Archive for the ‘Death Valley January 2012’ Category

Death Valley 2012: Day 7

April 18, 2012

I didn’t recognize my campsite when I returned to it on the evening of Day 7. Everything was covered in a layer of filth. I gave my tent a swift slap, and watched as cloud of dust took to the air. What a fitting tribute for the end of my trip.

I squatted beside my tent, and peeled back the rain fly. I knew it wouldn’t be peasant. My sleeping bag was coated in a quarter inch of fine silt.

Death Valley is an unforgiving location. Things might be good for a while, but with the flip of a switch, your luck can change.

I removed the contents of my tent, and shook out my sleeping bag. I pulled the stakes, and inverted it to empty the filth that had gathered throughout the day.

I was done with this trip, and cleaning my campsite only reinforced the realization I had earlier that day.

My morning began with high hopes. Without a shot in mind, I drove to Zabriskie point to people-watch for sunrise. I didn’t bring my camera with me — I had no intention of taking any photos that morning. Sometimes it’s nice not to be a photographer. The obsession of trying to capture every sunrise and sunset makes one lose sight of the bigger picture, and the beauty that surrounds us.

I sat on the wall atop Zabriskie point, and watched as several photographers prepared for sunrise. It was a cloudy morning with a storm on the way.

Zabriskie Point is a classic sunrise location — especially on stormy mornings. It makes for a spectacular show if the rising sun extends its fiery grasp beneath the clouds.

There were the usual photographers with high end digital SLRs and carbon fiber tripods that morning, but not everyone was shooting digital. A young couple from Europe was using a classic Canon AE-1 propped up on the rock wall to take a shot or two.

As sunrise grew near, a family arrived at the viewpoint. A young man in his early 20’s helped their elderly grandfather put on his jacket, while his sister was nervously chatting with their parents.

Despite being skunked on my two previous evenings at Badwater, I knew my luck would turn around. My first 5 days were met with unprecedented photographic opportunities. The three days I spent at the Ibex dunes were still fresh in my memory, and I was excited to take a few shots of the breathtaking sunrise on the morning of Day 5.

It was nice to take a morning off — I hoped there would be a wicked sunrise, and that the photographers around me would be treated to a magnificent show.

The young brother and sister chatted with their parents. They weren’t pleased with the situation, and soon wandered back down the hill.

I checked the time on my phone — 6:56 AM. It was sunrise, though one would never know it. Dark clouds blocked all direct light from the east.

A chilling wind swept over the viewpoint as dark blue clouds drifted past overhead. There was chatter among the photographers that the sun had risen and the window to shoot had passed. As any landscape photographer will tell you, it’s best to stay until you know for sure the light is gone.

I glanced over my shoulder, and saw the family further down on the trail. The grandfather sat on a bench just off the path, and the rest of the family watched as the young man in his 20’s turned away from them. He struggled with something. Another gust of wind swept over the viewpoint, and a cloud of ash was carried away by the wind. Now it all made sense.

There never was a show of light that morning. I returned to my truck, and checked the weather — High wind with a chance of Rain. Great.

If there is one thing that makes large format photography nearly impossible, it’s high wind. Combine high wind with rain, and now you have two things that make large format photography nearly impossible.

I drove north to scout some promising salt flats that held great potential for photography.

It was a pretty wild morning. There wasn’t much rain, but there was plenty of wind and several noteworthy rainbows. It wasn’t anything particularity photogenic, but the novelty of a rainbow in Death Valley was intriguing.

I set out on the salt flats and scouted with my lightweight pack. An hour or two into my scouting trip, I found a interesting foreground composed of various salt pools I nicknamed “The Dot District.”

This location made for a great foreground, but I was unsure what to expect for the rest of the day. It was still too windy to shoot, and the clouds were quickly dissipating. The  skies would mostly certainly be bare by the time evening arrived.

Though the odds were against me, I returned to my truck to retrieve my camera. There’s often a break in the wind just after sunset which coincides with the best light. In the past, I’ve been able to capture some wonderful gradients on the southern horizon in Death Valley — likely a product of pollution, but still very beautiful.

I set up my 8×10 camera with a wide angle lens, all the while fighting the wind through my dark cloth. It was flapping in the wind, obstructing my view of the ground glass, and frequently pulling free of the camera — flooding my eyes with light.

Though the foreground was intriguing, my motivation was dwindling. I’m not one of those photographers that is constantly itching to capture a new photo at any hour of the day. I have many friends who will drop everything and drive to the beach if there is even the slightest chance of a great sunset. That’s not me.

If I’m any less than 100% dedicated to taking a shot, I’d rather not take the photo. There are a lot of decisions to be made with large format, and I need the right frame of mind to be successful

I tried desperately to convince myself that this trip wasn’t over, but I was wasn’t fooling anyone. I was done.

