Death Valley 2012: Day 4

Cold desert air filtered through the mesh of my tent that morning. I closed my eyes and tried to get some rest, but it was hopeless. I watched as the last few stars gave way to the first glow of morning.

This was my morning to sleep in — but that wasn’t going to happen.

I unzipped my tent, and filled my lungs with the sweet morning air. On shooting trips, it’s impossible for me to sleep through a sunrise.

I felt a sense of accomplishment when I broke down my camp that morning. I was fortunate to have this location all to myself, and experience such great conditions.

I drove along the bumpy road, and watched in my rear view mirror as the dunes faded into the distance. It was like seeing a long lost friend — fade away once more.

I returned to the main highway, and made my way north. My next location is Furnace Creek, a familiar favorite that provides easy access to Badwater, and other nearby salt flats.

Along the way, I stopped by Dante’s View to take a few snapshots of the salt formations from above. This popular lookout sits 5,000 feet above the valley floor, and offers magnificent views in every direction.

On my way back to the parking lot, I passed a Native American man playing a flute. It was a humbling experience hearing such beautiful music set against the vast expanse of Death Valley.

I secured a campsite at Furnace Creek, then spent the afternoon scouting a nearby salt flat. It is here that a massive alluvial fan — stretching miles to the east — crumbles abrubtly onto the salt flat. A small amount of water flows from beneath the alluvial fan.

Though I was initially concerned about sinking into the thick gooey mud, it proved harmless in all but a few areas. Note to self — avoid those areas.

I ventured further onto the salt flat, leaving all traces of water behind me. The clean white salt gave way to thick, splintered brown crust — interspersed with small dry salt rivers.

I felt like an ant walking on a nasty salty brownie, strewn with flood debris, and covered with more salt.

It was then that a beautiful serpentine curve caught my eye. The dry salt river I had been following cut through a course salt crust, curving gently to the right then back to the left. It was a clean curve — very graphic.

I knew immediately that this was my next shooting location. I logged it into my GPS, then went back to my truck to retrieve my camera.

All of my compositions are the result of thorough scouting. It’s difficult to capture fleeting moments with an 8×10 camera. Instead, I must find an intriguing foreground, ask myself when the light will be best, then wait for that light.

Though it sounds difficult, it’s really quite simple. The salt formation I stumbled upon was the first part of the puzzle. I knew where my next shot was — I just needed to figure out when it would be.

I pondered the scene, and mentally tracked the path of the sun for both sunrise and sunset.

The sun would set behind the mountains just to the right of my chosen composition. With proper clouds, it might work — but the back-lit mountains would be featureless against a contrasty sky.

At sunrise, the mountains would receive soft light, but there was no hope of using the Earth’s shadow as a graphic element in the scene. Instead, I would need clouds to fill the sky with color.

I locked everything down, and left my camera on the salt flats that night — all the while hoping there would be clouds in the morning.


7 Responses to “Death Valley 2012: Day 4”

  1. Andreas Resch Says:

    Thanks for another great video from your trip, Ben.

    I’m still a bit hesitant to use the GND and in most cases I hope that the dynamic range of the film covers it all.
    Do you know by experience that the 2-stop-GND will be necessary in low light conditions or might it happen that you remove the filter later when you meter for the final shot and see that 2 stops is too much?

    Looks like a great composition and I’m curious how the final result(s) turn out.


    • Ben Horne Says:

      I use GND filters for a large number of my shots. They’re much less important on color neg film, but I still decided to use on with this setup. If I was shooting slide film, it would be absolutely necessary.

      I selected a 2 stop hard ND because I was planning for a morning shot when the sky and mountains would have more light than the foreground.

      My general rule of thumb is to use a 3 stop hard grad when shooting toward the sun at sunrise/sunset, and use a 2 stop grad if I’m shooting toward the north or south at sunrise/sunset. Also, if it’s a cloudy sunrise/sunset and I’m aiming toward the sun, I’ll use the 2 stop.

      On 8×10, a hard stop ND filter becomes a very soft ND, so I rarely use my soft grads.

      On my trip to DV a year ago, I watched a sunrise and sunset at badwater before deciding what I wanted to shoot. I didn’t take my camera with me that day, but I did take my grad filters. I held a few different ones up to my eye, and that’s how I figured out which ones to use.

      From a technical standpoint, you can use your spot meter to tell you how much of a grad you need. Set your exposure for the foreground, then meter the sky. If the sky is metered at +4, I know slide film can’t handle that, so a 3 stop grad ND will bring it back to +1 which is more natural.

      One last thing on the not of grad filters. Just like you said, I can always remove the filter if necessary. If on the other hand I decide I need to add a stronger filter, I an do that without having to look at the ground glass again. I measure the distance between the top of the filter and the holder with my finger, then insert the stronger filter the same way. I use the wrinkles on my knuckles to measure the distance. 🙂

      • Andreas Resch Says:

        Thanks Ben for the explanation about when you use the GND and how you decide about the the strength of it. As I imagined a lot of experience comes into this decision making.

        The problem I have here in the Alps is that I hardly find any flat horizons and in most cases the GND will affect the surrounding mountains as well. That’s when I have no problems to make a exposure blending with my digital equipment but hesitate to do it with my large format camera. So I’m always happy when my metering tells me that everything is in range. If not I might have to bite the bullet and decide between using the GND or go for two exposures.

        Thanks for your support.

        Take care,

  2. Rick Says:


    enjoying your trip and thought processes.

    Re. adjusting the grads, a trick I learned from Michael Gordon is to use a Post-It note on the “seam”- that makes it much easier to see the transition point. Of course you will need to remove it before shooting 🙂


  3. Arnaud Says:

    A very interesting video. It sure looks to be a great composition. I hope you managed to have the light you wanted here.
    I think it could have been a grat black&white picture too.
    Can’t wait till the next post.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      I definitely agree about the B&W part. The beauty of B&W is that a shot like this could be taken at any time of day. With color, I need to have some special light on the foreground, otherwise it would just be a dull brown wasteland.

      I’m strongly considering taking B&W on future trips so at least it will be a possibility.

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