Showing posts with label Death Valley. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Death Valley. Show all posts

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Desert Highway - Death Valley

Converging Lines and Calculated Risks

I made my first trip to Death Valley on a clear day in June when the temperature hit 122 F. I had recently become a photography enthusiast and wanted to capture some images of this majestic wilderness. 

In extreme temperatures, however, one shouldn't venture too far from the car. I made an attempt to hike to the Mesquite dunes but turned back quickly due to concerns over dehydration and heat exhaustion. For the rest of the day, I stayed close to the car.

I exposed the most memorable image of the day as sunset approached. I pulled the car off to the side of a stretch of roadway that had been freshly paved with deep black asphalt and painted with bright yellow lines. I mounted a 24mm lens on my trust Nikon F100 - yes, a film camera - and had my travel companion watch for cars approaching from behind me.

Of the handful of shots that I snapped, one of them turned out particularly well. I had several copies of it printed; a few of my friends still have that image hanging in their homes.

Returning to Death Valley some years later, I wanted to capture a similar image with the help of a tilt-shift lens. The tilt feature on this special-purpose lens enables focus to be repositioned from a vertical plane (typical for most cameras) to a ground-hugging plane that extends infinitely off into the distance. When the lens is adjusted correctly - which is a bit tricky - focus will be sharp on both the foreground features in the frame (e.g. the yellow lines and pavement near my feet) and distant objects as well (mountains, sky, brush, distant lines on the roadway). 

a photo of a desert highway at dusk in death valley

The stretch of highway that I had photographed years earlier was now gray and worn, but I found another location that appealed to my eyes. The surface was in good condition, it had been painted recently, and it stretched straight off into the distance where the last light of sunset was still visible. 

I was set except for one major complication. On this trip, I didn't have a travel companion. I had to rely on my ears and frequent glances behind me to keep from getting run over while focusing my camera in the middle of a highway. (Luckily, no one was drag racing through the valley that evening.)

As I mentioned before, focusing a tilt-shift lens can be tricky, and it becomes increasingly more difficult as the light fades. It's a manual process, but you have to focus for the near and far objects separately. By adding a small amount of tilt, typically only a degree or two, you can reach a point where both near and far objects are sharp. It's very each to add too much tilt, however, which messes everything up.

The process typically takes a few minutes even for skilled photographers - and even when you're not in mortal danger of being struck by a fast-moving automobile. Luckily, I had a lot of experience with my tilt-shift setup, so I was able to acquire the proper focus fairly quickly - while looking over my shoulder every ten seconds or so. 

Please don't attempt a shot like this without spotters. Even if you have someone - hopefully more than one person - watching your back, this kind of shot is risky to say the least. Just because I got away with it doesn't mean that it was a good idea. 

You'll think about it. It's tempting. My advice is to think about the future as you relax and enjoy the sunset a safe distance from traffic.

Camera:    Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Lens:        Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II

Wishing you great light and meaningful moments!

Copyright 2017 Daniel R. South
All Rights Reserved

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Winter Sunset - Death Valley

The Magnificent Majesty of a Desert Turned Cold

We tend to think of deserts as hot places. It might be better to think of them as surprising places.

In the winter months, cold weather prevails. Even in the spring and autumn, nighttime temperatures can drop toward the freezing point and beyond despite balmy daytime weather.

a photo of zabriskie point at sunset in death valley in winter
Winter Sunset - Death Valley

If you visit a desert region during the cooler months, please take these potential temperature swings very seriously. You'll need to be prepared for almost any type of weather. If you're exposed to frigid overnight temperatures without proper clothing, you'll find yourself in grave danger. I shot this photo wearing the same clothes that I wear while shoveling snow, and I was very happy when I was able to climb into my waiting car.

But along with that unexpected chill, you might experience some unexpected beauty, some magical light, and the magnificent majesty of a rugged landscape that holds surprises for intrepid travelers all year long.

Happy Winter Solstice, everyone! And safe travels!

Camera:    Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Lens:        Canon TS-E24mm f/3.5L II 

Wishing you great light and meaningful moments!

