Death Valley 2011: Day 5

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Dry desert air surged though my tent that night. The soothing gusts rushed through the trees surrounding my camp. Perhaps more soothing was the knowledge that my camera was not left at Badwater basin that night. I’m certain it would have been destroyed had I not retrieved it.

I was lucky.

Leaving my camera out overnight has not backfired thus far, but I’m sure my luck will wear thin at some point. (knock on blog)

There was no need for an early start that morning. No shots were planned. I could sleep in, eat a nice breakfast, then move my camp to Stovepipe Wells.

I could have done all that, but of course I didn’t. I can’t stand to miss a sunrise, even if I don’t plan on shooting it.

The sky was void of clouds, and there was a slight chill in the air. A full moon hovered over the Panamint range to the west.

A sense of excitement lingered in the air.

I drove to Zabriskie Point, a tourist viewpoint popular for photography. It was now just a half hour until sunrise. I brought along my Panasonic video camera to record a time-lapse video of the sunrise.

As I crested the viewpoint, I heard phantom voices in the distance. Below the viewing platform, a dozen photographers were prepared for sunrise.

At that moment, it was nice not to be a photographer. There are times when it’s great to enjoy a sunrise without the pressure of trying to capture it.

I think back to my neighborhood when I was growing up. Three colossal radio antennas were set to be demolished. I watched through the viewfinder of a point and shoot film camera as the towers fell. When I pulled the camera from my face, the towers were gone. There was a separation from reality. Even though I watched the demolition from start to finish, I didn’t truly see it.

Sometimes it’s nice to be a spectator.

Other than the full moon, the conditions that morning were far from unique. The sky was barren. Even if the conditions were unique, I had no desire to shoot within a herd. The people in the group were very nice, but I prefer to work in solitude.

Later that morning, I returned to camp. I broke down my tent, and drove 20 miles north to Stovepipe Wells. I selected a camp site, and made lunch.

My goal that afternoon was to scout the Mesquite Dunes. The rolling dunes on the east side are often pristine with few, if any, footprints. The dunes are nicely layered, and vary greatly in size. If you begin your hike from the main parking area, the hike will be nearly 2 miles. If you park your car near the black lava hills just before the Devils Cornfield, your hike will be just under 1 mile. Rather than hiking over dunes, your hike will be over a crusty salt flat.

I logged several locations in my GPS, and made sure to visit each one before sunset.

Unfortunately, none of my potential locations panned out. For one reason or another, they failed to meet my expectations.

I have envisioned an epic dune shot for quite some time. I want a rolling hill in the foreground, layers of dunes in the mid-ground, and a large dune peak in the background.  It sounds simple enough, but I have yet to find a composition that works.

This was my third trip to Death Valley, and my third visit to the Mesquite dunes. Perhaps my inability to find this epic shot is symptomatic of my approach to photography. Rather than being inspired by a location’s true potential, I was on the hunt for a pre-visualized shot.

Was my pursuit of this shot causing me to lose sight of the true spirit of this location? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing. Perhaps my pursuit of this mythical shot represents a harmonious marriage of my vision, and the spirit of the location. I don’t have the answer.

In any case, I didn’t find my shot that night.

As the sun dropped below the ragged peaks to the west, I reclined on the crest of a dune. I ran my hands through the cool sand, pondering my journey thus far.

7 Responses to “Death Valley 2011: Day 5”

  1. David Patterson Says:

    Ben… the Mesquite Dunes can certainly be challenging when it comes to finding a composition that you like. I think it may be another of those times where there is so much beauty around you to absorb, that it can be hard to settle on one specific impression. I am sure that you will rise to the challenge, and am looking forward to seeing the results.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      The dunes are certainly a challenge. I think my main struggle is the fact that I don’t have a long lens option for my 4×5 or 8×10. Some of the best shots are those where you can stand back, and zoom in. At that distance, the light tends to move slower… if that makes sense. There’s a plus side to everything though — not finding a shot at the dunes gives me an excuse to go back. 🙂

      Although I didn’t make it up to the Eureka dunes this year, I found a cool location back in 2009, but goofed up the shot due to poor DOF and a bad exposure. Maybe I’ll revisit that one on my return trip to DV. I love that place!

  2. Larry Dudley Says:

    Hang in there Ben. Hope you find the shot youre looking for. You probably will, you are an extremely patient man. Sure would be great to spend that much time there. Good luck. Sure am enjoying your blogs.
    Thanks, Larry

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks Larry. So long as I walk away from a trip with one solid shot, I consider it a success. I still don’t quite know what I ended up with from this trip. I often need time to distance myself from the shots.

      It is a luxury being able to spend that much time in one location though. It forces me to concentrate on the shooting. Even though I just got back from this trip, I am looking forward to my return trip. I feel like I left many photos on the table. It’s an endless cycle of learning — and that’s a good thing.

  3. bob francella Says:

    you are a dreamer

  4. gdanmitchell Says:

    Ben, I’ve been enjoying your narrative of shooting DeVa recently. I’ll be there myself a couple of times in the near future and I shoot there every year.)

    I noticed that you started this post with a knock on wood story about not leaving your camera out overnight, and about how you have been lucky… so far.

    Ironically, I was thinking about your idea of leaving the camera on location overnight earlier today. It makes sense when you remind me of the difficulty of setting up and focusing the gear you use in near dark conditions. I’d be a bit worried though, having been surprised by real weather on more that one occasion in DeVa, including high winds and dust storms that appeared almost out of nowhere.

    I hope your luck holds out! 🙂


    • Ben Horne Says:

      Great hearing from you Dan. When I was out there this year, I thought about several of your images — especially the racetrack shot with that amazing sky.

      The camera overnight trick has certainly worked so far, but it has at times made for a tough night sleep. Leaving it inches from the edge of a multi-thousand foot cliff at Toroweap comes to mind.

      In the future, I will likely weight the camera down significantly, just to make sure. It’s easy enough to carry along a dry sack, and fill it with water/sand/rocks when leaving it overnight in DeVa. I also have a cover that can be placed over the camera to keep dust/sand off it. Even if my luck does wear thin, it’ll make for an interesting blog post. 🙂 Ultimately, the camera is just a tool — an expensive tool — but a tool nonetheless.

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