Some Like It Hot
Death Valley is not known for its moderate climate. The name kind of says it all. Death Valley IS however known for its dark skies and otherworldly landscapes. Normally when I bring a workshop here, it is in springtime before the heat really starts to turn up. The high in April is usually in the low 90s (33C) with our night shooting happening at a more comfortable 70ish degrees (20c). When the temperatures are low we have perfect conditions to use the crescent moon to illuminate the foreground of our landscapes. The problem being though, if you want Milky Way shots, you have to be up around 4-5 in the morning and the moon has already set, leaving the foreground a blank void or something you have to paint in.
Scorching The Milky Way
This year I decided to focus the trip on the Milky Way. I still like a very small crescent moon to help illuminate the foreground, but not enough to overpower the stars that we are trying to capture. Unfortunately, that means to have the proper conditions in Death Valley for this, we would have to be there at the beginning of September. The average high this time of year is 108F (42C) with a low usually falling at around 90F (32C). Keep in mind too that the low hits just before sunrise. This year, however, Mother Nature decided that wasn’t enough. We ended up with highs hovering around 115F (46C). Our post-sunset shooting experiences were still in the neighborhood of 100F (38C). After the sun isn’t shining directly on you, these temperatures are much more manageable, but still something that can take a lot out of you. Temperatures aside, the weather decided to play along.
Heading To The Hills
With sandstorms working their way through Death Valley the first night, we headed out of the park to a close by ghost town with some more favorable shooting conditions. Here we got a handle on how to take an exposure at night and did a little painting with light to round out the evening. On the way back into the park we decided to stop at the entrance sign and take a group shot. With a 30 second exposure and a quick streak of a Maglite we were able to take an appropriately ghostly group shot in front of the Death Valley sign.
Braving The Heat
For our second evening, we headed up to the mountains where the temperatures can be up to 40 degrees cooler than on the ground. The cooler temperatures combined with a micro-climate formed by the converging mountains make this a great area to find wildlife at the park. There is a spring that has formed in the road and become an area where road runners will squat and hunt dragonflies as they swarm around the thinning water source. Between these little guys and the jackrabbits and cottontails hopping around, there were plenty of things to keep us busy until the sun had set and the heat in the valley below dropped to a nice cool 100F (38C).
After we made our way back down, we headed to the Mesquite Flats sand dunes for the night. We had these amazing tubes of clouds flowing through the sky giving some depth to the Milky Way behind.
A Salty Conclusion
On our last night, we head down to the area in Death Valley that contains most of the salt flats. Unfortunately, the hexagonal patterns that people often want in their photos have long been trampled by this time of year. There are other areas though with unique formations of salt to play within Death Valley – one such place is Devil’s Golf Course. When the early travelers first set eyes upon these tortured grounds, the first thought was, “Only the Devil could play golf here,” naturally.
After playing some golf with the devil, we headed up to Zabriskie Point to finish out the shooting experience of this years workshop. This is one of the parks quintessential landscapes. At sunset, there will be a full parking lot and a viewpoint full of tourists. After the sun sets and the moon takes command of the sky, we were the only people there until we left for the night. The badlands below always make for some great subject matter.
Returning To Sanity
After our last night of shooting, we meet up in the morning for an edit and critique session. Here we look at a few of everyone’s favorite shots and talk about what works with them and what can be improved. Not only are we looking at things that can be done at the time of shooting, but the way the file has been edited too. When I am in the field I am working my butt off trying to get as much information crammed into my sensor as possible. Once I’m back on the computer it is my job to massage out all of the information in the file to create the image I had intended. Once we have a chance to see how people are editing their files, a better picture of what needs to be worked on materializes.
Next years workshop will be returning to the moderate heat that April offers. The milky way won’t be the focus next year, but that doesn’t make the landscape of Death Valley any less magical. For more information about next years workshop, click here.