Copyright 2014 Daniel R. South
All Rights Reserved

Saturday, October 5, 2013

National Parks in Peril

Casualties of Governmental Gridlock

The United States government is in the midst of a budget crisis. The National Park system was one of the immediate casualties. Rangers have been furloughed, concessions have been shuttered, and these beautiful parks are now closed to the public.

a photo of grand canyon national park at sunset by daniel south
Grand Canyon at Sunset

Hopefully, the crisis will be resolved shortly so that the parks can return to normal operation.

a photo of a mountain lake in yosemite national park
Yosemite National Park from Tioga Road

When the issues have been resolved and the parks are once again receiving visitors, please make it a point to spend some time seeing one or more of these amazing national treasures.

a photograph of zabriskie point at sunrise in death valley national park
Zabriskie Point Sunrise, Death Valley

Nature should not be held hostage by bickering bureaucrats. Unfortunately, the political process does not always consider the costs and consequences of short-sighted decisions. It might be a good idea to visit our National Parks before they are thrust once again into operational peril by self-serving politicians. 

Grand Canyon: Canon EOS 5D Mark II, TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II

Yosemite: Nikon D800E, 24-70 f/2.8G AF-S

Death Valley: Canon EOD 5D Mark II, 70-200 f/4L IS

Wishing you great light and meaningful moments!

Copyright 2013 Daniel R. South
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Abandon The Plan!

Know When To Follow Your Inner Voice

While visiting Death Valley, I considered taking a day to photograph the Racetrack Playa. Unfortunately, it didn't fit into my schedule.

The Racetrack is in a remote section of the park. Reaching the area requires a sturdy four-wheel-drive vehicle with special tires - forget about taking your rental car. I only had a few days to see the entire park, and a long side trip just wasn't practical.  

But strange things happen in the desert, and I started to hear a voice.

"You've always dreamed of seeing the Racetrack. You're so close!" the Voice insisted.

"Yes, I know, Voice," I replied. "But I have only three days to see the entire park. I don't have time for an off-road excursion. I'll have to come back and see The Racetrack on another trip."

"Another trip? When? What if that never happens?"

"Don't be so negative, Voice! Besides, I have already planned my itinerary."

"And you can't change a plan?"

"I could..."

"Look, you've come this far already! It would be a shame to leave without seeing the sliding rocks and experiencing firsthand one of the world's great mysteries."

"I know! I would really like to go, but I would have to change all of my lodging reservations."

"Why don't you ask the desk if they'll let you stay for another day or two? Then call the next place to see if you can arrive a day or two later."

"Okay, I'll ask. But they might be booked solid."

"And they might not."

"I would also need to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and who knows what that involves."

"Good news! You can rent them near where you're staying."

"I have no idea how much it would cost or whether any vehicles are available. And what insurance coverage I would need."

"There's this invention called a telephone. You should try it sometime."

"Okay, Voice! I'll make a call! - You're annoying, do you know that?"

a photo of the Racetrack Playa At Sunset Death Valley National Park
Racetrack Playa At Sunset - Death Valley National Park

As you may have guessed from the photo above, the Voice won. I extended my stay in Death Valley, rented a Jeep, and set out early the next morning on one of the most rewarding adventurous of my life.

The Racetrack was amazing beyond words, a truly one-of-a-kind destination. The weather became quite pleasant once the sun came out, although it was below freezing when I arrived before dawn. I had a lot of fun exploring the playa and photographing the trails left by the rocks.

Of course, like any photographer, I hoped that I might be able to capture a dramatic sunset to cap off the day. A nice cluster of cumulus clouds showed up at just the right time.

Death Valley is amazing, and the excursion to the Racetrack Playa was one of the highlights. I would have regretted missing out on this.

In fact, I had so much fun at the Racetrack that I made a second run out there on the following day. Anyone who has ever driven the thirty-two miles (one way) of washboard road that leads to The Racetrack can appreciate just how much of an adventure that was! 

Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Lens: Canon TS-E24 f/3.5L II

Singh-Ray Graduated Neutral Density Filter

Wishing you great light and meaningful moments!

Copyright © 2013 Daniel R. South
All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Romancing The Dunes

Death Valley's Most Recognizable Features

Once you're in Death Valley, a trip to the Mesquite Dunes is as easy or as challenging as you want it to be. A five minute walk from the paved parking area will get you out onto some dunes - dunes full of footprints. Visitors just love to climb on sand dunes!

If you want photos of a pristine, wind-swept wilderness, you'll need to hike farther. Quite a bit farther. Keep in mind that hiking on sand is strenuous, and hiking in Death Valley's heat is extremely dangerous.

My trips to the dunes were logged in the winter months, so I didn't have to deal with snakes or life-threatening temperatures. Even so, hiking out to the footprint-free zone was challenging.

