Death Valley 2011: Day 4

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A calm, cool breeze swept through my one man tent. It was 3:45AM.

I’m early to rise on shooting trips. Anticipation of sunrise is certainly a factor, but so is my early bed time. On a solo trip, there isn’t much to do at night. A book will hold my attention for a while, but that just makes me tired. My iPhone crapped out on day 3 — so the only angry birds on this trip were the crows I refused to feed.

I ate breakfast, and put on my salt encrusted boots. Abrasive salt crystals cut into my fingers as tied the laces.

Rather than using tube socks as I had the first two days, I was now wearing neoprene socks. These are the same socks I wore in Zion to keep my feet warm while hiking in the chilly Virgin River. Much to my delight, neoprene is not adversely affected by salt water.

Through the star infused night sky, a river of high clouds drifted overhead. The prospect of a desert sunrise with high clouds was exhilarating.

I drove to Badwater, gathered my gear, and set out to find my camera.

Stepping onto the dark, flooded basin that morning was more dream-like than reality. The rugged, towering peaks of the Panamint range were reflected mere feet in front of me. I could walk for miles, but the flickering, rippled mountains would never draw closer.

Sunrise was near, and the clouds showed no sign of retreat.

The clouds to my south were the first to see sunrise. They were bathed in a warm, golden light. Soon, the clouds overhead were aglow, and the color spread north.

I used a Nikkor 150mm wide angle lens with a 2 stop soft grad filter. My first photo was metered at 1 minute @ f/45.  To compensate for reciprocity failure, I used a 2 minute exposure.

The color faded soon after completing the exposure. The best color that morning lasted just 2 minutes, and my shutter was open the entire time.

I flipped over my film holder, and prepared for my second shot. The mountains to my left would soon receive warm morning light.

I spot metered off a gray card, evaluated the tones, then exposed a second sheet of film. My final exposure was 12 seconds @ f/45. This shot also used a two stop soft grad filter.

Moments after taking my shot, the mountains fell back into shadow.

I remained perfectly still while making each exposure. Even the slightest movement created ripples in the water.

I was very fortunate to receive such beautiful light that morning — especially considering I selected the composition the day before on a cloudless afternoon. I can always crop these images to fine tune the composition.

Unlike my view to the south, the northerly view does not show complete polygons. Instead, several dark shapes only hint at the presence of polygons. This is caused by the angle angle of light. A southerly view from this same location would show far more dramatic polygon shapes.

On the way back to the truck, I found a new area to shoot.  I noted the location, then returned to camp for an early lunch.


*          *          *


At 1:30PM, I returned to Badwater.

The area I scoped out that morning was promising. Salt crystallization was accelerated by a flotilla of buoyant salt crystals. Pushed by the wind, these crystals are forced into the shallows.

The soupy mixture of salt and water will crystallize on nearly anything. A dead bee, or an occasional twig were surrounded by a “snowball” of salt crystals.

Likewise, the cracks in the salt pads showed accelerated salt formation. The fractures were now highlighted by pure white salt. These fractures were being healed by mother nature.

It was simple, beautiful, and graphic.

A good composition was easy to find. I used my 150mm wide angle lens, and placed a 2 stop soft grad filter. Now all I had to do was clean up the scene.

The foreground was littered with fluffy salt “snowballs.”  These white dots were problematic for the composition, but they were easy to remove.

I spent several hours stomping, kicking, and smashing these fluffy white distractions. It was a lot of work, but I was pleased with the results. My foreground was pristine.

Sunset was fast approaching, and there was not a cloud in the sky. Without clouds, a sunset shot was out of the question. Instead, I planned for a morning shot. Even without clouds, the blue gradient on the horizon might make for an interesting shot.

As I looked to the north, I became concerned. A large cloud of dust obscured the mountains. It was calm where I stood, but it was definitely getting windy near Furnace Creek — a mere 17 miles away.

Weather reports out of Los Angeles warned of Santa Ana conditions. As storms pass far north of Southern California, a sharp pressure gradient forces high winds (60 to 80 miles per hour) through mountain passes. This is something I am very familiar with in San Diego. Leaving my camera out overnight in such conditions could have disastrous consequences.

Just as the sun set behind the Panamint range, a 40 to 50 mph gust swept through my location. My backpack, firmly resting on an Ikea folding chair, was nearly blown over. I grabbed onto it with one hand, and my tripod with the other. My fully setup 8×10 camera was acting like a sail.

The wind was so strong that it blew the water away. Yes, you heard me right — it was gone. I once stood in 2 inches of water, but now the salt polygons were exposed. If you check out the video, you’ll see the water swirling away in the background.

During a brief lull in the wind, I hastily packed my gear and got the hell out of there.