It’s a strange feeling really that signals the end of a shooting trip — a bitter sweet feeling of satisfaction, laced heavily with defeat. It’s the realization that I’ll be able to take a shower and sleep in my own bed tomorrow — but upon my return, I will wish I was still in the field.

I packed up my gear, and hiked back to my truck in the dark. I was confident with my decision to head home early, and I looked forward to enjoying one last night under the stars.

Thanks everyone for following my trip to Death Valley, especially those of you who have contributed so generously to my blog. I truly appreciate it, and I look forward  to sharing the experience of my next trip.

Death Valley 2012: Day 6

April 7, 2012

Day 6 was one of those days where the video does a good job telling the story. Prepare to be amazed by my amazing hairdo near the end of the video.

Death Valley 2012: Day 5

March 27, 2012

My camera stood watch over the salt curve that night. I located it well before sunrise with the assistance of my handheld GPS unit.

This is why I’m not concerned about someone stealing my camera. If I can’t find it without the assistance of triangulated satellites floating silently 12,500 miles above my head, I’m pretty sure no one else will find it either.

I double checked my shutter and aperture settings, then inserted a film holder loaded with Kodak Portra 160 color negative film.

I knew roughly where the sun would rise, and hoped to take a photo as the first glow of morning graced the Panamint Range.

Much to my delight, there were some clouds in the sky that morning.

High clouds to my east were the first to show color that morning. The glow soon spread, and the clouds in my composition were set ablaze. The ground at my feet was bathed in a pinkish-purple glow, and for a few short minutes, the drab brown desert was transformed into a fantasy land. I took two photos on Kodak Portra 160 VC. Both were long exposures, but the first best captured the wonderful color that morning.

Salt River | Kodak Portra 160 (8×10) | ~10 minutes @ f/64 | Nikkor 450mm

It must seem strange for me to leave my camera out overnight in hopes of good light, but this method allows me to capture photos that would otherwise be impossible on 8×10. The above exposure is roughly 10 minutes long. It would have been impossible for me to see an image on the ground glass that early in the morning.

I felt a sense of satisfaction while packing up my gear. With clouds in the forecast, I knew it would be an exciting day for photography in Death Valley.

Please check out my video journal for the rest of the story from Day 5.

Death Valley 2012: Day 4

March 20, 2012

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.


Death Valley 2012: Day 3

March 13, 2012

I awoke well before sunrise, laced my boots, and strapped on my backpack. The lack of weight was much appreciated. All I had in my backpack that morning was film, water, and some snacks.

My camera, lens, and tripod spent the night at the dunes. The night was calm and I slept easy knowing that my camera was safe.

It is a one mile hike from my campsite to my shooting location. As I drew closer, I stumbled upon a lonely set of footprints leading the opposite direction. Clearly they were my own footprints from last night, but seeing those lonely tracks across the barren desert evoked a strange feeling — as though I was walking back in time.

While following the footprints, a tiny dot appeared atop a nearby dune. My camera seemed insignificant amidst the rolling sea of sand.

Upon reaching my shooting location, I inserted a film holder, and began metering the scene. The soft glow of morning was fast approaching.

I removed the darkslide, and began my first exposure on Kodak Portra 160VC. The wind was calm, and I could see the first sign of a glow on the right side of the dune. I studied the light, and constantly re-metered the scene. What began as a 25 minute exposure reading was soon 7 minutes.

I find it difficult to shoot in conditions with changing light. You must constantly meter the scene, and decide when it’s best to cut the exposure short. My technique is to average the initial exposure reading with the current exposure reading. If the reading starts at 25 minutes, and eventually meters at 10 minutes — I would cut it short at roughly 17 minutes. I have no clue if this is considered proper technique, but I find that it works quite well.

Morning Dune | Kodak Portra 160VC | Ebony RW810 | Nikkor 300mm

In retrospect, I prefer the evening version from day 2. When you’re enamored by the beauty of a location, sometimes it’s difficult to choose when the light is best. That’s why it’s important for me to experiment, and take as many photos as I can (within limitation).

I made sure my camera was physically level when I took this image, but the result didn’t seem very level. An optical illusion was to blame for the unevenness. I was able to rotate and crop the image to compensate. This is one of the advantages of shooting 8×10. I can significantly rotate and crop such a large negative.

I spent the late morning through early afternoon traversing the backbone of the dominant dune — the one in my photo. My image shows it at a foreshortened angle, but the ridge is actually quite long.

