I recently spent five days in Death Valley with Jeff Sullivan. He is the author of Photographing California and as far as I know, he leads more photo tours of Death Valley than anyone else. I have been with him before, first at a workshop he led in Bodie Ghost Town where we had access to the building interiors and also to the property at night and later on a trip with just the two of us to the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley.

On this trip, I met Jeff on a Monday in late February at a spot where a dirt road met the highway. He led me down a second dirt road and across a wash to a small pull-off about five miles in where we parked for the night. This location is one of his favorite dune fields in Death Valley and it is not well known. He asked me to leave it unnamed. He lamented that there were two other cars within a mile of us. "Word is getting out", he said. The dunes themselves were about a mile and a half hike across a long, sandy, rock and mesquite covered alluvial fan. We arrived in the late afternoon and began photographing the sand dunes in the golden afternoon light.

Afternoon light on Dunes

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Nice sidelight on sand lines

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We saw one other photographer on top of one of the dunes. Generally, we photograph the dunes from below as they look more impressive that way, so we wondered why he was up there. Since he was in our shot anyway, we decided to climb up and see what he was looking at.

Photographer on the dune

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As we approached, Jeff and the other photographer recognized each other immediately and I soon followed suit when I arrived. It was Michael Frye, author of The Photographers Guide to Yosemite. I read his book many years ago and met him on the banks of the Merced during the last light on Horsetail Falls. It was my first time there for the “firefall”. I had spent about five hours that afternoon on the south bank of the Merced watching the light narrow across the face of El Capitan. Horsetail falls eventually turned golden, even a bit of orange and then winked out. I waited a few minutes, packed up my camera and headed to the car. After all, the sun had gone down behind the clouds on the horizon and that orange light on Horsetail Falls was dark.

By the time I reached my car, I heard a cheer arise from the riverbank and I knew the light must have returned. I sprinted over fallen logs to get back to the edge of the water so I could see the falls but it was overgrown everywhere I looked. Just then, I burst into a clearing and saw a small cluster of photographers at a break in the tree cover. Michael moved his tripod and motioned me to take his place. I was able to get a couple of shots before the light faded completely. I thanked him at the time but now had the chance to thank him again.

For photos of that "firefall", click here.


Michael Frye

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Jeff and I shot until sunset and then headed back across the plain towards the car. It was fully dark as we hiked, a small patch of rocks and brush illuminated by our headlamps. I was navigating off a notch in the hills beyond our car and Jeff kept steering us a little to the right of what I thought was the correct direction. When we arrived back at our cars however, he had led us exactly to the spot where we parked. I was impressed. Navigating in the dark across a featureless plain to within ten feet or our destination was a good trick.

As we each pulled food out of our ice chests, Jeff checked The Photographers Ephemeris and Photo Pills. He said, “If we want to photograph the Milky Way by the dunes, we will have to hike out at around 2:30 in the morning. Are you up for it?”

“Absolutely. I love the Milky Way. I have never photographed it with sand dunes in the foreground.” After eating, I prepped my gear for the morning, laying out just my Sony A7r4 with a Sony 14mm, f1.8 lens and tripod for the Milky Way. I also brought a 24-240mm f4.5 zoom and my A7s3 with a 24mm f1.4 and DJI Ronin 2 gimbal for video. It was fully dark by 7:30. The stars were amazing despite a little glow on the horizon from Los Angeles on one side and Las Vegas on the other. I climbed into the back of my Subaru and was asleep by 8:30 PM.

As we were hiking out across the plain in the 2:30 AM darkness, I was glad to have Jeff’s company. I had a pretty good idea where we were headed but I trusted he had an even better sense of how to navigate to the dunes. I also appreciated the safety of a second person out there in the dark. Even a twisted ankle could be a problem in the desert. I hadn’t heard any coyotes but I wouldn’t be comfortable alone if a pack were howling nearby.

As we hiked, I began to see the galactic center of the Milky Way rising parallel to the mountains ahead of us to the East. I am more accustomed to seeing it in a vertical orientation and earlier in the night during the summer. I haven’t been out in the winter to do Milky Way photography before. Jeff tells me that the Milky Way rises an hour earlier every two weeks throughout the year, laying flat on the pre-dawn horizon in winter and tilting up to vertical by July and August. He also pointed out the constellation Serpens, which proceeds the galactic center and points down into it, showing where it will rise. Good to know.

