Death Valley: Day 3

Mesquite Dunes | Velvia 50 8x10 | Nikkor 300mm | Ebony RW810

February 3, 2010

My alarm sounded at 3:45AM, but I was up by 3:40AM.  I usually  wake up 5 minutes before the alarm — regardless of time changes.  I’m not sure if it’s a blessing or a curse, but it sure is consistent. As a courtesy to nearby campers, my insane-o’clock alarm is the sound of chirping crickets.  I’m sure the others don’t even notice it.

Sleeping in a tent in the desert usually gives me the strangest dreams.  I can’t recall exactly what it was about, but I seem to recall that it involved a midget and a giant block of swiss cheese.  Good times.

My camera spent the night all alone at Badwater Basin. Rather than break it down after taking my sunset shot, I left it setup in the event that I decided to shoot a sunrise photo.  The drive from Stovepipe Wells to Badwater takes roughly 45 minutes.  According to my GPS, my camera was 33 miles from my campsite.

I grabbed a cliff bar and a gatorade for breakfast, then set out for my camera.

It was a cloudless morning. Little did I know how uncommon that would be on this trip.

For those who are not familiar with Badwater, it is best not to park at the parkinglot.  Leave that to the tourists.  Driver about a quarter mile beyond the parking area, and you’ll reach a sign that says “Off Road Driving Prohibited.”  There is a nice shoulder here to park, and you are a lot closer to the ideal shooting areas.  According to my GPS, it shaves about a quarter mile off the hike to the pristine polygons. There are some established “trails” descending from the road and across the fragile salt crust.  Stick to these trails to avoid trampling the crunchy salt and mud formations.

When I reached my camera, it was still very dark.  I stood and watched as the glow on the mountains became stronger, and the Earth’s shadow dropped away.  Eventually, the first rays of sunlight reached Telescope Peak.  It was beautiful to watch, but I did not feel motivated to take a photo.  I had been spoiled by the magnificent sunset the previous evening.  I folded up my camera, stuffed it into my Gregory backpack, and headed back to my truck. My trip to badwater and back consumed a quarter tank of gas.  The expanse of Death Valley is startling.

Rather than spend the day at Badwater, I wanted to try for some dune shots.

Dune shots have always been elusive for me.  When the sun is low on the horizon, sand dunes take on an almost magical appearance. It is very intimidating for me to shoot these locations because I never feel as though I have done justice to the natural beauty. Plus, there are the obvious problems with scouting.  It is very frustrating to find a great shot, only to realize that you just walked all over it.

I headed back to camp,  loaded some film in my film holders, then set out to the Mesquite dunes.

I spent the afternoon wandering about, and logging potential locations into my GPS.

It was a very warm day, there there is no shade to be found among the dunes.  I setup my tripod, and suspended my jacket from it to provide some shade. The temperture was only in the 70’s, but the reflection off the sand sure made it feel much warmer. The temporary shade was very much appreciated.

As fighter jets roared by overhead, I settled on a vertical shot of the dunes.  I took two shots, then hung around to see  the last of the light on the dunes.

In retrospect, I’m not very satisfied with the dune shot I took.  The depth of field is problematic, and I didn’t have enough height to see over the foreground dune as much as I would have liked.  My tripod is tall enough for the shot I wanted, but the ground glass was too high for me to view.  I need to buy a sturdy, lightweight, folding stool.  This way, I can see the ground glass on my 8×10 when the tripod is fully extended.  If anyone has a good suggestion, please shoot me an email.

My plans for the next day were dependent on the weather.   According to the Los Angeles AM radio station I was listening to, a winter storm was on the way…

5 Responses to “Death Valley: Day 3”

  1. Nicolas Belokurov Says:

    Well, great reading indeed. The shot is beautiful and I can see the technical issues you mention, however i think:
    1). The dune is so overwhelming that a great dof is not so critical, as a viewer, I tend to focus on the sand anyway.
    2). The dunes behind the FG are probably more complicated, but not a dealbreaker.
    Great shot.

  2. Nicolas Belokurov Says:

    P.S. By the way….. what music do you listen in the desert? For me, if i had to choose just one song for the desert, it would be “The ghost song” y The Doors.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks for the Comment Nicolas. The angle of the dune is quite deceptive. In the photo, it appears to be a single slope. However, it starts out almost parallel to the ground, and shoots up at a very steep angle. This progressive curve made it difficult to get the face of the dune in the DOF, as well as the background. I think you are right that the most important part is the sand, and that is sharp all the way through.

      In some ways, having a shot not turn out to my liking can be a good thing. It means that I have an excuse to make a return trip.

      More than anything, I am frustrated by the fact that I should have had the camera a bit higher. The sliver of mid-ground dunes on the left side distracts me. I found a better location to shoot a “in your face” dune shot like this, but the dunes never dried out enough for me to take the shot.

      I suppose that gives away what is going to happen to the weather in the coming days. 🙂

      With regard to music, I was listening to a lot of Podcasts (Adam Carolla & Leo Laporte). They are a good way to pass time. I was also playing a lot of Coldplay, Rob Thomas, U2, Travis, Ray Charles, and Brett Dennen.

      BTW, I checked out your site. Beautiful work!

  3. David Patterson Says:

    Ben… love the detail you have captured, and I find that the sliver of deeper dunes and the layers of the mountains and then sky work well. I find the dunes very challenging looking for compositions that I like. The light moves quite quickly across the area, so you have to either be well-prepared or get lucky! This was my first time on the dunes in the afternoon, with my previous visits having both been in the morning. Other than hiking in while dark, I think I like the morning light better – though of course it all depends on the light. Also, afternoon shots are always going to have to deal with footprints from that day, while at least in the morning any overnight wind can positively impact them. Reading (and watching) your post makes me laugh, since so many of the things you mentioned are familiar to me on this trip. Am in Furnace Creek Ranch (no coyote camping for us!) as I write this, and we are heading off to Zabriskie Point in the am for our last morning in the park. Looking forward to seeing more images from your trip.

  4. Nicolas Belokurov Says:

    Well, that are the cons of shooting film, but the rewards are remarkable too.
    The stool issue is a pretty serious one if you consider you’d be using it over sand or snow.
    Some time ago i had a MF film camera and had it in a hard (and lightweight) metal case which could be used as a stable viewing platform.
    Ansel himself recommends this method in one of his books. It’s a bit awkward for hiking but not a problem if used within a couple of miles from the car. Of course it’s not an option for long hikes.
    Great music selection, I’m a Pink Floyd fan and usually a good wait for the light can be more pleasant with a couple of their disks.

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