Death Valley 2011: Day 3

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Furnace Creek campground was now sparsely populated. It was mid-week, and the weekend crowd was gone.

I awoke several times throughout the night. I can’t say it was bad sleep, but it was frequently interrupted. A glance at the sky told me what time it was.

The full moon was my clock that night. When I went to bed the moon was behind me — obscured by trees. I opened my eyes, and it was above me. I opened my eyes again, and it was to the west. Time is relative.

My alarm sounded — the campground was silent.

I’m always the first out of the campground each morning. I try to be quiet, but closing a car door, and starting the engine is unavoidable. I often drive through the campground with my lights off to be courteous.

The 17 mile drive to Badwater was now routine. It’s the same distance I drive to work each morning, but without the traffic.

I gathered my gear, and set out for my camera. I’m not sure what I would do in the days before GPS. Perhaps I would have to navigate based on a distant peak, tie a reflector to my tripod, and use a large flashlight. In any case, I’m glad I don’t have to worry about that. GPS is a wonderful thing.

My GPS indicated that the camera was within 100 feet, so I began sweeping the darkness with my headlamp. I saw a glimmer of metal 20 feet ahead of me. As I approached, it was like finding a long lost friend (who I abandoned overnight in the cold).

I placed my pack on the chair, and prepared for my morning photo.

The view to the south is very high contrast. It is a metering nightmare on slide film. I questioned my decision making the day before. Yesterday, I based my entire exposure on maintaining some degree of shadow detail in the mountains to the east. I feared my highlights were overexposed, and the photo was ruined.

In retrospect, now know that my first instinct was good — and the shot turned out just fine. I made all the right decisions — which is all I could ask for.

It is difficult to avoid such thinking with film. Without immediate feedback, I have no assurance that the exposure is accurate. It is simply a matter of trusting my own judgment — and hoping I did not make any mistakes. I will often re-meter a scene after taking a photo. This gives me peace of mind, and confirms I made a good decision.

As you can see, my morning exposure is much darker. The color shifts toward purple, and the glow is much different than the sunset photo. My fear of overexposure led me to underexpose this photo.  Sure, it’s interesting looking, but it’s not what I was going for.

I don’t recall how long the exposure was. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say 8 minutes.

Velvia 50 exhibits a color shift with long exposure. However, some of the color is rooted in reality. At that time of morning, the sky was blue/magenta, and the foreground was quite blue. This is enhanced and exaggerated by Velvia. I’m pretty sure the mountain on the left was metered at -3.5, so there is no shadow detail available.

This shot will never see the light of day, but that’s fine. It isn’t the photo that I envisioned from this location. The photo I captured on day 2 proved to be ideal.

Since Velvia 50 costs me $20 a click, I might as well show this photo on my blog. Writing about this exposure is a learning experience for me, and I’m sure the discussion will prove useful to others.

Based on this experience, I’ve leaned to trust my first instinct. I know the latitude of the film, and what it can handle. I can successfully push the boundaries, and walk away with a good shot.


*         *         *


I spent the afternoon scouting an area north of Badwater — near the trail head for Golden Canyon. Last year, I found some interesting mud textures there. I hoped to find something similar, but the conditions were not ideal. Maybe another year.

I returned to Badwater later that afternoon.

Much to my delight, the afternoon sky was filled with beautiful clouds. Although mid-day light is hardly photogenic, the vastness of Death Valley makes it somehow acceptable. This spirit of rule breaking extends beyond shooting times. Even compositional faux pas are acceptable in Death Valley.

While seeking a composition that showcased the clouds, reflections, submerged salt pads, and the distant mountains, I chose a centered horizon.

We are told not to use a center the horizon because it is “boring.”  I prefer to use the word “calm.”  A centered horizon provides a very calm feeling — and that is precisely what I felt when I made this exposure.

Rules are made to be broken, so long as we know why we are breaking them.

Ebony RW810 | Nikkor 150mm | Velvia 50 8x10 | 1 sec @ f/45

I watched as the clouds continued to form. I knew they would light up magnificently at sunset. Even with this knowledge, I decided not to shoot the sunset that evening. Instead, I aimed my camera north, and setup for a morning shot.

The sunset was beautiful — not as good as the sunset on Day 1, but it was a truly a treat for the senses. I stayed with my camera until night fall. On my hike back to my truck, I watched as the full moon rose from behind the mountains. There was no need for a headlamp that night.

6 Responses to “Death Valley 2011: Day 3”

  1. Tracy Z Says:

    the photos are amazing! Looks like a gorgeous place.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks Tracy! Death Valley is one of my favorite places to shoot. The flooded badwater basin made for some great opportunities.

  2. Larry Dudley Says:

    Awesome ben. Keep em coming.

  3. bob francella Says:

    Great job buddy, detail detail detail

  4. bob francella Says:

    pictures of the lake morning and night are fantastic.

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