Death Valley National Park is the largest National Park, south of Alaska. Officially established on Oct. 31, 1994, it spans almost 3.4 million acres. Even though it's North America's driest and hottest spot, Death Valley still receives nearly a million visitors each year. Most likely those visitors choose their time wisely, and plan for the beautiful and pleasantly warm days of January and February. Aperture Academy instructors Ellie Stone and Jean Day had two workshops on tap to take advantage of the mild and gorgeous days in early 2013.
I departed for Death Valley in the early morning hours on Jan 24th from our Aperture Academy home base in Campbell CA. My ride… a sweet Mercedes Sprinter 13 passenger van, adorned with the Aperture Academy logo. On the front, a Euro plate that reads, "APCAB1". That's what we call her, ApCab. After the 8-½ hour drive I arrived with enough time to start some scouting for the upcoming 2-day workshop. Even though we have all been to the locations in which we conduct workshops, arriving early to revisit and reevaluate the scenery is always part of our agenda. Friday morning I'm up early and again the scout mission continues. One of the workshop participants spots the ApCab just as I'm walking back from the Mesquite Dunes, so Yves takes a moment to introduce himself. We meet up again at orientation that evening, in front of the Furnace Creek Ranch, General Store. Jean and I bring some wine for our guests, and we all get acquainted. It's important for us to learn the skill level of each student, as well as their expectation for the weekend of photography. We always have a nice mix of skill levels, from beginner, to intermediate, and advanced. The students have come from all over the US and also Toronto Canada. After we all get to know one another, I brief the students on not only our shooting locations, but also the importance of Leave no Trace ethics during our weekend of photography fun and learning. It's now time to retire for the evening, as the 5:15 am departure time will be fast approaching.
Even though it was still dark, with a slight drizzle at 5:30 am, all the students were bright, cheery, and ready start their photography workshop. First stop on the day's itinerary was Zabriskie Point. The drizzle had let up, but rains that had come in the night left a bit of mud to contend with. The best spot to shoot from is a short walk off the pavement, on a dirt overlook. Although it was muddy, the highly popular overlook still made for the best vantage point. Once everyone was set up on their tripods, some long exposures displayed a beautiful image of the full moon breaking through the clouds. The results were dramatic and unique. A wondrous and magical layer of fog hung low on the valley floor, as the iconic manly beacon towered above. This was truly a unique and special morning at Zabriskie point. Jean and I carefully walked around from student to student, helping with aperture, iso, and white balance selection. Assistance with composition is also a popular need for most students. Suddenly it was evident that the low hanging valley floor fog had begun creeping ever closer to our vantage point. It seemed to only take about 5 or 10 minuets and we were all surrounded by white. Most where ready to call it a morning and head back from some hot coffee to await the fog break. Just as we had arrived at the van, Peter says, "I don't know, it's looking like it's getting ready to break". Consensus was to stay and wait it out, rather than a hot breakfast. I'm digging these students more and more every minute. We all walked back up the hill, although this time opting to stay on the paved section, rather than round two of the mud fest. Charles did brave the mud and better vantage point for at least one shot though. Go Charles! The fog and clouds would place an on again off again game, all the while providing some astounding image opportunities for all. Jean and I had another exciting spot planned before the break, so we gathered the group for a second time and this time all loaded up in the ApCab for the next stop. After only about a 20-minute drive, we had reached our secret little spot. The recent rain and breaking skies would provide the perfect conditions for the location. Although there would be more mud to contend with, it was so well worth it. Fantastic compositions were literally everywhere. Winding "S" turns in the marsh from the rain with reflected clouds… this was the stuff of a photographers dream. It was easy to spend lots of time here. Not only was broad for roaming and unique images, but also the perfect spot for us to display the use of a polarizing filter. Batteries were getting drained, so it was a good indicator that break time was upon us. The poor floor of the ApCab… it was a muddy mess, totally fine though, because mud can be cleaned, what was important was that all had a great time and captured amazing images.
After our afternoon respite Jean and I picked up our gang for some more Death Valley fun. From Furnace Creek we headed south to Artists drive. Along this one way, narrow and winding road, are some beautiful colors. The weather was perfect, the deep blue sky and fluffy white clouds made the landscape look surreal. Once again we assisted with some compositional basics and ideas, along with the use of a polarizing filter. The polarizer helped with cloud definition, and color saturation on the vibrant and multi-colored hills. Artists drive is know best for a spot called Artists Palate, as this is the most concentrated area of colorful mineral deposits. To help give the scene a sense of scale I quickly ran out into among the mounds of pink, green, brown, and yellow. It was amazing to see that after a short hike out into the landscape, I would appear so tiny among the backdrop. The sun had started it's decent to the west, so we pilled in the ApCab and made our way down to one of my favorite spots in the park, Badwater Basin.
