Claudia and I just got back from spending another two weeks in Death Valley. This time I was teaching a workshop for Visionary Wild with my co-instructor Jerry Dodrill.
Jerry, Claudia and I scouted together before the workshop, and hung out and explored a bit afterward. Jerry is a super nice guy, and a great photographer and teacher (you can find his website here, and Instagram feed here). We really enjoyed spending time together and teaching together, and our workshop group was wonderful, which made it all even more fun.
Prior to the workshop we experienced another big sandstorm. Jerry, Claudia, Dan (one of the workshop participants, and Jerry’s friend), and I drove out to the Mesquite Flat Dunes, but when we got there decided it was too windy to head out into the dunes. I might have tried it if I had goggles, but just standing by the cars our eyes were getting very irritated from all the blowing sand, and we could only imagine it getting much worse if we were actually in the dunes. So we decided to head up to a spot overlooking the dunes, where we could be mostly out of the dust at least, if not out of the wind.
And, of course, by the time we got to our overlook the wind had died somewhat, so maybe we could have gone out to the dunes after all. But in the end I really enjoyed this different perspective. I used long lenses to pick out patterns in the dunes below, or slightly wider telephotos to show clouds of dust blowing by above the sand:
It can be difficult to get sharp photos in the wind with long lenses. Even on a sturdy tripod, the wind catches the lens and causes vibrations, and the longer the lens, the more those vibrations get magnified. To get sharp photos you either have to wait for a momentary lull in the wind, or use a fast shutter speed. I’d like to have a shutter speed at least as fast as the focal length of the lens. In other words, if the focal length is 200mm, then I want a shutter speed of 1/200 sec. or faster. If the focal length is 400mm, then I’d like to get a shutter speed of at least 1/400 sec. Getting fast enough shutter speeds sometimes requires pushing up the ISO, but I’d much rather have a sharp photo with some noise than a photo that’s noise-free but fuzzy. I can deal with the noise, but I can’t fix a blurry image.
Later, during the workshop, we had mostly calm conditions, and beautiful light. But we did encounter another windstorm. The wind was accompanied by clouds in the morning, so we went to Zabriskie Point to catch dappled light with the dust blowing by in the background:
That afternoon we photographed in a sheltered canyon for awhile, then came out and caught the setting sun backlighting the sand blowing off the valley floor:
And the next morning we took the group out to the dunes, which had been swept free of footprints, with fresh, sharp ridges and ripples in the sand:
Wind and dust can be a hazard in Death Valley. (Among other things, the power was out for about five hours on that windy day during our workshop.) But the wind can also create some wonderful opportunities for photographs. The blowing dust and sand is the closest thing to mist or fog you’re likely to see in this park, creating some beautiful atmospheric effects. And the wind refreshes the landscape.
Although the Mesquite Flat Dunes are the most accessible and most photographed dunes in Death Valley (and probably in the entire country), there are lots of other dunes in California, and in Death Valley. Before and after our workshop Claudia and I got to visit some of those other dunes, and I’ll post some photos from those places soon.
And Jerry and I will be leading another trip for Visionary Wild next month – rafting down the Grand Canyon. I’m really looking forward to that!
— 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.