A Summer at Mount Rainier

sunrise on snow capped mountain above alpine lake

“Summit Lake Sunrise” 3 bracketed exposures @ f11, ISO 100, Sony A1 w/ 24-105mm @ 28mm

Living along the coast in Santa Cruz, I lived and breathed the ocean. Working at a SCUBA shop, the kelp forests of Big Sur through Monterey were my ocean playground. My photographic passion grew out of this aquatic exploration. As my interests turned towards landscapes, I put in countless hours chasing light up and down the coast. I made a lasting connection with the many coves and beaches near my home. When I made the move from California to Washington seven years ago, I left behind this chapter in my life. At the time, I didn’t realize how I took all that knowledge and experience for granted. While I was excited for the move and the proverbial “turning over a new leaf”, I did not fully comprehend how it would affect me creatively. Without the intimate knowledge of where to photograph, I became gripped by indecision simply because I didn’t know where to go. Part of the problem is that Washington has so many regions that are rich with natural beauty. A good problem to have for sure! It wasn’t until 2018 that I made my first visit to Mount Rainier National Park, three full years after my move.

Fast forward to 2022, and I recently led my first workshop here. Here’s a glimpse into my trips over the summer with images I created and a few thoughts about them. My first visit in early July led me to the Silver Falls loop trail. I was drawn to the light selectively illuminating certain trees and I used my telephoto and purposely underexposed in order to reduce the chaos often found in forest scenes.

New growth tree lit by sun in dark forest

“New Growth” 1/160 sec @ f11, ISO 100, Sony A1 w/ 100-400mm @ 100mm

Eventually, the trail led to a bridge overlooking the turquoise waters of the river below. After experimenting with various shutter speeds, I felt a faster sped would freeze the patterns better as well as showcase all the specular highlights of the late afternoon sun.

blue green water patterns in a river

“Vortex” 1/400 sec @ f11, ISO 320, Sony A1 w/ 24-105mm @ 81mm

galactic core of milky way over snow-capped mountain

“Divine Alignment” Sky: 6 min tracked x 2 exposures @ f2.2, ISO 800, Land: 1 min @ f2.0, ISO 3200 6 images stacked, Sony A1 w/ 24mm f1.4 GM

In the pursuit of higher quality night sky images, I purchased a star tracker and spent a few evenings over the summer practicing. I still have much to learn and troubleshoot, but the culmination of my efforts was to try and get the vertical alignment of the milky way over Mount Rainier. The process involves aligning the tracker with the north star, and it enables one to use a longer shutter speed which in turn allows for a smaller aperture for better optical clarity as well as a lower ISO for less noise. Most lenses suffer from coma and astigmatism, two aberrations not desirable in astrophotography. So simply being able to stop down a stop or so on a fast aperture lens, such as the Sony 24mm f1.4 GM, allows for better rendering of the stars. Note: This image suffered from some error. Either six minutes was too long, my lens has some optical issues, or I wasn’t aligned well enough, but the stars in the upper part of the image are not high quality, thus the square crop. I’ll need to do some more testing, but in the end, I am overall happy with the results.

Earlier this same evening, another image I was hoping to create is of the layers and layers of mountains looking north. While the haze cut down on the clarity, and I most certainly will lug my 200-600mm up the trail next summer. Telephoto landscapes are certainly some of my favorite for their ability to isolate and simplify a composition.

blue mountain layers vanishing into the distant pink sky

“Dividing Lines” 2 sec @ f11, ISO 100, Sony A1 w/ 200-600mm @ 512mm

While not my favorite image of the night, the sunset was one of the better ones I’ve experienced at this location. So with the layers and the milky way also from the same night, I just had to share the wide view. With not much to choose from on foreground options, I just used this ridge of rock which was reflecting the golden light and at least provided a subtle line out to the sun. Due to the extreme close proximity of the foreground in the lower left corner, I decided to focus stack at three points in the frame. Similar to the semi-failed milky way image above, there were some gaps in the focus stack where the ridge of rock and foreground didn’t have ample overlap. Despite having focus stacked many, many times, it just goes to show mistakes still happen. Overall, it’s minor enough that I just won’t worry about it. 

golden sun set with clouds breaking over warm rocks and mountain

“Cloud Breaker” 3 exposure blend @ f11, ISO 100 and focus stacked at three points, Sony A1 w/ 14mm GM

Here are a few more images from my trips to Mount Rainier, some simply snapshots.

“A Fire’s Farewell” 3 bracketed exposures @ f11, ISO 100, Sony A1, 24-105mm @ 105mm

The lead image at the top of the post as well as this one were taken on my final trip of the summer, just as the wildfire smoke started to creep and cause some serious concerns in the area. After spending all of July and August making weekly trips, it was a beautiful but bittersweet end to the summer.

Best to you all,

Jim Patterson

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