Death Valley 2011: A Retrospective

I love shooting trips. The very thought of getting out in nature, and burning some film is beyond words. I was very fortunate to spend 10 days in Death Valley this year. It was a productive trip, and I learned a lot from my experience. In this blog post, I’ll recap my trip, compare it to my 2010 trip, and discuss the lessons I’ve learned.

The Badwater Experience ( 2010 vs. 2011)

This was my third visit to Death Valley. My first visit was in March of 2009. Although I didn’t walk away from that trip with any portfolio shots, it was an excellent scouting trip. My second trip, February 2010, coincided with a very wet El Niño weather pattern. That year, I saw large amounts of water in the Badwater Basin. It was a novelty to see so much water in this desert environment. Here are two images I shot just over a year ago. The first photo (“Inundated”) features a partially flooded basin. Water gathered between the salt ridges, reflecting a colorful sunset.

This next shot ( “Approaching Storm”), shows Badwater as a storm rolled through. Though not submerged in water, this portion of the salt was moist and reflective. Moments after taking this photo, the storm swept overhead. I have printed this photo at 40×50, and I can count the polygons all the way to the horizon.

Approaching Storm (Feb 2010): Velvia 50 (8×10), Nikkor 150mm, Ebony RW810

Soon after my trip, I learned from fellow photographer David Patterson that the Badwater Basin completely flooded just after my departure. A strong El Niño storm brought more rain to the valley. The fragile salt ridges disolved as water filled the basin. Badwater was paved with fresh salt after the water evaporated.

With a drier than usual weather forecasted for the 2010/2011 winter season, there wasn’t much hope for water at Badwater this year. The surprise came in December when the jet stream dipped south, subjecting southern California to an endless barrage of storms. These back-to-back storms dropped nearly 4 inches of rain in Death Valley. You guessed it… Badwater was filled with water.

This year, Badwater proper was a muddy mess. I focused my attention on a more pristine area to the north. For a sense of scale, look for the road in this photo. The distance between my shooting location and the road is one mile!

As expected, the salt ridges were gone this year. Instead, cracks were visible beneath the shallow water. It’s amazing how the same location can yield such different photos.

Genesis: Velvia 50 | Nikkor 150mm | Ebony RW810

Although not as striking as my Badwater shots from 2010, the submerged cracks have an almost electric appearance.

From a technical standpoint, this photo was difficult. I used a two stop hard graduated filter to help control the tonality of this scene. I placed the grad below the horizon – an unconventional way to use a hard grad.

If I was shooting a digital SLR, I don’t think my grad placement would have worked. It would have been too abrupt. On 8×10, a hard stop grad becomes a soft grad, and a soft grad becomes nearly invisible.  If I was shooting a digital SLR, I would have used my 2 or 3 stop soft grad.

As many of you know from my Zion trip, I take careful notes when scouting a location. The above shot was planned after having viewed a sunrise and sunset. Here is the same photo with an overlay of my notes.

Genesis, with overlay of notes

I was intrigued by the wonderful yellow light on the horizon, and sketched its relation to the mountain ridge. I made a note of which lens to use, and returned later that day to setup my camera for a sunset/sunrise photo. I relied on my notes for positioning the filter, then waited for sunset. I shot both sunset, and the following sunrise. My camera was left in place overnight.

Placing a grad filter based on notes sounds strange, but it worked for this shot. I knew where to place the filter, and was able to do so in the afternoon when the ground glass was very bright.

Does this technique work all the time? No. Nature doesn’t always cooperate. That’s why I spend 10 days at a location.

I shot many other photos at Badwater this year, but Genesis was my favorite. It’s simple, calm, and completely different from my other shots. Technically, the exposure is spot on, and the grad is seamlessly placed. I now have three portfolio shots from Badwater. Needless to say, I’ll be skipping Badwater on my next trip. It’s a stunning location, but I need to spend more time elsewhere in the park.

Lessons Learned at Badwater:

  • It’s best to wear neoprene socks when wading in the water at Badwater. Regular socks are useless after just one use (Boomerang!)
  • Salt crystals in the eyelets of my boots sliced through the laces. Bring an extra pair of laces just in case!
  • Contrary to the teaser message for my Death Valley trip (How to destory a pair of boots in 10 days), The high salinity will not destroy your boots. Give them a good soaking when you get home, and they’re good as new! They’re on my feet as I’m typing this blog post. Nice and comfy and warm.
  • Bring a folding chair when photographing the flooded salt flats  — Thanks Ikea!
  • Strong winds can come from nowhere. It was calm one moment, and the wind was gusting at nearly 50MPH only a few minutes later.  Be prepared!
  • Don’t limit yourself to Badwater proper. The area just north of Badwater offered far better conditions.
  • Dante’s view affords a magnificent view of Badwater. I used this view to plan my shooting location for this, and future trips (wink!).
  • Trust your instinct. I questioned my metering decisions, but my first instinct was spot on  — no pun intended.

Mesquite Dunes

The Mesquite dunes have been a major frustration for me. They are beautiful, but I have not walked away with a shot I’m satisfied with. A variety of focal lengths can be used to photograph dunes, but the compression of a long lens gives a layered appearance, and minimizes footprints. Sadly, I don’t have a very long lens on large format. My longest lens is equivalent to about 70mm on a 35mm camera. Perhaps this is the source of my frustration.

