Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada has become a mecca for landscape photographer's with its unique sandstone displays of rainbow colors, slot canyons, and untold number of arches in a variety of sizes and shapes. An easy one hour drive from Las Vegas will get you to the towering red cliffs and spires which cradle some of the more distinct areas of the park and where I, Jean Day, and fellow Aperture Academy instructor Scott Donschikowski made plans to take our newest group of passionate photographers for a two day adventure into this otherworldly landscape.
We met our students in Overton at the North Shore Inn taking some time getting to know them and answering questions so Scott and I could help make the best of their experience with us and their photography throughout the park. As we expected to meet at 5:30 the next morning our proprietors, Chris and Debbie went the extra mile in preparing for each of us a sack of breakfast items which we could eat on the go. With introductions made and questions answered it was time to get a good night sleep.
In spite of the early hour everyone was ready and excited to begin the day. Camera bags were stowed on the custom made shelves at the rear of our own ApCab van, and we settled into our seats heading out for the drive into the park. Our sunrise destination is called Nike Rock because of a large swatch of red sandstone in the shape of the Nike logo swoosh. Only a short hike off the main road it has plenty of room for everyone to find a spot to set up in the pre-dawn light. The morning was a bit chilly, but not too uncomfortable and some high clouds nearly covered the desert sky. With the first rays of morning light, patterns, colors, textures, and contrast began to take shape over pink, orange, and red details. Scott and I helped our students in finding the best compositions as we also taught the difference that white balance can make in the changing light. As the day brightened, we explored more of this desert area taking advantage of wind and rain carved rock faces in stripes of red and gold, multiple arches, small stones tumbling through curves of sand, plants and cacti. Our next stop was the 1 and 1/4 mile White Domes Loop Trail. We followed the initially steep trail down into the canyon to the remains of the old 1960s movie set from "The Professionals." Scott and I showed our photographers some great spots including the large 1/4 mile long slot canyon with its towering cliff walls and another smaller, more intimate slot canyon with an entrance of almost marble-like stone. Everyone had a great time finding so many compositions of interest before hiking our way back up the trail and on to a final stop of the morning at Elephant Arch. Usually our visit to this iconic scene is to practice creating a sunstar for the "eye" of the elephant and learn to balance exposure when shooting into the sun, but on this day the high clouds refused to let the sun shine bright enough for the star though all in our group enjoyed the challenge and still came away with some very nice shots of the arch.
Following a break for lunch and rest, we returned to the park for our evening photography. We started with a fun winding road shot as a warm up to the afternoon helping our students with depth of field and using longer focal lengths to compress the scene adding some drama to the winding and dipping desert road. A lovely little slot canyon with multiple curves of pink, yellow, and orange was next explored on our way to our sunset destination. Overcast skies kept the light from creating harsh shadows making the colors and textures of the canyon easier to shoot with a more balanced exposure. Scott and I worked with individuals on selecting ISO, aperture, and shutter speed to bring out the best of the unique details found here. Making our way through the canyon and out into the larger wash, we all hiked up to the iconic Fire Wave for sunset. Time for exploration of the area helped our students to find a variety of compositions along the red striped mounds of rock as the sun began to sink through heavy clouds. Thankfully there were enough holes in the clouds to allow for some beautiful sunset colors to dance across the sky. It began with bright yellows to the west turning to orange and red giving everyone a chance at capturing some wonderful shots at this iconic location. As the colors deepened and the sun dipped below the horizon, a unique and rare phenomena occurred in the East above the earth's shadow with anti-crepuscular rays (like sun rays in reverse). The beams radiated out of the clouds as the landscape took on a deep orange cast with the last glow of evening light. Before we knew it, our first day had flown by with memory cards full, new skills learned and practiced, and lots of great images achieved.
On this morning we began the day with a sunrise shoot at a place called Crazy Hill, so named because of the amazing multi-colored sandstone found in this one small area. Ripples and layers of various hues of yellow, pink, orange, red, and white spill down a hill of stone just a short hike from the main road. Our sunrise was mostly cloudy and did not give us the incredible colors of the sky as it did the night before, but it was still pretty and everyone was able to find some great compositions of this crazy cool place and enjoyed capturing its unique landscape. As the sun brightened the sky, our students began to explore the area from top to bottom coming up with some very nice abstract shots of the curvy lines and shapes from close up to wide angle. Our next stop was to explore the area around Windstone Arch. There are literally hundreds of oddly shaped arches here and it could take months of exploring to find and photograph them all. Scott and I assisted students as they climbed inside rock formations to get images of the curves of small arches as diffused light cast subtle glows highlighting the forms and textures. Our students were such an intrepid group of explorers as they enjoyed discovering and shooting so many crazy rock features in this area. As much as we all wanted to linger, we had one more half mile hike for the morning at Mouse's Tank trail. Here our students had some fun getting shots of a multitude of petroglyphs along the canyon walls as well as trying to interpret their meanings. Once again it was time to return to Overton for a lunch break and rest before concluding our workshop in the afternoon, but we were stalled upon seeing a couple of groups of bighorn sheep. We stopped and gave everyone a chance to get some shots of these beautiful creatures. Longer focal lengths were necessary as the sheep were too far off the road and making their way up the red stone cliffs. There were no rams in these groups, but a number of lambs were seen scampering along with their mothers.
The sky was still overcast with a storm front moving in and the possibility of rain in the desert was hopeful. As we drove back to the park we could see the effects of a sandstorm on our way and we were not to escape it. Scott and I took our group back to the little rainbow sherbet slot canyon as everyone was so intrigued and had to get even more shots from this beautiful place. The high winds had brushed the sand clean of almost all signs of man and made for some wonderful shots of the sloping canyon walls down to the smooth sandy bottom. With sunset drawing near, we made our way again down the wash and up the hill to try for another sunset at the Fire Wave. As tired as our students were from all the hiking we did over a short period of time, everyone made the trek out over the slopes and ridges through the blowing sand and with their experience and skills learned from the night before were ready to give it their best shot. We took a few minutes to get our group shot atop the iconic striped rock before everyone found the best position for the compositions they wanted. The wind continued to gust and blow sand in our faces, but with some last minute assistance from Scott and I, our students began to shoot as the sun slowly dipped into the west with just a bit of color making it through the rapidly moving clouds. Memory cards were filled with fabulous images, batteries depleted, and with darkness upon us, it was time to call it a day and hike back to the van for the drive back to Overton and a group farewell dinner in town.
Until next time, Jean, Scott and rest of the Aperture Team!
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