I just returned from a brief weekend trip to Death Valley, in hopes of catching some exciting storm light over the sandy dunes. Noah predicted a clearing storm friday evening over death valley, but you never know where the actual front of the storm is going to be, or the character of the clouds. My friend Julia and I arrived at one of Death Valley’s many remote dunes on Friday afternoon in a gray drizzle. There was some structure in the clouds, so it looked like I might be able to get something interesting. Unfortunately the sky to the Southwest (where the sun would set) looked completely overcast and gray. We hiked out to the dunes, and soon the wind and rain picked up. Standing on the crest of the dunes we were pelted by stinging sand and rain. I tried to find a composition that captured the experience, but it wasn’t working out – it’s hard to compose when you can hardly keep your eyes open because of the sand! That and the clouds turned into a flat gray ceiling. In any case, here’s what it looked like..

Sand and rain storm in the dunes, doesn’t look like much of a chance for a sunset does it?

We wandered around the dunes for about an hour and a half, looking for a nice composition in case Zeus wanted to clear out a patch of the clouds and shine some light on my over sized sandbox. Well, about 15 minutes before the sun went down, a hole suddenly opened in the West, and golden light streamed through! It was one of the most incredible transformations in conditions I’ve ever seen.

“Don’t Stare at the Sun!” ~ Dunes in Death Valley National Park, CA
The Tech: Canon 5DmkII, 16-35mm mkII @ 24mm, tripod, polarizer (for lens protection from the sand mostly)
Exposure: iso 100, f/22, 1.3 sec
Processing: I had to clone out some flare from the sun, fortunately it wasn’t so bad as to ruin the image!

With raging storm clouds over head, and a clear view to the sun, it was clear the sunset would do something special.. and it did. The colors were everywhere. I frantically searched for what I thought would be the best composition, and ended up with these two.

“Dune Storm” ~ Dunes in Death Valley National Park, CA
The Tech: Canon 5DmkII, 16-35mm mkII @ 24mm, tripod, polarizer
Exposure 1: iso 200, f/16, 2.5 sec
Exposure 2: iso 200, f/16, 0.6 sec
Processing: Manually blended exposures for the sky and sand dunes

“Sandy Treasures” ~ Dunes in Death Valley National Park, CA
The Tech: Canon 5DmkII, 16-35mm mkII @ 24mm, tripod, polarizer
Exposure 1: iso 200, f/16, 5 sec
Exposure 2: iso 200, f/16, 1 sec
Processing: Manually blended exposures for the sky and sand dunes
Notes: In the heat of the moment I forgot to turn the polarizer 90 degrees from the last shot, though it wouldn’t have changed much.

After the colors faded we started the trek back to the car, and came across another lovely scene. The clouds still retained some glow, even though this was about 15 min or so after the peak color.

“Sandy Dreams” ~ Dunes in Death Valley National Park, CA
The Tech: Canon 5DmkII, 16-35mm mkII @ 24mm, tripod, polarizer
Exposure: iso 800, f/16, 20 sec
Notes: I didn’t want too much movement in the clouds (or foreground sand, which was still blowing around). Thus I opted for iso 800 to get just a hint of movement.

As we made our way back to the car, we noticed a light in the direction we were walking. Could another car be out here? That seemed unlikely.. then we realized it was our car, we had left the lights on! Fortunately one of my headlights is dead (apparently, didn’t know that till now), so the car started no problem. If both had been working who knows how long we might have been there! We made our way to a spot to camp for the night. We had another two days to spend, but after a sunset like the one we just had, it’s hard to be inspired by anything less until the magic wears off. Add to that that most of Death Valley is so iconofied by photographers, that it’s difficult to find something new, unique, and that’s also interesting of course. We woke up at 4:30am to try our luck at the famous Mesquite Flat Dunes, but the sky wasn’t exciting and I wasn’t being inspired. We spent the rest of the day roaming some of the many slot canyons in the park. It’s impossible to beat the colors and curves of the sandstone slots in Utah, but the conglomerate and marble formations in the rough canyons in Death Valley have an appeal of their own.

“Nature’s Mosaic” ~ Death Valley National Park, CA
The Tech: Canon 5DmkII, 16-35mm mkII @ 24mm, tripod, polarizer
Exposure: iso 100, f/18, 0.8 sec

We spent the following sunset wandering the main dunes, but the clouds weren’t cooperative this time, so it was time to turn to the abstract side of things.

