Getting from Point A to Point B

Fractured Highway

As we headed out of Furnace Creek in Death Valley on Route 190 Paul Reiffer (our workshop host and professional photographer) pulled the car over to the side of the road.  I been looking out of the side window thinking about the challenges to come and had not thought of looking behind us.  Paul had and when we jumped out of the car it quickly became evident why.

This is a classic view looking back down the road and it is one that I have seen a hundred times.  The difference this time was that it was my chance to try to go one step further.  So, with each of us watching the traffic whilst we each took our turn at capturing this iconic image, I set about getting my interpretation between cars, trucks and those rolling 18 wheel monsters that were coming over the rise a few hundred yards in the opposite direction to the image.

Well, it looks like I was not the only person to like my interpretation of the view.  Gurushots must have hundreds, if not thousands, of images similar to this on their database, but it is my image (just one of 38) that has been used to provide an example of getting from point a to point b.  There are some wonderful images that have been used in the article and I’m proud to have yet another of my images used in this manner.

You can see the full article here.

gurushots-a2b

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Bouncing around Death Valley

The Artists Pallet, Death Valley, CA, USA - Copyright Martyn Phillips, M4Photo

The Artists Pallet, Death Valley, CA, USA – Copyright Martyn Phillips, M4Photo

DAY 4 – Saturday 16th – Today was one of our early starts and we would be heading up into the hills of Death Valley. Forming part of the Amargosa Range and located east of Death Valley Zabriskie Point has some wonderful rock formations around the viewpoint and a view right across Death Valley. We arrived a little before sunrise and setup just forward of the main viewing area. The sun would be rising behind us and following Paul’s guidance, we hoped for the sun to light both the mountains on the far side of the valley and also the valley floor.

Unfortunately, the morning was cloudy where we were hoping the sun to shine and we watched as the clouds blew through. The sun occasionally found a small pocket of clear sky but this only really gave us patchy lit areas on the far side of the valley and the valley floor never really lit up.

As the sun rose further into the morning sky, the shadow of the viewing area developed into a large shaded area in front of us and this never really moved out of the frame before we decided to call it a day. Lesson for today, is that you really can’t rely on the weather, even in a place a beautiful as Death Valley.

After packing up and walking back to the car, we headed back to Badwater Basin and back onto the hexagon hunt. This time we would be a little more fortunate. The heat of the day before had dried out the valley floor a little more than the day before. This is important because the hexagons are formed when the valley floor dries out and cracks. As Paul found out on one scouting mission, the mud beneath the surface is hot and this causes the salt to boil and it bubbles up through the cracks to form small hexagons with salt walls up to a centimetre or two.

Walking out over the salt flats carrying the Phase One in its case, we were skeptical at finding any hexagons but we were rewarded with a few small collections. Nothing to really wow, but we did get hexagons which was really cool – plus it means that I have an excuse to come back again at another time. That said it was really interesting to experience the difference in the camera settings for a medium format camera.

This is proving to be a busy and action packed photography road trip and we quickly back on the road again. The next scheduled location was Mammouth Lakes and shooting at Mono Lake. I’d loved Death Valley and the guys in the car told me that better was to come – expectations began to run high.

On the route over, we took a short detour via the Artists Pallet. This is an outcrop of rock that was thrown up during volcanic activity. During the pre-shoot briefing Paul described the phenomenon as ‘earth burp’ and it really is a great description.

We were arrived, I very nearly decided not to shoot the rocks because the colours looked pretty pastel. However Paul explained how to pull out the colours using post production and it was yet another example of an opportunity to capture and image and then use that image to practice what we were being taught. I was actually very pleased that I had taken the shots because the results produced in a couple of minutes in Lightroom are actually quite pleasing and I have one image that I will work on in Photoshop when I get home.

After picking up our bags from the overnight accommodation and checking out, we headed back onto the road and off to Mammoth Lakes. It was a shame to leave Death Valley behind but I had decided to catch up with my blog on the way over in the car. Famous last words, the scenery continued to be stunning and the computer stayed packed away.