16 Responses to “Death Valley 2011: Day 4”

  1. Joshua Warrender Says:

    Wow. The shot with the clouds lit up is incredible! Nice work Ben.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks Joshua. Sometimes it takes a bit of luck to be in the right place at the right time. It was a great way to start the day!

  2. David Patterson Says:

    Beautiful photographs… especially the earlier morning one. That wind was a sign… telling you to head over to the dunes where there will be pristine sand. Looking forward to seeing the results.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      The dunes definitely were pristine when I visited them. Foot prints were not much of an issue, but it would have been nice to have some clouds at the dunes. You can’t win them all. 🙂

  3. Rosemary Rideout Says:

    Awesome photos and light. I don’t think I would ever be brave enough to leave my camera set up overnight. The winds in DV are so predictably unpredictable.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      The winds sure are unpredictable. Typically, I will weigh down my camera with a dry sack filled with saltwater. At that point, it would take hurricane force winds to do any damage. The camera might have been okay that night had I hung a weight from it, but once the water blew away, I figured that was a sign. 🙂

  4. Jeff Preston Says:

    Really digging your blog here, Ben. Really enjoy hearing your thought process behind each shot. Also looking forward to the sand dunes. The videos are an added bonus.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks Jeff. I have a blast doing the video and blog entries. Since the trips are solo, it gives me something else to do and think about. There’s always a story to tell, and I think the story behind a photo is a fun one to tell.

  5. Jeremy Calow Says:

    Hey Ben, Love these two shots. I really dig the intense magenta and purple of the earlier shot, and the second is really calming (to me). I can’t get over how much depth your images display.. It almost feels like I could walk through the image.. Much more so than with traditional digital images I guess. Tempting to try and switch to working with LF equipment but not entirely sure I am patient enough hehe..

    Great work.

    • Ben Horne Says:


      LF is a blast, but there is always a grass is greener syndrome. The color I get on the film can be very impressive at times, but sometimes it is even a bit too wild for my own taste. I end up spending time trying to bring it back to reality. I’ve gotta say though that the coolest part about LF photography is putting that transparency on a light table, and getting lost in the image with a loupe. It looks downright 3D.

      With regard to patience and LF, 4×5 is pretty fast to setup, and those cameras are not very expensive these days. You can get into a good 4×5 setup for the same price as a decent consumer level SLR lens. The first thing I learned when I tried LF was that I didn’t know nearly as much about photography as I thought I did. It has been a real learning experience, and I am continuing to learn. At some point, I plan on getting a digital SLR again (in addition to my LF gear). At that point, I can use all of the LF knowledge, and apply it once again to digital. Until then, I’ll enjoy my vacation from instant gratification. 🙂

      • Jeremy Calow Says:

        Ben I totally agree about the grass being greener, but I have decided to start down the path for sure! That being said I think I will be starting with pure black and white and “evolve” from there hehe.. On my most recent trip out to the coast of BC up here I noticed that I did a lot more to slow myself down (much to my wife’s dismay). So that would be more conducive to LF but hay I am still young so more learning is always good.. Keeps you interested right?


      • Ben Horne Says:

        That’s awesome! You’re going to have a blast with it. I’ve always wanted to do B&W, but I honestly think it’s more difficult than color — so I have not yet tried it. It’s on my list though. Based on your experience in BC, it sounds like you’re already working with a LF mindset. It certainly takes a long time to shoot — and that’s why I often go on solo trips. When I’m out with friends or family, I keep my shooting to a minimum.

  6. Steve France Says:

    Hi Ben,
    Just to let you know you have a fan over here in the UK (although I’m sure there are others)

    The first image is simply awesome. Fantastic mood to it. With the compostion, it really draws you into the image, having the mountains either side and a favourable wind blowing the clouds..

    Keep up this excellent blog! And may God continue to keep you on your journey.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks Steve! I have a blast with this stuff, and I’m pleased to hear that you enjoy it. When I’m out there shooting, I am definitely in my element. There are so many beautiful sights to see, stories to tell, and I love sharing it with the world. I find it ironic that I am using modern technology (video, internet) to share the experience of working with old technology. I hadn’t quite thought of it that way before.

  7. Nicolas Belokurov Says:

    Hi Ben, I’m almost sure I’ve commented already on this entry, but perhaps I didn’t hit the post comment button.
    Great work as usual, specifically the second shot is totally “mountain light”.
    Just hope you can somehow stay away from the temptation of the digital 🙂

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks Nicolas. It was a fantastic sunrise that morning. At some point, I’ll spend some more time with these shots to find the exact crop and processing that best suits them. The second one is well suited for a panoramic, as was suggested by a friend.

      I do plan on getting a digital again at some point, but just to capture the fast stuff I can’t shoot with LF. We’ll see what happens when canon announces a new 5DIII, or Nikon comes out with a D800. I’m not invested in either system, so I can go either way. 🙂

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