Death Valley 2011: Day 1

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The planning for my photo trips begins weeks in advance. My trip to Death Valley was no exception. I made sure I had the necessary film, and all of my equipment was in order. Every camera, lens, box of film, cable release, and screw driver needed to be accounted for.

With large format, there is a multitude of small items that are small, essential, yet easily forgotten. In most cases, these items live in my belt setup. To ensure that I have everything, I never take anything out of the pack at home.

I was prepared to live for 10 days without need for external food or water. Just in case I felt the need to drive from Stovepipe Wells to Racetrack, then to the Eureka Dunes, and back — I brought extra gas cans.

Driving distances in Death Valley are very large, and should not be overlooked. Even if I did not need the gas, it was good to know that I could potentially help a person stranded on the side of the road.

Last year, I visited Death Valley during the month of February. Little did I know, it was a big El Niño year. I faced many days of rain, including one powerful storm that transformed my campsite into a river. Needless to say, that marked the final day of my trip.

This year, I planned my Death Valley trip for the month of January. I’ve been there February (Rainy), and March (warm), but I hadn’t tried January before.

It’s amazing how much crap I have to take along on these trips. It’s just me — yet my 4Runner is filled with piles of crap.

The cargo area contains a large Tamrac case that holds my film, film holders, 8×10 and 4×5 cameras, and some other miscellaneous items. There is also a large Temba case full of hydration (gatorade and bottled water), Clif Bars, backpacking food, and backpacking stove.

I remove the rear seat bottom cushions, effectively converting my 4Runner into a 2 seater. Back there, I place a duffel of clothes (warm and cold weather gear), 3 tripods (Gitzo, Gitzo, Gitzo), and a Pelican case with my Panoramic camera. As if that wasn’t enough, I then toss a Gregory pack and a lowepro backpack on top. With all this gear, I still have a clear view out the rear window — but just barely.

But wait, there’s more!

I now have a silver Thule cargo carrier on the roof of my 4Runner. This is where the tents (yes, plural), sleeping bag, sleeping pads, Ikea folding chair (this comes into play later in my trip), and extra gas. Essentially, the dirty stuff goes up top, and the clean stuff goes inside my truck.

I find it amusing that most of my camping gear is backpacking gear. Technically, all this crap should fit in a backpack, right?  Then why does it take up an entire 4Runner? Strange. I digress.

Everything was packed the day before the trip. My alarm sounded at 4am, I grabbed a Red Bull, and hit the road.

It’s only a 5.5 hour drive to Death Valley from San Diego, but I wanted to spend time scouting on my first day.

My plan was to arrive around 11AM, setup camp, then spend the evening scouting Badwater and surrounding areas.

I knew there would be plenty of water at Badwater, but I did not know how much, or what the conditions were like under the surface of the water.

As I passed the large colorful sign welcoming me to Death Valley, I was excited to be there — but something wasn’t quite right.

It’s hard to explain, but even though I knew I could look forward to 10 days of pure photography in one of my favorite locations, I was not in a mindset that was friendly for photography.

With landscape photography, large format to be specific, it is difficult to produce good work if you are not in a certain state of mind. It’s difficult to put into words, but I think it’s a combination of being inspired by a location, being prepared to capture its beauty, and striving to take the photo. In a sense, you need to be hungry for photography. As I entered the park, I only had a mild appetite — and I found that troubling.

I was certainly prepared, but I needed to be inspired.

I rounded the corner, and approached Badwater. Sure enough, there was plenty of water to be found. It was a very large lake.

It was now just before 11AM, and several tour buses spewed their lunch of tourists onto the viewing area. Most people walked up to the edge of the water, snapped a photo, then walked back. This amount of water was certainly a novelty.

I made my way to Furnace Creek, and found a nice tent campsite. If anyone is heading out there, check out site 40. It’s tucked back in some trees so there is plenty of shade, especially in the afternoon. I highly recommend it.

I changed into my shooting clothes (purple onesie with a batman cape), made lunch, then drove to Badwater to scope things out.

Most people are inclined to park in the parking lot. However, if you want to reach the water faster (or ideal salt polygons during dry conditions), you can avoid the long walk by parking next to the “Offroad Vehicle Activity Prohibited” sign just south of the parking area. Here, you have a nice straight shot. Your walking distance is probably 1/3 of what it would be coming from the main parking area.

I walked out into the water. It ranged from 6 to 8 inches deep on average. You could literally walk for miles, and never see anything deeper.

I was hoping to capture a great photo of submerged salt polygons, and some wonderful reflections. However, every direction I looked at Badwater, there was nothing but a silty, nasty, brown surface under the water. There were some salt pads, but they were covered with a slippery, fine silt. It was hardly photogenic. This would not make for a good subject.

