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Death Valley Trip: Day 1

My brother and I went for a quick camping trip in Death Valley National Park over the weekend. It was our first time visiting Death Valley, rain and snow were in the forecast, we were both itching to get out of town and I was ready to photograph the hell out of this park. That's a recipe for fun if I've ever seen it.

Here are the pictures and my experience from Day 1 (of 2).

Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, CA

We arrived at the park, found a campsite, got some lunch, then headed right for the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. The winds were strong at the campsite, but luckily for our eyes, it was quite calm at the dunes. As I said, I'd never been to this park before so I'd never seen these dunes. I have, however, spent a lot of time at the Kelso Sand Dunes in Mojave National Preserve.

The Kelso Dunes are much larger and more impressive - they seem to go on forever. But these dunes in Death Valley were, in my opinion, a little more aesthetic. There are a lot less plants here, so the dunes are generally smoother with more uninterrupted ridges. But, being that it's Death Valley and tons more people come here than to Mojave National Preserve, it's a little harder to get shots without people and/or footprints in them. That's the toughest part about shooting on sand dunes: footprints stick around for awhile.

The cloud cover was pretty heavy with an incoming storm, so I had essentially no directional light to work with. It was all diffused. Diffused light is good for a lot of things, but sand dunes ain't one of 'em. Without the shadows created by directional light, the texture and shapes in the sand and ridges nearly disappear. Everything ends up looking flat.

But since I always try to make lemonade when nature gives me lemons, I decided to accentuate the stormy feel in this first shot by darkening the sky quite a bit with some stronger split NDs. I think it works quite well.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park, CA

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park, CA

Then I just had to do a panorama to really capture this expanse (click for larger version).

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park, CA

After we got our fix of Sand Dunes and exercise, we headed out to Badwater Basin to see the salt flats. I was really looking forward to this.

Badwater Basin is the lowest point in the US with an elevation of 282 feet below sea level. The landscape is really unlike anywhere on the planet. With one big, unbroken expanse of salt shaped into unique almost-geometric shapes, it's easy to get a very surreal feeling when standing out there.

And being that it's a big, unbroken expanse in the middle of a valley with no trees or rock formations to shelter you, it can get pretty windy. And we chose a windy day to go out there.

To put it simply...it was insane.

The wind was out of control. I'd never experienced winds that strong. And trying to shoot landscapes in it was tough. It was the most stressed I've ever been shooting landscapes. Between worries of my camera blowing away (literally - it was THAT windy), trying to get a sharp image when the wind is making my camera tremble like a leaf, concern that my Lee filters would catch a gust of wind and blow right off the camera...I think I would have been sweating bullets had it not been as cold as it was.

I think this shot of my brother about sums up what we were dealing with:

Windy Day in Badwater Basin

Don't get me wrong, though. It was a complete blast. This is the kind of thing I live for. It was an absolutely unforgettable experience. Just so much fun.

Lucky for me, the clouds broke up and gave me a gorgeous sunset to work with. Also, every shot was tack sharp. It pays to have good technique ;D

Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, CA

Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, CA

Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, CA

After the sun set and twilight fell upon us, a beautiful deep blue light washed over everything. It's difficult to explain how surreal this time of day is out on the salt flats. The ground seems to glow like it's under a black light, you look around and can't see a single soul for miles, there's nary a tree, bush, rock or bug in sight. I hate to use a cliché, but it's truly like being on another planet.

Here are the results (click the pano to see it larger):

Badwater Basin Salt Flats in Death Valley National Park at Twilight

Badwater Basin Salt Flats in Death Valley National Park at Twilight

After I got every shot I wanted, we packed it in and headed back to the campground for a hot meal and a break from the wind. But we had no idea the weather we were in for tomorrow.

Day 2 coming soon...

Photography Tips: Exploiting Overcast Days

Skill Level: Professional

In landscape photography, we are often at the mercy of the weather. Sometimes it's a fortunate coincidence of great weather when you happen to be out shooting, but more often than not, the weather just doesn't cooperate. Nature doesn't want to make photography easy for you.

I'm a big fan of making lemonade when nature gives you lemons. It has the sweet taste of victory. So I'm going to show you how to make lemonade out of a lemon of a sky. Specifically, overcast days.

