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Mystery Solved: The Death Valley Racetrack

The Death Valley Racetrack Moving Rocks

Moving Rocks at the Death Valley Racetrack
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This is a big day for humanity, folks. It's a HUGE day. That's right - they finally figured out how those mysterious migrating stones move all on their own at the Racetrack in Death Valley National Park. This is bigger than the moon landing!

Okay, maybe not. But I'm pretty damn excited about it because ever since I visited The Racetrack to photograph these moving rocks, I've been utterly fascinated by this natural wonder.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, The Racetrack is a massive cracked-dirt playa deep in Death Valley National Park. Dotting the south end of the playa are a bunch of boulders with long trails carved into the dirt behind them as if they up and moved all on their own. It's quite a sight, which is why people from all over the world come to see them.

I have a 30x45 print from The Death Valley Racetrack hanging in my office (the one at the top of this blog post) and almost every class I teach, a student asks "how does the rock move?" My answer for a cheap laugh is simply, "Aliens, dude." But then I follow it up with what was the commonly accepted theory: rain comes, wets down the playa, it turns the mud into a slippery surface, wind comes howling through, the rocks move, the rain dries up, and boom, you got yourself some migrating rocks. It was a good theory and it sounded right to me.

Well, turns out that theory wasn't right. The Slithering Stones Research Initiative led by Scripps Oceanography paleooceanographer Richard Norris finally figured out the real reason: ice. And rather than try to explain it myself, hear it from the horse's mouth in this video they posted on YouTube (they even filmed the rocks moving!):

Watch "How Rocks Move" on YouTube

Maybe I'm just a geography geek, but this is exciting stuff! Only nature could dream up such a marvelous display of the elements working together to create art. But a part of me is a little sad to lose the mystery of it all. I liked that we couldn't explain everything even in this modern age. Plus, the mystery made my photos of The Racetrack so much more interesting! But at the same time, the knowledge of how it actually works is too remarkable to ignore.

The theory proven in this video was actually thought up long ago along with the slippery-windy playa theory. I'd heard both years ago, but I thought the slippery-windy playa theory was much smarter. "Pssh...ice moves them. Yeah, right." But I guess that's why I'm not a scientist...

Enjoy the video and enjoy this newly discovered knowledge. And here's some more pictures from The Racetrack for your pleasure:

The Death Valley Racetrack Moving Rocks

The Death Valley Racetrack Moving Rocks

The Death Valley Racetrack Moving Rocks

The Death Valley Racetrack Moving Rocks

The Death Valley Racetrack Moving Rocks

Mojave Desert, Part 3: Sand Texture

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Sand Texture in the Mojave Desert
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I think I could photograph the ripples in these sand dunes for days and never get bored. That’s why I did a lot of it on this trip. I also find that shooting in the square film format and using my camera handheld (as opposed to my usual tripod method) makes photographing this sand texture all the more fun. The ripples are simultaneously perfectly ordered and utterly random. They’re like the grooves in your fingerprint - each one is different and yet they all look pretty much the same at first glance.

The most interesting thing about these ripples and textures is that they are formed entirely by wind alone. It’s nothing more than a side effect of a natural weather phenomenon. It’s simply remarkable that this is what mother nature creates when she’s left alone. And like an etch-a-sketch, each one of these sculptures is shaken clear and re-formed with passing time. They are transient and temporary, a fact that makes photographing them all the more special.

At the Kelso Sand Dunes in the Mojave National Preserve, you’ll find faint layers of black sand mixed in with the more common beige variety. I presume the black sand comes from the volcanic rock of nearby cinder cones which has been eroded down to granules and transported by the wind onto these mammoth piles of sand. The real interesting part comes in how the wind separates the black sand from the beige sand. It seems one of these types of sand is heavier than the other. This fact is evident all over the dunes where a strip of black sand will crown the top of a crest or line the valleys of sand ripples like a black highlighter drawn along their edge. The result is a multi-colored painting of sand and wind that even the finest artist couldn’t create.

I personally like these types of compositions. They aren’t in-your-face like my more typical epic landscape photography, but their subtlety and near-abstractness is perfect for interior decorating. I plan to compile some of these images of sand texture into a triptych - 3 compositions side-by-side or one on top of the other to form a beautiful wall art piece that brings the texture of the Kelso Sand Dunes indoors. Or maybe I’ll do 4 compositions arranged 2x2...perhaps 6 arranged 2x3...maybe even 9 arranged 3x3.

I think we’re going to need a bigger wall...

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Mojave Desert, Part 2: Black and White Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Black and White Landscape Photography
Black and White Landscape Photography in the Mojave Desert
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I didn’t shoot a ton of black and white landscape photography on my most recent trip to the Mojave Desert. I’m not really sure why - I suppose the colors were just too delicious to desaturate at the time - but despite my slim-pick’ns on the monochrome front, I really, really love sand dunes in black and white. The contrast and lines are just superb for monochrome photography.

Right off the bat, most of the compositions here will look quite familiar if you saw my last post from this Mojave Desert trip with my color landscape photography. Once I set up a shot for color photography, I tend to try the same exact composition in black and white because it’s easy to do and I like having both options. I always tell myself that I’ll pick one later - the color or the B&W - as the final select, but I always find myself torn between the pretty colors and the rich monochrome shots. That’s why both usually end up on my website. I also often shoot the same composition in both horizontal and vertical framing. It’s good to have both varieties when making a fine art piece or trying to fit a picture into a magazine or book.

Each of the shots here were made at sunrise looking northwest. I was fortunate to get relatively clear skies on one of the mornings which allowed the unobstructed sun to bathe these dunes in a strong, harsh, directional side lighting. When you’re trying to highlight sand textures and shapes in the dunes, you need harsh light. If the light is softened up too much by a thin cloud layer, the texture just disappears under the flat lighting. And if the sun is too high in the sky - like at noon - the shadows aren’t going in the right direction to bring out the details. It needs to be side-lighting and it needs to be strong directional light. So, thank you, clear skies.

I don’t remember for sure, but I’m pretty sure I used a polarizer in most of these photos, a red #23A filter on all of them, and a split ND filter on most or all of them. Without these filters, the contrast would have been lackluster. And without solid manual metering technique, I would have botched the whole thing.

I have to say, the more I look at my landscape photography from this trip and other trips to the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave Desert, the more I like the black and white versions. Does that mean I’m getting old?

Mojave Desert Black and White Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Black and White Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Black and White Landscape Photography