We dropped the bags at our accommodation and headed out to Mono Lake. The lake is a ……… We checked out a couple of sites where the Tufas are close to the shoreline, but headed back to the first location. The weather began to close in with huge black clouds gathering above the mountains to the left of our location. We sat in the car watching the weather until Paul identified a fabulous opportunity. Grabbing our gear we hastily headed down to the shoreline and then the black clouds began to release a torrent of rain over the mountains. The result was a very interesting sky, wonderful streaks of the rain falling with the lake and rock formations in front.

Whilst Paul and Mark headed over to one side, I setup in a slightly different location in the hope to capture one of the Tufas that had caught my attention. Mark and Paul caught some great shots but I was focusing too narrowly on the scene and I missed the opportunity. Even switching from the wide angle to the 70-200mm lens was a mistake, but the great thing about this trip is that Paul keeps an eye on what you are doing but he lets you have the freedom to experiment.

Clearly sensing my frustration, Paul suggested a slightly different viewpoint and suggested shooting much wider. The scene was across, what I would describe as, a small bay with an outcrop of Tufas which jutted out into the lake. Taking more time and applying the tuition, I managed to capture my favourite photograph of the trip thus far. Felling very happy and with the light drawing in from the storm and the weather beginning to get worse, we headed back to the car.

Later we would return to the lake to try for a sunset but the weather was not favourable and the anticipated colours in the sky did not materialise and I was not lucky enough to get a decent image.

Mark was keen to capture a night sky and the Milky Way in particular. This would be something new to me and we checked the weather. It was looking to be clear, so it was off for something to eat and a few short hours sleep before heading out around half past midnight.

Dunes and Balls of Fire

Dante's Flare - A sunset sun Flare taken from Dante's Peak as the sun sets over Death Valley, CA - Copyright 2015 Martyn Phillips, M4Photo.

Dante’s Flare – A sunset sun Flare taken from Dante’s Peak as the sun sets over Death Valley, CA – Copyright 2015 Martyn Phillips, M4Photo.

Friday 15th – The morning began with a drive over to the sand dunes in Death Valley.

We initially headed over to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes but the location was busy and Paul had his eye on another set of dunes further along the valley. We travelled through some great scenery that included and area of rock that had been thrown up when the area was volcanically active, vast flat plains and of course the dunes, but Death Valley’s geology changes constantly as you drive through it.

Unfortunately the second set of dunes were some miles off the main road and along a washboard track that we were not comfortable driving down and we turned back for the dunes at Mesquite Flat. The journey was not totally wasted because we saw some tremendous scenery and my first coyote up close to the car.

The drive back to the earlier set of dunes was punctuated by a roadside stop to capture some amazing skies as a storm blew through.

Arriving at the dunes we strapped out camera kit to our backs and Paul told me to tighten my tripod straps as tight as possible. When walking they can come loose and a moving tripod on your backpack can make a tough walk much tougher. Heading into the dunes we clambered up and slithered down several dunes before being presented with another wonderful cloud formation. A short stop was taken to capture a few shots and then we headed further into the dunes to a spot that we had noted from the car park.

Infinity - Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, CA - Copyright 2015 Martyn Phillips, M4Photo.

Infinity – Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, CA – Copyright 2015 Martyn Phillips, M4Photo.

Arriving at our desired location, we were rewarded by two scenes. One was of a typical crescent shaped dune but someone had walked the dune and spoilt the sides and ridge. However, off to our left and unseen from the car park, was an even better view which we also caught.

With the dune shots in the bag we trudged back to the car and headed over to Dante’s Peak. This would be out sunset shot for the evening. It is a ridge high above the valley floor with views along its length and width and with the salt flats offering a marble type of texture to the valley floor. The sun would set behind the mountains on the other side of the valley and it was that which we were after.

Paul and Mark set up towards the top of the ridge and I wandered down a little lower to a spot that I had found. This proved to be both a good idea as I got some lovely shots along the valley but also a problem.  This was my first time of shooting with stacked filters. I would be using the grad to balance the shot but with the darker rock showing too dark, Paul explained how to use a second filter to gain a gradient in the sky and to get a much better image.  However, shooting into the sun with stacked filters resulted in bad lens flare across my images. I don’t particularly like the flare and I might use one of the images to develop my Photoshop skills, but it is part of this sort of photography and some people like the effect. I’ll give this one more thought on my return home.

With the sunset shots completed and darkness falling, we headed back to the car and the long drive back to our hotel at Furnace Creek.

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.