First – some exciting news! I’ve rearranged my print/pricing scheme in a way that should benefit everyone. So if you’ve been waiting to get a print to hang on your empty wall, check out the new and improved pricing scheme Now, on to the adventure:

Watching the sun rise from nearly two vertical miles above the desolate Death Valley on the only snow capped peak for hundreds of miles simply can’t be explained with a photograph. It’s an otherworldly feeling, looking down from Telescope Peak’s 11,043 feet all the way to Earth’s lowest point on land in North America: Badwater at -282 feet. Normally when you’re that high on a snowy mountain you can see other snowy ridges stretching out for miles. From Telescope Peak, however, you’re looking at the largest and most barren landscape in the US: salt flats, dunes, rocky canyons and ridges.

Now, how did I find myself there? Me and pro-landscape photographer Marc Adamus (Marc – you’re getting too much traffic, gotta upgrade that bandwidth limit!) started at the Charcoal Kilns in Death Valley and hiked/snowshoed our way up Telescope peak, gaining about 4,000 feet of elevation over the course of our 10 mile or so trek. We arrived about an hour before sunset and set up camp on the ridge below the summit. Camp consisted of Marc’s one man tent, and a trench I dug out to keep the wind away from my bivy sack. We were both a bit out of shape. Marc had just finished his longest stretch (5 weeks) of being cooped up at home in the past 15 years or something, awaiting the arrival of his new son Galen. Me, well, grad school tends to prevent too many of such excursions. In any case, we made it to the top in time.

Camp. Two miles above death valley (that’s the brown stuff down there), that’s Marc, his fortified one man tent, my trench, bivy, and shadow.

There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky, as you can see, which generally isn’t ideal for photography, so we each just took the time to explore the area around our camp a bit. The clear skies weren’t so much of an issue – the point of this adventure wasn’t necessarily photography, rather, it was to go for a great hike and take in the beautiful view. As the sun sank and shed it’s miraculous soft warm light on everything around, these trees suddenly caught my attention. Ignoring the chilling pain in my fingers I set up and captured these lonely lovers in the fading light.

“Alone, and in Love” ~ Limber pines on Telescope peak, Death Valley NP.
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 24-105 @ 55mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/14, 0.3 sec

Meanwhile Marc started on dinner. I love good food, but usually when I’m out backpacking I make do with something easy like ramen and couscous. Marc (having been to cullinary school), however, lives for the challenge of preparing something delicious in the face of extreme conditions – particularly wintery ones. So we enjoyed a pot of spicy shrimp gumbo with fresh broccoli and portobello mushrooms. He’s been known to carry in fresh oysters, king crab legs, and even an 8lb waffle iron! Of course the advantage of the winter months is that you can carry in fresh ingredients without fear of them going bad. That night I got to try out my new feathered friends -10 degree Wigeon sleeping bag, boy was it cozy! The following morning didn’t have any clouds in store for us, but after watching the sun rise, we finished the hike up to the summit of Telescope Peak. What a view from up there! I’m sure I’ll be back to photograph some of the bristlecones that can be found up here. On the way out I stumbled upon this small macro scene, but with the sunny conditions it wasn’t going to work. With the help of our two backpacks, one of my snowshoes, and Marc’s hands to hold it all in place I got enough shade to make the scene ‘shootable’.

“Octopus” ~ Sage, Death Valley NP.
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 24-105 @ 32mm, handheld, 2 backpacks, 1 snowshoe, and Marc’s help (to provide shade)
Exposure: iso 400, f/10, 1/125th sec

While that was our Saturday and Sunday, the trip started out on Friday in Bishop around the Buttermilks. Marc showed me his favorite campsite and several areas with great potential. The sunset on friday was quite lovely, but sunset in the Eastern Sierras generally doesn’t provide too many opportunities with the big mountains being to the West of all the foregrounds, and the morning was of course completely clear. In any case, in the twilight light I wandered into this chaotic and jumbled aspen grove. This is perhaps one of the most underrated times of day for photography – excellent soft and cool lighting. Groves like this are notoriously difficult to shoot due to the chaotic distribution of trees and branches. And yet, my search was rewarded with this ghostly forest scene. Unfortunately on the web here you can’t appreciate all the lovely details and spiny plants there in the fore and mid-ground, but they’re there!

