Tuesday, January 31, 2012

When Peyton Hale got his chance to go west, he headed straight for the unique geology of Death Valley

Landscape photographer Peyton Hale grew up in a small community in the mountains of western North Carolina where he spent as much time as possible outdoors. "This led me to earn dual undergraduate degrees in Zoology and in Fisheries & Wildlife Sciences from North Carolina State University in 2006. During my undergraduate days, I picked up a camera while doing field research and began to teach myself photography. At first I spent much of my time shooting macro and some wildlife images, but I have found the greatest pleasure in shooting landscapes. Since then, I've longed for the chance to visit the American West.

"I have a long list of must-visit spots, but Death Valley National Park has always been a high priority for me. With my background in natural sciences, I've been very intrigued by the unique geological phenomena that occur there, from the salt formations at Badwater to the creation of sand dunes in the park.

"This past March was my first opportunity to fly out and explore this vast national park located in California and Nevada, but I only had five days to cover the major points within its 3.3 million acres. When my group of friends and I arrived we found ourselves in the midst of a late winter heat wave, with daytime temperatures creeping into the low 90’s. In addition to the unusually warm temperatures, other changes were occurring in the area. Badwater Basin was totally devoid of water, which only days before still held remnant pools. This forced us to come up with some new plans for our itinerary.

“Whenever we scouted across the Badwater Basin, we were left scratching our heads trying to figure out exactly what to do. We’d hoped for some remnant water to be able to catch reflecting images of dramatic clouds or the snow capped Telescope Peak, but that was all gone. Nowhere across the expanse we walked did we find the beginnings of salt polygons starting to take shape and elevate from the ground. Fortunately one of my friends had really done his homework and found another potential access site along the salt basin to the north that also develops polygons and tends to be less crowded than the main location.

"With a little bit of luck we stumbled across some good looking formations that had few signs of human impact and were well removed from heavy tourist traffic. This photo was taken in the late afternoon as a heavy volume of clouds began to roll in over the Panamint Range, creating some nice contrast in the skies above. I used my Singh-Ray 4x6 2-stop hard-step Graduated ND filter to control the highlights in the sky while I exposed for the foreground. This was taken at 19mm with my Canon 5D Mark II at an aperture of f/16 to achieve the proper depth of field throughout the image. At the time I really hadn’t shot many images that I had pre-visualized for black and white printing, and this image was actually pulled out of my digital archives months after the trip. It was one of those images I noticed only after not looking through the galleries for a few months. Once I finished tweaking it through Photoshop CS4 and the Nik Software Silver Efex Pro 2 plug-in, I was stoked with the moody feeling the final product evoked.

“After spending just over a day in the Furnace Creek area, we packed up our campsite and headed northwest to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes where the image at the top of this story was captured. After setting up camp in Stovepipe Wells we set out in the early evening to scout out the area and try to get a feel for the orientation of the light and the dunes. We were searching for a perspective other than what has been routinely captured from this area. We came across mud flats at the base of the larger dunes, broken into large, beautiful shapes and the cracks made strong leading lines. The next afternoon, we set up at the base of two dunes to get out of the direct sun and began waiting for the thick bank of clouds to the east to break up and catch the light from the sun setting behind us. Our waiting soon paid off as the clouds we were planning to shoot broke up and caught a glazing of post-sunset color -- just enough to add some pop. I used my Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer to warm up the sand and my 3-stop soft-step Graduated ND filter to suppress the sky enough to prevent any loss of detail or blown-out highlights while exposing 'to the right' to retain full detail in the cracked mud.

"The icing on the cake for me was making the long ride out to the infamous Racetrack Playa near the end of our trip. This unique area is one of those bizarre natural phenomena that really sparked my interest in understanding the processes behind the rock movements (besides aliens, Boba Fett, or the chupacabra) and the conditions needed to make it all happen.

"After the long 27-mile drive down the rudimentary dirt road we arrived at the campsite below the playa, shocked to find it heavily occupied by a large-scale camping setup from a local community college. Luckily for us their fieldtrip’s interest lay well beyond the playa and we had the area almost completely to ourselves before sunset. We took some time to check out multiple rocks to find the proper subject as some of the playa was damaged from foot traffic (while the playa was still wet) and I even found a rock that had been defaced by the signature of a tourist.

"After covering the southern third of the playa for around an hour we were able to find a select number of rocks with the proper orientation and a solid composition. The dramatic light began to unfold from the south with intense colors developing quickly. I sorted through my 2- and 3-stop ND Grads before settling on hand holding my 4x6 3-stop hard-step to subdue the intense colors of the sky and a part of the mountains while bringing out shadow details of the playa and in particular the rock that was my main focal point. Just as quickly as the bold colors unfolded before us, the exquisite display began to dull in intensity and fizzle out.

This image was taken on the first morning in the park from the wildly popular Zabriskie Point between civil twilight and sunrise. I used my 70-200mm lens with the LB Warming Polarizer to isolate this portion of the eroded hillside and warm up the scene. My focus was drawn to the primary ridge that creates a central winding line through the image, guiding the eye through the hillside.

"This trip to Death Valley was incredibly significant for me. I was able to capture some of the best images within my landscape portfolio, and it pushed me to work harder both to capture the initial image and to develop my post processing ability. Since then, I’ve been interacting in more photography education, and the use of Singh-Ray filters is something I always promote to those working in landscape photography. Regardless of where I go, how light I have to pack, my set of 2-stop, 3-stop, and the 3-stop reverse ND Grads will be right there alongside my LB Warming Polarizer. I find that these filters have been some of the most important tools in my arsenal when working with shifting light and allow me to get as much of the essential imaging as possible worked out right in the camera."

Peyton will be returning for a 9 day tour of Death Valley and the Alabama Hills in February. He is also planning future workshops in the western US and in the Appalachian Mountains. You can find Peyton actively participating in the Google+ community, and learn more about his projects on his website.