First shot of Milky Way over sand dunes

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We arrive at the base of the dunes we photographed the evening before and got out our cameras. The first shot was perfect despite having to set up everything in the dark. The 14 mm lens is manual focus. Touching the focus ring causes it to zoom in and turning it a little brings the stars into focus. I decided to shoot at F2, tightening the aperture just slightly to avoid coma and barrel distortion that can come with shooting wide open. Living in Los Angeles, it was the first time to I had a change to use this lens in a truly dark place. I kept the aperture open for 30 seconds, knowing I would get just a slight trailing of the stars but not wanting to raise the ISO beyond 3200 to compensate for a faster shutter speed. Even though the Sony sensor handles low light very well, I want to eliminate noise as much as possible.

Having only a vague idea what our foreground looked like before the image appeared in our sensor, we moved around quickly, trying to get shots from as many vantage points as possible. We had an advantage in that just the two of us were shooting. We each can get our shots quickly (a few minutes per location) because we aren’t struggling with the technical aspects of shooting in the dark, as would likely be the case with some members of a larger group.

Part of the magic of night photography is that you don't know what you will see until the 20-30 seconds have passed and the developed image appears in your viewfinder. When the image appears, it can be breathtaking.

We could barely make out the ridge line of a dune ahead and to our right. We used that to make a leading line towards the Milky Way.

Milky Way with leading ridge line

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There was one spot in particular I wanted to photograph. It was an area of deep wind-driven furrows in the sand, pointing towards the Milky Way. We had seen it the evening before and I had a pretty good idea where we might find it in the dark. Working together, we found it just before the light of dawn was beginning to wash out the Milky Way. I used my headlamp to sidelight the furrows. We each had time for about three shots before the stars faded.

Leading lines in the sand

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The early light of dawn and Belt of Venus were lighting up the sky, so we kept shooting.

Belt of Venus over camp

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Yellow sky

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We kept on shooting through the Golden Hour of soft side light. By the time it was full light, we had wandered over quite a few dunes and came to an old talc mine, so we just kept shooting. By the time we got back to our cars at around 8:30 AM, we had walked nine miles before breakfast.

Soft shadows

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Light on the edge

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Ripples & vista

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Sunburst over the dunes

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Talc Mine

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Elegant lines

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After breakfast from the ice chest and a cold shower from water stored in Jeff’s camper, we decided to hit the road. It’s near impossible to rest, let alone sleep during the heat of the day. There is no shade in this section of Death Valley or indeed anywhere other than the resorts, so we headed for higher altitude.

After pulling over for a short nap while coming over one of the passes, we descended towards Badwater Basin. We found another place to try and nap but it was in the mid 80’s, so there wasn’t much sleep. After 4:00 PM, we went to the parking lot at Badwater and hiked out onto the salt flats.

I had only been there two other times, the first was in October the year before last when I was preparing to meet with Jeff and go to the Racetrack Playa. At that time it was 112 degrees at 5:00 PM (I swear the heat is worse when you are 282 feet below sea level. It feels like being in a pressure cooker). The second time I was there was a few months ago in December after a rain. I was hoping that the basin would have water in the salt ponds. No such luck but it was beautiful just the same.

Badwater on a moonlit night the prior December

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This time we hiked out about a quarter mile and headed right. We were the only ones to do so. Everyone else kept following the main path out a full mile into the basin. What no one seemed to pay attention to is that there are more white hexagons to the right than can be found further into the basin. The hexagons are bigger farther out, but they are dark brown with dirt. Not the photo I was hoping to get. In fact, I would love to see the miles of hexagonal salt flats in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, but at 14,000 feet elevation, with political turmoil, high rates of disease and a US State Dept. level 4 warning not to go, that will have to wait.

Path from the parking lot into the basin

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White hexagons at dusk

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After dark we camped nearby at the side of the road to avoid the noise and headlights of other photographers coming and going in the parking lot beside the basin. Jeff knows a little trail from this parking spot beside the road that leads out on to the flats. With just a sliver of moon at sunset, it was very dark there. I used a small lantern to illuminate the scene.

The glow on the horizon is from the outskirts of Los Angeles, over 200 miles away. Despite Death Valley being certified as an International Dark Sky Park, the effects of light pollution are felt far away. We have no idea the health effects on animals and humans caused by light pollution. If you want to support the work of the International Dark Sky Association, just click their name for more information.

My Subaru at our "campsite"

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We slept in until 3:00 AM because our hike was shorter than out to the dunes the night before. Even though we only went out less than half a mile, much of it was very difficult terrain in the dark because the hardened crusts of salt were often a foot high, with cracks and tilted slabs of salt that could easily catch your shoe and send you tumbling on the jagged ground. Fortunately, we had no problems.