Later that afternoon, I photographed an interesting “s curve” that was located only 100 yards from my morning location. Technically, the photo turned out fine, but I’m still not sure what to think about it. The sun was moving fast, and I lost some of my foreground light. I think the composition still might work, but I’ll have to sit on it for a while.

Sunset Dune: Fuji Velvia 50 8x10 | Ebony RW810 | Nikkor 150mm SW | 1 second @ f/45

Taking two photos in one day was a great feeling. I was very impressed with the Ibex dunes — the lack of people — and the photographic opportunities I enjoyed during my visit. Sticking around any longer would have been asking too much from this great location. It was time to move on, and see what else I could photograph in Death Valley.

Death Valley 2012: Day 2

February 27, 2012

It was a peaceful night — despite the occasional blast of sand. Intermittent gusts of wind — strong at times — swept through the mesh of my one-man tent. I slept on the ground next to my truck — parked just one mile from the dunes.

My alarm sounded well before sunrise. I put on my headlamp, and laced up my boots. Though space is limited in my tent, I always find room for my boots. There are many nocturnal critters in the desert with sharp, pointy, and poisonous appendages.

I gathered my gear, and set out for the dunes. I was in a bit of a strange mood that morning. I was excited to see the dunes at first light, but my energy was lacking. My back was sore, and my legs were clumsy as I made my way across the dark desert. I can understand the part about the sore back — I slept on the ground last night and spent much of yesterday hiking through the dunes with a heavy pack — but this was only the morning of Day 2.

Thinking back to last year, I remembered having the same feeling. I knew I would shake it off in the coming days, I just needed to get back in the swing of things.

I reached the dunes under moonlight, and dropped my pack on a low dune. I sat beside it, and took in my surroundings.

It was an hour before sunrise, and still too dark to scout for morning light. I put on my jacket, and laid in the sand. Set against an intrepid display of shimmering stars, several satellites crossed the night sky.

This is what landscape photography is all about — getting out in nature, and feeling a connection with the land. In this case, the connection was quite literal.

I left my bag behind, and climbed a nearby dune. There was now a glimmer of light to the east. The dark blue night sky gave way to bit of orange, low on the horizon.

I took a moment to find my bearings. The dune I stood atop was a serpent of sand, radiating from a massive triangular dune to my east. This pyramid of sand was set against two mountains, giving the scene an enormous sense of depth.

I knew immediately that this was the dune I had been searching for. Through dumb luck, I stumbled upon this scene with my clumsy legs.

In the many hours spent wandering the dunes yesterday, I failed to see this composition. This is my frustration with the dunes. It’s easy to walk past an ideal composition if the light isn’t right. Thankfully, I hadn’t marred the sand with footprints last night.

The dune at my feet was a soft and round. Delicate ripples led my eye along the sinuous arm of sand to the very peak of  the sharp, angular, and graphic dune that dominated the landscape.

I slowly crept forward, looking for the right balance of elements.

I watched as the light continued to develop. The low glow in the east soon washed away the stars, leaving the moon alone amidst a deep blue sky. The earth’s shadow dropped to the west, and direct light appeared on the distant mountains.

Soon, the sand at my feet was bathed in a brilliant display of orange light. Though this light was beautiful, I preferred the soft blue light roughly 20 minutes before sunrise.

I formulated a plan to return with my camera later this afternoon, and set up for a morning shot. This would involve leaving my camera out overnight.

There was one problem with this plan — the wind. Perhaps I failed to mention the severity of it. What began as a low, persistent wind at sunrise, developed into 40 to 50 mile per hour gusts.

I was forced to close my eyes, and endure the onslaught of wind whipped sand while cresting several dunes. Despite the forced facial exfoliation, it was an invigorating experience. I witnessed first hand the force that shapes and sculpts the very dunes I was walking on.

I returned to camp around noon, made lunch, and read a book to kill time. I checked over my gear, then returned to the dune field around 2PM.

It was now very calm — hopefully a sign of things to come. I setup my camera, and used my 300mm normal lens to compose the scene. I selected a horizontal composition, and used rear standard movements to enlarge the background of the composition.

I locked everything in place, and stuck around through sunset. Though my plan was to shoot in the morning, I exposed a sheet of Kodak Portra 160 VC when the Earth’s shadow dominated the eastern sky.

My camera was destined to spend the night at the dunes. I gathered the rest of my gear and made my way back to camp. It was a good day.

Evening's Embrace | Kodak Portra 160 VC | 5 minutes @ f/45 | Nikkor 300mm

Death Valley 2012: Day 1

February 20, 2012

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.

Death Valley 2012: Trip Teaser

January 26, 2012

I’ve recently returned from a whirlwind trip to Death Valley. It was a great trip, and I look forward to sharing my experience and my photos. Here’s a video teaser with some of the highlights.