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.