Though these dunes receive good light at both sunrise and sunset, the sun is much lower on the horizon at sunrise.

Next year, I’ll skip the Mesquite dunes, and spend several days at the Eureka Dunes. I visited them in 2009, and found some very nice compositions on the crest of a dune. These photos suffered technical issues, but I can return to the same location and try again.


This was my second visit to Racetrack. Based on my previous experience, I knew that the northern sky would be most productive. This northern view makes the mountains more distant, and places emphasis on the moving rocks. Views to the South, West, and East show looming mountains in the background, and that’s not what I wanted. As an added bonus, the mountains to the north create excellent uplift, which lends nicely to cloud formation. If you arrive at Racetrack at noon under a barren blue sky, don’t be surprised if you have beautiful clouds at sunset.

Racetrack Sunset: Ebony RW810 | Nikkor 150mm | Lee 2 Stop Hard GND | Velvia 50 | 2 minutes @ f/45

I stuck around for two days — which is less time than I prefer to spend at a location. After experiencing a great sunset on my second day, I knew my job was done there.

I had some compositional reservations when setting up this shot. A large mountain loomed over the left side of my composition. I slid my camera side to side, but this mountain was unavoidable if I wanted a diagonal trail from this rock.

In the end, I stretched the upper left corner to pull the mountain from view. Digital trickery? Yes. Can I get away with this on a large print? Maybe. You’ll also notice that the rock gets a bit stretched. If I didn’t post the original photo (below) you likely wouldn’t have noticed this. From a technical standpoint, this image is absolutely tack sharp from foreground to background. Warping the left side of the photo will surely decrease the sharpness in that region.

When I return to Racetrack next year, I hope to shoot the same rock. This northerly view is ideal for both sunrise and sunset, which gives me more opportunities to shoot. I’ll cross my fingers, hope for clouds, and try to scoot those mountains out of the way with camera movements. I used rear movements to enlarge the rock in this composition. This made the mountains smaller. I hoped this would minimize the peak on the left, but I was wrong. It still looms over the composition. When I return, I’ll use rear movements to make the rock smaller and the mountains larger. Perhaps this will force the large mountain out of view.

On another note, this is the second time my GPS has gone haywire at Racetrack. Has anyone else had this happen? It’s mildly disturbing to have it fail when you’re a mile from your truck on a moon-less night. I’m know I can eventually find my truck in the dark (find the road, follow it south), but it sure is nice to follow that little arrow in the dark.

See you next year Death Valley!

11 Responses to “Death Valley 2011: A Retrospective”

  1. scout327 Says:

    Genesis is killer, and I think it compliments Approaching Storm in a “aftermath” kind of way. Great work, entertaining as well!

  2. Roger Aure Says:

    Thank you for a lot of inspirational posts and great images. Following your blog for the last months, including your Zion trip has made me realize that I miss shooting fully manual. I have never owned a large format camera, but shot a lot of medium format 5-6 years ago. I do think I will have to try large format now :o)

    Keep up the good work!


    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks Roger! Shooting manual is very rewarding. When using a digital SLR, I’ll usually have the camera bracket the exposure *just in case*, but often times my first judgment was best. By all means, give LF a shot. 4×5 is honestly all that’s needed these days. A good scan of 4×5 film will print bigger than necessary. I just do 8×10 because I like to punish myself. 🙂

  3. travelpix Says:

    Hi Ben – read/watched through the entire DV blog over the last few days and loved every bit of it. I went to Badwater a few days before you did this year, and it was great reliving the experience through your blog. I also did the Racetrack some time ago. DV is such an awesome place. You brought home some definite winners. Looking forwards to reading through all your other trips, keep up the good work!

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks Klaus! It’s great to hear that you were able to experience Death Valley this year as well. Those flooded salt flats sure are great for photography. I especially love the shot in your flickr account from new years day. Those clouds are killer! I plan on returning next year as well. There is still so many shots that I haven’t captured yet.

  4. Will Says:

    Hey Ben, I particularly enjoyed coming back to this post, really nice shots!
    How much would I have to pay to get a 15″x15″ print of Racetrack Sunset, and then have it sent to the UK?
    I’m really keen on it.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks Will! I’m glad you enjoy the shot. I just had that transparency on my light table today, and it was fun viewing it under a loupe. I’ll shoot you an email with pricing for this image. It hasn’t been drum scanned yet, so it would take some time, but I’ll give you all the details.

  5. matthewosbornephotography Says:

    Hi Ben, I just bought myself a 4×5 Pacemaker Speed Graphic + Aero Ektar 1787mm f2.5 lens for my portraits. I am new to LF so was searching on YouTube for videos and found you. Even though we shoot different subjects I can really appreciate your skill and work. If I get on well with LF I may then get a camera with a tiltable back so I can shift perspective of foreground and horizon as you describe. A cool option to have. Keep up the great work and greetings from the UK. Matt

    • Ben Horne Says:

      You’re going to have a lot of fun with the LF camera! Everything will feel awkward at first, but you’ll get the hang of it soon enough, and it’ll be a matter of muscle memory. Shooting LF is a very rewarding experience.

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