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Trip to The Racetrack in Death Valley

Well I just can't seem to keep myself at home. Not long after my trip to the Sierras to capture the fall color, I decided to head back up in that part of California for a camping trip. But this time, it was off to the desert.

The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, CA

A buddy of mine and I set our sights squarely on The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park. For those of you who haven't heard of it before, The Racetrack is an expansive playa of dry, cracked dirt upon which boulders sit, dotting the landscape in no particular pattern. These fairly large rocks are peculiar in that they sit in the middle of this endless expanse, far away from any logical source. They leave one wondering how they could have gotten so far out in the middle of nowhere.

But the even more peculiar thing about them is that many of these boulders have definite trails scraped into the dirt, very clearly indicating a track the rocks once took to reach their current resting spots. It's like they just slid across the dirt all by themselves, driven by nothing more than their own will. Hence the name "The Racetrack."

The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, CA

The trails don't appear to follow any slope, especially since the playa is about as level as level gets. In fact, trails seems to go in all different directions. You can find one boulder with a clear trail coming from the north, and another rock not 20 feet away with a trail coming from the south. It's truly bizarre. From what I understand, the movement of these rocks has never been seen or filmed in action. There are only hypotheses as to what causes them to move - all revolving around strong winter winds.

The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, CA

The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, CA

The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, CA

The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, CA

Some of the tracks even change direction, creating sharp angles in their trajectory.

The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, CA

This rock (below) in particular baffled me. It has 2 trails going off in opposite directions. One is to the southwest and another to the northwest. It seems like this rock must have been heading northeast, stopped, turned sharply to the northwest, stopped, and then turned right back around and started heading southeast on its own previously laid track. Really interesting.

The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, CA

Here the rocks are "racing" away from their source at the edge of the playa.

The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, CA

The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, CA

The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, CA

But it wasn't only about the rocks and their trails. The cracked dirt of this playa was interesting enough in itself to warrant a picture or two. It looked like cobblestone. Almost mesmerizing as you walked over it.

The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, CA

The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, CA

Overall, The Racetrack was a great place to shoot and I was lucky to have a decent sunrise. But the real adventure was in getting there. There are no paved roads to the playa and it's really best visited in a 4x4. We opted to get there via Saline Valley Rd to the south, which eventually connects you up to Racetrack Valley Rd.

Old Rusted Truck in Death Valley National Park, CA

All the way up to Racetrack Valley Rd at Teakettle Junction was an absolute blasty. It was a great, fun off-road trail with gorgeous scenery, tons of variety and a good chunk of elevation change. But the best part was the weather. A storm was passing through, which dumped rain and snow on us. Here's a couple short video clips from the drive in:


So that part of the drive was fun. But what nearly made me lose my mind was the 30+ miles of brutal washboards on Racetrack Valley Rd. It was like driving on corrugated steel with your head in a paint can shaker. Mind-numbing. You can't drive much faster than 10 mph without every bolt and screw in your car rattling free. Here we are taking a break from it. Don't let the smiles fool you...

Nick Carver on Racetrack Valley Rd

I didn't get much in the way of landscapes after sunrise on The Racetrack, but I did manage to snap some shots of a couple of ravens perched on a park sign. They were brave, allowing us to get just a few feet away.

Ravens in Death Valley National Park, CA

Ravens in Death Valley National Park, CA

Ravens in Death Valley National Park, CA

^ Here they perch right above a notice that says "Do Not Feed Wild Animals." Not the best place to beg for food...

Ravens in Death Valley National Park, CA

For the second night of the trip, we camped in Death Valley proper in a secluded spot, did some nighttime off-roading to an abandoned mine and then set off for home the next morning. Excellent trip overall.

DSLR Camera Recommendations

With the holidays upon us, you may be in the market for a DSLR camera to give as a gift (or keep for yourself), so I thought I'd write up a blog post summarizing my thoughts on what to buy according to your budget.

Let me tell you up front that although there is a mix of Canon and Nikon here, I almost always urge people to go with Canon cameras. I've taught well over 200 students on just about every single DSLR Canon and Nikon have to offer. Both manufacturers make excellent cameras and you'd surely be happy with either, but I just find Canon's controls to be quite a bit more user friendly. Also, Nikon cameras have a few quirks that I'm not too crazy about. But really, it's the photographer, not the camera, and truth be told, I find the whole Nikon vs. Canon debate about as useless as arguing over who's dad would win in a fist fight. So please, no letters, Nikon guys.

Let's start first with camera and lens kits:

Canon Rebel T3Under $600
Canon EOS Rebel T3 with EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens (buy)

Canon's Rebel line of DSLR cameras is their "entry level" series aimed at novices, but that certainly doesn't mean these cameras are incapable of even the most advanced photography. They contain all the features an aspiring or intermediate photographer would need, and the Rebel T3 is a great choice at about $500 including the lens. Its 12.2 megapixel sensor gives a lot of bang for your buck and will allow for big prints. A high max ISO of 6400 and a built-in flash will make shooting in low light a breeze. The 18-55mm image stabilized lens isn't a super long range, but it's a good all-around starter lens, nonetheless.

