Winter 2015 Death Valley Photo Workshop Recap
I love pineapples. I also love trains. But perhaps more than both put together I love Pineapple Expresses. Not only because they deliver much needed moisture to a currently-parched California. But also because they bring clouds of all shapes and kinds to the desert. And when you’re in Death Valley, one of the driest places on the planet, clouds are a wonderful thing to see.
Back when we first started teaching our Death Valley workshop Jim and I noticed that inevitably we saw the best light of the trip the day before the workshop started. It was almost like the universe’s idea of a great joke: shower Death Valley with amazing clouds and color the day before the workshop, then strip away all the clouds and force the group to shoot under postcard blue skies all weekend. So we got wise to this little trick and expanded the workshop to begin one evening earlier. Well this year, thanks to the Pineapple Express, not only did we kick off the workshop with a tremendous bang, but we had great cloud-filled sky all weekend. Yes!
We began the ‘shop at one of our favorite places in the park, which also happens to be one of the few places in Death Valley where you’re likely to find standing water: Cottonball Basin. Thanks to a very wet December there was abundant water in Cottonball, turning parts of it into nothing so much as a salt marsh. Squishing around in the weird goo we found puddles, pools, and even a small pond full of water, all of which provided perfect reflections of the beautiful sunset that unfolded above the Panamint Mountains. After sunset we returned to the hotel to prep for the rest of the workshop.
The next morning we headed for Zabriskie Point, but since it was closed for construction we just kept on driving. For about another 1/2 mile anyway, when we pulled off to the side of the road and made a quick 10 minute hike south into the badlands between Zabriskie and 20 Mule Team Canyon. This was our first time visiting this exact location on a workshop and I have to say, I think we’ve found a new favorite spot. The view of Golden Canyon and Manly Beacon are virtually identical to those from Zabriskie Point but without the hassle of 60 other photographers cluttering up the place. Not to mention there are amazing views into the wrinkled badlands to the east, and easy access to areas around the Manifold. It’s a keeper spot indeed. And the fact that we had a barn-burner sunrise at that spot didn’t hurt either. Pinks, oranges, and yellow danced across the sky from horizon to horizon while the nearly full moon hung fat and bright above the clouds. Everywhere you looked there were textures, colors, and great photos. After some hours exploring this wonderland of photographic potential we returned to the hotel for a break.
That afternoon we ventured out into a strange and twisted, but often overlooked, landscape at the Devil’s Speedway. In many places the Speedway resembles the much more famous Badwater, but on our scouting missions Jim and I had discovered something unique here: vast salt flats shot through with thick veins of mud. As Steve said, the place looks more like an alien landscape than earth, and I couldn’t agree more. The surreal beauty of the location and the vivid contrasts between the mud and the salt made it a a great place to photograph. And the brisk 30 knot winds added something unique to the experience. 🙂 From there it was a somewhat rugged 25-minute hike back to the cars thanks to the uneven terrain and the fading light. But we made it safe and sound and set off for our next destination: Natural Bridge.
Natural Bridge is exactly what it sounds like: a massive archway of agglomerate rock standing in a steep walled canyon. During the day it looks like nothing so much as a weird, muddy concrete sculpture, but after the sun goes down it takes on a whole new dimension under Death Valley’s amazingly dark nights. By the time our caravan of cars arrived at the Natural Bridge parking area it was full night and even the faint arm of the Milky Way could be seen clearly in the sky. Our group moseyed into the canyon and set up on the west side of the arch. Looking up there was a marvelous view of the stars overhead, and with some careful timing and excellent light-painting work (if I do say so myself) we were able to create beautifully lit shots of the arch standing tall under the star-filled skies. We also got to share the company of some small arthropods with claws and stinging tails, though thankfully they wanted nothing to do with us.
Saturday morning started off with a classic Death Valley location: Badwater Basin. But rather than visit the main area, where the patterns have been trampled to death by endless footfalls, we hit up an off-the-beaten path section of Badwater where the salt formations are as thick and crusty as a loaf of sourdough bread. And once again we were fortunate to see some clouds and some color in the sky.
For the rest of that morning we explored the badlands of lower Golden Canyon. From a broad ridge below the Red Cathedral we had marvelous views into the folded and twisted earth of this strange area. But as we shot our morning clouds evaporated and the day began to heat up. So we headed back to the hotel for our lunch break.
That evening we made the short drive to the Mesquite Sand Dunes, and trekked out into the sand. We had expected the previous day’s winds to scour the dunes clean, but it seemed that the winds had somehow missed the dunes completely because there were footprints covering the sand as far as the eye could see. This simply made it extra important to be precise and careful when composing, and to look past the grand landscape to the finer details, always an important skill! We set up “home base” on one of the many pads of cracked mud tiles in the dunes and spent the rest of the evening searching for patterns, lines, light, and shadow in the sand.
The problem with those cracked mud tiles is that they tend to look a lot alike, and once you go wandering off it can be hard to find your way back, especially once it’s dark. So while a few of us were shooting stars from the dunes, others were nomadically wandering the desert, photographing mesquite under the light of the Milky Way. But we all rendezvoused at the right time back at the cars and enjoyed some delicious fig newtons.
Our finally morning of the workshop was spent back in the Cottonball Basin, where a series of shallow stream channels cuts through the salt plain and provides picture-perfect reflections. And though the day dawned clear within a short time the sky was full of beautifully textured clouds and colors. What a way to wrap up the workshop.
Of course a huge thanks is due to our outstanding and fun group, Anna, Don, David, Greg, Sergio, Steve, and Doug. It was a blast enjoying Death Valley with you all that weekend, and looking forward to see you next time!