Posted by: kerryl29 | November 22, 2022

Return to the Desert: Death Valley’s Essence

Some time after dark on the second to last full day in Death Valley, the wind kicked up. It was sufficiently strong at times that we were concerned that the tent might come unmoored. That never happened, but the mere possibility gave us hope that the Mesquite Flat Dunes would be swept clean of footprints overnight. As a result, the plan was to head back to the dune field, which was just a few minutes up the road from our Stovepipe Wells campsite, before sunrise the next morning.

That’s what we did. The wind had died down some–but was still blowing–by early morning when we arose. As we hiked into the dunes in the dark–and we planned to hike in as much as a mile–we could see that, while the sand wasn’t entirely clean, previous instances of footprints were significantly obscured.

Photographing in the dunes–this was our third visit to Mesquite Flat–had proven somewhat challenging, but we were getting a feel for what worked, both in terms of light and compostiionally. It was another clear morning and we tried to take advantage before we lost the good light.

Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California
Pastels, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California
First Light, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California
Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California

Despite the collection of color images above, my focus in the dunes this day was on frames that I would convert to black and white. That was overwhelmingly the case once the sun’s rays began to touch the dune field. And, for much of this time, my attention was drawn to tighter compositions, rendered with wide, normal and telephoto perspectives.

Ripples Black & White, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California
Arid Effects Black & White, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California
A Wrinkle in Time Black & White, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California
Sand Ripples Black & White, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California
Arid Effects Intimate Black & White, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California
Channels Black & White, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California

While I had photographed sand ripples and tiny hillocks on wide Pacific beaches on several occasions over the last decade, this trip to Death Valley marked my first opportunity to photograph full-fledged sand dunes in 15 years–since my experience at White Sands in 2007. It had taken a bit of time–not unreasonably, I suppose, given the long hiatus–to combine vision and technique into a final product that I was at least somewhat satisfied with, but after this third dunes session, I finally felt as though I was getting somewhere. This would pay off even more emphatically when we returned to Mesquite Flat one final time, the next morning (but that will have to wait for the final post in this series).

When we finished at Mesquite Flat, we returned to the Stovepipe campground briefly to make sure everything was secure and pick up some provisions. Then we took a mid-morning turn in Titus Canyon, our third and final Death Valley canyon exploration of the trip. As had been the case in Mosaic and Golden Canyons earlier in the week, image opportunities were extant, but subtle.

Clinging to Life, Titus Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California
Rubble, Titus Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California
Titus Canyon Black & White, Death Valley National Park, California
Crack of Life, Titus Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California
Titus Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California
Rock Wall Abstract, Titus Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California
Rock Wall Abstract Black & White, Titus Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California
Titus Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California
Rock Wall Abstract, Titus Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California
Rock Wall Abstract, Titus Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California

When we wrapped up at Titus, it was late morning and the rest of the AM and much of the afternoon was spent scouting, as we searched for locations with cracked mud. It wasn’t easy, as there had been a decent amount of moisture in the Valley that winter and the best cracked mud patterns form after a prolonged dry period, but we eventually found some locations we thought would work and I marked them on my GPS so we could find them again (much) later in the day.

Late afternoon we decided to return to Zabriskie Point, site of our first morning session at Death Valley a few days earlier. We wanted to see how the PM light impacted the landscape there and it was worth our time. I thought about nothing but monochrome conversions while photographing at Zabriskie. I photographed exclusively with a telephoto lens during our time at the overlook.

Zabriskie Point Black & White, Death Valley National Park, California
Zabriskie Point Black & White, Death Valley National Park, California
Zabriskie Point Black & White, Death Valley National Park, California
Zabriskie Point Black & White, Death Valley National Park, California

As sundown approached, we returned to the site of our mud crack-scout and tried to make the most of the spot.

Evening’s Onset, Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, California
Be My Valentine Black & White, Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, California
Sunset Serenade, Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, California
Mud Cracks Black & White, Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, California
Dusk’s Glow, Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, California
Mud Cracks Black & White, Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, California

We had one more early morning of photography ahead of us. It would be spent back at the dunes…


Responses

  1. The textures and patterns in the dunes, rocks, mud, and at Zabriskie Point are amazing. You certainly made the most of each opportunity.

    • Thanks, Ellen!

  2. Very nice dune and cracked-mud shots, Kerry. I also liked the rock “abstracts” from Titus Canyon.

    The Mesquite Flat dunes were the first ones I ever shot, and I was lucky enough to have good light for at least one shoot without high winds while shooting. A recent visit to Great Sand Dunes NP&P wasn’t as successful due to cloudy conditions just about every evening, and the dunes at Guadalupe Mountains NP were a disappointment. Someday I’d like to shoot the Eureka dunes in the north of Death Valley — I planned a visit a few years ago and arrived to find the road closed due to flooding.

    • Thanks, Steve.

      I’m not sure if you’ve been to White Sands, but if not, I highly recommend it. It’s a terrific place to shoot dunes, with the bonus of the other worldly gypsum-based snow white sand. As a matter of fact, I was supposed to scratch an itch by going back there early this month, but that was before everything hit the fan and I had to cancel the trip. I’m hoping to be able to rectify that next year. We’ll see.

      • Yes, I enjoyed White Sands in winter 2018 (https://www.carterfoto.com/p872998366), but again had mostly cloudy weather. Just enough sun to show the potential and tantalize me. I’d love to return someday. Quite expensive to pay the ranger to let us in before sunrise, though. I also paid to stay after sunset but found that wasn’t necessary; we were out before the gate closed each day.

  3. An excellent collection in both color and monochrome.

    • Thanks, Steve!

  4. […] the previous installment of the this series detailing last winter’s trip to Vermillion Cliffs and Death Valley, I […]


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