Overcast days don't give you the most stunning light for landscapes. Great for macro work, but generally bad for landscapes. If you're going to conquer the scene in front of you and make an awesome photograph regardless of the dreary sky, you have to take what you're given and exploit it.

What you're given is dark, bluish light and cold weather. So instead of fighting these things and trying to make a typical sunny landscape, take that dark feel, that blue tone and that cold sensation and exploit it. Highlight it.

The first way to do that is to underexpose your landscape by a little bit. Maybe 2/3 to 1 stop. For instance, in this shot, let's say I would normally meter that rock at -0.7 on a typical sunset with less cloud-cover (shooting in Manual, of course). With this overcast sky, I'm going to underexpose the scene by a little bit to create a mood that matches the dramatic, overcast sky. So instead of metering that rock at -0.7, I'll meter it at -1.3. That brings the entire exposure down by 2/3 of a stop to create a darker picture that jives better with the dark weather.

Rock Metered a Little Darker Than Normal

Same goes for the sky. Let's assume I'm going to use some split NDs to get the sky properly exposed. To render the clouds "accurately," I'd want them to line up around -1.0 on the meter. But I want to underexpose this shot. So instead of using filtration to get the sky to -1.0, I'm going to use a little bit stronger filter to get it around -1.7 (2/3 of a stop darker).

Filter the sky a little darker

The result is an image that's darker than real life. But just because it's darker than real life, doesn't mean it's incorrectly exposed. Correct exposure simply means the exposure turned out how you wanted it to. You wanted this shot to be darker so as to better match the sky and to create a mood. So, it's a correct exposure.

That's how you exploit the dark light you get with overcast skies, but what about the bluish tone and the cold weather. That's where white balance comes in. In order to get accurate colors out of this landscape, you'd choose a "cloudy" white balance setting. Only problem is...that's boring. Here's what you get:

Cloudy WB Setting

Instead of going for accurate colors, exploit the bluish, cold light by using a WB setting that will give a bluish hue to the shot. Daylight or 5200K should get the job done, but if you want even bluer, try the tungsten setting (that will be really blue), or dial in about 4800K.

Finally, a long shutter speed of 15" blurs the water into an ethereal fog that goes perfectly with the cold, dark mood of the shot.

Corona Del Mar, CA

With the darker exposure, bluish WB setting and long shutter, you get an image that has much more mood than an "accurate" shot. Now you're telling a story instead of just documenting a mediocre day at a mediocre beach.

Corona Del Mar in February

If you're a regular follower of my blog, Twitter and Facebook, you may be wondering if I fell off the face of the earth. Not quite, but I do feel a little like I'm coming back from the dead after a week-long bout of the flu. The worst part was it hit its peak on my birthday. I don't often get sick, but my body chose to shut down its immune system on my birthday...awesome.

Corona Del Mar, CA

Anyway, I've had some pictures in my backlog from the week before I got sick. They cover 2 days back-to-back both at the same beach: Corona Del Mar.

The first day was on Saturday, February 19th. It was rainy all day and the clouds didn't look promising for a good sunset, but I really felt like getting out there. Plus, I love being at the beach in the rain.

Corona Del Mar, CA

Corona Del Mar, CA

The rain had let up for most of the evening, but the clouds held fast. Instead of packing it in, I decided to use the blue tones and cloudy skies to create a really dark, dramatic mood with these interesting rock formations. I under-exposed most of these rainy-day pictures to help with the drama. I'm actually quite pleased with the overall mood. Feels like something from a fantasy novel.

While I was out there, I had to take shelter under a cliff when the rain flared up. I was lucky enough to have some company with another photographer by the name of Ryan. We stayed dry and talked photography until the rain let up. Really great guy. Nothing like some inclement weather to get an interesting conversation going with a stranger.

Corona Del Mar, CA

A waterfall formed off the cliff behind me as the rain came pounding down. It wasn't a real gorgeous falls, but I thought it was interesting enough to warrant a shot. A waterfall onto the beach isn't too common, after all.

Corona Del Mar Waterfall

The weather cleared out the next day, so I decided to head back to the same exact spot. I knew the light and clouds would be different enough to create some drastically different shots despite the same subject matter. Check out how much a little bit of warm light changed the mood of these shots.

Corona Del Mar, CA

Corona Del Mar, CA

Corona Del Mar, CA

Corona Del Mar, CA

There you have 'em. Thanks for stopping by!