Death Valley 2010: Lessons Learned

As I have said many times, photography is a endless process of learning. It is not something that one can master. Every location — every photo, is a learning experience. With this blog post, I hope to share the information that I have gathered during my February trip to Death Valley.

It was very unique to visit Death Valley during an El Nino season. It proved to be a challenge. During sunset at Badwater, the only way to have a lot of color is with very high clouds. At 11,000 feet, the Panamint mountains are tall enough to extinguish most of the sunset color. Further to the West, the Eastern Sierras tower even taller, blocking low level light from striking the clouds. The conditions have to be just right in order to experience great color at Badwater.

Since Badwater is the low point of the valley at -288 feet, most of the rain water eventually ends up here. The water will slowly flow from tens of miles away, and form a lake. Long after the rain had stopped, the water levels will continue to rise, even though there does not seem to be any sort of creek that is feeding the water.

Soggy Dunes take a long time to dry. It will take several days of sun before an afternoon shot is possible. Morning shots are out of the question for even longer. Over night, water wicks up through the dunes, and reappears on the surface.

I found that I can set up my 8×10 camera very fast when needed.  For the stormy badwater shot, I believe I had the camera up and ready to shoot in 10 minutes. This is a new record for me.  The Depth of field can be troublesome on the 8×10 camera though.  Even though the stormy badwater photo seems easy enough to shoot with large format movements, it proved to be a challenge.  With the use of some front tilt, I can maintain sharp focus along the salt plain, but it is difficult to also get the mountains and clouds.

A light leak became apparent in one of my film holders.  I believe I know which one it is, so that will be taken out of service. Maybe I’ll use it as a prop at my upcoming art show.  It was easy to fix the light leak in photoshop — If I was relegated to the darkroom, it would have been a much more difficult task!

For my style of shooting, I find dune shots to be elusive.  It’s the shot that always gets away from me. Even though I did not walk away from a dune shot from this trip, I have something to strive for on my return trip.  I’m confident that I will someday capture the elusive dune shot that I have envisioned, but it was not in the cards for this trip.

Finally, I plan on using my healthy REI dividend this year to purchase a Thule or Yakima roof-top storage box.   Even though this was a solo trip, my 4Runner was easily filled with camping gear and supplies.  I will gladly take a MPG hit for a bit more organization.

Here’s to a great trip, great stories, and a couple good shots.  I look forward to my return trip to Death Valley.

2 Responses to “Death Valley 2010: Lessons Learned”

  1. David Patterson Says:

    Ben… I find that reflection and learning from your experiences is always a strong motivator to again move forward. I also get the sense that you are itching to get back out there… somewhere… in a place that holds challenges in capturing the beauty of nature in a way that is personal to you. Looking forward to hearing about your plans…

    • Ben Horne Says:

      I’m definitely itching to get back out there. 🙂 I love the process of packing up my gear, and heading to the location. The Sunday morning pre-dawn starts are like a ritual for me.

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