I knew it would be hot. It was July, after all, and Death Valley is perhaps the hottest place on earth. But I was actually lucky; summer temperatures in Death Valley often climb above 120 degrees Fahrenheit, while the high temp on the day I was there was only 113. Practically a cold snap.
What was I doing in Death Valley in July? Photographing Comet NEOWISE of course. I know the internet has been flooded by comet images lately, but I totally get it. The last really photogenic comet visible in the northern hemisphere was Hale-Bopp in 1997. Who knows when we’ll see another one?
After photographing the comet at Mono Lake on July 12th, I researched the comet’s movements and projected path, and tried to think of places that could provide an interesting foreground. We had a brief window, perhaps two weeks, when the comet would be closest to the earth and sun (and therefore brighter), and before the moon became too full and started to wash out the night sky.
I made several shorter trips to photograph the comet in Yosemite, but I also thought of going to the sand dunes in Death Valley. After all, I had photographed Comet Hale-Bopp over a dune in 1997, and it might be fun to photograph a different comet there, with modern equipment. Plus the dunes just seemed like a great foreground.
But I made that Hale-Bopp photograph in April, and this was July. The heat would make things more difficult, but Claudia and I had actually photographed sand dunes at night in Death Valley in summer before, so I knew it was feasible. I’d just have to start hiking as the sun went down, and bring lots of water.
I was visualizing a different photograph from the one I made in 1997. This time I planned to go when the a crescent moon would be setting to the west after dark, providing enough light to illuminate the dunes, but not so much that the stars and comet would look washed out. And I hoped to include a wider expanse of sand, all lit by the moon.
I had made a reservation at Stovepipe Wells, and the air-conditioned room was quite welcome. Between the heat and the pandemic the place was very, very quiet. I’ve stayed at Stovepipe Wells several times while teaching workshops in March or April, and it was always full. This time is was practically deserted. It felt a little eerie.
I started hiking out to the dunes at about 7:30, just before the sun set over the mountains to the west. My car thermometer still said 109. It was definitely hot, but tolerable as long as I didn’t over-exert myself, and drank lots of water. The water added extra weight to my pack, but then I didn’t have to carry any jackets or warm clothing.
One reason I picked Death Valley, and not some other dunes, was because I’m so familiar with the terrain. I knew the area I wanted to go to, so I wouldn’t have to roam around too much in the heat to scout.
Still, the wind constantly reshapes the dunes, so I couldn’t pick out an exact spot in advance. I needed to scout my pre-chosen section of the dunes as much as possible before it got completely dark. The comet would appear to the northwest, and the way the wind sculpts the dunes here, the ridges line up east and west, so it can be harder to find good compositions looking north or south. When I approached the dunes I could see that the slip faces were on the north side of the ridges, meaning the last big windstorm had come from the south. Looking northwest, the dunes looked soft and rounded. But I was okay with that, because I like that soft, rounded appearance. In the gathering dusk I found a couple of spots that I thought could work.
When it got dark enough I tried one of these spots. The photos looked… okay. Then I moved to the second spot. This had some beautiful, fan-shaped ripples in the foreground, and the low-angle moonlight brought out the textures in the sand perfectly. I liked this much better.
The heat made me concerned about my physical well-being, but it was also a potential photographic issue. In hot temperatures the sensor heats up more than normal, which exacerbates noise. So I did everything I could to reduce noise. That meant making a series of 16 exposures (each at 15 seconds, f/2.4, and 6400 ISO) with the intention of blending these frames later with Starry Landscape Stacker to reduce noise. I also took some dark frames that I hoped would clean up fixed-pattern noise (hot pixels). And I made a two-minute exposure for just the dunes, as that longer exposure would theoretically have less noise, and I could blend that with the other frames of the sky.
Unfortunately – but not surprisingly – the dark frames didn’t help much. And the two-minute exposure had excessive color noise that couldn’t be easily corrected. The 15-second exposures were noisier than I would typically expect with colder temperatures, but usable, and blending them helped considerably. So the end result is actually pretty clean.
I didn’t move the camera or tripod during this process, so while I blended exposures to reduce noise, the resulting photograph represents one moment in time that actually occurred. The comet was really in that position at 10:23 p.m., at that relative size, over those specific dunes, with that actual moonlight raking over the sand. If you had been standing next to me at the time you would recognize this scene.
By the time I finished capturing this sequence of images the moon was about to set behind the ridge to the west. I had brought lighting gear, thinking I might stay out after the moon set and light-paint some dunes. But I was almost out of water by then, it was still very warm, and I had done what I set out to do, so I decided to pack up.
I got back to the car at around 11:15 p.m. My car thermometer read 93 degrees. It was a short drive back to Stovepipe Wells, and my air-conditioned room. How did anyone survive out here before air conditioning?
Despite the heat, it was wonderful to be back in the dunes. As I watched the dusk fade, and the moonlight take effect, the dunes were serenely beautiful, and completely silent: no wind, no birds, no cars, no planes – nothing. Just billions of grains of sand resting in the moonlight, underneath the stars and comet. How many comets had passed over these dunes? How many comets will I get to see in my lifetime?
— Michael Frye
Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.