The Bonsai Rock Mission

Avoiding Bonsai Rock: “all that” or merely insecure?

Bonsai Rock on Lake Tahoe, Nevada side is an icon. An endless stream of photographers has been to this spot to shoot this very rock it seems; its wee stunted pine trees doing their mightiest to grow out of a crack in the granite. Just do a Google image search for “Bonsai Rock Lake Tahoe” and watch an endless scroll of photos populate the page.

I have a strong streak of rebellion that resists shooting places like this that EVERYBODY seems to need to photograph.
Or perhaps it’s insecurity masquerading as a mock blasé attitude so I can pretend it doesn’t really matter.
I mean it DOESN’T really matter in the grand scheme of things… right?

Taking the Leap

And yet… when my good friend and über fabulous photographer and teacher Matt Kloskowski came out to teach a Lightroom workshop in Sacramento, he made an extra day to shoot at Tahoe. He called me up and said he wanted to do Bonsai Rock – and of course, I said “I’ve never shot it either!” Like it just sorta happened that I never shot that stupid rock… or had just been SOOOOO busy (and don’t forget ‘important’) that I never had time to make it out there. Nevermind that in almost 20 years of living in, I only just figured out where it is this year! Granted, I wasn’t actively doing the kind of photography I am now most of that time, so that’s my official excuse… but still.

Personally, I think Bonsai Rock is a better sunset spot than sunrise. So we hit it shortly before sundown.

Even granite boulders have families, right?I'm going to imagine it just that way.

Matt flew out from Florida that day… I made the 3 hour drive from a shoot in Napa to meet him. We’d heard the short hike down was a bit treacherous, but it really wasn’t all that bad. I brought my honkin’ backpack with all my camera gear – plus a video set up, since he also agreed to an episode of “The Chat” with me. I thought it would be fun to do while we were shooting.

But alas, sunsets here can feel like a fire drill sometimes – so we didn’t get our Chat done this night (we did the next morning at Sand Harbor after the sunrise though!) I remember what a leisurely experience they were in New Zealand. You had an hour or more to capture the same image repeatedly before the light changed even a little. Here… once the action started, it was over in about 10 minutes! Luckily, blue hour is always amazing at Lake Tahoe – and that’s when I got my favorite shots that night, like this one.

Move, Vary, Research!

In my humble opinion, the trick with an iconic spot like this one is to move around. Don’t get stuck in one spot, no matter how great you think it is. You have to try over here, then over there, up close, wide, setting the camera down low, then at the top of your tripod height. Mix it up! In places like this – where there are a lot of rocks in the foreground – your composition changes quite a bit each time you do move.

It can be hard to figure out where the sweet spot is going to be too – and in the end there are probably a couple. But that changes rapidly with the light. So once you set up your tripod; do a few horizontal and vertical shots – then move to your next spot, rinse, repeat. Chances are, SOMEthing turning out well.

Another tip for going to iconic locations like this one; do some research online or on Stuck on Earth first! See how others have shot it, what the light was like, and see how you’d do it differently. The Photographer’s Ephemeris is a good app to have on your phone too – you can see exactly where the sun will go down and the moon come up. Or vice versa. Very handy if you know your time will be crunched.

In the end… Bonsai Rock was worth the scramble. In fact, I may even go back. Heh. It was way more fun with a friend, because you can yack while you shoot, shoot while you yack.

Matt’s an awesome guy… check him out over at Kelby Training, or by all means sign up for a workshop if he ever comes to YOUR area!

2 thoughts on “The Bonsai Rock Mission

  1. Thanks for the tips. What I have realized with the time, that you can shoot one spot (iconic as well) and every time you will get another image. Even at one single sunset (e.g.) hour light is changing so quickly!!! Main thing is not to forget to change camera settings etc. when you get astonished by the scenery ))

    1. I so agree with you on all counts, Konstantin! It’s one of the things I love about photography. 😉

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