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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

Digital Photography Tips: Auto White Balance Kills Color

View on YouTube to see this photography tip in HD

Photography Tips: Don't Use Auto White BalanceSkill Level: Intermediate

I've had a lot of students ask me lately why the colors in their photos are coming out inaccurate, so I thought it would be fitting to post a digital photography tip all about auto white balance. I'm marking this photography tip as "Skill Level: Intermediate" because I'm going to assume you already know what white balance does and how to control it. And if you don't know what it is, I offer group classes and online courses that can get you up to speed.

The topic of this photography tip pertains specifically to auto white balance - often abbreviated "AWB." The auto white balance setting is like many automatic functions on your camera: it works well enough a lot of the time, but it can really screw things up if you're not paying attention.

Auto white balance works like this: it looks at the photo you're taking and it tries to determine if there's too much of one color family. If it sees too much of one color, it floods the picture with the opposite color to try and cancel it out.

So let's say you have some incandescent lighting overhead when you're taking a picture of your family. Well, incandescent lighting is throwing out a ton of yellow-orange light. So auto white balance sees the excessive warm tones and says, "That's way too much yellow-orange," and so it floods the picture with blue to cancel it out. This is assuming auto white balance is doing a good job. Many cameras don't add quite enough blue in this scenario and leave your indoor shots looking too yellow.

That's the basic concept of auto white balance - if the camera sees too much of one color, it deems that an "unwanted color cast" and then tries to eliminate it by adding the opposite color. This approach to eliminating unwanted color casts is good enough for many pictures. And when you have to shoot quick, good enough is good enough.

But here's the problem with auto white balance...how could it possibly know the difference between a color cast you want and a color cast you don't want? The yellow color cast from incandescent lighting is a color cast you don't want, but the yellow color cast from fall leaves is. The camera can't make the distinction between these two. Your camera is dumb! It doesn't even know what it's looking at. It just sees too much yellow, regardless of where that yellow is coming from.

So when you shoot fall leaves on auto white balance, what ends up happening is this; the camera's auto white balance sees a bunch of yellow and it says, "Well, that's way too much yellow. Must be a color cast my photographer doesn't want," and so it floods the picture with blue to tone down the yellow. The result is fall color that isn't so fall color-y anymore.

Here are some examples:

Photography Tips: Auto White Balance

 AWB (above) vs. the accurate shade setting (below)

Photography Tips: Auto White Balance

 

 

Photography Tips: Auto White Balance

  AWB (above) vs. the accurate cloudy setting (below)

Photography Tips: Auto White Balance

 

 

Photography Tips: Auto White Balance

 AWB (above) vs. the accurate daylight setting (below)

Photography Tips: Auto White Balance

 

Same thing on a sunset. The auto white balance sees a bunch of warm tones from the setting sun, assumes you don't want them, and then floods the picture with blue to tone it down.

Photography Tips: Auto White Balance

 AWB (above) vs. the accurate daylight setting (below)

Photography Tips: Auto White Balance

As you can see, auto white balance can really destroy colors in your photos. That leads to my very simple digital photography tip: when photographing subjects with strong color casts, don't use auto white balance. Instead, use the appropriate white balance setting (daylight setting in daylight, shade in shade, etc) or adjust it yourself in the computer by shooting RAW files. I used Adobe Lightroom to adjust the white balance on my RAW files. It's a great program and I highly recommend it to all shooters. Get a great price on Adobe Lightroom at B&H.

Use auto white balance when you need to shoot quick and you're not too worried about the colors being perfect. But when the colors have to be just right, don't use AWB...it may just tone down the colors too much.

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Well, ladies and gentleman, I jumped on the bandwagon. That's right, I did the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. It's all the rage right now and I was challenged by a friend of mine, so I figured "let's do it."

But I'm not the type to jump on bandwagons. When the Kony 2012 thing blew up the web a couple years back, I didn't even follow it. The reason I don't tend to get involved with these things is because I often feel like it doesn't really do anything valuable for the cause. Posting a status update on Facebook that says "I support breast cancer awareness" doesn't actually do anything to cure it.

However, this viral video thing for ALS is a little different. First, it's actually working. It's raised millions of dollars for the cause already and I wouldn't have thought to donate if this trend hadn't started, but I just donated to the ALS Association at www.alsa.org/donate (and you should too!) thanks to these videos raising awareness.

Secondly, this is a cause that really does need our help. It's a terrible disease, but it only affects something like 30,000 people in the US. That's a small number. And a small number means there isn't much incentive for those in the healthcare industry to cure it. And you can't blame pharmaceutical companies for working on more widespread diseases, but nobody likes when a minority doesn't get the help they need simply because they're a minority. Breast cancer is a worthy cause to get behind, but there's no shortage of awareness and support for that one. ALS doesn't get the same level of recognition and help, so this ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is much needed.

My brothers and I made a goofy video (a VERY goofy video) for our ice bucket challenge. I was hesitant to post this video and blog entry at first because I don't like when people use a trending charitable cause or tragedy to get website traffic, but I decided to post it after all in the hope that it will inspire some of my readers to donate to the cause as well. So jump on the bandwagon with me. Donate to the cause and dump a bucket of ice water on your head.

Enjoy the video and please donate to www.alsa.org/donate.