Pressed nice and fresh!

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Regular readers of this blog might have noticed a little spike in the number of comments posted recently. Let me explain…

On Friday I published the last in a four-part retrospective mini-series about a trip I made out west a few years back. Like many northerners this time of year, I had been suffering from an annual bout of winter-induced cabin fever, and my main goal with that little series was really just to remind myself of warmer times and help get me closer to the springtime. Besides, the 9 degree farenheit bone-chilling temperatures over the weekend here in Maine meant I didn’t have any new and original photographs to share!

I was working from home on Friday when I started noticing a slew of email notifications from the blog flying into my gmail account. Since this wasn’t the first time I had been freshly pressed, I figured out fairly quickly what had likely happened. I wandered over to the WordPress home page and sure enough, there it was… a photograph from my most recent post… Back into the Valley of Death …pressed nice and fresh!

From the WP folks about Freshly Pressed: “Each weekday, we hand-pick and promote approximately ten new blog posts to the Freshly Pressed section of the WordPress.com homepage. These posts represent how WordPress.com can be used to entertain, enlighten or inspire.”

My email box was pretty busy over the weekend, and a quick check of my stats page indicates that since last Friday alone at about 10:00 a.m. when the fresh pressing actually occurred, there have been close to 17,000 new views on this blog! And since so many people were kind enough to take the time to comment on my blog, I felt that it was only right that I reply to them… believe me, that’s a lot of replies 🙂

Anyhoo… it’s Tuesday evening now, and as my blog slides off the WordPress front page the frenzied pace of site views and email notifications has slowed somewhat, I can finally take a deep breath and relax. It has been a fun weekend though, and before resuming our normal programming here on the blog, I wanted to say a big thank you to everyone for their very kind and generous words.

Thank You!

Back into the Valley of Death

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*Update: I have been overwhelmed with the kind words from everyone about this post. Being freshly pressed has certainly brought a new audience to my blog, and I wanted to say a big thank you to everyone for stopping by. If interested, here’s a more complete gallery of some of my favorite images from Death Valley.

Death Valley is one of the most spectacular places on the planet. It is a vast and diverse landscape, one that ranges in altitude from the heights of Telescope Peak (11,043 ft) in the Panamint Range, to the desolate and unique salt water flats at Badwater (282 feet below sea level). If you ever want to see a landscape that is like nothing you have ever seen, then DVNP is the place to go. This is the last in my mini-series of reflective posts from when my buddy Steve and I visited the american southwest a few years ago – Steve has a cool video and narrative of our trip posted on his blog, The Rabid Outdoorsman. Ignore his descriptions of my driving and the near-death experiences… all are highly exaggerated. We covered a crazy amount of ground on our trip, spending several days in Death Valley before driving north to escape the heat toward Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Deadhorse State Park.

One of the things I like most about blogging is how chronologically recorded stories allow for a retrospective glimpse at a timeline. When examining site stats, I often find myself checking out an older blog post that someone has searched for and visited, and from there I start to wander along the timeline, reminiscing as I begin a mini-journey of moments from the past. Building this little four part series from the southwest transported me back to 2009 when Steve and I had a blast exploring what was some seriously big country.

We wrapped up our conference where the stifling sidewalk heat of the Vegas strip hadn’t even come close to preparing us for the fieriness of Death Valley. Only fools, crazy europeans, and two idiots from Maine would venture out into the vast expanses of Death Valley in the summer where the temperatures were 120+ degrees, but we figured what the hey… we might never get a chance to do this again. Risking heatstroke, we wrapped water-drenched towels around our heads and plowed on as we explored some of the amazing and surreal sights of the valley. The photographs in this post are from several of the more iconic locations in Death Valley… the Mesquite Dunes near Stovepipe Wells, the Badwater Salt Flats, the Racetrack, Zabriskie Point, and then back to the dunes… truly awe-inspiring.

Thanks for indulging me with my past four posts and mini-review of this memorable trip to the southwest from a few years back. Now, back to the present day… regardless of the weather, I am determined to get out with the camera again this weekend, so your regular programming from a cold and wintry Maine should resume soon 🙂

Patience is a Virtue

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I remember the not too distant days of visiting a pretty place with a film camera in hand and trying to make a nice photograph. I loved shooting 35mm Velvia slide film… the colors were rich and saturated, and the detail when viewed through a loupe on the light table was absolutely stunning. I can still remember waiting a couple of days for the film to return from the lab, anxious to see if I had actually managed anything worthwhile.

