One of the things I love about our workshops is that Jim and I take a “teach it as you shoot it” approach to them. In other words, the way that we like to shoot on our own is how we try to run our ‘shops. This means early mornings, late nights, exploration, adventure, light chasing, and tons of fun photography. It also means freedom. Unlike many workshop companies we don’t have a set itinerary on our multi-day ‘shops. Rather, there are just ideas and options, and each day the game plan is made completely from scratch based on the conditions and our experience. So while this means a little more work and a little more stress for Jim and I during the workshop (after all, it sure would be easier to mindlessly follow a set itinerary!), it also means that we’re almost always in the right place at the right time with our groups, maximizing their chances to come away with those portfolio-quality images.
This was absolutely the case on our recent Death Valley workshop. Perhaps unbeknownst to our participants, Jim and I were often improvising plans each morning as we drove out of the Furnace Creek Ranch parking lot. “Ok,” we’d say, “if there are clouds to the east this morning we’ll head to the western part of Cottonball Basin. If clouds form to the west, or if it’s totally clear, let’s hit the eastern section.” It was a challenge trying to outfox the weather gods at every step, but we definitely had our share of victories as we photographed our way through that amazing desert park.
We spent our first morning at an almost-never-visited portion of Badwater Basin where the hexagonal salt formations grow as thick and crusty as a 49er’s sourdough. And although we had clear skies at sunrise, the rust-red alpenglow on the 10,000-foot Panamint Mountains to the west made a gorgeous backdrop all the same. As the sun continued to climb into the sky it was clear that no clouds would be forming that day, so we spent a few hours before lunch exploring the nooks and crannies of Golden Canyon, ducking in and out of the sun, coaxing lines to appear in our photos, and discussing the best technique to get those perfect sunstars.
After a midday meal and quick siesta we hit the Mesquite Dunes, one of the best places in the park to take advantage of bright sunlight. On clear days the late afternoon (or early morning) light will create an endless playground of lines and shadow, deeply patterned ridges, and rich textures. The scene changes constantly before you and on that afternoon our crew wasted no time in working the myriad forms. As the afternoon dripped away the short shadows in the sand stretched like taffy, merging and flowing into one another until only hints of sunlight remained on the dunes. Then, with surprising quickness, the sun set and the Venus Belt rose, saturating the dunes in soft, even light. Then even that was gone and we headed back to the cars to empty our shoes of sand, creating the mountainous Ogelsby Dunes in the process.
On the morning of our second day we saw our only clouds of the workshop. But if you can only get clouds once, you’d be stoked enough to get these: high, wispy whispers of moisture spanning the sky from east to west, north to south. Seasoned photogs will look at a sky like that and come to one immediate conclusion: there’s gonna be color, and lots of it! And sure enough, as the sun began to peek its sleepy way over the horizon, we had an eruption of pinks, oranges, salmons, and ochres. Jim’s and my game-time decision to visit a salty spring near Furnace Creek paid off beautifully as the water-filled channels reflecting the cascade of light above made me almost feel like I was standing in the sky itself. I was cackling out loud like a coot, and I could tell from the delight I saw on our group’s faces that they were feeling the same way I was. What a beautiful spot; what a beautiful morning. This is why we do photography!
As we bid adieu to the spring the clouds bid adieu to the sky and we were left once again with azure blue heavens. We took that as an opportunity to pick our way among the furrowed and tortured badlands below Zabriskie Point. The Badlands to me look like dunes on a macro scale and the mid-morning light gave us constantly changing patterns of sun and shadow to photograph. We found ridges galore (Ruffles eat your heart out!), thick plates of cracked mud, and even a giant pterodactyl print preserved in the baked earth. Great camera fodder all around. Speaking of fodder, all that shutterbugging worked up our appetites so it was back to the Ranch for some grub.
The afternoon was poised to stay cloudless so we allowed a longer midday break before heading out to a bizarre, fascinating, and photogenic salt flat. Here the mud and salt have coaslesced into surreal forms and organic-looking swirls, all rich in contrast and striking in shape (i.e. great for photography!). Some of our participants even found a small pool of water which reflected the day’s end alpenglow and the rising, nearly-full moon.
Once again, darkness quickly overtook us, which meant it was time for dinner and sleep. What, sleep? No! Sleep’s for wusses! It was time for night photography! The ex-town of Rhyolite provided our stage, and the moon cast a shimmering glow over the landscape and decrepit buildings. This was a great opporunity for most of the group to try out the unique techniques used in night photography, and they took to it like ducks to, uh, night photography. Strobes were flashing, headlamps were blazing, and ISOs were cranking. I think we could’ve stayed out there all night, but once we reminded everyone of our early morning call the next day, the group was pretty quick to hop in the cars and head in the direction of our beds.
By our final morning of the workshop our early wake-up times seemed to be ingrained and I only heard a few good-natured grumbles as we rolled out to Zabriskie Point in the dark. Why get up and get going so early? Well, because the full moon was setting behind Manly Beacon and we do everything we can during our workshops to take advantage of confluences like that. Like our previous nights but in reverse, the inky night sky began to glow with a new day’s light. The Venus Belt traversed down the western sky and became rich alpenglow on the mountains. Then the sun itself broke the horizon and as its rays warmed our fingers and the landscape, the shutters were snapping and the final photos of the workshop were being recorded.
After that there was nothing left to do but celebrate with a breakfast buffet. I’m not quite sure how much bacon was consumed that morning, but let me just say that if there are a dozen fewer pigs in the world today, that would be due to a voracious group of desert photographers. What a way to wrap up the workshop!
Of course, our workshops mean nothing without the wonderful folks who participate in them, so let me throw out a huge thanks from Jim and myself to our Death Valley workshopees: Keith, Doug, Suzanne, Adam, Kristen, Bob, Richard, and Curt. You guys were such a great group of warm, funny people, and it was our pleasure to have you on the ‘shop. Check out everyone’s photos from the ‘shop here:
And if this sounds like a heap of fun to you too, join us on our next Death Valley Photography Workshop.
Until next time all the best,
Photos from this workshop