Death Valley National Park Photography, Part 2


If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last couple of years it’s as follows: Landscape photography will drive a body to new extremes. Don’t like wet feet? How about standing in cold snow melt water while you shoot this waterfall. Not a fan of heights? The only way this composition works is if I stand on this ledge. Am I kind of lazy? Here’s twenty pounds of photography gear to carry while you hike up this mountain. Would you rather sleep in? Well…

“…Well, maybe I’ll set an alarm.”

Mudcrack Dreams

Waking up early may not sound particularly extreme. But I am not now and never have been a member of the [Morning Person] Party. “Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” just doesn’t fit. This is not new information to those that know me. I stay up late and have restless sleep. My grumpiness, as I like to say, is part of my charm. (I think I actually believe that, too.)

But nature photography has its grip on me. Even the mere suggestion of a good sunrise catches my attention. And who knows when I’ll be back this way again? “I’d better wake up.”

Even I, Mr. Wet Blanket, have to admit that sunrise is a special time. You’re less likely to run into crowds of people at sunrise, and there’s a stillness and peace that just doesn’t exist at sunset. The very first light of a new day can be magical. “OK, fine. I’ll get out of bed, but it’s too early.”

That is unless my body is on East Time time and I’m shooting in Pacific Time. “It’s really not that early!” Or at last, that’s what I told my North Carolina self while in Death Valley, California. “I’m going! I’m going! But where is my Diet Mountain Dew?!”

Mud Crack Sunrise

Nothing Else Matters

The mud cracks of Death Valley are mysterious in many ways: You may have a general idea, but you don’t really know where they are until you’ve found them. They’re like nothing you’ve ever seen. The textures are incredible. And the are equally hard as bricks and fragile to the touch [PSA: Leave No Trace!]. How exactly do they form? Seeing them in person only raises more questions than it answers. I’m sure science can explain it, but for now, I like not really knowing. The art of nature is first in its mysteries.

Dedicated to the idea and having a forecast of high clouds, I drug myself out of bed and walked into the desert with only a hint of pre-dawn light starting to show me the way.

In my time as a landscape photographer, I have not had any notable encounters with wildlife, but these solo adventures into the wilderness always make me wonder what I might come across. Or what might come across me. On this morning, the desert offered me solitude - from man and beast - and I got to work.

Initially, I saw very few clouds, and the pessimism - innate to me and seemingly all nature photographers - began to grow inside of me. “This is a waste of time. I could be asleep right now.” But as time unfolded, the sky was kind and fulfilled its promise as the high clouds appeared just in time to catch the sun’s first light.

The resulting photograph is a personal favorite. I love the pinks and purples in the sky and the textures in the foreground. In it, I captured the peace, solitude, and maybe even hope for the day to come, if my cold heart will accept it. I can’t wait to see a print of it!

You Got Lucky

The color in the sky continued to grow, and the full display is captured in the first photograph in this post. It was very much a special morning.

Soon, though, the epic sky dissolved and the sun appeared above the mountains to the east. Often, direct light can put an end to photography, but my luck continued as enough clouds hung around to provide some diffused light on the desert floor. With the sun still being low in the sky creating long shadows, this gave me another opportunity to photograph an abstract scene.

In photography, the grand landscape can steal the show, but those scenes are also pretty easy to see. That doesn’t make them easy to photograph, but in order to photograph a scene, you have to see it first. Smaller, more abstract scenes can be just as dramatic, but they aren’t as easy to identify - at least not for me. I was determined, however, and with the perfect light sure to dissipate at any moment, I scrambled around firing my shutter rapidly trying to find a scene worthy of the conditions.

Everything about landscape photography is challenging, and it drives me crazy, but it also drives me to continue. Every once in a while, the stars will align, and I will come away with a photograph like this that causes others to react just as strongly as I reacted when I took it. This one has had that impact on people, which is rewarding for me, and I’ll remind those folks that my photographs are available for purchase. I do not typically publish many black and white photographs. The colors of nature are everything. Except when they’re not. In this scene, the textures and contrast are everything.

Mere seconds after I took this photograph, the clouds rolled away and the light became to harsh. Sunrise was officially over, but the photographs remain. It was time to walk back to the car, and go find breakfast (and a second Diet Mountain Dew).

Desert Driftwood Illuminated by the Day’s Early Sun