The Road to the Racetrack

Sliding Rock, The Racetrack, Death Valley

Sliding Rock, The Racetrack, Death Valley

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A couple of weeks ago I got the bright idea to spend the twenty-four hours separating my two Death Valley workshops with a trip out to the Racetrack. While it seemed like such a good idea at the time, as my first workshop drew to a close I started longing for a bit of recharge time before the next one (it didn’t help that the first workshop’s final night was in Lone Pine near Mt. Whitney, an hour-and-a-half drive from Death Valley). But since I’d invited my brother Jay (who assisted my first workshop) and friend Doug (who would assist my second workshop), and they’d changed plans to join me, I sucked it up and made the trip (much to my ultimate delight).

You’ve probably seen pictures of the Racetrack, which, like many features in Death Valley, defies common logic. The Racetrack is a perfectly flat playa (dry lakebed) surrounded by rocky mountains that frequently shed large chunks of dolomite, many of which come to rest on the playa surface. But unlike the rocks you and I have known, the Racetrack rocks move. A lot. And as they scoot along the playa they carve tracks in the otherwise flat surface, sometimes several hundred yards long. The creepiest thing is that nobody has actually seen these rocks move. Science still doesn’t have a perfect explanation for what goes on here, but the general consensus is a combination of water, wind, and (possibly) ice is involved.

A major part of the Racetrack legend is the road out there. It’s a two hour drive on twenty-seven unpaved, unpatrolled miles of sharp rocks and jarring ruts. The road, a notorious tire eater, twists up to 5,000 feet elevation before dropping back down to 3,700 feet at the playa.

Given the time and effort it takes to get to the Racetrack, our plan was to land in time photograph sunset, wait for dark and photograph by moonlight, then throw down sleeping bags and spend the night, rising early enough to photograph sunrise. Armed with my rental SUV, if all went as planned (no flat tires), we’d make it back to Furnace Creek by noon and (fingers crossed) have time to clean up and eat lunch before starting workshop number two at 1 p.m. Piece of cake.

So, at the conclusion of workshop number one, my brother and I hustled back from Lone Pine and picked up Doug in Stovepipe Wells. Before setting out we made a quick stop in the general store, where the clerk reported that a recent Racetrack visitor had told him earlier that day that all the rocks had been stolen. Hmmm. Undeterred, we set off on our adventure with high hopes.

A light rain fell for much of the drive, quite unusual in this arid region that gets less than two inches of rain per year. And with rain comes clouds, one of which we entered not long after turning onto Racetrack Road. Instantly the visibility dropped to about one hundred feet and remained that way for much of the journey. Of course the lack of a view was of little concern to me, since my eyes strayed from the road only long enough check the dashboard tire pressure indicator.

Given the limited visibility and my targeted focus, I’m afraid I have little to report of the journey, except that it was with great relief that we somehow pulled up to the playa on schedule and without consequence. The rest of our adventure will need to wait until my next post—until then, above I offer proof that we did indeed make it, and that the trip was very much worth the effort.

Color, color everywhere

Crimson Sunrise, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley

Magenta Sunrise, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley

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After three days of solid blue skies (Zzzzzzzzzzzz), yesterday morning my Death Valley workshop group was rewarded with a sunrise for the record books. I’ve seen color like this in Yosemite, Hawaii, and the Grand Canyon to name a few, but never at Death Valley.

As the group gathered at the hotel about an hour before sunrise, a deep ruby glow stained the eastern horizon. Hmmm. Second-guessing my tried and true policy of getting on location at least forty-five minutes before sunrise, I hustled everyone into the cars and we bolted for Zabriskie Point, just five (extremely long) minutes up the hill. At Zabriskie I gave a brief orientation with one eye on the expanding red that now stretched from the eastern horizon nearly to the zenith—in a matter of minutes it would reach all the way to the Panamint Mountains on the western horizon, filling the sky behind Death Valley’s most celebrated vista.

After explaining that the best place to photograph Zabriskie Point is on the dirt hilltop directly below the viewing platform, I set off with a “Follow me.” By the time I made it to the prescribed vantage point the red had indeed spilled all the way down to the Panamints. Thrilled with our good fortune I looked around—imagine my surprise to find that only two others had heeded my advice; the rest of the group had stopped well behind me to photograph in the opposite direction, lured by the electric show playing above the not-too-photogenic scene facing the sun.

Paradox alert: I spend a good deal of time teaching photographers that light trumps landscape—in other words, don’t get so locked in to the scene you came to photograph that you miss better light happening elsewhere. They had heeded my advice so well that they overlooked another truth I try to hammer home: See the world with your camera’s eye. In this case the most spectacular light was indeed behind the classic Zabriskie scene, where the eastern sky was infused with a magenta hue that was equal parts vivid and bright. On the other hand, the red sky to the west, above nearby Manly Beacon and the distant Panamints, was still quite dark to our human vision. What everyone had overlooked was that their camera’s ability to accumulate light would bring out color their eyes missed.

