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Details from the Witness: The Photography of Mike Jones

Words & Photos from Mike Jones

Any time spent on the Hyperlite Mountain Gear blog or website will quickly reveal that we have some very talented photographers from all over the globe in our family. There are a million ways to document a place or people and a moment in time, but a great photographer captures it all while telling you a little bit about themselves, too. We're pleased to introduce you to Mike Jones. Read on to find out how Mike approaches his craft and gain a few skill-building tips and nuggets of wisdom in the process.


Name: Mike Jones

Residence: San Diego, California

Years Shooting: Five years taking it seriously 

Favorite Location(s) to Shoot: Wherever I am backpacking or camping

Camera Setup:  Sony A9 usually with a Tamron 28-75mm, but I have been exploring with some primes recently to include Sony 85mm 1.8 and the Sony 35mm G-master 1.4. 

What got you into photography, and what keeps you at it? 

I can't identify one profound moment that got me into photography, but rather a handful of tiny snippets throughout my entire life that slowly pushed me into it. I was the youngest of four, and my parents took a lot of pictures of us. I hated stopping and taking pictures every few minutes on family vacations, but now I am the one always stopping to take pictures as an adult. At least my parents were not breaking out a tripod at every stop.

Another snippet was in college; I took an intelligent robotics course, one of my hardest classes at the United States Naval Academy. One day we studied the cameras on robots and the physics behind how lenses work before learning how to program them to look at different pixel colors. That lesson fascinated me, and I was intrigued by the physics of photography. 

Before deployment as a Marine Corps Officer, I got a small Sony point-and-shoot camera. I went all over the world and took a ton of pictures. Not a lot of them turned out that great, but I was hooked. 

With some money I saved up on deployment, I purchased a Sony A6000 and my first lens, a Zeiss Wide Angle Prime. I took this out on a week-long trip while hiking the High Sierra Trail to Mount Whitney, and I fell in love with the Sierra Nevada Mountains and capturing what I saw. 

A night on the High Sierra Trail. Shot on my Sony A600, you can see the sun setting next to Mount Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 States. This was one of my first favorite pictures that made me start taking photography more seriously.
A night on the High Sierra Trail. Shot on my Sony A600, you can see the sun setting next to Mount Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 States. This was one of my first favorite pictures that made me start taking photography more seriously.

Out in the wild, what are the elements in a setting that will stop you in your tracks and make you grab your camera? 

A sense of awe. 

There is this great power in the beauty of a landscape that can just smack you across the face. When that sense hits you, there is this magical wave of peace that just overcomes you. If I can capture that in a photo and give that sense to someone for just a split second, it might just inspire them to get out on their own adventure. 

There are a million different combinations of photographic elements that can cause that awestruck feeling; it's all about getting out there in the wild and stumbling on to them. 

What elements will you wait or hunt for? Where and why?

I spend a lot more time planning my adventures than I do planning individual shots. When I am hunting for a specific shot, though, it is usually some sort of astrophotography. I love being far off the beaten path with no light pollution and then looking up and just feeling like I am in outer space. 

The Neowise Comet, quickly poking through the clouds.
The Neowise Comet, quickly poking through the clouds.

It's unfortunate how hard it can be for some areas of the world to not see any stars at night. I love trying to plan my own trips around the cycles of the moon, so I can capture the night sky. 

To steal a quote from the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, "If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I bet they would live a lot differently."

The Alabama Hills during some great BLM camping near the base of Mount Whitney on the Easter Sierra Nevada Mountains. One of my favorite Milky Way shots.
The Alabama Hills during some great BLM camping near the base of Mount Whitney on the Easter Sierra Nevada Mountains. One of my favorite Milky Way shots.

If you couldn't use words to describe what kind of photographer you are–you could only share one of your photos–does one come to mind? Why? Where was it taken? Describe the scenario.

The photo below was taken on a short trip in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. I planned a trip with one of my buddies to hike to the Palisade Glacier, the southernmost glacier in the Northern Hemisphere. As we started our hike, we knew the weather could be iffy, but we decided to check it out just in case things cleared up at the last minute. 

We had a beautiful 4.7-mile hike up and set up camp next to a beautiful frozen lake. As we set up and ate some dinner, the snow started coming down and pretty much continued all night long. We broke out my tarp and got cozy in our bivvies under the tarp as the snow fell. 

