Chasing Hexagons

Fractured Highway, Route 190out of Furnace Creek, Death Valley, CA - Copyright 2015 Martyn Phillips, M4Photo.

Fractured Highway, Route 190 out of Furnace Creek, Death Valley, CA – Copyright 2015 Martyn Phillips, M4Photo.

Thursday 14th – This morning was a late start (Well compared to getting up for Sunrise) and we’d head over into Death Valley. The drive over in the ‘The Beast’ (a big black Chevy Tahoe) was smooth and the scenery changed on a regular basis as we headed over into the valley. The aim of blogging and working through downloaded email quickly disappeared as the terrain and geology became more and more interesting.

On one of the long straight stretches, Paul pulled over and we decamped to get a typical highway shot back along the road that we had travelled. The location was perfect as usual, with one of the elevation signs just off to one side. With ‘The Vig’ watching for traffic, we headed into the middle of the road for hastily composed shots. This was an opportunity to capture a US classic road shot and I’d quickly learn how to better frame a shot quickly. The result was really nice and needed very little post production work. It was also an opportunity to practice the focusing tips that Paul had shared with us the night before.

Back into the Beast and the journey continued down into the Valley. The National Park requires a permit which Paul took care of and we headed over to the aptly named Furnace Creek to check in and drop our bags. After some lunch, we hit the road and headed into the bottom of the valley. At 282ft below sea level, Badwater Basin has the lowest elevation in the whole of North America.

The Devils Golf Course is a large salt pan located on the floor of Death Valley and its name originates from a guide book for the valley which stated that: Only the devil could play golf on its surface due to a rough texture from the large halite salt crystal formations.

The whole of Death Valley was once covered by a lake which was about 30 feet deep. The salt consists of the minerals that were dissolved in the lake’s water and left behind in Badwater Basin when the lake evaporated. The Devils Golf Course sits a few feet above the lowest point in Badwater Basin and this ensures that the ar4ea remains dry all year round. This enables a weather process to take place which sculpts the salt into mounts of interesting and varied shapes and sizes.

Anyway, back to the purposes of us being here, shooting the golf course. Mark and I opted to shoot with the Phase One that Paul had been loaned by the company for the trip. The detail across the rock formation is simply awesome and we wanted to make sure that we picked that out using the high definition medium format camera. Under Paul’s expert tuition we quick got to grips with the Phase One’s touch screen based controls and Paul explained some tips for better composition in the unusual scenery. However, it still not stop me from trying to brace myself on the razor sharp rocks whilst shooting. One scratch on the arm later and we hoped to have some good shots from the location.

The next location was deeper into Badwater Basin and the salt flats. Paul’s knowledge of photography was a given on this trip, but he is also well versed in the history of some of the locations and Death Valley was an example. Back in the day, explorers attempted to cross the valley as they pushed further west and towards the coast. Attempting to cross the valley most of the party died in this inhospitable but beautiful place and when they found water, they found it to be undrinkable owing to the very high salt content. Therein lies the root of the name. Death Valley was also named as part of the expedition when one of the survivors was said to have said Goodbye to Death Valley because of the people who they had lost on the way.

I said that I would include the lows as well as the highs of this trip. Badwater Basin was to be one of the disappointments on this occasion. When the valley floor gets wet and then the intense heat from the sun dries the brown, clay like mud, it cracks in the shape of hexagons. The salt then boils and bubbles up through the cracks to form small hexagons on the surface of salt crystals. It was these that we were hoping to find. Unfortunately and despite travelling some miles along the valley floor, we were unlucky and no hexagons were to be found.

We returned to the main tourist area within Badwater Basin and waited in the car for sundown. The wind howled down the valley and the car danced on its springs whilst we waited. It would remain pretty windy whilst we walked over the salt flats to our chosen spot to shoot the sunset.

Badwater Basin, Death Valley - Copyright 2015 M4PhotoWe all captured some really nice shots of the sun setting and Paul explained how to use the aperture to gain a star burst effect of the sun. We were also briefly presented with a wonderful shot behind us as the shadow of the valley wall climbed the wall behind us. The shot was unexpected and unplanned but it promises to be one of my favourites from the day and I can’t wait to see it in a larger size on my computer later.  This was my first real opportunity to use some of my filters. The ND Grad was used to take balance the bright sky over the dark rocks. Paul commented on the one stop of light difference between the sky and valley sides and this helped with filter choice. Paul also explained how to best use the graduated filter to balance the shot and to help lengthen the exposure.

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