Death Valley 2011: Day 9

Sorry for the delay posting day 9.  It has been very busy at work lately, and I haven’t had as much time in front of my computer as I would like. Now, on with the show!

Monday, January 24, 2011

I can’t say enough how much I love my one man tent from MSR. It’s fast to setup, and affords a wonderful view of the night sky. The wind was calm that night, but it was very cold. I slept in my 0° rated REI sleeping bag, and it performed well.

I awoke around 4AM, put on my boots, then treated myself to a gourmet breakfast (frozen cliff bar + Gatorade).

On the short drive to the playa, my 4Runner’s thermometer read 15 degrees. I’m sure glad I packed warm clothes.

I stepped onto the cold, dark playa. The experience of walking across racetrack playa at night is surreal, and difficult to put into words. No matter how fast I walked, the silhouetted mountains never drew closer. My feet turned a giant treadmill, pulling the playa toward me.

On a previous trip my GPS went haywire, and required a recalibration. Thankfully I knew how to calibrate the compass in the field. Without the GPS, it would have been very difficult finding my truck — nearly a half mile away on a moon-less night.

Thankfully, that was not the case today. I found my camera without issue, and prepped it for a morning shot.

A glow filled the sky — sunrise was imminent.

There were clouds in the northern sky, but I had my doubts — They were moving quickly. I watched as they soared overhead, and headed south.

I stuck around for sunrise, but didn’t see anything I felt like shooting. My plan that day was to leave the camera in place, hope for afternoon clouds, and return for a sunset shot. Needless to say, I had a lot of time to kill.

I spent the morning/afternoon reading a book, listening to podcasts, and checking out an abandoned mine on a nearby mountain. Thankfully, the days are short this time of year.

It was now 2 hours until sunset. Although there were some clouds in the sky, they weren’t very impressive. My backup plan was to setup my 4×5 camera for a star trail photo.

I loaded Provia 100 in a 4×5 film holder, and carried my 4×5 camera onto the playa.

Cloud formation increased near sunset, and soon my composition was filled with clouds. I took 3 photos that night with my 8×10.

The first photo was before sunset. Direct light illuminated the foreground, and cast long shadows across the playa. It was okay, but nothing all that amazing. My second photo was taken just as the sun dropped behind the mountains to my west. The foreground was cast in shade, but the sky and mountains in the background were illuminated. It is okay, but the light is a bit too harsh for my taste. My final shot was a 2 minute exposure on Velvia 50. The last rays of sunlight illuminated the clouds. I felt a square crop was fitting.

2 minutes @ f/45 | Velvia 50 8x10 | RW810 | Nikkor 150mm | Lee 2 Stop Hard GND

Although I do like what’s going on with this shot, I feel like I can do even better. I’m certainly inspired to return to racetrack, and see what other atmospheric conditions I can capture. I definitely prefer the northerly view as you see here. When facing east, west, or south, the background mountains are too dominant for my taste.

Just for fun, here’s a shot of my setup on the playa that night. I use a Gitzo 0 series tripod with a Manfrotto 701HDV head for my video camera. The Sennheiser MKE-400 mic with wind muff helps give decent audio, despite very windy conditions. I should also note that this is the first time I’ve used my 8×10 with the wide angle lens so close to the subject. I often set the camera up much higher. This in-your-face composition was fun to try on LF.

My experience shooting the 8×10 that evening left me satisfied. My thirst for shooting racetrack was quenched. I even considered packing up camp, and heading back to Stovepipe wells for sunrise.

These thoughts were induced by a lone pair of tail lights leaving the valley that night. As they faded into the distance, I knew I was the only person left on the playa. Just then, a cold wind swept over the playa. Everyone was returning to their camp sites or hotel rooms elsewhere in the park. I felt left behind.

Those tail lights represented a tie to civilization. They flickered like a distant flame, blown by the cold desert wind. This was the 9th day of my trip, and the solitude had become overbearing. I missed my fiancee, and her sweet smile. I knew in my heart that my trip was done.

Despite my revelation, I was still standing on a cold dark playa in the middle of the Mojave desert. I packed my 8×10 camera, but left my 4×5 in place.

You see, shortly after taking my sunset shot on the 8×10, I exposed a sheet of 4×5 film at -1.5. This was the base exposure for the star trail shot I planned. Moonrise was around midnight, which meant the majority of my exposure would be star light. The base exposure ensured that there would be some degree of foreground detail. I waited an hour after sunset, then began the long exposure to capture star trails.

It was time to return to camp for dinner. I kept my eye on a distant peak. I try not to depend on my GPS, but it’s useful to confirm my judgment. Soon though, it was too dark to see the peak. It was time to rely on my GPS.

The screen flickered as the arrow marking my location jumped around.

I took a few moments to recalibrate the compass. This also happened on my ’09 trip — in nearly the same place. Weird.

I headed back to camp, made dinner, and read a book in my truck. Several hours later, I drove back to the playa. It was midnight, and I needed to retrieve my 4×5. I chose not to use my headlamp as I walked onto the playa that night. My eyes were surprisingly well adjusted.

Just then, a bright light in my peripheral vision startled me. I ducked as a bright light streaked across the playa…

Now, in my own defense, it was a very bright shooting star. But ducking? Really? I had a good laugh.

I carefully approached my camera (it’s difficult to see a black camera in the dark with no headlamp), stopped the exposure, then threw it over my shoulder. I looked forward to my nice down sleeping bag that night.

