Sunrise over Cottonball Basin (Death Valley National Park)

Finding interesting patterns in the Cottonball Basin of Death Valley National Park is not as easy as it seems when you look at this picture and geometrical shapes seem to spread out as far as the eye can see. The reality is finding these types of patterns in the direction that you want to see the sun rise or set is one of the challenges of taking interesting pictures of Death Valley National Park. The prior day I walked 6 – 8 miles back and forth across the Cottonball Basin and dropped pins on my GPS so that I could re-locate the spots in the dark the following morning. I wound up dropping around 8 pins – taking test shots during harsh lighting – and then deciding on which location to revisit the night before while scrolling through the photos on my laptop the night before.

Sunrise over Cottonball Basin (Death Valley National Park)

Sunrise over Cottonball Basin (Death Valley National Park)

Under the Arch (Joshua Tree National Park)

A short, easy hike (0.3 miles) in Joshua Tree National Park brings you out to Arch Rock. The distance, or lack thereof, coupled with the accessibility makes it one of the most frequented areas in the park. Shaped somewhat like a brachiosaurus and stretching 30 or 40 feet across is a rock that forms what is known as the ‘arch’. Since I’ve never been to Arches National Park this is the closest I’ve been to something that might emulate that. Of course the stunning views of mountains in the distance that you get at Arches National Park aren’t accessible here since the only picture to be had is below it but I was fortunate with a nice blue sky and wispy clouds. I couldn’t decide on the color version or the black and white version so I posted both.

As an FYI…The next few weeks are going to be tough on not only posting but also on creating anything new. We have a new addition to the family – no not another human but a puppy and MAN are these little guys alot of work. Let’s hope he grows out of his chewing everything in sight phase before I lose my sanity!

Under the Arch (Joshua Tree National Park)

Under the Arch (Joshua Tree National Park)

Under the Arch Black and White (Joshua Tree National Park)

Sunrise over Zabriskie Point (Death Valley National Park)

Millions of years ago there was a giant lake sitting at the base of Zabriskie Point – covering the location I was standing in when I took this photo last year. The rising/falling water levels and erosion that it caused formed the badlands in the foreground of the image.

A popular spot for sunrise in Death Valley I spent the morning with about twenty other photographers sipping coffee and commenting on the colors in the sky. The highlight of sunrise from this point is actually the mountain range that is directly behind where I’m standing here. Unfortunately, the wispy clouds that turned so colorful in the minutes before the sun came above the horizon prevented the sun from hitting the mountain and so most people who spent the morning out there left disappointed with the outcome. I made the best of it and got a few usable shots – like this one and a couple that I’ll eventually convert to black and white of some heavy clouds over the mountain.

Sunrise over Zabriskie Point (Death Valley National Park)

Sunrise over Zabriskie Point (Death Valley National Park)

Sunset over Joshua Tree National Park (Joshua Tree National Park)

In Joshua Tree earlier this year I was pretty fortunate with two really nice sunsets during my only two nights in the park. I spent the afternoon driving all throughout the park to different locations looking for some nice Joshua Trees to put in the foreground. I also wanted to catch the hills (or are they mountains?) in the distance. The Mojave desert is one of the only places in the world where the joshua trees grow so I definitely wanted to make them one of the stars of this image.

Sunset over Joshua Tree National Park (Joshua Tree National Park)

Sunset over Joshua Tree National Park (Joshua Tree National Park)

In Lightroom I cropped the image a bit to remove some of the distracting foreground and also added a vignette and a little more vibrance to the colors.

Abandoned Car in Joshua Tree National Park

I spent a few days in Joshua Tree National Park earlier this year. Having more than one day allowed me to spend more time bouncing from location to location trying to take pictures of the interesting scenery. One of the more interesting hikes took me out to an old abandoned mine that passed multiple abandoned cars – left like the one in the picture below – as the settlors decided the land and the mine weren’t going to deliver the riches they expected.

Abandoned Car in Joshua Tree (Joshua Tree National Park)

Abandoned Car in Joshua Tree (Joshua Tree National Park)

Three weeks until we are off to Africa – I did wind up renting the Tamron 150 – 600 mm lens. Determined that was a better bet than buying it for $1,100. It costs $200 to rent/ship it but at the end of the day I am not sure I’d ever use it again so might as well pay the price temporarily.

Standing on Mesquite Dunes (Death Valley National Park)

Over the summer I took a trip to Las Vegas and not being much of a casino guy I drove out to the desert to spend the night. I stayed up all night and took star shots before heading over to the Mesquite Dunes for sunrise. On my previous trip to Death Valley there was very little wind so the dunes were trampled by people (like myself) walking up to the top of them for vantage points like this. However, there was a lot of wind the night before and so when I got to the dunes in the morning they were practically untouched and in pristine condition. I carefully selected where to walk in an effort to keep footprints out of the pictures of others visiting the dunes later. I guarantee by noon on this day though there were many tracks all across these dunes and if you tried to visit at night you’d struggle to find a smooth place in the sand.

