic roads for motorcycling, great wildernesses for hiking — adventures abound. And perhaps most importantly to me, it has solitude. It is quite easy to disappear here when one wants to. To journey into a landscape and meet nary a soul for hours. All of this to say, this rogue California is a second home to me.

Telephoto — landscapes

Burney Falls at 400mm. So much more intimate than my usual broad panoramas.

However, this lens comes at a cost. It’s heavy. That weight manifests in a variety of ways.

Handheld shots generally require a shutter above 1/400s to ensure a blur-free image (even with stabilization). Even with that compensation, many hand held shots came out with the occasional blur. The headline photo at the top of this post is a composite of a 12 or so images. A few of them had blur. It drove me nuts. This is imperceptible in a format such as this blog, where the images are so down-scaled that detail is lost. However, it’s quite frustrating when editing. I know it’s there. The imperfections haunt me.

Next up on the list: tripod mounting. As seen below, this looks more than a bit silly. Yes, I could use the shoe that came with the lens (which moves the center of gravity forward), but it’s annoying to take on and off. With the shoe on, it makes hand-held shooting even more of a pain. The arca adaptor under the lens mostly works well in the tripod, but boy does it take quite an effort to lock the ball head tight enough to provide lens drift. Lining up shots at 400mm on the tripod can be a struggle to maintain the correct frame.

If this is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

Photography in the cold

A shooting location at Manzanita Lake — 45 minutes of being cold and windswept!

Of course, a winter photography roadtrip entails being cold. But it really was quite cold. Most of my time in the mountains was well below freezing, with light to heavy wind, and non-stop snow (albeit in light amounts). My greatest regret is failing to bring appropriate gloves. I had fingerless wool gloves for the whole trip, and repeatedly enjoyed quite numb fingertips. Landscape photography generally calls for standing in one place for long periods of time… combining that with cold and wind, and you get quite a cold camper.

On the flip side, all of my gear performed perfectly. I didn’t notice any extra battery depletion from the a7Riii, nor any other performance impacts. My Sony action cam (used for some time-lapses) also held up to the cold perfectly well.

A recent addition to my gear, which has turned out to be quite the hero, is the Peak Designs “Capture Clip”. I have this affixed to the shoulder of my camera bag. It allows me to “drop” the camera into place and carry it on my shoulder. I find it difficult to adequately describe the problems this solves — I’m not sure it would make sense to a non-photographer audience — but suffice to say that Peak Designs deeply understand their market, and provides tremendous value. I am a happy customer. A happy photographer spends more time getting better photos.

Okay, so how’d I do at capturing the meaning of “winter”? I’ll leave that for you to judge. I will say, I had two images in mind I most wanted to capture for this trip, and failed to find either. The first was trees covered in snow, over a straight road wandering off into the infinite distance — there was no snow on the trees at all. The second was a light snow falling through a forest, with snowflakes in sharp focus in a mid ground, and some good bokeh in the fore and rear grounds — the snow was entirely unpredictable and of the wrong granularity. Still, failing to capture these images is just another excuse to come back and try again.

Mt. Lassen
Manzanita Lake, with forests sloping up to meet Mt. Lassen
Various views from elsewhere on Manzanita Lake
It’s cold! Cold Jon is cold! The ground is covered in ice! Slippery cold ice! (Early morning at Burney Falls)
Some sort of frozen yet verdant symmetry.
Later that day, from an overlook near the Falls.

Capturing the unplanned moment

The below pano and following vertical shots were all from the same random pullout, between Lassen and Fall River Mills. As I was just preparing to leave, a two minute flurry of snow dropped in, causing yet more wonderment and photography opportunities (phototunities?).

Hat Creek. 16mm pano
100mm and 400mm, respectively. Both taken during roughly equal snowfalls, but with clearly different results.
The mighty XTerra, at said random pullout.
Volcanic activity heats this section of Hat Creek, lending rich aquatic plants and year-round flourishes. It’s found off a different random highway shoulder.

Failing to sneak up on wildlife

It’s a funny thing. There are Herons that populate the fields, aqueducts, and muddy run offs from the agriculture alongside I-5. Cars can pass by at 80 miles an hour, within tens of feet, and not a flinch. But if I pull over, get out of the truck, and quietly walk over with a camera… before I can approach within 200 feet — they take to the air without ever giving me a chance. I just want to share their beauty with the world!

So, despite being armed with a fantastic camera and an amazing telephoto lens, this whole “wildlife photography” thing is going to need some serious practice and planning.

This is the best wildlife photo you’re gonna get folks!

Fall River Mills — a forgotten town

There’s a single hotel, and it’s amazing. It was warm. It was old timey. It’s like nothing else in the area. I’d suggest checking it out. I’ll definitely be back.

The rest of the town is… not so much there. There’s a single restaurant (Mexican), loads of boarded up store fronts, houses falling apart, rusted trucks in front yards, and a bustling chiropractic clinic.

Dilapidated is an apt word here.

But look just past the town, and beauty is here. The river yields to marshes and ponds, full of hundreds of geese and other water foul. Mountains, forest, and rolling hills surround this valley. There’s so much more to see, and I look forward to coming back and taking it all in.

A wind farm, seen on the winding mountain road approach to Fall River Mills

Closing thoughts

So, next time you travel this way, take it a bit slower, savor the moment, come visit Jefferson in all it’s glory, and seek out those special sights.