Lessons Learned on Mount Tamalpais

This was initially titled “Mount Tamalpais and… Improvising”. After a night out with friends I realized that this is more about lessons learned from the mistakes I made that night. Read on…


Not everything goes to plan. What fun would that be?
Recently Debbie and I started planning to shoot the Milky Way with interesting foregrounds. The idea was to pick a clear and moonless night in late June. That part mostly came together during a heat wave in the Bay Area. The sky was clear for days and Friday the moon was set to be absent from our skies. The best ideas involved Point Reyes or Shark Fin Cove in Santa Cruz.  Then the heat wave broke and the marine layer started rolling in.


Ok, new plan. We had to get above the marine layer and we decided to go up Mount Tamalpais. Neither of us had been up there so why not today? We got most of the way up and saw the sign informing us that the gates closed after sunset. Debbie joked that maybe they only closed the gate for the way up. Well that would be silly. So up we went. We scouted a bit and, true to form took a wrong turn while hiking around. No big deal because that’s what we do!

Getting to the top wasn’t difficult even with all of our gear, lunch, snacks, and 2 chairs, and some fantastic beer for good measure. Seriously it was about .7 miles as advertised. Karl The Fog was getting active so it was obvious that we made a good call.

We setup in a couple of spots that we liked early, scanned the scene, chose our lenses, and waited for the light to be just right.

The famous San Francisco fog rolls in over Marin below

Click on one of the thumbnails below for  a brief slide show.


Lessons Learned.

Now it’s time to get honest. I made a lot of serious mistakes that night from a photography point of view. A lot of this trip was really about getting out and having some fun with my cousin Debbie, one of my very best friends and general partner in crime adventure. But from a getting it right point of view, this was not my best day. Let’s start with mistake #1.


I’m really not much of a drinker and we brought some IPA with us and I had a really light lunch. You can see where I’m going with this. I really didn’t care very much about the details and it showed. After shooting a couple of wide angles I got more interested in detail shots with telephoto lenses. That’s generally a good idea: find what interests you and concentrate on that. The fog / cloudscape was fascinating as was the Sutro Tower poking through the clouds far in the distance. And then I made my second serious mistake. I swapped lenses in a breeze which caught lots of dust on the camera sensor.

Fog over San Francisco.. and dust spots.

I powered my camera off like I usually do, detached my wide angle lens, then set the camera body inside my bag believing that would be sufficient to keep the dust to a minimum. It didn’t work very well and it picked up plenty of dust probably because the sensor still had a charge to it. You can see some of the dust spots in the mostly unedited fogscape (it’s a word!) above. I can probably chalk this one up to beer. I just got dumb because this isn’t something I would do otherwise.


I was using my Sigma 150-500mm at the longer focal lengths to capture details from a distance. This was both good and awful. The sun was catching the East Bay and the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge very nicely so I turned my attention that direction. The photos were not a problem and I liked the results. Focus wasn’t an issue.

Sunset and Richmond–San Rafael Bridge

I turned my attention to the south because the Sutro Tower was poking through the clouds in a composition that I just loved. I had tremendous problems with focus and a voice in the back of my head was telling me why: my tripod was high and my lens was catching the breeze from the west like a sail. I was wasting time and light trying to focus better more accurately in a situation where it just wasn’t possible. There’s another detail: telephotos will enhance haze and other atmospheric effects. I understood that just fine and accepted it. You can see my trouble with focus and the result of the warm air flowing above the cold air below.

Sutro Tower and Fog detail

It’s not awful, and in someways I’m happy enough with it. But it’s not ideal either. Post processing of this photo was tricky and I’ll get to that shortly.

I moved lower and a bit more out of the breeze when I caught a moment that I liked very much. The lights were turned on over Sutro Tower proving a nice element to the image that draws the eye.  I still had some trouble with focus, but at least I was out of the wind now so things were better.

Missing things

I had gear scattered everywhere. If you’ve ever shot with me then you see me leaving stuff around then I scramble to find everything in the dark when we’re done. It’s dumb and something that I got much better at. Whoah boy not today.  That’s not what I missed. I missed the sunset going off over the fog layer behind me. It was spectacular, golden, and magical as it set over the marine layer. Now this was also a choice, and one that I’m not sure was the right one.

Here’s what I was thinking at the time:

  • There was no interesting foreground. It was the sun setting over the fog. I’d have to swap lenses yet again and it would be rushed.
  • It’s not an especially unique image. You see a lot of these, mostly from airplanes
  • I usually have trouble with lens flares in this situation and fixing it in post is very hard — hard enough to just skip it. Some people like that look. I don’t.
  • We can (and will) come back
  • I had a subject that I wanted right in front of me and I wanted to concentrate on doing the one thing. Actually that’s a damn good reason but in my mind I’m still thinking about that gorgeous sunset.

Time to go.

Sunset was upon us and we had to go. It’s a state park that closes at sunset and, as I mentioned earlier there was reason to believe that the gates would be closed and we’d be in a real pickle. We scrambled down from the peak and made it to the car with plenty of time. On our way down we noticed a few other photographers in great position, but well above the gates. It seemed unlikely that these guys would be stuck here so they knew something we didn’t. But the image that we originally wanted was starlight over the city and that was going to be about an hour after sunset — that was riskier than I wanted. We got to the bottom gate and, get this, it was half closed just like Debbie joked in the uphill lane. So now we know.

We tinkered with the idea of going back up but then that fog, oh that San Francisco summer fog, got thick, wet, and windy. We did stop briefly at one overlook that was seriously just a few feet above the fog layer, but it wasn’t going to work. We called it a day. On my way home I stopped at one of my favorite overlooks and caught the Milky Way over the Monterey Bay.

The Milky Way Over Santa Cruz and the Monterey Bay
A bug got in the shot during this exposure. Sometimes these unexpected things are a blast.

Post Processing

I struggled with almost all of these photos. The problem with scenes like these is that the dynamic range is very narrow

Histogram for the photo below.


An unedited photo so illustrate the low dynamic range

My usual approach of adding contrast, black, and white points was inappropriate for this. That had the effect of deepening the blues which I didn’t want and removing detail from the clouds. Adding contrast to the clouds usually isn’t a great idea. Oh, and I mentioned all the dust spots right?

Too much blue

Eventually I arrived at something I liked, but it took many hours.

I like this version much better. The brights make a bit more sense, the blues are under more control, and there’s more depth. But this took a lot of creative application of Lightroom and Photoshop to achieve.

One accidental discovery was how well Lightroom’s “Dehaze” feature works towards finding dust spots. The “Visualize Spots”checkbox on the spot removal tool is great, but it isn’t perfect. I put the Dehaze feature to 100% and wow, there they were. After removing the spots I set Dehaze back to zero and was reasonably happy with the results.

Dehaze at 100% to help find more dust spots

Here’s an early edit of the Milky Way photo. It’s easy to overdo this scene into unbelievability. But you can’t really see this detail with the unaided eye, so what’s “too far” once you’re already into this territory? Is it too much? I decided it was after a good night’s rest.

Too much?
Lessons Learned
  • Nutrition: Eat first. No really, you just don’t do anything well on an empty stomach
  • Focus: Setup the tripod much lower and out of the wind when using longer focal lengths.
  • Move: Work the scene, but do it in a way that makes sense.
  • Research: I did some, but not enough. I should have asked questions
  • Post processing: Think ahead of time about what should the color temperatures really be. I’m still not positive, but I do know that level of blue wasn’t there and I don’t like it.

I’ll make this trip again and I’ll share my thoughts on the next time. Thank you for reading!