California is just about covered in flowers right now, and I figured where better to see it from, than from the air itself? That’s right my friends, here’s what California looks like from a small plane right now! A friend of a friend who owns a Cessna 172 graciously offered to fly me around some of the wildflower locations I wanted to see and photograph this past week, giving me a unique perspective on the vast expanses of color carpeting our hills. This year the hills surrounding the Carrizo Plains National Monument in Southern California exploded with color – mostly yellow (Coreopsis flowers), but with spring greens and patches of poppies, lupines, and others (unidentifiable by me from the air) adding some nice color contrasts. The hills looked like a painters palette with splotches of colors waiting to be mixed into a fabulous spring painting by Claude Monet.
I often realize after getting back from a trip like this that perhaps I should have taken some more general photos that show what the area looks like, rather than only scaleless abstract art extractions of the landscape. Oh well, if I did that then I wouldn’t be focusing all my attention on the art, so a description will have to do. The Carrizo Plains is a roughly 750 square mile semi-arid grassland plains, bordered by the Caliente and Temblor Ranges (all the photos, except “Rolling Gold” are from the Temblor Range, “Rolling Gold” is from the Caliente Range). Right down the middle of the plains runs the San Andreas fault, which is surprisingly obvious – it literally looks like a tear in the Earth.
The Plains were turned into a National Monument in 2001 by Bill Clinton, and was even considered as a nominee for World Heritage Site status (the only other such parks in California being the Redwoods and Yosemite), though nearby oil drilling operations prevented that from going through. In addition to vast expanses of wildflowers in the spring – at least, when there’s enough rain (the plains average 9 inches per year) – the grasslands are home to the Pronghorn Antelope as well as 13 other endangered species. Unfortunately we didn’t see any Pronghorn on our trip!
This was my first time photographing from the air, so I thought I would share a few things I learned and enjoyed. First of all, I found aerial photography to be a lot like wildlife photography. What? Yes! I was using long lenses (all of the images in this series were done with my versatile 100-400mm) and while the subject may not be moving, I was, which meant that every opportunity was fleeting and it would be very difficult to get another chance at redoing a composition. You literally have to shoot ‘on the fly’. The plane was perfect for photography since, after taking out a screw, we were able to open the side window completely, allowing me to stick the lens out without any dirty glass in the way. Of course, that meant that I was sticking the lens out into 60-100mph winds! With a steady hand, image stabilization, and sufficiently high shutter speeds (1/1000th or higher for the long lens work to be safe), I was able to get tack sharp images despite all the vibrations. For someone who loves shooting abstracts and relatively unique perspectives, this aerial photography thing was an incredible opportunity. Everything looks photogenic from the air, and it even looks best at what you might consider relatively harsh light from the ground. While the point of the trip was to photograph the flowers from the air, I couldn’t resist these incredible patterns I saw around Soda Lake – a mostly dry alkaline lake in the middle of the plains. The meandering curves and colors from what I assume to be small blooming flowers (though it could be algae) were just fascinating!