I would always bracket for exposure, so a roll of Velvia with 36 exposures actually meant only twelve distinct compositions. Quite often I would shoot just one roll of film in an entire morning, and even today when shooting digitally and relatively free from the capacity limits of slide film, I consider myself somewhat discerning about how often I press the shutter. Rather than click just because I can, I prefer to take my time in any given locale, really exploring the landscape in an attempt to come away with maybe one good photograph that I feel good about.

When shooting digitally today though, I can pretty much tell right away if I am on the right track, and if not, I can make adjustments to both composition and exposure on the fly. The LCD on my digital camera allows me to review an image instantly, allowing for tweaks to be made to compositions, and the histogram gives me all the information I need to know about whether or not I have made an accurate exposure. This is all good, and it is one of the biggest reasons why we can improve our photography skills much faster than if we were still shooting film and waiting several days for feedback. You would think that the days of needing to be thrifty with exposures are gone, since the capacity of an 8GB compact flash card far outweighs the limits of a roll of film – but – there is a lot to be said for being frugal with the the number of clicks we make, taking the time to really “see” a composition… waiting for the right conditions… visioning a particular moment… before pressing that shutter button. Digital makes it easy to take a lot of photographs, but it doesn’t mean they are going to be good photographs.

Here was me thinking I was quite discerning, making fewer exposures than the average digital photographer… but then I ran into Ben Horne, the prince of patience. When I say I ran into Ben, I mean that in a virtual sense. I first “met” Ben on the landscape board of the Fred Miranda web site where he always contributes great information and offers insightful and helpful critiques. Based in San Diego, Ben documents his travels to places like Zion National Park and the Colorado Plateau through his excellent blog, and like many photographers, he is generous in his willingness to share details of his vision, ideas and techniques. Ben is a different kind of cat though… he doesn’t shoot digitally, he shoots on film… big film. While I like to reminisce how nice a 35mm slide looked, I cannot imagine how impressive a medium format – or an 8×10 – transparency looks!

Ben’s work is spectacular, and I always get inspiration from the process he employs on his extended trips for photography. Usually traveling solo, he details his experiences of searching for what is often a pre-conceived vision, and his behind the scenes videos of his adventures are especially interesting. The more restrained methodology and approach of a large-format landscape photographer – especially one as good as Ben – is quite something to behold, and I highly recommend checking out his work. Ben will spend days (and many return trips) familiarizing himself with a location, trying to understand the intricacies of the landscape and how the light interacts with it at different times of the day and in different conditions. If everything lines up the way he wants it to, he will press the shutter perhaps once that day… that’s right, once!  He just returned from a 10 day trip to one of my favorite places – Death Valley National Park – and from Day One I thoroughly enjoyed vicariously coming along for the ride with him as he shared his stories of what seems like an awesome trip.

The photographs in this post are from my visit to Death Valley in February 2010 when the salt flats at Badwater were just starting to become flooded. The conditions on my trip were similar to what Ben experienced this year too, and it is always cool to see an iconic location like this in unusual circumstances. While Ben’s remarkable photographs certainly inspire me to get out with my own camera, I think what I admire most about his work is the patient and demanding approach he takes toward attempting to capture the beauty of nature. He is extremely passionate about his photography and he is constantly learning his craft… good lessons for us all.

Badwater, Death Valley

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On the one hand leaving home a day early to avoid the bad weather on the east coast was incredibly exhausting as we crisscrossed the country over a two day period going from Bangor to New York to Indianapolis to Charlotte to Las Vegas… but on the other hand we earned ourselves a bonus afternoon and evening in Death Valley.

As we neared our destination, it quickly became obvious that the park had not yet recovered from the winter storms that ravaged the area a few weeks back. There was standing water in many places along the roadside, with mud and debris often strewn across the blacktop. When we reached the valley floor, we were greeted with some warm sunshine and high clouds which was a nice change from the weather we would have been experiencing back in Maine. We were happy to be here enjoying the relatively warm temperatures, and we both marveled at the vastness of the landscape before us. After scouting a less-traveled trail just to the right of Zabriskie Point for another morning, our first task was to choose a location for our bonus evening of shooting. We both agreed that seeing the unique and surreal salt flats at Badwater would be a great way to start our adventure.