Once out on the basin, we separated and began taking our shots. I did a 7 vertical shot panorama of the Milky Way as it rose over the surrounding mountains. The little lit figure to the right is Jeff.

Then I started a time-lapse of the Milky Way rising. I hadn’t brought an intervalometer so I clicked the shutter by hand for an hour. Between the 30 second exposures and the fact that I had left long exposure noise reduction on (doubling the time for each exposure), I got a very short time-lapse for the effort of standing in one place for an hour in the cold. Just the same, it is beautiful.

Badwater Milky Way panorama

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Badwater Milky Way

When we got back to our vehicles, Jeff decided to take a nap. I asked if he thought I could make it to Zabriskie Point for sunrise. He said, “You can make it if you leave right now,” so I did. I arrived at the Zabriskie Point parking lot while the early dawn was just lighting up the sky.

I decided to do a time-lapse there as well.

Zabriskie Point sunrise

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After the time-lapse, I drove into 20m Mule Team Canyon, took a few shots and found a shady spot for a nap. After breakfast out of my ice chest and a half hour nap, I headed back towards Furnace Creek to meet Jeff. When I arrived at our pre-designated meeting spot in the parking lot at the Oasis (there is no cell service, so we can’t coordinate when we’re apart), there was a coyote walking nearby.

20 Mule Team Canyon

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Coyote

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We next went to Salt Creek to see the pupfish. They are named pupfish because they appear to frolic playfully in the water around one another. The creek is shallow and not very long but is fed all year by a spring. It is a small, harsh, watery environment surrounded by the driest desert in North America. The water is four times saltier than the ocean and it’s temperature can range from 32 degrees in winter to 116 in summer. These fish are survivors. The floor of Death Valley used to be covered with a large, freshwater lake (Lake Manly) which dried up 10,000 years ago. The pupfish are descendants of the fish from that lake. They have evolved to survive in the few remaining springs in the area. They are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The creek is only about 6 inches deep but it is really hard to photograph the fish. They are about the size of tadpoles and they dart about quickly and erratically like squirrels in heat so you have to use a fast shutter speed. Also, there is glare on the water, so a polarizing filter is helpful. Between the reduced light caused by the filter and also by the speed, it's hard to acquire focus and get a clean shot.

Salt Creek

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Pupfish cluster

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Pupfish sign

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More on pupfish

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Driving back towards the main road, Jeff spotted a small patch of Desert Sunflower. We stopped and got a few shots before getting back on the road. He pointed out that it was growing where there was cracked mud evidence of standing water. He says in wet years, sunflower blooms can go on for acres.

Desert Sunflower

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To avoid the rapidly increasing heat and to get more rest, we headed East over the mountains towards the ghost town of Rhyolite. Apparently, Rhyolite was quite the boom town in it’s day. The town was founded in 1905 to serve mining interests in the area. By 1907 it had 10,000 inhabitants and three competing railway lines. To quote www.WesternMiningHIstory.com

“Rhyolite had evolved from a tent camp to a significant city in just two years. In 1907 the city had electricity, concrete sidewalks, water mains, telephone lines, newspapers, banks, police and fire departments, a stock exchange, an opera house, a hospital, a school, and numerous other businesses.”

The financial panic of 1907 dried up new investment and the mines began to run out of high grade ore. The largest mine in the area closed in 1911 and by 1916, the town was all but abandoned, one of the most dramatic boom and bust cycles in Western mining history. What remains of the town is now managed by the BLM.

Rhyolite Ghost Town

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Rhyolite wreckage

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There is a sculpture at the edge of town depicting the Last Supper as ghosts. It was made by Belgian artist Albert Szukalski in 1984.

After lunch and a nap, I went into Beatty to get gas. Jeff and I agreed to meet later at Stovepipe Wells, where I had booked a room for the night and he had booked a site for his camper. I really needed to recharge my batteries (the camera's and my own).

"Last Supper"

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Beatty, NV

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After reconnecting around 5:00 PM, Jeff and I parked by the side of the road partway to the dunes and hiked in to a less traveled part of Mesquite Dunes. Jeff said there are some interesting mud cracks out there.

We also found the bones of an animal, possibly a desert bighorn sheep though there was no skull to make a positive ID.

