Watching the sunrise from the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park, CA.
It is almost the middle of January in Lake Tahoe and by now I should have a ton of new ski and snowboard images under my belt. Unfortunately this season Mother Nature has other plans. We are currently experiencing one of the driest winter seasons on record and it looks like it is going to last at least another week. It feels more like May than January. There is no snow on the mountains and to sum it up in a word is “depressing.”
To curb my overwhelming desire to bundle up and cram myself into my refrigerator with a few cold ones and pray for winter, I grabbed my fiancée and we headed down to the Eastern Sierra and Death Valley National Park to brighten our mood.
My first goal of the trip was to photograph the Bristlecone Pine trees high in the White Mountains near Bishop, CA. I have photographed the Bristlecone Pines in Great Basin National Park quite extensively, but have never had the opportunity to visit the groves in the White Mountains of California. I wasn’t sure if the road would be open (it usually closes in October after the first snow) but I figured I would give it a shot. Luckily, and completely abnormal for January, the road was good to go.
We got a later start than I wanted to leaving Lake Tahoe and didn’t arrive to the Bristlecone Pine Forest until just after sunset. At first I was upset that I hadn’t given myself time to find some proper compositions but there was still some ambient light left. I did some quick exploring and came up with a few ideas. I knew I would have some moonlight to work with once it got dark and I was counting on using that to make some compelling imagery.
Once the sky was dark enough I began shooting. I shot a few exposures using the available moonlight but after previewing a few, something was missing. I decided to try something new, at least for me. I have shot under moonlight and played around with light-painting quite a bit with great success. I hadn’t however, combined the two. This was the perfect opportunity to give it a try!
An ancient Bristlecone Pine tree in the White Mountains, CA
I put together a composition of an impressive gnarled Bristlecone that I really liked. I set the camera to Bulb mode and opened the shutter for 160 seconds. While the shutter was open I used my headlamp to paint the tree from the side for about 45 seconds. I painted the tree from the side to give it some added depth. If I had lit the tree head on it would have given it a flat effect. After the first exposure I checked my preview and was thrilled with the results! I was really pleased with the combination of ambient moonlight and artificial light from my headlamp. The Bristlecone pines are such an oddity in nature to begin with (they are the oldest single living organisms on earth) and I have always wanted to make an image that really conveyed that. I finally felt like I succeeded.
With a winner in the bag, we made our way back down to the valley floor and headed for the Alabama Hills outside of Independence, CA. There, we set up camp.
I awoke early the next morning below the shadow of Mount Whitney and hiked over to Mobius and Lathe Arch to photograph sunrise. Both provide an excellent feature to photograph at sunrise. In the case of both arches it is possible to frame Mount Whitney (the highest peak in the contiguous US) and Lone Pine Peak perfectly in the negative space of both arches. As the first rays of light spill over the horizon lighting up the entire Eastern Sierra, it is truly a site to behold.
The Mobius Arch frames Mount Whitney and the Eastern Sierra Nevada at sunrise in the Alabama Hills, CA.
After shooting for about an hour I had everything I needed. We drove down to town, grabbed some breakfast and continued on to Death Valley National Park.
Having photographed in Death Valley before, I had a good idea of what I was looking for. On my previous trip most of my time was concentrated on photographing the famous Racetrack and the Zabriskie Point area. My goal with the limited time I had on this trip was to put my efforts towards creating some fresh imagery of Badwater Basin (the lowest point in the North America) and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.
Regina (my fiancée) was really excited to do some yoga in a spectacular location and I thought a late afternoon photo shoot in Badwater Basin would be perfect. I could photograph her in a variety of poses in a surreal setting and could then switch gears and photograph some dynamic landscapes once the sun set. We styled her out in some clothing that I liked and off we went.
Regina performing Lord of the Dance Pose (Natarajasana) in the Badwater Basin area of Death Valley National Park
The shoot went better than expected. The white salt surface of Badwater Basin provided the perfect natural reflector (similar to snow) to soften the harsh shadows of the late afternoon light. It balanced the scene out perfectly. The combination of the surreal landscape and yoga made for some great imagery that will surely sell in the commercial stock photography market.
Regina performs the One-Legged Inverted Staff Pose (Eka Pada Viparita Dandasana) in the Badwater Basin area of Death Valley National Park
After the sun set I stayed out on Badwater Basin for another hour composing a variety of landscape images. What a dreamlike place! Absolutely spectacular!
Badwater Basin at sunset
The next morning Regina and I awoke early and made our way over to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. We arrived early enough to give ourselves time to hike out a good distance on the dunes and scout a location to shoot before the actual sunrise.
We found a few spots we were happy with and began shooting. Early morning and late afternoon are the ideal times to shoot on the sand dunes. When the sun is high overhead it illuminates all sides of the dunes and it doesn’t translate very well photographically. The drama of the shadows at the beginning and end of the day provide the best chance to create dramatic imagery. We shot for over an hour until I was happy with a variety of different scenarios. It was a really fun morning.
Running down the sand dunes at sunrise in Death Valley National Park
After photographing on the sand dunes it was time to drive home. For two days of shooting I was extremely happy with the results. I was the most pleased with my frame from the Bristlecone Pine Forest. I am excited to use the technique of combining moonlight and artificial light in more photo shoots down the road. There is a lot of possibility for unique imagery using that technique and I’m excited to explore it further.
Once again I sit back in my office in Lake Tahoe getting all of these images out into the market. As much as I enjoyed this trip I would really like to start seeing some snow fall in Lake Tahoe. If any of you readers out there have some free time be sure and wash your car, do a snow dance and PRAY FOR SNOW! Until next time…