On the drive in, I remembered seeing some nice, fresh, white salt flats on the North end of the “lake” at badwater. Perhaps this area was more conducive for photography.

I waded back to the car, and drove to the northern end of the lake.

I parked my car, then worked my way down a rocky alluvial fan until I reached a long stretch of salt encrusted badlands. I felt like an ant walking over the surface of a brownie.

I crunched my way toward the waters edge — nearly a mile from my truck.

I make a habit of not bringing my camera with me the first day. I prefer to watch a sunset and a sunrise without the pressure of having to capture it. Sure, I’ve been burned before by an amazing sunset, but that comes with the territory.

With large format, I feel the desire to formulate a plan. I want to know where to be and when to be there. The only way of making a plan is to watch a sunrise and a sunset. I seek to answer questions such as: At what point does the sun set on the horizon? Which mountains light up best at sunrise/sunset? Are there any unique conditions? What time is the best pre-dawn light? When is the best sunset light? Which way do the clouds move? Which mountain peaks influence the creation of clouds? And the list goes on…

Without this information, it’s difficult to setup a camera well ahead of time, and anticipate exactly what will happen.

When I shoot sunrise with my 8×10 camera, I set my camera up the afternoon before my shot.  It’s way too difficult to see the ground glass in the pre-dawn darkness. By watching a sunrise, I will know where the good light is. I then wait for the afternoon, setup my camera, stay around until sunset, and return in the morning to shoot.

If I want a sunrise with clouds, I have to hope they will be there in the morning. This must sound strange, but the more you know about a location, the easier it is to do.

As I reached the water, I knew that this would be a great location for shooting. The salt was very well formed below the surface of the water.  In most areas, the water was an inch or two deep, and the beautiful cracks were well formed under the surface of the water. I liked what I saw.

I was armed only with my Panasonic Video camera, and an ultra light Gitzo 0 series tripod, and a Manfrotto 701 Video head (Thanks for the Xmas gift Lyuba!).

I recorded several time lapse videos with my video camera. This is a fantastic way to understand the clouds. As you will see in the video at the end of this blog post, beautiful clouds were streaming high overhead. These were caused by the uplift created by Telescope Peak, and the other high peaks in the Panamint range. It was a virtual freight train in the sky.

Since there were no other clouds in the sky that day, I knew that these clouds would light up beautifully at sunset.

They sure did.

The show in the sky that night was very impressive. If I had my camera with me, I certainly could have captured a beautiful scene.

Instead, I stood there in awe, imbued in the soft crimson glow that radiated into the valley below. It was calm, surreal, and beautiful.

I was now inspired, humbled, yet also intimidated. How could I possibly hope to capture such a beautiful, fleeting moment. How can I possibly convey that beauty to the viewer.

On the dark hike back to my truck, I further reflected on this magnificent sunset. Although it was an amazing sunset that I was not able to capture, I knew it would happen. I knew the clouds would light up, and I knew the conditions that created this spectacular show. The time lapse video helped me understand the forces at work.

Although it is difficult shooting slide film, I learned a lot about where to place my grad filters for a seamless shot. A 2 stop hard grad with the transition lower than the horizon — just enough to cover the reflection in the water — would work well.  I held a filter up to my eye during this sunset to see how it would look. I could forget about polarizers — there were of little value.

The plan was set in motion. I was inspired, I was prepared, and I was hungry to capture the beauty.

I thought to myself  “Welcome to day one.”

8 Responses to “Death Valley 2011: Day 1”

  1. Larry Dudley Says:

    Awesome trip Ben. Cant wait to see the results of your trip. Sure admire your tenacity to take on such an adventure. Doing all this in large format is just mind boggling. Hope you have great luck.Thanks for your blog.
    Larry

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks Larry. I did walk away from this trip with some neat shots, but the jury is still out. I think I’ll have to sit on them for a while until I figure out what I really think. I was certainly treated to some really nice conditions, as you’ll see later in the trip.

  2. David Patterson Says:

    Ben… I can certainly see how experiencing what you did on your first evening got the juices flowing… cannot wait to see the results from your trip.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      That sunrise was intimidating to say the least. I would have had a hard time trying to convey the beauty of the moment — though I was certainly inspired to try. It’s good to be humbled by nature.

  3. bob francella Says:

    I loved it Ben, boy you do prepare before doing a shot.I love the lake and you walking in it. I want to see pictures
    Great job buddy.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      The water sure made for some great opportunities — though the high salinity beat the crap out of my boots/pants. You know it’s salty when there are salt crystals floating on top of the water.

  4. Jonathan Blocker Says:

    Keep the videos coming! I hope you got your sunset shot. Very inspirational process.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks Jonathan. I had some excellent sunrise/sunset opportunities later in the trip, though they were certainly few and far between.

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