Photographers and rainbow at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley

Death Valley Photography Workshop, November 2012

Stupefying. If you were to ask me how conditions were for our latest Death Valley workshop, that is how I’d answer you. Amazingly, insanely stupefying. We got our first inkling of what was to come the day before the workshop actually started. Jim and I went out scouting and ended up at a little-known salt spring near furnace creek. As the sun sank toward the mountains the sky erupted into an array of never ended patterns, textures, and colors. After shooting for two hours, we each looked at each other a little slack-jawed and mind-numbed. Boy, if we get anything like that over the next few days, we said, this is going to be one heckuva of workshop. Little did we know that that was just the beginning.

We met our group for dinner and to get to know each other a bit better before spending the next 2.5 days shooting nonstop with one another. We also prepped the group on what to expect from the workshop and from Death Valley. And then we turned everyone loose to get a good night’s sleep since we needed to get cracking at o’dark-thirty the next morning.

A few hours’ sleep and a much-too-early alarm clock later and our group was assembled Friday at 5:00 am. We kicked off the ‘shop by heading to one of Death Valley’s most iconic locations: the Badwater Salt Flats, where extreme low elevation and evaporation have created a moonscape of twisted salt patterns. This is one of those spots where you’ve seen a ton of photos of, but once you get to see it in person it is all the more impressive and bizarre. And the group wasted no time in busting out their cameras as a gorgeously textured sunrise blossomed in front of our eyes. Badwater can be a tough place to shoot because of the complexity of the patterns, so it was a great opportunity to work on simplifying our photos. After a few hours the students were salted out so we set a course for another unique Death Valley formation: the Natural Bridge. Walking up the canyon to the bridge feels a little like entering an Indiana Jones movie and I made a few whip-cracking sound effects to help out. One of the big challenges of shooting Natural Bridge is dealing with the huge dynamic range of the scene. Which gave us a great opportunity to discuss exposure in tough situations.

After lunch we took the group to the wild and wacky landscape of Artist’s Drive, where Death Valley’s unique geology really takes center stage. The array of colors and rock compositions along this drive are something to behold. We stopped briefly at Artist’s Palette to help the group refine their abstract eyes, but we noticed some amazing light beams coursing across the sky so we skedaddled to our favorite little salt spring so the students could take full advantage of the wonderful light.

And the spring did not disappoint. The myriad streams of water at this location provide endless compositional possibilities, and with the wondrous light in the sky I think our group was slightly in heaven. As Jim and I walked around to help everyone with their compositions, settings, and ideas I saw no small number of amazing images popping up on LCDs. We cruised back to Furnace Creek and after dinner and an informal image review and post-processing session we bid everyone goodnight.

Next day was another early start and another visit to a Death Valley icon: Zabriskie Point. Normally the endless folded earth textures and the impressive Manly Beacon are the main attractions at Zabriskie, but on this morning we were treated to something truly special: a vivid rainbow blazing away in a thunderstorm across the valley. Considering Death Valley is lucky to get 2 inches of rain a year you can imagine how fortunate we felt to see a rainbow that morning. And if that wasn’t enough, the sunrise itself was beautiful. As the sun slipped in and out of cracks in the clouds, the landscape glowed with layers of light. We spent a few hours exploring the lines, patterns, and badlands of Zabriskie before grabbing lunch and heading to my personal favorite place in Death Valley: The sand dunes.

We like to visit the Mesquite Sand Dunes because of their accessibility. But that accessibility comes with a major downside: footprints! Sometimes it’s a real challenge to find a “clean” composition in the Mesquite dunes, but Jim and I have a few off-the-beaten-path spots we like to take our groups where getting some nice clean sand is much easier. Normally one of the best things about shooting sand dunes is capturing the rippling patterns of the sand. Unfortunately for us, we didn’t have any strong sunlight that afternoon to make the patterns stand out. Un-unfortunately for us, it was because the sky was full of intensely textured puffy clouds. As sunset came and faded, our group ranged far and wide over the dunes capturing their shots. And I have to say there were some sweet photos being produced that evening.

Darkness fell, but was that the end of the day? Heck no! We motored to one-horse-town Beatty, Nevada for a quick bite at the unassuming, but delicious KC’s Outpost. Once we were fortified with some piping hot sandwiches we drove to the spooky old ghost town of Rhyolite for some night photography. We didn’t have too many stars thanks to the clouds, so instead we worked on light painting the decrepit buildings. It was great fun to experiment with this kind of photography and the group, a little cold and tired at first, really got into the swing of things and it was tough to drag them away.

But drag we did because it was getting late and we had one last early morning shoot: at the vista to end all vistas: Dante’s View. Dante’s View, which overlooks the entire Death Valley basin, is a whopping 6,000 feet higher than the valley floor and gives some amazing perspective on the desert. But that height also comes with a price: cold. During most of the workshop we had wonderful weather: 70’s during the day and 50’s overnight. But at Dante’s View we stepped out of our cars to the embrace of a blustery wind. We quickly hunkered down in the lee of a ridge line and shot the early morning pinks as they filled the sky, mountains, and valley in front of us. We wrapped things up after an hour or so and cruise back to Furnace Creek for a celebratory breakfast. Amazing workshop, everyone!

From Jim and myself, many hearty thanks to Dave, Keith, Blake, Kee, Mark, Dean, Chuck, and Tom. Great group, great conditions, great workshop!

~Josh

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