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With a little wine with introductions under the stars on a cool evening, fellow Aperture Academy instructor, Ellie Stone and I met our latest group of students at the Furnace Creek Ranch Resort in Death Valley National Park. Eight of our thirteen were returning students whom Ellie and I had previously worked with at one time or another. Aaron and Jake had just been with us at our Valley of Fire workshop and it was great having them join us for another adventure! We spent just a bit of time getting to know each other and for Ellie and I to learn how best to help each individual by finding out their particular needs and assist in stepping up their skill levels. Many students sign up so we can take them to places they're not familiar with to know the best times and areas to shoot in, but otherwise enjoy working at their own pace. Others come eager to soak up as much information as we can throw at them, and we do pack in a lot during our short time together. Death Valley is an amazing place to learn photography or to refine skills and we were all eager to see what the weekend would bring. After going over the agenda we said good night so everyone could get plenty of sleep before our pre-dawn start time.
At 5:25am we gathered in front of the general store, loaded our camera gear into the van and were ready to leave by 5:30. Our first stop was only about a five minute drive up to Zabriski Point for sunrise, but getting there before throngs of other photographers take to the "sweet" spot and set our group up for the morning's shoot is paramount. Surprisingly, not too many other photographers showed up, but I still instructed students to move as close together as possible to allow for latecomers to get in on the action. There were clouds to the east which obscured the sun and kept our scene from getting the glowing golds on the hills and alpenglow on the distant Panamint Range, but it was still a great morning for photography without harsh shadows. Manley Beacon is the main focal point, but the rich layers of chocolate sundae color surrounding it were also featured in our student's compositions. After shooting up the sunrise, many in our group really enjoyed exploring and shooting the lower canyon hills and steal gray wash that leads down into Golden Canyon. Someone remembered it was Groundhog Day and as we didn't see our shadows, it's supposed to mean an early spring. We felt lucky already that the weather was very spring-like with chilly morning temps, but warm afternoons during this first weekend of February.
After our adventuring around Zabriski, we set off to a wonderful marsh area made even more beautiful from the recent rains. Our students had ample opportunity to photograph reflections of the mountains and a few twigs in calm, glossy streams. Still muddy and a bit tracked up by footprints, our crew muddied up their own shoes finding so many great compositions from the low grasses to the winding streams and mountains beyond. It is such a unique perspective on Death Valley with water in the basin and another reason Aperture Academy holds its workshops here through the fall and winter months. The larger landscape with its recognizable landmarks may have one thinking that this place is slow to change, but with just a bit of rain, wind, or heat, one sees the ever changing face of nature with a little exploration. What you see in one visit will be completely different the next. We found duck, or maybe it was gull prints trailed by bobcat prints and students enjoyed photographing them and following their path. Giraffe patterned sand bars reflecting in the sun provided some nice abstract work and students were encouraged to look at their shots in black and white for a different perspective. We spent a lot of time exploring this area as there were so many things to see and by simply turning around one would find yet another interesting composition. Ellie and I encouraged the use of polarizing filters to reduce the glare on the water and to enhance the subject matter. As memory cards filled and the mid-day sun began to cast shadows, it was time to take a break back at the ranch for lunch and some rest.
We began the second part of our day with a trip down the Artist's Drive, making a first stop and hike up a hill to study some of the colors and textures of the surrounding hills and views of Badwater Basin. Students that had never been to Death Valley before were overwhelmed by the colors of all the mineral deposits laid out before us in this single area. Using longer focal lengths, students were able to concentrate on specific features with amazing colors, textures, and patterns. Nestled in the Black Mountains, the Artist's Palette contains a high concentration of metals oxidized by weathering which creates the "palette" of color in this famously photographed area. Our students spread out to discover everything they could find with their cameras, from down in the washes to the tops of the ridges. With the high, thin clouds, Ellie and I continued to stress the use of a polarizing filter to help saturate the colors and add some contrast to the muted landscape.
As the sun began its dip toward the Panamint Range, it was time to get to our final stop of the day at Badwater for sunset. We still had the overcast skies and little color was able to break through during our sunset, but everyone was intrigued by the polygon shapes and crusty ridges. Tia was loving the abstracts and was on her belly getting macro shots of the salt crystals. People were finding great compositions with both the intimate details of the polygons and grander, wider scenes. Ellie and I encouraged everyone to move about really looking to find just the right set of shapes for leading lines shooting low for the in-your-face drama or high and wide to show the nearly 200 square miles of this amazing place 282 feet below sea level. Badwater is made up of mostly your standard table salt and the polygons become white from rain washing the dust and dirt down below. When there is a lot of rain washing down from the mountains, Badwater becomes Lake Manley and the polygons become almost flat. Through heating and cooling, the salt crystals expand and push against each other forming the ridges this area has become famous for. Ellie and I moved about helping students with their compositions and exposures until twilight had us hiking back to the van with flashlights. Back to the resort for dinner and a much needed rest from our day of shooting, hiking, and exploration, our group was happy with all the things they had seen and all the great shots they were able to get from this first day.
