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.
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)
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)
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)
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.
My first trip to Death Valley brought me to the first scenic lookout when entering the park from the Nevada side (Pahrump Valley I think) which is called Zabraskie Point. There were lots of photographers here on this morning and while the sunrise disappointed the clouds later in the 60-90 minutes that followed had us all pretty excited. I added a little tinting to it and a vignette to make it a little more interesting.
Morning at Zabraskie Point (Death Valley National Park)
I’ll try to get back to posting more frequently. It’s been a challenge lately as I’ve been working and traveling (for work with little downtime for ‘fun’ in between) a ton for the past month or so. October is going to be a tough month too but we are taking a break with a week long trip out to the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.
Standing at the top of the Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley while the sun rose in the early morning was a tremendous sight. The wind the night before smoothed the dunes so that they looked completely unspoiled. The air was still warm from the night before – temperatures dropped down to a ‘brisk’ 96 degrees overnight so it was probably broaching a 100 at this point. I was sweating profusely from the climb to the top – it may not look like much but climbing the dunes is a struggle as the sand slides from under your feet. Often you take two steps forward just to fall three steps further back.
Ultimately, I made it to the top. I framed this shot with the dune hitting the lower left corner but with it leading the eye out towards the sun before turning back towards the mountains and smaller dunes in the distance. As the sun crested above the mountains I opened up the aperture to make sure I was able to see the burst of the sun and its rays streaming into the frame as well. Death Valley is a fun place to photograph and I certainly had more luck this time through with the dunes than I did on my trip in early 2014.
Sunrise over Death Valley (Death Valley National Park)
I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.
— Henry David Thoreau
Lonely Bush at the Mesquite Sand Dunes (Death Valley National Park)
After a long night out in Death Valley National Park as I stood atop the Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley National Park I noticed this lone bush in the distance sitting amongst the large dunes all around it. It stood out in my mind since it was surviving where very little else does. In the Mesquite Dunes area there are some trees – nearer to the road – but amongst the dunes there isn’t much life existing. Thus, it seemed a little remarkable to me that this little bush was staying strong. As I framed it up I tried to isolate the bush against the dunes in the background – and the texture of those windswept dunes really started to standout. The low sun hanging in the air also cast a long shadow which interested me as well so I tried to frame it so the shadow extended into the foreground.
Another of my hopes for this week’s overnight trip to Death Valley National Park was to get some shots of the dunes in the morning. The last time I visited in January 2014 there was little wind in the park and as such the dunes were trampled with footprints from other hikers. Fortunately, throughout the night when I was taking photos of the Milky Way the wind was whipping through the valley periodically and I knew this would lead to good dunes in the morning.
Mesquite Dunes at Sunrise (Death Valley National Park)
The best time to shoot sand dunes are on the edges of the day when the shadows creep in and out and make the dunes look dramatic. I liked the look of this shot and the way the shadows emphasized the shape of the dunes and the pattern of the dunes also resembles that of the mountain behind it. Also, because of the wind there are no footprints as the sand blew all around the prior night before settling – a few hours after this the dunes would most likely be trampled and the photographic possibilities become much more limited.
I’m very intrigued by night photography/astrophotography/star photography – whatever it is called – these days and alot of that has to do with the camera I bought earlier this year. My old Canon Rebel T3i is a FANTASTIC camera but I just don’t think capturing the Milky Way like this would be possible on that body – it probably is and I’m sure if I googled Milky Way T3i I’d find something similar – but I am just continuously amazed at what the Nikon D750 can do and the way it handles noise in images. This was taken at ISO 6400 with a shutter speed of 21 seconds. My lens is not ‘optimal’ for star photography in that it ONLY goes to f/4 (as opposed to the lenses that can open to f/2.8 or even f/1.2) but even with a 21 second exposure I think the stars are pretty sharp.
The GENERAL rule with stars is that they should be pretty sharp and show up as single points of light as long as you follow the rule of 500. That rule essentially says that as long as you keep the exposure time below 500 divided by the focal length (I shot this at 16mm) your stars will be pretty clean. Thus, I tried to keep my exposures below 25 seconds (just to be on the safe side – I’ve heard anything over 25 seconds is going to show some blur regardless of the focal length because of how fast the earth rotates).
Milky Way Above Zabraskie Point (Death Valley National Park)
I stayed out all night shooting – I got 20 minutes of sleep when I pulled off on the side of the road to take a power nap – before heading to the Mesquite Dunes for some early morning shots (after shooting there in the morning I took another 20 minute nap before starting the trip back to Vegas so 40 minutes total sleep in the last 36+ hours – yikes! 😦). There was a fair amount of wind (unexpected) in Death Valley last night which meant the dunes were pretty smooth and free of footprints this morning so I’m actually pretty happy with some of my dune shots from this trip whereas on my last trip I threw every one of them in the trash almost immediately. I will say there are some things I could have done better with these Milky Way shots though. I’ll have to post on that when I have some more energy – now to take a quick nap before dinner tonight.
Next week I’m heading to Las Vegas for my Mom and sister’s birthdays – it’s a family celebration and we are all looking forward to it. I arrive a few hours before everyone else so instead of hitting the casinos all by my lonesome I decided to rent a car and drive out to Death Valley National Park to take some pictures of the milky way. The 15th is the ‘new moon’ so on the 16th when I get there the sky should be dark and devoid of light pollution for the moon so I’m really looking forward to it.
My plan is to drive out to Badwater Basin and take some shots with octagons in the foreground (It’ll be hard to search in the dark – I’ll be less particular this time) with the Milky Way over top (and it is supposed to be in full view this time of year!), before heading to Zabriskie Point for the Milky Way over that spot and then head over to the dunes – maybe catch the milky way there but ultimately I’ll plan to sleep in the car for a few hours before sunrise at 5:45 AM over the dunes. After that I’ll make my way back to Vegas, grab a mai tai and crash by the pool. So much for vacation!