The basin is noted as being the lowest point in North America, with an elevation of 282 feet below sea level. Badwater is frequently known however for it's marvelous polygon salt formations. With the proper conditions, the entire basin is comprised of these unique and highly photogenic polygons. We had just these conditions and the formations looked perfect. After just a short walk out onto the playa, we were surrounded with awesome foreground elements in every direction. Jean and I helped with the proper aperture choice for maximum depth of field, as well as hyper focal distance. Some needed a little assistance on composition and which orientation to choose. Jeans and I walked around making sure everyone was getting those epic Badwater shots. We milked the last location for every last bit of available light…and then some. Day one had come to a close, so it was time to head back to the ranch for a nice meal with some of my newfound photographer friends.
Another early morning start, as today we had a little farther to drive and a hike out into the Mesquite sand dunes. If someone asked me, "what's your favorite spot on this workshop", I would have to say the dunes. The early rise and walk out, is so well worth it. I led the group out with my headlamp, all the while keeping tabs on my location markers. Part of why I like to head out to the locations before the workshop is to find indicators for the low light hike. Most seemed amazed that I actually knew where I was going. Of course I know where I'm going… as I joke and pretend to be slightly lost. Nope, I know exactly where we are. This spot that we are reroute to has some awesome dunes, with zero footprints! The popular dunes are very tracked up with footprints, while this area is clean and pristine. As we reach the location where the dunes get larger, it's time to traverse in and find some shooting spots for everyone. This is so easy to do, as there are really no bad spots out here. I'm constantly pointing out nice compositions, incorporating the lines and curves of these magnificent sand dunes. The moon is setting just before sunrise, so everyone grabs a shot, just before it dips below the mountain range. The high clouds start to illuminate with a soft pink glow. Jean and I explain the use of a graduated neutral density filter, to balance out the exposure of sky and foreground sand. After the beautiful color started to fade, the sun popped up over the horizon, just then the dune landscape was illuminated with a warm glow. The scene was dreamlike and the students were amazed. Not only was there a warm glow, but also the shadows and shapes made for some astounding images. We encouraged the students to move around and explore the area for some different compositions, from the intimate details, to the expansive beauty. Time was flying and the students were thrilled with their images. Jean helped me wrangle everyone for a quick group shot among the dunes. A great shot of a really great group of folks. The ApCab looked like a dot on the landscape, so we all figured it was finally time to head back and recharge our batteries, as well as our camera batteries.
After a short break we gather again at the van to load up and head out to a cool ghost town just outside the park boundary, called Rhyolite. The town began in early 1905, as a mining camp, after a near by prospecting discovery. The town was abandoned as early as 1911, due to the closure of the nearby Montgomery Shoshone Mine. By 1920 the town was completely deserted, and became a tourist attraction. As we made our way down the dirt road into Rhyolite, there were some ominous looking clouds hanging in the hills directly behind the town. I thought the drama of the clouds floating in and out of the hills looked fantastic. We had warned the students that it can be a bit windy out in Rhyolite, but today, windy was a bit of an understatement. Only the brave and extreme photographer would endure this wind and then snow. Yes, that's right, it actually started snowing! Doug from Wisconsin and Peter from Toronto, felt right at home, and I joked that this was shorts weather for them. A few of my strong willed Californian's came out to shoot too. We ran around like giggling schoolgirls, laughing at Mother Nature and her strange sense of humor. I showed the students my favorite way to shoot these old, tall buildings, from down low with a wide angle, to enhance the angle and drama. Monochrome was also a good choice here, because of the tonality and nature of the old structures. Once we couldn't take the cold any longer, we decided to warm up in the ApCab. Walking distance from the ghost town is an artist's installation and museum. Seems quite odd to witness a giant woman made of Lego like building material. Out in the middle of the desert, but wait that's not it… there's a mosaic couch, a ghost with a bicycle, plus another art oddities. They all make for cool and quirky photographic subjects, so we pause here for a few blustery minutes to take advantage of the opportunity. It was hard to believe that we only had one more shooting location left before our weekend of photography fun was over. So it was time to hit the road once again and head back into Death Valley National Park. Our last location was off the beaten path and away from the main stream of tourists. Our students would have one more opportunity to photograph the polygon formations, as well as some really gnarly mud formations. Like the ones found on the Devils Golf Course. It was like a best of both worlds opportunity. By now the students were like little birds who are ready to leave the nest, as they quickly move about, setting up their tripods and scouting out some nice compositions. We stayed once again to take advantage of all the available light. After the sun dropped below the horizon, the remaining clouds above the salt playa were dramatic and breathtaking. Everyone captured these wonderfully in camera, and it was a fitting way to end the weekend on a high note. As we drove back to the Ranch at Furnace Creek the ApCab was filled with the sounds of chatter, reliving the amazing events of the last couple of days.
Jean and I had a truly fantastic time with you all, and we hope to see you again on another exciting Aperture Academy workshop in 2013.
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.