Death Valley 2011: Day 2

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.

Lunch Break in Echo Canyon

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.

Genesis: Velvia 50 8x10 | 150mm Nikkor | Ebony RW810

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.

13 Responses to “Death Valley 2011: Day 2”

  1. ryan brooks Says:

    Fantastic shot- nice to see a new view of Death Valley!

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks Ryan. I was surrounded by some amazing sights this year at Badwater. I was fortunate to have the weather and other conditions work in my favor on several occasions.

  2. Ray Mears / The Rocky Mountains Part 2/4 Says:

    […] Death Valley 2011: Day 2 « Ben Horne Photography: Contemporary … […]

  3. bob francella Says:

    Great job buddy, love the video’s

  4. Tuan Le Says:

    Nice to follow along with you via your video as you planned and captured your image, which is wonderful.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks Tuan. I have a lot of fun doing the video. It gives me something else to think about while I’m out there, and I’m sure it’ll be a kick to look back at many years from now.

  5. Koen Says:

    Beautiful and inspiring video’s! Your editing and video shooting is so relaxed, really nice and still getting better. Can’t wait to see the next of your death valley videos and photos, you’re doing a great job.

    Oh and I envy you for being able to travel to death valley in 5 hours 🙂 I’ve been there for few days this summer, but I had to fly around half the globe to get there!

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks Koen. I’m definitely very fortunate to live so close to this great location. Even a mere 5 hour drive seems like only an hour or two once you get use to it. That’s also true for the Colorado Plateau.

      I often run into photographers from all over the world out there. It’s great that people such as yourself have such an appreciation for the beauty of Death Valley that you will travel from so far away to experience it in person. Which country are you from?

      • Koen Says:

        I’m from The Netherlands, that’s a long and pretty expensive flight to see the american southwest… but totally worth it! Was my first time but definitely not my last 🙂

      • Ben Horne Says:

        You’re definitely right about it being an expensive flight. I’m glad you enjoyed your time here, and I know you’ll be back.

  6. bob francella Says:

    Ben, you said you could see how you disturbed the sediment in the lake at 5000 ft,
    well they track submarines by satellite the same way, they pick up the disturbance in the water

    • Ben Horne Says:

      After seeing how obvious my sediment trail was, I definitely see how satellites can pick up a linear disturbance in the water. Our eyes are drawn to patterns, and that sure would stand out.

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