In order to keep sand out of my gear, I mounted lenses to my camera bodies while still at the car. I wanted to minimize lens changes in blowing sand. I filled my jacket pockets with reading glasses, a cable release, a lens cleaning cloth, and other accessories and zipped my backpack tightly.

a photo of the mesquite sand dunes in death valley daniel south photography
Mesquite Dunes at Sunset, Death Valley National Park

This is my favorite photo of the dunes. I like the inclusion of the rugged mountains and the way that peaks line up between mountain and dune. The ripples indicate the presence of wind. I was able to use the small piece of dried vegetation to anchor the foreground.

And no footprints! 

A Word Of Caution

Hiking desert dunes can be dangerous, especially in hot weather. Your body will lose moisture with each exhaled breath. The surface temperature in Death Valley can be eighty degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the air temperature, which is typically over 120F in the summer. Walking on sand is physically strenuous, so you'll tire faster than normal.

It's foolish to even attempt a hike into the dunes in the summer unless you're heading out at dawn and intend to return in less than an hour. Regardless of when you go, take plenty of water, MUCH more than you think you'll actually drink. You'll need it, all of it, and probably more.

Never take chances with extreme weather. Be smart, plan ahead, and assume that no one will come to your aid if something goes wrong. Even if you manage to call for help, it could be hours before anyone arrives. By then, you could be a baked potato.

Please - have fun, take some nice shots, and respect the elements.

Camera: Canon EOS 7D

Lens: Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS

Wishing you great light and meaningful moments!

Copyright © 2013 Daniel R. South
All Rights Reserved

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Ephemeral Landscape

Racing To Catch Up With Things That Don't Move

This isn't one of those self-indulgent tales where the photographer seeks appreciation for how much work they did or how many challenges they overcame. No one cares whether a photo required seven days of hiking in the snow or whether it was taken on a whim during a leisurely stroll.

Image quality and emotional impact are the only things that matter to the viewer.

The subject of this article is time. How is time critical to the making of a photograph, particularly an outdoor photograph that depends on fleeting elements such as weather and fading light? How must time be managed, and what planning does this require?

I wanted to capture a photo of the salt flats at Badwater Basin at sunrise. Specifically, I wanted a photo that showed the geometric salt patters highlighted by a backdrop of colorful light from the predawn sky.

This objective suggested a plan of action and defined specific temporal demands.

I would need to determine the hour of sunrise and estimate how long the color in the sky would last.

I would need to know the distance to the approximate shooting location in order to estimate how long it would take to reach that point, first by car and then later on foot.

I would need to give myself time to fine tune the composition, to focus effectively and determine the required depth of field. I would also need to work around the exposure challenges inherent in blending a brightening sky with a still dark foreground.

a photograph of sunrise on the badwater salt flats death valley by daniel south
Daybreak At Badwater Under A Crescent Moon

Everything leading up to the "peak moment" would need to be dedicated to reaching the shooting position and preparing to take the shot. This included loading gear into the car, driving and hiking in darkness, seeking the exact shooting location and finalizing the composition.

Landscape photography doesn't seem as though it would require a race against time. Mountains don't move. Salt flats are relatively static. There were no animals in the frame to become startled and run away. Yet, I needed to cover great distances and work very quickly in order to capture this shot. As it was, I barely made it. A few minutes of delay would have caused me to miss this opportunity altogether.

Light moves and changes rapidly. Atmospheric conditions are in constant flux. If we want to capture a particular light or mood, we need to move even more quickly than the changes in these environmental factors. We need to anticipate upcoming conditions accurately and then adjust in seconds if and when things don't turn out exactly as expected.

This is all part of capturing the magic moment, and it's what makes the image worthwhile. It's not about how much work we did but about what we were about to create as a result of the effort and planning that went into the shot.

When the viewer sees the image printed or displayed on their computer screen, when they feel a sense of wonder and imagine themselves transported momentarily to the location, that's when the photograph communicates. They don't care how hard your had to work to make it happen. If they are moved by what they see, nothing else matters.

Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Lens: Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II

Wishing you great light and meaningful moments!

Copyright © 2013 Daniel R. South
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Death Valley Impostor

The Rock That Wasn't There

Welcome to the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park, that magical anomaly where rocks move mysteriously across a clay-like surface and cut trails to mark the path or their travel.

At least, that's what we think happens. Rain softens the playa and the surface becomes slippery. Wind currents channeled through the mountains are strong enough to move the rocks and cut trails through the soft clay. It's impossible to verify the theory because except for the smallest of pebbles, no one has ever seen the rocks move.

Yet, move they do and trails they leave, and in so doing they capture our imagination. The entire phenomenon is like something from a science fiction story.

There is, unfortunately, a dark side to our story, and that dark side is the hand of man. There are individuals who lack respect for the fragile wonder of places like the Racetrack Playa.

