Death Valley: Day 10

February 10, 2010

The heavy rain subsided by the time I woke up. It was well before sunrise, but I could see that my campsite was a mess.  The water was no longer flowing, but it was several inches deep in most areas.  I checked my tent, and saw a high water mark about 3 inches above ground level.  No water got inside, but I’m sure glad I wasn’t there to test it.

I knew that this would be my last day in Death Valley. The dunes were soggy, I didn’t feel like taking more photos at Badwater, and the cracked mud location from day 9 would certainly be underwater.  I didn’t have any shots planned, and now my camp was a muddy mess.

I decided to visit Zabriskie one last time.  I wanted to watch one last sunrise — not take a photo.

The roads near Stovepipe Wells were strewn with debris and standing water, but the conditions were much better than last time.  Even though the rain was significantly worse than the previous storms, the mud plows were on top of the situation. They worked through the night to keep the roads passable.

It took me about a half hour to drive to  Zabriskie point. As usual, I was the first person there.  I knew I would not have this popular overlook to myself very long.  I grabbed my Fuji panoramic camera, and headed to the lower viewing area.  Even though I was not planning on taking a shot, I still decided to bring the camera.

Standing tall across the valley, the towering Panamint mountains were bathed in a soft, pre-dawn glow.  Their rugged peaks were covered in fresh snow.  I saw traces of snow on the alluvial fans that link the rugged peaks to the valley below.  A single band of clouds soared high over the valley. If these clouds caught the first rays of sun, it might make for a good shot.  I set up my panoramic camera, and waited to see what would happen.  Honestly, I didn’t really care if I took a shot, it just gave me something to do.

As I stood there waiting, I heard a rustle behind me.  I glanced over my shoulder, and saw about a dozen photographers lined up on the paved overlook.  They magically appeared from nowhere.  I smiled, and returned my attention to scene in front of me.   Those photographers must have been disappointed to see me.  I was almost certainly going to be in all of their shots, but that’s not my problem.  I was there first — early bird gets the worm.

The other photographers were more than welcome to join me, but I knew none of them would.  There’s a simple reason.  I was standing in thick, gooey, boot-sticking mud.  That stuff is downright horrible.  The further I walked, the heavier my boots got.  Every few steps, I kicked the mud off my boots as though I was defending myself from invisible ninjas.

As the sunrise grew near, I heard footsteps in the mud.  Two adventurous photographers decided to join me in the muck.  Good for them! I thought.

The two photographers wore military uniforms, but spoke in a heavy accent I could not place.  One of them was wearing a heavy backpack.  I wasn’t paying very close attention, but I did hear the sound of a shutter click a few minutes later.  I could tell it was a Nikon. Eventually I heard three fast clicks in a row.  The photographer was bracketing his exposure (a process where the camera takes several shots, some over exposed, some normally exposed, and some under exposed).

After a moment of silence, I heard nothing but rapid fire clicks — 7 at a time.    click–click–click–click–click–click–click (pause) click–click–click–click–click–click–click (pause) click–click….

I glanced over my shoulder to see what was going on.  The camera was mounted on  a motorized panoramic setup.  The camera shot  7 photos for bracketing, then it moved slightly to the side, and took 7 more shots. These photos can then be stitched together to form a panorama.  7 shots were taken to make sure the complete tonality was captured.  The motorized setup shot the same matrix of  images over and over as the light changed. I must have heard at least a thousand shots while I was standing there.

As this robotic device continued to snap away, I chuckled to myself and returned my gaze to the light in front of me.  The distant peaks were now bathed in a nice warm glow, and the clouds above me were beginning to light up.  I did not foresee the light getting any better, so I metered the scene, and took my shot.

Sure enough, I had captured the best light.  I can’t say it was a good shot — nor can I say it was a bad shot.  I haven’t developed that roll of film yet. Perhaps my lack of motivation to finish that roll (only 2 shots remaining) speaks of my expectation for the image.  I’m sure it will be okay, but nothing all that amazing.

I packed up my camera, and started back to my truck.

As I passed the two photographers,  I took a closer look at their setup.  It was indeed a motorized panoramic head.  The camera was linked to a laptop, which controlled the process. It was a very interesting piece of equipment.

I asked a few questions about the setup while watching the system function.  One of the photographers noticed that I was shooting a panoramic film camera, and asked which film I was using.  We chatted about photography, exchanged a few more pleasantries, then I continued on my way.

I can’t help but think about how this system takes the photographer out of photography.  My approach is to wait for the ideal moment, then decisively trip the shutter. Often times, I will take just a single photo.  In the case of this motorized setup, a laptop was shooting the same panoramic sequence over and over as the light changed.  The photographer could simply stand back, drink a cup of tea, and let the laptop capture the image.

I thought back to the moment on this trip where I sat atop a dune, and watched a stunning sunrise unfold in front of me.   I pretended as though I had a camera with me, and tried to predict the decisive moment of peak color  — I succeeded.  I selected the proper moment, and pretended to take a photo.  I also thought of my moments at Badwater when I was standing beside my camera, waiting for that decisive moment.  This time, I had a cable release in one hand, and a stopwatch in the other.  I waited for the conditions to be ideal, then quietly released the shutter. As soon as I made my exposure, the light faded.

The key to being a good photographer is timing. With sports, photo journalism, portraiture, or landscape, timing the decisive moment  is universally important.  The element of timing was no longer relevant with this automated panoramic device.

When asked about my images at art shows, I can honestly say that I spent time scouting a location, then stood beside my camera for hours on end until the conditions were right. At the decisive moment, I tripped the shutter, and made my exposure.  What would I say if I used an automated panoramic head that took the photo for me?  Would I admit that R2D2 took the photo while I was sipping earl grey?  It seems strange to me.

I returned to my truck, scraped the mud off my boots, and headed back to camp.

I broke down my tent, and put the muddy mess into a large plastic trash bag.

I fueled up, then headed west toward Lone Pine.

Goodbye Death Valley.

Fresh snow blanketed the higher elevations.  I made my way toward Lone Pine to check out the Alabama Hills.  This was my first visit to this very famous location.  It is a stunningly beautiful location, but I wasn’t in the mood to shoot.  I spent a couple of hours scrambling over the rocks and getting a feel for the place.  All of the elements are there, but I knew it would take several days to scout a very strong shot. I bumped into a BLM employee, who was checking the conditions for the upcoming wildflower season.  We chatted for a while, then I headed back to my truck.

To do this location justice, I needed to return with more time, and a mindset to shoot.  It was the end of my trip, and I had neither.

It was time to head home.

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