Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Viewed through the photographic eye of a fervent admirer, Death Valley comes to life

"No one in the famous William Lewis Manley expedition of 1849 actually died after being dangerously stranded and then rescued," Steve Kossack tells his photo workshop participants 160 years later; "but as one of the women looked back from her departing wagon she exclaimed, 'Goodbye Death Valley.' The thought that their near-death experience would bring an official name to our youngest U.S. National Park was, I'm sure, the furthest thing from their minds at the time.

"Every time I visit this magnificent valley, I'm as happy to be there as those first visitors were to leave it! This is the place that first inspired me to pursue the art of photography many years ago. However, when I finally decided I wanted to photograph Death Valley, I discovered very quickly I lacked the skill. As my study of photography advanced, this is the place I kept coming back to -- trying over and over to make lasting images. This is also the place where my first workshop took place. In recent years, I've done as many as three in a month! Every season in Death Valley is a different experience of sorts. It's a truly wondrous and mystical place to explore and photograph. It continuously challenges my mind and my filter pack! Spring is the time I like best, and our recent March workshop was especially enjoyable!

"Photographing in the Mesquite Dunes (above) is a highlight of every workshop. Actually being 'out there' in the dunes is a much different feeling than photographing from a safe roadside vantage point. 'Showtime' is how I describe those moments when first or last light of the day turns the dunes into a magical fantasy land of shapes, textures and colors. As our group set up on this clear spring pre-dawn, we began talking about what was to come at first light and we experimented with a combination of lenses and compositions. As the light became defused by a small cloud on the horizon, I commented on the purple mountains behind the dunes and quickly replaced my Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer with the Gold-N-Blue Polarizer. Then I shot this exposure and quickly bracketed two more exposures at 1/3 and 2/3 f-stop under that exposure. Then I exposed three more bracketed exposures after adding a 3-stop soft-step ND Grad to reduce the tone of the mountains. I then forgot all about this image until I saw it again in the raw converter. A nice surprise, indeed!

"I've found that most of my workshop participants usually spend the evening following our first dunes shoot hoping for winds strong enough to cover the previous days footprints. They are also dismayed at the sight of approaching hikers and photographers the next morning who might intrude on their composition. I have, however, concluded that I may want to include them in my composition. People show size, scale and scope. It's difficult to show these dunes in a way that conveys the landscape proportionally. There are three elements that can help -- if and when I can find them. One is shrubery. This helps because they are usually closer. Next are the mountains behind the dunes. If you compress them with a longer lens you'll have more detail. This can help to tell the story of the dune's actual size. But by far the best element for me is people. They can immediately set the stage!

"The bright sky in this image was almost a washout in the early morning sidelight. An LB Warming Polarizer helped reduce the glare from both the sky and sand. It also cut the haze of the distant mountain range. A 4-stop hard-step ND Grad helped keep the sky and mountain range exposure manageable and created enough contrast to accentuate our dune walker. In retrospect, I feel this shot is the perfect counterpart to the image at the top of our story."

"This view from Aguereberry Point (above) and the following view from Dante's Peak face each other from opposite sides of Death Valley at an elevation of over one mile above the valley floor. In addition to the breathtaking panoramic views from these two sides, visitors experience a noticeable drop in temperature from the valley floor. At most times of the year, a 30-degree difference is the norm and since both vista points are on high cliff areas unprotected for hundreds of miles in some directions, wind is a constant feature. Aguereberry Point offers photographers some terrific foreground shrub and rock formations and the mountains run parallel to the valley, providing a dramatic setting especially with the last direct light of the day. Earlier this evening we had hoped to get a look at the rising full moon at sunset, but the cloud cover on the eastern horizon did not cooperate. For a while it did not look good photographically. We waited, however, and were well rewarded for our patience.

"Although this view from Dante's Peak features the same area of the valley from the opposite direction, this wide, spread-out expanse is much more difficult to shoot than the Aguereberry image. This view presents a vast panorama that some might consider as little more than sightseeing! However, the color that appeared just after sunrise quickly made it much more exciting. I was concerned, however, that the constant 40-mph wind would make it impossible to get a sharp image. I also felt something was needed to provide scope and scale in the foreground but I could not find any rock formations to feature. As the color in the clouds just kept getting better and better, I decided to try timing my shots to take advantage of any lull in the sometimes gale force wind. With the morning light steadily increasing, I moved in behind a large shrub that seemed to be withstanding the wind somewhat better than smaller ones. I raised the ISO on my Canon 1Ds MKlll to 1000! I figured that with the blowing dust in the valley, infinity was going to look like sensor noise anyway. Trying to time the wind gusts -- which never slowed much during our 45-minute effort -- I just kept shooting continually. The frame shown here was one of the few usable ones. I used my Singh-Ray LB Color Intensifier for this image. I always keep this filter at my side to shoot scenes of this sort, where I can't afford to lose much shutter speed. In fact, the LB Color Intensifer the only filter I have that requires less than one additional f-stop. I also alternated between my 3 and 4-stop hard-step ND grads during the shoot.

"Visitors to the famous dry lake bed, or playa, known as the Racetrack regard the mysterious sliding rocks as a great visual attraction, but the main attraction for me is the vast beauty of the playa and the valley it sits in. Nevertheless, I always go out and shoot the sliding rocks like everyone else! There seem to be at least three distinctly different images that can be made there. The first is in direct, low sidelight that is present upon arrival -- usually in the afternoon. This sidelight casts great shadows on the ridges left by the sliding rocks and accentuates the deep rut. It also gives good light to the surrounding mountains and gives evenly strong light to the playa as well. This first shot allows time to get use to the phenomena of the moving rocks and concentrate on composition. It also allows time to walk this broad deceptively huge area looking for the best 'sliders.'

"The second and third photo opportunities -- which occur usually about 45 minutes before actual sunset -- are more subtle and harder to accomplish. After the direct light has been blocked by the mountains, the playa goes into shadow as do all the west facing ridges and eventually a bright sky is left with a huge contrast everywhere else. This is the time that I shoot only the sliding rocks and tracks for detail. If conditions are right the last light of the day will put on a show over the playa. This is the time I like the best! The difficulty is the huge difference between the sky and rocks. The playa will eventually reflect the color in the sky and the trick is to hold an exposure that will render the surrounding shaded mountains in some detail. Here's how I made this image. A Canon 24mm tilt/shift lens was set to give just enough height above the rock (the tripod was at ground level) to create that 'screeching to a halt' effect. The mountain range was then brought back into perspective with a slight forward tilt of the lens. My Canon angle finder C was used to see through the viewfinder. I also used the LB ColorCombo, making sure I did not over-polarize the sky. I then experimented with various ND grads, as each mountain range has a different exposure reading, and I knew that the key would lie in a getting a correct exposure for them. In the end, I had quite a few good exposures to choose from."

Steve has just opened his newly designed website, which feature images by a number of his workshop participants. You can also learn more about joining Steve's upcoming workshops in Glacier National Park this July or the Yosemite High Country in August.

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