At 282 feet below sea level, these salt flats are an amazing sight. Blistering temperatures throughout much of the year usually mean that this landscape is parched of all water, leaving behind incredibly interesting polygon shaped ridges of salt scattered over a very wide area. As we ventured out onto the flats this evening though, we realized we were seeing this place in an even more unique state, with pools of water covering much of the valley floor.

Sam and I both set out to explore the area, looking for pleasing compositions that might capture the grandeur of where we were. It was VERY cool to see him working with a tripod for the first time, and he totally embraced the process of trying to represent the beauty that we were seeing with his camera. It was funny though to see him pack up his camera right after the sun went down only to be completely surprised and delighted by the spectacular light that arrived about 10 minutes later. He hurriedly set everything back up again and was able to take advantage of the late magical light show we were blessed with, learning a very valuable lesson about the fleeting nature of good light. All evening he worked the scene like a pro, and I was a very proud father seeing him get so excited about something I too love to do. He truly does have a wonderful sense of how to compose an image, and I will share some of his photographs here in the next few days. I am hoping that he will write about his experiences too.

As the sun set to the west behind Telescope Peak (11,049 feet), the skies above us absolutely lit up with an amazing array of colors. We saw a range of warm winter light, cooler blues and pinks as the skies overhead were reflected on the ground, and as the last light faded we were treated to a final blaze of color leaving behind silhouetted shapes of the rugged and dramatic mountains that surrounded us. The salt flats creaked and hissed as if they were alive, making for an eerie after dark experience as we navigated back to the car. This was an awesome start to our vacation together, and I am eager to see the rest of our adventure together unfold. The alarm clock is set for 5:15am, and our intention is to return to the salt flats again, this time to witness the morning light illuminating the snow capped and majestic Panamint Mountains. Here are a few from this evening…

Death Valley (and Eastern Sierra)

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Taking a break from the Superbowl hype…

OK… am officially a little worried about the impact the recent weather in Death Valley might have on being able to access some of the more remote parts of the park. After the last round of winter storms washed through DV, there apparently is still a lot of mud and debris around, especially on the dirt and washboard roads to places like the Racetrack, the Devil’s Golf Course, and Titus Canyon. With more showers possible in the next few days, things aren’t looking good for being able to get to some of the more isolated locations in the park. On the plus side though, atypical weather conditions might make for some interesting photographic opportunities in the desert.

Even though the road to the Racetrack is open, the playa is still wet, and NO-ONE SHOULD EVER WALK ON THE PLAYA WHEN IT IS WET – footprints left there can last for years, so with that in mind it unfortunately looks like we will not make it there on this trip. Over the next few days we will be examining our options… maybe we see the iconic sights of DV and then wander on over to CA 395 and explore that region for a couple of days? Last year I had a chance to briefly visit the Alabama Hills behind Lone Pine, and found it to be an incredibly beautiful landscape. At 14,505 ft, Mount Whitney and the Eastern Sierra tower over a desert-type landscape that flows over huge rounded rocks and down into the Owen’s Valley – a landscape that definitely lends itself to photography. I have always wanted to explore from Lone Pine up through Bishop and on to Mono Lake, and this might be a great time to do that.

Not being completely familiar with the area, I have been using Internet social networking tools like Flickr and photography forums to reach out to others with experience from these regions for advice on shooting locations and weather conditions. It never ceases to amaze me how generous people are with sharing information and ideas. Photographers like Ben HorneDan Mitchell, Kevin McNeal, Phil Kuglin, Jim Fox have all been incredibly generous with their knowledge and expertise, so thank you to everyone who has helped.

The image in this post was made on a previous visit to Death Valley, and is from the dunes near Stovepipe Wells. This is a morning shot, and I loved the patterns and textures that were accentuated by the early light. I was lucky on this occasion that there weren’t too many footprints to deal with – a sandstorm had come whipping through the previous afternoon erasing all evidence of human presence. Am very much looking forward to getting back here, this time with Sam.