So what about that star trail shot? Eh… it didn’t turn out so good. There were some clouds that night. I did learn that the -1.5 base exposure was a great starting point though. Maybe next time.


19 Responses to “Death Valley 2011: Day 9”

  1. bob francella Says:

    It would have been a miracle to get the shooting star but it would have blown my mind.

  2. bob francella Says:

    Great shot, I love the rock moving across the desert, Its so hard to believe that those rocks move like that. Great work Ben.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      It’s still a mystery how those rocks move, but it’s cool to see them in person. Oh the stories they could tell.

  3. Larry Dudley Says:

    Fab photos Ben, but the dancin’ is even more fab!
    Sure are learning a lot from you. Thanks for sharing your time.


    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks Larry. Those stellar dance moves were to keep the circulation going that morning. It didn’t seem so cold hiking across the playa, but once I stopped moving, it sure got cold! I’ve learned to keep the camera rolling while I’m being an idiot. It makes for some fun videos. 🙂

  4. Nicolas Belokurov Says:

    Great hunt Ben and I also feel the square crop is really working here with the strong FG.
    Mind if I ask you a little tech question? After a lot of BW work, I’m trying to shoot 4×5 color, using E100G slides and I’m having a bit of a hard time trying to adjust my metering to the extremely narrow latitude of the film (narrow when compared to Tmax100 :)) So, the question is, do you feel that a 1 stop underexposure in the FG to preserve the lights is better then a 1 stop overexposure of the lights to build up details in the fg? For instance, in a typical sunset situations, with a 3 stops grad applied, I still end up with more than the 4 stops latitude of the film.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Although I haven’t shot with E100G, I’m very familiar with Fuji Velvia/Provia which should be similar. I intentionally overexpose my slide film just a bit to keep the shadows. Although the useful highlights will be gone beyond +2, you can still recover a surprising amount of detail. It’s easy to darken the image in post to recover tonality, but if you’ve lost the shadows on the transparency, your out of luck.

      In a future blog post, I’ll share my thoughts on Kodak Ektar print film. I finally got around to developing the 8×10 Ektar from my November trip to Zion. Spoiler alert: I’m impressed!

  5. Jonny Taulen Says:

    Beautilful image, and awsome dancing, but the dramatic music was almost scary, maybe as “scary” as your “very bright” shooting star 😀

    • Ben Horne Says:

      My heart certainly skipped a beat with that shooting star. I did learn something important from that incident though — my meteor dodging skills are top notch. Ben: 1 – Meteor: 0. Undefeated.

  6. Thomas Says:

    Quick question: Do you sharpen your images differently for your prints and web pictures? And what else do you do in photoshop to your images? Thanks.

    • Ben Horne Says:


      There are definitely some differences between sharpening for the web and for print. For print, you will need to exaggerate things slightly. For the web, I try not to over-sharpen. Ultimately, the photo from racetrack is only the product of a flatbed scan, so I don’t spend a lot of time on the processing. If I choose to print, I will have the film drum scanned.

      Film will inherently take on different color casts depending on the color of the light. The extent of my photoshop work is to help control the color of the photo (in this case, reduce a color cast), and make sure I can show good tonality in both the shadows and the highlights. This often involves curves adjustments, and some localized editing to ensure good color. Nothing all that fancy really.

  7. gdanmitchell Says:

    “I stepped onto the cold, dark playa. The experience of walking across racetrack playa at night is surreal, and difficult to put into words.”

    Indeed! I’ve spent a number of nights out there photographing under the full moon, and I often shoot late and then get up early and start again before dawn.

    Something about that immense flat surface is very, very odd. I get a bit of this even in the day time, but at night it is, as you so aptly point out, “difficult to put into words.” But this doesn’t make it any less real.


    • Ben Horne Says:

      I find it bizarre that racetrack screws with my GPS every time I go there. Both times I’ve been there, I’ve had to recalibrate the compass. Weird place!

  8. David Patterson Says:

    I have to agree with Dan about the odd feeling of being here…. the only time I visited was in the daylight hours into the late afternoon, and it was definitely an eerie place. I cannot imagine what it is like at night… and alone!

    Nice pic by the way 😉

    • Ben Horne Says:

      The ipod is a wonderful thing. I just throw on a podcast, and that helps keep my mind at ease. Otherwise, it sure is a cold, lonely, and surreal place.

  9. scout327 Says:

    Awesome job with your blog, especially the videos. I love the time lapse shots, it really adds to the viewing experience and gives a better feeling of “being there”. The dance and music go perfect together, especially in that setting 🙂 I’m a DSLR shooter, but I learn a great deal about the process from you. It’s really helps my photography!

    • Ben Horne Says:

      I’m glad you enjoy the video. I have a blast setting up the shots, and figuring out what the story is for the day. When it comes to photography, it’s all the same really — fstops, apertures, and ISO. The techniques on digital will translate to film, and vice-versa. I gained most of my photo knowledge from digital, and transferred that to film.

  10. Joshua Warrender Says:

    Another awesome shot Ben. I emailed you a couple of years ago about making the drive to White Pocket, and I’ve checked your site off and on since then. You have some great images. I’m a DSLR guy but have learned plenty from visiting. You have inspired me to start making a video blog on my site, minus the dancing however. 🙂

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks for the kind words Joshua. Speaking of White Pocket, that place is also a weird place at night! I spent a night on a rock in White Pocket last spring, and it was an interesting night sleep.

      You should totally do the video blogs as well. They’re so fun to put together, and a natural extension of still photography. With regard to the dancing — that’s the best part. Don’t skip the dancing!

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