“Punctured Brains” ~ Death Valley National Park, CA
The Tech: Canon 5DmkII, 16-35mm mkII @ 30mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 1/25th sec

It’s too bad the clouds didn’t cooperate, since I’d found an interesting and new take on these dunes.. oh well, another day. The following morning (5:20am wake up call) we went out to a spot near Badwater I had scouted out the day before. You’ve probably all seen the classic take on badwater, it’s pretty neat as you can see from the lowest point on land (282 feet below sea level) all the way up to Telescope Peak (11,043 feet), and these strange polygonal salt formations stretch on for miles. I had already spent my creativity from there with this image you may remember. But there’s a lot of potential there for other takes, especially after it has recently rained. And what do you know, the weekend before we went there was a huge rainstorm in the valley that dumped almost 2 inches over the arid desert. Now, a week later, strange salty slugs and rifts began to emerge from the moist salty plains. Not sexy or beautiful in the classical sense (unless you’re a slug), but I thought it was a rather interesting and strange scene worthy of a photo.

“Salt Slugs” ~ Salt Flats, Death Valley National Park, CA
The Tech: Canon 5DmkII, 16-35mm mkII @ 16mm, tripod, polarizer
Exposure 1: iso 200, f/22, 1.3 sec
Exposure 2: iso 200, f/22, 0.3 sec
Processing: blended the two exposures and selectively warmed and saturated the clouds to how they impacted my in the field.
Notes: To get this unique perspective I had to get real low – so low that I had to reverse the center column on my spiffy new Gitzo 2542L tripod.. which got a good breaking in at the dunes! Thank goodness for Live view, otherwise this would’ve been a nightmare to compose with my head between the camera and the tripod legs, and my nose in the muddy salt.

With problem sets awaiting us, we decided to head home on Sunday, but made a few adventures to lesser visited spots along the way. One of which took us through a small paradise of a canyon, through the cottonwoods and willows, along a babbling creek, over some boulders and scree slopes, and finally, after much scrambling, to an absolutely incredible location. No photo can do this spot justice, it’s one of those places that you need to experience to understand and appreciate. I spent probably 2 hours trying to find a composition that did justice to this little paradise, and this is what I eventually settled on. Meanwhile Julia took a nap. I don’t blame her, I probably could have too.

“Desert Water” ~ Death Valley National Park, CA
The Tech: Canon 5DmkII, 24-105mm @ 67mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 0.4 sec
Notes: Usually water scenes call for a polarizer, but there wasn’t much water here other than the falls, so no need to break that one out. Also, I just happened to luck out with the light – the cloudy skies provided wonderful even lighting, and the shutter speed my iso and aperture choices gave an ideal shutter speed (to retain some texture, but have a nice sensual flow as well), so no need for the ND filters.
Processing: A fair amount of curves adjustments to get the exposure evened out throughout the scene.

And that brings this journey to a close, unfortunately. I’m probably going to have to take the next two weekends off, maybe I’ll find some time to go birding, but I’ve got to get some studying time in. In three weeks time I’ll be meeting Marc Adamus in the Eastern Sierras for some shooting. Marc is an incredibly talented and creative landscape photographer, and he actually does this for a living. Needless to say I’m really looking forward to hanging out with him in one of the best places around, hopefully I can learn a few things about the business world of fine art landscape photography as well. Speaking of Marc, you may notice I’ve added a list of some of the photographers that continue to inspire me. There’s a lot of good work out there, but these photographers are out there pushing the limits in style, composition, vision, and processing. Of course Galen is no longer with us, but his influence lives on.

By the way – for any of you on flickr – I’ve recently started posting my images there under florisvb.
I also have restarted posting on photo.net under floris.
Feel free to add me as a contact to keep up to date on my work, and whether you feel qualified or not, let me know which images strike your fancy! (hey, you’re reading this, so you probably like my pictures.. that makes you qualified)

Now I’m going to go dig out some more sand from my ears and scalp (you know, I bet some of those hollywood folks actually pay for facial treatments like the one I got for free from that storm), followed by learning about Lie algebras and groups, take care!

6 Comments to “Sensational Sandstorms”

  1. Ryan says:

    Very nice…but more birds and mammals!

  2. Ariel Bravy says:

    Beautiful work, floris, particularly the Death Valley sunset ones.

    That’s awesome that you’re gonna be working with Marc Adamus. His style is definitely right up your alley and I’m sure that’ll be a really cool experience for you. 🙂

  3. florisvb says:

    haha, yea I’m missing the birds myself Ryan. Pasadena just isn’t the same as Ithaca 🙁 Hopefully I’ll get out for some more feathered ones soon!

  4. Raymond D Smith says:

    The blog and the portfolio look great you don’t have a weak picture. That first pic in the blog with the sand whipping off the dune rocks. Any chance you have one in B&W and with out the water spots. Oh ya have fun out there with Marc Adamus should be wicked. Later Ray

  5. I ventured here from your blog link at naturephotographers.net and I’m glad I did. What a stunning set of images!! And it’s great that you mentioned the specs as well because it’s nice to know images like this can be achieved without the use of GND’s. Very inspiring!

  6. morningjoy says:

    I have thoroughly enjoyed this blog. Your images of the sand dunes are beautiful. I particularly enjoyed “Don’t Look at the Sun” and “Dune Storm.” What a rewarding trip this must have been.