Four days and counting until we leave…

Death Valley, Plan B and Plan C

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OK… when I check the road conditions at the NPS web site that are updated every other day or so it would appear that the winter storms that reached into Death Valley in recent weeks have had a more serious impact on the landscape than I initially thought. Many of the backcountry roads are still closed due to either snow and ice, or debris and mud from flood damage – bummer.

What if the situation isn’t more stabilized by the time we are scheduled to arrive? A big part of why we chose to visit Death Valley was to experience the power and vastness of the largest national park in the US… that and the possibility of some weather that is warmer than we are getting these days in Maine!

If we are restricted to major roads and cannot get to some of the more remote locations we had planned on visiting we will be disappointed, but I realize that we will still be able to see amazing sights, and am sure that we would thoroughly enjoy visiting many of the iconic and more frequented locations in the park that would be available to us.

The image above is from one of those icons – Zabriskie Point. The early morning light had climbed over my left shoulder to warm the distant Panamint Range. After I made this image, the light quickly stretched across the valley floor, chasing the shadows toward me and lighting up the weathered and crumpled folds in the foreground. I intentionally composed this photograph with the dominant expanse of sky to try to accentuate the scale and immense size of this place. Though it looks like I might be in a place devoid of other humans, there were about 50 other people enjoying this beautiful scene with me… some of them photographers, and many of them conveniently deposited here from a luxury tour bus. Despite the crowds… a spectacular place that everyone should witness at some point in their life.

We will be keeping a close eye on the conditions and hoping that no more moisture makes it to Death Valley in the next week or so, and as we get closer to our departure date we will be considering three possible scenarios.

Plan A is to stick to the plan hoping that everything gets back to normal in time for our arrival.

Plan B is to forge ahead even if some of the more remote places are still inaccessible. If we can’t get to places like The Racetrack, or some of the higher elevations, we can still experience the park in most of its glory through the more often visited iconic locations. Who knows, the rains might even offer a fresh perspective on the desert. We might also make a side trip over to 395 and the Owens Valley to see some of the sights there.

Plan C is if things don’t look so good in Death Valley to make a right turn out of Vegas and instead of going toward California, head over toward northern Arizona and southeastern Utah where will be able to find some different, but nonetheless spectacular scenery and landscapes.

Stay tuned…

Death Valley and the Racetrack

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There are just over two weeks until Sam and I take what I am sure will be a trip of a lifetime. We leave for Death Valley, California on February 10th, and we are starting to get serious about our preparations. One of the things we are paying special attention to is the weather. Lately the west coast seems to be getting hit with storm after storm, and some of the moisture has even reached into the central valley and beyond. Floris van Breugel just posted an amazing photograph and interesting narrative from a recent trip to DV where he witnessed rarely seen reflections from rainwater on the Badwater salt flats – read the post on his blog.

Normally Death Valley gets very little rainfall, but when it does, it can create havoc with flooding and moving of the earth. When I check the road conditions – a key to being able to truly explore the park – it is obvious that the area is struggling to deal with the impact of the recent storms. When we get a little closer to our departure date we will be paying even more attention to the link to road conditions. Fingers crossed that things open up again by then, but we are developing a Plan B just in case.

Temperatures have been at or below average for a while now, and within a week or so we will be able to check the 10-day forecast for the region to get an idea of what kind of weather we have in store for us. Obviously we are hoping that things get back to “normal” before then, and that the temperatures are more like expected for this time of year – the low to mid-seventies would be nice.

High on our list of places to see is The Racetrack, a dried up lake bed tucked away in an extremely remote and desolate part of the park that is home to the legendary “moving rocks” on the playa. Our plan is to spend the night out there so that we can really explore the area and capture the light at dusk, at night, and in the morning.

Looking at the lunar schedule, we will have no moon to deal with, so our plan to also attempt to create some star trail photographs from this unique and special place looks like a go – as long as we don’t get clouds! From my last trip to The Racetrack… here’s an image showing one of the moving rocks that this place is renowned for. I remember the overwhelming feelings of isolation and awe that being at The Racetrack brought, and I am very excited to be able to share what I know will be a powerful experience with Sam.