Since moving to Central Oregon, I have hiked up to the summit of South Sister many times.  Its close proximity to town and relatively short distance compared to other local summits makes it a great hike to take in endless Cascade Mountain views.  However, these hikes have only partially satiated my hunger for a complete South Sister experience.  I wanted to camp on top of South Sister to experience sunset, stars, and sunrise from Central Oregon's tallest peak.  

This ambition became a reality this summer, with scorching temperatures creating a relatively mild climate over 10,000 feet of elevation.  Usually, summer nights up here still hover near freezing temperatures.  The heat wave this time around made it possible to pack an ultralight backpacking setup, paired with my heavy camera gear.  

After setting up a modest tarp shelter protected by a cluster of volcanic rocks, I wandered around the summit, looking for the best spot to set up for photographing golden hour and sunset.  Thick smoke was blowing in from wildfires in California, limiting visibility on the southern horizon.  This made the decision to photograph the chain of Cascade Mountains to the north fairly straightforward.  

Blowing Smoke

Three Sisters Wilderness, Deschutes National Forest, Oregon

Still, I needed to carefully choose a perspective that best suited the grandeur of the mountains, while also giving each peak as much space from each other as possible, in order to maintain a balanced composition.  The haze drifting in from the south began to glow as the sun dropped towards the horizon, creating the most dynamic light about 30 minutes before sunset.  Since the smoke lingered mostly at lower elevations, it created pronounced layered transitions between each mountain. 

This is the sort of light that gives this type of mountain layer composition the most depth.  However, there is a fine line between smoke that enhances depth of field, and smoke that eliminates views entirely.  As we head into the heart of fire season, fine tuning this balance will be critical to creating powerful landscape imagery.

The result of this long-awaited backpacking excursion included some of my favorite photographs that I have taken from this popular peak.  It was well worth hauling the extra weight up the mountain to have the opportunity to photograph it in the best and least frequently seen light.

This photo was captured with a Nikon Z7, Nikkor S 24-70 f/4, and Feisol CT-3441T tripod at 1/100 sec, f/8, and ISO 100.  

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