Here is case in point, a subject that I call 'The Impostor Rock'.

a photo of a sliding rock on the racetrack playa at death valley by daniel south
Impostor Rock - Death Valley

We see a long, well-defined trail in the playa, distant mountains, a clear sky, and a rock right in the middle of the action.

The problem is that this rock did not cut the trail, except perhaps for the last few inches. The rock that did cut the trail had a different shape. It would have been a bit wider, and it had a ridge that cut a groove to the left of the main trail.

This rock is an impostor.

Someone took the original rock as a souvenir, probably leaving the trail empty.(There are many empty trails on the playa.) I'm guessing that some well-meaning person put this rock in its place. Hopefully, the didn't snatch it from one of the other trails.

The Racetrack Playa is remote and not well-patrolled. Even if there were rangers on site, the playa is more than two miles wide. It's not possible to watch the entire surface at all times. Inconsiderate people take liberties.

There are signs posted: Don't move or take the rocks. Clearly, this one has been broken a few times. Don't walk on the playa when it's wet, or you'll damage the surface and leave footprints. I saw lots of this type of damage at the southern end of the playa. Don't let your dog run on the playa. While I was there I met a man who told me how much his dog loves to run on the playa, and then he let the dog loose.

The world is full of inconsiderate people, and there's not a whole lot that we can do about it. Let's hope that they don't destroy everything.

Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Lens: Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II

Wishing you great light and meaningful moments!

Copyright © 2013 Daniel R. South
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Zabriskie Point

Panoramic Badlands

Death Valley is a vast and diverse wilderness.  Each section of the park has its own 'look' and unique characteristics.

One of the park's most iconic views is also one of the most accessible.  Zabriskie Point is a short walk from a large paved parking area located about a ten minutes from the popular Furnace Creek resorts.

Face west from Zabriskie Point, you'll look out over Manley's Beacon and a variety of rolling, textured badlands. Beyond the badlands lie the valley floor and the jagged Panamint Mountain Range.

a photo of a Red Glow on the Panamint Mountains from Zabriskie Point at Daybreak
Red Glow on the Panamint Mountains from Zabriskie Point at Daybreak

Zabriskie is very popular, particularly at sunrise.  If you arrive early in the morning, you'll see cameras of all shapes and sizes lined up on the ridge above the badlands.

Don't be shy!  Line up right beside the others.  Take your own shots of these iconic views and then scout around for different perspectives.

a photo of Daybreak Striking Manley's Beacon and the Badlands
Daybreak Strikes Manley's Beacon and the Badlands

Light and weather are never exactly the same from one day to the next.  These changing conditions will help give a unique look to your shots.

a fine art photograph of eroded badlands from zabriskie point
Eroded Formations - Zabriskie Point

Zabriskie Point is much more than a single-shot destination.  The badlands wrap around the developed viewing area for at least 270 degrees, and you can hike down into the badlands on established trails if you want to try a different viewpoint. 

a photo of geometric patterns in the badlands at zabriskie point
Geometric Badlands - Zabriskie Point

There's also the possibility of encountering unique conditions and circumstances.  On this day a couple of vans full of children pulled into the parking area.  Some of the boys ran down into the badlands despite the protests of their chaperones.  I had put my camera away and was heading back to the car, but I managed to grab this quick, handheld shot as the children ran back up to the viewing area.

a photo of children running through the badlands at zabriskie point
Boys In The Badlands

An elderly lady walked over to me and asked, "Did those boys ruin your picture?"

I smiled and said, "No, Ma'am.  It's fine."

As she walked away, I thought to myself: "I think they just made my day."

Weather can change the look and mood of any destination.  I took the shot below on a cloudy morning when the badlands themselves looked dull due to a lack of direct sunlight.  It's an interesting contrast to the typical shots taken at this site.

a fine art photograph of zabriskie point at sunrise on a cloudy morning
Cloudy Morning at Zabriskie Point

Finally, it pays to look for unexpected possibilities.  Zabriskie Point is widely known as a sunrise destination, but under the right circumstances, it's possible to capture amazing sunsets here as well.  Here's one of my favorites.

a photo of Zabriskie at Point Sunset in Death Valley National Park
Zabriskie Point Sunset - Death Valley National Park

            Canon EOS 5D Mark II

            Canon 16-35 f/2.8L II
            Canon TS-E24 f/3.5L II
            Canon 24-105 f/4L IS
            Canon 70-200 f/4L IS

Wishing you great light and meaningful moments!

Copyright 2012 Daniel R. South
All Rights Reserved