A tale of two moons

Moonset, Badwater, Death Valley

Moonset, Badwater and Telescope Peak, Death Valley

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Going through images from earlier this year, I was struck by the difference the rendering of the moon makes in the overall effect of two images taken from different locations in Death Valley, a couple of days apart. In one, the moon is merely a garnish for a scene that’s all about the repeating patterns and harsh desolation of Death Valley’s Badwater playa; in the other, the moon is clearly the main course, enjoyed vicariously through the experience of six anonymous photographers atop a remote Death Valley ridge. In both cases, using my camera to control the moon’s size relative to the rest of the scene allowed me to emphasize the aspect of the scene I thought was most important.

Badwater moonset

Badwater is at the nadir of an expansive, paper-flat playa that spans Death Valley’s breadth between the looming Black Mountains to the immediate east and the distant Panamint Range in the distant west. At 282 feet below sea level, it’s the lowest point in North America. Centuries of flood-evaporate-repeat have spread a veneer of minerals and buckled them into a jigsaw of interlocking polygons. Some winters the playa is completely submerged beneath several inches of mountain runoff; as the shallow lake evaporates, the polygons’ protruding boundaries emerge to form interlocking reflective pools that shimmer like thousands of faceted jewels. But most of the year Badwater is a bone-dry plane that ranges from chalk white to dirty brown, depending on how long it has been exposed to Death Valley’s ubiquitous dust without a bath. To walk out onto the playa is to loose all sense of scale and distance.

On my visit last February I with a polygon that filled the immediate foreground. I went with a wide lens and dropped almost to the ground, taking care to include all of the polygon’s perimeter in my frame, a composition intended to create the sense of the endless expanse I feel when I’m out there. Including the complete polygon in the foreground (rather than cutting off  a side), makes it easier to imagine the shape repeating into infinity.

A wide angle lens emphasizes the foreground and shrinks the background, in this case shrinking the moon so much that it all but disappears in the distance, just as it is about to literally disappear behind sun-kissed Telescope Peak. Making something as familiar as the moon this small enhances the illusion vastness.

A two-stop hard graduated neutral density filter kept the sky and mountain color in check at the exposure necessary to bring out Badwater’s radiant surface. And with important compositional elements near and far, I wanted lots of depth of field in this image. DOF at 28mm is pretty good, but I nevertheless stopped down to f16 and focused on a spot about six feet in front me, which gave me “acceptable” sharpness from three feet to infinity. My general rule is to bias my focus to the foreground because softness is more easily forgiven than foreground softness—on close scrutiny at 100 percent, I see that my foreground in this image is indeed perfectly sharp, while the mountains and moon are ever so slightly, but not unusably, soft (had it been the other way around, the image would have been a failure).

Moonrise silhouette

A telephoto lens compresses distance, making distant objects appear closer to the foreground than they really are. In my ridge-top moonrise, instead of shrinking the moon to emphasize the foreground as I did in the Badwater image, I stood as far back as possible and framed the photographers with an extreme telephoto, compressing the scene and magnifying the moon to make it appear closer to the silhouetted photographers (I magnified it even more later by cropping extraneous emptiness from the perimeter). And because it’s rising here, the moon’s extreme size works as a metaphor for its arrival above the landscape (contrast that with the small, departing moon in the Badwater image)—not a conscious decision, but I don’t believe it was an accident either. (Metaphor happens organically when you listen to your internal intuitive, creative muse.)

Moonrise Silhouette, Death Valley

Moonrise Silhouette, Death Valley

While my right brain mused, my left brain chewed on the scene’s extreme dynamic range. The moon is always daylight bright, but here the foreground is in dark shadow—a difference between highlights and shadows far beyond a camera’s ability to capture. But my composition doesn’t require any foreground detail—in fact, foreground detail could have been a distraction. Instead I exposed for the moon, which brought out the twilight color and simplified the foreground into silhouettes that conveyed everything I needed.

Everything’s up from here

Sunrise, Telescope Peak & Badwater, Death Valley

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At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater in Death Valley is the lowest point in North America. While that’s impressive by itself, consider that Telescope Peak, the sunlit mountain in center of this picture, is over 11,000 feet above sea level. But wait, there’s more…. Just 85 miles from where I stand here, Mt. Whitney towers 14,500 feet above sea level, the highest point in the lower 48 United States. And 5,400 feet vertical feet above me is Dante’s View; from there you can see both Badwater and Mt. Whitney. Pretty cool.

The Badwater playa is actually an ephemeral lake, filled only by unusually heavy rainfall and its runoff. With no outlet, and averaging less than two inches of replenishing rain each year, evaporation quickly empties Badwater Lake. Each evaporation cycle leaves behind a layer of salt. As the mud beneath the salt layer dries, polygonal cracks form openings that accumulate extra salt. Heat causes this salt to expand into corresponding polygonal shapes on the otherwise flat surface. Some winters I’ve found these shapes filled with water, like faceted jewels. And on my 2005 visit I watched a kayaker glide across the completely submerged basin.

Winter visitors have the best chance of catching the top salt layer before Death Valley’s ample airborne dust has had a chance to turn the playa from pure white to dirty brown. The north/south orientation of Death Valley means that the Panamint Range on the valley’s west side is bathed in the warm light of the rising sun. As with Mt. Whitney, the Panamint Range’s extreme elevation above the playa makes Badwater an ideal spot for early risers to photograph sunrise alpenglow. On this morning from early last February, the playa was pristine and a layer of thin cirrus clouds arrived at the same time as the sun, brushing the blue sky pink.

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