Hiking to Mesquite Dunes

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Muds slabs in afternoon light

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Bleached bones

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Vertebra

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More mud

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The following morning, we hiked out on the dunes again to photograph the play of light and shadow in the early morning light. I didn’t know how interesting sand dunes could be.


Mesquite in the morning

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Sunrise over dunes

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Who knew dunes could be so pretty?

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While we were there, a B2 Stealth bomber and it’s refueling plane passed overhead.

While it was still relatively cool, we hiked down from Zabriskie Point. The light was flat and the vista not as interesting as from up on the point. I have not included any photos.

B2 Stealth Bomber

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To escape the heat once more, we drove up to Dante’s View for lunch. From there, we could look down and see the trail out onto Badwater Basin right below us. We could also see the white area of the basin where we did photography the evening before, just to the right of the path. While eating lunch I did another time-lapse.

Badwater trail from Dante's View

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In the afternoon, we drove back down to Badwater, stopping at various points along the road to photograph mud cracks.

Mud cracks

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Once again, we shot the sunset over Badwater.

Sunset over salt flats

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That night I took a few shots of the stars. Looking West, I believe I caught the glow of interplanetary dust left over from the formation of our solar system. It is known as the Zodiacal Light. You have to be in a very dark place to see this. I blended it with another photo of that same vista at dusk in order to have a foreground. It was extremely (as in can’t-see-your-hands-in-front-of-your-face) dark.

Zodiacal Light over Badwater

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It was too cloudy that night for Milky Way photography so we slept in until about 5:30 AM. That day was forecast to have rain but instead we got were some beautiful clouds at sunrise. No sun shafts or rainbows. The weather was too pleasant to create more reasons to hang around the valley floor.

First light the next morning

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Badwater sunrise

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I suggested to Jeff that we head over to Lone Pine because the forecast there was for 17 degrees overnight with snow and wind gusts up to 40 mph. That should make some dramatic shots. Lone Pine also put both of us in better position to get home the following day.

I am fond of photographing the area around Lone Pine. It is at the base of the Sierras. In fact it is the portal the highest mountain on the lower 48 states, Mt Whitney. Between the town and the Sierras are the Alabama Hills, a beautiful formation of eroded sandstone with interesting shapes, the best known of which is the Mobius Arch. If is a very photogenic area, the rounded, warm colored hills contrasting with the sharper, cooler colored sierras.

Given the cold, I decided not to sleep in my car in the Alabama Hills, so I booked a room in Lone Pine and offered Jeff the extra bed. After I checked in, we headed out to the Alabama Hills to get some sunset shots.

Sunset cloud over Alabama Hills

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Back at the hotel, we heard the weather report that night was for total cloud cover, so we figured we would sleep in the next morning. We both woke up at 4:00 AM anyway, so I went outside the hotel to check the sky. Stars! I can see stars! So Jeff and I quickly pack up our gear and drive back to the Alabama Hills. Everything is pitch dark, so we can’t see a foreground from the dirt road (Movie Road) we’re traveling on to line up a shot, but the time before dawn is short so we pull over at the first spot that seems likely to Jeff. It was cold, dark and windy so setting up the camera was a little tricky but as soon as I saw the image of my 30 second exposure on the viewfinder, I was ecstatic. Best shot of the trip!” I yelled to Jeff over the wind. “I’m sure glad we decided to get up and come out here.” Half of being a good photographer (or anything else) is just showing up.

Awesome!

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I then did a large panorama then stumbled around in the dark looking for other compositions in the rapidly changing light. The light continued to pay off as it touched the mountains and clouds.

Dawn stars over Alabama Hills

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Clouds in the Sierras

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We stayed until about 7:00 AM before heading back to town. I had wanted to get a shot of the light touching Mt Whitney through the hole in the Mobius Arch but I could see 4 cars parked at the trailhead already (Its a very small place to set up a tripod to get that view) and besides, clouds were obscuring Mt Whitney

Cars at the Mobius traiilhead

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Only room for one camera

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I went back after breakfast and a shower when the crowd had all gone. After a few shots of the arch and another feature called the Lathe, I did a time-lapse of Mobius,

Mobius Arch

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The Lathe

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I headed back to Lone Pine to the Alabama Hills Cafe and bought a piece of pie and a croissant to take back to my sweetheart. If you are ever in the area, be sure to eat there. They are only open breakfast and lunch but they have their own bakery, make excellent sandwiches and wraps, offer a full breakfast menu and of course, fresh baked deserts. A great end to a great trip.

Happy trails,

David


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