February 11, 2021 | Death Valley National Park, California
It seems like an eternity ago that I photographed these photos and found myself in Death Valley National Park. We were blissfully unaware of the impending siege of the pandemic that would soon take place and change our course for next year. It has now been over a year since I've visited the park, and I've missed it terribly. Fortunately, I had a whole new crop of photos to work on during my unexpected time off the road, and I could visit virtually with these photos.
As I processed each one, I was immediately taken back to a much simpler time and place. We spend every winter in Death Valley teaching, and one would think I have run out of photo ideas and creativity due to the amount of time we spend there. But, this harsh desert environment is continuously changing and evolving, and you could say it's a good representation of our own lives. I'm always finding new scenes, textures, and patterns, and this landscape of many opportunities continually inspires me.
During my visit, I spent most of my time photographing the sand dunes. We were fortunate enough to have many windstorms on clear days that provided plentiful opportunities to see dune sculpting in action. I connect with dunes, as they remind me of times during my own life when I had to start over and "resurface" myself, so to speak, to start fresh with new clarity after certain life events.
And what trip to Death Valley would be complete without some fun mud patterns? While it was a pretty dry winter, there were a few opportunities to find some fresh mud. These fresh patterns were intriguing to me, and they absolutely glowed in the bright, blue twilight after the sunset. Finding this mud made me feel like I was standing in an Iceland ice cave, rather than the arid desert.
I took plenty of time to explore the dunes at different times of day, in different light and weather conditions. The colors the dunes pick up can vary greatly, and knowing when to expect specific colors by learning their moods can be very fruitful for capturing unique scenes. I didn't use my wide-angle lens at all last year on the dunes. I always use my 28-300 Nikkor telephoto zoom. With its wide zoom range, it's easy to isolate the smaller scenes and details, along with the slightly larger compositions. It's my go-to lens on the dunes, and I love that I have that much range in one lens. One lens and one camera body make it easier to shoot and explore without taking the time to continually change lenses.
One of the more memorable experiences last winter was Badwater Basin. We were fortunate enough to catch it at a time when it was currently flooded. The memorable part was that it stayed flooded for quite a while, and we had over a week to enjoy and photograph it. Flooding doesn't often happen here, and I can count on one hand how many times I've seen it flooded in the past five years. The familiar salt polygons dissolve away into exciting patterns and textures, and the light from sunset creates magnificent colored reflections.
Death Valley is an abstract photographer's paradise. I found no shortage of unique textures and patterns and even had the chance to photograph ones I had never seen before. I found a small area on the dunes that contained hard-packed sand that had these amazing lines. Looking at it, you would have thought it was woodgrain, buried in the sand. It was such a fun texture, and it shimmered in the light. Whether I was wandering around the dunes, the salt flats, or the badlands, there were always opportunities to find and explore these fun natural patterns and textures.
We spent a lot of time photographing the badlands. We ventured off the beaten path and found new perspectives and views. Half the fun was in exploring, and we found so many things to go back and photograph and explore in the coming years.
I made sure to wander around the desert during twilight. The landscape takes on a whole different mood when you stick around after sunset. While many photographers were packing up their gear, I was just getting started with photographing. The textures take on a beautiful blue and silver hue and give even familiar landscapes a whole different mood.
While most of you know I have an obsession with mud, I think I may have found something I love almost as much; salt. My good friend and colleague Sarah Marino (she has some amazing salt abstracts!) encouraged me to take a closer look at salt. We spent an afternoon exploring and photographing the attractive crystals, patterns, and textures on the playas. This presented me with a fun opportunity to work with my new macro lens and, after a bit of a learning curve and Sarah giving me some useful tips (you never stop learning!) I was on my way and quickly became obsessed. I traded in sticky mud for crunchy salt, and I look forward to exploring more salty scenes in the future.
We spent the latter part of our trip exploring the many canyons Death Valley has to offer. The canyons offer an intriguing geologic story. As a trained geologist, I can get lost in the canyons studying the different colors and rocky types making up the tall, towering walls. I spent most of my time in the canyons with small, little rock scenes rather than focusing on wide-angle scenes. I found an area with lots of colorful patterns, and I spent quite a few hours with these tiny details.
I also spent a little time out photographing some black and white dune scenes. During every photography trip, I try to challenge myself with finding black and white opportunities. Dunes lend themselves beautifully to black and white, and I never tire of searching out those high contrast scenes.
While 2020 wasn't a great year because of the pandemic's stress, I'm so grateful that I had a few blissful months exploring one of my favorite national parks. I experimented with new techniques and subjects and learned many new things. Looking back at those photos was the perfect reminded to now take any photography trip for granted. Just those two months provided me photos that take me back to happier memories and make me look forward to my next trip to this harsh and beautiful landscape.