Standing in half an inch of water on the flooded Badwater salt flats is a magical way to start the day. Fortunately, in a place like Death Valley, it really is just the start of the day! (as opposed to many areas, where once the sun is up, photographic opportunities are rather limited). Unfortunately this was destined to be a rather short trip, but I spent the rest of the day exploring easily accessible areas that I have longed to visit for some time now. First on the list was Fall Canyon, a delightful hike through towering striated canyon walls.

Fall Canyon, Death Valley National Park

“Self Portrait, Fall Canyon” ~ Death Valley National Park, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII, tripod
Exposure 1: iso 100, f/16, 0.6 sec
Exposure 2: iso 800, f/16, 1/13th sec
Notes: I used the low iso exposure for the majority of the image, and blended in myself from the faster exposure.

Think about all the water that has passed through that place to carve such a deep and inspiring cathedral of stone. How many storms must have passed through the mountains such that enough precious drops of liquid could tumble down the wash to actually move all those rocks? As I approached the 18-foot dry fall a few miles up the canyon, I heard something unusual. In the silent halls of these canyons few sounds go unnoticed. I heard bubbling, trickling, and gurgling: the unmistakable sound of water! Yes, there was flowing water bouncing joyfully down the polished surface of the ‘dry’ falls! Of course, it wasn’t terribly photogenic, but rather a precious moment to savor.

Canyon Gold, Fall Canyon, Death Valley National Park

“Canyon Gold” ~ Death Valley National Park, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 24-105mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 1/4th sec

While I know many photographers that lament clear sunny days, I rather enjoy them. The light is entirely predictable – the sun will shine on anything in its path, and will continue to do so for several hours. Under such conditions my images are not up to chance; they are up to me. Learning to use and appreciate such beautifully clear skies for productive photography is a valuable skill, as it makes the time spent out in nature that much more enjoyable. A little direct or strong reflected light produces depth, and that unmistakable spark of life. Quite literally, actually. Without the sun, none of the life we know and love would even exist (I’m assuming you haven’t gotten personally acquainted with sulphur eating extremophiles that might get by without it). So it should come as no surprise that a little light casting its magic on the landscape adds an irreplaceable dimension.

Badlands, Death Valley National Park, CA

“Beautiful Badlands” ~ Death Valley National Park, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 70-200mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/14, 1/20th
Notes: two image panorama, stitched with PTGui. Click for larger version.

The steady rains that had saturated the desert mud, and created that magical trickle in the canyon, were already starting to dry up by Sunday afternoon. Fascinating textures appeared in the badlands around Zabriskie Point and Twenty Mule Team Canyon. I wandered between the giant piles of mud, eventually ending up on top of one. Looking straight into the afternoon sun, I was captivated by the undulating and colorful hills. The backlight from the sun created just enough ‘catch lights’ to give a feeling of depth, without creating any problematic shadows.

Joshua Trees, Joshua Tree National Park, CA

“Lost Spirits” ~ Joshua Tree National Park, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII, tripod, headlamp
Exposure: iso 3200, f/2.8, 30 sec
Notes: Todays cameras allow for things never before possible!

Fortunately, even after dark, one can find ways to create that ‘spark’, depth, and mood that brings the Earth to life – ironically in the form of artificial lighting of course. Last weekend, in anticipation of the approaching storm that pounded Southern California and neighboring areas for the following week, I headed out to Joshua Tree National Park with a friend of mine. Frustrated by the short days and long nights, we made the best of our time by exploring the strange creatures of the night: the Joshua Trees. Finding a photogenic grouping of trees during the day is hard enough… finding one in the dark is nigh impossible. But after at least a mile of running through the eerie plains, I finally found something that matched my vision.

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2 Comments to “Under the Desert Sun”

  1. The “Canyon Gold” photograph has convinced me to explore Fall Canyon on my next visit to DeVa – sometime between early February and late March. Beautiful light in that photograph.

  2. Just came across your blog, Love your work, look forward to seeing more.

    Will.