Camping on the way to the Palisades Glacier in a snowstorm.
Camping on the way to the Palisades Glacier in a snowstorm.

In the morning, I woke up and quickly snapped this picture. We really wanted to get to the glacier that day, but the conditions kept getting worse and worse as we broke down camp. It was white-out conditions by the time we finished, and we decided to call it and turn around and head back home. 

I chose this photo because it was miserable, beautiful, and awesome. We were tired after coming from sea level and hiking up to 10k feet in one day. It was freezing cold and snowing. We were shivering in our bivvies under just a tarp, listening to the eerie creaking of the frozen lake groaning all night long. We didn't accomplish our goal, but we came out alive. All in all, it was absolutely beautiful, and this picture captures it all despite the pain and cold. Most of my photos come with a story of pushing myself and exploring the great outdoors no matter what nature might throw at me. 

Zion National Park, hiking the Narrows. I love the sunlight bouncing off the canyon wall. This picture was one of my first real experiments with long exposure photography.
Zion National Park, hiking the Narrows. I love the sunlight bouncing off the canyon wall. This picture was one of my first real experiments with long exposure photography.

You can pass five short tips on to aspiring shooters. Go.  

Shoot RAW and Learn How to Edit: This might be an obvious one, but there is a reason for that. Shooting in RAW captures much more dynamic range and information in the digital file that your camera creates. The more dynamic range, the more leeway you have when editing. Learning to edit photos in programs such as Lightroom can be daunting at first, but just dive in. If it's too intimidating, check out YouTube for some great guides. I am a huge fan of Mark Denney, and his channel has really helped me take editing to the next level.

Don't Baby Your Camera: I am not telling you to throw your camera around like a baseball, but don't be afraid to take it out and use it. If you love photography and want to improve, make sure you have your camera on you as much as possible. On my recent honeymoon to Kauai, we decided to go horseback riding on the beach. It was rainy and unpredictable weather, so I was going to leave my camera in the car. At the last minute, my wife convinced me to take it with me, and I am so glad I did! I almost didn't get some great pictures because I was worried about my camera.

Patience and Speed: Photography is a waiting game. Waiting on the sun to come up, waiting on the sun to set, waiting on the moon, waiting for the light to change. Get used to waiting. Photography can be brutal sometimes. You can be waiting hours for perfect conditions, and then all of a sudden, they hit, and you may only have 30 seconds to get a shot in. While hunting the Neowise Comet in 2020, I took the risk of shooting by the beach in San Diego. In San Diego, we get a sea haze that rolls in at night, and it's not great for shooting astrophotography, and on this particular night, it came in thick. With a stroke of luck, the sea haze broke for a few seconds, and the comet was sitting there beautify. I pointed my camera at it and only had time to snap off two photos. 

The Colorado River, on a kayak trip down river from the Hoover Dam.
The Colorado River, on a kayak trip down river from the Hoover Dam.

Journal/critique: This can be time-consuming, but it's the best way to improve your photography. Once you are done editing pictures from a trip, critique them yourself and physically write or type out what elements you like and what elements you don't in each image. By physically writing or typing out these critiques, you are cementing them in your brain, and you may remember a key tip or two on your next photoshoot. 

Challenge Yourself with a Prime Day: I am not talking about Amazon Prime here, but about a prime lens. If you are not familiar with prime lenses, they are lenses that are at a fixed focal length—basically, no zooming in and out with these. Prime lenses are fantastic because they are usually very sharp and fast. Taking a Prime Day means only using one prime lens for the day. This forces you to get creative with your photos and forces you to physically move around while framing your shots. I recently took an 85mm prime to shoot landscapes in Joshua Tree National Park. It was super challenging at first, but as I got going, it really forced me to think about each shot, and I loved the photos from that day. 

A shot on an 85mm prime lens in Joshua Tree National Park, near the Boy Scout Trail.
A shot on an 85mm prime lens in Joshua Tree National Park, near the Boy Scout Trail.

Where can we see more of your work?

I write detailed trip reports on my blog/forum at www.TenDigitGrid.com. Anyone can post, share, or ask questions to get help planning their own adventures. 

I also post my favorite pictures to my Instagram account @TenDigitGrid.   

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