Moro Rock, Sequoia National Park
About 15 years ago (in ~2004), I had a set of National Geographic desktop wallpapers. One of the photos was from a mountain lake surrounded by craggy peaks high in the Sierras in Kings Canyon National Park. The first time I saw that photo, I had never even heard of Kings Canyon, but it sure looked like an incredible place to visit and has been on my list ever since. Earlier this year in May, I had an opportunity to visit Kings Canyon while on a business trip to Fresno. I arrived in Fresno about 10 a.m., picked up my rental car, grabbed some lunch at Chick-Fil-A, and headed west toward the all-but-invisible Sierras.
I had done some research before the trip looking at photos of the park, but surprisingly didn’t find a whole lot of interesting landscape photography. As is common with many of our national parks, the part of the park easily accessible to the public, that is, from a paved road, is only a tiny fraction of the area designated as national park. It turns out that the incredible photo I remember from my desktop was captured in a remote part of the high country deep in the wilderness and probably only accessible on a multi-day backpacking journey.
Knowing that scene was not something I was going to see on my afternoon drive through the park, I spent some time on the plane looking for other photo opportunities in the area. That’s when I discovered Moro Rock in Sequoia National Park. Sequoia neighbors Kings Canyon to the south, and like its neighbor, the park is about a lot more than the giant Sequoia trees. One of the most scenic, and accessible, places in the park is Moro Rock, a monolithic granite dome that is visible thousands of feet above the highway into the park. From what I read, Moro Rock sounded promising for getting some nice photos at sunset. With this knowledge, I planned to spend the afternoon sightseeing from the car (a convertible VW Beetle), then end the day at Moro Rock. I made the drive through Kings Canyon, stopped at Grant Grove, then drove over to Sequoia where I made the obligatory stop to see the General Sherman tree. The giant Sequoias are spectacular and breath-taking to behold, but are not terribly appealing to me photographically, so I looked around then headed on to the parking lot for Moro Rock.
Moro Rock and the view from on top is a must-see spot in Sequoia, so I was expecting quite a few people to be there for sunset. Fortunately, this place has not become Instagram-famous yet-I only had to wait about 15 minutes to get a parking spot in the small lot at the trailhead. The trail starts out almost where the exposed rock begins, so almost immediately you are walking on the rock, or rather, on stairs carved into the rock. The steel handrails are very welcome, and the views are spectacular all the way up, which provides a nice reward every time you pause to catch your breath.
When I reached the top, there were only about 25 people up there with me, and that number rapidly shrank as the sun got lower. With a brisk cold breeze blowing over the rock, it did not take long for all but the photographers and their devoted companions to head back to the car. Boy did they miss out on watching the sun set!
I had both my regular color camera and infrared camera. Before the sun got too low on the horizon, I was shooting with the infrared and getting some incredible images. All of the high peaks were still covered in deep snow, there was a clearing storm retreating east over the mountains, and the sun was just about level with my position on the rock. From the top of Moro Rock high above the valley of the Kaweah River, I had incredible views in almost all directions, and with the light constantly changing as the sun got lower and the storm clouds moved over the peaks, I was frantically pointing the camera all over the place.
I was especially enchanted by the Great Western Divide, a subrange of the Sierra Nevada that includes some of the most majestic and craggy peaks in all of the Sierra. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the view of the Divide includes the higher peaks of the Kaweah Peaks Ridge, comprising eight peaks over 13,000 feet, behind the first ridge. You can get some scale for the size of these mountains when you realize that the granite domes near the snowline in the photo are some 3,000 feet lower than the summits.
When the sun finally got low enough that a high ridge blocked the direct light from the high peaks, I took a break from shooting infrared and realized that almost none of the other photographers up there had been taking any photos that whole time. Literally every one of them were congregated on the west side of the rock waiting for the sunset. Even without an infrared camera, the light on the Great Western Divide would have produced some incredible black and white images, but the Instagram crowd was not interested.
As the sun got lower, the hazy western skies were glowing orange and yellow, and I did capture a few nice color images. But they don’t compare to the absolutely stunning infrared shots that I got while all of the other photographers up there were having social hour.
Technical Photography Notes
All images were shot with either a Sony a6500 or infrared-converted Sony a6000 paired with the Sony 18-105 f/4 G lens. Infrared images were captured using a Kolari Vision 590 nm lens filter. Most of the images were processed in Lightroom. Black and white conversions for the infrared photos are based on the built-in black and white profiles provided by Adobe, Jim Welninski’s black and white film profiles, or Nate Johnson’s X-Chrome profiles. If you want to produce better black and white photos from your digital camera using Lightroom, I highly recommend both of these profile packs, and Jim’s black and white artistry courses are fantastic! Update (February 2021): I am now using the B&W Artisan Pro X panel by Joel Tjintjelaar to process my infrared black and white images in more of the “fine art” style. There’s a steep learning curve, but the results are worth it.
Black and White Conversion Profiles
590 nm infrared processed with B&W Artisan Pro X panel in Photoshop
590 nm infrared processed with Jim Welninski’s Polaroid 664 film profile
590 nm infrared processed with Nate Johnson’s Puretone B&W profile
590 nm infrared processed with Jim Welninski’s Rollei Ortho 25 film profile
590 nm infrared processed with Jim Welninski’s Kodak T-Max 400 film profile