“Ghosts” ~ Winter aspen grove, Eastern Sierras, CA.
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII @ 28mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure: iso 400, f/16, 30 sec

After our trip up into Telescope Peak we camped near the Alabama Hills, though sunset didn’t hold much in store for us. The following morning we revisited a spot we had stopped by previously on the way to Death Valley. The winter foliage of Owen’s Valley is very special to me – the colors are simply incredible, subtle but so beautiful. I had mentioned this to Marc before, and he took me to some of his favorite spots in the valley for the foliage. There’s so many possibilities here, I could spend days shooting this one little oasis! Unfortunately this morning the winds were blowing the grasses a bit – not enough to try some wind blown abstracts, but enough that I had to jump to iso 800 to freeze the long stems. Of course, with the 5DmkII that didn’t prove to be an issue, and there isn’t a spec of noise in the file. Again, there’s so many details lost in this representation, really a shame.

“Desert Colors” ~ Owen’s River foliage, CA.
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 70-200 @ 100mm, 2-stop hard GND, tripod
Exposure: iso 800, f/22, 1/20th sec

No trip comes without it’s adventure, and before we actually managed to shoot this scene we each had one. First, Marc proved to me that he could take his Subaru places that my Explorer didn’t really want to go. (or rather, he knew how to drive his Subaru places that I didn’t know how to drive my Exporer). Anyways, an hour of moving rocks and shoveling sand and everything ended well. The following morning we woke up an hour early (4:30am) because of the time change, but we ended up needing that time to jump start Marc’s car, which had mysteriously died overnight. It took almost half an hour to clean the contacts on his battery before we managed to get enough juice through. Might be those ocean waves that apparently hit his car a while back…

While every landscape photographer’s dream is to experience an incredible show of light every time they’re out, I learned on this trip that you can have an equally successful and enjoyable time under blue sunny skies. I started doing the whole photography thing because I loved being outside, but as I got more and more into it, the urge to ‘get the shot’ became stronger and stronger. Of course, the internet forum phenomenon doesn’t help this at all. The forums seem to to thrive on iconic scenes with wild light, with photographers each trying to outdo one another. This then breeds more photographers who do the same, and so on. Where is the creativity? Where is the adventure and exploration?! We need to break out of this rut, and each explore his or her own path! Well, you can expect me to continue exploring the world in new and fresh ways of seeing. Much like most of the folks on my ‘inspiration’ list on the right, I see my role as a nature photographer as one of discovery, creativity, and sharing – certainly not copying! This is also largely the reason I decided to change my print sales methodology, which should now make my work as openly available as possible.

Well, that brings us to the end of this adventure. I’ve got lots of Caltech related things to do over the next two weeks, but hopefully there will be a day or two that I can spend looking for birds and wildflowers. Till, next time!

8 Comments to “Alone, and in Love”

  1. Ben Glatt says:

    Sweet! Love the shots you got. They are all so diverse. You gotta tell me sweet spots to hit while I am in the Sierras next week!

  2. Ariel Bravy says:

    Thank you for sharing about your latest trip, Floris, as well as your experience with Marc. I had no idea about him making such fancy dishes when out camping. 🙂

    I love your philosophy on being outdoors by the way and truly enjoying the experience rather than living by the expectation that it has to be a certain way.

  3. seungkyelee says:

    Hi Floris.

    Great aricle!
    Really liked reading about your adventure trip and looking at those beautiful images.
    Also, I think you have a good point about photographers trying to outdo eachother.

    Keep up the good work.

    Seung Kye Lee

  4. Wonderful images as always. I particularly like Alone and in Love. What a marvelous trip. I’ll bet the snowshoe trek to Telescope Peak had you a tad breathless. Looks like it was worth it, though.

  5. Alex says:

    Hey Floris – I am a regular reader of your blog – really enjoy the images and the technical explanations as well. Thanks for the thorough subject treatments! I wanted to leave a comment to let you know that Microsoft has a student photographer contest going on, with some hefty prizes (and requirement that the entrant be a full-time undergrad/grad student) – you should consider submitting your images there.

  6. Floris says:

    Thanks everyone for the kind comments, glad you’re enjoying it!

    Alex – thanks for the tip!

  7. Joe says:

    Great post–just FYI that Death Valley is the lowest point in North America, not the world. The shores of the Dead Sea are the lowest on earth:

  8. Thanks for the correction Joe – I must have misread the note at the park and wikipedia!