Death Valley National Park is amazing wonderland of vast geologic diversity, ripe with photographic opportunities. Nestled in this vast wasteland are various sand dune areas, natural springs, mud marshes, high snow covered peaks, and a dry salt lake 282 feet below sea level. With ample weather overhead, the park is truly magical, even though its a rare occurrence in the desert. We had run into some good luck as we started our first Death Valley workshop of the 2014 season. The skies were full interesting clouds and really helped to enhance the already natural beauty of this amazing park.
Death Valley National Park is a land of extremes. Extreme heat (134°F - 15°F), extreme elevation (-282ft - 11,043ft), extreme vastness (3000 sq mi), and extreme photographic opportunities. Death Valley is unique in that it holds so many naturally occurring landscapes so close to one another; we have the option of viewing snow covered mountains, vast salt flats, sand dunes, oases, rivers, and even ghost towns! It is because of these opportunities that The Aperture Academy holds photographic workshops to take in and capture its natural beauty. Myself and newest instructor Phil (who I should point out led groups in Yosemite for four years) were on hand to take out our adventurous photographers along this stunning landscape adventure.
And the adventure started with a little downpour! Actually a pretty big one. In an uncanny feat of mother natures whim, our workshop orientation started under the awnings of the Furnace Creek Ranch Resort. As odd as it is to see rain in Death Valley, it was a welcoming sight because we knew that the next day would have some pretty amazing weather and clouds leftover for us to photograph.
Pre-dawn. With the closure of Zabriskie Point for maintenance and upgrades to the viewing platform and trails, we decided to start our group out with the salt flats of the Badwater Basin. A short drive from the hotel revealed to us the stunning polygonal salt landscape with clouds overhead. A nice way to start the morning! As the clouds began to light up with magenta hues Phil and I coached our group up on compositional advice, and settings to get the most out of what the scene was giving us. The weather didnt disappoint. As the clouds gave way a little, the mountains in front of us began to light up with pinkish hues and the clouds added a nice spot of drama to the scene.
With sunrise down, we closed in on another fantastic spot in the valley, Cottonball Marsh. The marsh is large flat expanse of clay which has trouble absorbing the moisture after a rain, and shallow lakes and rivers appear and dot the landscape. With a little guidance, Phil and I led the group out on the marsh and spent the next hour or so trying to lose our shoes in the sticky surface. The rain has turned the desert landscape into a shallow sea, which is a sight to behold as the reflections of the clouds in the still water are amazingly photogenic. With all our personnel, and shoes, accounted for, we turned back to The Ranch for some much need rest for midday.
Our next stop after break was Artists Drive, a short single track road which meanders through some of the most colorful area of Death Valley. So named because of the colors of the mineral salts in the soil which have been eroded away from the hillsides revealing beautiful hues of pink, magenta, green and orange. Artists Palette is the finest example of this erosion effect, and we spent the next hour photographing it from many angles with the help of Phil and myself, constantly coaching on composition.
The last stop on our first day was Badwater Basin. The whitest polygons within an easy walk are still about a mile from the road, so Phil and I navigated our group across the rocky terrain to a spot perfect for sunset. With our clouds all but burnt off from the midday sun, we had to settle for the color of airglow just after sunset, which gives just enough color to break up the whiteness from the salt pan. After a short hike back to the van, we proceeded back to The Ranch for an early start to tomorrows shooting!
A little earlier start today had us travelling up north to the Mesquite Sand Dunes. With no clouds predicted today, this was the perfect place to start as when the sun comes up over the Amargosa Range, the western face of the dunes are struck with brilliant light, as their eastern face is left in shadow, making great contrast between the two. The dunes are awesome as it allows the group to explore virtually unhindered and with a vast array of possible compositions to shoot. Phil and I went about showing our folks how to use the contrasting lines in the dunes to make s-curves which draw the viewer in and with no clouds impeding the suns light, we kept at it well into the morning.
After a short break we met up again for a ride our to Beatty, NV for some much needed lunch at a local eatery, and then proceeded to Rhyolite, a small mining town abandoned in 1920. Rhyolite isnt the biggest or best preserved ghost town, but it does have some really cool remnants of buildings which, when shot with the surrounding scenery, make for some pretty cool photos. We spent the better part the afternoon exploring the landscape using the man-made buildings and the natural landscape to come up with some extraordinary photos. With a short stop at the adjacent Goldwell Open Air Museum for a group shot among the ghost sculptures, we traveled back into Death Valley for our conclusion at Dantes View.
Dantes View is 5,476 feet above sea level, which puts its vista a total of 5,758 ft above Badwater Basin, which it overlooks. Its a grand viewpoint that overlooks the whole of Death Valley proper. With some slightly elevated thin clouds hovering above, there was some definite color illuminating the sky and it made for an awesome view and an awesome way to end the workshop! After returning to The Ranch, our group sat down for one last adventure together, a much needed dinner! We shared stories, post processing tips, laughed and got our fill.
Until next time our next adventure
Scott, Phil, 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.