Monday, January 17, 2011
My alarm sounded an hour before sunrise. I put on my crunchy boots, and drove to badwater.
It was a calm and clear morning — not a cloud in the sky.
I watched in silence as the first glow of dawn spread across the sky.
A beautiful yellow to blue gradient graced the southern horizon. This invigorating display of complimentary colors was beautifully reflected in the calm water. With a wide angle lens, the gradient would certainly provide a lot of visual interest. However, the dominant mountains to the east became a compositional challenge. They disrupt the calm view of the distant mountains.
I held a 2 stop hard grad filter to my eye — it was a good choice to naturally portray the high contrast tonality. Instead of aligning the edge of the filter with the horizon, it was best to cover both the sky and the reflection with the dark part of the filter. A soft grad was way too soft for this scene.
The northerly view was much different. The mountains held less visual weight — which resulted in a more zen-like feel. The beautiful white shore-line stretched from left to right — unifying the composition. However, this magnificent view required clouds for a dynamic photo.
The Earth’s shadow soon dropped behind the Panamint range to the west. Soon, these mountains were bathed in the first crimson rays of dawn. This view to the west was interesting, but it lacked the depth I was after.
Based on this experience, I formulated a plan to shoot both north and south. I allocated 4 shooting days at Badwater, though I could always add more time if needed.
I returned to my truck, made breakfast, then drove to Dante’s View for an aerial perspective. This popular view point sits a mile above Badwater. The view is impressive. From this elevation, I was able to further evaluate my shooting location. The southern end of badwater was brown and murky. However, my chosen location to the north was clear. Salt formations were clearly visible below the surface.
Here’s the part that I found most impressive. From a mile overhead, I could see a murky trail of disturbed sediment in the main part of badwater. This was the trail of disturbed sediment that I created the day before. Crazy! From that elevation, I could hardly see cars, I definitely couldn’t see people, yet I could see a trail of disturbed sediment.
On the way back from Dante’s View, I had lunch in Echo Canyon. I cranked up my stereo — blasting Jack Johnson while enjoying lunch. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Later that afternoon, I returned to Badwater. I loaded film, packed my gear, scouted the location for my morning shot.
The composition was a challenge. My goal was a quiet, peaceful composition. I wanted to emphasize the glow on the horizon, and reveal the salt pads below the surface.
The mountain range to my east (left) proved most difficult to work with. These large mountains tapered toward the middle of the photo — creating a bold triangle. The mountains to the west (right) also tapered to a triangle, though much less so.
I hoped to capture as much detail and tonality as possible, and worry about the crop after the fact.
Although I was planning for a morning shot, I stuck around through sunset, and made two exposures.
The exposure proved difficult. The light changed very fast, and I second guessed my technique. I became frustrated, and doubted my judgment of exposure. Honestly, I don’t remember how I metered this shot. It is all just a blur. I believe I started by spot metering a gray card, locked that setting into memory, then evaluated the tones. I might have also started with an incident reading, found a neutral subject, and went from there.
In retrospect, I know I made the right decisions.
The 2 stop hard grad helped give me enough tonality in the sky, and revealed enough detail in the foreground. The grad placement was seamless.
I remember that the mountains on the left were metered at -0.2. With the 2 stop hard grad, this meant they were really at -2.2. My transparency contains enough detail in the mountains if I ever choose to print this image. Sadly, my flatbed scanner can’t pull that detail out. You’ll just have to believe me that the background mountains are not as silhouetted as they appear.
To help emphasize the calm nature of this scene, I cropped to a square. This crop represents 8″x 8″ of film.
I left my camera setup on the flooded salt flats that night. I would return the next morning to shoot the same composition at dawn.