Bristlecone Pines – Patriarch and Schulman Groves – Milky Way – Inyo National Forest – California

The term Bristlecone pine covers three species of the pine tree (family Pinaceae). One tree is over 5,000 years old (think 3000 BC) making it the oldest living thing on the planet. They grow in harsh conditions, at high elevations in areas with little rainfall, where hardly anything else grows. The bristlecone pine is extremely drought tolerant due to its branched shallow root system, its waxy needles, and thick needle cuticles that aid in water retention. In good soil, it will quickly rot.

The wood is very dense and resinous, and thus resistant to invasion by insects, fungi, and other potential pests. The tree’s longevity is due in part to the wood’s extreme durability. While other species of trees that grow nearby suffer rot, bare bristlecone pines can endure, even after death, often still standing on their roots, for many centuries. Rather than rot, exposed wood, on living and dead trees, erodes like stone due to wind, rain, and freezing, which creates unusual forms and shapes.

The bristlecone pine has an intrinsically low rate of reproduction and regeneration, and it is thought that under present climatic and environmental conditions the rate of regeneration may be insufficient to sustain its population. Many bristlecone pine habitats have been protected, including the Inyo National Forest’s Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains of California and the Great Basin National Park in Nevada.

These images are from the Patriarch and Schulman Groves in the Inyo National Forest. The visitor center is in the Schulman Grove, and the road is paved all the way. The Patriarch Grove is 1,000 feet higher, unpaved, and very slow traveling, It takes about an hour to go 13 miles. The most important things are to have good tries and drive slow.

Feature Image Details

I used Canon EOS 5D Mark IV camera coupled with a Canon 16-35MM F4 L Lens at 16mm. It’s a composite image. The Milky Way was taken separately but this is the correct position of the stars.

I use an iOptron start tracker to take long exposures without the stars blurring. The camera slowly rotates with the stars. I have a second EOS 5D Mark IV Canon body with Canon’s low-pass filter removed, invalidating my warranty, but granting me an extra stop of light. With the iOptron star tracker, I can easily take 2-minute exposures without the stars blurring. The end result is milky way images with far more stars than the naked eye can see.

But if you are tracking the stars, the land is blurry because it isn’t moving. One needs to blend images if using a star tracker.

These images were taken on September 9 and 13.

In late August and September, the Milky Way is nearly vertical. The core of the Milky Way is visible only for a short time after sunset this time of year.

In April, the Milky Way takes on a rounded appearance and is visible only very early in the morning (think 3AM or so). In summer the Milky Way is diagonal.

The core of the Milky Way is not visible from October through February.

The Feature Image is from the Patriarch Grove. The next image is from the Schulman Grove.

Both images were taken right at or just after sunset. I use Photo Pills to place the position of the Milky Way correctly.

General Tips

  1. Literature says you need a high clearance vehicle to get to the Patriarch Grove. You don’t. You do need good tires and patience.
  2. Expect to take an hour to go about 13 miles.
  3. The elevation at the top is 11,000 feet. It can be 90 degrees forty miles away and 50 degrees at the top.
  4. Expect wind, especially at the  Patriarch Grove.
  5. The sun dips behind mountains at least an hour before official sunset. Get to the top early.

Photography Notes

  1. I did not photograph the largest trees. Rather, I selected trees that I could easily isolate against a clear sky.
  2. I use the term “easily isolate” loosely. These trees are moving in the wind. It takes a high ISO and proper exposure just to counteract the wind. And it can be a real pain in the ass masking out branches and needles even if you do stop the wind motion. Expect to spend a lot of time on images like these if you adopt my technique.
  3. In high wind conditions, it is not realistically possible to get a sharp image of the trees and the stars in one shot with normal techniques.
  4. To combine images like I did, you do need to be proficient at masking techniques.
  5. At 11,000 feet the air is very clear. This is a dark sky area. Take Milky Way panoramas and learn how to blend them.
  6. I used video lights to help light both images.
  7. Mars produces a nice starburst at F4 exposed for 1.5 to 2 minutes.
  8. Milky way detail at F4 and ISO 1600 is far better than anything you can get with normal all-in-one-shot techniques.

Mono Lake – Eastern Sierra Area

  1. Mono Lake, California, Eastern Sierra, Sunset for my favorite Mono Lake image of the trip.
  2. Mono Lake, California, Eastern Sierra, Sunrise
  3. Panum Crater Shadows, Eastern Sierras
  4. Chemung Mine – Ghost Town – Masonic California – Milky Way
  5. Chemung Mine – Ghost Town – Masonic California

Equipment List

Those interested in my equipment and recommendations can find it here: Mish’s Equipment List.

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Mike “Mish” Shedlock

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