Southern California's Death Valley. Incredibly dry, dangerously hot in summer, remote, desolate, and home to a number of gas stations and convenience stores. So this months trip to Death Valley wasn't the most harrowing experience, but it was amazing. Joining up with my cousin and fellow photographer Shelly we spent several days hiking the valley trying to capture one of the more oddly beautiful national parks out there. Lets take a look at what we did and how it went!
Light is the critical component in all photography, no matter what you're shooting. When your subject is the landscape itself mother nature provides your lighting and there's nothing you can do to change it, so you better take advantage of every possible golden hour. With another of the key images I wanted to capture being stars it meant that days on this "vacation" started as early as 4am. Sounds rough, but as always you have a choice: put in the whatever work it takes or dont get the shot. Heres a look at what few miles of pre dawn hikes got us.
The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes offer really excellent geometry in the right light. Getting them before the flat midday light hits gives you patterns, sweeping curves and lines and lots of contrast.
Shot at roughly 6 AM.
f/7.1, 1/500, ISO 250
The trick on this one is all in the timing. By shooting during the last hour of full darkness and leaving the tripod where it is until dawn begins to break you're able to get a very solid view of the milky way followed by a foreground landscape with enough lighting to be more than a silhouette. As long as the camera doesnt move its relatively easy to combine the two into a view like this.
Shot from 4:30 AM to 5:30 AM.
Sky shot: f/3.2, 13 seconds, ISO 3200
Foreground shot: f/3.2, 13 seconds, ISO 100
Of course once the limited morning golden hour was up we had all day to wait until the light was good again, but with so many sights to see and places to explore it's not as if NOT shooting throughout the day was an option. Plus, as important as good light is it's not impossible take strong images out under the sun in the light of day. It can be easy to write of any times not during golden hour but a few images came out quite well even during conditions that were not ideal.
The lighting on this shot is interesting. While it's not the most incredible spectacle it doesn't have any glaring issues, especially considering it was shot in the afternoon well before golden hour set in. The lighting on the subject is soft and even, there are no harsh highlights to distract the eye, and the sky is well exposed too. All this came from finding the right location. Inside one of Death Valleys many canyons everything on this side was fully sheltered from direct sunlight, thus we get even light across the entire scene. Furthermore, it was still fully bright out. Bright enough that by climbing up a short ways there was plenty of light to let us balance the exposure on the subject as well as the sky, even though we're still avoiding any direct sun.
f/7.1, 1/200, ISO 400
Here's another image taken outside of golden hour, this time smack in the middle of the day. Now right off the bat, this shot may certainly have been better had it been taken at golden hour rather than in the direct midday sun, but it still works. The composition has some fine rule of thirds and very clear lines throughout, but the lighting actually didnt hurt the overall image. While the light is indeed harsh we positioned in such a way that it was still consistent on each section.. The subject (and toned down foreground) is under direct, bright light while the background cliff face is crucially completely shaded. This gave us a very clear separation between the two, allowing for strong, clear contrast between subject and backdrop. Taken at a "better" time would have given much nicer light, but at the sacrifice of the strong foreground background contrast we have here.
f/6.3, 1/160, ISO 100
Now despite all of the hard work and rigorous schedule sometimes you just have to get a bit lucky. Death Valley is one of the driest places on the planet, but timing the trip just after the rare rainy season resulted in a very interesting site. The salt flats of Death Valley are the lowest elevation in the United States, so naturally all the water that remains eventually drains here, giving us a rare look at a flooded salt flat in a place famously devoid of water.
Four shot panorama, f/6.3, 1/500, ISO 200
All in all one of the most strangely alien landscapes Ive ever seen, but very beautiful nonetheless. Enjoy all images at full resolution in the gallery below!