Established in 1935, Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada is an easy one hour drive from Las Vegas and borders the Lake Mead National Recreation area. In recent years it has grown in popularity with landscape photographers and has become a favorite Aperture Academy destination, both for our students and instructors. This fantastic playground of red sandstone formations created millions of years ago from shifting sand dunes, juts out of the earth with unique displays of rainbow colors, slot canyons, and untold number of arches in a variety of sizes and shapes. This sometimes eerie desert landscape is perfect for day or night photography and with temperatures over 100 degrees in the summer, the Aperture Academy chooses to hold its workshops here in the milder fall and winter months.
Having just completed a workshop in Death Valley with another fantastic group of students, fellow ApCad instructor, Ellie Stone and I had a chance to hit up Valley of Fire a day early. While doing pre-workshop scouting to check our preferred locations for the best possible times for light as well as the present conditions, we met one of our returning students, Aaron who joined us for a sunset shoot. Aaron was also going to join us at our next workshop in Death Valley the following weekend. The sunset was mild, but the lines and patterns of color created by eons of mineral deposits were all that was necessary for some great photography. We then headed over to our accommodations in Overton at the North Shore Inn to check in and meet our students, getting to know them, what camera models they used, current level of experience, and any particular needs each wanted to concentrate on so Ellie and I could help to make the best of their experience and time with us. Ellie began the introductions and in her own style, included a couple of bottles of wine to share. We would be meeting at 5:15 the next morning which was too early for the continental breakfast, so our proprietors, Chris and Debbie went the extra mile for our group making breakfast burritos for our entire crew which they could microwave in their own rooms.
In spite of the early hour with the stars and a waning moon still in the sky, everyone was on time and excited to begin the day. We all stowed our gear on the custom made shelves at the rear of our very own ApCab van, settled into our seats and headed out for the 40 minute drive into the park. Our first destination we call Nike Rock because of a large swath of red sandstone in the shape of the Nike logo swoosh. A short hike just off the main road, there was plenty of room for everyone to find a spot to set up in the pre-dawn light. The morning was a bit chilly, but everyone was prepared with layers to remove as the day grew warmer. Patterns, colors, textures, contrast, all began to glow with the first rays of golden light. The moon added a nice accent just above our foreground rocks and gave Ellie and I a chance to help students include it in their compositions. Beginning in the early light allows our students the time to ask questions to find the best composition for their particular set-up, and is also a good time for us to teach the difference that white balance can make in the changing light as it is used repeatedly throughout the day. As the sun rose in the sky, we made our way around the Nike Rock to explore more of the desert taking advantage of the shady side for some interesting abstracts. Rock faces in stripes of red and gold, multiple arches, small stones tumbling through curves of sand, plants and cacti were all subjects to be explored.
Valley of Fire is also a popular place for advertisers, especially car makers and today was no exception. As we shot it up on the rocks, a very nice, very sporty, brand new foreign car sped along the winding road with a film crew in pursuit. Security personnel made it clear that we should not take pics of the vehicle, or at the very least, not post any such pictures publicly until the car hit the showroom floor. OK, so the guy talked to Ellie and tried to pay her off because she was the obvious one with that big, white, Canon lens pointing it at the car numerous times as it passed by. She did get some really tight shots and one especially with the driver giving her a look that would melt iron! And, well…I got a few shots, too…when no one was looking. :)
Before the sun rose too high, we moved across the street to a lovely little slot canyon with multiple curves of pinks, yellows, and oranges. In the low morning light, the upper walls reflect a glow highlighting the colors and textures. With recent rains, the sand in the canyon was smooth and unblemished and at the end of the canyon a large pool of water provided our students with opportunity for reflection shots. Ellie and I emphasized the use of polarizing filters to reduce glare from the water and deepen the colors. This small area was not enough for all of our group to be in at one time, so Ellie and a few daring individuals scaled the higher mesa to reach the pool from the opposite side for a different view. Before we knew it, about five hours had flown by with memory cards getting full and batteries depleting, so it was time to head back to our hotel for a lunch break and rest. On the way we stopped at Elephant Arch to try and catch a sunstar behind the glowing orange sandstone. Some students got down low to get a sunstar between the arch while others caught it from an angle at the elephants "head." Getting dirty and contorting themselves into uncomfortable positions to get the shot made this a rockin' crew of landscape photographers and let us know how much we could push them to realize their abilities.
Following a good rest, we set off back to the park to revisit the pink canyon for some additional shots in the late afternoon light as many of our students wanted more time in this beautiful place. Before getting to our destination, we made a stop at a spot which made for some nice curvy road shots. Of course, we didn't have that nifty, new foreign car in our scene, but the gang was enjoying learning the use of a longer focal length to add some drama to the winding and dipping desert road. Back at the pink slot canyon, more instruction was given on centering in on the abstract lines and curves and using longer focal lengths to compress the canyon walls. While most of the students followed Ellie on an excursion through the desert to explore "The Wave" area, I took a few with me to the parking area to leave the van and take the upper trail down past the massive "Gibraltor" rock. The huge monolith was taking on an orange glow and while everyone else was shooting the curvaceous red and white lines of the iconic "Wave," others took advantage of the wider view of the desert landscape. Scott, in particular was so enamored with the changing light in this amazing place, he shot until nightfall when the rest of our group made it back up to the road before making one final stop for the night.
