Death Valley: Day 4

An impressive sky above Badwater Basin

February 4, 2010

The trip has been very productive.  In only 3 days, I have taken 5 photos, some of which I was very excited about.  There is of course no guarantee that the photos will turn out. Shooting color transparency film is never as straightforward as one might think.  Nevertheless, I was beginning to feel a sense of accomplishment.

I didn’t have a shooting location established for day 4.

I woke up at 3:55, and decided to head to the Mesquite dunes.  I hoped that viewing a sunrise would allow me to assess the weather conditions for the day.  If it was cloudless, I would stay at the dunes. If there were clouds, I would drive to Badwater.

I was treated to a brilliant sunrise, one of the best that I have ever seen. I was without a camera (intentionally), so I sat atop a dune and watched the light unfold in front of me.  I enjoy this process because it helps me fine tune my own judgment on when to shoot.  With large format, I often have only 1 or 2 sheets of film with me. As a result, I must wait until the decisive moment before making my exposure. I could certainly carry more film with me, but I prefer to keep it to a minimum.  At $20 a shot (film + processing) film expenses add up fast.

As the first red rays of sun glanced off the clouds on the eastern horizon, I kept my eyes trained on the sky.  I watched as the cloud was transformed from a dark blue obstruction, to a brilliant crimson swash of color that spanned the eastern sky. I pretended as though I had a camera, and was trying to time the peak moment of color.

Wait for it….   wait for it…. The light is almost ready to shoot…

I imagined taking a photo.

Moments later, the light faded.  I had taken my imaginary photo at the peak moment of light. Training myself to shoot at the decisive moment is very important. I don’t have many opportunities to trip the shutter, so every shot must be well thought out. It is very disappointing to take a photo, only to have the color and cloud texture improve significantly and be without film.

I returned to my truck, all the while looking at the dunes — scouting for morning shots in the coming days. On the way back to my truck, I collected an armful of trash (cans, bottles, etc) that littered the eastern dunes.  Many of these cans had been out there for decades.

Since there were clouds, I decided to make the drive to Badwater.  If I knew I would be spending this much time at Badwater, I would have setup camp at Furnace Creek.  My original intention was to spend much of my time at the dunes.  Oh well, the drive is scenic.

I arrived at Badwater around 10AM, and set out to scout my sunset photo.

Waiting for sunet @ Badwater

Since I was there last, the water level had dropped a quarter inch.  The area that I had been shooting now had very little water.  The sun would still shimmer off the wet polygons, but the reflection would not be as clean. Maybe this would be interesting?  Partially damp salt polygons must be the most rare condition.  Flooded polygons last for days, and they spend the rest of the year bone dry. The partially damp polygons reflect light in an interesting way, and this condition lasts a half day at best.

I found my shot, and setup the camera.  It was 8 hours until sunset.

The afternoon clouds were spectacular.  There were some lenticular clouds  from the Panamint range, but they were not ideal to photograph with my camera.  A digital SLR with an ultra wide angle would have taken some stellar shots.  I tried setting up a shot with my 8×10, but the composition was a bit too much of a 50/50 split between land and sky.  I wasn’t feeling it, so I set the camera back up for my sunset shot.

As sunset approached, the clouds became more impressive.  They were higher than Telescope peak, so they would certainly catch some impressive sunset color.  There were high clouds, low clouds, and the texture was stunning.  This had the potential to be a downright nuclear sunset.

I read my book, and listened to my iPod to pass time.

As sunset approached, I stood beside my camera with my light meter in hand.  I was constantly adjusted the camera settings.  I had settled on an aperture of f/45, and the shutter speed would be around 5 seconds.  My grad filter was placed, and it was a waiting game.

There was a faint glimmer of light starting to appear. I kept waiting.

I looked at the time — The sun had set.

There was to be no color that evening.  I packed up my camera, and headed back to camp empty handed.

3 Responses to “Death Valley: Day 4”

  1. David Patterson Says:

    Isn’t it cruel to get excited about the possibilities only to be skunked! Happens more often than not, but you always have to remember where you are, and enjoy the experience of being there. I always think a nice photograph is a bonus, and when you do get one it means that much more.

  2. John Marchisi Says:

    I really enjoyed reading your blog, it’s funny because I had no idea about your trip to badwater before I visited the blog and I am making the exact trip hopefully sometime in the very near future. Awesome writing, would love to chat about it sometime. Keep up the great work

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks John! Badwater is sure a fun place to visit. There are so many possibilities, and the conditions change so often. I still feel as though I have some unresolved business there. There are many more images to be made there.

      If you have any questions, please feel free to ask. I think I’m starting to get to know the place pretty well.

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