Standing on Mesquite Dunes (Death Valley National Park)

Standing on Mesquite Dunes (Death Valley National Park)

Cholla Garden Sunset (Joshua Tree National Park)

The Cholla cactus is native to the Southwest US and while it looks harmless is actually a ‘jumping’ cactus so don’t get too close to them because they STICK to everything and their quills are sharp! So sharp that they even pierced my heave hiking boots when I stepped on one. I had to remove my boot and pull the quill out of the bottom of my foot – OUCH! Okay so they don’t really ‘jump’ per se but they stick to everything and they do seem to shed so their pods and quills are scattered all over the cactus garden. Despite how prickly (and painful) they are I do like the look of them at sunset. The way the sun bounces off the quills and makes them glow is pretty magical. I stayed out past sunset and had to very carefully (and slowly) navigate myself back to my car – not an easy feat with all the cacti around.

Cholla Garden Sunset (Joshua Tree National Park)

Cholla Gardens Sunset (Joshua Tree National Park)

Joshua Tree under the Moonlight (Joshua Tree National Park)

I went out to take pictures of the Joshua Tree’s under the stars but unfortunately the clouds didn’t cooperate. However, the fast moving clouds combined with the full moon made for some interesting compositions as well and I came away with several images that I liked from the middle of the Mojave desert in the full moon.

Joshua Tree Under the Moonlight (Joshua Tree National Park)

Joshua Tree under a Full Moon

This was shot with a 12-second exposure at ISO 640. There is a city in the distance (hence the orange glow) but not sure if that is from Las Vegas, Los Angeles or Palm Springs. Geography isn’t my strong suit.

Dawn in the Desert (Death Valley National Park)

At the beginning of 2014 following a meeting with a client in Los Angeles I made the three or four hour drive over to Death Valley National Park to take some photos. I had every intention in going out to find the sailing stones on the Racetrack Playa. If you don’t know what those are click on the link and take a few minutes to read about the phenomenon. However, I ultimately for the sake of my rental car and because of the odd amount of rain the desert was getting during this period decided not to make the treacherous trip out there. If I ever make it back though I may rent a jeep and take the four hour trek out there and stay the night – the images I’ve seen of the tracks trailing these stones are pretty amazing.

The Cottonball Basin is much easier to access and is located only about a half hour or so from the entrance of the park. The only challenging part in creating this image before the sun comes up is to find an interesting pattern of salt flats. In order to do that I went out the day before – with my GPS – and marked specific locations I wanted to head back to. I numbered them on my GPS and also took pictures that corresponded with those numbers. The night before I went through all those pictures and settled on this location to head to first thing in the morning. I liked that the salt flats were well defined and the geometrical shapes were easy to spot not only from right at my feet but also into the distance. These spots are not easy to find and the previous day I probably spent four or five hours walking a good ten miles in process to find a handful of spots like this that would be photogenic. I got lucky with the weather this morning as it was really clear and thus there was a nice alpenglow on the mountains as the sun was still below the horizon in the distance.

Dawn in the Desert (Death Valley National Park)

Pre-Dawn in the Desert (Death Valley National Park)

Death Valley is an interesting place and it is huge. Driving from one end to another takes hours and given that it is desert and most of the ground is cracked, landscape is barren and there really isn’t any coverage of any kind anywhere it is somewhat boring to look at which makes the drive a bit challenging as well (compared to say Glacier National Park or Rocky Mountain National Park where there are mountains all over the place and the changes in elevation bring different trees, ecosystems, etc…). However, despite that if you do have a chance to visit and have the time to drive through it I would highly recommend it. Especially as close as it is to major tourist locations like Los Angeles and/or Las Vegas (about ninety minutes). Most of the areas – like Cottonball Basin and Badwater Basin – are just off of the main roads and it is pretty easy to step out of your car and walk around. Just be sure to get back before dark because unlike parks with trails everything in Death Valley looks the same so if you are out at night and don’t know where your car is you are unlikely to find it until the morning.

Golden Gate Bridge at Sunrise (San Francisco, California)

Recently I’ve been making an effort to stay away from the HDR processing software that I originally started using when getting into photography. Historically, I’d use a program called Photomatix by HDR Soft and take the the three to five images directly into that program and the software would blend the images together to come up with a ‘tone mapped’ version. From that image I’d try to blend in different parts of the ‘original’ files to ultimately come up with a finalized version. This process works well and as a beginner I was very satisfied with the results I got from this. However, over time as other photo editing processes – like Lightroom – have improved allowing me to pull more detail and color out of images it is less of a necessity to use programs like Photomatix to pull details into an image.

Years ago creating an image like the one below using only a single exposure would have been next to impossible. I’m sure that Photoshop experts would have been able to do it using complex masks and multiple layers but a beginner like me never would have been able to do it. However, now it is much easier and with programs like Raya Pro by Jimmy McIntyre which takes the complicated work out of creating luminosity masks and lets you make targeted adjustments to specific details and areas of the photos without impacting other areas.

Golden Gate Bridge at Sunrise (San Francisco, California)

Golden Gate Bridge at Sunrise (San Francisco, California)

This image was created through the use of Lightroom, Raya Pro (in Photoshop) and then ultimately some touch ups in OnOne Perfect Effects.

The original photo is below:

I was able to make all of these adjustments without using a ‘dark’ or ‘light’ version of it. After the new year I’ll write a little review of Raya Pro as I’m still playing with it but here in the early days – after a bit of a learning curve about luminosity masks – I’m extremely impressed with the program as it has opened up possibilities that didn’t exist in my photography and photo editing before.