My alarm sounded at 3AM. I stepped into the shower, and soaked in the warmth. I knew this would be my last shower for quite some time.
I felt a sense of excitement, feathered with a tinge of anxiety.
I spent the past week methodically packing my truck — something I find quite enjoyable. The back of my truck is an interlocking puzzle of various cases and containers — unlikely to get jostled on even the roughest of roads.
For all intensive purposes, my 4Runner is a two seater. I removed the two rear seat bottoms to allow for additional storage. I store a Hi-Lift jack and 10lbs CO2 tank in the void behind the driver seat. These items are easily accessible — just in case.
The rear 60/40 seat back is a perfect fit for my thermal electric cooler. I can drop down the smaller seat back, allowing the cooler to expel heat, while keeping the larger portion upright to prevent the rear contents from jostling around on bumpy roads. I use this cooler to keep my film refrigerated.
In the cargo area, I have a large Tamrac rolling case filled with all my camera gear, and a Tenba lighting case serves as my pantry. I carry 14 gallons of water — enough for me to be away from civilization for up to 2 weeks. Atop the right rear wheel well is a battery that’s connected to the rear 12 volt outlet. It charges as I drive, but can also charge off a solar panel. This is how I charge my video camera batteries.
A Thule cargo carrier, mounted atop my vehicle, is great for storing bulky lightweight items including my tent and sleeping bag. I also carry extra fuel up top — just in case I need to extend the range of my truck, or to help someone who is stranded.
In short, I like to be well prepared.
This is my fourth consecutive year visiting Death Valley. I’ve been fortunate to experience some wild conditions, and have walked away with some shots I am very proud of. I have 3 shots from Badwater, and one from RaceTrack — not bad. What’s missing from my portfolio is that ever elusive dune shot.
I’ve always struggled with dune shots. I find myself hindered by my own footprints — unable to properly scout the dunes for fear of trampling my own photo. The golden light lasts only minutes, and it’s difficult to find a fitting composition during this brief window when everything looks so magnificent.
Oh, and there is one more thing — the wind. It’s nearly impossible to shoot my 8×10 camera in windy conditions, and let’s face it — the dunes are there for a reason. They are actively sculpted, and held captive by the wind.
Dune shots aren’t easy on large format. It’s a matter of knowing exactly where to be, and experiencing just the right conditions. Clouds would be nice, but they are often accompanied by wind. Good times.
My goal is to find a dune location that can be photographed during the moments before sunrise, or after sunset when there is a beautiful gradient in the sky. A gradient should provide enough visual interest to make the lack of clouds a forgivable crime.
This also allows me to shoot in the soft blue/purple hour when the light is very appealing. Don’t get me wrong, the first/last rays of light striking dunes can provide wonderful color and texture, but I am more intrigued by soft light.
I hit the road around 4AM with a goal to arrive before noon. This would give me time to setup camp and scout the dunes.
It was a cloudy sunrise, which got me thinking. Maybe.. just maybe… I can get a shot on the first day.
It these clouds stuck around through sunset… and the wind were to remain calm… and I could find a composition…. and monkeys literally flew out of my butt — maybe… just maybe… I could get a shot on the first day.
It was a tall order at best, but I was excited to be on the road, and looked forward to scouting my first location of the trip — the Ibex Dunes.
While reviewing satellite maps in the weeks leading up to my trip, I was impressed by the form of these dunes. They sat like a cluster of octopuses (octopi?). Towering over their surroundings, their overlapping tentacles of sinuous sand grasped the barren land. If composed properly, these arms could serve as a wonderful leading lines.
I arrived at the Ibex Dunes at high noon, and took time to setup my gear. I packed my Gregory pack with all the necessary photo gear, and loaded several sheets of film. Without a particular shot in mind, I wasn’t likely to take a photo — but I wanted to be prepared.
The dune field is situated roughly one mile from the nearest road. I marked a waypoint in my GPS, then set out on foot. My goal was to cover a lot of ground, scout for shooting locations, and stay in the dune field well after sunset to experience the blue hour.
The wind was relentless that afternoon. I circled the large dunes north of the old mining road, then spent the evening scouting the dunes to the south. I logged several potential locations into my GPS, but didn’t find “the shot.”
While perched atop a low dune, I watched in silence as the sun set. I had the dunes to myself — this was a new experience for me. These dunes were pristine, untouched human footprints.
Though there were some clouds in the sky that evening, they were not particularly photogenic. There was no bust of pink or orange — just cold blue clouds, churning turbulently in place.
I was a big kid in an even bigger sandbox. I had the place to myself, and looked forward to more exploration in the coming days.