When you ask people about Death Valley National Park they automatically associate it with high temperatures. This is valid, because for most of the year Death Valley can reach temperatures as high as 120 degrees...it can be close to 100 degrees at night during some parts of the summer. These conditions aren't conducive for living. However unpleasant and ominous you think the park is during the summer, it changes completely during the winter. During the winter temperatures decrease, and most days are quite pleasant and mild...mornings can even be very cold. These milder temperatures are perfect for really seeing the park for what it is, a magical place of diverse and interesting landscapes.
Mike and I met a group of 10 awesome photographers, many that had never been to the park before. We were going to take them out for two days of 'seeing' and photographing the many wondrous parts of this park.
Our first morning we started at Zabriskie Point. This area was named for one of the early diehard settlers to the area. From a high ridge our group looked out over the vast badlands of Gold Canyon. Layers and striations of gold and brown line this landscape creating amazing textures and layers. The sky is erupting with color as Mike and I go from student to student, helping fine tune compositions, offer suggestions, and help with any technical questions. Once the group had captured the ‘big picture' of the scene, we encouraged them to put on telephoto lenses and work to capture the subtle details of the area. Lots of small pockets of warm morning light isolating different segments of the area. The beauty was enough to offset the cold morning and biting wind.
With Zabriskie in our rear view we set off for Artist Drive. Here we find more layers of crazy desert landscape some of which are the prettiest shades of green and pink. The artist's palette is one area of especially colorful layers. We like to tell the group to zoom in and really pay attention to the details, even avoid adding in a sky so the viewer just looks at the colors and layers. It doesn't take long for the sun to crest the mountains and soon the whole area is bathed in a bright sun. We use this opportunity to take a brief break at the hotel for coffee.
Our afternoon takes us outside the park to the odd ghost town of Rhyolite. We make a brief lunch stop in Beatty, Nevada before letting our group explore the town of Rhyolite. This area is filled with the remnants of old structures and bits of modern art sculpture. It really is a varied area for our group to explore. We encourage the group to try and think about seeing in black and white and finding areas with high contrast, and interesting tones.
The final stop for the evening is Badwater. One of the strangest and lowest elevation areas of the park. Badwater is over 200 feet BELOW sea level. Water from areas far outside the park somehow finds its way into this salt pan, and every year as the water in the playa dries, the copious amounts of salt in the ground forms crazy patterns and shapes. While the ground dries, these shapes crack and change form making for one of the most alien looking landscapes I've ever seen.
Our group makes the long walk out to these salt flats and we help them to find areas with interesting lines, great foreground, and the occasional reflection in a remaining channel of water. It's a really great scene, and as luck would have it, the sunset we witnessed was beautiful. We had great clouds, beautiful color, and compositions to photograph in multiple directions. Everywhere our eyes looked, there was something to shoot.
Day one was a blast...so it's easy to see why the group was already looking forward to the next morning...see everyone at 5am!
One of the side-effects of landscape photography is that you're going to have to learn to wake up bright and early. Our shooting location in Mesquite Dunes required a little bit of a walk...and a little bit of a drive so we had to make sure we were on the road early. The dune fields are one of the more popular areas in the park for tourists, so to get areas with no footprints in the shots requires some extra hiking. Lucky for us some wind the night before cleaned the dunes up pretty well, and our walk to a more central part of the dunes put us in an area less frequented by the masses...we had luxurious, pillowey dunes as far as we could see, and all without footprints. Mike and I lined the group up on different dunes, and then helped them to find nice lines to use in their compositions. Once again, mother nature was on our side and we were treated to a spectacular light show in all directions. While the color was erupting in the sky, the dunes had very subtle light, giving the scene some nice contrast. As the sun rises, the shadows and light play throughout the sand creating all kinds of possibilities for grand and abstract images.
With another great light show in the books, we set off for the hotel for a slightly longer break and a chance to post-process images a little. One of the more fun parts for Mike and me is seeing what the group has captured, and then helping them to find a few new tips on how to make these images look their best. There were so many awesome images on those laptops...it was really amazing to see how a few little adjustments really made them POP!
Our final stop for the workshop was back to Badwater. The interesting thing about this location is that within a few mile area the salt patterns can change shape, tones, and intensity of texture. Where we were the previous night had huge salt ridges on the edges of the tiles. Some 3-4 inches thick. The salt patterns we visited on this evening had tiny salt ridges, and many of them were filled with water giving the area a wonderful reflective look...almost like a lake. We hoped for another killer sunset, and had the group set up and prepared for it...but the clouds were a bit too thick, and while we captured a few moody images, nobody had that fiery sunset color we had been using on all our previous shoots...shortly after 5 we called the sunset over and set off back for the hotel.
All in all it was a tremendous weekend of great weather, good fun, and lots and lots of photos. Mike and I had a great time taking this group all over the park and showcasing the beauty of the valley of death.
Until next time,
Brian, Mike, 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.