We made our way over to Organ rock for some night shots of the stars and light painting. As the moon had not yet risen, the night was very dark and initially we took the wrong path not seeing the stone which was really only a few yards from the road. No worries, as it was discovered within minutes and without too much trekking. Ellie and I split our group in two and surrounded the alien looking stone with the intent to take turns lighting the rock one side at a time. We both helped our groups to determine their white balance, aperture, shutter speeds, and ISO and most importantly, how to find the correct focus at night with the use of our lanterns. With everyone set up and ready to go we started our 30 second shots to achieve pin point stars and lit up the rock with lights. All the compositions were different depending on where someone had set up and how wide the angle of their lens was to capture the scene. It was the greatest feeling to hear the students excitement when they saw their first night image on the back of their cameras. It was also a bit funny to listen to Ellie and I yelling back and forth, "Are you guys ready?" or "Are you done now? Can we light it up and shoot?" We then changed positions so everyone had a chance to shoot from both sides of the rock, which then caused us all to go through a re-set and re-focus session and a bit more laughter. It then became easier to know when one side was done because of all the oohs and ahhs that could be heard as images appeared on their screens and our students became more adept at their shots. A long first day done with lots of great memories and loads of images, we headed back to Overton for a good night sleep.
We all got to sleep in, well at least about an hour, due to our late night out and everyone had a chance to get breakfast and an extra cup of coffee if needed. Once again we climbed into the van and on this morning we began the day exploring the area around Windstone Arch. There are literally hundreds of arches here and it could take months of exploring to find them all. We still had the moon in the early morning sky and it was fun for students to find ways of incorporating it into their compositions. We had people climbing inside rock formations to get images of the curves of smaller arches as the sun bounced off the rock faces casting subtle glows and highlighting form and textures. At the Windstone Arch, the idea was to get shots of the smaller, distant arch inside of the iconic arch. This is a difficult shot in that you want to get just the right balance of light and depth of field as the two arches are really far apart, but Ellie and I assisted where necessary and a lot of great images were achieved. A tripod was necessary and students had to take turns here to get the best composition. That was OK with this intrepid group of photographers as we had quite a few adventuring explorers. Both Suzanne and Renee (who was also with us at our Death Valley workshop) loved the abstract and intimate details and seemed always on the go over the next ridge looking for that special shot with a small plant or rock grouping.
Our students were really digging this area and finding lots of interesting things to photograph, but it was time to move on before the sun rose too high. Our next stop was the 1 and 1/4 mile White Domes Loop Trail. This is such an awesome area with so much to see, you could spend an entire day in just this one place. We followed the initially steep trail down into the canyon to where the remains of the old movie set from "The Professionals" continues to draw visitors. These are the only movie set remains in the park (from 1966) as the park service no longer allows sets to be abandoned. Many photographers come to see and shoot the large 1/4 mile long slot canyon with its towering cliff walls and our students also had this opportunity in some great morning light. I had on a previous visit found another smaller, more intimate slot canyon and after showing Ellie we put it on our agenda especially since it was easy to get to and also had a nice pool of water near the end. Once again, the lower view with a wide angle lens and polarizing filter brought this little scene to life nicely. After coming out of the larger slot canyon, the trail winds up a gradual incline back to the parking lot. I was walking with Pam and her husband John, and remember how they both found the area so breathtaking and kept finding things to photograph at every turn. As much as we all wanted to linger, it was time again to head back for a lunch break and rest before concluding our workshop in the afternoon.
Many of our students needed to check out of the hotel, and some followed in their cars to leave in early evening to catch flights out of Vegas. With the team re-energized we got on our way again, this time to the Mouse's Tank trail for a short hike to see and shoot some petroglyphs, and to get our obligatory group shot. While viewing and photographing the petroglyphs (rock carvings) it's always interesting to hear people's different interpretations on what they might mean. I heard someone mention dentistry and I'm not quite sure how they arrived at this conclusion, but thought it was funny. It is a nice view into past cultures and an extra treat for those who seldom, if ever, get to see the southwest. After getting a little goofy for the group shot with some glyphs above us, and a few more minutes of exploration, it was time to be on the move again. We didn't want to spend too much time here in order to have a second chance at "The Wave" and to begin shooting in the early evening light.
As tired as all of our students were from all the hiking we did over a short period, everyone made the trek out over the slopes and ridges of sandstone to the iconic "Wave" and our final workshop location. Finding their spots to set up, everyone got into position and began to shoot as the sun slowly dipped into the west. The top of the striped, curving stone took on a golden glow while the foreground fell into blue shadow. White balance here is a bit tricky, but the confidence of our group was definitely up and everyone was finding their niche in their preferred compositions and style of shooting. Ellie and I continued to encourage students to move around and find different views and in doing so, many found even more interesting and abstract scenes as the light continued to change. With twilight upon us, we made the hike back to the van and drive back to Overton for a final good-bye. When I asked our new friends what they liked most about the workshop, the consensus was the night shooting…but the Nike Swoosh and the pink slot canyon were also high on the list…still, they also thought everywhere we went was amazingly beautiful and photographically rich…then again, there was Ellie's singing… ;)
Until next time,
Ellie, Jean and the entire Aperture Academy team
If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.