Since everyone was in the same area of the resort, we all met at the van at 5:15AM to get on the road to our first stop for the day at the Mesquite Dunes. With some preliminary instruction from Ellie, we donned our headlamps and hiked about a mile in single file to try and keep our footprints from ruining the area for other's to enjoy, and as we practice a Leave No Trace policy and try not to damage its delicate ecosystem. We appreciated that our photographers were respectful to their fellow workshop students trying to walk in the footprints of others out among the dunes as well. There were a few puffy clouds in the sky that turned pink and orange in the morning light and added a nice accent to compositions. Wonderful "s" curves on the untracked sand washed clean by the previous weeks rains were in every direction. Blue shadows and golden glows cast along the ridge lines and down into the curves of the hilly landscape were a favorite subject for all of our students. With the intimate details of leading lines from wind rippled edges, there was an abundance of subject matter and everyone was finding their favorite spots to linger on. Ellie and I moved back and forth between students helping them refine their shots in both composition and exposure and it seemed a lot of time was spent by some just enjoying being in such a beautiful place. Michelle was one who enjoyed creating a sand angel which we all thought was a pretty cool thing to do! Amazement at the grandeur of this place in the beautiful golden light, many were just happy to be here and able experience it with photography almost as a bonus. We certainly know the feeling and visit as often as we can ourselves.
A few hours seemed to fly by and it was time to hike back to the van and drive over to Mosaic Canyon to explore the marble-like stone polished smooth by rain and floods over millennia. Students really got into the abstract nature of the place getting many close-up and macro shots of the mineral striations threading through the stone. The golden canyon walls were spattered by small plants tucked into crevices where they sprung up from meager amounts of nutrients and were a nice accent for our student's more intimate shots. A couple of crows serenaded us with some odd sounds echoing off the high cliff walls by what might have been a mating ritual. They caught our attention anyway…or maybe they were hoping for food. Once again the sun rose higher in the sky and signaled our return to the ranch for a lunch break and rest from the morning's hikes. As we drove back I noticed two (yes, only two) Desert Sunflowers on the road east of Stovepipe Wells. Spring comes early to the lower desert and we're hoping it will be a good year.
Being a naturally early riser, Ellie would drive the first part of the day while I, not at all a morning person was happy to take over the duties in the afternoon. For some reason, some people wanted to wear their seat belts when I was at the wheel…Carlos! ;) We headed out of the park to the old ghost town of Rhyolite to shoot what's left of this old mining town which only supported residents for about 15 years. The tall remnants of the old bank building is a favorite for shooting with a wide angle from a low position and the afternoon light played it up well casting a glow on the inside of its frame. Our students really enjoyed exploring around the old Union Pacific caboose from inside and out and catching sun stars between the branches of a Joshua tree. Dayne was not afraid of getting into the thick of things to get a shot, but here he had a little disagreement with a bit of barbed wire. He was alright, though with just one poke on his arm and Ellie was able to take care of it with some basic medical supplies we keep in the van. We then moved just yards down the road to the funky little Goldwell Open Air Museum where our crew really enjoyed getting pics of the ghost with the bike, the ghostly "Last Supper" life size figures, and other strange oddities so seemingly out of place in the Mojave desert.
With our final destination of the weekend beckoning, we drove back to Death Valley and to our special spot of polygons in Badwater Basin. Here there are the typical lighter polygon formations, but also surrounded by the brown salt formations like that of the Devil's Golf Course in an almost river-like pattern, and easily accessible. The first order of business on this lovely, clear, and mild weather evening was to gather for our obligatory group shot with Ellie acting as cheerleader for the 49'ers in her red jersey trying to send positive energy to the Superbowl. Sadly it did not work for the Niner's. With just a bit of color at the south end of the valley, Ellie and I once again moved between our students helping with composition, exposure, and white balance reminding them that a polarizing filter is still a useful tool in the low evening light. It seemed our photographers had found their stride and as the evening shadow crossed the valley floor they all picked their locations and went to work catching the last glow of light bouncing off the peaks and shooting well through twilight. It was a great ending to a jam-packed and fun filled weekend with tons of great shots achieved by our super group of photographer-friends.
Until next time... Ellie, Jean and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team!
P.S. If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.