Big Pine Road

Day 2, Afternoon

My next destination in Death Valley was Eureka Dunes. Eureka Dunes are remote but are worth the drive. Their size is magnificent and awe inspiring.

The way I got there was by Big Pine Road coming from Scottys Castle. It was about 2 hour drive on a rough unpaved road. The views were great and I stopped several times to take photos. The very first post of the series about this trip (Death Valley) has one of the views opening up for traveller.

There are a couple of interesting sites a long the way. First one is Crankshaft Crossing that actually have a few crankshafts lying around:

Crankshaft Crossing

And the other one is remains of a sulfur mine that was abandoned long time ago. With much of equipment abandoned to rust it looks like a scar on a landscape. One sheet of metal was loose and flapping in the wind making a squeaky sound. This made the place feel ghostly and spooky.

Mine 1

Mine 2

Mine 3

What camera should I buy?

I get this question asked a lot “What DSL should I buy?”. I understand why I’m asked this question. I’m a photographer. I must know a lot about cameras and photographic equipment. That’s true I know some but not a lot.

What camera to buy is a question that you and only you can answer. What camera or lenses to buy depends on what you’d like to do with it. It takes some time to learn that. So, my answer is always buy the cheapest. That’s what I did when I started.

I don’t follow what’s current in photographic equipment. Rather than follow the latest trends in cameras and gear I spend time learning history of photography, work by old and contemporary photographers, reading books about photography. It is more satisfying to me and allows me to grow myself, my vision, rather than acquiring more gear.

And if you’re in photography because you are into photographic gear. I’m not the right person to ask for an advice; there are plenty of photography gear magazines and websites out there.


With all the advancements in technology I still find that in a lot of situations it is easier to set exposure and focus manually. It does not mean my camera is broken. The camera simply does not know what I want to photograph. I always have white balance on manual and often use manual focusing. During last trip at some point I’ve also realized that I was fighting with automatic exposure with compensations, and eventually gave up and set it to manual. After that I could do much more and better photographs easier.

This reminds me when back in high school I had completely manual rangefinder camera. Then my parents gave me SLR with a built-in exposure meter as a birthday present. I was relying on it completely… and have not had a single frame with good exposure.

Automatic settings are great for casual photography but when I try to get an image as close as possible to the one in my mind’s eye automatic settings often get in my way.

Hand Waving

Photographer’s hand is a very useful tool. And it is useful not only for pressing a shutter button. It can also be used to create a shade for lenses to avoid lens flare. Or it can be used to block out sun that gets into a corner of a frame.

It can also be used as a gradient neutral density filter. With a long expose you can simply block out part of the frame for some time to reduce amount of light that gets into the frame. That’s exactly what I did when I took the photo below. While composing it I put my hand in front of a lens to cover sky down to horizon and took a note of how “deep” my hand should go to cover the sky. I pressed the shutter and started waving my hand in front of the lens, so my hand is not recorded but it blocked out enough light to produce dark moody sky.

Sure I could actually use gradient neutral density filter but it would not be so much fun. At some point I understood that photographer is a human and can carry only so much weight on his back. I started lightening up my backpack, gradient neutral density filters were one of the things that went away. In some way it actually made photography more interesting to me as I would spend less time unpacking my gadgets and preparing for a shot and spend more time seeing and connecting with a scene.

Kauai. Early Morning. Storm is comingKauai. Early Morning. Storm is coming

Dust Storm

The first day of the trip I’ve experienced a dust storm for the first time. I’ve never been in a dust storm before. At some point of the driving to Palouse I had to stop completely because there was no visibility at all. Then I started moving slowly ahead hoping there is nobody ahead and nobody will smash into me from behind.

When there was visibility it looked like this:

Dust Storm in Cenral Washington

While visually dust storm was as interesting a fog, it was practically impossible to photograph. Strong wind was knocking off my camera on a tripod. I was trying to shoot handheld but I could not stand still because of the wind. Dust was getting everywhere – into my ears, nose, eyes and, worse of all, into my gear. I had to give up.

Trusting Equipment

Since when have we started trusting our equipment to the level when we don’t use our brains anymore?

On my recent trip to Yosemite I was taking photos of a waterfall and saw a man taking a photo of his lovely wife and daughter with the waterfall in background. I was in a very good mood and decided to help him get a better picture. I gave him an advice to use fill flash to lit up their faces, since waterfall in background was bright and the sun was slightly behind. The man turned to me and said that he has a new camera that can detect when background is too bright and will pop the flash automatically.

I did not want to argue with him but found it very interesting that we started trusting equipment more than our common sense. I guess I must resist an urge to help anyone with “smarter than human” camera.


This is a series of posts with translation of my interview published in Russian at The question from the interview: “What equipment do you use to take photos? Do you use any unusual equipment while photographing? Maybe something handmade?”

I prefer to avoid gear discussions. Canon or Nikon or something else – does not matter. What matters is the person taking a photograph. My only advice, if you want to try yourself in photography, is not to spend too much money on the first camera and lenses. The first camera is needed to understand if you like doing photography, what kind of photography you like and what you might need to do what you like.

