A few days ago I was taking a photo of chairs in a park behind an office building. While trying to find an interesting pattern in the seemingly random location of the chairs I had an interesting thought. There might be photographers who’d come to a scene like this one and rearrange it in the way it is appealing. I on the other hand just looking at it, from different angles, from different point of views, trying to read its stories the way they are.
I do the same while photographing a landscape. I never rearrange a scene, moving only my camera trying to find an interesting picture. I appreciate the scene for what it is, for what it tells me. I just need to be a willing listener.
At the trip to the Death Valley last December I visited Racetrack Playa for the first time. I’ve dreamt about visiting this place for so long, about seeing its sailing stones – stones moving across playa leaving tracks in clay that covers the playa.
With dismay I discovered that the place is mostly ruined by the visitors. There were a lot of tracks with stones stolen from them. Some tracks had stones that clearly did not belong there. In addition there were signs of vandalism: tracks left by motocycle and truck tires. It took nature many years to create this unique place. It took humans just a few years to ruin it.
Photographic trip does not have to be all about art. It can also be fun.
I’ve just returned from a trip to the Death Valley where I spent several days with a photographer friend photographing at various locations around the valley. It involved a lot of driving and hiking and of course photography. We woke up before sunrise and hiked in the dark to a location to photograph at sunrise every day. We drove quite a bit to remote locations where we photographed sunset, then drove back in the dark.
It sounds very tiresome but it was not because we’d have fun playing photographic jokes on each other, taking silly pictures, sharing and laughing at them. Photographic trip does not have to be all about art. It can also be fun.
Finally, I’ve published all my notes from Death Valley trip. I’m glad I’m done. Now I can move on to all the images that I’ve already captured after the trip to Death Valley.
Here are some final thoughts on things I’d do different on a trip to Death Valley.
I’d go to Death Valley in November-February. The sun stays lower thru the day, sunsets and sunrises are longer, and there is more time for night photography and sleep. The reason I went this end of March was because a few years back there were a lot of wild flowers blooming at about the same time. But it was an unusual year with more rains than normal. That happens only once in lifetime.
I’d take at least one tilt-shift lens to get sharpness through the scene while photographing dunes and canyons without locking aperture all the way down.
I’d drive to Eureka Dunes from Big Pine, it is much easier and safer road (could be faster too).
I’d rent a smaller car to travel to Death Valley and to get around and I’d rent a car with heavy duty tires in Death Valley to go to Race Track. Having big car is not helpful. Heaving heavy duty tires or couple full size spares is what is really needed.
Day 6, Dawn
It is my last day in Death Valley, to be more accurate my last morning at Death Valley since after sunrise I will be driving back to Las Vegas and flying home. I can’t wait to hug my wife and son.
On my last morning at Death Valley I decided to photograph at Zabriskie Point. Morning photos from Zabriskie Point has become cliché. I heard stories of tens of photographers showing up there at sunrise. Strangely enough with several trips to Death Valley I’ve never been there. It was about time to change that.
Surprisingly I was the only person there… That’s one hour before sunrise. By sunrise there were 9 photographers and about 15 spectators.
I took several panoramas before, during and after sunrise. The sunrise was not very impressive – there were not much clouds in the sky. Only while reviewing panoramas at home I realized that I created a tale of light of that morning – I was taking a panorama every time there was significant change in light.
So here it is, a tale of light at Zabriskie Point. (Click on the images to see them in larger size.)
6:07 Deep blue of twilight.
6:21 Sunrise moving across the sky.
6:29 Touchdown. The gap between horizon and line of sunrise closed. The clouds lit up.
6:32 Sun kissed the mountains.
7:03 The light is deep in the valley.
Day 5, Sunset
Finding water is a bit of a challenge in Death Valley. On a rainy year (which was a few years ago) there was water on Badwater flats and lots of photographers and spectators were taking photos of reflections. This year there was no water at all on Badwater.
As I was driving thru the valley I noticed a brisk reflection of the Sun. It must have been water.
Indeed there were a few small creeks with salty banks. And where water is there is life. There was some grass. Most of it dried out but there was some still green. The dry ones mineralized with salt turned into sharp spikes.
That’s where I settled waiting for a sunset.
Here are a couple of images I took at that place. The first one is right before the Sun disappeared, the last rays just touching the tops of the greenery:
And here the afterglow:
Day 5, Noon
What an amazing breathtaking view of Death Valley opens up from Dante’s Peak!
The elevation gain of Dante’s Peak is so high that the temperature drops 15C comparing to the the temperature at the bottom of the valley. I got there in t-shirt and shorts but quickly had to put on long-sleeved shirt, warm jacket and gloves to keep myself warm.
Here is a panorama with Badwater in the front (click on the image to see bigger size):
Here is horizontal photo of the part in the distance:
And here are is a vertical:
Day 5, Dawn
At night dunes are filled with animal sounds. By the morning there are lots of signs of creatures’ night life – all kind of tracks in the dunes.
Day 5, Dawn
In lowlands between dunes you can find solid pressed fine grained sand. I always start working with a subject from far a way, since once I get closer I won’t be able to erase my tracks in case I want to step back. So, I started by photographing one of these islands as a part of landscape, then I got closer.
First that caught my eye, as I got close to it, was little domes and shadows around them. It looks like they were pieces in large puzzle. I tried to photograph those domes but photos ended up borings with a piece straight in the middle. I tried to shift them off center in my frame. That was when I realized that the really interesting thing in that puzzle were cracks in between the pieces.
Day 4, Dusk
At night dunes are calm and quiet. But as sun rises strong winds start moving sands. Dunes become violent and unpredictable.
Today I went into dunes for sunset. There was little to no wind at first then within a few minutes wind became very strong. It was not only moving dust, it was moving sand.
Would you want your skin be polished with sand paper? That’s how it felt standing in that sand storm. I had to hide behind a bush hoping that it will be over soon but it was picking up more and more. As I was standing behind the bush I saw sand settling on camera. I needed to get out.
I was walking backwards toward a road to keep my back against the wind. The fun part in walking backwards was seeing my footsteps disappear right in front of my eyes. The wind and moving send would repair the dune texture within seconds.
Sand Storm. No Visibility
Day 4, Noon
Today at noon I hiked up Mosaic Canyon. It turned to be more interesting from geological and mineralogical point of view rather than from photographical. The variety of color and texture of rocks was captivating.
On the way back I saw what looked like a steep trail up to a ridge that could open up to a view of Death Valley and Mesquite Dunes. I started climbing up.
The trail was getting steeper and steeper. At some point I had to climb up a two meter drop. I had to stop to think about how to climb it and realized that I could climb up but I would unlikely be able to climb down. There is a reason why climbers slide down on ropes. Climbing down is much harder than climbing up.
I recalled what John Shaw said when was asked if he had one advice to photographers what it would be. His answer was "Don’t be stupid". Being already 15 meters up on a very steep trail with sharp rocks and nobody else making this far into the canyon, there would be no help if I make wrong move.
I carefully retraced back my steps backward (there was no room to turn around). It took longer to get back down than to walk up. Once I had ground under my foot again, I was happy that common sense won over curiosity this time.