Fortunately, I was able to get everyone’s attention and to convince them where the real show was. We started with long exposures like the one here (30 seconds at f8 and ISO 400) that brightened the scene beyond what our eyes saw. Often sunrise color rises to a tantalizing level only to fade without warning. But this morning as the light increased, the color rose right along with it, faded briefly, then bounced back stronger than ever. At its peak the entire landscape glowed pink and the only sound was clicking shutters.

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A few words about color: I’m always amused when people question the credibility of sunrise and sunset color. I’ll grant that many people enhance their color in processing, but that doesn’t mean that every brilliant sunrise or sunset was manipulated. The truth is, there’s nothing subtle about color in nature, and when people question the color in a sunrise/sunset image, my first thought is to wonder how many sunrises/sunsets they’ve seen.

My group yesterday morning was chuckling about that problem as we packed up—we were all anticipating the inevitable doubts, some explicit, others implicit, but there was comfort in the knowledge that we all had witnesses. And for the record (I just checked), the only color work I did on this image was a slight desaturation of the blue in the sky and the magenta for the entire image.

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.

My essential smartphone apps for photography

Moonset, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley

I have a few iPhone apps that I use all the time, and am always on the lookout for more (so feel free to share). There are many great apps out there, but given the amount of photography time I spend off the grid, a prime consideration for me is the ability to use an app without cell or wifi coverage, taking many out of the running. For example, I think The Photographer’s Ephemeris is a great piece of software for getting sun and moon information, but never use the app because I rarely photograph in locations with adequate cell or wifi service. (A recent update may now enable PE to pre-download maps, but my sun/moon workflow is already in place so I haven’t tried it yet.)

On the other hand, at the top of my own list of essential apps is Focalware, which gives me sun and moon rise/set time, altitude, and azimuth for any location on Earth, regardless of connectivity. For example, until recently Death Valley had no cell coverage whatsoever; even now most of Death Valley is a cell dead zone, and wifi is limited to the (extremely unphotogenic) hotels in Furnace Creek Ranch and Stovepipe Wells. But using my iPhone’s GPS to pinpoint my location, Focalware gave me the sunrise and moonset information I needed to capture this full moon setting behind Manly Beacon (I won’t even touch the Freudian ramifications of that name) at Zabriskie Point. It’s also handy to be able to input the GPS coordinates of any location, which allows me to get the astronomical data I need for remote locations as well.

Another app that works great regardless of connectivity is Depth of Field Calculator by Essence Computing. With it I’m able to quickly compute hyperfocal focus info for any camera or lens. I don’t need it all the time, but having this information instantly available when I’m trying to focus near and far objects in a single frame makes my life considerably easier. It’s also a fun app to play what-if games when I find myself waiting on hold or in line somewhere. I just plug in arbitrary values and try to guess the hyperfocal distance—a great exercise for improving hyperfocal focus skills.

Dropbox is a bigger part of my home and mobile computing, but I do use my Dropbox app to access essential files when I’m on the road and away from a computer and the Cloud. While the Dropbox app requires connectivity to access files in the main Dropbox folder in the Cloud, I can specify files as “Favorites” to be kept downloaded and current on my iPhone at all times. My most important files are always flagged as favorites, and before leaving home I add other files I’m pretty sure I’ll need on that trip.

The state of the tides makes a huge difference when photographing coastal scenes. Tide pools will materialize or vanish with the tide, and the look of the coast can change drastically when the tide swallows or reveals rocks. And some areas I’m accustomed to shooting may be completely inaccessible when the tide’s in. For all these reasons, before photographing on the coast I check the state of the tide with Ayetides. Ayetides stores its information on my iPhone, so I don’t need to worry about connectivity. On the other hand, I’m not crazy about Ayetides’ interface, which I find less than intuitive.

Another app that I recently started using and have high hopes for is Trail Maps by National Geographic. In theory it’s exactly what I need—-an app that allows me to download specific topographic maps onto my iPhone for anytime, any connectivity access. It also allows me to plot point-to-point azimuth and distance for any location, great for computing moon and sun rise/set position. While I’ve been able to use it some, I’m afraid the current version of this app has far too many bugs, large and small, for me to recommend it.

Since I don’t have vast experience with other similar apps, I can’t guarantee that the apps I mention here are the best. But I can say that they work great for me, and they make my photography life much easier. How about you? Do you have any apps on your iOS or Android phones that you find indispensable?

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