Canon Rebel T3i$600-$1,000
Canon EOS Rebel T3i with EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens (buy)

The T3i is a decent upgrade to the T3 mentioned above with a more robust 18 megapixels and a nice articulating LCD screen to help with those shots where you just can't get your eye to the viewfinder. It also has a slightly faster frame rate of 3.7 frames per second (compared to 3 fps on the T3). Add to that an image stabilized lens with a longer zoom range and you've got yourself a winning combination. Priced around $1000.

Canon EOS 60D$1,000-$1,500
Canon EOS 60D with EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens (buy) --OR-- Nikon D7000 with 18-105mm DX VR Lens (buy)

The EOS 60D is the first upgrade out of the Rebel series cameras from Canon. Its controls are far more convenient to use than the Rebels and it has a much higher max ISO of 12800. You get the same 18 megapixels that the T3i has to offer, but a much faster frame rate of 5.3 fps, which makes the 60D way more capable when it comes to photographing action. You still get that sweet articulating LCD screen, too. The kit 18-200mm lens is a super long range, good for everything from landscapes to portraits to sports. Price is around $1300-$1400. In my opinion, the extra $300-$400 over the T3i is worth every penny.

Nikon D7000Although the Nikon D7000 has a few less megapixels at 16.2, its 39-point auto focus system blows the 60D's 9-point AF out of the water. The 3D Tracking Auto Focus feature is unbelievable, too. It's a major boon when shooting action. The D7000 also has a much more professional build and feel to it that the 60D can't match. The 18-105mm lens doesn't reach quite as far as Canon's, but the auto focus system alone on this Nikon makes the extra $100 or so over the 60D totally worth it. Priced around $1400-$1500.

Canon EOS &D$1,500-$2,500
Canon EOS 7D with EF-S 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Lens (buy)

In my opinion, the EOS 7D is the best camera in Canon's lineup right now. A built-in electronic level, electronic viewfinder, an insanely advanced 19-point auto focus system, a blazing fast 8 fps frame rate, a high max ISO of 12800 and a gorgeous 18 megapixels - it's all top-tier on this camera. This thing is designed for wildlife, sports and other action, but it's just as comfortable in the hands of a landscape or portrait shooter. And don't worry about that digital crop sensor. You don't need a full-frame camera. Priced around $1600-$1700 with a versatile 28-135mm lens. Worth every penny.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II$2,500+
Canon EOS 5D Mark II with 24-105mm f/4L IS USM (buy)

The 5D Mark II is Canon's update to the industry-changing 5D. I currently use a 5D (the older one, not the Mark II) and I love it. The Mark II has a huge 21.1 megapixel full-frame sensor with an obnoxiously high max ISO of 25600. Works great in low-light and it's an excellent landscape camera. The auto focus system on the 5D, though, is out-dated and may have a hard time keeping up with action. Also, the 5D Mark II is due for an update. It's been around for awhile now and will most likely see a refresh early next year. The kit 24-105mm f/4L lens is top-notch. It's actually a lens I wish I had. Priced around $3100-$3200.

 

If you're looking at getting just a camera body, check out these recommendations:

Canon EOS 60D$600-$1,000
Canon EOS 60D (buy)

If you already have some lenses or maybe you're thinking of upgrading your Canon Rebel, the 60D is a perfect choice. See the notes above for details on what makes this camera great. Priced around $875-$975.

 

$1,000-$1,500
Nikon D7000 (buy)

An awesome camera with a superb auto focus system. The D7000 would be an excellent upgrade for you Nikon shooters. Runs about $1100-$1200.

Nikon D300s

$1,500-$2,000
Canon EOS 7D (buy) --OR-- Nikon D300s (buy)

Either of these cameras would be a great upgrade to someone who already has a budding collection of Canon or Nikon lenses. The 7D runs about $1500-$1600 and the D300s is around $1700. The D300s has a mind-blowing 51-point auto focus system and an impressive 7 fps frame rate. Much like the Canon 7D, this thing is designed for shooting action. Great build quality, too, but a max ISO of only 6400 isn't too impressive for a camera at this price range. Also, its 12.3 megapixel sensor leaves a little bit to be desired these days.

$2,000+
Canon EOS 5D Mark II (buy)

See the notes and disclaimers above regarding this camera. The body by itself runs about $2300-$2400.


Videos from the Autumn Sierras Trip

I recently got myself a much-needed iPhone 4s, and given the amazing video capabilities it has, I thought I'd start shooting some footage at the locations I visit so you can see what the scenery was like. Keep in mind that since I can't control the exposure, white balance or any other settings on the video, they aren't super high quality, but they get the job done.

For instance, here is some footage from North Lake at sunrise:

And here is the resulting picture:

North Lake at Sunrise near Bishop, CA

Here's one along South Lake Rd:

With the resulting picture:

Fall Color in the Eastern Sierra near Bishop, CA

And lastly, this is just a video showing the amazing color on display:

Expect many more of these in the future. Hopefully I can do something to work out the image quality a bit.