One of unusual pieces of equipment I use is a shower cap (the one you get for free in pretty much all hotels and motels). It comes very useful while shooting in rain or next to a large waterfall – I always have a few in my backpack. It is easy to put on a camera and protects it from rain or mist. It still allows to compose a photograph and adjust polarizer. Then I open up front lenses take a photograph and snap it right back on.

Also I use my hand to cover lenses a bit to avoid glare. On a long exposures with high dynamic range I can block some of the light coming in (kind of burning image in the field. Also I can block the sun when it happens to be in a corner of my frame. That way I avoid white spot in the corner and the sky in that corner will turn red-orange color.

And of cause I always have a flashlight with me. It has three main functions: light my way to where I’m going to photograph sunrise or when I come back from photographing a sunset; helps me focus camera at night and, finally, light up a subject while photographing at night.

Also I always have a compass with me to help me figure out where a sunrise or sunset is going to be.

Trip Checklist

This is a series of posts with translation of my interview published in Russian at The question from the interview: “You travel a lot. Could you tell a little bit about organizing your trips: how do you prepare for a trip, how much time it takes?”

It depends on how far I travel. If it is somewhere close by car, I almost always have everything in the car. I can without additional preparation just go somewhere for weekend. (After my son was born I need to discuss with my wife ahead of time if I want to travel somewhere.)

If I travel farther away by plane (alone or with my family), preparations take a week or longer. It is typically include the following (always in the order below:

  1. Study the place I’m going to. What to expect in terms of photography. I look at photographs of the destination made by other photographers, read travel guides, study terrain from satellite photos. For example, if it is near the ocean, what’s the ocean shore line is like, interesting rocks, where I’ll be able to walk to the shore.
  2. Decide what to take (if flying by plane, if going by car I take everything). Since there is a limit on carry on and lately I also need to carry my son’s belongings (and sometimes my son himself), I try to take a bare minimum. I make compromises without doubt. For example, I’ll leave macro lenses at home and take macro filter instead to use on another lenses, or don’t take lenses for some focal length.
  3. Sunset and sunrise times. What can get into the sun way during sunrise or sunset, can it be blocked by mountains, do I need to get to higher elevation. Moonrise and moonset times. Tide table – especially important if some parts of the shore are crossable only during low tide.
  4. Cleaning up equipment: cleaning sensor on camera, cleaning lenses and filter. Charging batteries.

How long have I been photographing? How did I start?

This is a series of posts with translation of my interview published in Russian at

It depends on what point to start count from. I was fascinated with photography on some subconscious level. Back in school I had an old rangefinder camera. Completely mechanical with manual exposure – no electronics at all. I developed film by myself, I made prints by myself. I still remember the scent of chemicals.

I remember my experiment with enlarging a photograph to a really big size. I put my enlarge on a side and projected the image from one end of 7 meter hall to the wall on the other end. On the wall I put letter size sheets of photo paper. The hardest thing was to develop those sheets exactly the same time to keep the same tonality. And I did not succeed on that. Different sheets ended up being darker or lighter. Despite that I enjoyed experimenting.

Later, in high school, my parents bought me more advanced camera – film SLR. It had electronic exposure metering! That was when I learnt my first lesson: not to trust tools. Since I started relying on exposure metering I did not get a single shot with a good exposure.

Still I would not say I did fine art photography in the school. After I entered a university I abandoned photography completely. There was no way I could setup a dark room in a dorm.

After post-graduation school I moved across an ocean to the US. I did not immediately started doing photography again. I traveled a lot, bought a simple digital camera and was taking some random snapshots which I have not even bothered to look at since then.

After a few years living in the US I noticed that I spent too much time working. I needed something that would take me away from work. I tried several hobbies and could not stop on anything.

At the same time my wife got into photography. She was the first we got a DSLR for. I thought about trying myself in landscape photography. I bought a tripod, started reading books and explore landscapes around. And I really like it. Photography has become part of my life that I cannot live without.

The Importance of a Routine

It is important to work out a routine of taking camera out of a backpack and putting it back. Routine will turn into habit that will ensure that nothing gets broken or lost over time.

I realized this after one incident while photographing in Yellow Stone National Park. One time I though I would leave my camera backpack open in the trunk of my car. I thought why bother opening it and closing every time I need to reach for a camera.

Then I was in hurry to catch a sunset and I completely forgot that I left my backpack opened. I needed to run to get a better angle for a shot. I quickly pulled the backpack out of the truck and threw it at my back.  That sent my DSLR and filters flying out of the backpack.

I was very lucky that time – my camera landed onto a level inserted into the camera hotshoe. The level was crushed but it saved the camera – it did not have any damage. Needless to say that I did not get any sunset shots that time.

That taught me an important lesson not to skip on important routine of packing camera after doing photography. The lesson cost was $25 – the cost of a new level.

I have similar routines for extending/collapsing tripod legs, placing camera on tripod, for placing and removing a filter, changing lenses. These routines are very important. Eventually they turn into habits that you do very mechanically, so you can focus more on photography instead of these small things.

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